Kubo and the Two Strings

Opening and closing with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," this dazzling story from Oregon-based Laika studio instantly sweeps us into a visual wonderland with a storm at sea...  (I'm wondering, why name a movie studio after the poor Russian stray who earned immortality by being the first dog to fly...and die...in space?)

Directed by Travis Knight ("Coraline"), this PG-rated stop-action movie takes us to an unnamed Asian land where a little boy spins fantastical stories at the local market (note the men playing Go). They are illustrated with origami figures of his own creation but they never have an ending. Before and after his gig in the village, he tenderly cares for his deeply traumatized mother, haunted by a tragedy in her past. Is it related to the incident that cost our little boy his left eye?

In keeping with a popular trend, they have cast successful actors to voice the characters. I am NOT in favor of this trend, as these actors are already visible enough and by hogging the limelight they are displacing some terrific voice actors who would love the chance to show you what they can do!

The characters (I'll name the actors in brackets; they are adequate but not outstanding):
  • Kubo (Art Parkinson) plays a three-stringed instrument and entertains the villagers. He longs for his absent father and has been told that his aunts are responsible for the loss of his eye. He's an honest, earnest, hard-working little boy. He says, "If you must blink, do it now.'
  • Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro) is the sweet old woman in the village who is Kubo's best fan (but she would like him to include a chicken in one of his stories because chickens are funny).
  • Monkey (Charlize Theron) is a cranky demanding sidekick. She gives Kubo three questions and he naïvely uses them up before he has learned a single thing! She's a good sidekick though and he's lucky to have her.
  • Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) has delusions of adequacy. He's certainly willing and strong enough but he's a tad simple... When he learns who Kubo's father was, he swears undying fealty.
  • The Sisters (Rooney Mara) These evil witches are both violent and malevolent.
Let me emphasize that this is NOT a Disney movie. If you remember Coraline, it has scary scenes and violent battles. For example, here when a baby is washed up on a beach, we notice it is missing an eye, so this is not what many youngsters expect.

I found myself a bit confused, even using closed captions (which are spotty, by the way) because the mythology was unfamiliar. The artistry is terrific and the intention is honorable, but despite the rave reviews, this was just not as involving as I expected. Sorry...
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Here is a sample:
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Florence Foster Jenkins

After seeing a brilliant production of "Souvenir" at A Contemporary Theater in Seattle that featured Patti Cohenour and Mark Anders, I was hesitant to sully that memory. Thank goodness director Stephen Frears ("Philomena") working with writer Nicholas Martin, is known to respect the written word. I was also relieved that the sadder aspects of this remarkable woman's life weren't airbrushed.

Florence Foster Jenkins could have been a tragic figure if not for her irrepressible spirit and her one-of-a-kind relationship with her long-time second husband. Fortunately for her, she was wealthy, so she was fondly viewed as eccentric; had she been poor, people would have called her nuts.

Here is part of the cast:
  • Meryl Streep ("Into The Woods") is our eponymous heroine, utterly tone deaf but completely in love with music; the sounds she hears in her head are immaculately rendered so she has no idea what she really sounds like. Streep has done Country, Rock, Musical Theater, and studied Opera, so this role is not a stretch. She seems to be without ego, as her makeup and silhouette are NOT kind.
  • Hugh Grant ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") is St. Clair Bayfield, her patient and insightful husband. He has a way of managing the many stressful situations in her life with elegance and tact. Grant never conveys anything but absolute sincerity and concern. I really appreciate that!
  • Simon Helberg ("The Big Bang Theory") Watch the look on Cosmé McMoon's face the first time he hears his employer sing. He is a musician so her caterwauling is painful to him. Helberg also does a delicious single-take scene struggling to put on a pair of pants on a slippery floor in his sock feet.
  • Rebecca Ferguson ("Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation") Kathleen is the lovely woman Bayfield keeps on the side for entirely valid reasons. You have to see the film to understand.
I love the scenes in Carnegie Hall, the apogee of American Music. Add this to the list of notable films Streep has accumulated. Because of my fondness for the story itself, I'm putting this memorable outing near the top!
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Check out this sample:
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Hell or High Water

So what can a pair of poverty-stricken brothers do when they learn that the reverse mortgage their mother signed with a predatory lender, threatens their ownership of the family ranch now that she has died?

Oh, I know. Rob banks! (This is not a spoiler if you've seen the previews.)

Director David Mackenzie ("Perfect Sense"), working with writer Taylor Sheridan ("Sicario") takes us to Texas (but shot in New Mexico) for a well-thought-out (and justifiable) solution that ranges from scenes "jest settin' on the porch chewin' the fat," to a tension-filled shoot-em-up, complete with car chases, a bit of blowie uppie stuff, and some sex.

The award-winning cast:
  • Chris Pine ("Star Trek" and "Into the Woods") Toby is a divorced father of two. He has limited skills but unlimited ambitions where his boys are concerned. He has a plan... Pine has matured as an actor and is brave enough to try unusual roles; this one is neither a comedy nor a musical. I think Pine is in it for the long haul.
  • Ben Foster ("The Finest Hours") Tanner just got out of the penitentiary, but he LOVES Toby's plan! He wants his brother to stay out of trouble, but not enough to be careful. Foster seems typecast as a loose cannon. That's too bad because I'm sure he can do other sorts of characters.
  • Jeff Bridges ("Seventh Son") Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton has amazing intuition when it comes to criminal behavior. He's been doing this job for so long he can think like a crook. I've been a fan of this actor for a long time, but in his last five or six movies, he mumbles like he has a chaw of tobacco tucked between his gum and his lip. Is it poor dental work or just carelessness? C'mon Jeff....
  • Gil Birmingham ("House of Cards") Alberto shows extraordinary patience with the constant teasing he gets from his partner, but he says he'll be lonely when Marcus retires.
  • Margaret Bowman ("No Country for Old Men") This crabby waitress at the T-Bone Cafe will stay with you long after the rest of the movie fades from memory. She steals the film from an otherwise stellar cast! "So what don't cha wont?"
This has a well-earned R rating but the dreary setup is leavened by memorable comic scenes and a couple of terrific monologues. It's not the sort of movie I personally would recommend, but I can think of many reasons why you might like it.
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Here is a trailer:
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Pete's Dragon

Why does this sound so familiar? Oh, I know. It's because it was first done in 1977. Okay, this time it is directed by David Lowery (he also tweaked the script). The only other thing he has written and directed that I recognize is "Them Ain't Bodies Saints" which I found just as confusing as the title.

We have the classic little lost boy who has an imaginary friend. This time it happens to be a dragon. And maybe it isn't imaginary. And we admire new and improved special effects. This is a PG film that maintains the tradition that Walt Disney invented: Children are wise, but adults? ...not so much.

Let's look at the cast:
  • Oakes Fegley ("Boardwalk Empire") is Pete, our lonely little orphan. Early scenes establish how he came to be an orphan and include a fairly scary episode in the deep forest. You will enjoy his first encounters with things like balloons and toothpaste.
  • Bryce Dallas Howard ("The Help") is Grace, the kindhearted Ranger who realizes that Pete's story is similar to the tall tale her father spins for spellbound children in their hometown.
  • Robert Redford ("A Walk in the Woods") Meacham entertains little ones with his exciting story and insists the dragon he encountered as a child was "magical." Yeah... Right...
  • Karl Urban ("Star Trek") Gavin is a hard-working, ambitious logger. He is practical to the core, so I got a big kick out of hearing him yell, "Follow that dragon!"
  • Oona Laurence ("Bad Moms") Natalie has always been her daddy's obedient little girl but she is also kind and VERY observant.
  • Isiah Whitlock Jr ("Law and Order") Sheriff Gene Dentler is trying to make sense of a crazy situation and make sure no one gets hurt.
  • Wes Bentley ("Interstellar") Jack tries to trust Grace's judgement, but he has a business to run.
The best measure of a PG movie is the response of the children. Many people in the screening audience brought their offspring. The enthralled children were beguiled from beginning to end. They had someone to root for, a thoughtless villain, a beautiful countryside, a touching scene or two, characters they could relate to, and a white-knuckle scene on a bridge. After a totally unexpected scene at the end, they left the theater with big smiles and so did the adults.

Oh! Bring tissues....
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Here is a sneak peek:
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Suicide Squad

Written and directed by David Ayer ("End of Watch"), this ultra-violent action-packed comedy brings a PG-13 sensibility to what could have been an R-rated movie (lots of blood, torture and killing, but very few bad words...smile...). We see a bunch of super-villains who are imprisoned for various horrific crimes. Black Ops Commander Amanda Waller gets the bright idea to use their superpowers to pull off a dangerous mission for her secret agency A.R.G.U.S. in exchange for shortened prison terms. (Wait'll you see who rounds them up for her! If I told you where this takes place, you'd figure it out.)

Then things get messy...

Here is a small part of this big, talented cast:
  • Viola Davis (Emmy for "How to Get Away With Murder") Amanda Waller is determined to fight fire with fire, She intends to use "meta-humans" to bring some really, really bad guys to justice. I still haven't made up my mind about her.
  • Joel Kinnaman ("The Killing") Rick Flagg is Amanda's go-to guy. He may have serious doubts about the project, but he obeys orders and is a heck of a soldier.
  • Will Smith ("Concussion") Deadshot never misses. He is a paid assassin who, above all, wants to provide a stable home for his school-age daughter. When Smith is on screen he brings sense to a complex script. Whew! 
  • Shailyn Pierre-Dixon ("The Best Man Holiday") Zoe is the little girl Deadshot loves best. She tells her daddy, "I know you've done bad things, but I love you anyway." 
  • Margot Robbie ("The Legend of Tarzan") is Harley Quinn, the first recruit we see, flaunting her amazing body while imprisoned in a cube of steel bars. It's hard to discourage her; that sunny personality is a breath of fresh air. 
  • Jared Leto (won an Oscar for "Dallas Buyers Club") The Joker doesn't really have a sense of humor, just an undying love for Harley and unlimited resources to protect her. 
  • Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje ("Trumbo") Croc does little more than snarl until they need him, then he really comes through! 
  • Jay Hernandez ("Max") Diablo is like Marvel's Hulk, he doesn't "ignite" until he is angry. So the trick is timing...
  • Cara Delavingne ("Anna Karenina") is June Moone/The Enchantress. Both of these characters contribute more than their share of plot for this one.
Buried in this massive melee, we see several types of love: Parent/child; Man/woman; Brother/sister. And to my relief, we come to care about the outcome.

This is PG-13, so expect overwhelming gunplay, blowie uppie stuff, Computer Generated Imaging, urban warfare in a dystopian setting and a LOT of action. The 3D only made me duck once during a debris-laden helicopter crash, so to me it only had marginal value. The script is full of humor, and the characters are unique, to say the least; HOWEVER, if you have any hearing problems, you should wait for the DVD or see this in a theater equipped with closed caption devices. A word to the wise...
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Take a look for yourself:
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