FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #144 – “Aquaman” (dir. James Wan), “They Shall Not Grow Old” (dir. Peter Jackson)

Poster for "Aquaman" (2018 film)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel take a magical journey onto the Western Front of World War I with Peter Jackson‘s stunning documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old – easily his most striking and personal project in years. And then we go deep in a world of low expectations and find ourselves pleasantly surprised by James Wan‘s Aquaman (42:35).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "They Shall Not Grow Old"

FilmWonk rating (They Shall Not Grow Old): 10/10 (Daniel), 9/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Aquaman): 6.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [00:32] Review: They Shall Not Grow Old
  • [20:17] Review: Aquaman
  • Music for this episode is the track “Mademoiselle from Armentières”, from the soundtrack for They Shall Not Grow Old.
  • We made copious reference to Dan Carlin‘s Hardcore History miniseries about World War I, titled “Blueprint for Armageddon”. You can check out the first part here – highly recommended.
  • For US listeners, as of this writing there is still one more chance to see They Shall Not Grow Old in theaters, on Thursday 12/27. See Fathom Events for tickets.

Listen above, or download: Aquaman, They Shall Not Grow Old (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

2013 Movie Catchup: “The Way, Way Back”, “The Conjuring”, “The Hobbit 2”

The Way, Way Back
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It’s not that The Way, Way Back is a bad film. But it really brings nothing new or interesting to the table. The film tries to succeed as a poignant coming-of-age tale, but really just feels like an exercise in dishonest nostalgia. Nearly every scene in this film is crafted in such a way as to glorify the motivations of its brooding, pure-at-heart teen protagonist, Duncan (Liam James), who I must admit is such a bland presence that I couldn’t even remember his name as I wrote this a day later. At all times, the film embraces his perspective, and while the awkwardness and pain of his dysfunctional family situation play with a modicum of plausibility, the details just seem a bit too perfect, like Duncan is the unreliable narrator spinning this particular yarn. Was his mom (Toni Collette) really this much of a doormat? Was the mom’s boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) really this much of a monster? Was the genial water park manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) really this hilarious and likeable? Did Duncan really win the respect of some neighborhood hooligans (as well as the preposterously on-the-nose nickname “Pop’n’Lock”) in a dance contest scene right out of the 1980s?

Many of the performances above (with the exception of the lead) were quite nuanced and interesting, particularly that of Carell. But at no point does the film shake the sense that it’s just trying way, way too hard- whether to be a better coming-of-age dramedy like Adventureland, or at least a more interesting one like The Spectacular Now. And I doubt that’s the kind of nostalgia that The Way, Way Back wanted me to experience.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

The Conjuring
Still from

In the world of James Wan‘s The Conjuring, ghosts and demons are real, all of this was based on a true story, and Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are a couple of well-meaning, true-believing, honest-to-God ghostbusters with actual powers to vanquish genuine supernatural phenomena. For some reason, the film’s insistence on its own historicity initially rubbed me the wrong way more than usual, perhaps because we almost immediately get a scene in which Ed and Lorraine have a discussion alone together, and we the audience learn that yes, they really do believe that they’re vanquishing demons. But the film’s lack of interest in questioning the credibility of the real-life “experts” is matched by its interest in establishing them as interesting characters.

In the end, what makes this movie work so well is not just Wan’s well-developed sense of how to construct a taut supernatural thriller, but Wilson and Farmiga’s performances and credible, long-term affinity – both for each other, and for the important work that they believe they’re performing. By the time the film ends, when Lorraine insists to Ed that God brought them together for a reason, it has earned the audience’s credence that the couple genuinely believes this. Their faith, for lack of a better word, is inspiring, even if the “true story” is bewitching, fictitious nonsense like any good haunted house story.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
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I began my review of the thoroughly underwhelming first Hobbit film by questioning the need for its existence. But by the time the franchise’s equally lengthy second entry was near, I had not only come to terms with its existence, but I was weirdly, horribly excited for it. Whether the music, the 48fps 3D, the non-canonical addition of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a brand new elf-maiden named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), or the intense, shouty dude (Bard the Bowman, played by Fast and Furious 6 villain Luke Evans), something about this trailer got me right on board for it, and by and large, the film is a far superior entry to its predecessor.

It is still problematic in a number of ways. The dwarves – with the exceptions of Thorin (Richard Armitage), Balin (Ken Stott), Bombur (Stephen Hunter), and newly crowned heartthrob Kili (Aidan Turner) – remain interchangeable and undifferentiated as ever. The film’s insistence on sending away Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to fruitlessly poke at the mystery of the Dark Lord Sauron’s inevitable return is a complete waste of time – and when the film dispatched a septuagenarian wizard to the top of a mountain for a meeting that lasted literally two minutes, I couldn’t help but wonder if it knew exactly what the hell it was doing.

But this film did a lot of things right – by and large, it managed to make me believe it was making real progress toward telling a complete story. The action setpieces hung together much better this time. Everything surrounding the elven realm in Mirkwood – from the arachnid craziness on the way in, to the white-water rafting ride on the way out – was a ton of fun. And don’t let anyone tell you that Bowling With Bombur is any dumber than Legolas single-handedly dispatching an oliphaunt in Return of the King. Sometimes, a film just has to go a little crazy for the kids, and this sequence completely succeeded. As for the dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch), I don’t have a lot to say, except that it was all very well-rendered, the scale of the sequence was impressive, and it ended with a bizarre thud. Despite an impressive performance by Evans, none of the Laketown sequence was well-established enough to make the stakes of the film’s ending (i.e. the town might soon be destroyed by a dragon) matter to me in the least. All it really made me do was lament the film’s criminal misuse of Stephen Fry, who is doing little more than a half-baked impression of Lord Denethor of Minas Tirith.

It would be easy for a non book-reader to look at the preceding paragraph as complete gibberish. And yet, this seems like a good time to point out the patent hypocrisy in many of The Hobbit films’ detractors. They criticize Peter Jackson in one breath for cynically inflating a 300-page children’s book into a meandering trilogy of films, and in the next, they can’t stand the notion of well-established characters from the existing Lord of the Rings universe stepping in to help round out the runtime and storytelling a bit. For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed the inclusion of pre-Gimli, dwarf-racist Legolas (and Evangeline Lilly feels like she was born to live in Middle Earth). But more importantly, I cannot and do not accept the notion that fidelity to half-remembered source material from one’s preadolescence is an intrinsic good. Are these bad films? Quite possibly. And feel free to blame Jackson and his team if you think so. But blame them for being poor screenwriters, not poor adapters. Because no matter how these films turn out, no one will come to your house and take away your dog-eared paperback copy of the source material. And we might just get something halfway entertaining out of this before the end.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” – A bloated and beleaguered adventure

Poster for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Why does this film exist? As the line between art and commerce grows increasingly blurred with the unchallenged rise of franchise filmmaking, it’s certainly a fair question. Of course, on the heels of a billion-dollar franchise like Lord of the Rings, a second trip to the well was a virtual certainty. I ask this question not out of some naive sense of entitlement for artistry to emerge from the studio system, but rather as a self-contained quibble with the film itself. As I watched a nearly shot-for-shot remake of a sequence from 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, featuring hobbits Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) – looking 11 years older as actors, but inexplicably younger as characters – I found myself wondering what exactly was the point of this protracted exercise in nostalgia. The film is saddled in equal measure with sequences that simultaneously pad the runtime and remind the audience of the horrific fate that awaits Middle Earth in the trilogy we’ve already seen. And yet, it was only as I got to know the younger version of Bilbo (Martin Freeman) that my skepticism and apathy began to fade a bit. For it is Freeman’s light touch and sympathetic performance, as well as the film’s characterization of Bilbo, that allows it to pass as a standalone adventure story. Even as it frequently seeks to undermine itself by adhering to self-referential bits of fan-service.

To cultivate audience sympathy with a reluctant hero is a daunting task. In this very same weekend, I saw Rise of the Guardians, an unfortunate misstep from Dreamworks Animation that mingled brilliant visuals and a strong supporting cast with an utterly unsympathetic protagonist. The Hobbit was saddled with a similar burden – to allow Bilbo Baggins to initially be the most useless and reluctant member of a party of dwarven warriors who all ostensibly have personal reasons for being there. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), who seems just a bit more capable now than in his twilight years, imposes upon Bilbo’s hospitality relentlessly (in a sequence that is nearly interminable), and insists upon the hobbit’s value to the endeavor. And yet, the wizard compels him to join by appealing simultaneously to his boredom and racial guilt, rather than any specific contribution he might make. And what is their noble quest? This band is setting off to reclaim their stolen homeland, yes, but also to recover the massive bounty of gold – mined through dubious labor practices under a monarchic regime – that is cached within. They are initially no better than a band of pirates at eliciting audience sympathy, and are just as minimally characterized. And yet gradually, Bilbo comes to truly believe in their quest, and when he finally explains his motivation for sticking with this diminutive baker’s dozen, I found that my own interest level had risen similarly.

Martin Freeman in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is given a nice, meaty revenge tale to work with, and acquits himself well on-screen. But the other dwarves are given scarcely more characterization than Snow White could muster, with their attributes reduced to simple, one-word descriptions. Thinking back to how effectively Jackson’s previous trilogy managed to characterize a nine-member ensemble and myriad supporting characters, I can’t help but wonder whether nine was simply the breaking point. Apart from plump gourmand Bombur (Stephen Hunter) and ancient, genial Balin (Ken Stott), I could hardly tell you a single one of these dwarves’ unique strengths or contributions to the party. We hear that some of them are farmers, merchants, and miners, but I would task anyone to point out which is which, without the aid of Wikipedia or the IMDb. I’ll admit, my memory of the novel (which I read when I was 12) is faint, but if any such differentiation was present in the source material, it hardly makes an appearance in the film.

But speaking of appearances, I must address the film’s 48 frame-per-second 3D presentation, if only because I ended up quite unexpectedly enjoying it. Yes, every bit of rapid motion looks jerky and anomalous, but I found myself asking whether it really looked bad to my eyes, or whether it simply looked unfamiliar. After about 10 minutes of staring into what looked suspiciously like British TV, I found that my brain had adjusted completely to the illusion, and these events – and the gorgeous cinematography that captured them – were simply a window that I was gazing through. Apart from the occasional wandering audience member in the foreground, the illusion was never broken for me throughout the film, and I found that it worked hand-in-hand with the obvious advances that Jackson’s Weta Digital FX shop has made in rendering all-CGI characters in the past decade. Whether I was gazing upon an overlong cameo from Gollum (Andy Serkis) or a grotesquely blubberous Goblin King (Barry Humphries), I felt an overwhelming sense of being there, in the presence of these entirely real creations. While not all of The Hobbit‘s technical virtuosity serves to the story’s benefit (I still don’t quite understand the point of those brawling mountains), it is certainly one of its great strengths.

Bilbo asks Gandalf a simple question at the outset of the film. “Can you promise that I will come back?” The wizard answers no, and yet the audience is capable at all times of answering yes. The film is at its best when it allows Freeman to emphasize Bilbo’s personal stakes through his performance and characterization, rather than reminding us that a far greater threat – and a certain safe return – loom in the hobbit’s narrative future. Likewise, the dwarves (aided a bit by flashback) manage to eventually present their quest as a noble endeavor, worthy of story and song. And as long as they can carry it to a swift completion, they may manage to give this series of films a real raison d’être. But as it stands, the film just meanders from setpiece to meaningless setpiece with no room to breathe in-between. The quest never picks up any steam, and the party seems more like an ambling family R.V. that can’t make decent time because Dad insists on stopping off for a family photo in front of the Great Big Lawn Chair off Route 6. They may eventually reach their destination, but they might find the journey was scarcely worth it. And when Grandpa is a wizard capable of summoning air support with the slightest effort, you can’t help but wonder whether hiking across every mountaintop was really worth it.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what a strained metaphor looks like.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” – There’s really no upside to child murder

“In this man’s fantasy, she reacts to his sexual advances the way a consenting adult woman would, rather than the reality, which is a terrified little girl who wants no part of him. She’s crying, in pain, wants to go home. Quickly, he’s lost control of the situation…”

-John Douglas, FBI (ret.), Journey Into Darkness

David Slade’s 2005 film Hard Candy told the story of a 14-year-old girl (played by Ellen Page) turning the tables on her would-be sexual predator – drugging, restraining, and psychologically torturing him for the next 90 minutes. The film was a fascinating and disturbing cat-and-mouse thriller, but stopped far short of suspending disbelief. As I watched this adolescent girl exhibit all the sensibilities and ruthlessness of a jaded adult, a single line of thought kept ringing.

This has never happened. This could never happen.

Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones takes a different tack. When Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a lively and innocent 14-year-old girl, is lured into the dungeon of middle-aged serial killer George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), it ends exactly as it would in real life. The film doesn’t bury the lead er…delay…revealing this point, as it happens in the first twenty minutes of the film. After hours of waiting for their daughter to come home, Susie’s parents call the police – her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) waits at home as her father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) runs around town showing a picture to anyone who’ll look at it. Days later, they both listen in horror as a police detective informs them that they’ve found a piece of their daughter’s clothing.

“We also found blood. A substantial amount of blood.”

I’m belaboring this point a bit, but the sequence plays like every parent’s worst nightmare. I can’t overstate how horrifically the film depicts the preying upon and murder of a child, as well as its utterly destructive effect on the girl’s family. We don’t see the actual killing, but we see every moment leading up to it. When the crime occurs, Tucci and Ronan play the scene with startling realism, but I would stop short of calling their performances “good”. “Unsettling” is more like it. The scene is difficult to watch, and I’m still unsure whether it was prudent to include it. From that point on, the story follows two separate threads, depicting Susie finding her way through the In-Between (an arbitrary blend of Heaven and Purgatory) and her family’s struggle with grief following her death.

But while Susie’s story (in life) may end realistically, I was still reminded of Hard Candy – because like that film, the rest of The Lovely Bones plays very much like a fantasy. But this is not a fantasy of revenge, but rather of consolation for a grieving family – a literal rendition of “she went on to a better place.”

And is the In-Between a better place? It’s yet another elaborate CG world from Weta Digital, but I think a collection of pristinely rendered desktop backgrounds just isn’t enough to impress me anymore. We have the technology, and we’ve had it for a while now. This is certainly not the best we’ve seen from Weta, and while an oversaturated green valley or an endless icy plane with giant crystal bells may look pretty, none of it is going to blow me away at this point unless it also works thematically. And from a storytelling standpoint, the In-Between is almost a total failure.

When Susie arrives, she is greeted by another young girl named Holly (Nikki SooHoo), who seems to exist solely as the Exposition Fairy. She has all the personality and staying power of a Walmart greeter, and as she matter-of-factly lays out the rules of the In-Between – basically, a place to let go of your earthly life so you can move on to Heaven – it’s not entirely clear how her continued presence doesn’t violate these rules. Regardless, Susie spends most of her time playing around in the In-Between with Holly, and it occasionally takes a dark turn. Her experience there seems to depend on two things – how well she’s coping with being dead, and how well the people behind are getting along without her. Ronan gives a solid performance, but for most of the film, she is written as just another rendition of the “ghost with unfinished business“. Nonetheless, these worlds do occasionally collide in some interesting way.

In an early scene, Jack Salmon (Wahlberg) shows Susie how to make a ship in a bottle, placing it on a shelf in a room full of them. The dozens of ships suffer exactly the fate you’d expect, as Jack shows up shortly after his daughter’s death and proceeds to smash every single one of them. Back in the In-Between, as Susie walks along a rocky ocean beach, the waves pick up, and she looks on in horror as huge, lifesize versions of these ships sail in from the choppy ocean and shatter on the rocks. While the real-world scene is just a predictable bit of melodrama, its visual rendition in the In-Between is at least somewhat memorable.

The real-world story is about as close as the film comes to a passable narrative. It spans a couple of years, as Jack, Abigail, and the rest of the Salmon family deal with their daughter’s death, each in their own way. Lynn, Susie’s grandmother, comes and stays with the family, and is played quite ably by Susan Sarandon. Jack begins a half-cocked investigation, bombarding a well-meaning police detective (Michael Imperioli) with accusations against anyone and everyone around town for the most slight and arbitrary of reasons. This subplot could well have succeeded as a Columbo-style “howcatchem” detective story, but Jack is no detective, and his investigation is really just a series of random, baseless accusations. The tragic irony is that when he meets George Harvey, his daughter’s actual murderer, he accuses him of the crime based on evidence just as flimsy as with any of the others, and nearly gets himself arrested in the process.

Stanley Tucci is almost unrecognizable as Harvey (I’ll admit – I didn’t even realize it was him until I began this review), but for how cartoonishly the character is written, he might as well have been wearing a rubber mask. Tucci is a great actor who does the best he can, but he is utterly wasted here. And while the character’s fate is rather unexpected (and certainly only possible in an age before modern forensics), it’s tonally bizarre. What message can we extract from his final scene? What goes around…kinda comes around? There’s nothing sadder than a pedophile past his prime?

As I spoke with others about this film (reminding them that the protagonist is a raped and murdered 14-year-old girl), the most frequent question I received was this: “Do they catch the killer in the end?”

I must admit, this question never occurred to me. For my part, catching the killer may be satisfying and cathartic when the victim is an adult, but there’s really no upside to the death of a child. And whether or not this fictitious killer is caught doesn’t matter nearly as much to me as what message the film is promoting about the world at large. The most provocative thing about George Harvey is that he seems perfectly normal when he’s not murdering children. I sometimes wonder how many more films we’ll have to see that depict “seeming normal” as a sinister warning sign. While most people aren’t secret pedophiles or murderers, it’s remarkable how many parents will make the opposite assumption if they see a 40-year-old man with the audacity to speak to a child.

Regardless of its message, The Lovely Bones plays more like an ill-conceived therapeutic exercise than a film. The family’s story is tonally all over the place, but this erratic emotional curve mostly rang true for a family dealing with the death of a child (owing heavily to the performances of Wahlberg, Weisz, and Sarandon). But while I may have found their struggle realistic, I certainly took no pleasure in watching it.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10