“Moana” (2016): Disney Sails Us Away

Disney’s modern resurgence in quality has been quite astounding. After major hits like Frozen and Zootopia, Disney could just be coasting on those coat tails with its animation department. Yet, with Moana, we see something completely out of left field for the studio: a gorgeous celebration of Pacific Islander culture that’s not too westernized. There’s a bit of a traditional “hero’s journey” narrative to be found, but the cultural context and subversions of Disney’s typical princess narratives are honestly magical to see transpire here. It’s a story that taps into mythology without succumbing to cliche and packs the right emotional punch, grounding the action and spectacle into a story of embracing one’s core heart.

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Moana tries to find her place in the ocean. Copyright Walt Disney Animation

The titular Moana (voiced by the highly energetic newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) points to her difference from the traditional princess mold quite directly from the start. She loves her island, but can’t embrace the idea of letting it rot away due to her father’s strict rules of not leaving. She wants to actually serve as a powerful leader to the people she’s grown up with (unlike most of these Disney Princesses who shirk their royal responsibilities) and doesn’t want blind ignorance to lead to their destruction. She tows the line perfectly between unsure youth and brash leader waiting to sail to find the answer to her people’s troubles.

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The influence from her grandmother Tala (Rachel House) and father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) pulls her in believable conflicting directions as she ponders whether or not to leave. Should she embrace her people directly or embrace the culture of her people to find a solution to their woes? It gives Moana more reason to leave her flock than just finding “more” in the traditional more selfish Disney sense. There’s no love interest or vague song of explroing the world. Instead, there are stakes and dangers that she faces which require direct action. Action that’s not always pretty. Her initial attempt on a boat is squashed quite quickly, but Moana rises to the occasion with determined purpose in her heart. All of this is wonderfully depicted thanks to the lush colors and gorgeous CG animation.

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Two of the directors John Musker and Ron Clements are well known for their work during the Disney Renaissance with the lush 2D animation of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Some of that personality is seamlessly brought over here with the character animation, but the dynamics of the elaborate environments and scope of these threats Moana has to face make a brilliant case for modern CG animation. Particularly any of the moments of scale where Moana has to encounter large than life beings. There’s a real sense of space as these characters move around these incredibly well detailed environments, making the danger of any sense as virbant as the diverse color pallete. Even something as simple as the way the chicken character Heihei (voiced by a somehow unrecognizable Alan Tudyk doing chicken buck sounds) bumbles around a three dimensional space makes a case for the format. Still, traditional animation can be seen in the wonderful introduction and Maui’s elaborate tattoos.

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Speaking of Maui – the demigod character voiced with boundless charm by Dwayne Johnson – provides a unique connection to the culture that fits perfectly for Moana. Not only is he the goal for Moana to find and help bring peace to the ocean, but he’s just as unsure of himself as she is. The two find a connection that’s (thankfully) not romantic. Instead, it’s a connection of two lost souls bound to the water before they can find any sort of destiny back on dry land. One who was abandoned by his people, the other a young girl looking to help her people without much direction. It creates a dynamic that’s both funny and keeps Moana moving past its few rough patches of waves. For the record, the only egregious example of this is an extended musical number involving a giant crab monster voiced by Jemaine Clement singing a David Bowie esque song. While that sounds like something right up the ally of any Flight of the Conchords fans, it’s definitely the lesser example of the songs here, with some interesting visuals that serve little plot purpose.

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That being said, one of the great assets of Moana really is it’s musical. While none of the songs written by Tony Award Winning mastermind of Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda and South Pacific musician Opetaia Foa’i are quite as catchy as Frozen‘s “Let It Go,” the two craft more of a true musical here. One full of songs that mostly advance the plot and give true context to the emotions & drives these characters pursue. The lyrics recall elements of smug or self assured characterization from earlier Disney films, but allow for the intense lyrical spilling that recall Miranda’s work on Hamilton as well as Foa’i’s sweeping Pacific Island sound.

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Moana isn’t probably going to be the smash hit that Frozen was. It’s less of a mainstream affair full of monsters and mythology that might distance small children when compared to the lovable approach of Frozen‘s story. Yet, the thing that puts Moana just above that is more of an authentic sense of culture and inventive atmosphere that gives it a more distinctive voice. Hell, even the climax has a wonderful subversive resolution that earns Moana so many more points than even Frozen‘s memorable climax. Moana is a journey to a far off land that’s actually much closer than anyone would perceive. It’s a celebration of not just a different culture, but a different perspective on nature and civilization. As much as we all like a dancing snowman, all of this with a moronic chicken just slightly trumps an Olaf.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Signed Oars

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“Moonlight” (2016): Limited Narrative, Unlimited Emotional Power

Moonlight only deals with traditional narrative in a very vague sense. This “coming of age” story does have a third act structure, but only in the most limited sense. We see our protagonist’s life separated into three chapters based on his various names – “Little” for his childhood (Alex Hibbert), “Chiron” for his teenage years (Ashton Sanders) & “Black” for his manhood (Trevante Rhodes) – to indicate some structural necessity. From there, the film goes off on more of a stream of consciousness style during each section that boils down to our hero’s state of mind. Our hero’s search for identity in a world that pushes him to the side or presents him with potential that’s crushed by the society he’s born into, the people who he was raised by and his own mind set because of all those factors.

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A24

This isn’t a narrative with much resolve. There are incidents and crushing emotional points, but they never lead to easy answers. Moonlight director/writer Barry Jenkins takes a page in storytelling from Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and Before trilogy. He allows us to see this man’s life transpire without too much dramatic license. This is less a story and more a series of snapshots in the life of this man coming to terms with who he is and what that means in terms of living. Some may find this to be disappointing or uninteresting. Traditional narrative structure is more commonly satisfying, but rarely gives us the ability to step into someone’s perspective like Moonlight does. Chiron’s crushing disappointments and little victories wouldn’t be as impactful in a traditional narrative.

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A24

By seeing all of the small intimate moments of doubt, loneliness and self consciousness in a more grounded fashion, we get a full grasp of how Chiron’s life feels so despondent. There’s an aesthetic reason why each section of his life is shot as it is. Barry Jenkins’ camera placement and lighting allows us to follow every step Chiron takes without interruption. We see from his perspective the change (or lack thereof) in his life by a POV from a car door or literally right behind him as he walks about his life. The setting of Miami removes the glamor, focusing on the poorer neighborhoods that experience little to no change. The moments of him bathed in the neon light more familiar to the vibrant city are contrasted with the truly dark moments of emotional sympathy. His relationship with his mother (played with a glorious emotional complexity by Naomie Harris) gradually breaks from the thin thread it initially had. Chiron lives in this world and it partially crushes him.

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A24

Yet, Chiron’s life in Moonlight isn’t one that’s just based in the tragedy a broken environment that crushes Chiron’s will.  The beauty of Moonlight is found in its small moments. Moments where his few positive role models – subtly underplayed by Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae – give him some perspective. Both come from this similar uncaring world, but show Chiron that there’s moments of joy to be found. Fleeting, simple joys like swimming or making a good food for other ones. They slip in and out of his life. Yet, their influence is felt, both in behavior and state of mind. This leaves Chiron with a multitude of influence to keep him awake about who he should be.  He alone must realize what being Chiron is, even if that person is heavily flawed by the time he grows up.

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A24

Unlike the previously mentioned Linklater films that used the same actors over the course of a long period of story, Moonlight had to cast three actors to play one person and make each feel seamless. That’s the more common practice in film, but it’s rarely achieved quite as well as it is here. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes don’t just look similar to create the simplistic illusion of growth. Each carries over and establishes facial ticks and elements of body language that define Chiron as a person and by his three names. From his slouched posture to his quiet demeanor, each actor embodies the key reminders that bring us to firmly think this is the same young man growing to find himself. The same goes for an incredibly crucial character Kevin, who’s growth is much more subtle and hard to manage when reexamining the context of his role in Chiron’s life vs his own life’s problems.

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A24

Moonlight elects to give us all this through introspective insight rather than outward narrative structure. This isn’t a film heavily dependent on dramatic reveals as much as it is moments. Moments that live in the brain and stay with us, through wonderful and extremely harsh points that resonate brutally. Even if one doesn’t relate to the specific struggles of Chiron, the moments we see in Moonlight of him simply living give us an extremely close and unflinching look at very primal human moments of discovery and rejection are universal. They might not be satisfying or leave you with definitive answers, but these moments give us pause to empathize with those who live harsh lives, not from a simple societal crumbling POV as much as an unfiltered and brutally honest one. That not only do our encounters affect our lives, but the actions we make based on those encounters. It makes for one of the more uniquely told stories on film this year… and also one of the best.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Bottles of Wine Between Former Friends

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Harry Potter Retrospective Part IV: Gobbling Up Fire

With their fourth year, the awkward stages of puberty are hitting Harry Potter and his fellow Hogwarts students pretty hard. Sweaty nightmare fueled sleeps, having to go to school dances and dealing with magical hate groups are on their trail, as is the case with most teens. Of course, nothing complicates matters most than something like a Tri-Wizard Tournament, a massive globe trotting competition that pits hormonal teen against hormonal teen in radical examples of putting children in danger. Yes, if Dementors and werwolf teachers weren’t enough, Hogwarts is pitting children against merpeople, dragons and each other all at the same time.

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The Tri-Wizard Tournament is obviously a means to an end in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. This isn’t too outside the realm of Potter, given how every plot so far has eventually circled back to a big mystery. While expanding the scope of the universe, it also serves as a backdrop for the standard Harry Potter mystery. Not a bad backdrop, especially with its own not-so-subtle commentary on the distraction of sports from major issues that are right under our noses. As everyone is distracted by spectacle, Harry comes to the realization that not everything is fine under the surface of competition. Right from the start of traveling from the Portkey to the Quidditch World Cup that’s interrupted by Death Eaters, we get a larger sense of Wizard World culture’s darker underbelly. It’s even more apparent in the fallout, particularly with the Death Eaters being brushed to the side as quickly as possibly by the Ministry and replaced with the sensationalist journalism of Rita Skeeter. It removes another layer of this universe, showing a more psychological manipulation that’s taken over, especially with these children who are put on a pedestal as large as the Tri-Wizard Tournament.

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The trouble is that we really don’t get much about these kids participating in the tournament beyond Harry. Sure, we get Harry’s exposition motivated interactions with Cedric Diggory. We get Hermione having some kind of side relationship with Krum. We have Ron’s schoolboy fascination with Fleur Delacour. However, none of that really amounts to much of anything. Getting these things from the perspective of our trio is obviously a major aspect of the entire series. Yet, Goblet of Fire also wants us to feel invested in at least a few of these people, particularly Cedric. The entire ending’s emotional tug hinges on us feeling for Cedric and having the feeling of that death wash over everyone else. Yet, given Cedric’s only role in the film is that of an expositor and he’s played pre-Twilight block of wood Robert Patterson, there’s not much to go on. We’re told more about how we should feel with Cedric than anything, rather that having actual emotional investment in him. Still, this is all despite the best efforts of people like Jeff Rawle as his father giving his all during the reveal of Cedric’s death.

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Yet, it still falls on deaf ears when The Goblet of Fire is far more focused on our three leads. Here, the element of puberty becomes much more firmly planted between Harry, Hermione and Ron. They’re all focused on trying to get with members of the opposite sex out of some social obligation rather than genuine desire. The best moments here are when Ron and Harry awkwardly try to deal with the social pressures of asking a girl to the Yule Ball. It’s a great example of the type of relatable awkward tension that makes Harry Potter as a franchise endearing. In the middle of a film filled racing against fanciful dragons, swimming with merpeople and traveling through mazes made of dark vines, the most engaging scenes are the ones that feature these kids awkwardly stumbling around a school dance. This is especially the case for how it shakes up the dynamic between Hermione, Harry and Ron, splitting things off in a believable sense for a bunch of burgeoning pubescent folks conflicting with each other. It even further develops the increasing chemistry between Ron and Hermione in a more believable way than even J.K Rowling has been willing to admit as of recent. I just wish it would be surrounded by more compelling side character arcs… especially with a Cho Chen. Seriously, who cares about Cho Chen?

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But the Tri Wizard Tournament is at least a bit more intriguing in its bait and switch element. The more conflicting issue of this comes in the form of Mad Eye Moody. None of the problems have to do with Brendan Gleeson, who provides that perfect crabby bitterness needed for the part. No, the bigger problem that drives this particularly disappointing version of “Harry Potter the chosen one gets dragged along a track by somebody” trope that this series loves to do is driven by this Moody being Barty “Doctor Who Numero 10” Crouchy Jr in disguise. Sure, this provides a glimpse into the witch trials that went on, but it pretty severely damages Moody as a character from here on in filmwise. Whatever we do see from here on in is oddly less developed that this disguise who mostly spends his time hiding Polyjuice Potion behind a booze joke that connects the dots far more easily. Also, how could no one in Hogwarts not immediately investigate a teacher who turns students into rodents and putting them inside other students’ pants? That’s psychologically damage on levels beyond comprehension.

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Of course, we’ve been down this road with Hogwarts before. A road that leads to this Tri Wizard Tournament’s sad end and the rebirth of Voldemort. The sort of main reason for this one to exist is building up to his reappearance and it’s the honestly one of the better moments in the entire series. Mike Newell‘s gradual shift from the Tri-Wizard Celebration to this dismal cemetary sequence emphasizes the seedy under world of the wizarding world this entire film was building up to. The Klan-esque dedication to Voldemort shows something Harry didn’t really fathom in reference to discrimination. Even if it’s with obvious reveals of Lucius Malfoy being a Death Eater, it allows Harry to get a full grasp of how vast this has spread.

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Of course, the centerpiece of all this is Ralph Fiennes’ first appearance as Voldemort. Fully encompassing the snake like slithering through his movements that mirrors his make up, Fiennes has all the confidence and intimidation of a freshly reborn cult leader. The raspy intimidation makes him the perfect embodiment of everything slithering under this barely human form. The fact that Harry manages to “defeat him” via convenient ghosts is unfortunately a side effect of adaptation problems with the entire series. Yet, the impact of worry that still permeates is firmly there as Harry returns with Cedric’s body. That worry of the unknown prospect of Voldemort returning chills even Dumbledore, who our heroes cling to as the prime example of knowledge in adversity.

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The final scene of our heroes realizing nothing will be the same rings even truer in a modern context. Given the last week or so, Harry Potter‘s attempts to call out racism and adversity is something we need far more of. To see our heroes realize that sacrifice is imminent and that they’ll have each other to get through it shows a true sense of maturity for these young men and woman. Goblet of Fire is a turning point for Potter, even if it’s one that would have to face some filler material in the oncoming chapters. Still, the thematic drive of dealing with adversity will ring ever truer and make Potter something far more timeless than franchises of its ilk.

One final note: I do plan on finishing this Harry Potter series up soon, but unfortunately in a more truncated form. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arrives in theaters this weekend, so I can’t complete four full analyses of the remaining films in that time. But you’ll see something to wrap all this up soon.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Dragon Eggs

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“Doctor Strange” (2016): Or How Marvel Learned to Stop Worrying And Embrace the Weird

Doctor Strange has a familiar plot structure. I know. It’s *so* shocking that a Marvel Cinematic Universe Production would take the same playbook for all their origin stories and apply it to their attempt at launching a hero. It’s a problem that often plagues these comic book adaptations, using the old steps trod by the first Iron Man nearly a decade ago. We’ve become accustomed to the story of an arrogant man suffering a terrible accident, being humbled by facing a threat bigger than himself, finding his way with a newfound ability and facing off against a villain who’s a bit more generic with his loyal and lovable side characters. Now, with all that firmly being established… this isn’t necessarily a bad practice in theory. Director/writer Scott Derrickson and his writing partner C. Robert Cargill are keenly aware of how these tropes play out. They’re aware of the fact that this construct is necessary, but decide to warp the pieces to their will. It’s very much like Dr. Stephen Strange’s abilities to bend time and space; he wants to break the rules of logic and reason, but realizes he has to do it while keeping the various dimensions intact.

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Marvel Studios

Within those confines, Doctor Strange excels pretty hard at pushing the boundaries of what Marvel can do in terms of warping the reality they’ve held. This takes the next leap beyond the “Magic is Science” realm of Thor and firmly plants it in the multi-dimensional package of cosmic wonder. We’re not just looking at a glorious rainbow bridge to a fantasy kingdom explained through a simple portal. We’re talking massive dimension hopping. Realms that exist within a finger’s grasp of our own reality opened by mystical sorcerers. In other words, the kind of stuff that Doctor Strange creator Steve Ditko blew people’s minds with in the early 60s. There’s a scene early on where Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) decries the idea of a spiritual otherworldly construct and is propelled into an elaborate acid drenched tour through time and space by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Right from there, we’re long past the idea of aliens with red capes and hammers being our main suspension of disbelief. Now, we have to contend with interdimensional travel, ghostly apparitions and spell conjuring.

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Marvel Studios

It’s the equivalent of Tony Stark building his initial suit done with the crazy trippy perspective of a mystic hero. One who becomes aware of the consequences of his actions on a massive scale rather than just Earth. Of course, the plot does have to focus on an antagonist named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) having specific eyes on Earth for it’s particular interdimensional potential. Again, Doctor Strange is no stranger to the formula here, but the stakes are inherently higher than even any of the Avengers features. Derrickson’s boundless imagination in terms of bizarre cosmic imagery gives us a sense of scale for the threats that unfold. Even if Kaecilius’ motives are as underwritten as usual Marvel faire, there’s more individuality in terms of the potential effects. This puts more of a burden on Stephen Strange to quickly get a grip on these skills in order to combat larger darker forces, allowing for more creative spins on stuff like the hero vs villain climactic fight or our hero learning from a more experienced teacher.

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Marvel Studios

While briefly referenced earlier, the elephant in the room should be more directly addressed. Tilda Swinton’s role as The Ancient One seems a bit off putting given the inherent whitewashing on display. Some can make the argument that what matters is who fits the role best and admittedly Swinton carries the mystique, grace & badass mastery that the part needs quite well. Yet, it’s a bit off to see her as the elder statesman of a monastery in Nepal when there’s already little Asian representation in Doctor Strange beyond a stereotypical Confucius looking male and Benedict Wong as a stern no-nonsense element of comedic relief. Even removing the offensive awkwardness, that casting and lack of representation feels out of place for the film’s overall attempt at laying out the origins of the mystical and general diversity they’re striving for in terms of magical hot spots around the world. When you already have London and New York as other major players, a few more prominent Asian sorcerers in the Hong Kong Sanctum might have been a bit more grounded.

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Marvel Studios

Then again, much like Swinton, Wong and the rest of the  supporting cast slips into their roles rather splendidly no matter how hampered they could be by their limited role storywise. Rachel McAdams, Benjamin Bratt and Michael Stuhlbarg take a similar track in the more Earthbound scenes; taking advantage of what little they’re given for solid emotional and comedic punch. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo is probably the best example of all of this, using the limited exposition heavy role he’s given to slowly peel back the layers of a man reborn and seemingly betrayed by his new world outlook once more details come to light. Even Mads Mikkelson has more than a few moments to show off his Hannibal style charms between bouts of “Marvel Villain Syndrome.”

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Marvel Studios

As for our titular role, Benedict Cumberbatch manages to add more humility to Doctor Strange than his usual penchant for cold alien roles. The initial swagger of the over confident surgeon believably transforms into a man more aware of his burden. A man arc is clearly based on the traditional Chosen One narrative, but with the consistent fear of failure that makes his position seem believable. Probably the most impressive asset Cumberbatch has to display here is his abilities as a physical performer, making many scenes against these elaborate special effects sequences feel far more grounded than they really should in theory.

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Marvel Studios

It may seem like I’ve been dismissing Doctor Strange for being a bit more impressive than it’s predictable story. That’s not the intention. Rather than being mildly more impressive than the traditional Marvel A to B to C storyline, Doctor Strange takes the formula and stretches its limitations about as far as the fabric can be elongated. Filmmaking after all is about compromise, especially when you’re dealing with a cinematic universe as large as Marvel. So, Scott Derrickson and his team took that challenge and created something that’s as experimental and crowd pleasing as a $165 million blockbuster can be. Full of warped visuals, charming characters and a decently subversive take on the familiar, Doctor Strange is far more chancy than its beats would initially seem to display. That’s more than commendable after a summer of lame duck blockbusters with effects renders that had even more cash at their disposal. Still, hopefully Marvel will be able to stretch its wings further with plot progression in the future. Or at the very least throw in more stuff like hands growing out of hands to spice things up.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Hands Coming Out of Hands

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