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

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

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

The Good Lie


The importance of family is universal.

The importance of family is universal.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Reese Witherspoon, Corey Stoll, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Kuoth Wiel, Femi Oguns, Sarah Baker, Lindsey Garrett, Peterdeng Mongok, Okwar Jale, Thon Kueth, Deng Ajuet, Keji Jale, David Madingi, Kon Akuoe Auok, Sibusisi Moyo, Elikana Jale, Afemo Omilami, Michael Cole, Brian Kurlander. Directed by Philippe Falardeau

From 1983 to 2005, the Second Sudanese Civil War was one of the longest wars of its kind on record, and one of the most lethal wars in modern history. Nearly two million people died as a direct result of the war or from the famine and disease that followed it. Four million people were displaced, many more than once. Atrocities were committed by both sides, the government forces and the rebels alike. Many children were forced to serve as soldiers.

During the fighting, entire villages were wiped out and that’s what happened to Mamere (Mongok), Theo (O. Jale), Abital (K. Jale) and their brothers. They tried to make it out to Ethiopia on foot but the fighting was so intense they were forced to find a refugee camp in Kenya, a trip of nearly one thousand miles. Not all of the kids would make it to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Theo, in fact, would sacrifice himself when soldiers see Mamere. They take Theo, allowing the other kids who now included Jeremiah (Kueth) to escape and make it to Kakuma.

There they waited for thirteen years, hoping and praying to be allowed to emigrate to the United States. Now grown, Mamere (Oceng) has become an assistant to Dr. Monyang (Omilami) and dreams of going to medical school. Jeremiah (Duany), a devout Christian, leads religious services in the camp. Paul (Jal) who they also picked up along the way, is thoroughly traumatized but all three of them fiercely protect their sister Abital (Wiel).

Then, the good news comes and they are allowed to fly to the States but once there they are in for a shock. For one thing, a bureaucratic INS regulation forces the family to be separated with Abital going to Boston with a foster family there and the boys sent to Kansas City to find work. They are met at the airport by Carrie Davis (Witherspoon), a spirited woman whose life is a bit of a mess, who is supposed to assist them with finding jobs – the charity worker Pamela (Baker) having been unable to pick them up.

It becomes clear that neither the agency nor the charity are prepared for these lost boys who have lived in a village their entire lives and do not know what a telephone is as Carrie discovers when she tries to call them. They have no concept of privacy or understanding of technology. The culture shock is overwhelming, but what is beating them down most is the separation from their sister. Although Carrie’s boss Jack (Stoll) warns her not to get involved, she can’t help but want to help them and so begins an odyssey to reunite a shattered family.

While the story itself is fiction, it is nonetheless based on actual events. The actors playing the refugees are Sudanese Lost Boys themselves, which adds a certain level of poignancy to the film; just try to make it through the end credits with a dry eye. A couple of them were child soldiers as well. With the exception of Duany who previously appeared in I Heart Huckabees they aren’t professional actors. You’d never know it from watching this.

Some might get the impression that this is a starring vehicle for Witherspoon but that would be incorrect. She has an important supporting role but it is the Sudanese actors who are the leads here. This is their story; Carrie just plays a part in it. Witherspoon, a fine actress, does a great job in a most decidedly un-glamorous role but she doesn’t appear in the film until nearly half an hour in. If you’re planning on seeing the film just to see her, you are in for a disappointment.

In many ways while we were heaping mea culpas on ourselves for ignoring the Rwandan genocide we were ignoring the carnage going on in the Sudan at the same time. Many people are unaware of the Sudanese Lost Boys or how they have integrated into our society. Some have returned to the South Sudan to help rebuild it now that the war has ended and some have even become part of the government of that new nation (following the Civil War the Sudan split into South Sudan and Sudan, with the latter  retaining its Muslim culture and the former its East African identity. This movie at least serves to illustrate their plight making it important for that reason alone.

Fortunately, it also happens to be a really good movie. Sure, it does drag a little bit in the middle as they first come to the United States and Falardeau inserts maybe more humor in their fish out of water situation than was necessary; we get the point that there was a culture shock. Nonetheless, this is a moving experience that will leave you feeling empathy for these kids who saw things children should never see and made choices nobody should have to make.

Frankly, I’m astonished that it hasn’t gotten any sort of push from the studio – it certainly will contend for top ten movies of the year with me but most folks, even some movie buffs, haven’t heard of this movie which received a pretty cursory release. Not that Warners should feel like they had to give it a wider release because of the subject matter but I think had this made more screens more moviegoers might have found this film, which deserves a much larger audience than it has gotten so far. I hope at least a few of you are motivated to go check this extraordinary film out. It deserves your support.

REASONS TO GO: Important subject matter. Affecting performances by the largely Sudanese cast. Witherspoon and Stoll are both impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes the fish out of water element. Lags a bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: At times the themes can be rather intense. There’s some violence (although little blood) and occasional rough language. There is also a scene or two of drug use..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Falardeau came to prominence with an Oscar nomination for Monsieur Lazhar in 2012.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hotel Rwanda
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Hank and Asha

The Maze Runner


There's no David Bowie at the center of this labyrinth.

There’s no David Bowie at the center of this labyrinth.

(2014) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Kara Scodelario, Aml Ameen, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Dexter Darden, Chris Sheffield, Joe Adler, Alexander Flores, Jacob Latimore, Randall D. Cunningham, Don McManus, Michael Bow, Jerry Clark, Gary Hood, Nick Killebrew. Directed by Wes Ball

We generally have a good sense of where we are and who we are. When we wake up in the morning, we know we are in familiar territory, where we’re supposed to be. But what if you woke up one morning and didn’t have a clue where you were – or even your own name?

But that’s what happens to each and every boy in the strange place they call the Glade. A grassy knoll with a small forest surrounded by huge walls, every month without fail an elevator brings up a new arrival and supplies. What doesn’t come up the elevator they grow. It’s a fairly pastoral life. When the boys – and they’re all boys – wake up, they have no memory of who they are, where they are or where they came from. They’re just there. After a day or two, they remember their first name, but that’s all.

This month’s new arrival is Thomas (O’Brien). He is given the lay of the land by Alby (Ameen), the charismatic leader of the boys. Thomas is a curious sort. What’s beyond the walls? The maze. Why don’t you just leave? We can’t. Why not? There are monsters. They’re called Grievers. Nobody who spends the night in the maze survives. Is there a way out? We’re looking for it. We send runners into the maze every day to map it out. We haven’t found the exit yet but we will. How long have you been looking? Three years.

Thomas is befriended by Chuck (Cooper), a younger heavyset boy, and Newt (Brodie-Sangster), a quiet British chap. There’s also Gally (Poulter), a by-the-book sort who detests change and lives in justified fear of what’s out there, and Minho (Lee), the leader of the runners who comes to a grudging respect for Thomas who seems to be a born leader. But who put them there and why?

This is based on the classic James Dashner young adult sci-fi epic, the first of several books in a series. It’s one of those books that, like the TV series Lost always winds up generating a lot of questions and for every question it answers raises two or more new ones in its place.

Definitely meant to appeal to young adolescent boys in the same way Twilight and The Hunger Games appeals to young adolescent girls, in Thomas we have a taciturn, curious and brave young man. Teen Wolf star O’Brien plays him with a kind of blank expression most of the time, pulling out grief and rage when the occasion calls for it. I don’t know if it’s a sign of limited range or that range wasn’t called for here; it left me a little bit cold for the character.

Most of the support is all right, particularly Poulter playing a very different character than his geeky kid in We’re the Millers. Patricia Clarkson stops by for a cup of coffee near the end and Brodie-Sangster is effective as Newt. Scodelario who is the only female with any appreciable screen time seems to have been cast mainly for her resemblance to Kristen Stewart and Lee is actually pretty good as a kind of junior John Cho.

Miller comes off with the most promise as a more likable version of Chunk from The Goonies. Chuck has a certain hero-worship for Thomas but is capable of standing on his own two feet. Chuck is loyal to a fault and may not have the physical presence of Thomas but has his back unconditionally. Miller captured all of that and in many ways was much more interesting than O’Brien. I’d much rather have spent more time with Chuck than with the more conventional hero Thomas.

The Grievers are nightmarish, a kind of biotech weapon that is part machine and part creature, spiders with silver legs and many, many teeth. They also have stingers that inject a venom into their victims that drives them violently made, wreaking further havoc. The easily impressionable who are prone to nightmares should think twice about seeing this one.

I left characterizing this as a kind of Lord of the Flies with hints of Lost and Divergent thrown in for good measure and that’s as much hint about the rest of the story as I’m willing to give. There is plenty of CGI, most of it okay but none of it really awe-inspiring.

The ending is pretty much there to set up a sequel (which has already been greenlit based on this film’s successful first weekend). There really isn’t any feeling of a conclusion and so I left the theater curiously unsatisfied. I would need another movie to allow me feel like I’d actually seen a complete movie beginning to end.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely scary monsters. Some good supporting performances. Definitely for those who wanted to see Lord of the Flies done by the Lost creative team.
REASONS TO STAY: O’Brien is a bit wooden. Unsatisfying ending.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some foul language. The Grievers are pretty nightmare-inducing as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth movie in which Judd and Freeman have appeared together in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Divergent
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Definitely Maybe!

A Walk Among the Tombstones


No more cracks about being too old for this.

No more cracks about being too old for this.

(2014) Mystery (Universal) Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Adam David Thompson, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Sebastian Roche, Danielle Rose Russell, Natia Dune, David Anzuelo, Whitney Able, Maurice Compte, Laura Birn, Razane Jammal, Eric Nelsen, Frank De Julio, Mark Consuelos, Marielle Heller, Novella Nelson. Directed by Scott Frank

They don’t make ‘em like Sam Spade anymore. Or Lew Archer. Or Philip Marlowe. Or Humphrey Bogart for that matter. Noir detectives – hard bitten, hard drinking tough guys who were often knights in tarnished armor, strong men with stronger codes. Life has kicked the crap out of them – it’s a dog eat dog world after all – but if the weak or the helpless are threatened, well, get ready for a fight.

Matt Scudder (Neeson) is a throwback to those kinds of guys. He used to be a hard-bitten hard-drinking tough guy on the NYPD until a particularly bad day at the office. These days – which happen to be 1999 – he’s an unlicensed private investigator which he describes as “Sometimes I do people favors. Sometimes they give me gifts.”

He’s not too picky about his clientele. When Peter Kristo (Holbrook), who attends AA meetings with Matt, approaches him on behalf of his brother Kenny (Stevens), Matt is wary at first. Kenny is a drug dealer whose wife Carrie (Jammal) was kidnapped. Finding her isn’t the problem – Kenny’s already found her. In pieces. After he paid the ransom.

This doesn’t sit well with him. He wants the guys who did it found and brought to him, preferably alive. Matt doesn’t want any part of a revenge killing – until he hears the audio tape the killers left for Kenny. Once he hears that he’s all in.

As he investigates he discovers that Carrie Kristo wasn’t the first victim and she’s probably not going to be the last. His investigations take him to a graveyard groundskeeper (Olafsson) who found the first body and to the seamy side of New York. He is assisted by TJ (Bradley), a tough-talking African-American street kid who wants to be a P.I. just like in the books he’s read at the public library where he essentially hangs out all the time. However, the killers (Harbour, Thompson) have selected another victim and this time she’s a true innocent. Time is running out.

The movie is based on the tenth in a series of 17 (and counting) books by crime author Lawrence Block. The fifth, 8 Million Ways to Die, was brought to the silver screen back in 1986 with Jeff Bridges taking on the Scudder role. I haven’t seen that one in ages (it used to be in regular rotation on cable) but I do appreciate Neeson’s take on the role better; he conveys the inner darkness of the character much better.

Frank, who exhibited a good deal of potential in the thriller genre with the Joseph Gordon-Levitt film The Lookout continues to impress at his ability to deliver that dark, noir-ish mood while keeping the movie essentially modern despite its setting of 15 years ago. The Y2K undercurrent seems a bit quaint these days – and boy does it bring back memories.

This is definitely Neeson’s film and he carries it with both dignity and toughness. He’s the kind of guy who will punch a guy through a glass window but will buy a street urchin pancakes. He’s made some awful, awful choices in his life and other people have paid for some of his mistakes. He’s trying the straight and narrow but he seems to exist mostly in the grey area between there and the dark and lawless. Neeson is the perfect choice for Scudder.

Now about TJ. Let me first give full disclosure by asserting that I haven’t read any of the books in the series. The character of TJ is introduced in the ninth book in the series. I have read elsewhere that he doesn’t appear in this particular installment. Quite frankly, I found his presence unnecessary and distracting. During the climax of the movie, the character commits the cardinal kid sin by going exactly to the wrong place at the wrong time to be in the most peril. It derailed the movie for me and made me want to find the nearest wall and bang my head against it. Sorry guys, but this cliche is older than the original noir pics and it was just as unwelcome back then. The young actor that plays TJ is engaging – but again, it seems kind of gimmicky and unnecessary to have him in the movie.

There are some really great moments in the movie – sadly several of them are on display in the trailer. There would have been some franchise potential here although the box office numbers sadly don’t seem to justify it so chances are this is the last of Matt Scudder we’re going to see for awhile. I have to say I’m glad to see that noir films are making a bit of a comeback with this and the much better Cold in July both hitting the multiplex this year. Now if we could only get screwball comedies to make a comeback.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson perfect as the brooding action anti-hero. Grim and gritty.
REASONS TO STAY: The TJ character completely unnecessary and gets in the way.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some pretty intense violence, themes and images, sexuality and brief nudity and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ruth Wilson was cast as Matt Scudder’s partner Joe Durkin (male in the book) but director Scott Frank felt that the character was essentially a loner and a partner would only confuse things, so the role was eliminated and all the scenes filmed with Wilson were cut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Se7en
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Maze Runner