Devil's Knot

[1.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I think that Mrs. Salad requested this for the Netflix queue due to the presence of Mr. Darcy himself, Colin Firth. And it's pretty funny to see Mr. Firth manage a foreign (in his case, Southern) accent. But… Well, it seems to have not to have obtained a theatrical release in the US, and did negligible business in other countries.

Based on actual events. It's set in sleepy West Memphis, Arkansas in the early 90's. It starts out with a horrific crime, the murders of three children. Suspicion quickly falls on the local weird kid and his cohorts, suspected of being Satanists.

Reese Witherspoon plays a grieving mom. Colin Firth plays a private investigator hired by the defense team. Captain Pike himself, Bruce Greenwood, plays the trial judge. That guy you've seen in dozens of things plays a cop. Mostly everyone seems kind of bored.

Here's the thing: there's not a lot of drama. No big courtroom revelations. The real-life events this movie was based on did not have a satisfactory conclusion; hence, neither did the movie.

The Boxtrolls

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A little stop-motion animation gem.

Set in the fantasy town of Cheesebridge, which has an interesting social structure: the cheese-obsessed humans live aboveground, and everything is run by the "white hats". At night, the Boxtrolls emerge from their underground lair while the humans cower in their homes.

But one fateful night, seemingly, the Boxtrolls do something unusual: the infant Trubshaw is abducted, daddy Trubshaw disappears. The town exterminator, red-hatted Archibald Snatcher, bullies the mayor, Lord Portley-Rind, into authorizing an extermination campaign against the underground monsters; in exchange, Snatcher will be granted a white hat and allowed entry into the exclusive cheese-tasting room in the Portley-Rind mansion.

As it turns out, the Boxtrolls are ugly, but they're so ugly they're cute (as typical with movies like these). And they have a certain amount of engineering wizardry, stealing junk from Cheesebridge at night, transforming their underground digs into a Rube Goldbergian paradise.

And their abduction of the Trubshaw babe is also a bad rap. They adopt him as one of their own, and eventually he grows up to (slight spoiler here) save the day against the evil Snatcher, with the help of Lord Portley-Rind's slightly-spoiled daughter Winnie.

It's wonderfully creative, very funny in spots. Clearly a labor of love for the filmmakers.

Interestingly, I just read an article in Wired where Steven Spielberg pronounced stop-motion as "extinct" after viewing the CGI dinosaur effects for the first Jurassic Park. He said that over twenty years ago. Nevertheless, the technique keeps ticking along, and it's difficult to imagine that this movie would be quite as wonderful without it.

Mr. Sammler's Planet

[Amazon Link]

Back in 2010, Mr. Sammler's Planet was placed on the list of "Ten Great Conservative Novels" by National Review. Given my political leanings I was kind of surprised that I'd only read a couple of them (Advise and Consent—long ago—and Bonfire of the Vanities). So I put them on my (very large) to-be-read cyberpile.

I checked off Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome last November, and now I've finished Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow. Six more to go! But as you can see, I'm taking my sweet time about it.

Mr. Sammler's Planet won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1971. Bellow himself won the Nobel Prize in Literature just a few years later.

The novel is set in late-1960s New York City: crime-ridden, filthy, smelly. But those are only the outward symptoms of general social and moral rot. The protagonist, Artur Sammler, is an old man, and he's been through a lot. A Polish Jew, he spent some time in England in the orbit of the Bloomsbury Group, making the acquaintance of H.G. Wells, among others. From that civilized height, however, he picked a poor time to return to Poland. He and his wife were caught up in the Holocaust. Sammler is half-blinded by a Nazi rifle butt. He eventually crawls out from a mass grave, leaving his dead wife behind.

Sammler has a small network of acquaintances and surviving family, all dealing with the Big Apple in mostly unsatisfactory ways. Sammler himself finds himself dealing with a black pickpocket, who is reliably victimizing fellow riders on the Manhattan bus he and Sammler frequent. Even half-blind, Sammler's the only one noticing the crime. (He tries reporting to the cops, but in John Lindsay's NYC, they are uninterested.)

A lot of other things happen, some slapstick, some ludicrous. Mr. Sammler is bemused by it all, but comes to at least a temporary understanding with God at the end.