ParaNorman is a film that’s just about as close to perfect as you can get. Released by a low profile studio called Laika that specializes in gorgeously crafted stop motion animation adventures, this one has the irresistible flavour of retro Universal Studios monster movies put to use in a smart, engaging story full of well written characters, maturely imparted themes and wonderful pathos. Young Norman (Kodi Smit McPhee) can see, hear and converse with ghosts, and that generally makes him a bit of an outsider in his town. When the spirit of a deceased relative warns him of some vague impending doom encroaching on the region, it’s up to him and his merry gang including best buddy Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) his ditzy sister (Anna Kendrick), and Neil’s hilarious jock brother (Casey Affleck) to solve the spooky mystery of a centuries old witch who has risen the dead. It’s a brilliantly told story with boundless animation, a sharp script full of subtle, off the cuff humour, heartrending sadness at the core of its narrative and some of the most dazzling animation this side of Burton/Selick. The voice cast is peppered with carefully chosen talent like Jeff Garlin, Bernard Hill, John Goodman, Christopher Mintz Plasse, Leslie Mann, Elaine Stritch, Alex Borstein and more. Jodelle Ferland voices Aggie the witch as a tragic character with the same haunted complexity she brought to the role of Alessa in Silent Hill. Laika studios is also responsible for gems like Coraline, The Boxtrolls, Corpse Bride and last years Kubo & The Two Strings, they are a brilliant bunch who are trailblazing storytelling in exciting new ways. ParaNorman has to be my favourite though, it’s an enthusiastic love letter to golden age horror and an emotionally mature study of what it means to be different, how people react and the damage that can be done simply by not accepting someone for who they are. Trust an animated film to inject themes like that and explore them thoroughly while still having a blast of a fun time. I can’t say enough good things about this film.
You don’t have to be an avid dog lover to appreciate the atmospheric grandeur and rock solid yet comfortingly simple storytelling of Albert Hughes’s Alpha, but being an animal lover certainly gives you more stakes to invest in the story of humanity’s first friendship with canines, now evolved into one of the most beloved relationships in nature. Set in the shadowy primordial past, we see a rugged clan of plain dwellers hunting thundering herds of bison to survive the long winter. Young Keda (Kodi Smit McPhee) is the son of the Chief (Johannes Hauker Jóhannesson, who I’ve never heard of before but simply rocks his performance here) and an inexperienced hunter, plummeting halfway down a cliff following a standoff with several angry bison. Mourned and left for dead by his tribe, he awakens alone, injured and surrounded by danger on all sides. After narrowly escaping a hungry wolf pack and injuring one of them, he feels compassion for the animal and nurses it back to health, forming a bond with her that saves both their lives and carries him on a perilous journey back to his home. It’s so simplistic, and it’s done with earnest, tunnel vision sensibility, but so engaging is the story and so beautiful the visuals that it comes out a complete winner. His father gravely lays down thematic points in a mentor’s form, relating to him that life is rough, and survival is earned, not handed over easily. Hilarious when you look at the capable vitality of people back then and the overweight, disability pay human race of today, but I cheekily digress. It’s survival and friendship done to a T, and my favourite aspect of the film has to be atmosphere. Clearly some CGI was used as well as practical elements, but they’re blended reasonably. The gorgeous, otherworldly locations of Vancouver, Alberta and Iceland bring a sense of scope and vast, uninhabited nature to the surroundings, and the score by Joseph Debeasi and Michael Stearns is some seriously elemental, mood setting work that may be the strongest asset, especially when paired with images of the dazzling Milky Way and endless plains below. As much as they could they used a real pupper for Alpha’s scenes, a gorgeous Czechoslovakian wolfhound named Chuck who acts up a storm and wins hearts. This isn’t going to reinvent the wheel (or invent it at all, considering the time period it’s set in) and it’s certainly nothing incredibly new or unique, but if you want an invigorating, immersive time at the cinema, it works small wonders as a terrific summer movie.
Slow West clocks in briskly under 90 minutes, which is usually unheard of for a western. You can stamp out any thoughts of it being rushed or too slight of a flick though, because it’s exactly what it needs to be every step of the way. It’s a beautifully scored, tightly plotted and boldly characterized (the key ingredient in the genre, if you ask me) mix that saunters along like a mule of the plains, before kicking up the dust for a bloody, atmospheric finale that leaves you stunned and breathing hard. Westerns are often ambitious, lofty affairs and can get quite moody and too densely packed for their own good. Not this baby. It breezes by like a summer wind, with just enough violence, character development and aching catharsis to billow out its chipper narrative during the brief stay we are treated to. Kodi Smit McPhee plays a young Scottish lad who is a tad out of his depths in the American west, searching for a girl (Caren Pistorius) who had to flee the country with her father (The Hound himself, Rory McCann). McPhee is naive to the dangers of this new territory, and nearly finds himself at the receiving end of a bullet before being saved by a roaming outlaw (Michael Fassbender) who takes him under his wing with much gruff and huff along the way. Reluctance is doled out along with sympathy on Fassbender’s part as he shields the boy from a dangerous bounty hunter and former employer of his, played by a wonderfully greasy Ben Mendelsohn, perpetually shrouded in acrid cigar smoke and snuggled up in one epic and fabulous fur pelt. These three wayward misfits gravitate towards the obligatory final shoot out, which takes place in the girl’s hideaway house on the picturesque pretty plains. Impressive is an understatement for this sequence: yellow grass sways, a hailstorm of bullets punctuate the horizon and the mournful tones of Jed Kurzel’s lonely score, grim fates are earned in a gorgeous set piece that resembles something like Wes Anderson making an Oater. Everything before and winds up to this sequence, and the payoff is superb. If I’ve made it sound dark or off putting, think again. It’s all crafted with the utmost light and poetic buoyancy, a lilting sadness to the violence that hits home but never batters you. The performances echo this as well, Fassbender a world weary, affable and altogether dangerous man, Mendelsohn slithering about with a dry silver tongue and an itchy trigger finger, and a fish out of water McPhee stuck in between. The visual palette is quite something to see, accented by the music perfectly. I’m beyond anxious to see what first time director John Maclean comes up with for us for his next ride, for he’s knocked it out of the ranch with this one. Ho for the West.