Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hector and The Search for Happiness Review

“Hector and the Search for Happiness,” is an uplifting, life affirming travel comedy in a similar vein to Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” from last year. Both revolve around males who live tidy but unsatisfying lives and want a little more excitement. In “Mitty,” the daydreamer Walter (Stiller) is a lowly and lonely picture archives worker at Time magazine who embarks on a grand adventure around the world to retrieve a missing photo. In “Hector,” Hector (Simon Pegg) is a dissatisfied psychiatrist who feels like he doesn’t have enough life experience to give his clients any real advice on how to be happy, so he embarks on a global journey to find out the meaning of happiness.

 “Hector” is a positive movie, something that’s scarce in the current cinema landscape. It may get you in the mood to travel but for all its globe trotting it’s not all that enlightening and it builds to a fairly obvious and simple outcome. In the long run, both “Hector” and “Mitty” feel outdated and stale instead of original and lively.

A problem “Hector” (directed by Peter Chelsom and based on the book by Francois Lelord) faces early on is that Hector’s life—as it is before he goes on his journey—doesn’t seem all that bad. He makes good money, he has time for hobbies such as flying remote control airplanes in the park and he has a loving, supportive girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike) who practically takes care of him. And yet he still complains about being unhappy. There’s not much at stake here. There’s not much to make the audience very sympathetic towards him and his problems.

And so when he goes gallivanting off to China, Africa and finally Los Angeles—to meet up with an old flame played by Toni Collette—it feels like a really selfish act. We’d all like to just get away and travel around the world but not all of us have the time and high paying jobs like Hector. Plus, what about Hector’s patients? You’re not a very good psychiatrist if you decide, out of the blue, to travel around the world for no set amount of time. All of this wouldn’t be as big a deal if the movie was purely comedy but while it does feature plenty of goofy moments, I’m not sure Chelsom is going strictly for comedy.

This is the next major issue that “Hector” suffers from. Tonally, it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do. Sometimes it plays like a wacky travel comedy, containing annoying quirky comedy movie gimmicks--the drawings in Hector’s notebook he brings with him become animated for some reason-- while at other times it plays like a sappy, heavy-handed light drama about self-discovery. The scenes featuring Hector interviewing various people along his journey—Monks in a Chinese monastery, a businessman played by Stellan Skarsgard whose idea of happiness is money, a gangster played by Jean Reno in Africa—asking them to define happiness, begin to feel preachy, tedious and repetitive. Surprise! Happiness is comprised of many things.

Not only that, the movie inserts peculiar bursts of intense drama, as when Hector is taken hostage by rebels in Africa. This appears to be the only serious conflict in the entire movie and yet Chelsom treats it like it’s no big deal. Through a stroke of luck Hector is released and he continues traveling. Now, had Chelsom used this incident as a way to snap Hector back into reality and make him realize that his old life may have been mundane and unadventurous but it’s better than being kidnapped, “Hector” might have been worthwhile. But no, as Hector resumes his travels, the movie goes back to its wacky and sappy ways. I’m sorry but being kidnapped isn’t something you just shake off; intense brutal scenes of abduction don’t gel with quirky notebook animations. Maybe that’s just me.

What’s most frustrating about the movie though is that for all the traveling Hector does and all the stuff he learns about the subject of happiness it ends on a rather trite and underwhelming note. I won’t spoil anything but it involves, of all things, love. The movie is supposed to be an exploration of happiness and yet it decides to go for a simple, cliché romantic-comedy ending.

Fortunately, the movie has Pegg, who’s in top form as always. The forty four year old English actor plays the benevolent, “head in the clouds” kind of guy with ease and his Hector is certainly a more engaging protagonist than Stiller’s mopey, timid Walter in “Walter Mitty.” Pegg is the only thing that gives “Hector” any kind of life. Without him it would be nearly unwatchable.


The Equalizer Review

At the start of “The Equalizer,” when we see Denzel Washington working a lowly job at a home repair store (“Home Mart”), pushing around sacks of concrete and wearing an apron, we know something’s not quite right. The actor exerts a natural assuredness that automatically elevates him above such meager work. Washington makes acting look effortless but he also doesn’t have much range. Like Tom Cruise or John Wayne you generally know what to expect when watching a Denzel Washington character; wise, charismatic and oh-so-cool. He’s a lot of fun to watch but this familiarity removes some element of surprise. We don’t know exactly what he’s hiding from or covering up but we know there’s more to him than meets the eye. He’s overqualified for that job at Home Mart.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua—who also directed Washington in “Training Day”—“The Equalizer” finds Washington playing a modern day Ronin: humble but deadly. Although that last characteristic isn’t made clear right away. Fuqua chooses to take his time in setting up the character—known as Robert—before letting him show off his skills. Residing in Boston, he lives a repetitively mundane but stable life, obviously hiding a mysterious past. He goes to work at Home Mart, has a cup of tea at a diner while reading and then goes home. He lives modestly--like a Monk—in an apartment containing only the bare essentials.

He offers help whenever he can but with his intellect and years of experience rather than his fists. He acts as a sort of parental figure/role model to the young people in his life—co-workers and other acquaintances—giving them dietary and other kinds of life advice. And they wisely take it. Hell, I would.

Robert appears too content with his simple unexciting lifestyle, perhaps because his older life was chocked full of excitement. But he can’t hide who he is for very long.  One night in the diner he befriends an underage Russian hooker Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) and after she’s beaten by her pimp he decides to intervene.

The first half of “The Equalizer” works well as a deliberate, vigilante/revenge style thriller that uses violence sparingly and therefore effectively. Revenge is a peculiar thing suited perfectly for the movies. In real life it solves nothing, on the silver screen it solves everything. And if done well it can be extremely satisfying. “The Equalizer” contains many satisfying sequences featuring Washington sticking it to various baddies. Like all humble warriors or vigilantes, Robert has a strict moral code and sees his acts of violence as righteous and necessary. His approach to fighting is calculating; assessing each situation carefully before acting and showing restraint when necessary. For example, when a man robs Home Mart, instead of kicking the scumbag’s ass right there he waits—a woman and her three young children walk into the store right then—and gets him back later.

Unfortunately, the movie goes off the rails in the second half. After Robert slaughters Teri’s pimp and four of his associates—a scene that made me giddy with pleasure—a can of worms is opened and the Russian mob sends in Teddy--a “psychopath with a business card” as described by one character--to take care of him. I enjoyed the rivalry that ensues between these two professionals and I enjoyed Marton Csokes delightfully campy performance. It serves as a nice counterpoint to Washington’s cool meticulousness. But Fuqua makes things more complicated than he needs to. What begins as a simple entertaining story of vengeance turns into an over-the-top B-movie that has Robert taking on the entire Russian mob, along with a few corrupt cops. At two hours and eleven minutes, the move feels closer to three hours, prolonging a predictable outcome. Fuqua increases the amount of action, making it feel tedious and repetitive. The climactic battle sequence that has Robert killing Teddy’s men with building tools in Home Mart would have been awesome if it didn’t go on so long.

Worst of all, we learn about Robert’s past. Not all of it but enough to spoil the character’s mystique somewhat. This segment could have been axed entirely. We don’t need to learn about his past, or where he obtained his skills. The actions he does, the decisions he makes during the movie gives us all we need. In the end, “The Equalizer” simply has too much fat and becomes too farfetched.

Still, Washington is one cool cat. He may play the same character over and over—he may not be convincing as an average Joe working at a home repair store—but he’s damn good at what he does. Washington’s recent filmography hasn’t been all that impressive but he consistently makes the best of his role. Now he just needs to look for better scripts to complement his immense talent. 


The Boxtrolls Review

There’s something refreshing about the stop motion animation films that come out of the animation studio Laika. (They include, “Coraline,” and “Paranorman.”) These films aren’t as vibrant and colorful as most mainstream animated features; the characters are often oddly proportioned and look malnourished, as if they’ve gotten the plague. And instead of being completely goofy and upbeat, they also try to tackle darker, more adult themes--without being too dark—to keep the parents in the audience interested. In a sea of similar looking mainstream animated movies the Laika films stand out.

Their latest, “The Boxtrolls,” is no different. Visually, it’s very dreary, taking place primarily during foggy, rainy nights. The town where all of the action takes place practically comes straight from a German expressionist movie; the buildings are jagged, crooked and smashed together. And I don’t think you could say any of the characters look “cute” in a conventional sense. Yet, the movie still comes fully to life, popping off the screen despite its dim color palette. Co-directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi move the action along at a snappy pace, practically every frame is bustling and humming with activity. There’s hardly a dead moment in the entire movie.

Most of the activity and high energy level come from the Boxtrolls themselves. We’re first introduced to them--their small stature, nearly hairless bodies, pale blue skin and Gargoyle like facial features – as they scurry about in an alley late at night. Rummaging through trash cans and junk heaps for food and supplies. Grunting and speaking gibberish, they resemble grotesque versions of the Minions from “Despicable Me.” Of course they’re not actually grotesque or malevolent but instead nurturing and shy—they wear cardboard boxes and hide in them like hermit crabs-- they’ve even adopted a human baby named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) into their underground society.

“The Boxtrolls” tells a classic kids’ story of misunderstanding and fearing what one doesn’t know, leading to the upbeat conclusion that everyone can change. Due to an incident that happened years ago the humans now view Boxtrolls as vicious, baby eating menaces. The cheese loving upper class—I’m not kidding, the rich people love their cheese— led by Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) decide to have the entire species exterminated. So, it’s up to Eggs and Winnie, (Elle Fanning) the daughter of Portley-Rinds, to try and set things right.

All of this is handled in a mostly entertaining, pleasurable manner. Heavy-handed in some areas but I guess that’s to be expected in a children’s film. The kid heroes are developed just enough to be engaging and likable animated movie protagonists. Eggs predictably goes through an identity crisis—is he a boy or a Boxtroll? Why can’t he be both? —and Winnie is a standard spunky, curious girl who doesn’t fit in with her snobby, narrow-minded parents and the upper class lifestyle.

However, it’s the character of Archibald Snatcher (a virtually unrecognizable voice from Ben Kingsley) that makes “The Boxtrolls” all the more interesting. Right from the start we know Snatcher is the movie’s antagonist not just because he’s in charge of the Boxtroll extermination but also because he looks like a cross between a zombie and a goblin, with a little bit of The Penguin thrown in. Though Snatcher isn’t merely a one-dimensional cartoon villain hellbent on killing the Boxtrolls. He accepts the extermination job because he wants so badly to be accepted by Portley-Rind and his upper class friends. He wants to be included in their exclusive cheese-tasting club. In his spare time, Snatcher holds mock cheese tasting club meetings with his cronies even though he’s allergic to the food and dresses up as a woman in order to frequent upper-class parties and receive even more attention from the wealthy. But Portley-Rind and his friends find Snatcher repulsive and have no desire to let him into their club, into their lifestyle.

“The Boxtrolls” may be one of the few recent animated movies to openly critique the upper class. Portley-Rind is so self-centered that he’d rather spend all his time with his cheese club friends than with his daughter, and would rather spend money on a gigantic cheese wheel—called the “Bree-hemoth--” than build an orphanage. (The movie has many clever cheese/dairy related puns like this.)  Snatcher is clearly supposed to be the villain but honestly I felt more sympathy towards him than I did Portley-Rind or the other rich people. In the end, Snatcher takes things too far but his motivations for doing what he does cut much deeper than simply: he’s a bad guy who wants to do bad things. He’s the most compelling aspect of the entire picture.

Of course all of this will go right over young children’s heads, but that’s ok. While the kiddies in the crowd enjoy the simple, kinetic antics of Eggs, Winnie and the Boxtrolls, parents can be entertained by Snatcher’s strenuous—and also sad—attempts to be accepted by the upper-class. In my view, any animated movie that’s given a wide, theatrical release should contain something for both kids and adults.

“The Boxtrolls” is easily Laika’s best movie. As much as I enjoyed “Paranorman” and “Coraline” both ran into their share of dead moments, especially “Paranorman.” I was never bored once during “Boxtrolls”; it’s consistently entertaining and clever. It never meanders, the animation is top notch and it can be easily enjoyed by us adults. You don’t need much more than that from a mainstream animated movie.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Walk Among The Tombstones Review

Scott Frank’s “A Walk Among the Tombstones”—based on the book series by Lawrence Block--is essentially a classic private eye noir with a much much bleaker outlook on life. Most of the action takes place in 1999 and with headlines about Y2K splashed all over the front pages of newspapers there’s already a high amount of paranoia and anxiety looming in the air. The perfect atmosphere for a tense neo noir.

If the lines between good and evil were blurry in the noirs of the 40’s and 50’s, --and even the Neo Noirs of the 70’s and 80’s-- those lines are practically invisible in “Tombstones.” With the exception of one brief scene, cops—as well as any representations of the law—are nonexistent. Frank’s picture consists of criminals in varying degrees doing business with one another. While certainly not game changing or as complex as it thinks it is, the film is well executed with only a few hiccups along the way.

One of those criminals is also our hero, Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson), an unlicensed private eye. “Unlicensed” is the key word there. The P.I.’s of the past, played by Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson and Eliot Gould, were always formally known as P.I.’s. Their methods may have been questionable but they were always licensed, they even had a formal office setup, sometimes with a secretary. On the other hand, Matthew walks the streets, hands placed firmly in his coat pockets, sporting nothing but an expired police badge. However, this doesn’t make him any less good at his job. Like Bogart, Scudder is quick witted—Frank gives Neeson some great, witty dialogue to work with—resourceful and just plain cool. He may not always know what exactly is going on but in a one on one situation he gets the upper hand.

Like the movie, Scudder acts deliberately, dealing with situations in a relaxed, cautious manner. This is in contrast to the alcoholic Officer Scudder we see in the opening scene. He shoots down three criminals attempting to rob a bar—in a similar manner to Dirty Harry—but does so in a reckless manner. Now sober and no longer a cop, Scudder is more careful, more responsible, even though he’s still technically a criminal. This is the best movie Neeson has been in in a long time; he plays Scudder with his usual gravelly determination but the character is firmly planted in reality. He can still kick ass, but he’s not some cartoon character like he was in the “Taken” movies that can do ridiculous things. Nothing about “Tombstones” feels outwardly ridiculous or out of bounds. It’s a dark film with very subtle undertones of humor but the humor comes naturally from character and dialogue.

 The central story involves Scudder helping drug dealer Kenny (Dan Stevens) find the men that kidnapped and killed his wife, and stop them before it happens again. Right off the bat, Scott is testing our sympathies. Why should we side with a drug dealer? You could say that the wife was innocent and didn’t deserve to die but by marrying a drug dealer she must have known the risks involved. It turns out that the two killers are a much worse breed of criminal. Rapists and killers that target the loved ones of drug dealers. Who use old connections from a federal agency to get the records of their victims. (Between this and Frank’s reckless episode as a cop, the picture seems to have an extremely pessimistic view of law enforcement and federal agencies). By the end, we still may not feel sympathetic towards Kenny or the other drug dealers but we want to see those two sadists pay and we want to see Scudder deliver their punishment. In the world of criminals, the more detestable ones become the antagonists.

The only person who isn’t a criminal is TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley”) a homeless teen that befriends Scudder. Thankfully, Frank doesn’t make TJ into a “boy in peril”—a common stock character for crime thrillers—but instead Scudder’s loyal helper and only real friend. On top of that, Scudder becomes a sort of role model to him. TJ spends a lot of his time in the library and is well versed in those famous P.I.’s like Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade—both played by Bogart—and comes to view Scudder as a “real life” incarnation of them. Newcomer Bradley does a fantastic job; more often than not he holds his own against Neeson. Helping an unlicensed P.I. catch heinous killers isn’t the healthiest, or most constructive hobby for a teenager but it actually keeps T.J from getting into worse trouble or worse habits. In a world of criminals, the least detestable ones become the heroes/role models for kids. Go figure.

Admittedly, the film’s ending is too drawn out. I have no problem with that if there’s more to be revealed, story wise, but the mystery in “Tombstones” becomes abundantly clear during the homestretch, so there’s no need to drag it out. This is part of a bigger issue the movie runs into; often times it tries to convince you it’s more elaborate and complex than it actually is, which leads to some unnecessary narrative convolution. For all that happens, the movie is fairly straightforward.

Even so, Frank’s picture is a very solid Neo Noir that further muddles those lines between what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s also one that choses to unfold gradually and uses action more sparingly. Two things that can’t be said about Neeson’s recent cinematic outings. When he kicks ass in “Tombstones,” it has more of an impact.


Tusk Review

Kevin Smith’s “Tusk” is a bizarre, twisted movie. There are disturbing images in it that will remain seared into my memory for months to come. It’s a horror comedy; a cross between an abduction/torture picture and an R rated guy comedy. Think of a more ridiculous “The Human Centipede,” with comedy…and walruses. The picture is set in Canada. A place known for having benevolent, helpful people also houses one Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a crazy old seafarer that had an encounter many years ago that he’s never quite gotten over. This is why he abducts comedy podcaster Wallace (Justin Long).

As far as plot is concerned that’s really all I want to say. “Tusk” is a weird, screwed up movie—I don’t think I’ve quite stressed that enough—but weirdness can only take a film so far, even a horror movie. The rest of it is admittedly weak and insignificant.

Besides Howe, the characters are either obnoxiously written or virtually nonexistent.  Wallace is a big jerk who spends the first twenty or so minutes doing nothing but running his mouth. He only draws sympathy because the treatment he goes through later on shouldn’t happen to anyone. Otherwise he’s completely unlikable. Meanwhile, Wallace’s girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and his podcasting partner Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) figure so prominently into the last third of the movie but hardly make any impression. As I sit here, writing this review, I can’t remember a single interesting thing about them.

And then there’s Johnny Depp—sporting an accent that sounds like a cross between Swedish and Canadian--as Guy LaPointe, an ex cop who knows all about Howe. I’m not sure who’s to blame, Smith or Depp, but Guy is easily the worst, most annoying character Depp has ever played on screen. He’s eccentric just for the sake of being eccentric. The character is absolutely superfluous to the plot and yet he’s given a lengthy scene where he goes on a never-ending monologue explaining an encounter he had with Howe and reexplaining information we already know about the deranged kidnapper. I guess he’s meant to be funny but he isn’t. The audience at my screening remained dead quiet during his tirade. Howe is the only interesting, fully developed character by a mile and Parks does a fine job. But even his performance—initially mysterious and sinister—turns into a series of bloated misanthropic diatribes.

Smith’s pacing is extremely sluggish. The picture is full of dialogue-heavy interactions that—that feel improvised--and that go on way too long without building much character or propelling the story forward. I’m fan of talky movies but a disturbing horror movie is not the place for overly talky sequences like these. After a while they begin to feel self-indulgent and slow the movie down. Eventually, “Tusk” just runs out of juice. Smith’s screenplay doesn’t have enough suspense and tension to sustain the movie’s one hundred and two minute run time. It also doesn’t help that “Tusk” isn’t very funny. Not because of its disturbing nature but because most of the attempts at humor feel forced and overly obnoxious. And any funny individual lines are drowned out by those endless speeches and dialogue back-and-forths.

“Tusk” feels like a personal project of Smith’s; it was conceived on his own podcast, in fact. Considering it’s difficult to find original ideas in movies these days I’m glad he got to make this. It’s sick and twisted, no one will deny that and I’m sure die-hard horror fans will be delighted by it. However, Smith doesn’t have enough material written to warrant a full-length feature; what begins as intriguing quickly turns into a chatty, unfunny bore.