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PG, 91 minutes
Ahorror flick for children that’s actually scary, “Monster House” is an animated movie that utilizes the same technology as “The Polar Express,” motioncapture, to far better effect. Rather than reassure the kiddies, it causes them to wet their seats in terror.
DJ (Mitchel Musso) has bigger problems than the evil, man-eating house across the street. Puberty cracks his voice, transforms him into a fumble-fingered freak around girls, and generally strands him in the no-man’s land between childhood and adulthood. When he and his best friend Chowder find themselves ditched by their parents (“Dad’s at the pharmacy and Mom’s out at the movies with her personal trainer,” Chowder says), the house across the street offers some unwelcome surprises. Not only is the house alive, but it’s played by Kathleen Turner. The monster house gobbles up everything that comes within reach of its hall runner tongue, lures children into its bowels with illusions of lost childhood toys, chews up the local police with teeth made of splintered wood, and sizes up fresh prey through filthy windows.
It’s easy to forget the shock of recognition millions of people felt 24 years ago when they saw Steven Spielberg’s suburbs in “E.T.” Elliot and his siblings received minimal supervision from their divorced mother, fought one another using every dirty trick in the book, and lived in a blank wasteland where nothing ever happened. Spielberg produced “Monster House,” and the film, set in the early ‘80s is the spiritual successor to his earlier work. With the rose-tinted glasses removed, “Monster House” is a computer animated kiddie film about a carnivorous fixer-upper that avoids cheap jokes and wisecracks in order to serve up the decade’s most realistically observed, genuinely scary movie.
– Grady Hendrix
unrated, 89 minutes
Desperately experimental, Gregory Hatanaka’s “Mad Cowgirl” twists itself into a stylistic pretzel trying to distract viewers from the fact that it’s hollow to its core. Therese (Sarah Lassez) is a health inspector at the height of the Mad Cow scare and spends most of her workday up to her elbows in raw meat. At night, answering machine messages from her ex-husband and psycho exboyfriends serenade her while she chows down on great big hunks of steak and stares at the television. She also may or may not suffer from a degenerative brain disease. The movie seems to exist solely as a vehicle for serving up the hallucinations Therese gets in extreme mondo mode: televangelists, old Kung Fu movies, and blood-soaked hallucinations blend together into a mind-bending swirl.
The filmmakers should be congratulated on their inventive style, but their targets are more than a little musty — does anyone seriously need to take on televangelists anymore? “Mad Cowgirl” has no story, no character development, and nothing on its mind beyond its desire to be outrageous. But even its outrageousness feels shopworn, calculated, and toothless.
There’s some fine acting in this flick, particularly from Walter Koenig (Mr. Chekhov on “Star Trek”) as a televangelist who comes across as the most interesting character in the film. And Mr. Hatanaka drops the names of dozens of old Kung Fu flicks, like “Dirty Ho,” “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” and “The Girl With the Thunderbolt Kick.” In spite of their sideshow titles, however, these movies are all well-crafted, entertaining films. Rather than just shouting out their names, Mr. Hatanaka should have studied them and learned something about engaging an audience.
unrated, 142 minutes
The samurai movie never died, and July gives us back-to-back reinterpretations of Japan’s immortal genre. Yoji Yamada’s “The Hidden Blade” grounds the sword-slingers in realism, keeping the swordplay to a minimum and giving them financial troubles. Now Ryuhei Kitamura’s “Azumi” takes the opposite approach, delivering a samurai flick that feels like a comic book, slathered with feedback and awash in camera pyrotechnics. Full of guts and gore, but with enough moral weight to keep its flights of fancy firmly grounded, Kitamura’s revitalized rock n’ roll samurai flick, “Azumi,” is based on a popular manga that sold eight million copies in Japan.
The film begins with a bunch of frisky kids sequestered in the mountains and taught to fight by the Yoda-esque Jiji. Before Jiji sends his pupils into the world to slice and dice for truth, justice, and the eternal rule of the emperor, however, he gives them one last test: kill each other. Unable to disobey, they oblige, and the survivors stumble forth shell-shocked, brainwashed, and with no skills besides the ability to kill. The one exception is sparky little samurai girl Azumi, who wears short shorts and miniskirts, and sports a lethal glare while she tries to preserve the last scraps of her own humanity against tidal waves of swordwaving mercenaries.
Kitamura has been accused of delivering thin stories with great action, but this three-year-old movie represents the point in his career at which he addressed that criticism with a vengeance. He fattens his film on bloody emotions, broken hearts, and shattered innocence while still finding time for a gallery of grotesque villains and 200-against-1 samurai battles. Kitamura is determined, with either a broken heart or a sword in the jugular, to prove true that pop adage: Everybody hurts, sometimes.
BEEN RICH ALL MY LIFE
unrated, 81 minutes
“Been Rich All My Life” tells the startling story of five members of the original chorus lines of the great 1930s Harlem Clubs who decided to return to dancing in the mid-’80s, despite their advanced age (84 to 96 years old). The women, Bertye Lou Wood, Cleo Hayes, Marion Coles, Fay Ray, and Elaine Ellis, formed a tap group called the Silver Belles, and have since performed around New York City. In a film that illustrates the real value and necessity of the form, documentarian Heather Lyn Mac-Donald captures the women’s truly astounding stories as they recall the details with pride, sly humor, and effervescent charm. The casual dignity with which they address the difficulties they overcame is no less awe-inspiring than their physical accomplishments. They worked with every major star in Harlem including Duke Ellington, Bill Robinson, and Louis Armstrong. They participated in the first black USO tour. They even held a famous strike at the Apollo theater that helped establish the union for the American Guild of Variety Artists. These dancers were vastly influential, but hitherto unacknowledged in the history of 20th-century performing arts.
Though the production values and some of the camera work are slightly better suited to television than to the big screen, and emphasis on the ladies’ unwillingness to accept the indignities of old age at times comes across as a little overstated, this film remains an absolutely invaluable record of an overlooked aspect of history. The Silver Belles are a remarkable group of women, and the film offers a delightful opportunity to make their acquaintance.
– Iris Brooks