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Nocturnal Animals

Posted : 6 months, 1 week ago on 13 February 2017 01:48 (A review of Nocturnal Animals)

Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man, was an emotionally engrossing story told with visual flourish and a series of strong, effecting performances. Something similar could be said about his follow-up, Nocturnal Animals. While his debut was a beautiful film, this one is aesthetically beautiful while surrounding a pulpy, trashy narrative. Your mileage for vary for the grotesquery and emotional evisceration on display, but I think of this as a minor trashterpiece. Maybe even a major one if I revisit in a few years.


There’s a few timelines going on here, two happening in reality, and the third a meta-narrative of one character’s book-within-the-film. There’s the present time, where Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is trapped in a crumbling marriage (to Armie Hammer), and deeply unsatisfied with her career and life in general. Then there are the flashbacks to Susan’s former relationship and eventual divorce from an idealist writer (Jake Gyllenhaal). Finally, there’s the novel that Gyllenhaal has written and sent to Adams. This last thread is the ugliest one, but also the most crucial to tying all of the disparate threads together.


His novel, from where the film derives its title, is part revenge screed against Susan for cheating on him, the divorce, and a cathartic expulsion of his emotional uncertainty and anger in the wake of those events. There’s no forgiveness to be found here, but there’s plenty of bloodletting, violence, and trauma. Susan’s eventual realization of which man truly loved her and the visceral slap in the face she receives leave the audience with no true feeling of closure. There’s just injured pride and more emotional violence committed against these characters. Of course, Susan’s choice of surface luxury in lieu of emotional substance and stability is a tragedy of her own making.


As Susan continues reading the proof of the novel, we see the real-life inspirations for the exaggerated tragedies and blood-soaked masculine revenge games. These links are frequently clumsy as a passive-aggressive fight between lovers can lead to an assault. Or a moment where he discovers her cheating with her future husband transforms into the mutual deaths of two characters. Tom Ford’s directorial gusto is noble for the devotion he brings towards marrying melodrama and pulp together, and his eye cannot be faulted. He’s still learning the ropes as a director, but only two films in as disparate and wild as these two and I think it’s safe to say that I’m a fan and look forward to his next project.


And if Ford can keep attracting talent as high as these two films, then his future projects should really be an immediate ping on your radar. Not only do we get Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal (in a double-role of sorts), Armie Hammer, but Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough (so good as an artificial member of the artistic glitterati), Jena Malone, Michael Sheen, and Isla Fisher show up for small roles. But there’s two performances that really standout here. Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a mangy, flea-bitten redneck who terrorizes the characters within the novel’s structure, and Michael Shannon as the Texas lawman who chases after him. Shannon, one of great cinematic eccentrics, gives enough manic, wild performance that’s as engrossing as it is individualistic. Look at the uber-macho way he deals with a coughing fit and his revelation of a cancer diagnosis. No wonder Shannon walked off with this film’s lone Oscar nomination.


There’s a lot going on in Nocturnal Animals, perhaps too much, but goddamn if I wasn’t totally sold on this weird-fest. Between the immaculate images, the gloriously oddball performances, the trifecta of timelines vying for attention, it all adds up to something singular and unique. Even when it falters (is some of this supposed be as broadly comic as it plays?), Nocturnal Animals is still a fascinating experience.

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Posted : 6 months, 2 weeks ago on 6 February 2017 09:57 (A review of Zootopia)

Disney makes a buddy-cop mystery movie that’s actually an allegory for racism and prejudice. This is not immediately evident from the opening scenes, which introduce us to Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin, adorably plucky) and her dream of becoming the first bunny on the Zootopia police force. You couldn’t be faulted for thinking that this was going to be another dip into the following your dreams/you can be anything you set your mind on balm that Disney pumps into us all. Then it suddenly shifts within the first twenty minutes into a clear story saying what we needed loudly proclaimed in 2016: that xenophobia and prejudices are harmful and must be combatted for the betterment of our society.


Zootopia is richest when cracking jokes and making complex issues digestible for the kiddies in its target audience, even if it occasionally does play against its own better judgement. There’s a few instances of the film making unintentional cases for stereotypes being stereotypes for reasons, and the entirety of Zootopia is broken apart into various environs. That’s right, even in this post-predator/prey binary society the types of animals don’t completely interact together with these separate communities. This last fact isn’t commented upon as such, and it does feel like a failing of the film to entirely engage with it.


But Zootopia is strong enough in several other areas to overcome these problems, mainly in the rapid-fire jokes and leading characters. Judy Hopps is a refreshing continuation of Disney’s recent penchant for crafting female heroines that want anything but a prince and a happily ever after. Hopps puts her entire focus into being a cop, being a damn good one too, serving her city, doing what’s right, and trying to overcome her own prejudices. That she’s partnered with a sly fox (Jason Bateman, snark personified) is a smart move, and their chemistry as characters creates numerous moments of great friction-heavy friendship. Eventually they’re revealed as kindred spirits, but they took different paths to the obstacles and traumas of their childhoods.


Don’t think that this is a heavily sermonizing film though, it’s refreshingly crisp and hilarious. A personal favorite humorous side character is Tommy Chong’s nudist Yax, there’s a great payoff as to why a sloth is nicknamed Flash, and an opening verbal gag about learning to settle and be complacent as the reason for happiness. Zootopia is also just gorgeous to take in, with visual gags and great details packed into every frame. Disney’s resurgence is most deeply felt in films like this, Wreck-It Ralph, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Lilo & Stitch. Zootopia comfortably sits alongside those films as a very bright spot in the studio’s recent output.

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Hacksaw Ridge

Posted : 6 months, 2 weeks ago on 4 February 2017 11:38 (A review of Hacksaw Ridge)

Desmond Doss’ story is unique, and deserves to be told for the bravery and emotional commitment to his deeply held beliefs. However, Mel Gibson, an actor/director who practically licks his lips and pleasures himself to mosaics of carnage, is not the right voice to bring that material to life. Hacksaw Ridge is a mess, a film that all but pins a permanent halo around Andrew Garfield’s adorable face while gleefully taking pleasure in its scenes of violence. Call it pious gore porn for the fundamentalist Christian set.


The same brigade of Academy voters who ushered in large nomination scores for American Sniper and Bridge of Spies, both sleepy, tedious films that conservative dad and/or uncle types love, dropped six nominations into this film’s lap. I get the sound awards, maybe even the editing, but this is one of the best-directed movies of the year? This is one of the best pictures of 2016?


I can’t entirely begrudge Andrew Garfield’s nomination since he has to make this thing work, and he tries his best. He never condescends to the character; in fact, he invests Doss with a sense of religious purpose and truth. Garfield’s innately sweet face brings sincerity to any character that he plays, but it feels awkward that this would be his career-first nomination. He was so tremendous in The Social Network, wonderfully doomed in Red Riding: 1974, part of a terrific trio of delicate performances in Never Let Me Go, and won a BAFTA for Boy A. It was just a matter of time before AMPAS finally bestowed him with a nomination, but it is a shame that it took him talking like Huckleberry Hound in a disingenuous piece of gore porn to finally get one.


The film’s failure to engage with the material in any meaningful way is present from the earliest scenes, in this case flashbacks to the abusive childhood Doss endured. These scarring childhood episodes are presented in all the creamy tones of a Norman Rockwell painting. We don’t see Doss question or engage with his father’s drunken antics, his mother’s ridiculous piety, and his family’s religious zealotry in any thoughtful way. There’s no depth, just a vague sense of our hero as a Messiah-in-training.


Then the film switches to the titular location, and out comes Gibson’s lascivious treatment of violence. Here’s a film extolling the virtues of a conscientious objector while furiously masturbating to images of soldiers having their brains shot out, getting blown up, set aflame. The bloodlust is strong, strong enough to make me recoil in deep discomfort as it parallels these images with Doss in Christ-like imagery and baptismal symbolism.


I wonder if another director would have questioned whether or not Doss’ deep religious beliefs and patriotism are compatible, and how they are instead of just paying lip service to all of it. Even worse is just how terrible some of the dialog is. It dumps its themes and ideas in all caps letters, practically bolded above the heads of the characters. At least cinematography of Simon Duggan keeps unfurling a series of beautiful images to distract you from the stupidity of what’s falling out of the characters mouths. There’s a better movie to be made out of the parts of Hacksaw Ridge, but Gibson isn’t the director to bring it to the screen. The darker and more interesting questions and implications seem out of his reach, and this leaves it slightly inept. It’s more interesting to talk about Doss and his true story then it is to talk about the film made out of his life.

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Hidden Figures

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 1 February 2017 04:20 (A review of Hidden Figures)

Are we slowly seeing the burgeoning of a new sub-genre? Something along the lines of “science is fucking awesome,” with recent entries being The Martian and Arrival. But there’s also something of a corrective action at play throughout Hidden Figures as it celebrates things that have been systematically oppressed – women and minorities most obviously.


While Hidden Figures is a solidly made feel good experience, there is a certain sheen of falseness that pervades all of these types of films. The micro-aggressions and casual racism and misogyny these women face make them heroic in my mind for not going insane in the face of it, but the film demands a heroic white male savior to clear the way for progress. Kevin Costner’s gruff boss destroying the labelled bathrooms is engineered to make the audience cheer (which it did during the screening I watched while I rolled my eyes), and it feels like a false note in a film that has so much good will and positivity radiating from it.


At least Hidden Figures doesn’t break its white characters into noble types and cartoon racist like The Help, instead allowing for several of them to casually demonstrate bias behind the justification of “that’s just how things are.” This feels far more realistic, and it is these moments that make better impressions throughout, especially for the subtle shifts in characters that appear throughout. Like Octavia Spencer confronting Kirsten Dunst in a bathroom that eventually leads to Dunst having Spencer promoted to supervisor of the IBM computing machine.


Even better is the casualness of the obstacles they must overcome to simply do their jobs. The casualness of the sexism, white men in suits get the higher paying jobs built on the backs of the calculations of the women, and the women never get the credit. You root for them to succeed, to slowly dismantle the system, to get the credit for their hard won battles and incredibly valuable contributions. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is the underpaid de facto supervisor of the Colored Computers, and she makes herself invaluable (along with her girls) by learning how to program and run the IBM machine. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) sues to attend an all-white engineering program so that she can become NASA’s first black female engineer. While a bulk of the film focuses in on Katharine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematical genius who fights for her place in the effort to launch John Glenn into space.


The consistent obstructionism is a solid source of dramatic tension, and Hidden Figures is a tonic that we need right now. Not only does it make the argument for progressive ideals like equality and how we’re stronger together, but it places the crux of its arguments on quips like “the numbers don’t lie.” We need this film to remind us when American values are at their greatest, and hopefully some good will come of this film in an influx of young black girls going into STEM education. My day job is at an aerospace engineering and earth science research center tied to a university, and the field desperately needs more diversity. A film like Hidden Figures shows young girls that yes, it is possible, and I dream that its lasting legacy will be a noticeable uptick down the line.


Hidden Figures strongest asset comes in the form of its impeccable ensemble players. I mean no disrespect to Octavia Spencer’s second Oscar nomination for her work here, but why is she the lone player singled out? It feels a bit like favoritism to a former winner over other worthy players that deserved equal consideration. Janelle Monae is equally strong (maybe even stronger), and this may be Henson’s best screen work to date. Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, and Kevin Costner are all reliably solid. Mahershala Ali, having a banner year, is slightly underserved here, but he’s so good that I would watch him do just about anything. They make the material soar high even when its writing dips into predictability or pat morality.


Even if I don’t think it’s a perfect movie, I can’t begrudge it any of its nominations. It’s too important, and lesser films have been nominated for more or won. I just hope that the box office dominance and high praise for this film provide something of a siren call for more diverse films. Now, if we could only do something about the white savior trope. 

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Florence Foster Jenkins

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 30 January 2017 10:17 (A review of Florence Foster Jenkins)

So, I guess we’re just throwing Oscar nominations at Meryl Streep for any old role nowadays. Post-Adaptation (what a performance that was!), Streep’s Oscar nominations (and wins) are a mixed bag of gorgon-like overacting (August: Osage County), middling biographical film that left her with nothing to do (The Iron Lady), and thinly written comedic roles (The Devil Wears Prada). Add another broadly comedic creation to that list of lazy nominations, yet another tread through Streep’s tendency towards going after projects that allow her to shine to the detriment of the rest of the material.


I would say this is odd considering that Stephen Frears is behind the camera here, but ever since Mrs. Henderson Presents he’s given over to handsomely made baubles that garner Oscar nominations and give a grand diva of cinema the shine to tear into a likably daft role. These films and performances feel hollow compared to the depths Frears brought to The Grifters, My Beautiful Launderette, and Dangerous Liaisons. There’s no excavation into the depths of Florence Foster Jenkins as a woman here, just the treatment of her as a likably eccentric woman completely unaware of her musical inabilities. In fact, Streep makes her variation of Florence so likable that you almost feel bad for questioning her motives or laughing at her horrific singing voice.


This gloves off treatment of the material is a serious detriment, and the entire film becomes another example of the “feel good” emotional manipulation so many of these stories engineer. There’s darker impulses at play here, but Florence Foster Jenkins wants to give you the warm fuzzies instead of seriously explore the truth of the material. Look no further than Hugh Grant’s performance as Florence’s husband, who occupies a strange mixture of parasite, enabler, supporter, and friend. The movie flattens him out, although Grant’s innate befuddled worminess brings that certain oily charm into it naturally, essentially being lazy and forcing a movie star’s normal charisma to do some of the heavy-lifting for the script.


Florence Foster Jenkins wants us to feel good about ourselves for propping up the delusions of grandeur of an eccentric, wealthy woman. I call bullshit on this. A majority of the film plays out like a Marx Brothers movie starring Margaret Dumont but the Brother never show. We just follow around this wealthy socialite and are expected to downplay our critical thinking skills in favor of propping up a deluded ego. It’s warm and fuzzy, but it adds up to nothing of import. There’s tragedy and comedy to mine from the real story of Florence Foster Jenkins, but you won’t find much of it here.

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Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 29 January 2017 07:03 (A review of Jackie)

There are two different films colliding throughout Jackie, one about the days after JFK’s assassination, this one is generic if well acted and beautifully shot, and another about how Jackie Kennedy used her power to sanctify his legacy, this one is far superior. The part of Jackie that focuses in on the former First Lady’s struggle to maintain her agency, proliferate the family’s legacy, and mourn her losses in shockingly intimate detail. It breaks the back of a biographical film and reveals that Natalie Portman’s performance is as much of an act as Kennedy’s exacting control of the interview.


Jackie makes the case that Jackie Kennedy’s role as First Lady was that of PR maven, creating the legacy of JFK as the “People’s President” with her infamous White House tour, and continuing on with the Life magazine article, public funeral, and actions in the days following his assassination. Her actions were extremely successful, think of how we’ve dubbed the Kennedy political dynasty as “Camelot,” how the Kennedys have ascended to something approximating royalty. A measly two years was the entirety of JFK’s tenure as president, yet his legacy and visage lingers in the American popular consciousness for a variety of reasons, and credit must be placed at Jackie’s immaculately styled and clothed feet.


But it’s the multilayered performance and character study that Natalie Portman provides the film that is the biggest strength. The script is probably a work of large fiction, but it brilliantly blurs the line between the public and private personas of the famous historical figures at play here. Portman’s delicately modulated performance demonstrates this balance throughout, most notably during the recreation of the White House tour where Jackie plays hostess and tries to use television to build a bridge between the general public and its ruling class. The obvious strengths of her performance, the expert vocal inflections and impeccable costuming, are only emboldened by the quieter strength of Portman’s work. Her face must change between public and private emotions in intense close-ups frequently and quickly, and she’s rarely not in a scene or the frame. If the doomed perfectionist of Black Swan was a career high for Portman, then this portrait of a grieving widow trying to keep her sanity and her power towers over that one.


But all is not brilliantly executed in Jackie. The interview works as a framing device, and occasionally the framing device goes crooked in setting up the sections that we launch back into and witness from Jackie’s specific point-of-view. It’s not that Billy Crudup’s performance isn’t strong, it is, but he’s clearly a mere pawn to the steely resolved queen before him. These interview segments can feel self-conscious, and the clear artifice of them stands in contrast to the raw grief and specificity of detail in the numerous flashbacks.


The ambition on display here is admirable even if Jackie ends up tripping itself up along the way. After a while, the two distinct movies collide echoing the power struggles in the narrative. The better movie won out in the end for me, but I can understand detractors thinking this movie is too cold, thinks its smarter than it is, but I found it emotionally involving, fascinating in its character study, and beautiful to look at and listen to.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Posted : 6 months, 4 weeks ago on 25 January 2017 05:58 (A review of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children)

By Tim Burton’s own admission his films are never strongest from a narrative perspective, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is dense in unraveling its mythology and nearly elliptical in story focus. It doesn’t matter much though, because Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children gives Burton a chance to bring to life a merry band of misfits and oft-kilter imagery, his two strongest points. Although a nagging sense of 20th Century Fox trying to find a replacement franchise for X-Men lingers throughout, and a sense of Burton’s nightmarish whimsy hovering on autopilot has lingered since Alice in Wonderland (although, Frankenweenie was a glorious high-point).


I’m not entirely sure what the plot involved in Miss Peregrine is exactly, there’s a home for mutants, I mean, peculiars, children born with unusual abilities, led by a headmistress (Eva Green) that can manipulate time and turn into a bird, and a rogue band of adult peculiars who eat eyeballs of the children in effort for immortality and to live outside of the of the time loops. Oh yeah, the peculiars have to leave everything behind to live in a time loop from various eras, with Miss Peregrine’s being stuck eternally in the mid-40s. Oh, and the bad guys are led by Samuel L. Jackson who can shape-shift and has invisible monsters made up of spidery limbs and sharp teeth with no eyes.


Burton’s particular visual eye and mordant humor roars back to life throughout Miss Peregrine, and it’s most enjoyably daffy when we simply sit back and observe the oddities. I mean, we get to watch Eva Green wander around various sets dressed in gorgeous midnight blue gowns, smoke a pipe, and generally be vampy and eccentric. If you can’t get enjoyment out of that, then you may not be the kind of person I would enjoy shooting the shit with.


While exposition and mythology dumps weigh the story down frequently, Burton still gets plenty of chances to fire off his mixture of absurd humor and terror. After the atmospheric opening credits, we immediately jump cut to a sunny expanse of Florida beach, and it feels like a horrific landscape that a tortured soul like Butterfield would want to flee for more eccentric waters. Or the ending battle between good and battle peculiars that finds us watching the spidery monster men fighting with reanimated skeletons, and quicker than you can say Ray Harryhausen, this moment feels ornately bizarre and hilarious in equal doses. The old Burton isn’t dead yet, even if he is buried in layers of corporate synergy lately.


Then there’s the ensemble of quirky supporting players, many of them memorable for their gimmicks than for personality, but it all adds up to a colorful world that’s fun to visit. There’s a girl with a monstrous mouth in the back of her head, a pair of twins who wears masks to cover their gorgon-like faces, an invisible boy who enjoys playing pranks, and a few characters who names I can actually remember! Like Lauren McCrostie’s Olive, a redhead who must wear rubber gloves or burn everything she touches, Finlay MacMillan’s brooding Irish heartthrob Enoch, who can reanimate the dead by placing hearts in their bodies, and Ella Purnell, a young actress who appears stitched together from Burton’s visual obsessions, as Emma, a willowy girl who can control the air.


Granted, reliable players like Judi Dench and Terence Stamp (how is he just now appearing in a Burton film!?) are given too little to do, but we also get the chance to watch Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, and Rupert Everett come play in Burton’s quirky cinematic world, and I hope all of them make return trips. And if any leading man seems primed to overthrow Johnny Depp as Burton’s premiere fetish object it has to be Asa Butterfield, who looks like a Burton drawing come to life with his large eyes, pale skin, raven hair, and gangly limbs.


Yet what stuck out most for me was the empathy that Burton brings to these kids. Beneath the aesthetics on display, even in Burton’s weaker efforts his visual acuity and sense of play is always a treat, there’s a real sense of yearning to make an emotional connection, of finding your tribe, of finding acceptance among your peers. After all, this is a film where one of the more memorable sights is of Butterfield pulling Purnell across a beach with a rope as she floats above him for all the tenderness and haunting lyrical qualities it displays. More of that and less of the whiz-bang pyrotechnics next time around, please.

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La La Land

Posted : 6 months, 4 weeks ago on 25 January 2017 03:11 (A review of La La Land)

If La La Land were a person, it would be an eager-to-please, bright sunny person with very little going on behind the eyes. There’s loving nods and references to your idols and objects of obsession, and then there’s pure pastiche stitched together from the better parts of several famous movie musicals but without their emotional context. La La Land is a prime example of a charming time waster, an adequate movie musical that lacks any sense of depth that keeps something like Singin’ in the Rain vibrantly alive.


La La Land steals proudly from Jacques Demy’s musical output, but all of this referencing is missing the melancholy and depth of feeling in its characters. Writer-director Damien Chazelle sure does know how to signify exuberance, but he can’t seem to make us care about any of it. It’s wonderfully sweet, happy, and cute in the moment, but it fades nearly instantly from your memory.


If I sound contrarian to this movie, know that I enjoyed La La Land in the moment, but find its near full frontal assault on awards season slightly baffling. I suppose given the dark temper of 2016 something this light feels like a blissful oasis. There’s several positives to this film, but the strength of other films like Moonlight or Kubo and the Two Strings is how they linger in the mind and heart. La La Land is a sugar rush that’s immediately pleasing before fading from the mind.


At least there’s a few moments of heightened movie-making that are clearly trying for something greater. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling bring their chemistry once more, and their fun repartee as actors does a lot of the heavy lifting for the material. Not that there’s much to lift here. Stone plays an actress who dreams of hitting it big, Gosling plays another of Chazelle’s white jazz savior proxies, and their characters are fun to watch romance and spar together. But this is the extent of what La La Land asks of them.


Stone can carry a tune, and is a pleasing dancer, while Gosling is a gifted actor who should probably lead with his other talents, because musical star is not one of them. Think of how good he is in Lars & the Real Girl, Crazy Stupid Love, or Half Nelson, then watch how adequate he is here. Any number of fellow actors in Gosling’s generation could have given this performance; it lacks his trademark wit and self-effacing charm. His warbling lacks soul, while Stone mugs up a few of her musical moments like a theater kid making good. God, do they try valiantly to bring their characters some soul, but there’s no major arch for them to play, no memorable song for them to belt.


La La Land comes roaring out the gate with an impassioned free-for-all dance number on a Los Angeles freeway, and nothing will top this sequence. The solid colors, almost eye bleeding vibrant and bright, and acrobatic choreography are an adrenaline shot that perk you up immediately. Then the vague sense of fealty creeps in and we’re left with a nagging sense that everything is a flimsy bubble ready to pop at a moment’s notice. Strange considering the depth of feeling Chazelle brought to Whiplash, which had actual thoughts in its brain and characters for its actors to play.


I think it’s because nothing happens in this movie that you can’t see coming from three scenes before. The romance follows the projection of A Star is Born without the tragedy and romance. There’s an extended dream sequence in the end that steals outright from the “Broadway Melody” in Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris’ impressionistic ballet, and a scene where a date starts off with a repertory screening of Rebel Without a Cause and ends with a late night trip to the Griffith Observatory. La La Land is obsessed with proving its bonafides as a prodigal child of movie musicals but forgets to invest some heart, soul, or real feeling while it’s at it. I enjoyed it in the moment, but the second the credits rolled all I could muster as I turned to my friend was an noncommittal, “It was cute.” Naturally, this will probably dominate the Oscars.  

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Kubo and the Two Strings

Posted : 7 months, 1 week ago on 13 January 2017 05:12 (A review of Kubo and the Two Strings)

Fairy tales, for all of their splendor and magic, are built upon mutating tragedy and strife into digestible bits. They wrap their morality plays in sweeping epics of romance, adventure, and rousing entertainment as a way to explain the dangers of everyday life. Kubo and the Two Strings openly plays with these conventions, beginning with Kubo imploring us to pay attention to the stories he tells as they will reflect his journey.


Kubo and the Two Strings is a delicate, nuanced portrait of healing from loss and grief, with a healthy dose of the power of imagination and creativity. Like its brethren Coraline and ParaNorman, Kubo and the Two Strings is another beautiful, emotionally complex stop-motion masterpiece from Laika. With Studio Ghibli temporarily shuttered, Laika is the best animation studio currently in operation. Laika knows that the best animated films, the ones that we continually return to as cultural iconography and hold up as artistic high-water marks, are those that operate at multiple levels.


Like the best of children’s literature (think of Roald Dahl’s books) or films (Pinocchio), Kubo and the Two Strings is not afraid of going dark. A sense of impending peril hovers over Kubo from the first frame until the last. He learns hard lessons about life, and he learns them frequently. I mean, this is a film that opens with his mother getting capsized during a thunderstorm, hitting her head against a rock, and fearing that her infant child possibly drowned. Any other American studio would balk at so dark an introduction, but this is merely prelude to a very rich film.


Mythologies are built upon familial strife where generations must do battle on a grand scale to overcome their conflicts. Kubo is an orphaned Japanese boy who cares for his mother after her injury, and listens intently while she tells him stories about his dead father. He must never go out at night for fear that the Moon King, his grandfather, and wicked aunts will track him down. Much of this is presented as daring adventure and thrilling action, but look deeper for what is going on. Kubo is dealing with the deterioration of a parent, the harm of abusive family members, the dissolution of a family unit, and the pain of losing a loved one. Strong, heady stuff that’s wrapped up in glossy, candy-coated visuals that makes the bitter medicine easier to swallow.


Then there’s the strength of Kubo’s subtler message about using your talents as an outlet for grief. Kubo’s two strings is eventually revealed, and I won’t spoil the surprise, but it has something to do with the musical instrument he plays throughout. This instrument, a shamisen, was a source of magical powers for his mother, and Kubo demonstrates his own developing mastery and sorcery skills by playing the instrument. His origami creations are only hindered by his ability to imagine them.


In the beginning, Kubo uses his limited skills to entertain the villagers with stories of daring samurais battling with horrific monsters and gigantic beasts. By the end, Kubo is able to conjure these pieces of paper into birds that help him fly, a miniature version of his deceased father that acts as moving compass, and generate powerful blasts of magic from the strings. As his ability to process his grief grows, so too does his ability to harness his magical abilities to save himself and his two protectors, a monkey and a beetle-like humanoid. Kubo’s art is his greatest weapon against his tormentors, and the strongest source of healing and calming in his life. It’s a metaphor that’s developed with consummate skill and rich intricate details.


Pieces of culture, namely the myths and stories that are the backbone of it, are strongly felt in the monsters and magical world Kubo encounters. There’s a gigantic red skeleton with swords stuck in its head, an undulating tooth-filled mouth at the bottom of the sea surrounded by yellow eyes, and the Moon Beast, a creature that looks like a combination of a centipede and a Dunkleosteus. Even the frightening twin sisters that chase after Kubo are decorated in Noh masks and long cloaks, looking like a nightmarish anime witches come to three-dimensional life. You can’t help but think back to the whimsical, quirky, ornately designed monstrosities that Ray Harryhausen designed and their eternal influence upon these films while watching these moments.


Kubo and the Two Strings borrows the emotional textures and story structure of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and throws them into a visual world that plays like Hayao Miyazaki remaking an Akira Kurosawa film. These contrasting tones and styles actually merge well together given the strong point-of-view the film contains throughout. Here is a film that earns the description “magical,” not just for the visually delightful ways to entertains us, but the ways it engages every member of the audience at different levels. If I had my way, this would be taking home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature this year.

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The Reluctant Dragon

Posted : 7 months, 2 weeks ago on 9 January 2017 04:41 (A review of The Reluctant Dragon)

Worth a watch less a complete film and more as a curio from the most fertile creative period in the Disney studio’s output. The Reluctant Dragon pretends to be an extended behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the Disney animation team makes one of their cartoons, but it’s a scrubbed clean and antiseptic look. This is not a real look into making an animated short or feature, but a scrubbed clean face of a studio in troubled times.


Take for instance that many of the animators and staff that Robert Benchley meets during his wanderings in the studio are actors and day players. At the time, Disney was in the midst of an animator’s strike, and Uncle Walt was a contentious figure among the staff at this point. Dumbo, here glimpsed through a cameo appearance from Casey Jr. and a team of animators studying an elephant model, contains a biting joke about this exact dispute if you know where to look for it.


The Reluctant Dragon also throws a lot of wizardry at the screen in hopes that something will entertain you. To be fair, it does contain a lot of truth about the long, slow process involved in making an animated film, but the actors-as-animators-and-technicians deliver their jargon in awkward bouts. None of these interactions feel remotely plausible, and a cringe-worthy degree of artifice kicks in during these live-action bits. There’s also a change from black-and-white to vivid Technicolor for no discernible reason other than they could do it, so why not.


There is a certain glee in spotting early versions of characters from Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, and a cameo from Bambi as a demonstration of what a completed cell looks like. These charms cannot go unsaid, even some of the material surrounding them is clunky. But everything entertaining about this oddity goes back to animation, which is really the backbone of the Disney industry.


Where The Reluctant Dragon soars is in the four animated segments, which vary in quality but provide more consistent amusement than the rest of the film. “How-To Ride a Horse,” the first of the How-To films starring Goofy, is a hoot. The kinks of later “How-To” shorts have yet to be worked out here, but this feature is off to a solid start. “Baby Weems” is the weakest of the lot. A series of barely animated storyboard drawings, “Baby Weems” is interesting in concept but the story is weak and lacking in several ways, including humor. “Casey Junior” is charming but slight, but the entire sequence involving it is a real winner.


Of course, the best part of the film is the two-reeler short film, “The Reluctant Dragon.” The story involves a book worm, who moves, sounds, and acts a bit like Pinocchio with a developed frontal lobe, helping a fey dragon integrate into the village. It’s just a bizarre story with several fun characters, and a minor delight that plays far breezier and more whimsical than much of the studio’s upcoming output.


The Reluctant Dragon was thrown together to keep revenue coming into the studio after the outbreak of WWII, and it shows. It has less in common with the Golden Era’s immaculate features and far more in common with the Package Years. Its placement is something of a clear signpost of this transition, released just before Dumbo in the same year, a year prior to Bambi and the first of the package films, Saludos Amigos. It’s an odd little curious object, one that has gained cobwebs as a complete package but pieces have found life separately. Then again, that’s something that could be said about the entirety of the Package Years.  

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