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Reviews: Looper, Frankenweenie, Hotel Transylvania 

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LOOPER

***

The pretzel-twisted thriller Looper may not take us back to the future as satisfyingly as director Robert Zemeckis' Marty McFly trilogy or James Cameron's Terminator franchise, but writer-director Rian Johnson does enough right to all but guarantee that he now has a future cult film on the books. Johnson, who made an attention-grabbing debut with 2005's Brick and followed that with 2008's pleasant The Brothers Bloom, continues to function as Christopher Nolan's Mini-Me, coming up with wildly imaginative movies that (unlike Nolan's) don't quite muster enough power to truly break through.

In Looper, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, who in the year 2042 serves as one of a select group of "loopers," paid assassins who eliminate whoever is sent back via time travel from the year 2072 by the ruling mob of that future world. Joe is content and growing ever richer with his blood-splattered career choice, but the day arrives when he finds himself expected to wipe out the 30-years-older version of himself. Old Joe (Bruce Willis) has other plans than just taking a blast to the chest, though, and he manages to escape from his younger self.

For his part, Joe winds up at a farm house owned by the strong-willed Sara (Emily Blunt), who's living there with her little boy (Pierce Gagnon). As Joe bides his time until his middle-aged self again shows up on the scene, he comes to care for the woman and child more than he expected. With the aid of prosthetics, Gordon-Levitt is quite good as he mimics Willis in order to maintain character consistency, and Blunt's performance is more sizable (and more important) than her split-second cameo in the trailer would suggest.

The time-travel aspects of Johnson's script don't always flow smoothly, requiring viewers to engage in an even greater suspension of disbelief than normal. Given the premium rush being delivered on screen, though, I don't think that will be a problem.

 

FRANKENWEENIE

***

The story goes that when Tim Burton presented his 1984 live-action short, Frankenweenie, to his employers at Walt Disney Pictures, they promptly fired him for blowing their money on a weird project that didn't jibe with the company's benign, kid-friendly offerings. Needless to say, the dismissal hardly damaged the man's career: He made his feature-film debut the very next year with Pee-wee's Big Adventure and went on to helm such hits as Beetlejuice and Batman. Ever the good capitalists, the Disney suits noted this subsequent success and proudly included Frankenweenie (as well as Burton's 1982 short, Vincent) as an additional selling point for the DVD and Blu-ray releases of the Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Cut to the modern day, and Disney has handed over the requisite budget and the requisite blessing for Burton to make another Frankenweenie, this one a feature-length remake of his celebrated short. No longer a live-action endeavor, this new version has been filmed employing the stop-motion animation style that Burton previously used in Corpse Bride. The story, however, remains the same: In a staid American suburb, young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is devastated when his best friend in the world, his faithful dog Sparky, is struck and killed by an automobile. Nothing can lift him out of his gloom until his science teacher shows the class how electricity can temporarily reanimate a dead frog. Working from this template, Victor successfully manages to revive Sparky, a joyous reunion marred by the fear and stupidity of Victor's neighbors.

The 1984 Frankenweenie ran just the right length at 30 minutes, so the challenge was in expanding the story to approximately 90 minutes without making the new material feel like extraneous filler. Working from Burton's original idea, scripter John August largely succeeds. The character of the science teacher, a bit player in the original, is given stature and presence: Looking like Vincent Price (Burton's horror-film hero) and speaking in a thick European accent provided by Martin Landau (who won a well-deserved Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi in Burton's 1994 Ed Wood), he's the story's most entertaining figure, especially when he tells his students' small-minded, science-fearing parents, "You are all very ignorant. Is that the right word, 'ignorant'?"

August also has Victor fretting not just about his neighbors but also having to worry about interference from several of his classmates, all hoping to steal his idea so that they may use it to win the school's science competition. This leads to a third act development that deviates completely from the source material, with the town having to contend with a veritable monster mash as all sorts of creatures are let loose.

Burton has opted to present this story in black and white, not only because the original was filmed that way but also because, like Mel Brooks' b&w Young Frankenstein, it pays the proper respect to the horror classics of the 1930s and '40s, specifically Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Yet the homages aren't limited to those decades, as evidenced by a neat live-action appearance by Christopher Lee as well as shout-outs to the immortal short film Bambi Meets Godzilla and the MST3K fave Gamera.

While most studios and animators are gung-ho about CGI, it's nice to have holdouts like Nick Park (the Wallace & Gromit canon) and Burton offering something different. The stop-motion animation looks especially crisp in Frankenweenie's black-and-white world, and it adds an extra degree of spookiness to the more eccentric supporting characters, among them a creepy kid named Edgar E. Gore, an eerie girl who makes Harry Potter's Luna Lovegood look grounded by comparison, and an oddball cat whose kitty-litter offerings have prophetic abilities.

But there's nothing spooky about Sparky, the amiable canine who, even after being brought back from the grave, seeks only to play with-- and love on-- his owner. Dead or alive, he's the beating heart at the center of this alternately amusing, alternately poignant but perpetually inventive work.

 

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA

**1/2

An animated feature with Adam Sandler providing the voice of Dracula sounds like strength-sapping kryptonite to anyone with a modicum of taste, but Hotel Transylvania turns out to be a fairly pleasant surprise. Admittedly, it works  in spite of Sandler, not because of  him, but after nine straight turkeys dating back to 2007, let's cut him some slack here, shall we?

Sandler's Count, who doesn't drink human blood because it's too fatty, wants nothing so much except to keep his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) away from scary humans bent on destroying all monsters. To that end, he builds a remote hotel designed to offer safety not only to Mavis but to creatures the world over, all of whom enjoy visiting the expansive establishment. Whether he's addressing the Frankenstein monster (Kevin James), Wayne the werewolf (Steve Buscemi), Murray the mummy (CeeLo Green) or one of myriad other monsters, Dracula can confidently tell them that no human will ever be able to reach his hotel that's hidden in the middle of nowhere. But that promise gets shattered with the arrival of Jonathan (Andy Samberg), a Bill-and-Ted-type backpacker who has managed to locate the castle and thinks he's found the coolest costume party ever.

With a flatulence gag and a urination gag making unwelcome appearances within the first quarter-hour, it initially seems as if viewers are in for the same sort of frat-boy nonsense that Sandler flings out with virtually all his live-action projects. Thankfully, the movie soon shies away from that position and instead manages to deliver genuine laughs: Griffin the invisible man's (David Spade) disastrous turn at playing charades; the tiny whispering skulls employed for a game of Bingo; Wayne's weary attempts to corral his rambunctious were-kids; Dracula's reply to Jonathan's query about whether a stake through the heart really can kill a vampire ("Who wouldn't that kill?"); and so on. The central plot thrust - Mavis, who's turning 118 (still a teen in vampire years), wants to see the world while Pop Drac wants to protect her forever - is nothing special, but when a spoof's expected cheap shot at the Twilight saga actually warrants a chuckle, that's generally a good sign that other laughs can be scared up as well.

 

 

 

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