Coraline (dir/scr: Henry Selick, from the book by Neil Gaiman)
Coraline opens on a rag doll efficiently taken apart by hands of skeletal steel (like Edward Scissorhands but with menacing needles for fingers) and then turned inside out and recreated in the image of the blue-haired heroine Coraline. It’s eerie and tender and weird and sets the perfect tone for the film to come, a gorgeous and imaginative storybook fantasy with nightmare echoes. Think Dr. Seuss by way of Edward Gorey, all executed with the creative flair and painstaking detail that Henry Selick brought to The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is an adolescent with nothing to do in her new home, a creaky old house subdivided into apartments inhabited by eccentric neighbors. Ignored by her busy parents and too proud to play with the goofball boy next door, she spends her days with a curiously lookalike doll she names “Little Me” and her nights going down her own version of Alice’s rabbit hole.
“I’m your Other Mother, silly,” a cheery mommy doppelganger (Teri Hatcher) tells her in the fantastical remake of her world through the hidden door. Everyone is more fun and attentive, everything is yummier, every day is a sunny play date. And everyone has buttons for eyes, which is more than a little disturbing.
Coraline is classic fairy tale stuff, the story of a girl who escapes boredom and parents too busy to pay attention to her through a fantasy world where everything is better, brighter, tastier and more fun, fun, fun. But all this wish fulfillment is a facade that sags and decays over time, literally rotting over the shadowy reality under it, or stretched into an unsettling parody of itself as the monstrous creature underneath pokes and pushes through.
Coraline, a marvelously willful, doll-like moppet in blue hair, is given the body language of a budding drama queen and the delight of a little girl by Selick and his crew. They create a world to match, stuffed with delights, secrets and distinctive personality. In one scene, a misty morning fog feels almost alive, and the kids stroll through it as if walking on clouds.
It’s also the first (in the words of the press notes) “high definition stop-motion animated feature to be filmed in stereoscopic 3-D,” and it is a fantastical and imaginative use of the process. Give credit to director Henry Selick for getting the obligatory “spear into the audience” shot (in this case, a massive sewing needle jabbing into our faces) out of the way in the opening credits and dedicating the rest of the film to more interesting and playful and unexpected 3D effects. Stop-motion animation has a solidity not always felt in computer animation and it gives this film a distinctive presence and the 3D process more weight and substance. When Coraline opens the hidden portal behind the wallpaper, the tunnel seems to open up behind the screen, like looking through a tube stretching farther and farther away.
I review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.
Push (dir: Paul McGuigan)
Part super-hero movie (minus the colorful costumes), part sci-fi conspiracy thriller (minus the smarts), Push plays in the comic book movie sandbox of gifted people doing magical things under the guise of psuedo-science (telekentics, telepathy, clairvoyance) and secret goverment experiments in paranormal activity. A group of these would-be heroes have escaped the government minders (the bad guys) and escaped into the urban warren of Hong Kong, where an entire underground of paranormal types scurry through the overpopulated streets. It’s a great setting (a pre-Blade Runner neon city, part techno-slum, part alienated urban jungle) and the effects are appropriately slick and flashy, but there isn’t much of a story behind the plot or a sense of culture behind the premise. And that doesn’t begin to address the thin characterizations or the vapid presence of Chris Evans, who is supposed to be the reluctant hustler hero whose badass (but still untapped) power will save the day. In fact, it’s Dakota Fanning doing a modern Artful Doger of a street urchin and hardened survivor who walks off with the picture (though I confess that Camilla Belle looks very good in bangs and a sad pout).
The script is full of lines like, “That suitcase is the key to bringing down Division,” but it never quite explains how or why. Mostly it’s a series of dream-image clues scribbled out by juvenile seer Fanning, followed by super-powered smackdowns between agents and mercenaries with slangy titles like watchers, stitchers and sniffers. (Yeah, that last one does sound a little creepy).
Director Paul McGuigan pushes it along with flashy effects and a throbbing score that could be the playlist of an all-night rave. He delivers the requisite spectacle (bullets stopped with the wave of a hand, windows shattered with a banshee scream, punches like battering rams) but skimps on character and story.
Read my review at the P-I here.
He’s Just Not That Into You (dir: Ken Kwapis)
In the gospel of dating according to this film, guys are emotionally walled off, uncommunicative jerks by nature and women are emotional, irrational and obsessive creatures needy for affection and affirmation. Maybe, but then again, this so-called romantic comedy is based on a non-fiction guide to dating and self-empowerment and written like a series of skits designed to illustrate the dating don’ts and relationship blunders, complete with chapter headings announcing the point of the exercise (“if he’s not calling you,” “if she’s not sleeping with you,” whatever). It’s a smooth-looking, handsome film with an astounding beautiful cast (Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Connelly, Scarlett Johansson, Kevin Connolly, Ben Affleck) , but apart from Ginnifer Goodwin (who is a giddy, overanxious romantic naif at best and a harmless but obsessive stalker at worst), these characters have no inner life, only a kind of movie animation.
They don’t have much on an outer life, either, at least not one any real human would recognize. Kevin Connolly is a real estate agent whose business is thriving (of course, downtown Baltimore IS the real estate mecca), bartender and pub manager Justin Long lives in a fashionable, unbelievably spacious apartment and Ben Affleck simply moves out of his gorgeous apartment and onto his boat. It’s ostensibly a romantic comedy, but I’d say this vision of working folks in dream lives is more of a fantasy.
For all the heartache and stress over mixed signals, the movie also aims to capture the giddy charge of attraction and the excitement of love. It misses entirely. Director Ken Kwapis is so earnest and careful that he smothers every spontaneous moment and impulsive emotion.
This plodding, overlong film is like an awkward first date with an attractive setup whose heart isn’t in it: polite, dull and seemingly unending. It kind of takes the romance out of romance.
Read my complete P-I review here.