Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but even after watching Kubo and the Two Strings, I had no idea it was a stop-motion animation movie. It was only when I saw a short featurette of the movie on YouTube a week later that my mind was blown. They did all that? I guess you could say it’s a testament to the incredible hard work and dedication of stop-motion animators and filmmakers, or if you want to be cruel, that it’s a waste of time because technology has advanced to the point where computer animation is basically indistinguishable.

Anyway, Kubo has been hailed as one of the best animated motion pictures of the year for being original, visually spectacular and funny. I decided to go see it because my son started begging me to take him after he saw a trailer with a giant monster and a sword. As I’ve repeated ad nauseam, animated flicks are usually not my thing, and with that in mind, I have to say Kubo was a slight disappointment for me solely because of the high expectations.

Though it’s produced by American stop-motion animation company Laika, Kubo is set in ancient Japan and tells the story of the eponymous boy who lives in a seaside cave with his ill mother. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) can play this musical instrument called a shamisen (literally “three strings”), which can magically bring origami to life. He uses this skill to tell stories in the village to make ends meet. Of course, something dramatic happens to spark Kubo’s quest out into the world to find three magical items, with a talking Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and giant Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) by his side. In his way are his two aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara) and the evil Moon King (who else but Ralph Fiennes?).

It’s an adventure film filled samurai sword action, cool monsters and family drama. I suppose in contrast to all the animation sequels we tend to get these days, it’s fair to call Kubo original. But for someone who grew up on anime and manga like me, the story is par for the course.

My main problem with the film, however, is that it didn’t make a whole lot of sense from a narrative or logic perspective. Yes, fables don’t always necessarily make perfect sense, though for me the contrivances of the plot took me out of the film a little bit. The humour was fine, but I didn’t laugh that much, and the twists were quite easy to predict too, so I never found myself really impressed by the film apart from the visuals.

I sound more negative than I intend to be, because I actually thought Kubo was very good. The animation is seamless and the details in both the characters and the sets are absolutely incredible. Watching the featurette certainly improved my appreciation of what a tedious and momentous task such films are to make. I’m merely saying that I was not as blown away by the film as many others were (97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 84% on Metacritic).

My two sons had different reactions to the movie. My elder son (4.5 years old at the time) loved it, especially the creatures, while my younger son (3 years at the time) found some the scenes frightening. Indeed, some of the characters had scary designs and the darker moments were quite eerie, so parents should keep that in mind when deciding whether or not to show it to younger children.

Ultimately, Kubo and the Two Strings is still worth watching simply for the amazing stop-motion visuals and the refreshing concept. Those who enjoy samurai swords and quest adventures should also find it enjoyable because the action sequences are well choreographed and the creature designs look really cool. But as with all films, keep expectations in check, or you might reach the same conclusions about it as I did: Not a disappointment as a film but disappointing relative to high expectations.

3.5 stars out of 5

Finding Dory (2016)

I’ll be the first to admit that I was never the biggest fan of Finding Nemo. Don’t get me wrong, I quite liked it — it was cute and amusing and all that — but I was just stunned by how much everyone else absolutely loved it. And so I was not particularly excited when they finally announced, after what felt like forever (13 years, in fact) that the sequel/spin-off, Finding Dory, was finally going to be released. I actually wasn’t even going to see the movie but my kids wanted to, so we all went.

As the title suggests, Finding Dory is all about tracking down the lost regal blue tang with short-term memory loss voiced by Ellen DeGeneres from Finding Nemo. It was of course not hard to get the ball rolling given Dory’s mental ailment, and this time it’s up to Nemo and his dad (again voiced by Albert Brooks) to track him down. Added to the all-star voice cast include Ed O’Neill as an octopus who has lost the tentacle, Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy as Dory’s parents, Ty Burrell as a beluga whale, and Idris Elba and Dominic West as sea lions, plus Sigourney Weaver, Bill Hader, Kate McKinnon, Allison Janney, Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett and Stephen Root. Holy crap that is a great cast.

Like its predecessor, Finding Dory is an adventure comedy that teaches us to about friendship and to believe in yourself and who you are. And like its predecessor, it’s also absolutely fine as an animated film. It’s beautifully animated, with a smorgasbord of bright colours and wonderfully rendered textures. It has a good handful of good laughs, solid one-liners, quirky characters, and a good dash of poignancy. 

But also like it’s predecessor, Finding Dory didn’t really wow me — and for me there were no expectations to live up to. I didn’t remind it and you could even say I enjoyed it, but I certainly wouldn’t put it on the same level as say the Toy Story franchise or Up. It just didn’t affect me the way those films did.

My kids actually said they enjoyed it, though my elder son was disappointed there were no sharks like the first one, while my younger son fell asleep just before the climax (granted, it was a matinee screening). And as a true barometer of their interest, neither kept talking about the movie or re-enacted scenes from it for days afterward like they have for other films. Like father, like sons, I suppose.

As I have said many times before, I’m usually not the biggest fan of animated films, so take this review with a grain of salt. But I have to call it as I see it and declare that Finding Dory for me was just an above-average film experience that won’t have me running to get the Blu-ray any time soon.

3 stars out of 5

Deepwater Horizon (2016)

I finally got around to watching Deepwater Horizon, hailed by many as one of the biggest “pleasant surprises” of 2016. I intentionally avoided the trailer and the poster looked fairly generic, so I wasn’t really sure of what to expect. I had seen Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg collaborate on Lone Survivor, which was pretty decent, and I heard their next project, Patriots Day, is a real winner. Incidentally, all three movies are based on true stories.

Anyway, while I knew Deepwater Horizon was about the 2010 explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I had expected the movie to be an action flick where Marky Mark springs into action to save the day. I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I got instead was a pure disaster movie with incredible tension and spectacular visuals, while at the same time remaining respectful to those who sadly lost their lives in the tragedy. There are heroic elements, but the characters are not painted as heroes, merely victims.

The film begins as you would expect a film of this kind to begin, introducing us to the key characters and their normal lives. There is a bit of a lead-up to the beginning of the disaster itself, though it never comes across as time filler. The ominous vibe is handled really well, and even though you know what’s about to happen there is still a sense of unease and dread.

And when it finally hits — wow. I have not been so afraid of fire since watching Backdraft as a kid — which incidentally also starred Kurt Russell. In fact, Deepwater Horizon actually reminds me a lot of Backdraft, from the sense of danger to the deft explanations of the technical aspects of the science. Not that you need to know how oil rigs work to enjoy the movie, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

I’m sure Berg took a lot of liberties in the telling of the story, but it felt real, looked real, and sounded real. The visuals and sound are both very important because there are so many explosions and fires, and for the most part, the special effects are seamless. You feel the force of it all, without ever feeling like it’s just CGI.

Sure, there is not much time for character development. That said, you do get a sense of who each character is, though I’m not sure if that’s good writing/directing or just because there are so many recognisable faces. You’ve got Marky Mark and Kurt Russell, of course, as members of the rig team. Kate Hudson plays Marky Mark’s wife, while John Malkovich, as you would expect, plays a dickish BP executive. Gina Rodriguez plays a rig navigation office, and Dylan O’Brien (the lead from the Maze Runner franchise) is member of the drilling team.

In all, Deepwater Horizon is deserving of its “highly underrated” status. Accuracy aside, it’s a shame the film didn’t even make back its budget because it is definitely one of the more spectacular movies of 2016. It’s very hard to pull off a serious disaster movie that is not only gripping but has a bit of heart as well. Berg manages to do it without ever making the film feel exploitative. Definitely worth catching this one if you haven’t already.

4 stars out of 5

Green Room (2016)

As far as non-supernatural horror-thrillers go, Green Room is about as terrifying as you can get.

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the film is about members of a punk rock band who witness a crime while performing at a remote neo-Nazi bar and end up barricading themselves inside the titular green room (basically the waiting area/change room for performers), with a gang of vicious skinheads — led by Patrick Stewart, no less — out for their blood.

As he did with the acclaimed Blue Ruin, Saulnier takes this semi-original premise and turns it into a stripped-down, horrific, visceral experience. After a short build-up, the film gets insanely tense and claustrophobic. I don’t want to give away too much because the element of surprise works to the film’s (and your) advantage, though I must warn that you need a good stomach to sit through it, because there are some absolutely shocking images that will stick with you for a long time. It’s just a really brutal, uncompromising ordeal that forces you to place yourself in the shoes of the characters. What would you do in such a nightmarish situation?

This is the kind of film that proves that you don’t need a big budget or special effects to make a great horror flick. As long as you’ve got a director with the right vision and skills and well-cast, talented actors, you can create nail-biting tension and the thrills needed to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

Speaking of the cast (sigh), the late Anton Yelchin is magnificent as Pat, the bassist, exuding just the right amount of fear, desperation and vulnerability for the role. Patrick Stewart doesn’t have a big role, but he really showed me a different side to Professor X. The dude is straight up malicious. Apart from Yelchin and Stewart, Alia Shawkat (from Arrested Development), Mark Webber and Imogen Poots are the other known commodities. They’re all really good, Poots especially.

Granted, Green Room doesn’t look pretty and can be a harrowing experience — and hence not for everyone. But if you enjoy being terrified and can appreciate stripped-down, low-budget films that are well-made and acted, you really can’t get much better than this. With a running time of just 95 minutes, there’s no excuse for not checking it out.

4.5 stars out of 5

Masterminds (2016)

Masterminds is one of those films that seems like a good comedy premise on paper. Based on the 1997 Loomis Fargo robbery, the true story is about a bunch of dim-witted hillbillies who decide to steal US$20 million from a cash vault at a Loomis Fargo office one of them worked at. Throw in Napoleon Dynamite filmmaker Jared Hess and an SNL-heavy cast featuring Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig, Owen Wilson, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Jason Sudeikis (that’s essentially three-quarters of the new Ghostbusters), and the potential for laughs was obvious.

In practice, however, the film is forgettable, sporadic and not quite funny enough. Given the directors and the comedians involved, you should have a good sense of the type of humour the film goes for — it’s dominated mainly wacky character traits, awkward moments, and loads and loads of stupidity. The entire film revolves around the idea that these robbers are far too stupid to carry out this multi-million-dollar heist, and they were even more stupid in how they carried themselves afterward. They are portrayed as low-class, uneducated trailer-trash hicks, and sometimes the film treads a little close to the line of making fun of such people.

It’s farcical, outrageous stuff that’s only loosely based on fact and stretched to maximum idiocy for entertainment purposes, but if you are in the right mood or are a big fan of any of these actors, it’s possible you could find Masterminds fun and enjoyable. I admit that I laughed and giggled a few times, especially during the Kate McKinnon scenes, though on the whole, the comedy was simply too all over the place. It’s like throwing a bunch of skits at the audience and hoping something sticks. 

Unfortunately, far too many of the jokes fell flat for me, and at some stage the stupidity meter was so high that it made me begin to question just how much of the movie is actually true (Answer: Not that much). Stupid is funny. Too stupid can be lame. This is particularly so when these same characters sometimes show that they can actually be quite clever when the plot calls for it.

Zach Galifianakis is good in small doses, such as an episode of Between Two Ferns or a supporting role in The Hangover. As the lead of a feature-length film, however, he can be a little too much to stomach. As I noted earlier, the stand out for me was Kate McKinnon has his weirdo fiance. Kristen Wiig also had some good moments early on, and Jason Sudeikis plays to his strengths as a creepy contract killer. Owen Wilson and Leslie Jones, on the other hand, don’t get to demonstrate their comedic chops as much as I would’ve liked.

Ultimately, Masterminds is yet another one of those comedian-driven, ad lib-heavy comedies where the amount of fun the cast had making the movie did not translate properly to the finished product. Despite a few fleetingly funny moments, it just doesn’t have enough charm or deep belly laughs to do either the cast or the premise justice.

2.25 stars out of 5

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

Quick, think of one horror sequel that’s better than the original. I bet you can’t.

Well, now you can. Ouija: Origin of Evil is a damn miracle. While the first one was an absolute travesty to cinema, earning a spot on my “10 Worst Movies of 2014“, the sequel is actually a pretty solid little horror movie with some wit and some scares.

I totally forgot about the plot of the original, so it came as a surprise to me that Origin of Evil is actually a prequel of sorts (like the title wasn’t a subtle hint). Set in 1965, it’s about a widow (Elizabeth Reaser) who stages seances at her house with her two girls (Lulu Wilson and Annalise Basso). After incorporating a Ouija board into their seances, it later turns out that the younger daughter can contact the dead, and presumably their dead father.

But of course, spirits can be conniving, and soon the family finds itself battling a demonic presence in their house. As with all supernatural films, a priest (Henry Thomas — yes, Elliott from ET!) gets involved before things spiral out of control in a climatic finish.

Perhaps it’s because Ouija has set the bar so low that I enjoyed Origin of Evil this much. I liked the 60s setting, which looked nostalgic and felt authentic. Director Mike Flanagan, who has done some very solid horror work in the past like Hush and Oculus infuses the production with a sense of class and confidence, with none of the  silly “here we go” vibe of its predecessor. Rather than relying solely on jump scares, the film adopts an effective blend of atmosphere through creepy moments and character interactions. It’s also great that the characters mostly act like normal human beings rather than typical sceptics who won’t believe what’s happening right before their eyes.

Elizabeth Reaser (you may remember her as the mother vampire in The Twilight Saga) and young Lulu Wilson both deliver strong performances that are significantly better than anything you’ll see in the original film (even though Olivia Cooke is very talented). It’s amazing how much scarier a horror movie is when the acting is actually believable.

As stereotypical of such horror movies, however, Origin of Evil loses the plot in its third act and gets pretty ridiculous, though I’ve realised since that this was because it had to match the storyline of the original film. That said, the movie is already so much better than I ever thought it could be. Even though it’s not a top tier commercial horror flick like say The Conjuring, I would say Origin of Evil is good enough to land firmly in that second tier occupied by movies like Insidious).

3.5 stars out of 5

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

 

The first Jack Reacher film received mixed reviews and complaints about the casting of Tom Cruise (since the character is supposed to be 6’5″ in the books), but I was one of its biggest advocators. It was well-paced, intense, and Bourne-like in terms of some of the action sequences. It built the character of Jack Reacher into someone who could carry a film franchise, and I was looking forward to what dangers and mysteries he would face next.

For those who have seen the trailers, you’ll know the movie starts off with a promising bang, reminding us that Reacher is a deadly weapon and a genius detective who likes to teach bad guys a lesson. The narrative then takes Reacher to his old military headquarters to meet with Major Susan Turner (played by Colbie Smulders), but when he gets there she finds out that she’s been arrested. Of course, there’s some kind of conspiracy involved, and Reacher becomes embroiled in it and must figure out the mystery before it’s too late.

Sadly, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back ended up being really flat and just a notch or two down in every category. Reacher is less charismatic and likable this time around, and the plot simply isn’t very interesting. There are way too many thriller cliches — especially when it comes to an annoying young girl who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter (Danika Yarosh) — and the action itself is uninspiring.

Colbie Smulders tries really hard to infuse some energy, but even Tom Cruise looked a little tired. It’s a little bit of a shock because Cruise always has so much bouncy enthusiasm, and filmmaker Edward Zwick is clearly capable given his strong CV (Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai, Courage Under Fire, Love and Other Drugs). For some reason, however, the movie lacked the same kinetic energy that director Christopher McQuarrie was able to give to the first Jack Reacher and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

While it’s not terrible, there’s also nothing about Jack Reacher: Never Go Back that is memorable. I’m hoping this was an anomaly and the franchise can get back on track if they proceed with a third film. It has made US$160 million on a US$60 million budget thus far, so it’s definitely possible that Jack Reacher WILL go back after all.

2.5 stars out of 5

Morgan (2016)

Just about every year, there are a couple of movie releases that will take me by surprise. They kind of popped up out of nowhere, with no buzz or early trailers, but feature a cast of big Hollywood names. Morgan is one such film.

The first time I actually saw snippets of the Morgan trailer and poster was actually the weekend before its release. I had never heard of it and couldn’t believe it when I found out that it starred the likes of Kate Mara, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook (soon to be seen as the main villain in Logan), and Anya Taylor-Joy (who was absolutely brilliant in The Witch).

The poster seemed intriguing as well, dominated by a dark, hooded figure I could only presume was the eponymous protagonist (or antagonist, if you will). The trailer gave away wait too much as usual, but essentially, Kate Mara plays some sort of risk assessment manager who ventures into a secluded research facility that managed to genetically engineer a synthetic human being, ie Morgan (played by Anya Taylor-Joy). Pretty much everyone else in the cast is a scientist or a handler of some sort.

I was definitely intrigued. It seemed like a thinking person’s horror movie, with elements of Ex Machina and shades of the underrated Splice. Yes, it is yet another one of those “man should not mess with nature” or “living creatures should not be kept in captivity” cautionary tales, but the fact that such a great cast had faith in the project suggested to me that it would be worth watching.

Well, I was about half right. Morgan turned out to be borderline watchable. What started off as a compelling premise and some early tension soon crumbled into predictability and genre tropes. We all know Morgan’s not as innocent as she seems and that she will get out of her glass box eventually. But instead of pursuing the more interesting and thought-provoking opportunities the premise offers, Luke Scott, the son of legendary director Ridley (who produced the film), chose to indulge in the usual slasher and horror cliches. The action isn’t handled too shabbily, though it would be a stretch to call it outstanding. Same goes for the horror elements — Morgan (both the character and the film itself) never really scared me.

At some point in the movie, it also became impossible to not guess the “twist” at the end. It’s just so obvious and telegraphed that when it is finally revealed there is no sense of shock whatsoever.

Still, I have to be fair. Morgan is still at least serviceable and better than most of the straight-to-DVD horror-thrillers these days. The initial set-up is interesting, I’ll give it that, and the execution — whether it is the action, tension, or horror — is passable. Throw in a star-studded cast who genuinely seemed to put in effort rather than mail it in for a paycheck, and you end up with a movie that isn’t a complete waste of time but could have been so much better.

2.5 stars out of 5

A Monster Calls (2016)

I’m frankly a little stunned at how poorly A Monster Calls has performed at the box office. I remember the film getting a lot of buzz early on, and the trailer made it seem like the kind of emotionally-charged fantasy drama that critics adore . And the critical response was indeed kind (86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 76% on Metacritic). With a cast featuring Jynn Erso (ie, Felicity Jones), Sigourney Weaver and Aslan’s voice (ie, Liam Neeson) and directed by Spaniard JA Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, and the upcoming Jurassic World sequel), you would think the film would draw in big numbers. Yet, the film has yet to make back its low budget of just US$43 million.

Personally, I liked A Monster Calls a lot. It’s perhaps not as amazing or enjoyable as I hoped it would be when I first encountered the initial buzz, but it’s nonetheless an unusual and original fantasy film with wonderful visual effects, powerful performances, and a good dose of heart.

Based on the eponymous novel by Patrick Ness, the film is essentially a coming-of-age story of a young boy (played magnificently by Lewis MacDougall from Pan) who conjures a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) as a way of dealing with his single mother’s (Felicity Jones) struggle with cancer. Sigourney Weaver plays his traditional and strict grandmother, while Toby Kebbell plays his absent father.

As you can gather from that premise, A Monster Calls is a heavy film — dealing with death, bullying, and generation gaps — and I can understand if some people found it too emotionally draining to sit through. It also has a strange structure, in which the monster appears to tell fables rendered in stylish animation. Each fable has an underlying message, but it’s vague and subject to interpretation (think The Alchemist, if you’ve read that book), which could be frustrating or enlightening, depending on your perspective.

The colour palette is greyish and the tone of the film is dark — too dark for young children — and there are some scenes that could be described as scary or certainly unsettling. I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near as creepy, but it does have a tinge of that Pan’s Labyrinth vibe. It’s got an odd feel to it, which I like  because it’s different and puts me on edge, though it could put a lot of audiences — both young and old — off the film. And I suppose that’s where it fails, as the film is too dark and heavy for kids and also potentially too confusing for adults expecting a more straightforward story.

That said, it’s hard for me to not appreciate the movie. The creature design is awesome, with the special effects capturing the weight and size of a moving, walking tree with all the fine details you would expect. The cast is fantastic, especially young MacDougall, who I believe is destined for stardom as he’s only 14. Felicity Jones is lovely as always, and the big surprise for me was Sigourney Weaver. It’s not just her ability to pull off the British accent either — the range of emotions and restraint she puts into the grandmother character is impressive. And of course, you can never go wrong with Liam Neeson’s powerful voice. You know the tree monster is a figment of the child’s imagination, and yet it’s done well enough that it makes you wonder — or is it?

So like I said, I recognise the weaknesses of A Monster Calls as a marketable film that appeals to audiences. It’s an emotional movie experience without a lot of laughs or joy, it’s too dark and it’s too strange. And yet, I found myself engrossed and hit by all the gut punches the film through at me. I like how it paints the cruel realities of the world and life through the eyes of a child and the ways we cope with stress and tragedy. Not for everyone, but if you are a fan of fantasy and like having your thoughts provoked and heartstrings tugged, definitely give A Monster Calls a try.

4 stars out of 5

Train to Busan (2016)

At some time during last year, everywhere I looked there were rave reviews about a South Korean zombie movie called Train to Busan. The poster looked relatively generic and the premise didn’t seem particularly original (zombies on a train), so I figured it must have been another overhyped Asian film bound to disappoint.

Holy shit was I wrong.

Train to Busan could be one of the best zombie movies of all time. I’m not just talking about Korean cinema or Asian cinema, but cinema in general. It certainly is one of the best I’ve seen, whether it is in terms of tension, excitement, scares, character development, and heart. South Koreans have already taken over the electronics industry with Samsung and the Asian music industry with Gangnam Style and those sultry girl groups where everyone looks exactly the same. Now they’ve shown that they’re a force to be reckoned with in film too.

Train to Busan shouldn’t have been this good. The story focuses around a divorced fund manager (Gong Yoo) who is catching a train from Seoul to Busan with his young daughter to see her mother. Naturally, a zombie outbreak erupts, and they find themselves trapped on a train with a bunch of different characters from all walks of life, including Sang-hwa, a barrel-chested working class man and his pregnant wife, elderly sisters,  homeless man, a bunch of kids from a high school baseball team, and a selfish businessman looking out only for himself. It sounds cliched, right?

Yet somehow, director Yeon Sang-ho manages to turn Train to Busan into a blistering thrill ride. The action is inventive and brutal — not entirely realistic but it’s admittedly stylish and cool to watch. The zombies are rabid and relentless, perhaps even more so than they are in World War Z. The train setting is great for creating a sense of claustrophobia and helplessness, but at the same time there is enough variety in the storytelling to not render the concept stale. It’s wave after wave of danger and difficult predicaments, and many situations where audiences will put themselves in the shoes of the characters.

Above all, the film makes you care for the characters. Some of them are indeed stereotypes, though there is sufficient believable interaction and development between them to create a connection with viewers. Themes such as family, social class, and sacrifice were handled extremely well. In the end, I was surprised how much a couple of sequences in the film impacted me from an emotional level. That alone makes Train to Busan the better train movie than 2013’s Snowpiercer.

Apart from a couple of scenes that were a little clumsy and CGI that’s not quite up to elite Hollywood standards (though generally good enough), there really isn’t much to complain about. From a purely entertainment perspective, Train to Busan is one of the highlights of the year — no matter what language you speak. Those who struggle to get into foreign-language films should definitely check it out.

4.5 stars out of 5