Moana

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In Disney’s latest animated musical, Moana, the teenage daughter of a village chief, sets out to save her island and her people, with the help of a troublesome but fearless demigod named Maui.

We all know from previous experience you’ve got to rush to the theaters whenever Disney releases an animated movie – and this one’s definitely worth it. Moana is not a princess movie – even Moana herself denies that she’s one. There are story elements and character arcs that will remind you of Aladdin, Frozen, and more, but Moana is as distant from the “Disney princess” genre as it gets. Auli’i Cravalho, 16-year old Hawaiian native and newcomer to showbiz, voices our lead and brings tons of heart and independence to her character. Moana isn’t looking for a prince to save her – she knows only she can embark on this journey to save her island. Disney wouldn’t have thought to create a heroine like that 10 years ago, and I’m glad we live in a world where our next generation will be getting films like these. Cravalho not only delivers her character’s courageous soul, but also a few memorable musical numbers with a voice that I’m sure will get her somewhere soon. You know who else can sing? Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who sings my favorite and arguably the catchiest song in the movie, and he also delivers a phenomenal voice performance as the self-absorbed demigod who reluctantly joins Moana’s adventure. Disney hired the right person to write Moana‘s songs in Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Although there is less singing than in Tangled and Frozen, and you probably won’t catch your children singing the songs from this film like they did with “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “Let it Go” a few years ago, the songs here were much better written and a lot more enjoyable for me.

Should Moana enter the race to the Best Animated Feature Oscar alongside Finding Dory and Zootopia?  Well, I’d say that it absolutely should. Who thought that Disney could release two computer-animated movies in the same year without the Pixar trademark and they’d both be so successful? The animation is stunning, and the ocean and the creatures living in it, from sea turtles to stingrays, look gorgeous thanks to the hard work put into the movie’s visual appeal. The uniqueness and entertainment of Moana is why you should definitely see this one on the big screen. The movie’s humor is mostly aimed for younger audiences, but it still had me laughing hard throughout. Although some plot elements at one point feel too familiar from other Disney films, as well as the message about how every individual is important and can make a difference, it’s the way it’s executed that makes it all fit perfectly in the end, and will be sure to leave a huge smile on your face.

Disney has done it again with Moana, an extraordinary, heartfelt, and wonderfully executed musical adventure that the whole family is sure to love. A beautifully looking tribute to Polynesian culture and mythology, this is one entertaining journey that you should not skip watching on the big screen. Stay tuned after the credits for an extra gag, and make sure to be there on time for a fantastic short film before the feature.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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In the next film in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe, set 70 years earlier in New York City, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows writer Newt Scamander as he must recapture the creatures that have escaped from has magical suitcase, and prevent war between wizards and humans at the same time.

It’s not hard to expect another Harry Potter film to be released after the series “concluded” with such success, but what I didn’t expect was mediocrity below what director David Yates has brought to the saga before. It’s not the lacking of the presence of Hogwarts and all our favorite characters from the previous films, but of the magic that made them all so memorable. Fantastic Beasts rushes into the adventure way too quickly and early on in the film, rather than taking it’s time to introduce you to everything that’s going on. Bear in mind, Warner Bros., you have five films in this series, not just one. By the time the movie stops to actually explain things, everything is different for our characters from when the film starts. The exposition isn’t given in the correct places and sometimes not at all. And there isn’t very much you need to know about Harry Potter to understand whatever’s happening – Hogwarts is merely mentioned once, in case you thought you’d be reminded of the saga as much as you’d be of The Lord of the Rings when you saw the Hobbit movies. Easily the most fast-paced movie I’ve seen this year, there is too much exposition and too many events happening one after another that it felt like the movie couldn’t have a larger budget and couldn’t be a minute longer. This movie would have been a lot better if its length was stretched out to three hours instead of being crammed down into two.

Yates directs some exciting and visually appealing action sequences that managed to keep me entertained, and the sets of 1920’s New York look great as well. Newt and the rest of the protagonists are well-written and likable enough for me to see them followed in four future films, but Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne in the leading role and Dan Fogler as Newt’s Muggle friend are the only actors in the film that didn’t look like they’d rather be anywhere else. Even acclaimed actors like Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo hardly bring any life to their characters. The villains are incredibly flat and uninteresting, and I found myself getting slightly pulled out of the story whenever something was going on with them. The movie relies too much on an overuse of CGI (not all of which is as good as I hoped) to keep the audience engaged, as well as bits of humor here and there that didn’t always make me laugh. There are some plot points that would be interesting to see explored more broadly in future films, including appearances from a few familiar actors, one of which you’ll definitely recognize and will catch you by surprise. Otherwise, there’s not much to look forward to in the future of this series, although Yates hasn’t completely blown his opportunity of making a good spin-off series just yet.

You may want to give Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them a watch in theaters if you enjoy fantasy movies, but there’s not much to find here otherwise that will require you to rush to the theaters and buy a ticket. Besides some entertaining action and great leading characters, Fantastic Beasts is an overabundance of exposition and CGI that’s disappointing for whoever’s expecting it to be as great as its predecessors in Rowling’s  universe of magic.

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Arrival

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When Earth is thrown into turmoil after 12 mysterious spacecrafts land in different locations around the planet, a linguistics professor (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to assist in translating the aliens’ communications.

I did not think it would be Denis Villeneuve, the mastermind behind Prisoners and Sicario, to create the most clever, gorgeous, and poignant film of the year, and one of my favorite sci-fi films of the decade, right up there with Christopher Nolan’s masterpieces Inception and Interstellar. Although I can’t say I didn’t love Villeneuve’s previous works, I simply did not believe that Arrival would transcend the quality his other films by that much, creating a spectacle through its magnificent themes about love, life, and death. What the trailers show you is a science fiction thriller that pulls inspiration from alien encounter classics such as some of Spielberg’s first works in the sci-fi genre, but what I got was something far deeper. Arrival‘s brilliant form of storytelling and gut-punching emotion, as well as some gorgeous cinematography and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s awe-inspiring music, which Villeneuve uses so perfectly, is what easily makes it the best film I’ve seen all year. Amy Adams delivers a career-defining performance that I sure hope lands her an Oscar nomination, because of how much emotion and sensibility she brought to her character. Although we’ve seen films in which one character knows how to communicate with the extra-terrestrials beings while the rest refuse to trust them, the writing makes it feel so extraordinary and fresh to the genre.

Not only was I taken aback by every shot in the film, and by every one of Villeneuve’s perfected use of imagery and symbolism, but the themes and emotions explored in the film hit me hard. Not to mention the final 20 minutes of the film, which are like nothing I’ve ever seen. The film evolves into a complex psychological drama, and the ending, which changes the entire way you look at the film, left me breathless. I still can’t stop thinking about the film since I watched it. See the film to find out what I mean. Denis Villeneuve has become one of the greatest film directors working right now, with his beautiful visual storytelling and imagery, and being able to create such amazing scenery with a budget less than $50 million. I applaud him for being able to create a complex and thoughtful film that’s comparable to the works of Christopher Nolan and even M. Night Shyamalan. Please help this movie at the box office and go see it in theaters, because it’s definitely worth it and better than anything else playing right now.

Arrival is a masterful and impeccable work of art. With a strong leading performance and a fantastic screenplay and narrative, Denis Villeneueve brings a piece of science fiction that’s not to be forgotten to the big screen, and what’s easily the greatest and most watchable film of the year.

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Doctor Strange

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An arrogant yet skilled former neurosurgeon embarks on a journey of healing only to be drawn into the world of the mystic arts.

Has Marvel or any superhero film ever created something as visually spectacular as Doctor Strange? The answer is no. Doctor Strange is immersive, breathtaking, and more visually impressive than almost any film this year, nearly on par with Disney’s The Jungle Book. As our hero, Stephen Strange, explores vast dimensions in our universe, we are presented some marvelous effects, like nothing I thought I’d ever see in a superhero movie. From a visual standpoint, this movie is so different than what you’d usually expect from a Marvel movie, as buildings change their physical form and sorcerers travel from one continent to another in the blink of an eye. The visual concepts in this movie even feel like nods to dimensional sci-fi films such as The Matrix, Inception, and InterstellarDoctor Strange introduces the world of magic into the Marvel universe, expanding limitations of what to expect in future films. As well as tie-ins with previous films, Doctor Strange is interesting to watch as its own story, as our protagonist goes from selfish and conceited to protective and selfless. Speaking of Dr. Strange himself, Benedict Cumberbatch does a phenomenal job playing him, witty and fun as the cocky and brilliant surgeon who reminded me so much of the actor’s titular role in Sherlock. He brings so much life and personality to the role and I think he was cast perfectly to play him. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character definitely has one of the more complex character arcs in the MCU, and his performance is quite interesting as well. Rachel McAdams plays a less formulaic female character who felt more like an actual person than a typical superhero female lead, as the marketing hinted she would be. Another remarkable cast member was Benedict Wong as a no-nonsense but I expected Tilda Swinton’s role to be one of the most interesting characters in the film, but instead she’s hardly given anything to do, and her connection to the main villain was borrowed and cliched. The villain is unfortunately not as memorable and well-developed as I hoped he would be, and his writing and plot are the weakest part of the film. Some of the plot points feel too predictable and borrowed to be acknowledged, but the story is overall intriguing and the visual payoff is beautiful. It’s definitely worth paying for to watch in 3D. Also, there are two post-credit scenes that tease what Marvel will bring next, that you should definitely stay for.

Doctor Strange is an epic, mind-blowing adventure that isn’t like anything Marvel has brought to us before. The story has some minor problems, but the visual quality alone makes this movie worth seeing and enjoying on the big screen.

Doctor Strange, wearing his traditional costume, coming out from a flowing energetic portal, and around him the world and New York turning around itself with the film's cast names above him and the film's title, credits and billing are underneath.