Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)

The title may be a little misleading: Confessions of a Shopaholic does revel in the joys of retail therapy -- well, it practically rolls around in racks of brightly colored floofery and designer bling. But it is also, more or less, a cautionary tale about spendthrift ways, racking up unsustainable credit card debt, and learning to live within one's means. And also about being fashionable. Because if we're going to have to be fiscally responsible in these financially calamitous times, we should do it with style. Let's not all go crazy and start wearing hair shirts, right? It's Confessions of a Shopaholic, not the Confessions of St. Augustine. Although I, for one, would go see the movie of Augustine's wayward 4th century youth.

Confessions of a Shopaholic, based on the popular novels by Sophie Kinsella, is a slapstick comedy with a thoroughly adorable cast, a spoonful of sugar that really helps the medicine go down. Isla Fisher, Hugh Dancy, John Goodman, Joan Cusack, Kristen Scott Thomas, Krysten Ritter, Julie Hagerty -- the whole cast is just so fun and sweet and comfy, which is precisely the sort of thing one needs to provide psychological balance in a movie about shopping addiction, crushing personal debt, and unemployment. Confessions is also, of course, a fantasy, and a fairy tale, in which a poor commoner meets a handsome and wealthy prince (and he's even British!), albeit a stern sort of adorable prince whose mantra is fiscal responsibility, and whose magazine is called Successful Savings. Truly, who could resist a magazine with such a title, promising, as it does, instant nongratification?

Not Rebecca Bloomwood (Fisher), although she tries. She is the titular shopaholic, addicted to Dolce & Gabbana and Dior. Clothes talk to her, beckon to her, offer succor from whatever it is that causes her to become completely undone when she walks by a store window. The movie is rather coy about what, exactly, that big, unfillable void in Rebecca's life might be -- it's not men -- she's more interested in fashion than fellas. Rebecca is a journalist who dreams of working for the fashionista fatasmagoria that is
Allette magazine. Through a postal mixup, she ends up hired by the wrong magazine -- the dowdy, bring-your-own-sack-lunch Successful Savings -- where the prince of an editor, Luke Brandon (Dancy) is utterly charmed by her straightforward, no-nonsense financial advice. Which advice is of course completely bogus and even fraudulent, but which unaccountably takes New York by storm. Before very long, Rebecca is the toast of the town. So apparently people do read Successful Savings magazine. But will her profligate ways ruin her career and her budding romance? Will fame and fashion come between Rebecca and her best friend Suze (Ritter)? Will the ruthless and dour debt collector catch up with her?

Confessions isn't really particularly plot-driven -- this is the movie equivalent of a shopping spree, all color and texture and distracting shiny objects and the promise of fabulousness. In the chick flick pantheon it's something of a cross between Sex and the City and Bridget Jones' Diary, but with less desperation and self-loathing. Director P.J. Hogan goes for kookiness and caricature more than character, so the whole movie is lighter-than-crinoline and doesn't support a whole lot of deep thinking about the pitfalls of the consumer culture. Confessions takes place on Fifth Avenue, not Wall Street (and certainly not Main Street), so it is not about to ruin a good fantasy with a big dose of reality. It's a candy-colored sensory confection with a dollop of sensibility -- and a pretty shoe -- on top.


The International (2009)

If there's one thing the recent economic meltdown/mortgage crisis/worldwide Depression or whatever we're going to call this financial calamity has taught me, it's that banks have extremely complicated ways of making -- and losing -- large sums of money. And they don't all involve solid gold bathroom fixtures on private jets. In The International, a thriller about a bank called the International Bank of Business and Credit, the financial institution in question makes large sums of money through a complicated scheme of weapons trading and assassination, or so it would appear. Sure, why not? The timing for The International could hardly be better. A year ago, perhaps a movie about an evil multinational bank would have elicited shrugs of indifference. Ah but now... who isn't ready to believe that bank executives are the personification of pure evil, children of the Devil so utterly without conscience that even the Devil would give them a wide berth? These guys are so bad, they even scare the arms dealers and warlords who are their main clients.

They don't scare Lou Salinger (Clive Owen, toggling between righteous indignation and weariness). Well, they do, but it doesn't stop the Interpol agent from his dogged pursuit of the nefarious bankers. That's good, except that just about every person Salinger talks to about IBBC ends up dead. Lou's improbable partner in the pursuit of global justice is Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), an overworked Manhattan assistant DA. The two intrepid sleuths travel the world pursuing the bank's head honcho, a smooth Scandinavian named Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen), and his most reliable assassin (Brian F. O'Byrne), leaving a trail of corpses behind them. Despite their overall sense of heightened paranoia, Salinger and Whitman continually express surprise when another informant drops dead on them. Curse those bankers and their highly efficient securitizing of toxic assets!

If you can buy into the premise of The International, you'll still be left wishing the movie were better. Director Tom Tykwer once made fast-paced, stylish entertainments like Run Lola Run. The International is sluggish, uninspired and workmanlike, a movie with very little in the way of style or substance, and not much going for it aside from some nice scenery and interesting architecture. The movie looks expensive, although all the picturesque globetrotting doesn't hide the clunkiness of the plot nor adequately distract from a script (by Eric Singer) that is full of soft-boiled attempts at hard-boiled dialogue. Said dialogue is good only in comparison to the movie's attempts to wax philosophical, as when Salinger and bank baddie Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl), an ex-Stasi commie seeking redemption for his evil capitalist ways, chitchat about roads less traveled and trees and the greater good and justice.

But first, Salinger and assorted assassins (including the meta-assassins trying to kill the assassin sent to assassinate Salinger) shoot the Guggenheim Museum all to hell and spurt rivers of blood all over Frank Lloyd Wright's pretty spiral. If one is going to engage in egregious vandalism of an architectural treasure, it ought to be more interesting than this -- a gory shootout in the Guggenheim ought to be unique and beautiful (like the Guggenheim itself) instead of uninspired and pedestrian (like some boxy branch bank). The International does wrong by Wright, and it doesn't get much else right either.


Coraline (2009)

At the end of the screening of Coraline I saw, a child exclaimed, "That was the scariest movie I ever saw!" Indeed. There is much about Coraline to frighten young children. It's not a movie filled with the conventional frights and grisly violence of the sort that delights teens and dominates multiplex screens. Coraline is filled with quiet dread, and eerie, creepy, somber anxiety. It's not the kind of movie that tries to induce screams, but instead inspires a deeply felt tingle and a chill, an intuitive sense that something is not right. It is also quite extraordinarily beautiful, and very knowing in its depiction of its heroine, Coraline Jones, a young girl just old enough to notice what dolts her parents are.

Coraline, written and directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach), and based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, is an exquisite and meticulously-detailed stop-motion animated film. Selick fills every corner of the screen with imaginative visual details, and the animation technique, which uses sculptured models that move through 3 dimensional space, gives the whole film a visual depth (it is being shown in 3-D in some places) that is matched by its depth of feeling, and its psychological insight.

Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning), like many a plucky, brave literary heroine, is lonely. She and her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) have recently moved from Michigan to Oregon. Impatient, busy, and self-absorbed, the parents, who write about gardening but do not appear to like gardening, stare at computer screens and have little time for Coraline, or for the mundane details of family life. They all live in a big, pink Victorian house. Eccentric neighbors occupy apartments in the attic and basement. Upstairs, there's Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), a Russian acrobat with trained circus mice. Downstairs, there are retired vaudevillians Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (British comediennes Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders), who live with several Scottish terriers. Coraline also encounters a knowing black cat (Keith David) and his boy Whyborn (Robert Bailey, Jr.), Whybie for short, a lad every bit as lonely as Coraline, and even more awkward.

When Coraline discovers a small, secret door in the old house, it reveals another world, much like her own only better, with loving, attentive parents, delicious meals, abundant gardens, and many amusements to delight a young girl. The door opens only at night, and Coraline's night world is a dream come true -- it's all too perfect. There's a catch, of course -- everyone in the parallel world (the same peculiar neighbors are there) has buttons for eyes, and Coraline will have to follow suit if she wants to stay. Will Coraline trade her soul for this garden of unearthly delights? Her Other Mother has a needle and thread ready for the gruesome rite of passage.

There's an intricate and matter-of-fact interweaving of imagination and fantasy with everyday reality that enhances the enchanting fairy tale quality of Coraline. And like good fairy tales, this one plumbs the depths of the unconscious, and taps into all the confusion, yearning and mixed desire of the adolescent mind, and also the plucky resilience. There's a spellbinding witch, of course -- the monstrous Other Mother with her aggressively needy and predatory maternalism -- and an heroic quest that will require lots of good magic of the sort that only a courageous, clever, grounded girl like Coraline can conjure.


Waltz with Bashir (2009)

In Waltz with Bashir, filmmaker Ari Folman uses animation to vivid effect. Folman is an Israeli documentarian, and Waltz with Bashir is an animated documentary that is at once political, and topical, and intensely personal. Animation is the perfect medium for this film, which is built around the recollections, the distorted and suppressed memories, the dreams, and the hallucinations of middle aged Israeli men, recalling the traumatic 1982 Lebanon War, and in particular, the massacre of thousands of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militiamen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Folman, like the men he interviews in the film, was a young soldier during the war, and he has a selective amnesia about the experience which has left him feeling detached and impassive. When a friend mentions a recurring nightmare about the war, it sparks in Folman a strange and haunting dream, which becomes the impetus for the film.

Waltz with Bashir does not pretend to be an historical document, nor a definitive account of the war. It is not a muckraking piece -- the Israeli government long ago admitted the complicity of Israeli forces in the Sabra and Shatila atrocities. What haunts Folman is the matter of his own complicity -- what part did he play in the massacres? What did he see then, as a teenager, that his adult self can no longer access? Is he, the adult, protecting his younger self from the trauma and horror of war, or is it the other way around? If any muck is raked, it is psychological -- Waltz with Bashir sifts through the buried memories of Folman and his friends (all but two of whom provide their own voices to the film), reenacting the war, reliving it through the filter of memory. It's a filter that arbitrarily obscures some details while bringing others into sharp focus, with unpredictable results. What is striking, though, is how the subjective experiences of the various soldiers lends the story both authenticity and objectivity.

Art director David Polonsky and animation director Yoni Goodman create vivid, hallucinatory images for
Waltz with Bashir. The animation has the chunky, bold, graphic look of comic book art -- it is beautifully ugly in a way that is utterly appropriate to the subject matter. The characters, which include the animated version of Folman, move in a jerky, trancelike fashion -- like the living dead. Waltz with Bashir fascinatingly explores the blurry boundaries between memory and truth, reality and perception, art and artifice. These are issues that any documentary must confront, and they are brought into beautiful, astonishingly sharp focus by the method and artistry of Waltz with Bashir, making this not only a fascinating, interesting, and complex film about an historical event, but also a thoughtful and layered reflection on the act of making a work of art, and the act of constructing reality, whether it is one's own subjective reality, or something closer to objective reality. The structure of the story allows Folman to creep towards the hard truth, circling it slowly, warily, but moving ever closer to the center, where urgent moral questions about personal responsibility will have to be confronted.

Folman wonders and worries if the symbolic act of unburying the dead -- the dead memories, the dead victims of the massacre -- can be therapeutic. What Folman confronts, in the end, is a reality that explodes through the carefully constructed boundaries of both his memory and his meticulously crafted film. Words at last fail him. It is as if the protective goggles fall off, to reveal a raw, unspeakable actuality that is beyond art, and beyond the disputations and obfuscations of the fragile psyche. It is a reality that is hard to remember, but impossible to forget.