Moana (2016): Honoring Polynesian Mythology and Culture in Disney’s “Princess Model” to Create a Classic

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  I really liked “Moana.” It was no “Kubo and the Two Strings” but besides “Up” and “Inside Out” not many can compare to that…but this is classic Disney as it’s best. This is Disney taking the “Princess Model” (Princess goes against status quo for family, tribe, etc. for greater good) and achieves final great ends while being helped along by animal and magical companions. This is the base of Moana that the director, writer and Lin-Manuel build upon. Suffice to say I have nothing but affection for this film as it captures both my love of history (paying tribute to the Polynesian tribes and their history of exploration) and culture (how they related to one another and others).

    The film was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, written by Jared Bush and produced by Osnat Shurer.

     The film involves Princess Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) dealing with the after affects of Maoi stealing the heart of Te Fiti as her Island slowly dies and her people become more isolated. Prompted by her Grandmother and her own desire for adventure seeks out Maoi (Dwayne Johnson) and the heart to restore peace in the world once more.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is awesome! Welcome to a world inspired by Polynesian mythology, with gods, demons  and islands connected by travel. This is a world that I only wanted to spend more time in and you should experience for yourself.

The History – The history is rich and tells a story that needs to be told. The early explorers and traders in the Americas were Polynesians but that is often ignored to history as horrible folks like Columbus get credit instead. This world recognizes what was long before Europeans came and congresses the thriving cultures that colonialism and in many ways destroyed, even though many histories and cultures still live on, as shown by this film.

The Animation – This it the best of Disney Animation and shows us a variety of animation types…from 3-D over 2-D and some fantastic visuals. The islands feel alive and real and honestly, besides “Wreck-It Ralph” this is the best animation so far.

The Soundtrack – It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda overseeing it and it shows! You’ve got musical, rap and power as just as he gave power to “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” each culture and history he touches is given his own take and with it passion and life.

The Characters – The characters drive the film and are really what make it stand out and put it above “Kung Fu Panda 3” and most Dreamworks films.

Grandma Tala – Grandma is the heart of the film. She motivates Moana’s desire to travel beyond the island her death incites Moana finally doing it. She is there for Moana through the best and worst times and her loss is felt once it happens.

Chief Tui – Chief Tui is traditional Disney Dad afraid of Daughter being free. This time it is given reason though as he lost a friend when he went beyond the reef. Sadly we don’t get more exploration though, everything he does is a reaction to Moana and it hurts his character development.

Maui – Dwayne Johnson is awesome! Maui hurts the Goddess by sealing her heart (Disney is clearly okay going there post “Maleficent”) and his arc is restoring the heart and apologizing for his wrong which was for his ego and for humanity, the people who abandoned him leaving the ocean and Gods to give him his power and turn him into a Demi-God. He is funny but can do drama too…seriously, “The Rock” is underrated as an actor.

Moana – Is the princess who drives the story as she and her animal sidekick try to save the world and find Maui in order to restore peace. She is awesome and I wish she’d found her power sooner as we see her being a fantastic Chief before her voyage beyond the reef. I felt for her, she lost and she gained and she discovered her own power.

A Story Not Told in the West – Polynesian culture has usually always been exoctized in the west and this was finally breaking free of that. Rather than being treated as a vacation spot where the people are a reward rather than a people. This film changes that which is a needed reaction to Disney’s past exocization of Hawaii and Polynesia. This can’t be stated enough and I hope those involved are aware of Disney’s own dark history.

Okay: The Disney Princess Model – Princess teams up with magical being (The Genie, Stich, Mushu, etc.) and an animal companion (s) (The Mice, The Horse in “Mulan” and “Tangled,” etc.) to defeat her family’s prejudice’s (“Frozen,” “Mulan,” etc.) and restore balance and peace. Disney has done this so many times and that is why I say it is okay. “Moana” doesn’t subvert anything like “Zootopia” or “Frozen” did.

The Cons: Tamatoa and Codedness – A villian coded as gay who is vain wants to eat the heroes! This isn’t new! (Prince John, Radcliff, Jafar, etc.) DIsney you are better than this. Though to be fair, even “Wreck-It Ralph” Sadly had this problem too. Feminine men need to stop being coded as bad.

The Mother as Plot Device – The mother helps Moana and tells the story of why her husband fears the sea…she is basically a plot device to motivate Moana to stay or leave, which is a shame as her helping Moana leave hinted at so much more.

Why Afraid to Take a Chance? – This movie took the safe route, Moana with her magic friend and animal side kick saves the world. Nothing is subverted when so much more could of. I like that he demon was the goddess  who needed balance again, which was Miyazi-esque but so much more could have been done. Why did she assume Maui could only save the day? She was the Chief to be, she was empowered, there was no reason to hand him the direction for the first half of the film.

   This is a film that I really liked and I consider a favorite. Now it probably won’t make my Top 5 of 2016 but that doesn’t change the fact that Polynesian culture and mythology have not been explored in the west beyond being exotcized. This changed that and gained so much power because of it. Yes it followed the “Princess Model” which is Disney’s take on the “Hero’s Journey” but it did it in such a powerful. This was Miyazaki levels of storytelling and “Hamilton” inspired music (Thanks Lin-Manuel Miranda). I can only recommend this film.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10

Moonlight (2016): A Beautiful Exploration of Sexuality, Trauma and Healing

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      “Moonlight” is a beautifully crafted character piece that explores the sexuality and identity as well as trauma and healing. I got a feeling this is going to make my Top 5 Films of 2016 as it hits all right notes and the only real issue I had with it is it could have ended a few times but kept on going.

     The film was written and directed by Barry Jenkins and produced by Adele Romanski, Dede Garnder and Jeremy Kleiner. The story was also by Tarell Alvin McCraney.

     The story involves Chiron (also called “Black”) and his growing up with abuse from his druggy mother and the bullies on the playground who think he’s gay. When Juan (Mahershala Ali) takes him under his wing he gets temporary peace until he learns that Juan is the drug lord who sells to his mom leaving him alone again in the world.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is the poor deep south (Florida and Georgia) and it is in it we see the lack of opportunities that lead to some becoming druggies or dealing in drugs. It is desolate and real and fits the world and characters and is the world of poverty here in the United States.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful with the only times where it was annoying was when there was shaky cam (thankfully this only happened once or twice). Besides that we get stark scenes that illustrate the isolation of so many of our characters.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is beautiful and full of deep and harsh string instruments that heighten the tension and illustrate the pain of the characters. Nicholas Britell really did a fantastic job.

The Characters – This is a character focused drama and is powerful at that. I cared about all the characters who got explored and I wanted to see what choices they’d make and how they’d change.

Juan – Ali once again plays a memorable complex character! This guy is one of my favorite actors at this point and I love how he is one of the first who tells Chiron it is okay to be gay and to be himself. He is a father figure until he is unable to accept the fact that he’s helping to destroy Chiron’s mom with his drugs and after we never see him again.

Teresa – Teresa is Juan’s girlfriend and one of the most supportive characters in the film. She is Chiron’s safe place and we see her doing all she can to make sure he has somewhere to call home.

Paula – Paula is Chiron’s druggy mother who thankfully gets out of it when they move as gets checked into rehab and tries to convince Chiron to stop the cycle as she apologizes for how abusive she was and how unloving she was, though she loves him now. She’s complicated and not a good person but she has a really powerful arc.

Kevin – Kevin is Chiron’s first and only love who he falls out of touch with after the bullies egg Kevin on to punch Chiron. For 10 years they don’t see one another and then we see that Kevin has a kid and got out of drugs and is a cook now. He shows Chiron there is another way and admits in his action he never stopped caring and loving Chiron….as Chiron finally finds peace with his lover.

Chiron – Chiron doesn’t speak for the beginning of the film and it isn’t until Juan and Teresa help him feel safe that he opens up and learns from them to care for his abusive mother and also to care for himself. His next arc is becoming hardened as after the bullies egg Kevin on to beat him up he puts the head bully in the hospital and becomes a rich drug lord like Juan. It isn’t until Kevin calls out of the blue that he realizes there is another way and admits to Kevin that he never let anyone else touch him and that he still loves him.

Peace in Self and the Quest for Healing – From Chiron’s mother seeking drugs, Chiron and Kevin finding each other, Juan finding Chiron…all of them are seeking healing and find it in relationship or in the case of Chiron’s mother escape. All of them at the end of the day just want peace because of how the world has hardened them.

How Trauma Changes People – Trauma hardens people, from Chiron’s mother getting into drugs to escape and bringing out her desperation on her son, to Juan’s inability to stop doing the drug trade and making money even as he is trying to help Chiron heal, from Kevin going to prison. Trauma hardens all these characters at different points.  There is so much toxic masculinity are characters are dealing with where beating someone up makes others accept you and being soft and quiet is a death sentence. Thankfully at the end we see Chiron beginning to find a way out of that cycle of trauma and abuse.

The Cycles of Abuse – One of the things we witness in this is the cycle of abuse, Kevin goes to jail after the bullies force him to beat him best friend/lover Chiron and later he ends up in prison. After he gets out he finds that Chiron has changed as the abuse from his mother and the bullies has hardened him too and he hasn’t experienced love since their moment on the beach.

Okay: The Endings – I would have put this as a pro if they had just had the final scene at Kevin’s restaurant. There was no reason for Kevin to go home and to put them at risk given Kevin is married now. It extended the final scene of them finding peace with one another a bit too long and was the only thing that kept this film from being one of the perfect films this year.

    This is a film well worth your time. If you want to see what life is for so many who have to live in the closet because others feel threatened by their sexuality…this film does a fantastic job exploring that. As a bisexual man I found it powerful and loved how each of the characters was more complicated than what they appeared to be. None of them were stereotypes, each had multiple dimensions and contradictions and it made their struggles all the more compelling as all of them were really just looking for peace or love from another.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10 Ending could have happened on a few occasions so that is the only reason it isn’t a 10/10.

Arrival (2016): A Great High Concept Sci. Fi. Film That Just Needed More Heart

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   “Arrival” is a film I really enjoyed but could have been better and more. Non-spoiler thoughts up front…at times it drags and there just isn’t enough heart as there are two characters we don’t really get to know which gives the film the detached feeling of an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” I’d still recommend it though.

   The film was directed by Denis Velleneuve, written by Eric Heisserer and produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder and David Linde while being based off the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.

   The story involves linguist Louise (Amy Adams) and scientist Ian (Jeremy Renner) being called onto the scene of First Contact as strange alien pods have touched down all over the world and humanity is attempting to communicate before other countries decide to attack them.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is fantastic! Countries act with fear but also with openness too as their societies crumble from the masses unable to take first contact, but they go forward anyway. This universe is full of stakes that make the importance of first contact all the greater. The aliens also have a cool squid like design.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful, especially in how it presents the inside of the UFOs and the outside as they float above different areas of the world. It keeps the mystery and suspense up just seeing them as the music plays. Bradford Young did a fantastic job.

The Soundtrack – Johann Johannsson did a wonderful job of creating a soundtrack that reminded of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and with it power and mystery as the aliens aren’t so much a threat as a great unknown. The soundtrack captures this beautifully in how limited it is.

Louise – Amy Adams is the best part of the film as it is her relationship with her daughter and those in the future that help her solve the problem of first contact in the present. She is really cool and I liked how human she was. She was anxious and nervous but went forward anyway because she wanted to and she knew what was at stake. The only thing that felt tacked on was her romance with Ian.

Cyclical Time – In this time is cyclical and it is events in the future that prep Louise to solve the problems in the past. From General Chang telling her what they talked about that made him call off his attack on the aliens, to her daughter and her marriage to Ian. This changes her as she now perceives time as the aliens do.

Okay: Ian – Ian is just kind of there. Renner does a good job with him but he is mostly a support character and he isn’t given the chance to really make his own decisions outside of how they relate to Louise, so more could have been done with him.

Colonel Weber – Whitaker does a good job with what he’s given but Weber’s motivations are never fully explored. He is supportive and antagonistic at different points but we never get why. He just represents the U.S. governments reaction to the project at the end of the day.

Okay/Con: The Ending’s Length – The ending goes on way too long and could have just ended with Ian and Louise starting their romance and it would have been fine, instead we see the future with them talking about having a kid (who we know will die of cancer later). It could have been cut down and been the more powerful for it.

The Cons: Pacing – Segments of the film drag, especially after first contact is made and they are figuring out how to ask the aliens for their motivation. The switch from understanding one another from not is really quick too which made the pacing all strange and didn’t help the film.

Detachment – The film is a bit too detached at times. For example we don’t learn anything about Ian until the very end when his romance with Louise is a major part of the film. He is still great and is given chances to shine but we never really get his motivation at first beyond Scientist Stereotype (loves science to science!). I think if there had been more of a core and less detachment the script would have explored that better.

   This is a film well worth your time. I wouldn’t consider it in my Top 5 of 2016, but it is still a film I’d highly recommend. The detachment of the narrative didn’t change the fact that I cared about Amy Adams’s character and was rooting for first contact to be successful. In that way it as a successful “Twilight Zone” episode as even though it was detached I found myself still really enjoying the story, even if at times it dragged. I you are a fan of sci. fi. like I am, this film is well worth your time.

Final Score: 9.1 / 10

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016): Fun Supporting Cast but Narrative Doesn’t Quite Work

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    “Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them,” could have been a really good film. It wasn’t a bad film, not by a long shot…but there were so many narrative issues and plot holes that took away some great chances for drama and character as well as world development that just hurt the overall story. These are my non-spoiler thoughts going in, also I kind of hate that they are turning this into a Franchise as the film’s story feels done after this film, but I guess post-Marvel everybody wants to be a Franchise.

      The film was directed by David Yates, written by J. K. Rowling who was one of the producers along with David Heyman, Steve Cloves and Lionel Wigram.

     The story involves Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrival in NYC in order to release of the animals he’s been studying when he’s pulled into a wider plot as the evil wizard Grindelwald has gone missing in Europe and mysterious attacks are happening all over NYC making Scamander a suspect.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is fantastic, though not fully fleshed out. One thing in the Potter Books is that real life events in our world are tied to events in the Wizarding World. In this that is dropped completely as we have anti-wizard organizations in the muggle world and much more moments of the two worlds knowing one another. Not to mention Newt being made to be a bigger deal than he ever was in the Harry Potter World. This is still a fun world though and I enjoyed visiting it again.

The Soundtrack – James Newton Howard hits all the ques. This is the Harry Potter Universe and the magic and music working together to illustrates scenes is on display here.

The Support Characters – The support characters are the best part of this film, and really should have been the focus. There was no reason to pull in Scamander and Hogwarts beyond references. Hell, Grindelwald didn’t even have to be the baddie, America could have it’s own Nazi Wizard. Still, if they have to Grindelwald the support characters were more than enough to carry off the mystery and fight.

Gnarlack – This guy is a goblin who owns a jazz club. He was a cool looking character and I wanted to learn more about him…He was clearly doing well even with wizards looking down on all those who weren’t wizards.

Tina – Tina is the disgraced auror who is seeking to redeem herself through the film. The reason she’s disgraced is because she protected Credence from his abusive anti-witch mother. In the end she nearly saves him again before the aurors kill him when he is coming back down from turning into a Obscurus. She also has a thing for Newt but we never fully get why as Newt never listens to her and just does his own thing.

Queenie – Queenie is so much fun! she is a Witch who can read minds and is one of the liberal witches as she likes the muggle Jacob and doesn’t get the prejudice going on around her. She was one of my favorite characters and she shows how smart she is when she sneaks all of them out of the Ministry before they are executed. It is also implied she gets her happy ending with Jacob. Alison Sudol is fantastic.

Jacob – Dan Fogler is really wonderful in the role as the muggle in over his head but who deals with the unknowns and magic with respect after the shock goes away. He is an all around good guy and vet from the war. I’m really glad that even though his mind got wiped it is assumed he kept the memories from before as the Eagle Monster only wiped away the sad memories from the city.

Okay: Credence – This guy is the plot device of the film as it is his extreme power that turns him into an Obscuro and has him reek havoc through NYC. Grindelwald and Tina are the ones fighting for his soul but no one really wins as the Ministry kills him…and it’s never brought up again. He’s abused by his adoptive Mom and could have been so much more in the plot. He’s a plot device that works but fails to elevate the plot.

Newt Scamander – Newt is a mystery and Redmayne does a fine job with that but a character needs to be more. We never know why he went into protecting creatures, we don’t know why he’s cut off from people or even why he knows so much. He’s enough of a person though that I won’t call him a “Knock-off” Doctor from “Doctor Who,” though I get why some people would think this. He has enough there to be his own person but not enough to draw me in like the supporting cast.

Graves/Grindelwald – Grindelwald has Newt’s problem but at least his motivation is there as he hates the wizarding laws that hide them from humans as he sees it as protecting humans when wizards should revel in their power. For much of the film he is Agent Graves, an Auror who works for the Wizarding Government in the U.S. Why he was acting alone this entire time was stupid though, if you are Wizard Hitler, you should have followers. So of course he gets caught at the end, even Voldemort didn’t act alone…he at least had Quirrel in Book 1.

The Cons: Creating a Franchise – Rowling should write books first so there is a justification for all of this. There is no reason for Franchising a series that only has Pottermore to go on. It feels like a blatant cash grab and super cynical and dirties the waters of what could be a great Franchise if it happened naturally. This film shows the studio just wants some of the “Game of Thrones” and “Marvel” action.

Plot Holes – Why is Grindelwald alone if he has a movement at his back? What brought Newt into studying creatures? How do relations between the Wizarding Governments work? (we see a council but no follow up). What is Grindelwald doing beyond terror attacks? There were more as well but these are some right off the bat that I noticed while watching the film. Rowling had this problem in her books too.

The Right to Memory – This is a hole in Rowling’s universe too. Wizards wipe human minds so many times and that is never addressed. This is a huge moral issues, hell they wipe the memory of an entire city and things just return to the status quo. Wizards and humans eventually should interact with one another, groups remaining isolated leads to terms like muggles, etc. This is never addressed but this mentality is what creates Grindelwald’s and Voldemort’s in the Wizarding World.

   This was a film that really excelled when it was doing the Grindelwald plot, but fell apart when Scamander had to “Catch em’ all.” The creatures are all very cool and I get that it is his job but that is even never fully explored but it takes up so much of the plot that the much more interesting mystery of why Grindelwald is in America get’s sidelined until the very end. This was a tragic waste of what could have been a wizard noir! A lot of these cons are cons the books and films have too. Rowling is a great idea writer and she is really good at characters when she focuses on them but in the process her world and stories end up being full of plot holes, even if they are a fun ride. I’d still recommend this film, just know it is flawed going in.

Final Score: 7.3 / 10

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016): A Solid Part of the Series and Becoming a Teacher

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     Dreamworks has two great Franchises that still manage to put out great animated films. Those Franchises are “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Kung Fu Panda.” These are series that take inspiration from their worlds (fantasy, Kung Fu films) and keep the characters and plots real and at times deep, while still managing to have a sense of humor. “Kung Fu Panda 3” is no different, though I think “Kung Fu Panda 2” is the better film, which I’ll go into at another time when I go through the first and second film.

      “Kung Fu Panda 3” was directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger and produced by Melissa Cobb.

    The story involves Po (Jack Black) being found by his father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) and returning back his father’s village to learn the art of chi when Kai (J.K. Simmons) breaks free from the Spirit Realm and is seeking to consume everyone’s Chi. Po must learn the art before all fall before Kai and the Masters whose chi he possess and now controls.

SPOILERS ahead

 The Pros: The World – The world is a fantastic fantasy world populated by humanoid animals that live in China. We have far off villages like the Panda one that are almost Tibetan in theme and also the main city with the Jade Temple which is reminiscent of Beijing. The world feels lived in too and the heroes who walk among the people are celebrated as such, like celebrities.

The Animation – The animation goes between classically inspired painting in telling back stories or montages, to the flowing 3D that makes up most of the film. It truly is beautiful.

The Soundtrack – Hans Zimmer creates an amazing score and pulls on classical Chinese music for a lot of his score. It is wonderful and pulls on the heart strings and elevates the action when it needs to, but I wouldn’t expect any less from Zimmer who is a master of his craft.

The Characters – The main characters are fantastic and have great moments that give them complexity and reason for their actions. This is a character driven story and it is the relationships that inform the action, like any good action movie.

Li Shan – Bryan Cranston plays Li Shan (Po’s Father) and does a great job as a man who lies to be with his son again as he says the Pandas know the art of Chi (even though it has been lost to time) and spends time connecting with Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping and in the process helping Po realize that he isn’t alone, which saves his son multiple times.

Mr. Ping – James Hong is an amazing voice actor and I’ve loved him in his role as Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping. We see him go through jealousy when Li Shan finds Po but also him get over it as he becomes a part of the Panda Village and gets the chance to be a father again to all the baby Pandas as well as council Po in the coming battle when Po feels only alone.

Master Shifu – Dustin Hoffman is a great actor and he has the chance to shine here as the one challenging Po to be better and that he still has much to learn. Sadly we don’t get to see him at his height as Kai consumes his chi, leaving it up to Po to rescue him. In the end he has humility though and asks to learn the art of chi from Po after the final battle.

Grand Master Oogway – Oogway’s chi is consumed in order for Kai to enter the mortal realm and through it all he is the one guiding all of them as it was the Panda’s of old who made him realize that it would be there that that the Dragon Warrior (Po) would be born. In the end Po gets to say good-bye to him too and we see how much of Yoda type figure Oogway has always been.

Kai – I liked Kai and not just because J. K. Simmons voiced him. This is a character who felt left behind as he watched his friend who he saved found peace…and he couldn’t stand that. He was a general so to him power was things and this what leads him to take chi from others. In the end his greed consumes him though as he misses the point of what power really was.

Po – This is the film of Po not only getting comfortable in his skin but becoming a teacher of others as he realizes it is playing to peoples’ strengths that can help them master themselves. He also is saved by the village when Kai nearly consumes his chi as it is in him realizing all his different identities that he realizes how he is the Dragon Warrior and uses his infinite chi to explode Kai as Kai’s body is unable to contain it all.

Finding Self – Finding self is a major theme of the the film as Po doesn’t really know who he is beyond being a warrior who cares about his friends. It is only after he becomes a teacher that he begins to realize how much he doesn’t know again and that who he is, is a part of everyone else. It is this individualist yet collectivist belief that he becomes the Dragon Warrior.

Power in Community – Kai is alone and uses others as slaves in order to take more. Po is someone who is dependent fully on others and it is in that difference of the many versus the one that his full power is unlocked. One stick can break easily, but it is harder to break a bundle.

Taking v. Serving and Enlightenment – The other theme of the film involves taking versus serving…all the characters who grow are those who learn to see outside of themselves and their own selfishness. Li Shan tells the truth, Po serves others, Oogway defeats Kai the first time by protecting others. This is where true power is unlocked in the film.

Family is Greater Than Blood – Mr. Ping is not Po’s blood and the movie makes a point of that, and it also makes a point of showing that Mr. Ping is Po’s second father and that he needs both of his fathers and it is because of both of them he lives and has grown to be who he is. This is an awesome message that really illustrates that family is greater than blood.

Okay; The Other Masters – Master Mantis, Monkey, Snake and Crane are all comedic relief and Master Tigress is relegated to action hero who doesn’t get to make any choices. This is sad as they got some great exploration over the last two films. They aren’t ever annoying but this was a missed opportunity.

The Pandas of the Village – There is a line between comedic village and real people and I don’t know where the Pandas fall on this line. So I’m putting them at okay.

Kai’s End Game – Was he going to conquer the world after consuming everyone’s chi or did he plan to just consume forever? I wish this had been set down a little better.

      This was a really good film, for me it was “Finding Dory” levels of enjoyable, though it didn’t reach original Pixar quality like “Inside Out” or even touch the perfect film of “Kubo and the Two Strings,” but it worked for all that it was. This is Dreamworks paying tribute to Kung Fu films and taking the philosophy into the film while giving us fun and comedic characters…as well as drama and family. If you haven’t seen it or any of the films in this Franchise, go and check them out. If you have kids they will love it and the world is so much deeper that it appears at first glance, just like the Kung Fu films it draws inspiration from. The action is used to make a larger point and tell the drama of people who show us the ways we can grow as well.

Final Score: 9 / 10 I’d rate it higher if Kai had been explored better and if the other Masters had been treated better and not just played for comedic relief.

War Dogs (2016): A Good Idea Not Fully Explored

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      First I have two things I have to admit up front. Great comedies are hard to come by for me, I can’t think of many modern comedies that I’d say are truly amazing, most comedies I have watched in recent time have been overrated and not funny or simply decent. A movie needs more than jokes and setup, it has to have a larger point if the jokes and narrative can’t carry the film. The second is that I haven’t seen any of “The Hangover” films so I don’t know if this direct has other stuff or if his style is to ignore larger points and just got for large character stuff that lacks any sort of point. This movie was still enjoyable, but it was forgettable and it isn’t something I’d watch again for the non-spoiler thoughts before I jump into the review.

      “War Dogs” was directed by Todd Phillips who also was one of the writers and producers with the other writers being Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic. The story is also based off the book “Arms and the Dudes” by Guy Lawson.

    The story involves David Packouz (Miles Tiller) who is miserable in his life as a massage therapist in Miami until his friend from Middle School Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) pulls him into the arms business. All is not as it seems though as he begins to live a lie with his wife and finds that Efraim is hiding things from him.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Premise – The premise of two friends getting into the arms business, one of whom is anti-war is such an intriguing premise. There is so much you can do with this…from buyers and ending the war, to the reasons to and not deal with certain groups. None of that is done though…

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack has some great classic songs through the film that have some pretty cool war scenes. It helped make the experience of the film enjoyable.

Henry Girard – Bradley Cooper plays this dealer related to the Albanians who our protagonists deal with. He’s on a terrorist watch list and is in control of everything through most of the film, even though he’s a side character. If the film had been about him I have a feeling the film would be a 7 or 8 at least, Cooper does an amazing job in this role.

The Ending – David is given a choice to go back into the business as he covers for Girard and has the choice to take his money and the connections that come with it after it seems he’s moved on with his life. It’s powerful but the journey to get there takes away from it.

Okay: David – David is bland, you get he’s fed up with his job as a massage therapist and later selling sheets and that he loves his wife Iz…but she only exists as motivation for him and his relationship with Efraim never feels fully formed. We see his rise happen way too quickly and his heal turn is abrupt. It was predictable in the end and his character could have been played by anyone.

Efraim – Jonah Hill is fun but he is in a malformed character who we are supposed to sympathize with but at every opportunity we see he is only a selfish character out for himself. Even Hill’s charisma can’t make this character anything more than passable fun.

The Cons: Iz – She is there to motivate David’s actions and his eventual turn back to good. She has no motivation outside of their kid and David…she isn’t really a character just a plot device.

Morality is never Confronted – They sell weapons when one of them is supposedly anti-war. There is moral dilemma and confrontation right there…but we never get the why and David just goes along with everything.

Lack of Complexity – David is along for the ride of this very weak script, the film wants to be smart and humanize the Middle East but everyone in Albania and the Middle East are like Iz, they are plot devices to advance David and Efraim’s plot and from that what chance there was for complexity and tragedy is forgotten.

Lack of Consequence – Our protagonists don’t really face any consequences. David ends up back with his wife after she leaves him and even though Efraim goes to prison for 7 years, he is shown to be so wealthy and we never see him beat…so chances are he’s fine, 7 months in prison did nothing to David considering Girard’s cash.

What was the Point? – You have a gun about people selling weapons in the middle of a war. How can a film have a chance to explore morality, mortality and choice and forget about all of that…the comedy isn’t enough to make this film good or even great and the drama is predictable…What was the point?

  This is a movie that couldn’t tackle the big question. It never dealt with the wars in the Middle East even though our characters were right in the middle of all of it, David and Efraim face no consequences beyond a light sentence (months in prison for David, only 7 years for Efraim). The jokes didn’t really work either because we were never given reason to like Efraim, the guy is selfish from the beginning and never shows himself to be anything more than a selfish guy only out for himself, so his betrayal and somewhat fall had no feeling behind it. It wasn’t two friends falling out and that is what the film could have been. This lack of purpose and point when dealing with some pretty hardcore moral issues hurt it and the comedy wasn’t strong enough to make up for the lack of point to the drama. Still, this is a fun film if you don’t want to think…those are just the kind of films I don’t see again.

Final Score: 6 / 10

Top 5 Villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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     I’ve always been drawn to the villains in films and shows, and comics are a host to some of the best rogues galleries in fiction. Whether it is Batman and also his villains who are some level of crazy or Spider-Man and his foes ranging from alien parasites to hunters…each group of rogues brings something different to the table. Now, when it comes to the Marvel and Disney Marvel Cinematic Universe the villains have usually been the weakest part, with the exception of those within “The Defenders” Universe on Netflix. It is here where I draw from a lot of my Top 5 as the people they kill don’t come back to life and there are consequences. Not all the characters are from Netflix, but there are enough of them that it shows. This review will also contain minor spoilers though I will aim not to reveal too much in case you haven’t watched the series yet and will stick with the vague.

     This is also my second Top 5 like in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the other being my Top 5 Favorite MCU Films list that I did last year, which I plan to update with another after “The Infinity War.”.: https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/top-5-films-of-the-marvel-cinematic-universe/

   So without further ado, here are my Top 5 Villains in the MCU.:

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5th) Kilgrave 

      Fifth place was difficult. I was honestly torn between Zemo and Kilgrave (Mordo may replace both of them after he has the chance to do stuff) but chose Kilgrave because of the creepy factor (he’s probably the most unsettling villain on this list) and his kill count. This is a character who is winning up until the end and even when he loses is able to manipulate himself out of almost any situation due to his ability. To go with the power of controlling with voice though he doesn’t pull a Joker and try to cause anarchy, his theme is obsession and abuse and like any toxic relationship he can’t let go and defeating him is defeating and continuing the process of healing from trauma and abuse. Jessica’s fight against him is rewarding and he proves to worthy a foe time and time again, though his final showdown was underwhelming and he should have done more with his power, those are the big things that keep him from being higher on this list. David Tennant really did a great job and I hope we see this character again.

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4th) Cottonmouth 

  Cottonmouth is the most tragic character on this list for many reasons. Born Cornell Stokes all he wanted to be was a musician but due to the corrupt Harlem Gangsters who raised him turned him into a killer. Now he only lives for experience and power. The man has an aura of threat about him that never leaves him, even when he’s losing and his ability to laugh at anything gives him a charm that Luke Cage doesn’t have. Without giving that much away, he isn’t the primary antagonist on the show so he doesn’t stick around all the way through, which was a shame as he is much more compelling than Diamondback and a better foil than the ones who take his place. This is a character who really should have been Luke Cage’s foil all the way through as he is everything Luke Cage is not but has just as much if not more complexity than Luke Cage. Mahershala Ali is great in everything I’ve seen him in and “Luke Cage” is no exception.

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3rd) Madam Gao

      Madam Gao is the greatest mystery in the “Daredevil” series as so much of her past is unknown, yet she knows so much and isn’t above working with the heroes if it will serve her ends. She is the one character who is unafraid of the Kingpin and easily takes out Daredevil when Daredevil attempts to capture her. She also is able to make a win out of any situation, whether it is a Kingpin implosion or the rise of her competitor the Blacksmith…she plays her cards to come out on top and I can’t wait to see how her game plays out. She is a character who is an antagonist but has shown she is more than just a villain. Wai Ching Ho is amazing in this role and she’s one of the best parts of the “Daredevil” series.

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2nd) Loki 

      Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie villains really haven’t been all that memorable. Yeah, they fill in all the boxes of having a decent motivation a lot of the time or are sufficently hammy to make things interesting…but compelling? Outside of Loki none of them stood out and there was a reason none of them are on my Top 5. Even Zemo was unable to kill an Avenger, but that goes for all the others too. Loki kills a major lore character if you discount “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” though and he is easily the most complex. Hiddleson and the writers created a character who is out for power but for often times what seem good ends. In “Thor” he manipulates his biological father the Frost Giant King in order to kill him and end the threat of his people against Asgard, in “Avengers” it could be argued he’s trying to stave the worse coming storm of Thanos by being a benevolent dictator and “Thor 2” he shows he’s not above sacrificing for his brother Thor. Loki is one of the best parts of the MCU and I look forward to seeing him once more in “Thor: Ragnorak.”

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1st) Kingpin 

      The Kingpin…the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet create a more complex or effective villain. This is a man who over the course of his series manages to take out most of his rivals and those who could reveal his corruption to Hell’s Kitchen. He’s one step ahead of our protagonists and even when it looks like he is out, Season 2 shows that you don’t mess with the Kingpin as whatever world he is in, he rises to the top of and plots his agenda further from there. He is the only one on this list who truly loves another as well…Vanessa is a character who challenges and forces him to reveal his darker self and also his idealism as all his destruction is for the greater good of bringing about stability and cleaning out the corruption and abuse that so scarred him as a child. Vincent D’Onofrio truly owns this role and whatever moves the writers have him do next it is going to have ripples through the Defenders Universe and possibly the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Kingpin is truly number 1.