A Look Back: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

A quick question. When a filmmaker decides to improve upon the original source – such as a children’s book – is it really necessary to add dark psychological overtones? Specifically, does the target audience – in the case of “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” based on the book by Roald Dahl and directed by Wes Anderson, really care if an Oedipal slant is inserted? My guess is no, but like Tim Burton’s remake of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (also based on a Dahl book), it received it anyway. The good news is that Mr. Fox’s (George Clooney’s) conflicts with his eccentric son (Jason Schwartzman) don’t detract from the movie, even though adding a backstory about Willy Wonka being estranged from his dad was, in several senses, excess baggage.

Like classic fairy tales such as those from the appropriately named Grimm’s, many of Dahl’s children’s books feature horrifying parents or guardians. The titular Matilda (of the book and movie starring Mara Wilson) gets told by her used car salesman dad (Danny DeVito), “There’s nothing you can get from a book that you can’t get from television faster.” The beloved grandmother who teaches her grandson about “The Witches,” and loves him just the same after he’s enchanted into a mouse, however, is a exception. So too, are Mr. Fox and his wife (Meryl Streep) whose brood of youngsters is shrunk in the movie into one son, although soon a houseguest arrives, their overachieving nephew (Eric Chase Anderson). But there’s bigger problems than quasi-sibling rivalry afoot because Mr. Fox, now a journalist, still longs for his old life raiding nearby farms, particularly those belonging to the mean-spirited, dim bulb trio of Bean (Michael Gambon), Boggis (Robin Hurlstone) and Bunce (Hugo Guinness). When circumstances force the Fox family out of their home at a tree base, and George, with his family and friends is forced into warfare, with the trio, it’s up to Mr. Fox to use every bit of his ingenuity to keep them all from starving.

Originally, Dahl had intended to have Mr. Fox solve his problems by having him burrow under and rob a supermarket. However, his American publishers were concerned that that would send the wrong message – that stealing is acceptable – so they fixed things by suggesting that Mr. Fox rob the original villains of the tale. Though they were afraid that Dahl would take offense, he actually loved the change and accepted it without argument. In the movie, ultimately, Mr. Fox winds up “borrowing” from a supermarket, but suitable revenge is also taken on the three bad guys. Capturing the magic of the original source is a challenge for any director wishing to bring a children’s book to the big screen, but the filmmakers do an excellent job here.

Movie Review: Money Monster

Remember when Julia Roberts was a Major Movie Star? Looking back, maybe fame had something to do with why regardless of whether she was playing a medical student, college professor, whistleblower or journalist, I could never quite see her as anything but – well, Julia Roberts. I haven’t seen her in a movie for years (although she has continued making them), but “Money Monster,” proves few actresses are better at going from vulnerable to spunky back to vulnerable again without any apparent effort. In the movie, her character is faced with a moral dilemma early on, one that many unappreciated, abused employees dream of – what to do when a crazed gunmen (Jack O’Connell) bursts into your workplace (here a TV studio) and threatens to kill your boss, here George Clooney, host of a financial show called “Money Monster.” George establishes in the first ten minutes that his character is a major prick, and he’s even wearing a blue dress shirt with a white collar, which is often movie shorthand for “white collar a-hole.” So Julia, who plays the show’s producer (though she’s planning a career change), hesitates a little while, but ultimately chooses to save him by kowtowing to the intruder’s demands.

It occurred to me that this movie starts the same way as “Hail Caesar!” did: with George Clooney showboating around on set, while off in the shadows, someone plots his downfall. Here, he’s taken hostage and strapped into a vest with a bomb attached because Jack has lost his entire savings following a tip from the show that turned out to be a bad idea. As the NYPD plots to retrieve George safely (though their definition of “safe” is bizarre), Jack berates George for being such a low-life. Meanwhile, Julia tries to figure out how to de-escalate the situation, which turns out that she needs to contact the head honcho of IBIS (the company whose stock plunged). This happens to be Dominic West, and if you think George is unlikeable, just wait until you find out the depths of Dominic’s duplicity. This guy is responsible for a underpaid schmuck whose girlfriend is pregnant losing his money, and his response: “Wrong? What’s wrong?” Eventually, the crisis is weathered, but not without a lot of texting, frowning, gun pointing and arguing among the secondary characters.

Watching movies where someone is taken hostage, it seems like most characters are pretty tough: you never see anyone visibly sweating through their clothes or wetting themselves from fear, presumably having a gun pointed at them isn’t that high on their list of instant panic situations. Also, the hostage character typically gets over being tongue-tied soon and has no qualms about taunting or berating the person with the weapon because that would definitely be my reaction to having my life in danger. As Denis Leary’s cat burglar puts it in “The Ref,” it’s the people with guns who are allowed to run the show – but then a movie where one character always has the upper hand would be dull.

Movie Review: Hail, Caesar!

(With all the show tunes in the movie, I left feeling poetical.)

Warning: The following may contain spoilers.

“Hail Caesar!” proudly flaunts its exclamation point,
Though it may seem way too cute
In the tradition of comedies like “Airplane!”
And “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.”

In it, Josh Brolin plays a fifties Hollywood exec,
A good Catholic by the name of Eddie Mannix.
However, by the time his day’s half through,
He’ll be ready to chug a bottle of Xanax.

You see, George Clooney, his lead actor is missing
And boy, does that make those in the film involved pissed
But as it turns out, they need not worry,
For George is squirreled away in a den of amiable Communists.

Because his latest film is Biblical in scope,
Josh meets with a rabbi, a prelate and a priest
To split hairs about the origin of Our Father
Of all his issues today, this will be the least

Meanwhile, comely mermaid, Scarlett Johansson, is irked,
As she’s in the family way
But without a ring on her finger,
She – and Josh – are not having a good day.

Alden Ehrenreich, who excels at playing cowboys,
Finds himself on the set of a period piece, suddenly feeling blue
With ultra-fussy director, Ralph Fiennes, wringing his hands
Every time he flubs a cue.

Channing Tatum, on the other hand,
Is having a gay old time
Tap dancing up a storm as a just conscripted Marine
With other young men in their prime.

But Josh finds himself pestered by twin reporters
Played amusingly by Tilda Swinton
Planning to spill the beans about a secret of George’s
In order to help her career or maybe just for fun.

However, he can’t stop to tarry too long
For he’s received a note demanding George’s ransom
From “The future,” but luckily Alden comes to his aid,
Proving he’s more than just handsome.

But before that, Alden has a date that night
Arranged with an actress with cheeks like peaches
They go to a premiere, then a hip restaurant
Where they sing “Glory of Love,” from “Beaches.”

After that, it’s time for Alden to track down George
Which luckily, he can achieve,
Prying George away from his newfound buddies, though
Is more difficult, as it makes George peeved.

One problem of Josh’s however resolves itself
When he introduces Scarlett to a shady but awed Jonah Hill
They wind up hitting it off
Though Josh is in the doghouse with his wife, Alison Pill.

He’s being tempted by a cushy job offer
Much less stressful than this one, no joking,
With all of this, he’s definitely picked
The wrong week to quit smoking

In the end, Josh manages to stave off Tilda
Then slaps into George a little more sense
Which inspires him to new heights of acting
Though he remains pretty much dense.

After all this, Josh takes a break
And heads for Confession
Where ultimately, he decides,
That he already is in the right profession.

Movie Review: Tomorrowland

Just once, I’d like a movie character to get up wincing after being hurled unceremoniously into the air in a confrontation or outrunning a bomb detonated by the bad guys. Or someone who actually gets injured by flying glass, which would qualify as a hazard in reality. But in movies, everyone escapes without needing a tourniquet or a trip to the emergency room. Apparently, the big screen world consists of only Plexiglas, and all the human characters made of something other than flesh and blood.

“Tomorrowland,” offers scene after scene where the three heroes: George Clooney, Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy must fight hand-to-hand combat with the bad guys (spoiler: except for Hugh Laurie, they’re all robots), outrun explosions and other action scenes that are often spectacular but after awhile, since they seem to be almost nonstop, kind of tedious, too. There is a lot of violence in this PG movie, but most of the really gory stuff happens to androids, which tends to dilute the impact. It certainly didn’t seem to bother the young members of the audience I saw the movie with, all of whom appeared to be preteens. Still, I found it unpleasant that so many of the bad guys expired by losing their heads.

Britt Robertson plays Casey Newton, a scientifically gifted teen who winds up getting arrested for trespassing onto NASA property. When she gets her personals back before being released, she receives an odd button that turns out to commemorate the 1964 World’s Fair event.  By simply touching the thing, she’s hurled forward in time to a place called Tomorrowland, where creators of all stripes gather.  Like most future worlds, Tomorrowland turns out to be very shiny and sterile looking, with everyone dressed in white, although in this one, there’s actually more than one token non-minority hovercrafting around.

But – spoiler alert again – this turns out to simply be a recruitment commercial which Britt finds out after she meets George, who’s been thrown out of Tomorrowland, for the crime of inventing something that will let you know the date of your death.  Confession: I still don’t know why this invention got George expelled, but at least, he’s able to help Britt flee the bad guys, who hate her simply because she won’t provide the whereabouts of a major character (though at first, she isn’t lying).  Determined to again reach Tomorrowland, Britt’s also aided in her quest by a young, British-accented girl (Raffey Cassidy), who once had a special relationship with Young George, back when he was a fresh-faced boy inventor lugging his homemade Jetpack to the World’s Fair, only to be haughtily dismissed because it didn’t quite work.  Raffey, too, has been kicked out of Tomorrowland but continues to try and recruit – well, people like Brit, so they can (I think) save the world.

It turns out that Britt’s present world is about to expire, and naturally, this doesn’t make Britt too happy.  So there are confrontations and lectures by and with the various characters, and it turns out – surprise! – that there is a way to save the world that involves more action sequences and traveling around in time.  As far as I could tell, it involved crafting a robot army of whiz kids who would then recruit gifted non-robots who would then get transported to Tomorrowland to experience its awesomeness.  That’s how it ended, and although it doesn’t quote the Apple commercial about how the people crazy enough to want to change the world, are the ones who actually do, several of the end speeches head in that direction.  I didn’t quite get why these geniuses couldn’t change the world on Planet Earth, too, but maybe it’s because the new world only wants optimists.  Seriously.  So if you’re a genius and a pessimist, you’re out of luck if you want to visit Tomorrowland.

I ended the movie knowing very little about Tomorrowland (except for the commercial), so I guess you just have to take it on faith that it’s wonderful.  All the cast of this movie seems more than game, but ultimately, the movie is just another summer action movie.  Still, it made me daydream about a future that included hovercrafts, something I hadn’t done since seeing “Back to the Future 2.”