Category: Family Dramas


(A quick aside before my actual review. I watched this movie a week and a half ago. I’ll let that sink in for a second. It’s been like ten days since I watched this film. So, there is an unusually healthy chance that this particular review will be awful. I wouldn’t usually let that happen but there’s this national campus film festival that’s at WVU this week and I decided to compete in it, and I’ve spent the last two weeks working on my entry into the competition. And, I specifically spent last week doing principal photography and post-production for my short film which was due Monday. Throw in the fact that Grand Theft Auto V came out Tuesday and it’s any wonder that I found time to do this particular review right now. So, I apologize if this review sucks)

Had 2012’s Academy Award-nominated children’s film Paranorman came out when I was a child, it seems apparent to me that I would have adored this film beyond almost all others. That’s not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it as a grown-up (I did), but it’s stop-motion animation, macabre aesthetic, and general quirkiness would have made it fit right in with many of my favorite pieces from my childhoodAnd that fact becomes bizarre upon further introspection because it is abundantly clear to me that this eccentric gem seems designed primarily to appeal to older children at my most generous interpretation or teenagers and young adults at my most honest. Despite it’s consistently mature sense of humor and storytelling (relative for a nominal children’s film), Paranorman only fails to reach the pantheon of the greatest of children’s film because of a lack of the cathartic emotional payoff that defines classics like Toy Story 3 or The Iron Giant.


Which is not to say that Paranorman suffers from the thematic staleness of the most recent Best Animated Feature winners, Rango or Brave. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Paranorman tackles heavy and often disturbing subject matter head-on. That statement about the cathartic pay-off of my favorite children’s films refers to their ability to leave me a sobbing, inconsolable wreck by film’s end despite the fact that I’m less than six months shy of being 25 years old. At no point in Paranorman was I over-run with uncontrollable emotion though I also doubt that was ever director Chris Butler’s intention. So, thankfully, Paranorman mostly made up for its lack of any sort of satisfying emotional pay-off with what is, once you dig beneath the surface, one of the darker children’s films of recent memory, dealing explicitly with bullying, loneliness, social alienation, and persecution.

Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a pre-teen loner who spends his days watching old B-zombie movies. He has no friends and everybody at school thinks he’s weird because Norman has a special power that is a non-secret in town even if no one actually thinks it’s true. Norman can see and speak to dead people. He is constantly berated by his own father for Norman being able to speak with his dead grandmother and Norman’s father doesn’t believe him. What his family believes to be Norman’s delusion also runs in Norman’s family and he has an uncle (The Big Lebowski‘s John Goodman) who can also speak to the dead. And Norman’s uncle believes that Norman is the town of Blithe Hollow’s only chance to be protected against a centuries old curse from a witch who was burnt at the stake and cursed the town with the threat of raising the dead before she died.


And I’ll leave it at that for fear of ruining the fun path this film takes over the course of its 90 minute running time. Though the film goes plenty of the places you’d expect, it also tends to at least momentarily subvert those expectations in ways that are as brutal as humanly imaginable. In much the same vein as The Iron Giant, Paranorman becomes a commentary on group hysteria and paranoia and who you think are the bad guys is twisted and warped until clear moral lines can’t actually be drawn. In this film, the line between good guy and bad guy is more ambiguously drawn than many films for grown-ups and Paranorman could serve as a suitable parable on the dangers of revenge and misunderstanding for children for years and years to come.

I’m going to draw this review to a close just because it’s been so long since I’ve actually watched it and I’m actually starting to not feel very well today. Clearly though, I could write so much more about this truly excellent children’s film. It’s visual aesthetic is perfect. It’s cut from the same cloth as children classics like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline and is wrapped in countless shout-outs to classic horror films for the adults (i.e. Norman’s cellphone has the Halloween theme as its ringtone). Though I’m not sure if this film is particularly well-known at the moment, you have my personal guarantee that over the next ten years, an intense cult fandom will develop around this movie and all of the hip parents will be showing it to their soon to be hip children.

Final Score: A-


Occasionally, a movie will come along where the trailers simply did not represent what the film was really about. The marketing department will emphasize the most accessible aspects of a film (action, romance, comedy) while leaving out whatever the real film may be. Some of the most egregious examples I can think of was Pan’s Labyrinth‘s publicity when it came out as a family friendly fantasy adventure (ummm… definitely not family friendly whatsoever unless you want your child having nightmares for the rest of their life, the original marketing for Sweeney Todd only highlighted the traditional Tim Burton aspects of the film and not the fact that it’s a Stephen Sondheim penned musical, and Watchmen‘s trailers made everyone who hadn’t read the comics expect that there would be significantly more action in the film than there really was. Martin Scorsese’s newest film (which picked up 5 Oscars at this year’s ceremony), Hugo, can be added to this list because I clearly remember the trailers portraying this as some sort of steampunk children’s adventure when in reality it is a quiet and often contemplative ode to the pioneers of silent cinema and finding your purpose in life. I’m glad the film is the latter because much like 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are, I suspect that this is a children’s film that will be far more enjoyed by its adult audience than the children who will likely not appreciate the subtleties of its themes and may become bored by the deliberate pacing of the story.

In the 1930’s, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is an orphan living behind the walls of a Parisian train station. When his father (Jude Law) died in a fire, Hugo was sent to live with his alcoholic uncle who fixes the clocks at the station. When the uncle abandons Hugo, he’s left to fend for himself, maintaining the clocks and stealing food to survive while trying to avoid the watchful eye of the station’s Inspector General (Borat‘s Sascha Baron Cohen). The only item that Hugo has to remind him of his father is a robot called an “automaton” that Hugo’s father believed would write a message when fixed, but he died before he can fix it. Hugo regularly pilfers broken toys for parts from the toy store of Georges (Ben Kingsley), an elderly man who becomes very upset when he sees Hugo’s notebook which has drawings/blueprints of the automaton. Hugo befriends Georges’ granddaughter Isabella (Let Me In‘s Chloe Grace Moretz) and the duo quickly discover that Isabella’s Papa Georges is in fact legendary French filmmaker George Melie whose 1902 classic, La Voyage Dans Le Lune, remains one of the most celebrated science fiction films of all time.

Martin Scorsese has certainly stepped outside his wheelhouse for this film, and while it has certain flaws that could have been avoided (a significant amount of padding, a very slow beginning that does little to supplement the major themes of the film), it is as much a success as his other non-crime related films have been such as The Aviator, Raging Bull, or After Hours (it has never ceased to strike me as odd that After Hours is Scorsese). While there are certain elements of children’s cinema at play here (children protagonists, light action/thrills, 3D effects that contribute little to the overall film), this movie is too mature (intellectually not sexually or in terms of language) and metatextual to really be effective for children. I can picture kids watching this film and often being bored out of their gourds because there isn’t much in the way of humor (except for Sascha Baron Cohen) and the movie is fairly sad and subdued til the end when the inevitable happy endings finally arrive. It is filled to the brim with allusions to classic moments in silent movies, and the film will often go extended lengths without any dialogue (and just the superlative score. How did it not win Best Original Score at the Oscars) to capture that classic feel. Much like Cinema Paradiso (if not quite as magical), this is a film about loving movies and the way they can change our lives, and that message will likely be lost on younger audiences who wouldn’t know who Buster Keaton was let alone a French filmmaker like Georges Melies.

Asa Butterfield only has three or four features to his name, but he has the potential to join co-star Chloe Grace Moretz as one of the emerging child talents. With such knowing and piercing blue eyes that he recalls a similarly young Elijah Wood (in The Good Son), I haven’t seen a child actor evoke such intense feelings of hurt, abandonment, and loneliness in ages, but he’s also able to show a playful side as well. Chloe Grace Moretz is the next Dakota Fannining (but more talented), and ever since she uttered the word “c*nt” in Kick-Ass, she’s been on the tips of everyone’s tongue, and now that she’s worked with Martin Scorsese, what else is there for her to do except try and get an Oscar nomination like Abigail Breslin received for Little Miss Sunshine. She hasn’t done anything on that caliber yet (though she was great in Let Me In, Kodi Schmitt-McPhee actually outshined her [which is the reverse of my feelings about the stars of the original Swedish film]), but I think with time, she can establish herself as the premier child actress and I have little trouble believing she’ll continue to have a career as she grows older. Ben Kingsley remains one of the all-time acting greats, and while his performance as Melies wasn’t among his career’s best, it was still an effecting portrait of old age, regret, and hope.

This film is not really what it was advertised to be, and my recommendation that all Martin Scorsese fans (and all pure cinephiles) should view it is not the same as a commendation that Hugo is prime viewing material for younger audiences because I honestly don’t think they’d be able to appreciate it. However, for everyone that loves films that capture the innocence of childhood but don’t insult your intelligence as an adult, Hugo is a beautiful and breathtaking achievement, and it’s gorgeous cinematography captures the dreamlike state of the best of Melies’ work. I wish that its opening moments had the same nostalgic magic as the rest of the film because I actually fell asleep the first time I tried to watch the beginning of this movie which was a shame because immediately thereafter, the film picked up and sucked me in with its visual poetry. Scorsese is 70 years old this year, and he can’t have many films left to make (though I pray that isn’t the case). If Hugo proves to be one of Scorsese’s final films, it will be a remarkable tribute to the forerunners that allowed him to become the icon he is today.

Final Score: A-

If you were to take the big four American sports (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey) and ask me which sport would make me prefer to have my tonsils taken out again over watching for pleasure, then it would probably be basketball. I’d rather watch women’s golf than sit down for any basketball game that doesn’t involve the West Virginia University Mountaineers (my college). So, maybe that already had me predisposed to dislike the sports classic, Hoosiers, since I can’t enjoy the sport of basketball itself. However, I would be willing to bet large sums of money that even if I were a die-hard cager fan but still had my film critic sensibilities, I would still recognize this film for what it is which is an admittedly entertaining but cliche-ridden example of the cookie-cutter productions that make up 90% of the sports film market. Had the film adhered more closely to the actual story of the 1954 Milan High basketball team perhaps I could have forgiven cliche as truth, but as the film stands, which is a highly fictionalized account of a true story, I can’t help but think its reputation is a little under-deserved.

Hoosiers, playing very loose with the historical facts, is the tale of a small, rural town’s basketball team in the 1950’s. The Hickory Huskers have just lost their old basketball coach, and in steps Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), a former college coach who a national championship but has been blacklisted from coaching college ball for striking a student. With only 7 players when he arrives (one of whom that immediately quits), Norman is facing an uphill battle to turn this small (both in number of players and player size) team into a winning basketball team. Norman’s unfriendly and abrasive attitude doesn’t win him any friends with the local parents and assorted townsfolk that don’t like an out-of-towner stepping in charge of their hometown team. Dale’s problems only escalate when he signs on the alcoholic train-wreck father (Dennis Hopper) of one of his players as the team’s assistant coach. However, Dale slowly starts to shut up the locals when his team starts winning, and it looks like they could go all the way to the state championship.

First things first. Dennis Hopper’s transformation into the alcoholic Shooter was an incredible thing to watch. Along with his role in Blue Velvet, this performance only cements my opinion that Dennis Hopper at his best is one of the finest character actors around. Along with Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, this was just one of the most effective and heart-breaking portrayals of alcoholism that I’ve ever seen on film. While I would still assert that Blue Velvet was his best role (HEINEKEN! FUCK THAT SHIT! PABST BLUE RIBBON! [sorry had to do it]), this was definitely a performance that deserved the Academy Award nomination that he received for the film. Gene Hackman was good in his role although he was basically playing Gene Hackman as a basketball coach. There wasn’t anything especially original about his performance. Don’t get me started on the kids on the team who were uniformly awful actors.

My primary complaint about this film is that I feel like if you stuck a bunch of first year film school students into a room and asked them to come up with a sports film with as many genre conventions as possible, their final result would look something like Hoosiers. Let’s do a check-list. Alcoholic father of a team member finds redemption ala Tim McGraw in Friday Night Lights? Check. Smallest member of the team comes through and makes a game-winning play. Check. They win the big game. Check. The curmudgeonly coach finds his own personal redemption in this rag-tag group of players. Oh yeah. The team always looks like it’s about to lose the game but comes through at the last second. Yep. This film is a living, breathing artifact of sports cliches.

While I enjoyed the film and I’ll admit that I teared up a little bit at the end of the climactic state championship basketball game, I simply can’t get over the fact that film didn’t have an original bone in its body. It also suffered from some of the most egregious Dawson casting of any movie I’ve ever seen as all of the high school kids (except for the short one) all looked like they were in their late 20’s. I can only recommend this to hardcore sports fans, although I would be willing to bet my next paycheck that most of you have already seen Hoosiers since it’s considered a classic of the genre. I would easily recommend other sports films like Million Dollar Baby, This Sporting Life, or the TV version of Friday Night Lights well before I would recommend this particular movie.

Final Score: B-