Best Non-2019 Films Discovered in 2019
Best Comedy of the Year
Isn’t it Romantic?
Spider-Man: Far from Home
Toy Story 4
Director Trajectory: Up
James Bobin. Dora and the Lost City of Gold > Alice through the Looking Glass
Tim Burton. Dumbo > Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Ruben Fleischer. Zombieland: Double Tap > Venom
Bong Joon-ho. Parasite > Okja
Guy Ritchie. Aladdin > King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Director Trajectory: Down
Danny Boyle. Yesterday < T2 Trainspotting
Bill Condon. The Good Liar < Beauty and the Beast
Joe Cornish. The Kid Who Would be King < Attack the Block
Michael Dowse. Stuber < What if?
Jon Favreau. The Lion King < The Jungle Book
Paul Feig. Last Christmas < A Simple Favor
F. Gary Gray. Men in Black: International < The Fate of the Furious
Neil Jordan. Greta < Byzantium
Steven Knight. Serenity < Locke
Best Heroes or Antiheroes of the Year
10) Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), Long Shot
9) Dora Marquez (Isabela Moner), Dora and the Lost City of Gold
8) Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), Where’d You Go Bernadette
7) Jasmine (Naomi Scott), Aladdin
6) Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), Happy Death Day 2U
5) Natalie (Rebel Wilson), Isn’t it Romantic
4) Molly Davidson and Amy (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever), Booksmart
3) Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), Knives Out
2) Anna (Kristen Bell) & Elsa (Idina Menzel), Frozen 2
1) Nebula (Karen Gillan), Avengers: Endgame
Best Horror Film of the Year
Happy Death Day 2U
It Chapter Two
Ready or Not
Moments of the Year
12) Bureaucracy monologue, Ford v Ferrari
11) The last shot, Pain and Glory
10) Happy pep talk, Spider-Man: Far from Home
9) Astral projection, Doctor Sleep
8) Losers Club reunion, It Chapter Two
7) Picking yourself up, Captain Marvel
6) Picking yourself up, “Be with me” edition, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
5) Good acting, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood
4) Knife out, Knives Out
3) Death montage, Happy Death Day 2U
2) Avengers assemble, Avengers: Endgame
1) Ahtahollan, Frozen 2
One-on-One Fights of the Year (SPOILERS)
10) Henry Brogan (Will Smith) vs. Junior (Will Smith) Round 1, Gemini Man
9) Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) vs. Ken Miles (Christian Bale), Ford v Ferrari
8) Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) vs. Franklin Yoshida (Bobby Nish), Ad Astra
7) John Wick (Keanu Reeves) vs. Zero (Marc Dacascos), John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum
6) Rey (Daisy Ridley) vs. Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
5) Elsa (Idina Menzel) vs. The Water Nokk, Frozen 2
4) Stu Prasad (Kumail Nanjiani) vs. Victor Manning (Dave Bautista), Stuber
3) Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) vs. Red (Lupita Nyong’o), Us
2) Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) vs. Thanos (Josh Brolin), Avengers: Endgame
1) Steve Rogers (Captain America) (Chris Evans) vs. Thanos (Josh Brolin), Avengers: Endgame
Best Pop Culture References/Allusions of the Year
6) You’ve Got Mail, It Chapter Two
5) “The Phantom of the Opera”, Dora and the Lost City of Gold
4) Danica McKellar, Knives Out
3) The Doors, Rambo: Last Blood
2) Kenner Star Wars, Toy Story 4
1) Back to the Future time travel cue, Happy Death Day 2U
Ranking Disney-Distributed Movies (best to worst)
10) The Lion King
9) Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
8) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
5) Captain Marvel
3) Toy Story 4
2) Frozen 2
1) Avengers: Endgame
7) Dark Phoenix
6) Ford v Ferrari
4) Terminator: Dark Fate
3) Ready or Not
2) Jojo Rabbit
1) Ad Astra
Best Remake of the Year
Best Science Fiction Film of the Year
Alita: Battle Angel
Happy Death Day 2U
Terminator: Dark Fate
Avengers: Endgame > Avengers: Infinity War
Angel Has Fallen > London Has Fallen
It Chapter Two > It
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil > Maleficent
Rambo: Last Blood > Rambo
Spider-Man: Far from Home > Spider-Man: Homecoming
Terminator: Dark Fate > Terminator: Genisys
Zombieland: Double Tap > Zombieland
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World < How to Train Your Dragon 2
John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum < John Wick Chapter 2
The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part < The LEGO Movie
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker < Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Best Sequel (#2 – Second Installment) of the Year
Happy Death Day 2U
It Chapter Two
Spider-Man: Far from Home
After last year’s Smallfoot, Missing Link and Abominable are two more tales of yeti in the Himalayas or thereabouts.
As a connoisseur of bonkers mainstream movies with prestige casts, I declare that Serenity is 2019’s Winter’s Tale or Collateral Beauty. It also wins my “Pardon One Turkey” award for underrated movies.
In 2019 we had The Aftermath, After the Wedding, and regular old After.
Last year Regina Hall played the best boss ever in Support the Girls, and this year she played the worst boss ever in Little.
Matt Damon was punched in the face while wearing glasses in Suburbicon, and again in Ford v Ferrari.
Movies that feature Deep Purple’s “Hush”, and a Manson or Manson family-adjacent plot element include Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood and Bad Times at the El Royale.
The Rambo series used to be one where each installment was consistently worse than the last, but I do prefer Last Blood to the 2008 Rambo, so the formula is broken.
“Wakanda forever!” is said in Long Shot. Not in Avengers: Endgame! There’s also a Wakanda reference in What Men Want.
Tearjerkers of the Year
Captain Marvel, Dumbo, Avengers: Endgame, Booksmart, Toy Story 4, Happy Death Day 2U, Frozen 2, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Little Women
Best Villains of the Year
11) Jexi (Rose Byrne), Jexi
10) Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), Glass
9) Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, et al.), It Chapter Two
8) Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), Aladdin
7) Sue Ann Ellington (Octavia Spencer), Ma
6) Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
5) Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), Toy Story 4
4) Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), Doctor Sleep
3) Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), Shazam!
2) Red (Lupita Nyong’o), Us
1) Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), Spider-Man: Far from Home
Northern California hospitality, The Intruder
The motivation twist, The Good Liar
The title drop, Angel Has Fallen
Palpatine’s magical mystery tour, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Late night talk show host makes fun of a nobody, Joker
Never-ending mid-credits scene, What Men Want
Fighting over the helicopter, Dark Phoenix
Abandonment issues, Shazam!
“Be Our Guest”, The Lion King
Social worker sequence, Marriage Story
Sound mixer meltdown, Black Christmas
Dark throwaway frat house joke, Good Boys
Special bullets, Rambo: Last Blood
The dog, Polar
Les Miserables allusions, Frozen 2
Mad Max on the moon, Ad Astra
Dennis Quaid’s over-the-top villain performance, The Intruder
And two movies, Ma and Cats, embody all of WTF (bad) and WTF (good).
(Rough) Final Ranking of All (79) 2019 Films Seen (Best to Worst)
Avengers: Endgame; Booksmart; Frozen 2; Ad Astra; Knives Out; Parasite; Doctor Sleep; It Chapter Two; A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; Little Women; Toy Story 4; Jojo Rabbit; Her Smell; Spider-Man: Far from Home; Isn’t it Romantic; Happy Death Day 2U; Good Boys; Aladdin; Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood; Marriage Story; John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum; Ready or Not; The Irishman; Terminator: Dark Fate; Serenity; Dora and the Lost City of Gold; Escape Room; Ma; Pain and Glory; Captain Marvel; Us; The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part; Dumbo; Where’d You Go Bernadette; Stuber; Long Shot; Pokémon: Detective Pikachu; Ford v Ferrari; Noelle; Zombieland: Double Tap; Cold Pursuit; Hobbs and Shaw; Gemini Man; Missing Link; Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker; Maleficent: Mistress of Evil; Rambo: Last Blood; Gloria Bell; Child’s Play; Everybody Knows; Alita: Battle Angel; Jexi; Greta; Black Christmas; Men in Black: International; Angel Has Fallen; Crawl; Yesterday; Rocketman; Late Night; Godzilla: King of the Monsters; The Laundromat; The Good Liar; Dark Phoenix; Last Christmas; Shazam!; The Intruder; The Upside; Brightburn; After the Wedding; The Lion King; The Aftermath; How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World; Glass; Polar; The Kid Who Would be King; Cats; Joker; What Men Want
By the Numbers
Percentage of films viewed that pass the Bechdel/Wallace Test: 47%
8 Films featuring a character symbolically or literally killing their younger self (Avengers: Endgame, It Chapter Two, Gemini Man, Zombieland: Double Tap, Her Smell, The Good Liar, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Rocketman)
7 Films featuring carnivals, theme parks, or Ferris wheels (Us, Dumbo, Shazam!, Toy Story 4, Spider-Man: Far from Home, It Chapter Two, Rocketman)
5 Disney movies with elephants (Dumbo, Avengers: Endgame, Aladdin, Toy Story 4, The Lion King)
5 Nick Fury appearances (Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Long Shot, Spider-Man: Far from Home, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood)
4 Evil doll appearances (Shazam!, Toy Story 4, Child’s Play, Annabelle Comes Home)
4 Groups putting their hands together in solidarity (Shazam!, Avengers: Endgame, It Chapter Two, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)
4 Head bumps that change the lead character’s perception of the whole world (What Men Want, Isn’t it Romantic, Last Christmas, Yesterday)
4 Stalker thrillers (The Intruder, Greta, Ma, Child’s Play) (In both Greta and Ma, it’s an adult woman stalking younger prey.)
4 Steve Rogers appearances (Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Long Shot, Spider-Man: Far from Home)
3 New York Mets pennants (Spider-Man: Far from Home, Marriage Story, Yesterday)
3 Steven Sondheim numbers (Joker, Knives Out, Marriage Story)
2 Aurora borealis appearances (Frozen 2, Noelle)
2 Films featuring a child and mother whose life forces are supernaturally tied together (Frozen 2, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)
2 Films featuring Dennis Quaid showing up at the front door with food and being told, “You can’t show up like this” (The Intruder, A Dog’s Journey)
2 Films featuring evil frat boys (Good Boys, Black Christmas)
2 Films where the heroes fight elemental forces (Spider-Man: Far from Home, Frozen 2)
2 Fresh Prince-era Will Smith appearances (Aladdin, Gemini Man)
2 Films featuring horse-fu (John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, Missing Link)
2 Ice castles (Missing Link, Frozen 2)
2 Films featuring Jason Clarke being cheated on by his wife (Serenity, The Aftermath)
2 Films featuring Julianne Moore singing along loudly in a car and dancing to disco music (Gloria Bell, After the Wedding)
2 Films featuring a kid locking a cop in a store (Shazam!, Good Boys) (The inverse happens in Child’s Play, where a cop arrests and handcuffs a kid in a store.)
2 Films where the lead character walks into a glass door (Joker, Jexi)
2 Mungo Jerries (Avengers: Endgame, Cats)
2 Films featuring old 80s action stars celibately helping out a woman and a kid on an idyllic homestead near the U.S.-Mexico border (Rambo: Last Blood, Terminator: Dark Fate)
2 People saved by counterfactual history (Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, Yesterday)
2 Quicksand appearances (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Dora and the Lost City of Gold)
2 Redrum appearances (Doctor Sleep, Her Smell)
2 Scary scenes in a funhouse of mirrors (Us, It Chapter Two)
2 Settlers of Catan appearances (Cold Pursuit, Happy Death Day 2U)
2 Sleeping Beauty’s Castle appearances (Aladdin, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil)
2 Superman appearances (The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, Shazam!) (Shoutout to Brightburn, which is a take on “evil Superman”.)
2 Films featuring a character throwing a weapon into water (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, The Irishman)
2 Time travel movies that reference Back to the Future (Avengers: Endgame, Happy Death Day 2U)
2 Films featuring toy surgery (Toy Story 4, Child’s Play)
2 Films featuring a male tutor kissing his female student (Parasite, The Good Liar)
2 VHS copies of The Right Stuff (Captain Marvel, Us)
2 Wives having to properly install a booster seat (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Marriage Story)
2 Woke comedies featuring Molly Gordon (Booksmart, Good Boys)
Messing with the studio logos (The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Dark Phoenix, Toy Story 4, Happy Death Day 2U, The Lion King, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Men in Black: International, Terminator: Dark Fate, Zombieland: Double Tap, Doctor Sleep, Noelle)
Opening title sequences – * = dedicated sequence (Glass, The Kid Who Would be King, Us, John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum*, Aladdin, Greta, Hobbs and Shaw, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, Ready or Not, Jexi, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Pain and Glory*, Zombieland: Double Tap, The Good Liar*, Ford v Ferrari, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood*, Yesterday, After the Wedding)
Wrap Party Finales (Avengers: Endgame, Aladdin, Isn’t it Romantic, The Lion King, Last Christmas, Her Smell, The Good Liar, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Little Women)
Epilogue text (Ford v Ferrari, The Laundromat)
Curtain Call Cast Credits – * = no specific character iconography (The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World*, Captain Marvel, Shazam!, Avengers: Endgame, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, Booksmart, What Men Want, Isn’t it Romantic, Spider-Man: Far from Home, Missing Link, Good Boys, Knives Out, Noelle)
Mid-Credits scenes – * = does not take up the entire screen (Glass*, Captain Marvel, Shazam!, Aladdin, What Men Want, Toy Story 4, Isn’t it Romantic*, Spider-Man: Far from Home, Happy Death Day 2U, Hobbs and Shaw, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood*, Where’d You Go Bernadette*, Angel Has Fallen, Rambo: Last Blood*, Brightburn, Jexi*, Zombieland: Double Tap, Last Christmas*, Her Smell*, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood*, Marriage Story*, Rocketman*, After the Wedding*)
Post-Credits scenes (Captain Marvel, Shazam!, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Spider-Man: Far from Home, Hobbs and Shaw, Zombieland: Double Tap, Frozen 2)
10) Little Women
A movie in the melodramatic tradition, this Louisa May Alcott adaptation carries the audience on a wave of joyful highs and tear-jerking lows (people weren’t just crying, they were having emotional breakdowns in the theater). The interweaving flashback structure generates a powerful sense of nostalgia, which comes to a satisfying sense of resolution at the end. Warm as the day as long, Little Women benefits from a solid ensemble and clever construction.
9) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
After Can You Ever Forgive Me, another excellent New York-tied movie from Marielle Heller, this time with added cinematic inventiveness (those establishing shots!). Fred Rogers’ aspirational idealism turns a mirror to the cynicism and false decorum of the other characters. Matthew Rhys is great in the lead role, the “broken” man who is changed by Mister Rogers. Not without its flaws, but lovely.
8) It Chapter Two
The first It is a solid movie, but I had no investment in it. In this sequel, there are several scenes that are surprisingly emotional for me. Look no further than the Losers’ Club reunion in the Chinese restaurant, an electric sequence of bittersweet warmth that turns into uncanny terror. The first two hours are excellent. A few wonky moments in the finale can’t taint this epic parade of jack-in-the-box horror, as director Andy Muschietti shows himself to be a showman in the grand guignol tradition, and my favorite actor Jessica Chastain further elevates the film.
7) Doctor Sleep
The second straight Stephen King adaptation on this list, Doctor Sleep walks the fine line of sequelizing both King’s novel The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film. It’s a slow-burning dark supernatural fantasy, featuring stunning astral projection sequences. The wonderful Rebecca Ferguson plays the sadistic villain, and the movie itself must find her fun to watch as well, given how much screen time she gets. I don’t find Doctor Sleep or the It chapters particularly scary, but that’s not how I measure a horror movie, especially more ambitious ones like these. I’m here for some thrills, sure, but primarily for story and character.
This knife-sharp farcical thriller from Bong Joon-ho features an impoverished family of con artists inveigling themselves in the household of a rich family. Between Parasite and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, it’s clear that class struggles and the perils of upward mobility loom large in Korean cinema. Parasite milks its premise for tension, silliness, and sobering outbursts of violence.
5) Knives Out
In some ways an old-fashioned detection-driven mystery puzzle, in other ways a hypermodern character-driven sociopolitical satire, and in every way addictively entertaining. Knives Out is one of those “obviously good” movies, given how much writer-director Rian Johnson accomplishes at once while having so much fun doing it. Daniel Craig is unforgettable as drawling private detective Benoit Blanc (an even better Southern accent for Craig after Logan Lucky’s Joe Bang), and Ana de Armas gives the film its heart.
4) Ad Astra
Strikingly sober, both as a piece of science fiction and as a character study… while still finding time to do Mad Max on the moon. From the cinematography to the production design to the visual effects, Ad Astra is cinematically gorgeous, a more than worthy successor to the Gravity/Interstellar/The Martian cycle. Brad Pitt has movie star presence, not by turning on the charm in the role of a gung-ho astronaut, but in a deeply bitter, internal performance. Last year we had another “emotionally closed off male astronaut gets the job done” movie in First Man, and I’m way more into this version of it.
3) Frozen 2
What a difference six years of technological advancement makes. Frozen 2 makes for a perfect companion piece to its predecessor, but its improved animation really makes it shine. That’s not even to mention the deep emotion, effective humor, and supernatural action, or of course, the songs. From the giddy “Some Things Never Change” to the soaring “Into the Unknown” to the Les Miserables riff “The Next Right Thing”, songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have outdone themselves. Best of all is Elsa’s transformative song “Show Yourself”, accompanied by mind-blowing imagery that is a clear highlight in Disney’s entire animated canon.
Director Olivia Wilde delivers the goods with Booksmart, a hilarious and visually inventive coming-of-age one-crazy-night movie. This level of energy, tight screenwriting, and charismatic performance is pretty outstanding, as rare as a coelacanth sighting. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein generate out-of-this-world chemistry. That pairing alone would probably have been enough to carry a movie, but they’re aided by every other department around them firing on all cylinders as well. Booksmart, Good Boys, and Blockers prove you can be “woke” and extremely funny at the same time, no matter what some in the industry may think.
Sticking the landing for a 22-film saga, Avengers: Endgame is a game of thirds. A melancholy first act, a romp of a second, and a triumphant third coalesce with a mastery of structure and tone. One of the missions of the movie is to honor the original six Avengers, giving particularly note-perfect send-offs to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. But it is to the film’s credit that it also honors characters like reformed villain Nebula (Karen Gillan), making her character growth an explicit part of the plot. Given how the MCU has been playing at such a high level, Endgame’s creative success as a full cinematic meal doesn’t exactly surprise, but how rich a culmination it is may be more than its fans could have hoped for.
In X-Men: Dark Phoenix, there’s an unintentionally hilarious sequence where two characters are fighting over control of a helicopter, one with magnetism powers, the other with telekinesis. But what that translates to on screen is two thespians standing in place and straining to wrangle nothing. There’s a similar moment in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, where Force prodigies Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) struggle to control a troop transport. While not as laugh-inducing as those helicopter shenanigans, it is a small example of the cartoonish reality Skywalker exists in, a reality separate from the saga it means to conclude.
That cartoonishness manifests in a variety of absurd plot elements, but moreover, that feeling of being in a zone of emotional unreality pervades the film. Weighty developments seem to occur multiple times only for them to be reversed, the emotions they stir rubber-banded backwards. And this relates to the number one, banner, headline problem with The Rise of Skywalker. The movie is filled with big developments that have the potential to be emotionally resonant, but none of them land, because the film zooms through them all. Significant story twists are either half-assed in execution, or feel incidental because they lack setup and we don’t live with the repercussions. The emotions are unearned.
Is character A Force-sensitive? Maybe, but it doesn’t really amount to anything besides confusion and is so glossed over you wonder what the point is. Do characters B and C betray their group? Yes, but it is largely stripped of any significance or sense of payoff it should have had. Does character D die? Yes, but I’m not in the moment. I’m not feeling it. Does character E sacrifice something of themself? Yes, but it barely registers in the storytelling and gets reversed. It’s a strange state of affairs when the film’s trailer does a better job of giving the emotions space to breathe.
For the first act at least, The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t reach for those deep emotions, instead embracing the spirit of serialized adventure that is key to Star Wars. It’s this trilogy’s main heroes, Rey, Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac), on a series of adventures. The charitable reading is, this is where the movie cooks at its highest consistent intensity. The uncharitable reading is, this is exhausting. It’s charismatic performers playing at comic strip hero, so there are moments of genuine fun. It’s there in Rey firing her blaster like she’s spamming the button on Star Wars Battlefront; it’s there in the sight of jet troopers delightfully wiping out. At times it can feel a little like forced frivolity. When C-3PO is with the group, he has to chime in at every possible opportunity, presumably to keep Anthony Daniels happy with his number of lines. Regarding director J.J. Abrams’ decision to let the actors improvise, I’m sure it was fun for them but it isn’t always to the advantage of the story.
The tension between some dreadful plot decisions and the simple fun of being along on a Star Wars ride defines much of the movie. I love how Rey takes in the Aki Aki puppet show, and how she can can beat someone down and then offer her hand to them in the blink of an eye. The snapping sound as a Force-summoned lightsaber hits a hand is simply exciting. A few legacy character returns, including Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), work well. There’s at least one great piece of aural fanservice. And the choreography for Rey and Kylo Ren’s lightsaber dueling remains effective. There is not a dearth of quality, but those moments are tainted by a few key woeful choices in the big picture.
Bringing back Sheev Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) in the worst possible ripped-from-clickbait-websites fashion proves to be a mistake. There is also an unfortunate thread in The Rise of Skywalker that feels like a reaction against The Last Jedi, particularly the first line out of a returning character’s mouth. There is a revelation of Rey’s backstory that undermines her character and the thematic groundwork of The Last Jedi, and moreover, serves no essential purpose in the story. In specific sequences, we see a deft portrait of Rey wrestling with aspects of herself that shows the storytellers possess the skill to portray her internal struggle without resorting to fan theory bingo, which makes it all the more disappointing that they do. Also, when not pushing against its predecessor, the film re-stages specific set-ups from The Last Jedi, and executes them decidedly worse.
The cast is solid. Adam Driver remarkably builds a physical consistency for the Kylo Ren character, repeating certain subtle movements from the previous films. One of my favorite things in the movie is Driver’s delivery when Kylo Ren says he can never go back to his mother. Daisy Ridley does well with challenging material. Richard E. Grant makes for a nicely sadistic military authority figure. The production and art design is a constant source of joy in Star Wars. How else to praise the Knights of Ren, only there to look cool?
John Williams’ final score for Star Wars introduces some new Alan Silvestri-esque sentimentally sweeping cues, and though he quotes some old passages effectively as specific callbacks to each original trilogy movie, he could have pulled more past themes out of the toolbox. In one of the most fist-pumping moments of the film, Williams deploys fanfare usually reserved for the end credits sequences of these movies to sharp effect. It is delightful how much mileage Williams gets from big statements of Rey’s theme, and fascinating how at one point he melds her leitmotif with another character’s. And look for a certain other character’s theme played in the opposite key it usually is.
So what the Babu Frik is going on with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker? There is a smattering of good material here, to be sure. But there are also unmotivated emotion dumps, coming off the heels of by far the most emotionally powerful film in the series. Unconvincing plot developments, the centerpiece being a silly metaphysical finale. My biggest critique of The Force Awakens is that it’s not weird enough, playing with a relatively conservative imagination in terms of general environment and design. The Rise of Skywalker proves I should be careful what I wish for, as so much of the driving engine of its story crosses the threshold of weird into ridiculous. By and large, Skywalker will be remembered for feinting in the general direction of emotion when it should have stoked tears, and for lacking a mastery of character that previous Star Wars films displayed.
We’ll always have The Last Jedi. A weak 5/10.
***Contains spoilers for FROZEN 2***
Frozen 2 is a sequel to Frozen, but it’s also a continuation of a cultural phenomenon that hasn’t really dissipated over the past six years – to the delight of its converts and to the chagrin of those sick of hearing “Let it Go” for the thousandth time. The sequel is a visually masterful companion piece to the original, but as a musical it must also be measured by its songs. Thankfully, Frozen 2’s songs are excellent. While not generally adhering to the subversive quality of Frozen’s numbers, the sequel takes big swings with its songs, coming out the other side with operatic emotion and distinctive comedy. What secrets do these new songs hold?
All is Found
Like “Frozen Heart” in Frozen, this song’s narrative function is to foreshadow some of the drama of the movie. Unlike “Frozen Heart”, which used a truly removed Greek chorus approach, Anna and Elsa hear the song, receive it as folklore, and later refer to the lyrics as a warning, almost as prophecy. “Go too far, and you’ll be drowned.” The lyric, “Can you face what the river knows?” sets up the discovery of a great sin in Arendelle’s past. This is a kingdom that later in the movie is described as an eternal “kingdom of plenty that stands for the good of the many”, so it’s a mature move to complicate that, reminiscent of the similar anti-colonial themes of Thor: Ragnarok vis a vis Asgard. Additionally, the song’s full-volume power comes when it’s later magically reprised within “Show Yourself”. Musically, the piece is a lovely folk melody that sets up the nature-based beauty of the film.
Some Things Never Change
Unlike any song in the first movie, this is a true ensemble piece for the cast of major players, something tailormade for a Broadway company, or even more so, a cast of Muppets. Like the Muppets’ “Life’s a Happy Song”, the song features an irresistible groove in the chorus and an infectiously cheery tone, even while commenting on the inevitability of the passage of time, which provides a slight tension. “Like an old stone wall that will never fall” plays over, of course, an old stone wall falling apart. “The flag of Arendelle will always fly” is shortly followed by the flag decorating the ground (shades of the flag of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers).
“The leaves are already falling / Sven, it feels like the future is calling.” The verse hook is killer. The song respects the happily-ever-after ending of Frozen, before the complications of the story. And because of the excellent execution, it sidesteps the direct-to-video sequel feel that this sentimentality could’ve led to. (Even as Olaf is allowed a meta moment to address the audience directly!)
Into the Unknown
An Elsa solo show-stopper and worthy successor to “Let it Go” (though that anthem is still impossible to top, especially in terms of cultural impact; the sequel does well to spread the pressure of a follow-up between two songs). The song incorporates talk-singing in the verses, making for a strong contrast to the soaring chorus. That chorus demonstrates a mastery of syllabic dynamics, as the progression of 5-syllable to 6-syllable to 8-syllable phrasing perfectly livens up what could’ve been a repetitive use of the title “Into the Unknown”.
The song also begins a recurring musical motif among the film’s songbook. The galloping rhythm under the chorus suggests travel or determined footsteps, mirroring Elsa’s desire for bold movement and specifically foreshadowing her wrangling, taming, and riding the Water Nokk as a horse. We’ll return to the motif of musical footsteps later.
When I am Older
A nifty little Vaudeville comedy song for Olaf, about… him having a dissociative episode from the uncanny events happening all around him! Because of this obvious and amusing tension in the song, this is the Frozen 2 number closest in spirit to the subversive stylings of the original film. Musically, the song doesn’t stand up as well on its own without its physical and emotional comedy context. But there are still wonderful touches, like the kooky sting that scores the verses. On the one hand it’s a creepy family-friendly horror-tinged lick, but on the other it doubles for Olaf’s frightened and scattered footsteps.
Lost in the Woods
The most unique song in the movie, “Lost in the Woods” is an unapologetic 1980s power ballad shot like a music video, complete with specific visual references to classic rock such as Queen. Coming on the heels of a brief reprise of “Reindeers are Better than People” from the first movie, the ballad represents the clearest formal musical experimentation of the film. If nothing else, I’m pleased Broadway musical star Jonathan Groff has a chance to use his pipes, after barely getting a look-in in Frozen.
An emotional epic, “Show Yourself” is a euphoric experience even on its own, but pair it with the mind-blowing visuals of this portion of the movie and you have something truly special. The imagery of this sequence is prismatic, crystalline, mythical, magical, and a clear highlight not only in the film but in Disney’s animated canon. The full Aurora Borealis effect feels like a fulfillment of what Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu could’ve been.
The cresting intersections of voice in the song make it a lightning rod of emotion. Elsa, her mother Iduna, and the Ahtohallan voice combine for a three-pronged effect; when “All is Found” is reprised, it’s an incandescent moment. Add to that a jagged piano backing and some juicy saxophone application, and from a storytelling perspective, an almost literal killer coda that freezes Elsa solid.
While on a musical level “Into the Unknown” will get the headlines as the sequel’s answer to “Let it Go”, “Show Yourself” is its true spiritual counterpart, because Elsa’s journey of self-discovery finds its next chapter at Ahtohallan. In Frozen’s ice palace, Elsa let her hair down and created an icy blue dress. In Frozen 2’s Ahtohallan, Elsa fully unbraids her hair and creates a crystalline white dress. The two sequences are true visual companion pieces. When Elsa runs down an enclosed ice cave, the rebirth imagery is clear. “Grow yourself into something new.”
The Next Right Thing
“The Next Right Thing” is Frozen’s version of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. Just as Fantine cries her way through that heartbreaking piece, Anna cries her way through the strains of this one, before gathering strength and taking decisive action. There are even musical quotes of specific Les Miserables moments in “The Next Right Thing”; a rising swell coinciding with the lyrical phrase “in my mind” from “I Dreamed a Dream”, and a descending operatic harmony at the song’s climax that recalls the ending of “One Day More”. The drama of the song is a little jarring for a children’s movie. “Hello darkness, I’m ready to succumb”?
But Anna rallies and picks herself up the floor. The phrasing of the title, “Next Right Thing”, is presented as hard glottal stops that don’t flow into each other (for example, like “The Place where Lost Things Go” in Mary Poppins Returns), but the effect that creates, for the third time on this soundtrack, suggests footsteps. Next. Right. Thing. Three successive distinct movements that don’t glide, but step one at a time. Each syllable is a choice for Anna to make even when all hope seems lost.
And each song is a rich earworming expansion of the Frozen repertoire, an impressive canon that also includes songs from two animated shorts and a Broadway musical. As I said, cultural phenomenon. And when looking in Frozen 2 for a worthy follow-up to a songbook that won an Oscar and the Internet, all is found.
There is a lot of fairy tale logic in the original, animated The Lion King (1994). Some of it I have a problem with, some of it I accept, but all of it is painted over with gorgeous animation. But that storytelling style simply doesn’t gel with the hyper-realistic visuals of director Jon Favreau’s remake. Unlike certain other recent Disney remakes of animated classics, The Lion King (2019) suffers for not adapting its storytelling to the new presentational format.
When the remake was conceived, the intention was for the 100% computer-generated environment to look like a nature documentary (a genre Disney often works in under the Disney Nature banner), and that goal has been fully realized. The technological achievement of the film is unimpeachable, but the storytelling belongs to another movie. This disconnect is, for instance, clearly illustrated in the characterization of the main villain, Scar.
In 1994, Jeremy Irons bathed in the river of ham in the role of Scar, throne-usurper and brother to King Mufasa. He chewed the scenery, sang a terrific song, and went on to other over-the-top villain roles in the likes of Dungeons and Dragons. In 2019, Chiwetel Ejiofor takes over the role, and where Irons would preen and purr like a pantomime baddie, Ejiofor goes for a hard-edged psychological approach to make Scar frightening and restrained. The villain song, “Be Prepared”, signals this change. It’s my favorite song by far in the original, but the only one fast-forwarded through here; while not doing me any favors, this is a legitimate choice. The song appears in a truncated, militaristic rendition – exit the diva, enter the general.
But even as they create this more grounded Scar, the filmmakers make the critical mistake of showing him to be, frankly, as much of an idiot as the original, without the excuse of histrionic characterization. We are introduced to Scar as a lion of manipulative intellect; Scar says that between him and his brother Mufasa, he got the lion’s share of brains. But he’s delusional enough to think that his hyenas ravaging the Pride Lands make him a greater King than his brother. He throws the hyenas under the proverbial bus and gets eaten for it. And worst of all, he needlessly confesses to killing Mufasa when Simba is so deeply (and illogically) convinced of his own “guilt” of that crime. These are the moments that have always kept Scar from being a great villain, but at least in 1994, they could be the excesses of a prima donna. In 2019, they do not fit this more serious characterization of Scar.
The same goes for Simba’s deeply internalized guilt for the death of his father; every step along that character arc is the broad stroke of a bedtime story. The film is a half-measure, changing some presentational aspects but hewing to cartoon-appropriate storytelling in a photo-realistic context. To be fair, the case of Timon and Pumbaa is one where the filmmakers were backed into a corner, had to adapt their dynamic, and succeeded in creating endearing chemistry between new performers Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. Their subtle breaking of the fourth wall is amusing, especially in one moment that led me to an audible WTF (with a smile on my face) in the theater. It’s no fluke that the strongest song in the 2019 Lion King is their new inclusion “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, which is buoyed by a bouncy energy simply not there in the other musical covers, and which ends in an inspired punch line.
As potentially gross as it is to say that two of the only white actors in a triumphantly diverse cast play the standout roles, their characters have the energy of successful new inspiration, as does their song. As for musical half-measures, why include leading single “Spirit” by Nala actor Beyoncé in the film for about 30 seconds as a voice of God song and not play it during the end credits, instead of writing a new song for Nala in the movie for a potential showstopper?
It also feels like Jon Favreau already basically made this movie with The Jungle Book (2016), using a lot of Lion King iconography in a more interesting way. A scenery-and-animal chewing villain with a facial scar (Shere Khan, Scar), who takes over the heroes’ domain (the wolves’ territory, the Pride Lands), dies after falling into fire. A stampede sequence threatens the lead character. A comic relief mentor (Baloo, Timon) advises the young hero to relax, not worry about the villain, and live on the bare necessities.
When Disney remade Beauty and the Beast in live-action, care was taken to explain anew fairy tale logic. No one in the village concerns themselves with the royal goings-on at the castle because their memories were wiped. The terms of Belle’s imprisonment were changed. Care was taken to make the romance more believable. Care was taken to give characters like Maurice and LeFou a personality transplant like Scar, but unlike Scar, one that determined new character arcs for them. Some criticized the film for over-explaining things and overcomplicating 84 minutes of compact animation. But 2017’s Beauty and the Beast is true to its aesthetic; it changes the fairy tale because we’re looking at something more real. 2019’s The Lion King is what happens when you don’t adapt your storytelling to a new visual format.
So the photo-real Lion King, in very specific ways, makes other live-action remakes look better. It’s also my least favorite Disney remake-adjacent film since Alice through the Looking Glass. Not as heart wrenching as Christopher Robin, not as visually interesting as Dumbo, not as magical as Aladdin. This is not to say it is a bad film. Even with its occasional lifelessness and misguided reverence to a generation’s memory, it’s functionally entertaining. For me, it’s… fine, so very average. But deep-emotion-wise, I felt nothing in this movie until the very last scene. Disney’s live-action remake initiative is just part of their circle of life, but The Lion King feels like a missed opportunity.
When does a trilogy become a quadrilogy? It’s only clear with the benefit of hindsight that Toy Story 3 felt felt like such definitive closure because the audience, especially those who grew up with the movies over 15 years, identified so intensely with Andy. As Andy gave away the toys (or characters), which meant so much to him, the audience was put squarely in his position for maximum emotional effect. But this is to discount the toys. Toy Story 4 asks itself and successfully answers the question, “How can Woody, the ultimate dutiful toy, evolve?” When does a trilogy become a quadrilogy? When there’s more story to tell. And why, besides a sweet box office haul, Toy Story 4? Because the characters need it.
Longtime Toyheads may be disappointed that Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Hamm, and the gang are relatively sidelined in this film. For me, it’s the sign of a focused movie, and much preferable to the How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World move of giving every tertiary comic character an arc. It also leaves room for shiny new and returning toys!
The delightful Duke Caboom is given a tragicomic backstory worthy of Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-it Ralph. Gabby Gabby is already one of the great Disney villains (with one major caveat it would be a spoiler to discuss). Bunny and Ducky get a nice running joke that plays with the rules of the Toy Story world. Bo Peep returns after a one-movie absence, with a new streetwise characterization and, with the benefit of 2019 animation, gorgeous porcelain detailing.
And then there’s Forky. Made out of a spork, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, and not much else, this brilliant addition to the cast gives a new perspective on the weird rules of what it means to be a child’s toy, or indeed, alive as a toy. Caught in an identity crisis between spork and toy, Forky longs to be thrown away. In this quite subversive move, we remember the harrowing furnace sequence in Toy Story 3, and realize quite explicitly that Forky wants to die like that.
It might even be said that for those still unconvinced by a fourth Toy Story, Forky is an avatar for the whole movie. He doesn’t understand the point of his existence – he constantly feels the pull to the trash can, like a rejected story idea in the writers’ room – and ultimately finds self-worth, understanding, peace, and purpose.
And what Toy Story 4 successfully plays out is a movie with a small scale, but apocalyptically high stakes for the characters. Most of the movie takes place in one antique store, and across the street, in a seasonal carnival. But the characters want what they want with every plastic fiber of their being, and wrestle with existential crises as well as external ones. And you will reward the film with tears for it. I’m not super-duper familiar with Toy Story. I like the movies, I grew up with it to an extent, but I don’t have nostalgia for it baked into me. Toy Story 4 emotionally flattened me, so just imagine what it’ll do for people with a deep love for this series. Why Toy Story 4? Because despite what Woody says to Bo Peep, you can teach an old toy new tricks.
P.S.: I appreciate the cameo of a couple late 1970s Kenner Star Wars figures. There’s an Obi-Wan Kenobi, and I believe a Greedo – though because I just got a glimpse, it could be Ponda Baba/Walrus Man.
Three Disney live-action remakes in a year (four if you count a Maleficent sequel) is insane. It goes beyond saturating the market into knocking movies over in turn like nine-figure budgeted dominoes. But when they’re as much of a blast as Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, you won’t hear a complaint from me. With the energy and visual appeal of Bollywood, this remake is, relatively minor flaws aside, a great two hours at the movie theater.
In the fictional kingdom of Agrabah, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) grapples with political reality. Street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) lives theft-to-theft. And Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) puts into motion a plan to further his grand designs of warmongering ambition, a plan that ensnares Aladdin, whose purity is put to the test when a 10,000-year-old Genie (Will Smith) has three wishes to grant.
Having recently rewatched the animated 1992 original, I find this remake narratively and visually distinct enough never to feel like a rehash. New handmaiden character. Fairy tale politics. More layers of clothing for Aladdin. (Or just, you know, layers at all.) The standout characters prove to be Jasmine and wicked Jafar. The villain is played naturalistically, and Kenzari demonstrates a strong threatening screen presence even, and maybe especially, when perfectly calm. As Jasmine, Naomi Scott simply gives a movie star performance, charismatic and commanding.
When disguised in the bazaar, Jasmine gets in trouble with the law for giving bread to starving children without thinking of the money to pay for it. One thread in recent depictions of female heroes on screen is that there is a positive power in naïveté. It’s in Wonder Woman convinced in her thinking that World War I is caused only by a mad god’s manipulations and not the evil that men do. It’s in Ilsa Faust having the crazy idea that agents of allied nations are supposed to help each other out. And it’s in Jasmine putting her subjects first and envisioning a gender-blind monarchy. These are powerful character choices because they give glimpses of a more idealistic world. In this industry of escapism, this is a very cinematic thing to do. A whole new world indeed.
And as a fleet-footed musical, what fine escapism Aladdin is. Aside from a couple weird Guy Ritchie-an speed-ramping moments, “One Jump Ahead” really pops on screen. (Though Ritchie can’t help one gratuitous switcheroo flashback sequence like in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) The soaring “Arabian Nights” is used not just to introduce Agrabah, but the main cast of characters. The new song “Speechless”, while not for lack of trying, is transparently not of a piece with the original batch of songs. But I’m always here for new songs in these classic musicals, and this one does its job efficiently and emotionally as a power anthem for Jasmine.
Similar to how “Be Our Guest” is my least favorite sequence in the Beauty and the Beast remake, “Friend Like Me” is my least favorite here. Maybe it’s because both numbers trade in show-off-y visual jazz that renders (no pun intended) the line between animation and CGI spectacle almost non-existent. Throwing digital confetti all over the place is self-defeating when the whole remit of the movie is to play more realistic.
Hence both Beauty and Aladdin running the same play from the remake playbook of turning each Princess’ father character (Kevin Kline’s Maurice for Belle, Navid Negahban’s Sultan for Jasmine) from a cartoon buffoon to a dignified person. Another entry from that realism playbook: The “Prince Ali” song not continuing until the Sultan taps along to it is reminiscent of the punters struggling with asynchronous clapping in Beauty’s “Gaston” number. “A Whole New World” is sonically aces, but visually, that drive for realism feeds into a bit of a conservative imagination. No magic carpet trip to China here.
But while that sequence’s visuals aren’t the most adventurous, one of the chief pleasures of this film is the bright visual scheme – Bollywood-inspired costume and production design is a fresh take for a Disney project, and they’re a pleasure to behold. CGI blue Genie still looks… off, but not in a way that’s particularly bothersome. Any minor awkward choices are overwhelming by all the breezily entertaining ones, and that does characterize this movie. With engaging characters and music, strong production design, and the warmth of a fairy tale, Aladdin proves that cash grabs are not mutually exclusive with genuine quality. A strong 7/10.
“A hostile alien army came charging through a hole in space. We’re standing 300 feet below it. We’re the Avengers. We can bust arms dealers all the livelong day, but that up there? That’s the Endgame.”
So many superhero narratives find villains as the proactive ones, enacting plots and schemes to attain a goal that the heroes must stop. But after losing in Avengers: Infinity War despite viewers thinking so desperately that they’re right, the Avengers must finally live up to their name. And indeed, Infinity War was structured as the villainous Thanos’ movie in a way that Avengers: Endgame simply isn’t. It’s the beloved heroes’ time to shine, because for some of them, we may never see them again.
“… If we can’t protect the world, you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it.”
At great personal sacrifice, Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeded in using the six Infinity Stones to cull half of all life in the universe. Now, do what’s left of the Avengers move on, or attempt a Hail Mary play to save the fallen? Their only chance lies in a daring “time heist”; but not all the time traveling heroes were always on the virtuous side…
Avengers: Endgame is structurally interesting. Concomitant with its three-hour runtime, it has a very clearly demarcated three-act structure, almost to the point of containing three discrete but linked movies. Before Act One proper kicks off, just the first 15 minutes feels remarkably distinct from the rest of the film, playing out like its own compact “traditional” Avengers movie, before things take a sharp left turn. Act One is a quiet, mournful, and wryly convivial gathering of the team. Act Two is time travel hijinks. Act Three is a Lord of the Rings-scale battle followed by Return of the King-scale denouements.
Act Two is the weakest by the hair, while still filled with wonderful touches and featuring a treatment of time travel that seems to carry more weight than one might expect. By emphasizing that when you’re in the past, the stakes are just as high as when centered in your native present, the time travel aspect has more narrative gravity than a jokey gimmick. That being said, this Russian nesting doll of a sequence contains tons of deep-cut references and surprise returning characters (for the first time in the MCU, one previously exclusive to TV) that detail-oriented fans will appreciate.
In this third of the film, Endgame pokes fun at previous MCU movies in clever and subtle ways, like calling out how the Avengers are “posing up a storm” just to intimidate a villain, or how a character seems so much cooler from within their own cinematic POV than on the outside looking in. But best of all is a truly hilarious sequence where the Avengers have to study up on Infinity Stones and their intertwining history with previous movies, which puts these characters in the position of MCU viewers trying to make sense of the minutiae of the cinematic universe over Chinese takeout.
One of the great things about the MCU as a serialized story is that the characters change over time. And in a genius move on the part of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, this is made explicitly part of the plot through Nebula’s (Karen Gillan) character. The heightened dramatization of her inner conflict and growth makes her my favorite character in Endgame.
But the film services its ensemble remarkably well. There are satisfying payoffs to ten-year character arcs and a very sci-fi-TV-series-finale approach to showing familiar characters in unfamiliar situations in a less-than-ideal future. For example, the direction taken with Thor has to be seen to be reckoned with or believed, but it’s clear that Chris Hemsworth’s desire to lean into the character’s comedic stylings has been honored. I won’t spoil which characters are given the most definitive closure, but I find the standout performances in the movie to be Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Karen Gillan (Nebula), and Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton). The secret to the MCU’s success is the character work, and these performances have a particular dynamism here.
I appreciate composer Alan Silvestri’s deployment of established leitmotifs, including his own Captain America theme and Christophe Beck’s Ant-Man theme. The time heist score deftly weaves in Doctor Strange cues just to aurally key into the temporal nature of the shenanigans, even adapting it to decade-appropriate twists. But most importantly, Silvestri’s understated but sweeping music effectively underscores moments of great sensitivity, evoking the same emotional texture he brought to such films as Back to the Future and (though I’m not a fan) Forrest Gump.
Part of the journey is the end, and part of it is the surprise. Yes, at least one familiar character dies. And when they do, another character delivers a final line to them that is an absolutely perfect fit. Avengers: Endgame is filled with moments so warm it’s like being wrapped in a blanket, moments so heart-rending it’s emotionally exhausting, and moments so fist-pumping you’ll get carpal tunnel. All in all, it brings more than satisfying closure to Marvel’s unprecedented era of quality genre storytelling. The first time I saw it I held a couple minor reservations, but the second time it landed even better. I wouldn’t have gone so high at first, but: 10/10.
P.S.:**“DON’T SPOIL THE ENDGAME” SPOILER WARNING**
After Infinity War’s Natasha/Okoye/Wanda vs. Proxima Midnight fight, Endgame tops it with a beautiful moment highlighting the MCU’s female heroes. It’s especially appreciated after killing off Natasha. That larger battle sequence embraces more “comic book-y” imagery, including the unforgettable shot of Steve Rogers facing down Thanos’ entire army, Carol Danvers’ look, and Wanda Maximoff at the most “Scarlet Witch” she’s ever been. Wanda going toe-to-toe with Thanos is a definite highlight of the movie for me.
For those familiar with the lightsaber duel in Star Wars: The Force Awakens… In the spectacular one-on-one fight between Steve Rogers and Thanos, Mjölnir is summoned to Steve’s hand like Luke’s lightsaber is summoned to Rey’s hand. And, somewhat similar to Kylo Ren punching himself in his open wound to bleed out, Steve aggressively fastens his shield strap over an open wound. He’s taking the best of both worlds!
Notice how many characters are motivated by love for a daughter… Clint and Laura Barton; Scott Lang; Tony Stark and Pepper Potts; and of course, Thanos himself.
In the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we see a montage of young women standing up to abusers, challenges on the sporting green, and other trials, as the power of the Slayers is distributed across the world. There’s a similar montage in Captain Marvel, except at different stages of one woman’s life, as she picks herself up after a fall. It’s an empowerment sequence that worked in Buffy, and works here, in a solid superhero movie that seems to point the way forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the closure of Avengers: Endgame.
Under the stern command of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), amnesiac Kree operative Vers (Brie Larson) hunts the shape-shifting Skrulls, led by the mysterious Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). But after a mission goes south, Vers ends up on Planet C-53 (to us, Earth) in 1995. Vers learns that she had a life on Earth as United States Air Force pilot Carol Danvers alongside wing-woman Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and begins to recontextualize not only her life, but also the war she has been a blunt instrument in.
Captain Marvel feels like a touchstone for the MCU post-Endgame. Slower, quieter, not without bombast, balanced between the weird and the grounded, doing something with the villain that’s pretty new to the MCU’s bag of storytelling tricks. There are vital sequences in the film that seem to have taken notes from Avengers: Age of Ultron’s lush and character-building Barton farm scenes (ironic given that Marvel Studios considered cutting the farm from that film).
Appropriately for a relatively unshowy movie, Brie Larson gives an appreciably subtle performance, doing a lot with micro-expressions to show Carol’s confidence, dry humor, and drive for self-discovery. That’s what happens when you cast an Oscar winner as your lead superhero. The film traces a well-thought-out arc for Carol regarding the source of her superpowers. The Kree’s Supreme Intelligence and Starforce urge her toward the unemotional, but it’s one of those Equilibrium situations where the people telling you to not show emotion are hypocrites well versed in anger and condescension.
The film’s approach to an origin story is novel, but may put off some viewers. Early on there’s a lengthy scrub through Carol’s fractured memories that’s purposefully disorienting, yet moored to Carol’s point of view. If directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had chosen to film the story as a traditional origin in chronological order, this sequence is like taking all that and putting it in a blender. This choice to show Carol’s life on Earth only from a remove results in Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), a major mentor figure in Carol’s life, never registering as a fully realized presence in the movie. But on the other hand, it is exactly this approach that enters Captain Marvel’s most powerful moment, the montage of Carol throughout her life standing in unison, into the cinematic vocabulary of the movie.
For much of the film Carol is accompanied by the very welcome mid-1990s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), whose performance is augmented by near-flawless de-aging technology. The de-aging on Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) isn’t as seamless. Maybe it’s the hair? A couple standouts in the cast are Lashana Lynch, who really tugs on the heartstrings in one of the movie’s best scenes, and Ben Mendelsohn. Reunited with his Mississippi Grind directors, Mendelsohn has fun playing with his eternal typecasting as middle management villains (Rogue One, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Robin Hood) and suited baddies (Ready Player One). There’s a great little moment when Korath (Djimon Hounsou), years before appearing as a henchman in Guardians of the Galaxy, is given one line for the briefest but most efficient of insights into his psychology. Jude Law’s rather meat-headed Yon-Rogg doesn’t make much of an impression, however.
Composer Pinar Toprak’s Captain Marvel theme, like “Fanfare for the Common Man” (or Woman, as the case may be), uses majestic wide intervals to create a sense of dramatic rising that doesn’t resolve. This fits the story of Carol learning to embrace the full range of her powers. (This constant rising feeling is also found in Christophe Beck’s Wasp theme, another leitmotif for a female MCU superhero.) The rest of the score is at its most ostentatious when it deploys standard space-age synthesizers for Kree-relevant flourishes. Sanja Milkovic Hays’ costume design, of course taking a cue from the comics, lands a bull’s-eye with the red, blue, and gold Captain Marvel costume, which looks terrific on screen.
Captain Marvel is a Marvel movie in a lower key, entertaining and with solid emotional bedrock. It doesn’t use its mid-1990s setting as a gimmick (but look for a key use of a certain grunge classic), centering on the quiet journey of discovery that unlocks the full potential of Carol Danvers’ powers. While not reaching the heights of top-tier films in the MCU, Captain Marvel decisively points the way forward for a cinematic universe that needs room to grow after infinitely scaled crossovers. 7/10.
At the denouement of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, when James Newton Howard’s Unbreakable theme ushered in a cameo from that earlier film’s lead character, jaws were dropped. “Split is a secret Unbreakable sequel!” people said. More accurately Split is a secret spinoff, and now Glass’ task is to sequelize two very different movies. The somewhat admirable and somewhat mediocre Glass goes in an odd direction, but it’s that very oddness that makes it an interesting auteur artifact.
Since Glass makes very few concessions for those who haven’t seen the previous two movies: David Dunn (Bruce Willis, better in his other recent vigilante movie Death Wish) is a street-level super-strong righter of wrongs (weakness: water), Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) is a mastermind supervillain (weakness: brittle bones), and Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde/The Beast (James McAvoy) flits between 24 personalities plus one brutal animal-human hybrid (weakness: the invocation of his birth name). All three larger-than-life figures end up institutionalized where Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, who will play another mental health professional of questionable competence in a Nurse Ratched TV show) tries to rationalize all of their fantastical skillsets.
At the end of Psycho, there’s a commonly criticized scene of a psychologist laying out in prosaic English his diagnosis of Norman Bates, making plain text what was shadowy subtext before. In his screenplays, Shyamalan seems to love to adhere to this super-schematic device of play-by-play commentary and explication. In Split, Betty Buckley’s character explained at length Crumb’s disorder, and here in Glass, Dr. Staple does much the same (with the occasional leaden clunker of a line). There’s a long scene of Staple debunking each character’s extraordinary abilities that at first feels agonizingly self-defeating until it becomes clear that this is exactly the point.
When he made Unbreakable in 2000, Shyamalan’s “grounded superhero movie” stood out. But in 2019, after Super, Kick-Ass, so many “realistic” takes on superhero conventions, and even riffs on the device of living within a comic book, is Glass late to the party? In ways that I can’t discuss without spoilers, Shyamalan doubles down on the tension between superhero existence and mundane reality; he sets Glass in a world that willfully bends superheroes into the contours of “the real world”. His powered characters are animated by genre, but face the existential threat of realism.
Glass is a very talky film, often to a tiringly didactic extent. But at least the actors show up to play. McAvoy once again deserves a curtain call for his herky-jerky modulation between multiple personalities, sometimes within one take. Anya Taylor-Joy, reprising her “final girl” survivor from Split, convinces with unconvincing material. But Samuel L. Jackson truly owns the screen, especially when given a self-consciously dramatic villain monologue.
With these actors, Shyamalan trusts them and favors the extreme close-up (perhaps a corrective after directing himself as the awkward lead in Praying with Anger – his Glass cameo is also endearingly goofy). He shoots much of the action with Guy Ritchie-style bodycams that play up the prosaic messiness of a real fight and other vérité techniques. The mundane is given a sweeping quality by composer West Dylan Thordson slathering Howard’s Unbreakable leitmotifs all over the score, which is rather cool to hear.
This is an idiosyncratic and sometimes alienating film, but its commitment to finding new ways to flatten superhero tropes into everyday life is notable. It’s not a particularly engaging work – too dramatically inert for that – but while Glass is often as dissonant as a Philip Glass composition, the twist is memorable and blindsiding. Glass is a proudly low-budget genre experiment that’s probably more interesting to talk about than watch.