Sunday, September 11, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Kubo and the Two Strings (Focus Features, 2016) – Director: Travis Knight. Writers: Marc Haines, Chris Butler (s/p). Shannon Tindle, Marc Haines (story). Stars: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey, Meyrick Murphy, Minae Noji, Alpha Takahashi, Laura Miro, Ken Takemoto, Aaron Aoki, & Luke Donaldson. Color, Animated, Rated PG, 101 minutes.

This film is unique in the animated feature category in that the characters are exaggerated into almost abstract art and the backgrounds could be easily found on a Japanese paper room divider. For a stop-motion animation film, the results are spectacular. It was so well done that, at times, I forgot it was stop-motion. The characters move convincingly and the voices match the mouth shapes. Details like hair blowing in the wind and clothing flowing are minimized to nearly Anime austerity. On the whole, it’s very Zen and mythological, which I guess, is the intent.

Kubo (Parkinson) is a young boy who lost an eye at an early age and not only wears a patch over it, but wears his hair long to cover the patch. Presumably, he lost his eye to the Moon King (Fiennes) who, by the way happens to be his grandfather. He lives in a cave atop a promontory, far from a small village with his ailing mother (Theron).

But Kubo is a storyteller, and each day he goes to the village to gain a few coins from his stories to buy food. His problem, emphasized by kindly old Kameyo (Vaccaro), is that he never finishes a story. As his stories unfold literally, origami figures magically act out the tale while Kubo plays his magic samisen. When the gong signals sundown, however, he stops the story wherever it is and runs home, following an injunction from his mother to never stay out after dark. Hashi (Tagawa), Kubo’s biggest fan, is stunned by the unfinished narrative.

Why such a strange command in a peaceful, rural village? Because her two evil sisters (Mara) have allied themselves with the Moon King and are trying to get Kubo’s other eye.

The time comes for a special festival for honoring the beloved dead and the entire village processes to the cemetery with lanterns to pray and set them floating on the river. But though Kubo prays, he’s unable to communicate with his father, and in his anger fails to notice that he’s out after dark. The Sisters attack, destroying the village. However, just at the crucial moment, Kubo’s mother appears and fights them off. She gives the last of her magic to him and sends him off to “the Far-Lands” for safety.

In the snows of foggy who-knows-where, Kubo meets Monkey (also Theron), whom he knew from childhood as a wooden charm he carried around in the pocket of his father’s robe. Talking to a snow monkey is such a shock to Kubo he doesn’t realize that the voice is the same one as his mother’s. Monkey gives him his quest: he must seek out the magical sword, armor and helmet of his samurai father to defeat the Moon King.

On the way, they meet a former samurai who apprenticed under Hanzo, Kubo’s father, and cursed to appear as a manlike Beetle (McConaughey). When he learns who Kubo is, he swears his allegiance and joins in the quest, much to Monkey’s chagrin. The three find the sword implanted in the skull of a giant skeleton (among dozens of others} and the armor is under the sea protected by giant hypnotic eyes. The Sisters attack before they can find the final piece and Kubo must fly back to his village to escape. And there, in the bell tower, is the helmet.

But what of the two strings? When Kubo is sent to the Far-Lands, he retains a lock of his mothers’ hair. Beetle is an expert archer and Kubo uses the bowstring and his mother’s hair to repairs his magic samisen (along with a lock of his own hair) for the final battle.

The whole story is told as if from a Japanese master to a student, much like the villager Hosato (Takei) does when teaching his little girl toward the beginning of the film. Magic figures greatly and the growing power in Kubo is emphasized by things happening even while he’s dreaming. This is when “Little Hanzo.” an origami samurai figure Kubo modeled after his father, appears and becomes a paper GPS in finding the armor.

Not a film for children below toddler age, it will entertain some children, though the morals and teachings of the film are aimed mainly at adults. I enjoyed the interaction between the often clueless and childlike Beetle and the fierce guarded nature of Monkey. “Don’t mess with the Monkey!” she once growled at Kubo after he made origami mosquitoes attack her from behind.

Kubo and the Two Strings is enjoyable and flows neatly without dead spots. The music is beautiful, even with the almost droning sound of the samisen. Will there be a sequel? Maybe. It does have a subtitle. I have no idea where the story will go, but there will need to be new characters with Kubo in any next one.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Green Fig
570 Tenth Ave., New York

Modern Israeli cuisine inspired by the North African Maghreb, the Middle East, and Southern Europe,” was the hook that led me to this beautiful restaurant situated on the fourth floor of the Yotel hotel. 

While all one sees from the street is a sleek smoke-gray entrance with a small sign announcing “Green Fig Terrace Bar,” inside the blue-light framed elevators take you to the fourth floor where you will see beautiful modern-style dining area.

A young man named Fadler seated me and provided me with the menus. He asked if any of the cocktails appealed to me and I chose the first on the list, the rosewater martini. Consisting simply of vodka, rosewater and lemon juice, it was bewitchingly sweet with a tart edge and a deep scent of roses. with pieces of rose petals floating on top and a sprig of rosemary.

The food menu is simple with just enough choices to make it interesting. When he returned, I has settled on three dishes that sounded intriguing. For my wine I chose the 2012 Dalton cabernet sauvignon “Alma” from Galilee, Israel. It had a powerful nose, an incredibly deep, red color and full bodied flavor I loved.

Another server brought the mezze, six dipping dishes, accompanied by a slice of flat bread rolled up like a newspaper. I’ve never seen pita bread so large that it had to be rolled up. I dipped it into the hummus, tzatziki (a Greek cucumber and yoghurt dip), charred eggplant (almost like babaganoush), labane cheese, red peppers salad, and tahini (simply a paste made from sesame and olive oil) one after the other and was delighted each time.

Next up was “The Jerusalem Style Beef Tatar” (they spelled it “Tartar”). It was like a Middle Eastern carpaccio, with thinly sliced raw beef served in a Persian lemon dust with burnt eggplant puree and a piquant garlic sauce. Wonderful, but the large brown plate dwarfed the dish and diminished the presentation.

The main course’s title was the “Not Kosher BBQ,” featuring homemade sauce, blackened pork spare ribs over potato wedges, za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice mixture based on sumac), “green fire” (a roasted chili sauce), with a labane cheese dip and kohlrabi salad. 

On the side was thinly sliced daikon radish with dill and sprinkled with paprika. The meat literally fell off the bones and was juicy and tender and the green fire added a spicy quality to the dish. However, it was the remarkable potatoes (and I don’t rave about potatoes too often) that made the dish. 

Fadler was surprised that I had room for dessert and equally surprised by my choice: “Kanafeh” (Known as Knafeh in the Middle East), a Syrian sweet cheese rolled into a crispy birds-nest style phyllo dough and served with pistachios. I chose a Moroccan peach tea to go with it and a glass of Carpano Antica Vermouth as an after-dinner drink.

This was my first and only experience with Israeli cuisine and frankly, I was more than impressed. Each dish, though “influenced” by other styles and flavorings was unique. I felt sorry that so few patrons dined while I was there. I told my one friend of Israeli heritage about it immediately. Hopefully, Green Fig will bloom like other Israeli restaurants in Manhattan.

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