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Recent Movie Reviews

#9031

You know what I love in Kubo and the Two Strings (among several other things)? It doesn't go out of its way to explain its magic. It simply IS. Oh, sure, there's a talking monkey that saves the lead character Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, the monkey by Charlize Theron), and there's an explanation briefly (and then a later one, which I won't reveal at all), but it doesn't matter any more than how Kubo can use his guitar strings to make his origami turn into sword-wielding samurai, or how the former bodyguard named Beetle comes to be (Matthew McConaughey going back into his 'McConnaissance' mode as being a truly great performance expanding what we thought he's capable of a semi-comic sidekick).

The filmmakers let the characters explain when they need to, yet when they do it's done in the form of storytelling - at one point when Monkey is finally pressed by Kubo (and Beetle too) to say what is going on with his otherworldly grandfather and his Aunt who is out to, well, kill him and what Monkey has to do with it, she can only tell it as Kubo plays his guitar and the papers for his origami go into the air to show as she tells. This is a film that loves storytelling and storytellers, and yet never forgets that this is a full-bodied CINEMATIC experience.

I can't remember the last time I've recently seen so much imagination and visual invention in one fantastical animated film, stop motion or otherwise (not even Finding Dory, which certainly has both humor and some heartfelt moments, got to that this year). The story involves a little boy, who we are introduced to at the start as being saved/protected by his mother as a baby (with an eye cut out, by his grandfather), that is at the start making money by performing with his flying/magic origami in a village while tending to his mother who seems to be suffering from amnesia (as an aside, I knew I would love this movie about five minutes in when the filmmakers show us what this dynamic between son and mother is as the latter stares off into space with a haunted, sad look as the son tries his best to care for her, all without words, a perfect moment that I'd never expect to see in a kid's film in a multiplex kind of environment).

But Kubo can't be out after dark, the evil sister of his Mother - with a black hat and white mask that makes her creepy past Burton-type standards - attacks, and Kubo is sent away and is knocked out. When he awakes Monkey is there and, soon after on this quest to find items that will help him face his evil Aunt and grandfather, the Beetle guard, and it becomes a hero's journey story. And what a hero and journey! There's a lot of action that the filmmakers pack into this movie - it is a Japanese fantasy-inspired film, so there may be some violent imagery that may scare the wee ones like under four of five, but most kids should be able to take it and, if I remember how I was at that age, love it - and it involves things like a giant skeleton monster that comes to life with swords stuck in its skull (and the three characters have to find which one is their unbreakable one), and, my favorite weird and wonderful creation, a group of underwater eyeballs that, when one looks too long at them, puts the person in a trance leading down to a... well, don't want to give it away.

The voice-work is a delight which, as I said, McConaughey really digs into being a character who is the faithful protector though has some 'off' memory problems at times and a looser way of looking at protecting a child than Monkey (Theron plays the strict motherly figure as good as she's played any role, including Monster or Furiosa), and it becomes this story that's as much about family than it is about revenge or other petty things. You do have to pay attention, this isn't a movie that you can throw on for your kids and they can act crazy or get distracted: it asks that you watch it and take in a story that at its core isn't too far removed from Joseph Campbell, but does so many twists that it becomes its own original entity.

Kubo and the Two Strings gives you all that you could want in a family animated movie, but more than that is a splendid, heart-rending fantasy epic in under 100 minutes. It brings me back to when I first saw something like The Dark Crystal and was amazed at what creators can do when they embrace really creating a WORLD that their characters can inhabit - not to mention keeping any humor to the situations or behavior, nothing that dates it at all. I can't recommend it enough.

#7938

I am always hesitant when movies come out in January or February. The Oscar buzz is about last year's performances and the summer blockbusters are still five months away. So, when movies come out this time of the year there is a distinct possibility that the movie is going to have a weak story line and sub par acting. This is not the case with "The Book of Eli." For a January movie — it exceeded my expectations.

I have respect for both Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman and their choice of past roles. Gary's role in this film was that of the old bad guy running a small western front town 30 years after a nuclear war (I am assuming it was nuclear war, they only vaguely described what happened). He sends his traveling bandits out of town to find the last Bible on earth. He does this because with the last Bible on earth he can reestablish civilization under his reign. It does seem far-fetched but then again it is a January movie so I will cut it some slack. Gary did a great job, reminded me a little of his bad guy character in "The Professional," but he wasn't over the top with his acting, only when he needed to be.

On to Denzel, who did another great job. He reminded me of Clint Eastwood in his western movies where he didn't say much because he didn't have to. Denzel's actions spoke for him. That leads us into the action sequences. The Hughes Brothers delivered the action with a wallop and without a lot of blood and guts. The first fight scene looked like five silhouettes fighting a shadow of a man. There's also a shoot out scene where they used some pretty innovative camera shots to put the viewer into the action. The action was quick and to the point and just as important, it was memorable.

We covered the actors and the action, so what about the story? The story could have taken place in the Old West just as it could have taken place in an apocalyptic future. It was simple and didn't have many confusing elements to it. The premise was to get that Bible. Denzel's job was to head west to deliver the last copy of the Bible to someone. He does everything in his power to protect the book. Since the Bible is the main focus of the hunt there are some religious overtones but nothing too heavy. There is also a good use of humor, something totally unexpected considering the drabness of the film.

The camera helped in telling much of the story. Through much of the movie the camera and landscape was all that was needed to carry key elements in the story. In one scene Mila Kunis' character was attacked and instead of talking about it afterward, the camera took time to focus on her reaction to the situation. There are also several shots of Denzel walking in the desolation showing the audience the ruined landscape. Dialogue couldn't have added much more.

Should you see this movie? Yes. Even though it won't get Oscar nods or be the next big summer blockbuster, it will still keep most people entertained. The ending might make you want to see it a second time to see what you missed the first time. All I am saying is keep your eyes open.

#8436

This is a twisty, fast-paced crime thriller, seemingly with an agenda to prove that a British film can have the swagger and the sheen of a flashy Hollywood thriller. It succeeds, but this superficial mimicry doesn't mean it's a good film.

The plot concerns a young, angry cop named Max Lewinsky (a possible allusion to Mad Max Rockatansky, visually referenced in a notable staircase scene), played by James McAvoy, seeking revenge on a crook named Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong), who blasted his kneecap three years ago. Various double-crosses draw them together, at which point things take a fairly predictable turn. There are chases and gunfights along the way, although only a shootout in an empty nightclub really raises the pulse.

The cast is great on paper, but it fails to elevate paper-thin characters. McAvoy is always engaging, but his anger here comes across as petulance rather than burning rage. Andrea Riseborough is wasted as his inexplicably patient sidekick. Strong, Johnny Harris and David Morrissey are all dominant presences, performers of great skill, but no amount of acting nuance can add depth that was never there.

The surface similarities to Michael Mann are obvious - this is the nocturnal LA dreamscape convincingly transplanted to Canary Wharf. But Mann works with great scripts (or at least used to). Collateral began with a brilliant, character-forming dialogue in a taxi, furnishing the rest of the action with a deep human context. Heat was a mythic exploration of genre archetypes. Punch is more Miami Vice than either of these movies.

Too many motivations are foggy. Too many plot threads go unfollowed. Too often the need to ape the glossy Hollywood standard undermines the opportunity for a unique plot hook or a surprising revelation. Complicated isn't the same as deep. The story meanders, but what good is that when the results are so predictable? There are some positives. Technically the film is impressive, creating something cinematic out of ordinary, familiar places. The action is decent, mostly clear without relying on confusing editing. And it's never boring as such, even though you'll see the ending an hour away. But for me it felt like an expensive TV pilot for a series that'll never take off.

#9096

Ben Affleck's new movie could best be described as "sprawling". In both directing and writing the screenplay (based on a novel by Dennis Lehane), Affleck has aimed for a "Godfather" style gangster epic and missed: not missed by a country mile, but missed nonetheless.

Morally bankrupted by his experiences in the trenches, Joe Coughlin (Affleck) returns to Boston to pick and choose which social rules he wants to follow. Not sociopathic per se, as he has a strong personal code of conduct, but Coughlin turns to robbery walking a delicate path between the warring mob factions of the Irish community, led by Albert White (the excellent Robert Glenister from TV's "Hustle"), and the Italian community, led by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Trying to keep him out of jail is his father ("Harry Potter"'s Brendan Gleeson) who – usefully – is the Deputy Police Chief. Life gets complicated when he falls in love with White's moll, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). The scene is set for a drama stretching from Boston to the hot and steamy Everglades over a period of the next twenty years.

Although a watchable popcorn film, the choppy episodic nature of the movie is hugely frustrating, with no compelling story arc to glue all of the disparate parts together. The (often very violent) action scenes are very well done and exciting but as a viewer you don't feel invested in a 'journey' from the beginning of the film to the (unsatisfactory) ending. In my experience it's never a good sign when the writer considers it necessary to add a voice-over to the soundtrack, and here Affleck mutters truisms about his thoughts and motives that irritate more than illuminate.

The sheer volume of players in the piece (there are about three film's worth in here) and the resulting minimal screen time given to each allows no time for character development. Unfortunately the result is that you really care very little about whether people live or die and big plot developments land as rather an "oh" than an "OH!".

Affleck puts in a great turn as the autistic central character whose condition results in a cold, calculating demeanor and a complete lack of emotion reflecting on his face. Oh, hang on… no, wait a minute… sorry… I've got the wrong film…. I'm thinking about "The Accountant". I don't know whether he filmed these films in parallel. I generally enjoy Ben Affleck's work (he was excellent in "The Town") but for 95% of this film his part could have been completed by a burly extra with an Affleck mask on. In terms of acting range, his facial muscles barely get to a "2" on the scale. Given the double problem that he is barely credible as the "young man" returning mentally wounded from the trenches, then in my opinion he would have been better to have focused on the writing and directing and found a lead of the likes of an Andrew Garfield to fill Coughlin's shoes.

That's not to say there is not some good acting present in their all but brief supporting roles. Elle Fanning ("Trumbo", "Maleficent") in particular shines as the Southern belle Loretta Figgis: a religious zealot driving her police chief father (Chris Cooper, "The Bourne Identity") to distraction. Cooper also delivers a star turn as the moral but pragmatic law-man.

Sienna Miller ("Foxcatcher") delivers a passable Cork accent and does her best to develop some believable chemistry with the rock-like Affleck. Zoe Saldana ("Star Trek") is equally effective as a Cuban humanitarian.

In summary, it's sprawlingly watchable… but overall a disappointment, with Affleck over-reaching. One day we surely will get a gangster film the likes of another "Godfather", "Goodfellas" or "Untouchables". Although this has its moments, unfortunately it's more towards the "Public Enemies" end of the genre spectrum.

(For the graphical version of this review please visit bob-the-movie-man.com. Thanks.)

#8372

Flight is the kind of movie that studio marketing departments seem to hate. Watching the trailer, it gives the feeling of a lighter film, dramatic, with some suspense. It does not, however, indicate that this is an incredibly dark film about the depths and perils of addiction. The trailer gives a completely different idea of what this movie is going to be about, but with Denzel Washington's "Whip" Whitaker doing cocaine about thirty seconds into the runtime, one can safely throw away any thoughts they may have had about it.

Mr. Washington stars as Captain Whitaker, piloting a flight from Florida to Georgia; a relatively short flight, but when something goes wrong at 30,000 feet, the quick-thinking and talented Whip rolls the plane to pull it out of its dive and ends up crash-landing, saving the lives of all but six people on-board the plane. The namesake sequence of the film is probably its best, filled with amazing tension and some stellar effects.

Washington absolutely shines in this role, and being an actor of immeasurable talent, there is no question why he is up for an Academy Award for best actor. His acting is the kind of amazing that doesn't even require words- near the end of the film, his performance is absolutely heartbreaking, and Denzel Washington wears it in his face. Sadly, the rest of the film (outside of scene-stealing performances from John Goodman and James Badge Dale) isn't really up to par. The film follows Whip's self-destructive alcoholism as he is caught up in an investigation into the cause of the plane crash; friends try to help him and are spurned, he is alienated from his family, and he finds fleeting comfort in strangers such as Nicole (Kelly Reilly).

This is where the film runs into problems, however. It wastes far too much screen time developing Nicole's character only to drop her off the face of the Earth. She enters Whip's life as a common ally, someone battling her own demons and addictions, but she is seeking help. She then vanishes from it just as quickly. Her character isn't all that interesting to begin with, and the same can be said for most of the rest of the characters and the story in the film; they only serve as a backdrop, a mirror through which Whip's many, many demons are reflected.

Flight is, unfortunately, a film without much of a sense of direction. Robert Zemeckis seems to be all over the place, pouring multitudes of attention into Nicole's character, the plane crash, and Whip battling his demons, and it never seems to make up its mind as to what it's about. The film never, for a moment, questions whether Whip is actually at fault for the plane crash, and in fact it was his actions that saved many lives. Maybe it is Washington's poise and gravitas in the scene, but it never feels like Whip isn't in control. True that he is drunk and on drugs, and has many serious, serious problems, but saving the lives of ninety-six people (himself included) wasn't one of them. So while the plane crash story is certainly interesting, there's never any doubt about exactly how it is going to play out.

Flight could have been a better film if it had capitalized on the success of the tension it so well displayed early during the plane crash. Whip's story, his battles with his numerous demons- and ultimately, his freedom from them- are moving and wonderful to watch. If Zemeckis hadn't tried to shoehorn in this ridiculous investigation plot that never really merits any attention, it would have been that much better. Washington gives a five-star performance, but the rest of Flight lands at a dismal Three and a half out of Five Stars.

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