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Column Wed Nov 25 2009
What is it with all of these end-of-days movies? A couple weeks ago, it was 2012, and early into next year, we have Legion (which I guess technically counts as pre-apocalypse) with Paul Bettany, and The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. And while 2012 is about hope and action in the face of near-certain death, author Cormac (No Country for Old Men) McCarthy's The Road is about something much more serious and believable — the final existence of life on Earth. Existing in a world set afire by unnamed forces (the biblical undercurrent runs very close to the surface here), this story is about the lengths people would go to when they are starving, when all the planet's animals are dead, water is poison, and the only meat available to them is that of other human beings. The Road is certainly the grimmest movie of 2009, but there's an elegance and dignity to this telling of the novel (directed by The Proposition helmer John Hillcoat and adapted by Joe Penhall) that also makes it a work of great beauty in its own grey and haunting manner.
Viggo Mortensen plays Man (none of the characters have actual names), a stoic but loving father to Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The pair are walking skeletons making their way through America in search of anything to eat. Mortensen vows to never resort to cannibalism, but he also promises himself that if he and his son are ever in a situation where they themselves might be eaten, he will kill them with his only weapon, a pistol with a few bullets remaining. They make every effort to avoid all contact with other people, assuming they would be easy targets with scavengers. But as you might expect in a movie called The Road, the many obstacles on the journey is the whole point. During the quieter moments as they drift in and out of sleep, Man has dreams/memories about his wife (known as Woman, played with the appropriate level of growing desperation by Charlize Theron). We see them on the day the world cataclysm begins, their reaction to the early days of the crisis, and how she ends up not traveling with them. It's as heartbreaking to watch as anything in a story filled with one heartbreak after another.
Along their road to who knows where, perhaps somewhere they think there might be food or at least warmer temperatures, Man and Boy do come across several other people. Every person they meet holds their cards close, and often when they reveal even a little bit of their true nature, things get awfully horrifying. Garret Dillahunt plays Gang Member, who spots the pair and is clearly hungry for boy meat (perhaps in more ways than one). Michael Kenneth Williams (better known as Omar Little on "The Wire") plays The Thief and the still great Robert Duvall is Old Man, who can barely see or walk, but insists on traveling alone rather than risk his safety with the father and son. The two also come across unnamed characters who live in what can only be described as a house of death, in one of the scariest sequences in the move. Guy Pearce and Molly Parker arrive late in the story, offering the closest thing to hope Man and Boy have seen since this mess began. There's another sequence where the two find what appears to be a fallout shelter stocked with months' worth of food, water and other supplies, but all good things must come to an end.
The individual run-ins in The Road aren't really the point. What I liked best about the film are the in between father-son moments, where Mortensen is attempting to teach Boy survival, thinking, common sense and self defense, even though the kid is clearly in a constant mild state of shock and barely speaks. I'm not entirely sure that newcomer Smit-McPhee was the greatest choice for the role of Boy, but he certainly doesn't play the role the way a lot of more seasoned Hollywood child actors might have. His fear comes across as exceedingly real, and that's the key.
As he did with The Proposition, director Hillcoat has built a complete landscape and backdrop for his characters to inhabit and react to. This one is all about utter bleakness. You will likely come out of The Road depressed and hungry, and that would mean that Hillcoat has done his job admirably. It may be a challenge to identify or connect with these characters (even Man and Boy), but when you do and you even attempt to imagine what their "lives" are like in this world, your heart will ache. As I often do with movies, I tried to imagine how I would handle existing under these desolate conditions, and I actually had to stop myself from doing so because I knew I would have been dead long before the events in this movie take place. That's a tough burden to bear as audience member, but I think the experience is worth it.
The Road is an emotional journey unlike any other this year, primarily because by nature of the story it never stops being oppressively heavy. Man and Boy aren't looking for a place where all of their needs will be fulfilled; they know there is no such place. We have to imagine they are seeking a place to die comfortable, where human vultures won't devour them upon their deaths. That's pretty bleak for a holiday release, but anchored on the strength of Mortensen's performance and a visual context unlike any I've seen, The Road succeeds at capturing the proper mood and emotionally weighty backdrop required for such a story. It's heavy stuff, folks, but when you come out the other side and walk back out into the world, you may see it in an entirely different light.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Fantastic Mr. Fox might be the single most charming film I've seen all year, and I choose that word carefully and specifically. Charm is one of the most difficult things to get across in the film. You can like or love a movie and its characters well enough, but charm is a different monster. It's about winning over an audience to the point where we'd actually like to hang out more with these characters in the universe the director has created. There's a comfort element to the experience that you don't get with many films, even ones you adore. But Fantastic Mr. Fox, based on the novel by Roald Dahl, is loaded to the gills with charm, sweetness and humor without abandoning the irreverent wit and distinct visual style that director and co-writer (along with his Life Aquatic co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach) Wes Anderson injects into all his films.
The charm comes a bit easier with great actors like George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe and Jason Schwartzman lending their unique voices and personality to an the array of animal characters (mostly foxes) in this stop-motion wonderment. But the splendor of Fantastic Mr. Fox goes far beyond carefully chosen voice actors. There's a warm, homemade quality to the entire production, and the stop-motion animation is just sloppy enough (to the point where you can see the fur move under the invisible fingers of the animators) that it feels like something made of love as well as sophistication. This isn't trying to be a slick, polished work (like the lovely Coraline); it's rough around the edges both in terms of the look and sound (the actors were often recorded as a group on makeshift outdoor sets that resembled those used for the animation).
Perhaps the most bizarre quality to the film is that the animals brought to life here don't look like exaggerated version of the creatures they are supposed to be. The foxes look like stuffed foxes, the rat looks like a rat, the badger look freakishly like a real badger, etc. And occasionally (like when they eat) act like animals too, when they aren't wearing clothes and going to their jobs as newspapermen or lawyers or whatever their lot in life might be. Mr. Fox (Clooney) gets a job as a columnist, paid to speak his mind. His wife (Streep) is supportive but suspects that he might be back to his old ways of stealing from the local farmers. Their son Ash (Schwartman, in what might be my favorite performance in the film) is the tempestuous, envious kid who actually acts and talks like a real teen. When the couple's near-perfect nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, the director's brother) comes to stay with the family, Ash feels particularly threatened, and his reactions are priceless.
The plot involves a group of scavenger animals, including Mr. Fox, breaking into farms owned by three of the nastiest and most protective farmers around, for the sole purpose of helping the entire underground-dwelling community, who are slowly going hungry. It's kind of like Chicken Run in reverse. One of the many remarkable treats about Fantastic Mr. Fox is how beautiful the sets are. There's a depth and scope to them that is so detailed and perfect. There are little implements scattered throughout the sets that make them look completely authentic, while maintaining an utterly surreal edge. And Anderson's signature themes and visual hooks are all still in place. Once again, he's examining a troubled family, there are a great number of camera set ups where the characters are either looking directly at the camera or are in profile while they talk to another character. Above all else, however, Anderson's use of music is flawless. Opening with The Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains" is a stroke of magic, and including the love song from the Disney version of Robin Hood (in which the titular character is a fox, remember) was a lovely touch.
Not to sound like a broken record, but I keep coming back to how much charm Fantastic Mr. Fox radiates. It's not trying to set off fireworks or dazzle you with digital creations. This is a film that invites its young and old audiences to find things to love. Adults will love the level of humor and cleverly created family drama, while youngsters will swoon at it for entirely different reasons. Both will marvel at the rich, lush and inviting scenery while getting pulled in by these marvelously layered characters. Now show me the closest bar where a guy can grab a beer with his foxy new friends.
Visit Ain't It Cool News for my exclusive interview with director and co-writer Wes Anderson.
The other night, someone texted me that they saw a TV spot for Ninja Assassin that featured quotes from me, which I'm delighted to hear because when I saw this film at Fantastic Fest in September, it stomped and sliced my ass so hard I still have bruises and scars. From director James McTeigue (who directed V for Vendetta and did second-unit stuff galore for all three Matrix films and Speed Racer) comes this magnificent celebration of violence and gore. It also features a star-making turn by South Korean sensation Rain, who could absolutely be the next huge action star in this and all nations. Ninja Assassin commits early to saturating the screen and your brain with blood and never lets up. You have to admire that.
The story is about a young boy named Raizo, who has been trained by the Ozunu Clan since youth to endure unspeakable pain and groomed to be the ultimate Ninja Assassin. The assassin clan is so secret that most believe it is an urban legend meant to keep people in line. When his closest friend is killed by the clan, Raizo leaves them and goes into hiding. But years later, the merciless clan surfaces and begins a killing spree for reasons that are unclear to those investigating the excessively bloody murders, including Interpol agents Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris from 28 Days Later and the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films) and her boss Ryan Maslow (Ben Miles). One of the more interesting aspect to Ninja Assassin is the way it pits old world ninja techniques against modern-day crime-fighting technology. Have you every wondered how the ninja ability to hide in the shadows would match up against an enemy with night-vision goggles? We sure do find out.
The plot of Ninja Assassin is perhaps unnecessarily complex, as we get bits of information about money trails and ties between big business, world governments, and this deadly assassin ring. But all that really matters is that ninjas can hurl dozens of throwing stars at once and shred a man's body completely; they can even total his car using the same method. Despite McTeigue being the director and the Wachowski Brothers being the film's producers, this isn't a movie that I could easily identify as being from the people who brought us The Matrix movies. This is a rough exercise in brutality — ripping and cutting of skin, body parts flying, eye-popping martial arts that seem based on reality even when they are being assisted by special effects. And make no mistake, there is certainly some CGI going on here, but most often it is cleverly and subtly used. And when it's not so subtle, it's usually because there is so much gore that sprinklers couldn't pump it out fast enough.
What I liked most about Ninja Assassin is its wild abandon. Gone are the stiff philosophy-based plot lines of The Matrix movies and anarchy-charged atmosphere of V for Vendetta. This movie is about kicking maximum ass with the maximum number of gouges, slices, dismemberments and other traumatic events that the body can suffer. And it seems utterly clear to me that McTeigue is enjoying himself immensely. When the film gets around to pairing Harris and Rain to do battle with the assassin clan, Ninja Assassin launches into a symphony of blood the likes of which I've never seen in a modern-day studio work. It's exquisite and made me hungry for more. This film would be so easy to sequel-ize, and I hope that happens immediately. I really had a lot of wicked fun with Ninja Assassin.
To read my exclusive interview with director James McTeigue, go to Ain't It Cool News.
Released in China as two lengthy movies totaling about five hours but cut down to one two-and-a-half-hour effort in America, John Woo's masterful epic Red Cliff will, in all likelihood, make you crave the longer, two-part film as you savor every splash of blood and every reflection off a blade. Despite his long and impressive history with action films, Woo hasn't made a true period film since the early- to mid-'80s. Set in the early third century, the story focuses on Zhou Yu (the incomparable Tony Leung), his wife Ziao Qiao (the stunning Lin Chi-ling), and his mortal enemy Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), who holds a deep red flame for the wife.
Woo unleashes a cast of thousands in this awe-inspiring work that does an incredible job showing us how strategy can outfight number on the battlefield in so many instances, and how finding your enemies' most vulnerable points can take the place of brute force. I was almost as engrossed in the scenes of planning and strategy as I was watching the battles itself. Woo spares us nothing in terms of the scope of Red Cliff, but he never forgets that this is a story about people as well. Holding most of the pieces together is Tony Leung, who may be China's finest asset as an actor in such works as Lust, Caution, the Infernal Affairs trilogy, Hero, In the Mood for Love, High Risk, and Woo's own Bullet in the Head and Hard Boiled. He's a handsome devil who makes the dangerous seem romantic and the romantic seem dangerous.
Woo gives us an unflinching yet highly stylized mixture for his battle sequences; he shows in graphic detail how messy and bloody war can be. But he drinks it all in like some sort of savory concoction, and I loved this movie from the first frame. Now let me watch the entire two films before I slice someone's head open like a melon. Red Cliff is now playing at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with director John Woo.
On how many levels can one movie miss the mark? Let me count the ways. Who is this movie made for? I can't imagine kids really caring that much about a story of two middle-aged businessmen (Robin Williams and John Travolta) who are suddenly put in charge of 7-year-old fraternal twins fathered by Williams during an hours-long drunken marriage to a stranger he met in Miami Beach (Kelly Preston). He was unaware that their one experience together resulted in a pregnancy, so her showing up where he lives in New York saying he's the father is unexpected. She also is about to head to jail for two weeks (for an utterly Disney-fied forgivable crime), and although she hadn't planned on dumping the kids in Williams' lap, things just kind of work out that way, don't you know? Of course the two weeks in question are the same two weeks that are leading up to the biggest deal in these lifelong friends' business partnership. What are the odds? And why would kids care about these old men? For that matter, what self-respecting adult would want to see any of these people in a PG-rated offering? The questions keep mounting.
What's weirder is that the kids vanish conveniently from the story when they aren't necessary, despite a promise Williams made to Preston that he wouldn't hire a babysitter. And what does the cast list of this movie reveal? My stars, not only is Travolta's real-life wife (Preston) in the movie, but so is his daughter, Ella Bleu Travolta, playing the female half of the twins (Conner Rayburn plays the son). A small army on familiar faces parade before the camera in small roles, probably in the hopes of making sure we're awake (good luck with that one). I spotted Amy Sedaris, Rita Wilson, Ann-Margret, Justin Long, Matt Dillon and, most upsetting, what has got to be the final screen appearance of Bernie Mac, in what probably would have been the low point in his career if he'd lived to be 100. The fact that Bernie Mac died over a year ago should tell you something about how long this dubious release has been sitting on the shelf. When I first saw him on screen, I let slip an "Oh no" before I snapped my jaw shut and sat there remembering the night I saw The Original Kings of Comedy and rediscovered one of Chicago's funniest men.
Also on hand are Seth Green as the junior partner in the firm who basically acts like a squealing woman when called upon, and Lori Loughlin as a pretty Japanese interpreter (their impending mega-deal is with a Japanese firm) Travolta has his eye on. Here's my other big issue with the film (and there are so many to choose from) — Travolta is supposed to be some horn-dog ladies man, but his best line seems to be "Hello, pretty lady." I guess the movies are all about living out your fantasies, but come on, guys. If I told you that Old Dogs was directed by the same guy that did Wild Hogs a couple years ago, would things make more sense? Of course, Walt Becker also did the Van Wilder, which had a lot more going for it than both Hogs and Dogs do combined. However you slice it, the dude put a major stink on this outing. It's not that nothing in the film rings true; that's a given. It's that nothing anyone does in this movie even makes sense. And even if it did make sense, that wouldn't help make it any funnier. I swear on my life, I didn't even come close to laughing during this misery.
And after 90 minutes of a film whose best attempts at humor are poop and fart jokes — peppered with a few homophobic gems by the characters who assume Williams and Travolta are a gay couple who have adopted the kids — I was ready to strangle small animals. Old Dogs feels like a much longer movie cut down to the point where the threads of certain storylines peek out, but still don't give you the impression that a better film ever existed. Travolta owns a very elderly dog, whose fate in this film is somehow tied to the relationship Travolta shares with Williams, and it makes no goddamned sense. That's pretty much my reaction to every lame second of this embarrassing crap. If I happen to stumble upon Old Dogs on cable in the months to come, I'm calling my provider and canceling the channel that plays it so I don't ever run the risk of seeing it again. This film makes the best argument I can think of for putting Old Dogs to sleep.
La Belle Personne
The French can even make films about the day-to-day romantic dramas of high school students more interesting than the plethora of brain-dead drivel coming out of Hollywood. The little melodramatic gem La Belle Personne (The Beautiful Person) is actually based on the structure of the 17th-century Madame de La Fayette novel "La Princesse de Cleves" and has transformed the royal court to a modern high school. Sixteen-year-old Junie (the lovely Lea Seydoux of Inglourious Basterds and The Last Mistress, who bares a striking resemblance to Sophie Marceau) starts at a new school where her cousin attends after her mother dies. Cousin Mathias introduces her to his group of intelligent and emotionally immature friends, and most of the boys in the clique immediately take to her, but Junie seems most taken with golden boy Otto (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, who reminds me of a young James van der Beek).
But Junie also develops an unhealthy crush on her Italian teacher Nemours (The Dreamers' Louis Garrel), who is only a couple years older than his students and slowly begins to become obsessed with Junie in return. What is strange about their relationship is that Junie is wise enough to know that if they ever consummate their feelings unspoken feelings for each other, enough feelings would be hurt and lives would be put in jeopardy that it would ruin everything. That doesn't necessary mean that all turns out well for everyone in the end, but there is some hint that these burgeoning adults actually are aware of some of the consequences of their actions, whether they actually listen to their brains or not. Director and co-writer Christophe Honore (Ma Mere, Dans Paris) has a great sense of teen angst and selfishness (not all of Junie's new friends are as self-aware as she is), and although he isn't going for the realism from last year's Oscar nominee The Class, there is certainly an authenticity to La Belle Personne that is undeniable. Add to that a couple of choice moody Nick Drake songs to the soundtrack, and you've got a pretty devastating slice of young life. The moodiness and drama are certainly elevated here, but that only serves to make them more interesting and captivating. Consider this "90210" for the Euro-trash set. The film opens Friday for a weeklong run at Facets Cinematheque.