Official Secrets


The reflection in liberty is sometimes the courage of a single person.

(2019) Biographical Drama (IFC) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Tamsin Grieg, John Heffernan, Clive Francis, Kenneth Cranham, Jack Farthing, Katherine Kelly, Conleth Hill, Hattie Morahan, Shaun Dooley, Monica Dolan, Chris Larkin, Peter Guinness, Jeremy Northam, Hanako Footman Directed by Gavin Hood

 

There is a fundamental question when you hold a position within a government and that is this: do you work for the government, or for the people it represents? Not all of those who toil in government positions understand the distinction.

Katherine Gun (Knightley) works as a Mandarin translator for GCHQ – essentially the British version of the NSA – interpreting diplomatic and military communiques and writing reports. It’s a low-level job requiring high security clearance. At night, she goes home and watches the telly with her Turkish immigrant husband Yasar (Bakri) and shouting at the television as she watches American officials making speeches justifying their intent to go to war with Iraq and knowing that nothing that they’re saying is supported by fact.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back, however, is an NSA memo that is distributed to the GCHQ requesting information on six UN delegates on the UN Security Council who are standing in the way of that body approving the American invasion of Iraq. This is patently illegal by British law, but because this is a classified document, it is protected by the Official Secrets Act of 1989, a Thatcher-era British law that broadens what can and can’t be leaked to the press.

Understanding the ramifications of what she’s doing, Gun gives a copy of the memo to an anti-war activist who in turn forwards it to the offices of the Observer, an English newspaper. The Observer, like much of the conservative British press, had officially supported war (despite the evidence that the overwhelming majority of the UK was against it). While gung-ho activist reporter Ed Vullamy (Ifans),  a seething mass of liberal anger wants to rush this bombshell to press, calmer heads like foreign correspondent Peter Beaumont (Goode) want to first verify that the document  and make sure it’s authentic – you know, do the job the press is actually supposed to do.

That job falls to reporter Martin Bright (Smith) who diligently looks into the authorship of the memo. Eventually, the story goes to press but despite the outrage, the United States invades without a U.N. resolution and nearly 20 years later we’re still there.

Of course, all hell breaks loose at the GCHQ and the various people who work there who had access to the memo are interrogated. Not wanting to see her colleagues subjected to a witch hunt, Gun confesses. She is eventually arrested and after a year, charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act. On the advice of Bright (relayed through their mutual friend), Gun retains Ben Emmerson (Fiennes), founder of the activist legal group Liberty that defends British civil rights (think of a smaller scale ACLU). The government, seeking to make an example of Gun, undertake to harass and in general make her life miserable even before the charges can be filed. In the meantime, she is terrified that her husband will be deported.

This is a story on the level of that of Valerie Plame and Edward Snowden, of those who chose conscience over safety. Gun is most certainly a liberal hero and is treated as such by the film and South African director Gavin Hood, who has made two other films (Redacted and Eye in the Sky) about the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

The film has a crackerjack cast led by Knightley, who has in recent years done a lot of period work. I suppose this is also a bit of a period piece but at least this one is set after the Regency Era. She plays Gun as an impulsive and passionate woman who hadn’t looked to become a spy but became one anyway. When faced with a moral dilemma, she responded with the kind of courage that is rare. Understanding that a prison sentence is inevitable as would be massive personal consequences, would any of us have stood for what we felt was right? As much as I would like to think I would, I suspect that I – like most people – would opt for what is convenient. Knightley gives Gun a kind of vulnerability that makes her relatable as she second-guesses her decision as it becomes terrifyingly clear the ramifications of what she has done to her marriage and standing. Gun is not always heroic here and that makes the movie stronger.

Smith and Ifans, as reporters of opposing demeanors, both do impressive work which again, considering how strong this cast is, can be no easy feat. Hood, who co-wrote the film, tends to get bogged down in legal details during the third act and the nearly two hour movie begins to drag at that point. It is a bit exhausting by that point. Still, in an era where governments seem to be marching ever alarmingly to the right, it behooves us to remember how important it is for people of conscience to stand up and say “this is wrong,” even if it doesn’t make a difference immediately. In the long run, it makes every difference.

REASONS TO SEE: A really top-notch cast with particularly impressive performances by Knightley, Ifans and Smith.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a little bit too long and gets bogged down in legal details.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In real life, Gun’s husband was deported to Turkey where he now lives along with Gun and their young daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All the President’s Men
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Liam Gallagher: As It Was

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New Releases for the Week of September 13, 2019


HUSTLERS

(STX) Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Mette Towley, Keke Palmer, Mercedes Ruehl, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Usher, Frank Whaley, Dov Davidoff. Directed by Lorene Scafaria

A group of strippers, appalled at the behavior of their high-end Wall Street clientele, decide to turn the tables and take their portion of the American dream for themselves. This is getting some big Oscar buzz for Jennifer Lopez.

See the trailer, video featurettes and clips here
For more on the movie this is the website
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity)

Aquarela

(Sony Classics) Viktor Kossakovsky. This documentary explores the effect of water in all its forms – ice, liquid, steam, storm – on the planet and how we ultimately must learn to conserve and protect it if our species is to survive.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG (for some thematic elements)

Dream Girl

(Zee) Ayushman Khurana, Nusrat Barucha, Annu Kapoor, Vijay Raaz. A young man who has had little success in life finally finds a job he’s completely suited for – as a female friendship caller on an Indian love line. But when his beautiful voice inspires feelings of romance, things get a little bit out of control.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks
Rating: NR

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

(Roadside Attractions) Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sheldon Harnick, Hal Prince, Austin Pendleton. One of Broadway’s most beloved musicals of all time, Fiddler on the Roof grew from a particularly bleak series of short stories by iconic Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem and grew into a major hit at a time when race relations, gender roles, sexuality and the role of religion were all evolving.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square
Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements/disturbing images)

Freaks

(Well Go USA) Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Grace Park, Amanda Crew. A 7-year-old girl grows up her entire life restricted to the inside of her house, believing that the world is inhabited by dangerous Abnormals. When a mysterious stranger arrives, she learns that the truth isn’t so simple – but the danger is very real.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs
Rating: R (for violence and some language)

The Goldfinch

(Warner Brothers) Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Finn Wolfhard, Ashleigh Cummings.  A young man whose mother died tragically struggles to get past the grief and loss. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller.

See the trailer, a clip and a video featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for drug use and language)

Official Secrets

(IFC) Keira Knightey, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans. The true story of Katherine Gun, a young woman who worked for British Intelligence who discovered a damaging NSA memo in the weeks prior to the American invasion of Iraq. Disturbed by what she sees, she chooses to leak it and is eventually discovered and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cobb Daytona, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square
Rating: R (for language)

Section 375

(Reliance) Akshaye Khanna, Richa Chadha, Meera Chopra, Rahul Bhat. A young woman accuses a famous and wealthy director of rape and sees him convicted. His wife hires a high-priced lawyer who appeals the case, arguing that the incident didn’t meet the standards of rape in Section 375 of the Indian penal code.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Courtroom Drama
Now Playing: Touchstar Southchase
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content throughout, some language and nudity)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

3 Days with Dad
D-Day
Depraved
Gang Leader
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
Night Hunter
Pailwaan
Super-Size Me 2: Holy Chicken
The Weekend

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE/KEY WEST:

Gang Leader
Give Me Liberty
Haunt
High Heels
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool
Pailwaan

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG/SARASOTA:

Can You Keep a Secret?
D-Day
Gang Leader
The Weekend

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Gang Leader
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Depraved
The Goldfinch
Hustlers
Official Secrets

New Releases for the Week of May 17, 2019


JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM

(Summit/Lionsgate) Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Marc Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Asia Kate Dillon. Directed by Chad Stahelski

Wick, the world’s most ruthless hitman, has been excommunicated from the society of assassins and has a $14 million bounty on his head. There is no safe place for him anywhere as he tries to fend off a veritable legion of killers out to collect the reward.

See the trailer, video featurettes, clips, interviews and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for pervasive strong violence and some language)

A Dog’s Journey

(Universal) Dennis Quaid, Josh Gad (voice), Marg Helgenberger, Kathryn Prescott. Bailey, the loyal dog who had watched over Ethan from boyhood, makes a promise to keep an eye on Ethan’s granddaughter CJ who is being taken out of his life by his estranged daughter.

]See the trailer, clips and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Family
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for thematic content, some peril and rude humor)

The Biggest Little Farm

(Neon) John Chester, Molly Chester, Beauden Chester, Alan York. Apricot Lane Farms is the hard work of John and Molly Chester, two farming neophytes. John – a documentary director – and Molly – a chef, food blogger and cookbook author – decide to take on the country life when their landlord asks them to get rid of their dog. This starts them on a journey in which they make a farm in the philosophy of biodiversity where all the flora and fauna work together in harmony. You can read my review of this Florida Film Festival hit by clicking on the link below under “Scheduled for Review.”

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements)

De De Pyaar De

(Yash Raj) Ajay Devgan, Alok Nath Dixit, Jimmy Shergill, Rakul Preet Singh. A middle age divorced man meets a woman 26 years his junior and the two fall in love. However, they will have to contend with his ex, their children (who are his new lady love’s age) and Indian conventions about age difference.

See the trailer and a clip here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks
Rating: NR

The Sun is Also a Star

(Warner Brothers) Yara Shahidi, Charles Melton, John Leguizamo, Jake Choi. A Jamaican-born young woman is fighting for the right to stay in the United States with the clock ticking down on her family’s deportation. On what might be their last day in New York, she meets a young Asian man who falls in love with her, despite her reluctance to commit to anything permanent. Based on the Young Person bestseller.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Teen Romance
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and language)

Trial by Fire

(Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment) Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Jeff Perry. An uneducated heavy metal devotee with a criminal record in Texas is tried and convicted of murdering his own daughters by setting their house on fire. Despite his protestations, he’s sentenced to death. A Houston-based writer believes his story even when nobody else does and makes a heroic effort to prove his innocence in a system that doesn’t care. Based on a true story.

See the trailer, clips and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: True Crime Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language throughout, some violence, disturbing images, sexual material and brief nudity)

The White Crow

(Sony Classics) Oleg Ivenko, Adėle Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Sergei Polunin. The story of Rudolf Nureyev, the legendary Soviet ballet dancer who defected to the West in 1961 despite the best efforts of the KGB to stop him. This is directed by Fiennes.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square
Rating: R (for some sexuality, graphic nudity, and language

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

General Magic
Mr. Local
Red Joan
We Have Always Lived in the Castle

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

ABCD
Journey to a Mother’s Room
Mr. Local
Slaughterhouse Rulez

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

99
ABCD
Ayoga
Monster
Mr. Local
Slaughterhouse Rulez
This is Personal
We Have Always Lived in the Castle

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

ABCD
Mr. Local

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

A Dog’s Journey
The Biggest Little Farm
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Journey to a Mother’s Room
Red Joan
Trial by Fire

New Releases for the Week of December 28, 2018


VICE

(Annapurna) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Allison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Jesse Plemons, LisaGay Hamilton, Shea Whigham. Directed by Adam McKay

Here’s the story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming Washington insider and bureaucrat who ended up as one of the most powerful and important Vice-Presidents in the history of America. Vice came out of nowhere to garner more Golden Globe nominations than any film this year and is a strong contender for a number of Oscar nominations.

See the trailer, video featurettes and a clip here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release (Opened on Tuesday)

Rating: R (for language and some violent images)

Holmes and Watson

(Columbia) Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Ralph Fiennes, Rebecca Hall. An allegedly humorous take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, this film has been getting absolutely savaged by critics thus far.

See the trailer, clips and a video featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release (Opened on Tuesday)

Rating: PG-13 (for crude sexual material, some violence and drug references)

Simmba

(Reliance) Ranveer Singh, Sara Ali Khan, Sonu Sood, Siddharth Jadhav. An orphan from the streets grows up to be a corrupt police officer and enjoys the high life and many perks of such a life. However he soon finds himself faced with choices that may transform him and send him down a more righteous path.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Bollywood Action
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Universal Citywalk
Rating: NR

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Fantastica

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

The Charmer
The House That Jack Built
If Beale Street Could Talk
Kill Mobile
Natacha

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

None

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Fantastica

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Holmes and Watson
Vice

The LEGO Batman Movie


The Batmobile is getting a little bit crowded.

(2017) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Ralph Fiennes, Rosario Dawson, Siri, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate, Conan O’Brien, Doug Benson, Jason Mantzoukas, Billy Dee Williams, Zoë Kravitz, Kate Micucci, Riki Lindhome, Eddie Izzard, Seth Green, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Jemaine Clement, Hector Elizondo, Chris Hardwick, Ellie Kemper. Directed by Chris McKay

 

After the breakout success of The LEGO Movie in 2014, it became clear that one of the reasons for that success was Will Arnett’s delightful portrayal of Batman. Completely clueless and a bit of a jerk, it became clear that he deserved his own movie.

The movie he got is a face off between Batman (Arnett) and the Joker (Galifianakis) but not in the traditional sense. Jim Gordon (Elizondo) is retiring as police chief and his daughter Barbara (Dawson) is taking over but the pragmatic Barbara has some questions. If Batman is such a great crime fighter, why is Gotham so overridden with crime?

For Batman’s part, he leads a lonely existence, dining alone at Wayne Manor while watching Jerry Maguire and laughing in all the wrong places. His faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Fiennes) reminds Batman/Bruce Wayne that he has a responsibility – for one thing, to raise the orphan Dick Grayson (Cera) that he had adopted. Batman, for his part, didn’t realize he’d adopted the boy, thinking it was a joke. Grayson discovers Bruce Wayne’s secret and takes on the costumed vigilante identity as Robin, much to Batman’s annoyance.

But Joker has a plan; to release all of the monsters from the Phantom Zone and overrun Gotham. What he really wants though is for Batman to admit that the Joker is his arch-nemesis which the Caped Crusader just won’t do. But he can’t take on all these villains at once. He’s going to have to put aside his ego and admit that he needs help.

The movie is very family-friendly; kids will love it and adults won’t mind it either. While the “family is important” message will resonate with adults, kids might find it a bit saccharine; kids tend to prefer anarchy and chaos when left to their own devices. The nerd brigade will like the infusion of various DC superheroes as well as monsters and villains from across the pop culture spectrum (curiously there are no Marvel superheroes or villains, at least none I can remember). Adults will appreciate the rapid fire jokes that keep the movie jumping, not unlike a ZAZ film from the 70s. However, like most movies that throw a lot of jokes into the mix, not all of them work. A lot of them hit the mark though, like the whole lobster thermador thing. While the satire of the comic book genre is spot on, McKay and his cadre of five comedy writers also skewer movie conventions with Arnett’s portentous voiceover as the movie opens “Black screen. All important movies start with a black screen.” And he continues, hilariously, as the various production company logos come on.

The animation is simple but effective and makes clever use of the LEGO bricks that make up the world. McKay, a veteran of Robot Chicken, knows how to keep the action moving and there are some pretty spiffy action sequences. It does fall apart in the final act when there are way too many monsters and it becomes hard to follow. The palate is a bit darker than The LEGO Movie but it is still bright enough to keep the smaller kids delighted.

I don’t think this is as successful as The LEGO Movie but that may well be because we were so caught off guard by that movie. The bar was a bit higher for this one and if it didn’t quite hit it, it came damn close.

REASONS TO GO: Equally fun for children and adults alike. A fresh view of Batman and at comic book superheroes in general.
REASONS TO STAY: The humor can be hit and miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some animated action and a few rude jokes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fiennes is the third Oscar-nominated actor to play Alfred Pennyworth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deadpool
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dig Two Graves

New Releases for the Week of February 10, 2017


The LEGO Batman MovieTHE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

(Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Siri, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate, Conan O’Brien, Doug Benson. Directed by Chris McKay

One of the big reasons that The LEGO Movie was such a big hit was Will Arnett’s uptight loner Batman. Now he gets his own movie and the Caped Crusader is beset on all sides. The Joker is taking over Gotham City and for once Batman is overwhelmed. He’ll need to enlist help to save the day – but that’s not something he’s entirely comfortable with.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, Premiere footage and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for rude humor and some action)

50 Shades Darker

(Universal) Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Bella Heathcote, Marcia Gay Harden. Following the events of 50 Shades of Grey Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey have separated but such is the attraction between them that they can’t remain apart for long. However, dark secrets in Christian’s past may threaten to tear the two lovers apart.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Erotic Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity and language)

John Wick: Chapter Two

(Lionsgate) Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Ruby Rose. Wick is happy living in retirement, something of a rarity among assassins. However when someone he owes a blood oath to calls him in to help him take over a shadowy international assassin’s guild, Wick is forced to travel to Rome to take on some of the world’s deadliest killers.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity)

Jolly LLB 2

(Fox Star) Akshay Kumar, Humar Qureshi, Sayani Gupta, Arshad Warsi. A somewhat clumsy and lawyer is given the case of a lifetime to try, but the Indian legal system proves to be much more challenging than he could have possibly imagined.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Courtroom Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Julieta

(Sony Classics) Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao, Imma Cuesta. From Spain’s master director Pedro Almodóvar comes this look at a brokenhearted woman whose estranged daughter has been she hasn’t seen in 12 years. When a former acquaintance lets it slip that the daughter is married with three kids and living in Switzerland, the mom abruptly turns her life upside down and moves back in to her old apartment in Madrid, hoping her daughter will communicate with her. While she waits, she decides to write her memoirs, describing the events that led up to her situation.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity)

The Salesman

(Cohen Media Group/Amazon) Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, Babak Karimi, Mina Sadati. A couple that is rehearsing for a stage version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman are forced to move out of their collapsing home. A fellow performer rents out an apartment to them. They are however unaware that the previous tenant was a prostitute and when a former client comes by one night when the woman is all alone, the repercussions of the encounter will be extraordinary. This is one of the finalists for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image)

Kubo and the Two Strings


Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

(2016) Animated Feature (Laika/Focus) Starring the voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Meyrick Murphy, Minae Noji, Alpha Takahashi, Laura Miro, Ken Takemoto, Luke Donaldson, Thomas Isao Morinaka, Zach Rice, Rachel Morihiro, Mariel Sheets. Directed by Travis Knight

 

We spend much of our time as adults trying to live up to what our parents wanted us to be, which is a harder trick than it sounds – particularly if your parents were taken from you at a young age. Indeed, we spend much of our lives trying to live up to our parents period. Some of us choose to divorce ourselves from those expectations but deep down, the desire is there.

Kubo (Parkinson), a one-eyed child, lives in a seaside town in Japan, a village that gave him and his mother Kameyo (Vaccaro) refuge when they floated in on a boat when Kubo was just a child. These days Kameyo is ill and Kubo supports them by telling stories, accompanied by his magic shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument which causes pieces of paper in Kubo’s pack to be transformed into magical, living origami. He is beloved of the townspeople but there is an air of melancholy about Kubo – he misses the father he never knew, a great samurai warrior who had feuded with his mother’s two evil sisters (both voiced by Mara) and their father, the despotic Moon King (Fiennes).

When Kubo accidentally conjures up a demon and his mother disappears, he must go on a quest to recover his father’s armor, said to make the wearer invincible, and his sword which cannot be broken. He is accompanied by a monkey (Theron) who is more than what she seems, and a samurai that his been transformed into a Beetle (McConaughey) who is more brave than he is brilliant.

Together these three must face down terrifying monsters, insurmountable odds and a seemingly impossible quest. Their faith in each other is all that can get them through even as Kubo despairs of having a family ever again.

Laika, which has produced such gems as The Boxtrolls and Coraline, return for their fourth feature and as you might expect with that kind of pedigree it’s an impressive visual achievement. Melding CGI and the stop-motion animation for which Laika is justifiably famous for, the ancient Japan with all the mystery and magic the wizards at Laika can muster comes to vivid life. There will be lots of oohs and ahs when you get a load of this either on the big screen or at home.

Parkinson, who plays Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones, does some impressive work here, giving us a complete character who, unlikely other orphans in animated films, isn’t one-dimensional. Yes, there is grief for his parents but there is also a solid steel core of honor in him, inherited from his dad. He wants to do right and knows that he has inside him a special power that could well make everything right. However, he is fallible and sometimes does childish things, although never in an annoying way. Parkinson definitely makes the reading emotional without letting the emotions control the reading. It’s a good performance and bodes well for his future as an actor.

McConaughey has never done an animated feature before but his customary Texas drawl is absent here; you almost have to close your eyes and listen really carefully to know it’s him. Theron and McConaughey’s characters have some nice interplay and both do well with Parkinson. The voice work isn’t the issue here at all, and Takei lets fly a delicious “Oh, myyyyyy” early on in the film as an extra bonus attraction.

I do think the movie is a bit long; it drags somewhat during the middle and the epic fight sequences could have been trimmed a bit, although the one with the giant skeleton – c’est magnifique. And I like that while this resembles anime in construction, it’s an American take on the art form and quite frankly, it holds up nicely although it certainly won’t compare to classics like Akira, Grave of the Fireflies and most of Studio Ghibli’s work.

In a year of strong animated features in a summer where virtually everything else was disappointing, this stands out nicely as one of the best family films of the summer. I think it’s one of Laika’s most ambitious ideas in terms of story and visuals, but falls a little short of their best movies. For all that though, I think it’s clear that Laika is one of the top animated studios in the world, right up there with the aforementioned Ghibli, Pixar and maybe Illumination. It’s a good time to be a cartoon fan.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are incredible. A story that is simple yet mesmerizing.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could have used a little more editing.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the images here are scary, and there are scenes of peril and action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the directing debut of Laika CEO Travis Knight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Light Between Oceans