Wednesday, February 8, 2017

My biggest writing regret, and what I learned from it

So as I've been going out doing book signings and trying to get my name out there after the release of the third Ninja Kat book, I keep having to remind myself that, while just this latest book is new to me, for most people, the entire series is still brand new to them, and they have to start from the beginning before catching up to where I am. However, therein lies a bit of the problem. That being, all these years later, I'm not exactly thrilled with the way my first book turned out.

Granted, despite its flaws, the book has consistently received far more praise than otherwise, mostly due to people loving the story, often referring to it as a breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre. So there's definitely something there. Yet, they always say that they love the story despite all of the flaws with the actual prose. And, well, that's a criticism that I very much find myself agreeing with.

While writing the first novel, I was still learning how to actually write, and it shows. And as such, it was also a novel where I brought most of the earlier chapters to critique groups in order to get it workshopped and receive advice on how to improve upon it. The thing is though, I brought the book to these critique groups at a time when I still hadn't yet learned how to decipher between good and bad advice, and so, I sorta just incorporated a little bit of all of what everyone was telling me. And, well, yeah, that's sorta how I got where I did with a lot of the execution in that book.

Looking back at it now, I can see the flaws in its prose light as day, because looking back at it now, I've learned enough as a writer to know what works, what doesn't, but more importantly, why. And this is all stuff that I hadn't yet learned as a writer at the time. And so, not knowing any better, I churned out the best that I had in me at the time, and took an amalgamation of indecipherably good and bad advice, and put out a book that's a bit of a choppy mess in places, even if the actual story itself is thankfully good enough to still manage to shine through an otherwise less than stellar execution.

So that's become pretty much my biggest regret as a writer, the fact that the first book reads pretty amateurish. And the fact that every new reader that I make has to first get through that book before moving onto the others sorta bothers me a bit, too, as even if I have improved and become more confident in my writing since then, that's their first impression of my writing, and so that's what they're going to be judging me on before deciding whether or not they want to move forward and continue with the rest of the series.

That said, while that particular aspect is a bit of a regret, and the first book is the one that I most can't wait to at some point revisit and re-release a fixed edition of, if I didn't go ahead and just push through and put it out there, then it's very likely that I may well still be stuck on that project to this very day. After all, since finishing that novel and putting it out there and moving on to the next one, I have become far more confident and far more comfortable as a writer, and I feel it really wasn't until the second book where I truly started to find my voice as a writer.

And who knows, I might still yet be trying to find that voice if I were still wading through the mess of that first book, going back over and over again trying to fix it up, and probably just tinkering it to its own detriment all the while. And if I was still stuck on that book, I just know that my confidence as a writer would more or less be shot by this point in my life. So really, I may not exactly be pleased with how that first outing turned out, but if I hadn't just gotten through it and moved on, then I may never have truly evolved as a writer after all this time.

That's not to say that I don't still have room to grow even more, but at least I'm not still stuck in that stagnant place. So I suppose there's a bit of a lesson to be learned with that. I know a lot of writers who are still stuck on their first novels years after the fact, still tinkering with them. And I wonder, even if they're not pleased with those novels, how might they grow as writers themselves if they just said "good enough", put their novels out there, and moved on to their next works with a clearer perspective and a clean slate, able to now look back at all that they learned and apply it with a fresh take, no longer burdened with obsessing over making something "perfect".

But yeah, I dunno, that's just something I've pondered over from time to time, particularly as I look back at my past work and gain new readers who have to start from the beginning. But then I look at how far I've come in the time since then, and I think that perhaps it was worth a bit of a rough start. After all, with the recent release of my third book, I'm closer now to wrapping up this series and moving on to the next project than I was even a year ago, where as, had I continued to just keep tinkering with that first novel and tried to piece together a mess to this day, then this point that I'm at now would still feel so far off.

And that can sorta delve off into other topics, such as my argument that it's easier to edit while you're writing, as opposed to going back and trying to edit after you're done with a full draft, due to the sheer overwhelming mess you'd have to tackle, as opposed to just cleaning up little chunks here and there if you edit as you go along. This has worked wonders for me, and has turned the "editing phase" into more of a fine-tuning as opposed to a full on re-writing, and I know I personally would have never finished a single novel through to edited completion had I not edited as I wrote. After all, what's easier, to let your clutter and trash pile up in your house until you're left with a big whole mess to clean up, where you have to set aside time to explicitly go about cleaning your house up, or to just throw away your trash and put things back in their place when you're done with it, and never have to worry or think about it again?

But I digress, that's just what's worked for me personally, and so I figured that I'd share it for anyone who might find it helpful to them. It was a hard lesson to learn for me, but it's lead to satisfying results for me personally, as I've ended up very pleased with how the second two books have turned out thus far. And like I said, I wouldn't even be this far yet had I not just gotten through that first outing, so while the end results may have been a little rough, I suppose that experience was worth it in the end all the same for helping me get past that point and move onto better things.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Effectiveness of the Music in La La Land

Coming off my discussion on the effectiveness of music in movies in my previous post, I mentioned how the use of music in La La Land could more or less cover almost all of my examples, and so, I'd like to just go down the list from top to bottom and discuss why each of the main pieces of music in this movie are so brilliant in their inclusion, and what it says not only about the use of music in and of itself, but in movies in general.

Now, being a musical, of course the movie is going to be pretty heavy in music. But just being a musical doesn't necessarily guarantee that the music in said movie will actually be effective. So I want to discuss precisely why the music in this movie is so effective, despite it being a musical, and how it all comes together to create such an all around magical movie going experience.

The movie opens with "Another Day of Sun", which more or less sets the mood not only for the movie to come, but also for the tone of the music that we can expect as well. This song is also the quintessential fantasy piece to really set us in the state of mind to prepare us for the journey our leads are about to stumble upon, as it establishes not only the LA setting, but the dreamer's mindset that has brought so many to this city, in their desperate chase for stardom, getting knocked down with reality checks, but having to pick themselves back up and keep at it, never allowing themselves to falter in their dreams.

"Behind these hills I'm reaching for the heights
And chasing all the lights
That shine

And when they let you down
You'll get up off the ground
As the morning rolls around
And it's another day of sun"

Our next piece is "Someone in the Crowd", as Mia's friends try to urge her to go out with them, because who knows, the one you might be looking for to give you your big break might just be out there waiting for you. There's a number of things to note about this song. One, it's the first song actually performed by one of our leads, and it's also the last main song to feature anyone else. This song takes place before the two meet up, while they're still lost in their own worlds, before they come together and begin to tell a story all their own as the two's journeys intertwine, and they really start to leave their prior lives behind and push each other to take the necessary steps that'll help them achieve their dreams.

Musically, this song directly continues in the upbeat jazzy style established by "Another Day of Sun", and it also sets the stage for a number of elements that'll come into play later on, acting as probably the most foreshadowing song in the whole film. Later on, we'll discuss Mia's audition song, and the story she tells there.

But this song completely foreshadows her success, both lyrically, as it is literally someone in the crowd of her one-woman show who calls her up for an audition later on in the film, and the story she tells about her Aunt diving into the river is foreshadowed here visually as well, as Mia first looks in the mirror and questions the direction she's headed and if this is all worth it, but picks herself back up, steps back out into the party, and back into her crazy, fantastic dreams, as the music pauses and we focus on a guy jumping off a roof and into a swimming pool, mirroring the story of her Aunt in that moment, as the onlookers begin dancing in unison all around.

"Is someone in the crowd the only thing you really see?
Watching while the world keeps spinning round

Somewhere there's a place where I find who I'm gonna be
Somewhere that's just waiting to be found"

Up next is "Mia and Sebastian's Theme", which Sebastian performs as he rebels against his boss' wishes and starts playing a small piece of free jazz on the piano. This song is the first of several in this musical that actually doesn't even feature any lyrics at all, yet the musical manages to make this aspect work wonderfully all the same, taking these pieces and oftentimes making them feel like surreal sequences out of something like Fantasia, and utilizing dreamy, upbeat melodies that makes them just as catchy and memorable as their more lyrical counterparts.

And this particular piece is also the main theme song of the movie, one that continues to come into play over and over again, in one of the more clever elements that the movie utilizes. This is the song that Sebastian plays when he and Mia first formally meet one another. And though their initial meeting isn't exactly a pleasant one, in hindsight, the song manages to draw them closer together over and over again, and take an unpleasant moment and turn it into something heartwarming.

I mentioned in my original write-up for the movie in my end of year list how I loved this movie's use of nostalgia as an active element in the movie, particularly when compared to how so many other lesser films poorly incorporate nostalgia into their films. Oftentimes, movies these days will throw in these obnoxious winks and nudges to other films or media, which instantly put the movie on pause to take us out and remind us of something else. Here, though, they use this song as a means to make us nostalgic for moments in the movie itself, not unlike the examples I had mentioned before in my previous post, about how hearing certain songs can take us back in time to a prior moment in our lives. And this movie totally takes that concept and uses it to make us nostalgic for the movie itself, as we're watching it. I just found this so clever, and so awesome, and so refreshing all throughout, and left me wishing that more movies could find more similarly clever ways to utilize their rampant nostalgia in a way that doesn't disengage the audience, as is so often the case these days.

This is followed up by a handful of '80s pop songs, as Mia attends a pool party in which she discovers Sebastian is performing the keytar for an '80s cover band. And the songs they perform are "Take On Me" and, by request, "I Ran", and have thus been added to the list of similar songs such as "Stuck in the Middle With You" from Reservoir Dogs or any of the songs from Guardians of the Galaxy as tracks that every time they come on the radio, I'll be instantly transported to the scene in the movie that they're a part of (and this has already happened on a number of occasions for me while at work, in fact).

As Sebastian walks Mia to her car after the party, the two have their first duet in the form of "A Lovely Night", where the first half features the two singing, and the second half is entirely lyric-less, as the two dance along to the music, showing the two's different styles coming together in one beautiful piece, just as the characters themselves grow to form a connection with one another, a connection that's shown through the music and the visuals of the sequence.

That's one of the things I love about this movie, is how much of the story is very much told through its music, through its visuals. And it's a common complaint that I've already seen quite a bit, how some feel the movie is underwritten, or that the relationship between Mia and Sebastian isn't fleshed out enough. But that's because in this movie, it's not fleshed out in a more traditional manner through dialogue. Music is what brought the two together for the first time as Seb was playing the main them, and it's through music that their relationship really begins to blossom. And this song totally encapsulates the real starting point of their romance, first teasing one another with their words, before really coming together in a beautiful dance number on a stunning, lovely night.

But even in a more general sense in regards to the arguments against this movie's writing, I think it's important to note that a movie's writing includes more than just dialogue. But the way a movie plays out, its interwoven themes throughout and overall structure of story all have to be taken into account as well when discussing a film's writing. And in terms of telling a beautiful story through its music and visuals and how it all comes together in such a clever and wonderful fashion, not merely paying homage to films past, but taking elements and incorporating them in a more organic way to tell a story about nostalgia and dreams, and the drive to succeed, and effectively telling this story through its use of music throughout, then all things considered, the writing in this movie was quite frankly phenomenal, and is more than deserving of its accolades thus far.

"But I'm frankly feeling nothing"
"Is that so?"
"Or it could be less than nothing"
"Good to know
So you agree?"
"That's right"
"What a waste of a lovely night"

"Herman's Habit" is the jazz number that plays as Seb takes Mia out to a jazz club, and really drives home another element that makes this movie stand out as such an impactful film to me. He discusses with her the various elements of the song they're listening to, how the sax player might interject with something he's got in mind, or the trumpet player might hijack the song for a moment and go on a bit of a solo, and how it's all real and raw and alive.

Music is a living, breathing entity. Or, at least, it was, but the more it becomes commercialized, the more that human element becomes lost, and what we're listening to loses the heart and the emotional impact that it could possibly deliver. And this, too, is shown all throughout in the form of Emma Stone's and Ryan Gosling's raw, earnest, and passionate performances as Mia and Sebastian, who aren't exactly the greatest singers nor the greatest dancers, but damn if they don't give it their all and give the movie a very sincere feel to it. And this element of the humanity of music being lost winds up coming into play in a big way later on in the movie, which I'll dive more into as we get to those particular pieces.

After they depart, Sebastian begins whistling to himself, as he ponders over his recent interactions with Mia and sings a little tune by the name of "City of Stars", in its first rendition. At this point, Seb is a guy who has been repeatedly beaten down by life and had every opportunity thrown in his face, which is a recurring theme we see play out all throughout the movie, first introduced in the lyrics of the opening song, and then shown to us as we've followed both Mia and Sebastian up to this point. And so, he sees things going well with Mia, and yet, as he sings this somber song, and keeping his history in mind, he questions if things will finally go right this time, or if it'll just be like every other time. And my god is this song so relatable to me, as I have experienced this very thing over and over again, so much that I find myself asking these same questions anytime something seems to be going right, I'll just be wondering in the back of my head, how long before it starts going wrong again, like it always, always does?

This is such a depressing song because it just hits right home in the worst of ways. But it doesn't just show how badly life has taken its toll on Seb in this moment, it also shows just how much he's continued to get back up and keep at it, how many chances he's continued to take, despite all his efforts up to this point falling flat, despite all his talent or other positive qualities, keeping up with the themes of continuing to push forward and chase after your dreams, no matter how many times you might be let down.

"Who knows
Is this the start of something wonderful
Or one more dream
That I cannot make true"

Mia and Sebastian then go on their first real date and dance through the stars to the tune of "Planetarium", one of the most fantastical sequences in the entire movie, as the two's dream of being with one another looks to be coming true. This is another fully instrumental piece, but my lord is the music here just a delight, and has such a wondrous, romantic, and uplifting feel to it, like the ultimate culmination of all of the pieces that had preceded it, all culminating in their very first embrace, as we reach a real turning point, for their relationship, for the movie, and for the music itself as well.

After experiencing a "Summer Montage", where we see the two's romance really start to bloom, we get the first real sign of the movie taking somewhat of a different direction, with the reprise of "City of Stars", this time featuring both Sebastian as well as Mia. And the singing in this particular version is also captured entirely on set, as we see as the two wind up making each other giggle a handful of times while they're performing. It shows how the movie is not only taking a bit of a more modern approach to the musical at this point, but how it's also becoming a bit more grounded, as the more fantastical elements start to go away a bit for something more of a realistic approach. And by featuring the two singing live on set and getting those real emotions out of them, it also really emphasizes the living, human element to their music that Seb had argued for earlier, and makes the song stand out all the more for it, like we're peeking into a more intimate moment in these two's lives.

But by this point in the movie, now that the two have really found one another and have pushed one another to really take the right steps towards making their dreams a reality, it's that reality that starts to set in here, which is emphasized both by this song's placement, as well as its execution. This is a lovely rendition, but one that in hindsight becomes almost heartbreaking, as we witness this lovely moment of innocence between these two, just before that reality that's about to set in casts a dark cloud over their relationship.

"Who knows
I felt it from the first embrace I shared with you"

"That now our dreams
May finally come true"

And that reality first really sets in with the song "Start a Fire", which Seb performs alongside his new band in front of a packed venue full of screaming fans. Mia is taken aback as the song starts to kick in, and all of the electronics and commercialized elements that it incorporates, and how this feels totally contrary to Seb's values as a musician. There's a real lack of humanity here, a lack of that real raw and living, breathing element that Seb has stressed so much about up until this point. That's not to say that this is a bad song, mind you, but it is a noticeably weaker one, which is precisely the point. And even in the way it's presented in the movie, as merely a performance on the stage to a roaring audience, feels more disconnected compared to all of the prior tracks up to this point.

It's not just the music either, but also the way the film is edited at this point that starts to change up. Up until this point, most of the movie is filmed in very long takes, where moments between our characters are shared on the same screen at the same time, without ever really cutting away. But here, the camera suddenly starts cutting all around, further showing the disconnect between the music and the audience. The fact that this is also pretty much the most forgettable track on the whole soundtrack is also an intentional choice, to really prove Seb's point about the human element in music elevating it to another level, while the more it becomes commercialized, the more diluted and disposable it becomes as a result.

But the more cut up way of filmmaking continues on from this point, and culminates in an extremely uncomfortable dinner conversation between the two filmed in shot/reverse-shot, a typical style of filmmaking in most movies, but an approach that's rarely used in this movie, but stands out whenever it is, to show us just how disconnected the characters in the scene have become from one another, no longer sharing the frame together with one another.

So things begin to fall apart between the two, and Mia reaches her breaking point and goes home, as we hear a sad piano accompaniment "Engagement Party", played by Seb at his sister's engagement ceremony. But, as it turns out, someone in the crowd at Mia's show was very impressed with her performance, and so Seb tracks her down in order to attend her big "Audition".

Emma Stone's big solo Oscar moment, as the lights turn down and all focus is solely on her telling this tale about her Aunt, and the crazy risks she took in order to chase after her dreams, and how this has inspired her own journey. It's a moment that's been foreshadowed all throughout the whole film, and it's all laid out on the line in the most passionate rendition of the whole film, as Mia belts her heart out in this striking, moving piece.

And the story she tells is one that anyone who dreams big can take so much away from. It tells of the heartache you'll have to endure, the insane drive it'll take to succeed, and the mad, unrealistic frame of mind it'll take to reach such unrealistic expectations, all of which has been driven home hard again and again by this point in the film, all coming out in one last emotional plea.

"She told me
A little madness is key
To give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us
And that's why they need us

So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters and poets and plays

And here's to the fools who dream
Crazy as they may seem
Here's to the hearts that break
Here's to the mess we make"

The movie then jumps ahead five years after our two leads have finally achieved their dreams, but at the cost of their relationship. And when they unexpectedly stumble upon each other, they find themselves lost in a moment of nostalgia, as we relive their experiences in the film's "Epilogue", and go on a journey, hesitantly at first, through rose colored glasses as we look at what could have been, and how things could've ended up so right for them, but how life had its way at tearing them apart and sending them down different paths.

And as we relive their experiences through a new lens, we, too, relive all of the music that we've experienced as well, all brought together so seamlessly, and really showing just how each and every single piece of music in this film is all part of a greater whole, each a connecting piece to a much larger puzzle that had been put together over the course of the film. But that's just really one of the things I loved absolutely most about this musical when compared to so many others. It's not just a movie that just happens to have breaks where they decide to just sing and dance with various pieces of music. With the exception of "Start a Fire", which is explicitly intended to not fit in, each and every single song compliments one other. They each flow together as just smaller pieces to the full package, and it continues in the movie's accompanied score, which also continues to string along this same connecting tune between songs.

But this is all shown so beautifully in this grand sweeping finale, as we return once more to the more fantastical musical elements from earlier in the film, when our characters were more stuck in their heads, holding onto their dreams that looked so far away, before reality could set in. But then, as the song begins to wind down, and reality once more begins to take its course, the music itself becomes almost tragically sad, and we're left with an absolute gut punch of heartbreaking emotion as the song just sorta fizzles to a depressing close.

But it's not entirely all bad, as just before Mia leaves, she chances one last glance back to the tune of "The End", and they share one more smile, one that says so much about their journey and what it meant to them, all while the two remain completely silent, and we come to a grand close to this magical tale about two aspiring artists chasing their dreams, and what they had to lose along the way in order to make those dreams a reality, as the music plays us out on a hopeful note that assures us that all is well in the end, even if we didn't get everything we had wanted along the way.

So all throughout the movie, its use of music showed us examples of how to best utilize music in a way that not only elevates the material, but also helps tell the story and drive the mood of the moment. And it even provided moments of using popular tracks in an organic way within scenes, to where these songs are now forever associated with the movie in a way where merely hearing them on the radio will now transport us back to this movie all over again. But not only that, the movie also provided explicit examples of how music can be incorporated in a way that's disengaging for the audience, so it really did cover the full spectrum of my arguments made in my previous post covering the effectiveness of music in movies in a more general sense, beating me to the punch by providing all of my arguments that I had prepared in the form of an actual film, as opposed to a mere written essay.

And with that, I suppose that brings us more or less to a close on this discussion as well. I've already seen the movie four times, and have grown to love it more and more each time, to where I'm already confident considering it among my Top 3 Movies of the Decade so far. And each time I revisit this emotional journey, I find myself becoming more and more torn up inside by it all in the end. Hell, just revisiting these moments as I've written this post has at times gotten me teary eyed, and there's no doubt that its brilliant use of music has a lot to thank for that.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Effectiveness of Music in Movies

A little over a month ago, I attended an interesting show. It was something I've never experienced, and even trying to explain it isn't going to do it any justice at all. But basically, the show was run by a group known as Emo Night Brooklyn, where they go on stage and just play a bunch of pop-punk songs from the 2000s and dance around on stage singing along to them. And they get the crowd involved throughout, lowering the volume during choruses so that the audience can scream the lyrics back to the stage, before going back to resume just running around and singing and dancing along with the music. It's not quite karaoke, as they don't sing into a mic or anything, they just sorta scream the lyrics out to the audience, who sings right back to them, like they were attending an actual concert by one of the various bands playing.

I bring this up, because on this night, they mentioned they wanted to do this as a way to bring back memories from their youth and revel in the nostalgia of the music. And, well, as certain songs came on, I found myself very much being transported to a different period in my life, a younger period, when this music was still new and fresh, and the place that I was in my life at that time. And thinking about the power that music has to really transport us to various points in our lives made me think of how the music in movies can have this same effect, and help elevate the material on the screen, and how it can help form a closer bond between you and the movie itself.

For an example of what I'm talking about, there are a number of popular songs that have long since become associated with the movies they're featured in, even if that's not where these songs originated from. For instance, who doesn't instantly think back to the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs whenever "Stuck in the Middle With You" comes on? Or more recently, every single time a single track from Guardians of the Galaxy plays, I'm instantly brought back to the scene in that movie where that track was played.

This isn't a trick that'll work with just any soundtrack, mind you. There's a reason that these tracks take us back to these movies, while other times popular tracks featured in other movies won't have the same effect. And it all comes down to how these tracks are actually incorporated into the movies themselves. I've touched on this a number of times in the past now, but I'm about to reiterate this point again. It takes more than just merely featuring a piece of music in a movie for it to really connect with the viewer. What these movies do differently, though, is that they're not just playing songs for the viewer. These songs are actually being actively heard by the characters in the scenes themselves. The songs are active participants in the movies, not merely background noise.

When Mr. Blonde dances around and cuts the cop's ear off in Reservoir Dogs, he's actually listening to and dancing to "Stuck in the Middle With You". And as Star Lord goes about his various adventures in Guardians of the Galaxy, he's doing so while listening to his Awesome Mix cassette tape, which is essentially a character in and of itself. And as such, the use of these songs forge a stronger, more intimate connection between us and the characters on the screen, because it's something that we actively share with them in these moments. And so, these moments stick with us on a deeper level, to where, when these songs may play on the radio, we're taken back to these scenes in the movie, sorta like how the music from that show I attended took my back to the various points in my own life.

But that's also why this same thing doesn't work when talking about soundtracks that don't actively participate in the story itself. Because it's just noise, it's just accompaniment. But it's not actually a part of the scene, and therefore, doesn't stick with us as part of that moment in time. That's why a movie like Suicide Squad completely blundered with its use of music, while trying to imitate what Guardians of the Galaxy incorporated so seamlessly. They failed to understand why the soundtrack of Guardians worked, instead just focusing on the fact that the movie, indeed, incorporated a handful of classic tunes, but never stopping to actually ask how they made these incorporations.

But it doesn't just have to be soundtracks that give us a deeper connection to a movie. The movie's score can work just as effectively in this regard as well. And, for the most part, I tend to have a similar mindset, in that movie scores in which the music is an active participant in the movie tend to stand out as some of the stronger examples of music in film, for the same reasons.

For examples of this, take a look at movies such as Inception, in which the film's score can be heard by the characters throughout, and also acts as an internal alarm for them at that, and makes us feel like we're right there with our cast as they explore this cerebral world. Or speaking of getting into a character's head, Swiss Army Man features a score in which all of the music is literally just the main character humming to himself and singing in his head, and instantly connects us to him on a more personal level. Or even a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, in which the bombastic score is actually being performed by a guy playing a flaming guitar and drummers riding on the back of a car, where not only does their music take part in the action, but the musicians themselves become active participants at points as well.

This use of music in such a way where both the characters and the audience are hearing the same thing at the same time acts as somewhat of a conduit between audience and film, and really immerses the viewer in a way that makes us feel like we're just as much a part of the action at that moment as well. And that stronger connection can help elevate movies in a way that makes them feel more personal to us, like we just shared an experience with the characters on the screen, and their experiences are now a piece of our own experiences in those moments, and can as such make these movies stick with us for far longer, while other films go forgotten.

Now, there's an argument that I've heard over the years that says that a movie's score should go relatively unnoticed while watching, and that it should merely compliment a scene, and that its contributions should end there. And this takes me to my next point in my discussion on the effectiveness of music in film, as even if the music isn't an active participant in a movie, that doesn't necessarily mean that it should suddenly go unnoticed as a result. After all, music is very much a powerful and important element in most films, just as a movie's use of sound, lighting, acting, editing, and whatever else have you may be. It's not just any one of these elements, but rather, all of these elements pulled together that makes a film truly tick. So to disregard its use entirely I find to be a bit foolish, and is doing a disservice to a very important ingredient in what can really make or break a film's overall effectiveness.

For instance, one of my favorite films in recent years is Interstellar. And on top of being a tremendous film in and of itself, part of what's kept that movie consistently in mind for me is that movie's music, and just how well it not only compliments a scene, but elevates it to a level of greatness that the movie might not otherwise be able to fully achieve without it. Don't get me wrong, the movie would still be great without it, but the inclusion of such epic musical accompaniment really completes these scenes. And I think that director Christopher Nolan knew this about the film, hence him raising the volume on the music a little higher than you'd typically hear in most other films.

Or for another example, let's take a look at the movies Let the Right One In, and its American remake, Let Me In. There are a number of scenes in Let the Right One In that just sorta let the scene play out in relative silence, as we only hear the sounds in the environment itself, but no musical accompaniment. And sure, I suppose this was to try and put us in those scenes as they actually would be, and feel and hear what the characters would actually be feeling and hearing in these moments. But for me at least, these scenes just sorta came across as empty, like they were missing a crucial element, and left me really feeling nothing.

Cut to Let Me In, in which these same scenes (or their equivalents) chose to include the film's score to accompany them. And they used this score in a way that was noticeable, to help raise the tension, to really play with our feelings and drive home the intended emotion of the scene. It didn't merely stand idly by and just create complimentary background noise, they wanted us to take notice of it, and let it grab hold of us in that moment. And as a result, I feel like this use of music not only complimented the scene, but really pulled me into the movie even more and left me sharing in the same tense emotions that our characters must have been experiencing in those moments.

I personally felt that this was an effective use of music to really help bridge an emotional connection between the audience and the scene, though there can admittedly be times when a movie can overdo it in this regard, and come across as manipulative as such. So it's certainly a fine balance that one has to walk in order to really succeed in generating the intended reaction in a way that feels both natural and earned, but when it's done right, it can take a scene that in and of itself may just be good, and turn it into something truly great.

And so that's basically it. Music has the power to connect, and for movies, hearing a familiar song can help bring a movie back to mind in a positive light, or a movie's score can either help immerse us in the movie itself, or play with our emotions in just the right way that really helps elevate the scene playing out. So music definitely has its place in movies, but it needs to be used correctly in order to truly be effective, as opposed to just being present, or worse yet, distracting. But to disregard music in movies is to disregard a very powerful element in what makes movies such a great form of media, part of the greater whole. And oftentimes, a movie can feel hollow without it, like it's missing a very vital piece of the puzzle. Just like a piece of music on the radio can take us back to a certain point in time in our lives, music in movies can have the same power to transport us back to these amazing stories captured on film. It's just gotta be used correctly is all.

Now, I had mentioned in a previous post how I intended to use the movie La La Land for a lot of my examples in this discussion, but I've decided to hold off and save my discussion on that movie for its own post, as I go down the line and take a look at each piece of music in that movie, and what its inclusion really brings to the whole in terms of its effectiveness, so stick around for that to come soon enough!

Friday, December 30, 2016

My Top 10 Movies of 2016

It's that time of year once again. Time to count down my Top 10 favorite movies of the past year. And honestly, 2016 has been a pretty weak year for movies, so much so that, until just the past couple weeks, I honestly wasn't sure if I was gonna be able to do a full Top 10, but rather a Top 5 with some honorable nods. But I said that it was gonna take December's releases to really wow me to change my mind, and well, enough did just that, to where I feel I can go ahead and move forward with the full list this year. But first, let's take a look at a few honorable mentions for the year, then waste no more time getting right down to the list.

Honorable Mentions
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee)
Café Society (Woody Allen)
Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross)
The Conjuring 2 (James Wan)
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)

#10

Captain America: Civil War
(Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)

I may be feeling a bit of superhero movie fatigue, but that didn't prevent a handful of this year's entries from making the list, and the latest Captain America is a shining example of how these movies can still bring the goods. Civil War is second only to Guardians of the Galaxy as the best in the MCU to date, bringing with it a well balanced ensemble piece and a rare example of true emotional stakes in the form of its tragically grand finale, made all the more so by its accompanying epic score that'll send chills down your spine.

On top of it all, I'd also say that this movie contains quite possibly Robert Downey Jr.'s best performance in a movie to date, showing that even despite playing the Tony Stark character for as long as he has, that he can still bring a world of emotional range to breathe a whole new life into the role. I wasn't too thrilled with the Russo brothers' first outing in The Winter Soldier, but they proved their worth with Civil War, and leave me feeling more confident in their abilities moving forward into the next Avengers flicks.

#9

Deadpool
(Tim Miller)

And moving straight from one Marvel property to another, Deadpool was a real breath of fresh air in the genre. After it ended, I declared that the movie was absolutely perfect, and that really still stands true even now, it really is as perfect a Deadpool movie as I could imagine. You could tell that this was a passion project, a true love letter to the character, and that passion oozed onto the screen through both Ryan Reynolds' phenomenal performance as the title character, and the great script and inspired non-linear format that really brought this character's world view to life.

Also, great as it may be, it's still not the kind of movie that I ever imagined would even be in consideration for serious awards competition. So the fact that it's received a Best Picture nomination at the Golden Globes I just find to be absolutely awesome. So much so that, despite it not even being my favorite of the year, I'm gonna be rooting for this one to go all the way. 'Cause really, how freaking cool would that be to see Deadpool of all movies take home some Best Picture awards?

#8

Nocturnal Animals
(Tom Ford)

Shifting gears now, Nocturnal Animals was a movie that spoke to me on a personal level as a creator in a way that I'm not entirely sure will speak to everyone. The movie begins with a seemingly odd opening credits sequence featuring a number of obese women dancing in the nude in an art show, which at first glance appears like a really bizarre choice, until the core of the movie really sets in, and its meaning becomes more apparent: this is a movie featuring an author who is putting himself out there, putting his deepest, darkest feelings on display, making himself vulnerable for the whole world to see, and it's going to get real ugly real fast.

And that's really what I loved about the movie. It's essentially two stories, one following our main character played by Amy Adams, and the book that she's reading by said author, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, which we see come to dark and twisted life, and the various parallels with his real life that the events in this book are based on. And really, this movie nails the creative process to a tee. It's not a literal retelling of his life, but you can connect the dots to see how the events from his life inspired what transpires in his story, which makes it all the more tragic once you know the full context. Some of the best stories comes from taking the traumas in our life and being inspired to create art from our dark pasts, and this film is a chilling example of that in action.

#7

Sing Street
(John Carney)

But it's not just trauma that can inspire us to create, but rather, a little thing called love, as Sing Street shows us in beautiful fashion. And this is a sentiment that also just rang so true to me on such a deeper level that I can really relate to, as we see our main character go on a full journey starting from scratch to create his art in the name of love.

This was just an all around lovely movie, and the various relationships we see brewing are just a joy to behold. I loved the philosophical discussions about the true meaning behind the art that our main character had with his brother, and the truly creative ways that they go about forming a band and trying to come up with a unique look and sound. And as I mentioned, the main character's driving force behind it all being the love and passion he has for this girl really shined throughout it all, and was just a really charming and endearing thing to behold.

There's a scene where they're filming a music video that features a girl falling into a river, but to be careful, they didn't want to film her actually jumping in. However, once the camera rolls, much to the band's surprise, the girl jumps right into the water, and when they ask her why she did it, she says that you can't go halfway with your art. You either gotta go in all the way or not at all. And it was at that moment that the movie wholly won me over.

#6

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
(Zack Snyder)

Okay, before anyone jumps down my throat over this entry, let me just clear up that I fully acknowledge all of this movie's faults. Hell, I honestly don't even disagree with the majority of the criticisms that have been lobbied this movie's way ad infinitum. It's a very messy movie. That said, despite all of it, it still stands out to me as one of my personal favorites regardless, and seeing as this is a list of my favorite movies of the year, that's what makes it land where it does on the list.

Because really, I had a blast with this movie. Yeah it's trashy, yeah it's all over the place and convoluted and tries to do way too much all at once. But god damn if this wasn't one of the most fun movies I've seen all year. Feeling much more like a Snyder film than his previous effort in Man of Steel, I love the added touch that really brings his signature elements to light. His kick ass use of music and stylized action direction remain some of the best in the business today, and made for some truly memorable moments throughout this ambitious mess of a film.

And really, that's sort of the key word there that stands out for me, is ambition. I have a fellow film buff friend who described The Dark Knight Rises as a mess of a movie that he could truly appreciate regardless for the sheer ambition that it showed. And while I didn't agree with that sentiment in regards to that movie, that definitely feels like the case for me with this one. It certainly tries to tackle way too much, much more than it can (or even should) realistically handle, but god damn if it didn't try and just go for broke in the process, so much so that it arguably broke the entire movie!

So yeah, call this a guilty pleasure maybe, or call it a garbage flick if you will. But either way, this is my kinda garbage, and damn if Wonder Woman isn't still my hero by the end of the year.

#5

Manchester by the Sea
(Kenneth Lonergan)

Dramatically shifting gears yet again, this was just a sucker punch of a movie (and that was my last Zack Snyder reference for this post!). Nah, but seriously, this movie packed an absolute wallop, 'cause this is a movie that'll catch you off guard and leave you reeling afterward. It tackles the subject of grief in a way that's just gut wrenching, so much so that this is a rare example of a movie where just thinking back on it after the fact has made me feel numb and brought me to the verge of tears.

Definitely a downer of a film, but damn if it isn't outstanding and gripping all the same. The performances from Casey Affleck and the rest of the cast truly feel lived in, and I honestly felt like I could've spent all day with these characters, where I kinda never wanted the movie to end, as they just sorta go about their day to day life while trying their best to deal with the terrible circumstances that life has delivered them.

This is a movie that to me feels like the times when you're lying down trying to go to sleep, but then your mind starts to wander against your will about all of the horrible things that might happen to the ones you love, and how you would go about dealing with that, what this would do to you as a person, and the depressed state this line of thought might put you in. Now take those terrible thoughts and put them on the screen, and you've got this hauntingly terrific film.

#4

Swiss Army Man
(Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert)

I don't know what else I can say about this film that I didn't already cover in my in-depth analysis earlier in the year, but this was just a majestic little movie. An absolute metaphorical work of art, and as I described it before, The Tree of Life for the weird and the awkward.

No, this movie isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but this really struck a chord with me on a personal level for just how genuine, open, and honest it was about being the type of socially awkward introvert that Paul Dano's character is portrayed as here, and the sheer creative ways that all of his various personality quirks are put on display in a visual form. And Daniel Radcliffe's performance here in particular remains one of my favorites of the whole year.

But anyways, like I said, nothing I really say here in a brief write-up can really do this movie its proper justice, so go back and check out my original analysis of the film for a more in-depth discussion on this film's deeper meanings to get a real feel for just why this film placed where it did on this list, and what it really means to me.

#3

Zootopia
(Byron Howard, Rich Moore)

Now as we get to the Top 3, we enter a three way race between the movies that were all vying for that pivotal top slot. And for the longest time, Zootopia held on to that very spot, and for damn good reason. This is a movie that's just brilliant in its execution, and has made me emotional just thinking about the deeper themes regarding race that they actually tackled in a movie such as this. I was just amazed that this movie was actually going there, and the way it showed us the full spectrum was just astounding.

Sadly, I've seen many people complain about how the movie is far too heavy handed in its approach, to the film's detriment. However, I've personally witnessed far too many people merely dumb its message down to simply "racism is bad" to say that that "heavy handed" sentiment holds any real credence, as this film's true themes clearly flew right over the heads of a number of movie goers. It's about so much more than just racism being bad, it actually shows us the roots of racism, how it actually manifests in our lives, whether it be through our various upbringings, or even how it can be manufactured in society, manipulated by our leaders, who use the ensuing racial tension for their own personal monetary and political gain.

This is a movie that's such a reflection on our current society that it just hurts. And it's a movie that so many can learn such a harsh lesson in reality from, if they just opened their minds and really looked at what this movie was trying to show them, and how our modern society has reached the place that it has, where so many are so divided from one another. It's a subject that I'm very passionate about, and have wanted to use this movie as a means to discuss more in depth, but have ultimately refrained due to how similarly passionate others can be, and how many can easily take things the wrong way when discussing the issues brought to light in this movie in an open minded and intelligent platform.

But really, this is a movie that in and of itself already presents most of my arguments for me, and so if a movie such as this isn't getting through to certain people, then really, nothing more that I have to say on the matter probably will either. But still, give this movie a watch, and even if doesn't open your mind the way it opened mine, there's still a hell of a lot of entertainment to be had here all the same, with great characters in a creative world populated by animals that feels not too dissimilar from my own world I've created in my Ninja Kat universe (let it be known that this movie totally stole its small animals city from my hamster village!).


From Velcro: The Ninja Kat, published 2012.

#2

The Neon Demon
(Nicolas Winding Refn)

So close to making #1! But nope, yet another Refn film just misses the mark, and at the last minute, too! But even so, damn was this a beast of a movie. And unlike most on this list, there's very few who I would actually recommend this one to, as this is not a movie that's going to be for everyone. Flat out, this is a movie that's gonna either be right up your alley, or it probably isn't. A movie that'll either leave you salivating at the mouth, or revolting in disgust. And for me, well, I dunno what this says about me as a person, but this is a movie that feels like it was specifically made for me.

On the outset, this can come across as a movie that is all style and no substance. However, considering that the very subject matter itself is about that very thing, I find that aspect to be more that appropriate in this particular instance, and actually compliments the movie on the whole. But this is just an absolute gorgeous film, where every single frame of it looks like a painting that you could take and hang up on your wall. And yet, to be perfectly blunt about it, beneath its beautiful exterior lies one of the most fucked up movies to release this year, and I loved every single second of it.

This is a movie that so easily could've been disposable trash in the hands of a lesser director. Yet Refn's touch for sheer perfectionism elevates this material to a place that takes that trash and transforms it into a true work of art. This is beautiful trash. This is stunning, respectable garbage. And hearing Refn speak on the movie shows us just how deep seated this movie lies within the darkest crevices of his mindset.

I love how he describes this movie as an expression of the sixteen year old girl that resides within him, and what that says about both himself as a creator, and this film as his creation. And it's a sentiment that makes me appreciate this movie on a far deeper level as well, and truly revel in the dark and twisted imagery and sequence of events that transpire all throughout the movie. It's narcissistic and brutal and unrelenting, and if you're not careful, it'll eat you right up and swallow you whole, just like it did with me.

#1

La La Land
(Damien Chazelle)

This movie was sheer magic captured on film, and possibly the purest and most cinematic experience that you'll have all year. This is a movie like Inside Out or Interstellar or Dredd from years past, where I just wanna go back and experience it over and over again, and bring everyone I know to it, so that they, too, can experience the same beauty that I did.

And in a day and age in which we are bombarded by movies that are filmed with an obsession for nostalgia in mind, this is a movie that takes nostalgia and tackles it in a way that actually feels organic and natural, as opposed to the "wink wink, nudge nudge" way that most filmmakers like to shove their nostalgia in our face. It's a movie that's in constant evolution, starting out as a more traditional musical from times long past, only to gradually morph into something more modern and down to earth. And as the movie evolves, we also see the way that music itself has transformed over time, how it once was a living entity all itself, where you could really feel the humanity and the soul of the sound, and how the removal of the human element in favor of something more technical and commercial has turned it into something else entirely, something that doesn't quite touch us and stick with us the way that it used to.

But that's part of what I loved so much about this movie, was the way that it used music, and I don't just mean in the sense that it was a musical. Hell, not too long prior to seeing this movie, I had in mind a blog post that I wanted to write about the use of music in movies, and I'm sorta glad that I waited until after seeing this movie before writing it, because this movie takes almost every single argument that I wanted to make about the effectiveness of music in film and puts it on display in the most cinematic form imaginable. (And I still plan on writing that piece soon enough, too, so keep an eye out for that!)

And what's possibly most striking here is its nostalgic aspect, which is actually used as an active element within the movie itself, as they use music as a means of fondly reminding our characters of times past in their lives through rose colored lenses all throughout. It's just a very clever movie in that regard, on top of being one of the most infectious films I've seen all year. This movie's soundtrack has been stuck on repeat in my head from the moment I stepped out of the theater. And it's not just any particular track, but rather, all of its main songs, as they just blend so seamlessly into one another and really feel like the various pieces to a complete whole.

But beyond its music, this movie is just masterful to look at, and is quite frankly the only film this entire year to rival The Neon Demon in terms of its cinematography. And hell, part of the reason I love this movie so much is because the whole thing honestly feels like something ripped straight from my own head. From the images on screen, to the use of lighting and the way it's edited, the musical composition and dance numbers, the way it uses and re-uses variations of the same songs over and over again, and even the alternate timeline sequence all feel ripped straight off the page from my own musical that I've been toying around with for about the past five years now.

Granted, my actual story is radically different from this movie's, but in terms of execution, it's almost like I'm already seeing my own film fully realized, and it's a hard feeling to describe really. But as I have expressed a number of times counting down this list, it's certainly something that definitely speaks to me on a much deeper and more personal level, and truly inspires me to keep chasing after my own dreams like the fool that I am, so that one day it really will be my vision being realized on the big screen.

It may not be perfect, but this is a movie that feels all around delightful all the same, and I absolutely adore every single thing about it. And hell, listening to the soundtrack after the fact, it becomes even more apparent that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone really aren't all that great of singers. Yet even so, their effort shines through all the same in a way that's just striking in its raw, passionate earnesty.

I've described many of my favorite films as being perfectly imperfect, as many of my favorites over the years are those that have been riddled with flaws throughout, despite all the good that they brought. And in these cases, I think there's something about the flaws that help make the movies have a more honest and genuine feel to them, make them feel more human, and not just a technically perfect machination being churned out. And really, that's precisely the point that this movie brings to light, isn't it? It's not perfect, but really, that only adds to the overall charm of it all and gives it that real human soul that you can just feel. And believe me, this is a movie that you're gonna be feeling for a good long while after the credits roll.

And there you have it, my Top 10 Movies of 2016. Granted, while I saw far more movies than is probably necessary this year (much more than in years past, in fact. It really does feel like we're now becoming oversaturated with more and more releases every year), I still wasn't able to get to everything, most notably those late December releases that haven't gone wide and released in my area yet (I'm looking at you, A Monster Calls). But even so, I'd say this is good enough for now. So anyways, onto the next year, where hopefully we'll be met with even more great movies than the last!

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The good that came from 2016

So 2016 has been a pretty rough year for me, and that seems to be the case for most people I've spoken to about the past year as well. But it wasn't all bad, and so rather than venting about all that went wrong in the past year (which I've already covered much of it before anyways), I'd like to instead take a look back at what all went right, at the actual good that came from 2016.

In terms of filmmaker goals, this year saw my movies making their theatrical debut, which is still really cool to even think about. Breathe played at the Tallahassee Premiere Nights event in May, and later on, I was invited back to screen Dream Girl for their August event. So that was a real cool experience, seeing a movie I made actually playing in a real movie theater for a real movie-going audience, and really felt like a step in the right direction for my path as a filmmaker.

And as far as acting goes, I also worked briefly on a small project with fellow filmmaking collaborator and friend M.H. Smith, where I played the lead role in a web-series he was shooting. I don't wanna say too much about it now, as we haven't been able to get too far into it yet, but the footage we have shot so far was some of the most fun experiences I've had on set, and I look forward to seeing how this project may continue to progress moving forward.

That said, as I've mentioned before, I have sorta placed filmmaking a bit on the back burner for the time being, as I've shifted focus to actually finishing my Ninja Kat novel series. But even so, I've continued to toy around with new film ideas here and there, and if something in particular happens to light a spark within me that I feel is worth pursuing, then I won't hesitate to pick the camera back up again.

Speaking on the Ninja Kat though, the third book in the series, Velcro: The Masquerade, was released earlier this month, and it's a huge relief finally getting that one out there. Considering how much focus I placed on filmmaking after The Green Lion, I honestly wasn't sure when I'd ever even get back around to actually finishing that one, so the fact that it's finally done and out there is in and of itself very rewarding for me.

But what's been especially cool is how I've seen more people have taken notice to my work ethic, just pumping out movies and novels year after year, and have finally gotten around to actually checking out the Ninja Kat books for themselves, to see what this whole thing I've been spending the past several years actively working on is all about. And the best part is that, despite any discrepancies with the earlier books (believe me, I'm well aware of them, and have learned a great deal from those earlier missteps), they genuinely appear to be enjoying the hell out of them, referring to them as a breath of fresh air even.

But even before the new book was out, I was already hard at work on the fourth, and currently plan on sticking with it and getting it out there as soon as possible. And I'll just say this about it so far. If the outlines for the first three books each come out to approximately half a handwritten notebook in length, well, the outline for Book 4 is almost on its second notebook so far, and I'm only about halfway done outlining it. So it's looking like this next one might actually end up being kind of a long one for a change, which would be pretty satisfying for me personally, considering my under-writing tendencies.

In more personal news, I finally moved away from Tallahassee. I had a friend looking for a roommate and an old boss looking to hire me down in Tampa, so things just sorta happened to work out well in that regard. And really, I was long overdue for a change in scenery. I had been wanting to leave Tallahassee for a long, long time now, but kept finding myself anchored by various projects and what have you. However, after my last big project sorta fell through and I shifted focus to novel writing, I suddenly found I didn't really have anything tying me down to the city anymore. So really, I was all out of excuses.

So I made the plunge, and so far, I'm really liking the new city. It's a really different experience living here, with so many neighboring towns so close to one another, and just a much bigger city than I'm used to, with lots to explore. And going around town and getting various comic shops and book stores to carry my novels has been a great way to make my way around the city and really acquaint myself with my surroundings. I'm seeing all sorts of new things and meeting new people, and I'm just very excited for what the future may continue to hold for me in this town.

And yeah, that's pretty much where I'm at. Looking ahead into the next year, I plan on continuing to work on my Ninja Kat novels, and have already set up a number of book signings and convention appearances in the coming year, so look out for more on those as we get closer to them. But yeah, 2016 may have been a bit of a rough year, but as you can see, it wasn't all bad. And as I look ahead to 2017, I look forward to more new beginnings, and more goals to conquer. So here's to the new year, which hopefully brings with it more good will than the last!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Velcro: The Masquerade - Now Available!

Here it is! It's been a little while, but book three of The Ninja Kat series is finally here! Velcro's fantastic action packed adventure continues in Velcro: The Masquerade, and you can get your paws on a copy today on amazon.com in either paperback or e-book form.

I'm honestly really proud with how this one turned out, and I think that taking a bit of a break between books really helped invigorate my passion for the series. And I'm already hard at work on the fourth book, too, so hopefully there won't be nearly so long a gap between books this time! But for now, I put my heart into this latest Ninja Kat story, so I really just hope that comes through, and that all of you great readers sincerely enjoy this latest installment of my cat's dark and wild adventures.

www.VelcroTheNinjaKat.com

Friday, November 25, 2016

Moana - A Review of Comparisons

Moana is a good movie, even if it is lacking in certain areas that hold it back from being a great one. But I did like it all the same, so I just wanna get that out of the way before I start to get really critical of it, because this is a movie that reminded me of so many other movies while watching it, and also reminded me of how much better and more effective those other movies were as well.

Honestly, this month there's only been a few of movies that I've felt I've had enough to say about that would warrant writing a review for, but those instances have been movies where what I had to say was mostly pretty critical, and so I decided to hold off. But it's interesting how, the last couple movies I had in mind to discuss were Doctor Strange and Fantastic Beasts, both movies that were filled to the brim with moments torn straight out of other mediums that had pulled off those moments in a much more effective manner, and now here I am discussing Moana, the third movie this month that more or less suffers from the exact same dilemma.

(However, one of the big movies that I'm going to be bringing up while discussing this particular movie is Frozen, which is honestly why I decided to move forward with actually writing out this review as such, as it gives me a legitimate excuse to talk about Frozen even more than I already have, hehe.)

But yeah, I dunno if this just means that maybe I've finally reached a point where I've just seen too many damn movies or not, to the point where I can't even watch anything without drawing instant comparisons to other, better movies (though I honestly doubt that's the case, and the most likely scenario is that a lot of modern blockbusters really have just largely become pretty generic and unimaginative), but these elements stood out to me all the same, which I'll be discussing more in depth in a bit.

Anyways, onto the movie itself. Moana is the third musical release since Disney had their return to form with Tangled, and their second feature length animated film released this year at that. And like I opened up with, it's a good movie, overall. But it fails to reach the heights attained by the likes of Tangled, Frozen, and Zootopia, and that really comes down to just how standard and basic a movie this one is in comparison.

First, I want to discuss the music, which is pretty good, for the most part. It's main theme, "How Far I'll Go", is an amazingly powerful song that'll give you chills every time, and it's reprisals throughout are equally so. That said, as soon as it's over, it's also pretty forgettable, as is the entire rest of the music in this thing. I highly doubt that we're going to be hearing people walking around singing these tunes the way we would with the songs from Frozen, or even classic Disney musicals such as The Lion King, Aladdin, or Beauty and the Beast. Hell, they play the main theme three times in the movie (four if you count the ending credits), and I've since gone home and listened to it a handful of times there as well. Yet even so, every time it ends and I go about my day, I try to think back to how it even went, but find I'm only able to remember the emotional energy that the tune stirred up, but not the actual tune itself.

That said, even as powerful as the song may be, it's still nowhere near as powerful as the more emotionally fueled songs from Frozen, in addition to not having the staying power of the songs in that movie, either. Leaving the theater after Frozen, there were multiple songs stuck in mind, from "Let It Go" to "For the First Time in Forever" or "Do You Want to Build a Snowman". And sure, not all of the songs in Frozen were hits, but the ones that mattered landed. Where as in Moana, the one main song lands in the moment, but it doesn't have staying power, and all of the rest of the songs range from decent ("Where You Are"), to questionable ("Shiny", and to a lesser degree, "You're Welcome"). However, while the songs themselves might not be the best, I will give the movie that it actually fully commits to being a musical, which is the one single aspect that I still hold against Frozen, that it abandons the musical genre in its third act. So this movie at least has that much going for it in that regard, but I would still say that both Frozen and Tangled are far better musicals on the whole.

One other big thing this movie does that's comparable to Frozen is its humor. Like Frozen, this movie has a very genre-aware sense of humor about itself. However, unlike Frozen, that sense of humor really doesn't work in this instance. The main reason it worked so effectively in Frozen was because that movie was essentially a deconstruction of the Disney Princess genre, and so a self-aware sense of humor certainly goes hand in hand with that. But here, any and all instances of self-awareness just comes off as out of place, and only served to take me out of the movie and leave me wondering why they were even doing that, when Frozen had already covered that ground. The worst was a joke in which the character Maui mentions something along the lines of how he's going to be sick if Moana suddenly breaks out into song during a dramatic moment.

And speaking of movie comparisons, the movie even includes a scene that feels ripped straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road, even going so far as to include music during this scene that sounds like the score from Mad Max. And it was a fun scene, sure. However, in hindsight, it was ultimately a really pointless scene, as it really only served to show us just how dangerous the ocean can be, which is a fact that had already been driven home on a number of occasions by this point with scenes that were far more intimately woven into the narrative. But whatever, this wasn't that big a deal, and the scene was pretty harmless (though it is a bit of an odd choice to throw in a nod to such a hard R rated movie into something like this), and like I said, fun.

Jokes and music aside though, the real kicker that holds this movie back from greatness is the plot itself. It's really just a very basic, standard "chosen one" story, even going so far as to actually refer to Moana herself as being "the chosen one" on multiple occasions. However, every time this occurred, all I could think about was The Lego Movie, which did such an awesome job poking fun at that particular trope that it's since become just about impossible to pull it off in a movie like this and be expected to really take it too seriously, and that's certainly the case here.

But that's really all this movie mostly amounts to. There's no real deep thematic meaning or messages to elevate the movie. It's really just about walking your path and following your destiny and finding oneself, a basic plot that has been done and done to death time and time again. Which is fine, sure. A movie is allowed to be merely entertaining and nothing more, certainly. But coming off of so many recent Disney movies that do have such deeper meaning behind them, movies such as Frozen and Zootopia, one does go into a movie like this hoping for a little bit more than what it delivers, and so the fact that this movie doesn't see fit to dig any deeper and really challenge us and take us on an intelligent and emotional journey the way those movies did can come across as a bit disappointing as a result.

I don't want to just crap all over this movie, though, because it was really good. And I think its strongest element is probably its animation. This is a stunningly gorgeous movie to look at, and the water effects were simply incredible. And as Moana and Maui traveled through the sea, I often found myself fondly thinking back to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and how Link would traverse the mesmerizingly open sea in that game. But yeah, I would say in terms of visuals, the only animated movie this year to top this movie would probably be Kubo and the Two Strings, which is yet another movie that Moana is very comparable to in terms of how the movies play out, up to and including my reaction to the two, where I found myself very much in search for something to latch onto, to really connect with the films on a deeper level, only to wind up coming up a bit short in the end. But even so, one thing that can't be denied is that the two movies certainly look great!

And the characters we follow were mostly fine. Moana is fun and slightly quirky, a strong, determined young woman whose resolve is constantly challenged, and Maui has a nice little arc where he has to come to grips with what he's become, and what he'll have to do to return to his former glory. And I got a decent kick out of his tattoos, which are actually a character all their own, as is the whole world around them really, including the ocean itself. So that was a pretty cool element to the movie, the fact that they literally resided in this very alive world.

So yeah, like I said, this was good. But really, to wrap up this write-up of comparisons, I find myself comparing this year's two Disney animated releases (Zootopia and Moana) to last year's two Pixar releases (Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur). And if Zootopia is comparable to Inside Out, with its rich intelligent themes and emotional depth that instantly struck a chord with me where I knew that I had just watched something truly special, then I would say that Moana is this year's The Good Dinosaur, a visually gorgeous movie that is definitely good overall and certainly had its fair share of stirring moments throughout, but on the whole feels a bit lacking.