Zhang Yimou’s “The Great Wall” – A grand effort

Still from "The Great Wall"

There’s something to be said for effort. It’s usually an attribute for which one gives a semi-sarcastic “A”, meaning that they liked the subject’s work ethic or moxie despite whatever objectively crappy result they managed to churn out. That’s not what I mean here. But when I hear that Zhang Yimou, the director of Hero, is about to make an American-Chinese co-production in which Matt Damon fights monsters on top of the Great Wall of China (from a concept by the writer of World War Z and the head of Legendary Pictures), my expectations plummet to roughly Dracula Untold levels. I expected a perfunctory genre exercise in which a bankable action star was handed a simplistic studio premise that appeals to both East and West in an effort to return a strong box office both globally and in a burgeoning marketplace. What I was not expecting was to be wearing a big, stupid grin for quite so much of it, and to experience a persistent sense that everyone in the film was really trying their darnedest to create something worth watching. I don’t exaggerate when I say that this film delivers a battle sequence in the first twenty minutes that is easily as well-made as the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers‘ Battle of Helm’s Deep, and after watching a trio of sub-par Hobbit films, I’m comfortable saying that that doesn’t occur by accident.

The film starts its focus on William (Damon) and his mercenary buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal), on the run from some bandits in Mongolia, on a mercenary Marco Polo effort to reach China and steal some black powder. They’re in rags, have long scraggly beards, and are immediately baffled when their chase leads them to the base of an architectural marvel staffed by a professional army in incredibly elaborate costume armor and castes. There is infantry, with armor styled like black bears, archers, like red birds, and “Crane Corps”, an blue-uniformed, all-female, close-quarter combat troop that is even cooler than it sounds (pikemen on pulleys!). This is the Nameless Order, under the leadership of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), and strategist Wang (Andy Lau), sworn to defend China from the hell-mouth just north of the Wall, which spews forth monstrous creatures every 60 years to attack the wall and devour the north of China.

“Have you ever seen an army like this?” William sycophantically remarks to Tovar as they sit with their hands tied while the Chinese deftly fend off the several thousand monstrous creatures that choose that exact moment to attack. This critic’s answer is…not since Lord of the Rings, and it wasn’t nearly this colorful.

Jing Tian in "The Great Wall"

The inclusion of Andy Lau brought another film comes to mind as I was evaluating this setup: Iron Man 3. Lau – a major Hong Kong action star with a career spanning decades – was originally offered the part of a heart surgeon (eventually played by veteran Chinese actor Wang Xueqi) who has a minuscule bit part that solves a huge problem for the title superhero. That subplot was some trite nonsense, and essentially contributed nothing except for a brief Mary Sue persona whose sole purpose is to provide a sounding board for the American actors to talk about how cool China is for a couple of minutes, in an effort to bypass China’s foreign film importation restrictions through sheer toadying. This is a phenomenon I’ve remarked upon before – and while I’m not concerned in the least by China’s rise as a film market (the more the merrier), I’ve almost invariably found these “China cameos” to be a bit superfluous and condescending – and by some reports, critics in China felt the same way. Damon’s inclusion in this film almost feels like an inverse of Iron Man 3‘s debacle – the inclusion of a popular American actor playing a skilled mercenary who is present throughout the film, but largely along for the ride as the Chinese characters (and organization, and technology) actually drive the plot. But overall, the balance feels much cleaner here. Yes, having a European trader randomly show up on the occasion of China’s once-every-sixty-years monster invasion is a bit convenient, and his motivation for being there is quite flattering to China itself. But it helps that both Damon and Jing’s characters (who essentially become the co-leads of the film) are every bit a combat and charisma match for each other, even if their accents are both a bit odd and inconsistent. The end-result feels like a true international film – a bit like Pacific Rim, with the slight improvement of having the confidence to showcase its CGI monstrosities during daylight hours.

Still from "The Great Wall"

The plotline of this film, even for its simplicity, doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the film does make some visual and practical effort to suggest that the monsters are evolving greater intelligence, with the army and monsters alike forced to adjust their tactics as the film goes on. It’s a great deal of fun to watch, although why all of this escalation would occur along the most fortified and well-manned hundred-yard section of the 5,500-mile Wall is a mystery best left unpondered, as there’s no good answer for it, and it didn’t particularly bother me during the film. What did bug me were the film’s tepid ambitions beyond the Wall. The stakes of the film are world-ending – if the monsters are allowed to reach the Chinese capital (which has a population of two million, but looked virtually empty whenever we saw it), they will consume the entire population and reproduce in sufficient numbers to destroy the world. Did I buy these stakes? Largely yes, even if the final battle relies on the same “Take out the [central thing] and you’ll vanquish the entire army” nonsense as every sci-fi exhibition film from to Star Trek Beyond to The Avengers. At a certain point, I’ll probably have to stop regarding swarms of CGI whatevers as a credible threat if they’re as easy to destroy en masse as the Death Star, but it appears that I haven’t reached that point yet. The final action setpiece is outstanding, featuring Jing and Damon performing exhilarating fantasy acrobatics worthy of Cruise and Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, always feeling like they’re mere seconds from being devoured alive. Ramin Djawadi‘s score (which includes diegetic taiko drums used to direct the army’s tactics) is marvelous – and as a point of comparison, I say that having just watched a Marvel Studios film yesterday, and being (once again) underwhelmed by its fade-into-the-background generic score. Marvel is good at many things, but scoring superhero antics with memorable themes is not one of them. Djawadi has done some truly breathtaking work on Game of Thrones and Westworld last year, and I’m quite pleased to see him pushing back against the tide of bland superhero music on the silver screen.

Astute readers may note that I haven’t remarked much on Matt Damon playing the white hero of a Chinese film from a standpoint of “whitewashing” or a lack of minority representation in film. That’s mainly because after seeing the film, I neither agree with that characterization, nor particularly have much to say on the subject. To me, The Great Wall only superficially resembles white savior films like The Last Samurai, and I honestly haven’t read many actual complaints on this subject outside of members of the American left who made up their minds about the film months before it came out. I don’t wish to be dismissive of an important and persistent issue, but politics is a target-rich environment at the moment, the US has just put a Captain Planet villain in charge of environmental protection, and for the moment, I’d rather focus my attention on issues where I can meaningfully contribute to the discourse. Including, for instance, goofy monster battles.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #98 – “Fifty Shades Darker” (dir. James Foley)

Poster for "Fifty Shades Darker"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel make what we’re pretty confident will be our last visit to the Twilight fanfic world of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, despite being clearly out of the critical mainstream in finding this to be a vast improvement on the first film (40:00).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” by the late, great Jeff Buckley, which appears in the film, but is oddly missing from the film’s soundtrack.
  • CORRECTION: In the intro to this podcast, we referred to E.L. James as a “great American novelist”. We regret the error.
  • CORRECTION: Daniel did not do the math. If Christian makes $24k every 15 minutes, he makes $840 million per year. Making roughly $1.1 million/year puts you in the top 0.1% income percentile in the United States. Christian is cartoonishly rich.
  • CORRECTION: Okay, Portland has a couple of 40+ story buildings. That was still totally Vancouver, B.C. though.

Listen above, or download: Fifty Shades Darker (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #97 – “Split” (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

Poster for "Split"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel (plus special out-of-town guest Tex) see if M. Night Shyamalan still has the ability to twist a film into something likable. The answer – especially after we disliked The Visit so much – may surprise you (39:24)!

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Frogbass” by Snails, from the film’s soundtrack. Incidentally, this appears during a scene where we were promised that McAvoy would dance to Kanye, but I’m betting he was too expensive for a Blumhouse picture.
  • Speaking of, this film’s budget was $10 million, which is on the high end for Blumhouse Productions, matching the likes of Insidious: Chapter 3, Sinister 2, and The Purge: Election Year.
  • Michael Gioulakis was also responsible for the outstanding widescreen cinematography on Glenn’s #1 film of 2015, It Follows.
  • Check out the great work done by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and if you’re able, think about donating!

Listen above, or download: Split (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #96 – “Silence” (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Poster for "Silence"

In this week’s podcast, two old friends make their second appearance ever on the podcast. A shout-out to 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, and our resident Japan expert (and Glenn‘s former fiancée and now-wife), Megan! And don’t worry, Daniel‘s here too, being quite unkind to Adam Driver. Take a stroll through Tokugawa-era Japan as we discuss cultural clash and religious persecution in director Martin Scorsese‘s most Catholic film ever (58:17).

Despite delving into some serious religious themes, this episode actually contains even more NSFW language than usual.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [17:58] Spoilers: Silence
  • Music for this episode is the track “Supply Chain” by ConfidentialMX, as isolated by Trailer Music Life on YouTube (as there doesn’t seem to be an official track available).
  • Bill Wurtz‘ “History of Japan” is one of the most entertaining and educational history lessons on the internet. Silence takes place at roughly the 4-minute mark of the video, but you should really just watch the whole thing. Seriously, go watch it right now. I might watch it again myself after typing this. It’s that good.
  • Correction: This isn’t super-germane to the film (as it’s over 100 years earlier on the other end of Eurasia), but Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses were published in 1517, not 1597.
  • Note: We briefly discuss the story of Cassie Bernall, one of the victims of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, as an oft-cited example of a modern-day Christian martyr. Reading further, I was reminded of something I first learned when reading Dave Cullen‘s exhaustive book on the shooting, which is that this story is – to put it mildly – most likely just a story, even if it has still served the religious and rhetorical purpose that we have put it to today. On a related note, the film that Daniel mentions at the end of the episode is actually a loose Christian dramatization of another Columbine victim, Rachel Joy Scott, and it looks more than a little bit fictionalized and exploitative.

Listen above, or download: Silence (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

2016 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2016)

#10: Trifecta:
Weirdos in the Wilderness

Combined

Written and directed by Matt Ross (Captain Fantastic)
Written for the screen and directed by Taiki Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople)
Written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (Swiss Army Man)

Don’t worry; the rest will be individual films. I don’t know if Wes Anderson slipped something into the water supply last year, but it became clear to me during my December catch-up that “weirdos in the wilderness” were having a cultural moment in 2016 (although the less said about The Legend of Tarzan, the better). I’ve grouped these three together because they all hit a similar level of quality, I went around in circles trying to decide which one to include, and cheating the Top 10 format is a tradition as old as the Glennies. So here we go.

Captain Fantastic is about a man (Viggo Mortensen) raising his children with physical and intellectual rigor in the wilderness of my home state of Washington, jogging them up and down a mountain every morning, quizzing them on string theory and math and literature every afternoon, and answering any question and discussing any topic that they wish, no matter how conventionally inappropriate it might be. This is an odd family forced to confront its oddness as a family crisis sends them onto a road trip, much in the darkly funny, whimsical, and well-acted vein of Little Miss Sunshine.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about the bond that forms between a weird kid (Julian Dennison) and his cantankerous adoptive uncle (Sam Neill) as they wander through the backcountry of New Zealand and become outlaw folk heroes. Does exactly what it says on the tin.

And finally, Swiss Army Man is about the bond of friendship that forms between a shipwrecked man (Paul Dano) and a talking, farting corpse with superpowers (Daniel Radcliffe). I feel as if I’ve given you plenty to go on with those first two, so let’s talk about Swiss Army Man for a moment. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes a brief appearance, and her final line of the film (“What the fuck?!”) just about sums this up, and loses nothing in delivery. This is a film like no other, it is alternately heartwarming and horrifying, incredibly well-acted by Dano and Radcliffe, and utterly bizarre in every scene. It is a film about love, friendship, and the meaning of life (all explained in detail to a corpse who has no memory and no verbal filter). And also farts. Mortensen may talk a big game in Captain Fantastic about wanting to live away from civilization, but Swiss Army Man is about a man who might rightfully be drummed out of civilization with torches and pitchforks for being just a bit too weird, and he knows it. And then he and the film examine what exactly it means to be so weird. Each of these films is touching, and inspiring in its own way, but if you want the one that’ll alter your mind (for weal or woe), go with Swiss Army Man.

#9: Under the Shadow

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Written and directed by Babak Anvari

Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a mother stuck with her daughter (Avin Manshadi) inside an apartment building in Tehran during the War of the Cities, a series of bomb and missile attacks between Iran and Iraq during the 1980s. This is, on the surface, an outstanding horror film dealing with the Islamic and Arabian legend of Djinn, and Shideh’s struggle to protect her daughter from these vengeful demons as their relationship strains in the process is quite fascinating on its own (see also: The Babadook). But the background elements of this film amp up the stakes even higher. Most horror films deal with the threat of imminent death, but this is seldom rendered quite so literally as, “This building may get hit by a missile and explode at any second.” War is the horror that hangs over this film, and will continue to do so even if the supernatural terror is defeated. The other demon is inside Shideh herself, whose doctor husband is up at the front lines of the war. She simultaneously struggles with fear of his imminent death, and jealousy at the injustice that she was barred from resuming her medical studies after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, due to her involvement with student groups (later deemed to be counterrevolutionary) at her university. Her husband is now on the front lines doing the job that she has been barred from ever doing, and she’s stuck in one terrible situation feeling jealous of another. This is a deep and fascinating twist on the horror genre, and essential viewing when it eventually hits Netflix (the service apparently acquired it at Sundance).

#8: Kubo and the Two Strings

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Directed by Travis Knight, written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler

Laika delivers another dark and fascinating stop-motion journey, pushing the medium beyond any limit I could’ve imagined previously, this time through Japanese legend. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy with the power to magically move origami figures by playing his guitar, and he uses his supernatural busking to raise money to take care of his ailing sorceress mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron). She warns him that he must never stay out at night, or her sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara) and father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) will come back to steal his other eye, having taken his first eye when he was a baby. And that is one hell of an origin story. This quickly escalates into an active chase, Kubo on the run with his burgeoning magical powers, with only his companions Monkey (also Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to guide him. Theron’s vocal performance is easily the strongest of the three, and Monkey is a fierce and terrifying screen presence, even as she is under siege by Sariatu’s bone-chilling sisters (seriously, these things are so creepy). My only beef with this film isn’t really a beef at all – it’s a bit predictable. It’s clear where this film is going, and what steps it must take to get there. But this is a clear instance where the journey, the stuff of Japanese myth and imagery, is quite satisfying. If Laika didn’t have such a distinctive visual style, I would’ve expected this story to emerge from the workshop of Studio Ghibli. It is a rousing adventure and a visual triumph. And it really doesn’t want you messing with your phone while you watch it. You’ll know what I mean with literally the first line of the film.

#7: Last Days in the Desert

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Written and directed by Rodrigo García

“But I’ll stay as long as it takes, forever…to witness the end. The final sunset. If there is one. Maybe on that day, late in the afternoon, seconds away, He’ll want to start it all over again…from the beginning. He’s done it before. Recreated the whole thing, retold the whole thing. On a whim. With little differences that must mean the world to Him – a branch that crooks in a different direction, one egg more or less in the nest of a flea. What a self-centered, self-indulgent creature He is. Isn’t He? Deaf-mute. Insatiable. These things He expects of you. Do you think anyone will care? Men of 1,000 years from now?”

Whether you follow them or not, there are few figures as essential or fascinating to western civilization as Jesus Christ and Satan, and this film features Ewan McGregor in a fascinating dual performance as both, wandering the desert for 40 days and 40 nights during the Biblical “Temptation of Christ“. This is an event spelled out in vague detail in three of the four Gospels, and the essential elements of the tale are: Jesus gets baptized, wanders through the desert fasting, and during that time, Satan offers to help (and make him a powerful human) in exchange for a bit of good ol’ devil-worship. Jesus tells him to sit and spin, then returns to his ministry and eventual execution for humanity’s sins. This film is García’s imagining of what that these two might have discussed in human form for 40 days, and the result is quite psychologically and theologically fascinating. The framing device is a family drama, featuring an unnamed father (Ciarán Hinds), son (Tye Sheridan), and dying mother (Ayelet Zurer). Satan bets that Jesus can’t solve their problems to everyone’s satisfaction. Jesus – unlike his Father – refuses to take the bet, but tries to help the family anyway, and Satan sticks around to see how it goes.

The two have a fascinating relationship, with Jesus acting as a divine man apart, and Satan acting like his put-upon older brother who’s angry to see which one has their parent’s favor. McGregor’s performance is outstanding, making it quite plain which of them is in frame at each moment, even when he has nothing to say. And the ensuing dialogue is what makes this film worth seeing. These two know each other well, and that prior relationship is plain in all of their interactions. When Satan is attempting to trick Jesus, it always falls flat, and Satan seemingly knows it in advance.

“You think you are his only child?,” Satan asks, “There are others.”
“No,” says Christ, without hesitation, “There is only Me.”

This is some stilted dialogue, seemingly written exclusively for the Biblical page (or the trailer). And given Satan’s unending knowledge of past and future events, he surely must know it, because the scenes where the two are talking plainly about destiny (of specific humans, and broader humanity) are much more electrifying. Hinds and Sheridan also work well, even if their family struggle isn’t quite as interesting as the one happening over their heads. This is a fascinating little gem, shot with great visual splendor in the Colorado Desert by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who continues to demonstrate his talent (he shot two of my previous #1 films, Birdman and Gravity).

#6: Moana

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Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, screenplay by Jared Bush

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a musical genius, newcomer Auli’i Cravalho has a marvelous and powerful voice, and that’s only the start of this film’s appeal. This is a deceptively simple and high-stakes journey about a Polynesian princess brokering a peace between warring demigods amid stunning animation. I like to think that when Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), the giant villainous coconut crab, sings, “Fish are dumb, dumb, dumb; they’ll chase anything that glitters” – before devouring several – that it’s a good-natured shot across the bow of Pixar’s 2016 sequel, Finding Dory. And indeed, Moana‘s water and sand animation – particularly the fine details of how translucent blue waves crash on the shore, and how sand sticks to (and then unevenly sloughs off) wet human skin, etc. – are as much a triumph of physics simulation as a work of art, and certainly push the visual envelope further than Pixar did this year.

Maui (Dwayne Johnson) is quite a fun character, with his song, “You’re Welcome” being the closest thing this film has to an instant classic (is there anything The Rock can’t do likably?). This is perhaps a missed opportunity, not finding such a moment for the film’s heroine, because while Cravalho’s climactic solo reprisal “I Am Moana” is both musically and narratively satisfying, Moana’s portion of the song is essentially just a list of character attributes (“I’m a girl who loves my island; I’m a girl who loves the sea…”), so it doesn’t stick in the mind nearly as well. Don’t get me wrong; Cravalho plays this ambiguity and mixed motivation for her sea jaunt quite well, but if there’s anything approaching the memorability of Frozen‘s “Let It Go” in this film, it’s Johnson’s chipper cockiness as he explains that Maui created their entire island existence as a lark (with his tattoos – in some impressive hand-drawn animation – performing matching dance choreography on his skin). Moana, who had sought Maui out in order to kidnap him (since he also caused the film’s central conflict), is noticeably taken in by his godly charm in spite of herself, which gives this song the dual purpose of a marvelous character and relationship introduction, since Maui is really just peacocking so that he can con Moana out of her boat – not realizing that she literally has the ocean working for her by this point.

This is what I mean when I say that the songs – co-written by Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina – and Cravalho’s voice are just the beginning of Moana‘s appeal, even if they’re the part that I’ve been consuming non-stop since I saw it. There’s a lot more going on in this film, with Moana herself being the agent of a major political change, as she decides to return her society to their former ways as ocean voyagers. Just because she wants to, and because their island is on the verge of an ecological collapse. First, she just needs to make the ocean safe by resolving a world-ending divine conflict. This princess contains multitudes – and is a badass.

#5: Arrival

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Directed by Denis Villeneuve, screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on short story by Ted Chiang

Arrival is smart and well-rendered hard sci-fi, in the “competence porn” vein of The Andromeda Strain or Apollo 13, in which we get to see what it looks like when experts take a credible, multidisciplinary approach to such an intractable problem as a deciphering a completely unknown language from the ships of a silent alien invasion. I don’t want to say too much here, but Amy Adams in particular is outstanding as linguist Louise Banks, and her arc (both practically and emotionally) is what ties the entire film together. All of the linguistic details are quite clever – I particularly liked the scene in which Banks diagrams the sentence that the US government wants the aliens to answer: “What is your purpose on Earth?”. She explains all of the linguistic and conceptual precursors that are necessary for the aliens to even reach the point of comprehending this question, and that’s before we decide what their response means, whether they think of “purpose” in the same way that we do, or whether we believe them.

Bradford Young‘s bleakly gorgeous cinematography tells a compelling visual story of the cordons, ad-hoc bases and perimeters, and other minutiae that would inevitably accompany an alien invasion, as the global situation is laid out at a slow, deliberate pace. We explore two of the alien landing sites in the greatest detail – the first in the US (in an incomprehensibly vast field in Montana), and the other over Chinese territorial waters, surrounded by a naval blockade. In the vein of Soderbergh, Villeneuve does an outstanding job of selling the alien invasion as a worldwide crisis through background details alone (the war/comms room on the Montana base was a particularly nice touch). This is also a good place to mention – I was glad to see China put to good use in this film. After several years of dubious Hollywood pandering in which China’s biggest actors are put to token and pointless use so that the film will either qualify for, or entirely skirt, the foreign film importation limits, surely China itself must be as tired of this sort of condescending inclusion as I am. So when I see such a strong example of Chinese inclusion in American cinema, it seems worth calling out, even if they managed to torpedo their chances of a Chinese release in other ways. Tzi Ma appears as a Chinese military leader, and forms an essential part of the plot as the film goes on, as much of the world follows China’s lead when deciding what to do with the aliens. China is a perfect choice for this role, given the film’s focus on linguistics, as it feels entirely plausible (and supports the film’s underlying use of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) that American and Chinese linguistic experts could see the same message from their respective spacecraft and come to slightly different conclusions about it.

And…that’s about all I want to say, because this is definitely a film where spoilers matter. While I haven’t yet read Ted Chiang‘s “Story of Your Life”, it is now on my reading list, and I’m told that it makes a better digestif than aperitif. That is to say, see Arrival, then read the short story.

#4: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Directed by Gareth Edwards, written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy

I mocked the very concept of this film. I questioned the need for it. I pointed out how hilarious the hordes of online fans were for fearing spoilers for a film that would unquestionably end with the team of unlikely heroes retrieving the Death Star plans (with one or more of them probably dying in the process), paving the way for its direct and immediate sequel, the original Star Wars. I plan to continue this advance mockery for the Boba Fett movie (didn’t we already see his crappy origin story?), if it really does end up happening. And since Disney’s plans for the foreseeable future include a Star Wars film every single year, I will definitely need to be a bit more discriminating when it comes to evaluating them. Now that my nerd bonafides are out of the way: Rogue One is incredible. It knocked my socks off.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is about as compelling a Star Wars protagonist as Luke Skywalker – which is to say, not very. This may be due to her instantaneous transformation from an unresponsive, hiding child to a nondescript adult in imperial custody, with little regard for what might’ve happened in-between – but this doesn’t make her actions in the service of the Rebellion any less interesting or heroic. Her scrappy, militant upbringing is perhaps most similar to that of rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Erso worked for a separatist Rebel fringe led by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) before ditching him at the age of 16, and Andor has fought for the “official” Rebel Alliance since he was 6 years old. The distinction between these two factions is never quite made precise, but this feels like a deliberate choice on the film’s part. Rebellions are built on hope, the movie tells us aloud repeatedly, but more than that, they are built on coalescence – disparate military and aristocratic and populist elements coming together to accomplish a shared goal. This is certainly the first time the Rebel Alliance has felt this nebulous, long-term, or real. Andor is introduced in a conversation with a panicked imperial officer on the moon Jedha, and he ends the conversation by shooting the man in the back to keep him quiet. While this is an undeniable spy trope (looking at you, Tony Gilroy), Luna’s performance perhaps carries off this ambiguity better than Jones’ – no matter which faction he identifies with, he’s been at this fight for too long, and doesn’t know anymore whether he’s truly on the side of the angels.

And that’s just the first two members of the ensemble. This group is headed off onto what’s most likely a suicide mission to counter an Imperial weapon of mass destruction, and this film not only gave me just enough time with each character (and a few preexisting relationships) to make me care about them, but it really managed to make the Death Star, the planet-killing weapon of the original trilogy, seem incredibly scary. I can’t overstate how well the film pulled this off. The Force Awakens turned an entire planet into a Death Star, and while it was undeniably…larger…it was nowhere near this terrifying. Ben Mendelsohn and CGI Peter Cushing make solid villains, even if I’m ill-equipped to evaluate the second one, having known the actor was dead for 20 years prior to this film. My wife and several of my coworkers, for what it’s worth, never noticed that Grand Moff Tarkin, the commander of the Death Star, was a computerized amalgam, and for my part, I was far more dubious about the noticeably older-sounding James Earl Jones coming back for a fun, but superfluous Darth Vader cameo.

I have many nits to pick with this film, but here’s where it ended for me – the last half-hour of this film, a balls-to-the-wall space and ground battle – is some of the best Star Wars I’ve ever seen. Unlike the prequel trilogy, this fight didn’t seem like a mere byproduct of modern technology. That is to say, this battle didn’t feel like it was being fought with this level of visual splendor just because we can do that now. This battle served the story on an epic scale. It’s easy to imagine the Rebellion reminiscing about Rogue One as fervently as the Alamo. This isn’t a story whose impact is reduced by knowing where it’s headed. It’s the sort of conflict that lends the ensuing trilogy even greater weight in retrospect. Remember Rogue One. Remember this team. They fought long odds and delivered – on the human side – what was needed for the Jedi to save the galaxy.

#3: Zootopia

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Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, screenplay by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston

This has been an outstanding year for animated films, and Zootopia was far and away the most memorable one I experienced. This film’s backdrop – a city of realistically-sized anthropomorphic animals all living together, predators and prey alike, is just the sort of impossible nonsense that the animated medium was made to tell. The entire film is a colorful metaphor for the fragile human experiment we call civilization, but the film expends a great deal of visual energy (and a significant number of adorable sight gags) explaining to me exactly how it all works. And all of the details – from the different environmental zones, to the variably-sized infrastructure, to the de facto caste system between predators and prey (which correspond to specific jobs in the city, with the police being almost all from predator species) – make this an incredibly well-realized world. Indeed, it’s of the caliber that Pixar might’ve created a decade ago, and Disney Animation is really giving them a run for their money this year.

With this stunning backdrop as a starting point, Zootopia shocked me even further by engaging in some rather mature storytelling. Rookie bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and civilian con-fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) make an outstanding team, with Hopps as the eager, career-driven upstart looking to buck tradition by becoming the first of her species to be a cop in the city, and Wilde engaging in some clever (and occasionally disgusting) food arbitrage in the city’s various animal-sized trade-zones (in what seems to be the latest of many hustles for the character). These are outstanding voice performances, and this burgeoning friendship forms the backdrop of a far more compelling mystery than any of the similar – and usually R-rated – buddy detective stories I saw this year (lookin’ at you, The Nice Guys). This is a story about police and civic corruption, prejudice and stereotyping, and – ultimately – the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, even if a cartoon water buffalo is jumping up and down on it. And that’s exactly what a classic children’s film should be.

#2: How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change

Poster for

Written and directed by Josh Fox

I referred to this film when it came out as “group therapy for climate realists”. And given recent events, this riveting documentary may prove essential viewing for anyone who is inspired to make a difference on climate change against seemingly insurmountable practical and political obstacles. This documentary, from Gasland director Josh Fox, initially put me on my guard, and ran a serious risk of coming off as manipulative or self-indulgent. But the film strikes just the right balance, spending a brief first act with its director learning about the stark reality of climate change, and then promptly and deliberately pulling himself out of the limelight, pointing his camera instead at the most vulnerable people around the world who will be affected by it. This globe-trotting story goes a lot of unexpected places, including into the heart of a protest attempting to blockade an Australian coal port. This sequence is exciting and lighthearted as presented, but the stakes feel no less real.

Incidentally, one of the producers of this film, Deia Schlosberg, was arrested in October for filming a similar act of civil disobedience at a TransCanada Keystone pipeline in North Dakota. Schlosberg is – as of this writing – facing multiple felony charges that could lead to up to 45 years in prison, and this is a stark reminder that even if all we get to see is an exciting documentary sequence, the risk required to get it, to life, limb, and freedom, is very real. This sort of advocacy journalism is a public service, and How to Let Go of the World is a fine example of it.

Check out my review here:
“How to Let Go of the World” (dir. Josh Fox) – Group therapy for climate realists

#1: The Lobster

Poster for

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou.

As I mentioned in my review (which lays out the plot in a bit more detail), I love short films in which all of the characters share a commonly skewed moral sensibility. That is to say, they see the world in the same bizarre way, and noticeably filter all possible acceptable actions and words through that lens. The Lobster is a feature which contains not one, but two simple, but fully-realized dystopias along these lines, those of single and attached people. No stragglers, no variants, and absolutely no one who falls into the middle (or variable points on) the Kinsey scale. Pick a side, and obey its bizarre rules.

From my review:

“This is Lanthimos’ cruel satire at its very best – it paints both relationships and singlehood as oppressive, shallow, inauthentic institutions, issuing strict, two-faced codes of behavior and exacting devastating consequences for those who inevitably fail to abide by them. You’ll find people in each institution who will support you – but only if you meet their precise expectations. Trip up, or attempt to live somewhere besides the precise extremes that they delineate – and they’ll throw you to the wolves. Or turn you into one.”

And if you can believe it, this same film tells quite a striking and sweet love story. This is nearly as bizarre a film as Swiss Army Man, and it is definitely not for everyone. But if you stick with its seemingly deliberate attempts to annoy and disturb you, you may find it quite rewarding.

Check out my review here:
Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” – When competing dystopias fall in love

Honorable Mentions:

  • Doctor Strange (directed by Scott Derrickson)
  • The Birth of a Nation (directed by Nate Parker)
  • Don’t Think Twice (directed by Mike Birbiglia)
  • Captain America: Civil War (directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)
  • Angry Indian Goddesses (directed by Pan Nalin)
  • Loving and Midnight Special (both directed by Jeff Nichols)
  • Angry Indian Goddesses (directed by Pan Nalin)

Biggest Disappointments:

High expectations, low results.

  • Ghostbusters (directed by Paul Feig)
    This fucking movie. Like The Interview before it, the Ghostbusters remake took on far greater importance than it ever deserved, due to factors that were completely external to the film itself. Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first: It is a sad and continuing generational struggle that little girls didn’t have 50 or 100 different female-led action-adventure films to watch growing up, like I did. Their own blockbusters – their Indiana Joneses and James Bonds or anything else where a heroine is credibly driving the plot on the backdrop of [what would now be] a $150M+ budget. And this thoroughly middling and passable action film is no better or worse than most of the escapist adventures I immersed myself in as a boy, because you love everything as a kid, and when everything’s written for your demographic, it’s easier to pick and choose. I can plainly see that I’m not the target audience for the film. But to those girls, as an honest film critic, I still have to say – you deserve better. You deserve Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which is utterly packed with strong and well-realized women driving the plot). You deserve the next generation of Star Wars, led by the outstanding Daisy Ridley (inheriting the torch from Carrie Fisher, RIP), hopefully the first of many interesting and capable women to inhabit this universe. You deserve Moana and Zootopia and Rogue One. You deserve the far more representative film world that is slowly but surely coming.For my part, I had high expectations going into Ghostbusters, because two of these actresses (and this director) had made me laugh many times before, and this reboot (of a film I absolutely adore) was really a quasi-sequel, telling a new story for a new generation of paranormal investigators. But with the exception of McKinnon, these four bored me as an ensemble nearly as much as the villain (whose plan and motivation I still can’t actually explain), even if they seemed to be having a fun time together – I never took the threat seriously, because neither did they, and their lack of seriousness never particularly amused me. And that rambling sentence, right there, is the worst that any of them deserve: my dispassionate assessment that this comedy didn’t make me, personally, laugh all that much. I can’t change that reaction no matter how despicable some of its bedfellows are. And here’s the other easy observation: those same little girls I mentioned above also deserve better than to see how the internet excoriated this thoroughly inoffensive film and its cast (particularly Leslie Jones, who received a torrent of disgusting racist and sexist garbage). This movie flopped, and kinda deserved to. But that should’ve been the end of it.Now, let’s fiddle while Twitter burns. Let the punishing, racist, misogynistic dystopia that is the Twitterverse die an overdue death and crush our President-elect’s masturbating, mendacious, nonsensical “Dear Diary” of a Twitter-feed along with it. 95% of it was already a bunch of harmless people (and bots) howling into the void to be read by no one, so let the rest of it become a ghetto of white supremacy and hatred like Stormfront, isolated, mocked, and ignored. And let us all go back to heaping bullshit where it belongs – on the actual people who make bad decisions. Like whoever at Sony Pictures thought it was a good idea to re-use their lousy CGI Times Square from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for another lifeless lightshow of an action climax.
  • Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (directed by Zach Snyder)
    In Man of Steel, a film I inexplicably enjoyed despite having major problems with, Superman does a terrible job of saving lives. Metropolis is almost completely destroyed, thousands die, and the chickens come home to roost in this film, as a bitter Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) – one of whose skyscrapers was apparently destroyed in MoS – tools up with Kryptonite and a robo-suit to eliminate the alien threat for good. Okay, I’m sorta lying, calling this a disappointment – my expectations were rather low going into this film. Although I find the premise of Superman facing consequences for his superheroic destruction to be legitimately fascinating, that does not add up to a convincing reason for Batman and Superman to want to murder each other.Bruce Wayne citing Dick Cheney‘s “one-percent doctrine” as a rationale for his murder spree in pursuit of a racially-motivated assassination was an abject betrayal of the character, and mostly (mostly) a non-sequitur to the Dark Knight trilogy that we’ve just seen. And on top of that, there’s no compelling reason for Superman to show up for this fight at all, which is why the film had to use Lex Luthor to unconvincingly manipulate them into it. I referred to Ghostbusters as “inoffensive” above, and this one (as surely as Passengers) meets my definition of “offensive”. This film is, conceptually and in execution, utter nonsense. It shouldn’t exist. And it doesn’t deserve any more commentary than that.
  • Allied (directed by Robert Zemeckis)
    This film had the great misfortune to be viewed in the same year in which I saw Casablanca for the first time. As such, when watching a pale imitator of a deservedly well-regarded classic, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I was just watching some talented Hollywood actors (including the irresistible and reliably spooky Marion Cotillard) amid a technically well-rendered backdrop…playing dress-up. This film is replete with modern-sounding dialogue (and F-bombs) and some pretty uninspiring spy drama. Even Valkyrie had more of a reason to exist than this film – or at least, it sold me on the real-world stakes of the thing in a meaningful way. If you’re going to set a film against the scourge of World War II, you have to remember – they don’t know how the war is going to end, or if any of them are going to survive. In the case of Casablanca, which was released in 1940, this was literally true, as much for the characters as for the actors and filmmakers. This sort of tale can deliver life-or-death stakes on a silver platter, and all it has to do is not ignore them. Instead, we get a first-season Alias arc that could just as easily have been set in the modern day.

Pleasant Surprises:

Low expectations, high results.

  • The Accountant (directed by Gavin O’Connor)
    The thing about Autistic Murder Batman – the informal title that I use for this film – is that it’s a solid and engrossing action thriller whose myriad twists and turns are grounded in a central, character-based question of, “What drives this guy to do what he does?” that is answered continuously through the actor’s performance, and gives me a reason to care about the rest of the film. And to see Ben Affleck pull that off while kicking innumerable quantities of ass really sold me on the actor coming back as a genuine big-budget superhero. As such, I have reluctantly high hopes for his far-from-certain turn in the creative seat.
  • Finding Dory (directed by Andrew Stanton)
    I’m not sure who was clamoring for this sequel 12 years on, and it does violate one of Pixar’s cardinal rules of storytelling by relying on coincidence to get its characters out of trouble (lots of convenient water for these fish to dive between on land!). But it’s also lovely, well-made, and touching. Ed O’Neill‘s octopus ninja is quite fun, as is Ellen DeGeneres‘ return performance as Dory. It’s worth seeing, even if it’s a bit inessential (see also: Monsters University) (or don’t).
  • Snowden (directed by Oliver Stone)
    After Laura Poitras‘ documentary Citizenfour, whose subject matter I found fascinating, but whose documentary craft I did not, I was not expecting to find much to enjoy in this film, a dramatization of Edward Snowden‘s rise and fall in the service of US intelligence, and his decision to leak classified information about NSA surveillance programs and flee the country. I’ll be blunt – I treated all of the details of Snowden’s rise through the intelligence ranks as speculative fiction (and this was apparently a good choice, as the bulk of the film was based on a novel by Snowden’s lawyer, whose protagonist might as well be called Bredward Browden). Joseph Gordon-Levitt absolutely nails Snowden’s voice, cadence, and physicality, Rhys Ifans plays an utterly chilling mentor, and Nicolas Cage presumably allowed a few cameras to film him speaking unscripted in his basement for a bit. While some of this is a bit cheesy (Snowden’s one alleged experience as a field agent alongside a fun and superfluous Timothy Olyphant felt totally out of place), this film did an excellent job of what Citizenfour couldn’t quite manage: explaining technically, logistically, and ethically complex surveillance programs to an audience that is mostly unfamiliar with them, in an entertaining fashion.

Morten Tyldum’s “Passengers” – A cascading failure

Fair warning. In this critic’s opinion, this film comes pre-spoiled by its own script. As such, I’m going to be rather flippant, including revealing the fate of one of the characters.

There comes a moment in the third act of Passengers when Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) are wandering alone through the malfunctioning bowels of their interstellar passenger liner, which is experiencing a “cascading failure” of the ship’s computers. Jim, a mechanic, opens a panel containing some identical pieces of futuristic computer-glass.

“Does it look broken?” Aurora asks dopily.

“Looks alright to me,” replies Jim, equally dopily, but we know he’s correct. They wander to a door. The door says “Danger!” and won’t open.

“This looks wrong,” says Jim, because he knows literally nothing else.

“We’re looking for wrong!” chimes Aurora.

Then they bust open the door and immediately get sucked into a basketball-sized hull breach, as the atmosphere of an open section of the ship the size of an airplane hangar gets evacuated past them. They wriggle and wobble and throw stuff and obviously stay alive. Note to any would-be space travelers: If the ship doesn’t want to open a door for you, maybe spend a few seconds trying to figure out why before you pry it open. But this scene does sum up the film rather well. Passengers‘ third mistake is its persistent inability to take its characters’ peril seriously. Second is its willful disdain for making intelligent use of its sci-fi scenario. And the film’s first, worst, and most persistent blunder is its unrelenting betrayal and misuse of Lawrence.

Let’s back up. Because there was some promise to the film’s setup. Bound from Earth to an offworld colony, the interstellar passenger liner Avalon is 30 years into its 120-year journey (just like Star Wars through US copyright law, amirite?), with its 5,000 passengers and 285 crew frozen in stasis pods for the duration (on-screen text helpfully informs us of all of this in the first 15 seconds). The ship autopilots itself into an asteroid field, which quickly overwhelms the shields and causes damage. One of the many ensuing malfunctions is the unexpected awakening of Jim Preston (Pratt), who pops out of his stasis pod, follows the holographic instructions to find his quarters and rest up, and quickly realizes he’s the only person awake. He has no ability to put himself back to sleep, so he’s all alone, condemned to never see his shiny new planet, and forced to live out his life alone in space. He wanders the ship, takes an unaccompanied spacewalk, grows a long beard, plays both of the video games, and develops a healthy functional alcoholism with the assistance of the friendly android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen). He also peruses some technical manuals and makes a few hamfisted attempts to fix his situation, including failing to break into the apparently impenetrable crew quarters. All of this passes in montage form, and we don’t get any real sense of what he’s trying to do or how difficult it is (except for pounding on the crew’s blast doors with a sledgehammer and welding torch), and it quickly ceases to matter. He’s alone, a year passes, and he gets a bit weird. Pratt does a passable job with these scenes, which is a very good thing, since Jim loses my sympathy the moment he stumbles upon Aurora’s pod, develops an instantaneous obsession with her, and ponders waking her up to join him in solo interstellar damnation, cursed to live out her life alone with her secret murderer.

I must emphasize, while I was never in any suspense about whether he would go through with this, the movie at least had the good sense to briefly treat this like the Bad, Bad Thing it is. The script was aware of it, and Jim himself was aware of it. His interactions with Arthur, the eternally non-judgmental bartender, take on a (presumably) deliberate Shining vibe, and the movie treats his decision like the unthinkable act that it is. And I was still with it, even at this point. Isolation is a proven means of psychological torture, and I could fully buy that Jim had become unhinged and was ready to do something unconscionable to relieve his situation. Comprehensible, if not condonable. And on a more trite level, man’s inhumanity toward a randomly selected beautiful woman is a tale as old as time, and if this woman were given a chance to learn the truth of her fate, react like a human being, then decide what to do next, this could have been a serviceable psychological thriller in which Pratt could have taken on the acting challenge of being the unadvertised villain.

The problem is, the film seems mostly unaware of the gravity of what it has done, and becomes a straight romance from that point on. WALL-E composer Thomas Newman‘s warm synth-infused score pours over the tragic tale of a pair of lone accidental voyagers, linked romantically by happenstance, A-List attractiveness, and some good, old-fashioned, thrust-free, PG-13 space-sex. Aurora is a writer whose sole unmotivated contribution to the plot (apart from making her fella some breakfast and patching up the robot bartender with her makeup skills – no, I’m not joking) is some schmaltzy “Dear Diary” voiceover from the terrible book she’s writing to be read by no one, talking about how they’re all just Passengers on the ship of fate and they didn’t plan to find each other but they did and I almost literally fell asleep while typing this. Like the put-upon ’50s housewife that she is, Aurora is helpless to advance the story, which constantly denies her agency and punts her from one life-altering decision to the next. But hey, at least we get to watch her jog and swim a bit, right? Make no mistake: This film’s concept and treatment of Aurora is obscene. And its script, characters, and Avalon itself conspire to force Aurora to fall in love and get betrayed, then tap their collective foot impatiently because they can’t wait on her precious timetable of forgiveness. Stuff’s exploding and we need to fall in love and fix it already!

Laurence Fishburne briefly (accidentally) awakens as a member of the ship’s crew, and honestly, I was a bit relieved. He quickly realizes what Jim has done to Aurora, and I expected some sort of human moment between the two non-murderers aboard the ship. One in which J-Law could look at him and say, “That was pretty f’d up, right? Does this ship have a brig?” And then he could nod, and they could learn to play chess for the next 90 years. But no – instead, he gives them just enough information about the ship to let them bumble around fixing it, hands his authorization wristband to Jim rather than Aurora, and tells her that a drowning man (he means Jim!) will always try to pull people down with him, and “that don’t make it right”, but… And then he coughs, which poorly written movie characters only do when they’re terminally ill, and is dead a few minutes later from unspecified ailments inflicted by his rapid unscheduled thaw. This would be an excellent time for Aurora to point out, “See what happened to that guy? You risked that exact thing happening to me. Dick.”

But she doesn’t, because the film is completely unaware of that. No matter. Did I mention that Passengers is a bad sci-fi film as well? I could’ve overlooked Avalon‘s nosedive into a dense asteroid field, a cliché as old as a broken moon in the sky. But it also can’t be bothered to make consistent use of its spin gravity (or is it magical artificial gravity?), or use even the slightest bit of technobabble to describe the ship’s peril or the difficulty of fixing it. This is a sci-fi drama written with deliberate simplicity by Mitchell and Webb, or maybe accidental stupidity by the dullard who co-wrote Prometheus, which might explain his affinity for robo-surgery tubes. And don’t get me started on J-Law nearly drowning in the floating pool.

I can already see people trying to ennoble the setup of this film. He’s lonely! He needs company. You don’t know what you’d do in this situation! Let me be clear here. I don’t mind a film depicting a character committing such an act. I don’t even mind a film in which his victim decides she’s going to accept the intractable situation and forgive him. Or in which she decides she wants revenge. Or in which she throws them both out an airlock. Or in which she reacts in any way whatsoever. Passengers isn’t bad because it depicts a character doing a bad thing – it’s bad because it never acknowledges the reality it’s creating. And the result is as dumb as it is morally reprehensible. It insults its characters and its audience, and should be avoided like the plague.

FilmWonk rating: 2 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #95 – “Moana” (dir. Ron Clements/John Musker)

Poster for "Moana"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel take a visit to an island paradise for a quick musical war between gods brokered by an impressive new Disney princess. No big deal. (31:18).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is a pair of tracks from the film’s soundtrack, “We Know the Way” and the fabulous end-credits version of “You’re Welcome” featuring Jordan Fisher and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
  • Check out the full scene with Maui (Johnson)’s “You’re Welcome” introduction on YouTube here.
  • Cravalho’s name pronunciation guide (from an interview along with Johnson) can be found here, courtesy of USA Today.
  • Correction: Moana’s island is Motunui, not Matanui. And the coconut pirates are the Kakamora, not the Kokomota.
  • The language that composer Opetaia Foa’i contributed is Tokelauan, a Polynesian language which has about 4,000 speakers.

Listen above, or download: Moana (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)