Moana (2016)

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Pocahontas: standing up to evil Governor Ratcliffe and his New World plunderers. Mulan: appropriating her infirm father’s armor and battling the invading Hun army in his stead. Anna: bracing the Arctic elements to rescue her sister from an icy kingdom. And let’s not forget bookish Belle and brave Merida and plucky Rapunzel and Lilo’s big sister Nani and Helen Parr aka Elastigirl—each unafraid to face adversity head on, be it beast or baby-napper or badass superhero wannabe. And now Moana, sailing out on a daring South Sea mission to save her Polynesian people from blight and famine.
     Haven’t we had enough of tough, outspoken, and intrepid Disney heroines already? What about the guys for goodness sake?
     Well, the Disney he-males were never anything to write home about. Pinocchio? Pretty wooden I’d say. Aladdin? Insufferably two-dimensional. Dumbo? Dumb question. Even a hero as godlike as Hercules had his off days. But after Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella cornered the market on subservient, spineless, and scullery-centered heroines, it behooved Walt to put his sexist shop in order. Some might say the Disney Studios have overcompensated somewhat, but I doubt you’ll hear any complaints from the myriad of young girls—and perhaps one or two of their brothers-—inspired the world over by the fearless female faces that front the likes of Brave and Frozen. Moana continues that tradition purposefully and persuasively, without skipping a beat.
     At 107 minutes, Ron Clements and John Musker’s film is about half an hour longer than it needs to be, mostly due to a prolonged and Grandmother Willow-y prologue which establishes Moana’s place in the world. However, once she journeys beyond the reef (a big no-no according to tribal mandate), things pick up considerably. There’s excellent chemistry between Auli’i Cravalho, who voices the impetuous title teen, and Dwayne Johnson as Maui, the lively-tattooed demigod she hopes to persuade to return a sacred relic and thus prosperity to her island community. The obligatory show tunes—this time courtesy composer Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i, and Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda—are also suitably rousing. And there’s a fun, goggle-eyed chicken sidekick on hand to provide the physical humor. The animation, of course, is exquisite—water must be among the hardest elements to animate yet the Disney magicians return to the sea time and again. And again, their attention to detail pays off: this is sparkling stuff.
     Getting back to that initial, unanswered question though… Have we had enough of tough, outspoken, and intrepid Disney heroines? Nope. Not yet. Not by a long shot.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Landmine Goes Click (2015)

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The backpacking protagonists of Levan Bakhia’s new film must not have seen An American Werewolf in London (backpackers come to grief on the Yorkshire Moors) or Wolf Creek (backpackers come to grief in the Australian Outback) or Hostel (backpackers come to grief in a Slovakian YMCA) or any of the innumerable other films in which jaunty hikers meet with grisly ends. Because despite all these warnings, one of our personality-impaired heroes steps on an unexploded mine while backpacking through ravaged, post-war Georgia (the country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, not the U.S. state) and Landmine Goes Click.
     Aha. Should Chris (Sterling Knight) move even a muscle—lift his foot or breathe a little too heavily–landmine goes boom. It’s an interesting predicament, certainly. Does he try leaping to safety at the risk of losing a limb—or more—in the process? Or does he attempt the equivalent of that Indiana Jones trick, the one at the beginning of Raiders‘ when Indy deftly switches out a grinning gold idol for a carefully-weighted sandbag to avoid triggering some murderous mechanism? Or does Chris simply wait for the cavalry to show up? But this is rural Georgia, after all, and there’s no cavalry, or even a cell phone signal. Poor Chris. His troubles—and ours—are only just beginning.
     Not only is there some dramatic tension between Chris and his fellow backpackers Alicia (Spencer Locke) and her fianci Daniel (Dean Geyer) before Chris steps on the bomb, but that friction is ratcheted up exponentially when a greasy local (Kote Tolordava, an Eastern bloc Ron Jeremy lookalike) enters the fray, shotgun in hand and menacing Rottweiler at his side. Oh he’ll help all right, but for a price, a price which is subsequently negotiated ad nauseum. Next up: a tedious, unpleasant, and frankly ridiculous scene, echoing the uber nasty pedestrian underpass sequence in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (not a fan of that film either, truth be told).
     Strangely and awkwardly, Landmine Goes Click jumps forward in time following some cheesy superimpositions and we’re treated to a final fifty minutes as revolting and illogical as its first sixty, with violence towards women once again the predominant theme.
     Landmine Goes Click (…for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Georgia, perhaps?) is a cheap exploitation flick of the most base and inhumane variety, with inconsistent acting, incongruous editing, and some laughable model work.
     Simply put, it’s a bomb.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

3, 2, 1… Frankie Go Boom (2012)

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Ever since he was a little kid, Frank Bartlett has been tricked, teased, and tormented in glorious Technicolor by his older brother Bruce. Every prank, every pratfall, has been captured in humiliating detail on videotape and made public in some shape or form, right on up to the big reveal during Frankie’s wedding ceremony when he learned his wife had cheated on him. Spared, somewhat temporarily, when Bruce enters rehab to kick a drug habit, Frankie is fair game again now that his brother, touting himself as an actual “film director,” is clean and heading home, camera in hand, to continue right where he left off.
     As devised by Jordan Roberts (he penned Marvel’s Big Hero 6 and wrote Morgan Freeman’s lines for that 2005 documentary about those marching penguins), 3, 2, 1… Frankie Go Boom is insane, and insanely funny. It plays like a broad farce on the surface but it’s hip and clever and detailed within, filled with oddities and neat asides and bits you never saw coming. And it keeps them coming for full-on 89 minutes, never once flagging or wearing out its welcome. It’s unusually joyous, actually, for an embattled siblings flick, flinging fancy at us with confidence and charismatic aplomb. And its characters are fabulous: well-drawn, credible, and beautifully performed.
     In the title role, Charlie Hunnam (FX’s Sons of Anarchy) balances beleaguered, boyish charm with sexy stupidity. Chris O’Dowd, often seen hanging about with Maya Rudolph on set, here plays Charlie’s obnoxious camcorder-toting brother, and has rarely been better. And Lizzy Caplan, before she embraced nudity on Showtime’s Masters of Sex, is a revelation as Lassie, the drunk who crashes her bike into Charlie’s car, ends up making out with him, then winds up on the internet. Rounding out the stellar cast are Sam Anderson and Nora Dunn as the parental Bartletts and Ron Perlman, touching and terrific as Phyllis (formerly Phil), a trans-hacker to whom the sibs turn to get the “sex tape” offline before Lassie and her relentlessly self-absorbed actor father (Sex and the City‘s Chris Noth) see it. Ninth-billed Oliver Ham Austin is a literal pig.
     It was that title, admittedly, that piqued my interest initially but the zaniness, the zingers—the whole zippy little doo-dah of a package, in  fact—kept me in my seat. 3, 2, 1… Frankie Go Boom is a countdown to quirky fun of the biggest, booming-est order. I had a blast.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Shallows (2016)

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Nothing sells, cinematically, better than a bikini-clad babe or a great white shark and The Shallows, the lively new thrill-a-thon from director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) has ’em both! Gossip Girl‘s Blake Lively stars as Nancy, a med school dropout in an orange sorbet two-piece out to find the perfect wave.  Actually, she’s searching for a secluded beach her mother, who succumbed to cancer, discovered down in Mexico one time. But the location is not as idyllic as it first appears. A (CGI-rendered) great white has made the cove its feeding ground and Nancy, after indulging us with some frothy and kinetic surfing action (CGI again), is about to provide—in the words of SNL’s Cecily Strong—the “nib-bulls” (the shark inflicts a sizable bite to her thigh, then sticks around for seconds). A mere 200 yards from shore, Nancy clings to a slowly-submerging outcrop of coral-encrusted rock with only a (non-CGI) gull with a dislocated wing for company.  “Steven,” as she refers to him once, plays the equivalent role of that volleyball in Castaway, allowing Nancy to tell us what she’s feeling. Lively impresses though, and Collet-Serra keeps the adrenaline pumping for a full sixty minutes. But a ludicrous denouement involving a buoy anchor puts paid to the fine contributions from director,  cinematographer, and star. And how shallow is that?


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Harry Benson: Shoot First (2016)

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The word “iconic” gets bandied about a lot in Matthew Miele and Justin Bare’s fond and fascinating doc Harry Benson: Shoot First, but it’s not without good reason. Harry Benson took some pretty iconic photographs. There’s the one of John, Paul, George, and Ringo having a pillow fight in a Paris hotel room—perhaps you’ve seen that one. There’s one of President-elect Donald Trump hugging a million dollars to his chest, and another with his million-dollar wife Melania’s legs draped all over him. There’s one of Amy Winehouse striking a pose in a leopard-print top, the Clintons sharing an intimate moment (Bill’s lounging in a hammock), and model Kate Moss, wearing little more than a Marie Antoinette-styled hat by Vivienne Westwood. Harry Benson: Shoot First is, not surprisingly, awash with the celebrated photojournalist’s archetypal images and they showcase just how versatile the 87-year-old Scotsman is, whether capturing Judy Garland at her quintessential best, Michael Jackson at his Neverland Ranch, or Greta Garbo wanting to be alone (she failed). Celebrities, presidents, couples, recluses—Benson photographed them all. Not only was he present at some significant moments in history—Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, Richard Nixon’s resignation, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March Against Fear in Mississippi in 1966 to name a few—but he captured many of them on film, and expertly so. Similarly, this documentary, with interviews from a rich variety of media insiders, does an expert job of giving us an intimate look at a consummate professional with a personal style that brought out the very best in his subjects.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com