Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

"I love you, but you don't know what you're talking about."

Its the 1960s, the setting a vaguely New England island consisting of a summer camp, a police station, and few odd houses inhabited by even odder people. Sam (Jared Gilman), a misfit Khaki Scout, has run away with Suzy (Kara Hayward), the blue-eye-shadow-wearing, book-reading object of Sam's affections. The adults of the island - the chief of police (Bruce Willis), the Khaki Scoutmaster (Edward Norton), Suzy's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) - are searching desperately for them as a terrible storm approaches. Making camp on a beach on the other side of the island, Suzy tells Sam that she's always wished she could be an orphan like Sam, to which Sam responds with the above line of dialogue. This is the moment where Moonrise Kingdom, the latest film from Wes Anderson, delves into its main theme: even (or perhaps especially) first love is melancholic.

Anderson's detractors will often take the director to task for creating films that are precociously mannered, designed to look like living dioramas and best enjoyed with '60s French pop music. By these arguments, his films are nothing more than shallow exercises in whimsey, with very little substance to recommend. However, this is an unfair accusation, since all of Anderson's films have a dark undercurrent that cuts through his more precious tendencies. Moonrise Kingdom is perhaps his most poignant - and best - film since The Royal Tenenbaums.

Anderson, working from a terrific script co-written by Roman Coppola, includes many of his favorite motifs here, including an impartial narrator (Bob Balaban) who nonetheless participates in the story and offbeat humor courtesy of clueless adults, not to mention a mandatory appearance from longtime Anderson player Jason Schwartzman (Owen Wilson was busy, apparently). However, he scores some magnificently heartbreaking images as well, adding to the melancholy of the film. And though the finale sometimes gets a little out of control, Anderson still ties it all together with the hands of a master storyteller, bring it all back down to earth.

None of this would work as well as it does, though, without the performances. Murray has specialized in hangdog men stifled with regret and longing, and he continues to deliver here. McDormand and Willis get an opportunity to show their depth as well, and Norton is a delight as the hapless scoutmaster leading young boys on a search party. Tilda Swinton briefly shows up as "Social Services," wearing a sweeping coat that adds to her character's menace. And Schwartzman's brief appearance as "Cousin Ben" is endlessly amusing.

However, the best performances come courtesy of young leads Gilman and Hayward, both of whom had very little acting experience before this film (it's the first film for both of them). Gilman is remarkable as Sam, a kid wise beyond his years - especially in survival, in every sense. Direct, honest, and fond of his corncob pipe, Sam is a terrific creation, and Gilman handles it like a pro. Hayward is perhaps the film's MVP. With a steely resolve that softens the more she gets to know Sam, Hayward shines, consistently stealing the show from the adult actors. She'll be one to watch for in the future.

With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson proves why he was such a phenomenon in the indie circuit at the turn of the century. When it comes to love, Anderson knows what he's talking about. A

Friday, July 20, 2012

"Some men just want to watch the world burn."

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims of the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado today. This was a senseless crime, with no excuses.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Magic Mike (2012)

Magic Mike, the advertising campaign, promised the equivalent of a girls-and-gays-night-out to a male strip club, 100 minutes of gorgeous men showing their moves and their abs for a wad of crumpled-up ones and the excited screams of an audience in lust. It was a smart move: like Channing Tatum's title character (and, in another way, the actor's career up to this point), the film was presented as sexy, flashy, and shallow. And like Tatum and his "Mike," the film was showed surprising depth for a film about stripping.

Mike (Tatum) works a number of jobs, including co-managing a construction site. One day on the site, he comes across Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who's been crashing on his sister's couch and looking for work. Mike takes "the Kid" under his wing, and brings him into the stripper fold, at a club run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), a Svengali in assless chaps. Over the course of the summer, the Kid rises, and Mike flirts with the Kid's sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), while also examining his own life.

Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin, working with stories from Tatum's brief stint as a stripper before he became an actor, present this supposedly-seedy underworld in a remarkably matter-of-fact way. Not only does Mike perform, but he also does the books for the club, as well as saving up his funds to launch his own custom furniture business. The club scenes (not the performances, obviously) are marked with inane small talk between the men. Even the location is remarkably mundane: Tampa, not Miami, Florida. Soderbergh shoots the city in a yellow filter, and presents it as a city of the recession: still carrying on, but the economy is taking its toll on the place. It's also to the film's benefit that Soderbergh doesn't celebrate or condemn Mike's lifestyle, but instead simply presents it as it is.

Tatum shows surprising range; he's no master actor, surely, but he proves there's a lot more to him than what we've seen so far. Pettyfer, too, brings a lot more to the table here than he did in his previous "stand here and look pretty" roles, namely because it gives him something to do while looking pretty. Horn doesn't add much, but namely because her character has nothing to do other than nag Adam or make googley eyes at Mike. Similarly, Matt Bomer and Adam Rodriguez just add background, filling out the roster of hot men on display. Olivia Munn steals her few scenes as a former hookup of Mike's. But the real scene-stealer is McConaughey, who exudes oily sex appeal and rocks those chaps. It may be his finest performance to date.

Magic Mike does have its own special brand of magic. Like it's titular stripper, there's a lot more going on underneath the surface: a heart of gold, sure, but a slick mind too. B+

*It won't happen, but Magic Mike deserves an Oscar nomination for visual effects based on those abs, and particularly McConaughey's ass. Goddamn.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Red Tails (2012)

Let's play a little game of revisionist history, for a second, and flashback to 1988. George Lucas, fresh off the success of the Star Wars trilogy and currently developing a third Indiana Jones picture with Steven Spielberg, begins work on a film about the Tuskegee Airmen, a unit of all-black pilots in WWII who were one of America's most successful units. However, Hollywood sees a war epic with an all-black cast as box office poison, and refuses to foot the bill for the production. So Lucas gets into the director's chair himself, and using his own money, creates his first film as a director since Return of the Jedi, and the experience erases all notions in his mind that exploring the origins of Darth Vader is a good idea.

If only, right? Instead, Red Tails languished in development hell for over 20 years, finally finding the light of day this year (dumped, unceremoniously, in the middle of January), and Lucas went ahead and made a whole new trilogy that, depending on your point of view, either ruined the franchise for all of eternity or is preferably ignored. Lucas is still on as a producer, but noted TV helmer Anthony Hemingway (The Wire, classic Battlestar Galactica episode "Six of One") is making his feature debut, working from a script by John Ridley and The Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder. The story is still the same: in 1944 Italy, the 332nd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Force is segregated from the rest of the Army, and sent on patrol missions that are, essentially, wastes of time. Stateside, Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) is going head-to-head with military commanders to get more important missions and, ultimately, save the Tuskegee program, which is being considered a "failure." Eventually, he gets the orders to serve as escorts on bombing missions, testing the mettle of all the pilots and giving them a chance to prove themselves.

The cast is an impressive roster of performers. Howard is commanding, even though his character isn't called on to do much beyond make a few motivational speeches. The same goes for Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Major Emmanuel Stance, who mostly chews on a cigar and delivers a few lines in Howard's absence. In supporting roles, Elijah Kelley, Tristan Wilds, Ne-Yo, Kevin Phillips, Marcus T. Paulk, Michael B. Jordan, and Leslie Odom, Jr. get chances to shine, but their characters are mostly sketches, adding flavor to the in-flight banter but never getting a real chance to evolve beyond single-phrase descriptions. Wilds comes closest of these men, with a brief subplot about demanding the respect of the older men, but it never has time to develop beyond a few scenes.

This is a problem that's endemic of the whole film: there's never much of a sense of who these men are as people and where they come from. Ridley and McGruder's script leaves most of the characters without more than one or two dimensions, and the dialogue sometimes feels inorganic, especially whenever the bomber pilots deliver their expository lines. The film seems so eager to move from one set piece to the next that it doesn't give all of its subplots time to develop; in fact, the film feels as if another half-hour or so would be beneficial, even though it already runs a little over two hours. A little more narrative focus would go a long way.

The film truly shines, though, when that focus falls on the captain of the unit, Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) and Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo). Easy is a man of displine, while Lightning is a man of showmanship, eager to get the glory no matter how risky. The two have the film's most multi-dimensional and sympathetic characters, and as a result, the most complicated and interesting relationship. Parker, who looks strikingly like a young Denzel Washington (with the talent to match), delivers an impressive performance, turning Easy's struggles with guilt and alcoholism into a deeply-felt conflict. Oyelowo is remarkable as Lightning, bursting with hotshot charisma and energy while also tapping into a tender side in his scenes with Sofia (Daniela Ruhla), the object of his affections. Hopefully, both men will find themselves with more starring roles soon.

Of course, this is to say nothing of the aerial dogfights. Hemingway has a keen eye for action, and the combat scenes are bravura works of special effects, each one more thrilling than the last. In particular, Hemingway and his editors thankfully understand that these sequences don't need to be loaded with jump-cuts and close-ups; instead, they let the action breathe, and the result is battles that get the adrenaline pumping.

It's a shame that Red Tails was left for dead in its January release, with little promotion or attention. The film is actually a good, often-thrilling piece of WWII cinema, with a dynamic central relationship by two should-be stars at the top of their game. If only the rest of the film could have been more focused.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Too Soon? Our Reboot Culture

I haven't seen The Amazing Spider-Man, which just enjoyed a big opening weekend that started last Tuesday, yet. Honestly, I'm not in a major hurry too, either. I'll likely wait until it lands on DVD, picking it up out of interest that's not strong enough to merit $10 air conditioning. This is sort of a big deal, because I really do like Spider-Man as one of my favorite superheroes. But like most people, I feel its too soon for another Spider-Man movie. The taste of Spider-Man 3 is still sour in my mouth, and I'm not sure yet if I'm ready for more web-slinging, superpowers-as-metaphor-for-adolescence action.

But the success of The Amazing Spider-Man means that reboot culture is here to stay. The waters have been tested before; there were only eight years between 1997's Joel Schumacher-directed, Clooney-nippled Batman & Robin and 2005's Christopher Nolan-directed reboot, Batman Begins. With the successes of these two franchises, it would appear that moviegoers have given their approval of quick-turnover reboots, "reimaginings," or whatever else you want to call them. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

On a financial level, reboots are easy money: these characters have proven to be box-office draws in the past, and bringing them back shinier and flashier is a recipe for success. All you have to do, theoretically, is throw current in-demand actors into the roles, grab an attention-getting director, and go through the necessary story beats. However, reboots also offer a chance to take the characters and story to new places, creatively speaking. In the comic books, character histories are often written and rewritten over time (just look at DC Comics' recent massive reboot of 52 titles). So why couldn't the same apply to movies? Marvel's already transplanted the comic format to film franchises with its massively-successful team-up The Avengers, so why wouldn't rebooting work as well? Not to mention the creative and financial windfall that could result from another Chris Nolan-like revision.


The Batman example isn't the rule, though. In fact, there is no rule yet. Though the Batman franchise experienced creative and financial rejuvenation, it was something of a minor miracle, the result of all the pieces falling into place exactly right. A counterexample is the Hulk franchise. 2003's The Hulk brought in an auteur in Ang Lee, who at the time was just coming off the remarkable international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film was a notorious failure, with Lee's cerebral approach to the story left audiences wondering where all the action went (and that little bit of action, well, wasn't exactly Lee's strong suit). So, five years later, The Incredible Hulk emerged as a second chance at getting the Hulk right, with action director Louis Leterrier taking over behind the camera and Edward Norton replacing Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, and the results were...more or less the same. Critics greeted the film with shrugs, though audiences responded slightly better, though not in record-breaking droves. The Amazing Spider-Man seems to have fallen somewhere in the middle. The film has been greeted with mixed reviews, but audiences have responded in droves.

In the end, reboots are going to end up being a matter of personal taste. There's no real limit on how soon is "too soon" for a franchise to be rebooted (though five years may be the accepted norm), but there'll be numerous think pieces on the subject over the next few years. There's likely going to be many more cases like the Hulk or Spider-Man than Batman, but as a friend of mine once said, "you can make money or make art, rarely both."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

RIP Andy Griffith


It's a strange feeling to say goodbye to Andy Griffith, the actor best known for his starring roles in both The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock. I never met him personally, but I still felt as if I've known him all my life. He was a lifelong North Carolinian, a state that I've called home for the majority of my life. He earned a degree in music from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is also my alma mater. He had a small-town appeal, the friendly, fatherly neighbor who was always willing to listen and help however he could.

Perhaps more than that, though, Griffith seems familiar to me because of my father. My dad was a huge fan of The Andy Griffith Show, and I can remember growing up watching pretty much every episode more than once with him. My dad never has been one for really communicating with...well, anyone on a much deeper level, but watching Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith), Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), and Opie Taylor (Ron Howard) was a language we shared. In many ways, Griffith became a second father to everyone who watched, myself included. He was a television visionary, though he never received much credit for it. He will be missed.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

The world is ending. In most end-times disaster movies, we watch as experts in their field - think Dennis Quaid's climatologist in The Day After Tomorrow or Robert Duvall's astronaut in Deep Impact - do their best to warn the world's leaders of our imminent demise, then join the effort to avert disaster. In the end, millions of faceless individuals perish in the floods/comet strikes/alien takeovers/flat-out cataclysm, but the human race ultimately survives thanks to the heroics (and, usually, sacrifices) of our protagonist, and the Earth gets the chance to rebuild society, a blank slate on which we can make our civilization better.

Dodge (Steve Carell), Penny (Kiera Knightley), and the denizens of Earth in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, are afforded no such comforts. The film begins with the announcement that the last-ditch effort to save the Earth from a massive asteroid strike has failed; total annihilation is inevitable, and it's coming in just three weeks. Dodge's wife (played, in a brief cameo, by Carell's real-life wife Nancy Carell) bails on him in favor of...well, spending her life without being attached to her sad-sack husband, basically. While his friends (a delightful assortment that includes Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, and Patton Oswalt) want to spend their final days in a sex, booze, and drug-fueled bacchanalia, Dodge has no direction. He continues to wander into his job as an insurance salesman, until he decides to pursue his high school sweetheart. Penny, his downstairs neighbor, has just broken up with her loutish boyfriend (Adam Brody), and decides to join Dodge on his quest, namely so that she can go back to England and spend her final days with her family.

For its first half, the film is remarkably thoughtful in its presentation of end-of-the-world hysteria. There are no glimpses of the asteroid, no national landmarks being destroyed, just average people dealing with the fact that their lives are ending in three weeks, and there's nothing they can do about it. The various paths people take - attempting to maintain a routine, throwing massive orgies, rioting - feel organic, and you get the sense that everybody here is, deep down, scared shitless. Dodge and Penny make a great mismatched pair of friends, a chemistry that doesn't feel romantic but rather like the kind of friendship that develops when people are forced to rely on each other.

And therein lies the problem. You can tell exactly where this story is going, and that chemistry never evolves into anything more, which, for a romantic comedy (of sorts), is never a good thing. The third act of the film, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (writer of the underrated gem Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist), gets bogged down by the would-be romance. Penny, though played fully by Knightley, is ultimately a Doomsday version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and that prevents her from ever coming into her own as a character. Though Carell excels in roles that trade-in on his natural put-upon demeanor, he never gets a chance to make Dodge anymore than a romantic mope, an Eeyore in puppy love. A little more development (and different casting) would have gone a long way.

There are still several funny moments though, and occasionally the conversations between Dodge and Penny find the poignancy that Scafaria was going for. As a first-time director, Scafaria shows promise, not exactly presenting anything too technically dazzling (a riot is about as close as she gets to a major setpiece), but she excels at finding the tiny moments that sell both the comedy and the drama. Those moments go a long away, and prevents the film from completely falling apart.

Seeking a Friend takes a bold step in our obsession with the end of the world, presenting it at a street-level without all the glitz and glare of special effects and destructive setpieces. However, with the mismatched pairing of Carell and Knightley, perhaps it wouldn't have been the end of the world for them to just stay friends. B