The artist formerly known as "The Rock" is now a singer. Yes, Dwayne Johnson is in a Disney musical. We knew he could act, he was after all, a professional wrestler (...smile...), but sing? He took this role to highlight his own personal background...the Pacific Islands. His Samoan culture embraces the myth that is illustrated. They have gone to great lengths to make what is depicted here as authentic as possible: the music, the dancing, the homes, the clothing and the lifestyle.

A committee of directors takes us on a PG-rated animated adventure that starts with a catchy, rhythmic opening number. The story is about a young girl who tries to navigate her way to a mythical island to save her tribe. Her hero, the legendary demi-god Maui hijacks her boat but eventually gives her some much-needed sailing help. He wants to retrieve a magic fishhook so he can be a shape-shifter again. He lost it because of some misbehavior in the past and he hopes Moana will help him steal it back.

Here are some of the voices for this animated fantasy:
  • Auli'i Cravalho in her film debut, is Moana, smart and stubborn, determined to go beyond the reef, something she has been told all her life is impossible. She has more optimism than skill, but sets out just the same, over everyone's objections but her beloved grandmother's. I was happy to see that she learned some lessons along the way and has to be far more determined than she expected.
  • Dwayne Johnson ("Central Intelligence") is Maui, rambunctious and not overly bright. Truth in Advertising? Maui has a LOT of hair, Johnson shaves his head.. Maui has a sentient tattoo that functions as his conscience..sort of a Jiminy Cricket... Johnson has tattoos. .hmmm... Maui's first song is a sarcastic "You're Welcome" as he responds to all of the Thank Yous he feels he has earned for the many gifts he has given to ungrateful humans.
  • Rachel House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople") is Gramma Tala, proud of her little charge, but a bit dotty. She says it's her JOB to be dotty. She promises to come back as a manta ray when she dies.
  • Temuera Morrison ("Star Wars") is Chief Tui,  the wonderful voice of the tribe, rejoicing, celebrating and honoring the abundant harvest and the honors bestowed upon his daughter, Moana.
Throughout this colorful, lilting musical, our focus is on a girl who has been convinced that she is the "Chosen One," who can sail to that forbidden island, replace a stolen stone and restore a life of plenty for mankind. Of course she learns that is isn't quite so simple... We watch her grow, one lesson at a time.

I want to talk about two things:
  1. Auli'i Cravalho is a FIND. Moana's singing voice is glorious, her diction is impeccable and I understood every single word she said. The sound in this movie is amazing!
  2. The artistry is extraordinary. Any time an animation department works with water, it brings out the very, very best. This one is no exception. The lagoon, the waterfall, the storm, the lull after the storm, and that rascally animated wave, each is unique. Facial expressions, physical movement, the toddler, the pig, the chicken and above all, Moana, are infused with magic.
It was a happy crowd of children and adults who exited the screening last night.
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Take a peek:
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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Even J.K. Rowling ("Harry Potter") isn't above milking a franchise, although she is said to be richer than the Queen of England these days! I suspect creative people just keep creating even when they don't need the cash.

Director David Yates ("Harry Potter") brings us a fantasy/adventure that places us, once again, in Rowling-land, this time in 1926. Meticulously crafted special effects abound and our familiarity with the Potter saga helps only a bit, as we follow a gentleman into New York's secret world of witches and wizards 70 years before the Potter story begins. An evil force is causing no end of destruction and he wants to help. It's sort of a dark window with eyes.

Part of the enormous cast:
  • Eddie Redmayne ("The Danish Girl") is Newt Scamander, the aforementioned gentleman traveling to New York. Take a look at his traveling bag: Mary Poppins hasn't a thing on him! Redmayne has devised a stance and a walk that is unique to Newt. It's sort of hollow-chested and lists to the left.
  • Katherine Waterston ("Inherent Vice") Tina spots Newt as soon as he gets off the boat. It's clear that she knows far more about wizards than most of the New Yorkers who crowd the streets.
  • Dan Fogler ("The Goldbergs") Cannery worker Kowalski wants to open a bakery but doesn't have any collateral. You know how well that goes over with a banker! As he encounters one fantastical situation after another, he knows it has to be true, "I ain't got the brains to make this up!"
  • Alison Sudol ("Other People's Children") Queenie loves to cook so she thinks Kowalski is the perfect man. She makes an amazing apple strudel for him.
  • Colin Farrell ("True Detective") is Percival Graves, a powerful wizard who crosses wands with Newt. Fearsome opponents, indeed!
  • Carmen Ejogo ("Selma") Seraphina is in charge. The No-Maj (American for Muggles) must have their memories of recent events erased. Period!
  • Ezra Miller ("Suicide Squad") Credence is part of the cadre of operatives directed by Graves.
  • Samantha Morton ("Max & Ruby") Mary Lou "adopts" children for their own good. Yikes! Her ministry opposes witches and warlocks.
  • Johnny Depp ("Black Mass") Ha! You'll never recognize his Grindenwald so I'll tell you right now. Yeah, that's a spoiler, but you will STILL be surprised.
As you might expect with a Rowling story, our hold on reality is pretty flimsy but Redmayne manages to find humor in being a stranger in a strange land... Actually, our hold on a plot is equally flimsy. This is mainly an excuse to string together one mind-boggling special effect after another. I sort of liked the first critter that escaped from Newt's grip. It is a sort of duck-billed platypus and is elusive as heck; it LOVES shiny jewelry and valuable coins. Bowtruckle is a green walking-stick bug with attachment issues and the amorous Eruptamus is no shrinking violet!

This is PG-13, so there is no sex (to the Eruptamus's frustration!), a few paltry gunshots, destructive mayhem in the streets but no profanity. The beasts are creative and of course the requisite barroom scene is full of oddball creatures.
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Here is a peek:
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The Eagle Huntress

If you have a thirteen year old who is feeling picked on because things aren't going exactly as planned, please take that youngster to see this movie. The only qualification will be the ability to read a few captions unless he or she speaks Kazakh! This documentary features a 13-year-old girl in Kazakhstan who wants to be the first girl in twelve generations to become a master eagle hunter. There are contests every year and her father has won three times and placed in the top five during the past five years, so when he agrees to teach her, she is working with the best.

This 87-minute G-rated family film has plenty to recommend it: scenery in a place none of us have visited, a subsistence lifestyle that is new to us (they raise, slaughter and eat their own food), and the accumulated knowledge that goes into being an eagle hunter; are all unknown to me. The first hair-raising episode illustrated the skill and knowledge it takes to CAPTURE an eaglet in the first place! I found myself checking the ropes and knots as carefully as her father did. I learned far more than I expected about the eagles, the horses, the lifestyle and the contest.

Director Otto Bell features two women:
  • Aisholpan Nurgaiv, our Eagle Huntress, is determined to master this skill in spite of the elements and the solitude, so this is about empowerment, independence, determination and the encroaching modern world. Being able to stand steady as a 13-pound raptor is diving toward your outstretched arm, takes more courage than I would be able to muster! Her school chums agree!
  • Daisy Ridley ("Star Wars; The Force Awakens") is our narrator/producer. We hear her voice as she explains the rules for the contest and clarifies some of the social issues, but those grumpy men needed no translation. They are adamantly opposed to a GIRL encroaching on their sport.
You have NEVER seen such breathtaking scenery or have beheld such tough, solitary figures in such a vast, unforgiving landscape. The sturdy little horses (Mongolian ponies) are tough and courageous. It's fun to watch them hold their own amid the jeeps, trucks, and Bactrian (two-humped) camels. We had to smile at the way the judges held up their numbered cards to vote. It looked like Dancing With the Stars. Then it was a surprise to learn that she STILL doesn't qualify until she and her eagle have proven their skills in a real-life hunt.

There is so much I haven't mentioned. Suffice it to say, this documentary will stay with you for a long time and you'll be the richer for it.
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Please watch this trailer;
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Almost Christmas

Do you have a family? If so, you'll probably recognize parts of this. This is one of those happy holiday get togethers, right? Well, Happy Holidays! This is the first gathering for the Meyer family since Grace, their beloved wife, sister, mother, and grandmother, died. The lovely family home is full of memories, a few are bad but mostly they are good.

Writer/director David E. Talbert ("Baggage Claim") manages to capture all the nuances of a big, sorta happy family (well, maybe the word nuance is a bit too soft, some of this is pretty over the top) as they fumble their way without the steadying influence of their adored matriarch (they call her kitchen "The Church of Grace"). Every sibling has a significant interaction with every other sibling.

Talbert's talented cast makes it all look so easy and very, very natural.

Part of this high-powered group:
  • Danny Glover ("Mozart in the Jungle") Walter Meyer is our widowed patriarch, struggling to make a traditional sweet-potato pie like his cherished Grace used to make. His clumsy attempts made us groan... And his attempts to quiet his battling daughters are equally doomed. We often see Grace, the mother of his four children, through flashbacks.
  • Kimberly Elise ("For Colored Girls...") Cheryl is the intense older sister: a married professional, affluent, and very, very organized. Her lively children capture everything on their cell phones, including some of their rascally father's escapades.
  • Gabrielle Union ("The Birth of a Nation") Rachel is the recently divorced younger sister, struggling to raise her daughter and finish her law degree. Problem is, money trouble threatens to derail her plans. She is angry, frustrated and STILL resents her domineering, older sister!
  • Romany Malco ("Blunt Talk") Third child Christian is in the middle of a political campaign, so this family holiday is a major distraction. And that homeless shelter is in the path of developers who are backing him.
  • Jesse Usher ("Independence Day" 2016) Evan is the youngest sibling, a change-of-life baby who feels short changed: his mother died far too soon! He is an aspiring ball player but has been through painful rehab after an injury. Personally I disagree with him about the house...
  • J.B. Smoove ("Barbershop: The Next Cut") Cheryl's husband Lonnie lives in the past, telling anyone who will listen about how great he used to be... We soon learn he is all talk.
  • Omar Epps ("Resurrection") Malachi blew it big time twenty years ago when he and Rachel were going to the Senior Prom. She hasn't forgotten!
  • John Michael Higgins ("Mascots") Christian's campaign manager is doing his best to keep his candidate on track, but this family really interferes.
  • Gregory Alan Williams ("Miracles From Heaven") Pastor Browning welcomes all those semi-familiar faces into his church. He recognizes them because they are CME Christians (Christmas, Mother's Day and Easter).
  • Mo'Nique (Oscar for "Precious") From the moment Aunt May steps out of that vehicle and flings her brilliant blue shawl over her shoulder, she OWNS every scene she's in! She is opinionated, funny, profane, and a terrible cook; she takes no prisoners!
This is rated PG-13, so expect plenty of profanity (mostly from Aunt May) and typical family squabbles. The screening audience laughed heartily throughout this one, so we were part of a exuberant chattering crowd when we exited the theater.
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Here is the official trailer:
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The Invisible War

I had avoided this documentary because I knew the content would be wrenching (institutionalized coverup of rape in the military), but one of my readers at Amazon.com urged me to bite the bullet. Despite having a BIG problem from lack of closed captions, I slammed my way through (and I'm sure my neighbors could hear my TV in the hall!) and must say this is every bit as wrenching as I feared.

Some of what I have learned:
  • The military promotes the idea of a male warrior being invincible and entitled to the fruits of war. This supports Alpha behavior and to some men, that includes sexual services from underlings.
  • Women are encouraged to join, but after a lengthy trial, one case was dismissed with, "Rape is a hazard of military duty."
  • Rape victims in the military suffer from PTSD in large part because it is a betrayal of the much-touted military "family."
  • During a rape years ago, one victim had the left side of her face shattered and still can't chew solid foods.The VA ordered X-rays of her BACK!
  • One victim was raped by a married man, so SHE was charged with adultery (not the rapist).
  • One assailant became "Airman of the Year" during the investigation of his crime.
  • Many rape victims are read their rights as though THEY have been accused and arrested.
  • The conviction rate in the military is a version of "Catch and Release." Only a fraction of the rapists are held even mildly accountable.
  • One attorney with the CID  who helped rape victims was "released" after eight years of duty and she was denied any military benefits.
  • One victim was told all of the evidence was lost, so her case was dropped. She went to NCIS in Washington D.C. and they actually have the evidence, but her case is still closed.
  • A "sensitivity" poster says, "Hey Buddy. Don't risk it. Ask her again when she's sober (?!)."
Acclaimed filmmaker Kirby Dick ("This Film is Not Yet Rated") has assembled a compelling collection of interviews, news clips, and segments from Congressional hearings. He concludes with "Where are they now?" at the end. I always appreciate that. I can see why it won the "Audience Award' at Sundance.

By the way, after viewing this documentary, the Secretary of Defense made a significant and much-needed change in how the charge of rape is processed in the military. It's a start....
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Please take a look:
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Doctor Strange

Have you noticed that the current British actor du jour is Benedict Cumberbatch? He is in EVERYTHING! And you know what? He's pretty darned good! And this time he speaks American.

Here he has joined the Marvel Universe under the guiding hand of director Scott Derrickson ("Deliver Us from Evil") who uses a script by a whole committee of writers. In keeping with most Marvel movies, this one is rated PG-13 and contains...guess what? A LOT of Computer Generated Imaging, a lot of fisticuffs, a lot of blowie uppie stuff, a lot of humor, three swear words and no sex. Whew! But brace yourself for some gruesome opening scenes: a decapitation and brain surgery (not on the same person) and a horrific car wreck (those darn cell phones!).

Derrickson's stellar cast includes:
  • Benedict Cumberbatch ("August: Osage County" he's a southern hick) is Doctor Stephen Strange, the former neurosurgeon who frantically has begun a journey of healing after a car wreck damages his hands, only to encounter stuff about "spirit" but nothing about anatomy. Spirit is so much hooey; he's a DOCTOR! I love his dialogue because he's witty and bright. But his CAPE! Wait until you see it in action...
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years a Slave") Mordo never claimed to be either witty or bright, but he IS spiritual... He tries to explain the healing abilities of The Ancient One, however our good doctor refuses to take him seriously. Strange DOES learn a lot about martial arts from Mordo...
  • Rachel McAdams ("Spotlight") plays Christine Palmer, the sweet, softhearted Emergency Room doctor who loves our hero. Problem is, he tells such a far-fetched story, she KNOWS he is lying.
  • Benedict Wong ("The Martian") Wong (not a typo!) is concerned with his library full of sacred books. He takes his job very seriously and has NO sense of humor.
  • Mads Mikkelsen ("The Royal Affair") Kaecilius is the fellow we quickly learn to hate. He had so much potential before he went to the Dark Side.
  • Benjamin Bratt ("La Mission") Jonathan Pangborn desperately needed our doctor's help but he was refused. Now he seems to be fine, at least we hope so... Hmmm...
  • Tilda Swinton ("Hail, Caesar!") The Ancient One forces our doctor to confront his ego, his arrogance and his refusal to lose. He soon learns that she is full of surprises and incredibly powerful ...plus she makes a darn good cup of tea.
  • Stan Lee ("Marvel Movies") makes another cameo which was greeted by a welcoming murmur that rippled through our screening crowd. We LOVE him!
This CGI-loaded actioner seems to be inspired by the vertigo-inducing special effects of "Inception" (particularly in 3D) with cityscapes twisting and turning; plus it is already screening a cross-over production with more Marvel $uperheroes. It's always fun to see these genesis stories, and find out what made our superheroes super.

Amid the quasi-scientific mumbo jumbo that laced the dialogue, I heard one statement that stuck: "Humans are tiny momentary specks in an indifferent universe." Watch our doctor when he hears it a second time.
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Here is the Comic Con trailer (see what I mean!)
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