FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #150 – SIFF Roundup: “Alice”, “Pigeon Kings”, “Fight Fam”, “As the Earth Turns”

Poster for "Alice" (2019 film)

***CW: This episode contains discussion of sexual violence.***

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel head to the 45th Seattle International Film Festival to check out a documentary about pigeon rolling, a family biopic of MMA fighters, a sci-fi drama that was literally 80 years in the making, yet still felt ahead of its time, and a smart and insightful Franco-Australian drama about Alice, a woman who decides to become a sex worker after her husband squanders all of their money…on sex workers (01:17:17)

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Pigeon Kings"

FilmWonk rating (Pigeon Kings): 7 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Fight Fam): 3 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (As the Earth Turns): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 5/10 (Daniel)
FilmWonk rating (Alice): 8.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • As of this writing, every screening of every one of these films is still to come at the 45th Seattle International Film Festival. For tickets, showtimes, and locations, click the title of each film below.
  • [00:01:30] Review: Pigeon Kings (dir. Milena Pastreich)
  • [00:18:36] Review: Fight Fam (dir. Ruben Rodriguez Perez)
  • [00:29:35] Review: As the Earth Turns (dir. Richard Lyford)
  • [00:45:30] Review: Alice (dir. Josephine Mackerras)
  • [01:08:07] Spoilers: Alice
  • CORRECTION: We were correct that being a sex worker is not a criminal offense in France, but it is subject to multiple restrictions.

Listen above, or download: Pigeon Kings, Fight Fam, As the Earth Turns, Alice (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

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FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #107 – “Wonder Woman” (dir. Patty Jenkins), “Glory” (dir. Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov) (#SIFF2017)

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In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel are back at the Seattle International Film Festival to check out a lovely Bulgarian political satire. Then Diana (Gal Gadot) shows up to wreck the place by hand and sword, and we can’t complain, because it turns out she’s pretty awesome when not saddled with a lame mystery B-plot (48:06).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from

FilmWonk rating (Glory): 8 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Wonder Woman): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 7/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • [00:24] Review: Glory
  • [17:25] Review: Wonder Woman
  • [35:49] Spoilers: Wonder Woman
  • Music for this episode is the track, “Dance for Tomorrow” by Stop the Schizo from the soundtrack to Glory, and the track, “Angel On the Wing” from the Wonder Woman score by Rupert Gregson-Williams.
  • Correction: Spread the word on this one – we (and many others) have been mispronouncing Gadot’s last name. It’s not French-style, with a silent T – it’s Israeli-style, with a solid T. The actress previously made a video to address the issue (thanks to Dan A. for pointing this out).
  • Correction: Dr. Maru (“Dr. Poison”) was actually played by Spanish actress Elena Anaya. The actress from Force Majeure, Lisa Loven Kongsli, played Menalippe, one of the Amazons, and she’s actually Norwegian, not Swedish.
  • Correction: To complete the trifecta, we made a casual reference to a character played by “Kat Denning” in Thor. The actress’ name is Kat Dennings.

Listen above, or download: Wonder Woman, Glory (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #105 – “Time Trap” (dir. Ben Foster, Mark Dennis) (#SIFF2017)

Poster for "Time Trap"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel jump into their favorite perennial time-bubble, the Seattle International Film Festival (which opens today!) (20:38).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

There are three public screenings of Time Trap at SIFF 2017, two of them this weekend (Friday 5/19 and Saturday 5/20), and another on 5/30 up in Shoreline. Check out the film’s SIFF page for tickets and details.

Show notes:

Listen above, or download: Time Trap (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

“The Little Death” (#SIFF2015 review) – A good fucking-comedy.

The Little Death – writer/director Josh Lawson‘s reference to the French euphemism for an orgasm – is a sex comedy that’s trying to be edgy. The last one of those I saw was Jake Kasdan‘s Sex Tape, which was such a colossal failure at both edginess and human relationships that it made me wonder if American cinema actually understands how people are fucking these days. But as ever, foreign cinema seems happy to pick up the slack, with everything from raunchy ensemble comedies like Young People Fucking to dark, fringe-straddling dalliances like Lars von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac. The Little Death has the most in common with the former film, as its script firmly sits in stylized, over-the-top Comedy World. But like the latter, it also has a vicious streak. While the writing and pace of the film had occasional issues, the acting is stellar, and the jagged edge and gleeful darkness of the film places it most closely in the realm of Todd Solondz.

The film focuses on several couples in a Sydney neighborhood, each with an odd paraphilia that is briefly defined on-screen as one of the partners reveals it. The film tosses out a red herring in the opening scene, which features Paul (Lawson) gingerly sucking on the toes of his girlfriend Maeve (Bojana Novakovic). This vanilla foot fetish quickly gives way for Maeve to reveal that her greatest fantasy is for Paul to…um…rape her. A recurring interruption in the film features a new neighbor, Steve (Kim Gyngell), dropping by some homemade golliwog cookies, before revealing to his often distracted neighbors that federal law requires him to notify them that he is a convicted sex offender. This gag is a solid reference for the film’s relationship with its most vulgar and offensive content – it teases it just enough to make the audience squirm, then either cuts to a new scene, or veers back into safer territory. But I mean that as a compliment – the film balances its tone remarkably well while dealing with these matters.

Most of the paraphilias worked nicely both narratively and as comedy routines – and each of the couples (save one) had convincing history and chemistry with one another. Kate Box is particularly strong as Rowena, the woman who discovers that she is sexually aroused by the sight of her husband (Patrick Brammal) crying – known as dacryphilia. She discovers this on the occasion of his father’s death, and spends the rest of the film trying to subtly induce him to tears again. Box is diabolical in the role, and the inner turmoil of her abusive drive toward earthquaking orgasm is spelled out on her face with each new scheme. She knows she shouldn’t be doing this, but finds justification in her previous sexual dissatisfaction. The root of comedy is often miscommunication, and for most of these couples, the miscommunication is chronic both in and out of their sex lives. The only couple speaking honestly about their innermost desires are the rape fantasists mentioned above, and even they can’t have a forthright discussion about whether or not they want to get married. This is a theme that the film visits repeatedly between the sex jokes, and in most cases, it works well.

But the most problematic story was surely that of the long-married couple of Phil and Maureen (Alan Dukes and Lisa McCune). I say problematic mainly because of how narratively uncomfortable Phil’s particular kink really was. He’s aroused by the sight of his wife soundly sleeping, which places him firmly in the same territory as Dylan Baker in Happiness, where any attempt to act on his desire would involve raping someone. But this story wasn’t problematic for making me squirm (which was surely the point), but rather because the majority of their interactions featured one of them sound asleep. So while the payoff of this sequence is suitably uncomfortable and well-acted, there wasn’t really enough credible history between these two characters to even buy them collectively as a failing marriage.

The other struggling married couple, Evie and Dan (Kate Mulvany and Damon Herriman), are an absolute delight with their over-the-top role-playing fetishism. The scenario itself starts out ridiculous and only becomes more so as the film goes on, but Mulvany and Herriman so thoroughly commit to their various roles (Doctor and Patient, Cop and Witness, etc.), as well as to their meta-roles of reluctant wife and secretly-capable-thespian husband that this scenario remains entertaining even as it strains credulity. The last couple, twenty-somethings Monica and Sam (Erin James and T.J. Power), plays out a raunchy, adorable love story that involves Skype, sign language, graphic novels, and a phone sex line. There’s nothing I can say to sell this sequence that’s not in the description above, except that both actors’ performances are outstanding (including James, who is making her acting debut in this film), and this sequence was easily the most disconnected from the rest of the film. It could’ve been lifted out as a short without affecting the other couples, all of whom seem to at least be living in the same neighborhood. But that’s a minor complaint that has more to do with the overall pacing of the film – a few of the sequences felt slightly deprived of screentime (it’s possible Phil and Maureen could’ve been punched up with a few extra minutes). But by and large, the stories work well on their own nonetheless, and Monica and Sam are surely the film at its most heartfelt and touching.

Looking back, I realize that – like a scheming birth control saboteur – I’m poking a great many holes in this film. And that’s despite enjoying nearly all of it. But a sex comedy is a rare thing, and one that features people who know how to act (and joke, and make fake whoopee) like genuine human beings is apparently even rarer. The Little Death strove for a small, proud genre that is all but dead in mainstream American cinema, even if it’s clinging to life in foreign and independent circles. And the film stands proudly on its own, even if its dick may occasionally be hanging out.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

“Circle” (#SIFF2015 review) – The allegory of the grave

Many high-concept horror films have striven for the strong, minimalistic dissection of the value of a human life that is on display in Circle. And yet all of them, whether Saws or Purges, have gotten lost in the weeds either going for audience-pleasing gore or on-the-nose class warfare. Circle, from web-series directors Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione, is the apotheosis of the concept – placing 50 participants in a room and murdering one of them every two minutes with a simple bolt of CGI lightning. The body is immediately shuffled from the room by an unseen force, and the remaining participants are momentarily insulated from the horrific truth and consequences of their predicament. With simple (and completely secretive) motions of their hands and fingers, they are choosing the next person who will die.

What makes Circle so clever is its subtle and incisive satire of the political process. At its highest levels, politics delineates who should hold absolute power over life and death. Even in the real world, a vote for a chief executive is a vote for someone who will kill others on your behalf. Circle renders this concept with a staggering level of immediacy, and through a filter of lightning-paced direct democracy.

Who should live? Me.
Who should die? Somebody else.

Circle-still

Several of the participants engage in credible and well-acted politicking, and the two-minute timeframe between deaths propels these scenes along at an impressive pace. Anyone who wants to sell the group on a particular victim, talk others into sacrificing themselves, or engage in scapegoating or coalition-building has mere moments in which to do it. Anyone cross-examining or contradicting others has even less time. And others simply stay quiet, avoiding notice while remaining complicit in each outcome.
And at all times, the speechifying in this film about whose life is valuable and why is tinged with a layer of jet-black irony – because these are all murderers, debating which of them most deserves to keep on murdering. And if there’s one thing this film makes clear, it’s that the best politician isn’t necessarily the one who has enjoyed the greatest past success, nor even the one who is speaking most eloquently, obnoxiously, or vehemently. In a two-minute news cycle, a single scandal or misstatement or misunderstanding of the tenor of the room can end your political career in an instant – or carry it forward in an indefensible manner.

One man devises an impromptu moral condemnation of a married lesbian whose wife and daughter wait at home. Both of them play this scene brilliantly, and its outcome says as much and more about the filmmakers as about the political climate in which the film was made. Every piece of scapegoating or moralizing that appears in this film does so for a clear and obvious reason – it works. For someone. We all may be wrongdoers, but as long as that other guy, over there, is worse than we are – we’re justified in slaughtering him in preemptive self-defense. Several of the participants strive to be decent throughout. And yet, everyone in this film is despicable, made so by their circumstances, in-group biases, and basest survival instincts. Shame on them and all of us for playing out an allegory that’s so real and unforgiving.

Oh, and the film is occasionally quite funny. Don’t know if I made that clear.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Circle is playing once more at #SIFF2015, on Friday May 29th at 1:15PM. As of this writing, tickets are still available.

SIFF Roundup: “Healing”, “Night Moves” (#SIFF2014)

Poster for
Healing
Directed by Craig Monahan, written by Monahan and Alison Nisselle

As an American, I found two unfamiliar things at work in Healing. The first is the character of prison guard Matt Perry, played by Hugo Weaving. This is the first non-elven character I’ve seen Weaving play that could be called “nice,” and the first of any kind with his native Aussie accent. The second is an unfamiliar narrative – that of the “nice prison film”. The film takes place at an Aussie minimum security prison that’s also a working outback farm (although it’s unclear what, if anything, is grown or raised there). Not only is it low-security, but it’s apparently designed to prepare inmates for release and reintroduction into society. We learn that inmates must have had a spotless behavioral record for four years at harsher facilities to qualify, and that any missteps can get them sent right back. The Brown Mile, if you will.

But this film isn’t interested in the harsh realities of the Aussie prison system, such as they might be. Instead, it features a variety of inmates whose crimes range all the way up to manslaughter and murder, and the committed guards and social workers who are clearly interested in helping them adjust to their impending freedom. I haven’t even reached the on-the-nose metaphor of raptor rehabilitation that’s at the center of this film, and already, it seems like an incredibly rosy picture of prison life. But then, the only comparison I can make is to other prison films (and MSNBC exposés), which (at least in the US) seem committed to delivering an entertaining and lurid level of menace and violence. This picture of prison life as a torturous crucible which only prepares criminals for further criminality is the only version that seems credible, even if the only data I have to back it up is the occasional well-publicized abuse. Healing made me realize one inescapable truth – prison movies tend to be depressing. And there’s certainly room in cinema for an upbeat prison story, even if, as Red might say, prison is no fairy-tale world.

The film centers around Viktor Khadem (Don Hany), an Iranian man in prison for a murder 16 years prior. When Perry leads Viktor’s work detail out to the fenceline, they come across an injured wedge-tailed eagle that has become entangled in the barbed wire – apparently a common occurrence. When the local bird sanctuary is unable to help, Perry puts the inmates to work building a makeshift aviary, and assigns each of them a wounded bird to look after. Naturally, Viktor is assigned the eagle, whom he names Yasmine. Indeed, each of the inmates ends up being assigned a bird that is a remarkable match for their personality – the stoic and solitary Viktor gets the eagle, a more skittish inmate receives a shy owl, and so forth.

Still from

This all sounds very neat and tidy, and that’s because it is. I had to fight my cynicism at every step of the way initially, before it became clear that the film was aware that not all of these inmates can be “fixed” so neatly. One inmate is targeted for mistreatment by his fellow inmates because he was convicted of the accidental (drug-induced) killing of his own child – at least, we hear that’s what’s happening to him, even if we never see much of it onscreen. Another of the inmates, Warren (Anthony Hayes), is clearly running a jailhouse criminal enterprise of some sort. And he’s really the least believable part of the film. The guards are clearly aware of his malfeasance and do very little to stop it, leaving the character seemingly only present to provoke unwarranted conflict. Given how easily the character is dispensed with in the third act, he could easily have been cut from the film entirely. The resulting film would be just as progressive and slight, but wouldn’t spend nearly as much time on a narrative dead-end.

Hany’s performance is stellar as Viktor proceeds to rehabilitate Yasmine – a powerful raptor seemingly named after his late wife, who died while he was in prison. He also delivers some serviceable emotional moments as he attempts to salvage his relationship with his son, although these scenes feel a bit rushed relative to their intended weight. Weaving makes for a stern, but forgiving authority figure, dealing with similar issues of loss and regret to many of the inmates, even if his issues remain vague and take a backseat to those in his charge. Xavier Samuel and Mark Leonard Winter add some interesting depth to the supporting inmates, even if we know rather little about them. Every bit of praise I have for this film comes with strings attached, and when it comes down to it, this film does feel a bit like a progressive after-school special. It’s extremely slight, but it’s also just…very nice. The outback scenery and raptors look gorgeous, and the film dabbles in a few headier issues than its simple and optimistic premise would require.

At the end of the day, gaze upon the cloying image in the poster above, and accept that what you see is exactly what you get with this film. If you can bring yourself to be inspired by it, you’ll do fine.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10


Poster for
Night Moves
Directed by Kelly Reichardt, written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond

Night Moves – a film centering around an environmental extremist plot to blow up an Oregon dam – is a marvelous and understated thriller, so in the interests of preserving suspense, this review will be light on plot details. The film centers around a couple (who may or may not be romantically involved?), Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning), who team up with an ex-Marine, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) to assist with their explosive plot. Much of the suspense revolves Reichardt’s meticulous depiction of the actual process – how they plan to physically build a bomb and transport it to the site without getting caught. Gone are the days of Fight Club obfuscating bomb recipes in order to protect the public – this film could easily function as a how-to guide for crafting a compact fertilizer bomb, even if it makes it clear that the substances required are controlled for bulk purchase.

In fact, it is this detail that leads to one of the film’s finest scenes, in which Dena is sent into a farm and feed store, under the auspices of an unassuming local farm girl, to purchase what should rightfully be regarded as a suspicious quantity of ammonium nitrate. Dakota Fanning is unquestionably the MVP of this trio, portraying Dena as an idealistic rich girl who seems quite capable of the extreme actions she’s pursuing, but is ultimately just reveling in the process without really considering the consequences. And as the full scope and implications of the plan become clear during the course of the film, Fanning plays Dena’s gradual breakdown in a remarkably understated manner. Never overplaying it, but never underestimating the psychological toll that such a plan would take upon a person. Eisenberg and Sarsgaard are also strong, but we certainly end up knowing the least about them overall. The audience is forced to infer much of their character from their actions and reactions over the course of the film – always showing, but never telling.

Still - Dakota Fanning in

In his memoir, retired FBI profiler John Douglas once related a conversation he had about his work (classifying serial killers). He was asked if, knowing all that he knew about offenders and law enforcement, could he get away with murder? His answer, after a brief pause to consider all of the implications, was no. His “post-offense behavior” would certainly give him away. This is a tense film, and its tension continues even as the third act obfuscates any sense of where the plot might be headed. Some viewers might consider this third of the film to be a bit meandering, and while there were certainly moments where I felt this way, the film’s thought-provoking ending certainly justified its ambiguous diversions. It’s impossible to know exactly how you’ll behave following an act of criminality that is unprecedented in your life. And really, that’s what makes this final act interesting. The characters no longer have a plan. They’re just reacting to what they’ve become.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #49 – “Age of Uprising”, “Fish & Cat”, ” Remote Control” (#SIFF2014)

Poster for "Fish & Cat"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the Seattle International Film Festival to take on a trio of international selections. They start in 16th century feudal France, to watch Mads Mikkelsen lead a shockingly boring peasant uprising, then head over to Iran to watch some of the most technically and narratively innovative filmmaking they’ve seen this year, and finish up on the rooftops of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We keep the spoilers light in this episode, and at least one of these films – seemingly shot in a continuous two-hour take, is well worth seeking out (37:26).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk ratings:

  • Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas: 3/10
  • Fish & Cat: 9/10
  • Remote Control: 6/10

Show notes:

  • (00:00): Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas
  • (11:46): Fish & Cat
  • (28:30): Remote Control
  • Due to the accelerated production schedule for our SIFF reviews and relative obscurity of these films, there is no music in tonight’s episode.
  • Apologies in advance for all name pronunciations. We think we did well with the French, okay with the Iranians, and terrible with the Mongolians. If anyone knows for sure, shoot us an email.
  • Read more about the awesome sport of kite fighting here.
  • The cinematographer behind Fish & Cat, Mahmoud Kalari, also shot the brilliant Iranian film A Separation, which we reviewed on the podcast, and highly recommend.
  • CORRECTION: We mentioned the party-rewind sequence from the 2002 film, The Rules of Attraction, but mistakenly referred to the character of Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek) as a younger version of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) from American Psycho – the two characters are actually brothers. The sequence we mentioned is not available on YouTube, but the film also featured an innovative use of split-screen and motion-control rig technology – that sequence is available here.
  • We mentioned our upcoming SIFF screening of Alex of Venice, which is neither Italian nor French, but rather is an American film directed by and starring Chris Messina (alongside Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the title character). This film is Messina’s directorial debut, and as far as we know, it takes place in the United States.

Listen above, or download: SIFF International Roundup (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)