Moana Review: A Formulaic Yet Charming Disney Feature

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I want to say right out of the gate that Moana (directed by John Musker and Ron Clements) is a good movie. However, it seems likely that the film’s emphasis on its Polynesian cast and culture will cause it to resonate much more strongly with some people than it did with me. I am always happy to see non-European cultures represented in movies and this was no exception. Beyond that basic assessment, I will not be commenting on the film’s treatment of Polynesian culture in great detail because I am a white person with no special insight into the culture in question. If this element of the film interests you, I encourage you to find a reliable source that engages with the film’s treatment of Polynesian culture (preferably by a writer who actually has some connection to the culture). Now, onto the elements of Moana that I am equipped to discuss.

The plot concerns young Princess Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of Island Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison). Moana is being groomed to take over as her island’s chief but her heart yearns for adventure beyond the confines of her remote home. Moana soon finds out that her people’s food supply is starting to dry up because shape-shifting demigod Maui (The Rock) stole the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti. It is with this knowledge Moana sets out to replace the goddess’ heart and save her people. She ends up taking Maui on as a reluctant ally and, since this is a Disney production, she is paired with a comically stupid chicken that is readily merchandisable.

My first impression is that, while the film’s songs are satisfactory across the board, they do leave something to be desired. Maui’s “You’re Welcome” is absolutely great and a number of Moana’s songs do a fine job of stoking excitement and emotion in the audience but the set list is really lacking a show stopper in the vein of “Let it Go” to bring the whole thing home. Perhaps this is good, as I am not fully prepared to have another Disney song reach the level of pop culture ubiquity that Let it Go reached. There is also “Shiny”, which is the worst song of the bunch and acts as a blemish on an otherwise consistently agreeable catalogue of songs.

The film’s structure is another area in which it is likely to be found wanting when compared to Frozen. It feels like we spend a little too long on the island in Act 1. The film spends a good amount of time setting up a conflict between the ever adventurous Moana and the stern, protective Chief Tui. This father and daughter relationship is compelling stuff early on but it unfortunately Musker and Clements lose sight of this conflict once Moana leaves the island. Chief Tui exits the film at the end of Act 1 and doesn’t return until the very end. I understand that it is tempting to stay on the island for a number of reasons. By settling in to the island as a defined physical space, the filmmakers want Moana’s eventual liberation from the island to make a greater impact on the viewer. Once again, I am tempted to make a comparison to Frozen, which proved that you don’t have to spend a lot of time in a location before a character’s dramatic exit to have a profound emotional response from the audience. All of this time spent on the island makes Acts 2 and 3 feel somewhat compressed. It is hard to discuss without spoilers but there are a couple moments that feel like they could have benefited from some breathing room later on in the film.

What does make the liberation work is just how great of a character Moana turns out to be. Ostensibly, she is incredibly similar to Frozen’s Ana. She’s plucky and headstrong but dreams of a world beyond the one that she has known all her life. The two main differences are Moana’s self consciousness and physical ability. Ana has the gusto to attempt to climb a mountain only to find out she’s completely incapable of such a feat whereas Moana will climb a mountain with speed and vigour. Its nice to see a heroine who is not only unafraid to get her hands dirty but also shows noticeable competence when doing so.

Moana’s self consciousness ties into the film’s larger themes of authenticity. Part of what makes the drama of whether or not Moana will leave the island compelling is that she actually has a really good thing going there. The people love her, she’s good at her job and nobody is questioning that she will lead her people effectively. In addition, she fails the first time she attempts to leave the island. This contributes to Moana questioning whether or not it is worth it to leave the island even though it is important to her. It should be no surprise that the film’s conclusion is resoundingly pro authenticity (which they even manage to work into the finale in a very interesting way). Admittedly, I almost wish Moana did not have the impetus of saving her people causing her to leave and that the film allowed the stakes to be entirely emotional and character driven.

The film’s other protagonist fairs just as well in the compelling character department. Dwayne Johnson is in fine form as Maui, an arrogant demigod who really just wants people to love him. Granted, I assume that making an arrogant, muscle bound hero into a sympathetic and likeable character is something that Johnson could do in his sleep. Still, Maui is a joy to spend time with over the course of the movie and as I already mentioned, his stand alone song “You’re Welcome” is the closest thing the film has to a show stopper.

There are some other mild problems but none of them get in the way of enjoying the film all that much. For example, it robs the action scenes of some much needed tension when you realize that the ocean is helping Moana and will likely just rescue her if she or the item she is transporting get knocked off the boat (which almost happens a lot in the film’s action scenes). Also, it’s hard not to be distracted by the adorable coconut pirates that turn up in act 2 just to make sure Disney sells more plushies than any other company on Earth. These are nitpicks though. Moana is a great new character from an interesting new world that I would ultimately be happy to see Disney return to again. If you’re a huge Frozen fan (as I am, if that is unclear) adjust your expectations slightly and have a great time.

Bleed For This Review: But Don’t Bleed For This Review

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Ben Younger’s Bleed For This is the story of Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), a boxer who came back from a broken neck and became Middleweight champion. Pazienza performs this feat with the help of trainer Kevin Rooney (a hammy yet endearing Aaron Eckhart) and his father, Angelo (Ciarán Hinds). The short version of this review is that the film is not good. It follows the cliche ridden formula of a fight movie released around Oscar season and fails to imbue the story with the required emotional resonance that would justify leaning so heavily on formula. In addition to that, it has a number of characters that could be excised from the script without much change to the overall film (the film wastes Katey Sagal on a role that mainly consists of her praying in the kitchen). What I will be focusing on for the majority of the review is what I feel tips the film from generic and inoffensive to outright bad. Namely, the Bleed For This actually vindicates most of Vinny’s flaws rather than have him grow or change in any meaningful way.

When we first meet Vinny Pazienza he has three discernable character flaws. Firstly, he cuts corners and puts things off. The scene that introduces Vinny to the audience does so while Vinny is riding a stationary bike while covered in plastic wrap (to induce sweating). This peculiar workout session is happening when Vinny is supposed to be at a weigh in for his next fight. Everyone is waiting on him and he’s not showing up. The point being made here is clear: Vinny’s tendency to cut corners is a detriment to his boxing. Secondly, Vinny is a glutton for punishment. In the first boxing match of the film, which Vinny loses, we see him take many punches and then proudly gloat that he could take them all day. Lastly, Vinny is a gambler. Vinny plays blackjack recklessly and wins big early in the film. He sleeps with a woman later that night and covers her in his winnings as a celebration. Vinny does this instead of resting up for his fight and this is a fight he goes on to lose.

Of Vinny’s three main flaws, the gambling is handled most peculiarly by the film. For the reason provided above, the viewer is invited to see Vinny’s gambling as a flaw. However, when Vinny is presented the opportunity to jump right ahead to a title fight, against the advice of his trainer, he does so immediately. In response to Vinny jumping ahead Rooney explains to Vinny that he “needs to learn the difference between a calculated risk and a gamble”. However, Vinny wins the fight and suffers no repercussions due to his risk disposed behavior. This vindication of Vinny’s gambling occurs again, when Vinny is told that he can have either a halo that puts him at incredible risk of further injury or a surgery that will guarantee his ability to walk again. Vinny chooses the riskier option, against the explicit advice of his doctor and this pays off for him in the long run. The film reveres Vinny’s gambling and risk taking in a way that I think is thematically peculiar. Shouldn’t it be the case that this behaviour is punished rather than revered? If not, why present it as a flaw in the first place? The filmmakers could have made a movie about embracing your flaws and turning them into strengths but that idea doesn’t seem to be anywhere in the text itself. Vinny just responds to his accident the same way that he responds to everything and it works out for him. It is a curious decision that just feels somewhat strange and prevents the movie from making a coherent dramatic statement.

Somewhat less problematically, Vinny’s gluttony for punishment also ends up serving him well. In the film, it is presented as the reason that he is able to endure the pain that comes with training with his fractured neck. While promoting a “play through the pain attitude” isn’t a problem for a sports film it is still odd that multiple times throughout the movie this attitude is presented as a character flaw that needs to be overcome. It causes Vinny to overexert himself in training (which requires the denouncement of Vinny’s trainer) and it also seems to explain why Vinny loses his first fight. There is a foreboding line during the weigh in scene in which Vinny says that he is willing to die in the ring and his future opponent responds by saying that “[Vinny] is thinking about dying instead of boxing, which should tell you all you need to know”. Since Vinny loses the fight, it is natural to read the foreboding line as conveying to the audience that Vinny needs to become more level headed and take less punishment. Once again, the exact opposite turns out to be true.

The film handles Vinny’s corner cutting in a much more sensible way. Rooney frequently cautions Vinny against cutting corners and this advice is presented as helping Vinny learn to train properly with his injury and it makes him a better boxer. This is basic character development stuff but, credit where credit is due, the film does a decent job of it. This character also makes problems for “turning flaws into strengths” interpretation since it is a clear cut case of Vinny having to change one of his flaws outright in order to become a better fighter.

As I said at the beginning of the review, the reason that the film’s approach to Vinny as a character is so damning (and why I am spending so much time on it) is that there isn’t a whole lot else going on in the movie that is interesting. Admittedly, Miles Teller once again proves he is a genuine talent in the lead role. He nails Vinny’s pre and post injury physicality with equal precision. Honestly, Vinny is kind of an ass in the film and the fact that we like him even a little bit is a testament to Teller’s skill. The second of the film’s two main characters is the already mentioned Kevin Rooney and his character is kind of a great, big mess. We are first introduced to him as a barely functioning alcoholic but then he immediately flips to wise, concerned trainer despite the film completely failing to dramatize this transition. Why does Vinnie go from someone that Rooney barely seems to be able to tolerate to someone he looks out for like family? The film does nothing to answer this question, and others, as Rooney is sorely lacking in development throughout the proceedings. Eckhart brings a certain charm to the role, though sometimes he can feel like he is playing two different characters (Rooney the father/mentor and Rooney the alcoholic sad sack) from scene to scene. These are the two characters who have any substantial attention paid to them and they are both noticeable misfires.

Overall, Ben Younger has churned out an incredibly generic boxing movie with a couple of glaring flaws. It’ll get the job done if you’re already sick to death of The Fighter and Creed but there is so little going on here that hasn’t been done (and done better) many times at this point. It’s a shame because all of the ingredients for a good movie are here. If the filmmakers were able to reconcile their reverence for Vinny’s detrimental flaws with the fact they are textually recognized as flaws they might have been able to make a film that says anything beyond “Winning a title fight after you break your neck is really, really awesome”.

Hacksaw Ridge Review: A Film in Conflict with Itself

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In Hawksaw Ridge (2016), Andrew Garfield plays real life soldier Desmond Doss. Doss is an inherently compelling figure to make a movie about, seeing as how he both refused to carry a weapon into a war that he volunteered to participate in and managed to save over 70 lives while doing so. On paper, this seems like a project that is incredibly well suited to Mel Gibson’s particular directorial sensibilities. Doss’ pacifism is religiously motivated and the titular battle was incredibly violent. A film that is basically forced to have overt religious themes as well as plenty of blood and gore seems tailor made for Gibson and yet, he still manages to miss the mark somehow.

Hacksaw Ridge is, in part, a film about how terrible violence is. Furthermore, the film is critical of war as something that makes good men violent. We see this when Doss is wrestling with his brother. Doss’ mother comments that the boys are violent but nobody stops them from wrestling. Left unchecked, Doss strikes his brother in the head with a brick and nearly kills him. We also have the character of Tom Doss (Doss’ father, played by Hugo Weaving), who has become an abusive drunk due to his horrible experience in the war. In the words of Doss’ mother, the man is no longer Doss’ father. She says that Doss’ father died in the war. It is with a palpable conviction that the film denounces violence as it venerates its pacifist protagonist as a hero for abstaining from it.

All the stranger then that Hacksaw Ridge is also a film about the power and necessity of violence. We see this in the film’s final 20 minutes, when a company of military men lay waste to a faceless horde of Japanese soldiers (I would get into the dehumanizing portrayal of the Japanese in this film but that seems like a topic that demands a whole essay unto itself). Sam Worthington sternly orders his men to “go to work” before Gibson’s camera, with the slow motion glory of a Zack Snyder picture, venerates and indulges in what is essentially a massacre. The strange part, the military company in question was emboldened by Doss’ heroic saving of a number of wounded soldiers. Basically, Doss’ pacifism inspires his fellow soldiers to be more driven, efficient killers.

Gibson is, in my estimation, unable to reconcile the conflicting worldviews that he presents in his film. The film spends its first hour lecturing the audience about the merits of pacifism only to spend its second cooking up gory, elaborate scenes of lurid violence with glee. The narrative is one in which violence is celebrated and denounced, effective and yet rejected and most strangely, righteous and an object of abstinence. A film that should have articulated a particular stance on the role of violence in a Christian life instead utterly fails to do so and doesn’t seem to care.

The film does not just fail on a thematic level either. Andrew Garfield fails to convince the audience that his terrible performances in The Amazing Spider-Man films weren’t his fault. There are scenes in the film that gesture towards a more interesting Doss than Garfield provides us with. On the page, Desmond Doss is a violent man at heart. He is someone who reigns in his violence due to guilt and religious conviction. However, Garfield is clearly playing him as a straightforwardly altruistic saint for 90% of the film. As such, there is a dissonance whenever Doss’ internal violence ever bubbles up to the surface. I know Garfield was great in The Social Network but it might just be time for us to accept that he is sorely lacking in range.

The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better. Hugo Weaving is decent as Doss’ abusive, alcoholic father but he is the only member of the main cast to make an impression. One cannot help but feel painfully sorry for Teresa Palmer, who is barely even playing a character as Doss’ Girlfriend. Hacksaw Ridge is the kind of movie where every woman in the script exists solely in relation to and talks exclusively about the men in their lives. Palmer’s only job in the film is to be a tangible object for Doss to want to reunite with (thus upping the stakes of the film’s battle scenes) and express to everyone what a great guy he is whenever she is asked.

Unfortunately, Gibson also fails to deliver even one especially compelling battle scene throughout the tedious proceedings. He doesn’t fail for lack of trying (In fact, just the opposite). Gibson keeps shattering skulls, showing the audience maggot covered corpses and at one point even shows us a half corpse used as a shield in combat. However, these sequences are not particularly well edited and the supporting characters in them are so poorly fleshed out that it just becomes a cacophony of head shots, blood spurts and grime.

Overall, it is incredibly hard to recommend Hacksaw Ridge. It fails on both the visceral and thematic levels. The consistent engagement with the themes of violence and religion keep the film interesting until the end, when its failure to come together into a cohesive whole leaves the whole thing feeling like a simplistic disappointment.