Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

If you must blink, do it now.

Guys, seriously.  Laika needs to have a hit soon or we're just plain not going to have mainstream stop-motion movies anymore. Enough despairing though, because Kubo and the Two Strings is just as fantastic as I hoped it would be.  Besides the remarkable animation that Laika is known for, the story is layered and the characters have clearly been created with love and care.  I was also pleased to see that edginess and darkness (considering its intended family audience) that Laika is also known for, dealing with themes of death and featuring its fair share of frightening images.  The spooky fun kind, anyway.  Though the plotting is very familiar, and never strays too far from the classic "hero's journey," the mixing in of Japanese aesthetics and mythology, along with a meta-narrative about storytelling, make Kubo and the Two Strings truly unforgettable.

When we grow stronger, the world grows more dangerous.

Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy living in Ancient Japan in a cave with his mother.  One assumes they are incredibly poor, no doubt due to Kubo's mother's debilitating mental illness (the cause of which I won't spoil here).  She drifts in an out of sanity, catatonia, and intense sadness.  She urges Kubo never to stay out past dark, or powerful forces will come after him.  He has no reason to have doubt, for Kubo has a gift; with his shamisen (a stringed instrument), he has the power to move paper and create puppet shows using origami.  The townspeople adore his stories and all seems well, despite the fact that Kubo essentially has no life outside of caring for his mother and putting on these shows.  But inevitably one night, Kubo stays out too late.  Disaster strikes, and Kubo must set out on a quest to find pieces of magical armor that once belonged to his father, Hanzo.  Along his journey, he is accompanied by a mystical, talking Monkey (Charlize Theron), a giant cursed Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who used to be a samurai, and a small origami man that resembles his father.

Literally the first time I've ever done that...

This is Travis Knight's first time at the director's helm, though he's actually the CEO of Laika.  He's clearly in it for the love of the art; Kubo and the Two Strings couldn't stink less of executive marketing if the characters did a Juicy Fruit commercial halfway through.  The film moves along at a quick pace, but scenes are given time to breathe.  The audience really gets a chance to take in the beauty of the locations and the intricacy of animation.  This is all acompanied by a memorable and sweet score by Dario Marianelli, who also scored Laika's last film, The Boxtrolls.  His work is much stronger here, invoking some very bittersweet feelings which perfectly match the melancholy of the story.  It's a funny and action-packed movie to be sure, but it's not afraid to be sad as well.

Down here there are always things worth fighting for.

As much as I praise the stop-motion animation, I'm well aware that much of Kubo's look is enhanced by CGI.  Water effects, backgrounds, and ancillary characters may be rendered by a computer, but they don't hurt the film's charm one bit. Most of what we see has been crafted by hand and was moved in twenty-four frames per second intervals.  There's really nothing like it.  What helps Laika's character animation feel so unrestrained is almost certainly thanks to 3D printing.  Hundreds of tiny heads for the characters can be designed digitally, then printed so that the animators can achieve an unprecedented amount of emotions.  Not impressed? Kubo also houses the largest armature puppet ever created in the form of a giant skeleton creature that the heroes battle. 

This filthy creature will tear you apart...

Not everything in Kubo's screenplay is amazing.  Some of Beetles jokes fall a bit flat, especially when they seem to be pandering to kids.  McConnahay's performance is fine, but if he had to be comic relief, I wish he's been a bit less chatty.  The rest of the cast is fantastic, especially Parkinson, who carries the film's many emotional moments.  However, I do wish there had been some Asian casting besides George Takei, who has little more than a glorified cameo.  It may have strengthened the Japanese flavor of the world, which tends to lean more toward being distinctly American.  Also, maybe a little Japanese text here and there?  A few more Japanese words in the dialogue?  It might have been interesting to see.

Kubo, we've been waiting for you for so long...

The best part about Kubo and the Two Strings is that it's just fun to watch.  It's a self-contained story that may be simplistic when it comes to plot, but its themes of family, death, and the power of storytelling elevate it to near greatness.  Is it Laika's best film?  I think my heart still belongs to Paranorman, but time will tell.  I certainly think its animation might be the best the studio's put out, and there's plenty of imagery that really stays with you (the two evil sisters are pretty chill-inducing). I wish the movie had been a hit, and maybe inspired some other studios to take more chances with original stories and forms of animation that aren't freaking CGI.  But I guess I'll just have to be happy with the positive critical reception and the love from people who've actually seen the thing.  I'm already dying from the anticipation of Laika's next film, which I'm sure will be amazing and make absolutely no money as well.



Friday, November 4, 2016

Doctor Strange

Doctor Stephen Strange may be well-known to Marvel comics fans, but to us movie fans on the outside, he's relatively obscure.  I went into Doctor Strange with fresh eyes and hardly any expectations, and despite having visual similarities to Batman Begins and Inception from what I could see in the trailers, I had hoped for something original and outside the norm for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I may not have come away moved by the story or deeply invested in the characters, but damn there were some mind-bendingly gorgeous visuals.  I'd almost recommend seeing the film entirely for its special effects action scenes, but then I'd be ignoring the great performances from the cast and the outstanding work from the production designers.  The star of the show may be the surface-level elements, but what a shiny surface it is!

"I don't believe in fairy tales..."

After a hand-crippling car accident, the arrogant and self-important neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) struggles to find a way to heal himself with Western science.  So he turns to the East, travelling to Kamar-Taj to meet someone known to heal severe injuries using willpower and spiritual practices.  When Strange meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), she shocks him by separating his spirit from his body and showing him the psychedelic wonders of the multiverse. Training under her and an advanced student named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange excels at learning the art of sorcery and can soon bend reality and time to his will.  He may even be doing a bit too well, with his blatant disregard for "the rules."  This makes The Ancient One uneasy, for meanwhile an ex-student of hers named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is plotting to summon a dark demon from another dimension, and it could spell the end of the world as we know it.

"Did you put mushrooms in my tea?"

There's nothing particularly wrong with the story.  It all works quite well, using the proper plotting tropes to move its story and characters along at a relatively fast pace.  The problem is that so much of it is obvious and inventive, such as when characters like Strange's love interest Christine (Rachel McAdams) tell him things like "all you care about is yourself" straight to his face.  It's awfully easy to tell his character arc from the very first scene, making honest investment in his journey a bit harder to achieve.  There's also very little breathing room to really get to know the characters, as each scene involves us discovering something new about the world, the magic, or the ancient battle between good and evil.  Exposition is also the movie's Achilles heel; quite a few scenes are devoted to info-dumping so that we know what's going on in this rather complicated world.  While there are plenty of interesting visuals to accompany said exposition, it still doesn't make for dramatic storytelling.  Also, the less we talk about the villains, the better.

"Forget everything that you think you know..."

Where the film excels is in those nifty visual effects sequences.  City blocks fold, people defy gravity, and the world behaves like it was cut up by a kaleidoscope.  There's even a spectacular time-reversing scene that is nothing if not the best I've ever seen of its type.  Doctor Strange himself looks fantastic in his final getup, and Cumberbatch fits the role perfectly.  His American accent is... not the best... but how he embodies the character, and that's what matters.  The supporting cast is great as well.  I wish we could have seen a bit more of McAdams, but I suppose that's what sequels are for.  The score by Michael Giacchino is good, like all other MCU movies, but not memorable in the slightest.  I never would have guessed that the same man who wrote music for Up and The Incredibles could deliver something so average.  I say that with love, Mikey.

"So you joined a cult?"

Director Scott Derrickson and the studio clearly put a lot of effort into this project, but most of it went to crafting those truly incredible action/spectacle scenes. This is one of those rare movies that I would suggest seeing in 3D, because the filmmakers use it to enhance the trippiness of the different realms and dimensions. While the script and dialogue (which makes sure to slip in a few solid jokes) are just fine, the problem is that all the elements are pretty boilerplate when you get right down to it.  Hell, even within the MCU we've had several films (Iron Man and Ant-Man) with extremely similar plot structures and that contained nearly identical character arcs.  The movie may be dull in spots, but it sure knew how to distract me with so much beautiful, shiny, gorgeous, trippy, what were we talking about?