Issue XCVI

21 OCT 2016

Arts

09/25/2014

Animated ‘Boxtrolls:’ Zany British humor masks a moral

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Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi and writers Irena Brignull and Adam Pava have collectively worked on one animated feature in those capacities. How did they get “The Boxtrolls” so right?

This visually inventive, fast-moving combination of elements from “Paranorman,” Wallace and Gromit movies and Monty Python – plus touches all its own – has popped out of nowhere to enliven a dull fall. It’s the rare animated film that might amuse adults and kids while slipping a useful message to the latter.

A friend once claimed that half the works of art from Great Britain are about its class system. This film, which adapts “Here Be Monsters!” by English author Alan Snow, fits in: The cringingly creepy villain, exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), belongs to the red-hatted working class of his unnamed city. (The movie seems to take place in Victorian England.)

He tells the white-hatted town council, a group of doddering snobs fixated on cheese, that a boxtroll has stolen a boy for dinner. He proposes to eliminate every boxtroll in return for his own white hat and admission to their ultra-private tasting room. The writers savage all classes: Social climbers, blue-collar bozos and especially the idle rich, who decide to buy the world’s largest wheel of brie instead of funding a children’s hospital.

Of course, the boxtrolls turn out to be harmless creatures who take trash down to the sewer system, where they fabricate fabulous inventions. They raise Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) to be one of them, outfitting him with a cardboard box in which to hide when humans come by. (The trolls name themselves for whatever’s depicted on the boxes: Fish, Shoes, etc.) But Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) and his council don’t care what Snatcher does, as long as they’re left to sniff Limburger.

Visually, “The Boxtrolls” resembles “Paranorman” and the great 2009 film “Coraline,” with angular figures and off-kilter dwellings. Otherwise, the sensibility remains English almost from top to bottom.

A major character cross-dresses in the best tradition of British pantomime. The script is rife with Python-esque cheese jokes, from an Italian quartet singing about provolone to a drummer named Hal Vartis. Snatcher’s lugubrious henchmen (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade) mull the quandary of doing evil in an allegedly good cause. Snatcher...


SDG Reviews ‘The Boxtrolls’

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The latest work of stop-motion creepiness from the makers of Coraline and ParaNorman is an unpleasant slog embracing the worst clichés of contemporary family films.

The Boxtrolls is so defiantly weird and bleak, so committed to the bitter end to its grotesque aesthetic and chilly story, that even as the film crashes and burns you can’t help being moved by the hardworking stop-motion animators’ devotion to their craft.

There is very little here for viewers to love, but clearly the filmmakers loved it all: every crooked tread in every skewed staircase; every corrugation of the battered cardboard accouterments of the title creatures; every swollen pustule on the alarmingly inflamed face of the cheese-allergic villain.

Yet the lessons that should have learned from making Coraline and ParaNorman haven’t been learned. The crew at Laika have crafted a world rife with all the grotesquerie of earlier projects, but virtually none of the humanity. The misanthropy and progressive pieties that marred ParaNorman have bloated into a debilitating, blinding blight.

It’s not without inspiration — enough, perhaps, for a short film. In fact, the promising opening act almost plays as an evocative animated short. This sequence introduces us to the ramshackle Victorian island town of Cheesebridge; to its local bogeymen, the hide-and-seek Boxtrolls; and to the Boxtrolls’ underground realm, with cardboard-lined tunnel chutes, roller-bed trestle and pneumatic-tube exit to the surface.

Alas, this opening act virtually exhausts the film’s invention, making the rest a long slog of almost unremitting unpleasantness. I appreciate nearly every film in the mini-genre of stop-motion macabre, from Corpse Bride to Coraline, but grotesquerie alone is not enough. The Boxtrolls goes on from its opening to manage some nicely choreographed slapstick action and a few startling conceits, but no visual relief, no new wonders to look at.

Imagine if Despicable Me featured just one of the three orphans being raised from infancy by Minions, with no Gru in sight. I know everyone loves the Minions, but they’re comic relief at best; they aren’t developed as characters. Neither are the Boxtrolls, even the ones that get names, like Fish, Wheels and Bucket (all voiced by veteran voice artist Dee Bradley Baker).

It’s worse above ground. The town of Cheesebridge is like a mishmash of Dickens that’s all nasty Squeers, Quilps, Fagins and Havishams, unrelieved by any cheery Fezziwigs, Tapleys, Pickwicks or Wellers.

Both...



09/22/2014

Film Review “This Is Where I Leave You”

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Starring: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Jane Fonda
Directed by: Shawn Levy
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hour 43 mins
Warner Brothers

Our Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Meet the Altman family. Judd (Bateman) just came home early to find his wife (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his boss (Dax Shepard). Oldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll) is doing everything and more to get his wife pregnant. Sister Wendy (Fey) is the family sounding board. And youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) is still the kid who has never grown up. When their father dies they are summoned by their mother Hilary (Fonda) to “sit Shiva” for seven days in the family home. It may turn out to be the longest week of all their lives.

An incredibly emotional ensemble piece, perfectly matching laughter and tears, “This Is Where I Leave You” is the first official Oscar contender of the fall. As the siblings spend time in the house they grew up in, their memories of their lives, both with and without their father, overtake them. A vulnerable Judd rekindles a friendship with an old flame (a perfectly cast Rose Byrne) while Phillip shows up driving a Porsche carrying his much older girlfriend – and psychiatrist – (Connie Britton). Paul, who helped his dad run the family’s sporting goods business, is appalled that he must now share it with his siblings while Wendy must deal with an old romance with the boy (Timothy Olyphant) across the street, a former shell of himself mentally due to a car accident. “Is it the whole world or just our family,” Judd asks at one point. Overseeing the brood, Mama Hilary (and her newly augmented breasts) does her best to have the answers to all of her children’s questions even though she has no one to help answer hers.

The cast is spot on perfect. Bateman and Stoll deliver as the two voices of reason while Fey shows a very little seen dramatic side. Fonda shows why she has been a star for almost 50 years (“Cat Ballou” came out in 1965). But the scene stealer here is Driver, who I was only familiar with thanks to small roles in “Lincoln” and “Inside Llewelyn Davis” and has a recurring role in the HBO comedy “Girls.” Every time he is on screen you can’t help but be drawn to his energy. Driver has a top-secret role in the upcoming “Star Wars: Episode VII” and my fingers are crossed that he’s playing Han Solo’s son. He has that roguish quality about...


This is Where I Leave You: Gall in the Family

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Rating: *1/2

DIRECTED BY Shawn Levy
STARS Jason Bateman, Tina Fey

The new seriocomedy This Is Where I Leave You is packed to the rafters with insufferable characters, and the youngest of these offenders is a small tyke who's always shown sitting on his portable toilet trying to poop. This leads to the sort of bodily-function gags that are always a telltale sign of screenwriter desperation, but one moment stands apart with its brutal honesty. After proudly doing his duty — or should that be doody? — the kid flings said contraption, contents and all, at one of the grownups. This, in a nutshell, defines This Is Where I Leave You, a wretched film that spends 104 minutes gleefully hurling crap at audience members.

This is one of those works programmed to make audiences alternately laugh and cry — and since nothing is too shameless for this film, one character even instructs another to "laugh or cry" ... twice. But it's been many a moon since ace directors Robert Benton and James L. Brooks masterfully engaged viewers' seesaw emotions with, respectively, Kramer vs. Kramer and Terms of Endearment, and so we end up with the misfortune of having Shawn Levy as our guide. Levy was responsible for helming dreadful remakes of Cheaper By the Dozen and The Pink Panther (not to mention those Night at the Museum drudgeries), so film fans might be forgiven for not picturing him as the go-to guy for this sort of delicate balancing act between humor and heartbreak. At any rate, he's probably not the main culprit; that's likely to be scripter Jonathan Tropper, adapting his own novel. I haven't read Tropper's book, but I'd like to think that it has to be better than this cinematic version, and that Tropper was forced to alter his own source material to hit all the right moviegoing demographics.

Jason Bateman handles the leading role of Judd Altman, who learns that his father has died around the same time he also learns that his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) has been sleeping with his boss Wade (Dax Shepard), the obnoxious host of a he-man radio show. And how does Judd discover his wife's infidelity? By coming home early on her birthday and finding the pair in bed together. The fact that a wife might not think that her husband just might decide to surprise her on her birthday is the sort of dunderheaded plot idiocy that is...



09/16/2014

‘Child of God’ Review: Broken Taboos and a Powerful Lead Performance

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Early on, Child of God signals to you how it’s going to go about its business. Main character Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) abruptly stops his foraging in the woods to pull down his drawers, squat, go to the bathroom and use a stick to wipe his rear. All in plain view of the camera. This movie is going to literally show you shit… and much worse. The story goes on to include sexual assault, murder, the mutilation of corpses, and necrophilia, none of which the audience is spared from witnessing. That right there is likely to tell you whether or not you’ll be at all interested in watching this film. I’ll understand if you lose all interest, though this graphic ugliness comes hand in hand with some truly great artistry.

I know it’s a cliche for a critic to praise explicit, difficult work as “artistic.” I doubt that the debate over the value of smashing taboos will ever be settled. The best we can expect is that people become inured to what they previously never dared to look at or talk about, only for new unspeakables to come into vogue. Or maybe we’ll develop into a society without limits. I’d be interested to see what that looked like. But for now, there are certain things that we are conditioned from birth not to talk about or look at too much, and it can be incredibly uncomfortable when an artist forces us to do so (and I think that, the way cinema works, there is an element of force in how you experience what it has for you). The instinct, then, is to dismiss such works. A common refrain is that these movies only do what they do “for the shock value.” It’s a tricky area, because that is indeed all that some of them are trying to do (though I’d argue that there are ways for that strategy to be artistically valid). But I believe everything deserves full consideration. Look beneath the surface of some of these films, and yes, you’ll find an empty need to shock. But with others, you’ll find messages that will truly make you think or feel.

Child of God belongs to the latter camp.

We would label Lester Ballard with some variation of mental impairment, but in the vaguely ’50s or ’60s Tennessee setting of the film, he’s considered a “child of god.” Lester has lived on his own in the woods since his father’s death, antagonizing the locals as a way of periodically shaking up his endless drudge for...


James Franco Takes His Directorial Meat Cleaver to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Child of God’

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The good, the bad and the ugly

What did we do to deserve James Franco? A good actor who sees himself as director, writer, poet, artist, visionary and God only knows what else, he thinks he’s Orson Welles. In one year, he acted in five movies, directed a few more, starred in a Broadway revival of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, reduced William Faulkner to literary hash with the gimmicky bomb As I Lay Dying, and he’s got another Faulkner, a remake of The Sound and the Fury, waiting for release in the fall. Now it’s Cormac McCarthy’s turn. The prevailing mood of Child of God, published in 1973, is filth, alienation and inertia. You can have it.

CHILD OF GOD 
(1/4 stars)

Written by: James Franco and Vince Jolivette
Directed by: James Franco
Starring: James Franco, Scott Haze and Tim Blake Nelson
Running time: 104 min.

This is the story of Lester Ballard, played by mumbling, scabby Franco protégé Scott Haze, who came to New York recently to star in a disastrous Off-Broadway play called The Long Shrift, also directed by his mentor. The play (and especially Mr. Haze’s performance in it) was critically eviscerated, and when Child of God was shown last year at the Venice Film Festival, Mr. Haze’s incoherence required it to be screened with English subtitles. What does this tell you, besides how much smarter you’ll be if you stay home? Set in the ’60s in the backwoods of Sevier County, Tennessee, Child of God is about a redneck misfit and world-class freak, rejected by society and turned into a caveman with a penchant for humping corpses. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

When the county sells off Lester’s father’s property for non-payment of taxes, he retreats to an abandoned shack in the forest and becomes a mud-caked recluse, sleeping on the dirt floor with a loaded rifle by his side. When he was 10 years old, he watched his daddy commit suicide by hanging himself, and Lester has never been right in the head again. Now he sometimes wanders off and kills somebody’s livestock for food, but his favorite thing is catching birds with his bare hands and ripping their heads off with his teeth like the deranged “geek” attractions in carnival side shows.

The film is an exercise in tedium, hot-socketed to life by an occasional shock effect, like Mr. Haze defecating for the camera. But its big moment comes...



09/08/2014

The Giver

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SYNOPSIS:
In a seemingly perfect community, without war, pain, suffering, differences or choice, a young boy is chosen to learn from an elderly man about the true pain and pleasure of the "real" world.

Review by Louise Keller:
Like Pleasantville, The Giver makes effective use of black and white imagery in its depiction of a reality in which there is control, order and a mechanical life with no feeling. Emotions are compared to the wind - something felt and not seen, and as colour seeps in, a whole new world is opened up to a population whose time-tabled existence is filled with obedience and diligence. With consummate skill, director Phillip Noyce orchestrates all the complexities of the tale and its parallels with the state of the world, blending together its fantasy and thriller elements with a rich emotional heart. I was enthralled, stimulated and moved. It's a hero's story, a tale of redemption and one in which the heart holds the key.

By making the protagonist of Lois Lowry's award-winning children's book older, screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide have opened up the possibilities for a hungry tween audience, casting the hunky Aussie star Brendan Thwaites in the role as the reluctant hero and clean-cut, good looking rebel. But the film is not only for tweens. The sign of a good film is one that transcends all ages, and this is the case here. Thwaites is instantly likeable and we can relate to the integrity in his eyes and his spirit. Jeff Bridges (also credited as one of the producers) is ideally cast as The Giver who imparts his knowledge and memories of the forgotten world to Jonas (Thwaites), his gruff persona matched by a gravelly voice that rivals that of Nick Nolte.

The scenes in which The Giver telepathically and physically passes his memories to Jonas are extremely moving - from the initial exhilarating snowboarding through an indescribably beautiful snowy wonderland to devastating moments of ugliness in war. Through Jonas' impressionable eyes we experience it all, including the revelation of his feelings for Fiona (Odeya Rush, lovely) and his connection with the ever-crying baby Gabriel, played by four cute and responsive babies.

The rest of the supporting cast is excellent, including Meryl Streep as the austere, controlling Chief Elder and in a nice touch, singer Taylor Swift appears in a memorable scene in which she introduces Jonas to music. Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes are suitably...


You won't get much from 'The Giver'

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It may be called “The Giver,” but the film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s beloved novel is awfully stingy in its offerings.

Set in the sort of dystopian society that has become the norm in these not-so divergent hunger games, the film covers familiar themes of confinement and repression that can only be eradicated by cunning teenagers portrayed by former child actors now in their 20s. In this case, that would be 25-year-old Australian Brenton Thwaites. Brenton who? Exactly! And there’s a reason you’ve never heard of him: He can’t act.

But he sure is pretty, which is why he’s here; so love-struck teenage girls will hand over their allowances to the Weinstein Co. just to get a good long look at him. Giving money to “The Giver” is just one irony among many in a film that totally misses the point of the 1993 novel it’s based on. That point being the inherent dangers of sameness. But sameness is what “The Giver” clings to like a security blanket. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before, or themes that have not been better explored. But that’s just the cusp of its unrelenting dullness.

The real yawner is the script by newcomer Michael Mitnick and a guy who has spent most of his career writing documentaries, Robert B. Weide (“Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth”).

Given their lack of feature film experience, it’s little shock that neither has a clue about how to create drama and suspense, let alone humor, an element sorely missing in “The Giver." 

They may be true to the novel’s plot, but they inject none of the nuance or the deeper meanings of Lowry’s prose about the ugliness of perfection. It’s all surface.  I can’t help but wonder if that simplicity is more out of need than oversight, given the limited abilities of the film’s young actors, none of whom are going to make you forget Meryl Streep. But then Streep (from under a horrid Cleopatra wig) does a good job of that on her own, sleepwalking through her role as the grand poobah of “the community,” the colorless, weatherless, war- free state where “The Giver” is set. It’s a land of conformity that has eliminated all human emotion, including – apparently – Streep’s Oscar-winning elan.

The only person exempt from this Stepford wife vibe is the Giver, a wizened old sage who is charged with stockpiling...



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