Don’t Breathe **½|****

Dylan Minnette and Jane Levy in Don't Breathe
Dylan Minnette and Jane Levy in Don’t Breathe

This home invasion horror-thriller from the Evil Dead remake director Fede Alvarez begins with a fine setup, has some fantastically tense moments in the second act but it pushes its simple and believable premise to ludicrous extremes by its conclusion. While Don’t Breathe isn’t as downright scary as it’s been made out to be by its trailers, it uses the small details in the frame to ratchet up the suspense and make good on those setups with some well-earned payoffs. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of variation within this confined setting and the limited number of characters that leads to some repetitive storytelling that eventually wears out its welcome.

The plot brings together three desperate delinquents Alex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky (Jane Levy) and her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) as they break into houses and steal valuables throughout run-down areas of Detroit. After a particularly unlucrative heist, Money gets a tip on a house whose owner (Stephen Lang) supposedly has $300,000 in cash stored away but when they arrive at the man’s home, they discover that he’s completely blind and lives only with his dog. Seeing this as an easy opportunity, the trio follow through with their plan but soon found out that their victim isn’t nearly as helpless as they previously assumed.

As one might expect, these moments during the initial break-in when the tables slowly begin to turn make up the best and most memorable sections of the film. The sound design and the bass-heavy score are both impeccable as the three thieves snoop around to get the lay of the land and narrowly avoid creaky floorboards and broken pieces of glass. When their presence is detected by the blind man and he seems to gain the upper hand on his intruders, every cell phone vibration and, as the title suggests, every breath is treated with tremendous caution and trepidation.

A problem develops as the story progresses where empathy and morality are spread too thin even among its four (five, if you count the dog) characters and it becomes harder to find someone to root for, even in their dire circumstances. Rocky has a rocky home life, to say the least, and plots to use the newly-acquired cash to move to California with her younger sister but even her motivations become more muddled as greed takes over as her defining character trait. On the other side of things, the blind man earns sympathy from his debilitating condition but without giving too much away, there are story elements introduced that highlight some loathsome behavior on his part as well.

Maybe some more thorough character development early on could have helped avoid these issues but Alvarez makes it clear that he doesn’t want to waste any time getting into the movie’s primary location. With an 88 minute runtime, most of which takes place in real time, the focus is intentionally kept tight on the cat-and-mouse predicament without allowing for the kind of nuance that could have made this a more complete thriller. If you’re looking for lean and mean nail-biter, this one does deliver with some well-conceived setpieces but don’t expect Don’t Breathe to leave you breathless.

Kubo and the Two Strings ***½|****

Art Parkinson in Kubo and the Two Strings
Art Parkinson in Kubo and the Two Strings

Portland-based animation studio Laika conjures another stop-motion marvel with Kubo and the Two Strings, which evokes the mysticism of ancient Japanese forklore as a backdrop for a timeless tale about the unbreakable bonds between family and the value of courage under increasingly trying circumstances. As its main character is a storyteller himself, the film also serves as a commentary on the importance behind the stories, both big and small, that we pass along to one another. From the self-referential opening line (“if you must blink, do it now”) to its poignant closing shot, this is a strikingly original piece of filmmaking whose story will no doubt be passed on again in the future.

Our young protagonist Kubo (Art Parkinson) spends his days entertaining townspeople with origami figures that spring to life with every pluck of his magical shamisen and recreate scenes of valor and victory from the village’s collective history. At night, he returns home to his ailing mother to avoid the evil spirits that lurk about but while caught in the forest one evening, he is confronted by the apparition of his mother’s twin sisters and is subsequently driven out of his town. With the help of new friends Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) and Monkey (Charlize Theron), he sets out to find the father he never knew while also avoiding his treacherous grandfather known as the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

Put simply, Kubo and the Two Strings is the best looking stop-motion film that I’ve ever seen. Behind each frame rests the realization that every single detail on screen –every movement, every facial expression– was crafted by hand. Even a shot of wind blowing through a wheat field is enhanced by the knowledge that someone had to carefully move each strand of wheat to create a realistic effect. Sure, this is technically the case with every stop-motion feature but the scale here is unlike anything we’ve seen before.  It’s one thing to animate two people talking in a room but it’s quite another to animate hundreds of flying leafs to come together to form a massive sailboat.

The fluidity of this process is the biggest selling point, as this movie firmly progresses past the stilted look that has plagued previous entries in the genre, but the pure artistry behind each of these creations is dazzling in its own right. From the tiny, multi-colored origami birds that fill the sky to the 18-foot skeleton puppet that allegedly took the production team 6 months to build, the gorgeous design work is filled to the brim with endless creativity and detail. Embedded in these images are artifacts from Japanese culture that give the settings both a sense of realistic depth and mythical transcendence.

On a more personal note, this is the first movie that I’ve seen in 3D since 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon and I was as underwhelmed with the overall effect this time around as I was 6 year ago. While Kubo isn’t egregious in its use of the format, very little is gained from it either and a layer of vibrancy is unquestionably removed with the dark tint of those tacky and inexplicably unchanged 3D glasses. Whether you see the 3D version or what I would imagine is the brighter and crisper 2D iteration, I can recommend this as a vital stop-motion masterwork, no strings attached.

Sausage Party ***|****

Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen in Sausage Party
Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen in Sausage Party

This raunchy and ridiculous Pixar send-up stars Seth Rogen as Frank, a hot dog who lives in the Shopwell’s supermarket along with the myriad of other sentient food products in the store, including his package-mate hot dog Carl (Jonah Hill) and his neighboring hot dog bun girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig). On a busy Fourth of July shopping day, a housewife selects both of their respective packages for purchase but a shopping cart accident separates Frank and Brenda from the rest of their friends. With the help of new acquaintances Teresa del Taco (Salma Hayek) and Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton), the two peruse the aisles of Shopwell’s in hopes of reuniting with their friends while also uncovering some unpleasant truths about their existence.

A rousing opening musical number (co-written by frequent Disney collaborator Alan Menken) asserts the food’s collective worldview that humans choose only the most worthy of the bunch to be taken to “The Great Beyond”, which exists outside of the store’s sliding glass doors. Ignorant of our predilection for food consumption, they’re not sure what awaits them when they leave the store but in their own words, “they’re sure nothing bad happens to food” in the outside world. When the seeds of doubt begin to creep into the minds of the characters, themes of faith and religion are tackled with more even-handedness than I expected.

So Sausage Party has a bit more on its mind than you may expect for a movie about talking food but its primary function as an R-rated animated comedy is to be as crude and offensive as it can be. I can say that it certainly achieves this goal but in doing so, it does sacrifice some comedic opportunities in the process. Some of my favorite moments didn’t involve certain four-letter words or obvious sexual innuendos but rather the film’s more clever visual touches, like a spot-on Saving Private Ryan homage that reappropriates the iconic Omaha Beach sequence to hilarious effect.

Working from a budget about a tenth the size of the Pixar films that it’s lampooning, the animation of Sausage Party obviously isn’t as sophisticated as recent efforts like Finding Dory but co-directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan find a visual language that spoofs the “sunny” disposition of classic Disney movies while also remaining crisp and vibrant on its own terms. Each new section of the store that our protagonists discover offers a new palette on which to introduce a fresh set of grocery characters and the culture that they’ve built up around them. In some cases, this results in some potentially ugly stereotyping that I hope is meant to satirize the food industry’s proclivity towards culturally homogenized packaging rather than serve as cheap punchlines on their own.

The voice casts also boasts the talents of Rogen regulars Michael Cera and James Franco while making room for newcomers like Nick Kroll, who steals the show as a roided-out version of a feminine hygiene product that lives up to his pejorative name. My absolute favorite, thought, was the Stephen Hawking-esque Gum, who delivers lines with the cadence of the physicist’s trademark speech synthesizer and introduces himself by his complex chemical makeup as opposed to just saying “gum”. Sausage Party has enough laughs, some more juvenile than others, to make it a worthwhile meal.

Suicide Squad ***|****

Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad
Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad

Following the relentlessly grim chore of a movie that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s good to see that DC has developed a new sense of fun and mischief to their movies. Suicide Squad may not be as triumphant as Marvel counterparts The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy but it has a rambunctious and irreverent quality to it that appealed to me more than I expected that it would. Director David Ayer has the daunting task of juggling a plethora of comic book characters, most of whom will be new faces to general audiences, and he succeeds in doing so while also drawing some memorable performances out of his sprawling cast.

The film introduces ruthless government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) as she seeks to build a covert mercenary task force in order to combat pending otherworldly attacks after the events of Dawn of Justice. She recruits a band of dangerous criminals, including Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Deadshot (Will Smith) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), as disposable assets in case any of the missions are compromised and the public seeks a scapegoat on whom to cast the blame. When one of the Squad members defects and seeks to wipe out mankind’s technological resources, the remaining ragtag band of misfits pool their unique talents and abilities to bring down the emerging threat.

Jared Leto also turns up in a subplot as a new iteration of the Joker and Ben Affleck briefly reprises his role as Batman but despite the standings of these characters in pop culture, their presence doesn’t overwhelm the film but instead situates the Squad members as the main focus of the narrative within this larger DC universe. While there may not be an even time split between the backstories of these new characters, we do get the lowdown on each of them from a flashy dossier montage early on that gives us enough context to how each of them may fit into this troubled team. There’s also a refreshing level of ambiguity to their roles on the moral spectrum of the comic book genre; they’re not quite heroes, villains or even anti-heroes.

The primary winning element of this film is the commitment level to the performances, specifically from Smith and Robbie. The two previously starred in last year’s con caper Focus and even in this wildly different setting of crazy costumes and wall-to-wall action, they maintain an electric chemistry and quick-paced repartee that scores plenty of laughs (Smith, in particular, has some outstanding one-liners). On the dramatic side of things, Viola Davis brings a quiet intensity and fierce intelligence to her character that keeps her one step ahead of her crew and often makes her the most captivating character in the movie.

No matter how things pan out box office-wise for Suicide Squad this weekend, it’s been made clear that this is meant to be a one-and-done feature and that going forward, DC will presumably put all of their eggs in the Justice League basket. As someone who enjoyed this movie, I can also appreciate the fact that we won’t have four unnecessary Suicide Squad sequels to bare if Warner Brothers hits its mark financially with this effort. As a scrappy and slight piece of offbeat superhero fare, this had just the right kind of crazy to keep me on board with the Squad.

Jason Bourne **|****

Matt Damon in Jason Bourne
Matt Damon in Jason Bourne

The summer of disappointing blockbusters plods along with this utterly unnecessary sequel that does very little to improve on the groundbreaking work of its predecessors. Jason Bourne is 9 years removed from The Bourne Ultimatum, the third film in what would have best remained a trilogy, and the time gap couldn’t be more evident in the final product here. When director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon chose to reunite for another Bourne film this late in the game, one could have only hoped that it was because they had something worthwhile still to say with this character but any seeds of a promising idea are obscured by clumsy execution.

The perfunctory plot brings back superspy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) as he once again tries to discover who he “really is”, this time by uncovering classified CIA documents with the help of computer hacker Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). Their breach draws the attention of cyber ops director Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), who surveil and attempt to extract Bourne as he travels from Athens to Berlin to London. The pursuit comes to a head at a tech convention in Las Vegas, where social media mogul Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) plans to unveil the new app Deep Dream that has been co-developed with the CIA for covert mass surveillance.

It should be the goal of any sequel to build upon the story that’s already been laid out in one way or another but this film feels like a regression in nearly every sense. It opens with the title character declaring “I remember everything” in voiceover and then we cut to grimy flashbacks from previous entries in the series, just in case the audience has a hard time remembering too. What’s problematic with this approach, beyond being painfully conventional, is that this introductory assertion is obviously false; if he really did remember “everything”, he wouldn’t have anything left to learn about his past and we wouldn’t have a new movie on our hands.

Even if you’re not interested in sophisticated storytelling and you just want to see some reliably rousing action sequences that rival those from the first three films, you’re still out of luck. Greengrass falls back on his trademark “shaky cam” cinematography and frantic editing to create scenes that feel more incoherent and less involving than they could have been with a better establishment of physical space. In the case of chase scenes and hand-to-hand combat in particular, how can we care about what characters want and where they’re going if we never get a good sense of where they are in the first place?

There’s not much care taken on the acting side of the equation either, although rising stars Vikander and Ahmed bring what they can to their limited roles. Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t even attempt to conceal his apathy for the material and Matt Damon turns in a borderline bad performance in his fourth outing as Bourne, giving further credence to the concept that this character has already been rung dry by this point. Jason Bourne is an action sequel so uninspired and forgettable that not even its title character would try hard to remember it.