The Boxtrolls (2014)

The BoxtrollsReleased: September 26, 2014. Directed by: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi. Starring: Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Elle Fanning. Runtime: 96 min.

For the kids, The Boxtrolls is a colourful animated film that they will remember fondly for a crazy hermit who repeatedly says “Jelly!” For the adults, it’s a clever political satire of the power one man can have over a small populous by planting a single idea in their heads.

Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) convinces the townspeople of Cheesebridge that boxtrolls are a monstrous race that eat children and steal cheeses, and that’s not okay in a town called Cheesebridge. When a boy is stolen by the boxtrolls, a city-wide curfew is put in effect. Rumours fly that the boxtrolls ate the father’s bones. Snatcher uses this as an opportunity to spark a paranoia of the unknown.

In reality, they’re a misunderstood, harmless race that steal what they need, like tiny men from The Borrowers. Their appearance is reminiscent of the annoying Crazy Frog, and their timid personalities are much like turtles (the box is their shell). The logo on the box they wear is also their name. There’s a boxtroll called Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) boy who obviously doesn’t look like the rest of his people. When Snatcher is hired by the town’s mayor (Jared Harris), Eggs tries to stop the numbers of his people from dwindling.

Snatcher’s malicious intentions find reason in motivation: To get a white hat that indicates prestige and privilege. Ben Kingsley offers memorable moments as Snatcher, a creepy, embodiment of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s villainous Child Catcher. He is perhaps out-starred by his three amusing sidekicks who are trying to snatch the boxtrolls. Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost voice a pair who bicker about whether they’re on the good or bad side of the situation. Tracy Morgan portrays the other sidekick, a sadistic Mr. Gristle. The villains use a local heartthrob, Madame Frou Frou, as a channel for propaganda.

When we get to the human “good guys,” things get less interesting. The supporting Winnie (Elle Fanning trying her best) is an uninteresting and mild brat. Her father (the Mayor) is too obsessed with the town’s main export, cheese, to pay attention to her. Cheese’s prominence in the screenplay is strange, one character even compares it to a mother’s smile on a warm spring’s day.

The character of Eggs at the film’s heart isn’t captivating. He leads a story of finding belonging. He’s at his funniest when at a public and prestigious dance. Otherwise, much like minions in Despicable Me, the boxtrolls steal the spotlight with their creative language and antics. They’re diverse (one has a pair of dentures) and amusing, particularly Shoe and Eggs’ caretaker, Fish.

The Boxtrolls boasts detailed animation and a unique visual style. For all of its faults – it’s both sporadically gross and boring – it works just fine. It will keep children entertained and it’s clever enough for adults.

Score: 63/100

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The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)

City of BonessReleased: August 21, 2013. Directed by: Harald Zwart. Starring: Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan. Runtime: 130 min.

“The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” is a bad, silly and largely unoriginal young adult adaptation. It takes components from many other young adult novels – classic love triangle, vampires, a bunch of mythical creatures, and the humans are called mundanes, a spin on muggles it seems – and mixes it into one. Authour Cassandra Clare, originally known for penning Harry Potter fan fiction (which caused a mighty roar of plagiarism), proves that really anyone can write a young adult novel. There’s one South Korean thriller called “Intruders” that includes a character who essentially says that, if a novel is published, it’s going to be read – even if it’s a bad book. Clare’s novel is half-decent, but this really doesn’t work on-screen. It’s as if the big screen amplifies some of its stupidity.

When her mother disappears, Clary Fray learns that she descends from a line of warriors – called Shadowhunters, who are half humans, half angels and apparently all British – who protect our world from demons. She joins forces with others like her and heads into a dangerous alternate New York called Downworld.

This is one of those forgettable movies where the main character learns their life hasn’t been entirely truthful, and then gets hit with a lot of information at once. Some of this information is told to her by an arrogant Shadowhunter named Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower), who she is first afraid of and then (not so gradually) takes a liking to him. Cue the love triangle with Jace and Simon (Robert Sheehan). Further information about this new world is revealed to her by the leader of the Institute, Hodge (Jared Harris), making this another young adult novel where an adult gets the best monologue. By the way, the Institute is a lovely building protected by a glamour that just makes it look like a dump to mundanes. Other characters living in the Institute are Alec Lightwood (Kevin Zegers), a bitter and hateful protagonist, and his sister Isabelle (Jemima West). This film is also a good vs. evil tale where the evil person is Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a power hungry idiot, who, if he gets all of the mortal instruments, could summon demons and rule the world.

"Next time... I want a buzz cut."

“Next time, I want a buzz cut.”

One can tell who the villains are because they have really bad haircuts (with the exception of Robert Maillet’s character). Kevin Durand looks like Friar Tuck in this movie, and his character is way dumb. In a scene involving him that makes this film feel as silly as a parody, is when he randomly humps a character’s leg while interrogating him. I shit you not, this happens in the movie. There’s some laughably bad CGI, shown in a demon octopus thing, and a few vampires. The good CGI is found in the Silent Brothers, who look nightmarish and cool. I think the only half-decent innovation made by screenwriter Jessica Postigo is that Mama Fray (Lena Headey, who, by the way is on-screen only a bit more than Schwarzenegger’s wife in “Batman & Robin”) drinks a coma potion before being abducted, and I don’t remember that happening in the novel. So she makes maybe one decent innovation of her own, but the bad innovations are just horribly bad. She introduces this cringe-worthy concept that classical music is kryptonite for demons, because Johann Sebastian Bach was a shadowhunter… Uh? Ludicrous is the another good word to describe that.

The writing is really bad because it’s often so cheesy. One of the cheesiest moments is during a kissing scene when sprinklers go off, while a Selena Gomez pop song plays over the soundtrack… Kill me. (Another strange score choice is during a fight scene where there is pop music that sounds more like disco music.) You know, on paper, this universe is pretty cool – but this sucks on-screen. The writing has ideas that are inconsistent, and the movie is way too long and uninteresting. Lily Collins helps bring people some enjoyment because she’s really quite decent as her character, and she’s attractive to boot. More on the writing before I move on; Jessica Postigo isn’t completely to blame for most aspects of the writing, because she it’s an adapted screenplay, novelist Cassandra Clare writes in one twist that is truly strange and utterly stupid, especially how it’s handled on screen.

The writing isn’t the only thing that makes this bad, the casting director Stephanie Corsalini only gets the casting right for a few characters. Lily Collins fits the description of Clary and is a good lead, and it helps that she’s very attractive; Kevin Zegers, Jared Harris and Robert Sheehan are good as their respective characters. They’re really the only good actors in this film; Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Valentine is hard to take seriously because he chews the crap out of the scenery.

Campbell Bower isn’t strong as his character, because he’s bland, can’t land a joke, and his seriousness makes his arrogant character downright boring. Alex Pettyfer would be a much better Jace. Matthew Davis (TV’s “The Vampire Diaries”) or Mark Pellegrino might make a better Luke, too. But the worst casting is Godfrey Gao as Magnus Bane, because he is a god-awful actor who should stick to modelling, and if memory serves me well, Bane is described as muscular in the books. Or maybe there’s a perception of him being muscular because of Bane in Batman. All I know for sure, this skinny Asian dude sucks as him. Anyway, the movie just sucks altogether, from the bad writing to the poor casting, and the boring plotting. The tonal choices also don’t make much sense, either; sometimes it takes itself too seriously, and sometimes it embraces campiness too much. Pick one, please. The only redeeming qualities are a few okay fight scenes and Collins’ attractiveness.

Score30/100

Pompeii (2014)

PompeiiReleased: February 21, 2014. Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson. Starring: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland. Runtime: 105 min.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson steps onto new territory for him with “Pompeii,” after directing a deadly fast car race (“Death Race”), aliens and predators (“AVP: Alien vs. Predator”) and mutated creatures (three of the “Resident Evil” movies). “Pompeii” has been described as a mix between “Gladiator” and “Titanic.” A good marketing statement considering those are both Best Picture winners; and successful at the box office, “Titanic” being wildly successful. It’s easy why people might think of “Gladiator,” because there are indeed gladiator scenes and it follows a gladiator; its “Titanic” connections are because of the class differences between the two lead love interests, and because this is a disaster film. But you know, this really doesn’t have as much Oscar potential as those two films.

Milo – a.k.a. The Kelt (portrayed by Kit Harington) – is a slave-turned-gladiator who comes to Pompeii to entertain the people with a fight to the death. He finds one thing in Pompeii that he was not anticipating; the love of the Princess of Pompeii, Cassia (Emily Browning). Cue the love triangle because corrupt Roman Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) has his eyes set on her hand in marriage. Milo soon enough finds himself in a race-against-time to save Cassia, risking his life as Mount Vesuvius erupts, as Pompeii crumbles around him.

The fact that the relationship between Milo and Cassia is described as true love is funny considering the little they actually talk to each other. Because of that, this feels like a Disney fairy tale romance, but not particularly the charming kind. At least the relationship in “Titanic” is believable because they spend a lot of time together (enabled by the film’s runtime), but the couple here probably share twenty minutes of screen time; an hour or two real time. They’re likeable enough, but their chemistry is only okay because of that. Kit Harington is good in his role, as a slave-turned-gladiator who is the last of his villagers – the Horsemen. When he was young, he witnessed his fellow villagers be killed by Romans. Because of that his motivation is revenge, his love for Cassia, and survival. I can see some action movie star potential in him.

Emily Browning is good as Cassia, too; the pretty Australian portraying an independent woman who is put in an awkward position having to choose between an unhappy life, but good one where she’d get all she wants, with Senator Corvus; or choose a happy life with Milo, even if it doesn’t have guaranteed economic greatness. Love still seemed simpler in 79 A.D., at least the falling in love aspect of things. I mean, they hardly know each other; she’s just amazed by his kindness, and Milo sees a beautiful, independent woman. All just have to question the realism of the fictionalized romance.

Kiefer Sutherland sports a weird British accent that’s unidentifiable and inconsistent (mostly when he projects his voice) but he’s pretty good as the villain. Corvus came to Pompeii with plans of investing in the city of Pompeii, and he just happened to run into Cassia after they met in Rome. Coincidence? I think not. Anyway, Jared Harris and Carie-Anne Moss are patriarch and matriarch of royal family of Pompeii. The cast’s a good ensemble. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (TV’s “Lost”, “The Bourne Identity”) portrays Atticus, a fellow gladiator in the town of Pompeii who is one fight away from freedom. Freedom and survival is his drive, and I think he is the most interesting character out of the bunch. It’s funny, that even in non-prison movies – when a new gladiator (Milo, said to be the best) is on the block, he always gets challenged by big brutes. I find it funny.

The characters are fictionalized because the historical accuracies are based on a first-hand-account by Pliny the Younger. He couldn’t know these characters, and the relationship developments are so tailored for the big screen they couldn’t be true. I’m not saying the characters are bad, I’m just saying that if they didn’t have them, the volcano eruption would just be depicted on the Discovery Channel. People are coming to see this because it’s a disaster film with blockbuster visuals, great production design and sets that are built just so they could get destroyed; woo-hoo! It has one of the unwritten rules of disaster films; if the floor is crumbling, a character has to jump over it in a car (a horse in this case) in slow motion. I don’t think W.S. Anderson could resist doing that.

The gladiator scenes are actually exciting, too, sometimes brief – which I’m a fan of because if it’s a lesser villain against a main character, the audience knows who will win – so it’s nice that those fights don’t get dragged on. The editing during those scenes is good, not too quick and during some fights there are far away shots which I like. The disaster aspect of this is exciting (but it isn’t a fun disaster film like “The Day After Tomorrow” because, keep in mind, this is true) and it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of the eruption by the end of it all; I learn there was an initial eruption on August 24, 79; and then another the next day that was much more powerful, even though in the film it’s depicted as a powerful one erupting, and then a few others eruptions as they try to escape. For the audience, the disaster aspect is about thirty or forty minutes I’d guess; in real time, this lasted about 25 hours.

Another inaccurate portrayal is that it only portrays Pompeii as the only city that’s affected; Herculaneum and Stabiae were also affected by the eruption, but only Pompeii is mentioned. And heck, I don’t even clearly remember the name of the volcano (Vesuvius) being said. The eruption is foreshadowed by the volcano bubbling, and by horses going crazy when earthquakes occur. In all, thirteen thousand people died from the eruption; and it all happened so fast, most citizens were cemented in place (because of the mix of rain and ash, turning them into statues so to speak) in their position until the site was uncovered in 1595, over 1500 years later! Fascinating, right? Anderson depicts this tragedy with accuracy as far as the disaster goes; using blockbuster visuals, a good score, and the great cast lifts a fairly weak surrounding story to good.

Score70/100