"ParaNorman" (First Viewing)
Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell
That "ParaNorman" entered theaters with a mark against it for not being what "Coraline" was speaks to hint of insightful irony that comes into play for the film. It is, after all, about people who become chastised for being different, some in ways crueler than you would expect for an animated feature. I didn't walk into this with terribly high expectations, which was due largely to a juvenile pair of trailers that emphasized the film's seemingly hollow comedic values. All those judgments go out the window in the first moments of the film, showing a high camp zombie flick that's rife with inconsistencies and errors, and intentionally so.
"ParaNorman" has a very different feel from what "Coraline" was doing. The 2009 film from Laika benefited heavily from Neil Gaiman's boundless imagination fuelling a frightening design aspect to the film. The new film from Laika goes retro and pulpy with its scares, because it is mainly a comedy which has zombies in it as a function of its storytelling. It's working off of stereotypes, something usually frowned upon in cinema, but it works them in a way that's funny, endearing, and offers some mature twists on them. That raises a question of the film's content, which is comically of a more mature brand, but offers some legitimately terrifying moments.
What occurs to me in watching it is that any child who sees the film will be asking questions of their parents after the screening. Looking at it a different way, parents will be talking to their children about these subjects of death, illness, societal collapse, murder, and even homosexuality. "ParaNorman" is the first mainstream animated film with an openly gay character, even if it's in a spare bit of dialogue towards the end. The third act is a pulse-pounding endeavor that really has your heart doing overtime, much thanks to Jon Brion's beautiful and nerve tapping score. The animation is absolutely gorgeous and establishes Laika as an animation powerhouse in the making. If Pixar's recent decrease in quality makes room for other studios to branch out, all the better for it.
"Miss Bala" (First Viewing)
Directed by Gerardo Naranjo
It's about a beauty pageant contestant who falls in with the Mexican drug cartel. The referential description of "Miss Bala" makes it seem prepped for such a glitzy, superficial, rags-to-dirty-riches story. The truth that Gerardo Naranjo finds is something much less glamorous than it seems, or indeed as she envisioned. The Mexican drug wars come into the story like a freight train out of left screen, but one that continuously drags you under it for the rest of the journey before leaving you mangled at the end. Naranjo doesn't intend to depict the horrific acts this gang commits as anything remotely positive, and it's that commitment to keep things cruel that really brings this film to a higher place.
The film is a structural oddity, never giving us a moment away from Laura Guerrero, nor giving her any particular downtime to figure things out. Every second has her either running or following orders in their daunting presence. Matyas Erdely's camera plays a significant role in her limitation, repeatedly obscuring her face and body, as if the situation she's in literally confines her in a submissive position. There's rarely a moment when actress Stephanie Sigman is smiling, and the rare glimpses at her face show an utter disgust with what's happening, but also a cracking emotionality on the verge of breakdown. The film is determined to exploit this character to the point of her absolute decimation, and it works as the most devastating and exhausting thriller that few are likely to have experienced this year.
"About Cherry" (First Viewing)
Directed by Stephen Elliot
But in case the glib, glamorous rags-to-dirty-riches story is exactly what you wanted out of a film, "About Cherry" is here to fulfill your desires. Not that I don't go for that kind of story at all, since it's often the catalyst for such crowd-pleasing fare as "Boogie Nights" and "Rock of Ages". Where "About Cherry" goes rather drastically wrong is even making the assumption that it can be about traumatic real world problems. The film follows small town girl Angelina, given bright and smiling one-dimensionality by Ashley Hinshaw, whose ignorantly objectifying boyfriend suggests she start taking nude pictures of herself. Not long after she has enough money to skip does she head off to San Francisco with her best friend, played to rather unfinished effect by Dev Patel.
Angelina's misadventures lead her into the exciting world of porn, headed up by a lesbian director played by Heather Graham. Graham's returning to cinema about the porn industry doesn't yield any greater emotional moments than she had in "Boogie Nights", and her character seems all too perfect. The film is filled with people who have everything figured out, which simply isn't interesting to watch. The sight of so many gorgeous individuals complaining about how terrible their lives are only makes the viewer bitterly jaded against the film. It's edited in such a way as to clip short every glinting moment of beauty, and instead opts for a crass exploitation of characters that takes absolutely nothing away from them. "I bought flowers", James Franco's character remarks simply in a hollow attempt at seeking forgiveness. It's the sort of gesture "About Cherry" rudely makes over and over again.
"Kung Fu Panda 2" (Second Viewing)
Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson
When I first saw the film last May, I didn't see a reason to waste time complaining about the quality of a film called "Kung Fu Panda 2". The film displays a gorgeous colour palette, an exciting score from Hans Zimmer and John Powell, and is loaded with plenty of fun action sequences. Add on top of that Gary Oldman voicing a maniacal peacock, and what worries do you really have? All of that should work in theory, but there's an "episode 2" feeling about the entire ordeal that bogs it down quite a bit. It's the same problem "Iron Man 2" and "Cars 2" dealt with, in that if you were to skip it on the way to the third, you'd have missed absolutely nothing.
A lot of what made the first film work is unfortunately missing, like the trying relationship between Po and Shifu. Dustin Hoffman's kung fu master is MIA for most of the adventure, and his strictly guiding presence is lost. The furious five have become too accepting of Po as one of their own, and seeing Tigress take such a quick likening to Po feels like they skipped a beat. Any potential character moments are cut away by quick montages, frantic action, or childishly repetitive jokes. There are emotional beats that hint at complexity, but it feels like the script needed a few more months work to iron things out. It remains a fun ride, but if we're to view this series in the future, are we likely to feel like including this as an important part of this kid's saga?