Monday, November 30, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox (***)

Directed by Wes Anderson


Wes Anderson has never made a film I have disliked. He's been working since 1996's Bottle Rocket, and has made six films overall. Each film has been touched with the same flavor of detachment, smugness, and a golden ear for classic rock. Many film lovers have become perturbed by Anderson's seemingly stunted creativity, stating that all of his films have become to similar in style and theme. With Fantastic Mr. Fox, we are given Anderson's first stab at animated filmmaking, and many see it as Anderson's opportunity to outgrow the similar nature of all his films. But Anderson's got another trick up his sleeve.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a world-class chicken thief, but when Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) declares to him that she's pregnant with their first child, Fox decides to give up his dangerous lifestyle for something a little more practical. Two years later (twelve fox years), Fox has reinvented himself as a columnist for his local newspaper and has a teenage son named Ash (Jason Schwartzman). The Fox family lives comfortably in their foxhole, but Fox refuses to live in poverty. Despite the imploring of his lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), Fox decides to move his family to an uptown tree.

Fox enjoys the prestige of his tree, and he's particularly happy when his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) comes to stay with them for a while. Kristofferson is a world class athlete, practices yoga and meditation, and has all of the qualities that Fox needs in a son. Fox's love for Kristofferson only creates a bigger divide between him and Ash, who was unfortunately born without all of the gifts Fox and Kristofferson were blessed with. When Fox and his possum friend Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) decide to re-enter the chicken-stealing business, he brings Kristofferson along for the ride, further enraging Ash.

Fox begins barking up the wrong tree, though, when he decides to steal from the three notorious farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, who inspired this children's rhyme: "Boggis, Bunce, and Bean/ One fat, one short, one lean/ These horrible crooks/ So different in looks/ Were none the less equally mean". The three, particularly the cold-blooded Bean (Michael Gambon), plan furiously to kill the nefarious Fox. They use everything from bulldozers and dynamite, and before long, the entire animal society is threatened by the three men. With everyone looking to him for answers, Fox must find a way to outsmart smart these farmers once and for all.

The biggest trick that Wes Anderson pulls here is that he isn't pulling any tricks at all. There is nothing about Fantastic Mr. Fox that separates it from The Darjeeling Limited thematically or The Royal Tenenbaums stylistically--other than the animation, of course. It contains all of the dry, sardonic dialogue we've come to know from Anderson's films (he co-wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach), and while following the plot elements of the original novel by Roald Dahl pretty closely, there is really none of the essence that Dahl had in his book.

I don't know if Anderson is a fan of Roald Dahl (I know I am, but that's a story for another day), but he certainly isn't interested in recreating Dahl's vision. If anything, he's interested of telling Dahl's story in his own vision--which I'm sure will rub some people the wrong way. The biggest grenades that Anderson's critics usually lob is that he has not evolved his style, and Fantastic Mr. Fox is certainly an act of stubbornness in which Anderson so fully embraces the lackadaisical nature of his previous films. He's drawing a line in the sand here and we have to choose to follow along or just move on.

That said, it's a very quaint, funny movie. The dialogue runs sharp and ironic, and nothing ever seems out of place. It moves briskly, and has plenty of tension when it needs it. The characters of Ash and Kylie give the film its strongest laughs, while Kristofferson and Mrs. Fox give it some true heart. The food pillaging scenes are shot with great adventure in mind, and using his usual staple of British Invasion pop songs in the background, everything has an air of nostalgia and grooviness simultaneously. Essentially, you'll like this movie for the same reasons you liked every other Wes Anderson movie.

I said I've never disliked a Wes Anderson movie, and I stand by that statement. I will admit, though, that I probably enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox the least out of the six. It's a bit inconsequential in nature, and at times seems at odds with its own genre (children's films). There are moments of self-reflective mocking, pointing the finger at its own wholesome nature. The violent nature of the animals and "cuss words" are dealt with curiously. This film is the closest thing Anderson has ever come to an identity crisis. It must really mean something when you're least impressive film is not much worse than your most impressive. In Anderson's case, they've all been exceptional, so he's got that going for him.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Precious (***)

Directed by Lee Daniels


There are some films that are so bleak that they'll make your head spin. They pile on the most harrowing aspects of life, and create a world so horrible that it barely seems like reality. Is Precious one of those films? Almost. But more times than not, it is able to keep its head above water and let in moments of sunshine. Precious has a heavy load of hype atop of it, which makes it hard to watch objectively, but it is certainly one of the most powerful films of 2009--even if I'm not sure if it's one of the best.

Clarice 'Precious' Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is morbidly obese, illiterate, and pregnant with her second child--both given to her by her faceless, incestuous father. She lives with her mother Mary (Mo'Nique), who is sad sack of bitterness and violence. Mary beats her, makes her cook all the food, and advises her to quit school so she can pick up some more welfare money. Few movie characters are more emotionally and physically abusive than Mary, and she has numbed Precious to the point that violence has becomes passe.

When her school learns of her new pregnancy, they kick her out and tell her to attend the alternative school "Each One, Teach One". There, she meets her new teacher Ms. Blue Rain (Paula Patton) and an assortment of degenerate young women hoping to get their GED. They learn to read, they learn to be civil, but probably most important, they develop friendships. In addition to her new classes, she is forced to meet with a social worker Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey--yeah, that Mariah Carey), and explain what has happened in her life and how it has effected her poor student work.

When Mary learns of Precious' new school and newfound ambition, she is instantly antagonistic towards it, explaining that Precious is too dumb to expect anything from herself. She should just go on Welfare, Mary says. After the birth of her second child, Precious begins to see the brighter aspects of life after befriending her classmates and a friendly nurse named John (Lenny Kravitz--yeah, that Lenny Kravitz). Precious realizes that she must try her hardest to rid herself of her painful past and try to start anew. To do this, she has to do her best to separate herself from the monstrous Mary. This is something that is much harder than it looks.

I mentioned earlier that Precious is a film that is so harrowing that it barely fits reality. Actually, there are a great many fantasy sequences throughout. The only way Precious can overcome her violent situation is to escape toward vibrant fantasies that embody all of her biggest dreams: to be a superstar, date a light-skinned man, star in a hip-hop music video. These moments comprise some of the very best moments in the film, but also draw upon its harrowing nature. The character of Precious is dealing with such a litany of psychological issues, that even a two-hour film can't properly explain it.

Perhaps Precious' biggest flaw is that director Lee Daniels (producer of Monster's Ball) tries a little too hard to visualize all of Precious' pain. Not only does this lead to rather sad movie, but it also lends to various sequences of over-direction. There is a mixture of flashbacks, surrealism, and musical intervention that clash so often, and I'm not totally sure how effective it is. Any visual motif used more than moderation can become distracting, and Daniels certainly runs his motifs into the ground.

It should be said, though, that Daniels does an astonishing job directing his cast. Dealing with mostly first-timers and non-actors, the actors involved create a world tragedy, while never falling deeply into melodrama. Patton and Carey are exceptional as the two women who choose to right Precious' ship, neither relying on obvious acting, just simply reacting as the events unfold. In her first film, Gabourey Sidibe is given a hell of a responsibility, and she doesn't totally hit it out of the park. As the performance has settled with me, though, I've realized that there couldn't have been a better way to show Precious' total numbness. With a angry glare glued to her bloated face, Sidibe wraps Precious in a sheet of self-loathing neurosis, and she does a good job of doing so.

The show-stopper is comedienne Mo'Nique as the vile, repulsive Mary. Mary hates Precious for "stealing her man", and makes Precious wait on her like a slave: cooking her food, even lying to social workers in order to get more Welfare money. When Precious' therapy leads to their Welfare getting cut off, Mary's ticking time bomb of contention bursts into a mushroom cloud of hatred and violence. In the film's single greatest scene, a defeated Mary tries to explain her horrid behavior to Precious and Ms. Weiss. I won't give away any more details of that particular moment, other than this: it may single-handedly win Mo'Nique a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.

Precious is certainly the most talked-about film this year. It's being endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and has gotten serious Best Picture buzz. Much like Slumdog Millionaire last year, this makes it nearly impossible to walk in theater with the appropriate expectations. Everything has doubled (or even tripled) since this movie premiered at Sundance this January and everyone was calling it a sleeper pick for the Fall. I don't know, this movie just didn't blow me away. It didn't wreak me emotionally, leave me wanting more. It's a very good film, just not a great one.

Note: This film was originally named 'Push' after the novel it was based on. But when that horrific film of the same name came out earlier this year, Lee Daniels decided to change the name to 'Precious' to avoid confusion. Can't we make a law that forces us to forget all films as horrible as February's 'Push'? Seems strange that 'Precious' would have to conform for that piece of crap.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Trailer Watch: Crazy Heart

Is Jeff Bridges on the way to his very first Oscar? Too early to say, still, but it could be his time. This trailer certainly promotes the movie as 2009's version of The Wrestler, but Bridges is not carrying a load of "should've had a better career than I have had" baggage (the way Mickey Rourke was last year). No, Bridges has been just as good as we expected him to be, and a lot of times even better. Now, he's in a rather bait-y vehicle, starring as a grizzled country singer seeking redemption. Seems like the perfect equation for an Academy Award, since there's no gay performances up for anything. (Oh wait, forgot about Colin Firth...)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

For Your Consideration: Tilda Swinton in 'Julia'

Using my nifty Netflix instant account, I was able to see the Tilda Swinton film Julia. My initial reaction was shock (with how good it was), then there was reflection (about how good it was), and eventually glee (with discovering a movie that was so good). After all that hyperbole, I will make this one confession: I did not enjoy the movie itself, as much as I loved Swinton's spectacular performance.

I don't think there has ever been a movie character as wrong-headed, stubborn, or irresponsible as Julia (played by Swinton). If there has been, then I probably walked out of the theater in frustration. Falling down a slippery slope of kidnapping, extortion, and even murder, the story within Julia moves so quickly (well, as quickly as a film can move in 143 minutes) that we almost forgive her incredibly dumb decisions. She lacks forethought and empathy, but for some reason she is riveting and audiences won't be able to stop watching.

Swinton is a great actress, we all know. But with Julia, she is submerging into her truly transgressive core. In films like Orlando and Female Perversions, she took full advantage of her androgynous allure and vulnerability on screen. Even in Michael Clayton (for which she won the Oscar), she shows how unafraid she is to look unflattering. Yet, there is something incredibly enticing about her when she's on the screen, and Julia may very well be her greatest achievement. Her character is an alcoholic, sleeps with men precariously, has debts owed to various people, and decides in one moment to kidnap her neighbor's son. So why do we want to watch this woman for more than two hours? Because Swinton commits fully to this troubled woman and makes her tragic. As she digs herself deeper and deeper, we know that there is no way she'll be able to escape her situation, but we always hope that she'll find a way.

'Julia' is yet another Swinton performance that makes you rethink her position on the Great Actress Pantheon (yeah, I think about these kinds of things...)

The film was from 2008, but distribution problems prevented the film from being released before earlier this year. Because of that, most people have yet to see Julia—though those who have mention Swinton just as glowingly as I do. In a fair world, Swinton would be getting some serious Best Actress traction (and other than Carey Mulligan, Swinton is the only other actress who I would nominate today), but I don’t think she’ll be able to overcome the strong influence of veteran actresses like Meryl Streep (for Julie & Julia) and Helen Mirren (for The Last Station), or subvert the growing buzz for the newcomers Mulligan and Gabourey Sidibe (for Precious).

So, I guess all I can say is this: watch the film. It’s a stunning piece of work by a filmmaker who I’m not familiar with (Erick Zonca) but has a concrete vision. Also, you get to see what I think could be the seminal performance from one of today’s best actors. FYC: Tilda Swinton in Julia.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Education (****)

Directed by Lone Scherfig


Within the film An Education, there is a performance of spectacular grace and beauty. That performance comes from Carey Mulligan in her first starring role. It's the kind of performance that will make her a movie star, if we're all lucky enough. Of course, I'm not saying anything new. People have been praising Mulligan for her performance in this film since it premiered at the early film festivals like Cannes. What hasn't been said enough, though, is how fantastic the film is on the whole. Based on a screenplay by the superb novelist Nick Hornby, An Education is one of the best films of the year.

Set during the budding years of the 60's, the film is about Jenny (Mulligan) a sixteen-year-old school girl whose charm is only surpassed by her unbound work ethic which allows her to achieve exceptional grades in all her classes. Of course, this is something she has to do because her meddling father Jack (Alfred Molina) will accept nothing less than Jenny getting into Oxford. Jack makes sure that she does everything she needs to do to achieve: makes her study instead of listen to music, makes her take up the cello as a hobby, and even dismisses possible boyfriends who seem like nothing more than "wandering Jews".

Coming home from cello practice, Jenny gets caught in the rain and is approached by a much older man who offers to give her a ride home. This man is David (Peter Sarsgaard), and he takes an almost immediate liking to Jenny. He asks her if she would like to accompany him to a classical music concert, but she knows that her father will never allow it. David arrives at Jenny's home, and within a matter of minutes, he begins to throw his indelible charm at Jack. Not only does he get permission to take Jenny to the concert, but even gets permission to keep her well past her curfew.

Jenny meets David's posh friends: Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike) and they have a wondrous night on the town. They smoke, listen to jazz, and eat good food at fancy restaurants. For the first time, Jenny is experiencing life outside of her textbooks and she's become intoxicated with it. She becomes intoxicated with David as well, even though he is nearly twenty years older than her. When rumors of her "new boyfriend" begin to reach the ears of administrators at her all-girl boarding school, she is warned about the consequences of her actions. Jenny must decide between the conservative, safe path of books and universities or the dream life with David.

Hornby has always been a gifted writer (High Fidelity remains one of my all-time favorite novels), but this is probably his most polished effort solely as a screen writer. An Education is a much more entertaining film than its trailers seem to display. It goes beyond the ho-hum coming of age tale most audiences will expect, and instead is a fiercely emotional, legitimately funny story about the many lessons life can teach us. It never mulls around in sentiment or melodrama. It trusts in its characters and their personalities just enough that the audience falls in love with them--even if they are scoundrels (or turn out to be scoundrels).

This is the first film I've ever seen by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (though she has a film on her IMDb page--Wilber Wants To Kill Himself--which seems intriguing based on title alone) and what I believe is her first English language film. I appreciate the modesty with which Scherfig tells the story, never allowing the camera to get in the way. Not to say that the film isn't filled with visually stunning shots and exceptional work by cinematographer John de Borman. Visual work this subtle and unobtrusive very rarely gets acknowledged, but it's the prudence behind the camerawork which makes it so perfect for this film.

The film contains what is probably the greatest ensemble of performances so far this year. As Jack, Jenny's micromanaging father, Alfred Molina is allowed to express himself in histrionics at times, but always gives Jack that small glimmer of self-awareness that always redeems him. As the less-than-genius but glamorous Helen, Rosamund Pike is quite brilliant. Witty but simple, judgmental but sweet, Pike gives a performance which is just as star-making as Mulligan's. Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams both give small but effective performances as administrators at Jenny's school, both showcasing adverse reactions to Jenny's budding rebellion. As David, Sarsgaard is quite good as well, even if his accent isn't exactly stellar*.

But I won't kid you, this film is the undeniable showcase for Carey Mulligan. In a premiere performance, Mulligan's beauty and charm hearkens back to the performances from Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly in the late 50's. Perhaps it's better that Mulligan was twenty-two when playing the sixteen-year-old Jenny, because that transformation (that education, if you will) feels so organic. We feel for Jenny even in her moments of most naivete. Watching Mulligan in An Education is like watching the beginning of something that is sure to be great. Like seeing Brando in Streetcar or Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter. I will be shocked if she isn't given an Oscar nomination (and I'll be disappointed if she doesn't win it all).

I loved the practicality in this movie (which may be a round-about way of saying I simply love this movie). Hornby and Scherfig were a perfect combination it seems, and their collaboration lead to something not only beautiful but invigorating and impactful. Some could say that An Education is drab (that's what I thought when I saw the trailer), but its the meticulous nature with which the story evolves that makes it so entertaining. Sometimes the lessons we learn in life are hard, but they will not always be disparaging. I feel that most people will take the lesson Jenny learns in this film, if it required the same curriculum.

*I can't decide which was worse: Ewan McGregor trying to be American in "Men Who Stare At Goats" or Sarsgaard trying to be English in this film. In both cases, the accents are so bad that you eventually just shrug your shoulders and give up. Not worth getting worked up over those types of details.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats (***)

Directed by Grant Heslov


What do you think when you hear about a film with a title like The Men Who Stare At Goats? Certain things can be assumed: it will be well humored (probably silly), it will possess an ensemble cast (mostly men, of course), and it will probably be unlike most films that you've ever seen. Grant Heslov's latest film checks all of the items on this presumptive, make-believe checklist, but it's what the film does that isn't expected that makes it exceptional. An unforeseen human story and a spectacular cast helps the film rise above its goofy title, and creates one of the funniest movies of the year.

When journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) meets with an eccentric man named Gus Lancy (Stephen Root), he hears stories about reading the future and killing hamsters using your mind. Bob dismisses Gus and his tales of Jedi warriors, and is more worried about details in his home life: his wife is leaving him for his one-armed editor and he has lost that fire that once inspired his journalism. In an arbitrary attempt to impress his ex-wife, Bob goes into war-ravaged Iraq in hopes of finding a gripping story to write about. Instead, he finds Lyn Cassady (George Clooney).

Bob remembered Lyn's name when Gus Lacey was talking about the best Jedi warrior. Lyn has a reputation: he can crash computers with his mind, burst clouds in the sky, and once murdered a goat just by staring at it. Bob decides to follow Lyn on his latest Jedi mission, which includes driving through the dessert and getting kidnapped by Iraqi criminals. Facing fierce characters and constant danger, Bob finds the adventure he was looking for only to decide he'd rather not be there. Tagging along with Lyn, Bob finds the perfect story in the perfect disaster.

Bob and Lyn's journey is inter-spliced with flashbacks detailing the US Army's First Earth Battalion, where Lyn was trained in his Jedi ways. A military division created to promote passive, sometimes paranormal actions in the battlefield, it was lead by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who preferred to have the men in his division meditate, collect flowers, and dance during training. Lyn was the main prodigy within this experimental division, but the jealous Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) was always on his tail. After Larry botched an attempted experiment with LSD, Django was fired and the First Earth Battalion was disbanded.

The film begins with the caption: "More of this is true than you would believe". I'm still a bit skeptical, but I don't think that really matters. The film is directed by Grant Heslov, a filmmaker (and character actor) who has worked many times with Goats' main star George Clooney. Heslov was the co-writer and producer on Good Night, and Good Luck and the producer on Leatherheads. Now, he is directing his own feature, studio film and has called on his buddy to help him out. These stories of friends helping friends in Hollywood always makes me feel fuzzy inside, especially when they produce such quality films.

Does the film stumble over its final act? It most certainly does. But the film's final moments only cement a whimsical exuberance that exists throughout the entire film. It's hard to take a film like Goats, which possesses such unrestrained playfulness, and resolve it with something that doesn't feel contrived. Heslov instead chooses to take that playfulness and push it even further by the film's end (which includes a deliciously hilarious closing line by Spacey which I will not reveal here), and I'm not sure whether or not that's a bad thing. But I enjoyed it, so take that and make what you will of it.

The film's cast is probably its strength. Clooney--who is in the middle of a busy season which will later include Up In the Air and Fantastic Mr. Fox--is certainly funny as Lyn Cassady, but what's surprising is how strongly Lyn becomes the heart of the movie, and we never even realize it till the end. As neurotic journalist Bob Wilton, Ewan McGregor gives his best performance in several years (and it includes several layers of irony, since the actor behind Obi Wan seems increasingly skeptical of Jedi warriors). Both Bridges and Spacey are great in supporting roles, particularly Spacey who gives his first meaningful film performance since his Oscar-winning work in American Beauty (I should probably be honest and admit that I loved him in K-Pax, but that's not the most popular opinion).

The Men Who Stare At Goats inspired a lot more laughs than I thought it would. It felt a lot like Three Kings to me (for obvious reasons), but it's not nearly as profound. I'm not sure this movie was meant to be profound, though it does have some identity issues. Jeff Bridges reinventing The Dude seems to suggest straight comedy, but there were moments where there was actual social commentary (though never fully exploited). All these questions/doubts, are nitpicky in nature, and don't matter in the large scope of things. Because this is a good movie, and those are pretty hard to come by most of the time.