Kubo and the Two Strings

With their fourth feature film (following Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls), the stop-motion wizards at LAIKA have crafted animation so fluid and graceful that many average viewers may assume the images are computer-generated. But whether or not one appreciates the painstaking hands-on craftsmanship that created Kubo and the Two Strings, there is much to appeal to the eye and the heart.

In its young, eponymous hero (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson), who folds detailed paper figures and brings them to life with the playing of his stringed shamisen instrument, director Travis Knight and his team have come up with a mirror image of themselves as they introduce their meticulously fabricated figures and touch them with magic. Their people, animals, ghosts and other creatures are granted extra life through evocative 3D photography—though that’s a quality Kubo himself couldn’t appreciate, as he only has one eye, the absent one covered with a patch. He lost the orb to his grandfather, the Moon King, who is the bad guy of the origami-enhanced stories he spins to the residents of a small village in feudal Japan.

The hero of the tales is the great samurai Hanzo, who once battled villains with the aid of The Armor Impenetrable, The Sword Unbreakable and The Helmet Invulnerable. Retrieving those items will become the boy’s own quest after he accidentally resurrects the ancient evil forces, joined on the journey by the harsh but protective mentor Monkey (Charlize Theron) and the less seriously inclined humanoid-insect warrior Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Their trek through landscapes ranging from lush to wintry to suboceanic confronts them with an assortment of memorably menacing creatures, including malevolent twin Sisters (Rooney Mara) who hide their faces behind Noh masks and an undersea garden of giant eyeballs on stalks.

Knight, the president and CEO of LAIKA making his debut at the helm, has marshaled his team of artists to fashion a fully realized world and populate it with remarkably expressive characters. From Kubo’s determination and vulnerability to the gently clashing personalities of Monkey and Beetle to the assorted eccentrics of the boy’s hometown, everyone in the movie (scripted by Marc Haimes and Paranorman’s Chris Butler, from a story by Shannon Tindle and Haimes) feels distinctive and real, and the inhuman beings have similarly singular presences as well. Great credit also goes to the first-rate voice cast, with Parkinson, Theron, McConaughey (submerging his signature drawl) and Mara joined by Ralph Fiennes (getting his Voldemort on as he speaks for the Moon King) and veteran actors George Takei (yes, he gets in an “Oh my!”), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Brenda Vaccaro.

Kubo and the Two Strings plunges its heroes and villains into a series of setpieces so epic that imagining how they were created with physical puppets and sets boggles the mind. (We get a little behind-the-scenes taste of how it was pulled off during the end credits.) Staging a stop-motion battle that takes place on the ocean, with a storm raging as a boat made of thousands of individual leaves slowly comes apart, must have been as daunting a challenge for the technicians as it is for the characters involved, but the animators have succeeded splendidly. And at its core, there’s an affecting story here as well, one that celebrates courage, perseverance and, above all, the power of storytelling. Kubo instructs both us and his own audience to play close attention at the movie’s outset, and that attention is rewarded for every one of Kubo’s 101 entrancing minutes.

Don’t Breathe

The thing about successfully tense movies is that they only work if the audience doesn’t know what’s coming. No matter what the genre, a consistently unpredictable plot will keep people glued to their seats with hands over mouths.

Or, at least, that’s what I believed. Then I saw Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe.

It’s going to be hard to talk about this movie without spoiling it. I’ll do my best not to reveal anything major but the story’s style is so economical that every detail has the ability to reveal information. So, just saying, you’ve been warned.

Don’t Breath centers on three young burglars in Detroit (everyone’s new favorite horror film city) and the attempted robbery of an Iraq vet. Although he seems like the perfect target, things go from bad to worse when the disabled vet (played by the near-mute Stephen Lang) turns out to be more than what he seems.

What worked so well in this film was the balance between predictability and spontaneity. Every plot device, every motivation, even every weapon were foreshadowed, which kept me believing the story even as things escalated. For example, the homeowner is revealed to be an Iraq vet well before the robbery, so I was prepared when he was more capable of defending his home than a regular Joe.

Simultaneously, all of this foreshadowing left me with a pretty clear understanding of what was going to happen (if the characters take time to take off their shoes in one scene, you can bet that it’s going to come back to bite them in the ass later). In a less skilled director’s hands, this would have turned into a formulaic snooze, but Alvarez uses this to his advantage. Once he has given you all of the pieces, he leaves you to sweat, wondering when and how it will all fit together.

Alvarez does this best near the end of the first act, as the burglars first enter the house. The camera leaves the characters behind and swoops in on specific objects, pausing for a moment before moving on. In this way, we’re alerted to information that the main characters don’t have and are left to worry until these objects are used. This device, famously used by Alfred Hitchcock, is an effective way to heighten the tension through engaging the audience.

Things get a little wonky when it comes to the characters and their motivations. Although the script does a good job of keeping every character from being innocent, it loses some of its effectiveness when it tries to infuse heart into the story. I didn’t feel much sympathy for the main characters, even though it was clear I was supposed to. The reason Rocky (the compelling Jane Levy) doesn’t leave the house when things get scary is at odds with her original motivation. How do you achieve a better life if you’re dead?

The acting was competent and subtle. In fact, I was so wrapped up in the suspense that I didn’t even notice. This is a compliment in my book. Sure, I love to stop and wonder at an incredible performance, but not in a film based on suspense. These actors let me focus on the plot while giving grounded, realistic performances.

There is one sequence in the film that doesn’t quite work. Remember when I said that everything was foreshadowed? Well, there’s a twist halfway through this film that isn’t. Or, at least, it’s only kind of foreshadowed. Either way, the film shifts in tone in a way that pulled me out to wonder if I bought it. You’ll have to judge for yourself if it works. I’m not going to say anything more.

There’s a pattern to the horror movies I’ve really liked in the recent past (Green Room and It Follows come to mind), and that’s the decision to not watch the trailer. These great films were heightened for me because I went in completely blind. I would suggest doing the same for this movie. I did and I had a great time.

Don’t Breathe is a fun, anxiety-filled movie with twists and turns that will keep you guessing. It’s a great way to end the summer

Inside Out

Joy (Amy Poehler) is the dominant emotion in the mind of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven year old girl who loves hockey, being a goofball, and her family. Alongside Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Fear (Bill Hader), Joy is responsible for guiding Riley through her life in Minnesota. When Riley and her family up sticks and move to San Francisco, Joy finds herself unable to control the wave of negativity stemming from Riley’s sense of dislocation and loneliness. When Joy’s attempts to control the situation result in her and Sadness being inadvertently locked out of the mind’s command centre with no easy way back, Riley’s emotional well-being starts to become dangerously fraught, and Joy and Sadness need to figure out a way back before any permanent damage is done.

Inside Out feels like a natural continuation for Pete Docter, who co-directed the film with Ronaldo Del Carmen, whose previous work for Pixar featured isolated moments of piercing emotional devastation. Monsters, Inc. ended with one of the most deliriously sweet shots in animation history, while merely mentioning the opening of Up is a surefire way to get almost anyone who has seen it a little misty-eyed. Inside Out builds on that history by consisting of almost nothing but those moments. From its opening scene, in which we witness Riley’s first moment of consciousness and the creation of her first Core Memory (seeing her parents’ face for the very first time), underscored by Michael Giacchino’s plaintive and melancholy theme, it’s pretty much 94 minutes of precision hits to the emotional solar plexus.

What’s remarkable is not that it manages to wring tears out at a pretty steady rate – this is Pixar, after all – but that it does so while also being one of the studio’s most imaginative and consistently funny films. The inside of Riley’s mind offers plenty of opportunity for visual gags and puns, such as the literal Train of Thought which travels around her headspace and offers one possible point of salvation for Joy and Sadness, or the idea of dreams being created by a film studio in Riley’s head. It also has room for more esoteric scenes, such as one in which Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s old imaginary friend who now wanders around her long-term memory with nothing to do, enter an area dedicated to Abstract Thought, which results in their bodies changing in all sorts of odd ways. There’s a lot of wit and invention on display throughout the film, and its world is delivered in vibrant and gorgeous visuals befitting Pixar’s position at the apex of CG animation.

One of Inside Out’s more subtly impressive achievements is the way in which Docter and Del Carmen give weight to their action. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where a story set entirely within someone’s mind could come across as weightless and without consequence, but they give Joy and Sadness’ actions meaning both within Riley’s head and in the real world. Aspects of Riley’s personality are given physical form as islands that they have to travel to in order to return to Headquarters, an admittedly cute touch which also adds a ticking time bomb element to the plot as Riley’s distress causes each of the islands to crumble and fall apart. There’s also, in being forgotten, an equivalent of death for the characters, so they can actually be imperiled by their adventure. All this makes for interesting world-building, and serves to make sense of a concept that could be a little too abstract or, if you’ll forgive the pun, heady for its own good.

More important than the Riley’s Head aspects of the film, at least in terms of ensuring that there are stakes, are the ways in which the adventure manifests itself in the real world. The script finds plenty of opportunities to mine comedy from Anger, Disgust and Fear struggling to manage things and mimic Joy in her absence, but the real meat of the story comes when they stumble upon the idea of having Riley run away from home. At that point, the film doubles down on being grounded in the emotions of an adolescent girl by taking her unhappiness and confusion to a logical place. Even though the stakes of the film are relatively small, especially compared to most modern blockbusters, that makes them all the more keenly felt. Boiled down to its basics, Inside Out is the story of a young girl deciding whether or not to take a bus ride, but the terror involved in making that decision, and the irrevocable ramifications of it for Riley, her family and her emotions, make it feel like the end of the world.

A lot of that comes across through the voice actors, who all give the film a rising sense of panic and dread as Riley’s emotional state becomes harder and harder to manage. They also turn in performances which fit perfectly with many of their established personas. Kind imbues Bing Bong with a mix of silliness and sadness that reaffirms why he is one of the best comedy actors currently working; Black gets plenty of opportunities to be apoplectic over just about everything; Kaling plays essentially a Heather inside Riley’s mind, constantly obsessed with what looks good to other people. Smith is probably the comedic highlight of the film, in part because she gets some of the best lines, but also because she manages to make running jokes about what Sadness likes (her favourite memory is of a dog dying at the end of an unnamed film) feel fresh. She also brings consistency to a character who initially seems like she might be the villain of the film, at least judging by the way Joy treats her as an aberration that needs to be suppressed, and takes some time to really come into focus.

It’s Amy Poehler who dominates the film, however, which is only to be expected since Inside Out is largely Joy’s story. Though in a broader sense the film is about the coming of age of a young girl, it’s Joy’s arc that forms the core of the film as she comes to realise that Sadness has a place in Riley’s life. It’s a dynamic reminiscent of that between Woody and Buzz in the first Toy Story, in that the overly controlling leader of a group gradually realises that they are the problem, rather than the person they are fixated on, and that their actions are hurting someone they care deeply about.

Poehler’s performance is utterly wonderful in that regard. She manages to make Joy’s desire for Riley to be happy all the time, regardless of what is going on in her life, feel natural to the character without seeming self-conscious about it, then switches to raw emotion when it comes to the character’s heartbreaking moment of realisation. That turn establishes a link with Toy Story 3, since both film’s get their emotional power from depicting the ways in which parents (represented by toys or anthropomorphic emotions) perceive their children. Poehler’s delivery of the line “I only wanted her to be happy” is one of the most wrenching moments in a film that finds plenty of opportunity to yank the heartstrings.

It’s hard to say after one viewing if Inside Out is Pixar’s best, but the fact that it even enters into the conversation speaks volumes about how great it is. It’s relentlessly clever, inventive, funny and moving, and driven by a genuinely important message for a family film: that sadness is an important and valuable thing. It’s a straightforward and simple message, but as is often the case with Pixar, the beauty lies in its execution.

Ex Machina

Watching the movie, you’d never guess that it was shot by a first-timer. Not only is it perfectly paced, and looks absolutely stunning, but the whole movie shows a self-assuredness that’s impressive. Alex Garland also does an incredible job when is comes to slowly drawing the viewer in. Like Caleb, we’re thrown into this weird story, not really knowing what to make of it at first. Who is telling the truth, and who is lying – and about what, and why? What are they hiding? Who can we trust? There are a couple of divergent, hidden agendas going on simultaneously that we’re only gradually becoming aware of, and lots of secrets and twists that are revealed bit by bit over the course of the movie. Thus, “Ex Machina” keeps you guessing pretty much from the beginning about what exactly is going on here, and where it will all ultimately lead. And while there may have been one or two plot twists that I did see coming, there’s also lots of stuff that catched me totally unaware. I also loved all the conversations, be it between Nathan and Caleb, or Caleb and Ava. The former are great because they raise some interesting questions about artificial intelligence, and deal with it in an almost academic way. The latter are the heart and soul of the movie, showing us the increasingly intimate connection that develops between the programmer and his test subject. That, ultimately, is one of “Ex Machinas” major strengths: It’s brainy and thought-provoking AND moving and emotive at the same time, thus offering food for the brain as well as the heart.

Where “Transcendence” (dealing with a slightly similar topic in a vastly inferior way) relied on an A-list cast to tell its story, Alex Garland – rightfully – has enough trust in his movie and its story to refrain from stunt-casting, filling it with up-and-coming actors instead. We’ll see both Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson in “Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens” later this year. Both are actors that could be seen regularly over the last couple of years, giving one good performance after another, but who haven’t quite reached stardom yet. Here, they continue their streak of great lead performances on the more indie-side of movie-things, perfectly capturing their multi-faceted roles – and their individual character development over the course of the movie. By far the standout of the movie, however, is Alicia Vikander, giving a breakout-, star-making performance as KI/robot Ava that somehow feels natural and calculated at the same time. Like her costars, she has already been cast in plenty of other upcoming movies, so it seems like we’ll definitely see more of her in the future – and I couldn’t be more pleased about that. Kudos also has to go to cinematographer Rob Hardy, who perfectly captures the beauty of the landscapes as well as the claustrophobic feel of the underground lab, art directors Katrina Mackay & Denis Schnegg for their impressive set design, as well as Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury who provide the movie’s atmospheric, haunting synth-score. Add to that the perfect, reverberating ending that stayed with me long after the credits rolled, and you got yourself a small modern science fiction masterpiece.

Spotlight

In a 2013 interview on The Colbert Report, British philosopher, humanist and author A.C. Grayling proclaimed that, on the whole, religion has done “far more harm” than good. Grayling was on the show to discuss his book The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism.

Tom McCarthy’s new film, Spotlight, makes a similar case. It depicts the 2001 investigation by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team into the pandemic of child sexual abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church. The journalists’ commitment to wrenching the story out of darkness finally exposed the cover-up that had been quietly documented for decades, and almost certainly going on for much longer.

Spotlight is about the process, the daily grind of bringing such a sweeping story to the foreground. It doesn’t focus on sensationalized reenactments of molestation, or low-angle shots of sinister priests with cheekbones chiseled from shadow. It doesn’t spin the narrative as a thriller because it doesn’t need to. The subject matter is horrifying enough.

Instead, Spotlight hones in on the individual steps each of the reporters must take to pull the story together: late nights at the library; hours squinting through archives in dimly lit basements; interviews and interview attempts; frequent meetings with lawyers; stale hot dogs and leftover pizza dinners.

The film lets us hear some of the survivors’ stories. But even those are seen through distanced eyes, as the reporters target the facts and not the emotions. Because, as the Globe team points out, it isn’t about one particular case of abuse, or even 87; it’s about the system that allowed it to happen.

McCarthy is a perfect choice for covering this subject matter. In his deft hands, watching journalists pore over documents and answer phones isn’t dull; it’s compelling.

He’s already proven his gift for pacing and his light touch with actors, most notably with The Visitor (see The Visitor review from May 2008)—and Win Win (see the Win Win review from October 2011) was also a victory. With Spotlight, McCarthy makes full use of his talents, expertly directing an exceptional ensemble cast that more than does justice to their real-life counterparts.

The Spotlight Team includes lead Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton, fresh from his incredible turn in Birdman), and his reporters Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams, delivering some of her best work yet, in a carefully studied performance that follows a string of progressively more interesting and challenging roles; her artistic integrity makes me keen to feature her on Kickass Canadians) and Mike Rezendes (the always magnetic Mark Ruffalo—see The Kids Are All Right review from July 2010).

Spotlight also features fine work from Liev Schreiber as the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron; John Slattery as deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr.; Billy Crudup as morally questionable attorney Eric MacLeish; and Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian, the extraordinary lawyer who fought, and continues to fight, on behalf of sexual abuse survivors. Tucci is a high point in every film he graces, but it’s especially nice to see his 2010 portrayal of a child sex offender in The Lovely Bones (see The Lovely Bones review from January 2010) offset here by a well-drawn portrait of a man looking to correct the crime.

Excluding MacLeish, this dedicated group bands together to challenge an authority so entrenched, almost no one is willing to fight back. Its reach extends far and wide, within Boston and throughout the world, keeping people from speaking out against even the most horrific abuse of the most innocent among us.

Some of the journalists struggle with their own complicity in the scandal; they were all raised Catholic—how could they not have known? But as Garabedian, a man of Armenian descent, points out, “it takes an outsider” to clearly see the situation and be prepared to expose it. Case in point: It wasn’t until Baron, a Jewish newcomer to Boston (or “an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball”), came on as Globe editor that the Catholic Church investigation was finally assigned to Robinson’s team.

Spotlight offers a damning, if cool-headed, indictment of religion, its power to corrupt and its potential as a weapon of mass destruction when held in the wrong hands. The film tells this message through incidents that took place nearly 15 years ago (and then some). Yet its message is still urgently relevant today.

* * *

The Spotlight Team won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Their groundbreaking article, “Church allowed abuse by priest for years,” was published January 6, 2002.

Thanks to Cinemablographer‘s Patrick Mullen for the earlybird tickets to Spotlight. The film opens across Canada on November 20, 2015; I highly recommend it.