Sunday, November 27, 2016

Hooked on a Feeling: The Polynesian-Infused “Moana” is Another Disney Winner

Disney may own the world, but at least they know how to make astoundingly entertaining films. After the fantastic success of the non-musical “Zootopia” earlier this year, Disney released its second film as part of their official animation canon (the first time since 2002’s double release of Treasure Planet and Lilo & Stitch). Yes “Moana” is a fantastic animated musical in the vein of the early 90s classics. It’s just as good as “Frozen,” if not better, and features terrifically catchy songs from Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. “Moana” is pretty much everything you expect and want from an animated Disney musical and more. It features terrific voice acting, strong memorable characters, ear-worm inducing songs, breath-taking animation, and a heart-tugging storyline with laughs and tears aplenty, 2D animation be damned.

Moana is voiced by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho and she's one of the strongest female Disney characters in quite some time. She's got the prowess and spirit of Mulan and Pocahontas and thankfully for once there's not a love interest in sight. This is certainly not about a Disney princess who goes all googly-eyed for a handsome prince. Her father is the chief of her Polynesian village and she's set to eventually become the new leader but her island home seems to be dying as the legendary demigod Maui has essentially cursed the island after trying to steal a powerful stone that gives “life” to all the islands. She sets off to find Maui and force him to return to the stone, though he must first find his magical hook which gives him the power to change form. Maui is voiced by Dwayne Johnson and, like the Genie from “Aladdin,” instantly becomes one of the great, fun Disney animated characters. The film essentially becomes a boat-based road trip buddy comedy with lots of adventure and songs thrown in for good measure.

If the film feels like it belongs with the string of successful 90s Disney movies its because it's directed by the guys who made “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” John Musker and Ron Clements. They've tweaked the formula here and there but it essentially works as modern take on the classic Disney formula. There are cute critters like Heihei the moronic but hilarious chicken, a dramatic family death, and creepy villains like Tamatoa a giant treasure-hoarding crab voiced by Flight of the Concord's Jemaine Clements who even gets his own David Bowie influenced musical number. And then there's the “Fury Road”-esque sequence featuring floating barges of evil coconut pygmy pirates hell bent on stealing the stone. And there's the exciting climax involving a fascinatingly designed gigantic lava demon.

After the death of Disney lyricist Howard Ashman in the early 90s it seemed like no Disney movie would be the same without the power duo of Ashman and Alan Menken but there have been lots of great songs since. “Moana” has terrific songs. At first none seem to stick out the way “Let It Go” did during “Frozen” but each one is truly special and catchy. Lin-Manual has teamed up with Polynesian musician Opetaia Foa'i for some truly great collaborations you'll be singing for days.

“Moana” is simply a joy to witness. The computer generated animation is truly breathtaking. The water is so well rendered to the point that it literally becomes a character itself. James Cameron's “The Abyss” had to have been an influence here. And the Polynesian lore storyline feels so refreshing; Jared Bush's script is witty and fun. This is a wonderfully entertaining and moving film that will be liked by kids and adults alike. Disney has yet another hit on its hands; they definitely got me hook, line, and sinker.  GRADE: A  

Trailer for Moana on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Paranoid Activity: “Allied” is a Grand WWII Romantic Espionage Thriller

This is the easiest way to describe the essence of Robert Zemeckis’ new romantic WWII thriller “Allied:” it’s what “Casablanca” would have been like if Alfred Hitchcock had directed it. I’m more than thrilled that Zemeckis is back directing live action films after a decade long foray into creepy and unsatisfying motion capture animated films. But even his last two efforts “Flight” and “The Walk,” while good, felt like he was still trying to get his cinematic sea legs back. One thing I love so much about Zemeckis’ live action films (besides not disliking ANY of them, a rarity considering there are even Spielberg movies I don’t like) is that he refuses to stay in one genre. How many directors have gone from pulpy action adventure, to time travel fantasy, to animation caper, to western time travel sci-fi, to fantasy black comedy, to epic drama, to space sci-fi, to Hitchcockian supernatural thriller, to survival drama? Zemeckis now puts his spin on the romantic war thrillers of the 1940s in “Allied” with glorious results. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are radiant playing against each other in a film brimming with romance and suspense.

The film follows a pretty standard three act structure. First we’re introduced to intelligence officer Max Vatan (Pitt) who’s going undercover in 1942 Morocco. His mission is to team up with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard) - who he’s never met or even seen before - in Casablanca, pose as husband and wife, and assassinate the German ambassador. So these two actually fall in love, to the surprise of no one and get married living the happy life (or as happy as one can be while attempting to survive the Blitz and, you know, a world war). But then Max gets word from above that Marianne may actually be a German spy which throws a slight wrench into their happy ever after.

For some reason I’ve been on a World War II kick and most of the recent films I’ve been enjoying, like 2014’s “Unbroken” have not been all that well received. The slightly old fashioned “Allied” does sort of have that “I’ve sort of seen this thing before” feel to it, but it’s obvious Zemeckis, having never worked in this genre before, was obviously trying to recreate these types of films that were popular in the 40s. The director has always been interested in technology advancements and pushing the medium forward and uses modern filmmaking techniques to tell a somewhat old-fashioned story. It’s easy to see the influences in Steven Knight’s script. But at the same time it’s also refreshing to see a big budget Hollywood movie that’s not based on any previous material or a true story. Zemeckis is truly at his best when he’s working from a script that shows equal parts originality and tribute.

A huge chunk of the success of “Allied” besides its assured direction, interesting story, lush production value, and great Alan Silvestri score is the pair of performances at the film’s center. In a way the movie feels like a strange mix of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “Inglorious Basterds.” Pitt and Cotillard have amazing chemistry. And Cotillard especially gives a nuanced performance. The audience only knows as much as Pitt’s character, who becomes understandably paranoid, so we’re constantly wondering whether she’s actually a spy. The film’s eventual developments aren’t too particularly surprising but suspense is milked for all its worth. The relationship at the core takes its time to develop to the point where you really care about where these people will end up. Not to mention that either could be killed at any moment. And those looking for a period piece romance will certainly enjoy the film’s steamier moments including an automobile tryst complete with a special cameo by the sand storm from “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

“Allied” is a standout big budget Hollywood war drama. It’s fun to see Robert Zemeckis’ take on the genre. His direction is really solid here. He knows how to make a film his own and make it wildly entertaining. Those who are a big fan of 1940s romantic war thrillers will no doubt enjoy this latest entry to the genre. I know I’m certainly happy to see Zemeckis’ return to the live action film world worth the wait.  GRADE: A-

Trailer for Allied on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Half-Bored Prince: “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” Isn't All That Fantastic

It took me years to like and appreciate the Harry Potter films. By my estimation I'll probably like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” sometime around the year 2023. There's nothing particularly “wrong” or “bad” about “Fantastic Beasts,” it's just that you either like this sort of thing or you don't. Harry Potter fans will most likely be on cloud 9 while those not prone to flying and magic will likely be bored. Even if the Harry Potter films filled a certain genre niche of fantasy it told a universal story suitable for all ages and audiences. “Fantastic Beasts” is probably as good a film as you could make about a guy who ends up writing a text book. It comes from the mind of J.K. Rowling and director David Yates who must have signed a deal with the devil to direct Wizarding World movies for all eternity. The pair resurrect the magical world of wizards and muggles for another fantasy franchise or at least until the fans grow out of their magical phase. But that ain't happening anytime soon.

We finally get a movie set in the wizarding world that isn't about children or teenagers. It immediately gives the film some added weight. Or at least doesn't make you feel stupid for not bring a kid along with you to the theater. This is the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) author of the textbook “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” as seen at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. Scamander arrives in 1920s New York which means the film isn't filled with wall to wall British accents. We're not quite sure why Scamander is here but he carries a briefcase that seems to be harboring… you guessed it… fantastic beasts. But his bag accidentally gets mixed up with the bag of a local muggle (ie non magical person or what American wizards refer to as a “No-Maj”) named Jacob (Dan Fogler) who just wants to open up a damn bakery but gets caught up in the world of magical wands and creatures and dark entities.

You're probably wondering who exactly is the bad guy since Voldemort isn't around yet. That seems to be a more complicated question. Coincidentally, magical forces seem to be destroying parts of the city and Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is investigating it and also looking for the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald who has been missing according to the CGI newspapers seen in the film's opening sequence. Then there's the creepy Mary Lou Barebone played by Samantha Morton (and her creepier adopted children one of whom is played by Ezra Miller) who's one of those crazy New York people who gathers people on the street and denounces anything that possible goes against their personal beliefs or religions. Wait a minute is “Fantastic Beasts” actually an allegory for marginalized people in today's society?

There are magical creatures, there is magic, there are wand battles. You know the drill. It's all familiar yet wondrous. Like I previously stated, there's nothing really bad going on here. The performances are good and the special effects work. What you get out of it will be directly proportional to how much you can tolerate the fantasy genre. Is it as good as the Harry Potter films? I can objectively say no. That doesn't mean you muggles won't eat up every last bit; I personally didn't get much out of it but it's harmless Hollywood sorcery.  GRADE: C+  

Feature Trailer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them on TrailerAddict.

Boyhood: “Moonlight” Shows Human Connection is More Than Skin Deep

“Moonlight” is altogether a challenging yet simple film; it's beautiful, lyrical, and ultimately moving. It will certainly mean different things to different people, which makes it a simply stunning cinematic achievement. The film forces us to look past the skin color of its characters; it's a universal story about humanity, growing up, the need for connection, and finding one's own identity. Comparisons to Richard Linklater's brilliant “Boyhood” are not unfounded. They are similar in conception but worlds apart in execution and characterizations. “Moonlight” tells the story of a poor African American named Chiron told in three acts: as a shy child, an introverted teenager, and as a toughened man. An important film for this day and age, it's absorbing and sobering filmmaking of the highest order; fascinating direction, stunning performances, and is so captivating that no two film-goers are likely to have the same experience watching it.

“Moonlight” is the story of Chiron, a black boy growing up in a poor neighborhood in Miami, Florida. He's first played by child actor Alex R. Hibbert as an introverted young kid who doesn't always fit in. It certainly doesn't help that he's significantly smaller than his peers and is non-so-lovingly called “Little.” His poor, drug addicted mother Paula (a wonderful Naomie Harris) pays less attention to him than the school bullies. She's too busy trying to find her next score. Sanctuary takes the form of a local drug dealer with a heart of gold named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who with his girlfriend takes the boy in, feeds him, and gives him more care than his neglectful mother ever could.

As a teenager Chiron is played by Ashton Sanders who gives arguably one of the finest performances in the film. Sanders nails the characteristics established by Hibbert; his Chiron is still introverted, small, tepid, and struggling to figure out who he really is. Bullying has not remotely gone away and has reached a threshold. His sanctuary remains at the home of Juan and his girlfriend who by now are like surrogate parents. Chiron also finds an unexpected closeness to his buddy Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) which will continue to shape the course of his life.

As a grown man – but still not fully satisfied with who he is – Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) is still the same introverted personality even if he's become “hardened” by an unexpected life path. He will then make an unexpected connection with someone from his past though the viewer isn't privileged to see it all. And hence the brilliance of writer/director Barry Jenkins. Like, “Boyhood” we get several glimpses into the life of a young man as he grows up. Chiron's story will certainly not reflect everyone's own life – and that's not necessarily the point. We get to see the story of a person so rarely portrayed onscreen and yet his ultimate struggle to fit into his world feels empathetic and relateable. Jenkins fills the frame with beautiful imagery; his camera whips around and in some moments is appropriately still. Jenkins' script is fascinating based on what he decides to show us – and not show us. He gets impressive performances from his ensemble and while the film is based on a play (“In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”), the movie feels cinematic and play-like all at once.

“Moonlight” is a really beautiful cinematic achievement. It's extremely compelling story brought to life by three extraordinary actors. The film celebrates diversity by giving the viewer a look into a character rarely seen in mainstream film and still tells a universal, non-politicized story – the human need for connection. In this day and age where society feels so divided and segregated it feels good that a film can reflect the progressive change and unity most of us so desperately crave. “Moonlight” should be required viewers for film fans of all races and generations.  GRADE: A  

Trailer for Moonlight on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

War of the Words: Amy Adams is Lost in Translation in the Brilliant “Arrival”

I wonder, if Roger Ebert were still alive would he have liked “Arrival?” And it's mostly because I remember him hating the fact that the alien tripods in “War of the Worlds” had three legs; he referred to them as being “clunky.” The aliens in “Arrival” have seven legs. It is sort of an odd, random number of legs. He certainly would of thought the film itself was a masterpiece. It's an alien invasion movie unlike any you've seen before – and yet it feels someone familiar in the best ways possible. Those expecting to see monuments blown up or other alien invasion cliches will certainly be disappointed; it's certainly more “Contact” than “War of the Worlds.” There may even be those who find the film “slow.” I found “Arrival” to be just short of perfect; a brilliantly conceived and executed piece of science fiction that easily ranks as a new genre classic – another wildly entertaining piece of art from Denis (“Prisoners”) Villeneuve.

Like in “Independence Day” alien spaceships appear all over the planet. Unlike “Independence Day” nothing much happens. They just sort of hover several feet above the ground, giant black spherical masses just floating as if they've always been there. Scientists are sort of baffled but the beings seem to be benign. These are aliens after all and communicating with them is rather difficult. Enter brilliant linguist professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams in a subtle but flawless performance) recruited by the government to help translate the strange alien language. Louise appears to be a lonely, introverted person. We see glimpses of her past life including the premature death of her teenage daughter which still haunts her and is probably the saddest film opening since “Up.” Louise works around the clock with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) an astrophysicist and Weber (Forest Whitaker) a US Army colonel.

The aliens ascribe to the “tentacle” body type we've seen in a lot of sci-fi films. Inside the ship, we see them in their own foggy atmosphere behind a glass wall as the scientists try to decipher their strange ink blot-like language. Louise communicates with two aliens lovingly referred to as “Abbott” and “Costello.” They appear to be friendly though as time goes on everyone's main concern is why exactly are they here? The film's third act is certainly a surprising punch to the gut in the best kind of way.

The film features brilliant direction from the always reliable Villeneuve who has such an amazing eye and knows how to tell a story the best of them. He has the charm and visual prowess of a Spielberg and the strange narrative know-how of a Nolan. And was it just me or did some the lyrical visual moments remind you of Terrence Malick? More importantly Eric Heisserer's wonderful script (based on a short story by Ted Chiang) is absolutely solid. There doesn't seem to be a wasted moment and every development is more interesting than the last. This movie is just as much about the characters as it is about the alien stuff and the performances are top-notch. And don't even get me started on Johann Johannsson's superbly creepy score. It's initially disappointing that Roger Deakins was not the DP, who previously shot Villeneuve's “Prisoners” and “Sicario” but Bradford Young is certainly up for the challenge of following the master. The film looks gorgeous and moody.

“Arrival” has been described as “thinking person's sci-fi” and that's certainly true to an extent. But there is nothing remotely snobbish about the film. Sure the film lacks the explosive action of a typical summer blockbuster but it's a brilliantly realized, realistic and ultimately moving piece of science fiction full of drama and suspense. It's a fascinating story about grief, loss, and discovery. It's a must see.  GRADE: A  

Trailer for Arrival on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Stranger Things: “Doctor Strange” is Decidedly Trippy, Goofy Fun

Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” is the shot in the arm the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed.  It’s completely weird and out there and dare I say… strange. It’s not the most successful super hero origin story you’ll see (especially by Marvel’s strong standards) but it feels delightfully far removed from what we’ve seen before. It certainly borrows heavily from random cinematic experiences… references to “Inception,” "The Matrix," “Contact,” and even “Insidious” are not altogether coincidental.  It’s certainly one of the weirder entries making the “Thor” films seem completely comprehensible by comparison.  Marvel first took a risk bringing the lesser known “Guardians of the Galaxy” to the big screen with fantastic results. Director Scott Derrickson - who previously helmed horror films like “Sinister”- and his fellow writers (Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill) work wonders with “Doctor Strange” making the completely far-fetched story feel somewhat realistic, coherent, and relevant.  I’d argue it’s still somewhat “middle of the road Marvel” but certainly a welcome change of pace.

The origin story in “Doctor Strange” isn’t exactly anything groundbreaking. Dr. Stephen Strange is a cocky, neurosurgeon who practically gets off on completing near-impossible medical procedures.  A terrible accident leaves him unable to use his hands the way the used to and then becomes obsessed with finding a way to be 100% cured. It eventually leads him to the Ancient One in Nepal. She’s played by a bald Tilda Swinton. Sure she’s a white woman but she’s so strange looking she might as well be from another planet. The Ancient One teaches Strange how to harness energy from various dimensions and how to astral project, which leads to trippy scene after trippy scene of mind-bending kaleidoscopic visual effects where characters bend their surroundings and make portals to transport themselves anywhere they want on the planet. Once Strange learns his powers well enough he then gets to fight “the bad guy” played by TV's Hannibal himself Mads Mikkelsen.

The strength of “Doctor Strange” is most definitely in its visual design. The production values are tremendous, obviously, but the visual effects are amazing even by Marvel’s high standards. Some of the impact has been lessened since we’ve seen a lot of this stuff in “Inception” but it’s still pretty fun and trippy. And a lot of the films more out there moments reminded me of last twenty minutes of “Contact” and to a lesser extent “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Cumberbatch is great as Strange and slips into the role seemingly effortlessly. Rachael McAdams joins the Marvel universe as his colleague Christine Palmer who is refreshingly not a love interest. The film also does point here and there to the previous films with mentions of the Avengers and Infinity Stones but on the whole this feels like a separate adventure from what we’ve previously been given.

Overall, “Doctor Strange” is a far out and welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the story itself is nothing particularly groundbreaking the visuals here are simply outstanding. It’s certainly not something that will be loved by everyone but rather a nice change of pace. It’s just what the doctor ordered. GRADE: B

Trailer for Doctor Strange on TrailerAddict.

Friday, November 04, 2016

War is Mel: “Hacksaw Ridge” is a Preachy but Stunning War Film

Is there any figure in Hollywood more controversial than Mel Gibson? Sure sometimes the guy is flat out loony but he's a tremendously talented filmmaker. “Hacksaw Ridge” is yet another directorial success and his first film since 2006's “Apocalypto” a film I dreaded seeing but found absolutely thrilling. Say what you will about “The Passion of the Christ” it has some amazing technical merits. And no one will argue that there's much wrong with his Oscar-winning epic “Braveheart.” “Ridge” follows the true story of World War II veteran Desmond Doss who declared himself a “Conscientious Objector” and was the first to be awarded the Medal of Honor. It's fascinating story about an interesting person made palpable by Andrew Garfield's charismatic performance but the film truly shines in the film's later half as Gibson puts some truly horrifying and heart-pounding war footage to film.

“Hacksaw Ridge” sort of reminded me of “Full Metal Jacket” in its structure. That film followed a group of marines its first half as they made their way through training while the second half of the film followed them into battle. We're introduced to Doss as a kid growing up in Virginia and is extremely religious. His dad is a war veteran and rather abusive and an alcoholic. After a horrible accident involving him and his brother Doss becomes a changed man. He refuses to see violence as a means to an end. Then second World War begins. He woos a young nurse played by Teresa Palmer and feeling the need to support his country, enlists, but only if he can work as an army medic. He refuses to even carry a gun which raises questions to those in charge. It even becomes a matter of the law.

You can tell Gibson gets the religious, preachy aspect of Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan's script, but I kind of admire someone who is so devout yet rejects weapons. Sometimes the two are disturbingly intertwined in today's society. Or course luckily for us viewers, Gibson's real bread and butter is of the brutal nature. The film's second half follows Doss as he enters into the Battle of Okinawa which was one of the largest water-based assaults in the Pacific War during World War II. Gibson easily shows the horrors of battle, which is nothing particularly new, but this sequence is graphic in a way that makes the violence in “Saving Private Ryan” seem mild in comparison. Gibson even throws in some thrilling moments as Doss does his best to save the injured in battle and evading the enemy at every turn – without ever picking up a gun.

“Hacksaw Ridge” may sound like a horror movie but the title is appropriate- the movie has some truly horrifying moments. The film just might be an instant war classic. It's certainly not the first film to really show the horrors of war. The digital cinematography has a clean sheen that reflects its holier than thou religious theme but as long as you can get past that what we have is a truly rewarding war film about a fascinating real life American hero.  GRADE: A-  

Trailer for Hacksaw Ridge on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Medium Scare: “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is the Great Ouija Movie You've Been Looking For

Why is Ouija, a board game originally made by Parker Brothers (and currently owned by Hasbro) one of the scariest yet lamest things on the planet? The game company didn’t invent the “spirit board;” a device for supposedly communicating with the spirit world. It’s been seen in various scary films like “The Exorcist” and “Paranormal Activity.” The game even had its own film: 1986’s “Witchboard.” The creepy toy has been a staple of sleepovers and other youthful gatherings. Most kids have seen or used one at some point, mostly to scare younger siblings to death. It's latest cinematic outing, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is probably the most successful spooky film to revolve around the Ouija board. The less said about its predecessor “Ouija” from 2014 the better. “Origin of Evil” is a creepy and delightful nostalgic romp directed by Mike Flanagan who certainly knows how to make inanimate objects scary: he previously made the surprisingly good killer mirror thriller “Oculus.”

“Ouija: Origin of Evil” takes a cue from other successful studio horror films like “The Conjuring” and takes place in the past. Set in the late 1960s, the film follows a working class, widowed mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) who works out of her home as a fortune teller/scam artist. She doesn’t think she’s doing anything particularly “wrong;” she gives her clients – as vulnerable or delusional as they may be – a sense of closure when it comes to communicating with lost loved ones. Even if she’s basically conning these people you never get the sense that Alice is a bad person – she’s just trying to make a living while raising her two daughters. Alice introduces a Ouija board into her routine and after a surprisingly slow build accidentally unleashes an evil upon her household and more specially onto her younger daughter Doris (Lulu Wilson). Her older, teenage daughter Lina (Annalise Basso) is very skeptical of her mother’s work and suspects something is affecting Doris.

There are plenty of spooky things that go on here, many of which aren’t particularly new or refreshing but Flanagan at least stages them pretty well. It’s all about the period details (including the retro cue marks that appear in the upper right corner of the screen throughout the film) and the director spends time establishing character and story before hitting you over the head with lame jump scares. The film sort of falters in the last act as the story (Flanagan co-wrote with Jeff Howard) becomes somewhat hokey but the film is generally pretty strong considering this is a prequel to a completely terrible film.

Overall, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is a competently made horror film that is miles ahead of its predecessor. And one doesn’t necessarily need to have seen the first film to enjoy this one. In fact, you’re probably better off not having seen the pointless “Ouija.” The film proves that movies based on board games and toys don’t have to be terrible at all if done right.  GRADE: B+

Trailer for Ouija: Origin of Evil on TrailerAddict.