Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Pride L.A.

There is a popular perception that animated movies are pure kid-stuff, designed to lure families to the box office and to generate lucrative marketing tie-ins.  After all, animation pioneer Walt Disney used this formula as the foundation for a financial empire that continues to dominate the entertainment industry today.  Of course, Disney’s films (at least the early ones) were also artistic triumphs, and there have since been numerous others that rival them in stature.  Nevertheless, even the most open-minded critics often tend to join the general public in considering “cartoons” as belonging to a separate-and-unequal category from live-action filmmaking, and often overlook them in any discussion of serious cinema.

This intellectual bias may often be warranted; but occasionally, a film like “Kubo and the Two Strings” comes along to challenge it.  Set in Ancient Japan, it’s the story of a boy who lives with his strangely afflicted mother in a cave by the sea.  Every night, she tells him half-remembered tales of his long-lost Samurai father; every day he spins them into adventurous yarns to entertain the nearby villagers- aided by magic which allows him to manipulate pieces of paper with the music from his shamisen. He is careful, though, to heed his mother’s warning and return home before nightfall, in order to avoid the watchful eye of his grandfather, the Moon King, who wishes to steal him away to his kingdom in the sky.  One day, however, Kubo lingers too long at a village festival, and suddenly finds himself caught up in an adventure of his own- aided by a monkey and a man-sized beetle, with his two terrifying aunts, the Daughters of the Moon, pursuing him every step of the way.

This deceptively simple setup provides the basis for a magnificent visual journey, full of magic, which blurs the lines of reality and challenges us to jump seamlessly between different levels of existence.  This is no small feat, and the fact that we never question it is a testament to the brilliance of its technical execution- the bulk of which was performed using the same basic techniques that took King Kong to the top of the Empire State Building over 80 years ago.  Though some assistance was provided by modern CG technology, most of what we see on the screen was achieved by posing models, one frame at a time, in front of a camera.  This painstaking effort certainly pays off; Kubo’s story comes to life with such palpable reality that the viewer might almost forget to be dazzled by it.

What’s impressive about “Kubo and the Two Strings,” though, is that its story more than lives up to the technical wizardry surrounding it.  Though it evokes the traditional folk tales of Japan, “Kubo” is entirely original, its screenplay written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler from a story by Shannon Tindle.  Even so, as guided by director Travis Knight, it maintains a strong sense of mythological authenticity as it delivers its own version of the classic hero’s journey; the mystical elements which comprise much of the story’s framework are presented as factual conditions of the plot, yet the deeply resonant symbolism they possess- a quality downplayed by most such films aimed at contemporary American audiences- is given equal weight.  Similarly, while the film doesn’t avoid sentimentality, it never manufactures it to generate an unearned emotional response; rather, it allows the story and its characters to provide it, in appropriate doses, when it arises naturally.  As a result, “Kubo” manages to amuse, frighten, touch, and surprise its viewers- whatever age they might be- all the way through to its lovely, delicate, and bravely bittersweet ending.

Of course, there are many other factors contributing to the film’s success.  Its visual design is a marvelous blend of stylization and historical detail, effectively transporting us to the story’s time and place from the very first frames- with the aid of a majestic and immersive score by Dario Marianelli.   As for the voice cast (led by Art Parkinson as the title character and including the likes of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes), it must be mentioned that “Kubo” has drawn some heat for using mostly white actors.  Conroversy aside, those actors deserve credit for their fine work, which plays a big part in making “Kubo” into the special experience it is.

It’s a bit early to start making lists of the year’s best films, but when the time comes, I think it’s a safe bet that “Kubo and the Two Strings” will be on a few of them- anti-animation prejudices notwithstanding.  It fully deserves that honor.  It’s a multi-layered, visually stunning work which tells a powerful story without pandering to its viewers- and a film like that, animated or not, is very rare indeed.

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Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

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Today’s cinema adventure: Snow White and the Huntsman, a visually arresting 2012 feature that reinvents the classic fairy tale as a sword-and-sorcery fantasy with a message of female empowerment. In this version of the familiar story, the Queen is in fact a powerful sorceress who preserves her youth and beauty by draining the energy of young women, and the princess, foretold to be her undoing, is her prisoner; when Snow White escapes, the Queen sends a drunken wastrel to recapture her, but he instead becomes her protector and mentor, helping her to find the heroic force she needs to fulfill her destiny. The story is filled with great ideas, grafting elements of a medieval Arthurian-style quest saga into the Grimm Brothers’ original tale (with a dash of Shakespeare’s Macbeth), shedding insight on the origin and cause of the Queen’s wickedness and turning Snow White from a passive victim who must be validated and saved by a man (or seven) into a self-determining warrior princess who has the power to not only solve her own problems, but step into the traditionally male role of leader and bring the entire kingdom into harmony. Aiding considerably in the realization of these thematic twists is a stunning visual style that draws cinematic influence from Kurosawa and John Boorman’s Excalibur, coupled with a highly imaginative production design (under the supervision of Dominic Watkins) incorporating visual elements from the courtly romantic paintings of such artists as John Waterhouse and overflowing with the creative use of bird imagery. elemental contrasts, and the mystification of nature; of particular note are the costumes created by Colleen Atwood, especially for the Queen, and the magical CG artistry that brings life to the various fantastical settings and creatures- including the dwarfs, who are recognizable, full-scale actors rendered onto the necessarily diminutive bodies, a process that yields remarkable results but which also drew heavy protest and criticism for denying work to actual little people.

It would be nice to say that all this impressive conceptual and technical artistry was the basis for a great final product; but Snow White and the Huntsman, though passable enough as a lightweight summer diversion, fails to generate the kind of excitement and stimulation promised by its ambitious conceit. Director Rupert Sanders does a superb job of combining his various inspirations into a visual style (with the help of cinematographer Greig Frasier), but it seems hollow, lacking in the resonance and meaning required to elevate it beyond the level of a good imitation. The screenplay (by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini) fails to fully explore the possibilities suggested by the ingenious mash-up of sources at the base of their story, instead relying on familiar clichés and giving lip-service to the mythological principles inherent in the material, referencing the symbolic touchstones with all the conviction of marking off items on a checklist; the end result feels like a concept without a real direction, a meandering trip through a hodgepodge of mixed-up fantasy formulas that only pulls itself together into a resolution when it has run out of set-pieces. Likewise disappointing is the musical score by James Newton Howard, serviceable and predictable, providing the standard symphonic accompaniment heard in uncountable fantasy-adventure epics instead of taking advantage of the possibility to try something unorthodox. The acting isn’t horrible, though accents slip and mumbling abounds, but it isn’t really great, either: Charlize Theron, once again cast as a frosty bitch, manages to make us see the underlying pain of the Wicked Queen (which feels as perfunctory and inadequate as the rest of the unrealized story elements), but in the end she delivers a scenery-chewing performance that is, after all, just as over-the-top as we expect it to be; Kristen Stewart succeeds with the sweetness and vulnerability of Snow White, but somehow lacks the kind of strength to make a convincing transition into a force of destiny; Chris Hemsworth, as the roguish bad-boy who serves as secondary hero, comes off the worst, delivering a stilted, lumpish performance as a character that should provide the heart of the film. The rest of the cast all serve their purpose without surprise, providing us with the comfort of familiar stock characters instead of taking advantage of the chance to turn them inside out- a whole slew of missed opportunities in a film already over-filled with them.

That pretty much sums up the problems with Snow White and the Huntsman: despite offering a fresh perspective on its material, it’s a film which squanders its potential, offering new ideas and suggesting thought-provoking implications but delivering, in the end, just the same old Lord of the Rings-flavored conventions that make it so easy to dismiss the fantasy genre as fluff. Don’t get me wrong: I love Lord of the Rings; it’s an incredible piece of work that elevates fantasy to the level of deep, archetypal myth- but it’s already been done, and personally, the only other movie I want to see that feels just like it is the long-awaited version of The Hobbit which finds its way into theatres later this year. With Snow White and the Huntsman, I wanted something crisp and delicious, the exciting taste of a new hybrid flavor; but all this movie provides is yet another poisoned apple.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1735898/

Prometheus (2012)

Today’s cinema adventure: Prometheus, the 2012 sci-fi thriller that marks the return of director Ridley Scott both to the genre and to the film franchise that made his name. A prequel of sorts to his 1979 classic, Alien, it follows the fate of a late-twenty-first-century space expedition which journeys to a distant planet in search of answers to the secret of human origin, revealing (partially) the background of the terrifying race of creatures that inhabited the earlier film and its sequels- but also establishing its own internal mythology, with a plot and a purpose completely independent of its predecessor, and tackling deeper, far-reaching philosophical themes along the way. Indeed, director Scott makes it clear from the very first frames that he has greater ambitions than just making a straightforward science fiction adventure: the opening shot is a direct copy of the one used by Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey– in fact, the entire credits sequence is reminiscent of an important scene from 2001, and throughout Prometheus there are countless echoes- some huge, some tiny- from that venerable masterpiece. This is appropriate enough, given that Scott’s film shares many of the central themes from Kubrick’s landmark opus, such as man’s continuing quest for knowledge and his uneasy relationship with the technology he has created to aid him in that quest; indeed, the central plot (the discovery of artifacts from earth’s ancient past leads to a space mission and a confrontation with the mysteries of our creation) is essentially the same in both films. Scott, however, working from the screenplay by John Spaihts and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, offers his own interpretation of these ideas; his is a much darker vision of our species and its place in the universe, and one which reflects the change in our collective consciousness in the 45 years since Kubrick made his film. In place of Kubrick’s somewhat ironic vision of a future shaped by nuclear age optimism and practicality, we are given a universe more closely resembling the one seen in Scott’s earlier visits to this genre: a place in which human flaws such as ego, greed, hostility, mistrust and duplicity run rampant; and where these qualities not only threaten to undermine the greater purpose but are seen to be shared by the very creative forces that shaped us. Not that Scott gives us a universe without hope- far from it. In Prometheus, hope is arguably the central issue, and holding onto it in the face of bleak nihilism can be seen as the one saving grace of our species- coupled with undying curiosity and armed with the knowledge of what has come before, it can keep us going even when there seems no purpose for doing so. In a way, Prometheus offers us an even more inspiring conclusion than 2001, suggesting that the secret of man’s creation and continuing renewal lies within ourselves, alongside the very seeds of our own destruction- no matter what our origins may be, we are self-determining creatures and not just pawns observing a cosmic waltz in which we may be a mere side effect.

All this conjuring of the spirit of 2001 may be justified by the needs of Scott’s intellectual premise, but it also serves as a means to pay homage to his cinematic influences; the visual and thematic reflections of Kubrick’s film are just the most obvious of his tributes to the works of those who have shaped his own vision, from the overt use of Lawrence of Arabia as an inspiration for one of the central characters to the more subtle nods in the direction of such diverse movies as Citizen Kane and Forbidden Planet. With such a pedigree, it would be nice to say that Prometheus is a worthy successor to the masterworks tagged within it; but despite its lofty goals, it is a film which suffers from the all-too-common malady of formula. The cinematic building blocks so reverently placed by Scott seem to promise a work of intelligence and depth- which, for the most part, he has given us- but as the plot unfolds towards its predictably cataclysmic conclusion, his movie falls into the familiar repetition of patterns we have seen ad infinitum: the characters’ fates can be foreseen from their virtues or flaws in the same way we can tell that the bad girls are going to get offed in a slasher film, pivotal plot elements are introduced with so many red flags we can instantly see where they will lead, and, of course, anyone familiar with the original Alien and its sequels will know from the outset where the story is headed, reducing the entire experience to a detached exercise in answering questions left over from the previous franchise entries. In addition, the level of tension, so expertly built and maintained by Scott in his original film, is here allowed to rise and fall so often and with so little payoff, that by the end we are not so much excited as we are mildly curious to see how things will finally play out. Furthermore, the insistence on maintaining a rigid connection to the concrete realism dictated by its cookie-cutter storyline prohibits the director from diverging from his linear plot into the absract flights of fancy that made 2001 such a groundbreaking work and prevents him from taking his cosmic themes into an esoteric realm where they can be more fully explored.

Don’t get me wrong: by any standards, Prometheus is a well-above-average film, an ambitious labor of love by a director of considerable talent; considering that its development and production history reads like an indictment of all that is wrong with the Hollywood process today, the fact that it offers so much substance along with its profit-minded formulaic plot is a miracle in itself. Scott has always been a director with remarkable gifts, particularly in visual terms, and this film certainly lives up to his reputation; it combines the immediacy of Alien with the elegiac reflection of Blade Runner; and, like both those examples, creates a stunning, immersive world for us to experience. Superbly photographed in 3-D by Dariusz Wolski, Prometheus presents a brilliant blend of its own shrewdly futuristic design and the H.R. Giger-inspired bio-technical look of the original Alien; and, to draw another comparison with 2001, it sets a new standard for special effects, with a look and a feel derived from dedication to the artistic purpose of the whole, not merely from a desire to dazzle us. This accomplishment is achieved, under the supervision of production designer Arthur Max, by a seamless blend of CG, traditional camera trickery, and live action footage, and it yields countless examples of big screen imagery which are surely destined to become iconic. All this technical wizardry is not wasted, notwithstanding the quibbles which mar the film’s narrative: Scott rises to the occasion throughout, creating moments of breathtaking beauty and visceral terror- in fact, the film’s most effective scenes (particularly a medically-themed sequence near the climax) are those which resurrect the creepy, primal body-horror around which the original was based and the fear of which is never far from our minds from the moment the exploration team lands. Aiding him in his struggle to rise above his mundane material is a fine cast which includes superb work from Charlize Theron (proving once again that she is Hollywood’s reigning ice queen), Idris Elba and Guy Pearce; standing out above the rest is the hypnotic Michael Fassbender, who provides further evidence of his substantial talent as the film’s most memorable and enigmatic character; and in the central role, Noomi Rapace makes a convincing transition from idealistic scientist to determined survivor, stirring favorable comparative memories of the franchise’s original heroine, Sigourney Weaver. The one sour performance comes from Logan Marshall-Green, whose hot-shot demeanor and club-rat looks make him not only unconvincing as a world-class scientist but also unlikable as a hero and poorly matched with Rapace’s much more sympathetic personality.

Prometheus has been anticipated as one of the year’s biggest film events, with much hype and secrecy surrounding its content and high expectations for both critical and commercial success. With all that pressure, it is not surprising that it has met, so far, with mixed reaction: hardcore fans of the genre have expressed disappointment with its emphasis on esoteric elements instead of on providing concrete answers to the mysteries it presents- many of which are left unrevealed, begging the development of a sequel despite the insistence of its makers that it is meant to be a stand-alone project- and serious-minded filmgoers have complained (as I did) of the reliance on cliché and formula in a plot which keeps it from fully realizing its higher goals. In the long term, who can really say where it will stand in the estimation of future cinemaphiles? What is certain now is that audiences seem to love it or hate it, which for me has always been the surest sign of artistic success. Summing up my own opinion, I would have to say that I loved it- with reservations. I can’t guarantee that you will share that view, but I can tell you that it’s worth a trip to your local theater to find out for yourself. You may not be satisfied, but you will almost certainly be stimulated and provoked, and isn’t that what art- and cinema in particular- is all about?

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1446714/

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Young Adult (2011)

Today’s cinema adventure: Young Adult, the 2011 feature by writer Diablo Cody (Juno) and director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air).  Charlize Theron stars as Mavis, a hard-drinking thirty-something writer of teen romance novels, who attempts to resolve her fractured emotional life by returning to her small hometown and stealing her former high school sweetheart away from his wife and infant daughter.  Ostensibly a dark comedy, this piece is in fact a character study- and a bleak one- which hinges on the performance of Theron as its central character, and she rises brilliantly to the occasion.  The actress won an Oscar for playing a serial killer in Monster, and she equals that work here with her portrait of another kind of “monster,” an alcoholic whose arrested emotional development has her teetering on the brink of self-destruction, trying to use prom queen tactics in a grown-up world and unconcerned with the havoc she wreaks on the lives of those around her; but, even as Mavis’ downward spiral becomes increasingly embarrassing and her behavior grows more and more hateful, Theron succeeds in capturing the spark of humanity that allows us to see through the affectation and attitude to which she so desperately clings, and makes it possible, if not to sympathize with her, at least to understand her- and, a little unsettlingly, even to relate to her.  Providing a counterpoint to Mavis’ delusional shenanigans is Patton Oswalt, as an old schoolmate (disabled by a savage beating which may have been at least partly her fault) whose ability to see through her façade makes him both an antagonist and an unlikely ally; he delivers an unsentimental performance that keeps the character likeable while still underlining the dysfunctions that affect his own broken life.  Patrick Wilson, as the object of Mavis’ obsessions, is cast once more as the stolid-but-faded golden boy, a part which he fills to a tee- though it would have been nice to see his character laced with a little more of the darkness he has so brilliantly essayed in similar roles (Angels in America, Little Children, Watchmen).  The remainder of the cast is largely relegated to the background, where they serve as foils for the one-woman-show they surround; indeed, one of the film’s most significant characters is the scenery itself, an authentically realized small-town suburbia full of the bland and familiar icons of Middle American life, which provides a constant reminder of the comforting-and-maddening mediocrity from which- or to which- so many of us wish to escape.  As for the work of the film’s masterminds, Cody’s screenplay is full of the kind of edgy hipster irony we have come to expect from her, infusing the dialogue with a double-edged wit that makes us cringe even as we chuckle; and Reitman’s direction displays his easy skill with visual storytelling, effortlessly blending revelatory character detail and thematic reinforcement within the straight-and-steady unfolding of the narrative.  It should be said, however, that Young Adult, though strong on observation, comes up a bit short when it comes to insight; in the end, despite the exposure of numerous key moments in Mavis’ life, we are really no closer to understanding what makes her tick.  Still, perhaps it is wrong to expect easy answers in a story about an alcoholic’s decline; and even though Young Adult  lacks the disarming freshness of Juno or the unexpected emotional resonance of Up in the Air, both its creators deserve considerable praise for making a film brave enough to favor realism over sentiment by refusing to redeem or resolve.  Though there are plenty of genuine laughs here (albeit somewhat morbid ones), this film is not for the squeamish; the rest of us, however, will be refreshed by the rare honesty behind it- and rewarded by the magnificent performance of its leading player, who continues to prove that, as beautiful as she is, it is her talent that makes her a star.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1625346/