Friday, June 29, 2012

100 Film Facts About Me

Stevee of Cinematic Paradox created a monster when she posted 100 movie related bits of trivia about herself.  I've combed over dozens of lists from fellow film bloggers over the past couple weeks, and while at first I figured I'd go about my business and sit this one out, the more I read the more I started to think "well...why not?"  So, here goes... 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mixtape: Disappear Here

We’ve come home to visit the ghosts, the people being driven mad by living in this city. Our friends are all for sale, put on the market by parents so hungry and unfulfilled they started eating their own children. We’re half-truths, and when I come to a red light I see a billboard I don’t remember and all it says is ‘Disappear Here’. And even though it’s nothing, it freaks me out a little. 26 songs to make you Less Than Zero

Listen, then check out past playlists (like last week's Rules of Attractionits conjoined, 21st century twin)  here or on 8tracks. 

*gif reposted from here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

RIP: Nora Ephron

It's never pleasant when you turn to the internet in search of an answer to a random question and find a bit of bad news.  Tonight, I was saddened to read that Nora Ephron, a writer/director beloved for the quick-wit she displayed across essays, fiction, and screenplays has passed away after a struggle with leukemia at a mere 71 years old.  While Ephron's sharp personality earned her a reputation in some circles as a sort of contemporary Dorothy Parker [source], I'll have to stick to thanking her for that famed trio of decade defining romantic comedies.  I grew up on Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, eventually graduating to the undeniably classic When Harry met Sally..., and while my movie-going memories are nothing compared to all that Ephron accomplished during her lifetime, I've gotta thank her for them.  So, cheers to Nora Ephron for merging the old school screwball with the new school modern romance and for all those hours spent with mom on the couch.  

Check out a short sampling of Ephron's New Yorker pieces here.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Love: Brave

Brave marks the first time a Pixar film has featured a female protagonist, a revelation that seems somehow disappointing given the company’s unparalleled access straight to the sweet-spot of the brain’s empathic, happy-making center.  Yet, it’s true: Pixar has totally snubbed the ladies.  With over a decade of instantly recognizable boyscouts, boy-toys, and boy-bots under their belts, the animation gods had a tremendous amount of make-up work to manage with Brave’s Princess Merida.   Brave needed to not only feature a return to the strong storytelling of their past features (in the wake of the dismal, toy-schilling Cars 2), it also had to give us a fully-dimensional woman with her own tale worth telling.  While I love my Disney Princesses, if Pixar had followed up a dozen beautiful tales of friendship and adventure with a full-tilt happy ending sap-fest aimed at hawking amulets at little girls, I’d have flipped my lid.  We didn’t need another lips red as the rose, overly curious hair-brusher, talented songstress, or snappy chick in an over-the-top ballgown stumbling upon true love; we needed a real girl.  Luckily, Pixar’s a smart brand.  They rose to the challenge and delivered a wildly wonderful female protagonist with strengths apart from merely being able to assert herself in a male dominated world.  Merida’s a killer archer, yes, but more than anything she’s a young woman actively addressing the expectations of her society and her mother, seeking to decide her own fate, and struggling with how to achieve that and remain happy.           

The more I think about Brave, the more I find myself loving all its little details.  The story is an original one, but in the hands of the Pixar imaginarium, it feels like a tried and true bit of folklore already time-honored and lovingly worn.  In the lush majestic Scottish highlands,  we’re introduced to Merida and her family: loudly lovable King Fergus, decorum-focused Queen Elinor, and three troublesome triplet brothers.  The time has come for Merida to be married off to a first-born son from one of the neighboring lands, and she’s not having any of it.  While part of Merida desires nothing more than to let her hair down, gallop aimlessly through the woods, climb cliffs, and loose arrows; the story doesn’t let her simply cite “being a tomboy” as her reason for putting off the seemingly inevitable.  The truth is one she admits:  she’s just not ready.  It’s not time yet.  She hasn’t grown up, and she needs time to form her own identity, to spend time on her own, and pursue her own interests instead of settling into a life of royal domesticity.  Merida scoffs at the mere notion, citing her unscheduled wedding date with evident disdain as “the day she becomes her mother.”  It’s a repellent idea to her, and one she seeks to prevent at all costs.  After taking desperate measures, however, the film veers in a direction wholly separate from the comedy of manners that came before.  I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that where the first half places the pieces, the second upends the board for a surprising, urgent adventure.

 While it’s true that Brave fits comfortably into the fairy tale world of the Disney brand, and many will cite an adherence to ‘convention’ as a reason why it doesn’t quite meet their expectations for Pixar’s emotional rollercoasters, I’d urge you to give it a close look and admire all the small details that are contributing to the very sense of something effortless that many are scoffing at.  Where past Pixar outings have offered us glimpses into imaginative spaces that challenge elements of the world as we see it (inside the toy box, inside the aquarium, behind the child’s closet), Brave will undoubtedly be discounted for its grounded, human elements.  Its landscapes read (ironically) as too real, too genuinely cinematic to truly leave a stunned impression.  They’re not majestic, brightly colored cartoon spaces, they’re craggy mountains, lush, gorgeously rendered trees, branch-blocked footpaths and flaming, intricately created hair (practically a character itself).  With Brave, they’ve sought the aesthetic of the epic and have created sequences that seem made for crane shots: inviting expansive landscapes, castles that rise out of the mist, intricately detailed storybook scenes designed to make the eye wander.  

The details of the characterization, too, are loaded with lovely subtleties that speak volumes.  When Elinor shoves Merida’s hair under a wimple for the ceremonies, she insists (silently) on drawing out a single lock.  It’s part of her identity, and part of her rebellion.  Elinor displays her own stubbornness in the opposite direction, doling out etiquette instructions long after its appropriate for her to do so (that will make sense later).  Their relationship becomes integral to everything at work in the film, and where Tangled began to mine the wealth of material at play in the often antagonistic relationships between parents and daughters of so many fairy tales, Brave successfully constructs a push pull dynamic  both natural and tragic.  Merida exerts a fair amount of effort bitterly hating everything her mother seems to stand for, yet Elinor’s not as happy about the things she must introduce her daughter to as she seems.  Even when the elements working to teach them their individual lessons become a bit heavy handed, the familial bonds depicted here are smartly dealt with.   So, is it the absolute best movie Pixar has made?  Probably not.  The story could be a little stronger, the backup characters could use a little more depth.  It is, however, a very consistent, lushly beautiful, very worthy addition to the oeuvre and one deserving of quite a bit of love.  Ignore the doubting critics, if you can.  They’re like those helicopter parents who ground their kids when they get an A instead of an A+.  Brave’s a solid A, and one you’d be remiss in dismissing. 

Squalor: Rock of Ages

The best thing about Rock of Ages is perhaps that it’s made it easy to stick a broad pop cultural pin onto a variety of music I generally don’t enjoy.   I’m a child of the 80’s, but I didn’t do my growing up in that decade, and the songs of ‘hair-bands’ aren’t the sounds of my nostalgia.  Hell, they’re not even the songs I immediately associate with the decade.  Instead, they’re a form of arena jock rock that I associate with crummy bars and gym teacher mixtapes.  Journey makes me stop believin’, if you will.  Still, if you put them in a frothy, glammed-up musical, I should be able to learn how to love them.  I mean, this kid really enjoyed Mamma Mia and is guilty as charged on counts of actually having seen the Queen jukebox musical We Will Rock You.  I’m a willing participant in over-the-top campy displays of glitter, hairspray, fishnets and cheese.  Yet, both incarnations of Rock of Ages have left me rolling my eyes and gritting my teeth.  You’d think after taking in the stage version I’d have taken a pass on the film, but I was convinced a movie would be able to find the right pitch, gel all the elements, and have sugar rush fun with the clashing absurdity.  Somehow, though, they messed the whole thing up. Where the Broadway version managed to gleefully camp itself up to a poppy crescendo, the film is so mind-numbingly disjointed that at times it becomes hard to watch.  

It’s a variation on a story we know well, and one we’ve seen most recently in Burlesque:  a small town girl moves to Los Angeles with a song in her heart and wide-eyed country ambition, winds up working at a bar, falling in love, and getting to dance about as she follows her dream.  The girl in question is Julianne Hough’s Sherrie Christian (GET IT? GET IT? I feel a song coming on…), the bar is a struggling Sunset Strip temple of rock called The Bourbon Room, and the boy is feathery haired rocker-wannabe named Drew (Diego Boneta).  They bus tables, they listen to records, they fall head over heels in the time it takes to play a Foreigner song.   The love story becomes the forced glue designed to hold together a larger narrative about a dwindling demand for glam metal, the rise of hip-hop and manufactured pop, the battles between venues and record companies, the battles between uptight politicians and demonic rock, and how completely Kurtzian Axl Rose-channeling Stacee Jaxx has become.  All of these things are potentially far more interesting than the superficial attractions of two servers, but somehow Sherrie & Drew are the main attraction.  It’s a shame, because without them we could have had something.  

Before you say a damn thing: it’s clear that the entire cast is ‘in’ on the joke.  There’s absolutely no question as to whether or not Rock of Ages was ever built to be taken seriously.  The dialogue is made of groan-worthy one-liners, Tom Cruise’s rock god Stacee Jaxx leers a little too long and hard with every syllable, the outfits are comically cliché, and the characters are developed only to introduce another sparkling, riff-filled 80’s hit.  Everyone knows that what they’re involved with is just supposed to be something that makes people happy, and in that respect I suppose it succeeds.  Rock of Ages was an enjoyable enough viewing experience, but mostly because I enjoyed tearing it apart as I was watching it.  Everything is a little off about the film.  The timing of most of the jokes fall flat, the High School Musical Kids did a better job delivering their cheeky lines than Hough and Boneta,  and the transitions into the songs are so god awful forced it’s hard not to throw your arms up when Catherine Zeta-Jones jumps straight into “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” as her fired-up sermon to the moral militia or Mary J. Blige delivers a single off-key sentence before introducing Sherrie to stripper life with the inappropriately upbeat “Any Way You Want It”.  Flat out:  half of the songs don’t make sense in context.  Where a film like Moulin Rouge! used recognizable pop music to its advantage, mashed it up, changed the tone, and allowed the song to add to the scene, Rock of Ages seems to have built the musical around the songs and often times winds up desperately searching for a chance to squeeze in ONE MORE instead of spending time developing the new element it just introduced.  Basically: they threw the whole Velveeta block into the microwave and melted it down into this giant, greasy, slippery mess of bubbling burnt artifice and somehow we’re supposed to find it appetizing as it leaks out over the counter.  It’s like some sort of musical stomach flu that causes all sorts of uncontrollable sing-songing without ever allowing its characters to have a moment of meaning.

If you see Rock of Ages you should arrive without expectations.  Make some popcorn, tear open a bag of gummy worms, then sit back and wait for the vacuum.  As you watch, ponder these probing questions:  1. Was Tom Cruise’s nose always half the size of his head?  2. When Tom Cruise tries to look sexy, has he always looked like he’s about to kill someone?  3. What is going on with Tom Cruise’s  torso?  He’s thin, but not, muscular, but not, it’s like his rib cage is overtaking his body, right?  4. Is Alec Baldwin conscious?  5. Who decided Julianne Hough should be a thing?  6.  Why is Julianne Hough so orange?  7.  Did they hire her because she’s like Christina Aguilera without the talent?  8. If I think this movie is silly and I don’t really like this music, then why do I want to have a party where the dress code is exactly this? 9. Wait, didn't Catherine Zeta-Jones win an Oscar for doing this kind of thing once?  10. Why is Catherine Zeta-Jones doing this one?  Deep thoughts.  Deep thoughts. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Squalor: That's My Boy

When you map out the basic plot elements of an Adam Sandler movie, you generally expect to find a mix of celebrity cameos, odd displays of athleticism, goofy voices, over-the-top implausible concepts, groin injuries, mentions of farts, dick jokes, and forced sentimentality.  While That's My Boy has all of that, it's R-rated aspects traffic not merely in the scatological, but in strange, morally ambiguous territories that seem more like plot points in a Todd Solondz indie drama that a big dumb comedy.  Let's do a quick technical plot breakdown for those of you have been living in blissful ignorance, shall we?  Sandler plays Donny Berger, a guy famous for bedding his hot teacher as a preteen, knocking her up, and gaining custody of their lovechild. Years later, he's a washed-up tabloid star who has found himself owing the IRS quite a bit of money.  So, naturally, he hatches a plan to manipulate the events of his estranged son's (Andy Samberg) wedding to his advantage.  His son hates him, has changed his name (from Han Solo to Todd), and has been struggling to carry on a normal, successful adult life with his fiance (Leighton Meester).  
No big, right?  Just your standard comedy trip with the alcoholic victim of a nationally lauded pedophilia and statutory rape case to blackmail the bastard son whose general health he has already damaged.  Add a bit of incest and some sexual favors in there and you've got That's My Boy.  It's a mean-spirited, impossibly raunchy orgy of family dysfunction that's both the raunchiest and (dare I say it?) the funniest film of Adam Sandler's career.  It's the lowest low and the highest high, and I will admit that I found myself experiencing something I've never really experienced in a Sandler movie: I actually laughed.  More than a few times. Often in spite of myself.  There's a lot to hate here, from the dreadful accents to the broad misogyny inflicted on the female characters (who are all either sex objects or manipulative bitches), and the film's generally predictable trajectory is loaded with scene after idiotic scene.  There's a hungry sort of desperation to the humor that gleefully pushes the comedy beyond the usual kid-friendly slapstick and onto a level of wicked vulgarity so dopey it almost has you fooled.  
It's possible to take it all too seriously.  You can choose to feel sickened by the reality of the teen boy fantasy at play in the opening scenes, you can know that no single night of binge drinking and strippers can patch up the damaged relationship between an unfit dad and his adult son, you can even sense that there's some sort of audience hatred or resent projected from this incarnation of Sandler.  He seems to be staring back at us after a series of PG, braindead fare, asking as he goes through the gross-out motions "Is this what you want?  Is this what you want?"  Maybe that's reading too much into it.  It's just a comedy after all, right?  Just a super fast, upbeat, weirdly dark comedy.  It's not the fall of Rome or anything.  Just go with it.  Accept that all the fancy pants in Cape Cod have been hungering to holler "WHAZZZUP" and know that it could be so, so, so much worse.  Hey, at least Vanilla Ice is getting a second chance here, right?

Mixtape: And It's a Story that Might Bore You...

The truth is, we feel nothing.  And it's a story that might bore you, but you don't have to listen because really?  We always knew it would be like that.  We dance at the end of the world, at the edge of the world; we dress to get screwed.  Our lives seem to lack forward momentum, everything is wrong, we're starting to freak's like a Polanski film. And all we want is for you to take us up in your big strong drama major arms and tell us, really, it will be alright.  We no longer know who we are and we feel like the ghosts of total strangers.  21 songs to teach you The Rules of Attraction.  Listen here, then check out past mixtapes.  Next up?  Less Than Zero.   

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Love: Prometheus

The instant the credits began rolling on Prometheus I was ready to run back home and rapidly type what likely would have been a dissertation-sized love note in filled with all caps ramblings, exclamation points, and non-ironically used ironic txt message declarations of enthusiasm and adoration: all the retainer-spittle gushy bits of your standard issue geekgasm.  I'll give you the short version now: I fucking loved Prometheus.  It is everything I could hope for in a film with Alien DNA.  It is all that I could ask for from Ridley Scott's first sci-fi outing in decades.  It is elegant, exacting, beautiful, and evokes a sort of cinematographical ecstasis.  In writing that sentence, I come dangerously close to teetering away from any sort of semi-sane tone into a deep dark pit of fan-kid glee. Yes. That's right. Space exploration gone horribly wrong makes me extremely extremely happy when done correctly. Prometheus has been done correctly.  I want to watch it again.  I want to watch it right now.  I'm not kidding.  How often do I say this?  Never.  Seriously. I will pay the $12 to go back and watch it in 3D again even though it's only been a matter of days.  That is the honest truth. And you're like..."Wait.  You're doing it.  You're doing that nerdy freak-out thing.  You're not telling me anything important."  You are right.  I apologize.
If you can, dismiss the question as to whether or not Prometheus is explicitly an Alien prequel.  While it is indeed a film set in the same universe as those films, and will likely be appreciated far more by those initiated into them at a young and tender age (yes, me), it manages to be an upstanding work of science fiction without the burden of that other story line to live up to.  In a cinematic landscape littered with sequels, remakes, board games, and first contacts designed solely to 'blow up real good', Prometheus is positively regal in its bearing.  When he bothers to make an effort, Ridley Scott is something of a visionary within the genre; Blade Runner, Alien, and Prometheus manage a aesthetic ingenuity rarely matched.  Scott's films are not CGI noisemakers tricked out to distract you from the absolute lack of plot.  They're atmospheric wonders in which familiar things become quite strange and the truly strange things (H.R. Giger catacombs, for example) haunt our memory as prototypes for what the genre looks like. They are monuments and monoliths: Blade Runner's visuals are the cyberpunk landscape, Alien is a reflection of our worst intergalactic fears, and Prometheus is the Tree of Life of standard issue sci-fi. It's brooding and philosophical, simple, yet packed with problems that possess no easy solutions.   Prometheus is all the more haunting because it is not contained within the austere decks, vents, and control rooms of the Nostromo.  Instead, it's entangled with images of a nature we recognize and the comforts of home.
In the prologue, we watch as a pallid demigod of a humanoid deconstructs in an apparent life-giving suicide. Cells proliferate, things break and decay, we reopen millions of years in the future where scientists Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have made an archaeological discovery that suggests the key to understanding the origins of life may be far outside of our own solar system.  They want to meet their makers, and are sponsored on their costly outing by Weyland Corporation, a questionably intentioned company run by Guy Pearce in waxy, rather awful old-age makeup.  The film's title is, of course, based in a myth worth noting. Prometheus was a titan who dared to steal fire from the Gods.  In doing so, he sparked civilization as we know it though he himself suffered an endless, cyclical torment as a punishment.  Shaw and Holloway's thesis appears correct, they find what they're looking for right away, but the question is: who were these 'people'?  What benefit comes from knowing?  Are we inching too close to the fire, or did they?  Whatever the answer, the lead-up to the inevitable blood bath is positively dazzling.  
Among the grim band of pioneers is the icy, all-business Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) (a woman who acts like a robot) and David (Michael Fassbender) (a man who indeed is an android). Where Shaw and Holloway are painted as semi-sloppy humans with fleshy desires, emotions, and an inability to see the big picture in a moment of genuine excitement, Meredith and David are agents of control (though sometimes this means a controlled chaos).   While Prometheus is undoubtedly a visual marvel, its broad successes are due in no small amount to the quality of the actors on board.  Noomi Rapace has her breakout English-speaking role here, and it's all too easy to completely forget that she was every the steely, volcanic Lisbeth Salander.  Here, there's an naivete  about her, a keeping of the faith that resonates in her countenance and makes her a believable paradox: the god-fearing scientist.  We need Shaw in the game for us to care at all, and she's our link to the film's thesis and its shrunken, barely beating heart.  In direct opposition to her slapped-down optimism you will find Fassbender's spectacularly rendered David. David is a walking, talking Hal 9000 with an unsettling smirk, an obsession with Lawrence of Arabia, and the ability to respond to constant reminders of his status as "not a real boy" with passive aggressive remarks that you'd have to be a damn fool not to question.  While the question of a robot's agency may read as tiresome to certain viewers, David is a remarkable, highly memorable character portrayed by Fassbender with a freaky, uncanny valley amount of control.  He's menacing and alluring, scarier (in some ways) than the monsters lurking in the unknown. Man and machine have become as one, and the question of creation weighs heavy.  Like Shaw, David seems to be seeking his own truth.  Like Shaw, the lengths he's willing to go to only open up further room for debate.
Prometheus as a film is very much like David.  It's invitingly cold and seems to take a certain jolt of pleasure from curiously tampering with the lives of the mortals in its care. That means, too, that while it's an aesthetic improvement or technological advancement on an old idea, it's still a familiar trope at heart.  For those seeking a 'more' substantial amount of pure originality from a panic room bit of sci-fi: I wish you luck.  For those who don't particularly relish an added lump of grisly thought with their extraterrestrial explosions: please go about your business elsewhere.  For the true believers?  Oh yes. This is the one.  This right here?  This is the good shit.  The quality shit.  The shit that calls for a positive use of expletives because you need that raw gut punch of added genuine enthusiasm. It's not splendiferous. It's not sublime or an intoxicating concoction or an incandescent citadel of all that's good in the atrophied land of genre fiction.  It's just fucking awesome.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Late Night Trailers: Django Unchained

How on Earth did I miss this shit?  I've been too out of practice on internet consumption these past few days, it seems, because I seem to have royally overlooked the first real glimpse given of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained.  Anytime Tarantino releases a new bit of bad-assery, I'm guaranteed to be there, and though Django is an experiment with one of my least favorite genres in one of my least favorite cinematic time periods, this looks more than up to snuff.  I'm not going to bother telling you what it's all about.  Just watch the damn thing.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Late Night Trailers: Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph only made it to the honorable mentions on my list of most anticipated movies for 2012.  In part, I didn't completely believe it would actually be released this year.  With the jumble of information leaked on it, too, I wasn't completely confident it would be able to jump over the hurdle of being just another half-considered Disney grab for a young male audience.  With the release of the trailer, I think most will agree that this is looking like a far more substantial piece of entertainment than some of the company's more recent animated outings.  And by more substantial I mean that it looks kind of flat out awesome.  John C. Reilly lends his voice to the title character in a film that appears to embrace the nostalgic elements of gaming culture instead of trying to simply adapt a pre-existing storyline, and seems to be picking up on successful elements from Pixar collabs like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc.  A Pac-Man ghost leading a support group?  Oh, hell yes.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Love: Moonrise Kingdom

Articulating what's great about Moonrise Kingdom leads to a problematic stumbling over  descriptions and comparisons.  It's good, yes.  It's very good.  It might even be great.  Yet, trying to explain why that is somehow brings on a half-baked assessment of the elements in play.  Everyone wants to speak about it in terms of substance, as if Wes Anderson's fanatical attention to detail is on the verge of becoming passe. For some reason, this time around the line "if you've seen one you've seen them all" is being floated about like it's a known fact.  The same everyone spouting these questions also wants to know where the film lands on the scale of one to seven, with Rushmore as the inevitable numero uno.  In a bit of a conversational half-challenge, one friend asked me what specifically made Moonrise any different from the Wes flicks before it, and this is the question that has become my focus as I've slowly rolled towards writing this review.

Initially, I'd answered with a dumbed-down smart-ass's verbal calculation of differences, a total jumble of stylistic reasons: "um, well, the font has changed...there's less pop's got an actual year its supposed to take place...the kids are a little more innocent...and, uhhhh, Bruce Willis."  These tiny details are certainly factors, but they're also of no real consequence.  They don't do much (if anything) to contribute to the relative 'greatness' or 'difference' of Moonrise Kingdom.  Yet, while many of the actual reasons to love the film would read as applicable to most other Anderson storytimes, it does indeed feel a bit different, fairly new, and strangely refreshing. 
With Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson shoots a storybook-sized epic on the challenges of childhood that's (perhaps predictably) as unabashedly charming as it is somehow profound.  Everything between its credits is precisely controlled and tailor-made to appeal to a housebound sense of childlike wonder, one that casts a spell with the turning of each page and follows an adventure we long to repeat.  Like all of Anderson's best works, there's a beautiful otherness to Moonrise.  It possesses magical properties, a certain casual rumpledness away from the too-clean, too-perfect visions that Hollywood regularly releases.

I've heard it said that the best fairy stories rely on the presence of strong nouns; solid objects that become powerful totems in combination with other words, and I believe this may be true of all children's literature.  The beloved books of our childhoods are in possession of a collection of meticulously placed things presented in a pleasing order: a comb, a brush, a bowl full of mush, princesses with flaxen hair, golden tickets wrapped in chocolate bars, foxes among the chickens, wishing coins in the medieval wing, tollbooths, broomsticks and common rooms and tapestries and pirate caves and walled gardens and daemons disguised as ermines or stoats.

As a director, Anderson has always seemed to hold the bittersweet simplicity of children's literature close as a source of inspiration, and it occurs to me now that he seems to be equally intimate in his understanding of their literary construction, of what it is that appeals to us as children and what brings us back to a world time and again.  He knows how to position a camera, how to cast a spell on even the cheapest luxury that removes it from any definite temporal placement and makes it desirable and just a little sad.  A pup tent in a living room, a glowing globe, dalmatian mice, the dream of a school aquarium, leopard sharks, an invisible tiger, the idea of doing anything in secret, record players, bicycles, adventurers, track suits, school blazers, orphaned boys, a dead father's glasses.  We want to possess these things or, at the very least, hold on to them as symbolic objects of something lost or secret within our own selves.  Anderson's films manage an alchemy.  They close the distance between childhood and adulthood and treat everyone within their world, regardless of actual age, as the same confused equal on a daring, everyday adventure.
Children in Wes Anderson films are in possession of knowledge that reads as more of a burden than an exploitative precociousness.  Adults, meanwhile, are dealing with a similar existential crisis. So, the adults are as childlike as the children are adultlike, and the difference is a short segment of a spectrum instead of a matter of polar opposites.  In an Anderson film, everyone keeps messing up, everyone is always missing something that prevents them from being happy, and everyone communicates in a rather frank, flat way that at its best belies a deep understanding and at its worst transforms its speakers into unyielding robots.  While Anderson has dealt with lingering childhood issues and actual children's lit (Fantastic Mr. Fox) in his last few films, Moonrise Kingdom marks the first occasion since Rushmore that the protagonists are actually still in the midst of their childhood. It feels comfortable and lived in, a return to a place where the real sadness is still far far away.

In broad terms, the story follows twelve year old couple Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) on their rather melancholic escape from their lives as misunderstood, troubled youths.  All of the action is set on a small New England island where somehow every lighthouse, fence, and inlet reads as lovingly handmade.  It's here where the orphaned Sam attends camp as a wilderness prepared Khaki Scout, and it's here where bookworm Suzy spies on her distracted mother (Frances McDormand) with her pair of ever-present binoculars.  The two strike up a pen-pal friendship and soon decide to disappear into the woods and make a break for god knows where, much to the chagrin of the island's adult inhabitants.  On the way, they encounter everything they seem to have suspected was already out there: they come face to face with death, accept their burgeoning sexuality without question, move comfortably into uncertainty, yet have the hardest time (as so many adults do) reconciling their steadfast independence with crippling abandonment issues.  They are alone together, but truly alone just isn't an option.  Similarly, in the way of any good children's story, they are in possession of their own totems.  Coonskin caps, Francoise Hardy records, tattered fantasy novels, Benjamin Britten operas, well-worn saddle shoes. Sam asserts at one point that Suzy gets her powers from her binoculars, and, strangely, it's easy to believe that this is the case.  
The supporting players echo the sentiments of Sam and Suzy, but at a distance.  They're the most prominent actors, of course, but seem quite happy operating as fairly two-dimensional comic relief or plot-driving devices of general adorableness.  Ed Norton and Bruce Willis have the strongest of the adult roles as Scout Master Ward and Police Captain Sharp respectively, a pair who lead the search party with a sympathetic concern for the kids involved based more on the question of "what will happen next" than doubts as to their island survival.  Everyone is good, everyone hits the right sardonic pitch, and the film is fantastically funny though it hits upon any number of familiar solemn notes.  Which brings us, I think, back to the questions posed at the outset: what makes Moonrise Kingdom different?  Where does it stand?  Does it have substance?  The answer isn't definite, and the differences are perhaps only in the nerves struck.  Moonrise Kingdom is a film like any other Wes Anderson film, which means that though it may sound the same, it is of a different timbre.  It's the same orchestra, but a different orchestration, if that makes sense.  If you approach it with a trained ear, you will reap its rewards.  Otherwise,  you may simply have lost your ability to hear what it's trying to say.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Squalor: Snow White and the Huntsman

If I'd met Snow White and the Huntsman at some point in my childhood, I suspect I'd be more susceptible to its charms. As a film, it seems to exist in an uncomfortable place of sweeping aspiration; an enchanted forest sandwiched between the palace of the grandiose, self-important epic and the theme park village of melodramatic cheese.  Director Rupert Sanders chose a wildly ambitious bit of lore for his first feature, and in doing so seems to oscillate his focus between too many different concentrations.  In this particular iteration of the well-worn fairy tale we begin with a bare bones version of the once upon a time: Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is a princess hidden away as a child by a wicked, murderous stepmother (Charlize Theron).  As she grows into her raven hair and pale flesh, she becomes a naive target of the Queen's powerful bloodlust and is essentially chased into the woods by a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) who would serve as her assassin where she manages to go on living and befriend seven dwarfs.  In Snow White and the Huntsman, the brevity of that tale is squashed by the addition of Game of Thrones-esque political vendettas, battle sequences, and a fitting appropriation of the mythos surrounding the Countess Bathory.
Right off, the film displays a tremendous amount of promise.  It's a beautifully designed piece of work, and one loaded with costumes, set pieces, and transformations that inspire a modicum of wicked queen-esque envy. Yet, as glorious as Theron's rib cage shoulder pieces and eerie milk baths are, they can't make up for the lack of attention given to basic storytelling elements like, say, character development.  Massive reserves of time and energy have been willingly handed over to the aesthetic marvels at play here.  If you've seen the trailers, you already know that there are things happening in this film that look like something concocted in a fever dream hosted by the late Alexander McQueen and Tarsem Singh (isn't it strange that his Snow White telling looked so very different?).  There are points at which this film seems to strive for Lord of the Rings-level heights.  It reaches, and it reaches very high.  For all its efforts, though, it doesn't meet its target.

I'd love to blame the studio and say that somewhere along the way they decided that the best audience for a Snow White remake was one made up of Twihard tweens and the K-Stew curious.   It would make for an easy out, and a excellent excuse for all the half-baked purple romance, vacant staring, over-dramatic yowls, and the plain and simple fact that Snow White seems to have been diluted somehow further beyond the flat fairy symbol we already knew.  This isn't the Kristen Stewart who pulled a dead-on Joan Jett out of her ass.  This is the K-Stew who mopes around Forks and pines for a vampire.  She is a pretty little thing, but as dull as the film is long. Hemsworth, too, provides little more than eye candy.  His dialogue makes one long for any scrap of pompous boasting that hit the cutting room floor on last year's Thor.  Together, they stare.  They seem to stare at absolutely everything.  Into the distance, at each other, at awakened trolls, into the darkness, at the leaves, all over the place.  Everything here relies on the presence of an icy Theron, and as divine as her character may be, even she's doing some over-the-top dial-a-meltdown work here.  In a camped up fantasy, those meltdowns could have worked.  Snow White and the Huntsman, though, is not a work built for levity.
Of the two Snow White adaptations this year, this was the one I though would be able to coast effortlessly into the dark terrain of its genre.  The fairy tale is a mercurial object built, paradoxically, on consistency.  It's repeated, expected, standard, and yet opens up the possibility of something grotesque and abnormal (sometimes wonderful) happening as in our boring old world.  In its visuals, Snow White and the Huntsman achieves this in part.  Yet, in doing so, it forgets its way and accumulates the detritus of generations.  In complicating the simplicity of the story, too many threads are picked up and lost, too many elements are not considered in full.  Where we receive the expected 'once upon a time' and the requisite 'happily ever after', we leave without knowing what it is we just watched.  For most audiences, Snow White will be missing something.  It's a bit tedious, a bit too self-important, and though exceedingly fair...too dry.  Yet, I suspect this is a film with a built in age window.  Younger audiences willing to look through shaded glasses will find enchanted adventure here.  They'll see things that they have not considered before, and will marvel at the thorny prettiness of the object without concerns on wooden dialogue or unanswered questions.  As I mentioned before, if I'd seen this at a younger age, I sense I would have loved it. It's a movie much like the fantasy films of the 1980's (The Neverending Story, Willow, Labyrinth, even Ladyhawke), and with the same tricky point of entry.  See it too early and it scares you to bits.  See it too late and it seems rather silly.  See it at age 7 or 11?  Soft spot for life.

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