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Frankenweenie is the full length version of director Tim Burton’s short film called, astonishingly enough, Frankenweenie.  The 87 minute version is written by Leonard Ripps and directed by the aforesaid Burton.  Like the short film, the story here is your basic boy meets dog, boy loses dog, boy gets dog, but with a Mary Shelley twist.  Victor, a young boy in high school (who for some odd reason starts out as a filmmaker and then suddenly switches a third of the way through to become a scientific genius, a standard trope in Hollywood these days, I guess), figures out a way to bring his pet dog Sparky back to life after it is hit and killed by a car.  While this version is not boring and is enjoyable enough, I can’t bring myself to say it’s much more than that.  The short was clever and refreshing.  The full length feels a bit padded and bloated, filled with some extra monsters created the same way Victor brings Sparky back to life, but with no real explanation as to why they turn out so differently than Sparky does (other than that the story needed padding).  The strongest aspects of the movie are some beautiful miniatures (Rick Heinrichs, Tim Browning and Alexandra Walker did the production design and art direction) of an Andy Griffith like home town filled with Leave it to Beaver houses, as well as stark and effective black and white photography that makes you think the story might turn into a duck and cover educational film at any moment (the time period is the ‘50’s).  The city the story takes place in is called New Holland—it’s unclear why since no one is Dutch.  Well, there actually is a reason—it’s to justify the existence of a windmill so the climax can mimic that other movie with Boris Karloff.  In the short, the windmill was located in a miniature golf course—a cleverness this version often lacks.
The Paperboy is a southern melodrama that out Gothics William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams put together (the various fetishes dramatized here read like a typical night out at a German S&M bar with water sports not of the Olympic kind and Black on White bondage and torture).  Though Nicole Kidman is in it, it’s Zac Efron who is sexually exploited here with the writers (Peter Dexter, who also wrote the book the screenplay is based on, and Lee Daniels, who also directs) going out of their way to film him in tighty-whities and shorts (in all fairness, Matthew McConaughey also bares his butt a couple of times, but I suspect that that’s only because it’s a standard clause in his contract).   The movie starts out well, but soon loses its way and finally seems to stop going anywhere.  This may be because it feels as if something is missing at the core of the story.  It’s about two reporters (the aforesaid McConaughey, and David Oyelowo, as a somewhat fey version of Sidney Poitier) investigating the conviction of a man on death row in the home town of McConaughey’s character.  What’s missing is a compelling or convincing reason why they care, or perhaps more importantly, why their paper, and only their paper, cares.  Without this, it’s unclear that anything is at stake and the tension quickly seeps out of the story, with it all becoming a tough swamp to slog through, both literally and figuratively.  No one gives a bad performance, while Kidman and John Cusack (as the weirdo on death row) giving the strongest.  To be honest, McConaughey does push his bit a bit too much, as he is wont to do, but Efron in the title role (he plays McConaughey’s younger brother) is surprisingly good, until he has to really emote; but even then, he does well enough for the circumstances.  In the end, though, the story is never quite believable, especially a Governor’s pardon resulting from a newspaper story based on anonymous sources that is obviously full of lies (hey, it could happen).  The movie might have worked a little better if everybody, including Dexter and Daniels, were having a bit more fun with it (or any fun at all), but no, everyone is deathly serious here.  So, if a ranking would help, when all is said and done, this is no Killer Joe, which in its turn is no The Killer Inside Me.
Sister is the Swiss entry in the Academy Award foreign language film category.  Written by Antoine Jaccoud, Gilles Taurand and the director Ursula Meier, it’s a very solid and at times moving character study of Simon, a young teenager who goes to a resort in the nearby mountains and steals equipment and skis and sells them to make money to support himself and his sister.   Simon is played by Kacey Mottet Klein, who handles the role as capably as his character steals.  You may not approve of what he does, but you have to admire his lack of self pity, his self reliance and his Trump-like entrepreneurship.   The story grows in strength once the big reveal is, well, revealed, and matters get far more complicated, both emotionally and practically.  There are strong guest turns by Sweet Sixteen/Red Road’s Martin Compson and The X-Files Gillian Anderson.  The somewhat downbeat subject matter ends on a glimmer of hope, slim as it may be.

IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD: Reviews of Alice in Wonderland and Mother.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a much, much, much, much, much, much, much better movie than the reviews would have you think; or as the Mad Hatter might put it, it is a muchness better movie than the reviewers would have you think. This is one of Burton’s most imaginative exercises in visual stylization, an at times stunning reimagining of what Wonderland looks like, that dreamlike (or maybe not, maybe it’s really real, hey, it could happen) escape from the doldrums location that Alice visits when things get too boring in her own world. In Burton’s version of the tale, as written by Linda Woolverton (a long way from the TV show Dennis the Menace, thank God), Alice is now 19 and is being bandied about as collateral in a business deal—or as they called it in Victorian times, marriage. She is being manipulated into wedding, or merging with, the nebbish son of her late father’s business partner, who now owns the business. The proposal itself is a Dickensian equivalent of those prospective bridegrooms who buy billboards, electronic and otherwise, and ask for their girlfriend’s hand in marriage while the whole world watches. Alice, admirably, runs away from all this folderol and falls through her rabbit hole, ending up once again in Wonderland, though Alice has no memory of her first visit. It’s here that the story and Burton’s vision really takes off. Before this, the plot, made up of scenes at a party thrown by her potential in-laws, was somewhat flat and uninteresting. The only part that really worked was the appearance of a pair of twins, a scene that had the double edge of showing what these opening scenes could of and should have been, but weren’t. Other characters are also supposed to be alter egos to the inhabitants of Wonderland, but it’s not always clear who is who. For example, even after the movie was over, I still wasn’t certain who Alice’s roué of a brother in law was supposed to represent. And would it have hurt the author to do things like have Alice arrive at the party while her potential mother-in-law was playing cards just to make things a little easier, if not more fun? But once down the rabbit hole, Burton’s Wonderland is a frabjous creation (neat trick sneaking that word in, isn’t it?). The highlight, of course, is Helena Bonham-Carter’s bulbous headed Red Queen, played with all the petulant childishness of Miranda Richardson playing Elizabeth I in the Blackadder series. Even for those who are against capital punishment, every time Bonham-Carter says “off with their head”, you just want to go, “say it again, say it again”. Other standouts are Matt Lucas as the somewhat creepy, slow witted Tweedledum/Tweedledee and the brilliant Stephen Fry as the now you see him, now you don’t Cheshire Cat; there’s also more than able support from Timothy Spall as Bayard, a bloodhound (the part he usually plays in all his films) and Crispin Glover as Stayne, the Red Queen’s knight. Anne Hathaway as the White Queen is par for the course a bit bland, while Alan Rickman, excellent as the caterpillar, is somewhat let down by the screenplay here. As fascinating as the movie is, it never quite works. Perhaps it’s because the story becomes a bit too formulaic the nearer it comes to its climax, lacking the anarchic goofiness of the source material. And there’s something also a bit disappointing in the ending; Alice escapes marriage to a fool, but ends up becoming part of the colonizing British Empire. She’s off to extend her father’s business to China and one can’t help but think, “what, is she going to get China addicted to opium so they will be forced to sell Great Britain their tea?”. One can’t help but think she could have made a better choice still, like returning to Wonderland.

Mother is the latest from South Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong who gave us the monster movie The Host and the movie about a different sort of monster, Memories of Murder, which revolves around the search for a serial killer. Mother is not far off from being a monster movie itself. It’s about a slow witted young man being railroaded in the murder of a young girl and the monstrous lengths his mother, played by Hye-ja Kim, will go to save him, even though it’s possible that even though her son is being railroaded, he could still be guilty. In Psycho, Anthony Perkins says “[a] boy’s best friend is his mother” and that is so true here as Hye-ja Kim will stop at nothing, even killing someone herself, to help her son get out of prison. The movie, and Bong’s others, may not be to everyone’s taste. The acting style is not what we in the West would call naturalistic. It’s somewhat stylized and at times over the top in the way people wear their emotions on their shoulders. But the performances are first rate, especially Hye-ja Kim (in one of those no matter how much she repulses me, I still can’t help but be on her side characters), as well as Ku Jin as her son’s supposed best friend and the one most likely to have killed the girl if the son didn’t. The plot is pretty much of a page turner and it has a wonderfully Hitchcockian moment in which Kim gets stuck in a closet and has to watch a young couple have sex, then sneak out while the two are asleep; as in true Sir Alfred fashion, one wants to look away, but then of course, the voyeur in all of us claims victory. There are a few constants in Bong’s movies so far, other than there are monsters living among us. Even more constant perhaps is the portrayal of the Korean police as hopelessly inept and corrupt (even if they get the right person, it’s by accident, not by solid procedural investigation). They’re a modern day equivalents of the Keystone Cops and I don’t think I’d want to be Bong if he’d ever has to make a call to 911. The darkly comic and riveting screenplay is by Eun-kyo Park, Wun-kyo Park and the director. One of the best films of the year so far.