Saturday, February 28, 2009

Coraline: A Creative Morality Tale for Children of Academics and Other Rustabouts

If you're looking for a new movie to put onto the Ten Best Animated Movies for Traumatizing Kids list, Coraline may be the one.

Caroline, an animated film based on an award-winning 2002 children's dark fairy tale, falls into the genre created by Lemmony Snicket and Hayo Miyazaki's Spirited Away: dark, animated children's stories about children entering a psychological netherworld of monsters and demons, and learning lessons in the process of escape.

In Caroline's case, her parents have moved her from Michigan to a big, damp Victorian boarding house in the cloudy northwest, where she broods and waxes sarcastic as she finds herself immensely bored: until she discovers a closet in the wall that leads her to a secret life of wish-fullfilment and danger.

Without going into spoilers, what I can tell you is that this movie has a subtle, anti-convention subversive moral. It seems to be the kind of story that university professors would tell their bored children who protested their academic careers wishing to have more "normal" doting parents; normal, here, being the equivalent of a kind of creeping evil. There's also a distinct anti-traditional-values theme happening. The movie seems to be saying that the worse thing that could happen to a child is a doting, stay-at-home mother. Coraline's name after all is Coraline, not Caroline, with the vowels reversed as a kind of badge of uniqueness and pride. To be Caroline and not Coraline would be to be merely normal, maybe even a zombie.

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that moral. It's just that unlike the heroines in Spirited Away or even a movie like Pan's Labyrinth, this moral about not fitting in is simpler, and Coraline doesn't really need to learn much in the process of escaping the predicament she's gotten herself into.

But aside from this, the look of Coraline is amazing; for eyes grown bored with 3G animation the creativity here keeps us watching in awe through the movie. Equally compelling is the storytelling. The supporting characters are all fully entertaining, with thespians like Jennifer Suanders (of "Ab Fab" and "Shrek" fame) and Ian McShane (of "Deadwood") lending their fabulous vocals. The opening sequence astounded the audience, and you could hear the gasps of awe and disturbance as the sequence ended, leaving everyone with a creepy feeling and a million questions. This isn't the goth vision of Tim Burton - it's got a little more Disney to it than that - which is why the dark happenings seem even more disturbing. There is also a friend for Coraline, a boy named Wybie - as well as, as there often seems to be in these films - a wise and helpful cat, and Coraline's growth to appreciate them both (and they her) adds a dimension to the story that takes it beyond a simple adventure fairy tale.

And as I said, it is a movie designed for scaring young children. Not recommended for kids under seven, though older children will find the animated sequences entertaining and the story compelling. And adults, too, may enjoy the look and the imagination of this nice little film.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Taken: Take This Movie, Please

February is traditionally the deadest month for cinema (yes, pun intended). More specifically - the time between the Oscar nominations and the awards ceremony. That's when the studios dump all the duds in their vault on the Oscar-movie-laden public. It's a form of counter-programming.

Sometimes this kind of February-cum-summer-movie programming can be a fun escape. Unfortunately, this was not the case with Taken, an uninspired 24 rip-off that in comparison makes Jack Bower seem like the world's most suave diplomat.

Taken - staring Liam Neeson, as retired spy Bryan Mills, in the unlikely rogue agent role - operates under the kind of least common denominator philosophy that if one bad is good, more bad must be better. Thus we get not one kidnapped victim, but two; not one set of baddies to dispatch, but three. Ratcheting up the murder-to-pleasure ratio is fine, but this movie wants to OD on it. The bad guys not only don't mind kidnapping, drugging, raping, and selling Bryan's daughter in front of his face, they don't even want to negotiate with him. Naturally they deserved to be killed in the most gruesome ways possible, though even the killing could have used a little more imagination.

Basically, if you've seen any other thriller (starting with 24) you already know the plot of this movie: innocent girl is kidnapped; Daddy has the "skills" to go after and karate chop the killers like James Bond on speed. There's not much else to this movie except ripping off scenes from better thrillers (such as the car chase in Ronin, a James Bond stunt scene, or Bourne Identity style detective work). So I've gotta ask: what director stages a car chase scene where all the cars, including the hero's, are the same model white truck? You can't even tell who's chasing whom. And let's not forget that Mr. Mills has a bitch of an ex that would make Alan Harper on Two and a Half Men blush. Naturally the whole point of this exercise seems to be so that she can come around to embrace our guy as a hero at the end.

Then there's the fact that the two kidnapped girls are total Britteny's. Getting a pony from your super rich Daddy in your gargantuan mansion for your eighteenth birthday doesn't exactly make them relatable to 99.99% of the audience. And they kind of make being kidnapped, drugged, and sold into white slavery seem like another form of Eurail pass. I totally don't understand the character of this bubblishish airhead daughter who is supposed to be the object of all this excitement. If it were up to me, I'd think twice about executing the entire expatriate population of Albania just to get her back. I do, however, feel sorry for Mr. Neeson, whose career seems to be on the skids having to helm this kind of script.

But I have a great way to improve this movie: The Wayans brothers should have stared as the kidnapped girls. At least that way the laughter in the audience would have been intentional.

So now I've probably dished this movie enough and should point out the few things that keep me from giving it a total zero. First, the issue of white slavery is kind of interesting, and I do think there's some imagination going into illustrating how this whole seedy operation works. They obviously watched enough documentaries on the subject to give the screenplay an air of authenticity.

And then there's Neeson, who even with this flat character is able to turn in a watchable performance. He seems to be a guy totally uncomfortable with his own prowess, like a reluctant tiger who kills because he's being bothered by a tick on his neck, and his creates a kind of nervous intensity that carries you through the hour an a half. He is a pussy whipped superspy who can take out a squadron of armed assassins with his bare hands but can't come up with a simple retort to his ex wife - I suppose that's some writer's idea of a delicious irony but I just found it irritatingly implausible. Nevertheless, Neeson kind of sees his way through this character enough to get you past the contradictions in the set up and well into the second act before you fully realize just how under imagined everything else in this story is going to be.

And then I will also say this: the movie has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That may sound a bit condescending, but I actually mean that as a compliment. A lot of better movies can't even do that, and I give this one kudos for picking a story and sticking to it. There's no doubt that this script knew where it was going from the start and it certainly knew how to get there.

I'm just not sure I wanted to go there. Fortunately, the audience I saw the movie with was self entertaining. If it hadn't been for their laughter and fun comments as the story unwound, the second half of the film wouldn't have been nearly as bearable.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Oscar Best Picture Nominations 2009

Need a guide to the best picture nominations for 2009? Wondering which picture is going to win? Here's the lowdown of the five pictures in contention.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - This traditional Hollywood tearjerker has everything Oscar loves, including the most nominations of any film in the Best Movie category (13). So it should be the front-runner, no? Think again: Oscar voters, like the public, are getting younger, and the old Hollywood tearjerkers may not have the pull they once did. But since this one was directed by David Fincher (director of dark movies like Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac), is more "about death" than love, and stars a pretty-boy actor bravely facing old-age makeup, don't count out the chances that the expected favorite may come out on top. Still, despite the grand ambitions and the heap of talent kept employed by the making of this studio tent pole, many thought this film was a bit too long, and a bit saggy in the the field is wide open.

Frost / Nixon - This political boxing match between a TV-show-host-wannabe-reporter and tricky Dick Nixon has a knock-out performance by character actor Frank Langella, a well-deserved nominated screenplay, and the political timing at its back. Hollywood loves a good criminal Republican administration to dish, and Ron Howard's astute direction elevates this film to one of the best of the year. Still, political stage plays are long-shots on Oscar night.

Milk - the story of assassinated gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, and how he prevented the passage of the anti-gay Prop 6 in California in the 1970's, may assuage the angst of Hollywood over the recent passage of Prop 8. Gus van Sant is the "in" director in Hollywood right now (via his appearance in "Entourage") and Sean Penn's transformation into a middle-aged, gay, Jewish accountant-turned activist is uncanny. Oscar warmed up to this previously overlooked film (snubbed by the Globes) and rightly saw the talent behind the message. Could the Academy be preparing to right the wrong that was done to Brokeback two years ago? But Hollywood doesn't do regret, and the "gay movie" is still fighting an uphill battle: Those who thought Brokeback was a shoe-in may be setting themselves up for disappointment if they have equal hopes for Milk.

The Reader - This story of a mysterious German woman with a past who seduces a high-school student...who later grows up to be, shall we say, more than a little changed by his encounter - is perhaps the most surprising and original movie of the year. Kate Winslet is golden this year (her Best Actress nomination for The Reader rather than Revolutionary Road was a surprise, but she's still the favorite for it). The Holocaust subject matter may be a hard sell for most audiences, but on Oscar night, quality can still win out, and this little movie, tough as the subject matter may be, is flawless.

Slumdog Millionaire - The story of an impoverished Bombay "slumdog" who escapes poverty and wins the heart of the girl through his appearance on "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire" - and the story of an impoverished movie that wins the heart of Hollywood executives and gets made despite the odds - has infatuated both audiences and the movie industry, and come to be the sentimental favorite for this year's best picture. But has the sentiment peaked too early? Excessive weeks of good sentiment may start to seem like hype, allowing Academy voters to re-consider some of the other films on the slate: and those films, all of which are top quality, provide serious competition.