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Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Visually beautiful and emotionally powerful
I kept hearing a lyric from Hamilton echo in my head as I watched this movie: "Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?" From a technical perspective alone, I'm in awe of Kubo. It features the best stop-motion animation I've ever seen. Although there was some augmentation with CG, the blend was seamless. (Stay for the credits where you actually see how one of the characters was animated.) Of course, technical achievements alone can't save a movie. Kubo has a unique story that kept me guessing most of the way through. It's a story about family and community and dealing with loss. The visual design of the movie is truly stunning, often lit like a candle flame and crafted like the origami that's so central to the story. There are occasional giant leaps of logic required to stay with the story, but like with Wizard of Oz this is a child's fantasy told by a child. So in the end I was okay with that. And the children in the audience when I saw it seemed to love the movie as much as I did. Kubo is a remarkable achievement and I enthusiastically recommend it.
Finding Dory (2016)
Another great Pixar film, but the original is still the best
With John Lasseter at the helm, it's hard for Pixar to make a bad movie. But some are better than others and resonate more with the viewers. All of them are entertaining, and the best bring a fresh perspective on what it means to be human. Finding Nemo was (and still is) a brilliant piece of art, not only one of the greatest animations of all time, but one of the greatest movies, period. The core of Finding Nemo was a parent having to finally let go of his child so that the child could grow, something every parent could understand and every child could relate to. I'm hard-pressed to say exactly what Finding Dory is about, though. Some reviewers have said it's about dealing with disabilities. Some have said that it's about family. And there are certainly moments where that's true. But I never got a sense of a strong theme that carried through the entire movie and gave the coherence that Finding Nemo had.
There are many exciting showpiece moments, the requisite chase scenes and threatening creatures. There are lots of comic relief moments. But throughout the movie I kept thinking that I had seen it all before (ironic considering Dory can't remember one moment to the next). Many scenes so closely echoed the original that occasionally I wondered if Pixar had simply copy-and- pasted them from the original and then changed a few characters and scenery pieces.
Even though I know talking fish with front-facing eyes is a hard premise to swallow, I could accept that. In Finding Nemo, I never once questioned many of the improbable things that happened (like the dentist office escape), because the story made it all seem possible. But in Finding Dory. too many of the scenes seemed so impossible -- even in the context of an animation -- that I simply couldn't accept them. Instead, those moments came across as convenient plot devices when the writers had backed themselves into a corner.
I did like how Andrew Stanton was able to connect certain elements from the original in a way that formed a deeper backstory about Dory. But I never found myself connecting with the characters the way I did in the original. I read an article about how the movie's creators wanted to make the film have a heart. Well it does have that, but I think it needed a stronger spine.
A brutal Tomorrowland
I really wanted to like this movie more. The performances were good. The visual design was interesting. And it actually tried to say something profound at the end. But it reminded me of my reaction to Blade Runner: the five minute message at the end couldn't make up for two hours of violence. I was very surprised this got a PG rating; there were some fairly brutal scenes. And the relentless violence diluted the film's message of a hopeful tomorrow. It's as if the only hope for the future is to kill and blow things up.
I was really puzzled as to why the writers chose Audio Animatronics as the assassins. That's a specifically Disney term. I can imagine that no child viewing this movie would ever again be comfortable in A Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean or the Hall of Presidents; in the back of their minds, those children will now think that previously charming robots could at any moment blast them to smithereens.
The visual design of Tomorrowland was frozen in the 1960s. Considering the opening scenes at the 1964 World's Fair, I can understand where the inspiration came from. But the future ended up looking a lot like the past, with the addition of some transformer-like robots and touch-screen interfaces. At no point in the movie did I think, "Wow! That looks amazing!" It looked more like visions of the future frozen in the 1960s. I'd seen it all before. Probably a bigger part of the problem was that the movie focused solely on the architecture and technology of Tomorrowland. Outside of some teens recklessly zooming around with jet packs, there was no mention of the quality of life. We didn't get to know any of the citizens from Tomorrowland. They were just anonymous almost robotic people hopping onto various transportation devices, heading to places unknown for purposes unknown. The technology seemed to govern their lives. That gave Tomorrowland a sterile unwelcoming feeling. Everything was clean and shiny, but in an antiseptic emotionless way.
Probably the best outcome from this movie is that it kept Brad Bird from directing Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Bird has done some good work with Pixar. But Tomorrowland, for all its attempt at dazzling visuals and hasty moralizing, doesn't have a heart to go along with it -- the very problems with the last Star Wars trilogy. Bird has talent, as he's proved in the past. Hopefully he'll have a better tomorrow.
The Way (2010)
Beautiful, moving journey
Estevez has created an emotional heartfelt journey. On the surface, the film is about a father's desperate attempt to come to terms with his son's death. But it's also about the spiritual journey we all must take in our lives and the inner demons we battle. The film is simply shot, which gives it a sense of realism. The performances are all solid and suitably understated. The continually unfolding cast of characters fit into the story like puzzle pieces that you didn't realize were missing until that moment. By the end of the movie I felt as if I had experienced the Camino with them. The script is poignant without being preachy, funny without being crude. The Way is well worth seeing.
Moving and visually brilliant
What begins as a fanciful mystery evolves into a wonder-filled history of the cinema. Scorsese is the first director I've seen to understand the real potential of 3D, and he uses it as magically as the mysterious object of this film. At its heart, the movie is about finding your place in the world, finding where you fit it. All of the characters have lost something in their lives and, like a puzzle missing a piece, are searching for that perfect fit. Scorsese captures the beauty, wonder and danger of Paris in the 1930s as seen through a child's eyes. His cinematography is breathtaking. The acting -- including a surprisingly poignant performance by Sasha Baron Cohen -- is first rate and engaging. I constantly marveled at the twists and turns the story took, always in a refreshingly believable way. This is an exquisite cinematic experience that really should be seen in 3D to be fully appreciated. But even without the extra dimension, this is still filmmaking at its best.
Worth the wait
David Yates delivered a fine ending to one of the most anticipated climaxes in cinema history. Though obviously the book has far more depth and detail, this treatment was really well done with just the right amount of deviation from the book to create some intriguing visuals (and in one case, a much more dramatically effective scene).
The trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have grown enormously as actors and are a joy to watch. I especially am impressed with Radcliffe's measured and thoughtful performance. But the minor characters hold their own as well, including Maggie Smith, Matthew Lewis and David Bradley.
The real power in the film comes from Alan Rickman, who's layered and complex portrayal of Snape has been one of the anchors of the entire series. Though I've been critical of Michael Gambon's past performances as Dumbledore, his brief scenes in DH2 are well acted, showing both the desperation and mischievousness of the character.
One delightful surprise for me was in the final scene and credits where the great music of John Williams was brought back for a final farewell, linking the final film to the first. It's hard to believe it's been an 11 year journey -- longer than the 7 year span of the books. But I'm glad the conclusion was done so well. It was worth the wait.
Tron gets serious
Even after reading reviews, seeing all the trailers and looking at stills, I wasn't at all prepared for Tron: Legacy. Happily, most all of the negative reviews that I read didn't hold true for me. As a whole, I thought the movie was an amazing achievement both technically and artistically. It's much darker both in tone and look than the original film, but it has a bigger message as well.
The story of Sam Flynn's search for his father reminded me a lot of Finding Nemo. Tron: Legacy doesn't have nearly as much humor as Pixar's film though; it holds to its much more serious tone. I really enjoyed the "2D" setup during the beginning of the film. It didn't bother me that it was in 2D, just as it doesn't bother me that the beginning of the Wizard of Oz is sepia-toned. That lends the fantasy world much more impact. Plus, it's a reflection of how flat Sam feels his life is. After the loss of his father, Sam has become a sort of aimless troublemaker. He feels no sense of responsibility and an awful lot of grief. He has no way to come to terms with those feelings; his dad is gone and he feels sort of betrayed.
Then along come old Alan Bradley telling him he got a page from his dad's arcade. That sets off the series of incredible adventures that follow. My fear with Legacy was that it would approach the Grid as a real place instead of the whimsical fantasy of the first film. The original film was (and still is) a good popcorn movie, full of visual splendor and improbable events, all taken with a light heart.
Legacy though has a much more forlorn feeling, a sort of wise and somber attitude that doesn't drag the film down but rather gives it a weight the original never had. The grid is no longer a challenging yet somewhat benign place. It is a home to fear and death. Sam uses all his strength just to stay above that. The movie kept my interest from start to finish but I found myself desperately wanting a happy ending.
Technically, the film exceeded my expectations. The costumes were remarkable, far better looking than they seemed in the stills. The 3D effect wasn't at all gimmicky but was definitely noticeable. And I thought Clu (the young Jeff Bridges) was a phenomenal achievement and will usher in a new era in cinema, for good or ill. I found the rendering to be completely convincing. I also liked how I felt a similar disorientation in Legacy that I felt when I saw the original Tron back in 1982. At times, I didn't quite know where I was and what I was looking at. That said, I was disappointed by the lack of color through most of the scenes. It seemed to be primarily black and white with streaks of red or orange. The original film was bursting with vivid colors of every shade. But again, Legacy was showing a much darker world.
The acting was uniformly good. Castor stands out because the role is so over-the-top, but none of the actors are weak. Unlike many others, I thought the script was really good. There were some rather hokey references to the first movie, and some moments of genuine homage. But Legacy stands firmly on it's own. Like Nemo, it has a much deeper message beneath it's surface -- one of maturity and responsibility, and of letting go of the past. The ending of Legacy is beautifully realized, just ambiguous enough to leave you wondering if what you just witnessed was real or a fantasy. (My bet is on the latter.)
My compliments to the entire production team. Kosinsky, Kitsis and Horowitz (inspired by Lisberger) have made a terrific sequel, one that not only pays homage to the original but also adds it's own psychological and emotional weight to the story. The soundtrack by Daft Punk is phenomenal. Overall, I recommend this movie. Like the original, I think that Legacy will be well-regarded many years from now. While not as trend-setting as the original, it has it's own story to tell and does so expertly.
It's back on video
The theme song for this show has stayed with me all these years. I wasn't even sure if I had imagined it until Disney finally released the entire movie on DVD a few years ago. It was beautifully packaged in a steel container. The disks contained not only the 3-part version that aired on television (complete with Walt Disney's introductions), but also the cinema version.
The story held up really well for me. McGoohan is great, as are the supporting actors. That unsettling scarecrow mask and McGoohan's chilling laugh lost none of their power on me as an adult. I'm really glad Disney restored this gem.
The Littlest Angel (1969)
Once Upon Another Time
My family and I watched this last Christmas. My wife found the DVD in a cut-out bin and bought it, vaguely recalling the movie from her childhood. Our mouths were hanging open through most of the show. We couldn't believe what we were seeing. Fred Gwynne, one of the finest actors of his generation, attempted to bring a sense of dignity to his bumbling angel. But he had so little to work with. The script was pretty weak and somewhat disturbing. And although I appreciate the pioneering video work that was attempted, the film is a visual mess.
The one saving grace of this production is the hauntingly beautiful ballad that Gwynne sings, Once Upon Another Time. That one song makes the movie worth tracking down. And Tony Randall has a lot of fun with his amusing number, "You're not real." Those were two oases in this otherwise difficult-to-watch production.
Lan O'Kun, the songwriter, showed a lot of promise with some decent songs. There was also a heavyweight cast. But the "book" and the direction were too weak to carry the rest of the show. Perhaps if the musical had been done once upon another time....
Beautiful but less rich
Koyaanisqatsi is one of my all-time favorite films. I eagerly awaited the release of Powaqqatsi. I ended up somewhat disappointed, though. Philip Glass' musical score is brilliant and powerful. Many of the images in the film (for example, the boy driving his pony cart through a traffic jam) are vivid and memorable. But unlike Reggio's first film, Powaqqatsi doesn't all come together as well. Koyaanisqatsi was structured like a visual thesis, with a premise and a systematic development of the premise to the powerful conclusion (technology is destroying humanity). There's no such story arc in Powaqqatsi. I felt drained at the end, but I also felt confused. I wasn't sure what to think about the visual overload I had just experienced. Perhaps that was Reggio's intent, to leave the audience to fill in the blanks. But I really wanted the scenes to add up to something, as they did in Koyaanisqatsi.
Nevertheless, the movie is well worth viewing for its dazzling visuals alone, and its brilliant soundtrack (possibly the best work Glass has ever done).