Stop-motion films are too rare. In comparison to their digitally polished, computer-animated brethren, movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, and the newest, ParaNorman, have the artisanal grace of arts-and-crafts projects—their tenderfoot artistry allowing the human fingerprints to remain untouched. ParaNorman is the story of an alienated grade-schooler who rallies neighborhood kids to stop a dead witch’s curse from unleashing a plague of zombies on his sleeping New England village. From its first minutes, the animation casts an entrancing spell, predicating the proceedings on a mood of wistful ghoulishness. As voiced by Kodi-Smit Mcfee, the hero, Norman, has a gentle fragility that puts him on the verge of shattering, and the film follows his tale with empathetic affection. You see: Norman lives in a world of ghosts that only he can see, which causes his family to label him a weirdo, and his schoolmates to ostracize and ridicule him. But what seems at first like his curse turns out to be his heroic destiny. When panic sets in, and the riotous townsfolk start causing more destruction than the zombie aggressors, it’s Norman who restores order. The “evil” witch behind the spell, as it happens, is just another haunted soul—one who, in a different era, faced similar intolerances as our supernatural lad. The movie has a go-for-broke third act that feels pretty heavy-handed, but the autumnal setting, the charming characters, the hand-touched animation, and the anti-bullying message enliven this conventional ghost story, and make it worth watching and pondering.
Robot And Frank:
Robot and Frank is perhaps 2012’s Indie gem—one that, I fear, few too many people will ever see. In the near future, Frank Langella’s Frank is a retired crook with early-stage dementia, living secluded in the New Jersey countryside. His two adult children, tired of babysitting their cantankerous old dad, decide to buy him a helper robot to ensure he eats right, stays active, and possibly improves his brain functioning. The robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard doing his best HAL 9000 impression) is dutiful, but also smart and loyal—just nuanced enough to seem almost human. Their relationship might have grown exhaustingly cute (how many old man befriends a kid, animal, or robot movies are there, anyway?) had Frank not misled the A.I. naïf into acting as an accomplice in his schemes to knock-off the smug yuppies down the street. This welcome plot contortion gives the movie a quickened thriller’s pulse. From there, the film blossoms into a meditative comedy/drama about age, fading memory and the role of technology in our increasingly tech-dependant lives. The discourse between humans and increasingly human-like gizmos and gadgets is hardly a new subject, yet Robot and Frank finds in this theme a piercing humanistic melancholy, accentuated by Langella’s saddened performance. The movie is a small but tender fable about life’s transience, and it reminds viewers to hold their memories dear, as they are all inevitably lost from the earth, like the files in your desktop hard-drive.
After The Proposition and The Road, it’s clear that Aussie director John Hillcoat has chosen anarchic playgrounds as his favorite milieu. His latest, Lawless, continues the trend, locating the director’s newest fastidiously-detailed cultural miasma in the Prohibition era Appalachian Mountains, where bootlegging siblings Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke (playing the real-life Bondurant Brothers) fight off Guy Pearce’s fiendish dandy G-Man—whose scrupulously clean appearance contrasts his perpetually polluted soul. Along the way, Hardy (torpid and taciturn when he’s not dispensing enigmatic homilies) sheepishly observes Jessica Chastain’s bohemian barmaid, and LaBeouf courts saintly church mouse Mia Wasikowska. As a period piece, Lawless is astutely conceived, showcasing the cars, clothes and cadences of the time with fine-tooth specificity. As a drama, the story is lopsided, lackadaisical and has no true characters, only archetypes: Hardy’s Forrest is a colorless bulldog; LaBeouf’s Jack is an eager green upstart; Pearce’s Oscar-bait villain is like one of Christoph Waltz’ charismatic monsters, except without the charisma. Hillcoat’s direction often indulges in violent episodes that are gratuitous, pointless in their brutality, and mesh roughly with other moments—especially from Hardy’s grunting simpleton—that register as unwittingly comedic. The film’s greatest crime, however, is that it fails to bring these true-life folk heroes to the screen with the mystery and legendary grandeur that they so sorely deserve.