Dreamscapes: Coraline, Waltz with Bashir, The Uninvited, Push
By Fernando F. Croce

Coraline has enough exhilaration and dread to remind viewers of the first time they read about Gretel pushing the Witch into the oven. Who says fairy tales are for children? In Henry Selickís stop-motion animated adaptation of Neil Gaimanís book, Lewis Carrollís enchanted traveler becomes the titular young heroine (voiced by Dakota Fanning), blue-haired, prematurely sardonic, and stranded in a Victorian manse in dismal Oregon. Upstairs is an acrobatic ťmigrť (Ian McShane) with circus mice, downstairs a pair of faded theatrical divas (Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French) amid stuffed pooches; in the middle are Mom (Teri Hatcher) and Dad (John Hodgman), slaves of their laptops. A small door behind the wallpaper segues into a Bizarro World where Coralineís inattentive parents become full-time doters who bake mountains of sweets and insist she play in the mud. A bratís Valhalla, at a price: The sinister hints of the opening credits -- a dollís autopsy and resurrection -- bloom as Other Mother reveals that Coraline must have buttons sewn into her peepers if sheís to stay, and swells into an arachnoid ogress when the girl refuses. Suddenly, the human dysfunction of the real world looks good. Parables for puberty and dreams apparently havenít changed much since The Wizard of Oz, though Coraline stands above the standard comfy fantasy with plenty of jagged lines and logic and proportion fallen sloppy dead. Selickís puppetry and designs are radiant-macabre wonders that retain the artisanal dimension missing in Pixarís titanium surfaces, and, as in the greatest fables, there are moments of queasily contradictory feelings, like when Other Mother, at the peak of her spidery villainy, screams for the heroine not to leave her. Thereís something very satisfying about an animated smiling face that morphs into a grinning skull.

*

Harsher traumas and rougher animation for Waltz with Bashir. Ari Folmanís film is precipitated by a recurring nightmare -- the literal dogs of war -- which seems to emerge from the writer-directorís suppressed memories. In an attempt to unclog his past (and soothe his guilt), Folman sets out to interview fellow members of the Israeli Defense Force who took part in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. "Draw me all you like, but donít film me," one of the vets specifies; Flash animation is used as the interviewees provide the fragments of events, the gaps are filled with re-creations, hallucinations, assorted phantoms. Views of three naked men stepping out of a jaundiced ocean into bombed-out, gray Beirut are repeated like slow-motion reveries, events are likened to LSD trips just as the eponymous Lebanese ruler is compared to David Bowie, it builds to the irony of "children of Auschwitz" illuminating the way to the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The filmís use of somber animation to depict the often undepictable has predictably garnered comparisons with Richard Linklaterís rotoscoped bull sessions (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly) and Marjane Satrapiís acerbic Persepolis, as well as praise for tackling a dolorous topic. Itís an arresting concept, yet the resulting film is to these eyes skimpy, numbing, and less searching than it believes it is. Its main problem is precisely whatís distinctive about it, the animation -- the technique is obliquely discussed onscreen as one of the characters refers to his camera as a mechanism of deliberate detachment, but Folman is a prosaic image-maker and his drawings canít make up for the loss of expressiveness. Odd how people who condemn Spielbergís use of human emotion to confront the unspeakable in Schindlerís List can excuse Bashirís flatness by evoking the same issues-of-representation argument. At least it wasn't shot in 3-D.

*

Back to live-action. "We survive by remembering, but sometimes we survive by forgetting," a psychiatrist tells the troubled protagonist (Emily Browning) in The Uninvited; the line could be out of Waltz with Bashir, but this not-bad horror flick is closer to Coraline, complete with a maternal impostor who says "My first order of business will be to fatten her up." It opens with Browning turning down a friendís offer of sex, and the ensuing flurry of sights (body in duffel bag, bleeding keyhole, blazing house) promptly situates the happenings in those fertile horror grounds, sexuality and dreams. The girl comes home after a stay in a mental institution to find that her late motherís nurse (Elizabeth Banks) has moved in with Dad (David Strathairn); Browning uses an iPod to muffle the sounds of their lovemaking, and awakens to see a misshapen ghost pointing fingers: "Muuuurder!" She teams up with her estranged sister (Arielle Kebbel) to get to the bottom of things, steals from The Shining and haunted trash canisters follow. Though thereís a mild Sapphic frisson when Banks takes her time applying lipstick to her nervous stepdaughter, the film isnít a remake of the first-rate 1944 ghost story of the same name, but rather of the 2003 South Korean chiller A Tale of Two Sisters. As far as PG-13 Americanizations of Asian shockers go, itís about 70 percent passable -- if directors Thomas and Charles Guard have little sense of style, they know enough to hang on to the occasional evocative moment when they stumble upon it, lingering on Banksí baleful half-smile as she calmly recalls her disgust at the old people she had to care for. Then the spirit of M. Night Shyamalan creeps in, and the house of cards crumbles.

*

Canít wait until the next X-Men sequel/prequel/action figure? Try Push. Paul McGuigan remains a subject for further research, still looking for that project that will make the miscellany of Gangster No. 1, Wicker Park and Lucky Number Slevin fall into place. His new film isnít it, yet his entry in the superhero sweepstakes isnít without charm. The characters are the spawn of experiments started by the Nazi and continued by a murky government agency, given superhuman abilities (to levitate objects, cloud minds, foresee events, etc.) and saddled with goofy titles like "pushers," "watchers," "bleeders," "smirkers," "doodlers," "wetters" and so forth into the night. Teenage prophetess Dakota Fanning and psychic cutie Chris Evans figure in the Hong Kong-set maelstrom, which also includes Djimon Hounsou in icy bad-guy mode and a gratuitously fractured timeline ("10 years ago," the opening title card, segues into "two days from now"). Surfaces are liquid: McGuigan lets handheld cameras loose in Hong Kong markets and clubs and achieves rubbery-splintery effects that one could, after a few drinks, accept as "impressionistic." The aberrant outsiderís struggle within family and country was analyzed more deeply in The Fury (and in Carrie, Scanners, Firestarter...), but any movie that prefers telekinetic dreamers over dark knights and makes Dakota Fanning halfway tolerable canít be all bad.

Reviewed February 26, 2009

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