Perhaps as soon as two years from now, China will surpass the United States as the biggest, most lucrative film market in the world. This is happening. And as it does, movies produced in the spirit of something like Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall will become more common. So what appears to be an easily dismissed monster flick actually stands on the vanguard of a new globalist film industry. It’s entering uncharted territory, being the first Hollywood-sourced film produced in China. Put in other terms, this is a truly collaborative production – Universal provides most of the funding, the marquee movie star Matt Damon, a couple other supporting cast members, and part of the crew; China provides the director, most of the cast, the filming locations, and the rest of the crew. And at a cool $150 million, The Great Wall is also the most expensive movie ever made in China. So given the overwhelming context swirling around, what does this landmark international cooperation have to offer?
In the 11th Century, mercenary soldiers William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) find their way to northern China in search of the “black powder” (gunpowder), with the intent to take the substance west and sell to the highest bidder. But they are caught up in a mythical war between China’s watchers on the Great Wall called the Nameless Order, and the monsters they repel, the gargoyle-esque Tao Tei. With Commander Lin Mei (Jing Tian) forbidding the vagabonds from journeying back to the west, William and Pero must decide between following their desire for riches or taking up a new cause.
Unsurprisingly, the backbone of the drama comes not only from the sickly green hell-beasts barreling down on the Wall, but also from the culture clash between the Nameless Order and the western outsiders. Excepting a couple throwaway characters confined to the first ten minutes, there are only three non-Chinese characters, so few that they become avatars. They clearly stand out; as the Order moves like a single organism, western characters long for the black powder (reminiscent of the euphemistic “red flower” from The Jungle Book), and must be humbled by the selfless unity of the Order. There’s no balance to this portrayal. One westerner inevitably screws the other over for personal gain. When that character is blown up by the very gunpowder he intended to hawk, it doesn’t feel so much like a person has died, but rather a stand-in for capitalism.
Unlike every other western character in the film, our hero William quickly comes around to the cause of slaughtering monsters. Contrary to appearances, Matt Damon’s character is not so much the white savior of China as he is the white convert to Chinese communism. And why wouldn’t he be? The thousands-strong Order’s competence and unflinching loyalty is contrasted with two lone outsiders’ doomed quest for profit. When the (significantly labeled) Nameless Order speaks Mandarin, the subtitles are presented in the most straightforward font possible: a prosaic font for a prosaic people. This solidity gets results. At every turn, communism is implicitly championed over capitalism. Strictly within the context of the story it makes sense, but as the blunt theme of this co-production it feels cowardly. I’m not railing against The Great Wall’s politics as some kind of America-fuck-yeah statement. The problem is that these politics feel so corporately mandated. Back in the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism and the Blacklist, putting communist themes in a Hollywood movie was transgressive, subversive, and risky. Now, it’s just pandering.
The character work is functional if colorless. The film stars Matt Damon and his variable accent, toggling between his normal voice, a southern drawl, and a posh take on Irish. Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal is fun in his role as a wandering and weary scoundrel, and his double act with Damon makes for stilted but amiable banter. According to director Zhang, he insisted at the script level that the clichéd romance between William and Commander Lin be removed, and that’s to his credit. But in the finished product, all the setup for that romance makes it to the screen! The seams are visible, so the matter-of-fact statement of mutual respect is diluted a bit.
The production design is striking. As is Zhang’s signature, strong color contrasts are used in the costumes, with each Corps within the Nameless Order corresponding to a clearly defined color: red for archers, black for infantry, sky blue for spears, etc. The large-scale production utilizes visual effects well, if not outstandingly, even though the opening sequence looks like a PlayStation 3 cutscene. The Tao Tei beasts are always given heft and weight when interacting directly with human characters. The visuals are mostly aiming for a specific kind of unreality, and on balance they’re the best aspect of The Great Wall.
But the opening gambit of the film doesn’t take encouraging first steps. The awkwardly edited prologue, filled with mile-wide close-ups, contains a moment of night-shrouded action in which several characters are meant to be killed. But the editing is so confusing I could only surmise they had died by their absence in the next scene. It feels like every once in a while Zhang aims for horror, and in this opening at least, he misses wide of the mark. The action throughout is engaging enough but never really catches fire. It’s consistently competent, miles away from the dazzling action on display in Zhang’s previous work like House of Flying Daggers. Rounding out the production, composer Ramin Djawadi uses thrumming martial tones familiar from his Warcraft score, ethnic motifs, and even a couple cues reminiscent of his Game of Thrones work in a middle-of-the-road effort.
The Great Wall is weird and sort of uncomfortably timely. This is a movie that glorifies the border patrol of a massive wall, that panders to the Chinese, and in which a Spaniard is portrayed as greedy and selfish. Not such great stuff there. But the action is competently staged, and the visuals are sometimes big-screen bonkers. Even though the themes are problematic, and there are myriad things, let’s say, off about this one, the film comes out more or less okay. So, this review is not advocacy for an underrated gem (Monster Trucks), or praise for a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders (John Wick Chapter 2). It’s an acknowledgement that aside from all the baggage, The Great Wall is an adequate but flawed medieval fantasy war movie where people blow up a bunch of grotesque monsters real good. 5/10.
P.S.: Edward Zwick was the original director attached, and retains a story credit. His Tom Cruise/Ken Watanabe-starrer The Last Samurai has superficial parallels with this film, but The Great Wall has not an ounce of the empathy and grounded grandeur of that superior movie.
Action Scenes of the Year
9) Finale, Sausage Party
8) Atomic breath, Shin Godzilla
7) Bourne vs. the Asset in the sewer, Jason Bourne
6) Mirror Dimension chase, Doctor Strange
5) The proposal, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
4) Batman’s warehouse brawl, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
3) Darth Vader unleashed, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (a horror-action sequence!)
2) Monkey vs. Karasu – duel on the high seas, Kubo and the Two Strings
1) Leipzig airport six-on-six face-off, Captain America: Civil War (the finale is a better dramatic scene but this a superior action scene)
– Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: a better Pride and Prejudice adaptation than a zombie movie
– Sausage Party: a better sociopolitical satire than a comedy
Best Non-2016 Films Discovered this Year
Visit http://letterboxd.com/paulstanis/list/best-non-2016-films-discovered-in-2016/ for 19 terrific films from prior years I discovered in 2016.
By the Numbers
5 Ben Foster performances (The Finest Hours; The Program; Warcraft; Hell or High Water; Inferno)
5 Michael Shannon appearances (Midnight Special; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Elvis & Nixon; Loving; Nocturnal Animals)
5 Hans Zimmer scores (Kung Fu Panda 3; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; The Little Prince; Inferno; Hidden Figures)
4 Chris Pine appearances (The Finest Hours; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Star Trek Beyond; Hell or High Water)
4 Henry Jackman scores (The 5th Wave; Captain America: Civil War; Jack Reacher: Never Go Back; The Birth of a Nation)
4 Idris Elba performances (Zootopia; The Jungle Book; Finding Dory; Star Trek Beyond)
4 J.K. Simmons performances (Kung Fu Panda 3; Zootopia; The Accountant; La La Land – 5 if you count the English dub of April and the Extraordinary World)
4 Jeremy Irons performances (Race; The Man Who Knew Infinity; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; High-Rise)
4 Jesse Eisenberg performances (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Louder than Bombs; Now You See Me 2; Café Society)
4 Michael Giacchino scores (Zootopia; Star Trek Beyond; Doctor Strange; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)
4 Michael Stuhlbarg performances (Miles Ahead; Arrival; Doctor Strange; Miss Sloane)
3 films climaxing with architectural reconstruction (X-Men: Apocalypse; Doctor Strange; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them)
3 films tackling the morality of drone warfare (London Has Fallen; Eye in the Sky; Snowden)
3 uses of “Spirit in the Sky” (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows; Suicide Squad; I am Not a Serial Killer)
2 Disney films starring intrepid seafaring women (Alice through the Looking Glass; Moana)
2 Disney-distributed films with black panthers (The Jungle Book; Captain America: Civil War)
2 films featuring Auschwitz (X-Men: Apocalypse; Denial)
2 films featuring “divine” elephants (The Jungle Book; The Legend of Tarzan)
2 films using the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as a plot point (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; X-Men: Apocalypse)
2 films with the subtitle “Resurgence” (Independence Day: Resurgence; Shin Godzilla/Godzilla: Resurgence)
2 Jane Austen adaptations (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Love & Friendship)
2 Jazz films (Miles Ahead; La La Land)
2 Olympic films (Race; Eddie the Eagle)
2 science fiction films inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Midnight Special; Arrival)
Favorite () Yet
Captain America: Civil War, my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe film yet
Jason Bourne, my favorite Bourne movie yet
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, my favorite Star Wars prequel yet
Feelgood Movies of the Year
Hidden Figures; Eddie the Eagle; Moana; Queen of Katwe; Sing Street
Heroes or Antiheroes, Best of the Year
10) Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Hidden Figures
9) Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
8) Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Doctor Strange
7) Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld), The Edge of Seventeen
6) Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), Hunt for the Wilderpeople
5) Michéle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), Elle
4) Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Captain America: Civil War
3) Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), Moana
2) Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
1) Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), Miss Sloane
Heroes or Antiheroes, Worst of the Year
3) Mowgli (Neel Sethi), The Jungle Book
2) Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), London Has Fallen
1) Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Ranking Disney-Distributed Movies
12) The Finest Hours
10) The BFG
9) Finding Dory
4) Queen of Katwe
Alice through the Looking Glass > Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Captain America: Civil War > Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Jason Bourne > The Bourne Legacy
Star Trek Beyond > Star Trek Into Darkness
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows > Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles\
– 2016 is the only year besides 2002 in which both Star Trek and Star Wars movies were released. 14 years ago, the curtain closed on the Next Generation era of Trek films with the spectacular box office disappointment Star Trek: Nemesis, while Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones improved on The Phantom Menace while making all-new mistakes. While Nemesis has its flaws, Trek won that round. In 2016, both franchises enter the ring with excellent entries that balance nostalgia with new textures, but Star Wars ultimately carries the day over the wonderfully character-driven Star Trek Beyond with the emotional and explosive Rogue One.
– Line of the year: Anton Yelchin’s “It’s funny. You were so scary at night” in Green Room. It’s an astonishingly timely line, as the story encapsulates the threatening but ultimately pathetic nature of neo-Nazis.
– The most overrated film of the year is A Monster Calls, but I don’t begrudge anyone profoundly moved by it.
Most Underrated Films of the Year
9) Hardcore Henry
8) Swiss Army Man
7) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
4) The Girl on the Train
3) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
2) Miss Sloane
1) Gods of Egypt (which also gets a complementary “Pardon one turkey” award)
Villains, Best of the Year
10) Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), Alice through the Looking Glass
9) Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang), Don’t Breathe
8) The Sisters (Rooney Mara), Kubo and the Two Strings
7) Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), Green Room
6) Messala (Toby Kebbell), Ben-hur
5) Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
4) Crowley (Christopher Lloyd), I am Not a Serial Killer
3) Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), Captain America: Civil War
2) Paula (Rachel House), Hunt for the Wilderpeople
1) Shere Khan (Idris Elba), The Jungle Book (as a bonus, the other two villains – King Louis and Kaa – are great too)
Villains, Worst of the Year
4) The Douche (Nick Kroll), Sausage Party
3) Psylocke (Olivia Munn), X-Men: Apocalypse
2) Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), The Magnificent Seven
1) All DC villains (Enchantress, Incubus, Joker, Doomsday, Lex Luthor), Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Biggest WTF Moments of the Year
6) The Little Prince: Climax of the framing story. Is this The Little Prince or Planes: Fire and Rescue?
5) Fathers and Daughters: Constant clichés.
4) Standoff: Hilariously over-the-top insults. (Sample: “Fuck leverage! Do the math, dipshit!”)
3) Don’t Breathe: The turkey baster. You know the one.
2) Now You See Me 2: Why are there twin Woody Harrelsons???
1) The 5th Wave: 15 minutes shot in almost complete blackness…?
(Rough) Final Ranking of All 2016 Films Viewed (Best to Worst)
Moana; Captain America: Civil War; Miss Sloane; Swiss Army Man; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; Arrival; Eye in the Sky; Snowden; La La Land; Sing Street; Star Trek Beyond; Green Room; Hunt for the Wilderpeople; The Nice Guys; Ghostbusters; Kubo and the Two Strings; Everybody Wants Some!!; Captain Fantastic; Hail, Caesar!; Hell or High Water; The Edge of Seventeen; Nocturnal Animals; 10 Cloverfield Lane; Queen of Katwe; Moonlight; Doctor Strange; The Jungle Book; Hidden Figures; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Midnight Special; Manchester by the Sea; Sausage Party; Pete’s Dragon; The Dressmaker; The Girl on the Train; Zootopia; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them; Hardcore Henry; Louder than Bombs; Elle; The Lobster; Jason Bourne; Kung Fu Panda 3; Eddie the Eagle; High-Rise; Finding Dory; The BFG; Money Monster; Denial; Lion; The Love Witch; Love & Friendship; Hacksaw Ridge; Deadpool; X-Men: Apocalypse; Fences; Ben-Hur; Gods of Egypt; Ip Man 3; The Light Between Oceans; Loving; Don’t Breathe; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny; Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows; Café Society; Blood Father; Shin Godzilla; Race; Miles Ahead; I am Not a Serial Killer; A Monster Calls; Tale of Tales; April and the Extraordinary World; Inferno; Sully; The Birth of a Nation; The Little Prince; Allied; The Program; The Accountant; The Trust; The Magnificent Seven; Standoff; Warcraft; Elvis & Nixon; The Man Who Knew Infinity; The Huntsman: Winter’s War; The Legend of Tarzan; Jack Reacher: Never Go Back; Independence Day: Resurgence; Jane Got a Gun; Creative Control; Triple 9; Alice through the Looking Glass; I Saw the Light; Now You See Me 2; Suicide Squad; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; The 5th Wave; Fathers and Daughters; London Has Fallen; Moonwalkers; Misconduct; The Finest Hours
Whatever else 2017 will throw at us, we’ll always have movies. And whether it’s finding the greatness that comes out of a studio factory, or keeping an open mind to new independent efforts, I’ll be there. So amidst the delights and excesses of awards season, these are the 2017 films I’m most looking forward to seeing.
First, a bunch of bonus mentions. T2 Trainspotting (one of my favorite directors, Danny Boyle, returns to the film that made his name), Pitch Perfect 3 (After the sequel improved on the first, I’m ready for more a capella antics); Free Fire (a claustrophobic 70s throwback crime movie from the director of the stunning A Field in England, it could be this year’s Green Room); Annihilation (I only called Alex Garland the greatest science fiction screenwriter of all time. No big deal! Hopefully he continues to bear this out with his next writing/directing effort); Kingsman: The Golden Circle (The first Kingsman is even smarter than I initially gave it credit for, and Matthew Vaughn is a dynamite director of action); Kong: Skull Island (Apocalypse Now with Kong as Kurtz is a great pitch, and I love the 2014 Godzilla, with which this shares a cinematic universe); Death Note (an adaptation of one of my favorite comic properties looks to be a twisted psychological thriller); Logan (the rapturous response to the first 40 minutes screened to festivalgoers bodes well for this final bow of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine); Beauty and the Beast (given the state of the Disney remake, I’m very optimistic).
10) Wonder Woman
It’s a travesty that the greatest female superhero has never headlined a movie (hell, no woman has headlined one at all since Elektra in 2005). So under any circumstances, this first Wonder Woman film is a full-blown event. Under any circumstances; it sure doesn’t help that the current DC universe project hasn’t produced a single decent movie out of three chances. (And I hope the way Henry Cavill’s charisma is repressed in the role of Superman doesn’t parallel any untapped range in Gal Gadot’s performance.) But the trailer is solid, promising a weighty World War I setting, stunning cinematography on Themyscira, and impactful action. The image of Wonder Woman walking out from a trench onto “no man’s land” is incredibly potent, and I predict some very creative uses for the Lasso of Truth. The film will either wreck shop, or prove as divisive as DC’s previous movies. Please be good. And please don’t lean on Chris Pine as some kind of “stealth male lead”.
9) The Fate of the Furious
In the past six years, the Fast and Furious franchise has reinvented itself as one of the silliest and most rewarding in Hollywood, and this first post-Paul Walker entry will surely continue that pulpy momentum. When I reviewed Furious 7, I hadn’t seen any other movies in the series. Now having seen them all, I anticipate #8 all the more because while the showstopping stunt setpieces are the franchise’s signature, its secret weapon is the use of past cast members to create a sort of gestalt ensemble. In that tradition, former villain Jason Statham will join the team! That sort of loopy idea of community (indeed, “family”) is what I look for in a Fast movie.
8) Blade Runner 2049
Following up Blade Runner is almost a thankless task. But director Denis Villeneuve might be the best fit for the material anyone could hope for. After the painful intensity of Prisoners, nightmarish Enemy, the visceral Sicario, and the brooding but beautiful Arrival, Villeneuve is on an extraordinary run of atmospheric and pointed work. The teaser shows a matter-of-fact return to this very specific world, bolstered by another return to an iconic role by Harrison Ford, and a lead performance from 2016 darling Ryan Gosling.
7) The Masterpiece (née The Disaster Artist)
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is a legendary so-bad-it’s-good experience, endlessly quotable and inexplicable (“Did you get your promotion?” “Nah.” “You didn’t get it, did you?”). And co-star Greg Sestero’s personal account of its making, “The Disaster Artist”, is one of the funniest and most engaging books I’ve read, so the burden is on The Masterpiece to live up to the incredible subject matter.
6) The LEGO Batman Movie
After The LEGO Movie (my favorite film of 2014, incidentally), it seems LEGO’s roast/tribute of the Dark Knight is far from over. What’s most intriguing about this spinoff is its apparent willingness to engage with the whole breadth of cinematic takes on Batman. So we’ll have riffs on Adam West alongside jokes reflecting the Christopher Nolan era. And the above picture hints that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is already going to be satirized! For that alone, I can’t wait. It’s very unusual corporate thinking to let two Batman properties coexist on the big screen at the same time, making the business side of things fascinating as well. If all goes well, The LEGO Batman Movie could end up being the second-best Batman movie. That’s realistic.
5) Baby Driver
When wunderkind director Edgar Wright shows up, so do I. The sublime “Cornetto trilogy” of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End alone ensures Wright’s place as one of the best filmmakers working today, but Baby Driver looks like a bit of a change of pace. Frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are nowhere to be found, and it looks to be a harder-boiled affair. Revolving around a getaway driver (Walter Hill’s 70s pulp classic The Driver is a clear reference point), the hook is that he suffers from tinnitus and listens to music constantly on his earphones during heists. So Wright has license to make a sort of jukebox musical crime movie. Sounds like a plan.
4) Paddington 2
One of the biggest surprises in recent memory, Paddington is no joke one of the best family films I’ve ever seen. Charming, funny, emotional, and thematically rich, the freshman entry is a hard act to live up to, but the humility of the story will surely make for a non-bombastic follow-up. This is just the story of a (sentient) bear and the human family who loves him, and if this sequel continues in the vein of the first, that’s all we need.
3) Thor: Ragnarok
“Think you can handle having the incredible Hulk for a dad?” That’s a line spoken by Taika Waititi’s character in a film he also directed, simply titled Boy. Boy is a charming coming-of-age slice of life set in mundane New Zealand. Its simple charms seem miles away from those of a big-budget superhero movie, but that’s what Taika Waititi has been entrusted with in Thor: Ragnarok. Also the director of heartwarming adventure Hunt for the Wilderpeople and hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi is an exciting indie filmmaker given the keys to the Marvel playground. And to bring it full circle, he’s got the Hulk.
He’s also got an unbelievable cast. Aside from returning favorites Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Mark Ruffalo, and Benedict Cumberbatch, also signed up are Cate Blanchett, Karl Urban, Jeff Goldblum, and Tessa Thompson! That’s nothing less than a murderer’s row. I’m actually an unabashed fan of the oft-maligned Thor movies (this is Marvel heresy, but the first two Thors blow the first two Iron Mans out of the water for me), and Ragnarok has a chance to wrap up the trilogy in an unforgettable bow. With Waititi at the helm, there’s no limit to the cosmic and comic territories the film can go to.
2) Star Wars Episode 8
The world is still mourning the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, and even though Rogue One already functions as an odd tribute to her, she will actually have a strong presence throughout this second sequel to the original trilogy she was so beloved in. So Episode 8 will sadly function as a kind of collective wake for Carrie.
But beside all that, it will also function as a movie. In 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought the legendary franchise back to prominence in style. With Episode 8, Star Wars is taken over by writer-director Rian Johnson, who made the brilliant Brick and the visceral Looper. He inherits new characters audiences are already heavily invested in such as Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Poe Dameron, and more minor ones like General Hux and Captain Phasma (who should have, you know, something to do this time around). And of course, Leia will be a prominent player and Luke Skywalker has re-entered the story. What’s particularly exciting is that now The Force Awakens has established the foundation of the story at a breakneck pace, Episode 8 can slow down and take the storytelling in any number of risky directions. The Force Awakens’ signature scene is the terrific lightsaber duel, and if Episode 8 comes up with anything as iconic, the series will be in good shape.
1) Molly’s Game
Aaron Sorkin’s body of work speaks for itself. Even ignoring TV, his screenplays for A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs are masterful. (And to neglect non-masterpieces The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, and Moneyball would be a mistake too.) With Molly’s Game, the doyen of dialogue will not only write but also make his directorial debut. And with my favorite actress Jessica Chastain in the lead role (as the real-life underground poker “queenpin” with a meteoric rise and fall), I’m very much in the bag for this. Last year Chastain starred in Miss Sloane, a movie I adore but which is also Sorkin-esque almost to the point of imitation. I look forward to seeing the genuine article, as it were.
Granted, Molly’s Game does not have an official release date yet. The year could go by without a release and I’d look pretty foolish for putting it in pole position, but this pick is a little more personal than the blockbusters that the eyes of the world will be watching. And in 2017, I’ll be watching quite a bit.
Best Supporting Actress
Kate McKinnon, Ghostbusters
Judy Davis, The Dressmaker
Rachel House, Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Lupita Nyong’o, Queen of Katwe
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Best Supporting Actor
Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane
André Holland, Moonlight
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals
Best Original Song
“How Far I’ll Go”, Moana
“Drive it Like You Stole it”, Sing Street
“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, La La Land
“The Great Beyond”, Sausage Party
“Montage”, Swiss Army Man
Bradford Young, Arrival
James Laxton, Moonlight
Sean Porter, Green Room
Adam Stone, Midnight Special
Vittorio Storaro, Café Society
Best Adapted Screenplay
Taika Waititi, Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Joel & Ethan Coen, Hail Caesar!
Eric Heisserer, Arrival
Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, Captain America: Civil War
Simon Pegg & Doug Jung, Star Trek Beyond
Olivier Bugge Coutté, Louder than Bombs
Julia Bloch, Green Room
Matt Cheese, Money Monster
Luke Haigh, Tom Eagles & Yana Gorskaya, Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Matthew Hannam, Swiss Army Man
Best Original Score
Justin Hurwitz, La La Land
Michael Giacchino, Star Trek Beyond
Daniel Hart, Pete’s Dragon
Andy Hull & Robert McDowell, Swiss Army Man
Matthew Margeson, Eddie the Eagle
Best Production Design
Stuart Craig & James Hambidge, Fantastic Beasts and where to Find them
Russell Barnes, Captain Fantastic
Doug Chiang & Neil Lamont, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Mark Tildesley, High-Rise
Charles Wood, Doctor Strange
Best Original Screenplay
Jeremy Saulnier, Green Room
Shane Black & Anthony Bagarozzi, The Nice Guys
Daniels, Swiss Army Man
Richard Linklater, Everybody Wants Some!!
Jonathan Perera, Miss Sloane
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Daniels, Swiss Army Man
Anthony & Joe Russo, Captain America: Civil War
Oliver Stone, Snowden
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Paul Dano, Swiss Army Man
Robert Downey Jr., Captain America: Civil War
Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys
Denzel Washington, Fences
Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
Amy Adams, Arrival
Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train
Viola Davis, Fences
Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen
Captain America: Civil War
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Swiss Army Man
Rogue One, the first standalone Star Wars film, is in many ways not a standalone at all. It is a direct prequel to the original movie from 1977, and features scores of deep-cut references, allusions and easter eggs that only hardcore fans will appreciate. So Rogue One is big-budget fanservice. But crucially, it’s more than that. It’s fanservice that also happens to have great original characters and takes a lot of risks. The trick of Rogue One is that it’s a love letter to Star Wars (and works as such; the ending made me cry), but it also fundamentally changes its texture.
The Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist, and seeks to solidify its reign by constructing a planet-killing superweapon. To complete work on the Death Star, Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) coerces the scientific genius Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), father of Jyn (Felicity Jones), into service. When Galen sends a secret message to the reeling Rebellion tipping them off to a structural weakness in the Death Star, a scrappy guerilla team must steal the Death Star plans. The team: Jyn; lethal Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); sarcastic tactician droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk); desperate Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); blind warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); and his cynical companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). But in this war, can any hope survive in the grime of Imperial domination?
In the lead-up to the movie, the talking points were obvious. “Puts the Wars in Star Wars.” “The gritty side of the universe”, blah blah blah. It’s one thing to hear the sound bites, but to see this saga taken out of the good vs. evil fairy tale realm so elegantly is something else entirely. That tale is great, it has its place, but Rogue One complicates it. There’s ethical compromise in the Rebellion, represented by Cassian. There’s a pecking order in the Empire, an elitist element that Krennic must constantly prove himself to. There are extremists on both sides. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker)’s methods are disavowed by the Rebel establishment, while his opposite number, Darth Vader, plays enforcer for an unstable galaxy. Star Wars has always worked best as an underdog story (witness how The Force Awakens recreates the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict by another name), but the main characters here are underdogs even within the Rebellion. And Krennic, the villain they face, is an underdog even within the Empire.
None of this thematic stuff would click if the character work wasn’t there, and thankfully it is. All the characters resonate, but standouts include comic relief monstrosity K-2SO (think C-3PO with a two-by-four in place of an etiquette program), and apathetic loner to inspirational leader Jyn Erso. But my favorite character is Cassian Andor, who embodies what makes Rogue One work so well. The co-leading hero in the film, Cassian is exciting because he’s tainted. Pretty much the first thing you see him do is shoot an unarmed ally in the back because he would be a liability! (And you thought Han shot first?) He personifies the risks that the film is willing to take, introducing a Rebel officer as a morally compromised hero. The main characters are allowed to be impure or damaged, and Krennic, while ruthless, has to deal with bureaucratic and browbeating BS from superiors more evil than he. The idea is that the Rebellion’s purest heroes and the Empire’s purest villains are more background players, and we get to spend time with relatively complex characters.
Rogue One manages to stuff a lot of character into what is perhaps too compressed an amount of time. This does have downsides. Jyn’s character arc is good, but feels like it has a middle and an end while missing part of the beginning – we’re told Jyn’s rap sheet but we don’t see her struggles fending for herself brought to life. The first act has a lot of quick planet-hopping setup and so probably works better on a rewatch. Conversely, while the action in the third act is alternately breathtaking, tense, and emotionally powerful, it still feels like a little paring down might have made it pop even more.
But flaws aside, the storytelling always has something up its sleeve. This is a surprisingly emotional movie, largely owing to how the light contrasts all the more against the desperate circumstances. Chirrut’s reverence of the Force becomes poignant precisely because the Jedi have passed into myth. Put Obi-Wan Kenobi on the team and the everyman quality to the group crumbles. In a stroke of genius, the first test of the Death Star’s awesome destructive power is made intimate and personal. The pacing and atmosphere is far removed from the propulsive, almost manic The Force Awakens (which is great in that context). It’s Star Wars sung in a different key in a different time signature, and I ate it up.
Technically speaking, Rogue One has much to commend it. I love how the CGI Star Destroyers as near as damn them look exactly like physical models. The cinematography, and vaguely documentarian aesthetic courtesy of director Gareth Edwards make the action and emotion hit home. And considering composer Michael Giacchino only had a couple months to score the film after replacing Alexandre Desplat, his score contains some solid motifs.
Rogue One commits to its war movie aesthetic brilliantly. The acting ensemble is outstanding; even tertiary characters like the leery General Draven feel rich. This is a smart, weird, exciting, occasionally sloppy, and surprisingly emotional blockbuster, which enriches Star Wars in a two-hour salvo. It will be remembered for playing with what the franchise can do, while also blowing stuff up real good. 9/10. — If you’re a fan of the saga, there’s a good chance you’ll get emotional at the last scene. But after certain recent events… it might wreck you.
P.S.: *SPOILER-FILLED STRAY NERDY OBSERVATIONS*
So this is a mainstream blockbuster where every main character dies. With a sweeping gesture out of Shakespearean tragedy, the board is cleared and only characters on the fringes live to carry on. Disney will sugarcoat anything.
Darth Vader. Giving him an imposing evil tower immediately casts him in the same company as Sauron (with lava planet Mustafar standing in for Mordor). It codifies his status as an iconic villain. But it’s worth noting that a castle for Vader isn’t a new idea; it was proposed in concept art for the original trilogy and was even considered for inclusion in The Force Awakens. Vader’s first scene with Krennic perhaps isn’t everything it could have been. It ends with what I call “stand-up comedy Vader”, but even though it feels a bit weird in the moment, it’s not too far off from his “Apology accepted, Captain Needa” brand of humor. Vader’s other scene is just terrific. Add the hint of his vulnerability and his weird Riff Raff-esque butler, and Rogue One does some interesting things with this Dark Lord of the Sith.
When the Empire puts up the shield in orbit of Scarif, an X-Wing can’t pull up and crashes into it. Which is exactly what should have happened in Return of the Jedi when the Rebel fighters are flying to the second Death Star thinking the shield is down.
Star Wars isn’t known for romance. It has a few, but they’re either dreadfully stilted community theater (Anakin and Padmé) or a whirlwind flirtation carried by bickering and banter (Han and Leia). So am I alone in thinking that Rogue One contains the hottest moment in all of Star Wars? When Jyn and Cassian are in close quarters in the elevator, and it’s filmed like they might kiss, and they don’t?
If Rogue One came out when I was in junior high, it would have been the biggest deal in the world that Garven Dreis and Dr. Evazan are in the movie. Now, it’s just really cool. But in junior high, I wouldn’t have caught the significance of Chirrut and Baze being Guardians of the Whills, which is a reference to George Lucas’ original title for his Star Wars screenplay: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga 1.
17) Everybody Wants Some!!
At first glance I have next to nothing in common with the dudebro jocks that are the leads of this film. But Richard Linklater’s screenplay proves that great writing transcends little details like that. This is an extremely sharply written, human, funny, and profound hangout movie that happens to depict a very specific college experience. It’s an impressive achievement, to take such a barebones plot (a group of college baseball players party away the few days before term begins) and get so much storytelling mileage out of it. Everybody Wants Some!! is a very particular kind of Americana, and shows that a great movie can come from anywhere.
Look, stop motion animation is just cool. And when it’s wedded to visuals this beautiful and emotions this rich, it goes to a higher level. Set in a fantasy version of Japan, this fairy tale about family and the power of storytelling has no shortage of grand adventure, painful pathos, and unforgettable villains.
A damn fine comedy, with near-perfect cast dynamics. Ghostbusters strikes a nice balance between being SNL sketchy and committing to its science fantasy premise. So on the one hand, there’s plenty of tech and technobabble, and on the other, there’s a lot of improv-based comedy that goes a bit off the rails once in a while before reining back in. Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth in particular get the most laughs, but everyone has something to contribute. All around charming. And there’s something oddly satisfying about seeing people shoot streams of radically polarized protons at ghosts.
14) The Nice Guys
Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are an inspired pair in writer-director Shane Black’s evocative 1970s-set action comedy. Gosling in particular turns in a performance spun out of comedy gold as a drunken private detective, and the movie’s sense of place is impeccable. 70s Los Angeles provides an ideally seedy background to this warped conspiracy romp.
13) Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The most domestically successful New Zealand film of all time, Hunt for the Wilderpeople launches what can only be called an hour-and-a-half charm offensive. Orphan and wannabe “gangster” Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) runs away into the wilderness but needs the help of his grumpy adoptive uncle Hec (Sam Neill, who in a one-man promotional tour took the film all over rural New Zealand) to survive out there. Hilarity and poignancy ensue.
12) Green Room
When a punk band takes a gig at a skinhead-controlled bar, they see something they shouldn’t have and hole themselves in the green room to survive the night. This shockingly relevant tale of hipsters vs. Neo-Nazis is told with breathless economy, making for a pure cinematic experience. And the ride is thrilling not just for the knife-edge intensity but also for the extreme efficiency of the storytelling. This is an airtight screenplay if there ever was one.
Star Trek gives itself an excellent 50th anniversary gift in Star Trek Beyond, essentially a big-budget version of an original series episode with the action and character development dialed up to 11. Promoting cast member Simon Pegg to co-writing duties pays big dividends, as the film is built on a foundation of strong character, whether it’s Spock and Bones sparring while isolated or Kirk rediscovering what this whole trek through the stars thing is all about. It’s a really nerdy blockbuster, where a character spouting a humanistic platitude is the equivalent of an action movie one-liner. Contains two show-stopping scenes: the approach to starbase Yorktown, scored to magisterial perfection by Michael Giacchino; and another deployment of music more cacophony than symphony.
10) Sing Street
An endlessly endearing coming-of-age tale. Conor, a teen in mid-1980s Ireland, tries to impress a local girl by offering her a part in his band’s latest music video. Naturally, the next step is to grab a bunch of mates, and, you know, start a band. The charm of the band, named Sing Street after the repressive school the boys attend, is that they’re both quite talented, and embarrassingly amateurish. Even after weeks turn into months, you’ll still find a couple Sing Street compositions lodged in your head.
9) La La Land
She captured a feeling / A sky with no ceiling / A sunset inside a frame / Here’s to the ones who dream / Foolish as they may seem. Another musical! Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling cut a bit of a Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire rug in this nostalgic throwback to retro Hollywood Technicolor musicals. She wants to be an actress, he a jazz pianist with his own club. Sparks fly, romance ensues, all to the backdrop of the promise and heartbreak of Los Angeles. Ecstatic but also profoundly bittersweet.
Notorious filmmaker Oliver Stone shoots this sharply relevant Edward Snowden biopic beautifully, telling an extremely timely story with a deft hand. The film is unabashedly on Snowden’s side (a subversively patriotic score accompanies the copious computer action), so a measured or nuanced debate will not be found here. But this narratively ambitious biopic is always vividly brought to life, and I find it hugely engaging.
7) Eye in the Sky
Eye in the Sky takes the simplest of starting points – “let’s use a case study to tackle the ethics of drone warfare” – and spins an unbearably tense thriller out of it, turning the screws on the audience with tactical precision. One of the very best ensembles of the year, including Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, wrings their hands with edge-of-your-seat results.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Interstellar. After extraterrestrial craft hover over 12 locations around the globe, Amy Adams’ linguist is recruited by the United States government to communicate with the aliens who’ve come to their backyard. Arrival is a classic science fiction concept atmospherically shot, bolstered both by universal humanistic themes and what’s probably the twist of the year.
The first “standalone” Star Wars film is based on the heist of the Death Star plans that kicked off the plot of the original 1977 film. And so Rogue One is large-scale fanservice, but it also happens to have great original characters and takes a lot of risks. The trick is that it’s a love letter to Star Wars (the ending made me cry), but it fundamentally changes its texture. In the lead-up to the movie, the talking points were obvious. “Puts the Wars in Star Wars.” “The gritty side of the universe”, blah blah blah. It’s one thing to hear the sound bites, but to see this saga taken out of the good vs. evil fairy tale realm so elegantly is something else entirely. Star Wars has always worked best as an underdog story (witness how The Force Awakens reconstructs the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict by another name), but the heroes here are underdogs even within the Rebellion; and the villain they face is an underdog within the Empire. Rogue One is a smart, weird, exciting, emotional, unique, and occasionally sloppy blockbuster, and I love it.
4) Swiss Army Man
Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse. Yep, that’s the one. That might imply a certain kind of movie, something cooked up by giggling fratboys. And Swiss Army Man is super scatological, but it’s also one of the most profound, human, and life-affirming film in recent memory. And in an act of mad genius, the act of farting is the key to its themes. Paul Dano stars as a castaway about to end it all before a corpse washes up on shore to provide the unlikeliest of hopes, and this survival tale revolves around the wacky and wonderful bond the two forge. To describe more would be to reduce the film. The only possible misstep is the tonally confusing ending, but it’s a rare wobble in a truly innovative statement, and the best dramedy of the year.
3) Miss Sloane
Sometimes a movie is so up your alley it feels made just for you. My favorite actress Jessica Chastain, in fierce form, dominating a hyper-fast-talking political thriller? Yes, please! Chastain is the titular gun control lobbyist, characterized by the old cliché of her being brilliantly manipulative and brilliantly impolite. Think Sherlock Holmes on the hunt for senatorial votes. It’s an old familiar template, but damn if this isn’t a great version of it. The film is Aaron Sorkin-esque almost to the point of imitation, but it really works. Miss Sloane is a movie that’s kind of always impressed with itself, but I’m right there with it.
The pinnacle achievement of Marvel Studios. And maybe that’s because Captain America: Civil War contains multitudes: it’s a deeply personal story about hanging on to the past, a globe-hopping political thriller, an espionage/revenge tale, an introduction to two important new superheroes, and of course, it has that six-on-six action extravaganza. But in spite of all that stuff, the third act pares everything down to the essentials, then makes the title bout between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark utterly painful, then offers a perfectly ambiguous grace note of hope on its way out the door. This is some mighty impressive storytelling. It’s always a joy to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s stable of likable characters, but Civil War goes above and beyond, having fun with them while also putting them through the wringer. I don’t know how subsequent Avengers team-up movies can walk a narrative balancing act as effortlessly as this one, but I can’t wait to see them try.
Moana viscerally reminds me why I love musicals. Sometimes a character pouring her or his heart out in song has a primal power. It’s such a simple idea, and that directness can mean a lot. Moana is the chieftain’s daughter on a nonspecific Polynesian island, and chafes against a preordained life on the island, longing instead to voyage on the open sea. So far, so familiar. But the execution of this coming-of-age story is off the charts good, with a few casually genius thematic things going on. This is not even to mention the stunning animation or gorgeous songs, co-written by Disney’s new golden boy, Lin-Manuel Miranda. There’s a line where the sky meets the sea and it calls me / But no one knows / How far it goes. Moana is the complete package of adventure, emotion, character, and charm. I can’t remember the last time I cried so much at a movie.
Be warned, though. There’s one bad joke in the film. Shock and horror!
P.S.: And with that, my favorite film from three of the past four years has been animated (Frozen in 2013, The LEGO Movie in 2014). And not only that; it’s surreal to note that my favorite movie of 2016 has a sequence that directly riffs on my favorite movie of 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road!
And to see these 17 film posters looking all nice together, visit http://letterboxd.com/paulstanis/list/my-favorite-films-of-2016/
Frozen spoilers follow.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’ songs in the animated smash-hit Frozen are great. On the face of it, they’re great because they’re catchy and fun as hell to sing along with. But more than that, these songs are complex. I don’t mean technically or musically complicated – they hide layers that only become clear once the audience is aware of the complete picture of the film’s story. They work in the moment in their immediately apparent modes, but each takes on a new resonance when considering the broader story. In most Disney musicals, the songs are straightforward; what you hear is what you get. Not so here – this is multi-level storytelling, so thrilling when pulled off well. So what’s going on beneath the surface of this story of two regal sisters and the nature of true love?
Let’s start by looking at Frozen’s two traditional ‘I Want’ songs, Anna’s “For the First Time in Forever” and Olaf’s “In Summer”. Anna sings of her perfect romantic night with a sophisticated stranger now that Arendelle’s gates are opening, and throughout she mimes the poses of women in paintings. She wants a storybook romance. For the first time in forever / I’m getting what I’m dreaming of / A chance to change my lonely world / A chance to find true love. And so, even as we’re caught up in the beauty of the song, we’re also being told exactly how she’s exposing herself to Hans’ manipulation. And sure enough, she chooses to marry a man she has just met. Meanwhile, Olaf the guileless snowman spends a whole song wishing for the thing that the other characters know will kill him.
Anna and Olaf achieve their basic goals, but not in the way they intended. Anna ends up neither married nor engaged, and furthermore enters into a relationship not with the charismatic fairy tale prince Hans, but with the humble and antisocial snow merchant Kristoff (whose existence outside the castle was thus outside anything she knew her whole life). Olaf sees summer, but would have melted there and died if not for Elsa’s intervention. Life gave Anna and Olaf not what they wanted, but what they didn’t know they wanted, which is a beautiful endpoint to an arc.
And I stress, this isn’t how ‘I Want’ musical storytelling usually goes. Quasimodo wants only a mundane life “Out there”, and gets it by movie’s end, vindicated by his friends. Ariel wishes simply to be “Part of Your World”, and has entered the human world as the credits roll. Moana burns to voyage on the ocean and see “How Far I’ll Go”, and, you guessed it, embarks on a grand seafaring adventure. The desire is fulfilled, like an empty box being filled with a checkmark. In Anna and Olaf’s cases, they discover how much stranger life is than they thought, through realizing that what they wanted was in a lot of ways ignorant and naïve, but no less worthy of respect. This stuff is mature. The ‘I Want’ pieces are tinged with the bittersweet, even if that’s only noticeable to the viewer. It makes the story more human.
In the reprise of “For the First Time in Forever”, sisters Anna and Elsa have a roller coaster of a communication breakdown. There is misunderstanding on both sides, and the conflict is on the surface. Whereas in the case of Anna and Hans’ duet “Love is an Open Door”, it only comes out in retrospect how the two singing partners are at cross-purposes. The conflict is veiled and obscure, but with hindsight adds a layer to the song and its function. And so every real-life couple who duets the song has to think in the back of their minds, “Does one of us have an agenda here?”
What further complicates the song is Hans’ enigmatic character. A usurper of the crown he is, but the film concisely portrays Hans as a natural leader and an effective monarch… who happens to use evil means to gain a throne. He’s not just the one-dimensional villain; left to his own devices, he would have been a decent king. But his path to power is ruthless. He wants it too much. To him, the opportunity for power, the open door, is a lovely thing indeed. You can subtly see this in the song.
Anna: But with you –
Hans: But with you – I found my place.
Anna: I see your face.
Both: … and it’s nothing like I’ve ever known before!
In the same moment: Anna focuses on Hans. Hans focuses on his position. And yet the clumsy romantic and the charming conspirator still harmonize beautifully in song. “Love is an Open Door” is an obvious but significant example of a song taking on multiple dimensions with the benefit of hindsight.
And this brings us to the biggest showstopper of them all, Elsa’s “Let it Go”. Not so much an ‘I Want’ number, it’s more like a ‘Maybe I Don’t Want the Thing Everyone Said I Should Want’ song. Its placement in the movie also serves as the audience’s first meaningful insight into Elsa’s character, as this literal ice queen had predominantly been seen through Anna’s eyes. Taking on this burden, “Let it Go” makes an interesting choice: it’s achingly personal, but also universal. Anyone who’s ever been made to feel different, or repressed, or closeted, has an empowering anthem in “Let it Go”. Let it go, let it go / And I’ll rise like the break of dawn / Let it go, let it go / That perfect girl is gone.
Still, some have said that this über-popular karaoke staple is about abandoning responsibility, an act of selfishness. While on one level that’s true, I think of the song as representing something that is not only worthy of championing but also ties in perfectly with Frozen songs having multilayered themes. You as the viewer can project any baggage of your own onto “Let it Go”, as long as you’re breaking free of it; it does have a plot function of abandoning the queenship; but above all, it represents Elsa’s right to make her own mistakes.
As a musical, Frozen is unique, in that the film deploys its songs without being overwhelmed by them. The songs are mostly confined to the first act, setting them up to be subverted or further toggled with later. (The songs are frontloaded. First act: four full songs and a prologue. Second act: two full songs, a ditty, and a reprise. Third act: no songs.) “Frozen Heart” is a Greek chorus that foreshadows the larger story. “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” begins in childhood innocence and ends in suffocating depression. “For the First Time in Forever” is a joyous ‘I Want’ song that nonetheless sets up exactly how to take advantage of Anna. “Love is an Open Door” is a romantic duet and a clockwork manipulation. “Let it Go” is a swirling anthem that on some level is about shutting out the world. “In Summer” is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ song with a singer who’s none the wiser. These are significant choices, the choices of a film that’s going for your brain just as it’s going for your heart and your funny bone. Frozen is a phenomenon, a cultural touchstone, a subversive 21st Century fairy tale. I think it happens to be an ironclad masterpiece, with a nonetheless humble scope, where there are always new things to discover. And the Lopez’ songs are music that keeps on giving.
The Marvel Studios brand is even more powerful than any of the superheroes in its stable. The mere association of the studio with an untested property is enough to spin offbeat ideas into gold, and their risks are getting gradually more exciting. So ever since kicking the doors down with 2012’s crowd-pleasing The Avengers, Marvel has premiered a surefire box office smash in the front half of a year, followed by something weirder in the back. In 2013, the billion-grossing satirical action comedy Iron Man 3 was followed by the cosmic portal-hopping fantasy of Thor: The Dark World. 2014’s espionage thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier was succeeded by the acerbic space opera of Guardians of the Galaxy. In 2015, the thematically rich and aurally deafening team-up Avengers: Age of Ultron was complemented by the small-time heist comedy Ant-Man. And this year, the superhero masterpiece Captain America: Civil War gives way to the infinite magical dimensions of Doctor Strange. Marvel has effortlessly produced another entertaining, well written, light on its feet origin story with a compelling actor holding it all together, plus the added twists of stunning trippy visuals and an exhaustive magical mystery tour through obscure mystical realms.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a world-class neurosurgeon with an equally world-class ego. But when his negligence behind the wheel leads to a crash, the hands that had been so vital to his career and identity can never operate again. After exhausting his fortune on moon-shot surgeries, a desperate Strange travels to the Nepalese sanctuary Kamar-Taj to find a more mystical cure. There, he studies under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her fundamentalist lieutenant Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), even as the wayward sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) threatens the fabric of reality. Strange will need help, including from former colleague Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), to wrestle with this new world of magic and monsters and nothing he was ever trained for.
On paper, Doctor Strange comes armed with the best cast in a non-team-up Marvel movie. That comes in handy, because seeing as this is the MCU’s full-blown introduction to interdimensional magic, boy howdy there is a lot of magixposition to get through. But the cast elevates the material, and make up for some of the imperfections of the screenplay. I do find the film very sharply written on a scene-to-scene basis, but connecting the dots is sometimes a stumbling block, as there is a lot of exposition, and side characters that do stand out but are nonetheless underwritten. So, sharply written, but maybe not the most tightly written.
Those supporting characters are out of focus at times because the film is rightfully keen to keep a laser focus on its lead. It would be easy to point out similarities between Strange and Tony Stark (rich, arrogant luminary brought low and humbled) and even Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes (no social niceties, uncomfortable with hugging), but these are surface level. What makes the character work so well (besides the magnetic performance) is that he’s given a beautifully plotted out, movie-long redemption arc wherein Strange learns to accept the things he had always rejected (and I don’t mean the existence of magic). No quick fixes; this is refreshingly gradual.
Strange is the audience surrogate into a new world, and has to soak in all that exposition I mentioned before. But Strange is not a mere vessel, and his dynamic character helps to keep the film engaging. Also, the characters that inhabit this magical world are all performed exceptionally. Ejiofor sells the hell out of what is a really tough and ambiguous character in Karl Mordo, the kind of man who dangerously overcompensates in atoning for his past sins. Swinton constructs a playful and enigmatic Ancient One, and Benedict Wong as… Wong makes for a valuable and entertaining presence. In the case of the film’s villain, Kaecilius, smart choices off the page help to sell an underwritten character. Cosmetics help. The makeup on his and the other Zealots’ faces resemble a grotesque extension of what happens when you weep your eyes out. They wear their brokenness for all to see. It’s on the nose, but it works. And, Mads Mikkelsen’s menacing screen presence does a lot to animate the semi-flimsy role (his role as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale also has an eye condition, where he cries blood!).
A big draw of Doctor Strange is its visual effects. Director Scott Derrickson’s vision of reality manipulation is truly delightful to look at, and an interesting balance is struck where the gonzo visuals don’t go too far into craziness where a general audience won’t follow. Even so, the film might have been helped by going even further in its imagination. A couple really pivotal scenes play out with people in their spectral form, and the artificiality there goes some way to undercut the emotion and tension. Also, the Zealots’ weapons are almost invisible. I get it, they’re drawing on power from another dimension, but this uninspired and at-times confusing design seems less like a creative decision and more like a PG-13 compromise so as not to “see” blade pierce flesh.
As for the magic itself, it’s strikingly done with geometric shapes in place of beams of light, delivered with Wanda Maximoff-like hand gestures. The magic aesthetic (oddly foreshadowed by this year’s semi-noble semi-failure Warcraft) is complemented by a healthy dose of defying gravity, which is what really livens up the action scenes. But while the magic action is great, the hand-to-hand fights remind me of the cluttered choreography of something like Batman Begins. (And of course, some of the city-bending visuals are reminiscent of a brief scene in another Christopher Nolan movie, Inception, albeit taken to a whole other level.) There’s also a fair bit of magic-as-Buster-Keaton-slapstick, which is unexpected but welcome.
In a lot of ways, Doctor Strange is a full-blooded medical drama as well as a magical extravaganza. This brings needed attention to Christine Palmer, who is easy to lose in the greater tapestry of the plot, and it gets at a really great aspect of Stephen Strange’s character. He’s not going to stop thinking like a doctor after his magical training. The tension between the medical and the mystical is laid bare in what I’ll call the “do no harm scene”, and it could well be the standout of the entire picture.
Michael Giacchino’s score is solid, but feels a bit like a missed opportunity. The end credits music (“Master of the Mystic End Credits”) is a fantastic slice of trippy progressive-rock, throwing organs and sitars around with abandon. But by being so distinctive, it gives a tantalizing glimpse at what the whole score could have been – indeed, the main Doctor Strange theme heard throughout the film is oddly similar to Giacchino’s own Star Trek fanfare.
Doctor Strange is a really solid magical action movie, with wonderful kaleidoscopic visuals, a fascinating central character, a great cast, and a partially-genius high concept finale. It’s very much a familiar template for an origin story, and the film has its shortcomings, but they don’t spoil the whole. The world of Doctor Strange is an interesting space to play in for two hours, a unique story about accepting mortality and where men are allowed to cry. 8/10.
P.S.: Paul McCartney walked into Abbey Road Studios during the mixing of the score. Upon hearing Giacchino and Derrickson working on “Master of the Mystic End Credits”, McCartney observed, “Shades of ‘Walrus’…”
P.P.S.: *THE SPOILER DIMENSION* So Kaecilius works to serve the dread Dormammu. And the finale in the Dark Dimension is a provocative one, providing a unique climax to the conflict. Strange’s time loop of self-sacrifice certainly one-ups Tony Stark’s “sacrifice play” through a portal in The Avengers, and is a tidy bow on Strange’s arc to boot. The entire theme of the film is the acceptance of failure and death. Kaecilius refuses to accept the concept of time and thus mortality after death “insultingly” ravaged everyone he loved. For a long time, the Ancient One held onto artificially extended life, before finally accepting her legacy and the end of her story. In his career as a surgeon (being the best means juggling the highest stakes) Strange was motivated by his fear of failure. Strange’s willing submission to an eternity of skewering is one of those perfect metaphors that crop up in fiction sometimes. He embraces failure and mortality stubbornly, sacrificing himself with the same tenacity he had used before in his years of medical study. The very pathology of Strange’s arrogant past is redirected, aimed differently, to save the world. And in choosing to wear the broken watch that was Christine’s gift, Strange signals his knowledge that everything must eventually come to an end. Whether it’s a life, a world, or a relationship.
Oh, and the CGI monolith of Dormammu gives me bad flashbacks to Parallax in Green Lantern and Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
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.