Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

I'm far from director Wes Anderson's biggest fan. Although I enjoyed The Royal Tenenbaums (and to a lesser extent The Darjeeling Limited), in my opinion, most of his work seems to value style over, and sometimes at the cost of, substance.

Anderson's latest Fantastic Mr. Fox is a stop-motion animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's book about a fox fighting his own nature to steal from the wealthy farmers Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon), and provide his family with what he feels they deserve.

And, I must admit, it's really, really good. In many ways the film is a perfect fit for Anderson and merge of its offbeat humor with his own. The stop-animation allows the director to play to his strenghts and design a a complete world. And as a book the story is naturally divided into the kinds of chapters Anderson enjoys breaking his film into (here he even provides titles for each).

And, perhaps most importantly, Dahl's humor and voice mesh very well with that of the director. Animated or not, this really is a Wes Anderson film, from beginning to end.

After surviving a trap twelve Fox years earlier Mr. Fox (George Clooney) has abandoned his life of crime, settled down with his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) and their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and now spends his time writing a column for the local paper. The arrival of his nephew (Eric Chase Anderson), the move to a more luxurious home, and the yearnings for old times tempt the fox to doing what he does best.

Aside from a few small scenes in which characters move with all the grace of South Park regulars the stop animation fits perfectly with Anderson's eye for style. The more elaborate the action a scene calls for the more impressive it's rendered. Much like 9 from earlier this year (though Fox is the superior film) everything on screen looks tangible, as if you could reach in and grab it. The figures might be a little creepy (and more than a little reminiscent of the Taxidermist shop), but they certainly look solid and real (and in some cases far more real than some characters from Anderson's previous films).

I can't say enough about Clooney who, given his recent choices, is at the top of my list to see in anything. He's perfect as the sly yet egotistical Fox (a role not far removed from his character in O Brother, Where Art Thou?). And Anderson surrounds him with talented actors like Streep, Schwartzman, Gambon, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Owen Wilson.

I also was impressed with the film having a little fun with the idea of animal characters being, well, animals. Rather than just create a character who happens to be a fox, rat, or badger, each one here has definite characteristics, especially the Fox family. Although there's plenty hear for children I enjoyed these moments where the film spent a little time with bigger ideas about who a person is, the choices the make, and just how far someone can go to fight their own nature.

Funny, with a good moral but not preachy, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a film for everyone. It's got adventure, furry animals, dramatic elements, impressive stop-animation, and more than a little humor as well. Go see it, I think you'll be glad you did.

The Road

Like most post-apocalyptic tales, The Road isn't exactly sunny. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the story follows a father (Viggo Mortensen) and a son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they journey across a decimated world in search of food, shelter, and safety from bands of roving cannibals.

Okay, so it's not a date movie.

This is really a two-character story. Other than the cannibals and occasional straggler the pair encounter, the only other person given screentime is Charlize Theron as Mortensen's wife (though she is only shown in flashbacks).

This means the weight of the film falls on Mortensen and young Smit-McPhee. Thankfully they're up to the task. Mortensen is as good as always, and Smit-McPhee holds his own against the Oscar-nominated actor.

Although I prefer his last film (The Proposition), director John Hillcoat makes some hard choices here, most of which pay off. The how and why of the apocalypse is never explained. What happened isn't important. The film isn't about people surviving a disaster but about trying to continue to live afterwards.

There are harsh truths inherent in the film about how far a man will go to protect himself and his son, and how fragile civilization is and how quickly it could fall into anarchy. I did expect to see more people, or at least more bodies, instead of the overwhelming emptiness which pervades the film. Oh, and there are cannibals. Lots of cannibals. In balance these darker themes, the film also includes some preachy quasi-religious and philosophical narration about life (which only really work about half the time).

I was also a bit disappointed in the ending, which I understand is true to the novel but I felt was the safest (and least interesting) choice made during the film's two-hour running time. Given the circumstances, the characters encounter there are only three possible outcomes. 1) Realistic: things end badly, 2) Happy: Things are gong to be okay, or 3) Hedging Your Bets (Melancholy but Hopeful): Things are bad but might be getting better.

Through two-hours of stumbling through a broken world filled with cannibals, dust, and little else, in which the audience has invested in these characters, I think it's a cop-out not to see it through. The film earns the harsh realistic ending that's all too easy to see coming. Sadly, it's not what we're given. Good films often give the audience an out, a reasonably happy ending (whether its earned or not) which wraps up everything in a nice package with a bow on top. Great films aren't afraid to leave the audience sad, angry, upset, or questioning. This is the former.

The Road is a fair bit better than other recent post-apocalyptic films such as I Am Legend or Blindness. Even though I find in wanting, it's still an easy recommendation to make. If you enjoy stark drama, and the cannibals don't scare you off, you should give it a try.

Ninja Assassin

At a time when Hollywood seems dead set on giving movies bloodless one and two-word titles that don't give you a clue as to what the movie is about, along comes a film called Ninja Assassin. It's about ninjas who kill people. Finally, a little truth in advertising.

For more than 1,000 years, nine ninja clans have been stealing orphan children under the age of 10 and training them in the art of assassination. For centuries, these clans have sold their services to wealthy individuals, companies, and governments for the cost of 100 lbs. of gold.

When a Europol researcher (Naomie Harris) uncovers their secret, she puts herself and her supervisor (Ben Miles) in danger. This also causes an outcast of the Ozunu Clan named Raizo (Rain) to come to her aid. With her help, Raizo plans to take down the clans and settle a personal grudge with his former master (Sho Kosugi).

Over the course of the film, we learn more about Raizo's past, his training, his reason for leaving the clan, and the driving force behind his battle to destroy them.

The film opens with a bloody but humorous moment which reminded me of Steve Buscemi's opening in Desperado. What follows is one bloody film with a body count that would make most 80s action flicks squeamish. And I will give director James McTeigue and his team (including producers Joel Silver and the Wachowski brothers) credit for coming up with several inventive deaths and action-packed fight scenes. However, he also has to take the blame for the film's missteps.

The biggest problem is an unwillingness to allow the story to play out. The ninjas are cool, Rain proves a capable action star, and the fight sequences work well. Over the course of the film however, McTeigue tries to outdo himself again and again.

By the time we get to the end, we're left with two long action sequences--one in a warehouse and the other in the ninja's lair--both of which drive the body count to hysterical limits, with more explosions, quick edits, CGI effects, and gunplay then you ever want to see in a film about ninjas. It stops being a movie and becomes a video game. When our hero kills a small group of ninjas, its pretty cool. When he kills an army of ninjas, its overkill (in more ways than one).

Ninjas are cool, and although the film is pretty cheesy, I was enjoying myself for the first hour or so. However, I grew tired as the film tried to force the action to be bigger and louder than it needed to be.. It's like a girl you're dating: You like her, but you know the relationship isn't going anywhere. She realizes this too, and instead of pulling back and just enjoying the time you have together, she tries harder and harder to make you love her. This, of course, results in you fleeing the scene, despite the fun you've had together.

Given its problems, I can't recommend you spending any amount of money on the film, but if you find it on cable in a couple of years and have a couple hours to kill and a good supply of alcohol handy, you might give it a look.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Planet 51

Planet 51 isn't going to wow you, but as a first animated feature from Ilion Animated Studios it's better than I expected.

The story is pretty simple: a peaceful world is invaded by an alien explorer, and with the help of a goodhearted youngster and his friends he eludes the government and attempts to get back home.

Okay, not that original I grant you. Even though the story does a nice job of tilting the perspective by having a Earthman be the invader on an alien world, the weakest piece of Planet 51 is its plot.

By allowing the film to take place on an alien world, however, the film finds its strength in designing a world that, though goofy, is certainly interesting to explore. This world seems to be centered around a circular design you see in everything from windows to the design of automobiles. Merged with this aesthetic is a 1950s Americana style in terms of look, film, and sound.

It's not only the buildings and cars, which resemble rounded and more molded versions of rides you'd find in American Graffiti, but the people themselves who are imbued with a certain honesty and gullibility found in the B-movies of the period. Although slightly forced at times, it does imbue the film with some innocence and simplicity. The look of the aliens themselves I could take or leave, but the world that they inhabit is one I enjoyed spending some time in.

Our hero is the young junior astronomer Lem (Justin Long) who is just unlucky to have Captain Chuck Baker (Dwayne "Stop Calling Me The Rock" Johnson) land on his doorstep. Along for the ride are the girl next door (Jessica Biel), Lem's goofy friend Skiff (Seann William Scott), and the astronaut's robotic doglike sidekick Rover (who may not be as lovable as Wall-E, but definitely has some charm).

The two main obstacles to getting Chuck home are an army led by General Grawl (Gary Oldman) and his pet mad scientist Professor Kipple (John Cleese), who are positive the alien has some kind of mind-control powers and has come to take over their world.

The film doesn't do itself any favors by including rote "kiddie scenes" (cheap jokes usually involving some form of bathroom humor). Here we get an alien dog who urinates acid and chases the mailman (even Rover looses control of his bladder at one point). This is a film that will make you roll your eyes from time to time, but I was never turned off by the film's more juvenile failings. As it makes these mistakes, the film also takes numerous opportunities to pay homage to several sci-fi films of the past, most notably E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Planet 51 isn't a great film and if you are going to try to hold it up to the likes of Pixar or the glory days of Disney you're going to be sorely disappointed. However, if you enjoyed Monsters vs. Aliens and the Madagascar films then a trip to Planet 51 might suit you just fine.

An Education

An Education is based on the autobiographical memoir of Lynn Barber. Set in 1950, the story centers around 16 year-old Jenny Miller (Carey Mulligan) and her relationship with a charismatic older David Goldman gentleman caller (Peter Sarsgaard) who turns her world upside down.

What follows is a May/December romance that everyone sees happening, including Jenny, her teachers, and her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour), but no one can prevent.

Mulligan provides the heart of the film, and will no doubt recieve a fair amount of praise for her performance. Although I'd seen her in small roles as one of the Bennet sisters in Pride & Prejudice and one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes, I didn't know she could carry the bulk of a quiet dramatic film on her own.

As good as she is, it's Sarsgaard's performance that I was most impressed with. There's little to like about David, especially as the film slowly reveals more damaged layers of his character.

And though we desperately want Jenny to turn away from him, we never come to hate his character, nor do the other characters in the film, which given the circumstances is quite remarkable and a testament to Sarsgard himself. The amount of charm and emotion he puts into this cradle-robbing cad makes all the difference. Director Lone Scherfig makes sure we see both the charming visage Jenny falls for, and her parents adore, as well as deeply flawed human being underneath.

And the supporting cast is strong as well. Both Molina and Rosamund Pike provide deliciously funny moments by doing nothing more than stating obvious points from their characters' point of view. And I wanted more of Olivia Williams as Jenny's teacher, and the one person who never gives up on her.

Adapted by Nick Hornsby the film definitely has the feel of a memior, and, to be honest, is stuck with its limitations as well. We certainly see the world through the eyes of Jenny and live through her joys and mistakes. At the same time the film ends rather abrubtly, which I can only assume was a choice by Hornsby to follow the the lead of the memoir rather than contrive a more cinematic final act.

An Education is a nice quiet film you'll no doubt have to search for. It's not without its flaws (which include a rushed ending and puzzling final narration), but with an entire film filled with strong performances and an engaging story about a girl who is forced to make hard decisions far beyond her years, it's one film you shouldn't miss.

Friday, November 13, 2009


I didn't expect much from director Roland Emmerich's latest disaster flick other than a little dumb fun. "2012" couldn't even deliver that.

What follows is a short, and hopefully concise, review for a long, and depressingly boring, film (158-minute running time) that is about as almost as much fun as spending three hours alone in a doctor's waiting room.

Maybe it was asking too much of Emmerich to give us another big disaster flick and distinguish it at all from any of his previous ones (after all, it's not like "10,000 B.C." did anyone any favors). The man who gave us "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow," and that woeful "Godzilla" remake, it seems, has nothing new to share. Instead he brings back the same tired storylines, with new actors and larger special effects, in hopes that this alone will be enough to satisfy. It's not.

We're given: The workaholic dad (John Cusack) who we know will take this opportunity to make things up to his estranged wife (Amanda Peet) and cute kids (Liam James, Morgan Lily). The noble scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is constantly surprised and thwarted by the government bureaucrat (Oliver Platt) in his attempt to do the right thing. And don't forget the strong woman with a heart of gold (Thandie Newton) who will no doubt fall for him.

Sadly the special effects, though impressive in the scale and level of destruction, can't save this sinking ship either. The film delivers none of the fun that "disaster porn" should provide. The morose cloud which hangs over the picture takes away any and all enjoyment to be had from the wanton destruction of the planet.

And do we really need to see the White House destroyed again? Even if Emmerich's new method of throwing an aircraft carrier at it is different, the result is the same. Been there, done that.

For all its boasts, "2012" is mostly a tease. We are forced to wait 40 minutes before the real destruction gets started. Then the script does its best to keep interrupting these moments of chaos with canned emotional scenes between the characters (who have just narrowly escaped disaster, again).

The only one here having any fun at all is Woody Harrelson as a crazy conspiracy nut who smartly (given the script) commits suicide at the first possible moment to get out of this dreadful bore of a film. He's the lucky one.

Emmerich wastes talented actors I normally like, even those I like in bad movies (I'd much rather sit through a double-header of "A Lot Like Love" and "America's Sweethearts" than sit through "2012" again), but this lifeless bore delivers nothing. The film lacks the thrill of "Armageddon," the campy fun of "The Core," the patriotic jauntiness of "Independence Day," or even the cheesy B-movie charm of "The Day After Tomorrow."

I didn't actively hate "2012". It didn't make me angry or want to throw something at the screen. All it really made me do was want to take a nap. I wasn't rooting for the nature to kill off these characters, but I didn't exactly care what happened to them either. The latest disaster movie is just that, a disaster (and a pretty boring one at that).

Friday, November 6, 2009

Men Who Stare at Goats

Men Who Stare at Goats begins by stating that more of what you are about to see is true than you would believe.

Based on the non-fiction book by Jon Ronson the film takes us into the world of government funded programs to create psychic spies, or as George Clooney's character likes to call them - Jedi Warriors.

The film is presented from the perspective of reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) who stumbles upon the unlikely story while trying to prove something to himself (and his ex-wife after she leaves him for his boss) by jumping hastily into a dangerous story without thinking.

If you enjoy quirky comedies then this one's for you. Although the film runs out of gas before it runs out of film there are plenty of chuckles plus a few big laughs. McGregor is well-cast as the skeptic who uncovers a story too ridiculous to believe. Would the government actually fund secret programs to create soldiers who could walk through walls, burst clouds with their mind, use telepathy, and gaze into the future? The answer provides many of the film's best moments. And I've got to give credit to director Grant Heslov for the inspired casting of Obi-Wan Kenobi who looks confused every time the phrase Jedi is used.

But as good as McGregor is, the real stars here are the Jedi Warriors themselves. Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, and Stephen Lang all provide the right mix of insanity, paranoia, and an unwavering belief that all these things are real, and possible. Stephen Root has a small early cameo early in the film to set the tone and the other members of the New Age Army run with it.

The title of the film (and of the book) comes from one of the experiments done by the Jedi Warriors where the soldiers are trained to kill goats by staring at them. The "success" of Clooney's character achieving this unlikely act, in one of the film's many flashbacks, moves the movie into its darker scenes. The film gets a little too bogged down here before trying return to the more quirky crazy which makes up the rest of the film.

There's a flashback early on where the program is started, like so many were during the Cold War, in an attempt not to let Soviets get the upper-hand. This moment reminded me of the end of Dr. Strangelove where the characters discuss not allowing the Commies a mineshaft gap. We simply can't let them beat us, no matter the cost (or the ridiculous kinds of situations such thinking leads to). Like so much of the rest of the film, this moment is funny because it is true.

There's nothing about the movie that demands a theater visit, but it is worth seeing. If you're willing to wait, it would make a nice DVD double feature with something like Charlie Wilson's War.