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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.

“Fury Road” excels expectations

What a lovely film!

What a lovely film!

For not one second did I look at my watch. My eyes were glued to the screen as I saw the adrenaline rush and visual splendor. Critics praised it and it rightfully deserves it. Of all the blockbusters, I wish “Mad Max: Fury Road” came out sooner in an era of cinema when we were desperate for a movie that was rich in atmosphere and grand in scope. No need to worry now. George Miller returns in the director’s chair and delivers the goods giving a satisfying entry. Miller was there from the first film and seeing him return is a delight. He knows how to please audiences of new while delighting fans of old with small cameos from Max’s old car to the outfit he wears. Every frame and every scene doesn’t boring or unsettling.

The plot, however, is so simple that one could debate if its paper thin. A one-armed rebel named Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is on the run to a promised place of green in a rusted gas tanker. Along for the ride is Max (Tom Hardy) who barley says a single paragraph as he joins on. The chemistry is almost akin to a male and female version of Han Solo fighting at each other while working off one another. However, they already know one can’t survive alone in the desolate wasteland and reluctantly trust each other. I like how Furiosa is able to put her own life on the line as much as Max when it comes to saving characters of great importance. Not to mention, her mechanic skills become an interesting character trait later on when she has to teach the survivors aboard how to run the place.

The survivors in question are the wives of bad guy Immortan Joe, who can be described as the Darth Vader of the movie. With a plastic muscular chest covering his frail body and buck-teeth oxygen mask, he stops at nothing to see his property in his hand. The menace Hugh Keays-Byrne gives is memorable as each action he creates shows how much dominance  he posses on the world. Joe’s design is so iconic it matches the personality of the character with such a powerful presence covering a weak body.

“Fury Road” is a visual wonder taking the vast dune desert and turning it into a Salvador Dali painting. One minute, we trek into a sandstorm that looks right out of a level of Hell and then nightfall seems peaceful but still has that menace. It complements the world of Mad Max as no one can be trusted and those who do are under reluctance or seeking promise to a fortune of nothing. Not since last year’s “Guardians” has there been a movie that combines visual wonder in a summer blockbuster wizz-bang fest of enjoyment.

The biggest surprise for me was not the practical effects and on-set stunt work. But rather Nicholas Hoult as Nux, a boy warrior that seeks to please his master the Immortan Joe but ends up following a different journey. This character is given a story arch almost similar to Golumn from “Lord of the Rings” but end up sympathizing more for his innocence. One minute, he follows his faith from the religion he is brought up on and the next minute questions it. Under all the pale make-up and chapped lips, Hoult gives such a wonderful performance of insanity and tragedy to this character that it makes me wonder where all this was when he performed in “Jack the Giant Slayer.” No doubt, my favorite character this year is Nux.

As said before, CGI effects are used as minimal possible while all the car chases and stunts are done in camera (well, almost after reading an article from Fxguide). Its refreshing to see so many live cars crashing and hunting down one another that each vehicle almost feels like a character itself. It shows how alive the world is as these mechanical monsters ravage the dune sands while trying to go against every obstacle of the land. For all the crazy designs and over the top ideas like a guitarist flamethrower, I never questioned the oddity.

The only flaw of “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the character Max himself. He is present a lot and moves the story along but it feels like more could have been done. With the few lines given, Tom Hardy still makes an impact with his portrayal compared to Mel Gibson’s years ago. But I wish there was more lines and time spent diving into this character’s psych.

Regardless, “Fury Road” is one movie you have to see on the big screen. With much action and visual appeal, this is one movie that will keep you on the edge and give you the money worth. Now, there are points of violence and some intense spots but it never gets too graphic or too unsettling to ruin the fun. People who rent movies like this claim they have seen it. They are dead wrong. A movie is meant to be seen in a theater to appreciate its grand appeal. If you even plan to skip this one and deem it a rental, you have no idea what your missing out on this summer.

Rental Corner: “Million Ways To” be unfunny “In the West”

Just when you thought Family Guy couldn't get more audience insulting....

Just when you thought Family Guy couldn’t get more audience insulting….

Death is not funny. Or at least that’s what “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is trying to counter argue. Let me start by saying that I love dark humor and not a prude that thinks all comedy should be slapstick and pies. I’m welcome to all kinds of comedy be it stupid or sophisticated. But the bottom line is that it has be funny or at least chuckle worthy. I’d go into a history lecture on how comedy must have weight and support to give it a solid punchline but I feel this unfunny, mean-spirited and bloated Seth MacFarlane romp is a fitting example of how not to do a comedy. I went into this movie thinking it wasn’t going to be that bad, however I found myself feeling it was worse than I originally thought it would turn out to be.

Seth not only writes and directs but also stars as the protagonist Albert Stark who lives in a dust hole of a western town that is plagued with cowboy cut-outs, sleazy prostitutes and people dying at the drop of a hat. He’s also a cowardly sheep farmer that has no control over his rampant flock as much as his courage when it comes to a pistol duel. On top of that, his girlfriend thinks he’s such a wimp to the point she runs off with Foy (a twisted mustached Neil Patrick Harris.) To win back her heart, he challenges Foy to a duel and with the help of another gunslinger named Anna (Charlize Theron) Albert trains as good as he can to see he can crack a good shot.

It sounds fine at first until you start to add on the other subplots and story lines that could have been so easily trimmed out but make “Million Ways” unnecessarily bloated. Giovanni Ribisi plays a friend of Albert’s that has a prostitute for a girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) which amounts to nothing but a running joke about how he is a virgin and yet his girl is serving hard customers with her own body. Even unneeded is Liam Neeson as an infamous outlaw that feels more like an extended cameo than as opposed to an actual villain. Apparently, he is Anna’s husband and when he finds out she’s been around Albert, he doesn’t hold back and plans to tear the town to shreds until the sheep header challenges him. In fact, if you cut all of Liam’s scenes you wouldn’t be missing much. When it reaches the 90 minute mark, you think its over but no! They have to add on this pointless plot which didn’t have much of a progression.

The biggest problem I feel with this movie is the character of Albert. He’s annoying and not that interesting. In fact, if you just animated Brain the dog from Family Guy, there wouldn’t be much of a difference between the two characters as they share similar traits. They are losers trying to make out of a dull environment while point out constantly to their friends what is bad about the place they are living in. When Seth was on screen, I didn’t see another character. I kept seeing Brian Griffin. At least Ted worked because Seth’s performance was a voice and the technical work of bring a foul-mouthed teddy bear to live meshed well. Here, he can’t carry the torch of being a leading man and it shows. Once in a while, there can be a nice scene between him and Charlize Theron, but its very fluffed in my opinion. I can see someone like Steve Buscemi or Chris Pine doing the role of a weaselly wimp better but having Seth be the straight man just feels self-absorbed to me.

But hey, maybe the jokes can clear that up? After all, humor is a driving force in comedy as plot is cared little of. That would be the case if there were some actual jokes here. The entire theme of “Million Ways” is that living in the west sucks and that’s all it amounts to. I understand that but the way its delivering these jokes make it unfunny. Characters keep explaining the punchline instead of letting us laugh while they keep repeating previous gags on a repetitive nature. One example is the joke where a man gets his head crushed by a block of ice. The gory execution along makes it horrible but then we cut to the man’s funeral where the reverend mentions how they will fondly have icy drinks in his memory. To which Albert says, “I can’t believe they are using the ice that killed him.” We get the punchline. You don’t have to go out and explain the joke to us. We are not little children. This makes Dumb and Dumber To look sophisticated because at least the Farrelly Brothers knew when to limit themselves.  Even a tasteless shooting gallery joke at the fair with cartoon images of African Americans as the targets cement the desperation here. And as more bodies drop at the tip of a hat, so does our sense of humor. Bystanders fall dead, a corpse gets eaten by wolves and patrons get shot at so frequently that it becomes borderline unbarring to sit through.

I only remember three good jokes that I legitimately laughed at and those three I’m taking with me. One is a joke about currency in the West as a one dollar bill was different back then and two flashback scenes that had a decent payoff. One of them involving a Gilbert Gottfried cameo where he plays Abraham Lincoln that I admit got a good laugh out of me. Compared to the surreal idea of Gilbert being a log cabin President, other cameos like Christopher Lloyd reprising his Doc Brown feel really forced and pointless. I remember Brad Jones and a friend of his talking about this movie in a vlog and mentioning how it would have been funnier if the events of Back to the Future Part III unfolded in this movie. Heck, there’s even a scene when Seth’s character gets away on a train from the bad guys. Wouldn’t it be funnier if it cut to an image of the DeLorean in front of the train right after Liam says “That train will be back” seeing we know what happened to the train at the end of BTTF 3? And that’s just an idea of how much potential is lost here.

My only argument is that Seth is trying to do what Blazing Saddles did for Westerns.  But at least Mel Brooks avoided repetition of saying “living in the west sucks” by giving us a commentary on racism and having characters with a dimension that feel like they were taken out of a western. In a way, “Million Ways” tries to be something akin but tries to do a modern spin which feels out of place. Blazing Saddles was funnier in comparison because it took the period piece setting and really satirized how problematic it was compared to our modern life. Seth’s film is just one joke that is said again and again to the point you would rather dip your head in a bucket of piranhas or spontaneously burst into flames. Because at least that is far more interesting than this dull gulch desert of a picture.