The Secret Life of Pets


Just one big happy family.

Just one big happy family.

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie, Sandra Echeverria, Jaime Camel, Kiely Renaud, Jim Cummings, Laraine Newman, Tara Strong. Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney

 

We all lead busy lives. We spend most of our waking hours at work or school, hanging out with friends, being everywhere but at home. Those of us who own pets know that one of the best things about leaving the house is coming back home to our beloved fur babies (and scale babies and feather babies). Dogs, with their over-the-top “I thought I was never going to see you again” greetings, cats with their indifference – it doesn’t matter. We are always happy to see our pets. But have you ever wondered what your pets are up to while you’re out earning a living?

Wonder no more. The filmmakers behind the Despicable Me franchise have figured it out for you. Max (C.K.) is a pampered terrier living in a New York apartment with his sweet owner Katie (Kemper) to whom he is absolutely devoted as only a dog can be. Elsewhere in the apartment complex are a menagerie of pets – a fluffy Pomeranian named Gidget (Slate) who has a major crush on Max, the good-hearted but not-bright bulldog Mel (Moynihan), the punk poodle Buddy (Buress), Chloe (Bell), a cat with the kind of appetite that would put a competitive eater to shame and Norman (C. Renaud), a guinea pig lost in the air ducts for two weeks.

Max’s world is turned upside down though when Katie brings home Duke (Stonestreet), a shaggy bear of a dog who is a rescue pet. She introduces him as his new brother, but Max isn’t so sure. The ginormous Duke quickly takes over all of Max’s creature comforts from his plush doggie bed to his bowl of kibble. For his part, Duke sees Max as a rival for Katie’s affection who needs to be put in his place. The two begin to conspire against each other, which leads to the two of them after a somewhat unlikely series of events being stranded outside of the apartment.

Chased by animal control and a group of pets who had been abandoned or flushed out into the sewers, led by a manic bunny named Snowball (Hart) who has a thing against pampered pets, the two flee through the streets of Brooklyn, trying to find their way back home to Katie. Forced to work together, they develop a grudging respect for one another. However, Gidget isn’t letting Max down; she organizes the rest of the pets into a rescue team. Aided by Tiberius (Brooks), a hawk who is trying to keep his appetite under control, and Pops (Carvey), a partially paralyzed beagle who has “connections,” will they find their friends before one of the two groups chasing them do, or will Max and Duke make it home on their own? Or will everyone fail, leaving the two “brothers” at the mercy of animal control or the homicidal bunny?

I was a little bit disappointed by the movie. The animation is top notch and is definitely a love letter to New York, which is rendered with charming detail. It’s the idealized New York of Gershwin and dozens of sitcoms since, and it works as a believable environment for the characters. The cast of some of the best comedians working in the business today deliver their lines with snap and patter and there are plenty of moments that are laugh-out-loud funny for both parents and their kids.

The problems are however that you feel that you’re watching a bunch of other movies. There are a ton of references to other films, stylistically, subtly, sometimes in your face and through little Easter Eggs. It’s the kind of pop culture deluge that made some of the later Shrek films kind of a slog. While I liked the concept just fine, the execution was where it fell down. The middle third – which commences once Max and Duke leave the apartment – goes at a bit of a crawl. Yes, the animation is wonderful but I found it a bit of a bore to be brutally honest.

In a summer where it seems family movies are king, The Secret Life of Pets has been a blockbuster and a sequel has already been greenlit. I don’t know that I liked this as much as some of the other animated features I’ve seen this year – to be honest few of them have really been better than average – but there is enough to satisfy the target audience nicely and not be too difficult for a parent to sit through multiple times. I certainly have no difficulty imagining that this will be a regular request for kids once it hits the home video market. Still, I would have liked it to be a bit less pop culture-oriented and a bit more timeless, like some of the films it paid homage to. The Secret Life of Pets had all the ingredients it needed to be a classic and at the end of the day, it’s just a decent kid-flick. That’s not nearly good enough given what it could have been.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny sequences here. The animation is superb.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags quite a bit over the middle third. It’s a little too derivative for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of rude humor and cartoon action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film to gross over $100 million in it’s opening weekend that isn’t a sequel or based on previously released material.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Equals

Good Neighbors


Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

(2010) Psychological Thriller (Magnolia) Jay Baruchel, Scott Speedman, Emily Hampshire, Xavier Dolan, Gary Farmer, Kaniehtiio Horn, Pat Kiley, Michelle Lanctot, Jacob Tierney, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Clara Furey, Diane D’Aquila, Sean Lu, Kevin Tierney, Nathalie Girard. Directed by Jacob Tierney

We like to think we know our neighbors. We hang out with them, invite them into our homes, share confidences with them, sometimes we even have their backs and expect that they have ours. But how well do we really know them?

Louise (Hampshire) lives in an apartment building in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace district. She works at a Chinese restaurant as a waitress. When one of her co-workers disappears under suspicious circumstances, she suspects it’s the work of a serial rapist and murderer who has been terrorizing the district. She begins to follow the case in the newspaper obsessively.

She’s kind of a cold fish who lives with her cats and generally eschews human contact in favor of feline contact. One of the few exceptions is Spencer (Speedman), a paraplegic who lives on the ground floor of the building. He lost the use of his legs in an automobile accident that claimed the life of his wife. Like Louise, he’s a bit obsessed with the same serial killer. He can be randomly cruel and disarming literally in the same sentence.

Into this mix comes Victor (Baruchel), a somewhat socially awkward school teacher just returned to Montreal after spending time in China. He develops an instant crush on Louise and lobbies hard to develop a friendship with Spencer.  Victor’s attempts at romance begin to take a creepy turn – he refers to Louise as his fiancée even though the two of them haven’t even been on a date yet.

When an abusive alcoholic woman in the building turns up dead, signs point to the work of the serial killer and it becomes apparent that he may well be among them in their own building. Is there safety in your own home when there is already a killer living there?

Canadian director Tierney has a fine hand with suspense and knows how to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. This isn’t a generic thriller in which the identity of the killer is revealed at the end of the film – in fact, this isn’t a whodunit in the sense that you find out surprisingly early who done it.  It becomes more of a cat and mouse thriller, although at times you’re not sure who the cat is and who is the mouse.

As far as I can make out, there is a highly Freudian aspect to the film; Louise, Spencer and Victor represent the superego, the id and the ego which I think is a terribly innovative idea, although I wish they’d have been fleshed out just a teeny bit more. The characters are a bit on the one-dimensional side, although Baruchel, Speedman and Hampshire all do pretty well with what they’re given.

Some of the violence and sex here is pretty graphic and disturbing in places, so those who are susceptible to such things might think twice before streaming, renting or buying this bad boy. And while I understand the motivation to keep things more or less in the apartment building, you have this incredibly beautiful city (Montreal) which is even more beautiful in many ways in the dead of winter and choose not to use it which completely mystifies me. Cinematographer Guy Dufaux shows a really good eye in some of his shots but  sadly doesn’t get to exercise it as much as I would have liked.

However despite some of the film’s flaws, the engineering of it is so masterful and the suspense layered on so perfectly that I can overlook some things that don’t work as well. Overall this is a taut, well-paced thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and a nice little hidden gem worth seeking out on Netflix, Blockbuster or whatever source of streaming you choose to patronize.

WHY RENT THIS: Skews the genre somewhat. Nicely suspenseful despite telegraphing identity of killer too early

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessarily claustrophobic. Character development is a little bit one-dimensional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly intense violence and just as intense sexuality as well as some fairly explicit nudity not to mention a plethora of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title was Notre Dame de Grace named for the district in Montreal where the action takes place and where the movie was filmed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7,072 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pacific Heights

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Redemption Road

Shepard and Dark


Uneasy riders.

Uneasy riders.

(2013) Documentary (Music Box) Sam Shepard, Johnny Dark, Jessica Lange, O-Lan Jones, Jesse Shepard. Directed by Treva Wurmfeld  

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The beautiful thing about documentaries is that they can get people to reveal something about themselves without them meaning to do it. The camera eye just focuses on them in the act of them being themselves. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about some life-changing subject, although those can be informative and important. Just the focus on a long time friendship can give us insight into our own friendships.

Sam Shepard, the well-known playwright and actor, has been friends with Johnny Dark, a not so well-known author, for about 50 years when this was filmed (the two met in the Village back in1963 when Shepard was just beginning to establish his reputation). They hung out, drank a bit, smoked some weed and partied hard. Shepard eventually would marry actress O-Lan Jones; Dark would marry her mother, Scarlett.

They all lived together with O-Lan and Shepard’s son Jesse. Eventually Scarlett would have a major stroke and lose quite a bit of brain function and long-term memories. Dark would have to almost treat her like a child in many ways, with the kind of patience thee and me couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

Shepard though wasn’t really made for setting down roots and so he left his wife and son for actress Jessica Lange. Dark would have a hand in raising Sam’s son. The two began to correspond regularly and still continued to hang out when Shepard’s increasingly busy schedule allowed.

Dark was almost compulsive about archiving everything and recently when Shepard’s relationship with Lange came to an end, he was left with a lot of time (and it is hinted, a lot of bills) to reflect. When a Texas university expresses interest in archiving the correspondence between the two men with an eye to publishing a book which frankly both men could use – not only is Shepard having some financial issues but also Dark is struggling, working at a grocery deli counter in Deming, New Mexico.

The two decide to get some office space and work on this thing together. Initially their banter is very sibling like with a lot of affectionate (and maybe some not-so-affectionate) teasing. Shepard, notoriously reticent about his private life, opens up somewhat here (and certainly a lot more in his letters), admitting that he regrets some of the mistakes he’s made in the past – and is frustrated that he continue to repeat those same mistakes, even up to now.

This is not an issue kind of documentary. It is more of a relationship documentary as we watch how small little issues can turn into nearly insurmountable barriers. Both men freely admit that they are nothing alike; Shepard has a bit of wanderlust in his soul, preferring a rootless existence while Dark takes great comfort in his home, his books and his cats. Shepard navigates life pretty much by the seat of his pants; Dark is a nearly obsessive organizer.

Some might find it a bit dry given that it’s mostly about human nature. I’d generally be inclined to rate this a bit higher – these sorts of documentaries offer endless insights into my own behaviors and my own relationships but I can see where others might see this as somewhat voyeuristic. Frankly put, this isn’t for everybody but those who are willing to give this a chance will find the opportunity to learn something about human nature.

What I find really admirable is that while there is one person that is famous in this equation (and one that is not), it’s not Shepard’s celebrity that drives this film. While some attention is paid to his fame, that’s not really the focus here and thus Shepard becomes humanized here despite his best efforts to the contrary (he comes off as a bit of a prick in some of the sequences whereas Dark comes off as a bit eccentric in the same vein Hunter S. Thompson was).

It is the one commonality between all of us that we are human. It is our definition of what makes us human that in turn defines ourselves. In watching a film like Shepard and Dark I was struck by this most particularly. These are men who have lived lives I will never lead, made choices I would never make and reap consequences I can’t relate to. And yet we still have so much in common – even in our differences, we have those differences in common as well. Shepard and Dark may not necessarily offer you any great revelations when it comes to your life and friendships, but at the very least it will give you a glimpse into a life and friendship that is different than yours and if you won’t take something from that, well amigo, that’s your choice too but it’s a lost opportunity as well.

REASONS TO GO: Dark and Shepard are both interesting people. The effects of the documentary on their lives is fascinating..

REASONS TO STAY: Not everything here is fascinating to everybody.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some colorful language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the New York Documentary Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been playing the festival circuit but was recently picked up by Music Box for a  release later on in 2013.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Betty and Coretta

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Pieta

The Darkest Hour


The Darkest Hour

Emile Hirsch mistakenly thought his scavenger hunt list said "gremlin."

(2011) Science Fiction (Summit) Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor, Joel Kinnaman, Veronika Ozerova, Dato Bakhtadze, Gosha Kutsenko, Nikolai Efremov, Vladimir Jaglich, Arthur Smoljaninov, Anna Roudakova, Pyotr Fyodorov. Directed by Chris Gorak

 

Some movies have little or no potential and make the most of what they have. Others take wonderful ideas and go absolutely nowhere with them. Which one would you rather see?

This is one of the latter. Hirsch and Minghella play a couple of net entrepreneurs who fly to Moscow to pitch an app to a bunch of venture capital bigwigs, only to see their idea stolen by Skyler (Kinnaman), a slimy Swede. The boys, furious and with uncertain futures, decide to go to a sleazy disco to drown their sorrows. There they meet Natalie (Thirlby) and Anne (Taylor), American and Australian (respectively) tourists who are apparently globe hopping in order to meet boys. Guess there weren’t enough slimy club hounds in their own neck of the woods.

While in the club, Moscow gets invaded by – wait for it – Christmas lights. Well, that’s what it looks like at first until the aliens actually arrive and are completely invisible. They are also deadly, reducing any organic matter they touch into ash. Whenever they’re around, they generate an electrical field that turns on car alarms, light bulbs and cell phones, all of which have gone dead (we assume an EMP has passed through the city but are never shown that definitively).

After a week in the club’s pantry, the four (who have been joined by Skyler who turns out to be even more of a dick than they thought) set out on foot to find other survivors and to find food, shelter and water. Eventually they learn of a nuclear submarine which intends to ferry survivors to a safe place (the aliens can’t see through machinery or glass – they detect humans by their bio-energy or some such gobbledygook) which I would imagine is somewhere in the middle of the ocean.

Director Gorak’s last film was the much-superior Right at Your Door which made a lot more from a lot less. That film adequately captured what humans do in impossibly stressful situations (in that case, the detonation of a dirty bomb in a metropolitan area) and made his characters non-heroic at times. Here, he also makes some of the characters non-heroic although Hirsch’s Sean character falls into the mold of the brainy hero.

The problem here is that none of the characters are given much in the way of characteristics. They’re all pretty much unremarkable, all given a single characteristic (Anne’s fear, Skyler’s amorality) in which their character pretty much uses as a means of reaction to every situation. They come off as one-dimensional not because the actors are bad, but because they’ve only been given one dimension to work off of. Whereas Gorak’s last film was filled with real human beings, that doesn’t happen here.

Another missed opportunity is the aliens themselves. They are invisible through most of the film, which gives the filmmakers an opportunity to develop a great deal of tension and paranoia. That also never happens here; the aliens appear with such regularity that you just assume that wherever the characters go there’s going to be an invisible alien trolling about waiting to turn someone to ash (including a hapless dog). When the aliens finally are revealed, they are less than satisfying.

This is pretty bloodless. Not only the humans turn to ash but when the aliens blow up they turn into hunks of what looks like volcanic glass. Even gorehounds will be irritated by this movie.

The Russian locations aren’t used to their best effect in most cases, although there’s a really nice scene in Red Square. By and large, producer Timur Bekmambatov (director of such fine films as Night Watch and Wanted) should have done a better job of showing off his city; for the most part it looks pretty dull and boring.

The concept was good here; the execution was lacking and mostly due to lazy writing and poor decision making on the parts of the filmmakers. If you’re going to use Moscow as your backdrop, don’t trap your characters in malls and pantries. If you’re going to have invisible aliens, use them sparingly – make our spines tingle. If you’re going to write a science fiction picture, don’t baffle us with bull-crap; cut down the scientific jargon to a minimum and give the poor actors something to work with. I was sorely disappointed here.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting premise and some nifty effects shots.

REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunity; none of the characters are drawn all that well and the plot is awfully predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words, some disturbing images and lots of action violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production was suspended for three weeks due to air pollution caused by the wildfires that surrounded Moscow in the summer of 2010 while production was underway. After production resumed, there was still some smoke in the air that had to be digitally removed in some shots.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 16/100. The reviews are extremely poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Skyline

ALIEN INVASION LOVERS: Should be high on your list but be warned that when you finally do see the aliens, it’s a bit of a letdown.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Roommate

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore


Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

Even dogs can't save this movie from going to the dogs. Ahem.

(2010) Family Fantasy Comedy (Warner Brothers) Christina Applegate, Michael Clarke Duncan, Neil Patrick Harris, James Marsden, Bette Midler, Nick Nolte, Joe Pantoliano, Katt Williams, Chris O’Donnell, Paul Rodriguez, Sean Hayes, Jack McBrayer, Fred Armisen, Wallace Shawn, Roger Moore.  Directed by Brad Peyton

In Ghostbusters, a sure sign of the end of the world according to Bill Murray was cats and dogs living together. I wonder what he would have made of this.

A disgraced ex-police dog named Diggs (Marsden) is recruited into a spy agency called DOGS by Butch (Nolte). The fearless leader, Lou (Harris) informs them that there is a rogue former agent of their rival cat spies CATS named Kitty Galore (Midler) who has developed a secret weapon that would drive all the dogs on the planet insane, forcing them out of their long ensconced spot as man’s best friend and giving the cats a base to eventually overthrow mankind as the dominant species. Using high-tech gadget and good ol’ dogged determination (couldn’t resist), Diggs and his partners go after the bald sphinx Kitty and try to stop her fiendish plot.

That’s really all the plot you need to know. This is more or less a sequel to the 2001 family film Cats and Dogs which I found rather clever and charming, with effects that looking back seem a little bit low budget by today’s standards. The sequel has been percolating for awhile and it took nine years for it to finally bubble onto the big screen, where it was received with a bit of a thud. Live action/talking CGI animals are more or less commonplace these days.

There’s a pretty solid voice cast and a ton of references to the James Bond series (see below) which makes this at least a little more palatable to parents and grandparents who intend to use this as a babysitting tool. Unfortunately, most of the amusing bits about the concept are pretty much covered in the first ten minutes and quite frankly, there are a lot more butt sniffing jokes than most humans should be allowed to experience in their entire lifetimes.

Kids are going to like the cute puppies and kitties, but quite frankly I think kids are a bit more sophisticated about their entertainment these days than they were even a decade ago. They seem to go more for CGI puppies and kitties rather than the real sort, even if they have CGI lips mouthing CGI dialogue.

This was about as forgettable as family entertainment gets and I’ve seen some pretty awful family films over recent years. Here, nearly every human is a complete nincompoop and not even kids can save us – our salvation lies in the animal kingdom, which is embarrassing to say the least.

I have this off-the-wall theory – all me crazy – but that if you treat kids with respect and not like little morons with hands inside their parents wallets, not only will you make a movie that parents will want to take their kids to see but that kids will love as well and will want to see it several times. When you talk down to kids – just like when you talk down to anyone – they tend to tune you out.

That’s kind of how I felt here, like I was tuning out the movie. That’s a shame because there are some moments worth enjoying, and Bette Midler is pretty good as a megalomaniac. A little less Bond and a little more personality of its own would have served the movie better.

WHY RENT THIS: Dogs and cats are cute.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Clever concept wears out its welcome. Even kids might find this low-brow.

FAMILY VALUES: This is rated PG for “animal action and humor” but really truly? This is fine for kids of any age. Seriously.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a number of James Bond references herein; from Police Captain Flemming (after Bond author Ian Fleming) to Lazenby (after former Bond George Lazenby) the character played by Roger Moore (himself an ex-Bond) to Paws (after Bond villain Jaws) and even the main character of Kitty Galore is a take-off on Bond girl Pussy Galore.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Looney Tunes animated short featuring the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote in “Coyote Falls” which is significantly better than the main movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.5M on an $85M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Horrible Bosses

Tooth Fairy


Tooth Fairy

Even a hockey setting couldn't save this movie.

(2010) Family Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Dwayne Johnson, Ashley Judd, Julie Andrews, Steven Merchant, Ryan Sheckler, Seth McFarlane, Billy Crystal, Chase Ellison, Destiny Grace Whitlock, Ryan Sheckler, Brandon T. Jackson. Directed by Michael Lembeck

The belief of a child is precious and powerful at once. Attacking that belief – whether it is in the infallibility of its parents, or the existence of Santa Claus is a profound turning point in their lives.

Derek Thompson (Johnson) is a goon on a minor league hockey team in Lansing, Michigan who has garnered the nickname of “Tooth Fairy” for all the dental work he’s sent opposing players for (although I have to point out that no self-respecting hockey player would have a nickname that contained the word “Fairy”).

Off the ice he’s an affable enough sort, although he’s a bit of a self-centered jerk. His girlfriend Carly (Judd) has two kids that he has trouble relating to. Randy (Ellison) is a sullen teenaged annoyance who gets what little pleasure he gets out of life from his music. Tess (Whitlock) is a bit of a dreamer and Derek, who has been jerked around by life, having never had the talent to go very far in the game he loves, tells her that there’s no tooth fairy and even steals the money from under her  pillow. Now that’s a douchebag. It also gets him the heave-ho from the only good thing in his life – his relationship with Carly.

Well, the powers that be hear about this and boy, are they miffed. Derek is sentenced to spend a week as a tooth fairy (apparently there are a whole bunch of ‘em) in penance for trying to attack the belief of a child. Those powers that be, they don’t mess around.

There Derek meets Lily (Andrews), the head fairy which is kind of an executive position as it turns out; Tracy (Merchant), an adenoidal fairy without wings who is Derek’s case worker, and finally Jerry (Crystal), a kind of Q Division fairy who gives Derek all sorts of gadgets such as a horn that scares off cats and a shrinking potion. These fairies, they’ve got a hell of an R&D department.

At first Derek is just there to serve out his time and doesn’t take much care in doing his job properly until he begins to learn what tooth fairies mean to kids…and what kids mean to them. The arrogant, selfish Derek begins to morph into a kinder, gentler Derek. But is it too little, too late?

After a promising start in action films, Johnson moved into family-friendly movies like this one. He’s become quite a staple in them and his easygoing personality make him a natural, plus his notoriety as a former WWE wrestler makes him even more kid-friendly. I like Johnson in roles that utilize his comic abilities, but his formidable skills as an action hero have been seriously missed.

He’s got a pretty decent cast behind him; Andrews and Crystal certainly perform as advertised, but their roles are brief and are in fact little more than cameos (Crystal goes uncredited in the film). Merchant has a more sizable role but his eager beaver caseworker comes off a little too forced, a little too bland.

Frankly, I’m surprised Disney didn’t snap this up; they’ve made these sorts of movies for decades and nobody does it better than they do. I think the movie could have used the Disney touch a little bit; still, Johnson is just so damned likable that you can’t help but like him in the movie, even though he’s a bit of an arrogant prick for much of it.

Kids will probably love the movie for the whimsy shown with the tooth fairies and some of that is actually pretty fun. Unfortunately, even the charismatic Johnson can’t save this movie from an overabundance of kid flick clichés.

WHY RENT THIS: The Rock on ice. Need I say more? Also some nice cameos from Crystal and Andrews.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Typical family fare that Disney does so much better

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words and a bit of rude humor on the family-friendly side.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Billy Crystal’s first live action movie role in eight years.   

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a sing-along feature with Johnson and Merchant called “Fairy-oke” and a kid’s workout video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.3M on a $48M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Barney’s Version

Coraline


Coraline

Not every crawlspace should be explored.

(Focus) With the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Dawn French, Ian McShane, Jennifer Saunders, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey Jr.. Directed by Henry Selick

Do our parents ever pay as much attention to us as we want them to? We get so wrapped up in providing the necessities we forget about the most basic necessity of all.

Coraline Jones (Fanning) is one pissed off little girl. Not only have her parents moved away from everything she knows and away from all her friends, they’ve moved into an apartment building in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and it always rains. Her mother (Hatcher) can’t cook to save her life, is irritable and always busy. Her father (Hodgman) works incessantly and has nothing resembling a backbone. The two bicker and sit hunched over computer screens, all but ignoring their daughter and not listening to a word she says.

For her part, Coraline is not exactly Pollyanna. She whines, complains and is somewhat mean to the only young man her age in the neighborhood, the awkward and ungainly Wyborne (Bailey) who hides his own loneliness with nervous chatter and prefers to be known as “Wybie”. Admonished to explore their strange, drafty old house, Coraline discovers a tiny door that has been covered with wallpaper. After coercing her mother to open the door with a skeleton key, Coraline is disappointed to find the doorway bricked over. It isn’t until darkness falls that the doorway opens into a parallel world that is strangely like her own…only better.

In this world, food tastes better, the garden is more colorful and life is just the way she wants it to be. Replacing her parents are two look-alikes who hang on her every word, give her everything they want and love her much more than her real parents ever have. There are wonderful things to do and Wybie cannot speak. This world is in every way better than the one she’s used to. The only unsettling thing is that everyone in the other world has buttons sown over their eye sockets – that and their constant wheedling for her to stay in this perfect world forever. Coraline soon learns that the most terrible trap is everything you’ve ever wanted.

Director Henry Selick is best known for directing Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and while the styles are similar, they aren’t quite the same. This film is based on a Neil Gaiman story and the combination of Gaiman and Selick is a winner just as Burton and Selick were. The visuals here are inventive and memorable. As with his previous film, Selick works in the medium known as stop motion animation, in which actual live objects are manipulated frame by frame to give the illusion of movement and life.

While this is a great movie to look at, it might be a little bit too intense and too frightening for the smaller kids. While this is ostensibly an animated feature that doesn’t mean it’s for kids. Parents should think twice about whether they want their younger kids to view this.

That said, one of the drawbacks to the movie is Coraline herself. She is so nasty, so petulant and so self-pitying that you can’t help but feel that she deserves to find herself in an alternate dimension in terrible peril. It’s not that Fanning does a bad job voicing her; it’s just the character as written is pretty unlikable. That makes it difficult to really care what happens to her after awhile.

Still, although the movie overdoses on the eccentricity from time to time, it’s still so visually impressive and the story so clever you can forgive the occasional excesses and even the excesses of Coraline herself. While this is more of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale in the darkest sense of the genre, it retains a certain modern edge which gives it a distinct flair.

Coraline is a beautiful, strange movie that celebrates its own uniqueness and dares you to accept it as it is. It isn’t always easy to love, but love it you will. I know I did. The Academy did as well – it is one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature for next month’s Oscars, although it will have an uphill battle to beat Up. Still in all Coraline has all the goods, and as dark a fairy tale as it is, it’s still the kind that will bear repeated viewings.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazingly imaginative, this is a movie that rediscovers the painstaking art of stop motion animation and elevates it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little quirkiness goes a long way; a lot of quirkiness doesn’t. How can I root for a character I just want to shake some sense into?

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images may be a little too horrific for smaller kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest stop-motion movie ever made, and also the first one filmed entirely in 3D.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray uses the U-Control system to integrate features, animatics and commentary into the film, allowing viewers to get in-depth information about how difficult this film was to make. There’s also a brief 6-minute interview with author Neil Gaiman discussing the differences between the book and the movie.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The White Ribbon