‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ Review: The phantom finale

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Force ghosts, parental legacies, devotion to prophecy—“Star Wars” has always been a story influenced by specters of the past. It’s also true in “The Rise of Skywalker,” the historic franchise’s ninth episodic entry – and, if the marketing is to be believed, the surefire finale to the Skywalker saga (anyone ready to take bets on that?) – that revisits old locales, revives long-thought-dead space dictators and echoes the conservative approach to character-building that was tossed out with Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber in the early moments of “The Last Jedi.” There’s no extinction in the galaxy far, far away, apparently; only hibernation. (It’s quite literally stated in the very first words of Episode IX’s crawl.)

But “Rise of Skywalker” – a triumphant finale, so long as you’re content with emotional complacency, raw visual bombast and general lack of ambition – is also stalled by specters of the future, and an unshakeable feeling that the movie is doing little more than rocketing toward inevitable showdowns you could predict from several parsecs away, as if rushing to get the fall’s most anticipated film over with. Continue reading →

‘Frozen II’ Review: Disney Animation’s latest lets the high standards go in subpar sequel

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

“Do you wanna build a snowman? Should we make it out of caaaash?”

It’s strange to think it’s been six years – or four “Star Wars” movies, seven Pixar flicks and about 675 Marvel entries ago – since “Frozen” stormed into theaters and childhood obsessions with the force of an avalanche (sorry), culminating Disney Animation’s recent efforts to update its party of princesses with a legitimately nuanced story of sisterhood while setting new box office standards.

That it took this long to get a sequel from a company continuously mining its IP for assured financial success would lead most to believe the studio was waiting for the right story to justify bringing Elsa, Anna and Co. back to the big screen. Despite Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee returning to direct – and Lee once again penning the screenplay – “Frozen II” will reliably keep the kids entertained for 100 minutes, but the movie’s immensely scaled-up ambitions melt away under a lackluster narrative. Meanwhile, its unwillingness to recognize, let alone match, the 2013 film’s emotional complexity goes a long way towards making this the most disappointing Disney Animation output in well over a decade. Continue reading →

Review: In “Avengers: Endgame,” the MCU takes a victory lap and a moment to reflect

For how much the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven its willingness to be malleable in its storytelling, to allow filmmakers to both shape and expand what we categorize as a superhero movie, finality is something it’s never really concerned itself with.

Post-credits scenes, cameos and cross-pollination have become as much a characteristic of these films as tight spandex and daddy issues. We used to see individual superheroes exclusively on the frontlines of their own big-screen stories – Tobey Maguire never web-slung across the city alongside the Human Torch – but that’s become a relic of yesterdecade with the MCU’s steadily calculated erasure of narrative borders because of, and in service to, an overarching narrative that only began to become clear several films into the MCU’s existence.

Continue reading →

Review: Marvel pokes fun at itself with ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ and has a blast doing it

It’s about time we got something like “Thor: Ragnarok.”

After nearly a dozen years of spinning an increasingly complex web of Marvel stories and characters, the studio realized a need for giving audiences something new and invigorating; something to keep the spark alive, if you will. And they picked the perfect franchise to do it.

With “Ragnarok,” one of the MCU’s least consequential (and – let’s face it – one of its least interesting) franchises doesn’t just get a facelift; it’s infused with a new energy. With the third solo entry for Thor – “solo” becoming more and more ambiguous the further along the MCU machine churns –  he’s officially the ugly girl you initially passed up on who went on to become a runway model. Continue reading →

Review: Disney tops itself with ‘Moana’

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here

 

It’s been remarkable to see how Disney has been able to reinvent itself at the theater in recent years, doing away with decidedly outdated stories, most of them which can be summed up as Anglo prince saves Anglo princess.

The world has moved on from being constrained to such narrow-minded themes simply being the way of things. Wisely, Disney’s films have followed suit. With “Moana,” Mickey Mouse’s house dispels once and for all the traditional notion that there can only be heroes, not heroines, and that the most rewarding connections with others are always heteronormative romances.

“Moana” is as grand and epic as “Frozen” was intimate and personal, without losing any of the latter’s ability to tell a story with universal themes and messages.

Whereas “Frozen” portrayed relationships in an unorthodox way (at least by Disney’s standards), there is, refreshingly, no romantic subplot of any kind in “Moana.” Instead, Disney spins a tale about finding our place in the face of uncertain futures, while subtlety commenting on our duty to the environment.

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It does it all through the strength of a monumental score and IMAX-worthy visuals. Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame lends his talents to the songwriting of “Moana” to wondrous ends, with every tune fulfilling a real purpose in the narrative while also managing to be compelling and emotionally stimulating.

The music works particularly well when complimented by the fantastic visual elements. At some points I had to remind myself that what was transpiring on-screen wasn’t live action. The animation is simply that engrossing.

Moana herself sets a new mark for how far Disney has come with its female characters. She is endearing, but also captivatingly independent; at times too curious for her own good in her larger-than-life quest, but never crossing a boundary where the audience questions her actions.

16-year-old Auli’I Cravalho deserves acclaim for her turn as Moana, providing a grandstanding performance as a voice actor and singer despite being having nary a single big-time acting credit to her name. The same goes for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the demigod Maui (who knew The Rock could sing?), a character with an engaging and thoughtful story arc of his own.

“Moana” also has laughs (a surprising amount of them coming from Moana and Maui’s companion, a chicken) for both the younger and older crowd. Parents, this is one you’ll want to watch with your kids, as the film also provides genuine thrills. One sequence in particular, a “Mad Max: Fury Road”-inspired affair, provides one of the best action action set pieces this year, lifting the film beyond the label of “just another kid’s movie.”

“Moana” has a lot to offer, with middle and concluding acts that are equal parts satisfying after a beginning that could have felt much more sluggish in different hands. Its biggest success, however, lies in how Disney is able to poke fun at itself for having been so reliant on one-dimensional stories of the princesses of yestercentury, in a way that signifies a changing of the guard.

Moana would never call herself a princess. As this film shows, she doesn’t need to be to aspire to something great.

 

 

‘Moana’ is rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements

Starring: Auli’l Carvalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison

Directed by Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker and Chris Williams

2016