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“Kubo” powerful, emotionally moving and beautiful

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After finally seen it, I have to admit how much I regret passing up “Kubo and the Two Strings” the minute it arrived to theaters. Laika Studios deserves better attention for how impressive their stop-motion animated features are. Even more unique is how they are made for the budget of a simple $60 million. A movie like this almost appears more than that. And yet, much was well spent with great characters, a powerful story and an overall movie-going experience that swept me away. In a sense, I’m tempted to put this on my list of all-time favorite movies. But perhaps, it will in due time once its greatness is more recognized (I’m looking at you Oscars.) I would go as far to say its a great anime (seeing its set in ancient Japan) considering the style and tone does feel like one.

The character of Kubo is highly identifiable. Not because he is a kid, but how imaginative and caring he can be. It’s about as realistic as a typical kid with innocence can get. In the first part of the movie, we get an idea of his surroundings and his limits. How protective he is others and how creative he can be. Gifted with a magic shamisen, Kubo uses this to bring origami to life and tell stories to the local village. A clever way to set up the remainder of the story as Kubo can draft heroic characters and monsters, but sadly stuck on an ending.

His life changes when two witches are after him and has to find three pieces of armor to save him and those around him. Accompanying his journey is a no-nonsense Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed samurai warrior trapped as a humanoid beetle (Matthew McConaughey). And let me tell you, I loved these characters and greatly cared for them. I loved how the Monkey was motherly at times, but knew when to be a fighter and protector. I adored Beetle and how he could provide comic relief for his bad memory as well as his heroic attempts. When one of them was in danger (especially little Kubo), there was a sense of danger and risk that we might loose these heroes. And that’s what I found more intriguing compared to the other summer films this year; there was a sense of care for our characters.

Again, I feel tormented I didn’t see this one sooner to really appreciate its beauty. Watching this was like “Wolf Children,” a movie about growing up and learning its difficulties along the way. To know when to let go and find your place in the universe. That to me is really what this movie was in a nutshell, but more. The lesson at the end is to make your own story and live it. Telling legends are good, but don’t forget to live your tale to the fullest. And even when it ends, those who heard it will remember your story and how important it can be. Few movies this year are able to convey such a heavy message in a unique way.

Thus at the end, I found myself in tears. Tears at the beauty of the animation and the way it concludes. Sometimes, you don’t need a big epic fight to bookend your movie. And that’s something missing from most good vs. evil tales. Without spoiling HOW it ends, violence can defend, but it can’t serve a happy ending in this kind of world. And they way this “alternative” was offered was so powerful and emotional that I had a hard time holding back every tear.

The only thing I do have to nitpick is the use of CGI. To its credit, there are times when it blends perfectly into the environment and obviously animating water in a stop-motion flick is near to impossible. Sometimes the CGI effects can stick out while other times it can blend seamlessly into this colorful world. I even found myself marveling at certain sets and blades of grass wondering what was really there and what was digital. Not to mention there is a great amount of effort and creativity in things like a giant skeleton (which is a big puppet as shown during the end credits) and an array of monsters. Each one feels like they were taken from Japansese folklore in design and poetic movement.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is a movie I can’t recommend enough. It’s up there with “Coraline” as my favorite film from Laika. There is action, humor and plenty of heart. Not a single frame feels wasted and everything feels perfectly paced. The dark moments feel earned, the quiet moments are put in the right spots and when it gets theoretical about topics like death and what lies beyond, it’s executed in a way that is subtle and executable. So much that even little kids won’t have a hard time with the some of the harsher elements because they will be assured their story will live on even at the end. But it breaks my heart to see not many have given this one the love and respect it deserves at the box-office. I beg of you, see this on the big screen. Because if you blink out on this one, you will miss out on a powerful experience.

“Pete’s” dull and generic “Dragon”

dvnxj5nde6cjj-hzmo4lodtu15ulbzdj-largeThere were many things I questioned when watching the 2016 update of “Pete’s Dragon.” I was well aware director David Lowery wanted this take to be far removed from the 1977 musical. Honestly, I don’t blame him. I have a huge soft spot for the original, but will admit it does have flaws. The 1977 version is bloated and too goofy in certain spots. But perhaps, there is where the entertaining aspect came from. As I tried to accept the new version, I found myself at least appreciating it tried, but found myself hard to be engaged with it. Seeing it did get heavy praise from critics, is there something they missed or is there something wrong with me?

The plot for this new version takes the spine of the original and adds more meat to it. Pete (Oakes Fegley) is now a feral child that lost his family and seeks refuge with the green dragon. I give credit due to Fegley’s acting. His performance is going for a wild child take and it does work. But there was something problematic about it to me. For a kid that is lost in the woods for six years and goes “Tarzan,” chances are his vocabulary will either be limited or his speech will be underdeveloped. Having taken up psychology in college, I read up on cases where kids would be treated and lived like animals to the point they act like primitive; most notable is Victor of Aveyron. For if a child like Pete can’t understand what a balloon is or even the purpose of a sandwich, then why have him speak at all?

The reason for his survival is under the wing of a giant dragon he names Elliot. Much like the original, Elliot is big, green and the ability to turn invisible. What’s different this time around is that he’s all CGI and covered in fur. I guess someone had Falkor from NeverEnding Story in mind when designing him, but it goes against the idea of Elliot’s original design. Not only did Don Bluth animate the 1977 version, but he was also modeled after a Chinese dragon in respect for how good they are. There’s a sense of innocence and mischievous personality that feels lost in the new take. Despite the good efforts of WETA Digital, this new Elliot doesn’t have much personality and takes on the feel of a big dog. Again, I know the intent was to make this akin to being cute, but this Elliot was anything but interesting as the story expects us to know his relationship with Pete and not see it develop. I think it would have been wiser to see their relationship much like how Tarzan grew with the apes in 1984’s “Greystoke” instead of just expecting us to accept it.

The new incarnation is also treated to an array of new elements that are either there to distinguish itself or try and improve things. Gone is the fishing town Passamaquoddy, and we get an unnamed town with a logging industry. Bryce Dallas Howard replaces the character of the lighthouse keeper with a forest ranger that takes Pete in and tries to understand his survival. Robert Redford is underused as a man who claims to have seen the same dragon in comparison to the overzealous town drunk Mickey Rooney played. A scheming medicine doctor is replaced with a hunter (Karl Urban) that seeks to capture the dragon. And the list goes on.

As I watched this new version, I kept wondering just how these different elements work or even pay off in this version. Some of it does have a sense of good set up like a subtle environmental message which disappears once it gets introduced. Even character motives are lost in the group showing perhaps this version should have been thought out more. Once Urban’s character captures the dragon, he claims to have big plans when he honestly just spitballs a few ideas and claims to own the dragon. There is no real motive outside of just existing for the sake of being a conflict here. I even hoped there would be more purpose to things added in like the logging company playing a part or even Redford’s character. But most of is minimally used or gets abandoned upon first sight.

In a nutshell, “Pete’s Dragon” tries to be more like the typical fantasy family film without a drop of edge, but falls into an unfortunate trap. Instead of giving characters with interesting motives and despite doing different things, it falls into the category of boy or family gets a unique creature and does something with it. I can’t tell you how many variations I have seen of this story line ranging from “Harry and the Hendersons” to “*batteries not included” to even “D.A.R.Y.L.” It’s hard to tell if director Lowery’s intentions were to pay homage to these kind of movies, but I can say what sets itself apart from those is a lack of darkness. “Pete’s Dragon” plays itself so safe, that you can very much predict what will happen before the end credits roll. And even then, the samples I just mentioned are FAR more creditable than this one.

This one is certainly harder to recommend simply because it feels more like an outline for a “Pete’s Dragon” reboot and less like an actual fleshed out story. I found myself nearly nodding off at times due to the slow pace and had a hard time trying to keep focus for what was meant to be a simple story. I guess kids might be ok with this movie. And yet after the theatrical experience I had, my thoughts are starting to question that. Midway through the movie, a family actually walked out of the theater as wrapped in their arms was a sleeping kid. Even near the trash cans, a little girl was more fascinated with the garbage instead of the “wonder” on the screen. And she was gone right before the end credits even began. I argue that little kids might be bored or even grow tiresome about midway after how slow and plodding things are. If I walked out on this movie, I wouldn’t have regretted it. But my honest regret about this new “Pete’s Dragon” was not walking out on it.

New “Ghostbusters” underwhelms with unfunny humor and dull spirits

ghostbusters2016Prior to seeing Paul Feig’s new film, I read an article from the daughter of Harold Ramis. I enjoyed with delight seeing Violet share moments with her father and how much she appreciated the cult phenomenon he created. There were two parts in that piece that got my attention. One where she goes on to say how disappointing it was to see her dad’s likeness not used for “The Real Ghostbusters” cartoon. To which Harold replied, “It’s fine. …The cartoon is its own thing.The same way you used to ask if the fans knew I wasn’t really Egon? Well, I’m not. It’s a character. There was a different Superman when I was a kid. Things change. ”

The second part that got my attention was near the end when she mentions the backlash of the new Ghostbusters movie with the principal characters gender swapped. At first she was mad, until the negativity came in. In a response, Violet pleaded to stop using the death of her father as a reason to hate the movie. To which I agree. Because a creator is gone and unable to make his vision, doesn’t give reason to use it as a purpose to hate another’s interpretation. Consider this a public service that just because someone decides to make their version, doesn’t mean it must be shunned. Call this contradicting considering my thoughts of the movie to come later, but if you don’t want to see or bother with this movie, then don’t. But when you criticize and claim you saw something before you have seen it, doesn’t give it the satisfaction it deserves. And while I admit this is not a good movie, its not one to really hate over. Because right now, right across from the laptop I am typing at are two copies of the first movie. One on Blu-ray and the other on DVD. They are on my shelf unharmed and untouched. And even if this new movie tries to erase the continuity of the original, it still exists in the minds of those who love it. Now that I am off my soapbox, let’s break into this.

Even as I type this, I feel really bad for saying that I didn’t find myself enjoying Paul Feig’s take. And personally, there’s a lot of factors to blame here. I could point my finger at Sony for how they tried to make another franchise after losing Spider-Man to Marvel Studios. Its quite clear in the advertising and marketing that they want this to be a big thing. But the problem is that the original 1984 film wasn’t destined to be a huge cultural hit. There was no planned franchise at the time. It was like lightening in a bottle. Once it comes it, it makes a strike on the big screen that can’t be duplicated. They sure tried here, but it falls pale in comparison. Even on its own, I can’t help but pick apart certain plot points and things that really bugged me which I talk about later in.

Another problem I could say is the casting, but even that’s not it. These are all really funny and talented people. I’ve seen Melissa McCarthy in movies like The Heat and she can be really funny. Even thought I wasn’t a fan of Bridesmaids, I admit she was the funniest thing in that movie from her twisted attitude and loud personality. But even here, I felt like she was struggling a bit considering the PG-13 tone this movie is mean to have and the relationships with the characters. The only break out was Kate McKinnon who had this mad scientist personality which was delightful to watch. Kate felt way more animated and seemed like she having way more fun. When Kristen Wigg and Melissa are together, there is more banter than playing off each other. Almost like arguing and that’s in part to what the characters do to each other early on. Nothing said to me, “oh, these two are close friends and I can see them getting along.” The performances were sort of dull and not very interesting. To which I personally blame more the script as opposed to the effort going into it.

The big take away is that the cast and crew really wanted to make a good movie, but it feels like they knew nothing worked because how weak the story was. Basically, it does feel like a rehash of the first movie with similar beats. There are differences here and there to keep it far apart from the original, but nothing stands out. For example, in the first movie, the original crew captures their first ghost and immediately they find the business they created booming greatly. Instead here, once they capture their first ghost, our heroines  get an immediate scolding for no reason. We want to root for these underdogs and see them succeed. That’s what made the first film work, because you felt success was on their side. In this new film, reality intervenes and prevents you from enjoying their success. Now they are being told to keep this supernatural stuff under warps and avoid public panic, when clearly its not even sending a panic. That never made any sense to me.

Another thing that bothered me was the constant use of negative male stereotypes. When watching this new take, I barley remember a point when I recall a male character that actually did some good justice for the girls. In a way, I felt more sorry for them to be surrounded by a cavalcade of jerks, morons and (without giving too much away) delirious fanboys. A prime example is Chris Hemsworth who joins in as their secretary and all he does is just act dumb to them. He doesn’t provide any help and just goes about like a buffoon.  It kept aggravating me because I felt like some better use could have been made out of this character and it didn’t. It was a one note joke that went on for way too long.

Without giving too much away, the villain is certainly the most weakest part of the movie. Neil Casey plays this creepy janitor that plans to bring an end to the world and they try to make it fit into this whole message about bullying. But it doesn’t feel blended in right. I feel its due to how there is no justification for the Ghostbusters crew and how unfairly they get treated. All Neil’s character does is go about and try to motivate the plot, but his moments are so little they could have been cut and replaced with something different. The motivation is not big enough to care for as he mucks his way to the big finale which tries way too hard to please.

The finale in particular tries to be overblown with much effects and spooks, but it goes on for too long. Its like they throw one thing after another just to please viewers of old and new with new monsters and appearances by old faces. However, there is no build up to this big climax. Ghosts come out and start to tear up New York like a giant cookie. Even the choice in ghost designs are uninteresting. In the original, they had these abstract and deformed designs that looked other worldly. In the new version, they feel like floating pedestrians crossed with rejected designs from The Haunted Mansion ride.

This new movie really tries to win fans of the old with Easter eggs and even cameos from characters who were in the original film. But it tries way too hard. Its trapped between trying to do something new for a different generation and appease fans of the old. And a good example are these cameos by the stars from the first film. Some I did find a little cute like Annie Potts and maybe Ernie Hudson. But others suffer either from feeling forced or going against what their original characters represented. One in particular plays this scientists that tries to debunk the girls, but the person who plays him doesn’t fit it. It completely goes against what the original role intended from the first film for someone who believes in paranormal activity.

I’m certain this movie might have it fans and I know really well, this will be an easy movie to hate on. But at the end of day, all these cast and crew members wanted to do was make a good movie. However, a troubled script can’t save the day. I feel really bad for not liking this because I wanted to give this new incarnation a chance. I wanted to walk out of the theater and admit I was wrong about the whole affair. Sadly, that is not that day. Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” is so flawed that I found myself being emotionally taken out of the movie a lot. I wanted to accept what was on screen, but nothing clicked. The jokes were unfunny, the effects were not memorable and the overall experience was just dull and boring. I literally sat there in my seat trying to find a good joke throughout the whole affair. In the end, I only laughed three times. So far, this has been a dull crop of summer blockbusters and I keep hoping something will come along to break the dullness. To which I am sad to say “Ghostbusters” didn’t answer the call very well here.

 

P. S. If you are curious about Violet Ramis’ article, click the link below. I really recommend it. It helped me out.

http://splitsider.com/2016/07/on-my-dad-harold-ramis-and-passing-the-ghostbusters-torch-to-a-new-generation-of-fans/

“Jungle Book” marvels with effects and fun

MV5BMTc3NTUzNTI4MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjU0NjU5NzE@._V1_SX640_SY720_The expectations for Jon Favreau’s live-action take of “The Jungle Book” were relatively low. Within the past weeks, I found myself researching and watching as many adaptations under the sun ranging from the 1942 classic with Sabu to Disney’s attempts with the famed 1967 animated classic along with its subsequent live-action take courtesy of Stephen Sommers. At this time, I’m welcome to variety. If a play we know can be re-performed many times with different actors, why not a movie? That’s because there is only one version of that certain take we either grow up on or enjoy. And after seeing the Jungle Book be formed into things like a “Ten Commandments”-style sweeping epic to an Indiana Jones/Tarzan adventure, I’m actually more thankful to see another version take center stage.

Let me get the obvious out of the way. I expected there to be digital effects, but surprised to see how much care was taken to make an actual environment out of it. Truly we are in the day when we can digitally craft a rain-forest from a green screen set. And sadly, it looks convincing. All the while, I felt like I was looking at a full-living and breathing jungle. From watering holes to ancient ruins, it has become apparent that the will to make authentic sets out of a computer and studio space has improved greater than James Cameron’s “Avatar”.

videothumbnail_thejunglebook2016_disney_eb5a3208The upgrades to the characters are a nice welcome. We get more of Mogawii’s wolf family and see how much the pack means to them. There’s even a bigger motive behind why Shere Khan (voiced menacingly by Idris Elba) wants to kill the man-cub other than seeing him as a midnight snack. The reason for this tiger’s means of revenge is simple but does hold weight. It almost reminded me of when Don Ciccio wanted to go after little Vito in “Godfather Part II.” When the threat is young, the villain wants to ax him off when he has the right chance.

The source of the material being used is what nearly bugs me. What we get is a hybrid  of things ranging from the 1967 animated film being the source. However, they were kind enough to add more material from the Kipling novel. Instead of a weightless adventure, we are treated to a poetic coming of age story while looking at the light and dark views of life. Baloo (voiced hilariously by Bill Murray) envisions a carefree lifestyle while others seek to take control and order like Shere Khan or King Louie. The plot element of “man’s red flower” is given a bigger character here. Instead of a random deus ex machina as in the 1967 version, this version gives more breathing room to see how dangerous this thing can be.

jungle-book-2016-posters-mowgli-balooBut, wait you cry! What about the story and performances? Weren’t those the most important thing? Well, notice how I tossed around “1967 version” and “some of Kipling’s text” previously. The plot is basically from the original animated tale with Bagheera trying to convince the little man-cub to return to the village. But instead of neglect, it seems the journey keeps getting interrupted by creatures that want to devour Mogawii or use them for their own measures. I actually think this improves over the other take where the two-dimensional Mogawii from the cartoon was more stubborn and keeps wanting to stay. There is a bigger threat at play in this version as the more Mogwaii stays, the more dangerous things become.

Speaking of which, Neel Sethi is a surprisingly good choice for the little man-cub. Not only is he in-tune with nature, but also innovative. There are times when he uses the means of the jungle for simple tasks almost like a mini-MacGyver. Its a welcome character trait that shows he is clever and intelligent. When it comes to obtaining something like a honey comb, we see how the wheels turn in his head while gathering tools from the world around him. It’s almost like Mogawii sees the jungle as his own resource and not of destruction.

THE JUNGLE BOOK

The other choices in casting is good too. Bill Murray gives a memorable performance as everyone’s favorite jungle bum, Ben Kinglsey presents a powerful voice to the wise panther, Scarlett Johansson is bone-chilling as Kaa and Idris Elba blew me away owning the role of Shere Khan. The only performance I’m a little iffy on is Christopher Walken as King Louie, an extinct ape that acts like he runs a mafia business. Walken does give a fun performance but it just feels weird seeing his likeness on a monkey.

I guess the final thing to ask is did we really need this version in the first place? Well, at times I did get a vibe where it was trying to pay homage to the 1967 animated classic as the opening logo felt designed much like that version and the movie does end with a book-ending shot (literally) of the same book from the animated version. One can argue it could be a remake of the Disney classic, but there were times when I felt like the improvements did work better than the original. And don’t worry, its still there. As long as you have a copy of the old version on DVD or VHS, it won’t fade away. I can’t say this was a necessary version that demanded to be done. However, I’m surprised to say it was a great improvement.

It can be nice to have another variation of a famed classic as long as it gets done right. In the case of Jon Faveau’s version, it’s a welcome entry. Though, I will admit some things do get glanced over like Kaa’s appearance and some character relationships. But for something that has the charm of the 1967 classic and the beautiful cinematography of the 1942 version, this is one jungle I will visit just as much as the original. On a side note, mothers be warned. Some scenes might be too intense for younger viewers considering this is a much darker take as some animals get killed while others come out of battle with minor injury. I’d say kids 5 and up might be fine but anyone younger are better off with the Disney cartoon. At least when they are older, they will be able to accept the darker version a little better. Hell, it worked for me with the Stephen Sommers version.