Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

Nearly nine months into 2016, and I can name like six movies I have enjoyed. Mercifully, Kubo and the Two Strings makes it seven. If you must blink, do it now.

This is Laika Entertainment’s fourth stop-motion animated feature (after Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls), so how does it rank? Well it’s certainly better than The Boxtrolls, though admittedly I can’t give a fair judgement of Boxtrolls because I nearly got into my first fist fight as an adult because of it (don’t bring toys for your dumb kids to play in the aisles with to a movie, and don’t start shouting in someone’s face when you get called out for being inconsiderate). But I digress.

Kubo is an adventure movie through and through; an eleven-year-old boy must recover an unbreakable sword, an impenetrable breastplate, and an invulnerable helmet, with the help of a talking monkey and a samurai beetle-man. Standard stuff, right? Well yeah, kinda. The story is your conventional hero’s journey with a couple of artistic flourishes here and there. I can’t fault the film too much for just telling a simple story, but Laika did give us Coraline and Paranorman (Coraline being a masterwork, and Paranorman being a worthy follow-up), so the standards are higher. But this is also the year of The Secret Life of Pets, Norm of the North, and The goddamn Angry Birds Movie; the saying goes “After you hit yourself with two hammers every day, getting hit by just one hammer feels good” and this is just a teeny tiny for-cracking-hardboiled-eggs hammer. It’s such a minor quibble.

Kubo and the Two StringsStorytelling and music are a big motif of the film, with Kubo and his mother using a shamisen (thank you, Google) as a magical weapon and for Kubo to control his origami creations. There’s a wonderful sequence at the beginning of the film where Kubo plays his shamisen and tells stories of his dead dad in the village. Hey, a story about storytelling, and it never really gets meta with it, which is nice. I think the monkey makes one out-of-character crack about an origami samurai “looking like scissors were involved” and that’s about it.

Let’s talk the voice cast for a minute; this is one of the few aspects of the film that is hit-and-miss. First, a hit, Matthew McConaughey – he really is the most charming man on the planet. McConaughey plays a manic amnesiac samurai/beetleborg, simply named Beetle, his only vague memory being that he must’ve served Kubo’s father. There’s an ethereal quality to a performance when an actor really enjoys their role, and ho boy did he clearly have a good time; it’s unlike anything I’ve seen him do. The best way I can describe his character is a combination of Jack Sparrow and Dug the dog from Up. Yeah. That beautiful velvety-voiced man. The McConaissance continues.

A miss for the cast is Charlize Theron as Kubo’s guardian, a monkey named Monkey; which is a shame, she’s a good actress, but she doesn’t bring much to a motherly straight-man role. (Insert the picture of Charlize dragging her kid out of her car that went around the gossip circle a few months ago) It reminds me a lot of Meryl Streep’s underwhelming vocal performance in Fantastic Mr. Fox. She’s unusually flat and to use an acting term, she mostly spends the movie indicating her emotions as opposed to actually feeling them. Some people just aren’t meant to stand in a dimly-lit sound-booth alone and just act, which I think is the case here.

Another sort-of-miss is the Three-String Samurai himself, Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson (Rickon Stark from Game of Thrones… yeah). Clearly, someone at Laika is a big fan of Game of Thrones because this is the second Stark child cast as the lead in one of their movies (Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Bran Stark, voiced the main character in The Boxtrolls). But y’know that show has bad actors too, right? *cough* Emilia Clark & Sophie Turner *cough*.  He’s serviceable as the hero child, but only just, good child actors are hard enough to find – good child voice actors are nearly impossible.

An awesome surprise is Rooney Mara, voicing the spooky specter women in pursuit of Kubo. This goes back to how Matthew McConaughey clearly relished his role, and Rooney just went for it. I can imagine she looked at the script and thought “Wait, I get to cackle fiendishly? Oh hell yeah!”

The last two name actors are Ralph Fiennes as Kubo’s malevolent grandfather the Moon King, and George Takei as Featured Extra #2. Both are criminally underused; Fiennes is more limited by being the final boss character; but Takei, also the largest role voiced by an Asian actor, has about three lines – one of which is obviously “Oh myyyy.” Question: Does this film count as white-washing? It’s certainly a murky topic to begin with, and further complicated by this being an animated movie. But then again, I guess wouldn’t every English Dub of an Anime count as white-washing? I’m not ready to make a judgment here. Just something to think about.

** I should also mention that the design work from Laika is as spot on as always. I adore their use of UV/Blacklight effects, it's a brilliant visual that I don't think we get to see in other films, nor should we, it's that special Laika touchstone. The actual visual from the trailers that mentally sold my ticket was of Kubo's 'Aunts' floating across a river, those haunting geisha-masked women are probably some of the most evocative and memorable character designs I've seen this year. The only things even worth mentioning negatively are a sailboat Kubo composes from leaves, the idea behind it is solid, it just has a muddy color palette; and then the final monster looks a bit too much like the Leviathans in The Avengers. Again, teeny tiny egg-cracking hammer.

Man, stop-motion animation is beautiful, amiright?  The work Laika is doing visually is truly inspiring at times; as part of the end credits – they show you the animation of the giant skeleton monster, and it’s not just huge in the context of the film, that puppet is easily ten feet tall. Showing behind the curtain like that has to make you want to bust out your camera and try a little animation yourself. It’s such a crime that stop-motion animation seems to always stall out with unappreciative kids, why do movies from Laika or Aardman Animations (the Wallace and Gromit people) always lose out to Dreamworks or Blue Sky? Take your kids to see these movies (just don’t drag them out to evening shows, those are for people who want to actually enjoy the goddamn movie). We gotta get them hooked; we can’t let them be the generation that ends smoking stop-motion animation.

If you have even the slightest inkling to see Kubo and the Two Strings, get out there and see it. Support your local major motion picture. In a year of garbage movie after garbage movie, you can do so much worse. Maybe you’ll even get to have a good time.

For the love of God, don’t choose to see Sausage Party over this.

Also stay for the end credits, there’s a nice cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps by Regina Spektor; and also stay because that crew killed themselves making this movie for you.

[su_box title="Score: 4/5" style="glass" box_color="#8955ab" radius="6"]

Kubo and the Two Strings Director: Travis Knight Writers: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler Distributor: Laika Entertainment/Focus Features Rating: PG Run Time: 101 Min

[/su_box]

Two Reviews: Suicide Squad (2 of 2)

Suicide Squad enters the third installment of the DC Extended Universe. It tells the story of a group of criminals forced together to save the world from an ancient threat. By now, most people have heard a lot from both sides on the film quality, so here’s the next drop in the ocean. My take away from this film is, while there are pacing and editing issues present, they aren’t nearly as glaring as they were with Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. What I’m beginning to think is that these problems are going to be consistent across the board until we get to a point where there are less visions flashbacks. These tend to be the more jarring suicidesquad-poster-team-xeyespoints of the film, but Suicide Squad worked them in as best as they could and each one worked and served a purpose.

DC has been called out on what many would call “questionable” casting choices. Jared Leto and Will Smith received a good bit of criticism; however, Smith delivered as Deadshot. The unofficial leader of the Squad was given the lions’ share of development, but it was certainly earned, as Smith's character provided a good bit of the humor many claim the DCEU sorely needs.

Not to be outdone, Leto’s first outing as the Clown Prince of Crime, while contained to a subplot, has done the job of making me interested in his character and literally left me wanting more. Funny, flamboyant, and daring, if this was any indication, Gotham City will be quite the fun place to visit come The Batman.

Unfortunately, some will be a bit disappointed in this portrayal of Harley Quinn, as she seems quite enamored with The Joker. Flashes of brilliance are there, and Margot Robbie looks keen to play the character for years to come, so seeing a more independent Harley isn’t totally out of the question, but there’s no room for that going solely off of Suicide Squad.

Surprisingly enough, El Diablo was arguably the fan favorite of the film, by the end of it. A character many would dismiss as a stereotype was given quite the development near the film's third act and had a truly astounding finale to his arc.

Unfortunately, but realistically, it left me wanting more from some of the other Squad members. Captain Boomerang, Katana, Killer Croc, Slipknot, and even Flagg to an extent kind of missed the character development train, but for most of them, the chance to show up elsewhere in the DCEU (in Batman, The Flash, and potentially Green Arrow) eases the pain a bit.

The story of the film is solid, and a bit of a twist just going from the trailers. The actual story, was pretty classic comic stuff, and as Flagg said in the trailers, fits the Squad MO. Go somewhere dangerous, that’ll get you killed. It worked in a lot of ways, with the twists and turns that really highlighted the characters personalities.

I liked the twist that was played throughout the film that, instead of having the characters revealed as better people than they think they are, they went in the opposite direction—showing our “heroes” aren’t as good as they think they are.

PHegBTgmDg3jhh_1_lThe visuals during most action scenes were amazing. Though, I think, as many have suggested, the DCEU could do with more fights going on during the day. It just makes things easier to see, and when you do it in 3D like I did, being able to see things more clearly is a huge bonus. The effects though, were top-notch. The work on the “magic” elements was so impressive.

Lastly, some claimed the villain was “weak.” (Spoiler Alert!) However, I have to disagree. Their motivation was classic: revenge. Nothing breathtaking, but works. Enchantress clearly outclassed everyone and was a real, global threat. Strong actor portrayal, though admittedly I don’t know Enchantress well enough from the comics to compare, but simply as a character, the performance was enjoyable.

Overall, this was what the DCEU needed. It showed depth and added to the world in positive ways, and hopefully some of the techniques that went into this will be used down the line. People wanted humor? You got Joker, Harley, Deadshot, and Boomerang. You wanted color? This film is pretty stylized in shades of purple and green. There’s red, blue, and all that. Oh, and the soundtrack? Top notch, for sure. Even got Sucker for Pain on my phone.

So that’s my critique, but I’m not critic. I’m just a fan. A DC Comics fan. I liked BvS and Man of Steel too. In my opinion it goes Man of Steel > Suicide Squad > Batman V. Superman. The film is not without fault, but that goes for any film. It’s strong suit is where it’s such a self-contained story, that it doesn’t give any real buildup to anything so everything is focused. Helping translate that into more of the films will help a lot. At this point though, I think it’s just the DCEU way, and maybe for the best.

You really want to know if you’ll like Suicide Squad? Just go see the movie and make your own assertion. It’s really the best way to know if you’ll like it or not.

[su_box title="Score: 4/5" style="glass" box_color="#8955ab" radius="6"]

Suicide Sqaud
Director: David Ayer
Writers: David Ayer
Studio: DC/WB
Run Time: 123 minutes

[/su_box]

Two Reviews: Suicide Squad (1 of 2)

Written by Jake Wood

DC, Warner Brothers, Geoff Johns. You can’t keep hurting people like this.

To confirm your fears, yes, Suicide Squad is a terrible … terrible film – BORDERLINE hilariously bad (Comic Bastards contributor Justin Wood – no relation – will probably disagree and say it was actually hilariously bad, as he was cackling like a madman beside me through nearly the entire movie). It’s a complete shame, this was supposed to be DC’s Ace, right? This was supposed to be their Guardians of the Galaxy, this was supposed to be the counter to Man of Steel and Batman V Superman, this was supposed to be ... fun. Before the go-hard, angry DC mob starts sharpening their shivs, let me tell you briefly where I’m coming from.

Despite how hard I’ll ream this movie, I’m actually a DC fanboy. Green Lantern and Batman are my absolute favorites, and have been since I was a child. Geoff Johns’ near-historic run on Green suicide-squad-movie-2016-posterLantern is what got me in to comic books in a more serious capacity as a teenager. I’ve since lapsed in keeping up to date with Who’s-Who-In-The-DCU, but DC Comics has always held a special place in my heart. Why does Marvel have to have such a monopoly on quality comic book movies (though outside of Deadpool, they’ve been slipping as of late – but I digress)? It grieves me that outside of near-masterpieces Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and (some will debate this) The Dark Knight Rises, DC/Warner Brothers can’t make a good live-action comic book movie to save their lives.

I started a joke, which started the whole world crying. But I didn’t see, that the joke was on me.

Let’s begin with where hope for this film was originally lit, the 2015 SDCC trailer for Suicide Squad; I re-watched it after seeing the final film, and damn is that probably the movie that writer/director David Ayer set out to make. That trailer, which DC/WB confusingly slut-shamed us all for watching bootlegs of (its 2016, leaked cellphone Comic Con videos are not something new … assholes), was haunting and dark and serious; DC was bringing out the bad guys – something which Marvel has never really been able to compete with DC over.  This was NOT the movie we received; so what changed? January 19th, 2016. This is when the sultry sounds of Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen was brought in to the marketing campaign with that awesome first full-length trailer; likely the higher ups were seeing the writing on the wall - that the doom-and-gloom DC Cinematic Universe wasn’t meeting audiences’ needs, they wanted something different, something light-hearted, something weird, something fun. Almost assuredly they went in to full on meltdown mode when the frankly invigorating Deadpool opened and made just a stupidly-large amount of money (to date, Deadpool grossed more domestically than Batman V Superman and only 90 million dollars less internationally – at less than 1/4th the price); not only did Deadpool make all the Olivia-Munns (heh, you passed up Deadpool for Xmen Apocalypse), it was also significantly well-received by both critics and audiences. So now DC/WB had to scramble.

For those who don’t know, movie trailers are mostly cut by small contractors specializing in trailers and tv-spots; the contractor for Suicide Squad’s Rhapsody trailer, Trailer Park, was reportedly brought in to help with the editing of the final film – or as also reported, likely hired to edit a completely separate cut of the film from David Ayer. Based on the final version of the film I saw, it’s pretty clear that DC/WB took their wacky Trailer Park cut, and David Ayer’s cut, and smashed it together. John Gilroy is the sole credited editor, this man has edited films like Pacific Rim, Nightcrawler, and Narc (also Billy Madison – but I guess you gotta start somewhere); unless John Gilroy had a horrific motorcycle accident last year – this was clearly taken away from him and slapped together by hired guns and executives shooting wildly in to the air, hoping to hit anything. It’s utterly horrendous, it’s also inconsistent. I’ve seen where much ado has been made over the tacky pop-up graphics when characters are introduced, which are annoying and pathetic, but at least two members of the team inexplicably don’t have their stupid bios on screen: Katana, and Slipknot (who?). The Joker, while technically not a member of Task-Force X, doesn’t get one either, but Enchantress, also not part of the team lineup (also the main villain by the way), does.

“Aren’t Will Smith and Margot Robbie highlights of the movie though?” You may be asking. “What about Jared Leto’s inspired Joker performance?” It’s actually completely maddening how not one single character in Suicide Squad is done well. Not one. Maybe Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller skirts by. This is not to say it’s entirely the actors faults though, several members of the cast are good if-not-great actors: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Viola Davis, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr. Ecko!!!). David Ayer seems to have directed all of these actors as if Suicide-Squad-Slipknot-posterHack/Fraud Amateur-Director Jake Wood had directed them. It’s gonna get as tiring as the character biographies in the actual film, but let’s run down the list (and by that I mean, say a lot on a few bigguns – and then cram the rest in at the end).

Margot Robbie – One of the two most-talked about performances in the film, does she at least do Harley Quinn (arguably the most anticipated remaining comic book character to have yet appeared in a live-action film) justice? Y’know, Margot Robbie is probably perfect casting on paper, and she does her damnedest. She seems to have had the time-of-her-life in the role, but every line coming out of her mouth is poorly written and every choice for her made by the director leaves us wanting. Why is Harley Quinn even on the team (because the script said so)? She has no power, she’s not some well-renowned fighter, or anything like that. She has a baseball bat and a gun (that never needs reloading – but y’know… movies); she’s just a liability on the team, an insanely beautiful liability. I should also address the objectification factor a little bit, which, as a living human person, I admittedly appreciated the costume choice of New 52 Harley Quinn booty-shorts (If you’re worried – yes, your precious jester outfit makes an ultra-brief appearance too). I’ve seen some criticism that “the amount of Margot Robbie butt-shots outnumbers the total number of shots for some supporting characters”; well I kept track, and I counted roughly 15 hottie-boom-bottie glamour/butt-shots – actually a difficult task when you have to make a distinction as to whether the shot just happened to have her hot-pants in it, or if it was intentionally setup to highlight her butt or not. I'm sure to many, 15 objectifying shots is 15 shots too many, and I certainly can understand that, but that number is far less than I would have expected. I actually think there’s a different character that people should be more up-in-arms about (Enchantress). Also they actually bothered to give her a bra, and this is knowing that she spends the last 20 minutes of the movie completely soaked, so there’s no repeat of Kirsten Dunst’s glass-cutting nipples in Spider-Man here. We’ve come a long way people!

Will Smith – You turned down Independence Day Too for this? For this??? I’m so sorry. I don’t have too much to say about Deadshot. Will Smith is Will Smith, nothing particularly special. His character is one of the few that actually makes sense to be on Task Force X (I’m also admittedly not an expert on Deadshot, so I couldn’t tell you how true to the character he is). Being the only certifiable movie star, Big Will gets the first introduction in the film (oddly enough, before even Amanda Waller and the concept of the team), and has to pretend to be fatherly to a poor child actor that will sadly never make a real career out of this acting thing. Why wasn’t Jaden just his kid? Even though Deadshot’s kid is a daughter – from what I understand, Jaden would love that kind of challenge; or why not the "Whip My Hair" girl, Ziggy Smith or whatever her real name is? I want to insult the daughter (did she even have a name?) more, but I don’t feel comfortable with it unless one of Will Smith’s actual talentless kids played the part. I’m sorry you had to get “Skwad” tattooed on you (much like the cast of The Lord of The Rings, the Suicide Squad cast all got tattooed together).

Academy Award Winner, Jared Leto – Sigh. You were in Lord of War, man. So DC’s Cinematic Universe’s Joker is here. Gangsta-rap Joker, everybody. It’s as bad as you feared, and his role is as small and inconsequential as you feared. He’s so serious, except for literally one line about grape soda. If you’ve never seen FilmCow’s great YouTube video The Joker’s New Tattoos, finish reading this review, then go and watch it (it’s a minute long). Obviously they had to step away from Heath Ledger’s iconic performance, or Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance, or Mark Hamill’s iconic performance, or Cesar Romero’s iconic performance, but Jared Leto’s Joker is just all over the place, and he’s clearly enamored with his own shtick (I hope Ben Affleck tells him to leave all the dead animal gifts at home when his Batman film happens). I’m sure David Ayer thought this was the next Jack Sparrow (Fun fact: Johnny Depp got an Oscar Nom for the first Pirates). I’m not even mad about 99% of the tattoos, or the grills, or the VIP Playah look; really, it’s modern and Jim Lee’s Joker with the Yakuza tattoos worked for me. It just bothers me to no end that they Suicide-Squad-Joker-character-posterput “Damaged” on his forehead, I can tolerate literally all of it – except that one. It’s just the bottom-of-the-barrel Hot Topic idea for the Joker, it’s stupid, and shallow. Harley Quinn has “Lucky You” tattooed on her pelvis, but personally it would’ve been the greatest joke ever if she had a matching “Damaged” scrawled above her baby-maker.

Joel Kinnaman – I had heard that Cara Delevingne’s performance is the worst in the film. This came in to doubt when Robocop Remake Joel Kinnaman opened his mouth. Holy cow is he insufferable. His character, Rick Flag, is annoying and doesn’t pull his weight. How was (the originally cast) Tom Hardy supposed to work with this? Twice in the film his character is overwhelmed and has to be saved by the real stars of the film. He’s only in this movie because Rick Flag was a founding member of the team in the books, and also because someone had to fall in love with Enchantress so they could have some faux-emotional-investment.

Cara Delevingne – My alma-mater once did a children’s stage show of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and in it, the girl who played the White Witch gave this amazingly shrill and over the top performance - that was great in the context of an amateur stage play meant for little kids. On an unrelated note, Cara Delevingne is terrible and couldn’t act her way out of a wet paper bag in this major motion picture meant for adults and teenagers. I suppose I’m half out of line with any comparison to that White Witch performance, because she’s technically not shrill – as in her Enchantress form, she is dubbed over by a much deeper voice (recorded by an actual actress). Watching her chew the scenery like it’s never been chewed, I found myself imagining what her actual performance sounded like on set and just laughing to myself. Her movement is so stilted and awkward, it’s like she was doing a knockoff of that Samara ghost girl from The Ring but without the help of choppy editing. Watch her closely during the climax because she’s doing this hilariously bad belly dance jig which is meant to be her performing her spells. Earlier I mentioned that people should be more up in arms about Enchantress than Harley Quinn, because this girl spends nearly the entirety of the film in a Slave Leia + Pig-Pen from Peanuts bikini, or in her true-form where her magic-energy costume (not unlike 2009’s Green Lantern’s costume) is tastefully covering only her bits. None of these looks are ever remotely close to anything I’ve ever seen the character in (or that I can see in a Google image search). Her true-form (which I imagine was added in reshoots because it only recently started showing up in marketing) is nearly an actionable rip-off of Galadriel’s magical look in The Lord of the Rings, and oddly enough her headdress looks like something of Big Barda’s. Pretty girl though, she should be a model – oh right that’s where she came from. I’m so sorry this acting thing isn’t working out for you.

Academy Award Nominee, Viola Davis – She’s probably the person who’ll come out the cleanest on the other end of this disaster (which is really appropriate considering the character right?). Just one thing, though. Talking while chewing? That’s hella rude. You work with these people.

The rest of ‘em – Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang, this is actually the least forgettable Jai Courtney has ever been. Most of the laughs actually revolve around him. Also remember that great moment where he cracks open a beer while shit’s going down? We never see where he gets the beer. An insert shot would’ve been nice, DAVID. Jay Hernandez as El Diabo, hey you have an actual superpower, way to go. You also ruined that great bar scene by awkwardly telling your TERRIBLE backstory that we didn’t need elaborated on. We got it, you did some bad stuff but now you’re trying to change. Adam Beach as Slipknot, a person who is definitely a beloved DC comic book character, and not just cannon fodder. Frankly, I’m glad there are more Margot Robbie butt-shots than shots of his character. Scott Eastwood as Unnamed SWAT Team Lackey; they’re trying to make him a thing right now, but he will soon go the way of Sam Worthington/Taylor Kitsch. Mr. Ecko from LOST plays Killer Croc and it’s maybe the saddest thing about this movie. They didn’t bother redubbing him, and it seems like his brain was lagging from the heat of being in that make up, Suicide-Squad-Character-Poster-Deadshothe’s barely understandable at times. The single worst line delivery in the movie is attributed to him saying he’s beautiful, I felt SO embarrassed for him. And lastly, Karen Fukuhara as Katana; I want to give her special commendation, going in to the final battle, there’s this weird moment where she is absolutely sobbing and saying goodbye to her husband’s soul (which is trapped in her magic sword) in case she dies. This was honestly the most touching moment of any sentiment in the film. You go girl.

Do you guys even care about the plot at this point? It’s pretty straight forward, which is apparently refreshing when compared to the simple plot of Batman V Superman (a joke – I haven’t bothered to watch BVS yet), it’s all just a single mission, no practice run, no training up the team, just “get this person out of a building in a city under attack by Enchantress.”  It’s kinda like Dredd, but with none of the redeeming qualities of Dredd. That’s the thing, I have the same criticism of Guardians of the Galaxy. Both movies were kinda built up as “we’re getting in to the weird stuff in our Universe,” but both films definitely pull their punches there and have really straight-forward plots. DC, you once had Superman sing a note to stop an evil math problem, you can get weirder than an evil witch tries to rule/destroy the world or whatever.

Holy crap is the music terrible too. Actually, the music is great; there’s not a noticeably-bad song featured in the film. Clearly this is where a huge Guardians of the Galaxy influence came in like a wrecking ball; Fortunate Son, Sympathy for the Devil, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, fucking Spirit in the Sky – a song actually featured in Guardians! All the song choices are obvious, and used obviously. Remember when Tarantino would throw in a ringer song that you could never see coming? Also the soundtrack just keeps booping along obnoxiously, the first half of the movie seemed to be end-to-end songs – this half is also where I think Trailer Park had its strongest influence. Once things transition to the endgame, the mixtape music stops, and we get a pathetic limped-dick attempt at a Score for the rest of the film. One last note on the soundtrack that needs serious mention. Remember Bohemian Rhapsody? They freaking sold the movie to us on that song. Is it in the movie? Yes. Is it that bland and unnecessary cover by Panic! At The Disco (which is on the soundtrack)? Actually no. They use the legitimate version of Bohemian Rhapsody BUT it had to be no more than a minute of it. They don’t even reprise it during the credits. How do you do this? Gabe Hilfer and Season Kent were the credited Music Supervisors (typically the guys who suggest the soundtrack songs to the director and editors). Gabe, Season, what happened?

One final thing, because I feel an ulcer coming from all this bile (J/K it’s from all the Crystal Pepsi I’ve been binging) – I hate that they used some jaggedy font for the subtitles, just use a standard font please.

TL;DR – The movie sucks. I’m not just being mean because I love Marvel (because I don’t). Sincerely worried about Wonder Woman. Please don't kill yourself, Ben Affleck, you still do good work. Karen Fukuhara, I said something nice about your performance – my phone number is (***) ***-****.

[su_box title="Score: 1/5" style="glass" box_color="#8955ab" radius="6"]

Suicide Sqaud
Director: David Ayer
Writers: David Ayer
Studio: DC/WB
Run Time: 123 minutes

[/su_box]

Review: Pear Cider & Cigarettes

I was lucky to go into Vimeo's second original film blind. I remember seeing some of my animation industry friends sharing the Kickstarter link for the short when it was live, even thinking of dropping a few bucks in myself though I eventually wouldn't. All I remembered was the aesthetic: glossy, digital, and glowing with hot electronic colors. From the outside, it gives the impression it might be some sort of disco throwback noir, the title and style suggesting something sexy and crime themed. The truth is, the short is less of a freshly waxed sports car and more a quiet reflective conversation in a corner booth in a nearly empty bar. The story, apparently at least somewhat autobiographical from the life of animator/graphic novelist Robert Valley, unfolds slowly as a somber portrait of rocky friendship and the incredible toll life leans on the living, carefully revealing itself all while framed with peerless aesthetic clarity.

Narrated from Valley's perspective, the short film concerns the life and early death of his friend Techno, a vibrant but self-destructive young man whose life of excitement is quickly and irreparably paralyzed by his devastated health and spiritual isolation. Valley's guide is one of regularly wounded affection, sacrificing for his friend but unable to avoid being a witness and recorder of Techno's eventually fatal personal flaws. While Techno's life of adventurous and bacchanalian excess is explored, the story suddenly and wisely cuts it short, giving you a picture of his electric peak before quickly pulling the rug out for a grueling look at his sudden but excruciatingly elongated decline. It's not a portrait of a party lifestyle and its consequences as the bow on the end of the narrative, it's the story of a man who loved life in a way that killed him as well as the other man who was held prisoner by friendship to watch him die.

Pear Cider and CigsSomething I was unaware of when I agreed to review the short was that I was already quite familiar with Robert Valley as an artist, being the primary contributor to the character designs on the underrated and short-lived animated series Tron: Uprising. Valley's singular style is immediately apparent in his work, his figures designed with angular and exaggerated anatomy, at times equally grotesque as it is expressive caricature. In Pear Cider and Cigarettes, Valley is able to be even more free and stylized, adapting the pages of the graphic novel the short is based on with a look that comes off contradictively as both naturalistically gestural and glossily digital at the same time, using the book as storyboards for the art. One thing the viewer might notice is the short actually works more like a motion comic than a true animated film much of the time, with most shots being very subtly animated still images, full frame by frame animation shots being rare. While this might be seen as a handicap to the short, it never once took away from the film despite noticing this. The slight animation techniques used being expressive enough and intelligently utilized that it gives the "still images" more dimension and character than some fully animated flash cartoons. Valley's detail fleshing out the world and the careful attention to gesture delivered by the animation team sets the storytelling style beyond reproach, rich with surprise.

The audiowork rounds it out perfectly, with what looks like a very expensive catalog of licensed music to accompany the original contributions by Robert Trujillo. Smoky jazzy tracks from groups as disparate as Pink Floyd and Nightmares on Wax color the quiet rumble of the noir like narration, soothing and intimate, bringing you close to tell you previously unspoken secrets.

While a tough story to hear (and for Valley, I'd imagine, a tough story to tell), the short is a sad story, not a depressing one. There's a note of inevitability in Techno's eventual downfall and even his library of personal crimes along the way. A sense that for him, it would always end up this way somehow, a consequence of finding fulfillment in reckless and often selfish behavior. You don't hate him, even though you blame him. You don't mourn him, even though you feel the emptiness of his passing. While unflinching and presenting more flaws than admirable traits, Valley has crafted a beautiful, deeply felt tribute to his friend. One that invites you in to understand his friendship in a way that makes you feel his connection while only communicating in simple abstractions why he stayed so loyal to someone who only seemed to sacrifice when it was made biologically inescapable. It may have slick stylings, but the storytelling here results in one of the most real and grounded human stories I've experienced in quite a while.

[su_box title="Score: 5/5" style="glass" box_color="#8955ab" radius="6"]

Pear Cider & Cigarettes Creator: Robert Valley Price: $4.99 (Rent), $8.99 (Buy) Available Here!

[/su_box]

Review: Star Trek Beyond

I watched a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic documentary two years ago, about the Brony phenomenon. I'd seen one episode of the show and couldn't maintain interest, but I wanted to understand where the passionate love from adult men for the program came from. It wasn't a matter of judgment, but simply that the fandom seemed a genuine anomaly, fascinating in its own right in how it aggressively broke free of the strict gender demographic segregation of all ages media. The documentary didn't clear much up, but it did leave one impression on me. Repeatedly, one of the primary defenses of the show from the fans themselves was My Little Pony's morals. Men in their late teens and early twenties talked about how meaningful and powerful the show was for communicating life lessons like "being honest with your friends is good" and "be yourself." If anything the documentary left me more confused, making me wonder what cultural famine left adults feeling spiritually fulfilled and morally educated by these grade school morality tales. Boys loving something pink isn't bewildering to me. Finding "don't judge a book by its cover" deep when you're drinking age, is. startrekbeyondposterThis brings us to another cultural phenomenon, one that inspired bewilderment in its own age and helped establish the modern face of fandom as we know it. I'll proudly admit that as a young man, Star Trek was an important part of my moral education. Yes, after I just insulted thousands of young men for gaining self-empowerment from a show about cartoon horses I just claimed I was made a more complete person by a show about people shooting lasers in front of cardboard backdrops. However, I will go to task for the philosophical sophistication of The Next Generation any day. From the obvious examples like "The Measure of a Man" which hinged the drama on answering the question whether or not an artificial intelligence can be considered alive, to the less referenced like "Silicon Avatar," where arguments are made to the defense of the right to life of an intelligent entity of incredible destructive power. Not every episode was so philosophically arch, or particularly subtle, but before we had Star Treks where crew members had to decontaminate by stripping to their underwear and rubbing each other with lube (or pick your episode of Voyager where Star Trek died) it was a franchise that built its reputation on its championing of humankind, the value of life, and the constant strive to improve ourselves as individuals and a collective species.

That Star Trek is gone now, but that's not news. This intro isn't to bemoan the tragedy (genuine that it is) that Star Trek has become Mission Impossible in space. Star Trek '09 was that, and I enjoyed the movie immensely, despite its howling plot holes and crass bastardization of a once meaningful franchise. Because it was fun. Because it had personality and a sense of humor. It was still a hollow shell, but Star Trek as a property had been dead for years, seeing it strung up with 'splosions and women in their underwear wasn't as offensive as it might have been at one time. Until Into Darkness came along. Ugly, mean-spirited, and shitting on Roddenberry's spacebound ashes, Into Darkness was one of the worst experiences I've had in a theater this last decade. I actually started writing on this site because of a positive review someone wrote here that inspired me to throw my own misanthropic hat into the critical slurry. Like Man of Steel (and even more fittingly, Batman Vs. Superman), the outrage wasn't entirely ignored, and this year's Star Trek Beyond was championed by the producers, screenwriters, and cast as a return to form for Star Trek. It's about exploration. It's about teamwork. It's about adventure. Simon Pegg was screenwriting. We're sorry. We're so begrudgingly sorry for Into Darkness. Please forgive us with your money.

star_trek_beyondThis was the intro to the review. It's longer than some entire reviews I've written. It's this long because I need you to understand. I need you to understand how a man who claims The Phantom Menace was deeply upsetting to him, helped kill Star Trek even deader than it already was. It's because of promises like saying your bringing Star Trek back to its roots. Nobody should have believed it, and I certainly didn't. It's directed by someone whose major claim to fame is making the Fast and the Furious films popular again; it's not going to be real Star Trek. That's not the problem. The problem is having a seemingly smart talented screenwriter say that, and then deliver us My Little Pony.

This is a more hopeful Star Trek. Gone is the post 9-11 grey Rainbow Six: Galaxy vibe. The score by the exceptionally talented Micheal Giacchino (as forgettable as it is this time around) is more upbeat and makes more intentional nods to the original series. The movie doesn't end with the Enterprise crew wearing pseudo-Nazi uniforms this time. However, the moral sophistication they try to introduce is laughably childish. While Into Darkness even briefly toyed with debating the morality of executing criminals without trial, the beating moral heart of Star Trek Beyond is "war bad, peace gud." The cast awkwardly and horribly crams bland meaningless maxims about togetherness and unity between the endless babbling technoexposition, making them sound more like a lame cult than morally informed citizens of humanity. The villain retorts in his asthmatic rumble with contrary statements that have all of the intellectual challenge and subtly of a Care Bears villain. Star Trek Beyond isn't worse than Star Trek Into Darkness. The one saving grace of the film is Darkness made a goal out of spraying cookie shits all over one of the best entries in cinematic Star Trek, while this one tells its own story, meaning they only get to ruin their own work. What Beyond is, however, is more pathetic. I was ready to give this film a chance. I even liked a lot of what it started with. What I got was another confirmation that trailers do in fact tell you everything you need to know about blockbusters today. Trust your instincts, nobody is even trying anymore.

star_trek_beyond_ver8All of the good things about the movie fit in the first 30 minutes. Immediately, Star Trek Beyond does some smart things. It jumps right into the characters without obnoxious ostentatious buildup. The characters don't get their own dramatic introduction, there isn't a big reveal of the Enterprise. Instead, Beyond throws you into the story like you'd never left it. I imagine the thinking was to recreate the feeling of coming back to the next episode of a television show, just another chapter without the unnecessary wonderment at seeing these characters together again. It's a welcome choice that felt smarter than the dumb "Raiders of Twizzler Planet" opening Darkness stared with. The characters are introspective but not so far as to be broody. Leonard Nimoy's death is referenced in a way that could have been very interesting, as in-universe Old Spock dies as well, making Young Spock reflect on the meaning of the time he has left. It's a great idea. That's what I'm doing here. Listing the few great ideas.

My favorite idea, that could have resulted in a great adventure movie, is the splitting up of the crew. After the big plot centric disaster, the crew is divided into pairs, allowing for much more screen-time and a split focus, giving everyone moments and things to do (except Uhura, who once again is relegated to looking distraught at things). Breaking up the bromance of Kirk and Spock, the oft ignored Leonard McCoy gets to hang out with the green blooded bastard, playing the Odd Couple in space the original show cast them as. Scotty gets to hang out with a new playmate, a "badass" lady alien wearing makeup seemingly plagiarized from the Morlocks in that terrible Guy Pearce version of The Time Machine. Kirk and Chekov team up to essentially... eh, it doesn't result in much. It's a pity The Green Room couldn't have premiered after this so it could have definitively been Anton Yelchin's farewell picture, as he's easily the most wasted member of the cast this time around. Star Trek Beyond does what the X-Men franchise always needed to do, have the balls to tell stories with characters that aren't the go-to leads. Seeing Spock and McCoy have their own mini adventure was nice, and when the crew reforms they still all have their own dynamics with each other (except Sulu, because he was paired with Uhura, which again, was only there to look really, really upset at stuff). Great. Great. This is good screenwriting and I am happy to see it in play. Except it's got no charisma. I laughed twice during this movie, and smiled once, and this film is front loaded with jokes. Problem is, the jokes are all stale fill in the blank adventure comedy humor. For coming from the co-writer of probably the perfect comedy film since the turn of the millennium, Hot Fuzz, Simon Pegg's script is loaded with the most obvious rote one-liners you can think of, practically a checklist of comedy clichés. I'd love to blame Justin Lin, who clearly doesn't have a great handle on managing performances in the movie, lacking a certain energy that J.J. Abrams milked out of the talented ensemble, but these actors and this director had almost nothing to work with.

Keep in mind, we just finished covering the parts of the film I actually enjoyed. Now lets take the turn.

Dr-McCoy-Star-Trek-Beyond-posterI'm going to be an asshole and start the synopsis here, but that's only because proper context is required when discussing the utter desolation that is the climax of this film. While on their three-year mission into deep space, Kirk and crew stop by a futuristic new Starbase that proves that people still aren't done being amazed by the folding city visual from Inception. They intercept a survivor from a space disaster, apparently a ship marooned on a planet hidden in an impenetrable nebula, nebula in this film being a word that describes an asteroid field, because Beyond had to find some way to top the "cold fusion being cold" gaffe that Into Darkness gave us. The Enterprise being the only ship capable of penetrating the rocky mess, they find a trap waiting for them, a swarm of tiny ships that tear the Enterprise to shreds. The leader of this force is our villain, Durian Luther, who tries really hard to be memorable, intimidating, and ruthless, but instead gets a chair next to General Grievous and Balem Abrasax as high kings of worthless sci-fi villainy. The Enterprise destroyed, the crew has to band together to keep Durian Luther from using an extremely hackneyed and shockingly meaningless MacGuffin from destroying the universe... maybe.

It's something that doesn't strike you till the end, that every tiny detail in the movie is set up for an annoying payoff later, and the really big things you expect to be elaborated in more detail are left vague for some reason. There's a lot of little touches in the movie, moments that feel like world-building, but eventually every single one of those will come back to irritatingly result in a twist or action moment. Scotty's little mascot friend's acid spitting head-cold joke? The crew will use it to break out of prison. That video playing in the abandoned Starfleet craft? Will result in some inspiringly ill-conceived Keyzer Soyzeying of the main villain. Even fucking Morlock Babe's affinity for anachronistic 90's hip hop? Will result in the most stunning and horrifying moment of schlock in Star Trek history since a 57-year-old Nichelle Nichols did a sexy belly dance to distract some horny alien guards in The Final Frontier. I honestly couldn't believe what I was seeing. There are no words. Meanwhile, huge ideas are left completely unexplained. A character's physical transformation, key to the plot, is left without explanation. The MacGuffin, which has a long convoluted history of ownership, is never given a rational explanation for the transition of ownership, or character's arbitrary knowledge of it. The little stuff is given too much importance, and the big stuff is completely ignored.

star-trek-beyond-poster-internationalFinally, all the way at the bottom, the action sucks. Justin Lin, the guy who helped make the Fast and the Furious franchise not only successful again but financially capable of competing with Marvel superheroes, doesn't direct a single competent action sequence in all of this movie. Scenes are either hideously close up with Paul Greengrass shaky-cam, shrouded in inky darkness, or both. Like the Fast and the Furious, a couple dozen entirely fatal things happen to our leads with no physical repercussions, making them insultingly impervious to injury and tension. Most criminally, however, the action has no architecture. Even when fully lit, the action sequences are a messy blur of poorly directed and edited chaos, with characters blipping in and out of locations without any relationship to environments or each other. Contrast this to The Nice Guys, which came out earlier this year, a film that put a strong stamp on how modern action should be directed. The movie featured head-spinningly complex and multilayered action scenes, but through precise staging, attention to architecture, and clearly communicated character motivations, you could follow every beat perfectly. It's a relic from another era of action film-making, this thing called competence.

The film ends (no spoilers) with a toast to "absent friends." It's a callback, of course. Originally, it was made by Kirk, marking the passing of Spock in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. It was a nice somber moment, given weight by the beloved status of the departed character. It was reprised by the character of Jean-Luc Picard, mourning the death of Data in Star Trek: Nemesis, itself a reference, made somewhat awkward by Data's uninspired demise being compared to Spock's iconic death in Wrath of Khan. Finally, here in Beyond, it is broadly used to commemorate the deaths of hundreds of nameless background crew members of the Enterprise, only one of which had a name and plot function, and who ultimately serve as little but tributes to action scene carnage. Even compared to Nemesis, considered to be one of the worst Star Trek films, this has little dramatic weight. For all of its preaching and lecturing of the value of teamwork and crews being a family, ultimately the only characters we're told to care about dying are the ones who get their name on the poster. Sulu's new husband isn't just in the film as a marker of the changing face of diversity, but so we can stick a face in the crowd of fleeing citizens of Starfleet that we can pretend we care about. Ultimately, that's what always gave Star Trek its heart, the love of life. Exploration in Star Trek itself was always centered around life. You didn't see many episodes about geological surveys or measuring nebula (the non-asteroid kind), it was about other civilizations, the multifaceted, complicated, strangeness of life in all its expressions. In Beyond, life is a plot device, to be preserved only for its utility of dramatic tension. For all those promises of a new era of Star Trek, it's all the more disappointing to see a supposed attempt result in so little. The franchise as a franchise will continue on to a fourth entry, audiences apparently will respond well to x-treme dirtbike stunts in Star Trek films, but the soul is, and will likely remain, as dead as Morn.

[su_box title="Score: 1/5" style="glass" box_color="#8955ab" radius="6"]

Star Trek Beyond
Director: Justin Lin Writer: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung Run Time: 122 Minutes

[/su_box]

Review: The Boy and the Beast

I’ve had this movie on my “to watch” list for a good while now. It wasn’t until after our previous episode of Super S that I finally decided to give a whirl. I should have just left it there.

In a nutshell, The Boy and the Beast is about two beasts duking it out to take over for the grandmaster of the beast world as he is retiring and going to reincarnate into a god. One of the beasts, Kumatetsu (the beast), is in search of a disciple and decides to pluck one from the human world. Kumatetsu bumps into Ren (the boy), a runaway, and decides to take him on as his disciple. The story goes from there.

The-Boy-and-the-Beast-PosterThe animation in this movie is top notch. Everything is absolutely stunning. Both the beast world and human world are fucking gorgeous. There’s just the right amount of CG that it’s not overbearing or annoying. There are times when the human world looks like it’s an actual photo of Tokyo. It’s that good. The characters are also unique, no one character looks like the next. This is helped by the fact that the story mostly takes place in the beast world.

Sadly, though, I was bored halfway through the movie. The first half was great and chock full of character development. It was nice to see how Ren and Kumatetsu needed each and are better beings because of it. It’s just that the story dragged. As it is, the movie is two hours long, longer than your typical animated movie. Even then, it didn’t get to the climax until the last 20 minutes.

There’s also an underlying message in this movie: don’t let the darkness in your heart turn you into a monster. Great message, but did the grandmaster really have to tell us this as if we couldn’t figure it out on our own? No. It was painfully obvious when the “villain” turns to a black figure with a wormhole near his heart. Speaking of villain and painfully obvious, how stupid is everyone? From the second he was introduced, I knew that he was... well, I won't tell you that part.

Of course the movie ends with a happy ending, but by then I really didn’t care and just wanted it to finish. I went into this movie wanting so much and was extremely let down. The animation is by far the star and the saving grace of the movie, which is a real shame.

[su_box title="Score: 2/5" style="glass" box_color="#8955ab" radius="6"]

The Boy and the Beast
Writer/Director: Mamoru Hosoda

[/su_box]

Review: Kill Zone 2

I was more than surprised by this movie. After being disappointed by not one but five action flicks, Kill Zone 2 not only delivered on the story, but on the visuals as well. I don’t know if we have The Raid to thank for an increased awareness in Asian cinema when it comes to film/digital quality, but if so… thank you Raid.

Not to get all "back in my day," but when I first got into Asian cinema during college, the thing that I really liked was that the film quality was really good. Then there was a bit of a bust and every studio went back to cheap looking film. Clearly technology has gotten cheaper and so the quality of movies has gone up as well. I know this all seems unimportant to the review, but when you see Kill Zone 2 it looks like it was produced in Hollywood. In particular, there is one scene involving a phone falling into the water and the way it looks when it’s falling is actually quite beautiful and metaphoric.

The story is layered quite well. It spans from Hong Kong to Bangkok and gives each city’s actors their fair share of screen time. Though I will instantly tell you that that means that Tony Jaa never really “goes off” in the movie until the very end.

BD-2D-KZ2The story is basically two fold. There’s a human trafficking ring that the Hong Kong police are trying to shut down by sending in an undercover cop. He’s hooked on smack, but getting the job done. The kidnapping ring as they call it, is run by a rich sick dude in Hong Kong who funnels the people out to a prison run by one of his operatives in Bangkok. The sick dude needs a heart and decides that if his brother isn’t going to give him his, he’s going to take it by force. This is where the undercover cop comes into play as he’s invited to his first kidnapping.

Tony Jaa works at the prison, but he’s naïve to what really going on there. His daughter is sick and he’s basically just keeping his head down and trying to find her a bone marrow transplant that matches. Eventually, the undercover cop ends up in the prison after being exposed. Now he’s collateral for the rich dude to get his brother released to him.

As I said, the story is layered and there’s more layers that I won’t reveal to you. They are clever and while at times they feel conveniently added to the story, when you really look at them and look at the way they’re included you’ll find that it’s anything but convenient. You will spend some of the movie wondering when the other shoe will drop and the way that they reveal it was anything but typical. It was handled incredibly well and so there’s some major kudos to the writer of the movie.

For any martial arts film you need impressive bad guys. Obviously the sick rich dude isn’t going to throw down, but he surrounds himself with two awesome fighters that are both given great scenes to showcase their skills before their final battles. The setup is typical, but its executed so well. The Warden in particular had an awesome look. Seeing him fight in an expensive tailored suit was actually pretty incredible. As for the other fighter, I don’t want to spoil it. You’ll know him when you see him.

Really my one and only gripe is that Tony Jaa wasn’t given enough solo fight time. I mean he has a couple of moments when he goes off, but in large part it felt a bit like a Jackie Chan movie in which there’s only a handful of scenes in which he’s actually fighting. Which is actually good. I have to admit that it was a stronger movie and made Jaa come off as a stronger actor because of it. He’s leaps and bounds better than his first movies and is on his way to being an even bigger international name. That and if I really need to see more fighting from him I could go watch Ong Bak.

Wu Jing also does some great martial arts in the film. I really have no idea if he’s trained at all. He might have some training, but for the most part everyone he fights makes him look really good. They sell his moves for him so even if he isn’t trained in martial arts, he’s presented as knowing quite a bit. He also carries the other half of the movie for the most part and shows why he’s getting more and more roles. I actually became a bit of a fan of his after seeing this movie. Especially after a scene in the hospital that I won’t spoil for you because it’s really emotional.

Kill Zone 2 isn’t perfect. There’s a few spots that could have used another pass to really make it great, but it’s probably the best movie from the East that I’ve seen a couple of years. I enjoyed the story and the care that was used in layering it from beginning to end. The visuals were extremely impressive and the fighting was memorable and reinvigorated my desire to see more martial art films. And best of all, I have no clue if it had anything to do with Kill Zone 1 and didn’t need to know in order to enjoy this film.

[su_box title="Score: 4/5" style="glass" box_color="#8955ab" radius="6"]

Kill Zone 2
Director: Soi Cheang
Distributor: Well Go USA
Price: $24.98
Format: Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital

[/su_box]