Friday, September 26, 2014


New this week:

The BoxtrollsThe title characters in Laika’s new stop-motion fantasy are, um, trolls that wear boxes. They take their names from whatever’s on the sides of these packages: Fish, Shoe, Clocks, Wheels and so on.

The trolls live deep beneath Cheesbridge, a hilltop city of vaguely European and late-19th-Century character. They’re harmless to humans—they’re insectivores, and their nighttime raids on the town are aimed at its trash, which they like to repurpose. But they’ve been demonized to the Cheesebridgians by Snatcher, a scurvy exterminator, and his entourage of Dickensian henchmen.

It’s true that the Boxtrolls are raising a human boy, the “Trubshaw Baby” whose disappearance Snatcher uses to terrify the locals. But we soon learn that this is a case of foster care, not abduction.

Adapted from Alan Snow’s novel Here be Monsters! by Irina Brignull and Adam Pava and directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, The Boxtrolls is one of the odder children’s movies to get a big release since The Pirates! Band of Misfits, another stop-motion kid flick. But Pirates! was overtly (and excellently) silly, while The Boxtrolls, though very funny, takes a more lyrically weird, fairy-tale tone. Ben Kinsgley hams it up grandly as Snatcher, leading a cast that includes Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Toni Collete, Richard Ayaode, Elle Fanning and Tracy Morgan.

The theme of the movie is pretense—Snatcher is trying, through his campaign against the Boxtrolls, to get a “White hat” making him one of the cheese-sampling city fathers. This despite his severe lactose intolerance. The trolls also react with horrified propriety whenever one of their boxes is shed, or even opened. It’s a wonderfully crazy, generous-hearted movie, though its pungency and gleeful gross-outs won’t appeal to all kids, or all adults.

The Skeleton TwinsThe celebratory lip-sync. Among the tropes of comedy-drama, it’s not my favorite. You know the sort of scene I mean—characters mouth along to a song, maybe using a hairbrush or something as a microphone, sometimes solo, like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, sometimes in a group.

It’s not that I think such activities don’t happen in life, or even that I don’t think they’re fun. But they’re usually an annoyance in movies, because it seems like a lazy way to establish bonding between characters or the breaking down of a reserved character’s defenses, to get a popular tune on the soundtrack, and to kill a few minutes. It’s taking a free ride on someone else’s art.

But right in the middle of The Skeleton Twins, troubled brother Milo (Bill Hader) and troubled sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) perform a lip-sync, to “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship. And something about the lustiness of Hader’s pantomime and the hilariously wary, reluctant acquiescence of Wiig to that appallingly effective piece of ‘80s schlock got to me. It’s a potent dramatization of how even the cheesiest pop culture can be a source of strength and a balm to the spiritually wounded.

And Maggie and Milo, differently damaged by tragic childhoods, certainly are wounded. Milo, a failed L.A. actor turned waiter who drinks too much, makes a half-hearted suicide attempt. Word of this interrupts Maggie as she’s contemplating ending it all herself. She hasn’t seen Milo in a decade, but she heads to the west coast and drags him back to their upstate New York hometown to recuperate in the house she shares with her cluelessly decent husband (Luke Wilson).

This guy wants to have a baby with her, but she’s secretly still on the pill, perhaps partly because she doesn’t want to perpetuate her family craziness, but also because she’s an unhappy serial adulteress. Milo makes himself at home, and tries to reconnect with the disgraced English teacher (Ty Burrell) with whom he had an affair back in high school.

There’s really nothing very funny about any aspect of the plot of this small film, directed by Craig Johnson from a script he wrote with Mark Heyman. The comedy arises not from the bitterly sad situation but from the resigned gallows humor with which Maggie and Milo deal with it. They’re deeply exasperating people, even to themselves, but as The Skeleton Twins progresses—partly because of that stupid lip-sync!—I started to root for them. Hader and Wiig have a rapport that does, indeed, seem fraternal.

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