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Ben-Hur re-made again, a modernized western and one of the best animated films of the year

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KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS: It’s been a wonderful year for animated films and here’s another very good one. This is from the Laika studio in Oregon, which made the superb Coraline and others and here turns to an original story with an Asian theme. It’s got imagination, heart and an ambience that feels like actual literature, not just a pop-culture-flecked fun fest. It’s also quite complex, enough that the advice to “Pay attention” and “If you must blink, do it now,” are woven into the script a couple of times. It’s for older kids. 10+ I’d suggest. This one will stretch their minds rather than pander to them.

 

The voice cast is stellar. Art Parkinson of Game of Thrones is Kubo, young boy who entertains as a busker in a small seaside village in Japan playing his shamisen and causing sheets of paper to fold themselves into samurai figures and swirl around in the air above. He inadvertently summons up The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and two aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara) who want to kill him, like they did his father. He has to find three items that will protect him, a sword, armor and a helmet. He’s joined on the quest by a toy come alive into a bossy snow monkey (Charlize Theron) and a comic insect samurai (Matthew McConaughey). That’s only the barest of outlines for this plot and the wealth of mythology and philosophy that surrounds it. Courage, immortality, ancestor worship and many other concepts come into it. The film also looks beautiful with intricate stop-motion animation and richly-painted backdrops and features several battles and some eerie chilling scenes. (International Village, Marine Gateway and suburban theatres) 4 out of 5                        

EQUITY: The faces of Wall Street and high finance are men. In the movies, maybe. In real life, women have high-ranking jobs and make decisions there too. That’s the point this film is trying to make and some of its creators speak from experience. Barbara Byrne, for instance, one of the producers is a banking vice chair at Barclays. Women invested in the film and shared stories. So there’s an air of authenticity. A woman is told she’s being difficult. A pregnancy is hidden. An account manager fears a younger woman’s competition and talks positively about her own ambition. 

Anna Gunn, familiar from TV’s Breaking Bad, plays an investment banker who brings new stock offerings (IPOs) to market. She fails on one and is now shepherding another. Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner developed the idea for the film and play, respectively, a vice president helping her and a justice department agent investigating hedge fund managers. There’s a crooked one (a male) further back in the story. Up front is Anna’s dealing with an erratic software mogul (also a male). The details of women’s participation in high-finance will resonate but the presentation may feel too gentle. Anna Gunn’s character states “I like money.” Gordon Gekko’s was tougher, with “Greed is good.”  (International Village) 3 out of 5  

LITTLE MEN: Here’s a gem from New York on a par with a couple of classics from France, Small Change and The 400 Blows. They’re all careful examinations of what really shapes the lives of children. This time the main factors are circumstances completely out of their control. Not really nature and nurture. Everyday events, laid out as an inevitable progression and with no deciding effect apparent until later. Ira Sachs presents it through the story of two young teen boys.

More in New Movies

Widows of criminals doing it for themselves, the seed of modern politics and the perils of war reporting

Also an ingenious take on the migrant crisis, and a second appreciation this year of Ingmar Bergman that adds to what we already know from the first

Melissa’s forgeries, Rami’s dead-on Freddie Mercury and a cult classic re-imagined

Also: a bit of opera (real with Maria Callas and fictional in Bel Canto) and an ode to BC’s chief geographical feature in This Mountain Life
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