La La Land


Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

(2016) Musical (Summit) Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Tom Everett Scott, Meagen Fay, Valerie Rae Miller, Zoë Hall, Damon Gupton, Marius de Vries, Terry Walters, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Claudine Claudio, Aimée Conn, Thom Shelton, Olivia Hamilton. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

Once upon a time the Hollywood landscape was ruled by two genres: Westerns and Musicals. Sure, there were thrillers, horror movies, comedies, dramas and even a little bit of sci-fi but those two aforementioned genres dominated both the box office and the release schedule. Both gradually fell out of favor and have been relegated to occasional appearances but have little relevance to executives eager to greenlight the latest potential tentpole franchise.

Damien Chazelle, who wowed critics with his Oscar-nominated indie hit Whiplash, now tackles the musical genre with a film that is both a modernist take on the musical and a reverent homage to the genre. Sebastian (Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who yearns to open up a nightclub of his own, one where he can do things his way. He even has the perfect location for it – the site of a former legendary jazz club, now a tapas and salsa club (it’s heresy, I tell you). Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who like many of her peers works as a barista – in this case, on the Warner Brothers lot. She attends audition after audition always hopeful only to have those hopes dashed by an indifferent casting agent or a surfeit of competition.

The two meet under trying circumstances and at first take a bit of a dislike to each other, but they keep bumping into one another and soon they fall in love – it’s a Hollywood musical, after all. Eventually, Sebastian gets a break as a musician – he joins Keith’s (Legend) band which combines jazz with pop and finds success. However, on a constant grind of touring and recording makes him put his own dream on the back burner. Mia notes that this is exactly the kind of music that he hates and Sebastian argues that there comes time that one has to grow up and turn your back on your dreams for the sake of building a life. Sebastian has urged Mia to write a part for herself – it turns out she’s a talented writer – but when the one-woman show turns out disastrously and with Sebastian unable to attend because of a photo shoot, Mia turns her back on her dream and on Sebastian as well. That’s of course when things are about to change.

You are served notice that this is going to be a musical that would do Busby Berkeley proud with the very first scene, a lavish musical number set in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a freeway overpass. It’s preposterous and lavish but done with much love. It is both retro in feel and modern in execution and that theme continues throughout.

Stone and Gosling are two of the most attractive people in the world and they make a fascinating couple. Both of them are consummate actors and won Golden Globes for their performances here; whether or not that will translate to Oscars is anyone’s guess but they are almost certain to garner nominations at least. In fact, La La Land is considered the frontrunner for Best Picture and after winning the Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, it certainly has a good chance to duplicate that at the Academy Awards.

Chazelle gives us some really beautiful, transcendent moments – a dance sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory in which gravity loses its meaning, for example – and shows that he has a sense of style that marks him as a gifted director with enormous potential to become one of the greatest of his generation if he continues to make movies like this one.

I have mixed feelings about the various nods to classic musicals. On the one hand, I respect Chazelle’s knowledge of movie history and his clear love of the classics but it is this very thing that turns out to be a double edged sword. Certainly I love old musicals as most movie buffs do. The issue is that this is a very different era. Stars back in the golden age of movie musicals were also trained singers and dancers. They moved with a grace that is largely absent today. Dancers are trained not so much for classical dancing but for jazz and hip-hop. The moves and feel for those forms are very different. Even on Broadway, much of the choreography favors those forms. Dancing today is largely more athletic than it was back then. Those who made musicals great – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Debby Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers to name a few – were of a different appeal, one that bespoke elegance and grace. Not that Ms. Stone or Mr. Gosling aren’t elegant or graceful, but again, it was a different era.

Another disappointment for me was the songs. Other than two – “City of Stars,” which was the representative of the movie at the Globes, and “Audition (Here’s to the Fools)” – not a single song will remain with you after the movie’s over. Those two will and for a long while too, particularly the latter with its aching, yearning and bittersweet tone. Stone’s delivery of that song reminded me a good deal of Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping performance in Les Miserables – which not uncoincidentally won Hathaway an Oscar. Other than the aforementioned the songs feel like generic showtunes without any sort of hook; soft, mushy songs that kill time before one of the two really good songs are presented.

I have to say that I admired the movie more than I liked it. Many of my friends and fellow movie buffs have put this movie at the top of their best movies of the year lists, or at least very near it. I can’t say that I don’t understand their love for this film. It is one of the best musicals to come along the pike this century and may eventually be considered one of the all-time classics and I might even by that time feel that kind of acclaim justified – just not now. When you hold this up to the light next to actual all-time classics, it’s just plain to see that there’s no comparison. This is a very good musical and a very good film, but a great one? I’m really not sold on that.

REASONS TO GO: Chazelle has a good visual sense. The movie is innovative and different. The performances by Gosling, Stone and Legend are fine. The movie has a throwback feel.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t really hold up next to classic musicals. The songs with a couple of exceptions have a Broadway sound to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gosling spent two hours a day, seven days a week learning the piano parts that he played live without CGI or hand doubles. His first scene in which he plays piano was completed in a single take. John Legend, a classically trained pianist (who himself learned to play guitar for the movie) proclaimed himself jealous.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Ivory Game

Sing


Ta-da!

Ta-da!

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Garth Jennings, Nick Kroll, Peter Serafinowicz, Beck Bennett, Jay Pharoah, Nick Offerman, Leslie Jones, Rhea Perlman, Laraine Newman. Directed by Garth Jennings

 

It is said by some, not without justification, that this is the golden age of animation. Studios like Pixar, Ghibli and Laika consistently turn out features that enchant, illuminate, entertain and excite. They don’t dumb down their movies to basic levels because these studios have more respect for kids than that; they create stories that address things that matter, create unforgettable characters and transport us to worlds that elicit wonder.

And then there’s Illumination. The studio, which has a long term deal with Universal, hit their first pitch out of the park with Despicable Me but their output since then has left a lot to be desired. Their world building has been haphazard and their stories basic, utilizing cliché over imagination and marketing opportunities over characters. It is, in every sense of the word, corporate animation.

Sing is meant to appeal to those who find American Idol and America’s Got Talent to be supreme entertainment. It sends a message that anyone, no matter how large or small, can achieve their dreams if only…if only…well, if only someone markets a singing contest, which Buster Moon (McConaughey), a koala with a somewhat slippery moral compass, organizes in order to save his theater which is overrun by creditors and about to be seized by the bank. However, his ditzy assistant accidentally ups the amount of the prize from $1,000 to $100,000. Oops.

And so all sorts of animals inhabiting Anthropomorphic San Diego come crawling out of the woodwork to audition, including put-upon piggy mom Rosita (Witherspoon) who is in a perpetual state of exhaustion from taking care of 25 piglets and a seemingly uncaring husband (Kroll) who takes her for granted like a boss; Mike (MacFarlane), an arrogant mouse who cons his way through life and croons like one of the rat pack. Then there’s Ash (Johansson), a punk rock porcupine determined to emerge from the shadow of her boyfriend, and Meena (Kelly) an elephant with a case of stage fright as big as…an elephant. Finally there’s Johnny (Egerton – who has the best voice in the movie) who is the scion of a gorilla criminal and has the leather jacket to prove it, although just because this is a kid’s movie, Johnny has absolutely no criminal intent whatsoever. Get that kids? Crime doesn’t pay!

There are something like 85 songs (mostly snippets) that have at least some vague familiarity and are mostly from the last five years or so. In fairness, most of them are sung well or at least competently but it points out another depressing flaw in modern culture; we have become all about the singer and give absolutely no thought about the song. Apparently dreams should be about becoming stars, not becoming artists. Make money, not a lasting contribution to our culture is the message here.

Egerton is an amazing singer and McConaughey’s voice is virtually unrecognizable but it is still a fine vocal performance. To be fair the movie picks up steam in the second half and the finale is pretty nice, if predictable. While most of the animation is fairly rote it is at least entertaining to the undiscerning and some of the images are cute.

And it is this last adjective that really drives the movie; they’re not going for great, they’re going for cute. They want to see these characters on action figures, video games, fast food meals and whatever cross-promotional activity they can think up. You’ll walk out of the theater remembering none of the characters who were in it, nor will you be affected by the story in any way. What you will remember are the songs and if that’s all you’re after, that’s fine but what this amounts to is a 90 minute karaoke contest that really isn’t going to inspire repeated viewings unless you are six years old or the parent of one. Unless you have a child who absolutely insists on seeing this, there is far better movies that deserve your attention.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the animation is engaging and some of the performances are cute.
REASONS TO STAY: This is more of a marketing opportunity than a complete movie, with little thought given to characters other than how they’ll do as toys and absolutely no thought to story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor but nothing most parents would be offended by.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the first occasion that Illumination has released two films in the same year. It is also the longest movie to date that Illumination has produced.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Idol
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: La La Land

Passengers (2016)


passengers

There’s nothing quite like a swim by starlight.

(2016) Science Fiction (Columbia) Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Vince Foster, Kara Flowers, Conor Brophy, Julee Cerda, Aurora Perrineau, Lauren Farmer, Emerald Mayne, Kristin Brock, Tom Ferrari, Quansae Rutledge, Desmond Reid, Emma Clarke (voice), Fred Melamed (voice), Chris Edgerly (voice), Curtis Grecco, Joy Spears. Directed by Morten Tyldum

Loneliness can drive us to do terrible things. But contemplate this; you are completely alone on a starship full of sleeping human beings on their way to a distant interstellar colony. You have been awakened 90 years too early and are likely to be dead, or at least enfeebled, by the time the ship arrives. How do you cope? What do you do with absolutely no human contact for the rest of your life?

That is the prospect facing Jim (Pratt), an engineer and passenger aboard the Avalon, a colony ship headed to a distant world. His hibernation pod has malfunctioned and awakened him almost a century too early. The only conversation comes from Arthur (Sheen), a robotic bartender who dispenses whiskey and advice in equal measures.

Then Aurora (Lawrence), a fellow passenger also awakens. She’s a writer who had purchased a Gold level ticket, entitling her to more perks on the luxury liner than Jim gets (think of it as first class vs. steerage – Titanic much?) who is equally mystified even as the two enjoy the many amenities on the Aurora – in complete and utter silence and solitude.

But they have much bigger problems. The ship has begun to show a series of worsening malfunctions, from elevators that won’t work to failures of more critical systems. They don’t have access to the vital crew areas where the malfunctions can be dealt with. And while Jim and Aurora are falling deeply in love, there is a secret that may destroy the fragile relationship that is beginning to blossom – if they survive long enough for the relationship to develop.

Pratt and Lawrence are two of the biggest stars in Hollywood and star power is just what a movie like this needs. The bulk of the movie rests on their capable shoulders with little interaction with anyone else other than the aforementioned Arthur and a crew member (Fishburne) who also awakens early. Pratt often plays characters who are generally not very serious. Jim is super serious and the twinkle that Pratt normally has in his eye is not really present here. This is Serious Guy Chris Pratt and while some may prefer the Not So Serious Guy, he is displaying more range than he’s shown to date, which augers well for a long run as an A-lister.

I’ve always known Lawrence is a tremendously gifted actress with extraordinary range but I never thought of her as a sex symbol before this film. There is a scene where Aurora goes on a date with Jim (some of this is shown in the trailer) where she wears a stunning Little Black Dress and has the nightclub walk down. It is as sexy a scene as you’re likely to see and yet no clothes are shed and no skin is viewed. It’s just an actress showing that sexuality doesn’t have to be simulated humping; the most sexual organ is indeed the mind.

Also playing a huge role is the production design. The Avalon is a cruise ship as reimagined by the designers of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s sleek and in some cases sterile, but it looks like the way we thought the future would be back in the 60s before movies like the first Star Wars and Alien showed us a future that was more lived in and industrial. This future is, as Walt Disney might have put it, a great big beautiful tomorrow.

The movie begins to break down in the third act as the love story begins to unravel and turn into a straight-out disaster movie which I think is a tactical error. While Titanic used the love story to give the disaster humanity, here because there is no interaction essentially with anyone else, it becomes less of a disaster than a “Oh no, the ship is sinking!” kind of thing. More like the S.S. Minnow, if you get my drift.

The movie has all the ingredients to be a science fiction classic, but it unfortunately doesn’t pull it all together to make it so. The storytelling could have been tighter and there could have been more emphasis on the people than on the environment. The antiseptic corridors of the Avalon, devoid of human life, become an echo chamber for the two protagonists and that seems a bit cold and empty. The movie is the definition of eye candy; pretty to look at but ultimately nothing substantial once you’ve seen the images.

REASONS TO GO: Pratt and Lawrence make a beautiful couple. The effects are pretty special.
REASONS TO STAY: The story meanders a little bit. The ending is extraordinarily weak.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and nudity as well as some sci-fi action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The starship is named the Avalon after the mythical location connected with the legend of Camelot. Not coincidentally, the bartender’s name is Arthur.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Titanic
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sing

Collateral Beauty


Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here...

Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here…

(2016) Drama (New Line) Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, Naomie Harris, Ann Dowd, Lisa Colón-Zayas, Natalie Gold, Kylie Rogers, Shirley Rumierk, Alyssa Cheatham, Benjamin Snyder, Mary Beth Peil, Andy Taylor, Michael Cumpsty, Jonathan Rivera Morales, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Ella Monte-Brown. Directed by David Frankel

 

We all deal with grief in different ways. Some of us pour ourselves into our work; others lose all focus. Some of us rage against the universe; others try to find something constructive to do, such as create or work for a charity. Sooner or later however all of us must deal with the loss of a loved one.

Howard (Smith) is doing just that. His beloved daughter has passed away and now, two years later, the successful advertising agency he built is floundering, losing clients left and right because Howard, their main creative force, just doesn’t care anymore. His best friends all work at the company; Whit (Norton), who co-founded the company with him, Claire (Winslet) who has given up marriage and children to give her full focus on the company and Simon (Peña), the numbers man.

There is an offer on the table to buy the company but Howard won’t even consider it. All of the principals stand to lose everything if they can’t salvage the situation and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Whit, Claire and Simon, desperate to understand what’s going on with Howard, hire a private detective (Dowd) to figure out what their friend is doing. Nothing much; mainly building domino constructions, biking back and forth from work and writing letters.

The latter is kind of the peculiar part; they’re not letters to people but to things; concepts, really. He’s been writing to Love, Death and Time. The three partners hit upon an idea that, well, never would have occurred to me; to hire three unemployed actors that Whit has found who can play the parts of Love, Death and Time who will personally answer Howard’s letters. They’re not really hoping that this performance will bring Howard back but the detective can film Howard talking to them (yelling at them really) and then digitally remove the three actors so that Howard can be proven incompetent and the sale go through without him.

The actors that Whit recruits – Brigitte (Mirren) who plays Death, Amy (Knightley) who plays Love (now, that I can believe) and Raffi (Lattimore) who plays Time each begin to spend time with one of the partners – Brigitte with Simon, Amy with Whit and Raffi with Claire – and end up helping them with their own problems. In the meantime, Howard has started attending a support group for grieving parents run by the lovely Madeleine (Harris) and looks like he might finally be emerging from his shell. But will it be in time to save everything he’s built, including his friendships?

If the plot summary sounded implausible that’s pretty much because it is. I can’t imagine “friends” doing something that awful to a friend, and the movie portrays them as genuinely concerned for Howard’s well-being. I can’t really reconcile the actions of concocting an elaborate scam to prove their friend incompetent (which has other ramifications beyond the sale of his company) with all the mea culpa chest-beating about what a great guy Howard is and how much they “miss” the old Howard. I mean, friends just don’t do that.

The cast is one of the best you’ll see gathered in a single movie with a couple of Oscar winners and four nominees. None of them will be adding to their nomination total here but the performances are nonetheless solid. Peña caught my attention for a very emotional performance as a family man facing a terrible crisis of his own, and Smith who is the main performance in what is essentially an ensemble cast gets to keep everything in until the last scene in which he unleashes some of his best acting of his career.

That ending however contains a twist so unbelievable that at that point most people are just going to throw their hands up in the air and give up on the movie, and I can’t blame them. However, if you do as I do and just enjoy the ride rather than try to make sense of things, you’ll be far happier.

Now as you can tell the critical response has been harsh. Keep in mind however that most professional critics don’t like being emotionally manipulated and films that do that tend to get harsh scores. In that sense, critics can’t be trusted with films like this. You really have to go and experience it on your own and judge for yourself. You, after all, may not mind being having your emotions manipulated. Maybe you need it. I do, sometimes. Sometimes I need the release of a good cry. Catharsis makes us all emotionally healthier after all.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout, particularly by Peña and Smith. The premise is at least intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Many of the plot twists are telegraphed. The ending is a bit preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity but mostly the themes are pretty adult in nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winslet, Mirren and Smith were all nominated for Oscars in 2007, although only Mirren was victorious.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meet Joe Black
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The True Memoirs of an International Assassin

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


The empire strikes first.

The empire strikes first.

(2016) Science Fiction (Disney/Lucasfilm) Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Guy Henry, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Ben Daniels, Paul Kasey, Stephen Stanton (voice), Ian McElhinney, Fares Fares, James Earl Jones (voice), Warwick Davis, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, Ingvild Della. Directed by Gareth Edwards

 

Most movies, particularly those that build entire worlds and mythologies, leave tantalizing questions. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is no different. Some of those questions were answered by the three prequel films. However, one tantalizing bit of information – how did the Rebel Alliance get the plans for the Death Star – remained unknown. Until now.

Jyn Erso (Jones) is the daughter of a brilliant scientist (Mikkelsen) who has been shanghaied by the Empire into building a new super-weapon – a planet killer called the Death Star. The elder Erso convinces a freighter pilot (Ahmed) to defect and carry a message to Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), a former Alliance member who found the Alliance not radical enough for his taste and had holed up on the occupied moon of Jedha. When Alliance intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Luna) discovers this, he helps spring Jyn out of a rebel prison and takes her to the Alliance to propose that she introduce him to Gerrera, who is almost like family to her.

Jyn sees the message sent to Gerrera and realizes that her dad has left a flaw in the system, a flaw that the Rebellion can exploit to destroy the planet killer but in order to do that they’ll either have to retrieve her father from an Imperial work camp or the plans from an archive on a closely guarded tropical planet. Accompanied by the blind monk Chirrut (Yen) who believes in the Force and fights like he’s dialed into it, and his friend the gruff sharp-shooter Baze (Jiang), they go to fetch Jyn’s dad. Unfortunately, hot on their trail is Director Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) and Governor Moff Tarkin (Henry/Cushing) along with the Emperor’s new Lord of the Sith…one Darth Vader (Jones).

This is the darkest of the Star Wars films and by a lot. In order for the story to work, the odds have to be incredibly long and the Empire has to be justifiably evil. Both of those are true and it feels more realistic; the rebels don’t sail in and save the day at the last minute. It gets messy.

Jones makes for a nifty heroine in the franchise. She’s tough, she’s clever and she has good reason to do what she does. She’s no idealist but when push comes to shove she is in this for all the right reasons. Jones is an Oscar-nominated actress who is becoming one of the most reliable actresses in the business now. She’s the perfect choice to play Jyn.

The rest of the cast boasts some impressive names and more than a few familiar ones from previous episodes, mainly in cameo form (Anthony Daniels shows up for just a few lovely moments as C3PO. Tudyk provides most of the comic relief as a re-programmed imperial war droid K-2SO and Whitaker is impressive as the fanatical Gerrera who is almost all prosthetics now.

The special effects are just what you’d expect them to be; the best in the business. The climactic fight has as many moving parts to them as you’ve ever seen in a Hollywood movie and the environments created are realistic and yet alien all at once. You are immersed in the environments, be they an Imperial garrison, a desolate asteroid, or the re-constructed Death Star itself.

Perhaps the most impressive special effect is bringing back the late Peter Cushing, who’s been dead for 24 years, as the odious Tarkin whose foul stench Princess Leia recognized in the very first Star Wars movie. Using a motion actor (Henry) to approximate the late actor’s build, the face of Cushing is digitally projected on Henry’s body and his voice synthesized. It is actually pretty unsettling in many ways. It doesn’t exactly bring Cushing back to life but it comes closer than anything I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie won a special effects Oscar just for that.

This is a marvelous film that hits every right note. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’re likely to be quite satisfied with what you get here (and if you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ve likely seen it more than once already as I have). If you’re not a fan of the franchise, chances are this won’t make you one – while it does make a fine stand-alone movie, knowledge of what happened in the first Star Wars film is extremely helpful in understanding what is going on here. The only drawback is that some fans of the series might find the tone too dark – it certainly isn’t your father’s Star Wars. Nor should it be.

REASONS TO GO: This is a real change in tone from the other Star Wars films. The special effects are absolutely amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: It might be a little bit too dark for the hardcore fans.
FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of action, some of it strongly violent and of a sci-fi nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first Star Wars movie not to feature the iconic scrolling text at the beginning of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge on the River Kwai
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro

Moana (2016)


Island girl.

Island girl.

(2016) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk, Oscar Kightley, Troy Polamalu, Puanani Cravalho, Louise Bush, Jenica Bergere, Sisa Grey. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements

 

Princesses come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and from all sorts of different cultures. The South Seas have had their share of mythic royal figures, but Disney has chosen to make up a fictional princess for their venture into that territory. Will she measure up to the pantheon of Disney Princesses?

Moana (A. Cravalho) lives on a remote but idyllic Pacific island. The palm trees are full of coconuts, the bay sheltered by a coral reef abundant with fish, the people happy and ruled by a benevolent chief (Morrison) who knows his daughter Moana will be a formidable chief one day. However, there is a fly in the ointment when it comes to paradise; centuries earlier, a rogue demigod named Maui (Johnson) had stolen the heart stone from the Goddess of the Earth. Instantly a flame demon had fought Maui to get control of the stone – which controls all creation – but fails to do so. Both the stone and Maui’s magic fish hook which allows him to shape shift are both lost.

However with the heart stone gone, entropy is setting in as a curse spreads over all the islands; vegetation rots and dies. The sea’s bounty dries up. However, as Moana’s grandmother Tala (House) when Moana is very young, the sea has chosen her for some great purpose. Somewhat ironically the sea looks a whole lot like the water tentacle from The Abyss. However, that blight has reached her island and there is no time to waste, despite her father’s decree that she not go beyond the reef to the deep ocean.

After finding some ancient sea vessels that recalls an era when her people fearlessly navigated the ocean and went on voyages of discovery, Moana heads out in one of them to seek out Maui and make things right. Accompanied only by the world’s stupidest chicken, she will brave legendary monsters, demons of fire and an angry Goddess if she is to succeed in saving her people. It doesn’t help that Maui turns out to be petulant, arrogant and unreliable. Moana may have to save her people on her own.

Disney movies tend to be a bit formulaic and this one is no different than most, so detractors of the Mouse may find themselves having a hard time enjoying this one. After all, it has just about every element of what you’re either going to love or hate about Disney movies. However, the big difference is Moana herself. As Disney princesses go, she is much more real. Sure she’s plucky and rebellious, but she feels uncomfortable with the Princess label until Maui points out “If you’re in a skirt and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” Touché.

Johnson does a pretty credible job as Maui and he is certainly the most memorable character as you might expect. He also gets to sing a song. Yes, the Rock sings – although croons might be a more apt description – and believe it or not, he’s not half bad. I don’t know if there’s anything that Johnson can’t do. I imagine there must be something.

The animation here is mainly computer drawn except for Maui’s animated tattoos which are hand drawn and are among the film’s highlights. The computer drawn animation is bright and gorgeous, full of radiant greens and blues and reds. It is as colorful a Disney film ever except for maybe The Emperor’s New Groove. That will keep the youngest members of the family mesmerized but for those who are older it creates a pleasant and occasionally spectacular image palette.

The musical numbers are about what you’d expect although I did enjoy “How Far I’ll Go” which is likely to be the Oscar nominated song here, but don’t discount “Shiny,” the clever tune sung by Clement who plays a kind of cross between a giant crustacean and a Disco ball. This isn’t Beauty and the Beast but it also beats most of Disney’s most recent movies by a country mile.

Given how good Zootopia was earlier this year there has been a seismic shift in animation this year; for the first time ever, the Disney Animation Studios is surpassing Pixar in terms of quality and with the next film in the Pixar pipeline being Cars 3, that’s not going to change for at least a little while. Moana is the kind of movie that Disney justifiably became famous for – a double edged sword, it’s true but who can argue with success? I certainly wouldn’t – not when it might mean having an army of angry 8-year-old girls standing at my door.

REASONS TO GO: Moana is one of the most compelling Disney characters in years.
REASONS TO STAY: Follows the Disney formula without deviation.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of peril, some images that might be too scary for the wee ones and a bit of rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Auli’i Cravalho is the youngest Disney princess ever, having recorded her role when she was just 14 years old.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frozen
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Manchester by the Sea


Grief is an emotion best shared.

Grief is an emotion best shared.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, Tate Donovan, Jami Tennille Mingo, Anna Baryshnikov, Liam McNeill, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Joe Stapleton, Brian Chamberlain, Christian Mallen, Oscar Wahlberg, Ruibo Qian, Tom Kemp, Chloe Dixon, Matthew Broderick, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

 

Joseph Conrad famously wrote that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” but like all aphorisms, it isn’t always true. There are some things, some horrible terrible things, that may not necessarily kill us but they destroy us emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They turn us into the living dead, unable to recover, unable to die.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is someone like that. He works as a handyman/janitor in several apartment buildings in Quincy, Massachusetts, taken for granted and overlooked – and quite happy in that circumstance. He’s good at what he does, but when he gets guff from the tenants he tends to give it right back. He hangs out in bars, ignoring the come-ons of attractive women and then getting into meaningless bar fights, exploding over the slightest provocation.

His routine is disrupted with the news that his big brother Joe (Chandler) has died suddenly. Joe has had heart problems for years so it isn’t completely unexpected but it is still a devastating blow. Both brothers are divorced but Joe does have a son Patrick (Hedges) that lives with him since it turns out that his mom (Mol) is a raging alcoholic. Lee for whatever reason has been unable to forgive her for this. Lee goes back to Manchester-by-the-sea, a North Shore town where he grew up but he has left for good reason.

To Lee’s dismay, it turns out that Joe in his will named Lee as Patrick’s guardian. It also turns out that Joe has left enough money that will assist Lee in paying for things that Patrick will need. Lee has no intention of taking care of Patrick in Manchester – he wants Patrick to finish out the school year and then live with him in Quincy until he goes to college but Patrick balks. His whole life is there in Manchester – two girlfriends and a truly bad garage band – but he doesn’t want to start over, particularly with his Uncle who is taciturn, grim-faced and possessed of an explosive temper that gets him into trouble.

Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Williams) is seeing someone else but seems eager to re-connect with Lee, which Lee seems absolutely against. There are those in town who seem to have some sort of issue with Lee as well; most seem to shy away from him, as if he’s a bomb with a hair trigger. Bit by bit, we discover why Lee has these walls up…but can anything bring them down?

Most Hollywood movies dealing with a broken man (and Lee Chandler is most assuredly broken) who is forced unwillingly to become responsible for a child (although Patrick is 16 years old) usually end up with the broken man being fixed by the experience. Manchester by the Sea is a refreshing change from that trope as Lee is changed, but not fixed. The pain he is in is still there when the movie ends, and it is clear that pain will always be with him – and understandably so. What he has to live with is not something that people can just fix and forget.

Affleck, who in many ways has always been in the shadows of his brother Ben, has emerged with this performance. Oh sure, we always knew he could act – Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and several other examples are proof of that. Here though he is an odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar and is a lock to get at least a nomination. This is the kind of performance that sears the soul of the viewer and stays there; it is a performance one can view again and again and still find something fresh and new about it. It is the step one takes from being a good actor to being a great one, and it is worth celebrating – we can always use great actors and Casey Affleck has become one.

Much of the movie is concerned with grief and how different people experience it. One point that Lonergan makes is that no matter how together someone seems on the surface, eventually that pain must manifest itself in some way or another, either through tears or walls or both. There are several scenes – a late film encounter between Lee and his ex, the moment when Patrick finally breaks down, the aftermath of a tragedy – that are as important as any you’ll see in a movie this year, or any other for that matter.

This is a movie firmly entrenched in working class values. Hollywood has a tendency to either mythologize those values, or condescend towards them. Lonergan does neither; he simply presents them as he sees them and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. He doesn’t shy away from allowing people to think either; there are a lot of concepts here worthy of post-movie discussion and while it can be a hard movie to sit through, it is rewarding because of that reason. The subject matter is heavy and Lonergan refuses to take short cuts or dumb things down.

I know a lot of people mistrust Hollywood as a bastion of liberal elitism and there’s some justification for that. Those people who feel that way should see this movie. It is a celebration of life in the midst of pain and death. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of life but it doesn’t wallow in them either. It finds the quiet bravery of just getting up in the morning without making a fuss about it. In short, this is one of the best movies of 2016 and one which you should make every effort to see.

REASONS TO GO: A show-stopping performance by Casey Affleck is one of the best of the year. Grief is looked at in an honest and realistic way. The attitude is completely working class in a good way. This film doesn’t dumb itself down for its audience.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit on the slow side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project was originally intended for Matt Damon to direct and star in, but conflicts with The Martian forced him to withdraw.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angels Crest
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Vacancy