Archive for November 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

November 29, 2009

Moreso even than Where the Wild Things Are, Wes Anderson’s stop-motion whimsy Fantastic Mr. Fox plays like an art film more for adults than for kids (not to say that kids won’t also enjoy it). We may be watching talking foxes and badgers, but they have very grown-up issues. Mr. Fox (raffishly voiced by George Clooney) used to steal chickens for a living; he was a pro at it, and he loved it. But after his wife (Meryl Streep) became pregnant, he swore to go legit as a newspaper columnist. Fox’s disreputable past, though, keeps calling to him, and soon enough he lapses back into a life of crime, to the chagrin of three local farmers who’ll stop at nothing to kill Fox and his associates.

Like every other Wes Anderson film, Fantastic Mr. Fox is about looking back wistfully on one’s youth, one’s glory days, pre-responsibilities, when things weren’t as complicated. Really, I get the sense that Anderson has been working his way up to stop-motion: all his films unfold in a rigorously controlled, hermetic universe, and it’s only a short step to filming a miniature world where literally nothing happens that isn’t physically manipulated frame by frame. (Anderson is credited as the sole director, and certainly Fox is thematically of a piece with his other work, but let’s not forget animation director Mark Gustafson and his army of animators, without whom the movie would remain confined to Anderson’s sketchbook.)

The throughline is simple: Fox wants food and safety for himself and his community — as simple as a Bugs Bunny short, really. So we’re pulled right in, and as the saying goes, fairly soon we forget we’re watching stop-motion, even though the technique calls attention to itself. The ads are calling Fox “groundbreaking,” though I think what that means is that Anderson — rather than relying on slick CGI like everyone else — has chosen a consciously old-school style, one that doesn’t cheat or hide the manipulation; the animals are designed with real fur, usually a no-no in stop-motion because you can’t control its movement from frame to frame. So there is some wildness here after all. The style, like the theme, is poised gracefully between order and chaos.

The TV commercials, of course, emphasize the goofy kid-pleasing moments, but most of Fox is gratifyingly mellow. The voice actors, including Anderson mainstays Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, speak to each other as if they were in a quirky adult comedy; nobody falsely projects, sweatily calling out to the back row of inattentive children. The color scheme is radiantly autumnal, not the usual banging-together of discordant hues that kiddie-flick animators think will hook the eye. The compositions are classic Anderson, painstakingly symmetrical. The soundtrack is Anderson’s typical callback to ‘60s tunes, including the Beach Boys (used surprisingly unobtrusively) and, at one point of tension, the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” That song, the last one the Stones played at the fateful Altamont concert, kicked up a bit of fuss in its day for its lyrics espousing revolution, and now it graces a children’s film produced by 20th Century-Fox. I can see the angry letter-writing campaign and boycotts from here. Though, again, it isn’t really a children’s film — but tell that to Glenn Beck and his acolytes.

New Moon

November 23, 2009

Something about the Twilight films (I haven’t read the books) gets around my defenses somehow. Not being a teenage girl, I’m at a loss to explain my response. But here’s a guess. I have a soft spot for gloom and angst in music — Morrissey songs, any Polish composer you could name — and the first Twilight film and the new one, New Moon, somehow communicate some of that tone and flavor. These films are a callback to a time when love, or what teenagers think is love, is all-encompassing and anything that stands in its way is the most horrible thing ever, and the only possible reaction to heartbreak is sitting in one’s room numbly watching the seasons pass. And listening to depressing music.

There’s a scene like that in New Moon, wherein our fumbly heroine Bella (Kristen Stewart) has just been dumped by her sparkly vampire boyfriend Edward (Robert Pattinson). He’s leaving, of course, for her own sake — he fears she’ll get hurt if he stays. She doesn’t see it that way, and for months on end she simply shuts down. Then she figures out that if she endangers herself, Edward will appear to her as a forbidding apparition (“Don’t ride that motorcycle,” “Don’t eat Pop Rocks and drink Coke,” etc.). So Bella spends half the movie being reckless, even though Edward made her promise not to. She also strikes up a tentative thing with local Native American boy Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who is also afraid she’ll get hurt if she gets involved with him, because he’s a werewolf.

Stephenie Meyer, who wrote the Twilight books, is sort of a Laurell K. Hamilton for teenagers. Hamilton writes the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, which began well enough but eventually tipped into porno wish-fulfillment as Anita found herself madly desired by pretty vampires and hunky werewolves. Meyer does the opposite: the mad desire is there, but the fulfillment isn’t. Edward and Jacob, put plainly, can’t have sex with Bella or they might break her. The self-repressed Meyer stumbled onto a key secret of pulp-romance success: Always leave them wanting more, and keep the lovebirds from getting what they want for as long as possible.

New Moon features vampires — even nasty ones — and roaring werewolves, but is not a horror movie; it’s barely even a supernatural movie. It’s a starcrossed romance with creatures of the night. Its emphasis is far from gothic — it takes its cue from the drizzly grays of the Pacific Northwest. It is essentially a fable that a lonely, bored, imaginative girl living with her stoic dad in Washington state might tell herself. The whole Twilight saga is a special-snowflake daydream of being pursued by exotic monsters while still keeping one’s virtue. As before, Kristen Stewart underplays, which allows the teenage female audience to project onto her blankness, and Robert Pattinson’s Edward is insipidly noble and non-threatening (he gets his growl on far less here than he did in Twilight). Taylor Lautner’s hot-blooded Jacob is a change of pace, if a bit of a drip. I was happy to welcome a playfully overacting Michael Sheen (as a sort of executive vampire) and a red-eyed, dead-affect Dakota Fanning (as another fancy vamp) into the film; for a few scenes, we almost seem to be watching a real movie.

Which it isn’t, really. New Moon doesn’t have much of a plot; the bulk of it is Bella moping around. But director Chris Weitz knows a thing or two about love, as anyone who saw About a Boy can attest, and he almost makes something moving out of Bella’s heartsick stasis. Bella does a lot of stupid things in the movie, and we don’t really question them, because nobody’s in a particularly logical state of mind when their first love has gone off somewhere forever. The longing is palpable, and when Bella and Edward finally reunite the rare smile on Edward’s face says it all. But we’ve still got two movies to go, and more agonizing over whether Bella will become a vampire and whether Edward will allow that and what Jacob might have to say about that, and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ll be watching.

See also: Twilight


November 16, 2009

2012_movie_still_john_cusackI don’t think I’ve laughed harder at any movie footage this year than I did at the internet five-minute sneak peek at 2012, with John Cusack outracing a catastrophic earthquake in a limousine. Thousands of people die in those five minutes, but what makes it hilarious is the focus on the limo, ludicrously avoiding one damn thing after another — cascading skyscrapers, exploding gas trucks. Once the destruction kicks in, the first hour or so of 2012 is an epic comedy of retreat; our heroes narrowly escape the end of the world via car, camper, plane. The bad news is that there’s another hour and a half to go, and in the final forty-five minutes the movie starts to feel very long and played-out.

This is par for the course for director Roland Emmerich, who seems to have a deep fetish for the end times: he killed millions of us in Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. He also surrounds the meat of his apocalyptic sandwiches with stale bread — thinly written characters learning What’s Important in Life (usually family) while journeying to the allegedly transcendent climax in which Humanity Prevails. 2012 is probably Emmerich’s best film, which isn’t saying much; he’s certainly gotten better at the money scenes, the familiar landmarks crumbling, the tsunamis and lava redrawing the map. It’s king-hell disaster porn. But then Emmerich and co-writer Harald Kloser try to wrest meaning out of it all.

Cusack plays the standard-issue schlub, a failed novelist with a limo-driver gig, two kids and an ex-wife (Amanda Peet) now married to a plastic surgeon (Thomas McCarthy, who in another corner of his life wrote and directed The Station Agent and The Visitor). As in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, it seems that most of the planet dies so that a guy can prove to his ex-wife that he’s a good man after all. There are other characters, like Woody Harrelson’s cracked doomsayer, who seems to be visiting from a better movie (his final scene is perfect), and various officials debating what to do about the impending global meltdown. They debate a lot.

2012 is really two movies. The second movie is sterner in tone, full of ethical brooding about who should be allowed onto one of the seven big “arks” meant to preserve the best and brightest of humanity. In short, Emmerich now asks us to take seriously what we enjoyed about the first movie. It wasn’t fun or funny after all, we’re told (or scolded); billions of human beings are dead, and we have to honor them by retaining our own humanity, our compassion, in the face of disaster. This is a letdown, to say the least. Emmerich keeps building these nihilistic dark comedies and then letting the air out of them with a moralistic pinprick.

I’m not saying the film’s ultimate message isn’t welcome. Compassion is good, and all. Death is bad — I’m totally with you there. I am saying that it’s a bit hypocritical to get us jazzed with mass destruction — and get us into the theater with the promise of same — and then do an about-face and turn it into a 9/12 lesson. Especially one so unconvincing. We’ve got one-half of a good old apocaflick here, though, rendered as breathtakingly as I’ve ever seen it done. 2012 is made for the big screen, so I can’t in good conscience advise you to wait for Netflix. But when the arks start showing up (unless you’re a fan of Stephen McHattie, wasted here as one of the ark captains), you can probably hit the aisle. You’ll have seen a decent two-hour disaster-gasm, and you won’t miss anything you haven’t seen before.

The Box

November 8, 2009

Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” has one of those neat, irresistible premises that Matheson, a frequent contributor to The Twilight Zone, is famous for. A mysterious man brings you a box with a button on the top. He tells you that if you push the button, someone you don’t know will die, and you will get a serious amount of money. What would you do? Matheson says he took the idea from a psychology class in which his wife was enrolled. The story, therefore, is a psychological chiller with an almost jokey twist ending. Writer-director Richard Kelly, who made the modern cult classic Donnie Darko and its unfairly maligned follow-up Southland Tales, expands the story considerably in The Box, which tosses in NASA, nosebleeds, Jean-Paul Sartre, and a diagram of something called the Water Coffin Triptych that looks a lot like the diagram of time travel from Donnie Darko.

The Box, Kelly’s first film to get a wide theatrical release, has been said to be his bid for mainstream credibility. “See,” he might be saying, “I can make something comprehensible with mass appeal.” The best thing about the movie is that, if Kelly was really aiming to please the average popcorn-munchers, he fails. He can’t help it. There’s so much stuff here linked to his earlier films, particularly Darko, that multiplex audiences’ heads will be swimming with references to water as foreboding portals and countless other eldritch suppositions. This is certainly the strangest movie to get a release in 2,000-plus theaters in quite some time. As a Kelly fan, I enjoyed the hell out of it — its brooding mood, its visual tribute to films of the ‘70s (the movie is set in 1976), its flamboyant score by three members of the Canadian indie-rock band Arcade Fire. Your mileage may vary, and probably will.

Cameron Diaz and James Marsden are the young couple faced with the conundrum of the button; Frank Langella, a quadrant of his face burned away, is the man who delivers the box. I couldn’t be happier about Langella’s late-career comeback, and here he creates a solemn figure that seems to stand for something beyond good or evil. Langella’s manner is very dry and precise; he leaves the emoting to Diaz and Marsden, and Kelly extracts one of Diaz’ better performances. She plays a private-school teacher who introduces Sartre to her students, and I was reminded of the deadpan English teacher Drew Barrymore played in Donnie Darko; all Kelly needs to do now is cast Lucy Liu as a teacher and he’ll have the Charlie’s Angels trifecta.

Like Kelly’s other films, The Box fairly demands to be seen more than once, or as part of a Richard Kelly marathon. This writer-director has firmly established his own techno-mystical emphasis, his own fatalistic mood; his work and his viewpoint consistently fascinate me. How is The Box as a thriller? Well, it goes places that will make many viewers want to get out and walk — it reminded me a little of last March’s Knowing, which handled its blend of suspense and sci-fi far less successfully. I have a feeling that anything Kelly does — a western, a romantic comedy — will be run through his filter of inscrutable astrophysics jargon. If he can continue to get studios to give him money, he will continue to be an artist to watch.

This Is It

November 1, 2009

I feel a little bad for the stage dancers in This Is It. There they are at the beginning of the film, many of them moved to tears by the very prospect of dancing onstage with their hero, Michael Jackson, for his projected farewell concert in London. Well, they got to rehearse with him, anyway, and their efforts, captured on camera, are recorded for posterity. As the world now knows, Jackson’s This Is It concerts were not to be; he died less than a month before the first show.

One hundred hours of rehearsals were filmed for the concert crew’s own reference and for Jackson’s personal library; the footage was never intended to be seen by the public. We’re to understand that the show’s director (and the film’s credited director), Kenny Ortega, heard from so many fans wanting to see that footage that Ortega decided to put the film together for them. The truth is probably somewhat thornier; the concert promoter AEG Live, which took a $500 million bath from the fifty cancelled dates, has to make its money back somehow. Still, what’s left here is an interesting, if remote, portrait of an entertainment machine with a laser-precise vision of what he wanted.

It’s possible that the only time Michael Jackson was fully in control was when he was onstage, or doing prep work for a show. The rest of his life was mess and scandal and self-disfigurement, but in the lights, at least, he knew something about something. Always gracious, often appending his critiques “with love,” Jackson makes minute adjustments to the sound, the timing, the funkiness. We’ll never know what cocktail of meds he may or may not have been on when this footage was shot, but mentally, in the film, he seems formidable. Physically, he often holds back, saving his voice, he repeatedly says, for the main event. He gladly gives the spotlight (“This is your turn to shine”) to Orianthi Panagaris, a 24-year-old Australian virtuoso guitarist always seen chewing gum. When you’ve played onstage with Steve Vai at age 15, you can probably get away with chewing gum in front of the King of Pop.

For obvious reasons, This Is It suffers from a patchwork style — the editors do a heroic job of stitching it all together into something coherent. The highlight, mid-film, is probably “Thriller” (notch up another movie credit for Vincent Price); we get a peek at what would’ve been an impressive multimedia 3D presentation. This megaproduction in general would likely have been quite a night out, though by necessity short on spontaneity; Jackson’s fans paid to see his act well-worked-out, not rough around the edges. The film shows only the bare bones of what might have been. It’s difficult to assess, on a narrative or even technical level, footage that we weren’t really supposed to see. But people are expected to pay to see it, so that’s where we critics come in.

This Is It shows a man, frail and (unwittingly) close to death, yet still packing iconic power. He doesn’t waste a movement or a word. His entire essence seems mixed into the music (much of which has odd levels of hostility and aggression for someone who talks constantly about peace and love). His fluid mechanical-man moves and his strange late-period martial iconography (as seen in “They Don’t Really Care About Us”) denote a control freak, or, more generously, a perfectionist, and it’s clear to me that the Michael Jackson we see here would not have wanted us to see the Michael Jackson we see here. His estate okayed the film, but his estate has bills to pay, too. As a posthumous document, This Is It offers a veiled, vaseline-lens look behind the curtain. As a cultural event, it’s more than a little creepy and depressing. As with Elvis before him, the vultures will keep picking at this sad man-child’s bones until there’s nothing left.3