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

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Leviathan (Leviafan) (2014)


Dem bones, dem bones.

Dem bones, dem bones.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Alexi Serebryakov, Roman Madyanov, Anna Ukolova, Sergei Pokhodaev, Alexi Rozin, Kristina Pakarina, Lesya Kudryashova, Valery Grishko, Igor Sergeev, Dimitri Byovski-Romashov, Igor Savochkin, Sergei Borisov, Sergei Bachurski, Natalya Garustovich, Irina Gavra. Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev

Life can be unrelentingly bleak. When you live in a coastal town in the northwestern fringes of Russia, where corruption is how it’s always been and ever going to be, how does a single man find justice when the entire system is rigged against him?

Kolya (Serebryakov) is a mechanic living in just such a town. He lives with his son Roman (Pokhodaev) from his first marriage, and his second wife Lilya (Lyadova) in a house that has a stunning view of the harbor, and when the sun is shining (a rare occurrence admittedly) the front windows allow a great amount of light into the small but cozy home. There are worse places to be.

Until the corrupt Mayor Vadim (Madyanov) rests his eyes on the land and realizes that it could be a gold mine for him. However, he has to get his hands on it and that won’t be easy or legal – Kolya doesn’t want to sell. His grandfather built the home with his own two hands after all. But Vadim usually gets what he wants and he uses arcane laws to steal the land right from under Kolya.

However, Kolya knows a guy. In this case, it’s the lawyer Dmitri (Vdovichenkov), an old army buddy of Kolya. Dmitri has the goods on Vadim which might be enough to call off the dogs on Kolya. However, when Dmitri is invited by one of Kolya’s best friends for an afternoon of target shooting, events will transpire that will lead to an abrupt reversal of fortune that will leave none of those involved in the story unaffected.

It is incredible to me that this movie, a pointed indictment at corruption not only in the Russian legal system but in the Russian soul, would have been selected by Russia as their nominee for the Foreign Language film Oscar but not only was it submitted, it made the final short list, losing eventually to Ida for the statuette. I can see why critics and Academy voters loved this movie.

It is, however, unrelentingly bleak which is I suppose not to be unexpected from a Russian film – Russian literature and Russian movies are notorious for their grim outlook. This isn’t a happy, uplifting movie that is going to make you feel better about things; this is a movie about the travails of life, how those who have get the upper hand on those who don’t and how they generally wield it like a club against them. It’s not a pretty picture.

However, in this case, it is a well-acted picture, particularly in the case of Lyadova as the long-suffering Lilya. Her expression is mournful, her demeanor is mousy. Kolya is a bit of a hothead, given to smacking his son upside the head when he is rude which, as a teenage boy, is most of the time. Roman saves most of his vitriol for Lilya whom he clearly doesn’t care for much. There is some question as to what happened to the first wife and when – the film doesn’t explain that bit of particular information, but one gets the sense that Roman knew his mom.

In fact, most of the cast is top-notch although they aren’t well known in the U.S. They have that dour Russian mentality of expecting the worst and usually having their expectations met. Other than the hopelessly arrogant and corrupt Vadim, they know their lot in life is to suffer and to get no justice in their suffering, so they drink.

And they drink a lot. They drink to drown their sorrows. They drink to celebrate. They drink when they go out shooting. They drink when they have a meal. They drink because it’s Wednesday. They drink because they’re awake. If ever there was a movie that would serve as a poster child for temperance, it’s this one. Kolya is the biggest drinker of the lot, a raging alcoholic even by Russian standards.

This isn’t a movie for everyone, and I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate it. There are some difficult moments here, some telegraphed and some not. There are also some light-hearted movies, such as when the group goes out on a shooting outing, they pull out pictures of old Soviet leaders like Brezhnev and Stalin to use as targets. My friend Larry, a student of Russian customs and society, found that particularly amusing.

However, the amusements come few and far between here and depict a life in Russia that is cold, miserable and unfair. Which is a lot like life everywhere else for the most part (except for those equatorial nations where it is hot, miserable and unfair).

REASONS TO GO: Searing social commentary. Lyadova is a real find. Well-acted throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Unrelentingly grim.
FAMILY VALUES: Coarse language, some sexuality and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While based on actual events both in Russia and in the United States, the screenplay was written as a modern reworking of the Book of Job.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Focus

Happy Feet


Happy Feet

Mumble (the big penguin, center) and friends get a glimpse of a whole new world, except that phrase is owned by Disney so they can't use it. They can't use "circle of life" for the same reason. Damn that mouse!

(2006) (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving, Magda Szubanski, Miriam Margolyes, Anthony LaPaglia, Chrissie Hynde, Steve Irwin, E.G. Daily.  Directed by George Miller

If there’s anything I learned from the documentary March of the Penguins is that it sucks to be a penguin. I’m not sure after seeing this that director George Miller didn’t get the same impression that I did.

It is said that emperor penguins have a heartsong, something that comes from so deep inside them that it conveys the essence of who they are. They use their heartsong to find a mate whose heartsong resonates with their own, creating a brand new harmony that is timeless and eternal.

Norma Jean (Kidman) is searching for the penguin with the right heartsong. While there are plenty of suitors for the gorgeous young female, only one – the somewhat unique Memphis (Jackman) catches her ear. Together they make a baby. Well, they lay an egg anyway.

The cardinal rule of antarctic egg-siting is “don’t drop the egg.” While Norma Jean is off gathering fish for her husband and unhatched child, Memphis does just that. It’s just a quick little thing and immediately picked up and set back where it belongs, but Memphis is worried that he has killed the life inside the egg with his own clumsiness.

Hatching day comes and eggs all over the ice floe are releasing cute, fuzzy little chicks, but not the egg of Memphis and Norma Jean. Memphis is just about to give up when there is some movement. First one foot pokes out, then the other. At last, a cute little ball of fluff emerges, but to the horror of Memphis, he does this shaky-foot dance. “Stop that son,” he says in his best Elvis drawl, “that’s not penguin!”

However, as his son, named Mumble (Daily) grows up and goes to chick school, the happy feet dance continues. And, to the horror of everyone in his class, Mumble can’t sing a note. All he can do is shriek. His affronted teacher, Miss Viola (Szubanski) sends him to the best vocal teacher in Antarctica, the matronly Mrs. Astrakhan (Margolyes). She has never failed to develop a chick’s voice yet, but Mumble’s proves to be the first. He becomes an object of ridicule and scorn, although his kind heart and generous spirit catches the notice of Gloria (Murphy) and as he grows up into a young man (Wood), her beauty and song (she’s the best singer in the great white South) catches his notice as well.

He is prevented from graduating with the rest of his class by the elder of the tribe, Noah (Weaving) but he goes out fishing with them anyway. After all, fish is becoming more and more scarce and with all the predators out there – bull seals, killer whales and such – it’s awfully tough for a penguin to find a good meal. Still, Mumble proves to be a good fishcatcher, despite the best efforts of slovenly skua (a seabird) Boss (LaPaglia) to steal Mumble’s fish away. However, seeing that Gloria didn’t catch one, he gives her his. 

However, more and more he is finding it easier to communicate with his feet rather than with his song, and as his moves begin to catch on, the elders – fearing that his blasphemy has caused the Great Provider from giving them fish – cast him out. He hooks up with Ramon (Williams), a homeboy of the adelie penguins and leader of the Adelie Amigos, who admires his moves. For the first time, Mumble has found someone who thinks he’s cool. 

Mumble decides to seek the advice of the great oracle Lovelace, who has a plastic six-pack ring around his neck, to discover why the fish are growing more scarce, but Lovelace has no answer. Eventually, it turns out that Lovelace is slowly choking to death because of the plastic ring. Mumble determines to go to the Forbidden Coast to find the answers and save Lovelace as well as the rest of the penguins. 

With CGI animated features becoming more and more commonplace, it requires much more than spectacular animation to get me to recommend one, and frankly, while this is as well-animated as the Pixar movies, it just doesn’t have the heart, the soul or the story to compete with the creme de la creme of CGI filmmakers. This is very standard stuff about an outcast who finds his own individuality and through his/her courage gains acceptance from the rest of his/her community. While there are certainly ecologically sound subtexts to be found here, that is not the main focus of the story, and perhaps it should have been. 

I have no quibble with the voice acting jobs – there is a stellar cast here, and they wisely lean on genre veteran Williams for three seperate roles, all of which are entertaining and completely different from one another. However, the characters are essentially bland types who don’t really add any freshness to the genre. Let’s face it – we’ve seen about all of the outcasts I can handle in CGI movies, from Boog and Elliott in Open Season to D.J. and Chowder in Monster House.

We’ve seen the traditional animation go the way of the silent movie and watched as CGI movies take over. One of the things that killed traditional animation (along with the prohibitive cost and time-intensive labor and creating them) is that the studios – particularly Disney – stopped paying attention to story and became more concerned with creating characters that were marketable for their theme parks and merchandise. Pixar, on the other hand, gets it – to create timeless classic animation, you must first start with a timeless, classic story. Once they find a good story to tell, the animation comes afterwards. Audiences respond to this and that’s why they create hit after hit.

Yes, Happy Feet did great box office, but honestly, who will remember it five years from now, or even two hours after you leave the theater. There is more to animated movies than this and while there are enough good features to give this a mild recommendation, quite frankly I’m beginning to get a bit burned out on the genre.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent vocal cast and some standout animation, nearly as good as Pixar’s best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A standard animated feature plotline about outsiders banding together to make good. *yawn*

FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly rude humor and a bit of peril but nothing too difficult except for the littlest of kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Naturalist Steve Irwin provided the voice of an elephant seal shortly before his untimely death. He had also provided the voice of an albatross for a scene that was cut from the film before it was animated; the scene was animated afterwards for the DVD release as a tribute to Irwin.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: In addition to the aforementioned Irwin scene, there is also a classic Warner Brothrs animated short whose plot is alarmingly similar to this movie and a couple of music videos. There is also a featurette showing Savion Glover’s tap dance routine being recorded on motion capture for use in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $384.3M on a $100 production budget; the film was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Miracle Match