Archive for July 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

July 29, 2012

Since at least Rushmore, Wes Anderson has not made movies so much as storybooks in motion, and Moonrise Kingdom may be his purest storybook yet. The movie teems with characters yet is modestly scaled; like Anderson’s previous film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, it doesn’t employ the super-wide compositions that had been Anderson’s trademark. It looks boxier, homier, warmer. Everything is at a slight, sly remove, indicating that this isn’t serious business — it’s storytime, nobody’s in real danger, and things will end as they should. Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola construct a story about true love, and because that love is between two 12-year-olds, it’s not complicated, which it usually is in Anderson’s films — it’s innocent, optimistic, almost anarchic. These kids aren’t tragic lovers, though; we feel that they’re in benevolent hands.

Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) ditches his Khaki Scout troop to be with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who likewise runs away from home. They meet in a field and take off for the woods, pursued by various worried adults: policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who keeps the order on the island of New Penzance; Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton); and Suzy’s parents, Walt and Linda (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). There is some complicated love here: Captain Sharp and Linda are uneasily ending an affair. But they don’t see themselves in Sam and Suzy, which is a relief — Anderson isn’t that obvious. The adults just want the kids to be safe back home — although Sam, an orphan whose most recent foster family has decided not to invite him back, doesn’t really have a home.

Sam and Suzy are described as “disturbed children,” though they may simply be responding to their environments. Suzy’s parents are troubled (and she has three brothers to contend with); Sam’s parents are dead. Moonrise Kingdom is set in 1965, when the generation impacted by Dr. Spock had kids of their own and sought to understand them via pop psychology. As the movie presents it, though, it’s simple: Sam and Suzy are unhappy alone and happy with each other. They sit in a tent while Suzy reads aloud from various storybooks; they dance on a beach and have their first kiss. Their journey is quietly idyllic, and the young actors play the kids deadpan enough that they’re never insufferable. Anderson never oversells the beauty; his regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman provides his usual immaculate symmetrical compositions, with characters always framed dead center, surrounded by the retro tackiness of the mid-’60s.

Moonrise Kingdom works up to an apocalypse of sorts — a hurricane approaching New Penzance. Its arrival coincides with that of a lady from Social Services (Tilda Swinton), amusingly named only Social Services, who wants to put Sam in an orphanage. Social Services is this storybook’s villain, worshiping rules and bureaucracy, ready to ruin Sam’s life without even having met him. Swinton is in let’s-have-fun mode here, and the others in the cast — especially Willis and Norton — seem relieved to be a part of something with some substance, something childlike but not childish. Like Spike Jonze’ Where the Wild Things Are, the film is about kids but is not really a kids’ movie.

In the summer of big, expensive superhero flicks, Moonrise Kingdom evokes awe, wonder and the magic of escapism in a much smaller and more precious way. It does Wes Anderson good to get outside: filming around Narragansett Bay, he inhales some fresh air and gets out of the rectangular confines of his past work. If Anderson’s films have been about anything, it’s the importance of breaking out of damaging routines: unhappy adults come to a crossroads and decide a change is needed. Here, in the first scenes, we see what it might be like to grow up inside a Wes Anderson film. Like their earlier adult counterparts, the kids grow to embrace mess, feeling, life outside the manicured interiors. They also have their whole lives ahead of them, which makes this Anderson’s most honestly hopeful work yet.

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The Dark Knight Rises

July 22, 2012

These days, if you want to make an epic film, it had better have some element of fantasy. The Dark Knight Rises, which weighs in at sixteen minutes shy of three hours, is the Monolith of the summer — huge and loud, massive in scope, every elegant shot bearing the aroma of very serious money. Logically it won’t hold much water; that’s the price of hitching a big movie with pensive themes to a comic-book-superhero plot — something has to give. But, if I may quote my review of The Amazing Spider-Man from a few weeks back, “we don’t look to Spider-Man for verisimilitude” — nor do we seek it at a movie about a man who dresses up as a bat and fights crime.

Director Christopher Nolan, here finishing the trilogy he started with Batman Begins and continued with The Dark Knight, has been praised for giving us a Batman grounded in “the real world.” Essentially, this means Nolan doesn’t camp it up, though the image of a billionaire orphan — Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) — climbing into a hard rubber suit with pointy ears and pounding on criminals is inherently campy, or at least pulpy. The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t hold back on the pulp. Batman’s adversary this time is a masked beast calling himself Bane (Tom Hardy), who plans to “liberate” Gotham City by triggering mass destruction, entrapping most of the police force in the sewers, and freeing all the criminals. This threat is dire enough to pull Batman, in mopey hibernation for the past eight years, out of mothballs.

I will leave to surgeons and chiropractors the question of whether a man as grievously wounded as Batman is at Bane’s hands could recover so quickly and definitively, with crude second-hand help from a kindly inmate out in the middle of nowhere. It’s all about will power, I guess. Due to recent events, The Dark Knight Rises will probably gather a patina of spooky nihilist darkness it doesn’t deserve; the hero at one point growls “No guns!,” and he clearly stands foursquare against chaos and destruction. Batman’s other adversary and sometimes ally, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), has no such compunctions about guns, but uses one in a key moment in a way pretty much anyone could support. Hathaway, fortunately not saddled with the nickname Catwoman anywhere in the film, is the best thing about it — slinky, sardonic, bitterly pragmatic but harboring some sliver of hope.

The movie will eat up half your afternoon, but will do it so smoothly and at such a flawless pace you likely won’t notice. Nolan gives us and the studio our money’s worth, putting it all up on the screen. He and his brother/cowriter Jonathan jam enough material for three movies into one; we don’t come out hungry for more — we emerge thoroughly sated, as we do after Thanksgiving dinner, but with our senses quickened a bit. Nolan sticks the landing and hasn’t botched the trilogy, and that in itself is satisfying, though the obvious element missing is the freakily memorable Joker of The Dark Knight. Bane is sportively evil, but the masked Tom Hardy works under a terrible handicap Heath Ledger didn’t have. He can use only his eyes and his heavily processed voice, which, despite the sound editors jacking Hardy’s and everyone else’s dialogue up to 11, is comprehensible only some of the time.

Technically, The Dark Knight Rises is a thick leatherbound volume with gilded pages, though flipping through it yields a story about a big bad bald man doing eeevil things until a vigilante with pointy ears comes to the rescue. The movie is and probably always will be the ultimate expression of the comic-book fanboy’s need to have his passion vindicated, solemnized, given the gravitas of a classic. I enjoyed handling the volume and drinking in the gorgeous pictures, but I wouldn’t recommend a close read of it. As pure cinema, this is a rich banquet, and Nolan does his damnedest to make it move and sparkle and awe. The sound design rattles your ribs; it’s like being at a fireworks show where the grand finale booms so hard it takes out some nearby windows. Hundreds of people clog the streets of Gotham City, desperate to restore order or maintain chaos. Nolan paints on a vast and glittering canvas. I just wish it meant more.

Savages

July 14, 2012

Savages, the new drug thriller directed by Oliver Stone, has been getting a bit of a bum rap. This hard-charging controversialist doesn’t always need to poke America’s soft spots; sometimes he just wants to have a good lowdown time, as he did in his freaky U-Turn fifteen years ago. Savages would make a fine double bill with U-Turn, up to the point where many viewers will bail — when Stone delivers a tragic ending, apparently along the lines of Don Winslow’s source novel, and then rescinds it. For me, though, the “happy ending” actually politicizes the movie more than a crime-does-not-pay finale would have. It also says a lot about the Hollywood system in which Stone is expected to work these days. If Universal nudged Stone’s hand here, are they aware they’ve given a happily-ever-after to drug dealers?

Those dealers are almost cartoonishly whitebread: Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who picked up some excellent seeds during his tours, and Ben (Aaron Johnson), a do-gooder with a minor in botany. They’re both in love with Ophelia (Blake Lively), or “O,” and the three of them run a highly prosperous weed business out of Laguna Beach and are happy as clams until a Mexican cartel wants in. Ben and Chon try to fake out the cartel and split for Indonesia, but the Mexicans kidnap O, and the plot thickens. The cartel’s scary enforcer is Lado (Benicio del Toro), who likes to strike terror with chainsaws and whips, but the true mastermind is Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), who wears her hair in cruel black bangs. Even Lado is afraid of her. You might be, too. Stone has seldom known what to do with the women in his largely masculine films, but he gets a vivid, iconic portrait of corrupt humanity out of Hayek. After this and Frida, isn’t it time to admit that Hayek is one of our great actresses?

The story has many branches, including a dirty DEA agent (John Travolta), a perhaps too sensitive Mexican tasked to watch over O, and mostly faceless war buddies of Chon’s who always seem ready to drop everything and sit around in the desert for him with sniper rifles. Travolta is probably never better here than when Chon has just stabbed him in the hand and he seems less physically wounded than affronted in his soft spot, his dignity. Everyone here, indeed, has a soft spot, as Ben points out in one of his more lucid moments. Travolta’s other soft spot is his wife, expiring of cancer at home; he avails himself of some of Ben and Chon’s weed to make his wife’s chemo more bearable. This leads to Travolta’s other fine moment, when Ben asks how his wife is doing and Travolta says simply, “She’s dying,” and we’re reminded of the vulnerable actor who moved us in Blow Out and Saturday Night Fever.

Savages goes like a speedboat — its two hours and eleven minutes streak by. Stone shows a strong taste for brutality here; this is possibly his most splattery film since Natural Born Killers, and the presence of freshly chainsawed heads, skulls perforated in close-up, and the hard-to-watch fate of a man accused of being a DEA rat speaks volumes about how tolerant the MPAA is of violence these days. There’s also a good deal of sex (though no nudity from Blake Lively, much to her fans’ chagrin, no doubt) and, of course, near-constant drug use. Savages muscles its way into the heart of the hermetic superhero summer, sweating and cursing and bleeding and smoking and fucking. In its way, it’s a throwback to ’70s cinema, where nobody was all good or all bad, before George Lucas’ black-and-white chessboard design mapped itself over American entertainment.

This is by no means Oliver Stone’s best work — neither was U-Turn. But it’s his best work in well over a decade. He has a story here and he sticks to it, jazzing it up visually every so often, though never calling attention to his technique. He seems to be done with the Cuisinart style, as well as the Indian mystics who used to pop up in every Stone movie of the ’90s. If he has a muse this time, it’s Buddhist: Ben is a follower of the Dalai Lama’s teachings (up to a point), and O is referred to as a lotus. The comic tragedy of the movie is that nobody practices non-attachment, when they really should. Stone, a self-described Buddhist himself, makes movies that would horrify a monk but, in their rough fashion, stand as fairly memorable illustrations of the Four Noble Truths. Stone’s movies are full of what Buddhists call hungry ghosts, craving sensation and wealth, trying haplessly to fill a void in themselves. That double ending starts to make sense: it’s Stone saying “This is what could happen. And this is also what could happen. You have a choice.” The ghosts stop feeding and become people.

The Amazing Spider-Man

July 7, 2012

Usually I don’t stump for the extra surcharge and the glasses, but The Amazing Spider-Man is probably worth seeing in 3D, on the biggest screen you can find, just for the swinging scenes. No, not Ice Storm swinging; Spider-Man swinging. The guilt-stricken hero shoots his webs, which are stronger than any cable, and slings himself all over New York City, from precipice to precipice. It’s a beautiful sight, and from time to time director Marc Webb slows down or even pauses the action so that Spider-Man hangs suspended in the night air for a pregnant moment. Computer effects have improved vastly since the first Spider-Man movie ten summers ago, so Spider-Man actually seems to have weight and mass. I didn’t care much about where he was swinging to, but it looks terrific.

As you may have heard, this is a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, ignoring Sam Raimi’s trilogy of films and starting from scratch. Once again, we see the origin story: dorky Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is bitten by a genetically altered spider and gains a variety of powers. He can crawl up walls and across ceilings; his strength and endurance are enhanced, and he has what the comic books refer to as “spider-sense,” enabling him to intuit danger. (This has never helped the myriad spiders I’ve squished with a newspaper, but we don’t look to Spider-Man for verisimilitude.) All told, it’s about an hour before Peter finally climbs into his red-and-blue costume; before that, he swings around (on homemade web-slingers, not organic as in the prior films) in his civvies and then in a luchador-inspired mask.

The original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics had an elegant simplicity. Peter never knew his parents; he was brought up by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (played here by Martin Sheen and Sally Field). Here, much is made of Peter’s parents disappearing into the night for some reason connected to the father’s scientific research, which in turn is connected to the life’s work of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who hopes to merge various species’ DNA to cure human ailments. Connors, who has only one arm, injects himself with some reptile stuff and becomes the Lizard, the big villain this time out. (In the Raimi films, Dylan Baker played this role and was obviously being groomed to be the villain in a future Raimi Spider-Man film, but now his character seems to have no reason to be in those movies.)

The problem here is that the reboot forces links where there needn’t be any. The conflict between Spider-Man and the Lizard seems to be part of a larger arc that will unfold across another trilogy, probably connected to OsCorp, Connors’ employer, named for Norman Osborn, better known as the Green Goblin. In other words, the film seems to be setting up a vast conspiracy involving Peter and his parents, the endgame of which will be made clear … in a few years. I go to a Spider-Man movie to see the guy duke it out with powerful bad guys. I’m simple that way. I don’t need a welter of convolutions. It’s become a bad habit, not only among screenwriters adapting comics for movies but among comics writers, to take a basic, enjoyable origin story with an element of randomness (high-school boy is bitten by spider, becomes hero) and remove the randomness.

Meanwhile, there’s a faltering romance between Peter and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), whip-smart daughter of the same police captain (Denis Leary) who wants to arrest Spider-Man. Stone is entertaining as always, but her character doesn’t go anywhere special here; longtime fans of the comics, of course, know what befell Gwen, though the jury’s out on whether the movies will have the guts to go there. Despite Marc Webb’s fancy talk about how the film’s theme is that “we’re all missing a piece,” that just seems pasted onto what reads as a soulless ploy by Sony to retain the rights to Spider-Man. Still, I did recommend that you spend the extra dough for the 3D, so here are some other things I enjoyed: Connors’ expression when he first realizes who Peter is; Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo, probably his funniest yet; Spider-Man using his webs to detect the Lizard’s movement; Denis Leary’s horror when faced with an allegedly menstruating teenage daughter. Few of these things have much to do with the superhero I grew up with, and this movie doesn’t even have time for Peter’s and Spider-Man’s ultimate nemesis, J. Jonah Jameson. I never thought I’d miss the old coot so much.

See also:

Spider-Man (2002)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Ted

July 1, 2012

Ted is a filthy-mouthed and fairly amusing farce about a little boy who wishes his talking teddy bear were really alive. Thanks to the magic of movies, the bear comes alive, and after a few minutes (thanks to the magic of movie editing) we pick up the boy, John (Mark Wahlberg), at age 35, still hanging out with Ted (voice of Seth MacFarlane). Over the years, Ted has matured, or immatured, into a fuzzy libertine who smokes copious amounts of weed and chases after various buxom, brainless women. John and Ted are inseparable, but John also has a girlfriend of four years, Lori (Mila Kunis), who’s beginning to get a little sick of Ted. She feels, probably rightly, that Ted is holding John back.

MacFarlane, whose Ted sounds a lot like Peter Griffin on his show Family Guy, also co-wrote and directed Ted, so expect a lot of pop-culture references and random gags. Some of them hit, some don’t. Fans of 1980’s Flash Gordon will appreciate that it’s John and Ted’s favorite film, and that its star, Sam J. Jones, puts in an extended cameo as a party-dude version of himself. Any movie that worships Flash Gordon (“It’s so bad,” John accurately sums up, “but so good”) can’t be all bad, though Observe and Report used the film’s “Football Theme” to far better effect. Anyway, other randomness is in store, such as a riff on Airplane’s riff on Saturday Night Fever, an appearance by Norah Jones (who must be a really good sport), and a character submitting happily to “gay beatings” at the hands of a recent superhero-film star (who must also be a good sport, or a Family Guy fan — indeed, he’s done a cameo on the show, too).

Political correctness is not in store, with a Chinese caricature as the noxious stand-out. Most of the laughs derive from Ted’s crude, blinkered viewpoint, which is fine up to the point where the film itself seems to share that viewpoint. Still, I laughed more than a few times; the script, which MacFarlane wrote with Family Guy cohorts Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, keeps things moving and keeps the foul language coming. Ted is rightly rated R, and I was relieved not to see any little kids in the audience, brought by clueless parents who saw a talking teddy bear in the ads and thought they were in for a Teddy Ruxpin reboot. They would have much to explain to their kids, such as why Ted at one point uses hand lotion for purposes best not discussed in a family publication.

There’s a creepy subplot involving a weird dad (Giovanni Ribisi) who wants to take Ted home for his bratty son. The movie doesn’t really need this thread, and it leads to a car chase that reminded me of Pauline Kael’s almost visceral rejection of the car chase in Splash, which she otherwise loved. Said it before, say it again: Car chases (and gunfights) belong in action movies, not comedies, where they just stop the comic momentum dead. Ribisi is effective enough as a kind of anti-John, a case of arrested development that led to madness instead of John’s amiable loafing. But the plot thread still leads the third act into a sour place and an unconvincing change of heart from Lori. (Mila Kunis does hold her own in an otherwise blithely sexist movie, creating something relatable out of what could’ve been the Katherine-Heigl-in-Knocked Up killjoy who pulls the man-child away from childish things — and childish friends.)

Ted is painless, and not as smarmy as it seems, though I would have liked to see more of Joel McHale as Lori’s goatish boss, Matt Walsh as John’s Tom Skerritt-obsessed boss, and Bill Smitrovich as Ted’s amusingly lax boss — you have enough material with these three for Horrible Bosses 2. One impressive feat is that we never question Ted’s reality; Wahlberg plays off him naturally, and the special effects used to create him are seamless. Ted is just taken as a given, briefly a media superstar, trading quips with Johnny Carson, until, as Patrick Stewart’s narration puts it far less politely, nobody cares any more and Ted is more or less treated by everyone as nothing all that special. This is how fantasy should be done more often: not much awe or terror, just “Oh, okay, that’s sort of cool” until a shinier media fixation comes along. Ted gets that much right, at least: Ted would be hot stuff for a season, then dwindle to a curiosity, then be forgotten. Sam J. Jones might know the feeling.