Sunday, February 08, 2009

Double Dose of Dakota: Push & Coraline

As much as young Ms. Fanning being in both movies I saw Saturday wound up being the theme of the day, I had honestly forgot that she was providing the title character's voice in Coraline, if indeed I ever chanced upon the information. I think it goes to show what her strengths as a child actress are. She's not really needed in Coraline, as most of the performance is in Selick's puppetry, while anyone who can sound like a little girl could arguably have done the voice. She winds up being the best thing about Push, though - oftentimes the way she stands or rolls her eyes in the background of a scene does a heck of a lot more to make her interesting than the silly crap the script calls upon her to say.

And, man, is there a lot of silly crap in the Push script. I suppose, if I want to be generous, I can thank it for being a piece of junk in that noticing just how much was unappealing about it sort of crystallized my feelings about what's not fun about superheroes in a variety of media right now. Push is kind of the logical endpoint of a number of trends that have been draining the fun out of what should be one of the most enjoyable genres in the world: As I mention in the review proper, superheroes used to put on colorful costumes and help people; now they just fight among themselves. You can see that in stories like Push, or Heroes, or what The 4400 became before it was cut short. Heck, I'll throw the likes of Harry Potter in, with its magical people sequestering themselves off from the regular world and having their little civil wars. Even in comics, this sort of infighting has been the backbone of the Marvel Universe for years - "House of M", "Civil War", "World War Hulk", "Secret Invasion", and now "Dark Reign" are all turf wars in one way or another; DC's doing the same with Superman and Batman this year, and their big events lately have been about defining and describing minutia of their mythology, not telling great stories of people with great power trying to make the world a better place against opposition.


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2009 at Regal Fenway #12 (first-run)

Remember a time, not so long ago, when superheroes had ideals as lofty as their powers were amazing and their costumes were colorful, and fought for the greater good, rather than just turf wars among themselves? When those amazing powers were actually amazing and special, rather than so common as to be taken for granted? Those days seem far away watching Push, and even those who feel that that kind of superhero story is best left in the past will be hard-pressed to find much to like about this movie.

Oh, there's some. Johnnie To's Milky Way Image Company will probably be able to produce one or two really good crime films based on the money they made handling the Hong Kong production of this turd. Dakota Fanning and Chris Evans continue to demonstrate an uncanny ability to be very good despite being surrounded on all sides by an otherwise terrible movie. But that's just about it.

This particular terrible movie, after a couple scenes and an exposition dump to set up some of the backdrop, tells the story of Nick Gant (Evans), a young man (currently in Hong Kong) who can move things with his mind, although he's not very good at it. A pair of American "Division" agents working for Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou), the man who killed Nick's father, pay him a visit to let him know he's being watched, and they're followed by Cassie Holmes (Fanning), a 13-year-old "watcher" who can see the future; both she and the agents are looking for Kira (Camilla Belle), an old girlfriend of Nick's who escaped from Division and can "push" thoughts into people's minds.

Push is a dreary affair, the sort of science fiction that has no room for wonder, relying on mythology to grab the audience's interest. It's not a particularly interesting mythology - for crying out loud, writer David Bourla doesn't even come up with catchy acronyms for the agencies chasing the powered people down! - and the script keeps one of the most important players off the screen for more or less the entire length of the movie (probably with the thought of having a free hand in casting the character in a sequel). None of the factions are given particularly compelling motivations, and even the protagonists fall into a kill-or-be-killed mindset fairly quickly.

Director Paul McGuigan's last film was the similarly convoluted and amoral Lucky Number Slevin, and he juggles the story well enough until the last act, when somewhere between Bourla's script and McGuigan's direction, the last act winds up making not a lot of sense - it sounds clever in concept, but falls apart with the application of a little logic. The action is quick-cut and confusing, and none of the superpowers have a particularly memorable visual associated with them.

The most memorable thing about Slevin was an enjoyably against-type performance by a cheerful Lucy Liu, and Push is similar, with Dakota Fanning as a cranky and sarcastic psychic; she also sells the one moment where these people actually seem like human beings. Chris Evans and Cliff Curtis are able enough in their parts, but Camilla Belle is pathetically flat as the character at the center of the action, while Djimon Hounsou and Ming-Na sleepwalk through their roles.

Push is probably more competent than most other films bad enough to earn a one-star rating, but it's ugly, right down to the last frame. It's just no fun, and doesn't offer any sort of originality or cleverness to make up for it.

Also at HBS with three other reviews.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2009 at Regal Fenway #10 (first-run, digital 3-D)

Coraline is a dark delight, although, honestly, more delightful than dark. Filmmaker Harry Selick has found a match for his sensibilities in author Neil Gaiman, and has made fantastic use of the opportunities that today's 3-D technology gives him.

Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning), we're told, is a young girl from Michigan whose parents (voices of Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) have just uprooted her to Oklahoma, to live in an apartment house that is shared with a pair of retired actresses (voices of comedy duo Dawn French & Jennifer Saunders) below and a one-time circus person (voice of Ian McShane) above. The only other kid in the neighborhood is nerdy and annoying Wyborn "Wybie" Lovat (voice of Robert Bailey Jr.). The place his not entirely without interest; Wybie has found an old doll with a curious resemblance to Coraline, down to her blue hair and yellow boots, and there's a tiny painted-over door in the apartment that opens to a brick wall. Except, sometimes, it opens into a tunnel, and on the other side of that tunnel is a house just like Coraline's - except what is boring at home is magical there, and everyone has buttons for eyes. She can stay there forever - provided, of course, she lets her "other mother" sew those buttons on her face.

The lesson to be learned hear is obvious, of course: "Things that look too good to be true generally are". But what delights there are! Selick gives us several spiffy set pieces, and while some of the character designs are on the grotesque side, the ones we see the most are fantastic. I love just looking at Coraline, with her blue hair and big feet, and simple facial features that are nonetheless very expressive. What's most impressive is how flexible the design of Coraline's mother is - she goes from irritated mother to fantasy mom to monster with just a few alterations.

Selick's work as an animator is nearly flawless. His characters aren't just designed well, but have personality to their movements, enough that they can often communicate silently. Given the opportunity to shoot in three dimensions, he and director of photography Pete Kozachik make great use of the depth offered by the format. Most of the time the animation is very smooth, but sometimes it isn't, in a way that makes everything perhaps deliberately signals to the audience that this is a film mostly made of things people held in their hands, as opposed to existing entirely in the digital realm. I love the way the filmmakers warp space at times, from the tunnel that was made for 3-D viewing to how a fantasy world ends once it is explored too much.

The screenplay is well-balanced as well. Not having read the original novella, I don't know how much of that is Selick and how much is Gaiman's original work, but the film does a fine job of communicating its mythology without pounding upon the audience with the details. It's a little scary for young kids, to be sure, but kids like being scared in moderation, and the movie gives the audience moments to feel safe before plunging Coraline into the next scary situation. She's nicely balanced between being given enough help to not be Supergirl but also triumphing in large part by being brave and smart and good-hearted, even if adults will recognize some of how she acts as being things kids do to drive their parents nuts.

Dakota Fanning is fine as the voice of Coraline, although mostly as a somewhat generic little-girl voice (as good a young actress as she is, animation doesn't let her communicate with facial expressions and body language). Teri Hatcher is pretty great giving voice to Coraline's mother and other mother, giving the latter too-sweet tones that set off alarm bells in the audience but would be decidedly appealing to Coraline. Keith David is the other standout voice, not quite fitting the stereotype that the phrase "cool cat" brings to mind but being enough in the neighborhood so that it works.

All those parts are pretty great, but its the way Selick fits them all together that makes Coraline a great film, and one that certainly shouldn't be missed while it's still playing in 3-D at some locations.

Also at HBS along with four other reviews.

No comments: