ParaNorman (Chris Butler & Sam Fell, 2012) – Still the best animated film of the year without a doubt and one that seems to be developing the loyal cult and mainstream following it deserves, ParaNorman mixes scares and laughs in equal amount for a heartfelt and extremely effective family friendly horror comedy that owes just as much to every decade and movement in horror movie cinema as it does the more Spielbergian family action-adventures of the 1980s.
11 year old Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) lives his life in constant torment from his classmates and creeped out family because he can see ghosts and talk to the dead. Because of his abilities, he’s given a major task by a crazy vagrant (John Goodman) to keep the ghost of a powerful witch from raising the dead and destroying the town. When things go wrong,Norman has to band together with his uncaring sister (Anna Kendrick), the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), his dorky best friend and his friend’s jock brother (Casey Affleck).
The animation wizards at Laika (the people who brought the world Coraline) aren’t strangers to working with sometimes darker subject matter and mixing it with reassuring humour. Horror fans will get a kick out of homages to John Carpenter and classic zombie films and kids will appreciate that the main characters look and act like real kids, but everyone will be able to appreciate just how funny and perceptive the film’s script is overall. There’s hardly a single joke that doesn’t elicit huge belly laughs, and at the heart of the film is a heartfelt message of never judging a book by its cover. It also manages a twist that ties into the film’s message of tolerance that’s probably never been attempted in a film aimed at a younger crowd. It’s a big risk that pays off wonderfully.
In addition to a stellar voice cast that gives their all (especially the scene stealing Affleck), the animation here is simultaneously top notch and delightfully old school. The imperfections in the stop motion animation give actual character to what’s on screen and the production design is incredibly detailed with boatloads of references and sight gags to be found on multiple viewings, and given how quotable the film is, there’s a lot to be seen and appreciated. Families that have been starved for a film everyone can enjoy together need not look any further. ParaNorman takes the lead for best animated film of the year thus far with (severed) hands down. It’s truly something special.
The Blu-ray boasts a nice, clear picture and a decent, if not exceptional, sound mix. There’s an informative audio commentary from directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell that captures the giddy excitement that went into making the film quite wonderfully, and about an hour’s worth of featurettes, some of which were available previously online, but most are new to the set. Even though Halloween has passed, it’s still well worth picking up.
The Expendables 2 (Simon West, 2012) – Not that there’s exactly little that can be said about the second action extravaganza with a nerd’s dream cast of badasses, but there’s little one can say positively or negatively about Expendables 2 without stating the simple facts. It’s a solidly fun romp through Eastern Europe with a bunch of familiar faces blowing up most of the countryside that improves on all the little problems that made the original a bit of a disappointment.
The elite mercenary force from the first film comprised of Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren (who’s back on the side of good this time out), Terry Crews, and Randy Couture are back with a new mission and a pair of new recruits. This time out they are hired by a really pissed off Church (Bruce Willis) to make amends for screwing him out of $50 million dollars. Their task should be an easy one: head to Eastern Europe, find a downed plane and open a safe that has a map of an abandoned Russian plutonium mine before it falls into the wrong hands. Along for the ride is the team’s youthful sniper (Liam Hemsworth) and a battle trained safecracking specialist (Nan Yu) with intimate knowledge of the material. This puts them in direct conflict with the hilariously and appropriately named Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), the leader of a Satanically tattooed gang of thugs known as The Sangs, who will stop at nothing to get at the nuclear materials for sick fun and profit.
The handing off of directorial duties by Stallone (who still co-wrote the script for this film) to Simon West (Con Air) was a wise decision, with many of the choppy editing and lacklustre story beats from the first film all but vanishing here. The action overall feels more assured and tighter paced even if the budget looks like it was cut considerably to get everyone back on board again. In a film where the action is literally all that matters, it delivers more on audience expectation than the first film did. It gives the people what they want in almost every possible way, and it even manages a nice and somewhat shocking twist pretty early on that ultimately sets the main story in motion and ups the stakes. It might be as dumb as a box of hammers, but that’s what it was constructed to be from the outset, and at least this time the audience can actually see and focus on everything that’s going on.
Mostly everyone does that one thing they’re really good at, getting one big scene in the film to showcase that talent, but some people still outshine the rest. If there’s anyone who gets the short end of the stick, it’s Li who has nothing really to do beyond a single fight and it doesn’t help that he looks like the only one of the bunch that doesn’t want to be there. Hemsworth and Yu are nice additions to the overall crew, but they’re still pretty forgettable compared to their counterparts. The most improved of the bunch would easily be Lundgren who actually gets to have fun as a misguided, chemically imbalanced genius and show off some decent comedic chops. Chuck Norris pops up for a pair of scenes that are simply too surreal for words, and Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger reprise their minor cameos from the first film with larger roles here. They seem to both be having fun, but in his time away from the screen Schwarzenegger seems to have forgotten anything and everything about acting. At least he can still hold a big gun and shoot.
There’s nothing terribly original about the film and about halfway through it almost word for word rips off the plot of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but it’s still an improvement over the first instalment. It’s designed by savvy people gearing it towards a specific audience that likes this type of film, and there’s nothing really to knock about that. It is what it is, and if it’s the kind of film you think you’ll like, you probably will enjoy the braindead fun as much as I did.
The Blu-ray and DVD packages come with the same special features, but only the Blu-ray features a sound mix that seems designed to piss off your liberal, panty waste neighbours/scare small children. The extras package is actually pretty great overall, including an insightful commentary from Simon West about inheriting the potential franchise, a making-of documentary where Stallone openly admits that he took on too much during the first film and that it wasn’t quite what he wanted it to be, and a neat 30 minute look back on action heroes and cinema of the 80s that doesn’t simply stick to the core group of actors in the film. There’s also a documentary about real life mercenaries for anyone curious as to what’s needed from the profession. It’s a killer package that will leave viewers satisfied until the next instalment.
Step Up Revolution (Scott Speer, 2012) – While it might not necessarily be revolutionary in the way that the title says it is, if there was a checklist of everything a dance film had to do to be successful, the fourth entry in the Step Up franchise manages to tick them all off with entertaining efficiency. It’s high energy, fast moving, extremely well shot, expertly danced and choreographed, it doesn’t attempt to take on more plot than it can handle, and it quite nobly goes back to the heyday of 80s dance movies by making the dancing actually stand for something in a greater social context. What I’m saying in a long winded fashion is that Step Up Revolution is one of the most pleasant (if functionally brain dead) surprises of the year.
Underemployed waiter and expert dancer Sean (Ryan Guzman) lives with his sister and his nephew along a broken down and little loved multicultural section of Miami’s waterfront, leading him to team with a like minded group of dancers and creative types from different styles and backgrounds to form The Mob. The purpose of their crew at first hinges on setting up filmed flash mobs in public places such as gridlocked streets and restaurants with hopes of hosting a YouTube channel that can get to ten million hits the fastest to net them a huge cash prize. Eventually, the group’s cause becomes nobler when the real estate mogul father (Peter Gallagher) of Sean’s love interest (Kathryn McCormick) begins to force everyone out of the old neighbourhood to put in a new development, then the real revolution begins.
If the last part of the previous sentence sounds extremely cheeseball, that’s because it’s wholly evocative of the spirit of the film. This isn’t a world where plot of characterization ever needs to tread. Even streetdancing classics of the 1980s like Beat Street and Breakin’ were almost devoid of such things as plot or character arcs. These are films that were designed for a specific audience that simply wants to see a show and have a good time. They are the throwbacks to your grandparents and (in some cases) great-grandparents Busby Berkley musicals of the 20s and 30s. They were basic stories filled with slightly risqué humour and a genuine message of community among the disadvantaged. The dance films that have endured over time – from the Astaire and Rogers films to Fame to Dirty Dancing to Save the Last Dance – have all been extremely simple narratives that are basic morality tales about overcoming hardship, disappointment, and setback. They were positively inspirational for audiences at the time, and the Step Up films have become their modern day equivalent.
The acting doesn’t add much, but the leads have charisma and oodles of talent in the aspects of the movie that actually matter. The dance numbers here are some of the best in the franchise, especially an implausible, but eye-popping melding of pop-art and dance inside an all too square and serious art gallery that emphatically positions what the dancers are doing as being the art it should be rightfully referred to as.
Yes, yes, the dialogue is purposefully hammy and everything is way over the top, but the film dares to go big with its vision before briefly misstepping right at the very end. Everyone seems to be having a great time – especially Gallagher, who looks like he’s revelling the chance to play and oily, cheesy villain – and the film is designed for audiences looking to go along for the ride. It’s all very basic stuff, but in recent years the formula hasn’t been done this well outside of the franchise, and if the predecessors to the Step Up series can be hailed as classic of their genre, then it’s definitely time that this franchise be spoken of in the same vein. Is it one of the best movies of the year? No. Does it necessarily need to be? No. Does it accomplish what it sets out to do perfectly? Almost. Is it more fun than it has any right to be? Absolutely.
The 3-D Blu-ray was designed with the film’s eye popping-and-locking visuals and its bumping soundtrack in mind. The 3-D is as crisp and clear as one is likely to get from a home viewing standpoint, with lush colours that demand to be seen as brightly as possible. The disc also comes optimized for 11.1 audio, which might be a bit excessive, but the 7.1 mix strikes just the right balance to make people think they’re actually in the middle of a flash mob. There’s a commentary track with Speers and his stars that’s affably goofy and slightly informative, and there’s a handful of music videos and brief featurettes. Also, if you hate that nasty thing called “plot,” you can just navigate between the individual production numbers.
The Hole (Joe Dante, 2010) – Originally conceived as an independently released 3-D film a couple of years ago, beloved genre veteran Joe Dante’s The Hole comes to home video after failing to find adequate distribution against the glut of studio backed, post converted three dimensional works. It’s a real shame, since the movie is actually quite great and just looking at the DVD gives of tantalizing hints on what could have been a fun ride in theatres instead of a bare bones tween pitched horror film.
After constantly moving from town to town, teenager Dane Thompson (Chris Massoglia) arrives in the sleepy small town of Bensonville a surly mess. He’s a jerk to his little brother (Nathan Gamble) and overly harsh to his mother (Teri Polo). His only real joy in life comes from semi-stalking the girl next door (Haley Bennett) from a distance, but after a fight with his brother in the basement unlocks a bottomless pit of darkness in their basement, their lives take a turn for the spooky really quickly.
Moving comfortably back into the same thematic territory as he did with Gremlins and Small Soldiers, Dante mounts a film that gently lulls its young audience (and indeed a good portion of the adult crowd) into a false sense of security before getting a lot darker. With the pit having the power to make all of one’s fears a reality, Dante starts by getting the childish things out of the way first (creepy dead eyed kids, clown puppets) out of the way first, before getting shockingly emotional and terrifying with an almost heartbreaking twist that can sort of be seen coming, but isn’t mush easier to take. The kids are all believable and likable in various ways, and the adults (including cameoing Dante vet Bruce Dern as the home’s former eccentric owner) come in to do some heavy lifting when called upon. Overall the film is an excellent, if admittedly low key, offering from a director that hasn’t lost a step. Now someone please give him a budget and a distribution deal for his next film.
The DVD for the film isn’t as bare bones as one would expect, but it’s still pretty scant. There’s a handful of EPK styled featurettes and that’s all. The picture and sound quality are passable, but watching scenes that were clearly meant to be seen in 3-D only makes the viewer wonder just what could have been made from all this potential in a theatrical setting.
Vamps (Amy Heckerling, 2012) – Much like Joe Dante, teen movie and rom-com maven Amy Heckerling also finished making her latest film in 2010, only to watch it gather dust due to distributor woes. Her vampire themed girls night out film, Vamps, however, doesn’t really get the slighting that Dante’s film got. It’s not a bad or unentertaining little film, but it’s wholly forgettable and disposable, seemingly made to do nothing more than kill time for a viewer without angering them.
Stacy (Alicia Silverstone) and Goody (Krysten Ritter) are best bud vampires who look the same age despite being from different eras. Stacy’s a literal old soul that was turned by a malevolent human devourer (Sigourney Weaver) in the 1800s, while Goody refuses to let go of nostalgia after being bitten in the early 90s. The duo live a comfortably modest life living off of rat blood and going to AA styled meetings to curb their blood thirsty desires, and who are only just getting a sense of their own mortality when they learn that they will become their actual ages if the vampire that bit them is killed.
Heckerling does comedy and pathos quite well, and the film includes an intriguing look at vamparism as a form of addiction through Silverstone’s character and admittedly winning performance, but the film ultimately acts so superficial that there’s not much to chew on. It’s kind of a lazy comedy that kinda sorta wants to establish a sort of fantastical New York City underground vampire world, but it just can’t muster the energy to do so. There’s still plenty of laughs, though, and the film ends on an unexpected high note, but there’s just not much to stick out in viewers memories. Shame the Blu-ray doesn’t come with any special features, too. Heckerling is a really smart and sophisticated director and getting her take for even a few seconds would have been enjoyable.
The Apparition (Todd Lincoln, 2012) – Remember The Devil Inside? It’s that bad.