Category: Art on Film

Movie Review: Coraline (2009)

Oh goodness, Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman teaming up: what a perfect pairing. Based on Gaiman’s young adult novel, Coraline is a stunningly beautiful stop-motion film focusing on Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), a curious pre-teen who has recently moved to an odd pink apartment complex with her gardener/writer parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman). Dismayed by their workaholic tendencies, she explores the dismal surrounding area, which includes a dead garden, meeting the weird kid next door Wybie (Robert Bailey, Jr) and the acrobat Bobinsky (Ian McShane) upstairs who trains a mouse circus. She discovers a secret knee-high door, presumably existing as a link to the unoccupied apartment connected to theirs, and convinces her mom to give her the key, only to find it opens to a brick wall. Following this incident, Coraline begins dreaming of a perfect world beyond the door, an ideal version of her own life.

It’s just like her apartment, but more magical, and eventually turns out to not be a dream. Her parents are just like her parents, but doting and perpetually in good moods. Wybie’s there but unable to speak and therefore less annoying, and Bobinsky is the ring leader of an exciting circus. Her downstairs neighbors, the Misses Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Forcible (Dawn French), relive their stage days by transforming into their younger selves and performing for Coraline and a host of yappy dogs. There’s even a huge fanciful garden in the shape of her face. Everything is pretty wonderful, until the Other Mother insists that Coraline sews buttons into her own eyes so she can match everyone else there. She refuses and escapes, only to find her real parents missing. In a desperate attempt to keep Coraline, the Other Mother kidnapped them. Now our heroine must fight to save her parents as well as the souls of the children Other Mother has stolen in the past, with the aid of Wybie and a mysterious omniscient cat (Keith David).

This movie is awesome all around. It’s a decent adaptation of the novel, even (I thought) improving the plot in some ways. It doesn’t seek to change too many things (often the downfall of a book-to-screen situation), only adding one new and minor character (Wybie) and slightly shifting some of the chronology. Anything else extra is an exciting visual additive such as the garden. I liked that they gave Coraline more of a personal struggle. In the book, she quickly realized that this world was ominous and it was more about saving her parents. In the film, she was completely taken in by the Other Mother’s playland and had to fight against the temptation to stay there. It made the story more dramatic. The main adaptation-related aspect that bugged me is the way the ghost children were done. I don’t want to be completely spoilerific here but let’s just say a certain segment that was really interesting in the book was just weird and irritating in the movie.

Visually, Coraline is perfect. I didn’t see it in 3-D because I actually kind of hate 3-D (it’s really uncomfortable for a person who wears regular vision-correcting glasses, and I don’t think it adds anything special to my viewing experience), but I’m sure it’s just as good. It’s the kind of movie during which I reveled in every detail. I was literally staring agape for the entire opening scene, completely beguiled by the imagery before me. I have long thought stop-motion to be one of the best forms of animation, and this film is probably the best example I’ve seen. The world Selick has created is intricate and imaginative but still believable. The character designs are over-the-top but relatable, and their movements are natural and precise. The care that went in to creating each piece of the set and figures is incredibly apparent, and I found myself constantly wondering how they achieved certain effects. It’s so much better knowing that each action was hand-crafted and not done by computer- it looks better and it feels better, too!

Overall this is a really fun, creative fantasy. The heroine has moxie and the soundtrack is swell. It’s darker than your average kid’s film, which I always like to see. Most exciting of all, there’s a musical with a score by Stephin Merritt! Eeeee! I wish I wasn’t out of the country in May.

4.5/5

Other Father Song“- They Might Be Giants

Movie Review: Vals Im Bashir (Waltz With Bashir) (2008)

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Using Flash animation to surrealistically describe the horrors of the 1982 Lebanon War, Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir has been assigned the niche category of animated documentary. This is a topic I know very little about, so my opinion on the movie is very ill-informed. I saw it mainly for the animation, as I was extremely interested to see how Flash would translate into a feature-length dramatic film. My feelings are… mixed.

Upon the realization that he doesn’t remember most of his time as a soldier during the war, with exception of a recurring vision of the Sabra and Satila massacre in Beirut, Folman embarks on a series of interviews with former comrades in an attempt to fill in the blanks. The film therefore unfolds as a collection of short stories: remembrances conversationally narrated by former Israeli soldiers. One man was stranded in enemy territory after his tank was attacked. Escaping to the shore, he swam for hours until he spotted the other tanks from his unit making their way down the beach. Another recalls a fearless, unarmed reporter walking calmly down the street amidst copious gunfire as his terrified cameraman crawled in front of him. The stories all lead up to the massacre, ending with gruesome live-action footage from the event. It is a pretty unsettling experience.

Like I said, I don’t know anything about this conflict. My more-informed friends have told me this film is a great stride for Israel because it doesn’t really choose sides or glorify war as a necessary action. This I commend. Unfortunately I think that a lot of it assumed a knowledge of both this specific conflict as well as the soldiering life in general. I understand that it was all based on real events and memories, and the interview style resulted in conversational, non-expository storytelling, but I felt a little lost at parts or unable to fully grasp what was going on or who certain people were. This has happened to me often with war stories- I could not get a handle on A Farewell to Arms because the narrator kept changing locations and nothing was ever explained (ugh I hated that book). I would assume that anyone who could relate to it or just has more interest in war would have been much more engrossed by the plot (as opposed to someone like me, who has avoided most war-related movies or books). It was still a very affecting film- intense and real.

Film Title: WALTZ WITH BASHIR

I was there for the animation, anyway. The backgrounds were excellent, composed of fiery skies and detailed buildings, with good textures. The direction was good, especially the opening scene in which rabid dogs careen through the streets and the fantasy involving a young man sailing atop a large blue woman. The character design and movement, though, were less than exceptional. There was often not enough detail to tell people apart (which is important when the only characters in your movie are dark-haired white guys). I think a lot of it has to do with Flash as an animating platform, not the artists themselves. It gives everything this weird flat sheen and the colors don’t seem to fit. The lines are too thick. When shown close up, no one’s movements look natural enough, though for this film they seemed to be attempting a rotoscope effect with the interviews. It’s a lot of little things, and to me it was very noticeable and did detract a bit from my overall appreciation.

I’m sure the animation defects wouldn’t bother most people, and I definitely applaud Folman for experimenting with the art form when most animated movies are CG and for kids. I hope the animated documentary becomes a viable form of the genre (I still have to see Chicago 10, but that’s the only other one I know of). Waltz with Bashir remains a very powerful documentary about a terrifying and ever-present conflict as well as the mental after-effects of battle. I haven’t seen the other Best Foreign Film nominees and since obviously Let The Right One In isn’t getting the respect it deserves, I hope this wins for its show of uniqueness.

Movie Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

nightmare-before-christmasWhat better way to celebrate the completion of my Armenian art paper and last German test than to view my favorite stop motion musical? The Nightmare Before Christmas is set in the fantastical town of Halloween, where every kind of frightening being resides. They spend most of their days planning the next Halloween celebration until the day arrives, after which they start planning again for next year. Jack Skellington, generally held to be the scariest, most wonderful resident, feels tired of doing the same thing every day and wishes for a way to escape his routine. One Halloween night he walks deep into the woods and discovers a grove of trees with oddly-shaped doors. He opens the one shaped like a Christmas tree and plunges into a new world of snow, smiles, joy, and presents.

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Amazed and exhilarated by the prospect of a different kind of life, he brings back various objects he finds there and tries to scientifically understand “this Christmas thing” until ultimately deciding to take on the holiday himself and make some Halloweeny improvements. He plans to don the suit of “Sandy Claws” and travel into the human world delivering terrifying presents forged by the monsters, witches, and ghouls of Halloweentown. Sally, a sewn-together mad scientist’s creation and the only sensible person in the entire populace, fears Jack’s plan will end in grief and does her best to sabotage the Christmas preparations. Unfortunately, Jack is pretty clueless, so he kidnaps Sandy, who ends up locked up with the Oogie Boogie Man, and flies into the real world with his deadly toys only to face the consequences of human weaponry. Will Jack learn his lesson and save Christmas?

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This is a funny, incredibly imaginative, and really beautiful film. I looove Danny Elfman’s score, and am ready to sing along to any of it at any time (especially “Kidnap the Sandy Claws”). The story and characters are interesting and really well-designed. Mostly I am completely engaged by the animation- so detailed, so gorgeous, so ahhhh! Director Henry Selick has created an easily believable landscape of rolling hills and tipsy buildings reminiscent of a gloomy Dr. Seuss painting. The figures and settings are intricate and thought-out to the point of obsession- I’m captivated by these myriad little moments: the uncurling of the hill as Jack walks down, the snap of the thread as Sally bites it, water streaming down the fountain. It’s inspiring, really, and makes me more and more excited for the animation in Selick’s upcoming Coraline.

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In the end this is a great, dark fantasy for children, teenagers, adults, or whoever. The story is creative, especially compared to a lot of other schlock out there in crappy “family” films. I’m unsure if part of the reason I love it is due to experiencing it first as a kid, giving it that nostalgia factor of many Disney movies. I’d like to think any grown person could enjoy it too even if they hadn’t seen it as a kid, but I can’t be certain. Watch it and decide for yourself! I haven’t seen the new 3-D version (I’m still living off the VHS version I got a decade ago) but I guess it’s good, too?

4.5/5

Movie Review: Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed) (1926)

The Adventures of Prince AchmedA few weeks ago I was playing around on Wikipedia, looking at articles on Pixar and Brenda Chapman when I stumbled across the silent German movie The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest surviving animated full-length film (and some consider it the first ever). Directed and animated by Lotte Reiniger, with assistance from her husband Carl Koch, it is one of the few feature-length films to utilize silhouette animation, in which figures and backdrops are painstakingly cut out of cardboard and moved over a backlight. The story is a mash up of several Arabian Nights tales: An evil magician creates a horse that flies and presents it to the king in order to obtain his daughter. The king’s son, Prince Achmed, tries it out and rockets up into the heavens. He eventually lands on a mystical island, where he falls for Peri Banu, princess of demons. After some coercing she decides to love him back, only to be kidnapped by an Asian king. Achmed rescues her, but must now defeat the demons who don’t want her to leave their island. They get the help of The Witch (the evil magician’s enemy) and meet up with Aladdin, who’s been trying to win the hand of Achmed’s sister. They defeat the demons together, with the brunt of the work done by The Witch (female empowerment!) and arrive home safely just in time for a double wedding. Sweet.

The Adventures of Prince AchmedThe story is interesting and told well, with minimal intertitles and good pacing, but really it is apparent that Reiniger made this film almost purely for its visual stimulation. It is breathtaking to see- the movements of the characters are so fine-tuned and choreographed, reflecting her interest in Chinese puppetry. Each individual set piece and figure contain a wealth of details and intricacies of design. Her dedication and sacrifice for art are easily recognized in every frame. In the spirit of the Expressionist movement influencing German cinema at the time, experimental smoky effects populate the magic scenes and the prints were evocatively color-tinted with soft blues, greens, and yellows, though unfortunately the original final print is missing and the available version is a restoration of the black and white. Additionally, the music is gorgeous and emotional, composed by Wolfgang Zeller as his first film score (the start of a prolific career). The Adventures of Prince Achmed is fascinating for any animation enthusiast, and will surely be entertaining for any fan of fantasy and adventure stories. Also let’s support women in animation! For once! (And really, female filmmakers in general.)

The Adventures of Prince Achmed4/5

Here’s a collection of scenes from the movie. Ignore the song; I watched it on mute.

Ukiyo Double Feature: Yojimbo (1961) and Sprited Away (2001)

For my “Ukiyo” class we had another film assignment: after watching both Yojimbo and Spirited Away, pick one that is conclusively “floating world” in its concept and themes, and participate in a group debate in class in which we defend our choice and shoot down the other film as not indicative of the time period we’re studying. Before I even sat down to watch Yojimbo I knew I’d pick Spirited Away– it’s got the hedonism, escapism, lush visuals, and fleeting aspects that defined “floating world” culture. The debates went well but my professor claims they were both draws. Hah.

Yojimbo tells the tale of a wandering ronin (Toshiro Mifune), aka a samurai who no longer has a lord, who finds himself in the middle of a small-town gang war. Disgusted by the feuding gangs’ immorality and pettiness, he sets a plan to manipulate them into destroying themselves, thus freeing the townspeople from their reign. It’s a good plan, but some problems happen, mostly in the form of Unosuke, an asshole gang member with a penchant for gunslinging. But then, some solutions happen in the form of sword fighting and fire-setting. It’s a western for mid-nineteenth century Japan, and it’s all pretty great. There are several comedic characters as well as a few scary/sadistic ones. The samurai himself is cool and gruff, with no reservations about hacking someone’s arm off as long as it’s someone he knows isn’t very nice. He doesn’t need the pleasures of a courtesan or the bribe of a corrupt silk-maker, all he needs is Justice. In case this is sounding familiar, Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, one of three Kurosawa movies to be turned into spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone (maybe that’s common knowledge and I’m just being overly informative, but I didn’t know about this before so… whatever).

Having never seen either a Kurosawa film or any of Sergio Leone’s westerns, I had very few preconceptions about Yojimbo. I don’t think I could have ever seen it coming, anyway! Everything about it was so… cool. The crisp black and white contrasts, the traditional-meets-hep jazz music, the mash-up outfits and punk-chōnin hairstyles: everything combines to create a wonderful, seemingly anachronistic mood. The face-offs between the gangs were awesome and bloody; why can’t all westerns have swords instead of guns? Much more attention-grabbing. My main criticism is that there are way too many characters, and I had a hard time following who was on which side and who did what thing, etc. Could just have been me, though. Maybe if I watch it again I’ll be able to follow it better. Otherwise, it’s a really fun movie with a great protagonist, cool style, and pretty accurate depictions of small-town life and people in Japan on the eve of the Meiji Era (when it fully opened itself to the West). Unfortunately, the soundtrack is mad expensive.


Well, Spirited Away, what can I say that hasn’t already been said? (Probably not much.) In this modern fairy tale, young Chihiro finds herself torn from her parents and thrown into a world of spirits, demons, witches, dragons, and lots of other things I wish we had in real life. Almost the entire narrative takes place in a large bath house where nature spirits come to rest and replenish. It’s run by the large and squat witch Yubaba, who begrudgingly gives Chihiro a job helping with the baths. Haku, a young sorcerer’s-apprentice-type, befriends her and helps her in her quest to save her parents (who’ve been turned into pigs) and return home. She meets a bunch of interesting and fantastical creatures, helping everybody out with her incorruptibility and stalwartness, and (spoiler alert) is eventually able to go home with her parents, safe and sound. Also, she falls in love.

It’s beautiful and heart-warming, with some life-lessons thrown in. In just a few days, Chihiro grows from a whiny, scaredy-cat brat into a confident, enabled heroine. The stunning visuals and imaginative characters surround her transformation with fun and adventure. Miyazaki is a guy who can consistently make a good movie that’s interesting to both kids and adults, plus he’s given anime films some credibility in Western culture. This movie is great, no doubt about it, but I think Howl’s Moving Castle is my favourite Miyazaki film (probably because it’s more of a love story). I’m not sure what made Spirited Away his big thing in America, but I suspect it has something to do with our girl-caught-in-a-strange-land-just-trying-get-home fixation (eg The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland).