Thursday, September 22, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

I assumed that Kubo and the Two Strings is a Japanese made film, but it is not.  It is an American film about Japanese characters.  Going into it, I also assumed that it is computer animated, but I was wrong again.  It is beautifully animated with stop motion and the effect is almost as good as computer animation, although not quite as smooth; there is a hardly noticeable jerkiness to the the movement of the characters.  However, this is the best looking stop motion film I have ever seen.  The quality of the animation is just amazing. 

The Japanese centric story is a mind bender for American audiences.  It is almost a kind of culture shock.

Kudo is a child with magical powers living with his mother.  Both are hiding from the evil Moon King who stole one of Kudo's eyes and wants to kidnap Kudo and steal his other eye.  The Moon King is Kudo's grandfather, and Kudo's mother was one of three sisters, actually witches, who were sent to kill Kudo's father, who is the most powerful Samurai warrior.  Instead Kudo's mother fell in love with Kudo's father and had a child with him.  Later the father goes missing and is presumed killed.  Kudo and his mother are safe in hiding until Kudo is accidentally discovered.  The only way Kudo can survive is to go on a quest to find three pieces of magic armor that would allow him to fight the Moon King.  He is joined on this quest by a couple of very unusual creatures.  One is a talking baboon, and the other is a giant beetle.

This is a beautifully made film.  The story, which is laden with Japanese mysticism, didn't fully resonate with me, but I did find it entertaining.  The thing I like the most of about the movie is how it humanizes Japanese characters.  Americans think of Japanese characters as Samurai or warriors, and I suspect this is how some Japanese see themselves, but here the characters seem genuinely human with heartfelt emotions.

I think that the story is too weird for American children, but I could be wrong about that.  For an adult audience it is a cultural experience.  I managed to catch the movie on the last day it was showing in a small town theater.  I am not surprised that I was the only one in the theater watching it; that's what I expected.  It is a good movie, but it is not the kind of film that would have broad appeal.

Rating: * * *

Kubo and the Two Strings has a  whopping 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

In my original review, I said that Star Wars:  The Force Awakens feels like an imperfect imitation of a Star Wars movie.

Watching Star Wars:  The Force Awakens for the third time has changed my perspective on the movie considerably.  On my third viewing I noticed things I didn't notice before and I feel that I have much better understanding of the film overall.  Its one major flaw is that they tried to put too much stuff in it.  Having so much story means that most of the movie proceeds at frenetic pace.  Transition scenes that would normally occur in a film are simply not there; at times characters seem to jump from one place to another.  But a much bigger problem is that there is far too little explanation.  There is way too much in the movie that should be explained but isn't, making parts of the story feel like plot holes.  It also teases us with many unanswered questions that frustrate the viewer, so I am desperately hoping that the sequels will clear these up.

Unlike the original Star Wars that gave us great characters, Star Wars:  The Force Awakens is very much a plot driven film where the characters are okay but not exceptional.  The first 20 minutes don't work as well for me because the main characters feel flat.   Occasionally both Rey and Finn can be a little grating.  Rey frequently clenches her teeth and has an undercurrent of anger which hints at The Dark Side.  Finn is in the habit of saying stupid things.  Han Solo and Leia Organa feel like echoes of their former selves.  Therefore, the most interesting, deepest and brilliant character of the movie is Kylo Ren.  He is certainly the most conflicted character, and that conflict is what makes him interesting.

It is no wonder that the film has been widely criticized by Star Wars fans.  However, the critics loved it.

Despite the flaws, on my third viewing the movie made more sense and it began to feel like a masterpiece.  It is not only a major technical and artistic achievement, but it is also fantastic storytelling.  Once the action gets going, the film becomes an amazing thrill ride.  

I think that the movie is a masterpiece, but I also think that it is flawed masterpiece that will depend upon Episode VIII to clear things up.  Also the new film will need to improve upon on the characters.  Otherwise, if we get more of the same then it is going to become repetitious and tiring.

Friday, September 9, 2016


If you are looking for a movie to watch this weekend, then look no further.  Although Hell or High Water would be an excellent choice, my first choice would be Sully.  It is hard to image that Clint Eastwood could have made a better film about "The Miracle On the Hudson" or its pilot, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.

On January 15th, 2009. US Airways Flight 1549 Airbus A320-214 took of from New York's LaGuardia airport.  Three minutes into the flight, the plane struck a flock of Canada geese and lost power in both engines.  Four minutes later Captain Sullenberger managed to safely land the plane in the Hudson River.  Fast response by nearby ships and local rescue forces helped save the passengers and crew.

The film focusses heavily on the investigations conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board, which initially tried to blame Captain Sullenberger for not returning the plane to the airport.  Meanwhile, the press and the general public were treating Sullenberger as a hero.  Tom Hanks does a marvelous job playing "Sully" as a man conflicted after the crash.

News stories that gain national attention like this one become part of our national identity.  As a result, we feel connected to these events.  Therefore it is easy to feel connected to the film, just like watching moviess about 9-11.  These kinds of films are moving, and I am glad that Clint Eastwood did such a good job on this one.

Compared to Hell or High Water, which is so negative in its view of America, it is nice to get an uplifting film about an American hero who saved the lives of 155 people just by doing his job to the best of his ability.

Rating:  * * * *

Friday, September 2, 2016

Hell or High Water

The movie Citizen Kane barely qualifies as entertainment, but it is frequently heralded as the greatest film of all time.  Why?  Because the movie has a message, perhaps a political message, about the danger of having too much power.  People love the film for its message, or perhaps for the performance of its actor and director, Orson Wells.

Hell or High Water has an amazing 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  This is no doubt due in part for the good performances by the actors, most notably Jeff Bridges as a crusty old Texas Ranger.  However, I think that main thing driving the good ratings is the movie's overt political message about poverty and the evilness of the banks.  Poverty is referred to as a disease passed on from one generation to the next.  The decaying small town Texan landscape is like another character in this film, which the great cinematography frequently shows us.  We are repeatedly told that the banks are stealing from and trying to cheat the poor.  The movie holds this up as justification for the two brothers robbing a series of banks so that they can save the family farm.  No agenda there.

By the way, I didn't recognize Chris Pine as one of the bank robbers.  This is perhaps an Oscar worthy performance.

In a way this film could be a metaphor for America.   Whether or not future generations regard this as a great film might depend upon how well the message resonates, which I think it will.

My problem with all the lavish praise the movie has received is that the entertainment value of the film is good, but not exceptional.  This is a movie about bad people doing very bad things, which is kind of depressing.  However, the message of the film is thought provoking, which means that there is something special about the movie after all.  It will linger on your thoughts for a very long time.

Rating:  * * * 1/2