Kubo And The Two Strings

kubo and the two stringsrating 3.0My next choice to watch with my five-year-old was Kubo And The Two Strings, largely because of the impressive stop-motion model work done in the film. They're not really making movies like this anymore and it seemed thematically more interesting than your average kid's film.

Not that I'm a "kid's film" kind of person. Very much the opposite. I don't do Pixar movies or rush out to see the latest Disney garbage like all the 30-something toddlers running around today, buying Funko Pops and going to Disney multiple times per year even though they don't have children. I largely don't allow my child to even watch Disney's shitty, mindless pabulum, filled with bad lessons and terrible role models. I work hard enough to disabuse her of the notion of princesses being something anyone would want to be without shoveling that garbage into her brain.

So this was a nice, straightforward change of pace from the average children's film. It's not hellbent to shave all the sharp edges off of reality or eliminate anything that could be theoretically scary to your overly-sheltered garbage-ass spawn. It's perfectly happy to start with dark tones and feature violence, scars, children in genuine peril, caretakers that are often gruff and unfriendly, and creatures more in line with The Nightmare Before Christmas than Cars or Angry Birds. More importantly, unlike most content for children, it doesn't treat them like babies and talk down to them. The constant condescension from children's media has lead to generations of exceptionally stupid people, too mentally fragile to manage their lives. Nothing leads to a brighter, more stable child than talking to them like tiny adults, who might be able to handle any concept you want to talk about as long as you explain it in a way they can understand without dumbing it down.

All that said, the movie isn't too complicated. It takes Asian mythology, throws in some sword fights, magical musicianship, and some good voice work from Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey. (This may actually be the most likable I've ever found McConaughey in any role.) It's pretty, it's adventurous, and children seem to like it. It avoids being full of itself or aiming for being too high-minded in an attempt to chase an adult audience. If anything, my only complaints is the movie's pseudo-spiritual bullshit, but it's hard to make an Asian mythological film without some spiritual bullshit in there. The marvel of stop-motion figures mixed with some digital effects will be lost on a lot of people, but it's worth the price of admission to see it handled so smoothly, with an art style you won't see in another film.


Gretel & Hansel

gretel hanselrating 3.5My five-year-old decided that we should watch Gretel & Hansel today. I'd probably pointed out that it was a "spooky movie" to her and the rating was only PG-13, so I figured she'd be perfectly fine watching it. Given a lot of the stuff she's watched, I didn't figure it'd be a problem, beyond the fact that it might bore her.

She ended up enjoying it. Fortunately the film isn't overly long, which works to the benefit of both adults and children, though I can't imagine many children watching this film, other than mine.

It's a lush but dark film (tonally as well as visually), giving a more realistic treatment to the Grimm's oeuvre. Gretel is a teenager with a dead father and a mentally unstable mother who, along with her kid brother Hansel, is cast out into the wilderness to fend for herself. Everything is a dark, gritty squalor of indeterminately plague-y time period. Her local job prospects are of the creepy rape-related variety, so - when their mother starts to lose grip - they set off on a journey, first to a local widow's house, where they're accosted by some sort of ghoul man. It's never particularly explained one way or another, but they're saved by a typically Grimm-ian woodsman, who puts an arrow through the pseudo-ghoul's skull, feeds them, and sends them off with directions to reach a group of foresters who will take them in and train them. That's an interesting enough concept on its own, really, but along the journey they're waylaid by hunger. Hansel does a lot of whining and eventually they're forced to sup on mushrooms, which are of course of the hallucinogenic variety. It's at this point that you could create a sense of unreliable narration, as you're dealing with two characters featured tripping their balls off in the woods. The rest could have been played as a "was it real or not?" mind game, but the movie is earnestly allegorical and straightforward in a way that doesn't really fit in with that possibility. So we end up with our children arriving at a lodge in the woods, curious at its delicious scents. Hansel breaks in and finds tables full of food. They're of course greeted by the legendary witch and urged to fatten up with her never-ending supply of delicious victuals.

While by this point the movie is interesting enough, their journey wasn't particularly compelling. There's some interesting storytelling in the village, with their mother, with the woodsman, but the actual traveling leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately, though it felt like it was heading somewhere tedious, it ended up not being much longer than it had to be, saving us from the film turning into The Nightingale.

But everything after this point departs from the typical legendary aspects of the tale and delves a lot deeper into the metaphors that you get brief glimpses of in the early scenes. Gretel is a teen with responsibility in a world where that carries a great burden. Her brother is more her child than her mother's at this point and there are many allusions to Hansel's interference with Gretel having her own life and own identity, a theme that continues to be delved into heavily, as well as the development of womanhood and finding internal power. This is the section of the movie that I feel like makes it worthwhile. We get to hear from the witch, a much more interesting figure than something out of a fairy tale. I wouldn't say Oz Perkins attempts to make the witch sympathetic, but makes her understandable, even in the end. By the conclusion, I wasn't sure if it'd be more interesting to see Gretel side with the witch or her brother. (I probably prefer the former.)

The fact that the movie works well is due in large part to everyone being fairly perfectly cast. Well, maybe there's one exception, depending on the director's intent as to how we're supposed to feel about the character: Samuel Leakey's performance as Hansel is often truly Jake Lloyd-ian. If we're supposed to find Hansel to be a tremendous annoyance standing in the way of Gretel's personal development and survival, it's pitch-perfect. Otherwise... Now this is pod racing.

Other than Leakey, we have Sophia Lillis performing far beyond her age - probably why she's had so many major roles in the past three years - as Gretel and Alice Krige - who is pretty much always great in everything - as the witch. I could watch scenes of them talking to each other all day. There is only three other speaking roles of note, making it easy to stock such a slimly-cast movie with top-shelf acting talent. In that way, it's very similar to Perkins' The Blackcoat's Daughter. Also, it continues his themes of mental illness, the perils and darkness of life as a teenager, familial loss, demonic entities, and finding good actresses that can believably play teenagers.

The visuals are similar to The Blackcoat's Daughter, but slightly more colorful and less desaturated, even if it's just as dark. The more fantastical elements are exceptionally appealing, showing some real flair for something that probably didn't have much budget. Still it manages to wow with the visual choices made.

For something that's a meditation on puberty, growth, finding yourself, and the very shaky bonds of familial connection, coated in the trappings of a classic fairy tale, it keeps you engaged and invested in the characters and the tale, apparently even if you're a five-year-old.


Ready Or Not

ready or notrating 3.0For the first half of the movie, I thought Ready Or Not was going to be a more arch, exaggerated version of You're Next. Or at least I hoped that's what it was going to be.

Something malevolent is going on within the house of the Le Domas board game magnate family. Samara Weaving is marrying into the family and no one seems to like her. Her beau only wants to get the formalities over with and be away from his family again, but there's traditions to deal with, which include drawing a mystical card and having to play a game. This leads to mayhem, being hunted, attempted human sacrifice, and deals with the devil.

I'd long meant to watch the film, but I was more intrigued by it because I didn't know what to make of Samara Weaving after watching Guns Akimbo. I wouldn't say she was good or bad in the film, necessarily, but I didn't really enjoy her. That probably had a lot more to do with the writing of the script than her, so I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt and see this. She ended up showing off some of the charisma that was hamstrung in Guns Akimbo and I genuinely like her as an actress, someone who seems perfectly content to take on crazy, over-the-top roles. (Maybe I'll finally get around to watching The Babysitter as well.) So at least they found a lead who could carry the film.

The movie features quite a few fairly-well-known actors playing the shitty, rich in-laws. Andy MacDowell is the matriarch; long-time character actor Henry Czerny is the dickish, overbearing father; Adam Brody, often playing a "smarmy douchebag" type, manages to harness that really well for this movie and ends up being one of the most likable characters. The lesser-known cast was just as good. "Orphan Black" fan-favorite Kristian Bruun brings his lazy asshole comedic charms to the table in exactly the way you'd suspect. Nicky Guadagni, who I really only know from Cube, is nearly a show-stealer with her over-the-top performance as the villainous aunt. And I'm probably going to have to check out "Wynonna Earp", as Melanie Scrofano plays the titular lead; she turned in a hilarious performance as the fuck-up cokehead daughter of the family.

So, pretty much the entire cast is strong, from top to bottom. Maybe Mark O'Brien comes across as bland and weak as the groom of the story, but maybe that was the intent. It made his arc in the script completely obvious instead of head-scratching, so perhaps that shows that it works, even if you feel it coming. But you never particularly care about him, anyway, nor is he even interesting as a character.

Where the movie goes wrong for me isn't with the casting or the film's direction or cinematography. All of those feel top-notch for a movie with a probably meager budget. No, I think it's because I was expecting more of a You're Next, with a stronger, more self-assured heroine who was going to take charge and turn the tables on her captors. But that started to fall apart completely by the halfway mark in the film. I was disappointed as she became weaker and more passive as time went on, just taking the punishment. It seems like an antiquated horror movie cliche at this point to have the female lead exist as a punching bag, to triumph by just make it through the movie intact. But that is ultimately her arc. I could tell things were taking a turn for the worse when she gets a hole blown through most of her hand. I've noticed that it's a sign that you hero is going to fuck up and fail when they start getting their hands maimed and fingers cut off in films. (In fact, Samara lost a few fingers shortly before she died in Guns Akimbo.) And I guess my instinct was right, because - from that point on - she went from someone trying to make smart decisions to someone desperately trying to escape at any cost, doing damage to herself, and then failing over and over again. Maybe it was my personal expectations, maybe I just saw more promise in the film, or maybe the movie was tainted by the similar-but-better You're Next. Nevertheless, my feelings about it never quite recovered and Samara's character never really found her way out of trouble, relying on other people and happenstance to save her at the last minute, every time. I consider that a weakness when I'm looking back at the script and how the film made me feel overall.

Still, the movie was fun, it was more lighthearted than you'd think it'd be, and it wasn't a bad time, though the acting and film-making could only take it so far when our lead's personality and competence fade away over the course of things. It's just unfortunate that more wasn't made out of all those good components, because I feel like Ready Or Not had something more to offer.


The Nightingale

the nightingalerating 2.5The Nightingale is an Australian film about a 19th century Irish convict woman hunting a pack of British soldiers across the wilds of Tasmania to avenge the death of her family. On the surface, that probably sounds like an interesting film, but I can't say I felt that way in viewing it. It is well-made, it is beautifully-filmed, it shows off the lush untouched environments in a way you'll probably never see in another film, but I can't say I particularly enjoyed watching it.

It's a movie about the nature of violence, trauma, and human suffering, particularly that doled out by the British Empire during its colonial period. The harsh realities of life for convicts and aboriginals is shown in all its gory detail, and, yet, it doesn't really feel like a film I could recommend. Its main character is uneven and unlikable. She waffles between submissiveness, defiance, anger, vengeance, fearfulness, independence, and a completely inability to do anything well, never applying the correct character trait at the right time in the film. This is obviously not a film meant to be enjoyed and, as such, I prepared myself for the fact that the ending would inevitably be unsatisfying as a revenge film, but I was looking at the runtime by an hour and a half in and realizing that, though I felt it should be ending, it still had 45 minutes left to go. It feels like the runtime is unnaturally extended just to abuse the characters further so as to make a point or make us feel something, but I didn't feel anything. Aside from aboriginal guide Billy, I really had no sympathy for any character in the film. And I can't say anything that happened in those final 45 minutes justified the experience.

The script isn't badly written, though it feels overly bloated by the end. The actors do a fantastic job delivering what they're asked and it obviously is a huge accomplishment for Australian cinema, but something can be important while being unenjoyable and dull. Obviously, I'm not referring to the violence and traumatic events. That's not something that would ever really detract from a film for me. It's that I often got bored by what was going on and just wanted a resolution for the story. The Nightingale didn't feel like it particularly respected my time. It wasn't a slog, but it is long and it is often uneventful, especially when you think things are going to take a turn.

If there's one thing about this film I have to complain about, it's the fact that it goes to that poisoned, shitty well of character dream sequences. I don't think I've ever had a dream in my life in the way most films present dreams and this film is no exception. Our lead's many dreams of her dead husband or the men she's killed come across poorly and only pad out the runtime without adding anything to the experience. It's just a bad, lazy trope that needs to be eliminated from film-making entirely.

So the character loses her vengeful spirit and we drift on towards a sad, quiet ending that isn't what you thought or hoped it would be.

I don't feel like I've said anything really about the film yet, but I don't feel like I have anything more to say. I wouldn't discourage anyone from watching it, but I have no reason to recommend it either. It feels like the perfect example of a well-crafted but ultimately unenjoyable, unmemorable experience.


The Blackcoat's Daughter

the blackcoats daughterrating 3.5When I finished The Blackcoat's Daughter (titled February in some parts of the world), I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. I was sure February was a bad title. I was sure that Lucy Boynton was a good actress, that Emma Roberts was fantastic working outside her comfort zone, and that Kiernan Shipka owned the whole movie with her performance (what would have been a star-making turn for someone not already so visible in projects like "Mad Men" and "The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina"). I was sure that it was atmospheric, dissonant, desolate... What I was unsure of was how I really felt about it. It's a feeling you see on many of the character's faces. Boynton's Rose makes expressions over the course of the movie that perfectly echo those of the audience: confused and unsure.

It's not a quick movie, that's for sure. Not that it plods along, but it more than takes its time, tells the story out of order, and dwells on moments of strangeness and tension instead of rushing to explain the plot. Really, I'm not sure writer/director Oz Perkins does the best job of telling the story itself. It could partially be the sound mix, quiet moments often being drowned out by his brother's noisy (but very appropriate) experimental score, dialogue being eaten by an inconsistent volume on my end. Some motivations initially felt unclear as I watched it.

The palette of the film is dark, colorless, and gritty, the setting is isolating and cold, and the actors strained, tense, and unnerving. But some of the tension I imagine others might have felt was undercut by the fact that I saw many of the movie's surprises coming from early on. The twists were well-done from a film-making standpoint, but they were predictable in their own way, which didn't bother me and I was more focused on trying to see how the pieces fit together than waiting to discover those pieces in the first place. I wasn't ever looking at it as a supernatural film, which I can only guess was intended, and was instead viewing it as a psychological thriller.

One of the real head-scratchers is the amount of confusion about the plot and ending. While I'll admit it's not spelling things out for you, the amount of general confusion and inability to follow the characters' motivations is more on the stupidity of the average viewer than the movie itself. It doesn't spell everything out for the viewer, but it seems like most people literally need everything spelled out to actually understand anything anymore. While that dumbshittedness probably drags estimation of the film down, I can imagine many will find the tone too slow and bleak for their liking. I'm looking for interesting stories; I imagine most people are looking for predictable scares and, when they don't find them exactly where they expected, they assume the film isn't good. Which it is. It's a dramatic showcase for several fantastic young actresses. It gets to play with some dark themes about delusion and mental illness through a lens clouded by red herrings about demons and possession. But it also has moments that don't feel like they stand up perfectly to scrutiny.

But all of it keeps me interested in what Oz Perkins tried to accomplish. I've seen several movies lately that make me immediately want to follow it up with a thorough talk with the director about intent, motivations, and choices, and this film sits firmly in that group. As a writer, I'd love to see the original script and how it portrayed all these details in the reader's mind versus what ended up on screen. And I'm sure I'll be watching his follow up I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House soon.

So, getting back to my initial quandary, I think I like the film more as I've thought about it since finishing it. It was solidly watchable but it's something you'll want to mull over afterward. For me, I think it does a better job of utilizing the coldness, the isolation, the confusion, and the paranoia more than something like The Lodge. And maybe one of the reasons it does it better is because it's more open-ended and leaves more to the viewer, something I don't usually appreciate out of  storytelling. Regardless, it's a well-crafted tale that makes you feel cold and alone, whether it's winter or not.