Disney’s live-action division has been rolling out remakes of beloved animated films for the past several years. The Mouse House sees dollar signs, and oftentimes the public greets the news of a newfangled remake with a roll of the eyes. But when diving into these films proper, an interesting narrative that’s downright chronological emerges: Disney has gotten better at these remakes. But why is that the case? Let me show why quite recently all hope seemed lost, and how things have turned around so now the future looks very bright indeed.
The Case Against
In 2010, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland hit theaters. So how does the 1951 original hold up? Well, it’s an insane animated fantasia depicting an anarchic land where anyone can be a cabbage or a king. Filled with great characters, it inadvertently invented the Shrek dance party finale, and climaxes with Alice gaining the upper hand by eating shrooms. It features the most wonderful and hilarious subversion of the classic “Princess sings in the woods and attracts cute animals” trope, as Alice attracts them, but they’re all grotesque hybrids of animals and tools. These are just some of its wonders. The early Disney tendency to have a bunch of vignettes orbiting a thin framework fits like a glove with this concentrated randomness. In short, it’s an all-time great.
Now, it’s not strictly accurate to call the 2010 Alice a remake, as the film makes a contorted attempt to describe this journey into Wonderland as Alice’s second. But the implication that the original’s events are in continuity here becomes laughable in context. We enter Wonderland and hear words like… Prophecy? Chosen one?!? The very idea of anything being “foretold” in Wonderland is a bad joke. Narrative logic is one thing, but the storytelling becomes bogged down in politics and pretense. What was once a land of chaos becomes a bombed-out shell of its former self, populated by irritating nuisances in place of characters. Even the gruesomeness on display (three characters get stabbed in the eye, not to mention the decapitation) just comes across as desperate. Despite the one area of improvement over the original being Mia Wasikowska as an engaging protagonist, what we end up with is a poisonously boring film that represents the absolute nadir of the Disney remake. This is what not to do.
As it turned out, this black hole of entertainment was an enormous financial hit, to the tune of over a billion dollars. But it’s what I’d call an accidental billion-dollar movie, as it rode the crest of the Avatar 3D wave.
To play fair, things get significantly improved in the 2016 sequel, Alice through the Looking Glass. Despite a sickening insistence on pitching Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter as the emotional center of the film, small steps are taken in the right direction. It’s set in a bright and colorful Wonderland for a change, it’s got a solid villain in Sacha Baron Cohen’s embodiment of Time (“And I… must find… the kindergartner…”), some of the jokes land (the frog dude!), violence is used more constructively (the Humpty Dumpty gag is fantastic!), the art direction is superior (the Chronosphere is a clockwork astrolabe you can fly in!), and in Alice’s role as a dauntless seafaring explorer, she foreshadows Disney’s upcoming animated musical Moana. (And bonus points for using Alan Rickman as a voice of comfort, in his final film role.)
But overshadowing everything is the root problem of these modern Alice films: they get stuck on portentous exposition when they should just be parading charming nonsense. They’re boring because they never resolve the tension between the potential of their setting, and their need to inject drippy drama into it. Put it this way; the Mad Hatter’s dad is a textbook strict Victorian father. In Wonderland.
Next, in 2014, the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent went back to the roots of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty. In the original, Maleficent is a legitimately scary villain who capitalizes on her small sliver of screentime to make a huge impression. She’s such a representation of pure evil that it feels like the film doesn’t give her much airtime for fear of kids being traumatized by her menace. She can also turn into a dragon.
Come the modern reimaging of the story, Maleficent is no longer evil, no longer the villain, and no longer can turn into a dragon. Sigh. Jolie is an unimpeachable casting decision, but the material she’s saddled with plays it safe even while making truly odd choices. Maleficent is made a victim, and the way her wings are violated is coded in a deeply uncomfortable way for a family movie.
Where this remake shines are only in stolen moments. The recreation of the famous throne room scene is by far the best bit of the film, because it’s the only time Maleficent is allowed to be true to her name. For the rest of the film she’s not even an anti-hero. She’s just the hero. Maleficent is let down by nonsensical plot devices, a pantomime villain, truly embarrassing versions of the original fairy characters, but above all the softening of an iconic Disney villain. I assume that choice is to make Maleficent palatable as a lead, but what’s the point of doing it if it’s not to be done right? When it comes to putting a villain in the lead role, I’m not expecting Man Bites Dog or A Clockwork Orange. But I do expect an understanding of why we were drawn to the character in the first place.
So the Alice films and Maleficent, while definitely fitting into the macro trend of Disney remakes, are more like hybrid reboot/reimaginings, and as we’ve seen, have failed to make new ideas work. Don’t get me wrong, outside-the-box ideas are great for remakes, but the choices made in these two stories have fallen flat. When in doubt, both Alice and Maleficent portray pitched battles between armies that come off as Lord of the Rings-lite, seeming desperate for an edge they just can’t sharpen. So post-Maleficent, things aren’t looking so great at the moment for this remake experiment. But, just around the corner in 2015…
The Case For
The 1950 Cinderella stars cutesy mice as much as it does the title character, and sets up a familiar fairy tale framework. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella takes it and runs with it, filling in character depth, casting impeccably, and ending up with an intoxicatingly beautiful film. Cinderella (Lily James) and Prince Charming/Kit (Richard Madden) are both rounded and their courtship is played for real, none of this snap-of-the-fingers romance of the original. No longer colorless paragons, both characters feel alive as well as noble. But even as the characters are respected, the more lavish and glitzy elements of the story are channeled as well; the dance at the ball is pure movie magic that gets me every time.
We saw in Maleficent the hesitance Disney had in placing a properly characterized villain in a lead role. Cinderella is a gold standard in updating a vintage villain correctly. There is no redemption for Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine, but at the same time there are moments of subtle sympathy for the character. The impeccably dressed Tremaine is defined by her ambition and cruelty, but equally her intellect.
Taking an old-fashioned fairy tale and populating it with strong characters, Cinderella is a platonic ideal of the Disney remake, respectful of the original but updated in enough respects that the 21st Century version has a life of its own.
Cue 2016’s Jungle Book. So how does the venerable animated original look today? The 1967 Jungle Book feels more like a loosey-goosey hangout movie than anything else. Laid back and virtually plotless, it’s sedately entertaining but struggles to cohere into a story. Its themes of man’s relation to nature are crippled by portraying most of the animal characters as oddly specific human caricatures, often out of swinging clubs or the British Raj occupying government of India; figures of white imperialism march in proximity to scat-singing jazz musicians.
Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book ditches the dated elements of the original to tell a straightforward adventure story with a precocious Mowgli traversing an actual plot, threatened by a vicious villain in Idris Elba’s Bengal tiger Shere Khan. This version, however, is first and foremost a technical marvel, using only the bare necessities of live-action elements in a lavish CGI production that as near as damn it convinces you it’s all happening for real.
With interesting themes of technology, an impressive ensemble cast playing the animals (the trio of villains are the best characters), and a believable jungle society that wasn’t there before, this Jungle Book improves on the original. And again, like Cinderella, it succeeds by using the original as a clear template and filling in the corners with innovation.
The Flavor of the Day
Which brings us to the tale of a boy and his dragon. In the 1977 Pete’s Dragon (distinct from the other originals discussed here because the dragon Elliott is the only animated element), the actors gurn and mug their way through a sub-Chitty Chitty Bang Bang musical which has its charms but is more weird than wonderful. The 2016 remake likewise features a boy named Pete and his pet dragon Elliott on the fringes of a small town, but otherwise there’s virtually no connection. Indeed, the remake represents a 180-degree about-face, as the over-the-top acting of the original is replaced by director David Lowery’s indie naturalism. The scatting, mumbling Elliott is replaced by a dignified furred dragon tailormade for plush merchandise. The pratfalling Mickey Rooney is outclassed by the wizened charms of Robert Redford.
Sonically, the off-off-Broadway musical numbers are ditched, but the original main theme’s rustic tenor is still appropriated in Daniel Hart’s score. (The only other link to the past is that the remake might’ve taken Elliott’s color-changing fur from an animation error in the original.) And the set-up of a boy and his pet dragon is raised to the level of high spectacle, as Hart’s indescribably soaring dragonriding theme scores Elliott’s triumphant flights.
The film isn’t trying to rock anyone’s world, but to tell a simple and emotional story. When it gets sentimental, it earns it. And when it just wants to get to the pure Disney magic of Elliott in flight, it’s flawless. (The ending, in particular, rates high on the “tears of joy” scale.) Pete’s Dragon represents an outlier in the world of Disney remakes. Like Alice and Maleficent, it absolutely distinguishes itself from what came before. But much more importantly, like Cinderella and The Jungle Book, it’s an upgrade in quality from the original and continues the studio’s winning streak.
Music as Metaphor
All five original films that have been remade are musicals. This is an interesting baseline because gradually more and more original songs are finding their way into these remakes. Alice in Wonderland uses none of the myriad throwaway songs from the original. Maleficent and Cinderella use the properties’ most iconic tunes only as end credits songs (From the former, “Once Upon a Dream” is hauntingly sung by Lana del Rey; From the latter, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Bippity Boppity Boo” are sung by the actors in character). The Jungle Book continues the end credits tradition, but for the first time includes (incomplete) versions of original songs in the movie proper, sung by the actors.
While Pete’s Dragon is an anomaly in this progression, the future holds plenty of interest for Disney music fans. The imminent Beauty and the Beast, plus recently announced remakes of The Little Mermaid and The Lion King (the latter directed by Jungle Book helmer Favreau), will take the plunge into being full-on musicals. And not only will they include the original songs, but also bring back original composers such as Alan Menken and enlist hot new talent like Lin-Manuel Miranda to develop more songs in the established style.
The gradual willingness to integrate more and more classic songs into Disney remakes is a narrative that runs parallel with the way these 21st Century reimaginings have increased in quality. As they practice fidelity to the originals balanced with modern and welcome twists on character and story, they also incorporate more and more of the original sonic landscapes that have charmed generations. Don’t reinvent the wheel (narratively tortured Wonderland, goody two-shoes Maleficent), but complement the source material with the benefit of intelligent storytelling. As long as Disney learns from what didn’t work in Alice and Maleficent, and keeps striking the healthy balance of respecting originals and original thinking in Cinderella and The Jungle Book, their remake hot streak will continue. And it doesn’t hurt to put in the songs we all know and love to whistle while the movies work.
This is a deep dive into the minutia of Harry Potter, so spoilers for the entire series follow.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 represents something extraordinary, as it sticks the landing for an eight-film saga of consistent quality. As the series aged up with its viewers, the stories became heavier and all-out war ravaged the wizarding world. But the way the concluding film provides a fantasy action climax is fascinating. It’s pyrotechnic, it’s sweeping, but it also relies heavily on silence or near-muted action carried by visual storytelling. Sometimes words are passed over in favor of powerful images, and the unfolding drama tends to be grand but not particularly loud. There are sequences of great volume, don’t get me wrong, but they are used as emphatic punctuation rather than the norm, and this dynamism creates a unique feeling for this finale.
The opening sets the tone; Severus Snape as the aloof headmaster, with Dementors hovering over the formerly friendly confines of Hogwarts – silence to convey a brooding atmosphere. The infiltration of Gringotts is loaded with pregnant pauses – silence used for conventional tension. After Harry Potter’s watery vision of the Horcruxes, cut to Voldemort, and the sound noticeably cuts out – silence to convey shock or desperation. The Quidditch pitch is immolated as a muted afterthought. This blink-and-you-miss-it image efficiently communicates that this the days of the relatively freewheeling earlier films are gone – silence as swift visual storytelling.
In a poignantly quiet moment, married couple Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks reach out to each other at the outset of the battle, but can’t quite reach each other – silence to convey longing. It’s only in total silence in the Room of Requirement that Harry can hear the insidious whisper of the diadem Horcrux – silence offering clarity. When Voldemort arrives at the courtyard with Harry’s “corpse” in tow, the oppressively muggy atmosphere makes it feels like something out of Braveheart – silence as dread. And after the first wave of battle is over, Harry and his friends find the dead and wounded in a softly wrenching scene, all the more effective for being underplayed. Silence to break our hearts.
Backtracking a bit, pay particular attention to the first scene in the Great Hall (that hollowed out and forbidding room which used to host Technicolor feasts). We start in quiet, as Snape ultra-methodically asks for information as to Harry’s movements. He makes two words, “equally guilty”, feel like a complete sentence in and of themselves. Harry steps out and monologues, revealing that Snape killed former headmaster Albus Dumbledore. In Minerva McGonagall’s best moment of the film (better than Piertotum Locomotor), she hears this and immediately, without saying a word, attacks Snape and drives him out of the Hall. Loyalty to Dumbledore doesn’t need to be explained. Cue triumphant music (the main fanfare of the series, in fact), and the Hall’s fires are lit… for about three seconds. If the students thought Snape’s words were intimidating, Voldemort’s will learn them. Silence, scream. Silence, scream. And then the Dark Lord speaks. In contrast to the silence that has come before, his words are physically harmful to the listeners. After he’s done, we’re back into more straightforward narrative momentum. It’s an utterly dynamic scene, but more of an eerie dark ride than a roller coaster. And it all relies on carefully modulated silence and the briefest diversions into conventional conversation.
A big reason why director David Yates and his team of sound mixers are free to get more experimental is their faith in composer Alexandre Desplat. Desplat’s score for the film is extraordinary, whether it’s the mournful “Lily’s Theme”, the painful pathos of “Severus and Lily”, or the way in “The Grey Lady” cue that he turns Helena Ravenclaw’s tossed-off line that Harry reminds her of Tom Riddle a bit into a sweeping and crucial moment.
But the crown jewel of Desplat’s sonic tapestry is his elegiac “Courtyard Apocalypse” cue, which weaves the Battle of Hogwarts into a bleakly cohesive whole. As the diegetic sound is nearly muted and this theme dominates the soundscape, entire character arcs are paid off just with visuals. Aberforth Dumbledore steps out of the shadows to join his brother’s war. As Fenrir Greyback is eating Lavender Brown’s lifeless body, it has to be Hermione Granger whose outrage protects the dignity of Lavender’s corpse, given their romantic rivalry in Half-Blood Prince. Part of what motivates some of the visual storytelling is the need for storytelling economy, but it’s a great example of necessity breeding invention.
It’s all the more striking that silence plays such a key role in the film, given that Steve Kloves’ screenplay must acrobatically jump through hoops to juggle three Deathly Hallows, the explanation of who has mastery over the Elder Wand, four Horcruxes, and four ways to destroy each Horcrux. This is not to mention the Prince’s Tale sequence, which must convey a huge amount of information all while putting the emotion of it first. There are so many McGuffins in play that the screenplay actually does get in a tangle of exposition with regard to the number of Horcruxes. Harry states, “The last one’s in the castle”, referring to the diadem. Then he says, “Nagini is the last Horcrux”. Then, of course, it turns out that Harry himself is the last one. But in the end this inconsistency is forgiven because of the artistry on display.
And what considerable artistry. The film would be striking enough just on a visual level, but as it caps an eight-film fantasy series, it takes an exhilaratingly unconventional approach to delivering a climax. Contemplative conversations are followed by long stretches without dialogue, with bursts of noise popping on screen all the more due to the build-up. The death of Voldemort plays out not with a bang, but as a silent unraveling. Transformers: Dark of the Moon was nominated for the Best Sound Mixing award at the 2012 Oscars, while Harry Potter was nowhere to be found… there are no words. At a crucial but low-key emotional moment toward the end of the film, Albus Dumbledore says that he believes “words are our most inexhaustible source of magic”. Indeed, but as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 shows us, true greatness can also be found in the magical spaces between words.
Ben-Hur has been brought to the silver screen four times. The 1959 version directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston has passed into cinematic legend, known for its lavish production and iconic chariot race (though elements of it were lifted from the 1925 silent film). Its massive Oscar night in 1960 (11 wins – an unmatched quantity until Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King both also won 11) and pop culture impact cast a long shadow over this 2016 remake. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (who helmed the genuinely good Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), the 2016 Ben-Hur has proved to be the biggest financial bomb of this summer movie season. This seems to be a film no one in particular was asking for, but as one of the relative few who did give it its day in entertainment court, I find it to be a competent epic peppered with moments of real grace and emotion.
In 33 A.D., Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and adoptive Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) are inseparable comrades in Jerusalem, even as Jewish “Zealot” forces start to fight back against Roman domination. But haunted by the sense that he’ll always be an outsider in Judah’s family, Messala enlists with the Roman army. When war hero Messala returns to Jerusalem with Pontius Pilate’s (Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbaek) legion, the Zealot cause and Judah’s family intersect with dire consequences. Under the watchful eye of Pilate, Messala must betray his former family, and as Messala’s star rises, the condemned Judah Ben-Hur swears revenge. But as Judah’s wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) comes to believe after following the teachings of the carpenter Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro), revenge is not the only way.
If you have never seen a version of Ben-Hur or read the novel, I think the plot of this film will be confusing to follow or, more importantly, tougher to care about. As I’ve seen the ’59 version I’m able to follow it clearly, but I also recognize how it could easily look opaque to those who haven’t. But that said, several huge changes from the revered 1950s film make a positive impression here. Judah and Messala are brothers as opposed to childhood friends, and their palpable bond is depicted as more intimate. Messala is not a cold villain, but a conflicted and sympathetic character, given a lot of narrative real estate within the runtime to establish his innate desire to do right alongside his considerable ambition. Toby Kebbell is key to this, bringing humanity to the role. In previous flawed movies such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Fantastic Four, Kebbell has a unique lone-wolf energy and proves to be a performer to watch.
He’s complemented by the more straightforward efforts of Jack Huston in the title role. Huston fits the role well but doesn’t stand out, and the same can be said of Morgan Freeman as the horse owner and chariot race gambler Sheik Ilderim. Interestingly, a Welsh actor named Hugh Griffith played this role in the ‘59 version… in blackface. Griffith actually won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, and the casting of Freeman is at least a step in the right direction. Freeman is largely in his standard mentor mold here – and induces a couple unintentional laughs due to his wig and his line in sports coaching – but there is the sense that he’s acting more than he might have had to, and that’s nice.
Bekmambetov’s default style of camera work can be a bit frustrating, when you’re trying to will him into steadying his shot from a theater seat months after filming was wrapped. But the handling of action here is quite interesting. Earlier this year, Bekmambetov produced the surprisingly fine-tuned Hardcore Henry, featuring feature-length GoPro-esque POV action. That approach finds its way into the 1st Century in Ben-Hur. The naval battle is reimagined with a you-are-there shooting style, which means claustrophobia as you’re stuck below decks with the slave rowers and no “cheating” with fancy exterior shots depicting the wide scope of battle. I can’t say it entirely works, but when the POV is used as an asset in the toolbox, as in the chariot race, that’s when it starts to pay off. The chariot race isn’t a tour de force, but it is an intense and weighty sequence, with CGI mayhem, practical effects, and quick POV sequences coming together to accomplish a thankless task – to follow up one of the most famous action sequences of all time. At the end of the day, the 2016 chariot race doesn’t embarrass itself.
The screenplay, by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, is hit and miss. On the one hand its streamlined structure and use of Messala work a charm, but on the other this is a story set in the 1st Century where characters say, “I’m good” and “Wow”. Sigh. But ultimately I have to give Clarke and Ridley a lot of credit for what they do with the ending. It takes all the pieces leading up to it, shuffles up events from the ’59 version, entirely changes others, and comes out the other side with a genuinely touching ending that blindsided me with how well it works. Love it.
So why don’t I love this version of Ben-Hur overall? It’s a bit hard to say, because while I look back in retrospect and remember all the good, there are enough dodgy plot elements and stylistic choices that drag the enterprise as a whole down a ways. Maybe it’s because for all the truly inspired elements (Messala, the ending) there is a general sense that the film’s main mode is generic sword-and-sandals epic. Every time I want to really endorse the film I’m hit with the word “generic” like sand in the face. Ben-Hur is a somewhat schematic historical epic, but with a good antihero in Messala, and a great ending. 6/10.
2015 was the year of the spy. No less than five major studio films operated in the high-stakes field of the spy-action genre: the subversive Kingsman: The Secret Service; the comedic Spy; the thrill ride Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; the 1960s throwback The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; and the latest installment in the venerable James Bond franchise, Spectre. (I’m not including Bridge of Spies, as my focus here is on the action side of spy stories.) So how does each take on the genre fare? And who will take pole position in this game of cinematic espionage? Spoilers for this quintet of movies follow, but after all the work of spies is to discover secrets…
Out of the five films, two pairs can be created based on the movies’ agendas relative to the genre and similar themes. This leaves an odd duck out, so let’s deal with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. first. A movie in passionate love with the idea of capturing 60s cool, U.N.C.L.E. is all flash and style with little substance. This wouldn’t be an issue, though, if it didn’t keep building up villains who turn out to be nothing-characters, or had the action chops to back up its sense of groovy fun. The film is a likable enough romp that gets by on the chemistry of its leading actors, but its slavish devotion to the tropes of the spy genre isn’t matched with the ingenuity to justify its swagger. This is spy movie as schematic, but dressed up in conspicuous fashion. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a fun time with good elements to recommend it, but it’s like gravy with no meal to put it on – and so it is not the best spy film of 2015.
The first pair we deal with balances love for the genre with the wits to amplify, undercut, and poke fun at it as well; both Kingsman and Spy play with the iconography of spy movies (and particularly Bond movies) in really cool ways. Co-writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman make sure Kingsman is doing a hell of a lot thematically. Just to scratch the surface: the posh and familiar title disguises a strident satire of class politics, presenting heads of state and the 1% as monstrous and selfish hypocrites. The titular agency uses codenames out of Knights of the Round Table, but this picture of British upper crust stateliness is revealed through Michael Caine’s “Arthur” character to go beyond elitism into true corruption. The working-class hoodlum Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is the one to see through the B.S. and save the organization from itself. As Eggsy emerges for the third act dressed in a bespoke suit, the film re-appropriates the idea of the gentleman spy as something open to all. As for the Bond nods, Kingsman takes several of the series’ standbys (the supervillain’s plan, the lethally equipped henchman, the idea of a sexual reward for Bond at the end) and dials them up to 11, lifting the veil from them. So as the film celebrates spy tradition, it also challenges it constantly. Kingsman: The Secret Service is thematically rich, imbued with bold comic book-y sensibilities, and bolstered by great action – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.
Writer-director Paul Feig’s Spy, meanwhile, takes the Bondian archetype and lampoons him in the form of Jude Law’s bumbling but lucky agent Bradley Fine. In this comedy, Melissa McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is a competent agent constantly underestimated and disrespected by her peers and supervisors because of her appearance and gender. The arc of the film brings the put-upon Susan into the field on a technicality, and as she saves the day in place of the gentleman spy parody Bradley Fine (not to mention in place of Jason Statham’s tough-as-nails action hero parody Rick Ford), the film deftly juggles the basics of the genre while having fun doing it. And from another angle, by championing Susan after the more conventionally attractive female agent (Morena Baccarin) has been revealed as traitorous, Spy once again subverts the genre, this time its desire to flaunt exotic and beautiful women. Spy is a solid action-comedy, showcasing Paul Feig’s reliable ability to both get laughs and craft memorable characters to deliver them – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.
And then there were two. They feature certain elements in common… a rogue shadowy organization creating international chaos, an effort on the part of the establishment to shutter the good guys’ antiquated intelligence agencies which forces the hero to go rogue to get the job done, and a crucial trip to Morocco. Spectre has a couple good setpieces and a handful of effective moments, but is crippled by major storytelling problems. An irrelevant personal connection between Bond (Daniel Craig) and the villain, a weak and uninspired finale, limp action sequences such as the remarkably boring car chase in Rome, an unconvincing romance, hollow piggybacking of plot points from previous films, and an M-defends-MI6-from-bureaucrats subplot recycled without passion from its much better treatment in the prior installment Skyfall. Spectre coasts on the James Bond name when it should be blazing its own trail, going through the motions despite being one of the most expensive films ever made – and it is not the best spy film of 2015.
I’ll tell you what is, though, and that’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Every element of this thing sings. (And in fact, my original review really didn’t give it the credit it deserves.) Clockwork plot and structure, consistently excellent action setpieces (go to the opera!), warm but brittle character dynamics amongst the IMF team, airtight control of tone and tension. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s pulpy epic feels like a perfectly pulled off mission in itself. And then there’s Ilsa Faust.
Played with precision by Rebecca Ferguson, Ilsa is the key to it all. When Ilsa is introduced and helps breaks Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of the Syndicate’s clutches, she feels like a plot device, a spy defined by McQuarrie’s scripted web of triple-crosses. But we later see that this scene comes wholeheartedly from character. Ilsa is a ruthlessly competent specialist, who also has this crazy idea that spies of allied countries have a responsibility toward each other. Her statuesque beauty paired with her matter-of-fact moral conviction makes Ilsa an incredibly magnetic character. In the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ilsa Faust surpasses Imperator Furiosa, Adonis Creed, Finn, and Rey as the breakout action hero of 2015.
It’s strange how things work out sometimes, as I would never have thought that the latest James Bond film, coming off the heels of the hypnotically great Skyfall, would be my least favorite spy movie of 2015. But even so, it fills a corner of the genre. Spectre is spy film as portentous drama. Kingsman: The Secret Service is spy film as anarchic statement. Spy is spy film as wacky satire. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is spy film as rosy-eyed throwback. And Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is spy film as immaculate time bomb. Light the fuse…
Oregon’s Laika has become the animation house to watch for family features a bit to the left of your Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks offerings. With darker visual textures in stop-motion wonders such as Coraline and The Boxtrolls, Laika has shown an interest in reflecting intense childhood fears on the silver screen, while also making room for a healthy amount of heart and humor. The studio’s latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, looks eastward for visual inspiration and comes out with a measured and beautiful adventure tale less gothic than previous films but with just as much invention and weighty family-friendly drama.
In ancient Japan, Kubo (Art Parkinson) tells stories for a community hungry for them, with help from his sickly mother. The stories concern the deeds of the great samurai Hanzo and his struggle against the enigmatic Moon King, but events conspire to sweep Kubo on an adventure very much like those in his heroic stories, though riddled with humbling danger and the highest of stakes. With help from matter-of-fact Monkey (Charlize Theron) and bumbling Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo must gather the scattered pieces of Hanzo’s armor and bring low the dreaded Moon King.
Stop-motion is one of the more inherently impressive filmmaking techniques, as it takes hours to produce one second of usable footage. But the form is particularly well utilized here. The character models (said to carry an unprecedented number of facial expressions for physical models) always convince, and the blend of in-camera animation and digital compositing is seamless. In addition, bright and dynamic colors light up the screen, and Kubo’s manipulation of origami for his stories makes for a whole other layer of beautiful animation… within a beautiful stop-motion animation. The overall effect is a stunning but lush visual cornucopia that is a privilege to see unfold on the big screen.
The character models convince, and the characters proper do as well. Kubo is caught in a fairly typical anointed-one narrative but his passion is always balanced with the fact that he’s still an immature child. Monkey’s dignified straight-woman role chafes against Beetle’s clumsy samurai errant, leading to some fun comic relief. But while the film can be playful this is a very mature production, culminating in a sweeping emotional gesture from Kubo to save the day.
But the true triumphs of character design and realization are the villains and monsters, which are across the board excellent. The monsters include what is purported to be the largest stop-motion model put to film, and implacable underwater nightmares. As for the villains, meet the magnificently creepy Sisters, sure to give a few unsuspecting children sleepless nights. And when the forces of good and evil clash, the results pop on the screen. Usually, stop-motion action is tough, often looking stylized to the point of stiltedness. Unlike in a live-action film, action can’t be cut together in the editing room; a stop-motion action sequence must be painstakingly and exactingly choreographed and programmed into motion control rigs. The team at Laika does an exemplary job, and so the action comes out fluid and engaging, with a fight on a ship claiming a spot as one of the fights of the year so far.
A few of the action sequences end a bit jarringly, however, and this gets to the most prominent flaw of the film. For a movie so very much about storytelling, there are reveals and twists that spring out of the narrative very abruptly. These are not derailing moments, but the suddenness is noticeable. Given that the passion for spinning a yarn comes out of every pore of the movie, it’s ironic that a few narrative elements feel rushed.
Kubo and the Two Strings doesn’t pull too many punches for a children’s movie, as in the opening minutes Kubo is revealed with his eye having just been ripped out, and the area still bloody. This unflinching maturity, paired with the relatively leisurely pace, marks out Kubo and other Laika films as sophisticated storytelling for families but also may alienate some younger audience members. However, the charms of the animation and strong character work should have more universal appeal. Kubo is an imperfectly told story, but is brought to life with wonderful animation and a great well of humanity. It boasts likable heroes doing battle against intimidating villains, very much a hallmark of the kinds of stories Kubo himself tells with a great boyish enthusiasm. And it’s the mildest of spoilers to say, but it’s been a while since the meaning of a title has been revealed so emotionally. A strong 8/10.
P.S.: Art Parkinson voices the lead in Kubo and the Two Strings. Isaac Hempstead-Wright voices the lead in Laika’s previous film, The Boxtrolls. Parkinson plays Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones, while Hempstead-Wright plays Bran Stark on that show. Laika’s working their way through a generation of Starks! Why not hire Maisie Williams for the next film and keep it going?
I’ve been waiting for a good film to bring the “villain-as-hero” concept to the world of mainstream blockbusters. Before Sony’s plans for a Spider-Man cinematic universe crumbled into dust, they had plans for a Sinister Six film, flipping the script to make the friendly neighborhood webslinger the villain. The potential of this provocative basic concept is why I was rooting for Disney’s Maleficent, and for Suicide Squad. Both have disappointed. Suicide Squad is crippled by weak structure, terrible villains for the leading villains to fight, toothless action, and not so much a bad story as a non-story… even as it houses a few strong performances and at times feels like it’s being held together by actors’ charisma and Scotch tape.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has an idea: to create a “dirty dozen” unit of supervillains as a deniable asset for the government. Hence the titular Squad: The infamous hitman Floyd Lawton/Deadshot (Will Smith); the Joker’s (Jared Leto) moll Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie); repentant pyromaniac Chato Santana/El Diablo (Jay Hernandez); grubby thief Digger Harkness/Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney); and human reptile Waylon Jones/Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Waller assigns Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to wrangle the Squad, but when June Moone/Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) tries to restore an ancient empire on earth, the Squad gains a world-saving purpose.
The most prominent quality in the movie is a trio of standout performances. Margot Robbie kills it as Harley Quinn, bringing layers to a character that desperately needs it, as the movie itself seems to fetishize her. (A flashback sequence in a club is probably the worst scene in the film; the bit with Harley on the car, and Robbie’s reading of the simple line “Bullshit”, are among the best moments of the film.) Will Smith uses a great modulation of his natural charisma for the character of Deadshot, and his flashback scenes are definite highlights of the movie. But best of all is Suicide Squad’s own God and Devil, Amanda Waller. I love this character. No one can give a dry line reading like Viola Davis, and as it turns out, Waller belongs here because she’s a villain among villains. Granted, a couple of the character’s actions make her look really incompetent – she only unleashes the very threat that the Squad must overcome and then inadvertently makes it worse – but Davis is so good in the role that it’s all but forgotten.
Writer-director David Ayer made one of the best war films of the 21st Century in Fury, which relies heavily on the chemistry of its tank crew. Similarly, in the precious moments when the Squad members just settle down and shoot the shit, the movie starts to work. And when the villain-as-hero aspect comes into play with the Squad hatching schemes as an aside before slowly coming to the light, that’s good stuff as well. The problem with the Squad itself is that while one or two characters bring spice to the table, there’s little to no sense of why Ayer has brought these particular characters together. Individual members’ power sets are barely utilized, and shockingly little teamwork plays into the finale. With characters like Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc, it feels like the movie thinks they’re crowd-pleasing scene stealers, when in practice they are respectively an underused Aussie caricature who throws two boomerangs in the entire film (not to mention whose schtick was beaten to the punch by Deadpool), and a reptile-man who mostly stands in the background of scenes and grunts. So even though the actors have all shown up to play, the title Squad is a mixed bag at best.
The film is a structural nightmare. After the characters are established in a flurry of flashbacks, we cut out the second act and go straight to the third-act setting. This imbalance feels really lazy; not to give the game away, but the present-day plot takes place in one steakhouse, one briefing room, one prison, and one nondescript abandoned city. No, I’m not leaving anything out. The plot draws a straight line between setup and resolution with precious little of the and thens or but sos that make up an engaging narrative. It’s one thing to forego a three-act structure if you’re Tarkovsky or Fellini, but when you’re a summer blockbuster it really is a prerequisite.
The decision to jam a bunch of flashbacks at the outset isn’t bad in and of itself, but it leads to some problems. The two central romances of the film (Harley/Joker, Flag/June) are artificially handwaved into existence in flashback and never begin to convince. Also, the in-your-face editing style can be an annoyance. Several times in these scenes, the Joker gets freakier than usual, and the entire frame convulses in purple and green. That’s not how you shoot the Joker; we’re meant to be trapped with an insane live wire, deprived of the escape of trigger-happy music video editing. On a big picture level, the spine of the plot gives very vague reasoning as to why the Squad is assembled, until a threat comes from within and suddenly the Squad has to take down a generic villain. So the plot plods along with no point, until there is a point, and it’s terribly embarrassing. (More on that later.)
It’s come out that the studio hired Trailer Park, who had worked on the film’s trailers, to cut an alternate edit of the film. Whether their work is reflected on screen or not, it feels like it is. Suicide Squad feels more like a sizzle reel than a movie. One aspect of this is the attempt to make Suicide Squad a jukebox movie, in the wake of Guardians of the Galaxy. I wouldn’t normally namecheck that movie, but this film actually uses “Spirit in the Sky”, a song from Guardians of the Galaxy! The excessive use of licensed songs, again, isn’t inherently bad, but the songs feel so obviously tacked-on late in the edit, as they don’t seem to have any synergy with the moving pictures they soundtrack. And there are just so many – there are four in the first seven minutes of runtime! Overall, DC just keeps finding new ways to make poorly structured movies. I long for the days of awkwardly placed Clark Kent flashbacks in Man of Steel.
The film’s setup demands that the supervillains of the Squad must face a villain of their own, and the choice of Enchantress and her brother Incubus seriously hobbles the movie. The use of a magical villain opens the doors for fights against indistinct foot soldiers, overstretched CGI, and a total mismatch with the Squad’s power levels. Imagine all the missions the Squad could be sent on: a perilous heist, a Seven Samurai-type defensive gig, an assassination. But in their place, the film climaxes in a visually overexposed battle with an embarrassing Cara Delevigne, and Incubus, who looks like nothing so much as the Gods of Egypt version of The Destroyer from Thor.
Which brings us to the other uber-villain of the picture. I know it sounds counterintuitive given that this is the best-known villain character in the movie, but I don’t think the Joker should have even been in the film. He has such an incredibly trivial impact on the story that he just becomes an annoying sideshow. Plus there’s Jared Leto’s characterization, as the actor is trying so hard but coming up with so little. Taking cues more from a frat bro Instagram gangster than from the unpredictable Clown Prince of Crime, this Joker is a miss. This is what Leto went full method for?
I’d give Suicide Squad more credit if it felt like a movie. A movie with an appreciable structure, that flows as an unfolding story. But as it is, it holds a smattering of quite good elements, lost at sea among editing snafus, action with no edge, songs used as transparent shortcuts, and storytelling gaffes. A trio of solid performances (Robbie, Smith, Davis) is matched by a trio of embarrassing villains (Joker, Enchantress, Incubus). And Suicide Squad ends up fouling up the good will it begins to create. 3/10.
P.S.: Brilliant use of Batman’s “Beautiful Lie” musical theme from Batman v Superman in the alley scene. And there’s something thrilling about hearing Batman utter the line, “It’s over, Deadshot”. Somehow it’s like a pure comic book-y injection.
2016 is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. This puts the onus on Star Trek Beyond to be something more than an entertaining ride, and as it turns out, Beyond gives the franchise a big wet kiss for a birthday present. The film feels very Star Trek-ky, like a story of the original 1960s show on steroids. It’s a dizzying action bonanza, it’s a meaningful tale of ideals being lost and found in space, and it’s surprisingly engaged with what Star Trek means. While still flawed, Beyond has charm to spare, delivering as both a blockbuster and a subtly nerdy filibuster on what the franchise represents.
In the 23rd Century, the USS Enterprise is more than halfway through its five-year mission of exploration and diplomacy. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) feels the ennui of life in deep space, while first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) receives some disheartening news. A distress signal to the Federation’s advanced starbase Yorktown leads the Enterprise into a deadly trap, engineered by the primal Krall (Idris Elba). With the crew grounded on an alien planet, can Kirk and company save them? And can communications officer Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) unravel the mystery of Krall?
Perhaps the greatest strength of this current sequence of films is the cast, admirably filling the shoes of venerated actors who originated the roles. Beyond pulls off a nice trick, being much more of an ensemble movie than its two predecessors. Whereas before laser focus was on Kirk and Spock, here every main character gets at least a couple moments to shine. Screenwriters Simon Pegg (also starring, as engineer Scotty) and Doug Jung facilitate this by splitting up the cast into pairs and letting the characters play off each other. So a contemplative Kirk mentors young ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin, tragically no longer with us); Scotty bonds with resourceful alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, endearing); Uhura and Sulu (John Cho) learn what the villains are about; and best of all, Spock and sawbones Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban, always the MVP) balance their delightful verbal sparring with a lot of heart.
So checking in with the heroes is a lot of fun. But also, the screenplay is not afraid to pepper wonderfully moral and dorky Star Trek goodness throughout. There’s something really cool about hearing the heroes of a massive action tentpole dole out fortune cookie wisdom about unity, peace, humanism, and the importance of diplomacy. And when these characters have been established as relatable and endearing, this stuff is even more important, because it’s aspirational. By starring relatable characters living in an enlightened time, Star Trek is saying that the future of humanity is brighter, and presents this as a matter of fact.
The technology on display factors into this as well. The Yorktown is a great location, an M.C. Escher painting of a starbase, where gravity bends to the architecture. But just by being there and being so impressive, the base symbolizes how far humanity can go when united. Fittingly, the approach to Yorktown is the most spectacular sequence in the film. With jaw-dropping SF visuals and Michael Giacchino’s truly lovely score, it’s really something.
But of course, the Federation’s idealism is challenged by Krall. The problem with Krall is that he’s better in concept than in execution. A foil for the utopian Federation who believes that only struggle and chaos breed progress, he creates a twisted parody of the Federation by bringing down ships from different cultures and feeding on diverse species for his own personal gains. The idea is there, but it’s not more than half-cooked in the movie proper. (Krall’s character does take an essential turn, but I can’t say more about that twist without boldly going into spoilers. See the P.S.) Krall isn’t a total loss of a character; but what we have on screen for most of the runtime is a handicapped Idris Elba, feral and growling, looking for MacGuffin #14 to make generic superweapon #82 to enact stock villainous plan #47.
No one said that stopping the stock villainous plan couldn’t look good, though. Director Justin Lin goes above and beyond crafting the action, spinning the camera on its axis and defying gravity with great energy. A particular highlight is the harrowing, if slightly overlong, attack on the Enterprise sequence. (In my first viewing I sometimes lost the geography of these dynamic scenes, but a second go-round rendered them more coherent.) Because Lin had come off directing four Fast and Furious spectacles, his hiring was a subject of a lot of snark and sarcasm. But what’s lost in these discussions is that the true draw of that freewheeling franchise is not the surface stuff, but the teamwork of people who love each other. And that’s very Star Trek.
Beyond exudes a constant love of Star Trek, from an understanding of its tropes to numerous easter eggs for fans. A few favorites: When Kirk fights Krall, the music resembles Fred Steiner’s (in)famous fight music from the original series. The Yorktown was the name of the Enterprise in Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek treatment. There are explicit references to the era of the underseen Enterprise TV series. And the approach to Yorktown reminds me of the absurdly long, lingering and loving approach to the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, just more narratively economical.
The humor is also on point throughout, which is no surprise considering co-writer Simon Pegg’s previous credits on extraordinary dramedies like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and TV sitcom Spaced. Much of the entertainment value here just comes from seeing the ensemble play off each other, with McCoy and Spock in particular spinning earnestness into comedy gold. The character work and action are on form, supported by a big heart. And even as an element like Krall and his faceless swarm is rough around the edges, the way Beyond gets the Star Trek of it so very right is nothing (for Keenser) to sneeze at. A weak 9/10.
P.S.: *TO EXPLORE STRANGE NEW SPOILERS*
The Balthazar Edison twist is absolutely in keeping with the tropes of the original show, where several starship captains went native and insane. (See “Patterns of Force”, “The Omega Glory”, “Bread and Circuses”, and “Whom Gods Destroy”.) So when Kirk is fighting Edison he’s fighting us, the aggressive and tribalistic human nature that the Federation has risen above. Speaking of that scene and its meta-conflict, “That’s what I was born into” gives me chills and may go on to become an iconic Star Trek quote. I love that this message of idealism is the Trek equivalent of an action movie one-liner.
Meanwhile, following the death of Leonard Nimoy’s Ambassador Spock, Zachary Quinto’s Spock considers quitting Starfleet and picking up where the elder Spock left off. And the young Spock finds in the Ambassador’s possessions the cast photo from Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier. So it’s the very idea of Star Trek, and the community of that original group of characters, that convinces Spock to continue in Starfleet. Fascinating.
There’s a bit where Scotty says that he didn’t want to beam Spock and McCoy up at the same time, for fear of “splicing” the two. Trek fans know that splicing the two would result in someone resembling one James T. Kirk.
And finally, the twin dedication to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin is poignant. Especially when Kirk’s “To absent friends” toast cuts right to a shot with Chekov. To the stars they return.
2000’s X-Men is an important film. While Blade creaked the comic book movie door ajar, X-Men blew it off its hinges. A great financial success at the time, it directly led to greenlights for Spider-Man, Hulk, and Daredevil, and generally signaled a new era for the superhero film. (The next paradigm shift: Batman Begins.) Additionally, the franchise that grew out of the original film can boast incredible longevity – the multiplex-ruling Marvel Cinematic Universe has only been around half as long. From 2000 to 2016, the X-franchise is still going strong (-ish), with the same continuity (-ish). Of course, the timeline is tortured within an inch of its life to accommodate this, but that doesn’t invalidate it – no true reboot has wiped the slate clean. And with X-Men: Apocalypse currently wandering its way out of theaters, we can look back on the film that started it all. Much and more came from X-Men, but what’s the deal with it? Does it hold up? Is it special in itself, beyond its place in film history?
The X Factor: A Comic Book Film About Something
I think X-Men is special, because this is a superhero movie with ideas, fully aware of the potential social commentary inherent in its source material. It paints simplistically, in broad strokes, but elegantly. It feels small-scale but full-bodied, and it takes storytelling risks. I mean, the damn thing opens on a concentration camp. The main characters being mutants, discriminated against by “normal” people, gives the screenplay the opportunity to use this as a catchall allegory. Any feared or shunned group of people can find familiar themes at work in the world of the film. No doubt the concept spoke to director Bryan Singer, who is openly gay.
The opening fifteen minutes or so is a dizzying tour of everything that works about the film. We open on the villain’s backstory as a Jew separated from his parents in a Nazi death camp, establishing Erik Lensherr/Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) motivation. Then, straight into Marie/Rogue (Anna Paquin) traumatically discovering her power – it’s hard puberty imagery, adding another layer to the film’s relatability. Next comes the Senate committee scene, giving a potted sociopolitical overview of the stigma around mutants. And as the cherry on top, we proceed to a dynamite scene between Erik and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) commenting on humanity, flaunting the incredible acting talent on hand. This is all in the opening salvo of the film! It’s a great statement of purpose.
This desire for meaningfulness is not forgotten afterward, as the finale takes place on Ellis and Liberty Islands in New York, these loaded symbols of the immigrant experience. Speaking of loaded images, a young mutant walks on water with his power. And another fun and unique thing is that the X-Men superheroes themselves are professors. There’s a great moment when their X-Jet takes off from the school and the students look up in awe. Give Ms. Grey an apple.
The People Behind the Powers
So the overall scheme of the film is unique and meaningful, but your X-Men movie also needs some X-Men, so let’s talk characters. The duo of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue provide an excellent outsider’s view of the X-Men and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Logan’s more feral side is contrasted well by his tender elder-brother-like relationship with Rogue, and their relationship is central to the arc of the film. And Logan’s adamantium claws are a cool power and all, but they are brought down to earth and a human level when he says as an aside that every time they come out, they hurt.
That idea is mirrored in Erik’s eeeevil plan, as his use of the mutant-creating device hurts him terribly. The strength of his convictions outweighs his regard for personal safety. Ian McKellen’s characterization instantly makes Erik an all-timer comic book movie villain, and his antagonistic yet respectful relationship with Charles is the entire franchise’s not-so-secret weapon. Each of the three scenes the two share in this film are brilliant, leaving the audience wanting more. The first posits the two as aloof observers of humanity, Erik the cynic and Charles the optimist. (In a different Marvel universe, this exact dynamic plays out in the brief gem of an exchange between Ultron and the Vision.) Their second scene is the train station showdown, a compelling setpiece where the two generals are buffeted by a force of cops, with a complicated human argument at its core. And the third scene is iconic, two old rivals sharply musing over a game of chess.
But not everyone in the cast is given attention. The weak link is ironically the main X-Men trio of Scott Summers/Cyclops (James Marsden), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Halle Berry), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Scott… is a plank of wood. And he refers to himself as “a boy like me”? What? Ororo doesn’t have an accent, until she does, more than halfway through the film. Jean’s “romance” with Scott is downplayed to make room for a forced attraction with Logan. So it’s not a great showing for the flagship X-Men. A shame, because most of the characters work a charm.
Is there a Script Doctor in the House?
Most fans of Joss Whedon know that he was brought in to punch up the third act of X-Men, that he went above and beyond the call of duty with a complete pass on the screenplay, and that only a few of those beats were retained in the finished film. And let me tell you, those Whedon-y lines stick out like sore thumbs. “This certainly is a big, round room.” “You’re a dick.” But of course, the most infamous is Storm’s one-liner, “You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.” Halle Berry spectacularly misread the line, proclaiming it grandly rather than throwing it away. This sounds silly, but if I could change one thing about the film, that might be it.
There’s a lot of silly stuff in X-Men. While some of the action has a low-budget elegance to it (especially the way the powers flow into each other in the train station fight), other elements haven’t aged well – blobby Y2K CGI, for one. But other things just need to be preserved as weird little, did-you-see-that moments: The way Toad’s super-jump just crushes a dude into a puddle of mush on the ground! The adamantium middle finger! The look on Logan’s face as he rides Scott’s motorcycle! Mystique morphing from Bobby to her natural state, lingering on a hybrid of the two! Ray Park as Toad referencing his role as Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace! The takeaway is that while X-Men is dealing with weighty themes, it’s also a movie where Toad can spit dumb Nickelodeon green gunk at Jean Grey.
Drawing a Line to the Apocalypse
The original film’s Cerebro sequence is still a great effect, prefiguring the IMAX theaters that are showing 2016’s X-Men Apocalypse today. The latest X-offering is at once an inert and busy film, and one thing it’s juggling is putting a bow on the entire franchise. As such, the original X-Men is explicitly referenced several times (the concentration camp, the mutant cage fight, Charles’ baldness explained just like Rogue’s white streak was, a direct quotation of the “great swell of pity” exchange). And looking back on the original with the knowledge of eight subsequent movies yields enough inconsistencies to fill a whole other essay (that Mystique voice modulator!).
But most of all, reflecting on the first X-Men solidifies its status as not just a prelude of better things to come, but as quite a strong movie in its own right. After seeing the franchise move the Golden Gate Bridge, travel decades in time, and resurrect an Egyptian god, it’s refreshing to rewind to this one humble tale of “the not too distant future”. The 2000 film has a great lo-fi charm to it, while at the same time being lent gravitas by McKellen and Stewart’s war of wills. It holds up not just as a curiosity, but also as a well-told story of mutants and morals.
There has never been a superhero movie like Captain America: Civil War. Weighty character drama, politics, gritty action, comic-booky action, and humor are all pushed to the limit and brought into harmony. The film contains a moment that might be the funniest in a Marvel movie, alongside the most gut-wrenching drama. It can do both, folks. Characters who have been around forever in this cinematic universe have emotional stories, while two important new heroes are debuted. How does this movie even function? That Civil War works at all is impressive. That it works this well is incredible.
After an Avengers mission in Nigeria results in 26 civilian casualties, the superheroes are brought up to speed on the Sokovia Accords, a United Nations document bringing the Avengers under bureaucratic oversight from a UN panel. The heroes are split on the issue. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of any measure to legitimize Avengers operations, both for professional accountability and personal guilt. But Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) would rather cut through the bureaucracy to ensure that the Avengers can always go where they deem themselves most needed. Both are trying to save lives and serve the greater good, in their own way. But their disagreement over the Accords, as well as Steve’s need to protect formerly brainwashed best friend Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) from the arrest Tony and the UN know is rightful, ends up drawing battle lines. Tony and Steve each find support from five allies, and the stage is set for catastrophe. And all the while, the unassuming Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) has his own mysterious agenda.
What grounds the central battle of wills is that both Steve and Tony are right, and both are wrong. That makes it the most satisfying kind of heroic conflict, because both perspectives are aired throughout the film in smart conversations and through their actions. The actors are up to the challenge, as Evans plays respectful defiance really well, while Downey Jr. is like an exposed nerve, so open and vulnerable. It all explodes in a notably contained (not necessarily restrained) climax featuring the marquee fight between Captain America and Iron Man. But the thing is, during this title bout, we are internally begging Steve and Tony to just – stop – fighting. Our emotional investment in the characters in some way eclipses the obligation for an action-packed finale. It’s character before blind reliance on cool spectacle. And that, in microcosm, is why the Marvel Cinematic Universe works.
A big reason why Civil War is so successful as drama is that the huge ensemble is humanized and many have their own character arcs. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) faces the consequences of the Nigerian disaster, which she feels is her fault, and must come to terms with the power inside her that she doesn’t understand. The Vision (Paul Bettany) begins to explore his own “humanity”, but might not be thrilled that he did. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) brings in an everyman perspective. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) plays diplomat and constantly tries to prevent violence between the factions, using her skills of manipulation from a genuine emotional place. So all these established characters are served, while two new heroes complement the story without overshadowing it.
Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is not shoehorned into the proceedings. He’s presented as the uncompromised vigilante. When Tony looks at him it’s like he’s seeing a glimmer of where Steve Rogers came from, and the nobility that still defines him. Tony’s desire for conciliation with Steve makes Tony’s relationship with Peter, and the movie’s use of the web-slinger, more integral to the story than a because-we-can cameo. In a movie that throws around big concepts like UN oversight and accountability, Peter’s inclusion is a show-don’t-tell reflection of what a superhero is at the core, and his streetwise perspective grounds the larger-than-life conflict.
If Spider-Man’s is well done, then the introduction of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is perfect. Everything about his role in the film impresses. Boseman brings a quiet gravity to his scenes, his Black Panther costume is one of the best comic book translations on screen, his fighting style is instantly distinctive, and most important of all, his character arc cuts right to the heart of Civil War’s thematic core. What is one’s duty to family? To friends? Can the cycle of revenge and trauma be broken? Where does a superhero’s responsibility to the world conflict with other agendas? Civil War’s mature screenplay asks these questions, with the film being nonetheless appropriate for kids who just want to see well-drawn heroes in entertaining fights. It’s a balancing act that other contemporary superhero movies bungle.
The villainous side of things is a rewarding slow-burn mystery story, of all things. Daniel Brühl does great work as Zemo, giving a disturbing portrait of the kind of person who can present a genial face in public, while building a bomb in the closet. Zemo is a very singular kind of comic book villain, defined by subtlety, intelligence, and persistence. Has anyone noticed that previous Marvel villains Alexander Pierce, Ultron, and Loki (in The Avengers) all have the same motivation? They rail against the chaos and infighting among humans, and set out to bring order on a global scale – ending war with a violent cleansing that the heroes must stop by blowing stuff up real good. There is no such bluster in the ending of Civil War, as an intimacy of setting and stakes reap a lot of dramatic rewards. The way Zemo interacts with the story as a whole, and the finale in particular, quells any fear that he’s one antagonist too many in a busy movie, as his subtle machinations and shadowy menace complement the themes of the film very nicely.
At the end of the day, while Captain America: Civil War has a lot going on under the surface, it’s still a seriously kick-ass action flick. The four action scenes in the film escalate in meaningfulness, until the finale goes for the emotional punches by way of actual punches. But the crown jewel action centerpiece is the airport sequence, half-cartoonish, half-intense, and all incredible. It’s like a twenty-minute comic book come to life, but one informed by the very specific characterization and precision-strike humor we’ve come to expect. Dizzying choreography, dynamic pacing, and well-judged match-ups make for an absolutely spectacular showdown. While not everyone gets a big show-stopping moment, each of the twelve heroes contributes to a sequence that will go down as an all-timer in the comic book movie canon.
A small detail I pick up on is that the film takes potential weaknesses and turns them into strengths. The less significant example is that the physical resemblance between Bucky and Zemo (potentially confusing for general audiences) impacts the plot at one point. The more significant is that Bucky wonders aloud if he is worth all the trouble his presence causes. Now, of course he’s worth it to Steve and that’s the whole point, but the line plays with the fairly bare bones way his connection to Steve played out in the first Captain America movie. Civil War’s depiction of Bucky, brought to life with broken dignity and wounded charisma by Sebastian Stan, retroactively makes his setup in previous films better by association.
On the subject of negatives, the most I can come up with is a subjective one. A lot of the setup for the film is predicated on the “downer” reality check of civilian casualties of previous Marvel movies, particularly Avengers: Age of Ultron. There’s something a little dramatically convenient and obvious about this, like being lectured after eating a cake about how many carbs are now up to no good in your body. (It’s an interesting choice because the whole point of Ultron‘s ending is to reconcile Avengers and civilians.) But the way the theme is actually implemented in the film works a charm and adds to the complexity of the story.
There are many ways Civil War is unique among superhero movies, and its ending is no exception. If it’s not a spoiler to say that Civil War is smart, then it’s not a spoiler to say that the ending is not pat and wrapped up in an artificial bow. The emotional wounds have not been healed, the ideological conflicts of the film have not been resolved, and the film leaves the story in a rich place for other stories in this universe to pick up on. Captain America: Civil War is a globe hopping, down-to-earth political thriller, which is also a character-driven drama, which is also a superhero extravaganza with effective incidental humor, and which also contains an all-timer comic book action scene. What other movie can claim this? What other movie can claim this and be this good? 10/10.
The live-action remake that’s been called one of the most technologically advanced movies of all time is here. Disney has gone back to the well of their offbeat 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book, and given it new life as a technical marvel on a similar level to Avatar or Life of Pi. With only the bare necessities of live-action elements (Neel Sethi as lone man-cub in the jungle Mowgli; a bit of dirt; a few excellent tufts of grass), The Jungle Book as directed by Jon Favreau impresses consistently and immersively with its visual effects. But ironically, the secret to this remake’s success is the humanity it finds in unlikely places, and once the nostalgia goggles come off and the 3D glasses come on, 2016 has delivered a better Jungle Book than 1967.
Mowgli is a man-cub raised by a stately wolfpack, watched over by the wise Black Panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). But the formidable Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) cannot abide a human in the jungle and vows to put Mowgli in his rightful place: the tiger’s belly. Charged to find refuge at the nearby man-village, Mowgli makes his way there, on the way encountering characters like the hypnotic snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the affable bear Baloo (Bill Murray), and the imperious Gigantopithecus King Louis (Christopher Walken). But on the journey, what kind of man will Mowgli become?
The basic bones of the story are familiar, but it is the adjustments to that story (relative to Disney’s own animated version) that make this a dynamic retelling. There are weighty themes of technology (called “tricks” in the jungle), and what it means for a human capable of that level of potentially dangerous creativity to live among animals. The concern for the jungle as a viable society is reflected by the incorporation of the Law of the Jungle, and other cultural practices such as the species-crossing water truce when a seasonal watering hole opens for all predators and prey alike to feed upon. These themes help to make the jungle feel like an ecosystem and a society; it’s good world-building. And of course that jungle is gorgeous to look at, made even more impressive by the fact that it’s almost entirely digital. The VFX artistry is overwhelming, but there’s not much more to say about it beyond variations of “wow”.
So let’s turn attention to the animal characters. A great paradox of the 1967 film is that it tries to sell a divide between the human Mowgli, and the jungle… while portraying half the animals as all-too-specific human caricatures. The elephants were la-di-da officers, God save the King and all that, representing the British Raj occupying government in India; the vultures were modeled on the Beatles; King Louis was a scat-singing jazz musician; and Baloo was a laidback swinger. The tagline? “The jungle is jumpin’”. It’s funny, then, that the characters of this Jungle Book are more human than the human spoofs. Bagheera is a philosopher, and fierce when he needs to be, not just an inflexible caretaker. Baloo is a con man with a heart of gold, and when he takes a brave heroic action late in the film it hits that much more because of this characterization. Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) is an active presence resisting Shere Khan’s tyranny. The elephants’ overhaul is particularly noteworthy. They are recapitulated as the closest thing to gods in the jungle, but not because they represent white imperialism as they did before. They do not speak; they are majestic, inextricably tied with nature, and their military drilling song from the animated movie would be absolutely incompatible with this interpretation. (Speaking of music, this film is no pure musical, but I’ll say that fans of the music won’t be disappointed – and stay through the credits!)
The characters who really steal the show for me are the trio of villains. Scarlett Johansson excels in a creepy, all-too-brief appearance as Kaa. Idris Elba’s eloquent snarl fits Shere Khan like a glove. The tiger becomes a great villain almost just by force of personality, as it would take a couple more Shere Khan scenes to really lock in his character motivation. Elba’s vocal performance is so mesmeric that he overpowers any deficiencies in the writing.
But my favorite character is Christopher Walken’s King Louis, radiating both mirth and menace. Louis wants Mowgli’s technological tricks to dominate the jungle, and the threat in Walken’s performance gives an extra layer to his delightful rendition of “I Wan’na be Like You” (now stripped of the uncomfortable racial coding it carried in the animated version). Louis’ desire to gain the power that humans possess is reflected in his residence in the ruins of a Hindu temple. This makes him a great foil for Mowgli, as the youth must find his own definition of manhood. In general, holding court with King Louis, and the entire sequence at his temple, is the highlight of The Jungle Book in my eyes.
So at last we come to Mowgli, the man-cub everyone’s making such a big fuss about. While Neel Sethi has a lot of charisma to carry such an abstract performance surrounded by green screens, that doesn’t negate a few… odd acting moments of his. He’s trying his damnedest with little to bounce off of, so I understand, but suffice to say Sethi’s Mowgli isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite character. He’s someone that things happen to, the viewpoint character who’s essential to the cast dynamic but not much more. When given lines like “Are you kidding me?” and “Seriously?”, the feral child isn’t all that feral.
While the film makes strong structural changes when it comes to the succession of incidents surrounding Mowgli, it doesn’t fully escape the episodic nature of the previous 1967 version. A few scenes still feel a bit disjointed from the whole, and the tonal shift with the introduction of Baloo is a sharp one. Indeed, a lot of what’s awkward about this Jungle Book is the line it walks between heavy dramatics and callbacks to the insouciant animated version. This manifests in a few ways. For one example: The action is commendably visceral without being inappropriately violent, but there is one fight scene at the climax that is lit very poorly in an apparent attempt to obscure the implication of gore, and to draw the line at a PG rating. I understand the need for compromise, but the scene would have benefited by commitment in either direction.
Getting back to technical matters, the artificial cinematography by Bill Pope is ravishing, many tableaus of simulated nature being worthy of being framed on someone’s wall. And composer John Debney delivers a really solid score, turning from darkly loungey (the opening Jungle theme and Kaa’s theme) to lushly gorgeous (the destined-for-repeat-plays Law of the Jungle theme) to instilling a sense of awe (the elephant theme) to percussively dangerous (Shere Khan’s theme).
Jon Favreau has overseen an efficient, beautiful to look at, thematically interesting Jungle Book populated by memorable versions of vintage characters. The changes from Disney’s previous incarnation of the story are of particular fascination, in fact so much so that I didn’t always discuss the film as standing on its own. (And look out for a very different ending in this version.) But on its own, 2016’s Jungle Book is a stunning virtual creation. This is a film I quite like, but taken with last year’s Cinderella, which I love, hopefully Disney’s live-action remake winning streak can continue. A weak 8/10.
P.S.: *MILD SPOILERS* What’s going on with the Lion King influence? Shere Khan is not only given a facial scar, he takes over the wolves’ territory similar to how Scar took over Pride Rock during Simba’s exile. Shere Khan’s death falling into the fire is visually akin to Mufasa’s. There’s a herd scene reminiscent of the one from The Lion King. And by making Baloo a con artist who advises the young hero to relax and wait for the bare necessities, he resembles Timon.