Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion

It is difficult now to watch A Prairie Home Companion without seeing in it presentiments of Robert Altman’s death. Undoubtedly he brought to the film his own sense of impending mortality, his awareness of his own cancer, but he did not believe it would be his last film and was at work on another at the time of his death. Critical reaction to A Prairie Home Companion was fairly positive, and this may have represented a sentimental desire to pay homage to the aging director. The film is entertaining and full of the animated randomness and humanity that is characteristic of Altman’s best films, but this one is not among his best, though it’s certainly noteworthy.

A Prairie Home Companion follows in what appears to be real time the last installment of a long-time radio show in Wisconsin or, judging by the accents, some state nearby. The theater that hosted the show for years is closing down and slated to be razed and replaced by a parking lot. The radio show must close with it. A detached and cold Tommy Lee Jones plays a representative of the corporate entity responsible for this turn of events. He appears on the scene to watch the show with no evidence of emotion—he remains unmoved; the bottom line for him is the only line.

The radio show in the film is, not surprisingly, much like the one that Garrison Keillor hosts every week on National Public Radio. Keillor plays a character like himself, a character bearing his own initials “G. K.” but who is, one hopes (though genial enough, he is surprisingly indifferent and lacking in sentiment), also distinct from the real Keillor. (Keillor wrote the screenplay). The film is narrated from the point of view of Guy Noir, the fictional detective featured on the NPR radio show.

There is a randomness to this film that seems unfocused and random even for Robert Altman. What focus there is comes from the radio show itself and its limited cast of performers. The scenes switch from one set of characters to another—the Johnson Sisters (played by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) who have performed together for years as the last surviving members of a larger group of family performers; Dusty and Lefty, two quarrelsome cowhands played by Woody Harrelson and John Reilly)—and we overhear them both as they react to news of the end of their radio show and as they continue to work through conflicts that have been going on for literal decades. There is thus both a sense that we are viewing a film in the middle of things as well as a film about endings. (Altman’s films often give a brilliant sense of beginning and functioning in medias res). These actors are excellent in their roles, especially Tomlin and Streep. Lindsay Lohan is good as the daughter of Streep’s character. She gets her first chance to perform on the last radio show—she loses the lyrics and has to make them up as she goes. The various characters talk about continuing to perform after the show ends, but there is a strong implication in the film that the radio show itself if the last of its kind. It’s an outmoded, outdated form of entertainment, and one can imagine that there will be few if any venues for its performers once the show has ended.

One sign of the randomness that characterizes the film is the appearance of a character named Asphodel, played by Virginia Madsen. She is dressed in a white raincoat and moves in a beatific, distracted, desultory fashion through the film. Only Guy Noir can see her (why only he can see her is not explained). She is the angel of death who has come to escort one of the performers into the afterlife. He is a minor character, but his death underlines the eulogistic tone of the film and gives the characters something else to feel sad and wistful about. In general the film seems to express nostalgia and regret over the passing of an era, over the onslaught of a new era of impersonality where the characters of the radio show, not to mention the show itself, lack identity or relevance or any meaningful function.

Keillor’s character declines to acknowledge the performer’s death or the end of the radio show on the air. He says that radio is all about what is going to happen, not about the past. Keillor is very good in his role, but exasperating. He’s difficult to figure.

This film would work at least as well as it does without the distracting and illogical presence of the angel of death. At most she invests the film with a metaphysical, supernatural dimension, suggesting that the end of a radio show is part of a cycle of life and death that characterizes all of creation.

Altman was at his best in films such as Mash, Nashville, The Player, and Gosford Park. There his inclination towards chaos and randomness was reigned in by a strong script or literary source whose narrative held him creatively in check. In A Prairie Home Companion he depends on an array of eccentric and likeable characters and the pathos inherent in the end of a longstanding tradition to provide the anchor, and it doesn’t consistently work.

Robert Altman was a truly great and unique director. Even his unsuccessful films are interesting. A Prairie Home Companion is not a failure. It is just not a great film, certainly not one that approaches the artistry and genius in Nashville, one of the greatest of American films.

Nonetheless, A Prairie Home Companion is interesting and entertaining. And now that Altman is dead, it is filled with poignancy.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Sacha Baron Cohen is a British comedian whose film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan targets an American audience. Americans are an eager audience--they’ve made Cohen’s The Ali G Show a popular success on HBO. As Ali G, Cohen plays an ignorant hipster journalist who interviews unsuspecting luminaries such as Andy Rooney, C. Everett Koop, Gore Vidal, and others. The subjects of these interviews don't realize that they're being lampooned. Most of them are easy targets. Americans in general are easy targets, apparently, as the film Borat repeatedly demonstrates.

Borat exults in perverse violation of all standards of political correctness. It exploits American xenophobia, especially concerning the Middle East—Kazakhstan is, after all, a Middle Eastern nation. The tenuous plot concerns Borat’s assignment by the television station he works for to travel to America to make a documentary about the American lifestyle that will educate and uplift his countrymen. In fact, this plot becomes the pretense for a series of sketches in which Cohen sets up various unsuspecting victims—mostly he just encourages his victims to be themselves. He does this by playing the foreigner ignorant of American ways--constantly committing faux pas and indecencies (he defecates in shrubbery on the side of a New York City street and masturbates in front of a billboard), asking inappropriate questions, misunderstanding basic facts (he thinks an elevator is his hotel room, he washes his face in a toilet). Most of the characters in these sketches are real and unsuspecting people, not actors—they do not realize they have been set up. Only Cohen/Borat knows what is going on. Thus while the plot is fiction, the individual episodes, most of them at least, are real.

The true plot of the film is set in motion when Borat sees an episode of Baywatch on his hotel television. Falling in love with Pamela Anderson, he vows to meet and marry her and sets out for California. Borat thus becomes a hilarious perversion of an American road film.

Throughout Borat we laugh at Cohen’s character for his foreign ignorance and his inability to understand how to act in America. This means we laugh at his comments about rape, prostitution, and women in Kazakhstan (he brags that his sister is “number four prostitute" in Kazakhstan; he is shocked to learn that woman in America cannot be forced to have sex), and we laugh as well at reactions he prompts in the Americans he encounters. Borat’s fundamental anti-Semitism is a constant subject. The film begins with a report on the annual “Running of the Jews” in Borat’s hometown. Stopping for the night at a bed-and-breakfast owned by an elderly Jewish couple, Borat and his manager are terrified that they will be killed and eaten. In an American gun shop, Borat asks the proprietor to recommend a gun that will protect him against Jews. With no hesitation, the proprietor makes a recommendation. Thus on the one hand while Borat invites us to laugh at anti-Semitism and other primitive practices in Kazakhstan, it also manages to identify those same traits in America. As a fundamental matter of the film’s style and point of view, there is never any editorial intrusion to make clear that the viewer is supposed to react to these scenes in a particular way. The film depends on the audience to react in the appropriate way—with laughter but also with repugnance. But it cannot prevent other reactions—that is, it cannot prevent the audience from concluding that in some way it is endorsing anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism. Moreover, there is an ethical question to consider here. By inviting us to laugh at anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism, is Borat criticizing those traits in American society, or is it exploiting them for comic effect, thereby perpetuating them? The fact that Cohen himself is Jewish complicates everything.

There are many anarchistic moments in Borat where the intent is not to make some political or cultural statement but instead simply to create disorder and comedy. One such moment comes in an antiques shop where Borat manages through a series of pratfalls to destroy a collection of china.

In its attention to the travails of Borat as he wanders across the American landscape in search of enlightenment, self-knowledge, and Pamela Anderson, Borat is portrayed as a kind of Adam Sandler character—essentially good and simple, put-upon and taken advantage of, ultimately victorious. (Before Sandler, I would have called him “Everyman”). In both the Sandler and Borat characters, an underlying moralistic perversity often takes aim at the hypocritical and mean spirited. Sandler’s characters take action to punish these individuals. Borat simply finds a way to film them. The most obvious example comes in a scene where Borat while hitchhiking is picked up by a group of fraternity boys from the University of South Carolina. They are drunk and in the course of the scene become drunker. Though they befriend Borat, they also make numerous comments of the sort that Borat seeks to satirize, especially comments about women and minorities. One boy complains that white men have no power in America any more, that minorities are in control. It doesn’t take long for these boys to tighten the noose and spring the trapdoor. In a lawsuit, they are claiming that the Borat film crew set them up: invited into a trailer, asked to sign consent forms, and plied with liquor, these hapless waifs had no idea what was going to happen. This does not mitigate their behavior: it is contemptible. But it does suggest that this film engages in a certain amount of manipulation.

In another scene Borat goes to see an “etiquette counselor” for advice on how to behave in America. She is patient and understanding and apparently does not have any sense that Cohen is tricking her, even when Borat shows her pictures of his son’s genitals. Her forbearance is considerable: she gently explains that it would not be appropriate in America to show these pictures. The etiquette counselor is now also suing Cohen, claiming that she was deceived by the filmmakers and made to look ridiculous. In fact, she emerges from the scene unscarred. Not everyone in the film can make the same claim.

There are numerous moments of mean spiritedness in Borat. One comes during a dinner with a group of conservative white Southerners. Despite Borat’s supposedly unwitting insults and embarrassing comments and actions, these people try to be patient with him. One woman even takes him aside and calmly explains various steps involved in using an American bathroom, including the function of toilet paper. The scene falls apart when an obese, grey-haired African American prostitute in hot pants appears whom Borat has invited to dinner without consulting his hosts. They realize they've been duped and call the police. Is the point here that the prostitute’s arrival exposes the limits of tolerance in the people at the dinner—tolerance that extends only to people with white skin--or is the point that they don't want uninvited prostitutes at their private dinner party--or is the point that they realize they've been exploited? The answer is not as easy as Borat might have it. These people are easy and helpless targets.

In another scene, Borat attends a Pentecostal worship service where people are speaking in tongues, shouting and dancing ecstatically, and otherwise emoting in the typical way of Pentecostal worship services. Borat allows himself to be “converted” and then announces that he is “going to California with my new friend Mr. Jesus to find Pamela Anderson” (my favorite line in the film). The service appears to be a genuine worship service. The worshippers do not know that Borat is feigning his salvation. They treat him with respect and compassion, and he never breaks character. The scene is amazing in a number of ways. I was moved by it. Yet Borat includes it in the film as a way of satirizing and ridiculing the worshippers simply for being themselves. I disagree with Pentecostalism on practically every level. Yet why does the Pentecostal worship service merit ridicule? If the film truly means to attack those who hate Jews, why does it invite us to laugh at Pentecostals?

A scene in which Borat tries to kidnap Pamela Anderson at a book signing also seems to be genuine, though she was apparently in on the joke. When she declines his request that she marry him, he answers that “Consent is not necessary” and pulls a “wedding bag” over her head. She runs out of the bookstore into the parking lot, in hysterics, while Borat is waylaid and arrested. By this point in the film, the joke has grown tiresome.

One might argue that this anarchistic, pseudo-improvisational film is a latter-day version of the 1960s television show Candid Camera, which made fun in a gentle way of people being themselves. There is precious little gentleness in Borat, whose tricks, jokes, impostures, and deceptions are fraught with meanness. Ultimately Borat/Cohen always makes himself the center of attention. With all the pretense of attacks on prejudice and racism, the point of the film is making people seem ridiculous.

While Borat satirizes xenophobia and racism and sexism and other American cultural failings, it also exploits and profits from them. It becomes what it is making fun of. In the anarchistic, guerilla-style comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen, this inconsistency perhaps does not matter. Whether it should matter to those of us in the audience is another question.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami

Two alternating parallel narratives over the course of 436 pages gradually converge without ever quite meeting. In one of them a 15-year-old boy estranged from his father runs away from home. In the other an elderly man, who can talk to cats, goes on a strange quest to a distant city. Early in the novel Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami, we read of an incident that occurred in 1943 at the height of the Second World War. A teacher takes her young students on a hike in the hills to hunt for mushrooms. She sees a small object glinting metallically in the distant sky. Suddenly, the children fall to the ground, unconscious. Gradually all but one wake up and appear unharmed. The one who does not awaken is taken to a hospital. The teacher never sees him again. We eventually infer that this strange event has a connection to one of the narrative strands. We infer as well that this event has a connection to other concerns in the novel. In a novel such as this, with interwoven narratives, strange happenings, portentous events, we expect at some point an explanation. Murakami tantalizes us with the possibility of an explanation, but it never comes. Instead we get something quite different, something frustrating, perhaps, but something more than satisfying.

One might argue that there is a strong supernatural dimension in this novel or a dimension of science fiction or of fantasy or folklore or a combination of all four. In American novels these genres might provide appropriate ways to categorize Kafka on the Shore. In particular, the style of this novel might be described as magical realism. But this is not an American novel—neither North nor South American--and the mythic traditions it incorporates are not American either. The sense of fantasy that underlies this novel is Japanese, and therefore unfamiliar to a Western reader. But the frustration and the unfamiliarity are part of the pleasure of this book.

Kafka on the Shore offers two main characters, each inhabiting one of the two narratives. One is the 15-year-old teenager who calls himself Kafka: that is not his real name. He is estranged from his father, a famous sculptor, and they have no real relationship at all. Kafka has problems at school, and one day he decides to run away. He is precocious and well read, and he makes his way to a distant city. He finds a job in a library and becomes friends with a man named Oshima, who turns out to be a woman -- a kind of androgyne -- who simply lacks a specific gender. Oshima is a good friend and mentor to Kafka; there is no sexual relationship or potential for one between them. Kafka also becomes friends with a much older woman named Miss Saeki. She has a tragic and romantic background and maybe as well a connection to Kafka.

In the other narrative the main character is Nakata, an old man who describes himself as simple and stupid. He talks about himself in the third person as if he cannot speak in the first person (very rarely he does). He cannot read. He doesn't have a job, although he used to have one, and he spends most of his time hunting for lost cats, for which he is paid by their owners. He remembers that as a little boy he was much smarter and that he could read but that at some point he became ill and lost his ability to read along with much of his intelligence.

There are also characters named Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders. They are not only named after the name brands: they are those brands incarnate.

To go far in discussing the plot of this novel would be to ruin the experience of the book. Even as the reading of it proves to be confusing, it's also pleasurable. One hopes for an explanation, a resolution, for some sort of tying together on a literal level of the disparate strands of this novel. One can't really say that resolution ever occurs. But on a metaphoric level and certainly in terms of characters, there is resolution of a sort. Once again, it's difficult to categorize this resolution in the traditional terms of Western literature. But it's a resolution nonetheless.

In ways, this is a coming-of-age novel for the character Kafka, but it's clearly not a coming-of-age novel for Nakata, who has come to the end of his life or close to it and who carries out in the course of the narrative certain tasks for which his life has apparently been destined. This is also a novel about memory, though the memories are not always ones of which the characters consciously are aware. It is also a novel about synchronicity, about how events come together either by accident or by intention, events seemingly unrelated in space and time and in their very nature. This is part of the confusion of the novel. Yet it's an entrancing confusion.

There's a particular moment in the novel that recalls William Faulkner's story "The Bear," a chapter in his 1941 novel Go Down, Moses. Kafka is staying for a few days in a cabin deep in an isolated woods. He has been taken there by Oshima, who shares ownership of the cabin with his brother. Kafka has been warned not to go into the woods because they are extremely thick and it is easy to become lost in them. He hears a story about Japanese soldiers on training exercises in these woods before World War II: they become lost and were never seen again. Kafka, who does not lack self-assurance, goes into the woods on several occasions. On the last occasion he goes very deep. He marks his way with paint he sprays on the trunks of trees, but he comes to a point where he knows that truly to enter the woods, he'll have to put aside the paint and the other articles of civilization that he's brought along with him, and he does so. (This echoes Isaac McCaslin in "The Bear" when he tracking the bear and realizes that his compass, rifle, and his snake stick are preventing him from truly entering into the wilderness. He puts them down and walks on and immediately sees the bear for the first time).

Perhaps it's at this point in the novel, when Kafka wanders deep into the woods and comes to a strange village, that we truly enter the realm of fantasy. At least this scene more than any other challenges our sense of reality. What transpires here is not at all out of sync with the rest of the novel. It’s consistent with the logic of the novel, yet at the same time it exceeds the boundaries of what we are prepared to accept in a novel. Nonetheless, it's an important part of the resolution and of Kafka’s movement towards full assumption of his identity and his destiny.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Nacho Libre

Nacho Libre failed to meet box-office expectations. Who determines those expectations, I don’t know. But they do suggest that the film was mismarketed.

I found myself thinking of Tim Burton as I watched Nacho Libre. In Edward Scissorhands, the original Batman, Nightmare Before Christmas, and Big Fish, Burton creates fully realized worlds parallel to but separate from our real one. I was also reminded of Napoleon Dynamite, where the alternative world rests more in the bizarre and nerdy array of characters than in physical setting. Not surprisingly, Nacho Libre was co-written by Jerusha and Jared Hess, co-screenwriters for Napoleon Dynamite. Jared Hess directed.

Nacho Libre takes the concept of a Mexican priest who wants to be a professional wrestler and fully and imaginatively develops it. The result is an extremely detailed, nuanced comic film. The comedy derives from setting, characters, plot. A rich array of characters populate the foreground and background of the story. Many of the wrestlers who Jack Black’s character Nacho faces are authentic Mexican wrestlers.

The basic plot follows Nacho’s life as an orphan in a Mexican monastery. When he reaches adulthood, he becomes a friar whose main job is to cook and serve food to the orphans, priests, and nuns. Around the same time he decides to try to become a wrestler, he falls in love with a beautiful nun, Sister Encarnacion. His quest to wrestle is tied to his desire to impress her and to escape his demeaning work in the monastery. Yet even as he wrestles, he remains a faithful friar, frequently showing concern for the spiritual welfare of his sidekick Esqueleto, a street person he has recruited as his partner from a nearby town.

The setting of this film contributes significantly to the overall fantasy. The Mexican countryside is depicted with soft pastel colors, and the overall effect is both exotic and beautiful.

Most of the actors are Mexican or Hispanic. The film is full of the usual stereotypes, though each character is an individual, and there is no real effort to create humor or satire by making fun of or ridiculing these characters. Instead the film treats them with affection, humor, and respect. And it portrays in simple and straightforward terms professional wrestling in Mexico.

Nacho Libre brims with whimsy and fantasy. To an extent these elements are of a piece with the subject of wrestling in Mexico, which is different from but parallel to the largely fake and staged industry of professional wrestling in the United States.

Jack Black fully inhabits Nacho. He creates a character who is part comic book figure and part human. As in The School of Rock he creates a character who is warm, believable, and fully human—not a caricature. Nacho Libre gives Black full opportunity to exercise his considerable skills as a slapstick comic actor, though slapstick is not a major element in the film. He succeeds in his role because he is, within bounds, a talented actor.

Part of the film’s whimsy is reflected in the fact that a priest and a nun are not supposed to fall in love with each other. But the film is full of such whimsical discrepancies. This small but excellent comic film was a pleasure to watch.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Mission: Impossible III

Franchise films usually are bad films. By franchise films, I mean a series of films that become in effect a brand name, spinning off novelizations, advertising campaigns for non-film related products, sequels, toys, clothing, and so on. The Star Wars films became a franchise. Franchise films must self-perpetuate in order to keep the franchise and the economy that surrounds it alive. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were the first and second installments in the Star Wars franchise and the only films in the series worth seeing. (Yes, I know, some would argue for including Revenge of the Sith in the list of worthies). When a film series becomes a franchise, the quality level usually declines. This certainly happened with the Superman and Batman films, though the recent Batman Begins and Superman Returns suggest the possibility of a resurgence. Spiderman is a franchise now: what will part 3 be? The trailers don’t inspire hope.

The Mission: Impossible films give every indication of franchise status. The first film was entertaining if only because it brought the series from the 1960s back to life, and it was good to hear the old musical theme again. The plot of intrigue, deception, and espionage certainly made for a suspenseful and exciting entertainment. Tom Cruise as the lead character Ethan Hunt seemed fully up to the task of filling and updating the old Peter Graves shoes. As the Hollywood Acting Icon, he alone held the power to sustain the franchise. Where it will go now that his star has fallen we will have to see.

The television series (1966-73) was built around the Cold War. By the year 1996, when the first film was made, the Cold War was over, history had ended (according to one scholar, much deluded), and the filmmakers had to turn for their subject to global conspiracies, mega-mafias, and terrorism. It was obvious enough what was at stake in the television series—the free world’s survival. In the three recent Mission: Impossible films, the stakes are always high, but the unifying metaphor of east vs. west, democracy vs. totalitarianism, is absent. In general, the unifying issue is good vs. evil, and almost always some characters who appear to be good in fact hail from the other side.

Mission: Impossible II was a disappointment, and the series gave signs of beginning to imitate and parody itself. My hopes for Mission: Impossible III were not high.

Surprisingly, Mission: Impossible III was an improvement over its predecessor. Two main factors explain why: One was the creation of a love interest for Ethan. He’s about to marry her when the film begins, and complications ensue in which she is ultimately caught up. Therefore it’s not merely Ethan’s success in capturing an evildoer that matters: it’s true love. The second reason is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Owen Davian, the super criminal seeking to sell to terrorists a secret so terrible than no one will even say what it is. Hoffman alone is worth the price of a ticket to this film.

Mission: Impossible III is competently made and entertaining, full of action and thrills. The editing stands out. It’s not a great film, but it does its job. And it’s as superficial, as hollow, as they come.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand

X-Men: The Last Stand is the third of three films based on the popular comic book series about mutant superheroes. The first two films built effectively on the mythology established in the comic book story. They featured a varied array of characters. The important characters continue from one film to the next, but other characters--some of them mutants, some of them humans--drift in and out of the films. This allowed for considerable flexibility in character and plot development. We don't find such flexibility in the Superman, Batman, and Spiderman films, which focus on a single superhero. The X-Men films as well as the comic book series explore interesting themes such as genetic engineering, government’s involvement in the private lives of individuals, and the persecution of minority groups. There is a clear analogy established in the films between the mutants, who are threatened with persecution by the government, and Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews and others. Although I have a fondness for the Superman films, especially the first two, and the more recent Superman Returns, there are limitations to what the Superman mythology can allow in a film. The plot lines are fairly narrow in the Superman films, but that's not the case with the X-Men movies. There are conflicts among the mutants, conflicts between mutants and non-mutants, and a variety of opportunities for interesting developments.

The first two films featured such good actors as Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen. They are present in the third film, but they're not exploited effectively. Several characters who gave the first two films interest are killed fairly early. We have the addition of a new character, Dr. Hank McCoy ("Beast"), portrayed by Kelsey Grammer, of all people. He plays the United States Secretary of Mutants. When I saw his bright blue face and bright blue hair, I knew we were in for trouble. The nature of his mutant powers is not quite clear. They have something to do with roaring like a lion and engaging in acrobatics as he kicks and punches his victims. He occasionally sounds like his TV character Frasier, which provides some slight comic relief. Special effects were brought to bear in a mighty way on Kelsey Grammer, who is past the age of action heroism.

The proliferation of special effects in this film may be intended to compensate for the shallow plot and characterization. The intelligence, the interesting characterizations, the humanity of the various superheroes in the first two films are absent here. Everyone seems to be going through the motions. The plot centers on the discovery of a "cure" for the mutants. The cure is first made available on a voluntary basis, but eventually is used as a weapon: instead of shooting bullets at the mutants, U. S. soldiers shoot needles full of serum that "cure" their targets. The cure precipitates the final battle alluded to in the title. The persecution theme of the second film was more interesting, and the analogy it allowed one to draw with present-day situations was apt. A final scene in the film, after the credits end, sets up a possible sequel. I hope a sequel doesn't happen. The series has run out of steam.

Monster House

Monster House is a children's movie, the kind of movie I used to see quite often when my own children were younger. As the youngest of them now is 16 and Monster House is a kind of film for which he has no tolerance, I therefore have to watch it alone if I want to see it at all. So last night I watched Monster House.

I still have a taste for these movies. Maybe it's a sign of immaturity or some sort of essential superficiality of being. But when I see the trailers for these films on television, my interest is sometimes provoked. I wanted to see Monster House because it riffs on the notion of a haunted house, which is very compelling to children, very frightening. I remember in my childhood neighborhood several houses that we spoke of as haunted, if not by actual ghosts then by dangerous people. In one of them lived an old woman who would chase us away when we entered her yard. At another there was a young man reputed to be a child molester. We didn't go near him at all. A mile away, on the top of a hill by itself, stood a forbidding stone house in which there was said to be, in the main room, a large rug that hid a bloodstain left by the murder of the man who once lived there. My grandmother, an inveterate liar, claimed to have seen the stain.

It is the notion of the haunted house, the fear of entering, the compulsion to enter it against all better considerations, that this movie plays upon.

Monster House is digitally animated. The animation is not cutting edge or particularly imaginative. The animation style reminds me of the Jimmy Neutron cartoon series on Nickelodeon--stylized human beings, thinner, taller than they ought to be, rubbery in appearance. Monster House has a formulaic array of characters: a 10 or 11-year-old boy named D. J., about to enter puberty, his fat best friend Chowder, full of jokes and occasional vulgarities, and an entrepreneurial young girl selling candy. Her name is Jennie. When she tries to sell to the D. J. and Chowder, they both predictably fall for her. The parents in the film are clueless and totally unaware of the lives of their children. The film suggests, subtly, that Chowder's mother is having an affair. Across the street from where D. J. lives is a mysterious old house. Any time children walk into the yard, old Mr. Nebbercracker comes out to chase them away and confiscate their tricycles or their balls or whatever toys they happen to be playing with. When the old man is injured and taken to a hospital, the house begins to act strangely, as if it is alive. It consumes a dog and two policemen, and it tries to consume our three heroes. Because it's Halloween, they are afraid that the house will eat trick-or-treating children, and they set out to defeat it.

Like many cartoons and films aimed at children, this one has an array of stereotypes. Of course there is the fat boy. There is a young black policeman, the incarnated stereotype of J. J. Walker from the Good Times television series. And there is a stereotype associated with the house itself. One may argue that all stereotypes are damaging and offensive. Given the nature of this film, and the fact that these stereotypes will mostly be over or under the heads of the children watching, I don't think they're a matter of concern.

Most haunted houses have stories behind them. The one in Monster House is no exception. The explanation for the house is really more complicated than it ought to be, and even somewhat out of tune with the movie as a whole, but the average children in the audience will not notice or care.

Monster House is aimed at 10-year-olds. It doesn't have much scatological humor at all, unlike many of the current animated films aimed at kids. When I was a kid, I remember, there were seemingly hundreds if not thousands of books aimed at the age group to which this film caters. We checked them out from the library, ordered them from the elementary school paperback book club, and borrowed them from friends. Beverly Cleary was one author whose name I remember. That's the kind of film Monster House is -- not particularly remarkable, not particularly good, but well tuned for its audience. It has its mildly frightening moments, but in the end nobody is harmed. If I had children of the right age, I would certainly take them to see this film. I would not enjoy it much myself, because there's not much in it for adults, even for adults with a nostalgic desire to relive childhood through books or films or memory, but I would enjoy the children's enjoyment of it.