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Even at a teppanyaki restaurant family dinners can get awkward.

(2016) Comedy (Amazon) Jenny Slate, Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass, John Turturro, Edie Falco, Ali Ahn, Marquis Rodriguez, Jordan Carlos, Finn Wittrock, India Menuez, Charlotte Ubben, Roger Peffley, Raffaella Meloni, Eric Tabach, Noah Tully Sanderson, Amy Carlson, Ezra Barnes, Megan Byrne, Adam Enright, Ian Jarvis, Christine Sherrill. Directed by Gillian Robespierre

 

Some movies seem to be more gender-specific than others. That doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyed by both sexes but one is going to find it more relatable than the other. So it is with the sophomore effort by Gillian (Obvious Child) Robespierre.

The year is 1995 and it promises to be a banner one for one particular Upper West Side family. Mother Pat (Falco) is a bigwig for the EPA and is the main breadwinner for the family although wannabe playwright ad copywriter Alan (Turturro) does okay. Their daughter Dana (Slate) is working as a graphic artist and engaged to Ben (Duplass) with whom she lives. Ali (Quinn), their younger daughter, is a senior in high school and has a bright future ahead of her.

But things are only wonderful on the surface. Dana is frustrated at her relationship with Ben which has turned somewhat vanilla. Pat is frustrated that she is taken for granted in the household. Ali is frustrated with everything, acting out and hanging out with all the wrong friends, snorting heroin at raves and having sex with all the wrong guys. The worst is yet to come though; Ali accidentally discovers a floppy disc (it is 1995 after all) with erotic poetry that her father wrote. That’s cringeworthy enough but it turns out that he may have written them for another woman who isn’t her mom.

Ali and Dana have been like gasoline and matches for some time but when Dana, needing a break from Ben, moves back into the house, the two begin to bond over their dad’s potential infidelity. They go on a mission to find out who the mysterious woman is and whether the poems were in fact written for her. In the process, they discover their own skeletons are just waiting to leap out of their own closets.

I can understand why Da Queen loved this movie more than I did. Being a sister herself, she related to the movie more deeply than I did. It’s not that I can’t relate to female characters mind you but certain situations are going to speak to women more than men and vice versa. There’s no shame in that – that’s just life. And I think women are going to relate to this in a big way. The movie gives a lot of exploration to how infidelity can absolutely crush not just the partner being cheated on but everyone around them. The movie also spends a lot of time exploring the bonds between sisters – and between mothers and daughters.

Slate and Quinn both look like they could be sisters, which helps further the illusion. Da Queen was insistent that the relationship between the two felt authentic to her and I’m not one to argue with her, particularly on such matters. To the credit of both actresses, they play people who have a lot of baggage; Dana also is unfaithful to Ben while Ali is right on the cusp of being a poster child for teen overindulgence which could lead to being a statistic. The snorting of heroin is disturbing but I get the impression that the filmmakers don’t think it’s as big a deal as I do. I’ve seen what heroin can do so perhaps my triggers are a little bit more sensitive in that regard.

I thought Turturro and Falco were absolutely great here. Turturro is one of those actors who can elevate mediocre movies and when he gets a good part in a good part (a la O Brother Where Art Thou) can absolutely kill it and that is what happens here. Even better is Falco, an Emmy-winning actress who has consistently shown through two major TV shows that she is one of the finest actresses working today; personally I think her performance here is worthy of Best Supporting Actress consideration and it’s not inconceivable that Amazon might have the wherewithal to promote her for it. I sure hope they do – it would be well-deserved.

While the movie doesn’t wallow in nostalgia like other period movies this summer have done, it does boast a killer soundtrack – as other period movies this summer have done. There are some subtle moments however – as when a television is tuned to former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s landmark speech in Beijing on September 5, 1995 when she proclaimed that “women’s rights are human rights,” a point that seems to need re-making in an era where her victorious opponent for the Presidency has allowed those human rights to be threatened with erosion. I do think that the point is intentional.

There is definitely some “first world problems” issues here and some moments when I thought the movie seemed a bit too self-involved for my tastes. Again, I think women are going to “get” this movie a lot more readily and appreciate it more than I did, so take my complaints with a grain of salt. Nevertheless there is plenty here for men to digest as relationships, never a simple subject, are particularly convoluted here. Robespierre is certainly a major talent whose future output I will be absolutely keeping an eye out for.

REASONS TO GO: The soundtrack is terrific. Turturro and Falco deliver the goods, particularly Falco whose performance is Oscar-worthy.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie feels a little bit self-involved. Quinn and Slate look like sisters and act like sisters but were less compelling than I would have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, drug use and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Turturro is the cousin of Aida Turturro who was a cast member on The Sopranos along with Edie Falco.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronically Metropolitan
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Buena Vista Social Club: Adios

Fantastic Mr. Fox


Fantastic Mr. Fox

A Fox family portrait.

(Fox Searchlight) Starring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzmann, Michael Gambon, Wally Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jarvis Cocker, Brian Cox. Directed by Wes Anderson

One thing is true of all of God’s critters, two-legged and four-legged alike and that is that we must all be true to our own natures. If that nature invites danger and disaster, can we but follow the path presented to us or can we diverge into safety and security?

Mr. Fox (Clooney) is a chicken thief, and like all successful thieves he survives by being quick-witted and adaptive. His wife Mrs. Fox (Streep) doesn’t really approve of his line of work, but when they nearly get caught she forces a promise from him that he will find a different career path. He chooses the one that may be of all jobs even less reputable than chicken thievery – journalism.

Years have gone by and Mr. Fox continues to live in poverty in a comfortable hole with his family. He has gone straight but only on the surface; in his heart he is a clever chicken thief liberating poultry from farmers who are unwise enough to allow them to be liberated. Despite his lack of financial wherewithal Mr. Fox decides to buy a home above ground in a beautiful tree overlooking the farms of the three men who control the valley they live in (and three of the meanest men you’ll ever meet). While Mr. Fox’s lawyer Badger (Murray) cautions against it, Mr. Fox goes through with his plan to buy the house anyway even though it will put his family in the line of fire. That family is going through enough as it is with the arrival of cousin Kristofferson (Anderson) which further antagonizes Mr. Fox’s teenage son Ash (Schwartzmann) who has a bit of an inferiority complex to begin with.

In order to pay for his new mansion, Mr. Fox supplements his ink-stained wretch salary with a little thieving on the side, along with the help of his friend and general handy-man Kylie (Wolodarsky) who is prone to spacing out at odd intervals. This incurs the wrath of the farmers, led by the rail-thin chain smoker Mr. Bean (Gambon) who has nothing to do with the Rowan Atkinson character of the same name. They declare war on the fox responsible for the filching of their hard-earned wares, forcing the animals to tunnel for their lives. Can Mr. Fox devise a clever enough plan to save the animals and make everything fantastic again?

I want to make it clear from the beginning that I’ve always blown hot and cold when it comes to director Wes Anderson. While his best moments from movies like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou are arguably as good as any being produced today, he can also turn the quirk factor from charming to overbearing in a heartbeat. He is most definitely an acquired taste and one that I haven’t yet acquired.

However, to my mind this is the best work he’s done yet. The sight gags are often hysterically funny and the tone of the movie is just off-beat enough to be interesting. I suspect that Anderson may have dialed down things a bit in deference to the audience which is bound to include children (the source material is, after all, a classic children’s book penned by Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). In toning things down and making the movie a bit more accessible, he makes the quirky elements all the more effective.

It helps that he has a great voice cast. Clooney is sly, witty and charming in a Danny Ocean vein, with a heaping helping of Everett (the lovable ne’er do well from O Brother Where Art Thou?) thrown in for good measure. Streep is solid as the very much long-suffering Mrs. Fox and Gambon throws the right amount of hissable evil to his villainous Mr. Bean. Most of the others read their lines in a deadpan monotone which makes the humor a bit dry but emphasizes the irony much better. Those who don’t appreciate that sort of humor will probably find this movie frustrating.

I have to make it known that while this is ostensibly a children’s movie, I think adults may wind up finding it more appealing than the wee ones. Kids are not known for being terribly accepting of things that are different than what they’re used to, and some may find the tone strange or the overall humor a bit boring. There are some over-the-top physical gags that will keep ‘em happy but by and large adults will get this a little more than the Nickelodeon set will.

The animation is stop-motion and highly textured, with the fur of the animals rippling in unseen breezes along with the grass. Trees bend in unison like an arboreal chorus line, and tunnels are filled with dirt, rocks and roots. It is not specifically realistic, more like hyper-realistic (if you take for granted that foxes walk upright, wear tailored clothes and speak with more intelligence than the average human). Animator Harry Selick, the man who did The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach was originally slated to animate this movie before delays caused schedule conflicts and Selick would go on to do Coraline. Instead Anderson hired Mark Gustafson who did the California Raisins commercials back in the day. Good choice, that.

Pleasant surprises make going to the movies a pleasure. I hadn’t been particularly looking forward to this movie but there’s a good chance this will wind up in our home video collection (which will likely be Blu-Ray by the time it gets out in that format). It isn’t often that I can say an animated feature will be appreciated more by adults than by children, but I think that I can say that with confidence here. Certainly there is that sense of magic and enchantment that is necessary in any animated feature, but with a tone and intelligence that is more adult. In other words, this is a movie that doesn’t talk down to children which is a good thing in my book. Next to Up, this is the best animated feature I’ve seen this year.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of great sight gags and a snappy off-kilter tone make this appealing to fans of indie films and Wes Anderson. Quirky without being overbearing. There are some nice vocal performances, particularly from Clooney and Gambon.

REASONS TO STAY: Although based on a children’s book and marketed to kids to a certain extent, this really isn’t a traditional children’s movie and if your tyke isn’t open to new things, they might find this strange or boring.

FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly salty humor but really suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tree the Fox family lives in is based on a beech tree on the property of original book author Roald Dahl, and Mr. Fox’s study is a near-perfect recreation of Dahl’s own study in his garden hut where he did most of his writing.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this will work just as well on a home screen but I kinda liked it on the big screen. You make the call.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: MirrorMask