Moana Review

            In recent years Walt Disney Animation Studios has quietly begun to take back its mantle from fellow Disney studio, Pixar, as the premiere American animation studio.  Since 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, the studio has either delivered critically acclaimed films or box office smashes.  This year it had two films that received acclaim and money.  The first was Zootopia, which was released all the way back in March but still finds itself in the middle of an awards season discussion.  The second was released just in time for the holiday season.  Moana actually has a lot in common with Zootopia, even if it will draw more comparisons to Frozen.  Zootopia struggled a lot with trying to stretch a surface level theme across an entire runtime only to conclude with such an empty feeling.  Moana unfortunately has a similar problem.  All of the singing and action scenes in the world don’t save Moana from the fact that it doesn’t really go anywhere as deep as it thinks it does with its themes.  A strong female lead and some gorgeous (and maybe even groundbreaking) visuals make it a stronger film than Zootopia, but this film is no Frozen.

            Moana follows the titular character (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) as she is raised to be the next leader of her island.  With aspirations of living on the sea she is constantly being told by her father (Temuera Morrison) to keep her focus on land.  That is until she begins to realize that an ancient curse that is beginning to hit her island may only be stopped by looking to the sea.  A lot of Moana’s plot is so cliché-riddled that it’s hard to ever get invested in this film, and its themes of independence, self-belief, and redemption just seem like after thoughts in the final product.  So many other components of this film are getting all of the attention right now that it’s hard to see this film having a lasting impact when at their root films are all about plot and theme.

            That being said everything around the core of this film is well done for the most part.  Auli’i Cravalho does some really fantastic work as the voice of Moana.  She seems so natural despite having so little experience.  Most of the rest of the voice work is solid even if Dwayne Johnson’s “scene-stealing” turn as a boastful demi-god leaves a lot to be desired.  The songs are for the most part well-done but I have a hard time imagining I will be remembering any of them the way I remember “Let It Go” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”.  The real highlight of this film, though, is the visuals.   Water has never been animated so life-like and this is easily the first film to animate the body mechanics of singing so naturally.  The way the vocal chords and facial regions of these character move is some of the best CGI work that has ever been put onscreen.

            Moana is a beautiful film but not much more than that.


Miss Sloane Review

            In recent years we have had an influx in entertainment about politics.  Maybe it’s because of the highly publicized nature of politics nowadays.  However, the quality of this entertainment has sometimes been almost as disappointing as the quality of American government itself.  House of Cards is the most high profile example, and the show has only rarely reached its potential.  Even the best of political entertainment in recent years (that is easily Robert Schenkkan’s LBJ play, All the Way) has come with caveats (the recent HBO adaptation struggled to find any of the spark of the play).  So it is a pleasant surprise that Miss Sloane, the film about anti-gun lobbying in Washington, is more than just a really good Jessica Chastain performance.  Miss Sloane strives to be the next The West Wing (the script SCREAMS Sorkin) and for the most part finds a way to be an effective film version of that with a darker twist.

            Miss Sloane fortunately realizes from the get go that its main asset is its leading lady, Jessica Chastain.  This is the type of feisty performance that got Chastain raves and awards in Zero Dark Thirty, except here she gets to be the star instead of the lead of an ensemble film.  As such, this is Chastain’s best work since her 2011 breakthrough year.  For a time it does feel like this is a film with a lead in search of an actual story.  A lot of the early portions of the film have Chastain’s Elizabeth Sloane as such an overpowering force that it’s hard to notice anything else going on.  However, the film’s quippy script and a little focus being given to characters like Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a smart lobbyist with a secret past at the firm Elisabeth goes to in order to take down the gun industry) allow the film to expand into something more. 

            At times this film feels a lot like Netflix’s version of House of Cards as we witness Elizabeth destroy everyone in her path on the way to political victory.  However, this film does take the time to learn a thing or two from the original BBC version of House of Cards as it finds a dry sense of humor that helps it stay away from the boring and dry path the Netflix version does find itself occasionally on as it takes itself way too seriously.

            The one weakness of this film is that it does have a runtime of over two hours, and you can feel that by the end of it.  It also doesn’t help that the last act has a twist that doesn’t really add much to the film.  It only changes the status quo on a surface level, and the buildup to the twist isn’t worth it at all.  A better final couple of sequences could have really turned this film into something great.  As it stands, Miss Sloane has to settle as being an entertaining if unsubstantial political thriller with a top-notch Jessica Chastain performance.


Allied Review

           For decades now Robert Zemeckis has quietly been one of Hollywood’s most vital cinematic voices.  Whether it has been delivering blockbusters that will be remembered forever (the Back to the Future series and Forrest Gump), nurturing talent (he did not discover Peter Jackson but he certainly helped him gain an audience in Hollywood) or trying to bring new technology to the forefront (his adventures with motion capture technology have not been effective for the most part but he has helped introduce a technology that is having a massive impact on filmmaking today).  So it is slightly disappointing that his latest film, Allied, is just so conventional.  Allied is certainly not a bad film and is in fact enjoyable for most of its runtime.  However, it’s just way too easy to critique a film as lazy as this.  Whether it’s terrible use of CGI, Brad Pitt’s acting choices, or Steven Knight’s boring script there is just way too much in this film that could have been easily fixed.

            Allied follows British spy, Max (Brad Pitt), as he is tasked to infiltrate a group of Nazis in Morocco in the lead up to World War II.  He works with a French resistance fighter Marianne (Marion Cotillard) to assassinate the leading members of the group.  After his task is completed he brings Marianne to London and marries her.  A year later, in the midst of World War II, British intelligence alerts Max that Marianne may in fact be a Nazi spy, and he spends the next 72 hours trying to clear Marianne’s name before British intelligence obtains clear evidence of her espionage.  As a thriller, the film works decently.  It’s just that everything else going around the central story goes wrong.

            Firstly, a lot of effort is put into the costume design of this film.  The work from Joanna Johnston is quite memorable.  Unfortunately, part of that is due to the fact that they stand out amid a film that uses sets and visual effects in such poor fashion.  The sets almost always come across as stage sets as in there is not much to them beyond what is presently on the screen, and then the visual effects are too often used to display grandeur in settings, in which it would have been much more effective to shoot on location.

            Secondly, screenwriter Steven Knight delivers a script that isn’t really that interesting.  The film goes through the motions from beginning to end without making any interesting points.  That’s a shame because Steven Knight is clearly a talented screenwriter.  His work on Locke is original and really impressive.   His work on the earlier seasons of Peaky Blinders also displays a great work of art that is not so different from what this film could have been.  If more emphasis was put on quality rather than quantity from Steven Knight (he had THREE films released last year while also still working on Peaky Blinders, which is soon to be paired with work on another series, Taboo) some of the mistakes in this film could have been corrected.

            Finally, I don’t know what Brad Pitt is doing in this film.  Pitt is one of the best actors in the world when he wants to be (his work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Tree of Life will surely stand the test of time), but he is also very capable of overacting, which he ends up doing a lot here.  To make matters worse is the fact that he is playing a British character and yet he is speaking in his typical dialect.  This wouldn’t be so noticeable if this wasn’t such a serious film, but he ends up coming across as Tom Cruise did in Valkyrie (just without the enthusiasm of Cruise’s performance).  That’s a shame because his better half in this film, Marion Cotillard, delivers such a strong performance.  Cotillard really could have ate this film up as the ambiguous antagonist, but she delivers a much more subtle version of that type of character that makes the film much stronger for it.

            Allied has many problems but thanks to a strong performance from Marion Cotillard the film can be enjoyable at times.


Rules Don't Apply Review

            There is a reason why “old-school” filmmaking has mostly disappeared in today’s world of cinema.  Films such as Casablanca, Gone with the Wind and other films of Hollywood’s Golden Age would come across as boring and conventional in today’s climate where we have experienced decades of innovation since those films first appeared.  It will be the case with superhero films in the very near future.  As such, Warren Beatty’s first film in over a decade does come cross as too conventional.  Rules Don’t Apply strives for the type of filmmaking and storytelling that was present in the 30s and 40s.  Some of that does come across as refreshing (and that’s mostly due to a well crafted and well acted film), but a lot of it comes across as empty as non-blockbuster films nowadays have focused more on theme and other avenues that films of the 30s and 40s did not.

            Rules Don’t Apply follows Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), one of Howard Hughes’ (portrayed by the director and writer of the film, Warren Beatty) personal drivers as he rises through the ranks of Hughes’ entourage and begins to fall in love with an aspiring actress (Lily Collins) who he is forbidden to have relations with.  This is ultimately a very conventional romantic drama with its one defining characteristic being its love for Hollywood.  The industry has clearly aged past Warren Beatty, and Beatty is just not able to keep up with it with his storytelling and scripting here.  There is a lot of talk in this film about sex and religion that just comes across as surface level and very dated.

            That being said Beatty and this film are able to overcome this hurdle for the most part by the fact that this is very clearly a passion project of Beatty’s.  The amount of love for the material on display here does a lot in the film’s attempts to overcome its shortcomings.  The attention to detail in the production values of the film are quite noticeable (Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is a real highlight), and you can also tell Beatty put a lot of thought into casting this film.  Alden Ehrenreich has so much charisma that he is destined to be a star and also creates something interesting out of a paper-thin character in this film.  Lily Collins seems miscast at first as the leading lady in this film but eventually displays a pretty large range in her acting ability throughout the film, and Beatty is able to finding a new way to portray figure that it seems like every filmmaker wants to cover at some point.  It was also nice to see a supporting cast of recognizable faces whether it was Martin Sheen and Ed Harris in cameos or Paul Schneider making his long awaited return to character actor work.

            Rules Don’t Apply follows a very conventional storyline with a subject matter that has been covered to death, but Warren Beatty shows enough passion for the material to turn what could have been a boring catastrophe into a charming and decent time at the movie theater.


Moonlight Review

            For decades (even centuries) now one of the defining characteristics of the United States of America as a country has been its state of race relations.  The relationship between black America and white America has been so turbulent that it comes off as such a striking irregularity with the rest of the world.  This topic has been even more at the forefront recently with the Black Lives Matter movement and the election of a president who has never had the best intentions for minorities in mind.  So now is the perfect time for a movie such as Moonlight to hit the zeitgeist.  American cinema almost never allows the space for films from an African American perspective.  The two exceptions are independent films (and I’m talking about the ones that are truly independent films and not ones that are able to get Hollywood actors and call themselves independent) and films where the “main” character is black but the hero is a white character (and therefore not really from an African American perspective).  Moonlight, in fact, is very much one of the former films, but being released at the perfect time and having a ton of Oscar buzz may allow this film to be remembered in film history in a way that most independent films never will be able to.  That is great for a film that so authentically portrays the black experience but still conveys universal emotions that anyone of any culture or race should be able to connect to.

            That being said, Moonlight, has a very dark and depressing theme at its core.  Moonlight follows a boy named Chiron (played by multiple actors and most effectively so by Trevante Rhodes in the adult incarnation of the character) as he is raised by a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) and his drug addicted mother (Naomie Harris).  Chiron is quiet but very smart and quickly realizes that he is gay.  The rest of the film follows him as he ages and struggles to find a way to live in a very tough neighborhood while being gay.  Unfortunately for Chiron, his life does not go so well and this film becomes a striking tale of missed opportunities and the dangers of being lured in by societal norms.  On one hand this allows the film to deliver a lesson to white audiences on why African American society is so different without being condescending.  On the other hand this also causes the film to deliver an ending with a theme so powerful and so personal it’s hard not to get depressed by this ending.  This is not an easy sit.

            The film itself is divided into three chapters.  This storytelling technique for the most part works.  All three chapters serve as individual films with a beginning, middle, and end in each.  It also allows the first and last act to deliver some truly powerful moments.  However, the middle chapter feels a bit stilted thanks to the format as it does spend some time setting up the final act (Yes, it still can ultimately function as its own story though).  The middle chapter also suffers from a lack of memorable performances (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae steal the show in the first chapter entitled “i. Little” and Trevante Rhose is really impressive in his breakthrough role in “iii. Black”).

            Ultimately, Moonlight is a powerful bit of filmmaking that does suffer a bit from being too powerful.  It’s an essential bit of filmmaking that I just don’t see myself revisiting too often in the future.


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