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Knight at the Movies: ParaNorman; Hamlisch tribute; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-08-15

This article shared 4245 times since Wed Aug 15, 2012
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A cursory look at background information on the folks at Laika Studios, the Portland-based animation company behind 2009's Coraline, and its new stop-motion animated film ParaNorman reveals that this is a place where being different, strange, unusual, geeky, weird and, most definitely, a person with a unique viewpoint is something to be lauded, not feared. This would also seem to suggest that both Laika and these two spunky, goth-flavored movies they've created are coded celebrations of gay pride.

Certainly, the travails the 13-year-old underdog hero of ParaNorman experiences because of his differences from others will be very familiar turf for anyone who grew up gay—closeted or not. Quiet and bookish (natch), Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) has another cross to bear—he can not only see dead people (including his grandmother, voiced by Elaine Stritch) but they can see him—and they can talk to each other, too. It drives his sister, mom and especially his embarrassed dad batty. "I didn't ask to be born this way," he pleads with his father, who retorts, "Neither did we."

Norman and his family live in Blithe Hollow, a small town that not unlike Salem, Mass., is renowned for its association with witchcraft. But soon one of the recently deceased (Norman's crackpot uncle) warns him that the town's most famous witch is about to return after a 300-year absence and so are some zombies, rising from the dead at her behest. Can Norman, aided by his perky, corpulent best friend and the school's resident egghead, prevent a zombie apocalypse before it's too late?

That's the premise of this darkly charming, at times forlorn and snarky little movie (think Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas and, of course, Coraline) that both kids and their wised-up parents will love. Although not as emotionally rich or as startling in its originality as Coraline (not to mention that a lot of the plot elements that are directly lifted from Bette Midler's 1993 Halloween children's film Hocus Pocus), ParaNorman is nevertheless a smartly entertaining, visual delight. And there's a fun gay twist—watch for it—at the end that certainly bodes well for the next stop-animated release from Laika Studios. Here's my vote for an openly gay leading character next time out.

Last week the film world was shocked to hear of the untimely death of 68 year-old Marvin Hamlisch, renowned as the Oscar-winning composer of 1973's The Way We Were, The Sting, and as the Tony and Pulitzer Prize Award winner for 1975's A Chorus Line. A man with prodigious musical abilities, Hamlisch was the rarest of artists—a member of the EGOT club (those 11 overachievers who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony). As a young composer, Hamlisch helped write the hit record "California Nights" for '60s pop icon Lesley Gore (who came out later in life) and next found himself as a rehearsal pianist for the musical Funny Girl, which made a superstar out of Barbra Streisand.

The paths of the two would cross many times in the ensuing decades (most famously, of course, for 1973's The Way We Were), as Hamlisch found himself composing film scores beginning with The Swimmer at the age of 24, The Spy Who Loved Me, Ordinary People, Sophie's Choice, Ice Castles (which spawned the smash hit "Through the Eyes of Love"), The Mirror Has Two Faces and, more recently, The Informant! He conducted the orchestra for Streisand's return to live performing in 1994 and with Marilyn and Alan Bergman penned one of his most inspirational melodies, "Ordinary Miracles" for those concerts.

Hamlisch, who had a long-term relationship with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager before marrying Terre Blair in 1989, often worked with singers (Streisand, Melissa Manchester, Johnny Mathis, Jane Olivor, etc.) beloved by the gay community. Although he enjoyed writing music for the movies, the stage was always his first love; however, despite having another hit after the phenomenally successful A Chorus Line with They're Playing Our Song, subsequent shows (which included "The Goodbye Girl," "Smile" and "The Sweet Smell of Success") had mixed reviews from critics and audiences.

But even his failures contain gems that are superb examples of Hamlisch's musical greatness ("Disneyland" from Smile and "At the Fountain" from Sweet Smell are little-known masterpieces). His sure sense of melody—tinged with melancholy and a preponderance of "blue" notes, his driving piano on the uptempo songs or deeply sentimental, string-heavy arrangements for those divas who often recorded his songs during the '70s and '80s (his two most prolific decades)—is instantly recognizable.

I grew up on Hamlisch's music—as generations of my fellow gay brethren and, indeed, the world did—and as much as I treasure his popular movie themes, I love his little-known film scores even more (like The Swimmer, which is dazzling in its versatility, or his jazz/blues score for the Ann Margret-Treat Williams 1984 TV adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire). At the time of his death, Hamlisch had just completed the music for Behind the Candelabra, the forthcoming HBO Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon—which makes anticipation for the film even higher.

Film notes:

—Reviews for Sparkle, the eagerly anticipated remake that stars former American Idol winner Jordin Sparks in her debut and the late Whitney Houston in her last performance, were subject to critical embargo until the film's Aug. 17 opening—two days after Windy City Times' regular Wednesday print day. So expect my review online on opening day.

—Noir City: Chicago, the fourth annual celebration of film noir at the Music Box Theatre, 3730 N. Southport Ave., is back Aug. 17-23 with another great line-up of rarely seen films from this darkest of film genres. The Film Noir Foundation is again sponsoring the fest, which is screening 10 separate movies and will feature Q&A's by author/film historian Foster Hirsch the last four days of the fest. The line-up includes a mini-tribute to movies based on the works of the great, gay noir writer Cornell Woolrich that include 1944's Phantom Lady, 1946's Black Angel and 1949's The Window. The line-up also features the rarely seen 1949 version of The Great Gatsby. The majority of the films are not on DVD and all will be presented in restored 35mm prints. See www.musicboxtheatre.com .

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


This article shared 4245 times since Wed Aug 15, 2012
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