Way late review: Frankenweenie

Guts. That is what it takes to make (not to mention fund!) a black and white stop motion film dealing with the death of family pets. A real pick me up if ever there was one. Leave it to Tim Burton with Frankenweenie to pull off the impossible. It’s been a while since he last tapped into his dark quirky style and made it work.

Victor Frankenstein is a loner. He’s not unhappy. He enjoys spending time with his dog Sparky, making movies and doing science projects. When Sparky gets hit by a car and dies Victor’s world takes a dive. Inspired by his science teacher’s lesson on electricity and lightning, Victor digs up Sparky and brings him back to life thanks to some ingenuity on his part and the town’s constant evening lightning storms.

It wouldn’t be a Burton film without a plethora of odd characters. Mr. Rzykruski’s, the science teacher, makes a lasting first impression as he takes some of the magic and myth out of his students’ misunderstanding of lightning. The scene is magical thanks to screenwriter John August’s punchy dialogue and Martin Landau’s creepy over-the-top delivery. Not to be outdone by her teacher, a strange little girl with beady bugged out eyes and her cat, who shares the same comical feature, make every moment of screen time entertaining. Our initial introduction to the girl and her cat are when she stops Victor to explain how her cat sometimes leaves a present in the litter box in the shape of the first letter of a classmate’s name. The gift is meant to indicate something significant is going to happen to that person. After the cat leaves a “V”, it’s not long before Sparky is dead.

Like many Burton films, Frankenweenie obsesses over the odd, even taboo subjects. This time around it’s death with a side helping of science. Thankfully, Frankenweenie sees death as it should – sad and tragic. Too many films, whether aimed at children or adults, try to put a happy spin on life’s end. Celebrate, don’t mourn at funerals. Frankenweenie will have none of that. Where it missteps is in the end where it sends mix messages to kids about both death and science. As long as your motives are good, science and our applications of it follow suit. Just as the movie says, science is neither good nor bad, but to think that good intentions equals positive results is ridiculous. There are times our best intentions produce terrible results, and sometimes the opposite is true. The lesson taught about death is ultimately puzzling, thanks to an ending which tries to redeem a situation that should be left as it is. I’d say more but – spoilers.

Aside from some thematic problems, Frankenweenie is a lot of fun in the final act. There are endless references to classic monster movies, making the action sequences all the zanier. What was once a relatively somber film turns into a bit of a thrill ride.

I’m not sure who Frankenweenie is for. I guess it’s geared towards kids but the style and subject matter don’t fit that demographic. My seven year old enjoyed it but then she also enjoys quite a few old black and white monster movies. Regardless of who the movie is targeted at, the daring style of a stop motion, black and white feature film gets paired with a solid story and some good characters, which has been missing from Tim Burton’s movies in the past. The magic is back.


This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: The Kid with a Bike

Sometimes you need a punch in the gut. As much fun as action films filled with heroes of all shapes and sizes are, there are times a more intimate and sad tale needs to be told. Enter The Kid with a Bike, a French film by Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.

We’re immediately confronted with an angry 11-year-old named Cyril (Thomas Doret). He’s trying desperately to call his dad and when that number rings disconnected several times, the kid makes a break for it. A chase ensues and only takes breaks or slows down in the first half of the film as Cyril makes every attempt to find his dad who has clearly abandoned him. One of Cyril’s attempts to find his dad finds him latching onto an unsuspecting woman waiting in a doctor’s office waiting room. This brief encounter leads the woman, Samantha, (Cécile de France) a hairdresser in the neighborhood, to befriend Cyril by first getting back his bike and later providing him a place to stay on the weekends, away from the group foster home.

The behavior of Cyril as a young boy who has been abandoned is authentic. The anger he feels towards his dad is transferred on everyone else who cares enough to at least be with Cyril which is more than can be said for the father. Contrasted with the self-destructive behavior of the youth is Samantha’s love and care for the boy. Even though she finds herself over her head in taking care of him, she perseveres in a way that displays true love and grace, which is too rare in both movies and real life.

Even though he is loved, Cyril finds comfort from the neighborhood dealer, Wes, who befriends him. Unlike Samantha’s firm yet unending love for the young man, Wes gives Cyril the thrill of the moment; validation and words that serve to puff Cyril’s ego up and provide a quick allegiance to the no good criminal. Still, one can’t blame an 11 year-old boy whose dad wants nothing to do with his son to gravitate towards a male who goes out of his way to give the boy attention.

The last act in the film is a bit puzzling – neither good nor bad. The story grows a bit more complex without losing its focus on the kid with a bike and his struggle to find his way through a harsh life. Bonus points for not abusing a swelling soundtrack. In fact, there are only a couple brief moments where any music is used at all. What could have easily turned into melodramatic drip with a background track made to manipulate versus compliment the on screen drama.

A tight story focusing on a boy who struggles to find real love after his father left him, The Kid with a Bike never strays from the characters who are so real it’s easy to forget you’re watching a fictional tale. In a culture where cynicism and sarcasm rule the day, it’s refreshing to watch a film which doesn’t apologize for its melancholy nor shy away from its underlying altruism.


This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: The Dark Knight Rises

Some films demand a grandiose treatment. After The Dark Knight, it is only fitting that Cristopher Nolan indulge in making The Dark Knight Rises a sprawling epic full of thought provoking themes supported by sometimes majestic and other times troubling sights and sounds.

Bruce Wayne is in bad shape. The billionaire and his alter ego, Batman, disappeared after taking the blame for the murder of Gotham’s beloved district attorney turned two face villain, Harvey Dent. As much as Rises is about super heroes and villains, it’s about the inner conflict of a man who has lost his sense of purpose. And, even when he believes he has that purpose back, we’re left to wonder if the purpose has turned into one last suicidal mission to save the city he loves.

The headlining villain this time around is Bane (Tom Hardy), a man who wears a mask that may have been stolen off the set of Silence of The Lambs, which makes him difficult to understand when he speaks. The voice sounds like a mix of Sean Connery and Darth Vader.  (Special thanks to my wife for that one.) There was some serious audio magic performed to make Bane more audible and clear, to the point where it was jarring to hear this booming voice coming from a muzzled mouth. Had the original voice been used (from earlier trailers) I think that and a combination of sub-titles may have been more effective, but I understand why the change was made. Having a villain with sub-titles probably wouldn’t fly with a majority of English speaking audiences. Regardless of the voice, Bane is a menacing character. The lore surrounding him is revealed over time and only adds to his puzzling motives. Whereas the Joker was the maniacal terrorist in a clown motif, Bane is the pro wrestler with a masterminded plot to destroy Gotham, but not before he has a chance to run some evil sociological experiment where he serves as the ringmaster and the people of Gotham revel in a world which punishes the rich and gives them freedom all the while crushing them.

Adding more characters to the mix is always tricky for super hero movies. Add one too many and the story bogs down with the weight of too many stories to tell and not enough time to tell them all in. Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), seemed like she would be the tipping point this time around. Instead of becoming a boat anchor, Catwoman’s story compliments that of Batman’s quite nicely. Catwoman’s arch is much like Han Solo’s in Star Wars IV. She’s a sketchy character whose desire for fortunes outweigh her desire for doing good. Both she and Batman want to be different people. She a thief who can’t get away from her life of crime even if she tries, and he a seemingly washed up crime fighter who wouldn’t mind dying if it meant a valiant effort to save the people of Gotham.

Nolan will never be accused of keeping his stories straight forward and simple. Dialogue here and in his other films is full of exposition, which is a big no-no for most. Somehow the Dark Knight director makes even plodding material interesting. Credit the constant use of an emotionally charged soundtrack for much of that. If all our lives were backed by cinema soundtracks they would instantly seem other worldly and overly dramatic. And maybe the nearly non-stop swelling music is overkill, along with a two hour and forty-five minute running time but I never once did a time check.

Commentary on modern day issues cannot be missed. The attacks on corrupt Wall Street bankers and the one percent are spread throughout much of the film. Providing some equal opportunity of a critical eye, the Occupy movement is also alluded to and, if the allusion is correct, the picture is not a pretty one. The use of laws to make organized crime a thing of the past even though they may overstep civil liberties is touched on lightly. None of it is heavy handed in a preachy manner. Nolan keeps the focus on the story while touching on various themes, some timeless and others capturing current day events.

Some will fondly recall the previous film in the trilogy as superior, with Heath Ledger’s amazing performance as the Joker being the main reason. Both films are excellent and both provide numerous areas to nitpick. The Dark Knight Rises goes out with an operatic crescendo, a thrilling yet satisfying ending to a trilogy all about a man dressed as a bat.


This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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My top 20 films of 2011

Another year. Another list a year behind the times. Life moves at a slower pace here when it comes to movies. It’s like being in a time machine always set to minus twelve months.

20. Martha Marcy May Marlene

The tension of the film builds as we learn more about the cult and what fate likely awaits those who try to escape. What at first seems like hippies out in the woods living in a makeshift commune becomes a full blown cult, complete with violent rituals and the mandatory mind control. The reality of Martha's current situation seems more dire as each flashback peels away one horrific layer after another to the core of her former life. Through it all, Elizabeth Olsen's performance is near perfect. She behaves awkwardly with Lucy and Ted but never in a manner that feels melodramatic. My full review.

19. Footnote

Great performances and an intriguing story of a father-son relationship carry Footnote through a first half which provides many laughs and a second half which expresses the deep hurt a long and painful father and son journey inevitably delivers. An original film told in an originally, if not jarring manner. Refreshing. My full review

18. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Ghost Protocol never pretends to be what it isn't. Those looking for thought provoking cinema or even character development are sure to be let down. This is an action film that has fun being that and nothing more. My full review.

17. A Separation

An exhausting film, but in a good way. A Separation tells what would appear to be a simple story in a way that is anything but simple. The moral and ethical decisions characters make in some trying situations would seem easy to judge except director and writer Asghar Farhadi doesn't provide an effortless judgement. He, like the actors themselves, ensure reality is represented in full until the end where emotions are tapped out. My full review.

16. Contagion

Never completely satisfying as a drama or thriller, Contagion finds its sweet spot somewhere in between genres. And though it never connects on a deep emotional level, the end result is a well done film that tells a believable story about a scenario none of us wishes to experience. My full review.

15. Young Adult

The journey to destroy a marriage and fulfill the selfish desires of a despicable character does not sound fun but the way that the screenplay writer, Diablo Cody (most famous for writing Juno), positions her extremely narcissistic main character with a backdrop of decent human beings makes things fun. We can never cheer for our main character. Her plans and her ways are never worth cheering for. But we can laugh at the absurdity of her behavior, realizing that when we give into our own notions of self-importance, our vanity, we transform into creatures not unlike Mavis. And in the end, Young Adult serves as a warning for those of us who might think we're far away from ever being like Mavis. A full review.

14. Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman makes a welcome return after nearly a dozen years since his last film. Damsels in Distress is a witty comedy with commentary on a variety of topics but never heavy handed. The laughs come along with a satirical backdrop and characters to match. Not everyone's cup of tea but possibly a surprise for those who haven't enjoyed Stillman's past films. Damsels was a pleasant surprise for me. My full review.

13. The Descendants

The laughs come in small spurts, as Matt confronts the onslaught of obstacles, sorrow and tragedy before him. Rising above the quirky indie comedy, The Descendants succeeds where many fail. The seriousness of the story presented is never fully played for laughs nor is there a need to redeem itself in the end with melodrama. Instead we're left with a film that feels oddly comfortable even in the midst of uncomfortable situations. My full review.

12. Higher Ground

Vera Farmiga succeeds in not only carrying the load of this film based on real life memoirs of Carolyn S. Briggs, she also directed it as a first time effort behind the camera. I admire her attempt to tackle a subject that is not a popular one in her circles and generally handling it with great care, never taking the easy route of cynically portraying her characters while also not hiding their struggles and faults. My full review.

11. The Hunter

Maybe all the pieces don't add up in a completely satisfying manner, but that doesn't stop the beauty of The Hunter from resonating. Willem Dafoe carries the quiet thriller on his back with a performance which is as much about the smallest moments, the slightest of facial expressions in the midst of a mysterious hunt for the most unlikely animal to be called a tiger. My full review.

10. Jeff, Who Lives at Home

I was at first convinced Jeff, Who Lives at Home was going to be another vulgar and cynical comedy; one that treats its characters with disdain by putting them through painfully awkward situations, only to watch them dangle in despair until the bitter end where there is a weak attempt at redemption. And while it is vulgar at times, there is a genuine care for these characters, all of whom are easy to make rash judgments about. The story is more than just a setup for laughs, though there are plenty of those. Jeff's obsession with his destiny may not jive with reality but it makes for a surprisingly compelling story with an emotional payoff. My full review.

9. Margin Call

The tone never changes throughout, for better or worse. It's a slow burn of a film. Certain characters seem to grow the 24 hour time span while others start a new path in their life that is likely to be filled with regret. The ending is as sad and poignant as one can imagine without resorting to cheap plot twists. Margin Call serves as an admirable tale for our times. My full review.

8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes may not get a lot of love on people's top films of 2011 but it should. It's one of those rare sci-fi action films that is so well paced and executed that you forget the challenge it overcame, following a long line of predecessors, many of which weren't all that good and some that were simply awful. My full review.

7. Moneyball

Watching Billy Beane struggle, even after he experiences a wild amount of success, makes Moneyball a special film. Most would have had the Oakland A's GM triumphantly proclaiming his loyalty for his team and ended it in a great David vs. Goliath story. Instead we get Billy Beane the always appearing calm figure who is never quite sure what to make of this game of baseball. Even in success he is unsure. His final decision to stick with the underdog feels like it's filled with doubt. As if Beane's decision to stick with the A's or go with the incredible offer from the Red Sox is lose-lose. To Billy Beane, there is no sure thing. The obvious first appeal of anything cannot be trusted. My full review.

6. Hanna

Hanna was entertaining throughout, avoiding the temptation to add unwieldy plot twists and characters (I'm looking at you Harry Potter). The tone of the film hit me just right. The experimentation within the action genre was a great success. While not a fan of sequels in general, I wouldn't mind seeing Hanna 2. My full review.

5. The Interrupters

While reality TV has trained most of us to build a cynical force field to what we see on the television, documentaries like The Interrupters pierce our hearts, not with emotional trickery but by displaying slices of life otherwise unnoticed by most. My full review.

4. Beauty Day

Beauty Day is refreshingly honest. There is a nervous energy about Ralph Zavadil that is hard to not get wrapped up in. At the same time, Ralph is human and the film never tries to hide that. It would be easy to portray him as a misunderstood genius of self-destructive stunts or a troubled soul we should feel sorry for, but instead we get a look at the good, the bad and the stuff that falls somewhere in-between. And all of this is done with a sense of humor and unique style that adds up to a fine film. My full review.

3. The Elephant in The Living Room

What could have been not much more than an issue documentary turns into a rather sophisticated look at two men involved in the thick of the topic. The human story is what ends up driving the film home and puts it over the top of an already solid educational look at the problem of exotic animals as pets problem in the US. My full review.


2. Better This World

Whether one agrees with their left leaning politics or not, it's hard not to feel empathy for Crowder and McKay in the latter half of the film. The two twenty-something friends are not simply used as exhibits A and B in a case against the US justice system and overreaching homeland security, they are shown as people who have families and loved ones. The repercussions for Crowder and McKay are deeper than a lost battle for the cause they believe in. These young men are faced with hard prison time away from loving families and friends.

Unlike its counterparts, Better This World makes the most of its activist focused material and tells a compelling story in a manner worthy of the source material. My full review.

1. Take Shelter

Take Shelter is sure to leave some perplexed, others enthralled, and almost everyone thinking for days about what it all meant in the end. Count me in the camp of those enthralled. The performances, the overall mood, and the contrast between an everyday life and schizophrenia are done in a near perfect manner. My full review.

Way late review: The Hunter

I’m happy I finally gave The Hunter a try via Netflix streaming. Having been on my instant queue for a while, I almost put it off to the point where it ended up in my “sure, I’ll watch that someday (which means I’ll always find something else to watch)” list.

Martin (Willem Dafoe) is hired by a mysterious company to track down the last Tasmanian Tiger on the planet, kill it, and bring back DNA samples. His housing arrangement while on his mission includes a widower and her two young children in the middle of the Tasmania wilderness. Mystery surrounds every one of Martin’s moves. He poses as a scientist studying Tasmanian Devils, which makes the local loggers immediately hate him and the environmentalists suspicious of his motives. His mission is simple yet complicated not only by the locals who see him as a threat but also by the widower and her two kids. Mom is so depressed and drugged she sleeps non-stop, leaving the children to fend for themselves. The girl is spunky and her younger brother is silent. Martin resists getting involved as much as he can but finally succumbs to a family sorely missing the adult male, a role Martin fills simply by being present.

Making a terrible looking film shot in the majestic landscapes of Tasmania is probably near impossible. Regardless, director Daniel Nettheim still deserves credit for making the most of the gorgeous scenery as our protagonist tracks his prey. Martin sets out on a number of hunts throughout the surrounding area and each one is filled with less than thrilling action. He sets various traps, tracks his progress, and then cleans up after himself. While not exciting, the scenes are nearly mesmerizing with the calm, professional Martin tracking the elusive animal. During most of the hunting the tension is built knowing there are those who don’t want him there and the fact that Martin seems like a man with a heart but still goes about this mercenary mission of hunting the last of a species for monetary gain. Just enough happens during these journeys to make the suspense grow while not overwhelming the story with melodrama.

There are loose ends which never get tied up in a satisfying manner. The height of the mystery driving the thriller isn’t as clear as it probably should have been nor are the motives of at least one character. As a result, the story feels overly ambitious for what should likely be a story focused on Martin and his inner conflict.

Maybe all the pieces don’t add up in a completely satisfying manner, but that doesn’t stop the beauty of The Hunter from resonating. Willem Dafoe carries the quiet thriller on his back with a performance which is as much about the smallest moments, the slightest of facial expressions in the midst of a mysterious hunt for the most unlikely animal to be called a tiger.


This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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