Every December 31st, I put together a Top 10 list. As an obligation to tradition, I also highlight a few of the absolute worst as well. In assembling my worst, I realized that I never wrote a review for my least favorite production of 2016.
At the time, it was such a horrible experience that I just wanted to forget I ever even saw it. However, if I’m going to castigate the film, I do owe it the courtesy of presenting why I hated it so much. I still have no desire to pontificate about the drama. but I did discover a critique by Rex Reed that kind of summarized my disgust. His brand of criticism often verges on vitriolic hyperbole. In this case, he got it completely right.
And so, I offer his appraisal of my least favorite movie of the year:
Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a plucky koala who owns a music theater. Lately, his productions have bombed and now he is in financial trouble. He loves the concert hall for it has a rich history. In an effort to save his failing business he decides to hold a singing contest, not unlike American Idol. He starts by holding auditions and we’re introduced to an interesting assortment of animal critters. Sing is the latest offering from Illumination Entertainment, the animation company owned by Universal Studios. They scored big this Summer with The Secret Life of Pets and it looks as though they’ve got another major hit on their hands.
Sing gets a lot right, starting with juggling a colorful cast with ease. The screenplay wisely takes the time to thoughtfully delve into the backstories of various individuals. We become emotionally invested in these critters. Five leads emerge: Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is a pig who is a devoted wife and loving mother. She longs to return to the entertainment spotlight of her teenage years. Mike the mouse croons like Frank Sinatra and has got the confidence to match. Ash is a porcupine who comprises one-half of a punk rock duo with her arrogant boyfriend Lance. She can belt it out, but hasn’t been given the chance. Meena is a shy teen elephant with an incredible voice. Unfortunately her crippling stage fright holds her back. Lastly, there’s Johnny (Taron Egerton), a British mountain gorilla. He longs to perform, but his father wants him to take part in the family’s criminal escapades. These characters occasionally touch on ambitions that can be a bit clichéd. They may follow conventional tropes but they manage to engage. These are reasonably well-developed personalities with some unexpected depth. The narrative could have easily worked as a live action movie with human actors.
“Sing, sing a song / Sing out loud / Sing out strong…” sang Karen Carpenter in a 1973 hit song penned by Joe Raposo. Oddly enough, that similarly titled ditty is NOT included in Sing. This jukebox musical contains over 85 tunes ranging from 1940s standards by Frank Sinatra to current pop singles. These are heard throughout both in the background of scenes or sung in competition by the contestants. The compositions work and many actually feel as though they were written for the drama. Katy Perry’s “Firework” as sung by Rosita (Witherspoon), and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” sung by Johnny (Egerton) as his climatic number at the end, are galvanizing pop hits that pluck your heartstrings. Johnny’s incarcerated father discovers his son’s vocal talent from the TV in his jail cell. I can’t explain why I got choked up, but I did gosh-darn it! There’s a lot here that feels familiar. I mean did we really need yet another version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”? Please retire that ballad immediately. Nevertheless, I freely admit that it’s beautifully sung here by Tori Kelly. 2016 has been a stellar year for animated films. The bar has been raised incredibly high. Sing doesn’t reach the heights of the year’s very best (Zootopia), but I still left the cinema with a smile.
Films can make us laugh, cry, tremble and shout. Some of our most intense feelings occur when we’re at the cinema. I can cite reasons as to why I loved a given movie, but ultimately, it comes down to the emotional reaction I had while watching it. That’s why I can assign the same rating to a picture like Vertigo as I would to Team America: World Police. The reasons may be very different, but my enjoyment is the same. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first stand-alone film in the Star Wars anthology series. Chronologically it happens sometime after the events of Revenge of the Sith and immediately before the events of A New Hope (or Star Wars for those born before 1977). It’s a shining example of a production that did not engage my emotions in any way shape or form. I simply didn’t care. It’s not terrible, but it isn’t a satisfying experience either. Now in writing this review I have to assign the reasons why.
1.) The saga is overburdened with minutiae. There’s a lot going on here. We hop around to various locales and characters introducing a lot of people, places, and things but never concentrating on any one thing long enough to make an impression. We even get different time frames – a flashback of when our central hero was a little girl. There’s a lot of names being thrown about too. The messy screenplay by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) is jam-packed with Easter eggs. The script includes so many little in-jokes and winking nods to previous installments, that only the most obsessive Star Wars aesthete will get all of the negligible details. In and of themselves, these inside references aren’t bad. They can be amusing, but too many can take away from the importance of telling a meaningful narrative. There’s an art to telling a simple, good old fashioned story. Oh sure, the screenwriters know their Star Wars history. They’ve done their homework. The adventure has the brains but it lacks heart and a soul.
2.) There’s a ridiculous number of bland characters. Too many parts mean a lack of focus on a motivating protagonist. Felicity Jones’s warrior, Jyn Erso, teams up with Diego Luna’s rebel spy, Cassian Andor, to steal the plans for the Imperial Death Star. Yet neither Jyn nor Cassian inspires our passion with their lethargic charisma. They just exist to recite their lines so they can advance a dense plot. Without a galvanizing presence to arouse our sympathy, it’s hard to care. Maybe that’s why we also get a veritable backstory of secondary people each one more undefined than the next. Donnie Yen is slightly more invigorating than the rest as a blind monk guided by the Force. However Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen and Forest Whitaker all have “key” roles that are so undeveloped that they barely register as personalities. Come see an international cast of great actors portraying insubstantial parts! The screenplay doesn’t have the desire to have them do anything to incite our affection. There’s one exception but it doesn’t even involve someone human. The very best (and he is a delight) is a droid, K-2SO. He’s been programmed to be incredibly honest and speak his mind. He’s like a sassier version of C-3PO portrayed in motion capture and voice by Alan Tudyk. I wish the entire movie had been about him.
3.) Rogue One is a depressing slog. This is a dour affair with surprisingly little humor. It’s telling that even most fans pick K-2SO as their favorite thing about this. The convoluted tale doesn’t have a narrative to stimulate the emotions. I could go into specifics but that would involve revealing plot details which are apparently verboten when discussing these kinds of pictures. Translation: movies with an overzealous fan base. Words wasted encapsulating what happens are superfluous anyway. That’s why you watch the film. A good review should explain why it succeeds or fails. Let’s just say the drama is dark and joyless. Not just in spirit but in its presentation. The gritty cinematography has the feel of a documentary about a war-torn country. A dreary blue-gray color palette underscores the gloom. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Let Me In, Zero Dark Thirty, and Foxcatcher) has lensed some pretty bleak features. In those, his technique worked because the subject matter demanded it. This is such a grave exercise. I thought Rogue One was part of the Star Wars world, a thematically hopeful series that’s easy to follow. An adventure of when good triumphs over evil. Granted a little bit of optimism is shoehorned in when a cheesily inserted reference to A New Hope is spoken by a CGI Princess Leia of all people. Last year’s’ referential The Force Awakens may have been Star Wars redux, but at least it was an exciting hybridization. It succeeded because it was unbridled fun. Rogue One is cobbled together from other chapters as well, but it’s so serious it’s didactic. If I wanted to sit through an academic exercise, I’d take a course at the local community college.
Rogue One is well done from a technical standpoint. It has awe-inspiring special effects, meticulous production design, and a rousing score. It draws from a universe of films that I already adore. Well, 4 out of 7 anyway. (Those prequels are pretty weak.) The epic long battle, which comprises the second half, is impressive but it lacks a key component – our emotional attachment. Probably because the script hasn’t engendered our love for these individuals. That’s a key dilemma. The original trilogy embodies three of the most entertaining movies ever made. The grim Rogue One doesn’t even feel like the same universe. Luke, Han, and Leia were captivating, but there’s not one person here to make this story interesting. The chronicle certainly isn’t necessary. It’s merely an assembly line product efficiently produced to make money. You don’t need this other than to answer a lingering question. Why did a design flaw exist enabling the Rebel Alliance to launch torpedoes into a tiny exhaust vent and blow up the Death Star? Rogue One uses 133 minutes to basically give us an answer. Thanks for the fan fiction, but you could’ve just told me.
Jackie is a film that almost dares you to enjoy it. It’s never dull, but it’s so acutely focused on dramatic posturing that it completely ignores the kinds of things that normally compose a movie. This is an account that is less interested in action, drama or a plot. The chronicle focuses acutely on technique. It’s less a movie and more of a work of art to be viewed. The performance as an expression of method. Come see the newest biographic installation! It’s Jackie Kennedy as embodied by Natalie Portman!
The “plot” concerns the days and weeks following the assassination of her husband. Jackie is a character piece in which a devastated woman makes the first steps to engineer her own legacy. According to the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, she was obsessed with image. How will she and her husband be remembered? She’s worried about perception, not reality. The same could be said of this movie. It begins with the interview Kennedy gave to Life magazine reporter Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) in Hyannis Port, Mass a week after the assassination. The film alternates between the day itself, the state funeral, and frequent flashbacks to various events when her husband was alive. Oh, she also argues a lot with her brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (a shockingly miscast Peter Sarsgaard).
At times the circumstances are horrifying. Mica Levi’s (Under the Skin) discordant score punctuates this. The violins swell and plunge so as to emphasize her overwhelming sense of dread. More of an intrusion with the action on screen than an underscoring of it, they interrupt the scene, calling attention to itself. She steps off the plane in Dallas and the music drowns out the sounds of the crowd. It rises to the point where it supersedes what the people are saying. At first, they merely hint, but midway through they have taken over, hijacking the narrative and sabotaging the participants. It’s an edgy choice and one that would beautifully frame a horror movie. For a biographical drama, it’s distracting.
Natalie Portman’s rendition can be most equitably described as uncanny. She’s certainly got the look and feel of the character. The fashions are nattily precise. She gets the mannerisms down. Her vocal delivery is a combination of raspy mid-Atlantic accent and breathy whisper. It is an emotional achievement, but it all amounts to a sort of a ghostly manifestation. The style of her fashion and the lilt of her voice are beyond reproach, but the soul of the woman is oddly missing. Her patrician beauty and poised demeanor belie a chilly personality. We get that Jackie, though stricken with grief, is full of steely resolve, but she remains remote. She stares out zombie-like into space. Her presence is ethereal.
Jackie is particularly cold during the interview segments. She is curt and controlling, dictating which statements interviewer White can and cannot publish. Recreated scenes of her TV special, A Tour of the White House, seem especially artificial with exaggerated smiling and mock enthusiasm. Granted the real thing was a bit of a pretense, but Mrs. Kennedy still seemed sincere. It’s on YouTube. Compare for yourself. Jackie paints a portrait of a brittle, harsh individual, that is so peculiar in its affectations that you cannot look away. The performance will most certainly draw Portman attention come awards season. It’s too conspicuous not to notice.
This is Natalie Portman’s movie. She is Jackie Kennedy. The narrative is entirely composed of vignettes in which she interacts with various people. In that sense, it’s a chamber piece rather than a biography. Jackie is indeed an intimate portrayal, It revolves around her, every line, every scenario, every interaction fills Jackie. There are admirable qualities. The production has an eye for period detail. It looks exquisite. However, a gorgeous facade is not a raison d’être. As she weeps and drinks and smokes and snarls we get an unorthodox depiction. There’s a moment where she washes off the blood from her dead husband in the shower. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain certainly makes bold decisions in his treatment of this icon. I suppose one can admire his desire to innovate. It’s not conventional. Yet the work is assembled like a collage, with bits and pieces coming together but never coalescing into a unified whole. What are we to make of Jackie Kennedy? Who was this woman? What made her tick? I still have no idea.
I want to live in Los Angeles. Not the real LA mind you, but the glittering jewel of a city in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. The city often gets a bad rap. There are the oft-mentioned reasons: smog, extreme traffic, insufficient public transportation, crime, gangs, the pseudo-spiritualism, the unchecked vanity, the obsession with celebrities. It kind of seems like everyone is trying to make it into show business there. Easier said than done. It wasn’t nicknamed the city of broken dreams for nothing. And yet millions choose to call LA home. La La Land makes me understand why.
The city isn’t famous for its culture. Yet Chazelle sees the beauty within. La La Land is a practically a tourism ad making use of many real Los Angeles landmarks. It’s only a matter of time before the Hollywood location tour pops up. There‘s Griffith Park, the Observatory there, Angels Flight Funicular, Colorado Street Bridge, the Rialto theater, Hermosa Beach Pier. The “You Are the Star” Mural at Hollywood & Wilcox provides a backdrop. Each location becomes an enchanting setting. Anyone who has ever found themselves in LA’s nightmarish bumper to bumper gridlock would beg to differ. However, even a traffic jam seems like a wondrous delight. In the film’s opening scene, Chazelle makes congestion on the 110-105 interchange exactly that. Again I emphasize that this is not a set and the experience is all the more galvanizing because of it. As the characters slowly emerge from the protective confines of their metals cells, they begin to sing “Another Day of Sun”. Gradually getting on top of their cars in a rapturous display of dancing by choreographer Mandy Moore (not the pop singer turned actress). It’s a fantastic way to start off the picture. It’s so captivating, I was overcome with emotion. The way it harnesses joy out of the everyday is magical.
First and foremost, La la Land is a love story. Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) pursue each other. They’ve got palpable chemistry. This is actually the third time the two have been on screen together Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad were the others. Emma Stone is such a pleasure. As the jittery aspiring actress waiting for her big break, she is an anxious bundle of charm. Ryan Gosling plays a confident but frustrated jazz pianist. He dreams of opening his own club but earns a living by playing Xmas songs in a cocktail bar. Deep down he prefers the traditions of the past while being forced to adopt the affectations of the modern era. John Legend is his friend Keith that looks to the future. “Jazz is constantly evolving,” Keith argues. Neither side is wrong according to the film. It’s not being true to yourself that’s the problem. Mia supports this idea. Sebastian accepts a well-paying job playing backup electronic keyboards for Keith’s commercially successful band. “Did you like it?” Sebastian asks of Mia after a very well-attended concert of jazz-pop fusion. “Yes, but did you?” she responds.
They’re a pair out of some long lost Hollywood musical of the 1950s. In a previous generation, Ryan would be played by Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. Gosling is certainly not a proficient singer/dancer like Kelly. Emma Stone can’t vocalize like Judy Garland either. Stone has what you might call a delicate whisper of a voice. Damien Chazelle is aware they aren’t up to that standard, but that’s OK. In some ways, their inadequacies are part of their appeal. There is a lack of pretense and polish to their numbers that actually makes this more accessible and less artificial. When they burst into song, the expression appears almost naturally – an outpouring of their passion already existing on the screen. What they miss in singing ability, they more than overcompensate for with feeling. Those overly produced pitch-perfect confections on the TV show Glee may be flawless from a sonic standpoint, but they often forget the human element that gives the composition feeling and soul. When these individuals croon they reach for your heart first. Your brain might tell you they aren’t accomplished vocalists, but your heart tells you they’re in love. That is what ultimately matters in a story about human emotion.
We already knew director Damien Chazelle was talented. His last feature Whiplash garnered 5 Oscar nominations and 3 wins, including one for its star J. K. Simmons. He briefly appears in a cameo here. However following up success can often be an intimidating task for a newcomer. Damien Chazelle tackled a daunting project. Musicals aren’t common these days. Oh sure there’s Disney’s animated flicks and the occasional Broadway adaptation, but most younger moviegoers are unfamiliar with the idea. When actors break into song it can feel corny. An indifferent viewer rejects the idea with disbelief. How do you stage a production grounded in the past but present it to today’s jaded audiences? What Damien Chazelle pulls off in La La Land is nothing less than miraculous.
In La La Land the “City of Angels” is reimagined through the glorious sheen of the late 40s/early 50s Hollywood musical. For examples, watch An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, or The Band Wagon to see what I mean. What makes Chazelle’s 3rd feature so incredible is how brilliantly he understand how to reference history. He skillfully recontextualizes the vernacular of the American musical for the modern age. The exquisite score by Justin Hurwitz, elaborate production design by David Wasco, those costumes by Mary Zophres, the Technicolor, the romance – La La Land‘s aesthetic borrows from history but the time period and the characters are rooted firmly in contemporary society. 2016 is all here: cell phones, Hybrid vehicles, the part-time job as a barista. Chazelle makes our present era seem so much more magical. There is an exuberant quality I haven’t seen recently. Mia and Sebastian radiate sweetness too. This uncorrupted pair shares a purity. You want them to be together. Their emotion is real. You fall in love. This why we go to the cinema. If I may paraphrase a famous expression once said by Humphrey Bogart, La La Land is the stuff that [movies] are made of. It is sublime.
It’s nice to see that the ongoing plight of the adolescent hasn’t changed. The “major” dilemmas for a pretty, young, well-to-do student from suburban Portland may not add up to much in the grand scheme of things, but they represent the entire world to a 17-year-old girl. The drama opens with our hapless hero Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) informing her teacher (Woody Harrelson), that she’s going to kill herself. She’s clearly being overly dramatic and Mr. Bruner responds with appropriate sarcasm. To be fair, she has real problems. Her father unexpectedly died 3 years ago. However, that is not the focus. It’s all about the awkward social skills, not fitting in with the cool kids, the unattainable crush, arguments with her more popular sibling, a mom that doesn’t get her and an instructor who does. This picture could have come from any era. In 1984 it would have been produced by filmmaker John Hughes. In 2016, it’s a surprisingly self-assured gem from writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig.
What makes this umpteenth rumination on teen angst so vital is its stark authenticity. Craig manages to sidestep a lot of clichés with her directorial debut. The portrayal surrounds Nadine with all the usual suspects in a young girl’s life: the mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), Darian the brother (Blake Jenner), the best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), Mr. Bruner, the aforementioned teacher (Woody Harrelson), Nick the crush (Alexander Calvert), and Erwin the nerd (Hayden Szeto). The individuals may serve as stock archetypes but their personalities most definitely are not. I’ll admit there are a few artificially manufactured moments for the sake of drama. Hayden Szeto’s Asian nerd is so ridiculously fit and yet painfully sweet that her total disregard of him is a bit eye-rolling, to say the least. This would only occur in a story where a character must make a predictable trajectory. You’re just waiting for this to happen. The thing is, you’re rooting for it because he’s just so winning. So is everyone else in the movie.
The adolescent feeling that “nobody understands me” has been done before. The Edge of Seventeen is a fresh take that adds to a genre already crowded with a lot of great films. Let’s give major props to a star who continues to impress, Hailee Steinfeld. Ever since she was famously introduced as Mattie Ross in True Grit, she continues to make her film presence known. As the teen at the center of this tale, Halle Steinfeld manages to pull off the miraculous. On the one hand, she is rude, crude, and misanthropic. Her misfit high school junior is kind of a jerk. And yet we see the lovable warmth within. She’s a difficult personality but her snark is infused with enough wit that we embrace this youth. Director Kelly Fremon Craig’s vision is an innovative take on a woman’s odyssey through high school. Her screenplay treats each role with fairness and depth. Steinfeld is the MVP of the picture. Naturally, she should be. It’s her chronicle. And yet everyone in the production gets a chance to shine. The surprise is, despite all their foibles, we still embrace these people. When her best friend starts dating her brother, we grasp Nadine’s frustration. Her world logically (and predictably) comes apart. The way it’s handled, however, subverts expectations. You think you know these characters, but you don’t.
The Manchester of the title is a coastal town along the North Shore of Massachusetts Bay, about 30 miles northeast from Boston. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a dejected man with a tragic past. A beleaguered soul, he is withdrawn, almost surly. He works as a handyman for a Boston apartment building complex. Early on, his grumpy interactions with building tenants are presented as a series of vignettes. It’s kind of amusing at first. We’ve come to expect humor in our cinematic tragedies so in the beginning these seem like comic relief. They aren’t. Lee possesses a thoroughly depressed spirit. In the opening scene, we see the past. He is an upbeat uncle, joking around with his young nephew (Ben O’Brien as young Patrick). They’re on a boat with Lee’s brother / Patrick’s father Joe (Kyle Chandler) off the coast of Massachusetts. Life is good. Flash forward to the present and things are a much different picture. How Lee became this way isn’t revealed until about halfway through. Our present story is set in motion when Lee receives a call that his brother Joe has died, forcing him to return to his hometown and confront demons he’d rather forget.
Lee Chandler is something of an enigma. He’s all pent up emotion. Uncommunicative, aloof, he has shut out the world. It’s easy to embrace someone who’s asking for help, but what about the individual who refuses to engage? Because he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, Lee is isn’t a very likable guy. Outwardly, he’s placid. Yet that doesn’t mean he isn’t tormented by a tornado of sadness. A maelstrom of pain surging inside that gives rise to violent outbursts. He talks with his fists, coming out swinging just because someone looks at him funny. One keeps expecting a tearful collapse that never arrives. The narrative is all about relationships minus the requisite sentimental displays of the main protagonist. It’s a “chick flick” for dudes. Casey Affleck gives a most uncharacteristic performance for this genre. The chronicle is all the more innovative because of it.
There’s a more conventional version of Manchester by the Sea. Its core of “family coping with loss” is a common story. This could’ve easily been a weepy tearjerker. It isn’t. Lonergan makes some uncommon choices in how to depict the tale that elevates it into something extraordinary. Casey Affleck is the core of the plot, but he’s supported by an amazing ensemble that also subverts our expectations. Actor Lucas Hedges is Patrick Chandler, Joe’s now teenage son and perhaps the second most important person in this account. Father Joe has made his brother Lee sole guardian of son Patrick in his will. I’ve seen these melancholy tales with kids before and I figured I had this Patrick character pegged even before we were introduced. His personality is nothing like I expected. I could explain how but that would spoil the impact of his disposition. If this drama does have that predictable emotional breakdown, it belongs Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. Her impassioned plea is the movie’s one concession to a giving the audience a catharsis. It’s my favorite moment in a film full of many.
Director Kenneth Lonergan received an Oscar nomination in 2001 for his debut screenplay for the drama You Can Count on Me, which he also directed. The Academy bestowed another nomination on him for co-writing Gangs of New York for director Martin Scorsese. Then almost a decade of no output. He directed Margaret, starring Anna Paquin, as his second directorial feature in 2005, but the troubled production was mired in multiple lawsuits. It didn’t get released until 2011. As one of the most critically acclaimed pictures of the year, Manchester by the Sea must certainly be a validation, but it’s a reminder as well. Kenneth Lonergan is a unique talent.
Manchester by the Sea is highlighted by a brilliant script, also penned by the director. The narrative advances a progression of captivating conversations, as Lee deliberates on the past in flashbacks, as well as in the present day. The reflective piece is edited together like a shuffled deck of cards. The style mimics our own free association with the past as we converse with people in the present. These exchanges provide a deeper understanding of Lee Chandler. Sometimes it’s even more powerful by what it doesn’t say. The indefinable power of the silence in between what people actually express.
Music is an important component that changes with each segment. There’s an original score by Lesley Barber, but the soundtrack also features classical music. Handel, Poulenc, Albinoni, and Massenet are occasionally played loudly over scenes where dialogue would normally be heard. The technique is used frequently and periodically you feel the director’s hand guiding the viewer. Lonergan overtly pushes feelings that are already there. However, more often than not, the choice can be particularly compelling. A gathering of family and friends at the funeral home comes to mind. We imagine what the people are saying. We focus on their expressions in the absence of talk. The result makes the experience more dreamlike but also alien because the sophistication of the classical piece is so foreign to the blue collar aura of our central character.
Manchester by the Sea is like a mournful symphony gently guided under the masterful direction of its conductor. The adagio pace of the film unfolds as a contemplative composition. At 2 hours 17 minutes, it’s leisurely pace can tax the viewer’s patience, but the rewards are great. It’s a work marked by the modulation of sensitivity as we witness an evolution of poignant discussions. Happy, sad, angry – our undulating emotion crescendos with a heartbreaking conversation. The account ultimately continues on to the gentle sublime cadence. This is a movie about self-discovery. As such, we learn more about our character as the chronicle develops. It’s that gradual reveal of the narrative that keeps the audience captivated. Lee isn’t noticeably that much different at the end than he was at the beginning. Yet our appreciation for this man has developed. It’s an ending that plays out like life. This saga isn’t finished but we understand so much more now than we did when we started. I was enriched by the ride.
If there’s an archetype that Disney is most known for, it’s the princess. Snow White, Cinderella Sleeping Beauty – these are the classics. In recent years we’ve added ones from Tangled and Frozen. The studio’s latest offering is Moana (voiced by Hawaiian teen Auli’i Cravalho). Ok so she’s actually the daughter of her tribe’s Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison), not royalty as she herself points out for us, but she fits the princess mythology. The paradigm has always been loosely defined, but if the movie is a success, then she’s adopted into the tradition. If there’s any justice, this movie deserves to be a huge hit.
Moana is all about a quest. She hails from the fictional island of Motunui. Although that is indeed the name for a settlement in New Zealand, the location is set on an unspecified archipelago. This could be also Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii or any peninsula in the South Pacific. Moana is intrigued by the sea. However, her love for the oceans is sternly repressed by her father. The world is a dangerous and scary place he tells her. Those feelings are rooted in his own personal trauma. Yet we’ll discover, Moana’s longing has a basis in her cultural destiny. Her island is slowing declining. Crops are dying, coconuts are rotting, and fish are becoming scarce. According to legend, there’s a reason for this. Many years earlier, demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. This was a glowing green, jade-like stone. The absence of Te Fiti’s heart will continue to bring hardship. So, inspired by her Grandma Tala (Rachel House) Moana sets out on a journey to find the ancient gem and restore her world to its original magnificence.
The leading ladies of Disney have undergone a personality overhaul over the past three decades beginning with Belle in Beauty and the Beast. The classic princesses have been criticized for being too simplistically innocent. On the other hand, the modern ones can be a bit self-centered in their rebellion against a repressive society. I know it’s technically Pixar (owned by Disney) but Merida from Brave actually turned her mother into a bear. She was downright mean. Yes, Moana rebels in predictable fashion too, but she feels a little different. For the first time in quite a while, she exudes more humility than I have seen from Disney’s recent heroines. Simply put, she is a nicer person. Additionally, she has no love interest. It’s lamentable that we’re at a point where even a minor deviation from the rigid princess blueprint is considered revolutionary but here we are. Moana is refreshingly different.
You’ve got a spunky, can-do explorer at the center of a bright shiny musical with a positive message. Moana may be set between 2000 and 3000 years ago, but she’s still a contemporary heroine tailor made for a 2016 audience. Whether it’s Jasmine, Pocahontas, Esméralda, Mulan or Tiana, Disney has included more ethnically diverse protagonists for quite some time now. This time the formula is gently tweaked to include a Polynesian setting and people. Moana isn’t tall and stick thin but she’s still attractive. Certainly an athletic type. Disney has yet to really get subversive and create a leading lady that doesn’t look like she could model. Legendary demigod Maui has a wildly expressive face and a giant physical presence when compared to Moana. The juxtaposition of her tiny physique with his massive frame is amusing. The art direction draws heavily from Samoan culture incorporating the architecture, statues, even body art. The adult characters sport tattoos. Maui even interacts with a figure on himself that pantomimes advice like his sidekick.
Moana finds Disney working very much within their wheelhouse. The production is immeasurably enhanced by songs written by Opetaia Foa’i of the New Zealand group Te Vaka, Lin-Manuel Miranda of Broadway’s Hamilton fame, and American composer Mark Mancina (Disney’s Tarzan), who also composes the musical score. Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go” is the obvious bid for a hit single in the vein of “Let It Go” from Frozen. However, there are many others that stand out. The Rock sings “You’re Welcome” and it’s instantly catchy. The tribal chant “We Know the Way”, partially sung in Tokelauan, is great too. Oh and “Shiny” sung by a villainous coconut crab named Tamatoa (Jermaine Clement) is completely unexpected – like early 70s era David Bowie. The music is great. I think the sheer number of memorable songs is higher than any of their animated features since perhaps the 90s.
Young girl wants to realize her destiny by breaking free from the strict confines of her society. We’ve seen the hero’s journey story before. It gently recycles elements of The Little Mermaid, Mulan and half a dozen other of their own creations. Even the way the chronicle presents fluctuating happy and sad events won’t surprise anyone over the age of 5. Moana and Maui’s rocky relationship are highlighted by ups and downs that I would warmly describe as haphazardly predicable . Yet the production is carried out in such a proficient manner that the appropriation is still incredibly entertaining. The soundtrack is filled with one transcendent song after another. The animation is vibrant and appealing. The evocation of paradise is stunningly beautiful. Even the water is a translucent character that protects our young hero. Her pets, a pig (Puanani Cravalho) and a rooster (Alan Tudyk), each provide wonderful comic relief. Moana happily employs an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ mentality that includes the sum total of what makes a Disney film entertaining. You want colorful animation, music, sidekicks, a comic villain, humor, a moral? Well how about an army cuddly cute coconut warriors? You get all that and more and it’s skillfully presented in an artistically appealing way.
It’s been 5 years since the Harry Potter series ended in 2011. That saga may be over and done, but it doesn’t mean we can’t revisit the world. In 2001, J.K. Rowling published what was purportedly one of Harry Potter’s textbooks from Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry. The plotless tome was attributed to one Newt Scamander. He’s a wizard with special knowledge in magical creatures. From that slender 128-page volume comes Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Four additional sequels are in the works as well. Harry Potter addicts, come get your fix!
Fantastic Beasts is actually set in a time well before a lad named Harry Potter ever even existed in a land far removed from the UK – New York city in the 1920s to be exact. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives there to drop off an animal that rightfully belongs in the U.S. His mysterious briefcase is actually filled with a coterie of enchanted critters. A mix-up at the bank switches his suitcase with a hapless man seeking a loan there named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). As a result, some of the creatures are released into the world and it’s up to our timid hero to try and round them up. Assisting him are Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror and current member of the wizard police. There’s also her big-hearted sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).
Fantastic Beasts wastes no time in laying the groundwork for a new cast of wizards and witches. But what can you say about a film where the side characters are more interesting than the leads? Newt is certainly a peculiar little man. He arrives with disheveled hair cascading down his forehead and a sheepish grin. Eccentric, shy, no wait, make that painfully introverted. The wizard is so soft spoken he tends to mumble his words. It’s an idiosyncratic performance and one that’s a bit hard to warm up to. I honestly couldn’t understand about half of what he said. That’s pretty frustrating when he’s the star of your picture. I wasn’t particularly taken with the businesslike personality of Porpentina either. She’s ho-hum. Her younger sister Queenie, on the contrary, is another story. Actress Alison Sudol’s wide-eyed, Betty Boop style floozy is a joy. She is a free-spirited woman who can read minds. The singer-turned-actress is such a pleasure. Ditto her romantic rapport with wannabe baker Jacob Kowalski played by Dan Fogler. An ordinary man with no magical ability – he’s what the Brits call a “muggle”. Ah but we’re in America now so we’re told the term here is a “No-Maj”. Ok, whatever. He’s great regardless of what vocabulary you use define him. The two have palpable charisma together. Whenever they were on screen I was captivated. Can these two get a spin-off?
The leisurely paced narrative is not in a hurry to get anywhere. That’s fine because it’s the creation of a fictional world that is this production’s strong point. The meandering account is introduced when Jacob Kowalski and Newt Scamander accidentally switch luggage. The event is more of a conduit through which to introduce a menagerie of various living things that escape from his bag. I loved the Niffler. A mischievous critter that looked like a platypus but roughly the size of a mole. He’s a tiny scamp. There’s also a Bowtruckle named Pickett. He’s a pocket creature that resembled a twig-like man. Think mini-Groot from Guardian of the Galaxy. There are other animals and they’re all rendered beautifully. I don’t know if CGI is just getting better or I’ve been beaten down by such a reliance on these special effects in modern movies that I’ve just come to accept them. The phantasmagorical displays are easy on the eyes.
At best, the unfocused production is a visual delight. At worst, the dark developments are tonally odd . There’s a tiresome subplot about repressive fascists. Crusader Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) is head of an extremist group against wizards and magic. She thinks children should muzzle their magical gifts. It’s like X-Men but for toddlers. This makes them quietly go crazy. Ezra Miller is Credence Barebone, her troubled adopted son. Miller is normally a dynamic presence. I’ve enjoyed his work since the very beginning of his career. Yet here he is given little to do other than sleepwalk through the chronicle as a catatonic creep. Colin Farrell as Percival Graves is better but not by much. His poorly defined character is tasked with tracking down Newt. He changes in a way that is both confusing and dispiriting. I could say more, but I consider spoilers to be verboten.
There’s a lot to recommend. This should satisfy both Harry Potter fans and fantasy enthusiasts as well. Director David Yates is back. He brings his quirky aesthetic to this new film and the touch is welcome. He directed the last four installments of the Harry Potter series and he will direct all 5 of these films as well. On the other hand, Steve Kloves, who adapted every Potter movies except Order of the Phoenix, is only a producer here. This time the script is penned by none other than author Dame J. K. Rowling herself. This is her first screenplay. She pretty much had free reign to adapt her work any way she saw fit. We get a wandering two-hour plus movie from a meager story thread. Fantastic Beasts is a suitably accomplished escapist adventure. However the attempts to mix upbeat fantasy with something more sinister, fall flat. At best, the tale is a fanciful stroll through a dreamlike world. Nicely photographed, with a lush score and special effects galore; these all unite to create an occasionally bewitching imaginary universe.