Archive for george clooney

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” Lives Up to its Name

Posted in Action, Comedy, Family/Kids, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , , on June 8, 2010 by ericstraus

There are always certain elements you can expect from director Wes Anderson’s films, such as “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tennenbaums” and “Life Aquatic”:  oddball characters that have emotional issues, writing that seems both realistic and unnatural, and an overall commentary on family dynamics.  All of these hold true in “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a stop-motion animation film based on Roald Dahl’s book.  But the one aspect of this film not usually found in Anderson’s work is slapstick comedy/physical humor; while the film is not dominated by this, it’s a welcome addition to compliment the entertaining story, great vocal acting, and a fun adaptation of the original novel.

In Dahl’s world, animal society mirrors human society – the animals have jobs, decorated homes, clothes, etc.  Most of them have embraced civility in place of their wild animal instincts.  George Clooney voices the title character, whose main vocation is stealing farm animals to feed his family.  His wife Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) accompanies him on these raids, but after nearly getting caught and announcing that she is pregnant, she convinces Mr. Fox that it’s time to settle down and focus on family, not midnight mischief.  We then fast-forward 12 years later, and find Mr. and Mrs. Fox have a son Ash (Jason Schwartzman).  The arrival of Ash’s cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) creates some discord – Kristofferson is a quiet, Zen-like character who becomes the object of Ash’s envy as he endears himself to Mr. Fox.  Mr. Fox has a job writing a column for an animal magazine, but we can tell he is not comfortable with his button-down, 9 to 5 life.  He seems to have more trouble suppressing his natural urges than the other animals, and when an opportunity arises to create some adventure, he seizes it.  On the pretense of wanting a home to be proud of, he buys a new house underground beneath a large tree.  He does this against the advice of his attorney Badger (Bill Murray), who warns him that the tree is near the farms of three of the meanest farmers around – Boggis, Bunce and Bean.  Boggis owns a chicken farm, Bunce has ducks and geese, and Bean has turkeys, apples and alcoholic cider.  But being near these farms is precisely why Mr. Fox wants this property.

He soon enlists the help of an opossum named Kylie, a local handyman of sorts, to raid the three farms.  Mr. Fox uses his cunning to create elaborate plans, and Kristofferson also joins the mischief.  Soon the Fox’s cupboard is stocked with pilfered goods, arousing the suspicion of Mrs. Fox that her husband is back to his old ways.  The three farmers become aware of their nemesis and band together to capture him.

The film is fraught with humor, both physical and via dialogue.  The animation, though seemingly low-tech, is very entertaining and charming.  The writing toes the line between clever and dramatic, which is ultimately similar to the balancing act that Mr. Fox must face – he has to balance who he is instinctively with his familial responsibilities; he steals food to feed his family, but the ire he creates in the farmers ends up putting his family and other animals’ lives in danger.  Kristofferson becomes the son-I-never-had character for Mr. Fox, forcing Ash to do his best to win his father’s love by trying to steal back his tail, which Mr. Fox lost while being shot at by the farmers.  Like with other Anderson films, we see elements of our own family dynamics in the Fox family, harmonized with both absurdity and realism.  The action is quick, and the film flies by at a scant 87 minutes.  But it’s a fun ride.

Final Grade for The Fantastic Mr. Fox: B+

“Up in the Air” Flies High

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , on April 9, 2010 by ericstraus

There is a particularly romantic quality about always being on the go, about traveling constantly from one place to another, meeting new people on each airplane and in each hotel.  “Up In the Air” contrasts the romance of this kind of lifestyle with the conventional idea of romance – finding that special someone who you can create a life with…in one location.  It’s a film with a good deal of humor as well as some thought-provoking drama, set in the very relevant era of massive company layoffs.

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man with the horrible job of being a corporate thug.  Hired by other companies to terminate their employees, he goes from city to city, conducting face-to-face firings while attempting to spin it as a chance for these poor souls to be re-born, to follow their dreams…to convince them that being laid off is a good thing.  But Bingham has been doing this for so long that he has his speech memorized, he knows how to react no matter what the employee says – he recognizes that people aren’t going to like him, but he seems to genuinely care that they leave with at least a slight amount of optimism in their hearts.

Because of his job, Bingham’s lifestyle is one of going from airport to airport, his “Admiral’s Club” card in hand.  He travels in business class, gets the express registration at hotels – he travels extremely efficiently, and does his job the same way.

During one evening in a nameless hotel bar, he strikes up a conversation with an attractive woman named Alex, played by Vera Farminga (The Departed).  They trade war stories as Bingham learns that she travels nearly as extensively as he does, and they end up in bed together.  It seems that this is not unusual for either of them, as they part ways the next morning but not after checking their schedules to see when they can meet up again.

Bingham’s career is threatened when a young upstart, Natalie Keener, played by Anna Kendrick (New Moon), introduces a new method to their company’s madness.  She proposes terminating employees via a remote video chat, rather than face-to-face, thereby slashing travel budgets and company expenses across the board.  Bingham passionately rejects this proposal, claiming what he does must be done in person and that Keener can’t possibly understand without being on the road herself.  Bingham’s boss Craig, played by Jason Bateman, agrees and instructs Bingham to take Keener with him on his next trip.

Throughout the adventure, Bingham and Alex occasionally meet up, and Keener gets a true education on what it means to lay someone off.  In the end, Bingham’s ideas about love, family and commitment are tested and change through the special relationships that develop between he and Alex, Natalie and even his own family.

There is great dialogue between Bingham and Keener – Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner adapted a marvelous screenplay, nominated for an Oscar, that is clever, funny and touching – though the touching parts could also be called “cheesy.”  Bingham is a man completely opposed to the idea of settling down; he does motivational speaking gigs where he imparts his ideas against carrying lots of emotional weight around with you, be it from family, friends or lovers.  His lack of understanding about these things is hilariously illustrated through his task of toting around a cardboard cut-out of his sister and her fiancée; he was asked to take photos of the couple in the various locations that his travels afforded him, an assignment that he loathes and cannot comprehend, for reasons deeper than the obvious.  His job therefore suits him perfectly – he never gets to know anyone longer than a day, if that, and he can do his job more effectively because he can’t connect to the people he’s firing.  But Alex and Natalie throw everything out of whack, leading him to rethink what it truly important to him.

The first half of the movie really flies (no pun intended) – there are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments and entertaining dialogue.  The second half takes on a more serious tone, and drags down the film’s pace and energy.  But the acting is superb – Clooney, Kendrick and Farminga all received Oscar nominations for their roles, and deservedly so.  Kendrick is especially charming as the eager corporate suck-up, trying her best to keep a strong face while her inner emotions begin to overwhelm her.  Clooney is in fine form as well, deadpanning one-liners and then transitioning to someone who never had any emotions to hide, trying to hide them.

“Up in the Air” was also nominated for Best Director for Jason Reitman, as well as Best Picture.  Reitman did a marvelous job of putting us in Ryan Bingham’s world, experiencing the different-but-the-same airports and hotels.  There’s also a terrific shot of Clooney and Farminga standing in line at a non-chain hotel in Wisconsin, waiting to check in.  They are both used to the express check-in lines at the big chains, and when Clooney sees an employee not helping anyone, he asks if she can help them – her reply is that her line is only for their “special club members,” much to Bingham’s ironic disappointment.

If the Oscar Best Picture field had not been widened from 5 to 10 this past year, I’m not sure if this film would have garnered a nomination – but for the most part it’s an enjoyable ride around the country with very likeable characters, smart writing and a good story.

Final Grade for Up in the Air: B+

A Strange Gaze From “Men Who Stare”

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags , , , , on April 2, 2010 by ericstraus

In a year fraught with George Clooney movies – “Up in the Air, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (his voice) – I had wondered why the other film in which he starred, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” seemed to garner so little notice.  The cast is rounded out by fellow 2010 Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor – not a slouch cast to say the least.  I think the reason for the lack of attention is due to story; it hops from being a quirky comedy to a serious commentary on modern warfare, and the transition is so unsubtle that we’re left confused as to what kind of film we are watching.

The film takes place in 2003, where we find McGregor’s journalist Bob Wilton looking for his big break in the news industry.  He journeys to Kuwait, hoping to find his way into Iraq for some serious war coverage, partly to satisfy his career ambitions, and partly to impress his soon-to-be ex-wife.  But he happens upon a much stranger and interesting story about the U.S. Army and their experiments with psychic energy.  He bumps into Lyn Cassady (Clooney), and learns about a secret unit started in the early 80’s by “new age” soldier Bill Django (Bridges); the unit functions as both hippie commune (Django makes them dance and use mind-altering substances) and finely tuned military company, as these gifted soldiers learn to use psychic powers to find lost people, and as the title suggests, stare at goats to make their hearts stop.  The Army sees the value in these “super soldiers” and has them carry out missions.  Cassady was the star pupil of that unit, and now while pretending to be retired, is still carrying out missions.  Larry Hooper (Spacey) doesn’t fully buy into the whole “new age” philosophy, and by 2003 he is running the psychic power unit his way, with Django reduced to pushing pencils.

The film is quite funny as we see the development of the secret unit (through Cassady’s flashbacks) – there is a terrific scene where Django convinces Cassady to break out of his shell and dance – and there are some good buddy-comedy moments between Clooney and McGregor as the plot unfolds.  But about 45 minutes into the film, it takes on a much more serious tone, commenting on the war in Iraq and war in general, and on the military industrial complex.  The film would have been much more effective if it stuck to one tone – either stay a quirky comedy all the way through, or be a more serious film from the beginning.

In the end, after a good number of laughs early on, we are not sure how to react; the film feels disjointed and is almost a waste of the cast’s talent, as they also switch gears from being comedic to dramatic, but again, not so subtly.

Final Grade for The Men Who Stare at Goats: C