What makes a hero? A lot of things can; no one thing should. A hero can be a cynical pragmatist, or a morally grey antihero, and stories are often the richer for that. But a persistent, classic mold of the hero is the idealist. In the safe space of a rollicking action movie, heroes can represent idealism that doesn’t have to compromise, and we root for them because of it. Heroes can bear their naivé idealism as a weapon, made all the more powerful by their uncompromising belief in good, and the audience’s knowledge that the real world isn’t like that… but wouldn’t it be nice if it was? Three recent cinematic heroes can all be called naivé for their beliefs and resultant actions, but should also be championed for their idealism: Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) in Wonder Woman. Especially in fiction, naiveté needn’t be pejorative, and these characters are case studies in why.
Ilsa Faust is an MI6 agent who has been assigned by her agency to infiltrate the Syndicate, an international rogue cabal of ex-spies who have turned from espionage to glorified terrorism. It is later revealed that the Syndicate was originally the brainchild of Atlee, Ilsa’s MI6 handler, highlighting with a sharpie the agency’s corruption. That murkiness is contrasted with Ilsa herself. Ilsa is an efficient killer and manipulator, no doubt. But she also naivély believes that agents of allied nations have a responsibility for each other, as she demonstrates when she risks blowing her cover to save IMF agent Ethan Hunt.
Ilsa is vindicated, as she and Ethan expose the Syndicate, foil their plans, and arrest their leader Solomon Lane. Had Ilsa followed MI6’s orders, Ethan would’ve been left at the mercy of the Syndicate. At first, when Ilsa rescues Ethan, she feels like a plot device to free the lead character, but in retrospect, Ilsa’s act defines her character. She doesn’t know Ethan has the outsize power that comes with being the main character. Ilsa simply sees an American agent in danger and saves him without hesitation. She represents a better, less pragmatic, more naivé version of statecraft. And accomplishes the impossible mission because of it.
Rose Tico is a Resistance technician whose home planet was strip-mined by the neo-fascist First Order. At Rose’s first meeting with former Stormtrooper Finn, Rose sees Finn’s actions in The Force Awakens as those of an overly simplistic and idealized hero. Initially, she doesn’t see Finn as a person. Ironically, after Rose reprimands Finn for attempted desertion from the Resistance, she starts them both on a path to true heroism, as he commits to the Resistance that Rose so believes in. Rose’s beliefs are contrasted in the movie with the roguish character DJ, who points out that corrupt weapons brokers sell to the Resistance as well as the First Order. When DJ tells Finn, “It’s all a machine… be free, don’t join”, DJ is using a convenient false equivalency. At a certain point you have to realize, one side kidnaps and brainwashes babies, and the other doesn’t. One side commits willful genocide, and the other doesn’t. And that’s exactly what Finn realizes as he fully commits to the Resistance, thanks to Rose.
Something of an activist, Rose frees fathiers who had been victims of animal cruelty, and disrupts the exploitative luxury of rich war profiteers. She gives hope to downtrodden stable children, igniting their dreams of adventure and heroism. After naivély regarding Finn as a perfect hero, Rose becomes a hero herself throughout the movie. One crucial moment where Rose saves Finn from a useless sacrifice (“That’s how we’re gonna win: not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.”) clarifies the thesis of rebellion in all of Star Wars. In the original trilogy, the Rebels are the good guys defined by opposition to the tyrannical bad guys of the Empire. Rose’s backstory, and her inspiration to downtrodden slaves at Canto Bight, provide insight into not only what Rebels fight against, but what they fight for. Rose’s sentiment is idealistic and in some situations naivé, but Star Wars supports it. When Poe Dameron asks Lando Calrissian how the Rebels toppled the Empire, he says, “We had each other. That’s how we won.” This type of idealism drives a fairy tale like Star Wars.
In her solo movie, Wonder Woman/Diana Prince emerges from the paradise island Themyscira to find a world embroiled in “the Great War” (World War I). Naivély, Diana fervently believes that the only explanation for this grand-scale conflict is manipulation from the rogue god of war, Ares. This is the kind of great idea that can provide the engine for an entire screenplay, since the audience knows the moment will come when Diana’s naiveté will crash into the realization that humanity doesn’t need divine influence to sacrifice an entire generation in the trenches over lines on a map. But when it comes to the audience’s relationship with Diana’s naiveté, viewers can consider themselves more worldly and knowledgeable, but also envy Diana’s worldview. How wonderful would it be if violent conflict could only be explained as outside manipulation? Diana’s naiveté is objectively wrong, but there’s also power to it, right alongside her literal superpowers.
When Diana affirms her beliefs in a final battle with Ares, this manifests as a quantifiable power-up, allowing Diana to break free of shrapnel bondage. She says, “I believe in love”, to which Ares responds, “Then – I shall – DESTROY YOU!” It’s a truly absurd and cheesy moment, but one that speaks to the power of naivé idealism. “I believe in love” is a bold choice for an action movie one-liner, and stands out because of it.
Ilsa, Rose, and Diana are very different characters. Where Ilsa can manipulate with the most elite of spies, Rose and Diana are unfailingly earnest. What they share are ideals, some of which are impractical and unworldly. But in heroic stories, storytellers have license to let that very naiveté win the movie. Ilsa Faust, Rose Tico, and Wonder Woman are all characters not diminished, but enhanced, by a dose of naiveté.
First, a couple honorable mentions: Ariel Saves Eric and Commits to Her Choice, from The Little Mermaid. After a storm ravages Prince Eric’s ship, Ariel rescues him and takes him ashore. After he comes to and his men retrieve him, Ariel hides herself and reprises her “I want” song, “Part of Your World”, climaxing in the stunning moment when a wave crashes against the rock behind her. In this moment, she definitively makes a choice that was just a notion before, to become part of the human world. I also have to mention The Princesses Save Ralph in Ralph Breaks the Internet. In a sublime moment of fanservice, the Disney Princesses combine their skills to break Ralph’s fall. In terms of pure crowd-pleasing catnip it’s spectacular, but I don’t think it’s fair to run that moment in competition.
5) Tiana Breaks Dr. Facilier’s Talisman, The Princess and the Frog
While the decision to turn Tiana into a frog for much of the film’s runtime feels ill-considered, it is in frog form that Tiana shows the strength of her character. After Dr. Facilier murders Ray, he turns his attention to Tiana. Facilier tempts her with a vision of her dream restaurant up, running, and thriving, but she rejects his manipulation and shatters the McGuffin he’s so desperate for. This unleashes a phantasmagoric sequence, where Facilier’s “friends from the other side” come to collect his soul. And besides, Tiana knows she must earn her restaurant’s success through hard work, not by an ill-gotten shortcut.
4) Ice Palace for One, Frozen
Elsa inherited a castle from her parents. But her existence there was marked by repression of her true self. So when the people of Arendelle and its political peers see Elsa’s magical ice powers and react in fear to that which they don’t understand, Elsa sings an anthem of self-expression while building a palace entirely of herself. As “Let it Go” catapults emotion across the screen like a trebuchet flinging snowballs, Disney’s animators give us the unforgettable spectacle of Elsa creating an entire palace, culminating in Elsa magically manifesting her iconic ice dress.
3) Mulan Disarms Shan Yu, Mulan
After single-handedly crippling the Hun army (a potential entrant on this list all on its own), Mulan is outed as a woman but still warns of Shan Yu’s infiltration of the Imperial City. After Shan Yu’s sheer advantage in size overwhelms Li Shang and Mulan in turn, her fight with the Hun leader moves to a rooftop. Mulan, desperate for a weapon, produces the fan she brandished earlier in the movie when dressing up for a matchmaker. After Shan Yu taunts, “It looks like you’re out of ideas”, Mulan disarms him with the fan and takes his sword in an efficient punch-the-air moment.
2) Anna Sacrifices Her Kingdom to Save it, Frozen 2
For Anna, all hope is lost. She’s auditioned for Les Miserables with her song “The Next Right Thing”, wherein despite knowing her sister and Olaf are dead, she resolves to carry on and do what’s right, no matter how painful. So she wakes up the Earth Giants to destroy the Northuldra dam, the monument to Arendelle’s colonialist sin. Knowing the flood will destroy Arendelle, Anna invokes her royal authority to enlist the help of Mattias and his soldiers in taking desperate action. To be a Princess of a Kingdom is to understand the responsibility of power, and Anna’s decision to proactively confront the shameful history of Arendelle is a stunning display of leadership.
1) Moana Redeems Te Ka, Moana
For the length of the movie up to this point, Moana has believed that Maui, who stole the heart of Te Fiti, must restore it. But the power to do so has always been hers, as she has the insight to see through the corrupted form of Te Ka to the goddess underneath. So Moana parts the sea, sings to the kaiju-size fire demon, and saves it. In practice, this is mythic, poignant stuff supported by astonishing visuals. It gives me goosebumps every time. “They have stolen the heart from inside you / But this does not define you”, Moana sings to the molten monolith, before restoring that heart and saving the entire ocean from magical infection. A badass power move if ever I saw one.
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.
While every year sees its fair share of event tentpole movies, the stars aligned in 2019 for this superfan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Frozen, and Star Wars. Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in particular positioned themselves as culminations of years, or decades, of storytelling (albeit with different levels of success). The point being, Disney had a firm monopoly on my most anticipated of the year in 2019. Not so in 2020, as the playing field is more evened out. Let’s see what’s coming down the pike.
Before my top 10, some honorable mentions. Possessor (an elevated Canadian b-movie sci-fi horror from the son of David Cronenberg, with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Andrea Riseborough, and Sean Bean); Jungle Cruise (Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson amidst some iconography strikingly close to the Disneyland ride); Black Widow (in which Scarlett Johansson finally gets the spotlight in the MCU, also featuring Florence Pugh and Rachel Weisz, in an intriguing interstitial setting between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War); West Side Story (longtime passion project for Steven Spielberg, as he directs his first musical… remember “Anything Goes” in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?); The Personal History of David Copperfield (on the list purely because of writer-director Armando Iannucci, late of my 2018 Best Picture winner The Death of Stalin); The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin’s return to the big screen following Molly’s Game) and In the Heights (the first cinematic adaptation of a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, as we all await the eventual Hamilton picture).
10) Rurouni Kenshin: The Final Chapter
Five years ago, three excellent films adapted from my favorite comic series Rurouni Kenshin were released in Japan. And now, the final act of the quasi-historical samurai manga, never before adapted even in the series’ animated incarnation, are coming to cinematic fruition in two parts. This “Enishi arc” has the potential to emotionally send off a quietly masterful five-film saga.
A new high-concept film from Christopher Nolan is not to be underestimated. The trailer implies a premise based on localized time distortions, a concept familiar in SF television but given a blockbuster budget here. There are even rumors that Tenet somehow ties in with Inception, an intriguing development despite my not being a big fan of that movie. May feature returning Nolan repertory player Kenneth Branagh as some type of underworld figure, so I’m hoping he bathes in the river of ham.
8) Color Out of Space
While a movie like Re-Animator delivers fun chills, truly classic Lovecraftian horror depicts an ineffable fear of the unknown. This Nicolas Cage vehicle has the potential to deliver fascinating cinematography-driven horror. (And Mandy recently saw Cage against the backdrop of crazy swirling colors saturing a whole movie.)
7) The Eternals
A Guardians of the Galaxy-esque risk for Marvel Studios, right down to revolving around cosmic characters. The Eternals has the potential to go properly weird and spectacular, which is very exciting indeed in a bit of a transitional year for the MCU. An impressive ensemble cast (among others, Angeline Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, and Salma Hayek, with Gemma Chan strangely playing a second character in this universe) will work to ground the space opera.
6) Death on the Nile
I look forward to Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile, follow-up to 2017’s excellent Poirot adaptation Murder on the Orient Express, not necessarily from any expectation of it being one of the year’s best, but on the premise of the film being a fun and cozily rewatchable mystery. Branagh’s Poirot is a likable and eccentric hero, but it was the emotion of Orient Express that often elevated the movie. Hopefully, Nile will find a similar “in” to give it an extra punch, but even failing that, it should be a reliable whodunnit confection.
5) No Time to Die
I am not a fan of the previous James Bond film, Spectre, and equally, it seemed there was a sentiment from star Daniel Craig that the result could’ve been better. So if anything, I’m surprised how much this new installment leans into a continuation of Spectre plot threads. But fresh blood behind the scenes, and a solid first trailer, point the way toward a more full-throated and rock ‘n’ roll Bond movie.
4) Fast & Furious 9
One of the most enjoyable action franchises running, Fast and Furious has been going from strength to strength, at least in the main series. Curiously, for a movie coming out in the spring, we don’t know much about this eighth sequel, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the release gets pushed back as it starts to come together. 9 also promises to be an odd one; Jordana Brewster is coming back as Mia Toretto, so they’ll have to address the Paul Walker elephant in the room, and Helen Mirren is set to return as Magdalene Shaw, without any of her fan-favorite children in tow. In any case, I await the fist-pumpingly absurd moments I know the movie will deliver.
3) Last Night in Soho
One of the most talented working directors, Edgar Wright looks to be changing his pace yet again for Last Night in Soho, a genre-bleeding cocktail of horror and time travel (maybe?). Details are intentionally opaque, and the film might well see Wright in a spot where he can’t rely on his snappy editing style. With a cast including heavy-hitting young talent such as Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, and Thomasin McKenzie, I have every confidence Wright will surprise us with this one.
2) Wonder Woman 1984
We are all constant consumers of the movie trailer. So it stands out all the more when a film has a genuinely excellent trailer, and Wonder Woman 1984 has an excellent example of the form. I’m sure director Patty Jenkins has been given license to go a little weird, and craft a sequel awash in color to sharply contrast the World War I setting of the first Wonder Woman. Even with myriad movies milking 1980s nostalgia, the setting looks fun, and I am so here for Kristen Wiig as a comic book movie villain/foil.
With Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve has staked himself as a master of a certain type of granular, spectacular, and hauntingly beautiful science fiction cinema. Dune continuing in the vein of those two films is an exciting prospect indeed. With an outsized ensemble including Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, and Javier Bardem, Dune is set to mesmerize just as David Lynch’s maligned adaptation did.
***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.
The MCU is, among other things, an action franchise, so it follows that fighting words lead to literal fighting. An on-screen fight is action and acceleration, yes, but here’s the thing: great fights are also storytelling. Revealing character through action; audience investment in the conflict beyond pitting avatars for good and evil against each other; dialogue surrounding a fight giving it greater impact. These factors, in conjunction with dynamic choreography, elevate exceptional examples of the form. But equally, some fights’ pendulums swing more one way than others and I can’t expect every fight to develop character, emotion, and spectacle. We’re concerned here with one-on-one fights specifically, not two-on-ones or group skirmishes, which could have their own list. ***Full spoilers for all MCU movies through Avengers: Endgame***.
A couple honorable mentions: A fight that’s good but just too short for serious consideration is Sam Wilson (Falcon) vs. The Winter Soldier, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. A fight that’s good but just too one-sided for serious consideration is Clint Barton (Hawkeye) vs. Vision, Captain America: Civil War.
10) Tony Stark (Iron Man) vs. Thor, The Avengers
This is one of the premier examples of the “what if two superheroes fought?” mode of one-on-one fights (see also, Scott Lang vs. Sam Wilson in Ant-Man). It’s a fun balance of powerset showcasing and old-fashioned wrassling. Also not the last time a headbutt is used for a mid-fight laugh (see Thanos trying to headbutt Carol in Avengers: Endgame). What taints this fight for me is that it is extremely lacking in the character department. Tony and Thor are fighting for pretty specious reasons, and when Steve Rogers stops the fight, Thor brings Mjolnir down on him. If that shield wasn’t made of vibranium, Steve would be dead – and as the movie goes on, that doesn’t seem to faze anyone.
9) T’Challa vs. N’Jadaka, Black Panther
A ferociously if chaotically choreographed fight, this one scores very high in the emotional stakes department. The fight is solid, but it’s elevated by some quality pre-fight trash-talk from N’Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger (though not as excellent an example of the form as M’Baku’s monologue before the movie’s other challenge fight), and the operatic drama at play here. The rise and fall of Kings, made violently intimate. The challenge fights in Black Panther stand out because, by design, they’re between depowered/unpowered people who are vulnerably attired (read: shirtless). The blade cuts that T’Challa and N’Jadaka get on each other are, to a PG-13 extent, visceral (not like when Clint Barton slashes Akihiko in Endgame and you can’t see blood from the wound), but the true star of the show is Michael B. Jordan’s dominating performance. “Is this your King?”
Favorite moment: N’Jadaka calling would-be-intervener Zuri Uncle James as he kills him.
8) Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) vs. Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Avengers: Endgame
This is a brief one, but as the culmination of one of the MCU’s strongest bonds of friendship, every move is intensely emotional. Both Natasha and Clint are fighting to sacrifice themselves, which is almost a farcical setup but in practice becomes heart wrenching. And while this is a compact fight, it nonetheless briefly displays each character’s powerset. Natasha uses her stingers and grappling hook. Clint uses his bow and arrow; the only thing missing is his sword. And the storytelling acrobatics going on here show that by successfully sacrificing herself, Natasha wins this fight.
7) Thor vs. The Hulk, Thor: Ragnarok
The build-up might be this fight’s biggest strength and weakness. Big event status, filmed in IMAX, biggest crowd since the Quidditch world cup, sweeping score flourishes from Mark Mothersbaugh, the famous “friend from work” line. The hype is certainly there, if anything a little overdone. In the fight’s favor are a cartoonish quality, and the spectacle of the two most powerful original Avengers wielding comically oversized weapons and throwing each other across an arena. Adding flavor is Loki’s range of emotions watching the proceedings. The fight is fun but long, and some X factor is missing to really take it to the next level.
Favorite moment: The Avengers: Age of Ultron callback, complete with Brian Tyler’s score, with Thor trying to get Bruce Banner to emerge with the “sun’s gettin’ real low” lullaby.
6) Tony Stark (Iron Man) vs. Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War
Tony makes full use of the bleeding-edge nanotechnology in his Mark 50 suit, all for a drop of blood. With pile drivers, shields, and rockets, Tony’s full arsenal proves insufficient to stop Thanos. The choreography introduces us to all kinds of new Iron Man suit functions but it’s all done quite flowingly. There are also shades of Iron Man 3 when the nanotech starts failing and Tony is left painfully vulnerable with the suit only partially covering his body. After a brutal stabbing by Thanos, Tony is saved by Strange and the rest is history.
5) Stephen Strange (Doctor Strange) vs. Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War
A full-on wizards’ duel: Strange’s magic vs. Thanos’ infinity stone shenanigans. The fight is low on character but high on innovation. Doctor Strange manifesting additional arms and creating multiple versions of himself is great. I like the little touches, like when Thanos uses the Reality Stone to unnaturally collapse the distance between him and Strange. (When you think about it, that’s ironically the type of reality manipulation Kaecilius and the Ancient One can do in the Doctor Strange film, because they take power from the Dark Dimension.) It’s just a magic-based fight that takes full advantage of that.
Favorite moment: Thanos uses the Space Stone to send a Mirror Dimension shard vortex toward Strange and he turns it into butterflies.
4) Wanda Maximoff vs. Thanos, Avengers: Endgame
A delightful fight. Wanda starts by telekinetically throwing big chunks of debris, and after some energy-assisted hand-to-hand fighting (like when she fought Proxima Midnight in Infinity War), she gets Thanos in a really tight bind that’s only broken when his ship starts bombarding the battlefield. While not one-sided, she was definitely winning. This calls back to Infinity War when Wanda, with one hand, could hold back a Thanos wielding five infinity stones. Also, I realize that Wanda kind of rules at one-liners. Here, of course, “You took everything from me” and “You will”. After losing her brother, Wanda rips out Ultron’s heart and says, “It felt like that”. To Vision, “I can’t control their fear. Only my own.” To Tony, “You locked me in my room”. To Clint, “You were pulling your punches.” The only exception, which becomes comical in contrast to the others, is when she says to Corvus Glaive, simply, “Hands off”. Anyways, this is a comic-book-y fight that keeps the momentum of the Battle of Earth going beautifully.
Favorite moment: Wanda’s little flicking gesture to start dismantling Thanos’ armor.
3) Steve Rogers (Captain America) vs. Thanos, Avengers: Endgame
Speaking of that Battle of Earth… It begins on the big applause moment. Steve summons Mjolnir, and the crowd goes wild (reminiscent of Rey summoning the lightsaber in Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Earlier during the three-on-one fight against Thanos, Steve uses the same flying kick he used to take down Batroc in Winter Soldier. But armed with Mjolnir and his vibranium shield, his powerset changes; in rapid succession, he uses almost every conceivable God of Thunder move with Mjolnir in a marvel of semi-digital choreography. You get lightning strikes, flying uppercuts, throwing the hammer into the shield for maximum sonic disruption. The fight must also account for the height difference between the two characters (like how Thor uses Mjolnir against the very tall Surtur in Thor: Ragnarok), so there’s an extra layer of creative choreography there. And you can’t beat the emotional payoff, as Thanos breaks the shield, leading directly into the one man vs. an army shot, and the portals sequence. All in all, it’s the crowd-pleaser that keeps on giving.
2) Steve Rogers vs. The Winter Soldier, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
On a pure choreography level, the best traditional one-on-one fight in the MCU. The movement is beautiful and logical; the knife flips, the resounding punctuation of metal arm-on-shield. Both evenly-matched combatants get more tired as it goes on, until the fight demonstrates that it’s no slouch in the character department either, with the big unmasking moment. Bucky is alive, Steve is paralyzed (a trait that continues in Civil War and Endgame), and his friends Sam and Natasha bail him out of the fight.
Favorite moment: Steve’s flying knee kick of the Winter Soldier into the side of the van.
1) Gamora vs. Nebula, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Not a traditional fight, to be sure, but an absolutely killer landmark of character and emotion for one of the key relationships in the MCU. This is action as delivery system for therapy. In this particular face-off on Ego’s Planet, something mysterious happens where the CGI, and the very exaggerated, external things the two sisters are doing become the perfect embodiment of what they’re feeling. When Nebula jaggedly crashes her ship through the cave just to desperately close the distance between her and her hated sibling, all those pixels are in service of something real. When Gamora fires the absurdly large mounted gun, it’s a metaphor for what people feel like they want to do to their family members in moments of frustration. The audience feels this on a primal level. The actual fisticuffs are brief, but this family squabble stands as a terrific integration of action and character work.
A bucket of pig’s blood falling on the innocent Prom Queen. A tragic death punctuated by endless streaming fireworks in the sky. A daring, near-silent heist of CIA headquarters. These are all images and setpieces orchestrated by Brian De Palma, a “Film Brat” director of the 1970s (think Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola), and one of the most dazzling technicians in film history. His use of split diopter, split-screen sequences, voyeuristic tracking shots, and montage is nothing short of thrilling when firing on all cylinders.
Exhibit A: Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a delightfully over-the-top earworm musical satanic bug-eyed spectacle, and a contemporary rock opera update of the “Phantom of the Opera” story. The film is a Technicolor dream/nightmare impeccably constructed to shock, amuse, and entertain, with catchy tunes sure to invade the viewer’s brain. The movie remixes the glammy shock rock of Alice Cooper, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Caligari-esque German expressionism, exceptional sound design, and pre-KISS black and white stage makeup to dizzying effect. Its tale of sleazy, pastel-colored rock musician backstabbing is delirious fun, and feels like what Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls should have been. Winslow Leach (William Finley) is the wronged rock musician who is horribly burned and dons the Phantom mask, and like everyone else in the movie, gives it his all and then some. All respect to the flickering shade of Lon Chaney, and the dulcet tones of Claude Rains, Emmy Rossum, and Gerard Butler, but Phantom of the Paradise blows straighter adaptations of the Phantom story out of the water, but not before electrocuting them.
Exhibit B: Blow Out (1981), a sober, downbeat, and captivating political thriller that is also filled with De Palma’s signature craftsmanship. John Travolta stars as a sound editor at a B-movie studio (close to De Palma’s heart, I’m sure) who unwittingly witnesses and records the fatal car crash of the leading U.S. presidential candidate. As a wider conspiracy unfolds, De Palma unleashes the full range of his talent. Montages play out the crash as the fateful tape is rewound and played over and over, Travolta and an owl are filmed strikingly in contrast through split diopter, and on the scuzzy streets of Philadelphia, John Lithgow’s terrifying government asset is right at home.
The two films are definitive masterpieces of pulp, and for much of his career, De Palma indeed churned out some high-grade pulp matter. Sisters (1973) stars Margot Kidder (RIP) as one half of a Siamese killing machine. The Fury (1978) ends with a human explosion so spectacular De Palma gives it to the audience from multiple angles and in slow motion. The masterful Dressed to Kill (1980) features Michael Caine in drag in a scary-as-hell elevator kill and museum chase, an almost exploitative Hitchcockian exercise. Snake Eyes (1998) lets Nicolas Cage off his leash in Atlantic City for a crazy movie-star performance; at first he seems like the sleaziest guy in the room (or stadium) but he ends up the straight man charged with uncovering a conspiracy.
I haven’t loved everything De Palma has done, however. Scarface (1983) finds De Palma at his most languorous and tepid, ambling through an overlong history stretched too thin that laughs in the face of narrative cohesion. Al Pacino’s Tony Montana characterization is that Joe Pesci in Goodfellas thing I hate, where anything and everything sets him off. Yes, the ending is legendary. Maybe fast-forward to that. And better yet, watch Carlito’s Way (1993), which finds Pacino back as a mobster looking to get out of that life. Pacino and De Palma’s reteaming for that movie makes it a soulful companion piece to the lazy excess of Scarface, and this time around Pacino is given some meat to chew on and turns in a thoughtful, complete performance.
As time went on, De Palma mounted muscular adaptations of existing properties The Untouchables (1987) and Mission: Impossible (1996). With the former, De Palma gave us a sprawling cops-and-robbers epic, an unforgettable showdown in a train station, and a rare tolerable David Mamet movie. With the latter, De Palma gave us a twisty tale of espionage that set the stage for one of our greatest action franchises. Mission to Mars (2000) is average, rote science fiction that takes a big Close Encounters of the Third Kind/The Abyss turn for the finale, which still proves magical.
The women in Brian De Palma films are too often just victims, particularly in Dressed to Kill and Blow Out (there the female lead is played by his then-wife, Nancy Allen). Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface is especially tokenistic. On the more positive side, there’s a sweet give-and-take flirtation between Pacino and Penelope Ann Miller in Carlito’s Way, and Jessica Harper’s Phoenix in Phantom of the Paradise is formidable. But one film stands out as acutely representing female experience.
Carrie (1976) feels extremely rich thematically as a definitive horror take on female puberty, and features painfully real performances from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. It builds the most exquisite tension, culminating in the show-stopping prom sequence, with the bucket of pig’s blood leading to a jaw-dropping climax of bloody revenge. Carrie feels perfect, and it holds the title for my favorite horror movie. The recent remake nailed the casting (Chloë Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Judy Greer) but otherwise just goes through the motions.
Brian De Palma’s most recent effort, Passion (2012), only has one sequence that (sort of) catches fire, and doesn’t live up to the premise of Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace in an erotic thriller. I put De Palma’s upcoming crime movie Domino (2018) in my list of most anticipated movies of this year because he is simply one of the greats. De Palma has to his credit been very open about the struggle of older filmmakers to recapture the creativity of their youths, but hopefully Domino is some type of return to form. He’s got an interesting core cast at least (Guy Pearce, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Carice van Houten from Game of Thrones). But even if it ends up worse than The Snowman, Brian De Palma has left an untouchable legacy, and his films will continue to inspire and shock forever.
Contains full spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
“Something inside me has always been there… but now it’s awake.” – Star Wars
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the longest film in the franchise, appropriately has a lot on its mind, but also uses its cinematic flair for an exciting popcorn ride. More than just a good eighth installment, it’s the type of sequel that reignites the appeal of what came before. It does this by giving itself wholly over to the core appeal of Star Wars, while expanding our understanding of those basic elements.
What’s quickly apparent is that The Last Jedi puts the Wars in Star Wars. Never before have detailed military tactics and big picture strategic chess moves played such a big part in these films. Attention is paid to the interacting dynamics of shields, propulsion, maneuverability, fuel reserves, and the role of fighters versus the role of bombers. When Paige Tico desperately tries to reach a detonator (an easy ask of a Force user), it feels like something out of World War II. Forget Rogue One, this is a star war. So, the core martial aspect of Star Wars is laid out with clear stakes and a greater detail than ever before.
This film’s portrayal of the heroic Resistance actually stands somewhat in contrast to the other Disney-era films. Whereas The Force Awakens reframed the Rebellion vs. Empire conflict into the Resistance vs. First Order because that underdog setup is just what works, The Last Jedi leans into that echo hard. With their backs constantly up against the wall, the Resistance is simply referred to as the Rebellion several times (the literalization of this being when the Resistance sets up shop with analog Rebel Alliance technology on Crait, including barely-hanging-together ski speeders), and the alt-right, neo-Nazi, fragile-egoed white supremacist-type character Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young man trying to live up to the glory of the old Empire. Rogue One was all about complicating the central conflict, with corruption in the Rebellion facing off against a long-suffering middle manager in the form of Krennic, but The Last Jedi decisively returns to simplicity while also making the conflict dramatically engaging. We know the black-and-white, good vs. evil storytelling of the original Star Wars – here it is again, familiar and reinvented at the same time.
On a related note, The Last Jedi further defines the spirit of rebellion, this idea we’ve cheered for ever since an overly excited Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) asked C-3PO if he knew of the rebellion against the Empire. As the trip to casino city Canto Bight illustrates, rebellion is not just about fighting “evil”, but injustice. And this is why Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is so vital to the movie.
An introverted gearhead with a passionate sense of right and wrong and an affinity for the underdog, Rose converts Finn (John Boyega) to the Cause. Because before, Finn was swept up in events for the sake of his friends, having “imprinted” on Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) as the first people to treat him like one. Arriving at Canto Bight, Finn learns from Rose that you don’t have to wear First Order jackboots to be one of the bad guys. The menagerie of wining and dining war profiteers make this a very clear class fable – when Rose shows an abused stableboy that her ring carries the symbol of the Rebellion, we are given a rare and welcome indication of just who the good guys are fighting for.
Releasing the exploited fathiers at Canto Bight is save-the-cat screenwriting at its best. Rose’s purity of heart contrasts other characters’ cynicism very well, but there is bitterness and pain as well. She has the line of the movie (hell, a contender for line of the saga) when she says, “I wish I could put my fist through this lousy, beautiful town”. Rose wears her heart, and the symbol of rebellion, on her sleeve.
Also at the nexus of Canto Bight, the greying of the central galactic conflict is represented by DJ (Benicio del Toro). This free agent neither good nor evil (“It’s all a machine – don’t join”) brings up some valid points but is ultimately portrayed as a villain. His selfishness is instructive for Finn, who has his hero moment, motivated positively by Rose and negatively by DJ, to proudly call himself “Rebel scum”. Now we feel even more what this means.
Even in small ways, central tenets of Star Wars are reinforced. When Rey reaches out with her feelings we are given a poetic Terrence Malick-ian montage that portrays the Force more completely than before. And speaking of the Force, let’s talk about our hero and villain, so dangerously strong with it. The teasing of Rey to the dark and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to the light could not have been handled any better. The cinematic device of their long-distance Force phone calls they want to hide from dad (Luke and Snoke) is genius, allowing true connection. After the fantastic dark side mirror cave sequence, Rey confides her deep-seated need to see her parents not to Luke but to Kylo Ren.
But Rey and Kylo Ren each end the film disappointed in the other. Rey correctly foresaw Kylo Ren kill Snoke and took this as evidence of light, and Kylo Ren thought that when he revealed the truth of Rey’s parents to her she would join him, but each was mistaken. It’s that old chestnut, “from a certain point of view”. (We even get a Rashomon-style triptych story of the night Kylo Ren destroyed Luke’s old Jedi temple, so the tradition of Star Wars referencing Kurosawa is still alive.) What we have here with Rey and Ren’s kind of dance is a fresh take on that familiar Star Wars trope of “turning” people to the light or dark side. We can experience that thrilling glimmer of hope for Kylo Ren as he kills Snoke – and the language of Star Wars says, that’s it, he’s on the side of good now – but it’s not that simple. Again, the same, but richer.
It should be noted that this part of the movie contains one of the most badass action sequences in the franchise, the two-on-eight Praetorian guard dustup. (Rey and Kylo Ren each briefly use the other’s lightsaber, which has shades of Obi-Wan using Asajj Ventress’ red lightsaber in The Clone Wars TV series.) And after the dust settles, we learn that Rey’s parents were, in the grand scheme of things, nobodies. This is how Star Wars grows beyond the Skywalker Saga, beyond the idea of dynasty. If a powerful Force user, but more pertinently a great hero, can come from the humblest beginnings, there is hope for the galaxy.
So Kylo Ren takes over as Supreme Leader of the First Order, and if you thought his temper tantrums were bad before… He comes face-to-face with Luke, and Kylo Ren figures after Han Solo and Snoke, it’s time to kill the final father figure, the one who failed him all those years ago. When he and Luke face off, they don’t need to trade blows and hack off each other’s limbs for it to be thrilling. The wide-shot of their samurai standoff is stunningly beautiful, Luke a picture of determined calm and Ren a coiled lion in a cage. It turns out that Luke is projecting his image through the Force, and it’s vital that he’s not there; Kylo Ren can never get the satisfaction of finally killing this man he hates. Luke projects himself as a younger man, exactly as Kylo Ren remembers him. That’s salt in the wound. If Luke had been there and been killed by Ren, that’s a semblance of closure. As it is, Luke looks up at twin suns and becomes one with the Force, Rey finds her place with friends and fugitive heroes, and Kylo Ren has all the power he could want except the means to be rid of his pain.
Over and over The Last Jedi recontextualizes but also celebrates the building blocks of Star Wars. Far from a deconstruction, it adds vital detail and nuance to the elements that have always been there. But beyond all the themes and deep character work, just look at the moment when the Millennium Falcon takes a hard turn into the crystalline underground on Crait and John Williams deploys his classic dogfighting music. The Last Jedi shows an instinctive understanding of Star Wars in that instant. It clicks with our lizard brains. So The Last Jedi is also funny, exciting, pretty-looking blockbuster entertainment. If it wasn’t that, it just wouldn’t be good Star Wars.
Frozen spoilers follow.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’ songs in the animated smash-hit Frozen are great. On the face of it, they’re great because they’re catchy and fun as hell to sing along with. But more than that, these songs are complex. I don’t mean technically or musically complicated – they hide layers that only become clear once the audience is aware of the complete picture of the film’s story. They work in the moment in their immediately apparent modes, but each takes on a new resonance when considering the broader story. In most Disney musicals, the songs are straightforward; what you hear is what you get. Not so here – this is multi-level storytelling, so thrilling when pulled off well. So what’s going on beneath the surface of this story of two regal sisters and the nature of true love?
Let’s start by looking at Frozen’s two traditional ‘I Want’ songs, Anna’s “For the First Time in Forever” and Olaf’s “In Summer”. Anna sings of her perfect romantic night with a sophisticated stranger now that Arendelle’s gates are opening, and throughout she mimes the poses of women in paintings. She wants a storybook romance. For the first time in forever / I’m getting what I’m dreaming of / A chance to change my lonely world / A chance to find true love. And so, even as we’re caught up in the beauty of the song, we’re also being told exactly how she’s exposing herself to Hans’ manipulation. And sure enough, she chooses to marry a man she has just met. Meanwhile, Olaf the guileless snowman spends a whole song wishing for the thing that the other characters know will kill him.
Anna and Olaf achieve their basic goals, but not in the way they intended. Anna ends up neither married nor engaged, and furthermore enters into a relationship not with the charismatic fairy tale prince Hans, but with the humble and antisocial snow merchant Kristoff (whose existence outside the castle was thus outside anything she knew her whole life). Olaf sees summer, but would have melted there and died if not for Elsa’s intervention. Life gave Anna and Olaf not what they wanted, but what they didn’t know they wanted, which is a beautiful endpoint to an arc.
And I stress, this isn’t how ‘I Want’ musical storytelling usually goes. Quasimodo wants only a mundane life “Out there”, and gets it by movie’s end, vindicated by his friends. Ariel wishes simply to be “Part of Your World”, and has entered the human world as the credits roll. Moana burns to voyage on the ocean and see “How Far I’ll Go”, and, you guessed it, embarks on a grand seafaring adventure. The desire is fulfilled, like an empty box being filled with a checkmark. In Anna and Olaf’s cases, they discover how much stranger life is than they thought, through realizing that what they wanted was in a lot of ways ignorant and naïve, but no less worthy of respect. This stuff is mature. The ‘I Want’ pieces are tinged with the bittersweet, even if that’s only noticeable to the viewer. It makes the story more human.
In the reprise of “For the First Time in Forever”, sisters Anna and Elsa have a roller coaster of a communication breakdown. There is misunderstanding on both sides, and the conflict is on the surface. Whereas in the case of Anna and Hans’ duet “Love is an Open Door”, it only comes out in retrospect how the two singing partners are at cross-purposes. The conflict is veiled and obscure, but with hindsight adds a layer to the song and its function. And so every real-life couple who duets the song has to think in the back of their minds, “Does one of us have an agenda here?”
What further complicates the song is Hans’ enigmatic character. A usurper of the crown he is, but the film concisely portrays Hans as a natural leader and an effective monarch… who happens to use evil means to gain a throne. He’s not just the one-dimensional villain; left to his own devices, he would have been a decent king. But his path to power is ruthless. He wants it too much. To him, the opportunity for power, the open door, is a lovely thing indeed. You can subtly see this in the song.
Anna: But with you –
Hans: But with you – I found my place.
Anna: I see your face.
Both: … and it’s nothing like I’ve ever known before!
In the same moment: Anna focuses on Hans. Hans focuses on his position. And yet the clumsy romantic and the charming conspirator still harmonize beautifully in song. “Love is an Open Door” is an obvious but significant example of a song taking on multiple dimensions with the benefit of hindsight.
And this brings us to the biggest showstopper of them all, Elsa’s “Let it Go”. Not so much an ‘I Want’ number, it’s more like a ‘Maybe I Don’t Want the Thing Everyone Said I Should Want’ song. Its placement in the movie also serves as the audience’s first meaningful insight into Elsa’s character, as this literal ice queen had predominantly been seen through Anna’s eyes. Taking on this burden, “Let it Go” makes an interesting choice: it’s achingly personal, but also universal. Anyone who’s ever been made to feel different, or repressed, or closeted, has an empowering anthem in “Let it Go”. Let it go, let it go / And I’ll rise like the break of dawn / Let it go, let it go / That perfect girl is gone.
Still, some have said that this über-popular karaoke staple is about abandoning responsibility, an act of selfishness. While on one level that’s true, I think of the song as representing something that is not only worthy of championing but also ties in perfectly with Frozen songs having multilayered themes. You as the viewer can project any baggage of your own onto “Let it Go”, as long as you’re breaking free of it; it does have a plot function of abandoning the queenship; but above all, it represents Elsa’s right to make her own mistakes.
As a musical, Frozen is unique, in that the film deploys its songs without being overwhelmed by them. The songs are mostly confined to the first act, setting them up to be subverted or further toggled with later. (The songs are frontloaded. First act: four full songs and a prologue. Second act: two full songs, a ditty, and a reprise. Third act: no songs.) “Frozen Heart” is a Greek chorus that foreshadows the larger story. “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” begins in childhood innocence and ends in suffocating depression. “For the First Time in Forever” is a joyous ‘I Want’ song that nonetheless sets up exactly how to take advantage of Anna. “Love is an Open Door” is a romantic duet and a clockwork manipulation. “Let it Go” is a swirling anthem that on some level is about shutting out the world. “In Summer” is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ song with a singer who’s none the wiser. These are significant choices, the choices of a film that’s going for your brain just as it’s going for your heart and your funny bone. Frozen is a phenomenon, a cultural touchstone, a subversive 21st Century fairy tale. I think it happens to be an ironclad masterpiece, with a nonetheless humble scope, where there are always new things to discover. And the Lopez’ songs are music that keeps on giving.