ParaNorman


ParaNorman

Norman has a different kind of homework.

(2012) Animated Feature (Focus) Starring the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Casey Affleck, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, Jodelle Ferland, John Goodman, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch, Tucker Albrizzi, Jeff Garlin. Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler

 

There are those who believe that death brings peace, at long last, for the living. Of course, given what life is like why on earth – or beyond it – should we expect that? Why wouldn’t the afterlife be just as bothersome and as annoying as life is?

For Norman (Smit-McPhee) the current life is plenty bothersome and annoying. He is the weird kid, picked on by bullies like Alvin (Mintz-Plasse), his own exasperated sister Courtney (Kendrick), his mom (Mann) who doesn’t really understand him but tries to, and his dad (Garlin) who doesn’t even try.

See, Norman lives in a New England village called Blithe Hollow (a combination of Blithe Spirits and Sleepy Hollow  – not the first nod to both the film and literature of the spooky) which is famous for executing a witch 300 years earlier. Norman also happens to see dead people. And talk to them. And they, for their part, talk back. In fact, Norman has more friends among the dead than he does the living. His only corporeal friend is Neil (Albrizzi), a rotund but indefatigably cheerful kid who accepts things more or less at face value.

The witch, you see, had managed just before dying to affix a pretty awful curse on the town that had been stemmed off by members of Norman’s family. The latest in the line, an uncle (Goodman) has a bum ticker and is trying to transfer his knowledge to Norman but doesn’t quite make it to the big day. That’s ok; he can talk to Norman anyway.

Norman is tasked with reading from a sacred book in a certain spot. The problem is, Norman doesn’t understand what he’s reading and why it will save the town from being beset by the walking dead. He will have to link up with unlikely allies and fight against some unlikely opponents if he is to save Blithe Hollow from an army (all right, seven) of zombies.

The animation studio that gave us Coraline give us another horror-themed stop-motion animated feature that is as much for adults as it is for kids. Talk about finding your own niche. Still, if you can’t be Aardman (and how many studios really can be) this is a good place to be. Stop motion has an inherent 3D feel to it; there is depth to the faces here, from bags under the eyes of some of the characters to zits to sallow, sunken cheekbones. The movie itself is pretty dark in tone (most of it takes place at dusk or after dark) so the 3D doesn’t help it from that standpoint; still it looks pretty nifty as animated 3D features go.

The voice casting is on the quirky side. McPhee-Smit is best known for the downer action film The Road as well as the winter vampire remake Let Me In. In many ways, he had to carry a good deal of the latter film; he has to do it here vocally and does a pretty fine job of it. He has some pretty good chemistry with Mintz-Plasse and Albrizzi which helps a whole lot.

The writing is clever and lovers of horror films both classic and modern will get a kick out of the many, many references here. Whether it’s Norman being startled by a figure on his front lawn wearing a Jason-like goalie mask only to have it turn out to be Neil who calls out “Wanna play some hockey?” or nods to ghostly thrillers like The Sixth Sense and The Frighteners. However, there were some kids at the screening we went to who were clearly too young to really get the playful tone of the film. Wise parents should exercise caution before taking their kids as some of the situations and imagery is genuinely terrifying.

Still, there are some strong anti-bullying and acceptance of diversity messages here that will resonate with older kids. While the theatrical run is nearly done, this feels like it will be a Halloween kids classic that certainly out-charms and out-smarts fare like the Scooby-Doo movies and more classic TV kidfilms like Monster Mash. There is plenty of heart here and some surprisingly funny moments like Norman’s late grandmother (Stritch) who complains that the afterlife sucks because there is no cable. Having been in some pretty rustic places in the past couple of weeks, I can certainly relate.

REASONS TO GO: Clever and genuine. Lots of homages but doesn’t date itself.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes a little too cute for its own good…and a little too terrifying to really nail that core audience it wants.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the imagery is a bit too frightening for the very little. Some of the humor is a little crude as well; in fact, you might want to skip this if your kids are in single digits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although none of the cursed zombies are referred to by name (except for Judge Hopkins), they all were given names; Eben Hardwick, Thaddeus Blackton, Lemuel Spalding, Amelia Wilcot, Goodie Temper and Wile London.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are pretty darn good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Nightmare Before Christmas

JOHN CARPENTER LOVERS: While there are several classic horror films referred to throughout the script either directly or indirectly, the ringtone on Norman’s phone is the iconic theme from Carpenter’s Halloween.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Premium Rush

A History of Violence


A History of Violence

Viggo Mortensen is so hot that Ed Harris has to wear shades just to look at him.

(2005) Thriller (New Line) Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Kyle Schmid, Sumela Kay, Gerry Quigley, Deborah Drakeford, Heidi Hayes, Aidan Devine, Michelle McCree. Directed by David Cronenberg

Funny thing about the past; it has a tendency to catch up with you. Especially when you least expect it to – and where you least expect it to.

Tom Stall (Mortensen) lives a quiet life in a small Indiana town. He owns a popular diner, is married to a beautiful native named Edie (Bello) and has two kids including a teenager named Jack (Holmes) who has taken his mild-mannered father’s lessons to heart and has as a result been picked on by bullies who are frustrated by Jack’s refusal to fight.

One night, all that is shattered when a couple of small-time hoods (McHattie, Bryk) come into his diner. They terrorize his patrons and despite Tom’s pleas for them to leave peaceably, it appears they are going to kill a waitress when Tom suddenly reacts with decisive action, killing both of the crooks.

Unfortunately, Tom’s actions get noticed by the media and he is painted as a hero. This is, in turn, noticed by a very bad man named Carl Fogarty (Harris) who seems to think that Tom is someone named Joey Cusack. Tom doesn’t appear to know Fogarty, but doubts are cast in the mind of his wife and the town sheriff (MacNeill). The question becomes who is Tom Stall and why is he so good at killing people?

By far, this is Cronenberg’s most mainstream movie. Known for cult films (Naked Lunch, Videodrome) and horror classics (The Brood, Scanners), he has a gift for taking a normal, safe environment and turning it upon itself until it is virtually unrecognizable. Here, he does that in a literal way; the man we think we know (and the man Edie Stall thought she married) turns out to be someone so different as to be almost a different species. This is not an easy adjustment to make and some may find it too much for them.

On the other hand, the adjustment is made easier by bravura performances by Mortensen, Bello, Harris and Holmes. Also worth noting is Hurt’s role as a man pivotal to Tom’s past. It is interesting that Hurt appears in only one scene, but his performance is so dynamic that he wound up being nominated for an Oscar for that one scene.

Violence is often used as the last refuge for survival, and Cronenberg seems to say it is justified in that case. However, is there a Joey Cusack lurking in every Tom Stall? Given the right circumstances, I think – and I have a feeling that Cronenberg agrees – there is.

WHY RENT THIS: Cronenberg’s most mainstream film. Terrific performances by Mortensen, Harris, Bello and Holmes – and an Oscar-nominated one by Hurt.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending isn’t what you might like it to be.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some brutal violence, a good deal of sexuality (as well as some nudity), a bit of drug use and foul language to boot.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last major Hollywood film to be released in the VHS format.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a featurette on Scene 44, a dream sequence that was cut from the movie but was polished and added here as a special feature.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.7M on a $32M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Runaways

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day


The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

The McManus clan prays for an audience to show up this time.

(2009) Action (Apparition) Norman Reedus, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Connolly, Julie Benz, Clifton Collins, Peter Fonda, Judd Nelson, Brian Mahoney. Directed by Troy Duffy

Once upon a time writer/director Troy Duffy wrote a script called Boondock Saints that became the subject of a heated bidding war among studios both major and otherwise. Miramax won that war and wheels were set in motion to get the movie made.

Unfortunately all the press and all the accolades went to Duffy’s head and his ego began to reign unchecked. All of this was captured in a documentary about the making of the movie called Overnight. When the movie finally came out, it did anemic box office on an extremely limited run and the documentary got better ratings than the film it chronicled did. It looked like Duffy’s career was over before it began.

A funny thing happened then; the movie took off in home video rentals and sales. In fact, it made enough to warrant a sequel, albeit ten years later. Despite the critical shellacking it took, people began to discover that Boondock Saints actually wasn’t a bad movie especially if you’re into Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino.

So how does the new movie rate? Well, it picks up about a decade after the first one left off. The McManus boys Connor (Flanery) and Murphy (Reedus) have been living quietly in Ireland on their dad Noah’s (Connolly) farm. Then news comes in that a beloved priest in Boston was murdered and pennies left on his eyes, a McManus brother’s trademark. It seems someone is sending a message; not only do they want the McManus boys back in the States they also want the authorities to think they are already.

Not being ones to back down from anything, they hop on a freighter and sneak into Boston. Aided by Romeo (Collins), a fan of their work and also a pretty good driver, they begin digging into the murder to try and find out who’s behind it and take them out before either the authorities or the murderers find the brothers. And by digging, I mean shooting everybody who gets within range and looks like they might have anything to do with it.

Doggedly on their tail is Eunice (Benz), a super-hot FBI agent who has inherited the case from Agent Smecker (a cameo by Willem Dafoe, who played the role in the original) who may be the one agent who can handle the boys and who has an agenda of her own to do so. And when things look bad, dear old Da comes in from Ireland to set things right.

The plot is pretty simple and the execution of it much better this time around. The body count is certainly higher and there is a bit more humor than there was before. One of the secrets to the movie’s charm is that the McManus brothers come off as guys you wouldn’t mind having a drink or ten with at the pub, and certainly guys you’d want in your corner if there was a fight at said pub. After the fight, you no doubt would want to go back to the pub with them to celebrate. Ah, to be Irish!

Reedus and Flanery step back into their roles as if no time has passed at all. Although the parts are a little bit less clearly written than they were in the first movie, they still hold the center of the movie together and put the Irish back into action anti-hero. Connolly is one of those actors who illuminates everything he’s in, and with his leonine mane and ridiculous amount of on-screen charisma, he is more of a force of nature than an actor here. He literally dominates every scene he’s in.

Benz, fresh off of “Dexter,” is scorching hot, something she didn’t particularly explore either in “Dexter” or in her new family show on ABC, “No Ordinary Family”. Not that it’s something she wants or even needs to pursue, but if she wanted to go the sex kitten route in her career, she’s certainly got the ability to go there.

Duffy knows what to do with violence in his action films, and some of the sequences here get superior marks for their execution, particularly the climactic gun battle and another involving a forklift in a factory. The movie has a phenomenal pace, and leaves no time for boredom.

Duffy and company set up the potential for a third movie and to be honest, I’d be interested to see it. That’s what you want to do with any sequel, and by that standard, mission accomplished. Hopefully we’ll get the chance before 2019.

WHY RENT THIS: The McManus boys are well-written and the film has the feel of a bunch of hell raising guys in a pub going out to blow off some steam. I’d walk a mile to see anything with Billy Connolly in it, and a mile more to see Julie Benz pulling off the sex kitten/FBI agent role. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie breaks no original ground and seems to coast on its own momentum in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surfeit of violence and foul language as well as a little bit of nudity; definitely for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sequel made more money in its opening weekend than the first film made in its entire theatrical run.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with Connolly and Duffy gives some insight into their working relationship, and there is also some manic footage from the cast’s appearance at the San Diego Comic Con with extra-special guest ex-porn star Ron Jeremy(!).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.6 on a production budget of $8M; the movie didn’t quite make back its production and marketing costs.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Ponyo