The Boxtrolls


I'll have some eggs with that.

I’ll have some eggs with that.

(2014) Animated Feature (Focus) Starring the voices of Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Dee Bradley Baker, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Steve Blum, Nika Futterman, Pat Fraley, Fred Tatasciore, Max Mitchell, Maurice LaMarche, Laraine Newman, Brian George. Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable

We have a tendency to look down upon those who aren’t members of our economic and/or ethnic stratum. If we are rich, the poor receive our disdain. If we are middle-class, we hate the rich. If we are white, we mistrust those whose skin tones are darker. And of course, right back at the whites from the other ethnic groups.

We might paraphrase Tom Lehrer when talking about this film; “All the red hats hate the white hats, and the white hats hate the red hats…and everybody hates the Boxtrolls.” That’s because these underground dwellers who come to the surface each night to scavenge refuse and spare parts have stolen a baby and killed his father, which according to exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) was for a delectable Boxtroll delicacy. Snatcher, a red hat, has long coveted a white hat and sees the Boxtrolls as his ticket to le chapeau blanc. Lord Portley-Rind (Harris), whose main concern is cheese – the town of Cheesebridge is famous for their fromage – absently grants Snatcher his wish. Provided, of course, that he rids the town of every last one of the vermin.

The problem is with the scenario is that the Trubshaw baby isn’t residing in the belly of a Boxtroll. Nor is he even dead. The kindly Boxtrolls have adopted the young orphan and given him a box of his own to hide in – the Boxtrolls are timid creatures who have learned to hide and run rather than stand and fight. True to their custom, they have named the boy Eggs after the product that was stored in the box that he wears and uses as a convenient hiding place. Therefore other Boxtrolls are named Fish, Shoe, Fragile and Oil Can.

Winnie (Fanning), the spoiled daughter of Lord Portley-Rind, is fascinated by the Boxtrolls and by blood, guts and grimness in general. She is further fascinated by them when she discovers that a young boy her age is with them, although nobody believes her tale. When Eggs (Wright) returns to the surface during a cheese festival to try and stop the humans from stealing his friends and releasing those who are imprisoned, he runs into Winnie. She of course doesn’t believe his assertion that the Boxtrolls are gentle and far from dangerous. They are builders, not destroyers.

As it turns out, Snatcher has a fiendish plan in mind which if his henchmen Trout (Frost) and Pickles (Ayoade) had known about they might have had a philosophical issue with. It would mean the extermination of every Boxtroll in town – including Eggs. And as Lord Portley-Rind obliviously chews his cheese, his daughter Winnie realize that it will be up to her and Eggs to save the day if the Boxtrolls are to survive.

Based on a lavishly illustrated almost 600 page children’s book by British author Alan Snow entitled Here Be Monsters, this is the third movie from Laika, the stop-motion animation studio that previously brought us Coraline and ParaNorman. Like those films there is definitely a supernatural bent to the movie. Like those films, the painstaking process includes a fantastically detailed background with meticulously crafted characters.

Kingsley’s normally mild voice is given a kind of over-the-top Cockney villain infusion, breathing life into a character who has allowed his dreams to warp him. He will achieve that goal no matter what it costs and the devil help whomever gets in his way because God surely won’t. Equal parts Snidely Whiplash, Wile E. Coyote, the Child Catcher (from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Monty Python, Archibald Snatcher is a memorable villain who will delight children and adults alike.

So too will the environment created both in the town, which is perched on a hill much like the Wedding Cake town of Gondor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy while the underground home of the Boxtrolls is filled with Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions, unexpected beauty and plenty of gross protein. The entrance into their world is through fun looking slides which would be a slam dunk if Universal ever decides to put a Boxtrolls-themed play area for children in one of its theme parks.

Although Laika is based in the Pacific Northwest, the movie has a definite British sensibility (the source material is, after all, English) not only in the accents but also in the humor; all it lacks is Graham Norton skulking about looking for celebrities to interview. Anglophobes, take note.

Also the story is a bit simplistic which of course comes with the territory when adapting children’s books. While there is plenty of subversive class conscious mockery going on, there are definite bad guys and good guys. Even Archibald Snatcher’s motivation isn’t too hard to understand; if this weren’t geared for kids I suspect they would have made the character a little less malevolent and more sympathetic. I would have liked that myself because, after all, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to better your situation. The issue comes when you give up your humanity in order to do so and perhaps that’s the point they’re making, but even so I think it would have been more poignant if they’d made Archibald a decent fellow to begin with.

But that might not have worked so well with little kids who need someone with a black hat to boo. There is nothing really scary about the Boxtrolls other than maybe a scene or two when one or more of the characters is in grave peril but there isn’t anything wrong with bringing your littlest tykes into this one. It’s fun, there’s a definite Halloween vibe to it and adults will be as enchanted as their rugrats at the movies and in a year of mediocre family entertainment at best, this one stands out as pure gold.

REASONS TO GO: Wacky and as enchanting for adults as it is for kids. Kingsley voices one of the greatest villains of recent animated films. Beautiful stop-motion animation.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too British for some. Plot can be simplistic.
FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of rude humor, some peril and a bit of animated action. Okay for most kiddies.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pegg and Frost, good friends in real life, didn’t find out until after they’d recorded their portions of the dialogue that they’d both lent their voices to the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters, Inc.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Trade

Kill the Messenger


Jeremy Renner doesn't want Matthew Lintz to hear what he's about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

Jeremy Renner doesn’t want Matthew Lintz to hear what he’s about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

(2014) True Life Drama (Focus) Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Matthew Lintz, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Patrick, Barry Pepper, Andy Garcia, Paz Vega, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Schiff, Ray Liotta, Dan Futterman, Gil Bellows, Aaron Farb, Josh Close, Yul Vazquez, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jen Harper, Jena Sims. Directed by Michael Cuesta

In 1996, Gary Webb was an investigative reporter working in the Sacramento bureau for the San Jose Mercury News. He had been part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team for the newspaper’s coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

While covering the trial of a drug dealer (Farb) he is contacted by a beautiful, sexy but mysterious Latina woman (Vega) – the dealer’s girlfriend – who drops off some documents that his lawyer had been given during discovery, documents that clearly had never meant to be given to the lawyer. In it, the dealer had been apparently working for the United States government back in the ’80s as a paid informant – and selling drugs while he was. Not such a big deal until it became clear that the CIA was who he was selling drugs for.

Webb would dig deeper and discover that the proceeds of the drug sales were being used to fund the Contras in the civil war going on in Nicaragua, a war that then-President Reagan desperately wanted to wage and one in which Congress had forbidden him to do so. He would visit Nicaraguan jails, abandoned airfields, chasing his story wherever his leads took him.

With a supportive editor (Winstead), a loving wife (DeWitt) and a son (Lintz) who was as proud of him as could be, he brought all his facts together and wrote a multi-part series called Dark Alliance delineating the ties between the epidemic of crack cocaine that was impoverishing America’s inner cities, the Contra rebels and the Central Intelligence Agency. The Merc’s state of the art website (at the time) proudly pimped the articles for those outside of San Jose to peruse.

It was a bombshell. One of the first new stories to go viral, it brought Webb great acclaim and notoriety. Still, he’s warned by a former CIA whistleblower (Sheen) that the CIA would come after him by making the story not about the facts but about Webb himself. And that’s just what happened. The other major newspapers – the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post - attacked Webb’s reporting and all but insinuated that he’d made the story up out of whole cloth. His own newspaper essentially threw him under the bus, refusing to defend their own reporter and his story even though they had every chance to confirm it during the editorial process. It was not the paper’s finest hour.

In the interest of full disclosure, I myself worked for the Circulation department of the San Jose Mercury News before getting laid off in 2006 after their afternoon edition was discontinued. The events depicted in this movie mainly took place after I’d left and I didn’t know Webb at all (he worked out of Sacramento and I was at the main office in San Jose) although I was acquainted with a number of people in the newsroom including Jerry Ceppos, the managing editor who is played by the great Oliver Platt here.

The movie is trying to be a journalism/political thriller along the lines of a All the President’s Men. Some hold Webb in the same regard as Woodward and Bernstein are held in terms of investigative journalism. There is a curiously flat tone to the movie; Renner as Webb often articulates that his job is to bring the facts to the public and at times it feels like the movie is being directed by Jack Webb (no relation).

As I said, I didn’t know Webb in his Mercury News days and so I can’t say for certain how well Renner portrays the late reporter. His son Eric says that Renner caught his father’s essence and mannerisms to a “T” so I’ll go with his assessment on that. Renner is a passionate actor and this is a passion project for him.

As you can imagine, the movie’s presence has resurrected some of the old debates. Washington Post investigative journalism team managing editor wrote an op-ed last Friday excoriating Webb and calling the movie fiction. Other sources including the Narco News – an online newspaper that reports mainly on America’s war on drugs and other Latin American issues – have fired back, defending Webb. As for you dear reader, you don’t have to take anyone’s word on the veracity of Webb’s work. You can see it for yourself including the supporting documents – all published online in 1996 – at the Narco News here.

Frankly I don’t have the wherewithal to join the debate much. The piece itself remains explosive and controversial, even now. Was Webb a saint who just wanted to expose the truth of evildoers to the shining light of the public eye? In part, yes. By all accounts – even those of his detractors – have made it clear that Webb believed in the importance of investigative journalism and he believed in the truth of his own story. Certainly, it wasn’t perfect and he didn’t get everything right. Nobody does. However in the years since the publication of his work, the eventual repudiation of it and Webb’s eventual suicide in light of becoming unemployable at the job he loved, the essence of his story has been in fact validated. There was a connection between crack cocaine, the Contras and the CIA. How much crack was brought to the streets of Los Angeles and other American urban environments because of this dark alliance will probably never be known for certain.

What the movie does get right however is the decline of American journalism. At one time, the fourth estate existed independently of the other powers of American politics – the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It stood as a kind of advocate for the American people, tilting at the windmills of political hanky-panky and bringing that which was hidden in the boardrooms of industry and the back rooms of politics to the light of day. Today, in 2014, we no longer have that protection. The mainstream media is all owned by large corporations – the Mercury News itself is owned by a hedge fund which in recent days quietly closed down and sold its iconic headquarter building on Ridder Park Drive and moved what little staff remains to a downtown San Jose office building.

It was unheard of back in the day for a newspaper to throw one of its own reporters under the bus, but that’s what Ceppos and the Mercury News did. While in Ceppos’ extraordinary column which some have labeled an apology letter that in effect distanced the paper from Webb’s reporting there was some reference to “failure at every level and at every step” to properly edit the piece and verify the information (despite the presence of corroborating documentation which in what was then groundbreaking transparency was published online), at the end of the day we have since then seen a failure of mainstream journalism to stand up against corruption when it may potentially affect their advertising bottom line. We have seen an unwillingness to stand up against those whose activities cause harm to the public good, or segments of the public. We live in a world where real journalism, the kind that was meant to stand up for all of us, mainly exists on the Internet and is lost in the party-centric shouting of right wing and left wing posturing. In his grave, Gary Webb must be rolling indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Examines the erosion of journalism in this country.
REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing. Confusing at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of foul language not to mention some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise at one time expressed interest in the Gary Webb role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Absence of Malice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Boxtrolls

The Pursuit of Happyness


The ties that bind.

The ties that bind.

(2006) True Life Drama (Columbia) Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fischer, Kevin West, George Cheung, Domenic Bove, Joyful Raven, Scott Klace, Maurice Sherbanee, Victor Raider-Wexler, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Erin Cahill, Stu Klitsner, Ming Lo, David Fine, Karen Kahn. Directed by Gabriele Muccino

It’s a tough old world out there. It takes perseverance and ability to make it and even if you have then if you don’t catch a few breaks – or worse, catch a few bad ones – you still might not make it anyway. Most of us are just one or two bad decisions away from the streets.

Chris Gardner (W. Smith) is one of those guys with the ability and work ethic to go far. He even has an excess of charm. What he also has is a cloud of bad luck following him around. His wife Linda (Newton) is burned out, working too hard and getting too little in return. Their son Christopher (J. Smith) is what keeps Chris going.

Chris is having a real hard time selling bone density scanners to the medical professionals of San Francisco, who are able to get more recent and less expensive models from reputable medical supply dealers. Dejected, Chris struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. When Linda leaves, it’s a catastrophe. Suddenly he can’t afford the rent and he and his son are thrown into the street. Eating at soup kitchens and lining up for beds in one of the city’s shelters, he looks for some way of getting out of his situation which isn’t helped when he’s hit by a car and his scanner is stolen.

However, Chris spies some brokers for Dean Witter coming out of work and they appear to be happy. He chats with one of them and discovers that they have an internship program for people trying to start in the industry from the ground floor. The trouble is – it’s unpaid and most of the people in the program will not be retained with paid jobs. However, Chris knows he can do this. It’s just a matter of surviving until the paychecks start coming.

While Will Smith had already had an Oscar nomination by the time he made this (for which he would receive his second nomination), in many ways this is the movie that convinced many that Smith wasn’t just a charismatic personality but a serious actor who could, with the right material, give a compelling unforgettable performance. This was certainly the right material.

Based on a true story, the movie brings out elements that are right in his wheelhouse; a kind of street smarts, unflagging charm and the ability to express frustration and anger in a way that doesn’t make him seem unlikable or make audiences uncomfortable. Chris Gardner was a man trapped in a situation that was nearly impossible; he had few prospects and nothing but his own drive, determination and chutzpah to carry him through. And if any star in Hollywood carries those qualities, it’s Will Smith.

Casting his own son in the role of Gardner’s son made a lot of sense and Jaden’s performance here is unforced and doesn’t make you want to grind your teeth. He justifiably received acclaim for following in his daddy’s footsteps and some thought he might even end up being a better actor someday than his dad. That hasn’t happened yet and maybe it never will, but here he shows more maturity than a lot of actors his age don’t possess. Perhaps that comes with growing up with a dad as famous as the Fresh Prince.

Now, there are moments where the sentimentality threatens to take over and to Muccino’s credit he doesn’t let it trample all over the film but occasionally you can feel those instincts to manipulate the audience nagging at him. The center section of the movie also drags in a few places, although not enough to really disrupt the flow of the film overly much.

The movie is a compelling portrait of the working poor; people who have jobs but don’t make enough to make ends meet. There are people who work two and three jobs who can’t afford a place to live and go home to shelters or onto the streets. This problem has only gotten worse since this movie was made, given the economic crisis that followed a year after its release. One watches Chris Gardner’s struggles and can’t help but feel “There but for the grace of Whatever Deity (if any) I worship goes I.”

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best performances of Will Smith’s career to date. Good chemistry between him and his son. Unsentimental look at modern poverty.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally maudlin. Slow in the middle sections.
FAMILY VALUES:  The language is rough in places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film employed actual homeless people from around the Bay Area and paid them a full day’s wages for often just a few hours of work, generally including a catered meal. For some, it was the first income  that they’d made in years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are featurettes on the father-son acting team and why they were cast as well as one on the humble Rubik’s Cube and also an interview with the real Chris Gardner. The Blu-Ray also includes a music video of the Dave Koz/Bebe Winans song “I Can.”
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $307.1M on a $55M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Llewyn Davis
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Kill the Messenger

New Releases for the Week of October 17, 2014


FuryFURY

(Columbia) Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Brad William Henke, Scott Eastwood, Anamarie Marinca. Directed by David Ayer

In the waning days of World War II an American tank brigade rolls through Germany making the final push for Berlin. As the crusty sergeant who commands one Sherman tank knows, it’s one thing to fight Germans in Africa and another thing entirely to fight them in Germany. It will be a long hard slog to make it to the end of the war, and it will be longer and harder once his tank is assigned to a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. He promised his crew he’d get them home alive but some promises are just beyond keeping.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: War

Rating: R (for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout)

The Best of Me

(Relativity) Michelle Monaghan, James Marsden, Luke Bracey, Liana Liberato. The newest Nicholas Sparks adaptation (does the man ever stop writing?) finds a pair of high school sweethearts who have been separated by a series of tragic events reunited after 20 years. Despite all the water under that particular Carolina bridge, the sparks remain there even though they are played by completely different actors.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for sexuality, violence, some drug content and brief strong language)

The Book of Life

(20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube. A young man vies for the heart of a fiery jalapeno of a woman but he has a rival in a famous matador. Unbeknownst to evil, supernatural entities have placed bets on who wins the competition but one of the entities cheats on behalf of the matador. Exiled to the Land of the Dead, the young man must traverse three wildly different worlds, face his greatest fear, return to the Land of the Living and win the heart of his love. With a unique style based on Mexican folk art, this might be the most original animated feature of the year.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images)

Men, Women and Children

(Paramount) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer. A group of high school seniors and their parents find the waters of dating in the age of social networking to be increasingly infested by sharks and other dangers. As the Internet changes the way we interact and the way we develop relationships, the older generation struggles to catch up while the younger generation merely struggles to survive.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue throughout – some involving teens, and for language)

Annabelle


A couple of living dolls.

A couple of living dolls.

(2014) Horror (New Line) Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola, Kerry O’Malley, Brian Howe, Eric Ladin, Ivar Brogger, Geoff Wehner, Gabriel Bateman, Shiloh Nelson, Sasha Sheldon, Camden Singer, Robin Pearson Rose, Keira Daniels, Tree O’Toole, Christopher Shaw, Joseph Bishara, Paige Diaz, Michelle Romano, Morganna May. Directed by John Leonetti

Those who saw The Conjuring will remember Annabelle, the devil doll that figured prominently in the opening scenes of the movie. It spent most of the rest of the film locked up in a glass case. Ever wonder how the doll came to be possessed?

Here’s the movie that tells you. John (Horton) and Mia Gordon (Wallis) are expecting a child in Los Angeles of the 1970s. The Manson cult has just struck, murdering actress Sharon Tate, her friends who happened to be in her home at the time and the LoBianco family in a separate incident. John is getting ready to start an internship in a Pasadena hospital. They’re good friends with the older couple next door, Pete (Howe) and Sharon Higgins (O’Malley) who they ride with to church to hear the sermons of Father Perez (Amendola). The Higgins’ are pleased as punch at John and Mia’s new arrival although in a bittersweet way; their own daughter Annabelle (Daniels) ran away from home a couple of years earlier to join some sort of hippie cult. And John found a gift for Mia – a beautiful porcelain doll that completes the collection that Mia has been working on for years.

One night though, everything changes. The Higgins are brutally murdered by their estranged daughter and a fellow cult member. The two murderers also make their way into the home of John and Mia and attempt to do the same to them, only the police arrive to shoot the man dead. Annabelle slits her own throat while holding the new doll. You can guess where that’s going to lead.

Soon, strange things start happening, disturbing things. Besides that, Mia is traumatized at the violence and the loss of her friends. Injuries suffered during the struggle put her on doctor-mandated bed rest but she doesn’t want to stay there given the terrible memories. They move to a new apartment near where John will be working, leaving the doll behind that the murderess was holding in her final moments – or so they thought. The doll turns up in the last box they unpack. Spooky, no? However, Mia – a little happier now that they are far away from the terrible events from that night accepts the return of the doll.

She even meets a new friend in Evelyn (Woodard), the congenial owner of a nearby bookstore. However, the unexplainable things have followed them only they’re getting more malevolent by the minute. Mia is sure that whatever is responsible – and we all know who that is although it takes the Gordons a little while to catch on – is after the soul of her baby who has now been born. Can they protect the baby from this seemingly unstoppable demonic force?

Annabelle isn’t nearly as good as The Conjuring so let’s get that out of the way right off the bat. It doesn’t have the really killer scares of that movie nor the pacing. There are far too many lulls in the action for my personal taste. However, it isn’t as bad as some are making it out to be.

They do capture 1970s Los Angeles perfectly. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in that period and everything here rings true, from listening to KHJ on the AM radio for the timeless pop music to the K-Tel collections of snippets of hit songs. The filmmakers also make several allusions to the classic Rosemary’s Baby from the names of the couple (John Cassavetes, Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon were all actors in that classic film) to the iconic baby carriage which figures in a couple of particularly harrowing scenes in Annabelle.

Wallis is a beautiful British actress but she left me kind of cold as Mia; she seemed to lack energy and although she screamed convincingly and had a couple of scenes of terror for the most part she seemed almost like she was on Lithium. It was definitely a performance influenced by Mad Men. Horton’s character is a little too easy to fall into line with the whole supernatural thing especially given his medical training. One would expect a little more skepticism out of him.

The scares are not as plentiful here nor are they as superbly staged, but there are certainly a few good ones – a sequence in the apartment’s basement with a demonic entity is the best in the movie and you’ll never want to take an elevator anywhere for a few weeks after seeing this. At least I didn’t.

What it all adds up to is a fairly entertaining although ultimately lightweight horror film. Nothing here is groundbreaking or even particularly memorable and one gets the sense that it was put together fairly quickly – which it was. You would think studio execs would have learned by now that rushing a movie isn’t good for its bottom line.

REASONS TO GO: Really nails Los Angeles in the 70s. Some fairly spooky scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Wallis is a bit wooden. Doesn’t measure up to The Conjuring.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing violence and scenes of terror with a couple of demonic images thrown in for good measure.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Annabelle is a Raggedy Anne doll who sits in a glass case in the Occult Museum built by Ed and Lorraine Warren which is where she resides to this day.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Magic
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Pursuit of Happyness

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)


Beauty is only skin deep.

Beauty is only skin deep.

(2011) Thriller (Sony Classics) Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Alamo, Eduard Fernandez, Jose Luis Gomez, Bianca Suarez, Susi Sanchez, Barbara Lennie, Fernando Cayo, Chema Ruiz, Concha Buika, Ana Mena, Teresa Manresa, Fernando Iglesias, Agustin Almodovar, Miguel Almodovar, Marta R. Mahou, Carmen Machi. Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is something of an acquired taste. He has directed zany comedies and taut thrillers but none of his movies really fit into any neat little boxes. His movies tend to push boundaries, whether of things that are considered socially acceptable or of cinematic convention. You may not necessarily like all of his films but they will make an impression.

Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas) is a brilliant surgeon and medical researcher who is on the cusp of an amazing discovery – artificial skin that is flame retardant. His own wife had perished from injuries suffered in a fiery car crash so he has a personal stake in making this breakthrough. When he presents his results at a medical symposium it appears he may well be on his way to a Nobel Prize if things go the way that he hopes.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the good doctor has been performing illegal transgenetic experiments on humans. He is forbidden from continuing any further research on the subject. Of course, that’s not going to stop Dr. Ledgard, who on his secluded estate has been keeping a woman named Vera (Anaya). He has been grafting the artificial skin onto her body and he has gone too far to stop now. Through his loyal maid Marilla (Paredes) he dismisses the other servants and starts to step up testing on the skin.

Unfortunately, it’s about this time that Marilla’s criminal son Zeca (Alamo) turns up while Robert’s away and spies Vera on a closed circuit TV monitor and demands to see her in the flesh. When his mother refuses, he ties her up and rapes Vera, which clearly doesn’t sit well with Robert. These events will lead to an unveiling of secrets, including who Vera is and how she came to be the mad doctor’s captive.

Almodovar based this loosely on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet although he used a bundle of different influences as well, from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast to a number of literary sources which are listed during the end credit acknowledgements. There are a lot of different themes going on here, from medical hubris to personal obsession to the masks we adopt. Then again, Almodovar generally tends to deliver very layered films with themes that often invite controversy or at the very least post-screening discussion.

Banderas was an early Almodovar discovery in such films as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! although he hadn’t worked with the Spanish director in 21 years. Here he is at his best as the creepy, arrogant and psychotic scientist.  Dr. Ledgard believes he is doing good work, although not necessarily for humanity but certainly for his own needs. He is haunted by his dead wife and is literally trying to recreate her from the skin down. Vera is merely the conduit for his mad obsession. He becomes a kind of Dr. Frankenstein but in a modern medical sense. Almodovar handles that aspect rather clinically.

Like most of Almodovar’s films, the appeal isn’t going to be universal. Some will see this movie as way too strange and way too twisted for their own sensibilities and I can certainly understand that; there were times in the movie that I was a little uncomfortable myself and I tend to think of myself as pretty open-minded, cinematically speaking.

The movie’s ending isn’t going to brighten anybody’s day. Still, this is a really good movie for people who love to discuss the nuances of a film with friends afterwards. This is not only an intellectual exercise but an emotional one as well, with some visceral elements. The Skin I Live In isn’t the best of Almodovar’s films nor is it even his most squirm-inducing but it is the closest thing to a true horror film as he is ever likely to get.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting, twisted modern update of Frankenstein. Banderas at his creepy best.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a little too twisted for some. Kind of dreary ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some very strong violence including a sexual assault, graphic nudity and sexuality, some drug use, disturbing images and rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Among the books acknowledged in the end credits as inspirational material (copies of which appear in the bedrooms of Dr. Ledgard and Vera respectively) are The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and Angel at My Table by Janet Frame.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains footage from the New York premiere and an interview with the director conducted before a live audience.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.8M on a $13.5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Without a Face
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Annabelle

Hank and Asha


The movie fails to explore Asha's alcohol issues, alas.

The movie fails to explore Asha’s alcohol issues, alas.

(2013) Romance (FilmRise) Mahira Kakkar, Andrew Pastides, Brian Sloan, Ken Butler, Brian Patrick Murphy, Robyn Kerr, Jean-Baptiste Moreau, Samuel Beckwith, Margot Duff, Jiri Dular, Vaiva Katinaityte, Anna Tydlitatova, Bianca Butti. Directed by James E. Duff

In the 21st century courtship is changing. Once upon a time everything was done face to face. Long distance romance involved writing letters which took days to arrive. Yes, the dark ages of the 1980s when computers were just becoming prevalent in society we resorted to phone calls and letters, as well as actual dates. These days, our communication methods have changed as our technology as changed. Video calls, e-mails and social media have replaced earlier means of communication and thus courtship as well. We get to know each other in different ways than we once did.

Hank (Pastides) is a young man from North Carolina who moved to New York to pursue a career in film making. He managed to make a documentary about ballroom dancing that is making the rounds at festivals around the world, but his main income comes from being a production assistant on a reality show in which spoiled rich kids change their identities for a day. Mainly he sits in a van waiting for his walkie talky to summon him to fetch coffee or chauffeur cast or crew.

Asha (Kakkar) is a woman of Indian background who is studying film in Prague. She caught Hank’s documentary at a film festival there and was much taken by it. She had hoped that he would be present for a Q&A afterwards and was disappointed that he was not, so she decided to ask him a few questions anyway via video mail. She is very pleased to find out he’s a handsome young man and not, as she puts it, a crusty old documentarian which is what she assumed he was.

Hank responds in kind, answering her questions and asking a few of his own. Soon they are corresponding regularly and giving each other video tours of their apartments, of Asha’s film school and Hank’s “office” (the van he drives). They become friends, looking forward to their messages and becoming concerned when there are gaps in the other’s replies. The friendship begins to deepen as they start to make plans to meet in Paris, a place Asha has always wanted to visit. However, like most relationships, making it to Paris requires that a big dose of reality has to be addressed first.

I found the structure of the movie somewhat innovative – basically the movie consists of the exchanged video messages. At no point do the two ever converse directly with each other via video chat, which seems to be something Asha is reluctant to do after Hank suggests it early on. We find out why later on, but that does add a degree of difficulty to the movie in that it becomes something of a found footage romance. Keeping it interesting can be a challenge but the filmmakers actually manage to do that, engaging in a commentary on modern romance via technology along the way.

Hank and Asha make an engaging couple. They mesh well together and are exceedingly cute, not only physically. Asha has a sweet smile and her expression as she samples world famous Czech beer is absolutely precious – beer is most definitely an acquired taste, even excellent beer. There haven’t been many instances I’m aware of where someone tasted beer for the first time and exclaimed “Wow! That’s really delicious!”

For his part, Pastides is a charismatic presence. His face is very expressive and at times he’s required to express frustration, confusion, hurt and goofy charm and often does so wordlessly. He has a sequence that’s essentially a take-off on the Tom Cruise dance from Risky Business that is lovely, although it does go on a bit too long.

The problem with the movie is that it’s essentially an hour and a half of, if you’ll forgive the use of an industry term, meet cute. Montages of them travelling around their respective cities set to jangly indie rock is a bit cliche and a bit of a cheat as well, even though these are sequences supposedly created by Hank and Asha themselves. I found that they stop the movie in their tracks and forced me to grouse about indie film cliches until the movie resumed its conversational tone.

Another thing I would have liked to have seen is the two characters reveal a bit more about themselves. Of course, that might be a point the filmmakers are trying to get across – that modern technology puts up different kinds of walls, allowing us to show only our surface selves and nothing of who we truly are. And that’s a perfectly valid point, to be sure. Yes, Hank talks about his relationship with his parents and Asha has a brief moment where she feels like she doesn’t belong because she’s the only Indian student in the school and so she’s completely out of place but those are fleeting insights and are not really followed up upon. We never truly see Hank and Asha with any depth and quite frankly, the surface aspects of both of them are so engaging that I would have liked to get to know them better. Alas, that is the curse of modern life I suppose.

REASONS TO GO: The couple is utterly adorable. Nice commentary on modern romance.
REASONS TO STAY: Descends into the realm of too cute occasionally..
FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hank and Asha debuted at Slamdance in the dramatic film competition.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Same Time Next Year
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Skin I Live In