Review- Moonrise Kingdom

I remember that long ago I was suggested by a friend of mine that I should watch Bottle Rocket. I was told that it would be something I would like. I valued the friend’s opinion who told me this so many years on I still recall the recommendation and I always thought that’s where I’d start watching Wes Anderson. Yet, I have yet to follow through on that recommendation. It’s hard to discern why specifically, but I can state equivocally that it was likely due in part to my still somewhat rebellious nature in film school. I’d overheard certain people and think “Oh, they like him too. Maybe not then.” Another reason that Moonrise Kingdom was my first film of his is Anderson seems to me a filmmaker you just have to watch. His tone, his voice, the worlds he crafts can’t easily be disseminated in 90 to 150 seconds. His sense of humor is a bit on the drier side and trailers are geared toward broadness. Mea culpas aside, which really wasn’t the point of this long intro, I didn’t come into Moonrise Kingdom with massive expectations that normally are placed upon one who has a fanbase or is the basis of auteur criticism. I was a relatively blank slate just there to see this film, not the new Wes Anderson, which is a different mindset.

The film is a pretty insular tale about Sam and Suzy, who are two outcasts in their own way who seem to be the only ones who understand one another, thus they conspire to run off together. The charm, heart and warm nature of the film are responsible for its soaring success through two acts. One of the few bits of information I went in knowing was that Anderson cited Truffaut’s Small Change as a major influence on this film and that shows in the tonality more than anything else but there is a bit of episodic narrative to it that does also, however, this is a bit more linear.

The story of both Sam and Suzy as they break free, find each other and how they first met and then became pen pals are the strength of the film. However, the chase and the externalization of their struggle to be together takes up much of the third act and is where the few stumbles the film does have occur. There are several chase sequences, the Hullaballoo escape, the field and all that occurs there. Some of it is just funny as it happens, some is minimally tonally necessary, but as a whole very little of it is vital. It’s a film that’s moving rather well with minimal encumbrances up to this point, and then it just gets a bit bogged down and the pace suffers a bit because of it. There’s a necessary resolution to all this waiting at the end of the rat race we know this, but all that intervenes just seems an inconvenience.

What the film does almost unerringly is create characters that are quirky and odd but they’re not reflexively so, and their obliviousness to the fact is what makes them ring true, not any one given action or tendency that they may have. The film, in good comedic tradition, does give many of the characters their own obsession that drives them to function as they do, and rounds out the supporting players like Scout Master Ward, Captain Sharp and Social Services. Similarly, the handling of the narrator, which for a time is a bit presentational, an aspect that removes danger and adds levity, also has a twist to it.

The comedy of the film is for the most part organic, which is very refreshing. All too often you find people delivering punch-lines and they know it, here it flows from the action and if it works it’s a bonus, if not no great loss.

Moonrise Kingdom, despite its somewhat slippery, treacherous conclusion, is a charming, delightful film, which will likely win over both Anderson devotees and new fans alike, speaking as someone who belongs to the former grouping.

7/10

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Review- Dark Shadows

With a film like Dark Shadows I have to spend a bit of time discussing where I’m coming from here and couching it. While I cannot claim to be an expert, I am a fan of the show and do have quite a fondness for it. Having said that, there will be no armchair direction or writing here make no mistake of that. I will gauge the film based on the direction and manner it was interpreted not how I would’ve preferred it, and I will be explicit in explaining why it still doesn’t work.

From the moment I saw the trailer I had a sense for what this film was going to try to be. It’s a rare case of a trailer being true to the tone of the finished product. What you get in this film is a very uneasy balance between horror elements and attempts at humor and self-parody. Essentially, it tries to be The Brady Bunch films, which are true to the tone and spirit of the show but poke fun at the show too.

What makes this different and not as successful is a disharmony in tone. It goes from a facsimile of a horror scene to forced humor. I should’ve counted attempted jokes for the percentage of success was very low. I literally laughed out loud thrice, once was a suggestive joke David (Gully McGrath) made about Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). With the Brady films clearly it was always silly. How this would’ve worked better is either of two ways: One, be the kind of over-the-top horror the show was, which is humorous to some, or two, play it straight dramatically and tongue-in-cheek comedically. Instead, you could feel the gears shift and the sudden impetus “Must try and be funny now.” It’s one of the more forced comedies I’ve ever seen in that regard.

There are many Tim Burton movies I have loved. I am among the many who still have enough fondness for much of his work such that I will still come to see what he’s done. However, I’m not really angered by this turn so much as disappointed. Granted it’s not an original piece but I thought Dark Shadows and Tim Burton, what could possibly go wrong? The following did: The complete lack of tonal cohesion, the near glacial movement of the plot when there’s not an over-abundance of things going on, the thinness and simplification of characters.

Why is this one frustrating and not infuriating? I did like the performances for the the most part. Again, this is divorcing expectation and examining the actual content. However, it comes down to the milieu within which the players played. When the film is straight-up gothic-style horror it’s rather breathtaking. Those moments are few and far between but it shows the potential of the narrative had there been a sort of balance or reversal of tone.

Johnny Depp, who in his now long renaissance, is at times too big and too much the center of attention in certain films does well here. His Barnabas Collins is his own and I don’t begrudge him that, I just feel the performance would’ve been augmented further in a tale more worthy such an awesome vampire. For even in this rendition Barnabas deserves better.

Touching upon the Brady Bunch notion again there is the fish out of water aspect; the concept of the Brady films was that it was the 1990s and they were very much still stuck in the 1970s, while here Barnabas was in the 1970s after being interred in 1752. It plays the fish out of water but the film tries so hard with musical cues, other pop culture references and an Alice Cooper performance that is not up to his “Feed My Frankenstein” in Wayne’s World 20 years ago; that they just become tired, then trite and finally bothersome. We get it, it’s the 70s. Moving on.

Contrary to divorce where it’s only the children who suffer in a movie that’s bad it’s really only the kids who leave unscathed: Chloe Moretz doesn’t really have a lot to do here but shows a more mature side of her persona, which is easing and accelerating her transition from in-demand child actress to eventual A-List leading lady. Gully McGrath in sparing moments plays one of the more rounded characters in the film and shows a glimpse of his talent. Bella Heatcote, though not a child actress, is new talent who likely has much more to show in a more rounded role.

An example of a wasted, underdeveloped character in this film is that of Willie Loomis. Aside from being a weirdo his only other functions are being a stooge and a driver. Wonderful, really needed the new Freddy Kreuger for that part.

Partially to expiate the film its slowly moving, thin plot there’s some randomness thrown into the end of the film, which while are hat tips to the show are also slightly foreshadowed and only serve to prolong the cacophonous silliness that is the climax.

In the end, whether I agreed with it in principle or not, Dark Shadows made an attempt to do something different and it failed there also.


4/10

Review- Alabama Moon

Uriah Shelton, Jimmy Bennett and Gabriel Basso in Alabama Moon (Faulkner-McLean Entertainment)

Alabama Moon is a film whose road to distribution was a long and winding one. In fact, it’s eventual home video release (which is how I ended up seeing it) was delayed because it finally got a limited regional release in the Gulf states, mainly Alabama (naturally). It’s worth noting that this model is not unusual. The straight-to-video release isn’t as profitable as it once was, and for some reason just as maligned even in this Streaming Age, so limited releases will act as a springboard for DVD sales.

Alabama Moon tells the tale of young Moon Blake, a boy who is raised in the woods by an eccentric father who is wary of both modernity and the government. Very early on, and rendered rather dramatically, Moon loses his father and much of the film will deal with how Moon tries to cope on his own, while trying to avoid authorities like a bumbling quasi-humorous cop played by Clint Howard or the clutches of a reformatory.

The standout of the film is the performance of Jimmy Bennett, who plays Moon Blake. He was most recently JJ on No Ordinary Family but is perhaps known for playing young James T. Kirk in the Star Trek reboot. While Bennett has played in much grittier, darker and dramatic vehicles before such as Trucker and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things this may just be his best performance to date. This role demands a lot of him not just in terms of highly-charged emotional scenes but also some comedic timing is required and he needs to be a grounded normal-seeming character in the film’s goofier moments. As I tweeted immediately after watching it he basically makes it worth watching on his own and is “crazy good.”

There are other performances of note as well. Those deserving first mention are Moon’s friends played by Gabriel Basso and Uriah Shelton respectively. They play very different kinds of characters but are equally good foils because it never seems unnatural that Moon would befriend either because they both seem to reflect disparate aspects of his personality both a fighter and a quiet, solitary type.

The adult casting offers more mixed results. John Goodman’s character thankfully plays a more crucial role later in the film than it seems he will early on and is very well played. Then we come to the last key figure which is the police officer played by Clint Howard. Now merely casting Clint Howard, or that you can cast him in the part, is already an indication of how you intend to play a part. Howard can play a creepy menacing type but more often than not he’s goofy and here he’s like a mean-spirited Barney Fife only less competent.

It’s in that writing and casting decision where the die is cast that the tone of the film will be a balancing act between very serious drama in a coming-of-age vein and lighthearted borderline screwball comedy that must counterbalance one another. It is to this film’s credit that it manages to keep them both in check and make the film both light viewing and emotionally engaging at the same time and also some of that credit once again goes to the cast.

The film manages to deal with quite a few themes in a subtler than expected manner despite the variegated tone. One of the main ones being individuation from parents specifically that one can accept their parents’s faults, love them for who they are and learn from them but must eventually learn to see the the world, and interact with it, in their own way.

It may be easy to read this review and see why this film has fallen through the cracks as it’s not exactly the easiest to pigeonhole, however, I hope that in reading this review you have also found it is worth your time.

I was rather pleasantly surprised by this film and I’m very glad I tracked it down.

8/10