So I did indeed get to see Fantastic Mr. Fox in the theaters (albeit by myself) on Thanksgiving after dinner. I noticed that the Nickelodeon was also playing Pirate Radio there as well, another flick that looked very enticing. So I grabbed Lindsay and we hit that one up together the next day, armed to the teeth with leftovers.
It takes a certain kind of person to get where Wes Anderson is coming from. Here, after all, is a filmmaker who’s spent much of his career making quirky, sophisticated comedies about unconventional dreamers and dysfunctional families like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited, films that are stylistically idiosyncratic to the point of polarizing audiences. The film is based on the novel written by Roald Dahl and follows the misadventures of Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), who wants to get out of a hole in the ground and live in a tree, but just can’t help himself from stealing from the local farmers. He’s promised Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) to go straight, but the three biggest farmers have such juicy chickens and ducks and turkeys, that he continues his daring raids. The farmers, fed up with being robbed, declare war not just on him but on all the animals who live in and around the tree.
In fact, there’s plenty that’s familiar here to fans of Anderson’s films. We have an eccentric father figure who’s maybe not quite the Alpha Male he imagines himself to be, a calm, well-centred matriarch, a child prodigy, and plenty of squabbling sibling rivalry. Meanwhile, the cast list is filled with many of Anderson’s regular associates – both Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray play major roles here, and there are cameos from Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody and Roman Coppola.
The script is by Anderson and his The Life Aquatic… With Steve Zissou co-writer, Noah Baumbach and there are chapter headings, too – “Cousin Kristofferson Arrives”, “The Terrible Tractors”, “Mr Fox Has A Plan” – a device he used before in The Royal Tenenbaums. You may even find some parity between Jarvis Cocker’s guitar-playing henchman, Petey, and Seu George’s Bowie-singing safety expert aboard the Belafonte in The Life Aquatic. In short, anyone concerned the director might have compromised his singular vision should be reassured – so far, so Wes, really.
What’s different, of course, are the bristles, fur, textiles, fabrics, buttons and wood Anderson’s team of craftsmen have used to bring his take on Dahl’s story to life through the laborious process of stop-motion animation (One interesting note: Anderson used the same crew of 20 animators that worked with Tim Burton on “Corpse Bride”). But that forensic attention to detail in the film’s look is, in itself, yet another typical Anderson trait. Here, you might easily find yourself marvelling at a helicopter shot of a spread of fields, all immaculately woven together from different types of fabric like a patchwork quilt, or admiring the incredibly meticulous detailing on the characters’ clothes. The colour palette, meanwhile, is as heavily stylised as his last film, The Darjeeling Limited – a warm, autumnal mix of reds, browns and oranges replacing that movie’s peacock fan of blues, green and golds. Home-made and hand-made, all arts and crafts; peculiarly English, in other words. So, yes, it’s a Wes Anderson film. With puppets! Really, what’s not to like? In fact, it only really deviates from Anderson’s established template in one respect – the character of Mr Fox (Clooney) himself. Usually, Anderson’s patriarchs are weary and melancholic like Steve Zissou, or duplicitous and dysfunctional like Royal Tenenbaum; all of them struggling, to some degree, to connect with their extended families.
Mr Fox, on the other hand, is brash, tenacious and super-confident – a do-er, in other words. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine any of Anderson’s other male leads having the cojones to behave as Mr Fox does. Here’s a character prepared to take on against the odds three angry farmers and their evil henchmen – all of them heavily armed, it should be said. But Mr Fox, in his own way, is troubled by the same kind of existential doubts that afflicted Tenenbaum and Zissou: “How can a fox be happy without a chicken in its teeth?” he muses darkly at one point. And when Mrs Fox angrily asks him at one point, “Why did you lie to me?” He replies: “Because I’m a wild animal.” George Clooney, of course, can do brash, tenacious and super-confident (oh, and charming) while standing on his head. And he does it here with great warmth (and charm). Anderson pays for Clooney’s presence. The filmmaker spends more time on him than wise, at the expense of others, several of which appear only in the final sequence.
Meryl Streep, as Mrs Fox, is a fine variant on the kind of part Angelica Huston’s played previously in Anderson’s films while Bill Murray’s badger is, well, Bill Murray-ish and Jason Schwartzman revisits the sulky persona he adopted for The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited. It’s perhaps difficult to know how all this will play out with the kids, admittedly. Anderson’s humour is typically droll, the characterisations arch. If the younger audiences are to connect with anyone here, you’d assume it might be Ash, Mr and Mrs Fox’ son. But Ash is a typically Anderson character – a bundle of neuroses, in other words. He harbours dreams of being an athlete, but his shortcomings are painfully shown up when compared to his visiting cousin, Kristofferson, who seems to be pretty much brilliant at everything. Ash is jealous – but this being a Wes Anderson film, he’s jealous in a deadpan sort way, of course. When Kristofferson appears to be cracking onto Ash’s lab partner at school, a sort of indie female fox, Ash petulantly remonstrates her: “You’re supposed to be my lab partner.” “I am,” she replies. “No you’re not,” says Ash. “You’re disloyal.” This, clearly, is not Toy Story.
Coincidentally, Anderson isn’t the only filmmaker to tackle a much-loved children’s book – earlier this year, we saw Spike Jonze’s version of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, adapted by Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers. You might wonder whether these two films signpost the way to a de-Disneyfication of children’s films, with both Anderson and Jonze exactly the kind of directors to recognise that childhood can be a complex and often traumatic experience. And perhaps this might even be the start of a trend for hip New York directors to film children’s books.
Pirate Radio is the high-spirited story of how 8 DJ’s love affair with Rock n Roll changed the world forever. In the 1960s this group of rouge DJs, on a boat in the middle of the Northern Atlantic, played rock records and broke the law all for the love of music. The songs they played united and defined an entire generation and drove the British government crazy. By playing Rock n Roll they were standing up against the British government who did everything in their power to shut them down. It matters not whether you were around at the time or not, the music will set your toes tapping endlessly. The film features an unbelievable selection of music including The Beatles, The Stones, Beach Boys, Dusty Springfield, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Smokey Robinson, David Bowie, Otis Redding, Cat Stevens just to name a few.
A rock’n’roll fuelled history lesson armed with killer dialogue, “Pirate Radio” tells of one of man’s lesser-known voyages – the mission to keep rock music alive in the 60s, via illegitimate radio stations floating not-so-silently out at sea. By his own admission, British writer/director Richard Curtis has made a living out of making modern-day love films. But unlike Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually, this one doesn’t concentrate on a passionate affair between man and woman but more the disc jockey’s love of music – and giving it to the people. The story relives the days of pirate radio, when rock ‘n roll and pop music heard through Britain’s airwaves was perhaps not as illicit as drugs, but just as eagerly sought after. Curtis, who has not only captured the essence of the time wonderfully but tells a hypnotic story about a group of wacky characters on a boat in the North Sea, who live for the music they play 24 hours a day. Curtis favours collages of ordinary English folk listening to the pirate station, ranging from teen girls to labourers and well coiffed housewives, to kids hiding their transistors under their pillows at night. These devices, along with the stylised moments like pub crawls for a stag party, make the film play like an old-fashioned musical.
The good ship “Radio Rock” (said to be based on real-life vessel Radio Caroline) is a thriving pirate radio station operating in the waters of under the guidance of captain Quentin (Bill Nighy), the boss of Radio Rock. It’s eclectic staff includes celebrated Yank D.J “The Count”, played by the Academy Award Winning Philip Seymour Hoffman, chunky womanizer “Doctor Dave” (Nick Frost), The greatest DJ in Britain, Gavin (Rhys Ifans), terminal sad-sack Simon (Chris O’Dowd), the oh-so-dense “Thicke Kevin” (Tom Brooke), New Zealander Angus (Rhys Darby), ladies-man “Midnight Mark” (Tom Wisdom). When newly expelled high schooler Carl is curiously sent to the vessel as chastisement by his ‘once wild’ mum (Emma Thompson in a cameo), he comes of age amidst the chaos of sex, drugs and rock n roll. They all seemingly live for their audience – and have little to no life outside of the ship. And that’s just the way the unruly bunch would like it to stay – but as Bob Dylan sung, the times they are-a-changing.
The year is 1966, and while the hair is getting longer and the skirts are getting shorter, London is finding it hard to swing – you know, like pendulum do – since the BBC refuses to play much in the way of rock and/or roll. But thankfully, pirate radio stations are supplying the good people of Great Britain with all the ‘yeah yeah yeah’ music they can take. The stiff Minister Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), and his newly appointed sidekick Mr. Twatt (Jack Davenport), plan on spoiling everyone’s fun though. By the end of the year, Dormandy wants every pirate radio station off-the-air – and he’ll stop at nothing to see he (and his crony) succeed. Sink or swim, the crew of Radio Rock aren’t going down without a fight.
It’s probably a given that a former radio announcer like myself was always going to enjoy a film that studies the wacky early wireless activities of the LBJ-era shock-jocks (That and my alumni week at my own station two weeks ago brought back the flood of crazy times on the air). Even if I never cued a record in my life, I’m almost positive I’d still go gaga for this divine flick. Touching, heartfelt and very, very English, The result is a blast. Nick Frost proves that he can keep afloat without Simon Pegg, and Billy Nighy proves what a versatile performer he is by transforming from a Peter Cook-style impresario into a Noël Coward-esque naval officer in the space of one short scene. It’s a coming of age story with comic elements as well as a reflection of the mood of a generation that embraced the music as a part of their everyday lives.