Friday, February 24, 2006

Cry Wolf (2005)

In the pantheon of slasher movies, one could argue that one of the most influential in recent years has been Scream. Directed by horror legend Wes Craven and scribed by Dawson's Creek creator Kevin Williamson, Scream reinvigorated the slasher sub-genre upon its release in the winter of 1996. And just as Halloween and Friday the 13th inspired numerous knockoffs and sequels in the '80s, Scream was followed by such postmodern slashers as Urban Legend, Valentine, and perhaps most famously, I Know What You Did Last Summer.

While the slasher trend has cooled lately, another trend has been started in its wake: PG-13 horror movies . Although many of the horror faithful have been crying foul at the idea of their beloved (and traditionally R-rated) genre being "watered down" in order to pander to younger teenage horror fans who don't want their teenybopper sensibilities offended, PG-13 horror movies like The Ring and The Grudge have meant big business for Hollywood filmmakers. The postmodern slasher trend and the PG-13 horror trend finally crossed paths in the fall of 2005, a convergence that resulted in the PG-13 teen-friendly Cry Wolf. The movie didn't make much of a splash at the box office, but is that reflective of its actual quality?

Our movie centers around Owen Matthews (Julian Morris), a teenager with a checkered past who has just enrolled in Westlake Preparatory Academy, a swanky private school in Virginia. Upon arriving at campus for the first time, he is immediately introduced to — and becomes immediately smitten with — his lovely classmate Dodger Allen (Lindy Booth). That night, he is invited by both Dodger and his roommate Tom (Jared Padalecki) to participate with a group of fellow students in their traditional "lying game." The rules of the game are similar to those of "Mafia", with each player lying and manipulating their friends in order to stave off elimination.

Owen effortlessly wins the game, and when he expresses his belief that something must be wrong if a newcomer can read a bunch of strangers like a book, Dodger is prompted to broaden the game's horizons. When they hear news of the body of a murdered young woman was discovered in the nearby woods, Dodger and Owen conspire to push the game one step further by getting the entire school involved. The idea: the girl is the victim of a serial killer dubbed "The Wolf," a killer that will soon strike again on-campus. They craft an image and a background for the Wolf, and send their prank to every e-mail inbox in the school.

But soon afterwards, Owen finds himself at the epicenter of some very unsettling circumstances. Beginning with the threatening online messages from someone calling themselves "Wolf," it increases to Owen finding a knife in his backpack during classes and a member of Dodger's club mysteriously disappearing. With confusion setting in and his journalism teacher Mr. Walker (Jon Bon Jovi) getting more involved, Owen tries to get to the bottom of what's going on. Is their make-believe murderer is a very real one, or is it just part of another, even larger prank?

Don't be worried if you haven't heard of Cry Wolf. The movie didn't exactly set the world on fire, never getting higher than fifth in the weekend box office rankings. However, the movie did make fifteen times its budget (a measly one million dollars) at the worldwide box office, so I guess you could call it a success. But one of the biggest knocks I have against the movie is its misleading marketing campaign. The trailers and television commercials presented the movie as a straightforward slasher flick, but in execution, being a slasher movie is secondary to Cry Wolf's attempts at being a "whodunit" mystery thriller. Maybe I'd have enjoyed the movie more if I knew exactly what I was getting when I started watching it. Come on, Cry Wolf. If you're gonna tell me that you're a slasher movie, you should have delivered. Promises were made! Expectations needed to be met!

If anything can be said about the movie, it's that the director at least has a little style. For someone making his feature film debut, Jeff Wadlow seems to have a lot of talent in making mediocre material at least look good. He and cinematographer Romeo Tirone make use of certain camera setups and movements that are creative and charming, and Wadlow utilizes a slow burn during the movie that is rarely seen in today's world of short attention spans and rapid-fire editing.

But unfortunately, Wadlow's good direction could use a little improvement. I mentioned that he uses a slow burn, but the beginning of the movie moves almost too slowly. With the exception of the opening minutes, there are almost no suspense, no scares, or anything frightening at all for nearly the entire first act. They could have at least given us a little something, but we get nothing but Dodger being deceptive, Owen being confused, and their friends being goofy. I mean, I'd have accepted the clichéd "cat leaps from the shadows" gag after a certain point.

And in a movie about a psycho killer, there is a surprising absence of any heavy violence and gore. I suppose it's justified when you take the movie's ending into account, but it still feels like Cry Wolf's lack of blood is a way to pander to the more squeamish teenage viewers that comprise the movie's target audience. However, I will give credit where credit is due. Michael Wandmacher's score is competent, efficient, and downright tense at times. As a fan of movie music, I can't complain about it.

But what I can complain about is the script. Written by Wadlow and Beau Bauman, the script can be overly complicated at times, while at other times it is guilty of taking itself far too seriously. The plot oftentimes finds itself being messy, convoluted, and outright confusing. I have no problem with a movie being confusing for the sake of giving the viewer an emotional connection to the similar confusion of its characters, but Cry Wolf is confusing merely because its logic is hard to grasp. How does Owen not notice the knife in his backpack before it falls out? Why does he keep caring about this one particular girl after he finds out she's banging a teacher? Why does he hang out with any of the jerks and one-dimensional stereotypical losers in their little club of liars? Ugh, this movie makes no sense.

I should also point out that a portion of its twist ending is very painfully obvious. Upon watching it with a friend for the first time, both myself and my friend correctly guessed who the main culprit is just twenty minutes into the movie. If I'm gonna watch a mystery, I don't want to figure out who's behind it that quick. I'll watch an episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? if I want that.

Moving on to the cast, only a handful of them actually manage rise above mediocrity. Julian Morris is believable in his confusion and panic, and Lindy Booth's slick, mysterious demeanor makes the character work. Booth proves herself to be the highlight of the cast, giving Dodger a much-needed sly edge, not putting all of her cards on the table in order to work things to her favor. And believe it or not, Jon Bon Jovi isn't all that bad of an actor. That's not to say I want him to quit the music business in order to take up acting full time, but still. Jared Padalecki wasn't half bad either, but he should probably stick to TV shows on the WB Network.

I really don't know exactly how to feel about Cry Wolf, especially thanks to its twist ending. Every movie has to have a twist nowadays, and this movie is no different. Cry Wolf's twist comes off as being very similar to the somewhat unheralded '80s slasher April Fool's Day. Perhaps one could put forth that Cry Wolf is an April Fool's Day for the twenty-first century, but that's another argument for another time.

When it's all said and done, I'm not exactly a fan of Cry Wolf's ending. I don't like movies leaving me with the feeling that I was cheated. And unfortunately, in spite of any praise that I give it, I don't think I'd say I was all that impressed by Cry Wolf anyway. It had a whole lot of potential, but didn't live up to what it could have been. I can see it becoming something of a cult favorite among those who enjoy elaborate games of manipulation like those in the movie, but as far as I'm concerned, missing Cry Wolf isn't the end of the world. I'll give it two and half stars. It's worth a rental, but that's about it.

Final Rating: **½

Monday, February 20, 2006

Saw II (2005)

If you've read any of my reviews, you've probably learned that there's one rule in filmmaking: the sequel's the thing. If your film gets any kind of success whatsoever, your movie will get a sequel even if it seems like there's no way it could happen. Disney somehow made a sequel to The Wizard of Oz in 1985 (Return to Oz, starring Fairuza Balk as Dorothy), so anything could happen. I wouldn't be surprised if someone made Titanic 2: DiCaprio's Revenge sometime in the future.

No genre is safe from the power of sequels, especially horror movies. Most horror movies can be done in a relatively quick amount of time for next to nothing, so if they're moderately successful, why not make another chapter and make a little more money?

Such is the case with 2005's Saw II, the sequel to the sleeper hit from a year prior. Filmed in just under three weeks on an amazingly modest budget (somewhere in the neighborhood of one million dollars), Saw's creativity pulled in 102 million dollars worldwide. With that kind of turnaround, distributor Lions Gate Films decided to strike while the iron was hot and immediately sent a sequel into production. But is Saw II as imaginative as its predecessor, or is it another case of a sequel not living up to its full potential?

Things aren't going well for troubled detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg). He had extreme anger management issues, he's going through an extremely messy divorce, and his strained relationship with his delinquent shoplifter of a son Daniel (Eric Knudsen) is pushed to its breaking point. However, Detective Matthews's life begins to get even more complicated when he finds a message for him at the scene of the latest game played by self-righteous serial killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), a message instructing Detective Matthews to "look closer."

And look closer, he does. He notices a factory logo stamped on the side of the murder weapon, prompting him to lead the SWAT team into what proves to be Jigsaw's lair. Extremely ill due to the cancer that is killing him, Jigsaw informs the police that they should be less worried about arresting him, and more concerned with what's being broadcast on the monitors in the back of the room.

What the monitors convey cuts Detective Matthews to the bone, as they reveal that his son has become part of Jigsaw's most ambitious game yet. As Daniel awakens in a seemingly vacant house, he learns that he is trapped there with seven complete strangers: drug dealer Xavier Chavez (Franky G); Addison Corday (Emmanuelle Vaugier), a prostitute; corporate embezzler Gus Colyard (Tony Nappo); Obi Tate (Timothy Burd), an pyromaniac; Laura Hunter (Beverly Mitchell), a kleptomaniac; former jailbird Jonas Singer (Glenn Plummer); and Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), who survived Jigsaw's wrath in the first Saw yet apparently didn't learn her lesson.

The eight prisoners are quick to discover a cassette tape that tells them the rules of the game. Deadly sarin gas is being pumped in through the air vents, and each of them has two hours to find an antidote before it kills them. And of course, each vial of the antidote is hidden on the other end of one of Jigsaw's sadistic traps. As the clock slowly ticks away, the police frantically search for the house while those inside it try to survive, and revelations are made regarding the residents and their connection to not only one another, but to Detective Matthews as well.

I'll say right now that casual fans are probably going to see Saw II with certain expectations, and I'm willing to bet those expectations center around Jigsaw's traps. And boy, are there traps like crazy. From a helmet similar to a medieval iron maiden and a sadistic version of a Chinese finger trap, to a pit of hypodermic needles and an oven-like furnace, each of the traps are deliciously violent and certainly didn't let me down.

It seems as if those behind Saw II tried to top its predecessor by just doing more of everything. There are more traps, more cast members (and thus more victims), and much more violence. In a genre in which methods of execution are starting to lose their creativity, Saw II's ingenuity can pull those that enjoy inventive deaths in horror movies out of any listlessness recent fare may have brought upon them.

However, the majority of Jigsaw's complicated traps come across as Rube Goldberg machines used for murderous intentions. Some are seemingly so complicated that the only way for them to succeed are either jumps in logic or their victims being dimwitted or panicky enough to not figure out the quickest means of survival. However, by no means does that make them any less frightening or entertaining.

While the script penned by Leigh Whannell and Darren Lynn Bousman does contain a few corny bits of dialogue, it eschews any pretentiousness found in the original Saw. It instead focuses more on the gruesome, violently over-the-top action inside the house, which Whannell and Bousman effortlessly juggle with the scenes involving Jigsaw and Detective Matthews, whose bizarre relationship comes across as an odd combination of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs, and Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey in Seven.

Whannell and Bousman's script also succeeds in taking us the viewer deeper into Jigsaw's psyche. We are given more insight into his motivation, his driving force. Reviewers (myself included) drew parallels between Jigsaw and Kevin Spacey's "John Doe" from Seven upon the release of the first movie, and these similarities are just as evident in Saw II. Like John Doe, Jigsaw singles out those he deems undeserving of the gifts life has given them, and sets into motion events that will cause their deaths.

But Jigsaw may also be compared to classic Batman villain The Riddler. Each of Jigsaw's victims are placed in elaborate deathtraps, yet they are all given the opportunity of survival, provided that they use their brains, pay attention, and simply follow the rules that they have been given. Sure, Jigsaw's instructions and clues may sound vague at times, but they can be easily figured out if one thinks about them. But because they think his riddles are much more complex than they really are, they end up over-thinking the situation and causing themselves more pain and sorrow than if they had just stuck to the obvious. If Jigsaw tells you a certain key shouldn't be used for a certain lock, he isn't using reverse psychology. He may be crazy, but a liar he is not.

Jigsaw's games are exactly that: games. They're sick and twisted games that will more than likely result in the victim's very painful demise, but if those forced into participation can stay calm enough to play along, they can be beaten. And the thing is, if any of us were stuck in the same situation, we'd probably make the same mistakes as Jigsaw's victims. Why? We've seen too many movies featuring murderers that make unspecific pronouncements of impending doom.

I really can't argue with the direction of co-writer Bousman. Teamed with director of cinematography David Armstrong, he presents us with some very neat camera moves and setups that, while not as kinetic as the first movie, make for a very engaging style. However, I do think Bousman's use of the quick flash frames bordered on overkill, but hey, I'll forgive that.

Meanwhile, I don't really know how to feel about the changes in set design when comparing the two movies. The first Saw's primary bathroom set made me feel like I needed to take a shower after watching the movie. It was nasty, gross, and everything the movie needed. With Saw II, on the other hand, the house the victims are trapped in doesn't have that same aura of dread.

Jigsaw's lair, on the other hand, I have no problems with. He's surrounded by computer monitors, blueprints for various traps, and all kinds of tools for bringing these traps to fruition. It feels like you've crash landed into the workshop of an evil genius, and I think it's effective.

Also effective is the score, composed by former Nine Inch Nails member Charlie Clauser. His industrial-tinged music is as down and dirty as his score from the original Saw, even including a neat recurring melody for the characters of Daniel and Detective Matthews. Clauser's reprisal of the ending music from the first movie is an awesome touch as well.

The acting, as with the first movie, can be give or take at times. Let's start with the victims. Most of them are forgettable, disposable cannon fodder for the various implements of destruction that Jigsaw has left for them. However, there are a few notables in there. Franky G is as engaging as his character is despicable. I can't really give a lot away without spoiling some of the better parts of the movie, but the character is a total slimeball and Franky G makes it work.

I also thought Shawnee Smith, who reprises her role of the woebegone drug addict Amanda from the original film, was great. She was one of my favorite performances from the first Saw (despite having what amounted to a bit part), and I found her to once again be both sympathetic and wonderful. And she gets around pretty good for someone who, according to the DVD commentary, was a few months pregnant during production. I'm sure she had a stunt double, but her role is still somewhat physical, and I applaud her for going through it like a trooper.

Back in Jigsaw's lair, former boy band sensation Donnie Wahlberg acts circles around his little brother Mark, portraying a character that seems to be absolutely rotten yet wants to be a halfway decent father. But let's not forget Tobin Bell's amazing performance as Jigsaw. Bell obviously takes the role seriously, and he exudes a brash superiority that the character needs. And frankly, if Freddy Krueger ever needs to be played by someone other than Robert Englund, I think Bell should be their guy.

There's no doubt that Saw II is absolutely dripping with misanthropy. I think 2005 was the right time for Saw II to be released, as it gets to share a calendar year with other unfriendly movies in The Devil's Rejects and Wolf Creek. All three movies serve as stark reminders that, in these times of inoffensive films where good and evil are drawn right down the middle, there is a darkness in the human heart that is rarely explored.

This sort of thing is why I think horror movies are important to society as a whole. We need movies these to remind us that there are certain shadows that should probably never have light shine upon them. And while it can be argued that Saw II is simply a slasher movie with delusions of grandeur, it is evidence that in times of severe duress, we just might go a little crazy. And for that, I give it four stars.

Final Rating: ****

Friday, February 10, 2006

Doom (2005)

Like remakes and films based on true stories, movies based on video games have began springing up more and more. However, only a handful have received better than mediocre reviews, as the majority of them come across as poorly made, poorly acted claptrap seemingly produced to make a quick buck from fans of the source material. For every Mortal Kombat, there's a Street Fighter; for every Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, there's a Super Mario Brothers. And let's not get started on Uwe Boll's movies, because the less said about those giant sweaty turds, the better. Regardless of the quality of many movies based on video games, one of the most expected adaptations was that of Doom.

First produced for PCs by Id Software, Doom quickly became one of the most popular — and controversial — games of the 1990s, and earned recognition as an influential landmark in the genre of first-person shooters. While the movie version had largely been expected since the game's initial release in the winter of 1993, the film rights ended up bouncing from studio to studio for a decade. The movie's tenure in developmental hell ended in 2004, however, when Universal Pictures moved it into production with a release date of October 21, 2005. But was that decade-long wait worth it?

The year is 2046, and at the Union Aerospace Corporation's remote Olduvai scientific research facility on Mars, something is very wrong. Contact with the facility has been lost, and the distress messages coming from Olduvai are less than good. The scientists have fallen victim to a threat of unknown origin, and the station has been quarantined

Back on Earth, the UAC drafts the Rapid Response Tactical Squad to secure the facility, retrieve any survivors, and eliminate any threat that may lie within. An elite group of marines, the RRTS crew is comprised of eight men: no-nonsense leader Sarge (The Rock); jaded vet John "Reaper" Grimm (Karl Urban); big quiet guy Destroyer (Deobia Oparei); Goat (Ben Daniels), a religious man who engages in self-mutilation to cleanse himself of even the tiniest sins; cocky ace Duke (Raz Adoti); sleazy sex-crazed redneck Portman (Richard Brake); Chinese immigrant Mac (Yao Chin), called such because it's easier to pronounce than the name his parents gave him; and inexperienced rookie soldier Kid (Al Weaver).

Upon arriving at Mars via a teleportation device called "the Ark," the RRTS is immediately introduced to paraplegic security expert Abraham "Pinky" Pinkowski (Dexter Fletcher) and a doctor and archaeologist from the facility, Reaper's estranged sister Samantha (Rosamund Pike). However, the RRTS's exploration through the facility soon devolves into something much more complicated when they begin encountering a legion of hellish, bloodthirsty monsters. Said monsters eliminate those inside the facility until only Sarge, Reaper, and Samantha remain. As Sarge starts to lose his mind and wipe out every living thing in sight, Reaper and Samantha realize that they not only must contend with both zombies and inhuman monsters, but a psychotic madman as well.

I didn't really know what to make of Doom when I first saw it. I didn't think it was worth getting all that excited for, but for a wild "stuff goes kaboom" action movie, it's not too bad. If a singular weakness can be pointed out, it's the script penned by David Callaham and Wesley Strick. Strick wrote Arachnophobia and Martin Scorcese's remake of Cape Fear, so you'd think with a little spit and polish, he and Callaham could have knocked out something halfway decent instead of the giant failure that Doom's script is. According to, Doom is Callaham's first script, so his lack of experience could be to blame for the screenplay's poor quality. In his defense, he can only improve from here, but when it's all said and done, the movie's script is horrendously bad.

From the clichéd, one-dimensional characters and horrible dialogue to the insane changes made in translation from game to movie, Callaham and Strick should be ashamed of themselves. The saddest part is that they totally changed around a big portion of the Doom story. In the games, the monsters are demons coming to Mars via scientists accidentally opening a portal to Hell. That has the potential to be an absolutely terrifying movie, doesn't it? Yeah, well, Strick and Callaham screw it up. Instead of having a supernatural origin, the monsters are instead the creation of genetic experimentation involving a twenty-fourth chromosome that will either turn you into an evil mutant creature or give you superhuman powers depending on your genetic leanings towards good or evil. That has to be the most ludicrous idea I've ever heard.

Seriously. I've seen some pretty outrageous things in movies, but the whole concept of the Doom movie confuses the everloving crap out of me. It's like they saw the first Resident Evil movie and said, "Hey, wouldn't the movie be so much cooler if we replaced Milla Jovovich with The Rock and put the movie on Mars? And what if we took that zombie virus and added a bunch of good versus evil crap? That would be sweet." Because that's what the movie comes across as being.

How hard is it to screw up something as simple as "commandos fight demons from Hell on Mars"? To me, that sounds a lot cooler than "commandos fight genetic mutations from a science lab on Mars." The closest they get to referencing the original origins of the monsters are a scene where a dying Goat refers to the beasts that attacked him as "devils," and throwaway lines in which characters tells one another to go to Hell.

The movie also owes a lot to Aliens, since both of them involve a small group of space marines investigating a deserted facility on another planet, and fight ferocious beasts that violently kill most of them. There are even omnipresent corporations that own the facilities in both Aliens and Doom. But the thing is, I've seen Aliens, and Doom is no Aliens.

What the movie lacks in credible writing is made up for in action, however. Glorious, mindless action. The movie does manage to be very fun if you're into this sort of thing, but what hinders it is the fact that a lot of the movie is dark. Dark like in "I can't see a freaking thing. What's causing all the ruckus?" While the movie had the chance to be dark in tone, it's merely dark thanks to its poor lighting. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak's previous credits include other flashy action movies like Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 The Grave, so one would assume he'd know that people want to see the action, not sit there wondering what's happening.

Outside of a few scenes near the end, the action scenes don't really last all that long either. A combination of being short and edited too tightly really bogs them down, and that's the ones you can actually see. Maybe Bartkowiak took a hint from the very darkly-lit Doom 3 game during production. If Universal makes a sequel, perhaps they should invest in a lighting rig for the action sequences so people can enjoy them more. However, there's plenty of people running from vicious monsters while marines blast away at them. If you can get past the MTV-esque editing and the inadequate lighting, it can actually be entertaining on a visceral level.

However, there are some very fun moments in the movie. The movie opens with a cool visual that I thought was a neat touch, with the glowing blue Earth of the Universal logo replaced by the blood red visage of Mars. And if you're a fan of the Doom games, then you'll totally love the scene near the end where we get a first-person view of Karl Urban's character going on a five-minute rampage armed with a machine gun and chainsaw. Thrown in there as an homage to the games, it's definitely the movie's coolest and most memorable scene.

It also helps that the monsters (created by effects supervisor John Rosengrant and Stan Winston's studio) are very impressive. A combination of animatronics and makeup (with a little CGI thrown in when absolutely needed), they look pretty darn cool when you can make them out through the darkness. The movie also boasts a very engaging music composed by Clint Mansell, an energized rock score that is befitting of Doom's shoot-em-up atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the cast is mostly unremarkable and forgettable, with everyone but the three leads being random cannon fodder that don't really earn a mention. The standout member of the cast is most definitely The Rock, who plays the movie's only really interesting character. His performance near the end of the movie goes so over the top that you just can't help but follow along and enjoy it. He has enough charisma and screen presence to make even the silliest dialogue entertaining, and with better material, he could drastically improve upon his current standing in Hollywood.

On the other hand, Karl Urban isn't totally awful, and Rosamund Pike stands out simply because she's the only female. It's odd when you consider that Pike is similar to Keira Knightly, in that both are British actresses that went from appearing in mediocre films to co-starring in the acclaimed adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Am I the only one that thanks that's weird? Or that it even matters at all?

Of all the video games that could be turned into movies, I believed that Doom was one that absolutely could not be screwed up. But then I had to go and be proven wrong. Though I did manage to find some entertainment in certain parts, I'd be a liar if I called Doom a masterpiece. As a fan of middling B-movies, it's my belief that Doom is along the same lines as those cheap, low-budget movies that the Sci-Fi Channel airs on Sunday afternoons when they have nothing better to show.

But what separates Doom from the "Sci-Fi Originals" is a higher budget with somewhat better production values, along with possessing a certain charm that makes it a little bit better. But all the charm in the world can't save Doom from me giving it a hearty thumbs in the middle with two and a half stars. Maybe one of these days, Hollywood will make a good video game adaptation after all.

Final Rating: **½

Friday, February 3, 2006

Corpse Bride (2005)

With the advent of computer animation, animating by hand has slowly started fading out of the limelight. However, Tim Burton has never been one to follow a trend. Known for his quirky, offbeat style of storytelling, one of Burton's most popular works is one he didn't even direct. Released in 1993 to little fanfare, the Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas has since developed a devoted cult following while becoming very respected for its achievements in stop-motion animation.

Twelve years later, Burton returned to the world of stop-motion animation when he and James and the Giant Peach animator Mike Johnson teamed to direct Corpse Bride, a spiritual sibling to The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton's unique depiction of an unconventional love triangle, this "tragic tale of romance, passion, and murder most foul" opened in the fall of 2005 to nearly unanimous critical approval. But just what does this critic think?

Our story is set in a gloomy, oppressive village in 19th-century aristocratic England, on the eve of an arranged marriage between Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) and Victoria Everglot (Emily Perkins). His nouveau riche parents (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) have money, while her parents (Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney) are high class yet destitute, so this marriage is more for them than the betrothed.

Neither are exactly ecstatic about marrying a total stranger, but when Victor and Victoria meet for the first time prior to their wedding rehearsal, it's love at first sight. Unfortunately, the rehearsal is a disaster, as Victor's nervousness gets the best of him. He can't remember his wedding vows and nearly sets Victoria's mother on fire after dropping a candle, prompting the frustrated Pastor Galswells (Christopher Lee) to throw him out, telling him not to come back until he learns his vows.

Depressed, Victor wanders into the forest to practice his vows. He finally manages to say them perfectly, placing the ring on what he believes to be a gnarled tree root. However, to Victor's horror, that gnarled tree root reaches out and grabs him. That root turns out to be a skeletal hand belonging to Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), a murdered bride waiting for a groom to sweep her off her very dead feet. She declares Victor her groom, whisking him away to the fantastical Land of the Dead.

Initially reluctant to accept that he's married to a corpse, he convinces Emily and the elderly town chief Elder Gutknecht (Michael Gough) to return them to the world of the living under the false pretenses of introducing her to his family. He sneaks into Victoria's boudoir and confesses his love for her, while Emily enters the room at the same moment. The jilted cadaver spirits herself and Victor away, leaving Victoria behind to helplessly watch.

While Victoria pleads for help from Pastor Gaswells and her parents, they simply believe Victor ran off with another woman and start working on another arranged marriage between Victoria and a presumably rich stranger named Lord Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant). Unbeknownst to everyone else, Barkis is only marrying Victoria with the intention to kill her and make off with her family's (unknown to him, nonexistent) fortune.

Meanwhile, Victor's newly deceased family chauffeur Mayhew (Paul Whitehouse in a dual role) arrives in the Land of the Dead and delivers the news of Victoria's impending marriage to Barkis. Believing that she's willfully marrying him, Victor is heartbroken, but begins growing closer to Emily. He ends up totally falling for her, agreeing to ingest poison as part of a ceremony in the Land of the Living to make their marriage official.

The residents of the Land of the Dead arrive in the village, and in the ensuing chaos, three discoveries are made. Barkis discovers Victoria is poor, Victoria discovers Victor's intentions to become the Corpse Groom, and Emily discovers who left her to die. Everything comes to a head at the local church, where Victor must finally choose between his living bride and his corpse bride while protecting both from Barkis's wrath.

Despite being relatively short (clocking in at a brisk 77 minutes), Corpse Bride manages to pack a lot of entertainment as it strays off the beaten path with glee. Not only is the animation beautiful, but the story is engaging. The script, written by Michael Cohn, Caroline Thompson, and Pamela Pettler, is both sweet and compelling. You want to love and befriend the three main characters, and presents us with a love triangle in which the two women the male lead finds himself trapped between would both make fine companions. Normally, movies of this ilk would make one of the two women an unlikable shrew in order for our sympathies to lie with the other, but both Emily and Victoria are absolutely adorable. And though he may come off as an indecisive pansy at times, Victor's confusion is still understandable. He loves one, but is unsure if he should marry her; he loves another, but is unsure his marriage to her should continue. Being torn between two lovers can mess with your head, especially when one of them is the walking dead. (Hey look, I made a rhyme.)

As mentioned earlier, the stop-motion animation is well done, closely rivaling the movie's CGI counterparts. Meanwhile, the movie's visual look is nothing short of gorgeous, and is especially evidenced by the differences in the two main backdrops. The division between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead is as stark as night and day. The Land of the Living is monochromatic, depressing, and blandly dull, while the Land of the Dead is brightly colored, jubilant, and raucously fun. It's as if the Land of the Dead is more alive than the Land of the Living. The uniqueness of the characters works as well, with their expressive eyes and great voice work by the cast.

On the music end, Danny Elfman's score is, as always, wonderful. I don't think Elfman has ever composed a bad film score. The jazzy style of music heard in the Land of the Dead is quite befitting of the wackiness and whimsy that realm depicts, while the score featured in the Land of the Living is much more somber, reflecting the irony that is the living world's lack of life.

Certainly one of the best in a very slow year for animated movies, Corpse Bride is quite similar to a dark comedy at times, while being surprisingly tender as well. In spite of it being about a man who finds himself married to a corpse, the movie is wonderfully heartwarming. I'm a fan of Tim Burton's eccentric approach to directing, and this gothic love story is another successful venture into animation for him. Corpse Bride is both charming and entertaining, and for that, I'll give it four stars and a hearty seal of approval.

Final Rating: ****