FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009). Whatever is in the water out in Los Angeles is forcing today's most acclaimed young filmmakers to bring beloved children's books to the big screen. First it was Spike Jonze directing an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and then it was Wes Anderson helming a motion picture version of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. At this rate, can we soon expect Darren Aronofsky to tackle Dr. Seuss' Hop on Pop and Paul Thomas Anderson to serve up Arlene Mosel's Tikki Tikki Tembo? As for Anderson's stop-motion-animated opus, the mistake would be in categorizing it as a children's film, since it largely leaves out the sort of oversized humor found in movies made for the small fry. Instead, its pleasures, including Anderson's painterly compositions and the A-list vocal cast, seem more likely to win over viewers of voting age and above. George Clooney brings his usual mix of leading-man swagger and character-actor eccentricity to his interpretation of the title character, a newspaper columnist who once promised his wife (a largely wasted Meryl Streep) that he would leave behind his life of danger (i.e. stealing chickens) but instead finds himself being lured back by the prospect of sticking it to a trio of wicked farmers (the leader being voiced by Dumbledore himself, Michael Gambon). Moving to its own laid-back rhythms, this likable lark functions as a reprieve from the plasticity of most modern toon flicks. It may not be fantastic, but it's good enough.
DVD extras include a 7-minute featurette on bringing the story to the screen; and an 8-minute look at the film's puppet animation.
THE ICONS OF SUSPENSE COLLECTION: HAMMER FILMS (1958-1963). Building on its enjoyable Icons line (past collections include Icons of Horror: Boris Karloff and Icons of Adventure), Sony Pictures' home entertainment department devotes a set to six suspenseful yarns from Hammer, the British studio best known for its string of horror classics starring the likes of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
The Snorkel (1958) is a nifty thriller in which a suave gentleman (Peter Van Eyck) devises an imaginative way to murder his wife (it involves the titular underwater apparatus); his plan works until his teenage step-daughter (Mandy Miller) starts to figure out his m.o. The dimness of the teen's guardian (Betta St. John) is tough to take, but Van Eyck is suitably menacing, and the ending is terrific.
Never Take Candy from a Stranger (1960) is the best movie in the collection, a startling drama about a Canadian family which moves to a small British town, whereupon an elderly eccentric (Felix Aylmer) lures their 9-year-old daughter (Janina Faye)l to his home and gives her treats in exchange for watching her dance naked. The parents (Patrick Allen and Gwen Watford) are outraged and press charges, only to learn that the old man was once responsible for building the town out of nothing and thus is considered above the law. An unsettling opening gives way to tense courtroom confrontations that are then followed by a seat-gripping final half-hour.
Daft stabs at psychoanalysis are at the heart of Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960), which originally premiered in its U.K. homeland under the title The Full Treatment. Newlyweds Alan and Denise Colby (Ronald Lewis and Diane Cilento) are involved in an automobile accident that leaves her unharmed but results in serious head injuries for him. His cerebral damage leads him to want to strangle her; a lecherous psychiatrist (Claude Dauphin), smitten with the young woman, hopes to cure him instead. Val Guest's smooth direction and Cilento's fine performance can't overcome a talky script and an obvious twist ending.
Hammer superstar Peter Cushing headlines Cash on Demand (1961), a pleasingly low-key thriller in which a humorless bank manager who holds nothing but contempt for his employees finds himself at the mercy of a sophisticated bank robber (Andre Morell) who threatens to kill his wife and son unless he helps him clean out the vaults. Cushing and Morell bounce well off each other, though that should come as no surprise, as Morell had previously played Dr. Watson to Cushing's Sherlock Holmes in Hammer's solid 1959 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Not nearly as shocking as its title would indicate (it's no Psycho – or even Homicidal), Maniac (1963) stars former Sinbad Kerwin Mathews as an American artist who winds up in a desolate French town, where he becomes romantically involved with both a sultry salon owner (Nadia Gray) and her sheltered step-daughter (Liliane Brousse). In time, he agrees to help the girl's father escape from an insane asylum – a move he may end up regretting. The love-triangle material is unexceptional, but scripter Jimmy Sangster makes up for any lulls by providing not one but two satisfying twists during the home stretch.