Contest: Win a Boxtrolls T-Shirt!

Posted on September 26, 2014 at 9:00 am

Copyright 2014 Nell Minow
Copyright 2014 Nell Minow
When you see the adorable “Boxtrolls” movie, you will want to dress like a boxtroll! Luckily for you, I have two Boxtrolls shirts to give away, one child size small, one adult size small (or child size large).

To enter, send me an email at with “Boxtrolls” in the subject line and tell me which shirt you’d like. Don’t forget your address! (U.S. addresses only.) I’ll pick winners at random on October 6, 2014. Good luck!

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Posted on September 25, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some partial nudity, disturbing images and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong language, one F-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Animals and humans in peril, sad animal death, references to suicide
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 26, 2014

tracks-movie-posterIn 1977, a 27-year-old woman named Robyn Davidson took a dog and four camels and walked 1700 miles across the Australian desert. A National Geographic photographer met up with her four times to cover it for the magazine. That led to a book, the international best-seller Tracks.  And now it is a film, starring Mia Wasikowska, with Adam Driver as photographer Rick Smolan, and directed by John Curran, whose previous films (“The Painted Veil,” “We Don’t Live Here Anymore”) show a gift for letting the environment be an essential part of the story-telling.  The result is a journey set in surroundings of punishing conditions but spectacular beauty that manages to be meditative and internal, and all the more illuminating for it.

This is the first of two movies based on soul-restoring real-life hikes taken by real-life women that we will be seeing this fall, both based on best-selling books, with Reese Witherspoon’s more high-profile “Wild” coming out December 5, 2014.  While there are flashbacks to suggest that Davidson took on the trip to deal with some family losses, in real life Davidson has not just refused to give a reason; she has insisted that it is a foolish question to ask.  She walked across Australia for the same reason that Mallory climbed Mount Everest.  “Because it’s there.”  Her version of a response: “Why not?”  It’s pretty clear why not.  It is very dangerous.  The terrain is blisteringly hot and with very little water.  If she is injured or lost, no one will be there to help her.  But she is determined to go, indenturing herself with camel dealers to learn how to train camels and earn some to take with her.  When the first one cheats her out of what is due to her, she reluctantly agrees to allow National Geographic to sponsor the trip, though it means she will have to allow Smolan to meet up with her four times to take photos.

This is not the usual travelogue, with adventures that include quirky characters, daunting dangers, and lessons learned, though all are there.  Along the way, she meets up with Aboriginal people, including one who serves as a guide for a part of the journey because it includes sacred land which she is not permitted to travel on without him.  She comes across a farmhouse, and the couple who live there welcome her in a beautifully understated manner.

You’d also expect spectacularly gorgeous and exotic scenery, and that is there, too.  And, with just one person on screen much of the time, a lot of voiceover narration, though that’s not too bad.  Most of all, this is a spiritual saga, a pilgrimage.  Davidson wanted to be alone — she admits that she is much more comfortable with animals than with people.  And she wanted to accomplish something difficult by herself.  It almost seems at moments as though we are intruding in her beautiful solitude.  But mostly, we are sharing it, and feel grateful for the privilege.

Parents should know that this film includes sad and disturbing material including suicide of a parent (off-screen) and putting down animals, dangerous activities, peril, animals shot and poisoned, some disturbing images of dead animals, some strong language (one f-word), and non-sexual nudity (female rear).

Family discussion: Why was Robyn happiest away from people? What was the hardest moment of her trip and why?

If you like this, try: other movies set in the Australian desert, including “Walkabout” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”

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Action/Adventure Animals and Nature Based on a book Based on a true story Drama Movies -- format

The Boxtrolls

Posted on September 25, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action, some peril and mild rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril and some violence, comic allergic reaction, references to disturbing violence, some gross images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 26, 2014
Date Released to DVD: January 19, 2015 ASIN: B00HLTDARS
Copyright LAIKA Studios 2014

LAIKA Studios (Paranorman and Coraline) has created another  loveably crooked world, this time inspired by Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters! (The Ratbridge Chronicles).  It’s their first period setting, a sort of slightly bent Edwardian with a touch of steampunk, in the town of Cheesebridge.  LAIKA’s motto may be “No straight lines, no right angles, no perfect circles,” but this wobbly community is rigidly stratified, with the White Hats at the top of society, nibbling on exotic cheeses in the elegant Tasting Room and hosting elegant parties, the lower class Red Hats desperate to be accepted by them. There is an entirely separate group, the gentle Boxtrolls, who live underneath the city, turning rubbish into Rube Goldbergian machines and tending their garden.  They are called Boxtrolls because of their attire — discarded cardboard boxes.  And their names come from the boxes they wear: Fish, Fragile, Shoes, and Specs.

And then there is Eggs (Isaac Hempsted Wright).  He thinks he is a Boxtroll, but he is a human, left as a baby by his father, who was trying to keep him safe.  Apparently Cheesbridge follows Noam Chomsky’s theories of language: while the Boxtrolls speak in a sort of mumbly pidgin talk, Eggs speaks flawless and rather aristocratic-sounding English.  Their happy life is disturbed by Snatcher (Sir Ben Kingsley), the leader of the Red Hats, who conducts raids to capture the Boxtrolls.  He knows they are harmless, but he has persuaded the White Hats that the Boxtrolls capture and eat human children so that they will depend on him to exterminate them.  If Snatcher gets rid of all of them, the Mayor of Cheesebridge has promised to give him a White Hat and allow him into the sanctum sanctorum, the Tasting Room.  There is one problem, though.  Snatcher, despite his protestations to the contrary, is massively lactose-intolerant.

Mayor Lord Portly-Rind (Jared Harris) and his wife Lady Portly-Rind (Toni Collette) have a daughter named Winnie (Elle Fanning, the sister of “Coraline” star Dakota Fanning).  She longs for them to pay attention to her.  Their neglect has led her to develop a macabre fascination with what she imagines are the atrocities of the Boxtrolls and she decides to investigate.  When she finds out that the Boxtrolls are harmless, she agrees to help Eggs tell her father that Snatcher has lied.  Eggs will need to be persuaded that he is in fact human and then taught some of the basics of human interaction so that he can deliver the message.

The word “immersive” is often used to describe movies with 3D effects that seem to make the images surround the viewer by extending both in front of and behind the screen.  But LAIKA’s films are more deeply immersive than that because of the intricacy of the world they create.  Most animated movies use miles of code to show us how every individual hair in an animal’s fur rustles in the wind.  But the handmade touch and infinite care of LAIKA’s stop-motion films, where figures and props are nudged ever so slightly for each individual frame and craftspeople spend months creating practical (not digital or virtual) effects to evoke water, fire, and clouds, creates an environment that is tantalizingly complex and invites many viewings to explore its wonders.

LAIKA is perfectionist in its dedication to not being perfect.  It embraces the messiness of life.  The Boxtrolls’ cavern is grimy and dank, and the Portly-Rind home filled with dessicated finery, but both are brimming with endlessly inventive detail, especially the elaborate mechanics of the Boxtrolls’ cave and the meticulous choreography of the White Hats’ ball.  Every single object reflects the care taken by the filmmakers and every detail reflects some element of character and story, which are messy as well.  Winnie, who has so much, is lonely and neglected.  But she is brave and honest.

Eggs, who has so little, is surrounded by love.  He is loyal and courageous.  And Snatcher, who is so desperate for acceptance that he will don an elaborate disguise, make libelous accusations, and put his health and even his life at risk, is ultimately not really able to destroy the Boxtrolls.  His henchmen, played by Tracey Morgan, Nick Frost, and Richard Ayoade are less wicked than existentially confused, trying to persuade themselves that they are on the right side.

The visuals are deliciously grotesque at times, but the message is a sweet one: families come in all sizes and shapes, sometimes biological, sometimes not, but what defines them is love.

NOTE: Be sure to stay through the credits to see some existential ponderings by the characters and a brief cameo by animator/CEO Travis Knight.

Parents should know that there are some comic but grotesque and macabre images.  Characters are in peril and apparently killed, though shown later to be imprisoned.  A character appears to have lost his mind.  Another character explodes (offscreen).

Family discussion: Why was it so important for Snatcher to be a White Hat?  Why didn’t Winnie’s parents pay more attention to her?  Why did some of the Red Hats think they were the good guys?

If you like this, try: “Coraline,” “Paranorman,” and “Monster House”

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3D Animation Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy For the Whole Family Scene After the Credits Stories About Kids

The Equalizer

Posted on September 25, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs and drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very graphic violence, with many characters injured and killed and graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 26, 2014
Date Released to DVD: December 29, 2014 ASIN: B00NX6WZIS
Copyright 2014 Columbia Pictures

The only thing nicer than having a real-life friend who could circumvent any obstacle of power or law or, you know, logic to deliver the roughest but most just of rough justice would be to have that friend be Denzel Washington. And that’s the story of “The Equalizer,” very loosely based on television series starring Edward Woodward, but in theme and character closer to a superhero saga.

Washington plays Bob McCall, a kind and quiet inventory clerk at a big box store, but we can tell right away that he has seen some stuff and knows even more stuff.  His alarm clock goes off in a room so spare it might be occupied by a monk.  But the bed has not been slept in.  Bob prepares for the day, serious, precise, and methodical. He does one thing at a time.  At work, he eats his bag lunch and gently but firmly coaches his young colleague Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) on losing weight and working on the skills he will need to pass the test for security guard. And at night, he brings a book to the diner (Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea), sits at a table, unwrapping the tea bag he brought with him, and exchanges a few words with Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young “escort.”  “The old man met his adversary just when he thought that part of his life was over,” Bob tells Teri. “The old man got to be the old man. The fish got to be the fish.  Got to be what you are in this world.”  But what is Bob?  And what is Teri?

We do not know Bob’s past, but we know he has one (especially if we’ve seen the trailer).  If, as Spider-Man learns, with great power comes great responsibility, then with great power come some wrenching conflicts as well.  When Ralphie and Terri get in trouble, Bob will step in, risking escalation, retribution, and blowing whatever cover he has worked very hard to create. On the other hand, if he does not step in, it will not be much of a movie. And if you have any question, his next choice of classic literature will make it clear: Don Quixote, who “lives in a world where knights don’t exist anymore.”  In his own way, Bob is a Knight of Rueful Countenance. But unlike Don Quixote, Bob does not tilt at windmills. He takes on very bad people and he is very, very good at it.  “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why,” the film tells us at the beginning, quoting Mark Twain.  Bob was not born to haul sacks of gravel.

A superhero movie has to have a character with power, whether it is money plus gymnastics and cool toys (Batman) or extra strength and speed (pretty much all of the Avengers). But we usually like them to have a secret or at least downtime identity — Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Tony Stark. There’s a lot of satisfaction in seeing them take down the bad guys. But there is even more satisfaction in what I call the “who is that chef?” moments (a reference to Under Siege). It’s not enough to kick the butt of the bad guy, you have to have the vast, immense, profound satisfaction of letting him know just how massively he has underestimated you. I mean Bob.

We get a lot of both in this film as Bob takes on bigger, meaner, and tougher bad guys in bigger, meaner, tougher confrontations.  Bob likes to set his stopwatch so we know he is setting himself against more than the bad guys; he is still in some competition with, what?  His abilities when he was younger?  Or, as he says, “progress, not perfection” — is he moving toward some goal that is still just out of his reach?

Basically, this is a slow burn movie, with a build-up to introduce us to the characters and then a series of action sequences, all well staged but very, very violent, as to be expected from director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”).  The bad guys are very, very, very bad.  The good guy is very, very, very, very good.  Denzel Washington is as good as it gets.  

And a sequel is in the works.

Parents should know that this movie is extremely violent, with many characters injured and killed and many explicit and disturbing images.  Characters use strong language.  Bad guys use every possible kind of weapon and engage in every possible kind of criminal behavior including sex trafficking, extortion and arson, and drug dealing.

Family discussion:  Why did Bob go to see his former colleague? What did he learn from the classic books he read?

If you like this, try: “Training Day”

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Action/Adventure Based on a television show Crime DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Remake

Hector and the Search for Happiness

Posted on September 25, 2014 at 5:00 pm


Simon Pegg stars as Hector in this gentle fable based on the whimsical French novel by psychiatrist Francois Lelord.  Like Lelord, Hector is a psychiatrist.  He has a “tidy” life with a nice girlfriend named Clara (“Gone Girl’s” Rosamund Pike), nice patients, and a nice apartment.  But he is missing something.  He wonders if he is really helping people.  And he is not sure what he is helping them toward.  If he is not sure what happiness is, how can he guide his patients toward finding it?

Your level of happiness on viewing this film will vary depending on your tolerance for whimsy and your affection for last year’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, as it is almost exactly the same movie, though not as good.

Hector decides that what he needs to do is travel around the world to learn about happiness.  Clara is troubled, and wonders what it might mean for their relationship — especially since he won’t say when he is coming back.  She wonders if “researching happiness” is just a euphemism for “finding Agnes,” the mysterious woman whose photo she found in Hector’s sock drawer (labeled “Hector’s Socks” — he is very tidy).  But she is supportive, and gives him a notebook for his discoveries, directing him to “fill these pages.”  “If you’re going to do this, do it totally,” she says. “Make it worthwhile.”

And so he sets off on a series of adventures and encounters that will teach him something about happiness.  He first meets a genial businessman named Edward (Stellan Skarsgård), who introduces him to one notion of happiness: the kind that can be bought.  Hector enjoys wine, women, and club music.  He enjoys is all so much that he conks out before he can accept the advances of a beautiful “student” (Ming Zhao).  He wonders at first whether it is possible that happiness means the freedom to love two women at the same time, and then discovers to his distress that the interest and affections of the “student” were purchased for him by Edward.  Being rich, being important, believing you are captivating to a “student” — that does not seem to be the answer.  “Sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story.”

This is the point at which you are either going to go with the premise and tone or you’re not.  It’s either a fairy tale, in which the encounters are metaphors, or it is supposed to be grounded in some semblance of reality, in which case it’s solipsistic, kind of seedy and mired in stereotypes.  For me, it was a fairy tale, and so I gave it some leeway.

Hector’s travels take him to visit an old friend who runs a clinic in Africa, where he runs into a cute sick kid and a vicious but also kind of cute drug lord (Jean Reno), both of whom he helps, and also learns that his friend is gay.  He is captured by gangsters and almost killed until providentially, like a character in a fantasy game who just happened to have picked up a golden arrow and some magic beans, he has the token he needs to get out of jail if not free, at least relatively unscathed.  He meets a dying woman who is philosophical and at peace.  He meets up with Agnes (Toni Collette) and has his brain scanned by a scientist (Christopher Plummer) who is studying the biological basis for happiness.  He takes notes.  He has Skype-fights with Clara.  He learns many important lessons, and, like Dorothy Gale of Kansas, learns that the answer was inside him all along and there’s no place like home.

It is a pleasant little trifle as long as you do not take it too seriously.  If you understand that it is all inside Hector’s head, and that his adventures are more akin to The Little Prince’s planetary hops than to anything resembling reality, it has charm and even some reminders that we get more happiness from what we do for others than from what they do for us.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language, scenes of criminal activity including beatings, death threats, and imprisonment, drug dealing, scenes of injured and dying characters, prostitutes, sexual situations, and nudity.

Family discussion: Which of the observations Hector wrote in his notebook do you think were most important? Why did he have to get away from home to understand what he had? Why didn’t things work out with Agnes?

If you like this, try: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

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Based on a book Comedy Drama Romance
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