Blog Archives

ParaNorman (2012)

by Steve Habrat

This fall sees the release of three ghostly children’s films and the first one rising out of the grave is ParaNorman, a gentle and amusing adventure about a lovable loner who can chat with the undead. From the makers of Coraline, ParaNorman is such a high-quality film, both in animation and story, that I firmly believe that the upcoming Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie won’t be able to live up to this virtually flawless work of art.  Despite the fact that ParaNorman is marketed as a morbid children’s film, ParaNorman definitely doesn’t skimp on the witty humor for adults and it even invites in some extremely efficient horror that would make most straightforward horror films blush. ParaNorman also scores big with the countless loving nods and tributes to B-movie and classic horror films (check out that opening), something for horror fans to go crazy over (I sure did!). Slightly more accessible than the surreal Coraline, ParaNorman is funnier, crazier, and a genuine crowd pleaser with imagination run amok, just like it should. And if all these touches aren’t enough to make you fall for ParaNorman, get a load of the hero himself, Norman, a shoe-gazing outcast who prefers to be alone with his ability. If you are even thinking about resisting against Norman, you can’t. You will fall for him the second you meet him.

Welcome to the small town of Blithe Hollow, New England, a place where it seems that every day is Halloween. It is here in Blithe Hollow that we meet Norman Babcock (Voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a skinny loner with a shock of brown hair who can speak to spirits. His parents, Perry (Voiced by Jeff Garlin) and Sandra (Voiced by Leslie Mann), don’t know how to relate to him while his sister, Courtney (Voiced by Anna Kendrick), thinks he is a freak. At school, things are no different for poor Norman. He is the target of relentless bullying from the big lug Alvin (Voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and finds his only friend in the overweight Neil (Voiced by Tucker Albrizzi). One day, Norman finds himself confronted by his estranged uncle Mr. Prenderghast (Voiced by John Goodman), a man that Norman’s father has strictly warned him to stay away from. Mr. Prenderghast tells Norman that he has the same ability as Norman and that he needs his help to stop a terrifying curse that will be unleashed upon the town. Norman refuses to take him seriously, but after he suffers from a horrifying vision, Norman decides to humor his uncle. Unfortunately, it is too late and a horde of zombies have risen from their graves and begun attacking the town.

The grounded opening half-hour of ParaNorman easily overshadows all the supernatural pandemonium of the second half but that is not to say that I didn’t like the second half of the movie. I got a huge kick out of seeing Norman’s day-to-day routine of mimicking a zombie in the mirror while he brushes his teeth, trying to comb down his fright wig hairdo, and sitting in front of the television watching shoddy old horror flicks while his grandmother’s ghost watches in revulsion. It was these moments where Norman really stole my heart and really got me to root for the little guy. The second half of the film is when the explosion of horror references takes over and sends the film into overdrive for chiller fans everywhere. Everything from John Carpenter’s Halloween to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead all the way to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (!) are referenced while the soundtrack is a mix of pulsing synthesizers as colonial zombies lurch towards the trigger happy town. I must admit that I was a bit surprised to see all these horror references in a children’s film mostly due to the adult content of those films. I can imagine very few kids in the audience have actually seen those films and were actually picking up on these touches. For the adults who cherish these horror classics, directors Chris Butler and Adam Fell handle them with loving care and miraculously allow them to all flow together into an explosive witchy climax.

Then we have the vividly conceived characters that are all evenly developed, a rarity especially when there are this many at the heart of the film. Norman gets the most attention (obviously) but his best chum Neil is a hysterical little creation himself. Much like Norman, Neil is the target of bullies at school, teased for his weight, irritable bowel syndrome, and his choice of lunchbox (this only names a few reasons why he is an easy target). He enjoys passing time by messily munching on potato chips and freeze framing his mother’s aerobics video. Then we have Neil’s beefcake brother, Mitch (Voiced by Casey Affleck), who enjoys flexing his muscles more than his brain. Norman’s boy-obsessed sister Courtney is enamored with the muscular Mitch while reluctantly becoming Norman’s ally. Courtney bops around in a pink sweat suit while battling back gags over the things that come out of little Norman’s mouth. Rounding out the group of youngsters is Alvin, the flabby bully who tries to impress girls by break dancing to Dizzee Rascal (wait until you see the dance). Alvin tries to deface school property by writing his name in bathroom stalls yet can’t even spell his own name right. It is absolutely hilarious and touching to watch this group try to warm up to Norman even though he never once asks them to.

While it takes Norman some time to win over this rag-tag group of kiddies, the real obstacle is the adults, who are actually scarier than the zombies shuffling through town. Norman’s parents try desperately to level with Norman but all they end up doing is bickering back and forth over what to do with him. Norman’s father, Perry, tries to keep an open mind but he flies off the handle when Norman begins acting like Norman. Perry recoils at the very idea that people will talk about how odd Norman is while his mother, Sandra, takes a gentler approach to reaching Norman. Then there is Mr. Prenderghast, who overly levels with Norman to the point of freaking him out. The rest of the adults all quickly rally together to put down the zombies, who actually turn out to be just as misunderstood as Norman. There is a clever twist with them that I won’t reveal here but it definitely takes ParaNorman on an emotional detour. I will say that the adults end up being the real monsters because they absolutely refuse to listen to what Norman has to say.

I do have one minor complaint about ParaNorman and that is the hair-raising climax that seems to rapidly loose steam as it goes on. Things get a bit too far out in the end and I was left wishing that it would hurry up and end before it got too out of hand. Luckily it does and doesn’t do too much damage to the big picture. After the film ended, the buddy I attended this film with said that he found the film “refreshing” and I have to agree with him. ParaNorman dares to get a little weird and do it with such a wonderful sense of humor. I loved that the film was eager to act grown-up over just catering to the innocence of youngsters, which was the big problem with Pixar’s summer offering. This leads me to the PG rating slapped on the film. I’m still pretty astonished that this got away with a PG rating and didn’t get slapped with a big, bad PG-13. Things get freaky in ParaNorman and some of the jokes may make some adults bat an eye. Overall, ParaNorman kept me in stitches for its entire runtime while also consistently keeping me giddy over the raw inspiration that powers the film. Buggy conclusion aside, ParaNorman is a new classic that is just begging to be seen and revisited over and over. All that is required is that you bring an imagination, a sense of adventure, and a willingness to laugh. A new animated classic and easily one of the best films of 2012, so far.

Grade: A

Twilight (2008)

by Steve Habrat

I finally did the impossible. I pushed all my preconceived notions to the side, suspended all my incredulity, ignored my expectations for what a vampire movie should be and I sat through the entire first Twilight film. Sure, I seethed over the constant sensitivity and soft tones, the lack of any horror, and the cheese filled dialogue. I overlooked the plot holes the size of the Grand Canyon and came to the decision that the film is relentlessly average. Teeny director Catherine Hardwicke drenches the film in of-the-moment pop culture references and slang. It’s all tight jeans, indie pop music, mopey sleek, and speedy editing, all tailor made for those who get their eyeliner at Hot Topic. For a film I anticipated to loathe on all levels, I just found it to be like soda that’s gone flat. It needed a little fizz to liven the mood. The setting for the film is absolutely perfect—dreary and humdrum. The film is also grossly misguided in it’s aesthetic, under the impression that it is telling a gritty tale of forbidden love. It’s actually an elaborate soap opera stretched out for two hours and preaching a shallow message to its viewers: love is eternal. Making things worse is the fact that Hardwicke treats the material like child’s play, never aiming high and making anything more ample that would reach a wider audience. This is strictly for the pre-teens.

Everyone is familiar with the story of Twilight whether you like it or not. Clumsy Bella Swan (Played by Kristen Stewart) moves to Forks, Washington to shack up with her stiff sheriff father Charlie (Played by Billy Burke). She quickly makes friends but is mesmerized by a mysterious and brooding boy in her science class. His name is Edward Cullen (Played by Robert Pattinson. Ya know, the guy who makes every girl want to tear their hair out), and he doesn’t take kindly to Bella at first. The two finally strike up a conversation and end up falling for each other. Bella, however, has suspicions about Edward, mostly when he saves her from being seriously injured or killed when she is almost crushed by an out-of-control van. As Edward and Bella’s love affair blossoms, a trio of rabid vampires tears through the woods and kill anyone in their path. This trio consists of James (Played by Cam Gigandet), Victoria (Played by Rachelle Lefevre) and Laurent (Played by Edi Gathegi). Upon meeting Bella, James sets his sights on her and sees her as pure food. Edward and the rest of his eccentric vampire clan scramble to protect her as James closes in and threatens her entire family.

A good majority of Twilight is spent watching Bella and Edward lock eyes, Bella biting her lip, and the star crossed lovers arguing with each other about the fate of their relationship. Edward denies that they can ever be together and that Bella should leave him alone even though he is always the one that seeks her out. You’d think Bella would point this out to him but she inexplicably goes right along with it. Everyone suspects something is strange about Edward, a suspicion that could stem from the fact that he walks around with too much powder on his face. It’s cringe inducing when we first see him. It doesn’t help that Hardwicke has him sitting in front of a stuffed owl with a hulking white wings, making it seem like Edward himself is an angle sent to Bella. While watching it, it’s truly hard to figure out why this material drives girls crazy to the point of hysterics. I can understand the fantasy element here, about your dream man sweeping you off your feet. Seriously, Edward really does this at points, throwing the love drunk Bella on his back as he scampers up a tree like a giant, baby-powder covered monkey. It can only get better, right?

Further frustrating is the love-is-eternal implication that flows forth from the film. It’s chaste to the point of being sickening, all heavy breathes and light pecks between Bella and Edward. For a film that is meant to relish in contemporary portrayal, it’s clueless about teens today. It’s a little too clean and lacking in fun. The bit players are all mostly annoying clichés; the only one who really makes a stand in her character is Anna Kendrick’s Jessica, who has a few good one-liners. I suppose they are good not because they are well written snippets of dialogue, but because Kendrick herself is better than this garbage she finds herself in. This takes me to the dialogue itself, which seems like the screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg pulled dialogue straight from the book itself. I’m sorry but there are just some things that sound better on paper and Stephanie Myers’ dialogue is one of them. It should have stayed in the book and more thought should have gone in to what these kiddies have to say.

But I will be fair here and eat my words. I was quick to label Robert Pattinson overrated and lacking any skill when it came to acting. Throughout the duration of the film, he mostly resorts to staring longingly at Plain Jane Bella, but he is surprisingly self-aware in his character. When he cracks a joke, he flashes a genuine grin, obviously chuckling at the absurdity on display here. It could also mirror his sense of humor over the swarms of teens that go gaga over him. When he says, “Everyone’s looking” and follows it with an impressed grin, I believed his astonishment. Go figure! Who would have thought Pattinson would slap on a few complexities to this thing? The antagonist James is no more of a threat than a month old puppy. It is said that the Cullen clan needs to rip him apart and burn him, which sounds really cool until you realize that Hardwicke will hide the process through trick editing and blurry cinematography. Stewart’s Bella is about what you would expect, radiating a novice approach to acting. She’s not terrible, but there is definitely some room for improvement. It’s hard to blame her because she is still fairly young here.

Truth be told, what Twilight could really use is more of a sense of adventure and dropping the starry-eyed theatrics. Making the villains a bit more sinister and not like they are troupe of homeless hippies would help. Give Bella a bit more confidence and leave the two-left feet shtick on the cutting room floor. Give Edward more to do than just lurking around in the shadows and starring at Bella and no, I don’t mean give him more driving time. It should be noted that I think Edward also stepped out of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, as he can apparently drive like he earns money street racing. Dropping the out-of-place slow motion shots would make a difference and also a better make-up and special effects team would do wonders. Seriously, watching the vamps leap around like Red Bull addicted apes was absurd. There is a smidgeon of potential here, but the film is too vain to even explore it. It couldn’t care less about providing a story worth telling and instead concerns itself with beauty. The only reason for the film version to exist is to exploit Robert Pattinson’s looks. Way to aim high, Twilight. Worse, way to respect yourselves, fans.

Grade: C-

Twilight is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

50/50 (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Did you ever think something as serious as cancer could be funny? Well, if you thought no, you should immediately rush out to see 50/50, the heartwarming, side-splitting tear-jerker that manages to snap a picture of the pain and anguish one goes through while they are being treated for the illness and the power of friendship that pulls someone through any tough situation they are facing. This film, which is directed by Jonathan Levine and penned by Will Reiser, strikes a perfect balance of hearty belly laughs and sniffling tears that it becomes a downright marvel in itself. Leave it to stoner comedian Seth Rogen to gravitate to a picture that makes the claim that male camaraderie is all a guy needs to pull him through a situation, any situation, that will change their life, make them embrace adulthood, or accept responsibility. It also helps that rising star Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Adam, the poor guy with the dreaded illness with a tragic vulnerability, a guy who all we want to do is reach through the screen and give him a big bear hug.

50/50 is based on a true story. The film follows Adam (Played by Levitt) who works at a radio station with his pot smoking best buddy Kyle (Played by Rogen). Adam is a nice guy, one who shacks up alongside his gorgeous girlfriend Rachel (Played by Bryce Dallas Howard), who often times walks all over him. She consistently wants to be the center of attention, overshadowing Adam at every turn. Adam has recently been feeling an aching in his lower back. He takes a trip to the doctor and learns he has a rare type of cancer, one that demands he undergo chemotherapy to treat it. As the treatment pushes forward, Adam meets two saccharine older men also stricken with cancer, is cheated on by his girlfriend, gets a ridiculous retired racing hound names Skeletor, gets medicinal marijuana, and meets a perky but amateur medical student Katherine (Played by Anna Kendrick) who guides him in the psychological aspect of what is happening to him. As Adam begins to fall apart, he begins trying to do things he doesn’t usually partake in. As his illness gets worse, Adam learns that he has a 50/50 chance of survival, a fact that pushes the defeated Adam to the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Drastically shifting from hilarity to heartrending, 50/50 avoids being a clichéd drama, one that strums the heartstrings that sing the loudest or a tasteless comedy, one that turns something like cancer into a sick joke. Focusing on the swirling emotions that no doubt accompany something like this, this film is sincerely human. A film that left me thinking about how I would emotionally cope with learning I had cancer. You never feel like a voyeur while watching 50/50, never exploiting and always inviting you in to the scene. There is a part of the film that shows us Adam and Kyle smoking weed with Alan (Played by Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Played by Matt Frewer), the two older gents struck with cancer. They joke, laugh, and are warmed by Mitch’s wife, who embraces Mitch in a loving hug, showing she is sticking by her companion through sickness and in health. It’s the moments like this that show 50/50 is never on autopilot in the emotions department. The film also becomes piercing and cold, especially when Rachel’s true colors emerge. There are moments that are pathetic, especially a scene in which Adam lays around in a pot coma, wallowing in the calamity and despair that has crept up on him.

Rogen, who should be up for an Oscar for his supporting role as Kyle, steals the entire film, the foul mouthed best friend who always annoys yet cracks the straight-laced shell of Adam with a crooked grin. He always knows the right things to say, even if Adam refuses to admit it’s humorous. After Adam dumps Rachel, Kyle takes him out and encourages him to exploit his situation in order to pick up chicks. The results are hysterical. Rogen has a way with ad-libbing, making any given scene feel natural, creeping by the staged. He has become an actor who radiates natural allure, always coming across unadulterated and not simply a character he is portraying. Kyle is his crowning achievement in his sprawling body of work. Howard and Kendrick also bring human performances, one representing the aloofness of human nature (Howard) and one embodying the compassion (Kendrick).

The message is clear in 50/50: Life is unpredictable. We shouldn’t be afraid to take risks because we never know when it can be taken away. Adam lives a conservative, buttoned up life (He doesn’t drink or drive a car), one that lacks thrills. Kyle lives as if everyday is his last, wisecracking and giggling his way through any situation, even as he is caught in the middle of an argument between Rachel and Adam. Yet it’s his friendship, his willingness to stand by his friend that moved me while watching 50/50. This is a film that even if you think you won’t have your world shaken up, it will get you at some point. Adam’s nervous breakdown was the point that really hogtied me emotionally. 50/50 believes in the power of love, a force that is complicated and has strange ways of showing up and guiding us. Every door closed is another door open. I wish every film could fill me with optimism and dazzle me with the splendor of life like 50/50 did. It also proves that laughter is indeed the best medicine.

Grade: A-