November 8, 2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats (11/08/2009)

Lettergrade: C-

George Clooney and Jeff Bridges give brilliant comedic performances in The Men Who Stare At Goats. Everything else about the movie is a little unremarkable. I was thinking I might give the picture a mild recommendation, but have since discovered that a great dislike for the film exists on the internet, and that my wife seemed to think it was sorta thin on quality too. Recognizing that my judgement isn't always crystal clear where comedies starring actors that I already like are concerned, I will adjust my thoughts ever so slightly in order to acknowledge that my vaguely positive feelings about the flick seem to be out of touch with the general public.

Ewan McGregor plays a reporter from Michigan (albeit with a vaguely Scottish accent) who leaves to cover the early phase of the current Iraq war after his wife leaves him for another guy. He promptly meets Clooney, a twitchy fucker if ever there was one, who eventually reveals that he once was (and may still be) part of a special division of the U.S. Armed Services called the "New Earth Army," a new-ageish unit created in the sixties with the intent of developing soldiers' psychic ability. In theory, these guys would use their ESP to spy on (or "remote view") enemies of the United States, they would have the ability to pass through walls, and a select few could, you guessed it, stare at goats and be able to stop their hearts, and / or provide the film with a title.

Clooney claims to be on a secret mission in Iraq, and McGregor tags along, thinking he's gotten his big story. He slowly learns about the group's history along the way courtesy of a series of well-themed flashbacks. A big problem I spotted almost immediately is that the flashback material is infinitely more interesting than most of what happens in the film's present. Additionally, the flashbacks are so lengthy and there are so many of them that more than once I sort of forgot that there was another story line going on.

Members of the New Earth Army call themselves Jedi warriors. On what feels like 30 or 40 occasions, Clooney accuses McGregor of not knowing anything about being a Jedi, and then the picture immediately cuts to the slack-jawed Star Wars actor looking nonplussed, a pause which I imagine the filmmakers built-in to allow for all the riotous laughter that would fill the theater each and every time the reference was made. Around the 15th or 16th time they did the joke, I became convinced that McGregor was only cast for the sake of making that one joke work. Sadly, I'd probably have trouble even remembering that he was in the movie otherwise, as I do with the underused Kevin Spacey, who plays one of Clooney's rivals.

Generally speaking, Clooney picks excellent movies to be a part of, provided, of course, that the word "Ocean's" doesn't appear in the title. He is indeed wonderful in the lead role here, but it is yet another movie where he is trading on his image as a heart-throb by playing a dorky guy with a poor sense of fashion. The thing is, though, that his film roles have been in an almost constant state of self-parody lately. Burn After Reading, Leatherheads, Intolerable Cruelty... When he actually plays with his type, as he did so well in Syriana and Michael Clayton, it's almost like the sighting of a rare white elk. Remember when it used to be a novel thing for Robert DeNiro to show up in a comedy? It was a rare treat that resulted in wonderful surprises like Midnight Run and Wag The Dog. His recent resumé, however, is littered with junk like Analyze This!, The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle, and of course, the Meet The Fuckers movies. Clooney hasn't been slumming like that, but it'd probably be wise for him to do a few more dramas before returning to this kind of material.

Goats was directed by Grant Heslov, who had a lengthy career as a bit part actor before becoming Clooney's producing partner, leading to him co-writing and producing Good Night And Good Luck with Clooney and doing the same on last year's highly disappointing Leatherheads. This picture is Heslov's debut as a director. He was able to use his Clooney connections to assemble an amazing cast, and he seems to have a good sense of how to stage highly amusing scenes that make good use of everyone's talent. Nevertheless, the individual moments that do work fail to coalesce into an overall picture that does the same, and therein is the real trick to solid directing: Seeing the picture as a whole, and recognizing a story with little to no pay off when you see it.

It's one of those movies that has a big ending that kind of postures itself in a faux feel-good way as being about liberation and believing in oneself, however misguided you may be. With most of those movies, however, as with this one, if you think about it for a moment, you realize that these are often wafer-thin, Hallmarky endings that don't make a lick of sense.

I'd say that it's an alright way to pass the time if you're stuck on an airplane or it happens to be on cable, but otherwise, you shouldn't really go out of your way to catch it.

November 7, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox (11/07/2009)

Lettergrade: A-

A remarkable thing about Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson's excellent stop motion adaptation of the Roald Dahl story of the same name, is that the style and attitude are very consistent with Anderson's live action movies. In fact, I'd probably grade it a bit higher than his last two, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, both of which I felt lacked the heart and relatability of his earlier work. I give this one huge points for its style as well as for content. All of Anderson's trademark elements are here: The affinity for randomness, the adroit use of music, the uncomfortable close-ups, the lengthy wide shots in which the camera doesn't move, but the frame bustles with activity... Somehow, everything blends into a smooth cocktail that feels strangely familiar, and yet very unique and exciting at the same time.

A good comparison can be made between Fox and Spike Jonze's recent Where The Wild Things Are. Both are adaptations of beloved children books, made by established directors with highly distinctive styles. Both guys, who each happened to turn 40 this year, seemingly set out to make pictures in a slightly retroactive idiom that would appeal to their peers as much as to children, complete with killer soundtrack albums for each.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) was a master chicken thief back in the day, but decided to give it all up for a relatively mundane lifestyle upon learning that his wife, voiced by Meryl Streep, was expecting. After a few years, Mr. Fox gets antsy and decides to slip back into his old profession, only this time he ups the ante by taking on three particularly cruel local farmers. Through his overzealousness and boastful nature, Mr. Fox brings down the wrath of Boggis, Bunce and Bean in a way that threatens the entire animal community (kinda like a traditional Bugs Bunny / Elmer Fudd story on HGH).

The several voices from Anderson's usual acting troupe round out the cast, including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwarzman, and from Life Aquatic, Michael Gambon and Willem Dafoe. Anderson was reportedly obsessed with recording the dialogue in groups and on-location (as opposed to the normal technique of recording each actor separately in a studio). The result is that no one in the vocal cast over-does it: The character interactions are natural and under-stated, and the recordings have an interesting quality in and of themselves. When Mr. Fox and his family are trapped in an attic, for example, Anderson stuck his cast in an enclosed, reverberant space as well, giving the audio an unusual vibe that no Pro Tools plug-in could replicate.

After story-boarding the movie extensively, Anderson apparently spent little time on the actual set itself, leading to a very public feud earlier this year with the film's cinematographer, Tristian Oliver, over how involved Anderson really was with the finished picture. I tend to side with Anderson on the matter: Many of the film's creative decisions bear his unusual signature leading me to suspect that he was indeed involved in many of the key details. Whether those decisions were made by Anderson himself or by someone attempting to imagine what Anderson would do based on his other pictures, however, I do not know.

This is an odd statement to make about a kiddie flick like this, but at times I found myself almost forgetting that it was animated in a weird sort of way. The great vocal performances as well as the vintage songs by Burl Ives and The Beach Boys in additional to the fantastic score by Alexandre Desplat just helped everything to feel sorta real after a while.

Putting on a more critical hat, the last third is plagued by some pacing issues (mostly in that it was starting to feel a bit sluggish before the big finale), and sometimes the bad guys come off as a little too theatrically evil. Additionally, I am probably hardwired to believe that some kind of moral lesson is imbued within the story that should be clear by the time the end credits roll. Mr. Fox is a remarkably self-centered dude early in the movie, not giving much regard to how his actions will affect his family and neighbors. I don't want to give much away here, but by the end of picture, it feels that while Fox might be a little nicer to everyone, he hasn't really picked up much wisdom along the way.

While watching the rerelease of Toy Story last month, I remember thinking what a shame it is that there hasn't been a sophisticated animated picture in a while that appeals to adults while not resorting to cheap lowest common denominator shit like big goofy faces, unmotivated flatulence, and Smash Mouth songs in order to keep the kids interested. And yet, here one is. In many ways, Fantastic Mr. Fox is exactly the kind of movie I've been wanting to see for several years now.