Sunday, February 19, 2017

#2,311. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Directed By: Travis Knight

Starring: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey

Tag line: "Be bold. Be brave. Be epic"

Trivia: The boat sequence took 19 months to shoot

If you must blink, do it now

With all due respect to their previous films, the gang at Laika Studios, the stop-motion animation house behind Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls, have with 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings produced what is thus far their masterpiece. It is a stunning achievement from start to finish.

As the movie opens, Kubo’s mother (Charlize Theron) is on the run, fleeing from her father the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and her two sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara), all of whom are anxious to get their hands on her infant son Kubo (before their escape, the Moon King tore Kubo’s left eye out). Following a rough voyage at sea, mother and son eventually make their way to a remote island, where they will spend the next several years in seclusion, making sure to never venture outside at night (thus avoiding the notice of the Moon King).

Now a young boy, Kubo (Art Parkinson) spends his days telling stories to the local villagers, using his mother’s magic shamisen (a guitar with only 2 strings) and the ancient art of origami to relate the tale of Hanzo, the mighty warrior. As it turns out, the real Hanzo was Kubo’s father, who gave his life so that he and his mother could escape. One day, while attending a festival, Kubo tries to contact the spirit of his deceased dad, but in the process fails to return home before nightfall. As a result, he is tracked down and pursued by his two aunts (during the chase, the sisters destroy the entire village). Kubo is saved only by the quick thinking of his mother, who, before being killed by her sisters, uses her last bit of magic to send Kubo to a distant land.

Joined by a very strict monkey (which, earlier, was nothing more than a wooden trinket he kept in his pocket) and a forgetful man-sized bug that was once a Samurai (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo sets off to find three enchanted weapons (a sword, a breastplate, and a helmet) that will help him defeat his grandfather, The Moon King, thus avenging the deaths of his mother and father. But will he locate these magical arms in time to save himself, or is Kubo destined to spend eternity at his grandfather’s side in the heavens, far away from the earthly realm he has grown to love?

With its seamless marriage of stop-motion and computer wizardry, Kubo and the Two Strings weaves an epic, magical tale of family and honor, bringing us along on what is one of the most imaginative adventures I’ve experienced in some time. There is action, to be sure: Kubo and his new friends the monkey and the beetle battle a giant-sized skeleton; and, while at sea on a ship made of paper they are attacked by one of Kubo’s aunts, who strikes as a storm rages around them. These scenes, and many others, are jam-packed with thrills, and the entire second half of Kubo and the Two Strings is chock full of excitement.

But what’s truly amazing is that the quieter moments of Kubo and the Two Strings are every bit as enthralling and visually spectacular as its action sequences. The scene in which Kubo, using the shamisen and dozens of sheets of paper, relates the adventurous exploits of Hanzo to the villagers is absolutely marvelous; each strum of the shamisen brings the paper (folding itself into origami figures) to life, a sequence so superbly realized that it even earned a George-Takei-patented “Oh My” (the actor provides the voice of one of the villagers)! And, like all great animated films, the spectacle in Kubo and the Two Strings enhances the movie’s story as opposed to detracting from it, bringing the characters, and their plight, vibrantly to life.

To be fair, I have yet to see most of the movies nominated for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar, but I can’t imagine any of them providing an experience as satisfying as Kubo and the Two Strings. It’s more than the best animated movie of 2016; it’s one of the finest of the new millennium, reaching heights in storytelling and art that only the likes of Hayao Miyazaki has achieved.

Kubo and the Two Strings is destined to become a classic.

Friday, February 17, 2017

#2,310. Hell or High Water (2016)

Directed By: David Mackenzie

Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges

Tag line: "Justice isn't a crime"

Trivia: The film is dedicated to David John Mackenzie (1929-2015) and Ursula Sybil Mackenzie (1940-2015), the parents of director David Mackenzie. Both died while he was making this film.

It’s a common practice for studios to hold back the release of their “awards” movies (films they’re convinced have a shot at winning big during awards season) until late in the year, primarily to ensure they stay fresh in the minds of voters. Of the nine movies up for Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards, eight debuted in U.S. theaters between the months of October and December. The lone exception is director David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water (released Aug 12), and for good reason; a somber, sporadically exciting look at lawmen and criminals operating in the desolate territories of West Texas, Hell or High Water isn’t a film that anyone, voters or otherwise, will forget anytime soon.

Divorced father Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) are bank robbers, or at least they have been for a day or so. Hoping to reclaim their family’s ranch, which is a week away from being repossessed, the two concoct a very specific plan, robbing only the branches belonging to the Texas Midlands Bank (which is in the process of changing its surveillance systems, meaning the security cameras aren’t operative) and taking nothing but small bills from the cash drawers (to ensure they can’t be traced). After knocking off two branches their first morning out, they return to the ranch, bury the getaway car in a ditch they dug earlier, then head to a local Indian casino so they can claim they won the money playing cards.

Toby, whose ultimate goal is to pay off the lien against the ranch and put the property in a trust for his sons, is extremely careful, sticking closely to the plan he laid out. Tanner, on the other hand, is a loose cannon who loves breaking the law, and his volatile nature often puts him at odds with his brother (while the two are out to breakfast that first morning, Tanner takes it upon himself to rob the bank across the street from the diner, netting them more cash but also jeopardizing the entire operation).

Because each robbery involved less than $10,000, the FBI turns the case over to the Texas Rangers, leaving it up to Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) to crack it. Marcus is weeks away from a retirement he’s not looking forward to, and passes the time poking fun at Alberto’s Native American heritage. Figuring the bank robbers aren’t done yet, the two Rangers hit the road, checking into a motel very near a Texas Midlands bank (seeing as there are only eight branches total, Marcus believes this location will eventually be a target).

Marcus assures Alberto that, like all crooks, the thieves will make a mistake, at which point they’ll swoop in and arrest them. But then, Toby Howard isn’t your typical bank robber, and will more than likely give the longtime lawman and his partner a run for their money.

There’s a lot to admire about Hell or High Water, beginning with the performances delivered by its strong cast; Jeff Bridges is up for Best Supporting Actor for his work here, a nomination that’s well-deserved (though to be honest, Ben Foster’s Tanner Howard is as funny as he is frightening, and the actor is just as impressive as his elder co-star). Equally as noteworthy is the work of cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, whose camera captures both the majesty and tragedy of this area of Texas (blessed with spacious landscapes, but cursed with boarded-up homes and towns that are slowly dying), and David Mackenzie stages the bank robberies (as well as the getaways) in a manner that consistently ratchets the energy up several notches. Congratulations also to writer Taylor Sheridan, whose smart, witty script netted him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Yet what truly moved me as I was watching Hell or High Water was its theme of a dying west, a place cowboys and settlers once called home that’s now controlled by banks and big businesses. It shows up occasionally in Taylor Sheridan’s dialogue (while sitting at an outdoor table with Marcus, Alberto laments the fact that the entire area was taken from his ancestors several generations earlier, adding, rather remorsefully, that now it’s the banks taking it from the current owners), but director Mackenzie tosses in a few visual reminders as well; some obvious (shots of abandoned houses and empty streets), others more subtle (the Howard brothers pull into a gas station, and in the background is a guy climbing onto a horse, an image that’s obliterated when a green sports car, hip-hop blaring from its radio, arrives in the foreground), yet all equally as effective at getting the point across.

Sam Peckinpah tackled this very subject head-on in 1969’s The Wild Bunch, in which aging western outlaws realized their way of life was fading quickly. Like Peckinpah’s classic, Hell or High Water approaches the topic with a hint of melancholy, a longing for a simpler time when the only thing separating the lawmen from the desperados was a badge. That’s the way it is in this movie; we understand what motivates Toby Howard, and hope that he somehow manages to get what he’s after, if for no other reason than to prove a man can, indeed, beat a corporation. 

In many ways, the Howard boys and the Rangers chasing them are kindred spirits, and it’s in exploring their similarities that Hell or High Water distinguishes itself as one of 2016’s best films.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

#2,309. Sahara (1983)

Directed By: Andrew V. McLaglen

Starring: Brooke Shields, Lambert Wilson, Horst Buchholz

Tag line: "She challenged the desert, its men, their passions and ignited a bold adventure"

Trivia: Early in filming, producer Menahem Golan said to a number of people that he believed that Brooke Shields would win a Oscar for her role

In a career that spanned six decades, director Andrew V. McLaglen worked with some of Hollywood’s best and brightest, including James Stewart (Shenandoah), John Wayne (McLintock!), and Gregory Peck (The Sea Wolves), and while he’ll never rank alongside Hitchcock, Hawks, or John Ford as one of the all-time greats, his accomplishments on both the large and small screens were, to say the least, impressive. So imagine my surprise when his name popped up in the credits for Sahara, a 1983 Cannon Films-produced adventure / romance starring Brooke Shields as a feisty American who braves the rough desert terrain to win a cross-country car race.

But the shocks didn’t end there. As it turns out, Mr. McLaglen was the first in a string of talented people involved in the production of this interesting, though ultimately flat motion picture.

The year is 1927. Automobile manufacturer Gordon (Steve Forrest) has built what he believes is the fastest, most durable car in the world. To prove it, he plans to take the vehicle to Africa for The Sahara World Rally, a race through the Sahara Desert that only a few brave souls dare to enter. But when Gordon is killed during a test run, his daughter Gale (Shields), who is herself an experienced driver, takes his place, and, along with chief mechanics String (Cliff Potts) and Andy (Perry Lang), she joins fellow drivers Von Glessing (Horst Buchholz), Bertocelli (Tuvia Tavi), and Brown (Terrence Hardiman) at the starting line, kicking off what she hopes will be a thrilling adventure in the heart of North Africa.

Ignoring the advice of the French military attaché, who urged the drivers to follow the long route around the desert, Gale decides to take the shorter route, which, though quicker, cuts through an area that is being ravaged by a brutal tribal war. Sure enough, their 2nd day out, the naïve young woman and her mechanics are captured by Rasoul (John Rhys-Davies), whose nephew is Sheikh Jaffar (Lambert Wilson), ruler of one of the tribes. The moment he sets eyes on Gale, the handsome Jaffar falls madly in love with her, and vows to one day make her his bride.

But Gale wasn’t the only one who took the shortcut; Von Glessing was right behind her. While the treacherous German does hope to eventually win the race, Von Glessing’s main goal is to sell a new weapon to Jaffar’s enemy, Sheikh Beg (Ronald Lacey), one that could help him defeat Jaffar’s forces on the battlefield.

Will Gale get a chance to finish the race, or is she destined to become a pawn in a bloody war?

Though not considered a strong actress at this point in her career, Brooke Shields does an admirable job as Dale, and her scenes with Lambert Wilson’s Sheikh are, at times, quite passionate. But it’s the supporting cast of Sahara that truly impressed me; along with Horst Buchholz (The Magnificent Seven) and John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark), the movie features Sir John Mills (Great Expectations) as Cambridge, a British valet working for Jaffar. In addition, the musical score was composed by none other than Ennio Morricone, and the various production and costume designers did a great job recreating the time period of the 1920’s (especially during the early scenes set in Detroit).

Alas, Sahara, which was based on an original story by Cannon’s Menahem Golan, never lives up to its potential. In fact, there are stretches when the film is downright boring (the racing scenes are few and far between, as are the battle sequences). I give the folks at Cannon a lot of credit: they assembled a top-notch cast and turned out a very pretty movie (some of the desert shots are breathtaking). If they had thrown a bit more excitement into the mix as well, Sahara might have actually worked.

Monday, February 13, 2017

#2,308. Scherzo Diabolico (2015)

Directed By: Adrián García Bogliano

Starring: Francisco Barreiro, Daniela Soto Vell, Jorge Molina

Premiere: This movie premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

Trivia: In Hungary this film was released as A VICIOUS PRANK

Scherzo Diabolico is full of surprises, and while I was able to figure out one of its major twists in advance, there’s another that caught me completely off-guard.

Aram (Francisco Barreiro) is, by all appearances, a mild-mannered accountant, with a decent job, a wife (Milena Pezzi) and son, and enough free time to visit both his aging father and his favorite prostitute. But Aram has a dark side, which shows itself when he kidnaps teenager Anabela (Daniela Soto Vell), drags her to an abandoned warehouse and holds her there for several days, often leaving the poor girl alone for hours on end.

As Anabela does her best to deal with this nightmarish situation, Aram carries on with life as usual, staying late to assist his boss (Jorge Molina); and arguing with his wife, who wants Aram to be more assertive and demand a promotion at work. Aram does eventually release his captive, and shortly after his life takes a turn for the better. But fate has a way of sneaking up on you, and though Aram doesn’t realize it yet, his entire world is about to collapse around him.

Barreiro is effectively understated as the everyman with a terrible secret, and watching as he kidnaps, then traumatizes Anabela is no easy task. Initially, we have no idea what motivated the abduction; Aram never sexually assaults the girl, and has gone to great lengths to ensure she has plenty of food and water to sustain her throughout the ordeal. He does, at one point, tell Anabela to remove her clothes, but only so he can take pictures and video of her in the nude (we assume he will use the footage when issuing his ransom demands). Director Bogliano does a fine job guarding Aram’s motivations leading up to the first big reveal, though the clues he gives us from time to time were enough for me to figure them out on my own.

While we do come to know the reasons behind the kidnapping, and continue to follow Aram as he reaps the benefits of his troubling actions, there isn’t a moment in Scherzo Diabolico when we like him; he’s far too under-handed and self-absorbed to be a sympathetic character. As the story played out, I found myself hoping that, at some point, justice would catch up with Aram.

That said, I was not ready for the level of retribution that is unleashed upon him, and it’s in these later scenes that Scherzo Diabolico distinguishes itself as a truly horrific film. I dare not say more out of fear of spoiling it, but believe me; the last act of this movie will shock the hell out of you!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

#2,307. The Dogs of War (1980)

Directed By: John Irvin

Starring: Christopher Walken, Tom Berenger, Colin Blakely

Tag line: "Cry 'Havoc!' And Let Slip The Dogs Of War"

Trivia: Michael Cimino did an uncredited rewrite on the script

After barely escaping with his life while on a mission in Central America, mercenary Jamie Shannon (Christopher Walken) is approached by UK businessman Roy Endean (Hugh Millais), who wants him to travel incognito to Zangaro, a West African nation ruled by a tyrannical dictator named General Kimba, and photograph as much of that country’s military infrastructure as he possible can. 

Using the pseudonym Keith Brown, Shannon arrives in Zangaro posing as an Ornithologist, come to take some pictures of the area’s more exotic birds. Unfortunately, the authorities don’t believe his cover story, and after a few days Shannon is arrested, tortured, and tossed out of the country.

Back in the U.S., a battered and beaten Shannon is again approached by Endean, who this time is offering to pay top dollar for a mercenary squad willing to eliminate Kimba once and for all. Rounding up his usual team: Drew (Tom Berenger), Derek (Paul Freeman), and Michel (Jean-Francois Stevenin), Shannon heads to London to arrange the particulars of the mission. Endean’s plan is to replace the uncooperative Kimba with Col. Bobi (George Harris), a former compatriot of Kimba’s who is more open to doing business with the west. The moment the fighting is over, Shannon will give the all-clear and Bobi will take his place as the country’s new leader.

With the promise of a big payday should they succeed, Shannon and his mercenaries are especially motivated to complete this difficult task, but the questions remains: will any of them live long enough to collect the money?

Directed by John Irvin, 1980’s The Dogs of War kicks things off in exciting fashion, with Shannon and his men embroiled in a Central American conflict (which, by the looks of it, is not going well). The film then slows down a bit, joining Shannon at home in New York, and, later, heading to Zangaro with him on his recon mission (while it does have a few intense scenes, this portion of the movie is mostly action-free). But even in its quieter moments, The Dogs of War remains a very engaging film thanks in large part to Walken himself.

Fresh off his Oscar win for The Deer Hunter (Best Supporting Actor, 1979), Walken brings an inner strength to the enigmatic Shannon. We do eventually learn a little about his personal life (at one point, he attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife Jessie, played by JoBeth Williams), but for the most part Shannon keeps his true feelings in check (up until the final scene, that is). Even those sequences where he and his team are negotiating with some shady individuals (purchasing firearms, arranging transportation, etc) are fascinating, and Walken’s performance is a big reason why.

Then, with about a half hour left in the film, the fight for Zangaro kicks into high gear, and, man, is it a doozy! Using bad-ass weapons and with the help of a well-trained squad of Zangarons (loyal to Bobi), Shannon and his men bring holy hell down upon Kimba’s troops, and as a result these final scenes are positively electric.

Balancing the film’s two main battle sequences with plenty of intrigue, The Dogs of War is an action / thriller well worth checking out.

Friday, February 10, 2017

#2,306. The Emerald Forest (1985)

Directed By: John Boorman

Starring: Powers Boothe, Meg Foster, Charley Boorman

Tag line: "The Adventure Movie of the Year"

Trivia:Charley Boorman, who plays Tommy, is the son of director John Boorman

Director John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest is a touching family drama, a rousing adventure, and a gorgeously-photographed cautionary tale all rolled into one.

Engineer Bill Markham (Powers Boothe), who is overseeing the construction of a dam near the Brazilian rainforest, has spent the last 10 years searching for his son Tommy, who was kidnapped by an indigenous tribe known as “The Invisible People”. He does eventually find Tommy (now a teenager, played by Charley Boorman), only to discover the boy has been accepted into the fold, and is now a full-fledged member of the tribe; the adopted son of the chief (Rui Polanah), Tommy is also married to the lovely Kachiri (Dira Paes). Try as he might, Markham is unable to convince his son to return home with him, and, upon making his way back to civilization, tells his wife (and Tommy’s mother) Jean (Meg Foster) that her son is alive, but she will likely never see him again.

Fate intervenes, however, when a warrior tribe known as “The Fierce People” attacks Tommy’s village and carries off the women (including Kachiri), who are taken to a nearby brothel (in exchange for the ladies, the brothel’s owners give The Fierce People automatic weapons). Outmatched by their now heavily-armed foes, Tommy travels to the city to ask Markham for help, but will the son locate his estranged father in time to save Kachiri and the others?

The event that sets the story in motion, the abduction of young Tommy (played as a youngster by William Rodriguez), happens rather abruptly, which makes his disappearance all the more poignant (the fact that a child can vanish as quickly as this is enough to give any parent nightmares). Boothe is quite strong in this scene, conveying the frustration and fear any man would feel in this situation (the moment he realizes his son is gone, a frantic Markham tears through the thick brush with his bare hands, calling out to Tommy, who, alas, is nowhere to be found). It’s definitely a powerful sequence, as is a later one in which father and son are finally reunited, a stirring scene that also features a bit of excitement (Markham and Tommy initially square off, only to team up when, after recognizing each other, they are attacked by The Fierce People, who had been chasing Markham through the jungle).

After spending a few days with Tommy and his new “family”, Markham accepts that his son is now part of a different world, one that’s completely foreign to him, and it’s a bitter pill for the long-suffering father to swallow. Director Boorman balances dramatic moments such as this with scenes of adventure, juggling both aspects of his story perfectly to ensure each one is as effective as the other.

In addition, The Emerald Forest is beautifully shot, with images that look as if they were lifted straight out of a travelogue (complementing the excellent work of cinematographer Philippe Rousselot is the superb musical score composed by Brian Gascoigne and Junior Homrich). Aside from giving his film a picturesque backdrop, Boorman also uses these images to call attention to the very real problem of deforestation (both The Invisible People and The Fierce People have, in recent years, been driven from the land of their ancestors, and as Markham tells Tommy, the dam his company is building will bring even more outsiders to the area, meaning the forest will continue to disappear). And if these scenes don’t drive the point home, a final message that flashes on-screen at the film’s conclusion (“The rain forests of the Amazon are disappearing at the rate of 5000 Acres per day. Four million Indians once lived there. 120 000 remain”) leaves little doubt as to what Boorman and screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg were trying to say.

A moving, often thrilling film that also gives us something to think about, The Emerald Forest is an unforgettable motion picture experience.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

#2,305. Enter the Ninja (1981)

Directed By: Menahem Golan

Starring: Franco Nero, Susan George, Shô Kosugi

Tag line: "Ninjitsu, the darkest and deadliest of all the Martial Arts"

Trivia: There is no spoken dialog in the first ten minutes of the film

Franco Nero, star of Django and other great Italian westerns, playing a Ninja?!? Sounds like a strange bit of casting, doesn’t it?

Well… it is strange, but aside from this (and a handful of other glitches), Enter the Ninja is a fairly effective ‘80s action film.

After completing his ninjutsu training in Japan, Cole (Nero) heads to the Philippines to pay a visit to his old war buddy Frank Landers (Alex Courtney). As it turns out, Cole arrived just in the nick of time; Frank and his pretty wife Mary-Ann (Susan George) are being harassed by wealthy American businessman Charles Venarius (Christopher George), who, for months now, has been trying to buy the couple’s farm. Time and again, Frank and Mary Ann have refused to sell, causing Venarius to resort to more unorthodox methods (including hired goons) to “persuade” them to change their minds.

As Frank and Mary-Ann soon discover, having a trained Ninja around has its benefits, and before long Cole has Venarius’s thugs running for cover. So, the tycoon decides to fight fire with fire, and, with the help of his assistant Mr. Parker (Constantine Gregory), hires his own Ninja, a man named Hasagawa (Sho Kosugi), who was Cole’s main adversary in Japan. 

Hasagawa’s orders are simple: kill Cole using any means necessary, and as the experienced ninja already knows, the best way to get the upper hand on a guy like Cole is to threaten those closest to him.

The first 10 minutes or so of Enter the Ninja, where Cole undergoes his final Ninjutsu test, feature a few exciting moments, but are far from the film’s strongest; along with the odd continuity issue (at one point, Cole fires a white arrow at an opponent, only to have it miraculously turn into a brown arrow in mid-flight), Nero looks uncomfortable in his ninja get-up (he certainly doesn’t move like a ninja). Then, as if to add insult to injury, we never even get to hear Nero’s real voice (his entire performance was dubbed by the very American-sounding Marc Smith)!

Fortunately, aside from the opening and climactic sequences (when Cole battles Hasagawa), Nero doesn’t wear the outfit all that much, and many of the movie’s non-ninja action scenes are actually pretty solid (Late in the movie, Cole accompanies Frank to a secluded location to chat with Mr. Parker, who has 20 gunmen backing him up. As Frank and Mr. Parker are discussing Venarius’s latest offer, Cole manages to disarm the majority of the gunmen, leaving a perplexed Mr. Parker without the advantage he was hoping for). Yet another plus is the supporting cast, all of whom do a fine job. As Mary-Ann, Susan George is both tough and sexy, while Sho Kosugi (in his admittedly limited role) proves he can kick ass as well as anyone else. Standing above them all, though, is Christopher George, whose flamboyant portrayal of the evil Venarius gives the film a villain you absolutely love to hate.

Directed by Menahem Golan (one-half of Golan-Globus, the creative minds behind Cannon Films), Enter the Ninja may not be art, but as mindless fun goes, it just about corners the market.