Thursday, August 18, 2016

Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

Computer animation dominates the landscape of animated films and with the likes of Pixar or Dreamworks, it's easy to see why; however, when it comes to stop-motion animation, nobody does it better than Laika (Coraline, Paranorman, Box Trolls). Imaginative storytelling and a distinctive visual style set Laika apart and with Kubo and the Two Strings, the studio takes on their most ambitious project yet. What results is a playful yet patchy story brimming with stunning technical effects.

Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives a peaceful life in foregone Japan as a storyteller who uses magic origami to recall tales of mysticism and bravery to nearby villagers. After accidentally summoning an ancient evil, Kubo embarks on his own adventure to track down mythic artifacts supposedly capable of slaying the sinister forces.

If this sounds familiar, that's because it is. 'Kubo' relies heavily on common story beats. There isn't anything wrong with that either. There's enough creative mojo flowing through this film to forge an identity all its own. The story mostly suffers when it blazes its own path. A lot of its mythology is explained while some of it isn't, which may leave elder viewers feeling as if they've missed something.

Eventually, Kubo joins forces with an obstinate talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and, ironically, a quick-witted yet forgetful samurai-bug (Matthew McConaughey). While all three are strong characters in their own right, it's McConaughey's quirky insect warrior who stands out as the hilarious comic relief, even though a lot of the childish humor seemingly undermines the ancient, mythological setting established early on.  

Kubo's travels teach him important lessons about family, faith, and legacy. While these messages are important for youngsters, parents may walk out looking like Rudolph after how frequently the cheesy dialogue hits them on the nose with these morals.

The best thing about 'Kubo' is that despite the clunky, obvious script, it's never dull. Laika's hyper-stylized technical prowess combined with strong performances and an innocent sense of joy help balance out the more uneven elements, making Kubo and the Two Strings definitely worth your time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review: Pete's Dragon

Kids movies are exactly that: movies aimed at kids; however, it's the parents who pay the hefty prices of admission, so they deserve a wink and a nod every now and again. Tag on that Disney has been in the game long enough now that they know how to satisfy movie-going audiences both young and old. They've proved it time and again so there's no excuse for the tunnel vision this reimaging of Pete's Dragon has for the 12 and younger demographic.

Everything about this safe reboot is tailored to ensure the young ones can easily follow along. Its characters are never complex thus never compelling and David Lowery's stiff direction never challenges the actors to bring their A-game. Sure it boasts recognizable faces and names like Bryce Dallas Howard (now of Jurassic World fame) and the great Robert Redford to woo the grownups, but the performances never soar beyond showing up and reading lines.

What's more bland than the performances and these characters is the adventure they go on. It's very by the numbers. From the first familiar frames you know how this movie is going to unfold. Pete's Dragon hits so many recognizable beats that you'll quickly be singing along (so to speak).

The emphasis was obviously on bringing to life Elliot, the giant, plush-faced, computer generated dragon and to Disney's credit, he is the most enjoyable thing in the film. Pete's Dragon is very much a tale about a boy and his dog so it's not unexpected that most of Elliot's mannerisms resemble that of a domesticated hound. To be fair, it's quite endearing the way Elliot wags his tale when he's happy or whines when he's sad. You'd have to be heartless not to be won over by Pete's mythic pet.

Ultimately, that's about the only thing to be won over by. Because the filmmakers are so desperate to reach their younger audience, adults may often find themselves bored. I understand it sounds ridiculous to rag on a children's movie for being "too childish," but parents are people too and should be considered if they're going to be the ones financially supporting your product, especially at a cost that doesn't come cheap at the box office.

Is Pete's Dragon worth your time? Well I can tell you it's definitely not worth a ticket at the theater. I highly recommend waiting for digital release if you and the family want to take a ride with Pete's Dragon.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

"Star Trek Beyond" review

Star Trek is supposed to be about going where no one has gone before, yet the current big screen iteration hasn't covered new ground, err, space since it was brilliantly rebooted by J.J. Abrams back in 2009. While 'Into Darkness' cleverly rearranged familiar elements, it was still just a reworking of an existing story. In the same vein, Star Trek Beyond could easily pass as a glorified episode from the original series:

Captain James T. Kirk and his crew are stranded on an alien planet after an ambush lays waste to the Starship Enterprise. Scattered, with no way to communicate each other or outside worlds, our heroes must find a way to come together, take down their vengeful adversary and return home.

This time around, Abrams steps back into a producer role while Justin Lin takes the reigns as Director (Fast & Furious). It's a safe change of guards as Lin once again proves himself a master of huge, bombastic action; in particular, there is an extended sequence in which the Enterprise is again ripped a part that perfectly balances the chaos and melodrama of what's happening and freshens up an event we just saw in the last installment.

Action aside, the heart of any Star Trek story is and always will be the crew and the relationships they share. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, and newcomer Sofia Boutella all do excellent work; however, this might as well have been called "The Bones Show" as Karl Urban practically eats up the scenery and spits it back out as a series of one-liners. He steals every scene he's in for better or for worse. And while Idris Elba is a terrific talent and his makeup is on point, he isn't given much to do here as the villain outside of growling the typical evil mumbo jumbo. It's also unfortunate that his motives are strong but the logic behind his actions is lacking.

While Director Justin Lin and company could do much worse than a glorified episode, Star Trek Beyond very much feels like a safe bet as opposed to a new frontier, which goes against the spirit of the franchise. Because there are no risks made, Star Trek Beyond, while entertaining, is wholesomely forgettable.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Port of Dorks Cast: Episode 1


Port of Dorks is the name of my new podcast and the first episode is now live! We talk Suicide Squad and other dorky topics so if you're into that sort of thing, you should definitely give it a listen! Just click the link:

Thursday, August 4, 2016

"Suicide Squad" review

Suicide Squad is one of the most hotly anticipated films of 2016 and for good reasons. The recent 180 in its marketing campaign suggests a fun experience with a stellar cast; it's just the third entry in the DC Extended Universe and many movie-goers are eager for another installment; also, Suicide Squad is hot off the heels of Batman v. Superman, one of the most divisive films of the year. Will it share its predecessor's fate by bombing critically and not live up to its massive box office expectations?

While Suicide Squad is sure to rake in dump trucks of money starting Thursday night, it's already bathing in the same critical tub as 'BvS.' Currently sitting at a 29% on the Tomatometer (at the time of this review), critics are making like Harley Quinn and bashing the film. But does Suicide Squad deserve better?

The answer is "No, not really." The script is awful. Supposedly, Writer-Director David Ayer was given only six months to pen the screenplay and it shows.

This film plays more like a two hour music video than an actual story. It introduces the marquee members of the squad in short, bite-sized montages set to different pop songs while other members get barely any notice and zero development throughout. David Ayer also relies on this technique during big, action set pieces designed to showcase each member's specific skillset as they tear into hoards of faceless, nameless henchmen while you tap your toes along and wonder what makes this different from any other action flick.

The only semblance of plot rears is revealed late into the film and by then I was already tired of these characters. Aside from Will Smith's Deadshot, Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn (who seems ripped straight from Batman: The Animated Series), and a few Batman Cameos starring Ben Affleck, there isn't anything special about these people. Even with the emphasis on the more important characters, everybody's motivations are unfocused, which makes them feel less like actual people and more like cartoons. This negates the more intimate scenes where they're all divulging their true selves to one another.

Speaking of characters, there's been a lot of hype about Oscar-Winner Jared Leto as the new Joker. While the sample size is too small to yet confirm or deny him as the greatest big screen Joker of all time, I must say I was not impressed by what I saw. Aside from the signature green hair, there isn't anything in Leto's performance to suggests this character is the Joker. David Ayer could easily have dropped him in from any other gangster movie and I wouldn't be able to tell the difference. He also mumbles his lines so it's difficult to understand what he's saying most of the time.

Another character seemed plugged from any other movie is the villain. I don't want to give away who it is, but what I can say is that they're underwhelming. Their motivations aren't quite clear and how they go about executing their endgame is equally confusing. During the climactic fight scene it's hard not to wonder what in the world is going on and how we ended up here.

By the end I felt as if I'd seen this movie many times before. Because Ayer was give so little time to develop his script, the end result is an amalgamation of a lot of different things we've seen before and in better films. And while Suicide Squad isn't a terrible film, there isn't anything that sticks out about this film or makes it unique. Ultimately, this means it's not worth the price of admission but maybe a one-time rental down the road.