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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 upĀ “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.

Rental Corner: Great visuals, but “Interstellar” underwhelms

matthew_mcconaughey_in_interstellar-wideChristopher Nolan is a man that can transport people to interesting worlds wither it be inside out mind but space might not be one of them. “Interstellar” is a film that clearly has effort behind it and tries so hard to be a serious science fiction film but has so much that either rides against it or contradicts what its doing. For the most part, it does try to make the science elements of traveling through a worm hole appear plausible but at the same time falls into the pits of trying to be a mainstream blockbuster that everyone can accept and understand. And that’s the key phrase, “everyone can accept and understand.” I do admire the concept and some ideas but again the set ups and directions it goes in are not only unoriginal but also feel wasted.

Matthew McConaughey is an everyday farmer named Cooper who gets a series of signs in her daughter’s room that somehow manage him to get access to a NASA site and get involved in a secret mission. Apparently, the world is suffering from a crop blight meaning all vegetation will collapse thanks to a deadly organism. Well, it just so happens Cooper originally worked for NASA and is volunteered to travel into a wormhole to scout for any signs of life.

Sound complex already? Well, they also establish that time is different in space travel as a mere hour turns out to be seven Earth years. And it doesn’t help either when one trip to a planet equals 23 years as the world gets worse and it agricultural society starts to burn away. If that wasn’t enough, we have to deal with a lost crew that went into the wormhole before Cooper’s venture and this one astronaut played by Matt Damon has been waiting to escape back to Earth. And then, Cooper’s daughter getting all grown-up and loosing faith in her father’s return while trying to figure out a way to save the Earth. And while that goes on, I kept looking at the time wondering just how conclude or at least what could have been cut out to make it more effective.

The main problem I constantly had with “Interstellar” is just how clunky and slow the pacing is. For a movie that has so many ideas, it carries too much plot. The conflict between Copper and his daughter was fine enough but then you have to throw in the travel time and progress between the two. I’d be fine with it being a focus of the story that is if it wasn’t buried under so much stuff. I remember reading up that Earth in the movie was set in a future were crops were dependent on the planet’s survival. Without the proper set-up of what time frame, one can easily mistake this as being set in present times. Or at least the movie world of present times where fantasy and science are unlimited.

There is a story there but the movie feels more like it wants to be a visual wonder than a strong story. And in fact, I do like the effort in these strange new worlds and a lot of the special effects. Some concepts like a fifth dimension where one item is used for communication is clever while planets made of elements feel almost uninspired and generic. The crew finds themselves walking on planets of water, ice and at one point desert without any visual flare or spectacle. They treat these new worlds like mundane places rather than look at it with a powerful presence.

The performances do hold up considering the cast of great actors they obtained from Michael Caine to Anne Hathaway. I can’t think of anyone I was really disappointed with as they really try to make this world believable as possible. McConaughey’s character has some depth as a single father that is trying to hold on to hope through her daughter’s promise. Its the usual father and daughter stuff but it can be nice at times to watch. Despite the fact when Cooper’s daughter grows older, we start to question the dynamic between the two as she looses faith in the return of her dad and Cooper is stuck between saving humanity or trying to rekindle her daughter’s spirit.

Perhaps what made me feel so underwhelmed about “Interstellar” lies in the script itself. If there was another re-write, I’m positive elements like a robot with a sassy attitude and aspect of its time frame would have been smoothed out. For a movie that is trying to be a grand experience film like 2001 or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it really sags. We doing even venture into the wormhole until the one hour mark and this movie is already a near 3 hours long. Perhaps if the focus was more on the voyage to the wormhole and less on doomed Earth, the overall experience would have been ok. But something like 2001 differs because the experience was on a thesis; the evolution of humanity and technology. Instead, “Interstellar” pods along with science talk that back fires by the end with one of the most strangest resolutions to saving the Earth I have ever seen in my life. Its a concept so bizarre that I almost laughed at how “topsy-curvy” it appeared.

Another thing I should address is that movie was shot in such a strange way that it must be addressed. Like most of Nolan’s films, it was shot with IMAX cameras giving deeper depth and quality. However, unlike most IMAX releases like Tron Legacy where select scenes are in this huge format, Interstellar jumps frequently from its normal 2:35:1 aspect ratio to its IMAX 1:90:1 ratio. This happens a lot throughout the whole movie as it can cut from an IMAX scene in space to a scene in the normal widescreen ratio. And its not just select sequences but even a single shot that lasts between 10 to 25 seconds and then it will cut automatically to its normal widescreen ratio. This choice really bugs me as it could have been put to better use like have the scenes in space be IMAX but the moments on Earth in a normal ratio. It worked for the Grand Budapest Hotel to present different decades but it doesn’t work when your trying to tell a coherent narrative or at least one that isn’t all over the star chart.