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Monster House

Mark Palermo hits the cartoons...and likes ’em.


Monster House is a throwback to a mostly deceased subgenre: the scary movie for kids. Spooky stuff in the new Pirates of the Caribbean is just part of its corporate mindset. That film aims to pacify everyone, but kids can embrace Monster House as their own. Even in its opening stages, the characters display a shrewd independence that relates to its audience instead of talking down to it.

It’s well known that old man Nebbercracker (voice of Steve Buscemi) will steal any toy that winds up in his unkempt yard. But DJ (Michael Musso), who lives across the street, is convinced Nebbercracker’s house is haunted. Motion-capture animation, the technique used in The Polar Express, gives the American suburb of young director Gil Kenan’s trick-or-treat season tale a storybook richness and texture. First-rate animation comple- ments images of familiarity crossed with the fantastic: The movie looks at once sophisticated and fun.

Narrative directness helps. DJ’s sidekick is his less reserved friend Chowder (voice of Sam Lerner), who is a personality combination of The Goonies’ characters Chunk and Mouth. Their investigation takes its time. When the funhouse hijinks kick in, the spookshow glee has been so well built that the contraptions don’t become exhausted. Maintaining macabre spirit, Monster House is a happy horror film.

A Scanner Darkly

The realism of Monster House’s motion-capture animation helps give the story’s fantasy elements an organic presence. Richard Linklater’s animated adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly takes the opposite approach. Were it presented simply in live action, A Scanner Darkly wouldn’t look too different from drug films like Spun and Requiem for a Dream, which aim for a grungy realism. It’s a visually undefined film that Linklater elevates and deepens through rotoscoping (the technique the director used in Waking Life where live action film cells are traced and painted).

Bland reality becomes abstract: shifting, slippery and hard to make sense of. It’s a visual expression of the way the movie’s Substance D (the drug of choice in 2014) addicts observe their surroundings and themselves. For undercover cop Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), identity becomes more complicated when he’s assigned to spy on himself. Wearing a scramble suit (a full-body cover that changes a person’s appearance multiple times per second), going by the name Fred, his superiors don’t know he’s one of the junkies he’s investigating.

Linklater’s theme of obscured identity appears even in the clever central casting. The paranoid quartet under investigation is played by Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson—actors known more for their off-screen antics or acting range than any characters they’ve played. The quest to figure out who you are is a very Linklater concern. Staying locked in his subjects’ heads distinguishes A Scanner Darkly in its genre, but also limits it. Because the people struggle to experience emotional connections, verbal intellectualizing becomes the movie’s most common gear. It’s not stuck on obvious sloganeering, but the government-run dystopia Linklater presents is missing an artist’s emotional perspective.

Philip K. Dick’s angry lament isn’t met with a necessary toughness. It’s as a brainy construct that A Scanner Darkly has plenty going on.

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