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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

by Steve Habrat

Before Jack Skellington and Sally were mall goth heroes, they were a magical pair of claymation figures who just wanted to experience the joy and wonder of Christmas.  Before all the heavy metal covers and the 3D conversions, their world was even more tempting, never needing an update and forever remaining timeless. The best of the claymation bunch, The Nightmare Before Christmas was a childhood favorite of mine, favored more around the time when Jolly Old Saint Nicholas plops down the chimney than my other favorite holiday. I always thought this film does capture the hypnotizing quality of Christmas, the one that makes us feel like children again. It really gels when Jack finds himself is Christmas Town, gaping at snowmen, elves, Christmas lights, and children snuggled in their beds. It painstakingly tries to re-establish that Christmas is about awe, not about the material fixation that now comes with the most wonderful time of the year. The film, which is the brainchild of producer Tim Burton (No, he did NOT direct this!) and director Henry Selick, is teeming with some of the most creative and bizarre animated characters ever captured on camera, and they do not feel like they are stretched or insipid.

The Nightmare Before Christmas ushers us to Halloween Town, a place where all the typical Halloween ghouls reside and emerge every year to give us the willies. Halloween Town finds a leader in the bony Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King who is growing weary of the same old traditions every year. With his ghost dog Zero, Jack wanders off into the woods and stumbles upon a portal to another holiday dimension: Christmas Town.  Bursting with excitement and inspiration, Jack hurries back to Halloween Town and fills in the locals about what he has seen. Jack and the monsters vow that they will give “Sandy Claws” a break for the year and they will put on Christmas. As Jack’s plans slowly fall apart and his idea grows more and more dangerous, it’s up to the lonely Sally, a ragdoll zapped to life by a mad scientist, to try to convince Jack to leave Christmas to the residents of Christmas Town. Across Halloween Town, the sinister Oogie Boogie has plans of his own for Santa Claus.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a true work of art, one that works simply because it carries off the viewers imagination. It did mine when I was young and I still smile today when I see the film. The 3D conversion the film underwent was rewarding because we get to see the fine details to Halloween Town. The film was the brainchild of Burton and watching the film is like stepping into the mind of Burton himself. The inspired characters also make the visit to Halloween Town beyond memorable. There are mummies, a trio of glammed up vampires, a two-face politician, witches, the boogieman, and a band of devious and merry trick-or-treaters. There are nods to the classic Universal Movie Monsters while also opening the door to a brand new world. Seriously, the film commences with a door being opened and ghosts coaxing us into the darkness. It’s really quite exciting.

As far as musicals go, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stand out as far as I’m concerned. This film gives us some of the most ingenious, cleverly written musical numbers you will see in an animated film. Just get a load of that opening introduction as the monsters all introduce themselves. It’s a horror fans dream come true and anyone who appreciates the value of lyrics will be head over heels with delight. You will be tapping your toes along with it. The song, “This Is Halloween”, is now a goth anthem, even getting a makeover from heavy metal artist Marilyn Manson a few years back. Other standouts include the dreary “Sally’s Song”, Jack’s inquisitive “What’s This”, and the trick-or-treater’s bickering “Kidnap the Sandy Claws”.

There are some minor flaws to be found in this film. The love story between Sally and Jack is a bit wobbly. It never really gets off the ground and we mostly see the love from Sally’s side. Jack seems relatively unconcerned with her and barely notices her presence at times. The film is a bit short, abruptly wrapping up just when things are really starting to grip us. Oogie Boogie only really shows up at the end, a character that is the very definition if cool. What aids us in overlooking the minor bumps is that the characters are just so nifty. Jack has become an iconic animated hero and you’ll be overloaded on cute when you meet his playful pup Zero. The Mayor of Halloween Town will keep the kiddies chuckling, especially when his mood alters and his face changes. Santa Claws is also quite creative, a huge red blob of a man, a version of him that only Burton could think up. Sally is a hopeless romantic and we feel her sorrow. The most astonishing aspect is the complexities in Jack. He’s a control freak and at times a bit domineering, yet we root for him to see the error of his ways. Perhaps that is meant to force us to reflect on our own approach to Christmas. Have we missed the point of this Holiday? Are we any different than Jack? According to Burton and Selick, not really.

The Nightmare Before Christmas may prove to be a bit too eerie for some young viewers, but with films like Corpse Bride and Coraline (Also directed by Selick) on the market, that’s up for you to decide. It’s a shame that goth kids have marked it as their own, as there really is something for everyone to enjoy within the film. I think that Jack stands for much more than as the leader of the gothic nation. He represents our ignorance, our fascination with all things magical, and is the face of a truly poignant redemption story. He even symbolically rises from ashes near the end of this film. I think he represents more than the kids who shop at Hot Topic think. This film also cast its spell over me as a kid and I’m glad I had the chance to see it before the recent surge of popularity. Eye opening and intricate, with treasures abound, The Nightmare Before Christmas sweeps us off our feet, much like the season it is a testament to. An undeniable family classic.

Grade: A-

The Nightmare Before Christmas is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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.