Saturday, February 14, 2009

Moviegoer's Journal - Part 1: The Uninvited, Push, and Coraline

Welcome to my coverage of all the movies I see in theaters in 2009 – the good, the bad, and the dreadful. In 2008 I saw 73 movies in theaters, which was down from my 2007 record of 87 different viewings. (There were fewer films that interested me in 2008.) How far will I get this year? It depends on what’s released.

Reviews will vary in length from the very brief to the more extensive for more noteworthy releases. At times, under the heading of The Experience, I might interject comments about the theater location or the audience. Note: the date in parentheses indicates when I viewed the film.

It’s February and that means Oscar-nominated films are enjoying extended runs. Meanwhile, studios take advantage of this less-competitive movie limbo before the spring releases by slipping in low-budget thrillers and horror films.

I gave The Unborn and My Bloody Valentine 3D a miss, but a gnawing need to see something invited me to The Uninvited.

1. The Uninvited (2/1) plays around with the genre of the slasher-nanny/nurse who likes to do away with the kiddies so she can have daddy all to herself. This one spreads layers of red herrings and then hits us with a twist that offers a modicum of fun when the story starts to slow down. Getting there is full of elements we’ve seen before – the haunting premonitions featuring a chopped up body in a garbage bag, a bleeding keyhole, big shiny butcher’s knives. Something we haven’t seen before is Elizabeth Banks stabbing a huge rare roast beef with a fork and slamming it down on the kitchen counter. Now, that’s got to be clear evidence that she’s a psycho! For the most part, she is serviceable as Rachel Summers, the obsessive-compulsive nurse who has taken over household and husband (David Strathairn) after the death of his terminally ill wife. Emily Browning and Arielle Kebbel play sisters Anna and Alex who resent Rachel’s takeover.

Seems like films of this genre always take place at an isolated property on the water. This one takes place in Maine (filmed in British Columbia), and the locations as well as the creepy nightmare sequences provide some texture in an otherwise bland story whose main strength is the performance of Browning (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events). With her gorgeously haunting eyes and voluptuous lips, Browning could easily provide memorable support in a more significant film. Strathairn is relegated to the role of the clueless, easily led father who weakly succumbs to Rachel’s obsessive charms. He, too, deserves better roles.

This was a bad choice for first viewing of the year. Last year started with a satisfying bang with Cloverfield – one of my favorite films of 2008. Hopefully there will be something more inviting than The Uninvited up ahead.

2. In Push (2/8) Chris Evans (the awesome Mace in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine who sacrifices himself for the good of all humanity by immersing himself in super-frigid computer mainframe coolant) plays Nick Gant, a fugitive with telekinetic powers (a Mover) hiding in Hong Kong from an evil federal agency called the Division that’s running a program by which individuals with psychic powers will be power-boosted with a drug so they can be used as a super psychic army. (Evil federal agency… psychic powers… super psychic army: all sounds familiar.)

Seems that Hong Kong is full of poor psychic refugees hiding from the Division led by Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou) who has a psychic power of his own. He’s a Pusher and he can alter another person’s intentions. Dakota Fanning plays Cassie Holmes, a Watcher, who can see the future. Camilla Belle (the stunning Evolet, the genetically enhanced Cro-Magnon, in 10,000 B.C.) plays Kira Hudson, also a Pusher. Together, Nick, Cassie, and Kira band together to locate a stolen syringe of psychic power booster drug so that they have something to hold over the Division, I guess. Not that it matters because the plot makes little sense and it’s easy to get confused as to who the bad guys are and what their powers are. The psychic specialists go on and on; there are Sniffers and Bleeders (alas, no Breeders) and Stitchers and Shadows, oh, my!

But this is kind of a cool movie to watch and I enjoyed it for the following reasons:

a. The cinematography and editing are slick and innovative: fast cuts, sped up motion, nifty camera angles.
b. The Hong Kong locations are refreshing and different; there is a lot to look at. Don’t you get tired of films set in L.A. or New York City?
c. The action is fun: exploding fish tanks shattered by nasty Bleeders who break things apart and make people bleed from the ears by means of high-pitched screams, a collapsing bamboo scaffolding, a shootout with floating guns.
d. It’s interesting to see Dakota Fanning sort of grown up. No longer the cute innocent kid from films like Charlotte’s Web, Fanning tries on a cocky toughness that’s kind of, uh, cocky. She takes a stab at acting drunk and fails. She delivers every line in a sort of bored, world-weary monotone, and I couldn’t figure out why until I noticed she was trying not to move her upper lip so as to hide her upper braces. (In the image above, Fanning is getting swept away in a flood from the aforementioned exploding fish tanks, so she has to open her mouth to scream, thus revealing the braces.)

3. Coraline (2/9) is the unsettlingly bizarre and frightening story of a girl named Coraline who finds a secret passage to an alternate home and family where the rooms are bright and cheery, the food is always delicious, and her Other mother and Other father are attractive, cheerful, and always there to please her, unlike her real parents who ignore her by spending all their time on the computer. (A warning there – don’t spend too much time on the computer at the expense of children and/or loved ones.)

Dakota Fanning’s talents are well employed as the voice of Coraline, expressing youthful indignation and innocent wonderment. Here Fanning is much more expressive than in Push because she can open her mouth without worrying about revealing her braces.

Visualized by Henry Selick’s animation of spindly, often grotesque, caricatures, this film offers images unlike anything you’ve seen before as it takes you into a world that’s like one of those dreams you had when you were younger and stayed home from school with a high fever. At times you might notice a jump in the motion – for example, when Coraline’s parents pull away from their daughter’s bed. For an instant, it looks as though you’re watching an 18-frames-per-second silent film. But this slight imperfection indicates that you are watching images rendered by means of painstaking stop-motion animation – a very old special effect that provides a refreshing contrast to the computer-generated animation we see all the time.

Even the film’s “real” world is bizarre. When Coraline’s parents move near Ashland, Oregon, to live in a sagging old house in a muddy, foggy, drab landscape, and mom and dad fix themselves to their computers to work on a gardening catalogue (of all things! – now, movie blogging I could understand!) and crab at their daughter to leave them alone, Coraline must fend for herself, making the acquaintance of Wybie, a gloomy neighbor boy whose head is always tilted to one side, a pot-bellied Russian acrobat, and two hugely bosomed vaudeville actresses who own a legion of Scotties both alive and preserved by taxidermy.

In the Other world that Coraline finds when she grows weary of crabby parents, sloppy casseroles, and Ashland, Oregon, her mother is always cheerful and well dressed in a creepy Stepford wife sort of way, and her charming father plants a magical garden that is like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Meanwhile, the weird neighbors are even weirder, and the old thespian ladies perform vaudeville numbers scantily clad, presenting images that might make you wince with discomfort but will definitely leave you wide-eyed with astonishment. This is all too much for Coraline to pass up and she returns again and again to her Other home until she learns that the price for staying there is to have buttons sewn in place of her eyes. Particularly frightening is the scene when Coraline attempts to flee the Other world by hiding under her blankets – which we see from her point of view underneath the covers, a chilling depiction of how we all hid from that childhood monster in the closet.

The above-mentioned elements plus the film’s genuinely scary finale could easily freak out the little kiddies, so I worry about the PG rating. Not only is Coraline’s Other mother a literal witch who turns into a mechanical spider, her real mother is downright mean. For more mature viewers, the film is a feast for the eyes with some pretty serious commentary about parenting. Though my eyes were always soaking up the fantastic images, I felt overloaded visually and removed from the story at times. While I marveled at what I saw, I acknowledged that some of the nightmarish sequences seemed self-indulgent and overlong – such as when the Other father plants the weird garden. But the action and suspense mount up when Coraline flees from her fearsome spider-witch of an Other mother, and the ending is a dark and gripping one.

(To be continued)


Jason Bellamy said...

On The Uninvited ...

"Seems like films of this genre always take place at an isolated property on the water." Indeed!

On Push ...

"Don’t you get tired of films set in L.A. or New York City?"

Indeed, I do. And here's the interesting part: After visiting Manhattan for the first time a few years ago, I found that I often delighted in knowing just where the characters were/are, either in terms of Manhattan as a whole, or even within Central Park. More recently, however, I've found it's more of a drawback. When Manhattan was more of a vague entity, it was easier to fall under its spell and suspend disbelief. Now I find myself evaluating the plausibility of what's before me based on my personal experiences of being to these places. Not an upgrade.

I'm not down on New York or LA or San Francisco or Chicago. But someone, please, branch out!

Richard Bellamy said...

Yes, I love it when films branch out in regards to location. The Istanbul location in The International is sort of refreshing. I know what you mean about evaluating plausibility based on what you know about a city. I end up spending too much time wondering how characters got to such and such a street in San Francisco or New York City, so I'm always glad when it's a location I don't know.

Anonymous said...

I definitely want to read a bit more soon. BTW, pretty nice design you have here, but don’t you think it should be changed every few months?

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog..

Richard Bellamy said...

Anonymous - Thanks very much for the compliment and thanks for stopping by. Check out the more recent posts when you have a chance.