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Prey for Monster House
Voices of Steve Buscemi, Mitchel Musso

Review by Breanne Boland
July 27, 2006 Issue

You see a lot of hard PG-13s, especially in recent years when theaters have sometimes severely restricted admittance to R movies, but rarely do you see a film you can describe as a hard PG. Monster House is one of the few and the proud.

On the day before Halloween, young, geeky DJ and his geekier friend Chowder finally confirm that the house across the street is evil, and they decide to stop it before it really hurts someone. Joining them is Jenny, an overachieving class president who gets to do more than function as the token girl. As they try to infiltrate the spiky, chompy boundaries of the house, it consumes people and wayward toys, among other casualties. However, the cranky, scary old man who owns the house and keeps its secrets makes saving the neighborhood even more difficult — as does the awkwardness of impending puberty.

There have been lots of animated movies in recent years trying hard to bring parents and other adults into the film as audience members, rather than merely as chaperones for the toy-buying market. Pixar movies have done it pretty well, blending high and low humor without the nudging, winking obviousness that plague the Shrek movies. Monster House is more like the former — there are jokes that kids just won’t get, but rather than being an awkward shout-out at the voting age set, they make sense in context. The main characters are on the cusp of being adults themselves, and so their jokes won’t always be within the grasp of a five year old.

And this is definitely not a film for toddlers. There were kids at the showing I went to, and they were mellow enough, but seriously — some of this movie is scary. The design of the house brings together every frightening, imagined detail of every rundown, abandoned house that has ever haunted the minds of neighborhood kids. It’s enormous, malevolent, and merciless, which makes for a great animated movie villain. The design of the film is generally great, goofy where necessary and the amalgam of every child’s nightmares when called for. It’s interesting, considering that it shares a production team with The Polar Express, pretty much the paradigm of the limitations of art imitating life, with its spooky, slightly off animated renditions of real people.

This is the perfect film for smart kids who like their stories honestly scary, without any of the saccharine or condescension that often accompanies movies and books aimed at “tweens.” The young characters have common sense, but aren’t perfect and noble. They do dangerous things, but freak out over small tasks. They’re normal, and they’re people, rather than just being our guides through a tale of a big, freaky house. For visuals alone, the film does quite a nice job, but the thing that makes it worthwhile is the writing. Without it, we’d just get a nice CGI slideshow. Instead, we get a solid story worthy of a well-done young adult novel. Plus we get enormous, angry, homicidal houses threatening the lives of children. Who could ask for anything more?

Bottom line: let this House devour you.

More from Breanne Boland

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Clerks 2 Finds Balance Between Smart and Gross Humor
Kevin O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Rosario Dawson, Jason Mewes

Review by Chris Manson
July 27, 2006 Issue

Twelve years ago, I saw the first Clerks movie at the long-gone—and much-missed—Cinco Cinema with a whopping two other people. But our laughter was loud enough that anyone standing outside the doors might have suspected that theater was packed. In 2006, Clerks II draws a much larger audience for opening night, mostly fans of writer-director Kevin Smith’s “View Askew” universe who stick around through the end credits to see if their names appear on a staggeringly long list of Smith’s myspace.com friends.

Smith’s follow-up films never achieved blockbuster status, even though most of them have been worthwhile if only for the auteur’s careful blend of the profane and profound. Among other moviemakers who made their mark in the 1990s, Smith’s voice is one of the most distinct. It also helps that most of his films are set in his homeland New Jersey with many characters making repeat appearances. The new movie is mostly an attempt to recapture the magic of the debut film. As far as laughs go, Clerks II is a success.

Smith is good enough to rehire still-unknowns Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson in the roles that made them nearly famous. O’Halloran’s Dante Hicks is 33 and still working at the Qwik Stop convenience store until he arrives one morning to find the place in flames. “Forgot to turn off the coffee pot again?” he asks his longtime sidekick Randal Graves, played by Anderson. Anderson looks a little pudgier and a lot older which makes him even smarmier.

Flash forward to a year later. Dante and Randal are employed at Mooby’s, a fast-food joint Smith fans will remember from Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Dante is on the verge of breaking free from his slacker chains. He is about to move to Florida with his ingratiating fiancÈe, whose folks have promised the couple a house and a great new job for Dante…running a car wash. Randal, meanwhile, continues to annoy his coworkers and customers, offering a very funny comparison of his beloved trilogy (Star Wars episodes IV through VI) and that of his younger associates (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films).

There’s conflict here, too. Dante has a thing for his boss, played by Rosario Dawson. Seems they got a little drunk one night and had sex on one of the prep tables. Dante wants to talk about it, but the Dawson character has a very pessimistic attitude toward romantic love. This presents a problem for Dante, who starts having doubts about his soon-to-be new life. In a wonderful sequence, completely free of irony, the boss gives Dante dance lessons on the Mooby’s rooftop so he won’t be embarrassed on his wedding day.

Most of the action takes place during the course of a single tumultuous day. There is one very funny scene involving Wanda Sykes and a particularly offensive racial slur that suggests Smith’s debt to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The most overt classic film tribute is an extended musical montage of Dante and Randal at the go-cart track set to B.J. Thomas’ Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.

Of course, Clerks II is loaded with the expected foul-mouthed hilarity. If you only know ATM as a contraption that dispenses cash, this is not the movie for you. And yet the dialogue that follows does not belittle the film’s characters or insult the audience. Smith turns up again as Silent Bob along with the newly clean and sober Jason Mewes as his born-again dope-dealing pal Jay, but their appearances are kept to a surprising minimum. Despite some concessions to fans who foolishly rank the gross-out dud Mallrats among Smith’s good movies, Clerks II is a flat-out funny piece of work and a worthy follow-up to what is now widely considered one of the seminal moments of the ‘90s independent cinema boom.

Bottom Line: After endless DVD reissues, an animated TV series, movie spin-offs, comic books, and action figures…the sequel.

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