The Commuter (2018) Mini-Review

The draw of the movie star has diminished. Will Smith can’t open Focus or After Earth, Tom Cruise can’t open American Made or The Mummy. But Liam Neeson has carved out his own niche, attracting viewers to movie after movie of his new personal brand of action-thriller. Here he is Michael MacCauley, an ex-cop and insurance salesman who takes up Joanna (Vera Farmiga, literally phoning in much of her performance) on an obscure offer, which soon leads to murder and mayhem, very stressful for a guy just trying to get home on the train.

The Commuter

So Neeson is the classic Hitchcockian “wrong man” protagonist, an everyman who finds himself in the wrong situation at the wrong time. (Director Jaume Collet-Serra even uses Hitchcock’s famous reverse dolly trick when MacCauley realizes the stakes have become personal.) This leads to plenty of opportunities for MacCauley to awkwardly size up other passengers, growl into phones, and, at the risk of giving the game away, beat up a guy with an electric guitar.

Collet-Serra, admirably eager to maximize pulpy thrills, directs with a restless camera, roaming the length of the train like David Fincher showing what’s going on outside the Panic Room. This serves well during the film’s best setpiece, which takes place on the train’s exterior, but can also create a sense of unreality. The movie’s big one-on-one fight, while entertaining, is a simulated one-take wonder with stitched together takes, like something out of Kingsman. One bar scene in particular is filmed with punishing shakycam.

The Commuter marks director Collet-Serra’s fourth collaboration with Neeson, with a fifth in development. Clearly these two are celluloid soul mates, and while Run All Night has pretensions of being a Heat-style serious family/crime epic, this film is a return to the simple setup of Non-Stop; in both films Neeson’s character must carry out an investigation on a moving vehicle that to the outside observer makes him look like a bloody madman. (Except here it’s not alcohol but Vera Farmiga that leads him astray.)

The screenplay is a stumbling block. I could just stop at saying that, but instead I’m breaking out the bullet points. The hack elements of the script include, but are not limited to:

  • A vital twist hinges entirely upon a villain casually saying a clichéd platitude that another character told MacCauley the villain said once before. So the cat is yanked out of the bag just so MacCauley (and the audience) can think “My god, it’s him! J’accuse!”
  • In Act 1, a conductor character says that the train will be the death of him, and in Act 3, guess what.
  • This movie does that thing I hate where villains tell the hero to do something the hero refuses to do, and after literally killing people, they address the hero and are all, “Dead bodies? That’s all you”. “He’s dead. And whose fault is that?” It’s yours, dumbass, you killed him. It doesn’t matter if you threatened to do it beforehand as a consequence; you created the situation where this person was in danger. With a straight face: the villain of The Fate of the Furious has a more nuanced understanding of choice theory.
  • MacCauley keeps seeing really on-the-nose signs for cheap sight gags. He’s stuck on the train and sees, “You could be home right now”. “Please report any suspicious behavior”. “Danger of death.” Har har har.
  • Star Trek’s Shazad Latif appears as a caricature of an asshole stockbroker with a bluetooth in place of a heart. Then MacCauley flips him off and says, “On behalf of America’s middle class, fuck you”. Incidentally, he should have said, “On behalf of America’s middle class, here’s my middle finger!”
  • Very awkward literary references.
  • The screenplay has the plot logic of a stock procedural, and the overall effect is that The Commuter feels like a potboiler trashy pulp novel you might find in a train station.

But is that necessarily a bad thing? Even after all that, The Commuter is not a bad film, but rather, it’s what I call a Very Functional Movie. (For me, like last year’s The Dark Tower.) While lacking in a lot of ways, it arrives at the station on time. And the audience I saw it with was so into it. They cheered, they gasped, they applauded at the Spartacus moment. The audience rooted for the hero and hissed at the bad ‘uns. And sometimes, that’s enough.

 

P.S.: After the opening credits, The Commuter title card shares the screen with… a Paddington 2 poster!!?! That sweet StudioCanal cross-promotion, I guess. This is an excellent transition to recommending that everyone see Paddington 2. Genuinely, the Paddington movies are modern family classics.

P.P.S.: Welcome to 2018 cinema. I suppose you could saw that my New Year’s resolution is to be more active on the blog, hence this mini-review. Look out for these quicker, more casual, more allusive reviews as the year progresses, alongside some splashy full-length reviews and editorials. And my end-of-year coverage will continue with My Film Awards shortly before Oscar nominations are announced, and My Year at the Movies shortly after that.

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My Favorite Films of 2017

19) Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde

A case of style over substance if ever there was one, but what style! One of the most aesthetically complete movies of the year, Atomic Blonde is a neon dream of a Cold War espionage thrill ride. The plot can twist itself in knots a bit, but observe the masterful hallway fight (part of a larger one-shot wonder-sequence) and you’ll understand the film’s priorities. Hopefully Charlize Theron’s ice cool spy Lorraine Broughton can carry the story into a sequel.

18) The Disaster Artist

The Disaster Artist

This chronicle of the making of “the best worst movie ever made” will play differently depending on whether you’ve entered The Room, but regardless, laughs will be had. The Disaster Artist is a brisk and likable comedy, sometimes truly hilarious, propelled by an engine of eccentricity in James Franco’s take on mysterious auteur Tommy Wiseau. Early scenes where Dave Franco’s Greg (and thus the audience) first gets to know Tommy are comedy gold, and actually outshine later scenes of the film production (some sequences require tonal gymnastics that the film isn’t quite limber enough to land). Anyway, how’s your sex life?

17) T2 Trainspotting

T2 Trainspotting

Nostalgia sequels are nothing new, but T2 Trainspotting asks, “What if those good ol’ days we’re nostalgic for were actually shit?” This 21-years-on sequel finds the ensemble in various stages of repeating old mistakes and breaking out of old cycles, with a big heart to go along with its old cynicism. Add in a new chill-inducing “choose…” montage, a hilarious musical number, and a bona fide slasher movie finale, and director Danny Boyle has done the film that made his name proud.

16) Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes

For me, this was a wonderful bait-and-switch. Rather than following by rote the titular tennis match between humbly trailblazing feminist Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and showy self-styled misogynist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), Battle of the Sexes transcends the true-life sports movie by prioritizing the personal. A rose-eyed and bittersweet romance between King and a radiant Andrea Riseborough gives the film its beating heart, even as it still builds to some terrific tennis action for the finale.

15) Beauty and the Beast

La Belle et la Bete

When it comes to the updates made by this remake of the beloved animated film, all I see are positives. The romance, the music, the production, it all comes together for something quite elegant – in particular, two of the new songs rule hard. While not flawless, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast is a movie I’ll be revisiting for a while.

14) I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore

I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore

There was no main character I liked more this year than Melanie Lynskey’s Ruth Kimke. She’s got more bad days than good, a hilarious sidekick (Elijah Wood), and a vigilante’s sense of moral indignation. The film, like director Macon Blair’s childhood friend Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room before it, feels like it was made to subtly comment on Trump’s America even before it was a reality. This left-of-center indie taps into something primal, even as it ambles down its own path.

13) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy

Leaning hard on spoofery, if this sequel to one of Marvel’s biggest sleeper hits had its tongue any more firmly in its cheek, it’d eat through the flesh. Free (for better or worse) from the traditional beats of an action movie, writer/director James Gunn digs deep with character (side characters Nebula and Yondu are given golden material here) and makes a grand cosmic daddy issues film – the spectacle has expanded, the focus has contracted. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may laugh at its own jokes a little more than warranted, but its freewheeling nature and stealth emotional gut-punches save the day.

12) Molly’s Game

Molly's Game

A movie after my own heart – my favorite actress Jessica Chastain headlining my favorite writer Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut! This engaging believe-it-or-not true-life account of lucrative underground poker has much to recommend it, but I actually prefer last year’s Chastain-starring Sorkin ripoff Miss Sloane (which is really a testament to how good Miss Sloane is rather than an indictment of Molly’s Game!). To an extent Molly’s Game exists now as a screenwriting opus to be revisited on home video, where each of its mile-a-minute witticisms can be extracted and appreciated at one’s own pace.

11) John Wick Chapter 2

John Wick Chapter 2

It wasn’t enough for the filmmakers behind John Wick Chapter 2 to fill another 90 minutes with gorgeously balletic gun-fu choreography and regularly paced headshots, although they’ve succeeded in that. What makes this sequel special is how it builds out this bizarre world of assassin subcultures and operatic vengeance. The film is an action touchstone while also delighting us with the context for that violence.

10) Wonder Woman

wonder-woman

It’s hard to imagine a lower bar to clear than the rest of the current DC cinematic universe, but Wonder Woman is more than just the best (read: only good) movie of the pack, it’s a genuinely great film. The No Man’s Land sequence is the moment of the year, an unironic crystallization so clear of why we as a culture mythologize superheroes that it seems destined to do for this generation what Superman: The Movie did for another.

9) Your Name.

Your Name.

The best animated film of the year, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name will make your heart feel a great many things. Breathtaking 2D animation comes in service of an evolving story that at first seems like just a silly bodyswap comedy but in due time becomes something mind-expanding. City boy Taki and small town girl Mitsuha are just lines on a page and voices in a stereo mix, but this is the magic of animation, that they become much more.

8) Baby Driver

Baby Driver

An audacious technical exercise, a swaggering experiment in formal editing, a jukebox musical heist, a kickass car chase flick, Baby Driver is master filmmaker Edgar Wright’s latest, making us all grateful for the concept of a passion project. Just as Baby (Ansel Elgort) syncs his getaway driving to the songs on his iPod, the film edits to the beats as well. As much a movie to be studied, as it is one to be swept away by while in the passenger seat.

7) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

An unflinchingly funny, vulgar, and emotional small-town saga unfolds when Mildred Hayes (a terrific Frances McDormand) uses three billboards to protest the lack of progress in solving her daughter’s rape/murder case. A great cast (of which Sam Rockwell is the other major highlight) and an unpredictable story make Ebbing, Missouri a darn good place to spend a couple hours.

6) Thor: Ragnarok

Thor Ragnarok

Exactly what I wanted out of a Taika Waititi Marvel movie and more, Thor: Ragnarok is an incredible spectacle and a well-rounded blockbuster. Hilarious but not vapid, outrageous but not alienating, the good stuff keeps popping off the screen like fireworks. Uncensored Jeff Goldblum, Chris Hemsworth’s comedy chops unleashed, a sadistic-as-Hel Cate Blanchett, a revelatory performance from Tessa Thompson, musical callbacks to other Marvel movies, bright pastel colors, one of the most exciting finales of the year, and Led Zeppelin!

5) The Post

The Post

Going into Steven Spielberg’s The Post I was thinking a lot of its value would come from its lightning-rod topicality as a White House spits on the free press, but I came out pleasantly surprised by its considerable cinematic power. Once it gets in its groove, scene after scene becomes exquisite, quietly powerful drama, as characters come to terms with painful truths about people they considered friends, and the choice between easy hypocrisy and hard idealism. This is a beautiful American movie, and proof that the Beard is not to be underestimated (here’s looking at Ready Player One…?). Also, The Post teases Watergate the way some movies tease Thanos’ invasion of Earth.

4) Colossal

Colossal

How to explain Colossal? Basically, a kaiju devastates Seoul and Anne Hathaway’s Gloria figures out that it mimics her own movements while at a certain location, and that it’s most likely a manifestation of her drinking problems. But you only have the see the movie to know that’s not the whole story at all. Colossal is a thematically rich character study unafraid to go to some dark places, and watching it unfold is one of the most rewarding cinematic journeys of the year.

3) The Fate of the Furious

Deckard Shaw Luke Hobbs

Between this and a certain other little movie, it sure was a good year for eighth installments in franchises, and the Fast and Furious series shows no signs of slowing down in quality after the turning point of Fast Five. While not without drawbacks, The Fate of the Furious is an immensely entertaining, beautifully edited action extravaganza that pushes the buttons so well it’s hard to imagine how a ninth film will top it. The way things are going, it’ll find a way.

2) Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Kylo Ren Samurai

The best blockbuster of the year, bar none, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a thrilling affirmation of everything Star Wars was and is and should be, filled with charismatic performances, sensitive character development, and a great spirit of desperate adventure. And on a technical level, how about gorgeous production design, a wonderful John Williams score, and courtesy of Rian Johnson, the most whip smart direction Star Wars has seen. Send me to the Coruscant insane asylum if you will, but I think The Last Jedi is the most flawless, if not the best, installment in this storied franchise.

1) Get Out

Get Out

The movie of 2017, the most important movie of the year, etc, etc. Get Out’s depiction of a different class of racism has rightly started a yearlong conversation. But beyond the real sociological concerns animating the film, Get Out is a perfect genre movie, moving from tension to joke to shock like clockwork. An uncannily assured debut feature from Jordan Peele, the film features expert editing, a fiendishly clever screenplay, and a murderer’s row of fantastic performances (Daniel Kaluuya, Catherine Keener, Betty Gabriel, Bradley Whitford, and Lil Rel Howery are all terrific). It takes a special talent to make an instantly iconic movie, but Jordan Peele obviously has a lot to get out of his system, and we should all be glad that he did.

My Most Anticipated Films of 2018

Is it really almost 2018? Whatever you make of that shocking fact, the coming year will have another bumper crop of movies, good, bad, and indifferent. For this list, I felt perhaps a bigger than usual challenge to represent both big franchise goodness and intriguing smaller-scale efforts, so I hope you enjoy what I’ve come up with. Ahead of my mid-January blitz of end-of-2017 material, let’s look forward before looking back.

First, a host of bonus picks. Creed 2 (the sequel to one of the best franchise reinventions in years also brings back the misunderstood Ivan Drago); Bad Times at the El Royale (filmmaker extraordinaire and super-writer Drew Goddard’s one-location thriller); Sicario 2: Soldado (a Benicio del Toro-starring sequel); Black Klansman (a topical and potentially very-big-deal movie from Spike Lee); Roma (potential new Alfonso Cuarón masterpiece in domestic mode but intriguingly shot with big ol’ technical ambition); Widows (Viola Davis leads an ensemble cast of widows who complete the heist that their late husbands could not); Ant-Man and the Wasp (finally, a female MCU superhero with at least co-lead billing); The Death of Stalin (after In the Loop, more Armando Ianucci pitch-black political satire); Solo: A Star Wars Story (it’s Star Wars, it’s maybe a gangster movie, it’s got Lando Calrissian).

10) Anna and the Apocalypse

Anna and the Apocalypse

This festival darling is a mashup Christmas zombie musical that apparently delivers on its considerable ambition rather than falling on its face. If this Scottish confection sticks the landing we could have a Shaun of the Dead-level success here. If not, at least it will probably hard to take our eyes off it.

9) Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-it Ralph 2

Ralph Breaks the Internet Wreck-it Ralph 2

I’m not a fan of Wreck-it Ralph. Then, why is this sequel on the list? Basically because it promises to be Disney’s The LEGO Movie, metatextually zipping around references and in-jokes. There’s trepidation because it could also be Disney’s The Emoji Movie, with the considerable risk of commenting on the weirdness of the internet. So like Anna and the Apocalypse, this is a mashup movie that has to walk a pretty thin tightrope, but what secured its place on this list is a sequence bringing together the Disney princesses (a scene which screened at Disney expo D23 and brought the house down). *Deep breath* Irene Bedard as Pocahontas, Kelly Macdonald as Merida, Linda Larkin as Jasmine, Anika Noni Rose as Tiana, Jodi Benson as Ariel, Mandy Moore as Rapunzel, Ming-Na Wen as Mulan, Paige O’Hara as Belle, Kristen Bell as Anna, Idina Menzel as Elsa, and Auli’i Cravalho as Moana! Disney fans, try to stay calm.

8) Domino

Brian De Palma Domino

Not a Deadpool spinoff, not a reboot of the Keira Knightley movie, not another remake of Thunderball. This is the latest film from one of our greatest living directors, Brian De Palma, his first since the extremely uneven Passion. De Palma has been very open about how difficult it is for older filmmakers to recapture their creative spark, but you never know when it will reignite. With a promising cast including Guy Pearce and Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Carice van Houten, this new film from the director of Carrie and Dressed to Kill is one to keep an eye on.

7) Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns

Making a sequel to one of the greatest film musicals of all time is a bold move, and hiring Lin-Manuel Miranda to help develop the songs is certainly a good first step. I get the sense that Disney seems to be throwing every bit of whimsy they have into this one, and hopefully the long development period pays off. Also, Dick Van Dyke is coming back, so I’ll take this opportunity to say that his bad Cockney accent is absolutely the right fit for his character.

6) The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

This film probably tops the list of Movie Fandom’s most anticipated, simply because of how absurdly long Terry Gilliam has spent trying to make this thing a reality. Disastrous weather, bailing financiers, actor changes, and more have been obstacles in the decades-long process of getting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote made, which has been a quixotic journey in itself. It makes you wonder if the film itself can possibly be as interesting as its genesis. We’ll see!

5) Black Panther

Black Panther

My fellow Saint Mary’s College alumnus Ryan Coogler is one of the more exciting rising star directors out there. Starting small with Fruitvale Station, killing it with a mid-budget Creed, and now in the MCU big leagues with Black Panther, Coogler has assembled an impeccable cast for an Afro-futurist extravaganza. Despite this movie coming out pretty soon, we intriguingly don’t know much about the story and themes at play; let’s hope this movie soars.

4) Mission: Impossible 6

Mission Impossible 6

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation was the best spy movie of 2015, a year riddled with them. That film’s writer and director Christopher McQuarrie is coming back for more (a first for a Mission: Impossible director), after giving us the airplane stunt, the opera house sequence to end all opera house sequences, and Ilsa Faust, one of my favorite film characters of recent memory. This sequel has big shoes to fill, but it’s distinguished itself already by featuring a stunt that actually incapacitated the unstoppable Tom Cruise. They’re gonna use the take that hurt in the movie, I know it.

3) Paddington 2

Paddington 2

Mea culpa. I included Paddington 2 in My Most Anticipated Films of 2017, and while it did release in October 2017 in the UK, the US release schedule pushes it back to January of the following year. Everything I said before still applies for this sequel to one of the best family movies in decades, except that people in Paddington’s native UK have seen it already. Suffice to say, they like it.

2) Lucy and Desi

Lucy and Desi

This is my moonshot. At time of writing Aaron Sorkin (!) has apparently not gotten word one into the screenplay, but it’s still at least conceivable this could be ready for next year’s awards season. Sorkin has pitched Lucy and Desi as looking at a week in the behind-the-scenes life of I Love Lucy (a show that I will never stop loving), Lucille Ball to be played by Cate Blanchett. Celluloid, here we come.

1) Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers Infinity War

From Iron Man to Avengers: Infinity War, ten years will have passed. The runaway success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment has changed the face of the movie industry, leaving in its wake success after success, beloved character after beloved character. Infinity War is Marvel’s victory lap, the Super Bowl of superhero movies, with a bench of cast members so deep you need a lifeguard to read its IMDb page. Any movie that brings together Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff, Dave Bautista as Drax, and (probably) Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie is a shoo-in for my most anticipated movie of 2018.

The Once and Future Pauper: Reconstructing Star Wars in The Last Jedi

Contains full spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

“Something inside me has always been there… but now it’s awake.” – Star Wars

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the longest film in the franchise, appropriately has a lot on its mind, but also uses its cinematic flair for an exciting popcorn ride. More than just a good eighth installment, it’s the type of sequel that reignites the appeal of what came before. It does this by giving itself wholly over to the core appeal of Star Wars, while expanding our understanding of those basic elements.

Rey

What’s quickly apparent is that The Last Jedi puts the Wars in Star Wars. Never before have detailed military tactics and big picture strategic chess moves played such a big part in these films. Attention is paid to the interacting dynamics of shields, propulsion, maneuverability, fuel reserves, and the role of fighters versus the role of bombers. When Paige Tico desperately tries to reach a detonator (an easy ask of a Force user), it feels like something out of World War II. Forget Rogue One, this is a star war. So, the core martial aspect of Star Wars is laid out with clear stakes and a greater detail than ever before.

Resistance Fleet

The good guys.

This film’s portrayal of the heroic Resistance actually stands somewhat in contrast to the other Disney-era films. Whereas The Force Awakens reframed the Rebellion vs. Empire conflict into the Resistance vs. First Order because that underdog setup is just what works, The Last Jedi leans into that echo hard. With their backs constantly up against the wall, the Resistance is simply referred to as the Rebellion several times (the literalization of this being when the Resistance sets up shop with analog Rebel Alliance technology on Crait, including barely-hanging-together ski speeders), and the alt-right, neo-Nazi, fragile-egoed white supremacist-type character Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young man trying to live up to the glory of the old Empire. Rogue One was all about complicating the central conflict, with corruption in the Rebellion facing off against a long-suffering middle manager in the form of Krennic, but The Last Jedi decisively returns to simplicity while also making the conflict dramatically engaging. We know the black-and-white, good vs. evil storytelling of the original Star Wars – here it is again, familiar and reinvented at the same time.

First Order Walkers

The bad guys.

On a related note, The Last Jedi further defines the spirit of rebellion, this idea we’ve cheered for ever since an overly excited Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) asked C-3PO if he knew of the rebellion against the Empire. As the trip to casino city Canto Bight illustrates, rebellion is not just about fighting “evil”, but injustice. And this is why Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is so vital to the movie.

Finn and Rose

An introverted gearhead with a passionate sense of right and wrong and an affinity for the underdog, Rose converts Finn (John Boyega) to the Cause. Because before, Finn was swept up in events for the sake of his friends, having “imprinted” on Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) as the first people to treat him like one. Arriving at Canto Bight, Finn learns from Rose that you don’t have to wear First Order jackboots to be one of the bad guys. The menagerie of wining and dining war profiteers make this a very clear class fable – when Rose shows an abused stableboy that her ring carries the symbol of the Rebellion, we are given a rare and welcome indication of just who the good guys are fighting for.

General Leia

Releasing the exploited fathiers at Canto Bight is save-the-cat screenwriting at its best. Rose’s purity of heart contrasts other characters’ cynicism very well, but there is bitterness and pain as well. She has the line of the movie (hell, a contender for line of the saga) when she says, “I wish I could put my fist through this lousy, beautiful town”. Rose wears her heart, and the symbol of rebellion, on her sleeve.

Poe Dameron

Also at the nexus of Canto Bight, the greying of the central galactic conflict is represented by DJ (Benicio del Toro). This free agent neither good nor evil (“It’s all a machine – don’t join”) brings up some valid points but is ultimately portrayed as a villain. His selfishness is instructive for Finn, who has his hero moment, motivated positively by Rose and negatively by DJ, to proudly call himself “Rebel scum”. Now we feel even more what this means.

Finn

Even in small ways, central tenets of Star Wars are reinforced. When Rey reaches out with her feelings we are given a poetic Terrence Malick-ian montage that portrays the Force more completely than before. And speaking of the Force, let’s talk about our hero and villain, so dangerously strong with it. The teasing of Rey to the dark and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to the light could not have been handled any better. The cinematic device of their long-distance Force phone calls they want to hide from dad (Luke and Snoke) is genius, allowing true connection. After the fantastic dark side mirror cave sequence, Rey confides her deep-seated need to see her parents not to Luke but to Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren

But Rey and Kylo Ren each end the film disappointed in the other. Rey correctly foresaw Kylo Ren kill Snoke and took this as evidence of light, and Kylo Ren thought that when he revealed the truth of Rey’s parents to her she would join him, but each was mistaken. It’s that old chestnut, “from a certain point of view”. (We even get a Rashomon-style triptych story of the night Kylo Ren destroyed Luke’s old Jedi temple, so the tradition of Star Wars referencing Kurosawa is still alive.) What we have here with Rey and Ren’s kind of dance is a fresh take on that familiar Star Wars trope of “turning” people to the light or dark side. We can experience that thrilling glimmer of hope for Kylo Ren as he kills Snoke – and the language of Star Wars says, that’s it, he’s on the side of good now – but it’s not that simple. Again, the same, but richer.

Snoke Tortures Rey

It should be noted that this part of the movie contains one of the most badass action sequences in the franchise, the two-on-eight Praetorian guard dustup. (Rey and Kylo Ren each briefly use the other’s lightsaber, which has shades of Obi-Wan using Asajj Ventress’ red lightsaber in The Clone Wars TV series.) And after the dust settles, we learn that Rey’s parents were, in the grand scheme of things, nobodies. This is how Star Wars grows beyond the Skywalker Saga, beyond the idea of dynasty. If a powerful Force user, but more pertinently a great hero, can come from the humblest beginnings, there is hope for the galaxy.

The Force

So Kylo Ren takes over as Supreme Leader of the First Order, and if you thought his temper tantrums were bad before… He comes face-to-face with Luke, and Kylo Ren figures after Han Solo and Snoke, it’s time to kill the final father figure, the one who failed him all those years ago. When he and Luke face off, they don’t need to trade blows and hack off each other’s limbs for it to be thrilling. The wide-shot of their samurai standoff is stunningly beautiful, Luke a picture of determined calm and Ren a coiled lion in a cage. It turns out that Luke is projecting his image through the Force, and it’s vital that he’s not there; Kylo Ren can never get the satisfaction of finally killing this man he hates. Luke projects himself as a younger man, exactly as Kylo Ren remembers him. That’s salt in the wound. If Luke had been there and been killed by Ren, that’s a semblance of closure. As it is, Luke looks up at twin suns and becomes one with the Force, Rey finds her place with friends and fugitive heroes, and Kylo Ren has all the power he could want except the means to be rid of his pain.

Kylo Ren Samurai

Over and over The Last Jedi recontextualizes but also celebrates the building blocks of Star Wars. Far from a deconstruction, it adds vital detail and nuance to the elements that have always been there. But beyond all the themes and deep character work, just look at the moment when the Millennium Falcon takes a hard turn into the crystalline underground on Crait and John Williams deploys his classic dogfighting music. The Last Jedi shows an instinctive understanding of Star Wars in that instant. It clicks with our lizard brains. So The Last Jedi is also funny, exciting, pretty-looking blockbuster entertainment. If it wasn’t that, it just wouldn’t be good Star Wars.

The Fate of the Furious (2017) Film Review

If you’re a villain in the Fast and Furious franchise, odds are you will be redeemed. After all, Dominic Toretto himself (Vin Diesel) started out as a criminal in the sights of the FBI. So observe the pre-titles sequence of The Fate of the Furious (the eighth in a series now moving from strength to ridiculously muscle-powered strength, long may it continue). In Havana (a filming location coup), Dom and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) are visiting a cousin when a street-racing asshole named Fernando decides to mark his territory. An involved wager becomes a contract of the street, and Dom and the beard-twirling villain rev their engines for a street race. Even though Dom rides in a vintage wreck of a car, the odds are even. Even though the asshole cheats a couple times, the odds are even. Dom wins in a close but clean finish, and gains Fernando’s respect, and later, his vitally important help. It’s redemption in a nutshell; after one fateful race, Fernando is redeemed.

Deckard Shaw

Also brought onto the side of the angels this time? Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw, last seen cutting a swath through Dom’s family in the previous installment. Last year, Superman of all people observed, “no one stays good in this world”. The unexpected humanism of Fast and Furious might counter with “no one stays bad in this world.”

Cipher Dominic Toretto

But what raises the stakes this time is that the villain threatening the team seems unredeemable, the cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron). Her method of tearing the family apart is bold: turning Dom against them. How will Dom’s crew (Rodriguez as series MVP Letty, Dwayne Johnson as DSS super-agent Luke Hobbs, Tyrese Gibson as comic relief Roman Pierce, Ludacris as tech support Tej Parker, Nathalie Emmanuel as hacker Ramsey) take down their former leader? And what has led Dom to such villainy?

Letty Ortiz

Promotional material suggested a somber, murkier Fast movie. There’s a bit of a bait-and-switch there, because that dour material is just the backbone for another high-octane blast of fun. Granted, this creates a disconnect when one side of the story has heavy dramatic pretensions while the rest of it is more like a romp. Getting my one criticism out of the way first, post-heel turn Dom’s thread of the story in Cipher’s lair sometimes gets the wrong balance of melodrama. The operatics of this story bleed over into outright cruelty at one point, and it doesn’t help that Vin Diesel’s only way to emote is to shout. Charlize Theron sells Cipher’s long coiled-serpent monologues, but even she can’t save “Why live your life a quarter mile at a time when you can live your whole life that way?” It’s clear from the context of the scene what Cipher means, but that is one clunker of a line. But this speedbump aside, the movie works like gangbusters.

Dominic Toretto Gone Rogue

When I reviewed Furious 7, it was my first experience with this franchise. Having familiarized myself with it since then, I love how every latter-day installment is a continuity extravaganza. Cipher is retconned into being behind a couple minor villains in previous movies. Sound familiar? She’s Blofeld from Spectre done right! (Also, I literally squeed in the theater when [REDACTED] shows up.) The Shaw family is portrayed beautifully, headed by matriarch Helen Mirren (!). Jason Statham is fantastic as reformed villain Deckard Shaw, and the tiny hints of his backstory given here make perfect sense and make him one of the most compelling characters in the series. It’s crazy how much can be extrapolated about his character from the tiniest of moments. He’s also half of a terrific double act with Luke Hobbs. Maybe the best moment of the film is Johnson and Statham laughing after insulting each other in a moment that definitely feels like they broke character – but it’s perfect so director F. Gary Gray keeps it in.

Deckard Shaw Luke Hobbs

As for the rest of the cast, they’re a delight. Perennial favorite Letty carries a lot of the (admittedly one-note) emotional heavy lifting, and when the tide inevitably turns in the good guys’ favor, her joy is infectious. Even Roman’s comic relief is more on point than it’s ever been. However, Paul Walker’s absence is felt. At first Scott Eastwood as a DSS newbie looks like a third-rate replacement, but he ends up with a fun arc.

Russian Submarine

The action sequences are the usual spectacular rampages. Remote-controlled drone cars, a kinetic prison break, a submarine chase, the usual array of one-on-one fights. Motorcyclists run interference to clear the way for street racers, the laws of physics are defied as a car turns in mid-air. The third act contains an extended climax that never once flags or becomes monotonous. The stunt and choreography teams are firing on all cylinders, and their quest to keep topping themselves boggles the mind when looking forward to Fast Nine.

Car Cables

The “Feight” of the Furious is entertainment on a grand scale, franchise filmmaking at its best. The pre-titles sequence T&A feels like an obligation, a nod to the roots of this action series that has graduated to genuine greatness. This eighth installment holds the record for highest worldwide opening weekend gross of all time, and the record books could have done a whole lot worse. There are too many fist-pumping moments to count. Can you call some of them ridiculous? Yes, you can – but this is a franchise with its own “Han Seoul-o”; it’s embraced its own rules. While certainly not as emotional as Furious 7’s wake for Paul Walker, I still cried at the ending. The theme of family is hit so hard. The humanism of this franchise rivals Star Trek. The Fate of the Furious is the first Fast film I love as much as the series itself. 9/10.

 

P.S.: The easy joke is that the presence of Charlize Theron makes this The Fast and the Furiosa. Also, Deckard calls Hobbs “Hercules”, surely referencing The Rock’s starring role in 2014’s Hercules, the shooting of which caused Hobbs to have a reduced role in Furious 7. Hercules – despite being directed by a serial sexual harasser – is a pretty decent movie.

P.P.S.: I can’t write this review without mentioning that a Luke Hobbs/Deckard Shaw buddy movie is on the way. Based on their chemistry in this movie, this is a slam-dunk great idea, whether Tyrese Gibson approves or not.

2017: A Spoof Odyssey – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as Whoopee Cushion with a Heart

Contains full spoilers for, and forensic analysis of, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. See the movie, read the essay.

“More of the same, but different.” That’s the balancing act that most sequels are judged by, and it’s hard to think of a clearer example of that axiom in practice than Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. A psychedelic smorgasbord of color, it’s an inwardly focused character movie with the window dressing of a space opera. But the thing is, Vol. 2 is a brazen spoof of that genre, to an extent unheard of in a major summer tentpole. Over and over, the film undercuts elements that would be played straight in most other movies, including its own predecessor. The spine of Vol. 2 is the drama between Peter Quill and his wayward father Ego the Living Planet, as well as the dynamic of the Guardians team. Because the character side of things is established as the core element, elsewhere the film consistently takes the audience into the realm of spoof.

– The violent battle with the many-tentacled Abilisk cedes the foreground to Baby Groot dancing to Electric Light Orchestra.

Gamora Baby Groot Hi

“Hi!”

– A self-described “massive space battle” – or space chase, for the Milano, like Serenity before it, has no weapons – takes a backseat to the alpha male competition of Peter and Rocket Raccoon, fighting over the wheel like some people fight over the TV remote.

– In perhaps the most explicit parody motif, the Guardians are chased by remote-controlled drones, piloted like arcade video game cabinets.

– During the Abilisk fight and Ravager massacre, Rocket insists on playing diegetic 1970s pop-rock as a soundtrack – after all, the Disney-approved slaughter of an entire pirate crew would be laid bare without it.

– Space travel is given a Looney Tunes twist with the hilarious jump point sequence.

– The iconic and overly dignified group shot is quickly subverted.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Pre-pratfall.

– And of course, Groot bumps into the camera.

I can imagine a different version of the movie where Nebula’s monologue isn’t undercut, and where Taserface’s name passes without comment. (In Avengers: Infinity War, Nebula’s vengeance won’t lead into a joke about hats.) In fact, going back and rewatching the first Guardians of the Galaxy makes for a shocking contrast. Vol. 1 has unconventional elements in service of a conventional action movie, filled to the brim as it is with one-on-one showdowns, henchmen to punch, and mini-bosses to overcome. With maybe a couple subtle spoof-like moments here and there, Vol. 1 plays out on a much wider (and, I would say, more bloated) canvas, and while Vol. 2 lacks that scale, its intimacy is an asset. And again, it’s because the core of this sequel is laser-focused on character that a lot of the plot stuff is free to go off the reservation and embrace parody.

Nebula

Indeed, in Vol. 2, the action is just a delivery system for therapy. My favorite scene of the movie is Nebula and Gamora’s fight/extremely violent sisters’ therapy session. In this particular face-off on Ego’s Planet, something mysterious happens where the copious CGI, and the very exaggerated, external things the two sisters are doing become the perfect embodiment of what they’re feeling. When Nebula jaggedly crashes her ship through the cave just to desperately close the distance between her and her hated sibling, all those pixels are in service of something real. When Gamora fires the absurdly large mounted gun, it’s a metaphor for what people feel like they want to do to their family members in moments of frustration. The audience feels this on a primal level. And so Nebula in particular gains the roundedness that was only hinted at in the first film in this most well executed subplot of Vol. 2.

Gamora Big Gun

Of course, this movie exists to put Peter Quill through the emotional wringer. The villain is his own father, played with saucy gravitas by Kurt Russell, casually owning up to the murder of Peter’s mother. Peter goes from suspicion of Ego’s true nature, to embracing it, to wrath at Ego’s capricious killing of the woman he claims he loved, to acceptance of space pirate Yondu as his true “daddy”, to grief at Yondu’s sacrifice. When Peter turns on Ego on a dime at the revelation that Ego introduced Meredith Quill’s cancer, he might as well have said “I don’t care – you killed my mom” like another Marvel hero.

Peter Quill

However, this moment of high drama gives way to the negative side of spoofery, as in a case of tonal whiplash we go from “you killed my mom” to a David Hasselhoff cameo in a matter of seconds. Similarly, the film’s audaciously intimate final shot (Rocket crying as he realizes that his friends will always love him even after he risks pushing them away by acting like a grade-a asshole) would have had more impact if we didn’t go almost directly to a jokey first credits scene. And fans of Drax in Vol. 1 will be mixed on whether turning him almost exclusively into a comic relief character in Vol. 2 is a change for the better. These examples might show that the parody moments work better when subverting genre tropes and plot mechanics rather than the actual characters we’re here to see, but in the end these are minor demerits.

Ego

In fact, desperate as Vol. 2 is to entertain by any means necessary, it’s also another thematically engaging Marvel movie. When Ego identifies as a “small g” god, we are invited to notice he has much more than a “small e” ego. Ego’s evil master plan that threatens the whole universe™ is to make everyone an extension of him, which is an exaggeration of a recognizable impulse. Why can’t other people understand me? Why do they have to see things differently? Mantis, the very embodiment of empathy, is the only thing that can give the pure expression of Ego any form of rest from its apocalyptic egocentrism. And so, Ego’s forced homogenous connection with others comes into conflict with the explicit diversity of the Guardians. The Guardians are the good guys here because they find empathy with other people: when Gamora and Nebula learn to view their dark childhoods from the other’s perspective; when Yondu and Rocket find they recognize the same insecurities in each other even while retaining their own distinct identities. All three villains in the film (Ego; Ayesha, pursuing a grudge across the galaxy to the ruin of her fleet; Taserface, insisting that his judgment as captain is best) are egos out of control. Their justification for evil comes only from their inflated sense of rightness, particularly Ego, who in a pleasingly unusual scene of lyrical analysis uses the song “Brandy” to explain that he will always choose selfishness over other people. Unlike Nebula, Yondu, Mantis, and even Kraglin, a person like Ego would never be “welcome to the frickin’ Guardians of the Galaxy”.

Ego's Planet

Staying tethered to character-based humor and drama gives Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 license to take a page from the Airplane!/Monty Python and the Holy Grail book and go wild with the tropes of its genre. Its spoof elements feel natural with its world, even if it laughs at its own jokes a bit much, and after the dust settles this sequel makes its predecessor look grounded by comparison. It’s a risky way to thread the needle of “more of the same but different” but I expect nothing less from the franchise peopled by the biggest-hearted a-holes in the galaxy.

 

P.S.: Guardians of the Galaxy, with its spaced-out aesthetics and unhinged humor, has a kindred spirit in the Australian science fiction TV show Farscape, so it’s only appropriate that Farscape star Ben Browder appears in Vol. 2 as one of the gold-painted Sovereign. Speaking of them, I love that in the finale “Wham Bam Shang a Lang” becomes an absurd villain theme for the Sovereign.

P.P.S.: Something that bothered me when hinted in Vol. 1, and becomes even more deflating now that it’s confirmed in Vol. 2, was that Peter was only able to hold an Infinity Stone because he’s part Celestial. In Vol. 1, Peter and the other Guardians contained the Power Stone with the power of friendship. This colossal monument to their constructed family is now a plot point for Peter’s biological one. For a movie so attuned to theme over plot, this stands out as a poor retcon.

Look-Alikes:

Aleta Ogord Hela

Michelle Yeoh as Aleta Ogort = Cate Blanchett as Hela? Aleta even says, “Hell yes.”

Martinex Night King

Martinex = The Night King from Game of Thrones?

Super Mario Bros. (1993) Mini-Review

If you can get through anger, denial, bargaining, and depression, acceptance is a wonderful thing.

Luigi Mario Mario Mario

It can allow you to find 1993’s Super Mario Bros. endearing in its earnest goofiness. It doesn’t forgive the lost potential of what could have been a touchstone moment in legitimizing video game source material in the medium of film, but it allows you to take the ashes of this pop cultural train wreck on its own terms, and have a little straightforward fun with it. Yes, certain elements of the movie cross the event horizon of silly and enter the realm of the absurd, and yes, the aesthetic choice of portraying the Mushroom Kingdom as a sub-Total Recall dystopia is… disappointing for those expecting Mario actor Bob Hoskins to have another jolly old Who Framed Roger Rabbit romp, but going with the flow of Super Mario Bros. is not a miserable experience. It’s an oddly diverting one.

It’s an understatement to say that Super Mario Bros. has gotten flack as an adaptation of the video game franchise. And sure, the contrast between bright, colorful, fantastical Mushroom Kingdom from the games and neo-noir, steamy, dystopian Mushroom Kingdom from the film is one of the biggest communal punching bags in the history of fandom. But I think there are successful, or at least entertaining, translations of game elements.

It makes a twisted kind of sense to take goombas back to their roots as actual “goombahs” (emphasis on the “bah”) in the Mafioso connotation of the word. Daisy, not Peach, is the female lead, and is given passion, agency, and strength of character while also growing into her role as Princess. Iggy and Spike’s shift from buffoonish henchmen to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-alike free agents is too bold a choice to write off. The bob-ombs are great. And when a voice in the crowd shouts “It’s a bob-omb!!!”, it’s one of the movie’s best absurdist jokes – in our world, “It’s a bomb!” is one of the last things you would ever want to hear, but just adding that one syllable makes it hilarious. And best of all, the running joke about Mario being frightening of jumping is kind of wonderful.

The outside-the-box spirit of the movie means it goes for crazy abandon. Fiona Shaw’s gangster’s moll character is electrocuted and gains the Bride of Frankenstein’s hairstyle, for… reasons? Dennis Hopper’s King Koopa makes his lair the top floor of a World Trade Center tower, making those scenes an odd watch nowadays. And this is a movie where the day is saved by blaring “Somewhere My Love” by Frankie Yankovic. (Yes, that weirdo’s father.) It’s all a carefree level of odd that’s consistently watchable. As the postscript section below lines out, Super Mario Bros. foreshadows elements of other films. One film it fails to foreshadow, despite its best efforts, is its own sequel. This movie has the sheer nerve to end on a cliffhanger! Of course, an ongoing story was not to be. Making less than half your posted budget will do that to you.

This way, Super Mario Bros. can live on as a curiosity, a one-off that blog posts like this can put under the microscope for some arcane purpose. But as the Mario license expands – cue marquee for Nintendo Land, coming to Universal Studios in 2019 – another movie must be on the cards. Now for all my advocacy, I can’t say the 1993 effort is a good film. I have fun with it and will stick up for certain aspects, but it seems extremely unlikely that any future Super Mario movie won’t clear this bar of quality. (Double negatives are where it’s at!) The 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie is flawed, an occasionally embarrassing patchwork of off-the-wall ideas, but it’s got heart, kid and a spirit of adventure. It’s certainly better than a piece of garbage like Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.

P.S.: Super Mario Bros. has a line in anticipating aspects of other movies. Predating the mighty Jurassic Park by a mere two weeks, Super Mario Bros. also features a primitively animated sequence voiced by a cheesily accented narrator explaining how dinosaurs can live in the present. Also, lovable Yoshi is in line with JP’s popularization of the velociraptor as iconic design. The reptilian goombahs swaying to music in an elevator foreshadows the celebrated (relative term) scene in 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles where the Turtles improvise music during a long elevator ride. And well before the days of Harry Potter, future Aunt Petunia Fiona Shaw tells Daisy, “You have your mother’s eyes”.

Ghost World (2001) Mini-Review

Any escape might help to smooth / The unattractive truth / But the suburbs have no charms to soothe / The restless dreams of youth” – Rush’s ‘Subdivisions’, 1982

After the suburban nightmare of American Beauty, Thora Birch returns to similar teenage angst in Ghost World, starring as the misanthropic Enid. At first joined at the hip with best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), the introverted outsider graduates from high school but despairs of living in a world populated so heavily by losers and idiots. Deceptively aimless days ensue, but all the while lives are being derailed. This apathetic but confident dramedy wanders but never meanders through its episodic plot, picking up steam as it goes on until it becomes something truly special. Filled as it is by characters who treasure obscure pieces of art, Ghost World ends up being worthy of treasure too.

Enid Seymour

Based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel (which, believe it or not, was required reading for me in grad school), this live-action adaptation more than does right by the source material. The cast makes sense of some of the tossed-off quirkiness of the comic, led by the terrific Birch. Johansson doesn’t make as much of an impression as her, but shows a real talent for underplaying, which has gone on to serve her extremely well later in her career. And after American Beauty, Birch trades in love interests for a definite upgrade: the pretentious Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) for Steve Buscemi’s wonderfully endearing Seymour (choice line: “What if I don’t want to meet people who share my interests? I hate my interests.”).

Enid’s renegade rhetorical reaction to society’s bullshit makes her an antihero with a compelling arc; an early act of hers tips over into cruelty, but something entirely unexpected comes out of it. This is a key theme of the movie, as of all things a restaurant is used to make the same point. That’s the kind of quirky storytelling that works beautifully. No wonder that the screenplay (by Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff) was nominated for an Oscar; its trick is to so perfectly balance vignette structure and an A-to-B-to-C consequential plot. Plus, after an early stretch that tries a bit too hard for pithy, it’s damn quotable.

Films like Ghost World and American Beauty are pre-9/11 time capsules, when suburbia-as-hell could fly as a source of emotional malaise. But that doesn’t date Ghost World one bit, and it’s one of the better comic book movies out there. Daniel Clowes’ Wilson was adapted this year into a film starring Woody Harrelson, and if that movie had half the wit and purposefulness of Ghost World, it would have been sitting pretty.

P.S.: Favorite character actor bit part: future Monk actor Marc Vann as a hilarious vinyl snob.

P.P.S.: Stay through the credits.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) Mini-Review

For about five minutes at the beginning of Luc Besson’s latest gonzo science fiction romp, we are shown the building of a utopia. A montage of diplomacy, this opening shows how earthbound nations begin to cooperate in the arena of space, and then without skipping a beat, how humanity goes on to welcome various alien races as friends. The International Space Station gradually becomes bigger and bigger as more and more cultures add to its diversity; the core of the City of a Thousand Planets is already in Earth orbit. It’s a sequence of humanism to rival anything in the Star Trek archive (recalling as it does the show Enterprise’s title sequence chronicling the progression of space travel). And while Valerian goes on to dazzle with visual wonders, the opening title sequence is so much the standout that you can be forgiven for walking out right then and there.

Alpha

Diversity as pure addition – it doesn’t have to mean subtraction for anyone.

The case for the rest of the film is weakened quite a bit by the vapid lead characters. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne play agents Valerian and Laureline, titular heroes of a vintage French comic strip now adapted into this $175 million-plus-budgeted blockbuster. Their corny sub-pulp fiction banter and flirtation feels like the throwback it was intended to be, but rests entirely on a chemistry that isn’t there, and absent emotions. Co-star Rihanna may not be a professional actor, but she still shows more humanity in 10 seconds than either lead does throughout the entire movie. DeHaan is much more at home navigating sinister sanatoriums and playing the antihero than he is as a Buck Rogers-esque action hero, and Delevigne continues her quest to convincingly show an emotion on screen. At least Jane Fonda as Barbarella, who shows that there’s precedent for bizarre 1960s French pulp heroes to translate to film, had screen presence and was more in on the cosmic joke.

Laureline Valerian

Our sickly leads. Maybe Dane DeHaan never left the Volmer Institute from A Cure for Wellness?

Trailers for Valerian billed it as based on the “legendary graphic novel”, but it’s more accurately a comic strip. And to match that, the film has a very episodic structure, all the better to slideshow its various spaced-out visual ideas and high-concept action scenes (interdimensional shopping!), all falling out of a very big and French piñata. This is the raison d’être of the movie, and the splendor of the world(s) is undeniable. It’s just a shame that a film so production designed to death didn’t invest the time to create characters worth caring about, and while there are interesting thematic elements to the plot (disrespect to one sentient race – incidentally with a coded transgender Emperor – becomes a nameless darkness that threatens the entire utopia), a story tying it all with a bow. There have been other significantly flawed but visually stunning movies this year, such as Kong: Skull Island and Ghost in the Shell. Let’s hope that future efforts balance the equation.

Draag Pearl

French visions of the alien

P.S.: Other aesthetic notes: As you can see above, long stretches of the film resemble nothing so much as a live-action take on René Laloux’ Fantastic Planet. Besson’s own Fifth Element gets a couple nods here in the form of a restaurant name and an equivalent sequence to the legendary “diva dance”. And in an ADR fail, I’m almost certain that for one important line, Laureline speaks while her mouth stays completely still.

P.P.S.: This is a semi-new category of review for the site, alongside the larger-scale film reviews with pretty pictures, editorials, franchise flashback, TV talk, and end-of-year review stuff. Mini-reviews are designed to take less time out of my schedule and hopefully a lot more are coming soon. As I see more and more movies every year (at time of writing, I’ve seen 55 2017 releases), my review productivity has gotten worse and worse. Mini-reviews are a new way to get more movie thoughts up on the site efficiently, but at the same time not just for new releases. And I know it’s a bit odd that this is the movie with which I’m coming back; there’ve been some heavy hitters I’ve missed reviewing. Perhaps pieces on some recent big names will turn up eventually; right now I’m at work on a big full-scale Fate of the Furious review. Happy viewing!

Beauty and the Beast (2017) Film Review

Music is the key. A while ago, I argued that to grow in quality, Disney’s live-action remakes should embrace more and more of their source material’s music. Cue an all-singing, all-dancing take on the studio’s landmark Beauty and the Beast from 1991, with that animation’s composer Alan Menken back to update the movie’s musical repertoire. Remaking the first animated Best Picture nominee is a major throwing down of the gauntlet, but this Beauty and the Beast has captured the spirit of the original, while also making smart and significant changes to craft an impressive new experience.

Prince's Castle

In 18th Century France, a Prince (Dan Stevens) selfishly rejects hospitality for an old woman, who turns out to be an enchantress. In so doing, he dooms himself to a seeming eternity as a Beast, his servants to transformation into household objects, his castle to an eternal winter, and his rule to be forgotten by his subjects. But his isolated world intersects with one of them, the bookish Belle (Emma Watson), and for the first time there’s a sliver of hope that the enchantress’ curse can be lifted. As Belle meets Prince Charming but won’t discover that it’s him until Act 3, will the Beast let this sharp-witted inventor steal into his melancholy heart? And will the castle finally see days in the sun again?

La Belle et la Bete

The whole picture falls apart without the foundation of Belle and the Beast’s romance, and it’s more convincing here than it’s ever been before. The key is the library scene. In the original, the Beast presenting Belle with the library was a grand romantic gesture suggested by Lumiére, whereas here, the Beast opens this world of letters to Belle with the casual manner of a boy showing a girl his back catalog of National Geographics. The two bookworms, charmingly played by Watson and Stevens, forge a genuine connection by the end of the movie.

Belle Library

Rhetorical question: What’s more important to Belle than books?

Director Bill Condon (Chicago, vivid and a total blast) and co-screenwriter Stephen Chbosky (Rent, fun but lacking any storytelling spine) have both written movie musicals before, and that experience yields smart touches throughout. Like Love Actually or Hugo, there are several romantic subplots to track, maximizing the payoff for the inevitable happy ending. Plot holes from the original are swiftly papered over. Belle is a bit more of a modern hero. Characters in interracial relationships and others questioning their sexuality are represented without fanfare or comment. This Beauty and the Beast invites comparison with its animated predecessor, but while the two are kindred they move to profoundly different rhythms, and it’s details like these that enrich this telling.

Villeneuve

Another great detail is that in the “Gaston” musical number, there’s a moment where people struggle to sync up their dancing. So, realism within a fantasy setting is what the filmmakers are reaching for, and what they achieve. But that also means that the most zonked out elements, chiefly the Busby Berkeley acid trip that is “Be Our Guest”, feel oddly disconnected from everything. What is there to the visuals in the sequence beyond the celluloid equivalent of drowning in confetti? The setpiece’s gimmick is that Belle is repeatedly presented with food that is whisked away before she raises a fork. Sure, that’s a tried-and-true comedy routine found in everything from A Hard Day’s Night to Spider-Man 2, but it doesn’t make any sense here. It doesn’t fit the story being told. I’m about to commit Disney heresy here, but maybe “Be Our Guest” should have been scrapped in favor of the other vintage household object showcase “Human Again” – or maybe a medley of the two. At least then a helping of humanity would fly at the audience along with the trays of bon fromage.

Be Our Guest

Yeah, that sequence isn’t my favorite. And just as a guideline, the two wolf attacks bookend what’s probably the clunkiest part of the film. But even in the weeds of these (relatively) rough patches, the cast is outstanding. (They better be, because the movie sort of gives them two curtain calls.) Emma Watson’s Belle is warm, but not soft – it’s satisfying to see how she cuts through her little “Madame Gaston” number with palpable fire. Dan Stevens’ striking eyes fit the Beast, and the character’s journey from full-on Krampus to romantic hero is sketched pretty well. (A nitpick, though: There’s a big moment where the Beast/Prince yells, “I am not a Beast!” Okay. But the film never gives him a name!) The household object characters are voiced by an impressive repertory company, of which Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson are only two. Luke Evans’ Gaston is both more appealing than his animated counterpart, and more villainous, with Evans adept at milking the comedic and threatening aspects of the role. Both Maurice and LeFou are clownish characters from the original given a humanity transplant. But the real breakout is Josh Gad as LeFou, given an entirely new arc ranging from broad comedy to soul-searching redemption.

LeFou

And finally, the music in this musical. Newcomers Watson and Stevens hold their own alongside musical veterans like Evans and Gad, and the songbook itself has gotten an update. Incorporating lost lyrics from the late Howard Ashman into “Gaston” and the title song, composer Alan Menken honors his former collaborator’s legacy while also penning three original songs. (No songs are retained from the Broadway musical.) “How Does a Moment Last Forever” is poignant and sweet. “Days in the Sun” is a catchy check-in-on-all-the-characters number. And the third…

The Beast

Earlier I committed Disney heresy and I think it’s time for more. I don’t think the animated Beauty and the Beast quite has a signature standout song. For me, it doesn’t have a “Let it Go” or a “Part of Your World”. But incredibly, in 2017, Alan Menken gives it one. “Evermore” is an utter showstopper, an operatic swing for the fences. In the Beast’s new and vital turn in the spotlight, Dan Stevens sells the low feelings and high notes, and Menken’s baritone ballad becomes the jewel in Beauty and the Beast’s musical crown.

Beast in the West Wing

I know I ragged on the “Be Our Guest” sequence before, but I approve the song itself for the iPod playlist. The slowed-down tempo is an improvement, and Ewan McGregor as Lumiére chews into the lyrics with gusto. In fact, it’s a microcosm of the contrast between the original animated feature and this retelling; the new film is slower, making for a fulfilling opportunity to see the sights. I like how several songs are given reprises to keep them in the minds of the audience, and the other original songs are present and correct, with my favorite of the classics being the elongated introductory piece simply titled “Belle”.

Belle

With an appealing cast, convincing romance, beautiful production design (I love how the design of the castle is opened up, exposed stairways and all), lavish music, and a commitment to storytelling, the Beauty and the Beast remake is in good health. As it respects the original while weaving new magic of its own, it continues Disney’s streak of live-action remakes embracing the musical landscapes of their predecessors. (But word on the street is the next one, Mulan, is dispensing with the songs!?) Be its guest, and keeping the original in mind, you might find there’s something there that wasn’t there before. 8/10.

 

P.S.: The influence of Jean Cocteau’s striking and dreamlike 1946 version of the story is there from time to time. The most noticeable touch: the hands affixed to the castle, holding torches. And because the end titles are translated to French, the title card is framed by the Cocteau-alike La Belle et la Bête.

P.P.S.: In the animated version, LeFou poses as a snowman at one point. Now, LeFou actor Josh Gad is most well known for voicing the snowman Olaf in Frozen. Coincidence? Also, the Beast reads a book about the forbidden love between Lancelot and Guinevere at one point, and Beast actor Dan Stevens played Lancelot in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. Finally, Luke Evans (uber-skilled archer Bard in The Hobbit films) plays Gaston, whose preferred weapon in the animated film is a bow and arrow. Here, war veteran Gaston opts for a pistol.

Gaston