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Review: The Apology

December 2, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Apology PosterDuring World War II, Japan forced thousands of young women from around Asia into sexual slavery.  Referred to as “comfort women,” and now more affectionately called the grandmothers, many of the aging victims have spent years protesting and demanding the government to issue a formal apology for their abuse, but receiving pushback from right-wing groups.

Director Tiffany Hsiung followed the stories of these women for about seven years, and focuses on three of them in The Apology, a runner-up for the Audience Award at Hot Docs.  The film introduces us to Grandma Cao from China and Grandma Adela from the Philippines, as well as the feisty Grandma Gil, who remains an outspoken advocate and has spent over twenty years demonstrating in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, Korea every single week.

These elderly subjects are all compelling to watch, and the film reaches heartbreaking revelations about what they had to endure, with some of them having never even told their families about being sexually abused because they are afraid of the shame it will bring.  The strength and resilience they carry with them in their search for an apology is inspiring, and The Apology is a quietly powerful portrait of how they continue to seek closure from the government after years of shocking mistreatment.

The Apology is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto.  Tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Blu-ray Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens: 3D Collector’s Edition

November 29, 2016

By John Corrado

the-force-awakens-3d-collectors-edition-blu-rayThe biggest movie of 2015, and a thoroughly entertaining blockbuster that does a fine job of continuing this classic saga, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now available in a glorious 3D Collector’s Edition to give fans the definitive version of the film.

Although many fans will have already gotten the original Blu-ray release from back in April, completists will want to add this new edition to their collections, and it earns my highest recommendation.  The 3D presentation is wholly impressive, making the opening crawl extend into the screen and being put to especially dazzling use during the lightsaber battles and aerial chases.

The Blu-ray includes the excellent 69 minute documentary Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey and the six featurettes and brief deleted scenes from the original release, as well as a selection of brand new bonus material.  This includes commentary by director J.J. Abrams, three additional deleted scenes, the four new featurettes Foley: A Sonic Tale, Sounds of the Resistance, Dressing the Galaxy and Inside the Armory, as well as The Scavenger & The Stormtrooper: A Conversation With Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, which sees the two young actors sharing their experiences in front of a fireplace.

Beautifully packaged in a nicely textured black cardboard box that has a beautiful lenticular cover, and featuring a great selection of bonus material to go along with the impressive 3D presentation, there is no doubt that this is a the definitive edition of the film.  Fans should add it to their Christmas lists.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: 3D Collector’s Edition is a Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release.  It’s 136 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: The Jungle Book: 3D Collector’s Edition

November 29, 2016

By John Corrado

the-jungle-book-3d-collectors-edition-blu-rayArriving a few months after the original Blu-ray release, The Jungle Book: 3D Collector’s Edition has now arrived, offering fans the definitive version of Disney’s excellent remake.  For more on the film itself, which is one of the year’s best, you can read our three views right here.

Although some will question the need to double dip, this really is the superior version of the film, with the main draw being the 3D presentation.  The 3D here is nothing short of spectacular, with the jungle extending into the background as animals and tree branches pop out into the foreground, adding another layer of dazzle to what is already a visually stunning film.

The Blu-ray includes director Jon Favreau’s commentary track and the featurettes The Jungle Book ReimaginedI Am Mowgli and King Louie’s Temple: Layer By Layer from the original release, as well as five brand new bonuses.  These include The Bare Necessities: From the Jungle to the Bayou, a toe-tapping piece showing the New Orleans recording session with Bill Murray, The Return of a Legend, which shows Richard Sherman expanding upon his original music, as well as a visual effects progression reel, a brief selection of scenes shown in multiple different languages, and the animatic Developing Kaa.

This is an excellent selection of bonus features that help us further appreciate the groundbreaking work behind the film, and taken with the flawless 3D presentation, this release comes highly recommended especially for those who held off on getting a copy of the film in the first place.

The Jungle Book: 3D Collector’s Edition is a Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release.  It’s 106 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: The BFG

November 29, 2016

By John Corrado

the-bfg-blu-rayDirected by Steven Spielberg, bringing Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book to the big screen, The BFG follows the budding friendship between bright but lonely young girl Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), and a towering creature who calls himself the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance), who takes her from an orphanage in the middle of the night and back to his home in Giant Country.

Delivering enough of that classic Steven Spielberg magic to capture both our hearts and imaginations, The BFG is a wonderful escape into a kinder and gentler world, that is carried by excellent performances from Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance.  This is one of the best and most underrated movies of the year, and for more on the film itself, you can read our three views right here.

The Blu-ray also includes Bringing The BFG to Life, which is an extended “behind the scenes” featurette framed around Ruby Barnhill’s video diaries from the production, a nicely done tribute to screenwriter Melissa Mathison who passed away before the release of the film, as well as the brief animated short The Big Friendly Giant and Me, the short featurette Giants 101 which introduces us to the actors behind the giants, and the pretty silly puff piece Gobblefunk: The Wonderful Words of The BFG.

The BFG is a Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release.  It’s 117 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: Pete’s Dragon

November 29, 2016

By John Corrado

petes-dragon-blu-rayAfter a devastating accident left him orphaned, Pete (Oakes Fegley) was raised in the woods by a friendly dragon named Elliot.  When Pete is discovered by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her boyfriend’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), whose father Jack (Wes Bentley) works for a logging operation, their small town is shaken by the boy’s mysterious reappearance, and reports of the dragon.

A remake of the 1977 film pretty much in name only, Pete’s Dragon is the rare remake that actually improves upon the original.  This is an enjoyable and heartfelt adventure, with a quiet and bittersweet charm that feels like a refreshing change of pace.  For more on the film itself, you can read our three views right here.

The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track with director David Lowery, co-writer Toby Halbrooks and young actors Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence, as well as the featurettes Notes to Self: A Director’s Diary, Making Magic and Disappearing Moments, which is a montage of deleted scenes.  There’s also a blooper reel, a brief piece on shooting in New Zealand and music videos for “Nobody Knows” by The Lumineers and “Something Wild” by Lindsey Stirling.

Pete’s Dragon is a Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release.  It’s 103 minutes and rated PG.

Blu-ray Review: Don’t Breathe

November 29, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

dont-breathe-blu-rayWhen a trio of young thieves, Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto), try to steal a large chunk of cash from the house of a blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) in a rundown Detroit neighbourhood, they get more than they bargained for when he starts ruthlessly hunting them through the house.

Although there is no doubt that our trio of protagonists are criminals, as soon as we realize just how sick the son of a bitch hunting them down really is, we actually start rooting for them to get away with the money.  Like 10 Cloverfield Lane earlier this year, Don’t Breathe is a superior genre exercise that does surprising and inventive things with its claustrophobic premise.

There is an artfulness to the way director Fede Alvarez keeps tightening the screw in terms of tension, building set-pieces that crackle with suspense, as every breath and creaky floorboard threatens to do them in.  The result is a nasty and expertly crafted cat and mouse thriller, that offers an exercise in relentless tension, never letting up for a second of its brisk running time while delivering countless jump moments and truly shocking twists.  It’s sick fun.

The Blu-ray also includes commentary with Fede Alvarex and co-writer Rodo Sayagues and Stephen Lang, as well as eight deleted scenes with director’s commentary and five featurettes on the film.

Don’t Breathe is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release.  It’s 88 minutes and rated 14A.

DVD Review: The Intervention

November 29, 2016

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

the-intervention-dvd

When four couples, including Annie (Melanie Lynskey) and her fiancé Matt (Jason Ritter), Jessie (Clea DuVall) and her partner Sarah (Natasha Lyonne), and Jack (Ben Schwartz) and his much younger girlfriend Laura (Alia Shawkat), stay together at an old family estate house, things become awkward when it’s revealed that Annie intends the trip to be a marriage intervention for bickering spouses Ruby (Cobie Smulders) and Peter (Vincent Piazza), whose relationship is in trouble.

But through trying to interfere with other people’s lives, Annie ends up forced to confront her own issues including excessive drinking, inadvertently causing various other secrets to be revealed, as the four couples end up fighting and bringing unresolved tensions to the forefront.

Although The Intervention is a pretty typical indie dramedy, that follows a path already laid clear by The Big Chill and more recently About Alex, which also starred Jason Ritter, the film still manages to be fairly entertaining on its own derivative terms.  Written and directed by Clea DuVall, who also co-stars, The Intervention boasts solid performances from its likeable cast and has enough enjoyable moments sprinkled throughout to make it mildly worth a look.  Melanie Lynsky is a particular standout of the ensemble cast, capably handling the biggest character arc of the film.

The DVD also includes a blooper reel and the Tegan and Sara music video “Fade Out.”

The Intervention is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release.  It’s 88 minutes and rated 14A.

Review: Manchester By The Sea

November 25, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

manchester-by-the-sea-posterDirected by Kenneth Lonergan, only his third film in sixteen years following You Can Count On Me and MargaretManchester By The Sea is a masterful and beautifully written look at how grief affects different people, anchored by outstanding performances and an impressive handling of tone.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a working class janitor in Boston, spending his days doing odd jobs for people in the apartment buildings where he works, and his nights at the bar drinking and sometimes getting into fights.

But when he gets the call that his beloved older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from cardiac arrest, leaving behind his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee goes back to his small seaside Massachusetts hometown to plan the funeral.

Being back in his old town, and going through the arduous process of estate planning, Lee is forced to confront the pain of his past and the ex-wife (Michelle Williams) he left behind.  What he also discovers is that he has been appointed legal guardian to his nephew.  But Lee isn’t equipped to be a father figure, and Patrick is a popular high schooler who isn’t interested in having his life uprooted, masking the pain of losing his father by acting upbeat and busying himself with hockey practise, while also juggling two different girlfriends.

Lee doesn’t present himself as a patriarchal figure to Patrick, and in many ways they interact more like two guys hanging out.  For example, Lee allows his nephew to have girls spend the night, something a father wouldn’t do.  Through this, Manchester By The Sea offers a brilliantly observed portrait of two men both grieving in their own ways, trying to give each other space while also allowing themselves to admit they need someone to lean on.  One of the film’s most interesting stylistic choices comes when Lee breaks the news to Patrick about his father’s death.  The scene takes place at hockey practise and is framed at a distance from across the rink, with their interaction being observed by his teammates.

At 137 minutes, Manchester By The Sea is a film that allows us to spend time with its characters, who feel like people we could really know, finding beauty in the details of their interactions and capturing many little moments that ring true to real life.  The story is seamlessly told in a dual narrative, switching between flashbacks and current day, allowing the past and present to flow freely into each other as we slowly uncover Lee’s backstory and how it has effected him.  It’s a fascinatingly non-linear approach.

The film is centred around Casey Affleck’s haunted and deeply moving performance as a broken man trying to reconcile his tragic past with his new role as a guardian, and it’s nuanced and brilliantly understated work that pushes the actor to a whole new level.  Lucas Hedges is also excellent, developing a great rapport with Casey Affleck, and making the familial bond between their characters compelling to watch.  Michelle Williams brings added emotional weight to her supporting role, with her standout scene being an emotional confrontation later in the film.

This is an absorbing and richly textured character drama, that mixes scenes of devastating emotion with instances of tension-breaking humour, finding its rich nuances and most powerful moments through the way it so beautifully observes the interactions between its characters.

Manchester By The Sea is now playing in limited release at Varsity Cinemas in Toronto.

Three Views: Moana

November 23, 2016

Moana Review By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

moana-posterDirected by John Musker and Ron Clements, who helped usher in the fabled Disney Renaissance with such classics like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Moana is a solid entry into the studio’s oeuvre that continues their current hot streak.

Taking place in the South Pacific, the story follows Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), a restless teenager who is next in line to be chief and wants to follow in the footsteps of her explorer ancestors, but is warned against venturing off the island by her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison).

But when their crops start to die due to an ancient curse, Moana disobeys her father and sets out on an ocean journey in search of demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who set the curse in motion thousands of years earlier when he stole a mystical stone.  But when she teams up with Maui, who can shape shift with the help of his magical fish hook, she has a hard time convincing the egotistical demigod to actually help her complete the journey of returning the stone to the heart of the sea, as they encounter various different dangers along the way.

I really liked Moana, but it’s also worth noting that it doesn’t quite soar as high as other modern Disney classics like Frozen, to which its already being compared, and it also lacks the sociopolitical depth that made this year’s Zootopia such a standout.  The film follows a fairly well worn story of a young hero having to prove themselves and restore order, and the humour here also sometimes skews a little too young, with lines like “there’s a blow dart in my butt cheek” squarely meant to elicit giggles from the juvenile set.  The film’s best comic relief comes in the form of Hei Hei, a delightfully dimwitted chicken who stows away on the journey, and fills in the role of a humourous sidekick quite nicely.

The soundtrack is another area where Moana doesn’t quite reach the heights of other Disney films, including 2009’s underrated The Princess and the Frog, with which it shares the same directors.  The songs here, credited to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, are decent and work well enough within the film, with recurring ballads “How Far I’ll Go” and “We Know the Way” being the clear standouts.  But the songs are also a bit inconsistent.  Maui’s big number “You’re Welcome” errs too much on the side of being an earworm, and is mainly just there to show off Lin-Manuel Miranda’s clever to a fault lyrical style.  The same can be said of the overly poppy “Shiny,” another earworm that serves as the centrepiece of an offbeat underwater sequence involving giant crab Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement).

But what sets Moana apart and makes it feel fresh is its approach to telling this story, including the presence of a strong female lead.  “You wear a dress and have an animal sidekick,” Maui tells her, “you’re a princess.”  But Moana protests.  It’s also refreshing that there isn’t even a hint of romance in the story, with the title character allowed to stand tall and be strong on her own.  The fact that the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to ensure the Polynesian culture is portrayed authentically and respectfully is also highly commendable, going on many research trips and learning from the locals.

Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho capably carries the film, doing impressive work in her first ever role, and she is matched by the always likeable Dwayne Johnson.  There are heartfelt undertones to the friendship that develops between Moana and Maui, and the film also finds emotion through Moana’s relationship with her wise grandmother (Rachel House).  The animation is beautiful throughout, with the water and starry night skies providing visually striking backdrops for the more stylized characters.

The film also has some stirring set pieces involving a bunch of creepy little coconut pirates, and a fiery lava monster that they have to go up against in the dazzling to watch climax.  Largely fashioned after their earlier classics from the Disney Renaissance, Moana is a thoroughly entertaining and beautifully animated musical adventure that also functions as a heartfelt love letter to Polynesian culture and female empowerment fable, continuing the studio’s current winning streak.

Playing before the film is Inner Workings, an amusing short that inventively shows a battle between the brain and heart inside a businessman.  The animation is appealingly stylized, and it’s got a great message about allowing yourself to enjoy life.

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Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) in Moana

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Moana Review By Erin Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Disney’s newest animated film is Moana – a story filled with wonderfully animated oceanic landscapes and an entertaining adventure.

When the film opens, we get a brief prologue in the form of a story – it is here we find out how demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of the island goddess Tahiti, and upon losing it in the sea, unleashed a dark force that is slowly wiping out life island by island, and how one day a hero will rise to find Maui and make him return the heart and restore balance among the Polynesia.  The story is told to the toddler Moana by her grandmother.  She is captivated by these tales, and as drawn to the ocean as it is to her when it reveals Tahiti’s heart to her for safekeeping.  Unfortunately her father – who is also the village chief – forbids her from being near the water, instead preferring to keep her safe on the island.

But years later, as a young teen, the stories have stuck with Moana, and she is still called to the water despite her father’s best efforts to deter her.  As the dark force starts to approach their island, Moana finally must break the rules and take a boat out to sea to find Maui, get him to return the heart of Tahiti, and restore order.  The demigod Maui however is a trickster and is reluctant to go with Moana on this task, only finally agreeing if it means he can use her boat to find his magical fishhook also lost at sea.

The film is very much about the culture of the Polynesian islands, and its strong roots in Wayfinding – the practice of navigating using only the stars.  The people of Polynesia traditionally had Wayfinding roots, and could navigate large stretches of the huge Pacific ocean to discover new islands.  As Moana discovers her true identity as a Wayfinder, we watch her blossom through realizing her innate talents and tenacity.

Moana is the true hero of this story – with Maui being more of a comic relief type character/sidekick, almost in the vein of a character like Muchu from Mulan.  At every turn, it is Moana who is given the opportunity to shine, even when she doesn’t realize herself how much she is capable of.  I really liked the character of Moana, and it is because of the way they tell her story that I liked this film so much.  She is a character refreshingly without a love interest, acts appropriate to her young age, and is voiced with an incredibly natural performance by young teen newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, (who was found through an open casting call).

Since it is a musically-driven Disney film, I’d be remiss to not mention the music.  As far as the soundtrack goes, I quite like the song ‘How Far I’ll Go,’ but this was one of the only songs that really stuck with me from the film.  Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho has a very clear voice and it suits the song very well, as well as the other parts of the film she sings.  The score by Mark Mancina is also good and serves its purpose well.

Overall, Moana is an entertaining and well-done Disney film, definitely feeling more adventure than princess, which I feel will bode well for it (and caused me to like it all the more).  We will likely see this one do big numbers at the box office, especially with families over the American Thansgiving weekend, as it is a very quality film that is sure to be a hit with audiences, especially with a new generation of kids who will be able to look to Moana as a strong, capable heroine who listens to her heart and lets it drive her to become who she was meant to be.

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Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) and Maui (Dwayne Johnson) in Moana

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Moana Review By Tony Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Moana is the latest Disney animated feature, a celebraton of Polynesian creation mythology. The Pacific islands have been inhabited for thousands of years by people who had mastered the art of wayfinding, a remarkably accurate form of navigation based on the stars and ocean currents without written maps or the technology of sextants and chronometers later used by Europeans to determine latitude and longitude respectively; let alone GPS. However, for about 1000 years, travel between islands had mostly stopped, and was then restored about 2000 years ago.

According to the story Disney assembed based on various myths, the shape shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) had stolen the heart (a small glowing blue stone) of the sea goddess but then lost it along with the magic fishhook that he wielded like a machete that gave him his powers. As a result, darkness gradually spread across the ocean and islanders were afraid to venture out beyond their reefs.

Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the heir of an island chief. Since childhood she has tried to sail away, not realizing that she was chosen by the sea to find Maui and with his help restore the heart to its rightful place. Her grandmother (Rachel House) always knew this but had long been ignored as an eccentric by the other islanders. Eventually Moana sets out on a great adventure to save her people and their wayfinding tradition.

In the past, Disney could usually be expected to hit every wrong ethnic stereotype (e.g. Pocahontas) that they could. This time, they really tried to get it right. Two of their best animation directors, Ron Clements and John Musker (apparently borrowing some of their boss John Lasseter’s Hawaiian shirts), travelled extensively around the Pacific to learn as much as they could about the culture, land and seascape of the islands. The entire voice cast proudly shares an indigenous island ancestry. The music is a happy collaboration between the Polynesian master musician Opetaia Foa’i, veteran film scorer Mark Mancina and brilliant songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda.

As a self-described “country girl” from the Big Island of Hawaii, Auli’i Cravalho is a delightful discovery that matches her character Moana in both appearance and spirit, that like Merida in Brave is a refreshing change from the typical Disney princess. The former “Rock” is also as close to his character Maui as a mortal could be. Much of the rest of the excellent voice cast are New Zealand natives, including Jemaine Clement who (as in Rio) has a lot of fun in a villainous role.

Incidentally, though the film is otherwise in beautiful CGI, Maui’s telltale tattoos are hand-drawn by one of Disney’s Old Guys. One of the songs is reprised in the credits by the Canadian singer Alessia Cara, who could be mistaken as Auli’i’s sister. Finally the name Moana (which means ocean) has been replaced in most of Europe by Vaiana, to avoid confusion with an Italian porn star.

In summary, Moana is a worthy addition to the Disney tradition of fine family animated features.

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Consensus: Beautifully animated and carried by an impressive voice performance from newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, Moana is an entertaining musical adventure and a heartfelt celebration of Polynesian culture, that provides a fine addition to Disney’s library of classic films. ★★★½ (out of 4)

Blu-ray Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

November 22, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

kubo-and-the-two-strings-blu-ray“If you must blink, do it now.”  These are the first lines of voiceover heard during the gripping prologue of Kubo and the Two Strings, and they apply perfectly to the film.  You simply don’t want to blink during this visually stunning stop motion adventure, which keeps wowing us with its grand scale set pieces and masterful animation.

Kubo (Art Parkinson) is an adolescent who only has one eye and lives with his mother (Charlize Theron) in a cave, venturing into the town during the day to tell stories in the square, but not allowed out past sundown.

When Kubo does stay out late one night, he ends up being chased by his undead aunts known as the Sisters (Rooney Mara), a pair of malevolent ghosts who seek to do him harm.  Kubo ends up taken on a quest accompanied by a monkey (Charlize Theron) and a beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey), to find a magical suit of armour worn by his father that has the power to protect him.  But they face multiple dangers on their journey, coming face to face with various monsters, and confronting a tortured family history.

The fourth film from Oregon-based animation house Laika, following their trio of Oscar-nominated films Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, Kubo and the Two Strings is another thematically mature and visually stunning stop motion film from the studio.  The first film directed by Travis Knight, the current company president who oversaw their other features, the film is brought to life through their signature brand of meticulously detailed handcrafted animation, with stylized puppets being moved one frame at a time on beautifully designed sets.

Kubo’s ability to craft origami that springs to life with his magical guitar provides some of the most visually appealing moments, with swirling sheets of paper folding themselves into small creatures that can do battle, which he uses to tell stories in the town’s square early in the film.  A striking sequence partway through that unfolds both on a boat and underwater, brilliantly cutting back and forth between them, is not only genuinely thrilling but also masterly pulled off on a technical level.

Featuring some truly breathtaking animated sequences, and an emotionally resonant story steeped in Japanese folklore that is rich with themes of embracing life and accepting death, Kubo and the Two Strings is a visual marvel.  Watch through the end credits for Regina Spektor’s haunting cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and a brief peak behind the curtain at the filmmaking process.

The Blu-ray also includes commentary with Travis Knight, the six-part “making of” featurette Kubo’s Journey, as well as the two additional featurettes Corners of the Earth and The Myth of Kubo.

Kubo and the Two Strings is an eOne Films release.  It’s 101 minutes and rated PG.

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