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by Bill Gibron

3 Feb 2009

The nostalgic effect of stop motion animation is potent. Indeed, the moment a member of an earlier generation sees the static, superlative work of such single frame artistry, visions of Ray Harryhausen, George Pal and his Puppetoons, and the dream factory forged by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass instantly come to mind. It’s all Mad Monster Parties and the adventures of Tubby the Tuba. As the format flourished during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the love for all things Clokey (Gumby), O’Brien (King Kong), and Danforth (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) grew. In the ‘80s, Will Vinton carried the magic mantle, while the ‘90s saw Nick Park and his Wallace and Gromit gain international approval.

Somewhat lost among the mythic mix is creative genius Henry Selick. Sidelined by his association with Tim Burton, a lame live action misstep (Monkeybone), and an under-appreciated if terrific take on Roald Dahl, he’s now back - and he’s brought English icon Neil Gaiman along for the ride. Together, they tap into areas heretofore unheard of for a family film, bringing both the singular and the sinister to the mix. The result is Coraline, a quirky dark fantasy which while grounded in a kind of every kid reality, transcends the mundane to become something quite special indeed. 

When her family moves to rainy, gloomy Oregon, Coraline Jones finds herself lost in a new and wholly unfamiliar apartment house. Her upstairs neighbor is an eccentric Eastern European named Mr. Bobinsky. He once ran a famous mouse circus. Now, he seems insane. Downstairs live the equally odd actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible. The former burlesque style glamour queens are obsessed with their slobbering terriers and their inflated figures. And then there’s Wybie, the grandson of the woman who owns the building. He’s a jabbering pain in Coraline’s already sour demeanor. 

One day, our heroine discovers a door to another dimension, a place where her gardening book author parents are attentive and thoughtful, where Mr. Bobinsky is a regal ringmaster, and the team of Spink and Forcible offer their own naughty nightly floorshow. But something is not quite right with this fanciful place. All the people have big black buttons sewn into their faces - in place of their eyes - and in order to stay, Coraline must agree to do the same. Little does she know that dark forces are plotting to keep her prisoner in the other realm forever!

In a genre packed with derivative visuals and too hip for homeroom pop culture jibes, Coraline is a welcome return to pure animation splendor. It’s gorgeous to look at, inspiring to experience, and satisfying in ways few modern motion pictures - no matter the proposed demographic - ever strive to achieve. In the hands of Selick, the real mastermind behind A Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, we witness the kind of imagination and invention that only Pixar can provide - and with none of that newfangled technological twaddle to get in the way. This is untainted artistry, plain and simple, skill sets unseen in today’s joke a minute cinema-nipulation.

Granted, Selick does take liberties with Gaiman’s prize winning novella, reconfiguring the setting to a dreary Pacific Northeast and creating his own character outside the book. As a result, Coraline feels like a real motion picture rarity - a true collaboration between author and interpreter. Make no mistake, this director still admires and abides by the tome’s “horror’ overtones, never lightening up the material to make it more mainstream. Instead, Coraline is a film you have to fall into fully, an outrageous statement of childhood fear fashioned out of wish fulfillment, candy floss, and a whole lot of sharp, pointy things.

Selick excels within this brooding big picture, and he certainly brings the spectacle here (enhanced, naturally, by the application of excellent 3D effects). He pays homage to Pal and the Puppetoons with an amazing mouse marching band that has to be seen to be believed. The level of precision and overall scope is jaw dropping. Similarly, Madams Spink and Forcible give a floorshow that will sail right over the heads of prepubescent audiences, but definitely satisfy a depressed drag along dad or two. Selick sets much of the film outside the perplexing pink apartment house, utilizing the surreal garden set-up and the surrounding forest to find new avenues of expression. And there’s no denying the man’s eye for set and character design. The figurines employed here and the backgrounds they exist in are fully realized and ridiculously alive.

Of course, character is very important to this film’s success, and Coraline doesn’t skimp on personality. Thanks the wonderful work by the voice actors (Dakota Fanning, Terri Hatcher, Ian McShane, Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders all acquit themselves more than admirably here) and the way in which these entities are employed, we experience untold amounts of depth. Some might see this film as too edgy or cold, calculated without adding the necessary nuances of emotion or identification. Frankly, it’s a foolhardy argument. Coraline is involving, entrancing, heartfelt…and in the end, rather hopeful. We want this young girl to be happy, and fear she will take up with the Other World residents because they promise things that are superficial and instantly gratifying. If there’s a singular theme here, it’s the tagline currently being used for the film’s promotion - “be careful what you wish for”. Such unearned satisfaction can only lead to pain and disappointment.

In combination with the qualities Selick typically brings to the party - passion for stop motion, an attention to detail, a true love of the overall artform - Coraline can’t help but be charming. It’s like a trip back in time, to the moment when you first realized that a giant ape could actually climb to the top of the Empire State Building, or a creature from Greek mythology could ‘come alive’ scare you to your core. It’s a flawless illustration of why pen and ink cartooning (and its modern computer-based companion) just can’t compete with the painstaking approach of this old school medium. Perhaps audiences will finally understand and appreciate what Selick and his cohorts have been championing for decades. This kind of animation is truly amazing, and Coraline is a perfect example of its remarkable, resplendent wonders.

by Lara Killian

3 Feb 2009

The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA) has announced the 2009 winner of the
prestigious Newbery Medal book award. Neil Gaiman’s touted volume for children, The Graveyard Book has taken the award this year, much to the author’s surprise.


Illustrated by Dave McKean, the book is intended for all ages, though the award is generally meant for children’s books. Gaiman commented that he was “befuddled” by his win; though he is a well-known author his fiction does not appeal universally. Gaiman also remarked that The Graveyard Book developed in his head over 25 years or so, until he felt ready to write this story, about a boy who is brought up in a cemetery and raised by ghosts, “‘a lot like The Jungle Book and set [...] in a graveyard.’”

The Associated Press reports Gaiman’s comments:


I never really thought of myself as a Newbery winner. It’s such a very establishment kind of award, in the right kind of way, with the world of librarians pointing at the book saying, ‘This is worthy of the ages.’ And I’m so very used to working in, and enjoying working in, essentially the gutter.

Recognized as a top award for children’s literature, Newbery Medal winning books are often to be found in school and public libraries. This year, runner’s up included The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by David Small, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle, Savvy by Ingrid Law, and After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson.

by Sarah Zupko

3 Feb 2009

A trend developing during this long recession is corporate consolidation. The word “monopoly” might start rearing its ugly head if the rumored merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation were to proceed. Live Nation is a behemoth-sized concert promoter and licensing company that has drawn press for recent exclusive deals with Madonna and Jay-Z.

Meanwhile, Ticketmaster has a near lock on U.S. ticket sales and has ventured into artist management of late. The combined heft of those two companies would be enough to snuff out smaller players and would likely bring anti-trust examination from the authorities, according to the New York Times.

by Bill Gibron

3 Feb 2009

Every year it’s the same. Oscar pulls out a list of pseudo successful nominees, pundits kvetch and make their predictions, various underling awards hand out their trophies, and by the time the biggest ceremony rolls around, a group of presumptive number ones are anointed. As the list dwindles down - PGA, DGA, SAG - the question of who walks away with Academy gold seems clearer and clearer. So assuming the following Monday morning winners - Slumdog for everything, Streep for Doubt, Penn for Milk, Ledger for Knight, and Cruz of Barcelona - who exactly is number two. Who are the runner ups that, unlike other prized pig popularity contests, don’t get to take the place of the winner if said victor can’t (or is unable) sample their own spoils?

Oddly enough, calling the race for second place is, with one or two rare exceptions, a far more complicated process. Since the Academy doesn’t release results, and few on the inside are willing to offer their perspective, we are stuck with the annual list of winners…and little else. So consider this a combination, a set of attempted predictions as to what will happen 22 February, and a hopefully educated guessing game on who came up a few votes short. None of this takes into consideration the films that were snubbed, or had to settle for recognition in the lesser, technical categories, and as we move closer to Oscar day, SE&L will sort everything out with its own idiosyncratic set of recognitions. Until then, let’s play Tinsel Town’s game, beginning with:

Best Screenplay (Original)

Presumptive Winner - WALL-E (Jim Reardon, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter)
Runner-Up - In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)

In the category which used to be known as the “thank you for playing” home version of the Oscars, people who would otherwise never win an award - say, the Coen Brothers circa the mid ‘90s - would be thrown a big fat bone of quasi-recognition here. It was the spot where such names as Spike Lee, David Lynch, and Terry Gilliam typically landed. Now, the trophy holds a little more aesthetic weight, with previous winners such as Alan Ball, Cameron Crowe, and Pedro Almodovar setting the bar pretty high. This year, however, the love for Pixar’s animated epic will translate into one non-animation award. That just leaves indie darling Martin McDonagh to sweep up afterward.

Best Screenplay (Adapted)

Presumptive Winner - Slumdog Millionaire (Simon Beaufoy)
Runner-Up - The Reader (David Hare)

In order to justify its presence as part of 2009’s Academy pageant, don’t be surprised if The Reader walks away with more than one little gold man. The multiple nominations indicate a tendency toward rewarding this mediocre effort, but it’s hard to envision earning the major hardware. If Slumdog somehow stumbles, failing to fulfill it’s destiny as Oscars latest multicultural comment on its own previous cluelessness, be prepared to see David Hare hobble up to the podium and pick up yet another Academy certified undeserved nod to scribing (right, Akiva Goldsman???).

Best Supporting Actress

Presumptive Winner - Penelope Cruz: Vicky Christina Barcelona
Runner-Up - Taraji P. Henson: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Calling Ms. Cruz the best thing in Woody Allen’s PR anointed “return to form” is faint praise indeed. In a movie where all the characters complain like longshoreman debating a rise in union dues, she stands out for two tawdry reasons - her implied sexuality, and her Spanish accent. Still, Oscar likes to think with his ‘sword’, so Penny will walk away bedazzled…and hopefully, soon forgotten. In the meantime, a truly stunning piece of work by Mr. Henson will have to settle for second. In a film filled with grace notes, she’s refinement personified. Every time she mentions the name of her adopted son, your heart breaks a little.

Best Supporting Actor

Presumptive Winner - Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight
Runner-Up - Robert Downey Jr.: Tropic Thunder

Call it a battle between white and black face. Both of these actors do amazing work under make-up jobs that should really limit their range of (e)motion, and each defines their individual movies by the way they carry themselves and their characters. Had Ledger not died unexpectedly, this would be a real hambone horserace. And it would not be a surprise to see the year’s second comeback kid earn his Oscar wings. Instead, the smart money says that the Academy rewards the Aussie posthumously, leaving the previously bridesmaided actor waiting for another year to finally earn his much deserved industry acclaim.

Best Actor

Presumptive Winner - Sean Penn: Milk
Runner-Up - Mickey Rourke: The Wrestler

Actually, this category really isn’t that hard to call. It’s been a race between Penn and Rourke since The Wrestler turned from a whispered about sleeper to a year end Best of darling. Both men deserve it, actually, relying on their perceived image - and their own perversion of same - to reach untold levels of acting truth. Before the recent rash of underling awards, it looked like Rourke would be the clear consensus champion…and he still could be, since Oscar isn’t necessarily in love with Penn’s personal politics. But another recent issue - California’s incomprehensible gay marriage ban - should elevate his profile into the winner’s circle.

Best Actress

Presumptive Winner - Meryl Streep: Doubt
Runner-Up - Melissa Leo: Frozen River

Of all the races out there, this one has been the most interesting to watch unfold. At first, conventional wisdom had Angelina Jolie walking away with the award for Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. Then people actually saw the movie. Before long, Anne Hathaway’s troubled addict was moved to the top slot. Then Kate Winslet went from Supporting given to Best Actress possibility and the entire category went to Hell. Now Streep has walked away with the pre-ceremony predicting plaudits, so it could be anyone’s race. The amazing work from Ms. Leo, however, may have to settle for second.

Best Director

Presumptive Winner - Danny Boyle: Slumdog Millionaire
Runner-Up - David Fincher: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

He’s the DGA’s choice, had taken home a Golden Globe, and has managed to fend off some last minute negativity (something about the pay for Indian actors) to come a single step away from earning the Oscar he so richly deserves. But if Danny Boyle loses out to someone during the evening’s festivities, it just might be Fincher. Accomplishing something very rare for a filmmaker, the visionary director dialed down the darkness and came up with a meticulous, meaningful epic. Absence the battles with perception (Button is often referred to as Gump Lite) and publicity (star Pitt is a commercial blessing and a curse), he’d be picking up the prize.

Best Picture

Presumptive Winner - Slumdog Millionaire
Runner-Up - Frost/Nixon

This is an odd choice, admittedly, but one that crosses the clear generational gaps that seem to exist within the Oscar voting pool. Should Slumdog struggle - and it still might, no matter that current trending towards victory - then the race is really wide open. The backlash against the Academy keeps The Reader out of contention, and no one really wants Benjamin Button to win. This leaves Milk the odd man out, bringing the sentimentalized treatment of America’s poisonous political nightmare to the fore. Thanks to time’s ability to fade memories, some see Ron Howard’s reconfiguration of history as a revelation. Should the real cinematic vision fail, this could fill the visible void.

by Sarah Zupko

3 Feb 2009

It’s the latest ubiquitous Internet app. You’ve got your Facebook account and your MySpace page, but want to share even more of yourself in little bite-sized bits. You just knew that the marketers would start jumping on this and they have in a big way. Twitter is now a vital part of any company’s viral marketing effort and musicians, those early adopters that they are, are fully on the bandwagon. Gabriel Nijmeh has compiled a massive spreadsheet posted on Google Docs tracking all the Twitter sites of everyone from Coldplay to Calexico. Users can add more sites to the document. How Web 2.0.

Yeah, PopMatters is on Twitter too.

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