Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Sleek, slick, candy-colored computer animation is all well and good, but my tastes run kind of old school when it comes to animated films, I guess. Maybe it was all those Rankin & Bass Christmas specials I watched as a kid (and still watch), but I love stop motion animation, with its jerky, felty, tactile, lived-in look. Give me Wallace and Gromit, with their feet of clay, or Mr. Fox with his fantastic, coarse pelt and glass eyes over the shiny, rubbery perfection of pixels any day. The critters in Fantastic Mr. Fox look as if they came out of some toybox full of treasures like pinecones and bits of tattered cloth and very special rocks. They look pliable and playable.

Fantastic Mr. Fox wouldn't be the first film by Wes Anderson to look and feel like it was set in a dollhouse -- both The Royal Tenenbaums, with its vast, colorful, shabby brownstone, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, with its fantastic cutaway ship, call to mind miniature worlds that could be occupied by puppets. Anderson's people have something of the puppet in them too -- they move through the world tentatively and with strings attached, and they speak in hesitant pauses, the spaces between their words sometimes saying as much as the words themselves. Fantastic Mr. Fox takes all those tendencies and quirks in Anderson's films and makes them just a tiny bit less lifelike, which makes them so much more... real.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on Roald Dahl's book, and as adapted by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, it features a rascally, irresponsible, morally ambiguous hero in Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney). Fox, being a fox, was a successful chicken thief until Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), expecting their first pup, made him give up his life of crime. He settled into a quiet life as a newspaper journalist, but always longed for one final heist. He cooks up a scheme with his possum pal Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) to steal from the three biggest, meanest farmers in the area: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Bean (Michael Gambon) lives on hard cider and is "the scariest man currently living." The other two aren't any nicer. The farmers don't take kindly to fox's pilfering, setting in motion an escalating war that threatens every animal in the valley. If one were so inclined, one could read into this fable an environmental message, or a message about the futility and mutually assured destruction of war. Or, one could just see a fox trying, as always, to outwit a farmer who is armed with a gun, a backhoe and dynamite. Anyway, Fox, being a fox, isn't especially repentant about starting a war.

The animation in Fantastic Mr. Fox is terrific, full of wit and imagination, with a scruffy, cartoonish ingenuity and handmade beauty. The puppets don't look anything like real animals, and yet the characters are so richly conceived, and the voice work is so nuanced and full of life that the movie does what any good animated movie (regardless of the method) should do: it imperceptibly engages the imagination and makes you forget that you're looking at simulacra. The critters in Fantastic Mr. Fox look and act like they just *are* -- as if, even when you're not watching them, they're going about their lives, doing foxy and badgery and rabbity things. I also love the movie backgrounds and sets, which look just like storybook illustrations and scale models -- which is basically what they are. The movie fully embraces artifice, although no more so than Anderson's live action films.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is as fully realized as any of Anderson's films, and like his other works, it revels in the odd and quirky, in the idiosyncratic beauty of misfits, in the dissatisfaction and loneliness of the brilliant. It also shares Anderson's preoccupations with irresponsible, irrascible father figures and difficult, eccentric families. To that end, the main narrative about the escalating war between Fox and the farmers sometimes moves to the back burner (to simmer a while) as the movie burrows into Fox's friendships and family dynamics. Fox's son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) has an intense rivalry with his visiting cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), who is more athletic and less quirky, and is possibly favored by Fox (who, lest there be any doubt, is not exactly a model father). Fox and the missus have a less than perfect union, and indeed, all of Fox's relationships are tested by his rash, devil-may-care ways. His lawyer and friend Badger (Bill Murray) is especially vexed by Fox's recklessness.

Fantastic Mr. Fox might vex parents too, as the movie is likely to raise a lot of questions for any youngsters who see it. I'd hazard a guess that young children aren't typically part of Anderson's fanbase (although teens surely like *Rushmore*), and despite its provenance, Fantastic Mr. Fox isn't especially more kid-friendly than Anderson's other films. Some kids will like it, if they catch on to the way the puppets embody and enact psychologically complex thoughts and feelings (just the way kids do with their own toys). Other kids won't get it at all (and might be frightened by the violent death of one character), and won't find the movie funny or charming or, for that matter, very interesting. All of which is to say that kids will react to Fantastic Mr. Fox just like anybody else will. Some will love it, some won't. I found it charming, warm, engaging, funny, and challenging, and all around fantastic.

The Blind Side (2009)

The Blind Side is based on Michael Lewis's nonfiction book *The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game*. It tells a remarkable story: a homeless, neglected, uneducated African American teenage boy is taken in by a wealthy, white Southern family. He thrives in a stable home, his latent athletic talents are released, and he goes on to a career in the NFL. That's the story of Michael Oher, now a left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. 

A left tackle -- a very rare and specialized kind of athlete -- is a kind of protector, a massive, unstoppable force, a wall between the quarterback and the opposing team. In The Blind Side, there are two left tackles: Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), who is a gentle giant, and Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), the multitasking little spitfire who takes the lad under her wing after literally finding him walking the streets. She protects him from rich snobs, redneck racists, and drug dealers. Leigh Anne's about a third the size of Michael, but with her fierce maternal instincts and larger than life personality, she can steamroller over the opposition just as effectively.

As written and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie), The Blind Side is more about Leigh Anne than Michael. Michael's a bit of a blank slate, and the movie suggests that he managed to survive a horrific childhood, and a drug addicted mother, by remaining a blank slate, and shutting out all the bad (and it was all bad) that happened around him. His past is revealed only in vague flashbacks, and a few visits back to the slums he grew up in. His personality is almost nonexistent -- he's shy and reticent, and despite his massive size, unimposing. He's a shrinking violet. Leigh Anne is a steel magnolia: loud, insistent, self-confident, and a woman who is used to getting her way, as her affably compliant husband Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw) likes to remind everyone. She's got a couple of perfect kids to go along with her perfect house: teenage daughter Collins (Lily Collins), and son S.J. (Jae Head), a talkative, spunky little sidekick -- clearly his mother's son -- for Michael. 

The Tuohys are good Christians, but what they really worship is football, and The Blind Side is part sports movie, part inspirational slums-to-suburbs, foundling-finds-family story, with an emphasis on the latter. Neither aspect of the story is especially suspenseful or surprising -- there's a kind of inevitability written into Leigh Anne's personality. There's just no doubt that she's going to get her way, that she's going to mold Michael into a functioning, successful young man and a great football player, and whip a few conservative Southerners (among whom she counts herself) into shape while she's at it. A few other good Southern women help out: Michael's tutor (Kathy Bates), and a teacher (Kim Dickens) at the private Christian academy the Tuohy kids -- including Michael -- attend. They both see that Michael, despite his poor academic performance, is no dummy.

Bullock, with her teased blond tresses and twangy accent carries the movie on her shoulders. Her performance is lively and likable, but not especially complex -- The Blind Side doesn't dig very deep into its characters, nor tell us much about them that isn't apparent on the surface. They have big lives full of big emotions and transformational events, but their inner lives are more or less neglected. We're left to imagine what traumas and misfortunes led Michael to the sorry state he was in, and what prompted a big-hearted woman to take him home, set him on his feet, and give him wings. It's not deep, but The Blind Side is quite likable, and plucks all the right heartstrings -- it's warm and funny, and uplifts with all the subtlety of a linebacker. 


2012 (2009)

Before the start of 2012, I predicted that at some point early in the movie, there would be some guy holding up a sign that reads "The End Is Near." I must be psychic. You'll be comforted to know I'm not getting any tingles telling me that the end is, in fact, near. But boy, oh boy, does the world go out with a bang in 2012.

The title comes from the alleged Mayan prophecy that some kind of cosmic, planetary alignment would cause the destruction of the world in 2012. The movie doesn't do much with the prophecy -- a few cursory mentions here and there. The action starts in 2009, when a couple of scientists figure out that the earth's core is rapidly heating up as a result of solar flares, which will destabilize the earth's crust, or some very scientific thing like that. Once geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) realizes that the end is near, he alerts presidential aide Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), who is just the sort of cold-hearted politician to make the hard choices about who lives and who dies. The president (Danny Glover) isn't quite so hardhearted, and he and other world leaders cook up a plan (involving big boats, naturally), to save a few remnants of humanity from extinction. Well, Noah had to make some hard choices too, I suppose. 

Meanwhile, out in California, Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a struggling novelist, takes his kids (Liam James and Morgan Lily) camping at Yellowstone, where they run into a nutjob (Woody Harrelson) who tells them that the end is near. Jackson once wrote a worst-selling novel about the end of the world, of which, it turns out, doomsaying geologist Helmsley is a big fan. I'm sensing a pattern here.

Jackson's ex-wife (Amanda Peet) has a new husband, a successful plastic surgeon named Gordon (Tom McCarthy). Poor Jackson drives a limo to make ends meet, but he's one helluva driver, which comes in handy as he and the family escape the cataclysmic inferno/abyss/earthquake that destroys California in just the first of several close scrapes. There are also narrow escapes from disaster via small airplane, RV, big airplane, and really, really big boat. It's just one damn thing after another.

Thing is, director Roland Emmerich (who co-wrote 2012 with Harald Kloser) knows how to destroy the world. He's done it often enough (*Independence Day*, *The Day After Tomorrow*, *Godzilla*), and the terrific CG effects in 2012 enable him to rain quite convincing destruction upon the planet in the form of earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear force volcanic eruptions, crumbling skyscrapers, fireballs, clouds of ash, and city-swallowing fissures. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice... Emmerich says why not both? And why stop there?

And surprisingly, it's a pretty good time, the end of the world. Quite watchable and more entertaining than you might think. It goes on for far too long -- the movie clocks in at over two and a half hours. Granted, it takes time to destroy the world, but 2012 has too many characters and too many subplots, which makes it pretty hard to get very invested in any of them. A cute dog, a Russian oligarch, his obnoxious kids and his floozy girlfriend, a Buddhist monk and his family, the president's daughter (Thandie Newton), a couple of old jazz musicians on a cruise ship (George Segal and Blu Mankuma), geologists in India... They all come together in the end -- well, the survivors do -- but it's a butt-numbing experience. 

The only person in the whole movie who seems to be having any fun is Harrelson, who bites into his role as a long-haired, wild-eyed conspiracy theorist who's just pleased as punch to be right for a change, (although, you know, the death of billions is kind of a drag). Kind of a drag, but not so much that you can't enjoy all the mayhem. There's nothing subtle or deep or emotionally engaging about 2012 -- you know what's coming, and you can pretty much tell who's going to survive this thing (at least you can if you're psychic like me). Emmerich knows to keep the disaster front and center, and most of the death at an emotionally safe distance and free of blood and gore -- there are lots of falling bodies about which we can feel bad in principle, but then Boom! Crash! Another narrow escape! Phew! Aw man, there goes the Sistine Chapel!


The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009)

If you believe the official denials, the US military has not been engaged in paranormal research, and specifically, has not been training psychic soldiers, for decades. The program allegedly known as "Star Gate" did not begin as a response to rumors that the Soviets were also engaged in psychic military research, and did not train soldiers and civilians (including spoon-bender Uri Geller) in the ways of psychic warfare. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, this goofy history (or fiction) is uncovered by a reporter named Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who tags along with a top (former) psychic supersoldier on a mysterious mission in Iraq. The supersoldier -- they call themselves Jedi warriors -- is Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), and he just might be every bit as crazy as he seems. Or not.

Cassady is a master of such paranormal techniques as "sparkle eyes" and "cloudbursting" (which are just what they sound like), as well as various highly effective martial arts moves. He leads Wilton on a rambling road trip beset by the usual travails of an extended car ride in war-torn Iraq: kidnapping, IEDs, shootings. Their mission? Not even Cassady knows. Presumably, he'll know it when he sees it, or "sees" it.

Cassady is a member of the defunct New Earth Army, a New Age-y, pantheist, experimental army unit developed by a Vietnam vet named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) with the aim of winning wars through peace, love, and understanding. Bill's recruits are zealously devoted to their guru. Lyn is Bill's star pupil. Bill's most dedicated follower is wild-eyed General Hopgood (Stephen Lang). Then there's Larry Hopper (Kevin Spacey), the snake in this new Eden.

The movie is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Ronson. "More of this is true than you would believe," announces an opening title of the movie. What you believe, or what anyone believes, is precisely the point. Or maybe it's the joke. At any rate, the movie presents everything as if it could be true, or at least, as if someone like Lyn Cassady could plausibly believe it to be true. He did, after all, once stare a goat to death. (The goat made the mistake of staring back.)

The cast plays it all more or less straight. Clooney's got an assortment of bug-eyed looks for Cassady's various psychic powers, and portrays him as a true believer, a man who has seen too much to not believe. That's not to say that Clooney plays it as straight as Bridges, who offers a variation on his acid-etched Dude character in *The Big Lebowski*. The movie's true straight man is Wilton, a desperate fellow cuckolded by his wife and trying to pick up the pieces of his life in a war zone. Tagging along with Cassady, he's more likely to be picking up pieces of his own body.

The Men Who Stare at Goats, as directed by Clooney's producing partner Grant Heslov, is a mild and somewhat scattershot spoof that is not quite as funny as its title. It gets most of its traction from its charismatic actors, all of them playing broken and desperate men in search of something -- redemption? revenge? renewal? The movie does not have much to say about war, or about soldiers, or even, really, about parapsychology -- is there a connection between blind faith in one's own higher powers and the kind of devotion to country and duty that inspires soldiers? Are these guys the real deal, or a bunch of crackpots? The Men Who Stare at Goats is noncommittal -- it looks at the whole business in a semi-skeptical-but-willing-to-be-persuaded way. It all adds up to a lot of transient wackiness and absurdity that's as fluffy, and dissipates as quickly, as those clouds Cassady likes to burst.


Amelia (2009)

I didn't know all that much about Amelia Earhart before I watched Amelia. I did not know, for example, that she had been married, or that she had an affair with aviation entrepreneur Gene Vidal (Gore's pop). I *did* know that she was a pioneering feminist and aviatrix, and that she disappeared over the Pacific while attempting to fly around the world. As if there was any doubt, that she loved to fly airplanes is a point made again and again in Amelia, a biopic directed by Mira Nair from a script by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan. Earhart cared about only two things in life, judging by the number of times she says so in the movie: flying and being free. Aside from having Earhart (Hilary Swank) repeatedly reminding everyone that she loves to fly and wants to be free, the movie offers little insight into her character or personality as it follows the last nine years of her life, and her rise to international fame, in a series of flashbacks intercut with scenes from her final, ill-fated flight.

Swank, looking very much like Earhart with her sandy, cropped hair, does a decent enough impersonation, giving Earhart a Katherine Hepburn-esque voice and manner, and an enormous, flashing smile. Amelia pretty quickly failed my wardrobe test -- the clothes worn by Earhart were far more interesting than anything else in the movie, including her unusual marriage to publisher/promoter George Putnam (Richard Gere). Swank, with her lanky frame and long, androgynous face, was born to play Earhart, but this is not likely to be one of her more memorable roles. It's hardly a role at all, but more a recitation of things everybody already knew about Earhart -- She's spunky! She's courageous! She's a tomboy! She loves to fly! Amelia is a thumbnail sketch that never develops into a fully formed work of art.

The plot follows Earhart's trajectory like a highlight reel: she flies across the Atlantic, is wooed by Putnam, resists his marriage proposals, flies solo across the Atlantic, marries Putnam, flies again, etc. Biographical details get tossed in as fragments of dialogue, bullet points of marital discord between Putnam and Earhart. With its odd emphasis on Earhart's marriage, there's a lot of longing and yearning in Amelia -- Putnam romances her with as much desperation and exasperation as the calm Gere can muster, and Earhart romances the skies, yearning to be free and longing to fly. She charms the world while she's at it, although I imagine she was a lot livelier and more charming herself than the movie lets on.

Amelia is, unfortunately, a long movie that feels abbreviated, not because it moves quickly -- it doesn't -- but because it is so insubstantial and rushed, hurrying through the important biographical milestones without cultivating any genuine sense of the woman. The emotion is drained from this story -- allthough Gabriel Yared's strenuously sentimental musical score works overtime to create feeling. That the score has to do *any* work to generate emotion in a movie in which the heroine dies, leaving a grieving husband and bereft world, tells you all you need to know about Amelia.