Aliens have come to a remote town in Nunavut, just south of the Arctic Circle. They take the form of local wildlife and even people. They’re out for blood, slowly absorbing new members and growing their number. It’s on four teenage girls to fight back and rescue their town.
“Slash/Back” is full of loving references to horror classics, most notably John Carpenter films like “The Thing” and “Halloween”. At one point, a character even recounts the plot of “The Thing” as a scary story when they’re out in the wilderness. Another later compares it to Inuit folklore. This provides us a way to triangulate the aliens in “Slash/Back” between contemporary media and traditional mythology. Its these clever ways of framing and perspective that make the movie more than the sum of its parts.
Each of those parts on its own can be underwhelming. Its ambition outpaces its budget. Its screenplay shoehorns personal conflict into the middle of horror situations in unnatural ways that undermine the tension. Many of its actors are unused to film acting and it can show. The logic of how the aliens function is never as clear as I’d like.
That makes “Slash/Back” similar to a thousand B-grade, low-budget sci-fi flicks. Why would I recommend it over most of them? Isn’t that playing favorites. Am I going easy on the film because it’s made by an indigenous cast and crew? Not really. As much as we like to pretend it doesn’t, context does matter on the screen as well as off.
If I’ve seen a thousand films like this, it’s because I like films like this. There’ve been so many that it’s hard to find new places to set them and unique perspectives to see them. Pangnirtung, Nunavut is the kind of location that isn’t often used, in large part because filming in remote areas can get expensive if the movie isn’t community-supported.
The scenery is gorgeous, and the community represented here matters. There are different cultural approaches than what typically gets put on screen – by characters and storytellers alike. There’s different folklore represented, and it’s particularly difficult to find indigenous folklore on film that’s written and told by indigenous people instead of slapped together by a white filmmaker looking to add flavor through misrepresentation.
An early bike chase between the girls takes us through a large portion of the town of Pangnirtung. A lot clicks in our heads as we watch – that life here is very different from what most audiences are used to. Buildings are built with different factors in mind, much of the town is oriented around fishing, and ATVs, boats, and even bicycles are far more useful here than any passenger car could ever be. This is great storytelling because none of this is ever stated outright. We simply learn it as the context for the story and the four leads we’re meeting.
This includes Tasiana Shirley’s popular Maika and Nalajoss Ellsworth’s assertive Uki. The pair are often at odds, particularly over Uki’s pride at her heritage and Maika’s shame of it. Uki finds answers in it, while Maika’s rejection of it is framed as a quiet rebellion against her parents.
“Slash/Back” features voices and performances rarely featured in mainstream film. That holds its own important value in terms of representation and recognition. Just as importantly, the fact that these voices are so rarely entrusted with and enabled to tell their own stories at this scale means that the story itself is inherently different than what we’re used to seeing. If I’ve seen a thousand sci-fi B-movies and these are voices that have historically been denied access to producing and distributing them, then I still haven’t seen one that’s like this, have I?
There is also magic in the first attempt. Director and co-writer Nyla Innuksuk is an important Inuit filmmaker who’s worked extensively on multi-media and VR accompaniments for musicians like Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red. However, it’s the first acting credit for much of the cast, including three of the four leads. As I said, it shows, but there’s also an earnestness present that can get lost once actors polish off the rough spots.
Many B-movies feature a cast that has enough experience to avoid mistakes and awkwardness, but not enough earnestness to make you believe in what they’re doing and why. That earnestness is only achieved through a lack of experience, or so much skill and experience that you can theatrically embody it. That leaves most B-movie casts in a middle ground where they’ve lost their sincerity but have yet to accomplish conviction.
When you have a cast that’s less trained in terms of acting, but has lived in and experienced the world in which the story’s told, you will get mistakes and awkwardness, but it is much easier to believe in what they do and why. That’s why B-movies that successfully mix professional and first-time actors end up being so charming – they find a balance between trained enough to smooth scenes out, and earnest enough to come across as honest and sincere. “Slash/Back” definitely leans toward the latter, but if you’re going to err for one over the other, this is the direction I personally prefer.
On top of this, alien invasion films were once incredibly popular in the U.S. as a metaphor for communist invasion. “Slash/Back” re-frames the traditional invasion metaphor as one of an invasion that did happen – the theft of indigenous land by European peoples.
If I’m going to watch a film I’ve seen a thousand versions of, I’d like to see the one that adds elements that are rare in the genre. Why they’re rare is a shame, and I hope the success of “Slash/Back” argues for Inuit and First Nations voices to be – not just included because that suggests bringing them into what we make, but also enabled, empowered, and funded to make more of what they want to make. That way, it’s not our decision to include and represent, but theirs to create and share.
In a field of thousands of sci-fi B movies that are often similar, what we like isn’t so much about an assessment of one’s qualities over another. It’s about which ones ask us to see further. That doesn’t mean “Slash/Back” is any better or worse. It’s pretty average for the field. It does mean that it’s asking more of me and granting more to me as a viewer. That sets it apart and makes it more memorable than the 950 of a thousand titles that’ve mashed together into the kind of formless, assimilated mass the girls from Pang find themselves fighting.
“Slash/Back” is on Hulu, DirecTV, Shudder, and AMC+. It’s also rentable.
“Call Jane” is a gripping, quietly intense, and tender movie about providing underground abortions before Roe v. Wade. In the late 60s, an organization known as the Janes helped connect women with medical care that hospitals refused to provide. The Janes helped women access safe abortions in Chicago. “Call Jane” is based on this real-life organization and its often life-saving care. Elizabeth Banks plays Joy, a housewife with a life-threatening pregnancy. Every potential solution is roadblocked by bureaucracies run by men, until she finds a flyer for the Janes.
The film’s directed by Phyllis Nagy, the screenwriter of “Carol”. “Call Jane” possesses much of the same attention to the detail of its time period, but what really sings is the experiential detail. Following Joy through the steps she takes in trying to save her own life is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. I appreciate that “Call Jane” follows her into the procedure itself so we can keep our attention on a woman’s perspective and experience of it. Banks’ performance throughout is phenomenal.
Joy is someone who starts off wanting another child. She has access to some privilege and is well off. Her husband is a criminal lawyer, supporting of her at least in comparison to the era shown. At the same time, we see that she does a great deal of thankless work – not only in her roles as wife and mother, but in editing and rewriting her husband’s briefs and statements.
In the first scene, they’re at a soiree for his law firm. Joy briefly steps out the front of the hotel, during the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests. A cop ushers her back in, shortly before silhouettes are shown clashing against the door. That current of unrest and simmering tension runs quietly underneath the film.
One of the things I love most is how detailed the process of the Janes’ activism is. When women enter for an abortion, they go through multiple watched doors. They have knocks and passwords, ensuring early warning for others in the building in case the police raid. The Janes have to pay off the mob for the buildings they use and to maintain their secrecy. The man performing the abortion procedure charges a great deal since what he’s doing is a felony for the time. This combination means women have to pay a lot, which forces the Janes to turn away those who can’t pay and are often in the greatest need.
This means turning away students, women with medical complications, and rape victims including children. Due to redlining, racism within employment, and other forms of racism, it also means disproportionately turning away Black women. This creates realistic friction in the group, and I’m glad the film doesn’t brush over it. The real Janes have spoken in interviews and documentaries about the difficulty of navigating these complications. This type of activist organization is constantly changing, evolving, falling short and trying to do better. “Call Jane” gives us a real sense of the two steps forward, one step back nature of what the Janes did. There’s always a sense and drive that they could help more if only they had the resources.
We see back alley deals with pharmacies for supplies, and how the women taught each other to perform the procedure. Part of the film focuses on Joy’s home life and how the demands of activism force her family to adjust in ways that they struggle to understand – especially given many of the strict expectations of a wife and mother in that era.
I’ve always seen Banks as a solid, reliable actress with a good eye for sprinkling in unique roles. Here, she’s just great. This is her best performance. It’s one that should’ve made more noise in awards season, but in a post-COVID world, sub-$10 million films haven’t gotten the same audience attention they used to.
“Call Jane” is also truncated, wrapping up earlier in the story than it feels it should. Maybe that’s appropriate – it shows the joy and progress of what happened, the ability to help others that the Janes embodied. Several would later be arrested – they famously passed around index cards with prospective patients’ names while in the police van, taking turns consuming them so that there was no evidence left to harass other women. I would’ve liked to have seen the sheer heroism of that moment, but the film makes a leap in time toward the end. I won’t say more than that, but the ending of the film feels very sudden in a way that doesn’t fit the step-by-step pace that’s led up to it. It didn’t take away from an exceptional experience, but it did leave me feeling like “Call Jane” still had so much more story left to tell.
Nonetheless, “Call Jane” is highly recommended. The writing is exceptional in a number of ways. It grounds us inside a difficult and tense experience, it translates the relationship that can exist between conflict and progress within activism, and it finds ways to convey a number of women’s experiences in empathetic ways. There are very good performances here most notably by Banks, but also including Sigourney Weaver, Wunmi Mosaku, Kate Mara, Chris Messina, and Grace Edwards.
“Call Jane” is a film that’s well worth your time and makes – I was going to say “makes the argument for abortion rights clear” but it’s nonsense to even pretend it should be an argument. It makes the need and human right to access abortions clear. Abortion rights are human rights, and human rights are a need, not an argument.
“Furies” is a blood soaked martial arts movie with feminist underpinnings and a sumptuous neon aesthetic. The Vietnamese film is the type of movie I really like, but not everyone will. There’s a motorcycle chase halfway through that describes why. I’ll avoid spoilers and just say that it’s a five-minute motorcycle chase shot in long takes with a lot of hand-to-hand fight choreography. You really need a ridiculous budget to pull that off well and “Furies” doesn’t have one. Director Veronica Ngo doesn’t care; she’s doing it anyway.
As I watched that chase, I could see how its green screen and street shot sequences were combined. The VFX budget isn’t there to fully clean that up. The mid-chase fights happen in lulls and bursts of activity that make an over-the-top sequence feel more grounded but also risk the pace. None of that mattered. Even though I could see the seams, Ngo’s craftsmanship, ambition, and the strong foundations of the rest of the film meant that it carried all the thrill of a sequence with a hundred times the budget.
Not every viewer will feel this way. Some will love what they’re seeing and double down on their investment in the film. Some will see those seams and want to walk away. Let’s pick up that divide at the end because “Furies” is also doing a lot of remarkable work that contextualizes its violence.
First, be aware that the rest of the review will discuss plot elements such as sexual assault and sex trafficking:
“Furies” follows Bi, who we meet as a girl when one of her mother’s clients rapes her. She fights back, unsuccessfully until her mother arrives and sacrifices herself. Bi has nothing left. We pick up years later, when Bi is a thief living on the streets and faces a similar situation. This time, she’s saved by Jacqueline, a martial artist who gives girls like her a place to stay – and the training to take revenge.
Bi joins the friendly Hong and standoffish Thanh in executing Jacqueline’s plan. The goal is to save girls who are being trafficked and shut down a local gang’s operation. Yet Bi wants more information about Jacqueline’s motives and is trying to square her own tendency to lock up because of PTSD with how drawn she is toward violence.
There are some complex thematic questions asked in Dong Anh Quynh’s performance as Bi. Somehow both visceral and haunting at once, her performance anchors the film and lends it a tremendous sense of personal consequence.
The aesthetic in “Furies” is gorgeous. What the trailer doesn’t show off is some phenomenal set design and lighting. Ngo’s sense of mise en scene in emotive moments touches on influences like Wong Kar-wai, even if the type of film she’s making can’t linger in them in the way a drama can.
There are some hard shifts of pace here or there. Some moments see brilliant edits and transition shots, but there are also times when the transition from montage to in-the-moment feels awkward. It isn’t helped by the choice of rock music chosen to bridge some, especially when the pop songs and traditional music used for others are so good.
These pace shifts shouldn’t be a surprise to fans of the genre. If anything, “Furies” reminds me of other Southeast Asian martial arts films that were simultaneously building their country’s film industry outward, such as “Ong Bak”, “Chocolate”, and “The Raid”. While “Furies” lacks a lead as physically astounding as Tony Jaa, JeeJa Yanin, and Iko Uwais, it is of a much higher quality when it comes to the acting. It is similar to these films in another way, however.
If you’re familiar with Southeast Asian martial arts movies, which have been some of the most groundbreaking over the last 20 years, you know they can be utterly brutal. What would often be suggested with a cutaway and reaction shot in Western action films is instead explicitly highlighted. Thai, Indonesian, and Vietnamese martial arts films often convey their themes by exploring the physical mess fights like these would have. They are typically bloody and shocking. “Furies” is toward the low end of this, which would be toward the high end for most Western films (think “John Wick” level). This approach creates something challenging with the topics “Furies” tackles – specifically when it comes to depicting the sexual assault and abuse that’s being fought.
This can be triggering and might be a reason in and of itself for some to avoid the film. That’s legitimate. In terms of judging “Furies” with the same eye we have for Western films, I’d ask us to first consider the major cultural differences in how something like this is portrayed.
Let’s talk about action scenes as a way of understanding this. Part of the brutality that’s highlighted in Southeast Asian martial arts cinema is to ground the film. Violence is communicated less as a show and more as something with consequences. In the U.S., we portray violence as something we’re removed from, a vehicle for further drama and character development. That reflects our cultural and national attitude toward violence as something that happens elsewhere and out of sight.
As a place where our violence happened within their sight, and where colonialist powers and now our corporations endlessly steal and produce more violence, Southeast Asian art often doesn’t have our luxury of pretending that violence is removed or serves as a main character’s therapy. In this genre, violence happens and the characters simply have to survive and react. There’s still development, but it’s usually about developing our understanding as viewers. It’s not that a character changes, it’s that we see more that was already there.
Take last year’s “The Gray Man”, a U.S. actioner where the climactic fight for Ryan Gosling’s Six serves as some kind of cathartic exposure therapy to heal his child abuse. How can he cope with his father injuring him for not being enough of a man? By telling a woman to lower her gun and give up the easy victory so he can be enough of a man to get more injured and beat the crap out of someone else. What? Yes. America.
By contrast, the violence in “Furies” or an Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Tony Jaa, or JeeJa Yanin film is just that: violence. Their characters remain consistent, but it’s our understanding of where their boundaries are, the nature of their opponents, and what their story of sacrifice will entail that grows.
Because it’s more bare about the brutality of violence, we consider that approach less refined. We imagine our making the violence a metaphor for a dude’s unwillingness to go to therapy is refined, which is completely backwards. Usually, it’s our cinematic approach to violence that’s amateurish and plays at an understanding of its capacity and impact that we do not possess as a culture.
That more honest portrayal of violence in Southeast Asian cinema such as “Furies” allows personal impact, emotion, and themes to be conveyed through the violence itself without diluting it with our constant need to assign symbology.
This wraps us back around to the portrayal of sexual assault in “Furies”. The use of sexual assault in women’s backstories is often criticized in Western film, and rightly so. We use it constantly as shorthand to describe a woman who’s toughened up or traded some of her humanity in exchange for being an effective protagonist. This pretends a woman can’t be both and can’t become a badass without a man’s abuse.
It’s good to portray someone who finds an outlet for what they’ve gone through, but (mostly male) writers don’t embrace that. They too often rely on it firstly as a fetishization to be repeated in the plot, and secondly as a way of portraying what’s happened as a woman losing something that makes her less of a woman. There’s an oft-repeated concept of a woman suffering rape to make room for toxic male qualities. The idea is that if she hadn’t had a part of herself carved away by a man so she could now fill it with the same qualities that harmed her, she never would have been able to become a hero. That kind of writing essentially justifies rape as a trade, retcons the same qualities that harmed her as good because she now uses them, and poses effective women heroes as an exception only realized because they’re ‘like men’.
By portraying a survivor as carrying within her the same toxic masculinity that assaulted her, and only being effective because of it, this approach also practices a secondary but ongoing conceptual violation of that character. It’s horribly judgmental, literally dehumanizing, misogynist, lazy writing. It deserves to be criticized.
Let me state the obvious for a second: Survivors are just as human as anyone, and are effective in any way they choose to practice without having to embrace any aspect of the abuse that harmed them.
This criticism of sexual assault-as-character development in Western writing is well-codified and very legitimate. At the same time, we should use some caution in applying the same reaction to a Vietnamese film made by a woman. I described the differences in portraying violence between our storytelling cultures because some of those same differences apply to how “Furies” approaches showing sexual assault. In other words, “Furies” does show enough of it to be disturbing and triggering, and in a way that would be fetishized in most Western films. Yet everything that surrounds it here communicates differently.
Similar to that tendency to show the consequences and bloodiness of a knife or gun fight and how this is a more honest portrayal of violence, “Furies” also shows us a girl wailing or being assaulted by a man several times her size. Unlike the fetishization that’s common in Western portrayals of this, the refusal to shy away from these moments isn’t leering. It’s dreadful and horrific. When our heroes break in and start slicing up traffickers and rapists and rescuing girls, you don’t see the martial arts as a show. You don’t shy away from the violence that results. You don’t see that retribution as a character’s personal therapy or a metaphor for catharsis. You just see it as necessary. You see it as justified. It’s what needs to happen in order to save people in this moment. You see it as what you hope you’d do if you were put in the same situation and saw what was happening.
That is a more powerful approach and a more complex understanding of its topic than we tend to take about these matters in popular Western filmmaking. The unshying eye toward violence in Southeast Asian cinema has a point we too often dismiss because we deride it as regressive instead of more honest.
By pretending violence is a billion things it isn’t, popular storytelling culture in the U.S. often justifies violence as growth, and projects our own savagery onto others. This makes us overlook so much of what really is more complex and realistic, regardless of whether a setpiece is. As in much of Southeast Asian cinema, “Furies” shows some reality of both the violence and what it takes revenge for. When we make these scenes in Western cinema, it’s often a show. Not everybody treats it that way just because we do.
“Furies” doesn’t take its depiction of sexual assault and turn it into a metaphor. It doesn’t depict it as an excuse to remove humanity, embrace toxicity, or as cheap character development. It doesn’t use it as a peep show. Here, it is profound and uses the camera to put you in someone else’s shoes, to rely on performance in a way that is utterly human and asks you not to turn away and pretend the horrific is something else. It is presented in a way that twins empathy as a response to shock, and clarifies what needs to be fought not just externally, as in a martial arts film, but also internally.
“Furies” makes a point about Hong helping Bi and Thanh experience aspects of childhood and explore culturally feminine concepts. They dress up, hold dance parties, celebrate each other, and these expressions of exploring what they’ve been denied are humanizing escapes from what they’ve endured and what they’re asked to do. They aren’t badasses because they’ve had something carved away that they then replace with toxic masculinity; they’re badasses because they train and in between sessions re-embrace who they want to be. They retake aspects of who they are and refuse to have these replaced – whether by abusive men or women complicit in that patriarchal abuse.
Bi also pushes back against the repetition that fate brought her here. That would mean that fate meant for her to be raped as a child, and that’s a horrible message to repeat or reinforce. She maintains having her own choice in any situation and rejecting the idea that her current path is fated, because that would once again mean losing control to others’ ideas of her role and purpose. She is someone who questions, and the act of questioning is both an act of maintaining who she is, and something she can help Hong and Thanh re-take as aspects of themselves.
I won’t tell you the film’s happy. It’s a neon noir, and noirs are not kind. I won’t tell you it’s great, but I will tell you it’s a new favorite. Veronica Ngo is an ambitious, confident, and exciting director with remarkable abilities for design, shot choice, and getting the most out of her actors. The thematic perspectives in “Furies” are complex and rarely attempted in action movies. Even if the film doesn’t focus on them quite as much as I’d want (it’s juggling a lot of concepts and faces have to be punched, after all), the ideas here are deeply interesting and it’s valuable to see them done this way. Whether this makes up for the seams that show in biting off so much at once is going to vary by viewer.
That motorcycle chase I brought up at the beginning is a microcosm of the film as a whole. For some, the ideas behind the setpieces are exciting enough that we’ll believe our way through and fill in the gaps that its budget couldn’t. For others, those seams will mean you see each of these elements as separate and not fused into a whole enough to maintain your interest. Neither’s a correct way of seeing it; we all have different expectations for how a film engages us. You may know what kind of viewer you are, but that also changes for a lot of people depending on the genre and its context. If you don’t know yet which of those viewers you are in relation to Southeast Asian martial arts movies, I’d suggest you give “Furies” a try.
Have you seen “Don’t Worry Darling”? It’s a great film that had a lot of awards buzz before gossip rags got hold of director Olivia Wilde’s private life. It wouldn’t be the first film to heap up awards buzz only to fizzle out after premiering, but most of those movies didn’t have to deal with a media frenzy to dismantle and de-legitimize a woman director.
We can debate whether the film is good or not. I think it is. It should’ve gotten some nominations on the awards circuit, and possibly even a few nominations at the Oscars. The biggest criticism against the movie itself is that its “Matrix”-like twist is apparent from the start, but that overlooks that the movie’s intention is pretty clearly to make it apparent from the start.
We don’t look at “Inception” and say it did a bad job of hiding that some of the story takes place in people’s minds, mainly because the movie tells us in the opening scene that some of the story takes place in people’s minds. I don’t know why we would criticize “Don’t Worry Darling” for taking place outside reality when it makes this crystal clear early in the story through editing and visual effects. It’s not made to do the same thing as “The Matrix”, it’s made to speak to an audience that already knows how “The Matrix” and films like it operate. Escaping a world you know is fake from the beginning is an entire subgenre of cyberpunk, and I’ve never seen any other film or novel in that subgenre criticized for assuming its audience is already familiar with the genre basics.
Take it another way. We don’t criticize mysteries from “Columbo” to “Poker Face” for telling us who the murderer is at the opening. That’s the format. It’s the difference between a whodunnit and a howcatchem. It feels disingenuous to criticize the subgenre for letting us know we’re in a notional reality when that is the format of the subgenre. That’s the difference between a “Matrix” and a “Don’t Worry Darling”. It’s not an isthisreal, it’s a howescapeit.
That’s boring, Gabe, get to the juicy gossip bits! Fine, let’s talk about the dismantling of the public perception of Olivia Wilde. After all, her publicity work for the film started with getting served custody papers at CinemaCon, as she was speaking in front of a crowd of 3,000 that included producers, distributors, and journalists. What a horrible thing to have happen to h– I mean for her to have done somehow in a way that’s her fault I guess?
She was in a custody battle with Jason Sudeikis. His spokesperson insisted that serving custody papers to her at work in front of 3,000 people in a way that could have damaged both her reputation and the marketability of her film was an honest mistake. It required the person serving her to take a COVID test days in advance and be approved for an event badge. But you know what? Let’s try that reasoning out. Perhaps those tasked with serving Wilde the papers made a decision that Sudeikis had nothing to do with. His spokesperson said so and there’s no evidence to the contrary – please keep this sentence in mind.
But Wilde also had a spat with Shia LaBeouf. She said he was fired from the project in order to retain Pugh, and he presented evidence that Wilde had asked him to stay on. Now, it’s fully possible for a director to ask someone to stay on and then later fire them. Wouldn’t even be the first time it happened to LaBeouf, but this didn’t occur to just anyone. It happened to domestic abuser and serial plagiarist Shia LaBeouf. How could we ever doubt his wor….oh dear.
But Wilde also had a hysterical shouting match with Florence Pugh that left the two at odds. This was reported by culture magazine Vulture, dependent on a source they said spent significant time on set. This became a fact in many people’s heads despite no corroboration. Meanwhile, more than 40 crew members who were also on set during this time publicly called these assertions false. The claim is that Pugh was fed up with Olivia Wilde leaving the set with supporting actor Harry Styles and being a no-show to directing her own film. No other crew has corroborated this. I’ll repeat again: more than 40 have disputed it, and put their names to it. Perhaps more to the point, Pugh’s never said anything to this effect.
Ah ah ah! But Pugh posted about her movie “Oppenheimer” the day the first trailer for “Don’t Worry Darling” dropped! Ooh! Wow! This was a huge revelation on social media. A smoking gun if ever there was one! An actress posted about a film she’s in instead of another film she’s in! When does that happen!?! Who would post about being in a Christopher Nolan film? Clear evidence that Pugh was in a fight with Wilde!
Of course…Pugh also didn’t post about her other two 2022 films that day, “The Wonder” directed by Sebastian Lelio and “Puss in Boots” directed by Joel Crawford and Januel Mercado. Oh, and she chose 2023 film “Oppenheimer” over her 2023 films “A Good Person” directed by Zach Braff and “Dune: Part Two” directed by Denis Villeneuve.
If this is irrefutable evidence that Pugh hates Wilde, one has to ask why Pugh also hates Lelio, Crawford, Mercado, Braff, and Villeneuve. What did they do? After all, we have the overwhelming evidence of an actress not posting about their films the day she posted about “Oppenheimer”, something that proves Pugh hates Wilde. Real fucking lot of Dan Browns we’ve all become.
Now, Pugh’s spokesperson said that she was simply scheduled to post about “Oppenheimer” that day. But that’s just PR, right? I mean, who would believe a celebrity’s spokesperson even if there’s no evidence to the contrar – oh shit, it’s that sentence I told you to keep in mind!
“Perhaps those tasked with serving Wilde the papers made a decision that Sudeikis had nothing to do with. His spokesperson said so and there’s no evidence to the contrary – please keep this sentence in mind.”
Shit in a hat, it’s my previous words! Look, I’m not saying we shouldn’t believe Sudeikis’ spokesperson about embarrassing an ex in front of 3,000 people at the biggest professional moment in her career. What I am saying is that if we believe Sudeikis’ spokesperson about that massive of a fuck-up yet refuse to believe Pugh’s about how a social media post is scheduled, then we’re really down the rabbit hole of double fucking standards.
Can I just insert real fast that I’m sick of psychoanalyzing people through social media posts? It’s neither news nor newsworthy, and in most cases the celebrity in question isn’t even the one making the social media posts. Their staff makes many of these and – big shock! – when they do, they’re not seeking to offer an accurate portrayal of the psychological state of their boss. They’re making posts according to schedules, sometimes by contract, and by SEO information about what keywords, image descriptions, and brand associations are trending at that moment.
As Raven Smith wrote in Vogue’s The Discourse Has Cheated Olivia Wilde: “Late-stage Twitter appears to be the frenzied analysis of a moment we’re all fairly certain is made up. We’re just jabbing at each other, jousting our hot takes. It feels harmless, but it’s not.”
I’d add that it’s also a waste of our fucking time. Your time, my time, all our fucking time – so why get into it? Why write a whole article about celebrity bullshit? Huh, wonder what media watchdog Media Matters has to say. Oh, they highlight that Wilde was targeted throughout the marketing campaign of “Don’t Worry Darling” by right-leaning pages, conservatives, and MRA-associated pages whose readers took it upon themselves to spread negative narratives across social media.
What do we call this now? Gamergated? Or astroturfed? Did she get Hillary Clintoned? Why I’m going on about this load of insulting fucking nonsense is that we look to the stories of yesterday – how 2000s gossip sites demolished the lives of women celebrities and enabled abusers to take advantage of them – and we shout “Free Britney” as we should. Then we turn around and gossip over the same misogynist shit done the same way to each other as if it’s entertainment. Let me repeat: none of the rumors or gossip about Wilde has been corroborated. Fucking none. None. Yet in the social media sphere where it’s most important to market her professional work going forward, her reputation is largely toast.
Bullshit just got shared across social media and the sharing itself became the news – not any actual evidence. Not any actual reporting. Yet when industry media breathlessly repeats the repetition of rumors about women as news, it becomes very difficult for you or me to discern what the fuck is actually going on.
We act like we beat this shit because we learned to recognize when we did nothing about it 15 years ago, as if that deserves a cookie. We act like we’re on the other side of it because Biden barely defeated Trump in an election, never mind how it got to that point in the first place. Then we turn around and slurp up the latest round of bullshit hot takes as if it won’t lead to the next ruined career, and as if our process addiction to conspiracy theories doesn’t normalize the next conspiracy theory-fed disaster. We increasingly live in a paradise of bullshit where reporting on rumors is news no one has to fact check, that we justify because the entertainment value supposedly outweighs our giving a shit. Hell, Johnny Depp successfully defended himself by saying he was so black out drunk he couldn’t remember committing domestic violence, therefore it couldn’t have happened. He’s on the Supreme Court when?
So what is the one thing we do know? The one thing we know Wilde actually did, and is corroborated. She started dating Harry Styles, the pop star who replaced LaBeouf in Wilde’s film. Now if we’re going to say this is unacceptable and should bar her from awards, should we bar her just like we barred this year’s Oscar nominee for Best Director Steven Spielberg, who met Kate Capshaw on “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. He’s had 18 Oscar nominations since, winning three and adding an honorary award. Or the director for this year’s Oscar nominee for Best Picture, James Cameron, who left his wife for Linda Hamilton? He’s had 7 nominations since, winning three. Or Martin Scorsese and Ileana Douglas? He’s had 12 nominations and one win since.
Or like Darren Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence? Or Joel Coen and Frances McDormand? He’s had 15 Oscar nominations since. Or Taylor Hackford and Helen Mirren, before Hackford won his Oscar? Or David Lynch and Isabella Rossellini? Lynch had two nominations and won an Honorary Award after that.
Or the Emmy winner from two years ago Thomas Kail and Michelle Williams? Or John Carpenter and Adrienne Barbeau? Or Judd Apatow who met Leslie Mann when he was producing “The Cable Guy”? Or Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor? Or Len Wiseman and Kate Beckinsale? Or Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter? You staying home from all their shit? Did I miss the meeting where we judge them and torpedo their films?
It’s like we treat this as simply dating a coworker when men do it, yet an abuse of power when women do it. I’m not going to arbitrate which is right and I’m sure it changes by situation, but I do think it should be the same standard for both.
In fact, most of what Wilde is accused of, the un-evidenced stuff that isn’t backed up in any way, many of the directors on this list have done in an evidenced, recorded way. Read the stories about some of what Scorsese has pulled on his actors. We don’t give a shit when men do it. It’s disqualifying when women probably didn’t, but maybe sorta could’ve it’s rumored.
Oh but depending on the timing, Olivia Wilde may have left Sudeikis for Styles! Or she may not have; she may have already been leaving her husband at the time. We don’t fucking know, but we’re in Psychoanalyzing Instagram Post Land, we can do what we want!
So let’s treat it just like we treat Spielberg and Cameron for leaving their wives for their actresses. Or Wiseman. Or probably a few others in this group but there’s only so much time in the day to research bullshit we only care about when a woman might have or might not have done it.
Nobody in the esteemed Academy that not too long ago gave Roman Polanski a standing ovation is turning their noses up at them. At a certain point, the question has to be asked: What the fuck are we even doing? This is absolute fucking bullshit. Sorry, that last part’s not a question. Let me rephrase. Is this absolute fucking bullshit?
Luckily, I know the perfect movie to address the obsession with treating women this way.
Want to see Michelle Yeoh as Indiana Jones? The burgeoning Hong Kong film industry of the 80s was eager to riff on Western movies and create their own counterparts. “Magnificent Warriors” is five movies in one, which was pretty common for martial arts films of the era. In only her third starring role, Yeoh wears a leather jacket, fights with a whip, carries a satchel, and Spielbergian visuals are visited throughout the film – although the whip gives way to a rope dart pretty quickly.
If that’s not the best use of a barrel in the history of cinema, I’ll eat the first hat that’s volunteered. “Magnificent Warriors” is filled with uniquely Hong Kong visual gags like this. Yeoh plays pilot and arms runner Fok Ming-Ming, who delivers weapons to Chinese villages seeking to protect themselves from an incoming Japanese invasion.
This places “Magnificent Warriors” during the Second Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s, which a non-European view often considers the true beginning of World War 2. Fok is given a mission to contact a Chinese spy and extract Youda, the leader of Kaa Yi, a city in Inner Mongolia. He has vital information that can help the war effort.
Fok will recognize her spy contact by a watch he wears, but the watch itself is intercepted by a clueless gambler who’s a riff on Eli Wallach’s Ugly character from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. See what I mean about five films in one? Misunderstandings ensue, but the ever-increasing team follows through on Youda’s extraction – only to find the Japanese are planning to build a poison gas factory to supply their troops.
“Magnificent Warriors” is a satisfying, cheesy 80s action movie filled with fights and explosions, but if I can break the fun for a moment, this plot point is based in reality. The Japanese invasion of China incorporated chemical and biological weapons, including mustard gas on the front lines, and dropping flea canisters containing bubonic plague on Chinese cities – a dreadful war crime that caused several outbreaks.
This plot point doesn’t villainize the Japanese. It reflects a genocidal reality of that war that informed China’s own cultural and political reactions. That it’s in a Hong Kong movie from 1987 can also be understood to reflect fears of Hong Kong being handed over to China (the handover was negotiated in 1984 and set for 1997, and this reality has dominated much of Hong Kong cinema since the 80s). In other words, Chinese heroes in these films sometimes symbolized Chinese resistance to Japan and sometimes symbolized Hong Kong resistance to China. Often, they did both at once. The film never plays so complicated as all this, but understanding these contexts, and how different audiences see them, helps us recognize the importance of these films as much more than just silly action movies.
You do have to be careful with 80s Hong Kong action cinema. I always grit my teeth a little bit in preparation when sitting down to watch something new. Jackie Chan’s own riffs on Indiana Jones in the “Armour of God” series often included misogynist and racist jokes. (I love the second one for its choreography and physical comedy, but it is deeply problematic.) Thankfully, those jokes and themes aren’t present in “Magnificent Warriors” (or at least the translation I watched), and that’s a relief.
Yeoh’s Fok reminds male characters a few times that she’s their equal and she’s been the one saving them. The worst we get here is other characters recognizing Fok and her spy contact have eyes for each other, and she’s careful to keep track that she saves his life as often as he saves hers. The film never infantilizes Yeoh, pushes her to the side, or fetishizes her heroism (as much of the so-called “Girls with Guns” subgenre did to women heroes to make male audiences feel better). Other characters occasionally question her abilities, and these are treated as opportunities for Fok to embarrass them by pointing out she’s kicked everyone’s asses to that point. Hong Kong action movies were generally more progressive than their Western counterparts of this era, but that’s not saying a whole lot for the 80s. “Magnificent Warriors” isn’t perfect, but it strikes me as standing out in this regard.
There’s aerial combat, spycraft, rooftop chases, fight scenes in raging fire, an extended siege, a surprisingly emotional interlude about resistance to occupation and genocide, and if that’s too heavy, a heaping dose of physical comedy and a fantastic “Who’s on first?”-style sequence about who was right and wrong in a dice game.
The fight choreography is densely packed and frequent, especially considering this was just Yeoh’s third starring role after “Yes, Madam!” and “Royal Warriors”. The stunt work is absolutely incredible.
“Magnificent Warriors” is overstuffed and doesn’t all come together in the same way that 80s action movies are almost always overstuffed and don’t all come together. That’s part of its joy. What’s practical is sometimes sacrificed for what’s awesome. How did that jeep suddenly ramp up and take a flying leap? Because it’s awesome. Where did that explosion come from? It’s an 80s movie, the better question is where did that lack of explosion come from? When did Michelle Yeoh find that motorcycle she’s using to lance dudes? Because it’s more awesome than her not finding a motorcycle to not lance dudes.
Once you can accept that and get into its vibe, “Magnificent Warriors” is an immensely fun watch. You can tell why Yeoh was on her way to becoming a movie star. Even if she would take a 5-year break one film later, she never left the top of her game, and has somehow only gotten better and more prolific.
There are a few options to watch “Magnificent Warriors”. You can rent the subtitled version from Amazon for $3, or watch the dubbed version on Roku or Crackle with ads. The trailer below is for the remastered Blu-ray from Eureka! which restores a number of martial arts films and has done incredible work in film preservation.
“The Woman King” has everything you could ask for in an historical epic: the fate of nations, political intrigue, large-scale battles with personal stakes, generational drama, and a star-crossed romance. The cast is superb, the sets, costumes, and cinematography all remarkable. So why is it controversial? Let’s get to that nonsense in a minute. Let’s consider the film on its own first:
We’re told in the opening text crawl that the African nation of Dahomey is at odds with its neighbors and wrestling with its participation in the slave trade. Thuso Mbedu plays Nawi, a daughter who refuses to be married off to an older man. She’s instead given to the army, which boasts a fierce corps of women fighters.
Nawi doesn’t always do what she’s told, and the first half of “The Woman King” largely follows her training. She gets to know her fellow soldiers, most notably Lashana Lynch as her mentor Izogie. The training is intense and seeing Nawi grow and find her own path forward without losing her individuality is done interestingly enough to be its own movie. Mbedu and Lynch both shine in their roles.
Meanwhile, we see snippets of the kingdom’s politics. General Nanisca, played by Viola Davis, urges John Boyega’s King Ghezo to do away with the slave trade entirely. He’s not so sure. Many in the court agree with him, since it’s their primary way to buy weapons to fight the neighboring Oyo. Ghezo’s already done away with the slave trading of fellow Dahomey, focusing instead on capturing and selling their enemy. Before long, things come to a head with the Oyo, focusing on a brutal connection between General Nanisca and the Oyo’s new general.
Swirl in that brief will-it/won’t it romance for Nawi with the visiting Malik, who is half-Dahomey and half-Portuguese, and you’ve got all the components for a riveting epic.
We’re used to these types of historical movies being told in muddled gray-blues and muted reds, showing off the history of Europe as if everyone without a suit of armor was that mud-farming peasant in the opening scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. More recently, the series equivalent has found a market in making everyone into some kind of Viking-era leather biker. This is the “gritty” that for some reason we all pretend is realistic, but more often fails a historical movie’s actual history and setting.
“The Woman King” director Gina Prince-Bythewood courageously suggests that eras prior to this one had more than two color tones available to them. Cinematographer Polly Morgan shoots the film gorgeously with a focus on rich oranges, and more well-lit and thus natural browns, greens, and blues. There’s some beautiful use of mist. The film has a unique visual blend of side lighting characters in foregrounded shadow that’s rare but works gorgeously here. It did take me a moment to get used to an historical epic that looks more natural, since the medieval films that saturate the genre always look like they take place in a walk-in freezer. Once I acclimated, I was so glad the film was this expansive in its visuals.
There’s a later scene in “The Woman King” of a drowning and it was like watching a painting in motion. I wouldn’t describe the entire film like that, but there are visual moments that do reach this height. If I had one criticism, it would be a minor one. In films like these that span periods of time and large distances, it’s always good to have some compartmentalization of sequences. For an obvious but effective example, think of every helicopter shot montage of the Fellowship trekking over mountains in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It doesn’t have to take that shape, but the most basic form is a wide environmental shot or brief montage interlude. I could have used a dash more of this in “The Woman King” to clarify larger gaps of time in the narrative. It becomes obvious that time passes, but that visual break-up can help us start a new set of scenes understanding this, instead of realizing it mid-stream. It’s a small but important aide to our immersion.
I also like Prince-Bythewood’s approach to fight choreography. She worked with fight coordinator Danny Hernandez on both this and Charlize Theron-starrer “The Old Guard”. In that film, they had a take on what can only be described as four person co-op fight choreo. Some of that partnered choreography makes it in here as well and it’s always a joy to see that level of creativity and execution. They’re hardly the first to do this kind of partnered fight choreo, but they are breaking a lot of exciting new ground on it.
My own pet peeve: I do think the spear work’s too spinny. It’s always too spinny; a spear is treated like a staff in historical epics because advancing in formation with the pointy end keeping the enemy at bay is less exciting than spinning it around in isolation to hit someone two feet in front of you. It’s akin to hundreds of European medieval epics that treat armored soldiers like turtles who couldn’t easily get up from their backs, or dozens of pirate epics that have that weird hip-to-hip choreography where the fighters hold each others’ hands down so they can banter instead of just slash each others’ legs to ribbons. Many will think it looks neat, a few will think, “Just stab the guy already”. There’s always something, but overall the fight choreo is great. Pet peeve concluded.
It’s a great film, a very satisfying watch, and it stands comfortably alongside other historical military epics we’d consider great. Why is there so much controversy around it then?
MOVING THE GOALPOSTS
Is “The Woman King” accurate? Broad swathes are. King Ghezo did end the slave trading of Dahomey’s own people and focus on selling captive enemy. He did pursue the palm oil trade as a replacement for slave trading entirely. Our histories tell us this is largely due to Britain’s eventual anti-slavery stance, and pressure they applied to African states in the region, but let’s remember these histories were written by the British and gave credit for anything and everything to the British.
That doesn’t serve as proof that things happened differently, but we have many other histories from the same era where the British habitually took credit for things that indigenous populations clearly accomplished instead. Might the truth have been more mixed in Dahomey? We don’t know.
Conservatives have been happy to point out that Dahomey women soldiers that Europeans termed ‘Amazons’ only took part in two major battles, in 1890 at Cotonou and 1892 at Adegon. Both involved the Dahomey being defeated soundly by French forces. This speaks to the point I just brought up. Dahomey women warriors only fought in two major battles that Europeans recorded. This ignores more than 200 years of service before this point.
Dahomey effectively conquered neighboring kingdoms with these forces deployed. During the Second Franco-Dahomean War, they created special operations units to seek out and assassinate French officers. The French often recorded praise for these women’s skill and effectiveness. Yet the two battles with the French are the major moments that survive in European records, so more than 200+ years of operation are boiled down to a span of two events that happened two years apart. That accounts for 1% of the total time the corps existed.
If I sat down for my first two meals with you, and took this as proof that you had only ever eaten twice in your life because it’s all I’ve witnessed, it would reflect far more about my reality than it would yours. If I went around and argued with people who said you’d eaten prior to this, and I insisted that you have never eaten before the two moments that I witnessed, it wouldn’t really tell anyone anything about your history of meals. It would tell people that I’d lost all tether to reality and logic. Yet this is the argument conservatives are doubling down on about the two years of military activity Europeans partially recorded out of more than 200 years.
Yet click on the trailer, clip, or just about any post and comment after comment will highlight two things about “The Woman King”. They will highlight that the movie ignores Dahomey’s history of engaging in the slave trade, which is the quickest way to tell that commenter didn’t even watch as far as the opening text crawl. But maybe you had to go to the bathroom and missed it. The Dahomey arrange captives to sell in the first scene of the film. But maybe you had to go the bathroom again, I don’t know. General Nanisca and King Ghezo talk about it several times. Their court debates whether they should end their ongoing participation in the slave trade. Various characters discuss it. In fact, Dahomey’s engagement in the slave trade is the plot of the movie. It’s what the political intrigue is about. If you’re going to the bathroom so often you missed it, see a Doctor; I’m worried about your insides. It makes up half the film. It’s clear as day that any of these commenters didn’t even bother to watch five minutes of the film.
The other thing they’ll highlight is that Dahomey’s corps of women soldiers only ever engaged in two battles that they lost, posing the film as lying about their effectiveness and just making the whole plot up. Never mind that this ignores more than 200 years of the corps’ history of operation – quite literally ignoring 99% of their existence. Conservatives ignoring 99% of women’s work isn’t anything new, but it’s always useful to point out.
Historical inaccuracy is a hell of a thing for Incel boards to organize themselves against when their entire movement patterns itself as a shallow pastiche of “300” and they celebrate movies like “Braveheart” and “The Patriot”.
Look, I can still enjoy some “Braveheart” as a deep shame-watch, but the Battle of Stirling Bridge? Happened at a bridge. Who would’ve thought? Primae noctis? No historical agreement it ever happened. Wallace’s dad killed by the English? Didn’t happen, the entire orphan myth is invented. William Wallace the highland commoner? He was a noble from the lowlands. Wallace never made it as far south as his military success is depicted in the film. The face paint Scots wear hadn’t been widely worn in battle for 1,000 years, and the tartan kilt they all wear wouldn’t be worn for 500 still. The nickname Braveheart? Robert the Bruce’s, not William Wallace’s. Isabella of France, the princess he secretly impregnates at the end? She would have been three years old at the time – actually, wait, that’s part of the Incel platform, isn’t it?
The point being that if you’re going to be fine with a film of that ilk, or really just about any medieval European historical drama, “The Woman King” makes significantly more effort toward a level of involving accurate events and historical developments. I would put it as easily more accurate than most films and series in the historical epic genre, which to be fair, still isn’t saying it’s particularly accurate. The major two points being brigaded are complete nonsense, though.
Who cares about comments? They do shape perception. I consider myself pretty jaded and analytical about this, and even though I knew where the comments were coming from and that they were a brigaded effort, I still went into the film thinking that it wouldn’t engage Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade. Hear something enough and you don’t even register the point at which a falsehood goes over the boundary and gets treated as reality. We all like to imagine we’re immune to that, but we’re not special – these things can find their way into rewriting the perceptions of any of us, which is why we have to consistently call them out and talk about them.
When it comes to brigading about this made-up criticism, conservatives online are organizing around it as an argument for justifying erasure of the history of slavery in both our education system and art. Many states are seeking to erase an honest portrayal of the United States’ history of slavery and slave trading, instead replacing it with narratives about slaves being voluntary guests. Several states have passed legislation that bans colleges from teaching critical race theory, and many other elements that portray the real history of slavery in the U.S.
If conservatives can point to “The Woman King” and (deeply inaccurately) insist that Black artists are erasing African nations’ history of slavery, the conversation gets turned into, “Why can’t we?” It turns into a double-standard where white people who want to ignore slavery happened are the victims. They’re the ones who aren’t allowed to do something that’s normal for Black creators. Never mind that what they’re saying Black creators did is a gaslighting lie that’s the direct opposite of what those Black creators actually did.
What does this brigading do, though? It’s a pursuit of normalization. For better or worse (it’s worse), many viewers rely on user review aggregates to judge whether a film is worth their time or not. Brigading user reviews is a tactic organized by conservative groups online to discredit women filmmakers and artists of color. We can pretend it’s not effective, and it certainly isn’t always, but they aren’t looking for every outing to be effective. They’re looking for the one time out of 20 where it discredits someone. We’ve known ever since Gamergate just how effective it can be. We wouldn’t have ever had to deal with Steve Bannon or Milo Yiannopoulos at such an escalated level if we’d learned our lesson nine years ago. The blueprint of their work shaped much of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign strategy, a campaign for which Bannon was CEO.
You don’t have to sell your own ideas if you just tear everyone down to the same level of discredit, and the quickest route to that is blunt force online brigading. It doesn’t happen on its own; that kind of brigading really does require organizational evolution. These kinds of continued efforts still serve as a research and development lab for the next round of it, and conservative online focus on “The Woman King” is one part of the front line on the latest effort seeking to discredit Black history and Black voices.
If you’ve seen those comments or reviews, watch “The Woman King” to actually know what’s in it. If you want to enjoy a bunch of great performances and some beautiful cinematography and design, watch “The Woman King”. If you’re tired of muddy Viking biker gangs slowly discovering the secret choreographic advantage of getting up after falling down in a world that takes its visual inspiration from Eiffel 65’s 1998 pop hit “Blue (Da Ba Dee)”, and you want to see something good and satisfying instead, watch “The Woman King”.
“Bullet Train” is two hours of my life I could’ve better spent force-feeding myself straight vinegar. It’s like they watched that episode of the Simpsons where they go to Japan as their homework for what Japanese culture is, saw the ScarJo “Ghost in the Shell” whitewashing and were like “But what if entire movie”, and then thought the basis of a good screenplay is the characters constantly complaining to each other that the dialogue fucking sucks. “Bullet Train” isn’t bad enough to be exhausting, but it’s not good enough to be bad enough to be good, either.
I’ve written a lot lately about films I find beautiful, or even finding the bittersweet in films I don’t, so I don’t really want to go off…but “Bullet Train” is like that Jeff Goldblum monologue about being too busy wondering whether they could that they didn’t stop to ask if they should. Except it’s not about cloning dinosaurs but just reading the instructions on Play-Doh where it says you shouldn’t eat the shit. How hard is it to not egregiously whitewash a movie in 2022?
In an adaptation of Isaka Kotaro’s Maria Beetle, Brad Pitt plays a snatch-and-grab specialist who goes by Ladybug. He finds himself on a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. A simple job erupts into a mess when he realizes assassins and gangsters are also among the passengers, their targets and interests at odds. It’s not actually a very convoluted plot, it’s just told that way so that Ladybug can reflect on Fate.
You could’ve at least gotten a “Con Air” out of this if the writer and director weren’t so set on thinking Brad Pitt playing a manbaby tourist who’s a professional thief in Japan (who knows nothing about Japan) was enough to hold up two hours of movie. You could’ve gotten even more out of it if they’d gone with some Japanese filmmakers and actors for this movie that takes place entirely in Japan and centers itself on Japanese concepts of luck, fate, and karma. Instead, Pitt mumbles his way through them for a story that thinks Japanese religion and culture are all just great fodder for repeating variants of the same joke over and over again.
There are places where the conversation about whitewashing can get more nuanced and contextual. Say, if you set this on a cross-country train in the U.S., it might make sense to adapt characters out to include the specific diversity of the U.S. By similar logic, if you took “Die Hard” and adapted it in Japan, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the roles replaced with Japanese actors. This conversation often has to incorporate a number of considerations. There is plenty of sensible room to adapt these things by changing who plays a role, but “Bullet Train” doesn’t deserve that conversation since the entire plot is still set on a bullet train in Japan. It’s not transposed to another country or culture. It just changes numerous Japanese roles to be white characters and one Black character.
In fact, there are surprisingly few Japanese people on this bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Exactly two supporting roles are played by Japanese actors, and one of them doesn’t even show up in any meaningful way until the last 20 minutes – a wasted Hiroyuki Sanada who’s there to offer brief snippets of wisdom about fate that the American performers fail at turning into witty banter. That fucking legend barely gets more screen time than a Channing Tatum cameo whose only purpose is a repeating gay joke. Otherwise, Japanese characters only appear as brief obstacles that serve as comedy props for our white dudes.
Don’t get me wrong, “Kate” was one of my films of the year last year, and I’ll die on the hill that it’s one of the best action movies I’ve seen. Its director, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, is not Japanese. Neither are that movie’s leads Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Woody Harrelson. But in the Japan sequences that amount to 95% of that movie, every other actor (save one hitman) was. Crowds were. Extras were. It got some set details wrong, but it also somewhat successfully entered into a conversation about colonialism that made it clear the white people we follow are interlopers. And “Bullet Train” director David Leitch was one of the producers of “Kate”, so he should know better.
It blows my mind that “Bullet Train” cost four times more than “Kate”, yet couldn’t seem to find a tenth of the Japanese actors. Oh, but unlike “Kate” it was filmed almost entirely in Los Angeles. You know, in California, home to the largest number of Japanese-American communities in the U.S. Couldn’t find any actors of Japanese descent? That means they didn’t even try.
I’m not trying to pass off “Kate” as massively successful at this. I bring it up because it hits the minimums on this. There are places where it does better (like the fully Japanese soundtrack that features some deep cuts), but mostly it hits the minimums. My point is that even just achieving those minimums is enough to allow the film a sense of immersion that in turn lets its story be told in a captivating way.
I’m not even comparing “Bullet Train” to something that does this side of things well. I’m comparing it to something that simply avoids fucking it up. “Bullet Train” can’t even get that far. There’s a larger point to be made about representation and inclusivity, but we can’t even get to that if you haven’t even done the minimum to achieve immersion. You can’t even get to immersion if you can’t even get past whitewashing.
It’s like someone took the concept of world building for a world that already exists cause hey look, under your feet, there it literally is, and he didn’t have to build it, he didn’t have to do much work beyond matching it, and he noped straight out of clearing the lowest bar imaginable even when he can hire consultants to gently nestle the bar under his feet. I’ve seen bad world building before, but it is rare when someone straight-up mistakes world breaking for any kind of productive or immersive storytelling. No amount of whip pans, smash edits, and cameos can make up for the rare laziness and disinterest required to arrive at such an apathetically constructed world. It bears no resemblance to anything consequential that I can remotely care about as a viewer.
There are ethical and cultural conversations to this that are far more important, but something the “just cast the best [white] actor” argument misses all the time is that this is a qualitative argument, too. Cut out the talent pool that naturally fits your movie, fits its setting, understands the source it adapts, that grew up with access to the humor and action “Bullet Train” wants to culturally transplant, and what you’re left with is a bunch of clueless actors drawn from a narrower talent pool, who lack so much experience in what you’re trying to convey that all they’re left with is to pantomime exaggerations, exoticism, and stereotypes, making the mistake that the embarrassing mess they’re acting out is somehow clever or accurate because no one bothered to hire anyone who knows better.
There’s no reality to “Bullet Train” because it’s not interested in any. Elevated reality requires a foundation to hoist it up; this is just swampy drivel. It’s just Brad Pitt thinking his inept supporting character in “Burn After Reading” makes a good basis for a lead in a movie about highly-skilled assassins in Japan and Japanese spirituality.
The humor isn’t translated. It acts out what it thinks is Japanese humor, which is: Americans making fun of what they think Japanese humor is. But if you watch any amount of Japanese media, you know this ain’t it.
Pitt is 58, which doesn’t mean anything on its own. Hell, Sanada’s 62 and he would’ve been great in the lead. But neither is Pitt a Keanu or Charlize Theron finding their second stride. He looks pretty done when it comes to a role this physical. Your other lead fight performers are Brian Tyree Henry? Bad Bunny? Aaron Taylor-Johnson makes some sense if you’re willing to risk his one-film-good, one-film-wallpaper-paste performance rotation. Michael Shannon is great at a lot of stuff, but it sure as hell isn’t sword fighting.
Hell, the one who maybe had some business being here is Joey King, who plays a narcissistic mastermind known as The Prince. Earlier this year, she John-Wicked it up in “The Princess”, a movie that’s basically one extended stairwell fight. In “Bullet Train”, she’s just a babe-in-the-woods take on the femme fatale. I kept waiting for her to go off, but she doesn’t get to punch a thing. King’s Prince pales next to her Princess performance; the whole thing’s a royal waste.
What are we left with? Characters constantly complaining each others’ dialogue annoys them? Hey, I apologize for being wrong, the script is accurate about something.
The fights are boring and rely on actors who just aren’t up to them, while actors who’ve proven they can do this work with verve sit on the sidelines. The humor relies on the energetic, mile-a-minute sight gag editing of Japanese satire, here delivered at the much slower and over-explained pace of Western star-vehicle comedy. The witty banter isn’t. The venerable Hiroyuki Sanada is diminished into the role of whatever we call the “Magical Negro” trope when we do it to Asian people. The only thing “Bullet Train” succeeds at is how completely it hits its disgusting target of whitewashing Japanese people out of Japan. Fuck this movie.
You can watch “Bullet Train” on Netflix.
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As I write about “Qala”, I keep having that moment where I feel…how the hell do I convey the experience of watching it? Qala is an immensely popular singer on Indian films in the 30s. She was raised by her mother to continue her father’s musical legacy, until her mother found an orphan boy whose maleness offered an easier path. What’s Qala’s own road to success after she’s forgotten and discarded within her own family?
But describing “Qala” doesn’t tell you what it’s like to witness it. The Hindi-language film is immediately one of the best musicals and horror films I’ve seen. It’s not a musical where everyone breaks into song, but it’s more focused on music and performance than most musicals where that does happen.
I’ve seen musicals that meld with horror before, usually in campy, fun ways that reassure and comfort. “Qala” has some of the most beautiful, gossamer-silky songs I’ve heard, their comfort, peace, and elegance increasingly transformed by story, performance, and meaning into tension, abandonment, desperation. The music here conveys horror in a way I’ve never seen or felt.
But praising “Qala” doesn’t tell you what it’s like to sit there as it reshapes itself as only the best gothic horrors can, or how its beautiful, classically-minded Indian songs evoke quiet screams from inner landscapes. “Qala” is a “Frankenstein” or “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” or “The Invisible Man” emotionally codified to represent how women must switch between each in a world that sets them aside for men, trades them to be rid of them, expects servitude in exchange for opportunity.
In her two films, writer-director Anvitaa Dutt has clarified that the physical fantasies of torn identity in gothic horror are emotional realities for women. Her approach to horror isn’t one of surprising you with the twist. She brings you in on the ‘what’ of things pretty early so she can tell you the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Her horrors are about the very real ones that force those in fiction to arise.
Like the best of Guillermo del Toro and Julie Taymor, Dutt finds a way to fuse the relentlessly stylized to the utterly human. Much of this rests in her trust in Triptii Dimri, the lead who carries Qala through vast emotional ranges. In my review for “Bulbbul”, I compared Dimri to Anthony Hopkins in a particular way. Each knows that if you pick the right moment to go over the top, you can change the mechanics of how people watch a film. You can act a character in such a way that makes those around them act for her. By choosing moments where the supporting cast becomes audience not through structure or script, but simply through sheer will of a lead performer, we take up our seats as support – or even enabler – and become a part of that world.
By shattering our immersion with precision, that immersion re-forms with a greater gravity, encompassing us. What once laid outside our suspension of disbelief now orbits the performer. These performances move the norms of our immersion. Few performers can pull that off. Dimri is one of them. Few directors know how to empower this. Dutt is one of them. Usually it’s lightning in a bottle for such an actor and director to find each other. It’s even rarer still to maintain such a charged balance for long. Across two films now, Dimri and Dutt may’ve become the best actor-director pair working today.
But telling you that doesn’t communicate what it’s like to experience “Qala”. A lot of what I write for film begins as a meander. At some point, I know I’ll lock into a groove that embodies something about the film. I find a handhold, and then recenter my thoughts around that path into the film. Anything written before this gets cut or edited around that route, because a description or analysis means very little without conveying something about the experience of what it’s like to sit and watch.
But “Qala” is sheer, indivisible. It’s not impenetrable, it’s very easy to access, but to pull at any of its layers risks losing the context and empathy that shape them all. Pulling any single thread enough to show it to you misshapes the others. As elevated and wide-ranging as its style can be, there’s something pristinely real and consequential about the shape of “Qala”, something that makes us commiserate and understand horrible things because how else does one escape horror if it’s all they know?
A handhold into “Qala” feels like it swallows your arm. The film is sumptuous, if a film that feels like drowning could ever be described that way. The best way to describe “Qala” would be through a book of thoughts and reflections, or the kind of brief poem a poet only ever gets right once or twice in their life. The best way I have to describe “Qala” is that I can’t, not fully. I’m not sure I’d want to. What’s the emotional route into quicksand? How do you review an abyss? How do you describe awe except to say you were there to feel it?
“Falling for Christmas”, you’ll be shocked to know, is a Christmas movie. The first in Lindsay Lohan’s multi-picture deal with Netflix, it perfectly captures the streaming platform’s ability to churn out movies you’ve seen before, but this time with that one person who makes you go, “I haven’t seen this movie I’ve seen before with that one person in it”. Why did I watch it? Pretty much the thing I just said.
Lohan plays Sierra Belmont, spoiled daughter of a ski resort mogul. When her even more spoiled influencer boyfriend Tad Fairchild proposes to her, Santa hurls her off a cliff because a little girl wants her dad to meet someone. I…wait, what?
Jake Russell is a dad who doesn’t want to meet someone because he mourns his wife and his bed-and-breakfast/ski resort is struggling in the face of clearly buying tens of thousands of dollars of Christmas decorations. He probably could’ve just gotten away with a nice tree and some of those icicle lights.
Russell is played by Chord Overstreet, which would have been a much better name for this character. His plan to avoid meeting anyone is helped by a charm that’s conveyed by smirking and leering at inopportune times like a serial killer.
His daughter Avy makes a wish for him to meet someone, and a nearby Santa who gets some weirdly discomfiting close-ups taps his nose like he’s playing charades with a more kindly Santa from another film who doesn’t hurl women off cliffs.
This nose-tapping unveils Santa’s control of the weather, conjuring a great wind that sends Sierra hurtling down the mountainside. Ultimately, she is concussed. Jake finds her and Sierra wakes up in the hospital without her memory. She has suffered amnesia because we live in a fatalistic world where a deterministic Santa does not mark down who’s naughty or nice, but rather declares it on a whim, trapping us each in a cage where our decisions mean nothing in the face of a capricious god.
I’ve got to say, it’s a breath of fresh air. I’ve always been a fan of Old Testament Santa.
What follows is “Overboard”-lite, except Russell doesn’t actually know who Sierra is. Russell’s defining characteristics are taking advantage of the situation to make Sierra work as an unpaid maid, and having a daughter with way more personality than him. Thankfully, other people keep telling Sierra how great he is.
Meanwhile, fiance Tad is lost in the wilderness with an ice fisher, an increasing number of stereotypical jokes suggesting that Tad is gay. These are the worst jokes in “Falling for Christmas”, but it seems like the film eventually realizes this (a lot of bloopers during the credits are scenes involving him that didn’t make the cut). The movie quickly forgets that Tad exists until he’s needed for the climax.
“Falling for Christmas” is exactly the movie you expect it to be. Quite weirdly, that’s exactly what I wanted. You got me again, Netflix, and just in case I didn’t know it, they sneak in an ad for last year’s Brooke Shields Christmas retread, “A Castle for Christmas”.
Now, I don’t want to cast aspersions on an ensemble that really doesn’t have much to work with, but “Falling for Christmas” is carried by Lohan solo. Millennials like myself will recognize that in the early 2000s, Lohan was poised to be an absolute star. Her work in “Freaky Friday” and “Mean Girls” was more than just being a good comedy lead. As Roger Ebert wrote in his “Freaky Friday” review, Lohan possessed “that Jodie Foster sort of seriousness and intent focus”.
That may seem ridiculous to read in 2022, but it was accurate. Lohan had serious comedy chops and an underlying intensity that elevated the consequences of otherwise wacky premises. That focus took center stage with more dramatic work in smaller films like “A Prairie Home Companion”, “Bobby”, and “Chapter 27”. Addiction, DUIs, and disappearing from set derailed that. The burgeoning online celebrity gossip industry of the 2000s also chewed up young actresses while praising men for courageous fights where they did the exact same thing; there wasn’t a more complex or useful conversation to be found. It’s hard to say where Lohan could’ve gone if she’d been able to corral her demons and build on her best work.
Maybe she could’ve been a star, won awards, had an MCU role, who knows…but those concerns feel less consequential than the simple idea that she could’ve enjoyed the opportunity to continue delivering performances that were uniquely hers. Her last film role before this was in 2013’s “The Canyons”, a massively overlooked performance of tolerating obsession and abuse in a film that really should be overlooked – the behavior of the other names involved since (James Deen, Paul Schrader, Bret Easton Ellis) make it an utterly garbage assembly of human beings before any judgments on Lohan.
Of course, as I researched this article, I realized Lohan has waffled terribly in the last few years between opposing Brexit and authoritarian types, then defending fascist leaders like Putin, Erdogan, and Trump, then trolling them, and that’s without talking about her initial defense of Harvey Weinstein. This last is complicated by Lohan’s stated anger at the press’s lack of coverage when she suffered domestic abuse. She was nearly killed by her former fiance, evidence including police phone calls and domestic abuse documented in two videos that collectively point to at least two years of suffering life-threatening violence. Ultimately, the news saw a public dismissal borne from how the 2000s gossip industry trained us to view her. A domestic violence survivor was treated as just Lohan being Lohan, as if it was her fault. There was no public response of empathy, and she connected this in follow-up statements to her anger that others were receiving the empathy and action she’d sought. It doesn’t justify or legitimize her response in any way, but on a human level I can grasp the desperation that shaped it.
That’s no reason to justify any of Lohan’s harmful statements across the board. What it may do is contextualize the role she assumes in defending that harm. Many victims are trained to do just that: defend the harm of others. They seek to legitimize that harm because failing to do so once threatened their own survival. Spend enough time surviving that way and you stop thinking there’s any other.
Rose McGowan, who survived a Weinstein assault, suggested, “Please go easy on Lindsay Lohan. Being a child actor turned sex symbol twists the brain in ways you can’t comprehend.” This too, is both complicated and demonstrated by McGowan’s long history of homophobia and transphobia, and going full QAnon in the last few years.
Part of me wonders if Lohan’s experience as a child actor plays into her gravitation toward abusive, toxic, harmful male figures. We’ve been told again and again how bad things are for many child actors, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, labor violations, wage theft, drugging, the list goes on and on.
As far as I can tell from limited research, these red flags don’t crop up in Lohan’s story directly, though she has a complicated history with her family. Nor does every survivor wish to talk about what they’ve endured. It’s tempting to think the shape of what’s missing from a story – or what’s similar to so many other stories – can be evidence, but conjecture would be irresponsible and uninformed.
I didn’t watch “Falling for Christmas” because I thought it would be good. It held up its end of the bargain there. I watched it because I wanted to see if Lohan still flashed that talent that’s gone so unfulfilled, and I figured either way I’d get a review with some good jokes. The talent’s there in spades, showing through briefly despite the material and direction. The jokes are there – not in the film, but if you want to talk about an angry, vengeful Santa, absolutely. But think about it too long and something else is there, too – some shadow of who we become in the face of repeated cycles of abuse, of what’s lost – forget talent-wise, but in our humanness.
None of this is on the screen. This is exactly that movie you can start and not pay attention to, turn on in the background, glance at only once or twice and know precisely what’s happening. Look too long at the shadows it casts, though, and the shape of things change.
You look at someone who’s suffered abuse and turns around to justify others’ abusers and…criticism and empathy both are owed, right? It’s just…how do you tell when? How do you tell what measure of each? Many moments are apparent. You stand against somebody supporting a dictator or a rapist, or as we see among other celebrities right now, espousing hate. That’s the uncomplicated side of the equation.
We’re talking about a celebrity, but we know this in our own lives, too – especially over these last several years. It’s complex to oppose someone for whom you still feel empathy, whose lashing out from pain you might be able to understand. It might be the only way they know to survive. Criticism of harmful stances is warranted, necessary, and needs to be seen and repeated, even if somewhere in there you know it might induce the same panic in the criticized as abuse once did. But ease off too much and empathy for one enables them to continue defending abusers and systems that target many. The world isn’t built in a way where we can always offer both, and we’re not built in ways where we can sustain offering empathy to both without becoming hypocrites and making each job harder. It’s often a good judgment not to offer both. It’s often our own survival mechanism. A community can’t sacrifice itself for one person to feel comfortable.
The reality of empathy is that we can’t act on it everywhere. We have to prioritize by who needs it most, or by how many need it – our empathy for someone causing harm, even when caused by pain or panic, can get in the way of our empathy for someone being harmed. After the damage passes, maybe we can go back and offer what we can, but sometimes that moment’s passed, too. There’s no regret to that. Empathy has to help those who are being punched down furthest first. It’s the right decision, it’s the kind decision. In the quieter moments though, I wonder if the empathy we couldn’t offer or could only offer too late, is still worth mourning. Just as a recognition for the way the world is. Just to remember that we saw it, that we witnessed the need and aren’t training ourselves to ignore it. Just to yearn for kindness. Who knows what Lohan’s story is, but hers reminds me of so many others I do know, and it carries an eerie similarity to a world that’s all too eager to think everything’s a fight for survival that requires harm. What we live in breaks my heart sometimes; that’s why I opened with jokes.
“Watcher” sucks the air from the room. It’s the kind of horror film that only makes you jump once or twice because that’s all it needs. It’s ratcheted up the tension so much by the time you would jump that it doesn’t even need to shock you. It doesn’t need to make you catch your breath when it’s already taken it. It just needs to keep on coming step by step to where you know it’s already going.
(This is for the new movie “Watcher” starring Maika Monroe on AMC/Shudder and VOD. It is not the new series “The Watcher” starring Naomi Watts on Netflix.)
Julia has moved with her husband Francis to Bucharest, Romania. He has a new job there, and their apartment is a dream. Before long, she spies a man watching out his window. It’s hard to tell if he’s looking at her, or just out at the world. Soon, she’s followed by a man – the same one or someone new? The premise shares some similarities with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and writer-director Chloe Okuno uses our expectations for that format smartly, but “Watcher” more closely mirrors some of the best of 70s horror, particularly giallo like “Deep Red” and “Don’t Look Now”.
Still learning Romanian, Julia has very few people in whom to confide. Francis sides with her at first, but invariably all the men in the film are useless in the ways we’re best trained to be – to dismiss a woman’s concerns for her own safety, to turn them into a joke, to take one instance of her saying, “I think” and exploit it to doubt her entire recollection. Even though there’s a serial murderer of women taking lives, it’s more reasonable for them to doubt Julia than take sustained interest. None of this feels unreal – here is a horror where a woman is stared at and stalked and takes the right actions to document it, and the world around her dismisses her as hysterical.
It must be because she’s unable to deal with the stress of moving, with the loneliness of her husband being away so much at work. What is she to do alone all day except to let her imagination run wild. She saw the news reports of the murderer and descends into paranoia. Poor, troublesome thing.
So many films before this have created suspense from the idea that their main character is imagining things, that they aren’t reliable and thus what the film tells us must be questioned. Suspense in horror arises not just from the main character being under threat, but also being wrong about something key. Not so here. We see what Julia does and, even if it’s circumstantial, it’s enough for us to believe her. We’re the only ones who do. Her entire support system either refuses to help or makes things worse.
As her only friend in Bucharest tells her, the best case scenario is she protects herself and lives with the uncertainty – better than dying with the words “I told you so” on her lips. The horror in “Watcher” isn’t about whether Julia is interpreting reality correctly, or who her stalker is. The horror is that no one else is interpreting reality correctly, or believes her when she tells them who her stalker is.
Similarly, we’re not given a woman-on-a-mission style of horror or vengeance movie. Those can be great, but “Watcher” dials down the movie horror in favor of a realism that feels cinematic in a very different way. Its consequences feel more identifiable than aspirational. They don’t feel removed by the abstraction we usually see in horror. They feel grounded in the everyday.
Okuno delivers such an array of visual suggestion, red herrings, and Chekhov’s guns, but because they all feel so normal, so real-world, presented patiently and without fuss, we can get lost in identifying which are telling us something. It mirrors Julia’s own inability to focus in decisively when her real understanding of the situation is so isolated from everyone else’s.
We can foresee what will happen as the audience, but because there are so many different pieces our mind can put together and foresee as horror, we’re unable to truly guess at what the outcome will be. This is how Okuno achieves horror without the need to question what we know as viewers, and thus avoid our questioning Julia. The mystery’s solved enough early on; the horror rests in Julia trying to make this mean anything. We see too many possibilities for what can happen. Like Julia, we aren’t able to narrow down what we know into a solution, into a step-by-step process for resolution. We’re not guessing at an answer, but rather frozen in Julia’s place with the answer in hand at a branch of choices that each go nowhere. That’s how Okuno creates implicit systemic horror, a tension based not on whether the mystery will be solved, but on whether anyone will put a woman first enough to help.
We’re not the audience for the “Watcher”. The ensemble is the audience, supporting characters each guessing, dismissing, gossiping, entertained. Okuno maneuvers us as the audience into Julia’s shoes – knowledgeable, accurate, wary and tense because of it, frustrated because this could all be addressed if anyone listened.
Okuno’s created a masterful inversion, made possible by Maika Monroe giving one of the best performances of the year as Julia. She’s now starred in two of the most important horror films of the last decade, “Watcher” joining “It Follows”. Her performance here deserves to be talked about at the end of the year, but horror films are largely forgotten when awards ceremonies roll around.
“Watcher” also boasts some of the most effective sound design I’ve heard. The use of white noise and room noise – always organic to the location – achieves a soundscape that’s profoundly unsettling. Across the board, it’s rare that a movie is so efficient, so streamlined, yet infuses every moment with an unmistakable artistic tone.
“Watcher” truly rattled me because so much of it is identifiable. The plot is suspense horror, but the elements that go into it are real. I stopped watching horror for about two years after a death threat I received. It coincided with also having two ongoing stalkers. Horror is my favorite genre and I just couldn’t touch it anymore. I couldn’t go to it for fun. I’ve since returned to it, but I was worried “Watcher” would send me back down that path to some extent.
Its points are largely about what women face; I can’t speak to that and I don’t mean to compare my experiences to that. From my standpoint, I can say that “Watcher” made that point in my life feel visible and recognized. I was able to enjoy “Watcher” as an incredibly tense horror movie in part because it speaks to the mechanisms and systems that allow versions of that horror to exist in the real world. It doesn’t pretend or emulate, it doesn’t use a trigger for a cheap shock. It understands the horror stalkers impel by creating isolation and loneliness in their targets. Even if the movie that follows is incredibly tense, I felt like the part of me that went through that could feel less compartmentalized, less isolated, more understood.
Those are major, unique experiences in my life, however. I can point to the period in my life when they happened because I’ve been able to leave them behind. They weren’t the everyday fear that women often have to live with, and that women can’t leave behind, so I can’t say whether “Watcher” would evoke the same reaction for you. If you’ve gone through that and horror on film is something you still seek out, I think there’s something here that recognizes and legitimizes the experience of what you went through in a way few films do. If you haven’t gone through that, you’ve still got an impeccably directed, brilliantly acted suspense horror to watch.
“Watcher” has brief gore, but it’s not something I’d describe as gory. Its horror really does arise from its profound sense of legitimized paranoia and understanding of what it is for a system around you to leave you helpless by implicit design. I wouldn’t describe it as slow-burn so much as steadily escalating just out of sight. It’s a remarkable horror movie, with an even better point, delivered organically. It’s not the kind of thing you watch and put down. It sticks to you because the horror it highlights is something that really needs to stick to us in a way we recognize as real.