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.
Whatever else 2017 will throw at us, we’ll always have movies. And whether it’s finding the greatness that comes out of a studio factory, or keeping an open mind to new independent efforts, I’ll be there. So amidst the delights and excesses of awards season, these are the 2017 films I’m most looking forward to seeing.
First, a bunch of bonus mentions. T2 Trainspotting (one of my favorite directors, Danny Boyle, returns to the film that made his name), Pitch Perfect 3 (After the sequel improved on the first, I’m ready for more a capella antics); Free Fire (a claustrophobic 70s throwback crime movie from the director of the stunning A Field in England, it could be this year’s Green Room); Annihilation (I only called Alex Garland the greatest science fiction screenwriter of all time. No big deal! Hopefully he continues to bear this out with his next writing/directing effort); Kingsman: The Golden Circle (The first Kingsman is even smarter than I initially gave it credit for, and Matthew Vaughn is a dynamite director of action); Kong: Skull Island (Apocalypse Now with Kong as Kurtz is a great pitch, and I love the 2014 Godzilla, with which this shares a cinematic universe); Death Note (an adaptation of one of my favorite comic properties looks to be a twisted psychological thriller); Logan (the rapturous response to the first 40 minutes screened to festivalgoers bodes well for this final bow of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine); Beauty and the Beast (given the state of the Disney remake, I’m very optimistic).
10) Wonder Woman
It’s a travesty that the greatest female superhero has never headlined a movie (hell, no woman has headlined one at all since Elektra in 2005). So under any circumstances, this first Wonder Woman film is a full-blown event. Under any circumstances; it sure doesn’t help that the current DC universe project hasn’t produced a single decent movie out of three chances. (And I hope the way Henry Cavill’s charisma is repressed in the role of Superman doesn’t parallel any untapped range in Gal Gadot’s performance.) But the trailer is solid, promising a weighty World War I setting, stunning cinematography on Themyscira, and impactful action. The image of Wonder Woman walking out from a trench onto “no man’s land” is incredibly potent, and I predict some very creative uses for the Lasso of Truth. The film will either wreck shop, or prove as divisive as DC’s previous movies. Please be good. And please don’t lean on Chris Pine as some kind of “stealth male lead”.
9) The Fate of the Furious
In the past six years, the Fast and Furious franchise has reinvented itself as one of the silliest and most rewarding in Hollywood, and this first post-Paul Walker entry will surely continue that pulpy momentum. When I reviewed Furious 7, I hadn’t seen any other movies in the series. Now having seen them all, I anticipate #8 all the more because while the showstopping stunt setpieces are the franchise’s signature, its secret weapon is the use of past cast members to create a sort of gestalt ensemble. In that tradition, former villain Jason Statham will join the team! That sort of loopy idea of community (indeed, “family”) is what I look for in a Fast movie.
8) Blade Runner 2049
Following up Blade Runner is almost a thankless task. But director Denis Villeneuve might be the best fit for the material anyone could hope for. After the painful intensity of Prisoners, nightmarish Enemy, the visceral Sicario, and the brooding but beautiful Arrival, Villeneuve is on an extraordinary run of atmospheric and pointed work. The teaser shows a matter-of-fact return to this very specific world, bolstered by another return to an iconic role by Harrison Ford, and a lead performance from 2016 darling Ryan Gosling.
7) The Masterpiece (née The Disaster Artist)
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is a legendary so-bad-it’s-good experience, endlessly quotable and inexplicable (“Did you get your promotion?” “Nah.” “You didn’t get it, did you?”). And co-star Greg Sestero’s personal account of its making, “The Disaster Artist”, is one of the funniest and most engaging books I’ve read, so the burden is on The Masterpiece to live up to the incredible subject matter.
6) The LEGO Batman Movie
After The LEGO Movie (my favorite film of 2014, incidentally), it seems LEGO’s roast/tribute of the Dark Knight is far from over. What’s most intriguing about this spinoff is its apparent willingness to engage with the whole breadth of cinematic takes on Batman. So we’ll have riffs on Adam West alongside jokes reflecting the Christopher Nolan era. And the above picture hints that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is already going to be satirized! For that alone, I can’t wait. It’s very unusual corporate thinking to let two Batman properties coexist on the big screen at the same time, making the business side of things fascinating as well. If all goes well, The LEGO Batman Movie could end up being the second-best Batman movie. That’s realistic.
5) Baby Driver
When wunderkind director Edgar Wright shows up, so do I. The sublime “Cornetto trilogy” of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End alone ensures Wright’s place as one of the best filmmakers working today, but Baby Driver looks like a bit of a change of pace. Frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are nowhere to be found, and it looks to be a harder-boiled affair. Revolving around a getaway driver (Walter Hill’s 70s pulp classic The Driver is a clear reference point), the hook is that he suffers from tinnitus and listens to music constantly on his earphones during heists. So Wright has license to make a sort of jukebox musical crime movie. Sounds like a plan.
4) Paddington 2
One of the biggest surprises in recent memory, Paddington is no joke one of the best family films I’ve ever seen. Charming, funny, emotional, and thematically rich, the freshman entry is a hard act to live up to, but the humility of the story will surely make for a non-bombastic follow-up. This is just the story of a (sentient) bear and the human family who loves him, and if this sequel continues in the vein of the first, that’s all we need.
3) Thor: Ragnarok
“Think you can handle having the incredible Hulk for a dad?” That’s a line spoken by Taika Waititi’s character in a film he also directed, simply titled Boy. Boy is a charming coming-of-age slice of life set in mundane New Zealand. Its simple charms seem miles away from those of a big-budget superhero movie, but that’s what Taika Waititi has been entrusted with in Thor: Ragnarok. Also the director of heartwarming adventure Hunt for the Wilderpeople and hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi is an exciting indie filmmaker given the keys to the Marvel playground. And to bring it full circle, he’s got the Hulk.
He’s also got an unbelievable cast. Aside from returning favorites Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Mark Ruffalo, and Benedict Cumberbatch, also signed up are Cate Blanchett, Karl Urban, Jeff Goldblum, and Tessa Thompson! That’s nothing less than a murderer’s row. I’m actually an unabashed fan of the oft-maligned Thor movies (this is Marvel heresy, but the first two Thors blow the first two Iron Mans out of the water for me), and Ragnarok has a chance to wrap up the trilogy in an unforgettable bow. With Waititi at the helm, there’s no limit to the cosmic and comic territories the film can go to.
2) Star Wars Episode 8
The world is still mourning the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, and even though Rogue One already functions as an odd tribute to her, she will actually have a strong presence throughout this second sequel to the original trilogy she was so beloved in. So Episode 8 will sadly function as a kind of collective wake for Carrie.
But beside all that, it will also function as a movie. In 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought the legendary franchise back to prominence in style. With Episode 8, Star Wars is taken over by writer-director Rian Johnson, who made the brilliant Brick and the visceral Looper. He inherits new characters audiences are already heavily invested in such as Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Poe Dameron, and more minor ones like General Hux and Captain Phasma (who should have, you know, something to do this time around). And of course, Leia will be a prominent player and Luke Skywalker has re-entered the story. What’s particularly exciting is that now The Force Awakens has established the foundation of the story at a breakneck pace, Episode 8 can slow down and take the storytelling in any number of risky directions. The Force Awakens’ signature scene is the terrific lightsaber duel, and if Episode 8 comes up with anything as iconic, the series will be in good shape.
1) Molly’s Game
Aaron Sorkin’s body of work speaks for itself. Even ignoring TV, his screenplays for A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs are masterful. (And to neglect non-masterpieces The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, and Moneyball would be a mistake too.) With Molly’s Game, the doyen of dialogue will not only write but also make his directorial debut. And with my favorite actress Jessica Chastain in the lead role (as the real-life underground poker “queenpin” with a meteoric rise and fall), I’m very much in the bag for this. Last year Chastain starred in Miss Sloane, a movie I adore but which is also Sorkin-esque almost to the point of imitation. I look forward to seeing the genuine article, as it were.
Granted, Molly’s Game does not have an official release date yet. The year could go by without a release and I’d look pretty foolish for putting it in pole position, but this pick is a little more personal than the blockbusters that the eyes of the world will be watching. And in 2017, I’ll be watching quite a bit.
Frozen spoilers follow.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’ songs in the animated smash-hit Frozen are great. On the face of it, they’re great because they’re catchy and fun as hell to sing along with. But more than that, these songs are complex. I don’t mean technically or musically complicated – they hide layers that only become clear once the audience is aware of the complete picture of the film’s story. They work in the moment in their immediately apparent modes, but each takes on a new resonance when considering the broader story. In most Disney musicals, the songs are straightforward; what you hear is what you get. Not so here – this is multi-level storytelling, so thrilling when pulled off well. So what’s going on beneath the surface of this story of two regal sisters and the nature of true love?
Let’s start by looking at Frozen’s two traditional ‘I Want’ songs, Anna’s “For the First Time in Forever” and Olaf’s “In Summer”. Anna sings of her perfect romantic night with a sophisticated stranger now that Arendelle’s gates are opening, and throughout she mimes the poses of women in paintings. She wants a storybook romance. For the first time in forever / I’m getting what I’m dreaming of / A chance to change my lonely world / A chance to find true love. And so, even as we’re caught up in the beauty of the song, we’re also being told exactly how she’s exposing herself to Hans’ manipulation. And sure enough, she chooses to marry a man she has just met. Meanwhile, Olaf the guileless snowman spends a whole song wishing for the thing that the other characters know will kill him.
Anna and Olaf achieve their basic goals, but not in the way they intended. Anna ends up neither married nor engaged, and furthermore enters into a relationship not with the charismatic fairy tale prince Hans, but with the humble and antisocial snow merchant Kristoff (whose existence outside the castle was thus outside anything she knew her whole life). Olaf sees summer, but would have melted there and died if not for Elsa’s intervention. Life gave Anna and Olaf not what they wanted, but what they didn’t know they wanted, which is a beautiful endpoint to an arc.
And I stress, this isn’t how ‘I Want’ musical storytelling usually goes. Quasimodo wants only a mundane life “Out there”, and gets it by movie’s end, vindicated by his friends. Ariel wishes simply to be “Part of Your World”, and has entered the human world as the credits roll. Moana burns to voyage on the ocean and see “How Far I’ll Go”, and, you guessed it, embarks on a grand seafaring adventure. The desire is fulfilled, like an empty box being filled with a checkmark. In Anna and Olaf’s cases, they discover how much stranger life is than they thought, through realizing that what they wanted was in a lot of ways ignorant and naïve, but no less worthy of respect. This stuff is mature. The ‘I Want’ pieces are tinged with the bittersweet, even if that’s only noticeable to the viewer. It makes the story more human.
In the reprise of “For the First Time in Forever”, sisters Anna and Elsa have a roller coaster of a communication breakdown. There is misunderstanding on both sides, and the conflict is on the surface. Whereas in the case of Anna and Hans’ duet “Love is an Open Door”, it only comes out in retrospect how the two singing partners are at cross-purposes. The conflict is veiled and obscure, but with hindsight adds a layer to the song and its function. And so every real-life couple who duets the song has to think in the back of their minds, “Does one of us have an agenda here?”
What further complicates the song is Hans’ enigmatic character. A usurper of the crown he is, but the film concisely portrays Hans as a natural leader and an effective monarch… who happens to use evil means to gain a throne. He’s not just the one-dimensional villain; left to his own devices, he would have been a decent king. But his path to power is ruthless. He wants it too much. To him, the opportunity for power, the open door, is a lovely thing indeed. You can subtly see this in the song.
Anna: But with you –
Hans: But with you – I found my place.
Anna: I see your face.
Both: … and it’s nothing like I’ve ever known before!
In the same moment: Anna focuses on Hans. Hans focuses on his position. And yet the clumsy romantic and the charming conspirator still harmonize beautifully in song. “Love is an Open Door” is an obvious but significant example of a song taking on multiple dimensions with the benefit of hindsight.
And this brings us to the biggest showstopper of them all, Elsa’s “Let it Go”. Not so much an ‘I Want’ number, it’s more like a ‘Maybe I Don’t Want the Thing Everyone Said I Should Want’ song. Its placement in the movie also serves as the audience’s first meaningful insight into Elsa’s character, as this literal ice queen had predominantly been seen through Anna’s eyes. Taking on this burden, “Let it Go” makes an interesting choice: it’s achingly personal, but also universal. Anyone who’s ever been made to feel different, or repressed, or closeted, has an empowering anthem in “Let it Go”. Let it go, let it go / And I’ll rise like the break of dawn / Let it go, let it go / That perfect girl is gone.
Still, some have said that this über-popular karaoke staple is about abandoning responsibility, an act of selfishness. While on one level that’s true, I think of the song as representing something that is not only worthy of championing but also ties in perfectly with Frozen songs having multilayered themes. You as the viewer can project any baggage of your own onto “Let it Go”, as long as you’re breaking free of it; it does have a plot function of abandoning the queenship; but above all, it represents Elsa’s right to make her own mistakes.
As a musical, Frozen is unique, in that the film deploys its songs without being overwhelmed by them. The songs are mostly confined to the first act, setting them up to be subverted or further toggled with later. (The songs are frontloaded. First act: four full songs and a prologue. Second act: two full songs, a ditty, and a reprise. Third act: no songs.) “Frozen Heart” is a Greek chorus that foreshadows the larger story. “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” begins in childhood innocence and ends in suffocating depression. “For the First Time in Forever” is a joyous ‘I Want’ song that nonetheless sets up exactly how to take advantage of Anna. “Love is an Open Door” is a romantic duet and a clockwork manipulation. “Let it Go” is a swirling anthem that on some level is about shutting out the world. “In Summer” is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ song with a singer who’s none the wiser. These are significant choices, the choices of a film that’s going for your brain just as it’s going for your heart and your funny bone. Frozen is a phenomenon, a cultural touchstone, a subversive 21st Century fairy tale. I think it happens to be an ironclad masterpiece, with a nonetheless humble scope, where there are always new things to discover. And the Lopez’ songs are music that keeps on giving.
Disney’s live-action division has been rolling out remakes of beloved animated films for the past several years. The Mouse House sees dollar signs, and oftentimes the public greets the news of a newfangled remake with a roll of the eyes. But when diving into these films proper, an interesting narrative that’s downright chronological emerges: Disney has gotten better at these remakes. But why is that the case? Let me show why quite recently all hope seemed lost, and how things have turned around so now the future looks very bright indeed.
The Case Against
In 2010, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland hit theaters. So how does the 1951 original hold up? Well, it’s an insane animated fantasia depicting an anarchic land where anyone can be a cabbage or a king. Filled with great characters, it inadvertently invented the Shrek dance party finale, and climaxes with Alice gaining the upper hand by eating shrooms. It features the most wonderful and hilarious subversion of the classic “Princess sings in the woods and attracts cute animals” trope, as Alice attracts them, but they’re all grotesque hybrids of animals and tools. These are just some of its wonders. The early Disney tendency to have a bunch of vignettes orbiting a thin framework fits like a glove with this concentrated randomness. In short, it’s an all-time great.
Now, it’s not strictly accurate to call the 2010 Alice a remake, as the film makes a contorted attempt to describe this journey into Wonderland as Alice’s second. But the implication that the original’s events are in continuity here becomes laughable in context. We enter Wonderland and hear words like… Prophecy? Chosen one?!? The very idea of anything being “foretold” in Wonderland is a bad joke. Narrative logic is one thing, but the storytelling becomes bogged down in politics and pretense. What was once a land of chaos becomes a bombed-out shell of its former self, populated by irritating nuisances in place of characters. Even the gruesomeness on display (three characters get stabbed in the eye, not to mention the decapitation) just comes across as desperate. Despite the one area of improvement over the original being Mia Wasikowska as an engaging protagonist, what we end up with is a poisonously boring film that represents the absolute nadir of the Disney remake. This is what not to do.
As it turned out, this black hole of entertainment was an enormous financial hit, to the tune of over a billion dollars. But it’s what I’d call an accidental billion-dollar movie, as it rode the crest of the Avatar 3D wave.
To play fair, things get significantly improved in the 2016 sequel, Alice through the Looking Glass. Despite a sickening insistence on pitching Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter as the emotional center of the film, small steps are taken in the right direction. It’s set in a bright and colorful Wonderland for a change, it’s got a solid villain in Sacha Baron Cohen’s embodiment of Time (“And I… must find… the kindergartner…”), some of the jokes land (the frog dude!), violence is used more constructively (the Humpty Dumpty gag is fantastic!), the art direction is superior (the Chronosphere is a clockwork astrolabe you can fly in!), and in Alice’s role as a dauntless seafaring explorer, she foreshadows Disney’s upcoming animated musical Moana. (And bonus points for using Alan Rickman as a voice of comfort, in his final film role.)
But overshadowing everything is the root problem of these modern Alice films: they get stuck on portentous exposition when they should just be parading charming nonsense. They’re boring because they never resolve the tension between the potential of their setting, and their need to inject drippy drama into it. Put it this way; the Mad Hatter’s dad is a textbook strict Victorian father. In Wonderland.
Next, in 2014, the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent went back to the roots of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty. In the original, Maleficent is a legitimately scary villain who capitalizes on her small sliver of screentime to make a huge impression. She’s such a representation of pure evil that it feels like the film doesn’t give her much airtime for fear of kids being traumatized by her menace. She can also turn into a dragon.
Come the modern reimaging of the story, Maleficent is no longer evil, no longer the villain, and no longer can turn into a dragon. Sigh. Jolie is an unimpeachable casting decision, but the material she’s saddled with plays it safe even while making truly odd choices. Maleficent is made a victim, and the way her wings are violated is coded in a deeply uncomfortable way for a family movie.
Where this remake shines are only in stolen moments. The recreation of the famous throne room scene is by far the best bit of the film, because it’s the only time Maleficent is allowed to be true to her name. For the rest of the film she’s not even an anti-hero. She’s just the hero. Maleficent is let down by nonsensical plot devices, a pantomime villain, truly embarrassing versions of the original fairy characters, but above all the softening of an iconic Disney villain. I assume that choice is to make Maleficent palatable as a lead, but what’s the point of doing it if it’s not to be done right? When it comes to putting a villain in the lead role, I’m not expecting Man Bites Dog or A Clockwork Orange. But I do expect an understanding of why we were drawn to the character in the first place.
So the Alice films and Maleficent, while definitely fitting into the macro trend of Disney remakes, are more like hybrid reboot/reimaginings, and as we’ve seen, have failed to make new ideas work. Don’t get me wrong, outside-the-box ideas are great for remakes, but the choices made in these two stories have fallen flat. When in doubt, both Alice and Maleficent portray pitched battles between armies that come off as Lord of the Rings-lite, seeming desperate for an edge they just can’t sharpen. So post-Maleficent, things aren’t looking so great at the moment for this remake experiment. But, just around the corner in 2015…
The Case For
The 1950 Cinderella stars cutesy mice as much as it does the title character, and sets up a familiar fairy tale framework. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella takes it and runs with it, filling in character depth, casting impeccably, and ending up with an intoxicatingly beautiful film. Cinderella (Lily James) and Prince Charming/Kit (Richard Madden) are both rounded and their courtship is played for real, none of this snap-of-the-fingers romance of the original. No longer colorless paragons, both characters feel alive as well as noble. But even as the characters are respected, the more lavish and glitzy elements of the story are channeled as well; the dance at the ball is pure movie magic that gets me every time.
We saw in Maleficent the hesitance Disney had in placing a properly characterized villain in a lead role. Cinderella is a gold standard in updating a vintage villain correctly. There is no redemption for Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine, but at the same time there are moments of subtle sympathy for the character. The impeccably dressed Tremaine is defined by her ambition and cruelty, but equally her intellect.
Taking an old-fashioned fairy tale and populating it with strong characters, Cinderella is a platonic ideal of the Disney remake, respectful of the original but updated in enough respects that the 21st Century version has a life of its own.
Cue 2016’s Jungle Book. So how does the venerable animated original look today? The 1967 Jungle Book feels more like a loosey-goosey hangout movie than anything else. Laid back and virtually plotless, it’s sedately entertaining but struggles to cohere into a story. Its themes of man’s relation to nature are crippled by portraying most of the animal characters as oddly specific human caricatures, often out of swinging clubs or the British Raj occupying government of India; figures of white imperialism march in proximity to scat-singing jazz musicians.
Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book ditches the dated elements of the original to tell a straightforward adventure story with a precocious Mowgli traversing an actual plot, threatened by a vicious villain in Idris Elba’s Bengal tiger Shere Khan. This version, however, is first and foremost a technical marvel, using only the bare necessities of live-action elements in a lavish CGI production that as near as damn it convinces you it’s all happening for real.
With interesting themes of technology, an impressive ensemble cast playing the animals (the trio of villains are the best characters), and a believable jungle society that wasn’t there before, this Jungle Book improves on the original. And again, like Cinderella, it succeeds by using the original as a clear template and filling in the corners with innovation.
The Flavor of the Day
Which brings us to the tale of a boy and his dragon. In the 1977 Pete’s Dragon (distinct from the other originals discussed here because the dragon Elliott is the only animated element), the actors gurn and mug their way through a sub-Chitty Chitty Bang Bang musical which has its charms but is more weird than wonderful. The 2016 remake likewise features a boy named Pete and his pet dragon Elliott on the fringes of a small town, but otherwise there’s virtually no connection. Indeed, the remake represents a 180-degree about-face, as the over-the-top acting of the original is replaced by director David Lowery’s indie naturalism. The scatting, mumbling Elliott is replaced by a dignified furred dragon tailormade for plush merchandise. The pratfalling Mickey Rooney is outclassed by the wizened charms of Robert Redford.
Sonically, the off-off-Broadway musical numbers are ditched, but the original main theme’s rustic tenor is still appropriated in Daniel Hart’s score. (The only other link to the past is that the remake might’ve taken Elliott’s color-changing fur from an animation error in the original.) And the set-up of a boy and his pet dragon is raised to the level of high spectacle, as Hart’s indescribably soaring dragonriding theme scores Elliott’s triumphant flights.
The film isn’t trying to rock anyone’s world, but to tell a simple and emotional story. When it gets sentimental, it earns it. And when it just wants to get to the pure Disney magic of Elliott in flight, it’s flawless. (The ending, in particular, rates high on the “tears of joy” scale.) Pete’s Dragon represents an outlier in the world of Disney remakes. Like Alice and Maleficent, it absolutely distinguishes itself from what came before. But much more importantly, like Cinderella and The Jungle Book, it’s an upgrade in quality from the original and continues the studio’s winning streak.
Music as Metaphor
All five original films that have been remade are musicals. This is an interesting baseline because gradually more and more original songs are finding their way into these remakes. Alice in Wonderland uses none of the myriad throwaway songs from the original. Maleficent and Cinderella use the properties’ most iconic tunes only as end credits songs (From the former, “Once Upon a Dream” is hauntingly sung by Lana del Rey; From the latter, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Bippity Boppity Boo” are sung by the actors in character). The Jungle Book continues the end credits tradition, but for the first time includes (incomplete) versions of original songs in the movie proper, sung by the actors.
While Pete’s Dragon is an anomaly in this progression, the future holds plenty of interest for Disney music fans. The imminent Beauty and the Beast, plus recently announced remakes of The Little Mermaid and The Lion King (the latter directed by Jungle Book helmer Favreau), will take the plunge into being full-on musicals. And not only will they include the original songs, but also bring back original composers such as Alan Menken and enlist hot new talent like Lin-Manuel Miranda to develop more songs in the established style.
The gradual willingness to integrate more and more classic songs into Disney remakes is a narrative that runs parallel with the way these 21st Century reimaginings have increased in quality. As they practice fidelity to the originals balanced with modern and welcome twists on character and story, they also incorporate more and more of the original sonic landscapes that have charmed generations. Don’t reinvent the wheel (narratively tortured Wonderland, goody two-shoes Maleficent), but complement the source material with the benefit of intelligent storytelling. As long as Disney learns from what didn’t work in Alice and Maleficent, and keeps striking the healthy balance of respecting originals and original thinking in Cinderella and The Jungle Book, their remake hot streak will continue. And it doesn’t hurt to put in the songs we all know and love to whistle while the movies work.
This is a deep dive into the minutia of Harry Potter, so spoilers for the entire series follow.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 represents something extraordinary, as it sticks the landing for an eight-film saga of consistent quality. As the series aged up with its viewers, the stories became heavier and all-out war ravaged the wizarding world. But the way the concluding film provides a fantasy action climax is fascinating. It’s pyrotechnic, it’s sweeping, but it also relies heavily on silence or near-muted action carried by visual storytelling. Sometimes words are passed over in favor of powerful images, and the unfolding drama tends to be grand but not particularly loud. There are sequences of great volume, don’t get me wrong, but they are used as emphatic punctuation rather than the norm, and this dynamism creates a unique feeling for this finale.
The opening sets the tone; Severus Snape as the aloof headmaster, with Dementors hovering over the formerly friendly confines of Hogwarts – silence to convey a brooding atmosphere. The infiltration of Gringotts is loaded with pregnant pauses – silence used for conventional tension. After Harry Potter’s watery vision of the Horcruxes, cut to Voldemort, and the sound noticeably cuts out – silence to convey shock or desperation. The Quidditch pitch is immolated as a muted afterthought. This blink-and-you-miss-it image efficiently communicates that this the days of the relatively freewheeling earlier films are gone – silence as swift visual storytelling.
In a poignantly quiet moment, married couple Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks reach out to each other at the outset of the battle, but can’t quite reach each other – silence to convey longing. It’s only in total silence in the Room of Requirement that Harry can hear the insidious whisper of the diadem Horcrux – silence offering clarity. When Voldemort arrives at the courtyard with Harry’s “corpse” in tow, the oppressively muggy atmosphere makes it feels like something out of Braveheart – silence as dread. And after the first wave of battle is over, Harry and his friends find the dead and wounded in a softly wrenching scene, all the more effective for being underplayed. Silence to break our hearts.
Backtracking a bit, pay particular attention to the first scene in the Great Hall (that hollowed out and forbidding room which used to host Technicolor feasts). We start in quiet, as Snape ultra-methodically asks for information as to Harry’s movements. He makes two words, “equally guilty”, feel like a complete sentence in and of themselves. Harry steps out and monologues, revealing that Snape killed former headmaster Albus Dumbledore. In Minerva McGonagall’s best moment of the film (better than Piertotum Locomotor), she hears this and immediately, without saying a word, attacks Snape and drives him out of the Hall. Loyalty to Dumbledore doesn’t need to be explained. Cue triumphant music (the main fanfare of the series, in fact), and the Hall’s fires are lit… for about three seconds. If the students thought Snape’s words were intimidating, Voldemort’s will learn them. Silence, scream. Silence, scream. And then the Dark Lord speaks. In contrast to the silence that has come before, his words are physically harmful to the listeners. After he’s done, we’re back into more straightforward narrative momentum. It’s an utterly dynamic scene, but more of an eerie dark ride than a roller coaster. And it all relies on carefully modulated silence and the briefest diversions into conventional conversation.
A big reason why director David Yates and his team of sound mixers are free to get more experimental is their faith in composer Alexandre Desplat. Desplat’s score for the film is extraordinary, whether it’s the mournful “Lily’s Theme”, the painful pathos of “Severus and Lily”, or the way in “The Grey Lady” cue that he turns Helena Ravenclaw’s tossed-off line that Harry reminds her of Tom Riddle a bit into a sweeping and crucial moment.
But the crown jewel of Desplat’s sonic tapestry is his elegiac “Courtyard Apocalypse” cue, which weaves the Battle of Hogwarts into a bleakly cohesive whole. As the diegetic sound is nearly muted and this theme dominates the soundscape, entire character arcs are paid off just with visuals. Aberforth Dumbledore steps out of the shadows to join his brother’s war. As Fenrir Greyback is eating Lavender Brown’s lifeless body, it has to be Hermione Granger whose outrage protects the dignity of Lavender’s corpse, given their romantic rivalry in Half-Blood Prince. Part of what motivates some of the visual storytelling is the need for storytelling economy, but it’s a great example of necessity breeding invention.
It’s all the more striking that silence plays such a key role in the film, given that Steve Kloves’ screenplay must acrobatically jump through hoops to juggle three Deathly Hallows, the explanation of who has mastery over the Elder Wand, four Horcruxes, and four ways to destroy each Horcrux. This is not to mention the Prince’s Tale sequence, which must convey a huge amount of information all while putting the emotion of it first. There are so many McGuffins in play that the screenplay actually does get in a tangle of exposition with regard to the number of Horcruxes. Harry states, “The last one’s in the castle”, referring to the diadem. Then he says, “Nagini is the last Horcrux”. Then, of course, it turns out that Harry himself is the last one. But in the end this inconsistency is forgiven because of the artistry on display.
And what considerable artistry. The film would be striking enough just on a visual level, but as it caps an eight-film fantasy series, it takes an exhilaratingly unconventional approach to delivering a climax. Contemplative conversations are followed by long stretches without dialogue, with bursts of noise popping on screen all the more due to the build-up. The death of Voldemort plays out not with a bang, but as a silent unraveling. Transformers: Dark of the Moon was nominated for the Best Sound Mixing award at the 2012 Oscars, while Harry Potter was nowhere to be found… there are no words. At a crucial but low-key emotional moment toward the end of the film, Albus Dumbledore says that he believes “words are our most inexhaustible source of magic”. Indeed, but as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 shows us, true greatness can also be found in the magical spaces between words.
2015 was the year of the spy. No less than five major studio films operated in the high-stakes field of the spy-action genre: the subversive Kingsman: The Secret Service; the comedic Spy; the thrill ride Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; the 1960s throwback The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; and the latest installment in the venerable James Bond franchise, Spectre. (I’m not including Bridge of Spies, as my focus here is on the action side of spy stories.) So how does each take on the genre fare? And who will take pole position in this game of cinematic espionage? Spoilers for this quintet of movies follow, but after all the work of spies is to discover secrets…
Out of the five films, two pairs can be created based on the movies’ agendas relative to the genre and similar themes. This leaves an odd duck out, so let’s deal with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. first. A movie in passionate love with the idea of capturing 60s cool, U.N.C.L.E. is all flash and style with little substance. This wouldn’t be an issue, though, if it didn’t keep building up villains who turn out to be nothing-characters, or had the action chops to back up its sense of groovy fun. The film is a likable enough romp that gets by on the chemistry of its leading actors, but its slavish devotion to the tropes of the spy genre isn’t matched with the ingenuity to justify its swagger. This is spy movie as schematic, but dressed up in conspicuous fashion. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a fun time with good elements to recommend it, but it’s like gravy with no meal to put it on – and so it is not the best spy film of 2015.
The first pair we deal with balances love for the genre with the wits to amplify, undercut, and poke fun at it as well; both Kingsman and Spy play with the iconography of spy movies (and particularly Bond movies) in really cool ways. Co-writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman make sure Kingsman is doing a hell of a lot thematically. Just to scratch the surface: the posh and familiar title disguises a strident satire of class politics, presenting heads of state and the 1% as monstrous and selfish hypocrites. The titular agency uses codenames out of Knights of the Round Table, but this picture of British upper crust stateliness is revealed through Michael Caine’s “Arthur” character to go beyond elitism into true corruption. The working-class hoodlum Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is the one to see through the B.S. and save the organization from itself. As Eggsy emerges for the third act dressed in a bespoke suit, the film re-appropriates the idea of the gentleman spy as something open to all. As for the Bond nods, Kingsman takes several of the series’ standbys (the supervillain’s plan, the lethally equipped henchman, the idea of a sexual reward for Bond at the end) and dials them up to 11, lifting the veil from them. So as the film celebrates spy tradition, it also challenges it constantly. Kingsman: The Secret Service is thematically rich, imbued with bold comic book-y sensibilities, and bolstered by great action – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.
Writer-director Paul Feig’s Spy, meanwhile, takes the Bondian archetype and lampoons him in the form of Jude Law’s bumbling but lucky agent Bradley Fine. In this comedy, Melissa McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is a competent agent constantly underestimated and disrespected by her peers and supervisors because of her appearance and gender. The arc of the film brings the put-upon Susan into the field on a technicality, and as she saves the day in place of the gentleman spy parody Bradley Fine (not to mention in place of Jason Statham’s tough-as-nails action hero parody Rick Ford), the film deftly juggles the basics of the genre while having fun doing it. And from another angle, by championing Susan after the more conventionally attractive female agent (Morena Baccarin) has been revealed as traitorous, Spy once again subverts the genre, this time its desire to flaunt exotic and beautiful women. Spy is a solid action-comedy, showcasing Paul Feig’s reliable ability to both get laughs and craft memorable characters to deliver them – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.
And then there were two. They feature certain elements in common… a rogue shadowy organization creating international chaos, an effort on the part of the establishment to shutter the good guys’ antiquated intelligence agencies which forces the hero to go rogue to get the job done, and a crucial trip to Morocco. Spectre has a couple good setpieces and a handful of effective moments, but is crippled by major storytelling problems. An irrelevant personal connection between Bond (Daniel Craig) and the villain, a weak and uninspired finale, limp action sequences such as the remarkably boring car chase in Rome, an unconvincing romance, hollow piggybacking of plot points from previous films, and an M-defends-MI6-from-bureaucrats subplot recycled without passion from its much better treatment in the prior installment Skyfall. Spectre coasts on the James Bond name when it should be blazing its own trail, going through the motions despite being one of the most expensive films ever made – and it is not the best spy film of 2015.
I’ll tell you what is, though, and that’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Every element of this thing sings. (And in fact, my original review really didn’t give it the credit it deserves.) Clockwork plot and structure, consistently excellent action setpieces (go to the opera!), warm but brittle character dynamics amongst the IMF team, airtight control of tone and tension. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s pulpy epic feels like a perfectly pulled off mission in itself. And then there’s Ilsa Faust.
Played with precision by Rebecca Ferguson, Ilsa is the key to it all. When Ilsa is introduced and helps breaks Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of the Syndicate’s clutches, she feels like a plot device, a spy defined by McQuarrie’s scripted web of triple-crosses. But we later see that this scene comes wholeheartedly from character. Ilsa is a ruthlessly competent specialist, who also has this crazy idea that spies of allied countries have a responsibility toward each other. Her statuesque beauty paired with her matter-of-fact moral conviction makes Ilsa an incredibly magnetic character. In the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ilsa Faust surpasses Imperator Furiosa, Adonis Creed, Finn, and Rey as the breakout action hero of 2015.
It’s strange how things work out sometimes, as I would never have thought that the latest James Bond film, coming off the heels of the hypnotically great Skyfall, would be my least favorite spy movie of 2015. But even so, it fills a corner of the genre. Spectre is spy film as portentous drama. Kingsman: The Secret Service is spy film as anarchic statement. Spy is spy film as wacky satire. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is spy film as rosy-eyed throwback. And Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is spy film as immaculate time bomb. Light the fuse…
Contains spoilers for Zootopia (known as Zootropolis in some territories)
Zootopia is a very fine movie. Its lead characters are endearing, a lot of the humor is on point, and the video-game-overworld layout of the titular city leads to some eye-popping visuals showing off a fully realized world. But what does it have to say?
Quite a lot, actually – too much, even, but I’ll get into that later. I separate the film’s moral from its attempt at allegory, so I’ll address the moral first. The moral/message is great and very timely. We’re in the midst of a 2016 Presidential campaign marked by some ugly, downright troglodytic racism and sexism on the part of a certain candidate, and Zootopia comes along with a healthy message of tolerance, hitting hard against xenophobia and prejudice.
Of course, it uses a city of anthropomorphic animals to make this point, illustrated in part by the two leads; we have female rabbit Judy Hopps and male fox Nick Wilde, who were in some way brought low by prejudice before rallying back to ensure a happy ending for the movie. They do this by circumventing a conspiracy to artificially make the 10% minority of predator animals go “savage” by introducing a drug into their systems. The plan was working for a while; “innocent prey” saw their worst prejudices realized with rabid killer predators on the loose, leading to panic, paranoia, and hate against the predators. Now for the film’s ending to be happy, the force of institutional racism is literalized and arrested in the form of the Mayor, a seemingly meek sheep named Dawn Bellwether who is behind the conspiracy. She rants about us vs. them and virtually declares war on the dreaded other. This is after making repeated comments earlier in the movie about how she and Judy need to “stick together”, but all the while orchestrating a fear monger’s campaign. She’s Trump if he kept it a secret.
So we have a simple moral of anti-xenophobia, arising from a complicated allegory. When getting into the specifics of Zootopia’s allegory, I think it’s overcomplicated and incoherent. Let’s break it down.
The setup begins with mysterious incidents of certain individuals of predator species going savage. We learn that “Night Howlers” are involved somehow. Judy Hopps inadvertently stokes the racially charged fear in the city when she states in a press conference that these predators are going back to their “natural state”. (To the film’s credit, this shows how even a good person can say offensive things because institutional racism can sometimes run insidiously deep.)
Next we further the Night Howler mystery by learning that it’s a flower, and that consumption of it leads to an animal going savage under psychotropic influence. So something like a crack/meth epidemic is causing this – just say no, and cue cute Breaking Bad parody.
But then it’s revealed that Mayor Bellwether is on a zealous crusade. She has the drug concentrated into pellets, arms her officers with dart guns, and orders predators SHOT WITH THE DRUG. We went from social commentary about oppression, to social commentary on minorities and drugs, to social commentary on minorities getting shot by the authorities. Mixed metaphor, much?
Now, of course, traditional mainlining of drugs has no place in a children’s movie and the movie needs the drugs to get in the predators somehow. For an example of a plot point not taken, the writers could have, I dunno, put the drug in a liquid that only predators drink – this could at least take advantage of how the movie uses animal biology. But the choice to reverse-engineer this plot into a commentary on minority groups getting freakin’ shot is a decisive one.
Stacking these revelations on top of each other ends up turning a potentially compelling parallel to our world into a circus show. Are the predators going savage because they’re an oppressed minority? Because they’re taking drugs? Because they’re all getting shot? By pulling it in all these different directions, the allegory is diluted. The film finds a bunch of real-life things to “comment on” and puts them in a blender. This isn’t the best allegory, it’s the most allegory.
Indeed, maybe part of this is a consequence of how plotty, procedural and reliant on successive revelations Zootopia can be. (Clue leads to clue, and it’s kind of hilarious how many times Judy recording someone saying something incriminating is a plot point.) Also, Zootopia is keen to comment on all these racial issues that we face, but at the end of the day this is still an animated comedy with animals. While the film certainly chafes against stereotypes to a certain extent (Bunnies are coded as feminine in the movie’s world, so cue Judy’s annoyance at jokes about bad driving and being really emotional), most of the animals are given predictable behavioral traits (Timberwolves gotta howl). As (the extended Marlon Brando joke) Mr. Big says, “We may be evolved, but we’re still animals!” I totally understand why a weasel named Weaselton is there acting all “weaselly” – after all, this is an accessible family movie – but it makes a thematic graft between these races and our human races kind of a no-go. When you’re depicting an allegorical world where these predator species did in fact originally evolve to kill the prey species, can you really justify this as a parallel of our world?
The place where Zootopia’s allegory was really helped out was with the pop star Gazelle. Just as Gazelle’s peaceful protest against racism was crashed, so did Beyoncé’s statement of solidarity with victims of police brutality at the Super Bowl face a big backlash. While I know Gazelle doesn’t know at that point that the predators are being shot, from the objective filmmaker’s viewpoint, that is a pop star protesting a minority group getting shot by authority figures. That’s timely as hell.
While it has a wonderful moral, Zootopia takes a sloppy path to get there, and stumbles as allegory. This doesn’t necessarily diminish it much – wearing its heart on its furry sleeve, it’s a great time at the movies in the company of likable characters living in an interesting world – but it shouldn’t be held up as some brilliant satire. It’s great on basic message. It’s just not so great as allegory.