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Kubo and the Two Strings – Review

8 Sep

Since it’s foundation, animation company Laika has been behind some of the best animated movies in recent years. Their first three films, Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls, all have very unique stories and designs while also taking an alternative route to how family movies are made and the themes involved. Their latest movie, Kubo and the Two Strings, fits in very well with the rest of their filmography in that it tackles heavy subject matter and also isn’t the kind of happy go lucky animated movie you can expect from companies like DreamWorks. While it is a very alternative kind of family movie, it’s still a beautiful looking movie with great characters and is full of adventure which is what makes fantasy movies like this all about.

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Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a boy growing up secluded from most of civilization in medieval Japan. He provides for his sickly mother by going down from the mountain where he lives and performs shows with his magical origami paper and playing his shamisen. One night, after being in the town after dark, his evil aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara) find him and attempt to bring him back to his evil grandfather, Raiden, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Now on the run, Kubo meets his guardian, a monkey aptly named Monkey (Charlize Theron), who is tough as nails and will do anything to protect the boy. They soon meet Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a man cursed to live in the body of a beetle. Together, Monkey and Beetle aid Kubo on his quest to find the missing armor and sword of his deceased samurai father, which are the only means of defeating the Moon King and securing a safe future.

What really drew me into this movie was the beautiful stop motion animation, which is my absolute favorite form of the art. There something about the otherworldly, yet fluid movement of stop motion that makes it perfect for a fantasy film like this. After seeing Kubo and the Two Strings and reading a little bit about its production, I feel like it’s an absolute miracle it even exists. The patience required to make a feature length stop motion film is far greater than I can even perceive. Kubo and the Two Strings was painstakingly filmed over five years. That’s unbelievable to me, especially someone who doesn’t know the first thing about animating. The result is a beautiful world full of color and darkness, movement and breathtaking stillness. It lives and breathes in its own unique way, and is some of the best animation I’ve seen in a long time.

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While this is a gorgeous movie to look at, the story sometimes faltered for me. The main quest of Kubo and his companions traveling to find the lost armor of Kubo’s father is all well and good, and I was intrigued with it for the most part. My only problem is that the real threat doesn’t make itself known until near the end, and instead it is only talked about. I didn’t need Kubo to confront his enemy, the Moon King, right away, but it would’ve been good if he had more of a presence. On the flip side, Kubo’s ghostly aunts had some really cool scenes, and were probably my favorite part of the movie. If I’m talking about the story, I have to talk about the end. Without spoiling it, the end left me scratching my head. I’ve tried really hard to figure it all out, and I’m pretty sure I did, but I can’t say that my knowing what they were trying to do made the ending better. It all just kind of comes from left field without any warning.

While the story does have its flaws, there’s this mood that pervades throughout the entire movie that really hits you in the feels. For being a family movie, this is a very mature film that deals with mature themes and scenarios. In my opinion, there should be more families like this that don’t rely on cuteness and bright scenery to make a successful film for kids. I feel something like Kubo and the Two Strings is the movie that will provide the younger folk more about the truths of life. There’s a light side to Kubo and the Two Strings, but there’s also this pitch black darkness that sticks with the viewer all the way to the end credits. To put it in the simplest of terms, this is very mature family movie that is full of things for both adults and children to think on.

Kubo and the Two Strings is not a perfect movie, in fact I kind of wanted to like it a little more than I did, but it’s still a very strong and intelligent movie. The animation is out of this world and the content can get a lot heavier and more mature than you might expect. The only problem I can think of is a story that grew a little weak over time and a villain that didn’t make himself known nearly enough. Still, this is a movie that’s good for families of all ages to see. Who doesn’t love a good fantasy adventure?

Final Grade: B+

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Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – Review

14 Sep

There are times when I’m really excited about seeing a movie only to finally watch it and realize it’s garbage. Fortunately, there are also times where movies are better than I expected them to be, no matter how excited I am. Ever since watching the trailer for David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I was set and ready to watch it. Of course, it takes me forever to finally getting around to watching a movie, but I have gotten to it at last. I was really worried that this movie was going to let me down, but luckily it’s a refreshingly gorgeous looking movie with an interesting take on the Bonnie and Clyde type of story.

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Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) and Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) are two young lovers who make their living as thieves. When one particular robbery turns violent, and Officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) is shot by Ruth, Bob puts an end to the shootout and gives himself up, saying he was the one who shot the officer. He does this so Ruth can stay free and give birth to their baby girl, Sylvie (Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith). Years later and as promised through letters to Ruth, Bob escapes from prison and begins making his way back to his family with hopes that they can run away together and start their lives over. What Bob doesn’t realize, however, is that that way of life has become distant from Ruth, who is now dedicated to raising Sylvie. When Bob does finally return to town, he brings with him his dangerous past and a lot of dangerous people.

Like I said before, I was really worried that I was going to hate this movie because I’ve been so excited and set on watching it for a really long time. I do that to myself a lot, but this one met the high bar that I set for it. It’s not only a movie about crime, but also about love, maturing, and finding what is truly important in your life. The film also succeeds at feeling like a sort of western movie, the main characters being thieves on the run. David Lowery also seems to have a keen sense on how to use subtlety and metaphors to make his story even stronger. For example, Casey Afflecks character can be seen as a metaphor for Ruth’s past, a past that’s trying to make its way back into her life, even though she knows it’s time to look forward.

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Watching and listening to this movie is an experience all its own, even if you take out the story. Bradford Young, the cinematographer, is known for using mostly just available light to light a scene, which is not an easy thing to do. There are parts in this movie when Bob and Ruth are walking through fields with the sun shining right into the lens. This lighting makes these scenes feel unearthly, like something you’d fine on the heavenly plane. The music also adds a lot to the movie and follows the same form of subtlety that I mentioned earlier. It’s quiet and atmospheric but still has a Western vibe when the scene is appropriate.

Probably the main draw I had to this movie at first was the cast. As far as actors go, Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, and Ben Foster all stand out as outstanding performers. Casey Affleck actually gave one of my favorite performances as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford. He proves himself more than capable once again in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and that goes the same for Mara and Foster. Rooney Mara nails the role of playing someone at a difficult transitioning point in her life, and you can’t help but sympathize with Foster’s character for trying to be a good person in world that’s easily corruptible.

I can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints didn’t disappoint me. It’s a modern retelling of a classic story that blends genres together that often times couldn’t seem farther apart. Everything from the beautiful cinematography, the ambient score, and excellent performances by the entire cast makes this movie not only an emotional ride, but one hell of an entertaining film. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves.

 

Her – Review

3 Feb

What do you think people would say 50 or 60 years ago if you were to tell them that in the future we would be talking and dating people we met on a crazy invention called the internet? Wouldn’t be even stranger to try to explain that sometimes people don’t even each other before they begin a relationship? We have entered a crazy time in social networking and relationships, where our connectivity is almost crucial to our friends and significant others. Her not only explores this in a way that doesn’t seem like it’s been said a hundred and ten times, and it also provided a more than worthy love story that may arguably be the best since Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

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Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sad and lonely man who works for a company that writes personal letters for other people. Theodore has been avoiding signing the divorce papers from his wife and childhood friend Catherine (Rooney Mara), and as a result has become introverted and uninterested in any kinds of relationships, including rarely seeing his good friend Amy (Amy Adams). One day, Theodore purchases an OS (Scarlett Johansson), or Operating System, that he customizes to have a female voice, and when he learns that this computer is able to think for itself and have an identity the two become friends. The OS names herself Samantha, and her and Theodore begin a romantic relationship. Life seems to finally be going well for him until it becomes apparent that Samantha is learning and evolving in a much faster rate than can ever have been expected.

While Spike Jonze doesn’t have a particularly long filmography, you can’t argue that it isn’t impressive. Films like Adaptation and Being John Malkovich have proven that he is an exceptional film maker, and his background in music videos also shows that he has a good visual style. Now with Her, he shows that he has major talent in the writing department. Jonze deftly mixes his absurdist humor with some real, down to earth human drama. That might sound kind of odd considering what this movie is about and how crazy the storyline is, but I feel like a lot of people could connect with the characters in this movie.

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It really says a lot about the actors in this movie how they are able to build such a great relationship, even when they don’t see each other face to face and don’t even touch in any sort of way. Joaquin Phoenix handles the arc of his character very well and Scarlett Johansson, who only provides her voice for the film, does a great job at making a computer as lovable as the HAL 9000 was feared. Amy Adams also does a good job as Theodore’s documentary film making, hipster friend who plays on the cliches of that demographic in a very funny way. As good as the actors all are, if it wasn’t for Spike Jonze’s incredibly strange screenplay, complete with believable and human dialogue, Her wouldn’t be as great a film as it is.

Most of all, I think, is that I really like what Jonze is trying to say with this movie. It’s a pretty obvious statement on the case of relationships and friendships that have become very impersonal thanks to online social networking, where you don’t even have to be near the person to have a full blown conversation. It’s also a clever look at the future, and the kind of things that may or may not be acceptable if we keep going on the same path that we’re on. Not only is its messages something to listen to, but it was refreshing to see a love story that is different from the ones that come out all the time that pretty much seem to be following the same formula and have the same characters.

Her is a real one of a kind movie that made me so happy once it was over. This isn’t because the movie is especially hilarious and uplifting, because it’s actually a really sad experience. I was happy because it was just so well written, filmed, and acted and that it provided me with a different trip than I’m used to. It is a very absurd movie with an outlandish plot, but if you can get past that you will really appreciate everything about Her.

Side Effects – Review

18 Feb

Steven Soderbergh is one of those film makers that seems to have the ability to dabble in any genre imaginable. His filmography is extensive and seems to be painted in broad strokes. His latest film, and supposedly his last film he will be releasing for theaters, is Side Effects. As a theatrical swan song, I don’t think there is a movie that could be more appropriate to best represent his diverse skills.

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When Emily Taylor’s (Rooney Mara) husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is released from prison after serving four years for insider trading, it is assumed that life will go on for the couple as it did before his incarceration. Not so. Emily finds herself depressed to the point of attempting suicide on multiple occasions. She meets with psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who after consulting her past therapist, Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones), prescribes Emily with a new experimental drug, Ablixa. The drug appears to be working until its side effects tear Emily’s life to shreds. Blame is soon put on Jonathan, who suspects there is more going on with Emily than meets the eye.

About 2/3’s of the reviews that I have read for Side Effects, good or bad, have split the movie up into two separate parts. The first part involves Emily’s struggle with her depression and the prescribing of different drugs until the Ablixa drug is brought to light. This is a very interesting look into the debilitating effects of depression and a filmic debate over the necessity and morality behind prescription drugs. The second half is Jude Law’s show. During this time we see the fall of his character and his attempts to climb out of the mire. The theme of prescription drugs stays strong for this half, but the concrete finger pointing of the companies behind them make this half engaging.

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While four people are shown on the poster, the two main players are Rooney Mara and Jude Law. Both give two of their finest performances. Jude Law, who has recently become one of my favorite actors, gives a very convincing performance that has its moments of subtlety and explosive anger. Mara has proved herself in her career making role as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but shows once again why she should be one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood. Zeta-Jones’ character is unfortunately wasted and has only one or two brief scenes that stand out. Finally, Channing Tatum is considered to be a joke of an actor to many, but I give him credit. Give him the right director and the right script, Tatum is actually a pretty good actor. He’s not great, but talent is definitely evident. He just needs to start going after more mature movies.

This film screams Soderbergh. The screenplay written by Scott Z. Burns, who has collaborated with Soderbergh for The Informant! and Contagion, brings a great layer of drama, crime, and corporate thrills that would make Hitchcock proud. Visually, Side Effects looks great. The use of low angles and depth of field tricks definitely visualizes the mental state of depression. I’ve heard aesthetic comparisons of this film to that of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the most obvious being the very opening shot, which I consider to be a direct homage.

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I really hope that this isn’t Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical release. The film world would be losing a powerhouse film maker that it can’t really afford to go without. He has provided many smart films with different societal messages that can be taken seriously or darkly comic. If this is his last, Side Effects is a great film to go out on. It’s condemnation of big companies, suspicion against legality of drugs, and the interest in different states of mind define his career and proves this film to be one of his bests.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Review

2 Jul

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a long, meticulous, and thrilling novel written by Stieg Larsson filled with incredible characters and twists. Thankfully, the film is given proper justice by film maker extraordinaire, David Fincher, who is responsible for films such as Fight Club, Se7en, and, more recently, The Social Network. Now, this isn’t going to be a comparison between the book and the movie, nor is it of the Swedish and the American film. Instead, I will solely be talking about where this film works wonderfully and the areas of small imperfections.

For Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), life as a journalist may very well be over after being accused of libel by a multi-billionaire. Despite these claims, an old CEO, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), hires Mikael to solve a forty year old mystery concerning the disappearance, and possible murder, of his grandniece, Harriet. Blomkvist is not alone in his investigation, however. Enter Lisbeth Salander, an anti-social hacker savant with a disturbing past, present, and possible future. Together, these two investigators get mixed up in a decades old Vanger family drama that seems impossibly twisted, yet all too real.

This right here is a bold movie. It seems obvious that Fincher didn’t care if people were put off by the disturbing scenes and violence because he had a vision of the story and he was going to tell it the way that he wanted to. I have to respect that. There are so many movies now that are dimmed down in order to appeal to more people. This is not one of those films. In fact, there is one scene in particular that will leave the viewer deeply disturbed for days to come. Kudos to you Fincher and company.

So, yes, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a brutal movie, but make no mistake, it isn’t brutal for no reason. The original novel and now this movie has a particular message that it is trying to get across, and using the unrestrained nature of its violence the message is not only gotten across, but hurled at your face. That being said it is a message about the evils performed against women. Stieg Larsson’s original title for his story was actually “Men Who Hate Women”, which I think is even better than the title now. It’s a difficult truth to accept.

But what about how the film looked? Well, like everything Fincher has ever done, it looks phenomenal. The sets are all perfect, and Hedeby Island is really something to behold in the winter. The movie does a great job at making you feel the scene, which means it really feels cold when its winter and spring really brings warmer relief. This may sound weird, but you have to see the movie to really get what I’m talking about.

Every actor does a great job in this movie, but there is a star making performance here by the now great Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander. This is such a difficult, layered character that an actress has to pull her off just right for it to work and Mara plays the troubled hacker to perfection.

One small complaint that I have is part of  the way that the mystery is unravelled. While reading the book, it’s easy to follow what the characters are doing because it is written out for you. In the movie, you have to watch very closely. A lot of the story involves looking at pictures, investigating websites, and reading emails. I have to admit, making a movie like that and keeping the viewer invested in the mystery is no easy task, and Fincher pulls it off, but it was still hard to really understand what the characters were doing at some points.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is truly an exceptional piece of film making that should go down as a classic. There are very little flaws to be seen here, and that is a rare thing with a story as complex and contrived as this. This film is a slow burn, but the outcome and the characters make the entire two and a half hours worth it. If you haven’t seen this one, go and see it.