The Boxtrolls

 

The Boxtrolls is the best looking animated film to hit theaters in years. A combination of labor-intensive stop action filming and post-production CGI has brought forth a movie that’s filled with images of characters and settings that are brilliant in every sense of the word.

We are 20+ years into the Golden Age of Animation, which began with Disney megahit musicals (Aladdin, Lion King), gathered momentum with Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas and hit light speed with Pixar’s Toy Story. After those fallow decades when, because of TV’s less demanding visual needs, animators did their work on the cheap, studios began to deliver strong product and earned huge returns.

As has been shown over and over during this Golden Age, good looks and technical advances help the cause, but ultimate success still rests on a good story. Strong voice acting helps as well. The Boxtrolls hits the mark on all counts.

Boxtrolls are weird little creatures who live beneath the village of Cheesebridge. They come out at night and salvage junk to use in their underground lair. Because they wear boxes (and can hide within them, like a turtle in a shell), they are called boxtrolls. They may remind you in some ways of the minions in the Despicable Me movies.

A young boy called Egg (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright) mysteriously appears among the boxtrolls who raise him as one of their own. Egg leads the boxtrolls to their confrontation with Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) who is the town’s boxtroll exterminator.

Snatcher’s burning desire is to share in a cheese tasting with the town’s elite. He has, however, a cheese allergy and his physical reactions are displayed with hilarious effects.

Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning), daughter of cheese connoisseur and leading citizen Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), helps Egg expose the true nature of Snatcher’s work and reveal the good side of the boxtrolls. Other voice talents include Nick Frost, Simon Pegg and Tracy Morgan.

The Boxtrolls, co-directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, comes from the Laika production company, the outfit that produced Coraline and ParaNorman.

For fans of animated film, The Boxtrolls is a “must see.” All the creative work comes together beautifully in a movie that is filled with delights. Happily, the technology does not overwhelm the storytelling but, instead, enhances it. I’ll say it again: Brilliant in every sense of the word.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Walk Among The Tombstones

 

Is Liam Neeson the new Charles Bronson? He’s out for revenge again in the dark new film A Walk Among The Tombstones.

Matt Scudder (Neeson) is an ex NYC cop and recovering alcoholic. When wealthy drug dealers have family members kidnapped for ransom, they call him. (Because, you see, they are engaged in illegal activity they can’t call the police.)

Scudder may seem to have no moral compass—he makes a surprising comment regarding police corruption—but, of course, he does. He relentlessly pursues the two kidnappers until their encounter in a cemetery during the film’s homestretch. (There’s key earlier scene in that same cemetery.)

Scudder is also shown participating in AA meetings. We learn via flashbacks why he is no longer on the force (despite apparent heroics at the film’s beginning).

Along the way, Scudder encounters a black teen named T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley. He was the constant videographer in this summer’s failed kid movie Earth To Echo.) Scudder’s relationship with T.J. gives the severe ex-cop an opportunity to show his human side.

After the cemetery rendezvous, Scudder and the victimized drug dealers (and T.J.) follow the kidnappers to their home where the final faceoff occurs. The climax of A Walk Among The Tombstones provides partial satisfaction to this gritty tale.

Lawrence Block has written 17 Matt Scudder novels. It’s safe, I think, to assume that this could become a franchise for Neeson, depending on responses from moviegoers to AWATT. Block co-wrote the script with director Scott Frank.

Neeson has become typecast as a burdened soul who rights wrongs. With the Taken films, this past winter’s Non-Stop and now A Walk Among The Tombstones, he has shown that he wears the role well. Why shouldn’t he continue starring in the kinds of roles his fans want to see?

Tusk

 

Tusk is an odd amusement. This is NOT a movie for everyone.

The story comes from a podcast featuring writer/director Kevin Smith and fellow podcaster Scott Mosier. Their brainstorm evolved into a tale about a man who is held hostage and turned into a walrus. When the film’s first trailer was released this summer, no hints were given that the film might be funny.

Tusk is funny. It’s also (at various points) weird, clever, dumb, frightening, gross, off-putting and lovable. But, as noted, this is not a movie for everyone.

Wallace (Justin Long) and Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) are L.A.-based podcasters who talk about a kid in Manitoba who injured himself severely with a sword. Video of the injury goes viral. Wallace goes to Canada to interview the kid, but finds that he is dead.

Wallace finds a curious note on the wall of a Winnipeg men’s room and, wanting some good audio for his podcast, heads out to find the note’s writer, Howard Howe (Michael Parks). Howe shares his story of being rescued at sea by a walrus. Wallace is drugged and awakens to discover just how disturbed Howe is.

Wallace manages to leave voicemails for his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and Teddy. They go to Canada to find and rescue Wallace. Along the way, they encounter an investigator named Guy LaPointe (Johnny Depp in an uncredited role) who provides a few of the film’s comedic highlights.

Tusk has some silly jokes about American/Canadian culture. (A convenience store is named “Eh-2-Zed.”) Stick around during credits for an audio clip of the podcast that spawned this bit of wackiness.

Kevin Smith is known for taking risks in his moviemaking. His Dogma is one I watch any time I flip by it. Tusk is strange enough that it’s likely to be embraced as genius by certain of Smith’s devotees. It is entertaining enough for me—I appreciate this film’s strangeness—but, as noted above, Tusk is not for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Is Where I Leave You

 

This Is Where I Leave You tries hard but falls short. The film waffles between being a story about Judd’s (Jason Bateman) breakup with his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) and being an ensemble piece about a family whose father/husband has just died. It tries to be a comedy but is only partially successful. It tries to touch our emotions but is only partially successful.

The cast of TIWILY is impressive. The adult children of Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda) are Judd, Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stall) and Phillip (Adam Driver). Kathryn Hahn plays Paul’s wife Alice. Connie Britton is Phillip’s lover, Tracy. Wendy’s husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) gets very little face time.

The movie opens with Judd catching his wife cheating with his boss (Dax Shepard) who is an outrageous testosterone-fueled satellite radio host. This is where he leaves his wife. Soon after, dad leaves his family behind. So there’s your title.

When the siblings come home to bury their dad, mom tells them that his last wish was that the 4 of them spend a full week in the house. One might expect hilarity to ensue here, but the humor is weak and the film is not as funny as hoped for. TIWILY has its moments, but the overall chuckle factor is rather low on the scale.

Yes, there are those relatable family moments when long-buried memories and resentments resurface. There are those moments when perceptive family members figure out that another isn’t being completely honest. There are reconnections with the past, including Judd’s fling with Penny (Rose Byrne) who just happens to be working at the family’s sporting goods store.

Shawn Levy, who directed the Night At The Museum movies, Date Night and one of my kids’ favorites, Big Fat Liar, is director for TIWILY. He does a nice job of squeezing in numerous characters and plot points with only a handful of each getting shortchanged.

I keep comparing this film with 2005’s The Family Stone, which presented both the emotional moments and the funny stuff better. This Is Where I Leave You is not a “bad” film. If you’re a fan of Jason Bateman or Tina Fey, you’ll enjoy seeing them onscreen. But TIWILY is a middle-of-the-pack movie that, for me, inspires deep feelings of indifference.

 

The Drop

 

Bob Saganowski (Tom Hardy) is one of my favorite movie characters of 2014. He’s a bartender at Cousin Marv’s in the new film The Drop, a crime drama set in an Archie Bunker sort of neighborhood in Brooklyn. Marv, the bar’s former owner who still runs the place, is played by James Gandofini in his final film performance.

The bar is a place for money drops of ill-gotten gains. Various criminals throughout an evening hand over envelopes filled with cash. The cash is dropped into a safe. The story is kick started with an armed robbery of the bar.

Bob is a seemingly simple man. His life consists of tending bar, accepting the cash drops and going each day to mass, where he never takes communion. Bob’s rescue of an abused dog from a garbage can leads to his friendship with and attraction to Nadia (Noomi Rapace).

Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a small-time local hood who tells Bob the dog is his and makes threats against Bob and the dog. Deeds is in cahoots with Marv to pull an inside job and take all the money to be dropped at the bar on Super Bowl Sunday—a huge day for bookies.

Another key player is police detective Torres (John Ortiz) who investigates the first robbery and recognizes Bob from the daily mass. Torres appears to know what is going on with each of the characters, but chooses to let things happen.

The Drop is filled with strong performances from the actors playing each of the main characters. But it is Tom Hardy as Bob who soars. With his odd version of a Brooklyn accent and his slow, deliberate manner, Bob is revealed to have more going on than is initially obvious. Expect Hardy to be mentioned during awards season for his work here.

The script is by Dennis Lehane who wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone. Belgian Michael Roskam directed. The story here is good, but it’s the characters—and the actors filling those roles—who provide the best reason to see and appreciate The Drop.