PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Henry Selick, 2009, Universal
Other big-budget studio movie genres may often seem overblown and underthought, but feature animation still seems to be in a kind of modern Golden Age.
That certainly goes for Henry Selick's Coraline: a delightful, sharp, whimsical, wittily imagined and wondrously executed feature cartoon for adults and the smarter or more sophisticated kids -- adapted from Neil Gaiman's novel about a discontented little girl in a big, somewhat creepy Edward Gorey-ish looking old house, a pungent lassie who's not satisfied with her parents.
Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning and memorably animated as a kind of sullen, blue-haired little pre-Goth girl) is a rebel. She has a nice but boringly preoccupied mom and pop (voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), who are immersed in work on catalogues, distant and not very indulgent. Dissatisfied, this touchy little girl longs for new surroundings. And, after hearing odd noises, seeing eerie sights, crawling through a painted-over door and falling into a kind of dark, three-dimension vortex-tunnel, that's what she gets: a new pair of parents (also voiced by Hatcher and Hodgman) who keep indulging her, smiling and feeding her yummy meals.
They're the "Other Parents," and what they want from little Coraline in return for all this swell parenting is submission to their button cult -- not inspired by Benjamin or Brad Pitt, but whatever cult or ritual demands that they sew black buttons over their eyes. These eerie objects are what they fervently desire to be sewn on Coraline's as well.
Coraline is a sort of malcontent Alice and the "Other House" a kind of macabre wonderland. It's also a trap, a snare and, as Selick graphically demonstrates in one scene, a spider web. Populating this otherworld, beyond the door, are such cutups as ex-sexy vaudevillians Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (voiced by the "Absolutely Fabulous" Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) and the bouncy Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), who runs a rodent circus. Then there's a plucky cat (Keith David, in a stretch) and Caroline's confidante, hump-backed victim Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), as in Wyborn. (Wyliving?)
You can see right away that Coraline isn't intended for the usual family audience -- the target crowd for movies like Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa or Kung Fu Panda. This is not a super-cute animated movie, but instead a smart and very eye-catching, engaging one. Selick, as in his equally fun and spooky The Nightmare Before Christmas, and also in James and the Giant Peach, works in a form capable of great artistry and sophistication: stop-motion puppetry, the form which also produced such gems as the puppet films of Wadyslaw Strarewicz (the endlessly delightful The Cameraman's Revenge and The Mascot), George Pal, Jiri Trnka (that splendid Stagecoach pastiche Song of the Prairie and the Kafkaesque classic The Hand), and celebrated modern practitioners, like Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay.
Stop-motion animation -- with its puppets and sculpturesque backgrounds -- is, when handled by a master like Trnka, Starewicz or Svankmajer, one of the most utterly beguiling cinematic forms, whatever the intended audience. And Selick, who has worked with some of the biggest budgets ever in this form, is one of its more expert praticioners. Here, he has the advantage of sometimes spectacular and often mesmerizing 3D effects as well.
In its early years, 3D got a bad rep from three-dimensional botches like Bwana Devil or from the fact that Andre de Toth directed one of the best-received 3D movies, House of Wax, despite having only one eye, which made him unable to see 3D effects. Back then, 3D movies eventually got a cornball, spit-at-the-audience image from which not even Alfred Hitchcock (with his own 3D Dial M for Murder) could rescue it.
But Coraline, which would be a superior movie even if it were released flat, shows how the form and its visual depth can enhance a story -- can play up creepy, macabre atmosphere (as when Coraline wanders into the "Other Garden" and falls into a nightmarish alternative universe.
It's a pip of a story, and Selick clearly relishes telling it -- as his actors relish voicing it. Like Judy Garland's Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Coraline realizes the real world has its advantages, that the fantasy world has its dangers -- and that sometimes there really is no place like home. I think many audiences -- even the ones with a built-in resistance to animation of any kind, should enjoy Coraline. The magic that proves dangerous for a Coraline, or a Dorothy, is delightful for us. And if you enjoy Selick's puppetry, you should give Starewicz, Trnka and Svankmajer a try too.
Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29 (A-)
U.S.; Kevin Rafferty, 2009, Kino
This is one of the best sports documentaries in living memory. Keen and sharp-eyed leftie documentarian Kevin Rafferty (The Atomic Café) gathers together the old teams from a legendary 1968 game, cuts together the old TV tapes, and assembles the results into a witty, reflective and moving replay of what was obviously one of the great events of his young manhood: the 1968 Harvard-Yale grudge match between two then undefeated Ivy League teams.
It's one of the most dramatic, colorful and blow-you-out-of-your-seat-exciting football games, you'll ever see, and it doesn't matter if the title almost (but not quite) gives the game away. Rafferty's movie, and especially the replay and commentary on the game's last 42 seconds, generates jaw-dropping twists, wild exhilaration and nail-biting suspense you won't see in any sports contest this side of the immortal Game Five of the Boston-Phoenix 1976 NBA championship series.
The people and times back then in 1968 were exciting too. It was the antiwar, anti-Vietnam, student power era, and the teams included Vietnam vets, antiwar demonstrators and ROTC students. Yale was one of the top-rated teams in the country that year, and it had a sterling star backfield pair in quarterback Brian Dowling and the eventual star pro halfback Calvin Hill -- unfortunately, one of the few stars not interviewed here. (Dowling, whose nickname was "God," had never lost or tied a game in his entire football career.)
Harvard had an amazing second-string quarterback named Frank Champi, who came into the game with Harvard on the ropes and rose to the occasion as few players ever do. And the team had a stellar supporting crew, including a deadly serious, hard-hitting all-Ivy League offensive tackle and brilliant cum laude English student from the San Saba Texas oilfields, whose motto was "Play it cool and smooth." His name: Tommy Lee Jones. (Yeah, that T.L.J.)
Even the football fans and student bodies that day were a fascinating bunch. Tommy Lee's roommate was the very funny (as Jones insists, and the film proves) Al Gore. George W. Bush was a bouncing, beaming Yale cheerleader; earlier that season, he'd been picked up by the cops for helping tear down the goal posts at the Princeton game. The Yale college newspaper cartoonist -- who drew parodies of the Yale players in his strip, with Dowling as the idolized "B.D." -- was Garry "Doonesbury" Trudeau. The star Yale fullback, Bob Levin, had a pretty interesting girlfriend: a blond, rebellious student actress from Vassar with whom he went on antiwar poster runs. Did I say "actress"? That's an understatement. She was Meryl Streep.
Most of all, Rafferty's movie demonstrates the great, binding camaraderie that sports can create, especially in high school and college -- and especially during a time of trouble like 1968. There were all kinds and types of people at Harvard and Yale during the spectacular game, all caught on camera here. They were also of all political persuasions, but they set aside their tiffs and their politics, and followed the words of John Lennon and (later) Bob Dylan. They came together. Forever young. Hooray for Harvard. Yay for Yale. Peace and love, Meryl. Keep it clean, Al and Dubya. Play it cool and smooth, Tommy Lee.
2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (A)
France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1967, Criterion
Made in U.S.A. (B)
France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1967, Criterion
In the summer of 1966, Jean-Luc Godard was on the verge of a major defection, when he made 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Made in U.S.A. almost simultaneously, moving from one film to the next, and improvising heavily on both. In two years, the cranky and ingenious French cineaste, ex-critic and longtime movie lover would start to abandon narrative studio cinema for the increasingly Marxist dogmatism and indie video documentary-making which would dominate his output in the '70s. I think he made a poor choice, even if he produced one of his masterpieces in 1968, the incendiary traffic jam fable, Weekend"
After Weekend, emulating in a way that film's heartless young hippie guerrillas, who dourly eat the rich at the end, he scorched the earth and flesh of his cinephile past, became a fervent foe of the Hollywood studio cinema style he had so eccentrically and brilliantly celebrated as a "Cahiers du Cinema" critic and began producing a decade's worth of works (Including Wind from the East, Numero Deux and Le Gai Savoir, that few movie lovers wanted to see and few distributors were willing to handle.
Unfortunately, relatively few political film enthusiasts wanted to watch them either (though I've seen and liked some of them myself), and Godard's career and filmmaking genius didn't really rebound in the international arena, until he went triumphantly back to narrative cinema in 1980, with Sauve qui Peut (Every Man for Himself). After returning to more classical (yet still, in their way, revolutionary) styles and themes, Godard commented, on his political period, that, after trying to escape from movies to real life, he had finally discovered that his Marxist politics of the '70s were "another movie, made in Russia." If only that movie disguised as life has been one made by Andrei Tarkovsky, Mikhail Kalatozov, or even Dziga-Vertov, and not one made by Leonid Brezhnev.
Meanwhile, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her -- a great, beautifully colored and shot pseudo-documentary, about consumerism, American influence and prostitution in a middle-class Parisian high rise, starring Marina Vlady (L'Ape Regina, Chimes at Midnight) as Juliette Janson as a middle-class housewife who's a secret hooker on the side -- has deservedly become one of his most highly regarded movies. Made in the U.S.A., a brightly colored neo-neo-noir, starring Godard's muse/ex-wife Anna Karina as Paula Nelson, a hybrid of Humphrey Bogart and Alice in Wonderland, wandering through a noir world haunted by the Ben Barka affair and populated by a host of allusions to Otto Preminger, Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, Edward (The Gun Hawk) Ludwig, Kenji Mizoguchi, and others, played by Godard actor-cronies like intense-eyed Jean-Pierre Leaud and scowling Laszlo Szabo, is more rarely shown and more neglected. And that's despite a cameo by Marianne Faithfull, singing, a cappella, the Stones' big 1965 hit "As Tears Go By."
But both films are still very much alive on screen, as these excellent Criterion packages, full of valuable extras, amply show. Together these lucid/obscure, crystalline/murky, pop/classical/revolutionary gems -- which Godard once considered joining together, and alternating, as Godard favorite William Faulkner had juxtaposed the two stories of Wild Palms -- offer more than 2 or 3 reasons why we should still love Godard. (Both in English and French, with English subtitles.) (Extras: Commentary; new or vintage interviews with Godard, Karina, Vlady, others; video concordances of the cinematic, literary and historical allusions in both films; video essay, trailers, booklets with essays by J. Hoberman and Amy Taubin.)
The Diary of Anne Frank (A)
U.S.; George Stevens, 1959, 20th Century Fox
Anne Frank, the little 13-year old Jewish Dutch girl, who began a personal diary after she, her father, her mother, her sister and some neighbors were hidden away in the attic above a Dutch spice factory in 1943, died later in the concentration camps of the Nazis.
But Anne's little diary, which she continued in her imprisonment until she was 16, eventually was published all over the world, becoming a classic literary statement of the free spirit's resistance to evil and tyranny. And though it's been filmed and dramatized many times, the one most of us remember is this movie, starring Millie Perkins as Anne, with Joseph Schildkraut, Shelley Winters and Ed Wynn, written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and directed by that great American film romantic George Stevens.
Stevens' Anne Frank, despite some location shooting in the actual Amsterdam site of the Frank family's self-imprisonment, is almost an ultimate claustrophobic adapted stage play. The Franks and the Van Dams -- Millie as Anne, Schildkraut as her father Otto, Gusti Huber as her mother and Diane Baker as her sister Margit, Winters and Lou Jacobi as mother and father Van Dam, and Richard Beymer as Van Dam son (and love interest) Peter, along with Ed Wynn as a fussy dentist who joins the group later -- hardly ever move from their attic hiding place. They try never to speak or make sounds during working hours at the spice factory, not even -- in the movie's great suspense sequence -- when a burglar breaks into the factory and they must try to keep everyone hushed and silent, including Peter's mischievous cat.
Yet the claustrophobia is a crucial part of the story, just as it is in Roman Polanski's great film of Wladyslaw Szpilman and the Warsaw ghetto, The Pianist. The Jews who hadn't fled in time, now facing arrest and unimaginable horror and slaughter, had to vanish from ordinary life if they were to survive in the occupied countries. And, in the attic hideaway, the rituals of ordinary life -- sleeping, eating, breakfast, drinking tea, listening to the radio -- become infinitely precious and sometimes spine-chillingly dangerous.
In the midst of it all is Anne, our lively, sharp-eyed, inquisitive witness, who often acts as if it were all a great adventure -- which in some ways, it is. Millie Perkins was not the ideal Anne. (Susan Strasberg had played the part on stage.) Perkins lacks the elfin smile of the surviving Frank photos, and the radiant tone of the diaries; she looks a little big-eyed and modelish. But she's good, and some of the cast -- like Winters, Schildkraut, Jacobi and Wynn (also an Oscar nominee), are great. And all your carps pale against the film's continuing value as social-historical document. Stevens, who had shot color footage of the camps and their victims in the war's aftermath, had been horrified by what he saw and recorded there. He wanted to convey a bit of that horror as it was visited on ordinary people, forced to become exceptional by a murderous time. He does.
Stevens' Diary of Anne Frank is probably a quintessential Oscar movie: a three-hour Hollywood art film/social message drama, shot in black-and-white, with a heavy political subject, based on a famous play (by screenwriters Goodrich and Hackett, who also co-wrote It's a Wonderful Life, the original Father of the Bride and much of the Thin Man series.) But though the film did win three 1959 Oscars, including a supporting actress trophy for Winters as the shrill, vain but good-hearted Mrs. Van Dam -- it was beaten out for top honors that year by another long movie about an imprisoned Jew, Ben-Hur by Stevens' good friend William Wyler. It doesn't matter. We'll never forget little Anne and her diary. And well probably never forget Stevens' powerful, idealistic, deeply compassionate movie either. (Extras: Documentaries and featurettes; commentary by Millie Perkins and George Stevens, Jr.; photo galleries.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Poirot: The Movie Collection, Set 4 (A-)
U.K.; various directors, 2008-2009, Acorn Media
For most admirers of mystery writer supreme Agatha Christie, the best-selling popular novelist in literary history, and, along with Edgar Rice Burroughs, my favorite author as an avid elementary school reader, and also for most devotees of Christie's maddening yet immortal creation, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the best film Poirot is the BBC's David Suchet, who has been playing the part on air for two decades.
Suchet has the vanity, the punctiliousness, the constant curiosity, even the egg-shaped head and the "little gray cells" that Poirot constantly activates in pursuit of murder and murderers. Though he had earlier struck out playing Poirot's foil, Inspector Japp, to Peter Ustinov's Poirot in Thirteen for Dinner, Suchet now seems the definitive actor for this job. However much we may enjoy the Poirots of Ustinov or Albert Finney (in Murder on the Orient Express), Suchet's 63 outings in the part have put permanent flesh on one of the world's most well-loved literary creations.
This fourth collection of Poirot movies from the long-running series offers Suchet and company in plush productions of two Christie classics -- lovingly adapted tales unsurpassed for their author's ingenious plotting, compelling storytelling and devious characterization. You still may want to read the books, and be teased and tricked in Christie's hands, before watching these movies. (I'd read McGinty, but not Pigeons.) But, even if you're clued in to the surprise endings, you'll have fun with the shows. And you'll marvel all over again at the labors of Hercule, and the ways Suchet's Poirot juggles his little gray cells. (Extras: Documentary on the Poirot series, biographies and filmographies.)
Mrs. McGinty's Dead (A-)
U.K.; Ashley Pearce, 2008
Murders in a small town lay bare the secret guilts and scandals of some of its residents, with Poirot on the trail of the guiltiest parties. A clever juggling of past and present crime, with especially tart and stinging portrayals by Paul Rhys, Amanda Root, Sian Phillips, and Zoe Wannamaker (as Christie-like mystery writer and Poirot crony Ariadne Oliver.
Cat Among the Pigeons (A-)
U.K.; James Kent, 2008
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Zack Snyder, 2009, Warner Home Video
Sometimes, being faithful isn't enough. Take Watchmen, for example. The celebrated 12-part superhero comic by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons is so widely regarded as the crème du crime of all graphic novels that it even pops up on a Time magazine list of the 100 best novels since 1923. I caught up with it recently right before watching the movie, quickly sopping up this gloomily eloquent illustrated tale of aging or marginalized superheroes battling mysterious foes in a crime-ridden world swooning on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. And -- after following it all the way from Gibbons' first extreme close-up of a blood-spattered yellow smiley button to the last frame of another smiley insignia on somebody's sweatshirt -- I thought the book's extreme praise seemed earned.
The movie is another story. Despite the absence of Moore's name in the credits (at Moore's request), it's incredibly faithful to the original. But it still doesn't give you the same kind of buzz or charge the comic book does.
Its exactly what you wouldn't have expected from director Zack Snyder, after his digital effects-crazy historical battle movie 300 and his over-jazzy remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. It's a good, solid, reverent literary adaptation. Snyder, his producers (Lawrence Gordon, Larry Levin and Deborah Snyder) and the writers (David Hayter and Alex Tse) obviously think Moore's and Gibbons' book is a masterpiece, and they don't want to be accused of trashing it or mucking it up. The plot and characters are followed almost to the letter; the production design reproduces the original comic book panels. Snyder shows us that smiley button pattern at (almost) the beginning and the end, and he fills the movie with reverse tracking shots that duplicate Watchmen's strangely austere visual effects.
That isn't a ruinous strategy, because the source material has such quality. Moore's writing has literary and political weight and high imagination (which may be why he loves old movies, but doesn't seem to trust the new ones). His characters, a bunch of masked vigilante-heroes who've been exploited or shoved to the edges of society, throb with intelligence and irony. And Gibbons' panels are as crisp and disturbing as a frame from a crime movie by Fritz Lang or Anthony Mann. Making Watchmen into a big, meticulously fashioned movie, with the producers trying to be the David O. Selznicks of comic book movie adaptors, isn't such a bad ambition.
The story follows two organizations of superheroes and caped crime busters, one from the '40s and their successors in the '80s, who begin reconnecting with each other after some of them suffer bizarre attacks and murders in a ghastly alternate universe where Watergate never happened, where Richard Nixon has been elected president five times, where nuclear tensions are being monitored by something called the Doomsday Clock (which is ticking close to midnight) and where the bomb could drop anytime. The old wild bunch of '40s superheroes and secret identities, or Minutemen, include the Batman-ish Nite Owl/Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie) the blowzy supergal Silk Spectre/Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), the cigar-chomping boor and Joker-ish Comedian/Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and other caped cut-ups, or "masks," like Silhouette, Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis.
The next generation includes Sally's daughter, the new Silk Spectre/secret identity Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), a new Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), the embittered loner Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the blue irradiated superbeing Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, digitized), the super-mogul Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), and the older, but not much wiser Comedian (Morgan), whose bloody murder kicks off the tale.
This is real noir paranoia. But the fun of Moore's whole concept lies in the ways he keeps weaving back and forth through his dense cast and mixing up old comic and movie styles and allusions with fairly realistic nightmare exaggerations of the past and present, tying them all together with an intricate web of flashbacks. The incidents in Watchmen are the kind you usually found in superhero comic books -- the fights, the menace, the murders, the space travel to Mars -- but magnified and set in a heavy psychological/sociological context. Watchmen's present is that alternate 1985; the first run of the original comics was in 1986-87. Happily, Nixon was not the president then. But Ronald Reagan was, triumphing over the Soviet empire maybe, but also helping begin the "trickle down" ravaging of the economy that's giving us such bleak payback now. The gestalt behind the story is the sexy, poetic antiwar culture of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, whose words are used in both the comic and movie.
Visually, the movie is spectacular but dingy; the design, as mentioned, comes right out of the books and Larry Fong, who also shot 300, has lit as if in a world of descending shadows and temporary daylight. I liked the cast, especially Haley and Crudup. Haley's Rorschach, with his Spirit-like trench coat and shifting inkblot-faced mask, suggests the kind of twisted dangerous loner Mickey Rourke played in Sin City, and Crudup endows Dr. Manhattan -- whose superpowers stem from an atomic accident that's rendered him blue, nude and occasionally gigantic -- with a kind of mystical, romantic detachment. I'm also glad they kept the movie long, and tried so hard to be faithful to the absent Moore.
This is good stuff, and perhaps we shouldn't fault it for not being great stuff. But I wish Terry Gilliam, a Watchmen fan who tried to get the rights, had made this movie. He could have given the picture the craziness and explosiveness it lacks; he might have been faithful, but in his fashion, and nervier. And he would have understood this old wild bunch of superheroes, and what makes the Doomsday Clock tick.
The Great Buck Howard (B-)
U.S.; Sean McGinly, 2008, Magnolia Home Entertainment
Sometimes a performance is so damned good it all but overwhelms the movie it's in. The Great Buck Howard -- not a very impressive movie otherwise -- is fortunate indeed to have John Malkovich to do the overwhelming act here, as the Great Buck: an irascible, supersensitive, comically haughty professional magician/mentalist/night club entertainer, in one of the last legs of his career. Howard, whom the credits admit was inspired by the real-life prestidigitator the Amazing Kreskin (still going strong in his 70s), was, like Kreskin, a fixture on the Johnny Carson Show (61 appearances, he keeps bragging). And the touchy performer specializes in the usual sleight of hand and some Liberace-ish piano playing, plus a genuinely bewildering mind reading act, in which, almost infallibly, he picks out an audience member hiding some cash.
Buck's is a good show much of the time -- and the smaller and less sophisticated the city (like the ones populated here by Debra Monk and Steve Zahn), the more they love him. But Buck's Carson years are over. He's become a tantrum-throwing drama queen, ridiculed in Rolling Stone, and it's clear that his Vegas shots are drying up and that he'll rarely anymore get far beyond the Holiday Inn small city circuit, on which he's become a fixture.
Malkovich plays Buck to a Carnack fare-thee-well, nailing every ultra-sarcastic inflection, every campy tic and trick in his repertoire. Unfortunately, the film, written and directed by ex-Kreskin assistant Sean McGinly, is as much about Buck's rising young roadie and law school refugee Troy Gable (played by Colin Hanks, whose dad Tom helped produce the picture and does a cameo as Troy's pop) and Troy's affair with hot publicist Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt) as it is about the fading magic man. Big mistake. Troy, who narrates the picture, is someone we've met before, too many times: a plucky young duderino in the young Matthew Broderick-Jon Cryer mold, who loves Buck despite his bad behavior, and also has enough pizzazz to snare the ingénue (Blunt). Hanks is a good actor, but his part needs a little madness of its own to spice it up -- and to compete honestly with Malkovich's compelling, hypnotic, screw-loose bravura as Buck.
The Unknown Woman (B)
Italy; Giuseppe Tornatore, 2006, Image
Another exotic thriller, a baroque and bloody modern noir about a woman with a past (played by the remarkable Kseniya Rappoport), made in an extremely flashy style -- with a fantastic Ennio Morricone score throbbing behind it -- by the writer-director of Cinema Paradiso, here making a successful foray into Mario Bava-Dario Argento territory. The movie is about an ex-Ukrainian whore who winds up in Rome after bashing and knifing her brutal pimp and stealing his money. Fleeing to Italy, she seeks refuge with a bourgeois family (for reasons we don't entirely guess), bonds with the young daughter and then has to face the sudden violent appearance of the pimp's torpedoes.
This is really baroque neo-noir crime-horror stuff, and Rappoport gives an incredible performance. She rivets our attention despite the fact that she often keeps her emotions masked behind a tense, terrified surface, and she maintains sympathy despite some astonishingly vicious and amoral behavior herself. The movie takes the old film noir style to extremes, and Morricone works and frays your nerves the way Bernard Herrmann always could. (It's a shame Hitchcock, working unwisely without Herrmann, didn't find Morricone for his last few thrillers, especially Frenzy.) And though "over the top" certainly also describes much of what we see in The Unknown Woman, we should probably forgive Tornatore -- just as many of us forgive Bava and Argento. After all, it's only a movie.