Then Playing — Moana; Adrienne; The Last Duel

Moana (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2016). Nearly thirty years after Ron Clements and John Musker were centrally involved in the rescue of Walt Disney Animation Studios by directing The Little Mermaid, they go back to the place where it’s better because it’s wetter. Moana surfs the modern Disney template — headstrong girl, culture-centered quest, strapping cohort who tweaks the handsome hero trope, adversary who’s perhaps more misunderstood than villainous — over to Polynesian islands. The film expertly hits its narrative beats, even if the tempo is sometimes overly familiar. There are moments of truly striking imagery rendered with the sort of computer-animation razzle-dazzle that’s all too easy to take for granted. It’s something a little more old-fashioned that finally tips the film over into a properly satisfying entertainment: terrifically engaging and slyly inventive vocal performances by Auliʻi Cravalho, as the title character, and Dwayne Johnson, as the hulking demigod Maui.

Adrienne (Andy Ostroy, 2021). This documentary about actress and filmmaker Adrienne Shelly doubles as an act of familial grieving, hopefully with a measure of catharsis. Andy Ostroy was Shelley’s husband, and he became a widower when she was murdered in the New York City apartment that served as her office. Plenty of Adrienne concerns her work in film industry, almost entirely within the scrappy territory of independent cinema, and it offers a welcome reminder of her effervescent and unorthodox presence on screen. A main incentive of the documentary, it seems, is to recount the tragic circumstances of her death, murdered by a worker in the apartment building, a total stranger to her. In that area, the film is effective as a reclamation of the tabloid callousness of initial news coverage and a fleeting, but enraging, indictment of law enforcement’s quick dismissal of any possible malfeasance (the police confidently ruled it a suicide until Ostroy went to the media with his concerns that they were wrong, at which point they decided the situation merited closer examination after all). At one point in Adrienne, Ostroy travels to a penitentiary to confront the man who killed Shelly. It’s a choice that would likely come across as exploitative with any other director guiding the edit. Here, it feels like a form of justice. Uncomfortable, sure, but justice nonetheless. Ostroy is devastatingly open about the pain he and his family endured, allowing him to decisively made the argument that the culture lost someone of great — and still emerging — significance when Shelly died, but those who knew and loved her lost more.

The Last Duel (Ridley Scott, 2021). Ridley Scott does the Rashomon thing with a story from medieval France. There are three different renderings of the story around the inciting event that leads to the title spectacle of steeds, lances, and empty machismo. The film first cleaves to the perspective of doltish knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and then caddish social climber Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) before finally settling on the only experience that should matter, that of Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). The recounting differs in mild, facile ways, stripping away the depth of understanding the narrative device can carry. Instead, the triad of tellings lead to a film that is repetitive and just plain boring. It’s more problematic that director Ridley Scott approaches the central crime — the rape of Marguerite — with his frightfully common flat-faced indifference to the actual toll of human barbarism. Like the violence of war and other skirmishes that pepper the rest of the film, Scott works with a technician’s eye and no feel for emotional and spiritual impact. That approach smothers the actors, too, leaving them to ineffectually thundering through heavy character work and fussy period language. I swear there were a couple times I saw Damon all but give up midway through a scene, presumably expecting he’d shore up the performance in the next take. Surprisingly, the exception is the turn by Ben Affleck, who’s maybe never been better on screen than he is here, playing a nobleman delighted with his own decadence.

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