THE BOXTROLLS. Laika Entertainment first entered the mainstream conversation with Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005), subsequently producing Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and now The Boxtrolls. Like Burton's movies, Laika's output is defined by gorgeous design, painstaking attention to detail and whimsy. Those aspects of its creations are, without fail, a delight. However, the studio also seems to share some of Burton's late-period inability to sustain tension or invest the audience in the lives of characters. More than the others, Coraline was able to sidestep this shortcoming, likely because it was drawn from the work of excellent storyteller Neil Gaiman. ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, though, both suffer from a narrative that doesn't live up to the delicacy and invention of the visuals.
The village of Cheesebridge finds itself inhabited by the titular trolls who, clad in cardboard boxes, emerge from their underground lair late at night to pilfer small items. Rumor has it they will also kidnap and eat babies, given the chance. There is, of course, no evidence to support this claim, save for the decade-ago disappearance of a single boy child. That child turns out to have been raised by the trolls as one of their own, named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright). At the urging of the hideously lactose-intolerant exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), the myopic, largely absent Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) commissions a large-scale effort to exterminate the trolls. This draws Eggs into the harsh light of a confrontation not only with polite society, but with his true identity. He eventually finds an ally in Winnie (Elle Fanning), the neglected, morbidly imaginative daughter of Portley-Rind. Betrayals, revelations and a great big steampunk climax ensue.
The design and technical execution of The Boxtrolls are, it has to be said, second to none. Like other Laika productions, the visual elements rival the benchmark achievements of Nick Park and Aardman Animations (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run). It also boasts an incredible cast: Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan are standouts as Snatcher's henchmen. The story itself is awfully conventional, and loses momentum about halfway through. Eggs, though effectively voiced by Wright, isn't a developed-enough character to really root for. And the trolls themselves, though certainly ugly enough to be called cute, don't get enough attention to serve as more than background embellishment. There are a great number of elements to admire here, and each frame contains enough detail to make it fascinating, but the whole is a little less than the sum of its impressive parts. PG. 97m.
THE EQUALIZER. I have foggy memories of the television show upon which this is supposedly based. It was about a slightly stodgy old British guy (Edward Woodward) helping people in need. The main character's motivation in the movie is the same. But now he's played by Denzel Washington, is capable of extreme violence and takes on the Russian mafia. Given a different title, I doubt many viewers would have made a connection between this and the earlier work.
Robert McCall (Washington) is an unassuming insomniac with a Joe-job at a giant building supply store in Boston. He spends his sleepless nights in a nondescript coffee shop, drinking tea and reading great novels. He becomes friendly with a working girl named Teri (Chloe Grace-Moretz), and when her pimp puts her in the hospital, McCall takes up her cause. When McCall attempts to negotiate a cash price for her freedom, the pimp refuses, insultingly. Thus begins a brutal, protracted war with a Russian crime syndicate. McCall proves himself to be almost preternaturally capable when it comes to killing. We get little glimpses of his past life, but that's really secondary to watching him dispatch trained operators with aplomb.
Twenty years ago, I doubt that The Equalizer would have made much of a mark. But in the intervening years, the standard for action movies — hell, for movies in general — has declined so sharply that to see this, a well-acted, competently made, if slightly familiar/derivative example of the form, is refreshing. Washington makes McCall much more than he would appear to be on paper. It's not necessarily a challenging role, but one can see the craft and care in the performance. And for my money, he's the best when he's kicking ass and taking names; Man On Fire (2004) is still my favorite, but this gets close. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) occasionally gets tangled up in montages and insert shots, but he knows how to get a story moving forward. The result of their collaboration is a movie that should please fans of the genre. It's pacey, atmospheric and has some pretty inventive violence. That doesn't mean it's for all tastes, or destined to be a classic, but it exceeded my expectations. R. 132m.
— John J. Bennett
ANNABELLE. Everybody just stop buying creepy vintage dolls. Or don't. And wind up like the expecting couple in this film, besieged by Satanists and evil spirits. R. 98m.
GONE GIRL. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in a mystery thriller about a husband under suspicion when the lady vanishes. R. 149m.
LEFT BEHIND. Revelations on a plane. An airline pilot (Nicholas Cage) and everyone else who doesn't make the cut for The Rapture scramble to figure out what's going on. PG13. 110m.
DOLPHIN TALE 2. Did Blackfish bring you down? Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman star in a more upbeat story with a blowhole and a happy ending. PG. 108m.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Unlikely heroes save the galaxy from boredom in this clever, edgy and dazzling sci-fi blockbuster. PG13. 121m.
LET'S BE COPS. Two dolts impersonate cops to get free stuff and become popular. R. 103m.
THE MAZE RUNNER. A tightly paced sci-fi/horror flick for the tween set, that loses the thrill in the end. Spoiler: There's no cheese. PG13. 113m.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. Hollywood unwisely reinvents the origin story and the world's most fearsome fighting team is duller than ever. PG13.
THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU. Tina Fey and Jason Bateman save an overly complicated pile-up of family clichés with their comic chops and sibling chemistry. R. 103m.
WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES. Whoever you are, Liam Neeson is going to find you and kill you. Or rescue your kidnapped wife. R. 114m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Grant Scott-Goforth