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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Outta My Way, Nerdlingers: South Water Kitchen & Coraline 3-D

So my sweet boo-boo and I were apart for Commercial Love Holiday this year because I was giving a Darwin Day talk at not!church in Jesus Central, Real America. (This represents a substantial improvement over Commerical Love Holiday last year when we were together, but the ZK was mostly dead.) Anyway, we had a belated VD celebration last Friday when we went to South Water Kitchen for dinner and thence to River East for a showing of Coraline in 3-D. Which I liked, but didn't love. Please stop shooting me, Gaiman devotees!

Meal at South Water was terrific, which is good, because I was spitting mad when I got there. Traffic was a nightmare (bite me, Chicago Auto Show, have you heard about this little thing called a recession?), and furiously blinking cars were 9 deep at the Hotel Monaco with nary a valet in sight. Presumably the valets were attending to the complimentary fishies.

But! Screenwipe! New Scene! Dinner was marvelous. Every dinner is improved by the Jesus!Phone, which not only distracts from what would otherwise be awkward silences between this old married couple (Kidding, Kidding. Please recall, we often have other couples inching away from us when we are out or Certified Romantic Evenings, because our conversations are nonstop and strange), but also enables me to marinate all my food in the virutal tears of wire monkey mother's envy.

Twitterstream dutifully reproduced:
ZK begins with a trio of whiskey & orange cocktails. Shooting star blue franc for me.
ZK belatedly remembers that he isn't a fan of goat cheese. More flatbread for me.
Scallops with chanterelles & homemade bacon. Trayflicious! [NB: Mushrooms were simply "wild mushrooms, not chanterelles; also forgot the sunchoke puree. YUM!]
ZK's duck confit salad is good - very good - but tragically lacks homemade bacon
Entrees: sturgeon with yet more fabulous chanterelles, plus whole roasted & smashed baby reds. Ironically earthy fish, but fabulous!
Entrée for ZK: pork chop with cheese grits & creamed brussel sprouts + homemade bacon FTW!
For dessert: bittersweet chocolate cake with salted caramel and malted vanilla gelato. Cake edges a teeny bit dry, but lovely under gelato.
ZK's dessert: deep dish apple pie & toasted almond gelato. Also good, but sadly lacking in chocolate.
And they comped our dessert, which alleviates parking rage.

We weren't actually sure why the comped our dessert. The service was maybe a touch slow, but we weren't fussed by it. I took it as karmic repayment for the parking debacle.

So anyway, Coraline. Theater was completely packed. We weren't prepared for that and had to sit in the front row. (Other movies I've seen from the front row: JFK, Branagh's Hamlet.)
Visually, the movie is wonderful, and it is certainly true that it makes wonderful use of 3-D, rather than throwing gratuitous pick-axes at you. (Although as an avid Dead Rising fan, I am generally pro–pick axe.)

Continuing on the visual here's something deeply appealing about the way Selick renders human motion. It's sinuous without being at all fluid, and it feels like a loving homage to Rank-Bass, Harryhausen, and every other stop motion giant. But it's also not simply more of the same from The Nightmare Before Christmas, at least not when real people in the real world are being rendered.

It's a good thing that I didn't look to closely at the voice casting before going in. In fact, I only knew that Hodgman was the Father and Al Swearengen, now with 100% fewer references to snatch, was involved somehow. I am surprised to find that I hated War of the Worlds so much that I was comparatively speechless about it. (As anyone who has ever met me, literally or virtually, can tell you, hate usually makes me wax eloquent.) My entire review:
There is nothing to enjoy in War of the Worlds. It's two hours of riding on Tom Cruise's back while he trudges slowly from one special effects disaster to another, many of which seem not to have been edited down from the original prolific bad!fic version. There is no plot to speak of. It's the least suspenseful, least interesting Apocalypse on record (and I include The Nonsensical Mission-Statement-less, Highly Localized, Be-Platformed Shoed The Beast from Angel, Season 4 in that). The ending is not only ridiculous, it's a giant Republican "fuck you" to the scabby, the poor, and the ethnic as our clean-scrubbed Boston Brahmins emerge from their pristine brownstone, intact, coiffed, and manicured, giving their blue collar ex-son-in-law /ex-husband/subpar sperm donor a grateful elbow-elbow-wrist-wrist-wrist wave from an appropriate distance.


Do you see that? Not a SINGLE mention of how Dakota Fanning's character needed to die more than any annoying child in any movie ever—including Pia Zadora in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians—needed to die. But I can assure you that is true. So, no, I would not have cast Dakota Fanning. And let us not speak of Teri Hatcher, whose only enjoyable role ever has been as a corpse 15 minutes into Tomorrow Never Dies.

Wow, that was a little vehement, wasn't it? So you can see why not having paid close attention to casting was a good idea for me. As it turns out, Fanning was better than I expected. Hatcher was not quite as bad as I expected, although the performance deteriorates just when the movie most needs her to step up.

Hodgman was amazing, and I am not simply saying that because he had the good grace not to run screaming from the signing table when I brought him a giant stack of More Information Than You Require to sign. His Father was distinctly NOT Hodgman the minor television personality, and his Other Father was magnificent in its mix of chipper and creepy. McShane, French, and Saunders were likewise absolute gold, and the scenes of their performances in the Other World were easily the highlights of the movie. (Along with Coraline's ride over the garden on Hodgman's Magical Steampunk Machine.) Keith David? Well is it any surprise that Keith David rocks as the cat? Everybody wants to be a cat.

Before getting into why I liked it, but didn't love it, I should admit that I haven't yet read the book. That's unusual for me, as I am a neurotic spoilerphobe who doesn't even read book jackets. But the fact of the matter is I seem to be missing some crucial Gaiman receptors. I'm not trying to be too-cool-for-school by disdaining a popular-to-the-point-of-inspiring-fanatacism author. I don't hate him, I just . . . don't get the fuss. I've read American Gods (and I still think that SOMETHING should eventually happen in a 400-page book), Anansi Boys (better than AG, but its appeal for me was pretty superficial), and Good Omens (which I love, but one has to factor in Pratchett), so maybe I just haven't hit the sweet spot yet.

But I haven't read the book, it's true, so I am unsure whether to lay the things that left me cold at its feet or the feet of the screenplay and/or editing-room floor. The fact that Coraline the character starts off as rather a pill and is eventually revealed to have some frighteningly sociopathic tendencies (giving the forcibly muted Wybie the the thumbs up springs to mind, but her mean-spirited attitude toward her eccentric neighbors goes well beyond childish self-absorption into real cruelty) certainly seems to be a problem with the original text. I'm less sure whether Coraline's eventual face-turn-amid-the-rotting-vegetables is so pat and shallow in the book, or if the reasons she realizes that she'd rather embrace her life in the real world (as opposed to simply escaping from the scary button-eyed world) are better communicated in the original and were poorly translated to the screen. I have no problem with main characters that aren't all sweetness and light (in fact, Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, two of my favorite authors, are masters at somewhat unlikable characters with whom one can emphathize), but it takes a defter hand than is evident in Coraline.

I wonder if the ZK will have more to say about the British fascination with truly horrible parents, but the Senior Joneses are truly horrible, narcissitic, VW-Bug-Driving poseur greenies. It's really no wonder that Coraline herself is such a beast, given that her parents are prone to foist her off on the neighbors for whom they have such ill-concealed contempt. Certainly I can see the eye-buttoning process as a strong motivator to get the hell out of the Other World, but it's not as though Coraline's real parents have anything to induce genuine, active longing to be reunited with them.

The Other Mother/Belle Dame was yet another problem for me. Perhaps it's just that Teri Hatcher always sounds like a complete raging bitch to me, but there seemed to be no appreciable reason to be attracted on one incarnation of the Raging Bitch over the other. Given that OM/BD's hedonism goes to 11 from the start, Coraline falling for it leads one to worry about head injuries. If there is anything that sells the sinister attraction of the Other world, it is Hodgman's performance as the Other Father. He's genuinely fun and affectionate, and yet the slight slow slur in his speech has warning bells clanging in the distance.

Unfortunately, the OF being a victim (or a tool? he seems to have been raised from a pumpkin? this also raises the question of who the hell is muted Wybie? How does the OM/BD create/control the Others in her world?), rather than an accomplice, gave the story a distincly misogynistic tinge in my opinion. Yes, it ties the story more closely to Keats' poem, but associating the OM/BD with the original Belle Dame Sans Merci, as well as the more generic Hansel & Gretl witch/Snow Queen/Shelob, etc. ends up feeling like piling on. Yes, we get it, she's an Evil Spiderwoman constructed from evil parts that look like Coraline's mother designed to do evil. We get it. I'm not doing a great job at articulating why the OF's enslavement changes the equation, but for me it did, and changed it for the worse.

Some of the disjointedness in the story may be attributable to lack of editing fu. For example, when Coraline soliloquizes about Mr. Bobinsky, she notes that Wybie, the story's only character who is even arguably sympathetic and narratively reliable, has been talking trash about Mr. Bobinsky being crazy. As far as I can recall, that conversation didn't make it into the dialogue, and it seems out of character and out of storyline for Wybie (after all, he isn't allowd in the Pink Palace). And speaking of Wybie, he's pretty poorly integrated into the story (again, at least the story we see on screen), and it feels like he could have/should have been important.

When I brought up the putative editing error to the ZK, he said he had the impression that we were not seeing all of a continuous stream of time, so there would have been conversations taking place off screen. (He cited Mother Jones knowing the downstairs neighbors well enough to snark about them before unloading her little shit on to them.) I, in contrast, felt that the story was pretty dependent on us following Coraline constantly for a couple of days in a row. Not adhering to the Aristotelian unities isn't exactly a deal breaker in a movie based on a children's book, but I think the lack of decisiveness about time contributed to the jerkiness of the plot, which kept me at least from understanding and being fully invested in the emotional forward progress in the story.

There are things that I did like about the story, even though I sound like a giant, sulking curmudgeon. Coraline has the potential to be a great, punky heroine, and there are moments when that shines through. Her "I like it" upon seeing Wybie with his sewn-up mouth, though, just left her dead to me. I love the unflinching attitude toward the terrifying in the story. I will say for Gaiman that he gives kids more credit for being able to handle an emotional roller coaster than they seem to get from most these days. The tone of the movie is exactly that of movies that both attracted and terrified me as a kid, and I think the world needs less milquetoast in it. Strangely enough, if it weren't for the absolute beauty of the art and the wonderful elements of the story, I probably would have been less discontented with the weaker elements of plot and acting.

There you have it. I liked it. I may have even like liked it. But I didn't love it. Commence evisceration sequence.

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