Monday, January 30, 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings

It’s hard to imagine a film animation studio that has a near-perfect record and not immediately think of Pixar. But I’d like to shift northward from sunny California, to the forested city of Hillsboro, Oregon where Laika Studios resides. What Pixar is to 3-dimensional digital animation, Laika is to stop-motion. Now in its 12th year, Laika helped to create The Corpse Bride, and went on to release 4 films of its own: Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and today’s subject, Kubo and the Two Strings. Each prior feature-length film they’ve been involved with has been nominated for an Oscar, an amazing accomplishment for a new studio. They’ve all had a separate director, critical acclaim, and masterful artistic design. Enter Kubo and the Two Strings.

Set in an alternate version of Japan, the movie begins with a child telling the story of a quest. A heroic figure seeks fabled armor that will help him defeat the Moon King, a god who has wronged him and his family. The narrator, Kubo, soon finds that this story is becoming his own, as he must retrieve the armor to defend himself from the Moon King.

So, where does this film stand with the studio’s legacy of films before it? Travis Knight, making his debut as a director, was involved as a lead animator in all 3 of the studio’s other movies. Each of them scored an Oscar nomination, and Kubo and the Two Strings earned 2, including the studio’s first bid for Visual Effects. It also scored the highest of their films on Metacritic (84) and Rotten Tomatoes (97%). But I’ll dispense with the results, and focus on why it received such a response.

First of all, this film takes the Laika standard into new light. The previous three films made use of darker settings, grungier faces, and warped architecture, though all of it was impeccable eye candy. Now, we’re handed pristine views, gleaming weapons, and even sparkling teeth! Musically, viewers were lifted high, invited to dance, play, wonder, fear, and triumph with the characters. Laika outdid themselves with this surprise film of the year, and simply looking at it was thoroughly new and enjoyable.

The performances given by Art Parkinson and Charlize Theron were fantastic and more than believable. This was Art’s first foray into voice acting for a major animated film, as far as I’m aware, but it seems to come naturally for him. Voicing the child of an incomplete family, who must gather the courage to live up to his father’s legacy, he portrays this well. Theron gives an immersive performance as Kubo’s guardian and aide. Without going into spoiling details, she nails it on the head. The most concern I have with this movie, however, is Matthew McConaughey’s performance. As the dim-witted Beetle, he definitely supplied the comic relief well, but that’s about as far as he went. Whenever he attempted to be more, it fell flat. His character needed to be far richer.

The richest part of this film, on the other hand, was the story of family. Even reflected in the title, Kubo is one string, and the other two are his parents, and with them together he plays his instrument. Every story he tells, they are there to tell it with him. His whole quest is to secure his place with them by defeating the Moon King. The conclusion to the film is one of compassion, strength, and the unity that family can create, depending on the actions within. Compassion, forgiveness, and love are very strong forces, and have a place in battle.

In conclusion, this film came together as a strong statement by Laika Studios that stop-motion animation is a current and beautiful art form. A well-assembled cast of voices brought this story to life in amazing ways, as did all the animators and riggers in no smaller regard. Gorgeous in so many ways, this film was among my favorites for the year. I recommend that everyone see it as soon as possible, no matter their age. I look forward to seeing what Laika has to offer in the future. But for now, family unites, compassion and forgiveness prevail, and the story is never truly over.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events (Music from the Motion Picture)

With the release of the Netflix adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s seminal 13-novel series, I wished to return to the 2004 film that brought the Baudelaire misfortunes to the silver screen. Instead of discussing the film itself, where it shines and where it doesn’t, I want to focus on one of the best artistic components: the music. As of writing this, I haven’t yet seen the new series, to refrain from comparing it with the subject at hand.

Thomas Newman is no backwoods composer, and I feel that his work here should be recognized. Yes, the film let fans down in several ways, but this soundtrack did not. It carries the spirit of the Snicket legacy, immerses the listener fully within that world, and can stand alone as the storyteller for this dark tale.

Despite Jim Carrey’s antics in the film, the music carries the appropriate weight of tragedy and menace that Count Olaf is meant to embody. The Baudelaire children are a light that shines through that menace, but it’s often very hard to see that light. Their altercations are what sends this soundtrack full steam ahead into the tragedies, triumphs, grief and hope, each inevitable. In my opinion, Thomas Newman was the perfect choice to orchestrate this sonic narration.

When it comes to soundtrack design, I find there are often two components. There’s atmosphere (or environment): the concept work, background, or context. Secondly, there’s narration: subject, action, and interaction. An effective soundtrack, stripped of the film’s context, ought to have both of these in balance. A composition of nothing but minimal background textures doesn’t cut it. All context, no focus. Likewise, narration without context becomes tiresome and an earsore. Take, for example, an action movie that doesn’t let up, is always running and smashing. It may appeal when paired with visuals but has no place on its own.

Newman knows how to marry these two components beautifully, and he’s done it time and again. Here, the context takes several forms. Olaf’s windchimes dotting the dead, desolate woods surrounding his decrepit house. Ferry bells clanging just off the dock of lachrymose lake. The wealth of knowledge and wild-natured excitement that could be found within the reptile room.

The narration fits in perfectly with the atmospheres, and here are a few examples.

  • An Unpleasant Incident Involving a Train - The children are trapped in a car parked on railroad tracks. You can hear a locomotive still far off, but you feel it through the shaking tracks as it barrels closer. Frenetic violins play, railroad bells clang, and tense guitar strings are plucked.
  • The overtly ridiculous presentation of “The Marvelous Marriage”, a play performed by buffoons, belies the sillier aspects of the film, but is still very enjoyable to hear. The usual suspects, accordion and tuba, dance around and poke fun at the stage.
  • And “The Letter That Never Came” features a Thomas Newman favorite, a moving piano melody with melancholic violins flowing in and out. This is the parents’ only manifestation through music, and all that the children have left of them. It communicates well their hopes and source of comfort: their memories of a happier life, and hope of a better one to come.

In conclusion, the music does Lemony Snicket more justice than the film did. It’s responsible for the environment and atmosphere I came to love when viewing it, and I’m glad that Thomas Newman left his mark on Snicket’s body of work.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Brother Oliver - O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Earlier this month, Brother Oliver released a holiday single, their rendition of the Christmas hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. This happens to be one of my favorite seasonal hymns, so when I learned of this, I was very eager to listen.

True to form, the duo brings forth a folk-like sound, but also captures the haunting beauty of the hymn that I love it for. There's no attention-grabbing, distracting spin on it. It's the simple hymn we know, and a solid addition to their discography.

If you'd like to listen for yourself, you can play and download it free here:

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Glamdring (2016)

For those who know the name, Glamdring may dredge up memories of Peter Jackson's froth-of-a-beer adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Others may be taken back to nights spent reading the story that really comes in pints. If you're like the Oliver brothers and myself, this name may remind you of a certain animated film adaptation in 1977. Rankin/Bass's The Hobbit charmed its way into many heads and hearts, and this is due in no small part to the music and voice talents.

After following the musical explorations of Brother Oliver for the past few years, I was surprised (and ecstatic) when Andrew Oliver released an unannounced project: a "mixtape" sampling music and dialogue from the film, with their own live and electronic instrumentals. This occurred back in May this year, and I'm curious as to why there hasn't been much response to this project. I have had months to think about this album, and I still enjoy every listen.

Glamdring celebrates several of the nostalgic moments, and replicates so many good moods the original music creates, but most of that is where it outweighs Andrew's music. More than once, I can't help but hear too much of Brother Oliver in the instrumental choices. I want to hear less of them "talking" about the film, and hear more of where it led them, what they saw and heard. However, this only seems to occur with a few tracks. To give a few positive examples, Cave Runner opens with an immersive mood straight from the source. Hammers Fell Like Ringing Bells began with direct dialogue and music from the film (a smart, nostalgic choice), and doesn't lose the mood with transition to their own instruments.

There is no lack of nostalgia in Glamdring. They hit nearly all the stronger, memorable moments (including the eerie riddle chanting, goblin king's lamentations, dwarven feasting, and Smaug's interrogation). Andrew Oliver accomplished his goals with this project, as I seem to understand them. He expressed his love for the original recording of the film's soundtrack, and celebrated it in his own way. He also introduced a taste of this film to anyone who hasn't experienced it yet. It's a nod at an animated adaptation that went so far as to shape Peter Jackson's visual presentation at times. But in the end, Glamdring is a wonderful fan's project, offered free for your listening pleasure.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Kudzu - Brother Oliver (music)

Kudzu - Brother Oliver - Folk Rock - September 2015

Track listing

  1. Intro/Even-Tempered
  2. Gun In Hand
  3. Hello Again, Old Friend
  4. Maybe You're the Same As Me
  5. This Place Is a Prison
  6. Nature's Song
  7. All Along
  8. Darling
  9. Writing On the Wall
  10. Longing's Wake
  11. Outro/The Snake and the Mouse

My Thoughts

Almost a year had passed since the release of Brother Oliver's debut album, Stubborn Fool, and in September of yesteryear, they put another promising album into the hands of those waiting. Kudzu.

For their sophomore album, the brothers keep the purely instrumental tracks (with the addition of electronic elements) as an intro and outro only, but the charm remains. Even-Tempered, the intro, does a fantastic job of wooing the listener in.

The first half of the album is a delight, in terms of both lyrics and music. Tracks 2-5 feature the honest yet sometimes enigmatic writing style that we saw in Stubborn Fool, and I enjoyed those very much. Nature's Song, on the other hand, was unusual, in that it was telling a story, but a fantastic addition to the album. The second half suffers somewhat from repetitive choruses (notably in Darling and Writing on the Wall), but is otherwise held up by the intelligent and honest verses. The last two tracks make for a fantastic conclusion, though, and provide a comprehensive view of the album's themes.

The central, uniting theme behind Kudzu was hard to come by on my own, but Andrew, one of the duo, helped to clear it up: "The first half is real light hearted, almost happy go lucky at times. But then realism kind of has its way of sneaking back in as the album turns the corner. I look at it as a life and death kind of deal. Like as in the Kudzu plant, the excessive growth of one thing is the death of another."

Over the course of the album, I found that those competing forces seem to be self-love and love for another. While Stubborn Fool spoke more of self-examination, Kudzu regards the self in respect to a partner, and possibly familial and friendly relations as well. As Andrew explained, the first half portrays a diverted and happy countenance, but the second returns to the reality of the situation, as if the subject were on a Solomon-like search for satisfaction, and ultimately found none in it. Instead, the subject found someone, and this required that his self-love give way. "The excessive growth of one thing is the death of another."

While this seems hopeful, this theme is more a warning to consider the opposite. That is, the excessive growth of unhealthy desires could likewise be the death of a relationship. If you're asking yourself why you should bother with that kind of responsibility, the final lyrical piece of the album has the answer. The title itself conveys this feeling: Longing's Wake. But to put it in further terms: "We see the longing’s wake, leading to what makes us whole. We’re found and seen and known, nevermore to have to hide again."

In conclusion, this album is another lyrical pleasure, especially after a few listens. While it suffers from some repetition in a few tracks, the brooding honesty and instrumental swells that I've come to expect from Brother Oliver are still there.

Thursday, June 23, 2016



It's been some time, but this place is now going through some changes. The biggest one being that I will keep it active, and consistently so. Despite my absence here, my passion for film, games, music and the arts hasn't diminished in the slightest. I've got much more to share, and a lot of lost time to make up for.

As I've grown in appreciation and knowledge of the film industry, I see how little I knew when I began here. Following that, I'm aware that what I now know is still embarrassingly small, and I will keep pursuing this passion. This is the reason behind the site's change in name and design. I want to improve both my thoughts and their vehicle. The design itself is still improving (and will soon feature the artistic talents of my partner), but I don't want to put this off any longer.

Off-white. I must give credit to a good friend of mine for the name. Sam Jenne is an author in his own ingenious way, and a fantastic voice of advice. I ended up using this name because of this site's nature. It's not the white standard of every media site, but it's also not an individual color of the spectrum. It draws from film, books, music, games, and potentially more media in the future. Off-white isn't a radical hue, but it can take different forms and appeal to different readers, depending on the subject matter. Off-white is also a deviation from the normal, and I hope to make it unique and informative.

Now, for some necessary business. I owe an apology to Andrew of Brother Oliver. After reviewing his first release, Stubborn Fool, I'd agreed to give him some coverage of his sophomore album, Kudzu. That was several months ago. This will be the first review published on Off-white. The second will be of an interesting project he released, titled Glamdring. I encourage you to check them out:

That's all for now, but I will have fresh words here before a week has passed. Thank you for reading, and I hope you'll share this new leg of the journey with me!


Friday, June 19, 2015

Inside Out - Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera interview

Two weeks ago, I had the chance to meet with Inside Out director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera, and ask them a few questions about the film! They were both fun, casual people, and it was enjoyable to talk with them, admittedly despite my nervousness.

I have the interview audio below, and am willing to type it up in its entirety if anyone would like.

They began by discussing the art and animation of Monsters Inc., and that's where the audio picks up.

Inside Out (film)

Inside Out, Pixar Animation Studios, Pete Docter, Jonas Rivera

Synopsis: After young Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions - Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness - conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.

My Thoughts: From the minds of those who birthed many of the original Pixar hits, comes this window into another new world, the mind. In classic Pixar tradition, Inside Out shows us something we're both familiar with, but also something we've never seen before. Also like its classic predecessors, this film makes us laugh, cry, recall childhood, and is centered around family.

There is very little I can criticize about this film. The voices of emotion were amazing, chosen perfectly. With animation, there's no contest, as usual. The script was worked very well, with humor fitting both children and adults. The characters were fun and quite memorable, and Michael Giacchino's score was perfect! Inside Out, along with Monsters University, establishes another rise in Pixar Animation Studio's career after Cars 2 and Brave. Go see it, take the whole family.

*I was given early access to see this film by Walt Disney/Pixar Studios. I was not required to write a positive review, and the opinions here are my own.*

My Rating: 10 stars