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.
Disney’s live-action division has been rolling out remakes of beloved animated films for the past several years. The Mouse House sees dollar signs, and oftentimes the public greets the news of a newfangled remake with a roll of the eyes. But when diving into these films proper, an interesting narrative that’s downright chronological emerges: Disney has gotten better at these remakes. But why is that the case? Let me show why quite recently all hope seemed lost, and how things have turned around so now the future looks very bright indeed.
The Case Against
In 2010, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland hit theaters. So how does the 1951 original hold up? Well, it’s an insane animated fantasia depicting an anarchic land where anyone can be a cabbage or a king. Filled with great characters, it inadvertently invented the Shrek dance party finale, and climaxes with Alice gaining the upper hand by eating shrooms. It features the most wonderful and hilarious subversion of the classic “Princess sings in the woods and attracts cute animals” trope, as Alice attracts them, but they’re all grotesque hybrids of animals and tools. These are just some of its wonders. The early Disney tendency to have a bunch of vignettes orbiting a thin framework fits like a glove with this concentrated randomness. In short, it’s an all-time great.
Now, it’s not strictly accurate to call the 2010 Alice a remake, as the film makes a contorted attempt to describe this journey into Wonderland as Alice’s second. But the implication that the original’s events are in continuity here becomes laughable in context. We enter Wonderland and hear words like… Prophecy? Chosen one?!? The very idea of anything being “foretold” in Wonderland is a bad joke. Narrative logic is one thing, but the storytelling becomes bogged down in politics and pretense. What was once a land of chaos becomes a bombed-out shell of its former self, populated by irritating nuisances in place of characters. Even the gruesomeness on display (three characters get stabbed in the eye, not to mention the decapitation) just comes across as desperate. Despite the one area of improvement over the original being Mia Wasikowska as an engaging protagonist, what we end up with is a poisonously boring film that represents the absolute nadir of the Disney remake. This is what not to do.
As it turned out, this black hole of entertainment was an enormous financial hit, to the tune of over a billion dollars. But it’s what I’d call an accidental billion-dollar movie, as it rode the crest of the Avatar 3D wave.
To play fair, things get significantly improved in the 2016 sequel, Alice through the Looking Glass. Despite a sickening insistence on pitching Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter as the emotional center of the film, small steps are taken in the right direction. It’s set in a bright and colorful Wonderland for a change, it’s got a solid villain in Sacha Baron Cohen’s embodiment of Time (“And I… must find… the kindergartner…”), some of the jokes land (the frog dude!), violence is used more constructively (the Humpty Dumpty gag is fantastic!), the art direction is superior (the Chronosphere is a clockwork astrolabe you can fly in!), and in Alice’s role as a dauntless seafaring explorer, she foreshadows Disney’s upcoming animated musical Moana. (And bonus points for using Alan Rickman as a voice of comfort, in his final film role.)
But overshadowing everything is the root problem of these modern Alice films: they get stuck on portentous exposition when they should just be parading charming nonsense. They’re boring because they never resolve the tension between the potential of their setting, and their need to inject drippy drama into it. Put it this way; the Mad Hatter’s dad is a textbook strict Victorian father. In Wonderland.
Next, in 2014, the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent went back to the roots of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty. In the original, Maleficent is a legitimately scary villain who capitalizes on her small sliver of screentime to make a huge impression. She’s such a representation of pure evil that it feels like the film doesn’t give her much airtime for fear of kids being traumatized by her menace. She can also turn into a dragon.
Come the modern reimaging of the story, Maleficent is no longer evil, no longer the villain, and no longer can turn into a dragon. Sigh. Jolie is an unimpeachable casting decision, but the material she’s saddled with plays it safe even while making truly odd choices. Maleficent is made a victim, and the way her wings are violated is coded in a deeply uncomfortable way for a family movie.
Where this remake shines are only in stolen moments. The recreation of the famous throne room scene is by far the best bit of the film, because it’s the only time Maleficent is allowed to be true to her name. For the rest of the film she’s not even an anti-hero. She’s just the hero. Maleficent is let down by nonsensical plot devices, a pantomime villain, truly embarrassing versions of the original fairy characters, but above all the softening of an iconic Disney villain. I assume that choice is to make Maleficent palatable as a lead, but what’s the point of doing it if it’s not to be done right? When it comes to putting a villain in the lead role, I’m not expecting Man Bites Dog or A Clockwork Orange. But I do expect an understanding of why we were drawn to the character in the first place.
So the Alice films and Maleficent, while definitely fitting into the macro trend of Disney remakes, are more like hybrid reboot/reimaginings, and as we’ve seen, have failed to make new ideas work. Don’t get me wrong, outside-the-box ideas are great for remakes, but the choices made in these two stories have fallen flat. When in doubt, both Alice and Maleficent portray pitched battles between armies that come off as Lord of the Rings-lite, seeming desperate for an edge they just can’t sharpen. So post-Maleficent, things aren’t looking so great at the moment for this remake experiment. But, just around the corner in 2015…
The Case For
The 1950 Cinderella stars cutesy mice as much as it does the title character, and sets up a familiar fairy tale framework. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella takes it and runs with it, filling in character depth, casting impeccably, and ending up with an intoxicatingly beautiful film. Cinderella (Lily James) and Prince Charming/Kit (Richard Madden) are both rounded and their courtship is played for real, none of this snap-of-the-fingers romance of the original. No longer colorless paragons, both characters feel alive as well as noble. But even as the characters are respected, the more lavish and glitzy elements of the story are channeled as well; the dance at the ball is pure movie magic that gets me every time.
We saw in Maleficent the hesitance Disney had in placing a properly characterized villain in a lead role. Cinderella is a gold standard in updating a vintage villain correctly. There is no redemption for Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine, but at the same time there are moments of subtle sympathy for the character. The impeccably dressed Tremaine is defined by her ambition and cruelty, but equally her intellect.
Taking an old-fashioned fairy tale and populating it with strong characters, Cinderella is a platonic ideal of the Disney remake, respectful of the original but updated in enough respects that the 21st Century version has a life of its own.
Cue 2016’s Jungle Book. So how does the venerable animated original look today? The 1967 Jungle Book feels more like a loosey-goosey hangout movie than anything else. Laid back and virtually plotless, it’s sedately entertaining but struggles to cohere into a story. Its themes of man’s relation to nature are crippled by portraying most of the animal characters as oddly specific human caricatures, often out of swinging clubs or the British Raj occupying government of India; figures of white imperialism march in proximity to scat-singing jazz musicians.
Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book ditches the dated elements of the original to tell a straightforward adventure story with a precocious Mowgli traversing an actual plot, threatened by a vicious villain in Idris Elba’s Bengal tiger Shere Khan. This version, however, is first and foremost a technical marvel, using only the bare necessities of live-action elements in a lavish CGI production that as near as damn it convinces you it’s all happening for real.
With interesting themes of technology, an impressive ensemble cast playing the animals (the trio of villains are the best characters), and a believable jungle society that wasn’t there before, this Jungle Book improves on the original. And again, like Cinderella, it succeeds by using the original as a clear template and filling in the corners with innovation.
The Flavor of the Day
Which brings us to the tale of a boy and his dragon. In the 1977 Pete’s Dragon (distinct from the other originals discussed here because the dragon Elliott is the only animated element), the actors gurn and mug their way through a sub-Chitty Chitty Bang Bang musical which has its charms but is more weird than wonderful. The 2016 remake likewise features a boy named Pete and his pet dragon Elliott on the fringes of a small town, but otherwise there’s virtually no connection. Indeed, the remake represents a 180-degree about-face, as the over-the-top acting of the original is replaced by director David Lowery’s indie naturalism. The scatting, mumbling Elliott is replaced by a dignified furred dragon tailormade for plush merchandise. The pratfalling Mickey Rooney is outclassed by the wizened charms of Robert Redford.
Sonically, the off-off-Broadway musical numbers are ditched, but the original main theme’s rustic tenor is still appropriated in Daniel Hart’s score. (The only other link to the past is that the remake might’ve taken Elliott’s color-changing fur from an animation error in the original.) And the set-up of a boy and his pet dragon is raised to the level of high spectacle, as Hart’s indescribably soaring dragonriding theme scores Elliott’s triumphant flights.
The film isn’t trying to rock anyone’s world, but to tell a simple and emotional story. When it gets sentimental, it earns it. And when it just wants to get to the pure Disney magic of Elliott in flight, it’s flawless. (The ending, in particular, rates high on the “tears of joy” scale.) Pete’s Dragon represents an outlier in the world of Disney remakes. Like Alice and Maleficent, it absolutely distinguishes itself from what came before. But much more importantly, like Cinderella and The Jungle Book, it’s an upgrade in quality from the original and continues the studio’s winning streak.
Music as Metaphor
All five original films that have been remade are musicals. This is an interesting baseline because gradually more and more original songs are finding their way into these remakes. Alice in Wonderland uses none of the myriad throwaway songs from the original. Maleficent and Cinderella use the properties’ most iconic tunes only as end credits songs (From the former, “Once Upon a Dream” is hauntingly sung by Lana del Rey; From the latter, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Bippity Boppity Boo” are sung by the actors in character). The Jungle Book continues the end credits tradition, but for the first time includes (incomplete) versions of original songs in the movie proper, sung by the actors.
While Pete’s Dragon is an anomaly in this progression, the future holds plenty of interest for Disney music fans. The imminent Beauty and the Beast, plus recently announced remakes of The Little Mermaid and The Lion King (the latter directed by Jungle Book helmer Favreau), will take the plunge into being full-on musicals. And not only will they include the original songs, but also bring back original composers such as Alan Menken and enlist hot new talent like Lin-Manuel Miranda to develop more songs in the established style.
The gradual willingness to integrate more and more classic songs into Disney remakes is a narrative that runs parallel with the way these 21st Century reimaginings have increased in quality. As they practice fidelity to the originals balanced with modern and welcome twists on character and story, they also incorporate more and more of the original sonic landscapes that have charmed generations. Don’t reinvent the wheel (narratively tortured Wonderland, goody two-shoes Maleficent), but complement the source material with the benefit of intelligent storytelling. As long as Disney learns from what didn’t work in Alice and Maleficent, and keeps striking the healthy balance of respecting originals and original thinking in Cinderella and The Jungle Book, their remake hot streak will continue. And it doesn’t hurt to put in the songs we all know and love to whistle while the movies work.
This is a deep dive into the minutia of Harry Potter, so spoilers for the entire series follow.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 represents something extraordinary, as it sticks the landing for an eight-film saga of consistent quality. As the series aged up with its viewers, the stories became heavier and all-out war ravaged the wizarding world. But the way the concluding film provides a fantasy action climax is fascinating. It’s pyrotechnic, it’s sweeping, but it also relies heavily on silence or near-muted action carried by visual storytelling. Sometimes words are passed over in favor of powerful images, and the unfolding drama tends to be grand but not particularly loud. There are sequences of great volume, don’t get me wrong, but they are used as emphatic punctuation rather than the norm, and this dynamism creates a unique feeling for this finale.
The opening sets the tone; Severus Snape as the aloof headmaster, with Dementors hovering over the formerly friendly confines of Hogwarts – silence to convey a brooding atmosphere. The infiltration of Gringotts is loaded with pregnant pauses – silence used for conventional tension. After Harry Potter’s watery vision of the Horcruxes, cut to Voldemort, and the sound noticeably cuts out – silence to convey shock or desperation. The Quidditch pitch is immolated as a muted afterthought. This blink-and-you-miss-it image efficiently communicates that this the days of the relatively freewheeling earlier films are gone – silence as swift visual storytelling.
In a poignantly quiet moment, married couple Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks reach out to each other at the outset of the battle, but can’t quite reach each other – silence to convey longing. It’s only in total silence in the Room of Requirement that Harry can hear the insidious whisper of the diadem Horcrux – silence offering clarity. When Voldemort arrives at the courtyard with Harry’s “corpse” in tow, the oppressively muggy atmosphere makes it feels like something out of Braveheart – silence as dread. And after the first wave of battle is over, Harry and his friends find the dead and wounded in a softly wrenching scene, all the more effective for being underplayed. Silence to break our hearts.
Backtracking a bit, pay particular attention to the first scene in the Great Hall (that hollowed out and forbidding room which used to host Technicolor feasts). We start in quiet, as Snape ultra-methodically asks for information as to Harry’s movements. He makes two words, “equally guilty”, feel like a complete sentence in and of themselves. Harry steps out and monologues, revealing that Snape killed former headmaster Albus Dumbledore. In Minerva McGonagall’s best moment of the film (better than Piertotum Locomotor), she hears this and immediately, without saying a word, attacks Snape and drives him out of the Hall. Loyalty to Dumbledore doesn’t need to be explained. Cue triumphant music (the main fanfare of the series, in fact), and the Hall’s fires are lit… for about three seconds. If the students thought Snape’s words were intimidating, Voldemort’s will learn them. Silence, scream. Silence, scream. And then the Dark Lord speaks. In contrast to the silence that has come before, his words are physically harmful to the listeners. After he’s done, we’re back into more straightforward narrative momentum. It’s an utterly dynamic scene, but more of an eerie dark ride than a roller coaster. And it all relies on carefully modulated silence and the briefest diversions into conventional conversation.
A big reason why director David Yates and his team of sound mixers are free to get more experimental is their faith in composer Alexandre Desplat. Desplat’s score for the film is extraordinary, whether it’s the mournful “Lily’s Theme”, the painful pathos of “Severus and Lily”, or the way in “The Grey Lady” cue that he turns Helena Ravenclaw’s tossed-off line that Harry reminds her of Tom Riddle a bit into a sweeping and crucial moment.
But the crown jewel of Desplat’s sonic tapestry is his elegiac “Courtyard Apocalypse” cue, which weaves the Battle of Hogwarts into a bleakly cohesive whole. As the diegetic sound is nearly muted and this theme dominates the soundscape, entire character arcs are paid off just with visuals. Aberforth Dumbledore steps out of the shadows to join his brother’s war. As Fenrir Greyback is eating Lavender Brown’s lifeless body, it has to be Hermione Granger whose outrage protects the dignity of Lavender’s corpse, given their romantic rivalry in Half-Blood Prince. Part of what motivates some of the visual storytelling is the need for storytelling economy, but it’s a great example of necessity breeding invention.
It’s all the more striking that silence plays such a key role in the film, given that Steve Kloves’ screenplay must acrobatically jump through hoops to juggle three Deathly Hallows, the explanation of who has mastery over the Elder Wand, four Horcruxes, and four ways to destroy each Horcrux. This is not to mention the Prince’s Tale sequence, which must convey a huge amount of information all while putting the emotion of it first. There are so many McGuffins in play that the screenplay actually does get in a tangle of exposition with regard to the number of Horcruxes. Harry states, “The last one’s in the castle”, referring to the diadem. Then he says, “Nagini is the last Horcrux”. Then, of course, it turns out that Harry himself is the last one. But in the end this inconsistency is forgiven because of the artistry on display.
And what considerable artistry. The film would be striking enough just on a visual level, but as it caps an eight-film fantasy series, it takes an exhilaratingly unconventional approach to delivering a climax. Contemplative conversations are followed by long stretches without dialogue, with bursts of noise popping on screen all the more due to the build-up. The death of Voldemort plays out not with a bang, but as a silent unraveling. Transformers: Dark of the Moon was nominated for the Best Sound Mixing award at the 2012 Oscars, while Harry Potter was nowhere to be found… there are no words. At a crucial but low-key emotional moment toward the end of the film, Albus Dumbledore says that he believes “words are our most inexhaustible source of magic”. Indeed, but as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 shows us, true greatness can also be found in the magical spaces between words.
2015 was the year of the spy. No less than five major studio films operated in the high-stakes field of the spy-action genre: the subversive Kingsman: The Secret Service; the comedic Spy; the thrill ride Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; the 1960s throwback The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; and the latest installment in the venerable James Bond franchise, Spectre. (I’m not including Bridge of Spies, as my focus here is on the action side of spy stories.) So how does each take on the genre fare? And who will take pole position in this game of cinematic espionage? Spoilers for this quintet of movies follow, but after all the work of spies is to discover secrets…
Out of the five films, two pairs can be created based on the movies’ agendas relative to the genre and similar themes. This leaves an odd duck out, so let’s deal with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. first. A movie in passionate love with the idea of capturing 60s cool, U.N.C.L.E. is all flash and style with little substance. This wouldn’t be an issue, though, if it didn’t keep building up villains who turn out to be nothing-characters, or had the action chops to back up its sense of groovy fun. The film is a likable enough romp that gets by on the chemistry of its leading actors, but its slavish devotion to the tropes of the spy genre isn’t matched with the ingenuity to justify its swagger. This is spy movie as schematic, but dressed up in conspicuous fashion. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a fun time with good elements to recommend it, but it’s like gravy with no meal to put it on – and so it is not the best spy film of 2015.
The first pair we deal with balances love for the genre with the wits to amplify, undercut, and poke fun at it as well; both Kingsman and Spy play with the iconography of spy movies (and particularly Bond movies) in really cool ways. Co-writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman make sure Kingsman is doing a hell of a lot thematically. Just to scratch the surface: the posh and familiar title disguises a strident satire of class politics, presenting heads of state and the 1% as monstrous and selfish hypocrites. The titular agency uses codenames out of Knights of the Round Table, but this picture of British upper crust stateliness is revealed through Michael Caine’s “Arthur” character to go beyond elitism into true corruption. The working-class hoodlum Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is the one to see through the B.S. and save the organization from itself. As Eggsy emerges for the third act dressed in a bespoke suit, the film re-appropriates the idea of the gentleman spy as something open to all. As for the Bond nods, Kingsman takes several of the series’ standbys (the supervillain’s plan, the lethally equipped henchman, the idea of a sexual reward for Bond at the end) and dials them up to 11, lifting the veil from them. So as the film celebrates spy tradition, it also challenges it constantly. Kingsman: The Secret Service is thematically rich, imbued with bold comic book-y sensibilities, and bolstered by great action – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.
Writer-director Paul Feig’s Spy, meanwhile, takes the Bondian archetype and lampoons him in the form of Jude Law’s bumbling but lucky agent Bradley Fine. In this comedy, Melissa McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is a competent agent constantly underestimated and disrespected by her peers and supervisors because of her appearance and gender. The arc of the film brings the put-upon Susan into the field on a technicality, and as she saves the day in place of the gentleman spy parody Bradley Fine (not to mention in place of Jason Statham’s tough-as-nails action hero parody Rick Ford), the film deftly juggles the basics of the genre while having fun doing it. And from another angle, by championing Susan after the more conventionally attractive female agent (Morena Baccarin) has been revealed as traitorous, Spy once again subverts the genre, this time its desire to flaunt exotic and beautiful women. Spy is a solid action-comedy, showcasing Paul Feig’s reliable ability to both get laughs and craft memorable characters to deliver them – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.
And then there were two. They feature certain elements in common… a rogue shadowy organization creating international chaos, an effort on the part of the establishment to shutter the good guys’ antiquated intelligence agencies which forces the hero to go rogue to get the job done, and a crucial trip to Morocco. Spectre has a couple good setpieces and a handful of effective moments, but is crippled by major storytelling problems. An irrelevant personal connection between Bond (Daniel Craig) and the villain, a weak and uninspired finale, limp action sequences such as the remarkably boring car chase in Rome, an unconvincing romance, hollow piggybacking of plot points from previous films, and an M-defends-MI6-from-bureaucrats subplot recycled without passion from its much better treatment in the prior installment Skyfall. Spectre coasts on the James Bond name when it should be blazing its own trail, going through the motions despite being one of the most expensive films ever made – and it is not the best spy film of 2015.
I’ll tell you what is, though, and that’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Every element of this thing sings. (And in fact, my original review really didn’t give it the credit it deserves.) Clockwork plot and structure, consistently excellent action setpieces (go to the opera!), warm but brittle character dynamics amongst the IMF team, airtight control of tone and tension. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s pulpy epic feels like a perfectly pulled off mission in itself. And then there’s Ilsa Faust.
Played with precision by Rebecca Ferguson, Ilsa is the key to it all. When Ilsa is introduced and helps breaks Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of the Syndicate’s clutches, she feels like a plot device, a spy defined by McQuarrie’s scripted web of triple-crosses. But we later see that this scene comes wholeheartedly from character. Ilsa is a ruthlessly competent specialist, who also has this crazy idea that spies of allied countries have a responsibility toward each other. Her statuesque beauty paired with her matter-of-fact moral conviction makes Ilsa an incredibly magnetic character. In the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ilsa Faust surpasses Imperator Furiosa, Adonis Creed, Finn, and Rey as the breakout action hero of 2015.
It’s strange how things work out sometimes, as I would never have thought that the latest James Bond film, coming off the heels of the hypnotically great Skyfall, would be my least favorite spy movie of 2015. But even so, it fills a corner of the genre. Spectre is spy film as portentous drama. Kingsman: The Secret Service is spy film as anarchic statement. Spy is spy film as wacky satire. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is spy film as rosy-eyed throwback. And Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is spy film as immaculate time bomb. Light the fuse…
This editorial contains spoilers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
It’s the calm at the beginning of the third act. We cut to a wide shot of a snowy mountaintop in what look like the Himalayas (but who can say?). It’s a vision or hallucination, because Superman comes upon his late adoptive human father, Jonathan Kent, tending to some farm business. Pa Kent begins a monologue – he explains how when he was younger, he saved the Kent family farm from flooding. He was rewarded with cake. But in the process, he had inadvertently flooded the next farm over. Pa Kent would go on to hear the screams of drowning horses in his sleep every night. He was a hero. But the collateral damage was a poor price to pay for that heroism. Then, it’s abruptly over. Our regularly scheduled build-up to an action climax continues.
There are, unfortunately, lots and lots of candidates for my least favorite scene in Batman v Superman. In fact, on technical, visceral, emotional, and other levels, there are certainly worse scenes. But I’m writing about this one because, brief as it is, it actually represents several things wrong with the film, and I’ll use this scene (heretofore referred to as the Pa Kent Horse Bit) as a sort of skeleton key to unlock them. So let’s go down a few avenues the Pa Kent Horse Bit opens up, saving the worst for last.
It’s a non sequitur scene with no set-up, and cutting it out wouldn’t really affect anything. The Pa Kent Horse Bit comes and goes like a goddamn ninja. Where is Superman when he has this vision? Has he gone to sleep and had this dream? The film doesn’t care to lead into the scene in any fashion, and after it’s over, we again careen miles away in narrative space. The scene before doesn’t feature Superman; the scene after doesn’t feature Superman. It’s not just that the way the scene is framed is suspect; the scene is not framed at all. Indeed, the editing of this film as a whole is a train wreck. This manifests in several ways. The Batmobile car chase is a confusion of jagged cuts, and if you developed a drinking game based around every time the film fades to black and back in again, the personal consequences would be disastrous. Batman v Superman laughs at your mortal ideas of scene transitions.
It’s a dream/hallucination sequence in a movie drowning in them. In a related sense to the broken editing on display, dreams, time-travel dreams within prophetic nightmares, and hallucinations are everywhere in the movie. It’s lazy storytelling to rely so heavily on these, not just for the plot but also just to cut to something interesting. Despite coming out of nowhere, Bruce Wayne’s dream of a dystopian Earth marked by a tyrannical Superman is about ten times more interesting than what’s going on the film’s waking state. And I would advise the movie to do something with that nightmare from a character perspective (like to viscerally show and explore Bruce’s fear of what having a Superman can do to society), but it is more than likely meant just to set up future movies. But whether it is or not, more to the point, it exists outside of what is going on in this movie. And the story we’re supposed to care about is left limping.
It features dialogue which tries to trick the audience into thinking it’s profound and mature. Like a lot of the screenplay, the Pa Kent Horse Bit is serious-minded and trying hard to come off as meaningful. The mountaintop setting fits with the film’s lofty ambitions. But these ambitions are not matched by true exploration of issues that the film drops into a blender, and the result is an experience that just becomes inert for long stretches. And the entire crux of the screenplay relies on something deeply immature: the lack of communication between the heroes. When Batman and Superman meet after the Batmobile chase, they exchange scowls and petty threats. There’s no articulation of grievances. We get “The Bat is dead”, but not, “What do you think you’re doing, wantonly killing and branding criminals who may or may not end up dead in jail?” We get “Do you bleed? … You will”, but not, “Your being here led directly to thousands and thousands dead in Metropolis”. I get it, it’s hard to get them to fight unless they’re both jerks, but it’s still the opposite of maturity.
Superman is passive. In the Pa Kent Horse Bit, Superman walks up to the shade of Pa Kent, gets a life lesson dumped on him, and exit stage left. This illuminates a bigger problem: this sequel to Man of Steel suffers from a crippling fear of letting its Man of Steel speak. Throughout, Superman’s default status is brooding silently. There’s a montage where he saves people, which is rendered unintentionally funny by Superman’s apparent deep sadness in doing so… but we the audience are never privy to what Superman is thinking. We hear a whole bunch about what everyone else is saying, but what’s going on in that Kryptonian brain? There’s a scene where Senator Finch invites Superman to a Senate committee for a dialogue. This is it, this is the moment when we’ll finally hear Superman’s side of the story, his perspective! … And the scene is short-circuited by a terrorist bombing that serves no story function except to be hard-hitting and edgy. Go back to your daily brooding, Superman. Even though this is your own sequel.
But here’s the point of no return. Its true sentiment is that heroism is not worth the trouble. The message in Pa Kent’s ghostly form is clear, and it reeks. But of what? Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder has publicly spoken of his admiration of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a novel he intends to adapt for the screen. It’s a brazen beacon of Objectivist ideas, extolling what is known as “rational self-interest”. And this starts to make sense of what’s going on in the scene. You can be a hero, saving the farm. But the price of that heroism will sure learn you, son. Jonathan Kent’s widow is also a presence in the film, and judging by her big scene with Superman, Jonathan and Martha “You don’t owe this world a thing” Kent were made for each other.
As a side note: the way Jonathan Kent is set up as a presence before the Pa Kent Horse Bit is nothing short of baffling. After the Senate bombing, Superman tells Lois in a should-have-been-poignant scene, “I’ve been living my life the way my father saw it, righting wrongs” and being a hero. Okay, so he’s talking about Jor-El, his Kryptonian father, right? He goes on to say that the idea of Superman is “the dream of a farmer from Kansas”, his father’s dream. What??? Anyone who has seen Man of Steel saw Pa Kent sacrifice himself to keep his son’s superpowers a secret. I cannot emphasize that enough. So these lines of dialogue are bald-faced lies. And in service of what? The only possible reason would be to retroactively change Pa Kent’s outlook on Superman. But the entire sentiment of the Pa Kent Horse Bit is exactly the kind of subversion of heroism we got in Man of Steel. The screenplay is such a fumble that it can’t even stay internally consistent on major character moments.
So a short while after the Pa Kent Horse Bit, Superman sacrifices himself to destroy the abominable monster Doomsday. But here’s the thing – he sacrificed himself without having ever getting over the situation and being Superman. Because Snyder and the other filmmakers have created a world that makes the Superman concept untenable. Now, Snyder has a track record of using explicit Superman/Christ metaphors, especially in Man of Steel. Going with that, the Pa Kent Horse Bit should be Superman’s Gethsemane moment, the scene in which Superman despairs of his preordained responsibility before finally making the choice to face his destiny. But the film is inept. It can’t make the scene work on any level – it’s not meaningful, it’s not touching, it’s not relatable, and it carries a poisonous sentiment. The Pa Kent Horse Bit? Maybe I should call it the Pa Kent Horseshit.
In plain sight, the scene illuminates something weird. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are films that question the very nature of heroism, but not in a constructive way. Rather, it’s in a manner that promotes selfishness and complacency. The ideal of Superman is torn down. The DC cinematic universe, a series of superhero tentpole blockbuster films, is built on the foundation of stories that are essentially deconstructions of heroism. And that is insane to me.
There’s even more wrong with the film that what’s illuminated by the Pa Kent Horse Bit. I would need to record an audio commentary to cover them. The raw deal is that, again, this universe of films faces an upward battle. Batman v Superman, a movie supposed to be selling the Justice League, features a rapport-free, virtually teamwork-free team-up of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, and the latter two heroes never speak a word to each other. Anything can be turned around, with the necessary resources and the right people guiding a film. But with Snyder prepping to shoot Justice League Part One within the month, I am worried. The DC universe can’t afford another $250+ million miscalculation. Suicide Squad looks interesting (and its multimillion dollar reshoots look to add character moments and humor), but I’ll be most looking forward to Wonder Woman in 2017. Not only is it the first high-profile female-led superhero film since Elektra in 2005, it also figures to be the first movie in this DC superhero universe not to be a deconstruction of heroism.
Contains spoilers for Zootopia (known as Zootropolis in some territories)
Zootopia is a very fine movie. Its lead characters are endearing, a lot of the humor is on point, and the video-game-overworld layout of the titular city leads to some eye-popping visuals showing off a fully realized world. But what does it have to say?
Quite a lot, actually – too much, even, but I’ll get into that later. I separate the film’s moral from its attempt at allegory, so I’ll address the moral first. The moral/message is great and very timely. We’re in the midst of a 2016 Presidential campaign marked by some ugly, downright troglodytic racism and sexism on the part of a certain candidate, and Zootopia comes along with a healthy message of tolerance, hitting hard against xenophobia and prejudice.
Of course, it uses a city of anthropomorphic animals to make this point, illustrated in part by the two leads; we have female rabbit Judy Hopps and male fox Nick Wilde, who were in some way brought low by prejudice before rallying back to ensure a happy ending for the movie. They do this by circumventing a conspiracy to artificially make the 10% minority of predator animals go “savage” by introducing a drug into their systems. The plan was working for a while; “innocent prey” saw their worst prejudices realized with rabid killer predators on the loose, leading to panic, paranoia, and hate against the predators. Now for the film’s ending to be happy, the force of institutional racism is literalized and arrested in the form of the Mayor, a seemingly meek sheep named Dawn Bellwether who is behind the conspiracy. She rants about us vs. them and virtually declares war on the dreaded other. This is after making repeated comments earlier in the movie about how she and Judy need to “stick together”, but all the while orchestrating a fear monger’s campaign. She’s Trump if he kept it a secret.
So we have a simple moral of anti-xenophobia, arising from a complicated allegory. When getting into the specifics of Zootopia’s allegory, I think it’s overcomplicated and incoherent. Let’s break it down.
The setup begins with mysterious incidents of certain individuals of predator species going savage. We learn that “Night Howlers” are involved somehow. Judy Hopps inadvertently stokes the racially charged fear in the city when she states in a press conference that these predators are going back to their “natural state”. (To the film’s credit, this shows how even a good person can say offensive things because institutional racism can sometimes run insidiously deep.)
Next we further the Night Howler mystery by learning that it’s a flower, and that consumption of it leads to an animal going savage under psychotropic influence. So something like a crack/meth epidemic is causing this – just say no, and cue cute Breaking Bad parody.
But then it’s revealed that Mayor Bellwether is on a zealous crusade. She has the drug concentrated into pellets, arms her officers with dart guns, and orders predators SHOT WITH THE DRUG. We went from social commentary about oppression, to social commentary on minorities and drugs, to social commentary on minorities getting shot by the authorities. Mixed metaphor, much?
Now, of course, traditional mainlining of drugs has no place in a children’s movie and the movie needs the drugs to get in the predators somehow. For an example of a plot point not taken, the writers could have, I dunno, put the drug in a liquid that only predators drink – this could at least take advantage of how the movie uses animal biology. But the choice to reverse-engineer this plot into a commentary on minority groups getting freakin’ shot is a decisive one.
Stacking these revelations on top of each other ends up turning a potentially compelling parallel to our world into a circus show. Are the predators going savage because they’re an oppressed minority? Because they’re taking drugs? Because they’re all getting shot? By pulling it in all these different directions, the allegory is diluted. The film finds a bunch of real-life things to “comment on” and puts them in a blender. This isn’t the best allegory, it’s the most allegory.
Indeed, maybe part of this is a consequence of how plotty, procedural and reliant on successive revelations Zootopia can be. (Clue leads to clue, and it’s kind of hilarious how many times Judy recording someone saying something incriminating is a plot point.) Also, Zootopia is keen to comment on all these racial issues that we face, but at the end of the day this is still an animated comedy with animals. While the film certainly chafes against stereotypes to a certain extent (Bunnies are coded as feminine in the movie’s world, so cue Judy’s annoyance at jokes about bad driving and being really emotional), most of the animals are given predictable behavioral traits (Timberwolves gotta howl). As (the extended Marlon Brando joke) Mr. Big says, “We may be evolved, but we’re still animals!” I totally understand why a weasel named Weaselton is there acting all “weaselly” – after all, this is an accessible family movie – but it makes a thematic graft between these races and our human races kind of a no-go. When you’re depicting an allegorical world where these predator species did in fact originally evolve to kill the prey species, can you really justify this as a parallel of our world?
The place where Zootopia’s allegory was really helped out was with the pop star Gazelle. Just as Gazelle’s peaceful protest against racism was crashed, so did Beyoncé’s statement of solidarity with victims of police brutality at the Super Bowl face a big backlash. While I know Gazelle doesn’t know at that point that the predators are being shot, from the objective filmmaker’s viewpoint, that is a pop star protesting a minority group getting shot by authority figures. That’s timely as hell.
While it has a wonderful moral, Zootopia takes a sloppy path to get there, and stumbles as allegory. This doesn’t necessarily diminish it much – wearing its heart on its furry sleeve, it’s a great time at the movies in the company of likable characters living in an interesting world – but it shouldn’t be held up as some brilliant satire. It’s great on basic message. It’s just not so great as allegory.