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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Review: Padmaavat

Padmaavat (2018): Written by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Prakash Kapadia, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali.  Starring: Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, and Ranveer Singh.  Running Time: 163 minutes.  Based on the epic poem Padmavat, by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. 

Rating: 3/4

**this review contains some spoilers for the plot of the film**

            Padmaavat is the sort of sprawling, epic movie that used to be regular fare for Old Hollywood, but nowadays just doesn’t get made anymore.  It fills every shot with sumptuous color and detail, feels seeped in real fantasy world of its own making, and you can practically see every stitch in its meticulous, intricate costumes.  The acting style is operatic and grand, with big gestures and overwrought emotions.  That the film is a remarkable technical accomplishment and provides a unique cinematic spectacle is beyond debate.  Whether or not the substance of the film is worth it- and whether or not these characters belong in the 21st century- is a bit harder to place, and will come down mostly on how target audiences (especially in India) respond to it.   

            Adapted from the epic poem of the same name, originally written in the 16th century, the story centers around a young Sinhala princess, Padmavati, and the dueling passions she inspires in two powerful kings.  One, the cruel and greedy Alauddin, helps his uncle seize the Sultanate in Delhi before murdering him and taking the crown himself.  The other, the more principled Ratan Singh, is the Rajput king of nearby Mewar.  Ratan Singh and Padmavati meet in her home country as Ratan Singh is on a mission to find rare pearls, and they quickly fall in love. 

            The conflict between the two is sparked when Ratan Singh expels his head priest, Raghav Chetan, after he discovers him spying on the couple out of lust for Padmavati.  Furious, the priest travels to Alauddin’s court, telling him tales of the mystic beauty of Padmavati, and promising him that if he could make Padmavati his wife, he would soon conquer the world.  Alauddin marches forth with his army and lay siege to Mewar, demanding to see Padmavati and promising dire consequences on the entire kingdom if they defy him.

            This movie ended up becoming (purportedly) the most expensive production in India to date, and it shows.  This is a lavish feast for the eyes from the first shot to the last, with the visuals at their most stunning during the films music-and-dance sequences.  Consider two with particular thematic resonance; Padmavat’s first dance before Ratan Sing, and Alauddin dancing with his men to express his overwhelming desire for a woman he’s never even seen.  Padmavat’s dance is smooth, choreographed, both sensual and gentle, filled with graceful movements and lush, arm colors.  Alauddin’s is a mix of cold, almost freezing blues and grays, with harsher, more desperate (and even animalistic) movements, reflecting the more destructive and controlling nature of his desire.     

            In fact, while the whole cast is solid, Ranveer Singh as Alauddin is the one who shines the most as an enthusiastically sadistic villain.  It’s a scenery-chewer of a performance in the classic sense of the word, very nearly matched by Jim Sarbh as Malik, Alauddin’s second-in-command, who is so clearly SUPER gay for his boss it’s actually a little heartbreaking at times.  It’s interesting to note that he’s actually the only male character in the entire movie who’s completely clean-shaven, even in the middle of the desert, possibly meant to emphasis his (probable) homosexuality. 

            The movie feels at first like it could end up being a sausage-fest; Padmavat is revealed in her first scene to be a spectacular hunter and archer, but these skills never really come back into play, and she seems to fade into the background at first as a mere object of desire.  However, when Alauddin tricks Ratan and imprisons him, the women step forward and take charge of a drastic effort to free him, and the result is one of the film’s highlights.  Alauddin’s first wife, who was opposed to his pursuit of Padmavat from the beginning, makes a key choice here that provides her and Padmavat with a moment that, for me, was one of the film’s most meaningful. 

            It was this second part of the movie that, in my view, provided the film with some much-needed thematic shading.  Ratan Singh makes much of his moral principles, and he is clearly presented as the completely wise and virtuous counterpart to Alauddin, but in true Greek Tragedy fashion, I couldn’t help but feel that that which was supposed to raise him above other men is what actually leads to everything bad that happens to him and his people.  He gets several chances to just kill either the priest or Alauddin, and if he had taken a single one of them, all the terrible stuff that follows would never have happened, and perhaps that alone is one of the intended messages of the story. 

            But we’re getting into controversy territory here, so with this, I think, it’s just about time for the disclaimer; I am a white, Western, Christian male, so my right/ability to judge whether or not the film is….

-morally backwards
-insulting or demeaning to Indians, Hindus, or Muslims
-a faithful adaptation of a classical Hindu text (or not)
-OR whether or not this story or these characters are/should be culturally relevant to India today

… just about nonexistent.  It’s not my place to decide what this film means or should mean to India today.  But that’s not to say others haven’t been more than willing to take up the debate in violent ways.  A number of radical groups in India- most notably a Rajput group called Karni Sena- have repeatedly sent death threats to the director and many in the cast, have threatened to cut off the nose of the lead actress, and even attacked sets and attempted to destroy props, costumes, and the like.  Most recently, a bus full of schoolchildren was attacked on a highway, allegedly in protest of the film (although Karni Sena itself denies involvement).  Reactions from local governments have been mixed, at best, and pushes continue for the government to either ban the film outright or severely restrict its distribution. 

            As I said before, I have no place to comment on how Indians should or should not handle this film and this story in general, but I do think that the idea of a film being worth hurting people over is something a tad more universal, since this sort of thing has happened over and over again throughout the world and is in no way limited to Indian or Hindu culture.  So, at the risk of overstepping my bounds as a Western film critic (and please, PLEASE let me know in the comments if I do), I would like to conclude this review by saying the following-

            The right to tell or adapt whatever story you want- to have whatever ideological underpinnings or messages or characters you want- is fundamental, no matter how backwards or reprehensible I or other viewers may find them.  NO movie, no matter how heinous, justifies violence.  No movie should be banned.  If the movie is reprehensible, let it be demonstrated through audiences choosing to spend their time and money on other, better films, not because it was arbitrarily pulled from theaters over how people might react.   

            If the consensus on this movie amongst audiences (Indian or otherwise) ends up being that it pushes an outdated, destructive form of patriarchy, that it’s unduly sexist or anti-Muslim, that it’s a lot of money and effort spent on the wrong character or the wrong story, it needs to be because people sat down, watched the movie from start to finish, and then thought about and debated it, and NOT because some reactionary, sword-wielding lunatics mutilated the filmmakers and terrorized a bus full of kids. 

-Noah Franc

Friday, February 9, 2018

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017): Written and directed by Martin McDonagh.  Starring: Francis McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, and, of course, Ċ½eljko Ivanek.  Running Time: 115 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

**this review contains assorted spoilers for In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and Three Billboards**

            Every year there seems to be at least one solidly good, if flawed, movie that ends up getting hyped just a bit too much come awards season, prompting a backlash from those insisting that the film isn’t that good, or is actually terrible, and then a backlash to the backlash, and on and on.  Meanwhile, the heated arguments move so far beyond the starting point that the film itself ends up completely forgotten and left in the dust.  Some of these films do deserve such treatment (looking at you, Crash), but many do not, and much to my disappointment, this year the anvil has fallen on one of my all-time favorite writers.    

            Martin McDonagh is an Irish playwright who, after solidly establishing himself as one of the most celebrated playwrights in Irish history, began making forays into films with his 2004 live-action short Six Shooter, which eventually won an Oscar, and followed up with his first feature-length films, In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012).  After a long hiatus to work on his latest play, he returned this year with Three Billboards, and for the first time has seen a movie of his become a serious awards darling, winning big at the Golden Globes and entering the Oscars a heavy favorite in many of the major categories.  This despite the fact that it is not one of his better films.  Like with Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese before him, I’m happy to see him get accolades, but can’t help wishing it were for one of his earlier, better works. 

            Three Billboards tackles a lot- a LOT- of subject matters, but first and foremost it’s the story of Mildred (Francis McDormand), a middle-aged, divorced mother growing increasingly bitter and angry at the inability of the local police force to make any progress in solving the rape-and-murder case of her daughter.  Determined to push Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) any way she can, she rents out three abandoned billboards on the road near her house, posting a series of messages on them deliberately meant to provoke as strong a reaction as possible from both the police force and the town as a whole. 

            This provokes a whole series of events, many darkly comic, many just sad, involving a nerdy ad manager, a trigger-happy cop played by Sam Rockwell, a cancer subplot, arson, domestic violence, and more.  The movie is very well-shot and superbly well-acted (Lucas Hedges, playing Mildred’s son, has not been getting enough praise for his small but crucial role), but the story and many of the intended characters arcs ultimately fail to connect in all the ways they’re clearly supposed to.  McDonagh’s best movie remains In Bruges, where both the characters and the world they occupy are so perfectly fitted to one another that, at the end of it, you realize the story could not possibly have played out any other way.  His most transcendent work remains his 2003 play The Pillowman, where the characters and world are just vague enough that it could be set anytime and anywhere.  Three Billboards falls well short of both heights, and a clear part of this lies with how its narrative develops.  Specifically, with how unbelievably circular much of the plot ends up being. 

            See, usually the realm of the stage is that of the circular plot, where characters and props and story points all come around by the end to connect to each other.  Each characters will eventually be (or always were) bound to the others in highly coincidental ways.  While regularly excused in theater, this conceit is usually disdained (or at least hidden as well as possible) in movies due to its clear artifice, but with In Bruges, McDonagh made one of the rare great films where this circularity is stunningly effective.  This is mostly thanks to how well the film’s setting evokes a fairytale atmosphere in both a dreamlike and nightmarish sense.  Three Billboards utilizes this same approach- most obviously in cases like the choice of a hospital bed, the identity of an arsonist, even a tease about who the rapist might be- but to noticeably less effect.  Here again, I can’t help but feel the setting is the cause of this.  Bruges feels like exactly the sort of place where the streets fill up with fog every night, and where you’d never feel surprised to meet the same cast of characters on every street corner, where life, hate, and love repeat themselves endlessly.  In the flatlands and open spaces of a Midwestern American town, less so. 

            This could maybe have worked better had the movie carried more similarities in tone and mood to McDonagh’s other major film, Seven Psychopaths.  While that film is also filled with one remarkable coincidence after another, it’s a movie more focused on deconstructing itself than telling a story, so worrying about problems or inconsistencies of plot or characters is just about pointless.  Three Billboards, by contrast, is clearly striving to tell a good, straight story about interesting characters, and has to be judged on those merits. 

            Narrative issues aside, let’s dive into where the real heated stuff about the film lies.  Like purveyors of Fox News, we all know what we’re really here for; the hot, spicy racism.  There are two main thrusts of criticism of the film that have taken shape; that it unsuccessfully (and say callously) tries to be a movie “about” racism and police brutality, and that it’s a movie that redeems (or excuses, or “explains”) the racism of its most hateful and bigoted character, Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon. 

            The fact that the movie does clearly try to at least include racism and police brutality as major themes is its biggest weakness.  We are given a sense that the town is a racially-mixed place with a very Ferguson-like history of animosity between the police and the town’s minority communities.  Yet we only really have three characters of color in the whole film, two of whom are there solely to appear on-screen, comment on the police, and then in one case literally be “disappeared” for most of the rest of the film.  The third character, a black police officer appearing late in the game to assist in Mildred’s case, might have been intended as a balance to this, and to give the police some shading as well, but here too he isn’t around nearly enough to make a big enough impact.  This isn’t to say that McDonagh can’t or shouldn’t tackle racism, but as a particularly memorable scene from In Bruges shows, he’s much better at approaching it as a white man poking fun at other white men for the absurdity of their bigotry.  His efforts here to use black characters solely for this purpose feels off, even within the context of the film, and I understand why this was a key breaking point for many viewers. 

            The question of whether or not Officer Dixon is “redeemed” by the end of the film is a bit trickier.  Over the course of his career, McDonagh has created some of the most hateful, pessimistic, cynical, violent, and cruel characters imaginable, with many of his stories centering around how the particular cruelty of various characters lead to endless cycles of violence, injury, and recrimination.  Very few of his works end with anything approaching redemption or salvation, but his best works do at least allow moments of genuine love and/or tenderness to shine through the darkness.  Here again, In Bruges and The Pillowman stand out especially well, another reason why they’re his best works.  Three Billboards clearly wants to have moments like this- there are a lot of scenes that try to let the characters’ inner softness or goodness peak out- but their effectiveness is much more mixed. 

            In regards to Officer Dixon, then, can we say his character is redeemed by the end?  I would argue he isn’t.  McDonagh himself is on the record saying he doesn’t see Dixon as redeemed, nor did he try to write that in as part of the script.  There is, of course, the infamous “letter scene” where a letter from Chief Willoughby insists that Dixon is only as hateful as he is because he’s “had a hard life” and he’s really “a good person, deep down.”  This moment is one of the film’s bigger clunkers, for a number of reasons, but even here I don’t think this was intended as a sort of absolution for Dixon- it could simply be a very dark joke meant to show that Willoughby was wrong, dead wrong, about Dixon the whole time, and every minute he spent defending him was wasted breath.  It wouldn’t be the first time McDonagh designed a character’s death to be a horribly misguided attempt to save people beyond saving.  That the scene could be misinterpreted as a saving grace moment for the character lies, then, less with the explicit intention and more in a failure of execution. 

            One of the more interesting interpretations I’ve read about the film is that, in fact, no one is saved, and both the main characters are irredeemably twisted by the end.  The movie ends with Dixon and Mildred in a car, contemplating murdering a man unconnected to the crime at hand, and unsure of whether or not they will actually go through with it.  This I find to be a rather fitting way to end, because, for all the justification behind Mildred’s anger, it’s hard to escape feeling that she’s let it twist itself into something far darker.  She has suffered, yes, but can that excuse the suffering she metes out to others, sometimes at random?  Her daughter is gone, but her son is still there.  He pleads with her time and again to change her behavior, trying to make her see the ways her mini-war on Chief Willoughby is making his life harder, but not once do we see her pause to consider this.  Maybe she and Dixon have both fallen beyond saving, and those who think otherwise are just fooling themselves. 

            Perhaps, in the end, the movie just handicaps itself by biting off too much in trying to handle racism and police brutality on top of its central story.  If it were more tightly focused on a single woman’s search for justice and anger over the inefficiencies of the justice system, we likely would have had a much stronger film that would never have prompted such controversy to begin with.  Violent crime against women going aggravatingly unpunished is very much a real issue that movies can and should tackle.  That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of artists and filmmakers more than able to tackle both that and other issues like racism within the same film- there most certainly are- but McDonagh isn’t one of them, at least not yet. 

            Three Billboards is a good movie, solid in a lot of ways, but too uneven to count as a great film.  And while I have been an avid fan of McDonagh’s for a long time and would love to see a film of his dominate the Oscars one day, this isn’t the film that should.  

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

My Top Ten Films of 2017

            And now, at long last!  You know what film scores I liked most.  You know which action scenes I think topped the year.  Now we wrap up my final look-back at the year-that-was with the best of the best- my top ten favorite films of 2017.  

            For all new readers, the rules- I consider eligible for my list any film that either screened at a film festival OR had at least a brief theatrical run in either the US or Germany, even if it was originally produced in a previous year.  And as always, what films end up being my favorite is purely subjective- a lot of the films I saw this year were excellent, but for one reason or another didn’t affect me on a personal level, so absence from this list is in no way meant as a diss.  Agreements, disagreements, and comments are, as always, more than welcome in the comments below! 

Honorable Mentions: Wonder Woman, Boys For Sale, Tiger Girl, Your Name, mother!, Valley of the Saints
10. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)

            This film was soaked in the evocative atmosphere of a lazy, otherworldly summer in the European countryside, where time stretches out indefinitely….until suddenly, it doesn’t.  This perfectly-cast movie will hopefully be remembered as a watershed in film treatment of non-heterosexual romances on the big screen, where they are granted the same space and peace to just become what they were meant to become as “normal” romances have always been given.  As excellent as Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg are (and they are excellent), Chalamet’s final scene during the start of the credits was one of the most powerful visual and acting experiences of the year, one that may yet make him the youngest Best Actor winner in Oscar history. 

            The latest entry into the new Star Wars universe did not do what I had wanted it to, or develop its characters the way I’d hoped.  And the more I thought about that, the more I realized that’s exactly what I, other fans, and this whole franchise needed- something that, for all its parallels to the original trilogy, breaks out on its own when it really counts.  This was highlighted for me by Mark Hamill’s incredible performance and the challenging way the film tackles the person and legacy of Luke Skywalker.  Yes, the past must always be viewed with a skeptical eye, but we can’t help but need grand legends to inspire us to be better, and that not’s necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, it can make all the difference in the world in terms of whether hope lives or dies. 

8. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)

            I am madly in love with both Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan, so my expectations for the former’s directorial debut starring the latter could only have been higher if they’d somehow managed to rope the John Goodman into the project.  Not only did the film meet those expectations, it surpassed them with aplomb.  This is about as point-perfect as coming-of-age films get, with the indelible sense of time and place this sort of film hinges on.  I was a bit behind Lady Bird in 2002/2003, still two years away from Catholic high school, but I’ve been to those dances.  I’ve said the pledge of allegiance to the flag followed immediately by the Lord’s Prayer to the crucifix right next to it, and been dogged by an inescapable sense that I have to get far away from where I’m from to find myself.  I’ve followed through on it, only to realize after the fact that maybe my hometown meant more to me than I realized.  This is the stuff that growing up is made of. 

7. A Ghost Story (David Lowery)

            A film based on this premise- a man dies and haunts his house under a literal bedsheet with eyeholes while Rooney Mara chugs a pie in real time- could so easily have ended up being a pretentious, overindulgent, head-up-its-own-ass, unwatchable piece of experimental indie bullshit. 

            A Ghost Story is not only decidedly NOT that, it’s one of the deepest, most provocative films of the year.  Its visual style deliberately feels like the movie consists of old, square home videos, lending us a voyeuristic perspective similar to the ghost’s as we wander back and forth through, seemingly, all of time, forcing us to reckon up-front with our own mortality and transience.  The final moment of the film provided one of the year’s best and most challenging endings, perfectly encapsulating what makes this film so indescribably special. 

6. Paradise (Andrei Konchalovsky)  

            A combination of this film’s unique style, its underplayed acting, and stark black-and-white visuals stayed with me throughout the year, even though it came out fairly early.  Here is a film that doesn’t so much try to grasp for a universal explanation or overview of the Holocaust.  Instead, it simply observes one corner of it through the lives of three individuals- one French, one German, and one Russian- and how ideology and circumstance warp and twist them.  The Russian woman’s reflection on how starkly the promise of steady food changes what you are and aren’t willing to risk and the German Nazi officer’s encounter with ghostly apparitions (which may or may not be real) outside a concentration camp were two of my favorite scenes in any movie from last year.  Sometimes, you don’t need to over-explain why bad things happen.  You don’t need graphic violence to convey the horror of something.  You just need to look in someone’s eyes and see how deeply (or shallowly) it’s affected them. 

5. Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi)

            As much as I thoroughly enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy 2, this was the movie I laughed the hardest at in all of 2017.  Every line lands with such precision.  Every shot is crammed with so much astounding visual design.  Every casting choice was perfectly suited to each character.  The Marvel movies have long started to feel rather samey for me, their generally high quality notwithstanding, but with this one I finally have a breakout favorite that I will always be able to go back to whenever I need to get a smile back on my face. 

4. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)

            Christopher Nolan remains one of my all-time favorite directors, so after both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar proved relative disappointments, I was really pulling for him to knock one back out of the park in his next big film.  And with Dunkirk, he delivered, making one of the best and most original WWII movies to come out in years.  This is very much Nolan’s sort of movie, one that both lets him play around with his twin obsessions of time and our perceptions and memory of it, while also letting him and his team show off their unparalleled technical skills in making big-budgeted, impeccably crafted visual experiences that manage to be both groundbreaking and crowd-pleasing. 

3. Human Flow (Ai Weiwei)

            This film takes on the monumental (and essential) task of trying to take a comprehensive approach to the current global refugee crisis and provide a literal bird’s eye view of how human society and the planet itself will continue to shape and be shaped by this for decades to come.  There is a debate to be had about whether or not the film does itself a disservice by trying to go so broad and big, thus potentially losing some of its punch, but I strongly argue that the film couldn’t approach the subject matter any other way that would have justified the title.  This is a staggering, heartbreaking, and yet still beautiful and moving work tackling one of the most pressing issues in the world today, one that, like climate change, is not being taken nearly seriously enough by most people. 

2. A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada)

            Once again, Japanese animation proves itself to be the lord of just about everything.  Naoko Yamada’s masterful adaptation of the popular manga of the same name is one of the best film’s I’ve yet seen in how it tackles mental illness and its long-term, lingering effects.  It’s characters are tenderly managed, their flaws fitting right alongside their virtues, and it had the single best ending scene of any movie I saw this year, one that grabbed right in the most personal part of my heart. 

            And my #1 film of 2017 is….

1. Get Out (Jordan Peele)

            Key and Peele proved to be one of the smartest comedy duos of recent years over the course of their show Key and Peele, but there was always a darkness, a hard edge, lurking behind many of their strongest and most affecting skits.  With Peele, at least, we now have a glimpse of just how deep that darkness goes, and just how powerfully relevant what he has to say is.  Get Out was one of the best horror films to come out in years, certainly, but it reached far beyond the bounds of its genre.  Every bit of the writing, directing, editing, sound design, and acting is perfectly pitched for maximum impact, as Peele takes aim straight at one of the beating hearts of systemic American racism.  This is that rare film that is both about something AND a masterpiece of genuinely fresh and (hopefully) influential filmmaking.  For far too long, most white Americans have sought to ignore their stake in America’s racial past so as to blind themselves to its continued existence.  Get Out was one of the best films of the year, AND the one we needed most. 

-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Cinema Joes Update

For those who do not yet know, yours truly takes part in a weekly podcast about movies called Cinema Joes!  Here is a link to our Itunes page.  We just put up our discussion of the excellent Call Me By Your Name.  You should also subscribe to our Twitter 

The Top 10 Action Scenes of 2017

            What happened to action movies this year?  Something must have aligned on a cosmic level in 2017, because for all of the shit going on elsewhere in the world, the year was packed with awesome, solidly-made action movies.  And I’m not just talking about the summer- from the March international release of Logan all the way through New Year’s, there was nearly always at least one great action film running in theaters in a given time. 

            Some were fantastic films that will be remembered as significant game-changers within their genres, some were just solid B-movies, but nearly all of the year’s action-heavy releases had at least one great sequence in them to make then worth a watch.  And many had considerably more than just one.  And so, while it was a great year all-around for the movies, it’s especially important to take time this awards season to recall and be grateful for just how spoiled we action fans were in 2017. 

            I have thus shouldered the hellish task of trying to pick out a mere ten of the year’s best action scenes for a ranking, although there were easily over two dozen scenes that could qualify for such a list, so absence here should in no way be taken as a slight.  For this list, I looked at three primary aspects of the scene to rank them:

1. How technically impressive or innovative was the scene on a filmmaking level?
2. Does the scene have any relevance to either the film’s plot or the development of a particular character, or is it just visual fireworks for its own sake? 
3. Is it groundbreaking in some way, i.e., will it have any likely influence or importance outside the context of the film it’s in? 

            Much of this is, to a certain extent, purely subjective, so if my list doesn’t jive with yours, let me know in the comments below! Where possible, I have linked in videos to the scene in question for easier viewing, but all these films are worth watching from start to finish. 

            Oh, and spoilers for many of these films, since some of these are major plot climaxes. 

Honorable Mentions: Baby Driver- “The Foot Chase”, Dunkirk- the ship sinkings, Tiger Girl- “The Subway Fight”, Star Wars: The Last Jedi- “Opening Space Battle”, John Wick 2- “Hall of Mirrors”

10. Thor: Ragnarok- “Thor vs Hulk”

            The Marvel movies have always featured some great action beats in their films, but the most memorable tend to be the ones they have the most fun with.  Great effects and crisp fighting, sure, but with a sense of humor and a willingness to break the fourth wall in the best way.  The re-entry of Banner/The Hulk is a prime example of this- in an instant, all the serious tension these scenes usually hold is punctured by Thor’s jubilant yell and Loki’s reaction when The Hulk appears, hands-down one of the funniest things I saw in a movie all year.  The clear instinct for when and how to draw the biggest laugh on display here is essentially the whole film in miniature, and Exhibit A of why it’s The Best Marvel Movie.   

9. Guardians of the Galaxy 2- “Come A Little Bit Closer”

            And speaking of Marvel movies knowing just the right buttons to push!  This climactic moment from the second Guardians movie was, with my sincerest apologies to the entirety of Baby Driver, the single best use of a song underscoring an action scene this year, primarily through just how overtly cartoonish it is.  This should be a far more terrifying moment than it is, but the combination of the song and the slapstick manner of half the deaths made it impossible to not laugh watching this.  Slaughter has never looked (or sounded) so good. 

            And yeah, I couldn’t even fit Baby Driver onto this list.  Or Logan.  Or Blade Runner.  THAT’S how good this year was. 

8. John Wick 2- “The Catacombs”

            Hands down the best pure shoot-out of the year.  John Wick shows off just how far ahead of everyone he is when he fully plans for his employer to betray him following a hit, and he fills the catacombs of Rome beforehand with all manner of heavy firearms, strategically placing them so that he can reach each one just as the last runs out of ammo.  Suffused with blue and orange tones, the angles, colors, and setting make for an experience as ambient as it is intense.  

7. Mr. Long- “The Final Fight”

            Mr. Long could basically be summed up as “John Wick, if he were Taiwanese and could also cook.”  Forced to hide from a local Japanese gang after a hit goes awry, Long is finally found out, and the gang leader’s cronies threaten the lives of the villagers he’s befriended.  In the climactic fight scene, they finally meet face-to-face, and Long cuts.  Right.  Through.  Them.  .

            This sequence is slightly held back by being a touch tropey- they really could have tried to gang up on him a more, and yeah, that one guy with the gun does wait way too long to jump in- but as an emotional breaking point for a character whose spent an entire film clearly holding everything inside, it doesn’t get much more potent than this.  The scene alone can’t really convey the feeling you get after seeing the entire film before it and knowing just how much this guy has been holding back to try and keep his new friends safe, and just how much pain is now being released as he realizes just how badly he failed. 

6. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets- “Market Shootout and Chase”

            Despite the unevenness in tone and acting that ultimately held it back, Valerian was nothing if not a stunningly ambitious film, and its best moments could very well end up being some of the most influential visual sequences to come out of 2017.  One of the most daring was the first major shootout and chase sequence of the film, taking place in a massive, interdimensional marketplace, where a technical glitch results in the main character having his gun hand caught in one dimension and his body in another, leaving him vulnerable in both until his partner can find him and fix the glitch.  It’s a staggeringly creative scene in a movie full of amazing design ideas, and even though much of the movie ultimately didn’t work, moments like this still made it worth seeing on the big screen. 

5. Atomic Blonde- “Staircase Fight”

            Charlize Theron’s recent turn as an action lead has been nothing short of inspired, and her performance is the key reason to watch this neon-glazed return to the genre of Cold War spy thrillers.  The plot has the usual twists and double-turns, but it’s in the action beats that the film hits its stride, and its best sequence by far is this brutal, third-act fight in a staircase and apartment.  Painstakingly crafted to look like it was done in a single take (several people from the John Wick movies were involved in the production), this is part of an extended third-act climax where Theron tries to navigate a turncoat spy out of East Berlin despite a raft of Soviet agents sent to stop her, include one of the main henchmen who’d been dogging her since she arrived from London.  Much of the scene’s tension comes from how the actors realistically show just how.  Effing.  Exhausting.  This level of combat is and the toll it takes on the body. 

4. John Wick 2- “John Wick vs. The Assassins”

            After a bounty is placed on his head, John Wick finds himself beset on all sides by seemingly every assassin in New York.  The mixed nature of these fights allows for a really creative and impressive variety of weapons, people, and techniques used to take John Wick down (and all of them failing).  We finally learn why the thought of John Wick with a pencil sends shivers down the crime world’s collective spine (and oh God, is it horrifying), and it ends with a sequence of him and Common shooting at each other covertly before ending their battle with a heart-stopping knife fight inside a subway. 

3. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi- “The Throneroom”

**sadly no clip of this scene in good quality is on Youtube.  You really should watch the film anyway**

            There were so many action beats in the latest Star Wars movie that could be on this list, but the highlight for me is and shall remain the throne room battle between Rey and Kylo and the red-cloaked guards of Snoke following his death.  The film’s motif of red hits a particular intensity here, with the walls and uniforms of the soldiers appearing uniformly threatening as they close in around the two.  It also allows for a surprising amount of hard-edged brutality to the fight in a franchise known more often for being “clean” in its violence.  The whole affair ends with the two alone and seemingly surrounding by raining fireballs, as both the battle outside and their own emotional journeys within the film reach one of the year’s most powerful climaxes. 

2. Dunkirk- The Air Combat

            Dunkirk was about as intense an experience as it got in theaters in 2017, with the technical mastery of Nolan and his crew on full display in each scene showing the inherent chaos and overwhelming sensory overload of war.  Nowhere was this more impressive (at least in my book) than in the air combat scenes, possibly the best-made and most realistic of such sequences we’ve yet gotten in a war movie. 

            The intimate closeness of the camera within the cockpit allows you to feel how small and cramped it must have been to fly the planes, and how few your options for surviving are if you’re hit.  Up close, we rattle, and swerve and duck with the pilots, each one managing to act remarkably effectively through their heavy airmen’s gear.  But then, when the scene cuts to the outside, the camera sweeps out in dizzyingly grand angles, making these machines of death appear small and insignificant when compared with the magnificence backdrop of nature’s beauty.  Every shot, every turn, every bailout or crash has a real weight that makes you feel each second you spend in the air with the pilots.  I don’t expect to see a WWII movie match this one for a long, long time.  

1. Wonder Woman- “No Man’s Land”

            The best action scene of the year succeeded in being so many things at once, I don’t even think I could manage to list them all here.  At long last, we finally got the first real, live-action Wonder Woman movie, which doubled as the first real studio attempt at a blockbuster comic book film starring a woman (and directed by one too!).  It broke the box office and broke the Meninists, and in the first year of the world having to endure Donald Trump in the Oval Office, the strength and courage this movie was able to provide to women and girls around the world was not something to sniff at. 

            As a whole it was not quite as great as it could have been- a slow and uneven third act drags the film out of “Best of the Year” category- but the first two thirds are damn near perfect, culminating in a powerhouse extended sequence where Diana charges out into a WWI killing field, takes a line of trenches, and frees the occupied Belgian town beyond. 

            There is so much that happens in this scene that I could spend hours dissecting it.  Diana’s character, her status as a true hero, her transformation into Wonder Woman, are all cemented in an instant when she decides that yes, she will take on the impossible, and yes, she will try to save everyone, because that’s who she is.  The image of her standing alone, taking on an entire line of gunfire, was perhaps the best visual metaphor our new age of #MeToo and #TimesUp could have ever dreamed of. 

            It’s also a scene of remarkable variety.  Guns and explosives are used aplenty, but Diana also uses her shield, sword, and lasso, chairs and tables and guns are used as clubs and battering rams, and even her own body serves as a wrecking ball for a sniper’s bell tower.  Her connection with Chris Pine is cemented when they fight alongside each other and can each see and respect the other as fellow warriors, striving for good.  This culminates in one of the film’s best single moments of payoff, when Pine remembers a tactic he saw the Amazons use earlier, gets the guys to follow him without question, and with a single word signals to Diana what he intends to do, and she immediately follows along. 

            Oh yeah, and Diana THROWS A TANK.  A F***ING TANK. 

            This scene lifted me up and made my spirit soar in a way only a handful of other moments this year did, and for that, this scene earns my spot as the single best action scene of 2017.  Godspeed, Diana.  Your move, Black Panther

-Noah Franc 

Friday, January 19, 2018

My Top Ten Film Scores of 2017

            Another year has ended, and the retrospectives have now begun!  We begin this year with a look back at the top original film scores of 2017, those movies where original music broke new ground and made good or even great films ever better. 

            Ever since my first viewing of Amadeus awakened a deep, powerful love of great filmmaking and great music within me simultaneously, the use of the audio arts in a movie have consistently been one of the most important factors in whether I love, like, or hate a film.  As many popular musical genres have declined in quality and relevance in recent decades, more and more of the really interesting and groundbreaking music out there resides in the realm of the cinematic score.  As such, I deliberately focused these posts on entirely original scores written specifically for the movies they are in (or that include continued themes from long-running franchises, like Star Wars).  This means that soundtracks filled with various rock and pop classics are not considered here, since even the biggest cinematic hacks can put together a decent party playlist. 

            Props must be given, however, to Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Baby Driver, Call Me By Your Name, and I, Tonya, whose soundtrack selections were particularly excellent parts of what were all particularly excellent films.  Credit must be given where it’s due. 

10. Your Name (Radwimps)

            While it does suffer in consistency a bit due to a few odd transition montages centered around pop songs, Radwimps’ moving work for one of the year’s biggest international breakouts is quiet and moving in a way that enhances the wistful yearning and sadness of the latest, excellent work by Makoto Shinkai.  

9. The Shape of Water (Alexandre Desplat)

            Del Toro’s latest film creates such a singularly unique world that its tale about woman-on-fish romance actually felt most bizarre when it cut to scenes of “typical” 50’s family life.  Desplat’s magnificent score perfectly doubles down on this, balancing perfectly between being just whimsical enough to feel familiar, but also otherworldly enough to feel new without being too alienating.  It’s a perfect mirror to this singularly bizarre cinematic creation. 

8. Wonder Woman (Rupert Gregson-Williams)

            Big, out there, and in-your-face, this film’s music was everything it needed to be to help elevate one of the year’s most essential films.  Above all else, though, it gave us one of the most awesome, fist-pumping, instantly-recognizable superhero themes since Zimmer’s Batman work. 

7. Boys For Sale (Kazaguruma)

            Documentaries are usually not known for having particularly noticeable music, but this unforgettable film about a little-known part of the Japanese sex trade also happens to have some of the most interesting original music scores of the year as well.  Featuring a band playing an assortment of Japanese instruments, the makers of the film made the unusual choice of mixing together the actual written score with the musician’s improvisational warm-up recordings.  While the band was understandably apprehensive about this, they needn’t have worried, because the end result was a remarkably fitting sound unlike anything else I heard all year.    

6. Blade Runner 2049 (Hans Zimmer/Benjamin Wallfisch)

            Much like the film itself, this score goes well beyond being just an artful imitation of its classic counterpart.  It revisits the style and vibe of the original, but then deepens and expands them to create something built on the past, yes, but still very much its own new creation.  This was one of the most ambient experiences I had in the theater all year. 

5. Thor: Ragnarok (Mark Mothersbaugh)

            Slipping back in time to a funky 80’s vibe, the best Marvel movie yet (no, not up for discussion) brought us the most iconic and memorable score of them all, the Avengers main theme excepted.  So far the villains and samey music have been the most consistent bugbears of this particular cinematic empire, so it was nice to finally have one break the mold in a really meaningful way. 

            And plus, it’s never wrong to use “Immigrant Song” in your action scene.  Ever. 

4. Dunkirk (Hans Zimmer)

            There are a lot of people out there who really hate Hans Zimmer, who find his style repetitive an grating, overly loud and bombastic, or just hilariously overdone.  

            Those people are wrong.  But I’ll delve into that another time.  For now, let’s give Dunkirk the its proper due, as it was not only one of the best films of 2017 and Nolan’s career, but also had Zimmer at his finest, providing a score that equaled the movie’s frenetic pacing and the energy of the characters desperately racing against time in a fight to survive. 

3. A Ghost Story (Daniel Hart)

            Haunting.  This is, without any hint of irony, the best possible word that encapsulates both this film and Daniel Hart’s tragic, reverberative score.  It fills out the edges of this meditation on existence and its purpose (or lack thereof).  The air of wistful tragedy within the music enhances the lonely clarity of the film’s sparse imagery, following a lone soul wandering back and forth through time (though not, crucially, space). 

            Damnit, John Williams is, and shall always be, the man.  The classical Star Wars opening theme remains one of the great pinnacles of human endeavor, but part of what’s made the newest trilogy such a treat is seeing how well Williams has turned a third trip to this particular well into something every bit as fresh as the scores he’s given us for the past two trilogies. 

            Easily the most moving parts this time around are where he re-works Leia’s traditional theme into a few key scenes.  They are moments of such fine musical deft that I feel they would have resonated even if Carrie Fisher hadn’t passed away before the film’s release, thus turning The Last Jedi into something of a final testament to the legacy and endurance of our Queen. 

1. A Silent Voice (Kensuke Ushio) 

            No film of 2017, except perhaps Dunkirk, used music and sound design to such remarkable effect as this animated movie about bullying, depression, and suicide.  The film constantly raises, lowers, and distorts the sounds and score to reflect the many different ways one can be both physically and mentally deaf.  This makes the scenes of true clarity, where the score’s searing main theme comes in full-force, all the more majestic in its impact.  It is a beautiful work befitting the beautiful film it accompanies, and is my favorite original film score of 2017. 

-Noah Franc