17 May 2009

Reviews: Focus Features' Coraline and Sin Nombre

My reviews for these early-year releases from Focus Features - the animated Coraline and the live-action Sin Nombre - are, needless to say, much overdue - and for that lateness I do apologize. Having been released in February and March respectively, the two films have had a lot of time during which to simmer in my head since I saw them in theaters and perhaps, in a way, that dilation has been best: With the upcoming release of its arbitrary competitor, Pixar's long-awaited Up, the three-dimensionally (3-D) presented Coraline may be better treated in the light of its inevitable comparison's anticipation rather than in that of its conceptual isolation; and its partner film Sin Nombre, perhaps in anticipation of the next live-action release from Focus Features Away We Go, as both films - at least superficially - concern the flight of fledgling couples in distress. Though arguably these haps are quips of tenuous mettle, they nevertheless may supply some more interesting nuances into the developments both of the films themselves and of the studio Focus Features as an art house itself than a non-contextual reading of the films, one penned at an earlier date, may have done. At any description, let's take a look at the two films now and begin with Coraline:

Genre: Fairy Tale

Coraline, as an entry into the canon of animated fairy tales, is an adequate piece, fulfilling its most basic requirements with aptness and adding to that aptness thereafter a dash of sensuousness in colors and tone as well as a splash of cleverness in rhythm and rhyme that together formulate a charming but ultimately unextraordinary depiction: Structured with pin-point balance comparable with that of a tiered mobile, the film stepwise explores the light and dark aspects of adolescence for a female, each aspect carefully countered by at least one other aspect in the piece.

As the protagonist, the girl Coraline, finds herself at the age at which passive agreeability with her parents is a noticeably lacking detriment and during which motivations and questions regarding sex roles, expectations, and aspirations crop up; she winds her way through simplified extremes of archetypes long beholden by society as male, female, and not-yet-sexualized child. Attending the bizarre circus of a obtusely, counter-intuitively presented (i. e., almost complementarily, as if the yin to her yang; frequently literally upisde-down) male hyper-affected by bravado, scraggly stray hairs, and unfamiliar smelliness, Coraline encounters the traditional essence of the mature man whom so many tales in the same ilk (i. e., told from the maturing female's perspective [e. g., the original 'Beauty & the Beast' tale], the tale of the princess and the frog-prince) identify as a creature similarly rough, rowdy, and full of surprise. Finding the partner of this encounter, Coraline meets the traditional essence of the mature female, which is - as it is in so many familiar tales of the same ilk (e. g., the 'Sleeping Beauty' tale, the 'Cinderella' tale) - split up into its light and dark parts. This splitting is accomplished in more ways than one and furthermore is echoed in several characters of the story. Most obviously the split occurs dividing the compassionate, forever maternal qualities of her guised "Other Mother" from the violent, vying distresses of her revealed "Other Mother;" in this way, the split relies on a very traditional template for itself, a template that features those two archetypes (i. e., the warm, passive, and loving care-giver of youth and the fiery, aggressive, and sexual seductress of adulthood) in competing, almost symmetrically identical (e. g., being actually one in the same person), and purposefully externalized (i. e., outside the protagonist, so that the protagonist can psychically work the two out as she develops her own maturity over the course of the tale, before then reintegrating them and realizing them as two parts not only of her actual maternal figure [i. e., here, Coraline's "Real Mother"] but also and moreover of herself) ways.

This sexual-maturation conceit is echoed passively in the beautiful internalized sets, that not only are pupal in their constructions but also actively feature larvae and other seductive but predatory insects as furnishings, and is echoed actively in the aside dynamics of the two old stage-actresses whom, like the male circus-performer, Coraline is sent to see. These stage-actresses not only physically embody in grotesque transmogrification the extreme essences of female sexuality (i. e., large breasts on one and large buttocks on the other) but also emotionally conscribe their meta-histories as archetypes' within their former careers, their "Sirens" song (posted to the right, among the candidates "Under Consideration"), and their frilly accoutrements. Though, of course, Coraline is meant to eventually be deterred from these details (instead of being enthralled by them, as the unwitting adolescent would) - deterred, as many modern recapitulations of these adolescent stories deter, in order to promote the ideal of a more independent woman who values her intellect over her flattering affects - the existences of these details per se on screen reinforce the questions and concerns that the film's story is meant to meet.

And meet such questions and concerns it does in its limited, structurally bilateral fashion, opposing peril against purpose, masculine against feminine, and - most importantly, as it marks its place as an addition to this type of tale in the fairy-tale canon - dependence against independence. That is, the fact that the tale goes so far as to argue for the independent female, the female steered only by the wits of her own mind and steered only into the mists that those wits see fit to tremble - those mists not already unclouded for her by the pushing hand of steamroller-culture - is the high end of this animated story; no more the feverish, waifish demurettes, awash in the tides of time and situation, of fictions past like Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857) or, closer to this instance, Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (1977), del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006), and even Meyer's Twilight (book 2005, film 2008). And the bilateralism that 3-D imagery in a predominantly 2-D film creates was not therefore wasted: Blossoming out of the screen whenever the points of action reflected something deep and internal, dynamic and frustrating, complex and intrinsic to Coraline arose, the 3-D imagery, I have to say, was in this instance a welcome artistic regard, comparable perhaps (in smaller scale) to the insights of its past usage mentioned by me first here; and, though of course I recognize that the films touted out by Pixar Studios are not darts tossed at the circle of artistic insight, I cannot foresee the utilization of 3-D as any more purposeful in Up than it was here, in Coraline, a presupposition which, if true, calls out Pixar for slubbing technique for gross-spectacle's sake and also elevates Coraline as the likely best animated (feature-length) work released this year - Focus Features' late-year, expected 9 notwithstanding.

However, despite these noteworthy qualities, the film failed to be any more than a slightly advancing exercise into the female-adolescent's psyche, as preserved by the fairy-tale canon, - in short, a clever film but not necessarily also an interesting one - and so merits no more or less from than its

Grade: B, good.

Genre: Drama

As for Sin Nombre, the film imported out of Sundance and Mexico into the Focus Features' line-up, what more can I say than call it a displacedly truthful tragedy that seemed to regard its characters more as chess pieces in its violent march to gravitas than as human reflections, caught in the ravels of the film's dilemmatic situations. Sparse and quiet, brash and impartial, the film was founded on the makings of a well-designed, introspective evaluation of ritual, but then failed to take into account that the players in its ritual were too a collective subject worthy of interest. Far too few are the instances of the storyline during which we as the audience are allowed to see the emotional and psychical toll (that the details and actions of the plot lay upon their actors) as more than just an accomplished marker preplanned by a screenplay, or as a human experience turned out and opened for us, as humans also, to see and comprehend. Such infrequency is a detriment to the whole of the work indeed, though I have to wonder if the responsibility for its existence may have been due to the limitations of its actors rather than to the method of its director. For, it is true, on those rare occasions that I was privy to the inner worlds of those people about whom I as an audience member was supposed to care, I found myself being allowed to enter only because of the acting gifts of Gerardo Taracena, who in his precise expressions revealed a significant depth of character in his Horacio, father of the female protagonist Sayra (played by Paulina Gaitán). While she and her fledgling mate Willy ("El Casper") occupy the majority of screen time, it was only Horacio who added to it, added more than any meager stand-in, technically affecting his lines, would have; and for that performance I applaud him. Apart from him, however, the film remained a stolid and grave examination, clinical and sterile (like an anesthesiologist's accompanist blade), of the dramatics that inhere in any couple with regretful pasts on a road to redemption, self-acceptance, and growth. As such, it I leave a

Grade: B-/C+, how may it have been different in the hands of other performers; how may Away We Go be different - not really for its differing plotline, which essentially appears to amount to the same thing, but - for its differing cast.

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