Friday, October 19, 2012


A macabre, stop-motion animated delight, Frankenweenie is about as Tim Burton as Tim Burton gets. Adapted from his 1984 live-action short of the same name, Frankenweenie tempers its dark subject matter with humor and sweetness, as most of Burton’s best films do. Beautifully animated, richly imagined, and thoroughly charming, here is Tim Burton’s best film in years.

Schoolboy Victor Frankenstein spends his free time making home movies and playing with his dog, Sparky. He also takes a special interest in science thanks to an enthusiastic and eccentric teacher. After Sparky runs into the street chasing a baseball and is hit by a car, Victor hatches a plan to resurrect his dog through a late-night science experiment.

Though Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was a major success at the box office, it didn’t resonate with me. Many Burton fans (myself included) complained that it wasn’t quirky and strange enough, which seemed impossible given the source material. Tim Burton is an animator at heart, and he’s at his best and most creative when animating an original story. Frankenweenie marks a grand return to form. The sets are quaint and haunting at once, and every character has a defined, memorable look. Victor’s fellow students are equal parts creepy and hilarious. Victor’s science teacher has an impossibly long face and evokes Vincent Price, one of Burton’s formative childhood icons.

Stop-motion animation has always amazed me. It’s a painstaking, meticulous process, and the end result is entirely unique. Computer generated images boast more fluidity and realism, but that cuts both ways, because stop-motion’s jerky movements cast everything in an otherworldly light. Visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts (1968), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)) was a master of stop motion, and his effects hold up so well in part because they don’t look real, and they never did; they’re mysterious and charming. Burton’s three stop-motion animated features (The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Corpse Bride (2005), and now Frankenweenie) make perfect use of the medium because the stories lean heavily on mystical creatures and fantasy worlds. Burton understands and exploits the medium’s strengths, and he enhances the aesthetic by filming in black and white, which has its own inherent magic.

Sparky comes to life through amazing puppetry. All of the characters do, but Sparky behaves uncannily like a real dog, which helps us care about him early on. Even in his resurrected, zombie form, the title character is an adorable dog. Other animals come into play later on, and again, each character (human and animal) behaves distinctly and memorably. The voice actors do fine work, but much of the emotion comes through quiet moments where the animators were the only actors.

Surprisingly, Frankenweenie is only the second feature film to be both written and directed by Tim Burton; the other is Edward Scissorhands (1990) (The Nightmare Before Christmas carries a strong Burton influence, but he handed the actual direction over to his friend and fellow animator Henry Selick, as Burton was preoccupied with Batman Returns at the time). Watching Frankenweenie, I was reminded that for all of his dark, gothic style, Tim Burton has a great sense of humor. I smiled through most of the movie and laughed out loud more than once. Burton mixes elements traditionally reserved for horror with the wonder and magic of children’s stories, something I’ve always loved about his movies. Fans of Burton’s unique style will not be disappointed here. Frankenweenie finds the right balance of charm, creepiness and fun, and the animation consistently delights.

For the Parents: 

MPAA: Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action

Frankenweenie gets a bit scary in its last act. A few animals undergo transformations, including a cat/bat hybrid that’s a little unsettling. One monster ends up impaled. Sparky’s death (before he resurrects as the title character) occurs tastefully offscreen, but the theme of death and loss might be a bit much for younger viewers. I think 10+ kids (or kids who enjoy slightly darker humor) will eat this up.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


I’ve always been fascinated with time travel, a concept riddled with problems and paradoxes. Science fiction pieces which use time travel effectively generally establish rules of time travel and stick to them. The story in Looper involves time travel, but time travel isn’t the story, which is wonderfully constructed and filled with compelling characters. It lays out just enough to make sense but not so much that it gets bogged down in the cerebral.

In the year 2074, time travel exists but is illegal, used only by organized crime. Government tracking has made it nearly impossible to dispose of bodies, so the mob sends its living targets back in time 30 years with silver bars strapped to their backs. In 2044, hired assassins called loopers commit the murders, collect the silver, and dispose of the bodies. When the mob wishes to end a looper’s contract, they arrange for him to kill his own future self, freeing him to retire and live out the remainder of his life. When Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) accidentally allows his future self (Bruce Willis) to escape, his situation becomes more complex and dangerous by the minute.

I won’t disclose more of the story than that, because one of the joys of this film is its unpredictability. The plot takes numerous twists and turns, and even minutes from the end, I couldn’t guess what was coming. Writer/Director Rian Johnson has crafted something original and deft. While every last detail of the screenplay might not stand up under strict scrutiny, Looper isn’t one of those mind-benders that invites endless analysis, such as Inception (which after numerous viewings still proves ironclad). Time travel rarely makes perfect sense, so instead of diving in head first, Looper dips partway into complexity and then just takes you for a ride.

Joseph Gordon Levitt proves instantly likable yet again, helping us connect with Joe, a flawed antihero. He kills for money, can’t kick a drug habit, and spends too much time partying at a local club. Bruce Willis was a perfect choice for the older Joe, as he’s another actor with that innate something that makes you root for him right off. Joseph Gordon Levitt wears some effective prosthetics to make him look more like Bruce Willis, but their shared likability does the most to connect the two actors in our minds as the same man thirty years apart. Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Jeff Daniels, and child actor Pierce Gagnon also turn in fine performances.

Looper depicts the future with impressive forethought and attention to detail. Metropolitan areas look advanced but dirty. The most popular drug of choice is administered as eye drops. Old technology lays alongside new; for every hoverbike, there are a dozen traditional cars. Most older cars have gadgets rigged up to the gas tanks, presumably allowing them to run on alternative fuel, and 10% of the population has some variation of the TK Mutation (telekinesis), allowing them to move small objects through mind power. Overall, Looper achieves plausibility while dealing in time travel and low-level superpowers, an impressive feat.

Given the complexity and layers that unfold, the film’s resolution is admirably simple, almost poetic. Looper is sequel-proof, which puts another tally in its plus column. Hollywood has become increasingly dependent on guaranteed money-makers (anything with a number after its title), allowing for fewer inventive pictures that stand alone. There’s a sizable audience for smart thrillers, and I think Looper’s cleverness and innovation will be rewarded. Most movies choose between action and ideas, but then a movie like Looper comes along and makes having both look easy.

Fun side note:
The club where Joe passes his time is La Belle Aurore, also the name of the cafe where Casablanca’s Rick and Ilsa spend their last day as lovers before she disappears. “I remember every detail; the Germans wore gray, you wore blue.”


For the Parents: 

MPAA: Rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content

Looper is violent, with plenty of blood and gore flying around amidst shootings. A young child is killed at one point. Language is strong. A few women appear topless, and the main character battles a drug habit. In short, this isn’t a movie to take the kids to.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Robot and Frank

At the close of a summer season filled with big-budget spectacle, Robot and Frank arrives from the quiet end of the science fiction spectrum. The original plot wasn’t adapted from a short story, but it would make a good one. Robot and Frank starts with a solid premise, and with the help of strong performances from veteran actors, it mostly delivers.

In the near future, aging ex-burglar Frank (played by Frank Langella) lives alone, though his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler) calls him often, and his attorney son, Hunter (James Marsden) visits him on the weekends. Frank mostly keeps to himself, though he regularly walks to the library, reminiscing with the librarian (Susan Sarandon) about print media. Concerned about his father’s memory loss and onsetting dementia, Hunter purchases a robot to help keep his father in check. Frank is resistant to the idea at first but warms considerably when he finds that the robot doesn’t seem to have any ethical qualms with stealing.

Robot and Frank marks an impressive debut for both writer Christopher Ford and director Jake Schreier. The film excels in its subtle and realistic depiction of the near future. Technology has clearly advanced but not so far that we can’t relate. The only bit that doesn’t ring true is the notion of robots being integrated into society without being programmed to strictly obey local and federal laws, but that’s not really a story flaw, as the film does great things with the concept. Passing references to ethical and political disagreements over robotic development (which there already are and most certainly will continue to be) help further ground the story in reality.

Frank Langella (you may remember his virtuoso turn as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon) gives a fine performance as a man both resistant to change and in denial about his memory loss. I believed his progression with the robot, and I think it shows what will almost certainly happen in the years to come: humans easily forgetting that robots aren’t alive. If ever we create artificial intelligence, that will be another matter, but until then, our machines are only programmed to emulate human behavior. After a few weeks in the company of a very helpful machine that can carry on a conversation, that line gets blurry for Frank.

The always dependable Susan Sarandon plays her everywoman self as the kindly librarian, and James Marsden and Liv Tyler effectively depict children with different responses to their father’s illness. The only weak link in the chain comes in the character of Jake (Jeremy Strong), the arrogant hipster in charge of renovating the library. His character often feels more like a caricature than a real person, but that’s a minor qualm, only noticeable because the rest of the characters are so well-realized.

Robot and Frank is a solid piece of science fiction, one that I recommend both for sci-fi buffs and those who don’t typically enjoy the genre. The majority of its projections of the near future ring true, but it’s more concerned with its characters. Like all good sci-fi, Robot and Frank uses futuristic concepts to examine present realities. Aging, memory loss, how best to care for the elderly: these issues aren’t going away, and just as technology won’t hold all the answers, this film doesn’t try to provide them. I found Robot and Frank’s lack of preaching refreshing; while exploring various ethical issues, the film doesn’t tell us what to think. It just tells us a good story.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some language.

Language is the only concern here. I remember there being a couple of F words, along with a peppering of other curses. The story is slow-moving and mature in nature, enough so that younger viewers might not connect with it.