5 November 2009

Clooney's Farm

George Clooney is known for many things these days, but we Batman fans, we usually remember just one thing. We remember that he was in Batman & Robin. While we certainly don't forget, it's possible that if we love film as much as the caped crusader, we might eventually forgive. I mean, sure, Clooney is the worst Batman ever, but is he really as much to blame for that film as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Akiva Goldsman or Joel Schumacher? Certainly not, especially since he's exonerated himself with his latter departures from TV soap operas.

The fact is that Clooney is a rather talented actor, writer and director. He's got one Oscar win under his belt already and has a rather impressive body of work through collaborations with the Coen brothers and Stephen Soderbergh. Yeah, there's that Sexiest Man in the World thing, but I'm loath to mentioning his perceived dreaminess for fear of the errant ton of homophobic bricks that might fall on me. Besides which, I've said many times before that good looks aren't necessary to good filmmaking. I just think the guy's a great film star, and he's got a number of films out lately, so today's post will cover Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Men Who Stare At Goats, his two farm animal related outings in cinemas at the moment. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

First off, Clooney lends his voice to the titular Mr. Fox in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox. Borrowing the premise of Roald Dahl's much loved book, Mr. Fox mounts a terrific heist on the local farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, raiding for chickens, turkeys and cider. Little does he realise that the farmers will go to the ends of the earth for revenge, deploying their combined workforces to obliterate Mr. Fox and his family's home. Banding together with the Rabbit and Badger families, Mr. Fox eludes capture and mounts yet another raid on the farms, only making the farmers madder. If that sounds like a pretty straightforward and entertaining animation, you've probably overestimated Wes Anderson.

A film based on this book should be accessible for children, correct? Not in Wes Anderson's world, where he's crafted the biggest disappointment I've had at the cinema in a while now. Fantastic Mr. Fox is essentially just like The Royal Tenenbaums, which I personally found to be the most overrated comedy in years, transplanted into Roald Dahl's world, and it just didn't work for me. It's obviously been sanitised for kids, but the use of the word "cuss" every time there should be a swear word isn't endearing at all- it just feels like Anderson wrote fuck, shit and tits exactly as he normally might, and then censored himself afterwards. The final title card proclaims that the film is based on Roald Dahl's book, but I actually want to decry that as false advertising.

The worst part of this approach is that it's a film for middle-aged people rather than Dahl's much younger target audience. There are films that strike a balance between adult enjoyment and children's entertainment, mostly the output of Aardman and Pixar, but you can't tell me that the 8-year-olds in the audience are excited by Mr. Fox talking about existentialism. Simultaneously humanising- not to mention Americanising- the animals and still making frequent mentions of how wild and feral they are confused me, never mind, your average 8-year-old. I'm a proponent of young audiences being more intelligent than most Hollywood fare gives them credit for, but Anderson has made an Anderson film, not an adaptation of the book. Personally, I'm just scorned by the fact that I was excited about Jarvis Cocker's contribution to the soundtrack, only to discover that he essentially cameos as himself in stop-motion form. Wes Anderson has made Jarvis Cocker annoying, and that's a cardinal sin of filmmaking in my book.

That's not to say the film is without merit- despite being utterly mistargeted, the voice cast largely do a great job. George Clooney brings Mr. Fox to life as a charming yet cunning creature, and it's always terrific to hear the voices of Bill Murray and Michael Gambon, whether attached to their bodies or not. Moreover, the animation looks fabulous. Production company Indian Paintbrush have given this a wonderfully retro aesthetic. It's not polished or computer generated like most animated films of late, but that gives it a lot more soul than its counterparts. With a less self-indulgent script, all the ingredients would have been there to make Fantastic Mr. Fox into a truly special animated treat. As it is, it's something of a letdown- who ever wanted to see a Roald Dahl book repurposed for Wes Anderson fans?

On the other side of Clooney's farm, we have The Men Who Stare At Goats, the feature film version of Jon Ronson's exposé of US black ops. In the film version, Ewan McGregor plays Bob Wilton, a heartbroken journalist who goes to cover the conflict in Iraq with a need to justify himself. There he has a chance encounter with Lyn Cassady (Farmer Clooney again), and discovers that he's undergone training as a psychic "Jedi" soldier for the New Earth Army, an American funded project. Bob is roped into Lyn's latest mission, which puts them at odds with the more nefarious Larry Hooper, played by Kevin Spacey. If you've seen the trailer, it's the one that gives off a slight vibe of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, only a lot more mainstream.

And that's just what some have said is the problem with the film. I haven't read Jon Ronson's book yet, and even though I plan to in the wake of enjoying this version, I don't think you can let that ruin your enjoyment of The Men Who Stare At Goats. As I've said in the past, any adaptation has to stand alone in the medium it's being brought to you in- sure, a nod to those who've followed the story across different iterations is nice here and there, but the most abominable adaptations are those that subsist on such nods rather than forming any coherent translation. The script for this one comes from screenwriter Peter Straughan, who also translated How To Lose Friends and Alienate People to the screen last year, but with much less competence than he displays here. It's a difficult beast to convert, but somehow it pays off beautifully.

A modest caption of "More of this is true than you would believe" doesn't completely overshadow the audience's enjoyment of the film, and you'd expect nothing less of Grant Heslov and George Clooney, who last collaborated on the understated and really rather excellent Good Night And Good Luck. As much as that film was a different beast, very grounded in reality, the opposite approach pays off remarkably well here. It's a comedy first and foremost, and its grasp of absurdity and humour makes this a very enjoyable watch indeed. McGregor is our narrator a la Gonzo, and got more than a few titters whenever the word "Jedi" came out of his mouth, given his brave struggle through three not-very-good films as a very-good Obi Wan Kenobi. Clooney plays Lyn almost completely deadpan, and it works brilliantly. Similarly enjoyable are Jeff Bridges, as the psychic project's hippie lieutenant Bill Django, and Kevin Spacey, as the almost cartoonishly spiteful villain.

There's a wonderful surrealism to the comedy of The Men Who Stare At Goats that keeps the laughs coming consistently for the full 93 minute running time. Its sense of humour put me in mind of Anchorman, given how both are traditionally viewed as "men's films" and this one has nary a female in sight. That said, the reviews it's been getting between user-generated content and more reputed critics suggests that this is going to be sadly overlooked. The complaints have been with narrative flow, but as a comedy it excels everything the mainstream reviews have said and sits comfortably amongst other great satires of the US military. Ewan McGregor's best Jedi film, and one of the best comedies of the year.


It only occurred to me halfway through writing that I could have just as easily paired Jennifer's Body (Megan Fox) with Fantastic Mr. Fox (...with some foxes), both of which were released by 20th Century Fox and had a Fox-fest. Ah...

Moving swiftly on, the next post will cover Jennifer's Body and Michael Jackson's This Is It, even though you can't really describe the latter as a film. In the meantime, if you've seen Fantastic Mr. Fox or The Men Who Stare At Goats, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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