Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In Theaters: Coraline

Coraline poster and link to IMPAwards
CORALINE is a film both familiar and new. Even if you haven’t read the novel by Neil Gaiman, you’ll recognize the story; a little girl dislikes her home life and escapes into a fantasy world, only to find that the fantasy is far from what it’s cracked up to be. But CORALINE looks and feels different from most takes on the story, and most animated children’s films of the past few years. It’s eerie, dark, and if it seems a bit tailor-made for the Hot Topic crowd at times, it’s a look that suits the story. Director Henry Selick, who also wrote the screenplay, has crafted a beautiful and atmospheric wonder of a picture, one apparently best seen in 3-D but yet again this wasn’t an option for me. I’m not sure what I missed, but the film is a charmer.

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is a bored girl who has moved with her parents into an old creaky house, apparently so that her dad (John Hodgman) and mom (Teri Hatcher) can work writing material for gardening catalogs, even though the weather’s too bad for them to do actual gardening and mom isn’t fond of dirt in any case. While exploring the house, Coraline discovers a doll that looks like her, and later a small door that, though blocked most of the time, sometimes opens into another version of the house, this one bright and cheery. Her Other Mother and Other Father, both with buttons in their eyes, want nothing more than to please Coraline; they cook fabulous meals and build wonders inside and outside the house. However, it becomes clear that the Other parents want Coraline to stay with them forever, and to do so she needs buttons sewn into her own eyes. Coraline balks at this for obvious reasons, but as she tries to escape, she finds that the Other Mother is something much more ancient, sinister, and powerful than she appears.

Some of the style of CORALINE is recognizable from Henry Selick’s earlier films; the characters have thin limbs (for the most part) and large faces, always slightly askew. The level of detail seems to have increased from NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and CORPSE BRIDE (note to self: I have to catch JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH in full one of these days), and despite a small scope- nearly everything takes place in and around the old house and its interdimensional equivalent- the sets are wonderfully intricate, and even in two dimensions the world of the film has a tantalizing depth. The modulation of color within the film to represent the differences between the two worlds is wonderfully subtle, striking a strong middle ground far from both the bright neons of most modern animated films and the desaturated digital-graded world of much live action.

So it’s a visual wonder, but how does it work on the human level? Well, I think it handles this kind of story better than most. Coraline is well-established in early scenes with her parents and local put-upon kid Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), not in the novel but a memorable character in his own right. She’s smart but easily bored, but at the same time her issues with her parents are more than just pre-adolescent pouting- they’re deep in work and genuinely neglecting her, not because they’re terrible parents but because they’re in a bad phase. Good voice acting and subtle animation help keep the characters believable enough to ground the story despite its fantastic elements, and some of the supporting cast are just fun, like Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as two retired burlesque performers.

I’m probably being too intellectual in my analysis, though, because CORALINE is really a fun and absorbing experience more than anything. It’s a world that you inhabit for a short period, and come out with fond memories. There simply isn’t a lot I can write about it, but it’s funny, it’s atmospheric, it’s slick, and it’s memorable. A great start to the new year, and only two months in.

From the novel by Neil Gaiman
Written for the screen and Directed by Henry Selick
Grade: A-

Friday, February 20, 2009

Random Who Report: The Time Warrior (1973/4)

Link to the Time Warrior on
A couple of installments ago, you may recall I looked at THE GREEN DEATH, last story of the tenth season and the farewell to companion Jo Grant. Without realizing it I recently rented the very next story in the series; THE TIME WARRIOR begins Jon Pertwee’s final year as the Doctor and has the distinction of introducing us to Elisabeth Sladen as the ever-popular Sarah Jane Smith. More than anything, though, it’s a cheery romp through the grimy and violent world of medieval England, with the added bonus of an alien soldier who looks like a potato. God, I love this show.

The story starts at the castle of Irongron (David Daker), a brutal robber baron who’s been threatening the local nobility, all of whom have sent most of their soldiers off with the king fighting the Crusades or the French or whatever (Middle English history is not my strong suit.) A spaceship crash-lands next to his castle, and its occupant, Sontaran lieutenant Jingo Linx (Kevin Lindsay), trades Irongron higher-tech weapons (breech-loading rifles at first, then a robot) in exchange for shelter. But he needs technicians to repair his ship, so he uses what technology he has to propel himself forward in time and start stealing scientists from a conference in the 20th century. This catches the attention of UNIT, and so the Doctor joins the conference, tracking the disappearances to their source and taking the TARDIS back in time to Irongron’s castle. Unbeknownst to him, intrepid reporter Sarah Jane Smith has stowed along for the ride.

THE TIME WARRIOR was actually one of the first stories in years set in Earth’s past; the pure historical episodes of the Hartnell and Troughton years were never big ratings successes, so this one throws in aliens. The way the sci-fi and medieval material interact is actually kind of clever. Irongron’s men see the crashing spaceship as a falling star, and appropriately enough it’s a tessellated sphere. Linx’s armor is weird and exotic but something like a warrior’s plates, and his appearance, while appropriate for an alien from a high-gravity planet, makes him look a bit like a troll. The Doctor, of course, instantly gets pegged as a wizard.

The medieval setting is also an opportunity for just plain fun; Robert Holmes has written a wonderfully funny script full of brilliant old-timey insults and threats, such as, “I’ll chop him so fine not even a sparrow will fill its beak at one peck!” As Irongron, David Daker roars and tears across the set with wonderful gusto, and is given a clever counterpoint in John J. Carney as the worshipful Bloodaxe. Much of the story hangs on the interaction between Linx and Irongron, which is well-played on both sides. Director Alan Bromly keeps the energy high, and the production values are unusually high.

The story marks the introduction both of the Sontarans, who have popped up now and again on into the new series, and Sarah Jane, of whose wonderfulness I have already written. Here, Sarah has yet to take on that favorite-aunt cuddliness, but she’s still smart and brave and charming, and the early “Women’s Lib” aspect of her character (presumably meant as a contrast to the fluffy Jo) isn’t treated with the typical reactionary disdain of the time. Donald Pelmear is also entertaining as Professor Rubeish, a nearsighted scientist who wanders around the proceedings with varying levels of usefulness. (One of the nicer bits in the story is the fact that Irongron’s band is a disorganized gang of thugs, which means it’s not really implausible that the heroes can wander in and out of the castle without much supervision.) Also, watch for Jeremy Bulloch, later to become Boba Fett, as Hal the Archer.

THE TIME WARRIOR isn’t the show at its best- the ending is a bit abrupt- but it’s the show at its most consistent. The story makes sense, the pace is right, the characters are developed as much as they need to be and the atmosphere is light and welcoming, with only a couple of naff effects, which by WHO standards means this is a technical triumph. Definitely one worth watching, and if you’re interested in getting into the old series, this could be a story to start with.

Written by Robert Holmes
Directed by Alan Bromly
Grade: B+

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Random Movie Report #60: The Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu DVD cover and Amazon link
The movies have not been kind to H.P. Lovecraft; though he’s considered one of the most important horror writers of the last century (at least in English), there has yet to be a significant film adaptation of his work. The closest we’ve gotten so far is the psychedelic 60s version of THE DUNWICH HORROR and Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR. The rest is direct to video trash, mostly, taking advantage of the dubious copyright status of Lovecraft’s work and paying little attention to what he was actually writing about. THE CALL OF CTHULHU is an interesting attempt to do right by the author, and a neat conceptual experiment overall; it’s a silent film, shot in the style of something from the late twenties, when the short story of the same name was published. Running at a mere 47 minutes, this not-quite-a-feature is surprisingly effective and atmospheric, though the retro filter does soften some of the impact.

Matt Foyer is the protagonist, a nameless man telling a nameless listener (John Bolen) about the discoveries he pieced together based on papers left by his deceased uncle (Ralph Lucas.) His story is divided into three acts. First we see his uncle’s contact with an artist suffering feverish dreams of an ancient city inhabited by an indescribably horrific being. These dreams, which inspire mad carvings, take place over the month of March 1925, when by coincidence a great earthquake is detected at sea. The second piece of the puzzle revolves around the uncle’s chance meeting with a police inspector who, decades ago, disrupted a mad human sacrifice ritual in the Louisiana bayou, perpetrated by cultists of the Great Old Ones, deities from the stars, and in particular the octopus-headed Cthulhu, who is said to wait slumbering in the lost city of R’lyeh. When the stars are right, he will rise, and humanity will be doomed. The third act tells of a ship lost at sea after a storm, and its crew attacked by cultists and stumbling upon a mysterious and uncharted island.

My major concern going into this movie was that the silent movie approach was a pretty big gimmick, and it seemed like it had a chance of overwhelming the proceedings and not doing justice to the material as a result. Usually, horror works because it makes us believe in the horrible things it’s showing us, but the silent film inherently has an air of the unreal and artificial (for those of us who can hear, anyway.) Of course, silent films don’t get made much anymore and it’s hard to revive a lost art. On top of it all, this is a fan project, made by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, so there’s a high risk of kitsch and in-jokiness (there are a couple in the unskippable copyright warnings, but I'll let that slide.)

Fortunately, the filmmakers insist on playing it straight and trying to make the film as good as it can be, given a low budget. It helps that they’re going for an Expressionist look similar to what was popular at the time; the sets are obviously sets and just a little plywoody, but it doesn’t matter because what they stand for is so clear. The only places where this approach falls down are in some overly stiff and pantomimed action sequences, and what we see of Cthulhu himself; the film takes care not to give us clear prolonged shots of the beast, which is a good approach seeing how much effort Lovecraft went to in describing the indescribable, but the stop-motion model we do see is a little spindly and roughly textured, not quite conveying the bulk or power of the beast.

This is a pretty faithful adaptation, and the short length means they don’t feel compelled to pad out the story. There’s a good amount of dialogue and narrative text, but somehow the captions don’t feel like an intrusion as they often did in over-written silent films. The performers do a good job of emulating the heightened emotional style of silent acting without going over the top. All in all it’s a very well-balanced picture, and so succeeds at what must have been its primary goal of being really goddamn creepy. Perhaps a truly great Lovecraft adaptation is still yet to come, but this is defiinitely a film worth seeing.

Based on the short story by H. P. Lovecraft
Screenplay by Sean Branney
Directed by Andrew Leman

Grade: A-

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Top 10 Films of 2008 and Assorted Miscellany

Speed Racer image from
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's the top 10 list that you may have been interested in a month ago. I like to take my time, but I've either seen or waited too long to see all the films I wanted to last year, so let's do this thing.

As film years go, 2008 was, well, decent. Not bad, by any stretch, and with some interesting highs, just with some dry patches. It was, for whatever reason, a year when the blockbusters aimed for artistic glory and occasionally achieved it, but the holiday season was kind of anticlimactic and short on cheer. This was also a year in which we got two well-made dark comedies, which may tragically be a record. So here's how things shook out for me in the year of change, crisis, and I’ll try to think of something else starting with “C”:

1. WALL-E. Let’s stack this all up, shall we? Brilliant evocation of character through minimal dialogue and faces with limited expression, expert animation loaded with detail, a decidedly chipper take on dystopian sci-fi, an environmental message that isn’t the least bit judgemental or scolding, an affirmation of willingness to change, all topped with ultracute robots. Also, Fred Willard. We have a winner.

2. THE DARK KNIGHT. A well-oiled engine of a crime thriller with the framing of the superhero genre and the spectacle of an action movie, managing to be a great example of all three. Heath Ledger reinterprets the Joker as a ragged genius who won’t be happy until everyone is as savage and destructive as he is, creating one of the most weirdly compelling villains seen in a long while. The story moves in unpredictable ways and defies obvious structures, the characters are never sure of themselves, the visuals are pristine, and the action isn’t nearly as confusing as it’s been made out to be. A triumph.

3. SPEED RACER. Okay, show of hands, who anticipated this being half as good as it was? The Wachowskis take on a vintage Japanese cartoon known mostly for inspiring parodies on every animated show known to man, and create a visually dazzling and surprisingly heartfelt story of a family fighting the system. This is one of those fantasy films that wraps you in an inviting and tantalizing world which promises more awesome things than you can pick up at once, eschewing any kind of restraint in favor of ninja fighting and random appearances by Shaft. On top of that, it’s a nice reminder to modern filmmakers that it’s okay to have multiple colors on screen at one time.

4. MILK. The energy, the dedication, and the urgency of the Seventies pro-gay movement all course through this film, placing the viewer at the center of a civil rights struggle that’s rarely given its proper place in history. Sean Penn captures Harvey Milk’s charisma and political acumen, while a splendid supporting cast help bring his world to life. Not quite up to THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK, but another take on the material is welcome.

5. THE WRESTLER. This one has grown in my estimation since I first saw it, a sign of just how subtly effective the movie is. Mickey Rourke is a powerhouse, Marisa Tomei is beautifully conflicted, and the world of small ticket pro wrestling is rendered with brutal honesty and admiration. The more conventional parts of the story are made believable by Darren Aronofsky’s deliberate eschewing of obvious movie trickery and slow development of emotional intensity.

6. IN BRUGES. Part black comedy, part morality play, part throwback to Hieronymous Bosch; this unique crime picture defies categorization but never ceases to entertain. It’s got a story that’s better constructed than it looks, actors who are putting in more effort than they seem to, and characters who may or may not be as damned as they think they are. Moving and hilarious in equal parts.

7. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. The grimiest and most stylish of heartwarming indie crowd-pleasers; part of me wanted to declare the whole thing overrated and overhyped, but it’s simply too well-made to dismiss. The story may be simplistic, its portrayal of India inaccurate, and some of its elements underdeveloped, but it is the story being told and the filmmakers do a damn fine job telling it. And I really hope more films start doing closing dance numbers.

8. BURN AFTER READING. The Coens follow up Oscar-winning respectable bleakness with an almost deliberately offputting farce that’s just as nihilistic, but has the courtesy to have a sense of humor about it. Like FARGO it focuses on people’s ability to let short term compulsions and a lack of critical thinking foil their ambition and make things very messy very quickly. As comedy it’s an unusual taste, but I couldn’t but laugh.

9. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. As overexploited as the “dumb white guys face the long-delayed onset of maturity” subgenre of comedy is becoming, I can’t help but appreciate the blending of this material with nostalgic callbacks to stoner comedies and 80s buddy pictures, complete with excessive gunplay and a theme song by Huey Lewis. The revelation that James Franco is a great comic performer helps catapult this onto higher ground, no pun intended.

10. TROPIC THUNDER. Feels weird to put these two movies right next to each other, but there you go. A fun satire of the Hollywood movie machine and the actors caught in its gears, not pointing in any one direction but still funny and possessed of a manic energy. Inspired and strangely uplifting.

Films I missed: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Waltz With Bashir, Doubt, Let The Right One In

Most Underrated Film of the Year: SPEED RACER. There’s really no contest here; the Wachowskis labored to bring us a bouquet of sheer Technicolor joy, and it was tossed to the ground because... I don’t know. The dialogue scenes are kind of longish. The editing style takes some getting used to. Um, it’s based on an old cartoon. In the end it amounts to looking at Michaelangelo’s David and bitching about imperfections in the marble. You’d expect either the critics or the public to miss the point but both at once requires some spectacular bad fortune.

Slight runner up though this one actually made some money and wasn’t slated that badly at first but Internet flaming reached really annoying proportions: INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. I realize that suspension of disbelief has its limits but if your major point of contention with this film is that silly and implausible things happen in it, I wonder what genre you thought this picture was. (Also: CGI is not your enemy.)

Saul Bass Honorary Award for Best Opening Credits Sequence: QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Thank God for the Bond series, otherwise I may not have bothered to give this out. (THE WRESTLER had a nice one too, though.)

Worst Title of the Year: NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST. I know that was what the book was called, but seriously guys.

Performances that impressed me (a forever incomplete list):

Elissa Knight, WALL-E
Macintalk, WALL-E
Aaron Eckhart, THE DARK KNIGHT
Michael Caine, THE DARK KNIGHT
John Goodman, SPEED RACER
Sean Penn, MILK
Emile Hirsch, MILK
James Franco, MILK
Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER
Marissa Tomei, THE WRESTLER
Colin Farrell, IN BRUGES
Brendan Gleeson, IN BRUGES
Ralph Fiennes, IN BRUGES
Robert Downey, Jr., IRON MAN
Gwyneth Paltrow, IRON MAN
Jeff Bridges, IRON MAN (in a cave with a box of scraps)
Frank Langella, FROST/NIXON
Michael Sheen, FROST/NIXON
Amy Poehler, BABY MAMA
Robert Downey, Jr., TROPIC THUNDER

... “crashes!” That’s it!

What was I trying to do that for again?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Guilala returns!

A while back I reviewed THE X FROM OUTER SPACE, a fun, little-seen monster movie with a wonderfully goofy-looking main monster named Guilala. Though he's recently been in a new movie which may come to US DVD at some point, I was surprised to see him pop up on television, promoting a 100k+ job search site:

And apparently he's started a family. Aww.