X done gave it to us. Behold, in all its knuckle-headed glory: xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, a gratuitous bukake of bullets, boobies and brain death. Frequently crass, totally illogical, unapologetically misogynistic and dumb beyond compare, xXx is breathtaking event entertainment that works for almost every single utterly retarded beat. Like a locomotive fueled purely by cocaine and the X Games, this revitalized franchise exists as if within the wet dream of a 13-year old American boy. A slick tshit-nami of dumb dumb dumb, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage is nonetheless perfectly stupid in almost every way imaginable. Read More
The idea of a haunted Christmas is no novelty in 2015 though prior attempts to make a great “evil Santa Claus” movie (see Silent Night, Deadly Night and Santa’s Slay ) have landed with a dull thumpety thump thump. Krampus, with its stand-out indie cast that includes Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Allison Tolman and David Koechner, could just be the first great “Bad Santa” horror movie. Check out the first Krampus trailer below. Read More
As innocent a project as Hector and The Search for Happiness is, no one asked for a British spiritual remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Daydreams and bottlenecked ambitions find both characters in a tidy world of their own design that, like fireflies trapped too long in mason jars, have run out of oxygen and run on the humdrum fumes of expectation. Both of these uplifting films see a worker bee break free of their employment imprisonment to “find themselves” in a globetrotting journey around the world. Popping in to foreign landscapes and cultures, Hector, like Walter, discovers that what he was looking for was always right in front of his face. It’s about as stale as such a concept sounds.
Hector and the Search for Happiness begins presumptuously with Hector’s loving but equally routine-oriented girlfriend Clara, Rosamund Pike, cinching up his tie for his cushy psychiatry job. Brandishing the metaphorical noose, he’s ready to hear the suburban sob stories of his well-to-do clients. It’s ironic because his position is one of a guide out of the forest of psychological duress and yet he has a bushel of his own issues, GET IT?!
His client’s increasingly “first world problems” drive him increasingly nutty, until during one fated session, Hector bursts. He berates a crestfallen housewife, painting her sunburnt suburban lifestyle for the city dwellers paradise he believes it to be. You have no idea what pain is, he shouts. Happiness comes from within, he bombards. So why is he so goddamn empty?
Reeling from the monotony of life and unsure of his clinical effectiveness, Hector seeks to discover what exactly it is that everyone else has that he doesn’t, so installs a reversible hat on his shag of thinning ginger hair and purchases a one-way, business class ticket to China to uncover the recipe for “happiness”. Onboard, Hector acquaints himself Edward, played by Stellan Skarsgård, a filthy rich businessman who seems to have his own little secret to happiness who takes the unassuming Hector under his wing as the first of many “spiritual guides”. And so begins Hector’s titular search that’ll take him onward to a shanty village in Africa and the left coast of America before plopping him right back in London he came from.
The biggest ball in Hector’s court is star Simon Pegg, without whom the picture would be nothing shy of utter failure. With Pegg’s bumbling magnetism giving a knee up to the whole shebang, we at least have a hapless character that we don’t mind rooting for, even if the larger picture carrying him is clumsy and miles from groundbreaking.
Known for his wry, farcically humor, Pegg tries on a more somber cloth here and it isn’t necessarily ill-fitting. In fact, much of the power of the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End) came from the earnest emotionality of the Pegg-Frost dynamic. So while Pegg doesn’t suffer under the weight of a more dramatic script, he does seem a bit naked without an arsenal of comic beats.
Some have gone to the lengths of throwing the label “racist” at Hector and his titular search but it’s one I don’t believe fits. Racially insensitive, sure. Poor diversity casting, absolutely. Racist? not really. Sure, everyone of importance whom Hector encounters around the world happens to be white – the exception being his black warlord captors and the Asian prostitute he nearly falls for. And while such might contribute to certain worldview stereotypes, it suits a picture which genuinely attempts to take nationality into account. If it’s racist to depict foreign cultures as foreign then sure, Hector might fit the buck. As it stands, it’s just a little white-washed.
Because in the end, a perceived culture of racism doesn’t really have much bearing on the overall quality of the film. What really takes Hector and Pegg down a peg is it’s complete lack of anything new to say. It’s a film about accepting your lot in life, about celebrating the routine rather than raging against it. It’s a photocopy of a film from just last year. It’s a film about being, well, ordinary. So in the end, who can really be all that surprised that a film about how being ordinary is ok is only ordinary.
The Boxtrolls, Laika Studios‘ third outing, sees more of the fledgling studio’s highly-demanding, signature stop motion animation come to life onscreen, flush with smart, though not game changing, camerawork and charming characters aplenty. Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi with a script adapted from Alan Snow‘s “Here Be Monsters”, The Boxtrolls follows a orphaned boy growing up with in underground society of steampunk, gadget-friendly trolls, unfairly maligned by society overhead.
Isaac Hempstead Wright (Game of Thrones) is Eggs, so named because the box that clothes his is an old eggs box. This is SOP in Boxtroll world. A squat-faced troll with a high heel on his box is called “Shoe”. Oil Can has an oil can on his box as Fish’s box, you guessed it, has a doodle of a fish skeleton. Blink and you’ll miss the troll named “Fragile.” Adopted by this society of cardboard-wearing, nonsense-talking troglodytes, Eggs joins his brethren trolls on missions to hunt down useful garbage from the city streets above but must be careful to avoid the vigilant net of Archibald Snatcher. For years the city has commissioned Snatcher to hunt down and capture all the Boxtrolls, assuming an incident in which a baby went missing was on their three-fingered hands.
Those first handful of minutes spent with Eggs, Fish and Shoe are without words and are nonetheless quietly moving. Similar almost to Wall-E, the absence of language doesn’t alienate us from these characters so much as let us get to know them from an emotional perspective. They goobly gook their way through things, like mute children. Without all the chatty chatty, we become fast friends with these ruckus-causing nocturnal hermits through their actions and their innocence.
As Snatcher, Sir Ben Kingsley – in nearly unrecognizable voice work – chews through scenery like it’s bubble gum. He pontificates evilly, obsessed with the one thing in the world that he cannot have: power… or is it cheese? It’s confusing because in the world of The Boxtrolls, they go hand in hand. The city leaders, The Men in White Hats, sit around and consume imported cheeses like they’ve just finished a stint on Survivor. Rather than sign the proposition for a new children’s hospital, they dine on a foreign Gruyere or a odorous bleu. The jabbing political undertones laid throughout are as subtly hysterical as Snatcher’s sole mission to access the revered tasting room, even though he is dangerously allergic to cheese.
Strange, singular character motivations like that work so well for Boxtrolls that we almost forget to care about how this story has been told a thousand times before. Snatcher is the perfect movie baddie just as his philosophical sidekick Mr. Trout (Nick Frost) is the perfectly muddy moral compass. Frost’s bumbling yet well-meaning character is responsible for an unmatched percentage of the laughs. Even with sparse screen time, he whips the comedy into shape like the folks in Paranorman never could.
Missing though in The Boxtrolls is the dark palette that had defined previous Laika efforts Paranorman and Coraline and with it much of the really next level visual flourishes. In Paranorman, the sky turns to breathtaking streaks of neon purple and afterlife green. In Coraline‘s third act, the claymation world comes to piece in bits and strips and it makes for absolutely stunning work. In Boxtrolls, the environs stagnate and fail to provide a sense of artistic progress. Further, there’s really only three or four settings for the entire film. In their sandbox, they play beautifully. I just wish there was more to the sandbox.
But that’s because this time around, Laika has moved the focus onto the characters, who look better realized than ever before. They’re much less choppy, almost to the point of appearing to be the work of CGI. Surprisingly in this case, with more precision comes more charm. And though The Boxtrolls is an unequivocal step up from the visually stunning but emotionally lacking Paranorman, it unfortunately doesn’t come close to the crazy heights of Coraline. Perhaps I have an unfair appraisal of Coraline (the first time I saw it, I pulled an unprecedented move and immediately watched it again) but you need a ladder to heaven to achieve such animated perfection. Though still in the shadow of that artistic behemoth, Boxtrolls is one of the finest animated films of the past few years.