A 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.
Given 30 days to live, Matthew McConaughey continues to sniff cocaine, drink hard liquor, and entertain sexually-unrestrained women in his wreck of a mobile home in Dallas, Texas, USA.
McConaughey, an outsized personality with a magnetic smile, here plays a man named Ron Woodroof, an outsized personality with a sickly smile who was given a fatal prognosis in 1985. As Woodroof, McConaughey resembles a drumstick after the meat has been chewed off, his head and bushy moustache wider than his emaciated body. Yet he is living “the good life,” as he would probably define it, doing whatever he wants whenever he wants, and with whomever he wants.
He enjoys sex with women, but does not remember their names. He enjoys drinking and gambling with his buddies, but has no intention of paying off his losses. He is friends with a police officer, but does not hesitate to punch him in the face to save his own hide.
When he is informed at a hospital that he is HIV-positive, he is more offended by the idea that someone might think he is gay than by the prospect of death knocking on his door, storms out in anger, and resumes his risky behavior. But he is not stupid. Within days, he has done enough personal research to learn that drug users and people who engage in unprotected sex are also at risk, and realizes that his lifestyle has left him vulnerable.
He returns to the hospital in search of a drug that he has read might save his life. When a kind doctor (Jennifer Garner) informs him that the drug is not approved by the FDA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, he replies with justifiable exasperation, “Screw the FDA, I’m gonna be D.O.A.!”
The balance of the film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (C.R.A.Z.Y.) from a screenplay credited to Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, follows Ron in his desperate, determined efforts to secure whatever drugs he can to treat the illness. First, he is only concerned about himself, then, after he seizes on the profit possibilities, he becomes committed to obtaining treatment for whoever can pay his going price.
Ron has a fierce instinct for survival, but he is not necessarily an admirable human being. He is brusque in his manner, and given to outbursts of anger. He is a raging homophobe. He has no interest in cultivating close relationships, and no patience for the shortcomings of others. Still, he is the protagonist. At some point, he will yield and mellow, at least to a degree; of this we have no doubt.
And so it is up to McConaughey and Vallee and the screenwriters to chart a path that is convincing, that will honor the memory of the man, and also impart some idea of the times in which he lived. What emerges is a simplistic demarcation between good (those who have HIV or AIDS) and evil (the FDA and the medical professionals who adhere to its regulations).
Once drawn, the line remains steadfast, and the only middle ground is granted to Dr. Eve Saks, played by Jennifer Garner with steely resolve and a sweet disposition. She is sympathetic to Ron’s plight, though she refuses to compromise her personal integrity. Beyond her physical appearance, it’s not made apparent why she remained on Ron’s good side. Perhaps a little sympathy went a long way with him.
The film wages its own battle against accepted medical wisdom and the government, with Ron as its flinty leader, repeating bromides and repainting the line between good and evil. Jared Leto is enlisted as Rayon, a transsexual and fellow AIDS patient whose brains for business and positive attitude eventually soften Ron’s knee-jerk hatred for gay people. Within somewhat limited parameters, Leto and Garner are on target in their emotional graduations.
Matthew McConaughey once again commands deep respect and full attention for his embodiment of a man whose basic resolve and views on life and death never change. Ron Woodroof remains determined to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and with whomever he wants. Inch by inch, though, without even realizing it, he makes room for the possibility that other people have something to offer him beyond drugs, sex, and alcohol: friendship.
Dallas Buyers Club opens at Angelika Dallas on Friday, November 8.
The rip-roaring first trailer for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has exploded online. Based on a true story, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a New York stockbrocker in the 1990s who enjoys smashing success and a hard-partying lifestyle that only Manhattan can offer. Matthew McConaughey and Jonah Hill also star; the movie is due in theaters on November 15. [Apple via MovieClips]
Jeff Nichols is fully in tune with nature and how people relate to it, reminiscent of certain Australian filmmakers in the 1970s. The feature films he has made so far are pure pieces of modern Americana, though, reflecting a sensibility that is fiercely independent, no matter the varied landscapes that seep into the characters who inhabit them.
By “Americana,” I mean a dictionary definition of the word: “Things associated with the culture and history of America, esp. the United States.” Mud, Nichols’ latest film, in no way trumpets American culture as superior to any other; it is, however, firmly rooted in the time and place of its very particular setting, namely, rural Arkansas in the Southern United States.
The story revolves around two teenage boys who are edging into adulthood but aren’t there quite yet. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are filled with the energy of youth and the brash curiosity of adolescence. They freely and fearlessly explore the fecund woods that surround their rural community, including the muddy banks of the Mississippi River. One day they see a boat resting in the branches of a tree, far off the ground. An adult might ponder the fragility of life — surely the boat’s owners were victims of a flood — but the boys view it as a cool, potential clubhouse, and vow to make it their own.
Upon returning, Ellis and Neckbone learn that someone else has claimed the boat. He’s tall and lean and mysterious, and exudes an air of restrained menace; he’s the kind of man who might turn on you quick as look at you. The boys do not shy away, revealing a confidence in their ability to take care of themselves.
Their instincts are (basically) correct. The man, who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey), provides a reasonable explanation for why he’s taken possession of the boat — he’s in trouble with the law and waiting to meet up with long-time love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) — and enlists the boys to help him with a plan he sketches out.
It’s good timing for Ellis and Neckbone; their home lives are far from idyllic. Ellis has learned that his parents (the always terrific Ray McKinnon and reliable Sarah Paulson) are splitting up, and his mom wants to move out of their ram-shackle riverboat home and into town. Neckbone lives with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), who has some unusual ideas about raising children. So they agree to help Mud, as much out of boredom and curiosity as anything else, and the consequences of their decision quickly spread outward, like a rock skipped across a river.
The story plays out largely through the eyes and ears of Ellis, who is in his early teen years, and is still figuring out who, or what, he wants to be. Does he want to be like his harsh-tongued and often frustrated father? Or his mother, who is seeking more security and a more traditional home life? Or Galen, who is very much his own, angry man? Or the crusty old man who lives across the river, Tom (Sam Shepherd), who lives an extremely solitary life? Or Mud, who makes being penniless and wanted by the law somehow look dangerously attractive?
Mud is not a conventional coming-of-age tale, in which an angel and a devil fight for the soul of a young person who must choose good or evil. Nor does it extol the idea of leaving home for the romance of the open road, or advocate moving to the city as the only smart decision for rural youth. Instead, it depicts people who have taken a variety of paths to adulthood. Some have achieved success and enjoy a measure of satisfaction with their lot in life, while others are still searching for the happiness that eludes them.
Nichols carves his characters from reality. As but one example, Mud has visions, but they don’t have the profound depth of those experienced by, say, Michael Shannon’s character in Take Shelter, Nichols’ previous film. Mud’s visions are both more mundance and more pitiable, because he’s been chasing the fulfillment of them for so many years without quite getting there.
Like the Mississippi River, emotions and events in Mud rise and fall. Sometimes they come in a rush, but more often they ebb and flow gently. so the temperament of the film doesn’t reach the apocalyptic heights expressed in Take Shelter. Still, the range of personalities expressed by the characters leaves open the possibility that someone might be left stranded, like the boat in the woods.
Tye Sheridan, who played the younger brother in Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, embodies Ellis with surprising strength and quiet confidence; sometimes it’s stretched thin over a valley of fragile nerves, but he rarely strikes a false note. Jacob Lofland is also quite good as his running buddy Neckbone, who appears to have fewer possibilities in life than Ellis, but never holds that against his childhood friend.
Matthew McConaughey continues his recent string of superior performances, giving Mud a tasty edge that connects most of the dots while allowing the rest to be filled in later. It’s a supporting role, but it’s substantial, and he doesn’t overplay his hand. Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon, and Sam Shepherd all deliver exquisitely good work, as do Sarah Paulson and Joe Don Baker. Reese Witherspoon erases her star persona to play the faded lover.
Key members of the crew, such as cinematographer Adam Stone, editor Julie Monroe, and production designer Richard A. Wright, contribute excellent work, while David Wingo’s musical score is evocative and powerful.
Like its lead character Ellis, Mud is modest, surprisingly strong, and quietly confident as it unfolds, venturing far into territories that are rarely visited in American cinema.
Take away the breakaway pants, substitute robots for strippers, and Magic Mike is a perfectly ordinary summer movie, story-wise. Ah, but add Steven Soderbergh to the mix, and what pours out is a seemingly complex work of art.
Magic Mike is not above pandering to straight women and gay men, but neither does it avoid trafficking in male-fantasy fulfillment; it provides a little something something for nearly everyone, as long as you’re cool with partial nudity and physical objectification. Soderbergh is the not-so-secret ingredient that makes the movie eminently palatable, a tasty treat elevated far beyond its ordinary narrative structure and stereotypical character arcs.
Soderbergh once again coaxs career-best performances out of actors (Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey) who previously appeared to have hit the ceiling of their limited range. As he did with Gina Carano in Haywire, he manages a similar trick with Cody Horn, a new actress with little to no acting experience.
Tatum plays the titular character, a self-described “stripper/entrepreneur.” By night, he’s the star attraction of a male dance revue that does big business with the ladies of Tampa Bay, Florida. By day, he’s a budding custom furniture maker and construction worker, and it’s on the latter gig that he meets 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer).
The two bump into each other later that night; sharp-dressed Mike takes pity on the bedraggled-looking Adam (who he takes to calling The Kid), and invites him along to his night job so he can earn a few extra bucks. Adam is an unexpected hit with the ladies, which impresses Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the owner and manager (and occasional featured dancer) of the strip club.
Soon enough, Mike is indoctrinating Adam into the ways of the male stripper — with an assist by Dallas, who provides dance lessons — and Adam proves himself to be a natural. He quickly becomes intoxicated with the fleshly opportunities of his new job, which does not please his older sister Brooke (Cody Horn), a medical assistant who shares an apartment with her baby brother.
Mike slowly starts to develop a relationship with Brooke, even while continuing to sleep with Joanna (Olivia Munn), who, lucky for Mike, enjoys casual sex and threesomes with anonymous females. Mike also is trying to start a custom-furniture business, while Dallas holds open the promise of an equity share in a new club in Miami, evidently the mecca for all male strippers in Florida.
Magic Mike, written by Reid Carolin and inspired by Tatum’s own experiences as a young stripper, is a male fantasy of a female fantasy, one in which all the men are physically-fit and dancing for the amusement of the ladies. It’s told from the perspective of a decidedly heterosexual modern male, however, and reflects old-fashioned values.
Of the two female characters, one denies her own sexuality and the other goes overboard in expressing it. (In other words, the classic madonna / whore complex, separated for easy parsing.) Our hero has a heart of gold and a body built for sin, but he’s not terribly bright — note the way he deals with his financial savings and also how he handles himself with a loan officer at a bank.
The movie represents a battle between the emotional and the phsyical, which suits the exemplary style of Steven Soderbergh just fine. He deconstructs what would otherwise be a modern updating of Flashdance with his camera and his choice of locales and his editing style.
Magic Mike looks and feels like it’s been sitting in the heat and humidity of Florida too long; it’s rumpled and sweaty and lived in, which is also its charm and its ultimate power, as Soderbergh keeps everything off-kilter enough to make the movie pop in a rather delicious manner all through its running time.
It’s enough to make a fella blush.
Portions of this review originally appeared in slightly different form at Twitch. Magic Mike opens wide today across the Metroplex.