Better Late Than Never, Summer 2016 Edition: “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Suicide Squad,” “Captain Fantastic,” “The Secret Life of Pets,” “The Legend of Tarzan” and “Zootopia”

Every year, there are films that I miss seeing when they first come out (usually because I am unable to attend the press screening), and so I never write a review for them. Sometimes, however, I try to make up for my dereliction of duty by putting together a composite post such as this one, where I combine capsule reviews of a number of movies. Here are six such brief write-ups, five of which are for films released this past summer, and one for a movie that came out in March. I start with the most recent, and head backwards in time, from there. Many of my favorite films of the summer were actually documentaries, and you can see my thoughts on those films at Hammer to Nail.

August 2016 - 6 Reviews in One

Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight, 2016) – released on August 19

From Laika, the animation studio that previously gave us CoralineParaNorman and  The Boxtrolls, comes Kubo and the Two Strings, a hauntingly beautiful epic tale of a young Japanese boy on a quest to find the  magical tools that will help defeat the evil Moon King, who happens to also be his grandfather. Since its release, the movie – which did not do as well as hoped in its opening weekend – has come under fire for its casting of white actors in the principal roles. While that is a wholly legitimate criticism, the fact remains that in terms of pure visual aesthetics, Kubo is a stunner. The images of swirling origami figures, powered by Kubo’s shamisen (or what looks like a shamisen, which is normally a three-stringed instrument), are as enchanting as the power they unleash upon Kubo’s enemies. Overall, the film offers an engaging and refreshingly original story (true, quest narratives are nothing new, but this particular setting is), though one that is often disturbingly violent and bleak (especially given its PG rating). Unfortunately, what mars the brilliance of the first half is an almost incomprehensible – narratively speaking – climax, and a tendency towards excessively mawkish sentiment that would make even Walt Disney blush. One also wonders at the choice of title, which begs too many questions of the audience (two strings? huh?) at the outset and possibly helps explain the low box-office numbers. Still, those issues and the film’s white-washing aside, there is much to recommend here, as long as one is not too young (keep the littlest ones away, unless you want to spend a lot of time comforting them, afterwards). Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) and George Takei (one of only two Asian actors in the main cast, albeit in a relatively small part) all add their vocal talents to the mix.

Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016) – released on August 5

Possibly one of the worst movies I have ever seen – and certainly the worst of this year, so far –Suicide Squad comes as the second installment (the first was the dismal Batman v Superman, which this movie makes appear a masterpiece, by comparison) in DC Comics‘s attempt to create their own franchise world to rival the cinematic Marvelverse. After the death of Superman in that previous film, the world (read: the United States) is worried about what to do the next time a super-powered “meta-human” (i.e., a being with enhanced abilities) arrives on the scene; perhaps s/he won’t share our values. So über-agent Amanda Waller – played by Viola Davis (Doubt), one of only two watchable actors here, the other being Will Smith (Concussion) – comes up with the idea to assemble a team of incarcerated super-villains and impress them into government service, using an explosive charge implanted in a carotid artery as their main inducement. Hence the “suicide” in squad: you leave, you die. The problem with this set-up is that some of the bad guys and gals so assembled have no particular super powers at all – one is simply crazy, the other just a good shot – and yet somehow we are meant to believe that someone, somewhere, believes that their mere villainy is enough to combat the supernatural (and in this movie, indeed it is). Worse than this flawed premise is the inanity of the dialogue, the sheer visual incomprehensibility of the action sequences (the film doesn’t even work as popcorn entertainment), and the exploitative misogyny of its use of Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) as the Joker’s moll, Harley Quinn. Director David Ayer, whose previous movie, Fury, I quite liked, here seems to have forgotten how to direct either people or cameras. The fact that fans of the original comics were furious with critics for panning the film seems bass ackwards. They should be angry with the studio and the director, instead, and demand a reshoot.

Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016) – released on July 29 (wide) and July 8 (limited)

Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises) stars in this gem of a movie, from actor-turned-directed Matt Ross (Ring of Fire, actor; 28 Hotel Rooms, director), as Ben, a man who long ago decided to raise his family away from civilization. As the movie begins, his eldest son, Bo – an excellent George MacKay (Pride) – kills his first deer, in a scene that manages to be both brutal (and bloody) and profound. That’s actually not a bad way to describe the film, overall, as it makes its way through a harsh deconstruction of the behaviors and trappings of our unexamined modern lives. A family tragedy soon leads father and brood (six in total) away from their idyll in the woods, and what follows is both sharply funny and disturbing, challenging our notions of how an ostensible good-guy protagonist should behave (one scene in a supermarket was my own “bridge too far” moment). Whatever one’s feelings about Ben’s parenting, this film should at least force a conversation about why we do what we do, and whether there are any attendant costs to the choices we make to assimilate (or not). Filled with terrific performances from all the young actors, as well as strong supporting work from Kathryn Hahn (Bad Moms), Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) and Ann Dowd (Our Brand Is Crisis), among others, the movie serves not only as a clarion call to introspection, but also a bracing antidote to the plague of comic-book adventures that fill our megaplexes (see Suicide Squad, above).   

The Secret Life of Pets (Yarrow Cheney/Chris Renaud, 2016) – released on July 8

Neither exceptional nor bland, The Secret Life of Pets mostly lies in that zone where one can enjoy oneself without feeling intellectually insulted, yet also begin to forget the film as soon as it ends. It opened to great box office, and it’s easy to understand why: a) this summer was dismal for quality, and b) we love our pets, and much of what transpires here is clever and at least momentarily entertaining. From Illumination Entertainment – the studio that gave us Despicable Me, etc. – the movie tells the story of Max, a little terrier who lives peacefully and joyfully in an apartment in New York, beloved by, and in love with, his owner/rescuer, Katie. This paradise is threatened when good-hearted Katie brings home a new shaggy-giant of a stray, Duke. Before long, their rivalry leads to a disaster that finds them lost and collar-less in the big city. Fortunately, Max’s friends – a delightful, multi-species group back at the apartment building – notice his disappearance, and soon the chase is on. Things get hairy (ha, ha!) when Max and Duke fall in with a gang of rejected animals, led by an angry white rabbit named Snowball, who does not take kindly to their subsequent attempts to leave said gang. Mayhem and amusement follow. With the voice talents of Louis C.K. (Louie) as Max, Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family) as Duke, Kevin Hart (Central Intelligence) as Snowball, and a perfect Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) as Gidget, a tiny Pomeranian with a gigantic crush on Max, as well as many more, The Secret Life of Pets promises a good time, and delivers, with no excessive violence to scare away families. The fact that it’s not particularly memorable beyond that is no great flaw, is it?

The Legend of Tarzan (David Yates, 2016) – released on July 1

I went into The Legend of Tarzan expecting something unwatchable, and so was pleasantly surprised to discover a film that defied those low expectations. There is still absolutely no raison d’être for this movie, however. Why, in 2016, release a new version, updated or not, of the Tarzan books, which are irredeemably colonialist and racist (and not necessarily good reads, either, though I have only tackled the first two)? Especially this year, where we already saw one movie about an orphaned boy raised in the wild, The Jungle Book, itself a remake of a previous book adaptation. Still, we have to give them credit for trying, even if the original impetus was misguided. Tarzan – or Lord Greystoke, as he is known in his native England – may still be the great white savior of Africa, but at least they gave him a black sidekick. Now that’s progress! Oh, and Jane is along for the ride, tough wife that she is, though much of what she does here is serve as bait to draw Tarzan out of the jungle. Wait, that actually sounds familiar … In all fairness, the filmmakers seem deeply aware of the problems of the source material, and David Yates (director of the last four Harry Potter films, starting with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) knows his way around an action scene or two. Take note, David Ayer (see Suicide Squad, above)! But still, it’s Tarzan, and at the end of the day it’s going to be him saving the day, a white man in 19th-century Africa who has no reason to be there. At least this time, the villain is King Leopold of Belgium, whose slave-trading ways are denounced as Tarzan and friends do battle against his main henchman, played by the often (but not here) mesmerizing Christoph Waltz (Spectre). Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) is along for the ride as that sidekick of color, and though he is probably the best part of the film, he can’t quite make up for the anti-charisma of lead actor Alexander Skarsgård (so good in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, where he was supposed to be vacuous). Margot Robbie (see Suicide Squad, above), as Jane, looks like she’s having fun, but she hasn’t got a lot to work with. It was better than I feared it would be, for sure, but is that good enough?

Zootopia (Jared Bush/Byron Howard/Rich Moore, 2016) – released on March 4

My favorite animated film of the year, by far, Zootopia tells the story of Judy Hopps, who becomes the first rabbit to ever serve on the police force of Zootopia, the capital city of the anthropomorphized world of the story. Born and raised in a small town, she early on sets her sights on making a difference in law enforcement, keeping the peace at school despite her diminutive size. In the universe of the movie, all animals – traditional prey and predator, alike – live in perfect harmony, their former instincts a thing of the past. That doesn’t mean there isn’t crime – and Judy has some run-ins with fox bullies, growing up – but the carnivorous food chain is no more. And so, once an adult, Judy arrives in Zootopia, only to find that no one, especially not her chief (a bull-headed ox), will take her seriously. A bunny on the force? That means traffic duty, for sure, and … another run-in with another fox. This one, however – Nick Wilde is his name – might be different. Or not. One thing for sure is that he is a clever fox, that one, and who better to voice him than the charming Jason Bateman (This Is Where I Leave You). Giniffer Goodwin (Once Upon a Time) voices Judy, with a combination of plucky determination and naïveté that makes her the perfect foil for Bateman’s constant guile. They may be an unlikely pair – she a cop and he a con – but when real danger threatens the city, they may just make the perfect team. With additional voice talent from Idris Elba (Star Trek Beyond), Jenny Slate (see The Secret Life of Pets, above), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) and Tommy Chong (as in, Cheech and …), Zootopia is that rare bird, a film that never loses its sense of humor even when delivering what could be overly sentimental homilies. Be yourself, and don’t ever let others define you. Yes, that’s a truism, but when placed inside a well-crafted tale, a heartwarming one, for sure.