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Review: ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

dfn-kubo_and_the_two_strings-300A lovely, gorgeous wonder, filled with magic, Kubo and the Two Strings enchants even as it mystifies.

That’s a good thing, by the way. Laika, the company behind Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, has chosen to make stop-motion animated movies that don’t quite jib with the usual, and though they appear to have integrated more computerized methods of animation into their painstaking work, Kubo and the Two Strings reflects well on their creative independence.

As suggested, the story is a bit more complex than might be expected. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a young boy in a Japanese village who ekes out a living by telling a compelling story with the aid of his magical stringed musical instrument. It’s the same story every day, and it never has an ending, but Kubo tells it so well, and the creatures that come to life during his telling are so fascinating, he continues to draw an appreciative audience. He cares for his ailing, memory-stricken mother in a nearby cave, and yearns for his late father, a samurai warrior.

One day, Kubo inadvertently brings forth a mighty spirit force with a vendetta against him, destroying the village and threatening his life. His mother saves him at the cost of her own life. The next day, Kubo awakens to a new world in which his tiny wooden monkey icon has come to life as a talking monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron). He is charged with finding a magical suit of armor in order to set things right and save his own life, since the magical armor is all that will protect him against evil spirit forces.

On his journey to discovery, he is also joined by a magical talking beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). Together, the trio have many adventures and unlock long-held mysteries and secrets.

Directed by Travis Knight from a screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, drawn from a story by Haimes and Shannon Tindle, Kubo and the Two Strings is a magical mystery tour that is sometimes a bit too fancifully plotted; I wasn’t always clear about what was happening and how it tied into the narrative. Yet the overall thrust is remarkably easy to follow: this is a classic story of good and evil, following a child who must come to terms with the actions of his parents and learn from them.

The cast is filled with actors who avoid any histrionics in their voice acting. The voices are not the stars here; the characters are the pivotal figures, and that’s how it should be. The Monkey is firm yet kind, the Beetle is a bit dense yet loyal. They are the ideal companions for Kubo, who demonstrates admirable bravery and strength of personality.

That makes Kubo and the Two Strings a movie for all ages.

The movie opens in theaters through Dallas on Friday, August 19.

Review: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

'Mad Max: Fury Road' (Warner Bros.)
‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (Warner Bros.)

Phenomenal. Arriving 33 years after The Road Warrrior, the greatest movie ever made, Mad Max: Fury Road is an entirely satisfying motion picture.

It’s an action thriller down to its core, tense and dramatic and breathtaking, a near-future tale of a small group of people intent on breaking free from society’s constrictions. It’s a chase movie, focused entirely on surviving a life-threatening flight toward somewhere better. It’s a character drama, exploring how people who must constantly fight to stay alive are fundamentally different than those who live in comfort and peace.

After many years in the barren wasteland, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is a hard-scrabble survivor with a fierce instinct to live, yet still haunted by his personal failings in the past. Taken by surprise, he is captured and imprisoned in a thriving settlement. It’s ruled with an iron fist by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who becomes enraged when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) escapes with five of his “breeders,” beautiful women who are held against their will solely to give birth to his children.

Immortan Joe scrambles his forces to chase down Furiosa and recapture his breeders, which is how Max is thrown back in the fray. He’s become the property of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a member of thhe War Boys, a bald-headed cult of male religious fanatics, who intends to recharge himself with the transfusion of all of Max’s blood into his body. But the chase instead prompts Nux to affix Max to the front of his pursuit vehicle, and the action races onward from there, with Max and Nux eventually teaming up with Furiosa and the other women.

For those who have seen the first three installments in the series, Mad Max: Fury Road plays as both a sequel to, and a remake of, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), reusing elements from that disappointing film to far better purpose. Max has become, once again, a grunting, single-minded personality, but his experience in life has taught him some much-needed lessons in modesty, as well as the importance of accepting help from others when it’s offered in a selfless and genuine manner.

Even if you haven’t seen any of the previous films, Mad Max: Fury Road plays as the best action movie in years. Director George Miller has a great feel for how to stage and frame rapidly-moving sequences without ever inducing a degree of fatigue. It’s always easy to follow what’s happening, to understand where the main players are located, and to comprehend their relative peril. The color palette has been broadened, though individual sequences tend to be monochromatic; the result is a greater variety in the backdrops that are, after all, intended to represent a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Hardy carves out his own impression of Max that feels entirely genuine and weighted with memory, loss, and grief. Theron is no less impressive, an indelibly exciting figure who is an outstanding leader, even while carrying around her own bag of loss. The “breeders” (Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Courtney Eaton) are most notable initially for their model-esque beauty, which soon gives way to their defiant instincts for survival. Keays-Byrne, who appeared in Mad Max as a different sort of villain, brings great menace to his role as Immortan Joe. Hoult demonstrates impressive range as the maniacal Nux.

Cohesive, corrosive, and completely charged-up, Mad Max: Fury Road is a thrilling ride that features cogent arguments about the future of humanity. It’s easily the best movie of 2015 (so far).

The film opens this evening with screenings at select theaters before expanding wide tomorrow.

Review: ‘Young Adult’

Charlize Theron in 'Young Adult' (Paramount)
Charlize Theron in 'Young Adult' (Paramount)

An acutely-observed, acidic character study, ‘Young Adult’ features an outstanding, nuanced performance by Charlize Theron, a strong supporting turn by Patton Oswalt, and the best script yet by Diablo Cody, well-served by Jason Reitman’s direction. It’s a very funny picture, and dead-on in its depiction of a mercurial woman who is just waking up to the idea that she may need to make changes in her life if she ever wants to be happy.

Ensconced in a high-rise apartment in the Midwest U.S., Mavis Gary (Theron) is a 30-something single writer who lives like a 30-something single writer: cheap furniture, clothes stuffed into see-through plastic storage containers, floor littered with fast-food wrappers. She’s facing an impossible deadline, dealing with writer’s block for a new installment in a young adult series of novels, but is moved to action by news about her old flame Buddy Slade, and impulsively drives to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota.

Mavis looks with disdain upon the retail chain stores and restaurants that have invaded Mercury. She arranges to meet Buddy (Patrick Wilson), fully expecting to dazzle her high school beau with her beauty and big-city sophistication, only to be greeted with a pleasant, if bland fellow who is happy and content with his lot in life. Buddy is married to fellow high school classmate Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), who is pregnant and expecting their second child; he’s glad enough to see Mavis again, but a quick drink with an old friend is about all he has in mind.

Mavis can’t quite comprehend that. She’s breezed back into a small town she despises, ready to reclaim her position as a haughty hottie, a high school beauty queen, the one who could pick and choose her boyfriends. She figures that Buddy has been pining for her, that he’s settled for Beth and a boring lifestyle.

So Mavis sets out to rescue Buddy, who doesn’t know he needs to be rescued.

Providing wry commentary is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who sees Mavis in a bar on her first night in town and must remind her that they attended high school together. He was savagely beaten and left for dead by vicious classmates who thought he was gay; ‘Oh, that’s right,’ Mavis finally remembers, ‘you’re the Hate Crime Guy.’ Permanently disabled, Matt harbors a reservoir of bitterness, which he draws from when speaking plainly to Mavis about her plans to wreck Buddy’s family for purely selfish reasons. The two unhappy 30-something singles end up bonding over their failed — or non-existent, in Matt’s case — love lives.

Mavis’ continued delusions of self-grandeur are contrasted nicely with Matt’s realistic appraisal of their respective situations. He lives with his sister and spends a fair amount of time in the garage, keeping himself busy with various hobbies. Mavis, on the other hand, did not always live like a 30-something single writer, and she’s facing challenges in her life that are much bigger than a looming deadline.

Cody’s script lays everything out in a calm, natural, everyday manner. Her characters talk as we would expect people in those specific situations to talk, without artifice or the excess of smart-aleck, self-conscious slang that marred ‘Juno.’ (She even mocks the idea that she simply eavesdropped on teenagers to steal “authentic” dialogue by having Mavis do the same.) But, yes, many writers steal from their own lives for the purposes of dramatization, and that’s what Mavis does as well, taking inspiration to push her YA (young adult) novel to melodramatic heights.

With the cast delivering spot-on performances and Reitman’s direction capturing the spirit of the story and the characters,’Young Adult’ works extremely well as a snapshot of a woman on the verge of a breakdown — or a breakthrough, if everything goes just right for Mavis.

Theron fully inhabits Mavis, whether she’s looking frumpy or dazzling, focused on writing or distracted by the dim wits who sometimes surround her. Mavis is a frustrating sort, because she doesn’t seem to learn anything from her past mistakes. She’s been living her life with a blithe disregard for others, and the accumulation of ill will is finally catching up with her. She may not know exactly what she should be doing, but ‘Young Adult’ captures her at the end of a long, long chapter of her life, with more to come.

Mavis is a spoiled brat of a girl who got older without ever really growing up. She verges on being insufferable, but, beneath her cool exterior, Theron gives her enough warmth and humanity to make the ending a rooting matter. And that makes ‘Young Adult’ essential viewing.

Originally published at Twitch.

‘Young Adult’ opens today at select theaters across the Metroplex.