Saturday, September 27, 2014

Day 316: The Boxtrolls

"I regret so much."
Portland-based stop-motion animation house LAIKA truly has no equal in the animation world at the moment. They're not unlike Pixar was 20 years ago, taking big risks and praying they'd reap the rewards that followed from such daring choices. Sadly their films have not been the box office behemoths that virtually every other animation house in the world has produced. Rather than bend their sensibilities to more commercial prospects, however, they continue to create daring, challenging, beautifully crafted works of art that the general public will eventually catch up to in the long run.
And so it is with their latest effort, The Boxtrolls, based on Alan Snow's book Here Be Monsters, and it is their boldest work to date. With a grotesque beauty, the film tells a wholly original tale of family  and personal growth that finds time to pay homage to everything from The Wizard of Oz to Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
Set in the fictional burg of Cheesebridge, which seems to reside in Victorian-era England, The Boxtrolls tells the story of Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a young boy snatched from his home as an infant by a group of mischievous trolls that reside in boxes. The town is lorded over by a white hat wearing aristocracy, led by the oblivious to everything but cheese Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris, sounding more like his father than ever). When an ambitious exterminator named Archibald Snatcher (a delightful Ben Kingsley) discovers that the boy has been taken, he makes a deal with Portley-Rind wherein he'll be invited to become a member of the aristocracy if he tracks down and eliminates all of the boxtrolls.
The boxtrolls are not what they seem to be, at least not in the narrative being fed to the town by Snatcher. As Eggs grows, he soon discovers the truth behind how he came to live with them, and Snatcher's plan to use these resourceful trolls for his own means. Now in his teens, Eggs teams up with Portley-Rind's daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning) to expose Snatcher and get his family back, but will Winnie's clueless father and the bloodthirsty townsfolk believe their version of events?
As mentioned earlier, The Boxtrolls is a gloriously grotesque film which revels in dirt, grime, and all manner of disgusting behavior. It should come as no surprise that a film set in the Victorian era refuses to shy away from the class struggles and squalid living conditions of the day, but to find such notions in a family film is every bit as revolutionary as it sounds. That the film is not sanitized for a generation of children raised on squeaky clean story lines, settings, and characters is bold enough in its own right, but to seamlessly weave social commentary into the film is nothing short of a miracle in this day and age. What LAIKA does that no other studio does is create a world in which danger to children is a very real thing, and they are forced to combat the ignorance of the adults that populate their stories.
This is what Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, and other titans of 20th century children's literature understood so implicitly about children. They want stories they can relate to, presented as fantasies they can cherish. I love Disney, Pixar, Ghibli, and about half of what Dreamworks does, but they give children what they want rather than what they need far too often (though Ghibli does have a better batting average than the others mentioned). Children lose themselves in worlds where they can relate the characters, but where the situations are only a half-step removed from things they may be dealing with in their own lives, like sense of self and standing up for what you believe in, and LAIKA does this with such consistency it's astonishing.
The Boxtrolls looks marvelous, and is a triumph of the form in every sense of the word. It's messy, fantastical, funny, and all of the things that a child would likely come up with on their own. From a design standpoint, it's a brilliantly realized world that feels not just lived in, but rather neglected and disrespected. It feels at times like watching children play with their toys in a messy room, and never fails to be simultaneously whimsical and authentic. The boxtrolls themselves are also a complete success from design to character, flitting about tinkering with things, making strange music, and truly working together for a greater good. The sight gags, including a recurring bit with a one-man band, are also fantastic, with enough humor aimed squarely at the adults in the audience to make it satisfying to every member of the family.
The voice work is also exceptional, with Ben Kingsley turning in one of his best performances in a career full of great ones. He delights in playing a villain, and when coupled with the garish design of his character, makes for one of the best antagonists in a long time. His trio of henchmen voiced by Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost, and Tracy Morgan are also hilarious, as is Simon Pegg in the role of a fairly pivotal character. It's a sharp script, with plenty of satire and appropriately low-brow humor that never feels pandering or lazy.
The Boxtrolls is perfect family entertainment. It will appeal to moms and dads, but most importantly, it will connect with kids in a way that so much of the disposable nonsense marketed to them could never hope to. Three films into their history, I feel comfortable calling LAIKA the most imaginative animation studio in existence, and I simply cannot wait to see what they do next. These films have an awful lot of heart, and they wear them brazenly on their sleeves. It's rare in this day and age that an animated film can succeed so completely, due to the large number of factors at play in their creation, but The Boxtrolls is another triumph, and everyone--even those without children--should see it as soon as they are able.
GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Day 315: This is Where I Leave You

"It's hard to see people from your past when your present is so cataclysmically screwed up."
Dysfunction is in. It's hip to be dysfunctional again, and it seems as if every film that deals with family these days more or less traffics in dysfunction. It's not interesting to deal with perfection as far as character dynamics go within a family, but lately it's been a pissing match to see who can present the most messed up family of them all, as if John Waters' Pink Flamingos has come to startling life. And so it is with the new film This is Where I Leave You, which features a cast of ace comedic talent and a script from Jonathan Tropper based on his book. The biggest question mark of all was director Shawn Levy, whose stock in trade is middle of the road fare like Night at the Museum and Date Night. Could he rise to the heights presented to him by another stellar ensemble, or would he fail them as he's failed so many great casts in the past? Read on to find out...
Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is having a terrible run of bad luck. When the film opens, he discovers that his wife (Abigail Spencer) has been sleeping with his misogynistic radio show boss (Dax Shepard) for over a year, and to top it all off his father dies. When the Altman clan assembles for his funeral, their mother (Jane Fonda) tells them that their atheist father's dying wish was for his family to sit shiva for him, a Jewish tradition where a family mourns together for a full week. Judd's sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is the only one who knows about Judd's marital strife, but is dealing with her own distant husband (Aaron Lazar) and two small children, one of whom is taking potty training to new extremes. The oldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll) is knee deep in trying to get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant, and the youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) has just sprung his newest, and much older girlfriend (Connie Britton) on the family.
As the week wears on, long simmering tensions between them all are brought to the surface. Judd rekindles his relationship with an old flame (Rose Byrne) just as his wife reappears to share some shocking news with him, and the family begins to suspect that their mother is not being upfront with them about certain developments that have occurred in the last years of their father's life. But through it all, blood is thicker than water, lessons will be learned, tears will be shed, laughs will be had, etc. etc. etc.
The most immediate issue with This is Where I Leave You is that it seems perfectly content to not break any new ground. There's not a beat in the entire film that hasn't been done better elsewhere. Trying to condense a sprawling, multi-character book into a 103 minute film is always a challenge, and the film feels like it's trying to keep as much in as possible, at the expense of not really developing more than a handful of the characters. It becomes tedious at times, particularly in the bloated third act, and considering how far ahead every development is projected, it feels like a long slog toward a foregone conclusion. By unleashing a torrent of plot twists, seemingly one for every character in the film, it begins to feel like the writer and director are doing everything they can to maintain the audience's interest.
The real sin is that they didn't have to do any of that. With a cast this amazing, they could have simply let them loose and allow them to make up for the shortcomings behind the camera. Instead, one begins to feel for a cast given very little to work with, doing their best to not let the flop sweat show. The film does have some terrific moments, and watching comedic geniuses like Bateman and Fey go toe to toe with stellar actors like Fonda and Stoll is worth the price of admission alone, but one can't help but wish that they were given just a little bit more to work with.
The actors are more or less done in by their underdeveloped characters, and the lack of closure with virtually every character except Bateman's weakens the whole enterprise. Bateman is terrific, as to be expected, and his chemistry with Fey is the real highlight of the movie. Stoll does the best he can with the weakest of the main characters, and Byrne is sadly saddled with a more mature version of the ubiquitous manic pixie dream girl. Driver is perhaps the biggest revelation among the cast, showing that he works incredibly well in ensembles pieces, and always managing to land truthful moments with both humor and gravity. The rest of the cast is fantastic as well, adding up to one of the best ensembles in recent memory.
The main fault of the film is the direction. Levy is just not a capable director, and his insistence on constantly hammering in visual metaphors where they're not needed undermines the brilliant work of his cast. That's his m.o. however, casting very capable actors and then leaving them to fend themselves while he stages some hackneyed, first year film student set-up underscored with alt rock. It's a real shame because a better director would have really brought this film to life, and could have probably avoided some of the more rote aspects of the screenplay.
Overall, This is Where I Leave You rings of truth while still feeling wholly dishonest. It's incredibly well acted, and the script has some moments of verbal pizzazz, but it feels like a ground rule double when it could have been a home run with just a little more effort. It will land with a variety of audience members, most of whom can relate to the dysfunction on display, but it's simultaneously weighed down by contrivance and well-worn tropes. It's basically a funnier version of August: Osage County, and if that sounds appealing to you, then by all means, enjoy. The rest of us will just sit here quietly, hoping that someday soon, dysfunction will be presented not for dysfunction's sake, but because it's grounded in a universal truth about all of us.
GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Day 314: The Skeleton Twins

"Well at least she's sending us the light."
Arguably the two best, most versatile talents to come out of the post-Will Ferrell SNL era are Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. They are perhaps the best one-two combination since Bill Murray and Gilda Radner, and their rapport with one another is almost preternatural. That made the prospect of seeing these two dive into heady subject matter in their first starring vehicle together since leaving the show all the more appealing. The Skeleton Twins is an interesting little film that will certainly afford an audience who has only seen these two goof around with one another to see them in a different light. 
 Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader) are twins that have not seen each other in a decade. When the film opens, Maggie is preparing to off herself by consuming a large quantity of pills, but her suicide attempt is delayed when she receives word that Milo has just been hospitalized for also attempting to take his own life. Maggie invites Milo to come and stay with her in their old hometown of Nyack, NY, where Maggie now lives with her gregarious husband Lance (Luke Wilson). Milo reconnects with an old flame (Ty Burrell), though their past together remains shrouded in mystery for most of the film, and Milo also manages to get Maggie to open up to him about her various extramarital dalliances. But the secrets Milo continues to keep from Maggie, coupled with the meddling he begins doing in her life with Lance may doom their renewed relationship. 
Perhaps the most successful thing about The Skeleton Twins is the fact that it never shies away from being morose. It deftly balances comedy and tragedy, but always errs on the side of the latter, and the core quartet of actors is perfectly up to the challenge. Anyone doubting Bill Hader's acting chops will be pleased to see that he is as capable at drama as he is at comedy. He plays perhaps the most honest and realistic homosexual character in a film in a very long time, and manages to wring ethos out of every line delivery and mannerism. It is a gift of a role for this seriously talented actor, and one that will hopefully land him more thought provoking work in the future. 
Wiig also does very good work, though her character is harder to empathize with, making it the more challenging role simply by virtue of that fact. Their scenes together are the best in the film, and whenever Wiig is onscreen without Hader, she seems to struggle to find an identity. This is basically the long-winded way of saying that she's been better in other things. Wilson is terrific, and proves how under-utilized he is these days, and Burrell puts on a master class of playing a manipulative and selfish man that has yet to learn any lessons from his mistakes. 
Where the film flounders is in the heavy-handed symbolism laded on with reckless abandon by sophomore director Craig Johnson. His use of water as a constant symbol of isolation and despair is played out even before the opening title, and it only gets worse from there. The character work being done by these four terrific actors is constantly undermined by a director trying to showcase his visual flair, and it frankly bogs the entire film down. He is certainly done no favors by the cliche heavy script he penned with Black Swan scribe Mark Heyman, but it feels as if the finished script was a leaden rewrite of another, better, tighter script. It also bears several of the worst hallmarks of its producing team, Mark and Jay Duplass, whose mumblecore movies traffic in maudlin sentiment.  
The film thankfully doesn't overstay its welcome, clocking in just north of ninety minutes, but it ultimately feels like a great character study weighed down by a director looking to put together a sizzle reel of flashy directorial tricks. It's not a bad movie, but it certainly has the air of having been hijacked by a director looking to show off. If anything, it's a major league coming out party for Bill Hader, who does the best work of his still young career. It's not a film for everyone, but it's filled with enough small moments that are likely to land for audience members from all walks of life. It's just disappointing to see such great work being undercut by a director and producers who tried to bend it to their will. There's a great movie buried in here somewhere. If only they had hired a director who could've mined that greatness rather than obscuring it. 
GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Day 313: The Drop

"We're dead already... we're just walkin' around."

Very few writers traffic in low level crime and the effect it has on a neighborhood quite like Dennis Lehane. Whether it's in his most well known works like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, or in his short stories, Lehane is one of the best at capturing the never-ending cycle of crime that grabs people when they're young and never lets them go. His latest work to hit the screen, The Drop, is based on a short story titled Animal Rescue, and tells the story of a Brooklyn drop bar, a place criminals use to store large sums of money acquired through various unscrupulous means. 

Cousin Marv's is one such haunt, named after Marv (James Gandolfini), a former big time hood who is now simply an errand boy for Chechen mobsters. Marv's literal cousin, Bob (Tom Hardy) tends the bar, and also tends to himself, always keeping his eyes and his head down while seemingly never ceasing to watch everything going on around him. On his way home from work one night, Bob discovers a pit bull puppy who was beaten and left to die in a garbage can outside the home of a woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace). Seeing in this puppy a kindred spirit, Bob nurses it back to health with Nadia's help, and the two form a tenuous relationship built on secrecy.

Back at work, the bar is robbed one night by two masked thugs, and the Chechen (Michael Aronov) whose father runs the bar puts Bob and Marv on notice to recover the five grand stolen from them. It isn't long before worlds begin to collide, and all of the various crimes perpetrated within the opening minutes of the film show their connection to one another. This is the film's greatest strength, tying all of these circumstances together and keeping the audience in the dark as to who has the upper hand and why. It's an interesting concept that never fails to keep the audience wondering what the motivations of various characters are, but it's also unfortunately the kind of film that requires a somewhat longwinded explanation in the third act. 

This is where the film's strengths suddenly become liabilities, which is unfortunate considering how well the first two acts play out. Hardy never fails to make Bob an interesting character, whose stoic demeanor conceals the fact that he's either a half-wit or an exceedingly dangerous individual, or perhaps some combination of the two. It's another fascinating performance by an actor who relishes the chance to play such a character, and Hardy delivers as always.

If The Drop is not wholly successful as a film, it's certainly not for lack of trying. It's impressive to see such verisimilitude in a film directed by a Belgian, MichaĆ«l R. Roskam, and populated with non-American actors playing Brooklynites (Hardy, Rapace, and the excellent Matthias Schoenaerts as the pit bull's former owner). It speaks to the universality of the themes at play, and thematically this is an incredibly successful film. Where it falls short is in the crucial elements of storytelling, from its sluggish pace to the multiple endings required to tie up every possible loose end. 

As a swan song for James Gandolfini, it's simultaneously comforting and a bit disappointing. Comforting because it's the kind of role that's right in his wheelhouse, allowing him to wield a sideways glance like a cudgel, but also disappointing because it is so close to the kind of thing he's done better elsewhere. However, to think of this film without a towering presence such as his would likely downgrade it substantially, which speaks volumes about what it is that he brings to the film. 

The Drop is a very good film that suffers from some contrivances and poor pacing, and much like Mystic River, would have been a better film had it ended five minutes sooner than it did. As a truthful look at the interconnectedness of various criminal elements, all of whom think they're operating independent of one another, it's endlessly fascinating and incredibly well-crafted. As entertainment, however, it falls short in several areas. Thank goodness Tom Hardy is as good an actor as he is, and the rest of the ensemble is just as accomplished, because they rescue the film from its own shortcomings. Ultimately it's a very good movie that can't help but elude greatness.