ParaNorman dares to play to all audiences. Unraveling with a purposefully imperfect stop-motion technique the zombie adventure utilizes striking filmmaking styles sharp wit and scares that will give young ones the willies while tickling the nostalgia bone of any adult who used to stay up past his or her bedtime watching horror movies. The film isn't overtly for anyone; it's simply on a mission to tell a great story. ParaNorman succeeds: embracing a world where bullying is hitting an epidemic level and the social "outcasts" are lashing out the animated movie balances emotional messages with a wild visual ride. Quite out of the ordinary — the living dead being just the beginning.
Norman (The Road's Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a middle schooler living on the fringes. He sits alone at lunch with his only real friend the chubby nerd Neil; he's routinely beat up by schoolyard bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse); and the kicker: he sees ghosts — and no one believes him. Norman passes the time by watching old horror movies with the spirit of his Grandma (Elaine Stritch) much to the chagrin of his mother (Leslie Mann) and father (Jeff Garlin). Norman's dad is fed up with Norman's "disturbed" behavior but before he can ship his son off to psychiatric help all hell breaks loose in their hometown of Blithe Hollow. Failing to put together the cryptic words of town crazy Mr. Prenderghast and keep zombies at rest Norman goes on the run from the living dead who take to the streets of Blithe Hollow. Why? The mystery is revealed as Norman embarks on a Goonies-style race around Blithe Hollow.
ParaNorman only loses footing when it's in explanation mode setting up the pieces of the puzzle that will play out in the movie's second half (not unlike most movies of the genre it's riffing on). But the introductions to the colorful cast and horror-inspired adventure brought to life with stunning animation and a muted color palette unlike most kid-friendly cartoons are an absolute treat. Norman is a three-dimensional character both in puppetry and human terms; Smit-McPhee's timid vocals realize the fear of the scary moments and work as perfect deadpan to ParaNorman's comedic asides. The movie advances its risk-taking to a whole other level in the finale offering an explosive crescendo that wows the senses and is sure to bring tears to the eyes. It's a marvel on a technical level — intricate landscapes shot with shallow focus all set to Jon Brion's rousing score — but in the end the film works because it's a great bold story. For a movie grounded in fear ParaNorman stands out as a movie for audiences young and old that's truly fearless.
Running Scared is a few plots shy of being well-thought out. It starts with Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) a low-level employee of an Italian mob family who over the course of 18 hours has one hell of a time. First he has to get rid of a gun that killed a crooked cop in a drug deal gone bad. Instead of disposing of it however Joey goes home and hides it in a panel in the basement as future collateral only to have his 10 year-old son’s best friend Oleg (Cameron Bright) discover and abscond with the weapon so he can shoot his abusive Russian stepfather (Karel Rodan) who is also mob connected. Then we get to follow young Oleg now on the run as he encounters all manner of nocturnal miscreants. I mean seriously this is the kind of night that should permanently screw the kid up. Meanwhile Joey--aided by both his wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga) and son--is trying desperately to get to the boy and the gun before the mob factions find out. Not one of your more stellar evenings. What is cutie-pie Paul Walker doing shooting people having sex on a dryer and saying the f-word over and over after he just saved a pack of Huskies from freezing to death in the Antarctic? Kind of bad timing for Walker to have his feel-good family movie Eight Below released a week before this R-rated bloodbath. Running Scared definitely shows an edgier Walker but the outdoorsy movies just work better for him. The young Bright on the other hand has made a short career of playing creepy sullen kids. First he disturbed us out as a cloned child in Godsend; then he made us really uncomfortable as a kid who claims he’s Nicole Kidman’s reincarnated husband in Birth. So playing a boy who goes through one of the more nightmarish evenings ever isn’t really a stretch. As a side note Farmiga (The Manchurian Candidate) does a nice job as Joey’s wife who has just as much chutzpah as any of those testosterone-pumped mob guys. This is how writer/director Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) describes Running Scared “It’s like a Grimm’s Fairy tale nightmare but taking place in the Mob world…” Well no kidding. Kramer uses familiar gritty crime drama techniques such as framing the film in that grainy washed out look and doing slo-mos of people getting plastered by shotguns. You know the drill. It’s effective but the problem is while Kramer bombards the audience with one Grimm situation after another--from pedophiles to crazed pimps to ear-biting gangsters--he forgets to create a cohesive film. Of course the director nearly redeems himself with a clever twist near the end but it’s just not enough to make up for the many times you’re sitting there cringing and thinking “What the…?”
Based on the bestseller by Nicolas Sparks the film begins with Duke (James Garner) and Allie (Gena Rowlands) an inseparable couple living in a nursing home. While Duke remembers their life together Allie who suffers from progressive dementia does not. Their only bond is a faded notebook from which Duke reads to Allie every day telling her the same story over and over. It's a sweeping tale of two South Carolina teens country boy Noah (Ryan Gosling) and city gal Allie (Rachel McAdams) who spend one glorious summer in the early 1940s falling madly in love. Unfortunately the couple is soon separated first by her disapproving parents and then by World War II but after seven years apart after taking different paths they are passionately reunited. There's a catch though; Allie is now faced to choose between the man she once loved and the successful businessman (James Marsden) she is engaged to. It's really no surprise who the young Allie chooses in the end--but for Duke the only thing that keeps him going is the fact that every day somehow through the power of this story the mentally impaired Allie miraculously remembers their love if only for a very brief moment before slipping back into oblivion. Tears being jerked from your eyes yet?
The talented cast certainly elevates The Notebook's romantic drudgery. McAdams takes a departure from all the Mean Girls she's played lately (including The Hot Chick) and easily wins you over as the spirited young Allie while the usually intense Gosling also tackles something lighter so to speak than his previous darker roles such as his Jewish-turned-American Nazi leader in The Believer. While infusing a certain sense of brooding and melancholy into Noah especially in the years he spends pining for Allie Gosling manages to exude Noah's genuine warmth and sensitivity as well. And between the two of them real sparks fly as the actors paint a fresh and inviting picture of young love that stands the test of time. Marsden is completely wasted however as Allie's fiancé Lon a upstanding Southern gentleman Allie's parents expect her to marry who offers little as to why Allie should stay with him. As the older contingency veterans Garner and Rowlands who take the sappiest material and turn it into something meaningful inspire some truly heart-ripping moments as the aging couple holding onto their love as tight as they can. In the supporting cast Joan Allen has some shining moments as Allie's uptight mother with a secret of her own.
In bringing the popular novel about enduring love to life director Nick Cassavetes (Unhook the Stars) may have used his own experiences having seen his parents--the late John Cassavetes and his lady love and muse Gena Rowlands--play out their own real-life love affair. Cassavettes gets to the heart of the material right away and permeates the screen with the beautiful surroundings of South Carolina where The Notebook was filmed. We glide through lush moss-filled swamps and sleepy Southern towns marvel at languid shots of the South Carolina coastline. It's very clear Cassavetes has a way with actors much like his father did gently coaxing realistic performances from his young somewhat untested leads while allowing old guards like Garner and Rowlands to simply work their magic (imagine telling your Oscar-nominated mother how to act. Right). The problem is the story itself which not only offers nothing new to the romance genre but also isn't very compelling. There are no great tragedies (save perhaps for the whole dementia thing) no real villainous presence to keep the lovers apart no peril at all. It's boy-meets-girl boy-loses-girl boy-wins-girl-back--ho-hum. Where's the sudsy soap opera when you need it?
December 18, 2003 12:55pm EST
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) a novice professor from UCLA lands a job in the art history department at Wellesley College in the fall of 1953 and she's thrilled at the prospect of educating some of the brightest young women in the country. But her lofty image of Wellesley quickly fizzles when she discovers that despite its academic reputation the school fosters an environment where success is measured by the size of a girl's engagement ring. Besides learning about fresco techniques and physics the women take classes in the art of serving tea to their husband's bosses something that doesn't sit well with the forward-thinking Katherine who openly encourages her students to strive for goals other than marriage. Katherine inspires a group of students specifically Joan (Julia Stiles) and Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) but newlywed Betty (Kirsten Dunst) feels Katherine looks down on her for choosing a husband over a career. Betty goes on the offensive and uses her column in the school paper to drive a wedge between the professor and the stuffy faculty. But while Betty puts on a happily married face her hostility towards Katherine is actually misplaced anger stemming from her miserable marriage to a cheating charlatan.
Katherine is Mona Lisa Smile's most complex and intriguing character and Roberts is a fitting choice for the part. Like an old soul the actress has a depth that's perfect for a character like Katherine who's enlightened and ahead of her time. But Katherine never emotionally connects with any of her students which isn't surprising since they're so bitchy and self-absorbed. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the young women's characters and building their relationships with Katherine sooner but as it is the underdeveloped friendships between the women will leave viewers feeling indifferent rather than inspired. The worst of the bunch is Dunst's character Betty who is intent on making everyone around her feel unworthy. She has her reasons of course but they're revealed so late in the story that it's hard to suddenly empathize with her after having spent three-quarters of the film hating her guts. Stiles' character Joan is perhaps the most congenial but like Betty she never develops a strong bond with her teacher. The most "liberal" of the girls is Giselle played by Gyllenhaal but the character suffers the same burden as the rest: She's unlikable. Giselle's penchant for sleeping with professors and married men is so odious that not even her 11th hour broken-home story can salvage her character.
While Mona Lisa's smile in Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting has often been described as subtle director Mike Newell's star-studded drama is anything but that; Mona Lisa Smile is so heavy-handed that unlike the painting for which it was named there is nothing left for moviegoers to ponder or debate. The film plays like a montage of '50s ideological iconography: A school nurse gets fired for dispensing birth control; a teacher refers to Lucille Ball as a "communist"; Betty's prayers are answered when she gets what every woman dreams of--a washer and dryer. But the film's critical insight into '50s culture isn't as shocking as it thinks it is and the way it highlights feminist issues is as uninspired as trivial as a fine-art reproduction. Newell also spends too much time basking in the aura of the '50s era focusing on countless parties dances and weddings sequences that while visually ambitious are superfluous. The film may be historically accurate but its characters story and message will leave moviegoers feeling empty. A climactic scene for example in which Katherine's students ride their bikes alongside her car as a show of support comes across as a tool to evoke sentiment that just doesn't exist.
Let's just get through Gigli's plot so we can move on to the fun stuff. A lowly hit man Larry Gigli (Ben Affleck) is hired to kidnap the mentally handicapped little brother (Justin Bartha) of a federal prosecutor for Mob purposes. A second hitperson the comely independent-minded Ricki (Jennifer Lopez) is also put on the case because Gigli can't be trusted to do the job correctly. Holed up in Gigli's apartment the duo clashes at first but gradually form a bond even though Gigli is a chauvinistic jughead and Ricki a tough-nut lesbian. Of course they also form an attachment to their quarry Brian who in his untainted innocence manages to change these two hardened individuals. Now that's over with here's just a sampling of some of the deep and meaningful dialogue that passes between these two lovebirds: Says Gigli: "I am the bull and you are the cow…f**k with the bull you get the horn." Gigli to Ricki: "I'm the Sultan of Slick…the original gangster's gangster." Ricki to Gigli: "You know this might be a good time to suggest you not allow the seeds of cruel hope to sprout in your soul." Then later more from Ricki: "The penis is a sea slug or more like a really long toe. But kissing the mouth…The mouth--the lips the warm moist hole--is a twin sister to the…" Well you get the picture. Even Brian gets in a good one when he chirps spastically "It's not my fault I'm brain damaged!" Can it get any better than this?
Ben Jen what were you thinking? On second thought don't answer that--we'd probably rather not know. This is one time when watching two huge celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck fall in love is more cringe-worthy than romantic in any way. Imagine if you will Lopez as Ricki who having succumbed to Gigli's er charm sprawls herself seductively on the bed in a little kimono robe and tells him "It's turkey time. Gobble gobble"--with a straight face. Or how about this one: "You know I'm not into the whole man thing…but somehow you got through." (Insert audible collective audience groan here). Affleck who stands around looking like he's been hit in the face with a frying pan most of the time--of course without ever mussing his hair--comes off looking even worse if that's possible. His accent fluctuates between that of a Brooklyn thug and Southern California surfer dude. As far as how some of the high-profile cameos in the film got there--including Christopher Walken as a quirky cop and Al Pacino as a mobster who gets to vent in his usual boisterous way--obviously some favors must have been called in. Pacino did win his only Oscar for his performance in Scent of a Woman helmed by Gigli's director Martin Brest. Maybe they all deserve more credit for enduring such utterly banal garbage.
Writer/director Brest has had a spotty career at best. Of a handful of movies he's had a hit here and there (Beverly Hills Cop) and a few failures (Meet Joe Black). But with Gigli the filmmaker reaches the bottom rung. He took big names thrown them in a big-budget crime drama that really wants to be a small talky indie and the end result is more like a really bad play in which all the characters give their own over-the-top soliloquies waxing prophetic about every subject under the sun--differences between males and females being gay vs. straight anger management retardation slopping pie on one's head (believe it). Granted on some level Brest is trying to think out of the box within a formulaic setting and in all honesty Gigli's premise isn't all that dreadful--just hacky. There may have been a somewhat decent movie hidden somewhere in Gigli--enough of movie at least to attract Lopez and Affleck (whose romance began on the shoot). Instead it's a discombobulated jumbled mess of incoherent musings and horrible dialogue that moviegoers just shouldn't be subjected to. We wonder if at this very moment J. Lo isn't saying to her future hubby "Let's not do this again"--but wait they are in Kevin Smith's Jersey Girls. We don't want to know what he's saying.