Sydney Film Festival: Final Day Wrap

Henry Selick's Coraline, Soderbergh's Girlfriend Experience

by | June 14, 2009 | Comments


Seven years in the making, Henry Selick’s Coraline is a mind- boggling feat of stop motion animation. Presented in glorious 3-D as a Sydney Film Festival first, Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s award winning 2002 novella harks back to the spooky traditions of the Brothers Grimm.

In classic fable lore, Coraline is the story of a girl moving to a new home with her neglectful parents. Discovering an alternate world where her ‘Other Mother’ dotes on her, Coraline delights in this greener grass until she realises that all is not what it seems.

Thematically and visually, Coraline is like a delightful cocktail of Alice in Wonderland, Fantasia and Pan’s Labyrinth, with a sprinkle of Psycho and a dash of Beetle Juice. Selick — who has The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach to his name — is clearly in his element. He unapologetically subjects his pint-sized protagonist to the dark, Grimm story of a dream disintegrating into a nightmare. Indeed the film strays far into the shadows, despite looking like a kids film.

Breathing life into Selick’s magnificent animation is the talented voice work of Dakota Fanning (Coraline), Teri Hatcher (Mother/Other Mother), Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders (as the batty burlesque duo Miss Forcible and Miss Spink). Ian McShane rounds out the cast as the captivating circus type Mr. Bobinksi. It is a testament to the these actors and Selick’s adaptation that you come away from the film wanting to spent more time with this colourful cast of characters.

Colourful they most certainly are, thanks to Selick’s marvellous team of animators. The visuals are, quite simply, magic and fortunately they chose to avoid using the 3-D in a kitschy way, opting instead for the effects to be seamlessly woven into the world of Coraline.

Fascinating too is the reflexive use of animation. As the film careens towards its climax, the alternate world literally crumbles under Coraline’s actions in a way that seems to investigate the art of animation itself. A world so long in the making being dramatically unravelled — back to a blank canvas — just as easily works for the story as it describes the filmmaking process.

However this undoing occurs a little too abruptly. For a film that spends so much time establishing not one world but two, Coraline‘s climactic ‘game’ feels rushed, which almost threatens to undermine the central conceit created by the old adage: ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul.’

Despite this concern — which again stems from a desire to spend more time in this world — Coraline is a beautifully realised, modern day fairytale. Following in the footsteps of beloved classics, Gaiman and Selick privilege the macabre over the saccharine to create a familiar fable for future generations.

The Girlfriend Experience

“Did you like the movie?”

“It wasn’t what I expected.”

Sex and lies are back on videotape in Steven Soderbergh’s latest cinematic experiment, The Girlfriend Experience. In his second low budget digital feature for HDNet (the first being 2005’s Bubble) Soderbergh offers us a slice of life from high-class escort, Chelsea (Sasha Grey) as she navigates clients, business and love amidst the tumult of the Global Financial Crisis and the 2008 Presidential Election.

At the festival to introduce the film, Ms. Grey revealed this backdrop was really a coincidence and that the film is, “responding in real time” to the economic collapse. This can only add another feather to Soderbergh’s stuffed cap — that he was able to shift gears to capture the Zeitgeist in such an intimate and powerful way.

In fact this portrait of Chelsea is probably more about the real whores of Manhattan — the corporate elite — who are captured in all their narcissistic glory as Soderbergh cuts between dates, life and a group of guys en route to a lost weekend in Vegas. Although shot in chronological order, Soderbergh creates a tapestry of referential edits, where a word or a throwaway line can trigger a cut to another scene. Chelsea’s emotional arch is probably the one through line, though ’emotional’ is certainly not the word you’d use to describe Grey’s performance.

Indeed Chelsea is so aloof, with cold eyes and a reluctant smile that one wonders what kind of girlfriend experience she was trying for. Her flat affect only accentuates this — even in her quasi declaration of love — that one can only presume this was Soderbergh’s intention, rather than Grey’s inexperience in mainstream filmmaking. It could be that Chelsea is a cypher, a non-entity upon which men can foist their own girlfriend experience. This certainly seemed the case, where Chelsea asked her dates about their lives (and their wives), or sometimes merely sat in silence across from client’s litany of woes.

Countering Chelsea’s steely professionalism is real-life film journalist Glen Kenny’s turn as the erotic connoisseur. In the post-screening Q&A Grey disclosed Soderbergh’s directorial note behind Kenny’s hilarious and improvised dialogue: he should act like Harry Knowles.

However the real scene-stealer is Soderbergh’s cinematography. From the mix of warm and cool tones in the mise-en-scene to the almost omnipresent Arco lamp, it is Soderbergh’s composition, and particularly his use of focus, that is truly a joy to experience. Shot using available light, this film is assuredly a more-than-money-can-buy advertisement for the luminous capabilities of the Red Camera.

In a world where acronyms abound, Soderbergh brings us an intelligent, provocative and uniquely cinematic combination of the GFE and the GFC.

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