KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS ***
This film is the latest effort from stop-motion animation-meister Travis Knight and his friends at Laika Studios in Portland, Oregon (Coraline, ParaNorman, Boxtrolls, etc.). It’s a shining example of both magnificent story-telling and the breath-taking animation that can now be done by mixing the pain-staking work of stop-motion with a bit of CGI, as well as being another advertisement of why Laika probably will never become a subsidiary of Disney like Pixar or Marvel (and that’s not really a bad thing).
Briefly, the story is set in ancient Japan, where Kubo, a young boy (Art Parkinson; Rickon Stark in Game of Thrones), ekes out a living for he and his adle-minded mother by telling stories in the nearby town square with the help of his magical shamisen, a 3-stringed traditional Japanese “guitar.” But, in an effort to make contact with his long-dead father, Kubo does the one thing that his mother, in her more lucid moments, tells him not to do; he stays out after dark. This act conjures up the evil spirits of his dead aunts and grandfather, who go in pursuit of him in an effort to drag him into their netherland. Kubo discovers that the only way to put things to right is to find a magical suit of armor that will help him vanquish his ghoulish relatives and save his family (both in this world and the next). Assisting him along the way are Mr. Monkey (Charlize Therron), his good luck charm come to life, and a life-sized samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey). It’s a traditional “hero’s journey” story with enough twists and humor to be both delightful, thrilling, and chilling at the same time.
But it’s also much more. The thematic elements in this tale, which comes from ancient Japanese folklore, are deep, thought-provoking, and at times even disturbing. For an adult movie-goer, there’s a lot to talk about over your after-the-movie drink or dinner, and everyone’s not going to be in agreement. Most of this will probably go right over the heads of younger viewers (and that’s a good thing), yet there’s enough cute characters, slick one-liners, and eye-popping action sequences to keep them entertained even if they can’t make sense of the tale’s complicated story line.
And this, in case you haven’t guessed yet, is probably why Disney’s in no hurry to scoop up Laika Studios like they have other competing animation competitors. Both Disney and Laika tell compelling stories (to varying degrees) along with unmatched excellence in story-writing and animation. But Laika’s efforts, while enormously entertaining, don’t always follow the Disney brand’s beats; they leave room for a certain amount of controversy and head-scratching afterwards. And somehow, I think Travis Knight is just fine with that, even if his movies aren’t raking in billions at the box-office. Highly recommended viewing for the whole family (save the under 9’s), and that includes you too, Mom and Dad.
PETE’S DRAGON ***
In Walt Disney Studios current macro-plan of remaking their vast animated library into live-action re-imaginings, the choice to make one of the first five roll-outs a remake of Pete’s Dragon seemed to many in Hollywood curious at best, and potentially disastrous to the brand in a worst-case scenario.
Originally released in 1977, the live-action/animation musical was based on an original story rather than a beloved fairy tale, was one of the studio’s least honored films (just two Academy Award nominations–for music–and one Golden Globe, of which it won none), and virtually anonymous to the Millennial generation (and their kids) since it was part of a long string of what might be called “dumb Disney duds;” movies like the animated version of Robin Hood, The Shaggy D.A., The Apple Dumpling Gang, A Tale of Two Critters, Candleshoe, at least three Herbie movies (you know, the living VW bug), The Rescuers, the original Witch Mountain movies, and other forgettable films released in the mid-70s that most agree were the doldrums of the vaunted studio’s history where it (obviously) lacked a clear direction. Hardly a fertile ground to find remakes to continue a current string of live-action, re-imagined hits like Cinderella, Maleficent, and Alice in Wonderland.
And yet, this film, deftly reworked from the original 1977 screenplay (it’s even set in the 70s) and inserted with a CGI dragon that is as warm and cuddly as he is frightfully ferocious (thank you, Weta Digital…), turns out to be a surprisingly engaging and typically touching family-friendly tale that, despite flaws, should end up another winner for Disney.
Bryce Dallas Howard, who was last seen running from giant CGI beasts in 2015’s Jurassic World, is doing it once again here, but in a considerably more subdued fashion as a Pacific Northwest forest ranger named Grace who finds an orphaned, feral child in the wilderness named Pete (Oakes Fegley) who claims that he’s survived there for years with the help of his friend Eliot, a big green monster similar to the subject of local “Bigfoot” style legends about dragons living in the local hinterlands. Predictably, Pete is taken in by Grace, her husband Jack (Wes Bentley), and daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), who eventually meet Eliot, with appropriate OMG moments thrown in. Conflict arises, though, when Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl “Dr. “Bones” McCoy” Urban), a local lumberjack, and his buddies also find Eliot, capture him with the idea of getting rich exhibiting him around the country, and the kids set out to free him.
A well-done effort overall, with fine performances by all (including a nice turn by Robert Redford as Grace’s father) and a story with both humor, adventure, and the requisite heart-tugging moments, this still lacks an edge that could have made it really great. In deference to its intended audience, I’m sure, the producers pull their punches where the story’s natural progression would have led into deeper emotional–and edgy–territory and instead default to inexplicable (but safe) escapes where reality checks out and plot holes filled with emotional pablum (or just plain empty space) are inserted instead. Kids probably won’t know the difference, but adults definitely will.
Thus Pete’s Dragon, while being a very likable film in many ways, especially for children, is not the kind of all-family film which fully engages all ages as its edgier predecessors mentioned above do. And who knows; maybe that’s by design. There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a live-action movie out there that’s safe even for the youngest of one’s tribe while still cool enough that parents and older kids may find fun in it for them as well.
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS *** (** if you’re not a classical music fan, or a fan of Meryl Streep)
Florence Foster Jenkins is the latest of Meryl Streep’s seemingly endless string of biopics, and once again she is spot-on, literally becoming the eccentric socialite who became just as “famous” for her screeching, off-key renditions of operatic arias as she was for her passionate patronage of the arts in early 20th century New York. A gifted pianist who had, in her youth, played a recital for no less than President Rutherford B. Hayes at the White House, the real Foster Jenkins had her dreams of becoming a professional performer dashed early on due to an arm injury and instead became a piano teacher. Inheriting a considerable fortune from both parents, she became a member of New York “high society” and used her funds to support numerous musical artists of the day (Conductor Arturo Toscanini and tenor Caruso among them) and establish her own musical club, the Verdi.
Loving music though, particularly opera, doesn’t make one an opera singer. By the time she was in her 70s, Jenkins was virtually tone-deaf and had no sense of rhythm either (perhaps side-effects both of syphilis, which she contracted during her brief marriage to a Dr. Jenkins of Philadelphia as a teenager, and the treatments for it, which included regular doses of mercury and arsenic), yet insisted on taking voice lessons and giving private recitals at hotels and social clubs. Little did she suspect that the accolades heaped upon her at such events were for the amusement that her patrons got from her freakish warbling or out of deference to her very real love of music and generous financial support of it. This was all thanks to tightly-controlled guest lists, and the exclusion of any media arts critics that weren’t part of New York’s musical elite.
In the film’s touchingly hysterical rendition of the story, this tight control is the result of careful–and expensive–manipulations by her manager and “common law” husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). Musical cover is provided by her beloved accompanist Comse McMoon (Simon Helberg), whose deft abilities as a pianist smooth over many of Jenkins’s arrhythmic blunders and makes her squawkish singing a bit less ear-jarring . But even they can’t save Florence from her own eccentric vanity and determined philanthropy. When she makes a recording that becomes a huge “hit” with soldiers fighting in World War II, she books herself for a concert at Carnegie Hall as a benefit for veterans, and Bayfield and McMoon prepare themselves for the inevitable anti-climax.
As stated, Streep’s portrayal is typically inimitable. A formidable singer in her own right (remember “Checkin’ Out” at the end of Postcards From the Edge or her work in the film versions of Mama Mia and Into the Woods?), Streep had to accomplish what many good singers find impossible–singing awful–and in this case, awful like another real person. The result is some of the most hilariously terrible renditions of popular arias ever performed. She and Helberg were asked by Director Stephen Frears to perform all their musical numbers live during shooting, and a comparison to an actual recording of Foster Jenkins played during the closing credits shows just how “awfully” perfect their portrayals are (yup, the bowl-cut nerd Howard Wolowitz from TV’s The Big Bang Theory–Helberg’s signature Hollywood role to date–is a crazy-good classical pianist as well).
While the music is gratingly funny, though, the true heart of this film is in the relationships between Streep’s Foster Jenkins and Hugh Grant’s Bayfield, and their combined love both for each other and for the arts. This is a love story on many levels, peerlessly portrayed by two of Hollywood’s finest. They also get great assists from Rebecca Ferguson as Bayfield’s mistress Kathleen and Nina Arianda as an aspiring socialite struggling to reconcile working-class brashness with the refinements of high society.
Florence Foster Jenkins certainly is not a broad audience film and would understandably bore many, but for those in its intended genre audience, this is a touchingly goofy delight featuring another stellar turn for the incomparable Meryl Streep.
SUICIDE SQUAD **
So far, Warner Bros. Studio’s attempt to create a cohesive and crowd-pleasing comic-book based franchise using DC Comics characters has sputtered like a cheap firework, and it unfortunately doesn’t get any bigger bang from this new offering. Like Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman before, Suicide Squad shows some early promise, but quickly dissolves into a dark, depressing dirge that makes it impossible to both watch and have fun at the same time.
The plot is simple enough. Superman has apparently left town (smart guy), Batman has gone dark (no surprise there), and thus Midway City (think Chicago…) has no defense against meta-human maniacs who might pop up and cause mayhem. Intelligence Officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has an interesting, if not dangerous, solution; create a special task force of imprisoned meta-humans to “fight fire with fire,” controlling them by leveraging their loved ones and their weaknesses. When a bizarre, ancient entity called The Witch (the evil alter-ego of June Moon, sweet girlfriend of the Squad’s SEAL team commander Rick Flag, played by Joel Kinnaman) unites with a long-dormant “brother,” they become empowered and go on a killing spree to once again become worshipped as gods. Skeptical military and police types have no choice but to implement Waller’s plan.
A motley crew of misfits is released from various hell-holes; Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin who pines for his 12 year-old daughter, Diablo (Jay Hernandez), who accidentally fried his family in a fit of rage using the fire that emanates from his hands, Boomerang (Jai Courtney), he of the all seeing Aussie weapon, a lug called Killer Croc who, well, looks like a man in a crocodile suit, Katana, who swings a mean samurai sword ala a hero with the same name from NBC’s sputtered “Heroes Reborn” TV series, and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a cute psychiatrist who was seduced by the infamous Joker (Jared Leto) into becoming a kick-ass psycho who plays the innocent airhead while swinging a mean bat and possibly consorting with the enemy. To the film’s credit, considerable time is spent in its opening 20 minutes briefing us briefly on who these people are so we can perhaps, somehow, see them as “heroes” that we may just want to root for later on.
From there, though, it’s all downhill, literally, as the team descends into the city’s depths to root out evil while trying to survive attacks by faceless black minions of the evil siblings, and their own proclivities towards insecurity and violence. And, as Warner’s DC movies are becoming increasingly infamous for, any hope of enjoyment is drowned in dark sets and the even darker characters, of whom none are inherently good, and only a few are even trying to do right. Robbie’s Harley Quinn does her best to pump some life into the morose proceedings, but of course her comments are so sick and twisted that you choke just about the time you thought you might laugh. Backstories aside, I never found a single character likable and barely any even sympathetic.
And so, an audience egged on by trailers that played Suicide Squad up as a fun romp ala Guardians of the Galaxy flocked to theaters on Thursday night and Friday, then flooded social media with the bad news on Saturday, leading to a huge 41% attendance drop-off for the weekend. That’s even worse than Batman vs Superman’s thud back in March, whose box-office numbers continued to plummet to where, after just two weeks, its take had suffered a staggering 86% dive from its opening weekend. It looks like Suicide Squad is headed over the same cliff. See it if you wish, but be aware; Suicide Squad doesn’t deliver the promised goods, and I’m definitely not the only one who’s saying that.