Tag Archives: 4 stars

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 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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Way late review: The Queen of Versailles

There were many dynamics at play with the 2008 market and housing crash. Talk of greedy bankers, incompetent credit ratings agencies, spineless politicians and policy makers have been and continue to be the focus as we get some (small) distance between the events that resulted in a near economic collapse. Missing in all of this is the consumer side of the equation. Main Street. The innocents. You and me. Except we’re not so innocent. Money was (is?) cheap and our desires for more and more rarely subsides. Taken to the extreme this vicious cycle of cheap money and an endless appetite for more results in a couple like David and Jackie Siegel. Timing is everything. Lauren Greenfield happened to already be filming the Siegels building the largest single family home in the United States when everything came crashing down. The result is The Queen of Versailles, a documentary capturing the story of the little guy through the eyes of the biggest of the little guys.

David and Jackie Siegel came from modest families. David built his timeshare company, Westgate Resorts, from the ground up. He employs thousands of people in order to sell mostly middle class families on renting a dream they can’t afford to own. Westgate builds incredible resorts on money they borrow from banks, then they sell mortgages on the rooms for a week per year to families who could never afford such luxurious vacation pads otherwise. Those families pay a monthly amount over many years to pay for a vacation stay once a year for the rest of their life. One room in a resort essentially provides 52 mortgages. Westgate then turns around, bundles these mortgages and sells them as investments. At one point, David Siegel’s son is on screen pumping up his sales staff. He tells them that they are saving lives. He equates timeshare sales people to doctors, nurses, firemen, etc. He does this with a straight face as he rattles off some study which shows people who take a week vacation once a year live longer than those who don’t. Even houses made of cards need someone to care for them. In this case care comes in the form of twisted logic.

Jackie got a computer engineering degree and went to work for IBM out of school. Her achievement was short lived as she decided there was little glamour in writing code so she decided to marry money instead. After being in an abusive marriage, Jackie found David via a beauty pageant. The two have six children plus one adopted niece on Jackie’s side of the family. The former beauty queen and her husband decide they need more room with such a big family so they go about building a 90,000 monstrosity of a home inspired by Versailles and the finest buildings Vegas has to offer. In the process of building their dream house the economy comes to a screeching halt.

What starts off as a tale of decadence turns into the story of just what the housing market crash looked like, from the top of the food chain to the bottom, all through the eyes of a difficult to like billionaire couple. The lack of money flowing freely means David Siegel is suddenly underwater on his prized property in Vegas. He personally backs every loan the company takes out which means he is liable for hundreds of millions of dollars. And since he’s saved nothing, he and his family’s life of continued luxury is at severe risk. The trickle down impact of this is seen in one of the family’s nannies and their driver. Both depend on the Siegels for paychecks and as the banks lay the hammer down on the timeshare mogul, the ability for David to pay a household staff dwindles. Layoffs at Westgate come fast and furious, with thousands losing their jobs. No one is safe. Yet through it all, Jackie is shown to be both aware yet oblivious all at once. On the one hand she is quick to recognize a childhood friend’s desperate need for money to catch up on mortgage payments and writes a check on the spot. On the other hand, she continues to spend money like there is no tomorrow. She’s shown in one moment to be completely cognizant of her drastically downsized staff’s struggles and in the next she humiliates them with some offhand comment like, “Well, at least you won’t have to clean this place”, referring to her version of Versailles going up for sale.

As the film progresses, David’s patience grows shorter. He spends every waking hour puzzling his way out of massive debt. His dream house is on the market for a mere $90M. His company is shrinking. The banks want him to liquidate everything but the shirt on his back. And to top it all off, his family is driving him mad with their lack of awareness of what is happening to them. Towards the end of the film David’s nearly non-existent patience is put to the test by his family and he loses it. It’s an amazingly intimate moment which shows just how fragile the mortar is which holds the Siegel household together.

The Queen of Versailles profiles a hard to empathize with couple who are caught in the tangled web of a market crash. What could have been a condescending look at how the mighty fall, director Lauren Greenfield finds the deeper story by also exploring the stories of those around the Siegel family. No one will shed a tear for Jackie and David Siegel, but most will admit to an uneasy feeling that the beast they attempted to ride is the same one that many of us tried to hang onto, if only to a lesser degree.

 ★★★★☆ 

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

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Way late review: Take This Waltz

Some films hit instantly – good or bad. Then there are the oddball films which refuse to give in to my scene by scene judgements. Just when I think I have it all figured out, written off as a so-so film desperately trying to be something more, Take This Waltz makes me take it all back. And it’s not because of a sudden turn in the final act, but in piecing together moments which make a greater whole.

Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) are a twenty-something married couple. They love each other and show affection for one another but something is missing, at least for Margot. Lou is either too naive or in too much denial to see his wife’s unhappiness. She hugs and kisses yet she mopes around as though life is her ball and chain. Making matters more complicated, the young work from home wife meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) during a business trip and the two hit it off in a slightly awkward yet hard to miss manner. While riding home from the airport Margot tells Daniel she is married and he confesses that is too bad as he walks to his home – across the street.

The dilemma is clear. Temptation sits not in another country, state, city, or neighborhood. No, temptation for Margot is one street crossing away. While she quietly laments her loss of love for her husband, her curiosity of what might be with the handsome neighbor who charms her in every way gets the best of her. In fairness, Daniel doesn’t make things any easier. He makes sure he is around whenever Margot steps foot outside and vice versa. The two talk and flirt with one another to the point where Daniel puts the pressure on thick and direct by describing just what he wants to do with Margot. She resists, at least for a while.

In most films the story is clear. Follow your heart. You fall in love, you fall out of love. Take This Waltz would appear to fall into this trap. The dialogue between Daniel and Margot is at times insufferably cutesy. The disciplined husband whose focus is getting his chicken cookbook out the door more than much else is portrayed as a bit of a yutz as a result. Everything is setup for the typical sabotage of a syrupy tale of love lost then found elsewhere, but something deeper is at the core of the telling of the story. The portrayal of the everyday life of a still young married couple provides a realistic glimpse.

Strong performances across the board lead Take This Waltz through troubled relationship waters. Visual metaphors abound and don’t completely sink in until the credits roll. What seems like an initially forgettable small romantic dramedy turns into something greater with the slightest of twists and the direct blow delivered by an alcoholic sister-in-law whose caved into the allure after a year long remission. Wisdom comes from the strangest of places.

 ★★★★☆ 

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

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Way late review: Mr. Mom


What ever happened to Michael Keaton? The man was a comedy goldmine in the ’80s. There was Gung Ho, Dream Team, Beetlejuice, and then there was Mr. Mom, a movie embracing its time wholeheartedly.

Jack Butler (Michael Keaton) is the stereotypical family man in 1980′s USA. He has a wife, Caroline (Teri Garr), and three young children. Caroline stays at home and Jack works at an auto factory as a manager. All is well until Jack loses his job in a down economy. He has no luck finding work so his wife decides she’ll take a shot at going back to her old career in advertising. Being a man of great pride, Jack puts a 100-to-1 odds bet that Caroline will not find a job before he does. Of course, our man loses – in more way than one. On top of being unemployed he gets to take care of the kids and household chores. Comedy ensues as even the simplest tasks like dropping kids off at school gets him scolded and yelled at by other parents for “doing it wrong”. Grocery shopping doesn’t go any better as aisle after aisle gets destroyed and Jack’s baby goes missing.

Michael Keaton pulls comedy gold from a fairly standard story. His facial expressions and delivery of lines command laughs when there would normally be none. Going from the proud father and husband to the loser who dreads his new life as a stay-at-home dad and finally back to a man with a purpose, complete with references to Rocky is all I need for an easy watch that provides some comedic relief.

I understand that you little guys start out with your woobies and you think they’re great… and they are, they are terrific. But pretty soon, a woobie isn’t enough. You’re out on the street trying to score an electric blanket, or maybe a quilt. And the next thing you know, you’re strung out on bedspreads Ken. That’s serious.

No one will ever confuse Mr. Mom with great social commentary. We’ll save that for Hulk Hogan. No, Mr. Mom delivers laughs in what is now a classic ’80s family comedy. Hard to beat.

 ★★★★☆ 

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

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