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Dakota Fanning

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O Lugubrious Arthouse!

The Academy Awards are now behind us. (To no one’s surprise, the well-intentioned but perfunctory Oscar bait that was The King’s Speech reeled in Best Picture. FWIW, I had it at #18.) And, it being March, the cineplexes are happily on the verge of thawing out from the usual early-year dumping-ground phase. No more Sandler-Aniston rom-coms or Single White Female knockoffs: Beginning with The Adjustment Bureau this Friday, there’s actually a movie I’m interested in seeing every weekend for the next five weeks.

So, it’s probably a good time to catch up on two reviews I’ve neglected over the past several months: I caught Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere in mid-January and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine in mid-February, and, to get right to the chase, both are really underwhelming.

EW’s usually astute Owen Gleiberman took this pair together as the “return of the American art film,” but I think that’s only true in the 21 Grams sense. As I wrote of that film, a similarly leaden and overpraised pile of drek, in 2004: “This film just ambles around in its terminally depressed jag for so long that it loses any sense of perspective, and instead becomes just a vehicle for indulging the arthouse fallacy that misery is a substitute for character.” That same fallacy is in full effect in both of these pictures.

Let’s take Somewhere first. First off, I know that arguing that Sofia Coppola makes movies about deeply privileged people being existentially depressed is like arguing that Michael Bay makes movies about exploding robots and car crashes: It’s not really an argument against the film, it’s just the way it is. If watching rich people whine is not your cup of tea, don’t even bother buying a ticket in the first place.

That being said, after quite liking Lost in Translation and sorta admiring the attempts of Marie Antoinette and The Virgin Suicides, I thought Sofia Coppola descended into self-parody with this flick. The story of a depressed movie star (Stephen Dorff) who reconnects to life by hanging with his tweenage daughter (Dakota Fanning), Somewhere is a ponderous and trite arthouse essay on the perils of oh-so-exhausting celebrity and the redemptive powers of fatherhood. Honestly, who knew being a movie star at the Chateau Marmont was so gosh-darned depressing? I hate being at an endless party and having to constantly fend off the attentions of beautiful women!

Now The King’s Speech had a similar “poor-little-rich-boy” problem to my mind — sorry, I guess I’m just a class warrior these days. But it’s more aggravating here, mainly because, unlike Colin Firth’s King-to-be, Stephen Dorff’s megastar barely registers as a personality at all. (It’s not Dorff’s fault. He does what he can with what he’s been handed.) Desultory and taciturn to the point of seeming medicated, he’s less of a character throughout than an allegory for the Tragedy of Stardom, or the Crisis of the American Male — he falls asleep during strip shows, he falls asleep during sex, he frets about his hairline. It’s like he wandered out of some earnest undergrad’s post-Pilgrim’s Progess homework assignment.

What goes for Dorff — and Fanning; she’s pixieish and that’s about it — goes for the entire movie: It purports to be this deep, thick-description type look at celebrity and family, and yet it consistently languishes in the shallows. To take only the first example, Somewhere begins with a sportscar (driven by Dorff) circling a desert race track, in and out and in and out and in and out of the frame. This goes on several beats too long, just so everyone gets the point: Look, this man is lost! He’s going around in circles! Now imagine that sort of ham-handed symbolism, held too long, over and over again, and you pretty have much the rub of Somewhere. I suppose a defender might argue that this racing scene helps acclimate people to the languid arthouse rhythms of this picture. Well, there’s languid, and there’s just plain inert.

Speaking of inert, Derek Cianfrance’s dolorous Blue Valentine showcases some decent acting from Michelle Williams — I’ll get to Ryan Gosling in a bit — and it’s always a kick to see Major Rawls (John Doman), who shows up here as Williams’ take-no-guff father. But this film suffers from a fatal flaw that undermines the entire experience: Namely, if a couple never seems to be all that great together in the first place, it’s hard to get too broken up about them falling apart.

And fall apart they do: If the ghost of Godfather III haunts Somewhere (i.e. Sofia Coppola working out her issues with her famous dad), then Blue Valentine‘s conceit is that it’s basically the relationship version of The Godfather II: We watch, simultaneously, both the first pangs of love and the last throes of collapse for star-crossed couple Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams). This is a clever idea to be sure, but the execution is lacking. Mostly, we’re just left with a lot of arty strutting and fretting, sound and fury, but no real entertainment or wisdom to be had.

Judging from the small child who’s a plot point on both ends of this story, the span of distance between Dean and Cindy’s meet-cute and marriage here is about six years or so. (Apparently, enough time for Dean to go from looking like Ryan Gosling to going bald, half-blind, paunchy, and full-trucker. Tough six years, I guess.) Their early meetings are tentative and occasionally promising, their later marriage frigid and always jagged: Even a conjugal trip to the Moon Room at the local sleazy motel turns out to be a disaster. (I have to admit, I kinda dug the Moon Room, and irrationally thought less of these characters for having such a hellish time there.)

In their young’un phase, we see Cindy tap-dance along while a ukulele-playing Dean croons “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” (Symbolism alert!) Like me, you may have seen this in the trailer and thought, ah, this looks honest and sweet — might be good. But that’s it as far as the happy-go-lucky wooing goes — That’s basically the extent of their romantic connection. Pretty soon thereafter, Cindy [Spoiler] is knocked up with what might be Dean’s kid, and the angst flows anew. Gee, who could’ve figured this wouldn’t work out? And how much relationship mileage can one really expect to get out of a single ukulele cover?

Speaking of the uke, Ryan Gosling’s Dean — much like Stephen Dorff in Somewhere — seems more like a collection of tics than a character, although this time I think it’s the actor’s fault. In the past, I’ve been neither here nor there on Gosling: Word is he’s great, but I haven’t really seen him in anything before. Here, though, he’s just over the top in his Method mannerisms. (Williams is considerably better, mainly because she’s much more understated, but she isn’t really given the benefit of a character either. Sadly, she’s more just a reaction sponge to whatever Gosling is doing.)

When first we meet Dean (in the past, that is), he’s a high-school dropout working as a mover, so not what you’d call a book-learned fellow. Ok, that’s fine. But that alone doesn’t explain why Gosling basically tries to play him as Simple Jack. Often — say, when he eats breakfast with his daughter Frankie or first meets Daddy Rawls — he acts like Unfrozen Caveman Boyfriend. Ah don’t know much but ah sure do love mah [Frankie/dog/Cindy]! And the rest of the time, particularly when he’s wheedling (which is often), he just keeps repeating himself, more and more plaintively, like he can only keep one thought in his head. It’s like listening to Berkeley whine when he has to go out.

And so two hours are spent watching this brittle pair cringe and insinuate and generally just be awful to and around each other — There’s just not much there, frankly, particularly if you’re not invested in the couple. Blue Valentine is being billed by its proponents as “raw,” but to me it just felt half-formed, like somebody filmed an actor’s workshop. (Apparently much of the film was ad-libbed — It shows.) Without a connection forged between these characters, they’re just miserable all the time. And I said at the top, misery alone is no substitute for character.

Nite-Owls and Cherry Bombs.

Word abounds that the Tron: Legacy trailer will be popping up very shortly on the petticoats of Tim Burton’s Alice, but no sign of it yet.

Until then, Zack Snyder follows up Watchmen with Hugo Weaving and animated owls in the rather meh trailer for Legend of the Guardians. Eh, doubtful…As per the Snyder norm, he lost me with the cruddy frat-rock.

And, for some more encouraging rock ‘n’ roll, Dakota Fanning is all grown up as Cherie Currie to Kristen Stewart’s Joan Jett in the second trailer for Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways. Hmm, maybe…I can see Michael Shannon being a good bit of fun.

2009 in Film.

Merry Christmas, everyone. As we’re at the halfway point of the big decade list — Pt. 1, Pt. 2 — now seems like a good time to uncork the usual end-of-year movie list. Think of it as a new-stuff sorbet before we move to the final fifty.

I should say before we start that there are a few movies I’ll very likely see from 2009 — most notably The Lovely Bones, A Single Man, and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus — that aren’t included due to their limited release schedule — most don’t arrive around these parts until 2010. The better-than-expected Sherlock Holmes, which I saw yesterday and have not yet reviewed in full, is also not here, although I did think of slotting it in at #20 before the Victorian-era tazer and remote-controlled cyanide bomb showed up. And there are still a few other stragglers I wouldn’t mind catching at some point, most notably Invictus and The Messenger. But if any of these are really, really great, they’ll either get backdated in or show up in next year’s list, as per usual. So don’t worry — credit will get paid where due.

In the meantime, as has been the standard — and although the decade list has been working differently — we start at #1 and proceed from there. And without further ado, the…

Top 20 Films of 2009

1. In the Loop: “Tobes, I don’t want to have to read you the Riot Act, but I am going to have to read you some extracts from the Riot Act, like: Section 1, Paragraph 1: Don’t leave your boss twisting in the wind and then burst in late, smelling like a pissed seaside donkey.” Even if I hadn’t moved back to DC this year for a ringside seat to the clusterfrak, Armando Ianucci’s In the Loop would’ve been at the top of my list. I’m not normally a huge laugher at movies, but this flick had me rolling.

Basically, In the Loop is Office Space for people in politics, and it’s a smart, wickedly funny entertainment. And like Judge’s film and The Big Lebowski, I expect it will enjoy a long, happy, and very quotable renaissance on DVD. If you find The Daily Show or Colbert Report at all enjoyable, this is a must-see. And, even if you don’t, well the choice Scottish swearing should get you through.

2. Moon: While Michael Bay, McG and their ilk tried to top each other with gimongous explosions this summer, Duncan Jones’ moody, low-key Moon just aimed to blow our minds. A throwback to the seventies big-think sci-fi that has fallen out of favor in the post-Star Wars-era, Moon‘s big special effect, other than Sam Rockwell, of course, was its clever ideas. And in a year of hit-or-miss (mostly miss) blockbusters, Rockwell’s quiet two-man show turned out to be the sci-fi extravaganza of 2009.

3. A Serious Man: Oy vey. This existential disquisition into wandering dybbuks, sixties Judaica, quantum mechanics, and Old Testament justice was yet another triumph for those devilishly talented brothers from Minnesota. The Job-like travails of Larry Gopnik introduced us to several colorful, Coenesque personages (Sy Ableman, Rabbi Nachtner) and offered vignettes (the Goy’s Teeth) and quotable philosophy (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you“) that cinephiles will ponder for awhile to come. The Coens abide.

4. The Hurt Locker: Bombs away, and we’re not ok. Other than Modern Warfare 2 and Generation Kill, this immersive, nail-biting account of an IED team’s travails in the midst of the suck was the best pop culture simulator out there for feeling embedded in Iraq…and stuck at the wrong Baghdad street corner at just the wrong time. And with the tension ratcheting to uncomfortable levels in each of the ordnance disposal scenes, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Lockersorry, King of the World — was the action movie of the year.

5. Coraline: In an auspicious year for both regular (see #10) and stop-motion (see #13) animation, Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was the pick of the litter. It sorta got lost in the early-year shuffle, but Selick & Gaiman’s dark, twisted fairy tale delivered the goods, and hopefully it’ll find more life on DVD.

6. District 9: For those who find Moon a little too talky and slow, I direct you to Neil Blomkamp’s little (ok, $30 million) South African indie that could. Alien Nation meets Cry Freedom with healthy dollops of Cronenberg body horror and old-school Peter Jackson viscera-splatter, District 9 came out as more than the sum of its parts, and (with #8) was one of the most purely enjoyable films of the summer.

7. (500) Days of Summer: “This is a story of boy meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met The One. This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total mis-reading of the movie ‘The Graduate’.” Speaking of said music, here’s a movie the early Elvis Costello would love. Sure, (500) Days is unabashedly for folks who’ve been on the wrong end of a break-up. But, even if it is ultimately Annie Hall-lite in a lot of ways, it had more truths to tell than most of the rom-coms out in any given year…combined.

8. Drag Me to Hell: Shaking off the Spidey 3 doldrums, Sam Raimi went back to his gross-out Evil Dead roots for this carnival concoction. Besides being easily the most explicitly anti-gypsy film since Borat, Drag Me to Hell was also, in its own way, as much of a Great Recession cautionary tale as Up in the Air. One hopes that when the Senate takes up financial services reform next year, our erstwhile reformers in that esteemed body will note what happened to Alison Lohman when she, against all better judgment, decided to do the bidding of the Banks.

9. Star Trek: There was admittedly a whole lotta stupid in J.J. Abrams’ Star Warsy revamp of the Star Trek franchise — Once exposed to the light, the movie’s basic premises completely fall apart. But, like the stomachache that accompanies eating too much candy, those regrets come later. In the moment, Star Trek was more fun than you can shake a stick at, and as solid and entertaining a franchise reboot as 2006’s Casino Royale. Let’s hope The Revenge of Khan or whatever it’s called turns out better than Quantum of Solace.

10. Up: If the movie were just the first ten-fifteen minutes, this might’ve been in the top five. But even more than WALL-E, the good stuff in Up is front-loaded. And, after the story of a lifetime ended a quarter hour in, I wasn’t much in the mood for talking dogs and big, funny birds (even birds named Kevin) anymore. Still, Pixar is Pixar, and Up carried their usual mark of quality.

11. The Damned United: Frost/Nixon for the futbol set, Tom Hooper’s ballad of Clough and Revie was a low-key character study that made up for an awkwardly-frontloaded bromance with another great performance by Michael Sheen and plenty of “Life in a Northern Town” local color to spare. You can practically smell the mud off the cleats in this one.

12. Duplicity: Perhaps I’m giving too many props to well-made breezy entertainments this year (see also Nos. 8 & 9). Nonetheless, Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity was a sleek espionage caper and a decently sexy love story that was all the more amusing because the stakes were so small. As it turns out, Clive Owen had just taken on evil corporations with a global reach a few weeks earlier in The International (a movie I caught on DVD, and which was most memorable for its Gunfight in the Guggenheim) — He’s more fun when he’s on the payroll.

13. The Fantastic Mr. Fox: If you see one clever stop-motion adaptation of a sardonic children’s novel this year…well, see Coraline. Nonetheless, The Fantastic Mr. Fox was also one of the better entrants in the 2009 line-up. It was ultimately a little too Wes Anderson saccharine for my tastes, but, of course, your mileage may vary. And at least Fox didn’t wallow in the emo like, you know.

14. Inglourious Basterds: After a decade of languishing in the shallows, Quentin Tarantino found a bit of his old magic in this sprawling alternate history of WWII. Yes, it needed a good and ruthless editor, and some rather longish scenes don’t really work at all (I’m thinking mainly of Shoshanna’s lunch with Goebbels and Linda.) But at certain times — the basement cafe snafu, for example, or the memorable finale — Basterds is the best thing QT has done since Jackie Brown. Let’s hope he stays in form.

15. Public Enemies: Michael Mann’s high-def retelling of The Last Days of Dillinger was a strange one, alright. Like Basterds, it was long and languid and sometimes seemed to move without purpose. But, like Mann’s last grainy-digital foray into tales of manly men and the women they love, Miami Vice, Public Enemies has stuck with me ever since. Say what you will about the hi-def video aesthetic, it somehow seems to match Mann’s haunted, Hemingwayesque sense of poetry.

16. The Informant!: The tragedy of The Insider retold as farce, The Informant!, like many of Steven Soderbergh’s films, was experimental in a lot of ways. Some things worked (the ADM-buttery sheen); Others didn’t (the distractingly peppy Hamlisch score); Others still were hit-or-miss (the in-head bipolar voiceover). Nonetheless, The Informant! is mostly a success, and it’s good to see Soderbergh out there trying new things — I wish I’d gotten around to catching The Girlfriend Experience. (Ahem, the movie, that is. Sheesh, some people.)

17. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans: I had definite doubts going in, but Werner Herzog’s Grand Theft Auto: New Orleans turned out to be a surprisingly fun gonzo trip. After years of hanging with the Kinski, good ole Werner sure knows his way around the crazy, and by pairing Nicholas Cage on a savage burn with hyperreal iguanas, voodoo breakdancers, and the like, he’s done Abel Ferrara’s Gloomy Gus version of this tale one better. There’s no Catholic angst for this Lieutenant — just reveling in sordidness…but then again, isn’t that the whole point of Carnival?

18. Watchmen: “At midnight, all the agents and the superhuman crews go and round up everyone who knows more than they do.” True, Zack Snyder’s attempt to recreate the Alan Moore graphic novel on film is flawed in a lot of ways. (The longer DVD version smooths out some of these issues while introducing others.) And I still wish the project had stayed in Paul Greengrass’ hands. But, give credit where it’s due — For all its many problems (most notably the fratboy-indulgences into “cool” violence), Snyder’s Watchmen got a lot of things right, from Dr. Manhattan sulking on Mars to Jackie Earle Haley’s turn as Rorschach. Snyder couldn’t match the degree of difficulty involved in the end, but Watchmen was still a worthy attempt.

19. The Road: In the Future, There Will Be Cannibals: John Hillcoat’s film version of Cormac McCarthy’s dabbling in the apocalyptic form definitely captured the resonances of the book. And this is a quality production through and through, with solid performances by Viggo, the kid, Charlize Theron, and all of the HBO All-Stars (with particularly big ups to Robert Duvall.) Unfortunately, I didn’t think much of the book either, and in its monochromatic grimness, The Road never seems as memorable as Hillcoat’s earlier film, The Proposition. All work and no play makes Hobo Viggo somethin’ somethin’.

20. The Men Who Stare at Goats: I’m sure a lot of lists would’ve found room for Avatar or Up in the Air in their top twenty, and both have their merits (even if Avatar‘s are almost completely technical.) But if Avatar was too flat and Air too glib, The Men Who Stare at Goats was a frothy excursion that delivered on basically the terms it promised at the onset. Ok, there’s not much there there, but sometimes a couple of likable actors having an extended goof will go farther than Big, Oscar-Worthy Messages and World-Beating Tech. Hmmm, if you think about it, the “sparkly eye” technique probably would’ve gone over better with the Na’vi than all those Aliens-loaned cargo-loaders anyway. Score one for the First Earth Battalion.

Most Disappointing: Where the Wild Things Are, Terminator: Salvation

Worth a Rental: An Education, Avatar, Cold Souls, Eden (2006), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The International, Paranormal Activity, Sherlock Holmes, A Single Man, Taken, Up in the Air, Zombieland

Don’t Bother: 2012, The Box, The Brothers Bloom, Extract, A Girl Cut in Two (2006), The Hangover, Invictus, Jennifer’s Body, State of Play, The Tiger’s Tail (2006), Whip It, World’s Greatest Dad

Best Actor: Sam Rockwell, Moon; Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Best Actress: Carey Mulligan, An Education
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds; Robert Duvall, The Road
Best Supporting Actress: Marion Cotillard, Public Enemies; Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds

Unseen: 9, Nine, Adventureland, Angels & Demons, Amelia, Antichrist, Armored, Astro Boy, Black Dynamite, Blood: The Last Vampire, Bright Star, Brothers, Bruno, Capitalism: A Love Story, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, Crank: High Voltage, Crossing Over, Everybody’s Fine, Funny People, Gentlemen Broncos, GI Joe, The Girlfriend Experience, Good Hair, The Education of Charlie Banks, The Great Buck Howard, Hunger, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The Invention of Lying, It’s Complicated, Julie & Julia, Land of the Lost, The Limits of Control, , The Lovely Bones, I Love You Man, Me and Orson Welles, The Messenger, New York I Love You, Notorious, Observe & Report, Orphan, Pandorum, Pirate Radio, Ponyo, Precious, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, The Proposal, Push, The Soloist, Surrogates, The Taking of Pelham1-2-3, Taking Woodstock, Thirst, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Two Lovers, The Ugly Truth, Whatever Works, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Year One

    A Good Year For:

  • The Apocalypse (2012, Zombieland, The Road)
  • Demons (A Serious Man, Drag Me to Hell, Jennifer’s Body, Paranormal Activity)
  • George Clooney (The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up in the Air)
  • Going Undercover to Play Both Sides (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Duplicity, The Informant!)
  • Guy Pearce Cameos (The Road, The Hurt Locker)
  • Hipsters with Unresolved Childhood Issues (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Where the Wild Things Are)
  • “The Jews” (Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man)
  • Matthew Goode (Watchmen, A Single Man)
  • Melanie Lynskey (Up in the Air, The Informant!)
  • Stop-Motion (Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox)

    A Bad Year For:

  • Goats (Drag Me to Hell, The Men Who Stare at Goats)
  • Robots from the Future (Transformers 2, Terminator: Salvation)
  • Pithy Movie Titles: (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine)
  • Summer blockbusters: (GI Joe, Terminator: Salvation, Transformers 2, Wolverine)

2010: Alice in Wonderland, All Good Things, The American, The A-Team, The Book of Eli, Brooklyn’s Finest, Clash of the Titans, A Couple of Dicks, Daybreakers, The Expendables, Greenberg, The Green Hornet, Green Zone, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1, I Love You Phillip Morris, Inception, Iron Man 2, Jonah Hex, Kick-Ass, Knight & Day, The Last Airbender, Legion, The Losers, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Morning Glory, Predators, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Red, Robin Hood, Salt, Season of the Witch, Shanghai, Shutter Island, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Toy Story 3, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, The Wolf Man, Youth in Revolt, more needless ’80s remakes than you can shake a stick at. (Footloose, The Karate Kid, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Red Dawn), and…

TRON 2. 2010, y’all. It’s the future, and no mistake.

Sweet Coraline.

Sigh…I’m running well behind on reviews again. Nevertheless, if you have the slightest amount of interest in Henry Selick’s exquisitely crafted stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, I highly recommend it. Made with as much care and attention to detail as the best of Pixar (or earlier Selick projects such as Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach), Selick’s clever Coraline is a children’s fable that moves with purpose, bristles with dark humor, and snaps together with satisfying, text-adventure logic. Like Dahl, Carroll, del Toro, and Rowling, Selick and Gaiman get that kids have more of an appetite for the unsettling and creepy than they’re often given credit for, and that the best fairy tales are often dark, scary places. Coraline is no exception. And, even if you’re not a stop-motion aficionado, the film is an eye-popping visual treat — I really wish I’d seen it in 3D.

Once upon a time, there lived a little girl named Caroline…uh, Coraline. (Dakota Fanning) Whisked away by her two writerly parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgeman) to a dilapidated apartment house in the farthest reaches of Oregon, Coraline soon finds herself as blue as her hair in her gray new home. And so, she spends her days exploring the new environs and wishing she were somewhere, anywhere else. But, as it turns out, Anywhere Else is only a short crawl away. For, behind a tiny door in the living room, there exists another world, one in which parents are never distracted with boring writing projects, and both they and the bizarre coterie of neighbors — two British spinsters, an acrobatic Russian, a boy in a skeleton mask — are always solicitous of Coraline’s well-being.

Perhaps too solicitous, in fact. While Coraline takes a shine to her “other” family at first — despite their somewhat off-putting button eyes — she starts to find them a bit suffocating after awhile, and particularly after her dear, sweet other-mother suggests she pin her eyes shut. (And just wait until we get to the coat hangers.) And, when our heroine encounters the gloomy ghosts of other (now-button-eyed) children who haphazardly wandered into this erstwhile Shangri-la, she comes to realize that other-Mother is smothering her for a reason: For all its color and beauty, Coraline’s splendiferous secret world is really just a (lonely) spider’s web, meticulously crafted to ensnare her, forever and ever and ever. Be careful what you wish for, Coraline…

I hadn’t read Neil Gaiman’s book before seeing the movie, but I’m willing to bet that the eerie tone established here — and the scuttling stop-motion monstrosities therein — are one with his vision. (In fact, even the Sandman-like dream logic of the story notwithstanding, the button-eye gimmick reminded me quite a bit of Gaiman’s Corinthian, and there’s a wager-with-the-devil made at one point that brought to mind Morpheus’ spoken-word gambit in Hell.) Even so, it’s clear that Henry Selick has brought his own demented gleam to Gaiman’s world — see, for example, the spindly, nightmarish look of Momma Big Bad, or pretty much anything here involving stop-motion terriers. And, even when the story is going through its paces, there’s always something unique and amazing to catch your eye in the frame.

A word of caution: Coraline might be a touch too frightening for really, really young kids. (And besides, that old terrier with cataracts getting force-fitted into his angel costume is about as dark as anything you’ll ever find in a purported children’s movie.) But I could imagine youngsters of a certain age, particularly those with a macabre bent, really getting into this film. And in terms of the sheer wealth of imagination and meticulous craftsmanship on display, it’s hard to imagine that very many other films this year will be in Coraline‘s orbit. You go, girl.

Slaughter, Infidelity, Donuts.

In the movie bin, Homer J. Simpson gets stuck between a rock (Iraq?) and a hard place in the trailer for The (long-awaited) Simpsons Movie; Edward Norton (brandishing a surprisingly lousy accent) and Naomi Watts struggle with a loveless marriage by way of W. Somerset Maugham in the trailer for The Painted Veil (also with Liev Schrieber, Toby Jones, and the always lovely Dame Diana Rigg); and Wilbur the pig picks up a “spin” doctor with a way with words in a new Internet-only teaser for Charlotte’s Web (Between Julia and Buscemi, it seems like the voice-work is going to be really distracting.)

Charlotte Sometimes.

The new trailer for Charlotte’s Web, which I’m pretty sure is the first honest-to-goodness book I ever read, is now online…although, back then, Charlotte sounded nothing like Julia Roberts. (Official Site.)

Close Encounters of the Worst Kind.

Across the gulf of space…intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.” Hey, don’t say L. Ron Hubbard didn’t try to warn us. At any rate, Spielberg’s take on War of the Worlds is a gritty, eye-popping ride at first, but ultimately ends up being a disappointing affair. In short, it too often abandons the eponymous conflict for pained bouts of family melodrama and lots of Signs-like crashing about in a basement.

I’m aggravated by this film more than most, because from the lightning storm in the first fifteen minutes to the incident at the Hudson River ferry about halfway in, War showed flashes of amazing promise at times. With their introduction from below and their commence-the-killing foghorns, the tripods were spindly alien nightmares, just as they should be. Some of the humanity adrift sequences didn’t make much sense (Why do the news crew cannibalizing the downed plane act starved 12 hours into Day 1 of the attack? How could everything else be picked over by then?), but I particularly liked the swarm of panic and rage surrounding the sight of the Cruise family’s working van. And, while using blatant and Dubyaesque terror, terror, terror, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11 imagery seems like something of an easy shortcut (and how was that “missing persons” board near the ferry created so quickly, in such a random place?), it still helped augment the apocalyptic gloom that an adapation of War of the Worlds needs front-and-center.

But, alas, amidst all this armageddon, we’re forced to take multiple timeouts so that Tom Cruise and his kids can work out their unresolved family issues. You have to expect some of this in a Spielberg movie, sure, but it still seems like filler, pretty much every time. And it seriously detracts from the terror War is trying to invoke when one starts counting the character beats until the unavoidable group hug. Moreover, when we get to the interminable basement of Crazy-Eyez Robbins, the film just stops dead. (I know there was a similar sequence in the 1953 George Pal film, but frankly I don’t remember enough to compare the two.) After all the rabid, contagious fear of teeming, ant-like humanity that permeates the first hour, why would we want to watch Cruise, Robbins, and Fanning play hide-and-seek for twenty minutes with that Abyss-like tentacle? (Particularly given that we saw Cruise already do this with the ID spiders in Minority Report.) As a result, by the time Team Cruise gets to (a surprisingly undamaged) Boston for the cathartic group hug, I’d pretty much checked out. Unfortunately, despite a captivating first hour, War of the Worlds eventually bogs down into quagmire.

On War, Violence, and other Grimm Matters.

In this weekend’s movie bin, yet another new look at Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and a higher quality version of the trailer for David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence that premiered at Cannes last week. And, further into the future, the one-sheet for Terry Gilliam’s return, The Brothers Grimm, makes it online. Along with Heath Ledger, Matt Damon, and the lovely Monica Bellucci, Grimm also includes Peter Stormare and Jonathan Pryce. Seeing Sam Lowry back in the Gilliam-verse should be worth the price of admission by itself.

Four, War, and a Bore.

Big-time summer trailers piggybacking off of Sith this week include the final trailer for Fantastic Four (I actually liked the Magic Johnson NBA spot, but this is looking lame again) and a new War of the Worlds trailer, with our first brief look at the invaders. Also, Top Guns Jamie Foxx, Jessica Biel, and Josh Lucas go up against a renegade Skynet-like fighter in the new trailer for Stealth. Oof, Sam Shepard and Joe Morton must have some bills to pay.

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