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Column Fri Aug 17 2012

ParaNorman, Sparkle, The Odd Life of Timothy Green & 2 Days In New York

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ParaNorman

The latest stop-motion animated film to hit screens is almost too easy to review. It's about a boy who grows up watching horror movies, can see and talk to the dead, and is his school's primary outcast as a result. If you can identify with even one of those things, ParaNorman is going to have you doing a little happy dance as you leave the theater.

Sure, there are messages about being kind to people with special gifts, instead of ostracizing or bullying them, but really Norman Babcock (voiced by Let Me In's Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a kid who digs scary movies, and his parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) seem OK with that because at least they consider that somewhat more normal behavior than Norman's other interest -- talking to his dead grandmother (Elaine Stritch), who often joins him on the couch to watch said films. No one else can see her or the dozens of other ghosts Norman chats with on a daily basis, often on his way to school. They are certainly nicer to him than his teenage sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) or the school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

The town Norman lives in seems to base its entire year around celebrating some witch hunt/killing that went on several hundred years earlier. But Norman finds out when his creepy Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) dies that his family has played a role in keeping the witch from returning and taking revenge on the town, a role that Norman has now inherited. Enlisting his friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Courtney and her would-be boyfriend and resident dumb jock Mitch (Casey Affleck), they try to figure out not only how to stop the witch from returning but also how to break the curse that keeps her wanting to destroy the town in the first place.

The detail to the visuals in ParaNorman are almost too perfect and awe-inspiring to really take in with one viewing. But let me make this very clear: despite this being an animated work, there are some kids that are going to be very disturbed by the sight of zombies and other scary creatures in this movie. If your child is into creepy stuff, he or she will probably get a huge kick out of this movie. But if they scare or are otherwise freaked out easily, you may want to hold off. In other words, be a responsible parent, get to know your kid's interests, and make a wise decision. That being said, if your kid does like this movie, you're raising them right.

Co-directors Chris Butler (a storyboard artist on Coraline and Corpse Bride, who also wrote the film) and Flushed Away director Sam Fell have done an extraordinary job capturing the nuances of a child who is into horror movies (the design of Norman's room is glorious) and the trepidation a kid who sees dead people (and animals) might radiate on a daily basis. Norman is not a standard-issue hero type; he's shy, doesn't trust a lot of people, and is tired of people not believing that he sees what he sees.

But when Norman does get to use his abilities to shine (in a sequence featuring the zombies of the judges, led by Bernard Hill, who declared a young girl a witch all those centuries ago), he's an admirable hero who uses his role as an outcast to save the day. The moment may actually bring a tear to your eye. ParaNorman is an original, lively, beautifully realized work of mild horror that might just be my favorite animated film of the year so far.

Sparkle

Other than it being a bit too long and covering a lot of familiar ground (it is a remake, yes, but a lot of the hardships that befall this sister act were covered in Dreamgirls as well), this new version of the 1976 movie Sparkle does two things exceedingly well: offer up a lot of great music and feature an eerie but worthy final screen performance for Whitney Houston.

If you went through the entire film without knowing the names of the characters, you might accidentally (but understandably) think that the character Sparkle was the one played by the supremely talented Carmen Ejogo (she played Mya Rudolph's sister in Away We Go; and will play wife to Tyler Perry in Alex Cross), since she seems to get the most screen time, does some great singing and handles the most dramatic moments in the film like a lead character. But Ejogo plays the role of Sister. In fact, Sparkle is played by former "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks, a golden-voiced star in her own right, whose character can not only sing, but writes great pop songs and looks great in a short skirt.

Along with a third sister, Dolores (Tika Sumpter), the trio goes into the circa-1960s club scene of Detroit as Sister and the Sisters and proceed to garner the attention (both wanted and unwanted) of club bookers, suitors, would-be managers and eventually record companies. In an era where Motown ruled, these ladies had to really prove they could continue to produce hit after hit while maintaining a certain image on and off stage. The biggest obstacle standing in their way is their church-loving mother Emma (Houston), who lived a wild life that she's trying to keep her daughters away from. Emma isn't against setting her life up as a cautionary tale if it keeps her daughters from getting knocked up before they're married, as she did.

The biggest problem I have with movies like this are the way the men are portrayed. They sweet talk their way into these women's lives, and the minute they hook them, they start becoming abusive, possessive, flat-out evil people. The worst of which in Sparkle is Mike Epps' Satin, a stand-up comic whose specialty is telling black jokes to white audiences. He gets paid well, but he's basically sold his soul for fame and hates himself as a result. He reels in Sister away from her long-time boyfriend Levi (Omari Hardwick), and as soon as they get married, he beats her, gets her hooked on drugs, and basically becomes a monster. The only consistently good man on the scene is Stix (Derek Luke), the girls' manager and eventual boyfriend for Sparkle, and even he manages to screw things up for a time.

But as far as I'm concerned, Sparkle exists because of its exceptional soundtrack. The version of "Giving Him Something He Can Feel" makes the film worth the prices of admission. Director Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom) does a great job staging the music number, knowing when to keep things simple and when to spruce them up just enough. Where his direction suffers is dialing back the melodrama; sometimes less is more when depicting domestic abuse over and over again.

Still, the film features a handful of strong performances, particularly from Ejogo and Houston, who clash repeatedly over morality and being disrespectful. Sister is truly rebelling against her mother; but Dolores spent a lot of troubled years forcing Sister to take care of her two younger siblings while Mom partied, passed out and brought home different men. And there's no getting around the fact that hearing the late Houston give speeches about learning something from her mistakes ring very close to home for the singer and emotions will undoubtedly run high during those moments.

Sparkle is no great movie, but there's enough there to stack the deck in its favor. Houston sings gospel; the sisters sing of young love, passion and fun; and it all comes together beautifully at many times. The end of the film, when the group falls apart and Sparkle finally gets her moment in the spotlight, is a little uninspired, but Sparks' voice carries the final section through this dull patch. Overall, a decent offering and soundtrack worth your money.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

All I kept thinking while I was watching this horrific little sickeningly sweet fantasy family story is, Who the hell is this movie for? Now, quite often I'm a fan of movies whose intended audience is a mystery, but in the case of The Odd Life of Timothy Green, the question was seriously burning a hole in my brain. If you want to truly screw your kid up about where babies come from, Timothy Green is your movie. And what will pro-lifers (or is it pro-leafers?) think of this movie's theme of life beginning at photosynthesis? And while I'm sure the filmmakers' collective hearts were in the right place while they were making this movie, the final product is about as grotesque and deplorably earnest as spoon-fed compost.

Timothy Green is about married couple Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Warrior's Joel Edgerton), who discover they are unable to conceive (another fun conversation to have with your kids). On the day they get their final diagnosis from their doctor, they pour a few glasses of wine and have unprotected wishing. They write down all of the traits they wanted in their kid, throw them in a box, and bury said box in the garden. Overnight, a mysterious rainstorm hits their property and a zombie child rises from the dirt to terrorize the small town where the Greens live. OK, that's not what happens, but what does is just as ridiculous. Young Timothy (CJ Adams) comes out of the ground and into the Green's home where they find him wandering around covered in mud.

Before I get any deeper into the story, you should realize that the film is actually told in flashback; the Greens are telling the story of Timothy to a pair of officials at an adoption agency who are about to rule on whether they are fit to be adoptive parents. The answer is no, but don't let the bloody obvious stop you from thinking differently. Once the Greens figure out exactly where Timothy came from, they count him as a miracle and decide to raise him as their own son (while telling everyone he something like a starter kid someone or another gave them).

Anywho, Timothy's distinguishing trait is that he has a few dozen leaves growing out of his legs, which over the course of several months slowly begin to fall out. What happens when they all fall out, we don't know for sure, but the gory possibilities are endless and never explored. Damn PG rating.

What's especially frustrating about The Odd Life of Timothy Green is that I'm a fan of writer-director Peter Hudges previous work as both a writer (What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, About a Boy) and a director (Pieces of April, Dan in Real Life). But this new film is so off the rails with its overt gushiness and overbearing sincerity that to stand too close to it is to be crushed by its self-importance. I'd be happy to put the blame on the shoulders of Ahmet Zappa (Frank's kid), who gets a story credit and probably wrote some version of this story at some point.

I guess this is what passes for politically correct family entertainment these days. There's an environmental message, a statement about bullies (represented by hard-ass parent Ron Livingston and his annoying sons). Despite the passable supporting cast, including Dianne Wiest, Rosemarie DeWitt, M. Emmet Walsh, Lois Smith, David Morse, and Common, not one of them or any combination of two or three can save this dreadful exercise. I will give young Mr. Adams credit: he plays Timothy with just the right amount of weird to be interesting without being creepy.

There are some downright miserable moments in Timothy Green, including one where Garner and Edgerton must perform music with their son. "Painful" doesn't quite get you there when describing this particular scene, but it points you in the right direction. I'm sure somewhere, buried deep in the over-inflated heart of this film is a message about being an individual and treating the odd ducks like they're something special. Fine messages, I agree.

But I don't think Timothy Green's final act is particularly kind to its "special" lead character's life expectancy. I'm not exactly sure that's the message they were aiming for, but they sure as hell put it out there for discussion. Mixed messages aside, this movie fails because it wants us to take it Very Seriously by tugging on our clearly exposed heartstrings until we succumb to its gentle wailings. Good lord, how I hate this movie and all that it stands for, whatever the hell that might be. This movie will either severely damage your kid's sense of worth or wuss-ify him for life.

2 Days In New York

You either love Julie Delpy's portrayal of Marion, the neurotic French girl in her self-directed 2 Days In Paris, or you'll find her annoying. I happened to find her adorable the way she cared enough about her boyfriend in that movie (Adam Goldberg) to try to hide the fact that she had so many ex-lovers that she lied about it and how she attempted (and failed) to protect Goldberg from her filterless family, including her father played by Delpy's real-life father Albert. And if you found yourself falling for her in a similar way, then I can't imagine you not enjoying 2 Days in New York, also directed by Delpy.

Unlike the first film, this time Marion and her significant other, Mingus (played by a beautifully understated Chris Rock), are the ones receiving visitors. Unfortunately, the visitors are these same family members -- father, sister (Alexia Landeau) and the sister's new (uninvited) boyfriend Manu (Alexandre Nahon), who just happens to be Marion's ex-boyfriend. Less visitors and more an invasion force, the family turns Marion and Mingus' apartment into a world of chaos filled with foul language, adults reverting back to childish bickering, borderline racism, and illicit drugs. And it's all really funny as Marion slowly loses control of her household and her mind.

I loved the sense that Marion has changed as a person since the last film. She has now embraced her sexual past by turning a series of photos she'd taken with her ex-lovers into an art exhibit. But more importantly, to get her art show some extra publicity, she has put her soul up for auction -- a comment on her view of Hollywood, if ever there was one. There are also children in her life now -- one is her child with Goldberg's character (he does not appear in the movie) and the second from Mingus' previous marriage. In addition to dealing with the immature creatures that are her family, she must also cope with real children in her life, a task she seems fairly good at.

But the film's real surprise is Rock, who is Marion's stabilizing force. Not that he's without his quirks. He has a life-size cardboard cutout of Barack Obama that he chats with from time to time, not on the important issues of the day, but on relationship advice. The cutout does not talk back; this isn't that kind of movie. But those scenes reveal a lot of Mingus' inner concerns about his bond with Marion. They're sweet scenes of vulnerability that show a side to Rock's acting talents I've simply never seen. I hope he does more like this in the future.

2 Days in New York is a hectic, loud, often emotional experience that is as vulgar and gross as it is sophisticated and charming. Delpy has established herself over the course of several films as a great director of actors and action. But to revisit one of best characters (much as she did with Before Sunrise/Sunset with Richard Linklater) shows a growth as she seamlessly weaves comedy and heartbreak. It don't mean to make it sound so heavy, but at times it gets there. Some may get a headache from it; I found it irresistible. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with 2 Days In New York writer-director-star Julie Delpy, go to Ain't It Cool News.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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