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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review: Moana

Moana (2016): Written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, and Aaron and Jordan Kandell, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker.  Starring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, and Alan Tudyk.  Running Time: 107 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            Ever since Disney began diving back into the timeless moneypool of the Princess Musical form of animation with Princess and the Frog (which I still hold to be vastly underappreciated), the results have slowly improved with each new film, but so far none of them have achieved real greatness.  Yes, Tangled and Frozen are beloved new household favorites that made oodles of cash, and they are quite good, but they both had more than a few character, story, or technical problems holding them back.  Moana, to my relief, almost point-for-point improves on every criticism I’ve had of the past few films, and is, in my book, the best of the latest generation of Disney musicals to date. 

            Our titular character is the daughter of the chief of the small Pacific island of Motunui, preparing to follow in his footsteps and become the first female chieftain in the island’s history (oh, how I wish writing that was less painful).  Despite her father’s strict insistence that their island home is all they need, and that the world beyond their reef has nothing to offer, Moana feels pulled to the sea from an early age, and in fact has the ability to communicate with and even manipulate waves to some extent.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen another movie where water itself is a character.  It moves in ripples with every shade of blue imaginable.  It’s easily the best water animation I’ve seen since… know, it’s actually even better than Finding Nemo, and that’s one of my all-time favorites. 

            Her grandmother, who insists that they must eventually sail beyond the island to save the sea from an encroaching darkness set loose inadvertently by the Demigod Maui, does not approve of this strict isolationism, and gently prods her granddaughter to further explore the seafaring past of their people before they settled on the current island home.  Soon, the darkness does indeed start to arrive and kill off the fish and coconuts that the islanders require to survive, so Moana finally defies her father and sets out to find Maui and his magical fishhook, so that he can help her return a priceless artifact that holds the key to stopping the darkness spreading across the waves.   

            Part of what’s plagued the most recent movies in Disney’s musical canon has been inconsistency with the music, with the songs either being mostly forgettable (Princess and the Frog) or often feeling terribly disjointed and out of place alongside the film’s setting or musical score ( see Tangled and Frozen).  Thankfully, Moana does not suffer from this problem.  While none of the contributions of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i have quite the same movie-defining gravitas of Let It Go, or are as instantly iconic as some of the numbers from the Disney Renaissance of the 90’s, they are solid, catchy, and most importantly, fuse perfectly with Mark Mancina’s score and feel like a cohesive part of the film, as opposed to ditties tossed out of left field because “we have to have a song here, I guess.” 

            It is also, and I am so glad I can finally write this, an immense relief that there is no romantic subplot in sight.  I worried at first that the delightful buddy-comedy dynamics of Moana and Maui would give way to a romance at the very end, but thank God, we never tread (nor swim) there.  Not that romances are inherently bad in these sorts of films- Frozen had a fairly clever spin on theirs- but because they are so universally expected in every movie, I don’t think I would recall one that I found unforced if I tried. 

            More than anything else, Moana benefits from focusing itself on what, in the end, is a pretty small story.  For all the talk of saving the ocean and battling lava monsters of darkness, it boils down to just being two different types of people trying to get along on a boat while handling their own insecurities.  The film never really tries to do much more than that, and because it does it so well, the result is much more effective than that of many films that try and fail to be “bigger” in some thematic sense (although there is certainly a Globalization vs. Isolationism debate that can be drawn from Moana’s conversations with her father, for those so inclined). 

            Most of this comes down to great casting in the two lead roles- The Rock brings his established starpower and patented charisma to the table as Maui, and while he certainly gets plenty of the film’s best lines, his counterpart, newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, is a wonderful revelation as Moana.  Listening to this immensely talented young woman match a much older superstart point for point was one of the highlights of any movie I saw this year, and I sincerely hope we get to see more of her in the coming years. 

            This is also only the third of the Disney musical films to have a non-white lead, and while increasing diversity in pop culture has been important for a long time anyway, the fact that this film is coming out (and pulling in a profit) right now, in the wake of a wave of xenophobia and white nationalism breaking across the US and Europe and with the prospect of a Trump Presidency looming before us, makes the very existence of movies like Moana all the more important and precious. 

            In fact, this importance, and the fact that, some inevitable controversy notwithstanding, the film and its production team mostly did everything right they needed to do right, really does outweigh a lot of the criticisms of the movie as a movie that I could come up with.  It does indeed stick to standard Disney formula, right down to the silly side characters and a few reach jokes that fall flat.  We know almost immediately what the characters arcs for Moana and Maui will be, making most of the third act wholly predictable.  But because we need Moana in all her glory as a pop culture figure now more than ever, no, those issues really don’t matter as much. 

            Moana and its earlier 2016 counterpart Zootopia are the kinds of film I’ve been waiting for to be able to join the chorus of cinephiles saying that we are on the cusp of another Disney revival.  I was skeptical until now, but the more I think about both of these movies the more I dig them, and if they truly are harbingers for a new wave of great Disney animation to come, I will be there to greet it with open arms and childlike glee. 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Review- Star Wars: Rogue One

Star Wars: Rogue One (2016): Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, directed by Gareth Edwards.  Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, and Forest Whitaker.  Running Time: 133 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            The death of my beloved EU aside, so far I must admit that I am quite enjoying the cinematic return to the Star Wars universe we are now in the midst of.  The Force Awakens was a great dive back into the broad space opera of the original films, and this year’s smaller Rogue One will hopefully be the first icebreaker that allows subsets of the main trilogies to further push the bounds of what types of stories and characters can be pulled from the universe’s boundless potential.  Like The Force Awakens, it stumbles a bit in its eagerness to stoke our collective sense of nostalgia, and plot issues abound, but when the movie is on, it’s on, and features a few scenes that deserve to rank among the best of the current Star Wars film canon. 

            Pretty much everyone seeing this will know this is an immediate prequel to A New Hope- the first Star Wars thing the world ever saw was Leia fleeing Darth Vader with the plans to the Death Star, and this is the tale of how, exactly, the rebels managed to acquire said plans.  The main vehicle for this tale is a young, hard-bitten criminal named Jyn (Felicity Jones), whose father happens to be one of the original engineers crucial to the development of the Death Star.  She’s been roaming the galaxy on her own until the day when she is “recruited” by the Rebel Alliance right at the same time an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed) appears, claiming to have been sent by her father with instructions on how to find plans for the superweapon that hold the key to its destruction. 

            There is a little bit of winding around the galaxy throughout the first two acts to get to it, but eventually Jyn, the defector, Rebel captain/assassin Cassian (Diego Luna), and his accompanying battle droid K-2 (a hilarious and brilliant Alan Tudyk) team up with a pair of former guards of an old Jedi Temple, Chirrut (Donnie Yen), a blind warrior-priest, and Baze (Jiang Wen), a gruffy shoot-em-up type, to hatch a madcap scheme to break into a major Imperial facility holding the plans. 

            The biggest problems with the film come in the windy parts in the first two acts- while the mixed batch in our rogue’s gallery of heroes are all well-acted and a lot of fun to watch (and it’s great to see such an ethnically mixed cast too), there just isn’t much in the stories given to Jyn and Cassian to work with.  As such, the story backgrounds built up in a lot of the world-hopping we have to sit through (which a lot of viewers may find boring) aren’t really fully justified, and a tighter narrative with a greater focus on the action and intrigue in the third act would likely have made for a more powerful movie. 

            None of it is bad, to be clear, just largely unexceptional.  Where the film DOES shine is in the craft of its filmmaking- this is a gorgeously-shot work, with some of the smoothest and most enjoyable action sequences we’ve yet gotten in any of these films, original, prequel, or otherwise.  The entire third act is damn near flawless, evenly balancing out a wide range of action from space battles to pitched firefights to sneaky electrical sabotage, and all of the pleasantly colorful cast members get their moment to shine.  It reminded me that we’ve never really had this sort of ensemble piece in a Star Wars film before, and given the huge numbers of characters that could be put together for this sort of story, I hope this is a harbinger of things to come. 

            Like with The Force Awakens, shouts-outs and in-jokes referring to the other films abound, and like with last year’s entry, they’re very much a mixed bag.  Some are really clever, and the way they utilize Darth Vader (oh how we’ve all missed you, James Earl Jones) is inspired.  Others are not.  Something many people will find too troubling to dismiss is the decision to use only CGI to recreate two old characters in particular whose actors were either dead or way too old to be used in this particular film.  It’s very good CGI, but it’s still obvious it’s CGI.  This might end up being a bit of a watershed if CGI humans ever do get the point where we can’t tell the difference anymore, but we are not there yet, and while it is certainly a very interesting attempt, I can’t blame anyone for finding them just too off-putting. 

            But when it really comes down to it, I can’t bring myself to complain too much, because I really did have a ton of fun watching this movie, and I think most people will too.  It’s not perfect, and I will let the debate over where it ranks compared to the other movies to those who care way more about that sort of thing than I ever will, but it is a well-crafted enough film (with a few genuinely beautiful and haunting scenes) to merit seeing on the big screen.  Treat your inner Jedi this Christmas.  You’ve earned it, anonymous reader I will likely never meet.  At least I assume you have.    

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016): Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, directed by Travis Knight.  Starring: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, and Rooney Mara.  Running Time: 102 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            If you must blink, do it now.  For if you look away for even a second, this review will fail, and it’s writer will surely die.  Or at least be condemned to watching lesser animated fare like Sing or The Secret Life of Pets for the rest of eternity.  *shudders*  

            This threat is not terribly dissimilar to the one facing our hero, Kubo (Art Parkinson), as he seeks to discover the legacy of his late father, the legendary samurai Hanzo.  Possessing the ability to use his magical shamisen to manipulate objects like leaves and pieces of paper however he wishes, Kubo is at first wholly ignorant of why he and his mother live alone in a seaside cave, why he is strictly forbidden from leaving the cave at night, and why he only has one eye.  He finds out in terrible fashion one night when he stays in the local village just a bit too long, and his mother’s twin sisters (both expertly voiced by Rooney Mara) descend from the moon to kill him and his mother and steal his remaining eye. 

            His mother uses the last of her magic powers (she appears to have once a powerful sorcerous, but grief over the loss of her husband slowly dimmed her strength over the years), to send Kubo away under the protection of a monkey talisman brought to life.  Kubo and the monkey (Charlize Theron) are soon joined by an anthropomorphic beetle (Matthew McConaughey) claiming to have been trained by Hanzo himself.  They set out to find the legendary three great treasures that offer Kubo’s only defense against the powerful magic of the sisters and their father, the Moon King. 

            It’s a perfect example of the classic Hero’s Journey we’ve seen a thousand times before, yet done so point-perfect and with such obvious vision that it rises above most of its competitors into something unique and special.  This movie was in production for almost a decade, and it shows, as its lavish and detailed visual design left me gaping in every other scene.  Everything from the way hair and clothing moves to how waves rise and fall looks so realistic you have to keep reminding yourself you’re watching clay figures that were photographed a shot at a time. 

            This is so much more than a lights show though.  The voice acting breathes beautifully animated life into the characters, and when you least expect it to, the movie uses its story to turn to themes of forgiveness, love, and family, and the importance of building community with those around you.  There are story quibbles to be had- later reveals about the background of Monkey and Beetle raise more questions than they answer- but these are minor distractions from what is otherwise one of the best movies, animated or otherwise, to come out this year.

            I still find it supremely disappointing that Laika has never had quite the box-office success (nor the awards success) that the other major animations studios in America have had, because they have firmly established themselves as the new Pixar of the US animation scene, created brilliant, original, and cutting-edge works that push the boundaries of stop-motion animation much like how Pixar has expanded the possibilities of computer animation.  By all rights this and ParaNorman both deserved much better success than they had (this one just barely broke even at the box office). 

            That said, Kubo is still such a masterful piece of work, I am confident it will still find its audience and will remain and enduring work for years to come.  Like its score and the magical, reality-altering music of Kubo himself, it rises and soars on its own vision to heights most movies can only dream of reaching. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review: Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016): Written by John Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and G. Robert Cargill, directed by Scott Derrickson.  Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton.  Running Time: 115 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            The shared Marvel cinematic universe has become such a brand of its own at this point, it’s near impossible to review any of its constituent parts in isolation from each other.  It also means that reviewing these things quickly gets very rote- they nearly all have identical strengths and weaknesses, so what you say about one can easily be applied with little alteration to most of the others.  Doctor Strange does not do much to buck this trend, but thankfully it still employs enough visual panache and is more than fun enough to rank it among Marvel’s better origin stories. 

            When we first meet him, Strange is living the life of a slightly classier Tony Stark- exceedingly brilliant, wealthy, part of the upper strata of city life, and a bit of an arrogant prick.  He’s perfectly content in his sarcastic discontentedness until a bad car accident (almost comically bad- you’ll see what I mean when it happens) leaves him with such considerable nerve damage in his hands  that his high-flying surgical career, and with it the glitzy lifestyle he loved so much, is effectively over. 

            Increasingly desperate and bitter, he bankrupts himself on increasingly experimental (and extralegal) and finally drives away his only real friend, Christine (a criminally underused Rachel McAdams).  He finally gets a tip-off from someone who miraculously made a full recovery from similar damage, which leads him to Kamar-Taj in Nepal.  He expects to find a group of brilliant doctors working beyond all bounds of regulated science.  What he actually finds is the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful sorceress charged with protecting the Earth from what lies beyond all bounds of this particular dimension.  Faced with the chance to remake himself into more than what he was, Strange commits himself to learning the magical arts and begins to train under the Ancient One. 

            Like with most origin stories, Strange’s journey of discovery is a fun time.  His lessons are aided by two of the Ancient One’s strongest acolytes, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the librarian Wong (Benedict Wong).  All in all this is a great and talented cast having a hugely fun time, and the film keeps itself pretty light most of the time.  This is also a half-strike against it, since the movie would have benefited immensely from a deeper dive into the struggle of a coldly scientific mind forced to confront direct evidence that what it previously thought to be “The Truth” was way off. 

            But, Marvel movies never do want to get bogged down in heavy topics, since no one buys a ticket to a Marvel feature for an in-depth examination of the existential.  What IS more problematic is the continued Achilles’ heel of this entire universe; weak villains with rather paltry evil plans. 

            Don’t get me wrong, Mads Mikkelsen looks great and is suitably intimidating as Kaecilius, a former pupil of the Ancient One’s gone rogue, but his plan is just another rendition of Been There and Can We Not Do This Again please?  It’s dropped on Strange (and us) in a clunky bit of exposition that breaks up what had otherwise been a solid and really cool action scene. 

            It’s all par for the course with most entries into the superhero genre, but I’m still waiting for one of these things really brake with standard formula and play for more exotic stakes.  Oh well.  No matter.  For what it is, Doctor Strange is another well-above-average entry into the growing Marvel canon, as its stunning visuals representing the various dimensions and universes Strange interacts with and its top-notch casting push it well above its storytelling flaws.  Toot-toot, all aboard, for the Marvel train still ain’t stopping. 

-Noah Franc 

Review: Transit Havana

Transit Havana (2016): Written by Alex Bakker and directed by Daniel Abma.  Starring: Malu Cano Valladeres, Giselle Odette Diogenes Dominguez Rodriguez, and Juani Santos Perez.  Running Time: 86 minutes. 

Rating: 2.5/4  

            Transit Havana is a film that’s supposed to be about the experience of trans-peoples in the city of Havana, but quite often, it unintentionally morphs into a fascinating tableau piece about daily life in Cuba under the Castros.  Much like last year’s Taxi, it’s a remarkable glimpse into a country and culture Americans rarely get to see.  Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I find it difficult to separate my identity as an American from my feelings towards the film itself, since what often piqued my curiosity the most were the parts that had less to do with the transwoman ostensibly at its core.  This is exacerbated somewhat by the film’s own relative lack of focus. 

            The core of the documentary is a small group of trans-people, including the first known trans-man (who still lives), in Cuban history.  Most of the film consists of simple, slice-of-life glimpses of their daily routines, what sort of jobs they have, and what particular personal challenges they’ve had to encounter in trying to manage their transition. 

            Like many other countries struggling over trans-rights, Cuba is a deeply religious nation, with the Catholic Church serving as a major bedrock of the culture, and one of the most powerful scenes in the entire film illuminates this, when one of the women in question fights with her mother (who has, apparently, never stopped referring to her as “her son”) over her identity, what the priest has to say about it, and whether or not she really is and/or wants to be a woman.  Indeed, the constant struggle between personal progressivism and socially-religious conservatism is an obvious point of similarity between Cuban and American culture, political differences notwithstanding. 

            Another side focus of the film is the active role Mariela Castro, a niece of Fidel Castro, plays in the trans-rights movement.  She takes a prominent place in rights marches, regularly gives interviews on the topic, engages the services of European doctors for full sex change operations, and is the head of Cenesex, the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, a governing body that largely dedicates itself to promoting awareness of LGBT issues. 

            Here’s where my Americanness comes into play- it is simply fascinating to me to see a relative of Fidel Castro so prominently featuring in such a progressive cause.  It’s also equally fascinating to hear every third sentence she says in interviews bookended with some variant of “because socialism is the salvation of humanity, of course.”  You can tell this is a rehearsed statement she has made countless times before.

            Another bit potent with meaning covers initial reactions of everyone to the announcement of the recent US-Cuba rapprochement.  I know I was psyched when I first heard about it, and it’s interest to see that, from the other side, I was not the only person to respond positively.  It’s clear that what all these people want more than anything is simply a better and more secure life for themselves and their loved ones, be it from a Socialist Utopia or no.    

            More often than not, the trans-issues within the film almost feel like an afterthought.  They are there, but their moments of power or insight into the nature of the fight for trans-rights in Cuba are scattered, and overshadowed by the moments where the director seemingly decided to just sit the camera down and observe regular Cubans going about the city, often in rather baffling slow-mo.  Little is explained about the relationships its subjects have with each other, what groups they are involved in, etc. etc.  Which I found to be a shame, because a better focus and more info provided to us about the people we were seeing could have made the film more impactful than it is. 

            The best documentaries introduce us to the stories, or at least parts of the stories, of individual lives of particular uniqueness or interest, and there are plenty of people of interest to be found here.  Telling their stories of pain, struggle, and self-discovery is particularly important in these seemingly regressive times.  I just wish they could have been in a movie that slightly better does their tales justice. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Review: Girls Lost

Girls Lost (2016): Written by Jessica Schiefauer and Alexandra-Therese Keining, directed by Alexandra-Therese Keining.  Starring: Tuva Jagell, Emrik Oehlander, Wilma Holmen, Vilgot Ostwald Vesterlund, Louise Nyvall, and Alexander Gustavsson.  Running Time: 106 minutes.  Based on the novel of the same name by Jessica Schiefauer. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            Girls Lost features a fascinating mix of reality and fantasy.  It’s depictions of the horrors of high school years are brutal in their accuracy, yet its central conceit of a group of teenage lesbians struggling with their burgeoning sexual and gender identities revolves around a twist of the supernatural to push the plot into motion, the sort of mix that seems off-putting at first, but ultimately lends the film its own unique magic. 

            Kim, Momo, and Bella, lesbians all, already carry the stigma of being “the outcasts” for pretty much everyone in their town, but they cope as best they can by tightly sticking together at all times, especially at school where it’s most needed.  Whenever they so much as enter the building the entire tone of the scene shifts, making everything seem vaguely threatening.  I meant it when I referred to these parts of the film as brutal- in one of the most chillingly uncomfortable scenes I’ve watched all year, a group of particularly aggressive guys in their gym class separate one of them, push her against a wall, and try to force her to undress for them.  And if you think any of the teachers would come to their aid, even in clear cases of assault, you can forget it. 

            When not in School Survival Mode, they spend most of their time in a greenhouse, where they tend to all manner of flowers.  In a shipment of seeds, they find a strange one without a label, and decide to find out what it is.  It proceeds to fully sprout into a large, black flower that very night, and upon examining it they find that the flower excretes an oozy, vanilla-smelling liquid, which, when consumed, physically transforms them into boys for the course of a single night, allowing them to wander the town totally unrecognized by their classmates. 

            Momo and Bella find this bizarre turn more amusing than anything else, a way to have some fun at parties without being noticed or attacked, but for Kim, their first night as boys about town touches something deep within her, something she’d previously only suspected was there.  After befriending another boy from their school while transformed (it’s made clear later on he does not recognize her when she’s a girl), she also starts to wonder if she has feelings for him, throwing everything she thought she knew about herself right up in the air.  Is she a girl or a boy?  Homosexual or straight?  How can she possibly find out? 

            The swirling emotional complexities of the changes wrought on them all through this strange plant are captured expertly by a brilliant bit of double-casting; the girls themselves are solid enough, but are further supplemented by the boys that play their male versions, who perfectly mimic their respective physical tics or speech patterns, and even resemble them enough that you can immediately note who’s who. 

            There is no explanation for the plant- what it is, where it comes from, how its powers work, and why it suddenly starts to die halfway into the film- which will annoy some, but since this is a character-driven piece about the struggles of adolescence in general and one person’s crisis of identity specifically, worrying about this is missing the woods for the trees.  What I did have a problem with was a few moments in the third act where a few of the people start to act in ways entirely out of character, seemingly without motivation to do so, but thankfully they don’t derail what is otherwise a very powerful ending

            Witnessing Kim’s journey of personal discovery is agonizing, painful, and wonderful all at once, capturing so many of the moments of intense emotion growing up brings that can’t be put into words.  They can only be seen, or heard, or borne out in quick looks and small gestures, and it’s a mastery of the smallness of some of the defining moments of our growing years that make Girls Lost a special bit of filmmaking.  Highly recommended, especially for those who’ve struggled or still struggle with their own gender identities. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

What if the 2016 Presidential Candidates Had Devil Fruit Powers?

            I don’t know how many of you are aware of this, but there’s a Presidential election coming up.  Did you know????  I certainly didn’t!!!!

            Okay, facetiousness aside, there’s no getting around the fact that this has been a very stressful year for anyone who would rather the world not burn down.  Between the Flaming Racist Cheeto on the GOP side and all the people STILL not sure they aren’t capable of voting for an overwhelmingly qualified woman over said KKK Cheezit Stand-In on the other, the rest of us residing in Sane World are stressed, worried, angry, upset, depressed, and more.  You name it, I’ve felt it over the last 10 months, and I’m sure most of you have as well. 

            So I figured, with nary two weeks to go before the battle ends and the war begins, we could all use a little levity in our lives.  With that, I wish to present to you a useful little looking glass through which to view the events of the 2016 Election; what if all the major candidates, be they primary or general, were living in the world of One Piece and had their own Devil Fruit powers? 

            The list that follows is by no means complete, but it should serve as a decent starter set for anyone looking for a little fantastical escapism to make the next week and the years of aftermath we will all have to deal with a little more palatable.  Enjoy! 

Gary Johnson- Bara Bara no Mi (The Section Fruit)

            Much like the Sectioning power of Buggy the Clown, Gary Johnson and Libertarianism may seem actually quite intriguing and useful from a distance.  However, it soon becomes apparent that simply dividing yourself up into tiny, separated sections to avoid actual harm inevitably results in nothing more than a pile of hapless body parts scattered across the sand, flopping uselessly in the wind. 

Carly Fiorino- Sube Sube no Mi (The Slip-Slip Fruit)

            What better power for this former business exec to have than the ability to make anything and everything, even serious allegations of being terrible at business, just slip off her like they never even happened? 

John Kasich- Moku Moku no Mi (The Smoke Fruit)

            Like having the power to turn yourself into smoke, John Kasich seemed like he could be quite formidable, but, as we all learned, it only takes a few puffs of wind to make smoke dissipate forever into the atmosphere.   

Ben Carson- Nemu Nemu no Mi (The Sleepy Fruit)

            Be honest- what else would you expect Ben Carson’s power to be?   

Martin O’Malley- Iro Iro no Mi (The Camouflage Fruit)

            O’Malley may actually have already acquired this Fruit ability in real life, as he displayed an extraordinary tendency during the DNC primary debates to blend seamlessly into the backgrounds behind him.  And like a camouflaged chameleon in the jungle, everyone promptly forgot he was there. 

Jeb Bush- Doru Doru no Mi (The Wax-Wax Fruit)

            Much like the wax figures at Madame Tussauds, Jeb looks great from a distance, but get closer and you soon notice the unreal, plastic sheen covering his body.  He also quickly starts to melt when directly exposed to heat. 

Chris Christie- Gasu Gasu no Mi (The Poison Gas Fruit)

            This one requires bystanders to exercise a particularly high level of caution.  Get too close, and a mere breath from Christie is enough to infuse your lungs with his deadly, contagious poison, from which there is no recovery. 

Marco Rubio- Suna Suna no Mi (The Sand Fruit)

            Like the sand this Fruit allows you to control, Marco Rubio hails from Florida, is irritatingly dry, gets everywhere (since he’s never present in the Senate), and his one, true weakness….is water. 

Ted Cruz- Awa Awa no Mi (The Soap-Soap Fruit)


            Like a bar of soap in shower, this man is slippery as fuck.  And if he gets out of hand and ricochets off the wall hard enough, he may kill you. 

Bernie Sanders- Bomu Bomu no Mi (The Bomb-Bomb Fruit)

            What other power could I have given The Bern?  Cross him, and he will strike by making any part of his body, even his boogers, or his wild, wind-strewn hair, swell and explode with his righteous fury. 

Donald Trump- Yami Yami no Mi (The Darkness Fruit)

            There are a lot of terrifying and horrid powers in the One Piece world that would be a good fit for this pusillanimous, pulsing, pitiful excuse for a human, but for this list, I settled on the Darkness Fruit, with its destructive Black Hole-like powers.  For like the wretched Blackbeard himself, Trump has already evinced time and again his horrific capacity to absorb everything he touches into the nothingness of his being, and then spew it back out as a garbled, shit-filled mess. 

Hillary Clinton- Naiya Naiya no Mi (The Diamond Fruit)

            You ain’t gonna leave no scratches on this woman, because there ain’t nothing in the world harder than a diamond.  And if you don’t watch out, you gonna get cut, cuz diamonds are NASTY sharp. 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review: Swiss Army Man

Swiss Army Man (2016): Written and directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan.  Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.  Running Time: 97 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            This movie begins with Paul Dano riding Daniel Radcliffe across the ocean like a literal human motorboat, propelled across the breaking waves by Radcliffe’s seemingly endless supply of explosive flatulence. 

            If that sentence was enough to convince you that you can never meet this film on its own terms, turn back now, for you shall not be warned again.  Yep, it’s one of those. 

            Alright, I should probably back up a bit first.  Hank (Paul Dano) has apparently been stranded on a deserted island for some time, and is at the point of preparing to hang himself from a branch, when the waves suddenly toss a human corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) onto the beach in front of him.  Despite his disappointment that it is, indeed, a corpse, and not a fellow survivor (for so it seems, at first), he recognizes an opportunity for escape when the body begins to fart incessantly, pushing itself back out to sea.  This is the lead-in to the motorboat scene, which doubles as the opening credits.  They do reach land, but are clearly still very far from civilization. 

            Unsure of what to do next, Hank decides to keep dragging the corpse along with him, and gets the shock of his life later on when it actually does start moving and speaking.  He affectionately dubs his new friend “Manny,” and soon realizes that this strange body has a variety of powers perfectly suited to his efforts to survive.  In addition to the aforementioned flatulence, Manny can spew fresh water out of his mouth like a geyser at will, is super flexible and has the strength to chop wood, stones, and other materials, can have anything shoved into his mouth and shot out of him like a cannonball, can create sparks to start fires with his hands, and also periodically gets massive erections capable of sensing the way through the woods back home, like some sort of erotic compass (I did warn you). 

            This is that rare film so wholly unique as to be truly beyond classification.  Many of the adventures Hank and Manny have together could be broadly described as survival tales (they are, after all, lost in the woods for most of the film’s running time), but it’s also a love story, an exploration of friendship and dealing with questions of self-worth, and a musing on the general weirdness of life itself.  It’s also a rip-roaringly good comedy, so committed to its own zaniness that laughter is pretty much the only appropriate response.  I haven’t seen a movie so unapologetically committed to its disregard for the laws of natural science since Mood Indigo.

            This really only works because the movie absolutely refuses to explain the rules of its world.  What is Manny?  A human?  An angel?  Something else?  Is he actually a corpse, or is he biologically alive?  Where do his powers come from and how do they work?  We never know, and we’re so much better off for that, because getting bogged down in those sorts of details would ruin the fun.  Whoever (or whatever) he is, he seems to have no memories regarding where he came from, so once he wakes up and starts talking, Hank quickly realizes he has to basically teach Manny about life, the world, and people from scratch, as if he were a newborn infant with the body and language ability of an adult. 

            The montages where this is addressed are what may make or break the film for many viewers- some will find it unbearably cheesy, perhaps too earnest or naïve for its own good, others will find it tearfully heartwarming, and many will likely just find them weird and without purpose.  It’s also a ready excuse for the film to go off on tangents about farting, pooping, and masturbating without feeling like a pandering reach for the 12-year-old-boy demographic.  That being said, it might be sound for me to make a general proclamation here that anyone seriously put off by any sort of discussion about genitals and their various functions would do well to avoid this movie, because truly, there will be no mercy. 

            For all the clear passion that goes into the film’s ecstatic editing and the fascination of seeing how weirdly they use CGI to bring the film’s most bizarre moments to life, what anchors this movie and makes it rise above its inherently pulpy nature are its two leads.  Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe achieve a perfect symbiosis between their performances, a balance that allows the strange, STRANGE things they talk about to be both funny and serious without ever veering into being too ridiculous.  A single misstep by either of them would probably have brought the whole affair crashing down around their feet, but by God, like a nude high-wire act over Niagara Falls, somehow they pulled this crazy stunt off.  Radcliffe in particular has made odd, offbeat projects like this his calling card since Harry Potter ended, and this just might be his best performance in his best film yet. 

            Swiss Army Man is fun, intelligent, daring, bizarre, challenging, and unrelentingly in-your-face, and I love it for that.  There are a great many people who will see this movie, hate it, read this review praising it, and then stand ready to proclaim me a lunatic.  But as the great and wise Horton the Elephant once sang;  

They all call me a lunatic/
Okay, call me a lunatic/
But I have wings, and I can fly/
Around the moon and far beyond the sky. 

            And after seeing this movie, I certainly intend to fly, my friends.  Possibly with the aid of Eternal Magic Farts, but I’ll never tell. 

-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Review: Frantz

Frantz (2016): written by Francois Ozon and Philippe Piazzo, directed by Francois Ozon.  Starring: Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stoetzner, and Marie Gruber.  Running Time: 113 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Francois Ozon’s latest work is almost surreal in how traditional it is in its storytelling and style, unusual for someone more known for featuring bizarre psychological or sexual twists in his films.  Much like its characters, set adrift in time by their suffering, the movie feels like a relic from another era of cinema; this is helped in no small part by its mostly black-and-white ascetic.  It feels like the sort of the classical drama most current historical Oscar-bait works wish they could be, quietly complex in how it balances handling its historical setting, its characters, and the strained emotional ties that bind them to each other in ways both heartbreakingly sad and beautifully profound.   

            The setting is Germany in 1919, right as the continent as a whole was struggling to come to terms with the full scale of the senseless tragedy that was then called, rather naively, “The War to End All Wars.”  Within Germany, many are already beginning to angrily reject their status as national “losers” and the harsh terms dictated by the Treaty of Versailles.  Not that any of these larger geopolitical matters are of any importance to Anna (Paula Beer)- she only has thoughts of her fiancé, Frantz, (with whose parents she now lives), one of millions lost in the fighting, buried in an anonymous pit somewhere in France.  Wrapped in her grief, she has lost her interest in just about everything in life, including the repeated marriage proposals of one of the older men in town. 

            The quiet, daily grieving of Anna and Frantz’s elderly parents, the Hoffmeisters, is suddenly made far more acute when a strange Frenchman named Adrien (Pierre Niney) appears at their doorstep, claiming to have known Frantz before the war.  Anna and Mrs. Hoffmeister are happy to receive any new recollections of their lost loved one they can get, but Frantz’s father can barely stand being in the same room with him, since, as he himself puts it, “Every Frenchman is to me the murderer of my son.” 

            Despite his initial resistance to speaking with the man, and despite a general attitude of hostility Adrien elicits in nearly all of the townspeople (the raw emotional wounds of war are never far beneath the surface in this film), they decide anyway to try and overcome the pain and awkwardness of their first meeting.  Soon, in small ways, powerful ways, they start bringing the color back into each other’s world (literally!), as if they are all finally giving themselves permission to heal and move forward.  That is, until Anna begins to suspect that there may be more to Adrien’s story about his relationship with Frantz than he first let on. 

            While there is, obviously, a LOT of potent emotional material to unpack here (and nearly all of it is), that is, amazingly, only the first half of the movie.  After a first part that could have stood as a great film all its own, the second part develops everything further into a quasi-mystery yarn- Adrien seems to disappear after he returns to Paris, and Anna resolves to go there herself to track him down.  I lost count of the number of times I thought the story was going to break a certain way, only to have it take an abrupt turn down another road I hadn’t even considered before.  There are so many ways Ozon could have decided to make things play out, but the paths he ultimately chooses and the various fates he selects for these people feel decidedly fitting.   

            The key visual trick of the movie is a simple one, the use of color-as-metaphor, but it’s expertly executed.  Nearly the entirety of the film is in black-and-white, especially the cities and towns, as if war truly had sucked out all the variety of life.  Nature, however, is often in color, as if distance from human dwellings allows better detachment from the daily pains of life.  Moments of music or brevity in conversation occasionally break through the veil and restore life to the world’s pallet, a wonderful silent commentary on the power of art to aid in overcoming grief.  It’s the sort of basic, elemental technique that could easily lend itself to overuse, but Ozon never allows this card to be overplayed. 

            Much of the film’s thematic subtlety can be found in the ways in which Adrien and Anna’s separate journeys, each one taking them out of their comfort zones and into a world strange to them, mirror each other.  It is an unfortunately consistent side effect of war that it leaves bitter feelings on every side.  Not only does Adrien have to face barely-concealed contempt from everyone he meets in Germany, Anna and the parents soon start to get their share of angry looks from the townspeople just for associating with him.  Anna then experiences her own version of this when she travels to France, getting a sharp glance from a mother in a train when the conductor loudly announces she’s German.  One of the most enduring shots in the entire film is of her face through the train glass, watching a ruined shell of a town fly by, its empty destruction reflected on her features.  Anna doesn’t actually face that much in the way of in-her-face discrimination once she arrives in Paris, so it’s an idea that I wish could have been more fully fleshed out, but that may have bogged down the film in unnecessary asides.   

            Frantz has the potential to be its own kind of classic, a work that’s quiet and humble, but still quite confident in itself as it moves us through the strange, winding, paths of recovery and renewal that Anna and Adrien experience in their individual ways.  It is a marvelous work, one that I hope to see talked about and remembered for years to come. 

-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Review: Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe (2016): Written by William Wheeler, directed by Mira Nair.  Starring: Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong’o, and David Oyelowo.  Running Time: 124 minutes.  Based on the book of the same name by Tim Crothers. 

Rating: 3/4

            In many ways, Queen of Katwe hails from a long tradition of dime-a-dozen biopic pics, a story of a person with a prodigal talent who, through a combination of smart mentorship and good luck, rises out of obscurity (and often depravation to boot) to gain the sort of fame and fortune they otherwise could only have dreamed of.  This particular film never really rises above the kind of storytelling formula this entails, which does hold it back from being genuinely groundbreaking.  However, it is anchored by so many powerful and indelibly charming performances by its sprawling cast that it still holds its own, and makes for an extremely compelling watch. 

            Our setting is the small (and extremely poor) Ugandan village of Katwe, where a single mother, Harriet, (played by legend-to-be Lupita Nyong’o), fights tooth and nail to clothe, feed, and raise her four surviving children following the death of their father and another child.  It’s a living that demands endless resourcefulness and a tough hide, especially with the oldest daughter, Night, being courted by the sort of man Harriet refers to with contempt as a “hyena.”  Their days mostly consist of selling corn in the marketplace, with all members of the family taking part, but the middle children, Phiona and Theo, are soon distracted from their usual tasks when they are drawn to a local chess club organized by Robert (David Oyelowo), an aspiring engineer forced to make ends meet for his young family by working for a local ministry in youth outreach. 

            While hardly a master of the game himself, he quickly realizes he has a potential prodigy on his hands in Phiona, who learns the ins and outs of the game very rapidly despite having no formal education of any kind.  He soon starts pushing more and more for her and her fellow chess players (most of whom, not just Phiona, are indeed extremely talented) to attend various national and even international tournaments, and this quiet, unassuming, soft-spoken girl from a forgotten corner of Uganda soon becomes a beloved icon in her hometown and indeed throughout her country when she begins to win a number of prestigious awards. 

            A big strength for this film, especially in light of certain recurring tendencies in Western cinema, is that no white savior to be found.  This is a movie by and about Africans, and while that may seem like something rather sad to make a point out of in the 21st century, I couldn’t help but feel a certain relief when this struck me.  By preventing any distracting focus on white vs black racism, the movie is able to focus its nuances on more subtle differences within many African communities, especially between the more wealthy, cosmopolitan cities and the slums; some of the boys first agree to join the club only after Robert dangles the prospect of them getting the chance to show up “those city boys.” 

            Indeed, the movie never really does go for an overarching “message,” but its undertones about how mutual dislike and stereotyping- of ALL sorts- can affect relationships and hold people back from being their best selves.  One of the film’s most powerful moments occurs when, on their way to their first big tournament, the children first see King’s College.  Despite it being just a short drive from their village, it may as well be another planet for how strange, new, and alien it is to them. 

            There are many aspects of the narrative that don’t work- the beginning is very choppy and it takes a while to establish who is who, and what their relationships to each other are- and while there is some second-act examination of how burgeoning stardom starts to go to Phiona’s head, it’s never really developed in a way that’s more than perfunctory.  Nonetheless, Madina Nalwanga is a revelation in the title role, and she is more than adequately backed up by powerhouses David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o (both as remarkable as always) as the adults with the most influence over her life.  Lupita’s ability to convey the acute pains of a loving (yet demanding!) parent forced to face the limits of her ability to teach her child, and the need to, eventually, allow her to find her own way, is sweet and poignant and heartbreaking all at once, often captured in a mere glance.  I’ve missed seeing her on the big screen so, so much.  
            Much to its credit, Queen of Katwe avoids going for soaring music, loud oratory, or big, overblown emotional scenes with its characters to get its remarkable story across.  It relies on the immense talent of its cast and their ability to reveal the human spirit that ebbs and flows and thrives even in the midst of despair, and that is always ready to peak out and shine when given the right opportunity.  It is, above else, heartwarming and inspirational, which is all it ever needed to be. 

-Noah Franc