#98 - The Life Eternal
1930 - 2009
Hello everyone and welcome back to your Electric Theatre. We have several feature films for your consideration this week but first, it’s announcement time. Jahnke’s Electric Theatre now has its very own fan page on Facebook! Even more shocking, it was not started by me. So if you’re on the Facebook (a very popular internet destination, I’m led to understand), show your allegiance to the Electric Theatre by becoming a fan. You get a very handsome notification under the “Recent Activity” portion of your page, plus interaction with other JET readers, a brand new way to recommend a title for Tales From The Queue, and a quick ‘n’ easy way to tell me I’m an idiot if you disagree with me about something (or, heaven forbid, pay me a compliment in the unlikely event that we agree). Sorry Twitter-ers, I’m not on that one since it should be fairly obvious by now that I’m incapable of expressing a thought with less than 140 characters. But if you’re a Facebook user, your fanship will be deeply appreciated.
End of plug. And now, our feature presentations.
NOW IN THEATRES
Fantastic Mr. Fox
While it’s not entirely unusual for filmmakers to cross from the world of animation into live-action features, it’s almost unheard of for a director who made a name in live-action to make an animated film. Offhand I can only think of Tim Burton and he doesn’t even count since he was an animator in the first place. So I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Wes Anderson’s stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. As it happens, Anderson’s voice and style translates to animation seamlessly. And while Fantastic Mr. Fox may not be Anderson’s best film, it is certainly his most delightful and purely enjoyable work to date.
Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is a newspaper columnist who gave up his former career as a bird thief to raise a family at the urging of his wife (Meryl Streep). But with an unsatisfying job and a son he doesn’t understand (Jason Schwartzman), Mr. Fox finds he wants something more. He moves into a tree with a view of three farms, run by Boggis, Bunce and Bean, and decides to embark on a series of “last scores”. The trio of evil landowners will stop at nothing to catch him, destroying the tree and driving the Fox family and their neighbors underground.
Anderson clearly loves and respects Dahl’s book and delivers a faithful adaptation (at least, to the best of my recollection…admittedly I haven’t read this book in decades). Yet it’s clear that Fantastic Mr. Fox is a Wes Anderson film. The rich autumnal colors, the multi-leveled production design and impeccably detailed sets could come from no one else. The screenplay by Anderson and Noah Baumbach is extremely clever, full of witty dialogue that both adults and kids can appreciate. I particularly enjoyed the use of the word “cuss” as an all-purpose profanity. Alexandre Desplat contributes a rousing score that melds perfectly with songs from the likes of the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. The vocal performances of the cast are warm and full of both humor and heart. Jason Schwartzman and Eric Anderson are standouts as rival cousins Ash and Kristofferson. The voices work in perfect harmony with the animation and character design throughout. I defy anyone to remain unmoved by a quiet scene where Ash and Kristofferson silently play with a model train before bedtime.
For all his idiosyncrasies, Wes Anderson remains a master at creating uniquely dysfunctional families and extended families. He’s returned to the theme throughout his work, most successfully in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Fantastic Mr. Fox can be ranked up there with either of those films. The timing of its release is perfect as I can’t imagine a more ideal movie to watch with your entire family at Thanksgiving. In a year already filled with exceptional animation, including Up and Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox turns out to be the best animated film of the year. (* * * ½)
Despite my reputation as a notorious movie snob, I actually enjoy a lot of the bombastic work of Roland Emmerich. I’ve even defended The Day After Tomorrow on more than one occasion. (Although if you’re a fan of Godzilla or 10,000 BC, I’m afraid you’re on your own.) I do not go into his movies expecting or even wanting subtlety, realism, depth or scientific accuracy. All I’m after is the mindless thrill of seeing wholesale destruction on a grand scale, maybe a funny aside or two, and the thread of some vague story tying the whole thing together. In the case of 2012, perhaps I expected too much.
This time, Earth’s downfall is brought on by a planetary alignment that causes intense solar flares. This in turn makes the Earth’s core temperature increase and the planet’s crust to become wildly unstable. All of this was allegedly predicted by the Mayans but that’s neither here nor there. In time-tested disaster movie fashion, we are introduced to a ridiculously large number of characters played by stars big enough to be recognizable but not so big that their salaries overwhelm the effects budget. John Cusack plays a writer and part-time limo driver struggling to save his kids, ex-wife Amanda Peet and her new beau, Tom McCarthy. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the noble geologist everyone respects and listens to despite the fact that he seems to be wrong about a lot of vitally important things. Danny Glover is the President (widowed, as presidents so often are in movies like this) and Thandie Newton is his daughter, tasked with preserving irreplaceable artwork. And Woody Harrelson, who seems to be turning up in every other movie this year, is a radio nutjob whose crazy conspiracy theories turn out to have some merit after all.
Emmerich wants to make the ultimate disaster epic with 2012, cramming in sequences reminiscent of Earthquake, Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, Meteor, and many more. I’m surprised we didn’t get a couple characters trapped in a burning high-rise for that Towering Inferno flavor. And to his credit, he pulls out all the stops during the big calamity scenes. There’s a fun race through Los Angeles as the city slides into the ocean. Sure, the scene is…well, let’s charitably call it improbable…but it’s so over the top that you have to admire it on some level. But unlike Independence Day, the story here is so repetitious that you become numb to all the spectacle. City is destroyed, millions die, our heroes escape by the skin of their teeth, arrive at a new location just in time for it to be destroyed. And while you never really care about the characters in a movie like this, it helps if they at least make some sense. Cusack takes his kids for a camping trip to Yellowstone early on. While they’re away, a major earthquake hits LA. So Peet calls him up and asks him to bring the kids back to LA? Wouldn’t they be safer anywhere else at that point? Plus, this all happens so quickly that I began to doubt whether Emmerich even knows where Yellowstone is. The movie makes it seem about four hours drive outside of Manhattan Beach.
Movies like 2012 are virtually guaranteed to have a fair number of eye-rolling moments. Something seems scientifically impossible or the dialogue is trite or the dog makes a spectacular escape or whatever. I’m used to all that. But before seeing 2012, you should do a number of facial exercises to prevent your eyes from rolling straight back into your head. Better yet, wait for this to hit DVD. That way you can see all the cool stuff (and some of it is very cool indeed) and skip everything else. You’ll be done in less than half the time and I promise, you aren’t missing anything. (* *)
TALES FROM THE QUEUE
In China They Eat Dogs / Old Men In New Cars
When I think Danish cinema, the first name that pops into my head is Lars Von Trier. I expect that’s true for many of you, as well. Personally, I love wacky Uncle Lars but I understand why so many people find his work tremendously off-putting. Of course, it’s unfair and naïve to allow one person to color your opinion of an entire country’s creative output. For a completely different taste of Denmark, look no further than Lasse Spang Olsen, a stuntman turned director, and two of his wildly inventive action-comedies: In China They Eat Dogs and its prequel, Old Men In New Cars.
In the first film, Dejan Cukic stars as Arvid, a phenomenally dull banker whose girlfriend dumps him just before they’re scheduled to go on holiday. At work, Arvid uncharacteristically stops a holdup by whacking the would-be robber on the head with a squash racket. The crook’s girlfriend assaults him, saying he should have minded his own business since they needed the money to conceive a child. Feeling guilty and wanting to break out of his rut, Arvid reaches out to his estranged ex-con brother Harald (Kim Bodnia). Arvid proposes robbing an armored car and giving the money to the girlfriend. Harald goes along with the plan, enlisting the unwilling aid of two cooks who work in the restaurant he owns. Nothing goes quite as planned and the story takes several unexpected, increasingly hilarious twists.
Harald and the cooks return in the follow-up, Old Men In New Cars. The story begins with Harald getting out of prison and going to visit his dying mentor in the hospital. The old man asks to see his biological son, who he’s never met. One problem: the son is a total psycho in a maximum security prison for killing five women. Once again, nothing goes according to plan, thanks in large part to Harald’s hair-trigger temper.
In China They Eat Dogs is a fresh and funny yarn reminiscent of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch. Lasse Spang Olsen’s movie is better than Guy Ritchie’s work, though. It takes more chances with its narrative, spiraling off into impossible-to-predict directions. It’s certainly a violent film but its violence feels like something out of a Road Runner cartoon. The follow-up isn’t as inventive or amusing but there’s still a great deal to enjoy. Kim Bodnia, who looks a great deal like Bob Hoskins, is a terrific presence in both films and he turns Harald into a vivid, likable character despite his proclivity for violence. Lasse Spang Olsen’s experience as a stunt coordinator also pays off with some jaw-dropping chase scenes that must be seen to be believed. Both In China They Eat Dogs and Old Men In New Cars are highly entertaining caper films that breathe new life into a well-worn genre. Don’t let the subtitles scare you away from these two gems. (In China - * * * ½ / Old Men - * * *)
My apologies to the reader who recommended these two great movies, as I’ve stupidly lost your original email. Write me back and I’ll be sure to give you the credit you so richly deserve! Meanwhile, if you have a suggestion for TFTQ, let me know about it, either via the new Facebook page or plain old email. It’s highly unusual for me to accidentally delete a TFTQ message, so I promise you’ll get acknowledged one way or another!