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Column Fri Oct 05 2012

Frankenweenie, Taken 2, The Ambassador, V/H/S, The Oranges & The American Scream

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Frankenweenie

The excitement and anticipation level I feel about any new Tim Burton film will rise and fall, but it will never go away completely. While I've endured many years of Alice In Wonderland, Dark Shadows and Planet of the Apes, his latest work — the stunning black-and-white, stop-motion homage to old-timey horror film Frankenweenie — is a return to form the likes of which I haven't experienced from this or any faded director in quite some time. And if for no other reason, Frankenweenie is a triumph because it celebrates original story telling. Yes, it's a fleshed-out version of Burton's 1984 short of the same name, made a year before his first feature, Pee-wee's Big Adventure. And yes, it uses characters and cinematic styles of a bygone era in horror films, but Burton uses these tools in ways that border on the brilliant.

The story follows young Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan), last name Frankenstein (hmm, I know that name sounds familiar), a budding young stop-motion filmmaker, who is also something of an inventor and best friend to his faithful dog Sparky, who is killed in an accident early on in the movie. Victor is heartbroken, and even the kid words of his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara, both of whom voice multiple characters here) can't console him. But after learning from his science teacher (Martin Landau, who characer looks a lot like Vincent Price) about how the wiring of the body's nervous system stays active even after death, Victor gets the idea to resurrect his deceased pooch using the lightning from the storms that seem to fly over his town every night.

Victor digs up his Sparky's body, stitches back up the broken bits, and goes through with the experiment in his attic with much success — a disoriented, lethargic, but still loved companion is brought back from the dead. But when the strange collection of kids from his class find out what Victor did, they start experimenting on their pets (living and dead) and turn their small town into a monster-filled nightmare. A turtle becomes Gamera; a cat goes through a horrific werewolf-style transformation into a flying cat monster; a rat becomes, um, an uglier version of a rat; and sea monkeys become... well, I don't want to spoil that wonderful surprise. But whatever you do, don't get them wet.

Burton has outdone himself in terms of breathing familiar attributes into his characters, and watching Frankenweenie filled me with joy as it took me back to a time when I was discovering the Universal monsters, Hammer horror films, and the creatures that made up the Godzilla universe. I particularly like that Victor isn't an outcast in his class; each of Victor's fellow students, including the cute goth girl voiced by Winona Ryder named Elsa Van Helsing, is a weirdo. One looks like Igor, one looks and sounds like Boris Karloff, one reminded me of the classic Godzilla-era Japanese scientist (guess which pet monster is his), and the list goes on. If you tried to pick a favorite character (human or pet-monster), it would simply be impossible.

With Frankenweenie, Burton has reopened the mildly inappropriate part of his creativity (along with screenwriter John August). Yes, it is strange that Sparky's body parts keep falling off or that when he drinks water, the liquid leaks out from his stitches. It's also extremely funny in a sickening way. And the fact that he was able to make this gorgeous work of art in black and white thrills me to no end. It wouldn't make any sense any other way. The extreme, misshapen shadows add so much to the playfully creepy atmosphere of the movie. The film still manages to pull off a PG rating, but older audiences are going to see and understand elements to the work that younger children might not get (but I hope they do).

It's rare that films made for families or younger audiences actually make me feel young again, but Frankenweenie did so with every magnificently composed frame. Burton is wearing his influences and childhood favorite movie characters like a finely tailored suit, and it fits him beautifully. I hope he leaves the remakes and adaptations behind for a while, and digs into that warped mind of his again and again. The results are spectacular, and in a year that has already seen animated horror like the near-perfect ParaNorman and the far-from-perfect (but hugely successful) Hotel Transylvania, maybe this year will be looked back upon as the year that a certain level of scary movie became something parents saw as appropriate for the younger set. If it means more movies like Frankenweenie, I support the initiative. By far, this is the week's best release.

Taken 2

OK, you saw that movie Taken, right? The one where Liam Neeson's daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) gets kidnapped in Paris and sold into sex slavery, and he (playing Bryan Mills, a retired CIA agent and private security dude) uses his "particular set of skills" to retrieve her in record time. Good. Well, Taken 2 is basically that, but it's his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) that gets kidnapped by the friends and family of the people he killed in the first movie. And I'm not saying it's not fun; there just isn't an ounce of surprise or unpredictability in the whole movie, and maybe you'll be OK with that. I'm a little less OK with it, but I always have such a fun time watching Liam Neeson kick ass, I'm not complaining that much.

Bryan and Lenore are still divorced when things begin, but the writing is on the wall that her new marriage in on the rocks, and there's Bryan being the perfect dad to Kim and friend to the ex. He can barely contain his glee when he catches wind of Lenore's marital distress. But Bryan is almost too distracted to notice because Kim has blown off a driving lesson he's supposed to give her before her third attempt at getting her license. He soon discovers through some clever spy-type detective work that she has a serious boyfriend (Luke Grimes), and he busts up their little make-out session right quick.

In case you hasn't guessed, all of this family business is supposed to pass as character development when in fact it's one cliche piled upon another, and it's oppressively dull. But before long, Bryan is off on a business trip to Istambul, where Kim and Lenore surprise him. It just so happens that people connected with Kim's kidnappers spot Bryan, and an Eastern European crime boss (the great Rade Serbedzija) whose son was one of the kidnappers puts out an order to capture Bryan and his family. Then the movie goes into overdrive with the shooting, chasing, running, exploding, screaming, more chasing, crashing, bombing, sneaking, climbing, driving, beating, additional chasing, torturing, bleeding, molesting, punching, grimacing, and there might be some chasing as well.

Director Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3, Colombiana but not the first Taken film) certainly has a distinct and relentless way of shooting action, and even with a PG-13 rating (like its predecessor), some of the killing is fairly brutal. What's missing is Bryan's sense of being willing to take out his anger and desperation on innocent bystanders the way he did in the first film. What works more than I thought it would is that he enlists Kim to help in search for Lenore. As with the original, the screenplay is co-written by Luc Besson, whose talents as a writer seem to thinking up creative ways for action, death, and injury to occur. Most of his written works feel a bit thin in the character development side (or as far as plot goes, for that matter), and Taken 2 is no different.

The film's saving grace is, of course, Neeson, whose dependability even in the most outrageous movies is fast becoming the stuff of legend. Although there's no getting around the fact that after seeing his fine work in The Grey, Taken 2 feels like a step back. The first Taken was such a massive hit worldwide (and a solid film on top) that there was no way the sequel wasn't going to happen. Still, I wish they'd spent five minutes turning it into something that feels less like padding and more like a story where death means something and we care enough for these characters that I'd actually be troubled if one of them died or was hurt. Alas, welcome to the decidedly mediocre world of sequels.

The Ambassador

Combining some of the year's biggest laughs and most shocking and tension-filled footage is the great documentary/performance journalism called The Ambassador from Danish director and star Mads Brügger, who posed as a foreign ambassador from Liberia to prove that with the right connections and a bunch of cash anyone can pose as a diplomat and remove blood diamonds out of the Central African Republic. I call it performance journalism because Brügger's "character" is an almost cartoonish version of a sleazy, corrupt briber of government officials, with his mirrored sunglasses, white suits, adventure hats, riding boots, and ridiculous array of outfits.

But the details and information the filmmaker extracts from the region are almost too good to be true, as he pretends to set up a factory to make matches as a way to get a license to do business in the CAC. Everyone involved has to have seen hundreds of white men come through there nation to do exactly the same thing, but they go through the motions, shake hands, pop their champagne, and exchange millions. There are moments when it appears not only will Brügger's plan fail, but also that he will get caught and be killed for his fraud. But never dropping character and demanding that he gets what he paid for (basically, diplomatic immunity from having to go through airport customs), he pulls off what appears to be a remarkable con.

The Ambassador plays like satire at times. When Brügger is assigned two Pygmy guides, I almost gave up thinking this was real, but it truly is, and that quiet and suspicious Pygmies play a big part in this story. By simply walking into every situation like he is the one in control and that he's invincible, Brügger somehow gets some of the most damning footage of both European and African government officials flagrantly disobeyed law after law side by side with out hero. This is truly a film like no other — one that feels like it's scripted, but trust me, no screenwriter could have come up with this incredible story. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

V/H/S

In an interesting take on the found footage sub-genre in horror, the new anthology V/H/S has a wrap-around storyline involving a handful of goofballs breaking into a house to find a legendary piece of found footage, and finding a dead old man in a recliner in front of a TV and stacks of VHS tapes that the hooligans keep putting into the machine and watching. The wrap-around (directed by Adam Wingard) is extremely dumb, but it serves at getting us to some mostly scary — or at least interesting — short film from some directors whose work is still evolving and getting better with time, including Ti West, Joe Swanberg, David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid and the Radio Silence collective.

The anthology shorts range from good to bad, but I firmly believe that Joe Swanberg's piece about a couple communicating on Skype is both exceedingly funny and scary as all hell. Ironically, the segment starring Swanberg (which West directed), about a couple on a road trip giving assistance to a stranger they meet at their rundown motel, has some of the more fleshed-out characters of all of the shorts, but it isn't that scary. I was genuinely freaked out by the final segment from Radio Silence, which puts a great spin on the haunted house motif and features the most scream-out-loud moments, bar none.

The opening short from David Bruckner suffers from featuring the most unpleasant characters and predictable plot, with a group of drunk-asshole guys ready to shoot an amateur porn with a barely consensual woman is just gross, and even when the excessive and well-deserved blood and guts starts spraying, there's no satisfaction. My least favorite is a spin on the monster-in-the-woods segment from Glenn McQuaid, which simply didn't scare me at all. Whether you enjoy V/H/S or not is largely going to depend on where your horror sensibility lies. I'm one of those crazy people that actually wants horror films to contain some sort of scares, and I'd say there are just enough of them in the segments that work to recommend the film, but just barely.

V/H/S has been on the festival circuit for the better part of the year, and I believe it's been available OnDemand for a while as well. So I'm guessing if you were desperate to see it, you already have. But if curiosity hasn't gotten the bet of you yet, the film is slowly opening up across the country for a little while before coming out on DVD. I actually think this anthology might work better at home, since many of the segments take place in home or hotels. There's something for everyone in this film, but that also means there are some things that are for no one. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Oranges

Similar in theme but lesser in execution to the recently released Hello I Must Be Going, the strangely emotionally uninvolving The Oranges is about two families who live across the street from each other and have been best friends since they met. Featuring a fantastic cast that includes Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener as the Wallings and Oliver Platt and Allison Janney as the Ostroffs, the couples living on Orange Drive in New Jersey barbeque, drink, exercise, celebrate holidays and talk together almost non-stop, and it's a bit sickening.

When the Ostroff's daugher Nina (Leighton Meester) cames home after living in California for five years, the couples nudge her in the direction of the Walling's son Toby (Adam Brody) for a possible love connection, but these two grew up together, so the idea is a bit strange for both. Even stranger is that for some reason Nina is hopelessly attracted to Laurie's character, David, and a secret relationship slowly develops and doesn't stay secret for long. Not surprisingly, when the affair is exposed, everyone involved (directly and indirectly) goes into a tailspin, and nothing can ever be the same again. Probably most disturbed by the relationship is the Walling's daughter, Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), who rarely got along with Nina.

The scenario I just described to you, on paper, sounds like a heavy family drama. But the way it's played in The Oranges, it feels more like a comedy. People are cracking jokes, rolling their eyes, and overplaying their parts and reactions to such a degree that I feel the only thing the film is missing is a laugh track. And once the affair is exposed, the film just flaps in the wind, not knowing what direction or tone is the right one. These are all very capable actors (OK, maybe not Meester), so they could have performed this however director Julian Farino (who has directed mostly TV, including a couple dozen episodes of "Entourage," as well as "The Office," "Big Love" and "Sex and the City") wanted things to go down. But this is a film in desperate need of a strong hand to guide to to its dramatic conclusion, and it's just not there.

I love the idea of these great actors being put through the paces as their buddy-buddy friendships are destroyed in a heartbeat. But as soon as that happens, everyone scatters to live their own lives, and we never get those pivotal scenes that show us the consequences of such selfish (if loving) behavior. A closing scene on Christmas Eve does nothing to salvage for emphasize the inherent emotional upheaval of the moment. The Oranges is a sometimes embarrassing collection of moments that don't add up to anything worth checking out for yourself. This abysmal little film is opening today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema; best of luck.

The American Scream

One of my favorite films from this year's Fantastic Fest was a sweet, funny and sometimes disturbing documentary about a few of the fine folks of Fairhaven, MA, who design and execute some of the most elaborate and scary haunted houses (knows as "haunts") right in their own homes for one night only. To make the film just a little more interesting, The American Screamis the latest directing effort from Michael Paul Stephenson, director of the in-depth look at the Troll 2 phenomenon, Best Worst Movie. Between the two films, Stephenson shows that he has a real gift at getting people to open up to him and share their best and worst behaviors in front of his camera.

Stephenon focuses on three families in Fairhaven who live mere blocks from each other, although the true centerpiece of the film belongs to Victor Bariteau and his wife and two young daughters, all of whom take part (some reluctantly) in the conception and building of the haunted house, perhaps the most elaborate private haunt I've ever seen. Victor spends months preparing, designing, building and rehearsing for Halloween night, and the closer he gets to the date, the more bossy and self-absorbed he becomes. His sainted wife is used to it and barely complains; his kids are less tolerant. But as a long-time IT guy for a big company who's on the verge of losing his job due to cutbacks, Victor dreams of running a professional spook house. One of his daughters is particularly into horror, and watching her get creative and disgusting with the house designs, I got emotional.

The other two families belong to Manny Souza, who has a much more laid-back approach to his construction — if it gets done, great; if not, that's great too. Manny is type of guy who loves everybody and everybody loves in return. He provides a great deal of perspective on the neighborhood (which still has evening trick-or-treating on Halloween night) and the types of people that live there. The final family is the Brodeurs — Rick and Matt, father and son, who rely on more handmade haunted house props and effects (which break down or just plain break with an alarming regularity), but put a great deal of their awkward selves into everything they put on display.

The American Scream is as much about smalltown America as it is about haunted houses, and it succeeds on both levels. You will laugh a lot watching this movie, but you'll also experience tension as the clock runs out on construction of these wonders. And there's a real emotional kick as the true nature of some of the relationships on display is slowly revealed. But mostly the film celebrates creativity, family bonds, and a true sense of community. It made me proud to be a horror-loving American. The film plays on the Chiller network in the week leading up to Halloween, but in the mean time it's playing in select theaters across the country. In Chicago, The American Scream is playing a series of midnight screenings at the Music Box Theatre leading up to Halloween, including this weekend. You should not miss this great great experience.

 
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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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