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Out in Theaters: ‘KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS’

If there was ever any doubt that the circle of awesome that began with Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls would be broken, breathe relief. First-time director Travis Knight has led the masterful animators at Laika to victory once more with Kubo and the Two Strings. With the precision and delicacy of a samurai, Knight and his roundtable of figurine tinkerers carved out my heart and left it a fluttering mess, crafting a spellbinding adventure that thrums with wistful soul and spirited poignancy. In an age of skepticism and cynicism, Knight and the Laika wizards prove real alchemy exists. Marrying resplendent visual imagination with potent mature themes, they have made gold. Read More

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Out in Theaters: DRACULA UNTOLD

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Let me tell you an untold story: a bunch of studio execs crowd in a room. The air is thick with the fumes of aged (pronounce age-ed) scotch, the carpet stamped in the cookie cutout of a Louis Vuitton heel. The unpaid Lambo payments and hefty beachside mortgages are palpable. “How can we play the franchise game without shelling royalties to a greedy parent company?” The question all kids dream of answering someday. The words hang. Their answer is a lightbulb: unlicensed public property characters. Like Hercules! Or Frankenstein! Pump out films about characters that’ve been around for infinity because easy money. There’s literally no one in that Wolfman family tree coming forward to claim a check when Benicio dons a hairy mask. “I know! What about Dracula?” Penny saved, penny earned. This seems about the extent of thought that birthed this (dis)passion project that is Dracula Untold. In the petri dish that is the studio system though, this revisionist take on a monster movie classic actually (amazingly) transformed into something half-worthwhile; an appropriately enjoyable bad movie.

About 30 minutes into Dracula Untold, Vlad the Impaler (not the most welcoming moniker) comes face-to-face with an aged (again, age-ed) vampyre played by Game of ThronesCharles Dance (ol’ toilet Tywin.) I say vampyre and not vampire because connotation motherfucker. Modern vampires sparkle in the sun and feel guilt over vanting to suck your vlood. Vampyres hide in the darkness. They clink their bird-like talons menacingly. They don’t hook up with underage vixens. But if they did, it’d be cool by me. Klaus Kinski is a vampyre. Edward Cullen is a vampire. Willem Dafoe is a vamypre. Brad Pitt is a vampire. This floury-faced Charles Dance is a mo-fo-ing vampyre and it’s freakin’ awesome. He and Vlad face off in the belly of a carcass-littered cavern as Dance shows off his massive proclivity for unparalleled menacing. The guy breathes threats. His pores leak evil. I wish the entire movie had been him in that cave. Hell he could have been muttering about his precious and I woulda been hooked.

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The issue is, outside of that cave, the movie’s not quite as good. It’s got its moments but is weighed down by its need to turn to the teenagers in the audience and connect plot points with mind-numbing exposition. And that’s not a potshot at teenagers so much as a studio who demands everything be dumbed down to Larry the Cable Guy levels. Because America. In a generation where 4th Graders are apparently hard to beat at game shows, can’t we just leave out the bits where Vlad’s tow-headed wife Mirena, played by the absolutely beautiful and absolutely dreadful Sarah Gadon, has to explain things to us like we’re being tucked into bed wanting to know why the sky is blue. It’s not her fault that the script plays towards the ESL crowd but her character is a putrid thing of convenience, morphing scene to scene to fit the narrative propulsion du jour. But unlike Mirena, spousey Drac is playing at his own kind of game.

Luke Evans is Vladula and for a guy whose career resembles a Seattle Transit bus (always startin’ and stoppin’, amiright?!) he’s quite solid in the role. There’s just enough pathos to his internal battle, just enough roaring fire behind his eyes to sell a battered past and a gilded warrior’s soul. It doesn’t help that his history (told in an absolutely dreadful pre-credits scene) apparently involves rising in the ranks of a Turkish child army and then being crowned prince (cuz that’s what people with the surname Impaler DO!) but it’s forgivable enough because Evans is solid cool. Not quite cool enough to be a vampyre but at least he’s not full blown vampire.

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That’s in large part due to his little deal with the devil. In order to stop an army of Turks led by a motivation-less but nonetheless dickish Mehmed, played by the not-at-all-Turkish Dominic Cooper, to-be-Dracula makes a truce with ol’ papa Lannister: he gains the power of a vamp for three days but if he gives into the insatiable desire for human vlood, he’ll be forced to stay that way FOR-EV-AH. That means no more beach days, no more crispy garlic chicken and no more steaks. Or is it stakes? Both I guess. I’ll never quite understand why vamps dig blood so much but won’t crunch into a nice bleu ribeye. But I digress.

With the power of Satan at his disposal, Vlad is a one man army. A battle scene where he discovers the extent of his powers is as fun as it is poorly choreographed but whatever, watching one man versus a thousnad Turks is just the kind of absurdist fanfare I expected from a movie called Dracula Untold. Two more GoT alums show up (Paul Kaye aka Thoros of Myr and Art Parkinson aka Rickon aka the most useless Stark around) just to verify that this is indeed a period piece. Because it’s not a modern day period piece without a cast member or two (or in this case three) from Game of Thrones. Suck on that Hercules.

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You could blame director Gary Shore for clunky camera work but seeing as it’s his first effort and his DP also worked on the aesthetically useless The Amazing Spiderman, it’s hard to shovel all the visual headaches on his grave alone. In fact, it’s kind of a miracle that he turned Dracula Untold from a totally lifeless money-generator into something as mildly enjoyable as it is. In a year that’s seen an incredible amount of these revisionist storybook films rape their way into theaters, Dracula Untold is probably the cream of the crop.

Don’t get me wrong, this is by no means a good movie, nor is there much going on beneath it, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining, fittingly dumb entry to a genre that is often devoid of entertainment value and more numb than dumb. And while the comparison may seem minuscule, it’s the difference between autism and being brain dead. One you can hold a somewhat handicapped conversation with while you bring flowers for the other. Me being me, I’d take the autistic kid every time.

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