Thoughts on Coraline

I’ve seen Henry Selick’s stop-motion-animated Coraline twice now, once in a regular showing, and once in 3D.  (The fact that I went to see it twice should, perhaps, be considered an early indicator that I liked the movie.)

Selick is the little-known director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is usually solely attributed to Tim Burton.  This movie is based on the children’s novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman — an author whose own fame seems to burn brighter every year, as more of his work (Stardust, Beowulf) makes it to the big screen and his books sell like gangbusters and win awards.  Despite Gaiman’s pedigree — and the well-regarded source — it becomes clear within a couple of minutes that this movie is really Selick’s masterpiece.

Coraline features, bar none, the best stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen.  It’s clean, and fluid, and weird, and beautiful, and they do shots that I wouldn’t believe could be done with stop-motion.  (Some of the techniques behind this are shown at the end of the closing credits.)  Selick’s adaptation of Gaiman’s novel is also very well-done, pulling together a lovely story that develops Coraline’s character quite nicely.

The basic premise is that the titular character, one Coraline Jones, finds herself moved to a new town, with parents who are too busy to spend any time with her.  She resigns herself to a boring, dreary life until one day she finds a small door hidden behind the wallpaper in their apartment.  And while that door opens into a world of wonder and excitement, everything is not as it seems.

As I said before, the animation is far better than any other stop-motion outing I’ve seen, and the art direction is just spectacular, with sets that colourful and fantastic in every sense of the word.  The 3D version of this movie has also been heavily praised, but for my part, I didn’t really find much difference between them.  I didn’t feel nauseous or dizzy or get a headache, which is an improvement over other 3D films I’ve seen, and I mostly found the use of 3D to be subtle and unobtrusive.  Perhaps that’s the point, however.

I really enjoyed Coraline, and can’t recommend it enough to fans of animation or good movies in general.  It’s a delightful, mildly creepy fantasy journey that, overall, works really, really well.

Mini Movie Reviews Before the New Year

So, things have been a little crazy for the last little while.  They have involved moving, marking, three hamsters, a goat, classes finishing up, one-and-a-half pineapples, and bacon-wrapped filet mignon, in no particular order.

I do promise to do better in the new year.  However, some mini reviews of (now old) movies before then.

Quantum of Solace

This second outing of the rebooted James Bond franchise literally picks up where the last one left off — too the point where I didn’t really know what was going on, since it had been a couple of years since seeing the last one.  There wasn’t really too much plot to this one, however, so it didn’t matter so much.

Bond basically seems angry and just beats the crap out of lots of people in this movie.  Casino Royale had a good mix of undercover work and ass-kicking, but this one, I felt, favoured ass-kicking too much. (I know that is a shock coming from me.)  There was one clever bit that I quite enjoyed, in the opera house where Bond actually uses his brain and gets some useful intelligence — something I expect more of in a *spy* movie, really.

Still, Quantum of Solace was an enjoyable action flick.  The main thing that actively irritated me was the incredibly explosive hotel in the finale — that just seemed to be an example of poor engineering.  I hope that they bring Bond back closer to his secret agent/spy roots for the next movie.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

This is a solid — if slightly sentimental — Kevin Smith film, that unites some of his regular actors with Seth Rogen and his posse.  The movie contains some gratuitous nudity, gross-out humour, and a sweet love story.

The premise is that longtime friends and roommates Zack and Miri decide to make a porno after they can’t pay their rent or utilities, and a video of Miri in some unflattering underwear manages to garner hundreds of thousands of hits on Youtube.  This opens a doorway to their true feelings for each other as they go through the production process.

I suspect fans of Smith or Rogen will enjoy the movie — I’m not sure about anyone else.

And that’s all I have to say.

Thoughts on Star Wars: The Clone Wars

From what I gather, Star Wars: The Clone Wars has been dumped on pretty thoroughly by just about every review, receiving average or worse ratings across the board.  It currently has a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is pretty dismal.  But I’m here to speak up in its defense… sort of.  I mean, it’s not all that bad.

The title, of course, is the first problem — “wars” is in there twice, a full 40% of the words.  It’s just awkward, really.  The second problem is that it isn’t a movie.  I mean, sure, it was released in theatres, but it’s actually just the first few episodes (I suspect the first five) of a TV series set to debut later this year.  As a result, the pacing is completely off for what is usually expected of a theatrical feature.

Anyway, on to the content, rather than nitpicking the format.

The Clone Wars series is set between episode II (Attack of the Clones) and III (Revenge of the Sith), which should have ample material to mine for a series.  It is, after all, the period during which Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi became famous and powerful Jedi with extensive combat experience.

It could also, conceivably, add something to the movie outings.  I mean, part of the problem with the prequels was that you didn’t care so much about Anakin, so the tragedy of his fall had no impact.  He went from annoying kid to whiny teenager (with terrible dialogue) to a kind of slight bad-ass, and then evil.  We never see him at his most heroic, his most inspiring, and thus we never really understand how far he has fallen when he becomes Vader.

The difficulty the series will face, however, is much the same as that of the prequel movies themselves — Star Wars offers so much potential for greatness, but there is so much room for things to go very, very wrong.  And the recent track record has been far over on the “wrong” end of things, than the “right”.

Unfortunately, elements of The Clone Wars continues that trend, primarily by skewing toward an audience of young children.  Thus, we’re treated to the “hilarious” antics of the enemy battle droids, ridiculous caricature characters like the effeminate, lisping Ziro the Hutt, and villains that are, for the most part, so stupid you wonder how they could pose any credible threat at all.

Seeing stuff like that on the screen makes me want to face palm myself.  I know George Lucas has long maintained that the Star Wars movies are for kids, and he’s not wrong on that front.  While the original trilogy was enormously popular in its day, I suspect that the people most affected by it then, the people that the trilogy stayed with all these years, were the children and teenagers.  The problem with the newer material is that those kids grew up, but the new movies and related content didn’t, and the kids these days just don’t go for it in the same way.

That’s not to say that kids these days don’t like Star Wars in its various forms, but it doesn’t consume them like it did a generation ago.  I find it telling that I can go into a Wal-Mart or Toys ‘R’ Us store, and find a modest selection of Star Wars toys and action figures, but then I can go to The Silver Snail and find a whole wall full of them.  These things are not selling to kids anymore, they’re selling to the people that were kids at the time of the original trilogy.

So, for me, it’s pretty apparent that Lucas is way off base in targetting all of this Star Wars media at young kids.  And that goes for The Clone Wars, too.

Which is sort of sad, because it’s not all bad.  We do get to see Anakin when he’s not a whiny little twit; when he cares about the soldiers under his command to the point where he’s willing to risk the overall mission to go back and help them; when he takes a new apprentice (Ahsoka Tano) under his wing to train her.  Even in this first movie, we see a lot more depth to his character than came across in the three prequels.

The action sequences are pretty good, too.  Lightsaber duels, space battles, and the like — all as good as you’d expect from Lucasfilm.  The main drawback is the computer-generated animation — it’s fine, and all, but really, it can’t capture the fluidity of hand-drawn work, and so comes across as slightly rigid and mechanical.  A lot of the more dumb elements that I mentioned before also seemed to get toned down a bit as the “movie” wore on, but I don’t know whether that was the creators’ intent, or whether I just got good at ignoring it.

Overall, this “movie” was moderately entertaining, but was marred by some particularly attrocioius production choices.  I was entertained enough by it to be interested in seeing more in the forthcoming TV series, but I’m not sure I could recommend this without strong reservations.  Naturally, it doesn’t hold up to the original trilogy; unfortunately it teeters along a fine line between being better than and worse than the prequels.  I don’t think we’ve seen enough yet to tell how it’s truly going to go.

A Few Quick Thoughts on Get Smart

The new Get Smart movie starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway is pretty good.  It’s a solid comedy of classic style (versus the gross-out, stoner, and sex comedies that have been prevalent of late) that hits with all of its jokes, has a great cast, and pays homage to its roots while updating appropriately for the modern age.

Carell, naturally, plays Maxwell Smart, and it’s hard to imagine another actor working today that would be more perfect in the role of Agent 86.  In something of a departure from the original series, he actually displays deliberate competence — though he also has more than his share of dumb luck and misfortune as well.

Anne Hathaway plays Agent 99 in a fairly straight role, though as her partnership with Smart develops, she loosens up and acquires more of the quirky feel of her role’s predecessor.  That bit of character development is, perhaps, indicative of some of the arc of the movie itself, as Smart’s old-style secret agenting turns out to be effective even in today’s world.

The rest of the cast is also solid, with Alan Arkin as The Chief, The Rock as Agent 23, Terrence Stamp as Siegfried, Masi Oka as one of the tech guys, and a number of other cameos and brief appearances (James Caan as the President, Bill Murray as the lonely Agent 13, and Patrick Warburton as Hymie in what appears to be set up for a sequel).

The plot is, well, CONTROL versus KAOS.  It follows the first mission of Smart as a field agent (after having been an analyst) and how he and Agent 99 come to work together.

So, yeah.  Nothing mind-blowing or genre-transforming here, but a solidly entertaining and funny movie with no serious flaws.  Furthermore, it’s a remake that doesn’t suck.  That makes it something of a rarity these days.

Doc Bruce Banner, Pelted By Gamma Rays

Sadly, the tune referenced in the title of this post did not appear in the latest adventure of the Hulk on the big screen, that that is perhaps the only reference to a previous incarnation that was not included in The Incredible Hulk .  Despite this tragic shortcoming, it was still a good movie.

This movie — as every press release and preview article is quick to point out — is entirely unrelated to Ang Lee’s 2003 film Hulk , which I thought was just okay.  (In that regard, my sense is that many peoples’ opinions of that movie have degraded since it was first released, but I thought it was okay then much as I do now.)  Thankfully, it doesn’t waste much time rehashing the Hulk’s origin, but instead jumps right into the thick of things.

Those things include some good action sequences, a much better-looking Hulk than the previous version, a coherent storyline, and some decent character development.  The movie is also thankfully angst-free, unlike its predecessor — a movie about the Hulk is not really the place for daddy issues.

Ed Norton does a good job as Banner, and Liv Tyler is effective as Betty Ross, his love interest/conscience.  Tim Roth is particularly entertaining in his portrayal of Emil Blonski, an old soldier who is in the military for the joy of fighting rather than the honour of serving.  Let us say that such things do not end well on that front.

The Incredible Hulk is set in the same universe as the recent Iron Man movie , confirmed by a delightful cameo by Robert Downey Jr.  This is possible since Marvel Studios was the sole producer of both of these movies (having reclaimed the film rights to the Hulk after no sequel was made for Ang Lee’s movie); they have others in the works in the coming years (Thor and Captain America ), and have already announced plans for an Avengers movie that would bring together these heroes in a single movie.  If they can maintain the level of quality of these last two movies, and not go off the rails like the producers of the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises did, then the future looks promising indeed.

So, as you’ve gathered, I liked the movie.  I don’t think it was quite as good as Iron Man , but I was thoroughly entertained, the cast and special effects were good, it was chock full of cameo appearances and set-ups for future developments (new villains and allies, for example),  and it provided a nice blend of well-executed action sequences alongside story and character development.  If you like superhero movies, you’ll like this one, I think.

As a side note, much of this movie was filmed in Toronto last summer, and specifically at the University of Toronto St. Georgee campus and Yonge street — parts of town where I live and work.  (I saw lots of production vehicles set up, but none of the movie stars.)  So it was rather neat seeing places I’m intimately familiar with pop up in a Hollywood blockbuster, and how they made these places appear to be not quite what they are.  Of course, the Sam the Record Man sign cannot be disguised, and you’ll see people running past it several times in the climactic battle scene.

(As another side note, while googling something for reference, I got sucked into reading the Marvel Database , where I’ve spent over an hour reading Marvel comics backstory.)

Glancing back over all of the above, I realize that all I’ve said can be effectively summed up with "I liked it; it was good."  But since I took the time to type out all that, I’ll leave it, and sign off.