Archive for June 23, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2010 by Mystery Man

PLOT:

While raiding a squab farm, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) trigger a fox trap and become caged. Felicity reveals to Fox that she is pregnant and pleads with him to find a safer job should they escape.

Two years later, the Foxes and their sullen son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), are living in a hole. Fox, now a newspaper columnist, decides to move the family into a better home and buys one in the base of a tree, ignoring the warnings of his lawyer Badger (Bill Murray). The tree is located very close to the enormous facilities run by farmers Walter Boggis, Nathan Bunce, and Franklin Bean (Michael Gambon). Soon after the Foxes move in, Felicity’s nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes to live with them, as his father has become very ill. Ash finds this situation intolerable considering his soft-spoken cousin is apparently superior to him in every possible aspect and seemingly everyone, including his own father, is charmed by Kristofferson at Ash’s expense.

Fox and the opossum building superintendent, Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), make plans to steal various types of produce and poultry from the three farms, one by one. After all three heists are a success, the farmers decide to camp out near the Fox family’s tree and kill Fox. When he emerges, the farmers open fire, only managing to shoot off his tail before he retreats back into his home. The farmers then attempt to dig Fox out, first by hand and then with three excavators. After tearing the hill site of the tree into a massive crater, the farmers discover that the Foxes have dug an escape tunnel deep underground.

Reasoning that the Foxes will eventually have to surface in search of food and water, the farmers lie in wait at the tunnel mouth. Underground, Fox encounters Badger and many of the other local animal residents whose homes have also been destroyed. As the animals begin to fear starvation, Fox leads a digging expedition to the three nearby farms, robbing them clean of Boggis’ chickens, Bunce’s ducks and geese, and Bean’s turkeys, apples, and alcoholic cider. While the other animals feast, Ash and Kristofferson, beginning to reconcile after Kristofferson defended his cousin from a bully, return to Bean’s farm, intending to reclaim Fox’s tail, only to find that Bean has taken to wearing it as a necktie. When they are interrupted by the arrival of Bean’s wife, Ash escapes but Kristofferson is captured.

After discovering that Fox has stolen all of their produce, the farmers decide to flood the animals’ tunnel network by pumping it full of cider. The animals are forced to retreat into the sewers, and Fox learns that the farmers plan to use Kristofferson as bait to lure him into an ambush. They are soon confronted by Rat (Willem Dafoe), Bean’s security guard. After a struggle with Fox that leaves him mortally wounded, Rat divulges Kristofferson’s location.

Fox sends a message to the farmers, asking for a meeting in a town near the sewer hub wherein he will surrender in exchange for Kristofferson’s freedom. The farmers set up an ambush, but Fox and the others anticipate it and launch a counterattack. Fox, Ash, and Kylie escape the scene at the town and slip into Bean’s farm. In the operation, a much matured Ash frees Kristofferson and later deeply impresses his father and the gang by braving enemy fire to release a rabid beagle loose to keep the farmers at bay while the group escapes back to the sewers. The group manage to grab Fox’s tail from Bean as they flee the compound.

The animals become accustomed to living in the sewers, and Ash and Kristofferson have completely settled their differences and have become good friends, sharing meditation time together among other activities. Fox, now taking to wearing his tail as an pin-on, leads them to a drain opening that is built into the floor of a large supermarket, which is shown to the viewing audience to be owned by the three farmers. Celebrating their abundant new food source and the news that Felicity is pregnant again, the animals dance in the aisles.

REVIEW:

In this world of overused CGI, it always warms my heart to see a film that uses good old stop-motion animation. If nothing else about Fantastic Mr. Fox intrigues you, the fact that it was done using this medium should.

Critics and I rarely see thing the same way, but this is one of those rare occasions when they actually got it right. They raved like mad over this film, and found it hard to belive that it wasn’t more popular. To be truthful, until the Oscars, I had only heard about this in passing, and never really paid it any attention. That was my mistake.

This is a totally awesome flick, but be warned, some of the animation may appear creepy to some younger viewers, but that’s the joy of stop motion.

Mr. Fox is the scheming type and George Clooney’s voice and mannerisms fit him perfectly, especially when he’s being more of a douche than a father to his son.

Meryl Streep can do no wrong, even when just her voice is used, although, it would have been nice to have more than a handful of lines for her. I think that Ms. Fox isn’t exactly a prominent character in the books, either, so I can forgive this little oversight.

Jason Schwartzman isn’t exactly my favorite actor by any stretch of the imagination, but the timbre and inflections of his voice work for Ash, who happens to be one of those “different” kids just searching for approval from his dad. Having said that, he was still annoying.

Michael Gambon’s deep vocals make for as good a villain as they do a wizard headmaster. I was quite impressed with how he was able to inflect the madness that was consuming Franklin Bean as he pretty much destroyed the land in his attempt to catch Mr. Fox.

I’m sure we’ve all heard the term “crazy like a fox”. Well, with each attempt Bean made to capture Fox, that phrase ws going through my head because he was proving it to be true.

Yes, this is a comedy, but it’s more subtle comedy, rather than in your face, laugh out loud comedic stylings. This is fine, but not for me…a matter of personal taste, not a criticism.

What is it that makes this film so great? Well, the writing. There aren’t many films today that are written as well as this one and executed to perfection. I dare you to name me 5 films in the last year that accomplish this feat. I can think of maybe 1 or 2.

It is a genuine shame that this film didn’t garner more revenue at the box office, but that’s what happens when you have an independent and limited release. To make up for that, though, I implore you all to track down this DVD and check out Fantastic Mr. Fox. It is a real treat and hands down one of the best films to be released in theaters in a long time.

5 out of 5 stars

Advertisements

How the West Was Won

Posted in Action/Adventure, Classics, Drama, Movie Reviews, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2010 by Mystery Man

PLOT:

As the story opens an otherwise happy family led by Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden) is introduced as having abandoned a comfortable life in the rural, small town, setting of upstate New York; for the alleged greater opportunity awaiting all, in the as yet unsettled west; via the Erie Canal. The “west” of this time is the Illinois country. In the unnaturally peaceful and safe opening of the Prescott’s long journey they come to meet a Mountain man Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) who is traveling east to Pittsburgh to trade his furs. His daughter Eve (Carroll Baker) and Linus are attracted to each other, but he isn’t ready to settle down.

Linus stops at an isolated trading post run by a murderous clan of “river pirates” headed by “Colonel” Hawkins (Walter Brennan). Linus is betrayed when he accompanies pretty Dora Hawkins (Brigid Bazlen) into a cave to see a “varmint”. She stabs him in the back and pushes him into a deep hole. Fortunately, Linus is not seriously wounded, and is able to rescue the Prescott party from a similar fate. The bushwhacking thieves (Lee Van Cleef plays one), including Dora, are dispatched with rough frontier justice.

The settlers continue down the river, but their raft is caught in rapids and Zebulon and his wife Rebecca (Agnes Moorehead) drown. Linus, finding that he cannot live without Eve, reappears and marries her, even though she insists on homesteading at the spot where her parents died.

Eve’s sister Lily (Debbie Reynolds) chooses to go to St. Louis, where she finds work performing in a dance hall. She attracts the attention of professional gambler Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck). After overhearing that she has just inherited a California gold mine, and to avoid paying his debts to another gambler (John Larch), Cleve joins the wagon train taking her there. He and wagonmaster Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) court her along the way, but she turns them both down, much to the dismay of her new friend and fellow traveler Agatha Clegg (Thelma Ritter), who is searching for a husband.

Surviving an attack by Cheyenne Indians, Lily and Cleve arrive at the mine, only to find that it is now worthless. Cleve leaves. Lily returns to work in a dance hall in a literal “Camp Town,” living out of a covered wagon. Morgan finds her and again proposes marriage in a rather unromantic way. She tells him, “No, not ever.”

Later, Lily is singing in the music salon of a riverboat. By chance, Cleve is a passenger. When he hears Lily’s voice, he leaves the poker table (and a winning hand) to propose to her, telling her of the opportunities waiting in the rapidly growing city of San Francisco. She accepts.

Linus joins the Union army as a captain in the American Civil War. Despite Eve’s wishes, their son Zeb (George Peppard) eagerly enlists as well, looking for glory and an escape from farming. Corporal Peterson (Andy Devine) assures them the conflict won’t last very long. The bloody Battle of Shiloh shows Zeb that war is nothing like he imagined and, unknown to him, his father Linus dies there. He encounters a similarly disillusioned Confederate (Russ Tamblyn) who suggests deserting, to which Zeb agrees.

However, by chance, they overhear a private conversation between Generals Ulysses S. Grant (Harry Morgan) and William Tecumseh Sherman (John Wayne). The rebel realizes he has the opportunity to rid the South of two of its greatest enemies and tries to shoot them, leaving Zeb no choice but to kill him. Afterwards, Zeb rejoins the army.

When the war finally ends, he returns home, only to find his mother has died. She had lost the will to live after learning that Linus had been killed. Zeb gives his share of the family farm to his brother, who is more tied to the land, and leaves in search of a more interesting life.

Following the daring riders from the Pony Express and the construction of the transcontinental telegraph line in the early 1860s, two ferociously competing railroad lines, the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad, one building west and the other east, open up new territory to eager settlers.

Zeb becomes a lieutenant in the U.S. cavalry, trying to maintain peace with the Indians with the help of grizzled buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), an old friend of Linus. When ruthless railroad man Mike King (Richard Widmark) violates a treaty by building on Indian territory, the Arapaho Indians retaliate by stampeding buffalo through his camp, killing many, including women and children. Disgusted, Zeb resigns and heads to Arizona.

In San Francisco, widowed Lily auctions off her possessions (she and Cleve had made and spent several fortunes) to pay her debts. She travels to Arizona, inviting Zeb and his family to oversee her remaining asset, a ranch.

Zeb (now a marshal), his wife Julie (Carolyn Jones) and their children meet Lily at Gold City’s train station. However, Zeb also runs into an old enemy there, outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach). When Gant makes veiled threats against his family, Zeb turns to his friend and Gold City’s marshal, Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb), but Gant is not wanted for anything in that territory, so there is little Ramsey can do.

Zeb decides he has to act rather than wait for Gant to make good his threat to show up someday. Suspecting Gant of planning to rob an unusually large gold shipment being transported by train, he prepares an ambush with Ramsey’s reluctant help. Gant and his gang (one member played by Harry Dean Stanton) are killed in a shootout. In the end, Lily and the Rawlings travel to their new home.

A short epilogue shows Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early 1960s, including the famous four-level downtown freeway interchange and Golden Gate Bridge, indicating the growth of the West in 80 years.

REVIEW:

An epic tale of immense proportions, How the West Was Won follows four generations of the Prescott family as they tame the unsettles American western frontier.

This may be classified as a western, but with the exception of the shootout at the end, and some battles with the Arapaho Indians, there really isn’t much that you see in your traditional western. I think that this is the reason this is listed as one of the greatest films of all time, though. It was a groundbreaking epic masterpiece that pushed the genre to its limits.

As I was watching this evening, I couldn’t help but notice the all-star cast. I swear the only major stars from this era who do not appear are Steve McQueen and Yul Brenner.

There isn’t a bad performance to be found in this masterpiece, but the most impressive role has to be George Peppard. Most of us know him as Hannibal from The A-Team, but apparently, he was quite the competent actor before he took that role, as can be seen here where shines.

This epic tale is told in different parts, chronicling the life and times of the Prescott family. Starting in their humble beginning and ending with their great grandson’s life as a marshal.

While there is a bit of action to be had here, especially in the later parts of the flick, I tend to think this more of a drama. How is it that this can seem like two different flicks? Well, it was directed by 3 different directors, each taking on separate periods of time. When you watch this film and take that into consideration, you can barely tell.

At just under 3 hrs, this film was a little on the lengthy side for my taste, but that really is my only qualm with this film. If I could set aside 3 hrs in my schedule, you can guarantee that I would be watching this blueprint of excellence again. Often time in these reviews, I say that today’s films don’t stack up to those of yesteryear. If ever there was proof of that, this film is it. Check out what real filmmaking is!

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

An American Tail: Fievel Goes West

Posted in Animation, Family, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2010 by Mystery Man

PLOT:

Seven years after settling in to their new home in The Bronx, New York, the impoverished Mousekewitz family soon finds that conditions are not as ideal as they had hoped, as they find themselves still struggling against the attacks of mouse-hungry felines. Fievel spends his days dreaming about the wild west dog-sheriff Wylie Burp, while his sister Tanya, dreams of becoming a singer. Meanwhile, Tiger’s girlfriend, Miss Kitty leaves him to find a new life out West, remarking that perhaps she’s looking for “a cat that’s more like a dog.”

Tired of chasing, Cat R. Waul devises a plan to deliver the mice into his clutches. Using a mouse-cowpoke marionette, he entices the neighborhood mice, including the Mousekewitzs into moving yet again to a better life out west (“Way Out West”). Tiger chases the train, trying to catch up with his friends, but is thrown off course by a pack of angry dogs. While on the west-bound train, Fievel wanders into the livestock car, where he overhears the cats revealing their plot to turn them into “mouse burgers.” After being discovered, Fievel is thrown from the train by Cat R. Waul’s hench-spider, T.R. Chula, landing the mouse in the middle of the desert. The Mousekewitzes are heartbroken once again over the loss of Fievel and arrive at Green River with heavy hearts.

Upon arrival at Green River, Chula blocks up the water tower, drying up the river. Cat R. Waul approaches the mice and proposes to build a new saloon together, although intending to trick the mice into doing the bulk of the work and then eat them afterwards. Meanwhile, Fievel is wandering aimlessly through the desert, as is Tiger, who has found his way out west as well, and the two pass each other. However, each one figures that the other is a mirage and they continue on their separate ways. Tiger is captured by mouse Indians and hailed as a god. Fievel is picked up by a hawk and dropped over the mouse Indian village when fireworks scare and explode on the bird, making his feathers pop out of his body and reunites with Tiger. Tiger chooses to stay in while Fievel catches a passing tumbleweed, which takes him to Green River. As soon as Fievel makes his arrival, he quickly reunites with his family. He then tries to expose Cat R. Waul’s true intentions. However, no one will believe him. In fact, as Cat R. Waul searches for entertainment for the saloon, he happens to hear Tanya, Fievel’s older sister, singing while working and is enchanted by her voice (“Dreams to Dream”).

He sends Tanya to Miss Kitty, who’s now a saloon-girl cat, and she reveals that she didn’t come out west by her own will, but at the request of Cat R. Waul – an action she now seems to regret. Cat R Waul tells Miss Kitty to put Tanya on stage. With a little encouragement from Miss Kitty, Tanya pulls off a great performance for the cats (“The Girl You Left Behind”). Fievel is briefly taken prisoner by Chula and almost eaten a few times, but escapes. While walking out of town, Fievel stops to talk with an old hound sleeping outside the jail, discovering that the saturnine dog is in fact the legendary Wylie Burp. Fievel convinces Wylie to help the mices’ plight and to train Tiger as a lawman and as a dog. Tiger is reluctant at first, but relents at the suggestion that a new persona might win back Miss Kitty. The trio: Wylie, Tiger, and Fievel go back to Green River to fight the cats, who had scheduled to kill the mice at sunset. At Green River, a giant mousetrap has been disguised as bleachers for a ceremony honoring the opening of Cat R. Waul’s saloon. But before the trap can be tripped, the three foil the plot using their wits and their slingshots. But towards the end Chula captures Ms. Kitty as hostage, threatening to drop her from the tower. Tiger gets angry and ends up saving Ms. Kitty and using a pitchfork and Chula’s web as a lasso with him trapped on it to hurtle Cat R. Waul and his men out of town by having them all piled on part of the mousetrap, which the heroes use as a catapult. The cats fly into the air, then land into a bag with the words: U.S. Mail written on it. The train picks the bag up and leaves.

Enchanted by his new personality, Miss Kitty and Tiger become reunited. Tanya becomes a famous singer (although she also appears to be happy with the way she was before by the end) and the water tower flows with water again, making Green River bloom with flowers. Fievel finds Wylie Burp away from the party who hands Fievel his sheriff badge. Fievel is unsure about taking it, since he feels he is not a traditional hero, but Wylie reminds him that, if it weren’t for Fievel, he’d still be a washed up dog. He realizes his journey is still not over, and that “if you ride yonder, head up, eyes steady, heart open, I think one day you’ll find that you’re the hero you’ve been looking for”.

REVIEW:

You know, I kind of feel sorry for this picture because it was released the same day as Beauty & the Beast. It is because of that fact that this film is so underrated. However, there is also the fact that this is a sequel.

Sequels can be good and they can be bad. For me, sequels work better when they take what works in the first films and build on it. Occasionally, you can take the same story and move it to a different locale and change a few character, as is the case with Home Alone 2. This film sort of goes along that path, but not fully.

There are some similarities to An American Tail that setup the story very well, but there are other parts that just seemed overdone. For instance, Fievel being separated from his parents, although it wasn’t as long this time, just didn’t seem as impactful this time. In the first film, there was more of a connection to Fievel. This time around, he just seemed like a character on the screen with no connection to the audience.

Along those same lines, though we get a bit more screentime from the sister, one has to wonder what it would take to get some for the entire family.

John Cleese lends his voice to the villanous Cat R. Waul. Waul is a slick, conniving feline who happens to be able to lead all the other cats, as well as fool the mice (with the aid of a marionette) into moving out west. This isn’t my favorite Cleese role, but he is entertaining in it, especially when he’s trying to get away from the human who he keeps getting petted by.

The immortal James Stewart has a role as aging sheriff Wylie Burp. I don’t think I need to tell you that he does a masterful job with this. If you know Stewart’s work, then you know what to expect here. Excellence, especially for the few minutes he’s on screen.

I’m not sure if this is better than the original. I’m leaning toward no, though, because the first film seemed to have more heart. Having said that, though, it does seem like there was alot of effort put into the making of this picture, unlike many animated sequels of today that appear to be made just to cash in and force a franchise down audience’s throats. Either way, this is a really good picture, especially since you consider that this isn’t Disney. Why not give a chance?

4 out of 5 stars