MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Coraline, He’s Just Not that Into You, The Pink Panther 2, Fanboys

Coraline (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Henry Selick

Other movie genres may need some more oomph. But — at least among the big popular, well-budgeted and well-distributed movies that have huge poster displays at the Multiplexes — animation still seems 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, natch, voiced by Dakota Fanning and memorably animated as a kind of sullen, blue-haired little pre-Goth girl.)

Coraline 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 — eerie objects that 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 (see DVD column) or Kung Fu Panda. This is not a super-cute animated movie, but it’s a 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 of cinematic forms, whatever the intended audience. And Selick, who has worked with some of the biggest budgets in this form, is also 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 examples, House of Wax despite having only one eye. It was seen by many as a feeble cornball, spit-at-the-audience image from which not even Alfred Hitchcock (with his original 3D Dial M for Murder) could at first rescue it. But Coraline, which would be a superior movie even if it were released totally flat, shows how the form and its visual depth can enhance a story — can play up creepy, macabre atmosphere of something like Coraline (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, for Coraline the real world has its advantages and the fantasy world has its dangers — and 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.

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He’s Just Not that Into You (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Ken Kwapis

Can we have a moratorium on movies based on both video games and self-help books? This is not a good strategy for artistic success. Nor does Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo’s relationship tome He’s Just Not That Into You provide fertile soil, or jokes, for the attractive young cast assembled here, hired to impersonate a bunch of Baltimore yuppies, attractive but enmired in sexual dilemmas of sometimes maddening triviality.

Here’s the lineup, dramatizing a set of complications that might be better titled “No Sex in the City.” (Or “Not Much Sex in the City.”) Pushing-too-hard Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) wonders why self-absorbed Conor (Kevin Connolly) won’t call her back; meanwhile Smartass Alex (Justin Long) advises her over the cell phone. Beth (Jennifer Aniston) has an ideal relationship with attentive permanent-bachelor Neil (Ben Affleck), whose only flaw is his aversion to marriage. Mary (Drew Barrymore, also the executive producer) can’t get a hookup going, despite the constant inspiration and advice of a gay Greek chorus at her magazine. (A TV show? “Queer Pals for the Straight Gal?“)

Anti-smoking fanatic Janine (Jennifer Connelly) is so obsessed with ridding Baltimore of nicotine that she remains blissfully unaware that hubby Ben (Bradley Copper) has his eye on picky Anna (Scarlett Johansson), who is admired by chum Conor. And to think that, with a similar ensemble structure, heavier on the roundelay, Max Ophuls, inspired by Stefan Zweig, made La Ronde. This is a Woody Allen-style movie without Woody (just like his own these days), but also without Woody‘s wit.

I confess a problem here. Despite the talent and good looks of this cast, I didn’t care whether any of these characters got laid. I wanted all of them to be funnier, or more moving, or sexier, or something, to justify their screen time. I’m talking about the characters, remember, not the actors — or their potential.) And I thought the advice being dispensed by original authors Behrendt and Tuccillo and screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, was mostly hogwash, unless you happen to be a self-absorbed Baltimore yuppie with a lot of cash, or a character in a movie like this. If you aspire to be either, maybe you’ll get off on He’s Just Not That Into You. But I’m just not that into it.

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The Pink Panther 2 (Two Stars)
U.S.; Harald Zwart

Peter Seller is dead – and The Pink Panther 2is anther funny-sad reminder. I‘m not sure why Steve Martin wants to revive Sellers’ pricelessly inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau so badly, but this movie is no better than his first “Pink Panther“ remake — hit though it may have been.

Maybe this one will tickle the public too. But better Steve Martin movies have deserved more. The director is Harald Zwart, the Norwegian soccer enthusiast who also made One Night at McCool’s, and I don’t think this is his plate of lutefisk. The cast is another powerhouse, albeit a wasted one.

Jean Reno is back as sidekick Ponton. Emily Mortimer is back as Clouseau’s adorer Nicole, and Lily Tomlin tosses in a few smirks as Mrs. Berenger. Jeremy Irons, looking for a Brideshead to revisit, is the mournful-looking heavy Avellanado, involved in Pink Panther diamond chicanery. Clouseau‘s rival detectives and experts — all hired to find the missing Panther — include Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina, and the Bollywood Bombshell, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Kevin Kline has deserted the role of Chief Inspector Dreyfus, and he’s been replaced by John Cleese. (Not bad, but what about Richard Dreyfuss? Imagine his double takes, and Clouseau’s confusion, whenever anybody calls him “Inspector Dreyfus.”)

Meanwhile, the problem with Martin’s take on Clouseau is that he‘s a much nicer guy, not as much of a pretentious fool, and he doesn’t get that look of insane preoccupation on his face enough to suit me. Nor does he have enough idiotic catch-phrases and mispronunciations. A suggestion: “I am Clouseau! I am here to find my jewels and seize the malefactors! Beware, criminals, you have met your matches!” Aw, Blake Edwards, come home.

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Fanboys (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Kyle Newman

Sometimes, things can look bleak these days. The economy. The climate. The tax accountants. Blimp Rushbomb, launching into another ditto-headed tirade. There’s Barack Obama to brighten your day, but … Remember only yesterday? Back in 1999, when you had something in movies to look forward to? When George W. Bush was still partying in Texas? When Dick Cheney hadn’t yet morphed into Darth Vader? The dear dead time when “Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace” was being prepped for its epochal opening?

That great cultural landmark is memorialized in Fanboys, which is about four (no make that five) wildly obsessed Star Wars fans, who have decided to travel to California and find the new print of George Lucas’s eagerly awaited prequel before it opens. One of them is dying of cancer (Chris Marquette as Linus.) One of hem is his best buddy, trying to give him one last laser-jolt (Sam Huntington as Eric). One of them is your average pop culture schlemiel (Jay Baruchel as Windows). One of them is trying so hard to be Jack Black, the fur on his chest is almost frying. (Dan Fogler as Hutch). One of them is a fangirl, who seems to be around so we won’t muse about veiled homoeroticism. (Kristen Bell as Zoe.) Their goal: to steal that new print of “Phantom Menace,” not as movie pirates, but as dedicated movie geeks. I would have thought just seeing it would be enough.

Waiting in the wings, for one of the most movie-in-groupy set of cameos this side of The Player are Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Seth Rogen, Jay and Silent Bob, William Shatner (who might consider suing himself for libel) and some guy who looks like Harry (Ain’t It Cool) Knowles, but is actually Ethan Suplee. The movie follows badly in the footsteps of Robert Zemeckis’ 1978 I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which was about Beatle fandom, but keeps stumbling and screaming. The gags involve the boys doing a striptease at a biker bar, tons of Star Wars references, a feud between these Star Warriors, and the Trekkies (or Trekkers, or possibly Trekkums), a raid on the Skywalker Ranch and other improbable escapades. My prediction? You won’t laugh. You won’t cry. But you may develop an allergy to R2-D2 costumes.

– Michael Wilmington
February 6, 2009

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