Monday, November 24, 2014

The Boxtrolls

Directed by Graham Annabel, Anthony Stacchi. Written by Irena Brignull, Adam Pava, Alan Snow. Starring Ben Kingsley (Archibald Snatcher), Jared Harris (Lord Portly-Rind), Nick Frost (Mr. Trout), Isaac Hemstead (Eggs), Elle Fanning (Winnie).

Bottom line: The Boxtrolls is a complete disappointment, as a family movie, as a clay-mated movie, and even just as a plain old movie.

In the city of Cheesebridge, there exist two groups: humans and Boxtrolls. The humans are governed by group of four old white men called White Hates (because they, ya know, have white hats). Meanwhile, underneath the city, lives a group of creatures called Boxtrolls. Each night the Boxtrolls leave their subterranean dwelling to scavenge for junk which they re-appropriate into fantastic inventions. “See they aren’t stealing, they’re taking the discarded junk to make anew.” That’s what the movie wants you to say, anyway.

The Boxtrolls opens with the creepy, ugly, Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) proposing a deal to the chief White Hat, Lord Portly-Rind (Harris); if/when Snatcher kills every last Boxtroll, he will receive a White Hat. Reluctantly, Portly-Rind agrees.

Snatcher goes on the hunt with three henchmen, capturing every Boxtroll they find. It isn't too difficult to catch a Boxtroll; when startled or afraid the little creatures hide in the boxes they wear for clothes (hence the name Boxtrolls). There is a baby who lives with the Boxtrolls too. His name is Eggs (Hemstead) because the box he wears held eggs. Cue montage of him growing into a teenager. Yadda yadda yadda Eggs must save his family.

This movie provides several layers of disappointment with a varied amount of spoilers. I'll leave the spoiler ones until the end, of course. My first mistake was hoping and expecting the Claymation to be worthwhile: it wasn't. The thing that makes Claymation unique is that it's so physical but, for the life of me, I couldn't really tell how much was CGI and how much of it was Claymation. Is that a testament to how well done it was? No, it's just that the CGI detracts from the Claymation experience. They might as well have made 3D models look like clay and no one would be the wiser.

My second mistake was seeing this in 3D, which has two side effects: it's darker and the animation becomes choppy if it moves too quickly. This choppiness cripples Claymation. The best parts are the colorful characters and smooth animation! Correction, the only thing this movie has going for it is the color and animation.

Leading up to its premier, the avalanche of marketing reminded me The Boxtrolls is "from the makers of Coraline & ParaNorman." Coraline was really good and ParaNorman was lame so they had one out two. What I failed to realize is that "makers of" was not "directors of." So these guys worked in the Art Department of those films or were assistant directors. If you read my review John Wick, you'd know that the first time directing a feature length film, doesn't have to be bad. If you haven't read that review, do, but in the mean time, let me paraphrase. If Annabel and Stacchi had Claymation experience, they could've just put nearly all of their eggs into that basket. What I was hoping to see was really good Claymation. I didn't care about some convoluted, problematic (for reasons I'll discuss later) story. Consider this:
There is so much life in this little fifteen-second clip. I’d be game to watch a basic story if they supported it with incredible animation. Now, I don’t mean a bad story, but a basic one.

Even if you love Claymation, heck, even if you mildly enjoy Claymation don't see The Boxtrolls. It isn't like a fun type of bad it's just a waste of time type of bad. This isn't something from which you learn or grow it’s a waste of time and money.

Instead of watching this, check out Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981). It’s an animated movie directed by Alexander Stitt. In the same way that the play Wicked takes the Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch's perspective, Grendel, Grendel, Grendel is the retelling of the epic poem Beowulf from the perspective of the monster Grendel. It’s such simple late 70's, early 80's style of animation. It reminded me of The Beatles Yellow Submarine. It is a fascinating movie that warrants its own post, but, in the mean time, skip The Boxtrolls and see Grendel, Grendel, Grendel. It’s even on YouTube. I’ll include a link at the bottom of the page.

I didn't get too too much into the story or thematic problems with the movie yet, so in the coming paragraphs mind yourself of spoilers. But wait, if you won't see the movie if you know what happens...

As is sometimes the case with "family movies," bad = ugly = evil = death. Recall my summary of introduction, when Snatcher makes a deal with Lord Portly-Rind. Snatcher wants to be part of the Aristocracy. It isn't like Snatcher was doing anything particularly villainous or at least anything more villainous than Portly-Rind. It's not like he is holding Portly-Rind hostage. Portly-Rind is acting out of fear of public outcry - not for the public’s sake but because he may lose his status. What ultimately happens to Portly-Rind? Nothing. He loses his white hat but at least he doesn't (literally) explode.

Thus Portly-Rind's character is established as one obsessed with cheese and power, and treats his daughter, Winnie (Fanning), as a far third. Even at climatic fight, he acts this way. Snatcher (because of a cheese allergy) has turned into a hulking mutant (another reason he should die). He holds Winnie by the throat saying, "Give me your hat or she gets it!' Portly-Rind hesitates, not once but twice! Winnie yells at him and he reluctantly provides the hat. It was a situation built up to be the standard redemptive situation. To save his daughter, the father gives us what he thought he held most dear. But because he’s so reluctant to give it up, it really feels unsatisfying. Maybe it's a failed attempt at humor, but with ten minutes of movie left, it isn't the time for lame jokes! We've got loose ends to tie up. And, of course, he goes unpunished for this.

Now that we're speaking of fathers, let’s look at Eggs. Eggs’ backstory is that he was the son of an inventor. One day, Snatcher comes to the inventor and says, "Build me something evil." Egg Sr. refuses; Snatcher supposedly kills him but not before Eggs is given to the Boxtrolls for safekeeping. I was kinda pumped because a father was killed.

The doesn't sound right. I mean that it was remarkable that the film would do something that bold. It's much darker than I expected. But, wouldn't ya know it, the father wasn't killed, he was held captive by Snatcher, in solitary confinement, held upside down and fed jelly for a decade. When he is re-introduced, he is a lunatic.

I wasn't sure how the movie would handle that emotional dilemma. The Boxtrolls raised Eggs, after all, but now his biological father is back albeit without sanity. Don't worry about that though! As soon as Snatcher is killed, Eggs Sr. gets a shave and a haircut and is back to normal. The movie ends with Eggs and his father in the front seat of a carriage, with the lead Boxtroll behind them. You see, Eggs Sr. is the biological father and, more importantly, a human so naturally he supersedes the Boxtrolls.

I could go on but nah. The Boxtrolls now exists in my memory alongside a terrible meal. In any case, thank you for reading! I would normally say, “leave a comment and let me know if you agree or disagree with my assessment” but I hope you might have persuaded you not to see it. That said let me know if you've seen any good movies recently. Have you seen the new Hunger Games or Interstellar?

Oh, I almost forgot to provide a link to Grendel, Grendel, Grendel

Friday, November 21, 2014

John Wick

Directed by Chad Stahelski, and David Leitch (uncredited). Written by Derek Kolstad. Starring Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Vigo Tarasov), and Alfie Allen (Iosef Tarasov).

Bottom line: If you like action movies, I’d highly recommend John Wick because it’s really fun, refreshingly simple and does so many little things correctly; it’s the little things with movies like this.

First things first, a coworker of mine said that the trailer describes the movie perfectly. I hadn’t seen the trailer before going to the theater so I thought it might behoove this review if I could respond to my coworker’s comment.

Don’t watch the trailer.

Don’t watch the full 3:02 Official Trailer, at least. I beseech you not to see it mostly because it spoils (in my opinion) an important part of the movie. Just stay with me and I’ll give you enough of a summary for you to get a good feel of the movie.

John Wick (Reeves) was a hit man of mythic status but after falling in love with someone, he retired, or he tried to anyway. Retiring from this type of position never seems to work out. So, the movie opens with John attending the funeral of his wife and, shortly afterwards, he’s attacked by some punks with Russian Mafia connections (small world - it’s the same Mafia which employed him). Cue John Wick going after the punks and as a result, taking on the mob as a whole.

This is one of the first times these directors have had a feature length film. They both were assistant directors or stunt coordinators on movies like 300, V for Vendetta, and The Matrix. How are they able to take their stunt experience and translate it to a full movie? By getting rid of nearly everything else, that’s how.

We meet a cast of colorful characters who all know each other. There is a hotel that acts as a universal safe house for hit men. How did that come to be? How did John Wick become to be the best hit man ever? We don’t know and we don’t care. We are here for the action and these other characters are just there for some flavor. I can’t emphasize how relieved I was when the movie didn’t feel the need to give me backstory.

Now, on paper, John Wick is a simple movie. Well, actually, it’s not just on paper. It is simple. But, tell me, what do you need for an action movie? 1) Justification for violence (so maybe a sympathetic enough protagonist) and 2) Violence (of course). That sounds so minimal, right? And yet, most action movies mess that up and it’s usually because they overcomplicate things.

“Alright, we have a father and he has a son. Let’s show a birthday party for the kid, and then we’ll have them on a merry-go-round. An assassin will shoot at the father and the bullet with go through him and kill the son. That’s gotta persuade everyone to root for the father!” They shoulda called it Convoluted, not Collateral Damage Kindergarten Cop. Am I right? (The joke worked better in my mind but you get the idea.)

The justification is one of my favorite parts about John Wick. He’s a guy who is just trying to mourn the death of his wife in peace. He has had a very bad day, understandably, and then these punks destroy what little he has left. It isn’t about what they did it’s the principal of the thing.

It’s like if you are driving home after a long, miserable day of work. You just want to go home and this guy cuts you off. It’s so frustrating. You just want everyone else to get out of your way so you can confront the villain directly. You’ve got some choice words to say to him but as soon as you try, people deliberately get it your way. John Wick captures that frustration beautifully. I’ll talk a little more about it with spoilers later but I’ll leave it at this for now.

Now that we have justification, we need some violence. And violence we get: John Wick is relentless and takes its violence very seriously. In every action movie that I can think of, when the hero shoots a guy, he shoots the guy once and then move on. As Leon explains in Leon: The Professional, you shoot a guy twice,” the first shot takes him out of order, and the second finishes him off.” It’s an interesting detail to which John Wick actually adheres; no matter who the guy is, whether he is a major villain or a nameless thug, he shoots everyone at least twice. It makes a great starting point for a discussion about the aesthetization of violence.

We don’t really care who he is killing and, moreover, we want him to kill more. It just looks cool. It’s like a dance almost. It’s like a not stupid version of Gun-Kata (from that Christian Bale movie, Equilibrium). But is this ok? I mean, sure he had a bad day, but these are people with friends and presumably families. One might say that this is just a movie, that it isn’t real, but the sentiment is real and our interactions with the violence are real. It’s desensitizing. At the same time, I was so surprised by the movie as a whole; I could overlook the issue of violence.

Here I’ve been talking about the movie in general terms, I haven’t talked about the specifics. The music is fun, it reminded me of the club scenes from The Matrix, or maybe that was Keanu Reeves that was doing that. The cinematography is solid. The camera is slowly, steady, and positioned to watch the action - none of this shaky camera nonsense. The art style is gray and dark which fits the hit man world. The dialog is as complex as it needs to be which, again, is a pleasant surprise. The acting is great too. How can you go wrong with Keanu and William Dafoe? Keanu Reeves is always so stiff and it works here really well.

Alright, as if you couldn’t have guessed (and aside from the fact I said it in the bottom line), I highly recommend John Wick. It’s really refreshing in terms of action movies. There are so many pitfalls to action movies (too shaky camera, trying to take itself too serious, too much fluff, etc.) and John Wick navigates them almost flawlessly. Don’t get me wrong this is an action movie; it’s not going to blow you mind or anything so if you aren’t a fan of action movies fo sho pass on this. I’d also hesitate to recommend this if I wasn’t a fan of Keanu Reeves but, really, who isn’t?
Now, on to the spoilers...

There isn’t too much that I want to talk about that I haven’t already mentioned but one thing I found funny is the Russian. I’ve been learning Russian the past couple months so I know some phrases and I took some Russian history courses in college so I know some cultural information. The Mafia boss calls John Wick “Baba Yaga,” which supposedly means the Russian equivalent to the Boogeyman. That’s kinda true if by "Boogeyman," you mean a potentially malevolent Old Woman who lives in the woods.

The other thing I wanted to talk about is the adorable beagle puppy that Wick’s wife got him. As soon as the dog was introduced, I thought,” Whoa, man. If they kill this puppy, Imma be so ticked.” My wife said the same thing. We almost decided that if they killed the dog, we’d leave. It feels like such a cheap move to kill off a cute little puppy. But here is where is gets interesting. They keep the dog alive long enough for us to say, “Ok, John Wick, have at ‘em,” but short enough where we don't build an emotional attachment to it. When it dies, we are drawn to John Wick rather than out of the movie. It’s something I had never really thought about.

If they gave John Wick a child, and the punks killed the kid, the movie would have a completely different tone. Wick’s quest would be about revenge - because you can’t be killing kids without punishment. Because they have a cute puppy, the guys aren’t to be punished because they killed the puppy, because the puppy is just a symbol. Wick explains this at one point. The dog was his last glimmer of hope to mourn alone in peace.

Sheesh, what a fun movie. That’s a sign of a good movie too, even after drafting out thoughts, procrastinating, drafting, redrafting, writing, then editing a review, it’s still fun. In fact, I think I’d like to turn this into a video review to get back into that.

Thanks for reading, let me know in the comments what you thought about this review or the movie. Did you like it? Where would it rank with respect to other recent action movies?