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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 16, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Boxtrolls, Judge, Madam Secretary

I haven't read Here Be Monsters!, the story on which the animated film The Boxtrolls is based, so I have no opinion about how faithful the movie is to the book.

I also don't care, because the movie is good.

Not perfect. Sometimes the story can be a little confusing, especially at first. Part of this is because key information is saved for later reveals. Part of it is because the magical world is so wonderfully original that it takes time to get the hang of how it all works.

The boxtrolls are pesky gremlins, around two feet tall, who steal any bits of metal or machinery they can pry loose, and carry it to their underground lair where they create marvelous little machines that would make Rube Goldberg proud.

Very shy and modest, they wear discarded cardboard boxes with holes cut for head, arms, and legs; when frightened, they pull themselves inside their boxes like turtles.

So any stack of boxes in alleyways around town might (or might not) contain camouflaged boxtrolls. Meanwhile, the boxtrolls are very reluctant to leave their boxes, because they consider themselves to be shockingly naked without them.

They inhabit (and steal from) a sort of 18th-century European cobblestoned city which is ruled by a small coterie of burghers who wear tall white hats as a symbol of office. Their meetings are held at a private upstairs table where they sample arcane and expensive cheeses.

Yes, hats and cheeses are the marks of power and prestige in The Boxtrolls, and so when an ambitious and corrupt exterminator (voiced by Ben Kingsley) offers to rid the town of boxtrolls, the only payment he wants is ... a white hat and a place at the cheese table.

Never mind that he is dangerously allergic to cheese; he is so hungry for high status that he willingly accepts the painful, disfiguring swelling.

The reason that the town is willing to accept his terms is that the boxtrolls seem to have graduated from stealing metal and machinery to stealing children. The "Shropshire baby" is stolen away by the boxtrolls and, at the same time, his father disappears.

We meet the baby down in the boxtroll lair, which seems to suggest that they are guilty as charged, but ten years later, with the boy still wearing the egg box they "dressed" him in, he thinks of himself as a boxtroll named Eggs, and he understands the boxtroll "language." The fact that he speaks normal English is regarded as a speech impediment.

Meanwhile, Winnie (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the mayor, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), is frustrated by her father's utter inattention to her. When she sees a boy among the boxtrolls her report is ignored, so she gets to know Eggs herself.

For some reason, the exterminators have waited ten years to get really serious about collecting all the boxtrolls, and as Eggs's friends disappear in shocking numbers, he and Winnie discover the real purpose for which the exterminators have been collecting the clever little monsters.

In fact, we learn a lot of things, including how the boxtrolls happened to end up with a human baby and what happened to Eggs's father. Mostly, though, we get a delightfully perilous confrontation between exterminators and boxtrolls.

Along the way, the inventiveness of the animators is delightfully disgusting. The boxtrolls live on bugs -- but they also believe in playing with their food. The bugs are pretty and repulsive, and while some viewers may shudder, most of the target audience of children will be charmed.

The boxtrolls develop individual personalities -- as do the henchmen of the exterminator. The henchmen's philosophical debates about whether or not they are really the Good Guys are funny and advance the story nicely, even as they continue to serve the evil purposes of the exterminator.

At the end of the film, as credits roll, we are treated to an additional scene in which we are shown a sped-up film of the human puppeteers manipulating the figures in order to create the smooth, lifelike animation of the movie. It makes the believability of the animation all the more miraculous-seeming.

It's odd that neither Eggs nor Winnie seems to have a mother. Toni Collette is credited as voicing Lady Portley-Rind, but the part is almost invisibly unimportant, as the only character Winnie seems to care about is her powerful and oblivious father.

Meanwhile, Eggs apparently never had a mother, or if he did, she seems not to have minded losing baby and husband in the same night. But the "moral" of fathers needing to pay more attention to their children is certainly a useful one, and it's refreshing to see a comedy in which children actually want their fathers.

For some viewers, the storyline confusion at the beginning is off-putting and makes it feel a bit tedious for a while, but I, for one, was delighted all the way through. The voice performances are excellent and the animation is splendid.

It may not have the emotional impact of How to Train Your Dragon 2 or Toy Story 3, but comedies rarely do. Instead of wishing it were a different movie, I'm happy to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie that it is.

*

Like The Boxtrolls, The Judge is a movie about fathers' relationships with their children, though of course the one is a children's animated feature and the other is Oscar-bait high drama with a top-notch cast.

Robert Downey Jr. has starred as wise-cracking superheroes (Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes) so much lately that it's good to remember what a brilliant, subtle actor he can be. He plays a high-powered defense lawyer who seems cynical but at heart believes, or wants to believe, in justice and the justice system.

This is familiar territory -- Michael Connelly's Lincoln Lawyer books and movies have offered Matthew McConaughey in some of his most human performances.

What makes this movie excellent is not so much the court case -- though it is interesting enough -- as the family drama. Robert Duvall is the stern, upright judge in a small Indiana town whose hopes and dreams for his three sons seem to have come to nothing.

His oldest son, Glen Palmer (Vincent D'Onofrio), was going to be an important ballplayer, recruited by major league teams as the pitcher of the future -- until a car accident damaged his pitching hand. Now he owns a local mechanic's shop and is raising sons of his own along with a devoted wife. He seems happy enough ... but he reveals an undercurrent of pain -- D'Onofrio's specialty, and never better brought off than in this film.

The youngest son, Dale (Jeremy Strong) seems not to be retarded so much as high-functioning autistic, though the movie never tells us an exact label. He obsessively takes movies using an old silent 8mm camera with which his father took movies of the boys' childhood with their mother.

And then there's Hank Palmer, played by Robert Downey Jr., who fled the town and has never forgiven his father for the harsh treatment he meted out, both as father and as judge, for Hank's teenage mistakes and mischief. Instead of getting the mercy and understanding his father showed to some guilty parties, Hank got harshness and condemnation.

Now, though, Hank comes home for his mother's funeral. The judge is not just devastated, but also shows signs of mental decay as he forgets things, including the name of his longtime bailiff. The night of the funeral, he goes to the store for eggs and the next morning, his car shows damage and the police come asking questions.

It seems that a hit-and-run driver killed a man that night: a man whom the judge had once sentenced leniently, a terrible mistake because immediately after his release, he murdered his girlfriend. To the police -- and to the special prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) -- it looks like this wasn't an accident. The judge had all kinds of motive for committing deliberate homicide by automobile, and he is put on trial for first-degree murder.

It might seem natural for hot-shot defense attorney Hank to stand up for his father, and Hank is willing enough -- but the judge is not. The reasons for this are complicated but completely believable, and through the course of the trial we learn a lot of things about the reasons for the father's behavior throughout their lives together.

Meanwhile, Hank's homecoming brings him into contact with his old girlfriend, Samantha (the ever-luminous Vera Farmiga) and her smart daughter (Leighton Meester). It doesn't take a math genius to count months, and Hank soon wonders if the daughter might be his.

However, he is fully aware of being a father -- an imperfect one -- to 10-year-old Lauren (Emma Tremblay), who manages to be endearing and smart without being obnoxiously cute in a child-star way. He is in the midst of the breakup of his own marriage, because his wife had an affair; he is keenly aware of the harm this is doing to Lauren and how much he is responsible for it.

The courtroom scenes are powerful, but not for the usual reasons, and the cliches of legal thrillers are turned about and given new meanings in the context of this family.

There are so many ways this film could have gone wrong, even with this stellar cast. If the script had pushed too far, or had resorted to cliches, it could have become mere melodrama. Often such parent-child movies show the parents as "the problem" without ever showing them doing anything wrong other than just being older and parental.

This script is both clever and wise. Cleverness makes it entertaining; wisdom makes it feel satisfying and stay with you as food for thought and self-evaluation.

Here is a measure of the writers' self-restraint (Nick Schenk [Gran Torino], Bill Dubuque, David Dobkin). The character of autistic son Dale could easily have been taken too far. Such characters are usually used (a) to say funny/wise things and (b) to show the compassion of good characters and the meanness of bad ones.

Dale is used in both ways -- but always so deftly that it causes no pain. And there is a key scene where he inadvertently sets off a firestorm arising from enormous pain in his father and brothers. "This is when we were happy," he says, and then his edit of old home movies goes into the darkest place. And we are left wondering if Dale was being innocent or deliberately provocative.

Dax Shepard in the role of the inept local lawyer who pukes before every court appearance could have hammed it up for laughs; instead, he makes the character endearingly real in his fear and humility. It's a generous performance of a gently written role.

I doubt that The Judge will win best picture, or even if it should. But it will be no surprise if both Downey and Duvall are nominated for Best Actor, and Vera Formiga, Jeremy Strong, and Vincent D'Onofrio for Best Supporting statues.

If any of them won, it would do credit to the Oscars rather than the reverse.

*

During the Mitt Romney campaign in 2012, many Christian evangelicals stayed home, preferring to leave Barack Oblivious in the White House rather than vote for a Mormon.

Given all the anti-Mormon propaganda they had been fed their whole lives, it's an understandable if tragic mistake.

The fact is that those Christian evangelicals shared the values of Mormon Mitt Romney almost completely, and would be much happier today had he been in the White House the past two years.

This weekend offers a perfect opportunity for non-Mormons in Greensboro to take an hour or so to get past the lies, rumors, and nonsensical folklore that they've heard about Mormons and learn something true about members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This weekend, a documentary called Meet the Mormons plays at the Brassfield Cinema. It does not deal with doctrine; it is not trying to convert anybody to Mormonism.

Instead, the documentary shows the lives of six different Mormons from around the world. These Mormons, far from being part of a weird cult, function in normal jobs and interesting avocations.

They range from the head football coach at the US Naval Academy to a humanitarian engineer working to bring clean water and other benefits to remote Nepalese villages, from the Candy Bomber of the Berlin Airlift to a one-time single sending her biracial firstborn son off on an LDS mission. There's an African-American bishop in Atlanta; there's a Costa Rican woman who competes as an amateur kick-boxer, coached by her husband.

In this film, produced by the LDS Church, it is hardly a surprise that they have picked fascinating, articulate, and photogenic people to represent the community. But the stories are true and I can affirm that the film is completely accurate in the way it shows how we Mormons balance our religious and secular lives.

After all, I've managed to balance a life as a fiction writer, weekly columnist, and writing teacher with continuous church service and committed family life for nearly forty years. (It's the fiction writing and the marriage-and-kids that are about forty years old; I've been a Mormon from birth.)

I can promise you that during the one hour and eighteen minutes of Meet the Mormons you will be entertained and, perhaps, occasionally moved.

You will also come away with a far better understanding of people like Mitt Romney and, well, me than you will ever get from anti-Mormons who will say pretty much anything to try to keep you from listening to Mormon missionaries.

There is no reason in the world why committed Christians of any denomination should have any more problem supporting a Mormon candidate than Mormons have had in voting for Protestant and Catholic candidates over the years.

American civilization will have a much better chance of survival if people with traditional values vote with each other, even if we go to different buildings for worship.

Meet the Mormons has showings at the Brassfield Cinema at 12:55, 3:05, 5:15, and 7:25 through this weekend. I promise you that it will be a more uplifting experience than Dracula Untold or Annabelle.

*

I've gotten into the habit this semester of stopping by Loco for Coco on my way out of town as I head up to teach my classes at Southern Virginia University.

I have yet to hear any objections from my students as I pass out light and dark caramels, or Lake Champlain wrapped autumn-leaf caramels, or David Bradley non-pareils.

In fact, the non-pareils were such a hit that I had students ask how they could get more. I referred them to the David Bradley website (http://www.dbchocolate.com), on the theory that few of them had time or funds to drive the 2.5 hours to Greensboro to buy them at Loco for Coco.

Then I remembered that Loco for Coco actually does quite a bit of business online at http://www.locoforcocochocolate.com. I like the size of the non-pareil bags that Loco for Coco offers, but oddly enough I don't see them on the Loco for Coco website. I know they've sold them to out-of-state buyers before, so I hope their absence right now is a temporary oversight.

Meanwhile, though, I continue to take my students a regular supply. They're good students -- smart, hard-working, and talented -- and so they deserve a treat now and then.

It also helps them stay awake as I pontificate. Everybody wins.

*

The fall television season is well under way. Since I'm not a paid professional reviewer, I make no attempt to see everything. I only bother to watch things that look like there's a reasonable chance I'll enjoy them.

I had hopes for Mulaney, which seems to have pretensions of being a new Seinfeld. Or maybe The Dick Van Dyke Show. Sadly wrong on both counts.

John Mulaney, a Saturday Night Live alum, plays a comedy writer for TV star Lou Cannon, played by the ever unwatchable Martin Short. This is Short's most restrained and natural performance ever, which means that he is occasionally tolerable for seconds at a time.

It is no surprise that John Mulaney is no actor. Sketch comics and standups rarely are. That didn't stop Roseanne Barr or Jerry Seinfeld, and over the months and years they grew into their performances -- and we got used to their lingering awkwardness.

The problem here is that the scripts aren't funny. And since Mulaney himself is credited as a writer, he really has no one to blame but himself. The supporting cast was seemingly chosen for diversity alone; the actors are likeable enough in their desperation to be funny, but the characters are neither believable nor interesting.

The most horrible mistake the series made (in the first couple of episodes, at least) is that we are never shown the creative process of joke-writing. I know, Seinfeld never went there, either -- but Dick Van Dyke did, and every moment of Mulaney leaves me longing for the banter of Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, and Richard Deacon.

Mulaney seems a likeable guy and a somewhat entertaining comedian. I hope someday he gets a chance at a show with much better writers and a strong ensemble. And, with luck, one that has neither Martin Short nor any facsimile thereof.

I imagine David Spade in the Martin Short role, and then I think: Rules of Engagement was over, so Spade was available; was there somebody involved with Mulaney who thought Martin Short was a bigger star or better draw?

Or did David Spade read the pilot script and pass on the project? Smart choice, Mr. Hollywood Minute.

*

So maybe I don't get to watch any new sitcoms this fall. At least Blacklist is back and every bit as good as ever. Person of Interest seems to be returning to its episodic strengths, though its overarching computer-wars storyline continues to bore. Castle is still fun.

Among new shows, Madam Secretary is downright brilliant. I don't know whether it will have any staying power -- political shows usually evolve quickly into ideological wallowing or farcical tripe -- but in the first couple of episodes, the writers make brilliant use of the dazzling talent of Téa Leoni as the ex-CIA operative/college professor who is trying to juggle family life and her new position as secretary of state.

Nobody plays tough-but-vulnerable better than Téa Leoni, whom I have enjoyed since I first saw her in the short-lived Flying Blind series (1992), and who achieved greatness in Deep Impact and Spanglish -- for which she should have won awards.

The supporting cast -- both at home and in the office -- is wonderful. The husband (Tim Daly) and kids are credible and interesting, even if the anarchist teenage son is written a little too much as a joke.

White House chief of staff Jackson is played by the ever brilliant character actor Zeljko Ivanek (you've seen him in, well, everything; this actor works and works), and the writers are using him up to the hilt.

And Bebe Neuwirth was inspired casting as Nadine Tolliver, who barely conceals her resentment of her new boss but still does her job.

The problem is that given the deep civic ignorance of Gen Xers, the demographic on the audience for Madam Secretary will probably skew toward old coots like me -- boomers who actually know something about how government works and why foreign policy matters.

Younger viewers won't even appreciate how carefully the writers are working to keep the almost-real-world storylines believable. But there are a lot of us baby boomers, so maybe we can keep this series on the air even without the more-brandable 18-45 demo.

The second episode was truly memorable television, with a near-Benghazi situation in Yemen that forced the politically correct Madam Secretary to eat her own words and work with a team of mercenary soldiers in order to protect -- and perhaps extricate -- a threatened ambassador.

I'm sure it wasn't the producers' intention, but the episode underlines why neither Barack nor Hillary is qualified to play any role in American government or foreign policy. When tough action was needed to preserve American interests, George W. Bush showed up -- but Barack and Hillary didn't.

Téa Leoni's character belongs in the Bush administration, where people made decisions and then took responsibility -- not the current one. That makes this TV series a kind of retro fantasy. But I'm enjoying it so far.


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