The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

October 16, 2012

‘Hotel Transylvania’: Should you check in?

By Roger Thomas for the SNAP

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 — To begin with, Pixar is still king. “Hotel Transylvania” does not come close to the wonder, emotion and creativity of any of the films in the Pixar canon except maybe the two “Cars” films. But Pixar is a pretty high standard for this film from Sony Pictures Animation.

And speaking of Sony Pictures Animation, “Hotel” is not even their best work. After all, this is a company responsible for “Monster House” (an Oscar nominee), last year’s “Arthur Christ-mas” (which bombed at the box office but was listed by me as one of the five grand unseen movies of 2011), and this year’s “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” from the people who created “Wallace” and “Gro-mit.” All three of these films offer a great deal more for the viewer than “Hotel Transylvania” and they are available or are coming out in the next few weeks on DVD.

So how does “Hotel” match-up against a film of similar subject matter such as the animated “ParaNorman.” Both films deal with frightening creatures including zombies. Both films have lots of humor. But there is much more truth, wisdom, and originality in Norman’s story than I ever found at the “Hotel.”

And speaking of originality, as I watched “Hotel” with my children, I found myself thinking back to my own childhood. Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, the men responsible for such television Christmas classics as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,”  “The Little Drummer Boy” and “The Year Without Santa Claus” made a film back in 1967 entitled “Mad Monster Party.” I saw that film when I was a young child and have never forgotten it. When I found it on DVD a few years ago, I was glad to add it to our family’s collection. I cannot help but believe that film was an inspiration for “Hotel Transylvania,” even though their plots deviate greatly as each plays out.

Another memory from my children arose in my mind as I was watching the film. Some will remember the Saturday morning series in the early seventies called “Groovie Goolies.” It is hard to imagine that this series did not also offer inspiration to the filmmakers as they planned “Hotel.” In a way, I suppose I am grateful for all the fond memories this film resurrected in my head.

With all that said, the greatest strength of the film is the animation. Bright, colorful and often filling the screen, sometimes there was so much to see that is was hard to know where to focus one’s eyes. And that is a compliment to the animators for creating awe-inspiring big moments in the film. The animation was also brilliant in several of the action sequences that often drove the film’s pace.  

On the other hand, when the scenes were less crowded, and the film action slows, the film seems to drag. Almost all films need quieter moments. At the heart of this film is a story of a vampire father who is reluctant to give his 118-year-old daughter her freedom. There are heartfelt moments along the way and some work better than others. The lesser ones do more harm than good to the over success of the film. The same is true about the humor; some jokes work, others fall flat.

But what do I know. My children liked it a lot. “Hotel Transylvania” set the record for the largest September opening ever with $42.5 million. Surely some of those people liked it more than me. I am just saying, one can find a superior animated feature in theaters or on home video. Perhaps even check out the classic “Mad Monster Party!”   

‘The Master’: Is it

storytelling mastery?

Every year there is one or two different and unique films which generate Oscar buzz. With the rules of recent years which allow for more than five Best Picture nominees, it has become easier for these non-traditional films to be recognized by the Academy.

Last year it was Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” which I personally consider to be a masterpiece. I know it frustrates many, and I personally would not want all films to be like “Tree of Life,” but I do find myself thinking of it often, and I am ready to see it again.  

This year, there are at least three of these films playing in multiplexes right now: “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Beasts of a Southern Wild” and “The Master.” I have already reviewed the first two, which I liked more or less but do not necessarily want them to get Best Picture nominations. Then there is “The Master.”

First, allow me to tell what is right about “The Master.” The cast is perfect. Joaquin Phoenix, who not too long ago planned to leave the film industry, has delivered a troubling performance that is pitch-perfect. Philip Seymour Hoffman chews up every scene he is in with calmness and subtlety. Amy Adams is playing a much different role than her normal performances; she is not a likeable person here, but she still delivers a fine performance. And Jesse Plemons who has been doing great work since the television series “Friday Night Lights,” has the challenging role of being perhaps the only person who actually knows what is really going on. These four and countless supporting cameos deliver the script with brave and smart portrayals.

Second, the film is well made. Paul Thomas Anderson is an incredible filmmaker. His cinematography and direction are always a joy to the senses. “The Master” looks and sounds great. Technical Oscar nominations all around.

But here is the thing. I never felt fully engaged with the film. Besides Plemons character Val Dodd, there is not a person in this film that one cares about or for whom one might cheer. Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams are all unlikable. Add to that the fact that the story never really goes anywhere. It just meanders along, focusing more an character than plot. This might be acceptable if the characters had some redeeming qualities. I understand that the inspiration of the film is the life and teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, but that is not enough to engage a Hubbard novice with what is on screen. There is much to like but nothing for one to love about this film.

Paul Thomas Anderson has given us some fine films through the years: “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “Hard Eight” and my personal favorite “There Will Be Blood.” Allow me to compare the latter to “The Master.” Each film has two male protagonists, one older and the other younger. The elder believes he can teach the younger a few lessons along the way. In both films, neither of the two are the kind of characters for which one roots. All four of these are very flawed men.  

The real difference in the two films is that in “There Will Be Blood,” there is hardly a scene that is not compelling and fascinating. From the opening sequence to the last shot, “There Will Be Blood” is a grand film experience. Just writing about it makes me want to watch it again. “Blood” gets better with each viewing.

Perhaps that is the case with “The Master” as well. Some day I may give it another chance. But for now, I am just hoping that the Academy saves a spot for some other film and forgets to nominate “The Master” for Best Picture. It may be masterfully crafted, but it still lacks something that would have made it grand.