At one point in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Newt Scamander, Leta Lestrange, and Porpentina Goldstein sneak around the French Ministry of Magic and are literally trapped in a moving labyrinth of family backstory. It’s almost too perfect a metaphor for an insular narrative obsessed with the storytelling primacy of lineage, and which flirts with impenetrability even for students of the franchise. Comprehension aside, however, the story being animated is dull. The film shows us all sorts of magic, but never the magic of a cohesive or engaging story.
After the arrest of would-be wizarding tyrant Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) in Fantastic Beasts and where to Find them, guess who escapes during a prisoner exchange. Now the hunt is on for both Grindelwald and the enigmatic young Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is seen as the key to Grindelwald’s plans. With British and American aurors on the trail, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) sends Newt (Eddie Redmayne) to find Credence as well. But all the while, Grindelwald’s rhetoric of power fantasies and magical dominance over the muggle world seduces many.
It’s an easy-but-true, first-base criticism that this film is irrevocably torn between serving two storytelling impulses: the fantastic beasts, and the crimes of Grindelwald. From the title of the series to the tie-in toy line, there is an emphasis on empathetic magizoology. But this is constantly leavened by a dark streak that takes in baby death, and even worse, infanticide; “love potion” manipulation, and even worse, magical rape. Neither extreme of this wildly swinging pendulum amounts to anything satisfying.
A mystery structure has served the Harry Potter films well in the past, but in place of a functional narrative J.K. Rowling gives us tangled family histories and skeletons in the closet, which come to a head in what feels like ten minutes of backstory infodump with red herrings (those herrings being un-fantastic beasts). It feels painfully novelistic, Rowling still unused to the screenplay format.
The proliferation of characters is not particularly well handled by the screenplay. Newt is an intriguingly introverted lead, but only has the odd moment of charm or clarity. Tina (Katherine Waterston), the female lead of the last film, has next to nothing to do, and apparently can’t read a newspaper in a romantic subplot that wouldn’t sustain a sitcom subplot. Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), to be fair, is decent comic relief and has a couple good moments in the climax. Jude Law puts some of Richard Harris into his Dumbledore voice and the movie gains more of a pulse when he’s on screen. Grindelwald, looking like if Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was electrocuted, leaves a middling impression when he should be punching a hole through the screen. By far my favorite character thread here is Queenie Goldstein’s (Alison Sudol); the movie does interesting things with her character that I won’t spoil here.
The biggest miscalculation lies with Credence. He was a relatively effective character in the previous movie, as his foster mother’s repression of his magic led to him turning into a metaphorical and menacing monster. Now that the entire narrative revolves around him in a “who are my real parents?” plot, he’s ironically way less compelling. Rowling might as well have watched the Rey’s parents arc from Star Wars: The Last Jedi and said, “Let’s do that, but wrong.” Stripped of specificity and personality, Credence becomes a MacGuffin.
The film is most effective in moments of little magic, like when one man is heavily windblown on a sidewalk and everyone else is unaffected, or when Queenie’s telepathy becomes a problem, or seeing the mother of all English basements. However, these grace moments are suffocated by room temperature decisions. Director David Yates plays a lot with POV and extreme close-ups, with not much skill or point. The opening setpiece aims for spectacle but lands on muddiness. Where’s the man who gave us such amazing imagery in the latter four Harry Potters?
Composer James Newton Howard’s main theme is appropriately elegant and haunting, but the rest of the score doesn’t stand out. He does pull out “Hedwig’s Theme” for one big moment of fanservice. Indeed, there’s a bunch of “call-forwards” to Harry Potter. My favorite is Leta Lestrange looking into the Hogwarts Great Hall that her descendent Bellatrix will later ransack. (And look out for the film being so apparently desperate for beast material that it reaches into the well to provide origins for a couple important Harry Potter beasts.)
This is a movie of grey cinematography, flat pacing, character-less characters, opaque incidents, and laborious reveals. It’s workmanlike when it should be wondrous, the product of a tired creative team. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a house of cards, not necessarily collapsing but with just as much of a thin foundation. It’s a lifeless, borderline incoherent movie that asks a lot of the audience and gives almost nothing in return. 3/10.
Inasmuch as this film uses delaying tactics in favor of a third installment, I would suggest: Get fresh blood behind the camera, maybe have another writer mold Rowling’s worldbuilding into a stable screenplay, and don’t gloss over the intensely personal stakes between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. But maybe by committing to both beast showcases and apocalyptic political stakes, this series is already stuck with a losing formula.
What more can be said about the original Star Wars? It’s a film so influential and beloved that the film industry and film fandom are still feeling the shockwave from its May 25, 1977 release. The first paragraph of its opening crawl has been adapted into a 2-hour-plus movie. Halfway glimpsed background characters have been turned into sought-after action figures. George Lucas’ tale of underdog rebels battling the evil Empire has spawned an empire of its own, but let’s return to the beginning.
“You Can Type this Shit, George, but You Can’t Say it”
I say beginning, but this is a movie that starts in the middle of a pitched space chase. No one-and-a-half-hour buildup to action; we are dropped in medias res into a star war. The situation is sketched quickly and efficiently. The Empire is an overwhelming dominant force; the Rebellion is skittering away on a little blockade runner.
Lucas has often dismissed the importance of dialogue in favor of visuals, and the film plays into that thesis at many points. When Darth Vader barks orders at his subordinates (“I want them alive!”), John Williams’ score violently crescendos, in the style of a silent movie. During the prison block escape, the dialogue is buried in the sound mix. Two of the most iconic scenes in the movie, the binary sunset and the throne room medal ceremony, lead with visuals and don’t bother with words. When the Imperial Star Destroyers chase the Millennium Falcon near Tatooine, the danger has already been set up by the opening shot.
Lucas’ framing is mostly classical, but filled with visual interest. On the flashier cinematic side of things, my favorite shot in the film is when the camera follows Princess Leia’s cell door closing down to the floor, tracks with an officer’s foot, and adjusts back to eye level.
While there is certainly some excellent dialogue in Lucas’ screenplay, sometimes his words do let the movie down. The most egregious example is his decision to add the Jabba the Hutt scene into the Special Edition, which tediously re-covers the ground from the previous Han/Greedo scene, occasionally using the same phrasing to make the same points (not to mention the awful visual gag of Han stepping on Jabba’s tail).
John Williams’ landmark score constantly complements the words and visuals, telling the story with a punchy, magical soundscape that oddly also sounds excitingly DIY. The magisterial main theme opens the curtains; the ambling Jawa theme fits their silly design perfectly; the Force theme is instantly iconic; the perhaps underused Leia theme provides contrast to all the bombast; the “TIE Fighter Attack” cue remains thrilling; the “Battle of Yavin” music is some of the best action film music ever; and “The Throne Room” is a perfect triumphant dénouement. And: “Binary Sunset”, end of.
“You Think a Princess and a Guy Like Me…?”
The cast of characters is painted in broad strokes, as archetypes. There is very little psychological complexity to them yet. But this works for the movie because of the spirit of universal adventure it embodies. Luke is the earnest underdog hero; Leia is the brash and savvy politician of action; Han is the insouciant scoundrel; Obi-Wan is the wise mentor; Vader is the black cloud of evil. Maybe the most complex characters are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque droids C-3PO and R2-D2, who show a whole range of cowardice, bravery, affection, and irritancy.
Vader and Tarkin are an excellent villainous double-act (which one is the film’s main villain…?), with an interesting dynamic between them. Peter Cushing brings a lot of smarm and charm to the role, with his delivery of “you’re far too trusting” being a particular classic. At the time, Lucas even felt that Vader was a weak villain without a Tarkin-type figure to play off of.
Another iconic double-act is Han and Chewbacca. Chewbacca takes the idea of the loyal dog to a fantastical extreme, where he becomes an equal partner. But how much is this true in-universe? After hiding in the smuggling compartments, Han playfully fuzzes up Chewbacca’s head; in a deleted cantina scene, Han strokes Chewbacca under the chin exactly in the manner of a dog. Later films would never literalize the Chewbacca-as-dog dynamic like this again, an indication of this film very much in the process of figuring things out.
Not to mention the crazy-in-retrospect, right there on screen love triangle element between Luke, Leia, and Han, which course-corrects later. Lucas not only categorically saw Luke and Leia as love interest characters at this point, he’s also on record saying that he wanted Leia to “run off with” Chewbacca and that he “wouldn’t mind” killing Leia off. That course correction couldn’t come too soon.
Approaching Tosche Station
A key element of Star Wars, and especially this first movie, is silliness. That’s both intentional screwball humor, and unintentional kitsch. Why do these Imperial officers keep baiting and egging on Vader when he can choke them with his mind? What did Luke hope to accomplish by firing on the sheer face of the Death Star? And most pressing of all, is the VT-16 really quite a thing to see?
Given the controlled chaos of the production (at one point, the Sandcrawler was mistaken for a new type of tank and the movie almost started an international incident), the number of continuity errors is understandable. Greedo is seen walking around after he’s already been killed. A lot of the ADR on the Imperial officers is painfully obvious. At one point Vader’s dialogue and gestures are out of sync. There’s the amazing moment of the stormtrooper bumping his head. You can see David Prowse’s eye a couple times when Vader’s in his TIE Advanced.
But really striking in retrospect are the anachronisms. Luke says there’s nothing C-3PO can do for him “unless you can alter time, speed up the harvest, or teleport me off this rock.” Right there you have references to time travel and teleportation, two ideas that have never made it into the Star Wars mythology (Rebels’ World Between Worlds notwithstanding). If Luke has a concept of them, does the galaxy have its own version of science fiction?
Naturally, there are even more anachronisms at a script and draft level, but it’s amusing to look back on them. Vader threatens Leia with, “You will come to know such suffering as only the Master of the Bogan Force can provide…” And check out this little speech from Obi-Wan about Leia:
She’s part of the royal family. They won’t get any information from her… She knows the art of mind control… She’s a swan sensana.
That died a death on the way to the screen, but this description of her mental power does remind me of the bene gesserit from Frank Herbert’s Dune. All the references to spice must also be allusions to Dune, and the concept of a messiah from that novel also finds its way to Lucas’ epigraph on the script: “… and in the time of greatest despair, there shall come a savior, and he shall be known as The Son of the Suns. – Journal of the Whills, 3:127”. Suffice to say, we could have had a very different Star Wars saga.
The First Step into a Larger World
George Lucas did revise well, and came out with a screenplay packed with amazing (and funny) lines. “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” “I’ll be careful.” “You’ll be dead!” For all that the power of the binary sunset scene is wordless, the last time I watched the movie, Owen and Beru’s buildup to it (“he has too much of his father in him”) made me cry while the sunset itself did not. The film, like many first installments, is a marvel of scope if not scale. The Empire Strikes Back probably beats it on a scene-to-scene basis, but the original Star Wars wins out through structural purity. Watching the film now, in light of everything that’s happened with the franchise in the forty-one years since, there’s the sense that Star Wars has outgrown this. The simplicity of the film is pure, but also singular, and not sustainable for an evolving series. But no matter what, the franchise will never stop honoring it. The original Star Wars truly was the first step into a larger world.
Early in A Wrinkle in Time, two teacher characters are having a conversation with the most awfully stilted “as you well know” expositional dialogue, and the child who overhears them righteously yells, “Shame on you for talking that way!”
But really, the two teachers are setting up the two core conflicts of the film (while throwing shade on our heroes). Young Meg’s (Storm Reid) scientist father (Chris Pine) has mysteriously disappeared for four years after postulating interstellar travel via pure thought; and Meg has a lack of self-confidence that over the course of the movie will have cosmic consequences. Being as it’s calibrated for kids, the message of loving and accepting yourself just as you are is hit home constantly with a velvet mallet. The film is a monument to earnestness. There’s value in that, but as they say, your mileage may vary. I mainly object to the songs (not good enough for this not to matter), force-fed into the body of the film to inject emotion.
And I swear, director Ava DuVernay shoots this movie like Aronofsky’s mother!, full of intentionally disorienting extreme close-ups and subjective use of space. The focus is on creating empathy for the young protagonists, and thankfully the close watch of the camera finds able actors. One of them being Levi Miller as Calvin, a casual acquaintance of Meg who, to the surprise of even himself, shows up to get swept up in the adventure purely because of what we might call “fate” or “the script”. Is there something to the idea that this type of matter-of-fact fairy tale logic, so beloved in, say, The Princess Bride, finds a more skeptical eye from modern audiences?
Part of that dissonance might be because A Wrinkle in Time exists in the space between fantasy and science fiction, between flights of magic fancy and the application of complex equations. It’s The NeverEnding Story (Villain duties go to the It, like The Nothing) meets Interstellar. Even that latter movie and A Wrinkle in Time agree that love opens fifth-dimensional portals.
Even though the film doesn’t strictly speaking work overall (and in kind of an intangible way that’s unexciting to work through), calling something uneven implies it’s got good parts – and that certainly applies here. The standout sequence revolves around a suburban nightmare of conformity. The visuals are often appealing, with nice show-off-y costume changes for the cosmic beings. The fate of Michael Peña’s character is a really cool moment. There’s a magical flight that looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in the World of Avatar at Disney World. I often say that flight sequences bring out the best in composers, and while Ramin Djawadi’s music isn’t a patch on his own dragonriding music from Game of Thrones, it still does the trick.
Whether the movie as a whole does the trick for you depends. For me, this moralizing, space wrinkling, Hamilton referencing blockbuster is a mixed bag that fits in a tradition of heart-on-its-sleeve children-oriented fantasy without necessarily bettering it. In the future, let’s hope for better movies aimed at this demographic.
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.
If you can get through anger, denial, bargaining, and depression, acceptance is a wonderful thing.
It can allow you to find 1993’s Super Mario Bros. endearing in its earnest goofiness. It doesn’t forgive the lost potential of what could have been a touchstone moment in legitimizing video game source material in the medium of film, but it allows you to take the ashes of this pop cultural train wreck on its own terms, and have a little straightforward fun with it. Yes, certain elements of the movie cross the event horizon of silly and enter the realm of the absurd, and yes, the aesthetic choice of portraying the Mushroom Kingdom as a sub-Total Recall dystopia is… disappointing for those expecting Mario actor Bob Hoskins to have another jolly old Who Framed Roger Rabbit romp, but going with the flow of Super Mario Bros. is not a miserable experience. It’s an oddly diverting one.
It’s an understatement to say that Super Mario Bros. has gotten flack as an adaptation of the video game franchise. And sure, the contrast between bright, colorful, fantastical Mushroom Kingdom from the games and neo-noir, steamy, dystopian Mushroom Kingdom from the film is one of the biggest communal punching bags in the history of fandom. But I think there are successful, or at least entertaining, translations of game elements.
It makes a twisted kind of sense to take goombas back to their roots as actual “goombahs” (emphasis on the “bah”) in the Mafioso connotation of the word. Daisy, not Peach, is the female lead, and is given passion, agency, and strength of character while also growing into her role as Princess. Iggy and Spike’s shift from buffoonish henchmen to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-alike free agents is too bold a choice to write off. The bob-ombs are great. And when a voice in the crowd shouts “It’s a bob-omb!!!”, it’s one of the movie’s best absurdist jokes – in our world, “It’s a bomb!” is one of the last things you would ever want to hear, but just adding that one syllable makes it hilarious. And best of all, the running joke about Mario being frightening of jumping is kind of wonderful.
The outside-the-box spirit of the movie means it goes for crazy abandon. Fiona Shaw’s gangster’s moll character is electrocuted and gains the Bride of Frankenstein’s hairstyle, for… reasons? Dennis Hopper’s King Koopa makes his lair the top floor of a World Trade Center tower, making those scenes an odd watch nowadays. And this is a movie where the day is saved by blaring “Somewhere My Love” by Frankie Yankovic. (Yes, that weirdo’s father.) It’s all a carefree level of odd that’s consistently watchable. As the postscript section below lines out, Super Mario Bros. foreshadows elements of other films. One film it fails to foreshadow, despite its best efforts, is its own sequel. This movie has the sheer nerve to end on a cliffhanger! Of course, an ongoing story was not to be. Making less than half your posted budget will do that to you.
This way, Super Mario Bros. can live on as a curiosity, a one-off that blog posts like this can put under the microscope for some arcane purpose. But as the Mario license expands – cue marquee for Nintendo Land, coming to Universal Studios in 2019 – another movie must be on the cards. Now for all my advocacy, I can’t say the 1993 effort is a good film. I have fun with it and will stick up for certain aspects, but it seems extremely unlikely that any future Super Mario movie won’t clear this bar of quality. (Double negatives are where it’s at!) The 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie is flawed, an occasionally embarrassing patchwork of off-the-wall ideas, but it’s got heart, kid and a spirit of adventure. It’s certainly better than a piece of garbage like Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.
P.S.: Super Mario Bros. has a line in anticipating aspects of other movies. Predating the mighty Jurassic Park by a mere two weeks, Super Mario Bros. also features a primitively animated sequence voiced by a cheesily accented narrator explaining how dinosaurs can live in the present. Also, lovable Yoshi is in line with JP’s popularization of the velociraptor as iconic design. The reptilian goombahs swaying to music in an elevator foreshadows the celebrated (relative term) scene in 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles where the Turtles improvise music during a long elevator ride. And well before the days of Harry Potter, future Aunt Petunia Fiona Shaw tells Daisy, “You have your mother’s eyes”.
Music is the key. A while ago, I argued that to grow in quality, Disney’s live-action remakes should embrace more and more of their source material’s music. Cue an all-singing, all-dancing take on the studio’s landmark Beauty and the Beast from 1991, with that animation’s composer Alan Menken back to update the movie’s musical repertoire. Remaking the first animated Best Picture nominee is a major throwing down of the gauntlet, but this Beauty and the Beast has captured the spirit of the original, while also making smart and significant changes to craft an impressive new experience.
In 18th Century France, a Prince (Dan Stevens) selfishly rejects hospitality for an old woman, who turns out to be an enchantress. In so doing, he dooms himself to a seeming eternity as a Beast, his servants to transformation into household objects, his castle to an eternal winter, and his rule to be forgotten by his subjects. But his isolated world intersects with one of them, the bookish Belle (Emma Watson), and for the first time there’s a sliver of hope that the enchantress’ curse can be lifted. As Belle meets Prince Charming but won’t discover that it’s him until Act 3, will the Beast let this sharp-witted inventor steal into his melancholy heart? And will the castle finally see days in the sun again?
The whole picture falls apart without the foundation of Belle and the Beast’s romance, and it’s more convincing here than it’s ever been before. The key is the library scene. In the original, the Beast presenting Belle with the library was a grand romantic gesture suggested by Lumiére, whereas here, the Beast opens this world of letters to Belle with the casual manner of a boy showing a girl his back catalog of National Geographics. The two bookworms, charmingly played by Watson and Stevens, forge a genuine connection by the end of the movie.
Director Bill Condon (Chicago, vivid and a total blast) and co-screenwriter Stephen Chbosky (Rent, fun but lacking any storytelling spine) have both written movie musicals before, and that experience yields smart touches throughout. Like Love Actually or Hugo, there are several romantic subplots to track, maximizing the payoff for the inevitable happy ending. Plot holes from the original are swiftly papered over. Belle is a bit more of a modern hero. Characters in interracial relationships and others questioning their sexuality are represented without fanfare or comment. This Beauty and the Beast invites comparison with its animated predecessor, but while the two are kindred they move to profoundly different rhythms, and it’s details like these that enrich this telling.
Another great detail is that in the “Gaston” musical number, there’s a moment where people struggle to sync up their dancing. So, realism within a fantasy setting is what the filmmakers are reaching for, and what they achieve. But that also means that the most zonked out elements, chiefly the Busby Berkeley acid trip that is “Be Our Guest”, feel oddly disconnected from everything. What is there to the visuals in the sequence beyond the celluloid equivalent of drowning in confetti? The setpiece’s gimmick is that Belle is repeatedly presented with food that is whisked away before she raises a fork. Sure, that’s a tried-and-true comedy routine found in everything from A Hard Day’s Night to Spider-Man 2, but it doesn’t make any sense here. It doesn’t fit the story being told. I’m about to commit Disney heresy here, but maybe “Be Our Guest” should have been scrapped in favor of the other vintage household object showcase “Human Again” – or maybe a medley of the two. At least then a helping of humanity would fly at the audience along with the trays of bon fromage.
Yeah, that sequence isn’t my favorite. And just as a guideline, the two wolf attacks bookend what’s probably the clunkiest part of the film. But even in the weeds of these (relatively) rough patches, the cast is outstanding. (They better be, because the movie sort of gives them two curtain calls.) Emma Watson’s Belle is warm, but not soft – it’s satisfying to see how she cuts through her little “Madame Gaston” number with palpable fire. Dan Stevens’ striking eyes fit the Beast, and the character’s journey from full-on Krampus to romantic hero is sketched pretty well. (A nitpick, though: There’s a big moment where the Beast/Prince yells, “I am not a Beast!” Okay. But the film never gives him a name!) The household object characters are voiced by an impressive repertory company, of which Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson are only two. Luke Evans’ Gaston is both more appealing than his animated counterpart, and more villainous, with Evans adept at milking the comedic and threatening aspects of the role. Both Maurice and LeFou are clownish characters from the original given a humanity transplant. But the real breakout is Josh Gad as LeFou, given an entirely new arc ranging from broad comedy to soul-searching redemption.
And finally, the music in this musical. Newcomers Watson and Stevens hold their own alongside musical veterans like Evans and Gad, and the songbook itself has gotten an update. Incorporating lost lyrics from the late Howard Ashman into “Gaston” and the title song, composer Alan Menken honors his former collaborator’s legacy while also penning three original songs. (No songs are retained from the Broadway musical.) “How Does a Moment Last Forever” is poignant and sweet. “Days in the Sun” is a catchy check-in-on-all-the-characters number. And the third…
Earlier I committed Disney heresy and I think it’s time for more. I don’t think the animated Beauty and the Beast quite has a signature standout song. For me, it doesn’t have a “Let it Go” or a “Part of Your World”. But incredibly, in 2017, Alan Menken gives it one. “Evermore” is an utter showstopper, an operatic swing for the fences. In the Beast’s new and vital turn in the spotlight, Dan Stevens sells the low feelings and high notes, and Menken’s baritone ballad becomes the jewel in Beauty and the Beast’s musical crown.
I know I ragged on the “Be Our Guest” sequence before, but I approve the song itself for the iPod playlist. The slowed-down tempo is an improvement, and Ewan McGregor as Lumiére chews into the lyrics with gusto. In fact, it’s a microcosm of the contrast between the original animated feature and this retelling; the new film is slower, making for a fulfilling opportunity to see the sights. I like how several songs are given reprises to keep them in the minds of the audience, and the other original songs are present and correct, with my favorite of the classics being the elongated introductory piece simply titled “Belle”.
With an appealing cast, convincing romance, beautiful production design (I love how the design of the castle is opened up, exposed stairways and all), lavish music, and a commitment to storytelling, the Beauty and the Beast remake is in good health. As it respects the original while weaving new magic of its own, it continues Disney’s streak of live-action remakes embracing the musical landscapes of their predecessors. (But word on the street is the next one, Mulan, is dispensing with the songs!?) Be its guest, and keeping the original in mind, you might find there’s something there that wasn’t there before. 8/10.
P.S.: The influence of Jean Cocteau’s striking and dreamlike 1946 version of the story is there from time to time. The most noticeable touch: the hands affixed to the castle, holding torches. And because the end titles are translated to French, the title card is framed by the Cocteau-alike La Belle et la Bête.
P.P.S.: In the animated version, LeFou poses as a snowman at one point. Now, LeFou actor Josh Gad is most well known for voicing the snowman Olaf in Frozen. Coincidence? Also, the Beast reads a book about the forbidden love between Lancelot and Guinevere at one point, and Beast actor Dan Stevens played Lancelot in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. Finally, Luke Evans (uber-skilled archer Bard in The Hobbit films) plays Gaston, whose preferred weapon in the animated film is a bow and arrow. Here, war veteran Gaston opts for a pistol.
Perhaps as soon as two years from now, China will surpass the United States as the biggest, most lucrative film market in the world. This is happening. And as it does, movies produced in the spirit of something like Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall will become more common. So what appears to be an easily dismissed monster flick actually stands on the vanguard of a new globalist film industry. It’s entering uncharted territory, being the first Hollywood-sourced film produced in China. Put in other terms, this is a truly collaborative production – Universal provides most of the funding, the marquee movie star Matt Damon, a couple other supporting cast members, and part of the crew; China provides the director, most of the cast, the filming locations, and the rest of the crew. And at a cool $150 million, The Great Wall is also the most expensive movie ever made in China. So given the overwhelming context swirling around, what does this landmark international cooperation have to offer?
In the 11th Century, mercenary soldiers William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) find their way to northern China in search of the “black powder” (gunpowder), with the intent to take the substance west and sell to the highest bidder. But they are caught up in a mythical war between China’s watchers on the Great Wall called the Nameless Order, and the monsters they repel, the gargoyle-esque Tao Tei. With Commander Lin Mei (Jing Tian) forbidding the vagabonds from journeying back to the west, William and Pero must decide between following their desire for riches or taking up a new cause.
Unsurprisingly, the backbone of the drama comes not only from the sickly green hell-beasts barreling down on the Wall, but also from the culture clash between the Nameless Order and the western outsiders. Excepting a couple throwaway characters confined to the first ten minutes, there are only three non-Chinese characters, so few that they become avatars. They clearly stand out; as the Order moves like a single organism, western characters long for the black powder (reminiscent of the euphemistic “red flower” from The Jungle Book), and must be humbled by the selfless unity of the Order. There’s no balance to this portrayal. One westerner inevitably screws the other over for personal gain. When that character is blown up by the very gunpowder he intended to hawk, it doesn’t feel so much like a person has died, but rather a stand-in for capitalism.
Unlike every other western character in the film, our hero William quickly comes around to the cause of slaughtering monsters. Contrary to appearances, Matt Damon’s character is not so much the white savior of China as he is the white convert to Chinese communism. And why wouldn’t he be? The thousands-strong Order’s competence and unflinching loyalty is contrasted with two lone outsiders’ doomed quest for profit. When the (significantly labeled) Nameless Order speaks Mandarin, the subtitles are presented in the most straightforward font possible: a prosaic font for a prosaic people. This solidity gets results. At every turn, communism is implicitly championed over capitalism. Strictly within the context of the story it makes sense, but as the blunt theme of this co-production it feels cowardly. I’m not railing against The Great Wall’s politics as some kind of America-fuck-yeah statement. The problem is that these politics feel so corporately mandated. Back in the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism and the Blacklist, putting communist themes in a Hollywood movie was transgressive, subversive, and risky. Now, it’s just pandering.
The character work is functional if colorless. The film stars Matt Damon and his variable accent, toggling between his normal voice, a southern drawl, and a posh take on Irish. Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal is fun in his role as a wandering and weary scoundrel, and his double act with Damon makes for stilted but amiable banter. According to director Zhang, he insisted at the script level that the clichéd romance between William and Commander Lin be removed, and that’s to his credit. But in the finished product, all the setup for that romance makes it to the screen! The seams are visible, so the matter-of-fact statement of mutual respect is diluted a bit.
The production design is striking. As is Zhang’s signature, strong color contrasts are used in the costumes, with each Corps within the Nameless Order corresponding to a clearly defined color: red for archers, black for infantry, sky blue for spears, etc. The large-scale production utilizes visual effects well, if not outstandingly, even though the opening sequence looks like a PlayStation 3 cutscene. The Tao Tei beasts are always given heft and weight when interacting directly with human characters. The visuals are mostly aiming for a specific kind of unreality, and on balance they’re the best aspect of The Great Wall.
But the opening gambit of the film doesn’t take encouraging first steps. The awkwardly edited prologue, filled with mile-wide close-ups, contains a moment of night-shrouded action in which several characters are meant to be killed. But the editing is so confusing I could only surmise they had died by their absence in the next scene. It feels like every once in a while Zhang aims for horror, and in this opening at least, he misses wide of the mark. The action throughout is engaging enough but never really catches fire. It’s consistently competent, miles away from the dazzling action on display in Zhang’s previous work like House of Flying Daggers. Rounding out the production, composer Ramin Djawadi uses thrumming martial tones familiar from his Warcraft score, ethnic motifs, and even a couple cues reminiscent of his Game of Thrones work in a middle-of-the-road effort.
The Great Wall is weird and sort of uncomfortably timely. This is a movie that glorifies the border patrol of a massive wall, that panders to the Chinese, and in which a Spaniard is portrayed as greedy and selfish. Not such great stuff there. But the action is competently staged, and the visuals are sometimes big-screen bonkers. Even though the themes are problematic, and there are myriad things, let’s say, off about this one, the film comes out more or less okay. So, this review is not advocacy for an underrated gem (Monster Trucks), or praise for a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders (John Wick Chapter 2). It’s an acknowledgement that aside from all the baggage, The Great Wall is an adequate but flawed medieval fantasy war movie where people blow up a bunch of grotesque monsters real good. 5/10.
P.S.: Edward Zwick was the original director attached, and retains a story credit. His Tom Cruise/Ken Watanabe-starrer The Last Samurai has superficial parallels with this film, but The Great Wall has not an ounce of the empathy and grounded grandeur of that superior movie.
Rogue One, the first standalone Star Wars film, is in many ways not a standalone at all. It is a direct prequel to the original movie from 1977, and features scores of deep-cut references, allusions and easter eggs that only hardcore fans will appreciate. So Rogue One is big-budget fanservice. But crucially, it’s more than that. It’s fanservice that also happens to have great original characters and takes a lot of risks. The trick of Rogue One is that it’s a love letter to Star Wars (and works as such; the ending made me cry), but it also fundamentally changes its texture.
The Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist, and seeks to solidify its reign by constructing a planet-killing superweapon. To complete work on the Death Star, Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) coerces the scientific genius Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), father of Jyn (Felicity Jones), into service. When Galen sends a secret message to the reeling Rebellion tipping them off to a structural weakness in the Death Star, a scrappy guerilla team must steal the Death Star plans. The team: Jyn; lethal Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); sarcastic tactician droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk); desperate Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); blind warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); and his cynical companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). But in this war, can any hope survive in the grime of Imperial domination?
In the lead-up to the movie, the talking points were obvious. “Puts the Wars in Star Wars.” “The gritty side of the universe”, blah blah blah. It’s one thing to hear the sound bites, but to see this saga taken out of the good vs. evil fairy tale realm so elegantly is something else entirely. That tale is great, it has its place, but Rogue One complicates it. There’s ethical compromise in the Rebellion, represented by Cassian. There’s a pecking order in the Empire, an elitist element that Krennic must constantly prove himself to. There are extremists on both sides. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker)’s methods are disavowed by the Rebel establishment, while his opposite number, Darth Vader, plays enforcer for an unstable galaxy. Star Wars has always worked best as an underdog story (witness how The Force Awakens recreates the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict by another name), but the main characters here are underdogs even within the Rebellion. And Krennic, the villain they face, is an underdog even within the Empire.
None of this thematic stuff would click if the character work wasn’t there, and thankfully it is. All the characters resonate, but standouts include comic relief monstrosity K-2SO (think C-3PO with a two-by-four in place of an etiquette program), and apathetic loner to inspirational leader Jyn Erso. But my favorite character is Cassian Andor, who embodies what makes Rogue One work so well. The co-leading hero in the film, Cassian is exciting because he’s tainted. Pretty much the first thing you see him do is shoot an unarmed ally in the back because he would be a liability! (And you thought Han shot first?) He personifies the risks that the film is willing to take, introducing a Rebel officer as a morally compromised hero. The main characters are allowed to be impure or damaged, and Krennic, while ruthless, has to deal with bureaucratic and browbeating BS from superiors more evil than he. The idea is that the Rebellion’s purest heroes and the Empire’s purest villains are more background players, and we get to spend time with relatively complex characters.
Rogue One manages to stuff a lot of character into what is perhaps too compressed an amount of time. This does have downsides. Jyn’s character arc is good, but feels like it has a middle and an end while missing part of the beginning – we’re told Jyn’s rap sheet but we don’t see her struggles fending for herself brought to life. The first act has a lot of quick planet-hopping setup and so probably works better on a rewatch. Conversely, while the action in the third act is alternately breathtaking, tense, and emotionally powerful, it still feels like a little paring down might have made it pop even more.
But flaws aside, the storytelling always has something up its sleeve. This is a surprisingly emotional movie, largely owing to how the light contrasts all the more against the desperate circumstances. Chirrut’s reverence of the Force becomes poignant precisely because the Jedi have passed into myth. Put Obi-Wan Kenobi on the team and the everyman quality to the group crumbles. In a stroke of genius, the first test of the Death Star’s awesome destructive power is made intimate and personal. The pacing and atmosphere is far removed from the propulsive, almost manic The Force Awakens (which is great in that context). It’s Star Wars sung in a different key in a different time signature, and I ate it up.
Technically speaking, Rogue One has much to commend it. I love how the CGI Star Destroyers as near as damn them look exactly like physical models. The cinematography, and vaguely documentarian aesthetic courtesy of director Gareth Edwards make the action and emotion hit home. And considering composer Michael Giacchino only had a couple months to score the film after replacing Alexandre Desplat, his score contains some solid motifs.
Rogue One commits to its war movie aesthetic brilliantly. The acting ensemble is outstanding; even tertiary characters like the leery General Draven feel rich. This is a smart, weird, exciting, occasionally sloppy, and surprisingly emotional blockbuster, which enriches Star Wars in a two-hour salvo. It will be remembered for playing with what the franchise can do, while also blowing stuff up real good. 9/10. — If you’re a fan of the saga, there’s a good chance you’ll get emotional at the last scene. But after certain recent events… it might wreck you.
P.S.: *SPOILER-FILLED STRAY NERDY OBSERVATIONS*
So this is a mainstream blockbuster where every main character dies. With a sweeping gesture out of Shakespearean tragedy, the board is cleared and only characters on the fringes live to carry on. Disney will sugarcoat anything.
Darth Vader. Giving him an imposing evil tower immediately casts him in the same company as Sauron (with lava planet Mustafar standing in for Mordor). It codifies his status as an iconic villain. But it’s worth noting that a castle for Vader isn’t a new idea; it was proposed in concept art for the original trilogy and was even considered for inclusion in The Force Awakens. Vader’s first scene with Krennic perhaps isn’t everything it could have been. It ends with what I call “stand-up comedy Vader”, but even though it feels a bit weird in the moment, it’s not too far off from his “Apology accepted, Captain Needa” brand of humor. Vader’s other scene is just terrific. Add the hint of his vulnerability and his weird Riff Raff-esque butler, and Rogue One does some interesting things with this Dark Lord of the Sith.
When the Empire puts up the shield in orbit of Scarif, an X-Wing can’t pull up and crashes into it. Which is exactly what should have happened in Return of the Jedi when the Rebel fighters are flying to the second Death Star thinking the shield is down.
Star Wars isn’t known for romance. It has a few, but they’re either dreadfully stilted community theater (Anakin and Padmé) or a whirlwind flirtation carried by bickering and banter (Han and Leia). So am I alone in thinking that Rogue One contains the hottest moment in all of Star Wars? When Jyn and Cassian are in close quarters in the elevator, and it’s filmed like they might kiss, and they don’t?
If Rogue One came out when I was in junior high, it would have been the biggest deal in the world that Garven Dreis and Dr. Evazan are in the movie. Now, it’s just really cool. But in junior high, I wouldn’t have caught the significance of Chirrut and Baze being Guardians of the Whills, which is a reference to George Lucas’ original title for his Star Wars screenplay: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga 1.
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.
The Marvel Studios brand is even more powerful than any of the superheroes in its stable. The mere association of the studio with an untested property is enough to spin offbeat ideas into gold, and their risks are getting gradually more exciting. So ever since kicking the doors down with 2012’s crowd-pleasing The Avengers, Marvel has premiered a surefire box office smash in the front half of a year, followed by something weirder in the back. In 2013, the billion-grossing satirical action comedy Iron Man 3 was followed by the cosmic portal-hopping fantasy of Thor: The Dark World. 2014’s espionage thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier was succeeded by the acerbic space opera of Guardians of the Galaxy. In 2015, the thematically rich and aurally deafening team-up Avengers: Age of Ultron was complemented by the small-time heist comedy Ant-Man. And this year, the superhero masterpiece Captain America: Civil War gives way to the infinite magical dimensions of Doctor Strange. Marvel has effortlessly produced another entertaining, well written, light on its feet origin story with a compelling actor holding it all together, plus the added twists of stunning trippy visuals and an exhaustive magical mystery tour through obscure mystical realms.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a world-class neurosurgeon with an equally world-class ego. But when his negligence behind the wheel leads to a crash, the hands that had been so vital to his career and identity can never operate again. After exhausting his fortune on moon-shot surgeries, a desperate Strange travels to the Nepalese sanctuary Kamar-Taj to find a more mystical cure. There, he studies under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her fundamentalist lieutenant Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), even as the wayward sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) threatens the fabric of reality. Strange will need help, including from former colleague Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), to wrestle with this new world of magic and monsters and nothing he was ever trained for.
On paper, Doctor Strange comes armed with the best cast in a non-team-up Marvel movie. That comes in handy, because seeing as this is the MCU’s full-blown introduction to interdimensional magic, boy howdy there is a lot of magixposition to get through. But the cast elevates the material, and make up for some of the imperfections of the screenplay. I do find the film very sharply written on a scene-to-scene basis, but connecting the dots is sometimes a stumbling block, as there is a lot of exposition, and side characters that do stand out but are nonetheless underwritten. So, sharply written, but maybe not the most tightly written.
Those supporting characters are out of focus at times because the film is rightfully keen to keep a laser focus on its lead. It would be easy to point out similarities between Strange and Tony Stark (rich, arrogant luminary brought low and humbled) and even Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes (no social niceties, uncomfortable with hugging), but these are surface level. What makes the character work so well (besides the magnetic performance) is that he’s given a beautifully plotted out, movie-long redemption arc wherein Strange learns to accept the things he had always rejected (and I don’t mean the existence of magic). No quick fixes; this is refreshingly gradual.
Strange is the audience surrogate into a new world, and has to soak in all that exposition I mentioned before. But Strange is not a mere vessel, and his dynamic character helps to keep the film engaging. Also, the characters that inhabit this magical world are all performed exceptionally. Ejiofor sells the hell out of what is a really tough and ambiguous character in Karl Mordo, the kind of man who dangerously overcompensates in atoning for his past sins. Swinton constructs a playful and enigmatic Ancient One, and Benedict Wong as… Wong makes for a valuable and entertaining presence. In the case of the film’s villain, Kaecilius, smart choices off the page help to sell an underwritten character. Cosmetics help. The makeup on his and the other Zealots’ faces resemble a grotesque extension of what happens when you weep your eyes out. They wear their brokenness for all to see. It’s on the nose, but it works. And, Mads Mikkelsen’s menacing screen presence does a lot to animate the semi-flimsy role (his role as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale also has an eye condition, where he cries blood!).
A big draw of Doctor Strange is its visual effects. Director Scott Derrickson’s vision of reality manipulation is truly delightful to look at, and an interesting balance is struck where the gonzo visuals don’t go too far into craziness where a general audience won’t follow. Even so, the film might have been helped by going even further in its imagination. A couple really pivotal scenes play out with people in their spectral form, and the artificiality there goes some way to undercut the emotion and tension. Also, the Zealots’ weapons are almost invisible. I get it, they’re drawing on power from another dimension, but this uninspired and at-times confusing design seems less like a creative decision and more like a PG-13 compromise so as not to “see” blade pierce flesh.
As for the magic itself, it’s strikingly done with geometric shapes in place of beams of light, delivered with Wanda Maximoff-like hand gestures. The magic aesthetic (oddly foreshadowed by this year’s semi-noble semi-failure Warcraft) is complemented by a healthy dose of defying gravity, which is what really livens up the action scenes. But while the magic action is great, the hand-to-hand fights remind me of the cluttered choreography of something like Batman Begins. (And of course, some of the city-bending visuals are reminiscent of a brief scene in another Christopher Nolan movie, Inception, albeit taken to a whole other level.) There’s also a fair bit of magic-as-Buster-Keaton-slapstick, which is unexpected but welcome.
In a lot of ways, Doctor Strange is a full-blooded medical drama as well as a magical extravaganza. This brings needed attention to Christine Palmer, who is easy to lose in the greater tapestry of the plot, and it gets at a really great aspect of Stephen Strange’s character. He’s not going to stop thinking like a doctor after his magical training. The tension between the medical and the mystical is laid bare in what I’ll call the “do no harm scene”, and it could well be the standout of the entire picture.
Michael Giacchino’s score is solid, but feels a bit like a missed opportunity. The end credits music (“Master of the Mystic End Credits”) is a fantastic slice of trippy progressive-rock, throwing organs and sitars around with abandon. But by being so distinctive, it gives a tantalizing glimpse at what the whole score could have been – indeed, the main Doctor Strange theme heard throughout the film is oddly similar to Giacchino’s own Star Trek fanfare.
Doctor Strange is a really solid magical action movie, with wonderful kaleidoscopic visuals, a fascinating central character, a great cast, and a partially-genius high concept finale. It’s very much a familiar template for an origin story, and the film has its shortcomings, but they don’t spoil the whole. The world of Doctor Strange is an interesting space to play in for two hours, a unique story about accepting mortality and where men are allowed to cry. 8/10.
P.S.: Paul McCartney walked into Abbey Road Studios during the mixing of the score. Upon hearing Giacchino and Derrickson working on “Master of the Mystic End Credits”, McCartney observed, “Shades of ‘Walrus’…”
P.P.S.: *THE SPOILER DIMENSION* So Kaecilius works to serve the dread Dormammu. And the finale in the Dark Dimension is a provocative one, providing a unique climax to the conflict. Strange’s time loop of self-sacrifice certainly one-ups Tony Stark’s “sacrifice play” through a portal in The Avengers, and is a tidy bow on Strange’s arc to boot. The entire theme of the film is the acceptance of failure and death. Kaecilius refuses to accept the concept of time and thus mortality after death “insultingly” ravaged everyone he loved. For a long time, the Ancient One held onto artificially extended life, before finally accepting her legacy and the end of her story. In his career as a surgeon (being the best means juggling the highest stakes) Strange was motivated by his fear of failure. Strange’s willing submission to an eternity of skewering is one of those perfect metaphors that crop up in fiction sometimes. He embraces failure and mortality stubbornly, sacrificing himself with the same tenacity he had used before in his years of medical study. The very pathology of Strange’s arrogant past is redirected, aimed differently, to save the world. And in choosing to wear the broken watch that was Christine’s gift, Strange signals his knowledge that everything must eventually come to an end. Whether it’s a life, a world, or a relationship.
Oh, and the CGI monolith of Dormammu gives me bad flashbacks to Parallax in Green Lantern and Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.