KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
The fourth dazzling feature from the gifted and resourceful animators at Laika (following the largely stop-motion works Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls) is about a little boy who brings inanimate objects to life through a mysterious and magical process. In other words, Kubo and the Two Strings is about animators. Granted, the young boy known as Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, best known as the late Rickon Stark from “Game of Thrones”) uses a magic that is derived from his shamisen (the traditional Japanese three-string instrument), which allows him to bring his origami figures and random sheets of paper to life to tell elaborate tales of his family’s past. His favorite is the story of his late father, Hanso, a samurai who died protecting Kubo from his grandfather, the Moon King. Kubo lost an eye on the battle, but escaped with his mother, who is still suffering the impact of the epic battle for the gifted Kubo.
It should be made clear (and you may think I’m splitting hairs, but it’s also true) that Kubo and the Two Strings is not set in Japan. Certainly it takes its visual cues from Japanese architecture, art, music and films (Akira Kurosawa looms large over certain shots here), but this is a fantastical place where spirits and wicked demons roam the land, and talking animals protect a young boy as best they can. Laika’s first three films all involved elements of a very westernized version of the supernatural, so I adore the fact that Kubo uses as its foundation a culture in which ghosts are simply part of the landscape, and the spirits of one’s ancestors are a thing to be honored and celebrated.
That being said, when Kubo and his mother are first attacked by her ghostly sisters (both voiced quite eerily by Rooney Mara), I recognized them immediately as familiar creatures from Japanese ghost stories. Kubo is forced to strike out on his own to stay away from the sisters (who are harbingers of the Moon King), so his mother uses the last of her magic to bring Kubo’s tiny monkey charm to life as the last line of defense in protecting her son. Voiced with authority by Charlize Theron, Monkey might be the greatest animated character of the year, and it’s difficult not to notice that her “fur” looks a lot like strips of white paper and less like hair. She’s a tough, no-nonsense guardian who trusts no one and refuses to let them linger too long in one place, since the Sisters never rest or need nourishment to continue on their quest to capture Kubo.
Kubo and Monkey are in search of three pieces of armor once worn by his father, which are scattered across the land. Along the way, they run into a memory-free, half samurai/half beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who believes that Kubo’s father was once his master before being transformed into Beetle, who is both the perfect comic relief for the sometimes crushingly serious film and a skilled warrior who often jumps into dangerous situations without thinking, unlike Monkey, who tends to overthink everything. The friction between these two animal caretakers is, in many way, the heart and soul of the film, because as Kubo acts as referee between his two new friends, we see him mature and become a less impetuous soul in his own right.
It’s no coincidence that this is the first animated outing for Oscar winners Theron and McConaughey (there are also three Oscar nominees among the voice cast, including Ralph Fiennes as the dreaded Moon King, Brenda Vaccaro as a old friendly lady in Kubo’s home village, and Mara, also doing her first animated film). The film is packed with fantastic performances, and their presence here is a testament to Laika’s strength as storytellers. The cast is rounded out with the likes of acting icons George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, both of whom give standout performances as other villagers who are caught in the grip of Kubo’s hypnotic storytelling.
Kubo and the Two Strings is actually an original work from screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, but it feels like a battle-worn, centuries-old tale that has been adapted for this telling. First-time feature director Travis Knight (who has been animation supervisor on all previous Laika films, and also happens to be the company’s president and CEO) has done a remarkable job of blending the primarily stop-motion animation technique with CG to make a seamless piece of delicate, moving art. The movie is not afraid to be terrifying (Laika has never shied away from scaring children—either on the screen or in the audience), and that’s a completely wonderful quality to the studio’s work, which never feels safe or watered-down for mass consumption.
Easily the animation house’s most touching and visually stunning work, Kubo and the Two Strings is quite often a bracingly unapologetic emotional journey (I’m afraid some amount of crying will occur) about the family we’re born into (for better or worse) and the family that is built around us to get us through tough moments in our lives when we’re younger. The production design and composition of each frame is so well conceived, you sometimes want to freeze the picture just to examine every square inch of the image. There’s a Garden of Eyes, a ship made entirely of leaves, and a mammoth skeleton that bears such a resemblance to the metal armature of the original King Kong that it took my breath away, with its loving tribute to Ray Harryhausen. As they prove with each new film, Laika treasures its artists, as well as artists from the past, but this movie illustrates that beautifully. Simply put, Kubo and the Two Strings is an animation masterpiece and a living, breathing tribute to artists of all kinds around the world.
I’m fairly certain that the lesson to be learned from the new Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) film War Dogs is that in order to have the maximum amount of fun as an arms dealer, it’s best not to get caught up in the details. That is a hard, ruthless truth that David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill, really channeling the character he played in The Wolf of Wall Street) learned a few years ago when these childhood pals landed a $300 million weapons deal aimed at arming the Afghan military, putting them in very real danger of either being caught trying to cut a few corners or worse.
Based on a real story (captured extensively by Rolling Stone writer Guy Lawson in his article “Arms and the Dudes”), War Dogs begins promisingly as a profile of two very different men. Packouz is a masseuse for rich clients, some of whom expect a little more than a simple rubdown, while Diveroli is a career dealmaker, but usually of fairly small-scale things. At the funeral of a mutual friend, Efraim schools David on the weird weapons-dealing loophole that allows virtually anyone to bid on various-sized deals for the U.S. military. Rather than bidding on giant defense contracts, the boys focus on multiple smaller deals whose value adds up over a relatively short time. Bankrolled by the owner of a chain of dry cleaning businesses (Kevin Pollak), everyone makes out like bandits. For once, David is able to provide for his wife (Ana de Armas, from Knock Knock), who is expecting their first child. She’s mad because he lies to her, at first, about where the money is coming from. But once he comes clean, she seems okay with these shady dealings.
As the story allegedly goes (the screenplay comes from Phillips, Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic), one day the team stumbles upon a major military contract that might just be within their price range (the previously mentioned $300 million deal), and by unintentionally underbidding their closest competitors, they get the deal and the headaches of making it happen that a larger firm might easier avoid. To finalize the deal, they call in a blacklisted dealer named Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), who’s on a terror watchlist and just happens to know where hundreds of millions of AK-47 rounds are stored in Albania. Naturally, there are even more complications, and it doesn’t take long for panic to settle in, and the boys (mostly Efraim) turn on each other, just as the U.S. government starts taking a closer look at their records.
Some have said that War Dogs hits so many familiar beats that nothing about it feels new or original. That criticism hardly seems relevant, since so few films released in a given year feel completely original. Working within a formula is fine, if you can find ways to coax and maneuver through a familiar plot with a few new tricks up your sleeve. I suspect that the real guys were even more douchey than the ones portrayed in this movie, and I wish we’d gotten a real taste of that. Granted, the story might not work well with an audience if you absolutely loathe the lead characters, but Teller and Hill are gifted enough performers that they likely could have made us love to hate these two without much effort.
The bigger issue is that War Dogs feels the need to foreshadow every last snafu these two face. “Hey, this might be a problem for us later,” “Don’t worry about it; everything will be fine,” and then that original thing becomes a problem. But the biggest issues they face are often simply the result of their amateur status is the gun-running trade. Many of their greatest triumphs often happen by accident or despite their idiotic way of charging into a situation like children. Teller as Packouz seems intent on getting better at his job, but Efraim never stops being reckless and self-destructive. (Seriously, how much coke does one man have to do before you understand that he’s not reliable?)
Director Phillips moves us quickly from scene to scene, from deal to deal, expecting us to laugh at the wacky exploits of these clowns putting weapons in the hands of, well, anyone who can afford to buy them. And yes, sometimes these moments are funny. Hill’s comic timing and delivery are as sharp as they’ve ever been, and his powers of reading the situation and manipulating it are a wonder to behold. War Dogs is far from a complete failure, but I found myself with an empty feeling in my soul after witnessing so much awful behavior. I don’t have to like a character to enjoy the movies he’s in, but I need to find something compelling or interesting about them. Give me something to care about. If these two had been blown away an hour into the film, I wouldn’t have felt any different than I did by the end of this two-hour exercise in narcissism. No deal.
If you haven’t been paying attention to the work of Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, you’ve been missing out of some really interesting work over the last few years, but especially in the last year or so with standout appearances in Far From the Madding Crowd, The Danish Girl, A Bigger Splash, and his latest, Disorder (formerly titled Maryland), from French writer-director Alice Winocour (who co-wrote last year’s wonderful Mustang, and wrote and directed 2012’s Augustine). Although he’s been working as an actor since the early 1990s and had a supporting role in 2006’s Black Book, Schoenaerts was first noticed as an acting force in the Oscar-nominated Belgian film Bullhead, followed shortly by the deeply moving Rust and Bone, opposite Marion Cotillard. He specializes in playing the strong, silent type but he can add a bit of color and energy when needed (check him out in A Little Chaos or The Drop for proof).
With Disorder, Schoenaerts attempts his most troubled characterization since Bullhead as he plays Vincent Loreau, a former French Special Forces soldier, not long back from Afghanistan and clearly suffering from bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder while still attempting to work in private security, mostly for the rich and powerful in and around Paris. One of the elements of the film that grabbed me immediately is that we really aren’t given any clues as to what happened to Vincent during the war to damage him so completely, or any sense of what type of person he was before going into service.
The character is a blank slate that director Winocour (and co-writer Jean-Stéphane Bron) fills with details based on his behavior in the now—his hallucinations and trembling anxiety, but also the way he seems to deeply care for his latest charges, Jessie (Diane Kruger), the wife of a filthy rich Lebanese “businessman” (Percy Kemp, who turns out to be an arms dealer with many enemies), and her young son Ali (Zaid Errougui-Demonsant) on the family’s estate, known as Maryland.
The bodyguard duty is preceded by a security job, at which countless politicians and other important types are collected at a reception, where Vincent stops a potential threat. At he glides almost unseen through the party, we watch Vincent’s powers of observation and stealthy behavior, all products of his military training, but there’s a more personal quality he brings to the job, which is useful when he’s right about a threat, but makes him come across as a full-time paranoid the rest of the time. And most impressively, Schoenaerts manages to embody all of this with an intense gaze and very little dialogue.
As Vincent cases Maryland as part of his job, the audience also gets to tour the various rooms, corners and dark places throughout the estate. Disorder wouldn’t be much of a movie if his paranoia didn’t pay off, and sure enough, a swift and brutal kidnapping attempt kicks off by parties unknown, and Vincent movies into action. Winocour’s use of sound in the film’s final third is incredibly impressive, moving from total silence to explosive chaos, with tiny, jump-inducing sounds peppered throughout to keep everyone on their toes. The filmmaker’s ratchets up the tension at such an alarming pace that Disorder becomes almost a horror movie, as everyone becomes a possible target.
The film also does a credible job of keeping Jessie from being just a woman to protect. Earlier, in the get-to-know-you phase of the film, she and Vincent sit in her palatial kitchen talking about her life, and we discover that she genuinely does love him and seems to have no clue what he does to make his money. These are also the scenes in which Vincent begins to fall for her a bit, making his job (and the film) that much more personal. As a film about a bodyguard falling for the person he’s protecting, Disorder isn’t particularly original, but the pairing of these two great actors makes all the difference in terms of adding depth and humanity to the work, and makes this something well worth seeking out.
DOWN BY LOVE
Based on true events, Down by Love by writer-director Pierre Godeau (2013’s Juliette), is the nerve-wracking and steamy tale of married prison director Jean (Guillaume Gallienne) who begins an ill-advised affair with Anna (Adéle Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color), one of the female prisoners at the facility. Down by Love is less a story about a series of sexual encounters in various isolated locations around the prison (although there are certainly plenty of those) and more about how Jean’s desire for Anna compels him to throw all caution to the wind. He effectively abandons his family, despite his initially seeming like a caring father and loving husband (to his far-too-forgiving wife, played by Stéphanie Cléau), as well as a fair and compassionate custodian of the prisoners he oversees.
Portrayed as a troubled young woman—although certainly not a scheming seductress—Anna seems like a resourceful, capable, tough character who is marked with periods of severe depression that are made all the worse by periodic visits by her judgmental mother (and Eric Rohmer favorite Marie Riviere). The relationship with Jean is one of the few things in her life that brings her any pleasure, but she is still plagued with feelings of guilt for possibly destroying his family life. But the level of self-destruction Jean enters into is the most fascinating aspect of Down by Love. His elaborately spun lies and passionate denials when rumors begin to spread about the pair are a peek into how his mind works and proof positive that, in many ways, he is held captive by his desires.
Gallienne and Exarchopoulos are as believable as lovers as they are as an incendiary couple whose flame burns bright but eventually will burn out, leaving nothing but raw, exposed emotions with no outlet. It seems inevitable that eventually these two will turn on each other, but that’s not exactly what happens, even if it should. Some of the most difficult scenes to watch are those between Jean and wife Elise, who is willing to take him back if he just admits he’s being foolish, because men love admitting that.
Filmmaker Godeau (who adapted a book by Florent Gonçalves and Catherine Siguret) does his best to reserve judgment on his leading characters, leaving it up to his audience to decide if these two are the world’s greatest lovers or its most selfish and destructive…or both; a great case could be made for all three options. Down by Love is infuriating, erotic and a perfect showcase for both top-notch performances and skilled, measuring filmmaking. The movie opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.