Category Archives: ★★★

Moana (2016, Don Hall, Chris Williams, Ron Clements, and John Musker)

Moana takes a while to find its stride. Directors Clements and Musker and Hall and Williams aren’t at ease until the movie’s on the water. The film starts on a Polynesian island, with a young chief-in-training (Auli’i Cravalho) secretly longing not to be stuck on the island paradise, but out exploring the ocean. Grandmother Rachel House encourages her, dad Temuera Morrison does not, she’s got an adorable pet pig and dimwit chicken as sidekicks… it’s cute, but it’s pretty shallow.

Once the movie gets out to water, however, everything changes. Cravalho isn’t reacting to House or Morrison, the performance all of a sudden has energy and personality. Until that point, it’s been entirely unclear how the story is going to work. Every time it seems like it’s going to be a quest story, Morrison steps in and shuts it down for a few more minutes. The first act of Moana is overlong.

Back to the water. The computer generation animation in Moana has these distinct thick edges for the characters. Again, cute enough, brings in some extra personality, whatever. No, not whatever, because once the characters are on the water, it’s all about how the CG light hits their CG angles to make CG shadows. Moana is shockingly beautiful. And the directors know it. They compose for it. The film gets away with a lot because of that lightning and the composition.

But it’s strongest assets are leads Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson. Johnson’s really, really good, giving a personable, but measured performance. His character–a selfish, disgraced demigod who Cravalho offers a chance at redemption–has a fairly predictable arc so there shouldn’t surprises and there aren’t in the narrative sense, just in how Johnson and Cravalho interact. Johnson’s got an askew distance in his performance, fully supporting Cravalho while still doing rote predicable incorrigible sidekick. It’s a surprisingly good performance, especially since it starts before the directors have shown they can excel at anything. They haven’t proven themselves at sea yet.

Jared Bush’s script is mediocre but fine for the first act. Too long, like I said before… way too long. Then there’s action and conflict and character development and excitement. There’s action, conflict, and character development in the first act, there’s just no excitement.

Land has lectures, ground situation, ground situation songs, and sadness. Ocean has excitement and exciting action. No more lectures, just funny and sometimes touching arguments. Good slapstick. Giant crabs doing Bowie impressions (Jemaine Clement is awesome). Sentient–and evil–coconuts roaming the high seas under the pirate flag. A lava beast. Oh, and a ghost. That’s a particularly gorgeous night sequence, because the light from the ghost–it’s a good ghost–provides the lightning for the figures’ angles.

Moana’s a thoughtful, gorgeous, amiably complex picture. The directors do well, the script does well, the computer animation’s breathtaking. Cravalho, Johnson, and House are all wonderful. It’s a lovely film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Hall, Chris Williams, Ron Clements, and John Musker; screenplay by Jared Bush, based on a story by Clements, Musker, Williams, Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell, and Jordan Kandell; edited by Jeff Draheim; music by Mark Mancina; production designer, Ian Gooding; produced by Osnat Shurer; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Auli’i Cravalho (Moana), Dwayne Johnson (Maui), Rachel House (Gramma Tala), Temuera Morrison (Chief Tui), Nicole Scherzinger (Sina), and Jemaine Clement (Tamatoa).


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The Untouchables (1987, Brian De Palma)

There are few constants in The Untouchables. Leading man Kevin Costner comes in after nemesis Robert De Niro (as Al Capone) opens the movie; only the Chicago setting and Ennio Morricone’s grandiose, bombastic, omnipresent score are unabated. Director De Palma embraces the film’s various phases, sometimes through Stephen H. Burum’s photography, sometimes just through how much he lets the actors chew at the scenery. In his deftest move (with the actors, anyway), the only ones De Palma never lets get chewy are Costner and Sean Connery. With Connery, it’s a wonderful disconnect from what could be a very showy, chewy role. With Costner, it’s more because David Mamet’s screenplay has him so absurdly earnest, the part doesn’t have the teeth for it.

Costner’s the protagonist–and when Untouchables fully embraces itself as an action picture in the last third, it’s Costner leading the charge–but Connery and De Niro get the best parts. Connery’s an aged, failed, albeit mostly honest, beat cop who can’t help but bond with earnest treasury agent Eliot Ness (Costner). Even when De Palma, Burum, and Morricone turn up the melodrama on Connery, he stays reserved. His is the most honest part in Mamet’s script, whether in his counseling of Costner and the rest of the team (Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia) or butting heads with cop pal Richard Bradford. De Niro, on the other hand, plays Capone like Robert De Niro playing Al Capone. It’s an exaggerated performance in an exaggerated film, only De Palma doesn’t direct the scenes for De Niro’s performance so much as around it.

The Untouchables is weird that way. It all comes together, but isn’t fluid outside that Morricone score. And Chicago, of course. It makes wonderful use of its locations. The score and setting glue the consecutive pieces of the film together, which is particularly helpful since Mamet repeats himself over and over when it comes to exposition. Most of Smith’s part–outside his introduction, action sequences, and occasional cute moments–is saying the same things, over and over, about getting Capone on his taxes. And he talks about it in his first scene.

Mamet and De Palma are also real bad about Costner’s family life; after introducing Patricia Clarkson and doing a little establishing, she’s pretty much offscreen to the point it’s not even clear she’s pregnant. The pregnancy only becomes a plot detail after she gives. While she’s in the movie throughout–she’s how Mamet and De Palma introduce Costner in fact–she doesn’t have any lines.

Actually, besides Clarkson, there might only be three other speaking roles for female actors. And each of them only get one scene. Untouchables is all about the boys. They all talk about how nice it is to be married. It’s one of Mamet’s main recurring dialogue motifs; De Palma doesn’t seem to put much stock in it though. Costner and company, in their battle for good against De Niro and his goons, are separate from the goings-on of the regular world.

All of the acting is fine, some of it is better. De Palma seems to know he can get away with exaggerated performances because nothing’s going to be louder than that Morricone music. Or main goon Billy Drago’s white suit.

Now, while Morricone’s score is grandiose and melodramatic, it’s still got a lot of nuance and sincere emotional impact. Costner, Connery, Garcia, and Smith immediately establish themselves as a team. De Palma doesn’t spend a lot of time just relaxing with the characters, but there’s some of it and a sense of camaraderie permeates. It’s in stark contrast to De Niro, who exists to terrorize, whether it be regular people or his own flunkies.

In the first two thirds of the picture, De Palma’s more concerned with the drama. There’s some action, but he’s not focusing on it as much as where it occurs or how it perturbs the plot. In the last third, however, De Palma’s all about the action. Yes, how its affecting Costner–and Costner’s character development–is a thing, but character is secondary to style. And it’s some masterful style. The Untouchables is solid until it all of a sudden becomes exceptional for a while. De Palma, Burum, Morricone, and editors Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow do some fantastic work finishing up the film.

It’s a fine film, succeeding when it almost shouldn’t–Costner’s earnestness ought to be too much, it’s not; De Niro’s excess ought to be too much, it’s not. Morricone’s score ought to be too much. It’s not. Instead, it’s essential in making The Untouchables work.

It and that Chicago location shooting, of course.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Brian De Palma; screenplay by David Mamet, suggested by the book by Oscar Fraley and Eliot Ness; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Art Linson; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kevin Costner (Ness), Sean Connery (Malone), Charles Martin Smith (Wallace), Andy Garcia (Stone), Robert De Niro (Capone), Richard Bradford (Dorsett), Patricia Clarkson (Catherine), and Billy Drago (Nitti).


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Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)

Duck Soup is madness. It’s not divine madness or sublime madness. It’s comedic madness, which is fine, but it’s a tad frantic and a tad distracted. The film opens with Margaret Dumont’s wealthy widow getting Groucho Marx installed as a head of state. Turns out evil Louis Calhern–a neighboring country’s ambassador–wants to create unrest and he’s setting vixen Raquel Torres on Groucho to get it done.

Only Groucho isn’t interested and he never really gets interested. Oh, Zeppo’s his assistant. Zeppo has nothing to do in Duck Soup.

Groucho as President is funnier in concept than execution–director McCarey seems disinterested in Groucho’s storyline, instead focusing on Chico and Harpo’s battles with a lemonade stand owner, played by Edgar Kennedy. There are some musical numbers, which get a smile and are well-produced, but they’re filler. Duck Soup runs under seventy minutes. There shouldn’t be a lot of filler and there’s a whole bunch of it.

Chico and Harpo are spies for Calhern, but Chico also works for Groucho. It’s madness, after all, a series of non sequiturs run together, with the audience left out of most of the jokes. The finale has all four Marx Brothers in a variety of soldier outfits. It’s cute and not a bad setup, only the jokes never arrive. McCarey’s rushing to get the thing finished.

There are some great Harpo moments and a fantastic Harpo and Chico dress as Groucho sequence. Those moments simply don’t add up or make enough of a difference. Duck Soup doesn’t have much narrative logic–something McCarey could embrace and amp up the lunacy; he doesn’t. By the end of the second act musical number, everyone looks exhausted. The whole picture has become a metaphor for McCarey’s universal disinterest and Zeppo’s growing on.

Then comes the third act, which has the two countries at war. It’s mostly poorly cut sight gags–uncredited editor LeRoy Stone never does a great job, but in the third act, he completely gives up. Duck Soup is a surrender (no spoilers). The film doesn’t even come up with a good comeuppance for Calhern, who really, really, really deserves one.

The script–from Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby–and then also Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin contributing additional dialogue (perhaps the funnier stuff for Chico and Harpo)–is always problematic. McCarey’s direction is always problematic. The actors get away mostly unscathed, however. Even if Dumont gets almost nothing to do. She’s in the picture a lot–Zeppo’s got nothing to do, but he’s barely in Duck Soup; but the film breaks the cardinal rule–it’s a Marx Brothers movie and it wastes Margaret Dumont.

It’s a shame too, as the film’s probably only a rewrite or two away from greatness.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Leo McCarey; screenplay by Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby; director of photography, Henry Sharp; edited by LeRoy Stone; produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Rufus T. Firefly), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Chico Marx (Chicolini), Zeppo Marx (Bob Roland), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Gloria Teasdale), Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal), Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino), and Edgar Kennedy (Lemonade Vendor).


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T2 Trainspotting (2017, Danny Boyle)

T2 Trainspotting is a victory lap. John Hodge’s screenplay is thorough, thoughtful, cheap, and effective. It goes so far as to integrate unused portions of the original Trainspotting novel to try to get build up some character relationships. Because T2 is an expansive sequel. It’s got a contrived inciting action, which Hodge and director Boyle don’t even try to cover. The contrived nature of it is charming, after all. A slightly twisted kind of charming, but still charming.

Boyle’s a little too comfortable and a little too mature of a director to try much with the film’s visual aesthetic. There’s newly created Super 8 flashback footage–revealing the gang’s childhood friendships–and there’s even cleaned up footage from the original film. Only all the actors are creating new characters and have little connection to either set of flashbacks. Hodge and Boyle try to cover the inconsistency with the charming.

The film starts with Ewan McGregor returning to Edinburgh after twenty years in exile. He used to be a junkie and awesome narrator, now he’s got the Dutch equivalent of associate’s degree in accounting, he loves to jog, and he’s dissatisfied. Ewen Bremner is still a junkie. He’s trying to improve because he really loves his girlfriend and kid, even though they’ve written him off. Jonny Lee Miller is a failing bar-owner and an aspiring blackmailer who’s crushing hard on his sex worker partner (Anjela Nedyalkova). Robert Carlyle is an escaped convict and his son doesn’t want to go into the home invasion trade with him. Son wants to go to college for hotel management.

There are jokes about iPhones, gentrification, modern music, lots more. They’re solid enough jokes, but it’s a Trainspotting cast reuniting the original cast, original director, original screenwriter, original producer and there are no James Bond jokes. It’s like Hodge and Boyle forgot what people enjoyed about the first film’s energy. It’s not an apology, but it’s indifferent. McGregor has one good rant and it could change the movie and it doesn’t. Because McGregor’s not narrating. Because T2 meanders too much for a narrator.

Everyone–except poor Miller–is a protagonist. It starts with McGregor, but then transfers to Bremner through Nedyalkova. Nedyalkova is T2’s secret weapon, even though the film does absolutely nothing for her. She holds the second act together because Hodge and Boyle never figure out the right balance for McGregor, Miller, and Bremner. Carlyle’s on his own for most of the picture, in this dark, dangerous family drama. Carlyle’s story might be where Boyle shows the most interest, actually.

Except he seems to acknowledge Bremner’s giving the film’s far and away best performance, even when he’s actively ditching Bremner for McGregor and Miller’s silly bromance. Hodge’s script is all about personal growth, only he’s also got these goony character twists.

While Bremner and Carlyle have strong characterizations, Miller and McGregor don’t. Miller gets to be black comedy comic relief and McGregor is doing this coming home thing. Only no one wants to commit to a character, not McGregor, not Boyle, not Hodge. They probably should’ve brought him in later.

But they didn’t. Because McGregor’s no one’s favorite protagonist. Except maybe McGregor. Hodge favors Nedyalkova, Boyle likes Carlyle. Everything McGregor gets outside his one rant is thin.

It’s technically superior–great editing from Jon Harris, Anthony Dod Mantle’s photography is spot-on. Boyle’s really in love with the locations. Adds to the charm or something. Sadly the characters have no connection to the locations and neither does Hodge’s script.

Bremner’s great, Nedyalkova’s great, Carlyle’s quite good with a thin character and a lot to do. McGregor’s fine. Miller’s got some good moments, but Hodge doesn’t do him any favors.

T2 is good. It’s expertly made, solidly written, confident; it’s occasionally accomplished; it’s also a really safe drama about male bonding. The movie doesn’t take a single chance. Any time it even flirts with the idea, Boyle unfortunately reins it in. Usually via another charming, manipulative, and narratively pliable sequence.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; screenplay by John Hodge, based on novels by Irvine Welsh; director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Jon Harris; production designers, Patrick Rolfe and Mark Tildesley; produced by Andrew Macdonald, Boyle, Bernard Bellew, and Christian Colson; released by TriStar Pictures.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Mark), Ewen Bremner (Daniel), Jonny Lee Miller (Simon), Anjela Nedyalkova (Veronika), and Robert Carlyle (Frank).


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