Saturday, November 28, 2009

In Theaters: "Fantastic Mr. Fox"

It’s funny, how effortlessly Wes Anderson’s style clicks and locks into the stop-motion animation world of his latest film, Fantastic Mr. Fox. It shouldn’t come as a surprise; he’s always been a stylist, and his previous pictures (particularly The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic) were intricately (some would say obsessively) designed down to the tiniest set and costume details. So it’s not much of a jump to infer that he’s the type of filmmaker who would revel in the opportunity to create his own world from the bottom up. What is unexpected is how easily his dialogue and characterizations work in what is, by any measure, an animated picture aimed at a family audience; the characters may be foxes and opossums and rats and weasels, but they have familiar hopes and dreams and insecurities, and they express all of them in clever, sardonic dialogue. He’s mated his worldview with Roald Dahl’s narrative and come up with a picture that feels absolutely faithful to both.

The titular character (voiced by a pitch-perfect George Clooney) is an expert chicken thief, forced to go straight by Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) when she announces she’s pregnant with their first child, er, cub. Jump ahead a couple of years; their son Ash (Jason Schawartzman) is going through an awkward stage, made worse by the extended visit of his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), a likable natural athlete. Mr. Fox is now working as a newspaperman and dreaming of upward mobility (literally); he decided to move his family into an upscale tree, fueled in no small part by its close proximity to three farms with plenty of stuff for the taking. He decides to do one last job—in several parts, he explains.

Anderson’s last film, The Darjeeling Limited, was a pleasurable enough diversion, and light as a feather—which was part of its problem. I’d already forgotten it about twenty minutes after leaving the theater. He hasn’t made a bad film yet, but in spite of its exotic locales, Darjeeling felt like the work of a filmmaker trapped in a box, working the same themes and painting with the same palette, and risking typecasting himself (and exclusively serving a steadily dwindling niche audience). Fantastic Mr. Fox is not, to reiterate, that far removed from his wheelhouse, but by turning his filmmaking process upside-down, Anderson seems to have reconnected with the infectious energy and all-out joy of his early pictures.

And it’s the funniest thing he’s done since Rushmore; Anderson’s screenplay is co-written with the brilliant Noah Baumbauch (his collaborator on The Life Aquatic and the writer/director of The Squid and the Whale and the criminally underrated 1995 film Kicking and Screaming) and is full of witty wordplay, off-beat exchanges (“That’s just weak songwriting! You wrote a bad song, Petey!”), and clever running bits (I’m particularly fond of Fox’s insistence on “bandit hats,” and the use of “cuss” in place of profanity, as in “what the cuss” and “cuss you”). It’s also full of funny little visual jokes; the compositions are not only striking but frequently amusing, and a scene where Anderson plays out a heist in a single wide shot, on a series of connected security monitors, is a little masterpiece of comic timing.

Much credit is also due to the talented crew of stop-motion animators (led by animation director Mark Gustfson); the film was reportedly shot at 12 frames per second, in contrast to the normal 24, which gives the film its distinctively jerky-yet-somehow-fluid look. The effect is stunning without overwhelming the picture; we regard the lovely fur and occasionally watery eyes, but we’re not distracted by them.

Fantastic Mr. Fox has its flaws; it might be too twee for some tastes, and the second half gets a little stuck in the mechanisms of the plot (it’s not quite as funky and free-wheeling as the set-up sequences). But it’s an absolute charmer, sweet and sunny and unquestionably entertaining—though I wonder what it says about mainstream American filmmaking that the three best pictures of the year thus far (Up, Where the Wild Things Are, and this) are ostensibly made for kids.

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is currently playing in wide release.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Today's New DVDs- 11/24/09

Funny People: It's Judd Apatow's most ambitious and serious-minded film to date; it's also his first to do less-than-stellar box office. That's a shame--this is a mature, thoughtful, and frequently funny picture, as well an astonishingly candid examination of its star, Adam Sandler.

Gomorrah: Matteo Garrone's Italian crime saga requires patience and focus, but is a powerful and wrenching piece of work.

Four Christmases: You'd think, from the reviews out there, that Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon spent 88 minutes raping the mothers of America's film writers, one by one. It's much more enjoyable than its scathing notices; sure, it's uneven, but it's basically harmless and frequently funny.

The Maiden Heist: A cast of interesting scene-stealers (Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken, William H. Macy, Marcia Gay Harden) do their best to keep this somewhat formulaic comedy popping, but it's ultimately a forgettable (though likable) diversion.

Angel Heart (Blu-ray): For some of us, the opportunity to see Denise Huxtable naked was a big moment of our teenage years. (You guys know who you are. Don't pretend like I'm all alone on this.) Now, the chance to relive that moment in HD.

In Theaters: "The Messenger"

"I need men of solid stature," his colonel tells him. The job does not require him to be a grief counselor; in fact, engaging or showing emotion is discouraged. Their job is to deliver a message, and to do it in a timely fashion: they find the next of kin (or “NOK” in shorthand) and inform them that their child or their spouse has died in combat. That is the job.

The Messenger is such an arrestingly simple idea for a film that it’s a little remarkable it hasn’t been done yet. We’ve seen the scene, in countless war pictures, where the mother, the father, the pregnant wife opens the door to see the two soldiers in their dress uniforms standing on the porch, wearing grave expressions. But who are those men? What is their life? Who would want to spend day after day riding, as one character calls it, “a tidal wave of grief”?

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) certainly doesn’t want the job; he’s just back from overseas, where he barely made it out of a hairy firefight alive. But he has three months to go, and that’s his assignment; Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a longtimer, will show him the ropes. Stone runs down the rules for him, and there are many: say “killed” or “death” instead of euphemisms like “no longer with us,” never talk to a neighbor or friend, stick to the script, don’t hug, don’t engage. Deliver the message, quickly and efficiently, and get out.

But one visit, while he’s still learning the ropes, catches Montgomery off-guard. Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) sees them coming, and heads them off—“How did he die?” They tell her, and she nods, and thanks them. She’s not emotional; in fact, she’s apologetic. “I know this can’t be easy for you,” she tells them. “Can you believe that?” Stone asks Montgomery on the way to the car. “That’s a first.” But something about the widow draws Montgomery back to her; he’s nursing a broken heart, badly, and he finds himself wanting to protect her, to comfort her.

The broad strokes of the story make The Messenger sound like a treacly “love conquers all” tale, or a didactic anti-war treatise; it is neither. Co-writer/director Owen Moverman (whose screenplay credits include I’m Not There and Jesus’ Son), in his feature directorial debut, works in an off-hand, naturalistic style that keeps the film from feeling like the Lifetime movie it could so easily have become. The dialogue is direct and effective, imparting exposition without feeling like “expositional dialogue,” and the screenplay has a keen sense of exactly when to get in and when to get out of every scene.

From an emotional standpoint, the picture doesn’t pull any punches—we see several of their visits to parents and spouses, and they are raw, emotional, and gut-wrenching. Moverman’s camera looks these scenes right in the eye and doesn’t flinch. In the first one, they are greeted at the door by the deceased’s girlfriend, clearly pregnant; oblivious, she invites them in to deliver the news to his mother (“she’ll be right back, she’s right down the street”), but the longer they wait, the more she suspects something is wrong, and the suspense and awkwardness of the scene is powerful (if discomforting). Those scenes are tough, but Moverman also doesn’t lay on any easy, extra sentimentality; there is no excess, in either the writing, the playing, or in Nathan Larson’s sparse score.

Ben Foster is an actor who I resisted for quite some time; he seemed to have one character, a damaged emo kid, and I kept seeing it over and over in projects varying from The Punisher to Six Feet Under. But he won me over with his tightly-coiled performance in 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma; this film confirms that he is, indeed, an actor of real skill. He’s really underplaying here, to an almost risky degree, but it works—it’s a performance of fierce control, which makes his flashes of emotion more effective. Watch him closely in a difficult scene with Steve Buscemi as an angry father; he’s shot in a tight close-up, and the way the camera holds on his face makes the viewer search it for cracks in his façade.

Harrelson is also first-rate, deftly maneuvering the complexities or his layered character (he seems, at first, to be a standard-issue by-the-books hardass, but turns out to be a good deal more interesting, and flawed, than that). Morton is understated and heartbreaking, giving a complicated, lived-in performance; it is she, in fact, who may benefit most from Moverman’s hands-off shooting strategy. He tends, in important scenes, to just let his actors go, playing scenes in long takes with minimal coverage, letting them work up a full head of emotional steam. He does it around the midway point, with a beautifully-realized scene in which the soldier and the widow’s flirtation comes to a head, playing the entire scene in an unbroken take that reframes rather than cuts, keeping the momentum and through-line of Morton’s stunning acting (and Foster’s able support). He does it again near the picture’s end, as Foster tells Harrelson about his last battle; Moverman’s camera pushes in slightly, but keeps Harrelson in the frame, and the result is shattering.

The conflict between Stone’s routine and Montgomery’s emotion feels like the (rather obvious) construct that it is, and is barely bothered with and quickly abandoned; also, the subplot with Montgomery’s ex (an underused Jena Malone) is half-cocked, and feels somewhat phony and obligatory within the otherwise genuine film. Those are the complaints. They’re not much, from a big picture point of view. The Messenger is a deeply felt and powerful film, and contains some of the best acting I’ve seen this year.

"The Messenger" is currently playing in limited release.

In Theaters: "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans"

Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens with the image of a snake swimming through the flood waters of New Orleans, and you’ll have go a long way to find a more apt metaphor to kick off a picture with. What follows is a wholly indescribable mishmash of the slick and the stank, the cool and the campy. It is, at risk of putting too fine a point on it, almost exactly the film you’d expect Herzog and Nicolas Cage to come up with together.

What it is not is a sequel, remake, “reboot,” or “re-imagining” of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film Bad Lieutenant. It is a different story, about a different guy, in a different place, and told in a completely different style (Ferrera’s film is a stark, gritty, grim character study, and Herzog’s picture, while frequently disturbing, plays as a pitch-black comedy). All it has in common with its namesake is that it is about a thieving, whoring, druggie cop; the carryover of the title (reportedly at the insistence of the two films’ shared producer Edward R. Pressman, who wanted a straight remake and should have known better if he was hiring Herzog) will probably confuse more than it will assist.

The story begins in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, as New Orleans cops Terence McDonagh (Cage) and Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer—nice to see him in a theatrical release again) survey their deserted station house and discover a leftover prisoner who is about to drown in the rising flood waters of his cell. They contemplate betting on how long it’ll take the water to kill the poor sap, but McDonagh ends up diving in to save him, hurting his back in the process. “I’m gonna write you a prescription for Vicadin,” his doctor tells him, and our junkie cop is off and running.

Six months later, McDonagh is in the throes of a full-on drug addiction, tooting up in his car on the way into a crime scene. The scene is the gruesome, execution-style slaying of a family of five; the patriarch was apparently a low-level drug dealer. Solving the crime becomes, in his words, his “primary purpose”—well, that and getting drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.

Broadly speaking, we find Herzog working within the framework of a glossy, well-produced, star-driven thriller; however, Nicolas Cage is no typical star, and this is no standard procedural. The actor has spent too much of the last decade slumming and sleepwalking through mindless paycheck pictures like Next, Ghost Rider, Bangkok Dangerous, and the soul-crushing National Treasure series, but every once in a while (I’m gonna say the last time was Lord of War) he gets his hand on a role with some power to it, and turns up the juice. This is the best work he’s done in years, a deliriously unhinged performance that you can’t take your eyes off of. He plays this guy from the outside in—the sheer physicality of the performance is impressive, not only in the expected addict’s tics but in his peculiar walk (he uses an odd sideways lope, as if the gun in his belt is throwing him off balance) and strange speech patterns (as he becomes more addicted, he uses a chewed-up, stylized speaking voice that sounds like a contrivance but totally works within the context of the characterization). He indulges himself a bit, sure; he resorts to mugging in some of his close-ups, and the sheer theatricality of the performance may turn some viewers off. But it’s a risky, impressive piece of work.

William M. Finkelstein’s screenplay has some good scenes (including at least one that reminds of, and rivals, the shock value of that horrifying traffic stop in the original Bad Lieutenant) and a sound structure that allows for the indulgences of its director and star; it somehow seems perfectly logical that, midway through, McDonagh ends up heading to Biloxi with a fifteen-year-old witness and his dad’s dog so that he can pick up his hooker girlfriend. The character is written with complexity beyond his vices; it is unfortunate but true that McDonagh is good at being a cop (even if he’s not a “good cop”). He’s got steady instincts, and he’s strong in the interrogation room. If only he weren’t having all those pesky hallucinations.

On the downside, Finkelstein’s script occasionally dips into cliché dialogue and situations (we get stock scenes with Internal Affairs, and even that old standby scene where he’s stripped of his gun) that the energy of Cage’s performance and Herzog’s direction can’t quite transcend. The picture is also a tad overlong, and not all of Herzog’s experiments work (I’m not sure what he’s doing with the reptile-cam, but it doesn’t play). But the screenplay provides a darkly comic motor to the picture, and much of it is played at that pitch, with great success—Cage’s jittery explosion at a pharmacy clerk and his gun-waving interrogation of two elderly women build to juicy and explosively funny comic payoffs. It’s got such a wicked and knowing sense of humor, in fact, that the mere phrase “property room” becomes a punchline by the picture’s end.

While there are moments when Herzog revels in the swampy atmosphere, shooting with the anthropological instincts that he brings to his documentary work, he’s mostly working on a broadly theatrical, almost operatic canvas, which is about the only way make a film that credibly contains Cage’s gonzo performance. Frankly, a devlish sense of humor is about the only way to explain the closing scenes (with supporting characters making farce-timed entrances and exits to bring bits of news to our hero). It closes with what would seem the absolute antithesis of the downbeat yet inevitable ending of the original Bad Lieutenant, but its final scene finds a peculiar and perfect note, and holds it for as long as it can.

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens wide on December 4th.

Monday, November 23, 2009

On DVD: "Four Christmases"

Yep, that’s right: I’m the guy who liked Four Christmases, one of the most critically reviled (25% on the Tomatometer) of recent comedies (at least until much of the same crew got together for October’s Couples Retreat). Why? I wish I could say for sure. It could have something to do with circumstance—my wife and I are both children of divorce, and the film not only spoke to us, but we actually went to the theater to see it as part of our fourth Christmas (awkward titters all around). But there’s more to it than that; simply put, I just found it funny. You very well may not. Comedy is the trickiest of genres to review, because (try as you might) you just can’t persuade people about humor. No matter how many albums Dane Cook sells, you will not convince me that he’s funny. No matter how many of my friends give me the “Dude, Family Guy is freakin’ hilarious” business, they will not convince me that it is. And while I can read (and, in many aspects, agree) with the scathing notices that Four Christmases received, I must bear in mind that it made me laugh, and I’m pretty sure that was its primary goal. Comedy is, well, funny like that.

Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play Brad and Kate, a happily unmarried couple with a yearly holiday tradition: they lie to their four sets of parents (each comes from a divorced home, part of why they’re less than antsy to tie the knot themselves) and take off for a Christmas vacation far, far away from their families. “Why should we feel guilty,” Brad reasons, “about wanting to take a vacation on our vacation?” The man has a point. This year, however, that goes awry; their trip to Fiji gets snuffed out by heavy fog at the airport, and their families see their accidental appearance on live TV. They’ve got some holiday visits to make.

First up is Brad’s dad, Howard (Robert Duvall), a beer-swilling tough guy who mercilessly skewers his son, with the help of Brad’s cage-fighting brothers Denver (Jon Favreau) and Dallas (Tim McGraw)—all were named after the city where they were conceived (Kate is shocked to discover Brad’s real name is Orlando). Next is Kate’s mom Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen), who lets some of the skeletons out of Kate’s closet before dragging them to her church’s Christmas pageant, where the pair end up standing in for Mary and Joseph. Brad’s mom, Paula (Sissy Spacek), is the next stop; she’s agreeable enough, but Brad still hasn’t quite coped with the fact that she’s now married to his childhood friend. Last is Kate’s dad Creighton (Jon Voight), but by then, the wheels have pretty much come off the wagon.

This being a holiday comedy, it pretty much goes without saying that conflicts will arise and lessons will be learned, though it is to the credit of director Seth Gordon (who helmed the wonderful comic documentary The King of Kong) that the picture navigates into the serious territory fairly handily (Vaughn’s quiet front-porch scene with Duvall is subtly effective). The overqualified supporting cast is perhaps wasted in their brief roles, but all bring some nice character touches (I liked how Duvall has nicknamed Witherspoon’s Kate “Tiny,” and the ease of Voight’s brief performance). Surprisingly, the stand-out of the supporting players is not a marquee name—it’s Katy Mixon (best known as April on Eastbound & Down), who plays Denver’s cheerfully trashy wife Susan. Whether smashing their opponents in a game of Taboo (Susan: “This is the one person I can cheat on you with.” Denver: “John Grisham.”) or explaining away her son’s odd behavior (“When he gets to hurting inside and can’t use his emotion words, he takes to streaking”), she’s a scream.

Considering the reports of on-set friction between the stars, they are a surprisingly sharp on-screen comedy team; the picture’s opening fake-out is a good one, and their duet scenes have a nice, fast energy to them. Vaughn, however, is the film’s determining factor, comedy-wise; it’s a Vince Vaughn movie, and if you find him irresistibly funny (as I do), you’ll probably have at least a passably good time. Sure, he’s continuing to basically play himself in everything, but it’s a well-developed comic persona, and this story plays to his strength (reactive comedy). His interactions with Daryll, the friend-turned-stepdad, are priceless (he’s played by Patrick Van Horn, so when Favreau turns back up, it’s a little Swingers reunion), and his actorly analysis and stage preening as Joseph in the pageant are also quite funny (particularly his post-mortem comparison of himself to Celine Dion). He’s good throughout the picture, whether with a throwaway line (when Kate’s inquiry at the airport about tickets on a “sister airline” is rebuffed, he follows up: “Do you have a cousin airline? Maybe an airline that your airline’s felt up before?”) or a major comic sequence (like the failed installation of Howard’s satellite dish, which is a well-executed piece of Rube Goldbergian slapstick).

This is not to say that every comic beat plays; I would have no objection to a moratorium on the screen’s dirty grannies, and inappropriate, uncomfortable PDA is a comic well that the film visits too many times (and one time more in the deleted scenes). But Four Christmases is basically harmless—it’s fast-paced, thankfully short (it clocks in at under 90 minutes), frequently funny, and modestly heartwarming. It gets the job done.

A couple of months back, I found myself writing a favorable review of the panned Harold Ramis comedy Year One--well, at least it was favorable compared to the scathing notices that made up the bulk of that picture’s reviews. I can explain my affection for Four Christmases with no greater ease than I can my charity towards that film; all I can say is that Vince Vaughn makes me laugh, and I’ll forgive a lot of the movie’s flaws in light of the moments of comic pleasure it contains.

"Four Christmases" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, November 24th.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Previously on DVD Talk...

Most of the reviews I post here are cross-posts of the stuff I write for DVD Talk. However, in the interest of brevity and focus, I tend to just post the portion on the content of the disc here; the fuller versions on DVD Talk also include Audio/Video information and details on the Bonus Features. I try to link back to those later (particularly in the "Today's New DVDs feature"), but sometimes I miss them, or we get screening copies after the original release date. Soooo... here's a few of my recent DVD Talk reviews, along with the site's "Advice" rating (which goes from "Skip It" to "Rent It" to "Recommended" to "Highly Recommended" to "DVD Talk Collector's Series").

Heat (Blu-ray) (DVD Talk Collector's Series)
TCM Greatest Films Collection: Hitchcock Thrillers (Highly Recommended)
Food, Inc. (Highly Recommended)
Kevin Smith Three-Movie Collection (Recommended)
Rocky: The Undisputed Collection (Recommended)
The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) (Recommended)
The Answer Man (Recommended)
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis Play the Music of Ray Charles (Recommended)
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (Rent It)
The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter (Rent It)