Kidman’s Wild ‘Paperboy’; Burton’s Monster Mash: Movies

'The Paperboy'
Nicole Kidman as Charlotte Bless in "The Paperboy." Kidman performs opposite Zac Efron, David Oyelowo and Macy Gray. Photographer: Anne Marie Fox/Millennium Entertainment via Bloomberg

“The Paperboy” is a thriller full of characters so oversize that it seems, at first, to be joking. Then comes darkness.

Based on Pete Dexter’s novel, it takes place in 1969 in a small Florida town. Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), a native who’s now a big-city reporter, has come home to research a story. He’s got a scandalously black writing partner (David Oyelowo) in tow.

Jack (Zac Efron), a frat-boy swimmer who’s been kicked out of school, is in awe of his big brother, Ward, and goes to work as the journalists’ driver.

They’re nosing into the possibly wrongful murder conviction of a barely human swamp rat named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). Working with them is Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a randy tramp who collects death-row convicts and has a real prize in Hillary.

Lee Daniels, the director, shows, as he did in “Precious,” how much he can pull out of his performers. I would never have expected an actor with Cusack’s nice-guy looks to be so convincing as a reptile.

Star Turn

The star turn is Kidman’s. In her slutty blonde wig and her dark makeup, she dominates the movie the way Charlotte longs to be dominated by a convict.

But my favorite performer was Macy Gray, as Anita, who’s been the Jansen family’s maid since the brothers were small. Her eyes betray how much she adores young Jack and how deeply the way he takes her for granted cuts her.

Anita also serves as narrator, and Gray’s high voice, with its hint of Butterfly McQueen, leavens a story that proceeds by gradually exposing its slimy innards.

The movie isn’t as shocking as it wants to be (despite a few moments in which Kidman shows just how much she’s game for), but it does succeed, in an alligator-gutting scene and a few other spots, in grossing the audience out.

It also manages to be surprising, cliche-free and, toward the end, so tense that it’s easy to forget how funny it was at the start.

The Paperboy,” from Millennium Entertainment, is playing in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Rating: **** (Seligman)

Tim Burton

Tim Burton teaches new tricks to an old, dead dog in “Frankenweenie,” a pretty, macabre stop-motion homage to monsters and their makers.

Arguably the director’s most cohesive film in years, “Frankenweenie” -- a (mostly) kid-friendly tale of a boy and his zombie dog -- is too familiar, the puppets similar to his “Corpse Bride,” to make as startling an impression as “Edward Scissorhands” or “Beetlejuice.”

An expanded reworking of Burton’s own 1984 live-action short film, the new “Frankenweenie” (in black and white 3-D) sticks close to the original’s skeleton.

Twelve-year-old Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), a science-loving loner growing up in 1960s-esque suburbia, harnesses lightning to resurrect his beloved dog Sparky, then scrambles to hide the neck-bolted mutt from his concerned parents (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara).

Town Weirdos

John August’s script introduces a town full of weirdos and horror archetypes to puff up Burton’s slim narrative.

There’s a menacing but wise Vincent Price-type teacher (Martin Landau); a love-struck Edward Gorey-style Goth girl (Winona Ryder); a hunchback sidekick (Atticus Shaffer, with hints of Peter Lorre); and, in the film’s iffiest move, Victor’s Asian rival Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao), who calls to mind a pint-sized villain from an old “Yellow Peril” thriller.

Burton’s affection is absolute even when his judgment isn’t. “Frankenweenie” is loaded with references to the director’s touchstones -- James Whale’s “Frankenstein” movies, Japanese giant-monster flicks and even the stop-motion villains of Rankin-Bass holiday TV specials.

Everything comes together in the hectic monster-mash finale, when Victor’s classmates resurrect their own dead pets to disastrous result.

Like the recent “ParaNorman,” “Frankenweenie” requires a fairly mature understanding of death that some parents might deem beyond their youngest.

Burton pre-empts such squeamishness with a hat-tip to Hollywood’s past: A theater marquee in Victor Frankenstein’s town reads “Bambi.”

“Frankenweenie,” from Walt Disney Pictures, is playing across the U.S. Rating: *** (Evans)

‘This Pain’

At lunch, James Sveck (Toby Regbo), an acerbic 17-year-old, orders a salad. His father (Peter Gallagher) orders a steak, rare, and then asks him, not unkindly, if he’s gay.

“Because I ordered salad?”

“Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You,” directed by Roberto Faenza from Peter Cameron’s 2007 novel, is full of sharp and funny moments like that.

James’s divorced parents are both familiar types. His father is a vain, hard-driving, oversexed New York professional. His mother (Marcia Gay Harden) is a neurotic, hyper-sophisticated gallery owner who’s unlucky in love.

The tiredest cartoon is his wise old life-embracing grandma (Ellen Burstyn), a former Martha Graham dancer who counsels him with the sage words of the title. (They’re really from Ovid.)

And there’s a cute little pooch who, at one point, wears a motorcycle helmet and goggles.

Described this way, the movie sounds awful. But in fact, though it’s slight, it’s a pleasure, largely because the actors are pros who can make the artificially well-wrought dialogue sound like they invented it on the spot.

Though the picture ridicules the self-involved goofballs in young James’s family, it doesn’t judge them harshly. Like its hero, it hides its soft heart behind a wall of sarcasm.

“Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You,” from Four of a Kind Productions, is playing in New York and Miami. Rating: *** (Seligman)

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and New York Weekend.

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