Saturday, June 30, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom
Grade: A
Cast: Jared Gilman, Kara Heyward, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton
Director: Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is not only a story of the power of first love but also the way that children create the mythology of adulthood through the fabric of stories. The world approaches us first wrapped as tales, and we handle its mysteries with imagination. The largest part of reality, even as we age, remains a contradictory act of abstraction.

This has been a quietly placed theme in the films of Terrence Malick, including last year’s Cannes winner The Tree of Life. The children first imagine death as Sleeping Beauty laying in a glass coffin in the woods. They learn of time, property and death from a story about a rabbit in a garden. Even earlier, an infant learns the animals with a small toy Noah’s Ark – the first taste of a wider reality is an act of representation.

Speaking of Noah, it’s been an unexpectedly good year for him at the movies, with his presense felt throughout Moonrise. Robed and in sandals, he might as well sail into Cannes’ red carpet (where Moonrise debuted in competition). Of course when you think about it, Noah’s Ark is our first love story, with perhaps the first glimpses of sexuality that we see as children.

The love story in Wes Anderson’s brilliant young adult fantasy begins at a church performance of the Benjamin Britten musical Noye’s Fludde. Sam is an unpopular Khaki Scout with precocity, defiance and good camping skills. Suzie is the daughter of a pair of loveless lawyers; she lives in a storybook lighthouse on the isolated New England island of New Penzance. Her role in the play is the raven, that most tempestuous of birds, though a red-headed outburst will soon see her demoted to a blue jay.

The couple meets in a field one year later to elope to a beach – him with an airgun, a coonskin hat, and a corncob pipe; her with a blue suitcase, a record player, sci-fi books, a kitten and dreams of adventure. Don’t be thrown by the age – they are every bit as passionate, sincere and liberated as Jean-Paul Belomondo and Ana Karina in Pierrot Le Fou, using the radical edge of love to escape the docility that surrounds them. They are both experiencing love as a fiction and love on its purest level.

Tracing them are a flock of kind but broken adults – the sadsack parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), a lone pokey policeman (Bruce Willis), a teacher who wishes he could be a scout master every day (Ed Norton). There is also a social services worker, dressed in electric blue, who has been so consumed by adulthood that she no longer has a name. 

This pair of lovestruck tweens are rushing into adulthood, and the adults are longing for childhood. Anderson has been playing with this idea since at least Rushmore, and it is a predominant inspiration for the film. In relocating that feeling of first love, as well as the nostalgia for that feeling, Moonrise Kingdom brings it home with humor and elegance.

That’s all I would say if it were not for the extraordinary craft, which cannot go without a mention. Anderson’s love of widescreen compositions (from cinematographer), detailed art direction, and perpendicular filming of actors and activity are at their prime in Moonrise Kingdom. His reputation has made him a spaz to some detractors, but here it is at its most inspiring effect. The script that he and Roman Coppola have composed is a gem of brains, humor and heart.

The Avengers

The Avengers
Grade: F
Cast: Robert Downey, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston
Director: Joss Whedon

Have you ever seen Ruby in Paradise, the 1993 North Florida indie that brought Ashley Judd to prominence?

There’s a scene where the uncomplicated runaway Ruby drags her pretentious bookstore boyfriend to an alien invasion movie. He storms out of the screening. How can you watch this junk, he demands.
I’m convinced they were watching The Avengers. Linear time be damned.

In his rave, Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers calls The Avengers everything that he thought it would be. I share this analysis but stagger toward the opposite conclusion. This is a film that does exactly everything you think it would do – and that’s the problem. There is not an unexpected moment in Joss Whedon’s very plastic superhero collision, sticking slavishly to its good-guy-bad-guy yay-team! template. Not only is The Avengers a 3-D return to the heavily corporate good-evil special effects distractions of yesteryear. It’s proud of it.

Six Marvel Comics superheroes – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow – assemble in the face of an alien invasion led by Thor’s evil brother, Loki. This leads to more than two hours of superheroes shaking hands, planning, bickering, duking it out in predictable misunderstandings, planning, bickering, and then taking off and landing, and taking off and landing again, and taking off and landing again, which the camera documents with a Lucasfilm -like obsession. There is also a ridiculous amount of ridiculous foreshadowing. And the score overpowers with volume rather than skill or elegance.

The plot involves a struggle to gain control of a blue interdimensional cube called the Tesseract. This leads to the squabbling superheroes uniting to fight an alien invasion in a prolonged final battle across the skies of a pixilated Manhattan. This unity is achieved on the intellectual cheap. The heroes come together not out of ideology or moral principle but because  -- dammit – it doesn’t look like much fun to be ruled by ugly aliens on space motorcycles.

But what if the invaders weren’t ugly aliens on space motorcycles, but well-dressed Mitt Romneys gently cruising to Earth in space Lexuses?  Christopher Nolan’s Batman series raised the stakes on comic book movies by introducing a moral dimension. The release of The Dark Knight Rises trailer this week makes the third entry in that series look like a sprawling crime saga more than a kiddie matinee. The Avengers gleefully reverses the trend toward smarter blockbusters and heads back in the opposite direction.  

The Avengers was always at risk of becoming Iron Man and Friends, with Robert Downey Jr. riding roughshod over a cast largely devoid of his star power. That’s essentially what happens. The others make occasional marks. Scarlett Johansson fights evil with the cool diffidence of a forties B-movie star – perhaps she should fight crime by rejecting the aliens’ passes. There is a great deal of praise headed in Mark Ruffalo’s way for Dr. Bruce Banner who transforms into The Incredible, who likes to smash.  But like most of these characters, and the film itself, it’s ultimately a one-trick show.  

The Five Year Engagement

The Five Year Engagement
Grade: B
Cast: Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris Pratt, Allison Brie, Rhys Ifans
Director: Nicholas Stoller

When Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel introduced Forgetting Sarah Marshall in 2008, it represented the low point for the Apatow Factory, during the phase when it produced any old comedy premise that could fit on the back of a bank receipt. The filmmakers probably didn’t go in thinking, “We’re going to make a stalker fantasy laughfest,” but that’s what came out the other side.

That’s why it’s so encouraging to see the same group produce The Five-Year Engagement – easily the most balanced of the Apatow battle-of-the-sexes comedies. The fairer sex does not get off the hook, but a stronger female side creates a sharper give-and-take between man and woman. This advantage is heightened by casting one of the most gifted comedic stars of her generation – Emily Blunt – rather than the hot TV star of the moment.

The result is a comedy with real-ish characters that feels like it comes from someplace true rather than wild exaggeration. When the film finally ends in a wacky Hollywood fantasy wedding, it feels less like a cynical conclusion than a bit of earned whimsy, like the end of a Fellini film (no, it’s not that good).

The gags relate to the difficulties of engagement, particularly one that lasts forever, and the winter blues of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Tom and Violet meet in San Francisco, fall in love in San Francisco, get engaged in San Francisco, and end up moving to A-Squared when she gets a post-doctorate assignment. The couple delays marriage again and again. Violet's academic career thrives under a zap-haired professor. Tom gives up his chance to be a great chef, grows a Grizzly Adams beard, takes up crossbow hunting, and sinks into misery. (While some critics gripe about the Grizzly Adams phase being too far afield, you can be assured that Tom is not the first person to grow a mountain man beard in Ann Arbor.)

While many of the criticisms directed at the film – too long, weird digressions, tone shifts from reality to exaggeration – are not without merit, The Five Year Engagement earns clemency by coming from a real place and being consistently smart and funny. While some of the comedy set-ups are unoriginal lifts from other films, it doesn’t feel that way, because there’s a plausible relationship with real chemistry underlying it.

The Five Year Engagement profits from that relationship between Segel and Blunt, who share a loose, playful chemistry. They seem remarkably at ease. They’re matched nicely by her sister and his best friend, Allison Brie and Chris Pratt, respectively, who relive the plot of Knocked Up as a counterweight. They are the couple forced into a marriage by pregnancy. They make it work despite the difficulty of the situation solely because they want it to.

That’s why The Five-Year Engagement sees the Apatow romantic comedy finally getting into the ballpark of the thirties films that they always seem to aim for but usually fall short of. The Five-Year Engagement works as comedy. The Five-Year Engagement works as romance. What are you waiting for? Go.