Tag: family

Seeing Ghosts Double Feature: ParaNorman (2012) and The Frighteners (1996)

I’d been pretty psyched for ParaNorman for quite some time, ever since I saw a trailer for it last year and became instantly smitten with its Coraline/Tim Burton-y aesthetic. Stop-motion has this effect on me, it’s one of my favorite art forms and certainly my favorite type of animation. When accolades for the film began pouring in I was nodding my head along with them before I’d even had a chance to see it, just so elated that a non-CG animated film was receiving such widespread recognition. Then I finally saw the damn thing and guess what? IT RULES. The general premise reminded me strongly of The Frighteners, aka the only Peter Jackson movie I own, so I went home and watched that right after. It was a wonderfully spooky, funny, generally ghost-tastic double feature!

Norman is a weird kid, a self-made loner with poofy hair, a love of zombie movies, and the ability to see and talk to ghosts everywhere. No one believes him of course so he finds solace in his ghost friends, especially his caring grandma. But when a centuries-old witch’s curse (he lives in a Salem, MA stand-in) threatens his whole town, Norman takes matters into his own hands, joined by some unlikely companions- including his vapid sister, the school bully, and eventually, his gabby parents.

This movie is soooo fucking good you guys, sorry to cuss but GODDAMN. The visuals, as expected, are absolutely stunning. I want to drink in everything I see so I can make it a part of my being, or something. I’m really into how it looks, basically. The animation is fluid and the character design is great, with strong elements of caricature and emphatic expressions. The sets are fantastic and I loved the ghostly effects. Seriously, that witchy storm-cloud sky? MY GOD, MAKE THAT MY SKY.

While I could gush about the visuals for hours (isn’t that what you want?) I have to say that the script is completely great, too! It’s funny and interesting and surprisingly progressive. At first I was like “Ugh, witch’s CURSE, really? Shouldn’t we be teaching these kids how shitty the pilgrims were and how young girls were being killed needlessly?” But then the plot develops into something much more nuanced and I was really happy with how it all turned out. No one is the all-out “villain”, here, everyone has understandable motivations and eventually they all realize their wrongdoing. The biggest threat is the mob mentality of the present-day townspeople, who ransack the town center the second a few zombies walk harmlessly into their midst. What dicks.

ParaNorman stresses acceptance and open-mindedness, so it’s like the opposite of Cars 2. There’s even an out gay character, which for a kids movie is pretty cool, right? Has that happened in a mainstream family film before? I was sure early on that Mitch was gay, mainly because there was a point made about how he totally wasn’t into Courtney and her very obvious advances. I figured I was wrong, because how could that happen, but there’s a cute reveal at the end that confirms it. At first I was frustrated that a character’s sexuality was used for a joke, but it’s not mean-spirited, and revealing this big super-jock as a gay character at the end is probably the best way to make it easily acceptable to any kids who aren’t familiar with the idea- the character reads as stereotypically straight and you come to like him as this sort of dumb jock guy, but then he’s revealed as gay and you realize you were buying into that stereotype and you shouldn’t assume things about people. Right? I hope that’s how it works for anyone who didn’t realize right away, and everyone is cool with it.

Anyway I’m really in love with this movie, I hope that’s obvious. It’s got lovely little horror references and a good story and strong voice acting and drop-dead-gorgeous visuals and I LOVE IT OK.


So Frank Bannister (Michael J Fox) is probably what Norman would grow into if he wasn’t such a well-adjusted kid to begin with. A former architect, he’s been seeing ghosts since he witnessed his wife’s mysterious murder years prior, and now he employs his ghost buddies to haunt local houses so he can exorcise them for cash. A number of healthy people in his community keep dying of mysterious heart attacks, and it’s up to Frank to stop the ghostly Death Specter who seems to be the culprit. After teaming up with Lucy (Trini Alvarado), a doctor whose asshole husband is among the victims, he realizes that the deaths are connected to a serial killer (Jake Busey) thought long-dead.

This has long been one of my favorite horror movies, but it had been a good few years since I’d last seen it. Luckily it totally holds up as a movie, even if the effects reeeeeally don’t. The Frighteners is from the mid-90s and it definitely looks it, from Trini Alvarado’s hilarious Andie MacDowell complex to the super dated CGI. Some of the imagery is quite scary- especially the house that comes alive with killer Johnny Bartlett’s haunting- but it’s so fake-looking it’s hard to be really affected. This was made during that interim period when CG effects were a hot new thing that everyone wanted to use, but they hadn’t developed the technology enough to actually look good. Just a few years after this Jackson would knock it out of the park with the visuals of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so I guess this was kind of like a practice run. The first pancake, as it were. Some great ideas, not the best execution.

Dated visuals aside, this movie is pretty swell. I love Fox in the more serious role of Frank (this is his last starring film role to date, actually), where he’s able to combine his sarcastic delivery with a more tragic character. Supporting stars Chi McBride, John Astin, and Jake Busey are all having fun, but it’s Dee Wallace as Johnny’s committed girlfriend Patricia and Jeffrey Combs as disturbed FBI agent Milton Dammers who really steal the show. The former switches between childlike innocence and sociopathic mania with chilling ease, while the latter is his usual darkly wacky self, only covered in weird tattoos and a Hitler hairdo. Ugh, Jeffrey Combs! The best guy. This is the first time I ever saw him, actually, though it took me a while to connect him with his younger Re-Animator self.


I seriously recommend The Frighteners to any ParaNorman fan, and vice versa. Not only are both about dudes who see ghosts, they’ve also both got freaky flashback visions, long drives through forests, great soundtracks (Danny Elfman and Jon Brion!), historical mysteries, supernatural comedy, tragic pasts, and lessons in friendship. And while the effects are at times distracting in the former, they don’t detract enough from the film as a whole to make a huge difference. The ghosts looks pretty good, actually, it’s the Death Specter that doesn’t work so well. Oh also even though it’s filmed in New Zealand, I’m pretty sure The Frighteners takes place in New England? So that’s another connection. What a good pairing.

Movie Review: Batman: The Movie (1966)

Seen: On dvd on my friend Sam’s projector set-up, from my personal collection.

The whole “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” part in The Dark Knight Rises obviously had me in the mood for Batman: The Movie, the delightfully campy film version of the classic 60s tv series. Starring Adam West as the eponymous crimefighter and Burt Ward as his Boy Wonder sidekick Robin, the film pits our heroes against four of Gotham’s most dastardly villains: Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Joker (Caesar Romero), Riddler (Frank Gorshin), and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether). They’ve teamed up to combine their considerable evil skills and resources, hatching a plot to hold members of the United Nations for ransom, while using billionaire Bruce Wayne as bait to snare Batman and Robin. OBVIOUSLY THIS PLAN IS AIRTIGHT.

There is a lot of silliness afoot in this movie, and that’s just the way I like it. It’s got wacky action scenes and eye-searing color combinations and maniacal laughter and ridiculous leaps of logic and even a bit of the ol’ BAM POW ZOCKO! I love the villainous team-up, especially since Frank Gorshin as the Riddler is maybe my favorite Batman adversary? He’s up there, certainly. And everybody gets to bring their own thing to the plan. Penguin’s got his adorable penguin-shaped submarine (my gosh it’s too cute with its little flippers), Riddler shoots a riddle into the sky to confound Batman for like 30 seconds, Catwoman disguises herself as a Russian journalist to get into Bruce Wayne’s perfectly-pleated pants, and Joker’s got… jokes? I don’t actually remember his contribution but I’m sure it was there. They have at least 10 supervillian schemes going at any given time time, including: kidnapping a befuddled Commodore, launching various deadly weapons, mistreatment of sharks, kidnapping a billionaire, impersonating Soviets, turning world leaders into colorful dehydrated dust, and basically murder when some of their henchmen accidentally explode. Meanwhile Batman and Robin get to shout out weird exclamations and antiquated turns of phrase and everything is just as it should be.

I’ve always thought this film was a pretty fun time, a solid representation of the tv series and an enjoyable feature in its own right. It knows it’s loopy and over the top, and it revels in it. But rewatching it now after several years I realize that it draaaaags and generally overstays its welcome, which is too bad. There are several storylines that pop up and then fade away as the movie progresses, and there’s way too much time spent rationalizing certain actions or events. Like, no one cares and certainly no one is paying attention to these details, you guys. I don’t care where Penguin got the submarine, and I have no idea how the Commodore and his yacht fit into things. It matters naught. And then there’s a big climactic fight scene and you think it’s over, but somehow there’s still 10 minutes of movie left as they hang out at the UN for forever.

I still think Batman: The Movie is a real hoot, it could just use some trimming. Or maybe next time I’ll drink some more and it’ll even out. Holy Alcohol, Batman!


Pair This Movie With: I feel like revisiting the show, since it’s been a few years. Looks like Youtube’s got me covered.

Movie Review: Brave (2012)

Seen: In 3D at the Harvard Square AMC/Loews in Cambridge. Just as it’s closing.

I’ve been pretty goddamn excited for Brave for quite a while now, ever since I read about its first incarnation (“The Bear and the Bow”) as the first Pixar film to be directed by a woman and of course the first to feature a female lead character. After the weird and still basically unexplained departure/firing/replacing of director Brenda Chapman halfway through production, I was still interested but less thrilled. Luckily the movie came out ok. The story centers on Merida, a plucky princess living in the Scottish highlands, who would rather shoot arrows all day and ride into the sunset than sit around with her strict mother learning ladyskills like sewing and corset-wearing. When a trio of hapless lords and their wed-able sons come calling for her hand in marriage, Merida works to change the fate her family has laid out for her. But things don’t exactly go as planned.

I know that for various reasons this film has been getting negative, or at the very least mediocre, responses, and that’s really too bad. I definitely understand viewers’ problems with the plot- it’s unfocused and at times uninspired. The story drags at points and the stakes didn’t feel very high. BUT. Brave‘s strength resides in its attention to character, and especially in those characters’ relationships. In my experience it’s not particularly common for a family-type film to give so much attention to a mother-daughter relationship, and to do it so incredibly well, and for because of this I am grateful for Brave. Once I realized that their interactions with and understanding of each other would be the main focus, I stopped caring about the actual story, to be honest. I mean think about it, Ratatouille is one of my most-watched Pixar films, and the plot of that movie makes no fucking sense, so I can handle a somewhat middling narrative if everything else is great. And it is.

The animation is superb, of course, and I want to have a party in Merida’s hair. I loved the sprawling Scottish countryside and various perfectly-paced visual wonders, including her target-shooting spree through the forest and her mischievous brothers’ elaborate pranks. Kelly MacDonald and Billy Connolly lead a strong vocal cast with coveted Scottish accents, and there’s a nice dose of fantasy and legend. The music is a little cheesy but it’s no worse than Randy Newman’s Toy Story songs, and while some of the humor can be sort of crude, this is a kids’ movie and some lowbrow slapstick should be expected. I’m just glad there’s finally a female lead in a Pixar movie, I mean jeez. It took them long enough but at least they did it right. Merida is a well-rounded, likable, and extremely strong lady who is believable for all her hormonal teenage flaws and rebellious actions. She’s funny, clever, and independent, and makes for a compelling lead character as we watch her grow into a more responsible, compassionate young woman through her experiences with her mother. I just hope her Barbie doll comes with bow and arrows and a sword.

This movie made me cry, no big deal, and it’s really good. If you give me shit about it sucking I’m going to assume you hate strong ladies and/or moms, which is too bad for you.


Pair This Movie With: The premise put me in mind of Beauty and the Beast, what with the whole changing-an-animal-person-back-into-a-human thing. For another strong depiction of a mother-daughter relationship I thought of Whip It, which similarly has a teenage girl trying to be a badass at the expense of her mother’s hopes for her. Finally for more Celtic-inspired animation there’s the beautiful Secret of Kells.

My original poster design for this film is for sale.

Movie Review: The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)

Seen: At the AMC/Loews at Boston Common, in 3-D.

Well, you know me. Stop-motion animation and silly jokes about British history… I’m there! Based on the series of novels by Gideon Dafoe (who also wrote the screenplay), The Pirates! Band of Misfits follows the luxuriantly-bearded Pirate Captain (actual name) and his loyal crew of adorable seamen as they fight for the “Pirate of the Year” award. In trying to plunder enough gold to nab the coveted title, they find themselves mixed up in a surprisingly scientific adventure involving Charles Darwin, rare animals, aeronautics, and an unexpectedly spry Queen Victoria.

Aw jeez how could I not be utterly charmed by this movie? I mean, it’s just this super cute, completely irreverent bunch of nonsense wrapped in a beautiful stop-motion package, and the incredible voice cast is just the bow on top! It’s got the general silly atmosphere and wonky facial expressions that I love about Wallace & Gromit, plus some truly impressive set pieces and visual design. The sight gags are plentiful, and often pretty smart, including the use of literal travel-by-map and a phenomenal bathtub chase down a long staircase, but it’s the goofy dialogue that’s strongest. The story becomes more and more ludicrous as it goes on, and so the script rises to the occasion with a wealth of weird jokes and self-aware observations.

Ok so mostly I really enjoyed this movie but there are times when it’s too… kidsy? Like there are some jokes that are corny and easy. The strangest thing about the whole movie (aside from the sword-wielding evilness of Queen Victoria, which ruled) was the use of the Flight of the Conchords song “I’m Not Crying”. Now, I loooove me some Flight of the Conchords but you can’t really take their songs out of context, the whole time that track is playing in this movie I was picturing the scene in the show, and seeing Brett and Jemaine singing it. It just took me out of the film.

That voice cast though, seriously. Every other character was a new famous person I loved. Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Martin Freeman (!), Salma Hayek, Brian Blessed, Brendan Gleeson, Imelda Staunton, Anton Yelchin (!!)… it was great. Everyone did a good job.


Pair This Movie With: Is it too obvious to suggest Muppet Treasure Island? I DON’T CARE BECAUSE IT WOULD BE SO PERFECT A NIGHT.

Movie Review: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)

Seen: On dvd on our big screen/projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

Whaaaaaaat? Kurt Russell got his start making a slew of live-action films for Disney in the 60’s and 70’s? Really? I thought he just busted onto the scene fully formed as Snake Plissken. I had to see this madness for myself, so I started with the first in a trilogy of family-friendly college comedies wherein he plays doofy student Dexter Riley: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. While stupidly trying to replace a part in the school’s new room-size computer, Dexter gets a shock and finds all of the machine’s data imprinted onto his brain. With his encyclopedic knowledge he becomes a worldwide sensation and also kind of a dick. He has to compete in a national college trivia contest to help his school, but also resident crime boss AJ Arno (Cesar Romero) wants the secret crime files he’d stored in the computer that are now sitting within Dexter.

Oh man you guys. This movie. What a weird time. So partly it’s just a study of a doofy asshole who becomes a cocky overly-intelligent asshole and alienates all his friends. But also it’s got science-fiction since his brain literally becomes a computer. BUT ALSO it’s got like, criminal intrigue and action-y parts what with Cesar Romero’s illicit dealings and eventual paint-laden high-speed car chase. And of course, it’s a comedy. And a commentary on the sorry state of public undergraduate institutions. Some might say, “That’s too much for one movie!” but I say, “It’s got something for EVERYBODY.” Including a goddamn stupendous theme song.

Naturally the main draw here is to see baby Kurt Russell in a silly comedy. He’s about 18 and hasn’t quite grown into his features yet, plus he’s got a totally square haircut. Supporting performances from Cesar Romero and Joe Flynn are strong, though my favorite was William Schallert as Dexter’s main professor. He just comes off as such a nice guy! Narratively and thematically the movie is all over the place, switching its focus every 10 minutes, but I can’t say I wasn’t entertained. And it certainly keeps you guessing what direction it’ll go next!


Pair This Movie With: Presumably the others in the Dexter Riley saga, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t and The Strongest Man in the World would make fitting follow-ups. I’ll let you know. Alternatively, this is kind of the basic premise of Chuck– as I remember the first two episodes anyway.