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Review: The Boxtrolls

Laika is on a roll. In the past couple of years the stop-motion animation studio behind Coraline (2009) and Paranorman (2012) has created original, technically innovative, and emotionally satisfying movies with a consistency reminiscent of Pixar's heyday.

Laika's latest movie, The Boxtrolls, continues their tradition of mixing horror with family films by using a combination of beautiful stop-motion and CGI. Based on Alan Snow's children's book, Here Be Monsters, The Boxtrolls follows a young orphaned boy raised by a group of underground, trash collecting creatures. When an exterminator tries to rid the town of boxtrolls to climb the social ladder, the boy must try to save his family and discover out his own identity.

The film is a moving, funny indictment of conformity. Although there are many clever visual jokes, there are also plenty of jokes aimed at the younger audience. While children will enjoy the humor, adults will appreciate the social commentary and the incredible craftsmanship that went into the character and set design. It is truly visually stunning, and is one of the few movies that benefits from the addition of 3D.

The titular creatures are funny and speak a cute gibberish language. The animators successfully convey their sentiments through tone, facial expressions, and body language. Unfortunately, the audience never quite forms the same emotional connection with the boxtrolls as we do with the human characters. The human characters just seem to have much more depth and personality.

Laika used a method called "replacement animation," a 3D printer created over 53,000 faces of the same characters with slightly different facial expressions.

Laika used a method called "replacement animation," a 3D printer created over 53,000 faces of the same characters with slightly different facial expressions.

The voice acting is outstanding. The film compiles an amazing cast, from Elle Fanning, to Nick Frost, to Tracy Morgan, to Jared Harris.

The obvious standout, however, is an incredible performance by a cockney-accented Sir Ben Kingsley, playing the villainous exterminator Archibald Snatcher. His character's desperation to move up in society is nuanced and consistently entertaining. That mixed with his many physical transformations makes every minute he is on screen a joy to watch. 

Some of the best humor in the film comes from meta and self-aware jokes told by Snatcher's group of thugs. This film, more than any previous Laika movie, offers interesting glimpses into the behind the scenes process of making a stop-motion film. 

It took 1.5 years to film The Boxtrolls, a good day netted 2 seconds of footage.

It took 1.5 years to film The Boxtrolls, a good day netted 2 seconds of footage.

Laika has a remarkable record of progressiveness when it comes to social issues. Paranorman has a teenaged jock who came out as gay at the end of the movie, and the teaser trailer for The Boxtrolls offers a heartwarming message that families come in all shapes and sizes. In the film itself, there are a few jokes about a man cross dressing as a woman that seemed a little outdated. However, the jokes were not at the expense of the cross dresser, rather the film portrayed the cross dressing as advantageous to the character.

Overall, the film is visually stunning, offering plenty of cute creatures and jokes for children, as well as social commentary from nuanced characters for the adults. A couple minor plot twists might be obvious before the surprise is revealed and explained in full, but the journey is still fun and moving. It all comes together to make one the best animated film of the year so far.

The Boxtrolls comes out September 26, 2014

Rating: 8.5/10 Stars

Review: The Purge: Anarchy

Bigger scope, worse dialogue, but a lot more fun than its predecessor.

 

2013's The Purge had a unique and intriguing premise: an idea with potential for dark social commentary and interesting claims about human nature. Unfortunately, it never fully capitalized on its concept, and instead turned into a much more conventional home-invasion movie. One of the most common complaints was that its limited scope inside one house made it uninteresting.

The Purge: Anarchy attempts to correct this, expanding its scope and placing new characters into more exciting locations: the streets of LA. Now we can see how different citizens react to the purge, from hiding at home, selling their services as protection, to donning masks reminiscent of The Strangers to terrorize victims.

This sequel is set one year after the events of the original film: the night of the 6th Annual Purge. For one night each year, the government has sanctioned all crimes, including murder, in an apparent effort to lower the crime rate. Rebellious groups, however, argue that the real purpose is to kill off the poor. In this movie, five strangers are stranded outside in the middle of LA after the purge commences, and they must work together to survive the night. 

Director James DeMonaco returns for the second movie, once again showing a knack for delivering intriguing premises without fleshing out interesting characters or writing realistic dialogue. The visuals are also pretty muddled, with many scenes taking place in rooms so dark it can be hard to distinguish the characters. He also doesn't capitalize on the opportunity for horror in the film, including only one or two jump scares and unrealistic CGI bloodshed.

Frank Grillo (Brock Rumlow in Captain America 2) stars as Sergeant, the stoic and mysterious leader of the strangers. He is far and away the most interesting character of the bunch, and so it's fitting that he must ultimately make the pivotal choice. Most other actors are serviceable, but few particularly stand out.

The exception is a late, if expected, arrival by Michael K. Williams (The Wire). William's brief appearance as the profane, outspoken leader of an underground revolution is pretty much the highlight of the movie, and I wish we had gotten to see more him.

What work best are the moments of satire, when class conflicts are magnified to extreme levels. Sure, the portrayal of the upperclass is exaggerated, but it sure as hell makes it satisfying when the elite get their due punishment. At a few points, deaths of antagonists were cheered on by the decently engaged crowd.

While it's certainly entertaining, it doesn't stack up to the other recent sci-fi movie set in the future about class warfare: SnowpiercerSnowpiercer is a much more ambitious and unique take on similar subject matter, and I recommend finding it on VOD over paying to see The Purge: Anarchy  in theaters.

Ultimately The Purge: Anarchy corrects many of the mistakes of its predecessor, expanding its scope to deliver interesting satire on class disparity and warfare. While the dark visuals and unrealistic dialogue leave something to be desired, the movie is still fun and entertaining.

Rating: 6/10 Stars

Review: Deliver Us From Evil

Not scary. A little funny.

**Update 6/3/14: Marvel has reportedly hired the director of this film, Scott Derickson (Insidious, The Day the Earth Stood Still) to make their upcoming Doctor Strange movie.


Deliver us from Evil is an upcoming horror movie about Ralph Sarchie, a cynical NY cop played by Eric Bana (Lone Surviver) who investigates a series of increasingly unsettling crimes. He teams up with an unconventional priest played by Edgar Ramirez (Zero Dark Thirty) to fight the paranormal possessions terrorizing the city and confront Sarchie's own demons.

While the film is based on a book which is "based on a true story", it is not an effective horror movie, or even a good film for that matter. The plot is illogical and incoherent, with many scenes that take place for seemingly arbitrary reasons that lack satisfying payoff. It asks intriguing questions about the role of faith and doubt in shaping our views of the world. Ultimately, however, it comes off as a blatant advertisement for the Catholic church mixed with an unoriginal exorcism movie.

Bana is serviceable as the cliche cop struggling to maintain faith, make time for his family, and move on from his dark past. Ramirez is pretty unconvincing as the priest, perhaps because all of his dialogue is either clunky exposition or very direct endorsements of the Catholic church. Olivia Munn (The Newsroom) is given little to do as Sarchie's wife who is concerned with how distant her husband is acting with his daughter. Additionally, Joel McHale (Community) plays Sarchie's sarcastic partner who is good for some mildly comic relief. Ultimately, despite all around decent performances, I didn't care very much about the fate of any of the characters.

Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, two much more effective horror films) falters here, replacing tension and suspense with constant rain and scenes taking place in the dark. You get the sense that the move got away from him, perhaps in the editing room, or possibly reshoots. The film is awkwardly paced and feels too long. I found myself hoping that a confrontation taking place two thirds of the way through the film would be the climax, and was disappointed to find out that we'd have to wait for another battle before the movie was over.

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The first half of the film is pretty funny. However, the humor is a double edged sword which both keeps the scenes somewhat entertaining but also deflates any of the tension that's supposed to be building. Some of the fight scenes are brutal, and the film doesn't shy away from gross and violent images, yet that merely makes sequences unpleasant to watch, rather than truly scary or effective. The most effective scares come from one scene in Sarchie's daughter's room which was shown in the trailer. Other than a few jump scares and some violent or graphic images, the scares are ineffective.

Overall, Deliver Us From Evil misses the mark much more often than it hits. It is a long, incoherently plotted advertisement for the Catholic church mixed with a very cliche exorcism film. Bana's Sarchie has some interesting backstory, but the audience doesn't care about most of the characters. While the film asks some interesting philosophical questions, it fails to deliver any satisfying resolution to those questions, and although there are a few effective scares, they are few and far between.

Deliver Us From Evil comes out July 2nd.

Rating: 4/10 Stars