This story about a retro performer itself has a very retro feeling, as though it is a recently rediscovered artifact. The likable Colin Hanks plays Troy Gabel, who drops out of law school with some vague thought that he would like to write. To support himself, he applies for a job as assistant to Buck Howard (John Malkovich), known professionally as The Great Buck Howard. He is also sometimes known as a magician, which he is not. He is a mentalist, someone who astounds the audience with feats of mind-reading and hypnotism. He was once popular and successful. He guested over 60 times on “The Tonight Show,” back when it was the real “Tonight Show,” the one with Johnny. But somehow, he lost his place on the A List and now performs in small, half-filled venues.
While he can be bitter about his lack of recognition and demanding of Troy, when he is on stage he seems perfectly happy and at home, always apparently genuine with his signature greeting, “I love this town!” And Troy, well aware of the cheesiness of an act that seems more suited to the days of Ed Sullivan than the era of YouTube, can’t help admiring Buck’s showmanship and resilience. A young pr executive (Emily Blunt) arrives in Cincinnati to coordinate the press for Buck’s dramatic new effect. And both Buck and Troy learn something about what really matters to them.
Hanks is a likeable onscreen presence with an easy affability, and he does as much as he can with a character that is written with only one dimension — if that. His best scenes are with his real-life father, Tom Hanks, playing his on-screen father, who disapproves of his decision to leave law school. Malkovich has a lot of fun with his role as Buck, enthusiastically pumping the hands of everyone he meets and showing the character’s mingled sense of entitlement and insecurity, acute awareness of how he comes across to an audience and lack of awareness of how he comes across one-to-one. Its old-fashioned structure and unpretentiousness give it some extra appeal. And even though it is all pretend, it is fun to see Buck’s act.
In the grand tradition of Alice, Dorothy, Milo, and the Pevensie children, Coraline enters a portal to a magical world that is both thrilling and terrifying, one that will both enchant her and demand her greatest resources of courage and integrity. And it will teach her that she does being given whatever she wants is not what she thought — that what she thinks she wants may not be what she wants after all.
Coraline (voice of Dakota Fanning) is bored and lonely. She and her parents have just moved into a new home and she does not know anyone. Her mother (voice of Teri Hatcher) and father (voice of John Hodgman, who plays the PC in the Mac commercials) are distracted and busy with work. While they type away furiously on their computers about gardening, they never actually go outside and plant anything. Coraline meets her neighbors, a pair of one-time performers (voices of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French), a man training singing mice (voice of Ian McShane), and a boy her age named Wybie (voice of Robert Bailey Jr.), to whom she takes an immediate dislike.
She explores her surroundings and finds a mysterious locked door. Her mother tells her since the house was converted to make apartments it only opens onto a brick wall. But when she tries it herself, it opens into a tube-shaped corridor that leads to a place very like but also very unlike her own home and neighborhood. Everything is brighter and more colorful. The mother and father tell her that they are her Other parents. They sound just like her real parents and they look like them, too, except that they are utterly devoted and attentive and generous, and except for their eyes, which are sewn-on black buttons.
The Other world is enchanting for a while, with all kinds of diversions and performances. Many, like the Other parents, echo the places and characters from home. But then it begins to feel too synthetic and a little creepy. When the Other mother asks her sweetly to replace her eyes with buttons, Coraline goes home. But home is not the same. Something has happened and she will have to return to the Other place for an adventure that will require all of her courage, perseverance, and some growing up, too.
Coraline must follow the storyline and grow disenchanted with the Other place but we have the luxury of reveling in it. The creepier it gets, the more mesmerizing the visuals, ravishingly grotesque and dazzlingly inventive when the Other Mother suddenly elongates, her cheekbones sticking out like flying buttresses and her arms and legs getting spider-y. This is the first stereoscopic 3D film made in the painstakingly meticulous stop-motion system in which no more than 2-4 seconds can be completed each day because every frame requires as many as a thousand tiny adjustments. The 3D effect is all-encompassing and utterly entrancing as we feel as though we are inside the Other world as its uneasy false cheeriness slides away and we discover what is really going on. Like her parents, Coraline has been separated from authenticity of experience, in her case because she is a child. But the journey to the Other world shows her that she has what she needs to become more fully herself and to find a more vivid and vibrant life in the place she once thought of as drab and uninvolving.
The Wrap has a provocative column by Domnic Patten about the impact of reality television programs on the children who participate in them.
One problem is a loophole in the law. If children are working as actors on a film or television show, there are very strict limits on how many hours they can work. They are required to have a teacher and a parent or guardian with them. But if it is a “reality” show, it is not considered a job; the theory is that they are just going about their lives and being filmed.
“Jon & Kate Plus 8’s” treatment of the Gosselin children is now being investigated by the Pennsylvania Labor Department.
At the core of the investigation is whether the Gosselins’ Wernersville, Penn., home constitutes a formal TV set, where the children are being instructed and directed. If so, it would bring the production under the state’s child labor laws.
If not — if it’s considered merely a domestic environment where they are being observed and filmed with little direct interaction with producers and crew – the state would have no grounds for violation and the investigation will be closed.
Therapist Drew Pinsky (better known as “Dr. Drew”), put it directly:
“Children can’t give informed consent by definition, only the parents can do that — and reality shows generally don’t cast adults who have the highest level of mental health. They are severe narcissists who are obsessed with celebrity.”
The very best American miniseries I have ever seen is the HBO production from Tom Hanks, From the Earth to the Moon. Instead of a chronological run-down, each episode takes on the space race from a different angle. One gives us the perspective of the wives, another tells us the challenges faced by the contractors, and another is from the perspective of the press. One tells us about the experience of turning astronauts into geologists so that they could be as effective as possible in bringing home the rocks that would help scientists the most. The last episode focuses in part on a man whose only connection to the moon landing was that he made a fanciful silent film (and invented special effects) in France decades earlier. Brilliantly written, acted, and directed, this is outstanding viewing for ages 10 and up, for space nuts and for those who don’t know their Apollos from their Geminis.