The Boxtrolls review

On Saturday, 27 September 2014, Janice and I met newlyweds Thomas K.Y. and Kai-Yin H. at the refurbished AMC Burlington 10 multiplex for The Boxtrolls. We enjoyed the stop-motion fantasy film.

the Boxtrolls
Charming animated film

Plot: The Boxtrolls opens with what looks like a child being abducted by monsters in the teetering town of Cheesebridge. However, viewers soon learn that the Boxtrolls, so named because they wear discarded cardboard boxes, are not malicious, merely subterranean scavengers and grotesque goblins.

The child becomes a boy named Egg (for the box he threatens to outgrow), even as Archibald Snatcher uses the supposed abduction to whip up hysteria to further his own nefarious ambitions. Unfortunately, the villain is allergic to cheese even as he years to join the town’s “white hats,” or cheese-tasting ruling council (reminding me of the inventor in Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit series).

As more and more Boxtrolls are captured by Snatcher’s dimwitted henchmen, Eggs encounters a girl, Winnie, the daughter of mayor Lord Portley-Rind. She helps him understand the human world, fight Snatcher, and learn about the true circumstances of his kidnapping.

Cast: The colorful characters, whose names could be from a Dickensian or Harry Potter novel, are voiced by a strong mostly British cast. Isaac Hempstead-Wright plays courageous Egg, and Elle Fanning is the plucky Winnie.

Ben Kingsley is the loathsome Archibald Snatcher, who sometimes disguises himself as a woman in an attempt to infiltrate Cheesebridge’s high society. His henchmen, the large Mr. Trout, the self-doubting Mr. Pickles, and the pugnacious Mr. Gristle, are played by Nick Frost (The World’s End), Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), and Tracy Morgan (30 Rock), respectively.

Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Fringe) isLord Portly-Rind. None of the actors was particularly recognizable in their roles, but all gave expressive performances matched by their cartoonish avatars.

Direction: The Boxtrolls, which is based on Here Be Monsters! By Alan Snow, was directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi. They do a good job of juggling action, physical and verbal comedy, and pathos with an absurdist tone with some social commentary — some critics have noticed the strong resemblance between Cheesebridge and Terry Gilliam’s dystopian fantasies.

Cinematography: As one might expect from Laika, the animation studio that produced Coraline and ParaNorman, the stop-motion is excellent, with 3-D printed faces and light computer-enhanced imagery making this one of the smoothest and most baroque-looking films of its type so far.

I liked the environment and character designs, which are reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas or The Pirates! Band of Misfits without being derivative. The closing credits give some insight into the laborious process. The Boxtrolls‘ Rube Goldberg inventions, including Snatcher’s steampunk menace, are fun to watch.

Soundtrack: The music helps keep the action suspenseful, and the title and closing credits help set the tone for a fun, if bizarre adventure. Fittingly, Monty Python’s Eric Idle wrote the title song. (Janice and I recently enjoyed the final simulcast of that comedy troupe’s farewell concert.)

Rating: The Boxtrolls is rated PG for some gross humor and scenes of peril. While I agree that the story for The Boxtrolls isn’t as tight or as clever as that of Coraline or ParaNorman, I’d still compare it favorably with most of the genre. I’d put it slightly below The Lego Movie as my favorite animated movie of the year so far, at a 7.5 or 8 out of 10, a B+/A-, or four out of five stars. I’d definitely recommend The Boxtrolls to fans of British humor and animation.

One of the films I’d like to catch next in the theater is The Book of Life, which is computer-animated rather than stop-motion, but it still looks bright and fun.

After the movie, we went to Besito, a new Mexican restaurant in the Burlington Mall that we all liked. Also this past weekend, Janice and I walked the Minuteman Trail in Lexington, Mass. I know I’m behind on reporting on conventions, seasonal festivals, and more, but I’ll try to catch up, even as the new genre television season begins!

Seasonal SFTV shifts

I’m still catching up on reviews of recent genre entertainment, but last weekend marked a definite changing of the guard on television. No, I’m not talking about the Emmys, which I ignored, just as the academy has ignored Tatiana Maslany’s excellent Orphan Black performances (with Person of Interest, among the best shows of this past year, IMHO).

First was the third season finale of Avatar: the Legend of Korra, which I watched online because Nickelodeon has dropped the animated fantasy. It was bittersweet, because this season has been that show’s strongest yet in terms of character development and plotting.

Last Airbender/Korra wallpaper
The heroes of Avatar

 Sure, Legend of Korra has continued the spectacular world-building and action of its progenitor, Avatar: the Last Airbender, but its first two seasons lurched from one set-piece battle to the next, its leads took a while to mature, and its villains’ motivations weren’t well explained.

It’s also a shame that Legend of Korra hit its stride just as Nickelodeon abandoned it. The finale was rushed, with the duel between the eponymous heroine and dangerous anarchists quickly wrapping things up, with no mention of the crossover between the physical and spirit realms that had marked the season opener.

I look forward to a fourth season, which is reportedly in the works, but it’s too bad that the Avatar universe hasn’t gotten the recognition (or the live-action adaptation) it deserves.

On a related note, I’ve almost finished watching the final episodes of the computer-animated Star Wars: Clone Wars, which has managed to maintain a high level of quality even after Cartoon Network dumped it online. If this is part of a trend, that’s bad news for genre fans; even as a few shows such as Game of Thrones are mainstream hits, other worthy ones will again struggle to find audiences and sponsors.

Star Wars: Clone Wars Season 6
Another online-only wrapup

I’ve argued for a while now that, as with The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, George Lucas, Genndy Tartakovsky, and Dave Filoni’s creation has patched any problems from the franchise’s most recent films. There are more hours of well-crafted entertainment from Clone Wars than in any of the less-popular Star Wars prequels.

Even though Disney/Lucasfilm/Marvel has decided to ignore most of the so-called Expanded Universe, Clone Wars has put that space opera on solid storytelling ground, and I look forward to Disney XD’s Star Wars: Rebels.

Last but not least was the latest season premiere of Doctor Who, with the first full episode featuring Peter Capaldi as the Time Lord. I like an older Doctor, who reminds me of the courtly Jon Pertwee with a bit of Christopher Eccleston’s edge.

Peter Capaldi joins an elite fraternity
Doctors Who

On the other hand, the frenetic pacing and reuse of the “Paternoster Gang” and clockwork villains seemed to be an attempt by producer Steven Moffat to convince the BBC and some fans that elements from David Tennant and Matt Smith’s popular runs will continue.

It’s no surprise that Jenna Coleman will be leaving after this year’s celebration and transition, even as her character, the plucky Clara Oswald, has had to come to grips that the good Gallifreyan no longer appears as a young swain. I hope that the stories are more tightly written in the coming series/season.

What genre TV shows were your favorites this past year, and what are you looking forward to this fall?

Guardians of the Galaxy review

On Saturday, 2 August 2014, Janice and I met Beruk A. and Thomas A.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for an early dinner at Summer Shack and Guardians of the Galaxy at the Apple Cinemas Cambridge. Several other members of the Boston-area social/gaming groups saw the latest Marvel Comics-based movie this past weekend, and we all enjoyed it.

Plot: Guardians of the Galaxy starts out with a young Peter Quill, who is given a mixed tape by his dying mother and is then abducted by aliens. The rest of the movie follows an adult Quill, who has renamed himself “Star Lord” after traveling with space pirates.

A heist gone wrong lands Quill afoul of the Nova Corps (interstellar police) and in jail with a bunch of misfits. They join forces to break out and try to save the galaxy from the evil Thanos’ minions. More hijinks ensue.

The overall outline of the story should be familiar to fans of westerns, samurai flicks, and space operas from Star Wars to Firefly/Serenity. At the same time, the characters come from Marvel’s cosmic comics, giving the cast and crew more creative freedom because they’re not as well-known as, say, Spider-Man, the Avengers, or the X-Men.

Actors: Community‘s Chris Pratt is newly buff as Star Lord but still the cheerful, bumbling everyman he played in The Lego Movie. Unlike many modern antiheroes, the roguish Quill would rather talk his way out of a fight than kill anyone, and he is the heart of the movie.

The band of interstellar adventurers Quill gathers includes Zoe Saldana’s comely assassin Gamora, wrestler Dave Bautista’s bruiser Drax, and Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as talking raccoon Rocket and humanoid tree Groot, respectively. Audiences love the banter between the irascible (computer-animated) Rocket and laconic Groot.

Interstellar adventurers
Disney/Marvel’s latest success

Noteworthy supporting cast members include Michael Rooker as Quill’s piratical mentor Yondu, John C. Reilly as Nova corpsman Dey, and Glenn Close as Nova Prime. While they’re recognizable from numerous other movies, they all seem to be enjoying themselves here.

The bad guys include Lee Pace (from Pushing Daisies and The Hobbit) as Ronan the Accuser, Benicio Del Toro as the Collector (also seen at the end of Thor 2), and Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) as Gamora’s blue-skinned nemesis Nebula. In addition, Josh Brolin plays Kirby villain Thanos, who’ll likely be appearing again in Avengers 3.

Direction and cinematography: James Gunn does a great job of keeping the plot moving, focusing on the appealing characters, and maintaining a fun tone — even with some tragic backstories and the fate of billions at stake — throughout the movie.

Gunn’s love of the 1980s is evident in Guardians of the Galaxy‘s light touch, the many shout-outs to popular culture and science fiction of that era, and the soundtrack (more on that below). He also included numerous “Easter eggs,” or allusions to other Marvel characters.

The action scenes are actually exciting, if still somewhat busy and predictable, and Guardians of the Galaxy reminded me favorably of predecessors such as The Fifth Element, which also had exotic aliens, scruffy underdogs, cool space ships, and planet-hopping capers. As a longtime space opera buff, I’m glad to see such space-based adventures again.

Soundtrack: As the trailer already demonstrated, some 1970s and ’80s music goes a long way to setting an upbeat mood and suspending disbelief. Quill’s mixed audiotape provides the backdrop and impetus for several scenes, and even if I listened to different genres back then, I can appreciate today’s visceral reactions.

Rating: I’d give Guardians of the Galaxy, which is rated PG-13 for violence and unnecessary language, a B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or four out of five stars. Just as interest might be flagging in the current superhero boom on television and in the movies, Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrates Disney/Marvel’s savvy exploration of other styles.

Its plot may be predictable, but the cast and characters are likable, the pacing is solid, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Guardians of the Galaxy ends up being the strongest movie at the box office this summer.

Lucy movie review

On Sunday, 27 July 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. at the Landmark Embassy Cinema in Waltham, Mass., for a matinee of Lucy. We liked this action movie, but it’s more science fantasy than science fiction.

Lucy 2014
Luc Besson directs Scarlett Johannson

Plot: As you may have seen from the trailers, Scarlett Johannson plays a young woman in modern Singapore who becomes an unwilling drug mule and develops superpowers after exposure to a synthetic hormone. Lucy has to stay one step ahead of a criminal gang, and she travels to Paris to meet with Prof. Norman, a scientist played by Morgan Freeman.

Lucy does repeat the myth that most humans use only 10% of their brains. While much of the organ’s processing power is still mysterious, we know that bodily functions and consciousness require an impressive neural network.

In addition, expanded awareness and intelligence isn’t the same thing as being able to manipulate reality, tap into wireless networks, or use telekinesis, telepathy, or teleportation, but it’s fun for a metahuman movie. I am glad that Lucy didn’t show the so-called singularity (merging of human and technology) as necessarily good or evil.

Cast: Johannson plays a naïve blank slate who becomes more than human, continuing her genre streak from The Avengers and Under the Skin. She may not exhibit great emotional range, but she is attractive and manages to convey the physicality needed for Lucy‘s transformation.

As he did in The Lego Movie, Freeman plays his usual sage self, gently spoofing his narration of nature documentaries. Some movie buffs will recognize Min-sik Choi as crime lord Mr. Jang, and Amr Waked is a sympathetic French detective, who is much more competent than usual for a police officer in such movies.

Direction/cinematography: While Disney/Marvel and Warner Bros./DC may be reluctant to produce a female-led superhero movie, Luc Besson is unafraid of such heroines, as seen in La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, one of my favorite genre films of the past 20 years. (On television, Orphan Black covers similar territory well.)

I thought some Prof. Norman’s exposition and the surreal flashes were a bit heavy-handed, and while Besson brings up some big questions about the human condition, evolution, and the responsibility of power, he doesn’t try to answer any of them. Still, the action scenes are satisfying, and car chases involve massive collateral damage, but at least no cities are doomed in Lucy.

Rating: Overall, we liked Lucy, which I’d give a 7 out of 10, three stars, or a “B.” Of the two movies I saw last weekend, I enjoyed Hercules slightly more. Lucy was rated R for violence and language, and I’d recommend it to fans of transhuman fiction, superheroines, and action. Up next is Guardians of the Galaxy!

How to Train Your Dragon 2 review

On Saturday, 21 June 2014, Janice and I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for How to Train Your Dragon 2 at the recently renovated AMC Burlington Cinema 10. We enjoyed the computer-animated fantasy sequel, which had character development and visuals that were at least equal to those in James Cameron’s Avatar or several recent Disney/Pixar films.

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Animated fantasy sequel

Plot: As with most sequels, viewers who skipped the first How to Train Your Dragon won’t appreciate the new movie as fully as they might. Loosely based on Cressida Cowell’s children’s books, the movies (and the Nickelodeon TV series) focus on Hiccup, a scrawny Viking who breaks with tradition in learning to ride dragons rather than fight them.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 picks up a few years after the events of the first movie. Hiccup’s hometown of Berk has learned to coexist with dragons, and we see a quidditch-like race involving his friends.

Restless Hiccup and his Night Fury steed Toothless explore ever farther from his home island and finds his long-lost mother (already “spoiled” in trailers), as well as ruthless pirates who share his gift for communicating with flying reptiles. As in the first movie, sacrifices must be made for the greater good.

Cast: Jay Baruchel returns as a slightly more mature Hiccup, with Gerard Butler as his gruff father and chieftain, Stoick. Cate Blanchett, who hasn’t gotten to interact directly with monsters as Galadriel in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies, brings weariness and hope to Hiccup’s mother Valka.

Other returning voice actors include Craig Ferguson as Stoick’s counselor Gobber, America Ferrera as the winsome Astrid, and Jonah Hill as obnoxious Snotlout.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse is Fishlegs, who vies with Snotlout for Ruffnut’s (Kristen Wiig) attentions while her twin Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) looks on and scoffs. The dynamics among Hiccup’s family and friends are more fully explored in the television show, but there are many nods to them in the movie.

Newcomers include Djimon Hounsou as the pirate Drago and Game of Thrones‘ Kit Harrington as the swashbuckling Eret, who captures Ruffnut’s eye during one of several narrow escapes from the pirates. Everyone is well-cast in their roles.

Direction: Dean DeBlois, who also co-wrote the screenplay, does a good job of building up the action while also providing some character moments. Any lack of originality in the story is more than made up for by the appealing characters, heartfelt story, and strong visual designs. (No, I haven’t yet seen Frozen, but understand it’s one of Disney’s better recent efforts.)

Cinematography: Although I didn’t see How to Train Your Dragon 2 in 3-D, the regular visual effects have continued to improve, with human skin, dragon scales, choppy seas, and fire all spectacularly rendered.

Hiccup’s gliding scenes with Toothless early in the movie are particularly good, and even though the large-scale battles toward the end are familiar to fantasy fan, they manage not to completely overwhelm the viewer.

Soundtrack: The musical score echoes the themes from the first movie and the TV series, and it properly accompanies and builds with the action. As in Cowell’s books, there is a Scottish lilt to the music, and the opening and closing credits drew us into the superficially slapstick setting.

Rating: I’d give How to Train Your Dragon 2, which is rated PG for action and “some rude humor,” a solid 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+. I liked it about as much as its predecessor, if not as much as the TV show, which expands on all the characters.

Don’t let the relatively disappointing box-office returns dissuade you from seeing it. I’d recommend this movie to fantasy fans, children looking for their summer cartoon fix, and those looking for comedy and drama in lighter measures.

In other family-friendly animation, I thought the third season premiere of Avatar: Legend of Korra was strong, and I look forward to The Boxtrolls. Janice and I also joined Thomas & Kai-Yin for dinner at Noodles & Co., which just opened in Burlington, Mass.

Coming soon: More gaming updates, a Star Trek convention recap, and Byron V.O.’s visit…