Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Buttons On The River

4 out of 4

Writer-director Henry Selick's Coraline is a macabre wonderment, a childhood fantasy that transforms into a nightmare. To say that this is a movie strictly for children would be to say that those must be some genuinely brave children. Here's an animated film that pushes the limits of its PG-rating because some of this stuff gets exceptionally sinister and scary. It dives deep down into the crevices of what not only children fear but everyone. Let's not compare this wonderfully weird movie to The Nightmare Before Christmas, but rather just say that this is another crowning achievement from Selick that holds the same level of sheer imagination.

In glorious stop-motion animation, this is the best use of 3-D I've yet to see. It's never overbearing and simply makes all the sceneries pop. The movie has an eerie yet beautiful look to it, and it's fascinating because the more grotesque everything becomes, the more hauntingly gorgeous it gets. It all starts with an 11-year-old girl named Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) who just moved into a creaky old apartment complex with her mom (Teri Hatcher) and dad (John Hodgman). They write for a gardening magazine but never have time to actually go outside and plant something. Both of her parents have checked out and don't pay one ounce of attention to their daughter. This has turned Coraline into an insufferable and pesky young girl who gets especially testy when people get her name wrong. She longs for something different and exciting, and one night a mouse awakens her and leads her to a small door in the wall. Inside is a tunnel that takes her to what appears to be her same house, but upon entering the kitchen she finds her mother preparing a delicious meal. Something isn't right.

The house is an idealized version of Coraline's real house and contains idealized versions of her parents, Other Mother and Other Father. They're warm and welcoming, but just like everyone else in this alternate world, they have buttons for eyes, a frightening image that'll haunt you for a long while after the movie is over. Even amongst all of the seemingly pleasant delights in the alternate world, there's always something unsettling lurking beneath the surface. Coraline finds herself ultimately in three separate worlds that are each aesthetically different. The first is Coraline's real house, which is bland and plain. The second is her alternate house, which bursts with color and life. There's even a magical garden that blooms right before her eyes. The final world shows its face when the second world turns on Coraline, and she is introduced to a whole new level of ugly creepiness.

Coraline is surrounded by eccentric neighbors who play an integral part to the story. Downstairs there's the British old lady duo (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) who are retired stage actresses wishing to relive the olden days. Upstairs is a Russian gymnast named Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane) who has lanky blue limbs and a big potbelly, and he takes pride in running a circus of trained mice. Coraline also comes across a strange boy on a motorcycle named Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) whose full name is Wyborn. Every one of these characters gets their own personal "improvement" in Coraline's trip to her alternate home. We get to witness the British duo give a performance where their fat wrinkled bodies are mere costumes and their beautiful selves lie within. Mr. Bobinsky puts on a show as his mice bounce, jump, and play instruments. Wybie's transformation for the alternate world is shockingly ominous. And then there's a mysterious black cat (Keith David) whose role only becomes gradually clear.

As Coraline's adventures play out, we act as spectators with her along for the ride. There's lush detail in each and every scene and great satisfaction in simply letting it all soak in. It all results in the unraveling twine of a big finish, like a string of puzzles where you just absolutely don't know what's in store around the next corner. Coraline tells a classic story with a dark twist about loving what you have, a story that proves that the grass most certainly isn't always greener on the other side. Welcome to the first great moviegoing experience of 2009.

Frozen River:
3 ½ out of 4

Frozen River gets its name from the vast expanse of ice the two main characters find themselves crossing with illegal immigrants packed in the trunk of their car. Courtney Hunt's debut film presents a devastating and challenging portrait of poverty and scraping bottom. Here's a film that doesn't dare to sentimentalize the situation or make it into something it isn't. The drama and suspense comes not from contrived situations, but rather, from situations that feel all too real with striking authenticity. Taking place in the snow-filled, bitter, winter cold of upstate New York, it's a stark bleakness that perfectly matches the bleakness of the movie itself. And yet, with a movie so small, it packs in a powerful punch that cuts to the core. This is some of the very best American independent film has to offer. And that it's acquired two Academy Award nominations, now is the time to take notice.

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a single mother living in a cramped trailer with her two sons. Ray's husband, a gambling addict, bailed on his family and ran for Atlantic City taking with him the money Ray was saving up to buy a double-wide trailer. Ray makes her living at the Yankee Dollar Store, and more often than not only has popcorn and Tang for her kids at dinner. She rummages through the couch cushions for their lunch money. One day when Ray is out looking for her husband, she comes across his car in the parking lot of a Bingo joint. A Mohawk Indian from a local reservation thought the car was abandoned and took it for herself, and so Ray follows her home to get the car back. The woman's name is Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), and she informs Ray of a smuggler who'll give her $2,000 for the car, no questions asked. And so, what starts off as a one-time trip trekking aliens across the border turns into a continued moneymaking scheme for Ray.

Ray and Misty drive across a nearby frozen river because it's unchecked by the Canada/US border control. Their journeys across are harrowing and treacherous but also hold an odd beauty, as well. Misty assures Ray that they're safe because she's seen semi trucks drive across. She also tells Ray that they won't get stopped because they have the advantage of a white woman, Ray, commanding the vehicle. There is one certain state trooper (Michael O'Keefe), though, who's lingering dangerously close to Ray and begins asking questions. But these encounters are played with a similar solemness to the rest of the movie, and even though the trooper suspects something, there's underlying sympathy.

It's no wonder the Academy awarded Melissa Leo with a Best Actress nomination because her performance is nothing short of amazing. It transcends performance, and it appears as if we're not watching an actress, but rather, a real life woman's dire situation. Leo plays the role straight, not allowing Ray to care about who she's transporting across the border; it's just for the money. She's forced to remain entirely emotionless and unconnected during the trips because, otherwise, she might not do it. She brings a sharp urgency to the part and is utterly heartbreaking. She's assisted greatly by Misty Upham whose performance is at the caliber of a Best Supporting Actress nomination. She's blankly morose and sad as her one-year-old son has been taken from her, and she longs to get him back. Do Ray and Lila bond? Not necessarily. Each actress plays their character rightfully cold. This is a human connection solely created through need and desperation. They find something in common in that they both have nothing.

There's also Ray's 15-year-old son T.J., (Charlie McDermott), who realizes the meaning behind his family's financial situation. He looks at his own mother with pity and helps take care of his younger brother. T.J. asks a friend to run to Kmart late on Christmas Eve to pick him up the Hot Wheels toy his little brother wants from Santa. There's an elegantly rich level of detail in Courtney Hunt's screenplay, which got nominated for an Oscar, and it's this that makes Frozen River such a compelling piece of work.

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