Moana (2016): The Ocean is Calling

Posted: November 28, 2016 in Adventure, Animated, Comedy

Te Fiti, the island goddess, has long been missing. After having her heart stone stolen by the demigod Maui, a darkness spread over the ocean and began to engulf island after island. On a distant island many years later, Moana and her people live a secluded and safe life living off of the land and the surrounding seas. While she is destined to become the chief after her father retires, she feels a calling coming from the ocean. Even when she is about to accept her role on the island, Gramma Tala refuses to let her forget about her dreams. As the darkness creeps onto the island, she sees no other way save her people other than venturing out to find Maui and restore the heart stone to its rightful place.

Disney Scores with Song: If there is something that Disney continues to do extremely well, it is putting together an amazing and emotional score. They were certainly helped by the presence of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Among the best of the songs is How Far I’ll Go. The movie version is actually better than the Alessia Cara’s version, as Auli’i Cravalho performs the song beautifully. The Hawaiian themes are strong and provide a beat that you want to get up and dance to (or at least bob your head). Even Dwayne Johnson’s You’re Welcome combines humor and a solid beat that truly highlights his personality.

Having Fun with Itself: Disney films are certainly known themes and stereotypes in the development of their stories, but they also know how to throw easter eggs and levity to their films. One great example was the Kakamora whose faceprint was in the design of Baymax or how the entire sequence represented the villains in Mad Max. Maui has a line where he pokes at Moana for being a princess, as she wears a “dress” and is the chief’s daughter. Even as the hero, Moana has an animal sidekick and requires a male hero to assist her in staving off the darkness. The easter egg at the end with Tamatoa was a nice kick as well.

Reversing the Story of the Little Mermaid: Interestingly enough, there is a fun reversal in how this movie is both similar to and the opposite of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. While Ariel was a mermaid trying to find her way onto dry land, Moana wanted to escape the island to get out onto the open sea. Both fathers between the two films struggled with letting their daughters out of their homes, but one story was about searching for love while the other was about searching for life.

Final Verdict: While I spoke very little about the actual details of the film above, I want to say that it was one of the best animated features of the past few years. It has heart and positive themes for viewers to take away from the experience. If you are not singing one of the songs when you walk out of the theater, I would be surprised.

Dan’s Rating: 4.5/5

As a young boy, Eddie dreamed of being an Olympic athlete. He had been cursed with a weak knee but eventually was able to get strong enough to ditch his brace. He tried every summer sport he could attempt to no avail. After a moment of inspiration from his father, he decides to shoot for the winter games, specifically skiing. Though he initially makes the team, the committee chooses to let him go. Determined to find his way into the Olympics, he discovers that Britain has not had a ski jumper in decades. He travels to Germany to a famed practice facility and encounters a tough start to his training. Discovering that the groundskeeper is actually a former jumper, Eddie believes that he has found the inspiration to achieve his dream.

The Optimist Versus the Ego: Eddie and his coach, Bronson, were almost polar opposites when it came to their approach to the sport. With his never-give-up spirit, Eddie represented the true Olympic motto: the most important thing is not the victory but the struggle. He experienced more failure on his path to Calgary than success, but it never truly stopped him in his quest. For Bronson, his Olympic failure was one where he put himself above the sport. He was a natural talent but failed to allow himself to succeed until he met Eddie. It was optimism versus pessimism, but eventually, Eddie’s determination rubbed off on Bronson as a coach and led him to trying to turn his life around.

Triumph Over Resistance: While Eddie had the type of personality to never give up, there were plenty of people telling him to quit. Besides Bronson resisting Eddie’s charm, the most significant naysayer was Eddie’s father. Not wanting to waste time or money on what seemed to be hopeless dreams, his father consistently pushed Eddie to put an end to it and start working for him. Besides the negativity from home, Eddie also encountered the British Olympic committee’s strong resistance. While he qualified with his first 70-meter jump, the committee wanted to avoid people seeing him as a sideshow and raised the required distance. Even at the Olympics, the committee tried to keep him hidden even as the press and fans were attracted to his story.

Historic Achievements: Eddie may not have broken an Olympic record or even won a medal, but his achievements were still significantly memorable. Since the previous competitor participated in 1929, Britain had gone through a drought in the sports for almost 60 years. Eddie’s jump of 73.5 meters became the new British record for ski jumping. It did not matter that he scored last place for both the 70 meter and 90 meter jumps. It did not matter that the British committee was against him and many of the spectators and commentators thought he was a joke. The reality was that he achieved his dream of competing at an Olympic level.

Final Verdict: It would be easy to write this film off as a story of sports cliches and predictable outcomes (obviously as it is based on a true story), but Taron Egerton was so likable as the never-say-quit Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards. Hugh Jackman had a few moments of his own, but his struggle definitely took a backseat to Egerton’s performance.

Dan’s Rating: 3.0/5

Life for the Cash family is a little unlike most of the world around them. Ben and Leslie made a choice to take their children into the wilderness and live off of the grid. When Leslie becomes sick and requires greater medical attention, she returns home to her parents. Word eventually makes it back to Ben and the children that she has passed. Ben receives specific instructions from Leslie’s father not to attend the funeral, but he struggles with not being able to give a proper goodbye to his love. With the help and motivation from his children, they set out on a journey to crash the funeral and ensure to fulfill Leslie’s final wishes.

Off the Grid, Not Uncivilized: While the Cash family chose to live outside of conventional conditions, their family certainly had some examples to help any other family struggling to succeed. While Ben’s children followed his instructions and challenging physical and mental regime, he also encouraged their ability to think more critically and challenge his perspective if they had the words to do so. Both parents encouraged their children to be highly intellectual, honest, and critically-minded from a young age. This was best exemplified when staying with family on the way to the funeral, when Ben proved that his children were more knowledgeable about US politics than other children even several years older than his.

Clash of Families: The eccentric nature of the Cash family was not lost on his wife’s family. His father-in-law wanted nothing to do with him and even conspired to take the kids away, citing it was in their best interest to return to a more “normal” lifestyle. When they stayed with their extended family, the dinner conversation became a true battle, as Ben sugar-coated none of the details about his wife’s death or made any apologies for the knowledge and behavior of his children while Dave and Harper clearly tried to shelter their kids from the emotional challenges of the real world. Even within the Cash family, Rellian struggled to understand why the family had to behave so strangely compared to the rest of the world around them.

Heartfelt Roller Coaster: While it initially appeared that Ben was a relatively emotionless leader of his family with a greater focus on physical and mental growth than emotional intelligence, the level to which he cared for his family was always clear. Watching the children deal with the death of their mother to suicide was heartbreaking, with some experiencing strong sadness and Rellian experiencing strong blaming and anger. When confronted with a battle to keep his kids, Ben love for his children became even more clear. The filmmakers made the right choice picking a nontraditional song to turn into a life celebration ballad sung in a folksy way.

Final Verdict: Truly one of the best films of the year so far, Captain Fantastic included some of the best acting from child actors, a strong performance from Viggo Mortensen, and a deeply touching storyline that easily pulled at the heart strings. The children are endearing and the conflict between Ben and his extended family was intense. This is a must-see.

Dan’s Rating: 4.5/5

In the wake of the death of Superman, fear of a future metahuman attack is rising. Amanda Waller, a secret government official, has devised a plan to pull together some of the worst villains to serve under her control as a safety measure against a potential future metahuman attack. At the head of the team are Harley Quinn and Deadshot, with Captain Boomerang, El Diablo, Killer Croc, Katana, and Slipknot in tow. Rick Flag, serving as the team leader, takes the squad into Midway, which has been overrun by a strange mutant presence at the control of the Enchantress and her brother Incubus. With the world ready to fall under the magical grip of the ancient old evil spirit, the squad is thrown into the fray with only their lives as motivation to follow out Waller directive.

Introductions Incomplete: This film felt like the plot was an afterthought in an attempt to get this band of villains on-screen together. The only three characters to have a real story told about them were Harley Quinn, Deadshot, and the combination of Flag and Enchantress. With Harley, the Joker was an important piece, but her devotion to him and her insanity stole the show from the entire rest of the cast (partially because Margot Robbie actually is a talented actress). For Deadshot, the motivation was very clear for his continued engagement in the fight, but it took away from the true essence of the squad with the multiple cutaways to his backstory and inner struggle. Flag and Enchantress were set up as a requirement for piecing together a rather weak story, but the rush of their storytelling pales in comparison to the rest of the team and DC’s continued attempt to do too much.

Bad Does Not Have to Equal Bad: It is less common for films to focus on the villains as the protagonists (somewhat an oxymoron) but this film had real promise. The idea of forcing villains to do good presented a story where morality, redemption, and the strength of evil could all play with one another. Instead, DC churned out another haphazard combination of scenes meant to wow the viewer with special effects while minimizing the attention to the depth of the character development or foundation for an epic set of stories. Independence Day was another “good” example of this, as they focused on nostalgia to sell tickets and confuse their viewers with awkward, frantic fight scenes. What was the squad even fighting in this film? What was the Enchantress turning people into? Why was the Joker even part of this film?

What is the Deal with the Joker: With all of the hype of this film, some of the biggest questions were why the Joker was even part of the story and why they hyped him up in the first place. Unfortunately, Jared Leto’s version of the joker paled in comparison even to the awkward Joker-like performance of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luther in Batman v. Superman. Were they trying to make him a more mature version of the 90s cartoon version of the Joker? If so, they completely missed the mark. His scenes added little development to an already weak story, and his only real significant moment was his attempted rescue of Harley. At least his presence got Harley to say “puddin'” multiple times?

Final Verdict: DC Comics still has a long way to go to figure out how to develop a thoughtful, organized, tasteful, and balanced film. Their superheroes have so much potential, but only the original Superman series and the Dark Knight trilogy have provided promise for bringing the Justice League into existence. In the meantime, people will flock to these films (like me) to see the attempted imagining of these characters and stories hitting the big screen, but I am not holding my breath for them to figure it out anytime soon.

Dan’s Rating: 2.0/5

At a young age, Owen seemed like a healthy, growing boy. Suddenly, at the age of 3, something dramatic changed. Owen became listless and seemed to lose his ability to speak. After getting tested, it was discovered that he had autism. While the doctors believed there was a chance his vocal abilities would never develop, his parents maintained hope. While watching The Little Mermaid, he spoke something that could have been gibberish but could have been an attempt to speak up. While it produced another spark of hope, it was not until his brother’s 9th birthday that Owen finally spoke up. The journey ahead was not going to be easy, but Owen’s family believed they could give him the great life he deserved.

The Power of Disney: While there were many factors that led to his growth and ability to overcome his disability, the animated films of Disney provided a context to connect with the world around him. Starting with the recitation of dialogue from the films, Owen used the themes and lessons from the films to express his feelings and communicate with his family. When he felt sad, Bambi’s mother or Mufasa and the canyon let him express his sadness to his parents. Iago was the sidekick he needed when he felt alone and bullied at school. Disney continues to be a bridge he uses to survive and find his happiness.

Affluence & Managing the Challenge: One of the criticisms that could be brought up about this story was the fact that the Suskinds had the means to be able to provide support for Owen’s therapy and schooling. He was even able to get an assisted-living apartment without a full-time job. The reality is that autism is a challenge for any family regardless of their means. They did not have control over the bullying at school or his heart being broken by his girlfriend. Unable to fully comprehend these challenges, it was still a major struggle to overcome those obstacles.

Life Through Storytelling: While the film’s title makes mention of the animated elements of the story, the actual story itself was crafted from Owen’s writing. For him, the sidekicks of Disney films provided motivation to show bravery, care, and compassion. His story focused on a young boy being chased by doubt and disconnect. The filmmakers took his story and animated his thoughts. Just like the greater film, it helped to exemplify the struggles of feeling lost and out of place, but it also promoted inner strength to fight for a connection to everything he cared about.

Final Thoughts: I truly loved this film. It was emotionally strong and promoted an image of autism many have never experienced. The strength of the family and of Owen individually was truly a sight to see. Watching him give the speech at the conference and experience love, loss, and recovery was truly inspiring. I believe this is a must-see film.

Dan’s Rating: 5.0/5

Max and his owner have the best relationship. She fell in love with him from the moment she found him on the street. When she leaves the apartment, he waits all day for her to return. While they seem to be the perfect pair, she chooses one day to bring home another dog from the pound. Max and Duke have quite the rough start, as they both try to assert their dominance and fight for their master’s attention and love. While at the park, Duke sees a perfect opportunity to take out the competition, but his efforts leave them both lost in the big city and at the mercy of a gang go strays. Only Gidget and Max’s other friends can come to his rescue and return him home.

What Our Pets Really Do: The start of the film was more about the life of a pet when their owner is away. While Max was focused on his owner’s return, many of the pets indulged in human activities. Chloe preferred to skip her cat food for whatever she could find in the fridge. Leonard would immediately switch his classical music to heavy metal. Gidget remained focused on her unrequited love and would watch soap operas to feed her romantic nature. Buddy would give himself a massage using the mixer in the kitchen. All of these activities would go unnoticed by their owners, including the large gatherings in Leonard’s apartment.

The Underbelly and the Strays: Two significant groups of strays were highlighted in this film. The first were the alley cats living off of the scraps and trash of the humans. They lived above the surface, unlike their counterparts, but remained feral and hostile toward domestics. The strays of the sewers were a hodgepodge group of animals neglected by owners or saved from captivity. They had a grudge against the humans and were plotting to enact their revenge through the leadership of deranged bunny named Snowball.

Appreciation: One of the most significant themes of the story was the sense of appreciation. Max loved his relationship with Katie, but he never knew how good he had it until he met Duke. While the two continued to argue throughout much of the film, their conflict allowed Max to recognize that there was a greater world out there and other animals that deserved attention. Gidget was ready to give everything she had for Max, but he hardly ever even noticed her. As max goes on his adventure, he began to realize that there was much to appreciate about his life and the opportunity to share that happiness with others.

Final Verdict: This was one of Dreamwork’s better films. The pacing was a little off at times and much of the bookends of the movie were used as promotion material in the previews, but the comedy was definitely there and the characters were quite memorable. This was a great film and would be appropriate for kids of all ages.

Dan’s Rating: 3.5/5

The Purge (2016): Election Year

Posted: July 9, 2016 in Action, Horror, Sci-Fi

After years of accepting the Purge as a necessary evil, Senator Charlie Roan finally has enough momentum to strike a blow against the New Founding Fathers of America. Fearing the potential loss against the upstart politician, NFFA changes the game and eliminates the immunity previously provided to politicians on Purge night. Leo Barnes accepts a job on Roan’s security detail and works to ensure that her home is safe. When the security fails and the home is infiltrated, Leo rushes out of the house with the senator and takes off to find new refuge. Safety may be short-lived, but the pair find another group of survivors trying to outlast the night.

Election Year Themes: While the story focused on the election going on in the fictional US, there were a number of themes directly connected to the real election of 2016. One of the most prominent elements was the slogan, “Keep America Great.” There are also a number of religious-political associations with Christianity being used as a distorted weapon of cleansing through sacrifice and atonement. The Purge supporters used the night as a way to get their bloodlust out of their system, eliminate their enemies, and move on with life as usual the following day.

The Worst of Humanity: Tied to many of the real-world themes we see in social politics and the political world was this intense desire to lash out against ideologies and individuals who are different from you. Whether the snobby girl stealing from the convenience store or the civil rights leader looking to eliminate a threat, violence seemed to be the only expression these people could find to manage their dissonance. The Purge was a scapegoat for allowing people to subvert to their baser instincts and destroy that which they disagree or detest.

Graphic Detail but Lack of Depth: While there were some intelligent connections made to current issues, the film was not much more than an excuse to exhibit craziness, violence, and unusual ways to harm others. One of the quick flashes included an alleyway with a guillotine, but more significant was the moment where the Purge supporters purged their sins through the sacrificing of one they deemed unworthy of life. While some of the violence was not much more graphic than the bulk of similar films out there, the overall theme made some of the events feel a bit more intense.

Final Verdict: This is not a very quality film and misses an opportunity to dive deeper into its themes. Violence was obviously the most significant element of the film, but political tensions, honesty, and humanity’s struggle between base survival and higher living were only surface level inclusions.

Dan’s Rating: 2.0/5