Movie Review: “The Boxtrolls”

Starring
Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Jared Harris
Directors
Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi

Pixar may get all the love, but over the last five years, Laika Studios has really come into its own as a company that you can usually expect great things from. Not only has the Portland-based animation house breathed new life into the underappreciated art of stop-motion with movies like “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” but they’ve done so with an offbeat style unlike any of their competitors. That Burton-esque spirit is alive and well in “The Boxtrolls,” but sadly, that’s about it. The studio’s latest film is an uncharacteristic misfire lacking the charm, wit and heart of its previous efforts, and although it has moments of brilliance, they’re buried beneath an uninspired script that left me feeling cold and indifferent.

The titular Boxtrolls are a race of builders who live in an underground lair eating bugs and tinkering with the junk they forage during their nighttime excursions above ground. Though they’re an otherwise friendly group, the Boxtrolls have been forced into hiding after a villainous schemer named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) used the disappearance of a local baby as a way to convince the townspeople that the Boxtrolls are dangerous monsters who eat children. Desperate to climb the social ladder and join the ranks of the town’s elite White Hats, Snatcher strikes a deal with their leader, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), to exterminate all of the Boxtrolls in exchange for his very own white hat and access to their exclusive cheese-tasting club.

But what the townspeople don’t realize is that the missing child is actually alive and well, raised by the Boxtrolls as one of their own after his father gave him away. Now a fully-grown boy, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) – named after the cardboard box he wears on his body – has begun to fear for their survival after watching his friends get captured by Snatcher’s red hat-wearing henchman. With the help of Lord Portley-Rind’s meddlesome daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning), Eggs ventures into the city to rescue the Boxtrolls and expose Snatcher for the slimy charlatan that he is.

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5 Questions with Isaac Hempstead-Wright of “The Boxtrolls” and “Game of Thrones”

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Whether you’re being raised by trolls, surviving a Westoros defenestration, or making a career in the wild and wacky world of international show business, it never hurts to be both enthusiastic and, believe it not, genuine. Now 15 years old, Isaac Hempstead-Wright is best known to most as Bran Stark on “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s Emmy-winning adult fantasy sensation based on George R.R. Martin’s gazillion-selling literary doorstops. His voice is also soon to become known to family film audiences as the heroic young Eggs in “The Boxtrolls,” the latest from Laika Studios, the stop-motion animation whizzes who brought us the rightfully acclaimed “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.”

An apparently very down-to-earth youth from an industrial English village, Hempstead-Wright seems unaffected by the fact that he’s spent several of his formative years working on a long-form dark fantasy spiked with graphic violence and NC-17-esque sexuality. Soulful and earnest on TV, in person, the young actor is eager and friendly to a fault – after we were told our interview was completed, he engaged us in some neighborly small-talk until yours truly was very nearly forcibly ejected by publicity.

That enthusiasm has no doubt been a plus in the physically and emotionally challenging role of the disabled, steadfast young Bran alongside the stellar “Game of Thrones” cast. It also must have factored into Laika’s decision to place Hempstead-Wright alongside the top-drawer “Boxtrolls” voice ensemble, which includes Elle Fanning, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Simon Pegg and Sir Ben Kingsley.

As the old saying goes, you need sincerity to succeed in show business and, if you can fake that, you’ve got it made. Here are five pretty sincere answers we don’t think young Hempstead-Wright had to fake.

1. Can you persuade the Bullz-Eye core audience of males, aged 18-35, that it’s safe to see “The Boxtrolls” despite it’s family-friendly PG rating?

IHW: I would say go and see “The Boxtrolls” just because the Boxtrolls are really cute, even if you’re sort of this big, butch person, I think you would enjoy how cute they are, because that’s kind of what they are. They look like, on the outside, they are these terrifying creatures, but you realize they are very soft and sweet inside.

[My character, Eggs] is a boy who thinks he’s a Boxtroll. He’s an orphan who was raised by Boxtrolls because they’re the only people who really care for him. If you look at a lot of the people in the upper world – the Boxtrolls live in an underground cavern – [the human parents are] all really horrible. Well, not horrible — they just don’t care for the children. If you look at [lead female character, voiced by Elle Fanning] Winnie’s parents, they are much more interested in cheese than in [their] daughter.

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Blu Tuesday: Neighbors, The Rover and Firestorm

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Neighbors”

WHAT: When a college fraternity moves into the house next door, new parents Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) become entangled in a juvenile war with the frat’s tenacious president (Zac Efron) after butting heads over their hard-partying lifestyle.

WHY: I’m a firm believer that the best comedy is grounded in reality, which is why “Neighbors” didn’t really work for me, because nothing that happens in this movie is even remotely realistic. For starters, a fraternity would never move into an ordinary neighborhood without some serious pushback from the rest of the community, and the idea that the other neighbors could be bought off so easily is perhaps the funniest joke in the entire film. (Free car washes are nice, but not at the expense of persistent noise and debauchery.) Furthermore, many of the pranks implemented by the two parties are not only incredibly dangerous, but highly improbable, while the characters (especially Lisa Kudrow’s college dean) are so stupid that it only makes buying into the premise that much more difficult. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any of the jokes working at all without such a good cast, because while Seth Rogen is resigned to his usual shtick (though he does it well), Rose Byrne and Zac Efron deliver some really funny performances. Unfortunately, despite boasting some great individual moments, “Neighbors” never quite gels into the laugh-out-loud comedy that it had the potential to be.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes an alternate opening, deleted scenes, a gag reel, the always popular Line-O-Rama, and some brief featurettes on the characters, the party scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Rover”

WHAT: Set 10 years after a global economic collapse, a hardened loner named Eric (Guy Pearce) attempts to track down the men who stole his car. When he discovers one of the thieves’ brothers left for dead on the side of the road, he forms an uneasy alliance with the redneck half-wit (Robert Pattinson) to help him on his journey.

WHY: David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” was one of the best-reviewed films of 2010, but if you gave me the choice between that movie and his latest thriller, “The Rover” would get my vote every time. Though it’s plagued by many of the same problems as the Aussie crime drama, including glacial pacing and an alarming lack of character development, the film is a mesmerizing study of two severely damaged men living in a damaged world. Michod may not offer much in the way of plot, but he makes up for it with some gorgeous shots of the Australian outback and a quiet intensity rarely seen in Hollywood movies. That latter part comes through mostly in the performances from its two leads, and while Guy Pearce is excellent as the soft-spoken nomad, it’s Robert Pattinson who really surprises as the twitchy captive. Pattinson has earned a bad reputation due to his involvement in the “Twilight” films, but the actor proves that he’s capable of much better in what is easily his strongest performance to date. “The Rover” is a very specific kind of movie (“Mad Max” by way of Cormac McCarthy) for a very specific kind of audience, and although it’s not for everyone, it’s yet another strong feather in the cap of A24, which is having an excellent year between this, “Enemy” and “Locke.”

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette, but sadly, that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Firestorm”

WHAT: When a group of robbers pulls off an armored car heist in broad daylight, hard-nosed Inspector Lui (Andy Lau) leads the investigation to bring them down. But after the usual police tactics prove to be no match for the unscrupulous criminals, Nam must play by their own rules in order to deliver justice.

WHY: “Firestorm” was originally released in Chinese theaters as a 3D spectacle, and it definitely shows, because there’s no shortage of action. In fact, it’s an almost endless barrage of gunfights, car crashes and explosions, to the point that you’re left to wonder how these criminals are getting their hands on so much firepower. Though it starts out as a bit of an homage to Michael Mann’s “Heat,” the movie quickly devolves into a brainless action movie where the lead protagonist is practically invincible (Lui survives multiple car crashes, explosions and multi-story falls with only a few scratches to show for it), while the rest of the Hong Kong cops get shredded to pieces. Furthermore, the good guys are totally inept, failing to hit a single target for most of the movie despite the fact that the criminals just stand out in the open for everyone to see. Writer/director Alan Yuen tries to balance these silly action sequences with subplots designed to add some emotional depth to the story, but they’re so half-baked that they only prove to be a distraction. “Firestorm” is mildly entertaining as a big, dumb and loud shoot-‘em-up, but it could have been so much better, especially with the usually dependable Andy Lau involved.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, but that’s all.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Movie Review: “This Is Where I Leave You”

Starring
Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Corey Stoll, Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne, Timothy Olyphant, Connie Britton
Director
Shawn Levy

Shawn Levy wants a do-over. The man who carved out a very successful career as a director that, as the Onion A/V Club once joked, you didn’t know you hated, now wants people to take him seriously. Levy actually turned some heads with the underrated “Real Steel” (his best movie by a country mile), but then followed that with last year’s “The Internship” (you had already forgotten about that one, didn’t you?), and in two months, he unleashes a third “Night at the Museum” film upon a public that thought two “Night at the Museum” films was more than enough, thank you. He’s typecast, and he doesn’t like it one bit. In other words, he now knows how it feels to be nearly every actor or actress who’s ever appeared in one of his films.

Levy’s latest attempt to rebrand himself is “This Is Where I Leave You,” a dysfunctional family dramedy that is filled with rapid-fire jokes (funny ones, too) and boasts a pitch-perfect cast. The biggest problem with the movie, sadly, is Levy himself. He seems out of his depth, and derails the momentum at odd times, lingering too long on a shot here and overdoing the camera work there. A director more experienced with the genre would have fared only marginally better, yes, but Levy had a chance to prove himself here, and he comes up short.

Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is not having a good year. Not long after walking in on his wife cheating on him with his boss (Dax Shepard), his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) calls to inform him that their father has died. The family isn’t close – their mother Hilary (Jane Fonda) aired the kids’ dirty laundry in the form of a best-selling novel – so the news that their father’s dying wish was for the family to sit Shiva, keeping all four siblings and their significant others in the same house for seven days, is not warmly received. In those seven days, hearts mend, hearts are broken, sibling rivalries both real and imagined rear their ugly heads, and Hilary talks way too openly about, well, everything.

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Movie Review: “A Walk Among the Tombstones”

Starring
Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson
Director
Scott Frank

It’s not often that there’s a movie set at the turn of the millennium or a truly engaging film released during the limbo months between blockbuster seasons, but Scott Frank’s “A Walk Among the Tombstones” delivers on both counts.

Liam Neeson Stars as Matt Scudder, a former NYPD detective who used to have a very unhealthy habit of chasing booze with as much passion as he chased bad guys. The two intersected with tragic results when he took a booth at his favorite dive just as two thugs were robbing the place, blowing away the bartender in the process. What follows is a shootout that grabs you by the throat and leaves Scudder reexamining his life.

Flash forward to 1999, where we find a clean and sober Scudder. He’s traded in his police title (but still holds on to the badge) for a private eye shingle. Fresh out of an AA meeting, Scudder is approached by drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) whose wife was recently kidnapped and murdered. Scudder is a bit conflicted working with the yuppie junior drug kingpin, but forty grand helps ease his inner turmoil. Just as he’s had enough of Kristo and his business, a young girl (Danielle Rose Russell) is abducted by the kidnappers and Scudder goes all-in on finding them and making sure no one is taken again.

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