Cinema Six-pack & A Shot – Jan. 2017

These six exceptional films will be the ones that I remember the most from 2016.

Arrival
Amy Adams is an expert linguist charged with translating the strange visual language of aliens who have set up camp in strategic spots around the world. The film is about trust and communication (and also about the nature of time), but director Denis Villeneuve is just as interested in how we earthlings interact, or don’t, with one another. The thoughtful screenplay by Eric Heisserer is given further luster by Villeneuve’s deliberate pace and Bradford Young’s muted but effective cinematography.

Deadpool
This foul-mouthed superhero comedy seems out of place with the more somber fare on this list, but Deadpool manages to re-charge the often-tiresome Marvel canon by simultaneously embracing the excesses of the genre while also mocking them. Ryan Reynolds finally discovers a vehicle for his off-kilter sensibility, and is ably assisted by Morena Baccharin, T.J. Miller, and a terrific effects team. The self-referential and hilarious credits and the obligatory Marvel “Easter egg” might be worth the rental fee by themselves.

The Handmaiden
This Korean mind-game of a movie quite consciously evokes the mysterious narrative of Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon with its labyrinthine plot. But it also defies its audience’s expectations of stately Asian cinema with a story of intrigue, trickery, romance, and a bit of steamy sex. A young girl is sent to become a servant of a sheltered, perhaps unstable noblewoman. Whenever you think you have this story figured out though, it shifts…slyly, delightfully.

Hell or High Water
Chris Pine and Ben Foster play hapless brothers who resort to crime to save their debt-ridden family ranch. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham are the wily Texas Rangers tracking them down. As the brothers’ circumstances become known, their crimes become more understandable, and viewers find themselves torn between the sympathetic criminals and the relentless arm of the law. British director David Mackenzie intuitively captures the laconic, even fatalistic tone of this West Texas thriller.

La La Land
Writer-director Damien Chazelle, who stunned the film world in 2014 with his debut feature, Whiplash, has re-imagined the movie musical with this winsome story about two young idealistic artists (he a jazz pianist, she an actress) trying to make it in Hollywood. Utterly charming and unabashedly romantic, La La Land is a candy-colored love song to dreamers of all types, featuring winning performances by its stars, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Even the most cynical viewers would find them, and this film, hard to resist.

Manchester by the Sea
The movies would have you believe that every crisis in life can be overcome, usually with a profound emotional speech accompanied by a rousing swell of strings on the soundtrack. Kenneth Lonergan’s quietly powerful Manchester by the Sea, by contrast, maintains that once some people are broken by life, they stay broken. Casey Affleck, in the performance of his career, plays Lee, a man debilitated by past tragedy who must face those demons when he is left to be the guardian of his teenage nephew after his brother’s untimely death. A heartachingly sad and indelibly human film.

Honorable mention: Moonlight, Zootopia, Love & Friendship, Moana and The Lobster.

And a shot…coming to Theatre N in December.

Denial Screening Jan. 20-22
Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall star in this film based on a true story. Scholar and professor Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz) characterizes amateur British historian David Irving as a Holocaust denier in a well-regarded essay. When he sues her for libel in 1996 under English law, she and her legal team must prove the truth of Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Interestingly, much of the film’s dialogue was taken directly from court transcripts. Fairly subdued and straightforward as a narrative, the film is still a powerful reminder of the depravities of which humans are capable, as well as of their ability to conveniently forget past ugliness. For a full Theatre N schedule and more information, go to theatren.com.

Movie Review: Moana

Disney’s Moana delivers girl power, South Pacific-style

Moana, the latest Disney animated feature, is everything you want and expect from the celebrated studio: lyrically captivating, visually stunning, alternately adventurous and playful and vaguely empowering. Although it lacks an instant musical hit like Frozen’s “Let It Go,” it definitely deserves a spot on the keeper list of Disney cartoons.

Set in an idyllic South Pacific environment, the movie focuses on the coming-of-age story of its title character, the daughter of an island chieftain who longs to explore the vast ocean beyond her village’s reef rather than tend to her leadership responsibilities at home. Moana’s heart is torn between her people and her dreams. Already, there’s a hint that we are continuing the recent evolution of Disney heroines from damsels in distress to girls with authority.

Her seafaring aspirations do, of course, get called into play when the fauna of her island starts to die. Her wise, if batty, grandmother convinces Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) that she must leave the safety of the familiar to put things right. The movie then shifts into full-blown Joseph Campbell territory as Moana embarks upon a hero’s quest, full of mysteries, challenges, and personal growth. Moana is aided on her quest, eventually, by the demigod Maui (a Pacific island version of Hercules, played by Dwayne Johnson). Will everything be restored to the natural order? Are we watching a Disney movie…what do you think?

Moana is a fascinating combination of elements. It explores new ground with the latest yet rare Disney princess of color. It features exotically attractive settings, unfamiliar mythology, and little-known but authentically South Pacific voice talent. Nearly all the principals are voiced by Hawaiian and New Zealander actors, including Rachel House as Gramma Tala, Temeura Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger as Chief Tui and his wife Sina, and Jemaine Clement (from TV’s Flight of the Conchords) as the humorously villainous Tamatoa.

But the film also hews closely to the Disney formula in both plot points and musical numbers. It’s the animated version of comfort food, and we know pretty much where the story will end up and the path it will take to get there. Similarly, one can almost predict each musical number in the moments before it starts. First, we have the happy villagers’ song, then segue to the wise elder “follow your heart” ballad, then cue up the heroine’s soaring anthem of self-discovery until it’s time for the up-tempo “quirky hero bragging” tune. Disney well knows the expectations of its largely adolescent audience and delivers exactly what they want.

Although Moana is clearly aimed at the younger set, it also entertains and delights the adults in the audience with the catchy music, breathtaking visuals, and reassuring story. So, in the end, everybody gets what they want, including, for Disney, another hit for its cartoon catalogue.