REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Archive for the ‘Adventure’ Category

FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009)

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.

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AVATAR (2009)

In A, Action, Adventure, Epic, Motion Pictures, Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on July 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSam Worthington, Sigourney WeaverZoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, Wes Studi

DIRECTORJames Cameron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Following the success of Titanic, James Cameron took some time off from making movies. Oh, he produced an IMAX documentary about the doomed ocean liner, but when it came to his next dramatic film, he had an idea which he claimed would be ground-breaking. It would take place on a mysterious forest planet called Pandora, made with as-yet invented technologies in CGI and motion capture. It promised to be more expensive than Titanic, take years to complete, and it would do it all in 3-D. Finally, in December 2009, Avatar bowed. It was everything Cameron said it would be, and it eventually shattered box office records.

Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine veteran recruited to replace his late twin brother Tom, a scientist, on Pandora, a lush moon orbiting a gas giant light-years from Earth. On Pandora, a major corporation has set up a mining operation for a substance called unobtanium. But the indigenous population, a ten-foot tall humanoid species called the Na’vi, are intent on protecting their home, so a paramilitary defense presence, headed by Colonel Quatrich (Stepen Lang) is required. To provide a more diplomatic solution, exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called “avatars”, which are “driven” via mnemonic transfer, in order to interact with the Na’vi more easily. Despite Augustine’s protests (she wanted a PhD and not a grunt), Jake becomes part of the team.

Jake Sully and Norm Spellman (Sam Worthington, Joel David Moore) on their first expedition in their avatar bodies

Now, just in case you are among the dozen or so people left on this planet who have yet to see this movie, I will stop here. Avatar is one of those movies that, no matter what you have heard about it, needs to be seen to believed. James Cameron spent over a decade developing this movie, and it shows. Visually, this is among most striking motion pictures ever released. It was filmed in 3-D from the word “Go”, but even in 2-D, it is a visual feast for the eyes. I had seen this movie in 3-D when it was released in December 2009, and I can tell you that there are few “3-D gimmicks” in the movie. This allows for fairly easy translation into the 2-D world upon which many of us still rely in our home entertainment systems. The CGI and motion-capture effects are so photorealistic, that it’s difficult to tell the difference between a physical set and a virtual one, even when you know which one you’re looking at.

True, James Cameron makes an eye-popping movie nearly every time out of the gate. His philosophy is that visual effects should enhance the story, not drive it. Here, however, the visual effects do both, but in such a way as to not be obvious. Does this mean it’s “the perfect movie”? No. There are flaws, some obvious, some subtle. For example, for a screenwriter, James Cameron is an excellent director. While the screenplay in this movie exceeds that of Titanic by leaps and bounds, it still has a few rough spots to stumble through in the telling of this story. For example, when Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Sully’s avatar, her first instinct is to kill him (he is, after all, the enemy), but because of a “sign” from Eywa (the Na’vi deity), she takes him to her peoples’ village, instead. Overall, it was handled all right, but I feel this could’ve been written better.

Another weak point I noticed right away in this movie is its similarities with Dances With Wolves. Both feature a military man learning the culture of the indigenous people. Both have a romantic subplot between the military man and a prominent native woman (in the case of Dances With Wolves, she was a white woman adopted by the Sioux). Both have the military questioning the central character’s loyalties. And both feature Wes Studi (He was the “angry Pawnee” in Dances With Wolves, and in Avatar, he is the Na’vi leader and Neytiri’s father). These similarities were pointed out, by the way, prior to Avatar‘s release in this “South Park” episode (Caution: NSFW).

And what about the mining operation? I’m fairly certain more than a few people let out a snicker or two when they heard that the substance in question was called “unobtanium”. Well, as it turns out, as silly the name of this stuff is, this is not the first movie which uses the term (It was also used in 2003’s The Core). And it is based on the engineering term “unobtainium“, which was first coined in the 1950s. In Avatar, it’s a metallic grey substance that fetches “20 million a kilo”, and the largest deposit of it sits underneath the Na’vi village, known as Home Tree. Again, silly name, but it fits.

There has also been a recent “3-D backlash” of sorts because of this movie. Several movies this year which were released in 3-D, including Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and The Last Airbender, suffered from critical and popular derision, because these were originally regular (2-D) movies which were converted to 3-D in post-production. Interestingly enough, the 2-D versions of these movies fared better. These are just a few of the many cases of Hollywood trying to capitalize on a trend based on one very successful movie, and charging a higher admission for people to see it. But if too many of these “bad 3-D” movies come out, people will refuse to see all 3-D movies, even ones intended to be in 3-D, like Avatar. Are you listening, Hollywood? By changing the movie to take advantage of a trend, you are changing the director’s vision. Remember when you converted Gone With the Wind to CinemaScope in the 1960s? Yeah, that went over really well, too…

Avatar is a visual and aural feast, to be digested over and over. Even though it comes thisclose to being “Dances With Wolves in space”, it is still a ground-breaking motion picture, and one of the best science-fiction films to come along in years.

4 (out of 5)

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)

In Action, Adventure, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, Epic, History, M, Motion Pictures on June 21, 2010 at 1:51 am

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STUDIO – MGM

CASTCharles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Bill Bambridge, Movita

DIRECTOR – Frank Lloyd

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In April 1789, the HMS Bounty set sail from Tahiti to the West Indies to transport hundreds of breadfruit tree saplings, in order to provide a cheap and readily available food supply for slave laborers there. She never arrived. The next year, the Bounty‘s commanding officer, Lt. William Bligh, returned to England to report that he had been set adrift in a mutiny led by his sailing master, Fletcher Christian. This wasn’t the first mutiny in the British Royal Navy, nor was it the last, but it is the most infamous, inspiring poems, novels, songs, and of course, movies. With that, I wish to introduce to you the Best Picture of 1935, Mutiny On the Bounty.

Based on the novel of the same name by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, Mutiny On the Bounty is a fictionalized account of the events that took place on the ship’s fateful voyage from England to Tahiti. Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) is tasked with procuring the breadfruit trees because of his familiarity with the people and customs of Tahiti (It should be noted that, regardless of rank, all ship commanders are called “captain”). His sailing master, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable, sans his trademark mustache), was in charge of carrying out the captain’s orders, morale, and the occasional midshipman training. One of those midshipmen was Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), whose assignment was to prepare a dictionary of the Polynesian language. It is through his eyes this story unfolds.

Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) reacts to being called a "mutinous dog" by Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton)

Right away, Byam notices that Bligh is strict disciplinarian, even to the point of carrying out his portion of a punishment known as “flogging through the fleet” upon a dead prisoner. Once at sea, the Bounty tries for Tahiti by way of South America, but turns eastward through the Indian Ocean instead. Meanwhile, Bligh oppresses the crew further by inflicting punishment at whim, including one sailor getting keel-hauled (He dies). Meanwhile, Christian tries to provide a more lenient approach toward the crew, only to have Bligh bear down even more. Finally, their conflict becomes personal, when Bligh forces Christian to sign a falsified log book in front of the crew. Once at Tahiti, things seem to relax momentarily, until Bligh bears down even more harshly, and… well, you only need to look at the title to know what happened next.

Mutiny On the Bounty is an excellent example of Hollywood starting to come of age. From the moment the movie fades in, a sweeping dramatic score sets you up for a tale of truly epic proportions: You, the viewer, are about to bear witness to one of most notorious events in maritime history. From a technical standpoint, nearly everything stands out in this movie. The settings, the cinematography, even the sound quality all hold up very well. From a performance standpoint, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone were quite memorable. In fact, all three were nominated for Best Actor (At the time, there were no Supporting categories. If they had existed, Franchot Tone would likely have received a nomination).

Oh, there are some inaccuracies, as happens with many historical dramas. For example, the actual mutiny was really relatively uneventful in comparison with the movie, keel-hauling was nearly non-existent in the 1780s, and Bligh did not attend any of the mutineers’ courts-martial (He was at sea). But the most telling inaccuracy is Gable’s voice. I say this in mild jest, as Gable seemed incapable of producing an English accent, while Tone fared somewhat better, and Shakespearean-trained Laughton was from Yorkshire, England. I seem to recall another more recent movie, in which an American actor played a legendary English character without an English accent. Fortunately, Gable’s performance was strong enough that we can forgive this transgression.

There are a couple of special features on the DVD. First is a brief clip from the Academy Awards ceremony in 1936, in which legendary producer Irving G. Thalberg accepted the Best Picture Oscar and gave his thanks to the cast and crew of the movie. And there is also a short about Pitcairn Island, the Bounty mutineers’ final destination, which shows how their descendants live in the film’s present day of 1935.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Mutiny On the Bounty is the last movie to win only the Best Picture Award. It is also the third (and last) Best Picture winner produced or co-produced by Thalberg (Grand Hotel and The Broadway Melody were the others). Though not the first movie to test the waters (pun not intended) of historical dramas, Mutiny On the Bounty stands out as a defining moment when the Hollywood Dream Factory finally figured out a way to hone their product and sell it to the masses. With performances nearly as strong as the film itself, it set a new standard in motion pictures (to be eclipsed a few years later by a little-known movie called Gone with the Wind). I recommend this movie as a good place to start for those interested in pre-1940s motion pictures.

4 (out of 5)

OUT OF AFRICA (1985)

In Adventure, Best Picture Winners, Drama, Motion Pictures, O, Romance on March 30, 2010 at 12:31 am

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STUDIO — Universal 

CAST — Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Michael Kitchen, Iman 

DIRECTOR —  Sydney Pollack 

MPAA Rating: PG 

In the summer of 1986, I was a strapping young lad of 21, stationed at Camp Red Cloud, in Uijongbu, South Korea. I had a girlfriend at the time named Lynda; she was also in the Army. One day, we were walking by the AAFES (Army and Air Force Exchange Services) movie theatre on post, when I noticed that Out of Africa was playing. I had heard it just won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, so I suggested to Lynda we go see it. To this day, Out of Africa remains as the only motion picture I had paid to see in a cinema which made me fall asleep. 

Naturally, one can understand my resistance to screen this movie again. But it was placed on my Request List, and I figured it was better to get it over with early on. Well, after watching it again with fresh eyes (and staying awake through the whole thing), I came away with a somewhat surprising opinion of this movie: It’s not as bad as I remember! 

Okay, hear me out. My memories of seeing it in Korea were those of disappointment, to say the least. Visually, Out of Africa is stunning, but the story had about as much “oomph” in it as an Andy Disk right hook. But today, I am different man than I was then. I am more open-minded, wiser, and more… seasoned. And on that note, let’s get into how I see Out of Africa today. 

Karen (Meryl Streep) entertains Denys (Robert Redford) at dinner

The movie stretches over many years, beginning in 1913, when a young Danish lady named Karen (Meryl Streep, in one of her myriad Oscar-nominated roles) enters into a relationship with a Swedish gentleman, Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). He brings her to Kenya, marries her, and they settle onto a nice, large plot of land for their cattle ranch coffee plantation. It quickly becomes a loveless marriage, and Karen is left in charge of the property, while her husband traipses around the far reaches of the Serengeti. Meanwhile, a somewhat free-spirited big-game hunter named Denys Finch Hatten (Robert Redford) quickly becomes enamored with her, and the two soon form a bond. 

If you are looking for action, this isn’t the movie to see. The most thrilling parts involve lions on the hunt, of which there are three, but then again, this is a romantic movie. Without a doubt, Out of Africa is a so-called “chick-flick”, even going so far as to follow certain modern romantic movie formulae. On the other hand, if you are in film school taking a course in cinematography, this movie is required viewing. If there is one good thing I can say about Out of Africa, it’s that it is one of the most beautifully filmed motion pictures I have ever seen, and I doubt few movies will ever top it (Another movie in this elite category is 1990’s Dances With Wolves). 

And speaking of Dances With Wolves, the musical score has a recognizable sound to it. That is because those sweeping violins you hear come from the trademark style of John Barry, who understandably received his third Oscar for musical score (and fourth overall) for his work in this film. As for the script, it is a good one, though some parts found me checking the time upon occasion. Meryl Streep’s performance was very good, and I have a lot of respect for the character she plays in this movie. Here, Karen is portrayed as an independent woman who was willing to work alongside her field workers; I have a lot of respect for bosses who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Robert Redford is charming enough, and he was still a major box office draw in 1985, but I get the feeling the part might have been better served going to Mel Gibson, who at the time was just coming into his own in America, and a “serious” movie at that time would’ve proven him a capable actor who could do more than Mad Max. 

If this movie were to be remade today (2010), I get the feeling that Kate & Leo would reunite to do it. As it stands, with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, I got the impression of an “off -the-rack” suit in a tailor-made environment, which I think is the primary weakness of Out of Africa; mediocre chemistry between the leads can hurt a film like this, and in this case, it did. Still, it makes for a beautiful postcard for the African continent, and even 25 years later, women will still swoon over the sparkle in Redford’s blue eyes. 

UP (2009)

In Adventure, Animation, Computer Animation, Family, Motion Pictures, U on February 26, 2010 at 3:38 pm

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STUDIO — Disney/Pixar

CAST — Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson

DIRECTORS —  Pete Docter, Bob Peterson

MPAA Rating: PG

How do they do it?

How do the geniuses at Pixar make such beautiful magic with their terrabytes of computer technology? So far, nearly every Disney/Pixar offering I have seen has been a magical ride through some of the most imaginative stories ever conjured up, and Up is no exception!

In this movie, a retired balloon vendor named Carl Fredicksen (voice of Ed Asner), faced with eviction from his home, decides to launch thousands of balloons to fly his home to South America, pursiung a life-long dream shared by him and his late wife, Ellie. Shortly after he takes off, however, he discovers a stowaway: a Wilderness Explorer scout named Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai) who is one badge short of advancing to Senior Wilderness Explorer. That badge, by the way, is the Assisting the Elderly Badge.

Carl Fredricksen's house, en route to South America

Up is a very wonderful film to watch. My only regret is not seeing it in 3-D when it was released in theatres. At the risk of sounding cliché, I laughed, I cried, my heart pounded, I cheered, and I booed. The visuals are stunning, as always, the character performances are riveting, and there is great comic relief from a talking dog (!) named Dug (voice of co-director Bob Peterson). And of course, this movie has what will arguably become the most memorable flying house since The Wizard of Oz.

Okay, the dogs don’t really talk, but they are fitted with special collars that allow them to communicate with humans, courtesy of disgraced explorer (and Carl’s childhood hero) Charles Muntz (voice of Christopher Plummer). A great running gag in this film has the dogs alerting and saying “Squirrel!” while in mid-sentence. There is a also a wonderful riff on Star Wars in this movie, too (a reference, of course, to Pixar’s origins as part of LucasFilm).

One endearing quality I found with Up is how it told the story of Carl’s life, from the time he first met Ellie when they were kids, to their marriage, to their ups and downs, and finally to her death, in only 12 minutes. It was touching and funny, and we (as the audience) learn to really care for Carl right away. It also sheds light on how some old people (especially the grumpy ones) become the way they are; in this case, Carl is so sentimentally attached to the life and home he created with Ellie, he refused to let go, even when developers tried to intervene. Carl Fredricksen will go down as one of the most memorable Pixar characters of all time. Sounds kind of strange, doesn’t it? An old man among toys (Woody and Buzz Lightyear), monsters (Sully and Mike), a car (Lightning McQueen), an insect (Flik), a fish (Nemo), and a robot (Wall-E). But I believe this to be true, and Disney will one day create an attraction centered around Carl (likely with Russell at his side). Of this, I have little doubt.

Pixar has come a long way since 1995’s Toy Story, which is an acheivement in itself. This is a must-have for any DVD collection (I would recommend the 2-disk Special Edition; the single disk has only the movie and some trailers), a must-add to your Queue, and must-see movie for all ages.