27 11 2016

My first film in theaters, officially, was Disney’s “Pocahontas” as an impressionable young 3-year-old. But the first movie I really remember seeing was another animated gem from the Mouse House – “Hercules.” I distinctly remember the energy of the sneak preview crowd, the toe-tapping jams and the inspirational journey of a hero finding his place in a cosmic plan.

Nearly 20 years later, I found much of those same elements at work in the latest Disney animated feature, “Moana.” (It’s probably no coincidence that the two films share the same directing pair, Ron Clements and John Musker.) Both films thrive on theatricality, creativity and sincerity. Their stakes might tip towards the fate of entire civilizations, yet they never lose track of their human factor: a longing for self-actualization that unites us all.

This story of a young Hawaiian chieftess, Auli’i Cravalho’s titular character, seeking both her higher calling and salvation for the villagers that count on her shares a similar mythic dimension as “Hercules.” In a sign of evolution for the studio, though, they take the time to learn and care about the culture in which they place their narrative. From tattoos to topography and language to lore, Disney portrays Hawaii’s traditions respectfully and without exoticizing. There’s more to this Hawaii than one might gather from dinner theater at a resort, in other words.

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28 06 2016

The BFG PosterThink back to your favorite Spielberg movie. How did it open?

Jaws” began with the shark taking its first victim. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” had our hero creeping through the forest towards an unknown bounty. “E.T” started with the titular creature evading the authorities for the first time. “Saving Private Ryan” plunges us into war with the immersive, innovative D-Day sequence. Many chide the director for choosing stories that wrap up neatly and morally, but he certainly knows how to kick things off with a bang.

So given this penchant for great beginnings, it feels more than a little disorienting when Spielberg’s latest directorial outing, “The BFG,” opens on a relative whimper. The first fifteen minutes operate as an introduction to our two main characters, young London orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the towering “Big Friendly Giant” colloquially known as the BFG (the personage of Mark Rylance). Yet in that period, scarcely nothing comes to light about them.

We see that Sophie lurks around her orphanage unhappily in the wee hours of the morning. We can discern that the BFG quietly lurks around the streets of London, performing some unspecified action. It’s likely Sophie has sensed his presence before, and “The BFG” merely begins on the night in which they first make contact. But in order to sell her wonder and fear – or his menace – something else is needed. The first 10 pages of Melissa Matheson’s script might well have slipped out upon delivery to Spielberg. It just does not feel complete.

Without this base-level emotional entry point, “The BFG” must be experienced through the events rather than the characters. In this case, that might not be such a good thing. The film is probably Spielberg’s most sparsely plotted work since his first feature gig, 1971’s “Duel” (or, if you really want to dig deep in his archives, the most thinly plotted since the short film that provided the name for his production company, “Amblin'”). Most, if not all, of his movies thrive on a constant forward momentum that propels characters through physical, emotional and supernatural perils. “The BFG” mostly boils down to a spunky young girl exploring a new world with a timid, lovable giant who speaks as if his lines were spat out like a bad Google Translate result.

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REVIEW: People Places Things

24 04 2015

People Places ThingsRiverRun International Film Festival

To the surprise of everyone who goes to the movies today, Woody Allen tends to think he is not a very influential filmmaker.  In just the past year, however, I cited “Obvious Child,” “Begin Again,” “Wish I Was Here,” and “Listen Up Phillip” as bearing the stamp of his stylistic inspiration.  Yet none of those come close to how Jim Strouse’s “People Places Things” approximates Allen’s work.

Were it not for the cutesy classroom instruments score, I might honestly have thought Allen directed the film himself had there been no name listed in the credits.  I need to check and see if the repeated mantra, “Happiness is not a sustainable lifestyle,” is ever uttered by one of Allen’s curmudgeonly characters or surrogates.

“People Places Things” provides a deserved moment in the spotlight to Jemaine Clement, the Kiwi comedian, after thankless supporting roles in big-budget mediocrities like “Dinner for Schmucks” and “Men in Black III.”  In his character Will’s own words, he’s just having a bad life.  He catches his life partner cheating on him at their twin girls’ birthday party, feels professionally frustrated in his work as animator and professor, and still lives in Astoria.  There are only so many traumas a person can withstand before they take to the streets and start screaming!

Throughout the film, he tries first and foremost to succeed in his roles as father and teacher.  But romantic feelings for his ex as well as his student’s mother (Regina Hall) sprout up, usually leaving Will reeling.  In the mere 85 minutes of “People Places Things,” the character undergoes a full journey of juggling his many roles and figuring out what really matters.  Credit Strouse for keeping the film on thoughtful, measured footing.  It would have been all too easy for the whole enterprise to become as frenetic as its neurotic protagonist.  B+3stars

REVIEW: What We Do in the Shadows

16 03 2015

what_we_do_in_the_shadowsAfter the vampire boom of the late 2000s (all thanks to the “Twilight” saga), it makes sense that we now get a reactionary boom of revisionist bloodsuckers.  From action flick “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” to hipster indies like “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” it feels like culture has begun to reclaim the terrifying creature from the Cullens.

Now, add Kiwi mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” to the pile. The film comes from the team behind cult hit TV series “Flight of the Concords,” Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, and their latest effort seems destined to dwell in a similar realm of fandom.  The movie is undeniably clever and funny on a number of occasions, yet those moments come inconsistently (and a little too infrequently).

When Clement and Waititi realize their vision for three centuries-old vampires who are hopelessly out of place courting fresh blood in the modern world, “What We Do in the Shadows” recalls “This is Spinal Tap” in the hilarity of its pathetic mundanity.  But when they miss, the film feels like an improv sketch that cannot achieve liftoff from the very beginning and then crawls its way towards a far-off conclusion.  Even at under an hour and a half, the uneven mix of these two extremes makes the whole thing drag.  B2halfstars