DVD Picks & Passes 07.26.2009

New on DVD, Coraline is a near masterpiece of darkly surreal fantasy from stop-motion animation filmmaker extraordinaire Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas).

Based on the children’s fantasy/horror novella by Neil Gaiman, Coraline’s original inspiration was stories made up by Gaiman’s young daughter Holly about a girl (named Holly) whose mother is kidnapped by a witch who resembles the mother.

With clever use of parallel worlds and fairy-tale tropes, Coraline explores the dark side of wish-fulfillment fantasies, monstrous distortions of parental affection and the perennial wisdom of gratitude for what one has, however imperfect. Not to all tastes, but as a modern-day equivalent to the Brothers Grimm, Coraline is a rare achievement.

Also new on DVD, Spectacular Spider-Man — The Complete First Season offers all 13 episodes of the sharply written new animated series on two discs.

The episodes pit the teenage hero against a battalion of foes, including the Lizard, Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Sandman, Black Cat and the alien-suited Venom. The battles aren’t mindless violence: Pete’s brains and science chops are his edge. (How to slow a rampaging lizard at the zoo? Make him chill out in the polar bear pool.)

The writing isn’t perfect: Eddie Brock is too decent in the early episodes to credibly become the villainous Venom. But the series’ overall decency is also a key strength. Friendship, responsibility and love are important themes; Aunt May is a warm and wonderful authority figure, and the late Uncle Ben, seen in a fantasy/flashback sequence, represents Pete’s moral compass. Highly recommended.

Finally, a couple of ambitious mature fantasies to pass on:

Alex Proyas’s apocalyptic thriller Knowing got some attention in Christian circles for the biblical resonances of its imagery. It’s a sincere effort, but it botches its philosophical dichotomies (determinism vs. randomness isn’t equivalent to meaning vs. meaninglessness) and doesn’t hold together plot wise. Not without interest, but I can’t really recommend it.

Like its source, Watchmen, Zach Snyder’s lavishly faithful adaptation of the highly acclaimed graphic novel by Alan Moore, is a work of considerable density and sophistication, a deconstruction of the superhero genre. Unfortunately, it also follows its source in succumbing to nihilism — and amps up the sickening violence and sexuality already present in the graphic novel. Avoid it.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Coraline: Disturbing domestic themes in a fantasy setting; creepy imagery, scary scenes and menace to a child; a couple of instances of divination (dowsing, tea leaves); a scene of mild burlesque-style humor. Might be okay for adventurous kids. Spectacular Spider-Man: Much fast-paced animated action violence, menace and scary images; romantic complications; a fleeting suggestive remark. Fine for all but very sensitive kids. Knowing: Disaster imagery (people and animals on fire, corpses amid wreckage, etc.); limited profanity and crude language; a couple of mild suggestive comments. Watchmen: Graphic violence; some sexuality; sexual and other violence against women; profanity and much obscene and coarse language.

Pope Approves Newman Miracle

Pope Benedict XVI recognized the healing of a Massachusetts deacon as a miracle, resulting from the intercession of the Venerable Servant of God John Henry Newman. This declaration clears the way for Cardinal Newman’s beatification.

Obama’s Conscience Promise

When President Obama met the Catholic press, he promised “robust” conscience protections for medical personnel. But those watching the debate wonder what the administration has in store.