Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

    Kubo And The Two Strings follows the story of a boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) who must locate a magical suit of armor to defeat his grandfather called The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and his twin aunts known as the Sisters (Rooney Mara). Aiding Kubo is an anthropomorphic monkey (Charlize Theron) and a half human/half beetle (Matthew McConaughey).

   I really enjoyed the voice work by the cast. However, while Art Parkinson was terrific as Kubo, I found the real standouts to be the adult actors. Charlize Theron brought a lot of humanity to the role of Monkey as she plays her as both a warm maternal presence and comedic "straight man." Matthew McConaughey served as great comic relief as Beetle who is very thick-headed yet has a heart of gold. Rooney Mara was also a standout, using her calm soothing voice to fit the psychopathic menace of the evil Sisters.

   Next, the animation. This film has perhaps the best animation that I've seen in a film so far this year. Watching Kubo strum his shamisen to turn papers into birds or a bunch of leaves into a ship was an absolute marvel to behold. Admittingly, I don't usually see a lot of stop-motion animated films. But I was still amazed by what I saw and how the filmmakers managed to blend ancient Asian culture with modern Hollywoodized stop-motion technology.

   Lastly, I loved how the film manages to delve into the power of storytelling. For example, when Kubo goes to the village to tell stories to the townsfolk by summoning pieces of paper into origami with his magical shamisen, it entertains the townsfolk and lifts their spirits. That's why a lot of us tell stories. We tell stories to make us feel something and to connect everyone around us.

   The ending I found to be slightly anti-climactic. But I didn't really feel that the film was about all the action that took place. It's more about the characters and their interactions, the visuals, and the morality surrounding the story.

    Overall, Kubo And The Two Strings strums an eclectic and harmonious tune about the power of stories. It's got tremendous voice work and is a feast for the eyes of the imagination.

Grade: A+


Monday, August 22, 2016

Guest Review: Indignation (2016)

By Keith Noakes

A young Jewish atheist from Newark, New Jersey named Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) attends college in 1951 Ohio, where he clashes with both the school's established social order and its Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) as well as his overbearing parents' hopes for his future. At the same time, he falls for an attractive, complicated classmate named Olivia (Sarah Gadon).

Again with a film based on a novel. This film is based on a novel called "Indignation" by Philip Roth. Of course I didn't read it so I can't speak to its accuracy. The main draw for me here was the trailer, which looked good, and the cast featuring the like of Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, and Tracy Letts. What was notable here was that I am a fan of Tracy Letts and seeing Lerman in a starring role in a serious film is interesting. Sorry, the Percy Jackson series are not serious films.

The film takes place during a tumultuous time during the Korean war where young men are being drafted. This greatly affected a certain Jewish community within Newark, New Jersey where a young, Jewish atheist named Marcus Messner (Lerman) lives with his parents. They are worried because they think they will lose their only son to the draft but luckily for them, Marcus chooses to go to college which protects him from the draft. This still doesn't stop them from worrying because he is leaving them just as his father is beginning to lose his mind, much to the chagrin of his mother.

Once Marcus gets to college, he has a hard time adjusting to his new life. He just wants to study and work but everyone else doesn't understand this and choose to have unrealistic expectations of him which puts him at odds with everyone. Another issue for him was that since Marcus is of Jewish descent, everyone assumes that he is Jewish but he is quite atheist and vehemently disbelieves in religion which put him at odds with his college and Dean Caudwell (Letts). His biggest problem with the college was the mandatory attendance of chapel in order to graduate which conflicted with his beliefs.

Things quickly changed for him once he meets an attractive, young classmate named Olivia (Gadon). The two grow very close as she seems to be the only one who can break through the walls that he has built up and sees him for who he really is. Marcus has a very intense, serious personality which makes it hard for him to make friends and/or carry serious relationships but there was something different about her. Olivia later surprises Marcus by taking their relationship to a level which leaves him confused and uncomfortable. This confusion caused a rift within their relationship which grew further once he learned about Olivia's troubled past. He did not know how to deal with this information so he did what he always does and hid from the problem with his studies instead of dealing with it head on.

Marcus was compelling and fun to watch as he is a very likeable and relatable character. While his serious and intense personality can be a little off-putting to some but it was nice to see him go through his own inner-struggles as he is yet to experience a lot of what life has to offer. He was a surprisingly complex character where we got to watch him doubt and question himself and learn things for the first time. His debates with Dean Caudwell on religion and life in general were great to watch and the best parts of the film. Because Marcus is such a likeable and relatable character, he doesn't come off as arrogant and you actually root for him here as you can understand where he was coming from. Their interactions as well as the rest of the dialogue were great because of the smart script. This continued in the scenes with Marcus and Olivia. These were mostly just two people talking but it was easy to hang onto every word. They were fun to watch together as they had great chemistry.

They did have great chemistry but there wasn't much to Olivia. The film failed to develop her character as much as Marcus. She did have flaws and had a troubled past but the film could have gone much further with her. This would have made her motives a little easier to understand. Marcus is a complex, complicated character who has lived a seemingly sheltered life but a little backstory would have helped in understanding him more. This is a beautiful film with great cinematography, full of beautiful shots. The cheerful. mostly piano score was also great at setting the mood. The performances were great with Lerman and Letts being the standouts with Lerman great at depicting the character's vulnerability and complexity and Letts for primarily going head to head with Lerman's Marcus.

Overall, this is a great, beautiful, and smart film, featuring great performances by Lerman and Letts.

Grade: 9/10

If you want to see more, please read my other reviews here and don't forget to follow me on Twitter @keithlovesmovies and like me on Facebook.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Indie Review: Hell Or High Water (2016)

    Hell Or High Water follows the story of two brothers named Tanner and Toby (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) who commit bank robberies in order to save their family farm from foreclosure. However, as they are on the run, they are being pursued by a soon to be retired sheriff named Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges).

   I loved the acting by the main cast. Even though the film is about robberies and is a bit of a road movie, it is much more of a slow burn because director David Mackenzie, who gave us the frustratingly underrated prison drama Starred Up, focuses a lot more on the characters and the craftsmanship in the performances. Chris Pine and Ben Foster were aces as two brothers who are the yin to each other's yang. Foster's Tanner is someone who robs because he gets a thrill out of it while Pine's Toby is the more wholesome of the two. Toby takes part in the robberies that take place yet when you look into his eyes, you can tell he isn't in total favor of what he's doing. Chris Pine gives perhaps his best work in quite some time and he continues to prove that he's more than just Captain Kirk.

  Jeff Bridges was also reliably good as the sheriff on the hunt for the two brothers but one actor I would love to acknowledge is Gil Birmingham who plays Marcus' right hand man Alberto. I liked the chemistry he and Bridges have and felt he was the film's true moral center whose profundity translates into comic relief and hidden anguish.

   Even though the film isn't non stop action, there were a handful of scenes that are packed with suspense and adrenaline. For example, in the opening scene where the two brothers start robbing a bank, it immediately seems like it is a normal day for the bank teller heading inside until she is out of the blue held at gunpoint and the once serene feel of the sequence takes an immediate 180. That switch works quite well because as the teller is walking out of her car and heading to the bank, the camera keeps lingering on her. Then, when held at gunpoint and the mood changes, it cuts to the brothers and the teller inside the bank. A lot of the credit goes to the cinematography by Giles Nuttgens and the editing by Jake Roberts.

   While the writer Taylor Sheridan who also did the masterfully written Sicario does a wonderful job with the characterizations in the script, I had some problems with the dialogue. I found the dialogue to be almost minimalist and as a result, I didn't have an immediate idea on what the story is about. But thankfully, the film is more focused on its characters which is the film's greatest strength.

   Overall, Hell Or High Water is a worthy follow-up to director David Mackenzie's Starred Up that is a masterful morality tale which also happens to be a road movie that had me hooked within its first 10 minutes. Even if it isn't very high octane throughout, it makes up for that with its tension filled robbery scenes and the incredible performances from the cast.

Grade: A-


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Topic Of The Day: Nate Parker Rape Scandal

I initially wasn't going to post this. I do usually cover what is going on in the film world and this scandal does pertain to it. It especially pertains to awards season. But this scandal is a whole lot bigger than awards and while I won't comment on its awards chances, I will say why this scandal is bigger than some PR cleanup for an Oscar campaign.

Birth Of A Nation filmmaker/star Nate Parker and his co-writer Jean Celestin were accused of raping an unconscious woman back when they were in college with Celestin being found guilty but Parker being acquitted. The past trial was brought up when Parker did an interview for Deadline, which you can read here, about how he is trying to move on from it and how it was one of the most painful moments of HIS life. Basically, he is trying to say how he is a victim of this situation while not talking about the actual victim who eventually committed suicide. When reading about that interview and how he's worried that the trial will overshadow the film, you can get the sense that he, and Fox Searchlight who purchased the film for almost $20 million, are worried about its awards prospects. I say to look at the bigger picture.

Parker being made out to be a victim is yet another example of trying to get the public to sympathize with the abuser rather than those who were abused. It's a lot like the situation with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Even though Heard was photographed with bruises on her face and even has video evidence of Depp being abusive, Depp's fans are leaping to HIS defense on social media. 

You also have the case involving Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer that got put to trial for raping an unconscious woman 
like Parker did, and got sentenced to six months of prison. Turner's father dismissed his son's crime as him getting punished for "20 minutes of action" and the rest of his family started a support fund on Facebook called the Turner Family Support Fund. Blood may be thicker than water. But they haven't done anything to suggest the severity of what the victim will go through and above all, the importance of consent and that a woman being intoxicated and unconscious does NOT equal consent. 

So when looking at the Nate Parker case, I ask you to look past its awards prospects which are looking SOL at the moment and look at the bigger picture. Remember how the media tries to get us to sympathize with the abuser and not the real victims themselves. People like Johnny Depp may be celebrities and Turner and Parker may have been star athletes. But that doesn't mean it's okay for them to get away with such heinous crimes. 

I will end this post by saying that I will be boycotting Birth Of A Nation. Nate Parker will not receive a dime from me and I will not be posting a review of it. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Topic Of The Day: Are No Girls Allowed On The Sandbox?

So last week, they announced seven of the eight main actresses in the upcoming female Ocean's Eleven reboot called Ocean's Ocho. Sandra Bullock will star and co-produce while her co-stars are Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Anne Hathaway, Rihanna, and Asian pop star Awkwafina who you may have spotted in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising as one of the sorority sisters.

So far, they have a terrific cast but I still don't have very high feelings about this project. Mainly because I am not a fan of dividing up genders, having a boys and a girls team. By having a female-driven cast, it makes me feel like it isn't a movie for me. So while they're trying to represent the female gender and women of different ethnicities, since the cast is ethnically diverse, I feel that they're still being rather exclusive. Instead of making an all-female Ocean's movie, I wish they had called it something else and made an original heist film with a gender neutral cast with men and women.

If we want to see more progression on screen, we want to make movies for everyone. Look at Furious 7. It had a gender-neutral and multi-ethnic cast and it is the first film in the Fast and Furious franchise to join the billion dollar club. Lucy was sold entirely on Scarlett Johansson's name and yet it still had a diverse cast with Morgan Freeman and Choi Min-sik as the main co-stars. It cost about $40 million to make and made $463 million worldwide. Even if Bad Moms had a predominantly female cast, it was an original concept that cost $20 million yet so far it has made $70 million domestically, likely making $100m in the near future. So if you want to make more female-centered films, at least greenlight an original concept. I like who they have in the cast for the Ocean's movie. But if they put them in an original film, I would probably still go see it even if it might not seem like it is geared towards my demographic.

But what do you guys think? Do you think this reboot is a good or bad idea? Please feel free to write your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks for reading!

Oscar Watch: Hidden Figures (2016)

Fittingly, on the night of the Olympics, a trailer for the upcoming biopic Hidden Figures starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, was aired. I say fittingly so because the film is an inspirational true story and the Olympics are all about inspiration.

The film about a group of black female mathematicians who helped NASA compete in the Space Race between the U.S. and Russia. One thing I love about the trailer is how it looks like it's mostly told from the point of view of the mathematicians themselves rather than from a white voice which is a common trope among films that center around people of color like The Help and Dances With Wolves. Interestingly enough, Spencer from The Help and Kevin Costner from Dances With Wolves star in this.

Taraji P. Henson, who is hot on television right now thanks to Empire, looks like she has a great role on the big screen and Janelle Monae could be somebody to watch out for in the Best Supporting Actress race since she has both this and Moonlight out this year. Previous Oscar winner Octavia Spencer could be someone to watch out for as well depending on what kind of role she has.

From the looks of the trailer, it looks like a light-hearted crowd pleaser. Even if the actual product itself is less light hearted than it appears, you still want to do whatever you can to sell your product and make it appear as accessible as possible. When I saw that the film was trending on Twitter once the trailer was released, there were a lot of excited tweets so there definitely looks to be plenty of audience interest in it. I know I'm excited for it. The film will receive a wide release on January 13th with a possible awards-qualifying release at the end of December.

What do you guys think? Do you think it looks like a legitimate Oscar contender and do you think it looks like a great film in general? Please feel free to write your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Oscar Watch: Allied (2016)

 So one of Oscar's favorite types of movies is the WWII film. Especially films about Nazis and with Oscar pedigree involved. That is what we have with the upcoming Allied directed by Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Flight, Cast Away) and starring Oscar winners Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. It deals with two spies who fall in love in Casablanca and marry during a mission to kill a German official.

  When I first heard about this film, I wasn't exactly over the moom about it. Mainly because it seemed like it would be tailor made for awards glory given the fact it's about WWII and has a lot of Oscar pedigree.

  But after watching the teaser, I'm pretty intrigued by it. I think Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are well-casted for this period romance because they have such movie star auras that bring back the glory days of movie stars like Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. I am a big Brad Pitt fan and I absolutely love Marion Cotillard. Cotillard alone is enough to get me to buy a ticket and this seems like a great role for her. I also underestimated her when she got in Best Actress for Two Days, One Night so she could be strong for either Lead or Supporting Actress depending on whether the film deliver and where her placement will be.

   The film also co-stars Jared Harris, Matthew Goode, and Lizzy Caplan and it comes out on November 23rd around Thanksgiving. It's a perfect awards season release date and I think it could either play like gangbusters or be one of those films that seems tailor made for awards glory only to be shut out or land a pity nomination for Costume Design or something.

What do you guys think? Do you think it looks like a legitimate Oscar contender and do you think it looks like a great film in general? Please feel free to write your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks for reading!