Moana

Moana is the latest film from Pixar/Disney. It is based on the legends of the peoples of the Pacific Islands. You can catch the trailer on the IMDB site, or here.

Moana is the tale of the daughter of an island’s chief. Everything is peaceful and the people are happy, but that’s about to change. When she was little, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) would listen to the stories her grandmother would tell of how her people came to be. They were always fanciful and also scary. Things were such that they never leave their island, not even to venture past the reef that surrounds it. Problems start happening with their food supply, and Moana relies on the stories she used to hear to find a solution, to seek out the Demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to fix things. If it were only that simple.

First and foremost, this is a musical. I wasn’t aware, though. However, the songs are happy and funny. It certainly helps that some of the songs and lyrics were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame. This is also a comedy, of sorts, and rather funny. I found myself laughing throughout the film. Much like any decent kid’s film, there’s plenty of humor for the adults. Moana has a companion, a rather confused chicken, “voiced” by Alan Tudyk.

I really enjoyed myself at the screening. I highly recommend this film, and I already put it in my top 10 films of 2016. It is available in 3D, but I did not see it that way. It was not necessary to see it that way, though I’m sure there were some benefits of the 3D experience.

There is a funny post-credits scene.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a movie that exists in the world of Harry Potter, written by J.K. Rowling. In essence, it is a prequel to that story.

You can view the trailer here.

In the 1920s, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a Magizoologist, a Wizard who studies Magical creatures. He arrives in New York City, and is on a journey to meet someone. While on the way, he bumps into a Non-Mag (non-magical person, or a muggle), and The Old Switcheroo happens, and they accidentally swap cases.

He manages to catch the eye of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is a member of the Magical Congress of the USA, similar to England’s Ministry of Magic. She’s noticed that his case had magical animals, which is against the law in the U.S., and brings him to the Magical Congress, but they are more concerned with more dangerous matters, as strange things are happening in NYC. Is there a connection between these problems?  What do you think?

It’s a good tale, with a lot of heart and emotion. There is a sequence of “Hey, look at the creatures” which reminded me too much of that moment in the original Jurassic Park film. This is, at its core, a kid’s film, and some of the same sort of irritations from the Harry Potter movies are here, too. I won’t go into them here, but it suffices to say that they hampered my total enjoyment of the movie.

I still recommend it, though. It’s available in 3D, but I saw the 2D version, and do not recommend you spend the extra money to watch it any other way. There’s good acting, and they were rather successful in capturing the spirit of the ’20s, so it works on several levels.

Arrival (2016)

Arrival is a science fiction film, based on the short story “Story of Your Life”, written by Ted Chiang. The story won several awards in 1999 and 2000.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a professor of linguistic studies. She is on her way to teach class when she walks past many students hovering around a TV, where news is coming that aliens have arrived on Earth, and no one knows what to do. They appear in 12 places around the world, and no one knows what to do.

Shortly afterward, she is visited by a Colonel Weber (Forrest Whittaker), who asks for her assistance in communicating with the new visitors. She resists but eventually consents. She is teamed up with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who’s handling the science of the meetings. Col. Weber implores them to find a way to communicate with the aliens, and is demanding to know what their intentions are.

This movie is a slow potboiler of a film. It plays out in a plodding manner, letting the enormity of the situation sink in to the characters, and the audience, as well. I really can’t talk about the story that much, because it would spoil the experience. There’s the underlying urgency to understand, and it provides the base for the film.

Going back almost 40 years, Close Encounters of the Third Kind attempted to tell the story of encounters with aliens, and it was incredibly stunning, visually, but, to me, was a bit flat. To this day, the 5 notes and those 5 hand gestures never meant anything to me, and they never bothered to reveal what they meantl. That film frustrated me, while it entertained me.

Arrival answered some of those questions, but not all of them. It has a heart that you won’t find that in many science fiction films. This movie was a unique experience, giving me something I haven’t seen 1000 times before.

I strongly recommend Arrival, and I already know that it’s one of my top 10 films of the year.

 

Doctor Strange (2016)

Doctor Strange is the latest film to come from the Marvel Comic Universe. It tells the origin story of one of the more colorful heroes.

Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the world’s most brilliant neurosurgeon, especially if you ask him. His ego is huge, but he has the talent to back it up. While on the way to a speaking engagement, he gets into an accident that effectively ruins his ability to operate, ruining his life.

Desperate, he is looking for a solution. When Western medical science can’t cure him, he turns elsewhere, and looks for a solution in Nepal. He finds it, but not the way he wants to. Strange is a man of science, and the solution he seeks is based in the supernatural, which he cannot accept. The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) attempts to convince him of the possibility, and she is able. He becomes a student of the mystic arts.

This opens up new worlds to him, ones that he could never conceive of. He dives in, using his eidetic memory to devour any book he can lay his hands on, and he is a quick study.

Unfortunately, it’s not all fun and games. There are those who stand opposed to The Ancient One’s teachings and beliefs, and they seek to overturn the order which our world is based.

It is a well-told story, and you do not need to have any previous comic-book knowledge to understand and enjoy this film. It is visually stunning, and they are given enough time to properly develop the plot, as far as it can go.

This movie really pushes some perceptions of reality. The trailers made it seem like there’d be sequences much like the world-building scenes in Inception, but Doctor Strange goes far beyond what you saw there. This is one of the rare few times I would recommend you see the film in 3D, because they make strong and purposeful use of it, throughout the movie. It really made several scenes pop, but I don’t want to spoil anything further.

I’m recommending this one, if you hadn’t guessed. There is violence in the film, of the hand-to-hand variety. It’s not overly graphic, but it is there.

There is a mid-credits scene, as well as a post-credits one.

 

The Accountant (2016)

The Accountant is an action film that follows a forensic accountant (go figure), who is really good at his work.

Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is a guy who, as a child, was diagnosed as having High Function Autism. He’s very good at his job, so much so that criminal organizations hire him to find where they’re “losing money”, aka finding who’s channeling funds to themselves. He keeps to himself, but his activities have caught the eye of Ray King (J.K. Simmons), who is a director for the U.S. Treasury Department.  he brings on Marybeth (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to assist him.

Wolff has many identities, and is extremely difficult to track down. He works with an intermediary, who sends him to a tech company that’s discovered a minor financial error. The CEO, Lamar Black (John Lithgow) meets him, and gets the ball rolling.  Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) is the accountant who found the error, and she tries to explain her thinking to Christian. It’s an awkward meeting, and the two of them get along, as well as could be expected.

It’s a story of intrigue, ripped from the pages of Thrilling Accountancy Adventures Monthly. Seriously, though, they made an effort to try to remain respectful of a person with autism, and to give a sense of proper financial management, but not having experienced either, I can’t decide how faithful either effort was. All I can comment on is that it made sense. The movie didn’t sensationalize autism, which I had expected it would.

We get some glimpses into Christian’s childhood, PLUS, a decently written B-story involving the Treasury Department. Given the subject matter, I’m surprised that someone in Hollywood green-lighted this movie.

It was an acceptable movie, and most everything tied together. I can appreciate the effort that went into making it, but that’s about it. I’ll say that it’s worth a watch, when it is available in your favorite Streaming Service, but don’t bother seeing it in the theater. I say that because I had completely forgotten it two days after I’d seen it, and had to think for a moment to describe the movie.

There is some violent content, so the most squeamish amongst you might want to pass.

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a film, based on the 2011 book by Ransom Riggs or the same name. It has been brought to the screen by Tim Burton, and his influences are definitely there in the picture. Riggs collaborated with Burton for the filming.

Jake (Asa Butterfield) is a kid living in Florida in a generally dull life. He has a strong bond with his aging grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp), who tells him stories of the fantastic, all revolving around a school in Wales his parents sent him to, around the time of World War II. Jake’s father Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) never had a strong bond with Abe, and now believes he suffers from dementia, and there’s evidence, as he feels he’s being hunted. After a strange phone call with Abe, Jake goes over, and finds the home ransacked, and his grandfather dead.

Jake has a tough time dealing with the loss, and visits a counselor, played by Allison Janney. She listens while Jake retells the stories he heard from his grandfather, and suggests that perhaps he goes back to the school, perhaps to give him some closure, and to see that the stories were just the vivid imagination of a young boy separated from his family. Jake and Franklin take the trip, and all is not exactly what it seems. The school is long gone.

I went into the theater, expecting the story to evolve like one of the X-Men movies, but instead, it was a bit more unpredictable. Jake gets involved in the story, because they need his help, even though he feels there’s nothing he can do for them.

There is a villain, and it’s a good twist on what has gone on in the past. The story isn’t necessarily linear, and I was surprised more than once. The motivations for some of the characters don’t entirely make sense, until you get the bigger picture. Even then, some questions go unanswered. This could be the start of a franchise of books and movies, and it’s left unclear.

I found this movie entertaining, and original enough to recommend. There are some scary and creepy moments, which might upset some younger kids, but it’s not too graphic. There are definite influences of Tim Burton in the film and its design, but they are nowhere near as strong as they have been in movies past.

 

Stranger Things (Season 1)

“When a young boy vanishes, a small town uncovers a mystery involving secret experiments, terrifying supernatural forces and one strange little girl.” That’s the teaser line for the new Netflix series, Stranger Things. It’s an 8-episode season (less than 60 minutes per episode)  that you can binge-watch on a lazy day, as I just did.  It transpires in the 1980s.

The story focuses on 4 friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will (Noah Schnapp). They play Dungeons and Dragons together, and after one gaming session, Will returns home, but is spooked by something, we don’t know what. He tries to run to safety, but that’s the last we see of him. His mother Joyce (Wynona Ryder) calls the police after she can’t find him, and the police start a search. There is no evidence, and no trail. Joyce and her older son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are distraught, but try to soldier on.

Elsewhere, a little girl (Millie Bobby Brown) gets caught trying to steal food from a diner. The owner feeds her and calls Social Services, but something’s off about her, starting with her shaved head. She says very little, if she’s the victim of abuse and has escaped.

Something is really wrong here, and yes, the government is involved. There are more than a few influences in the story from the 80s. Without even thinking, I can come up with E. T., The Goonies, and The Firestarter, but that doesn’t matter, because those plotlines mesh in different ways, instead of seeming like this show rips them off.

Stranger Things takes place in the 1980s, and borrows from the time. It stirs up strong feelings of nostalgia, especially for those who’ve lived through the decade. The look of the film fits the era, as does the soundtrack. It’s from a time before Cell Phones and the connectivity we all take for granted, now. Many movies of the 80s used soundtracks created by Tangerine Dream, and this music pays homage. Throughout the series, smaller snippets of 80s songs are used, including several from T.D. itself.

If you have a Netflix subscription, you really need to watch this. It does have an element of horror, so be forewarned, it will probably be too scary for younger and more squeamish audiences. I’ve read it has been renewed for a second season, and I suspect it will be as great as this season turned out to be.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

Florence Foster Jenkins is an adaptation of real events that took place in 1944 in New York City.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is a patron and supporter of the arts, and in particular, music. She arranges performances at various social clubs for others. Her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) has acted as emcee to such events, often providing oratory between acts, and she appears in some of the dramatizations, in non-speaking roles. St. Clair is also her manager, who makes things happen

This isn’t enough for her. She decides she wants to return to performing, which she did when she was becoming an adult. She wants to sing, and hires a pianist to practice with her. She hires Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), a mild mannered musician who is grateful for the work. Little does he know how horrible her singing is, and there is no question  about her voice. Her singing coach is evasive about her ability, and she butchers pretty much every song you hear her sing. However she believes differently, so where does she want to do next?

Those of you who know the history already know what happens next, but I won’t say. This film seemed improbable, but it did happen. The writer and director of the film could have approached this in more of a campy manner, portraying her as a bit of a buffoon, but they do a good job of respecting the subject matter.  She was a real person, after all, not some caricature of a high society woman.

Aside from some complaints about the quality of the CGI they used to transform the exterior scenes to a 1940s look, I really didn’t have much to dislike about the film. If a costume drama is the sort of movie you like, you will definitely like this one.

Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide Squad is the movie adaptation of a DC Comic Book of the same name. The basis of the film is similar to the basis of a late-1960s film The Dirty Dozen, but with a comic-book basis.

It is a time after the events of Batman Vs Superman. There is a growing fear that someone as strong as Superman (aka a ‘metahuman’)  could seize control of the United States without anyone to stop them. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) steps up, and recommends to the government that she be allowed to create a special group, called Task Force X, to combat that threat. She suggests that it consist of captured super-villains in federal custody, as they could have plausible deniability if they fail in their efforts.

She starts describing the candidates. They include Deadshot (Will Smith), an uncannily accurate sniper/assassin, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), The Joker’s (Jared Leto’s) girlfriend, and blatant psychopath, and Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), a supernatural spirit who possesses the body of the archaeologist that unearthed her. It’s a way to summarize their backstories without spending too much time on them. Others are discussed, as well.

Of course, there’s a crisis, and the team is compelled to stop it. Things go pear-shaped, and they are still required to continue. Over time, the true nature of the situation emerges, and it’s up to them to prevent it from becoming far worse.

It’s a fairly linear story, if you exclude the flashback introductions. It plays out well, though it can be a bit predictable. However, what makes this movie work is the interactions between the various villains. They all have their motivations, most of which are revealed, and they’re all unique characters. Their dialogue works, mostly becoming a showcase for Harley and just how warped her head is. It’s mostly played for comedic effect, and it’s good for that.

There’s a lot of action in the film, and the amount of violence for a film of this type is pretty typical. Nothing is too graphic. It’s easily followed, and even though it was available in 3D, I did not see it that way. While there were obvious elements created for the 3D world, it’s not necessary.

I did like the movie, and recommend it to people who like Superhero films. It’s better than many similar films of the past year. Early reviews were panning the film, and it’s not as bad as you’d think, given the early negativity. I’ll admit that I haven’t read any (to keep from reading any spoilers),  and also that I am not terribly familiar with most of the villains they used, so I might understand if there were complaints about their behavior. The movie was left it open for a sequel, but unless it comes with a superior story, it’s not necessary.

The first half of the credits probably have a big 3D appearance, but were lost on me. There is a mid-credits sequence that many views did not stay to say, and there is no post-credits scene.

 

Bad Moms (2016)

Bad Moms is a comedy about parenting, and specifically motherhood. While I am neither a parent nor a mother, I feel able to critique this movie.

Amy (Mila Kunis) is the mother of two kids, and she’s trying to do it all. The movie starts off on a really bad day where everything goes wrong, all before she gets to work. As she drops the kids off at school, she’s ordered by the PTA president Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) to attend a ‘mandatory’ meeting that night, to discuss the upcoming bake sale. The day progresses from bad to worse after she brings her dog to the vet, has an encounter with her boss who expects magic from her, argues with her husband, etc, etc, and culminates when she finally says enough.

She storms off to a bar, and runs into two other moms from the school, Karla (Kathryn Hahn), and Kiki (Kristen Bell). Karla is a very outgoing single mom on the prowl, and Kiki is a stay-at-home mom, who’s a bit off. They bond over some similarities, and realize they’re not alone. The will make it through, together.

This is a crass movie, but not too crude. A lot of truths about parenting and motherhood are revealed, in funny ways. The good news is that the trailers you’ve seen don’t cover all the good material, because there is a lot more they couldn’t show. This is a mother-centered film, and there are a handful of men, but the focus is clearly on the moms and the frustrations of motherhood.

There is more than enough humor in the movie for me to recommend it, though I can’t fully relate to much of it. There are a few things I had a slight problem with, and the ending drags a little, but none of those things come close to being showstoppers.

There is a pre-credit sequence that is heartwarming and smirk-worthy, so you should stay through that portion.