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Films I Neglected To Review: Maui Almost-Wowie
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of ''The Love Witch,'' ''Manchester by the Sea'' and ''Moana.''

One of the oddest movies to hit screens this year, ”The Love Witch” is a meticulously recreated homage to an exploitation film subgenre that it is quite likely that the majority of the people going to see it were not even alive to experience first-hand - the sometimes silly/sometimes sexy films dealing vaguely with Satanism and the occult that briefly flourished in the days between the releases of the film versions of “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist.” (George Romero’s “Season of the Witch” is probably the best example of this strain of filmmaking and even that is one of his lesser efforts.) In this one, self-proclaimed witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) has just fled San Francisco (not to mention a dead husband) to a small coastal California town where she takes over the apartment of an absent friend and begins to once again use her supernatural gifts to conjure up true love with a man that she can love and take care of after winning them over with sex. Inevitably, things don’t quite work out as she initially hopes as both bodies and suspicions begin to stack up in her wake.

From a visual standpoint, “The Love Witch” is an absolute joy. Utilizing an eye for detail that makes Wes Anderson look like Roger Corman by comparison, writer-director Anna Biller (whose previous film, “Viva,” was another retro homage to a bygone cinematic era) has created a one-of-a-kind homage in which every single prop appears to have come straight out of the era that is being referenced (even though the movie takes place in contemporary times) and everything has been filmed in the kind of vibrant Technicolor hues that practically pop off the screen. Equally mesmerizing is the star turn by Robinson, who more than holds her own against the kind of stylistic gambit that might have subsumed other actresses. The one flaw with the film - and it may prove to be a deal-breaker even among those blown away by its aesthetic triumphs - is that at a full 120 minutes, it is at least a half-hour longer than the kind of movie it is slavishly emulating would usually be and the pacing is occasionally a little too pokey for its own good. “The Love Witch” is clearly not a film for everyone but if your DVD collection contains at least one offering from the grindhouse specialty company Something Weird, you will almost certainly get a kick out of it, at least for a while.

In the opening scenes of the new drama ”’Manchester by the Sea,” the generally humdrum existence of suburban Boston handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is thrown into turmoil when his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies suddenly of a heart attack and he is forced to return to the hometown that gives the film its title. As he grimly goes through all the rituals that come into play as the result of such an event - planning a funeral, reconnecting with family and friends and the like - we gradually learn that Lee’s discomfort stems from some past tragic event that caused him to lose his wife (Michelle Williams) and children and made him the town pariah before he finally fled, clearly hoping never to come back. He is then shocked to discover that his brother has made him the legal guardian of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and that he needs to stay in town while the kid is still in school. Since neither he nor Patrick especially want to contemplate what is going to happen in the long run, the two are content to merely deal with immediate concerns, such as Patrick requiring Lee to chauffeur him around to hookups with his multiple girlfriends. Eventually, Lee is forced to get serious and try to plot out a real future while at the same time come to terms at last with the circumstances that caused him to leave in the first place.

Although the above description may make it sound like just another piece of Oscar bait involving people coming to terms with things, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, whose previous film was the great and unruly epic drama “Margaret,” has figured out a number of ways to make it come vibrantly to life without getting bogged down in unrelenting misery and gloom. Although it seems at first that he is going to follow in the path of most filmmakers by gradually revealing what happened to Lee in his past in order to maximize the drama and provide some easy climactic catharsis, he makes the interesting decision to reveal both that event and Lee’s equally dramatic reaction to it in total much earlier in the proceedings, a move that allows viewers to get a better grasp of who Lee is and why he acts in the way he does. For a film that is suffused with tragedy and pain throughout, it also proves to be a surprisingly witty one at times, especially in the scenes involving Lee and Patrick getting used to each other. Lonergan also gets great performances across the board - Affleck and Hedges are wonderful in the central roles and as Lee’s former wife, the always impressive Michelle Williams has a confrontation scene with Affleck that just may be the single most powerful piece of acting of her entire career to date. To be honest, if I had to pick between this film and “Margaret,” I would probably lean towards “Margaret” because that one, despite its obvious unevenness, had a wild energy to it that kept things humming along while this one, while far smoother in terms of narrative, does get a little too slow and contemplative at times. That quibble aside, “Manchester by the Sea” is nevertheless one of the more powerful, bracing and ultimately invigorating dramas that you are likely to see in a movie theater this season.

The good news about ”Moana,” the latest Disney animated juggernaut, is that it is a perfectly entertaining film that is bright and colorful to look at (especially if you forgo the unnecessary 3-D option), features a bright and resourceful girl as its central character and contains enough silly humor and bouncy songs to amuse the kids without driving the grownups mad in the bargain. However, in a year that has seen such incredibly entertaining and creatively inspired works as “April and the Extraordinary World,” “Zootopia” and “Kubo and the Two Strings,” an animated film has to be really special in order to stand out and that just is not the case here. The story focuses on Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the teenage princess of a Polynesian island that has been cursed thanks to the machinations of the demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Although forbidden to leave the island by her superstitious father, the call of the ocean proves to be too enticing for her to ignore and she sets off alone (save for a wacky pet chicken) to traverse the dangerous waters in order to find Maui and make him correct his earlier wrongs before her entire island succumbs to a vegetation-destroying blight. In developments that will no doubt shock you, the vain and self-absorbed Maui is not especially interested in helping her out but after a while, the two learn to work together as Moana overcomes incredible odds in the hopes of saving her home.

The problem with the film is that while the story is entertaining enough, it is awfully familiar and the fact that the screenplay flat-out acknowledges this on a couple of occasions (when Moana denies that she is a princess at one point, Maui responds by telling her “If you were a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess”) doesn’t quite make up for it. Under normal circumstances, this could have been overlooked but when you consider the other ways in which the film does mess with tradition - such as the Polynesian setting and resisting the urge to truck in a heroic young male character that Moana can fall in love with while being helped out on her quest - it seems odd that the screenwriters didn’t try a little harder to make the central narrative a little fresher. On the bright side, newcomer Cravalho is lively and entertaining as Moana and Johnson is pretty funny as the very demigod Maui, the songs (including some written by Lin-Manuel MIranda) are catchy enough, if not especially memorable from a lyrical standpoint, and there are occasional moments of true inspiration, the best of which involves our heroes being pursued by a pirate ship manned by. . . well, I don’t want to give away the punchline but I assure you that it is indeed hilarious. In the end, “Moana” is a pretty good movie and worth checking out even if you are not required to as a parental duty - I just feel that if a little more originality had been applied to it, it could have become something really special instead of something than the merely okay final product that we now have.

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originally posted: 11/27/16 09:09:34
last updated: 11/27/16 09:32:38
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