Moana (Full Review)

Back in 2010 Disney’s Tangled wound up being a surprise hit and thankfully resurrected the animated musical. Then in 2013, Frozen took the world by storm and fully solidified the return of the genre. Now that the animated musical’s swagger is back, the family juggernaut that is Disney is free to explore realms outside of the common fairy tale, like the story of a Polynesian princess for instance.

moana_teaser_posterMoana tells the story of the young daughter of an island chief. While her father wants her to accept the structured lifestyle of a future leader, Moana (voiced by newcomer Auil’i Cravalho) just wants to explore the wonders of the sea. When darkness starts to fall on their island, killing vegetation and scaring away their supply of fish, Moana’s quirky grandmother (Rachel House) inspires her to follow her dreams and search for the shapeshifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) who they believe can restore a magic gem to a legendary island and save their home.

The films features all of the things we’ve come to love about the best Disney films. The characters are all memorable and magnificent. Though not much different from other female Disney heroines in story arc, Moana is a loveable and feisty lead who still holds a warm vulnerability that makes her relatable to audiences. Dwayne Johnson’s Maui is a perfect counterpart. The character has a comedic brashness accentuated by a funny sentient upper body tattoo. Even minor characters, like Moana’s Grandma Tala and a dimwitted chicken are wonderful every second they are on screen.

The music, which was written by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, is mostly solid. The opening song is a catchy and beautiful chorus that sets the bar high but by the end some songs, like one performed by a giant hording crab (Jemaine Clement), are a bit forgettable. Nevertheless, the movie makes up for any lagging music or cliche story elements with dazzling animation and captivating visuals that perfectly capture the unique world and rich culture of Polynesia.

But what makes Moana the most unique are its endearing characters each with amiable flaws that allow for growth and great chemistry. Carried by strong voice acting and a fun story filled with humor and adventure, Disney has once again created another classic. It’s been a strong year for animated family films, maybe the strongest ever, and Moana manages to put itself on par with the best of the best.

FINAL GRADE: A

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Full Review)

Like George Lucas creating Star Wars or J.R.R. Tolkein creating the Lord of the Rings, inventing an entire fictional world is no easy task. For that reason alone, J.K. Rowling deserves a seat at the table with the rest of the geniuses of creative fiction. I’ve always been a huge fan of Rowling’s (despite never reading a single Harry Potter book) based on the intricacies of the characters and stories in the eight Harry Potter films. So it only made sense for Rowling to offer up another window into her wizarding world in a new era and with brand new characters.

fantastic_beasts_and_where_to_find_them_posterLoosely based on a novelized version of Harry Potter’s fictional textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) a magizoologist who keeps, rescues, and studies magical creatures. His exploits lead him to 1920’s New York where running into a non-wizard factory worker at the bank (Dan Fogler) leads to several of his secret creatures getting loose. When Tina (Katherine Waterston), a demoted former official for the U.S. Magical Congress, and her telepathic witch sister (Alison Tudol) learn of Scamander and his escaped magical animals, they join to help locate them before the already tense relations between wizards and non-wizards leads to war.

There are several suplots in Fantastic Beasts that may make the film feel muddled, especially for newcomers to J.K. Rowling’s universe. One involves an awkward teen (Ezra Miller) being torn between witch hunting with his abusive adoptive mother and helping the film’s primary antagonist (Colin Farrell) track down a dark entity. But the movie really works best when it focuses on Scamander’s search for his lost creatures instead of building an overarching subplot for inevitable sequels.

All of the beasts are fun and interesting from a platypus-like creature that loves to steal anything shiny to a rhinoceros-like beast in dire desire to mate. And all of the best scenes in the movie highlight Scamander’s love for and interaction with these creatures. Eddie Redmayne is born for the role, portraying Scamander with the perfect dose of endearing social awkwardness and genuine heart. As a result, Newt Scamander is an inherently likable character that is different enough from anything we saw in the Harry Potter franchise.

As for the supporting cast, they’re hit or miss. Waterston’s Tina comes off as more annoying than interesting and Tudol’s Queenie Goldstein is pretty and quirky but does little more than make heart eyes at Fogler’s character. Colin Farrel’s villain Percival Graves starts off as an intriguing character with mysterious motivations, but by the end he becomes a sniveling, watered down and less intimidating version of Voldermort. The most enjoyable supporting human in the film is easily Dan Folger’s Jacob Kowalski who provides some fun physical comedy and a fairly charming back story.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ends up being a fun and mystifying, albeit overstuffed, introduction into a whole new narrative within an already intriguing universe. No, this is NOT Harry Potter and anyone who goes in thinking otherwise may come out disappointed. Pacing and characters are much different than they were in the Potter films, but the tone is still there and along with a loveable protagonist there’s enough to enjoy this movie and look forward to the future adventures of Newt Scamander.

FINAL GRADE: B

Arrival (Full Review)

There are a ton of movies about alien invasions. All of them deal with how humanity reacts to the revelation that they are no longer alone in the universe. But none have ever truly grasped the psychology of such a scenario outside of expressing the more apocalyptic side of things … until now. Arrival is a different type of sci-fi film. And it is undoubtedly the most cerebral to ever enter the genre.

arrival_movie_posterAmy Adams stars as Louise, an expert in linguistics who is recruited by a U.S. military colonel (Forest Whitaker) when one of twelve monolith-like UFOs lands in rural Montana. Along with a scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner), Louise must find a way to communicate with the aliens to learn their intentions, before the worst nature of humanity kicks in and insights war with the alien visitors.

From the opening sequence, it’s clear that this film is one bathed in subtlety and intense realism rather than CGI action sequences. Most of the film is spent with Louise and Ian attempting to communicate with the aliens by teaching them the basic foundations of language. And even though we are walked through elementary levels of teaching, director Denis Villeneuve paces the film beautifully with breathtaking cinematography and a soothing score. Despite a relatively melancholy tone, intrigue is kept throughout thanks to interesting insights into the fundamentals of communication and how it shapes our view of reality.

Amy Adams’ earnest and emotionally gripping performance is also a driving force. Her character deals with loss and a genuine hope of connecting with creatures that many have already deemed hostile due to humanity’s innate nature to be afraid of what we don’t understand. Several references are made to moments in human history where communication was used for malevolent purposes, and thus even though we never feel threatened by the aliens, we can’t help but understand the sides that do.

But through Louise’s journey, Arrival manages to present an inherently beautiful message. Through language and the perilous effort to understand and survive, the movie creates a sense of both hope and genuine love even if a terrifying outcome seems inevitable. There are so many nuances to unpeel about this film that can’t truly be touched on without giving away the film’s ending, but know that although the film is even more complex than Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, the themes of connection, time, and the beauty of life are all evenly felt.

FINAL GRADE: A

Quick Reviews (November 2016)

There are a couple of movies that have come out recently that are worth checking out (The AccountantKevin Hart: What Now?) and one you should wait for on Red Box or not see at all (Keeping up with the Joneses). Here are some quick thoughts for the film critic and critic reader on the go.

keeping_up_with_the_joneses_filmKEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES At one point in the movie, during a neighborhood barbecue, Zach Galifianakis’ character hands Jon Hamm’s character a beer bottle. Hamm’s undercover secret agent uses his wedding band to suavely open the bottle with ease. When Galifianakis’ wholesome character tries to imitate, he ends up turning his hand into a bloody mess. There. That’s the only time I did anything more than a light chuckle while watching this movie.

There are other slightly humorous moments. Most of them are from the trailers and the rest you’ll forget as soon as you walk out of the theater. Keeping Up with Joneses,  a movie about a boring couple (Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) who get caught up in a generic spy flick with their undercover neighbors (Hamm and Wonder Woman), is as bland as can be. It almost feels like a Saturday Night Live parody of something more interesting. The plot has no twists or unexpected turns making it feel like something written in a day and even the action is less inspiring than Kevin Hart’s lousy Ride Along movies. FINAL GRADE: D- 

the_accountant_2016_filmTHE ACCOUNTANT Batman… I mean Ben Affleck, stars as Christian Wolff, a high functioning autistic who is an accountant by day and a highly skilled vigilante by night. When auditing a tech company lands him in the crosshairs of a dangerous assassin (Jon Bernthal), he and a middling company accountant (Anna Kendrick) must go on the run. Also on his trail are two government agents (J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson) who are coming close to uncovering his secrets.

The film is fun and entertaining until its final act, when it goes from thriller to predictable B-movie. Twists can be seen a mile away and the moment meant to be the biggest reveal (at the very end) seems too farfetched even more than the idea of an autistic superspy. But overall, the movie is exciting and filled with a likable central cast, headlined by Affleck’s admirable performance. The action is also as thrilling as a Jason Bourne movie. FINAL GRADE: B

fb_img_1424255884706KEVIN HART: WHAT NOW? Kevin Hart hasn’t made too many memorable movies, but his stand up specials are always laugh out loud funny. Hart returns to his niche with his latest stand up special taped at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field. Complete with more bells and whistles than any stand up show should have, Hart navigates through hilarious stories about his family and newfound mega stardom.

The film opens up with a James Bond spoof where Hart works with Halle Berry to secure funds for his global tour. This part serves only to make the movie worthy of a feature length film, but it is just as funny as the stand up. Several actors make cameos and it actually made me wonder why Hart’s narrative films often aren’t as enjoyable. Some jokes aren’t as fresh as those from his older specials, and the repetitive need to create quotables is a bit too obvious, but nonetheless What Now? manages to have enough gut busting laughs to exemplify why he’s the current king of comedy. FINAL GRADE: B+

 

 

Almost Christmas (Full Review)

almost_christmas_filmYou know it’s the holiday season when a family Christmas movie comes out. Something about seeing family dysfunction on the big screen brings out folks in droves. This year’s entry is Almost Christmas¸ a movie about as generic as its title. But just because a movie follows a cliché script doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

Almost Christmas stars Danny Glover as Walter Myers, a widowed father of four hoping his family can be civil for their first Christmas since the passing of his wife. His oldest daughter Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) is a doctor whose husband (J.B. Smoove) is a former basketball player with a wandering eye for a grocery store clerk (Keri Hilson). Cheryl also can’t seem to get along with her younger sister, Rachel (Gabrielle Union) a divorced single mother with middle child syndrome who is too proud to accept the advances of her high school best friend (Omar Epps). Walter’s oldest son, Christian (Romany Malco) is a husband (to Nicole Ari Parker) and father of two. He is also running for Congress and can’t help but bring along his annoying campaign manager (John Michael Higgins). The youngest of the siblings is Evan (Jessie Usher), a college football star coping with injuries and his mother’s passing by abusing pain pills. And then there’s Aunt May (Mo’Nique), Walter’s loud, foul mouthed sister in law.

As mentioned, the plot is about as systemic as any movie in the genre. A decade from now, it’ll be hard not to confuse this movie with This Christmas or even Best Man Holiday. From a cheating husband and petty sibling rivalry, to the all too common scene where the family inevitably dances to old school R&B, the movie does little to distance itself from the films that came before it. If not for Mo’Nique’s hilarious performance, the movie would be incredibly forgettable.

But things do pick up when all of their subplots come to a head. The final act is filled with the best laughs thanks in large part to J.B. Smoove’s cheating ways being exposed at Christmas dinner. The raw emotion of everyone finally dealing with the loss of a loved one is endearing even if it is a standard story arc. All in all, while it isn’t a classic by any stretch, Almost Christmas manages to be heartfelt and comical enough for the family to enjoy. After all, being with loved ones during the holidays is what makes the holidays, even when it’s basically the same thing over and over again.

FINAL GRADE: B-

Doctor Strange (Full Review)

“Forget everything you think you know”. That’s what seasoned sorcerer Mordo (Chiwtel Ejiofor) tells Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) when he first encounters him. It’s a perfect mantra for Marvel’s latest addition to their vast, successful universe. A superhero film with a dash of Harry Potter and a sprinkle of Inception makes Doctor Strange unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

doctor_strange_posterThe film stars Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange, the world’s best neurosurgeon whose ego makes Tony Stark seem humble. After a car accident leaves his hands damaged beyond medical repair, Strange pushes away his only friend (Rachel McAdams) and ventures out to Nepal in a last ditch effort to heal himself. There he encounters the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an ageless guru who trains Mordo, snarky librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), and many others to conjure up magic and defend the world from a former pupil (Mads Mikkelsen) keen on releasing an ancient evil. Strange must put aside his ego to not only heal himself, but also summon the hero within.

One thing that makes Marvel movies so inherently watchable is their ability to add humor and charisma to everything they make. Doctor Strange is no different. Fused with a phenomenal cast and snappy dialogue, there isn’t an ounce of stiffness to speak of, giving the film loads of personality that helps usher the audience into this trippy new universe.

But it’s that trippy universe that truly makes Doctor Strange a unique film. Remember that amazing hallway fight sequence in Inception. This film has that x 10. Stunning visuals made for 3D create sequences that are jaw dropping. From intricate CGI runes and shifting camera angles to scenery that literally twists and turns like a kaleidoscope, almost every action scene is compellingly unusual but never nauseating.

Being so different from anything else in the comic book genre, Doctor Strange manages to pace things well, explaining key information when needed but never overindulging with exposition. With Cumberbatch at the helm, there is a sense of tangibility that makes it all feel possible. Even the villain (usually Marvel’s biggest weak spot) has a slight wit and intelligence to him that makes his plot seem like an interesting perspective even if it’s the same as any stock megalomaniac.

Without the subtle references to other films in the MCU and the obvious post credit connections, Doctor Strange would manage to feel like its own entity. One that is rich in lure and fascinating characters. It almost makes you wish that it was its own franchise instead of just another precursor to an Avengers movie. But even if we never get a dose of Strange as good as this film, the mark has undoubtedly been set as an entertaining and memorable one.

FINAL GRADE: A