Posts categorized “Movie Reviews”

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Movie Review: Moana (2016)

"…you know who you are."

“…you know who you are.”

Moana (2016) ★★★½

I could go on about how awesome it is to have a mainstream Disney fantasy film that isn’t about a European-style fantasy setting. But I’m sure there are people better qualified to write about that subject, and I’m sure they’ve written about it extensively, so you can go read those articles if you want. More important to me than the “importance” of a film is whether or not it’s a good film or not.

Thankfully, Moana is an excellent movie. And, Gods, what a beautiful film. Just frikkin’ gorgeous. Every frame is filled with visual wonder. I’m hard pressed to think of a film other than The Fall that is just this beautiful. The settings are surprisingly varied and all magnificent, the character design is incredibly appealing (and the skin on these characters is some of the best CGI that I’ve ever seen), and the animation expressive and just a joy to watch. There were many, many shots in the film that made me gasp.

This is definitely a Disney Princess®™© movie; it follows much of the structure and many of the beats of a lot of 80s & 90s Disney movies. But here is a Disney Princess®™© story in which BOTH of the princess’s parents are alive and there is absolutely NO romantic plotline in the film at all. So right off the bat we’re head-and-shoulders above the standard fare.

At times it does stick pretty close to the standard Disney narrative. For example, the second song in the movie is an “I Want” song to go with such classics as “Part of Your World,” “Belle,” “One Step,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” “Just Around the Riverbend,” “Almost There,” “Waiting for My Life to Begin,” “For the First Time in Forever,” etc. But by the Gods, “How Far I’ll Go” is one of the best versions of those songs in decades. And it’s up on the YouTubes! Just watch this and tell me it’s not actually moving (and not catchy as all heck).

There are also some unusual and interesting things going on in this song, like the fact that Moana is so conflicted about her desires. Usually the hero/heroine of Disney movies is pretty clear in what their goal is, but Moana is really torn. It’s just heart-wrenching the way she sing, slightly off-key, “What is wrong with me!?”

I should talk here about the voice acting. The finding of 14-year-old Auli’i Cravalho is one of the greatest coups that Disney has ever had in voice acting. She’s absolutely, 100% brilliant as Moana. And by the Gods her voice when she sings… I cannot put in words how it moves me. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was also an inspired choice to play the buffoonish blowhard demigod Maui. Though he isn’t nearly as good a singer as Auli’i, the filmmakers got an astonishing range out of his vocal performance and he holds his own singing his song.

Speaking of Maui’s song… it is also very familiar to the structure of Disney movies: the introduction of a magical character who sings a song with very surreal visuals. In fact, it seems Maui and the Genie from Aladdin appear in their respective movies at almost the exact same minute mark.

The only things preventing Moana from garnering a full four stars from me are the facts that it doesn’t quite go far enough in breaking the mold of the Disney movie structure, even though it is one of the best versions of that structure. Also, there are a bit too many sidekicks. Moana has a pig (which thankfully stays on the island for most of the movie) and a chicken; Maui has an animated tattoo; and the ocean itself makes a mute-but-expressive tendril that acts as a sidekick. Thankfully all the sidekicks are mute, but they don’t really add anything to the story (other than the ocean making it impossible for Maui to ditch Moana). Also, the chicken (voiced, astonishingly, by Alan Tudyk) is legitimately hilarous, so there’s that. Seriously, so cluckin’ funny. And THANK THE GODS THE PIG DID NOT MAKE IT ON THE BOAT. I can think of few things that would have been worse than a film with two main characters and FOUR sidekicks…

Also-also there is a “Han Solo moment” that was so disgustingly, obviously telegraphed that I groaned the moment I realized it was being set up. Just, come on! It was SO FRIKKIN’ OBVIOUS.

But other than those minor quibbles this film is a legitimate masterpiece. I found it personally much more emotionally moving than Frozen. All the songs in it are just magnificent. It has some wonderful surprises in it. It is seriously fascinating to watch a Disney movie that has no real villain in it. And <spoiler>I just love love love a film that is obviously building to a big action climax, but then realizes that action is a false victory and the real victory is achieved WITH A SONG.</spoiler>

I plan on owning this movie and watching it many, many times. I think Te Ka is too scary for my sensitive three-year-old daughter right now, but I am chomping at the bit to introduce her to a strong, weak, feisty, scared, stubborn, empathic heroine in Moana. Faafetai mo se tifaga matagofie.

Categories: Articles, Movie Reviews.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) ★★★½

There are a lot of things to really love about Rogue One. It turns away from the high-opera, swashbuckling theatrics of the magical Skywalker family and their ilk and looks at the people who work behind the scenes of their heroics. The grunts of the Star Wars world, if you will; intelligence agents, freighter pilots, on-the-ground resistance fighters, people just trying to survive in a galaxy gone mad. As such it has a much different feel that the main Star Wars series.

Let’s face it, the Star Wars movies have basically been overblown Saturday morning cartoons. Sure there’s some great subtext and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, but come on. You’ve got wizards and princesses knights and silly jesters droids. But in Rogue One you get a real feel for how this universe actually functions for regular people.

I also really loved how it played up the ambiguity of using violence to fight evil. The Rebellion, which in Episodes IV-VI is held up as this shining beacon of hope, and the ultimate force of good against the evil of the Empire. But the Rebellion has Cassian do some really awful things (including straight-up murder someone as his first act in the movie), and it turns out a lot of the people in the Rebellion are complete assholes and cowards who condone some really bad things in the name of good. It’s a fascinating slippery-slope peek behind the curtain that I thought was great. No heroes are perfect, and no movements are devoid of evil.

I enjoyed the ensemble cast; it ends up being a fun group of merry outsiders kinda like Robin Hood’s merry men. They don’t all get a lot of character development apart from Jyn and Cassian, but their characterizations are strong enough that you get who they are quickly and you like them. Shining star among them is the reprogrammed murderbot K-2SO, who is definitely one of the good guys now but who just can’t help but let that murderbot programming be simmering right under the surface. Most of the movie’s funniest moments are because of K-2. Alan Tudyk (who was also the voice of the robots in I, Robot) is becoming one of my favorite voice actors (look him up in the last five Disney movies). Also as a side note: wasn’t it nice to see such a diverse cast? Anyway…

There are a couple of minor action sequences in the first couple acts of the movie, but really it all just builds to a masterful third act action climax. There are so many things going on in this climax, but it is scripted and edited masterfully so that you’re never confused where anyone is or what they’re supposed to be doing (or what their current obstacle is). The space battles above the planet are top-notch. We know that this plan is successful because the opening crawl of Episode IV says it is (“Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”), but we don’t know how it was done or at what cost, so there is a surprising amount of suspense.

That said, the pacing of the first act of the movie (not counting the prologue, which is great) is f★★ked up. It bounces from scene to scene with no context and no introduction. The exposition is awkward and weird. You don’t know who characters are. Things happen for no known reason. What the heck was with that “truth monster” thing that Saw Guerrera uses? What was that doing in the movie at all? People spend way too much time talking about other people doing stuff instead of just showing us those people as they do stuff (“Did you hear an imperial pilot defected?” “I heard an imperial pilot defected!”). It doesn’t finally settle into a cohesive rhythm until Jyn ends up on Jedha.

There is also the matter of a seemingly important plot thread being dropped with no consequence. Jyn et al are going to rescue Jyn’s father, until some asshole in the Rebellion gives Cassian a countermanding order: to kill Jyn’s father. And eventually Jyn’s father is killed by the Rebellion, and Jyn learns that this asshole ordered his death and does… nothing. It’s immediately dropped and never mentioned again. It just seemed really bizarre to have that sub-plot in this movie at all.

But this is still a thoroughly enjoyable movie. It’s a grittier (I hate using that word but it applies here), more grounded Star Wars movie in which the heroes have to use guile and pluck and damnable determination to win instead of magic and mythology. It is a worthy entry into the ouvre. I plan on owning it to watch at my leisure.

Categories: Movie Reviews.

Friday, 19 September 2014

New Movie Review: The Wind Rises (2013)

The Wind Rises (2013) ★★★

The Wind Rises

Le vent, se lève!… Il faut tenter de vivre!

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

I have such conflicted feelings about this movie! Much of it is a disappointment of expectations, though. The Wind Rises is a highly-fictionalized film about real-life person Jiro Horikoshi, who is most famous for being the designer of the infamous Japanese A6M “Zero” fighter plane for WWII. In movies about famous artists, designer, architects, or what-have-yous, I have a certain minimum expectation: I expect to learn about the hows and whys of the creative process that led them to their most famous work(s). How shocked and frustrated I was, then, when this film ends (spoiler alert) with the test flight of the prototype of the A5M—the fighter that came before the A6M Zero!

In fact, much of the movie hinges on Horikoshi’s thoughts on an inverted gull-wing shape that is used in the prototype of the A5M—but which is not actually used in the final version of the A5M, let alone the Zero!

The scenes that interested me most were the ones where Horikoshi makes a breakthrough of some sort in the design of his planes. The introduction of flush rivets, for example. The design of wing strut supports. Laughing with his team about how to reduce weight when the military demands two gigantic machine guns be mounted to the plane. In other words, the creative side of things.

Less interesting to me was the dying-girl romance between Horikoshi and his wife. Especially because it was completely fictional, and too perfect to find interesting. Horikoshi’s wife is the absolute perfect 1930s Japanese woman. There is no conflict in their relationship, only the specter of chronic illness. Guess what my least-favorite genre of movie is? The dying-girl romance. Horikoshi himself is portrayed as such a meek milquetoast that if it weren’t for his unending creative drive there would be little of interest at all in this relationship.

Other relationships in the film are great though. Horikoshi and his tiny but bombastic boss at Mitsubishi, Horikoshi and his lackadaisical best friend, and strangely enough the friendship that is formed with an enormous, exiled, big gay German. Wow, now there is a character who chews up the scenery! Also nice are dream sequences where Hirokoshi converses with a European plane designer (a somewhat hero of Hirokoshi)

The main theme of the film is handled exceptionally, though, that of creativity versus the exploitation of creativity. Hirokoshi is designing essentially war machines, but he has no love for war at all; it is the sheer creative and artistic process that drives him to design these planes, not any patriotism or idealism. He expresses great ambivalence about the way his designs are being used to essentially kill people. He believes he is creating something beautiful; but his beautiful creations are being used in less-than-benign ways. Does that negate the beauty of their design? Is the end-use usage of a creation inextricably entwined with its design? Or can the beauty of the design be held separately from the horror of its usage? Wisely, I think, the film never takes a stance either way, and the whole complexity of the situation is simply presented for the viewer to think about. In a wonderful ending dream sequence that takes place after the war, Hirokoshi sighs as a fleet of Zeros (the ony time they’re ever presented on screen) flies away. They are beautiful planes.

So the film is visually spectacular, of course. Especially wonderful are dream sequences of fanciful, old-fashioned airplanes. And dynamic scenes of harrowing test flights are great. But much of this is visually similar to the fantastic Porco Rosso, so I didn’t feel like I was seeing much new there. Scenes of 1920s & 1930s Japan and Germany are extremely detailed and specific.

So is this a good movie or not? It is enjoyable in many parts, and fascinating in many parts, and certainly gorgeous. The ambiguities of creativity and war and the corruption of beauty are handled very well. It also has an hilarious and bizarre Big Gay German in it. But it also feels somehow insubstantial and frustrating, focusing too long on the things that interested me the least and too little on the things that interested me the most. So, three stars sound good? Yeah, I suppose.

Categories: Japan, Movie Reviews.

Friday, 22 August 2014

New Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Something rotten in the state of SHIELD...

Something rotten in the state of SHIELD…

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): ★★★½

Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo

This is easily one of the best movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whereas the first Captain America was a purebred, Feel-Good WWII War Action movie, and The Avengers was a top-notch Tentpole Popcorn Movie, The Winter Soldier takes a completely different tack: it is an extremely tense Dark Political Thriller. More… »

Categories: Movie Reviews.

Friday, 25 July 2014

New Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Keep your hands off my lobby boy!

Keep your hands off my lobby boy!

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): ★★★½

Directed by Wes Anderson

What a glorious, weird, artificial and joyful film this is. If you’ve seen other Wes Anderson films, the style and much of the trappings will seem intimately familiar. Like The Royal Tenenbaums, this is a film about an ensemble of oddball figures orbiting around one central, lovable oddball. Like all his films, there is very deliberate and nostalgic art direction, frame composition, and camerawork. As is usual for Anderson, he creates a giddily rich visual tapestry, delving with fetishistic verve into the tiniest minutiae of his settings. More… »

Categories: Movie Reviews.

Friday, 30 May 2014

New Movie Review: Godzilla (2014)

That's our monster...

That’s our monster…

Godzilla (2014) ★★★½

Directed by Gareth Edwards

I must confess that I am a Godzilla movie fan. For some reason I can’t explain, I am just drawn to his movies even though the hugely-vast majority of them are utter, utter crap. Nonetheless, much like the entire James Bond oeuvre, I really enjoy them. Started by the original Gojira, a very serious and scary film, the series devolved over the decades into cheesy, B-movie, Saturday-morning kiddie affairs (I mean, Jet Jaguar—come on). The series tried to right this starting with Godzilla 1985 and going through a couple of iterations in the 90s and the 00s, but with the quirkiness of Japanese pop-culture of the times, these movies were bright, colorful, cartoony spectacles.

That is one of the main reasons why I really enjoyed Gareth Edwards’ new Godzilla movie. This is by far the most realistic Godzilla movie to date. And though there are a couple of fun nods to previous Godzilla and Kaiju movies, this one really treats its source material with great respect and much-due gravitas. This isn’t a tongue-in-cheek, ironic “re-imagining” of Godzilla. This is a distillation of what makes Godzilla the King of the Monsters. Gareth Edwards brings Godzilla back to his roots.

More… »

Categories: Movie Reviews.

Friday, 23 May 2014

New Movie Review: Veronica Mars (2014)

Veronica Mars: she's watching you... watching your every move...

She’s watching you… watching your every move…

Veronica Mars (2014): ★★★½

Directed by Rob Thomas

After being cancelled for low ratings, Veronica Mars has returned to the big screen via the most successful movie Kickstarter campaign of all time!

More… »

Categories: Movie Reviews.