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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.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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puella_magi_madoka_magica_the_movie_part_i_the_beginning_story_xlgWell, I promised I would review more anime this year and I’m trying to live up to it. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is an interesting one to talk about because you don’t know what to expect going into it. Most Japanese folklore would be filled with all sorts of spiritual talk of other worlds, monsters and witches so choosing this one is appropriate for the season. In a nutshell, it’s a modern fairy tale but with a darker brush stroke. The premise alone sounds really “out there” on paper but when watching it, you’ll find this one to be a rather unique experience.

A group of girls come across a strange creature that claims to grant a wish in exchange for becoming a magical girl. And because of this new power, they have no choice but to send forth and fight off bizarre witches. And from that, it’s all you really need to give you an idea of what to expect. I do hope I won’t confuse my readers but from what I understand a magical girl uses powers for good while witches are the polar opposite. A basic concept that doesn’t get confusing but the story built around gets more complex as it goes along which is good and holds your interest.

The main character is Madoka, a typical girl that is good nature and such. But what keeps her character from being generic is the dilemma she gets. Without spoiling too much, Madoka has this choice to become one of the powerful girls but keeps putting it off or is interrupted. The pressure gets more to her when some of her friends make that choice but later see its consequences. Knowing that she is normal, we see this constant struggle for making such an ethic choice and wonder how it will turn out.

Madoka is tempted by a strange creature named Kyubey to make a wish in exchange to be a magical girl. Can you say Devil's Advocate?

Madoka is tempted by a strange creature named Kyubey to make a wish in exchange to be a magical girl. Can you say Devil’s Advocate?

As stated, there are consequences to choosing this path of fighting against witches as her friend Sayaka is a good example. She uses her wish to help out a young violinist which leads to some heavy tragedy. Without giving too much away, you sort of expect what will happen but thanks to the old phrase “be careful what you wish for,” the consequence of becoming a magical girl adds another level of tension. Even when you do make a good wish, we know it will backfire in some form. Some of this was in Disney’s Aladdin where our hero wished to be a prince but later realized the idea of being something he isn’t is a punishment toward his actions. But in that movie, the dangling consequence toward it never felt impending that much. Here, we know there is a risk and curious to see how it plays out.

But amidst the darkness, there are some fun characters and good humor. Another magical girl named Kyoko has sort of this Han Solo personality going on that leads to some humorous reactions with the other characters. I find it interesting she tries to have this cool personality and comes off as show off-ish but in a funny way. I strange character trait I found was how she keeps eating in every scene she is in. Unless I missed something, I just find that rather odd but again comedic. Normally a character like this would be smoking cigars or drinking. But here, its candy and apples that she holds in her hands.

One of the magical girls going up against a witch made of candy...trust me, its more scary than it sounds

One of the magical girls going up against a witch made of candy…trust me, its more scary than it sounds

The witches themselves are interesting too. They don’t speak or have much personality but depicted as twisted childhood nightmares coming to life. Even interesting is the style of animation they use to depict these creatures. Normal humans in the world of Madoka look like updated Sailor Moon characters while the monsters have this other type of animation design that gives a more other worldly feel. From monsters made of candy to strange mermaids, it makes the scenes with the witches more frightening and unique to watch.

Now, I could go deeper into the rules of being a magical girl and the remainder of the story but I feel its best you check it out for yourself without me ruining it. However, there are some drawbacks. First off, sensitive viewers might want to watch with caution or at least with a friend. There are some running themes here that are too dark or might upset them. There are some really clever twists and turns here but I fear it might disturb them a little. Keep in mind, this is meant to be a dark fairy tale that doesn’t hold back. Wolf Children is a great example knowing how to balance between light and darkness. Here, its the opposite. We think we are going into a charming world but find it to be paved with black bricks.

Second, this is actually a series but thankfully it was made into two movies. There is a third one that is more of an original story but the first two is really the entire show edited down a bit. I saw the movies instead and from what I read up, they do some animation enhancements that at least give fans a chance to see the movies in a different light. Part I is dubbed Beginnings while Part II is titled Eternal. I’m sure you can find them in DVD stores but as of this blog post, they are on Netflix. And because these two are connected, Part I does end on a cliffhanger. Both movies together clock in around a little over three hours so be prepared for such a binge. The only thing left to say is expect the unexpected because you in for a wild yet powerful ride with this one. Highly recommended, ’nuff said.

Rental Corner: The puzzlement of “Spirited Away”

Disclaimer: The version reviewed for this post was the English-dub and thus much will be referred to on that cut and not the original Japanese cut. Regardless of the translation differences, it doesn’t change my opinion. 

483024-spirited-awayWhile I’m not a fan, Studio Ghibli has made a unique filmography. The majority of their movies deal with the unknown fantasy realm while keeping in tune with nature as seen in My Neighbor Tororo and Princess Mononoke while others like Kiki’s Delivery Service are simple fun. Unfortunately, those mentioned three are the only ones I have seen but I do admire their compassion to keep hand-drawn animated films alive. But of all the movies to make a mark, the one I always hear that is their crown jewel is Spirited Away. For the longest time, I never really had a moving interest to see this one or even a notion to do so. But yet, everyone couldn’t stop talking about it. Heck, it even won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. However, will all this praise and after finally getting the courage to see it for the first time, all the magic and wonder everyone was hyped up on just left me feeling underwhelmed. Needless to say, I don’t hate this movie but I felt more disappointed in the end.

fullwidth.1ea2e172The story is a basic dark fairy tale as little Chihiro is moving from her old home. We never see what this old home or town looks like as we focus on her and the parents already leaving. The father dumbfound of where to go stumbles across a set of ruins he and the mother mistake as an abandoned amusement park. As with most folklore, this takes the trope of blind parents lead to misfortune as they consume food that turns them into pigs (displayed in a rather uncomfortable scene as the eating sounds really got under my skin.)

As it turns out, Chihiro is left in the middle of a place where spirits go to relax and replenish themselves. From what kind of activity or work they do before a day of relaxing, we don’t know. All we know is that spirits at night go to this place just to kick back and relax. But here is one of the biggest concerns I have and it happens to be the setting and placement of this movie. Everyone who has talked about it praised the visuals and where the whole movie is set. So imagine my disappointment when I find out the whole story takes place within an enchanted bathhouse. You heard me right. A bathhouse were odd frogmen greet and seemly normal women (never specified if they are ghosts or creatures in disguise) are to wash the beasts after their long day. Already, I found it more perplexing as to why set the story here.

Url-2Maybe there can be something unique with a simple place like this? Is there a room or two that looks wonderful and glorious? Nope. Its just a bathhouse. Visuals like a man with spider-arms in the boiler room to a grand office that would make Mr. Burns jealous are the only highlights. Its a shame because I admit the animation looks unique with the shadings and shadows when it needs to feel menacing and bright. But I ask of all the places to set a fantasy movie, why this one? When watching the story unfold, I found nothing unique or eye-popping outside of the beastly clients that range from fat turnip creatures in a fundoshi to giant ducks. Charming indeed.

The plot, that is if you call it one, has Chihiro under the servitude of the place’s owner, Yubaba who could is very much a cross between the mythos of Baba Yaga and a bobble head of the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland. Chihiro has to wash and work the place in order to free her parents, who I guess remain in the form of pigs for the remainder of the movie. But most of the time, our focus is placed on the strange imagery that lay within the walls and occupy the screen. Throughout the duration, I felt there was never a single breath to allow us to look about or even take a break from such bizarre scenes like a creepy giant baby or a monster that is covered in sludge. And by the time we get to the most-talked about moment when it does get quiet on a train, all I felt was very fatigued than relaxed.

How can a movie like this pack so much material and yet everyone praise it as “originality”? You could argue its a mesh of traditional fairy tales like Cinderella (girl washes the place under control) while crossing it with traditional Japanese folklore like how dragons represent a river. But most of the time, I found myself predicting and knowing what was going to happen more than letting the story unravel itself. Perhaps being well resourceful of fairy tale tropes, I was really irked to see these “simple things” being praised as genius. These are elements that have been done before but in better tales. Entrapment under a witch like Hansel and Gretel, strange puzzles and clues to solve riddles or curses like in The Snow Queen and even a bit of Beauty and the Beast tossed in as our main girl has to wash off a monster covered in (what I HOPE looks like but I know it isn’t) sludge and mud.

spirited-awayMost of the time, I felt bad for the character Chihiro and all the stuff she goes through. Her character is only reduced to coming across a bizarre animation set piece or shouting dialogue once in a while. Even if she starts off wise like the choice to not to eat the magic food, the rest of movie has her brain taking a back seat as she gets lost in the world of spirits. I understand a place like this is new to her but why not be smart about it? For example, there is a scene when she has to give up her identity to the bathhouse owner in order to work there. Why not give a fake name so your true self can be kept from the clutches of the witch? But no, they explain she can remember her name thanks to a farewell card she got before moving from her old home. She is told by an ally of hers to keep it so she doesn’t loose her name and identity all together. But even that doesn’t pay off in the end. We never go back to the card or even feel like her own personality that she sold off is at risk.

Instead of being amazed by this world, I felt frightened to the point I barley got any sleep after watching it (true story). But even more stranger is the underlying message of how bad prostitution is. And no, this is not something that I’m looking too deep into. I did my research to see if I missed any symbolism prior to this blog post and found it has a possible underlying message on this adult subject. The fact the little girl sacrifices her name in order to gain a new identity so she can work on serving clients. The first one she has to service is dirty from head to toe and in the end she gets really greasy and grimmy after washing the monster off. One of the monsters tries to buy her service in gold. Its all there black and white. Clear as crystal. Now you could argue these are stuble underlying elements but I’m sorry. After being reminded of Deepa Mehta’s Water and reading on an interview with director Hayao Miyazaki himself, I can confirm this is another “double meaning” movie. One to serve as a fantasy for kids and the other to make a statement that really gives me uncomfortable goosebumps.

So yeah, this sounds like I really didn’t have a good time seeing this one. And, yeah its very true. For something that has grand designs, I expected something more like a grand adventure or something bigger. The simplicity of the plot and the over abundance of weirdness really killed the enjoyment. I guess what I expected was this grand and original fairy tale when what I get is more of a patchwork of traditional elements reworked into a small story. I’m okay with that but there was nothing interesting to me with the story or these characters. The more it continued, the more I wanted the film to end. I was done with the twisted place of monsters and its buffet of strange scenes that went on like no end in sight.

To compare, there is a movie that does a similar aspect but far different called Wolf Children. In my view, that is a much better movie because the story fits the simple animation and the characters have simple motives we connect to more. We got the mother Hana who has the challenge to raise her new kids but doesn’t know how. And even if she has no exact information on how to raise half-human and half wolf kids like her’s, Hana is really smart about her choices like debating on consulting a veterinarian or a doctor when one of her kids get sick. And not to mention the kids themselves trying to find a place in the world while one wants to be with nature while the other wants to be more social and open with the world. My god, why isn’t that movie getting more attention as opposed to the crazy roller coaster I had to endure?
maxresdefaultI feel like Spirited Away was created more for the crazy and insane visuals and I’m sure a lot of them will be implanted in my brain for a while. But sadly, this was not a case when I thought words got perfectly married with the animation. I understand many of you are rather upset at this point to hear my underwhelming and disappointing thoughts but no matter how much I wanted to enjoy this movie, I felt like I was getting nothing in return. An episode of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller gave more to offer than this two hour “epic” of unfocused insanity.

I am sorry. Very, very, very sorry. Deeply sorry. Sorry that I feel very indifferent to those who have a higher opinion about this movie than I do. Sorry for those who see this as a sacred cow as I walk by and question why. Sorry that I couldn’t get into a film that boasts grand images but yet has a very disappointing plot. Sorry that a good movie like this just didn’t amaze me as you did.

Spirited Away is a not a bad movie. It is just one that didn’t get my interest that much. This is a common thing that has happened once before when I had to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon during a college course on Asian Cinema. All I saw in my view were sword fights, balancing acts on trees and a underwhelming story of past fairy tale tropes clogged together to make an original story with similar beats. Let me tell you after watching that “martial arts classic,” I was furious see a movie that everyone praised gave me nothing in return aside from imagery that belonged in a Cirque Du Soleil performance. On the other hand, perhaps history has a way of repeating itself…

Rental Corner: “Wolf Children” is more than what it seems

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Hana holds her two “Wolf Children” in one of the most beautifully done anime to date

“Wolf Children” is very much a movie that proves what is missing in today’s animated venues. Not just originality but subtly placed messages of deeper meaning. On the surface, it seems like a typical “coming of age” story but that’s only scrapping the surface. I’d go as far to say its more compelling and dynamic than “My Neighbor Tortoro” or if not, at least on par with its mystical wonder and multiple morals that can give viewers their own interpretation of what this movie is about and what its trying to say. But yet, it all connects and gives something everyone wants in the end.

The story concerns a young college student named Hana who falls in love with a new student. But when he tells her the secret that he is a werewolf, she looks past the fur and fangs and sees him as who he is; someone to love. No sooner they have two children and upon unfortunate fate, her lover gets killed while giving into his animal instincts. Leaving behind their two kids who can shape shift into wolves at any given will, Hana finds that being a mother to her strange children is not easy at it appears. But with a bit of luck, she stays every step of the way to make sure they are given the care and love of a mother but then things get harder when they have to learn exactly who they truly are and how they fit in the world.

I should probably talk about the small elephant in the room at this point. Some might be turned off by the questionable nature of “Wolf Children” as the main character develops a son and daughter with a half-human/half-wolf. However, this is only for the first 15 minutes of the movie and if you can get past that, things really get rolling when Hana has to deal with how to raise her canine children. This element didn’t bother me that much seeing this is a Japanese anime and I took it as more of a modern day fair tale as well as the popular mythos of werewolves and kitsune tales. But I probably should address some viewers might take this as a form of bestiality and I can see why. But they never show anything explicit or heavily imply seeing Hana’s lover can form between human and wolf. Some sensitives might be bothered by this so this is just a fair warning.

But after that, the story becomes a cross between a coming of age fable and one about motherhood as well. Hana’s kids Yuki and Ame have some interesting scenes that range from basic cuteness to elements never questioned in some animated films. Like the idea of finding where you truly belong or how to accept what you are and try to balance that. Or even the choice being what you want while struggling against what others think. Yeah, these are elements done before like in Disney’s The Little Mermaid but I feel they are executed better here. It knows when to have its cute and moments of awe before delving into dramatic tension.

On such example is Ame wondering what he should be in life. At first he is unsure but he grows an appreciation of the forest more than living a normal life. This works best because we see development of that choice over time. At first, Ame is frightened of the wide world and its things but then begins to understand the value of nature so well that he wants to live in it. Even his sister Yuki starts to understand the hardships of trying to be normal as she tries to hide her secret from classmates and even the new kid who seems suspicious of her odd actions like avoiding him at every angle. Yuki wants to be a person but knows her animal instincts can be dangerous or even risk relationships with her friends. So is it best to chose the life of an animal or the life of a person? “Wolf Children” brings this in different perspectives with Ame trying to break from his life with people to be more of a wolf while Yuki wants to distance her animal life to be a normal person. Never have a seen a movie that presents this perspective in two different ways. And considering we spend so much time with their progression from child to adult, we feel like we want to see them make the right choice they feel best fits them in the end.

But what holds this movie together is their mother Hana. We see her difficulties trying to raise her unique kids while also trying to be a mother they can depend on. One notable scene is when Yuki gets ill and she has a hard time deciding if she should consult the hospital or the vets for help. Its a humorous but very smart scene. Hana doesn’t treat her kids like the animals they can transform into but there are times when she questions the appropriate time to raise them like children and sometimes like a zoologist. Regardless, she sees them as her own despite the fur and fangs. I was even surprised to see how far she would go to protect her kids from the dangers of the world and even give them the life they deserve. Even in the final 30 minutes, she puts her own life on the line. I won’t say how but its a gripping and intense climax that ends satisfying but yet sad at the same time.

The animation in the first half didn’t feel that spectacular to me until the later scenes when Hana moves to the countryside. At that point, it starts to show what it can do removing itself from flat urban designs to beautiful forest backgrounds. The highlight of the movie is the three chasing each other in the snow as the kids delight in having fun for the first time in the winter season as their mother tries to catch up with them. Even through there is little to no shading on the characters or even things like snow, it still feels amazing. Even the score by Takagi Masakatsu powerfully complements the scene with a piece that is fast and powerful but yet has the whimsical charm of John Williams. In fact, the score of this movie is so well done that I’m nearly close to finding a copy of it to listen to. It is that good and rare has there been a musical score to give me joy and goosebumps at the same time while knowing when to play it dramatic and subtle.

And that’s the key word here; subtle. On paper, “Wolf Children” sounds like it has elements that may either turn off viewers or even make them feel its a typical picture with the usual cliches of prejudice and knowing your place. But yet, it goes deeper than that. We get well developed characters, spell-bounding sequences that feel like art pieces coming to life and by the end you feel like Hana did her job well as a mother as both kids go off to become what they truly wish. At the end of the day, you will get something satisfying but yet moving at the same time. Its unlike any anime I’ve seen to date that successfully blends the elements of a fairy tale and realistic elements. Never have I seen a story about the importance of growing up and when its time to let your kids know what is right for them. If you look pass the elements of werewolves and some of its questionable content, there is a truly remarkable picture here that will leave you breathless.