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‘Missing Link’ 

Laika, the animation studio behind such quirky fare as “Coraline” and “The Boxtrolls,” takes a turn toward the mainstream with “Missing Link,” resulting in pleasant but forgettable results.

It’s the story of full-of-himself British explorer Sir Lionel (voice of Hugh Jackman), who wants to burnish his reputation and gain entry to a snobby club of scientific adventurers by making a signature discovery — in the opening scenes, he’s trying to get a photograph of the Loch Ness monster.

When that fails, he gets a tip about the whereabouts of the Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest, and off he goes, making contact with the creature and getting rather less than he bargained for. The audience might end up feeling the same way.

The wrinkle here is Bigfoot is a gentle giant (shades of “Harry and the Hendersons”). He’s literate and articulate (the nonthreatening voice of Zach Galifianakis), afraid of humans, and above all lonely. He’s so polite and formal that Sir Lionel refers to him as Mr. Link. He’s also the last of his kind, and wants to persuade Sir Lionel to take him to the Himalayas, where he hopes his distant relatives, the yeti, will take him in.

This is agreeable to Sir Lionel, who thinks he’ll get two amazing discoveries for the price of one, provided he can secure a map to the secret entrance of Shangri-La from his unhappy ex-girlfriend Adelina (Zoe Saldana). The story feels like something borrowed from a more conventional piece of studio storytelling — it’s frantic and busy and not terribly involving. The animation is also uneven. The vistas and backgrounds are beautifully done, but the characters themselves are not.

The movie is a travelogue, though, and as it moves from the Pacific Northwest to London and finally to the Himalayas, it has enough eye candy to keep viewers interested. The story ultimately settles down just enough to allow for some effective emotional beats — self-aggrandizing Sir Lionel sets aside his own selfish goals to serve the interest of his new friend Mr. Link. The creature’s journey to the land of the yeti (led by Emma Thompson) also takes a an unexpected turn, a welcome bit of inventiveness in a mostly predictable adventure.

(PG, 2 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 35 min.) 

– Gary Thompson, The Philadelphia Inquirer

‘Little’ 

Marsai Martin, the 14-year-old “black-ish” star, pitched and produced “Little,” in which she stars. And quite the team of powerful black women helped her make this “Reverse Big,” including co-writer/director Tina Gordon, co-writer Tracy Oliver and costars Regina Hall and Issa Rae. But Martin is what makes “Little” fill up the entire screen, through the sheer force of her charisma.

This twist on the beloved Tom Hanks vehicle plays on the same notion that it’s funny to watch an adult actor play a kid (see also: “Shazam!”). But it’s absolutely hilarious to watch a Martin play a brash boss lady with a taste for the finer things in life. The vicious tech mogul Jordan Sanders is played with aplomb by both Martin and Hall in a pair of performances that fit together seamlessly. It’s amazing to see how Martin so easily delivers eye-rolls and verbal roasts like the most mature of actresses. It’s all anyone can do to keep up with her.

Jordan’s foil/victim/nemesis is her hip assistant April (Rae), whom she terrorizes at every turn. But when she finds herself on the receiving end of a toy magic wand and child’s wish she were little, Jordan wakes up in her 13-year-old body and needs April in a new way. Her assistant relishes her new power as Jordan’s de facto guardian for appearances, which involves enrolling Jordan in middle school, the site of her life’s worst trauma. After a brutal, public humiliation, Jordan vowed to never let anyone hurt her again, so the walls went up and she hurt people before they hurt her. It’s middle school where she’ll have to make peace with the unabashed and vulnerable little kid she once was to truly learn the lessons required of the experience.

“Little” is essentially a one-joke movie, but Martin is so charming as a mini tyrant that it gives the joke legs. She has great chemistry with Rae, whose April is at once baffled and gleeful at the state of her boss. Rae modulates April’s personality over her people-pleasing and nervousness, allowing her wild, aggressive side to come out in a rush that even seems to surprise her. April and Jordan have a zippy, smart and sassy rapport. Oliver and Gordon’s script is bold and daring, and it doesn’t pull any punches.

The message itself is poignant, and never gets lost in the antics or humor. To truly love and accept yourself and connect with others, you have to love and accept all the parts of yourself, including the dorky, bullied 13-year old. We could all stand to remember and love who we were at our smallest moments, because even our little selves deserve love too.

(PG-13, 3 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 48 min.)

– Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

‘The Mustang’

Filmed mostly in western Nevada, not far from where Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe philosophized about “mustang blood” and the changing American landscape in “The Misfits,” the new film “The Mustang” marks the feature directorial debut of the French actress, writer and director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. It’s solid if dramatically predictable work, part prison picture, part horse story.

Big, bull-like Matthias Schoenaerts brings formidable presence to the role of Roman Coleman, a tight-lipped convict doing time for a crime left unspecified until a strategically placed monologue late in the picture. A recent transfer from another facility, Roman first appears in a “pre-classification” meeting with a prison psychologist (Connie Britton). It’s clear from the start this man, as he himself acknowledges, is “no good with people.” Even the way he breathes under pressure, he sounds more like feral animal than redemption-worthy man.

Assigned to outdoor duty, Roman soon joins the Wild Horse Inmate Program overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Mustangs captured for the program (a real program, by the way) are turned over to the inmates. Once they’re broken in and sufficiently trainable, they move to public auction.

“The Mustang” sets up its narrative so that Roman and the horse he names Marcus recognize each other’s similarities instantly. The director’s screenplay, which de Clermont-Tonnerre wrote with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock with help from Benjamin Charbit, sketches a few complications for Roman, notably a cellmate (Josh Stewart) who snorts the horse tranquilizer ketamine and lurks as a dangerous reminder of the prison’s criminal underworld. 

 The director workshopped her script at the Sundance labs for several years prior to completion. You have to wonder if a messier but more interesting version of “The Mustang” didn’t get left behind in some of the rewrites. The film’s impressive as far is it goes, and Schoenaerts is a fine actor with considerable emotional resources. But it’s exceedingly tidy in its beat-by-beat developments, and outside Roman and Marcus, the supporting character roster struggles to make an impression.

It’s easy to root for the hard-won friendship at the heart of things here. The wordless, wary shots of Roman and Marcus sussing each other out, struggling with their impulses, express what the story needs most, without clunky metaphor or boilerplate dialogue.

(R, 2 ½ of 4 stars, 1 hr. 36 min.)

– Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

'The Man Who Killed Don Quixote'

I have approached few recent films with the same anxious trepidation as I did “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” Through some 25 years in the making, through production starts and stops, rewrites, deaths, cast changes, financing hassles, bad weather — enough fodder for a 2002 documentary, “Lost in La Mancha,” on the collapse of one iteration of the movie — most filmmakers would have eventually taken the hint and moved on. But Terry Gilliam is not most filmmakers.

From his time as part of the Monty Python comedy troupe on to directing films such as “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” “The Fisher King” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Gilliam has explored the grotesque and the absurd in the human condition, with a particular attention to the flights of fancy we tell ourselves to make the world bearable in its darkest moments and the freedom to be found within the imagination. So the idea that he would become fixated on the “Don Quixote” story, that of a man who lives in a fantasy world of his own making, makes its own sort of sense.

Working with co-writer Tony Grisoni, Gilliam’s take on “Quixote” has changed over the years, landing on the tale of a successful director of commercials who is feeling artistically unfulfilled. One night the director, Toby (Adam Driver), comes across a bootleg copy of his old student film sold by a gypsy. The little village in Spain where he shot it is not far from where he is currently working and a return trip brings some unsettling discoveries. The young woman (Joana Ribeiro) he thought could be a star has fallen into a rough life as an escort to a treacherous businessman, and the old shoemaker he cast as his Quixote (Pryce) now suffers from delusions that his role was real. Toby soon finds himself doubting what he sees, as the line between reality and the imaginary becomes increasingly convoluted.

Working in a much broader range than he often has on-screen, Driver uses his full, long-limbed body to angularly depict a comic-strip caricature come to life, with a twitchy, pulsing anxiety. As Toby’s grasp on reality becomes more tenuous, Driver becomes more manic and less composed. Pryce brings a deep sympathetic feeling to his portrayal of a man going through his own emotional struggles.

The film’s editing, overseen by Gilliam’s frequent collaborator Lesley Walker, often feels choppy as if simply trying to make the best of what they ended up with. If there’s an upside to Gilliam’s long saga with “Don Quixote,” it’s that the film indeed is now finished and is still unmistakably his.

And so while Gilliam has undoubtedly made better films and certainly greater films than “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” there is something about the ridiculous effort and mixed results that make this arguably the most Gilliam-esque. For anyone struggling with whether to give up, concerned that the result will not match the effort, Gilliam seems to be planting a flag — or more accurately charging a windmill — to say the effort is the reward.

(No rating, 3 of 4 stars,  2 hr. 12 min.)

– Todd Olsen, Los Angeles Times

 

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