Category Archives: 2016

My Year at the Movies – 2016

Action Scenes of the Year

9) Finale, Sausage Party

8) Atomic breath, Shin Godzilla

7) Bourne vs. the Asset in the sewer, Jason Bourne

6) Mirror Dimension chase, Doctor Strange

5) The proposal, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

4) Batman’s warehouse brawl, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

3) Darth Vader unleashed, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (a horror-action sequence!)

2) Monkey vs. Karasu – duel on the high seas, Kubo and the Two Strings

1) Leipzig airport six-on-six face-off, Captain America: Civil War (the finale is a better dramatic scene but this a superior action scene)

Team Iron Man vs Team Cap

What if action figures were actual characters?

Bait-and-Switches

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: a better Pride and Prejudice adaptation than a zombie movie

Sausage Party: a better sociopolitical satire than a comedy

Best Non-2016 Films Discovered this Year

Visit http://letterboxd.com/paulstanis/list/best-non-2016-films-discovered-in-2016/ for 19 terrific films from prior years I discovered in 2016.

By the Numbers

5 Ben Foster performances (The Finest Hours; The Program; Warcraft; Hell or High Water; Inferno)

5 Michael Shannon appearances (Midnight Special; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Elvis & Nixon; Loving; Nocturnal Animals)

5 Hans Zimmer scores (Kung Fu Panda 3; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; The Little Prince; Inferno; Hidden Figures)

4 Chris Pine appearances (The Finest Hours; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Star Trek Beyond; Hell or High Water)

4 Henry Jackman scores (The 5th Wave; Captain America: Civil War; Jack Reacher: Never Go Back; The Birth of a Nation)

4 Idris Elba performances (Zootopia; The Jungle Book; Finding Dory; Star Trek Beyond)

4 J.K. Simmons performances (Kung Fu Panda 3; Zootopia; The Accountant; La La Land – 5 if you count the English dub of April and the Extraordinary World)

4 Jeremy Irons performances (Race; The Man Who Knew Infinity; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; High-Rise)

4 Jesse Eisenberg performances (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Louder than Bombs; Now You See Me 2; Café Society)

4 Michael Giacchino scores (Zootopia; Star Trek Beyond; Doctor Strange; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)

4 Michael Stuhlbarg performances (Miles Ahead; Arrival; Doctor Strange; Miss Sloane)

3 films climaxing with architectural reconstruction (X-Men: Apocalypse; Doctor Strange; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them)

3 films tackling the morality of drone warfare (London Has Fallen; Eye in the Sky; Snowden)

3 uses of “Spirit in the Sky” (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows; Suicide Squad; I am Not a Serial Killer)

2 Disney films starring intrepid seafaring women (Alice through the Looking Glass; Moana)

2 Disney-distributed films with black panthers (The Jungle Book; Captain America: Civil War)

2 films featuring Auschwitz (X-Men: Apocalypse; Denial)

2 films featuring “divine” elephants (The Jungle Book; The Legend of Tarzan)

2 films using the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as a plot point (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; X-Men: Apocalypse)

2 films with the subtitle “Resurgence” (Independence Day: Resurgence; Shin Godzilla/Godzilla: Resurgence)

2 Jane Austen adaptations (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Love & Friendship)

2 Jazz films (Miles Ahead; La La Land)

2 Olympic films (Race; Eddie the Eagle)

2 science fiction films inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Midnight Special; Arrival)

Favorite () Yet

Captain America: Civil War, my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe film yet

Jason Bourne, my favorite Bourne movie yet

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, my favorite Star Wars prequel yet

Feelgood Movies of the Year

Hidden Figures; Eddie the Eagle; Moana; Queen of Katwe; Sing Street

Heroes or Antiheroes, Best of the Year

10) Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Hidden Figures

9) Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

8) Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Doctor Strange

7) Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld), The Edge of Seventeen

6) Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), Hunt for the Wilderpeople

5) Michéle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), Elle

4) Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Captain America: Civil War

3) Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), Moana

2) Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

cassian-andor

Does he have the eyes of a killer, or a friend?

1) Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), Miss Sloane

miss-sloane

Heroes or Antiheroes, Worst of the Year

3) Mowgli (Neel Sethi), The Jungle Book

2) Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), London Has Fallen

1) Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

sam_r4_v11c3_151002_17mj_g_r709f.362886.tif

“…”

Ranking Disney-Distributed Movies

12) The Finest Hours

11) Alice through the Looking Glass

10) The BFG

9) Finding Dory

8) Zootopia

7) Pete’s Dragon

6) The Jungle Book

5) Doctor Strange

4) Queen of Katwe

3) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

2) Captain America: Civil War

1) Moana

moana

Sequel Improvement

Alice through the Looking Glass > Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Captain America: Civil War > Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Jason Bourne > The Bourne Legacy

Star Trek Beyond > Star Trek Into Darkness

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows > Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles\

Stray Observations

– 2016 is the only year besides 2002 in which both Star Trek and Star Wars movies were released. 14 years ago, the curtain closed on the Next Generation era of Trek films with the spectacular box office disappointment Star Trek: Nemesis, while Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones improved on The Phantom Menace while making all-new mistakes. While Nemesis has its flaws, Trek won that round. In 2016, both franchises enter the ring with excellent entries that balance nostalgia with new textures, but Star Wars ultimately carries the day over the wonderfully character-driven Star Trek Beyond with the emotional and explosive Rogue One.

– Line of the year: Anton Yelchin’s “It’s funny. You were so scary at night” in Green Room. It’s an astonishingly timely line, as the story encapsulates the threatening but ultimately pathetic nature of neo-Nazis.

– The most overrated film of the year is A Monster Calls, but I don’t begrudge anyone profoundly moved by it.

Most Underrated Films of the Year

9) Hardcore Henry

8) Swiss Army Man

7) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

6) Ben-Hur

5) Snowden

4) The Girl on the Train

3) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

2) Miss Sloane

1) Gods of Egypt (which also gets a complementary “Pardon one turkey” award)

Villains, Best of the Year

10) Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), Alice through the Looking Glass

9) Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang), Don’t Breathe

8) The Sisters (Rooney Mara), Kubo and the Two Strings

7) Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), Green Room

6) Messala (Toby Kebbell), Ben-hur

5) Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

4) Crowley (Christopher Lloyd), I am Not a Serial Killer

3) Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), Captain America: Civil War

2) Paula (Rachel House), Hunt for the Wilderpeople

1) Shere Khan (Idris Elba), The Jungle Book (as a bonus, the other two villains – King Louis and Kaa – are great too)

Shere Khan

Villains, Worst of the Year

4) The Douche (Nick Kroll), Sausage Party

3) Psylocke (Olivia Munn), X-Men: Apocalypse

2) Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), The Magnificent Seven

1) All DC villains (Enchantress, Incubus, Joker, Doomsday, Lex Luthor), Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

dc-villains

Marvel may have a few bland villains, but this is something else entirely!

Biggest WTF Moments of the Year

6) The Little Prince: Climax of the framing story. Is this The Little Prince or Planes: Fire and Rescue?

5) Fathers and Daughters: Constant clichés.

4) Standoff: Hilariously over-the-top insults. (Sample: “Fuck leverage! Do the math, dipshit!”)

3) Don’t Breathe: The turkey baster. You know the one.

2) Now You See Me 2: Why are there twin Woody Harrelsons???

1) The 5th Wave: 15 minutes shot in almost complete blackness…?

blackness

WTF?

(Rough) Final Ranking of All 2016 Films Viewed (Best to Worst)

Moana; Captain America: Civil War; Miss Sloane; Swiss Army Man; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; Arrival; Eye in the Sky; Snowden; La La Land; Sing Street; Star Trek Beyond; Green Room; Hunt for the Wilderpeople; The Nice Guys; Ghostbusters; Kubo and the Two Strings; Everybody Wants Some!!; Captain Fantastic; Hail, Caesar!; Hell or High Water; The Edge of Seventeen; Nocturnal Animals; 10 Cloverfield Lane; Queen of Katwe; Moonlight; Doctor Strange; The Jungle Book; Hidden Figures; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Midnight Special; Manchester by the Sea; Sausage Party; Pete’s Dragon; The Dressmaker; The Girl on the Train; Zootopia; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them; Hardcore Henry; Louder than Bombs; Elle; The Lobster; Jason Bourne; Kung Fu Panda 3; Eddie the Eagle; High-Rise; Finding Dory; The BFG; Money Monster; Denial; Lion; The Love Witch; Love & Friendship; Hacksaw Ridge; Deadpool; X-Men: Apocalypse; Fences; Ben-Hur; Gods of Egypt; Ip Man 3; The Light Between Oceans; Loving; Don’t Breathe; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny; Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows; Café Society; Blood Father; Shin Godzilla; Race; Miles Ahead; I am Not a Serial Killer; A Monster Calls; Tale of Tales; April and the Extraordinary World; Inferno; Sully; The Birth of a Nation; The Little Prince; Allied; The Program; The Accountant; The Trust; The Magnificent Seven; Standoff; Warcraft; Elvis & Nixon; The Man Who Knew Infinity; The Huntsman: Winter’s War; The Legend of Tarzan; Jack Reacher: Never Go Back; Independence Day: Resurgence; Jane Got a Gun; Creative Control; Triple 9; Alice through the Looking Glass; I Saw the Light; Now You See Me 2; Suicide Squad; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; The 5th Wave; Fathers and Daughters; London Has Fallen; Moonwalkers; Misconduct; The Finest Hours

My Film Awards – 2016

Best Supporting Actress

kate-mckinnon

Kate McKinnon, Ghostbusters

Judy Davis, The Dressmaker

Rachel House, Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Lupita Nyong’o, Queen of Katwe

Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

 

Best Supporting Actor

daniel-radcliffe

Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

Ben Foster, Hell or High Water

John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane

André Holland, Moonlight

Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

 

Best Original Song

moana

How Far I’ll Go”, Moana

“Drive it Like You Stole it”, Sing Street

“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, La La Land

“The Great Beyond”, Sausage Party

“Montage”, Swiss Army Man

 

Best Cinematography

arrival

Bradford Young, Arrival

James Laxton, Moonlight

Sean Porter, Green Room

Adam Stone, Midnight Special

Vittorio Storaro, Café Society

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

hunt-for-the-wilderpeople

Taika Waititi, Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Joel & Ethan Coen, Hail Caesar!

Eric Heisserer, Arrival

Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, Captain America: Civil War

Simon Pegg & Doug Jung, Star Trek Beyond

 

Best Editing

louder-than-bombs

Olivier Bugge Coutté, Louder than Bombs

Julia Bloch, Green Room

Matt Cheese, Money Monster

Luke Haigh, Tom Eagles & Yana Gorskaya, Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Matthew Hannam, Swiss Army Man

 

Best Original Score

justin-hurwitz

Justin Hurwitz, La La Land

Michael Giacchino, Star Trek Beyond

Daniel Hart, Pete’s Dragon

Andy Hull & Robert McDowell, Swiss Army Man

Matthew Margeson, Eddie the Eagle

 

Best Production Design

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them

Stuart Craig & James Hambidge, Fantastic Beasts and where to Find them

Russell Barnes, Captain Fantastic

Doug Chiang & Neil Lamont, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Mark Tildesley, High-Rise

Charles Wood, Doctor Strange

 

Best Original Screenplay

green-room

Jeremy Saulnier, Green Room

Shane Black & Anthony Bagarozzi, The Nice Guys

Daniels, Swiss Army Man

Richard Linklater, Everybody Wants Some!!

Jonathan Perera, Miss Sloane

 

Best Director

barry-jenkins

Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Daniels, Swiss Army Man

Anthony & Joe Russo, Captain America: Civil War

Oliver Stone, Snowden

 

Best Actor

manchester-by-the-sea

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Paul Dano, Swiss Army Man

Robert Downey Jr., Captain America: Civil War

Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys

Denzel Washington, Fences

 

Best Actress

miss-sloane

Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane

Amy Adams, Arrival

Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train

Viola Davis, Fences

Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen

 

Best Picture

moana

Moana

Captain America: Civil War

Miss Sloane

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Swiss Army Man

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Film Review

Rogue One, the first standalone Star Wars film, is in many ways not a standalone at all. It is a direct prequel to the original movie from 1977, and features scores of deep-cut references, allusions and easter eggs that only hardcore fans will appreciate. So Rogue One is big-budget fanservice. But crucially, it’s more than that. It’s fanservice that also happens to have great original characters and takes a lot of risks. The trick of Rogue One is that it’s a love letter to Star Wars (and works as such; the ending made me cry), but it also fundamentally changes its texture.

death-star

The Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist, and seeks to solidify its reign by constructing a planet-killing superweapon. To complete work on the Death Star, Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) coerces the scientific genius Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), father of Jyn (Felicity Jones), into service. When Galen sends a secret message to the reeling Rebellion tipping them off to a structural weakness in the Death Star, a scrappy guerilla team must steal the Death Star plans. The team: Jyn; lethal Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); sarcastic tactician droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk); desperate Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); blind warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); and his cynical companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). But in this war, can any hope survive in the grime of Imperial domination?

underdogs-in-rebellion

In the lead-up to the movie, the talking points were obvious. “Puts the Wars in Star Wars.” “The gritty side of the universe”, blah blah blah. It’s one thing to hear the sound bites, but to see this saga taken out of the good vs. evil fairy tale realm so elegantly is something else entirely. That tale is great, it has its place, but Rogue One complicates it. There’s ethical compromise in the Rebellion, represented by Cassian. There’s a pecking order in the Empire, an elitist element that Krennic must constantly prove himself to. There are extremists on both sides. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker)’s methods are disavowed by the Rebel establishment, while his opposite number, Darth Vader, plays enforcer for an unstable galaxy. Star Wars has always worked best as an underdog story (witness how The Force Awakens recreates the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict by another name), but the main characters here are underdogs even within the Rebellion. And Krennic, the villain they face, is an underdog even within the Empire.

orson-krennic

Krennic stands amidst his achievement.

None of this thematic stuff would click if the character work wasn’t there, and thankfully it is. All the characters resonate, but standouts include comic relief monstrosity K-2SO (think C-3PO with a two-by-four in place of an etiquette program), and apathetic loner to inspirational leader Jyn Erso. But my favorite character is Cassian Andor, who embodies what makes Rogue One work so well. The co-leading hero in the film, Cassian is exciting because he’s tainted. Pretty much the first thing you see him do is shoot an unarmed ally in the back because he would be a liability! (And you thought Han shot first?) He personifies the risks that the film is willing to take, introducing a Rebel officer as a morally compromised hero. The main characters are allowed to be impure or damaged, and Krennic, while ruthless, has to deal with bureaucratic and browbeating BS from superiors more evil than he. The idea is that the Rebellion’s purest heroes and the Empire’s purest villains are more background players, and we get to spend time with relatively complex characters.

cassian-andor

Cassian shot first.

Rogue One manages to stuff a lot of character into what is perhaps too compressed an amount of time. This does have downsides. Jyn’s character arc is good, but feels like it has a middle and an end while missing part of the beginning – we’re told Jyn’s rap sheet but we don’t see her struggles fending for herself brought to life. The first act has a lot of quick planet-hopping setup and so probably works better on a rewatch. Conversely, while the action in the third act is alternately breathtaking, tense, and emotionally powerful, it still feels like a little paring down might have made it pop even more.

jyn-erso

But flaws aside, the storytelling always has something up its sleeve. This is a surprisingly emotional movie, largely owing to how the light contrasts all the more against the desperate circumstances. Chirrut’s reverence of the Force becomes poignant precisely because the Jedi have passed into myth. Put Obi-Wan Kenobi on the team and the everyman quality to the group crumbles. In a stroke of genius, the first test of the Death Star’s awesome destructive power is made intimate and personal. The pacing and atmosphere is far removed from the propulsive, almost manic The Force Awakens (which is great in that context). It’s Star Wars sung in a different key in a different time signature, and I ate it up.

chirrut-imwe

Technically speaking, Rogue One has much to commend it. I love how the CGI Star Destroyers as near as damn them look exactly like physical models. The cinematography, and vaguely documentarian aesthetic courtesy of director Gareth Edwards make the action and emotion hit home. And considering composer Michael Giacchino only had a couple months to score the film after replacing Alexandre Desplat, his score contains some solid motifs.

cgi-star-destroyer-model

Rogue One commits to its war movie aesthetic brilliantly. The acting ensemble is outstanding; even tertiary characters like the leery General Draven feel rich. This is a smart, weird, exciting, occasionally sloppy, and surprisingly emotional blockbuster, which enriches Star Wars in a two-hour salvo. It will be remembered for playing with what the franchise can do, while also blowing stuff up real good. 9/10. — If you’re a fan of the saga, there’s a good chance you’ll get emotional at the last scene. But after certain recent events… it might wreck you.

 

P.S.: *SPOILER-FILLED STRAY NERDY OBSERVATIONS*

So this is a mainstream blockbuster where every main character dies. With a sweeping gesture out of Shakespearean tragedy, the board is cleared and only characters on the fringes live to carry on. Disney will sugarcoat anything.

scarif

The beach, before it’s strewn with bodies.

Darth Vader. Giving him an imposing evil tower immediately casts him in the same company as Sauron (with lava planet Mustafar standing in for Mordor). It codifies his status as an iconic villain. But it’s worth noting that a castle for Vader isn’t a new idea; it was proposed in concept art for the original trilogy and was even considered for inclusion in The Force Awakens. Vader’s first scene with Krennic perhaps isn’t everything it could have been. It ends with what I call “stand-up comedy Vader”, but even though it feels a bit weird in the moment, it’s not too far off from his “Apology accepted, Captain Needa” brand of humor. Vader’s other scene is just terrific. Add the hint of his vulnerability and his weird Riff Raff-esque butler, and Rogue One does some interesting things with this Dark Lord of the Sith.

darth-vader

When the Empire puts up the shield in orbit of Scarif, an X-Wing can’t pull up and crashes into it. Which is exactly what should have happened in Return of the Jedi when the Rebel fighters are flying to the second Death Star thinking the shield is down.

Star Wars isn’t known for romance. It has a few, but they’re either dreadfully stilted community theater (Anakin and Padmé) or a whirlwind flirtation carried by bickering and banter (Han and Leia). So am I alone in thinking that Rogue One contains the hottest moment in all of Star Wars? When Jyn and Cassian are in close quarters in the elevator, and it’s filmed like they might kiss, and they don’t?

If Rogue One came out when I was in junior high, it would have been the biggest deal in the world that Garven Dreis and Dr. Evazan are in the movie. Now, it’s just really cool. But in junior high, I wouldn’t have caught the significance of Chirrut and Baze being Guardians of the Whills, which is a reference to George Lucas’ original title for his Star Wars screenplay: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga 1.

My Favorite Films of 2016

17) Everybody Wants Some!!

everybody-wants-some

At first glance I have next to nothing in common with the dudebro jocks that are the leads of this film. But Richard Linklater’s screenplay proves that great writing transcends little details like that. This is an extremely sharply written, human, funny, and profound hangout movie that happens to depict a very specific college experience. It’s an impressive achievement, to take such a barebones plot (a group of college baseball players party away the few days before term begins) and get so much storytelling mileage out of it. Everybody Wants Some!! is a very particular kind of Americana, and shows that a great movie can come from anywhere.

16) Kubo and the Two Strings

Landscape

Look, stop motion animation is just cool. And when it’s wedded to visuals this beautiful and emotions this rich, it goes to a higher level. Set in a fantasy version of Japan, this fairy tale about family and the power of storytelling has no shortage of grand adventure, painful pathos, and unforgettable villains.

15) Ghostbusters

ghostbusters

A damn fine comedy, with near-perfect cast dynamics. Ghostbusters strikes a nice balance between being SNL sketchy and committing to its science fantasy premise. So on the one hand, there’s plenty of tech and technobabble, and on the other, there’s a lot of improv-based comedy that goes a bit off the rails once in a while before reining back in. Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth in particular get the most laughs, but everyone has something to contribute. All around charming. And there’s something oddly satisfying about seeing people shoot streams of radically polarized protons at ghosts.

14) The Nice Guys

the-nice-guys

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are an inspired pair in writer-director Shane Black’s evocative 1970s-set action comedy. Gosling in particular turns in a performance spun out of comedy gold as a drunken private detective, and the movie’s sense of place is impeccable. 70s Los Angeles provides an ideally seedy background to this warped conspiracy romp.

13) Hunt for the Wilderpeople

hunt-for-the-wilderpeople

The most domestically successful New Zealand film of all time, Hunt for the Wilderpeople launches what can only be called an hour-and-a-half charm offensive. Orphan and wannabe “gangster” Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) runs away into the wilderness but needs the help of his grumpy adoptive uncle Hec (Sam Neill, who in a one-man promotional tour took the film all over rural New Zealand) to survive out there. Hilarity and poignancy ensue.

12) Green Room

green-room

When a punk band takes a gig at a skinhead-controlled bar, they see something they shouldn’t have and hole themselves in the green room to survive the night. This shockingly relevant tale of hipsters vs. Neo-Nazis is told with breathless economy, making for a pure cinematic experience. And the ride is thrilling not just for the knife-edge intensity but also for the extreme efficiency of the storytelling. This is an airtight screenplay if there ever was one.

11) Star Trek Beyond

The Trio

Star Trek gives itself an excellent 50th anniversary gift in Star Trek Beyond, essentially a big-budget version of an original series episode with the action and character development dialed up to 11. Promoting cast member Simon Pegg to co-writing duties pays big dividends, as the film is built on a foundation of strong character, whether it’s Spock and Bones sparring while isolated or Kirk rediscovering what this whole trek through the stars thing is all about. It’s a really nerdy blockbuster, where a character spouting a humanistic platitude is the equivalent of an action movie one-liner. Contains two show-stopping scenes: the approach to starbase Yorktown, scored to magisterial perfection by Michael Giacchino; and another deployment of music more cacophony than symphony.

10) Sing Street

sing-street

An endlessly endearing coming-of-age tale. Conor, a teen in mid-1980s Ireland, tries to impress a local girl by offering her a part in his band’s latest music video. Naturally, the next step is to grab a bunch of mates, and, you know, start a band. The charm of the band, named Sing Street after the repressive school the boys attend, is that they’re both quite talented, and embarrassingly amateurish. Even after weeks turn into months, you’ll still find a couple Sing Street compositions lodged in your head.

9) La La Land

la-la-land

She captured a feeling / A sky with no ceiling / A sunset inside a frame / Here’s to the ones who dream / Foolish as they may seem. Another musical! Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling cut a bit of a Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire rug in this nostalgic throwback to retro Hollywood Technicolor musicals. She wants to be an actress, he a jazz pianist with his own club. Sparks fly, romance ensues, all to the backdrop of the promise and heartbreak of Los Angeles. Ecstatic but also profoundly bittersweet.

8) Snowden

snowden

Notorious filmmaker Oliver Stone shoots this sharply relevant Edward Snowden biopic beautifully, telling an extremely timely story with a deft hand. The film is unabashedly on Snowden’s side (a subversively patriotic score accompanies the copious computer action), so a measured or nuanced debate will not be found here. But this narratively ambitious biopic is always vividly brought to life, and I find it hugely engaging.

7) Eye in the Sky

eye-in-the-sky

Eye in the Sky takes the simplest of starting points – “let’s use a case study to tackle the ethics of drone warfare” – and spins an unbearably tense thriller out of it, turning the screws on the audience with tactical precision. One of the very best ensembles of the year, including Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, wrings their hands with edge-of-your-seat results.

6) Arrival

arrival

Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Interstellar. After extraterrestrial craft hover over 12 locations around the globe, Amy Adams’ linguist is recruited by the United States government to communicate with the aliens who’ve come to their backyard. Arrival is a classic science fiction concept atmospherically shot, bolstered both by universal humanistic themes and what’s probably the twist of the year.

5) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one-a-star-wars-story

The first “standalone” Star Wars film is based on the heist of the Death Star plans that kicked off the plot of the original 1977 film. And so Rogue One is large-scale fanservice, but it also happens to have great original characters and takes a lot of risks. The trick is that it’s a love letter to Star Wars (the ending made me cry), but it fundamentally changes its texture. In the lead-up to the movie, the talking points were obvious. “Puts the Wars in Star Wars.” “The gritty side of the universe”, blah blah blah. It’s one thing to hear the sound bites, but to see this saga taken out of the good vs. evil fairy tale realm so elegantly is something else entirely. Star Wars has always worked best as an underdog story (witness how The Force Awakens reconstructs the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict by another name), but the heroes here are underdogs even within the Rebellion; and the villain they face is an underdog within the Empire. Rogue One is a smart, weird, exciting, emotional, unique, and occasionally sloppy blockbuster, and I love it.

4) Swiss Army Man

swiss-army-man

Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse. Yep, that’s the one. That might imply a certain kind of movie, something cooked up by giggling fratboys. And Swiss Army Man is super scatological, but it’s also one of the most profound, human, and life-affirming film in recent memory. And in an act of mad genius, the act of farting is the key to its themes. Paul Dano stars as a castaway about to end it all before a corpse washes up on shore to provide the unlikeliest of hopes, and this survival tale revolves around the wacky and wonderful bond the two forge. To describe more would be to reduce the film. The only possible misstep is the tonally confusing ending, but it’s a rare wobble in a truly innovative statement, and the best dramedy of the year.

3) Miss Sloane

miss-sloane

Sometimes a movie is so up your alley it feels made just for you. My favorite actress Jessica Chastain, in fierce form, dominating a hyper-fast-talking political thriller? Yes, please! Chastain is the titular gun control lobbyist, characterized by the old cliché of her being brilliantly manipulative and brilliantly impolite. Think Sherlock Holmes on the hunt for senatorial votes. It’s an old familiar template, but damn if this isn’t a great version of it. The film is Aaron Sorkin-esque almost to the point of imitation, but it really works. Miss Sloane is a movie that’s kind of always impressed with itself, but I’m right there with it.

2) Captain America: Civil War

Tony and Steve

The pinnacle achievement of Marvel Studios. And maybe that’s because Captain America: Civil War contains multitudes: it’s a deeply personal story about hanging on to the past, a globe-hopping political thriller, an espionage/revenge tale, an introduction to two important new superheroes, and of course, it has that six-on-six action extravaganza. But in spite of all that stuff, the third act pares everything down to the essentials, then makes the title bout between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark utterly painful, then offers a perfectly ambiguous grace note of hope on its way out the door. This is some mighty impressive storytelling. It’s always a joy to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s stable of likable characters, but Civil War goes above and beyond, having fun with them while also putting them through the wringer. I don’t know how subsequent Avengers team-up movies can walk a narrative balancing act as effortlessly as this one, but I can’t wait to see them try.

1) Moana

moana

Moana viscerally reminds me why I love musicals. Sometimes a character pouring her or his heart out in song has a primal power. It’s such a simple idea, and that directness can mean a lot. Moana is the chieftain’s daughter on a nonspecific Polynesian island, and chafes against a preordained life on the island, longing instead to voyage on the open sea. So far, so familiar. But the execution of this coming-of-age story is off the charts good, with a few casually genius thematic things going on. This is not even to mention the stunning animation or gorgeous songs, co-written by Disney’s new golden boy, Lin-Manuel Miranda. There’s a line where the sky meets the sea and it calls me / But no one knows / How far it goes. Moana is the complete package of adventure, emotion, character, and charm. I can’t remember the last time I cried so much at a movie.

Be warned, though. There’s one bad joke in the film. Shock and horror!

P.S.: And with that, my favorite film from three of the past four years has been animated (Frozen in 2013, The LEGO Movie in 2014). And not only that; it’s surreal to note that my favorite movie of 2016 has a sequence that directly riffs on my favorite movie of 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road!

And to see these 17 film posters looking all nice together, visit http://letterboxd.com/paulstanis/list/my-favorite-films-of-2016/

Doctor Strange (2016) Film Review

The Marvel Studios brand is even more powerful than any of the superheroes in its stable. The mere association of the studio with an untested property is enough to spin offbeat ideas into gold, and their risks are getting gradually more exciting. So ever since kicking the doors down with 2012’s crowd-pleasing The Avengers, Marvel has premiered a surefire box office smash in the front half of a year, followed by something weirder in the back. In 2013, the billion-grossing satirical action comedy Iron Man 3 was followed by the cosmic portal-hopping fantasy of Thor: The Dark World. 2014’s espionage thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier was succeeded by the acerbic space opera of Guardians of the Galaxy. In 2015, the thematically rich and aurally deafening team-up Avengers: Age of Ultron was complemented by the small-time heist comedy Ant-Man. And this year, the superhero masterpiece Captain America: Civil War gives way to the infinite magical dimensions of Doctor Strange. Marvel has effortlessly produced another entertaining, well written, light on its feet origin story with a compelling actor holding it all together, plus the added twists of stunning trippy visuals and an exhaustive magical mystery tour through obscure mystical realms.

stephen-strange-trip

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a world-class neurosurgeon with an equally world-class ego. But when his negligence behind the wheel leads to a crash, the hands that had been so vital to his career and identity can never operate again. After exhausting his fortune on moon-shot surgeries, a desperate Strange travels to the Nepalese sanctuary Kamar-Taj to find a more mystical cure. There, he studies under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her fundamentalist lieutenant Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), even as the wayward sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) threatens the fabric of reality. Strange will need help, including from former colleague Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), to wrestle with this new world of magic and monsters and nothing he was ever trained for.

doctor-stephen-strange

On paper, Doctor Strange comes armed with the best cast in a non-team-up Marvel movie. That comes in handy, because seeing as this is the MCU’s full-blown introduction to interdimensional magic, boy howdy there is a lot of magixposition to get through. But the cast elevates the material, and make up for some of the imperfections of the screenplay. I do find the film very sharply written on a scene-to-scene basis, but connecting the dots is sometimes a stumbling block, as there is a lot of exposition, and side characters that do stand out but are nonetheless underwritten. So, sharply written, but maybe not the most tightly written.

doctor-strange-magic

Those supporting characters are out of focus at times because the film is rightfully keen to keep a laser focus on its lead. It would be easy to point out similarities between Strange and Tony Stark (rich, arrogant luminary brought low and humbled) and even Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes (no social niceties, uncomfortable with hugging), but these are surface level. What makes the character work so well (besides the magnetic performance) is that he’s given a beautifully plotted out, movie-long redemption arc wherein Strange learns to accept the things he had always rejected (and I don’t mean the existence of magic). No quick fixes; this is refreshingly gradual.

karl-mordo

Strange is the audience surrogate into a new world, and has to soak in all that exposition I mentioned before. But Strange is not a mere vessel, and his dynamic character helps to keep the film engaging. Also, the characters that inhabit this magical world are all performed exceptionally. Ejiofor sells the hell out of what is a really tough and ambiguous character in Karl Mordo, the kind of man who dangerously overcompensates in atoning for his past sins. Swinton constructs a playful and enigmatic Ancient One, and Benedict Wong as… Wong makes for a valuable and entertaining presence. In the case of the film’s villain, Kaecilius, smart choices off the page help to sell an underwritten character. Cosmetics help. The makeup on his and the other Zealots’ faces resemble a grotesque extension of what happens when you weep your eyes out. They wear their brokenness for all to see. It’s on the nose, but it works. And, Mads Mikkelsen’s menacing screen presence does a lot to animate the semi-flimsy role (his role as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale also has an eye condition, where he cries blood!).

kaecilius

A big draw of Doctor Strange is its visual effects. Director Scott Derrickson’s vision of reality manipulation is truly delightful to look at, and an interesting balance is struck where the gonzo visuals don’t go too far into craziness where a general audience won’t follow. Even so, the film might have been helped by going even further in its imagination. A couple really pivotal scenes play out with people in their spectral form, and the artificiality there goes some way to undercut the emotion and tension. Also, the Zealots’ weapons are almost invisible. I get it, they’re drawing on power from another dimension, but this uninspired and at-times confusing design seems less like a creative decision and more like a PG-13 compromise so as not to “see” blade pierce flesh.

kaleidoscope

As for the magic itself, it’s strikingly done with geometric shapes in place of beams of light, delivered with Wanda Maximoff-like hand gestures. The magic aesthetic (oddly foreshadowed by this year’s semi-noble semi-failure Warcraft) is complemented by a healthy dose of defying gravity, which is what really livens up the action scenes. But while the magic action is great, the hand-to-hand fights remind me of the cluttered choreography of something like Batman Begins. (And of course, some of the city-bending visuals are reminiscent of a brief scene in another Christopher Nolan movie, Inception, albeit taken to a whole other level.) There’s also a fair bit of magic-as-Buster-Keaton-slapstick, which is unexpected but welcome.

strange-mordo-citybending

In a lot of ways, Doctor Strange is a full-blooded medical drama as well as a magical extravaganza. This brings needed attention to Christine Palmer, who is easy to lose in the greater tapestry of the plot, and it gets at a really great aspect of Stephen Strange’s character. He’s not going to stop thinking like a doctor after his magical training. The tension between the medical and the mystical is laid bare in what I’ll call the “do no harm scene”, and it could well be the standout of the entire picture.

doctor-christine-palmer

Michael Giacchino’s score is solid, but feels a bit like a missed opportunity. The end credits music (“Master of the Mystic End Credits”) is a fantastic slice of trippy progressive-rock, throwing organs and sitars around with abandon. But by being so distinctive, it gives a tantalizing glimpse at what the whole score could have been – indeed, the main Doctor Strange theme heard throughout the film is oddly similar to Giacchino’s own Star Trek fanfare.

ancient-one-spirit

Doctor Strange is a really solid magical action movie, with wonderful kaleidoscopic visuals, a fascinating central character, a great cast, and a partially-genius high concept finale. It’s very much a familiar template for an origin story, and the film has its shortcomings, but they don’t spoil the whole. The world of Doctor Strange is an interesting space to play in for two hours, a unique story about accepting mortality and where men are allowed to cry. 8/10.

 

P.S.: Paul McCartney walked into Abbey Road Studios during the mixing of the score. Upon hearing Giacchino and Derrickson working on “Master of the Mystic End Credits”, McCartney observed, “Shades of ‘Walrus’…”

cloak-of-levitation

P.P.S.: *THE SPOILER DIMENSION* So Kaecilius works to serve the dread Dormammu. And the finale in the Dark Dimension is a provocative one, providing a unique climax to the conflict. Strange’s time loop of self-sacrifice certainly one-ups Tony Stark’s “sacrifice play” through a portal in The Avengers, and is a tidy bow on Strange’s arc to boot. The entire theme of the film is the acceptance of failure and death. Kaecilius refuses to accept the concept of time and thus mortality after death “insultingly” ravaged everyone he loved. For a long time, the Ancient One held onto artificially extended life, before finally accepting her legacy and the end of her story. In his career as a surgeon (being the best means juggling the highest stakes) Strange was motivated by his fear of failure. Strange’s willing submission to an eternity of skewering is one of those perfect metaphors that crop up in fiction sometimes. He embraces failure and mortality stubbornly, sacrificing himself with the same tenacity he had used before in his years of medical study. The very pathology of Strange’s arrogant past is redirected, aimed differently, to save the world. And in choosing to wear the broken watch that was Christine’s gift, Strange signals his knowledge that everything must eventually come to an end. Whether it’s a life, a world, or a relationship.

Oh, and the CGI monolith of Dormammu gives me bad flashbacks to Parallax in Green Lantern and Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

Ben-Hur (2016) Film Review

Ben-Hur has been brought to the silver screen four times. The 1959 version directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston has passed into cinematic legend, known for its lavish production and iconic chariot race (though elements of it were lifted from the 1925 silent film). Its massive Oscar night in 1960 (11 wins – an unmatched quantity until Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King both also won 11) and pop culture impact cast a long shadow over this 2016 remake. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (who helmed the genuinely good Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), the 2016 Ben-Hur has proved to be the biggest financial bomb of this summer movie season. This seems to be a film no one in particular was asking for, but as one of the relative few who did give it its day in entertainment court, I find it to be a competent epic peppered with moments of real grace and emotion.

brothers-judah-ben-hur-and-messala

Two boys in the wind.

In 33 A.D., Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and adoptive Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) are inseparable comrades in Jerusalem, even as Jewish “Zealot” forces start to fight back against Roman domination. But haunted by the sense that he’ll always be an outsider in Judah’s family, Messala enlists with the Roman army. When war hero Messala returns to Jerusalem with Pontius Pilate’s (Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbaek) legion, the Zealot cause and Judah’s family intersect with dire consequences. Under the watchful eye of Pilate, Messala must betray his former family, and as Messala’s star rises, the condemned Judah Ben-Hur swears revenge. But as Judah’s wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) comes to believe after following the teachings of the carpenter Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro), revenge is not the only way.

messala

Toby Kebbell as Messala.

If you have never seen a version of Ben-Hur or read the novel, I think the plot of this film will be confusing to follow or, more importantly, tougher to care about. As I’ve seen the ’59 version I’m able to follow it clearly, but I also recognize how it could easily look opaque to those who haven’t. But that said, several huge changes from the revered 1950s film make a positive impression here. Judah and Messala are brothers as opposed to childhood friends, and their palpable bond is depicted as more intimate. Messala is not a cold villain, but a conflicted and sympathetic character, given a lot of narrative real estate within the runtime to establish his innate desire to do right alongside his considerable ambition. Toby Kebbell is key to this, bringing humanity to the role. In previous flawed movies such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Fantastic Four, Kebbell has a unique lone-wolf energy and proves to be a performer to watch.

sheik-ilderim

He’s complemented by the more straightforward efforts of Jack Huston in the title role. Huston fits the role well but doesn’t stand out, and the same can be said of Morgan Freeman as the horse owner and chariot race gambler Sheik Ilderim. Interestingly, a Welsh actor named Hugh Griffith played this role in the ‘59 version… in blackface. Griffith actually won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, and the casting of Freeman is at least a step in the right direction. Freeman is largely in his standard mentor mold here – and induces a couple unintentional laughs due to his wig and his line in sports coaching – but there is the sense that he’s acting more than he might have had to, and that’s nice.

pov-action

Bekmambetov’s default style of camera work can be a bit frustrating, when you’re trying to will him into steadying his shot from a theater seat months after filming was wrapped. But the handling of action here is quite interesting. Earlier this year, Bekmambetov produced the surprisingly fine-tuned Hardcore Henry, featuring feature-length GoPro-esque POV action. That approach finds its way into the 1st Century in Ben-Hur. The naval battle is reimagined with a you-are-there shooting style, which means claustrophobia as you’re stuck below decks with the slave rowers and no “cheating” with fancy exterior shots depicting the wide scope of battle. I can’t say it entirely works, but when the POV is used as an asset in the toolbox, as in the chariot race, that’s when it starts to pay off. The chariot race isn’t a tour de force, but it is an intense and weighty sequence, with CGI mayhem, practical effects, and quick POV sequences coming together to accomplish a thankless task – to follow up one of the most famous action sequences of all time. At the end of the day, the 2016 chariot race doesn’t embarrass itself.

circus-chariot-race

The screenplay, by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, is hit and miss. On the one hand its streamlined structure and use of Messala work a charm, but on the other this is a story set in the 1st Century where characters say, “I’m good” and “Wow”. Sigh. But ultimately I have to give Clarke and Ridley a lot of credit for what they do with the ending. It takes all the pieces leading up to it, shuffles up events from the ’59 version, entirely changes others, and comes out the other side with a genuinely touching ending that blindsided me with how well it works. Love it.

messala-war-hero

Messala: The Winter Soldier

So why don’t I love this version of Ben-Hur overall? It’s a bit hard to say, because while I look back in retrospect and remember all the good, there are enough dodgy plot elements and stylistic choices that drag the enterprise as a whole down a ways. Maybe it’s because for all the truly inspired elements (Messala, the ending) there is a general sense that the film’s main mode is generic sword-and-sandals epic. Every time I want to really endorse the film I’m hit with the word “generic” like sand in the face. Ben-Hur is a somewhat schematic historical epic, but with a good antihero in Messala, and a great ending. 6/10.

horse-in-the-circus

A horse tears through the circus crowd. I smell spinoff.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) Film Review

Oregon’s Laika has become the animation house to watch for family features a bit to the left of your Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks offerings. With darker visual textures in stop-motion wonders such as Coraline and The Boxtrolls, Laika has shown an interest in reflecting intense childhood fears on the silver screen, while also making room for a healthy amount of heart and humor. The studio’s latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, looks eastward for visual inspiration and comes out with a measured and beautiful adventure tale less gothic than previous films but with just as much invention and weighty family-friendly drama.

Kubo

In ancient Japan, Kubo (Art Parkinson) tells stories for a community hungry for them, with help from his sickly mother. The stories concern the deeds of the great samurai Hanzo and his struggle against the enigmatic Moon King, but events conspire to sweep Kubo on an adventure very much like those in his heroic stories, though riddled with humbling danger and the highest of stakes. With help from matter-of-fact Monkey (Charlize Theron) and bumbling Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo must gather the scattered pieces of Hanzo’s armor and bring low the dreaded Moon King.

Kubo Monkey Beelte

Stop-motion is one of the more inherently impressive filmmaking techniques, as it takes hours to produce one second of usable footage. But the form is particularly well utilized here. The character models (said to carry an unprecedented number of facial expressions for physical models) always convince, and the blend of in-camera animation and digital compositing is seamless. In addition, bright and dynamic colors light up the screen, and Kubo’s manipulation of origami for his stories makes for a whole other layer of beautiful animation… within a beautiful stop-motion animation. The overall effect is a stunning but lush visual cornucopia that is a privilege to see unfold on the big screen.

Landscape

The character models convince, and the characters proper do as well. Kubo is caught in a fairly typical anointed-one narrative but his passion is always balanced with the fact that he’s still an immature child. Monkey’s dignified straight-woman role chafes against Beetle’s clumsy samurai errant, leading to some fun comic relief. But while the film can be playful this is a very mature production, culminating in a sweeping emotional gesture from Kubo to save the day.

Sariatu

But the true triumphs of character design and realization are the villains and monsters, which are across the board excellent. The monsters include what is purported to be the largest stop-motion model put to film, and implacable underwater nightmares. As for the villains, meet the magnificently creepy Sisters, sure to give a few unsuspecting children sleepless nights. And when the forces of good and evil clash, the results pop on the screen. Usually, stop-motion action is tough, often looking stylized to the point of stiltedness. Unlike in a live-action film, action can’t be cut together in the editing room; a stop-motion action sequence must be painstakingly and exactingly choreographed and programmed into motion control rigs. The team at Laika does an exemplary job, and so the action comes out fluid and engaging, with a fight on a ship claiming a spot as one of the fights of the year so far.

Sisters Madame Woe

The Sisters, alongside other nightmare fuel separated at birth.

A few of the action sequences end a bit jarringly, however, and this gets to the most prominent flaw of the film. For a movie so very much about storytelling, there are reveals and twists that spring out of the narrative very abruptly. These are not derailing moments, but the suddenness is noticeable. Given that the passion for spinning a yarn comes out of every pore of the movie, it’s ironic that a few narrative elements feel rushed.

Skeleton

Kubo and the Two Strings doesn’t pull too many punches for a children’s movie, as in the opening minutes Kubo is revealed with his eye having just been ripped out, and the area still bloody. This unflinching maturity, paired with the relatively leisurely pace, marks out Kubo and other Laika films as sophisticated storytelling for families but also may alienate some younger audience members. However, the charms of the animation and strong character work should have more universal appeal. Kubo is an imperfectly told story, but is brought to life with wonderful animation and a great well of humanity. It boasts likable heroes doing battle against intimidating villains, very much a hallmark of the kinds of stories Kubo himself tells with a great boyish enthusiasm. And it’s the mildest of spoilers to say, but it’s been a while since the meaning of a title has been revealed so emotionally. A strong 8/10.

 

P.S.: Art Parkinson voices the lead in Kubo and the Two Strings. Isaac Hempstead-Wright voices the lead in Laika’s previous film, The Boxtrolls. Parkinson plays Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones, while Hempstead-Wright plays Bran Stark on that show. Laika’s working their way through a generation of Starks! Why not hire Maisie Williams for the next film and keep it going?

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.

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.