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Column Fri Feb 06 2009

Coraline, Fanboys, He's Just Not That Into You, The Class and Oscar Shorts

Coraline

I've never read the Neil Gaiman novel that inspired director-adapter Henry Selick to create this magnificent work of stop-motion animated art, and frankly I may never want to. I certainly have nothing against Mr. Gaiman's writing, but Selick has done such a complete and fulfilling rendition of the world inhabited by young Coraline Jones that my heart and imagination are stuffed to capacity.

Selick has wowed up in the past with such film miracles as The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. He's even played God for Wes Anderson, who charged Selick with inventing new species of undersea life for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zizou. And who better to literally invent life forms. He has promoted and elevated the art of stop-motion filmmaking to such a degree, I can't imagine studios not taking a step back from so much CG animation and try having this level of patience with the creative process. In every conceivable way, Coraline is a celebration of the riches and beauty of all things handmade. Not only is everything we see on screen made by hand, but the story itself is about creating a world by hand.

But I also adore Coraline because it celebrates the role of fear in a child's life. As much as parents try to protect their offspring from all things dangerous, kids will always find something to be scared about, so why not throw them in the deep end of this thrill that featured all manner of perilous elements, including sharp objects — some aimed right at your eye (did I mention that if you see this film in anything other than 3-D, you're missing three-quarters of the film?) — evil creatures, giant bugs that look like furniture, ghost children, dead animals, and loads of other devices aimed at freaking out kids and adults alike.

Coraline, the blue-haired girl, is voiced with rebellious girlishness by Dakota Fanning, who may seem like an obvious choice, but she's fantastic here. And the worst thing that could happen to a child her age has happened — she's bored. Her parents (John "I'm a PC" Hodgman and Teri Hatcher, who might do the best work of anyone in the film) are co-authoring a gardening book, and are on a tight deadline, leaving them no time to entertain their only child. While exploring the world around their new home, Coraline meets Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), an inventive little brat who, by default, becomes Coraline's best friend. He gives her a rag doll with buttons for eyes that bears an almost scary likeness to Coraline. In an effort to kill time, Coraline also meets her new neighbors, including a pair of elderly former actresses Misses Sprink and Forcible (an appropriately teamed Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French), who have a brood of terriers (both living and dead) living with them. She also films amusement with an upstairs neighbor, the acrobatic Mr. Bobinsky ("Deadwood's" Ian McShane), who is in the process of training a group of jumping mice for a special kind of circus act.

One night, Coraline discovers a small door behind some furniture. Although during the day with her mother watching, the door had only bricks behind it, at night, the door opens to a long tunnel leading to, well, a version of the house she already lives in. Only in this Other World, everything is exactly how Coraline would like her life to be. Her parents are attentive to her every need and whim, the neighbors are far more entertaining, and Wybie is rendered speechless. But eventually the price for all this perfection reveals itself, and if you've seen even one commercial or trailer for the film, you know what that is.

To go into too much more detail about the plot of Coraline would be to spoil the exciting process of discovery that Selick has in store for you. There are healthy doses on insanity, especially when it comes to Coraline's Other Father. This is not to say that her Other Mother is much better, but the less said about what happens to her character the better. And then there's the mysterious black cat (voiced by velvet-throated Keith David), who seems to have the ability to travel between the real and Other World as easily as our heroine. If I had to pick a character whose likeness I'd like on my shelf, I'd pick the Cat; he's a badass.

There's both a sparkling innocence and a terrifying underbelly to Coraline, and I love how Selick underscores both. The Other World is lush, colorful and so very alive, while the real world is dreary, dirty and rundown. It isn't hard to imagine any child choosing fantasy over reality, like Alice going through the Looking Glass or black-and-white Dorothy landing in Technicolor Oz. We know it's not a safe place, but that isn't going to stop us from having fun with it for a while.

The final third of the movie is as suspenseful as just about anything I've seen in the animated world. What I admired so much about Coraline is that it's about a resourceful, intelligent, fearless female character who I honestly believe young girls can admire, despite her occasional lapses into disobedience. Not to come off like I have some grand feminist agenda, but Coraline stands as one of the great animated ladies in history, and she manages to be so without being a princess, needing a man (unless you count a male cat) to save her, or even having much in the way of fashion sense. The film is a glorious look into an utterly original world in which things made my hand are both cherished and feared (as they should be), and brains count for something. I can't think of a better combination. We're a little over a month into the year, and I've already found my first candidate for one of the best films of 2009.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Coraline director Henry Selick.

Fanboys

This is the little movie that could and did. As much as Fanboys is a playful poke at the Star Wars mythology and iconography, I found it worked far better as a love letter to youngsters who experienced the original trilogy in our most formative years, and never gave up hope that a return by George Lucas to his beloved franchise would result in something great. For those of you who remember exactly how a remarkable sense of disbelief swept over you the minute that Lucasfilm logo sparkled across the screen before The Phantom Manace, this movie is all about you. Regardless of what you felt of that film or the two after it, that time when all things seemed possible again is at the core of Fanboys.

A little background. I saw Fanboys for the first and, so far, only time at Comic-Con last July, at a screening that was said to be the world premiere of the final cut of the movie. As far as I know, the version that opens in limited release this weekend is the same version. The cancer storyline is there... barely. I think cancer is mentioned twice in the whole movie and hardly dealt with anywhere else in the film. A few of the celebrity cameos that were added more recently in this now years-in-the-making work are in there as well, but for the most part, this is the film that director Kyle Newman made along with his co-writers Adam Goldberg, and Ernest Cline. Since I saw the film, I've met Kyle (he was my next-seat neighbor at Ain't It Cool's Butt Numb-a-Thon this year) and have told him repeatedly how much I dig the film and how much it made me laugh. Above all things, the movie is funny. They throw a lot of verbal jabs, physical humor, inside geek jokes and great cameos at the audience, and most of it hits. I was particularly bowled over by the penetrating look at the turf war between Star Wars and "Star Trek" fans. No nerds are spared.

Chris Marquette's character Linus is the one with cancer in 1998, and all his friends want to do is make the long journey across the country to break into the Skywalker Ranch and sneak a peak at The Phantom Menace Along for the ride are Sam Huntington as Eric, Linus' one-time best friend, who is pulled back into the fray for this journey even though old wounds haven't completely healed. Dan Fogler and Jay Baruchel are also on board as Hutch and Windows. And Kristen Bell's Zoe is just so cute you want to put her in your pocket... and never let her go.

The gang goes on their own personal odyssey of geekdom, during which bonds are reformed and hilarity ensues with alarming regularity. Some of the cameos are inspired, but I don't think any of them made me laugh harder than, well, let's just say that one actor plays multiple parts so effectively, I almost didn't recognize him. Perhaps the most incredible cameo is all of the licensed Star Wars paraphernalia. It's pretty clear that Lucasfilm cleared a great deal of what is seen and heard in this movie, and you have to give them credit for having a sense of humor about it all. It's almost impossible for me to imagine anyone who give a shit about Star Wars at any point in their lives not finding this movie laugh-out-loud funny and moving. Put aside all thoughts of what came before, all of the studio mishandling and interference, all of the reshoots and delays. All that matters is this version of this movie. I happen to think you are going to love this movie to death.

He's Just Not That Into You

I have quite a few female friends who are so starved for entertainment right now that they have willingly paid money (full price, no less!) to see such shit nuggets as Bride Wars and New In Town. I understand the desire to fill the void for female-centric entertainment now that the long-awaited Sex and the City movie came out last year. The good news is that I saw He's Just Not That Into You (the title actually is lifted from a line of dialogue from an episode of the "Sex and the City" TV show) a few weeks ago, so I've been able to tell every woman I know tempted by such childish, woman-hating offerings featuring two best girlfriends fighting over a wedding day that help is on the way. Based on the crazy-popular (and apparently quite funny) advice book by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, adapted into story form by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, He's Just Not That Into You is a mostly mature, adult take on dating and married relationships in the information age, and how the rules of decades long gone no longer apply.

I'm not the type of critic who normally points this sort of thing out, but this film features one of the most impressive ensemble casts we've seen in a film of this ilk maybe ever. My only problem with the line up is that they're all a bit too good looking for one movie. Can't there be one schlub in the bunch? Featuring mostly various couplings of cast members, the movie provides examples of people who are unclear or unsure where they are in their respective relationships. And those who aren't in a relationship are even more baffled. As far as I'm concerned (and different viewers may see things differently than I did), the focal point of the Baltimore-set film is the teacher-student relationship between helpless romantic Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwyn from HBO's "Big Love") and bartender Alex (the hilarious Justin Long, essentially acting as the self-help voice of the book). After Gigi's failed attempt to date his roommate Conor (Kevin Connolly of "Entourage"), Alex agrees to provide friendly counseling to help her know right away whether a guy is into her or not so she won't waste days or even weeks by the phone waiting for The Call. Their scenes are so good that sometimes you get annoyed at the rest of the movie's stories for keeping you from them. Both actors have impeccable comic timing, and this may finally be the role that sets Long down the path real notoriety beyond the Mac ads. He's terrific here, and the R-rated playground suits him and the material.

Also on hand to dissect their matters of the heart are Bradley Cooper ("Alias," "Kitchen Confidential," Yes Man) and Jennifer Connelly as a married couple renovating their home, while their relationship is slowly crumbling. Luis Guzman plays a contractor working on the house, providing some much needed comic relief in a storyline that nearly drowns in self-pity. That's not a criticism of this section of the film, but this is the most serious part of the movie and it is sometimes hard to watch. It doesn't help that Cooper's Ben is infatuated with would-be singer Anna (Scarlett Johansson), whom he meets at a corner store. It just so happens that Anna has an almost undefinable on-again/off-again with Conor. She seems to enjoy stringing him along, until she sets her sights on the married man.

Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck play Beth and Neil, a perfectly happy couple, except for the fact that he doesn't believe in marriage. Despite his complete and utter devotion to Beth, she wants a ring after seven years together, and her marriage obsession leads to an ultimatum that does not have the desired result. Last up is Mary (Drew Barrymore, who also is one of the film's producers), the wise, slightly nerdy graphic designer, who comes closest to serving as the female voice of the book. Most of the women work together, so the film is populated with extended conversations about the status of their respective couplings or lack of coupling.

At its core, He's Just Not That Into You is about reading people and seeing into their thought processes. Cooper's Ben seems fairly transparent, until we discover that his is the King of Liars to both his wife and his new lover. Then there is Neil, the quintessential what-you-see-is-what-you-get guy. It's almost sad how simple and perfect his needs and wants are. He wants Beth more than anything, but he doesn't want to be married... to anyone. And then we come back to Gigi and Alex, probably the most open and honest couple in the film, except they're not dating and they are both in denial about what they want out of life. Alex is practically a psychic when it comes to relationships, but he's perpetually single — he says by choice, but maybe it's because he can't love. Gigi is single because she tries too hard and falls in love too easily. Which is the bigger crime? I think I fell for the film because, despite a few moments of over simplification and wrapping things up a little too neatly on occasion, He's Just Not That Into You is the kind of movie that men and women will both use as a jumping off point for conversation, whether they want to or not. This is not the type of film that sees men as the villains and women as saints, or vice versa. Hell, it doesn't even consider the mistress character a bad person, just someone deeply in need of therapy.

Director Ken Kwapis keeps things moving and keeps us laughing through most of the proceedings. Despite a colossal thud of a outting a couple years back with a "movie" called License To Wed, Kwapis's comedy credentials are solid, with many episodes of "The Office," "The Bernie Mac Show," "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Freaks and Geeks" to his name. And The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants... I'll leave it at that. But with such strong source material and an admirable script, he's got something that plays to his strength. I don't just feel that recommending this film quite does it justice, especially to male readers a bit leery of what might lie ahead. I feel I need to add that He's Just Not That Into You is safe for men. I consider this a better date movie than some unabashed love story; this film may actually make you think and speak your mind about your definition of a good and/or bad relationship. That prospect may frighten you, but I'm guessing you have the guts to face the truth, and this movie may help you do that.

The Class

I have friends that are teachers; I'm sure many of us do. And one of the most infuriating things about movies with teachers at the center of the plot is that, without fail, the filmmakers get the experience of being a teacher wrong. I'm sure there are hero teachers out there who want to change the lives of every troubled student they meet for the better. But for the most part, teachers perform an almost-impossible balancing act every single day. They are part mother/father, babysitter, guardian, warden and, yes, on a good day, they get to be an educator. They are largely under-appreciated, unpaid, overtaxed and underrepresented in quality films, with a handful of exceptions. The recently Oscar-nominated French offering The Class (Entre les murs), which won the Palm d'Or at Cannes last year, is at the forefront of these exceptions. Director Laurent Cantet based his story on a book by actual teacher Francois Begaudeau, who also co-wrote the screenplay and stars, believe it or not, as a teacher named Francois.

The film follows Francois and his group of fellow teachers through one year at a high school in a rough Parisian neighborhood. Francois is no superhero teacher. He's just a competent professional trying to hold his room together and keep fights from breaking out while actually attempting to school these kids. As much as he'd like to teach his lesson plan, he's flexible enough to occasionally let The Class dictate the direction of the day's learning. If a subject comes up in conversation, Francois will devote a certain amount of time to discussing it, even if it has nothing to do with what he's trying to teach. His philosophy seems to be that if he can't get the kids interested in book learning, maybe he can impart a few useful life lessons on them.

Cantet beautifully captures in a very documentary-like style the subtle ways Francois captures the respect of his students, while never trying in vain to be their friend. The discussions get quite detailed at times, dealing with everything from the cultural/racial differences of the kids in The Class, to bigotry, homophobia, gang violence and sex. And the kids are remarkable, with all of them being non-actors pulled from auditions. In a strange and sad concluding scene (don't worry, I'm not giving anything away), as Francois is going around to each student to ask what they learned in the last year, one young woman, who is almost invisible for the entire film, says she didn't learn anything. The Class acknowledges the most difficult thing for any teacher to admit, which is that there are some students you just never connect with. Francois also learns that even the ones you do connect with at times can still turn on you when they sense they have a little bit of power over you. The film stays away from such clichés as students trying to seduce teachers for better grades or teachers going to a kid's home to meet with neglectful parents. The film is called The Class, and the action rarely leaves said room. This movie is about the real work that teachers do every day and is so rarely celebrated, and its an endless source of fascination and entertainment. I feel fairly confident that Waltz with Bashir will walk away with the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year, but a not-so-small piece of me will be cheering for this film as well. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my interview with The Class director Laurent Cantet, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Oscar Shorts

Although the program doesn't appear on the Music Box Theatre's current schedule, by all means make time for this rare opportunity (rare as in once a year) to check out the complete rundown of Oscar-nominated short films in the live-action and animated categories. Chicago is one of the few lucky cities that gets to see this program this early, with about 60 additional cities getting the privilege over the next couple of weeks leading up to the Academy Awards on February 22. In case you can't make it to see these two separate programs (with separate admissions), I believe the films will be available on iTunes as well starting February 1 in the U.S., U.K., and Canada.

The five animated shorts will be supplemented by a handful of bonus animated works, including Bill Plympton's Hot Dog and several others. One of the five offerings you've probably already seen — Presto, which preceded WALL-E during its theatrical run and is included on its DVD. I love this little bit of Warner Bros. style cartoon antics from director Doug Sweetland, maybe more than any other Pixar short, but I think my favorite of the nominees is This Way Up, a twisted tale of two morticians trying desperately to get the body of sweet old lady to her final resting place safe and sounds, and against many freaky obstacles. This CG work from directors Adam Foulkes and Alan Smith is akin to some of the work of Henry Selick, and is just as clever, funny and dark. Also on the CG front, we have Oktapodi, about two octopi in love who are separated by humans' desire to eat them. This one has the beginnings of a great film, but just when it starts to really take off (literally), it ends. The two hand-drawn works this year are Lavatory Love Story, a largely black-and-white Russian line-drawing work that is quite touching and features one of the romantic stories every told in a men's room. Finally, Le Maison en Petits Cubes is a cool, very human story about an old man remembering his life and long-gone loved ones as he builds yet another level to his house against the rising tide of time (and a great deal of water). There isn't a weak one in the bunch this year, and while Pixar tends to hold the advantage most years, I don't think Presto is a shoe-in. It might be too silly for Academy voters. Honestly, I'd give the advantage to This Way Up, but I'd be happy with most of these as winners.

From what I'm hearing, the live-action shorts (most of which ain't that short; I think the running times range from 11 to 30 minutes) are quite strong as well. But I'll admit, I didn't have time to watch them all before I had to leave on a trip to Vegas for most of the last week. But they're Oscar nominated, so how bad could they be? Ahem, moving on. Supporting short films programs of any variety is an absolute necessity, and is also often a great deal of fun. Make the commitment, film lovers, to go see a bunch of shorts that you know next to nothing about this weekend. Don't be afraid of the unknown. Enjoy.

Serge / February 6, 2009 6:13 AM

I'd like inform you that Scarlett Johansson "actress"actually is a clone from original person,who has nothing with acting career.Clone was created illegally using stolen biomaterial.Original Scarlett Galabekian last name is nice, CHRISTIAN young lady.Original family didn't authorize any activity with stolen biomaterials,no matter what form it was created in,it's all need to be back to original family control in Cedars-Sinai MedicalCenter in LA.Controlling clones is US military operation.Original Scarlett never was engaged,by the way

Joe / February 8, 2009 8:51 PM

I was not surprised that He's Not that into You is based on a novel since movies based on novels tend to be better quality and have more coherent plots

trypu / March 14, 2009 5:29 AM

all in one search engine

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