FS, Contributing Writer
Tim Burton’s latest live-action movies have been misfires, but he still has a way with stop-motion animation. Frankenweenie (wide release) is a droll, delightfully macabre little gem, very much in the spirit of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride.
As the title suggests, it’s a modern reworking of the Frankenstein story, about an elementary school science nerd who revivifies his dead pooch Sparky. His classmates follow his lead, and their 1950s suburban town is soon threatened by a bevy of resuscitated pets turned into monsters – among them some sea monkeys that act like gremlins and a turtle as big as Godzilla.
Done up in lustrous shades of black, white and gray, the movie takes its striking visual style from the Karloff Frankenstein and its sequel The Bride of Frankenstein.
But while it’s a charming homage to horror movies of the past, it also exhibits the combination of wit and heart that’s characteristic of Burton’s best work.
This boy-and-his-dead-dog fable is an irresistible mixture of sentiment, smiles and spookiness, a perfect family Halloween treat.
The recent actions of the Texas State Board of Education, the elective body that mandates the standards for all textbooks purchased for public schools (and indirectly determines national publishing decisions), are scrutinized to devastating effect in The Revisionaries (Magnolia), a documentary as unsettling as it is enlightening.
The focus is on Don McLeroy, a dentist appointed as board chairman and a Christian fundamentalist intent on imposing literal Biblical teachings throughout the curriculum.
His primary interest is in science texts, to which he and his allies want to add consideration of creationism – under the guise of intelligent design – as an alternative to the Darwinian theory of evolution. But books in the social sciences are also targeted, with the intent of removing suspect figures like Thomas Jefferson and adding heroes of the far right in their place.
The film is structurally quite conventional, with footage of board meetings and archival material alternating with interviews by board members and their critics. And the approach is almost obsessively evenhanded: McLeroy is treated with sympathy rather than the derision one might expect, especially when he finds himself pitted against a more moderate, “establishment” Republican in his re-election campaign.
But the portrait it draws of an ideologically driven agenda in the reconstruction of Texas public education is nonetheless horrifying, and the threat such a board poses to curricular content nationwide is very real.
The Revisionaries isn’t a cinematic masterpiece, but it’s informative and important.
In the surprise hit Taken, a retired CIA agent (Liam Neeson) rescued his daughter from a gang of white slavers who had abducted her in Europe, killing the lot of them in the process. In Taken 2 (wide release), an Albanian warlord, the father of one of the men he had killed, goes after him, his daughter and his ex-wife in search of revenge.
The picture is set in Istanbul, and makes good use of its remarkable locations. But it’s little more than a nonstop cascade of fistfights, gun battles and car chases that render a good part of the city – and most of its cute little police cars – to rubble.
The action, pretty much unrelenting but curiously unexciting, is nonetheless welcome, because the occasional quieter interludes are so badly written that they’re unintentionally comic.
The ones really taken here are the audience members.
An excellent cast is wasted in The Oranges (Angelika), a drab dramedy about infidelity in a New Jersey suburb.
The linchpin of the plot is an affair involving a middle-aged husband and the seductive young daughter of his neighbors, who happen also to be his family’s closest friends. When the pair’s secret comes out, all heck breaks loose.
With its mirthless jokes and shrill melodramatics, The Oranges is not a tasty bit of work.
Sylvester Stallone did an awful Hollywood adaptation of the cult British comic Judge Dredd in 1995, playing the tough futuristic cop who not only apprehended criminals but determined their guilt on the spot and, when necessary, immediately carried out their sentences.
Now a grittier version has arrived with Dredd 3D (wide release), and it’s not much of an improvement.
The hero, whose full face is hidden because he never takes off his helmet, is played by Karl Urban with all the charisma of a piece of lumber. And the plot, in which he and his untested female partner are trapped in a huge high-rise by a drug lord and her myriad minions, was done far more exuberantly in the Indonesian martial-arts extravaganza The Raid earlier this year.
The second time is not the charm for Dredd.