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Movie Review: Moana

Disney’s Moana plunges back into water-themed animation courtesy of the same directors of the studio’s 1989 masterpiece The Little Mermaid. This time, Ron Clements and John Musker are saddled with more of everything, including a cluster of co-writers and co-directors and non-essential agenda items such as multiculturalist directives, but the result is an enjoyable movie that’s more cohesive than—and superior to—Frozen if not as human as mermaid Ariel’s tale.

MoanaPosterMythically-driven music booms, setting the tone of the Pacific Ocean-based adventure. The child Moana (Auli’i Cravalho’s voice in most of the movie) is touched by the gods, guided by the ocean and, most effectively, chosen by her grandmother (Rachel House’s voice) to carry the family legacy and restore vitality to Pacific islands, aided by the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas), a character the filmmakers do not fully develop as either comic relief or redemptive enhancement.

Lack of character development proves to be a persistent problem in Moana, which sells its best characters short by cramming in too much and doing it too unevenly. Moana is alternately too slow or too fast—it’s usually too fast—and, though the title character is sufficiently set up as fearless and intelligent, she acquires skills and ability too quickly and without a proper sense of context and proportion. Moana is like a superheroine when she needs to be a girl and vice versa. The most adorable character, a happy and carefree little piglet that reminds me of my dog, is jettisoned early in the action (and traded for a pointless and stupid chicken character) and never really seen again.

But the lush, tropical look, the wonder of most of the cleverly composed and rhymed melodies, especially “You’re Welcome”, and several neatly seeded themes in the plot make Moana a warm and entertaining family motion picture.

Among the ideas are lessons in self-reliance, self-education and Moana’s consistently steady use of reason as her guide to life. This girl likes to fix things that are broken and solve problems and the animators really revel in showing that, however briefly. Cravalho fits the role and character, which is beautifully animated down to the natural hair, eyebrows and walk in sync with the music (think teenaged Simba in The Lion King), though it would have been nice to give her a prospective love interest like Disney’s young male characters get in coming of age tales (even Bambi had a crush) to furnish higher values for which to journey far.

Travel Moana does, with voyaging as a key if somewhat remote theme, and having courage to go forth like a pioneer toward a new frontier is part of what anchors Moana and gives it buoyancy.

As Moana and Maui seek to take back an island for good, a fiery, devilish climax taps Disney’s current fascination with villains that are more complex than they may first appear. The dialogue is too rapid and jokey at times. A tune sung by a crab tries too hard to sound like David Bowie or The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula. A pirate battle should have been deleted to reduce the overlong running time. Moana is too matriarchal—though Grandma Tala steals the movie—and, while voyaging steers the plot, it’s rooted in a subtler notion that earth is a supernatural female being and man must humble himself before Her. But if this idea of Gaia or Mother Earth eludes you, complete with a parting of the waters for the Chosen Child, you can easily float on Moana‘s deep blue aquatic beauty, melodic music, written by a team that includes Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda, and deistic mythology (“no need to pray”, goes one of the songs) and walk out singing one of its cheerful ditties.

Nationalism, Statism and Propaganda

This month’s major political conventions will be historic. Nationalist Donald Trump, presumptive nominee of the philosophically bankrupt Republican Party, and welfare-statist Hillary Clinton, presumptive nominee of the New Left-dominated Democratic Party, are the most untrusted and, incidentally, unpopular presidential candidates in modern history. Clinton, exonerated this week by the Obama administration under a cloud of suspicion after the attorney general met with her spouse, the ex-president Bill Clinton, will be the first woman nominated for the presidency by a major party. Trump, generating controversy as always and this time by re-posting a Star of David superimposed on a pile of money via social media, will be the first non-Republican and explicit anti-capitalist nominated by the party which once advocated some degree of capitalism and individual rights. Both will be nominated in American states which were once great industrial centers; Clinton in America’s first capital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Trump in Cleveland, Ohio.

Look for what today’s digital public relations, marketing and social media types call optics at the GOP (July 18-21) and Democratic (July 25-28) conventions. Halting, hair-splitting, cackling Clinton may try to come off as softer, less harsh and hostile and more easygoing as a leader; the safer choice. Spewing, ear-splitting, rambling Trump may try to pass himself off as essentially charismatic and strong, less harsh and hostile and more decisive as a leader; the stronger choice. He will try to be a man of the people, an unapologetic village crier and throwback to pre-Obama days, undoing Obama’s legacy by throwing up tougher, state-sponsored fixes at the strongman’s sole discretion. She will try to appear as a woman of the people, a servant carrying on the Obama presidency’s New Left agenda while silently signalling that the age of statism and egalitarianism—policy dictates defining one’s identity by race, sex or culture—has just begun. The next few weeks will be heavy on optics for two power-lusting frauds in American politics.

Look closer for signs of propaganda, however. Whether at the statist’s or the nationalist’s convention, despite whatever riots, anarchy and attack may be carried out, the coming conventions and 2016 will be filled with symbolism and signs of what’s to come. Trump is a master of this—Clinton is not—as he demonstrates by tagging media personalities, streams and channels to generate greater exposure and attract new followers (read my post on The Circus Cycle). Though Trump polls as a loser, polls have been wrong for years, from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s upset loss to this summer’s Brexit victory. I suspect the Trump voter conceals his planned vote from others. Watch for propaganda to foreshadow (unless Libertarian Gary Johnson is elected president) the new presidency.

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Propaganda, as shown at a recent exhibit at the Richard Riordan Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles, has the power to push a civilized nation to dictatorship. Through visual manipulation, such as digital memes, cartoons and posters, especially in today’s increasingly anti-conceptual, perceptual-level culture, the public can more easily be persuaded of certain assertions. National Socialist propaganda, including promotions for Hitler’s Mein Kampf (which translates as My Struggle), was thoroughly premeditated. Read Leonard Peikoff’s The Cause of Hitler’s Germany for a fundamental explanation of Nazi Germany.

As displayed in “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda”, which runs at the Downtown LA library through August 21 (read about the traveling exhibition here), the Fuhrer (“leader”) and his top Nazis clearly grasped the importance of graphic arts in disseminating their philosophy of duty to the state and submission of the individual to serving others, i.e., altruism, in the name of the god-state-people-race. In certain cases, graphics and images glorify the upshot of National Socialism in practice: mass death and total government control of the individual’s life.

The exhibitionproduced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, shows how “the Nazis used propaganda to win broad voter support in Germany, implement radical programs, and justify war and mass murder”. The exhibit continues in Texas and Louisiana (see the schedule here).

Nazi Propaganda Poster LAPLNazi propaganda posters, movies, art and designs also illustrate attacks on Jews, capitalism and profit. There are other lessons, too. Note the cult of personality employed to foster worship of the charismatic leader. Observe similarities to recent U.S. campaign themes, such as Obama’s “hope and change” paraphernalia, the controversial “Ready for Hillary” capital H with its arrow, and, of course, Trump’s chronic emphasis on himself as the charismatic leader for nationalism, bellowing against others—illegal immigrants, Moslems, Apple, businesses that trade with China—as causing America’s downfall. Clinton, and especially Sanders, target others, too—businesses, Apple, traders on Wall Street, the wealthy—and both sides explicitly target the individual for persecution.

What is so alarming about the 2016 presidential election, and what makes National Socialist propaganda particularly relevant, is the erosion of freedom of speech in America. Obama’s administration attacks free speech, from censoring news to censoring movies and intimidating Americans who would exercise free speech (read Obama Vs. Free Speech). Clinton, who once proposed outlawing divorce for couples with children, has been a part of Obama’s assault on the First Amendment and she sought to evade public and press scrutiny during her entire four years as secretary of state while denouncing an American film as the cause of an Islamic terrorist act of war on the United States. Trump, who cuts off microphones at press conferences, proposes eliminating free speech by weakening libel law and jokes, then says he means it seriously, about having journalists targeted for state-sponsored death.

NaziFlowChartThese are explicit policy ideas, plans and actions. Insidious state sponsorship of media and the arts, like something emanating from the Nazi flow chart pictured here, includes quasi government control of the Oscars (Michelle Obama Ruins the Oscars) and arts and technology conferences (SXSW).

As the free press, too, diminishes with the spread of quasi-government control of industry, subsidizing state-favored cable TV monopolies like Time Warner and Comcast which own and operate major media (CNN, HBO, Warner Bros. Pictures, MSNBC, NBC, Universal Studios), coupled with the dumbing down of American education and culture, it becomes both easier and less apparent for the state to impose controls, cronyism and influence, i.e., blacklists. Only this summer did Tribune Publishing, which owns the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun, change its name to the term “tronc” (without the quotation marks but with the bad punctuation), an amalgamation of “Tribune online content” in what appears to be a bid to seem modern, generic and anti-conceptual.

Convergence of today’s aggregated, dumbed down media with secretive, oppressive censorship cannot be far behind.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, whom the world lost last week, lived his entire life warning of the danger of staying silent while ominous government insidiously gains the power to destroy life. As the summer of ’16—with Clinton, tronc and Trump—goes down shoveling propaganda in conventions and toward a darker history, this is the moment to stay tuned, call statist and nationalist propaganda what it is and speak out.

Movie Review: Zootopia

ZootopiaPoster Zootopia is an idealistic animated movie by Walt Disney Animation Studios that’s neither as frantic as Pixar’s Inside Out nor as deliberate as Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur. The strong character-based story unfolds at a leisurely clip and it’s perfect for the family. I found that, with low to moderate expectations, and I admit that I tend to like these mid-range animated pictures such as the delightful Home on the Range, I was pleasantly surprised.

For starters, it adopts an alternate universe approach so Zootopia avoids mixing the mammals with man. Zootopia is a place, like New York City or Los Angeles, or, taken on a larger scale, America. It’s where the world’s furry creatures gather in one big melting pot metropolis. A little female country rabbit named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), who grew up on a farm with hundreds of siblings, with a flair for drama decides early in life that the world is hers to own, as the saying goes. She wants to be a policewoman.

Everyone—her parents, a bully, others—tries to dissuade her, some with good reason. But rabbit girl won’t quit and she grows up to best a butch female police academy drill sergeant’s expectations to make the grade, though it’s only part of what comes off like a gender quota program (and the movie endorses favoritism such as mandated affirmative action programs though not without reservations). Once on Zootopia’s police force, led by a tough police chief (Idris Elba), the petite young adult gets assigned as a meter maid.

Watching everyone underestimate Officer Hopps is one of Zootopia‘s treats, however. This is a girl who, thanks to skilled, colorful animation which is not rushed, obnoxious and splintered into a thousand sound effects, quick cuts and jokes, expresses wonder at the world as she rides into the big city and its exotic and fascinating environs on a train in a bright-eyed (and, yes, bushy-tailed) series of scenes with a catchy pop song (“Try Everything”) by Shakira. Assigned to hand out parking tickets, which she learns isn’t exactly a beloved act of law enforcement, Judy decides she’ll impress the boss with what she figures is outstanding effort and ability. The character is refreshingly more realistic and spirited in her idealism than the usual girl-power archetype.

Of course, she encounters true crime and gets to try and prove herself as a police officer and Zootopia is somewhat predictable and, at its worst, trite. But it is also sprinkled, not overloaded, with clever sight gags (city car service by Zuber, department store Mousy’s, TV news by ZNN), solid storytelling and what to my admittedly amateur eye is consistent and proportionate character and background animation. It’s a world that’s enjoyable to look at and visit for an hour and a half or so. Zootopia is inviting. Because its appeal is at the center of the conflict, rejecting or vindicating the bunny cop’s idealism about this great melting pot as the place to be whatever one wants to be, its look, feel and functionality is part of the plot, not merely a design feature to dazzle an audience. The city is a whole, exciting world.

Its inhabitants include a fox named Nick (Justin Bateman) with whom Judy tangles, fellow cops and city officials, an otter (Octavia Spencer, Black or White) whose husband is missing and various street criminals. Subversively seeded into the plot is Zootopia‘s timely and cautionary theme about being alert to the true dangers of the big city—don’t jump to conclusions; be rational in judging who may be the real predators—with well-integrated sides of redemption, a bit about diversity and what it means to be “brave, loyal, helpful and trustworthy.” There’s a lot to like and take in from my perspective, but not too much, including a film noirish climax at a cliffside castle, a dig at the media’s tendency to distort facts and my favorite bite against a variant of collectivism which is best left unspoiled which shockingly and happily made it past studio self-censors. I wish I could say more but I can’t.

I can say that the villainous line that “fear always works” is neatly and convincingly countered and everything comes around with an end credit sequence which reprises the pop song with panache. I could have done without another nod to The Godfather or the fist bump (note to studios: it’s not 2008 anymore) but none of this feels overdone or crammed down the politically correct tube—on the contrary—which makes Zootopia a cute and furry family diversion. Zootopia‘s electro-song woos the audience to “Try Everything”. If you want to escape today’s emergent American dystopia and feel good, try seeing this movie.

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur

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I’ll probably have to see Disney Pixar’s family-themed The Good Dinosaur again to fully appreciate its artistry. After the manic, disjointed Inside Out earlier this year, and the middling Frozen, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But unlike those fragmented movies, neither of which I think are very good pictures, The Good Dinosaur is slow, steady and restrained.

Staying with one character, like Remy in Ratatouille, which Dinosaur director Peter Sohn had a hand in, the action in this coming of age tale unfolds in shifting, occasionally surprising plot points. Evoking classic Disney films such as Bambi and, especially in its focus on the maladjusted character, Dumbo, this is an outdoor prehistoric adventure with strange sojourns, tracing the maturation of an awkward, jittery brontosaurus named Arlo. Arlo’s literally afraid to come out of his shell when he’s born and, being the youngest in a family of hyper achievers, he’s not fast to adapt to the world. It doesn’t help that his brother Buck and sister Libby don’t show much interest in him. His parents aren’t helpful, either. But they’re a farming family in this incarnation of Disney dinosaurs, so everyone’s too consumed by working the land to teach the lad any lessons.

Arlo wants to grow, learn and earn his pride. It just takes him a long time to realize it and the only one willing to make up for the family deficiency in bringing up the rear is the father, voiced by Jeffrey Wright (Catching Fire), one of two actors besides Raymond Ochoa and Jack McGraw as Arlo—the other is Sam Elliott voicing a tyannosaurus rex named Butch—to make a lasting impression as a character, unless you count a grunting prehistoric human boy who bonds with Arlo when the young dinosaur gets lost.

The kid is crucial to the character and plot development.

Apparently written by committee going by story credits, the plot is strange, from dino-farming and herding to bizarre country and western regionalism among the dinosaurs, who variously come off with earsplitting twangs from Texas and clipped talk from Wyoming to Deep South accents in a trio best described as rednecks. Weird subplots and touches can be clever, too, such as a flock of vultures that represent pure religionism (and the religion, subversively, is the weather; hmmm). But these distinct animation and story junctures do not detract from plot and character progression; they generally add to the momentum, leading to a critical character test for Arlo that has less to do with blood, family and trying too hard and for the wrong reasons and everything to do with the supremacy of going by one’s own chosen values.

With flourishes and simple visuals, including the jagged, curving and severe landscape and meteorology of Arlo’s home near Clawfoot Mountain and its lesser twin peaks, Sohn’s imaginative movie is a boy’s story of earning self-esteem through self-reliance in nature and learning to inhabit and command the world around him, whatever dangers may come. It’s not a bad theme, really, and The Good Dinosaur is not a bad movie for kids, and not the same old frenzy of noise, jokes and sermons about sharing or ecology. Though the script sometimes belabors a point, and dinosaurs are depicted as anthropomorphized as you’ve never seen them, it’s as odd a movie as its leading character, which makes The Good Dinosaur sort of endearing and, I suspect, rather enduring, too.

Movie Review: The Walk (IMAX 3D)

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Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Flight) perfectly applies his fascination with technology to storytelling in The Walk, which is one of the year’s best pictures.

On one layer, this is a light, whimsical movie about an acrobat taking his acrobatics seriously to prove an important point about human potential to the whole world. The visual, first-person narrative from the Statue of Liberty’s torch and other fanciful touches are part of the performance. Mr. Zemeckis, who also co-wrote The Walk, drives his idea of what one might call a performance artist’s creative need to act out over and over. Executed on the world’s tallest skyscrapers, a true story based on a high-wire walk by French acrobat Philippe Petit, it doesn’t get old and it doesn’t get in the way. As with any practiced, crafted and tuned live performance, the flourish enhances the daring act.

That the skyscrapers—and Mr. Zemeckis comes from a great American city of skyscrapers, Chicago—are the twin towers of the World Trade Center (1973-2001) make the events depicted in this groundbreaking movie more enticing.

Seen by this writer at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in IMAX 3D, The Walk begins as the tale of a boy who seeks to create his own “sacred space” in a circle on the sidewalks of Paris. Of course, this puts him at odds with police and his own parents, who neither support nor understand his strange pursuits. Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) mimes, juggles and, eventually, walks on wire. It is his passion to command an audience’s attention to certain aspects of reality as he recasts them. Philippe performs magic. He rides a unicycle. When he sees a picture of the World Trade Center under construction in New York City, he makes up his mind—he calls seeing the photograph “providence”—about embarking upon his greatest adventure.

As Philippe plans his trespassing crime, he sees walking on a wire between the Twin Towers as a defining part of his own, personal journey. So he sets out to practice his skill at a circus, where he enlists the aid of a seasoned high-wire performer (Ben Kingsley), who becomes Philippe’s mentor. Here, too, he breaks away from tradition and his insistence on doing things his way leads to other complications. As Philippe loses support from blood relatives, he gains support from those related only by their shared passion for their own values, such as singer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, The Hundred-Foot Journey) and photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony, The Tourist). “I want to know more,” Philippe says at one point in The Walk. His chosen friends and master help him learn to acquire new knowledge.

The camaraderie is infectious, as Philippe attracts an audience, makes mistakes, expresses fleeting moments of doubt, falls and learns how to relax into the high-wire act. In the process, he becomes the ultimate live performer, appreciating his own choices, audiences and themes and gauging how to assess the potential for distraction, danger and the risks of the fears of others. For example, one of his team members has a crippling fear of heights. Philippe, in dealing with his own fear of losing the lad, leads by example to provide the right measure of confidence in his own ability. With Mr. Kingsley’s circus ringmaster looking on while dragging on a cigarette in an elegant holder, Philippe studies cable thickness and load strength with the precision of an engineer. No detail, lesson or fact escapes his notice or accounting.

He is a cunning criminal; a foreigner plotting to intrude upon the World Trade Center for subversive purposes, and with a van full of foreign accomplices no less. No one who knows the history of the Twin Towers can ignore the stark similarities and differences in his crime and the acts of Islamic terrorist mass murder that would blast and ultimately take the skyscrapers down in 1993 and 2001. Philippe practices on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris before he comes to lower Manhattan for that exceptional act in August of 1974, and, in a sense, the closest he comes to having a religion is his steely conviction in himself and in the power to master his mind and body here on earth, strictly on his own terms and for his own sake.

Philippe Petit is the antidote to the religious terrorist. He targets the World Trade Center to express himself and glorify man’s greatest achievements, not to martyr himself and destroy man’s greatest achievements. He calls his unexpected act by its French word: the coup.

The attempted coup is, as recreated by Mr. Zemeckis with amazing clarity and realism, body-tingling, nerve-wracking and breathtaking. The practices take place to Alan Silvestri’s jazz score. The act itself happens in silence or with music that matches its sense of the sublime. “The outside world starts to disappear,” Philippe recalls of his day on top of the world. “I feel the wire supporting me with the towers supporting the wire” and, in an instant, at the birth of the rising steel skyscrapers soaring into the clouds, the Frenchman who juggled for money on the sidewalks of Paris enacts something both beautiful and defiant in perfect unity with nature and the manmade. The Walk is meant for this moment, and everyone, especially Gordon-Levitt, cast and the special effects crew led by Mr. Zemeckis, lets it linger in wonder and amazement for a spectacularly powerful climax in cinema.

The Walk is that soulful. Who better than an independent Frenchman standing on top of France’s gift to America to stir the spirit of free enterprise that built the greatest nation on earth? Petit, who, in reality, called for the World Trade Center to be rebuilt, reduces his accomplishment’s metrics to its essential meaning in the beginning of The Walk. He speaks of a choice between life and death. This is the unspoken, fundamental contest between the World Trade Center acts of 1974 and 2001. The Walk, in two parts playfulness and precision, depicts peace and serenity as the proper reward for honoring the manmade upon its creation. Philippe Petit put an acrobatic accent on two great symbols of American capitalism; Robert Zemeckis brings the performance and its exhaustive practices gloriously to the screen.

If it achieves nothing more than this, an exact recreation of the single most life-affirming moment in the World Trade Center’s brief history here on earth, The Walk, which does what America should have done and rebuilds the Twin Towers, is worth every second of its two tantalizing hours.


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