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Out in Theaters: POLTERGEIST

When a film foregoes the press screening circuit, only to play for a slim number of us amidst a general public promo screening just two hours before it opens its doors to the rest of the movie-going community, you enter with an expectation of a product hauntingly bad. Take Hercules for example, which screened under similar circumstances last year before landing at number five on my worst movies of the year segment. Just one month later, As Above/So Below (which was also largely critically derided) proved this model wrong by delivering an edgy horror throwback that I simply adored. Again at the Thursday night 6 o’clock showing. So going into Poltergeist, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and with low critical ratings – as of writing this, it stands at a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes and 48 on Metacritic – the writing was on the wall, thusly establishing the low expectations that allowed me to sit back and let this somewhat cruise-controlled remake take me on an enjoyable – if not great – horror thrill ride. Read More

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Out in Theaters: THE BOXTROLLS

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

B+

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Out in Theaters: POMPEII

“Pompeii”
Directed by Paul WS Anderson
Starring Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Jared Harris, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Carrie-Anne Moss
Action, Adventure, “Drama”
98 Mins
PG-13

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If you’re willing to overlook an awful script, torpid acting and cheeseball direction, Pompeii packs the requisite fireworks and dimwitted gumption to glide through its 100 minute screen time. Told with the panache of an envious porno production assistant, Pompeii is the equivalent of a kid hopped up on candy trying to recount the events of Gladiator but getting a handful of plot points confused with Armageddon. It’s a disaster of wonderful proportion and, quite simply, a blunderous marvel to behold.

Director Paul WS Anderson‘s chutzpah is a blunted sword that he wields like it’s Excalibur, hacking through logic like Theon Greyjoy taking off Sir Rodrick’s head. (If that one went over your head, let’s just say it’s a mess.) There’s nothing necessarily redeeming about the self-serious way the material is approached except the beautiful irony of it all. It’s the perfect storm of narrative retardation unaware of the extent of its disability. At least the poor thing isn’t sentient enough to know it’s severe limitations. Rather than bring it out to pasture though, we’re stuck playing the schoolyard bullies who circle and laugh. At least pointing and mocking here is acceptable.

No one deserves our disapproving derision more than swooning stars Emily Browning and Kit Harrington who make use of their screen time ogling one another; eye fucking like its Jr. Prom all over again. Doe-eyed and bitterly boring, each takes their acting lessons from the book of Stares and Glares 101. Their chemistry is always overshadowed by the mountain in the distance, a spark to the raging conflagrations surrounding them. Their romance, a dog shit hue of puppy love.

Certifiable shame that it is, Harrington can’t survive outside the confines of Game of Thrones, a magical realm where he’s nothing short of awkwardly charming. Armed with a sword and shambling in sandals, Harrington’s Milo is the gladiator’s version of rebel without a cause. “Are you not entertained?” his character plagiarizes, but with the snarky attitude of a hipster teen. No John Snow, we’re not. Stick to your side of the Fire and Ice equation. No matter what ridiculous number of abdomen muscles you’ve packed on, things just work out better when you’re buried in furs and adventuring in a perma-snowstorm.

Browning on the other hand is all kinds of bad news bears. She’s supposed to be brave and rebellious as Cassia but comes off as a little girl playing princess. She’s a vacuum of talent, a worm hole of thespianism, a black thumb for film. Does everything she touches wilt into a bouquet of poison oak or does she just have an agent with a grudge against her? Seriously, the girl hasn’t touched a good project with a ten foot pole and Pompeii is no exception. Seeing her on the receiving end of a half-dozen bitch slaps is as magical as things get.

Dishing out those slaps is Kiefer Sutherland‘s General Corvus, a poorly acted douche of a man who we meet at the top of the story slicin’ and dicin’ through Milo mum’s windpipe who later, quite conveniently, stews a bit of a rapey crush on Cassia. Apparently suffering from a knack of amnesia, Anderson forget to include the bit where Corvus stumbles across the fountain of youth. How else can you explain the fact that Corvus hasn’t aged a day in 17 years? There’s no way the people making this behemoth could have just forgotten a detail like that. RIGHT?!!

Then again, the script does seem like the result of a late night session the writers spent with a bong, a bag of Doritos and a Gladiator DVD. Seriously, there are lengthy scenes airlifted directly from Gladiator. It’s one thing to homage and another entirely to play something off as your own work. Let me give you a particularly face-palming example: During a prominent gladiator showcase, the slavemaster attempts to recreate a Roman massacre from recent past where a slew of barbarians were slaughtered like caged chickens. Milo and friends are primed for the pointy end of a skewering stick, but wait! the enslaved gladiators band together to overcome momentous odds, defying the will of their superiors and winning the goodwill of the people. Sound familiar? I guess at the very least, they’re ripping off some solid stuff.

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The only other character of note, Atticus, is also the one we’re left pining for more time with. As a African gladiator brute, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is immensely watchable and the easy star of the show. His is the only character we don’t want swallowed up by a wall of lava, the only one we’re hoping won’t be sworded to death. Spoiler: both happen. 

Throughout the affairs, Mr. Anderson doesn’t ever let us forget that there’s a volcano involved and with CG technology what it is now, Mt. Vesuvius is clearly a main character (or at least the one we’re supposed to pay the most attention to). It must feel robbed then that it didn’t even get an IMDB billing. If CG characters were eligible for a share of their awards gold, old ‘Suv’ would be a clear early frontrunner.

Watching the computer generated Mt. Vesuvius blow is destruction porn at its most bukakesque. Gobs of moltenus rock spew from the hot top like a 12-year old Paul WS Anderson discovering his manhood. If this is his take on a pissing contest, he proudly strikes a pose and demeans your fifth grade science experience. Baking soda and vinegar ought to be ashamed.

Writer team Janet Scott Batchler (Batman Forever), Lee Batchler (Batman Forever) and Michael Robert Scott (Sherlock Holmes) are the lack of brains behind Anderson’s unwieldy brawn, the Tonto to his rebooted Lone Ranger, the brain dead Himmler to his logic-genociding Hitler. Theirs is the glory of this spirited romp through seven levels of screenwriting purgatory. “King logos is dead, long live computer graphics!” they collectively chant. Together, they have ushered in a nuclear meltdown of a story, ineffaceably half-witted and boldly dopey.

A hotpot of narrative no-no’s hyped up on its own garishness and blinded by the Hot Pocket consumerism driving the thing, Pompeii is a disaster of a disaster movie in the best of ways. The cart is miles before the horse as this movie is no more than an excuse to see a volcano go boom-boom. Like a toddler experimenting with an Easy Bake Oven, Pompeii is majorly overcooked, a hot mess of epic proportion. But Anderson’s is the rare and wonderful movie that transcends the expression “it’s so bad, it’s good”. It’s literally a masterclass on the topic. One could write a thesis on how Pompeii proves Paul WS Anderson is the new Ed Wood and likely walk away with a honors degree. Simply put, I loved and hated it in equal measure. It was so dumb that I applauded.

C-

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