Odd Thomas

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2Star

by Ken B.

Odd Thomas is a movie that dresses up well but spends 96 minutes fiddling with its tie and straightening its hair in the mirror. It achieves what it’s going for numerous times, but then moves the tie off center or pushes hair into its eyes. Does this analogy even make sense anymore? In any case, it balances promise and success with sloppiness and a general feeling of still being a work in progress. (This might have something to do with its troubled production history. The long and short of it? This movie wrapped three years ago but only achieved distribution in February.)

Anton Yelchin, who in the past few years has yet to disprove notions that he may be part of the next generation of big Hollywood icons, stars as the titular character, whose name really is Odd Thomas. His mother claims it was supposed to be “Todd”, but her sanity is dismissed relatively early. Odd lives in the desert town of Pico Mundo. He’s a cook in a diner, known for a certain flair to his style. His girlfriend is Stormy Llewelyn (Addison Timlin), an ice cream shop employee at the local mall. They’re destined to be together forever (a fortune telling machine they consulted at a fair when they were little kids told them that). Stormy is one of the select few people who knows a certain thing about Odd – he sees the dead, as well the spirits associated with it, namely bodachs, whose appearance is often a forecast of danger. In some roundabout way, he knows the future, and because he knows where crime is, he often goes about fighting it. As a result, he’s developed a semi-rapport with the police chief, Wyatt Porter (Willem Dafoe).

One day in August, a strange man with tragic hair named Bob (Shuler Hensley) walks into the diner, surrounded by more bodachs than Odd has ever seen around one person. He is convinced that hell on Earth will descend upon Pico Mundo, and after a brief investigation, it becomes clear that it will occur tomorrow, August 15. Odd then attempts to discover as much as he can, and stop his hometown from experiencing untold levels of disaster.

The biggest issue at hand I have with Odd Thomas is its mood swings. There are two forces at work: One is an oddball (ahem) sci-fi dramedy and the other is an supernatural horror film with almost enough conceptual ambiguity for a Lynchian aftertaste. It never knows exactly what it wants to be. One moment, the revelation of a murderous three-person cult is made. Almost immediately afterwards, Odd quips in voiceover, “One more [person] and they could get group health insurance or form a rock band”. When the aforementioned cataclysmic event is discovered in the film’s climax, any jokes from characters quickly fade in acknowledgment of the atmosphere attempting to be built. The film can’t hide its inconsistency in its preceding moments.

There are also some qualms that may be attributed to the less-than-ideal history of the film. The first is within the music. In the trailer, you can hear a “Spirit in the Sky”-esque riff. It’s serviceable enough to hear once, but there are multiple instances where it crops up in the film, each appearance making it slightly less bearable. It feels like a placeholder, and any other tracks are forgettable. The other issue is the visual effects, sporadic in quality. The translucent and silvery bodachs look eerie enough, almost between a dementor and T-1000. Other things, namely fire and explosions, look like they’re stranded in some pre-vis purgatory, and while not devastating, could very well take a viewer out of the movie.

But it’s not all bad. The acting, especially from the top billed actors, is good. Anton Yelchin does a great job at crafting a likable, yet, well, odd main character. Willem Dafoe’s character has more than a few good lines, and Addison Timlin offers solid support as a vital secondary character. These three offer the basis of a last act plot twist, one of startling clarity and emotion, especially considering Odd Thomas’ spotty connection otherwise with its audience and what kind of movie it wants to be.

Odd Thomas is a mixed bag. It features great moments offset by hasty and muddy mistakes. I can’t really recommend it to anyone else except fans of the novel it is based on, or perhaps if you like one of the cast members. It goes for so much, but when it finds that style of transcendence, never stays there for very long.

Buy from Amazon: Book / DVD / Blu-ray

Odd Thomas

ParaNorman — Review

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3Star

 

by Ken B.

ParaNorman is a movie that works because it pleases people of just about every viewpoint. We have horror movie allusions of both subtle and obvious varieties, beautiful animation, clever jokes, and a message of acceptance that’s not too preachy. It caters to anyone that may be even remotely interested in it, and what it creates has certain moments of great cinema.

This is the story of Norman (voice of KODI SMIT-MCPHEE), a quiet boy who has the ability to see ghosts. He frequently talks to the ghost of his grandmother (voice of ELAINE STRITCH), and on his way to school, talks to ghosts that traipse down the sidewalk. The fact that he openly communicates with things that no one else can see, combined with his otherwise quiet demeanor makes him an easy target for the bullies at school, like Alvin (voice of CHRISTOPHER MINTZ-PLASSE). Come to think of it, Norman only really has one friend, an awkward kid named Neil (voice of TUCKER ALBRIZZI)

While at school, Norman is confronted by the ghost of his possibly insane uncle, Mr. Prendergast (voice of JOHN GOODMAN), who had died the day before, shortly after telling Norman that he could also see ghosts. Prendergast desperately informs Norman that tonight is the 300th anniversary of the time several witches were executed in their town, and that it is necessary to read at their graves from an old book to keep the dead, well, dead. It is now up to Norman to do this. It’s not easy – what starts out as a fairly straightforward mission turns into an event with Norman, Neil, Alvin, Neil’s jock brother Mitch (voice of CASEY AFFLECK), and Norman’s sister Courtney (voice of ANNA KENDRICK) escaping ruthless zombies. How the film gets here and what happens afterwards is part of the brilliance that are the storyline and details within ParaNorman.

What I found most attractive about ParaNorman is how it takes an effectively simple and arguably overdone plot (people who are different should not be persecuted and stigmatized purely because they are different) and handles it in a thoughtful and more original way. There’s a lot more to this than is usually contained in a kid-targeted animated movie. Screenwriter and co-director Chris Butler isn’t afraid to add depth to the message within. On a more aesthetic note, added are horror references of every kind – a scene that mimics the production design from Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968), a score from Jon Brion with an occasional horror-synth backdrop, and just little things all around. The 92 minute movie retains a creepy atmosphere nearly entirely throughout thanks to the fantastic visuals. The meticulous stop-motion animation is enhanced with eccentric set pieces and just right lighting.

My only real complaint with ParaNorman would be how a movie that is otherwise anti-formula in the field of children’s movies can occasionally slip into the predictable and expected moments – cringing was an appropriate reaction towards the end when a speech is given that outlines the entire message of the movie. It is my experience that most kids would be able to pick up the message without a moment so obvious. I can think of ways that this point could have been made in a more subtle manner.

ParaNorman is otherwise a very good movie – with stellar voice acting, it’s a movie that actors want to be a part of. With tight plotting and legitimately funny jokes, it’s a movie that writers write when they obviously care about what they’re doing, and with breathtaking visuals, it’s a sign of true artisanship from artists and technical workers.

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Dark Shadows — Review

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The text on the image isn’t red for blood — it’s because I tried about seven different colors, and that’s the only one that would show over the image.

25Star

by Ken B.

Why was this movie made? Why, in the 21st century, was there a need to carry a motion to create a $150 million blockbuster based off of a 1960s soap opera? While I admit that there is a section of the fan base that is apparently quite devoted, there isn’t a real interest for Dark Shadows, especially in this capacity. Most who viewed it in its original run have only passing memories of it. What we have is a movie that is misleadingly promising in the first 30 minutes, falling into a deep pit of mediocrity, and then coming back up to impressive entertainment in its last 30 minutes.

The film starts in the 18th century, where a young Barnabas Collins departs with his family from Liverpool to Maine, and the family sets up a fishing port successful to the point of a town being named after the family (Collinsport). A witch named Angelique (EVA GREEN) was once loved by Barnabas, and after Barnabas falls in love with Josette (BELLA HEATHCOTE), Josette is cursed into jumping off a cliff. When Barnabas attempts to do the same, Angelique turns him into an immortal vampire. He soon falls into a two century slumber, believed to be dead.

By 1972, the Collins Estate is debilitated. One entire wing of the mansion is never entered, on account of there only being a few inhabitants. The current matriarch, Elizabeth (MICHELLE PFEIFFER) has a teenage daughter named Carolyn (CHLOË GRACE MORETZ) and a younger son named David (GULLIVER McGRATH), who claims to see ghosts. Also living in the house is an elderly maid (RAY SHIRLEY), a drunken groundskeeper named Willie (JACKIE EARLE HALEY), and a psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman (HELENA BONHAM CARTER). A woman bearing a striking resemblance to Josette, using the name Victoria “Vicky” Winters, applies to become David’s private tutor (Vicky is also played by Heathcote.). Barnabas awakes in his coffin, and he attempts to decipher the current estate of the family. When news of this reaches Angelique, who is running a rival fishing operation, she takes this an opportunity to finally have him again.

The melodrama within makes it an aware and idyllic reference to soap operas in general, and Tim Burton’s visual style is a perfect match for gothic styling. Danny Elfman’s score is stereotypical of him (parts macabre and wit), but a brilliant fit here (and for an inexplicable reason, a motif within briefly reminded me of Randy Edelman’s score for Dragonheart (Cohen, 1996)). The script, by Seth Grahame-Smith, goes for a horror/fantasy riff in the strong beginning and end, and a more comical middle. That more comical middle is where the film really suffers, dragging the 113 minute film down to a near screeching halt, with mildly unbearable jokes about 1970s culture. The scenes where the story or characters actually progress are the only ones worthwhile within this part of the film. Burton lays off of the fantasy tricks here, bringing the dead zone (no pun intended) to an even more obvious front. Johnny Depp, in the lead role, tries his best and occasionally succeeds in inserting some life into the second act, assisted by the credible supporting actors.

As a whole, Dark Shadows never really finds any footing, constantly cajoling between horror and comedy, and never properly adapting either. While the performances (particularly Johnny Depp’s), the visual effects, and the musical score have the ability to create a satisfying sequence every now and then, Tim Burton’s version of the TV show is just a testament to what happens when money is thrown about without a foreseeable end goal or sufficient energy.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — Review

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Sneaking around.

 

3-5Star

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(then again, this is nearly century old film)

by Ken B.

The sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari look like a surrealist play. These were the early days of cinema, and modeling off stage plays were a good place to start. Houses are jagged and slanted, trees are obviously flat, and the backgrounds are abstract. While this still holds the record as the most disturbing thing ever put on camera, there’s no denying that the idea of a man committing murders under hypnosis is quite unsettling, and it contains a twist ending worthy of discussion on its impact in dramatic cinema since.

Told in flashback, the film where a man named Francis (FRIEDRICH FEHÉR) is telling a man a story sparked by a woman in white walking by, which Francis immediately says is his fiancée. The story is fascinating, of the events that unfolded in a village during a town fair. There is a big attraction, one of a Dr. Caligari (WERNER KRAUSS) who claims to have a sleepwalker (somnambulist) sorts by the name of Cesare (CONRAD VEIDT) who withholds the answers to any question he is asked. When he is asked to reveal how long a person will live, the answer is “Till Dawn Tomorrow.”

The prediction is true.

The questioner, a friend of Francis, is murdered that night, and soon, it’s clear that this is the doing of one person. The big twist, of course, is not that Dr. Caligari is placing Cesare under hypnosis to do this, or that Cesare is the murderer. It is that there were no murders to begin with – Francis is a patient in an insane asylum. Cesare is, too, and “Dr. Caligari” is an employee of the asylum. It is impossible to make logic out of the ramblings of a crazy person, but I would venture the lines of the exact imagination stemming from the confines of the asylum itself, which plays a role in the fantasy. The doctor, giving the last line of the film, says that he now knows how to cure Francis, but doesn’t say exactly what.

I deeply admire the story and screenplay. Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer, the script drew from experience, recalling a murder in Hamburg and a sideshow nearby, where there were claims of a mystical man who could predict the future. The original story was different – none of Francis’ delusional state exists.

There is a revolutionary and historical sense in the production design as well. All night scenes are bathed in a blue tint. I wonder of Christopher Nolan used this bit as inspiration for his minimalist color scheme in The Dark Knight. The stereotypically expressionist set design shows a sense of dare and ambition that we don’t see very often in movies (American ones, especially) today.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s contributions to modern filmmaking are innumerable. There is the twist ending, but it somehow makes sense. There is a story through color schemes, and color schemes tell the story. This is a movie that is necessary to watch because it is important, and because it isn’t half bad, either.

Buy from Amazon: DVD / Blu-ray

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