In Adventure, Animation, Comedy, F, Family on August 8, 2010 at 8:37 pm

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTGeorge Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Chase Anderson, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson

DIRECTORWes Anderson

MPAA Rating: PG

When the nominees for the 81st Academy Awards were announced in January 2010, one of the Best Animated Feature picks was a movie I had not heard of. Directed by Wes Anderson, Fantastic Mr. Fox, released in November 2009, only managed to recoup about half of its reported $40 million budget in six months. Undaunted, I put it in my Queue, and waited for its arrival.

Based on the book by Roald Dahl (author of  “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), Fantastic Mr. Fox is the story of (naturally) a fox (voice of George Clooney) known for his reputation as a notorious bird thief. One day, he and his newlywed bride, Felicity (voice of Meryl Streep), get caught while stealing squab. At that moment, she tells him she’s pregnant, and she makes him promise that if they get out of this alive, he will find a new job. Fast-forward 12 (fox) years later, and Mr. Fox, Felicity, and their son Ash (voice of Jason Schwartzman) live in a nice, yet humble, hole in the ground. Mr. Fox, now a newspaper columnist, spots a tree for sale in the morning paper. Later that day, while viewing the property, he sees three farms in the distance. He consults his attorney, Mr. Badger (Bill Murray), who advises against the purchase because the owners of those farms are very dangerous men. Feeling the urge to steal again, he buys the tree anyway, moves his family in, and plots one last job: steal from the three farms.

A typical morning in the Fox household

Visually, Fantastic Mr. Fox is fun and stimulating. Director Wes Anderson doesn’t try to do any new tricks. Rather, he employs the old ones with cleverness and flare. There is one sequence, for example, in which Ash’s cousin, Kristofferson (voice of Eric Chase Anderson – Wes Anderson’s brother) is introduced to whack-bat, a sport which somewhat resembles cricket. According to the coach (voice of Owen Wilson):

“Basically, there’s three grabbers, three taggers, five twig runners, and a player at whack-bat. Center tagger lights a pine cone and chucks it over the basket and the whack-batter tries to hit the cedar stick off the cross rock. Then the twig runners dash back and forth until the pine cone burns out and the umpire calls hotbox. Finally, you count up however many score-downs it adds up to and divide that by nine.”

Kinda makes cricket look easier to understand, huh?

Another clever device in this movie  is the insertion of the word “cuss” in place of profanities. Adults will, for the most part, get the true meaning behind the “cussing” (for lack of a better term), while still making this movie safe for kids’ ears. There is some violence in this movie, including a few (off-screen) bird kills, some gunplay by the farmers, and more than a few pine cone grenades.

There is a subplot involving Ash and Kristofferson, to which many kids should easily relate. Kristofferson is Ash’s cousin from out-of-town, and though Kristofferson is younger than Ash, he is also taller, more athletic, more mature, and more sociable than Ash. At first, Kristofferson’s presence make Ash envious, particularly when Fox becomes very impressed with him. As the movie progresses, Ash learns how embrace his differences, while both finding his own identity and gaining his father’s acceptance.

There are a lot of good things to say about Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it is not without its flaws. I have said this before, and I will say again: for the most part, the voice talent sounds like they’re phoning it in. What projects of this nature need is personalities, not stars. If someone is both, like Bill Murray, great! Bring ’em on. But, through most of the movie, Clooney and Streep lacked the energy to hold my attention to the dialogue. I said the same thing when I wrote about Coraline (another stop-motion Best Animated Feature nominee). And when you have big-name stars who (for lack of a better term) don’t have any “spark” when they speak in person, then how could they work as voice actors in an animated movie? True, Fox is a bad-boy type, and Clooney suits him well. But to me, George Clooney’s voice is about as interesting as the sound of noodles boiling in water.

Overall, it is refreshing to see animation making strides like this, and without the Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks names hanging above them. Nothing against the work of those companies, but the more choices, the better the competition. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a good family film, suitable for children age 8 and up. It is visually inventive, and it includes an eclectic soundtrack which features (among others) Burl Ives, The Beach Boys, The Bobby Fuller Four, and The Rolling Stones. There are even two songs originally found in the Disney archives: “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, and “Love”, which was first used in Disney’s animated Robin Hood (By the way, in that film, Robin was – you guessed it – a fox). It may lack some necessary energy, but Fantastic Mr. Fox both tells a good story and teaches a valuable lesson about embracing our differences.

DR. NO (1962)

In Action, Crime, D, Motion Pictures on July 25, 2010 at 9:17 pm

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STUDIO – United Artists

CASTSean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord, Bernard Lee

DIRECTOR – Terence Toung

MPAA Rating: PG

In 1962, a phenomenon was born. Writer Ian Fleming had written a series of novels about a suave British spy, and Untied Artists (and later MGM) took up the mantle and delivered unto the masses a saga spanning a total of 22 movies (at least, officially, as of this writing) over the next 46 years. This ladies’ man has a penchant for baccarat, exotic locations, fast cars, and vodka martinis that are shaken (not stirred), and he always looks good no matter where he goes. These attributes, and more, are summed up in just three words:

Bond. James Bond.

In his first appearance in the role that would define him, his career, and the character he plays, Sean Connery stars as the newly-promoted 007, sent on an assignment in Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a colleague (and his secretary), who had failed to check in at his regularly-scheduled time. Upon his arrival, he suspects that someone was alerted to his presence. Later, he discovers that rock samples collected by the missing colleague at a nearby island called Crab Key were radioactive. So, with the assistance of CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), he makes for the mysterious island, which has a bauxite operation run by a man known only as Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman).

Honey Ryder and James Bond (Ursula Andress, Sean Connery) walk along the beach on Crab Key

As this is the first Bond movie in the official canon, it is also the most modestly-budgeted of the series, at a mere $1 million (or just over $7 million, after accounting for inflation). As a means of comparison, the last Bond movie, Quantum of Solace (2008)  had an estimated budget of $200 million. The beauty of this movie is that it doesn’t appear that way. For those who haven’t seen this movie yet, I will tell you this: There is no Q, and as a result, there are no gadgets. This is basically a tongue-in-cheek no-frills spy thriller, with Bond relying on only his training, his fighting skills, and his intellect to get the job done.

There are two things for which this movie is famous: Bond’s introduction to the world and Ursula Andress’ entrance. We first meet James Bond enjoying his favorite — okay, his second favorite — recreational activity, baccarat, only his back is turned to us. It just so happens his opponent is a lovely woman (Eunice Gayson) who loses hand after hand to him. Finally, she says to her crafty opponent “I admire your luck, Mr…”, at which time the camera cuts to our hero and he introduces himself in his signature style for the first time, in what is now one of the most famous lines in cinematic history. Later, on Dr. No’s island, Bond (and the rest of the world) watches as seashell collector Honey Ryder (Andress) walks ashore from the water with her latest acquisitions. Today, we would see it as a fairly innocent shot, but in 1962, it caused a sensation. According to one source, the shooting script noted that Honey was supposed to be in the nude (Of course, that wasn’t about to happen, but it’s a nice sentiment).

I had seen several movies in the James Bond series over the years, but this is the first time I watched the one that started it all. While some of the other movies provide great action sequences, others seem to have resorted to becoming caricatures of themselves, but I will visit those movies as I go along. Here, Dr. No is a well-paced straightforward action film, and a game-changing one at that. Throughout the movie, several sound effects and editing techniques were employed to hold the viewer’s attention, and Sean Connery’s witty and sophisticated take on the world’s favorite superspy helped to create a lot of buzz among the movie-going public.

It is also a safe assumption to say that the “action movie one-liner” was born with this movie, and it is even easier to see how another action star, who had followed a path similar to Sean Connery’s (military service, bodybuilding, then movies) was heavily influenced by him. I am, of course, talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Looking at Connery in his prime reminded me of some of Arnold’s more dialogue-heavy roles. The mannerisms, the deliveries, even their overall appearances are surprisingly similar. But I will get into that when I dig into the Governator’s body of work.

Dr. No makes for a worthy start to the Bond film franchise. It sets the table for what would become Bond staples (exotic locales, beautiful women, chase scenes, and a good dose of action), but its weakness is that it is a little too lean, in terms of production value. With some scenes that don’t make sense (Bond grinning maniacally as he’s being chased on a mountain road?), it is easy to see that it took a little time for this movie to find its footing. Usually, the first movie in a franchise, like the first season of a TV series, is a little “rough around the edges”, and Dr. No is no exception.

Still, Dr. No gives us a stripped-down, enjoyable movie, one that lays the foundation for the rest of the series, and it gives us the essence of Connery’s Bond, one which draws comparison to all the actors who would take on the role in the coming years.

3-1/2 (out of 5)


In Classic, Comedy, Motion Pictures, O on July 21, 2010 at 11:34 pm

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STUDIO – Paramount

CASTJack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Fiedler, Herb Edelman, Monica Evans, Carole Shelley

DIRECTOR – Gene Saks

MPAA Rating: G

I have a question: When you hear the term “great movie pairs”, who comes to mind? There are several possibilities. Astaire and Rogers. Martin and Lewis. Abbott and Costello. Laurel and Hardy. Hepburn and Tracy. Bogart and Bacall. The list goes on, but no list would be complete without Lemmon and Matthau. They made ten movies together, plus one more (Chaplin) in which they appeared in archive footage, but the pinnacle (and arguably the most famous) of this cinematic pairing took place in 1968, with The Odd Couple.

Walter Matthau stars as Oscar Madison,  a New York sports writer who can be best described in his own words: “divorced, broke, and sloppy”. His wife and kids moved to California months before, and his apartment is strewn with garbage, smells, and a very apparent lack of air conditioning. More, his proclivities to gambling and eating out have led to his alimony being late. Then, during his weekly poker game, he gets shocking news: His friend and colleague, news writer Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon), and his wife have broken up. Felix is an obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive, hypochondriac neat freak who has suddenly turned suicidal because his wife had kicked him out. When he finally shows up at Oscar’s apartment for the poker game, Oscar invites Felix to move in with him.

Oscar (Walter Matthau) comforts Felix (Jack Lemmon) after his wife kicked him out

Needless to say, you can already see the conflict in this one. These two men are polar opposites of each other, and the resulting living conditions within Oscar’s apartment are both vastly improved and desperately maddening at the same time! This comedy, crafted from the wily mind of one Neil Simon, has been a personal favorite of mine ever since I discovered it in the mid-1970s. This (along with MASH) was one of those cases of me liking a TV show, then discovering “They made a movie about it, too?” I remember watching it on TV for the first time, thinking “Wait a minute. This isn’t Jack Klugman and Tony Randall!” Then I learned the movie was older than the TV show, and that it was a play before that. Soon, it didn’t matter that the actors were different, because the two guys who were in the movie were really funny together! To this day, The Odd Couple remains on my so-called “short list” of favorite movies.

When I received my rented copy in the mail, I was shocked to learn this movie was (and still is) Rated G. I’m guessing that, because the then newly-formed MPAA was still trying to find itself, and that since there was no violence, excessive language, or nudity, it was deemed suitable for all audiences. Looking at The Odd Couple today, with its adult-related themes of gambling, divorce, and dating, I would be more inclined to modify this to a PG. And, with tobacco use becoming the latest subject of attack against the MPAA (something I personally don’t agree with), some may even go so far as PG-13. I do agree that smoking shouldn’t be in a G-rated film, and at least half the characters smoke in this movie. Mind you, I am not speaking out against tobacco use; if you smoke, that’s you’re prerogative. Just remember, attitudes have changed drastically since 1968, and I am sure they will change again over the next 42 years. But, I’m digressing, so let’s move on…

It was widely reported that Walter Matthau (who had played Oscar on Broadway) wanted to be Felix in the movie, because he wanted an acting challenge. Neil Simon’s reaction: Act somewhere else, be Oscar here. Personally, and this is nothing against his talent, but I cannot for the life of me imagine anyone else but Walter Matthau as Oscar. And the pairing with Jack Lemmon was nothing short of genius. Yes, they’d worked together previously in The Fortune Cookie, but this was the movie that sealed the deal in establishing Lemmon and Matthau as a team, which would also include The Front Page, the Grumpy Old Men movies, and even a sequel to this film, among others

The centerpiece of this movie is the scene following the would-be double-date between Oscar and Felix and their in-building neighbors, the Pigeon sisters (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley). Due to circumstances which will not be spoiled here, Felix bails out on the double-date, which upsets Oscar to the point that, the next day, they are not on speaking terms. What transpires is nearly two minutes of comic genius, without a single word spoken. Gutsy, yes, but even now, after seeing it for probably the 138th time (Sorry, in-joke), it still makes me laugh!

On the downside, the material is somewhat dated. Among the now-outmoded items mentioned in this movie include telegrams, milk bottles, and the AutoMat. There is even one scene which takes place at Shea Stadium, which was torn down after the New York Mets moved to Citi Field following the 2008 season. A dream of mine is to rewrite this movie to update it, but keep the story basically intact. Of course, to do that, I would need to a) write a screenplay of my own, b) get Neil Simon’s blessing, and c) get a studio to okay it. Until that day comes (or when the planets all align on the same side of the sun), I will be perfectly happy with the movie as it is.

The Odd Couple is far and away my favorite of Neil Simon’s work. Sharply written, perfectly cast, and funny from start to finish, this comedy classic takes a look at divorce in a such a way that few other movies have even glimpsed. This is a must-add to your Queue!

NOTE: There is a Special Features disk with this movie which is currently unavailable from Netflix. As soon as it does become available, I will rent it and write a follow-up here as soon as I can.

4 (out of 5)