The Boxtrolls: Who’s Gonna Talk to Our Children?

Boxtrolls

First of all, if you are a regular reader of this blog, let me apologize for the lack of posting in the past weeks. September turned out to be a much more transitional, and stressful month than I had anticipated. Anyway, I intend to get back into the fold. I’ll probably won’t be able to post as often as I did in the summer, but expect at least a couple posts each week. Now, on to The Boxtrolls… 

Let me start by talking, and this is not a spoiler, the very end of The Boxtrolls. There is a little scene in the middle of the closing credits of the movies, in which two of the characters talk to each other, in a very meta moment, about the idea that they are in a stop-motion animated movie. They reflect about how tedious the animation process must be, and how only crazy people could possibly work making movies that way. As they talk, we start to see an animator moving the characters around. It’s a behind-the-scenes moment that is not only cute and funny, but encapsulates what is so great about Laika, the animation studio that has quickly become one of the most reliable producers of family entertainment. Stop-motion animation is an arduous art-form, and sadly, barely bankable (Laika’s movies always make just enough of a profit to finance another one). And yet, here we have a bunch of creative guys that make this movies because they love what they’re doing. They believe in the magic of cinema, and they have something to say.

Part of The Boxtroll‘s plot revolves around oblivious adults who are too concerned about stupid ideas to make time to listen to their children. It’s a very common situation to be found in children’s entertainment, but it’s never been more at home than in a movie produced by Laika, which like I said, seems to be one of the few studios around who is willing to listen to children, or at the very least, to try to put themselves in their shoes, and think what stories would actually be stimulating for them. After the visually outstanding Coralineand the even better Paranormanthey seem to be getting into a run of quality movies that has made more than one person wonder if they are going to fill in the void left by Pixar, a studio that was once the king of quality family entertainment, and has now retreated to the commercial pleasures of mediocre sequels.

Why is Laika so great? Tim Brayton makes a great argument over at The Film Experience, as for me, it all comes down to the fact that it feels like the guys at Laika have something to say, and that the greatness of their movies is so tied up to the style of animation in which they work. The Boxtrolls, for example, beats to its own drum. Starting by the very fact that their movies look and feel differently from the tired photorealistic computer generated style that is overwhelmingly dominant in contemporary American animation. The Boxtrolls takes place in the steep and narrow streets of a mountain-town clearly influenced by German Expressionism. It has, at its center, a group of characters (the Boxtrolls themselves) who are as grotesque as they are cute. You also have characters that are voiced by pretty famous actors, who are so in service of their performance, that the voices of Toni Collette, Ben Kingsley, and Simon Pegg all unrecognizable.

Anyway, The Boxtrolls is a fantastically crafted movie, but what about it’s plot? It is the story of a kid named Eggs, who was raised by the Boxtrolls, who are in turn being chased by the evil Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), who is obsessed with finding the little creatures so he can be accepted into the high-class white hat cheese-tasting society. Not only this, but Snatcher has also made a pretty great job of convincing the townspeople that the Boxtrolls are evil monsters that should be feared by everyone. This last part is why L.A. Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson described the movie as “the cutest movie made about Hitler”. Certainly, propaganda plays a role in the movie, which is also very much concerned with ridiculous concepts about upward mobility and discrimination against the lower classes.

These messages are undoubtedly there, but it’s weird to say if they’re at the center of the movie. Actually, it’d be hard to say what exactly the emotional or thematic center of the movie really is. There is a lot on The Boxtrolls‘s plate, including Eggs’s struggles about his identity as both a human and a Boxtroll, Winnie’s relationship to her father, the Boxtroll’s reaction to danger by hiding in plain sight, and Snatcher’s real motivations for capturing the Boxtrolls, which include a character introduced late into the movie, who gets the short shift despite having a poignant backstory, and being central to Eggs’s emotional arc. Story-wise, The Boxtrolls is an incredibly messy movie -especially when compared to Paranorman, whose structure was so impeccable and original it ended up being one of that movie’s biggest strengths.

The Boxtrolls‘s strengths lie somewhere else, not in the story, but in its craft. One of the most original aspects of the movie is its pacing, where the story slows down in order to focus in characters moments, and set-pieces that are often tied to the movie’s style. Animation is invaluable, for example, in a scene where Eggs pretends to be a “proper boy”, and the same goes for the design, be it the refreshingly natural shape of Winnie’s body, or the aforementioned angular town where the movie takes place. Add to that the Boxtrolls, who are incredibly cute by being mischievous and animalistic, and a pair of henchmen who have an existential crisis about whether they are the good guys or the bad guys, and you end up with a pretty winning movie.

The Boxtrolls might be the messiest, and frankly, the least interesting of Laika’s efforts, but even a minor movie from them feels miles ahead of all the other American animation studios. After all, the movies they make are not products, they are treasures.

Grade: 7 out of 10

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Mad Men: Meditations in an Emergency (S02E13)

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I’m reviewing all the episodes of Mad Men before the last seven episodes premiere in the Spring of 2015. If you want to see an overview of the episodes I’ve written about so far, click HERE

There are three main events in this episode of Mad Men, which closes the show’s second season in truly magnificent fashion. The episode notoriously takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. With the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. on the border of entering a nuclear war that could potentially annihilate the whole planet, the characters of Mad Men find time to consider their lives. The interesting thing is that despite this gloomy setting, Mad Men decides that it doesn’t want to have its characters meditate only on death, but treat this episode as a moment in which people not only look at the possible death that is coming, but at the beginning of a new time after the crisis. This is not as much about death as it is about rebirth.

This is most superficially obvious in what happens to the merger between Sterling Cooper and the purchasing British firm of Putnam Powell and Loewe. Duck Phillips, who really did underperform as the head of accounts at Sterling Cooper, sees the selling of the firm as a moment to regain the mojo that once made him one of the best executives in the business. He has basically set up a plan in motion that will give birth to a new life, in which he is allowed to drink again, and he is in charge. Duck’s future as president of Sterling Cooper doesn’t go off on a good start, though, as right after being announced as the new president, and giving a speech about how the new Sterling Cooper should give priority to sales and numbers over creativity and client relationships, he finds out that Don won’t sit through any of his shit. Watching Don tell Duck that he does not have a contract, and therefore, doesn’t have to stay working for Sterling Cooper when he’s in charge is a priceless “hell yeah!” moment. It is a tiny bit anti-climactic that Don “defeats” Duck so easily after the way the show set him up as the big villains of the season, but I like how the moment works to underline how pathetic Duck really is.

So, Duck lost his opportunity to reinvent himself, but Sterling Cooper keeps marching on into a new version of itself. In more personal stories, though, perhaps the most helpful story-line when trying to look at the themes of the episode is that of Don and Betty. In the very first scene of the episode, even before we hear about the Missile Crisis, Betty finds out that she is pregnant with Don’s baby (it is not entirely clear, but I’m assuming she got pregnant when they had sex at her parents’ house in “The Inheritance“). Betty doesn’t necessarily want to have Don back in her life. She goes out to a bar and has sex with a stranger. To be completely honest, I’m not quite sure what Betty’s motivations are in finally deciding to take Don back, but at the end of the episode, Don is back to being Don Draper, living in Don Draper’s house with Don Draper’s family, and with another baby on the way. Are we supposed to take this as a new beginning for Don after his existential trip to California?

My favorite part of the episode, however, is Peggy’s story, which consists mainly of two fantastic scenes. The first one takes place at Peggy’s church, as she is delivering goods to keep in a bomb shelter that is being supervised by Father Gill. The priest uses this encounter, and the fact that the world might be nearing the verge of destruction, to try and pressure Peggy to, once more, confess about what happened to her baby. Father Gill, who had been a pretty cool guy so far, goes a little too far, blatantly telling her that she must confess, because she will go to hell if she doesn’t. Peggy only says “I can’t believe that’s the way God is”.

But Peggy’s ultimate decision isn’t only not confessing to Father Gill. In the episode’s most memorable scene, she sits down with Pete Campbell, and finally tells him everything that happened. Pete, who has never been fully happy with his marriage, especially at this moment of intense pressure, comes looking for some sort of loving connection from Peggy, and in a fantastic piece of acting from Vincent Kartheiser, but especially Elisabeth Moss, he gets a crushing monologue about how Peggy decided to not “shame” Pete into being with her, instead finding a new dawn to move on with her life. In her own words: “Well, one day you’re there, and then all of a sudden, there’s less of you, and you wonder where that part went, if it’s living somewhere outside of you, and you keep thinking maybe you’ll get it back, and then you realize it’s just gone.”

Will this final confession finally be the rebirth that Peggy needs? It may or may not work, but there is no denying that at this point, it seems like Peggy’s world is at its most peaceful. Very interestingly, confessing to God is not what solves her troubles. She doesn’t need an abstract confession, what really brings her piece is confessing directly to the one person that she must be talking to. At the end of the episode, Pete sits alone in his office, holding on to the rifle he bought in order to assert his masculinity, and Peggy prays before calmly going to sleep. In the very last scene, though, Don comes back home, and learns about Betty’s baby. The season ends with the Drapers silently holding hands in their kitchen, in direct contrast to the end of season one, which had Don sitting alone. This is the second trial for the Draper marriage, will it be able to endure despite the broken pieces that live within it?

Random Thoughts:

  • Just a couple of lines this time:
  • “How are you?” “Like everyone else today, very distracted”. Even on the eve destruction, Joan can’t help but complain when people don’t do their job.
  • “Mommy doesn’t like to eat”. Sally is adorable, but with those comments, she will undoubtedly grow up to be as bitchy as her mother.

Mad Men: The Mountain King (S02E12)

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I’m reviewing all the episodes of Mad Men before the last seven episodes premiere in the Spring of 2015. If you want to see an overview of the episodes I’ve written about so far, click HERE

Remember that flashback scene a couple of episodes back in which a woman comes in to tell Don that she knows he isn’t Don Draper? And remember the end of the first episode of this season, in which Don mails a copy of Meditations in an Emergency to an unknown person? Well, “The Mountain King” reveals these secrets, as we have the pleasure to meet Anna Draper.

Here’s the gist of what happened. After our Don took the identity of the real Don Draper, he started his new life selling used cars until, one day, Anna found him, and confronted him about having stolen her husband’s identity. Years later, though, the relationship between Don and Anna is surprisingly warm and fuzzy (especially for Don’s standards). After practically two seasons of seeing Don be incapable of build a true emotional connection with anyone around him, after twenty-plus episodes of seeing him struggle to keep up the idealized persona he has build around the name Don Draper, one of the biggest and most effective emotional punches of the show is that, at the end of the day, Don is still most comfortable, happy, at home, when he can drop the act, and just be Dick Whitman.

Don’s childhood has been marked by cruelty. As an adult, his life is colored by the pressure of being the man that he wants to be, and the fear of losing the control he requires to achieve this. He has built an enormous castle made out of cards, and he must be eternally vigilant that this castle is not torn down. Still, we have seen time and again that the things he most desired, the things that will make him truly happy might not be in the castle that he has built. He is constantly looking for what will make him happy, and he is constantly met with failure. He has brief moments of pleasure (the most obvious example are his numerous lovers), but at the end of the day, he always ends up sad, sitting alone, in the dark.

Anna Draper is a new piece in the puzzle that will let us understand Don Draper, and frankly, it might very well be the most important piece. Amongst all of Don’s destructive behavior, and amongst his frantic search for abstract happiness, there is Anna Draper. A person that saw Don (or Dick) in his most vulnerable moment, and decided to forgive him. Anna gave Don a second chance, and so, two hurt people decided to move on, and keep on living their lives. Perhaps the most touching moment of the episode, takes place in a flashback: Don is spending christmas with Anna, and he tells her that he has fallen in love, and that he wants to get married. But for Don to get married, Anna must grant him a divorce. The person Don is marrying is Betty, and Anna doesn’t hesitate a second before telling Don that, yes, she will divorce him. The happiness in Don’s voice as he tells Anna how happy he is to be in love with Betty is the liveliest and most excited we have ever seen Don.

On one hand, being with Anna puts Don completely at ease. He is comfortable. She is his friend (perhaps his only true friend). On the other, his excitement about marrying Betty seems to be a sign of his erratic behavior. We have spent a lot of time with the Draper marriage, and there is little evidence to support this type of excitement on Don’s part. He is looking for answers for his problems, he is looking for commodities that will make him happier, that will make him have the life he wants to have, be the man he wants to be. “The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you’r alone” says Anna. “What if it’s true?”, says Don. Her response: “Then you can change”. His response: “People don’t change”.

Well, do they? There seems to be a big tension within Mad Men‘s themes that is trying to answer the question of whether or not people are capable of changing, but I think this particular exchange offers a useful hint, as it presents the ideas of change, and being alone together. Practically all of Don’s arc is about him desperately wanting to change both himself and his surroundings. But Don’s constant has been his dissatisfaction with all of his lives. The true contrast has only creeped up in this episode, when we can see Don as such a radiant figure. Is Don different, changed, when he is around Anna? I think Mad Men might be trying to argue that we can only ever change, if we have other people helping us. This, of course, brings up a bigger question, of changing by either being helped by people (people like Anna), or using people to change yourself (like Dick Whitman used Don Draper’s death).

This idea is echoed in the episode’s other big story-lines. Peggy, who managed to get the Popsicle account on her own while Don was away, moves into Freddie Rumsen’s now vacant office. Meanwhile, Joan parades her fiancee around the office, and when Dr. Greg sees hints of her having had a romantic past with Roger Sterling, decides to rape her in Don’s empty office. In the last moments of the episode Joan pretends to be nothing but happy about her upcoming marriage to Greg, telling Peggy how wonderful he is, just as the new copywriter moves into the office of the guy who once discovered her, and is now out of work thanks to his alcohol problem. Joan once flirted with the possibility of having a more substantial job at the agency, and she was rejected. She is now seemingly shackled to a horrible husbands, and looks as Peggy moves ahead in the professional world. How did Peggy get there? Did she do it on her own? Is Joan right to feel jealous? Did Peggy’s rise to the top deserved? Did she change thanks to Freddie’s help? Is she now using his absence to rise even further? These characters’ search for happiness continues, and just like Don found himself empty after getting “all that he wanted”, so Joan is finding out that she might not be going down the road that she most wanted to go through.

Random Thoughts:

  • The only person who doesn’t give a crap about Cooper’s no-shoe policy is his sister Alice. Perhaps because she’s known him all her life, perhaps because she is a major stockholder of Sterling Cooper. Or maybe is just that “These things cost more than your carpeting”.
  • Oh, and yes, Bert Cooper’s sister is named Alice Cooper.
  • Pete Campbell, in one of his biggest jerk moments, throws a chicken out the window. It would be hilarious moment if it weren’t so infuriating.
  • Peggy pitches! On her own. And she gets the account too. I love the way she says “No. This is original” when the client says the artwork reminds him of something.

Slightly Spoiler-y Thoughts:

  • “I’m sorry I don’t know whose eyes to look at” or “Take care of your children” “I just have the one” “Really?”. The banter between Alice and Roger is so fantastic it makes me wish we would have seen more of her during the show’s run.
  • The TV is showing The Day the Earth Stood StillIs it foreshadowing the next episode?