Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

***1/2 out of ****

I’m still amazed that stop-motion animation survives to this day. The frame-by-frame photography of miniature figures has always been impractical, insanely time-consuming and unreal looking at its best. And yet, it’s unlike anything else. It’s special.

Laika Entertainment is probably at the forefront of the handful of studios still practicing this old craft. Ever since Travis Knight (son of Nike founder Phil Knight) took control of the former Will Vinton Studios (responsible for those California Raisins) his Oregon-based studio has slowly built a reputation comparable to the imagination powerhouse, Pixar. In their fourth film, Kubo and the Two Strings, the studio brings sensational imagery to an original fantasy story inspired by ancient Japanese mysticism.

Kubo, a boy living near a seaside village cares for his mostly catatonic mother who has given him a magic shamisen to make object-controlling music for the townsfolk. He puts on dramas starring origami-come-to-life telling of great adventures, which Kubo understands may connect with his own history. The boy is missing an eye, which was stolen by his grandfather, the wrathful Moon King, who was betrayed by his daughter when she fell in love with a mortal man and had a child. Kubo’s mother occasionally speaks to tell him these things and everything he must do to stay hidden.

Naturally, a child’s curiosity leads to a world of trouble when his wicked aunts with demonic powers find him. Kubo is whisked away to go on a quest to find his father’s magical armor with the guidance of a stern but wise monkey and the help of a giant warrior beetle they encounter along the way.

Their odyssey has many perilous obstacles where more secrets are revealed and… I don’t need to go on. No matter how weird my descriptions are, you know this is the stuff an imaginative kid of any age will eat up. Kubo is a wonderful experience with beautifully crafted characters and environments.

Thank goodness composer Dario Marianelli returned for another film with this studio. After suffering the inept orchestrations of Disney’s The Jungle Book, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Pete’s Dragon this year, I was beginning to wonder if Finding Dory was the only family movie with a score that could really pull at my heartstrings. The harmony between this movie’s concepts, visuals, and Marianelli’s emotional soundtrack had me holding back tears near the end.   

The only area of criticism I have toward Laika, which seems to be a constant, is with the voice acting –even though it continues to improve. I felt that their first film, Coraline, had a serious void in emotional direction for the normally talented performers they had contributing to its awe-inspiring sights.

Kubo features the voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei and Matthew McConaughey - all of whom do quite well, but there are times when their comic-relief interactions feel a little out of character with the mystical tone of the film. I suppose Pixar has set the bar rather high for the emotional potential a voice performance.

Laika has also utilized computer animation and other CGI tricks to build the environment in their films, but the opening sequence is one of many where it seems to dominate the screen. This is forgivable when considering the textural purity of the real characters in the foreground, whose facial expressions are so amazing in their range without any loss of consistency, thanks to the revolution of digital 3D printing.

Snobby nitpicking aside, Kubo and the Two Strings is the innocent escapist relief I’ve been craving all summer with the wholesome touch of a studio that makes family movies, which remember to suggest that knowledge and understanding are more powerful than any weapon when defending oneself against life’s threats.


***1/2 out of ****

Indignation is a well-made movie about a young Jewish atheist attending an Ivy League university during the fifties through the insistence of his parents who have seen too many boys his age go off to Korea to die in battle.

I haven’t ever read Roth, so I cannot confirm if his tone is accurately captured in this film, but writer/director James Schamus (normally an Ang Lee collaborator) makes a very good dialogue-based work out of his material. 

Like in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, actor Logan Lerman once again takes a role that doesn’t seem suited for his handsome looks and cool demeanor, but manages to make it work; Sarah Gadon brings her stunning and gorgeous energy to the film as his troubled love interest; and playwright Tracy Letts is riveting as the college Dean whose scene’s with Lerman take up a fair amount of the film’s time - which is nothing to complain about. 

I only question the film’s arc structure, which feels somewhat hackneyed and imposed. Regardless, I think we can expect this movie to be remembered during awards season as a tragic coming-of-age story about people too ahead of their time to make a good life in what most people would assume to be the best of circumstances.

Florence Foster Jenkins

*** out of ****

The latest Oscar-bait to star Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins, is honestly decent, thanks to the dependable humor and energy of director Stephen Frears. Set during World War II, the story is about a real-life New York heiress and classical music socialite who lived in the delusion that she had a beautiful singing voice, which… she… didn’t. 

The film mostly focuses on Hugh Grant as her platonic husband St. Clair Bayfield, who farcically works hard to insulate Jenkins from the reality of her reputation as a dreadful singer.

The audience surrogate is found in Cosme McMoon, a classically trained pianist, hired by Bayfield to accompany Jenkins' attempt to breakout as an opera singer. McMoon is played by the Simon Helberg, the thirty-six-year-old character-actor whose fame has gradually grown since Big Bang Theory premiered in 2007. His role as the perplexed young musician who is suffering the personal crisis of compromising his respectability for a huge paycheck compliments Streep's energy as a clueless lady with delusions of virtuosity. 

While the film's well-off title character, who could afford to be anything she wanted, is hardly an underdog story, there is a tragic side to this person worthy of our sympathy, but the movie focuses on the love of an art-form and how it can drive someone to give everything they have to be close to it, even if they're just no good at it. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Pete's Dragon (2016)

**1/2 out of ****

After a slew of unnecessary remakes, Disney added yet another re-imagining of one of their properties that didn’t seem quite as blasphemous. The 1977 film Pete’s Dragon was one of my favorite movies to rent at the video store when I was a kid - much to my parent’s annoyance - and I’m sure that if I revisited it now, I’d hate it.

It is the good ideas that could have worked, which deserve remakes and while I think that the results of David Lowery’s 2016 version are mediocre, I’m happy that it’s improved in any way at all. Elliot the dragon is a decent CGI character and a welcome substitute for a hand-drawn cartoon imposed on live action footage in the original (though I loved that stuff as a kid). The creature reminds me of Peter Jackson’s King Kong for getting us emotionally invested in a simulated beast that may remind us of a loving pet.

The score, however, represents the lame run-of-the-mill work Disney has been applying to most of their live action movies through various composers. This score may not be as awful as the songs used in the '77 musical version, but it’s just as incessant through unoriginal cues attempting to evoke feelings of wonder and triumph way before they're needed thanks to a background choir chanting through most pieces. Really, I’m so bored with this stuff. I believe that better use of music would have elevated the film tremendously.

Oaks Fegley makes an interesting ferrel version of Pete and while Karl Urban, Bryce Dallas Howard and Wes Bentley lend some effective screen presence, their characters could use more definition - but not as much as Robert Redford, whose acting of late is no different than when he provides voice-over narration for a commercial.

I was digging for subtext in this completely new story, but it seemed like some pretty surface-level eco-friendly vagueness. I know I've said it before in my Transformers 4 review, but I'll say it again: Just re-watch The Iron Giant.

Sausage Party

*1/2 out of ****

As everyone in the theater cackled their way through Sausage Party, an R-rated animated comedy using a Pixar-like premise for the sake of nasty jokes, I sat in silence for most of the film’s duration while anthropomorphized grocery store products engaged in incessant swearing, sex jokes, and drug use while delivering some political and religious allegories. All of these characteristics came without the natural grace of artists who have done similar subversions of family entertainment, like Matt Stone and Trey Parker or even Seth MacFarlane and his pals. After only mildly chuckling a few times in contrast to the howls and belly laughs throughout the auditorium, I began to wonder if everyone around me was stupid or if I was losing my soul.

I spent a good portion of my youth feeling frustrated with respected critics who seemed clueless whenever they reviewed a comedy. Am I becoming one of these humorless analysts? I believe that the evaluation of comedy and filmmaking can clash. In the case of Sausage Party, I’m not sure where my disapproval lies. I like the idea of the movie, but its animation is too standard-issue to play a part in adding hilarity to the film. I like the idea of the comedy, except its gags seem about as subtle as the novelty banner ads seen on a porn site.

Maybe as the disappointing summer winds down, I’m in a sour mood, but I feel like Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and their regular collaborators, looked to the talents of a couple directors (Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon) with animation experience who rendered their humor in the most superficial way. Rarely was there a moment when I felt like they put a clever spin on an animated movie cliche and I don't remember one scene where they made fun of computer animation itself.

This only seems important, because great movies usually utilize their medium to convey the message. South Park usually made fun of its crude illustration style by having its characters refer to invisible physical details about one another and the brilliant Team America: World Police got some of its biggest laughs by making puppets do things that puppets can't do very well like playing pool, fighting, or pointing directly at something.

I have a feeling that I'm very alone on this. I liked Superbad and I really liked This is the End but this movie only came across to me like an expensive expression of juvenile humor that only thinks it's thought-provoking.