Monday, November 30, 2009

Coraline: Movie Review

Director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) adds to an impressive repertoire of stop-motion fantasy films with this bizarre twist on the classic venture down a rabbit hole of extravagant, and chilling surprises. Based on the 2002 novel of the same name by British author Neil Gaiman, the film details the adventures of Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), a plucky, blue-haired, eleven-year-old explorer who arrives from Pontiac, Michigan to Ashland, Oregon, where she and her parents move into the The Pink Palace, a converted, dilipidated mansion. The other tenants are the eccentric Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), a blue-skinned, Russian giant with a diet for beets and a curious talent for conversing with pet mice, and Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French), ex-thespians who breed Scottish terriers (saving the dead ones for taxidermy) and have a sweet tooth for 100-year-old taffy.

Coraline meets Wybourne "Wybie" Lovat (Robert Bailey Jr.), the awkward, talkative grandson of Mrs. Lovat, the owner of The Pink Palace, and a nameless black cat. Wybie puzzles Coraline with a fear of the mansion (from which his grandmother's twin sister was "stolen"). Later that evening, Coraline receives a stuffed doll from Wybie sown in her own image and discovers a door, which leads to another world, the polar opposite of her own. Here, her "other parents" are attentive and loving, despite the anomaly that they have no eyes - just buttons sown in where their eyes should be. At first, Coraline is content with her new life and considers staying in the "other" world forever, but when she is confronted with a gruesome sacrifice, her fairy tale world plunges into a sinister nightmare as she realizes just how black the rabbit hole can become.

With a crew of only 450 people managing 50 lots, 150 sets and a cast of characters exhibiting 200,000 facial expressions, Coraline was a ground-breaking success as the first stop-motion animated fim to be shot entirely in 3D. This is convenient, since the first half of the film is decidedly slow and hopelessly cliche, mitigated by colorful and complex imagery. Even with a small cast of characters, the film is cluttered by performances which are wayward and less than fulfilling. Dakota Fanning shines as the feisty, adventurous Coraline, while Terri Hatcher (Desperate Housewives) performs at her darkest best as the ominous "other mother," Beldam. Veteran voice-actor Keith David (Halo, Princess Mononoke) is the voice of the cat, who sees through the facade of the "other" world and advises Coraline in her quest to defeat the Beldam. Overall, an entertaining fantasy flick that makes way for Tim Burton's adapation of Alice in Wonderland due in March of 2010.

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Julie and Julia: Movie Review

Academy Award nominee Amy Adams and two-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep star in this delectable film based on the lives of two extraordinary women. In 2002, Adams is Julie Powell, a restless twenty-nine-year-old phone representative whose dreams of becoming a writer have shrunk to the size of her cubicle. After moving with her husband, Eric (Chris Massina), to Long Island, where they rent an apartment above a pizzeria, Julie longs to find her place in a corporate society dominated by shallow executives. Consumed by the desire to prove that she is worth more than material for the down-and-out column, she is inspired by her idol - legendary cooking magnet, Julia Child - to write a blog based on a year's experience cooking all 524 reciples from Child's cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. So begins the Julie/Julia Project, a comic journey down a road of self-discovery paved with chocolate souffle, poached eggs, and plenty of boeuf bourguignonne.

Interlaced with Powell's story is an account of six years in the life of Julia Child (portrayed to a pearl by the impeccable Meryl Streep). While accompanying her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), on his diplomatic assignment in France in 1948, she is captivated by the sights, sounds, and tastes of Paris, with the only frustration being that "absolutely nothing comes in (her) size." After several stints at hatmaking and bridge classes, she decides to pursue her passion for fine cuisine by enrolling at the Le Cordon Bleau cooking school. While there, her dexterity and daring surpass those of her all-male classmates, but her road to success is blocked by the cynical Madame Brassart (Joan Juliet Buck). All of this changes, however, when she meets Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey), cooking teachers who aspire to write a French cookbook for American housewives. Impressed by her skill and bubbly enthusiasm, the pair ask Julia to join them as contributor, translator, and editor. The result is the culinary opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Looming in the background of Julia and Paul's otherwise blissful marriage is the threat of McCarthyism as Paul is investigated by agents of the Red Scare.

Julia and Julia began as a project blog written by Julie Powell, a phone representative for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. In 2005, it was published as Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 reciples, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen and republished in paperback as Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. Director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, Bewitched) became aware of Julie Powell after reading an article on the blog in The New York Times. The idea of combining the Powell story with a feature on Julia Child was that of Columbia Tristar's co-chairman, Amy Pascal. Although the production encompasses two films in one, Child's story, although it takes place fifty years before Julie Powell's, should in no account be referred to as a flashback. Rather, it is Powell's story, lacking in vivaciousness and genuine humor, that should be referred to as a flashfoward. Streep's performance as the affable, outgoing Julia Child is unbeatable and ripe with emotion, while Adams' character experiences several exaggerated meltdowns with little accomplishment at credible expression. The film's conflate well, but the Child story is undoubtedly the crutch which supports Powell's half of the film, which has no chance of standing on its own on the big screen. However, performances by Stanley Tucci, Linda Emond, Helen Carey, Jane Lynch (who is towering, literally and figuratively as Julia's sister, Dorothy), and Mary Lynn Rajskub (Julie's best friend, Sarah) harnass a well-deserved "bon appetit" for what is ultimately a three-star production.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Mary and Max: Babies Come From the Bottom of Beer Glasses

The birds and the bees takes a perverse, but cynically humorous spin in this claymation feature film starring Bethany Whitmore, Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Eric Bana. Eight-year-old Mary Dinkle (Whitmore/Collette) is the outwardly bland, but lovable heroine with eyes "like muddy puddles" and a birthmark "the color of poo." Having been told that babies in Australia come from the bottom of beer glasses, she seeks answers from an American point-of-view by randomly writing to Max Horowitz (Hoffman), a forty-four-year-old, obese, atheistic Jewish man from New York City. At first, Mary's letter terrifies Max, a perpetual loner, whose only friend is the Italian book worm, Mr. Ravioli (a figment of his imagination). When Max summons up the courage to write back, however, he begins the first in a series of hilarious, but often touching, correspondences that continue for the next eighteen years.

In their colorful exchanges, Mary and Max bring an unforgettable host of secondary characters to the forefront. Vera Dinkle (Renee Geyer) is Mary's mother, a stay-at-home housewife who frequently "tests" the cooking sherry and "borrows" food from the local grocery mart. Her father, Noel Dinkle, works in a factory attaching straps to tea bags and has a hobby for taxidermy, which he fulfills by picking up dead birds from the freeway. In America, Max is accompanied by Ivy, his elderly neighbor who has "more wrinkles than an elephant's bottom," and Dr. Bernard Hazelhoff, Max's cynical psychiatrist who advises him to "eat nothing bigger than his head." Eric Bana voices Damien Popodopolous, Mary's neighbor and eventual love interest who smells "like lemon dishwashing liquid" and is usually seen watering his mother's roses.

The film's main source of humour is satire (subjects include social acceptance, obesity, and the American justice system among others). Viewers will find parodies of classic films, such as Pyscho and Breakfast at Tiffany's laugable, but not imposing. The film's only flaw is it's pace (slow, but subtle) and viewer's may find the ending a bit of a disappointment, but this is nevertheless a cleverly made and stirring tale of friendship and self-discovery.

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Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs: Movie Review

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller prove that they know their onions in this delectable film based on the 1978 children's book of the same name by Judi and Ron Barrett. In the film, we learn that the town of Chewandswallow was originally known as the island of Swallow Falls (placed on the map just beneath the letter "A" in the "Atlantic Ocean"). Bill Hader (Saturday Night Live) is the voice of Flint Lockwood, the town's brilliant, but accident-prone inventor, who strives to invent something that will not only make him famous, but also earn his father's respect above all things. In an underground lair that will hail to fans of Dexter's Laboratory, he invents a machine dubbed the "Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator" or the FLDSMDFR, for short, to spare his hometown from a neverending supply of sardines. After a serious mishap that destroys Sardine Land, the town's newest attraction, Flint meets Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), an intern reporter bent on suppressing her intellect for the sake of her career. However, the pair soon discover that Flint's contraption is no failure when food begins to fall from the sky in a hail of hamburgers. Flint goes from unheeded nerd to local celebrity and his relationship with Sam begins to ripen, but when it becomes apparent that something awry is cooking (in the shape of giant hotdogs) it's up to Flint to get himself out of the soup and put a stop to a spaghetti storm of mouthwatering proportions.

Despite being a far-flung adaptation of the children's book, the hilarious antics and parodies of other disaster films make the film worthy of a five-star appraisal. The assault on the world's biggest landmarks by a contingent of donuts and other sweets pay homage to The Day After Tomorrow, while a search-and-find by the Food Replicator is remiscent of War of the Worlds. Secondary charaters such as Manny (Benjamin Bratt), the mult-certified cameraman and Earl (Mr. T), the town policeman with a superman complex, add fulfillment to a cast of comedy's biggest clowns, including Andy Samberg (Saturday Night Live) and Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother). Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a film that family's will enjoy, even if it's not their cup of tea.

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9: Movie Review

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows meets War of the Worlds and Terminator Salvation in this animated sci-fi thriller directed by CG animator Shane Acker and produced by Tim Burton. Diabolic machines and poisonous gas have annihalated the human race as we know it. The only inhabitants of this post-apocalyptic no-where are a group of nine anthropomorphic rag dolls who are the last fragments of humanity. Elijah Wood is the voice of 9, the last of his creation, who is destined to destroy the Fabrication Machine, literally the brain child of a brilliant scientist that went out of control when usurped by the military as a weapon of war. During his mission, 9 is joined by an eclectic group of characters - 3 and 4, a pair of mute scholars, 2 (Martin Lindau), an inventor, 5 (John C. Reilly), a healer, 6 (Crispin Glover) a prophesier, 7 (Jennifer Connelly), a fearless warrior, 8 (Fred Tatisciore), a bubble-headed brawn, and 1 (Christopher Plummer), the group's stubborn, dictatorial leader.

Shane Acker's credits as a CG animator for the big screen began in 2003 with The Return of the King, the third installment in The Lord of the Rings franchise. Two years later, Acker wrote, directed, and designed 9, an 11-minute short film, as a student project. Director Tim Burton was so impressed with Acker's talent that he decided to produce a feature length film, which would embrace the philosophy of human misguidedness on the field of technological advances. While a brilliant concept, the film's plot fails to utilize the ideology to its full potential, though it does hint at other philosophical themes: 9's lamp can be interpreted as a reference to the Greek philosopher Diogenes. Acker's strength, however, does not lie in the storyline, but in his imagery. Before the final showdown with the Fabrication Machine (which is less thrilling than the other scenes), the group must do battle with the minions it created out of its own vast knowledge, making way for the fast paced action that is the highlight of the entire film. Viewers with a profound appreciation for the philosophy of human degeneration will enjoy this film. Otherwise, it is not worth the admission ticket.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Paranormal Activity: Movie Review

Put a camera in a bedroom for three quarters of a homemade film and there's plenty of "extra-curricular activity" to keep viewers on edge. However, in the case of this low-budget mokumentary by Israeli-born newcomer, Oren Peli, the only activity we're supposed to see - and believe for that matter - is the paranormal sort. Katie Featherston and Micah Sloater, a twenty-something couple from San Dieog, conduct an investigation into the strange goings-on in their suburban style home. Micah is the film's trademark skeptic enjoying the humor of playing ghost-hunter, while Katie is the ever-cautious female lead, whose childhood home burned down after an encounter with an unknown spirit. Years later, she is hounded by a malevolent spector, which prompts Micah to gain evidence of the haunting on tape. The couple go so far as to consult a dubious psychic, but when Micah attempts to contact the spirit by using a ouija board, the haunting spirals to a terrifying, sinister peak.

Paranormal Activity thrives on the power of suggestion. Footfalls inthe dark, demonic voices on audio, and the occasional spontaneous door-slamming mimic the usual predecessors to the heart-stopping mainstream horror of a Hollywood blockbuster. On the other hand, the scenes that pit viewers with the tangible side of terror succeed only in stealing from the film's raw presentation of a genuine haunting. As a result, a midnight mad struggle down a hallway is immersed in hopeless cliche and likeable to comic relief.

Nevertheless, the chemistry between the characters is decidedly credible, though the lack of interaction with the world outside their home makes them less like the every-day individuals viewers are supposed to relate to. Regardless, Peli casts his lead roles in a rare and praiseworthy style. Many classic films of the haunted-house genre (The Amityville Horror, The Shining, and The Changeling, to name a few) feature a male character corrupted by a spirit (or spirits) which eventually drives them to the brink of insanity. Peli, however, goes down the same path as William Friedkin in the 1973 smash hit The Excorcist. Do not be mistaken - Katie Featherston is no Regan Mac Neil, but her performance relishes in the tender side of the emotional trauma associated with demonic encounters. Featherston's expression culminates as the only portion of the film evoking an understanding of the characters' circumstances, if not outright belief.

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