Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Despite boasting a terrific voice cast and entertaining stop-motion animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox ends up being merely very good, and not quite fantastic.

It's difficult to pinpoint what Fantastic Mr. Fox could've improved. The cast does as good of a job as is expected of such big names (George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Billy Murray, and Jason Schwartzman, among others). The animation, although somewhat old-school, is done superbly and is constantly entertaining. The story is fast paced and never drags, although occasionally it would've helped to have an occasional breather, as the story hops from plot point to plot point to plot point with no down-time in between.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that the fault lies directly in the way the screenplay was written. I enjoy most of the prevous movies written by Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), yet I've also noticed that they occasionally write in a style that borders on self indulgent.

In Anderson's repertoire, I've never found Rushmore as exciting and poignant as most, as too much of the "humor" in it is, well, utterly unfunny. For the most part I believe Anderson's films work better as drama's with moments of dark comedy, rather than being billed purely as comedies (which they often are). As for Baumbach, I still can't figure out what the motivations were behind Margot at the Wedding, but it was over-long and, at times, almost painful to watch. While this is not necessarily a bad thing (some of the best movies test viewers' preconceptions and can make them feel uncomfortable), I couldn't really find the redemption in Margot and instead felt that it seemed puzzling unfinished.

The reason I mention these is because I found The Fantastic Mr. Fox to be filled with a lot of the "wink and a nudge" humor that didn't completely work in Rushmore and the sometimes hard to pinpoint character motivations that brought down Margot at the Wedding. I'm sure that it's supposed to be funny when Mr. Fox points out that the characters are wild animals (even though the "animals" act ostensibly like humans), it came across as smug and I found myself rolling my eyes. Other moments seemed to have the air of a collection of in-jokes.

That's not to say that these moments in the story completely bog down the film, because they don't. There are genuinely funny moments (Willem Dafoe's country bumpkin Rat; the fast-paced description of the game of Whackbat), and, at 87 minutes, Fantastic Mr. Fox has trimmed all of the excess fat and never drags. The story is interesting and entertaining, and some of the in-jokes that I just admonished still manage to work on some level, just maybe not at the level that Wes Anderson hoped that they would. It's possible that, being a Wes Anderson film, I expected too much from Fantastic Mr. Fox, and that these expectations made it difficult to fully enjoy the movie for what it was: An enjoyable lark that's much better than a lot of comedies that are churned out to theaters.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is not a terrible film or even a bad one. It's a very good film that, unfortunately, doesn't reach the transcendent level of greatness that it aspires.

Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Movie Review: The Road (2009)

It's difficult to review a movie when you've read and loved the book. It's even more difficult when the author of said book is someone known for their densely packed, sometimes even vaguely poetic prose. As an adaptation, The Road is well done, yet falls short of the novel's ability to elicit a visceral reaction from reader/viewer. As a movie, standing on its own, The Road is a great movie where the positives far outweigh the occasional missteps.

The Road takes place in the near future. The world has been devastated by an unnamed disaster. The sky is an infinite stretch of gray, buildings have been reduced to smoldering scrap heaps, and those few people who survive are either cannibals or doing their best to avoid the roving gangs of marauders. The story itself follows The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they attempt to travel to the southern coast of the United States, where they hope they will find the last remnants of society and be free of the constant threats of both starvation and aggressive cannibals.

Cormac McCarthy's novel, on which this movie was based, is one of the bleakest, depressing works in modern literature. Although there are glimmers of hope sprinkled throughout, the overall tone of the novel is dark, and it offers a very stark picture of a world that has fallen into utter anarchy and destruction. Although this picture itself would be tough to portray in a film, the source novel is also written almost like an epic poem, with the words and how they fit together playing an integral role in the overall experience. If that wasn't enough, the characters in the novel do not have names and the event that precipitates the story is never explained.

With these issues at play, it's quite the feat that The Road ends up being as good as it is. Joe Penhall's screenplay follows the novel's progression fairly faithfully, while doing a great job of knowing when to add poetic touches and when to abandon them so as to not bog down the movie. John Hillcoat, whose previous film The Proposition was a somewhat bleak affair, is well-suited to direct The Road, and rarely gives in to the temptation to hasten or somehow "Hollywoodify" the pacing of the movie.

The music, written by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (who have previously composed the musical scores for both The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), is note-perfect for almost the entire movie. Unfortunately, the times when the music becomes overbearingly loud and attempts to force a feeling of tension onto the viewer is perhaps the biggest misstep in the entire film. Although only a couple of scenes have this problem, I can't figure out why it was deemed necessary to do this, as The Road is already likely to elicit tension and unease in all but the most hardened viewers.

It's amazing that I've gotten this far into this review without talking about the main reason why The Road works: The powerful acting performances from Mortensen and Smit-McPhee.

Mortensen perfectly portrays a man who has seen his wife (Charlize Theron) fall apart and holds on only so that his son may possibly see happiness and sunlight someday. Although he still tries to instill a sense of hope into both himself and his child, he makes sure his son knows how to use the gun they carry. Not so that he can attack those that threaten them, however, but rather so that he can kill himself if he finds himself in a situation where it is either die a quick death his own hand rather than a slow death in the mouths of the cannibals. Mortensen does a terrific job at portraying this desperation, not only through his speech, but through his overall demeanor and expression. Much like his performance in Eastern Promises, Mortensen fully becomes the character he is playing, and I would not be surprised at all if he receives his second Oscar nomination for his role in The Road.

Smit-McPhee, meanwhile, must both portray a child's hope and the bleak despair that comes from being born into a destroyed world. Only thirteen years old, Smit-McPhee does a great job of making his character not only believable, but on an emotional par with Mortensen's. It is a powerful and driving performance from someone so young.

Considering the story revolves almost solely around The Man and The Boy, The Road's success hinged on the performances of the two main actors. Luckily, both did a tremendous job with very difficult material, and The Road stands as a must see for those that have the fortitude to sit through such a bleak affair.

Rating: 9/10

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Album review: The Cribs - Ignore the Ignorant

The Cribs have made four albums since 2004, yet the Cribs remain relatively unknown outside of the United States. Their third album, Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever, was their first major label release and featured fast-paced jangly guitars and aggressive pseudo-Brit-punk vocals, and was probably the best album The Cribs have released. Their fourth album, Ignore the Ignorant, features the addition of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, and although it continues their maturation as a band, it does not quite reach the heights of their last album.

The core sound of The Cribs’ past is still intact, but more mellow this time around. Marr is a great guitarist, but fast he is not, and his addition slows down the entire sound. Although parts of Ignore the Ignorant are much better for this mellower sound, the Cribs’ dynamic and sound doesn’t suit itself as well to this new, slower sound.

The influence of indie rock gods Sonic Youth (whose member Lee Renaldo was a guest on the last Cribs album) is still very evident throughout Ignore the Ignorant, although it is most obvious on “City of Bugs,” a six and a half minute, feedback laden manifesto that is probably the best song on the album. Another highlight includes opener “We Were Aborted,” which probably bears more resemblance to Men’s Needs than any other song on the album.

Unfortunately, the second half of the album, while enjoyable, is not exactly memorable. There isn’t a song on the album that is bad or unlistenable, but after the album is over, it’s tough to remember what they sound like. On Men’s Needs, I can still remember about half the album having not listened to it for months. Although I’ve only listened to it a few times, none of the melodies on Ignore the Ignorant have managed to worm their way into my head yet. It’s possible that, with a few more listens, the songs will start to take more shape.

So, again, I don’t hate or even dislike Ignore the Ignorant. It’s just an initial disappointment considering the strength of The Cribs’ first three albums and the strength of everything Johnny Marr has touched. Maybe this is one of those albums that needs more than the average number of listens to really sink in and display its greatness. As is, Ignore the Ignorant is a very good album that only disappoints because it isn’t “great.”
Rating: 7/10

Movie Review: The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009)

As far as absurdist comedies go, The Men Who Stare at Goats is better than most.  It doesn't reach the echelon of truly great like The Big Lebowski or Annie Hall, but manages to be an entertaining movie throughout.

Although the story bounces around a lot, the basic frame is as follows:  Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is a down-on-his luck journalist.  His wife has just left him for his editor and his job isn't exactly fulfilling, so he decides that a drastic shake-up is needed.  Thus, he decides to go to the Middle East as a war correspondent.  It's there that he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who claims to be a former member of an elite group of psychic soldiers known within the military as "Jedi."

Told as a mix of contemporary dialogue between Wilton and Cassady and flashbacks detailing the rise of the psychic soldiers, the film relies on the performance of its actors.  Fortunately, everyone is up to the task.  McGregor plays a terrific "slightly off-balanced straight man."  Clooney builds upon his strong performance in Burn After Reading, although this time his character is less paranoid and more delusional.

In addition to the leads, both Jeff Bridges, in a role that bears remarkable similarities to his performance as "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski, and Kevin Spacey, in a role that is disappointingly one-dimensional, provide strong performances, although their characters aren't nearly as strong as either Clooney of McGregor's.

Unfortunately, the first half of The Men Who Stare at Goats is so funny and original that the second half feels like a let down.  What starts as a comedy about the absurdity of the military funding a unit of psychic soldiers turns into a slightly bored war melodrama, and the jokes start coming fewer and farther between.  It never dips into the realm of being unwatchable or even truly boring, but I was hoping for more out of the end.  Perhaps the fault of first time director Grant Heslov (who did help co-write Good Night, and Good Luck with Clooney) or relatively inexperienced screenwriter Peter Straughan (whose largest credit so far has been How to Lose Friends and Alienate People), but the movie definitely needed a change in pacing.

Although spreading the drama and comedy more evenly throughout the film would've made it a better film overall, The Men Who Stare at Goats is still a worthwhile film.  The first of three high-profile movies for Clooney this holiday season (with Fantastic Mr. Fox scheduled for a Thanksgiving release and Up in the Air scheduled to come out on Christmas) and possibly the least hyped of the three, The Men Who Stare at Goats' quality definitely predicates a great year for Clooney.  Whether the quality of these three films turns into box office returns or merely critical acclaim remains to be seen, but it's definitely going to be a great year for Clooney.

Rating:  8/10
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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Movie Review: The Accidental Husband (2008)

I didn’t expect a lot from The Accidental Husband.  It was originally released in the United Kingdom in early 2008, but its United States release was suspended indefinitely when the distribution company, Yari Film Group, declared for bankruptcy in late 2008.  Thus, it was resurrected as a straight-to-DVD movie for US distribution, released November 10th.  Unfortunately, The Accidental Husband was not even able to meet my relatively meager expectations, and it stands as possibly the worst movie so far of 2009.

The story, what little there is, is riddled with clichés and illogical character actions.  Dr. Emma Lloyd (Uma Thurman) is a “relationship expert” who has her own radio show.  One night, she gives Sofia (Justina Machado) the advice to break off her engagement to Patrick (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) based on the results of an online compatibility test (yes, you read that right).  To get back at Emma, Patrick decides to have his neighbor’s son, who also happens to be an unbelievably proficient computer hacker, to hack into the national registry and make Patrick and Emma “married” so he can teach her a thing or two about relationships.  This, obviously, does not sit well with Emma or her fiancé, Richard (Colin Firth).

The story only manages to go downhill from there.  The characters act in unbelievably ridiculous ways, adding lie upon lie when it’s fairly obvious that if anyone decided to take two minutes to stop and think about things, they’d realize how stupid the situation is.  Add this to incredibly insipid dialogue, a Razzie worthy performance from Thurman (do they give Razzies to straight to DVD movies that may have actually been released the year before in other countries?), and absolutely unbearable music that would seem hamfisted in a children’s movie, and it’s not hard to see why the theatrical release of The Accidental Husband was never resurrected. 

The more I try to find a redeeming value in The Accidental Husband, the more I seem to come up short.  I feel bad for Colin Firth, who has been in much better movies and his screen time in this is almost non-existant.  His character is so underwritten I forgot about him when he wasn’t on the screen, which may be to Firth’s benefit in the long term.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan, meanwhile, looks like an American Javier Bardem (same hair style, facial hair, etc) but without half the talent that Bardem brings to the screen.  Not that I would ever wish a movie so terrible upon Bardem...or any actor, for that matter.

I’m not the biggest fan of romantic comedies, but I can generally find at least a redeeming performance or scene in one.  Some even manage to be good despite the clichéd nature of the story (for an example of this, see I Could Never Be Your Woman).  The Accidental Husband, however, was absolutely horrible from beginning (with Thurman reading off romantic advice that is both dumb and unrealistic) to end (I can’t really discuss it without giving away the cliché conclusion, but it was painfully sappy). 

Although it’s only two movies, Thurman’s performances in both The Accidental Husband and My Super Ex-Girlfriend, another absolutely atrocious rom-com, would make me think twice about ever going to a romantic comedy starring Thurman again.  

Rating:  1/10 (I reserve zeroes for movies that are not only horrible but also truly offensive to my sense of decency.  At least The Accidental Husband didn’t do that.  I guess I do have something positive to say about it)

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Movie Review: A Serious Man (2009)

The Coen brothers are masters at making both absurdly dark comedies and bleak dramas.  Although it’s tough to place at the onset, A Serious Man isn’t content to be a comedy or a drama.  Frequently oscillating between laugh-out-loud absurdity and increasingly complex dramatic torments, A Serious Man may not be the most cohesive Coen movie to date, but it nonetheless fits in well with the rest of the Coens’ impressive canon.

A Serious Man centers around Lawrence “Larry” Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a university professor who, to put things lightly, is encountering some faith-testing problems.  His wife is leaving him for his recently widowed friend, his kids are always fighting, and the committee in charge of judging his application for tenure may or may not be receiving disparaging letters regarding Larry’s credentials.  He also has to deal with neighbors who constantly give him menacing looks and the presence of “Uncle Arthur” (Richard Kind), who is having more luck draining his cyst and writing his statistical manifesto than finding a job.  Oh, and Larry’s rebellious son has a looming bar mitzvah.  Did I mention the student who’s attempting to blackmail Larry over a recent test score?  It may not be a quick moving film, but A Serious Man has a lot going on.

The cast, made up mostly of relative unknowns and background players, does a good job of keeping the material moving and no one really seems out of place or overmatched.  Stuhlbarg does a superb job of playing Gopnik, who is neurotic and troubled and doing his best not to break down, even in the face of a relative whirlwind of troubles coming his way.  Although probably far-fetched, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibilities that Stuhlbarg could even find himself with an Oscar nomination for his role.  The Coen brothers and the actors they direct are no strangers to Oscar nominations.

Even though it’s complex, A Serious Man is not overly confusing, at least not in the literal sense of knowing what is going on and who people are.  The Coens do a great job, both as writers and as directors, of making sure that the story, for all its endless piling on and taking away plot points, never becomes overwhelming.  In fact, I never really thought about how much was going on in A Serious Man until the credits started rolling and I began to think about how many points were left only semi-resolved.

Halfway through A Serious Man, a rabbi tells a story about a dentist.  The story is a few minutes long and ends up having more questions in it than answers.  In a way, this story is a microcosm of the movie’s plot as a whole:  The Coen’s didn’t forget to wrap up all their plotlines; on the contrary, they leave things purposefully ambiguous, knowing that they themselves don’t always have the answers to the questions they ask.

To some, the ending of A Serious Man will be frustrating and confounding.  In fact, it seemed that about three or four new ideas and situations were introduced in the last five minutes of the film, and many more from earlier on are never answered.  The movie chooses to end during the climax of all the preceding action instead of winding down and attempting to concretely settle every bit of plot.

I probably don’t know enough about the Jewish faith (or religion in general) to fully comprehend the metaphors and ideas that were present in A Serious Man.  What I do know is that the movie made me think and question many different things, and that’s something that I come to expect out of every movie the Coen brothers make. 

Rating:  9/10
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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Movie Review: Mr. Brooks (2007)

Kevin Costner has been accused in the past of being stiff and bland as an actor in roles where he isn’t playing an athlete.  Although the movie itself is riddled with holes and shaky logic, Mr. Brooks proves to be an ample showcase of Costner’s acting talents and is, overall, an enjoyable movie.

Costner plays Earl Brooks, Portland’s “Man of the Year,” business owner, and loving husband/father.  He also has a sinister alter ego, nicknamed Marshall, who drives Brooks to kill random people for what appears to be pure psycho-sexual thrills.  Instead of having Costner stand around and talk to himself, however, Marshall is played by the wonderfully creepy William Hurt, and although he appears everywhere, he is merely a physical representation of Brooks’ inner demons.

Mr. Brooks works because of the amazing chemistry between Costner and Hurt.  Costner has to play the restrained family man who just happens to also be a serial killer, which allows him to harness his “blandness” and, with just a slight tweak, turn it into a spot-on portrayal of an amazingly successful person who has to juggle his commitments to his family and business and his murderous impulses.  Hurt, who is often called upon to play someone with a screw or two loose, provides as expected and seems like the perfect person to play Marshall.  Together, Brooks and Marshall scheme, converse, and even argue like old friends.  It’s a testament to both actors’ abilities that they took a somewhat flimsy script and made it both believable and intriguing.
It’s a shame that the same can’t be said of the other performances in the movie.  Demi Moore plays Tracy Atwood, a stereotypical police detective, and even does that somewhat poorly.  I’ve never been a fan of Moore as an actress, and she doe absolutely nothing in Mr. Brooks to change my mind.  Meanwhile, Dane Cook plays “Mr. Smith,” an amateur photographer who witnesses one of Mr. Brooks’ murders and ends up trying to become Brooks’ friend and protégé.  Much like Moore, I’ve never been a fan of Cook’s previous movie roles (or his stand-up comedy, for that matter), but he does a serviceable job bringing a level of compassion and energy to Mr. Smith.

What’s most baffling about Mr. Brooks is the way the story is sequenced.  The strongest (and, coincidentally, most disturbing) scenes of the movie happen in the first hour, while the second hour is spent trying to wrap up the main story and the multiple side plots.  It ends up being a case of having too many storylines for a two-hour movie, and if one of the sub-plots had been axed from the final product Mr. Brooks would probably have been a great film.  Although it’s tough to decide which subplot lends the least to the movie, my vote is the storyline involving Brooks’ daughter.  Every scene with his daughter stalls the momentum of the movie, and the movie would still feel complete without it.  As much as I dislike the Moore’s police detective storyline, it’s necessary to develop a possible antagonist for Brooks, and thus much more difficult to cut from the movie and have it still feel cohesive.

Even with all of these problems, however, Mr. Brooks is a fairly enjoyable movie.  The directing and cinematography do an effective job of building genuine tension, and rarely rely on things jumping out at the viewer.  The movie is dark but glossy, which really seems to fit in well with Brooks’ personality.  The combined effect of Costner and Hurt’s amazing acting with effective directing rises Mr. Brooks a level above the dime-a-dozen thrillers that come to theaters every week, and although it isn’t a classic, it’s at least a fun ride.

Rating:  7/10

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