Monthly Archives: September 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (*** 1/2)

In Moonrise Kingdom, writer-director Wes Anderson brings his mannered quirk sensibility to bear on yet another storybook for adults. After meeting at church musical production of the story of Noah’s Ark, emotionally wounded preteens Sam and Suzy begin a romantic correspondence by mail. He, a precocious orphan and accomplished boy scout, and she, a brooding daughter of two lawyers who especially likes fantasy novels, agree to abscond from their respective communities to meet secretly and go on an adventure together. The rest of the film splits its time between their journey and the adults leading the search for the missing children.

The year is 1965, and Suzy and Sam’s homes and adventure are confined to the New England island of New Penzance. Along with the children’s self-initiated liberation from their homes comes the liberation of Anderson’s camera from the angular interior spaces he so often favors. He still clearly takes formalist delight in the organization of the scout camp and the layout of Suzy’s home, but in Moonrise more than ever before does he reveal himself to be an inspired filmographer of land and seascapes. The images have less the dainty dollhouse feel of some of his earlier compositions (see, especially, The Royal Tenenbaums) and more the shape and color of naturalist paintings one might expect to find in the living rooms and foyers of seaside New England homes.

As a result the children’s adventure feels ever more an escape into something wild and beautiful, even as their evident personal wounds and naivete complicate the situation. The film wrings great joys through its romantic celebration of the individual and the need to be deeply understood by another person. Perhaps more interestingly, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola display authorial maturity by thematically balancing that celebration via the reconciliation of individual and community which concerns the latter half of the film. During the church-roof-set climax, law enforcement (Bruce Willis), legal professionals (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and community leaders (Ed Norton) are all working together to save Sam not only from his destructive impulses but also from the bureaucratically inhumane processing threatened by the interest of Social Services (Tilda Swinton). It’s Noah’s Ark full circle, children and adults jumbled together for mutual security in the midst of a storm.

As romantically poignant as the film may be, something was lost for me in its stylized jokiness. Anderon’s visual formalism and deadpan humor have before worked well to heighten the poignancy of his stories. The pacing of Moonrise Kingdom, however, clips by at such an efficient speed that many of the visual cues and one-liners feel like the overstuffed punch-lines of a zany comedy. The material, cleverly and sensitively conceived as it may be, needs more room to breathe than the running time (a flat ninety minutes before the credits roll) really allows. Moonrise, romantic and visually rapturous, feels edited within an inch of its life. It needs more of the dull moments, more of the quiet and mysterious times that make up life and good stories in order to be the romantic adventure it aspires to. Unfortunately those much-need pauses in the film’s momentum seem to have been left on the cutting room floor. In the end, the film left me in awe of its story but emotionally distant from its telling.

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Raiders of the Lost Ark (****, 1981)

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“They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, ‘Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.’ For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there; those who did not die were stricken with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.” ~ 1 Samuel 5:11-12

By chance I caught that today was the end of a limited engagement showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark in IMAX and managed to get my good friend to go with me. We were a little early–other “classic” re-screenings I’ve been to have been packed, especially a showing of Back to the Future at the same theater two years ago. This theater was anything but packed, but our punctuality was rewarded with extra minutes of advertising drivel, leading into more drivel in the form of the preceding trailers. I’m not sure why the particular trailers were chosen–Frankenweenie and Hotel Transylvania, possibly others–but I was particularly struck by their willfully ignorant loudness, content to be sloppy audio-visual assaults being passed off as entertainment. I’ll be going to see The Master this month, thank you very much, and none of these.

Of course, if Raiders is anything it’s a loud, busy film, downright assaultive in its unrelenting momentum. But from frame one it is clear the movie has been crafted with patience and intention. The South American peak and the foregrounded Jones fill the screen, gloriously magnified in IMAX, the first of many sharp compositions to prove revelatory when writ large rather than shrunk for a home-bound screen. Spielberg puts so much on the screen, whether the lush vegetation of the forest or the carefully crafted arcana of a subterranean crypt. It’s less than the hyper-intricate sound and fury made possible by the digital era but so much more effective cinematically.

Without the hindsight of the series in toto, it is by no means obvious at any point that the film will head in the potently supernatural direction of its face-melting climax. The characters are hardened skeptics, men of orders and men of science, pontificating on “becoming” history and the “religion” of archaeology while dismissing the numinous as “the bogeyman” and “Sunday school”. As silly as some of the sequences are (why don’t the Nazi truck drivers ever just step on the damn brakes?), they evoke the gravity of real stakes and keep the hero vulnerable and black and blue. Jones might be winking at us, but he’s bleeding on us too.

I paid special attention in this viewing to the film’s various faces awash in golden light. As a recurring motif it seems to signify deep desire and fixed attention, occurring first as it does when Indy lays eyes on the golden idol at the film’s beginning. As he approaches the gape-mouthed figure (with white eyes and brown irises! Never noticed that on the small screen) his face is lit from below with an abundance of the yellow hue. Read literally, it can’t be possibly emanating from the idol given the angle it shines from, underscoring it as an illumination of Jones’s deep motivation and pleasure: the hunt, the adventure, the prize.

Our next golden faced character is Marion, who lights up while holding the medallion in one hand and the cash in another, drunkenly contemplating Jones’s offer and probably Jones himself. Her motivations are crossed between the purely financial and the emotional, choosing even between her father (the medallion) and the money she needs to get out of Nepal.

Of course her indecision is cut short by Toht, who lights up as he closes in on her with a mind to torture her with a hot iron. Spielberg has silently established deep facts about the main characters with this motif, and can therefore turn it unexpectedly to suggest something about the unknown evil depths of this laconic Nazi stooge hunting mystical artifacts in the Himalayas.

Finally, the ark itself is bathed in golden light, streaming up from beneath it as it is uncovered by Jones and Sallah, thereby suggesting–what? That the ark itself is compelled to some end? Or that the deep desires felt by these central characters are somehow encapsulated by this most sacred object? As it is the pursuit–the raiding–of this object that drives the whole film, this seems a reasonable conclusion. The ark is intensely desired but for what reasons? Greed, romantic love, and hate all drive the raiders of the lost ark, but not devotion to the God of Israel. And Spielberg’s thrilling surprise is that Yahweh will have none of it.

By contrast, when Belloq and the Nazis open the ark the scene they are not lit with yellow/gold light but with white. It suggests a shift from the human gaze of desire to a holy presence, the transcendent otherness of the one indwelling the ark, the purifying judgment of God. The irony of the film, in an explosive twist of sorts on The Maltese Falcon, is that the object of everyone’s desire will not submit to those desires. As an both an echo of that film and as a singularly astounding film climax, Raiders‘ conclusion really is the stuff that dreams are made of.

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Lincoln Teaser

Should we be expecting simply more of Spielberg’s middlebrow liberal sentimentality, or an actual film to boot? Only time will tell.

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Ghost World (****, 2001)

At first, Ghost World seems to be an “edgy” comedy about two immaturely misanthropic teenagers and their middle-finger-to-the-world snarkiness. A very young Scarlett Johansson and American Beauty’s Thora Birch play besties Rebecca and Enid, girls just finishing high school and always ready with a withering remark for everyone. Classmates, teachers, parents, business owners, passerby–no one is spared their biting disdain. It gradually becomes clear, however, that the film will not be about indulging the girls’ hip bitch camaraderie but instead exploring their needs for identity and intimacy–especially Enid’s (Birch)–that percolate beneath their prickly surfaces.

Their aggressive detachment takes on humanizing consequences when they play a prank on a lonely man (Steve Buscemi) by responding to his personal ad in the paper and standing him up on the blind date they arrange. Enid offends her own conscience, and her sympathy for the sad sack Seymour is the beginning of an unusual friendship which gradually takes on a Harold and Maude quality. It is clear they are kindred spirits from early on, and their shared off-kilter tastes in music and pop art irony quickly forms a natural bond bridging their generational and gender gaps… almost. Buscemi’s Seymour is clearly torn between his need for connection and his awareness of the inappropriateness of their relationship, while young Enid is blissfully ignorant of their friendship’s strangeness. Together they are tragic and sweet, pulled together and pushed apart by their mutual brokenness.

Ghost World captures something important about the way kitschy weirdos get lost in obsessions because of feeling alienated and in turn how their alienation pushes them deeper into cultural obsessions and away from meaningful relationships. It strikes the perfect tone by neither romanticizing nor ridiculing such obsessions, but instead sympathetically mining the characters’ alienations and longing for relational intimacy.

The “ghost world” in question is the arch-world of pulp magazine covers and antiquated mid-century pop art that evokes a certain time and place in our cultural imagination–very much like the Jack Rabbit Slim’s restaurant in Pulp Fiction–but that never really existed as anything more than a confluence of graphic art sensibilities. Director Zwigoff finely evokes the way in which writer (of both screenplay and the original graphic novel) Daniel Clowes’ characters live at a kind of threshold between the “real” and the “ghost” worlds, forever at the mercy of their tortured souls and on the edge of retreat from psychological and emotional health.

It’s ultimately a sad film, because it’s characters cannot hope to be cured of their pain and social dislocation. Zwigoff does reserve a special dignity for them, a sure affection for their offbeat sensibilities, and the conviction that embracing your identity is better than trudging along with the blind seismic waves of culture en masse. It’s not much, but it’s something. Better people probing for meaning in life than comfortably numb. Still, it left me wishing for a sequel where Enid and Seymour both come to know a saving power bigger than their wounded hearts.

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Premium Rush (*** 1/2)

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In Premium Rush, the camera almost never stops moving. Not with the jump-cutting chaos of Jason Bourne’s fight and flight set-pieces, but rather with the close to the ground lucidity of a quick-witted athlete. We’re zipping along Manhattan’s densely-vehicled streets along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s wiry cyclist-courier named Wilee, a reckless messenger for hire who prefers fixed-gear bikes with no brakes and unrelenting momentum.

We start out in media res, with Wilee flying through air in slow motion after being struck by a car. It’s a tried and true way for a film to say, “It’s gonna be exciting, pay attention!” It’s also a way for writer/director David Koepp to present the film in miniature, introducing Wilee in an unexpected moment of unfettered forward movement. Koepp’s writing here recalls Don Miller’s script-writing maxim that “A character is what he does.” Gordon-Levitt’s character is conflated with his profession: like Tom Cruise, he feels the need, the need for speed. When a premium rush fare draws the ire of an irritable stranger (Michael Shannon), Wilee is on the bike and go-go-going with what feels like no braking for the rest of the film.

Koepp does find ways to break the cycling adrenaline up into digestible sequences, whether intercutting digital cell phone overlays made up like Google Maps or inserting flashbacks fleshing out the narrative, characters and conflict. It all works to great effect, running with its modest ambition to be a thrilling bike chase movie and making the absolute best of it. It helps that Shannon really shines as the villain, a man with admitted “impulse-control issues” who’ll of course stop at nothing to get what Wilee’s carrying. It’s a naked MacGuffin if there ever was one, but the tense chases and economic characterizations keep you in the moment. Shannon is especially effective at this in his terse, boiling performance that adds a pervasive sense of chaos to the film–if only he could catch the kid. Gordon-Levitt’s character may share the name of the roadrunner chasing coyote, but Shannon’s character has inherited his Sisyphean mantle.

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