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|February 12-18, 2009
by Michael Phillips
Don’t push it
by Glenn Whipp
by Michael Phillips
Coraline may not be for all tastes and it’s certainly not for all kids, given its macabre premise, but writer-director Henry Selick’s animated feature advances the stop-motion animation genre through that most heartening of attributes: quality. It pulls audiences into a meticulously detailed universe, familiar in many respects, whacked and menacing in many others.
Unlike other recent films shot in 3-D (Bolt comes to mind), this one takes rich advantage of the process, and does so without turning into a series of “gotcha!” shots. Coraline has wit as well as fright in its dark corners, and Selick’s adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novella stays fairly faithful to the story. It’s more streamlined and far more rewarding than the ungainly Stardust, the previous Gaiman fantasy to reach the screen. Would the 8-year-old me have fallen for Coraline? Maybe not. Like my own 8-year-old, at that age I was more into comedy than anything designed to give me the comic willies. But the adult me is a big fan.
In a film critically dependent on tunnel imagery, there’s a moment early on in Coraline crystallizing the rightness of Selick’s touch.
The blue-haired, quizzically intelligent preteen heroine, voiced well and earnestly by Dakota Fanning, has discovered a tiny door in the wall of her immense, ramshackle small-town Oregon home, recently purchased by her preoccupied parents. The first time she opens it, it’s just a bricked-up wall. The second time — and this is the moment — a magical pink-and-blue tunnel expands before her widening eyes. If you see Coraline in a theater equipped with 3-D, and you should, the sight really is something.
Originally set in England, Gaiman’s story works in a similar way, taking a simple premise and leading us ever further down a rabbit hole. Coraline discovers a parallel universe at the other end of the tunnel, a brighter, more inviting version of the same house, and her same parents. Here, all’s well all the time: The food tastes better, the garden sprouts garishly colored amazements on cue, and a miniature train delivers a gravy boat atop a splendidly laid dining-room table.
From the start, the film plays its 11-year-old heroine’s loneliness and dislocation for real (without going for cheap pathos), so that the story’s shift into a darker, more sinister key feels natural. Other Mother and Other Father are much like Coraline’s real parents, except for their eyes, made out of buttons. Their interest in Coraline comes with a catch, and the girl soon learns she cannot simply go back to her drab former life when she pleases.
Selick directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and, in a combination of live action and stop-motion animation, James and the Giant Peach. Certainly Coraline wears many influences, starting with Tim Burton and his taste for graveyard pranksterism.
It all works because Selick doesn’t believe in the hard sell. You don’t feel beaten up by the peril here, and the design collaborators — cinematographer Pete Kozachik, effects supervisor Brian Van’t Hul, animation head Anthony Scott, among others — respect the mechanics of stop-motion, even as they embrace the depth of field offered by the 3-D framework. In the real-world sequences,
Coraline’s life is depicted in muted colors; when she discovers the Other World, her depth of field deepens, as does ours.
The movie isn’t flawless. Coraline is given a friend, Wybie, she didn’t have in the book, and he steals some of Coraline’s thunder at the climax. I suppose the film is five or 10 minutes too long. Yet halfway through, I was already eager to revisit certain images from the first half again. That’s a sure sign you’re watching an adventurous movie with brains, personality, a look and a knack for inducing shivers, even as you’re reminded to appreciate the parents you have, as opposed to the parents of your dreams.
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Don’t push it
by Glenn Whipp
The painfully inscrutable paranormal thriller Push introduces us to a host of characters with various gifts. Some can see the future, some can heal, some can plant ideas, some can make change for a dollar. By the times the credits roll, your most fervent wish is to run into a “wiper” (one who can erase memories) after stumbling into the lobby. That or a telepath who could convince you that you just watched Slumdog Millionaire instead.
We are told in a windy, opening-credits prologue that psychic experiments started by those darned Nazis are now being continued by the U.S. government (add another item to Obama’s to-do list) in order to create some kind of super-freaky-powerful army or else transform toxic waste into a mountain of jelly beans. Like a lot of things in David Bourla’s script, it’s left unclear, as are the rules of engagement once the philanthropic-minded telepaths battle the evil mind-benders bent on world domination.
What we do know with reasonable certainty is that telekinetic Nick Gant (Chris Evans) and clairvoyant Cassie (Dakota Fanning) must recover a powerful experimental drug in the jam-packed streets of Hong Kong before Division Agent Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou) gets his hands on it. Thought-pusher Kira (Camilla Belle) took the serum and actually lived, which means she either has a strong constitution or... what?
Maybe the answer lies in the Bermuda Triangle, containing the footage that seems to have been abruptly cut from the movie. The film’s 111-minute running time is 10 minutes shorter than the length listed in the press notes. To which the only reasonable response is to say: Thanks!
Director Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin) has never been keen on plot logic, and that might be fine here if he offered anything other than Peter Sova’s lush images of Hong Kong. Concepts are introduced and immediately abandoned. When Nick devises the inspired idea for his band of harried pranksters to behave illogically to throw the “watchers” off their scent, it’d be nice for a little wackiness to ensue instead of simply another inert action sequence. (Hats off, though, for the scene in which Evans threatens Hounsou with levitating revolvers. Sometimes the best effects are also the cheesiest.)
Fanning, apparently bummed at missing the audition for Bratz: The Movie, wanders around in a miniskirt and rainbow-colored hair, hurling the occasional profanity and looking decidedly lost. When Cassie downs a fifth of whiskey to see the future more clearly (and haven’t we all done that?), Fanning turns into a mean cutie-pie drunk, demonstrating such a complete lack of firsthand knowledge that you can only salute her parents for a job well done. Now they just need to take better care of her career.
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