Saturday, September 24, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

Directed by Travis Knight. Written by Marc Haimes (screenplay), Chris Butler (screenplay), Shannon Tindle (story) and Marc Haimes (story). Starring Charlize Theron (Monkey), Art Parkinson (Kubo), Ralph Fiennes (Moon King), and Matthew McConaughey (Beetle).

Bottom line: Kubo, you have master animators, why do you have to cover it all up with CGI. I’m not against CGI and Claymation, but what could’ve been a beautiful experience turned into a mediocre computer animated movie.


Kubo and the Two Strings opens to a raging ocean and some establishing shots of a woman performing some magic. After a beautiful scene, we cut to some years later. The woman, who is nigh comatose, is being taken care of by her twelve or thirteen years old son, Kubo. We watch as Kubo wakes up and makes breakfast before walking from their cave dwelling to the nearby town. Kubo provides for the family by telling stories. In one of the best scenes in the movie, he pulls out origami paper and his samisen (the same one that his mother held), and begins telling a thrilling story that captures the imagination of the town. When he plays and speak, the paper floats into the air and folds itself becoming a spider, a chicken, and a brave samurai. In the interest of the review, Yada yada yada, Kubo and his magical friends (a Monkey, and a Beetle) have to go on a magical journey to get three magical items to stop the villainous Moon King.

Kubo and the Two Strings was made by the same people as Coraline (wonderful!) and The Boxtrolls (terribly disappointing!). Kubo falls into the same trap as The Boxtrolls; they put too much CGI on top of the beautiful miniatures. What’s the point of the stop motion if I can’t tell what it is? In fact, a coworker of mine thought it was a CGI movie.

The thing about claymation and stop motion animation is that there is something unique about the texture. It’s a good thing to see that they are models. You never lose sight of the fact that what you are watching is a construct so it’s like you are being told a story (rather than have the fantasy that you are being transported to another world). There is a behind the scenes sequence during the credits; it shows the animators working on a large model. The film speeds up and the monster comes to life and interacts with the artists. It really gives an indication of the scale of the movie that would’ve otherwise been lost. There are other super cool behind the scenes clips on YouTube. One explains that these Eyeball creatures were made out of lights and thin metal (to create a really cool effect) and the motion was mapped to the rolling of a bowling ball. But, I ask, what’s the point? It feels kinda weird to ask but, what’s the point of going through all this work when the CGI flattens all of the absurdly detailed models. Another side effect of having so much CGI, is that there are jarring moments when the puppetry becomes the focal point of a scene.

In the case of Kubo, all of the animation is super smooth until you get to this old woman. Her really exaggerated facial expressions are jarring because one second she has squinting eyes and the next instant her mouth and eyes are totally open. The transition between the two looked like something of a blur. It didn’t feel like it fit with the rest of the movie. And, speaking of the feel of the movie, I wasn’t getting a good sense of space.

Let’s compare Kubo to Coraline. If you’ve never seen Coraline, it’s set in and around a pink mansion. In each of the scenes and in each of the rooms, you really get a sense of the world. The rooms are distinct enough that they stand on their own but they form a cohesive world and experience. In Kubo, we start off pretty good. We see his cave-home and how it connects to the village. Before too long, we cut to a snowstorm in “the badlands.” All we can see is white snow blowing about. We don’t know where we are in relation to the village nor do we even get the sense that it’s cold. Then we’re transported to a cavern, and then a forest, and then the “endless lake”? Sure they show transitions between the settings to connect them (aside from the initial cut to the badlands) but the sense of cohesion is missing.

The last point I’d like to make about Kubo is that I was disappointed by the general lack of music, or at least the role of music wasn’t what I was looking forward to. I mean, it’s called Kubo and the Two Strings, like two strings of a samisen (the music instrument that he plays). From the looks of the trailer, I thought he was going to be doing all sorts of magic with it. His instrument would be his magic wand, if you will. But, that wasn’t quite the case. He plays his samisen but it isn’t required to do magic. Some of my favorite parts of the movie focused on him playing but they were few and far between.

Overall, if you want to watch a really good stop-motion movie watch Coraline. If you’ve seen Coraline before, go watch it again. There were sequences in Kubo that that I really enjoyed but they didn’t stave off the disappointment I felt from the overuse of CGI, the lack of a sense of space, and the lack of music. If you are a big fan of stop motion animation, maybe I’d say give it a go (at a matinee at most) if for no other reason than see how it compares to Coraline and Nightmare Before Christmas. But then again, if you’re that big a fan of stop motion animation, you’ve probably already seen Kubo.

Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on stop motion animation? For the longest time, I didn’t like it but I’m seriously warming up to it.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Written and Directed by Jonathan Lynn. Also written by John Landis (story). Starring Eileen Brennan (Mrs. Peacock), Tim Curry (Wadsworth), Christopher Lloyd (Professor Plum), and Madeline Kahn (Mrs. White).

Bottom line: Clue is one of the best movies based on a board game...

For those who have not had the pleasure of playing the board game Clue, let me give a brief overview. A body was found in a mansion. The players have to explore the mansion, picking up clues along the way, and determine the identity of the murderer (Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard, Mrs. White, etc.), the murder weapon (gun, knife, candlestick, etc.) and where the murder took place (library, study, kitchen, etc.).

We open to a dark night, as a car approaches a mansion. A butler named Wadsworth (Curry) steps out of the car and throws some bones to two large guard dogs. He starts to head inside but then stops, slowly looks down towards his shoe and then to the dogs with irritation. He stepped in dog poop. That’s comedy gold, am-I-right? Now, we slowly but surely meet the rest of the cast who are given aliases to protect their identity. Wadsworth had summoned the group together to confront Mr. Body, who had been blackmailing each of the characters. Mr. Body responds by giving each character a weapon (the same ones from the game) and states that unless someone kills Wadsworth, their secrets will be exposed. Someone is murdered and the characters have to find out who did it, where and with what. The movie is a perfectly adequate adaptation of the elements of the game.

Normally, I’m not the biggest fan of silly humor and Clue is pretty darn silly. Like having Wadsworth step in dog poop and then having each of the characters smell the air and check their shoes when he is around. But, for some reason, I don’t mind it here. That is, I don’t mind it as much as I normally would. Maybe I give it some slack because it’s based off of a board game. It doesn’t take itself too seriously like some board game-based movies- I’m lookin’ at you, Battleship. Maybe it fills my goofy comedy quota. In any case, because of the type of humor (even though I let it slide) Clue is one of those movies that I can only really see once every couple years.

I do find some of the 80’s centered jokes amusing though. At some point, someone says, “It’s Hoover on the phone for you.”
“Why would the FBI director be on your phone?”
“He’s on everyone else’s, why should mine be any different?”
Zing! Now, I don’t really know anything about Hoover but I get the idea and it’s kinda funny. You know, as far as it goes.

One of the neat parts about the movie is that when it appeared, one of three endings was played at the theaters. When you watch it now, at the end of the movie, comes a card that reads, “That’s how it could’ve happened. But how about this?” That gives a good indication of the light tone of the movie.

Overall, I’d recommend Clue if you’re in the mood for something silly. I kinda put it in the same family as Austin Powers and I’m sure just about everyone has seen Austin Powers a dozen times. So, if you want that sort of experience but something a little new, check out Clue. Oh and it has Tim Curry and Christopher Lloyd which is pretty cool, you know?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Suicide Squad

Written and directed by David Ayer. Starring Will Smith (Deadshot), Jared Leto (Joker), Margo Robbie (Harley Quinn).

Bottom line: Suicide Squad was mediocre at best but more so disappointing because of its potential but, at the same time, it doesn’t quite deserve all the hate it is getting.

In the superhero world which has Batman and Superman, what if we were able to convince supervillains - like Joker’s girlfriend, Harley Quinn (Robbie) and the world’s top assassin Deadshot (Smith) - to fight for good? That’s the premise of Suicide Squad. It sounds like fun. Who doesn’t love a good group of anti-heroes? And can you get any better than comic book anti-heroes? Unfortunately, terrible writing and poor decisions spell doom for this potentially fun superhero flick.

The movie opens to the music of The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun”. We see an intimidating high security prison so, I suppose, we’re to assume that there are some pretty mean characters being housed here. We meet our first inmate, Deadshot (Smith), and watch his interaction with a sadistic guard. Aside from the fact that Deadshot is in a prison, we aren’t really given any reason why he’s a villain. Never mind the fact that this is Will Smith we’re talking about. When is he really ever a bad guy? A Bad Boy, maybe, but not a bad guy.

We then cut over to meet Harley Quinn (Robbie). Grace’s rendition of “You Don’t Own Me” plays as we see Quinn lounging about her cell that sits in the middle of a heavily guarded room. The same sadistic guard approaches her and flirts with the supervillain. The bars on her cell are electrified, throwing her to her back into a daze. We cut to a flashback of the guards (led by the sadistic one) force feeding the crying Quinn and even taking a selfie with her while she is bound. Again, we might have some association with Harley Quinn (being the significant other to the Clown Prince of Crime) but we don’t know that she’s a villain. We continue to meet other people but you get the idea…

The Suicide Squad, as we learn, is the brainchild of a stone cold military woman. She opens a binder labeled “Top Secret” and proceeds to introduce each member. Each of the what, 5 or 6 people, have a several minute expository clip. It begins with a still shot of a given character which has their name and some interesting facts about them. It’s a tired method of introducing characters and, man, does it take up a lot of time. We’re like 20 minutes into the movie it feels like and we haven’t even assembled the team! It’s almost like we sat through a promotional short film for the actual movie. I’d kinda prefer if that were the case because we might be able to have a better movie in a year or two.

The most painful part about Suicide Squad, and I mentioned this in the bottom-line, is that there was so much potential. Leaving the theatre, I kinda wanted to go and see it again because, maybe, it would be different. That’s a sign of a healthy relationship, am I right? Save yourself the time and money and pass on Suicide Squad at least in terms of a theater visit. I’d recommend watching one of the Avengers movies if you want a comic book action movie, or maybe Dark Knight if you want a darker comic book movie with a lot of action. Now I’ve got a few bones to pick so mind yourself of spoilers.

There are so many things about Suicide Squad (both big and small) that don’t work. One thing, as I mentioned, is the team introductory montage. It’s unnecessarily drawn out and it bogs down the rest of the movie. Now, at one point, the story’s main villain attacks (I’ll keep it vague to protect against spoilers). The main military guy who leads the squad knows what happened. Eventually, Will Smith confronts him and says, “You know what happened. Tell us.” So the military guy proceeds to tell them (and us) what happened. Meanwhile, we watch it happen again. We saw it the first know, like, when it happened. Why are you wasting precious minutes actually recycling footage? I mean, sure, there’s that film making adage “show don’t tell” but, guys, I don’t think this is what it means.

Even down to the main plot of the movie - so and so is trying to destroy the world - feels tired. You’re doing something wrong if “the world is going to end” feels dull. Just because they live in a world with Batman and Superman, doesn’t mean that there are different fish to fry (not bigger but different). The lame plot is, perhaps, just an indication or symptom of Suicide Squad’s biggest offender: the writing.

The actors do a fine job with what they’re given but they aren’t given much. The character development is nigh non-existent. We only get a few moments where we see the potential of Harley’s character. We see glimpses of her relationship with the Joker (Leto) and her feelings but they don’t go anywhere.

In the case of Deadshot, just having bits of dialog to show that he loves his daughter isn’t character development. He’s the highest paid assassin in the world (and along with that, I’d be surprised if he only killed “bad guys” but the movie doesn’t get into that) and he was captured because his daughter didn’t want him to kill his captor. Did his capture get him to reflect on his life choices? Hardly (or if it did, I wasn’t feelin’ it).

Even El Diablo (Hernandez) had some potential. Back-story-wise, he lost control of his fiery temper (literally) and killed his family. He vowed never to use his powers again. Sweet. I’m always down to see a continuous objector. So, the suicide squad is running through the city, killing bad guys and Deadshot keeps pushing until Diablo goes into a rage. His hands ignite and shoot fire, killing like two-dozen people. Deadshot half apologizes for his antagonism saying, “All [Diablo] needed was a little push”. Disappointed! He’s this big objector for perfectly reasonable reasons but he forgets all of that because he was provoked? I would’ve loved to see El Diablo go without fighting the entire movie or facing the quandary of fighting to save his friends or even dying. “Giving him a little push” feels like a copout.

Whew, I think this gets Suicide Squad out of my system. I’ve been toying with this review for the past week or two. I wasn’t quite sure how much or how little to say. In any case, pass on this and see a good movie. But, if you have seen Suicide Squad, what did you think of it? Have you read any of the comics? I’d be interested in hearing about how closely they followed the comics. Thanks for reading!