Thursday, October 30, 2014


Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

3.5 out of 5

Most opinions about art are as involuntary as a sneeze.  An experienced eye can discern between the basically good and bad, but there's no denying the immediate power of what we feel as we're watching a movie.  They are judged in the moment, and it takes a hell of a lot to scrape away those initial, visceral feelings to expose their underpinnings.  (They call this process criticism.)

How, then, to criticize something like Birdman, a movie where "in the moment" becomes an amorphous moving target?  It's a meta-joke, an apologia, and an artist's manifesto all rolled up into one.  And it becomes more complicated when that artist is Alejandro González Iñárritu, he of the overwrought, overbearing everything-is-connected mopefests 21 Grams and Babel.  Birdman is full of life by comparison, even as it revolves around a washed-up Hollywood actor (a revelatory Michael Keaton) slowly unraveling as he tries to resuscitate his career and earn critical respect by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.

Keaton plays Riggin Thomson, an actor known for starring as the superhero "Birdman" and a man whose bid for artistic integrity is undermined by the various crises in his personal and professional life: his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is a recovering drug addict resentful of Thomson's attempts to reconnect by hiring her as an assistant; his co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) may be pregnant with his child; and his play is on the verge of catastrophe when one of his lead actors is put out of commission by a falling stage light.  Thomson's best friend and producer (Zack Galifianakis) and his other co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggest that he hire the brilliant and mercurial Method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a replacement - a choice that provides a creative and financial jolt but has a negative net effect on Thomson's shaky psyche.  

The chaos in Iñárritu's films rests so much on calculation and coincidence that their messages and premises are at cross-purposes with their structure and style.  His solution in Birdman is to make that contradiction part of the spectacle.  You almost don't notice how hard the cast and crew are working to precisely calibrate the film's manic, freewheeling vibe.  For example: the film is shot to suggest that it is all one continuous take, but then there are the impossible transitions and costume changes and time lapses.  All of it bleeds into a heightened reality that one would expect Thomson, a highly unreliable narrator, to live in.

On the other hand, it's easy to feel like Iñárritu has chosen the most complex and difficult way to remake Noises Off.  Not-so-deeply-buried within Birdman is a satisfying backstage farce and a knowing admission of the laughably insane lengths that people will go to affirm their own flattering self-image.  Yet the longer Birdman lasts, the more subtlety it loses - nimble verbal sparring matches turn into shouty slobberknockers, two characters express their vulnerability within the framework of a Truth or Dare game, and a haughty stage critic (Lindsay Duncan) embodies  a Chef-like lack of nuance that makes me question if Iñárritu is sincere when he jokes about his industry.  

Yet whether it's too contradictory or too bloated or too overdetermined, Birdman never claims to take itself seriously (even though Iñárritu clearly does care enough to go to such impressive technical lengths).  It is audacious and insufferable, enjoyably wacky and annoyingly inconclusive.  It embodies a slogan Thomson has taped to his dressing room mirror: "A thing is a thing, not is what is said of that thing."  I don't necessarily agree with that, especially in the case of Birdman.  But one thing's for certain: it's nothing to sneeze at.  .  

Monday, October 20, 2014


Dir. Damien Chazelle

4.5 out of 5

Part of my short-lived attempt to learn the drums included a music instructor that I disliked.  I felt pressured to take up the instrument because he informed me that my first choice, the flute, was "for girls."  His critiques would include jokey put-downs (which I'm sure he thought were harmless), and he was fond of giving condescending answers to questions he considered dumb.  I was both too sensitive and not talented enough to endure.  I was in the fourth grade.

So I will brook no arguments that the character of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the tempest of perfectionism and unbridled contempt of Whiplash, is too over-the-top or unbelievable.  As the notoriously demanding director of an elite music school's competition jazz band, Fletcher plucks wide-eyed freshman drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) from obscurity, then methodically decimates him with a host of psychological and physical stresses.  Young Andrew, eager to prove that he has the right stuff, gradually forsakes all rationality as he tries to cultivate his musical gifts.

Whiplash is an electric, provocative film that resembles a brutal two-man war more than a musical prodigy drama.  Writer-director Damien Chazelle - who has admitted to modeling Fletcher off an intense music teacher of his youth - expertly toys with the audience much as Fletcher pushes Andrew's buttons.  He's a maestro of misdirection, no mean feat when it's also obvious that the older, smarter Fletcher is always prepared to outmaneuver his young charges.  Chazelle also displays excellent visual storytelling chops, finding ways to create dynamic cinema out of lengthy performance sequences filled with frenetic editing that wonderfully conveys the rush of adrenaline and the fraying of nerves.

The two leads have the chutzpah to match the filmmaking.  Teller is phenomenal, fully committing to a role so physical it's almost frightening, pounding away at drumkits awash in sweat and blood while maintaining an emotional stance that's equal parts desperation and spite.  And Simmons, to be frank, is perfect.  Fletcher would be easy to play as a two-dimensional monster, but the actor is the right mix of fatherly warmth and authoritativeness, flattering Andrew with attention one minute and berating him the next.  Chazelle also deserves credit for framing Fletcher as a man who, in his own way, is a truly inspirational teacher despite his apparent lack of any redeeming characteristics.  His personal philosophy - that an individual's potential cannot be fully realized unless constantly pushed beyond its limits - is pointed and unexpectedly sympathetic.

As if that weren't enough, Whiplash also contains rich sub-themes regarding the codification of the arts in general and the irony of modern jazz in particular.  This freewheeling musical genre - one renowned for its purity of expression and improvisational techniques - is presided over by sullen gatekeepers holding a strict rubric for success.  However, it's telling that Fletcher's only tender moment comes in a scene describing a prized former student who achieved much despite lacking the expected formal polish for his ensemble.  In the end, the film's most radical position is acknowledging that there is a plane above "practice makes perfect" - a realm of genius that is worth the fight.  Even though Fletcher and Andrew's bout comes close to a stalemate, I can think of no more satisfying struggle.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dear White People

Dear White People
Dir. Justin Simien

4.5 out of 5

Twenty-five years ago Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing - one of the great American films - opened in theaters amid unfounded fears that its unflinching treatment of prejudice, racism, and violence would spark real-life race riots after the credits rolled.  Today, in 2014, a stylized campus satire called Dear White People climaxes with a horrific and offensive ghetto-themed party and a confrontation between the minority groups at a faux-Ivy League institution and a predominantly white pseudo-fraternity.  Naturally, the local news calls the fracas - which culminates in a single act of violence perpetrated against a black student by a white student - a "race riot."

It would be entirely wrong to point at the incendiary and acerbically funny Dear White People as an example of "how far we've come," starting with the fact that this is exactly the type of ambivalent attitude that writer-director Justin Simien is trying to skewer.  It's a film about the abject harm done by labels to an individual's humanity, even more so for nascent adults on a college campus, surrounded by people that one thinks would be smarter and more considerate than the randoms who routinely practice acts of intolerance.

Yet there's also a seductive quality to certain labels - as long as you're the one doing the choosing.  The schism between self-identity and the perception of the outside world is front and center in Dear White People, where double lives are essential to its main ensemble.  Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is the strapping BMOC, future lawyer and politician, and son of Winchester College's dean of students (Dennis Haysbert), who also sneaks off to the bathroom to smoke joints and write jokes in hopes of joining the staff of Pastiche, the school's Lampoon-esque humor magazine.  Coco (Teyonah Parris) - née Colandrea - is a refined social operator and aspiring celebrity who begins to accept that the only way to get noticed is to amplify the stereotypical aspects of her racial identity.  She's inspired in part by Samantha (Tessa Thompson), the film's nominal protagonist, a no-nonsense biracial firebrand with the titular button-pushing radio show where she launches her righteous crusades - when she's not betraying her deep sensitivity in an affair with her white TA.

The breakout among the uniformly outstanding cast, however, is Tyler James Williams as a soft-spoken misfit named Lionel, a gay black nerd too culturally "white" for many of the black students but still unable to avoid the everyday indignities that accompany life as a black face in a white place.  And what the film does best, for Lionel and the others, is pair sharply-written asides and acrobatic social critiques (my favorite: a throwaway bit about the racist fears and assumptions embedded in the movie Gremlins) with the tossed-off comments and sins of omission that scuttle any idealist's dream of a post-racial generation.  Simien takes an appropriately nuanced view toward different types of ignorance: not just the loud, obvious kind of Pastiche's sophomoric ringleader (Kyle Gallner), but also another dangerously ambivalent kind that thrives on the societal taboo against displays of negative emotion, particularly coming from people of color.

Dear White People seems to be the product of that kind of emotion, channeling its righteous indignation through sharp, intelligent humor and well-drawn, sympathetic characters - none better than Lionel, who stands as the awkward manifestation of a fragmented identity.  His ongoing struggle to define his own blackness - or gayness, or shyness - is indicative of the light touch Simien brings when the film tilts too much toward symbolism.  It's not hard to find quibbles with the first-time director's approach: the plotting is somewhat confused, the themes heavy-handed, and he may encourage more reductive readings by consistently framing actors as talking heads or talk-show commentators while they recite their ideological bullet points.  Still, Dear White People's refreshing candor means that it never claims to have all the answers.  It's a fitting sort of honesty for a movie that doesn't try to satisfy any expectations but its own.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Jump Cuts: The Movies Get Religion

For many years since the birth of cinema, religious storytelling remained something of a parochial concern.  Aside from notable big-screen epics like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told, the theater was not a place for proselytizing.  Even when mainstream narrative films tackled religious subjects, it was more about experiencing the grandeur and mystery of some of humanity’s oldest stories, or revealing something about the institutions behind their propagation.

All that changed with The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s graphic 2004 blockbuster about the last hours and death of Jesus.  The film galvanized Christian production companies - some of which had existed for years, churning out media with varying degrees of polish - and Christians in the mainstream entertainment industry alike, and inspired commentary about the vast untapped market for entertainment aimed at evangelical audiences.

Since Hollywood is so obsessed with duplicating anything that remotely resembles a financial success, observers weren’t wrong to speculate about the emergence of a new trend.  But making religious films is a trickier proposition than pandering to the mania for vampires or zombies, with even more limited commercial prospects.  Until 2014, of course, when suddenly religious-themed entertainment proved to be a good investment, as micro-budgeted and quietly-marketed films like God’s Not Dead bested the returns of heathen studio efforts such as Sex Tape and Jersey Boys.  Either these films are connecting with more than just the faithful, or the evangelical contingent is larger than previously thought.  In any case, their surprising box office success demands a closer examination of the movies themselves.

One advantage faith-based films have is their willingness to tackle a kind of internal spiritual conflict that most American cinema wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole.  Heaven Is for Real attempts to dramatize the struggle of Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) who tries to reconcile his own beliefs with a health scare that nearly takes the life of his 4-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum).  Even more challenging for Todd, however, is the aftermath.  While undergoing emergency surgery for a burst appendix, Colton claims to have risen out of his body and experienced a place he recognizes as "Heaven," describing the appearance of Jesus and meeting relatives who passed long before Colton was born.

Contrary to the way religious devotion is usually portrayed onscreen, Heaven Is for Real tries to reclaim the role of critical thought in religion and explores the way people react to ideas or beliefs that clash with their preferred worldview.  It's too bad, then, that the subject matter is more suited to an even-keeled, white-bread Protestant sermon than a narrative film.  I mean no offense to such sermons - I've heard plenty, and much prefer them to the fire and brimstone style that assumes our individual day-to-day lives resemble a kind of grandiose cosmic struggle.  There's just a lot of inexplicably-produced drama and heavy-handed exposition to wade through before we get there.  

The pacing is somewhat mitigated by an immensely qualified cast including Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, and Margo Martindale, and led by Kinnear, a man who is likability incarnate and perhaps one of a handful of actors who could convincingly portray the almost unbelievably wholesome combination of a pastor/volunteer fireman/high school wrestling coach that he does here.  Heaven Is for Real is pretty slight for a film that made $100 million worldwide, but its undemanding nature is likely the key to its financial success; what it lacks in vitality it makes up in pleasantness.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the campus drama God’s Not Dead, which traffics in confrontation and hysteria.  Kevin Sorbo stars as an atheist philosophy professor who requires his students to sign a pledge that states "God is dead" in lieu of spending valuable classroom time debating the existence of a supreme being.  When Christian freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) enrolls in the class and refuses to deny his beliefs, he is challenged to convince his classmates that God does exist or else accept a failing grade.

Though clearly inspired by several recent religious discrimination lawsuits brought against universities by Christian evangelical students and organizations, the sources of the film's bias become laughably less connected from reality as it goes along.  God's Not Dead is a persecution fantasy, using a glowering bully of an atheist - who, as the film helpfully points out, is also an intellectually intolerant snob, an emotionally abusive boyfriend, and an all-around horrible human being - to argue that Christianity is being unfairly attacked, despite its centuries as the foundation of political, cultural, and economic hegemony in the Western world, and enough influence to allow a micro-budget film from an unknown distributor to play multiplexes and gross over $60 million in the United States.  

It doesn't help that the movie is a tonal mess with problematic subplots galore.  God's Not Dead seeks only to confirm the most negative assumptions about the secular world, making it most useful as a psychological profile.  In the movie's estimation, only non-Christians are the ones telling others what to do and how to live.  Only Christianity liberates the oppressed - including a Chinese exchange student, the daughter of a conservative Muslim, and a liberal blogger suddenly diagnosed with cancer - with the gift of self-determination.  If it wasn't so eager to accept a defensive stance, God's Not Dead could have expanded on its legitimately interesting portrayal of the Christian intelligentsia's approach to knotty philosophical questions; instead, it simply expands a rigid, combative tautology and turns religion into a zero-sum game of conformity that ought to offend Christians and non-believers alike.

Though not the highest-grossing film discussed here, Son of God perhaps illustrates the current clout of faith-based films better than any other.  It attracted a considerable audience - grossing nearly $70 million - to see what is essentially a Jesus-centric edit of The Bible, the Mark Burnett-produced miniseries that aired for free on the History Channel a year ago.  The film spends most of its first half turning the gospel into a kind of street magic tour, heavy on the miracles and light on characterization.  It's a hyper-literal Sunday School lesson, right down to the fact that just about every word Jesus utters is taken directly from scripture.

What's more interesting is the way that Son of God portrays the established power structure - the Roman bureaucracy and the Jewish priesthood - reacting to Jesus' rise from harmless backwater prophet to the leader of a popular religious movement.  The leaders of both institutions are ultimately the villains of this story, but they worry convincingly about the socio-political questions presented by this challenge to their authority.  

Meanwhile, all Jesus does is win, beaming a beatific smile and projecting an eerie calm among his disciples.  (The placid performance of Portuguese actor/model Diogo Morgado as Christ is about as conventional as they come.)  Mercifully, the crucifixion is toned down from the bloody nightmare of The Passion and it all ends on a hopeful note.  Still, with all the tools of a visual medium at its disposal, it rarely reaches a level of inspiration you couldn't get from just reading the Good Book.

Noah is the obvious outlier in this discussion - a true-blue blockbuster that arrived with lofty financial expectations and succeeded to the tune of over $350 million worldwide - starring Russell Crowe as the last righteous man in the world who’s warned of an impending cataclysm that will purge the wickedness of all humanity from the face of the Earth.  Darren Aronofsky’s film is a brawny, action-oriented retelling of the Genesis flood narrative made in conventional Hollywood style not meant to satisfy any single religious audience - which is fitting, given the story's importance to the world's Abrahamic religions, as well as its similarity to stories in other faiths and cultural traditions.  (That didn't stop a skittish Paramount even cautioned evangelical groups not to expect a literal recounting of the Bible story, but an artistic interpretation of its characters, events, and themes.  Or, you know, a movie.)  

It’s telling that Noah, more than any of these other films, inspired me to go back and learn more about its source material.  Despite its inherent grimness - "The time for mercy has passed," says Noah, "and now our punishment begins" - the movie nonetheless has a flair for the exotic and the sublime.  Aronofsky utilizes a pleasing blend of CGI and massive practical sets, along with Matthew Libatique’s sweeping and sensual photography, to give his film the proper epic scope.  Positioning itself as a big-tent origin story for all humankind, Noah buries any moral instruction deep within two hours of pure Old Testament ownage.  Whereas most faith-based films derive their identity by standing an alternative to mainstream cinema, Noah ultimately trumps them all by mimicking the look and the tone of popular secular entertainments.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Kill the Messenger

Kill the Messenger
Director Michael Cuesta
2.5 out of 5
Conspiracy theories endure because of humankind's need for narrative.  Scrub out all the details and randomness in a complex situation, and you can produce any explanation that satisfies your need to know what happened - what really happen.  However, conspiracy theories also endure because, sometimes, there's a bit of truth to them.  Kill the Messenger is a film about one of those times, based on the creation of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb's infamous "Dark Alliance" exposé, a bombshell piece of investigative journalism that linked the CIA's illegal funding of Contra rebels in Nicaragua with the Central American drug trade and sketched a line of government complicity through the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.
It's an irresistible tale in the tradition of All the President's Men, although Kill the Messenger fixes its sights firmly on Webb himself, played by Jeremy Renner.  The film is not shy about its mission to canonize Webb, whom it categorizes as a motorcycle-riding bad boy, staunch family man, and brilliant journalist - not the mention the prototypical sane man in an insane world.  The film's embellishments are obvious - Peter Landesman's script features Webb and his eldest son in a motorcycle-restoration subplot, because a car would be just too cliché - but they complement Renner's gift for intensity.  He gives a rousing performance in a feature-length tribute to the dogged determination of reporters and a convincing argument for a truly free and substantive media.  In fact, the entire film is well-acted by a deep bench of supporting characters, though other than Webb's supportive wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), few are onscreen long enough to make a real impact.  This is Webb's story through and through.
However, that's where Kill the Messenger falters.  Good journalists get out of the way of their stories.  In real life, Webb posted all his source documents on his newspaper's website - revolutionary at the time - as if to invite the public to discover the narrative thread just as he did.  The movie's biggest problem is the lack of interest in unpacking some of the more troubling questions.  Kill the Messenger quickly turns into a star vehicle, eliding the more disturbing and discouraging parts of the story (most of Webb's downfall and tragic death in 2004 is conveyed through end title cards).  It's not a good sign when the most interesting parts of your film are montages of news footage; it's evidence that this is a topic that would be served just as well - if not better - by a thorough documentary.  
Now, movies are not journalism, but director Michael Cuesta is ironically too dutiful.  Kill the Messenger has a strange relationship with storytelling technique; it reduces drama to Webb's editor (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) validating his risky move by calling him to say "You did it," and artfulness to literally showing the needle drop on a Clash record.  Kill the Messenger's mission to celebrate the work of a man who struggled to tell an inconvenient truth is admirable, but in doing so it turns him into a nearly-flawless, platitude-spouting myth.  The real Webb was eventually vindicated by the journalistic community through a rigorous reappraisal and an eventual appreciation of his actual journalism.  The movie version?  It could have used more vetting.

This review originally appeared on Screen Invasion.

Saturday, October 4, 2014


Dir. Neil Berkeley

4 out of 5

There isn’t much that Dan Harmon, the creator of TV shows like Community and Rick and Morty, won’t reveal about himself, whether it’s mediated through his sitcom work or the straight confessional dope on various digital media forums.  So it doesn’t come as a shock when Harmontown begins its portrait of the mercurial artist as a slumbering man, softly snoring and wrapped up in bedcovers alongside his then-girlfriend (now fiancé) and fellow comedy podcaster Erin McGathy.  Still, as self-lacerating documentary exposés go, Harmontown – ostensibly a chronicle of the 2013 national tour of Harmon’s similarly-named podcast – is incredibly revealing.  It’s a punishing, hilarious, exhausting, and ultimately cathartic examination of performance and the hangover of introspection.

Harmontown picks up several months after Harmon was fired as Community’s showrunner at the end of its third season.  Despite prompt offers from CBS and Fox to develop sitcom pilots, he decides to pour his energy into a podcast tour that’s part therapy, part emotional exorcism.  Joining his cross-country trek are McGathy, podcast emcee/”comptroller” Jeff Davis, and superfan-cum-official dungeon master Spencer Crittenden, who runs the podcast’s ongoing Dungeons & Dragons campaign. 

But, like Harmon’s groundbreaking television work, Harmontown quickly transcends the conventions of its genre to pick at sometimes uncomfortable, always fascinating truths about its subject.  For as easily as Harmon dazzles an audience with his towering intellect and spry sense of humor, he’s also stricken by stress and self-doubt, and lashing out at his comrades.  This is far from a vanity project.  Director Neil Berkeley and his crew pull no punches, juxtaposing gushing praise from his colleagues and fans with pointed editing – zooming in on Harmon’s bottomless glass of vodka, or following McGathy as she thanklessly pushes a merch cart through a cold Midwestern night.

One suspects that Harmon, with his strong anti-authoritarian streak and extra-sensitive bullshit detector, wouldn’t have it any other way.  Indeed, these warts-and-all moments establish a real sense of verisimilitude that can only be bolstered by response of Harmon’s fans.  If Harmontown were a conventional narrative film, Harmon would be neither the villain (that’s the tour itself) nor the hero (his audience), but the damsel in distress.  Indeed, more than the personal or professional struggles of its star – Harmon struggles mightily to finish one of his promised pilots while on the road – Harmontown is about the fraternal connection between an artist and his audience.

And it’s that audience that makes Harmontown such a special film.  Part of Harmon’s career thesis is about the necessity for communities that are safe for self-expression, and Berkeley shows how that idea has manifested in his fans’ intense identification with his nerdy, flawed, and resilient characters.  You can see a minor movement forming right before your eyes, one that rejects a phony stasis in favor of the peaks and valleys and discursive authenticity of individual lives.  If anything, Harmon should take heart in this – by not having anything to hide, he’s empowered people to not have to hide anything.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls
Dirs. Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi

3.5 out of 5

The first comparison that springs to mind when describing the house style of stop-motion animation studio Laika is that of an old-fashioned pop-up storybook, so it's no surprise that the makers of the painstakingly detailed supernatural fables Coraline and Paranorman have turned to more antique inspirations for their latest film, The Boxtrolls.  Based on the Alan Snow's novel Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls takes place in the whimsical Dickensian-steampunk setting of Cheesebridge, an impossibly vertical seaside town where the social elites wear tall white hats and chow down on brie and limburger.  When a ruthless pest exterminator named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) conspires to join their ranks, he creates a civic panic involving the Boxtrolls, curious and timid creatures who live beneath Cheesebridge and tinker with Rube Goldberg contraptions made from the mechanical detritus of the world above.  Their ranks include Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a human boy raised from infancy as a Boxtroll, who emerges from the underground to discover his true ancestry, only to be caught in the middle of Snatcher's demagoguery.

While not as fresh or as esoteric as Laika's earlier efforts - The Boxtrolls repeats a lot of the same messages about family, self-identity, and the perils of groupthink - it still captures the singular joy of watching a beautifully-illustrated story come to vivid life.  The studio attempts some of its most complicated sequences here, the achievements piling up like the cliffside shanties of Cheesebridge: a formal dance with dozens of individual puppets twirling around a ballroom, a gigantic wheel of cheese tumbling down a hill and into the ocean, a demon-like death machine belching smoke as it rips up cobblestone streets.  The creative spark extends to the stellar voice cast, another element of the film that is filled with pleasant surprises.  The character voice work here is so good and so tailored to maximum emotional effect - as opposed to immediate recognition - that I hesitate to single out specific performances for fear of creating preconceived notions and spoiling the effect.

Despite its fondness for tidy narrative reversals and reveals (that will admittedly read as big twists for its intended demographic), The Boxtrolls has an ingratiating quality that I suspect is tied up in the titular creatures themselves.  These Boxtrolls are straight from the E.T. school of ugly-cute: strange, deformed, alien beings that are nonetheless cuddly and charming.  As a species, they possess many wonderful idiosyncrasies - the way they retreat into their boxes when frightened, or drum on them in joyous approbation - yet have plenty of individual personality as well.  That's important when the human side of the story leans on pro forma conflicts and characters, save for Winnie (Elle Fanning), the headstrong, morbidly curious daughter of the town's head aristocrat and the Boxtrolls' lone ally aboveground.  The Boxtrolls advances the familiar notion that accepting diversity makes better citizens of us all, a sometimes obvious but utterly sincere message served up, fittingly, with just the right amount of weirdness.