Monster House

I remember two things – among others. I’m not senile (yet) - from when I was a kid: a spooky old house in our neighborhood and a crotchety old recluse that scared you away, keeping your ball if it fell on the roof or in the garden of his/her home. Neither was really scary, except in my child’s imagination, but for DJ (voice of Mitchel Musso) the danger is all too real with the building across the street in “Monster House.”

Laura's Review: B+

DJ (voice of Mitchel Musso) watches Nebbercracker (voice of Steve Buscemi, HBO's "The Sopranos," "Art School Confidential"), the crank across the street, with binoculars from his bedroom window. "Get offa my lawn!" screams the old guy as he absconds with yet another child's toy, but DJ sees something more sinister. When DJ's best friend Chowder (voice of Sam Lerner, "Envy") loses his beloved basketball in the out of bounds yard, DJ attempts to retrieve it and Nebbercracker's resulting histrionics cause him to collapse. Believing a murder hangs over his head, DJ is now convinced that Nebbercracker's empty home has become a "Monster House." Executive producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis and feature debuting director Gil Kenan employ the motion capture animation used for "Polar Express" with considerably better results. "Polar Express" was supposed to be a touching Christmas film, but the process rendered its human characters creepily vacant. "Monster House," on the other hand, is full of welcome creepiness due to the terrific script by Dan Harmon & Rob Schrab (of the never aired cult television show "Heat Vision and Jack") and Pamela Pettler ("Corpse Bride"), great imagery and the dynamite voice work by its uniquely assembled cast. Beware, however, that "Monster House" is not kids' play - some adult level scares that may be too intense for the wee ones. With a tip of its hat to "Polar Express" star Tom Hanks, "Monster House" begins with a "Forrest Gump" homage, following a swirling autumn leaf to its cross path with a little pigtailed girl (voice of Ryan Newman) joyously lalalaing her way along on her tricycle. Until, that is, her front wheel becomes ensnared in Nebbercracker's lawn. (Watch for another Hanks homage when Chowdah's Wilson b-ball is given a face a la "Castaway.") It just figures too, that with Halloween approaching, DJ's folks (voices of Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard, "A Mighty Wind") leave him in the care of gothy babysitter Zee (voice of Maggie Gyllenhaal, "The Great New Wonderful"), whose boyfriend, the aptly named Bones (voice of Jason Lee, TV's "My Name Is Earl") twists his tales of possessed houses back to terrorize him some more. But Bones becomes one of the malevolent dwelling's first victims. And after DJ and Chowdah rescue a damsel unknowingly in distress, Jenny (voice of Spencer Locke), from the house's clutches, they begin to wonder just whatever happened to the *Mrs.* Nebbercracker seen in photographs hung in the house's hallway. With its childhood gothic imagery (production design by Ed Verreaux, "X-Men: The Last Stand") and carnival freak show subplot, "Monster House" feels like something sprung from the mind of Tim Burton. The house has a face made by two upstairs windows, not unlike those pumpkin slices of Amityville's lighted 'eyes,' and a door teethed with uprooted floorboards. Old, gnarly trees even provide the thing with arms, and yes it does uproot itself. Even destroyed, this house comes together in a weird, wooden maelstrom that recalls "Little Otik," Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer's unsettling animated log. Where "Monster House" really one ups "Polar Express," however, is in its characters. While the central DJ may be a bit too wan, Chowdah is full of preadolescent maleness (the two, in fact, have characteristics of Laurel and Hardy). Most delightful is Zee, drolly voiced by Gyllenhaal and given just the right type of aggressively slouched body language. Another inspired character is Skull (voice of Jon Heder, "Napoleon Dynamite"), a truly vile video game nerd looked up to by the boys for his ability to play for four days straight on one quarter, a gallon of chocolate milk and an adult diaper. Officer Landers (voice of Kevin James, TV's "The King of Queens") exudes condescending small town copitude, although his partner Lister (voice of Nick Cannon, "Drumline," "Roll Bounce") comes uncomfortably close to the minstrelry of Stepin Fetchit for comfort. "Monster House" is a great piece of nostalgia for us baby boomers who can remember the universal neighborhood crank of days gone by - in these times where neighbors barely know each other does this shared memory even exist anymore? Thankfully, spooky old house and all, he has been preserved in this fun house scare.

Robin's Review: B+

This was the Canadian entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars this year and, as with the other nominees, represents a very classy selection by the nominating board. This is a very low key film, a school year in the life of Monsieur Lazhar and the children and colleagues about him. After the initial shock of the suicide the film develops a slow steady roll as Lazhar tries to help the children with their grief, especially Simon and Alice (Sophie Nelisse), the only kids to see the body of their beloved teacher, Martine. The low-key nature of “Monsieur Lazhar” should not be confused with being boring. Bachir Lazhar has a back story that is alluded to intriguingly, even though he claims that he has simply been a schoolteacher in Algiers for 19 years. The ambiguity of his past – Lazhar tragically lost his family – adds dimension to the already fully developed performance by Mohamed Fellag as the titular character. Fellag exudes warmth and honesty, and a good dose of sadness, which makes Lazhar a sympathetic person. He cares for all the kids in his class but focuses on Alice and Simon, the children that need his support the most. Writer director Philippe Falardeau creates a thoughtful film that delves into the grief and horror of the tragic event in a Montreal public grade school. He does this with care and shows the sincerity that Lazhar feels toward the children in his charge. This slice of life drama is not going to appeal to those waiting eagerly for “The Avengers” this May. “Monsieur Lazhar” is aimed at the more discerning filmgoer and squarely hits its target.