Screen Savor: Hell and back

Mon. August 22, 2016 12:00 AM
by Gregg Shapiro

You probably won't see another movie like Kubo and the Two Strings (Laika/Focus) this year. The 3D stop-motion animation film is a marvel to behold, quite visually stunning and memorable. The only thing that might make it better (aside from shaving off about 20 minutes from the run-time – why are extended fight scenes necessary in kids' pix?) would be a little less whitewashing. For a film set in ancient Japan, there is a distinct lack of Asian actors providing the voices of the lead actors. It's sweet that they toss a bone to out actor George Takei and let him utter his trademark "Oh, my," as one of the villagers.

That said, Kubo and the Two Strings is alternately hilarious and dramatic, soothing and traumatizing, heroic and horrific. Tween Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a storyteller, musician (just watch him rock out on his shamisen!) and origami wizard, is embarking on the most challenging quest of his young life. Warned by his weary and widowed mother (voice by Charlize Theron) never to stay out past sunset, otherwise his evil maternal grandfather the Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) and violent maternal twin aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara) will get him and do even more harm to him than they've already done (grandpa has already taken one of Kubo's eyes).

Distracted by a festival in which the spirits of the dead are invoked and set adrift in lanterns, Kubo is found by his aunts and almost abducted before his mother appears and saves him. Sadly, she dies in the process, but her spirit goes into a monkey charm that Kubo keeps in his pocket. The monkey (also voiced by Theron) comes to life and becomes Kubo's guardian as he seeks to find the sword, body armor and helmet that belonged to his late father who was a great warrior. Soon, they are joined on the quest by the goofy (but mighty) Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), a former samurai who served Kubo's father and was cursed to be transformed into an insect.

Battles in caves and at sea, underwater and on dry land, punctuate the journey, as do mind-blowing revelations that match the film's visual effects. Fantastically depicted and fueled by messages about the magic of memories, Kubo and the Two Strings is sure to be remembered at Oscar time.

You have a few options when it comes to Steve Balderson and Elizabeth Spear's Hell Town (Dikenga). You can watch it in one sitting as if it was a feature-length movie. You can watch the "episodes" separately as if they were a series. You can also "binge watch" it the way you would a series. Or, you can skip it altogether.

Horror and camp intersect in Hell Town, but the movie is ultimately not scary or campy enough to warrant either label. Presented as the only surviving episodes of a TV series being aired on an Elvira-style program hosted by B-horror-movie queen Debbie Rochon, Hell Town also stirs in some queer sexual intrigue, but it's less than arousing.

The Gables and the Manleys are two families at opposite ends of the small-town Kansas spectrum. The wealthy and powerful Gable kids – popular girl Trish (Krysten Day), pitiful Laura (Beckijo Neill, later replaced by Jennifer Grace), queeny Bobby (Blake Cordell) and goth girl BJ (Sarah Napier) all stand to inherit their obnoxious father's (Jeff Montague) estate. The less well-off Manley kids – home-from-juvie Butch (Ben Windholz), dumb jock Blaze (Matt Weight), closeted jock Jesse (Owen Lawless)and jealous Chanel (Amanda Deibert) – are waiting around for their comatose mother (Pleasant Gehman) to die.

The town where they live, rechristened Hell Town by a vandal, is in the midst of a mass murder crisis. Someone is killing all the members of the high school football team, as well as select others. The killer is also collecting the letters from the players' jackets as souvenirs. Combined with the soap opera quality of the story, there was lots of potential here. But without enough hot dudes' bodies, kitsch or gore, to make it worthwhile, it's wasted potential at best. Gravitas Ventures releases Hell Town on Digital HD and Cable VOD on August 23.