Wonder Woman (Jenkins; 2017)

Last November, I wrote on article on what the Marvel film universe is getting right, and the DC film universe is getting wrong.  To sum it up, I stated that Warner Brothers and DC don’t understand their own characters, are starting their stories in the middle giving us no frame of reference, and they are focusing solely on action and using no other elements of genre.  We are shown a Batman who unthinkingly kills, a Superman who couldn’t care less about collateral damage, a Lex Luthor who acts like a clown, and a Joker who doesn’t.  We have a story where Batman has been fighting the good fight for a long time and supervillains are filling the prisons, but no one seems to have heard about any of them until now for some reason.  And, every movie has been little more than excuses for people wearing unusual clothing to punch and otherwise injure each other.   I am happy to announce that for at least one movie every single one of these issues has been fixed in a DC Universe film, and the result is a movie comic book fans, action film lovers, and women everywhere have been anxious to see for a long, long time.

The character of Wonder Woman has been a tough one to crack for a very long time for some reason, probably because until recently the comic book business has been all boys, and even now the number of women working in the superhero creation industry is a very, very small percentage.  The history of the character is a long and interesting one, but until the last decade and a half or so, her personality hasn’t been much more than a desire to do good, a mission statement, and some superpowers.  Modern writers have started to latch onto the fact that she is an Amazon warrior and have used that very element of her backstory to give her a role very different from her male counterparts and very well defined.  The film Wonder Woman captures those elements of her character perfectly and expands upon them, giving us the first protagonist, or really character of any size, in a DC film that is true to her source material and also captivating.

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This film is also an origin story, which means we actually start the story at the beginning.  We get to see Diana’s (Gal Gadot) training on Themyscira, her relationship with the other Amazons as she was growing up, and her meeting with Steve Rogers (Chris Pine) which inspires her to leave her sanctuary and enter the world of men.  You would think giving characters motivations would be  an obvious element of story telling, but until now the motivations in the DC films have been muddied at best.  Not so here.  We get to see what inspires Diana, what her life was like growing up, and more so that we end up with a fully formed character we can relate to and root for rather than someone who is just fun to watch.

Wonder Woman is not just an origin story, it is also a film that takes place during World War I, giving us not only an additional genre of war film to work with, but also an interesting historical period as a backdrop, one not used nearly often enough in film.  We get to see a Europe ravaged by war, battles in which chemical weapons are an ever present threat and victories are measured in inches, and technologies which are nearly obsolete today are state of the art.  Throwing a fierce demigoddess into this mix works wonderfully, and gives us a truly original superhero origin story not quite like anything we’ve seen before.

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The one thing DC has always gotten right is its visuals.  While the stories are messy and the characters confused, watching the action on display in the DC Universe is a wonder to behold, and that is no different in Wonder Woman.  The sharply angled viewpoints, the technique of making some colors vibrant and others dull, and the use of slow motion to concentrate on detail rather than just being a cheap trick is all on display here.  This time around the battles are not just fun, though they certainly are that, but most are also inspiring.  Where most superhero action sequences are really a well choreographed dance with special effects mixed in, the battles here feel like battles, grittier than your usual comic book fare, and Wonder Woman herself feels less like an untouchable icon and more like a badass general leading and inspiring her troops to their best.

The relationship between Diana and Steve Trevor is handled as well as it possibly could be.  Chris Pine pleasantly surprised me last year with his tour-de-force performance in Hell or High Water which showed the world he had a lot more talent than just a pretty face and a decent Captain Kirk impersonation, and he brings that level once again here giving us just the right amount of confidence, smarts, self effacement, and wonderment to make a real person out of this character in a most surreal situation.  Chris Pine and Gal Gadot have some real chemistry going on, and half way through the film we feel it’s absolutely natural that this American spy and demigoddess should be so attached to and inspired by one another.

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The film does have a handful of minor issues, and two fairly major ones keeping it from being absolutely the best superhero film I’ve seen and only meaning that it’s in that conversation.  The film is fairly predictable.  They try to be clever about a major plot point which I won’t go into any more detail about, but if you’ve seen more than five movies in your life you will see a certain major reveal coming from miles and miles away.  The other major issue is that the climax of the film is a bit of a let down with a sort of deus ex machina of a type I thought movie studios were done with using a couple of decades ago giving Wonder Woman her ultimate victory.  These two disappointments were certainly not enough to sour the overall film’s effect for me, but they did make me sigh a bit.

Final verdict:  DC and Warner Brothers finally got it right, and in doing so they outdid themselves to a level that can only add pressure to both themselves and Marvel for the future.  Wonder Woman is exciting, inspirational, thoughtful, and visually stunning.  It makes a few missteps, but not fatal ones by a long shot, and I am so happy that the first superhero film in one of the comic universes starring and directed by women is one of the best films ever seen in the genre as a whole.  Wonder Woman is a must see movie.

 

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Ritchie; 2017)

Once upon a time, ancient Londinium was ruled by King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana).  Uther ruled with his wife, Igraine (Poppy Delevigne), by his side, his brother Vortigern (Jude Law) giving him much good advice, and all in preparation for the day his son Arthur (Zac Barker) would eventually take the throne.  It came to pass that the evil sorcerer Modred (Rob Knighton) would attack Uther’s kingdom with 100 foot tall elephants, because that is how sorcerers operate, apparently, and would force Uther to flee with his family, and Vortigern to take his beautiful wife whom we shall just call Mrs. Vortigern downstairs where he would stab her most mercilessly.  Shortly after the stabbing, Uther’s family would run into a boss monster from a video game which would slaughter Igraine and have an epic fight with Uther that ends with Uther throwing his sword into the air, turning into stone, and the sword falling and burying itself in what was moments before Uther’s back.  During the battle Arthur climbed into a boat, which as we know, makes you completely and totally safe from boss monsters.

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Arthur’s boat apparently made its way to Rome eventually, as, even though everyone there speaks with an Irish accent, we see a shot of the Colosseum.  Arthur is taken into a brothel where he is raised by the women there into a very strong and pretty bro douchebag.  One day, when the bro douchebag Arthur (now Charlie Hunnam) is telling, via quick editing and snazzy sound effects, of his exploits in which he stole the money from and cut the beard off a viking he met at the docks – but the viking did something wrong so it was all justified – the brothel is raided and the captain of the guard who raids the brothel tells Arthur he can’t protect him this time, even though we have no idea why Arthur would have been protected before, because the viking Arthur attacked knows the king.  Well damn.

Arthur is therefore put on a ship to Camelot where he is to meet his punishment, which is apparently that he has to try to pull a sword from a stone, get branded on his wrist if he fails, then be sent on his way.  Arthur marches up to the sword in the stone, and the second he touches it he has intense pain and harrowing visions, which you think would be enough for him to walk away, get his brand, and call it a day.  But, no, the douchebag who would be king pulls and pulls on the sword and finally extracts it from the rocky sheath which once was his father just as he falls unconscious from the intense pain and visions.

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When he wakes, Arthur is in a prison cell and is soon visited by King Vortigern, plot twist!, and told through quick editing and snazzy sound effects that Vortigern was working with Modred to take the kingdom, but he needed to get the sword out of the stone and kill Arthur to make it official. Oops!  Looks like our douchebag is in a whole heap of trouble!  But, just as his execution is to take place, people we’ve never seen before including a girl mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who can control animals rescue our future monarch.  Once the excitement dies down, we learn that this band are Percival (Craig McGinlay), the girl mage who was sent by Merlin, Bill (Aldan Gillen), and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), who, while I have no problem with diversity in casting, is a black man in England with no real explanation much like why everyone in Rome speaks in baroque.  Why did they rescue him?  Because the plot calls for it, silly!  Otherwise Arthur would die and the movie would be nowhere near two hours long!

This kind of crap continues, I won’t spoil anything more, and believe it or not this is barely more than the set up, but this level of intelligence and understanding of the original Arthurian myths continues throughout the entire film’s length bring up such questions as:

Why is Sir George in a movie about King Arthur’s origins and why is he Chinese?

If the lady mage is Morgana why isn’t she Arthur’s sister and if she’s Guinevere why is she a mage, and why don’t we know who the hell she is in the first place?

Why does the king feel the need to stand so near his body double as well as taking along his advisors if he is just setting a trap for the good guys?

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If you could summon a giant rattlesnake to kill everyone in seconds, why the hell didn’t you do it earlier and save everyone a lot of trouble and effort, not to mention lives?

If the sword, which is obviously Excalibur but never called such, gives you superpowers like the Flash, why the heck was the video game boss able to defeat Uther?  And, how the heck did Uther turn into stone, anyway?

Why the hell is Vortigern building the tower to make his powers unbeatable when he doesn’t seem to have any powers which aren’t given to him by outside sources in the first place?

Final verdict:  If Joby Harold (writer) and Guy Ritchie (director/writer) know anything about the legends surrounding King Arthur aside from a handful of characters’ names, they certainly don’t show it in this abomination of a movie.  While I have no problem with taking liberties with source material, and in the case of Arthurian myths actually believe it to be necessary, this handling of it is so poorly done in every conceivable way from the plot, to the dialogue, to the acting, to the special effects, and the camerawork, that it accomplishes nothing but offend those who care at all for the original stories.  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a senseless, ugly, unthinking, scattershot attempt at storytelling which will hopefully be seen by no one so that the sequel they seem to want so badly given the number of loose plot strings in the film never gets made.

Beauty and the Beast (Condon; 2017)

From 1989 to 1994 Disney brought us four of their most revered classics (and, The Rescuers Down Under) all four of which were based on a classic tale hundreds of years old.  1989 started the Disney renaissance (it hadn’t had a truly classic animated film for decades before this) with The Little Mermaid based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name.  The original story was published in 1837, and so was the newest of the four tales they were to adapt over these five years, and focused on an unnamed mermaid who wanted to be human and marry a prince, and that is really where the similarities between the two stories end.  Disney “Disneyfied” the story by adding music, sidekicks, and by giving the story an action packed happy ending complete with a giant monster to battle.

1991’s Beauty and the Beast was more similar to its original fairy tale originally penned by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, but it was still Disneyfied in its own way.  While the original fairy tale did have the unnamed beauty falling in love with the beast at the end, there was no sideplot involving a jealous suitor and an angry mob attacking the castle, it was a story only about a couple overcoming their own prejudices and falling in love with one another.

Aladdin was the 1992 output from Disney studios, and is the one probably most removed from its original plot, but also the most improved through the Disneyfication process.  The original story from the 18th century is a somewhat unstructured story following the adventures of an arabic street urchin who does find a magic lamp with a genie, does marry a princess, and does encounter an evil sorcerer, but the specifics surrounding all those events greatly differ from the original story and the Disney reworking of the story did manage to add structure and humor missing from the original.

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Finally in 1994, Disney brought us Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” via the vehicle of The Lion King.  In the Disney version we are given a happy ending in which only the villain dies rather than nearly every major (and many minor) character in the story, plus they turned the story into “Hamlet: The Musical”, and as bad an idea as all of this sounds they actually pulled it off and gave the world a version of the bard which younger audiences will love even if the message of the story is exactly the opposite of the original.

All of these stories, except Aladdin, lost a little something in the translation, though they did all gain something else in return.  The Little Mermaid completely changed in theme and tone, but it gained optimism and excitement.  Beauty and The Beast lost time spent on the budding romance, but gained action and conflict, and The Lion King lost the darker themes of disfunction and depression, and became a story about perseverance and friendship instead.

Fast forward to 2010 when Disney brings us a live action version of Alice in Wonderland helmed by Tim Burton.  Once again Disney changes its source material, this time that source material being its own animated movie, and makes Alice a bit older, giving us a story in which she isn’t so much a little girl lost exploring an odd world but now becomes something of a feminist bad ass.  Well, at least kind of.  The movie didn’t entirely work, but it certainly didn’t fail, either, and most importantly it made enough box office money that Disney decided to continue the experiment of turning their animated classics into live action films.

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In Maleficent, they gave us a pretty great remake of Sleeping Beauty which ditches the archaic themes of the original and gives us a story from the villain’s point of view, and flips the story’s ending on its ear to give a message about what true love really is rather than what fairy tales portray.  Again, the movie had its issues, but it was a vast improvement on the original tale and the total change in point of view and theme was quite revolutionary.  In the live action Cinderella they didn’t change things up too much, but they dropped the music, and The Jungle Book did the same except for saving one complete musical number and a snippet of another, the real revelation here being the hyperrealistic animation of the animals which was a wonder to behold (and got the movie an Oscar).

Which brings us to right now and the release of the live action Beauty and the Beast directed by Bill Condon and starring Emma Watson as Belle, the titular beauty, and Dan Stevens as Beast.  This version is a reworking of their animated film, not the original story, so Gaston, LeFou, and the castle servants are all here, as is the music.  The only major changes to the original animated film are additions.  We are given a prologue showing how and why the prince was cursed to become Beast while the other additions are new musical numbers.  In all the film’s length is increased by roughly 40 minutes.

Since the story of Beauty and the Beast revolves entirely around the love story and the themes of learning to love someone you would never expect, the actors who have to sell the love story are of the utmost importance.  Dan Stevens, for his part, absolutely sells this part of Beast.  The addition of the opening scene in which we learn why the prince is cursed does an excellent job of setting up the prince as man unworthy of and unwilling to love.  When we first see him as Beast we completely buy him as a monster, and as the film progresses and he begins to open up, smile, joke, we absolutely get caught up in and believe his transformation.  Despite layers of makeup and CGI, Dan Stevens shines through all of that outer covering and lets us see the complex man inside.  As, for Emma Watson….  don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want the ending of La La Land spoiled (that will make sense once you read it, but don’t if you don’t want it spoiled, last warning).

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Emma Watson was originally cast as the lead in La La Land, but couldn’t ultimately play the role as she was too involved in filming Beauty and the Beast, so the part went to Emma Stone.  La La Land is another film that hinges completely on the actors selling the love story.  We need to know how important these two were to each other so that at the end when they finally acheive their dreams but have to do so at the cost of their own relationship, it hits you emotionally and doesn’t just become a matter of “so what?  they got what they wanted”.  That alternate world ending montage hits you right in the gut, but it never could have if the stakes weren’t so high, and the stakes couldn’t be high if Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling hadn’t just shown you they were in love, but made you feel it yourself and made you want a love like that of your own.  If Beauty and the Beast is any indication, Emma Watson could not have pulled that off.

Emma Watson is, however, a better singer than Emma Stone if Beauty and the Beast is enough to base that opinion on as she, and everyone in the cast, bring new life to the soundtrack which is arguably Disney’s best.  “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston”, “Beauty and the Beast” are all here, and all done spectacularly, better than in the original, in fact.  The live action adds a weight and depth to the musical numbers which the original simply doesn’t have, and all the performers here sing as well, if not even better, than in the animated version.  This is where Beauty and the Beast truly shines, and it shines so brightly in this regard as to be nearly blinding.

The visuals here are also incredible, though some things don’t work as well as when they are more classically animated, and those things are very specific to the point I’d almost have to make a list, which I won’t.  But, as a “for instance” Lumiere, played absolutely wonderfully by Ewan McGregor, is so much better in this style of animation as he now has some heft and is more than just eyes and a mouth drawn on a candelabra greatly improving the ways he can emote and move.  Mrs. Potts, however, doesn’t fare nearly so well, and works so poorly in this style as to be distracting whenever she is on screen.  The best way I know to put it is that while the camera work and special effects are always well crafted, the choices made as to the actual final appearance of all these elements can be extremely hit or miss, some being a wonder to behold others actively breaking the movie’s spell with their awkwardness.

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Finally, this review could not be complete without my mentioning how great it was to see Kevin Kline back on the screen as Belle’s father, Maurice.  The man has not missed a step and steals your attention every single time he appears on screen.  This man’s bad performances are rare, and I would rank his turn here among some of his best (though, nothing will ever beat his Otto from A Fish Called Wanda, in my opinion).

Final recommendation:  Beauty and the Beast‘s story ultimately fails where it’s most important, but it excels in most other areas.  The spectacle is, well, spectacular, the music is not just as great as you remember, but is perhaps even better, and most of the cast does a great job.  This could be a movie that disappoints due to its nearly exact duplication of the animated version with the few additions not being enough to make it anything new.  But, if you need a Disney fix and don’t care about repetition, then Beauty and the Beast is about as good a repetition as you can get, I just wish Emma Watson could have made me believe.

 

A Monster Calls (Bayona; 2016)

We’ve all experienced that story in which the prose is exemplary and the plot intense, but you just don’t connect with the main character.  The sporting event where everyone on both sides plays their hearts out and gives a spectacular showing then the final result is based on a bad call by the referee.  Watching A Monster Calls is very much the same sort of experience.  There is so much which is spectacular, but which then ends up being marred due to flawed technique.

A Monster Calls is the story of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a twelve year-old aspiring artist whose mum (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer.  His attachment to his mother due to her state, and the additional stress in his life makes him a target for bullies, one bully in particular (James Melville), add to this an overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and an absentee father (Toby Kebbel) and Conor has nowhere to escape to except his art and his imagination.  When a tree monster (Lian Neeson) shows up to help Conor in a fuzzy manner, Conor begins to change in ways that scare those around him.

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This set up and opening of A Monster Calls is handled so well it could be used to teach exactly how to handle the show don’t tell rule of screenwriting.  Not once is the word cancer said out loud nor does anyone talk about Conor being an artist, but all these details come across easily and quickly getting us into the story naturally.  Unfortunately, as the story progresses the skill put into the story telling becomes less and less consistent until by the end the characters are literally just blurting out loud how they feel, what they are doing, and what lessons should be learned.  The ultimate lesson is quite a doozy, too, one that takes some bravery to both tell and to allow to sink in so it’s even more unfortunate that by the time we are having it expressed to us it’s done in the crudest possible way.

One element of A Monster Calls that is consistently great, though, is the artistry on display.  The camera work is wonderful with shots through frosted glass windows to obscure what’s happening behind but still giving you an idea, extreme close up shots of pencils and ink so close that shavings are falling onto the paper and ink spreading out to fill its intended area, the titular Monster often quite literally coming out of the woodwork, and so on.  The camera work, the set design, and special effects are all handled wonderfully and with great care giving us a visual experience on par with films like Pan’s Labyrinth or Amelie.  The special effects are also a large part of the show don’t tell element which while inconsistent is done really well when it is done at all well as we see the Monster mirroring the body language and movement of Conor.  While the Monster normally takes on the dominant role when the two are on screen together, a careful viewer will see that the Monster follows Conor’s every move letting us know that what we are seeing is just a projection on his part, and this is the only way the film makes this absolutely clear aside from the audience understanding that this is a realistic film and monsters don’t really exist.

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To further add to the wonderment of the visuals, A Monster Calls has two sections of film that are done using hand drawn animation.  The animation uses a very rough style, but most certainly a stand out one.  The faces of characters can’t be made out, inks run and blend together forming new images and scenes as they do so, the color pallettes are chosen to express a mood, and in the second of the animated pieces, the “real” world of Conor and the Monster begin to blend in with it making for a very beautiful piece and an additional story element that couldn’t be seen coming.

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The acting in A Monster Calls is well done across the board.  Lewis MacDougall who before this had only played a minor role in the film Pan carries the movie excellently.  We absolutely buy into his pain and even the more subtle aspects of the character’s psychology, and this is very much a psychological study, come across well, at least until the closing parts of the film when the writing gives away too much, too quickly, and too crudely, but that is hardly MacDougall’s fault.   Felicity Jones as Mum does a decent job being pathetic and likable, which honestly is really all she is called upon to do.  Sigourney Weaver nails her role as Grandma giving us another nuanced performance (in everything but her accent, I honestly could not tell if she was supposed to be English or American)  in which she has to show that she loves Conor very much, but that is largely due to Mum being her daughter, and also that she will not stand for his acting out.  It’s often a fine line to walk, and she not only walks but dances along it.

A Monster Calls does so much so well, that it’s a near tragedy that it can’t remain consistent.  Two or three brilliant scenes will go by, tugging on your emotions in just the right way, instilling you with awe from the glorious visuals in front of you, and getting across important information to you without your even realizing it’s done so, and then, the Monster will show up and give a rote speech that he is going to do this, and this is why, and this is when crashing you back down to Earth and reminding you that you are just watching a movie, all your belief in this fantasy shattered, and what hope does a monster have if you don’t believe in it?

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Final recommendation:  If you love film primarily for the visual artistry of it, then this is a must see.  The director Bayona and the cinematographer Faura had a beautiful and creative vision that they portrayed wonderfully.  If story is the primary reason you go to the movies, however, it’s a little harder to wholeheartedly recommend.  The story is excellent for the most part, and I feel it deserves to be seen solely for the bravery of its message, but the fact that that message is delivered far too clunkily much of the time and could be a trigger for people who have recently lost a loved one makes me want to say this is not a film for the more casual movie goer.

 

 

Moana (Clements, Hall, Musker, and Williams; 2016)

Disney gives us its first Polynesian princess in the movie named for her, Moana, and quite the charming princess she is.  We first see her as a precocious infant, not afraid of the scary stories her grandmother tells the clan’s children, wanting to explore everywhere she can, and doing whatever she must to help others even at her own expense, even when she’s not old enough to be out of diapers, or swaddling clothes in this case.  This is typical of the modern era Disney princess, and while I’m among the many out there who are very glad to see that the modern Disney princess is very much a hero in her own right and doesn’t need a prince to rescue her, Moana shows that this formula is already starting to wear at least a little thin, and they really need to begin watching out for complacency in their story telling.

The major flaws in Moana, and what keeps it from being amongst the very best of this year’s crop of excellent animated features, are its very formulaic story telling technique, its very limited cast of characters, and its overly repetitive sense of humor.  The flaws really all go together, and negatively play off of one another.  The film really has only two major characters of any note, Moana herself (voice acted by Auli’i Cravalho) and the Hawaiian demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson).  Moana’s parents and grandmother do appear toward the beginning of the film and various villains are scattered here and there throughout, but the vast majority of the time we spend with these two and only these two.  This really limits the types of interaction which can be had, and while their relationship does, of course, develop and grow throughout the film, that is the whole point of the movie, it does so using the same methods over and over.  They argue about the same things again and again, find themselves dealing with obstacle the same way over and over, and while I love self referential humor perhaps a bit too much, they make so many jokes referencing the fact that they are animated characters singing to each other in yet another Disney princess movie that at a certain point I just wanted to yell at the screen, “Enough already!”

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We’re full time parents, full time chieftans, and full time formulaic stereotypes.

But, while the plot and humor in Moana may be far too formulaic and forced, the Polynesian setting and mythology of the movie makes for incredibly new and original settings and situations as well as some of the most glamorous animation to hit the screen in this, or any other, year, really rivaled only by Kubo and the Two Strings in how utterly beautiful it is.  Part of me wants to list some of the feats Moana and Maui have to perform throughout their heroes’ quest just to demonstrate how unusual and fascinating they are, but that would spoil one of the best parts of the film.  The feats are really just episodic events that don’t play into each other for the most part, and really could be shown to happen in any order whatsoever, but that can be forgiven as it seems the film’s authors are trying to give us as much Polynesian mythology as they possibly can in a limited amount of time, and the results are a lot of fun and a wonder to look at.

While they don’t make a big deal of it in their advertising, Moana is a musical.  I’m guessing the reason Disney doesn’t showcase this element of the movie in the marketing is because the music on display here is nothing particularly noteworthy.  Auli’i has more songs than anyone else in the film, and she is an excellent singer, it’s just that she is given very mundane, derivative music to work with.  Dwayne Johnson has perhaps the most catchy song in the film, and he was a far better singer than I ever would have expected, but a day after my viewing and I already am having a hard time remembering much of his song outside the chorus and lyrics.  Much like everything else in the film, the music is put together with talent, it’s just not anything we haven’t heard before time and time again.

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Just look at this little dude!  Look at him!

Moana is a film that, in a way, really deserves different critiques for different audiences.  This is a film that absolutely can be enjoyed by all ages, there was a very little girl who seemed to be just learning to speak and looked to be of Ploynesian descent who sat with her family directly behind me for my viewing of the film, and while she was very talkative leading up to the film, she was absolutely silent the entire time until the very end when she erupted in applause and cheers.  When I was leaving the theater I saw her posing for her parents with a cutout stand of Moana, a look of joy and excitement on her face that let me know this was one of those movies she will remember fondly for her entire life.  For older children, a grand time will still be had, and I have no doubt they will be bugging their parents for the Blu-Ray one day so they can watch it over and over again.  As for the adults in the audience, you will be entertained, particularly by the awe-inspriring animation, but you will recognize the story as one you’ve seen over and over again, it’s just the trappings that are new this time around, but those trappings are pretty damn neat, neat enough that you can forgive, if not entirely overlook, the films pretty large problems.

Rating:  6.5 out of 10

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Yates; 2016)

Harry Potter does not return, but the world in which Hogwarts exists does in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film written by J.K. Rowling in her feature film screenwriting debut.  This take on the wizarding world takes place in 1926 New York where the rules of magic may not be different, but the rules of how wizards need to behave are.  When Hogwarts graduate Newt, played by Eddie Redmayne comes to America with a case full of magical creatures, he’s only a cliched sitcom trope away from having some of them get loose in the city, and while he sets about finding them and putting them back in the case where they belong, people start dying and the Wizards Council has to take action.

I admit, I was surprised when I found out that another film was being made in the Harry Potter franchise, though I also admit that I don’t know why as it is a multi-billion dollar windfall for those lucky enough to be a part of the making of it, and was happy to discover that the new film would not only not have the Harry Potter cast of characters in it, but would be a period piece focusing on adults and for the first time would have J.K. Rowling herself write the actual screenplay.  This approach paid off, giving us a neat way to mix both the familiar and the brand new, a world we recognize with familiar rules but seen in a way never seen before.  Gone are children, schools, and prophecies, instead we have adults already well-honed in their magical crafts, wizard governmental agencies, and an entirely new landscape for this series – a large bustling city filled with No-Majes (the American word for Muggles).

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75 years earlier, and it still looks more modern than Hogwarts.

While the characters in this iteration of the series are adults, the story of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is still very much the story written with an eye toward the younger set, but still with some appeal for their parent’s generation, that the Harry Potter books and movies were.  The story does venture into a few dark places and involves more political intrigue than the original series did, but there’s nothing that children wouldn’t understand nor be scarred by, though a few scenes could get pretty scary for those younger than teens.  Unfortunately, many of the plot points of the film are also written for a younger crowd, as much of the film is predictable to the point of being downright trite and overdone, particularly throughout the film’s first act.

The film’s lack of creative plotting, however, is definitely made up for with its charm.  Everything about the movie from its setting, to its dialogue, is characters, and its visuals are completely and utterly endearing.  Our four protagonists – Newt, Tina (Katherine Waterston), Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and Queenie (Alison Sudol) – are all interesting and very likeable, if not very well rounded, and the actors who play them absolutely pitch perfect in their portrayals.  The world of New York is very distinct from the world of Hogwarts, and its prohibition era setting shown in parallel with the magical world which must also keep itself hidden for fear of outright war with the world of the mundane is an absolutely fascinating allegory as well as a delightful method of surprising us with new ways of looking at J.K. Rowling’s magical world.

The very best part of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, though, is the visuals which never cease to amaze, astound, and amuse from beginning to end.  The special effects are nearly flawless, the art direction beautiful, the costumes and make-up spot on and stunning, and all blended seamlessly together to make for one of the most stylish and consistently great visual experiences of the year.

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This isn’t even one of the most impressive settings in the movie, and it’s still gorgeous.

If you are one of the many Harry Potter fanatics out there, seeing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a no brainer, this is exactly what you have been waiting for since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows wrapped up the series 5 years back.  If, like me, you like the series well enough, but never felt the need for more, you will still absolutely enjoy this entry into the series, and may like me, even find its your favorite due to its more mature but still immensely charming handling of the subject matter.  The only people whom I don’t recommend seeing this are those who gave Harry Potter a try and found nothing to like in it.  While the characters and setting are different this time around, the tone and style still very much belong to J.K. Rowling and her Hogwarts inhabited world.

Rating:  7.4 out of 10

Doctor Strange (Derrickson; 2016)

Scott Derrickson is a director that you probably have not heard of before unless you are a true horror movie aficionado.   Previously, he’s brought us The Exorcism of Emily Rose, both Sinister movies, and the film which probably got him this gig, Deliver Us From Evil.  That is not a resume you’d expect from the director of a Marvel film, and particularly not from someone with the unenviable job of giving us another origin story movie which has to not only keep up Marvel’s now high standards and introduce an entire facet of the Marvel Universe which up until now we hadn’t seen – the mystical, multi-dimensional world (Asgard not withstanding, as that’s been explained away by weird science).  Derrickson was handed a tall order with Doctor Strange, and he does an admirable, if not quite incredible, job.

If you’re not familiar with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), well that’s what the movie is about, so I won’t spoil much for you, but he is a character who was established in 1963 – the same year as the X-Men – and has been the Marvel Universe’s resident Sorcerer Supreme for most of that time.  His adventures center on keeping mystical enemies such as demons, powerful wizards, and extra-dimensional threats at bay.  The other dimensions of the Marvel Universe, as well as magic, are the most confusing and unfleshed out bits of their lore, as you are literally dealing with the infinite.  So outside of a few integral characters and places which appear time and time again, the writers really have no rules to follow or norms to work with.  It does mean limitless room for creativity, yes, but it also means there are no true anchors from which to work with a story.  In this, the film version of Doctor Strange, the other dimensions and extra dimensional threats are left just as vague as they are in the comic source material, but magic seems just a bit better explained, even if there is still a lot of room open for real explanation.

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It’s just like Earth, except nothing like Earth, and you can shift the landscape with no real consequences, except there are consequences.  Makes perfect sense.

There is a lot of good to be said about Doctor Strange, far more good than bad.  The dialogue is witty, sharp, and still natural.  The characters are detailed, true to the source material, and are the source of the strong themes of understanding your connections to the world and where you fit within it.   The pacing is near perfect, there was never a time where boredom set in, nor where I felt I needed things to slow down for a moment. The acting was excellent on all fronts, with a veteran cast giving their all.  Then there are the absolutely astounding visuals.  This film is a thing of pure beauty, from the alien landscapes, to the magical effects, and to the way a certain magical relic is so incredibly well done that a non-living object with no dialogue ends up becoming one of the film’s most entertaining characters.

The writers and Derrickson do an excellent job of showing how magic works in this world, not by giving intricacies of how and why it works, but by showing what it is capable of, how it is learned, and differentiating between different areas of study and focus.  Making a relic is not the same as casting a spell which is not the same as travelling through time and space.  Trying to explain how these things work would be a losing battle, so the film maker’s are intelligent enough to know this and give us just enough to know that they do work, that they have rules, and there is even a sort of “science” to them.

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It’s not the Pythagorean Theorem, but there’s still lots of symbols and symmetry.

Where the movie falls apart, is in its finale, unfortunately.  No spoilers, but in the film’s climax the excellent visuals give way to a hodge podge of undefined, low quality imagery.  The excellent rules set up suddenly don’t seem to matter in any meaningful way, and while the final solution is creative and nothing we’ve seen from a Marvel film before (and, does an excellent job at showing why Doctor Strange is considered one of the most intelligent people in the Marvel Universe), it is given no context to show why Strange’s plan would actually work.  This is the inherent problem with magic in a fictional universe, the authors can too easily make things too fast and loose, too “anything can happen”, and without hard fast rules we lose the context of true stakes.

Doctor Strange keeps up Marvel’s reputation for excellence.  It is a very well written, well acted, and visually astonishing movie.  It has meaningful things to say, as well.  It has some serious missteps, primarily in its finale and also in the way it keeps up the Marvel tradition of not so interesting villains (we need more Lokis, Kingpins, and Killgraves, Marvel), but overall it is a worthy, if not top notch, addition to the Marvel canon.

Rating:  7.8 out of 10