"Fantastic Mr. Fox" **** (88 minutes)

Thursday December 24, 2009

What better way to cleanse myself from the degradation of "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" than this absolutely brilliant animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's ("Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory") 1970 children's novel. However, don't think this one is just for the kiddies as adults will find this one as entertaining as a Pixar masterpiece-and that is high praise.

Talented director Wes Anderson is adding animation to an already glowing resume. The director of such well received films as "Bottle Rocket", "Rushmore", & ''The Royal Tenenbaums", Wes tries his hand at stop-motion animation and the result is one of the most charming films of the year.

Wes & writer/director Noah Baumbach ("The Squid & The Whale) corroborated on the clever screenplay about Mr. Fox (wonderfully voiced by George Clooney) who has trouble keeping his promise to Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) to give up his perilous life of living like, well, a fox, after both escape with their lives after being caught trying to steal poultry. Flash forward several years and Mr. Fox, now a journalist, is bored out of his wits, mainly because his fox genes are getting the best of him. Before too long we see him sneaking off & plotting to steal from the 3 nasty owners who rule the valley: Boggis, Bunce & Bean.

There is a side story involving his odd son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman) who just doesn't seem to be getting the love he wants from his dad. The arrival of talented, athletic, can't-do-anything-wrong cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) only adds to his angst. Meanwhile, Mrs. Fox is kept under total wraps as Mr. Fox begins to enlist a bevy of memorable characters including Badger (Bill Murray) & Rat (Willem Dafoe) to help carry out his schemes.

The stop-motion animation is as wonderful as the wry script. The human-like expressions on the animals are priceless. And, when you see the fur on the animals move you'd swear it was real. And as for that script, these animals are not depicted as all cutesy and warm, Disney-like characters. Mr. Fox is, after all, as cunning and deceitful as, well, a fox.

In a year of absolutely fabulous animation films, this one deserves to be included in the same conversation as Pixar's incredible "Up" which, assuredly, will be nominated for Best Picture.
Mr. Fox and his cohorts about to take on Boggis, Bunce, & Bean

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans" *** 1/2 (122 minutes)

Thursday December 24, 2009

The great Warner Herzog reinvents, instead of remakes, Abel Ferrera's 1992's "Bad Lieutenant" which describes the downfall of a "bad" NY cop, impressively played by Harvey Keitel. Who better to step into the Keitel role than Nicolas Cage. Like a car wreck, you can't take your eyes off of the actor who thrives on degenerate roles (I still consider his performance in "Leaving Las Vegas" the greatest male acting job I've ever seen on screen).

Cage plays Terence McDonaugh who we first meet saving a prisoner from his cell as the rising Katrina waters are about to drown him. However, this picture of a heroic cop, quickly fades from memory. We soon learn that this cop is fighting his own drug addicted demons, not to mention a bad back, as he rampages about the city bringing new meaning to cop corruption.

The story (what little narrative there is) sort of centers around the discovery of 5 Senegalese illegals who have been snuffed out during a drug hit. However, this isn't a crime story as much as a portrait of a professional cop whose sense of morality & decency is as skewed as the plot. All the while, Herzog's camera is there documenting each episode as McDonaugh spirals deeper and deeper into chaos & self-destruction.

There are some great supporting performances here including Eva Mendes as Clarence's personal prostitute/lover/friend, Val Kilmer as McDonaugh's partner, and Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner as the drug kingpin who may be behind the murders. And the screenplay by William M. Finkelstein provides just enough humor to keep it out of total depression.

But it is the standout acting by Cage that is really what this exercise in human degradation is all about-which he amply delivers in spades and then some.

Lieutenant McDonaugh (Nicolas Cage) & his

prostitute lover, Frankie (Eva Mendes)

Strevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) & partner McDonaugh

"Sherlock Holmes" *** (128 minutes)

Monday December 21, 2009

This ain't your father's Sherlock; or your grandfather's; or your great grandfather's for that matter. Those folks would probably absolutely despise director Guy (Mr. ex-Madonna) Ritchie's take on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 19th century classic sleuth. However, today's audiences, spoon-fed with the multitude of more recent action f/x packed action heroes will more than likely go gaga over the histrionics afforded this latest of a long long line of incarnations of the London private-eye. (The Guinness World Records has the character being portrayed by 75 actors in over 211 films!).

Me? Well, I'll admit that I have not particularly paid attention to many of these portrayals. So my analysis is based strictly on this latest version and all I can say is that I was amply entertained by it all. Mostly due in large part to the wonderful acting by one of the best in the business: Robert Downey, Jr. He more than carries the action hero-type part and is aided in large part by a terrific Watson by Jude Law who perfectly plays off of the brooding Holmes.

The plot is setup with a wonderful opening sequence montage in which the evil Satanist Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong-who is becoming one of my favorite character actors. He was phenomenal in 2008's "Body of Lies") is captured and appears to be placed in a tomb after a date with the gallows. We quickly learn that somehow The Lord is not as dead and buried as it first appears. And then the fun, as well as the action, begins.

The script, co-written by Ritchie, Anthony Peckham (presently riding high as screenwriter for "Invictus"), & Simon Kinberg (2005's Mr. & Mrs. Smith) gives the plot enough meat & the main characters enough biting dialogue to keep the proceedings moving smoothly along. And, the busy Hans Zimmer supplies a score that is appropriate to the action. The only clear negative for me is the wasted presence of Holmes' love interest, the usually dependable Rachel McAdams ("State of Play") who seems to add no chemistry or warmth to the action.

Again, if you're expecting a Holmes in the style of Basil Rathbone or John Barrymore (to name but a very few), I'd advise you to stay away. But if you want diversion and care to witness a great charismatic performance by Downey, you won't be disappointed in the least.

Watson (Jude Law), Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) & Irene

Adler (Rachael McAdams) track the evil Lord Blackwell

Lord Blackwell (Mark Strong) and Holmes (Downey)

"The Maid" ***1/2 (94 minutes)

Sunday December 13, 2009

The Charles Sunday Cinema Club ends its winter 2009 series with this superb work by first time Chilean director/co-writer Sebastián Silva (who acted in 2000's favorably reviewed "Before Night Falls"). Newcomer Catalina Saavedra gives a brilliant character study as Rachael, the live-in maid who, for 23 years, has been accepted as "family" into a well-to-do Chilean household.

We first meet her as she prepares a sparse meal for herself in the kitchen, while the family prepares to celebrate her birthday in the next room. Her visage is blank and, when it comes time for her to celebrate with the family, we sense that she is clearly not in the mood for celebrating.

We are then introduced to various tensions involving the children as she goes about the tedious routines she has performed for years. Rachel is clearly unhappy and when a decision is made to help her out with a series of additional housekeepers, her distrust and paranoia only increases with each scene. Only when Lucy (Mariana Loyola) arrives, do we finally sense a connection that may finally reveal to us the hidden motives behind her actions.

The real fun is that the audience is never quite sure what direction the story is taking (an episode involving a kitten might lead astray an American audience used to horror films) and that only adds to the intrigue. For a film that is only slightly over 90 minutes, Silva doesn't waste a minute cramming in as much detail and nuance as possible.

Saavedra is riveting in the title role-who uses expressions more than scripted words to ambiguously hide her thoughts and feelings. And the absence of any soundtrack adds to the reality of the scenes and dialogue for a film that has the feel of a Dogme 95 production.

A fabulous Q&A was held after the screening with Baltimore Magazine Managing Editor and film critic Max Weiss. A great way to end the 47th Cinema Sunday's series!

The film opened in limited release around the country on October 16th. If you miss it, be certain to put it on your NETFLIX list!

Catalina Saavedra as "The Maid"

Baltimore Magazine Managing Editor/Film Critic Max Weiss
moderates the Q & A with CSC host Jonathan Palevsky