The Death of Stalin is an inspired farce of political backstabbing, the manipulation of language, and Steve Buscemi’s failed attempts to hug Andrea Riseborough. Set while a (laugh-out-loud) power vacuum left by dictator Joseph Stalin’s death rocks the highest levels of Russia’s government, the film depicts a Central Committee who can’t agree on which of Stalin’s policies to reform, can barely decide who’s in charge, and upon finding their leader barely alive, not even whether to call a doctor.
The Russian politburo is a viper’s nest, a literal murderer’s row played by a figurative murderer’s row of talent (Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs…). The standouts of the cast are Simon Russell Beale as chief of the Soviet secret police Lavrentiy Beria (if anyone’s the villain in this roomful of monsters, it’s him) and Riseborough as Stalin’s grieving daughter Svetlana. Little parts are filled by recognizable British character actors, and in fact the cast is mostly British, using their own native accents rather than “playing Russian”. This decision helps the performances, while also making the events of the film oddly universal.
In case it’s not clear, The Death of Stalin is an extremely funny movie and a very successful comedy. But just by nature of its subject matter it is thematically fascinating too. Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev pointedly remarks that Beria is “bending and breaking the truth like it’s a human body”. There’s a comic runner that goes from the idea of photographing the new Secretary with a girl who was pictured with Stalin for a sense of continuity; to maybe using a fake one because they can’t find the real one; to finding the real one but deciding on a whim to go with the fake one anyways; and the beat goes on. It’s a microcosm of how these people grasp for integrity or authenticity but upon finding it, they edit it and twist it within an inch of its life. It’s easy to reduce this to the fake news thing, but this is so much more interesting.
There’s such an air of paranoia in the air that the wrong word to the wrong person, the wrong inflection, can get you arrested or shot. It makes the characters great verbal gymnasts, sometimes in a split second, which becomes endlessly entertaining to watch. The satirical tone is remarkably true to reality as well, with many of these weird incidents having actually happened. It’s a well-researched carnival show.
Armando Iannucci (director of the excellent In the Loop) shoots in a documentary style with disorienting elements, such as breaking the normal cinematographic rule of shooting conversations from one side. There’s one scene in particular where Jeffrey Tambor seems right on the edge of breaking character and laughing at the absurdity of it all. It’s easy to understand why; Iannucci and three co-writers (David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows) have crafted a hilarious screenplay, littered with funny barbs. Given the balance of comedy and darkness, the tone is an extended tightrope walk that lands as a rousing success.
The Death of Stalin, one of my favorite movies based on a true story, is also adapted from a French comic book, making it, incredibly, the best comic book movie of the year. As opposed to other reviews I’ve written, for great movies everyone knows, or bad movies a lot of people avoid, this is review as promotion. If fast-talking dark political satire is a mode you enjoy, watch a diamond example of the craft.
P.S.: As aforementioned, Simon Russell Beale is excellent as Beria, the nominal villain of the movie. That means my entire Supporting Actor field so far this year is villains – see also Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther and Hugh Grant in Paddington 2. Good job being bad.
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.
The draw of the movie star has diminished. Will Smith can’t open Focus or After Earth, Tom Cruise can’t open American Made or The Mummy. But Liam Neeson has carved out his own niche, attracting viewers to movie after movie of his new personal brand of action-thriller. Here he is Michael MacCauley, an ex-cop and insurance salesman who takes up Joanna (Vera Farmiga, literally phoning in much of her performance) on an obscure offer, which soon leads to murder and mayhem, very stressful for a guy just trying to get home on the train.
So Neeson is the classic Hitchcockian “wrong man” protagonist, an everyman who finds himself in the wrong situation at the wrong time. (Director Jaume Collet-Serra even uses Hitchcock’s famous reverse dolly trick when MacCauley realizes the stakes have become personal.) This leads to plenty of opportunities for MacCauley to awkwardly size up other passengers, growl into phones, and, at the risk of giving the game away, beat up a guy with an electric guitar.
Collet-Serra, admirably eager to maximize pulpy thrills, directs with a restless camera, roaming the length of the train like David Fincher showing what’s going on outside the Panic Room. This serves well during the film’s best setpiece, which takes place on the train’s exterior, but can also create a sense of unreality. The movie’s big one-on-one fight, while entertaining, is a simulated one-take wonder with stitched together takes, like something out of Kingsman. One bar scene in particular is filmed with punishing shakycam.
The Commuter marks director Collet-Serra’s fourth collaboration with Neeson, with a fifth in development. Clearly these two are celluloid soul mates, and while Run All Night has pretensions of being a Heat-style serious family/crime epic, this film is a return to the simple setup of Non-Stop; in both films Neeson’s character must carry out an investigation on a moving vehicle that to the outside observer makes him look like a bloody madman. (Except here it’s not alcohol but Vera Farmiga that leads him astray.)
The screenplay is a stumbling block. I could just stop at saying that, but instead I’m breaking out the bullet points. The hack elements of the script include, but are not limited to:
- A vital twist hinges entirely upon a villain casually saying a clichéd platitude that another character told MacCauley the villain said once before. So the cat is yanked out of the bag just so MacCauley (and the audience) can think “My god, it’s him! J’accuse!”
- In Act 1, a conductor character says that the train will be the death of him, and in Act 3, guess what.
- This movie does that thing I hate where villains tell the hero to do something the hero refuses to do, and after literally killing people, they address the hero and are all, “Dead bodies? That’s all you”. “He’s dead. And whose fault is that?” It’s yours, dumbass, you killed him. It doesn’t matter if you threatened to do it beforehand as a consequence; you created the situation where this person was in danger. With a straight face: the villain of The Fate of the Furious has a more nuanced understanding of choice theory.
- MacCauley keeps seeing really on-the-nose signs for cheap sight gags. He’s stuck on the train and sees, “You could be home right now”. “Please report any suspicious behavior”. “Danger of death.” Har har har.
- Star Trek’s Shazad Latif appears as a caricature of an asshole stockbroker with a bluetooth in place of a heart. Then MacCauley flips him off and says, “On behalf of America’s middle class, fuck you”. Incidentally, he should have said, “On behalf of America’s middle class, here’s my middle finger!”
- Very awkward literary references.
- The screenplay has the plot logic of a stock procedural, and the overall effect is that The Commuter feels like a potboiler trashy pulp novel you might find in a train station.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? Even after all that, The Commuter is not a bad film, but rather, it’s what I call a Very Functional Movie. (For me, like last year’s The Dark Tower.) While lacking in a lot of ways, it arrives at the station on time. And the audience I saw it with was so into it. They cheered, they gasped, they applauded at the Spartacus moment. The audience rooted for the hero and hissed at the bad ‘uns. And sometimes, that’s enough.
P.S.: After the opening credits, The Commuter title card shares the screen with… a Paddington 2 poster!!?! That sweet StudioCanal cross-promotion, I guess. This is an excellent transition to recommending that everyone see Paddington 2. Genuinely, the Paddington movies are modern family classics.
P.P.S.: Welcome to 2018 cinema. I suppose you could saw that my New Year’s resolution is to be more active on the blog, hence this mini-review. Look out for these quicker, more casual, more allusive reviews as the year progresses, alongside some splashy full-length reviews and editorials. And my end-of-year coverage will continue with My Film Awards shortly before Oscar nominations are announced, and My Year at the Movies shortly after that.
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”.
“Any escape might help to smooth / The unattractive truth / But the suburbs have no charms to soothe / The restless dreams of youth” – Rush’s ‘Subdivisions’, 1982
After the suburban nightmare of American Beauty, Thora Birch returns to similar teenage angst in Ghost World, starring as the misanthropic Enid. At first joined at the hip with best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), the introverted outsider graduates from high school but despairs of living in a world populated so heavily by losers and idiots. Deceptively aimless days ensue, but all the while lives are being derailed. This apathetic but confident dramedy wanders but never meanders through its episodic plot, picking up steam as it goes on until it becomes something truly special. Filled as it is by characters who treasure obscure pieces of art, Ghost World ends up being worthy of treasure too.
Based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel (which, believe it or not, was required reading for me in grad school), this live-action adaptation more than does right by the source material. The cast makes sense of some of the tossed-off quirkiness of the comic, led by the terrific Birch. Johansson doesn’t make as much of an impression as her, but shows a real talent for underplaying, which has gone on to serve her extremely well later in her career. And after American Beauty, Birch trades in love interests for a definite upgrade: the pretentious Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) for Steve Buscemi’s wonderfully endearing Seymour (choice line: “What if I don’t want to meet people who share my interests? I hate my interests.”).
Enid’s renegade rhetorical reaction to society’s bullshit makes her an antihero with a compelling arc; an early act of hers tips over into cruelty, but something entirely unexpected comes out of it. This is a key theme of the movie, as of all things a restaurant is used to make the same point. That’s the kind of quirky storytelling that works beautifully. No wonder that the screenplay (by Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff) was nominated for an Oscar; its trick is to so perfectly balance vignette structure and an A-to-B-to-C consequential plot. Plus, after an early stretch that tries a bit too hard for pithy, it’s damn quotable.
Films like Ghost World and American Beauty are pre-9/11 time capsules, when suburbia-as-hell could fly as a source of emotional malaise. But that doesn’t date Ghost World one bit, and it’s one of the better comic book movies out there. Daniel Clowes’ Wilson was adapted this year into a film starring Woody Harrelson, and if that movie had half the wit and purposefulness of Ghost World, it would have been sitting pretty.
P.S.: Favorite character actor bit part: future Monk actor Marc Vann as a hilarious vinyl snob.
P.P.S.: Stay through the credits.
For about five minutes at the beginning of Luc Besson’s latest gonzo science fiction romp, we are shown the building of a utopia. A montage of diplomacy, this opening shows how earthbound nations begin to cooperate in the arena of space, and then without skipping a beat, how humanity goes on to welcome various alien races as friends. The International Space Station gradually becomes bigger and bigger as more and more cultures add to its diversity; the core of the City of a Thousand Planets is already in Earth orbit. It’s a sequence of humanism to rival anything in the Star Trek archive (recalling as it does the show Enterprise’s title sequence chronicling the progression of space travel). And while Valerian goes on to dazzle with visual wonders, the opening title sequence is so much the standout that you can be forgiven for walking out right then and there.
The case for the rest of the film is weakened quite a bit by the vapid lead characters. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne play agents Valerian and Laureline, titular heroes of a vintage French comic strip now adapted into this $175 million-plus-budgeted blockbuster. Their corny sub-pulp fiction banter and flirtation feels like the throwback it was intended to be, but rests entirely on a chemistry that isn’t there, and absent emotions. Co-star Rihanna may not be a professional actor, but she still shows more humanity in 10 seconds than either lead does throughout the entire movie. DeHaan is much more at home navigating sinister sanatoriums and playing the antihero than he is as a Buck Rogers-esque action hero, and Delevigne continues her quest to convincingly show an emotion on screen. At least Jane Fonda as Barbarella, who shows that there’s precedent for bizarre 1960s French pulp heroes to translate to film, had screen presence and was more in on the cosmic joke.
Trailers for Valerian billed it as based on the “legendary graphic novel”, but it’s more accurately a comic strip. And to match that, the film has a very episodic structure, all the better to slideshow its various spaced-out visual ideas and high-concept action scenes (interdimensional shopping!), all falling out of a very big and French piñata. This is the raison d’être of the movie, and the splendor of the world(s) is undeniable. It’s just a shame that a film so production designed to death didn’t invest the time to create characters worth caring about, and while there are interesting thematic elements to the plot (disrespect to one sentient race – incidentally with a coded transgender Emperor – becomes a nameless darkness that threatens the entire utopia), a story tying it all with a bow. There have been other significantly flawed but visually stunning movies this year, such as Kong: Skull Island and Ghost in the Shell. Let’s hope that future efforts balance the equation.
P.S.: Other aesthetic notes: As you can see above, long stretches of the film resemble nothing so much as a live-action take on René Laloux’ Fantastic Planet. Besson’s own Fifth Element gets a couple nods here in the form of a restaurant name and an equivalent sequence to the legendary “diva dance”. And in an ADR fail, I’m almost certain that for one important line, Laureline speaks while her mouth stays completely still.
P.P.S.: This is a semi-new category of review for the site, alongside the larger-scale film reviews with pretty pictures, editorials, franchise flashback, TV talk, and end-of-year review stuff. Mini-reviews are designed to take less time out of my schedule and hopefully a lot more are coming soon. As I see more and more movies every year (at time of writing, I’ve seen 55 2017 releases), my review productivity has gotten worse and worse. Mini-reviews are a new way to get more movie thoughts up on the site efficiently, but at the same time not just for new releases. And I know it’s a bit odd that this is the movie with which I’m coming back; there’ve been some heavy hitters I’ve missed reviewing. Perhaps pieces on some recent big names will turn up eventually; right now I’m at work on a big full-scale Fate of the Furious review. Happy viewing!
17) Everybody Wants Some!!
At first glance I have next to nothing in common with the dudebro jocks that are the leads of this film. But Richard Linklater’s screenplay proves that great writing transcends little details like that. This is an extremely sharply written, human, funny, and profound hangout movie that happens to depict a very specific college experience. It’s an impressive achievement, to take such a barebones plot (a group of college baseball players party away the few days before term begins) and get so much storytelling mileage out of it. Everybody Wants Some!! is a very particular kind of Americana, and shows that a great movie can come from anywhere.
Look, stop motion animation is just cool. And when it’s wedded to visuals this beautiful and emotions this rich, it goes to a higher level. Set in a fantasy version of Japan, this fairy tale about family and the power of storytelling has no shortage of grand adventure, painful pathos, and unforgettable villains.
A damn fine comedy, with near-perfect cast dynamics. Ghostbusters strikes a nice balance between being SNL sketchy and committing to its science fantasy premise. So on the one hand, there’s plenty of tech and technobabble, and on the other, there’s a lot of improv-based comedy that goes a bit off the rails once in a while before reining back in. Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth in particular get the most laughs, but everyone has something to contribute. All around charming. And there’s something oddly satisfying about seeing people shoot streams of radically polarized protons at ghosts.
14) The Nice Guys
Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are an inspired pair in writer-director Shane Black’s evocative 1970s-set action comedy. Gosling in particular turns in a performance spun out of comedy gold as a drunken private detective, and the movie’s sense of place is impeccable. 70s Los Angeles provides an ideally seedy background to this warped conspiracy romp.
13) Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The most domestically successful New Zealand film of all time, Hunt for the Wilderpeople launches what can only be called an hour-and-a-half charm offensive. Orphan and wannabe “gangster” Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) runs away into the wilderness but needs the help of his grumpy adoptive uncle Hec (Sam Neill, who in a one-man promotional tour took the film all over rural New Zealand) to survive out there. Hilarity and poignancy ensue.
12) Green Room
When a punk band takes a gig at a skinhead-controlled bar, they see something they shouldn’t have and hole themselves in the green room to survive the night. This shockingly relevant tale of hipsters vs. Neo-Nazis is told with breathless economy, making for a pure cinematic experience. And the ride is thrilling not just for the knife-edge intensity but also for the extreme efficiency of the storytelling. This is an airtight screenplay if there ever was one.
Star Trek gives itself an excellent 50th anniversary gift in Star Trek Beyond, essentially a big-budget version of an original series episode with the action and character development dialed up to 11. Promoting cast member Simon Pegg to co-writing duties pays big dividends, as the film is built on a foundation of strong character, whether it’s Spock and Bones sparring while isolated or Kirk rediscovering what this whole trek through the stars thing is all about. It’s a really nerdy blockbuster, where a character spouting a humanistic platitude is the equivalent of an action movie one-liner. Contains two show-stopping scenes: the approach to starbase Yorktown, scored to magisterial perfection by Michael Giacchino; and another deployment of music more cacophony than symphony.
10) Sing Street
An endlessly endearing coming-of-age tale. Conor, a teen in mid-1980s Ireland, tries to impress a local girl by offering her a part in his band’s latest music video. Naturally, the next step is to grab a bunch of mates, and, you know, start a band. The charm of the band, named Sing Street after the repressive school the boys attend, is that they’re both quite talented, and embarrassingly amateurish. Even after weeks turn into months, you’ll still find a couple Sing Street compositions lodged in your head.
9) La La Land
She captured a feeling / A sky with no ceiling / A sunset inside a frame / Here’s to the ones who dream / Foolish as they may seem. Another musical! Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling cut a bit of a Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire rug in this nostalgic throwback to retro Hollywood Technicolor musicals. She wants to be an actress, he a jazz pianist with his own club. Sparks fly, romance ensues, all to the backdrop of the promise and heartbreak of Los Angeles. Ecstatic but also profoundly bittersweet.
Notorious filmmaker Oliver Stone shoots this sharply relevant Edward Snowden biopic beautifully, telling an extremely timely story with a deft hand. The film is unabashedly on Snowden’s side (a subversively patriotic score accompanies the copious computer action), so a measured or nuanced debate will not be found here. But this narratively ambitious biopic is always vividly brought to life, and I find it hugely engaging.
7) Eye in the Sky
Eye in the Sky takes the simplest of starting points – “let’s use a case study to tackle the ethics of drone warfare” – and spins an unbearably tense thriller out of it, turning the screws on the audience with tactical precision. One of the very best ensembles of the year, including Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, wrings their hands with edge-of-your-seat results.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Interstellar. After extraterrestrial craft hover over 12 locations around the globe, Amy Adams’ linguist is recruited by the United States government to communicate with the aliens who’ve come to their backyard. Arrival is a classic science fiction concept atmospherically shot, bolstered both by universal humanistic themes and what’s probably the twist of the year.
The first “standalone” Star Wars film is based on the heist of the Death Star plans that kicked off the plot of the original 1977 film. And so Rogue One is large-scale fanservice, but it also happens to have great original characters and takes a lot of risks. The trick is that it’s a love letter to Star Wars (the ending made me cry), but it fundamentally changes its texture. In the lead-up to the movie, the talking points were obvious. “Puts the Wars in Star Wars.” “The gritty side of the universe”, blah blah blah. It’s one thing to hear the sound bites, but to see this saga taken out of the good vs. evil fairy tale realm so elegantly is something else entirely. Star Wars has always worked best as an underdog story (witness how The Force Awakens reconstructs the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict by another name), but the heroes here are underdogs even within the Rebellion; and the villain they face is an underdog within the Empire. Rogue One is a smart, weird, exciting, emotional, unique, and occasionally sloppy blockbuster, and I love it.
4) Swiss Army Man
Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse. Yep, that’s the one. That might imply a certain kind of movie, something cooked up by giggling fratboys. And Swiss Army Man is super scatological, but it’s also one of the most profound, human, and life-affirming film in recent memory. And in an act of mad genius, the act of farting is the key to its themes. Paul Dano stars as a castaway about to end it all before a corpse washes up on shore to provide the unlikeliest of hopes, and this survival tale revolves around the wacky and wonderful bond the two forge. To describe more would be to reduce the film. The only possible misstep is the tonally confusing ending, but it’s a rare wobble in a truly innovative statement, and the best dramedy of the year.
3) Miss Sloane
Sometimes a movie is so up your alley it feels made just for you. My favorite actress Jessica Chastain, in fierce form, dominating a hyper-fast-talking political thriller? Yes, please! Chastain is the titular gun control lobbyist, characterized by the old cliché of her being brilliantly manipulative and brilliantly impolite. Think Sherlock Holmes on the hunt for senatorial votes. It’s an old familiar template, but damn if this isn’t a great version of it. The film is Aaron Sorkin-esque almost to the point of imitation, but it really works. Miss Sloane is a movie that’s kind of always impressed with itself, but I’m right there with it.
The pinnacle achievement of Marvel Studios. And maybe that’s because Captain America: Civil War contains multitudes: it’s a deeply personal story about hanging on to the past, a globe-hopping political thriller, an espionage/revenge tale, an introduction to two important new superheroes, and of course, it has that six-on-six action extravaganza. But in spite of all that stuff, the third act pares everything down to the essentials, then makes the title bout between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark utterly painful, then offers a perfectly ambiguous grace note of hope on its way out the door. This is some mighty impressive storytelling. It’s always a joy to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s stable of likable characters, but Civil War goes above and beyond, having fun with them while also putting them through the wringer. I don’t know how subsequent Avengers team-up movies can walk a narrative balancing act as effortlessly as this one, but I can’t wait to see them try.
Moana viscerally reminds me why I love musicals. Sometimes a character pouring her or his heart out in song has a primal power. It’s such a simple idea, and that directness can mean a lot. Moana is the chieftain’s daughter on a nonspecific Polynesian island, and chafes against a preordained life on the island, longing instead to voyage on the open sea. So far, so familiar. But the execution of this coming-of-age story is off the charts good, with a few casually genius thematic things going on. This is not even to mention the stunning animation or gorgeous songs, co-written by Disney’s new golden boy, Lin-Manuel Miranda. There’s a line where the sky meets the sea and it calls me / But no one knows / How far it goes. Moana is the complete package of adventure, emotion, character, and charm. I can’t remember the last time I cried so much at a movie.
Be warned, though. There’s one bad joke in the film. Shock and horror!
P.S.: And with that, my favorite film from three of the past four years has been animated (Frozen in 2013, The LEGO Movie in 2014). And not only that; it’s surreal to note that my favorite movie of 2016 has a sequence that directly riffs on my favorite movie of 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road!
And to see these 17 film posters looking all nice together, visit http://letterboxd.com/paulstanis/list/my-favorite-films-of-2016/
In an alternative version of 1985, time travel technology exists and its surgical use to prevent certain past disasters is overseen by the Temporal Bureau. A time agent (Ethan Hawke) receives an assignment to catch a terrorist in the 1970s, and while undercover as a bartender, hears the remarkable story of a woman named Jane who needed gender re-assignment surgery to survive as John (Sarah Snook in both roles). With the involved story told, time jumps and lots of heady twists ensue, and the world-building of the alt-1985 ends up taking a backseat to the mother of all ontological paradoxes. Watch out Looper and 12 Monkeys, Predestination is in town and it’s got time travel shenanigans to spare.
This is one killer time travel thriller, with a cast committed to its insane premise. While Hawke is good as a hardened time traveller, he is not the highlight here. Sarah Snook gives an astonishingly good performance in a double role, as both strident pre-surgery Jane and world-weary “present day” John. Snook brings such a distinct energy to each role (as John, helped by the wonders of make-up to boot) that it takes a very long to sink in that the same actor is playing both parts, even when the audience knows off the bat that Jane and John are the same character. She really is a revelation here, steely and brittle and broken by turns. It’s almost needless to say that she walks away with the movie. (And with Tom Hardy coming out with his own double act in Legend, he’s going to have to knock it out of the park to even match Sarah Snook in this.)
The film is loosely based on a Robert Heinlein short story, and indeed, the construction of the narrative feels like a clever method of adaptation. And very admirably, the film is really interested in presenting a dark underbelly to the 1950s, gee-whiz space travel sci-fi that Heinlein could be so fond of in stories like “The Man Who Sold the Moon”. The gender issues played with create a strong sense of place in the ’50s and ’60s-set scenes.
Early on there’s a fair bit of certain characters trying to coax information out of other characters, and you could cynically read that as reflecting an audience member coaxing coherence out of an opaque film. I say Predestination is not obtuse, but rather assured and whip-smart. Granted, some of the dialogue can get very on-the-nose when the themes reach their payoffs in the third act, but it’s a minor point. And it’s all in the service of a finale in which the twists come fast and furious, each stacking on each other with such audacity you can’t help but go with it.
It’s a dazzling showcase for Sarah Snook, it’s a heady yet thrilling tale of time travel El Mariachi style, it’s a mind-bender, it’s a science fiction gem. Predestination retains its dignity even as it shamelessly fires twists at the viewer, each one a cannonball. And I can almost guarantee this is a more interesting film involving gender re-assignment surgery than the upcoming The Danish Girl. A strong 8/10.
What We Do in the Shadows
There’s an exchange in the show Monk that goes like this: “[He’s] the Prince of Darkness!” “No, he’s not the Prince of Darkness. I’ve seen him vacuuming the ceiling. You wouldn’t see the Prince of Darkness doing that.” What We Do in the Shadows reminds me of that quote, because this hilarious mockumentary is preoccupied with depicting a multigenerational vampire flat, where the bloodsuckers argue over who has to do the dishes, hold flat meetings to iron out issues, and for that matter, iron out their shirts. It’s got lots of domestic comedy, it’s just that the domestics here happen to be able to levitate and cast no reflection. And that’s the other side of what this film accomplishes: it shows with flippant but clever (and at times gut-busting) humor what it might really be like to be a vampire. Does the Prince of Darkness vacuum the ceiling? Well, as you can see in the picture below, vampires do indeed vacuum the walls…
Our tenants are Byronic softie Viago (Taika Waititi, also co-writing and co-directing), 379 years of age; intense and no-nonsense Vladislav (Jemaine Clement, ditto), 862 years of age; insouciant and callous Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), 183 years of age; and most ghoulish of all, ancient Petyr (Ben Fransham), 8000 years of age. Petyr looks like full-on Nosferatu due to advanced age, while the others are free to walk out in the world, provided, of course, the sun has set. The ages are fairly important, because they indicate a generational difference among the vampires – you have bloodsuckers from the dawn of man, the Dark Ages, and the 17th and 18th Centuries living together and conversing just like regular humans.
But through the naturalistic lens of these characters, lots and lots of vampire mythology gets put through the mockumentary wringer, making for some great matter-of-fact comedy. And at certain point the scale is cleverly dialed up, which translates to charmingly low-budget action setpieces that end up being damn memorable. (Look out for a hallway fight straight out of Inception!) So the laid-back production pays off, and seeing the boom mic in frame isn’t a low-budget gaffe, but a part of the film’s conceit of documentation. I should mention, the doc conceit of the movie doesn’t really make sense, and some pedantic viewers might be bothered by that. But the fact that the film lampshades this at several points makes it work comedically if not logically.
And that’s the ambition of What We Do in the Shadows. To craft a really clever comedy but not to get too hung up on a few of the details. The film is a haven for puns, satire, and even a couple scares, all involving endearing and insecure characters who we see deal in the mundane aspects of being vampires. It’s a gem. A strong 8/10.
P.S.: Taika Waititi is in final negotiations to direct Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel. It’ll be really fascinating to see his vision if he stays with the project.
Desk-based and terminally under-appreciated CIA agent Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) guides her field specialist partner Bradley Fine (Jude Law) on missions far and wide, until one day Fine lands into some serious trouble with notorious terrorist Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). With a nuclear missile in play and all known field agents’ identities compromised, Cooper is very reluctantly sent on a mission to stop the deployment of the nuke. Can a woman all but ignored by her superiors for years get the job done when the stakes are so high? And can comedic writer-director Paul Feig do for spy movies what he did for buddy cop films in The Heat?
The humor of Spy is a bit scattered and random at times, but it hits the mark often enough. As the film begins, there are very obvious Bond pastiches (Theodore Shapiro’s John Barry-esque main theme, the title sequence), but all kinds of broad physical humor as well as off-center banter find their way into the mix. Some of it doesn’t work, most of it does; it’s really a function of keeping the jokes coming on a conveyor belt, as it’s almost inevitable that there are misses in there.
What does work unequivocally is the thematic framework on which the jokes are hung. Susan Cooper is super-competent at her job, but people constantly underestimate, judge and treat her based only on her appearance. So while the jokes are flying, something deeper is being portrayed. It’s only reinforced further when you see that the villain has under-appreciated grunts/employees as well, making for lots of gags that also work thematically. The whole situation is also like a reflection of Melissa McCarthy’s rise in Hollywood, with the hotshot star agent roles taken up by men and one token conventionally beautiful woman (Morena Baccarin), before the situation arises for McCarthy/Cooper to shine.
The supporting cast all commit admirably to their parts. Law has a lot of fun adopting an exaggerated American accent and portraying the false bluster of an agent who appears invincible but is in reality useless when relying on his own senses. Allison Janney, Byrne and others also heighten their performances well, but the entire supporting cast is overshadowed by Jason Statham’s fucking hilarious parody of his usual type of action-badass role. He’s a consistent comedic highlight, especially when he rattles off various over-the-top episodes from his spy career (think the Most Interesting Spy in the World) with bug-eyed conviction.
The film has flaws other than its joke hit rate. There’s some confused geography in the action; I think Feig can keep the jokes coming but I don’t know about his visual style. There’s also slightly shaky editing at times, and the third act gets too plotty for its own good; we have to care a bit about who’s doing what, but not that much.
In any case, Spy does what it sets out to do and more. It’s a funny spy genre romp/take-off (in a year littered with spy films), but its real triumph are the themes that its surface-level jokes illuminate around its central character. McCarthy and Statham own the film, and while Spy isn’t the funniest nor the most well-made comedy around, it’s good at its job. A weak 7/10.
The story of Paddington Bear is a simple set-up: a (sentient and adorable) bear makes his way from darkest Peru to England and finds a home with the Brown family; tea-time adventures ensue. So when I tell you that writer-director Paul King’s translation of the source material onto the silver screen is brilliantly funny, charming and thematically rich, the accomplishment is all the more impressive.
As this very British film begins, Paddington immediately punctures the stodgy and posh English character, and the laughs just keep coming. Clever wit, Rube Goldberg slapstick, sight gags, jokes about millennials, they’re all here, ticking off the boxes of an audience spectrum from little kids to teens to adults. But what really impresses me is the way some of the humor is used to illuminate very defined and meaningful themes of immigration and racism. I’m not kidding! This stuff is gold in Paddington, as it hits upon a genius conceit: because Paddington’s status as a bear is only treated as exotic rather than unbelievable, the screenplay has a readymade allegory to comment on racial issues. When the Brown family passes the unattended Paddington in the train station, Mr. Brown moves to shield his children from the bear, fearing that the stray will try to “sell them something”. This is sharp satire.
The visual tableaus in this movie are entertaining in and of themselves. The world of Paddington is fully realized and thought out. I don’t just mean the bit about talking bears walking around, but that this is a place where the colors are a bit heightened, the people as well, and the sets just pop. Seriously, Gary Williamson’s production design is fantastic. And it’s just a pleasure to inhabit this world, which is a bit like Wes Anderson meets Home Alone.
This is also a very cinematically literate film, with a sequence like a DIY Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol Burj Khalifa set piece and a shot that is most likely an homage to The French Connection! And the colors are desaturated in a usually vibrant setting when the story takes a darker turn, which is so satisfying to notice, because it shows that the filmmakers are really thinking things through.
The ensemble as a whole just rocks, with Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, and Peter Capaldi knocking it out of the park, Ben Whishaw a great fit to voice Paddington, and this is not to mention Nicole Kidman as a despicable villain. There are one or two jokes that don’t quite land, so the film is not perfect. But it is damn near bulletproof, with a wonderful script from King, storybook production design, and the wherewithal to deal lots of laughs and lots of substance to chew on as well. 9/10.
The Last Five Years
I’m a musicals guy. The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, A Hard Day’s Night, Chicago, Pitch Perfect, Frozen. So here comes The Last Five Years, a film whose storytelling is conveyed almost entirely in song, and I think two things. One, that sounds awesome, like a constant conveyer belt of entertainment. Two, it sounds like it would be super-tough to maintain the impact of those songs over a 90-minute runtime. So I can now report that yes, the film is entertaining if you’re on its wavelength, and that yes, these songs get samey pretty quick.
Maybe part of that sameyness lies in the tight focus on the central drama. So what’s the film actually about? It’s about a young couple’s five years together (2008-2013), and from the first scene/song the audience knows that it ends in messy divorce. The film’s structure has Cathy (Anna Kenrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) singing the lead in alternating songs, and adding to the crisscrossing device, Cathy’s songs start from the post-divorce period and rewind through time, while Jamie’s songs start from the beginning of their relationship and progress forward through time; the streams converge at Jamie’s proposal song to Cathy.
Both performers give it their all, and the constant musical conceit keeps the engine of the film running. It’s just that the songs tend to blend together after a while as they hit very similar dramatic and comedic beats. And I should mention that The Last Five Years is based on a stage musical, so there are occasionally oddly stagey moments that don’t jibe with the naturalistic vibe of most of the film.
Best song? Well, even though I certainly think Kendrick as Cathy is a better singer and performer, Jamie’s song “Moving too Fast” stays in the mind as a standout. (And its jazzy backbeat gives it energy, a beat the really reminds me of Jeff Beal’s “Start the Watch” cue from the Monk score… by the way, I love that show.)
Really, The Last Five Years comes across as this monster triple-album of a musical that might be hard to appreciate at times, but I had fun with it. If you can stand “miles and piles” of more-or-less similar songs, I recommend it (and yes, that’s a reference to a song from this film). I couldn’t ask for a much better descriptor than one of Cathy’s lines in this very film: “That’s pretty long, but it’s fun”. 7/10.
Clouds of Sils Maria
French filmmaker Olivier Assayas writes and directs this enigmatic drama, set primarily in Sils Maria, a settlement in the Alps. Respected actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) got her big break in the junior role in a drama featuring a relationship between a young seductress and an older woman, and is now being approached for the latter role. Being eyed for Maria’s old role is tabloid-attracting Hollywood sensation Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). Maria retreats to Sils Maria (where this script was written), and with the help of personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) must prepare for the role and her co-star.
The dominant aspect in this film about acting is predictable: the performances. Binoche takes the insecurities of the acting world and brings them home with empathy and class. Matching her as a calming anchor is Stewart, whose “straight woman” is key to the duo’s dynamic. The two leads tear through Assayas’ script, alternately wordy and overly atmospheric, and their chemistry drives the film. Incidentally, Stewart’s performance got her a historic award: the first César Award (French equivalent of an Oscar) to ever go to an American actor. It’s well deserved. Rounding out the trio of main characters is Moretz’ naive thespian, bringing a schizophrenic energy to a film that at times really can use an unpredictable edge.
One thing that somewhat annoys me is that this is another film like Birdman that scores some cheap shots against superhero movies. There’s a sequence where Maria and Valentine watch Jo-Ann’s performance in an X-Men knockoff; despite a reference to a character actually called the Scarlet Witch (as in Avengers: Age of Ultron), the fictional film has this horrifying, strobing cinematography (in 3D, no less) that looks like it would make anyone want to throw up. But this diversion does have some nuance: Valentine stands up for the merit of the genre when done well, the deliberately silly dialogue is fun, and in Clouds of Sils Maria‘s world at least, we have a female-led superhero movie apparently meeting with financial success (*cough* please be good, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel *cough*).
Anyways, the film’s verbosity is contrasted by the ending, which really goes for the throat of ambiguity and thus keeps a distance from the audience. A major character’s fate is left up for grabs, as it were, and there’s fickle character work that dares you to call the film out on it. This is an alienating effect that you just have to accept, and it fits in with a film that at times seems more interested in appearing transcendent than in meeting the audience halfway.
The powerhouse acting, picturesque setting, and empathetic screenplay are all pluses in Clouds of Sils Maria‘s favor. But its obscurant tendencies do, ahem, cloud some of its good intentions. It’s a well-made film, nurtured by the auteur Assayas. It just thrives on an irritating ambiguity too much in the home stretch. A weak 7/10.