Thursday, December 31, 2009

Up In The Air Review

Up In The Air
Directed by Jason Reitman
Released in 2009

Some films need dazzling special effects to transport you to its world. Up In The Air does not because it takes place in our world. The joy and hilarity of everyday life is countered by the toil and crushing realization that each day is a step closer to the grave. Looming overhead all of this is the morose economic climate of today's world filled with unemployment and depression. No movie this year filled me with such distinct laughs or profound emotional awareness, often in a single scene.

The ironic thing was that I was ready to hate on this movie from the get-go. Jason Reitman, the director, has never been on my good side. Thank You For Smoking had its moments but Juno was one of the most overrated films of the decade. With the latter's case, however, I have come to conclude that all the blame rests on the swaying hips of Diablo Cody, who somehow won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for that movie and then churned out the abysmal Jennifer's Body. Reitman, on the other hand, is a pillar of talent, shown by his directing, writing (along with Sheldon Turner) and producing of Up In The Air. He will garner a sweep of awards during Oscar season and deservedly so.  After seeing this film I wondered why the hell he did not write Juno; underneath the grating dialogue was a sound tale that could have been even better.

Nonetheless, Up In The Air will hit close to home for many. It does not hide its recession-era setting:  job loss, financial troubles and even suicide are general themes. However, this film is a great comedy with romantic elements; labeling anything of this caliber a "romantic comedy" is a disservice. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a white collar man who fires people for a living. He spends 270 days of the year away from home, he does not have a wife nor ever wants one and has a secret desire to reach 10 million frequent flier miles, a feat that he would be the 7th in the world to reach. His conservative approach is foiled when the young Cornell grad Natalie Keener (performed by Anna Kendrick) proposes the idea of digitizing the firing work method through computers, making Bingham's job obsolete. She is supported by the boss (Jason Bateman in an unlikable character that you still love) but, to make things interesting, he has her tow along with Bingham to see if his method is still efficient. Along the way, he runs into Vera Farmiga's character, Alex Goran, who somehow is an exact replica of himself but, as she says, "with a vagina." They fall for each other but in their own, mutually detached way. Bingham finds marriage pointless, at least at the outset....

The acting is probably the best ensemble cast of the year, with George Clooney leading in his best performance yet. A confident, energetic man grows increasingly insecure as loneliness and age slowly pervade his core. He is able to fire people with a grace that he declares is better than anyone else yet cannot confront his estranged family. The two female leads in this film are also excellent, Kendrick and Farmiga. Anna Kendrick has been known from the Twilight films but she redeems herself in this fantastic role. She comes across as a spoiled brat at first but slowly loosens up as she realizes what is truly important in life. Meanwhile, Vera Farmiga, who was fantastic in The Departed, brings her sexy, seductive allure to yet another role, her finest yet. Alex is the same as Ryan in their "philosophy" of life. This thought process revolves around a certain obsession over "elite access" that their frequent flying compensates and an outright disdain for commitment. I dare not spoil any of the story but a few events in this film really hit you hard in the gut. I am not kidding when I felt a physical, internal reaction after a certain scene. That in itself is a feat of emotional storytelling.

Of course, Up In The Air is a comedy in a sense as well. There are many laughs to be had and they perfectly compensate some of the gloomier scenes. Danny McBride is the future brother-in-law for Ryan Bingham and he naturally exudes humor. Zach Galifianakis makes a cameo in the beginning as an example of an enraged employee who gets fired. His tantrums prove entertaining, if pathetic. The main characters themselves banter, stereotype and bicker, all of which prove hilarious. This is all comes down to the fact that this screenplay is of the highest caliber. Usually movies that are written well express it through their actors but this one is different:  you feel the greatness of the actor's performances as well as the supremacy of the script coexist, one from another. You will leave the theater thinking of the impact this film made on you in both its performances and its superb writing, an extremely rare achievement. The characters do not speak in elevated, unrealistic manners but in a plausible fashion, though we certainly wish we had the suaveness of Mr. Clooney in oratory. A touching, and somewhat biting, scene in which Bingham and Keener fire J.K. Simmons' character, Bob, shows the quality of all the aspects of this film at once. He shows pictures of his two children to the two and asks what can be done with them. Keener intervenes for she feels that she, a newbie at the time, can take on these tough situations. Bob tears her apart as she, not purposely, insults him. However, Bingham shows his expertise as he cools the situation off by encouraging Bob to follow his dreams, using plenty of amusing analogies all the way. The full effect is reserved for the film itself but even after recollecting the scene in my memory I recalled its brilliance. For Film Writing 101, there is no better current example to analyze than this film.

Up In The Air, as you can tell by now, is a superb film. The directing, acting and stellar screenplay all combine to create one of the funniest yet poignant cinematic experiences in recent memory. This film crept up and surprised me. It surprised me that I was regaled and hurt at the same time. It surprised me that Jason Reitman, a director I had no interest in before, created the movie for our current time. Hey, it surprised me that Sam Elliott appeared, in full mustachioed form, in an appealing cameo. But, most of all, it surprised me that Up In The Air's slow takeoff ascended to such a smooth, personal ride. I felt like I knew more about myself after watching this and, for that reason, I never wanted to touch ground.

Final Verdict:
5 Stars Out of 5

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Avatar Review

Directed by James Cameron
Released in 2009

I will eschew hypotheticals and get straight to business: Avatar is an excellent film. It is a film of revolutionary special effects, beautiful art design and rousing action, all contained in a story that holds emotional weight even if it seems like a road we have all traveled before. With an enormous budget (reports stated it was half a billion while it really is less than $400 million with marketing, $240 without) and James Cameron at the helm, an inordinate amount of hype has been attached to this movie and, naturally, not everyone will be pleased. However, for those who are willing to take Avatar at face value for the well-made blockbuster that it is, they will find one of the best action films in recent memory and a great way to end this fecund decade of cinema.

The concept behind Avatar is very idealistic but, through some miracle, it was realized. After steering Titanic to countless box-office records that have yet to be broken and mountains of Academy Awards, James Cameron wanted to make the film of his dreams. It took him years to reach the point where technology could match his megalomaniac wishes but, by the last 2000s, computers "caught up" to Cameron's vision and brought forth the film that is here today. Filmed with new, specially-designed 3D cameras, actors interacted with green screens and a fraction of what is on the screen (at least on Pandora's surface). The human element of filming seems to have been reduced, but this is not the case, as emotion and soul are very much present. The Michael Bay approach is nowhere to be found, as James Cameron does his best to balance the glitzy, million dollar linings of his special effects with a human story. Thankfully, he succeeds.

There is a tried and true story at the heart of Avatar and, while it will not win any Oscars for Screenplay, it serves as an inspiring tale of conflict, romance and betrayal. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a wheelchair-bound soldier who picks up on his deceased brother's mission as part of the Avatar program. This breakthrough of technology allows humans to embody an "avatar," in this case, a Na'vi mixed with human DNA. The Na'vi is the race of indigenous creatures to the planet Pandora, and they are blue and close to 10 feet tall. They all share a closer bond to nature than humans do, and that is where conflict arrives. The humans want an element called "unobtanium" (yep, a joke there) that lies clustered under the surface of Pandora's beautiful exterior. Jake loves this world who, as an Avatar, can walk and run unlike his human, crippled self.  He sees the world of Pandora as a place of opportunity that cannot be destroyed like the humans intend it to. To add to his conflicted feelings, Jake falls for a female Na'vi, Neytiri, voiced by the beautiful Zoe Saldana who made her first big-screen appearance in Star Trek earlier this year. The African (along with Native American, Mayan and every other race of people who were exploited for their land and labor) influence behind the tribes of Na'vi adds to their loving nature, as they cry when plants and animals are slayed. They also call upon their ancestors for spiritual guidance, shown by the trees that defy the laws of nature and hold ancient memories. Sure, some of the story has been done before but it is broke into a few parts with almost all of the action reserved for the end, allowing a period of focus on the fascinating natives. A touching, if predictable, ending wraps it all up effectively.

A point of interest in Avatar has been that it has box-office-breaching intentions while sticking with a cast devoid of any household names. For instance, Sigourney Weaver is the film's most known actress, though she lives up to her previous role in Aliens as a dominant female character. As the creator of the Avatar program, she is a certified genius but comes across as a hardass. Nonetheless,  she quickly warms up to Jake's gung-ho attitude and becomes his greatest human ally on his quest to save the planet. As Jake's enemy, Stephen Lang is brilliant as Colonel Quaritch, who will stop at nothing to carry through with his mission. His character is more of a homage to cheesy action stars of the 80s, shown by his constant one-liners, but is a very entertaining figure because his muscles match his determination. The dude doesn't settle for mere explosions to take him down and proves to be an (unintentionally) hilarious character. Michelle Rodriguez (Ana Lucia from Lost), Dileep Rao (Drag Me To Hell) and Giovanni Ribisi (Public Enemies) all make appearances as well, and the latter especially personifies the arrogant, capitalistic mindset the film is trying to expose. The protagonist himself, Jake, is acted very well by Worthington, a surprise considering his generic appearance. Behind the "jarhead" attitude that he initially displays, a caring being emerges, and his conflict over which side to support proves to be the film's focal point. All in all, the cast of Avatar lacks heavyhitters but has some real talent.

Of course, the real draw for Avatar is its visuals. In 3D, filmed with ultra-advanced cameras and with huge sections of interaction that are only CGI, a certain amount of hype was rested on the special effects and what its technological advances mean for the future of cinema. To put it plainly, this is the best-looking film I have ever seen. The sprawling vistas of Pandora are insanely detailed and simply beautiful. Much of the credit can be attributed to the superb art design which creates original creatures that have qualities of animals we all know, but turn them into mesmerizing, sometimes frightening beasts. For instance, Jake encounters a creature that has the head of a hammerhead shark on top of the body of a Triceratops. The last time I saw creatures so alive and original in their composure, yet vaguely familiar, was Jurassic Park. Many parallels can be drawn to that film as well: there are problems with the story, yes, but the action and visuals more than make up for it to be an immensely entertaining experience. Even the blue, Na'vi creatures emote to a level of human capacity. That was a point of skepticism for many as to whether or not these computer-animated characters can be properly lifelike. Thankfully, Cameron does not pull a Robert Zemeckis on this one and actually creates characters that are insanely detailed and carry a lifelike aura to them. The Avatars all resemble the humans behind them, enhanced to a degree, making them younger and stronger than their human form. Even the Na'vi themselves slightly resemble their human actors, as Neytiri bares similarities to Zoe Saldana. The Uncanny Valley has finally been crossed and all filmmakers should seek guidance from James Cameron on how to create emotive digital characters in closeup.

The 3D effects in this also work surprisingly well. Beowulf and Up dabbled in the 3D medium with moderate success but Avatar is the first film to really excel in this format to the point that watching it in two dimensions is an inferior experience. In 3D, colors still run into the problem of being slightly drained out but the depth of field and clarity of objects is astonishing. There are no gimmicks such as shooting into the screen or reaching a hand out to the audience:  the 3D experience only lends to the experience. This format is not perfect of course; I had a few problems with it initially. In IMAX 3D with the gargantuan screen, my eyes took some time to adjust properly and a chase sequence near the beginning seemed disjointed in what was being focused and what was not. This occurred in dialogue sequences as well: the camera was focused but my eyes could only focus on one focal point of the screen at a time and not others which made these scenes seem somewhat stilted. Others may not have this problem but reports say that some have it worse. Nonetheless, everyone should adjust after some time and then witness the remarkable work Cameron and his technological designers put towards this movie. The visual effects are a shock to the system and, like the best drug, a side-effect is only natural.

Saying this, Avatar runs into some flaws, but their nature and severity are so minimal that anyone focusing on them as a hindrance for enjoyment really is not viewing this film properly. The heavy-handed, impossible-to-miss message of conservation is somewhat overbearing but, really, any film with a green message is alright to me as long as it has something to complement it. The clichéd story is also unoriginal, taking cues from The Last Samurai and Dances With Wolves, even Pocahontas too, as a man who comes closer to nature and assimilates with a native group. This, for some reason, has been a point of contention for some and it seems to me that they forgot what James Cameron's work has beenTerminator 2 is one of the best action movies of all time and what is about? A robot from the future saving two humans from another robot. Not exactly mind-blowing material there. Arguably the best sci-fi action film of the 80s, Aliens did not showcase the heights of original storytelling either; the name is "Aliens" for godsakes.  The point is: James Cameron is the master of cliché, and he does it so well. His directing of action scenes is still the classic approach of "bigger is better" and there is nothing wrong with that. Look to Avatar for a unique visual feast and action extravaganza. The complexity of Synecdoche, New York (a great, underlooked film by the way) is not going to be found here.

There are a few blatant flaws with this film that are present regardless of personal subjectivity. For one, the script is lacking. James Cameron believes he is a Renaissance man of sorts. He most certainly is, as he created, directed, produced, and was one of the leading technical advisers behind this entire project. However, he also wrote the script, a problem that can be traced back to the Star Wars prequels that George Lucas took full control of. The script is far from terrible; it actually services the movie quite well but Cameron, as a screenwriter, has seemed to have lost his edge that made Aliens so quotable. There is no memorable Bill Paxton character in Avatar, and Cameron would have made the best decision if he focused on the story while giving the dialogue credits to an acclaimed screenwriter instead. Thankfully, the cast is so talented that they make the script actually work. Only a nitpicker like me will have real problems with the screenplay and I was amazed by everything else that the complaint is minimal.

In the end, Avatar is a fantastic way to end this incredibly influential decade of cinema. It is colossal entertainment on a grand scale and a film that truly must be seen to be believed. Its release on home DVD and Bluray will most likely contain a fraction of the impact it had in a big theater, a perfect way to inject life into the shaky box-office market. Truly though, its solid story along with brisk action combine to create an epic on the scale of any film to release this decade alone. The technology behind it is massive and also combines with some neat, recent tricks like a camcorder-like zoom (also seen in Star Trek and District 9 this year) that makes all of this glorious CGI actually seem lifelike. The impact of Avatar on cinema has yet to be seen:  will 3D be the new standard? Is making a movie this large and expensive smart or even feasible in this economic time? Those questions have yet to be answered but, right now, end the decade on a high note and see one man's crazy vision become realized through the spectacular Avatar.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

Saturday, December 19, 2009

DVD/Bluray Roundup - Short & Quick Reviews

So, I have not gotten around to seeing a film in the theaters for sometime, though that will change this Sunday when I see the much-anticipated Avatar. A review will naturally follow and then you all can see whether or not it lived up to the hype. In the meanwhile, I have seen a few films through Netflix that are not heavyweights but worth mentioning. I am going informal with these reviews but, no worries, the trademark Zahos analysis style will return for the Avatar review.

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard
Directed by Neal Brennan
Released in 2009

Sometimes a cheap, raunchy comedy is needed in a time of serious releases and The Goods fits the bill well. With a talented cast including Jeremy Piven, Ving Rhames, Rob Riggle, Kathryn Hahn, David Koechner, Ed Helms and the always lovable Ken Jeong, the actors alone guarantee this movie to be a fun, disposable comedy, regardless of a shoddy storyline. The story centers around a failing automobile dealership needing to make sales on Independence Day weekend and the help they enlist. This is, of course, Jeremy Piven and his crew who live and breathe car sales. There is a lot of fun to be had here as they tame the wild workers at the dealership including Charles Napier as a homophobic, deranged war vet. Kathryn Hahn, known from Stepbrothers, is entertaining in her attempts to seduce Rob Riggle's character who has a mental disability in that his mind is as advanced as an elementary school kid. It is sad, but hilarious. The Goods suffers from the typical, weak middle section flaw that is common in comedies of this sort but is a hoot in the end.

Final Verdict:
2.5 Stars Out of 5

Angels & Demons
Directed by Ron Howard
Released in 2009

Following in the footsteps of the simply terrible Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons has no where to go but up. It does in that regard but the amount is minimal. Tom Hanks returns as Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor who seems to be the only source for solving the cases that Vatican City and the Roman Catholic Church can find. He is introduced by an extended scene of him swimming in the Harvard lap pool, approached by a Vatican official. Because everyone wants to see topless, 53-year old Tom Hanks, right? Nonetheless, a group of a bishops has been kidnapped after the pope's death, messing up the selection process and panicking the clergy. Langdon must find the bishops before it is too late and is joined by Ayelet Zurer, the pair of which displays absolutely no romantic chemistry whatsoever. Ewan McGregor is also here as the clergyman with close ties to the late Pope, seeking to avenge his death. All of this is combined in overly expensive shots, flat dialogue, bland exposition, nonsensical action, melodramatic chase scenes and a plot twist that makes so little impact because the connection with the characters is nonexistent. Some praised Angels & Demons as a great improvement over its predecessor. It is a success in that I did not walk out of the movie, though I am sure I feel asleep. I probably dreamed of a better movie during that time so my opinion is certainly slanted. If you want to properly watch Angels & Demons then do so on comfortable couch/bed and consider your snooze time as the best part.

Final Verdict:
1.5 Stars Out of 5

The Brothers Bloom
Directed by Rian Johnson
Released in 2008

A small, overlooked film, The Brothers Bloom is a carefree, enjoyable, if flawed little movie. Starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel Weisz, there is some great talent in the leading characters and they all play well off each other. The story is basically about a pair of brothers who are also professional con-artists and pull off big jobs with ease. They are joined by "Bang Bang," their Japanese sidekick played by Rinko Kikuchi of Babel fame. The whole style is very interesting but it fails to pull of a Wes Anderson balance between quirkiness and hilarity. There simply is not a lot that makes you laugh, though you might be mildly entertained. Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid from Harry Potter) is one of the brightest spots of the film as the drunken "Curator," though his screen time is sadly very short. The film holds up however, and is a fun time for those looking for something different.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Directed by 
Released in 2009

As a fan of Wolverine and the X-Men comics and movies, I thought X-Men Origins: Wolverine would be a fun, if fleeting, experience. It turns out, both of those expectations were way off as this was a terrible "blockbuster" that stayed long in my head in the form of a headache. On paper it works: take Wolverine, flesh out his origins story, throw action scenes in and end with where he is today. In execution, it fails miserably.

Before focusing on the man himself, it is worth noting the low grade of the characters surrounding the protagonist. The cult favorite Deadpool is played by none other than Ryan Reynolds, a presence with such little comic or acting quality that every line uttered was a disgrace to his character and the film that it was printed on. (yes, that one) thought he could act and plays "John Wraith," an original name that perfectly symbolizes the actor's innovation. In this case, nothing. There are other characters but they are all dreadful as the next and the group sections are a real trial to get through. Unfortunately, Wolverine himself is not much better. Hugh Jackman, buff in a rigorous exercise routine, shines physically but actually decreases in quality as Wolverine, with cheesy acting and a poor script to draw his actions from. Wolverine's brother, Sabretooth, is played by Liev Schreiber, an excellent actor in his own right, but unfortunately he is handed a script that makes him come across as stubborn and pestering. The batshit ending where the producers put all the money they had left, bought fancy special effects and set pieces, and threw it at a wall expecting it to stick is an offense to your mind and intelligence too. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not very much a disappointment in my mind for I had no expectations but it is a complete and utter failure.

Final Verdict:
1 Star Out of 5

Thankfully, I rewatched some good films, those that are not an assault to the integrity of cinema but a grace to it. They are the following, and all on Bluray:
  • Public Enemies - This gangster film about John Dillinger is a technical marvel as well as truly drawing piece of cinema. Johnny Depp excels as does Christian Bale, even if his part is very emotionless. The ever beautiful Marion Cotillard, one of my favorite actresses, shows her Oscar-worth and is wonderful as Johnny's damsel-in-distress. Keep an eye out for Stephen Lang too, the hard-pressed detective who steals every scene he is in. He has a great year with this, Men Who Stare At Goats and a big role in Avatar. A collection of fine actors and the directing finesse of Michael Mann combine to make a very good film. 4 Stars Out of 5
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - Rewatching this movie was an interesting activity for me. I found it to still be one of the finest Potter films yet but I could not help but agree with some complaints that it was slow and rather plot-less. The book is similar but, as a film, that qualm really sticks out. No real action appears until the end and there are some sections that drag. However, character development is the focus of all these scenes, something I love. For those that love the Potter world and fiction, my original rating of 4.5/5 should still stand well. But for those who come to Half-Blood Prince and can't tell Ravenclaw from Hufflepuff then any other viewpoint rests well. 
  • Star Trek - Besides looking positively fantastic on Bluray, Star Trek is bound to be a sci-fi classic and is one of the best summer action movies of the decade. No other film in recent memory combined great action and special effects, a compelling, deep story and likable, hilarious characters as well as this. It really is a marvel in every way and a film that everyone, no matter if he or she likes the franchise or not, should see. 4.5 Stars Out of 5
  • Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino's mad masterpiece is a polarizing film in that some love it and others hate it. Some find the scenes to be dragged out too long and pointless while others have seen the light and know that it all contributes to the greater picture. I am part of the latter group and believe this film to be one of the finest of the decade. It is hilarious, insane, suspenseful, and, overall, brilliant as a fictional World War II saga. Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Hans Landa is the star of the show and will surely grab an Oscar nomination and hopefully a win for a performance that I would describe as a tour de force in acting. He speaks in 4 different languages with distinct motions and a fully realized character that was given great thought. He is shockingly good, as he is unknown by most American audiences, and the real soul of this film. With him, the rest of the cast and crew and Tarantino at the helm directing it all, a megalomaniac project that derived from Tarantino's dreams was realized into a work of genius. It will be remembered for years to come. 5 Stars out of 5.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox Review

Fantastic Mr. Fox:
Directed by Wes Anderson
Released in 2009

Animation has always carried a stigma of only catering to a juvenile audience. From Saturday morning cartoons to Disney feature films, younger children seem to always be the only group of people meant to watch animated movies or TV shows. This thought process has changed, especially over the past 15 years, with the most consistent movie developer in the business, Pixar, and crude shows like South Park and Family Guy. It is very rare, however, to see a veteran of live-action cinema forgo flesh and blood and instead opt for a full-length animated film. In stop-motion, clay animation no less. Wes Anderson took the risk and it paid off with Fantastic Mr. Fox, one of the best films of the year that stands as great, mature entertainment while still being a fun time for the younger crowd.

Anderson, known for his films with plots centered around dysfunctional families, takes his trademark style and brings it to stop-motion animation. His quirks and acting regulars such as Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are all here yet he does not rest on his laurels for he innovates on a formula some were calling stale. There are no slow-motion, drawn-out scenes (or two, or three...) but everything that worked with him is still in place and improved upon. Fantastic Mr. Fox is Mr. Anderson's funniest movie yet, blending humorous character appearances with quality dialogue. For example, when trying to communicate with a lone wolf in the distance and after exhausting his skill in English and Latin (he names many animals in the film by their scientific name), Mr. Fox asks a wolf something in French and explains, "I'm asking him if he thinks he's in for a hard winter." This is the most accessible Anderson film yet, and anyone who does not typically like his work will appreciate this film while fans will downright adore it.

Based off the Roald Dahl children's book of the same name, the story takes liberties with the source material which is no concern, especially considering Fantastic Mr. Fox is by no means a sacred, lofty title. The general premise is that Mr. Fox steals chickens, ducks, turkey, and hard cider from the three wealthy farmers of the area with his wife, Mrs. Fox, but then vows to stop when they barely escape a close encounter. Being the "wild animal" he is, he betrays this promise years later and starts stealing again, much to his wife and the farmers' dismay. The farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, put all their effort to capturing the fox and hold the family under siege while the animals work out a solution. It is a simple story and provides a very satisfying, uplifting conclusion.

The cast gives the characters human behavior behind each manufactured figure. George Clooney offers his smooth voice as the title character while Meryl Streep plays his wife. The two Oscar-winning actors have great chemistry as Mr. Fox serves as the adventurous type while his wife just wants to settle down in a life of safety. Their son, Ash, voiced by Jason Schwartzman, is the best character as he constantly scowls like a typical hormonal teenager while secretly wanting attention from his parents. The subject for Ash's jealousy is in his cousin Kristofferson who lives with the Fox family for awhile. He is everything that Ash is except better in some way: a better athlete, student, fighter, lover, etc. Played by Eric Chase Anderson, brother of Wes, Kristofferson is suave and likable: it is no wonder that only Ash has any problem with him. The legendary Bill Murray plays Badger, a lawyer, and Owen Wilson makes a short appearance as the coach giving the "simple" guidelines on how to play "Whackbat," the imaginary, head-spinning sport of the creatures. Willem Dafoe is sly as the dirty, dancing rat and Wallace Wolodarsky, another Anderson staple, plays the clueless, loyal assistant to Mr. Fox, Kylie. Finally, Michael Gambon, Dumbledore himself, lends his recognizable voice as the film's primary antagonist, Bean. The cast is well-rounded and excellent overall, with the old and new in Anderson's world united for his best creation yet.

As stellar as the voice talent is, the art style is where this film really shines. With figures from the U.K.-based puppet company Mackinnon and Saunders, everything has an organic look that gives each figure emotional weight while still preserving the rustic charm and humor that they all have. The fur on each of the puppet's faces rustle and quiver during close-ups while remaining static in others. Obviously, attention to such minute detail was not going to be paid to each, distant shot but this gives the film its welcome, quirky feel. A storybook aura definitely pervades the whole movie, with hand-drawn murals serving for most of the bucolic backdrops. Shots range from zoomed-in captures of facial expressions to scrolling, detached pans of the animals cavorting. This truly is an innovative, original film in many aspects and its direction and cinematography are the leading reasons why. A great soundtrack also accompanies the action with a few tracks by the Beach Boys as well as superb use of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" in a key scene. If there is a reason why Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the best films of the year, then it is certainly its style and new approach to animation.

Like any great film, there is a message lying underneath. The correlation between humans and animals (we are all animals, technically, after all) serves as a concealed foundation for most of the action. The debonair Mr. Fox is as sophisticated as James Bond yet engulfs his food like the vicious creature he is. On the contrary, the three rich farmers rake in huge profits yet commit literally their entire lives to bringing down a measly fox while Bean's disgustingly ugly son shoves his face with food and watches the events unfold on TV. There is a look into the human psyche in this film, funnily enough, that is not only pro-nature but showcasing the stupidity in some and brilliance in others. Anyone can be a Mr. Fox if they know what matters most in their life, even if it takes a near-death experience to reveal it. Further reinforcing this human-animal comparison point is the constant switching of titles in each scene, sometimes listing how much time has passed in "fox years" opposite human years. Action moves faster in the fox world (about 2 human years equals 12 fox ones) and this motivates the animals to get the most out of their life instead of eating 12 chickens a day like fat old Boggis.

Fantastic Mr. Fox lives to its namesake and is truly fantastic. The stellar voice acting and art style combine to create a unique experience that is one of the better comedies of year while still being animated. Any age group will enjoy this film, though different ages will obviously get different experiences. Children will be fascinated by its looks and like the characters while the older set will laugh at most of the jokes and appreciate the care that has been placed on every detail. This film also has one of the best censored scripts ever, with every curse word replaced with "cuss." It seems gimmicky at first but its abundance makes it friendly for the younger crowd while giving enough hints to know what the animals are really saying. And if there is anything that this film is trying to get across, it is that we are all wild animals in the end.

Final Verdict:
5 Stars Out of 5