Rad journeys in 'Moana,' 'Passengers'

By Tom Von Malder | Mar 19, 2017
Photo by: Walt Disney Home Entertainment Moana and Maui set off on their ocean adventure in Disney's "Moana."

Owls Head — Moana (Disney, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 107 min.). Simply put, this is a terrific animated movie for both children and adults. It offers the added benefit of exposure to South Pacific customs, traditions and music. It also is a film about female empowerment, as it tells the story of a brave and tenacious teenager (Auli'i Cravalho as Moana) who, despite being the daughter of Motunui Island's Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), feels the pull of the sea and is not content to stay on the island like everyone else and never venture beyond the reef.

While much of the movie's "magic" comes from within -- particularly with Moana discovering more and more of what she can accomplish through determination -- the ocean itself seems to have a spirit that manifests itself through waves that first selects a very young Moana to be the holder of the ancient stone heart of Te Fiti, an island that may be the origin of all humanity, and later helps Moana in her quest to return the stone heart to Te Fiti. The stone returns to the ocean for a decade or so, before reappearing to instigate Moana's journey beyond the reef. Moana's desires to explore the outside world have been encouraged by her grandmother Tala (Rachel House), long considered the island's "crazy woman." Tala reveals to Moana the seafaring history of her people and gives her the stone heart to return. Part of this journey is to bring Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a demigod  with a magical fish hook that allows him to shape shift, across the ocean to Te Fiti. In the past, Maui took the stone heart, releasing Te Ka, a demon of earth and fire which then defeated him. Maui has animated tattoos on his body (here the animation style recalls Disney's "Hercules," which is not that surprising as both "Hercules" and "Moana" were directed by Ron Clements and John Musker).

It is easy to tell this is a Disney animated feature, as there is plenty of dancing and songs that actually further the plot, as well as a couple of bungling animal friends in Pua the pig and Heihei the chicken, with the latter accompanying Moana on her journey. The wonderful music is by composer Mark Mancina (Disney's "The Lion King" and "Tarzan," winner of three Grammy Awards), a pre-"Hamilton" Lin-Manuel Miranda (2 Grammy Awards, 5 Tony Awards, an Emmy and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama) and Australian songwriter Opetaia Foa'i, a super star who lives in Samoa. The action often is big -- an encounter with the Kakamora pirates and the showdown with Te Ka -- and the animation often is dazzling, among the best Disney has ever graced us with. One favorite is the sailing migration sequence. One of the best songs goes to Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), a giant crab in Lalotei, the realm of monsters, who has Maui's magical fish hook.

The extras are typical Disney as well. Director Leo Matsuda presents his short film, "Inner Workings" (6:26), which spotlights the internal struggle between a man's brain and heart. There is an informative look at the creation of the film's songs (12:37) with Mancina, Miranda and Foa'i; the deleted song, "Warrior Face" (3:41), presented with basic animation; a multi-language reel of the song "How Far I'll Go" (2:44); and Alessia Cara's music video of "How Far I'll Go" (3:04). The film is accompanied by audio commentary by the directors; seven deleted scenes (25:56) with optional introductions by the directors; and a tour of hidden Easter eggs with Cravalho and Johnson (2:52). In "Voice of the Islands" (31:13), the filmmakers discuss how Pacific Islands people and cultures inspired them to make the film; the piece is very much a documentary on the Pacific Islands. There also are two Q&A sessions: one with Johnson, Cravalho and the directors (2:02); the other with musicians Foa'i, Mancina and Miranda (1:57): plus the Maui mini-movie, "Gone Fishing" (2:29). Finally, there is a look at the film's fashion with costume designer Neysa Bove (5:13). A 3D version is available as well. Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3.75 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Passengers (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 116 min.). This interstellar voyage is really two films in one. The first, more interesting one deals with a man in isolation, while the second is a more standard action film. The starship Avalon is headed for Homestead 2, with 258 crew and 5,000 passengers/settlers aboard, all in suspended animation for the 120-year journey. However, the Avalon is hit by an asteroid, which damages it severely, although only little things go wrong at first. One of those first mistakes is to revive mechanical engineer Jim Preston (a solid Chris Pratt) 90 years too early.

The first part of the movie deals with Preston dealing with being the only person awake on the vast ship. His sole interactions are with an android bartender named Arthur (a sly performance by Michael Sheen; the android possibly named after the film starring Dudley Moore). The whole art deco bar set-up, by the way, is an acknowledged homage to Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." While Preston cannot go back into suspended animation, he realizes he could revive another passenger to be a companion. He wrestles with this decision for much of the 55 weeks he is alone. Since the DVD cover and the film's advertisements all give it away that Preston will not be alone on his journey, it is no spoiler to say journalist Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) is released from her stasis pod. We then see Lane go through the same emotions as Preston did initially. The second part of the film deals with the increasing damage the asteroid has caused and the efforts of the two to repair the damage.

There are several bonus features. Exclusive to Blu-ray are eight deleted scenes (9:49), which include Preston learning Russian and trying new drinks and the characters revealing more of their backgrounds; and a look at the visual effects (7:26). Both version have features on the casting (10:39); a visit with Pratt on set (4:19) with lots of behind-the-scenes footage; outtakes (4:23); four space travel ads (4:40); and a look at creating the Avalon and its sets (9:35). The latter brings up my point of why, if the passengers will only be awake for the final four months, did the spaceship makers waste so much space on luxury amenities? To my mind, it doesn't make sense, but then the film would have had a much poorer look. The film received Oscar nominations for Best Score (Thomas Newman) and Best Production Design (Guy Hendrix Dyas and Gene Serdena). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.75 stars

Collateral Beauty (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 96 min.). Director David Frankel's ("Marley & Me," "The Devil Wears Prada") take on a Christmas fable ultimately proves emotionally affecting, but the plot, which echoes "It's a Wonderful Life," is somewhat silly, rescued only a bit by some good acting. "It's a Wonderful Life" presented the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, while this film presents the "ghosts" of Love, Time and Death. Each of the three are New York City actors, hired to help shock Howard Inlet (Will Smith) out of the funk he has been since the death of his 6-year-old daughter two years ago.

With Howard in his funk -- he mostly spends his days creating elaborate domino scenarios at the office -- the ad agency he formed with Whit (Edward Norton) is going down the tubes. The firm does have a purchase agreement in place that will save the day, but Howard refuses to agree to the sale. Thus, Whit and two other agency executives, Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pare), hire three actors to play the three abstractions that Howard used to talk a lot about and to whom, after he his daughter's death, he has written scathing letters of disappointment. The idea is that Howard will either come to his senses or he will be filmed talking to the three actors, who then will be digitally removed, so the video will prove he is incompetent to vote on his company shares. Yes, that is a bit convoluted and not really realistic. However, the three actors playing the actors are very good, particularly Helen Mirren as Brigette/Death, who brings a lot of humor to her performance. Keira Knightley plays Amy/Love and Jacob Latimore is Raffi/Time. Of course, Whit (divorce and his young daughter hates him), Claire (biological clock is ticking as the company has been her whole life) and Simon (fatal disease) have their own problems, which each actor helps ameliorate. Naomie Harris plays Madeline, who runs a grief support group for parents who have lost children.

The only bonus feature has the actors talking about the film and working with the other actors (15:03). Grade: film 2 stars; extras 1/2 star

Incarnate (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13/NR, 86/87 min.). This is the second recent horror film, after "The Darkness," that has starred teenage actor David Mazouz, who plays the young Bruce Wayne on TV's "Gotham." This time Mozouz is 11-year-old Cameron, who becomes possessed by an evil spirit. The twist on this exorcist film from the producer of "The Purge" and "Insidious" and the director of "San Andreas" is that it is not an exorcist film, rather the non-religious demon remover "evicts" the malevolent spirits by entering the subconscious of the victim and showing the victim the way to be free. (It usually involves a favorite color, which becomes a door leading to a room with a window the victim can jump out of to be free.) Again, we have a not very realistic plot.

The evictor is Dr. Seth Ember, played by Aaron Eckhart. Ember is wheelchair bound after a head-on collision, which killed his wife and young child. The other driver was possessed by an arch demon, whom Ember calls Maggie. It turns out that Cameron is possessed by the same demon. Ember can only immerse in another's mind for eight minutes. His first trip into Cameron's mind takes place in a park, where the boy is playing catch with his father (Matt Nable as Dan); the second occurs at a carnival. Carice Van Houten plays Cameron's mother, and Ember's two assistants are played by Keir O'Donnell and Emily Jackson.

The film is neither good nor bad. What it has going for it is that it moves briskly. The only bonus feature is a making-of-feature that details how the film was made in 23 days (7:11). Grade: film 2.5 stars; extra 1/2 star

Elle (France, Sony Pictures Classics, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 131 min.). Like "Moana," this is another film about female empowerment, but a much more adult one. The film, directed by Paul Verhoeven, earned star Isabelle Huppert an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The film, which Verhoeven call his "protest against genre" in the extras, won Golden Globes for Best Foreign Film and for Huppert as Best Actress -- Drama.  Verhoeven is known for his adult-skewing films that twist expectations, such as "Spetters" and "The Fourth Man," as well  as more action-oriented fare, such as "RoboCop" and "Total Recall," plus the classic "Basic Instinct."

Huppert plays Michele Leblanc, a divorced woman with an adult son (James Bloquet as Vincent). She and her partner (Anne Consigny as Anna) run a successful video game company in Paris. The opens with a black screen and then a cat watching, as sounds of Michele being sexually assaulted are heard. (Verhoeven repeats the brutal scene twice: at 15 minutes with more visual detail and at 31 minutes with an alternate ending in which Michele beats her attacker to death.) Later, Michele receives text messages from her attacker, whom she arms herself against. Michelle's life is anything but simple. Her son has a controlling, pregnant girlfriend and works at a fast food joint. Michelle has been having an affair with Anna's husband and she makes under-the-table moves against her married neighbor (Laurent Lafitte as Patrick). The flirting with Patrick brings out much of the film's humor, as does Michele's devil-may-care attitude, like when she forces her car into a too-small parking space by using her car to push the car behind her out of the way. Michele also is against her mother's string of much-younger boyfriends. Michele's father is in prison, after killing 27 people in Nantes in 1976. Currently, there is a TV documentary being broadcast about him, as he has a parole hearing coming up.

The psychologically complex film is not a revenge film, as one might suspect from the jacket copy; still, Michele refuses to be a victim. For a large portion of the film, the attacker plot is sidetracked by all the family drama. Bonus features include a making-of featurette (7:15) with Verhoeven and an informative interview by Stephen Galloway of Huppert about her career and working with Verhoeven at the AFI's tribute to Huppert (36:39). Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 2.75 stars

Fox and His Friends (Germany, 1975, Criterion, Blu-ray, NR, 124 min.). The film, directed and co-written by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, caused some controversy when it was released. Some looked at the story of  a gay sideshow worker who wins the lottery, only to be exploited by his upper-class lover, as potentially homophobic. Fassbinder himself plays the main character, who falls victim to social captivity after the lottery win, instead of having financial and emotional freedom. (Fassbinder had to diet strenuously in order to play the role.)

The movie initially seems to be about a homosexual relationship. Franz Biberkopf (Fassbinder), a slightly dazed young rent boy and sometime carnival worker, is adopted by Eugen (Peter Chatel), the superficially charming son of a rich industrialist. However, director Fassbinder sees his character as ridiculous for believing he could use money to overcome his lowly status. Indeed, the industrialist, we learn, is about to go bankrupt and his son hopes to save the business by swindling the easily flattered lottery winner out of his fortune, using love as a pretext.

This is a new 4K digital restoration, undertaken by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. There are new interviews with actor Harry Baer (an actor often used by Fassbinder, he plays Philip; 17 min., in German with subtitles) and filmmaker Ira Sachs (director of "Love is Strange"; 17 min.) on profiling Fassbinder's films; a French TV excerpt from a 1976 interview with Fassbinder (6 min.); excerpts from a 1975 interview with composer Peer Raben (3 min., in French with subtitles); and a booklet essay by film critic Michael Koresky. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Spain, 1988, Criterion Blu-ray, NR, 89 min.). This film, which melds melodrama with screwball farce, was writer-director Pedro Almodovar's  international breakthrough, as it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The film continued Almodovar's examination of the female psyche by telling the story of Pepa, played by the director's frequent collaborator, Carmen Maura, who decides to kill herself by eating sleeping pill-laced gazpacho, after her lover (Fernando Guillen as Ivan) leaves her. However, a chaotic series of events interrupts her.

First, there is her best friend, Candela (María Barranco), who appears concerned that the police might be after her because her ex-lover has been assisting a radical group of Shiite terrorists. Then, Carlos (Antonio Banderas) and his girlfriend Marisa (Rossy de Palma) ring her doorbell. Eventually, the police do arrive, and then Ivan's wife, Lucia (Julieta Serrano), rushes in with a loaded gun. The film has a brilliant script and a brilliant performance by Maura.

Bonus features include a new interview with Almovodar (17 min.) in which he discusses his approach to filming comedy and this film in particular; a new interview with Maura (20 min.); a new interview with producer Agustin Almovodar (17 min.) in which he talks about his working relationship with his brother, Pedro, and the stylization and themes of the film; a new discussion of the film's impact in Spain and abroad by film scholar Richard Pena (12 min.); and a booklet essay by novelist and critic Elvira Lindo.  All the video interviews except the Pena one are in Spanish with optional English subtitles. Grade: film and extras 4 stars

Strange Cargo (1940, Warner Archive DVD, NR, 113 min.). This is a stand-alone release of the Frank Borzage film that was part of "The Joan Crawford Collection Vol. 2," released in 2015. In the film, which pairs Crawford and Clark Gable for the eighth and final time, Gable plays Verne, an inmate at a penal colony in the Guianas, who has tried to escape five times in three years. As the film starts, he is assigned wharf duty after his latest escape attempt and sees Julie (Crawford), a reluctant resident of the island who works in the tavern, grabs her by the ankle and forces her to talk to him. He manages to stay in town and sneak into her room that night, but the aptly named M'sieu Pig (Peter Lorre) informs on him. The unexpected result is that Julie is given only 12 hours to vacate the island, as she had had contact with an inmate.

Verne forces his way as part of an escape by a group of prisoners, who are joined by a Christ-like presence (Ian Hunter as Cambreau). This is the less-than-successful allegorical part of the film. Cambreau and Hessler (Paul Lukas) a man who has murdered several different wives, philosophize about the Bible and related topics throughout the story. The film features a score by the great Franz Waxman. Bonus features include the featurette, "Gable & Crawford"; the vintage short, "More About Nostradamus"; and the classic cartoon, "The Lonesome Stranger." Grade: film 2 stars; extras 2 stars

Star Trek: Voyager -- The Complete Series (1995-2001, CBS/Paramount, 47 DVDs, NR, 129 hours 38 min.). This set collects all seven seasons -- 172 episodes -- of the TV series that stars Kate Mulgrew as Capt. Kathryn Janeway, the first female captain in the Star Trek canon. The series follows the adventures of the Starfleet vessel, the U.S.S. Voyager, which is catapulted into a distant sector of the galaxy, the Delta Quadrant, after making a decision that saved an entire species from being destroyed. Now the crew faces a 75-year journey across 70,000 light years of space to return home to the Alpha Quadrant. Members of the crew are played by Robert Beltran, Roxann Dawson, Jennifer Lien, Robert Duncan McNeill, Ethan Phillips, Robert Picardo, Tim Russ, Jeri Ryan and Garrett Wang. All the extras from the 2004 individual season releases are included, among them behind-the-scenes featurettes, cast and crew interviews, storyboards and photo galleries. Featurettes look at the Borg Queen (a great new series villain species), Seven of Nine (Ryan), make-up magic, visual effects, the final episode and Capt. Janeway. Grade: series 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars

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