Thor: Ragnarok


Chris Hemsworth and the Thor franchise turn to a not-so-serious sci-fi emphasis.

(2017) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Taika Waititi (voice), Rachel House, Clancy Brown (voice), Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Georgia Blizzard, Amali Goldon, Sam Neill, Luke Hemsworth, Ashley Ricardo. Directed by Taika Waititi

 

Of all the Marvel superhero franchises, in many ways the Thor franchise has been the most disappointing. While it has done very well at the box office, it hasn’t done billion dollar well like the Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America franchises all have. The first two Thor movies were slow and ponderous and overly-serious, never or rarely utilizing star Chris Hemsworth’s natural comedic talents. Thusly, the new Thor movie wasn’t as highly anticipated as much as it might have been.

Furthermore, the franchise was being entrusted to New Zealand director Taika Waititi who had never worked a big budget movie before and was known for comedies like What We Do in the Shadows and Florida Film Festival favorite Hunt for the Wilderpeople. With audiences demanding bigger and bolder superhero films, could Waititi deliver?

You bet he has. Thor: Ragnarok is the biggest box office success of the three Thor films and while it certainly is paving the way for Thor’s next appearance in The Avengers: Infinity War, it also stands alone as great entertainment. Taking his cues from James Gunn and ;John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, Waititi has crafted a film that is light in tone, high energy in execution and thoroughly action-packed.

Asgard is being invaded by Hela (Blanchett), Thor’s big sister that he didn’t know he had. The Goddess of Death had ambitions for taking over Asgard and reigning death and chaos throughout the various dimensions from there but her father Odin (Hopkins) put a stop to it and imprisoned her. With Odin dying, Hela is able to make her escape and she resurrects the dead warriors of Asgard to fight the living warriors. During the ensuing battle, she destroys Thor’s mystical hammer Mjolnir and sends him to Sakaar, a garbage heap of a planet where he is captured and forced to fight in the Arena against a big green Hulk (Ruffalo) who was last seen piloting a jet at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The planet is ruled by Jeff Goldblum…I mean, the Grandmaster who is essentially Jeff Goldblum playing Jeff Goldblum which is a wise and wonderful thing. Thor knows he must escape to rescue Asgard and in fact the entire universe from the ravages of Hela but in order to get out he must team up with Hulk and Valkyrie (Thompson) who has a connection to both Asgard and Hela herself. It won’t be easy and Thor, always the immature hot-head, will have to grow up along the way.

Waititi makes sure that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, something that failed to occur in the first two Thor movies. The tone is lighthearted and funny throughout; there are plenty of jokes at the expense of superhero films in general and Thor in particular but the movie never devolves into parody and is respectful of the core audience rather than making fun of those who are comic book lovers. It’s a smart move and cements Waititi as a gifted and savvy director, paving the way for him to move out of the independent ranks and work on films of all sorts (with one of them reportedly being a sequel to What We Do in the Shadows), almost certainly including some high-profile studio films.

The movie finally utilizes Hemsworth’s charm more than any other Marvel movie has to date; this is the Chris Hemsworth we have seen glimpses of from time to time and always knew he could be. This is the muscular action star becoming a charismatic movie star before our very eyes. If nothing else, Thor: Ragnarok should serve as a means for Hemsworth to grow into the kinds of roles offered to guys like Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Matt Damon in years past.

But despite the humor there is no skimping on the action with several major battle scenes, plenty of CGI and some good old-fashioned brawls. Several major characters in the Thor universe don’t survive to the end of the movie and we finally get to see Thor as the true heir to Odin. There is also plenty of Loki (Hiddleston) who in many ways has been the most interesting character to come out of the Thor movies as he allies himself with Thor to save Asgard, although the trickster does manage to set events in motion that directly lead into the coming conflict with Thanos, set for this May.

Some movies are roller coaster rides; Thor: Ragnarok is a whole effin’ theme park. It remains in some theaters (and if you haven’t seen it in one, by all means do so – this will play best on a big screen) but will shortly be available on home video. You can bet it will be joining the ranks of the Cinema365 home video library just as soon as it does.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth is at his most likable. The action sequences are downright spectacular. Goldblum plays Goldblum which is a high recommendation.
REASONS TO STAY: Fans of the traditional Marvel Thor may be put off by the lighthearted tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of violence and superhero action, as well as some brief sensual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Led Zeppelin classic rock track “Immigrant Song” is featured in both the trailer and the film (perfectly). The British hard rock band is notoriously picky about who they license their music out to; in fact, this is the first feature film they’ve licensed one of their songs to that didn’t feature former journalist Cameron Crowe in some way.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Guardians of the Galaxy
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
I, Tonya

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge)


Jack Sparrow in his usual befuddled state.

(2017) Adventure (Disney) Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Stephen Graham, Paul McCartney, Angus Barnett, Martin Klebba, Delroy Atkinson, Bruce Spence, Adam Brown, Giles New, Danny Kirrane, Juan Carlos Vellido, Rodney Afif, Hannah Walters. Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg

 

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me! As a young lad venturing to Disneyland, the Pirates of the Caribbean was always one of my favorite rides. Gore Verbinski adapted the ride’s backstory into a rollicking supernatural adventure that became yet another lucrative license to print money for Disney. In many ways, the film franchise that developed from the theme park attraction has outstripped the ride of its place in pop culture.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) has fallen on hard times. With his beloved Black Pearl reduced to a ship in a bottle, he only commands a land-bound disaster of a boat, the Dying Gull. An attempt to rob a bank – by dragging it through the streets of Saint Martin by a team of horses, certainly a novel approach – ends up disastrously with most of his crew quitting in disgust.

In the meantime young Henry Turner (Thwaites), son of Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) has encountered the undead Captain Salazar (Bardem) who was lured into the Devil’s Triangle by a young Sparrow and cursed to remain there. Salazar spares Henry to pass on a message to Jack – “death is coming straight for you.”

Jack’s spectacular bank robbery failure has put him in touch with astronomer/horologist Carina Smyth (Scodelario) who has been studying the legendary Neptune’s Trident which supposedly gives the wielder control over all the seas. She believes she has discovered the location of the fabled relic; Jack needs it to protect himself from Salazar, Salazar needs it to restore his life and Henry needs it to restore his father to life so that he and his mother might be reunited permanently.

In the meantime Captain Barbossa (Rush), the former antagonist turned ally, also seeks the Trident for reasons of his own. All of these competing factions will collide on a desolate island; at stake is control of the oceans and of course their very lives.

With Verbinski out of the picture (although he remains in the capacity of a producer), Norwegian directors Ronning and Sandberg who previously teamed up on the epic Kon-Tiki take over the franchise and deliver a movie while not the best in the franchise history is not the worst either. The special effects are right up there with the first film in the series and while the plots are as convoluted as they tend to be in this series there is a little more personal background being revealed here. One of the main characters also has a major revelation that will affect the franchise should it continue on to a sixth film, which Disney seems to have every intention of doing.

I kinda hope that they don’t however. A lot of loose ends are tied up here and this would certainly make a fitting end for the franchise. It might also be a jumping off point for a new series although Thwaites and Scodelario don’t hold a candle to Bloom and Knightley in the parts that they play; the late-film cameo of the two veterans of the first three films only serve to highlight how much better the two were. It’s not that Thwaites and Scodelario are inferior actors, mind you – it’s just that the roles of Henry and Carina are way too similar to Will and Elizabeth that the differences are pretty much too minute to mention. The writer, Jeff Nathanson, definitely could have made the characters a little bit more distinct.

Depp has for better or worse made the role a signature and all the elements are there, but the charm is wearing off. I don’t get the sense that Depp is overly enthusiastic about continuing to play the role of Captain Jack; there’s only so much you can do with the role. He’s colorful, yes, but the part has become a parody of itself. In the first film, Jack was not just befuddled and lurching about like Dean Martin on a Saturday night, but also clever and occasionally vicious as well. You got the sense that his demeanor is something of a means to get others to underestimate him.

Sadly, there’s none of that in Depp’s performance now. Depp has resorted to mugging over acting; it could be that he literally has nothing more to add to the role. I’m certain that the paycheck is enough to entice him to do it and given the box office cold streak Depp has been done I’m sure the salary for these movies is welcome. Jack Sparrow has become a WYSIWYG role, a lovable drunk with all the charm that lovable drunks possess. Sad to say, that charm overstays its welcome when it comes to lovable drunks and I feel like the franchise has reached that point too where the antics become less endearing and more exasperating.

Bardem however was inspired casting. He is without a doubt one of the best in Hollywood at playing villainous characters, maybe one of the best of all time. Salazar would be a worthy adversary in any film but in some ways, his evil is wasted because none of the heroes hold a candle to him. Every franchise needs great villains but they also require the heroes to be the equal of those villains and Captain Jack has become more parody than pirate.

There are some nice action set pieces, particularly one involving a guillotine and another involving zombie sharks (which is teased in the trailer). Often a film franchise feels the need to one-up themselves when it comes to action sequences; wisely, Ronning and Sandberg resist the urge and instead use action sequences that fit the story more than dazzle the eye.

The series feels worn out and without ideas. If the franchise is to continue, I really think that it needs an infusion of fresh blood, no pun intended. Some shaking up needs to be done and the post-credits scene which strongly hints that there will be another film in the franchise, it also teases the return of one of the iconic villains of the series which seems almost a step back. I hope they go in a different direction if they do intend to make another film in the series.

REASONS TO GO: Bardem is one of the finest villains in Hollywood today. The loose ends of the franchise are tied up nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Thwaites and Scodelario are inadequate replacements for Bloom and Knightley. At times the plot seems to be spinning its wheels in a single place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and violence as well as some mild sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The six year gap between films is the longest of the series; the running time of two hours and nine minutes is also the shortest run time of the franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Treasure Planet
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: 68 Kills

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


Box office champions tend to have the last laugh.

(2017) Science Fiction (Disney/Marvel) Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Rob Zombie, Rhoda Griffis, Seth Green (voice), David Hasselhoff, Gregg Henry, Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames, Chris Sullivan, Elizabeth Debicki. Directed by James Gunn

 

Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, Da Queen loves everything Guardians, particularly Rocket Raccoon. If I were to say anything negative about either the franchise or the characters, I am likely to get the cold shoulder for weeks on end at best or a heavy object upside my head at worst. Thus, I waited for her to go out of town on business before publishing my review for this massive hit.

Taking place only four months after the first Guardians (making this 2014), the nascent team continues to bicker like, well, family. They are getting set to take on a CGI alien tentacle thing that is kind of a cross between a squid and the machine ships of the Matrix trilogy. Incongruously, Baby Groot (Diesel) sets up a boombox and dances along to the strains of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while all around him is chaos. That kind of sets things up and sums things up at the same time.

Rocket (Cooper) being a raccoon has a distinctly kleptomaniac kind of attitude and before long their former employers, the genetically perfect (but not too bright) Sovereign are after them and they are saved by a mysterious figure but are forced to crash land on a primitive planet to make repairs. There the mysterious figure reveals himself; his name is Ego (Russell) but more to the point, he’s also Star Lord’s (Pratt) dad and he invites his boy over to his planet for a bit of father-son bonding time. Rocket and Groot stay behind to repair the Merano and guard their prisoner Nebula (Gillan) while Gamora (Saldana) – sister to Nebula – and Drax (Bautista) go along for the ride, joining the ultra-empathetic Mantis (Klementieff) who works as a kind of valet for Ego.

Things being what they are for the Guardians, Ego turns out to be a God-like Celestial and as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely and Ego’s power is as absolute as it gets. The Guardians are once again called into battle but can they overcome the power of a god?

This is everything fans of the first film hoped it would be; there’s a lot of Easter eggs in it for Marvel fans in general (like a cameo appearance of Howard the Duck) and Guardians fans in particular like the appearance of the original Guardians team of Yondu (Rooker), Starhawk (Stallone), Charlie-27 (Rhames) and Aleta Ogord (Yeoh).

The downside of that is that it feels at times like Gunn is trying to cram a bit too much into the movie; not only is he setting up future Guardians movies as well as, indirectly, the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War but he’s also trying to throw in a whole lot of Guardians lore while trying to tell a coherent story of his own. There is also a whole lot of carnage and some impressive battle scenes – a ton of them in fact – and for some it might end up being geek overload.

Gunn also wisely spreads the wealth among his talented cast; we get to learn a whole lot of backstory for all of the characters and while Peter Quill is the ostensible focus, Drax ends up getting almost all of the laughs while Nebula and Yondu are given some scenes of tremendous pathos. And yes, the sci-fi spectacle is all there from the art deco splendor of the Sovereign to Ego’s planet which the most ambitious computer effect is ever created to date with something over a trillion polygons of computer graphics.

The chemistry between the cast continues to be strong and while the story sometimes might be a little hard to follow, there is still some investment and I’m sure that Marvel’s lords and masters over at Disney were smiling at the theme of family which is one of their sweet spots. This year’s summer blockbuster slate has been inconsistent in quality but certainly it has had its share of smart and entertaining successes and this is one of the biggest so far.

REASONS TO GO: One of Kurt Russell’s best performances in years. The song selection is masterful. The special effects are truly special. Baby Groot nearly steals the show.
REASONS TO STAY: Gunn tries to pack in a little bit too much into the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence (of the sci-fi nature), some mild profanity and a little suggestive content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Glenn Close filmed scenes as Nova Prime but they ended up on the cutting room floor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ice Pirates
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale

Beauty and the Beast (2017)


Shall we dance?

(2017) Fantasy (Disney) Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ray Fearon, Haydn Gwynne, Gerald Horan, Nathan Mack, Clive Rowe, Thomas Padden, Gizmo, Rita Davies, Adrian Schiller, Harriet Jones, Zoe Rainey. Directed by Bill Condon

 

Disney has of late taken the strategy of remaking animated classics as live action films. It has thus far been successful for them; Maleficent, Jungle Book and Cinderella have both been moneymakers for the studio. Now comes the most lavish and most recent of the animated classics to get a live action version.

The tale’s as old as time; Belle (Watson) is a bookish, intelligent young woman growing up in a provincial town in France in the 18th century. The daughter of Maurice (Kline), a widowed inventor, she happily borrows every book she can get her hands on and cheerfully ignores the advances of the young men of the town, particularly Gaston (Evans), a former soldier chafing in his idleness in a life of hunting and drinking, assisted by the loyal LeFou (Gad).

On the way to the market, Maurice gets chased by wolves onto the grounds of a creepy looking castle. It turns out to be inhabited by a dreadful Beast (Stevens) and living furniture who used to be the servants of the castle. When Maurice’s horse comes home without him, Belle knows something is wrong and races out to rescue her father. When she finds him locked up in a prison cell in the castle, shivering and sick, she offers to take his place and the Beast agrees.

What she doesn’t know is that the Beast and all who lived with him are victims of a curse leveled by a witch (Morahan) who was refused hospitality on a cold stormy night because she was ugly. Now time is running out on the curse which can only be broken by someone who loves the Beast and is loved by him. But Belle is beautiful; she can have any man she wants. Why would she want a Beast?

Although roughly based on the French fairy tale, this version more closely adheres to the 1991 Disney animated version and includes the songs written by the Oscar-winning duo of the late Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken and includes four new songs written by Mencken and lyricist Tim Rice. The results are lush and elegant, gathering many of the elements that worked so well in the original and transferring them note-perfectly into live action.

The production design here is intense and we feel that we are given a glimpse not necessarily into 18th century France so much as a France of myth and legend. It’s an idealized version that is at odds with the suffering amongst the poorer classes that was so great that they rose up and slaughtered their own ruling class. Here however, the ruling class in their rococo Versailles is beloved by the simple folk despite the cruelty and conspicuous consumption displayed by the palace’s occupant that was so egregious that he and all around him were cursed. Well, he had some daddy issues so I suppose he can be excused, right?

There also was much made over the “outing” of LeFou as Disney’s first outright gay character, but even that is a bit of a tempest in Mrs. Potts (Thompson). LeFou’s coming out consists of him dancing with another man (who is dressed as a woman for reasons I won’t get into here) for a few seconds of screen time at the movie’s conclusion. Considering the brouhaha it created in the religious right, I’m not surprised Disney is taking baby steps towards inclusion (there are also a couple of interracial couples among the castle’s inhabitants) but it does feel like the studio didn’t have the courage of their convictions here.

Still, one must commend them for at least trying and for not bending to pressure, refusing to re-cut the movie for Malaysian censors who banned the film from their country based on those few seconds of screen time. Personally, I think the studio should have cut the film a little more judiciously; it runs over two hours long which is about 45 minutes longer than the original animated feature. Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos flesh out the backstory, explaining why Belle’s mother is out of the picture and why the Beast’s human prince was such a rotten individual among other things and it makes the movie a little too ponderous for its own good. Several little princesses in full regalia at the screening Da Queen and I attended got extremely restless during the movie’s final half hour.

But the ending is definitely worth it. It is slightly different than the animated version and the difference is enough to really tug at the heartstrings and create an emotional catharsis that warms the cockles even as you’re wiping away the tears. I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did; everything I heard about it made me fear that it was a bloated mess and in some ways it is, but there is enough heart here that it actually becomes a worthwhile viewing. Plenty of little princesses are going to be demanding that their parents add this to their video collection not too long down the line when it becomes available.

Chances are, you’ve already seen this and if you haven’t, I strongly urge you see it on the big screen while you still can. The amazing special effects deserve the best possible presentation. Even if you aren’t required to see it by a child in your life, this is actually a fine motion picture for adults, if for no other reason the nostalgia that it evokes. It truly is a tale old as time.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are gorgeous. The film has a lot more heart than you’d expect from an effects-heavy fantasy.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little too much ephemera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and action sequences, scenes of peril and a few frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ian McKellen was originally offered the part of Cogsworth for the 1991 animated version and turned it down (David Ogden Stiers eventually took the role) but he chose to accept it this time out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Dinner

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

Doctor Strange


He's a magic man, he's got the magic hands.

He’s a magic man, he’s got the magic hands.

(2016) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Durden, Topo Wresniwiro, Umit Ulgen, Linda Louise Duan, Mark Anthony Brighton, Meera Syal, Amy Landecker. Directed by Scott Derrickson

 

It was Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey who once said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Of course, that’s assuming that there is no magic but then again if there was such a thing it would likely end up being explainable by scientific theory once we understood it. Then again, there’s always the possibility that magic is real.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is one of the top neurosurgeons in the world. He has saved literally thousands of lives and lives in a Greenwich Village apartment that is more palace than apartment although it is somewhat sterile in many ways. Dr. Strange is a bit of an egotist, something that has made his relationship with Dr. Christine Palmer (McAdams) fall apart, although they are still fond of each other – it’s just that Strange is just a little bit fonder of himself.

A terrible car accident puts paid to all of that however. His hands – those marvelous, life-giving hands – hae been badly injured. He can barely hold a scalpel anymore and has zero control over his nerves. His hands shake like an epileptic at a disco revival. He has tried every surgical option and drug known to man but nevertheless his situation remains unchanged.

Desperate, he discovers the case of a man named Jonathan Pangborn (Bratt) who was told he’d never walk again by plenty of doctors, including Strange himself. Amazingly he was not only walking but playing basketball. When asked what his secret was, Pangborn sends Strange to Kathmandu to find a particular order of monks. While searching the streets of Kathmandu for it, he runs into Mordo (Ejiofor), a disciple of the person Strange is looking for. Mordo takes Strange to The Ancient One (Swinton), an ancient Celt who reigns as Sorcerer Supreme, a title of respect and the latest addition to the McDonald’s Value Meal menu.

Despite being unable to accept on faith the powers of the Ancient One being a man of science, Strange nevertheless manages to convince her to train him in the mystical arts, although she’s reluctant at first. She thinks he’s an arrogant close-minded twit and she’s essentially right but arrogant close-minded twits are people too, no?

And she’s in need of all the help she can get. One of her former disciples, Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), has essentially gone mad. He wants to create a world without death and in order to do that, he has to summon Dormammu – an ancient creature from another dimension that predates the Gods and who wants to wipe out all life in our universe. So a world without death is a world without life, right? Those tricky old god bastards!

Kaecilius is a powerful sorcerer and Strange is just learning his way around. As Kaecilius races to destroy all the wards that protect our dimension from beings like Dormammu, Strange discovers that he has been chosen by a pair of powerful artifacts – and that the way to beat a god is to think like one.

After a couple of subpar Marvel offerings, it’s nice to see that they’re back on track with a movie that sums up everything right about the Marvel films. Firstly, this is a movie about characters and not superpowers. Steven Strange is an interesting human being full of human frailty despite having the power to warp reality itself. Cumberbatch does a marvelous job of capturing the good doctor that I remember from the comic books, although I have to admit that he sounds a little bit strange with an American accent. Ouch.

The special effects here are pretty impressive, although they do borrow heavily from other sources. Certainly the reality warping takes a page right out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and some may find that to be a bit of a cop-out, but at least it’s utilized in a more physical way than Nolan did. The spells look almost scientific in nature just as you’d expect a man of science to relate to casting magic spells. All in all, some of the best effects we’ve seen yet in a Marvel film and that’s saying something.

The relationship between Strange and Palmer doesn’t generate a lot of heat; there’s more of a bromance between Mordo and Strange. Ejiofor is a reliable performer who always seems to get the most out of every role he tackles. Swinton is simply put one of the strongest actresses working today; the role of the Ancient One, who in the comics was an elderly Asian gentleman, was rewritten extensively to suit Swinton who is none of those things (elderly, Asian or a gentleman).

The action is pretty much non-stop once it gets going, although it takes a little while to. In essence, once again Marvel has done it – created an entirely different superhero movie that retains the feel of the comic book, the consistency of a shared cinematic universe but able to retain individual identities for each film. Any franchise filmmaker will tell you how extraordinarily difficult that is. In any case, it’s a fitting lead off to the holiday blockbuster season. I can’t think of a single reason why anyone who likes entertaining movies shouldn’t see it.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are mind-blowing. The story and characters are as good as any in any Marvel movie. One of the best supporting casts of any Marvel movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The film seems to exist on its own plane outside the rest of the Marvel movies.
FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find plenty of violence and carnage, some mind-bending changes of perspective and a car crash sequence that’s rather intense.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The appearance of the comic book character was based on actor Vincent Price and even had the middle name of “Vincent.” In recent years the character’s look has been modernized, with a goatee replacing the pencil mustache he’d had since his inception.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shadow
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Amanda Knox