Monday, August 31, 2009


I had the great fortune and misfortune to see a whole slew of movies this weekend. I'll say one thing: I should always trust my instincts.

I'm not sure how, but I can almost always tell, via a movie poster or the the DVD cover art or the coverage on a movie if I'll like it or not. It's rare I'm wrong. And it's rare the American public is wrong. Most often, the most successful movies are the best movies.

By 'successful' I mean movies which succeed monetarily in compared to the scope in which they are made. It is rare a movie which does poorly is very good; the fact it did poorly is because none of the critics liked it and most people who saw it in the theater did not as well, so they told their friends and they told their friends...and no one went. I'm not saying critics are right, but when they all hate something, there is something there.

Let's start with Coraline.

The pitch:

A young girl walks through a secret door in her new home and discovers an alternate version of her life. On the surface, this parallel reality is eerily similar to her real life - only much better. But when her adventure turns dangerous, Coraline must count on her resourcefulness, determination, and bravery to get back home - and save her family.

The trailer:

This is one fucked up movie. It's strange, surreal, odd and, in the end, dull. It's also the kind of movie snobs will say is great even when they are bored because they feel they have to say it's great by the sheer fact it's so odd.

The film follows the story of a misfit girl named Coraline who discovers an alternative reality where she meets her 'perfect family', replete with buttons for eyes and sweet, caring souls.

There isn't much more to say about the story except for that. The plot is very simple and of the garden variety misfit tale.

There is no denying the artistry which went into making the film. The animation and the feel of the movie is creepy, layered and staggering. The tone is savage and mean; you wait every moment for someone to become plummeted with knives. The team behind this movie clearly took years and years to make this.

The filmmaker is Henry Selick, the man behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone. His style is very much that of an artist with an an individual vision. It is a vision which is bleak, nihilistic and in love with the grotesque. There is a reason his name is often confused with Tim Burton. Their visual style is very much in sync, but their storytelling style is not.

Whereas as Burton can become lost in his dark aesthetic at the expense of emotion and story, he has made a body of work which has been, at times, very emotional and accessible. Selick's work is so otherwordly and dark, it's difficult to find something to identify with or latch onto...instead, his movies are technical marvels to watch and study, but not movies, sadly, to enjoy.

The reason the movie made $75 million can be attributed more to the effective 3-D than to the story or the film itself. It deserves all the kudos out there for it's amazing technology and it's oddly shaped and disturbing characters, but the film isn't engrossing and rather off-putting. I found myself fading in and out halfway through and only enjoyed it for it's lush colors and magnificent animation, but if most viewers were honest (and most critics) the movie is beautiful in the darkest of ways, and also one of the most boring animated films I've seen in a long time, and I see lots and lots of animated movies.

From a writing perspective, this is from the novelist, Neil Gaiman, the very accomplished and prolific author from Britain Mr. Gaiman is a man who takes his work and storytelling very seriously. I've only read one of his novels and the subject matter was not to my liking, but he does know how to weave a tale. Many are fans of his comic book (oh, sorry, graphic novel) Sandman...I've read that as well and while I liked it I didn't love it.

I've found the rules and structure of fantasy and horror writing to be unruly and difficult to deconstruct. It's as if the rule book is thrown out of the window with such work. Maybe it's my own unwillingness to live in those worlds long enough to understand them...they are much too dark and violent for me.

Mr. Gaiman has a delightful website where he posts often.

Here he is:

Mikey Movie Madness score:

7 for technical achievements; 4 for storytelling. Unfortunately, even in 3-D, not worth your time.

Next up: Adventureland

The pitch:

In 1987, James dreams of a summer European tour before studying at an Ivy League school in New York City are ruined after his parents have a severe career setback. As a result, James must get a summer job to cover his upcoming expenses at the decrepit local amusement park, Adventureland, where he falls in love with a witty co-worker. The young carnies have unforgettable and painful learning experiences about life, love and trust.

The trailer:

I know the kind of people who say they love this movie. They are the kind who are in Graduate Writing or Sociology Programs at Columbia university and are working on their dissertation about the use of irony and fate in society and/or late 20's century drama. Or, better yet, they live in the East Village and attend rally's in Washington Square Park and smoke pot and run poetry slams to empty halls.

It's difficult to tell you what is good and what is bad about this movie, because I found the tone so annoying and frustrating, it was difficult to sit back and let it wash over me. If there is one thing this movie is, it's smug. Smug in it's attitude for well-structured movies, smug in it's anti-societal views, smug in how grating the lead actor is (sorry, but I find Jesse Eisenberg very, very grating, even though he always plays the downtrodden Jewish guy), smug in how it finds the format and movement of good movies so passe, smug in how it views the world and it's quirky sense of irony...

It reminds me of the worst works of Wes Anderson. I simply do not like them but I feel like I should like them and that if I don't like them then there is something wrong with me. I used to feel it was simply that I didn't 'get' these kinds of movies and there was some illiterate and defective part of my obsessive movie gene which resulted in my making a knee-jerk reaction to these movies, but now I know better. Most people know better (which is why they make no money and hardly anyone goes to see them, except those noted above). They are dull and worse, smug, about their own perceived intellectual superiority at the loss of story or forward dramatic momentum.

Smug: marked by excessive complacency or self-satisfaction; "a smug glow of self-congratulation" (according to the Princeton online dictionary).

Mikey Movie Madness score: 4 for trying to make a drama about people in their 20's that has serious, literary ambitions; 2 for execution and, well, smugness.

More soon...


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