Coraline


Coraline

Not every crawlspace should be explored.

(Focus) With the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Dawn French, Ian McShane, Jennifer Saunders, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey Jr.. Directed by Henry Selick

Do our parents ever pay as much attention to us as we want them to? We get so wrapped up in providing the necessities we forget about the most basic necessity of all.

Coraline Jones (Fanning) is one pissed off little girl. Not only have her parents moved away from everything she knows and away from all her friends, they’ve moved into an apartment building in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and it always rains. Her mother (Hatcher) can’t cook to save her life, is irritable and always busy. Her father (Hodgman) works incessantly and has nothing resembling a backbone. The two bicker and sit hunched over computer screens, all but ignoring their daughter and not listening to a word she says.

For her part, Coraline is not exactly Pollyanna. She whines, complains and is somewhat mean to the only young man her age in the neighborhood, the awkward and ungainly Wyborne (Bailey) who hides his own loneliness with nervous chatter and prefers to be known as “Wybie”. Admonished to explore their strange, drafty old house, Coraline discovers a tiny door that has been covered with wallpaper. After coercing her mother to open the door with a skeleton key, Coraline is disappointed to find the doorway bricked over. It isn’t until darkness falls that the doorway opens into a parallel world that is strangely like her own…only better.

In this world, food tastes better, the garden is more colorful and life is just the way she wants it to be. Replacing her parents are two look-alikes who hang on her every word, give her everything they want and love her much more than her real parents ever have. There are wonderful things to do and Wybie cannot speak. This world is in every way better than the one she’s used to. The only unsettling thing is that everyone in the other world has buttons sown over their eye sockets – that and their constant wheedling for her to stay in this perfect world forever. Coraline soon learns that the most terrible trap is everything you’ve ever wanted.

Director Henry Selick is best known for directing Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and while the styles are similar, they aren’t quite the same. This film is based on a Neil Gaiman story and the combination of Gaiman and Selick is a winner just as Burton and Selick were. The visuals here are inventive and memorable. As with his previous film, Selick works in the medium known as stop motion animation, in which actual live objects are manipulated frame by frame to give the illusion of movement and life.

While this is a great movie to look at, it might be a little bit too intense and too frightening for the smaller kids. While this is ostensibly an animated feature that doesn’t mean it’s for kids. Parents should think twice about whether they want their younger kids to view this.

That said, one of the drawbacks to the movie is Coraline herself. She is so nasty, so petulant and so self-pitying that you can’t help but feel that she deserves to find herself in an alternate dimension in terrible peril. It’s not that Fanning does a bad job voicing her; it’s just the character as written is pretty unlikable. That makes it difficult to really care what happens to her after awhile.

Still, although the movie overdoses on the eccentricity from time to time, it’s still so visually impressive and the story so clever you can forgive the occasional excesses and even the excesses of Coraline herself. While this is more of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale in the darkest sense of the genre, it retains a certain modern edge which gives it a distinct flair.

Coraline is a beautiful, strange movie that celebrates its own uniqueness and dares you to accept it as it is. It isn’t always easy to love, but love it you will. I know I did. The Academy did as well – it is one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature for next month’s Oscars, although it will have an uphill battle to beat Up. Still in all Coraline has all the goods, and as dark a fairy tale as it is, it’s still the kind that will bear repeated viewings.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazingly imaginative, this is a movie that rediscovers the painstaking art of stop motion animation and elevates it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little quirkiness goes a long way; a lot of quirkiness doesn’t. How can I root for a character I just want to shake some sense into?

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images may be a little too horrific for smaller kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest stop-motion movie ever made, and also the first one filmed entirely in 3D.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray uses the U-Control system to integrate features, animatics and commentary into the film, allowing viewers to get in-depth information about how difficult this film was to make. There’s also a brief 6-minute interview with author Neil Gaiman discussing the differences between the book and the movie.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The White Ribbon

Advertisements

Stardust


Stardust

Danes and Cox are bemused by DeNiro's assertion that Martin Scorsese taught him how to waltz.

(Paramount) Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Peter O’Toole, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Henry Cavill, Rupert Everett, Ricky Gervais, Kate Magowan, Ian McKellan (voice), Nathaniel Parker, David Kelly. Directed by Matthew Vaughn.

This arrives to us from the mind of Neil Gaiman, one of the most respected names in the Graphic Novel field today. The man who gave us such works as Sandman, Death: The High Cost of Living and Coraline also gave us this, his version of high fantasy.

The village of Wall in England is so-named because of a long wall running along the edge of the town. It seems like an ordinary wall, with a breach in it where the stones have collapsed over the year – it’s a very old wall, after all – with the town on one side and pleasant fields on the other. However, persistent town legend has it that crossing through the wall takes you to a place not known to man. The legend is so widespread that the town actually has a guard posted 24-7 at the breach, although few in Wall are so addled as to wish to see what lies on the other side.

One night, a young man does so and meets a girl, a beautiful girl who says she is a princess being held captive by a witch. The young man and the girl do what comes naturally to young men and girls and nine months later, the young man has a special delivery from the wall guard – a baby, who the young man is charged with raising.

Years later – 18 of them, to be exact – the baby has grown into a young man himself, a shop boy named Tristan (Cox). He is deeply besotted by Victoria (Miller), a town beauty who is very rich and being wooed by equally rich (and equally shallow) Humphrey (Cavill). However, she finds a soft spot for the lovestruck Tristan and agrees to go on a late night picnic with him. Tristan is devastated by the news that Humphrey has gone to Ipswich to buy an engagement ring which he intends to present to Victoria at her birthday party a week hence. She intends to say yes to Humphrey.

Just then they are interrupted by the descent of a falling star. In a moment of romantic passion, Tristan promises to retrieve the star for Victoria. She agrees if Tristan can do this, she will be his. In the meantime, the star has landed and it’s not a piece of rock or a chunk of metal. It is, in fact, a beautiful girl (Danes) who goes by the name of Yvaine. Her arrival has signaled a time of great changes in the land – not England, for the Wall is in fact a magic dividing point that separates the land of reason (England) from the land of magic (Stormhold). The King of Stormhold (O’Toole) is dying, and as is customary in that autocratic land, the crown princes are murdering one other in order to be the last prince standing in line for the throne.  It turns out that since four…er,  three princes remain and the King doesn’t have time to wait for the others to go about finishing the others off, he sets a challenge – the prince who can retrieve an amulet and restore the color to the ruby within it will be King. The trouble is that the ruby is around the neck of Yvaine.

There is also a wicked witch named Lamia (Pfeiffer) who knows that the heart of the star bestows youth and beauty on those who know how to use it. For her and her sisters, it is absolutely vital that they retrieve this star since their last one is almost gone and the old girls are beginning to show their age.

Everybody is after the star, but it is Tristan who finds her first. He promises to help her return home to the heavens once he’s presented her to his true love, so Yvaine – who doesn’t like this overly earnest and awkward young man – begrudgingly agrees. This sets in motion a series of perils, pirates (led by the able Captain Shakespeare, played with panache by De Niro) and all manner of really bad people.

This is a movie of charm and wit. There are some great moments and a few real good laughs, but there are some moments of poignancy and real insight as well. Director Vaughn, best-known for Layer Cake, balances all of the elements very nicely. Yes, it’s definitely a fantasy but there isn’t an over-reliance on special effects. Sure, there are some breathtaking moments like the Sky Pirate Ship landing on the water, or a duel between Tristan and Lamia, but the appeal here is in a lovely simple story and some solid acting.

Cox is very likable in his role, and De Niro is obviously having a good time in his role as the pirate captain with a reputation to uphold, but it is Pfeiffer who in all ways is the real reason to go see this movie. She makes a really terrific villain (as those who’ve seen her in Hairspray can attest) and isn’t afraid to have a ton of make-up and prosthetics applied to artificially age her, despite being one of the most beautiful women in the world (still). She plays the part with supreme self-confidence and unleashes one of her best performances in years. It’s a surprisingly demanding role and one critical to the movie’s success, but Pfeiffer pulls it off admirably. This may not be necessarily Oscar material, but it’s the kind of work that gets the kind of work that a good actress wants to do for her.

I was enchanted with Stardust from the very first moment when McKellan’s stentorian narration begins. The world here is richly detailed, which is I think one of the great selling points to most fantasy readers, in the same way that Tolkein’s Middle-Earth is, or Lewis’ Narnia. Stormhold is a world that is lived in and watching this you naturally want to live in it too. I highly recommend Stardust for anyone who loves fantasy movies, fairy tales, adventure stories or romances – and especially for those who love all of the above.

WHY RENT THIS: Charming and witty. Lovely performances, particularly from Pfeiffer. A fully realized fantasy world that you want to live in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags a bit in the middle. Some of the plot points are a bit worn thin.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some minor violence and sexuality but nothing not suitable for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Captain Shakespeare’s vessel, the Caspartine, is named after director Matthew Vaughn’s two children, Caspar and Clementine.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Daredevil

MirrorMask


MirrorMask

You should never play charades with wooden penguins.

(Goldwyn) Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon, Dora Bryan, Stephen Fry, Simon Harvey, Robert Llewellyn, Eryl Maynard. Directed by Dave McKean

Some of the most amazing graphic novels ever have sprung from the fertile imaginations of writer Neil Gaiman and illustrator Dave McKean. Now, the two are teaming up for a movie of unparalleled visual sense.

Helena (Leonidas) has always dreamed of running away from the circus. Her mother (McKee) and father (Brydon) run a Cirque du Soleil-esque traveling show that manages to make ends meet – just – but it isn’t the life Helena really wants. She is an imaginative girl, who spends every moment she has drawing fantastic images of strange creatures inhabiting a vast city. Her teenage impulses for doing her own thing often bump up against her parents need for her help in the overwhelming job of The Show Must Go On. After a particularly nasty argument with her mother (are there any fights worse than those between mother and daughter?) she ends with the nasty wish that she would be the death of her mother.

A little later on, her mother collapses and Helena’s world is turned upside down. Without her mother’s vital contributions, from taking tickets to her role in the show, the upcoming tour is in jeopardy. The family has never been flush to begin with, and their dwindling savings are setting off alarm bells. While her father is sticking fingers in all sorts of dykes, trying to keep the business from going under, Helena visits her mother, who pops in and out of consciousness. At length, she is told that her mother is going to have a critical operation. Helena goes to sleep, feeling betrayed.

When she wakes, she is in a place that is familiar yet unfamiliar. She meets up with a juggler/con man named Valentine (Barry), but they are interrupted by the onset of shadows, which turns the other performers into crumbling dust. As they escape, Helena realizes that the place she is in is the city she has drawn. Before she can catch her breath, she is whisked away to the palace by a palace guard that travels on stilted legs. While on her way to the palace she realizes that she can see her bedroom through certain windows and, to her shock, herself in it.

A pompous prime minister (Brydon again) who, like all the citizens wears an elaborate mask, informs her that she resembles a young girl who passed herself off as a princess of the dark side of the city, but this young girl had abused the hospitality of the white queen (McKee) and had stolen a charm. Now the white queen sleeps without waking, the balance between the light and the dark has been thrown out of whack and the city on both sides is beginning to fall apart. What is worse is that the spoiled princess has assumed Helena’s place in the real world. Helena must recover the MirrorMask and restore balance to the city and return the princess to the Dark Queen (McKee) and not incidentally, return herself to the real world.

The filmmakers have been forthcoming about being inspired by the world of Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth and the inspiration comes through markedly – in fact, Henson’s creature shop built many of the creatures that inhabit the City. Those who are familiar with McKean’s art will not find the imagery unfamiliar, particularly in the gothic nature of the city and its inhabitants, who sometimes look like a collage of images rather than a single solid idea.

 This is one of the most visually impressive movies I’ve seen, with stunning creations around every corner. The settings recall Victorian England as well as Wiemar Republic Germany with a hint of the worlds of Maurice Sendak and, of course, Jim Henson. This is the sort of movie you’ll want to see several times as there’s no way you can catch all the detail in a single sitting.

The English cast does a solid job but they mostly play second fiddle to the images and sets. The problem here is mainly a pedestrian story, which relies overly much on familiar concepts explored in Labyrinth and Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman whose story it rips off virtually note for note.

Still, one can forgive the “must save mom” maudlin-ness since the real reason for this movie’s existence is to excite your sense of wonder, and it does that in spades. There are times the surreal aspects of the visuals hop on the Dali highway and take off willy-nilly, but since I like Dali it doesn’t phase me much, but those who find surreality acceptable only in small doses, be warned that the dosage here is overwhelming.

WHY RENT THIS: Dazzling, imaginative visuals that are a feast for the eyes and food for the brain. You’ll want to see this more than once but even then you won’t be able to capture everything you see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit pedestrian and the plot creeps into the maudlin periodically.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images might be too unsettling for younger, more impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: When Helena reaches for the book “The Complete History of Everything” in the library, the book directly beside it is entitled “Muppets in Space” with the title written in the Farscape font. Both are allusions to the Jim Henson Studios, which produced the film Muppets in Space and also the TV show Farscape.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is footage from a Q&A session McKean and Gaiman did about the film at the 2005 San Diego Comicon, as well as an intriguing feature called Day 16 which shows an entire day of filming in time lapse photography.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian