The Death of Stalin is an inspired farce of political backstabbing, the manipulation of language, and Steve Buscemi’s failed attempts to hug Andrea Riseborough. Set while a (laugh-out-loud) power vacuum left by dictator Joseph Stalin’s death rocks the highest levels of Russia’s government, the film depicts a Central Committee who can’t agree on which of Stalin’s policies to reform, can barely decide who’s in charge, and upon finding their leader barely alive, not even whether to call a doctor.
The Russian politburo is a viper’s nest, a literal murderer’s row played by a figurative murderer’s row of talent (Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs…). The standouts of the cast are Simon Russell Beale as chief of the Soviet secret police Lavrentiy Beria (if anyone’s the villain in this roomful of monsters, it’s him) and Riseborough as Stalin’s grieving daughter Svetlana. Little parts are filled by recognizable British character actors, and in fact the cast is mostly British, using their own native accents rather than “playing Russian”. This decision helps the performances, while also making the events of the film oddly universal.
In case it’s not clear, The Death of Stalin is an extremely funny movie and a very successful comedy. But just by nature of its subject matter it is thematically fascinating too. Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev pointedly remarks that Beria is “bending and breaking the truth like it’s a human body”. There’s a comic runner that goes from the idea of photographing the new Secretary with a girl who was pictured with Stalin for a sense of continuity; to maybe using a fake one because they can’t find the real one; to finding the real one but deciding on a whim to go with the fake one anyways; and the beat goes on. It’s a microcosm of how these people grasp for integrity or authenticity but upon finding it, they edit it and twist it within an inch of its life. It’s easy to reduce this to the fake news thing, but this is so much more interesting.
There’s such an air of paranoia in the air that the wrong word to the wrong person, the wrong inflection, can get you arrested or shot. It makes the characters great verbal gymnasts, sometimes in a split second, which becomes endlessly entertaining to watch. The satirical tone is remarkably true to reality as well, with many of these weird incidents having actually happened. It’s a well-researched carnival show.
Armando Iannucci (director of the excellent In the Loop) shoots in a documentary style with disorienting elements, such as breaking the normal cinematographic rule of shooting conversations from one side. There’s one scene in particular where Jeffrey Tambor seems right on the edge of breaking character and laughing at the absurdity of it all. It’s easy to understand why; Iannucci and three co-writers (David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows) have crafted a hilarious screenplay, littered with funny barbs. Given the balance of comedy and darkness, the tone is an extended tightrope walk that lands as a rousing success.
The Death of Stalin, one of my favorite movies based on a true story, is also adapted from a French comic book, making it, incredibly, the best comic book movie of the year. As opposed to other reviews I’ve written, for great movies everyone knows, or bad movies a lot of people avoid, this is review as promotion. If fast-talking dark political satire is a mode you enjoy, watch a diamond example of the craft.
P.S.: As aforementioned, Simon Russell Beale is excellent as Beria, the nominal villain of the movie. That means my entire Supporting Actor field so far this year is villains – see also Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther and Hugh Grant in Paddington 2. Good job being bad.
Early in A Wrinkle in Time, two teacher characters are having a conversation with the most awfully stilted “as you well know” expositional dialogue, and the child who overhears them righteously yells, “Shame on you for talking that way!”
But really, the two teachers are setting up the two core conflicts of the film (while throwing shade on our heroes). Young Meg’s (Storm Reid) scientist father (Chris Pine) has mysteriously disappeared for four years after postulating interstellar travel via pure thought; and Meg has a lack of self-confidence that over the course of the movie will have cosmic consequences. Being as it’s calibrated for kids, the message of loving and accepting yourself just as you are is hit home constantly with a velvet mallet. The film is a monument to earnestness. There’s value in that, but as they say, your mileage may vary. I mainly object to the songs (not good enough for this not to matter), force-fed into the body of the film to inject emotion.
And I swear, director Ava DuVernay shoots this movie like Aronofsky’s mother!, full of intentionally disorienting extreme close-ups and subjective use of space. The focus is on creating empathy for the young protagonists, and thankfully the close watch of the camera finds able actors. One of them being Levi Miller as Calvin, a casual acquaintance of Meg who, to the surprise of even himself, shows up to get swept up in the adventure purely because of what we might call “fate” or “the script”. Is there something to the idea that this type of matter-of-fact fairy tale logic, so beloved in, say, The Princess Bride, finds a more skeptical eye from modern audiences?
Part of that dissonance might be because A Wrinkle in Time exists in the space between fantasy and science fiction, between flights of magic fancy and the application of complex equations. It’s The NeverEnding Story (Villain duties go to the It, like The Nothing) meets Interstellar. Even that latter movie and A Wrinkle in Time agree that love opens fifth-dimensional portals.
Even though the film doesn’t strictly speaking work overall (and in kind of an intangible way that’s unexciting to work through), calling something uneven implies it’s got good parts – and that certainly applies here. The standout sequence revolves around a suburban nightmare of conformity. The visuals are often appealing, with nice show-off-y costume changes for the cosmic beings. The fate of Michael Peña’s character is a really cool moment. There’s a magical flight that looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in the World of Avatar at Disney World. I often say that flight sequences bring out the best in composers, and while Ramin Djawadi’s music isn’t a patch on his own dragonriding music from Game of Thrones, it still does the trick.
Whether the movie as a whole does the trick for you depends. For me, this moralizing, space wrinkling, Hamilton referencing blockbuster is a mixed bag that fits in a tradition of heart-on-its-sleeve children-oriented fantasy without necessarily bettering it. In the future, let’s hope for better movies aimed at this demographic.
In the Thor movies, we’re used to the camera lovingly panning through the wonderland of Asgard, magisterial music blaring, spectacle rolling by. In Black Panther, simply replace Asgard with the African country Wakanda, the most technologically advanced nation in the world. This sense of wonder is right here on Earth, not in the far-flung cosmos, and the question of what the King of such a utopia owes to the rest of the world is central to the film; newly crowned King/Black Panther T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is still finding his feet when Erik “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan) challenges his claim to the throne.
The film opens with the intertitle “Oakland, 1992” (incidentally the city and year of my birth), establishing the setting of Erik’s upbringing. Upon seeing the post-Jetsons Wakanda, Erik calls for the nation to help its descendants affected by the African Diaspora in overthrowing their oppressors and “starting the world over”. And this causes a great conundrum for the audience. Wakanda is hidden and unspoiled, but their secrecy makes them the envy of everyone watching the movie. Minus the violence, Erik’s evil plan loses the evil part. Smartly, other characters like Nakia (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) and W’Kabi (Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya) make political arguments that are just less extreme versions of what Erik is saying. It’s up to T’Challa to mediate all these points of view, and by the movie’s end, he’s found a way forward.
Erik’s association with Oakland, both early in the film and reinforced in a beautiful moment toward the end, makes him in some way a stand-in for Oakland-born Ryan Coogler, director and co-writer of this very motion picture. Like Joss Whedon said of writing Avengers: Age of Ultron, “You’ve got to love your villain”. There’s a lot of Whedon in Ultron, and a lot of Coogler in Killmonger.
Our hero T’Challa is a very internal character, so he doesn’t so much own the movie as center a great ensemble. Other standouts include M’Baku (Winston Duke), leader of the independent Jabari tribe, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), General of the fierce Dora Milaje, essentially the King’s elite all-female Secret Service. Best of all is T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who fulfills several archetypes; she’s the sister, the Q to his James Bond, and the comic relief (and, on paper, a Disney Princess). The virtually all-black cast includes two significant roles for white men, including Martin Freeman reprising his Marvel role as Everett K. Ross. Freeman is really smart casting because he’s so likable, but also a schmo and easily put in his place. Trailers for Black Panther used Ross as a POV character to introduce the concept of the hidden country of Wakanda. “I’ve seen gods fly, I’ve seen aliens fall from the sky, but I’ve never seen anything like this”. By proxy, he was representing white mainstream moviegoers. Thankfully, the angle of using him as an “in” to the world of Wakanda is nowhere to be found in the movie proper.
Of course, it’s hard to overstate the cultural significance of a lot of this Afro-Futurist iconography. It’s an aesthetic that informs everything presentational in the film, from production design to eye-popping costume design to cinematography (the Veldt scenes look beautiful) to score. (Ludwig Göransson’s main theme feels very much of a piece with his theme for Creed, his prior collaboration with Coogler.) There’s something to be said for world-building a very fictional space like Wakanda; in a way it makes the audience more invested than, say, a fictional version of New York City does. We’ll see how this plays out in Avengers: Infinity War, when Wakanda is threatened by a full-on alien invasion.
The action here is a bit of a mixed bag. Some sequences impress, like a brawl in an underground gambling den that Coogler brings one of his Creed-style one-shot wonders to, and a Lord of the Rings-esque battle on vast grassy fields. But the film suffers from occasional CGI issues, and their nadir is the final Panther-on-Panther fight between T’Challa and Killmonger. These are already non-tactile suits, glitching like an ugly Microsoft Paint program, fighting in a heavily digital environment. It’s too many layers of unreality. On reflection, I don’t think that on a visual level, there’s ever been a worse main hero vs. main villain fight in the MCU.
There are minor storytelling problems here and there – a romantic connection between two characters that could’ve been mined for great drama but is largely forgotten, awkward scene transitions – but the operative word is minor. There are certain tipping points in the film, when Shakespearean revelations come to light and the plot viscerally pivots, where everything just works. These moments are operatic, befitting the talk of royal succession. Black Panther is a dynamite entry in the superhero genre, another win for the MCU, an action movie that touches on vital political themes, and a hub of groundbreaking Afro-futurist iconography that will inspire all who see it. Long live the King. 9/10.
Action Scenes of the Year (SPOILERS) (see below for One-on-One Fights)
10) The Losers’ Club vs. Pennywise, It
9) Shootout, Wind River
8) Foot chase, Baby Driver
7) Finale chase, Monster Trucks
6) Motorcycle surf chase, xXx: Return of Xander Cage
5) Mexican standoff, Logan
4) One-shot brawl, Atomic Blonde
3) Veld, Wonder Woman
2) Escalating finale, The Fate of the Furious
1) The throne room, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Best Action Films of the Year
The Fate of the Furious
John Wick Chapter Two
Best Non-2017 Films Discovered in 2017
My Favorite () Yet
Battle of the Sexes, my favorite Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris film yet
The Fate of the Furious, my favorite Fast and Furious film yet
Gifted, my favorite Marc Webb film yet (though I haven’t seen (500) Days of Summer)
Logan, my favorite Wolverine film yet
My Cousin Rachel, my favorite Roger Michell film yet
Power Rangers, my favorite Power Rangers film yet
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, my favorite Rian Johnson and (maybe) Star Wars film yet
Thor: Ragnarok, my favorite Thor and Taika Waititi film yet
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, my favorite Martin McDonagh film yet
Wonder Woman, my favorite DCU film yet
xXx: Return of Xander Cage, my favorite xXx film yet (but, sue me, I like State of the Union)
Best Heroes or Antiheroes of the Year
11) Moonie (Brooklynn Prince), The Florida Project
10) Meredith (Jane Levy), Monster Trucks
9) Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), Molly’s Game
8) Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), Murder on the Orient Express
7) Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Thor: Ragnarok
6) Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), Get Out
5) Diana (Gal Gadot), Wonder Woman
4) Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
3) Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Thor: Ragnarok
2) Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), Star Wars: The Last Jedi
1) Ruth Kimke (Melanie Lynskey), I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore
Worst Heroes or Antiheroes of the Year
Valerian and Laureline (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delavigne), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), Cars 3
Best Horror Films of the Year
The Girl with All the Gifts
Moments of the Year
20) ATM, Baby Driver
19) “Of course not”, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
18) Churchill’s speech, Dunkirk
17) Olive the Wonder Woman, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
16) Projector scare, It
15) Riff-off, Pitch Perfect 3
14) “Luck don’t live out here”, Wind River
13) The reversal, Good Time
12) Laura unleashed, Logan
11) The cop car, Get Out
10) Good Morning Missouri broadcast, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
9) A hypothetical question, The Post
8) The ending, Your Name.
7) Second “Immigrant Song” needle drop, Thor: Ragnarok
6) TIE: “Choose” and “No More Catholics”, T2 Trainspotting
5) “I wish I could put my fist through this whole lousy, beautiful town”, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
4) Diplomacy montage, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
3) Shaw family reunion, The Fate of the Furious
2) This one, Kong: Skull Island
1) No man’s land, Wonder Woman
One-on-One Fights of the Year (SPOILERS)
13) Roland Deschlain vs. Walter, The Dark Tower
12) Eggsy Unwin vs. Charlie Hesketh, Kingsman: The Golden Circle
11) Logan vs. X-24, Logan
10) Letty vs. Russian, The Fate of the Furious
9) Walter vs. David, Alien: Covenant
8) Finn vs. Phasma, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
7) Vincent Downs vs. McFerrin, Sleepless
6) Thor vs. The Hulk, Thor: Ragnarok
5) Nick Morton vs. Edward Hyde, The Mummy
4) Mark Renton vs. Simon Williamson, T2 Trainspotting
3) Ashley Miller vs. Veronica Salt (Round 1), Catfight
2) Gamora vs. Nebula, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
1) John Wick vs. Cassian, John Wick Chapter 2
Best Pop Culture References/Allusions of the Year
10) The Lord of the Rings, Unforgettable
9) Hercules, The Fate of the Furious
8) Monk, The Assignment
7) Star Wars, Spider-Man: Homecoming
6) Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Thor: Ragnarok
5) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, T2 Trainspotting
4) Wings of Desire, The Space Between Us
3) Seconds, Get Out
2) A Song of Ice and Fire, Logan Lucky
1) Jerry Maguire, The LEGO Batman Movie
Ranking Disney-Distributed Movies (Worst to Best)
7) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
6) Cars 3
4) Beauty and the Beast
3) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
2) Thor: Ragnarok
1) Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Best School Films of the Year
Best Science Fiction Films of the Year
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Blade Runner 2049
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The Space Between Us
War for the Planet of the Apes
Cars 3 > Cars 2
The Fate of the Furious > Furious 7
John Wick Chapter 2 > John Wick
Logan > The Wolverine
Star Wars: The Last Jedi > Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Thor: Ragnarok > Thor: The Dark World
xXx: Return of Xander Cage > xXx: State of the Union
Kingsman: The Golden Circle < Kingsman: The Secret Service
Pitch Perfect 3 < Pitch Perfect 2
Transformers: The Last Knight < Transformers: Age of Extinction
Best Sequel (#2 – Second Installment) of the Year
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Blade Runner 2049
John Wick Chapter Two
Best Sequel (#3 – Third Installment) of the Year
War for the Planet of the Apes
xXx: Return of Xander Cage
Best Spinoffs of the Year
Kong: Skull Island
The LEGO Batman Movie
After Godzilla cameos in Moana, King Kong cameos in The LEGO Batman Movie.
After Idris Elba sang the end credits song of Bastille Day, Samuel L. Jackson does the same in The Hitman’s Bodyguard.
After Tilda Swinton played twins in Hail, Caesar!, she does it again in Okja.
The general overuse of “Spirit in the Sky” continues with Life’s end credits, and I Tonya.
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a peasant recognizes that Arthur is king because he’s “the only one who hasn’t got shit all over him”. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has a scene that covers Arthur in shit.
The Belko Experiment and The Circle share one similar plot point, and have the exact same final shot.
Peter Ferdinando plays the main villain’s henchman in both King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
I’ve seen four versions of The Mummy and this one is the weakest.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie is the second-best Power Rangers movie of the year.
In Battle of the Sexes, Emma Stone appears under a huge sign spelling Aloha, aka the movie where she infamously played the one-quarter Hawaiian Allison Ng.
Best nonverbal acting of the year: Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s Carrie Fisher in the scene where Leia and Kylo Ren feel each other’s presence through the Force.
There are five 2017 movies with the word “Wonder” in the title: Wonder Woman, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Wonderstruck, Wonder Wheel, and Wonder. Not to mention Logan, Logan Lucky, and Lucky. Plus, Your Name. and Call Me by Your Name.
I could have pretty much filled a legitimate, endorsed-by-me Best Actress category exclusively with people whose last name starts with H: Rebecca Hall in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Anne Hathaway in Colossal, Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, Anne Heche in Catfight.
Tearjerkers of the Year
Dunkirk; Professor Marston and the Wonder Women; Wonder Woman; Murder on the Orient Express; Coco; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Your Name.; The Post
Most Underrated Films of the Year
Star Wars: The Last Jedi; The Space Between Us; Sleepless…
And Monster Trucks wins my “Pardon One Turkey” award. It’s really good!
Best Villains of the Year
10) Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), The Shape of Water
9) The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Thor: Ragnarok
8) Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde (James McAvoy), Split
7) Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener), Get Out
6) Hela (Cate Blanchett), Thor: Ragnarok
5) Ego (Kurt Russell), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
4) The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), The LEGO Batman Movie
3) Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), Spider-Man: Homecoming
2) Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), T2 Trainspotting
1) Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Worst Villain of the Year
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, Okja
Chicago song at the big dramatic climax, Death Note
Ominous ending, Unforgettable
Mid-credits scene, Wish Upon
Jason Isaacs as Phantom of the Opera meets Frankenstein’s monster, A Cure for Wellness
The notion that people care about the byzantine politics, Underworld: Blood Wars
All of Transformers: The Last Knight
Jump scares, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter
Rambling Anthony Hopkins villain, Collide
Excalibur, The Dark Tower
Fauna, Kong: Skull Island
The world revolves around an adult’s cards game, Girlfriend’s Day
TIE: The breakup scene and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift crossover, Wish Upon
Nicolas Cage as Unhinged Main Villain #32, Arsenal
Cockney Crowe, The Mummy
The concept of Colossal
Adventureland, Good Time
Uncensored Jeff Goldblum, Thor: Ragnarok
Mid-Credits scene, Split
All of The Fate of the Furious
Best War Films of the Year
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
(ROUGH) Final Ranking of All (111) 2017 Films Seen (Best to Worst)
Get Out; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; The Fate of the Furious; Colossal; The Post; Thor: Ragnarok; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri; Baby Driver; Your Name.; Wonder Woman; John Wick Chapter 2; Molly’s Game; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore; Beauty and the Beast; Battle of the Sexes; T2 Trainspotting; The Disaster Artist; Atomic Blonde; Coco; The Shape of Water; Logan; Murder on the Orient Express; Dunkirk; All the Money in the World; The LEGO Batman Movie; Blade Runner 2049; Darkest Hour; The Big Sick; mother!; Wind River; Loving Vincent; Spider-Man: Homecoming; Lady Bird; Kong: Skull Island; Monster Trucks; The Space Between Us; xXx: Return of Xander Cage; Catfight; Good Time; Phantom Thread; I Tonya; Call Me by Your Name; The Girl with All the Gifts; War for the Planet of the Apes; Free Fire; The Lost City of Z; Professor Marston and the Wonder Women; Raw; Power Rangers; Sleepless; The Hitman’s Bodyguard; Mudbound; It; Logan Lucky; Gifted; Pitch Perfect 3; Ingrid Goes West; American Made; Kingsman: The Golden Circle; Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets; The Breadwinner; Alien: Covenant; Their Finest; Girlfriend’s Day; The Great Wall; War on Everyone; The Florida Project; Personal Shopper; The Assignment; Split; Okja; A Ghost Story; The Greatest Showman; My Cousin Rachel; Aftermath; Cars 3; Gold; The Beguiled; Ghost in the Shell; Gerald’s Game; The Belko Experiment; The Discovery; The Zookeeper’s Wife; The Dark Tower; Justice League; Victoria & Abdul; Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie; The LEGO Ninjago Movie; Sleight; Table 19; Geostorm; Death Note; The Circle; Wonder Wheel; Wilson; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales; Life; A Cure for Wellness; The Mummy; Wish Upon; The Foreigner; The Wall; Before I Fall; King Arthur: Legend of the Sword; The Book of Henry; Collide; Arsenal; Transformers: The Last Knight; Unforgettable; Underworld: Blood Wars; Resident Evil: The Final Chapter
By the Numbers
7 Monsters with grotesque rows of teeth (Monster Trucks, The Great Wall, Kong: Skull Island, Colossal, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Alien: Covenant, It)
5 Final bosses with skull helmets (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Wonder Woman, The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League)
4 Jungle treks (Kong: Skull Island, The Lost City of Z, Gold, Kingsman: The Golden Circle)
4 Films featuring sign language (John Wick Chapter Two, Baby Driver, War for the Planet of the Apes, The Shape of Water)
4 Women in a creepy isolated house (mother!, Gerald’s Game, Personal Shopper, A Ghost Story)
4 Wonder Woman appearances (The LEGO Batman Movie, Wonder Woman, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Justice League)
3 Awful fifth installments (Underworld: Blood Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Transformers: The Last Knight)
3 Films dealing with the Dunkirk Evacuation (Their Finest, Dunkirk, Darkest Hour)
3 Uses of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” (Free Fire, Okja, Kingsman: The Golden Circle)
3 Uses of John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads” (Alien: Covenant, Logan Lucky, Kingsman: The Golden Circle) (The latter two films both feature Channing Tatum.)
3 Appearances of King Arthur’s sword Excalibur (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Transformers: The Last Knight, The Dark Tower)
3 “Major Tom” songs/references (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Atomic Blonde, Geostorm)
3 Films revolving around a one-on-one fight/confrontation (Catfight, Unforgettable, Battle of the Sexes)
3 Samuel L. Jackson appearances where another role of his is referenced (xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Kong: Skull Island, The Hitman’s Bodyguard)
3 Series’ main protagonists turn evil (The Fate of the Furious, Transformers: The Last Knight, Justice League) (With the exception of Justice League, the other films feature at least one scene in Cuba.)
3 Stephen King adaptations (The Dark Tower, It, Gerald’s Game)
3 Villains whose name is scoffed/laughed at (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, The Dark Tower)
2 Ape films heavily referencing Apocalypse Now (Kong: Skull Island, War for the Planet of the Apes)
2 February horror films in which a car hits a deer (Get Out, A Cure for Wellness)
2 Characters who make a big deal about aiming a weapon with his heart (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Dark Tower)
2 Coney Island appearances (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Wheel)
2 Eighth installments (The Fate of the Furious, Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
2 Uses of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Battle of the Sexes)
2 Uses of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I Tonya)
2 Genius-level gifted kids (Gifted, The Book of Henry)
2 Giant animals in South Korea (Colossal, Okja)
2 Good remakes (Beauty and the Beast, Sleepless)
2 High school films with the female lead being run over by a car at the end (Wish Upon, Before I Fall)
2 Hopeful futures for the International Space Station (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Geostorm)
2 of Jaeden Lieberher’s friends being abused by her single-parent father (The Book of Henry, It)
2 King Kong sightings (The LEGO Batman Movie, Kong: Skull Island)
2 Instances of life on Mars (Life, The Space Between Us)
2 Films where people ask someone what their mother was like and the answer is “fearless” (Beauty and the Beast, The Space Between Us)
2 Tom Cruise plane crashes (The Mummy, American Made)
2 Villainous absentee fathers who play catch with their son (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The LEGO Ninjago Movie)
Curtain Call Cast Credits (xXx: Return of Xander Cage, The LEGO Batman Movie, The Great Wall, Beauty and the Beast, Sleepless, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Assignment, Collide, Death Note*, The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Loving Vincent, Thor: Ragnarok)
Epilogue Text (The Zookeeper’s Wife, The Lost City of Z, The Assignment, The Big Sick*, Wind River, American Made, Battle of the Sexes, Victoria & Abdul, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Loving Vincent, The Disaster Artist, Darkest Hour, All the Money in the World, The Greatest Showman, I Tonya)
Mid-Credits Scenes (Split, Power Rangers, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, Transformers: The Last Knight, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wish Upon, Good Time*, The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, Pitch Perfect 3*, Call Me by Your Name*, Phantom Thread*)
Post-Credits Scenes (Kong: Skull Island, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Cars 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Okja, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, The Disaster Artist)
Best Supporting Actress
Betty Gabriel, Get Out
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Allison Janney, I Tonya
Catherine Keener, Get Out
Andrea Riseborough, Battle of the Sexes
Best Supporting Actor
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Adam Driver, Logan Lucky
Gary Oldman, The Space Between Us
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Elijah Wood, I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore
Best Original Song
“Evermore”, Beauty and the Beast
“Days in the Sun”, Beauty and the Beast
“The Greatest Show”, The Greatest Showman
“Remember Me”, Coco
“When We’re Together”, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure
Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049
Larry Fong, Kong: Skull Island
Dan Laustsen, John Wick Chapter 2
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Call Me by Your Name
Vittorio Storaro, Wonder Wheel
Best Adapted Screenplay
Rian Johnson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Michael Green, Murder on the Orient Express
Liz Hannah & Josh Singer, The Post
Kumail Nanjiani & Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick
Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game
Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss, Baby Driver
Gregory Plotkin, Get Out
Evan Schiff, John Wick Chapter 2
Lee Smith, Dunkirk
Christian Wagner & Paul Rubell, The Fate of the Furious
Best Original Score
John Williams, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Jonny Greenwood, Phantom Thread
Clint Mansell, Loving Vincent
Mark Mothersbaugh, Thor: Ragnarok
Oneohtrix Point Never, Good Time
Best Production Design
Dan Hennah & Ra Vincent, Thor: Ragnarok
Stefan Dechant, Kong: Skull Island
Sarah Greenwood, Beauty and the Beast
Rick Heinrichs, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Hugues Tissandier, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Best Animated Feature
The LEGO Batman Movie
Best Original Screenplay
Jordan Peele, Get Out
Michael McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Onur Tukel, Catfight
Nacho Vigalondo, Colossal
Edgar Wright, Baby Driver
Darren Aronofsky, mother!
Rian Johnson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Jordan Peele, Get Out
Nacho Vigalondo, Colossal
Edgar Wright, Baby Driver
Robert Pattinson, Good Time
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
James McAvoy, Split
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Jeremy Renner, Wind River
Michelle Williams, All the Money in the World
Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread
Melanie Lynskey, I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Meryl Streep, The Post
The Fate of the Furious
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
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.
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.
19) 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 – 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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.