Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pushing Our Buttons (Drag Me to Hell, Coraline and The Brothers Bloom)

(Spoilers within.)

Say this for Sam Raimi: he knows his way around a corpse. The best bits in Drag Me to Hell, his half-successful attempt to recapture the low-rent magic of his loosey-goosey horror comedies of yore, come in a pair of scenes where poor sweet bank officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) encounters the dead body of an elderly gypsy woman who put a curse on Christine after getting turned down for an extension on a loan. In the first of these scenes, Christine, having deep misgivings even before a demon starts wreaking havoc on her life (she rejects the woman's request in order to shed her reputation of being too nice to make the tough decisions for an open assistant manager position), arrives to make amends only to find herself in the middle of a wake. She accidentally knocks over the coffin, and suffice to say hijinks ensue. In the second, late in the movie, Christine digs up the body in a raging thunderstorm in order to reverse the curse, only to find the old crone even more resilient in death than she was alive.

I laughed out loud at moments like these, but Drag Me to Hell ended with my wishing it were more satisfying as a whole. Part of the problem is Christine's journey from passive cutie-pie to badass grave-digger: Lohman's performance is effective in individual scenes ("Choke on it, bitch!"); what's missing are the transitions, the gradations in her personality shift. The larger problem, I think, is Raimi himself, who earned heaps of praise for returning to his roots following the increasingly bloated Spiderman franchise, but to me he looked more like a wizard struggling to remember how simple spells are cast.

Although I'm no great fan of animation, one of its advantages is rendering more tolerable performers who might otherwise be anathema onscreen. Take Dakota Fanning (please!): an intolerable, overstudied young actress, yet completely serviceable at providing the voice to the titular character in Coraline. Or Teri Hatcher, smashingly good as both Coraline's mom in the "real" world and as the malevolently seductive button-eyed Other Mother in a parallel universe adjacent through the wall of Coraline's new apartment. I read Neil Gaiman's original book yet recall almost nothing about it, so I can't vouch for the authenticity of this screen adaptation. But it's an effectively creepy movie, well-directed by Henry Selick who also made (ahem) Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Freed from his overlord's easily distracted, overly labored whimsy (inevitably to return like a bad penny in the form of Alice in Wonderland), Selick taps deeply into the loneliness and resilience of his heroine and makes as evocative a recreation of childhood as I've encountered in recent memory. Bonus points: almost no songs.  

Without benefit of animation, Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz, two of my least favorite actors, managed to charm the pants off me in the maligned heist comedy The Brothers Bloom. I knew from the previews that Weisz was playing the naive mark of a pair of con-men siblings, but to my delight Brody and Mark Ruffalo were cast against expectations as, respectively, the sensitive younger brother who wants out and the cynically manipulative older operator who talks him into (wait for it) one last score. Picking up an Oscar early in her career seems to have liberated Weisz, who plays her cloistered heiress with a hitherto genuine spontaneity. She lacks the overcalculated innocence of Glenne Headly in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and develops a sweet rapport with Brody, who has never been more appealing than when he's mooning over her. Reliable pro Ruffalo has the unenviable task of conjuring Paul Newman's Henry Gondorff from The Sting, and damned if he doesn't nearly pull it off. Rian Johnson nearly pulls off the entire movie too -- a type of farce that's difficult to appear effortless and rarely attempted anymore -- but stumbles in a homestretch that's at least twenty minutes too long.

Still, the many comparisons in the press to Wes Anderson seem off the mark (one unfortunate similarity, reducing the few ethnically diverse characters to non-speaking caricatures -- in this case Bang-Bang, the Japanese explosives expert for the Bloom bros. -- is redeemed by Rinko Kikuchi's richly amusing performance). If anything, Johnson's effort is closer in spirit to the other Anderson, one PT, of Magnolia (both prologues narrated by Ricky Jay) and Punch-Drunk Love (dogged hopefulness in the face of despair). As with Brick, Johnson's gift is weaving a veil of irony that pulls us closer to his characters rather than distancing us from them. The Brothers Bloom takes some missteps, but is better than its reputation suggests.


Hokahey said...

Had to see Drag Me to Hell because of the great title. I found it to be half-successful as well. Best parts are the gruesome battle in the parking lot basement and the graveyard struggle in the rain you mention. Well said - "but to me he looked more like a wizard struggling to remember how simple spells are cast."

I enjoyed Coraline. Dakota Fanning is perfect as the voice of Coraline. There is some pretty scary stuff in this film; in fact, it is more effective at being scary than the film mentioned above. I'm not a big fan of animation like this but I acknowledge its artistry.

Saw the preview for Brothers Bloom MANY times, but I don't think it ever came to the Cape.

Craig said...

Very true: Coraline is much scarier than Drag Me to Hell. That I wouldn't mind if Drag Me to Hell were as cumulatively fun as it should be, instead of being fun in bursts (like that graveyard sequence, so deftly staged I howled with laughter). I think the way Christine is written is a large part of the problem. There are hints of class-consciousness, of roots she is hoping to shed (e.g., the "Pork Queen" snapshot), yet nothing really comes of that. Had the movie been more directly about Christine's embracing a down-and-dirty past in order to survive her present ordeal, it might have really been something.

Hokahey said...

I was disappointed with the development of Christine as well. I wished that her down-home roots somehow saved her in the end; the Pork Queen kicks butt, or something like that. She didn't deserve to be dragged to hell - but I guess that's how horror movies work sometimes.

I have a mini-poster of Drag Me to Hell in my teaching binder for school. Helps me have sense of humor when things are hellish at school.

Craig said...

She didn't deserve to be dragged to hell - but I guess that's how horror movies work sometimes.

I admired the movie for having the guts to do that, even if it sets up for Justin Long a potential sequel. (Drag Me to Hell Too!) Also surprised when a certain cute little critter gets whacked. Even there, I think it could have been tied in more with her rural upbringing without getting all Silence of the Lambs about it.

FilmDr said...

Good point about the missing character shifts in Drag Me to Hell. I found the film a bit too knowing and self-consciously campy. It lacked some emotional heft to make it more effective, and I wonder if Raimi got so much credit due to his previous record rather than anything else.

I think Coraline is the best animated film of the year. I liked it much better than Up.