Stray (2019)


Empty factories are always creepiest at night.

(2019) Supernatural Crime Thriller (Screen Media) Karen Fukuhara, Christine Woods, Miyavi, Ross Partridge, Takayo Fischer, Saki Miyata, Brandon Brooks, Brian Carroll, Jamiah Brown, Kiran Deol, Eunice Chiweshe Goldstein, Alex Hyner, Nicolas Jung, Fahad Olayan, Geoffrey H. Russell, April Lind, Sonia Jackson, Heather Pache, Cecilia Benevich. Directed by Joe Sill

 

Maybe the most interesting thing about police work is that you never know what you’re going to get when you get on the job. That also may be the most dangerous thing about police work as well.

Detective Murphy (Woods) is getting back to work as a homicide detective after an extended leave of absence. It’s bad enough that her ex-husband Jake (Partridge) is also now her boss but she is immediately called to a grisly murder scene in which a woman has apparently been burned to death, but then the weirdness begins. First of all, the woman isn’t burned – she’s petrified. The body has also been dated as over a thousand years old despite the fact that the victim had been seen just the previous day.

The victim’s daughter, Nori (Fukuhara) is eager to discover what happened to her mother but the victim’s mother (Fischer) is less forthcoming. Murphy’s bad news instincts are on overdrive so she cultivates a relationship with Nori. The two women are linked by tragedies in their immediate past and the two begin to bond. Murphy discovers that Nori has strange psychic powers that manifest when she is emotionally stressed. Not only that but those powers run in the family; her grandmother has them, her mother has them and her estranged brother Jim (Miyavi) has them.

As Murphy chases down the killer it is clear that Nori is the next target and by extension Murphy who has put the girl under her protection much to the dismay of Jake but how does one protect a girl from powers so evil and so strong that they can turn a human being into stone in the blink of an eye?

Sill makes his feature film debut here and it’s really not a bad one. There are elements that really work here and even though this is a low-budget affair, the CGI is actually pretty good. What isn’t as good is the procedural aspects which take a few liberties with logic and common sense.

There are some strong performances here, particularly by Woods who places a deeply wounded and self-medicating burned out cop, a role that normally goes to middle-aged white guys. Adding the feminine factor to the mix (not to mention that Murphy is a total badass) is a welcome deviation from standard crime thriller clichés. The supernatural element isn’t exactly groundbreaking but it does add a nice twist; however, the nature of Nori’s powers are not really clear for the most part and that can be frustrating.

This isn’t a bad film at all and there are some really good moments. Cinematographer Greg Cotton makes excellent use of shadows and darkness and a color palate that goes well with both. While the movie won’t exactly rock your world, it won’t bore you either. Sill definitely someone to keep an eye on and those who like their movies on the eerie side might actually find it a worthwhile pick.

REASONS TO SEE: There is a unique lyricism present here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The police procedural aspect is a little dicey.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fukuhara is best-known in the States for her portrayal of Katana in Suicide Squad.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deliver Us From Evil
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Pahokee

Support the Girls


The ladies of Double Whammies strike a pose.

(2018) Comedy (Magnolia) Regina Hall, Shayna McHayle, Haley Lu Richardson, James LeGros, Lea DeLaria, John Elvis, Steve Zapata, Dylan Gelula, Ann McCaskey, Elizabeth Trieu, Zoe Graham, Lawrence Varnado, AJ Michalka, Brooklyn Decker, Lindsay Kent, Jesse Marshall, Luis Olmeda, Krista Hayes, Jermichael Grey, Pete Partida, AnnaClare Hicks. Directed by Andrew Bujalski

 

In 2018 we have seen women in Hollywood stand up to the sexual mistreatment of men – particularly powerful men – in the industry. However, it is not just celebrities who have been the recipients of this shameful treatment; women in all walks of life must endure objectification at the hands of men and even by other women in all strata of society. If you doubt it, have a meal at a Twisted Kilt, Twin Peaks or Hooters sometime.

Double Whammies belongs in that group. It is a sports bar in a suburban Houston strip mall where the waitresses are all women and all wear skimpy uniforms that show off their cleavage, their legs, their butts and their navels (not necessarily in that order) where the customers are mainly there not for the food (a rule of thumb is that most of the restaurants that rely on sex to pull customers in generally have crappy food) and perhaps not even for the beer or the big game on TV but to ogle the waitresses. The girls pretty much accept it; the tips, after all, are better here.

Lisa (Hall) is their manager and den mother. She loves her girls like a mother loves her daughters but the drama of 20-something girls (and there is always drama with 20-something girls) is getting to her, as well as a thousand other things. For instance, her husband (Varnado) has essentially given up, spending his days surfing the net and playing on his laptop, not even able to rouse himself from his rut to go and see an apartment she very much wants to move into (and he very much does not want to). Her boss (LeGros) is a pig who has NO respect for his employees and treats Lisa with bitter condescension which has put her right at the breaking point.

One of her girls (Kramer) has attacked her abusive boyfriend by deliberately hitting him with her truck and is now staying at Lisa’s place. Lisa puts together a charity car wash to pay her legal fees. She’s also coping with a group of new hires who her top waitress Maci (Richardson) is training on the art of flirting just enough to get those high tips but not enough to make the family-friendly dynamic of Double Whammies (and yes, Lisa considers the sports bar as a family establishment) spiral down the toilet. It’s a fine line to walk but Lisa seems to have a handle on it, but on this day when things are beginning to fall apart – from discovering a would-be burglar trapped in the air ducts to having to fire a waitress because of a tattoo of Stephon Curry on her waist to coping with the national franchise “sports bar with curves” Mancave coming into the neighborhood; well, it’s enough to make even the hardiest of women cry in her car in the parking lot before work.

Bujalski who has made some pretty decent films up to now, has a golden opportunity here to really drill down into the plight of working women facing non-stop discrimination and objectification in the workplace and to a certain extent he does, if only obliquely. However, he lacks the courage of his convictions to show the uncomfortable lengths of abuse women endure from both co-workers (especially male managers) and customers who decide if their President can grab genitalia at his own whim, why shouldn’t they get to. We see none of that and most of the abuse that the women face is decidedly non-sexual such as when a biker makes a joke that one of the waitresses is fat when she clearly isn’t and gets marched out by a furiously protective Lisa, backed up by a pair of cops who were there to deal with the burglar but are also regulars at the bar. I get the sense that Bujalski, who also wrote the screenplay, didn’t talk to a lot of women who work in such establishments to find out what sorts of things they have to go through every day.

The thing though that makes this movie is the girls themselves, particularly Regina Hall as Lisa. Hall is a fine actress although not utilized as well as she might be throughout her career. Given a chance to shine here, she nails the part and absolutely takes over the screen. She has star quality but as yet hasn’t gotten a role that really challenges her skills. Her performance here might just lead to such roles. Newcomer McHayle as Lisa’s confidante and closest friend is a real find, both compassionate and kickass at once. I for one would love to see more of her. DeLaria also shines as a butch truck driver who also looks after the girls.

As comedies go, this one is a bit light on laughs but despite some of its flaws managed to capture my heart. I ended up genuinely caring about the characters and wishing I could hang out with them. You end up wanting to spend time at Double Whammies (despite the jerk of an owner) and that’s about all you can ask of a movie like this. Yeah, the postscript of the film goes on way too long (despite a wonderful cameo by Brooklyn Decker) but I found myself liking the film anyway and I suspect you will too – unless you’re one of the misogynist jerks who thinks you’re entitled to grab a waitress’ behind at a place like this. In that case you might end up feeling a bit uncomfortable and deservedly so.

REASONS TO GO: The characters are (mainly) likable. The filmmakers obliquely tackle the way women are regarded in modern society. Regina Hall is at the top of her game.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy falls flat most of the time. The last scene on the roof goes on too long. The movie drops the ball on showing real workplace sexism by whitewashing it a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and mild sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was a Smith family affair, with brothers Josh, Tate and Porter Smith involved both behind and in front of the camera, sister Janelle doing costuming and father David producing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Flixfling, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting…
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Mudbound

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)


You just can’t keep Diane Kruger down.

(2017) Drama (Magnolia) Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Numan Acar, Samia Muriel Chancrin, Johannes Krisch, Ulrich Tukur, Ulrich Brandhoff, Hanna Hilsdorf, Yannis Economides, Rafael Santana, Karin Neuhauser, Uwe Rohde, Siir Eloglu, Asim Demirel, Aysel Iscan, Christa Krings, Hartmut Loth, Adam Bousdoukos, Henning Peker, Laurens Walter, Jessica McIntyre. Directed by Fatih Akin

 

Our lives can be turned upside down in an instant. One moment we are surrounded by a happy, content family. The next – everything is gone. Dealing with that kind of pain is almost inconceivable to most of us but it happens far more regularly than it should.

Katja (Kruger) has that kind of life. She married Nuri Sekerci (Acar) while he was in a German jail for dealing drugs. He has since turned his life around, having become a respected member of the Kurdish community in Hamburg as a tax preparer and translator. Katja and Nuri have an adorable young son Rocco (Santana). While both Katja and Nuri are still a bit rough around the edges, there’s no denying that they are devoted parents.

One rainy afternoon Katja drops off Rocco at Nuri’s office so that she can visit her very pregnant friend Birgit (Chancrin) and share a spa day together. Returning home after relaxing, she is horrified to discover flashing police lights and crowds gathered at the street where she had earlier that afternoon left her family. All that’s left of the office is a charred and obliterated shell. A nail bomb was detonated there and her family was in a microsecond reduced to filleted meat.

At first she is in shock. It can’t be happening and her eyes show her agony. Her mom and her mother’s boyfriend, Birgit and Nuri’s parents have gathered to lend their support and express their own grief. The police seem intent on investigating Nuri’s past indiscretions; Katja believes that neo-Nazis are behind the bombing. Her lawyer Danilo (Moschitto) tends to believe her and in a not-very-smart moment gives her some illegal narcotics to help her cope…and sleep.

Eventually things get sorted and the culprits are caught. Now it’s time for the trial, but the German legal system is much different than our own. For one thing, everybody’s got a lawyer – including the co-plaintiffs, which are normally the families of the victims. Will justice be done? Or will Katja have to seek it out herself?

Kruger, one of the most beautiful actresses in the world, has been a Hollywood fixture for years. Incredibly, this is her first German-language film and she capably demonstrates that she could well be one of the finest actresses in the world as well as being an attractive one. This is the kind of performance that should have been rewarded with a Best Actress nomination but inexplicably wasn’t. It was at least as strong a performance of any of the ladies who did get the nomination. Kruger poignantly shows the numbness of grief, the rage, the despair. Much of it is communicated through her eyes.

Katja isn’t a perfect wife, mother or woman. She makes mistakes and she’s a bit on the raw side. With her many tattoos, her own drug use and an explosive temper, she is flawed enough to bring our sympathy to the fore. She’s never so unbelievably pure that we can’t believe her. Rather, we don’t disbelieve her for a moment. Kruger is raw, authentic and powerful here.

The movie is like a raw nerve being scraped through the first two acts but in the third one it falters. I can’t describe why without really going into details that are best left unrevealed until you experience it; suffice to say that it shifts tone into something  that really the film shouldn’t have become. More than that I will not say.

Fortunately, Kruger’s searing performance outweighs the movie’s faults. This is definitely a bit rough to watch in places – anyone who has lost a friend or family member in an untimely violent way will likely be triggered – but it is honest in not only exploring cultural differences but also in finding the balance between the need to inflict pain and the need to expiate it. This is certainly one worth looking out for.

REASONS TO GO: Kruger delivers the best performance of her career. This is an emotionally wrenching film from beginning to end.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie goes off the rails a little bit during the third act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home video segments were all shot on smartphones.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Killing Jesus
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hunting Season

The Family I Had


An estranged mother and daughter face an uncertain future.

(2017) Documentary (Discovery/Smoke & Apple) Charity Lee, Ella, Paris, Becca, Kyla, Chaplain Donna, Khyman, Phoenix. Directed by Katie Green and Carlye Rubin

 

Certain things are just unthinkable. They aren’t possibilities most people ever have to consider. When we encounter them (generally in a news story or documentary) we are shocked and often we attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of those victimized. However, try as we might, we just can’t do it.

Charity Lee was working in a bar and grill one rainy Super Bowl Sunday near her home in Abilene, Texas when the police come to the bar and she is summoned to the manager’s office. Her little four-year-old girl Ella has been hurt. When she tries to get details, eventually the police admit that her baby is dead.

But that isn’t even the worst part; her son Paris, then 13 years old, murdered his little sister – strangling her and stabbing her 17 times with a kitchen knife. On the 911 call he sounds panicked and upset. He claims that he was hallucinating and thought that Ella was a demon.

How does one forgive a crime like that? If it is a stranger who committed the crime, it’s a bit easier I would imagine but when it’s your own flesh and blood – the son you carried for nine months, the boy who gave your life meaning and purpose – how do you forgive them when he takes your little baby away? Do you write him off, abandon him? Could you even try?

These are the impossible choices facing Charity and the filmmakers pull no punches but over the course of the 77 minute documentary they slowly reveal the other elements of the puzzle; Charity is a recovering heroin addict, her short-cropped hair and tattooed body proclaiming her intention to live outside the norm. We are introduced to Kyla, Charity’s mom from whom Charity has been estranged for years, even before the murder. It turns out that Kyla has some skeletons of her own in the closet including a whopper you won’t see coming. The apple may not fall very far from the tree after all.

I think this is one of those documentaries that is better viewed knowing as little as possible about the film when watching it. The revelations here aren’t “gotcha” moments by any means and while it may seem that there is a random element to how things are revealed, upon reflection I don’t think that’s the case as all. Green and Rubin unfold the story very much as you might hear it from the people involved themselves, with bits and pieces and fragments coming out in dribs and drabs. If you were to befriend Charity, chances are she wouldn’t hit you over the head with all of it at once. She would tell you about the horrific crime first and then slowly tell you other elements of the story as she gets to trust you. The storytelling, in that sense, is completely organic.

We meet Paris through a series of prison interviews and at first he comes off as a bright and fairly normal guy (he’s in his early 20s now). We also begin to learn that he is anything but normal; we are shown illustrations that he draws which are cleverly brought to life through the magic of computer animation. Glimpses of the darkness inside him make themselves known as we observe the disturbing pencil drawings; revelations from Charity also tell us, shockingly, that a psychiatrist warned of Paris’ potential homicidal tendencies more than a year before Ella’s murder.

We also view home movies of what appears to be a loving family with Paris doting on Ella. By all accounts the two were very close, making not just the fact that Paris murdered Ella so shocking but the brutality of the act comes as even more of a surprise. Even so, Charity at one point admits that she was afraid of her son even before he took her daughter’s life.

Charity has since had a third child, a beautiful little boy named Phoenix. Paris sends Phoenix letters with some fairly terrifying drawings and Charity admits that she is terrified of what Paris might do to Phoenix should Paris be released from prison which in about ten years he will be eligible to do. Charity clearly alternates between that fear and the desire to get her son the help he needs and that the Texas prison system is all too unwilling to provide. Charity is concerned and rightly so that Paris may leave the confines of the Texas penal system more of a monster than he was when he arrived.

Rubin and Green use only first names throughout the film, possibly to drive home the point that this could be any family. Certainly Charity’s wild child days and her general non-conformity will raise some eyebrows, but nobody who watches her with her kids will think anything less of her than being a supremely loving mother whose eyes alone reflect the grief and strain of having had to navigate an impossible situation. Regardless of what you think of her life choices, nobody should have to suffer as she has and continues to suffer to this day.

This documentary made it’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April and is currently airing on the Investigation Discovery channel but it shouldn’t be too long before it is available to stream. When it does, this is one film you should keep an eye out for particularly for those who are into true crime films. This is one of the best I’ve seen this year.

This is a searing documentary that will not leave your memory easily. There are those who no doubt will point to Charity and her checkered past with judgmental fingers, but it’s hard to do when you see how strong she is, how hard she tries and how she herself is growing and becoming better. One feels sympathy and might even wish that this woman and her family can find some sort of peace.

REASONS TO GO: A chilling look at how a seemingly normal, bright kid can be a dangerous sociopath. The dysfunctional family dynamic shown here raises some important questions. The animated drawings are nifty – but disturbing. The forgiveness can be transformational.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this a little too shocking and disturbing to submerge themselves into.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug content and violent content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is partially set in Abilene, Texas which has more churches per capita than any other city in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Investigation Discovery
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Murder in Mansfield
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Atomic Blonde

Strad Style


Danny Hauck in his home studio.

Danny Hauck in his home studio.

(2016) Documentary (1170 Productions) Daniel Hauck, Razvan Stoica, David Campbell, Stefan Avalos, Rodger Stearns, Mary Hauck, Alfredo Primavera. Directed by Stefan Avalos

Slamdance

Dreams come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and some are more realistic than others. Then again, that’s what dreams should be right – to reach for the unattainable, the unlikely, the impossible?

Daniel Hauck is a bipolar man who lives in an isolated farmhouse in Laurelville, Ohio. Since he was a young boy he has been fascinated by violins. More than fascinated, really; it would be more accurate to call it a passion or an obsession than anything else. He doesn’t really have the talent to play them so much but he develops an urge to build them.

Besides that he’s also into custom cars and car clubs but that’s really a hobby that is a bit more expensive than he can afford at present being unemployed with almost no prospects of anything coming along anytime soon. He lives a lonely existence by choice although he does have a computer in which he keeps up with social media.

It’s on Facebook that he meets Razvan Stoica, a concert violinist considered to be one of the best in the world right now, although he is not well-known in the States – yet. The two befriend one another and begin messaging each other. They talk about classic violins and Stoica mentions that he would love to play one of the most famous in the world – Guarneri del Gesu’s (a contemporary of Antonio Stradivari and a fellow resident of Cremona in Italy) Il Cannone, or the cannon, the violin made famous by Paganini. .Daniel, perhaps impetuously, offers to build him a replica of the instrument.

Daniel hasn’t built a violin of this caliber before and he has no training in doing so. Nonetheless, he goes after the project with a certain amount of joie de vivre and learns what he can from the Internet. He also gets the help and support of Rodger Stearns, a local violin maker and woodworker. While his mother Mary and cousin David Campbell give him various degrees of support, Daniel proceeds largely through trial and error using the tools he has and making homemade UV booths and other ingenious ideas to keep the process going.

In the meantime, Razvan has expressed that he wants to play the instrument during a series of concerts in June starting in Amsterdam. Can Daniel overcome the odds and produce an instrument up to the exacting standards not only of one of the greatest concert violinists of our time but also one of the all-time masters of violin making?

Hauck is an engaging subject, often self-deprecating and sometimes raging against the difficulty of his situation and of the task he has set before himself. He is in many ways a perfect documentary subject, candid and open about nearly every aspect of his life. He has a dream yes, and he is determined to fulfill it but like most dreams it isn’t an easy one and it wouldn’t have been hard to abandon it at any time.

Avalos does just about everything on the project, including running the camera, editing, directing, producing and interviewing the subject. It’s very much his show and it shows enormous promise. The cinematography is as good as any I’ve seen for a documentary in the last year or so and not only captures the clutter of Danny’s home but also the stark beauty of the Ohio landscape in winter, the gorgeous Renaissance-era architecture of Cremona, and the sensuous lines of the violin.

There’s an awful lot of instruction going on here as well as Hauck takes us through the making of his violin. He knows what to do – he’s just not always sure how to do it and not everything he does ends up in success. Still, it’s fascinating stuff watching the project go from pieces of wood to a beautiful musical instrument.

I don’t know that this is so much an inspiring story so much as a comforting one – human beings are capable of so much more than we ever think we are and this reaffirms that. I’m hoping that a distributor that knows what to do with good documentaries gets hold of this; it deserves to be seen by a large audience. The logline may sound a bit dry but this is nonetheless a documentary that leaves the audience feeling good after the end credits roll and at a time when so many documentaries are hell-bent on telling us what’s wrong with the world, it’s nice to see what’s right.

REASONS TO GO: Danny Hauck is an engaging and fascinating subject. The film is actually extremely instructive on the difficulties of making a violin.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the editing is a bit jumpy.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Avalos was originally doing a documentary about “new violins” versus “old violins” and met Hauck through the process of researching it. When he discovered Hauck’s story, Avalos elected to focus on that instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mao’s Last Dancer
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 20th Century Women

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

The Final Member


It's grand to be a man!

It’s grand to be a man!

(2014) Documentary (Drafthouse) Sigurour Hjartarson, Tom Mitchell, Pall Arason, Peter Halldoresson, Reynir Hjartarson, Petur Petursson, Hannes Blondal, Terry Gunnel, Ari Karlsson, Marci Bowers, Douglas Mason, Siri Hastings, Shahar Tsabari, Lilja Siguroardottir, Jona Siguroardottir, Hjotur Sigurosson, Thorgerdur Siguroardottir. Directed by Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math

Florida Film Festival-2014

Sometimes the subject of a documentary can lend itself to a certain type of humor, which as a reviewer you want to resist. The documentarian after all deserves a sober and dignified review of his or her hard work. Then again, it can be hard not to be cocksure and by extension, possessed of a stiff adherence to a set of hard and fast rules entered into by the reviewer without understanding what they’re getting into.

But this film with the Icelandic Phallological Museum at its center is like that. The Museum is essentially a collection of penises from every species of mammal save one – homo sapiens. Sigurour Hjartarson, better known as “Siggi,”  is the curator.

This unusual collection began as a joke when a friend gave Siggi a bull penis because as a boy, Siggi had owned a cattle whip made from a bull’s penis. Other members followed from different mammals which he stored in his office at the college where he taught history and Spanish. After he retired and moved the collection home, he began to add more and more specimens to his collection. Eventually his wife Jona encouraged him to house the collection in a museum. At first the museum was a bit of a curiosity, located in Reykjavik, but when Siggi couldn’t afford the rent he moved it to a former restaurant in the tiny Northern Icelandic town of Husavik. The villagers initially viewed the new attraction with some suspicion but once they realized that the museum contained nothing pornographic they accepted it.

From there it went from oddity to genuine tourist attraction. Thousands of people flocked to the quirky museum from all over the world, 60% of them women. Still, the museum lacked the crowning specimen from the top of the mammalian food chain. Siggi was in despair; no longer a young man, he had very real concerns about the future of the museum without him. He had his cousin Petur, a doctor, start to quiz patients to see if they would be willing to donate the organ when they were dead.

The trouble was that Iceland is essentially a very small island in terms of population and not everybody wanted to have their most private part on public display for eternity, even after they were dead. However, two people heard about Siggi’s plight and decided to help.

The first was Pall Arason, who already was famous around Iceland. A nonagenarian, in his youth he had been an adventurer and explorer of the highlands of Iceland. He was also a notorious womanizer and decided that such a well-used member should get its due.

The other applicant was a different case entirely. His name is Tom Mitchell and he marches to his own drummer as well. A divorcee living in the Santa Ynez Valley in California, Tom refers to his penis as “Elmo” (so-named as a young man by one of his girlfriends) and is determined that it become the most famous penis in the world. He has tattooed his penis with the stars and stripes so that museum visitors will know that they are looking at an all-American penis and let’s face it; what could be more American than a schlong?

As Tom got more into the idea, he e-mailed Siggi regularly with ideas and suggestions as to how his penis should be displayed. He also sent dick pics of his penis dressed up in costume (I couldn’t make this stuff up). He also decided that in order to be first, he would have it removed while he was still alive.

For a first feature (which this is) this is an amazing documentary. I was not aware that there was a museum of this sort anywhere in the world and when I first found out about the movie, I was sure that I could have gone the rest of my life without having that knowledge.

I was wrong. The filmmakers (and Siggi himself) point out that the penis for whatever reason has become a taboo subject, not just here but essentially everywhere. We can talk about any other body part without blushing more or less but bring up the penis and people start to blush and stammer, yet it is a part of our bodies (for males anyway) just as our heart, our eyes and our hair is. That it happens to be the part of our body which not only urinates but also creates life is simply part of its function, like the lungs oxygenate our blood or our stomachs digest food.

Mitchell doesn’t come out looking too favorable for much of the film, although at the very end we begin to see him as less of an oddball and more of a human being whose motivations for the way he acts and the things he does becomes more clear. I can see how some might view him as an object of ridicule but to be honest I found him to be the most fascinating character in the documentary. To those disposed towards judging him (or anyone else in any documentary for that matter), keep in mind that we are spending (when you tally up all the screen time) less than an hour with these people in order to get a glimpse of a certain facet of their lives. That really isn’t enough time to make any sort of comprehensive opinion on who they are as people.

That said, I found this movie to be something of a celebration of things that are outside our comfort zone. I tend to agree with Siggi that we should be able to talk about the penis without resorting to dick jokes (although a few inevitably show up, not always intentionally) and we should be able to view people who are fascinated with them as something other than perverts.

This is one of the most entertaining documents you’re liable to see this year. I have to admit that I had some trepidation towards seeing this initially – what red-blooded guy will admit to being fascinated by a movie about…well, dicks – but once I sat down and actually saw it I realized this was one of the best documentaries of the year. As a matter of fact, it is one of the most delightful films I’ve seen so far this year.

REASONS TO GO: Uproariously funny. Celebrates the unusual.

REASONS TO STAY: Some might find having so many dicks onscreen a little bit uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES: Obviously the subject matter is not for kids. Also there is some male frontal nudity and some mild foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to the two donors in the film, an Englishman and a German both also pledged to donate their members to the museum.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Magical Universe

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Devil’s Knot