Moana (2016)

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It’s the 53rd animated release from those Disney titans and this time we get a great new world and culture, a head-strong non princess type princess and that same old pleasurable House of Mouse fun for all the family.

On the island of Motunui, lives Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) who is the chief’s daughter. She dreams of what lies beyond the reef and wishes to explore the ocean. She finally gets her chance when a blight hits her home and a tale of ancestors and thievery drives her to find Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a demi-god and have him deliver a powerful stone back to its rightful place.

What is most enjoyable about this feature is the dimensions of character and the interesting Polynesian backdrop. The beautiful world we get to inhabit for an hour and 40 minutes is new and feels rich. It certainly helps that the creators make Moana a character with lots to do, say and she isn’t at all two-dimensional. The island villagers and the culture looks impressive and it’s this different setting and tone that gladly takes us away from the usual Disney saccharin vibes.

The music again is stepped up, like the Mickey Mouse maestros know to keep one step ahead when conjuring up the sound of their movies. Here they employ the help of Hamilton acclaimed Lin-Manuel Miranda who writes the songs with Opetaia Foa’i. There’s such a delicious texture to the songs, echoing with a sound that feels perfect for the setting. An Innocent Warrior raises hairs and sounds amazing in the cinema over the scenery. Where You Are is a jovial and tropical start to the introduction of the sunny island. How Far I’ll Go is the clear front-runner for Academy attention and is gorgeous to listen to. The less said about Shiny the better.

Ron Clements and John Musker are together again and this is their first CGI Disney film. They direct a stunning film about myth, mischief and might. They utilise a brilliant team of animators who have created a lush world to truly marvel at, not only is there the 3D styling, we get a fabric felt looking portion of animation during a song and the tattoo 2D moments featured on the torso of Maui.

I only have one big problem with the film and that is the story structure. The opening is exciting and the latter part is engaging, slightly dark and filled with eventual obvious hope and happiness. Annoyingly a large section of the middle is slow and drifts like Moana’s canoe into the land of boredom. As we settle in with Moana and Maui it’s like the plot sags into an attempt at a road-trip discovery without any of the perky coming of age drama. Also the chicken is not only the dumbest character in Disney history but the most pointless, the pig is severely underused and that makes me sad.

Overlooking the typical fairly tedious journey of ‘finding yourself’ that Disney love, this is a refreshing animated turn with a great soundtrack, a confident and interesting female protagonist and some stunning scenes that will delight many of varying ages.

7/10

Allied (2016)

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Robert Zemeckis, Brad Pitt and even Marion Cotillard cannot save this film from falling short of the romantic sweeping wartime drama it aspires to be. There’s good performances and a vague sense of spy-like apprehension but on the whole this feels like a bland affair and you’d wish for more gusto.

After teaming up in Casablanca and working on an assassination, Max (Brad Pitt) and Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) fall for each other and marry in London. It’s only once settling down and keeping out of the war action that Max learns his love may not be who she says she is, throwing him back into action as he tries to find the truth.

Robert Zemeckis is and will always be a director with great films and fun visionary ideas to his name, his collection of movies spanning genres but with his latest outgoings espicially it seems that he’s foregoing interest of story for the shiny spectacle of how it looks. As in ‘The Walk’, any trepidation or unnerving sense of doom was lost because everything felt like a Chaplin adventure with extra sheen. This new release has a similar gloss that even makes the Blitz over London look like a page from a magazine.

It’s this way of heightening the scenery and not the story that lost me and took me right out of what could have been a grittier more engaging wartime drama. It’s like he tried stepping into the Hollywood glitz of ‘Casablanca’ but too hard and therefore it suffers. Steven Knight also comes under my general fire because his writing of the plot is lagging and no true suspense is offered, even some exchanges of dialogue sound forced or dumb earlier on in the film as they chat over tables in French Morocco.

There may be a slightly unexpected end and everything is shot or framed greatly but aside from this, some mildly memorable music and Cotillard trying to sustain the movie, everything begins cracking. Even the so-called hot chemistry between Pitt and Cotillard fizzles without trace, I never felt amazingly connected by their connection. Just in general I didn’t ever become interested or connected to the movie which is a shame considering the story and talent involved.

Everything just felt lacking and leads to a movie that from start to finish is empty of any gripping emotion or dramatic tension and toil. It’s a typical WW2 bait film throwing back to the Hollywoodland heyday that I almost wished I could throwback out of my memory.

5.5/10

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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Cue magical music and the Warner Brothers logo in the clouds and rejoice because we’re back into the wizarding world of Harry Potter. This time we’re across the pond and in the jazzy 20’s as J.K Rowling steps up for her first screenplay and David Yates is back to kick start another series of fantastical fantasies.

Hufflepuff member and Hogwarts alumni Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is in New York with a suitcase filled with interesting and exotic creatures. Unluckily some escape and with the help of non magical aka No-Maj Jacob (Dan Fogler) he tries tracking them down and evading the attention of Graves (Colin Farrell) who is a director for Magical Congress in America. Whilst they find beasts, humans are rising against the fear of witches and one group may harbour something more powerful than they know.

Managing to avoid spoilers myself I will refrain from any hint of ruin for people that may read this and not have yet seen the film. I can 100% say though that the dazzling effects and wide-spread world conjured up by the amazing Rowling is on form. As soon as the movie begins you cannot help but feel that Potter nostalgia wash over but gladly it starts moving away and feels tonally different as we enter the busy streets of the Big Apple.

It’s the mythology and attention to detail that truly sells this film and makes it the enjoyable spectacle it is. The moment we follow Newt stepping into his suitcase is a brilliant sight to behold and a great scene to watch. The landscapes and animals contained in his travelling pack like the TARDIS-esque tents from ‘Goblet of Fire’ are incredible and it’s the earlier fun segment of the movie that is better than the latter portion.

J.K Rowling takes her small Comic Relief funding book and transports it to the big screen with what feels like ease. Newt and his love of beasties is believable and the 1920’s American set era helps lift the story, giving it an intriguing edge. This newness lets us see the expanding world of magic and how our trans-Atlantic cousins deal with wizards amongst the towering scenery.

Another highlight in the film is when we see a speak-easy and I was happy to hear some 20’s inspired music, though that’s all we get. The scene flows nicely and though it’s small it features a new character that screams perfect 20’s NYC. Yates returns as director and though he doesn’t provide anything wholly special or creatively outstanding, he brings the audience back into that comforting mould we like from the previous HP outings.

On the whole I really found myself wrapped up in this film and liking it; I only have three complaints. One was probably down to me because I guessed a twist from literally 2-3 minutes in. Secondly the latter half as mentioned nearly lets down the more adventurous gleeful first half, as we drift into the reveal of a dark force rattling through the city. All this wreckage with swirling smoke and black fire is quite messy and feels like too much, like a stitched on story to compete and fail with the better Newt journals of finding beasts and clearing his name. Thirdly, the end seemed to drag out and for me should have came before the last tiny scene which felt tacky.

I know that looks like a big paragraph but trust me, I enjoyed the move a lot. Positives totally outweigh the negatives and the cash cow is mooing heartily I’m excited for the announced sequels to come. This new look into the wizarding world with a great Redmayne had me mostly under their spell and is very entertaining.

7.5/10

American Pastoral (2016)

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Attempting to show the decline of happiness and that big ol’ American Dream ideal is this so-called crime drama which is dramatic in more than a few places but the crime aspect is sorely missed and overall it feels like a bland film.

Meeting at a reunion, Nathan (David Strathairn) is told about the crumbling life of high school star Swede aka Seymour (Ewan McGregor). Seymour has a beautiful wife in Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) and a daughter who may stutter but has a motivated attitude in life. It’s this that leads Merry (Dakota Fanning) to have possibly set off a bomb and killed someone and all Seymour wants is to know the truth and get his girl back.

It’s a directorial debut for Ewan McGregor and he does at least know how to capture that period style, the slow moving sense of building our view on the family to see the cracks appearing as more prominent and tragic but the entire subject matter of Lyndon B. Johnson era politics, protests and family failure seems to evade his management and he loses a grip on what could have been a more gripping story.

Everything does look right, costuming and locations put us in a believable time and espicially when we see Merry masked up and wandering through dingy homeless filled streets, that’s the nervous unfolding of drama I’d wished to have seen more often. The plot follows Seymour way too often, from glove factory boredom to odd hotel encounters whereas I’d rather witnessed Merry’s journey and what she did, it may have lost the mystery crime aspect but it could have lifted the interest of the picture.

The heartfelt and probable emotional ties I think this movie was going for never connected with me, I looked at my phone time a couple of times thanks to the tedious slow moving pace and I left feeling underwhelmed and unattached. Considering the real power and trauma I imagine America went through post Vietnam and people rising up against the government, I didn’t ever grasp that power in the movie, it felt too sentimental and the silly last scene at a cemetery did little to rid that notion.

McGregor brings a steady stern and a reliable frown as he tries uncovering where Merry is and what his daughter may have actually done but he’s never more than just a journeying father. Connelly seems left behind as she hopes to change herself after Merry leaves. Fanning delivers a convincing stutter but is also left with little to do as her character is left to be found by Seymour.

Nothing about this drama is special or different, like a paint by numbers book that you give up on after 1 page, not even Desplat on music or a trying McGregor can save this stodgy bore.

4/10

Momentum (2015)

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Never really ceasing from fight sequences or other octane fuelled scenarios, this action feature is a fun lark but underneath this there’s nothing special in terms of storytelling to keep the movie from feeling like a Friday night watch with not much else to do…which is exactly when I viewed it.

After a bank heist, Alex (Olga Kurylenko) is made and must keep evading police attention, on top of this she has an important flash drive that a senator (Morgan Freeman) wants back. He sends out a team of specialists to try and kill her and return the item, but Mr. Washington (James Purefoy) is dealing with a skillful tenacious young woman.

This is a directing debut from a man called Stephen Campanelli who seems to know action films but can’t really pump the same degree of fun into his movie. There are some alright scenes and everything is handled as you’d expect but it feels like a straight to DVD kind of thing and even some watchable popcorn filler with punches aplenty or a car chase of carnage can’t lift it to cinematic levels.

To be honest there are a couple of cool touches in the film, for example in the bank heist we see some Daft Punk-esque robbers who may star in a pretty unexciting opening/bank heist but look different and then we get Alex as a character who like a female Jason Bourne goes all out to win the day and yes she may not be special but she’s interesting enough to follow the film with.

It’s just that like the title of the movie, it never stops going…there’s no rest point or clever scenes to slow the pace down. Now that could be a good thing but it’s done in a way that you want it to stop. Not even a ‘Reservoir Dogs’ like torture scene can amp up any tension in the non-action points. It feels like a film churned out with no true thought to stand apart from every other action release and it’s one you probably won’t even have watched.

Kurylenko is the smouldering woman on the run/warpath and convinces as the capable Alex but there’s not too much to her apart from looking good and fighting good. Purefoy does his gentlemanly villain role as I’ve come to grow used to thanks to the ever terrible ‘The Following’ TV show. Morgan Freeman luckily grabs a paycheck for turning up and speaking on the phone in front of the cameras…nice work if you can get it.

It’s not awful but it really really isn’t good either, it’s background noise and that’s about it to tell the truth.

4.5/10

Arrival (2016)

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Gladly, this is not your typical ‘alien invasion’ flick, it’s a much smarter story that totally immerses you into a situation filled with dread yet hope, understanding yet confusion. I came out of the film feeling a little lost but it’s a grower because as you think on it the whole idea becomes more interesting.

As 12 shells arrive on Earth and hover above different locations, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called into help the military. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) hopes that she can understand and translate the aliens’ talking and find out why they’re here. Together with scientist and maths man Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) they start uncovering a complex world-changing language.

Coming from ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Sicario’ director Denis Villeneuve, you can surely expect tension and smart movie story-telling and you’d be right to do so, as this sci-fi release is burning with clever ideas about language, time and humanity’s fight for survival and knowledge. Villeneuve doesn’t go for any last minute twist, he keeps his film going along and through shots or blurred flashbacks we begin building a picture of what’s to come. What he does well is ensure every scene has importance or emotion and gives moments with the aliens a nervous and affecting tone as we try to grip what may happen.

Eric Heisserer gives the story no cliches or over expositional content, aside from one line near the end of the film, everything we hear sounds plausible and brings you into this alien filled drama with ease. The way he adapts the short story and ensures the Heptapods’ speech is intellectual, so much so that it befuddled my mind but not enough to make me disengage from the movie. This language is a huge factor of the script, connecting to Louise and creating a rounded story that gives ‘Arrival’ fantastic depth.

Back to help Villeneuve is composer Johann Johannsson, who has a superb skill in building tension through music. The dread mounts and through deeper reverberations in the score we feel on edge as the characters go to encounter the Heptapods. A brilliant track comes in with some narration and is used again for the credits, it’s haunting and a chorus of voices makes it more impacting.

Amy Adams in her second November outing, is much more interesting to watch in this compared to ‘Nocturnal Animals’, that’s to say she has more to do and her character is excellent. The subtle flickers of tired emotion that fill her thanks to flashes of events or the way she gleefully acts when breaking ground with the aliens communication all make Louise a captivating role. Jeremy Renner is good also, his smart mathematician role bouncing off Louise very well. Whitaker is a great choice as the military superior, his calmness a good thing as he easily could have been the villain straining for violence. Michael Stuhlbarg is a fine actor, always doing good with what he’s given and here he grows as the film progresses.

It may still have me slightly puzzling over the whole grand scope of time but this is a science fiction that dazzles and if you like a movie to make you think then this is the perfect choice. Performances, writing, directing and music create something to blow your mind like not much before.

8/10

 

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

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Batman’s….sorry, Ben Affleck’s directorial debut from nearly 10 years ago now, is a fantastically textured noir mystery. The crime and subsequent drama that follows a media centred case is impressive and raises a big social or perhaps an ethical question.

4 year old Amanda has gone missing and though the Boston police are following leads, the girl’s aunt goes to private investigator Patrick (Casey Affleck) and his work/romantic partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) to help the search. Police captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) ensure the pair are helped/followed by two other detectives from his force as the mystery of Amanda grows more worrying.

Comparisons aren’t always the best or fairest way in reviewing circles but I must say that I found this film much better shot and handled than ‘The Town’. Affleck gives this Boston set drama a great gritty local feel, highlighting the tough working class side of the city. The entire feature is put across in a slow burning way, but not in a yawn inducing manner, it fits the build up of suspicion and what Patrick will do.

Affleck also shares writing duties with Aaron Stockard, together they create a powerful visual to a story by Dennis Lehane. It’s a hard watch at times, never rough or unflinching, just a film that doesn’t shy away from the immoralities of people and what we do in the name of right and wrong. The final dilemma is scripted so well that you do internally debate what choice you might make, I’d say that Patrick does make the right one though.

Casey Affleck must thank his big brother because his role is interesting and gives the fantastic actor plenty to do as he tries reaching the end goal of promising Amanda’s mother the safe return of her daughter. Morgan Freeman as the captain is a good choice, his voice giving authority to the figurehead and gladly he comes back for one crucial scene that works very well. Monaghan isn’t just in the background, she’s bold and knows what should be done, the working relationship between her character and Affleck’s is a trapping one and feels believable. Ed Harris is loud, tenacious and convincing as Remy, an elder cop who has a big hand in this case. Amy Ryan is a standout, her turn as Helene, the drug abusing, unknowing and possibly uncaring mother is engrossing and disgusting. It’s a perfect two sided coin as we see her messy world but realise she has the parental right for Amanda.

There’s no massive crime in this crime drama, it’s executed fantastically with Casey Affleck and Amy Ryan providing excellent performances. Aside from a minor niggle here or there this is a film that looks and sounds on the money.

7.5/10