Long Shot (2019)

In a lot of ways, the Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron two-hander Long Shot is a traditional, by the books romcom. Two socially mismatched idealists spark an unlikely romance after a chance meeting in the first act, then gradually learn to be more like each other through the ups & downs of their early months together (most romcoms bail before the real work of building a relationship starts, once that early emotional rush cools down). It’s arguable that Seth Rogen’s overgrown stoner-bro humor is a little out of place in that context, but the Apatow style of modern comedies where he cut his teeth were basically just romcoms with some lagniappe improv takes, so even that influence isn’t much of a subversion. If you find it comforting to watch two characters fall in love over a series of quippy one-liners and farcical misunderstandings, Long Shot is more than willing to deliver the formulaic romcom goods, building an amiable romance between two adorable leads with oddly believable chemistry. What’s really interesting about the film is how it manages to pull that off while discussing something most formulaic romcoms actively avoid: politics.

Charlize Theron plays a US Secretary of State who’s poised to make her first presidential bid in an upcoming election. Against the guidance of her campaign advisors, she hires Seth Rogen as her speech writer for the early stages of the campaign trail – both because she respects his leftist idealism and because she thinks he’s cute. In apolitical romcom tradition, the unlikely couple inspire each other to edge closer towards the political center from their extremist starting points. Theron relearns to stick to her guns ideologically without giving up too much in political compromise, while Rogen learns that compromise & reaching across the aisle are sometimes necessary to accomplish larger goals. It’s a relatively safe, careful approach to modern politics – an arena defined by increasingly violent extremes. As such, the movie leaves little room to make clearly stated, concrete political points without risking the fun-for-everyone charm of romcoms. Its only clear political stances are detectable in Theron’s campaign platform that centers The Environment, and in the way working in the news media spotlight is unfairly difficult for her as a woman. As far as modern political topics go, gendered scrutiny & saving the trees are about as safe as the movie could have played it, and you can feel it struggling with how political is too political for a romcom when addressing nearly every other topic.

One major way Long Shot avoids alienating half of its audience with its political stances is avoiding declaring which political parties it’s actually talking about from scene to scene. Theron’s environmentalist crusade and the feminist lens through which she views media coverage of her public persona both suggest that she’s a registered Democrat, but the movie is careful to never make that association explicit. Her role as Secretary of State is in service of a bumbling president (Bob Odenkirk) who is even more amorphous in his declared politics. Neither Democrat nor Republican (at least not explicitly) Odenkirk is a cipher for more universally acceptable jokes about how all politicians are more obsessed with celebrity than policy and how they’re all corrupt goons in lobbyists’ pockets. The only time I can recall the words “Democrat” or “Republican” being verbally acknowledged in the film is when Rogen is mocked for being horrified by the revelation that his best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a member of the GOP, when he supposedly should be willing to find common political ground with his best bud. That’s a tough pill to swallow in a time when Republicans are actively trying to outlaw abortion access and in a time when, as acknowledged in the film’s opening gag, many “Conservatives” are literal Nazis hiding in plain sight. Still, it’s the only position the film can really take without risking its traditional romcom cred.

For a more daring example of how the romcom template can productively clash with modern politics, the Jenny Slate vehicle Obvious Child is commendable in the way it plays with the genre’s tropes while also frankly discussing Pro-Choice stances on reproductive rights. The closest Long Shot gets to saying something specific & potentially alienating about modern politics is in its parodies of Fox News media coverage (complete with Andy Serkis posing as a hideous prosthetics-monster version of Rupert Murdoch), which is a joke that writes itself. The difference there is that Obvious Child is a subversion of the romcom template, one that nudges the genre closer to an indie drama sensibility. By contrast, Long Shot is more of an earnest participation in the genuine thing. It is, for better or for worse, a formulaic romcom – with all the charming interpersonal relationships & tiptoeing political rhetoric that genre implies. I can say for sure that the romantic chemistry between Theron & Rogen works completely. The gamble of bringing modern politics into an inherently apolitical genre template is a little less decidedly successful, but at least makes for an interesting tension between form & content.

-Brandon Ledet

Tully (2018)

Diablo Cody’s work as a screenwriter is a bit of a required taste, as her dialogue often slips into overwritten self-amusement. It’s a tough stylistic choice to accommodate in a real-world drama, something she pulled off very awkwardly in Juno and with expert emotional cruelty in Young Adult. For me, Cody’s writing style is more consistently rewarding when it’s paired with an over-the-top premise that matches its eccentricity. The coming of age body horror genre beats of Jennifer’s Body and the D.I.D. multiple personality showcase of The United States of Tara frame Cody’s dialogue in its proper over-the-top context. The path to success is much easier in those works than in the grounded realism of a Young Adult, which requires more restraint. Cody’s latest project, a return to collaborating with Young Adult actor Charlize Theron & director Jason Reitman, smartly splits the difference between those two approaches. Tully is, in part, a brutally realistic drama about a woman who feels run-down & unacknowledged in the postpartum aftermath of her third childbirth. It’s also a tense fantasy piece swirling with nightmare imagery & reveries about mermaids that allows for Cody’s more batshit impulses to invade the dialogue & narrative without feeling out of place. I suspect that Tully will be as divisive as any of Cody’s other scripts, as its uncompromising dedication to both the recognizably true and the deliriously surreal are likely to leave audiences split between which side they’d wish to see more of. Personally, I found it to be one of her most substantial, rewarding works – one that fully figured out how to incorporate her eccentric artificiality into a real-world subject without feeling excessively awkward.

Tully begins with an idyllic, calm image of Theron’s protagonist playing mother in a sunlit, almost divine interaction with her son. That illusion is immediately disrupted by the harsh reality of an overworked, underpaid woman carrying her third child while wrangling her other two without much help from her eternally aloof husband (Ron Livingston). Her smug, wealthy brother (Mark Duplass, the Ron Livingston of the 2010s) offers to alleviate some of her blatantly apparent stress by hiring a “night nanny” to watch her newborn baby while she sleeps, affording her more stability in her daily routine. At first, this offer appears to be just as judgmental as every other unsolicited slice of advice about what she should be eating during pregnancy, how she should school her kids, and how much effort she’s putting into the upkeep of her home. As the horrors of daily routine mount to the piercing chaos of The Babadook, however, she breaks down and hires the night nanny anyway. A quirky eccentric with a college-age idealism that’s persisted well into her mid-20s, this Manic Pixie Dream Doula (Mackenzie Davis) completely changes the temperature of the home. The mother finally has the assistance she wasn’t getting from her tragically oblivious husband, but more importantly she has someone to acknowledge her and discuss her daily struggles instead of judging her supposed shortcomings as a homemaker. Still, although she seems more put-together on the exterior, she finds herself both jealous of & codependent on the night nanny and increasingly troubled dreams of mermaids & car crashes invade her more grounded thought patterns. The night nanny quick-fix is a life-saving miracle that completely shifts the reality of her daily routine, but it’s an Edenic dynamic that can only last for so long before the impossible obligations of modern motherhood come crashing back into the frame full-force.

Written after the birth of her own third child, Tully feels like a very personal project for Diablo Cody, who fills a somewhat delirious character study with plenty real-world detail. The way wealth determines quality of child care, the way fathers conveniently bumble their way past alleviating mothers’ daily responsibilities, and the horrifying tension built through a newborn baby’s incessant screams all feel like knowledgeable, lived experience. Cody’s overwritten dialogue tics are still present throughout, like in the mother’s description of the night nanny being like “a book of fun facts for unpopular 4th graders” or the nanny describing herself being “like Saudi Arabia” because she has “an excess of energy.” There’s also an extensive shout-out to the cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains awkwardly shoehorned into the film, exactly the way Kimya Dawson was clumsily forced into Juno’s DNA. For some audiences, Cody’s idiosyncratically overwritten style will always be a tough hurdle to clear. Her work requires a little bit of giving-in & good faith on the viewer’s end, but I personally find it to be very much worth the effort. Tully is deeply rewarding as a tense, darkly comic fantasy piece about the routine, real-life horrors of motherhood. It finds a great, delirious headspace that allows Cody’s stranger impulses to feel right at home with its more grounded character study of a woman frayed at the edges by an unfair, impossible collection of daily obligations. From the first appearance of an angelic mermaid disrupting the film’s realistic domestic drama you should be able to tell if you’re going to be onboard with the bizarre balance the film attempts to maintain between the surreal and the all-too-real. If you can accept what Cody’s doing on her own loopy terms, though, you might just find her results uniquely fascinating, even if inconsistent.

-Brandon Ledet

Atomic Blonde (2017)

There’s been some extensive discussion lately about how nostalgic media had gone too far with its Remember This? relics & references to 80s & 90s pop culture. Titles like Stranger Things & Ready Player One have proven popular with mass audiences, but have also drawn eyerolls from plenty critical outlets for their easy nostalgia bait. One of the more bizarre aspects of the Charlize Theron action vehicle Atomic Blonde is the way it hops on that same 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in the few days leading to it being torn down in 1989, the film’s pop culture references include things like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. Its blatant nostalgia for 80s pop culture should make it a widely accessible work, but there’s something off-kilter about its reference points that immediately single it out as a sore thumb outsider.

As nerdy as Atomic Blonde‘s 80s pop culture references can be, its basic pleasures are lizard brain simple. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. Its central mystery about double/triple agents jockeying to get the upper hand at the fever pitch of the Cold War is never nearly as significant as a David Bowie needledrop or a panning shot detailing Theron’s complicated underwear as she gears up for another day of crushing dude’s throats. Costume designer Cindy Evans deserves just as much credit as ex-stuntman director David Leitch or Theron herself for making the movie feel at all distinctive or memorable. The brutality of the action choreography (much of which Theron performed herself) & the immediate pleasures of the soundtrack (which includes acts as varied as New Order, Public Enemy, George Michael, Ministry, and Siouxsie & The Banshees) are entertaining enough as post-Tarantino/Scorsese pop cinema diversions. It’s the fashion design set against the Crimes of Passion-esque neon lighting that helps distinguish the film as its own idiosyncratic work, however, which should give you an idea of how surface level & visual its merits are on the whole.

Although the feeling wouldn’t last long, I was actually very much excited for Atomic Blonde‘s narrative structure when Theron’s ass-kicking protagonist was first introduced. She begins the film already icing her wounds in a freezing cold bath, recovering from a spy mission to the Eastern side of The Berlin Wall. This decision reminded me so much of the archetypal JCVD & Schwarzenegger action pics of the 80s & 90s, which usually introduce the hero at the tail end of one adventure before beginning the one that will command the plot. Instead, this opening is soon revealed to be a feature-length flashback, wherein the story is told in an investigative interview with British & American intelligence agencies. A needlessly complicated plot about double agent assassinations & a McGuffin referenced to as The List gradually emerges, but is told in such sweeping, summarizing swaths that any in-the-moment suspense over the central mystery is left muted at best, incomprehensible at worst. Instead of trying to figure out which of her collaborators has sold her out to the KGB (James McAcoy? John Goodman? Toby Jones?), the audience is better off letting go of narrative completely & indulging in the image of Theron kicking ass to kick-ass synthpop. The flashback structure undercuts a lot of the immediacy of that simple pleasure (with the major exception of an extended stairwell sequence that wisely slows down to allow the sheer brutality to fully sink in), but the strengths of the fashion design, the soundtrack curation, and Theron’s physical presence are enough for the film to persevere.

Atomic Blonde‘s origins as a graphic novel adaptation and a pet project from one of the minds behind the John Wick franchise are blatantly apparent. Its reliance on the slickness of its imagery and the Hey Remember This? quality of its off-kilter 80s nostalgia are much more firmly in its wheelhouse than the complex double/triple crossings of its Gotcha! mystery plot. Now that Theron’s rock solid protagonist had emerged as a high fashion, animalistically brutal James Bond type, despite the lackluster plot that surrounded her, the world is primed for that Just Another Adventure, JCVD-style sequel. She’s got a killer look, a signature drink (Stoli on the rocks), an established bisexual flair for bedding other agents, and, most importantly, is damn convincing as a physical threat to faceless baddies. Since the movie leaves off at the dawn of the 1990s, she even has a whole new era of odd duck nostalgia bait to milk on her next mission. I enjoyed Atomic Blonde for what it is, but it has some glaring narrative issues I feel could easily be course-corrected in an Atomic Blonde 2. I fear this picture’s box office returns will be too slight to generate a sequel, but at least its sense of fashion has left us with a killer lookbook as consolation.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

The premise of the eighth entry in the Fast & Furious franchise is that Vin Diesel’s long-time ringleader/paterfamilias Dominic Toretto (or, Daddy Dom, if you will) betrays his street racing brethren and turns his back on Family. Now, if you’ve been paying any attention to the first seven installments of the series, God help you, you already know that Family is all that matters to the speed demon lug. He won’t shut up about it. That’s why the betrayal is so cold and so out of character. Worse yet, in this most recent episode the franchise itself turns its back in its own long-time partners, ice cold bottles of Corona. The film betrays over fifteen years of brand loyalty by nonchalantly switching the Fast Family’s beer preference to Bud heavies as if we wouldn’t notice. It also brings back an old villain, played by Jason Statham, who is responsible for the deaths of past Family members as a Good Guy who’s just welcomed to the team with mostly open arms, few questions asked. The Fate of the Furious also breaks format by featuring a couple brutal, non-driving related deaths (including a propeller-aided one that even involves a touch of blood splatter) and by shifting focus from Familial drama to bombastic comedy, where jokes are given far more breathing room than the overstuffed dramatic beats. It’s not just Dom that turns his back on long-established alliances and moral codes in The Fate of the Furious. F. Gary Gray’s contribution to the series also betrays everything that’s come before it in terms of narrative and tone. In a way, though, that kind of blasphemy is perfectly at home with the spirit of the series.

The Fast and the Furious is a universe without a center. It’s a series that continually retcons stories, characters, and even deaths to serve the plot du jour. The first four films in the franchise in particular are a total mess, continuity-wise. It wasn’t until Fast Five that it even found its voice: Vin Diesel endlessly mumbling about Family. The series may be Fast and Amnesious with its various narrative threads on the whole, but Dominic Toretto had always been there to keep the Family together, even in the franchise’s furthest outlier, the under-appreciated Tokyo Drift. That’s why it’s a brilliant move to shake up the sense of normalcy that’s been in-groove since the fifth installment by giving Daddy Dom a reason to walk away from his Family, whom he loves so dearly. At the starting line of The Fate of the Furious, Dominic Toretto is a Christ-like figure, a Man of the People, a Hero to Children Everywhere. He takes a quick break from his honeymoon in Havana with series regular Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) to shame a predatory loan shark in front of the very people he bullies by beating him in an old-fashioned street race while driving backwards & on fire. Every last person in Cuba cheers and we’re all quickly reminded exactly why Daddy Dom is the Greatest Man Alive. This street racing reverie is disrupted by a late 90s holdover Super Hacker played by Charlize Theron. Theron’s newbie baddy preys on Dom’s infamous devotion to Family and mysteriously blackmails him into “going rogue,” stealing EMP devices & “nuclear footballs” to support her Evil Hacker cause. This betrayal of what is Right and Just leads to a global car chase where Dom’s long list of Family members (Rodriguez, The Rock, Ludacris, apparently Statham, etc.) try to steal him away from Theron, who pushes Dom to “abandon his code” and “shatter his Family.” It’s all very silly, but it’s also a welcome departure from the typical Fast & Furious dynamic.

Of course, The Fate of the Furious was never going to survive on its tonal consistency or the strength of its plot. What really matters here is the action movie spectacle. F. Gary Gray brings the same sense of monstrously explosive fun to this franchise entry as he did to the exceptional N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. The Rock is a real life superhero, particularly shining in a music video-esque prison riot sequence where he manually destroys an entire building full of lowlifes (including local pro wrestler Luke Hawx, who also briefly appeared in Logan earlier this year). At one point, Charlize Theron’s Ultimate Hacker gives the ridiculous command “Hack ’em all,” and remotely takes control of virtually every vehicle in NYC, giving rise to literal floods & waterfalls made of cars. Vin Diesel rocks a heavy metal welding mask & oversized chainsaw combo that makes him look like the villain from a dystopian slasher. Even more ridiculously, the Fast Family is asked to race and battle a nuclear-armed submarine that attacks them from under the Russian ice they drive flimsy sports cars across. And (mild spoilers, I guess) they win! As far as The Fate of the Furious might stray from past tonal choices and character traits, it ultimately sticks to he core of the only thing that has remained consistent in the series (now that Dom’s had his opportunity to Go Rogue): there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved by a deadly, explosion-heavy street race and even the most horrific of Familial tragedies can be undone by a backyard barbeque, where grace is said before every meal and Coronas, um, I mean Budweisers are proudly lifted into the air for a communal toast. There’s something beautiful about that (and also something sublimely silly).

Besides the narrative ways in which The Fate of the Furious breaks format, the film also marks a shift where the franchise functions as an outright, intentional comedy. F. Gary Gray openly shows his roots in the Friday series with the way humor overtakes Family drama in this entry. Vin Diesel starts off the film with the same “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging he used to anchor xXx: Return of Xander Cage earlier this year. Ludacris’s nerd archetype is in constant verbal sparring with Tyrese Gibson’s womanizing ham. Dick jokes, Taylor Swift references, and meta humor about The Rock’s past life as Hercules all seem to be afforded more heft than the mood-killing dramatic beats, which breeze by no matter how shocking or tragic. The series also seems to have moved on from stunt casting rappers to enlisting well-respected actors for over-the-top cameos, this time none other than Helen Mirren. Despite rumors about an on-set rivalry between Vin Diesel & The Rock and a few drastic shakeups to the franchise’s central Family dynamic, F. Gary Gray manages to keep the mood in The Fate of the Furious just about as light as its explosions are frequent & loud.

If I have any complaints about this most recent entry to the series, it’s that it wasn’t quite blasphemous enough. The Fast & Furious franchise is overdue for another Tokyo Drift-style shakeup that completely disrupts the rules of its universe. Why not take this carnival to space? Why not have the Family get caught up in A Race Through Time? Why not have them travel to Hell and win back the life of a fallen member by beating The Devil Himself in a street race? If the series continues down its current path, I have no doubt it’ll remain a fun, absurd source of racing-themed entertainment. There’s just so much potential for it to jump a new shark in every franchise entry, though, (including literally jumping sharks!) and I think it’s more than ready to both make the leap and stick the landing.

-Brandon Ledet

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016)

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three star

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In the most basic sense The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a sequel that no one was clamoring for. Even the star of Snow White & The Huntsman, my beloved Kristen Stewart, declined to return for this second installment of a franchise practically no one loves. This film’s lack of critical hype or a vocal fandom was a little isolating for me, since I was actually a fairly solid fan of the much forgotten original film. As a low-key fantasy epic that called back to mid-80s productions like LegendLabyrinth, and Ladyhawke, I found Snow White & The Huntsman to be a mostly satisfying experience. What really stood out, though, was the film’s visual flourishes, which bathed a wicked queen played by Charlize Theron in a milky white porcelain & transformed the evil mirror of Snow White folklore into a menacing humanoid made of dripping gold. In this way The Huntsman: Winter’s War could be understood as being simply more of the same. Anyone who brushed off Snow White & The Huntsman as a dull trifle (most people, I’m assuming) isn’t going to be won over or blown away by what they find in Winter’s War. However, fans of the original’s familiar fantasy realm setting & surprising knack for striking visuals in its villainy are likely to be pleased by the franchise’s years-late return. I was, anyway.

A ludicrously belabored, heavy-handed prologue narrated by Liam Neeson asks the question “What does a mirror show you? What do you see?” The answer is clips from Snow White & The Huntsman, apparently. It’s probably not a good sign that this late in the game follow-up feels the need to remind its audience that it’s not an original property, but I found myself entertained by the film’s strained way of setting up its own Kristen Stewart-free narrative. The prologue is so long & unwieldy that it feels as if Neeson is reading a decades-spanning bedtime story, which is far from the worst effect for a fairy tale, all things considered. By the time the setup is over with, Winter’s War simultaneously functions as a prequel and a sequel, retroactively introducing new characters into its already-established mythology so that it has a place to go in Snow White’s absence. I’m not sure knowing the exact plot of this film’s silly middle ground between Lord of the Rings & Game of Thrones is all that necessary for you to understand what you’re getting into. Winter’s War more or less boils down to a CG action adventure about opposing kingdoms’ quest to obtain & command the evil mirror of the first film, which looks like some kind of all-powerful golden gong. It just so happens that the monarchs of those kingdoms are both badass women.

Besides its undeniable knack for visual effects, Winter’s War mostly finds entertainment value in the strength of its casting. Charlize Theron returns as the golden evil queen of the first film, but this time she’s joined by a (somehow previously unmentioned) sister, played by Emily Blunt (hot off the heels of her roles in Sicario & Edge of Tomorrow). Here, Blunt plays a CG-aided Ice Queen who staffs her tundra-set fortress of solitude with a ferocious army of children she raises to be loveless killers. She trains these tiny tyke murderers to believe that “Love is a lie. It is a trick,” establishing her sole governing rule to be “Do not love. It’s a sin. I will not forgive it.” And, wouldn’t you know it, two of her miniature killing machines grow up to fall in love. One of them is America’s hunky but dim foreigner boyfriend Chris Hemsworth, returning from the first film, and he’s romantically paired with Fellow Beautiful Person Jessica Chastain. The two leads essentially live out a feature-length version of the ridiculous fight-flirting scene from Daredevil, interspersed with their attempts to thwart two evil queens from gaining the ultimate power represented in the mirror by destroying a litany of faceless foot soldiers with their gorgeous weaponry of golden liquids & CG ice shards. Edgar Wright’s pet doofus Nick Frost returns as a CG dwarf to offer some comic relief, but the less I say about that the better.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War boasts three badass women as its leads along with stunningly gorgeous costumes & visual effects, but is hopelessly saddled with goofy everything else. For every brilliant idea in its visual play (like a white porcelain version of the mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans), there’s something equally silly waiting to drag down its artistic clout (like an early scene that depicts the most blatantly overwrought “You thought this was just a game?” chess match metaphor I’ve ever seen in my life). I might be the only person in the world who regrets not seeing this ridiculous display play out on the big screen, but I do believe with a little push in a more extreme direction, either towards more over-the-top camp in the performances or some R-rated gore in its fantasy violence, this film & its predecessor could have serious cult following potential. As is, you have to appreciate them for their low-key fantasy realm charm, the absurdity of their surprisingly game cast, and the perfume commercial menace of their imagery to buy what they’re selling. Personally, I’m a sucker for all three.

-Brandon Ledet

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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It would be dishonest of me to echo the complaints about how lackluster this summer’s movie offerings have been, since I’ve enjoyed so much of what’s been released, from major productions like Paul Feig’s unfairly-reviled Ghosbusters reboot & Shane Black’s neo-noir comedy The Nice Guys to weirdo indie outliers like The Fits & The Neon Demon. Where I sour on 2016’s movie industry output, however, is in those films’ box office numbers, which are dismal at best. Seemingly, the only movies able to make significant money in our current cultural climate are either bloated superhero spectacles or CG-animated films featuring talking animals. What’s frustrating me the most this week is that Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika, satisfies both of those requirements in its own way. It features both an in-over-his-head protagonist with superhuman abilities and his talking animal sidekicks and yet, like so many other great films this year, it’s flailing in its opening weekend attempt to recoup a significant fraction of its production costs. Kubo and the Two Strings alone is proof positive of 2016’s major cinematic conundrum: great films are being made; it’s just that no one’s paying to go see them.

Inspired by Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics, Kubo and the Two Strings is at heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic. The film’s titular protagonist is a small boy who makes a living for himself & his disabled mother by telling stories for market place shoppers’ spare change in town. Kubo illustrates his own tales by playing his banjo-esque musical instrument, the shamisen, which brings to life colorful sheets of paper that fold into origami shapes & act out his stories as he narrates. What the townspeople don’t know is that the witches, samurais, and magic moon kings of Kubo’s stories are also a real life part of his past . . . which is why his tale doesn’t yet have an ending, a frustrating quality that always leaves his audience hanging. When that past catches up to him Kubo is caught in the middle of two opposing quests: his own mission to reclaim his deceased father’s armor and his witch & moon king enemies’ quest to steal his only remaining eye (finishing a job they started when he was only a newborn) and, thus, destroying his capacity for empathy & his free will. Kubo’s only company on this journey are a goofball beetle in samurai armor (Matthew McConaughey in his best performance since Interstellar) and a no-nonsense monkey (Charlize Theron, who’s just as fierce here as she was in last summer’s Fury Road). Along the way Kubo learns the responsibility & discipline necessary to command his magic abilities, but more importantly he learns that only he can bring a happy ending to his own story, however bittersweet.

A lot of what makes Kubo and the Two Stings such an overwhelming triumph is its attention to detail in its visual & narrative craft. As with their past titles like Coraline & ParaNorman, Laika stands out here in terms of ambition with where the studio can push the limits of stop-motion animation as a medium. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense sense of visual craft as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film also allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent. What’s really impressive here, however, is its efficiency in storytelling. There isn’t a single image or element at play, from a woven bracelet to a paper lantern to an insectoid buffoon, that doesn’t come to full significance if you lend the film enough patience. Kubo and the Two Stings could’ve easily rested on the laurels of its visual spectacle, a result of infinite hours of painstakingly detailed labor in an animation studio, but it instead pours just as much care & specificity into its reverence for traditional storytelling. Nothing presented onscreen is wasted. This is narrative prowess at its most essential & efficient, an attention to craft reflected in the fact that the film’s protagonist himself is a storyteller & an animator in his own right and that his quest mostly centers on a desire to seize & steer his own narrative to a satisfactory ending. This film definitely falls into the category of cinema about cinema, art about art, but it doesn’t call attention to that conceit. It all takes naturally & beautifully as the plot continually folds in on itself like intricate origami.

What films do you consider the height of stop-motion animation as a medium? The Nightmare before Christmas? Fantastic Mr. Fox? Alice? Mary & Max? Kubo and the Two Strings easily belongs in the conversation at even a moment’s glance. The film boasts an impressive depth of visual detail & intricately mapped-out story structure, yet it’s remarkably light on its feet, leaving plenty of room both for moments of levity & for heart wrenching blows of emotional impact. Just watching the endless parade of bland talking CG animal kids’ comedies in the trailers preceding Kubo and the Two Strings, each more annoying & forgettable than the last, is enough of an eye opener as to why this film’s arrival in our current cinematic climate is such a goddamn relief. You owe it to yourself to watch this modern classic on the big screen and, please, bring a friend. The idea that there are no great films being released this year, that Hollywood is simply out of ideas and the world was somehow more creative or inspired in past decades is honestly getting to be more than a little silly. There are plenty of great films in the theater right now. We just need to get smarter about throwing our attention & dollars at them. I suggest starting with Kubo and the Two Strings. You could do far worse with your money than escaping the August heat in the air-conditioning, admiring a projection of a modern animation masterpiece in the comfort of public darkness.

-Brandon Ledet