Wednesday, December 21, 2016

La La Land

                                              Dancin’ in (and with) the Stars
 While I’ve seen more than I’m reviewing this week (specifically, Miss Sloane [John Madden] with a knockout performance from Jessica Chastain as an excessively-driven Washington, D.C. lobbyist and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story* [Gareth Edwards] which adds to the previous mythology), I’m saving comments on some of them until 2017 because there are many other activities calling me away during this end-of-year-holiday-season so I’m confining myself in this posting to the film that’s impressed me most lately, the marvelous musical (not an easy phrase for me to utter), La La Land.

*Rogue One …’s greatly helped Disney’s global-grosses-domination—the first studio to amass $7 billion worldwide in 1 year—along with other major hits from this huge-cinema-conglomerate.
                                                             Review by Ken Burke

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                                   La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
A modern take on the old-fashioned Hollywood genre of the musical where 2 young, aspiring performers (her in acting, him in jazz piano) are facing career difficulties but manage to better focus toward their dreams, finding inspiration from their evolving romance although the road’s more difficult than they imagined; lots of great dance and nightclub scenes.
What Happens: After a comical widening of the screen format to bring us into the elongated space of Cinemascope, we begin with an overhead shot of (sadly for the local residents) a typical day in Los Angeles showing a bright blue winter sky contrasted with a freeway completely at a standstill (shot on a large ramp that happened to be closed at the time).  Rather than a road-rage-scene, however, we’re soon treated to a mass of commuters getting out of their cars to sing and dance to an upbeat tune (“Another Day of Sun”) so we know that we’re in the realm of the musical genre (or some alternative universe, given a tragic story I just read about—in Arkansas!—where a 3-year-old-boy was killed when some asshole shot into the car because his grandmother didn’t pull away from a stop sign soon enough for the idiot’s liking; may he rot in jail for a very long time), especially the kind of musicals where you don’t have to be a professional performer to just burst into a vocal or kinetic display of talent.  We don’t know if this is reality or fantasy, though, because as this opening number finishes the scene cuts to an ordinary shot of the backup, where just a little bit of frustration fires up as a young woman, Mia (Emma Stone), takes a tad too long looking over her upcoming-audition-information for the honking guy behind her, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who finally pulls by as she flips him off while he moves out of her life (at least for the next few minutes).  

 Mia, a wannabe-actress/actual-barista in the Warner Bros. Studios coffee shop, flops (again) in that audition (not helped by having to wear a jacket over her coffee-stained-white-blouse because a guy bumped into her as she was leaving for the hoped-for-better-job); later that night she’s morose but finally convinced to go to a big downtown party by her 3 upbeat roommates—all dressed in bright, primary hues with their mutual enthusiasm bursting into another song (“Someone in the Crowd”).

 Mia’s not connecting at the event, though, but as she leaves she finds her car’s been towed so as she’s walking home past a restaurant she hears some marvelous piano music, then she walks in.  Suddenly, we’re back at the freeway pileup with Sebastian pulling away from Mia, going to his sparse apartment where he gets into a regular heated argument with his sister, Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt)about not having a regular-enough-job to pay his bills, then heads off to work his piano gig in that aforementioned-restaurant where he’s told by belligerent boss Bill (J.K. Simmons) to stay true to the house playlist of mandated instrumental Christmas carols rather than veering off into his true musical love, jazz.  He holds out for as long as he can (offering traditional-tunes for indifferent customers) before launching into a lively piece of his own (“Mia & Sebastian’s Theme”) which promptly gets him fired.  At that point we connect back to Mia’s entry, but as she attempts to tell him how much she enjoyed his playing he walks dismissively past her.  Then, on-screen-graphics tell us that we’ve now moved ahead to spring where Mia’s at a poolside-party with music from a 1980s cover band that includes a generally-disgusted Sebastian.  They recognize each other, leave together (but just as a mutual convenience, walking back to their cars) as their patter moves into an energetic sunset song-and-dance number (“A Lovely Night”), with the emerging lights of the city twinkling behind them.  Just as they seem to be making peace, though, Mia gets a phone call and leaves (she’s casually dating Greg [Finn Wittrock]), although she mentions a hopeful-call-back for a role that reminds Sebastian of Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) so he come to the coffee shop to make a plan for them to see the film at a repertory house, but she’s about to stand him up that night as Greg drops by to remind her of a planned dinner date.  Midway through the meal, though, she rushes off (on foot, even in vast L.A.) to join Sebastian, but as the plot moves to the Griffith Observatory scene the film stock jams, burning up.

 Not to be outdone by a mechanical malfunction, Sebastian drives them up to the real location (open but with no one else in the whole place) as they soon find themselves dancing, not on the floor but up in the created sky where they glide around in the clouds (to the tune of “Planetarium”), clearly falling in love, ending with an iris-in-transition to a resolution of full-screen-blackness, confirming that we’re now truly in 
the realm of old-school-Hollywood-moviedom.  (However, previously there was a bump in their road when she told him she hates jazz, to which he replied that it’s about innovation, she needed to hear it live so he took her to a favorite club of his where she began to see the motivation for his passion, including wanting to buy his own club so that he could preserve the music in its pure form; this led them to more flirtation as they danced together around various L.A. landmarks to “City of Stars.”)  As we iris out to the next scene after the Observatory, we find things are moving quickly in their romance as they now live together, she’s taken his advice to write her own 1-woman-play to get around her audition-blockade while he’s getting regular work at that jazz club he likes.  When we move into summer, though, their lives take a turn when old friend Keith (John Legend) offers Sebastian the keyboard role in his group, The Messengers, which he takes because of the money involved (ultimately, to buy his longed-for-nightspot) but resists because of the showboat nature of Keith’s approach to jazz, which Mia chastises Sebastian for as being untrue to his standards, but he retorts that she’s yet to score with her acting talent, then goes on the road with his group as the lovers begin to pull apart.  As fall arrives, he shows up unexpectedly one night so we assume they’ll reconcile (as well as get us back to the kind of spontaneous movie-musical-interludes that’ve been missing for quite a bit of the film's running time) but his desire to stay with this life of recordings, touring, and rising fame (still just for the income) pushes her further away.

 Later, their romance breaks down completely when a mix-up on the scheduled day of a photo shoot forces him to miss the opening night of her play (So Long, Boulder City) in a small theatre, not even giving him time to tell her about the conflict, so when he arrives after the show’s finished (with barely a dozen showing up to see it) she’s distraught, decides to head back home to Boulder City, NV after all; soon, though, a casting director (one of those few at her show) calls Sebastian’s apartment, looking for Mia with a great opportunity for a film.  He drives to Boulder City, finds her, convinces her to give it a chance, takes her back to L.A. whereupon she learns this film will shoot in Paris (her dream city) after 3 months of developing the story around the principal female, with the audition consisting of her simply telling some sort of story to get a sense of her presence so we finally find ourselves back in a magical musical number (yet serious, with great dramatics in delivery, “Audition [The Fools Who Dream”]) which proves successful with Sebastian encouraging her to follow this great opportunity while he plows his savings into his club, with the intention that they’ll always be able to love each other.  Suddenly, we’re 5 years into the future, she’s a big star, married (to another guy we’ve never seen before) with a baby, out for a night on the town with her husband.  However, we return to the opening situation of backed-up-traffic which causes them to take an exit, then drop into a jazz club which she realizes is Sebastian’s.  He notices her from the stage, plays a familiar tune (the very melodic “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme”) sending the film's visuals flowing into a fast-paced-montage of their lives where they immediately connect at his old restaurant, he goes with her to play in Paris hotspots while her movie’s in progress, they marry, all of which leads us back to the reality of Seb’s club where it’s clear this was just a fantasy rather than some sort of life-mulligan as Mia leaves with a last-longing-look at Sebastian who’s happily-settled at last, at least on stage.

So What? La La Land’s already been written up quite a bit as an homage to a classic Hollywood genre of the long-gone-Studio Era, but looking at how it presents itself as a musical provides a bit more complicated response.  With that opening scene finished off by a shot of just a huge line of cars at a standstill on a freeway ramp* we get no clear transition from the cast's previous exuberance so we could easily surmise that it was all a fantasy in the minds of the stuck drivers (who weren’t complaining about their fate at the beginning anyway, as the camera rolls past a good number of cars where the occupants are calmly wiling away their enforced-time by singing along with their radios) just as Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) mostly gives us musical numbers that occur within the minds of the performers (“Cell Block Tango" as the female inmates on Murderers Row provide their accounts of terminating their maddening-men, “Razzle Dazzle“ as shyster-lawyer Billy [Richard Gere] explains his obfuscation-strategy to free his guilty clients, etc.) that we see on screen.  Then the gears shift to the type of musical where everyday people sing and dance spontaneously as they live in an alternative-universe that contains such spirited enthusiasm as part of its existence (as with gangsters singing “Luck Be a Lady” during a dice game in Guys and Dolls [Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955]) when Mia’s roommates drag her off to the party that results in her notice of Sebastian’s restaurant-riff that gets him fired (despite Mia being an aspiring actress we get no sense that includes musical work so she and her roommates aren’t doing their let’s-go-to-the-party-number [“Someone in the Crowd”] as anything but exuberant young women out for a night in the big city).

*This marvelously-energetic-scene almost didn’t make it into the film’s final cut until it was at last determined to be essential to establishing the mood of the entire enterprise so it was put back in.

 On the other hand, Sebastian’s lavish-breakaway from his required-Christmas-tunes begins to lead us into another direction, that of Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972) where all but one of that film's musical numbers (in the countryside biergarten scene) are performed on stage in the context of professional entertainers plying their trades, just as our current film then shifts to the pool party scene where Sebastian’s band is forced to do A Flock of Seagull’s "I Ran (So Far Away)" at Mia’s request as a shot back at him for being so rude to her as he left that less-than-holiday-joyous-restaurant job.

 The musical approach of La La Land takes yet another turn as Mia and Sebastian leave that party only to find themselves engaged in an graceful dance number ("A Lovely Night") high up above the city (right off Mulholland Drive, I think) which to me is quite reminiscent of the "Isn't This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)" showpiece that we find long ago in Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935) where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers perform a similar initially-resistant-yet-easily-connecting-lovers'-duet while under a gazebo’s roof as a rain storm pours down around them, with the situation in this older movie also very similar to what we see in La La Land because one character (Jerry Travers [Astaire]) is a professional entertainer (a dancer rather than a pianist, though, so his graceful movements can be more rationalized within the context of Top Hat) and the other (Dale Tremont [Rogers]) isn’t (so her smooth response to his smooth moves—both artistic and romantic—are indicative of the type of emotionally-embodied-[but well-rehearsed] “spontaneity” discussed by Jane Feuer in “The Self-Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment" [if you'll entertain reading an academic article as part of a film review; it’s also found in various editions of Barry K. Grant’s Film Genre Reader]), just as Mia hasn’t yet come into her own as an actress, but, again, one more focused on line delivery than song and dance anyway.  As our newly-intrigued lovers connect more fully a bit later, though, they’re off to the Griffith Observatory for their dance into the heavens (which somehow includes clouds not part of the night sky produced by the Planetarium’s star-maker-machinery) so now we’re in the realm of full fantasy not unlike in Mary Poppins (Robert Stevens, 1964) where the main character not only flies but leads us into a chalk drawing that comes to life in a magical world as extensive as that ever-expanding-suitcase in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates; review in our November 24, 2016 posting).

 But after that spectacular star-dance-number we’re right back in the world of rationalized-music-only (what academic writers call “non-integrated,” where all of the musical performances are based on the reality of actual professionals who are either rehearsing or in the process of delivering their well-polished-goods for an audience, as opposed to “integrated” musicals where just about anyone and everyone can sing and/or dance at will whether presented in a fantastical setting [as with The Wizard of Oz; Victor Fleming, 1939] or the world we all seeming live in [even when shown as the extreme situation of Everyone Says I Love You {Woody Allen, 1996} where actors not usually known for their melodic vocalizations—such as Alan Alda, Drew Barrymore, Goldie Hawn, Julia Roberts, even Mr. Allen himself—are required to sing, somewhat as a commentary on the arbitrary nature of this type of musical]) so we’re once again focused on Sebastian’s successful but ill-fitting-career in a more-showbiz-form of jazz.  As we move on toward the end of La La Land, though, we’re back to the original situation of fantasies in the character’s mind (shared on-screen with us) in the case of Mia’s successful tryout for her Paris film (“Audition [The Fools Who Dream]”) and her (or could it be their?) blissful-yet-melancholy-montage of what life could have been for Mia and Sebastian had events gone differently,* with this later sequence of quickly-edited-joy slapped back to the cold-reminder of only what might have been (despite both of them now clearly settled into successful lives), very reminiscent of the magnificent-fantasy-finale of An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951)—yet another of endless-references/tributes to the extended tradition of movie musicals that Chazelle is joyfully-celebrating in La La Land.  Thus, what he’s constructed here isn’t intended to emulate any 
particular style that we'd find throughout the more-traditional-musicals being evoked in this film (along with the famed southern CA location where they were largely produced on studio soundstages and backlots) but instead is more what contemporary academic writers praise as post-modern bricolage of gathering disparate elements in order to note the known qualities of things as another tactic of appealing to Jane Feuer’s “myth of the audience” (this is my secret strategy to force you to at least skim through her above-noted-article to see what this means) as well as create a new experience from this collage of older references within their newly-devised-context.

*This is a somewhat questionable premise if he wants to run a jazz club in L.A. rather than following her around the globe for the various film shoots which would inevitably take her away from L.A. because film careers no longer allow such Hollywood-based-stability, which we know would eventually lead to him feeling like a burdensome appendage to her blossoming fame (see either musical version of A Star Is Bornthe original in 1937 [William A. Wellman] was just straight dramato watch James Mason fade away compared to Judy Garland 1954 [George Cukor, 1954] or Kris Kristofferson do the same relative to Barbra Streisand [Frank Pierson, 1976]) or would eventually break up their marriage anyway, just as her move to Paris (For what, 7 months at most?) proved to be too long away for their actual long-distance-relationship.  Still, in musicals—even more than most fictional movies—it’s not a good idea to do such questioning or the whole thing may too-easily fall apart.

 A reasonable, final question about all of the above is whether La La Land will resonate for those who don’t have any direct connections to the references noted (and many others scattered throughout this film that admits through memories by the character of Mia a love for old movies, even non-musical-ones such as the grand-classic-Casablanca [Michael Curtiz, 1942]); in that Chazelle’s imaginative-conceptualization played well with me, connecting up nicely with a cluster of musicals' moments from stories of this type that I do have positive feelings about (despite me being generally uninterested in this massive genre as a whole, just as Mia was at first not receptive to jazz—you'll find a bit more on my hesitancy in the next section below), so I don’t know what it’s like to be an old-musicals-novice.  However, just as I can speculate that you don’t have to know the entire Star Wars mythology to at least appreciate what’s at stake in the ongoing war between the Empire and the rebels in Rogue One … (although if you don’t know who Princess Leia [Carrie Fisher] is then that quick reveal of her younger self at the end [Hush! I've warned you about Spoilers!] would likely leave you wondering what all the commotion in the theater was about) nor do you have to be gay and/or Black nor be in a mixed-race-relationship to appreciate the harsh cruelty of unearned-human-suffering depicted in Moonlight (Barry Jenkins; review in our November 10, 2016 posting) in the former case, Loving (Jeff Nichols; review in our December 1, 2016 posting) in the latter, so I feel confident that La La Land can stand on its own regarding the depiction of deep-felt-love, the struggles to find acceptance in the career of your dreams, the daily-difficulties of making relationships work when personalities/ sensibilities of the involved couple require on-going-negotiation, and—if you’re not repulsed by characters suddenly breaking into song (as I can be, depending on the overall cinematic context)—the strong quality of all these musical performances, especially Gosling’s skill at the keyboard.  

 My much-more-musicals-embracing-wife, Nina, is somewhat disappointed the entire film’s not as escapist as the trailer makes it out to be so please do note there’s more complexity here than is advertised, but with that warning in place I'm confident that most of you (except those of the Kelly Vance-persuasion; see my comments just below) will find La La Land to be immensely enjoyable.

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: La La Land has been consistently touted as one of the best cinematic offerings of 2016 (see the 1st Metacritic link below in the Related Links section for the ongoing tally of various awards and critics’ Top 10 where you’ll find it right up there along with Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea [Kenneth Lonergan; review in our December 8, 2016 posting] among the top honorees so far) with some additional high praise from the critics’ collective sites of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic (94% positive reviews at the former, an average score of 92% at the latter—more details in those links below), with a lot of superlatives being offered (Mick La Salle from the San Francisco Chronicle: “It’s a beautiful and hopeful film, coming at a time when there isn’t much beauty or hope in our movies, and it’s the type of picture — a sprawling, exuberant musical drama — that hasn’t been seen in decades […] And none of it seems old fashioned — classic, yes, but fresh and vital.”), although some naysayers are saying “nay” in a forceful manner (another critic from my local SF Bay area, Kelly Vance of the East Bay Express: “The temptation to dismiss La La Land out of hand is almost overpowering […] As for the make-or-break spontaneity that every musical romance desperately needs to survive, watching La La Land is like a dinner of pre-chewed food.”).  As noted, I’m not generally a big fan of musicals, at least the typical 1930s-‘40s Hollywood variety where endless revues, performances, and operettas were churned out in order to help pleasantly-distract a nation plagued by the Depression and WW II, with paper-thin-plots concocted to get from one musical number to the next for the appreciation of those too far away from big cities to see the same sort of well-financed-drivel (I know, now I’m into Kelly Vance-territory myself) on a live stage. 

 There are also a good number of the later "operettas" (as I see them) based on Broadway shows that don't thrill me much either, especially one of Nina's favorites, Paint Your Wagon (Joshua Logan, 1969), but that's because I have so much trouble trying to digest Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood attempting to sing.  But there are many musicals (some of them cited in the comments above) that I find quite engaging, either because of serious messages (West Side Story [Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins; 1961], Jesus Christ Superstar [Norman Jewison, 1973]) or amazing production values (Singin’ in the Rain [Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen; 1952], Phantom of the Opera [Joel Schumacher, 2004]), although Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, 2012; review in our December 30, 2012 posting) failed to capture me on either count, but with La La Land I became, then stayed, very entranced.

 It’s often been noted that neither Stone nor Gosling are among the strongest singers on screen (even Meryl Streep’s better, I'd say, whether she’s being serious in her delivery as at the end of Postcards from the Edge [Mike Nichols, 1990] and all throughout Mamma Mia! [Phyllida Lloyd, 2008] or intentionally pushing her vocal chords to the point of pain [both for her and for our poor eardrums] in Florence Foster Jenkins [Stephen Frears; review in our August 31, 2016 posting]—for which she may find herself once again in some awards competitions this year), but their shortcomings in this area are more than made up for in their solid command of dance as well as Gosling’s ability as an pianist (allowing for their flowing duets plus his massaging of the ivories to be shot in full-frame, long-take approaches, verifying not only this film’s connections to its heritage but also the sense of command of the performing arts that the best musicals display), encouraging us to respect these performers on film (or video) as we would stage actors who draw us into their talented abilities that require staying in command of their act from start to finish without the luxury of quick-filmic-cuts that produce a continuity only by construction, not achieved-near-perfection.  (You can drop the “near” when referring to the best on-screen-work of such great artists as Astaire, Rogers, Kelly, Eleanor Powell, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicolas brothers, Gregory Hines, etc., although heavy editing in a film-musical can provide its own impact as with the fabulous cutting in some of the Kit Kat Klub scenes in Cabaret).  This sense of immersion into the talents of the lead actors, drawing them closer to each other as they draw us into their fantasy-filled-lives* makes La La Land “sing” for me (even if slightly off-key, with its collage of shifting story-approaches and mood swings), especially with the bittersweet ending that shows us that those manufactured-dreams don’t always work out, even if acceptable-alternative-resolutions might offer us comfort of another kind with equivalent value.

*Echoing the film’s title itself, in its evocation of Los Angeles as the epitome of fertile imagination becoming reality—either for the benefit of those working in the distraction-wonders of the long-celebrated-entertainment-industry or the failed illusions of those whose dreams never come to fruition, trapping them in a blissful fog of unfulfilled-aspiration, even when too enthralled to realize it.

 Unlike the “surprise” happy ending that we get in An American in Paris, where we see Gerry’s (Gene Kelly) failed fantasy about winning over Lise (Leslie Caron) reversed by her sudden rushing back to him in their storybook-narrative, the unexpected melancholy-closure of La La Land—where for just a brief moment we think we could be back in that parallel-reality-structure that originally introduced us to Mia and Sebastian, allowing them a do-over of their relationship that would take us into the more expected result of this story (as if all that we witnessed after he snubs her upon their restaurant meeting [verifying shared irritation from their actual-opening-encounter on the freeway] is intended to catch us off-guard [and finally explain the puzzling situation from the trailer where she says “I just heard you play” followed by a passionate kiss from him, yet in the film at that early point we get just the opposite], as if it were some imagined reality that will now be replaced with the anticipated-ongoing-connection of these seemingly-destined-lovers)—at least isn’t as sad as the much-more-heartbreaking-conclusion of The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen, 1985) where we find Depression-era-dishrag Cecilia (Mia Farrow) becoming enchanted with a movie character who comes off the screen into her world offering love and escape, only to have it all vanish as she must lose herself by merely watching the otherworldliness of the movies once again while Astaire and Rogers dance into Top Hat's 1930s-escapism.  Still, La La Land’s ending is a twist, telling us what we remember/understand of dreams is often incomplete/misinterpreted, that the true results may well be more complex than we’d assumed as wrinkles in our own space-time-fabric can lead us to unknown results, different from scenarios we might have constructed that never come to pass.*

*Such as the chance meeting that Nina and I had almost 30 years ago in the Berkeley, CA plaza outside the theatre where Paul Simon’s Graceland concert (a different sort of "musical" we can more easily agree on) was just beginning, with neither of us having tickets, just spontaneous conversation that’s "still [delightfully] crazy after all these years."  We didn't know this was how our fates would take such turns, just as Mia and Sebastian apparently expected to see each other again after her time in Paris, even though their paths would diverge while ours—fortunately—merged.

 When dealing with a film that’s already immersed in music, though, it often becomes more difficult to find a truly appropriate Musical Metaphor (my strategy for ending each of these reviews with an aural experience that somehow captures some aspect I encountered while watching the new cinematic experience under consideration), but given that what I saw in La La Land seems most inspired when the stars are dancing (especially in the stars at the Griffith Planetarium) I decided upon a cluster of videos that celebrate that aspect of the film.  I wish I could find a complete version of the “Broadway Melody” collage of scenes from Singin’ in the Rain, but all I’ve come across are separate videos that almost encapsulate the entire thing so here they are at: (the key aspect of this Metaphor, the early “Gotta Dance” number that moves into a jazzy, sexy duet of Kelly and Charisse; 4:56), (the Kelly-Charisse ballet scene; 3:49), and then (Kelly’s finale; 1:27).  However, given that many a year ago I grew up on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico close to Houston, TX (the island of Galveston, to be specific) I’ve also got to include this video of Houston-based-Archie Bell and the Drells (who “dance just as good as we walk”)“I Can’t Stop Dancing,” at watch?v=47_so3zoAaU (from their 1968 album of the same name) which pairs the song with some fabulous footage of the Nicholas Brothers, providing an infectious rhythm that may just leave you wanting more so if you do here’s Archie and his guys again at with their first hit, “Tighten Up” (from another 1968 album of the same name).  I was already in college in Austin when these songs came out, but it was great to hear tunes from my home-territory making an impact on the national Pop and R&B charts (a level of success this group would never reach again, unlike with Mia and Sebastian whose careers seemed primed to continue on, hers more known worldwide while his would be limited—which was just fine with him—to those jazz aficionados who’d seek out this unique art form at his thriving club for their private pleasure).

 Hopefully, these Metaphors will leave you toe-tappin’ for a week or 2 while I celebrate the holidays and get fully caught up on the best of the new releases.  I’ll see you again in 2017 with best wishes for the New Year to all of my worldwide readers!  (All 32,764 of you over the last month, a new Two Guys all-time-high, with Russia back in the lead [by a mile, literally] at 5,280 pageviews last week, the U.S. trailing far behind at 2,512, France further back still at 450; I have no idea what brings about this response from Putin-land [I’m not even a nominee for Trump’s cabinet unless he wants a Secretary of Run-On Sentences], but I do appreciate every reader from wherever you're located).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are too many of them to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 on this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.
AND … at least until the Oscars for 2016’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 26, 2017 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2016 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards 
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees for films and TV from 2016.

Here’s more information about La La Land: (6:59 featurette on the Top 5 Things You Should Know About La La Land)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Elle and Short Comments on Moana

                          Apprentices of War Preparing for the Hard Rain

                                                               Review by Ken Burke

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                                    Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
A Parisian woman who’s co-founder of a video game company is raped but seemingly unperturbed about it except for enhancing her home security and buying a few defensive weapons; we learn that her distain for reporting this crime to the police is a result of the ugly public reputation that she earned related to her father’s mass murder spree when she was just a child.
What Happens: We open on a black screen with sounds of a struggle coming from that darkness, followed by a shot of a cat watching something which turns out to be Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) being raped in her home in broad daylight by a guy in black wearing a ski mask.  After he leaves, though, she seems not shaken at all, just disgusted as she sweeps up the broken bric-a-brac from the violent encounter (he hit her a lot to maintain control), although she sleeps that night with a hammer.  When next we see her we better understand her fierce personality as she’s arguing with young male programmers at the video game company she co-founded with friend/ business partner Anna (Anne Consigny); ironically, the main hassle is with Kurt (Lucas Prisor) who’s upset that the interface of their long-delayed-new-project isn’t as robust as it should be while she focuses on the on-screen-scene of a monster having sex with a young woman from behind, his long tail apparently also being his penis (she wants the woman to be more voluptuous, the sex more intense while Kurt dismisses her as ill-prepared for this industry with her literary background; she ends the confrontation by reminding him who owns the company).  Michèle does take the precaution of having her locks changed but it's to no avail because on an afternoon when she opens a tall window to let her cat back inside the rapist attacks again, in the same violent fashion.  

 This time she does admit the assault but casually as she dines with Anna, her husband Robert (Christian Berkel)—with whom Anna’s having an affair, even though at times it doesn’t amount to much, as with a scene in their business place where he simply pulls the blinds shut in his office and starts taking off his pants while she gets a small trash can, presumably as a receptacle for the semen she’s about to dislodge from him (you know, if Bill Clinton had used that tactic his 2nd Presidential term would probably have been a lot less troublesome for him)—and Michèle’s ex-husband, Richard (Charles Berling).  They’re horrified to find out about both the attack and her unwillingness to report it to the police, but all she does to further her defenses is to buy some pepper spray and a small axe (neither of which are ever handy enough to use on her attacker).

 As events in this sordid story progress, we find out all sorts of things about Michèle’s life: she has ongoing disputes with her mother, Irène (Judith Magre), who has interests in younger men such as her current stud, Ralf (Raphaël Lenglet), for whom Michèle has no respect; she’s also at odds with son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) whose pregnant girlfriend, Josie (Alice Isaaz), is bitchy and domineering, especially concerning the cost of their intended apartment with Michèle needed to finance this upgrade in their living conditions; then she’s concerned that Kurt is her rapist after a nasty video clip goes viral around the office with 
Michèle’s smiling head superimposed on the woman being humped by the monster (leading her to assign more trustworthy-employee-Kevin [Arthur Mazet] to hack into every employee’s computer to see what he can find [he also helps her with target practice, but she never buys a gun]); despite her steely demeanor she’s not sitting idly by waiting for the rapist to show up again because as she sees someone seemingly lurking in a car outside of her home one night she sneaks up from behind, smashes the driver’s window with her axe, then unloads the pepper spray only to find out it’s Richard trying to watch out for her (she’s somewhat appreciative as she helps wash the sting from his eyes but also caustic about his new relationship with a much younger woman, Hélène [Vimala Pons]); she’s intrigued enough with her new, younger neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), that she watches him through binoculars while he and wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira) put large Nativity statues in their yard at Christmastime (we find out that Rebecca’s a devout Catholic) while Michèle masturbates just looking at this studly-banker (later they’re at a  Christmas Eve dinner party where she uses her bare foot under the table to massage his crotch; he doesn’t seem to mind because in an even-later-scene as the wind picks up he comes to her home to help pull her shutters shut, they almost embrace at that point, but he quickly leaves).

 In the most revelatory news of all, though, we find out why Michèle’s angry that Mom wants her to visit her father, Georges Leblanc, in jail, as well as why the daughter’s so wary of police, because when she was only 10 he went on a unprovoked-murder-attack throughout their neighborhood, killing 27, then got her help in burning various home items in their fireplace until the cops arrived, leading to a famous soot-covered-newspaper-shot of her, implying her complicity in his crimes.

 As all of this complexity progresses (I had some mini-flashlight-trouble while taking notes so I had to just finish after the house lights came up, but even though I was well half-past the running time by that point I still had a tremendous amount of plot detail to remember, so if you see this film be prepared for a lot to keep up with, even as you’re reading the subtitles—assuming that’s not an automatic deal-breaker in deciding to buy a ticket—unless you’re fluent in French) we find that Kevin’s the one who created the in-house-video (out of his lust for Michèle) but it was stolen from his computer, then shared as a cruel joke by a co-worker (Kevin’s not fired when he drops his pants, as ordered, to confirm he’s not also the rapist, as he’s not circumcised while the attacker is); Vincent and Josie have their baby but it looks like their African friend, Omar (Stéphane Bak), to everyone but Vincent, who’s later thrown out of the apartment by Josie in anger over his abrupt decision to quit his job just because his car’s in for repair and he doesn’t care to commute on public transportation; after the rapist leaves a message on Michèle’s laptop in her bedroom and a semen squirt on her bed (along with her fantasizing about killing him) she’s attacked again, but this time she stabs the assailant’s hand with scissors, then pulls off his mask to find that it’s Patrick, yet she still says nothing to anyone about it; her mother dies from a stroke with a last wish for Michèle to visit her father so she notifies the prison she’ll be coming the next day (after his parole request was denied) only for him to commit suicide by hanging that night (seemingly in shame at having to see her again after the pox he's put on her life); driving away from the prison Michèle’s distracted by a reporter's phone call, along with a deer jumping in front of her car, causing her to crash, then when she can’t reach anyone else she calls Patrick who comes to her rescue; she also decides to break off the affair with Robert, although she asserts that to him only after they’ve had sex yet again.

In case you think I seem to be too enamored with Isabelle
(attractive as she is), it's just that she's in
almost every publicity photo I can find for this film.
 This complicated plot begins to wrap up when Michèle and Vincent run into Patrick one night in a supermarket; he says Rebecca’s out of town on a religious pilgrimage to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela leading to an invitation for dinner where Vincent drinks too much and falls asleep as the oddly-confounding-sexual-pair go to the cellar as she makes herself available to him but he can only get excited with a rape scenario where he’s slapping her a lot (at least he no longer needs the mask as they go through another bout of this “intimacy”).  Finally, the company's video game is launched to great success, but at the celebration Michèle tells Anna about the affair with Robert, with Anna’s fury mostly directed at her husband; meanwhile, Michèle gives Vincent her car keys, telling him that Patrick will drive her home.  On the way, she tells Patrick she’s decided to confess all to the police, then goes into her home with him quickly following (masked again) to initiate another violent rape (admittedly, there’s no other kind, but he intensifies it with much more physical assault than necessary to force her compliance, which she vainly tries to resist).  The end result’s different this time, though, because Vincent comes in, sneaks up on them with a fireplace log, then clobbers Patrick who soon dies from the blow, so when the police are actually summoned the story of heroic rescue goes to Vincent while Michèle admits only a recent interest in this neighbor, nothing of their actual history.  Concluding all this are scenes where Vincent and Josie have reconciled, along with Michèle seeing Rebecca packing up to move away, with the calm neighbor thanking Michèle for indulging her husband’s proclivity—implying that she knew all about their rape situation—followed by a final scene at the cemetery where Michèle’s bringing some flowers to put near her parents adjoining-mausoleum-chambers (Dad’s is defaced) when Anna shows up to say she’s kicked Robert out but now needs a new place of her own, which she suggests should be with Michèle.

So What? In French “elle” can mean such words as “she,” “her,” or “herself,” depending on the context of a specific sentence; in this case I guess it could also be a bit of a pun, connecting to a nickname for Michèle (although this generally-fierce-woman doesn’t seem like the sort who’d tolerate nicknames), but it appears more probable that this film’s title is about an assertive “she” who not only refuses to be a victim of the terrible abuses which are often committed against her but also demonstrates her own proclivities that, we'd find in Huppert’s specific case, conjure up another complex character from her past, Erika Kohut, in The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001) where her cruel, sadistic behavior toward her students is balanced by her own intense (but never actualized) desires of masochism, aimed at both her own wish to be dominated in bondage as well as humiliate her mother (whom she lives with) as an affront to the older woman that her talented daughter could have such perverse needs.  Certainly, Michèle could be interpreted as perverse as well, given that she’s not so repulsed by the repeated rapes and other intrusions on her privacy that she’s willing to continue having sex with Patrick even though he can only do it in his angry, violent, domineering manner, yet her situation is also ambiguously-complicated for us in that she does take measures to protect herself against her attacker before she knows who he is just as she ultimately chooses to avenge herself on him in response to the cruelty that he’s frequently forced upon her.

Paul Verhoeven directing Isabelle Huppert
 Regarding the ambiguity of this character, director Verhoeven, in the press notes, says that: “It’s a story, not real life, nor a philosophical vision of women! This particular woman acts that way, which doesn’t mean that all women will or should act that way. But Michèle does! And my job consisted above all in directing this story in the most real, interesting and credible way possible. […] One scene captures the contradictory emotions we feel while watching: Michèle’s confession of her father’s murders to Patrick. We are in turn horrified, amused, skeptical, touched... Yes, the way she tells the whole gruesome story with a smile... That scene wasn’t in the novel. [Screenwriter] David Birke wrote it and Isabelle immediately understood that it needed to be played lightly to string us along. You can’t work out if she’s emotional or fooling with Patrick. Very few actresses could do what she does. And in the background, there’s the music of the mass. Finally, in similar tones, the film’s score takes over almost up to Michèle’s ‘Not bad, huh?’ Then we go back to the music from the mass, whose gravity and solemnity give the scene an emotional dimension that contrasts with Isabelle’s lighthearted tone.”  Regarding her unique character, Huppert says: “She is many and varied: cynical, generous, endearing, cold, commendable, independent, dependent, perspicacious. She is anything but sentimental; she is pummeled by events, but she doesn’t crack. Verhoeven held firm on that, without trying to whittle away at our fundamental position. You could rely on him for that. That’s the point of the character—her strength, originality and modernity. She never behaves like a victim, even when she has every reason to do so: victim first of her mass murderer father and then of her rapist. Guilt, submitting to events—so many notions that it is hard to rid from female characters. Even if they are strong women, they always have that hanging over them in the movies: the temptation to veer toward emotion, which turns out to be phony—a slightly gooey sentimentalism.”
 However, it may be difficult for audiences to appreciate such inner-diversity in Michèle, given what can be interpreted as her nonchalance toward being raped, a reason why Verhoeven (as he discusses in the interview within the Related Links section far below in this review) decided against an initial idea of setting this story in America because he found little interest from U.S. studios and female actors in presenting this story as it was scripted (adapted by from the novel Oh …, by Phillipe Djian), even though it meant making his first film in France which generated “fear—fear of the unknown, fear of diving into a different culture and different language [… but] that was great because when you launch yourself into the unknown, you become extremely creative and inspired,” with a chief reason for this choice of venue being Huppert’s interest in the role: “Around six months in, [producer Saïd Ben] Saïd said to me, ‘Why are we fighting to make the movie in the US? It’s a French novel, Isabelle Huppert is keen to do it—we’re stupid!’ And he was right. I realize now that I could never have made this movie in the US, with this level of authenticity […] Isabelle is fearless.  Nothing is a problem for her.  She will try anything, she is phenomenally bold.”  Maybe a viewer’s understanding of a broad-minded-French-society’s-tolerance of such story aspects as Michèle’s range of sexual interests, her ambiguity about involving herself further with the police and the press, Anna’s willingness to continue her friendship with Michèle after breaking up with Robert (as if the affair were entirely his fault, but there’s also the hint of a relationship between these women, as noted by Verhoeven: “When we shot that [final] scene, they ending up kissing, but it was too much and not at all in the style of the movie, which never says things explicitly […] you have to play on nuances and doubt, and never throw an intrusion into audiences’ faces.”) will make this film’s contents easier to at least contemplate in retrospect, but it’s a constant challenge here to just keep calmly accepting what you see on screen.
Bottom Line 
Final Comments: Despite Elle’s strong showing at the critical consensus sites (Rotten Tomatoes offers 89% positive comments, even Metacritic—normally with much lower numbers—surprisingly gives an average score of that same 89%; more details if you like in the Related Links section), there are some reviewers who’re not impressed with what they saw in Elle, such as Toronto’s Kate Taylor (from The Globe and Mail) who says: “In the end, Michèle’s entire persona and all her actions are a reaction to the behaviour of the men around her and her character becomes flatter and less intriguing the more her own sociopathy is exposed. [...] For all its cleverness, Elle suffers, like many a thriller, from an unmasking that proves less intriguing than the original mystery and, in its misogyny and its misanthropy, the film ultimately proves less interesting than it believes itself to be. Mainly, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth long after the credits roll. Like Michèle herself, Elle is a nasty piece of work.”  However, others are supportive, like Ty Burr (of The Boston Globe): “Huppert is phenomenal in her most unnerving performance since Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher.” Michèle is always in control, even when she appears to invite further abuse, and her sangfroid — the calm reptile eye she turns toward all the men in the movie (even the ones she desires) — drives them crazy with confusion. Her attacker has a twisted narrative in his head that needs to be followed, but what happens when the victim starts writing the script? [...] Maybe Michèle is a sociopath. Maybe she just grew up with one. That’s one of the puzzles with which Verhoeven teases us. So many of his movies have featured strong, smart, damaged women who visit further damage on lesser mortals, usually men, in a spirit of malice and amusement. They’re survivor’s tales, made with sinew and black humor. “Elle” may be the purest distillation of his worldview yet, and it’s a terrifying thrill.”

 Now, is Burr’s reaction just an example of male voyeurism, playing into the horrid fantasy of some men that women desire rape as their expression of a man’s unbridled-attraction (despite the reality of the act as a dehumanizing display of power)? Well, certainly, I would assume not (along with not intending to imply that about any other 
male—or female for that matter—who has a positive response to this film) because I realize that the intention of the group of filmmakers (and the lead female actor) here is not to any way soften the horror of rape (a sordid-degradation for Michèle as well, as shown by her own fantasy of killing her attacker followed by her actual plot of administering vigilante justice to Patrick when she decides she no longer wants this aspect of her life to manifest itself, possibly as some sort of internally-imposed-punishment for her father’s crimes or as a desire to further her already-broad-range of sexual activities) but rather to show how difficult it is to assume universal responses to a series of situations that seem to call for definitive judgments (rape even when the perpetrator is a decent human being otherwise, an affair that insults a long-time-friendship, a young-adult-coupling based on lack of interaction and mutual-respect, a working environment where shocking acts are tolerated for the sake of a hoped-for-product’s-success, the personal pain of a daughter forever associated with her father’s homicidal rage).  This is a difficult film to watch much of the time, probably even harder to justify to someone who’s repelled by any of its various controversial situations.  Yet, like The Piano Teacher (from further back in Huppert’s illustrious career), this powerful project is difficult to dismiss just because it’s consistently distasteful (intentionally so, akin to Nymphomaniac  [Lars von Trier, 2013; reviews in our March 20 and April 3, 2014 postings]) so, whether or not I’m judged as perverse for being enthralled by it, I stand by my 4 stars for Elle (but you might know that I tend to like difficult films, evidenced by my rare-4½ star-response to Nocturnal Animals [Tom Ford; review in our December 8, 2016 posting], along with 4 stars for Nymphomaniac and my strong consideration for 4½ stars in my 1st-ever-review for this blog, Melancholia [von Trier, 2011; see our December 12, 2011 posting]).

 I’m not unaware of Elle’s lurid implications, but I salute its bravery nevertheless, with a strong possibility it’ll end up in my Top 10 for 2016, possibly (long shot at best) among Oscar’s Best Picture finalists as well.  (I’m also hoping Huppert will finally get a long-deserved-Best Actress Oscar-nomination—as she already has similar honors from others for this film, so we’ll see if they choose to award her or not—but that’s often been difficult for Oscar-voters where foreign-language-films and their main-performers are concerned, solitary-winners Sophia Loren [Two Women {Vittorio De Sica, 1960}] and Marion Cotillard [La Vie en Rose {Olivier Dahan, 2007}] notwithstanding.)

 As for my usual Musical Metaphor to address (from the perspective of an entirely different form of expression) my overall responses to the film in question, for what I see in Elle I’m really pushing the metaphorical concept—just as the film itself pushes traditional ideas about sexual relations and the responses of various women to those encounters—by my early strong consideration of Bob Dylan’s "Masters of War" (from his 1963 The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album) because of its absolutist-condemnation of not only the battle-planners (“You that hide behind desks”) but also the leaders of the vast military-industrial-complex (a term of warning about such war-profiteers, coming ironically from what many would consider one of its own, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served both as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe during WW II and later as President of the United States, but issued this statement as his 2nd term neared its end on January 17, 1961) of those who provide the implements of our self-imposed-destruction (“You that build the death planes You that build all the bombs”).  Neither Patrick—in his sick desire to brutally impose himself on female victims of his perversion—nor Michèle—in her willingness to make a profit from the overseeing of the creation of a violence-surrogate to be played (mostly) by hormone-driven young males—are “masters” of the type of destruction that Dylan was railing against* but they’re on the road to such deterioration of the human spirit, as they present themselves as willing participants in further desensitizing of their world (supported, ultimately, by their intimate female companions), even if not at the grotesque level of Michèle’s father’s crimes.  It’s easy enough to want to “stand over [the] graves” of Georges and Patrick “’Til I’m sure that you’re dead,” but I wouldn’t be too quick to absolve Michèle, Anna, and Rebecca of their acceptance of all that’s occurred as well.

Just for clarity, this is Bob Dylan not Tom Lockney
*I still remember being a member of the Catholic Student Center folk singers at the Univ. of Texas Austin campus in the late 1960s when we were invited (why, I’m not sure) to perform for the airmen at nearby Bergstrom Air Force Base one night.  Our hosts gave us the gracious opportunity to present whatever we wished (I forget if we sang anything of a religious nature that we’d do at the Sunday masses) so one of our group, Tom Lockney, did a solo of another Dylan song, "With God On Our Side" (from the 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changing), intended to be a direct challenge to our hosts, these solid military men (I don’t recall seeing any women in uniform that night), about their participation in the Vietnam War, which we collectively opposed (I think Tom was especially emphatic on lyrics such as “But now we got weapons Of the chemical dust If fire them we’re forced to Then fire them we must” and “If God’s on our side He’ll stop the next war”).  I’ll still give those USAF airmen credit for their acceptance of our presentation that night—including Tom’s editorial—with no knowledge of how any of them personally might have felt about the national enterprise that they were a part of, even if they might have chosen this branch of the military as a route away from the required draft into the Army (just as I went into UT in Air Force ROTC despite my high-school Army ROTC experience, until I made the decision that I wanted no part of the Vietnam War slaughterhouse), with its sure ticket to the infantry’s front lines in Southeast Asian jungles (a fate the males in our group were temporarily protected from by our college deferments).  Likewise, in watching Elle it’s hard to imagine God being on anyone’s side.

 However, rather than choosing “Masters of War” for Elle’s Musical Metaphor, I’m going with another Dylan song, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (also on The Freewheelin’ … album) but with Patti Smith's rendition* from the recent Nobel Prize ceremony where she delivers these searing lyrics in a manner much reminiscent of how Dylan would have sung them back during the time when he wrote it but I've chosen it also because she has a moment of confusion in the midst of the song (due to her self-admitted-nervousness doing a tribute to this recent winner of the grand prize in literature who didn’t attend the ceremony due to prior commitments [although no one’s yet been able to determine what they were but he did send a nice acceptance speech]) so the combination of these thoughts about social calamity on the verge of sweeping over us (like Moana’s dark days in the Pacific when the Great Goddess was deprived of her heart; please see my comments further below)—as people like Michèle, Patrick, and their enablers push any sense of personal/social decency to the brink—combined with Smith’s stumbling of the lyrics—just as Michèle seems uncertain of the correct response to her situation, shifting from aggressive defense to embrace of her own erotic pleasure to what seems to be plotted vengeance against both Patrick and her father—leaves me with a sense of discomfort regarding both what Dylan wrote/Smith sang about and how Michèle leaves us with a similar sense of intertwined horror/disgust/humor at how she navigates her life, unapologetic but disturbing as someone who might decide in our current industrial-political-climate to next run for public office with an embraceable persona built on her dubious entertainment success, leaving us with situations where we could find “ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken [… with] ten thousand whisperin’ [but] nobody’s listenin’ 
[… because] the people are many and their hands are all empty … Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,” allowing gamers like Michèle and bankers like Patrick to offer answers to our fates because we’ve become too terrified of maniacs like Georges, too wiling to turn to anyone who seems strong enough (even if not) to offer protection from such rape of our collective wellbeing.

*But if you want Bob singing it, here he is from a 1988 concert in Oakland, CA (don’t know how I missed that one, but I saw another show from that era where he wasn’t nearly as coherent as here, so now I’m really sorry I missed it) with a new verse about the Vietnam War (if you just keeping flowing here on YouTube you also get “Girl from the North Country” from that same concert).
Short Takes
                                Moana (Ron Clements, John Musker)
An animated feature of a Polynesian legend where the heart of the great Creator Goddess was long ago stolen by demigod Maui, bringing evil to the region and the loss of his enchanted fishhook.  As calamity begins to befall her island, a young girl goes against her stern father’s wishes to sail away in hopes of restoring the heart, teaming up with Maui in the process.

 With various other must-see-decisions to attend to I’d hadn’t gotten around to Disney’s newest animated feature (from their own studio, rather than Pixar’s) until a few days ago, but with it’s ongoing success (#1 at the domestic-box-office for 3 weekends in a row, hauling in a hefty $144.7 million during that time, making it #15 for 2016 with a couple of weeks to go to keep entertaining the kids when school’s soon out [a relevant consideration as Nina and I saw it at a Monday mid-afternoon screening in a large theater as part of a 6-person-audience])—and its Golden Globe nomination for Best Animated Motion Picture (more details in the Related Links section below), despite a surprising omission of Disney/Pixar’s hugely-popular Finding Dory (Angus MacLane, Andrew Stanton; review in our June 23, 2016 posting) with its worldwide gross of $1.027 billion
I decided it was finally time to catch up with Moana.  The story purports to be an ancient Polynesian tale of the creating goddess Te Fiti rising from the primordial ocean, making islands teeming with life throughout the Pacific.  However, when demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) stole Te Fiti's enchanted pounamu heart, intending it as a gift to humankind, its loss unleashed evils upon the region including lava demon Te Kā who caused the precious stone to fall into the ocean along with Maui’s magical fishhook (the source of his powers), stranding him on an island for 1,000 years.  

 In the story’s present (still millennia ago for us) on the paradisiacal island of Motunui, Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison) prepares his young daughter Moana (Auli’I Cravalho) for leadership; however, when crops fail and fish disappear, Moana wants to venture beyond the barrier reef that protects their island, an act forbidden by Dad.  Just before her death, though, Gramma Tala (Rachel House) reveals to Moana the secret cave of outrigger canoes which brought their ancestors to this island before the dark times after which its inhabitants chose safety rather than further exploration.

 Defying her father’s edict, Moana takes one of these craft into the larger ocean, carrying with her the precious heart stone (which the mighty sea itself washed up on the shore for only her to retrieve) where a storm deposits her on Maui’s island, finally giving him a chance to escape to find his fishhook.  This big demigod is a massively-muscled-but-egotistical guy who rejects Moana’s mission but the ocean continues to deposit her on the boat so he finally accepts her as a traveling companion, teaching her to sail in the process.  After they elude some pursuing Kakamora (little coconut-pirate-demons), then climb a tall island mountain with a tunnel that drops them beneath the sea into Lalotai, a lair of monsters, they get the hook back from giant crab Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), then sail off to return the heart stone to Te Fiti’s island, guarded by Te Kā.  However, an unsuccessful attempt to elude the creature results in Maui’s hook being damaged, him leaving Moana to her own devices, her becoming despondent as well until the spirit of Grandmother Tala arrives to encourage her to make another attempt of restoring the heart (with Maui’s last-minute-help, reminiscent of Han Solo’s triumphant return in Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope [George Lucas, 1977]) where they find Te Kā is a corrupted version of Te Fiti so Moana offers the heart to her, transforming the goddess back into a green embodiment of fertility (who restores Maui’s now-completely-damaged-fishhook in the process), with Moana sailing home to a welcoming family who become inspired to launch their long-hidden-fleet to look for new islands (that Maui will likely be pulling up from the sea).  The computer-generated-animation in Moana is outstanding (with amazing textures of water, foliage, sand, etc.), the female protagonist provides exactly the kind of counter-role-model that feminist critics of the much-earlier-Disney-princesses have called for in that this 
little girl (seemed more like a teenager to me but was identified as an 8-year-old) has normal fears and lack-of-experience-limitations but also shows her great courage under fire (literally, from the lava-beast), with a gutsy-determination to adapt quickly to her challenges, fitting nicely into the traditional American hero myth of the adventurer willing to explore the unknown frontier rather than choose the known safety of settled-cultural-expectations in a secure realm (reflecting what we see in Moana's cute pre-feature-short called Inner Workings of the Human Body, where a stifled-drone-worker for Boring, Boring & Glum has a protective-brain that keeps overruling the more-stimulated-desires of the heart until the organizing-organ finally allows them to all break free, bringing energy, joy, and contentment to the office), even as that realm may be on the brink of disaster as the world around it descends into chaos.  Overall, Moana may be a bit predictable (pee in the ocean jokes) and preachy (“No one goes beyond the reef” says the Chief) with some lengthy action scenes above and below the ocean surface intended to just fill time with spectacular effects, but it delivers a well-needed-message, it pokes fun at its own heritage (Moana says that she’s not a princess; Maui counters that wearing a skirt and having an animal companion [goofy rooster Heihei who keeps eating the heart stone] makes her one anyway), and is a gorgeous experience to look at.  If you want to know more about it (before having to buy the DVD for your kids that they’ll replay for years, as well as decide for yourself if, even after extensive use of Polynesian consultants, there’s still legitimate reason for a few complaints about the characterization of Maui), you might want to visit the official site, the trailer, and the collective critical responses: Rotten Tomatoes 
(95%), Metacritic (81%, high for them; details on both in the Related Links section just below*)

*In that I just resurrected a regular, awards-season feature in those Related Links, I’ll remind you that you can now go there to find a easy path to the Golden Globes nominees (you can also look over this article about big snubs and surprises in that list); further, I’ll note that the Critics' Choice Awards (from the Broadcast Film Critics Association [BFCA] and Broadcast Television Journalists Association [BTJA]), another major ceremony, gave Best Picture to La La Land (Damien Chazelle) while my local San Francisco Film Critics Circle (of which I’m still not a member but have applied again for the 5th straight year, so wish me luck) chose Moonlight (Barry Jenkins; review in our November 10, 2016 posting) as their Best Film.  You’d think that I’d also be eligible for some sort of Rationalization Award for how I managed to work in a discussion of 3 Dylan songs in choosing a Musical Metaphor for Elle when there must be something more directly appropriate, but I’ve yet to find an organization that gives out such recognitions (if so, I might also be honored for Most Lengthy Reviews Since Pauline Kael, so I’ll keep a space open on my mantelpiece just in case).

 Given all of the impactful year-end-releases now hitting our screens which I'm trying to see as soon as I can, I may be back with you next week with more reviews to close out my comments on 2016 cinema or I may not; if not, I'll wish you happy holidays of your own persuasion and a glorious 2017.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are too many of them to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 on this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.

AND … at least until the Oscars for 2016’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 26, 2017 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2016 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards 
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees for films and TV from 2016.

Here’s more information about Elle: (35:32 interview with director Paul Verhoeven and actor Isabelle Huppert)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.