Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Who thought that Wes Anderson, who's still early on in a career of mastering the human frontier, could suddenly switch to the world of animated animals so perfectly? "Fantastic Mr. Fox," for lack of a better word, is fantastic.
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is based off the book by the wildly imaginative Roald Dahl. Dahl's source material often makes for classic cinema (mainly, the original "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory"). The imaginative mind of Dahl is in good hands with the equally imaginative mind of Anderson.
For those not familiar with the book, the titular Mr. Fox (George Clooney) was a former chicken thief who retired his old profession after marrying Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and having their child, Ash (Jason Schwartzman).
After going through what could be described as a mid-life crisis, Mr. Fox gets back into his old stealing habits and incites the wrath of the three wicked farmers Bogus, Bunce, and Bean. After they threaten his home and family, Mr. Fox prepares to fight back.
As pointed out, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" comes from the brilliant mind of Wes Anderson. Anderson is well known for directing films such as "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," and "The Life Aquatic." For a film that follows around the lives of foxes, rats, and badgers, it is still completely Andersonesque. He accounts for every tiny detail. The cozy tree the foxes inhabit is alive with color, their furniture and their walls adorned with the most intricate decorations. You might also marvel at how a computer in the background is covered with post it notes, or how the walls of the deepest parts of the earth have fossils imprinted into them.
Anderson also leaves his mark with the music, which is a mixture of original score and rock music. What other director would use a Rolling Stones song in a family movie? The original score often perfectly matches the pleasant, agrarian landscape and during more suspenseful moments, takes on a spaghetti western feel.
The characters themselves also feel ripped out of previous Anderson films. Mr. Fox's mischievous behavior over family values can feel something like those of Royal Tenenbaum, and his struggle to find a real identity for himself can at times, make him seem like Max Fisher.
What's most important about Anderson's direction is that every frame seems filled with absolute love. Rather than record the voices and sound in a studio, Anderson instead decided to record out in a farm in Connecticut. This no doubt gives the film a much more natural feeling, rather than just feeling like another artificial studio product churned out in too short an amount of time.
Perhaps that's what makes this better than the typical, how real it feels; even the animals feel human. Also, the film manages to be so adult in both theme and humor despite being a children's film. The fact that the word "existentialism" is mentioned in it might give you an indication of it.
In this light, Anderson's adaptation of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" manages to turn this fairytale into an allegory of the human existence. At one point, Mr. Fox realizes that his days as a thief proved him to be a wild beast, and that he must settle down. The fact that he goes back to his old ways shows the wild, untamed beast that is the basis of our existence. Here, is the key to existentialism.
But I don't want to get into philosophy. After all, this is meant to be a fun story for the family, and at that it succeeds admirably.
For some reason, as I watched this film, I couldn't stop thinking of the other children's film made by a mature filmmaker this year: "Where the Wild Things Are." Both were experiments of whether their directors could reach to new audiences. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" wins in this experiment not just because its well filmed, not just because it has depth, but for one small reason alone: it's an amazingly fun time at the movies.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Movie Review: 2012

I picture Roland Emmerich, director of "2012," being something like Woody Harrelson's character in the film: standing on top of a mountain, and cheering as the world came to an end.
Yes, "2012" is what some might describe as "death porn" or "destructo-porn." It's a disaster film based on an old conspiracy that goes where so many disaster films before it have gone. It's a marvel of special effects, but an absolute disaster in story telling.
"2012" is based off the popular conspiracy that on December 21, 2012 the world will end because it's the very day the Mayan calendar ends. Hours of unnecessary footage on the History Channel have tried to take everything from history and put it together to convince us that it will happen.
Now, I'm not saying I didn't like "2012" because I don't subscribe to this whole theory. Let's take a look at the story to see what is actually wrong with it.
The film has multiple story lines. One involves the President of the United States (Danny Glover) and two scientists: one with good intentions (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and another with shadier intentions (Oliver Platt).
The most important story involves Jackson Curtis (John Cusack). Jackson is a divorced writer who must get his two kids, his ex-wife (Amanda Peet), and her annoying new husband (Tom McCarthy) to safety as the world crumbles. That seems nice, until you realize that it's the exact same plot of Spielberg's "War of the Worlds."
The rest of "2012" basically involves the audience watching the world get destroyed. The Los Angeles freeway collapses. The Vatican crushes an entire crowd. The White House is crushed by a giant tsunami. Yellowstone National Park turns into a giant volcano. This then goes on for another two-and-a-half hours. It's entertaining, and even a little enthralling at first. But after a while, you're just waiting for it all to end.
Don't get me wrong, I love a good, special-effects laden blockbuster. If done well, it can make for great cinema, and even greater entertainment. However, what prevents "2012" from the possibility of being good is Roland Emmerich. Emmerich you could say is obsessed with destruction, as he also directed "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow." It's a testament to how lazy "2012" is when you see that it has literally the exact same closing shot that "The Day After Tomorrow" had. That's right, Emmerich ripped off himself.
Anyway, Emmerich's problem is that he cares more about the spectacle, than the humanity. As a giant earthquake splits the earth in two, splitting streets and causing buildings to collapse, thousands of innocent people crash to their deaths. They are not seen as humans, but merely as small specs in the distance. Even when main characters die, nobody seems phased by it in the slightest bit. Perhaps most tastelessly, is when an entire office building filled with people collapses, but the only thing we're supposed to be paying attention to is that the family got away safely in a jet. How can we cheer for one person, when everyone else around them is dying? Quite ironic for a film that preaches to remain humane in dire times.
For films like this, one should leave the idea of reality at the door. Good movies can suspend your disbelief from reality, but bad movies make you wish they had a little reality injected into them. How is it that Jackson and his family can narrowly escape death that easily? Not to mention, most of what is passed off as sound science in this film is completely wrong.
Possibly the one redeeming aspect of "2012" is Woody Harrelson's hilarious performance as an apocalypse-loving DJ. Seriously, this man can make eating a pickle seem funny. Most importantly, Harrelson looked like he was having a good time. Too bad no one else in the cast was.
Emmerich not only directed the film, he also co-wrote it. And what an awfully written screenplay it is. It's filled with so many inconsistencies and gigantic plot holes. Not to mention, it also makes the main character incredibly unlikable. I know that some people in life are bad people, but shouldn't the guy we're rooting for be at least a little bit nice. He can't even obey a clear "No Trespassing" sign.
I'd like to say that despite the flaws "2012" is nonetheless a good, entertaining time at the movies. It is, for about an hour and a half. The rest is dull and often laughable. The viewer can never really enjoy any of the film's thrill's because of how much is happening at once. Emmerich can't decide which way the world should end and therefore decides to gives us every possibility. "2012" might've been more enjoyable if it paced itself better.
Maybe the worst part of "2012" is the sense of smug superiority that it gives off; it believes itself to be much more intelligent that it actually is. At one point, the last survivors on earth board a life-saving ship known as the Ark. There's also a character named Noah on it. Coincidence?
I hate to call a film sadistic, but "2012" truly is, as it is not a celebration of life and survival, but rather a film that enjoys at the destruction of a planet and the loss of life. You're bound to have a more entertaining time looking at the crazy 2012 theories online, then spending $10 on this film.
Better Apocalyptic/Disaster Thrillers: Children of Men, War of the Worlds, Zombieland, Jaws, Akira, 12 Monkeys, Wall-E, Planet of the Apes, Titanic

Friday, November 6, 2009

Movie Review: Gangs of New York

Of all of the stunning images from "Gangs of New York," one that sticks out is a shot that starts off on street level, and continues to go higher and higher until the 19th Century style buildings become the shape of the island of Manhattan. Here is a city that, over the years, I've grown to know and love. Here it is, in a form like we've never seen before.
"Gangs of New York" is Martin Scorsese's latest vision of the mean streets of his beloved New York. However, it takes place 100 years before the days of "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver," during Civil War ravished America.
The film starts off during a vicious gang war in 1848. Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the son of respected Irish immigrant Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). On the opposite side is Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Bill is the glass-eyed son of a Revolutionary War soldier who gushes with patriotism. He's known as The Butcher not just for his day job, but for his weapon of choice.
As tensions rise between the Irish and the so-called 'Natives,' Bill murders Priest. Many years later, Amsterdam returns to a corrupt, Boss Tweed ruled Five Points and seeks revenge.
"Gangs of New York" shows Scorsese's recent fascination with American culture wars, as this film can be seen as something of a counterpart to his recent "The Departed." However, this film explores the roots of American diversity. It's about the earliest days of bigotry, much of it rising from immigration. In a way, much of the situations and dialogue sound frighteningly similar to the current national conversation on immigration.
Adding on to this is the near accurate version of history portrayed. While Hollywood will often portray history through a myopic lens of clean precision, Scorsese takes no shame in showing the filth, the blood, and the anger that shaped this era. Extra special attention is paid to the stunning sets. At times, it can distract from actual plot depth, but it definitely helps raise the story's level of believability.
Of course Scorsese's direction is excellent, but what stands out most is Day-Lewis' performance as Bill the Butcher. He is truly the best actor of this generation, and the carrier of the method torch. He steps into the character and makes him both a blood-thirsty savage and a patriot feeling betrayed by a country he helped defend. He may be racist, but his feelings can be understood. Not to mention, all he has to do is sharpen a knife, or just squint his eyes to become the most intimidating presence in the film. He basically steals all chance for any other actor in the film to shine.
Now, back to Scorsese. What makes Scorsese one of the great directors of cinema is that he knows how to handle violence better than any other director. Of all of his films, "Gangs of New York" may be his bloodiest. While most directors might show someone being stabbed and barely show the consequences, Scorsese slows things down and allows us to see the horrible, dehumanizing consequences of each kill. Later, after another major battle, the cobblestone streets turn into a red river. To Scorsese, violence isn't something to cheer on or admire, but rather something to be sickened by. Meanwhile, the aerial shots of the war dead are reminiscent of the sprawling images of the dead in "Gone with the Wind."
Upon its release, "Gangs of New York" divided audiences right down the middle. I believe it is a minor masterpiece; it doesn't reach "Goodfellas" or "Raging Bull" heights, but its certainly no sign of a Scorsese downfall either. The film runs over two and a half hours yet races by as Scorsese explores his favorite themes of honor, religion, and family. Like in any Scorsese film, the backdrop, cinematography, editing, and score of "Gangs of New York" is extremely well detailed and masterful. They portray the chaos of the era in the same way that each room in "Goodfellas" distinguished when exactly Henry was doing well or doing poorly. And while some have criticized that too much is covered at once, it all serves to cover the chaos.
Part of the problem could be in the story itself. While Scorsese at first creates the interesting idea that while Bill hated Priest, he had a deep respect for him. Once the conflict between Bill and Amsterdam arises that inexplicably seems to disappear from the film together with little explanation. Many scenes also seem pulled right out of the revenge film playbook. For example, the scene where Amsterdam saves Bill's life so he can later murder Bill himself is pulled straight from "Once Upon a Time in the West." A little clarification is never a bad thing.
But, these are just minor flaws. Overall, "Gangs of New York" exceeds its epic counterparts (mainly "300") in creating a vision of the past that's exciting and fascinating without actually losing a grip on the history part. It's a beautifully made history lesson about the birth of a nation and a bitter love letter to a city that spawned one of the greatest directors of all time.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Movie Review: Zombieland

There is a little, important secret of horror filmmaking I've been picking up on lately. That little secret is that less is more, that what we don't see is scarier than what we actually do see. Even though much blood and guts is spilled in "Zombieland," much is still left up to the imagination. This helps keep the film from being wannabe shlock to a totally satisfying horror satire.
"Zombieland" takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth, long after a virus has turned most humans into cannibalistic zombies. The world has now become a Darwinian society, where all you need are a few basic skills to get by. One of those people lucky enough are Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg). Columbus is a scrawny, awkward college student who manages to get by unscathed because he's so used to loneliness.
While trying to reach his parents in Ohio, Columbus meets the tough, potty-mouthed, yet ultimately tender Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). As they head east, they meet two con women: Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). The rest of the plot mainly consists of them traveling cross country, searching for safe haven as Columbus begins to fall for Wichita.
As you'll notice, each character is named after a different city. They each name themselves after the destination they are headed to, whether it still exists or not out of confidentiality reasons. It seems kind of ironic that they want their names to be secret though, as they end up becoming something of a family in the end.
In my introduction, I made the film seem like too much of a pure horror film. That, it isn't. I only felt frightened at a few moments in the film, but then again, "Zombieland" was meant to be a satire, and not a horror film. That doesn't mean it's not directed like a good horror film though. Take the convenience store scene. The most brutal death involves Tallahassee, a zombie, and a pair of hedge trimmers. We don't see what exactly the trimmers do, but we do see them slide across the floor, covered in blood. It's inferring what happened, rather than actually seeing what happened, that challenges the viewer, builds suspense, and just makes it even creepier to ponder. However, "Zombieland" does show us a good amount of graphic blood and guts. However it's much more sparse than you might imagine, and it mainly happens at the way beginning. It's almost like director Rubin Fleischer's way of saying "there's the gore. Happy now? Can we just move on?"
I can't forget that "Zombieland" is first and foremost a satire. Unfortunately, I'm not well-versed enough in the zombie genre to say whether or not "Zombieland" effectively both pokes fun and pays tribute to the popular genre. However, the film may also be a satire of the horror genre in general (I picked up a reference to the banjo scene in "Deliverance"). I could spot even smaller possible satirical spots. Some of them could even be the more predictable moments of the film, possibly mocking how formulaic the genre has become.
The humor of "Zombieland" is buoyed by its two central performances. While it might be cool at this point to bash Eisenberg for playing the same character he played in "The Squid and the Whale" and "Adventureland" I'm going to go against the tide and say he gave a good performance because I like him and well, if someone is good at playing a certain personality, why shouldn't they be allowed to keep playing it?
Mainly, Harrelson's performance as Tallahassee steals the show. The writers give him a few great lines ("That'll do, pig"), and he does such a great job at delivering each one. Harrelson plays Tallahassee slightly like Mickey from "Natural Born Killers," if Mickey had a soft spot and a love for Twinkies.
Stone doesn't bring a huge amount to the table, but she doesn't really detract from the story at all either. Breslin, however, does a great job with the material. After this and "Little Miss Sunshine," she proves that she can handle more adult material better than most girls under 18 [Editor's Note: Let's say for example, Hannah Montana, who'd I'd love to see be eaten by zombies]. The film also includes an extremely random, yet hilariously and even refreshing cameo. I dare not give it away here; I don't want to ruin the fun for you.
"Zombieland" isn't perfect. It's short and it isn't the first zombie satire ever made (there's also "Shaun of the Dead" which, for the record, I still haven't seen). But why did I like it so much? Mainly, its 81 minutes of pure, blissful, escapism. It's the kind of escapism that will draw you out of reality and further and further into the world of movies. This isn't a Seltzer-Friedberg satire, it's the kind that has a deep knowledge, and even a deep respect, for the subject its consistently mocking. Not only that, but it stands as a comedy in its own right, with its own, original jokes, as well.

Monday, November 2, 2009

On A Second Viewing: A Serious Man

Warning: May contain some brief, spoiler-ish details. Proceed with caution.
After I first saw "A Serious Man," I knew I liked it. I mean, how could I not like a film by the Coen Brothers?
However, there were a few things still bothering me. Well, mainly, it was that ending. Abrupt endings can be annoying, but I never hate them. All they involve is mulling over, and extra viewings. This was the case for "A History of Violence" and "No Country for Old Men." It was also the case for "A Serious Man."
But let me backtrack, so you can see the ending for yourself. I'm going to backtrack all the way to the beginning, to the mystery of the dybbuk. The Coen Brothers have repeatedly said that this story has no meaning, but I believe that there is something in there. There are three possible theories to this scene:
1) The couple were Larry's ancestors. Stabbing the dybbuk unleashed a centuries long family curse.
2) The man was not really a dybbuk. His unfortunate death mirrors Larry's struggle of how bad things always seem to happen to those who just try and commit mitzvahs.
3) It's both. Or neither.
It could be any of those answers. But the more I think about it, the more I believe it is the last one. That's the one that breaks the lock, and provides that any answer be correct. In the end, the dybbuk walks out into the snow. The Coen Brothers never show us whether or not he died or just kept on into the night, getting ready to haunt more unsuspecting citizens. What this scene truly does is act as a mini movie in preparing us on what is to come. "A Serious Man" will not be like the typical film that provides you with answers. Here's one where you'll have to come up with the answers on your own. And it won't be easy.
A technique the Coen Brothers use constantly throughout their films is repetition. One line repeated in this film is Larry's insistence, "I haven't done anything!" And this here, is the point of the film. Why is Larry suffering? True, he hasn't done anything wrong, but he hasn't done anything right.
One of the many things I got out of the film a second time around is just how deeply funny it is. The humor doesn't always lie in one-liners, it lies mainly within the situations. There are many instances where you shouldn't be laughing, but you do anyways. Will you feel bad for laughing at some of Larry's ridiculous misfortunes? Then again, the film does tell us in the very first shot to take every minute with "utmost simplicity."
In my first review, I gave praise to the film's three leading men, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, and Fred Melamed, but not as much praise as they deserve. While Kind was cast as the annoying relative he always plays, he manages to still make him as atypical as possible. Meanwhile, Melamed seems like a lock for best supporting actor as Sy Ableman. He is (if I'm reading the film right) the serious man of the title. And he plays Sy that way, portraying him with utmost scrutiny. He commands every shot he is in, taking it over, moving around characters by his own wishes and just carrying this feeling that he knows everything.
Then of course, there's the other Oscar lock, of Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnick. This is Stuhlbarg's first big leading role, but he takes it like a pro. In the scene where Larry's wife discusses a divorce, his pitch goes up to a high, whiny voice; giving Larry an almost lovable childlike ignorance.
The Coen Brothers are famous for emphasizing their characters' quirks. Stuhlbarg basically does that for them, as he gives Larry a sort of chicken walk, especially in the scene where he waddles across his look, getting a peak at the forbidden temptation that lies just over a small white picket fence.
While that serious man in the title could refer to either Sy or Larry, there is yet another important (soon to be) man in the mix: Danny Gopnick (Aaron Wolff). He lives a life opposite of his father, only caring about smoking joints and watching "F-Troop" rather than trying to be a mature, serious man. However, he, like every character, eventually faces just consequences for their poor actions.
A large controversy I've discussed with many people about this film is what kind of audience it was meant for. The idea that only a Jew could appreciate it is one I am beginning to find quite unfair. Just because I wasn't raised Catholic, does that mean I can't be stunned by the christening scene in "The Godfather?" Just because I'm not Italian, does that not mean I can't be entertained by the wedding in "Goodfellas?" While maybe only those who were born Jewish will understand the anxiety of preparing to have a Bar Mitzvah, the Coen Brothers opened up a door to the Jewish culture. They are inviting you to stay and look around.
Now, there's one point from my last review I'd like to correct. In my previous review, I seemed to stick to the theory that Larry's story was a reflection of the story of Job. Well, it's only half that. The other half is the possibility that Larry's story reflects existentialism, rather than the existence of God. Larry's miseries could be a test from God. Or they could just simply be life's plan for him, and there's nothing he can do about it (this scene reflects this idea).
Also in the mix, you could see Larry as a 1960s Jewish version of Hamlet; a man spending too much time overthinking life and trying to avoid a situation that simply cannot be avoided. He could even be a figure straight out of a Kafka* story: a good man who is so overburdened by a world that demands too much responsibility out of him.
It's simply possible that "A Serious Man" is every single one of these ideas. Or none of them. This makes the film a sort of "choose your own adventure" like story but this time, you have to choose your own theme. The Coen Brothers have thus constructed the rare film that's a totally different experience to each and every member. Yep, the way a film should be.
But maybe the Coen Brothers, who are the absolute masters of trickery, are just leading us into a giant trap. They awaited as critics and audience members alike overanalyzed every aspect of the film to death when they were missing the film's real point: the danger of overanalysis. In the film, we learn in the end that the mystery of the goy's teeth is solved once the dentist forgets about it. Perhaps Larry's problems would have been nothing to him if he just, took a deep breath and forgot about them for a while.
So for now, I'm not going to fall for the trick. I leave the rest of the interpretations up to you.
*Tip for Aspiring Writers: A Kafka namedrop always makes you look smarter.
For further reference, here are a few great articles about the film:
I know I've written a lot here, but I still didn't even get to touch on Larry's neighbors, physics, respecting privacy, the wisdom of youth, and the film's representation of connections within the Jewish community. Oh well, it doesn't look like this is the last time you'll be hearing about "A Serious Man." Until then, I want you all to take a few minutes and enjoy one of the most meaningful parts of the film: the power of "Somebody to Love":