Tag Archives: Japan

“KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS” Review (✫✫✫1/2)


The kid’s a great musician AND origami artist.

Kubo and the Two Strings is not only better than most of today’s animated movies: it’s also better than most of its live-action ones. That’s because it fully believes in its vision and purpose, giving genuine, real life to these characters that we perceive as fictional and adding weight to the adventures that they go through. Kubo and the Two Strings fully believes that everything going on in this movie is real, even though none of it is real.

Or is it? When you were told stories as a child, were your first instincts to question how true any of it was? Did you ask if Arthur really did pull the sword out of the stone, if David truly beat the Goliath, or if Jack really did climb up a beanstalk? Of course you didn’t, because you didn’t need to ask. We already believed that they were real. Any validation beyond that would have taken away from our enjoyment of the amazing stories we were told.

Kubo and the Two Strings is yet another amazing story to tell, a movie about a boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) who is on the run, protecting his mother from the clutches of his evil grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Kubo has two friends accompanying him on this journey: Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), who is the most dysfunctional pair of animals that have ever gone on any journey. Monkey is the type A protective companion who will stop at nothing to make sure Kubo is safe. Beetle is more laid back, relaxed, and is more prone to dreaming rather than fighting. Together, these three embark on an adventure to defeat the Moon King and free Kubo from his clutches forever.

Right off of the bat, I need to praise the visual style of this project. Filmed using stop-motion animation, Kubo and the Two Strings feels and breathes like ancient Japanese mythology, its characters talking, fighting, flipping, and moving like the origami figures Kubo loves to craft in his spare time. The fourth film to be produced by animation studio Laika, Kubo mimics the claymation style of its predecessors, including Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls, and it stands strong alongside them.

Yet, Kubo stands out even among these films, not only being a stellar and entertaining animated film, but also an exciting and thrilling action film as well. In one sequence, Monkey is fighting one of the Moon King’s underlings on a boat made out of autumn leaves during a violent sea storm. The choreography in this fight looked incredible, with Monkey flipping around using all four of her limbs, her enemy swiping at her with her hand blades, their swords colliding and sparking during the loud crashing of waves and lightning.

I want to assert that this sequence, like every other frame of this film, was animated. Yet, it featured action on-par with most of today’s live-action films. More than the highway sequence in Deadpool, more than the titular fight in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the action in this sequence impressed me. It impressed me with its fast-paced energy and lightning-quick reflexes of its characters. It impressed me with its use of environment and how they bounced and deflected attacks off of each other into the sail and deck. Even though this sequence was animated, it impressed me how exciting and thrilling it was compared to most of this year’s summer blockbusters.

The rest of the film does not let up on the action or the excitement. Besides it’s incredible display of visual and technical prowess, the film also has an incredible story to get wrapped up into. With a story by “Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends” animator Shannon Tindle and a screenplay by Paranorman scribe Chris Butler and Marc Haimes, Kubo and the Two Strings is confident in its lore and mythology, so much so that not only are spin-offs and sequels encouraged: I think it’s even necessary. This is a deep, complex narrative on display, and the movie demonstrates a strong understanding of its characters and how they affect each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a sequel to Kubo and the Two Strings in the near future, and I would welcome it with excitement and anticipation.

There is one plot twist in the movie that doesn’t fit with the overall plot and creates more problems rather than solves them. Besides that, this is a flawless movie. Like Akira and Spirited Away, this is a movie that challenges animated movies and what they can accomplish. And at the heart of it all is a brave young boy, trying to live his life without the things that he needed most.

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“GODZILLA” (2014) Review (✫✫1/2)

Should have been called “Mutos” if you ask me. 

There are two questions that always come into my head every time I watch a reboot: Is it different from the original, and is it necessary? The answer to both is usually no, it isn’t. Why would it be? Most studios just cash in on the name of their franchise and re-brand it, rather than coming up with an original take of their story, breathing life and energy into a franchise that has since been left stale. Perfect example: did anyone find Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version of Godzilla to be even remotely tolerable?

With this new version of Godzilla, I can say that it at least succeeded as a reboot in that it is different from the original. Whether that is a good different is something I’m still struggling with. I feel like I’m one of the helpless human beings running away from all the giant monster ruckus going on in the middle of Japan: I’m in the middle of a disarray of loud noise and violence, and while I’m fascinated by what is going on, I’m ultimately distraught because these giant monsters are destroying the things that I love.

Directed by Gareth Edwards, the writer/director behind 2010’s Monsters, Godzilla stars Aaron Taylor Johnson as Ford, a lieutenant who just came back from his service in the Navy. His wife and child (portrayed by Elizabeth Olsen and Carson Bolde) are more than eager to have their family whole again, and couldn’t be happier to see him when he finally comes home.

Only one problem: Ford’s father, Joe (Bryan Cranston) just got arrested in Japan for intrusion on private property. You see, about fifteen years ago, poor Joe was dutifully working as an engineer for a power plant in Japan. After scanning some strange readings off of the richter scale, he witnesses the death of his wife as the power plant quickly collapses before him.

Everyone around Joe believes that what he witnessed was a massive earthquake, including his son Ford. Joe doesn’t believe that it was an accident, and thinks there’s something much more sinister afoot than what everyone thinks. As Joe and his son continue to investigate the evidence he’s collected, they begin to become more aware of a giant conspiracy that the Japanese governments are working to hide, and soon, they come into contact with the biggest and most dangerous secret of all: a giant monster, the king of all beasts nicknamed “Godzilla”.

Looking back at this film, I am reminded by not how much I enjoyed this movie, but how much Peter Jackson’s King Kong got right as a remake. When reboots are done right, they are like King Kong: they are smart, clever, well-structured stories that are exciting, involving, and pay delicate homages to the source material. When they go wrong, they are like Emmerich’s Godzilla: explosions of CGI and visual effects garbage that go in every direction except for to the point.

With this new Godzilla, it takes steps to be a unique monster-sized reboot, but whether it reached the top of the staircase is another thing to be decided. I liked a lot of things about this movie. Edwards does a good job balancing the destruction with the human interest. Godzilla himself is a sight to see. The fights between him and these Cloverfield-like monsters called “Mutos” are a thing of classic Godzilla fandom. And Bryan Cranston was a clear emotional standout in the movie, giving a invested performance that was more than what the movie deserved.

One my biggest gripes with the movie is this: Godzilla isn’t in it. Or at least, not as much as I would like him to be. When you watch monster movies like King Kong or Jurassic Park, you get an overwhelming sensation of the scope and size of the creature’s presence, of the ground shaking when they take a step, or their shadows lurking over you as they quietly stalk their prey. I’m frustrated not by Godzilla’s physical appearance, but rather how infrequently he appears during the movie. The Godzilla movie has a total run time of 123 minutes, and where is he during the most of it? Swimming around in an ocean, spikes popping out, chasing monsters smaller than him that he could have easily killed 30 minutes ago.

Granted, I know what Edwards was trying to accomplish here. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Cranston compared the film to Steven Spielberg’s 1970 classic film Jaws, in that it doesn’t immediately show the monster, but its tension and presence could always be felt in it.

There, however, is one big reason why that doesn’t work with this movie. The shark in Jaws is a 300-foot shark lurking and sneaking through it’s quiet habitat in the waters. Godzilla is a 9,000 ton monster stomping his way through cities. I don’t think subtlety is supposed to be part of its nature.

As far as it’s lead goes, Taylor-Johnson is stock, a plain and uninteresting cutout of a soldier whose character is so one-note that he might as well be a cowbell instrument. For Pete’s sake, if you’re going to go to use the Hollywood hero archetype, can you at least get someone who is good at it? I could easily see someone like Tom Cruise or Jude Law in Taylor-Johnson’s role and succeed just as much at doing it. In fact, I almost prefer it. His emotions aren’t subtle, he doesn’t do a good job at expression, and at times he recites lines so casually that we could possibly be fooled into thinking that he was reading off of a cue card.

I went back and forth on whether or not I liked this movie, juggling around the things in my head that I did and didn’t like in the film. Ultimately though, if I’m having this hard of a time understanding what the movie was supposed to be, then usually so did the film itself. Godzilla is a decent reboot, restarting the franchise with a modern twist that I know many film aficionados will appreciate, but it should have been more. More as in better acting. More as in better handling, and more as in more of the freaking monster, period. Either way, the movie didn’t leave its mark on me, and when I talk to fans of the franchise since it’s debut, they too indicate that they prefer the original over the reboot. Hey, at least Godzilla had more screen time.

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“RUSH” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Don’t think.  Don’t pause.  Just drive.  

I couldn’t have thought of a better title for the movie Rush, because that’s exactly what it is: an unstoppable and uncontrollable rush of energy, excitement, and gravitas, a movie that starts on a high note and simply refuses to let up all the way through.  I hear a lot of complaints that there are biographical movies that are more concerned with cashing in on people’s legacies rather than making an authentic account of a person’s true story, such as Jobs or The Iron Lady.  Here is a break from all of that, a refreshing and ideal account of two racers who live every moment of their life trying to figure out how to beat the other guy, while understanding that their symbiotic relationship is what made them both great racers in the first place.

Focusing on the 1976 Formula One Grand Prix season, Rush follows the story of two different racers, both with polar opposite personalities and complexions.  James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a hard-headed racer who races with passion instead of brains, and a playboy who drinks a lot, smokes a lot, and sleeps with beautiful women, a lot.  Nicki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) is a intelligent, smart, and crafty german who is just as focused and analytical as he is rude and ignorant. The film chronicles the contempt they feel for each other and the mutual respect that makes them strive to be better than the other man.

Before you go and see this picture, I encourage you to go online and google the names “James Hunt” and “Nicki Lauda” and look at their images.  Got it?  Okay, now that you’ve done that, go and watch the movie.

If you actually took the time to open up another tab and look at the images, you will be just as shocked as I was.  Comparing the sight of Lauda and Hunt with that of Bruhl and Hemsworth isn’t comparing them at all: they look exactly like the same characters, from the red jackets around their back to the color and hairstyles that we see on their heads.

I love it when movies do this: when movies are so accurate to the real-life figures that they copy their appearance so accurately, it is nearly impossible to differentiate from them.  We’ve seen this from The Fighter in 2009, and recently from Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.

Here is yet another example of a movie that is compelled by truth and driven by accuracy, pun intended.  Rush is exhilarating.  Exciting.  Edgy.  Anticipative.  Emotional.  True.  Everything about this movie is a heart-pounding, sweat-pouring adventure, and what’s truly impressive is not that the movie makes us feel this way: its the fact that it really happened, and that really director Ron Howard is just documenting it rather than retelling it.

One of the highlights in the film are easily its lead actors.  Not only do Hemsworth and Bruhl look exactly like the people they are portraying: they act like them too, with their rivalry and their edginess apparent in every fraction of a scene.  Sometimes their clashes are funny, like the dialogue bits between Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network, while at other times its strikingly serious like the James Braddock/Max Baer rivalry in Cinderella Man.  Whatever the situations, these actors do well at remaining in tense situations and they never, ever break their character.  Hemsworth is energetic, lively, and egotistical as Hunt, a man whose only loves are beautiful women and racing.  Bruhl is equally as egotistical, but he’s got a sly smartness about him you can’t help but appreciate.  There’s one great scene where Hunt calls Lauda a rat and he responds by saying “You think I’m hurt that you call me a rat, Hunt?  Rats are ugly, but they are smart.  Intelligent.  I am proud of that.”

The film doesn’t slow down at their performances, however, and filmmaker Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) are quick to follow up on the pace of these two fine actors.  The guys who made Fast And Furious could take a hint or two from this movie. Morgan and Howard not only succeed in making the movie exciting and suspenseful through key moments in races, press conferences and private, vulnerable moments when these racers are all by their lonesomes: they’ve managed to make it gripping and relevant, a grounded drama thats equal parts and insightful into these two men’s lives that we feel like we’re witnessing their story upfront in the pit, not viewing it from far away on the sidelines.

Oh, I could go on all day praising this film and how all the elements culminate into a near masterpiece.  The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is tense, unsettling, and noble, defining these men’s relationship just as well as the movie does.  The editing is tight, crisp, and clean at the hands of collaborators Daniel Hanley and Mike Hill.  For Pete’s sake, even the cinematography by Anthony Mantle was so good at capturing emotions and details so intimate, Howard would probably have missed some of them if Mantle wasn’t there to point them out.

Bottom line: Rush is entirely, unforgettably awesome.  It’s a strong and powerful tale about two passionate racers who knew what they were after and were willing to sacrifice whatever they could to go after it.  We see why they want to beat each other.  We understand who they are and why they are racing.  We know what makes them tick and we want to see them make it through every pulsating moment of the film in order to accomplish their dreams.  Trust me, you’re going to want to sit in on this race.  Oh, and bring your seatbelt.  You’re going to need it.

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“MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO” Review (✫✫✫✫)

My name isn’t Totoro, kids.  It’s Hayao Miyazaki. 

Now this is what we’re supposed to get when we go in to see an animation picture.  My Neighbor Totoro is everything you expect it to be, and equally as much everything you don’t expect it to be.  This is definitely a kids movie, intended to fulfill the needs of the most innocent and simple-minded of younger viewers.  But this is a rare treasure for adults too, a film that is equally fulfilling and emotionally appealing to older audiences as it is upbeat and joyous for the younger ones.

Taking place in 1950’s Japan, My Neighbor Totoro follows the story of two young sisters named Satsuki and Mei (English dub by Dakota and Elle Fanning), who are moving into their new home with their father Tatsuo (Tim Daly) in order to be closer to their mother in the hospital, Yasuko (Lea Salonga).  Their mother has been sick with an unknown disease for quite some time, and it really concerns the girls because they can’t even get her home for a visit.  Most affected is Satsuki, because her father is always busy, Mei is painstakingly afraid that her mother will leave them, and Satsuki is forced to be the strong one during this time of hardship.

Deep in the forest though, the girls encounter strange beasts of wonder and splendor.  There are these small, darkly black fuzz balls called soot spirits, who hibernate from one dark spot to another.  There are two bunny-like creatures, one white young one who can phase through objects like a ghost, and an older blue one who carries a knapsack of acorns with her everywhere.  Most fascinating though, is a giant, loud, gray beast called Totoro (Frank Welker), a gentle-hearted forest spirit who loves nothing more but to sleep and play on his flute in the silence of the night.  The girls are at first afraid of Totoro’s large, intimidating appearance, but through his gentle, kind-hearted spirit, learn to appreciate him and become friends with Totoro and the forest creatures.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro is a rare animated film where the characters are as vibrant and colorful as the beautiful animation that is being expressed on screen.  You really just need to see these little girls in action: they’re one of the most energetic, emotional, endearing, and inspiring little characters I’ve ever seen.  I knew from the first moment I saw them that I would like them: they are these little oddballs of energy, two cute girls who are literally exploding with energy and enthusiasm as they run across the front lawn, or explore the mysteries of their upstairs attic.

The best moments, however, come from when the little girls encounter Totoro.  Looking from a straightforward perspective at Totoro, its a case of what you see is what you get.  He’s a big, fluffy creature who loves to eat, dance, fly, talk (and by talk, I mean roar loudly), and more than anything else, sleep.  If this were any other animated film, I would say the character was another interpretation of Garfield.

I, however, think Totoro is required for more fervent analysis.  I can’t help but look at Totoro like an emotional recompense for the girls, almost like an imaginary friend to distract them from the pain they experience everyday through their sick mother.  Kids with only one parent will know what I’m talking about: when the one you love is in pain or worse, they want everything in the world to distract them from the reality of what they are experiencing.  Its simply too painful for them to take in all at once.  They need something to distract them, to divert them from reality, and so the younger ones try to focus on something fictional that will put their mind at ease, like an imaginary friend for them to talk with.

Totoro reminds me of that imaginary friend.  Unlike an imaginary friend, however, Totoro is real, and this is proven through the interactions he has with the girls.  He is not just a simple-minded, unintelligent forest animal.  He is considerate towards the girls.  He cares for them.  He expresses real and genuine affection for the girls, and he shows this by dancing with them in the middle of the night, growing trees with them in their backyard, or by letting them ride his Cat Bus in cases of emergency.  Even though Totoro is fictional, he’s the most real thing in the movie, taking the girls story filled with hardship and tragedy and filling it with energy, enthusiasm, and life that cannot be faked in a movie.

Every single fiber of me wants to look at this movie and say it is a perfect film, but something stops me.  What is it?  It certainly isn’t the characters, the animation, the story, or the emotion being expressed on screen.  What is it then, if its none of the above?

Of course, I think.  Accessibility.  The weakness with this film, much like the stark foreign language films and the ancient black-and-white silent films, is that it strictly appeals to a certain audience.  You know what I’m talking about: what is the typical american viewer going to see, a boisterous and explosive action movie with big name actors starring in it, or some independent animated film made by some guy whose name they can’t even pronounce?  The weakness here is this: people who don’t like anime won’t like it, and probably shouldn’t see it, because this film mainly appeals to that same audience and culture through its story and through its execution.  Because of that, Totoro will lose some viewers in its audience.

But even then, is that the fault of the filmmaker for not conforming to their tastes, or the audiences for not being open about it?  Regardless of what you think, My Neighbor Totoro is a magical little film, an uplifting and wonderful fantasy that taps into the inner child in all of us, and in many ways reflects the behavior of children: animate, lifelike, endearing, sincere, and visually expressive.  It’s a movie whose characters are so precious and lifelike that a live-action portrayal couldn’t have been as real as this.  It’s a film that allows us to believe in miracles, even if we don’t necessarily believe in them.  And at the heart of it all is Totoro, a warm, fluffy forest spirit that only loves children more than he does sleeping on his favorite moss bed.

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