Ringing in 2017 with animations and westerns

by Leonard G. Heldreth

The films this month include two radically different animation films and a neo-western.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Whatever the Oscars may indicate, Kubo and the Two Strings is the best animated film of the year. Travis Knight, first-time director and CEO of Oregon-based Laika films, continues the tradition created by Coraline and ParaNorman but raises the bar on originality, beauty and what can be done with stop-motion animation. Seamlessly blending puppet work with cgi, he and his animators create a stunning world of action, fear, mythical settings and epic adventure.

The film opens with a woman and a baby in a small boat on a raging sea, and the voice-over words, “If you must blink, do it now.”  The boat is capsized by a huge wave, and mother and baby are washed ashore, perhaps by magic. The story then skips ahead several years; the baby has now grown into a young teen (voice of Art Parkinson), who is living with his mother in a cave near a Japanese village (although created by an American company, the film is set in a mythical Japan of the Edo period, 1600s to the mid-1800s).

Kubo’s mother has been traumatized by the stress of their escape, and her mind wanders. During the day, when she sleeps, Kubo leaves her and goes to the village. There he entertains the residents with his two-stringed lute-like shamisen, his storytelling and the magical ability to fold paper into complex origami characters who act out the story that he tells. He always begins with, “If you must blink, do it now.” The villagers (two are voiced by George Takei and Brenda Vaccaro) pay him with money or food, and he returns to his mother’s cave before dark. Kubo wears an eye patch, and his long hair covers the place where his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), took one of his eyes; Kubo’s mother warns him that if he is outside after dark, his grandfather will come for the other eye. But, being young, one evening during the Obon Festival, which honors the souls of the deceased, he lingers too long in the village, and the Moon King’s daughters (Rooney Mara playing both) come for him. Using the last of her powerful magic, Kubo’s mother hurls him high in the snowy mountains, and then she disappears.

Kubo wakes to find he is being watched by a white snow monkey named, appropriately, “Monkey” (voice of  Charlize Theron). She explains what has happened and tells him that, if he hopes to protect himself from his grandfather and the two aunts, he must find three items that once belonged to Hanzo, his father: The Armor Impenetrable, The Sword Unbreakable, The Helmet Invulnerable. Thus the quest begins.

Kubo and the monkey eventually meet up with a huge half-samurai, half-beetle named, appropriately, Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), who was a protégé of Kubo’s warrior father. While Monkey is strict and practical, Beetle is goofy and very absent-minded. Although he’s lethal with a sword and bow, he’s helpless, like any beetle, if he falls on his back.

The rest of the film follows the adventures of these three as they search for Hanzo’s lost armor. Along the way they are pursued by the evil sisters and have to defend themselves against various other dangers. Among the most impressive scenes are Kubo’s creation with his magic shamisen of a huge sailing ship out of dry, fallen leaves; the sword fight he has on the ship with one of the evil sisters; an underwater scene with huge eyes on the tops of stalks rising from the sea bottom; an attack by an enormous skeleton with swords stuck in its skull, one of which is the magic sword they want (an acknowledged homage to Ray Harryhausen and the Sinbad films); and near the end, the confrontation between Kubo and his evil grandfather, who takes the form of a moon dragon to assault him. While the film is full of action sequences, it also focuses on a person’s place in relation to his family, and it doesn’t avoid the sense of loss and sadness in human relations. At the end, the earlier sequence of the Obon Festival and of lanterns lighting the spirits back to the other world returns in a kind of coda to form a conciliatory ending.

One of the remarkable aspects of this film is the creation of what appears to be authentic Japanese folktale and mythology without referencing any particular Japanese myth or historical figure. The filmmakers did their research well. Another effective aspect is the combination of stop-motion figures and computer animation in seamless action. Kubo and two of the villagers are small dolls, complete with human hair and costumes of the period, but the rest of the bustling figures in the town square were computer generated using the dolls as models. The moving skeleton, on the other hand, was the same size as it was in the film—about 10 feet tall—and took several puppeteers to manipulate it.

While the plot sometimes is a little overwhelming, Kubo and the Two Strings is an absolutely first rate film for anyone over the age of 8; younger children may be terrified, especially by the evil sisters, dressed in black and wearing stylized masks, who float a few feet above the ground. Dario Marianelli’s score is effective at underlining the action and has the right sound. It all comes together into what many reviewers called “an animation masterpiece,” and I would agree. Don’t miss it.

Pete’s Dragon

The Disney studio continues the process of remaking its earlier films, upgrading the stories for a modern audience and, perhaps more importantly, converting the original animation to “live action” films by applying contemporary movie-making technology. The successes of Cinderella and The Jungle Book have now led to a remake of Pete’s Dragon. The original selling point of this 1977 production was the combination of an animated dragon with live actors like pop singer Helen Redding. David Lowery, the director of the remake, like Kenneth Branagh (Cinderella) and Jon Favreau  (The Jungle Book), seems an odd choice to direct a Disney movie. His most recent, and only well-known, film is Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a romance about a man who takes the rap when his girlfriend accidentally shoots a policeman. It was well done (and  reviewed in these pages) but was hardly a Disney-style movie. Lowery and his co-writer, Toby Halbrooks, jettisoned most of  Malcolm Marmorstein’s 1977 screenplay, which was based on an unpublished story by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field originally destined for Disney’s 1950s anthology television series.

They kept the friendship between the boy and the dragon and developed a new story around it, which, given the characters of the original plot, was undoubtedly for the best. (People react differently to these remakes. I recommended Pete’s Dragon to a friend who announced he would never watch it or any of the other remakes because the originals were too much a part of his childhood memories, and he didn’t want to spoil those memories. Several reviewers expressed a similar sentiment while acknowledging that the remakes so far were significantly better movies.)

The location of the new film is changed from the eastern seacoast to the Pacific Northwest (actually filmed in New Zealand), and the film opens with one of the more frightening beginnings of any Disney film. A boy (Levi Alexander) and his parents are driving through a wilderness area when a deer runs in front of the car, causing his father to swerve and roll the car. Both parents are killed, and the boy finds himself alone in the dark woods with wolves circling him. Then out of the darkness comes this 24-foot-long green dragon, and the wolves suddenly remember that they had an appointment elsewhere. Thus begins the friendship between five-year-old Pete and the creature that he names Elliot, after the dog in the book he was reading when the accident happened. (Is it coincidental that this film, which is indebted in many ways to Steven Spielberg and especially to E.T., should name its dragon after the hero of E. T.?  I think not.)  Elliot, who’s about the length of an 18-wheeler, is covered with green fur and has a dog-like head although some of his movements are more cat-like; he flies with big green wings but tends to land with a thunk. He also makes little purring noises and can become invisible when he wants (thus accounting for his ability to remain undetected for so long). And, of course, although it isn’t revealed until late in the movie, he can also breathe fire.

After this initial encounter, the story jumps ahead five years while the audience is treated to scenes of the now-feral Pete (played by Oakes Fegley) and Elliot running through the pristine woods, leaping off cliffs with the boy clinging to Elliot’s back, and generally having a great time. Enter Robert Redford (in the film he’s called Mr. Meachum) who is a wood carver and tells the neighborhood children the story of how he once met the Millhaven dragon in the woods and how it was completely magic.

The rest of the story relates how Meachum’s daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger, encounters Pete in the woods and takes him home; how her fiance’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban), a logger, wants to capture Elliot and exhibit him like King Kong; how Elliot escapes with the help of Pete, Grace’s fiance Jack (Wes Bentley), Mr. Meachum and 11-year-old Natalie (Oona Laurence); how Elliott burns down a bridge to stop the pursuers; and how it all ends happily enough.

The star of this show, of course, is the dragon and he’s excellent. He moves like a dragon should, behaves like a dragon should and breathes fire like a dragon should. Pick up a couple of kids, 8 or over, and treat them and yourself to an undemanding but thoroughly enjoyable trip through the beauties of nature with Pete and his dragon.

Hell or High Water

Referred to as a “neo-western” by some reviewers, Hell or High Water is set in west Texas but the characters ride in pick-up trucks or aging muscle cars rather than on horses. It has some aspects of the traditional western movie—bank robbing, gunfire, chases, good guys and bad guys—but it’s missing the closing shoot-out and other traditional genre expectations. It is, however, a relatively original, character-driven take on how two brothers rob banks, more or less successfully, until a couple of Texas Rangers pick up their trail.

The film opens with a bank being robbed by Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster). It’s early in the day, the bank is a branch operation in a one-horse town, and the outlaws take only the money in the tellers’ cash drawers, leaving any money in the vault. At first they seem to be amateurs, as one bank employee suggests: “Y’all are new at this, I’m guessin’.” As the film progresses, however, their method of operation becomes clear. The Howard brothers are trying to come up with a specified amount of untraceable money within a certain time frame to pay off the reverse-mortgage on their mother’s farm, a mortgage taken out to pay for her terminal illness. Oil has recently been discovered on the farm, and they want to secure its future income for Toby’s two sons, thereby breaking the cycle of poverty which has hampered the family for generations.

The poverty affects not just the Howards but most of the characters in the film, and the hardscrabble landscape with its boarded-up businesses, “For sale” signs, and foreclosed homes is as much a character as the bank robbers and rangers. It offers an explanation of the Howards’ actions, if not a justification. As one of the rangers affirms as he goes to question a bank official, “Now that looks like a man who could foreclose on a house.”  A half-Comanche ranger is amused that the grandfathers of the current residents cheated his people out of their land and now the banks are doing the same thing to them.

The two robbers are balanced by two Texas Rangers tracking them and trying to decide where they will strike next. The most savvy is Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a weathered man who is on the edge of retirement, although he’s already worrying about what he will do when he’s not chasing outlaws. Hamilton’s Mexican-Comanche deputy (Gil Birmingham) puts up with his racist insults and returns the verbal abuse. In their barbed sparring, they often sound like an old married couple or friends who have known each other too long.

Hamilton figures out why the men are hitting only Texas Midland’s branches: it’s within the state and therefore the robberies don’t bring in federal agents. Further, the small town police departments, many of whom are unsympathetic to what the banks have done to their towns, minimally investigate the crimes. Last, the money in the cash drawers is unmarked as opposed to the dye marked packages in the vault. After they’ve stolen the cash, the brothers take it to a casino, buy chips, play for an hour or two, cash the chips back in, and effectively launder the money.

But every plan has its weaknesses, or as Tanner Howard, who has spent about half of his life in prison, affirms: “I never met nobody got away with anything, ever.”  The weakness in this case starts off as bank customers carrying concealed weapons try to fight back during a holdup, and then pursue the robbers. The pursuit comes to a quick stop when Tanner breaks out his AK-47 and riddles the pursuing trucks. The men split up, and Tanner takes refuge on a rise in a scene reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra, and the ending seems inevitable. But it doesn’t end there, and the last scene, on the front porch of Toby Howard’s farm, raises further issues as he verbally defends himself against the questions of a now-retired Marcus Hamilton, and the two, with grudging respect, agree, perhaps, to meet in the future in private.

The screenplay was written by Taylor Sheridan, whose previous work was last year’s equally morally ambiguous Sicario, about tracking drug dealers in Mexico. Between the screenplay’s witty dialogue and excellent character actors, the lapses between action are hardly noticeable. Dale Dickey and Buck Taylor play bank staffers and customers. A waitress (Katy Mixon), who is attracted to Toby, flirts with him as she serves breakfast; when he leaves her a $200 tip, she fights the law over whether she has to turn it over as evidence instead of putting it on her mortgage. Margaret Bowman almost steals the show as an aging waitress who has heard and seen it all; she comes to the Rangers’ table and demands, “What don’t you want?”  You have to hear her explanation to understand how her question is perfectly appropriate.

The Scottish director is David Mackenzie, whose previous films include Starred Up (2014) and Young Adam (2003), the latter reviewed in these pages. Despite his country of origin, Mackenzie  seems completely at ease in the west Texas setting. The music and background songs are by Australian Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, while the excellent cinematography is by Giles Nuttgens. Despite its nondescript title, anyone who enjoys a contemporary western or chase movie should enjoy Hell or High Water for its original plot, excellent acting, effective photography and contemporary view of people being bled to death by banks. Toby and Tanner have established their own bailout fund.

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