[#366Flicks] While my shamisen gently weeps.

kubo-and-the-two-strings

A young boy must go on a quest to retrieve three magical golden items, each one requiring the defeat of a great foe to acquire. He’ll meet mystical characters, use unconventional weapons, and discover new powers to help him along the way. Only once he has all three golden objects will he be able to defeat the magical inhuman being threatening his existence.

BUT ENOUGH ABOUT THE LEGEND OF ZELDA! BOOM GOES THE DYNAMITE!

Kubo and the Two Strings is a stop-motion animated fantasy from Laika, creators of CoralineParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. That’s the long way of saying that it is absolutely beautiful. Every frame is painstakingly detailed and filled with personality and charm. The use of actual models lets the characters have a sense of weight and heft that traditional animation can lack while simultaneously creating more fanciful images and suspension of disbelief than live actors might allow. Each moment of this movie is an artistic and technical achievement.

The story surrounding these great-looking models is also guided by practiced hands. I was sucked into this world immediately and new story elements are metered out with perfect pacing. I was enthralled with folklore-like tales about the evil Moon King, origami come to life, and an anthropomorphized monkey and beetle serving as protectors. Action scenes are as exciting as they are visually stunning. When watching Kubo retrieve the first of the three items I knew for sure that set piece would be the highlight of the movie. I’ll be damned if the movie didn’t top itself later. Moments between the action are filled with fun dialogue and good performances all around.

This movie is rated PG for “thematic elements, scary images, action and peril.” While I certainly don’t like to make anyone cry (usually), I appreciate a kids’ movie that isn’t afraid to have stakes. We all remember where we were when Mufasa died, right? Kubo and the Two Strings is action-packed and boldly melancholy for a movie ostensibly aimed at children. The two sisters who pursue Kubo are quite creepy and unsettling. People do get genuinely hurt during fight scenes. The ending has both the thrill of triumph and the sadness of loss. These aspects elevate the movie from a good kid flick to an all-around solid film.

It looks like Kubo and the Two Strings won’t even make back its budget, and it certainly won’t break even if you consider marketing costs. That is a crying shame because it is one of the most refreshing movies I’ve seen in a long time. Find a theater it’s still playing in and go see it on the big screen while you still can.

(All that said, Matthew McConaughey as a samurai? That’s as silly as casting Matt Damon in a Chinese epic. ….oh.)


Other movies I saw this week (potential minor spoilers):

Don’t Breathe – From the very first shot, this thriller grips you and doesn’t let go. A trio of young burglars invade the home of an old blind veteran only to find that what he lacks in sight, he makes up for in badassery. Essentially a home invasion movie in reverse, our three burglars flee in terror while the veteran stalks them through the shadows. This movie expertly uses sound and darkness to ratchet up the tension. Once things take a turn for the insane by the end, I go with it because the movie has its claws in me. Surprisingly great.

If Not Now – This short film by friend-of-a-friend Tylyn Anson can be found here on YouTube. A young woman trying to fit into the local lesbian scene learns more about gender identities during a short romance with a genderqueer lover. The short runtime results in acting and dialogue that feel a little stiff as things need to move along at an unnaturally efficient clip. That said, I know from experience that bringing even a small film together with any sense of cohesion is no easy feat. This film is shot and edited well and its message is an important one in today’s modern age of evolving gender and sexuality politics. Everyone involved clearly has talent that will hopefully only grow from here.

The Intern – Retiree Robert De Niro is hired as a new intern at Anne Hathaway’s online startup company. I was pleased to see that this scenario doesn’t take the easy route of complaining about “lazy young whippersnappers.” Instead, the lighthearted comedy comes from both the old and new generations happily learning how to work together. The two leads have a solid chemistry which carries the film, even when it takes a sharp left turn out of Fluffy Comedy into Heavy Emotions in the second half. Cute movie overall.

The Danish Girl – Based on a true story, a man in 1926 Copenhagen finds that he is actually a trans woman. (Note: I’ll be using female pronouns from here on out for Eddie Redmayne’s character, since said character is a trans woman. However, the film treats Einar and Lily as two separate people. Feel free to comment on this below.) As she and her wife come to terms with her growing desire to be a woman in all facets of life, a finely crafted drama plays out. There are moments of sheer joy and moments of heartache as others attempt to “cure” her. Redmayne was nominated for an Oscar for this role and deservedly so; he is so incredible here I almost forget his performance in Jupiter Ascending. Alicia Vikander, who plays Redmayne’s wife and did win the Oscar, is equally impressive as she expresses pain, longing, and love while coping with her partner’s journey. Engaging, heartfelt, and real. Watch it.

Creepshow 3 – Ugh. This third installment in the series of horror anthologies features four stories. That’s four too many. The first one’s gimmick gets old immediately, the second one’s payoff isn’t worth the wait, the third one’s twist is given away too early, and the fourth one…I don’t even remember. I apparently stopped taking notes and blacked out as a coping mechanism. Acting is as bad as the writing and cheap production value. These stories are only fit for a low-rent weekly horror show airing on any channel I’m not watching.

Curse Of the Fly – Maybe if we open with a half-naked lady no one will notice there is no actual fly in this movie? This scientist family loves teleporters and refuses to give up on that dream. Struggling to keep the secrets of their experiments and its grotesque mishaps from the authorities and a snooping wife, we start to wonder how far these scientists will go. Less a monster movie and more a thriller about hubris, this collection of characters who are all morally gray acting towards their own ends is actually more engaging to me than either of the first two films. This movie should be the black sheep of the trilogy, but it’s actually my favorite. Accept the limitations of the times this was made in and you’ll find a very competent movie about an innocent stuck among bad people doing bad things.

The Jungle Book – The most recent entry in Disney remaking its animated classics with live actors and selling them to us again. Based on the Rudyard Kipling book, Mowgli is a “man-cub” raised in the jungle by wolves. When human-hating tiger Shere Kahn returns and demands Mowgli’s death, Mowgli must depend on his jungle friends to survive. Also, they sing. While Lord Of the Rings made me realize that a single CG character could be convincing enough to interact with humans, this movie shows me that CG characters are now advanced enough that I’ll believe a whole movie of them with only one human around. Technical wizardry aside, the film is a fun time all around. As I said above, I appreciate a kids’ movie that doesn’t shy away from a touch of real danger and menace. Shere Kahn is definitely frightening, and Mowgli gets his fair share of scrapes and scratches. All in all, this is a really great family adventure. Besides, how can you go wrong with Bill Murray and Christopher Walken in the same film?

This Is Spinal Tap – This mockumentary follows fictional British band Spinal Tap on their 1982 comeback American tour. Featuring debates about how black is totally black, problems with miniature bread, a tiny Stonehenge, and speakers that go to eleven, this movie is wall-to-wall nonsense. Filled with a bunch of very funny people, there are plenty of laughs to be had. The most amazing thing I discovered: Fran Drescher doesn’t have to sound that annoying! She can actually tone it down to sound normal! [EDITOR’S NOTE: Go look at the rating on its IMDB page for the single most subtly-executed joke I have ever seen.]

Ratchet & Clank – I make it a point to see every movie based on a video game. I’ve seen some awful movies because of it. Luckily, this one is okay! This animated flick based on the Insomniac video game franchise has Ratchet, a lombax, and his buddy Clank joining the Galactic Rangers just in time to fend off Dr. Nefarious and his deplanetizer. It’s sufficiently bright and whimsical and features the game’s trademark crazy weapons toward the end. Captain Quark makes me smile, but I’m always partial to the egotistical idiot comedy characters. In the end, it’s spectacularly average, perfectly adequate, and entirely forgettable. Extra points for a solid Wilhelm scream joke.

Tales From the Darkside – One of the other horror anthology movies. Things look halfway decent here. The first story is straightforward, but the mummy and its mayhem look all right and are entertaining. The second story is ridiculous in a morbidly fun way. The third story features a pretty good-looking demon puppet and a decent ending. There is some good stuff in here which adds up to an average experience. Which may not sound like much, but it’s more than can I say about Creepshow 3. Man, five paragraphs later and I’m still mad about that one.

Help! – A cult believes it must ritually sacrifice whoever wears a sacred ring. The current owner of that ring? None other than Beatles drummer Ringo Starr! Because of reasons. Madcap antics ensue involving scientists, Scotland Yard, witty wordplay, and a tank. There are some genuinely funny jokes and sight gags interspersed with the requisite Beatles songs. Whimsical and light, I enjoyed this movie well enough, definitely much more than that trippy Yellow Submarine. At least, without any illicit substances on hand.

Click here for a full list of all the movies I’ve seen so far.

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