Tag Archives: Teenagers

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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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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Chronicle (*** 1/2)

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Chronicle, the most recent entry into the “found footage” canon, slickly updates the superpowers-plus-adolescence-equals-chaos template of Carrie and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Three teenage boys discover a strange glowing rock which endues them with telekinetic powers that grow stronger with use. What could easily be the fodder for any generic cash-in on the supernatural teen genre wildly popular with Potter and Twilight fans has been cleverly reshaped as a quasi-naturalistic what-if-this-actually-happened story. That is, when teenagers are given superpowers, they’re much more likely to treat them with the childish fascination usually reserved for the latest Apple product than use them to stop armed robberies. Like last year’s excellent Attack the BlockChronicle expertly delivers an otherwise ho-hum premise through a wealth of character-driven and true to life details.

The story focuses primarily on Andrew, a troubled young teen with a difficult home life. The movie begins with scenes that primarily exist to root the story’s final events in the everyday tragedies of his life, both large and small. Actor Dane DeHaan does an excellent job of fleshing out the wounded boy torn between the fear of further wounding and the irrepressible desire for community. His cousin Matt tries to be helpful, but the prickly Andrew does not readily yield to his friendly overtures. He does, however, follow Matt and his friend Steve down a strange hole at the edge of the woods where the mysterious empowerment occurs.

As in other super-powers and hormones stories, the new-found abilities amplify the characters’ pre-existing traits. While Matt and Steve are relatively normal and approach their powers with a measure of respect, Andrew is slowly discovering a new weapon with which to lash out at the world. It begs the question of Hollow Man: if society’s constraints no longer bind you, what motivation do you have to be a moral being? What if you didn’t like society in the first place?

To the film’s credit, this inevitable march towards madness occurs with a sense of pace and purpose punctuated by emotionally explosive moments (sexual humiliation, paternal abuse) that serve as catalysts to his simmering rage and confusion. He remains a tragic figure throughout, giving the film a soul that another like it might lack; giving its wildly entertaining conclusion just the right amount of emotional freight.

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My only real problem with the film was its slavish commitment to the found-footage format, occasionally requiring it to awkwardly invent reasons for people to be holding cameras at different times. For the most part, it works as part of Andrew’s deeply disturbed detachment from others. Also, the introduction of a free-floating camcorder via telekinesis means the sickly shaky-cam of Cloverfield is nowhere to be found in the film’s busiest scenes. Still I think the mixed media format of District 9 might have served it better, switching between camera formats as it served the story while retaining the emphasis on casual naturalism. In the end, it’s that down-to-earth sensibility that makes the film work irrespective of its primary cinematic conceit. The recognizable pieces of normal life provide the needed contrast to let its flights of fancy really soar.

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The Hunger Games (***)

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This review is late in the game, as The Hunger Games came out in March, but that’s life when you have primary responsibilities tied to a school semester.  If you’re not familiar with the book or movie, know that THG is a genre-defying bit of YA fiction, an orwellian-survivalist-action-scifi-feminist-drama about a land formerly known as the United States split into twelve “districts” and ruled with a strong arm by “The Capitol”.  In order to unmistakably assert their dominance, every year the Capitol collects two children (male and female) between twelve and eighteen and put them in a several miles square arena in which they must fight to the death on live television.  Twenty-four go in, one is left standing.

The Hunger Games is an unimaginative adaptation of a thrilling, involving and inventive book:  the source material makes it work almost in spite of itself.  Director Gary Ross has no previous experience with large scale action flicks or effects-driven pictures, and as a result this film is at its best when it’s stuck in the shantytown the protagonist hails from or when it’s detailing the nitty gritty of survival in the Appalachian wilderness of the games.  The film captures some of the weirdness of Capitol culture, disconnected from the survival and oppression common to the districts, but its vision of the Capitol overall is dull and lacking detail.  Some of the effects could have been done on a high end PC; some of the Capitol sets look like Target hired Andy Warhol to design their disposable dorm room furniture.  The action in the arena works dramatically, but it’s visually incoherent, chaotic and hard to follow.  Ross is right in step with the contemporary trend of shaky camera + fast edits = excitement, when it would be helpful just to have a clear, steady shot showing us the staging of the action we paid to witness.  When your subject is kids killing each other, you don’t need embellished cinematography to make it interesting.

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As far as I’m concerned, the beginning and end of this movie is Jennifer Lawrence, who has been given a meaty, complex character in Katniss Everdeen and has compellingly brought her to life.  I just wrote yesterday about how she is perfect for the role; the mixture of soulful and grim keeps you transfixed.  The book is from her perspective, the film virtually from over her shoulder.  This limiting of perspective, which helps the reader to accept the weird and disturbing events as they come, works for the film, which practically begs not to be taken in by way of comprehensive reflection.

I am left with the question, what’s going on in The Hunger Games?  I haven’t read the second and third books (but will this summer), and there are hints in the movie about what direction the series is headed in.   But, more broadly, what is Suzanne Collins getting at?  I think globalization ranks first, given that the whole structure of the fictional world is based on a wealthy and detached society which exists at the expense of the many whose lives are in some way spent on supporting it.  The second would have to do with the way war preys on the young and disenfranchised, who are whisked away forcefully to fight people they don’t know for reasons they don’t care about (unless they’ve been socialized by their own respective “Capitol”) and then praised as brave heroes by the people and families who can afford to keep their kids out of harm’s way.

Many have highlighted the reality television aspect of the games as being some sort of cultural critique.  I think it has to do with the way our detached affluence affords us the luxury of fascination with our own self-indulgence.  Could there be a better reductive symbol for the absurd hypocrisies of late Western democracy than Kim Kardashian?

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Submarine (***, 2010)

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Submarine is a melancholic teenage romance about an alienated Welsh teen named Oliver Tate and his disarmingly human relationship with a girl named Jordana.  Its self-conscious framing (like title cards announcing the different parts of the film) and gently plaintive acoustic soundtrack recall Wes Anderson, but nothing here is so obviously stylized.  It’s a difficult film, at times, for the occasionally frustrating blankness of the protagonist; its strength however lies in actually getting you to care about what’s going on underneath the surface.  Hence “submarine”:  as the boy says at one point, “We’re all traveling under the radar, undetected and no one can do anything about it.”  It’s the half-clever kind of thing bright teenagers tend to pride themselves for having thought of, yet the film makes it authentic to the character and the story he’s telling.

This isn’t a fun film, but it’s deeply funny.  It has some very weird moments, many of which involve a hammy psychic vying for the affections of Oliver’s mom (and serving as a sharp foil to his boring marine biologist father).  Director Richard Ayoade was involved with The Mighty Boosh, so if you have any idea what that is nothing in this film will be all that strange.  It’s certainly no stranger than being a teenage boy, no stranger than all the peculiar vagaries of romance which are so often whitewashed by the movies.

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