Apocalypse Kong

Have you ever heard someone try to excuse a bad movie by calling it a B-movie? Stuff like Snakes on a Plane, Drive Angry, and The Shallows are dollar-store blockbusters dropped into theaters hoping to scoot by on the cheesiness of their premise and/or the corniness of their execution. “Who cares if they’re poorly shot, motivated without interest, have bad acting, and terrible effects? It’s a B-movie!” What a terrible shaming of the wonders of B-movies. People like Roger Corman, Albert Pyun, David Prior, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus didn’t make B-movies as intentional trash, they put their heart and souls into movies with the tiniest of budgets because they loved movies and wanted to entertain audiences. Even something as legendary as Miami Connection was made with an ungodly love of film. Now, imagine if any of those guys were given $185 million and told to make King Kong relevant in 2017?

 

It would’ve been glorious! And to Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment’s credit, they came damn close with Kong: Skull Island. The eighth movie made about the eighth wonder of the world (how convenient!) centers around two government agents (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) in 1973 post-Vietnam War looking to explore the titular island, a mysterious land in the South Pacific that any ship or plane that’s flown near it has disappeared. The two round up  a helicopter squadron (Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann), a war photographer (Brie Larson), and a former British Special Air Service Captain (Tom Hiddleston) to map out the island. Things go smoothly until the warm sunset of the island is interrupted by a 100 foot ape that swats down helicopters like flies. Now stuck on the island with little ammo and little options, including a sketchy longtime island dweller (John C. Reilly), the team must brave the unknown of the island.

 

Despite its massive budget and fully-stocked cast, Kong: Skull Island is without a doubt a B-movie, but a damn good one. The notion to have a King Kong movie set in the backdrop of the end of the Vietnam War is ludicrous, but to repeatedly lift the imagery of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Jurassic Park and mesh that with that backdrop is so ballsy it jumps from hilarious to borderline brilliant. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) is the latest indie director Hollywood plucked from obscurity to handle their franchises for cool creds on Film Twitter (see Colin Trevorrow with Jurassic World or Gareth Edwards with Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story),  but Vogt-Roberts seems know exactly how to merge what studios want and what audiences love. He knows the main focus is pushing out this property and throwing action around him, so he and cinematographer Larry Fong (Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeSuper 8300) decide to put impressive effort into crafting the gorgeous Skull Island with sweeping wide shots of Vietnam and Hawaii and some rather impressive scenes involving bamboo forests and a skull-scattered crater. Not to mention the impressive creature designs of the monsters on the island, some of them blending into the environment for surprise appearances. When the big bad beasts do show up, its hard to get the smile off of one’s face. The merger of 70s post-Nam soldiers trying to shoot down Kong while Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” plays in the background is like a dream scenario you have when you’re stoned listening to old metal records, it’s fantastic. There’s a real sense of adventure from film geeks in Skull Island akin the original Jurassic Park, you’re enthralled by every new monster and set piece the movie throws out.

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Skull Island is a beautiful film, if only Vogt-Roberts made some more time to take in his movie. The pacing is the biggest problem of Skull Island, with almost every second of the movie rushed out to get to the next scene. There’s almost never any room for the scenes to breathe and the creatures of the film just pop up without any sense of danger or build-up. You have John C. Reilly giving a very ominous depiction of the “skull crawlers” expecting them to slither throughout the film until their big reveal at the climax. But then DURING the Reilly exposition, the monsters just show up in a cut scene without any hype or tension to them. Kong’s entrance is impressive as it’s shown in the trailer, but there’s that nagging wish that they could’ve built up his presence just a little bit more, like Peter Jackson did in his King Kong back in 2005. Perhaps it was a studio decision to keep the movie under two hours thinking audiences don’t have the attention span longer than that (unless they have capes and superpowers apparently), but the visuals and the monsters (not to mention the title character) really warrant something longer. Hell, I’d sit through an “extended edition” of Skull Island to stick around this world longer.

 

Perhaps that extended time could be used to flesh out some of these characters. You might’ve noticed I haven’t used any of the film characters’ names when detailing the plot, but that’s because it’s not needed. All of the characters are mostly one-note, not going any deeper than basic stereotypes. Hiddleston’s the charming British one, Larson is the pretty girl in a flattering tank top, Goodman’s the mad scientist, Hawkins is the nerd, Jackson is the stiff military man, Reilly is….well he’s crazy John C. Reilly. But the funny thing is, all of it actually helps the movie. It works because of the actors playing them bring enough charisma and are invested in the world around them that they become likeable. Tom Hiddleston’s cold charm makes him a surprisingly strong leading action man, Brie Larson could spin gold out of lint and does so here, Tony Kebbell and Jason Mitchell are fun to watch as supporting players. Though it’s a real shame to see Samuel L. Jackson back in his “shut up and give me my paycheck” mode of acting despite being given the “avenge my fallen comrades” story arc that propels most of the movie.

All of the faults of Skull Island seemingly fall the wayside if you understand exactly what the movie is: pure schlock with a pure blockbuster budget. But whereas Hollywood has done this before, Skull Island has an enthusiasm and spirit to it that makes the entertaining factors of the movie come front and center. The benefits of being a B-movie is that it can get away with crazy ideas that can be fully developed, almost makes one wish Hollywood would let their blockbusters be a little crazier and less mandated.

3/4 stars

Blaze of Glory

Pop quiz: how do you end a superhero? I’m not talking about killing a superhero, I mean taking a character the world knows and loves and simply saying “alright, show’s over”? How do you send off a figure with so much baggage and so many travels behind him? Regardless of what you come up with, it’s never going to be clean. Whether it’s having him disappear into the sunrise or having him quietly admit his faults with a slow dance, there’s no easy way to drop the curtains on a comic book hero at the movies. And if anyone is the antithesis of easy in the superhero movie universe, it’s most definitely Wolverine. Marvel’s brooding blitzkrieg of rage and self-loathing has been as fused with pop culture in the last two decades as the adamantium that coats his skeleton, so you can imagine that he’s not going away quietly. But just because we’re sad to see Wolverine go, that doesn’t mean he’s leaving unscathed.

Logan’s title star (Hugh Jackman) is now in the year 2029 as a grey-haired lumbering shell of his former self stuck near the border of Mexico driving around drunk prom teens and bridal showers. His claws ache, his healing is practically gone, and he’s only getting by with copious amounts of liquor. He’s also caring for Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who deteriorating mental state causes his telepathy to go haywire unless he’s heavily medicated and monitored by an albino mutant tracker (Stephen Merchant). But then Logan has an unwelcomed passenger; a young girl named Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen) who doesn’t talk much but lets her claws speak for her. It turns out she has a lot in common with Logan, and he has to protect her from a secret organization looking to mass-produce mutant soldiers.

Props go to co-writer/director James Mangold (Walk the Line) for managing to successfully shift Logan from the samurai shuffle of Japan in 2013’s The Wolverine to the dirty, grim, sunsoaked American south of Logan. It would be easy to call Logan more of a Western than a traditional superhero movie, but that depends on your definition of a Western. Logan’s definition of a Western is much closer to the blood-dripping excess of Django Unchained than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. From the opening scene onward, every action scene hits like a sledgehammer to the chest with limbs severed, blood splattering walls, and Logan’s claws visibly piercing the heads of multiple bad guys. It’s glorious overkill, even if it loses some of its fun by the film’s climax and when Mangold has trouble having the camera keep up with the rapid choreography. Not to mention the god awful scenes when Professor X has seizures that causes everyone to become paralyzed and the cameraman to have a stroke. But even amongst the shakey cam are some truly gorgeous shots by cinematographer John Mathieson (Gladiator, X-Men: First Class) and Mangold does capture the emotionally hefty moments throughout. Once the movie slows down and gets to catch its breath, Mangold finally lets the audience see the wheezing, limping man that Logan is and how dire the situation is. That’s when the audience is reminded why this movie is a big deal.

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Unfortunately, the audience has to wait an hour to feel that purpose. Before then, they sit through a surprisingly rushed first half hour where the film’s setting is lazily set-up and characters are awkwardly introduced. The film also enjoys its R-rating with curse words abound and not just from Logan (a cussing Patrick Stewart is a wonderful Patrick Stewart, FYI), but doesn’t leave for any clever dialogue and instead some rushed exposition. The first hour of Logan has its moments and builds the interesting elements of a story, but it’s so rushed and forced that you just want the movie to take its time. It’s almost aimless, but the rest of the 137-minute movie finally starts to tell why Logan is in this predicament. This isn’t just another adventure Logan is reluctant to take on, this is Logan on the verge of death trying to find the tiniest reason to get up in the morning, let alone flex his claws. It’s such an emotional ramp up that you almost think the first half was for a completely different movie. In fact, it’s the comic book elements from the X-23 and Old Man Logan storyline that distract from the emotional core of the movie. You just wish that Logan would stay as far away from the comic books as possible and feel more like its own special salute to this character that Jackman put so much of his time and effort into.

 

Speaking of Jackman, some actors do superhero movies for a multitude of reasons (money, career revitalization, desperate ploys to relevancy). But Jackman has always cared about Wolverine, taking so much time out of his life to make Wolverine a true character more than a toy. And in Logan he takes a bow the way a true actor does, by leaving it all on the screen. Jackman aches and breaks in the role, showing more raw emotion in Wolverine than ever before. Equal parts pain and macho power, Jackman truly understands the development of Wolverine throughout these movies (timelines be damned) as someone who has no more guard left to put up. He truly sends his version of Logan off with proud salute to the character and the fans who’ve stuck by him.

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He also leaves some room for his supporting players. Patrick Stewart is great as always, with a fouler mouth and somehow a kinder soul to Logan. Stewart also says that he’s done with the Xavier character, so it’s nice that he gets to bring a little more aged agitation to the role before he exits stage left. And then there’s Dafne Keen, mostly mute throughout the movie but uses her cold but curious stares (and some expressive eyebrows, by the way) to speak volumes. She’s a good mirror for Logan’s character and gives him the reason for his explosive catharsis, along with being very capable of handling animalistic rage (when her claws come out, she becomes the star). It’s a shame that Stephen Merchant gets wasted here, as someone who could’ve brought some great dark comedy to the movie.

Despite the presence of a cocky Boyd Holbrook (Gone Girl, Narcos) with a gold tooth and robot hand and a slithering Richard E. Grant (Dracula, Corpse Bride) as a sinister experimental doctor, there doesn’t seem to be an intimidating antagonist in the movie. Both characters are more plot motivators to get to Logan’s last stand. There’s no threat in Logan and very little sense of heightened tension. The movie’s action goes 150 mph from the get-go that you wish it was spaced out a little bit more to add more heft and awe to the impressive but, by the end of the movie, routine climax. As much as I enjoy someone’s head getting blown off, it really hits home if its sudden or cleverly built-up. To bring up Django Unchained again, that movie’s shootouts work so well because Tarantino spaces them out so far between each other to build anticipation for it. It’s great that Logan goes all out with its action and when you first see it, it’s absolutely sublime, but there’s a reason you save your special attack on Super Smash Bros. for the last life.

Maybe this is my fault, maybe I succumbed to internet hype machine and expected Logan to be a perfect movie. Or maybe I misread the reviews and the fan hype: Logan is a perfect WOLVERINE movie, but that does not mean it’s a perfect movie, period. Logan is an absolute trainwreck, a speeding, flaming, bloody bullet that’s crash landing is as worthwhile as all the bodies it went through to get there. It goes too fast sometimes, its punches get numbing after a while, and its manic energy is sometimes too much to properly capture. But it’s impossible not to salute Logan for diving head-first into absolute carnage and going all-out with the violence and the gloom. No matter the scars or damage there is to the final product, you take Logan as it is: one last hurrah from one of the most iconic movie characters of the last two decades and the man so utterly committed to that character. Mr. Jackman, we salute you and you blood-soaked knuckles.

3/4 stars

Shyamalan Gives Up

M. Night Shyamalan is a frustrating filmmaker. Part of it is because out of the 11 films he’s directed in 25 years, only two of them could be categorized as “good” and the rest have been bafflingly bad. But the other reason is that, truth be told, M. Night is actually an interesting director. His visual style builds atmosphere at a steady pace and creates mystery without the slightest hint of it being forced. He’s a unique filmmaker, but a godawful screenwriter. Not only does he keep writing the same stiff and overlong dialogue in all of his movies, but his stories only have two functions: ridiculous concepts that never works at all (Lady in the Water, The Visit, After Earth) or interesting ideas with poor execution (The Happening, The Village, Signs, The Last Airbender). It really is sad to see a director with obvious talent be muddled by a bad script, and it’s even worse when it’s the same guy. Since he’s moved away from big budget studio projects and into the arms of low-budget horror guru Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Production, one would think he would have a little less pressure on him and more elbow room to focus on a more well-crafted story…….Nope.

 

Split follows three girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) kidnapped and held captive in an underground bunker. Their captor? Dennis (James McAvoy), an imposing neat freak claiming the girls are meant for something greater. There’s also Patricia (James McAvoy) a composed homely housewife, Hedwig (James McAvoy) a mischievous nine-year-old, and 20 other individuals inhabiting the body of Kevin (James McAvoy) with multiple personality disorder. The girls await the arrival of the 24th personality, an entity called “The Beast” that will use the girl as fodder for feasting unless they find some way to escape.

 

For those keeping track, Split falls into the latter category of “interesting idea with poor execution.” Shyamalan, again the sole writer of the script and story, does his magic of building a creepy and mysterious atmosphere throughout the movie, never trying to over explain the film’s antagonist and keeping his others as simple as possible. He knows the focus of the movie is the mystery and keeping the audience guessing. The problem is, the mystery itself is rather tedious and doesn’t go into anything deeper than mommy issues. Even when “The Beast” makes his appearance, it’s nothing more than McAvoy doing an angry ape impression with some CGI veins added on to make him look scary. Shyamalan doesn’t have the time to make him more compelling or interesting. Any interest in Kevin comes from the detail McAvoy puts into his performance, not the writing itself.

 

That said, Shyamalan’s directing is the best its been since The Village. Thanks to some help from cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (It Follows), Shyamalan’s directing emphasizes the gripping terror of not only being held prisoner, but being taken for a reason that is borderline madness. The way he shoots the underground bunker is also helpful, showing how claustrophobic and hopeless the area of the cold concrete floors and the faded gray and brown walls surrounding our heroines. Shyamalan sees the setting more like purgatory or waiting on Death Row. His typical use of actor close-ups are also effective here, adding to the unease of the situation and waiting for the tension to boil over. Shyamalan never goes for gratuitous violence for shock value, but he builds Kevin to be a ticking time bomb that, before the disappointing reveal of “The Beast,” keeps the audience on the edge of their seat.

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It’s nice to see actors motivated in a Shyamalan movie. McAvoy is a revelation, jumping between the personalities set before him as he remains an intimidating enigma throughout the movie. Even as Hedwig, awkwardly dancing to dubstep music, is scary to watch as you wonder when this unstable maniac is going to snap. His three captives are all fine actors, especially Taylor-Joy (after a fantastic debut in last year’s The Witch) as the final girl in the show. There’s genuine fear in all of their eyes and they don’t over exaggerate the fact that they’re playing teenage girls.

 

The movie mostly coasts in its near-two hour runtime, nothing great but nothing really bad, just something mildly interesting. But then there’s the film’s end credit scene, because even M. Night Shyamalan movies need end credit scene nowadays. The film ends with customers in a diner watching a news reporter about Kevin (referred to as “The Horde”) being on the loose. One of the patrons mentions that she hasn’t heard anything this crazy in nearly 15 years, when some guy in a wheelchair was arrested for committing a serious of crimes. When she can’t remember the name of the guy, the camera pans across the diner countertop and a voice is heard answering the question.

 

“Mr. Glass”

 

Yup, that would be Samuel L. Jackson’s character from Shyamalan’s other great movie, 2000’s Unbreakable. And who is the one who answered this lone diner patron’s question? None other than David Dunn (Bruce Willis) the invincible protagonist of that very same movie, leading to a set-up to the long-desired sequel to Shyamalan’s twist on superhero movies. So, in summation, Split’s entire existence was meant as a pitch for an Unbreakable sequel, a two-hour equivalent to a Marvel post-credits scene that sets up the next movie.

 

To me, this was infuriating. To sit through two hours of buildup, suspense, and character development only so Shyamalan could pitch a sequel to one of his most beloved films. If this is the case and Kevin will be the supposed antagonist to the Unbreakable sequel, he could’ve been easily explained in this supposed sequel instead of wasting the audience’s time in an entire other movie. The more egregious thing about it is that because Kevin’s character isn’t entirely interesting when his origins are finally revealed, he could’ve been explained much better or more succinctly in the Unbreakable sequel instead of wasting time introducing these three girls where two of them won’t be seen again and the survivor not really doing anything to damage or have impact on Kevin.

It’s an insulting cop out for an underwhelming movie, meant to negate whatever flaws Split has and make the audience think the movie is memorable simply for the twist. Sure, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and even Shyamalan’s bad movies are memorable for their twists, but the former two movies are memorable for their characters, the directing, the story, and the journey it takes audiences. Even something like The Happening is hilariously misled enough throughout its runtime to be watchable.

 

Not only does Split itself have an underwhelming ending in general, but the end credits scene feels like a middle finger from Shyamalan telling us that he’d rather crawl back and soil the memory of one of his best movies than attempt to make another original movie. It’s cheap, desperate, and rather sad for a filmmaker that remains one of Hollywood’s few interesting filmmakers. Maybe if Shyamalan took the time to create a more satisfying conclusion or a more interesting lead character, the end of Split would be more tolerable. It’s a simple lesson that applies to film: it’s the journey, not the destination.

1.5 out of 4 stars

The Broken American Girl

 

I found it very fitting that a trailer for the live-action Beauty and the Beast movie played before Jackie, considering that Pablo Larraín’s biopic of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy depicts the former first lady much like the character in Disney’s beloved fairytale. Oh, but I’m not talking about the whimsical, good hearted Belle who sees the good in even the ghastliest creatures. It seems that Mrs. Kennedy has much more in common with the Beast: someone cursed for his own ego, living in a cold and empty palace with a reminder of his woes kept in a case always in his presence. While Mrs. Kennedy was certainly not a furry monster with horns damned by an enchantress’ curse, her wealthy upbringing and glamourous interpretation of life as the First Lady certainly fueled the confidence in her smile. But after a quarter of her husband’s head was blown to bits inches away from her on November 22, 1963, the White House that was her castle became an icy, vacant tomb of what her life was and she couldn’t escape the sorrow of her loss, whether it be the vacant chair in the Oval Office or sitting right next to her husband’s casket mere hours after trying to collect bits of his brains off of a car. But don’t worry, she made sure everyone knew she and her family remained every bit as perfect as she (or the American people) wanted them to be. In a way, Jackie Kennedy believed in beauty in the most beastly time of her life.

This is the balancing act that plays out in Jackie, a grim yet gorgeous character study of an American icon that got the dream and nightmare in the best and worst way. Jackie’s framing device is a journalist (Billy Crudup) interviewing the former First Lady (Natalie Portman) in Hyannis Port, MA for Life magazine in 1963, mere weeks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. During the interview, Jackie is bitter and standoffish while constantly questioning Mr. White’s intentions and notes as she burns through cigarette after cigarette (though doesn’t want her smoking habits in print). While speaking her mind on everything from policies of the First Lady to the legacy of her husband’s presidency, the movie flashes back to various moments in her time at the White House. It shows the poise and grace of Mrs. Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House in early 1962 and the nights she danced to classical music with her charming husband. The main focus of the flashbacks kickoff on that fateful day in Dallas, with Jackie in her iconic pink dress holding her dead husband in her arms while her face and skirt have splashes of his blood on them. Even with her husband dead, she’s already planning a funeral with the same gravitas and pageantry as Abraham Lincoln’s. Surrounded by confidants including brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), longtime friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), and a priest (John Hurt), Jackie tries to comprehend how she wants her husband to be remembered by the public and how to conduct herself after the love of her life is gone and if she ever loved her life at all.

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It would be easy to paint Jackie in the narrative of “grieving widow trying to be strong.” Larraín has that in his film, but it’s such a miniscule part of the story that it goes by nearly unrecognized. Instead, he sees more anger in Jackie than grief. She wants the public to see her shaken demeanor and somber face next to her husband’s coffin as punishment for the immense pressure and scrutiny they put on her and her family, practically blaming the people for JFK’s death (“They put him on ‘Wanted’ posters,” she says before rolling out JFK’s casket off of Air Force One). She’s also angry that after all of the effort to present herself as perfect as porcelain, all she gets in return is a dead husband and kicked out of her presidential palace. At the end of it all, she wonders who she did any of this for: her husband, herself, or the American people? It’s fascinating to see Jackie appear fiercely protective of her husband’s legacy one minute, micromanaging where he’ll be buried and how many horses will be carrying his coffin through Washington D.C., to drunkenly sulking around the White House in old dresses while a vinyl of Camelot plays in the background (because ain’t irony a kick?). It’s questionable as to how much of the scenes are fact or fiction, but Noah Oppenheim’s script is more about the ethics and morals of Jackie’s dilemma and letting the real events inform each decision. The movie as a whole is visually stunning thanks to cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine dimming the colors in the movie with a hint of gray. There’s also a good combination of sweeping wide shots of the barren White House or the JFK funeral procession and closeups of the characters under constant emotional stress, boosted by Mica Levi’s haunting string section in the film’s score. It’s Terrence Malick meets David Fincher, and it works surprisingly well.

But you know why you’re here: Natalie Portman…….HO-LY LORD. Portman is a force as the First Lady, capturing every possible side of Jackie’s personality at the time: the fiercely protective wife demanding the world honor her husband like he was King Midas, the broken-hearted lover grieving over the loss of her Prince Charming, the unsure rich girl on the verge of having the lavish lifestyle taken away from her. The most interesting segments of Portman’s performance is when she questions her own worth and her own direction. She speaks to the priest (in a great performance by Hurt) about wishing she could’ve married a baker or a store owner, questioning if all of the comfort of her life has been worth anything if it could go away so suddenly. Portman has the fragility of Jackie down, but turns that into a jaded form of rage as she tries to control something entirely unstable. Even through her tears, she controls each scene. And then the interview segments the journalist (Crudup, also exceptional) where she continuously snipes about what the American people deserve to hear about the assassination and how she coped with it all. Portman shows the layers of Jackie on full display and masters every single one. While it may not be as complex and disturbed as her Nina Sayers in Black Swan, her performance in Jackie marks another peak for her career and one of the best acting performances of the year. To complement that is a well-rounded cast of supporting performances from Skarsgaard, Hurt, and Crudup all giving ace performances. But this is Portman’s show and she owns it.

Jackie avoids the pitfalls of typical biopics by playing around with the order not only of the scenes, but of its title character. The movie lays out Jackie’s character like pieces of a jumbled puzzle, piecing bits together not exactly in the right order but regardless comes together at the end. When Jackie ends, I felt as if every possible question about Jackie Kennedy Onassis has been answered even if the movie is not a complete look at her life. But maybe that’s what one moment can do to one’s life, as corny as it sounds. After all, it shook an entire country, perhaps even an entire world. Imagine what it did to one person?
4 out of 4 stars

The Art of Stop-Motion Storytelling

Let me say upfront that I adore stop-motion animation. I was raised on Aardman Studios and Robot Chicken, so I’ve always admired the dedication and patience of the makers of stop-motion animation. Sadly, because of the advancement of animation technology and how easy it is to do in comparison, stop-motion has become more and more of a rarity in film. But thank god Laika films (Coraline, Paranorman, The Boxtrolls) is prominent enough to not only keep making movies, but also keep getting better.

Kubo and the Two Strings follows its title character (Art Parkinson), a young boy living in ancient Japan with his mother, playing his magical Shamisen (a three-string guitar) that makes origami paper come to life and perform a story for crowds. It tells the story of Kubo’s father, Hanzo, a legendary samurai who fought great battles but Kubo has never known. It turns out that Kubo’s mother’s family, led by the Moon God Raiden (Ralph Fiennes) and his twin daughters (Rooney Mara), banished Kubo’s mother from the heavens after taking one of Kubo’s eyes as a baby. But the Sisters reach the human world to try to take Kubo’s other eye, so Kubo must look for three items that make up a magical piece of armor in order to fight Raiden. He won’t be alone thanks to the help of a fighting monkey (Charlize Theron) and a former student of Hanzo’s now cursed to appear as a giant beetle (Matthew McConaughey). 

On a technical level alone, Kubo is Laika’s finest film to date. The detail and movement of the stop-motion is beautiful and astonishing. Everything from the action scenes to the origami coming to life to even the wind blowing water off the ocean waves is impressive. Since the film doesn’t take place in too many large cities and the need for set design didn’t need to be entirely detailed, the filmmakers took that as an opportunity to add more realism to the minimal world around Kubo. The film doesn’t use Japanese culture stereotypes, instead finds the core meanings of many modern traditions: dreams, family, imagination, and hope. On paper, it’s a fantasy adventure quest with family values (little hints of Indiana Jones thrown in). But the beauty of the animation (not to mention the gorgeous score by Dario Marianelli) makes it feels so much bigger, almost a bit spiritual.


But even if that’s lost on the audience, the fun is front and center thanks to the voice cast. Art Parkinson isn’t playing the wimpy lost orphan, giving Kubo some genuine charisma along with heartfelt emotion. When he takes on the giant worm monster of the Moon King, it’s easy to believe his fearlessness. Theron well-served as Kubo’s Jiminey Cricket, equally effective in giving out wisdom and droll humor. McConaughey is pitch-perfect as the comedic sidekick, somewhat of a pseudo-riff on the macho hero of fantasy stories. Think Captain Qwark of Ratchet & Clank if his intentions were noble and he had amnesia.

Kubo is certainly the most unique animated movie of the year (for kids at least, what with the release of Sausage Party). It’s not just for its great animation, but for a simple story with an inviting universe around it. Fun, free-spirited and open to all who see it despite its specific culture, Kubo is all about telling stories and legends like the right amount pizazz and heart. There’s no need to blink or worry about missing anything, just sit back and watch the wonder unravel.


Final Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

No Squad Goals

I feel bad for DC fans, I really do. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to know that all of their beloved superheroes and supervillains are owned by Warner Bros. studios, who’ve have promised to give them a cavalcade of cinematic blockbusters about their childhood icons yet clearly don’t care about them beyond their marketability. Earlier this year, they showed that they can take the infinite potential of putting their two biggest superheroes on the same screen together and destroy it in a way as shocking and horrifying as the Hindenburg crash. Now, a mere five months later, they’ve tried to take some of DC’s most menacing bad guys and throw them together for a one-off romp of dastardly fun…and they couldn’t even do that right.
Suicide Squad picks up right where Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice left off (SPOILER ALERT: Superman is dead..maybe..kinda..who cares?) and the US government has immediately gone from mourning the Man of Steel to fearing for the next metahuman attack. Stone cold government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has a plan: assemble a team of imprisoned psychos with special abilities to take on mission too tough for standard soldiers. Said team includes hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), mentally-unstable crime queen Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), sewer-dwelling monster Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), fire-wielding street gangster Diablo (Jay Hernandez), violent goofball Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), vengeful assassin Katana (Karen Fukuhara), and the master of…um..ropes Slipknot (Adam Beach). Led by Col. Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), they must infiltrate Midway City after one of Waller’s original recruits, the witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), goes rogue. But there might be more trouble as Harley’s heartbreaker, The Joker (Jared Leto), is in town looking to reunite with his love.
Whereas Batman v Superman was terrible for having stakes as high as Mt. Everest and blowing it all in the grimmest of fashions, Suicide Squad is bad (not terrible, but bad) because it wastes its own endless possibilities. There are ten characters here ripe for development, and the movie does nearly nothing with them. Sure, Deadshot gets a little daughter for emotional ties, Harley’s got here relationship goals, and Flagg and Enchantress are in a romance (for some reason), but they feel more like motivators for the plot to keep going instead of outlining these characters. Everyone else is nothing but background filler that’s easily expendable. Want proof? Slipknot dies after being in the movie for two scenes…..TWO! The only one who gets the most out of it is Diablo, who gets a tragic backstory of his powers being a gift and curse which is why he’s so reluctant to use them, which doesn’t sound familiar at all (*cough*). On top of poor character and story integration, Suicide Squad also has the misfortune of being a modern WB/DC movie, shot in ugly colors and terrible lighting that make all of these eccentric baddies fade into the muck. It takes a lot of balls to take two of the most colorful villains in comic history and make them underwhelming stencils of their source material, but Suicide Squad pulls it off. There’s also the usual problems: terrible editing, poorly shot action scenes, and a pace so rushed that it’s clear the movie wants to get this all over with as fast as possible.


Now for those DC fanboys who say that this wasn’t made for the average moviegoer and for “fans only,” is this really the story you’re excited for the Suicide Squad to be in: A magical whatever shoots a laser in the sky to unleash something to enslave the world because reasons? Is it a fair trade off for these villains with long history and deep backstory in comics to be completely ignored for the equivalent of a Power Rangers episode? Granted, the comic geek in me is tickled pink to see Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Killer Croc and Captain Boomerang walk into a bar (not a joke) to talk shop, but is that worth two hours and $175 million of Warner Bros. waining movie budget? 
And that’s a shame, because everyone involved seems to be having a ball playing bad guy dress up. Smith is back in standard action hero form, Courtney is the most likable he’s ever been in his film career, Hernandez is peaceful moral center of the madness, and Akinnuoye-Agbaje is the tough guy comic relief. I’m sure it’ll delight focus groups and WB’s PR to know that the best performance in the movie are from the ladies. Davis is the baddest of the bunch and she owns every scene she struts into. Fukuhara is deserved of her own movie as she shows brief vulnerability while being the silent killer of the group. And Robbie..holy lord, is this woman a bonafide movie star. She’s the best part of the movie and may be worth the price of admission alone, sinking her lipstick-smeared teeth into the role and punctuating nearly every scene. There’s a genuine glee radiating from her performance, like she’s playing Marilyn Monroe on speed. Hollywood know owes Robbie an IOU for being the lone spark in this dead battery of an action movie. Oh and about Leto’s Joker, how does it feel to know that nearly a year and a half of media hype was all for a minuscule 10-15 minutes of screen time and an even smaller screen presence? Leto feels like an outline of who the Joker is, only the most easily accessible layer of he rabbit’s hole of madness that is the Clown Prince of Crime.


Everyone and everything in Suicide Squad is another victim of WB’s mad dash to play keep up with Marvel studios and the war of the superhero movies. The victim who got it the worst (besides the fans of course) is writer/director David Ayer (Training Day, Fury), who clearly had a vision for this and wanted to make this the twisted middle finger to bright shiny superhero movies it could’ve been. It’s clear his vision was cut and hacked to death because WB is starting to see how deep into their own grave they’ve dug themselves. Now that people are starting to catch on that superhero movies are starting to be more of the same, the genre needs to take a risk in order to survive. A space western with a giant tree and a talking raccoon? Yes. A foul mouthed douchebag in a red suit and a horrible facial complexion? Sure. A group of costumed weirdos saving the world? Been there, done that, whatever.
Final Verdict: 1.5 out of 4 stars

Going Beyond For Everybody

Despite their warring fanbases and differing approaches to science-fiction, Star Wars and Star Trek actually suffer from a similar problem: they’re incredibly overhyped. Both George Lucas’ intergalactic western and Gene Roddenberry’s space explorers TV show have become so ingrained onto pop culture that fans have glorified both properties as these deep epics of poetry and symbolism. It’s great to see such passion in these properties, but both franchises are mostly just fun space adventures with likeable characters. Like most memorable forms of television and movies, the characters are what people remember and cherish the most (the proof is in how many action figures both properties have sold). Taking those properties and trying to make them overly complex and self-serious has proven to be a bad step for both franchises. Star Wars has the prequels, and Star Trek has The Motion Picture, The Final Frontier, Insurrection and Into Darkness. When both properties know what they are and focus on their characters while keeping the fun, they both thrive. Star Wars has its original trilogy and The Force Awakens while Star Trek has The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, The Undiscovered Country and the 2009 reboot. And now, Trekkies and casual fans alike can add one more to that list.

Star Trek Beyond brings audiences back with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise about three years into their five-year voyage, and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling a little lost (IIIINNNN SPAAAAACE….sorry, had to do it). He has to clear his head fast when a lone alien is rescued by the Federation and asks for the Enterprise to travel to an unknown planet and save her people. Kirk and co. run into the monstrous Krall (Idris Elba) and his swarm of spaceships that strand the crew on the unknown planet. Dr. Bones (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are fighting hurt, Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) try to find out what Krall is after, Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) are taken captive with the rest of the crew, and Scotty (Simon Pegg) meets a mysterious inventor (Sofia Boutella) with a way to help. Though they crash land apart, the Enterprise crew must find each other to stop Krall’s evil plan.

Full disclosure: I love J.J. Abrams’ reboot films, but I’m not a Trekkie and Abrams made those movies almost exclusively for non-Trek fans, which explains my love for them and why they’re so successful. This may have actually been Paramount’s plan all along: Now that Star Trek has once again immersed itself into pop culture and established its brand amongst typical moviegoers, it can finally be what longtime fans have wanted all along and offer casual viewers more of the same. The trick? Have a longtime fan who just so happens to be a huge fan (Pegg) co-write the script and have a blockbuster action director (Justin Lin of Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6) keep the whole thing moving.

Chris-Pine-and-Justin-Lin-in-Star-Trek-Beyond

(Left to right) Chris Pine and director Justin Lin on set of “Star Trek Beyond”

Pegg’s script is simple and has more interest in character interaction than general plot. Beyond may be the simplest Star Trek movie to date, so small in scale and so uninterested in its stakes that Krall doesn’t feel all that threatening. Beyond feels more like an extended TV episode than a major motion-picture, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. While Abrams is great at setting up movies, he has trouble creating an entirely satisfying ending (perhaps Star Trek ‘09 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are the exceptions). Lin knows exactly how to keep a steady pace and fun atmosphere throughout the movie while sliding in some solid (if not brief) character moments, like how Spock handles the death of his future self (R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy). Beyond is more about watching the crew of the Enterprise come together in a pinch than a grand plot to save the entire universe, sacrificing what could’ve been a great villain in exchange for continuously developing good characters, which works.  Lin knows exactly what Star Trek is through and through, building colorful sets and weaving cool space gadgets into the film. He also gets to have super fun with special effects and CGI, creating an impressive inner-space Federation base that should be seen to be believed. But it’s about seeing the crew interact with each other and how bonded they are with each other. 

 

Beyond thrives the same way all Star Trek movies thrive: with a great, connected cast. Pine and Quinto remain on-point as Kirk and Spock, but Quinto gets out just a bit farther ahead than Pine. Quinto gets the deeper moments for Spock while Pine remains in stern hero mode. Kirk is advertised as “lost in space” and unsure if wants to remain off planet anymore, but it all gets lost in the action and quickly resolves itself before the credits. Pine is still a fine lead, but that’s only because his bland confidence is spaced between the supporting acts like Quinto and the ever-lovable Urban. It makes sense that Scotty gets a lot more dialogue this time around since his actor wrote the script, but Pegg is no comedic slouch thanks to his frantic energy. Sadly, Beyond also commits an intergalactic offense by wasting Elba in the villain role. Not only does he feel restricted behind some (admittedly impressive) alien makeup, but he may be the most expendable villain since the faux-God in The Final Frontier despite a plot-twist reveal on his backstory. Again, the sacrifice is for the good of the main cast, but it feels like something that could’ve used a touch more development especially from such a great actor.

 

Beyond is the movie that meets Trekkies and casual fans halfway, with random science techno-babble and motorcycle stunts going hand-in-hand. It’s a tad ridiculous, but that comes with the territory and, like Lin’s Fast & Furious films, doesn’t mean to insult the audience’s intelligence. How can you hate a movie that takes place thousands of years into the future yet still manages to throw in Beastie Boys and Public Enemy as plot devices?

 

Final Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars