Movie Review – Kubo and the Two Strings

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EXPECTATIONS: A beautifully realized fantasy adventure from Laika.

REVIEW: Laika Studios is an animation studio that I am not fully familiar with. Now put your pitchforks away, it’s not due to bad expectations. I honestly don’t know why I am not more into their work although without knowing, I have enjoyed their first studio film, Coraline, immensely. And reading about their other works like The Boxtrolls and Paranorman, I was interested of what they have cooked up for their latest film. An Asian-influenced fantasy film with the use of stop-motion that adapts the art of origami? And it also stars Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey as a monkey and a beetle samurai? This honestly sounds like a film I would have loved to have seen when I was a kid. Hell, it sounds incredibly appealing at my current age. So does the film live up to its studio’s sterling reputation or will it rank alongside mediocre animated films like The Angry Birds Movie and the latest Ice age sequel?

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In Ancient Japan, a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) cares for his sick mother in a village. A spirit from the past known as The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) turns Kubo’s life upside down by re-igniting an age-old vendetta. This causes all sorts of havoc as gods and monsters chase Kubo. In order to survive, Kubo must locate a magical suit of armor once worn by his late father, Hanzo a legendary Samurai warrior. On his journey, he also gains some allies in a Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) and he realizes he also has more demons on his way, like his twin aunts, whom are also phantoms (both played by Rooney Mara).

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As you can see by the pictures (or the trailer), the animation is absolutely spectacular. The sheer commitment to the animation is just mind-blowing to the point that everything you question on-screen about whether it is CGI or practical effects, trust me, it is all practical. Even the water! And the character designs are all distinct while retaining the Asian influence. I especially loved the character design of the twin aunts, particularly when the first appear in the night. It was reminiscent of ghost stories in Japan i.e Kwaidan stories. And the stop-motion animation of the monsters are endearingly reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen films, which will please adults as much as children.

Speaking of pleasing adults, the story is surprisingly thematic and mature. Venturing towards themes such as death and autonomously determining your fate with minimal sugar-coating or being patronizing to children, it fits into the story in terms of its character development like a glove, which helps the audience relate to Kubo. Even if the themes go over the minds of children, the film still provides a rollicking fantasy adventure. The action scenes are thrilling to watch, particularly the martial arts scenes. Planning and executing them had to be a pain to do, but it pays off really well, particularly in a scene where Monkey fights one of the twins on the ship out in the ocean.

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And what would it be without the characters? With such a strange Hollywood cast chosen for these fantasy characters, it’s a wonder that they work as well as they should. Art Parkinson (known for his appearances in Game of Thrones) is endearing and convincingly conflicted as Kubo, as he not only has to deal with this quest involving family conflict, but he is also going through adolescence and owning up to his destiny, and Parkinson portrays that well. Matthew McConaughey is a hoot as Beetle, a former samurai who worked under Hanzo yet his memory isn’t quite what it used to be, leading to some very funny situations.

Ralph Feinnes can play the villainous role in his sleep and with his small role as the Moon King, he suffices. Rooney Mara seems to be relishing playing the twin villains, as she seems to be quite animated (not a pun) and delightfully acidic, when you compare it to her other live-action performances. But the big standout is Charlize Theron as Monkey. Authoritative, strong and paternal to an amusing degree, she steals every scene she is in and the chemistry between her and McConaughey is surprisingly sweet despite the two never working together in the same vicinity. And it was great to hear veteran actress Brenda Vaccaro again, who delights in her small role as Kameyo.

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As for its flaws, the story may be a little bit too simple for some and the motivation for some of the villains are not really clear, hindering the ending a little bit. Also, although the character of Beetle is very funny, his comic relief antics can intrude with the dramatic through-line at times.

But overall, Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the best films of the year and I highly recommend it. With its spectacular animation, thrilling action scenes, likable characters and a great message, Laika Studios has gotten me interested to watch their other work.

Quickie Review

PROS

Spectacular animation

Likable characters

Resonant themes

Fantastic action scenes

CONS

Motivations of villains a bit unclear

Intrusive comic relief

Overly simplistic story

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey.
Director: Travis Knight
Screenwriter: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, Shannon Tindle

Movie Review – Finding Dory

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EXPECTATIONS: A Pixar sequel not as underwhelming as Cars 2, but along the lines of Monsters University.

REVIEW: Pixar Studios has been long regarded as one of the best animation studios in the world today, alongside Studio Ghibli, which my denial says that it still exists. But ever since the release of Cars 2, an incredibly disappointing sequel (to a film that wasn’t that good to begin with) that seems more like a product than an actual film, the seemingly infallible quality of Pixar has fallen. With other films like Brave, Monsters University and The Good Dinosaur, it seems to go towards that theory, but a creative upward surge happened with the release of Inside Out, a wonderfully exuberant and creative film. And now we have Finding Dory, the long-awaited sequel to the 2003 hit, Finding Nemo. Will the film be worth the 13 year wait, or will it end up being disappointing like Cars 2?

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Approximately one year after the events of the first film, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) is now living with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son, Nemo (Hayden Rolence, replacing Alexander Gould). Having memories gradually coming back involving her family, Dory sets out to find her family, much to the worry of Marlin. Remembering something about “the jewel of Morro Bay, California”, the three end up at the Monterey Marine Life Institute. The three unfortunately get split up and they have to find each other as well as Dory’s parents, Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy) with a bunch of new friends like Bailey (Ty Burrell), a white beluga whale; Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a whale shark; and Hank (Ed O’Neill), an octopus, who becomes her guide.

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Was this film worth the 13 year wait? Yes and no. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not truly criticizing the film in any major way, but sequels with long time gaps are usually made to cash in on the nostalgia value rather than being made for valid creative reasons. But seeing this film, the reason for this film to exist makes perfect sense and fits the Disney/Pixar formula to a T. What also bothered me was the decision to make Dory the main character of the film. Considering what happened with Cars 2, which made the disastrous decision to make Mater the main character (much to the annoyance of many, including myself), I was fearful that Finding Dory would also end up being an annoyance. Thankfully, that never happened and it is all thanks to Ellen DeGeneres‘ performance.

Having perfect comic timing and seamlessly going into drama, DeGeneres is still fantastic as the lovable Dory, who is more than just comic relief. The characters of Marlin and Nemo are merely passengers for The Dory Show Finding Dory, but Albert Brooks and Hayden Rolence still play off well as father and son. Marlin’s bird call still makes me laugh even when I’m writing this review. The supporting cast are great with their roles, with standouts like Ty Burrell as Bailey, a neurotic beluga whale who can’t seem to perform the act of echolocation (amusingly referred as the world’s best pair of glasses); Kaitlin Olson as Destiny, a near-sighted whale shark and childhood friend of Dory’s; and Ed O’Neill as Hank, a grumpy octopus who yearns to be confined in an aquarium and is jokingly referred as a “septopus” due to his lost tentacle.

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The Pixar formula is still running with Finding Dory, as it tries to balance laughs and emotion, but it has gotten a little bit rusty, making this film a bit inferior to Finding Nemo. The attempts of tugging the heartstrings of the audience has gotten a bit more manipulative, especially with more reliance on music cues. Plus, it does not really help that the plot of Finding Dory is still a retread of the first film. Fortunately, for what it lacks in emotional investment, it makes up for with laughs and charm. The many visual gags evoke plenty of guffaws like Hank’s camouflage and the character of Becky, a strange looking bird. But the final act of the film has one of the funniest climaxes that Pixar has ever done. Involving echolocation, car traffic, land animals and a well-placed song, it had me gleefully choking at my popcorn at one point. Plus the cuteness levels are off the charts when you see the young version of Dory and the plentiful otters. And do not get me started on the surprise celebrity voice cameo played by a fantastic actress, whom actually figures into the plot, that made me laugh so much whenever she was being referred to.

Does this film stand up to the original? Sort of. It does not make a mockery to the Pixar name like Cars 2 did, and it is better than unnecessary films like Monsters University, but it falls short of the fantastic quality Pixar films like Inside Out, the Toy Story films and Up, or even this year’s Disney animated film, Zootopia. But it is still great fun for the whole family, has a simple but important message and it shows that Pixar is far from being over.

P.S – Stay after the end credits for a delightful surprise.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Ellen DeGeneres is fantastic as Dory

The Pixar formula still charms and delights

Supporting characters are great

Hilarious gags, whether visual or vocal (the celebrity guest cameo had me grinning and laughing out loud)

CONS

Emotionally manipulative at times

Plot is a retread of the original film

SCORE: 7.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bob Peterson, Kate McKinnon, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Andrew Stanton
Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse, original story by Andrew Stanton

Movie Review – The BFG (Sydney Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: A entertaining yet slight film from director Steven Spielberg.

REVIEW: Like many people in the world, Roald Dahl has been one of my favourite authors during my childhood. His twisted sense of humour, his unique whimsical touch and its warm-hearted tone have delighted kids as well as adults all around the world and even the film adaptations of his works have all been well-regarded by critics as well as audiences. So when you have critically-acclaimed director Steven Spielberg who has been involved in such children’s classics like E.T – The Extra Terrestrial, Gremlins, The Goonies and others; working alongside Melissa Mathison (R.I.P) who was the screenwriter for E.T, you can understand that I was hyped to see this movie. Does it stand alongside the best Roald Dahl film adaptations like Fantastic Mr Fox and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or will end up being a disappointment?

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Ruby Barnhill plays Sophie, a steadfast orphan who suffers from insomnia and stays up every night at 3am to see the wondrous occurrences outside her window. She then sees an elderly giant and it suddenly kidnaps her and takes her to Giant Country. The two start off in amusing conflicts and then slowly befriend each other to the point where Sophie names the giant as The BFG (Mark Rylance). When Sophie finds out that The BFG is a victim of bullying among his own kind as well as their evil intent, Sophie and The BFG set out on a magical and thrilling adventure to capture the evil, man-eating giants who have been invading the human world.

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The first thing that struck me about this film was how old-fashioned it feels. The pacing, the character interactions, the whimsy and the warm tone; it all adds up to a film that stands out among other family films, which these days are incredibly fast-paced and visually jarring at times. It is refreshing to see a film like this these days and that is thanks to the talented cast and crew. Spielberg and Mathison perfect their storytelling chops with many great visuals and with very little exposition while composer John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky adds their magic touch with a beautiful score and cinematography, accentuating the magical wonder of the settings, especially when you see Dream Country. The film is also surprisingly faithful to the source material, from the third act involving the Queen of England to whole lines of dialogue straight from the book; Roald Dahl fans will certainly cherish how the cast and crew take the story to heart.

The cast also certainly help make the world more immersive, with Ruby Barnhill being an absolute joy as Sophie. Convincingly brave and in awe of what she sees, it is a great debut performance that I hope would reward her with greater parts. Mark Rylance is a perfect choice for The BFG, as he seems to have the time of his life, playing the joyful and dramatic sides of his character to a T. He even sells his admittedly ridiculous lines of dialogue and makes all of them amusing. The two have a great chemistry together, whether they are bickering about how to pronounce words or bonding over their hopes and dreams. While the rest of the supporting cast are fine in their parts (with Jermaine Clement and Penelope Wilton as stand-outs), it is Barnhill and Rylance that the audience will remember fondly.

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As for flaws, the running time of the film is too long, especially when you know the source material is not particularly a novel-size story. Scenes tend to go on for too long and it can bore some. Also, since the story is really faithful to the book, adults may think the story can be a bit too infantile, especially when it reaches the gloriously ridiculous third act. But what slightly bothered me was that I did not feel that emotionally invested into the story as much as I could have been. The villains of the film (involving Jermaine Clement, Bill Hader and others) don’t really feel like much of a threat beyond their stereotypical bullying roles, and it does take some of its dramatic thrust out the film. And that also includes the lack of character insight of Sophie herself, when we do not really see how the orphanage life has affected her, leaving her arc a little ill-defined.

But overall, The BFG is an entertaining and magical film that will certainly delight children of all ages as well as Roald Dahl fanatics such as myself. Does anyone have a bottle of frobscottle, because I want to propose a toast to the cast and crew of The BFG!

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic production values add magic and wonder

Spielberg’s and Mathison’s refreshingly old-fashioned storytelling chops

Barnhill and Rylance give wonderful performances and have a great chemistry

A wonderfully ridiculous third act

CONS

Overlong running time

Slow pace may bore some

Not much of an emotional investment to the story

Thin villain portrayals

SCORE: 7.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader
Director: Stephen Spielberg
Screenwriter: Melissa Mathison, based on the book of the same name by Roald Dahl

Movie Review – Love and Peace (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: Absolutely no idea. Which is what every Sion Sono film should elicit. Feelings of obliviousness and curiosity.

REVIEW: Believe it or not, this is apparently one of SIX films Sion Sono has planned for release this year alone. And one of them is still not disclosed yet. And I’ve only seen two of them! I remember viewing my first Sion Sono film (Suicide Club) and it was one hell of an experience. The blood and gore, the pitch-black satire, the hyper-realistic world, the dark tone in contrast to the surreal J-Pop musical interludes, it was pure euphoria. I’ve been following his work ever since and now Sono is on his way of surpassing Takashi Miike to become Japan’s fully-fledged maverick filmmaker. His films have ranged from a wide array of genres (often mixing them all at once) and, like Miike, is more popular overseas than in his native country. And like I said before, he has SIX films in 2015. One of them is a teen sex comedy, one of them is a gangster crime film, one of them is an arthouse sci-fi drama, one of them is a teen horror film, one of them has not been disclosed yet and the one I’m reviewing is a family film that just happens to have rock’n’roll, kaiju, cute puppets and city-wide destruction. This film is Love and Peace. A film I never would have expected from Sion Sono and I gotta say, it was a terrific surprise.

Hiroki Hasegawa stars as Ryoichi, a timid salaryman at a musical parts company, who dreams of being a rockstar. He constantly gets bullied at work by everyone except for Yuko (Kumiko Aso), a woman he has a crush on. To pass through the dull ennui and everyday minutiae of his life, he breaks routine, buys a baby turtle and names it Pikadon, which is amusingly defined as a nuclear disaster. Bonding with Pikadon as a friend as well as an outlet of his frustrations, dreams and wants (using a homemade board game), he decides to bring Pikadon to work, but Pikadon shows itself to the entire staff and Ryoichi gets ridiculed much harsher than usual. Having enough of this abuse, he lets his anger out on Pikadon but in a tragic fashion, he accidentally flushes it down the toilet, which leads it in the sewer. As Ryoichi cries over the loss of his one true friend, Pikadon discovers something in the sewer after being brought in by a homeless man (Toshiyuki Nishida) that can only be described as magical; so magical that it will change the lives of Ryoichi and everyone else in Japan forever.

There’s much more I can go through with the synopsis, but the film is best left unspoiled. But what I can tell you that this film is very reminiscent of director Tim Burton’s work and seeing it come to life was a pure delight. Unfortunately the film does not start that well. The overacting from the cast to the assaultive editing and meandering storytelling makes you wonder what the point of the film is, but once the film introduces Pikadon, the film improves immensely. The film doesn’t even try to be realistic to the point that that the fantasy world Sono is trying to portray is achieved with very little CGI and intentionally low-fi practical effects. Characters in the sewer ranging from discarded pets and toys (aside from Nishida) are all puppetry (with strings shown) and they are all adorable to look at and lovable, from the tragic doll Maria (voiced by Shoko Nakagawa) who was left behind by her infant owner; to a smart-aleck cat Sulky (voiced by Shinji Miyadai) who despises humans and an antique toy robot, PC-300 (voiced by Gen Hoshino), unaware of the world outside the sewers. The musical score is also reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s scores from Tim Burton films, although Sono does reuse musical tracks from his previous films like Love Exposure and Himizu. He also uses excerpts of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the same excerpts used in A Clockwork Orange), which add to the maniacal world. Oh, did I mention Pikadon itself? I can say, without doubt, that this is the cutest turtle ever portrayed on film. The huge eyes, the way it walks and the fantastic vocals from Ikue Otani (who voices Pikachu in the Pokemon series) just engenders sympathy from the audience so quickly, it’s irresistible.

As for many of Sono’s films, there is a bit of social commentary within the proceedings, and in the case of Love and Peace, it is the theme of consumerism. All the toys and animals were discarded and it is a commentary about what the Japanese people take for granted and how much they are spoiled with new trends of shopping. Sono also adds satirical barbs around the music industry and celebrity stardom that surprisingly fits into the movie well, with its terms around Ryoichi’s character development and what it means for celebrity fans to show love instead of excessive fandom.

As for the human characters, they all give good performances. Hiroki Hasegawa, who is on a roll with his versatility lately (hyperactive film director in Why Don’t You Play in Hell, vocal teacher in Lady Maiko, warrior soldier in Attack on Titan films, suitor in Princess Jellyfish) and his role as Ryoichi is played really well and I was surprised at how believable he was a rockstar. His singing skills are great and the songs themselves (particularly the title song) are incredibly catchy. There’s even a song that is a reference to Why Don’t You Play in Hell that had me laughing. The character growth from timid salaryman to egotistical rockstar is sometimes hard to watch due to how selfish Ryoichi can be, yet it is easy to believe and to sympathize and it is a testament to Hasegawa. Toshiyuki Nishida, whom I know from the TV series Monkey, gives a great performance as Pa, the homeless man who lives in the sewer. He shows the perfect balance of tenderness and grumpiness to become endearing and once a reveal happens later in the film, it will surprise you at first, but then you realize it fits perfectly with his character, thanks to Nishida’s performance. The only unfortunate liability in the cast is Kumiko Aso. There is no fault in her performance itself as she does soulful and pathetic quite well (it was amusing to see her wear such homely clothes), but her role is incredibly underwritten that it hinders the emotional climax quite a bit.

Speaking of the climax, the last 20 minutes are spectacular to behold. Pikadon takes center stage of the film (and in the film, literally) and the whole city is awestruck by it despite “the destruction spread by its love”. The way it calls back to Ryoichi with his frustrations and dreams is genius in its comedic effect as well as its emotional catharsis. Aside from its flaws, Love and Peace is a film I never thought Sono would make, but not only I’m glad that he did, but I hope he does more films like this.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast give great performances

The special effects exude magic and wonder to the story

Nice integration of social commentary and satire into the main story

The songs are catchy and memorable

CONS

The film does not start well

Kumiko Aso is quite underused

Those expecting Sion Sono’s edgy touch will be disappointed

SCORE: 8/10 (Definitely Sion Sono’s most light-hearted and heartwarming film he’s ever made)

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Kumiko Aso, Toshiyuki Nishida, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Eita Okuno, Makita Sports, Motoki Fukami, Toru Tezuka, Izumi, Soichiro Tahara, Hakase Suidobashi, Shinji Miyadai, Kenichiro Mogi, Daisuke Tsuda, Erina Mano, Megumi Kagurazaka, Miyuki Matsuda, Aki Hiraoka, Shoko Nakagawa
Director: Sion Sono
Screenwriter: Sion Sono