Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Dir. Stephen Chbosky

4 out of 5

Even some of the best high school movies have a tendency to blow the problems of their teenage protagonists – getting beer, getting out of town, getting laid – out of proportion.  It’s too easy for this approach to become vaguely insulting, as if the movie is assuming a certain vapidity on the part of its audience, or seeking to trivialize their experience.  The film adaptation of Stephen Chbosky’s young adult novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower – written and directed by Chbosky himself in a rare arrangement – avoids these pitfalls with an appealing honesty in portraying how kids actually grow up.  Instead of featuring teens desperately trying to inch themselves over the cusp of adulthood, Perks shows the adult world intruding on the twilight of childhood in a plethora of funny, fulfilling, and tragic ways.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is an intelligent, sensitive freshman nervously navigating his first weeks of high school, persisting in a stubborn but fruitless quest to make friends.  (It takes serious guts – or naiveté – to keep showing up to extracurricular functions like football games and school dances all by your lonesome.)  Luckily, he has two excellent prospects in two seniors, the clownish Patrick (Ezra Miller, playing the foil to his sullen teen in We Need to Talk About Kevin), a flamboyant nonconformist who performs Rocky Horror on the weekends, and Sam (Emma Watson), Patrick’s ultra-cool, confident stepsister and the type of woman destined to encourage the affections of college men – in fact, she’s already dating one.  Still, they can’t help but notice the dark cloud that hovers over Charlie.  In a bout of cannabis-inspired frankness, he reveals to Sam that his best friend committed suicide a few months before the start of school.  She immediately realizes that Charlie’s emotional intensity presents risks of its own and persuades her clique of oddballs and rebels to make room for him on “the Island of Misfit Toys.”

That’s when Perks really takes off, driven by the epochal events that mark the passage of time in high school and the camaraderie of its young, talented cast, including Johnny Simmons as Patrick’s closeted football-star boyfriend and Mae Whitman as a punky Mae Whitman-type ballbuster.  Paul Rudd pops up as an occasional mentor – a saintly English teacher who introduces Charlie to the ancient wisdom of Penguin Classics – but Chbosky doesn’t waste his time on classroom instruction.  He pushes most of the right buttons in introducing the film’s various after-school special issues, gradually revealing them alongside the torch-passing rituals that comprise Charlie’s social education.  The excellent chemistry between Watson, Miller, and Lerman also helps stabilize the action when it starts to drift toward the inevitable genre clichés.  But these melodramatic elements are necessary to make Perks the commendable achievement that it is, an inviting and emotionally complex teen movie that’s much like the characters it portrays: smart, passionate, and generous.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Seven Psychopaths (2012)
Dir. Martin McDonagh

3.5 out of 5

While the well of Quentin Tarantino imitators hasn’t exactly run dry – even twenty-plus years after his filmmaking debut – it has been diluted with ideas and imagery borrowed from the next generation of convention-bending riffsters like Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, and Charlie Kaufman.  (It’s also been a decade since
Adaptation, in case you were wondering.)  Meta is the new non-linear, a style that’s been practically codified via repetition in movies with agendas as diverse as Synecdoche, New York and 21 Jump Street.  Continuing that pedigree is Seven Psychopaths, a self-reflexive black comedy from writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), where the main punchline is that its script is being written before your very eyes.  Marty (Colin Farrell) is a screenwriter struggling to develop a Tarantino-esque script about seven sundry nutcases who come together to do…something.  Marty’s best friend, a 40-ish unemployed actor named Billy (Sam Rockwell), tries to motivate him by placing an ad for psychopaths in the weekly alternative paper.  Billy’s also a part-time scammer, kidnapping dogs with the help of his associate, oddball retiree Hans (Christopher Walken), then returning them to their owners for a hefty reward.  When Billy and Hans take the beloved Shih Tzu of a violently unstable gangster (Woody Harrelson), Marty gets drawn into a caper that gives him more “inspiration” than he bargained for.

After a carnage-filled first half that feels a little too bloated and forced, Seven Psychopaths eventually hunkers down into a crackerjack second act that smartly focuses on its core trio.  They abscond with their canine contraband to a desert campground hideout, where they each have a chance to pitch the ideal movie version of their experience – Billy’s is a raucous bloodbath, Hans’ is an affecting philosophical fable, and Marty’s is a thoughtful thriller where the characters renounce killing and “just sit around talking.”  The real movie is all three of those rolled into one, capitalizing on McDonagh’s gift for fierce dialogue and darkly satiric characterization.  Between Rockwell’s jittery enthusiasm and Walken’s calm resignation, you get the sense that violence is less of a threat and more like an everyday annoyance for these weirdos.

McDonagh, with his years of experience as an acclaimed playwright – and an Oscar for his 2005 short film Six Shooter – is certainly no mere copycat.  Seven Psychopaths works as a uniquely creative metaphor for facing one’s own artistic inadequacies.  However, it also feels like several separate movies stitched together in a cartoonish approximation of trendy indie self-awareness.  McDonagh goes to a lot of trouble setting up his various chess pieces in the film’s twist-heavy first half, then hastily abandons them.  The filmmaker’s ambition gets the better of him as the number of subplots begins to rival the body count.  Despite promising more than it can deliver, Seven Psychopaths still boasts a handful of funny, finely-staged sequences that attest to McDonagh’s talent and vision.  Though it never quite gels into something more than the sum of its parts, I’ll always take the movie that has the confidence and courage to overreach over the one that cravenly sells itself short.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Argo (2012)

Argo (2012)
Dir. Ben Affleck

4 out of 5

Argo, Ben Affleck’s political thriller about the daring real-life rescue of six American diplomats from Iran at the height of the 1979 Tehran Hostage Crisis, is the type of film that Academy members should be lining up to vote for.  While there’s no singularly spectacular component, every element of Argo is dialed in just right, from its zippy pacing to its quotable script to its painstaking re-creations of 1970s coiffure.  No one portion overwhelms the others in a perfect example of the crisp, competent, crowd-pleasing moviemaking that appears like the product of a halcyon studio system that not only pays tribute to that era, but also makes it seem globally vital both then and now.

The film starts with a bang as a small band of Americans – including two married couples – escape the Tehran embassy when it is attacked by Iranian revolutionaries and take refuge at the Canadian ambassador's house.  Those who weren’t quick or lucky enough to flee were famously held for 444 days as the United States government tried in vain to end the standoff.  But after learning of the lucky stowaways, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) concocts a potential solution when he stumbles across Battle for the Planet of the Apes while channel-surfing: disguise the targets as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a desert-set space opera.  Even fake movies need good publicity, so Mendez enlists famed make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and semi-retired producer Lester Siegel (a wickedly funny Alan Arkin) to help sell the illusion.  Along the way, the trio battles the skepticism of the film industry, the CIA, and even the people Mendez goes to Iran to rescue in pulling off their hair-raising scheme.

From the intensity of the captivity scenes to the freewheeling satire of the Hollywood interlude, Argo’s plot aims to hit every point on the emotional spectrum, so give Affleck credit for placing each narrative puzzle piece in its perfect context.  He has an invisible style that emphasizes collaboration and eschews fireworks; Affleck’s greatest talent is knowing when to let his talented teammates, such as editor William Goldenberg and composer Alexandre Desplat, step in and create meaning.  Argo also benefits from Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio’s ability to suggest parallels between mounting a complex covert operation and making a big-budget motion picture.  The Hollywood jibes are spot-on, and their tendency to use recognizable faces like Bryan Cranston and Kyle Chandler in minuscule roles as government officials is almost an in-joke itself.  It’s also a testament to the group of character actors – especially Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, and Christopher Denham (Sound of My Voice), among others – who pay tribute to the escapees by prioritizing a convincing group dynamic over individual grandstanding.

There is a sense that Affleck molds Argo to fit his own arc from fallen movie star to acclaimed director, arranging and embellishing the facts of Mendez’s caper to maximize the number of nail-biting sequences and opportunities for personal redemption.  Still, he encourages a general atmosphere of restraint by putting so many irons into the fire.  Between his CIA support team, his movie-biz cohort, and the Iranian authorities who are hot on the trail of the incognito Americans, Affleck's frowny-faced performance blends nicely with the film's focus on how the trust forged between individuals can inspire heroic gestures.  A straight-ahead espionage caper with the guts to push its star and mastermind into the background for the sake of dramatic tension, Argo is a fitting testament to teamwork both in its style and its execution.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Wuthering Heights (2012)

Wuthering Heights (2012)
Dir. Andrea Arnold

4 out of 5

The degree of difficulty in adapting classic literature for the screen is often underrated.  Though the source material provides a strong starting point, its prestige can ascribe an immaculate quality to stories that are far messier than we recall.  That’s what British auteur Andrea Arnold attempts to avoid with Wuthering Heights, a new adaptation that captures the chilliness of Emily Brontë’s novel about the unexpected arrival of a dark-skinned orphan to a farm on the Yorkshire moors.  The foundling’s new family christens him Heathcliff, and he quickly develops a mutual fixation with Catherine Earnshaw, his benefactor’s rebellious daughter.  But instead of replicating the book’s omniscient tack throughout the flowering and dissolution of their relationship, Arnold tells the story entirely from Heathcliff’s point of view, embellishing a tortuous romance with a commentary on identity and otherness. 

Arnold places her thematic intentions front and center with her decision to have black actors portray Heathcliff – a liberal interpretation of the character’s “gypsy” complexion as described by Brontë.  It gives Arnold and co-writer Olivia Hetreed license to add a racial dimension to the Heathcliff’s lifelong rivalry with jealous de-facto brother Hindley (Lee Shaw).  However, the stormy romance is still at the center of Arnold’s interpretation, paralleling her depiction of life on the moors as something both harsh and sublime.  It’s a sentiment encapsulated by Catherine (Kaya Scodelario) scolding a prodigal Heathcliff (James Howson) after he disappears from Wuthering Heights for several years – “Why would you ever want to leave this?” she asks, as the howling wind almost blows the two actors off of a rocky outcropping.  Any irony in that statement is offset by Catherine’s sincere devotion both to her home and her true love, though Heathcliff’s low social standing and his painful self-awareness of his outsider status make it difficult for him to reciprocate in an appropriate fashion.

Following the lead of William Wyler’s classic 1939 film adaptation, Arnold excises the novel’s second generation of characters – the progeny of Catherine and Heathcliff’s troubled marriages to other suitors – to focus on the admittedly stronger “star-crossed lovers” arc.  That leaves the film with plenty of time for the wonderful Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave, who play the younger versions of Catherine and Heathcliff as they go about the crucial process of solidifying their emotional and psychological bonds.  (In one strangely affecting sequence, she literally licks his wounds after a brutal beating.)  As an adaptation, Wuthering Heights is not necessarily concerned with illuminating Brontë’s refined prose.  The film’s take-it-or-leave-it combination of blunt imagery and elliptical storytelling starts to feel stiff once Scodelario and Howson enter the picture.  Yet Arnold still finds moments of beauty as her camera glides freely through the grass and mud, and she brings a refreshingly crude aesthetic sensibility to a genre that’s often too enamored with delicacy.  Wuthering Heights is tragedy and romance with a strong emphasis on the former, a barbaric yawp of a film that allows its powerful images and raging emotions to resonate in places where words simply cannot.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Looper (2012)

Looper (2012)
Dir. Rian Johnson

4.5 out of 5

There are a lot of moving parts to
Looper, a stylish sci-fi thriller that has just enough juice to keep the whole marvelous machine running.  In the late 21st century, time travel is invented and immediately outlawed.  It’s also nearly impossible to dispose of a body, so criminal syndicates illicitly send their victims 30 years into the past, where specialized assassins called “loopers” are waiting to execute them.  When the mob no longer requires a looper’s services, they end his contract with a big payday and a final deadly rendezvous with his future self.  Should a looper get second thoughts and fail to "close the loop," the powers that be will cut it off at both ends. 

Despite its gruesome consequences, it’s an attractive (and lucrative) career in the dystopian United States of 2044, where bands of vagrants roam the streets and ten percent of the population exhibits a genetic mutation that gives them extremely weak telekinetic powers.  “A bunch of assholes think they’re blowing your mind floating quarters,” grumbles Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the film’s protagonist and the narrator of this expository avalanche.  He’s employed as a looper by Abe (Jeff Daniels), a mob boss sent from the future to supervise organized crime in Kansas.  Joe begins to notice that his organization is closing an unusually high number of loops.  His suspicions are confirmed when his best friend (Paul Dano) learns that 30 years in the future, a shadowy figure called “the Rainmaker” is methodically exterminating all known loopers.  It's an ominous piece of news that triggers Joe’s split-second hesitation upon meeting his own future self (Bruce Willis) and allows his older counterpart to escape his reckoning.

At this point, it would be easy to assume that Looper starts folding in on itself like Inception-inspired origami.  However, writer-director Rian Johnson attempts to sidestep scrutiny by quickly shifting his focus from the mechanics of time travel (which largely remain a mystery) to its consequences.  It’s remarkable how the film becomes more exciting once Joe trades gunplay for gumshoeing and flees the city for the sanctuary of a farm owned by a hardscrabble single mother (Emily Blunt).  In the grand scheme of things, Johnson isn’t subverting expectations so much as he is delaying gratification.  But it’s a gambit that works perfectly as he tightens the screws with tense, well-written exchanges, like a discussion between Joe and his older self that questions whether reading the spoilers of one’s life will inspire a different approach.

Looper is surprisingly nimble for a heady, genre-bending neo-noir that combines time travel, telekinesis, and levitating motorbikes.  That’s because it is only ostensibly about the big, complex questions raised by its technological paradoxes; strip away its high-concept trappings and you have a character-driven drama defined more by its performances than its visual panache.  Gordon-Levitt convincingly projects a hard-boiled persona thanks to impressive makeup and prosthetics that not only help him better resemble Willis, but also disguise his kewpie features.  Daniels is also fantastic as a put-upon middle manager and the film’s wink to the audience, a man from the future who mocks Joe’s fondness for neckties as one of his employees’ many “20th century affectations.” 

As a metaphor for a mash-up artist like Johnson, that’s almost too perfect.  It’s entirely fair to view Looper as an amalgam of cool ideas inspired by other sci-fi head trips like Twelve Monkeys, which starred Willis in a similar past-altering role, and Primer, whose creator, Shane Carruth, consulted with Johnson on Looper's time travel elements.  They’re mostly good ideas, too (constructing Willis' character as a hybrid homage to his roles in both Monkeys and Die Hard is a rare misfire) and executed with a fan’s zeal for the unexpected.  That this execution may not amount to more than tossing everything into the air at once – echoed in some of the film’s most impressive special effects shots – isn’t the point.  It’s the edge-of-your-seat anxiety of watching Johnson and his cast perform their juggling act, knowing that the slightest slip-up will spoil the extraordinary spectacle.  Rest assured, Looper doesn’t drop the ball.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Catch-Up: Battleship, Bernie, The Raid: Redemption, American Reunion

Most movies I see in theaters, either in press screenings or by plunking down my cash at the multiplex. But some films inevitably slip through the cracks. Here a few that I've caught up with recently...

Battleship (2012)
Dir. Peter Berg

2.5 out of 5

When Battleship bombed at the box office this past summer, the narrative was that people were rightfully rejecting Peter Berg's inane Transformers clone that promised little beyond loud, dumb spectacle. That's partially accurate - Battleship is indeed the most ear-splitting, migrane-inducing film you'll see all year - but the movie is by no means irredeemable. You at least have to admire Berg's chutzpah. He turns in what's essentially a feature-length recruiting ad for the armed forces that includes a ham-handed tribute to disabled vets, goofy tongue-in-cheek humor (courtesy of Hamish Linklater and a charismatic Taylor Kitsch), and an ending that plays like fevered military fan fiction. In fact, Battleship is worth seeing for the last 30 minutes alone, if only to affirm that Hollywood can still push the suspension of disbelief past any and all reasonable limits.

Bernie (2012)
Dir. Richard Linklater

4 out of 5

Jack Black turns in a career-best performance in Bernie, a dark comedy based on the true story of Bernie Tiede, an East Texas mortician who murdered his 81-year-old companion, the roundly disliked oil heiress Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). But when Bernie admits to committing the crime – citing the years of emotional abuse he received as Nugent’s business manager and sole friend in the close-knit town of Carthage, Texas – his status as a beloved pillar of the community makes it difficult for a grandstanding district attorney (Matthew McConaughey, on a roll) to conduct a fair trial. Black thrives in his second collaboration with School of Rock director Richard Linklater, who bends the film to fit the actor’s specific talents (particularly his singing ability). However, the setting is the real star of the show. Linkater slips into a comfortable groove, returning to his Texan roots and combining his fictionalized account of the Tiede case with documentary-style interviews that record the opinions and recollections of actual Carthage residents. Bernie is ultimately biased toward the funniest version of the story – Linklater doesn’t spend much time exploring what makes Marjorie tick – but the film’s perfectly deadpan sense of humor and matter-of-fact tone indicate a real affinity for the place it portrays, no histrionics necessary.

Dir. Gareth Evans

3.5 out of 5

The Raid: Redemption is the best movie Jason Statham never made, an adrenaline-pumping showcase for an Indonesian martial art known as pencak silat, combined with a nifty plot about a SWAT team trapped in a high rise owned by the notorious drug lord they've come to apprehend.  Any similarities to Dredd are superficial: The Raid has a much stronger narrative throughline in Rama (Iko Uwais) - a rank-and-file cop who quickly takes on greater responsibility after he and his comrades are ambushed by armed thugs - and offers a refreshing variety in its action setpieces, which mostly eschew gunplay for impressively choreographed fisticuffs.  Welsh director Gareth Evans forgoes rapid cuts for longer shots that allow the camera to pivot and swing around the action like a participant in the film's relentlessly brutal hand-to-hand combat.  It's a wise decision given the talent Evans has at his disposal, particularly Yayan Ruhian as the diminutive badass "Mad Dog" who takes on two enemies simultaneously, a standout amidst The Raid's nonstop assault of bravura action sequences.  

American Reunion (2012)
Dir. John Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg

1.5 out of 5

Proving that there is still life after multiple direct-to-DVD installments, American Reunion musters the original American Pie cast for another weekend of raunchy comedic hijinks and sexual humiliation.  Thirteen years after high school, everyone is dealing with adult problems.  Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are struggling to keep the passion in their marriage with a 2-year old son to care for; Oz (Chris Klein) is unfulfilled as a semi-famous sportscaster with a model girlfriend; Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is a lonely vagabond keeping a big stupid secret from his friends; and Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), um, grew a beard and has a wife that makes him watch a lot of emasculating television.  Whatever potential exists in visiting these characters at a stage far removed from their hedonistic teenage years is squandered by a bloated parade of gross-out gags and endless maudlin speechifying.  And franchise stalwart Eugene Levy is criminally misused, first as a depressed widower, then in a hoary "old man does drugs" subplot that pairs him with the ever-immature Stifler (Seann William Scott), yielding results vastly inferior to 2012's other Levy-Scott collaboration.  American Reunion is essentially the Fast and Furious of the series, trumpeting the return of familiar faces but neglecting to give them interesting things to do.  Hopefully the next gathering of the Class of 1999 is more exciting - might I suggest an international bank heist?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Paperboy (2012)

The Paperboy (2012)
Dir. Lee Daniels

2.5 out of 5

The Paperboy, writer-director Lee Daniels’ follow-up to Precious, peddles in a similar type of fantasy grotesquerie as his unlikely Sundance sensation.  It’s a difficult line to walk – despite the stellar performances of Mo’Nique and Gabourey Sidibe, the stabs at dark humor torpedoed any sense of propriety in the 2009 urban-misery drama.  The Paperboy at least has the advantage of being based on a sensational Pete Dexter novel about a group of intrepid journalists trying to prove the innocence of an incarcerated backwoods man in 1960s Florida.  It’s a much better foundation for Daniels’ signature brand of discursive pulpiness, a swampy morass of loose morals and primal lust that is, in theory, more resistant to the director’s strained attempts to emphasize larger social concerns.

Daniels assembles an impressive cast featuring Zac Efron as Jack James, the titular delivery boy and the aimless son of a small-town newspaperman (Scott Glenn).  Adventure comes calling when his older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), a hotshot Miami journalist, returns home with his prickly writing partner (Red Tails’ David Oyelowo) on a mission to prove that convicted murderer Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was falsely accused of his crime – a victim of “redneck justice.”  Getting Van Wetter to talk, however, requires the assistance of Charlotte Blass (Nicole Kidman), a middle-aged sexpot who has maintained a lengthy and explicit correspondence with the inmate and is naively convinced of both his innocence and his suitability as a husband.

A film grossly lacking in subtlety, The Paperboy is fortunate that its cast is up to the challenge of wringing some nuance out of a sweaty Southern soap opera.  Kidman brings an aching vulnerability to her role as a sentient sex doll who oozes unbridled erotic energy.  (Her mere presence causes Van Wetter to van wet his prison trousers in what’s probably only the third or fourth most uncomfortable scene in the film.)  But McConaughey steals the movie with his warm, empathetic performance and guides the reveal of his character’s own hidden desires to a level above the film’s messy pileup of increasingly lurid twists.

As comfortable and daring as Daniels is with his actors, he is still in the dark when it comes to almost anything else.  His stylistic wind-ups – an assault of gauzy dream sequences, overwrought narration (delivered in Macy Gray’s sassy rasp), and a constantly shifting tone – are present and as irritating as ever.  Such an approach ensures that The Paperboy never comes particularly close to delivering a cogent narrative.  Daniels is torn between pursuing a multilayered examination of sin and temptation, and embracing the story’s parodic elements, like Cusack’s glaringly obvious, pants-hating sociopath.  Unfortunately, too much of the latter is featured as the film surges ahead with po-faced conviction until its thematic threads of race, sex, and truth are frayed beyond repair.  Credit Daniels and his cast for creating the movie’s appropriately feverish atmosphere.  But for all the heat radiating from the screen, the end result is ironically half-baked.

Frankenweenie (2012)

Frankenweenie (2012)
Dir. Tim Burton

3.5 out of 5

It’s safe to say that Tim Burton is one of the world’s most successful style as substance filmmakers, even if his films have increasingly displayed a frustrating tendency to emphasize design for its own sake.  However, Burton returns with a renewed focus on storytelling in Frankenweenie, a black and white homage to classic monster movies that doubles as Burton’s homage to his younger self.  Utilizing stop motion puppetry to expand and update his 1984 live-action short – which imagined a young Dr. Frankenstein as the distraught owner of a recently deceased bull terrier – Burton crafts the type of energetic, playfully macabre film that first launched him to stardom.

In the hamlet of New Holland, Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a shy introvert who labors on elaborate home movies, interested only in the companionship of his beloved dog, Sparky.  His struggle to make friends isn’t the terrible tragedy that it usually is in children’s movies.  “He’s just in his own world,” asserts his mother (Catherine O’Hara) – a Burton rallying cry if there ever was one.  However, Victor’s idyll is interrupted when Sparky’s is suddenly struck by a car.  He’s devastated until the day his science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), uses electricity to stimulate the dead tissue of a frog.  Armed with this inspiration, Victor brings his pet back to life but quickly finds that his miraculous discoveries are difficult to keep secret from his peers – especially the ones eager to exploit the secrets of re-animation for their selfish gain.

The characters’ attempts to play God have some monstrous consequences, but Frankenweenie is unabashedly pro-science.  Though the style and iconography is borrowed from Universal’s quintessential Frankenstein films, there’s just as much inspiration from Mary Shelley’s novel regarding the responsibility that comes with radical, world-altering knowledge.  Burton is most explicit about this in a subplot involving Mr. Rzykruski (played with a spry sense of humor by Landau) confronting the close-minded parents of his newly-inspired pupils.  Rzykruski’s intellectualism is misinterpreted as cold and uncaring elitism, at least until Victor saves the town via his monster-related expertise and rational approach to problem solving.  The movie also has a cute dog in it.  Frankenweenie couldn’t possibly do better than that in its attempts to humanize science.

That said, Burton’s process still seems somewhat calculated.  There’s the repetition of familiar Burtonesque elements – the melancholy outcast, the emaciated sleekness, Winona Ryder – and his goth-y subversion of suburban domestic tranquility doesn’t feel as fresh as the second (or third, or fourth) time around.  But overall, Frankieweenie works better than Burton’s recent efforts to return silliness to his sensibility.  Despite its frequent nods to classic horror tropes, Frankenweenie has an intrinsic warmth that allows those without a thorough appreciation of Burton’s morbid interests to fully enjoy its boy-and-his-corpse-dog story.