Friday, September 28, 2012

The Words

"Pretentious," in my book, is not necessarily a negative adjective.  Sure, it gets thrown about in a mostly perjorative sense, but I don't think that's quite fair.  Popular art requires a level of arrogance--after all, those people creating the art must believe their opinions, views, and stories are worth hearing.  Otherwise, the art would never be made, or at least never be brought before a larger audience.  The pretentiousness that can accompany that attitude shouldn't be held against it; it's a natural side effect.

The problem arises, of course, when the art produced doesn't come near to matching the level of pretention that comes with it.

Exhibit A: The Words.  The film takes a matryoshka approach to storytelling: a story within a story within a story, with characters at each level commenting on the beauty of the story inside it.  One author (Dennis Quaid) is reading his new publication to a roomful of adoring fans.  His story is about a struggling author (Bradley Cooper) who finds, and ultimately decides to pass off as his own, a beautiful story about another struggling writer (Jeremy Irons).  And so on and so forth.

The most useless of these is the outermost shell.  The movie would have done well to leave behind the Dennis Quaid/Olivia Wilde portion of the film altogether in favor of fleshing out the inner rings a bit more.

It also would have done well to remember the old adage "Show, don't tell."  Perhaps because The Words is a story about, well, words, the filmmakers thought it would be better to use flat language to get its meaning, depth, and theme across.  It was wrong.  Voiceovers are a crutch.  Using characters to praise a work rather than showing that work to the audience and letting that audience make up their own minds is a crutch.  Telling the audience, flat out, what to feel about a character is a crutch.

The Words had potential, but got so swept up in its own self-importance that it never bothered to check if it was actually good.

It wasn't.

Friday, September 14, 2012


ParaNorman, a stop-motion film about a kid named Norman who just happens to have paranormal powers (punny!), starts out well.  Its protagonist is likeable, if lonely, and its setting is filled with just enough character and history that it intrigues and captures the viewer.  It has a great lesson and some important themes.

And then it took those things and wrung out every ounce of subtext so it could hit the audience over the head with them, over-explaining every step along the way.  ParaNorman has a lot of promise at the begining and all but squanders it by the end.

Its characters, Norman excepted, are all broadly drawn, and while this isn't a make-or-break quality in a children's film, it can be a problem for the adult members of the audience.  When characters are only given one or two traits, they're not very interesting to watch.  Any shading given to the non-protagonist characters is minimal at best, and while broad stereotypes can help to build humor, they don't do much to add depth or meaning to the story.

It's too bad, really.  I wanted to like ParaNorman, and I certainly wouldn't say I came out of the theater hating it.  Mostly I just felt disappointed.  The film put some clever twists on old horror film tropes and did a nice job with the character of Norman himself.  Its opening (especially the sequence with Norman walking to school) was very effective, not to mention attractive.  Some shots look like the real world while others use the stop-motion to beautiful effect.  This is especially true in the climactic showdown at the end of the film.

ParaNorman is a mediocre film that could have been much better, and there is little more frustrating for me to watch than ambition and potential thwarted by mediocrity.