From the moment stop-motion masters Laika arrived with their debut, the excellent Coraline, they have done two things that so many other films for children typically fail to do: allow for quietness (Coraline was particularly notable for this, at a time when “mental breather” in western animation meant “going at 80mph with a thousand things happening on-screen, rather than 100mph”, Coraline dared to be measured and calm, with periods of little to no action to allow both character and audience moments for contemplation), and treated their audience with respect and intelligence, both intellectually and emotionally. Both of these traits, particularly the latter, are on display in their latest outing, a Japanese-inspired tale called Kubo and the Two Strings.
“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem. But please be warned, if you fidget, if you look away, if you forget any part of what I tell you, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish,” Kubo warns us over the film’s stormy beginning: portentous, humorously admonishing the audience, both young and old not to be distracted, yet also prophetic, as, pay attention to the meticulously crafted scenes, and you will see clues of what is to come.
During the aforementioned storm, baby Kubo and his mother are drift on the ocean, finally coming to be washed up on the shore near an isolated village. Fast forward a few years, and we see young, one-eyed, Kubo as care-giver to his mother, who is suffering from depression. Kubo makes a few coins by performing in the village square, dazzling the crowds with his (actually) magical displays of animated origami characters, driven by the playing of his shamisen, who tell the tale of the evil Moon King and the noble samurai Hanso. Except that, for Kubo, it’s not a story. It’s his family history.
One day, failing to follow his mother’s instructions to always return home before sunset, he is rediscovered by his mother’s evil sisters, who want to take Kubo back to his grandfather so that he can take Kubo’s other eye. Using the last of her magic, Kubo’s mother transports him to a far way mountain-side, from where he must set out to find a legendary sword and set of armour, the only things that will allow him to defeat the orb-desiring tyrant. His companions on this quest will be a living origami samurai model, a talking monkey brought to life from his wooden monkey charm, and a former samurai who was cursed into being a giant beetle with no memory. All very ordinary, really…
Set in Samurai-era Japan, and incorporating or referencing numerous Japanese art forms, archetypes and stories, it feels every bit like it could be an authentic, ancient, Japanese tale, despite being a newly created story. Kubo is fantastic, thrilling, beautiful and pretty damn ambitious: think animating small puppets frame by frame is a chore? Now imagine doing it with a massive skeleton whose torso alone is nearly 3 metres tall. It’s a truly marvellous technical achievement. It is also astonishingly beautiful, every scene a wonderful place to spend some time, and so many! But all of this is in service to the story, and while it is, at its core, a traditional hero’s journey, it also has plenty of other material into which to sink your teeth: it’s charming and amusing but also at times sad, thoughtful and melancholy. And to return to my earlier point about treating its young audience with respect, it never talks down to them, and never feels the need to bring out Johnny Exposition to explain just what’s going on. But perhaps it’s the emotional intelligence it credits children with that matters most, with the themes of young caregivers and parental loss, amongst others.
Overseeing all of this is first-time director Travis Knight, lead animator on Laika’s three previous features (oh, and he also happens to be CEO), and if he’s been working his way up to direction, then he’s achieved it with remarkable aplomb – this is most assuredly not a case of the boss using his influence unduly and screwing things up.
It’s not all technique, artistry and design that make Kubo so effective, though – the voice talent really helps, too. Matthew McConnaughey (though apparently half-doing a George Clooney impression, sound-wise) as Beetle and Charlize Theron as Monkey give sufficient heft to the two main adult roles, and Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones‘ Rickon Stark) gives an extremely assured performance as Kubo.
Now, I’m not sure what I’d do if I was sitting on a pile of treasure that would make Smaug envious, so perhaps it’s not my place to comment. However I do think one of the things I’d be least likely to do was become a full-time twitter troll, instigating your followers to flood the inboxes of anyone who takes issue with your poorly formed and often plainly incorrect political visions, while tweeting at vile misogynist hatemongers that they are good men, and national treasures.
But then, I’m not J.K. Rowling, and maybe that’s what brings her joy. Who am I to judge? I’m just some asshole. In my defence, I’m an asshole who’s capable of understanding the world and formulating opinions on events and people without tediously and tenuously referring them back to my previous creations, and an asshole who doesn’t conspicuously and deliberately seeks a hornet’s nest to poke a few days before I’ve got something to promote with quite remarkable consistency. What I’m saying is, while I’m glad so many people find joy in her works, J.K. Rowling is a thin-skinned, nasty piece of work in a beloved author’s clothing.
Her latest outing is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a prequel, chronologically if not content-wise to the Harry Potter tomes, set in a pre-WW2 New York best described as prohibition-era, if you swap alcohol for magic. Into this scene steps Perwinkle Puffinstuffer (Eddie Redmayne), who it transpires is hoping to return a rare magical beast to its native Arizonan habitat, but bumblingly switches his magical suitcase containing all manner of creatures with the wannabe baker and in no way magical Jeremy Beadle (Dan Fogler).
It somehow falls to disgraced ex-magical cop Brandy Disarono (Katherine Waterston) to clean up Periwinkle and Jeremy’s mess, although additional wrinkles appear when Jeremy falls in love with Brandy’s sister Amaretto (Alison Sudol), but such consortations with non-magical folks are, well, prohibited. Hence the era. By ways I can’t quite recollect, this ties into Brandy’s ex-boss magical cop Mordant Grimvile (Colin Farrel)’s manipulation of a teenager, Tony Slattery (Ezra Miller), who’s somehow dangerously repressing his magic resulting in some big bundle of CGI effects rampaging through New York that Periwinkle and Brandy must stop. The final upshot of all this is that the scheme has been puppetmastered by Felbad Darkmagic (of the New Hampshire Darkmagics) (Johnny Depp), the Morgoth to Lord of the Ring‘s Sauron, in quite the most underwhelming reveal of recent times given how sparsely Darkmagic is even referenced in the rest of the film.
A reasonably valid complaint for all of the Potter films woud be that they always attempted to cram too much of the source material into the film, even when a great deal of it felt like filler material. As Rowling’s first original screenplay, she’s clearly thought to counter that habit by writing a story that would comfortably fit on the back of a fag packet, even if cigarettes were packaged individually. But I suppose those tweets won’t write themselves.
Fantastic Beasts is to Harry Potter as The Phantom Menace was to Star Wars – a film that, I am very confident in saying even with no knowledge of the contents of the further planned four films, has no meaningful relation to the sequels that can’t be summed up in a sentence, probably something along the lines of “evil Johnny Depp exists”. Just as there’s little more to Phantom Menace than “man looks for spare parts”, there’s little more to Fantastic Beasts than “man looks for escaped animals”.
The usual defence for all this is along the lines of “it’s worldbuilding, innit”, but if there’s no story and frankly precious little character to go along with it, there’s not much point to watching it. While there’s a reasonably talented cast, there’s not a lot for them to work with, and it all comes across as rather bland. In particular we’re going to have to put Eddie Redmayne on the watch list, as either through choice or happenstance he seems to be Hugh Granting himself, giving essentially the same performance here as he did in The Danish Girl, and given the gulf in character between “prototype Danish transexual” and “magic Terry Nutkins”, that’s a little worrying.
As an excuse to link up a bunch of CG setpieces, which is really all the film is, it’s just about up to that meagre task, and the mechanics of the film – the pacing and CG, etc, is adequate. So, given that I expect the design document for this film was “fleece some cash from people that miss Harry Potter“, I suppose it’s doing what it sets out to do, but don’t expect applause for so unlofty and obvious a goal. A special FU to whomever came up with the decision to, in a film stressing so much the need for wizards to remain hidden, an ending that demolishes entire city blocks, and then has to almost literally wave a magic wand to make an entire city forget all this nonsense. If you need an immediate narrative undo button, maybe not write it that way in the first place, eh?
Oh, and I am aware that Perwinkle Puffinstuffer is not the correct name of Redmayne’s character, or anyone else’s for that matter, but I’d forgotten them while writing up these notes and used them as a placeholder names. Having looked up the proper names, mine are better. So I’m keeping them. With apologies to anyone outside of the U.K., or under the age of thirty, who are unlikely to understand references to Terry Nutkins and Jeremy Beadle.
Perhaps you recall 2011’s Mechanic remake, a perfectly serviceable Jason Statham outing that was in no way crying out for a sequel, but here we are. Such is life. Staham returns as the “mechanic”, or assassin, hiding out in Rio when agents of an old acquaintance looking to hire him for one last set of jobs threaten him, which does not sit well with the Stath, leading to an indefensibly daft escape stunt that rather sets the tone for the nonsense to follow.
There was a point in the early to mid 2000’s where Statham was cranking out movies like this, very much generic action, Statham-by-the-numbers films. The’ve not been so common of late, so while it’s unarguably true that this film does not a single thing to advance the boundaries of film-making and is perhaps the epitome of Statham-by-the-numbers, there’s still a degree of familiarity or nostalgia that this can coast by on for about half an hour, or until Jessica Alba shows up.
She, it turns out, is being forced by aforementioned puppetmaster to ingratiate her way into Statham’s life to form an attachment, apparently so that her impending kidnap will guilt trip Statham into getting back into the contract killing business, despite having known Alba for all of a day. Look, plot believability isn’t the film’s strong suite. Despite Alba telling Statham all this after the smallest amount of arm twisting, her kidnap still has the desired effect of putting Statham on the case of three increasingly difficult targets, in scenarios oddly familiar to players of the Hitman series of games, before turning his attention to the rotter who’s being playing him for a fool. A fool, I say!
It is a brash, stupid film, proudly showing this design goal at every opportunity, and to an extent I welcome a film than owns that, but it’s nothing like enough fun to get away with it. The script was, I believe, written by the Generibot 3000 script automaton from an input set of the most tired, hackneyed nonsense available.
I’ve seen a great many worse films in my life, but that’s no reason to recommend something that’s firmly on the wrong side of mediocre. As usual Statham’s a very watchable screen presence, but he’s never really had the vehicle he deserves. We can only hope this changes soon.
Like many influential and distinctive filmmakers, for as long as Hayao Miyazaki has been, well, the famous Hayao Miyazaki, there have been people looking for someone to proclaim “the new Hayao Miyazaki”. One such candidate is former graphic designer Makoto Shinkai, and while any comparisons to the legend have to be made from a longer perspective, Shinkai has a stronger claim than most, particularly when it comes to box office, as his fifth feature ,Your Name (Kimi no Na wa), has dominated the box office in Japan this year, raking in the sort of takings usually only reserved for animations bearing Miyazaki’s name.
Mitsuha lives in the remote mountain town of Itomori, an ancient and traditional place, where her authoritarian father is mayor, and much of her spare time is taken up with religious duties at shrines and temples, making truly disgusting style sake, and kumihumo cords, traditional braids whose meanings of interwoven time and place will have resonance in the story. She wishes dearly to be far away from here: in fact she wishes to be a Tokyo boy, a situation about as far removed from her current as she can imagine. Fortunately, then, soon finds herself inhabiting the body of a teenage boy in Tokyo, which she finds distressing and discombombulating to say the least, but his trips to coffee shops with his friends, his job in a busy restaurant and his crush on a colleague gives her a wild experience, so very different from anything she has known before. Nice dream, huh? But it turns out that it isn’t a dream. While she is living Taki’s life in Tokyo, Taki is inhabiting her body in Itomori (and, because he’s a teenage boy, he’s obsessed with “his” new breasts, much to the bewilderment and disgust of Mitsuha’s younger sister).
It is only after their friends comment on their odd behaviour on certain days, of which they have no recollection, that Taki and Mitsuha realise that they are sharing each other’s bodies, but when they wake up they have no recollection of the other’s name. So they begin leaving messages to each other in their phones’ diaries, logging what they have done, what they need to do and, quite quickly, some basic rules (no touching!). They begin the most bizarre, yet intense and real, relationship, and then romance, which is both closer and more intimate than any, yet utterly, possibly irrevocably, distant.
The tortured but hopeful young lovers arrange to meet, finally, when the catastrophe that has been looming throughout the film shows its true nature, and their lives are thrown into disarray. The universe has seen fit to throw them together in this most bizarre manner, and now it seems that they must fight it in order to be together, but if only they could remember each other’s name…
Japanese cinema has a strong history of responding to the various disasters, both man-made and natural, that have afflicted its islands over time, and Your Name is one of the first post-Fukushima films, its echoes seen in the disaster that threatens our heroes, though it’s so very far from one-note, invoking themes of puberty, coming of age, tradition and modernity, love… and boobs.
There is much in evidence here of one of the principal reasons I prefer hand-drawn (let’s set aside the fact that computers are used in the process – you know very well what I mean) animation over computer-generated animation – soul. While there is, without any doubt, a great deal of artistry and skill involved in many computer-animated films (there are also crude, plasticky, works churned out en masse, but that is, of course, also no different to more traditional animation), at the very highest levels of the craft this style of animation has something special in its art that CG animation just can’t match, and that I’ve never been quite able to fully describe: it’s something… magical. It’s why I used the word “soul”, because it seems to be something inner and ethereal. And Your Name has plenty of it. It’s absolutely gorgeous (I challenge you to find more beautiful skies in an animation), every location gleaming and alive and vibrant, and on occasion changing style to evoke pastels and watercolours, heightening the dream-like quality of parts of the film.
Your Name is accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack by popular Japanese band Radwimps, an ensemble capable of both upbeat, catchy, J-Pop anthems (though this at times does feel a little over-used, and betrays the target demographic) and beautiful instrumental pieces, worthy of Joe Hisaishi himself.
What could have been simply a middling animated take on Freaky Friday/Vice Versa stories for adolescents is, in fact, a wonder. Beautifully drawn, layered, touching, warm, universal, often very funny, and just generally lovely all round, it’s very much worth making a particular effort to see this, and also to keep the name of Makoto Shinkai in your mind – I think we’ll be hearing much more of it.
Very much a title that delivers what it promises, with director Brian De Palma interviewed about the life and career of Brian De Palma, which is a subject he is intimately familiar with. One assumes.
This is very much a whistlestop tour of De Palma’s career, so what it gains in breadth it rather loses in depth. Superficial, perhaps, but it does help that De Palma is an engaging presence and has had an interesting career.
Enjoyable, and De Palma isn’t shying away from describing the reasons behind his more flawed outings, but I suspect you’d be better informed by reading the IMDB trivial pages for each of his films. It’s certainly not presenting any challenges on some of the more substantive criticisms of his career, or really any part of his chosen narrative of his life.
A puff piece, perhaps, but an enjoyable one for aficionados.
Tom Hanks steps into the luxurious moustache of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who you may remember as the geezer what was driving the plane and that where the engines flamed out shortly after take-off, leading to a “forced landing” on the Hudson river.
The film is less about the incident itself, but the NTSB investigation afterwards and Sully’s PTSD. Neither of these elements cover themselves in glory, with the scenes of Sully’s internal torment clumsily relayed and the contents and tone of the investigation being a complete fabrication. We charitably assume this is for dramatic effect but nevertheless it causes real reputational damage to a highly respected body with no regulatory ability, only their reputation for diligence and impartiality to have their recommendations turned into practice. Less charitable people would suggest this is Ol’ Clint lecturing empty chairs again.
Watchable, largely as a byproduct of the talents involved, but little more than that, and probably not worth the expense of a cinema trip to see, or of the plaudits heaped on it.
As the year draws to a close, we’d like to thank everyone who recommended our humble little podcast to others, which is a great vote of confidence in our nonsense that we’ll do our best to live up to. We’d very much love to hear more from y’all, either on the stuff we cover or stuff you’d like us to cover.
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