Suicide Squad (2016)

I’ve been waiting for a good film to bring the “villain-as-hero” concept to the world of mainstream blockbusters. Before Sony’s plans for a Spider-Man cinematic universe crumbled into dust, they had plans for a Sinister Six film, flipping the script to make the friendly neighborhood webslinger the villain. The potential of this provocative basic concept is why I was rooting for Disney’s Maleficent, and for Suicide Squad. Both have disappointed. Suicide Squad is crippled by weak structure, terrible villains for the leading villains to fight, toothless action, and not so much a bad story as a non-story… even as it houses a few strong performances and at times feels like it’s being held together by actors’ charisma and Scotch tape.

Suicide Squad

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has an idea: to create a “dirty dozen” unit of supervillains as a deniable asset for the government. Hence the titular Squad: The infamous hitman Floyd Lawton/Deadshot (Will Smith); the Joker’s (Jared Leto) moll Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie); repentant pyromaniac Chato Santana/El Diablo (Jay Hernandez); grubby thief Digger Harkness/Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney); and human reptile Waylon Jones/Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Waller assigns Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to wrangle the Squad, but when June Moone/Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) tries to restore an ancient empire on earth, the Squad gains a world-saving purpose.

Amanda Waller

The most prominent quality in the movie is a trio of standout performances. Margot Robbie kills it as Harley Quinn, bringing layers to a character that desperately needs it, as the movie itself seems to fetishize her. (A flashback sequence in a club is probably the worst scene in the film; the bit with Harley on the car, and Robbie’s reading of the simple line “Bullshit”, are among the best moments of the film.) Will Smith uses a great modulation of his natural charisma for the character of Deadshot, and his flashback scenes are definite highlights of the movie. But best of all is Suicide Squad’s own God and Devil, Amanda Waller. I love this character. No one can give a dry line reading like Viola Davis, and as it turns out, Waller belongs here because she’s a villain among villains. Granted, a couple of the character’s actions make her look really incompetent – she only unleashes the very threat that the Squad must overcome and then inadvertently makes it worse – but Davis is so good in the role that it’s all but forgotten.

Harley Quinn

Writer-director David Ayer made one of the best war films of the 21st Century in Fury, which relies heavily on the chemistry of its tank crew. Similarly, in the precious moments when the Squad members just settle down and shoot the shit, the movie starts to work. And when the villain-as-hero aspect comes into play with the Squad hatching schemes as an aside before slowly coming to the light, that’s good stuff as well. The problem with the Squad itself is that while one or two characters bring spice to the table, there’s little to no sense of why Ayer has brought these particular characters together. Individual members’ power sets are barely utilized, and shockingly little teamwork plays into the finale. With characters like Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc, it feels like the movie thinks they’re crowd-pleasing scene stealers, when in practice they are respectively an underused Aussie caricature who throws two boomerangs in the entire film (not to mention whose schtick was beaten to the punch by Deadpool), and a reptile-man who mostly stands in the background of scenes and grunts. So even though the actors have all shown up to play, the title Squad is a mixed bag at best.

Deadshot

The film is a structural nightmare. After the characters are established in a flurry of flashbacks, we cut out the second act and go straight to the third-act setting. This imbalance feels really lazy; not to give the game away, but the present-day plot takes place in one steakhouse, one briefing room, one prison, and one nondescript abandoned city. No, I’m not leaving anything out. The plot draws a straight line between setup and resolution with precious little of the and thens or but sos that make up an engaging narrative. It’s one thing to forego a three-act structure if you’re Tarkovsky or Fellini, but when you’re a summer blockbuster it really is a prerequisite.

Pentagon

One of four settings in the film’s plot.

The decision to jam a bunch of flashbacks at the outset isn’t bad in and of itself, but it leads to some problems. The two central romances of the film (Harley/Joker, Flag/June) are artificially handwaved into existence in flashback and never begin to convince. Also, the in-your-face editing style can be an annoyance. Several times in these scenes, the Joker gets freakier than usual, and the entire frame convulses in purple and green. That’s not how you shoot the Joker; we’re meant to be trapped with an insane live wire, deprived of the escape of trigger-happy music video editing. On a big picture level, the spine of the plot gives very vague reasoning as to why the Squad is assembled, until a threat comes from within and suddenly the Squad has to take down a generic villain. So the plot plods along with no point, until there is a point, and it’s terribly embarrassing. (More on that later.)

Squad Shoots the Breeze

More of that…

It’s come out that the studio hired Trailer Park, who had worked on the film’s trailers, to cut an alternate edit of the film. Whether their work is reflected on screen or not, it feels like it is. Suicide Squad feels more like a sizzle reel than a movie. One aspect of this is the attempt to make Suicide Squad a jukebox movie, in the wake of Guardians of the Galaxy. I wouldn’t normally namecheck that movie, but this film actually uses “Spirit in the Sky”, a song from Guardians of the Galaxy! The excessive use of licensed songs, again, isn’t inherently bad, but the songs feel so obviously tacked-on late in the edit, as they don’t seem to have any synergy with the moving pictures they soundtrack. And there are just so many – there are four in the first seven minutes of runtime! Overall, DC just keeps finding new ways to make poorly structured movies. I long for the days of awkwardly placed Clark Kent flashbacks in Man of Steel.

Enchantress

… less of this, please.

The film’s setup demands that the supervillains of the Squad must face a villain of their own, and the choice of Enchantress and her brother Incubus seriously hobbles the movie. The use of a magical villain opens the doors for fights against indistinct foot soldiers, overstretched CGI, and a total mismatch with the Squad’s power levels. Imagine all the missions the Squad could be sent on: a perilous heist, a Seven Samurai-type defensive gig, an assassination. But in their place, the film climaxes in a visually overexposed battle with an embarrassing Cara Delevigne, and Incubus, who looks like nothing so much as the Gods of Egypt version of The Destroyer from Thor.

Incubus

Think about your art direction before you commit.

Which brings us to the other uber-villain of the picture. I know it sounds counterintuitive given that this is the best-known villain character in the movie, but I don’t think the Joker should have even been in the film. He has such an incredibly trivial impact on the story that he just becomes an annoying sideshow. Plus there’s Jared Leto’s characterization, as the actor is trying so hard but coming up with so little. Taking cues more from a frat bro Instagram gangster than from the unpredictable Clown Prince of Crime, this Joker is a miss. This is what Leto went full method for?

Joker

I’d give Suicide Squad more credit if it felt like a movie. A movie with an appreciable structure, that flows as an unfolding story. But as it is, it holds a smattering of quite good elements, lost at sea among editing snafus, action with no edge, songs used as transparent shortcuts, and storytelling gaffes. A trio of solid performances (Robbie, Smith, Davis) is matched by a trio of embarrassing villains (Joker, Enchantress, Incubus). And Suicide Squad ends up fouling up the good will it begins to create. 3/10.

 

P.S.: Brilliant use of Batman’s “Beautiful Lie” musical theme from Batman v Superman in the alley scene. And there’s something thrilling about hearing Batman utter the line, “It’s over, Deadshot”. Somehow it’s like a pure comic book-y injection.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

2016 is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. This puts the onus on Star Trek Beyond to be something more than an entertaining ride, and as it turns out, Beyond gives the franchise a big wet kiss for a birthday present. The film feels very Star Trek-ky, like a story of the original 1960s show on steroids. It’s a dizzying action bonanza, it’s a meaningful tale of ideals being lost and found in space, and it’s surprisingly engaged with what Star Trek means. While still flawed, Beyond has charm to spare, delivering as both a blockbuster and a subtly nerdy filibuster on what the franchise represents.

STAR TREK BEYOND

In the 23rd Century, the USS Enterprise is more than halfway through its five-year mission of exploration and diplomacy. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) feels the ennui of life in deep space, while first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) receives some disheartening news. A distress signal to the Federation’s advanced starbase Yorktown leads the Enterprise into a deadly trap, engineered by the primal Krall (Idris Elba). With the crew grounded on an alien planet, can Kirk and company save them? And can communications officer Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) unravel the mystery of Krall?

MVP Leonard McCoy

Perhaps the greatest strength of this current sequence of films is the cast, admirably filling the shoes of venerated actors who originated the roles. Beyond pulls off a nice trick, being much more of an ensemble movie than its two predecessors. Whereas before laser focus was on Kirk and Spock, here every main character gets at least a couple moments to shine. Screenwriters Simon Pegg (also starring, as engineer Scotty) and Doug Jung facilitate this by splitting up the cast into pairs and letting the characters play off each other. So a contemplative Kirk mentors young ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin, tragically no longer with us); Scotty bonds with resourceful alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, endearing); Uhura and Sulu (John Cho) learn what the villains are about; and best of all, Spock and sawbones Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban, always the MVP) balance their delightful verbal sparring with a lot of heart.

Uhura

So checking in with the heroes is a lot of fun. But also, the screenplay is not afraid to pepper wonderfully moral and dorky Star Trek goodness throughout. There’s something really cool about hearing the heroes of a massive action tentpole dole out fortune cookie wisdom about unity, peace, humanism, and the importance of diplomacy. And when these characters have been established as relatable and endearing, this stuff is even more important, because it’s aspirational. By starring relatable characters living in an enlightened time, Star Trek is saying that the future of humanity is brighter, and presents this as a matter of fact.

Yorktown

The technology on display factors into this as well. The Yorktown is a great location, an M.C. Escher painting of a starbase, where gravity bends to the architecture. But just by being there and being so impressive, the base symbolizes how far humanity can go when united. Fittingly, the approach to Yorktown is the most spectacular sequence in the film. With jaw-dropping SF visuals and Michael Giacchino’s truly lovely score, it’s really something.

Krall

But of course, the Federation’s idealism is challenged by Krall. The problem with Krall is that he’s better in concept than in execution. A foil for the utopian Federation who believes that only struggle and chaos breed progress, he creates a twisted parody of the Federation by bringing down ships from different cultures and feeding on diverse species for his own personal gains. The idea is there, but it’s not more than half-cooked in the movie proper. (Krall’s character does take an essential turn, but I can’t say more about that twist without boldly going into spoilers. See the P.S.) Krall isn’t a total loss of a character; but what we have on screen for most of the runtime is a handicapped Idris Elba, feral and growling, looking for MacGuffin #14 to make generic superweapon #82 to enact stock villainous plan #47.

Captured Enterprise Crew

No one said that stopping the stock villainous plan couldn’t look good, though. Director Justin Lin goes above and beyond crafting the action, spinning the camera on its axis and defying gravity with great energy. A particular highlight is the harrowing, if slightly overlong, attack on the Enterprise sequence. (In my first viewing I sometimes lost the geography of these dynamic scenes, but a second go-round rendered them more coherent.) Because Lin had come off directing four Fast and Furious spectacles, his hiring was a subject of a lot of snark and sarcasm. But what’s lost in these discussions is that the true draw of that freewheeling franchise is not the surface stuff, but the teamwork of people who love each other. And that’s very Star Trek.

The Trio

Beyond exudes a constant love of Star Trek, from an understanding of its tropes to numerous easter eggs for fans. A few favorites: When Kirk fights Krall, the music resembles Fred Steiner’s (in)famous fight music from the original series. The Yorktown was the name of the Enterprise in Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek treatment. There are explicit references to the era of the underseen Enterprise TV series. And the approach to Yorktown reminds me of the absurdly long, lingering and loving approach to the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, just more narratively economical.

Scotty

Engineer. Brewer of moonshine. Moonlighter as a writer.

The humor is also on point throughout, which is no surprise considering co-writer Simon Pegg’s previous credits on extraordinary dramedies like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and TV sitcom Spaced. Much of the entertainment value here just comes from seeing the ensemble play off each other, with McCoy and Spock in particular spinning earnestness into comedy gold. The character work and action are on form, supported by a big heart. And even as an element like Krall and his faceless swarm is rough around the edges, the way Beyond gets the Star Trek of it so very right is nothing (for Keenser) to sneeze at. A weak 9/10.

 

P.S.: *TO EXPLORE STRANGE NEW SPOILERS*

The Balthazar Edison twist is absolutely in keeping with the tropes of the original show, where several starship captains went native and insane. (See “Patterns of Force”, “The Omega Glory”, “Bread and Circuses”, and “Whom Gods Destroy”.) So when Kirk is fighting Edison he’s fighting us, the aggressive and tribalistic human nature that the Federation has risen above. Speaking of that scene and its meta-conflict, “That’s what I was born into” gives me chills and may go on to become an iconic Star Trek quote. I love that this message of idealism is the Trek equivalent of an action movie one-liner.

That's what I was Born into

“I’d rather die saving lives than live with ending them. That’s what I was born into.”

Meanwhile, following the death of Leonard Nimoy’s Ambassador Spock, Zachary Quinto’s Spock considers quitting Starfleet and picking up where the elder Spock left off. And the young Spock finds in the Ambassador’s possessions the cast photo from Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier. So it’s the very idea of Star Trek, and the community of that original group of characters, that convinces Spock to continue in Starfleet. Fascinating.

Spock Chekov

There’s a bit where Scotty says that he didn’t want to beam Spock and McCoy up at the same time, for fear of “splicing” the two. Trek fans know that splicing the two would result in someone resembling one James T. Kirk.

And finally, the twin dedication to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin is poignant. Especially when Kirk’s “To absent friends” toast cuts right to a shot with Chekov. To the stars they return.

Franchise Flashback – X-Men (2000)

2000’s X-Men is an important film. While Blade creaked the comic book movie door ajar, X-Men blew it off its hinges. A great financial success at the time, it directly led to greenlights for Spider-Man, Hulk, and Daredevil, and generally signaled a new era for the superhero film. (The next paradigm shift: Batman Begins.) Additionally, the franchise that grew out of the original film can boast incredible longevity – the multiplex-ruling Marvel Cinematic Universe has only been around half as long. From 2000 to 2016, the X-franchise is still going strong (-ish), with the same continuity (-ish). Of course, the timeline is tortured within an inch of its life to accommodate this, but that doesn’t invalidate it – no true reboot has wiped the slate clean. And with X-Men: Apocalypse currently wandering its way out of theaters, we can look back on the film that started it all. Much and more came from X-Men, but what’s the deal with it? Does it hold up? Is it special in itself, beyond its place in film history?

01 Statue of Liberty

Liberty and Laser Beams

The X Factor: A Comic Book Film About Something

I think X-Men is special, because this is a superhero movie with ideas, fully aware of the potential social commentary inherent in its source material. It paints simplistically, in broad strokes, but elegantly. It feels small-scale but full-bodied, and it takes storytelling risks. I mean, the damn thing opens on a concentration camp. The main characters being mutants, discriminated against by “normal” people, gives the screenplay the opportunity to use this as a catchall allegory. Any feared or shunned group of people can find familiar themes at work in the world of the film. No doubt the concept spoke to director Bryan Singer, who is openly gay.

02 Death Camp

The opening fifteen minutes or so is a dizzying tour of everything that works about the film. We open on the villain’s backstory as a Jew separated from his parents in a Nazi death camp, establishing Erik Lensherr/Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) motivation. Then, straight into Marie/Rogue (Anna Paquin) traumatically discovering her power – it’s hard puberty imagery, adding another layer to the film’s relatability. Next comes the Senate committee scene, giving a potted sociopolitical overview of the stigma around mutants. And as the cherry on top, we proceed to a dynamite scene between Erik and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) commenting on humanity, flaunting the incredible acting talent on hand. This is all in the opening salvo of the film! It’s a great statement of purpose.

03 Charles

This desire for meaningfulness is not forgotten afterward, as the finale takes place on Ellis and Liberty Islands in New York, these loaded symbols of the immigrant experience. Speaking of loaded images, a young mutant walks on water with his power. And another fun and unique thing is that the X-Men superheroes themselves are professors. There’s a great moment when their X-Jet takes off from the school and the students look up in awe. Give Ms. Grey an apple.

04 Jean Grey

The People Behind the Powers

So the overall scheme of the film is unique and meaningful, but your X-Men movie also needs some X-Men, so let’s talk characters. The duo of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue provide an excellent outsider’s view of the X-Men and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Logan’s more feral side is contrasted well by his tender elder-brother-like relationship with Rogue, and their relationship is central to the arc of the film. And Logan’s adamantium claws are a cool power and all, but they are brought down to earth and a human level when he says as an aside that every time they come out, they hurt.

05 Logan and Rogue

That idea is mirrored in Erik’s eeeevil plan, as his use of the mutant-creating device hurts him terribly. The strength of his convictions outweighs his regard for personal safety. Ian McKellen’s characterization instantly makes Erik an all-timer comic book movie villain, and his antagonistic yet respectful relationship with Charles is the entire franchise’s not-so-secret weapon. Each of the three scenes the two share in this film are brilliant, leaving the audience wanting more. The first posits the two as aloof observers of humanity, Erik the cynic and Charles the optimist. (In a different Marvel universe, this exact dynamic plays out in the brief gem of an exchange between Ultron and the Vision.) Their second scene is the train station showdown, a compelling setpiece where the two generals are buffeted by a force of cops, with a complicated human argument at its core. And the third scene is iconic, two old rivals sharply musing over a game of chess.

06 Chess*

But not everyone in the cast is given attention. The weak link is ironically the main X-Men trio of Scott Summers/Cyclops (James Marsden), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Halle Berry), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Scott… is a plank of wood. And he refers to himself as “a boy like me”? What? Ororo doesn’t have an accent, until she does, more than halfway through the film. Jean’s “romance” with Scott is downplayed to make room for a forced attraction with Logan. So it’s not a great showing for the flagship X-Men. A shame, because most of the characters work a charm.

07 X-Men

Is there a Script Doctor in the House?

Most fans of Joss Whedon know that he was brought in to punch up the third act of X-Men, that he went above and beyond the call of duty with a complete pass on the screenplay, and that only a few of those beats were retained in the finished film. And let me tell you, those Whedon-y lines stick out like sore thumbs. “This certainly is a big, round room.” “You’re a dick.” But of course, the most infamous is Storm’s one-liner, “You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.” Halle Berry spectacularly misread the line, proclaiming it grandly rather than throwing it away. This sounds silly, but if I could change one thing about the film, that might be it.

08 Storm

X-Kitsch

There’s a lot of silly stuff in X-Men. While some of the action has a low-budget elegance to it (especially the way the powers flow into each other in the train station fight), other elements haven’t aged well – blobby Y2K CGI, for one. But other things just need to be preserved as weird little, did-you-see-that moments: The way Toad’s super-jump just crushes a dude into a puddle of mush on the ground! The adamantium middle finger! The look on Logan’s face as he rides Scott’s motorcycle! Mystique morphing from Bobby to her natural state, lingering on a hybrid of the two! Ray Park as Toad referencing his role as Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace! The takeaway is that while X-Men is dealing with weighty themes, it’s also a movie where Toad can spit dumb Nickelodeon green gunk at Jean Grey.

09 Sabretooth

… and where Sabretooth can look like this

Drawing a Line to the Apocalypse

The original film’s Cerebro sequence is still a great effect, prefiguring the IMAX theaters that are showing 2016’s X-Men Apocalypse today. The latest X-offering is at once an inert and busy film, and one thing it’s juggling is putting a bow on the entire franchise. As such, the original X-Men is explicitly referenced several times (the concentration camp, the mutant cage fight, Charles’ baldness explained just like Rogue’s white streak was, a direct quotation of the “great swell of pity” exchange). And looking back on the original with the knowledge of eight subsequent movies yields enough inconsistencies to fill a whole other essay (that Mystique voice modulator!).

10 Erik

But most of all, reflecting on the first X-Men solidifies its status as not just a prelude of better things to come, but as quite a strong movie in its own right. After seeing the franchise move the Golden Gate Bridge, travel decades in time, and resurrect an Egyptian god, it’s refreshing to rewind to this one humble tale of “the not too distant future”. The 2000 film has a great lo-fi charm to it, while at the same time being lent gravitas by McKellen and Stewart’s war of wills. It holds up not just as a curiosity, but also as a well-told story of mutants and morals.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

There has never been a superhero movie like Captain America: Civil War. Weighty character drama, politics, gritty action, comic-booky action, and humor are all pushed to the limit and brought into harmony. The film contains a moment that might be the funniest in a Marvel movie, alongside the most gut-wrenching drama. It can do both, folks. Characters who have been around forever in this cinematic universe have emotional stories, while two important new heroes are debuted. How does this movie even function? That Civil War works at all is impressive. That it works this well is incredible.

Tony and Steve

After an Avengers mission in Nigeria results in 26 civilian casualties, the superheroes are brought up to speed on the Sokovia Accords, a United Nations document bringing the Avengers under bureaucratic oversight from a UN panel. The heroes are split on the issue. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of any measure to legitimize Avengers operations, both for professional accountability and personal guilt. But Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) would rather cut through the bureaucracy to ensure that the Avengers can always go where they deem themselves most needed. Both are trying to save lives and serve the greater good, in their own way. But their disagreement over the Accords, as well as Steve’s need to protect formerly brainwashed best friend Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) from the arrest Tony and the UN know is rightful, ends up drawing battle lines. Tony and Steve each find support from five allies, and the stage is set for catastrophe. And all the while, the unassuming Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) has his own mysterious agenda.

Steve and Bucky vs Tony

What grounds the central battle of wills is that both Steve and Tony are right, and both are wrong. That makes it the most satisfying kind of heroic conflict, because both perspectives are aired throughout the film in smart conversations and through their actions. The actors are up to the challenge, as Evans plays respectful defiance really well, while Downey Jr. is like an exposed nerve, so open and vulnerable. It all explodes in a notably contained (not necessarily restrained) climax featuring the marquee fight between Captain America and Iron Man. But the thing is, during this title bout, we are internally begging Steve and Tony to just – stop – fighting. Our emotional investment in the characters in some way eclipses the obligation for an action-packed finale. It’s character before blind reliance on cool spectacle. And that, in microcosm, is why the Marvel Cinematic Universe works.

Team Iron Man vs Team Cap

A big reason why Civil War is so successful as drama is that the huge ensemble is humanized and many have their own character arcs. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) faces the consequences of the Nigerian disaster, which she feels is her fault, and must come to terms with the power inside her that she doesn’t understand. The Vision (Paul Bettany) begins to explore his own “humanity”, but might not be thrilled that he did. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) brings in an everyman perspective. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) plays diplomat and constantly tries to prevent violence between the factions, using her skills of manipulation from a genuine emotional place. So all these established characters are served, while two new heroes complement the story without overshadowing it.

Peter Parker

Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is not shoehorned into the proceedings. He’s presented as the uncompromised vigilante. When Tony looks at him it’s like he’s seeing a glimmer of where Steve Rogers came from, and the nobility that still defines him. Tony’s desire for conciliation with Steve makes Tony’s relationship with Peter, and the movie’s use of the web-slinger, more integral to the story than a because-we-can cameo. In a movie that throws around big concepts like UN oversight and accountability, Peter’s inclusion is a show-don’t-tell reflection of what a superhero is at the core, and his streetwise perspective grounds the larger-than-life conflict.

T'Challa

If Spider-Man’s is well done, then the introduction of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is perfect. Everything about his role in the film impresses. Boseman brings a quiet gravity to his scenes, his Black Panther costume is one of the best comic book translations on screen, his fighting style is instantly distinctive, and most important of all, his character arc cuts right to the heart of Civil War’s thematic core. What is one’s duty to family? To friends? Can the cycle of revenge and trauma be broken? Where does a superhero’s responsibility to the world conflict with other agendas? Civil War’s mature screenplay asks these questions, with the film being nonetheless appropriate for kids who just want to see well-drawn heroes in entertaining fights. It’s a balancing act that other contemporary superhero movies bungle.

Helmut Zemo

The villainous side of things is a rewarding slow-burn mystery story, of all things. Daniel Brühl does great work as Zemo, giving a disturbing portrait of the kind of person who can present a genial face in public, while building a bomb in the closet. Zemo is a very singular kind of comic book villain, defined by subtlety, intelligence, and persistence. Has anyone noticed that previous Marvel villains Alexander Pierce, Ultron, and Loki (in The Avengers) all have the same motivation? They rail against the chaos and infighting among humans, and set out to bring order on a global scale – ending war with a violent cleansing that the heroes must stop by blowing stuff up real good. There is no such bluster in the ending of Civil War, as an intimacy of setting and stakes reap a lot of dramatic rewards. The way Zemo interacts with the story as a whole, and the finale in particular, quells any fear that he’s one antagonist too many in a busy movie, as his subtle machinations and shadowy menace complement the themes of the film very nicely.

Airport

At the end of the day, while Captain America: Civil War has a lot going on under the surface, it’s still a seriously kick-ass action flick. The four action scenes in the film escalate in meaningfulness, until the finale goes for the emotional punches by way of actual punches. But the crown jewel action centerpiece is the airport sequence, half-cartoonish, half-intense, and all incredible. It’s like a twenty-minute comic book come to life, but one informed by the very specific characterization and precision-strike humor we’ve come to expect. Dizzying choreography, dynamic pacing, and well-judged match-ups make for an absolutely spectacular showdown. While not everyone gets a big show-stopping moment, each of the twelve heroes contributes to a sequence that will go down as an all-timer in the comic book movie canon.

Steve and Bucky

A small detail I pick up on is that the film takes potential weaknesses and turns them into strengths. The less significant example is that the physical resemblance between Bucky and Zemo (potentially confusing for general audiences) impacts the plot at one point. The more significant is that Bucky wonders aloud if he is worth all the trouble his presence causes. Now, of course he’s worth it to Steve and that’s the whole point, but the line plays with the fairly bare bones way his connection to Steve played out in the first Captain America movie. Civil War’s depiction of Bucky, brought to life with broken dignity and wounded charisma by Sebastian Stan, retroactively makes his setup in previous films better by association.

Wanda Lagos

On the subject of negatives, the most I can come up with is a subjective one. A lot of the setup for the film is predicated on the “downer” reality check of civilian casualties of previous Marvel movies, particularly Avengers: Age of Ultron. There’s something a little dramatically convenient and obvious about this, like being lectured after eating a cake about how many carbs are now up to no good in your body. (It’s an interesting choice because the whole point of Ultron‘s ending is to reconcile Avengers and civilians.) But the way the theme is actually implemented in the film works a charm and adds to the complexity of the story.

Tony and Bucky

There are many ways Civil War is unique among superhero movies, and its ending is no exception. If it’s not a spoiler to say that Civil War is smart, then it’s not a spoiler to say that the ending is not pat and wrapped up in an artificial bow. The emotional wounds have not been healed, the ideological conflicts of the film have not been resolved, and the film leaves the story in a rich place for other stories in this universe to pick up on. Captain America: Civil War is a globe hopping, down-to-earth political thriller, which is also a character-driven drama, which is also a superhero extravaganza with effective incidental humor, and which also contains an all-timer comic book action scene. What other movie can claim this? What other movie can claim this and be this good? 10/10.

Steve Helicopter

A visual representation of Civil War‘s balancing act. On the left, comic book goodness. On the right, grounded drama. In the middle, a specimen of a man/movie.

The Jungle Book (2016)

The live-action remake that’s been called one of the most technologically advanced movies of all time is here. Disney has gone back to the well of their offbeat 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book, and given it new life as a technical marvel on a similar level to Avatar or Life of Pi. With only the bare necessities of live-action elements (Neel Sethi as lone man-cub in the jungle Mowgli; a bit of dirt; a few excellent tufts of grass), The Jungle Book as directed by Jon Favreau impresses consistently and immersively with its visual effects. But ironically, the secret to this remake’s success is the humanity it finds in unlikely places, and once the nostalgia goggles come off and the 3D glasses come on, 2016 has delivered a better Jungle Book than 1967.

Baloo Mowgli

Mowgli is a man-cub raised by a stately wolfpack, watched over by the wise Black Panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). But the formidable Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) cannot abide a human in the jungle and vows to put Mowgli in his rightful place: the tiger’s belly. Charged to find refuge at the nearby man-village, Mowgli makes his way there, on the way encountering characters like the hypnotic snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the affable bear Baloo (Bill Murray), and the imperious Gigantopithecus King Louis (Christopher Walken). But on the journey, what kind of man will Mowgli become?

Shere Khan Water Truce

The basic bones of the story are familiar, but it is the adjustments to that story (relative to Disney’s own animated version) that make this a dynamic retelling. There are weighty themes of technology (called “tricks” in the jungle), and what it means for a human capable of that level of potentially dangerous creativity to live among animals. The concern for the jungle as a viable society is reflected by the incorporation of the Law of the Jungle, and other cultural practices such as the species-crossing water truce when a seasonal watering hole opens for all predators and prey alike to feed upon. These themes help to make the jungle feel like an ecosystem and a society; it’s good world-building. And of course that jungle is gorgeous to look at, made even more impressive by the fact that it’s almost entirely digital. The VFX artistry is overwhelming, but there’s not much more to say about it beyond variations of “wow”.

Bagheera

So let’s turn attention to the animal characters. A great paradox of the 1967 film is that it tries to sell a divide between the human Mowgli, and the jungle… while portraying half the animals as all-too-specific human caricatures. The elephants were la-di-da officers, God save the King and all that, representing the British Raj occupying government in India; the vultures were modeled on the Beatles; King Louis was a scat-singing jazz musician; and Baloo was a laidback swinger. The tagline? “The jungle is jumpin’”. It’s funny, then, that the characters of this Jungle Book are more human than the human spoofs. Bagheera is a philosopher, and fierce when he needs to be, not just an inflexible caretaker. Baloo is a con man with a heart of gold, and when he takes a brave heroic action late in the film it hits that much more because of this characterization. Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) is an active presence resisting Shere Khan’s tyranny. The elephants’ overhaul is particularly noteworthy. They are recapitulated as the closest thing to gods in the jungle, but not because they represent white imperialism as they did before. They do not speak; they are majestic, inextricably tied with nature, and their military drilling song from the animated movie would be absolutely incompatible with this interpretation. (Speaking of music, this film is no pure musical, but I’ll say that fans of the music won’t be disappointed – and stay through the credits!)

Elephants

The characters who really steal the show for me are the trio of villains. Scarlett Johansson excels in a creepy, all-too-brief appearance as Kaa. Idris Elba’s eloquent snarl fits Shere Khan like a glove. The tiger becomes a great villain almost just by force of personality, as it would take a couple more Shere Khan scenes to really lock in his character motivation. Elba’s vocal performance is so mesmeric that he overpowers any deficiencies in the writing.

King Louis

But my favorite character is Christopher Walken’s King Louis, radiating both mirth and menace. Louis wants Mowgli’s technological tricks to dominate the jungle, and the threat in Walken’s performance gives an extra layer to his delightful rendition of “I Wan’na be Like You” (now stripped of the uncomfortable racial coding it carried in the animated version). Louis’ desire to gain the power that humans possess is reflected in his residence in the ruins of a Hindu temple. This makes him a great foil for Mowgli, as the youth must find his own definition of manhood. In general, holding court with King Louis, and the entire sequence at his temple, is the highlight of The Jungle Book in my eyes.

Man Temple

So at last we come to Mowgli, the man-cub everyone’s making such a big fuss about. While Neel Sethi has a lot of charisma to carry such an abstract performance surrounded by green screens, that doesn’t negate a few… odd acting moments of his. He’s trying his damnedest with little to bounce off of, so I understand, but suffice to say Sethi’s Mowgli isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite character. He’s someone that things happen to, the viewpoint character who’s essential to the cast dynamic but not much more. When given lines like “Are you kidding me?” and “Seriously?”, the feral child isn’t all that feral.

River

While the film makes strong structural changes when it comes to the succession of incidents surrounding Mowgli, it doesn’t fully escape the episodic nature of the previous 1967 version. A few scenes still feel a bit disjointed from the whole, and the tonal shift with the introduction of Baloo is a sharp one. Indeed, a lot of what’s awkward about this Jungle Book is the line it walks between heavy dramatics and callbacks to the insouciant animated version. This manifests in a few ways. For one example: The action is commendably visceral without being inappropriately violent, but there is one fight scene at the climax that is lit very poorly in an apparent attempt to obscure the implication of gore, and to draw the line at a PG rating. I understand the need for compromise, but the scene would have benefited by commitment in either direction.

Shere Khan

Getting back to technical matters, the artificial cinematography by Bill Pope is ravishing, many tableaus of simulated nature being worthy of being framed on someone’s wall. And composer John Debney delivers a really solid score, turning from darkly loungey (the opening Jungle theme and Kaa’s theme) to lushly gorgeous (the destined-for-repeat-plays Law of the Jungle theme) to instilling a sense of awe (the elephant theme) to percussively dangerous (Shere Khan’s theme).

Water Truce

Jon Favreau has overseen an efficient, beautiful to look at, thematically interesting Jungle Book populated by memorable versions of vintage characters. The changes from Disney’s previous incarnation of the story are of particular fascination, in fact so much so that I didn’t always discuss the film as standing on its own. (And look out for a very different ending in this version.) But on its own, 2016’s Jungle Book is a stunning virtual creation. This is a film I quite like, but taken with last year’s Cinderella, which I love, hopefully Disney’s live-action remake winning streak can continue. A weak 8/10.

 

P.S.: *MILD SPOILERS* What’s going on with the Lion King influence? Shere Khan is not only given a facial scar, he takes over the wolves’ territory similar to how Scar took over Pride Rock during Simba’s exile. Shere Khan’s death falling into the fire is visually akin to Mufasa’s. There’s a herd scene reminiscent of the one from The Lion King. And by making Baloo a con artist who advises the young hero to relax and wait for the bare necessities, he resembles Timon.

TV Talk – Game of Thrones Season 5: A Story of Failures

This post contains major spoilers through the end of Game of Thrones Season 5, and includes speculation for potential plot developments in Season 6.

Game of Thrones’ fifth season is not a failure. But it depicts characters failing left and right, here, there, and everywhere. Self-styled kings and would-be saviors died. Rulers mismanaged cities on either side of the Narrow Sea with disastrous consequences. For one Stark sister, individuality was punished as selfishness. For her older sibling, status as a full-blown player in the game was turned into the ashes of renewed victimhood. Failure ties Season 5 together. Now, Game of Thrones is not a show based around triumph, but never before in the show has bitter failure been so pervasive. I believe at least part of the public frustration with the season can be linked to this dissonance. And now, let’s dive into this unifying theme of the season – strap in, this is a long one.

Daenerys

Daenerys Targaryen’s rule of Meereen is marked by well-intentioned failures. Faced with the rise of an insurgent group called the Sons of the Harpy, a member is arrested. Before a fair trial, a beloved representative of the Meereenese common people named Mossador murders the prisoner in his cell. Wanting to enforce equivocal justice, Daenerys orders the unapologetic Mossador executed publicly. PR nightmare by way of an unfortunate series of events, and suddenly the claws are out. The stoked rise of Harpy activity leads to the death of Daenerys’ trusted Queensguard Ser Barristan Selmy. And eventually, despite canny political compromises on Daenerys’ part (a marriage to nobleman Hizdahr zo Loraq, reopening the Fighting Pits), the Harpies reveal themselves en masse at the opening of the Great Games. Daenerys’ loose dragon Drogon sweeps in, taking her on his back, and flies her away from the city all the way to the Dothraki Sea – and far away from the site of her ultimate failure to keep order in Meereen. That flight is not triumph, but rather relief, Daenerys taking an exit strategy from the mess she has failed to prevent. And with her dragons representing her authority and power, it’s no coincidence that two of them are chained in the Great Pyramid during her stay in Meereen, a metaphor for her impotence.

Stannis

Another self-styled monarch, Stannis Baratheon, fails operatically this season. After saving the Night’s Watch from certain defeat at the hands of Mance Rayder’s wildlings, Stannis marches south to retake Winterfell from the hated Boltons. But as oppressive winter snows in Stannis’ army, he then plays Agamemnon to daughter Shireen’s Iphigenia, sacrificing her to the Red God. Sure enough, the weather calms, but threefold disaster strikes: Stannis’ wife Selyse hangs to her death, a large portion of the army deserts, and the Bolton army slaughters the rest. And the could-have-been king himself is finished off by Brienne of Tarth. Stannis has paid a karmic price for sacrificing his kin, and his claim has been forever lost. (Sidenote: As a book reader killing off Stannis at this point drives me crazy in part because in the books’ mythology, the killing of a beloved one is inextricably tied to the salvation of the world from the White Walkers.) And another interesting thing to note with this war in the North: when Melisandre tried to seduce him, if Jon Snow had spread his legs, as it were, a shadow assassin would have killed Roose Bolton just as one murdered Stannis’ brother Renly. Maybe she should have led with that instead of the vague mumbo-jumbo! But in any case, Stannis, the only claimant to the throne who knows to care about the threat from beyond the Wall, is dead. He has failed in every way.

Littlefinger

Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish is a high-stakes gambler, and his past ones have been wonders to behold. By manipulating Lysa Arryn to murder her husband (Hand of the King Jon Arryn) and implicate the Lannisters, Littlefinger set off a specific chain of events that led directly to the War of the Five Kings. By not apprehending Arya Stark (disguised as a boy) even when Littlefinger recognized her at Harrenhal, he prolonged the Lannisters’ search for a key hostage and the Starks’s search for family, subtly but significantly changing the face of the war. By conspiring with Olenna Tyrell to kill King Joffrey and implicitly frame Tyrion Lannister, Littlefinger accelerated political chaos in King’s Landing. But his big gamble in Season 5 backfires, hard.

Sansa

By marrying Sansa Stark to Roose Bolton’s legitimized bastard son, Littlefinger sets off a chain of events that theoretically leads to his own Wardenship of the North. But his plan relies on two pillars of sand: Stannis’ conquest of Winterfell, and Ramsay’s pliability. On the first point, we already know how well that turns out. On the second point, Littlefinger’s intelligence is woefully incomplete, and given his obsession with Sansa, I don’t think he would marry her off to someone he knows to be a psychopath. But of course, this brings us to Sansa, the tragic pawn in all this. At the beginning of the season, Sansa is assured, picking up canny political skills and learning to project control. Her dyed black hair is symbolic of this. But Ramsay violently interrupts her growth, and by the end of the season, a red-haired Sansa choose a possibly fatal jump off Winterfell’s battlements to escape her abuser. Littlefinger’s gambit has crumbled spectacularly, and he has failed Sansa.

Arya Jaime Margaery

Other major characters fail routinely. Arya progresses in her training to become an identity-shifting faceless assassin, but then kills Ser Meryn Trant for personal revenge. For this, Arya is blinded – a girl fails to become no one. Jaime’s hilariously ill-thought-out plan to kidnap his daughter Myrcella and spirit her away from Dorne predictably fails. But even after the Prince of Dorne has allowed Jaime to take Myrcella and her promised husband Trystane to King’s Landing, tragedy strikes. Just as Jaime reveals to Myrcella that she is his daughter, she succumbs to a fatal poison and dies in her father’s arms. Margaery Tyrell, after making coy but pointed plans to shoo Cersei Lannister out of King’s Landing, is imprisoned for defending her “sinful” brother Loras. Her manipulations, which have worked for so long, are no longer of any use.

Jon

Jon Snow, now voted Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, is at least successful in saving about 2,000 wildlings from the White Walkers. But it is a pyrrhic accomplishment at best; more than half of the 5,000 wildlings at Hardhome are killed by the army of the dead, and added to it. Jon even says of the evacuation upon return, “It was a failure.” And this effort of Jon’s is rewarded by a Julius Caeser-style assassination by his own men. Et tu, Olly? And so Jon Snow lies dead.

Cersei

The previous cases are all unambiguous failures; other characters end up with a bit more of a mixed result, most notably Cersei Lannister. As Queen Mother, Cersei unwittingly ensures her own comeuppance. After populating the Small Council with sycophants, Cersei surreptitiously orders Ser Meryn Trant to assassinate Mace Tyrell… to undermine Margaery. Cersei makes the insane decision to arm the Faith Militant in an overblown design to arrest Loras Tyrell… and thus undermine Margaery. Cersei sets out to systematically destroy the alliance with the Tyrells, which is the one utterly vital to the Lannisters keeping control of the throne. Of course, the Faith ends up arresting Cersei as well, and after the indignity of confession, Cersei must undertake a naked Walk of Shame between Baelor’s Sept and the Red Keep. But at her lowest point, Cersei beholds her new toy, Maester Qyburn’s reanimated Zombie Mountain… and Cersei is free to start a campaign of revenge.

Brienne Jorah

Two other bittersweet fates are assigned this season. Brienne misses Sansa’s signal to her for help, and thus fails in the duty she considers most high. But she also avenges her beloved Renly by killing Stannis. Ser Jorah Mormont, though worn by the trials of exile and sick with insidious greyscale, has worked his way back into the semi-good graces of his beloved Queen Daenerys.

Theon Tyrion Samwell

Indeed, there are a few exceptions to the rule of failure this season. Theon Greyjoy finally takes action against his Bolton oppressors and takes steps to erase his identity as Reek. With Varys’ help, Tyrion Lannister finds renewed purpose as an advisor to Daenerys’ cause. Samwell Tarly departs the Wall with Gilly and Little Sam to travel south and become a maester. But when it comes to proactively accomplishing goals in Season 5, Ellaria Sand of all people may be the greatest success story of the season. She fulfills her objective of killing Myrcella and stoking aggression against the Lannisters. Good on you, Ellaria! Oh, wait…

Ellaria

A large majority of main characters failed spectacularly in Season 5. But let’s look ahead. I think that a significant part of Season 6 will reverse the fortunes that came to fruition in Season 5, with the sixth season acting as a sort of slightly more upbeat inversion of some of the dark depths of the fifth season. We’re entering speculation mode, so preface each following sentence with “I believe”…

  • Daenerys will unite all the Dothraki khalasars and fold them into her army, with a little persuasive help from Drogon. She will also return to a stable Meereen, having been brought to order by Tyrion, Varys, Grey Worm, and Missandei. With her own leadership qualities, dragons, a huge army, and a working Small Council of her own, it’s time to sail west and, you know, attack.
  • The Boltons will finally be defeated by a coalition of Northern houses, with some help from a certain resurrected bastard of Winterfell.
  • On a related note, Bran will use his greensight to uncover the truth of Jon Snow’s parentage by Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.
  • Sansa and Theon will be instrumental in agitating the Iron Islands to attack Lannister/Tyrell forces in the south, which will unfortunately interrupt Samwell and Gilly’s road trip.
  • The Lannisters and Tyrells will ironically work together to bring low the Faith Militant.
  • Cersei, still on trial, will demand a trial by combat using her Zombie Mountain as a champion. The Mountain will be killed in that trial by his younger brother The Hound (returned from the abyss by the red priest Thoros)… also sealing Cersei’s fate.
  • Jaime will make his way to Riverrun, rendezvous with Brienne, and have an ambiguous role to play in the coming conflict.
  • Because Ellaria succeeded in Season 5, she has to fail in Season 6. She’s as good as executed.

Well. I’ve gone really overboard with the detail here, but that’s what being a Game of Thrones fan is. The ability to engage with the minutiae of the show’s world reflects one of its great strengths, as its story is so rich and open for many avenues of discussion. Failure may tie the fifth season together, but the canvas of the show is so broad that Season 6 is sure to push different buttons. When the season premiere airs on April 24th, 2016, our watch begins.

Jon Coming Back

Jon Snow is dead. Long live Jon Snow.

Editorial Corner – My Least Favorite Scene in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

This editorial contains spoilers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

It’s the calm at the beginning of the third act. We cut to a wide shot of a snowy mountaintop in what look like the Himalayas (but who can say?). It’s a vision or hallucination, because Superman comes upon his late adoptive human father, Jonathan Kent, tending to some farm business. Pa Kent begins a monologue – he explains how when he was younger, he saved the Kent family farm from flooding. He was rewarded with cake. But in the process, he had inadvertently flooded the next farm over. Pa Kent would go on to hear the screams of drowning horses in his sleep every night. He was a hero. But the collateral damage was a poor price to pay for that heroism. Then, it’s abruptly over. Our regularly scheduled build-up to an action climax continues.

Jonathan Kent

There are, unfortunately, lots and lots of candidates for my least favorite scene in Batman v Superman. In fact, on technical, visceral, emotional, and other levels, there are certainly worse scenes. But I’m writing about this one because, brief as it is, it actually represents several things wrong with the film, and I’ll use this scene (heretofore referred to as the Pa Kent Horse Bit) as a sort of skeleton key to unlock them. So let’s go down a few avenues the Pa Kent Horse Bit opens up, saving the worst for last.

Heroism Brood

It’s a non sequitur scene with no set-up, and cutting it out wouldn’t really affect anything. The Pa Kent Horse Bit comes and goes like a goddamn ninja. Where is Superman when he has this vision? Has he gone to sleep and had this dream? The film doesn’t care to lead into the scene in any fashion, and after it’s over, we again careen miles away in narrative space. The scene before doesn’t feature Superman; the scene after doesn’t feature Superman. It’s not just that the way the scene is framed is suspect; the scene is not framed at all. Indeed, the editing of this film as a whole is a train wreck. This manifests in several ways. The Batmobile car chase is a confusion of jagged cuts, and if you developed a drinking game based around every time the film fades to black and back in again, the personal consequences would be disastrous. Batman v Superman laughs at your mortal ideas of scene transitions.

It’s a dream/hallucination sequence in a movie drowning in them. In a related sense to the broken editing on display, dreams, time-travel dreams within prophetic nightmares, and hallucinations are everywhere in the movie. It’s lazy storytelling to rely so heavily on these, not just for the plot but also just to cut to something interesting. Despite coming out of nowhere, Bruce Wayne’s dream of a dystopian Earth marked by a tyrannical Superman is about ten times more interesting than what’s going on the film’s waking state. And I would advise the movie to do something with that nightmare from a character perspective (like to viscerally show and explore Bruce’s fear of what having a Superman can do to society), but it is more than likely meant just to set up future movies. But whether it is or not, more to the point, it exists outside of what is going on in this movie. And the story we’re supposed to care about is left limping.

It features dialogue which tries to trick the audience into thinking it’s profound and mature. Like a lot of the screenplay, the Pa Kent Horse Bit is serious-minded and trying hard to come off as meaningful. The mountaintop setting fits with the film’s lofty ambitions. But these ambitions are not matched by true exploration of issues that the film drops into a blender, and the result is an experience that just becomes inert for long stretches. And the entire crux of the screenplay relies on something deeply immature: the lack of communication between the heroes. When Batman and Superman meet after the Batmobile chase, they exchange scowls and petty threats. There’s no articulation of grievances. We get “The Bat is dead”, but not, “What do you think you’re doing, wantonly killing and branding criminals who may or may not end up dead in jail?” We get “Do you bleed? … You will”, but not, “Your being here led directly to thousands and thousands dead in Metropolis”. I get it, it’s hard to get them to fight unless they’re both jerks, but it’s still the opposite of maturity.

Superman Bleed

“Do I bleed? Gross!”

Superman is passive. In the Pa Kent Horse Bit, Superman walks up to the shade of Pa Kent, gets a life lesson dumped on him, and exit stage left. This illuminates a bigger problem: this sequel to Man of Steel suffers from a crippling fear of letting its Man of Steel speak. Throughout, Superman’s default status is brooding silently. There’s a montage where he saves people, which is rendered unintentionally funny by Superman’s apparent deep sadness in doing so… but we the audience are never privy to what Superman is thinking. We hear a whole bunch about what everyone else is saying, but what’s going on in that Kryptonian brain? There’s a scene where Senator Finch invites Superman to a Senate committee for a dialogue. This is it, this is the moment when we’ll finally hear Superman’s side of the story, his perspective! … And the scene is short-circuited by a terrorist bombing that serves no story function except to be hard-hitting and edgy. Go back to your daily brooding, Superman. Even though this is your own sequel.

sam_r4_v11c3_151002_17mj_g_r709f.362886.tif

“………………”

But here’s the point of no return. Its true sentiment is that heroism is not worth the trouble. The message in Pa Kent’s ghostly form is clear, and it reeks. But of what? Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder has publicly spoken of his admiration of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a novel he intends to adapt for the screen. It’s a brazen beacon of Objectivist ideas, extolling what is known as “rational self-interest”. And this starts to make sense of what’s going on in the scene. You can be a hero, saving the farm. But the price of that heroism will sure learn you, son. Jonathan Kent’s widow is also a presence in the film, and judging by her big scene with Superman, Jonathan and Martha “You don’t owe this world a thing” Kent were made for each other.

Martha Don't Owe

“You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did. But use your powers to save me and Lois, mm-kay?”

As a side note: the way Jonathan Kent is set up as a presence before the Pa Kent Horse Bit is nothing short of baffling. After the Senate bombing, Superman tells Lois in a should-have-been-poignant scene, “I’ve been living my life the way my father saw it, righting wrongs” and being a hero. Okay, so he’s talking about Jor-El, his Kryptonian father, right? He goes on to say that the idea of Superman is “the dream of a farmer from Kansas”, his father’s dream. What??? Anyone who has seen Man of Steel saw Pa Kent sacrifice himself to keep his son’s superpowers a secret. I cannot emphasize that enough. So these lines of dialogue are bald-faced lies. And in service of what? The only possible reason would be to retroactively change Pa Kent’s outlook on Superman. But the entire sentiment of the Pa Kent Horse Bit is exactly the kind of subversion of heroism we got in Man of Steel. The screenplay is such a fumble that it can’t even stay internally consistent on major character moments.

So a short while after the Pa Kent Horse Bit, Superman sacrifices himself to destroy the abominable monster Doomsday. But here’s the thing – he sacrificed himself without having ever getting over the situation and being Superman. Because Snyder and the other filmmakers have created a world that makes the Superman concept untenable. Now, Snyder has a track record of using explicit Superman/Christ metaphors, especially in Man of Steel. Going with that, the Pa Kent Horse Bit should be Superman’s Gethsemane moment, the scene in which Superman despairs of his preordained responsibility before finally making the choice to face his destiny. But the film is inept. It can’t make the scene work on any level – it’s not meaningful, it’s not touching, it’s not relatable, and it carries a poisonous sentiment. The Pa Kent Horse Bit? Maybe I should call it the Pa Kent Horseshit.

No Gethsemane

In plain sight, the scene illuminates something weird. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are films that question the very nature of heroism, but not in a constructive way. Rather, it’s in a manner that promotes selfishness and complacency. The ideal of Superman is torn down. The DC cinematic universe, a series of superhero tentpole blockbuster films, is built on the foundation of stories that are essentially deconstructions of heroism. And that is insane to me.

Trinity

There’s even more wrong with the film that what’s illuminated by the Pa Kent Horse Bit. I would need to record an audio commentary to cover them. The raw deal is that, again, this universe of films faces an upward battle. Batman v Superman, a movie supposed to be selling the Justice League, features a rapport-free, virtually teamwork-free team-up of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, and the latter two heroes never speak a word to each other. Anything can be turned around, with the necessary resources and the right people guiding a film. But with Snyder prepping to shoot Justice League Part One within the month, I am worried. The DC universe can’t afford another $250+ million miscalculation. Suicide Squad looks interesting (and its multimillion dollar reshoots look to add character moments and humor), but I’ll be most looking forward to Wonder Woman in 2017. Not only is it the first high-profile female-led superhero film since Elektra in 2005, it also figures to be the first movie in this DC superhero universe not to be a deconstruction of heroism.

Editorial Corner – The Moral and Allegory of Zootopia

Contains spoilers for Zootopia (known as Zootropolis in some territories)

Zootopia is a very fine movie. Its lead characters are endearing, a lot of the humor is on point, and the video-game-overworld layout of the titular city leads to some eye-popping visuals showing off a fully realized world. But what does it have to say?

Zootropolis

Quite a lot, actually – too much, even, but I’ll get into that later. I separate the film’s moral from its attempt at allegory, so I’ll address the moral first. The moral/message is great and very timely. We’re in the midst of a 2016 Presidential campaign marked by some ugly, downright troglodytic racism and sexism on the part of a certain candidate, and Zootopia comes along with a healthy message of tolerance, hitting hard against xenophobia and prejudice.

Thinking Twice

Of course, it uses a city of anthropomorphic animals to make this point, illustrated in part by the two leads; we have female rabbit Judy Hopps and male fox Nick Wilde, who were in some way brought low by prejudice before rallying back to ensure a happy ending for the movie. They do this by circumventing a conspiracy to artificially make the 10% minority of predator animals go “savage” by introducing a drug into their systems. The plan was working for a while; “innocent prey” saw their worst prejudices realized with rabid killer predators on the loose, leading to panic, paranoia, and hate against the predators. Now for the film’s ending to be happy, the force of institutional racism is literalized and arrested in the form of the Mayor, a seemingly meek sheep named Dawn Bellwether who is behind the conspiracy. She rants about us vs. them and virtually declares war on the dreaded other. This is after making repeated comments earlier in the movie about how she and Judy need to “stick together”, but all the while orchestrating a fear monger’s campaign. She’s Trump if he kept it a secret.

Judy and Dawn

So we have a simple moral of anti-xenophobia, arising from a complicated allegory. When getting into the specifics of Zootopia’s allegory, I think it’s overcomplicated and incoherent. Let’s break it down.

The setup begins with mysterious incidents of certain individuals of predator species going savage. We learn that “Night Howlers” are involved somehow. Judy Hopps inadvertently stokes the racially charged fear in the city when she states in a press conference that these predators are going back to their “natural state”. (To the film’s credit, this shows how even a good person can say offensive things because institutional racism can sometimes run insidiously deep.)

Judy and Nick

Next we further the Night Howler mystery by learning that it’s a flower, and that consumption of it leads to an animal going savage under psychotropic influence. So something like a crack/meth epidemic is causing this – just say no, and cue cute Breaking Bad parody.

But then it’s revealed that Mayor Bellwether is on a zealous crusade. She has the drug concentrated into pellets, arms her officers with dart guns, and orders predators SHOT WITH THE DRUG. We went from social commentary about oppression, to social commentary on minorities and drugs, to social commentary on minorities getting shot by the authorities. Mixed metaphor, much?

Now, of course, traditional mainlining of drugs has no place in a children’s movie and the movie needs the drugs to get in the predators somehow. For an example of a plot point not taken, the writers could have, I dunno, put the drug in a liquid that only predators drink – this could at least take advantage of how the movie uses animal biology. But the choice to reverse-engineer this plot into a commentary on minority groups getting freakin’ shot is a decisive one.

Savage

Stacking these revelations on top of each other ends up turning a potentially compelling parallel to our world into a circus show. Are the predators going savage because they’re an oppressed minority? Because they’re taking drugs? Because they’re all getting shot? By pulling it in all these different directions, the allegory is diluted. The film finds a bunch of real-life things to “comment on” and puts them in a blender. This isn’t the best allegory, it’s the most allegory.

Indeed, maybe part of this is a consequence of how plotty, procedural and reliant on successive revelations Zootopia can be. (Clue leads to clue, and it’s kind of hilarious how many times Judy recording someone saying something incriminating is a plot point.) Also, Zootopia is keen to comment on all these racial issues that we face, but at the end of the day this is still an animated comedy with animals. While the film certainly chafes against stereotypes to a certain extent (Bunnies are coded as feminine in the movie’s world, so cue Judy’s annoyance at jokes about bad driving and being really emotional), most of the animals are given predictable behavioral traits (Timberwolves gotta howl). As (the extended Marlon Brando joke) Mr. Big says, “We may be evolved, but we’re still animals!” I totally understand why a weasel named Weaselton is there acting all “weaselly” – after all, this is an accessible family movie – but it makes a thematic graft between these races and our human races kind of a no-go. When you’re depicting an allegorical world where these predator species did in fact originally evolve to kill the prey species, can you really justify this as a parallel of our world?

Timberwolves

The place where Zootopia’s allegory was really helped out was with the pop star Gazelle. Just as Gazelle’s peaceful protest against racism was crashed, so did Beyoncé’s statement of solidarity with victims of police brutality at the Super Bowl face a big backlash. While I know Gazelle doesn’t know at that point that the predators are being shot, from the objective filmmaker’s viewpoint, that is a pop star protesting a minority group getting shot by authority figures. That’s timely as hell.

Zootopia

While it has a wonderful moral, Zootopia takes a sloppy path to get there, and stumbles as allegory. This doesn’t necessarily diminish it much – wearing its heart on its furry sleeve, it’s a great time at the movies in the company of likable characters living in an interesting world – but it shouldn’t be held up as some brilliant satire. It’s great on basic message. It’s just not so great as allegory.

My Film Awards – 2015

In advance of the Golden Globes ceremony, and Academy Award nominations, I present my own personalized awards for the year in film – at least of movies I’ve seen. (So if none of my winners get awards in those or other venues, they can take comfort that they’re winners to me!)

Best Supporting Actress

Jane

Sarah Snook, Predestination

Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

 

Best Supporting Actor

Adam Driver

Adam Driver, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina

Richard Jenkins, Bone Tomahawk

Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Sylvester Stallone, Creed

 

Best Original Score

Tom Holkenborg

Tom Holkenborg, Mad Max: Fury Road

Patrick Doyle, Cinderella

Michael Giacchino, Inside Out

Daniel Pemberton, Steve Jobs

Howard Shore, Spotlight

 

Best Production Design

Allerdale Hall

Thomas E. Sanders, Crimson Peak

Dante Ferretti, Cinderella

Colin Gibson, Mad Max: Fury Road

Arthur Max, The Martian

Gary Williamson, Paddington

 

Best Director

George Miller

George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Ryan Coogler, Creed

Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies

Matthew Vaughn, Kingsman: The Secret Service

Denis Villeneuve, Sicario

 

Best Actor

Steve Jobs

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Tom Hardy, Legend

Michael B. Jordan, Creed

Peter Sarsgaard, Experimenter

Jason Segel, The End of the Tour

 

Best Actress

Furiosa

Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road

Cate Blanchett, Truth

Emily Blunt, Sicario

Anna Kendrick, The Last Five Years

Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Drew Goddard

Drew Goddard, The Martian

Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen, Bridge of Spies

Paul King, Paddington

Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer, Spotlight

Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs

 

Best Original Screenplay

Docter LeFauve Cooley

Pete Docter & Meg LeFauve & Josh Cooley, Inside Out

Michael Almereyda, Experimenter

Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi, What We Do in the Shadows

Alex Garland, Ex Machina

S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk

 

Best Picture

The Fleet

Mad Max: Fury Road

Avengers: Age of Ultron

The Martian

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Steve Jobs

 

Creative Commons

My Year at the Movies – 2015

A year ago, this blog didn’t exist, and now it’s time to look back on my movie-going 2015. What follows is a ranking of every 2015 movie I saw, with comments (and links to my reviews if I’ve already written on them). This ranking is very personal to me, so consider this a chronicle of my favorites of the year. Note that films I wanted to see but didn’t in time for this post include but are not limited to: Love and Mercy, Pawn Sacrifice, Macbeth, Carol, The Big Short, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, Anomalisa, and The Program, which doesn’t have a U.S. release date yet.

Now, let’s go off the deep end, shall we?

53) Pixels

Pac-Man 1

Read the full review/rant here

This Happy Madison misfire could have been something, a fun alien invasion romp with 1980s arcade characters utilized in fun ways. In the end, what we got is a movie that often just seems to shrug its shoulders, declaring its apathy for logic, entertainment value and good taste. It doesn’t care, and when the movie doesn’t care, why should we credit it as anything other than a waste of time? It’s bad, and I mean replace-one-of-the-main-character’s-love-interest-with-an-inflatable-sex-doll-and-virtually-nothing-changes bad. It has a willful misunderstanding of dramatic structure and comedic value, featuring a checked-out lead performance from Adam Sandler and all round laziness. Just patch together some of the genuinely effective visual effects into a sizzle reel and call it an editing job well done. That way, at least something constructive can come out of this “comedy” of errors.

52) CRAPPiE

Vincent Moore

Read the full review/rant here

In the most basic logline of CHAPPiE (a police robot led astray by a group of gangsters), there is potential. But the execution is alternately ear-splittingly annoying, and hands-down some of the best so-bad-it’s-good viewing all year. The boring bad stuff centers on real-life musical group Die Antwoord playing veiled versions of themselves. The fun bad stuff mostly revolves around Vincent Moore as played by Hugh Jackman, who gives one of the most over-the-top and hilariously strained villain performances I’ve ever seen, bringing to life a truly bizarre character. (Read my review to get the low-down on this amazing scene-stealer.) In the end, this tale of an artificially intelligent police robot impresses with the mocap physicality of the title character, but spectacularly malfunctions almost every other step of the way.

51) Project Almanac

PROJECT ALMANAC

Okay. The only reason I watched this movie is because the director, Dean Isrealite, is doing Power Rangers in 2017, and I am fascinated to see how that will go down. (This movie, like Power Rangers, features a “team” of five teens. That’s all I’ve got for that connection.) We have a pretty standard found-footage setup: a group of vaguely unlikable teens discover plans for a time machine, they build it in one of their moms’ basement, it goes unnoticed by her even though it sparks and explodes all over the place, and the teens record everything even when it’s not plausible or logical. If you watch Project Almanac, I hope you enjoy the first act, because it goes off the rails after that, getting worse as it goes along. I don’t think this trifle of a movie needs any more attention from me.

50) Jupiter Ascending

Wedding

Read the full review here

An original space opera is a rare beast – it’s hard to build a compelling interstellar world and tell a good story with fun characters. Judging from the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, they sure went for the glory in the former, and utterly failed to tend to the latter! There’s enough exposition here to choke an elephant, delivered by actors who are positively lost at sea. You may find solace in the various bizarre choices made here (Sean Bean as half-man, half-honeybee! A Brazil parody that comes out of nowhere! A half-assed Oedipus complex for the villains!). But Mila Kunis’ Jupiter (sort of a real person but also insultingly written – she loves dogs a little too much), Channing Tatum’s Caine (vacant to the point of cardboard), and Eddie Redmayne’s Balem (zero-to-rabid in 2 seconds and impossible to take seriously) are pretty poor company on this theoretically epic adventure.

49) Aloha

Aloha

This romantic and easygoing tale is set in Hawaii, revolving around a military contractor’s (Bradley Cooper) romantic entanglements, and his assignment to secure Hawaiian airspace for a new private satellite. Cameron Crowe’s latest effort is awkward and largely too relaxed to get much of a reaction from anyone, good or bad. Even though I don’t find Cooper a likable screen presence at all, Aloha glides along to its own particular beat and it’s almost like it’s there not to bother you. One random observation that will thrill anyone who knows a lot about cult movies is that there’s one scene where images are being transmitted through a satellite, and you can see the demonic villain Pitch from the bizarre 1960 movie Santa Claus. In my estimation that’s the most interesting thing about the Aloha.

48) Terminator Genisys

Terminator

Read the full review here

The biggest threat in Terminator Genisys is not a new badass Terminator, but the screenplay. The dialogue is full of boring declarative sentences, the most stock place-holding character scenes, and a convoluted plot that also allows for a bland and insulting nostalgia-fest. Genisys inspires nostalgia for 20-30 years-past earlier films while not bothering to create in itself something people might be nostalgic for in 20 years. There’s admittedly only one truly weak link in the cast, but it’s Jai Courtney’s lead role! He makes for a main character-sized black hole of charisma, while the rest of the ensemble tries gamely to entertain (J.K. Simmons feels like he’s in a different movie). But their efforts are in vain; what can they do to stop the lukewarm tide of a watered-down, insular, continuity-torturing rebootquel? If Genisys has James Cameron’s endorsement, this franchise is terminated.

47) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

The winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival rubs me the wrong way. It’s incredibly self-conscious in its attempts to be quirky and offbeat (cue irritating intertitles, cutaways and narration), and in the end seems to hope that its own pandering love of classic movies will convince the audience to give it a break for all its excesses of hipster filmmaking. The basic plot is that Greg Gaines (the “Me” of the title) and his “coworker” Earl (because friends are too mainstream) are going through their usual routine of filming parodies of old movies, until Greg’s mother asks him to befriend a high school classmate dying of cancer. Angst and bonding ensues.

Lead character Greg is insufferable, nominally developing out of being an asshole but at almost all turns excellently resembling one. But in the interest of feelings often being complicated, there is good here. The film parodies are kind of great. Supporting performances from Jon Bernthal and Molly Shannon work well in context. And as the titular Dying Girl, Olivia Cooke quietly acts up a storm. With any luck she’s a rising star to watch. But in the overall picture, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl misfires far more than it hits bull’s-eye, hampered by a terrible main character and its own pretentions.

46) Spectre

James Bond Silhouette

Read the full review/rant here

There are only three James Bond movies I dislike, and I’m sorry to say Spectre is one of them. It’s a superficially great-looking mess with largely unexciting action (save to the pre-titles and the train fight), baffling story and character choices, and a genuinely bad third act more likely to induce a roll of the eyes than a pump of the fist. The overall sense I got is that Spectre is more devoted to weaving in the continuity of the Craig-era Bonds than being a good Bond movie on its own. But your mileage may vary; positives include that Daniel Craig plays a slightly looser and more traditionally “fun” Bond, the big SPECTRE meeting scene is genuinely creepy, and in a production so handsome there’s bound to be some fleeting moments of inspiration. But fleeting is the key word; I personally found Spectre to be frustratingly insular and navel-gazing.

45) Fantastic Four

Fantastic 4

Read the full review here

I find the negative reaction to this film to be way overblown, but that doesn’t mean Fantastic Four isn’t a mess of mutually exclusive agendas clashing before our eyes. The thing is, elements of it work (the cast, the Cronenbergian body-horror part) while obvious studio reshoots and interference rear their heads as the runtime goes on until we’re left with a shallow mishmash of a movie laughing in the face of coherence. This was Fox’ big chance to make a statement, to prove they deserve to hold onto the rights to Marvel’s first family. As it happened, Fox sabotaged itself at nearly every step of the way, until we’re left with a genetic hybrid that’s part competent, part brain-dead. I think it turned out average overall. But given their behavior, Fox got the flop they deserved.

44) Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland

Read the full review/rant here

This is half of a good movie. The good half: a wealth of creative design work, a sense of wonder, two intoxicating scenes touring the dizzyingly well-realized city of Tomorrowland, energetic direction from Brad Bird. The bad half: lots of overacting, a paltry amount of Tomorrowland for a film named after it, insulting and simplistic messages, and screenwriting choices that end up making this much more of a chore than it needs to be. In this end this love letter to retro-futurism is torn in two, weighing itself down with bricks when it should be soaring.

43) The Good Dinosaur

The Good Dinosaur

My favorite thing about The Good Dinosaur is the wealth of stunning landscape visuals. The decision to go with semi-photorealistic environs and heightened cartoony designs for the dinosaurs is a challenge to adjust to at times, but is overall interesting. It serves what is at times like a stripped-down travelogue narrative featuring an Apatosaurus’ quest to return to his family after being swept by a river current into strange territory. (On the other hand, the fact that the setting is photorealistic and the creature designs are few and far between mean that this is the Pixar “Art of” book you’ll least want to own).

Story/character-wise, this is the least ambitious movie Pixar’s ever done. It’s all so noticeably basic (shockingly so after Inside Out). Which isn’t bad per se – simplicity can be great in certain contexts, but this movie really depends on your specific emotional investment in the one or two central emotional cores of the movie, and I just wasn’t quite on its wavelength. I also personally noticed some weird sociopolitical themes going on. The good guys are the traditional farmers and upstanding cowboys. And they’re all threatened by weird hippies and trailer trash. What’s going on here?

42) Testament of Youth

Testament of Youth

Based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of the same name, Testament of Youth follows Vera as she experiences an Oxford education, which is then swiftly interrupted by love, loss, and the ravages of the Great War. The film adaptation proceeds exactly as you think, populated with profound human tragedy and a ground-level perspective on the insanity of World War I courtesy of Vera’s nursing position on the front lines. Early scenes of idyllic cinematography give way to an odyssey of stark truths. You get nothing more or less than what you bargain for from this story of a lost generation, and those who are left behind.

41) Everest

Scott

Read the full review here

This is a movie that gives you exactly what it advertises: a tale of fleeting triumph and bitter adversity as a group of intrepid adventures summit the highest peak on earth, and lose 12 people on the way down. While the film doesn’t hit me as hard as I know it will others, it is a very impressive achievement in technical filmmaking. It’s frequently beautiful (owing to a production that took principal photography up 16,000 feet on Everest itself), the sprawling cast is game, and the writing is a cut above the stereotypical disaster fare. I like it well enough for what it is, but others more connected to the material and the itch to explore will probably get more out of it.

40) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2

The Hunger Games series dies as it lived, populated with sobering subversions of blockbuster formula, lots of awkward silences, and a laser focus on the subjective experience of its heroine Katniss Everdeen. This final installment takes us through an infiltration of the booby-trapped Capitol, following close with Katniss so as to feed the audience her confusion and perspective on the ground. There are no sweeping shots of armies clashing here, just stop-and-start progress in a semi-deserted cityscape. This makes for choppy, herky-jerky plotting, but it also makes clear the franchise’s goal to take the risk of keeping things very intimate.

This doesn’t mean that things are always subdued. During an episode in the sewers the film briefly turns into director Francis Lawrence’s own I am Legend, and the series-long love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta is resolved in a fairly brutal way (although a scene where Gale openly discusses the triangle comes off as clumsy). But the most interesting developments are saved for the climax; suffice to say that the marketing of this film is one big fascinating bait-and-switch. And a single act of laughing at a crucial climactic moment may just make for the best scene in this four-film franchise. How ironic for this super-serious series.

39) Jurassic World

Indominus Action

Read the full review here

Jurassic World has perhaps the weakest script of any movie I saw this year. This is a movie that hates its own main character, that relies on Indominus Rex-sized plot contrivances, that fills itself with character and narrative dead ends, and whose most fun character is the moustache-twirling villain. Add to that, the sense of wonder isn’t there (the Jurassic Park theme is never played when a dinosaur is own screen). So how do certain parts of it still work? Well, the climax is fun. The pteranodon attack (despite ironically containing a moment I dislike and another I despise) is vividly brought to life. In short, director Colin Trevorrow has an all-right batting average when it comes to setpieces. And I do think the bit featuring the field of dead dinosaurs is a near-perfect scene. So Jurassic World is a movie that cruises onward despite itself. There are good elements, but they’re kind of snowed in, here in this colorless schematic of a tentpole movie. To paraphrase John Hammond, “You’ll have to get used to Jurassic World, it suffers from a deplorable lack of personality”. This is the movie that made $1.6 billion?

As a side note for the future, I have a personal director recommendation for the sequel: Brad Bird. Whatever you or I think of Tomorrowland, the sense of wonder and awe is there. We know from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol that he can make colorful and indelible setpieces that snap, crackle and pop. We know from his animated work the depth of emotion he can bring to a movie. It would fit his schedule, as shooting would come before the bulk of work on The Incredibles 2. And Bird already had a cameo in this movie, so he’s got his foot in the door. Make it happen!

38) It Follows

It Follows

It Follows is a John Carpenter-esque throwback, a horror movie that takes a simple concept (sexually-transmitted sight of a ceaselessly pursuing thing coming to kill you) and uses the camera eye to make for the most tension and creepiness as possible. Director David Robert Mitchell uses 360 shots often, conditioning the audience into a twisted game of watching the frame to see if “It” is there, for it can take any form. The best moment of the film is probably the school scene where It is there, but the characters don’t notice it themselves. Given my extremely low tolerance for this sort of creepiness, don’t expect me to ever watch It Follows again. If you’re into that kind of thing, though, go to town.

37) Woman in Gold

Merchandise

Read the full review here

Woman in Gold is based on the true story of a Jewish Austrian woman trying to reclaim a series of Gustav Klimt paintings of her aunt, which were confiscated during the Nazi occupation, and postwar were kept in the Austrian state gallery. This is a story mostly well told here, with handsome work from Helen Mirren in the lead, and the rest of the cast (though Katie Holmes is saddled with maybe the most thankless role of the year). It’s just that there’s a lack of willingness to engage in the more complicated questions of motivations that arise from this quest to recover paintings by then iconic to Austrian culture (see the review for more).

36) The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Editing

Read the full review here

The 1960s buddy spy show of the same name sold itself on the pairing of CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill here) and KGB specialist Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), and this film adaptation similarly places the odd-couple pairing as the highest priority. Their dealbreaker chemistry really works, complemented by third-wheel Gaby, played by the ubiquitous Alicia Vikander. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is all flash and style, much of it working a charm, but it’s held back by an inane focus on building up villains who end up being ultra-disposable, and Guy Ritchie suddenly not being able to direct action. It’s fun, but there were better spy movies this year.

35) Clouds of Sils Maria

Sils Maria

Read the mini-review here

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart’s headlining performances are the glue around which this entire film revolves, with Binoche in the role of an actress who got her big break in the junior role in a drama featuring a relationship between a young seductress and an older woman, and is now being approached for the latter role. This leads to lots of verbose but sober conversations about the fickle highs and lows of acting, and read-throughs of the script that bleed fictional conflicts into the characters’ “real” lives. This wordiness is contrasting by long stretches of atmospheric ambiguity, especially in the intentionally off-putting third act, and while that opacity doesn’t always do Clouds of Sils Maria’s credit, the film’s character shines through the fog.

34) Truth

Truth

Truth is the Hamlet of television journalism. Everyone gets fired, asked to resign, or resigns of their own free will by the end. The reason? Controversy surrounding a 2004 60 Minutes piece on President George W. Bush’s service in the [National Guard] – the evidence seems to suggest that Bush was circulated through the system so as to avoid actual attendance and to preclude service in the Vietnam War. The problems come when persistent questions are raised as to the veracity of [CBS]’ sources. Cate Blanchett is producer Mary Mapes, and she is magnificent here, volcanic and subtle in turn when it’s called for. I found Blanchett’s performance to be better than the often on-the-nose and insular movie she’s in, but Truth is nonetheless well made. My favorite scene? In the editing room, Mapes is overseeing the cutting of the special. The deadline to air is reconfirmed. And all in the room buckle down with the determination to do this thing, and do it fast. It’s an exciting moment in a film that can get a little swamped elsewhere.

33) Legend

Legend

Tom Hardy just might be my favorite actor working today, so of course I was going to see Legend, in which he plays the two lead roles. They are twin English gangsters Reggie (the smooth one) and Ronald (the barking mad one) Kray, and the two wildly different performances are both fantastic. The ferocious but loving conflict between the two unambiguously works, and that’s where the film derives all of its energy. The problem is that the movie as a whole is paced unevenly and gets worse as it goes along – we’re into the swing of things in the first two acts (the Krays expand their territory between jail time, while Reggie courts Emily Browning’s Frances), but the third act rather falls apart entirely. A significant part of the problem is the Frances character, so integral to the story. Despite a very solid performance by Browning, Frances is a terribly weak character. She has no life outside of her fiancé Reggie, and plays the victim at most every turn. Now, I realize this is based on a true story, but there must have been some way to give us the everywoman contrast to gangster life without doing it in such a limp way. So Legend is an overlong and questionably structured film, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of Hardy, who knocks an acting challenge out of the park once again.

32) Spy

Susan 2

Read the mini-review here

Paul Feig’s second collaboration with Melissa McCarthy produces a romp with unexpected thematic depth even as it commits fully to outrageous comedy. The thing is, McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is super-competent at her job, but people constantly underestimate, judge, and treat her based only on her appearance. So while the jokes are flying, something deeper is being portrayed. The whole situation is also like a reflection of McCarthy’s rise in Hollywood, with the hotshot star agent roles taken up by men and one token conventionally beautiful woman (Morena Baccarin), before the situation arises for McCarthy/Cooper to shine. With sterling support from the comedy goldmine that is Jason Statham, Spy rises above some overall patchiness to show us all how solid it is at its job.

31) Irrational Man

Abe 1

Read the full review here

I was maybe too protective of spoilers in my initial review of Irrational Man. First there’s the context of a philosophy professor’s (Joaquin Phoenix) existential crisis and his student’s (Emma Stone) moral support. Then there’s the meat of the story, one of ennui, finding purpose, and the perfect murder, all spun out from the singular mind of Woody Allen. I was hesitant to give away the murder aspect, because the way it unfolds in the movie is such a dynamic left-turn. I find the film fun and light on its feet for the most part, and a welcome entry to Allen’s canon of insane proliferation (at least one movie a year since 1982).

30) The End of the Tour

The End of the Tour

The seminal 1996 novel Infinite Jest runs 1,079 pages. It’s an intimidating volume, and for people like me who have not scaled its heights, this film does a very good job of getting you in the head of its fascinating yet down-to-earth author David Foster Wallace, played here with unpretentious skill by Jason Segel. Rolling Stone contributor David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) tagged along with Wallace at the end of his Infinite Jest book tour, and Lipsky’s memoir of the experience forms the basis for the film. It makes sense that screenwriter Donald Margulies is traditionally a playwright, because the film lives and dies by its two-handed scenes between our two Davids; the script gradually siphons off external concerns until the third act is stripped mainly to just the two of them, probing and conversing.

The End of the Tour is a meditation on life, human relationships, and depression, but it’s also operating on a pretty even keel; I found it a pleasant and even relaxing watch, with no great ambition to be anything else. And it works well, give or take some semi-forced beats of jealousy that develop on Lipsky’s part. The End of the Tour is talky but not in a showy way, and supported by soothing but striking music from Danny Elfman. And hey, for all its quiet, you might get a little something in your eye for the ending – from the beginning of the film you understand that perennial regular guy Wallace ended up a victim of suicide in 2008.

29) Furious 7

Furious 7

Read the full review here

Furious 7 will always be known as the one hit hard by Paul Walker’s untimely death, and the heartfelt tribute at the end sends off Walker’s character elegantly and beautifully. The rest of the movie’s not bad either, give or take a dumb macguffin-obsessed plot and a few ridiculous action beats (Dominic and the villain ram each other head-on three times!). In fact, the chemistry of the Fast and Furious family unit is still beating as the heart of the franchise, and the over-the-top action (parachuting cars! Building-hopping cars!) is still thrilling. To be honest, this was the first film in the series I’d seen at the time, which is shocking to a linear guy like me, but it still delivered an entertaining ride.

28) Mr. Holmes

Sherlock

Read the full review here

Mr. Holmes to an extent lives or dies with Ian McKellen’s central performance as the retired detective haunted by the fractured memory of his last case. But that’s not exactly a risk, as predictably excellent as McKellen is. This is a unique spin on a Sherlock Holmes story, introducing in tandem Holmes’ retired day-to-day life, and flashbacks of his final case. In 1998, director Bill Condon and McKellen made a film with a near-identical premise called Gods and Monsters, in which another retired genius is haunted by the past. Mr. Holmes is the much less risky and challenging film, but that doesn’t diminish its considerable merits.

27) The Voices

The Voices

Strap in, this one gets dark and weird. Ryan Reynolds stars as a seemingly normal guy living in an oddly idyllic/creepy town. He works at Fixture Faucet International, and after a short-circuited night out with a co-worker he has a crush on, his psychosis starts to take over. Reynolds does exceptional work as the mannered but looney-tune Jerry Hickfang, and he’s supported by smart visual filmmaking that balances the superficially pleasant with the gruesome (often, they’re inseparable). There is comedy and grotesquerie here, in a mixture that will surely alienate some audience members, and the deeper you get into it the darker things get (there are some creepy-as-hell flashbacks that got to me in a big way). If you’re feeling it’s all too much, though, stay for the credits. Fun fact: The Voices is (well) directed by Marjane Satrapi, author of the acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis.

26) Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk

This genre bender from first-time writer-director S. Craig Zahler lulls you into the world of a beautifully pitched western, before topping it off with brutality so shocking it takes the film into the realm of horror. The fact that both parts of the equation are so striking gives Bone Tomahawk a unique flavor. In fact, before unkind things are done to bodies and limbs in the often-disgusting finale, for the majority of the runtime the western setting is as grounded as you please, following the efforts of a western sheriff (Kurt Russell) to rescue a handful of kidnapped townsfolk. The entire second act consists of walking and talking between the members of his search party, with not an antagonist in sight, which ensures that you get to know these characters very well. My favorite is Richard Jenkins’ deputy sheriff, often dopey and used for comic relief, but always balanced with sharp competence and decency. My favorite element is the stunning western cinematography, courtesy of Benji Bakshi. For a certain kind of viewer, one who likes slow burns, the tenor of a Searchers-style western, and a helping of grisly horror, this is a godsend.

25) The Last Five Years

Happy Days

Read the mini-review here

The Last Five Years’ depiction of a relationship’s five-year run, from moving in, to marriage, to withering heartbreak, and finally break-up is conveyed almost entirely in song, and I think two things. One, that sounds great, like it’s a constant conveyer belt of entertainment. Two, it sounds like it would be super-tough to maintain the impact of those songs over a 90-minute runtime. So I can now report that yes, the film is entertaining if you’re on its wavelength, and that yes, these songs get samey pretty quick. But Anna Kendrick’s dynamic performance, and really interesting structural choices become the film’s salvation even as not every song/dramatic setpiece has the breathing room to stand out.

24) Ant-Man

Ant-Man

Read the full review here

As a palette cleanser after the operatic Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man works well, as it scales back into a more compact package of superpowered shrinking suits, heists, daddy issues, and wacky comedy. While on a second viewing not all the humor holds up, the flavor of the film is still fun, supported by a likable cast led by the charismatic Paul Rudd. The flaws are right there in your face – Corey Stoll is really trying, but Darren Cross is just a stock villain and a weak character; and in the first act it feels like there are two completely different movies running in parallel, with each paying for the other instead of harmonizing together. But with a third act as good as this has, taking such great advantage of its combatants’ shrinking abilities, Ant-Man leaves a good final impression.

23) The Walk

Tightening Wire

Read the full review here

More than any film I’ve seen in 2015, The Walk almost demands that you experience it in the theater; but more than that, in 3D; but more than that, in IMAX 3D. The 3D here is integral to the immersion of this film depicting the true story of Philippe Petit’s World Trade Center wire-walk. Director Robert Zemeckis (always noted for his trademark of dynamic and ambitious camerawork) has a field day using 3D for extraordinary depth perception and sweeping visuals in that cinematic centerpiece, but also in all corners of this movie that dramatizes a spectacular “artistic heist”, and the insane drive necessary to pull it off. In real life, Petit walked back and forth on that wire eight times, performing for 45 minutes. You can’t make this stuff up.

22) Predestination

Time Travel

Read the mini-review here

Predestination is a heady concoction of time travel shenanigans, with paradoxes, closed loops, and self-fulfilling timelines so ironclad, and presented with such audacity, that you can’t help but go with it. Ethan Hawke is very much the standard hardened time agent, but the barnstorming, breakout, ready-your-theoretical-Oscar-ballot performance belongs to Sarah Snook in a double role as a woman named Jane who needed gender re-assignment surgery to survive as John. Get this woman some awards! Predestination is occasionally on the nose, but on the whole whip-smart, and after all the dust of the plot twists have settled, it becomes a fun time travel story to think about after the fact.

21) Trumbo

Trumbo

Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo, a big-time screenwriter and one of the victims of blacklisting in the paranoid McCarthy era. The general premise is played broadly, drawing clear battle lines between the sides of righteous heroes and closed-minded villains, before blurring them with a slight flicker as the film goes on. For much of its runtime Trumbo gains a lot of traction as a pacy and appealing romp through this uncertain time in Hollywood, headlined by an ensemble committed to keep the wry humor coming right alongside the moral outrage and interpersonal drama. Of course John Goodman is in there as an executive of a studio churning out cheap and trashy “B” movies. That’s the kind of humor we’re in for, and it’s quite welcome, along with hilarious caricatured versions of such figures as Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger. The movie gets a little choppy with the frequent time jumps, but as Trumbo says, “If every scene is written brilliantly, your movie will become dreadfully monotonous.”

20) Crimson Peak

Allerdale Hall

Read the full review here

Partially set in a new contender for one of the all-time great film sets, Guillermo del Toro’s visually sumptuous Gothic romance fills the screen with vibrant color and characters with magnetic personality, all to service the full-blooded melodrama of the story. It’s a Victorian bodice-ripper, by way of the themes and visual conceits that del Toro has always concerned himself with, making for a lovely auteur-driven film. There are ghosts here, but this is no hororshow; they’re secondary to the pulpy drama being played out between the prototypical 19th Century heroine Mia Wasikowska, the vulnerable Tom Hiddleston, and the scene-stealing Jessica Chastain.

19) What We Do in the Shadows

Group

Read the mini-review here

This charm offensive of a low-budget mockumentary gives us a sitcom-like setup of multiple generations of vampires living together in a house in New Zealand. But vitally, What We Do in the Shadows also takes its vampire lore seriously. It builds it world and gives us full-blooded yet laid-back conflicts, while all the while we get to know an endearing cast of characters. In recent news, co-director, co-writer, and star Taika Waititi is in final negotiations to direct Thor: Ragnarok. If he can do for Norse mythology half of what he did for vampires, the MCU just got even more interesting.

18) Sicario

Kate Tunnel

Read the full review here

The latest from Denis Villeneuve takes Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, and the audience, south of the Mexican border and into a world of drug wars, cartels, and twisted morality. It’s a descent into a living nightmare, as every element of Sicario, from the cold performances to the stunning cinematography to the droning score, envelops the audience in dread. This is a beautifully constructed film depicting horrific material, giving the audience a lot to chew on. It’s just that it all tastes like ash.

17) The Peanuts Movie

The Peanuts Movie

The Peanuts Movie feels like the Peanuts! With an absolute minimum of anachronistic modern elements (just one or two pop songs, and not in your face), this is an hour-and-a-half charmer. It gives Charlie Brown a quintessential but uplifting arc, plays its ace Snoopy for plenty of cute and funny material, and makes great use of the ensemble cast of characters. I love the animation style, melding Charles Schulz’ line-drawn work with CG rendering. The biggest noticeable flaw here is that the Red Baron sequences are overlong, and have a couple strange elements to them. Also, given the nature of slapstick, not all of it lands, but it’s encouraging how much of it does. This is something of a “greatest hits” Peanuts movie at times, but when it’s done this well in 2015, it feels fresh all over again.

16) Pitch Perfect 2

Showstopper

Read the full review here

The first Pitch Perfect was surprisingly solid, but now it’s time to meet its better. The sequel gives us a more interesting conflict/roadblock to greatness for our national a capella champions, a better joke hit ratio, added depth to several returning characters, and themes to die for that pay off beautifully in a show-stopper finale. While Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson etc are all reliably charismatic, heightening their performances to just the right ridiculous level, you could say the real star of the show is the music. And it’s on point here, with the exception being that a few early songs have non-diegetic backing beats – this is a baffling choice given that the attraction of a capella is that it comes entirely from human “instrumentation”. But thankfully the problem resolves itself over the runtime. And they do “Lady Marmalade”. Co-star Elizabeth Banks directs, and her work is excellently suited to the tenor of the material.

15) Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Plane

Read the full review here

The Mission: Impossible series used to be okay. After Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, it’s great. Tom Cruise and company excel in another round of show-stopping setpieces (the plane takeoff, the Moroccan chase, and my absolute favorite, the geographically rewarding opera house scene), while also interrogating why this series works in fun and unfussy ways. Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is put through the wringer but never stops with the heroics, Simon Pegg continues to prove himself vital to the series, newcomer Rebecca Ferguson nearly steals the movie, and it all culminates in the most triumphant moment of the franchise. Tentpole action filmmaking doesn’t get too much better.

14) Ex Machina

Post its

Read the full review here

Writer-director Alex Garland has always impressed me, to the point where I believe he’s the best screenwriter science fiction has ever had. And his simple, haunting, and vibrantly alive chamber piece between programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), AI creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and AI Ava (Alicia Vikander) still packs a punch. On a second viewing, however, the twist I find so brilliant the first time around seemed a lot more telegraphed, which has a hand in lessening its impact. However, I still think the whole third act of Ex Machina is exceptional, with all the big ideas that have been building resolving themselves chillingly. Add to that an already iconic scene that breaks up the pacing and seems to be a non sequitur, but upon reflection is a brilliant illustration of the story, and where you think it’s going. (Hint: it has strobe lights.) That’s what this movie does best, in-your-face twists and turns that seem to come out of nowhere, but are actually creepily appropriate.

13) Experimenter

Experimenter

As a psychology minor who found social psych particularly interesting, I’m almost an ideal audience for this look at the life and work of pioneering experimental psychologist Stanley Milgram, played here with subtle gravity and a touch of profound world-weariness by Peter Sarsgaard. Several of his smaller experiments are also touched upon here, but Milgram will never escape the shadow of his crucial obedience experiments, in which subjects who believed they were inflicting disciplinary/corrective electric shocks to a “learner” escalated the shock voltage in increments to the highest setting (450) at an alarming rate. 65% of subjects went all the way! I must stress that the shocks were not in actuality being administered, but that the subject believed them to be – no real shocks to the learner. (That’s more than I can say for old-time horror director William Castle, who loved his gimmicks, and rigged mechanisms to audiences’ seats for showings of The Tingler so people could be actually shocked while watching the movie!)

This is not the venue to properly discuss the work and its implications, but the film dramatizes it and the linear progression of Milgram’s work exquisitely. I imagine the main criticism of Experimenter would be that it’s too much like a lecture at times. Fair enough, but when it is enlivened by such rich performances, and creative filmmaking courtesy of director Michael Almereyda, I don’t mind at all. Experimenter is a formally loose but coherent character study for Milgram, the people closest to him, and human nature in general – and I enjoyed it a lot.

12) Paddington

Paddington Station

Read the mini-review here

The stories of Paddington Bear have a simple set-up: a (sentient and adorable) bear makes his way from darkest Peru to England and finds a home with the Brown family; teatime adventures ensue. So when I tell you that writer-director Paul King’s translation of the source material onto the silver screen is brilliantly funny, charming and thematically rich, the accomplishment is all the more impressive. The thing I love most about Paddington is its playful but in a way daring themes of xenophobia and immigration – this is allegory for children done oh so well. Not all of the humor works (hello, comedy cross-dressing), but when it does it’s fantastic. The marketing campaign for this movie was stomach-churning. How wrong it was.

11) Kingsman: The Secret Service

Dealbreaker

Read the full review here

The project of Kingsman: The Secret Service is to push every element of the spy movie to an extreme, while also subverting tropes, and delivering one of the most cutting and incisive messages about class I can imagine. And the action is astonishingly realized, cementing Matthew Vaughn as a premiere action director. There are at least two setpieces here that are already iconic: The church scene; and the entire finale, capped off with Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”. This is a movie that features a henchwoman with blades for legs, and ends in an explicit sexual joke. But it also boasts genuine heart alongside smarminess, a lead character who sees through bullsh*t like we see through glass, a brilliant role for Colin Firth as the refined but deadly mentor, and real themes to dig into. Honestly, I think this movie’s conceptual brilliance is even greater than my personal regard for it.

10) Cinderella

Meet cute

Read the full review here

You know the Disneyfied story of Cinderella, and so does this movie. You might say the surprise is that there are no real surprises. This film is not subversive, or reliant on new twists, but instead is a straightforwardly beautiful story, updated well in certain areas, and with no shame in its sentimentality. The original film ran 75 minutes, and a shocking amount of that was devoted to animal antics, but its expansion to feature length works magically well. Lily James’ Cinderella, Cate Blanchett’s Lady Tremaine, and Richard Madden’s Prince Charming all have wonderfully clarified personalities, and because the film does the work in establishing them, the larger-than-life spectacle of the ballroom scenes is amplified because what it means to each character has been deftly established. Indeed, there are whole sequences (the appearance of the Fairy Godmother, the ball) that for some unknowable reason get by through sheer force of majesty. There’s something simple yet stunningly realized about this production. The only thing is, the first act, all the way up to the stepsisters and Lady Tremaine bestowing Ella with the nickname Cinderella, can be a bit of a slog. Everything afterward is movie magic.

9) Spotlight

Spotlight

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to molest one.” In 2000 going into 2001, a team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe uncovered the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-ups of priests’ child molestation. This is their unglamorous and fascinating story. The cast of reporters (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery) has no room for a star, and the depiction of their work is striking in its lack of showiness. Meticulous research, tenacious investigation, and sensitivity for the stories of the victims are all depicted here, tied together by Howard Shore’s utterly mournful main theme. To watch Spotlight is to be swept up into something in stages of escalation; and it has to stop somewhere, right? It’s a very human story of hard work and soul-searching, with a real sense of place in Boston. Look for it to get a lot of Oscar buzz in the Best Picture race.

8) Bridge of Spies

James Donovan on the Bridge

Read the full review here

May Steven Spielberg never lose his touch. Bridge of Spies is tailor-made material for him, a humanistic true story of justice and hostage negotiation set against the iron backdrop of the Cold War. Tom Hanks’ James Donovan finds himself in the eye of a political storm, and eventually in a position where his moral need to do the right thing actually bore fruit. The world of Bridge of Spies at first blush looks profoundly unwelcoming, with lots of greys and metallic colors. But with Spielberg as our guide, the richness of the world shines through. And with a fiendishly well-constructed script, as well as a rich supporting performance from Mark Rylance, this true story is delivered exceptionally fluently.

7) Creed

Creed

Forget The Walk; Ryan Coogler’s brainchild Creed is a true high-wire act of a film. It has to establish Adonis Creed (illegitimate son of Apollo) as a new protagonist, while integrating the story into the Rocky “universe”; put an entirely new and 21st Century spin on elements of the Rocky formula; and do justice to Rocky Balboa, a character who has never before been written by someone other than Sylvester Stallone, and who has never appeared on screen without support from Burt Young’s Paulie and Tony Burton’s Duke. That this movie is as good as it is resembles a miracle.

Michael B. Jordan’s lead performance is outstanding, excelling both in physical and interior arenas. His Adonis’ perspective brings a more explicit focus on boxing to the Rocky franchise, while also highlighting yet more different sides of Philadelphia. He brings the charisma, and his collaborator Coogler has a dynamite eye for shooting. The boxing scenes in the film are simply electric, whether it’s the gob smacking oner of the fight against Leo “The Lion” (one of the scenes of the year), or the hard-edged finale. The camera gets right up close and personal with the visceral bobbing, weaving, and slugging, creating a harsh intimacy. Smart visual touches permeate the film, whether it’s a simple POV shot of a shut door, or the opponent entrance in the finale that resembles an entrance from hell itself.

Stallone is radiant and brilliantly used here, playing a vital part in the “Mickey”/trainer role. Rocky still has his easygoing dorky humor and touching decency, all with a much more wizened perspective. (And he still plays with his little bouncing ball!) The dramatic stuff works wonders because of the history we have invested in him, particularly the show-stopping locker room scene. There are quite a few similarities to the first Rocky (Rocky/Adonis convincing Mickey/Rocky to train him, the split-decision finale), and easter eggs spanning the whole franchise (from only Cuff or Link left standing, to the foldable chair at the graveyard). The line that most deftly shows Coogler’s knowledge and love for the series? When Rocky says, “Now, Paulie was my best friend, but he wasn’t very friendly.” Hilarious, heartfelt, and insightful, all at the same time.

Creed is a wonderful marriage of old and new. Adonis is a great new hero for the series, putting his own stamp on the old tropes. The use of “Gonna Fly Now” is emotionally stunning. Adonis Creed wants to prove he wasn’t a mistake. Creed has proven itself not a mistake in the slightest.

6) Inside Out

Sadness

Read the full review here

There’s a Control Room inside young Riley Anderson. Five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear) live inside Riley and guide her through certain behaviors and feelings. As Riley sleeps, Joy replays a favorite ice-skating memory of Riley on the Control Room’s view screen, and mimes Riley’s movements as a fan might mime those of their favorite athlete. There’s something sad and at the same time wonderful about this scene. And there’s something sad and at the same time wonderful about the whole movie, how brave it is in its themes of embracing sadness as well as joy, how visually audacious it is, how funny yet telling the jokes are, how inherently interesting it is to hear emotions speak for themselves. And of course, in a movie all about emotions, expect them to run high, with devastating results. My only issue with Inside Out is the nature of non-Riley Control Rooms, which come across as simplistic at times. But overall, Pixar has inverted dramatic stakes so well that it gives us one of the most human films of the year.

5) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rey vs Kylo Ren

Read the full review here

Episode VII of Star Wars boasts an exciting new cast; as Rey, Daisy Ridley is a rising star we can believe in, receiving sterling heroic support from John Boyega’s Finn. On the flip side, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is one of the best movie villains I’ve seen in a long time. While the original trilogy’s characters are more iconic, I daresay the cream of the new crop is much more interesting; Rey, Kylo Ren, and Finn are among the best Star Wars characters out there, and putting aside all (very minor) complaints I have about The Force Awakens, that is something to cheer for. (I guess I could say: better storytelling in the originals, better characters here.) Episode VII stands as a synergistic work of craftsmanship, with solid cinematography, music, production design, writing, and directing. These elements lay the groundwork, and the characters jump off the page and carry the day.

4) Avengers: Age of Ultron

Above it All

Read the full review/in-depth analysis here

There are arguably nine Avengers featured in Age of Ultron, plus a villain and a few vital supporting players. So when I say that it’s not overcrowded, I mean that I find each character has an important function revolving around the themes this movie preoccupies itself with. Can an Avenger have a normal life? How do the Avengers affect the people on the ground? Can “normal” people be given a voice? Can a “normal” person be an Avenger? How does an artificial intelligence understand humanity? My analysis of these themes can be found in the relevant section in the review linked above, and that section’s length is a testament to how fascinating I find this film’s interrogation of these questions. This is not to mention the knowing banter and glowing humor of characters that have gotten used to each other, which gives Age of Ultron a lot of needed levity.

This is a weird movie at times. There are narrative cul de sacs like Thor’s vision quest. There is a resolution to an already kind of overlong climax that feels underwhelming and confusing. There’s maybe a problem in explicitly articulating the clear intent behind the Bruce/Natasha safe house scene (watch the extended scene on the blu-ray. It makes the conflict crystal clear.). But in the face of deftly illustrated character development, committed performances from the entire cast, organic humor, and such brilliant thematic work from Whedon, these imperfections are put in perspective for me. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is built on character, and as someone invested in these characters, I see Age of Ultron as a gift.

3) Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

Read the full review here

Some of my favorite people made this. Aaron Sorkin writes. Danny Boyle directs. Michael Fassbender acts in the title role. In the film there’s a running theme about the role of the conductor’s job being to “play the orchestra”, and the metaphor extends to this film; Steve Jobs is the result of the right screenwriter, the right cast members, the right director, the right composer, the right editor, and countless others working in concert to produce movie magic. Ironically this isn’t always the most cinematic piece; there’s a rigid formalism to the structure (three lead-ups to three product launches) and verbosity to the dialogue that recall a stage play, but even so the production always feels visually interesting. And there’s stunning drama in the second act between Jobs and Jeff Daniels’ former Apple CEO John Sculley, furiously accentuated by Elliot Graham’s editing and Daniel Pemberton’s thrilling score. That scene in particular is one of the best sequences of the year for me, and Steve Jobs is one of the movies of the year.

2) The Martian

Ares 3 Crew

Read the full review here

The Martian is one of the greatest science fiction movies of the 21st Century, especially when considering the word “science” in that phrase. The film constantly champions scientific ingenuity, by depicting the far-flung but still very practical puzzles that stand between survival and death for Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars, and the contemporary efforts of earthbound characters to bring him home. Its reverent but relatable use of science may actually inspire fledgling scientists among the audience, while also delivering one of the most breezily entertaining movies of the year. Gifted with this tricky balance, The Martian as written by Drew Goddard and directed by Ridley Scott is absolutely addictive viewing. Every element is firing on all cylinders, including the most likable cast of the year and a message of earned optimism. What film could be more perfectly constructed than this?

1) Mad Max: Fury Road

The Screaming Sands

Read the full review here

It all comes down to this, this miracle of action filmmaking and visual storytelling. That George Miller was given the resources to mount a fourth Mad Max, 30 years removed from Thunderdome, and that it became this perfect storm of craftsmanship, almost defies belief. But here it is, right before our eyes. The plot is simple: Despotic warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) keeps his prized breeders/Wives under lock and key, until his Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) spirits them away in search of the Green Place, where Furiosa was born. Max, a captive of Joe’s, is caught up in Joe’s pursuit of Furiosa, and eventually decides to put his nihilism to one side and help the women in their escape. The plot is punctuated by vehicular mayhem of the finest order, effortlessly rich and at times disgusting world-building, an evocative supporting cast, iconic and endlessly quotable pockets of dialogue, a score so exciting it’s unreal, and moments of quiet and characterful reflection.

In addition to being one of the great action movies, Mad Max: Fury Road is a wonderfully compact sociopolitical argument. (MILD SPOILERS) In the film, Furiosa takes the Wives to the Green Place, but its idyllic quality is lost to the sands of time. After chewing on this bitter disappointment, Furiosa and Max decide to go back the way they came, try to cripple Joe’s fleet of vehicles, and take control of Joe’s den of patriarchy, the Citadel. Through this story, we are told so elegantly that: You can’t say the system is broken without acknowledging that you’re a part of it. You can’t conjure up a utopia where none exists. You can try to effect change where before you only saw oppression. The scene of Furiosa’s success, and Max’ imparting of respect, is life-affirming stuff.

You can count on one hand the number of movies that have become as iconic this quickly. And there’s a reason for that; these symbols and concepts carry weight. The disabled female hero Furiosa, the blind, axe-shredding Doof Warrior, “witness me”, the list goes on. Well, we did witness Mad Max: Fury Road. And it was damn good.

 

By the Numbers

5 spy films (Kingsman: The Secret Service; Spy; Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ; Spectre)

4 films with filmmakers (Project Almanac (found footage); What We Do in the Shadows (mockumentary); Me and Earl and the Dying Girl; Trumbo)

4 films featuring artificial intelligence (CHAPPiE; Ex Machina; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Terminator Genisys)

4 films prominently featuring journalism (The End of the Tour; Everest (Jon Krakaur); Truth; Spotlight)

4 Hayley Atwell films (Testament of Youth; Cinderella; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Ant-Man)

4 Michael Giacchino scores (Jupiter Ascending; Tomorrowland; Jurassic World; Inside Out)

3 Alicia Vikander films (Testament of Youth; Ex Machina; The Man from U.N.C.L.E.)

3 Anna Kendrick films (The Voices; The Last Five Years; Pitch Perfect 2)

3 blockbusters with Judy Greer in the unfortunately inert mom role (Tomorrowland; Jurassic World; Ant-Man)

3 Brian Tyler scores (Furious 7; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Truth)

3 dimension-hopping films (Tomorrowland; Ant-Man (sort of); Fantastic Four)

3 films featuring time travel (Predestination; Project Almanac; Terminator Genisys)

3 Josh Brolin films (Avengers: Age of Ultron; Sicario; Everest)

3 Sean Bean films (Jupiter Ascending; Pixels; The Martian)

3 seventh films in franchises (Furious 7; Creed; Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

3 Taron Egerton films (Testament of Youth; Kingsman: The Secret Service; Legend)

2 dinosaur films (Jurassic World; The Good Dinosaur)

 

A Loose End

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Extended Edition (one-day theatrical event)

Wow. Anyone who read my 2014 year-end review knows that I had some issues with the finale of The Hobbit. In this extended cut, there is no movement on my biggest problem with the film (the dragon-sickness subplot), but two other things I found to be significant mistakes were actually, dare I say, corrected. The first is the misplaced payoff as to the Free Peoples of Middle-earth marshaling for war. In the theatrical cut, dwarves, elves, and men ready for war over political disagreements, something unprecedented in the earlier Lord of the Rings – then they just start hacking off orc heads when that army arrives. Here, the dwarves and the elves fight. And it is brilliantly executed, multi-layered because meaningful carnage is happening where there should be harmony, and tactically fitting.

Now as for the second thing, I complained before about the titular battle going on for the length of a Bible, while being kind of faceless and numbing. It would sound like the worst idea in the world to add reams of new action to an already epic 45-minute battle, but these additions work an absolute charm! The extended action is funny, weird, crowd-pleasing, draws a clearer picture of battlefield strategy, and gives most of the dwarf characters (especially the brilliant Balin and Bofur) moments to shine.

There are just nice touches throughout, whether it’s these bigger changes or something as starkly emotional as Gandalf’s impassioned words to Thorin that “this treasure will be your death”. Is there something in my eye? One negative word, however. Unless I’m mistaken, I believe one of my favorite lines from the theatrical version has been cut! It’s when Lee Pace’s Thranduil says of Dain, “He’s clearly mad – like his brother!” with a very odd line reading. Other than that, thumbs up all round.

 

2016 in Preview

The Coen Brothers are back with the hilarious-looking Hail, Caesar! in February… The “most technologically advanced movie ever made”, April’s mocap adventure The Jungle Book, looks like it might be a dark-horse favorite… Shane Black’s May action-comedy The Nice Guys seems ideal popcorn fare for some… Anything Spielberg is one to watch, so roll on July’s Roald Dahl adaptation The BFG… 2016 is going to be absolutely huge for comic book films, with 7 in the pipeline… The one I’m rooting for the most is May’s Captain America: Civil War, which looks to pay off years of character development… November’s Doctor Strange has the best MCU cast ever assembled (Cumberbatch, Ejiofor, Swinton, Mikkelsen, McAdams, Stuhlbarg)… If May’s X-Men: Apocalypse can stick the landing, the recent X-Men trilogy will rival The Dark Knight trilogy as a comic book saga… Finally, the one I’m most worried about is March’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which has the weight of a cinematic universe on its shoulders and may collapse in on itself by the strain… As a big Trekkie, I’m in Star Trek Beyond’s corner come July; it looks like a brash and weird original series episode with a message about colonialism… Also in July, the all-female Ghostbusters has a lot of symbolic and financial value riding on its quality… My second-favorite film series is Harry Potter, so November’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is of particular fascination for me… In December, more Star Wars! Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is being described as like Saving Private Ryan in space; it’s gifted with an exciting cast, and given the Death Star setting Darth Vader will almost certainly appear. Nerdy request: Get Wayne Pygram, who played Tarkin in Episode III, back in the role.

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