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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In the Heart of the Sea


Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

(2015) True Life Adventure (Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle, Edward Ashley, Sam Keeley, Osy Ikhile, Gary Beadle, Jamie Sives, Morgan Chetcuti, Nicholas Jones, Donald Sumpter, Richard Bremmer, Charlotte Riley. Directed by Ron Howard

Most people are aware of the saga of Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s obsession with a great white whale that took his leg and eventually much more than that. Many consider it the greatest novel ever written by an American. What a lot of people don’t know is that it is based on the story of the whaleship Essex which was attacked by an unusually large whale in the Pacific in 1820.

It’s a story that has made the rounds in Nantucket and the whaling community of New England, so Herman Melville (Whishaw) wants to get the scoop right from the horse’s mouth – the last survivor of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Gleeson). At first, Tom is loathe to tell the tale but at the urging of his wife (Fairley) who points out to her husband that they need the money – and to Melville that Tom needs to let all of the demons of that ill-fated voyage that have troubled him for so long out. Eventually, Tom tells the tale and quite a tale it is.

Putting to sea for a two year voyage, the Essex is commanded by George Pollard (Walker), scion of a respected Nantucket seafaring family but inexperienced at the helm. He is given Owen Chase (Hemsworth), a well-regarded first mate who has ambitions to captain his own ship someday but a son of landsmen (or land lubbers if you prefer). As they head out on their trip, hoping to pull In 400 barrels of whale oil, Pollard steers them directly into a squall, nearly wrecking the ship in the process. Not an auspicious start.

Things get worse though. The usually fruitful hunting grounds of the Atlantic are barren – already almost completely fished out – so the crew makes a try to go around Cape Horn for the Pacific fisheries, a long journey adding months to their already long and arduous trip. Lurking there is an abnormally large white whale, one that means business. The encounter between the whale and the Essex won’t be a happy one – certainly not for the seamen of the Essex.

The ship is stove and the crew is forced to abandon ship, the survivors getting into three ships normally used in the harpooning of whales. One disappears completely, never to be seen again (in reality, the third ship washed ashore years later with three skeletons aboard, and while the remains were never positively identified it as believed to have been the one from the Essex) while the other two, try for the coast of South America or at least Easter Island. However there are more than a thousand nautical miles to make it there and little food or water. Pollard commands one ship, with his cousin Henry Coffin (Dillane) aboard while Chase the other with his close friend Matthew Joy (Murphy) and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Holland) on board. Which ones, if either, will make it to safety? And what must they do in order to get there?

Tales like Treasure Island and Moby Dick have always excited the American imagination, although to be honest in these more cynical days of CGI and cell phones, the lure of uncharted waters is not as enticing so in that sense In the Heart of the Sea is something of a hard sell for the American moviegoing public. It would take a truly stirring movie to get people into the theater to see it.

Unfortunately, that’s not what Ron Howard delivered. There are moments, yes, where the movie really works – the sequence of the whale attack is actually one of them, although it is clearly a digital creation. The framing device of the conversation between Melville and a middle-aged Nickerson also works, mainly because Gleeson is so compelling an actor.

But there are also moments in which the movie just seems to drag. Quite frankly, watching sailors slowly dying of starvation and dehydration is not exciting which sounds a little bit cold but there you have it. Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt draw parallels from the whaling industry of the 1820s to the oil industry of today, parallels which have some justification, but still the harpooning sequences are bloody and a off-putting to modern sensibilities. I’m not sure we need to be told that whaling was a brutal, bloody business.

I did want to like this movie more than I ended up doing and I think that I may well have gone a little easy on it if the remarks of other reviewers are to be believed. Hemsworth, usually reliable an actor, feels like he’s had all his charisma sucked out of him for this one; you get the sense he’s like a caged animal, wanting to break out of the shackles his character has had put upon him. When the framing sequence is what works best about a film, you have a problem. And yet, I still recommend the movie nevertheless. There is enough here to keep one’s attention, but if you choose to wait until it’s available on home video, I wouldn’t dissuade you.

REASONS TO GO: Rip roaring adventure yarn. Framing sequences work well.
REASONS TO STAY: The story isn’t as exciting as the book based on it was. The pace is a bit leaden through the second act.
FAMILY VALUES: Some startling violence, disturbing images, moments of peril and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the sixth film directed by Howard to be based on a true story. The others are Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon and Rush.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moby Dick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Youth

All the Light in the Sky


As any good surfer will tell you, the surf's up even when you're down.

As any good surfer will tell you, the surf’s up even when you’re down.

(2012) Drama (Swanberry) Jane Adams, Sophia Takal, Kent Osborne, Larry Fessenden, David Siskind, Lawrence Michael Levine, Ti West, Susan Traylor, Lindsay Burge, Simon Barrett, Allison Baar. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 Florida Film Festival 2013

I’ve heard mumblecore defined as “a bunch of dialogue in search of a plot.” That’s not entirely accurate but it isn’t without some merit. The mumblecore movement, whose adherents include directors like the Duplass Brothers, Andrew Bujalsky and Lynn Shelton,  have had a champion in Joe Swanberg as well.

Swanberg, based in the Chicago area (he attended film school at Southern Illinois University) has been as prolific a director as anyone in the business. He’s not quantity over quality either – some of his films have included Hannah Takes the Stairs, Silver Bullets, Autoerotic and Kissing on the Mouth, all very fine films. Actress Jane Adams, who also starred in Autoerotic and made a name for herself in Todd Solondz’ film Happiness, co-wrote this new film with Swanberg which would seem to have at least some autobiographical elements.

Marie (Adams) is a respected film actress who at 45 is hitting the brick wall that actresses get as roles for middle aged women dry up. She lives in a beach house with a gorgeous view of the Pacific into which she paddleboards every morning. She lives a healthy lifestyle, making herself smoothies for nearly every occasion, and has no romantic entanglements.

Her niece Faye (Takal), who intends to follow in her footsteps as an actress but has been working mostly on the East Coast, comes for a visit. This delights Marie, who one suspects is a little bit lonely but also adores her niece to begin with. Marie shows her around town and gives her some advice on navigating the treacherous waters of Hollywood.

Marie knows those waters well. After losing a desirable role to Kristen Wiig, she accepts a part in a micro-budgeted indie as a solar scientist and does extensive research with one to prepare for the role. She also begins a relationship with Dan (Swanberg regular Osborne) who does a lot of pot and is handy around the house, but as Marie looks past the sex doesn’t really see a lot more there- and that may well be just fine by her.

Faye for her part has a boyfriend (Levine) at home with whom she Skypes almost nightly with. Some innocent flirtations trouble her; she seems tempted at times with some of the boys she hangs out with at parties and such but quickly learns that their interest in her mainly ends when her clothes stay on. That’s not uncommon in L.A. or anywhere else for that matter.

Marie’s friend Rusty (Fessenden) paddleboards with her every morning. He’s a bit of a player although he prefers partners who are younger. They have a fairly comfortable relationship but after having a few drinks with dinner, things get a bit awkward.

The story really revolves around Faye’s visit and a few days on each side of it. This isn’t a movie in which things happen, which some viewers might find infuriating. Rather, things get discussed – everything from women’s breasts to the need for solar energy to the advantages of marriage and the price for independence. Some of these conversations are interesting indeed.

For my part, I have this issue with movies that are essentially people talking about life – it’s a very passive endeavor. I need a little more interaction. When I see an interesting conversation onscreen, I want very much to be part of it and it can be quite frustrating to be a mute onlooker. Sure, you can carry on some of the conversations afterward (and Da Queen and I did) but it isn’t the same – you’re never as brilliant afterwards are you are in the moment and the value of your insights can get lost.

I like Swanberg as a filmmaker and Adams as an actress. They both respect their audiences and don’t talk down to them. Simply put, I just didn’t connect with this movie the way I would have liked to. Perhaps I wasn’t in the frame of mind to enjoy it properly and needed a bit more space on either side of the film than you can typically get in a busy film festival schedule. That said, do take my final rating with a grain of salt – it isn’t meant to judge the quality of the movie, which is significant, only my recommendation on seeing it. It’s a very acquired taste, but those willing to put some effort and focus into it should find ample rewards. Unfortunately, I honestly didn’t but the fault may well have been mine rather than the filmmakers.

REASONS TO GO: Smart and topical. The dialogue sounds like real people talking. Very slice of life, L.A.-style.

REASONS TO STAY: Very talky. Lacks action and a traditional story.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rough language, adult situations and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Swanberg directed six films that were filmed in 2010 (and co-directed a seventh), one of the busiest years for a single director since the silent era.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baghead

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: SOMM and further coverage of the films of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!