Friday, January 18, 2013

The Perfect Para-Killer

     With today's DVD reviews we will be covering an Animated Feature contender at this year's Oscars, a dysfunctional family drama with religious overtones, and a backwoods bloodbath.  A triple feature should start with a cartoon...

  Paranorman - This is the first feature presentation from writer Chris Butler, and I must say that it shows a lot of promise.  The basic premise is nothing terribly revolutionary.  It's the typical awkward child coming of age story told through the metaphor of supernatural powers that make the youngster misunderstood and ostracized.  As he comes into his own, the boy (Norman, naturally) must stop some threat that only he, by virtue of his own "otherness" can stop and save the town.  At which point, of course, everyone believes/accepts him not despite, but for ,his uniqueness...blah, blah, blah...we've ALL heard this one before from Buffy the Vampire Slayer through The Sixth Sense.  The thing is, the story is told so well, with so many interesting little bits of humor and original touches, that it doesn't really matter.
     This was also Mr. Butler's freshman effort as a director, although he shared those duties with more experienced hands, attached to Sam Fell, who previously directed both The Tale of Despereaux and Flushed Away.  The pair seem to work together well, creating a more unified and singular vision and tone for their film than many a solo director is able to pull off.
     They certainly coaxed some great voice work out of the actors.  Kodi Smit-McPhee (the kid from The Road and Let Me In) is great as Norman, never falling into the predictable sing song patterns that often characterize voice over work for child characters.  The supporting cast is also uniformly impressive, including such familiar names as Anna Kendrick (as Norman's older sister), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (as Alvin, the bully who hounds Norman), Leslie Mann (as Norman's mom Sandra), and Elaine Stritch (as Norman's ghostly grandmother).  The notable stand-out is John Goodman as Norman's Uncle Pendergrast.  Argo,
Flight, now this...the man's had a great 2012 body of work.
     Before I go, I simply HAVE to mention that this film was just nominated (in addition to Best Animated Feature at the Oscars) for GLAAD's annual media awards, becoming the first PG rated film ever to receive such a citation.  (WARNING: SPOILER)  This is due to the inclusion in the central cast of an openly gay character in the form of local jock Mitch (played perfectly by Casey Affleck).  The best part for me is that not only is the character an atypical representation of a gay man, you never even know or suspect that he IS gay (although he does ignore an awful lot of advances from Norman's sister), until right at the end of the movie.  As far as I know, Mitch is the FIRST openly gay character in any mainstream, animated family film anywhere ever.  So, on a personal note, thank you for writing Mitch, Mr. Butler, and for writing him well.
     The best animated film I've seen so far this year.  Unless you're allergic to cartoons (I'm usually okay if I take a Benadryl first, myself), I highly recommend checking it out.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Killer Joe - It's been a looooong time since director William Friedkin made The French Connection and The Excorcist.  His latest, Killer Joe, seems fresh, contemporary, and appears to be the rare film that people can find almost as shocking today as they found The Excorcist back in 1973.  This white trash thriller may not be anything TOO ground breaking or innovative, but you would certainly never guess that it had been helmed by a seventy-seven-year-old man either.
     Killer Joe benefits from what so many "ultra-violent" films seem to forget, subtlety.  Sometimes less is more, at least for a while.  The violence in Killer Joe is insidious and oppressive, but is only expressed physically in occasional spurts and starts for most of the picture.  But you never doubt that the entire film is about violence: physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and fiscal.  It is about the violence we do to others and the violence others do to us.  It is about the violence that we let loose into the world everyday in ways great and small.  More than anything, it is about how violence begets violence in an exponentially escalating vicious cycle until it truly boils over, and when it boils over it erupts.
     Matthew McConaughey is superb.  I think this is my favorite performance of his entire career thus far.  He commits totally to the character.  He reminded me a little bit of Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers, which was the film in which I first glanced just how versatile an actor the Cheers alum was going to prove to be.  McConaughey's Joe is almost an archetype of the word sinister, but manages to skate just on the edge of going OVER the top, JUST keeping Joe within the realm of credibility.  I can't wait to see Mud, I can't wait to see Mud.
     The whole cast is great, actually.  Juno Temple is the stand out, I suppose, for her total commitment to the part of Dottie.  Just astounding.  Gina Gershon is deliciously treacherous.  Thomas Haden Church's effortlessly simple delivery makes one wonder how Dobber would have turned out without Coach around to keep him out of the trailer park. (Shivers!)  And Emile Hirsh was the perfect everyman of his environment.  I don't know how to say it better than that.
     This film is GRAPHIC.  It is not suitable for children.  I'm not entirely sure that it's suitable for adults either, but I kind of liked it.  4 of 5 stars.

  The Perfect Family - This little family drama from a writing and directing trio whose prior experience was mostly in short films (director:  Anne Renton, writers:  Paula Goldberg and Claire V. Riley) mostly serves two functions:  as a story of a family accepting a lesbian daughter, and as an acting vehicle for Kathleen Turner, surrounded by a cast that won't bring the film down, but won't outshine her.  It functions pretty well on both levels, and Kathleen is pretty fabulous, but the film as a whole is not terribly memorable.  3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Related posts:  I Think You "Argo"ing to Love It!Didn't Quite Take "Flight"

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