Guardians of the Galaxy Vol #2

guardiansofthegalaxy2vert-208281

Watching Marvel nowadays is an act that carries with it a certain sense of ennui.

The modern Marvel movie is the entertainment world’s equivalent of a bottle of Soylent – it has all the ingredients of a summer blockbuster, it goes down smooth, and it makes you satiated by its potent cocktail of humor and action. But it also lacks texture and grit.

The Marvel movie is at best, inoffensive, because it is so carefully blended into a mass-market appeal paste. It is candy for the lizard brain. And yet, I keep watching, and I keep wanting to watch, even though I know the next one is going to evoke that feeling of drinking an over-engineered high octane slurry.

Guardians Vol #2 is a carefully-made composite of everything that made the first one such a breakout hit. It’s got the 80s music, it’s got the wacky oddball characters, and it has Baby Groot, who was very early on identified as Marvel’s next great adorable mascot figure, which the film amps up to a barely tolerable eleven. Marvel, as I never tire of explaining, has this down to an exact science.

This time, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) meets his estranged dad, the mysterious and powerful Ego (Kurt Russell), who wants to reconnect with Peter for reasons of his own. Suffice to say, things don’t work out and Peter starts to discover the true meaning of fatherhood. Hint: it’s not expecting your son to follow your plans for galactic domination after 27 years of neglect (this lesson was also learned in Star Wars).

The movie is chock-full of the requisite nostalgia, hijinks, prissy alien races that look like regular people painted different colors, impossible planetary configurations, plot contrivances, and paeans about the importance of family. Of which the Guardians are one, albeit, a snarling, ever-at-loggerheads one. And the jokes, of course, of which Guardians has an ample amount, although most of the good ones are pretty much in the trailer and involve Drax. Other notables include a race of gold-skinned aliens called the Sovereign whose pomposity is the butt of many jokes. There are the baby Groot jokes that feature baby Groot being adorably silly. Then there’s one joke that involves a ravager with the unfortunate name of Taserface that goes on a little too long for its own good, and one featuring Nebula eating an alien horseradish – some of these jokes telegraph themselves a bit too much, in a laughtrack sitcom sort of way – the equivalent of the film trying to tell you I just made a funny joke! Laugh at me! Then there’s the Peter-Gamorra romance, perhaps one of the most unconvincing in MCU canon – but then again, romance isn’t Marvel’s strong suit, really.

The good-vs-bad plot is pure pulp sf cliche, and not really in a good way – featuring villains with simplistic, all-consuming ambitions that don’t betray any human motivations. It really serves as a vehicle for the Guardians to go on that extended find-thyself pilgrimage through a tightly choreographed dance of spaceships and explosions.

Oddly enough, the most compelling character is Yondu, the blue-skinned ravager of somewhat ambiguous morals who altercated with Peter in a kind of half-friendly way in the first movie. Yondu is a child-trafficking, mass murdering ravager, but he is in many ways the character who receives the most development and serves as the emotional crux of the movie as a kind of tragic figure when he’s not busily massacring people with his telepathic arrow. Although he is the unfortunate subject of one of those contrived moral conundrums – the kind where you have to make a Hobson’s choice between two extremes with no possibility for a win-win improvisation – played for emotional effect, a trope that always gets to me when poorly thought through.

Ultimately, though, jokes and Yondu aside, the chief feeling I could muster when I left the theatre was a sense of great emptiness. Maybe because I had to work the next day, but probably more because Guardians, like many Marvel movies, got it backwards – it built an edifice of entertainment so crowd-friendly that it kind of diffuses into a general kind of ennui-laden satiety. The kind you feel after eating a tubful of Ben & Jerry’s. The movie has its entertaining moments and even its emotional kicks, but at the end of the day, it can’t hide the fact that it’s a loud flashing money-making machine. It just compensates for it better than most other action fare.

I give this: 3.5 Anulax batteries

 

Logan

logannewposter

***WARNING: SPOILERS***

Reading the exuberant reviews of Logan on the Internet, I’m left wondering if I watched the same movie as everybody else.

Logan is the latest in a line of X-men movies featuring the titular be-clawed superhero, played by the irrepressibly iconic Hugh Jackman. It tries to take a different tack from most superhero movies; showing our heroes not in their prime, but in a state of decline brought about by the slow wear of senescence.

Set in a near-future Trumpian vision of America, dust-choked and garish and xenophobic, Logan’s setting is a distillation of a world in which the forces of exclusion have won, and the final vestiges of those who are different eke out meager existences at the fringes of society.

The first half of the film is still very good, because it so elegiacally shows the state in which we find our once-great superheroes; it is cathartic in its evocation of desolation. Mutants are no longer being born, resulting in the death of Charles Xavier’s grand life project. In his advanced age, Charles has also started having seizures that prove lethal to the people around him if unchecked. Logan himself is aging, the adamantium in his body slowly poisoning him, reducing his healing factor. He ekes out a living as a limo driver, hiding out with Charles and  behind the Mexican border in an abandoned water tower, smuggling in the meds that will prevent Charles from having his destructive seizures, and saving up to buy a boat so that Charles can sail out to sea to live out his last days without fear that he will hurt more people with his seizures.

Patrick Stewart gives a truly heartbreaking performance as the now-bitter and forlorn Charles, a far cry from his earlier gravitas as Professor X. Pent up with an almost childish resentment at the state of the world, he lashes out spitefully at Logan, dependent as he is upon him. His lofty ambitions have given way to the forlorn hope getting a boat. When Laura shows up, a young mutant fleeing from the clutches of evil corporation Transigen (as always), he jumps at the opportunity to help her, though it seems less because of altruism but because it reminds him of his glory days. It is truly tragic to see Charles Xavier portrayed in this way, as an old man reduced to this, and in this sense, the film has succeeded in achieving that sense of pathos.

In contrast, Logan is more straightforward, driven by survival instinct and an odd sort of filial piety to his erstwhile mentor. His tireless physicality has been his only source of strength and with that dissipating, his vulnerability shines through. It makes the initial premise – that, as a shell of his former self, he must take on one of life’s crowning responsibilities – to be a father-figure to Laura and bring her through trials and tribulations to face a better future.

The film chugs along fine till the halfway point, when the group lodges for the night as guests in a kindly farmer’s abode, and Charles, in a heartbreaking scene, tearfully expresses his guilt at having killed innocent people during a psychic seizure to a person who he imagines to be Logan. But this person is actually a mindless, aggressive clone of Logan: X-24, who proceeds to kill Charles and the rest of the farmer’s family. Logan and Laura escape, but not before Logan sustains terrible injuries from which he is slow to recover.

After this point, the film just turns into irredeemable pablum. The sudden collapse of plot coherence is breathtaking. The film starts to reveal that Laura is actually fully in on a game plan orchestrated by the other mutant escapees from the Transigen lab to split up and meet at a staging point to attempt a border crossing into Canada, where they will allegedly be free of Transigen. To accommodate this plot twist, Laura’s character completely transforms. From a vulnerable, mute, unworldly, and emotionless, cold-blooded experimental test subject in need of a nurturing figure, Laura suddenly becomes capable of elocution, turns worldly-wise, and is suddenly emotionally adjusted. Her previous indifference to Logan turns into a daughterly concern. She drives him to a clinic to have him checked out – which really begs the question of why she needed help to escape in the first place, if she could manage a cross-country trip by herself. It’s almost like the plot had to make Logan just as vulnerable as it could make him, and this required creating a dea ex machina in suddenly making Laura into a different person, and not showing the process of character development that led to that point.

Essentially, Logan and Laura’s relationship, the tentpole of this film, is never actually developed. Logan never actually exhibits outward concern when he’s travelling with her – there is little indication that he does the things he does for her – until the very end, when, having delivered Laura to her destination, he tries to leave but returns to help the children when he realises that Transigen has found them, sacrificing himself to kill X-24. He’s a hero, sure, but a father-figure? Not really. At that point, Laura is suddenly grief-stricken at Logan’s death, calling him “father” at the graveside. But that father-daughter bond was never established in the film, making this scene utterly void of emotional heft.

It’s this sudden narrative incoherence and the writer’s willingness to accommodate gaping plot holes to rush the story to an intended end-state without doing the leg work that makes the latter half of this film such a failure, so different from its more affecting first half. Unfortunately, the clumsiness of the plot takes away any emotional catharsis the film might have had if it had devoted more time to exploring Logan and Laura more fully, instead of leaving it to the audience to fill in the gaps. Logan’s end might have been a fitting send-off to the comic-book legend, but the journey there is less than satisfying.

I give this film: 3/5 adamantium bullets

Rogue One

rogueone_onesheeta_1000_309ed8f6

***SPOILERS.***

Now, this is the most satisfying Star Wars film since the Return of the Jedi.

I have to admit that watching the abomination that was The Force Awakens (your mileage may vary) this time last year really did a number on my passion for all things Star Wars.

It didn’t help that the Expanded Universe, the stuff of my childhood, had been thrown out of the window by Disney. The legacy of the characters of the original movies had been besmirched by the events of Episode 7. The prequels were an ignominious stain on the franchise’s name. The KOTOR storyline, which had been that other bright point in the Star Wars universe, had fizzled into a mediocre MMO churning out nonsensical storyline after nonsensical storyline.

I stepped into the theatre to watch Rogue One with low expectations. And, maybe because of that, Rogue One absolutely delivered.

Above all, Rogue One knows what the fans want. It might not be your typical Star Wars movie with the opening crawl and the Campbellian narrative. But it nails the spirit and the feel of the original Star Wars in a way that very few of the franchise’s derivative works have managed to do. From the hallways of the Tantive IV to the cavernous hangars of the Rebel base on Yavin IV, and even the 1970s inspired fashion and accents of the Rebels and Imperials, Rogue One inspires, first and foremost, a sense of nostalgic familiarity with the originals.

Rogue One knows how to do fanservice without being gratuitous about it. I liked some of the callbacks to images and characters in the originals – to the shot of the Rebel signaller witnessing the departure of ships from Yavin IV, to the decidedly retro computer screens (and the Death Star schematics with the superlaser positioned at the equator), to the fleeting appearance of Dr Evazan and his Aqualish sidekick, Ponda Baba, pre-amputation.

Rogue One continues Disney’s commitment to using more practical special effects, and it pays off.  The epic fleet engagement above the skies of Scarif near the end of the film is the best and most visceral space battle since Return of the Jedi’s Battle of Endor, just because it’s so much more visually coherent and weighty than the weightless, Transformers-esque chaos of the space battles in the prequels. Some parts of that battle, like the hammerhead cruiser gambit, are likely to become holy-shit iconic moments in the franchise as a whole – like how an A-Wing brought down the SSD Executor.

The casting of the OT characters is also spot-on, from Genevieve O’Reilly’s graceful Mon Mothma to Guy Henry’s impeccably-voiced Governor Tarkin (albeit with the uncanny-valley digital recreation of Peter Cushing’s likeness). And, of course, Darth Vader. They really nailed the New Hope version of Vader, who is more sprightly and capable of gallows humor than the brooding figure he cut in latter episodes. And he is in top form – a powerful Force user at the peak of his badassery, force-choking and force-bodyslamming his hapless opponents right and left – an almost primally unstoppable force of nature.

Above all, Rogue Onebiggest achievement is how it is able to so naturally fit into the chronology of the original films, while – in some cases – improving upon them by providing plausible explanations to some of the original trilogy’s more evident plotholes (and yes, it admittedly did much, much better than the EU at this). I have to give credit to the writers, who made sure that Rogue One was a self-contained story that didn’t create narrative reverberations that would have posed problems for the established canon. There are a lot of examples of this spirit, from making the call to have all the heroes perish at the end of the film, thus sidestepping the question of where they were in the originals, to the Battle of Scarif being the “victory” that the Rebels won against the Empire (referenced in the opening crawl in A New Hope) that led to the acquisition of the Death Star plans, to the utter destruction of the Rebel fleet in that battle, which would explain why the Alliance could only marshal a few paltry starfighters to destroy the Death Star in A New Hope.

And, of course, why have such an obvious and glaring weakness in the Death Star plans? The EU has tried to attribute it to simple incompetence, but I find Rogue One’s explanation – it being the secret legacy of its unwilling designer, Galen Erso, as his lasting attempt at penance for his part in the Death Star’s creation, and the main macguffin that necessitates the desperate effort to secure the plans in the first place – is far more thematically apropos. It is a rare occasion where a latter work has provided narrative context that improves upon the originals.

But enough about Rogue One as a Star Wars film. How is it as a film?

It’s actually a remarkably good one – tautly paced, never a dull moment, full of that visually arresting ‘used future’ feel that so set apart the Star Wars movies from everything else.

It’s an unrelentingly sober film, a surprisingly nuanced view of war, of the good guys doing bad things for the cause, as Cassian does when putting down a comrade too injured to escape to prevent his capture by Imperials. The atrocities committed by the Empire are visceral in a way that was never the case with other Star Wars movies. The slow, rolling destruction of Jedha’s Holy City was somehow more horrific than the destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope. 

There is a wide cast of characters, almost too many for some of them to get proper development. Jyn Erso is a little blander than you’d expect for the leading protagonist, and it’s never really clear how she transformed from aimless grifter to a motivated leader of men. Cassian is a little more compelling, his story being one of redemption. Orson Krennic is a great villain, someone who isn’t motivated by any amorphous ideology but simply by greed and ambition, demonstrating a very banal sort of evil.

The side characters range from forgettable to instant crowd pleasers. I feel sorry for how Bodhi Rook seemed to be relegated to a sideshow character, despite his story being possibly the most heroic of all – a perfectly normal bloke who risked everything to defect when he could have stayed, endured countless hardships, and gave his life to transmit the Death Star plans – but was given short shrift relative to the other characters. I wish the warrior monk Chirrut Imwe and his repeater-toting friend, Baze Malbus were given more screentime. And K2-SO, the #nofilter Imperial droid is the standout, providing much needed comic relief to an otherwise unrelenting film.

Spoilers – they all die. And its a brave, almost inspired decision by the filmmakers to do it for the sake of canon, but it also pushes home the message of the human cost of war, and also the impossible hope that emerged from their sacrifice. Rogue One celebrates the everyday folks, the non-Force users who went above and beyond to give Luke Skywalker the chance to be the hero. They are the unknown soldiers. No medals were given for their sacrifice, no tombs were raised. And yet, for a brief moment in the history of Star WarsRogue One gave them their chance to be known.

I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 Calamari cruisers

 

 

 

Kimi No Na Wa (Your Name)

2185db0c9273a0f80f30fc37831d943c

Kimi no Na Wa is peak Makoto Shinkai, a gorgeously animated science fiction/fantasy romance that speaks to our most idealistic notions of love as transcending space and time, while mostly avoiding some of his more annoying directorial habits.

Some people call Makoto Shinkai the new Miyazaki, but I think that that comparison isn’t particularly apt. Shinkai and Miyazaki, despite sharing a superficial taste in genre and aesthetic, could not be more different. Miyazaki is a traditionalist, an auteur of the old guard, whose hand-animated films possess a naturalistic visual and narrative style that often strangely complements the fantastic creatures and vistas that he conjures.

Shinkai, on the other hand, is thoroughly modern – a director who embraces the contemporary stylistic and visual norms of anime, the tropes and the narrative shortcuts that act like a filmic shorthand to communicate layers of nuance to an audience trained in its subtleties. His character designs are distinctly moe, something Miyazaki would abhor, and the visuals, while striking and gorgeous, are over-the-top: striking wide-angle visuals and thoroughly surreal skies painted with wild colours. There’s even a frenetic J-rock number that opens the film like your regular anime OP.

If anything, Shinkai reminds me of another oft-feted director, Mamoru Hosoda, whose 2012 Wolf Children was a similarly moving masterpiece – a distinctly Japanese take on maternal love. Both directors are all about depicting the extremes of Japan – its distinctly pastoral hinterlands amidst mountains and moss, against its fractious and glistening metropolises, and both specialise in moving and exuberant tales of youthful adolescence taking on the world.

And Kimi no Na Wa is such a tale, featuring two teenaged protagonists, one from the city, one from the country – both striking it out and trying to determine their place in a place like Japan, where tradition runs thicker than water and community is everything. More than most anime of its genre, Kimi no Na Wa captures that sense of adolescent yearning for anything but here, and launches its protagonists on a surreal journey to experience life through the eyes of the other.

And in doing so, the protagonists come to love each other, in an achingly insuperable way that transcends memory and time. If Shinkai has a pet motif (like Miyazaki does with flight), it is surely in the depiction of star-crossed lovers wrenched apart by seemingly immutable gulfs of space and time. Usually, some science fiction or fantasy macguffin is the source of this unwanted estrangement. The Place Promised in our Early Days had the female protagonist in a parallel universe, while Voices of a Distant Star used time dilation. Kimi no Na Wa has a similar conceit: a boy (Taki) and a girl (Mitsuha) who know and love each other by living each other’s lives, the most intimate form of mutual awareness. But, paradoxically, they live each other’s lives as if in a dream, and the memory fades upon awakening. As macguffins go, it is particularly moving and poetic.

As they cross into each other’s worlds, they realise that their fates are tied to a larger cosmic threat, one that bears down on them and provides the stage for an exuberant foray into heroics that is entwined beautifully with the developing romance. Shinkai also adds a healthy dose of a very Shinto-esque sort of mysticism involving the image of braided cords to the mix as a mythological backdrop to the tale. This magic is an expression of the film’s thematic core: that there are cords of fate that link people together through gulfs of space and time, somewhat akin to the East Asian notion of the red string of fate.

There is something achingly magical and primal about these motifs and narrative beats – they represent our subconscious yearning for that transcendental love, that notion that someone out there knows you as intimately as you do yourself and accepts you for it: that somewhere, in some distant temporal brane, one’s soulmate walks. It is, to a large extent, paradoxical in its idealism – can any meaningful connection exist between people who have never really met? The fact that the bond between Taki and Mitsuha persists through time, memory and space is the film’s intoxicating affirmation of that romantic notion. It is heart-achingly cathartic, the sort of escapism that lingers with you long after you’ve exited the theatre, full of wistful longing for something that doesn’t exist in our banal reality. It’s the stuff of the best romances – and right now I can only think of Lyra and Will’s romance in The Amber Spyglass as an example of a similar love story that captures those feelings to the same degree. Which is high praise, indeed.

What Shinkai has accomplished with this film is to create a classic that will surely resonate in more ways than one, with both Japanese and Western audiences, and is undoubtedly his best work yet (of the ones I’ve seen, at least). It’s enough that I can forgive the few odd plotholes that emerge from a plot this dependent on mystical macguffins and a convoluted system of magic. How is it, for example, that Taki had so much trouble finding the name of the town that Mitsuha lived in? Surely he would have heard the name when spending time as her. Why is it that they forget crucial details of each other only when the plot required it?

And, of course, the Shinkai staple – long, rambling sequences, usually in the beginning, when characters do what I can only describe as a collaborative poem in which they just monologue past each other in highly abstract language, accompanied by flashing montage shots of Shinkai’s beautifully crafted vistas. The entirety of 5 Centimeters Per Second was punctuated with these odd visual poems, which are just ways for Shinkai to download his themes into you with the highest possible level of information density as possible – which is hardly the point of the filmic enterprise. Luckily, that annoying habit was constrained to the first five minutes or so of Kimi no Na Wa, and the rest of the film was just moving and epic and made me melancholic at the end of it. That melancholy is how I know I’ve stumbled upon a keeper.

I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 bottles of kuchikamizake 

 

 

 

Doctor Strange

doctor-strange-poster

Doctor Strange is yet another case of Marvel’s tried-and-true formula scaffolding a daring and visually arresting foray into one of its more esoteric properties.

Like many Marvel origin stories, Doctor Strange is about self-renewal. A A talented but flawed protagonist experiences a life crisis that forces them to confront their hubris and in doing so reforges them into an unlikely hero. Iron Man was like this. So was Thor and to a lesser extent, Ant-Man. It’s a formula that has produced characters like Han Solo  and Bilbo Baggins. And as far as origin stories go, you can do far worse than with a dependable formula for your hero’s inception.

Benedict Cumberbatch inhabits the role of brilliant neurosurgeon turned sorcerer Stephen Strange with the arrogant aplomb that carried him to fame in Sherlock. Save for the occasional missteps in his accent, he carries the film with the thespian certitude of one who has lived in the character’s brainspace for a long time.

Strange, the fast-car driving, expensive watch-wearing douche-doctor, gets into a car accident that renders the tools of his delicate trade – his hands – useless. During his quixotic quest for a cure, he stumbles across a possible panacea – but it takes him down a very different path, one that leads to the world of mysticism, far removed from the material world that he is used to. And, of course, he gets some character development.

By now, citing the ways in which Doctor Strange ticks off the checklist of Marvel movie qualities is getting old hat. The quips feature in spades. Extradimensional antagonists defeated by cleverness and plot-hacks. A constant self-awareness of the narrative’s outlandish comic book origins. Trope-blind antagonists.

On that last point, Marvel really needs to up its villain game. Antagonists (barring Loki and a handful of other compelling figures) have often been the weakest part of the Marvel formula. While they’re always being motivated by something, those motivations are often flimsily constructed and one-dimensional. It’s like the Marvel writers consulted the manual on how to write compelling villains and interpreted it in too literal a fashion.

Baddie Kaecilius, for example, is motivated by eternal life – and it’s hinted that he does what he does motivated by some personal tragedy. But – not only does he kill and maim in that quest to make us all eternal thralls to a giant ravenous dark being from outside spacetime (and – I mean – an eternity of torment is not preferable to a non-eternity of the status quo, guys) he also gets dark smouldering circles around his eyes. Maybe that should set off alarm bells that you’re maybe not one of the good guys?

The movie also sets up another big antagonist in the Doctor Strange continuity, and his motivations for becoming the way he is are also, in a word, risible.  It’s like antagonists in the Marvel Universe don’t understand the concept of compromise. It’s a very Dubyaesque approach to ethics and morality.

Besides that, however, the film is one of the most visually interesting Marvel films to date, just because it uses psychedelia and Inception-like visuals as its main bread-and-butter to paint a world of sorcery that is ties in intimately to notions of the Marvel multiverse. Stranges’ own psychedelic trip into the multiverse is one of the film’s best sequences – both awe-inspiring and somewhat self-aware at its own ridiculousness at the same time.

One other thing Doctor Strange has been accused of is whitewashing and white savior tropes. Stephen Strange, the white man, comes to Nepal and becomes its most gifted practitioner, and saves the world from the hubris of its own sorcerous protectors. Now, while I sympathise with the sentiment that there should be more Asian representation in film, I don’t really see how the film might have done it better.

In a sense, the film is caught in a bind because it is trying to modernise what is essentially an old, somewhat racist comic series that emerged in a less enlightened time. I applaud the filmmaker’s decision to make the lodge of sorcerers into what seems to be a multiethnic enclave that just happens to be situated in Kathmandu. In that context, it is sensible to make the Ancient One someone who doesn’t fit the stereotypical mould of an elder of such an institution – a Celtic woman instead of the original depiction of an old Nepalese dude with a flowing beard, which might be its own ethnic stereotype.

And the decision to make the lodge multi-ethnic takes the teeth out of the white-savior charge, because the lodge is no longer a feckless organisation that needs saving from the outside.

Whitewashing is most egregious when white actors are used to tell uniquely Asian stories – such as when Scarlett Johansson is cast as the Major in the very Asian Ghost in the Shell, or Emma Stone is cast as a half-Asian woman in Aloha. In this case, though, Doctor Strange the movie is no longer telling a particularly Asian story – because to make the sorcerer’s lodge an Asian institution is to exoticise it.

And with that expostulation on a storm on a teacup, I conclude with the general observation that Marvel films, while formulaic on story beats, have one of the most creative and daring premises – something that is only made possible by the brand that they have so painstakingly built with their dependability.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 eyes of Agamotto

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

missperegrineposter

The name is really a mouthful.

Peregrine is composed of many small pieces of visual and textural brilliance owing to Burton’s very developed sense of the uncanny, but ultimately, when seen as a whole, it doesn’t quite stand out from its crop. It also embodies a kind of escapist, Peter-Pan mentality that, frankly, sends an unsalutary message to its viewers.

Peregrine is a classic two-worlds fantasy story – the modern, prosaic world, and a secret world of people with strange powers owing to a recessive peculiar gene –  Peculiars. Many Peculiar children live changeless existences in time-loops created by special Peculiars known as Ymbrynes who can turn into birds and act as guardians for the children. Forever. Yeah, a bit creepy and Peter Pan-esque, but it certainly fits in with the Burtonesque branding.

Our teenaged protagonist, Jacob, lives a normal, if somewhat muted life in Floridan suburbia, with only his grandfather’s wild stories of his youth spent with his peculiar friends as a source of escapism. Of course, like everyone else, he dismisses these stories as fantasies, but after he witnesses his grandfather being killed by a monstrous being that slips into the shadows, he begins his induction into a new reality.

Peregrinepremise is a great fit for Tim Burton’s specific visual style, which, I think, is about accentuating the uncanny by juxtaposing the banal with the discomfiting. The Peculiar world isn’t the scintillating fantasy of the earlier Harry Potter books – it’s a world of persecuted people, forced to re-live the same day of their lives over and over again as children, under the pretext that they are being protected from the prejudices of the outside world. The children’s peculiarities run the gamut from vanilla superpowers like invisibility or pyrokinetics, to uncanny things like the ability to create and control puppets by inserting the hearts of once-living things into them. Peculiarity is amoral and capricious in a way that is much more visceral than what is portrayed in Harry Potter or even the X-men comics.

This uncanniness gives the viewer pause at every turn, because it doesn’t fit into the well-worn patterns of two-worlds stories where the fantasy world is, at least at first touch, magical and inviting (or nightmarish and apocalyptic). Peregrine straddles the middle in many ways. When Jacob first meets them, they seem out of joint with the world, anachronisms – mysterious children wearing 1940s era clothes, who we later on learn have been living the same day over again for seventy years. Miss Peregrine, played by Eva Green, is a formidable combination of maternal guardian and authoritarian dictator, leading her charges on an isolationist existence against the rest of the world. Jacob feels a sense of alienation from the Peculiar world precisely because he, initially, doesn’t quite fit into that uncanny environment.

The amorality of the peculiar world is made more binary in relation to the antagonists – a cabal of Peculiars led by the manically frizzly and sinisterly voluble Dr Barrow (Samuel L Jackson in another flamboyantly villainous role ). Wights are Peculiars who underwent an experiment to gain immortality but who instead turn into monsters called hollowgasts, and need to subsist on a diet of eyeballs to maintain their human form. Guess what they like to do to Ymbryne orphanages?

The conflict with these wights casts the story into a more traditional binary mold of good guys and bad, which is fine, especially because the wights make genuinely frightening villains. There’s the fact that hollowgasts kill their victims by using prehensile tongues to pluck their eyes out, of course. But Samuel Jackson’s Dr Barron infuses his character a kind of self-aware pleasure in what he’s doing that really brings out the enormity of his actions.

It’s a slight shame, then, that the elements of this world – the morally grey and uncanny one of the Peculiars and the creatively evil wights – aren’t really put together in a way that suggests a complete or cohesive world or story. When is Peculiar civilisation situated in the timeline? Is Mr Barron a creature of the past or present? There’s also a massive grandfather paradox (in the literal sense of the term) that I don’t really understand, but it can be overlooked in the context of this being a 2 hour film with not enough time for extended expositions. But the timey-wimey convolutedness of the plot with insufficient explanations for some of its parts kind of left the film wanting a little in the way of closure and a sense of internal consistency.

But I also think that the other thing that threw me off was really also about the core of the film, which is Jacob’s character arc. Ostensibly, the film portrays Jacob as an outsider in his own society who finds a group of outsiders and slowly comes to identify with them. In the film, Jacob’s emotional connection to that group is exemplified by his relationship with one of the Peculiars, Emily Bloom. But the relationship feels a little contrived and also quite uncanny (since she is, mentally over 70 and was also involved with Jacob’s grandfather). And at the end of everything, Jacob just up and leaves school and his (admittedly dreary) household and rejoins the Peculiars, presumably to find a timeloop to live the same day of his live again and again on infinite repeat. Because the world of the Peculiars is so cloistered and seemingly limited, it doesn’t feel like an escapist fantasy should – that the character is blossoming into their own as a member of that other world, like Harry Potter did in the wizarding community – but more of a regression or stasis – like Wendy going back to Neverland. It represents – in a few words – a form of escapist fantasy that feels limiting, rather than freeing.

I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 hollowgast-killing crossbows

 

Kubo and the Two Strings

kubo-poster

Kubo and the Two Strings is a humbling technical achievement and a beautifully crafted animated film, but its plot sometimes stumbles into narrative incoherence in its attempt to expound on its philosophical themes.

Kubo is the latest film from the stop-motion animation studio Laika, makers of such gems as Coraline and The Boxtrolls. Laika is probably the premier stop-motion animation studio currently in business, owing in no small part to their willingness to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with stop motion from film to film.

Kubo is, in that respect, their coup de grace. It is beautiful, fluid, and alive in a way that seems all the more real for the fact that they’re essentially hand-manipulated puppets. A few things, such as water and weather effects, are added in CGI post-production, but it’s actually quite staggering to watch the film and then watch making-of documentaries where they reveal just how much of the movie owed to the tireless work of animators who painstakingly animated the characters down to the individual strands of their hair, frame after frame.

Even painstaking effort wouldn’t amount to much, though, if the film had turned out creatively uninspired. Kubo, however, doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Its Japanese aesthetic and brilliantly realised landscapes provide a stunning background for the story to play out. In particular, the opening scene, where Kubo’s mother rides out a storm in a boat in a quest to reach dry land, is one of the most visually and emotionally arresting cold opens I’ve ever seen in an animated film.

The thing about Kubo that prevents it from being a perfect film, however, is the matter of its overarching story playing second fiddle to the film’s preoccupation with its themes.

The story seems simple at first blush: Kubo sets out with his allies, a monkey and a beetle-like samurai, in a by-the-numbers heroic journey to collect pieces of armour and weapons needed to best a godlike evil.

But as the film wears on, the battle turns into something of a treatise on themes of humanity, storytelling, and the value of ephemerality, which is, admittedly, very Japanese. The heroes fight against a heavenly foe whose perfection is bought at the expense of their humanity. They seek an eternity of bliss, and that goes against the notion that great stories must have a beginning and an end, must incorporate joys and sorrows in equal measure.

These kinds of conflicts don’t really have that much purchase in the real world, and it isn’t quite clear where the film is trying to go with it. Good stories need an end, to be human is to be imperfect, lost loved ones persist forever in our memory – the narrative is a bit clumsy in trying to get its messages across in a way that makes the story seem more like a constructed fable – like a rendition of an actual story through the eyes of a storyteller with an agenda – as opposed to a real, organic story.

That’s not to say that such fable-like plots have no place in literature, but I think that Kubo that on balance, it’s heavy on its thematic preoccupations and light on its characters. Which is a shame, because the chemistry between Kubo, Monkey and Beetle is one of the most charming parts of the film. Beetle, in particular, is a riot. But they receive short shrift just as it gets going (and, indeed, the scene plays out in the most tropey manner possible). From then on, the plot loses some coherence as it quickly ushers in the third act – the showdown between Kubo and his enemy, somewhat reduced into them fighting while shouting out their irreconcilable philosophical differences at each other.

We’re supposed to get it, to grok it by then, on a primal level, in order for us to root for Kubo. But the things that Kubo is fighting for, while compelling in theory, get muddled by the intricacies of the metaplot about how his heavenly grandfather wants to make him inhumanly perfect by taking away his eye, which is supposed to remove his memories so that he will turn away from the imperfections of the world and ascend to a higher plane – and you get the picture. Too many macguffins, too many odd plot devices, all in service of an abstracted theme that needs exposition to really hammer them home to the viewer in a compelling way – exposition that the film doesn’t have time for, and would occur at the expense of character development.

But you know what? Despite the fact that the plot, in my mind, ended up a muddled by its abstract message, it would be unfair to fault the film’s creators for shaping this beautifully crafted film into a vessel for the messages they want to convey. It is their prerogative, and the message is a beautiful and important one, if slightly contrived to fit into the strictures of the plot and short running length (which in itself must have been an issue of expectations management and budget). Kubo is a work of painstaking craft, tremendous beauty, and great courage, and it deserves its place on the pantheon of animated greats.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 Swords Uncomfortable