Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nora Ephron (1941-2012)

It would be a fair statement that Nora Ephron, writer-director-essayist who died Tuesday due to battleS with leukemia, reinvented the romantic comedy.  The much maligned genre was given a shoot of adrenaline in the late 80s with her screenplay of When Harry Met Sally.  The Rob Reiner directed film that starred Billy Crystal and catapulted Meg Ryan into immediate America's sweetheart mode set a modern standard in a witty, neurotic fashion, and demonstrated an even-handed battle of the sexes-- one could argue it was one of the first mainstream Hollywood movies that dealt with messy, unorthodox couplings, albeit one played for brevity.  Of course, Ephron had other accomplishments before and after, including the screenplay for the Mike Nichols film Silkwood, and penning the roman a clef Heartburn, chronicling her troubling first marriage-- she made that into a film that starred Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.  After the success of When Harry Met Sally, Ephron wrote and directed Sleepless in Seattle, a modern homage to the Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr romance An Affair to Remenber, cemented the cinematic union of Ryan and Tom Hanks as the romantic comedy couple of 1990s-- they all followed with 1998's online yarn You've Got Mail, both still rank as two of the top grossing romantic comedies to date.  Her most film was the well received Julia Child biopic Julie & Julia, which earned star Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination.  She received three Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay (Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless) and her success and groundbreaking work as a successful female director, filmmaker and American humorist secure her cinematic legacy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


The aura of legends means something in the film Brave, the thirteenth feature film from the legendary and stalwart brand of Pixar Animation Studios.  A deeper legend surrounds the film with Pixar's tradition of mesmerizing storytelling, which has demonstrated the best, the brightest and the most hopeful place of fostering warm films, rich in humanity and emotion since 1995 when the first Toy Story changed the facet of modern filmmaking.  That penchant for matching unparalleled vision of scope mixed with heart and state of the art visual mechanics has made the brand indispensable and altered the filmmaking consciousness of the awe and power of animated features in mode that might seem tantamount to when Walt Disney unveiled Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs in 1939.  While that one-upman-ship game of expanding their reach ended with last years inert (but still financially viable Cars 2) stalled the regime of it's unmatched critical prowess, they have struck back with a honorable, beautifully rendered film, that while a bit pale in comparison to the storytelling heights they have soared, can be seen as a calm, it's-okay-it-will-get-better plea for their most ardent fans.

Set in a mythological time and place in old world Scotland, Brave tells the tale of Merida (voiced with a sly authenticity by Kelly MacDonald), a new world princess begrudging of her old world traditions.  A tomboy adventurer with a Katniss Everdeen prowess for the bow and arrow, Merida rejects her mother, Queen Elinor's (voiced by Emma Thompson) proper princess grooming and seeks to run wild with reckless abandon.  She's a pretty good shot too, and while Brave may hit it's point a bit too on the nose from time to time, she's a fine character and worthy of the title of Pixar's first female protagonist pole position.  In a nice mode that distinguishes her from the normal sect of damsel in distress princesses in the Disney line is her rebellious streak, spiteful tongue and unwaveringly bouncy red hair.  While never quite read as a feminist sermon, Brave does have a few wittily and encouragingly you-go-girl streaks.  Rather than play to customs of her mother's old world values of obtaining a suitor, Merida persists in showing them up, embarrassing the sad lot of boys pinning for her affections.  Her father, King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) is the proud lout of the land.

The heart of Brave is it's mother-daughter bond and the angst and anger that separates them.  Without giving way to spoilers, Merida makes a huge mess of things after running away in a huff and making a visit to an elderly witch (amusingly voiced by Julie Walters) who sets a spell that changes the dynamics of mom and lass; cuing the lessons of mutual understandings to come.  At once a bit overly simplified and strikingly less than ambitions per Pixar standards, Brave settles in more as an enjoyable diversion than a riveting animated tale despite a visual technician that is one of the venerable studios most robust (the darkened 3-D image takes away a bit of that, sadly.)  Credited by five writers and created by Brenda Chapman, who also served as co-director (before she was dismissed), the unfortunate piece of the puzzle seems like an incomplete connection between Merida, certainly a spirited character, and the audience who has come to expect more than mere perfunctory character development from the legends of the great animators and artisans.

For a while Brave coasts on an easy going, enjoyable ride, but never reaches the transcendental apex that one hopes for.  There's never a moment that connects emotionally in the same vein as WALL-E's dance in space, or Up's novelistic prologue-- the sense of maturity, magic and humanity never coalesces.  Instead, there's lots of manic slapstick and a pace that never quite catches fire, while at the same time never reaching the embarrassing lows of Cars 2.  One suspects that if Brave had been the product of a brand with a less studious legend attached, it might be easier to applaud its sprightly and eager-to-please charms; but that legend looms within every frame and scene and makes the heart grow ever fonder of the storytelling brand that Pixar has become so associated with.  Merida is an eye-catching character, but in the end reads only slightly more interesting the below-the-line stock princesses of Disney proper's past.  She's got the fire, but not the outlet to unleash her power.  B-

Friday, June 22, 2012

Pixar's Greatest Female Characters

This weekend brings the latest film from Pixar-- Brave.  Set in the Scotland highlands, the film marks a landmark for the legendary animation studio-- it's the first film where the principle character is a female, as well as the first Pixar project co-directed by a woman (Brenda Chapman.)  While Pixar has had a mostly all boys club reputation, there have been a few great female characters in their legendary canon.  Here are my favorites.

6) Ellie in Up
While only in the unforgettable and tear jerking prologue of Pete Doctor's Up, Ellie makes quite the impression as a formidable character, notable because she doesn't have the benefit of any dialogue whatsoever.  In the novelistic, emotionally and beautifully textured first ten minutes, the wizards at Pixar demonstrated their art form with such a striking and bracing maturity and emotional gut punch, it's difficult not to be soaked in tears in sure remembrance.  Ellie, the explorer animates Carl Fredricksen's sense of adventure and stodgy demeanor.  The tenderly lived-in scenes from a marriage (including Disney's first every animated miscarriage) is the staggering and Ellie leaves with such an indelible impression that the film, even as it tracks unevenly, can't be seen as anything other than a triumph.

5) Violet Parr in The Incredibles
Brad Bird's first endeavor with Pixar was this joyous superhero lark, and the most equal opportunist film in the Pixar canon so for with compelling and wondrous characters of both sexes on display.  One such marvel was that of teenage wallflower Violet, sullen and invisible (both literally and figuratively), voiced with a pitch perfect sense of alienation by Sarah Vowell.  Unfunny and feeling marginalized, there's a joyous sense of abandon when Violet realizes her strength and it turns her natural teenage angst into superheroic power.

4) EVE in WALL-E
It's in the great power of Pixar as a brand and as masters of storytelling that the love story of two mute machines could become a grandly ambitious science fiction morality play and one of the best romantic stories of the past decade in filmmaking.  EVE is a machine, custom built with nothing but the objective on her mind.  There's a riveting poignancy to the softness that starts to develop after EVE meets WALL-E, the disheveled cleaner-upper of Earth that all forgotten who learns the wisdom of humanity.  EVE is icy, but breathtaking and Pixar's equivalent of a femme fatale.

3) Edna Mode in The Incredibles
Voiced by director Brad Bird and modeled after the famous and plentifully Oscared costume designer Edith Head, Edna Mode is the spitfire costumer of the superheros that injects The Incredibles with much of it's wit and comic relief.  No-nonsense, strong and independent, Edna resonates because of her humor and novelty, but also because of her quick-witted intelligence.  In a glorious film with many great female characters, she's a wonderful accessory and a sly throwback to the screwball comedies of 1940s.

2) Dory in Finding Nemo
There's so few times where there feels an incandescent melding of performer and character, but one such prominent plea must be made that the best performance and the most uniformly brilliant casting decision was made when Ellen DeGeneres agreed to play the forgetful Dory in Finding Nemo.  Dory is a natural fit to DeGeneres' warm, flaky, smart-alecky styling.  Her comedy comes from a tenderness and a longing for compassion, but also from a sly and sneakily poignant search for connection.  It's easy to fall for Dory with her effervescent charm, just as it's confounding to keep her from bewildering irritation.  That's true of most best friends.

1) Helen Parr \ Elastigirl in The Incredibles
The best female representation in a Pixar film to date, from my perspective, comes from the lovely, strong and complicated character, voiced to perfection by Holly Hunter.  Presenting mother as superhero and superhero as mother, Brad Bird wrote and developed one of the one interesting and mesmerizing characters for women in many a moon.  Dealing with an out-of-sync husband, out-of-control children, evils that stretch far outside the norms of imagination, as well and the boredom of forgoing suburban ennui, Helen Parr is a fascinating character study...Elastigirl is just incredible. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent

In the canon of Disney evils, Maleficent ranks with the best of them.  Here's the first taste of Angelina Jolie in full costume for the 2014 live action re-staging of Sleeping Beauty directed by Robert Stromberg, who famously won back to back Art Directions Academy Awards for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland.  Simply titled Maleficent, Jolie stars alongside Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora and Sharlto Copley (District 9.)  I'm worried as a whole, but the casting of Jolie is pure genius, for she is simply terrific portraying a cartoon-- what with her curves, seductive line readings, and over-the-top celebrity-- she is a cartoon.  That's meant as a compliment.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Argo trailer

Paramount Pictures turns 100!

Anyone seen this nifty picture taken for Vanity Fair magazine in celebration of Paramount Pictures centennial anniversary.  Kind of awesome in its mixture of new and older top drawer talent in front and behind of the camera.  And the biggest plus of all is that it was done live without photo-shopping-- what a barrage of awe, excitement and awkwardness that must have been.  I've been thinking of doing a big post in celebration of Paramount's anniversary, as well as Universal Picture milestone (2012 is kind of heavy that way.)  Any interest?

Friday, June 15, 2012

OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger's Movie

There's a striking nobility to Bud Clayman, who bracingly exposes his mental illness on camera, an immediate empathy to his struggle and pain.  In his documentary, OC87, Clayman is center stage baring his illness front and center with such a no-fuss grace and dignity, it raises a certain degree for anyone who has every battled depression, or a feeling of ill-at-ease emotionally.  Clayman, an aspiring filmmaker, has been afflicted with obsessive compulsive disorder, biopolar disorder and Aspergers since youth, a trifecta of social ailments that haunt his thoughts, temper his mood and ultimately affect his ability to process.  There's a surprising and thoughtful candor to his openness and, at times, playful strike back to his struggles.  Unfortunately, his film-- I'm sure envisioned as rousing ode to combating mental illness-- lacks the warmth and control of pacing to ultimately care for Clayman's strife.  It plays as more of a collection of home movies that chronicle his illness rather igniting anything insightful or awareness of the coping with such.  There's brief nods of insight, especially when Clayman is in therapy sessions, assured and reassured that his haunting thoughts are perfectly normal, just perhaps processed differently, but there's way too many pointless asides of Clayman the subject, and filmmaker, drifting of course reminding the audience that he ultimately feels nothing.  There's slight poignancy in his brief encounters with his even more emotionally detached father that point to signals of the formations of his problems, but Clayman merely pays homage to old man, meandering along.  It causes a degree of conflict in finding err with a film that clearly was made with more honorable intentions than most came close to, but there's a clear and distinctive emptiness in OC87 that comes close to vanity.  C

Safety Not Guaranteed

The latest entry in the indie quirky dramedy canon has a wallop of a premise.  A Seattle magazine reporter and his two interns investigate a classified ad put out seeking companionship for a time-traveling mission.  Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this years Sundance Film Festival, Safety Not Guaranteed was directed by first time feature helmer Colin Trevorrow and written by first time screenwriter Derek Connolly.  I'm guessing the Sundance selectors were so wowed by the novelty and originality of the premise, that they were able to get past the first-time jitters that get the better of the films pacing and sense of tone.  Part screwball comedy, part misfit romantic comedy, part half-assed assortments of pathos and part sitcom, it's difficult to make exactly what this weird, if cleverly scripted, film is trying to be.  There's an ace in its corner that elevates Safety Not Guaranteed, perhaps not as a great film, but certainly an interesting one, and one that hopefully, for the better, raises the profile of a particularly alluring young actress.

Her name is Aubrey Plaza, of Parks and Recreations fame, and her deadpan line readings coupled with brainy good looks and a contemptuous sneer offer a pristine and most welcome specimen of 21st century femininity.  She plays Darius, a lowly intern at a second rate Seattle magazine, a social misfit-- perhaps linked to the loss of her mother at an early age-- and gifted, if disconnected, young woman trying to find her place in the world.  She's also ridiculously funny.  She positively hums the sarcastic dialogue that Connolly provides and humanizes and modulates it in such an inventive way, it's very easy to succumb to her shy and nerdy advances.  It's certainly easy to see why Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the lonely, possibly crazy Northwestern grocer who took out the time-traveling ad, would fall for her, and through certain stretches of the uneven and overly pat Safety Not Guaranteed, the film successfully coasts on the natural, oddball chemistry between the two.  Both are disconnected types seeking, if nothing else, companionship and an ironic nod or two while sharing sad war stories.

It's a shame that the film surrounding the likable chamber piece of time-traveler and his girl friday is not at all appetizing.  Jeff (played by New Girl's Jake M. Johnson), the wannabe hot spot reporter chaperoning the story is a shallow and unnecessary cad, and with too much screen time to boot, he never warms up to you as anything more than a stock character on a third-rate sitcom.  The time-traveling conceit itself is stymied as illogical plot holes pile up.  Forget about the what, how, and who, the real question left unanswered is why should the audience care one lick.  Well, the one reason why is the alluring presence of Aubrey Plaza; reasoning is not guaranteed about the rest.  C+

Saturday, June 9, 2012


With an unbridled ambition, amazingly sculpted production values, and a hype machine that is sort of unheard of, even in today's hyperbolic, every-week-releases-a-new-event-title world comes Ridley Scott's Prometheus.  Scott returning to the science fiction genre, one that he helped sculpt and mold for more forward thinking modern audiences, after a thirty absence would be enough a cause for celebration.  That Prometheus, despite it's non-committal marketing campaign, is essentially a de facto prequel to his 1979 horror masterwork Alien should give shivers to cinephiles everywhere.  While times may have changed, his latest is, but of course, offered in splendorific third dimension for the heightened demands of studio executives in love with head wear surcharges, there's still something striking about Scott's filmmaking.  The jolt, the bristles of tension, employed by an ingenious sound design and complementary score, coupled with a pristine and appropriately gray color scheme; his flair for pacing and dynamic for chills is still as sharp as ever.

It's just a bit of shame that his ambition got a little ahead of him this time out.  For as a chilly horror show, Prometheus hits the mark.  As a heavier, brainy piece of speculative science fiction, it's a bit messier.  Clearly Scott and team (the film was written by Jon Spaihts and Lost's Damon Lindelof) are aiming-- for the first half at least-- for the more minded scope of something like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, for the quest at hand is no less than the origins of humanity.  A mission, headed by true-believer archeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace- the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), and funded by an ominous third party corporation seemingly with motives of their own, the stage is set for flight aboard the space ship Prometheus.  With themes that spew heavier than the film can really handle, there's a two fold to Prometheus.  On one side there's a fun, futuristic caper with spellbinding effects, and on the other, a drabber, less fulfilling treatise on playing with fire, while trying to meet ones maker.  Thankfully, Scott relieves the high mindedness, for the most part, behind come the second half as we journey to that place where no one can hear you scream.

Shaw is an interesting character, and a wise one to detract with Sigourney Weaver's Ripley.  Both are smart, strong and vulnerable, but in altogether different ways.  Part of that lies in Rapace's performance, which is strong enough to eclipse the films murkier moments, and the earlier stages of the film, where the is-it\isn't-is a prequel to Alien are a bit more confounding.  Shaw is a woman of faith, of which is only really documented by the cross around her neck-- Hollywood in the year 2012, even in a film set in 2093, is still a bit sketchy on fully committing to any sort of religious affiliation-- who discovers primitive cave etchings that might point to the origins of man.  Along with her boyfriend, the more Darwinian-based Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), and a motley-crew of geologists and character actors aboard the ship.  Idris Elba plays the no-nonsense captain of the ship, providing nicely balanced levity to the terror and Charlize Theron plays a corporate stooge, along for the ride, and essays for the second time this summer (third time in a year counting Young Adult) yet another icy woman contemptuous of all, and again nails it thoroughly with most entertaining results.

The most novel part of Prometheus is the introduction of the robot David (Michael Fassbender), a sort of HAL-clone who models himself after Peter O'Toole in Lawrence in Arabia in disposition and elocution.  The surprise is that the motivations about David are never really made clear, and that jolts the film in a nicely-modulated balance between falling for and detesting the man-made creature.  The glee comes fully in Fassbender's performance, and it's wry sense of humor, and slight danger.  Perhaps the only thing David really seeks is his own freedom.  The lead performances across the map are top-drawer, but the fun begins as the body count rises and the origins of Prometheus start to take it's place.  The gore is subtle by today's standards but a few sequences hold a candle to the jolting Jon Hurt through-the-stomach scene in the original Alien, especially an eerie performance of self administered surgery that should delight the horror devoted.  And that's where Scott's master class of pacing and control come firmly back in stride, as an anxious quiver of panic is unleashed in the second half, prompting that joyously queasy sensation of watching through a hands covered face.

The real stars of Prometheus really are the aces behind the scenes.  The beautifully rendered and bountifully epic production design by Arthur Max and the immaculately lensed photography by Dariusz Wolski are bountiful, even in the earlier patches of Tree of Life-ponderousness is taking place.  Scott can always be expected to deliver on those fronts, with billowing, "Are you not entertained" pronouncements, but the spectacle of Prometheus is most certainly alive and exhilarating.  The chills and terror of mysterious creatures wrecking havoc are as well.  Too bad all the theology and philosophy gets in the way of a good time.  B

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Snow White & the Huntsman

All the billboards and trailers for Snow White & the Huntsman proudly extol "from the producer of Alice in Wonderland," and that billion dollar earning film may be reason there's been so many reworkings of the classic Grimm fairy tales on display lately.  This is but the second Snow White take to enter cinemas this year, after Tarsem's comic retelling Mirror Mirror starring Julia Roberts crashed with a thud earlier this spring.  First-time feature director Rupert Sanders enters the mix with a darker, gothic telling of the Snow White tale that is visually plush, immaculately designed, but unfortunately resembles nothing close to a beating heart.  That's key, since the story is primed on such a vessel to keep evil at bay.  What's left to embrace is a go-for-broke visual design that takes the place of less sturdy structural storytelling.  Baroque, beautiful, even if often ill-fitting and unevenly patched together, there's an allure and grandeur (not to mention a cinematic softness) for sets seemingly built from the ground up.

The problem with Snow White & the Huntsman is two-fold.  First off, for a summer-time fantasy diversion, it takes itself far too seriously-- rigorously so in fact-- as if no one had any primary knowledge of fairy tale itself.  The second is a trickier one; one that it feels a victim of focus-group speak.  A weary blockbuster in waiting, yearning for a four-quadrant audience, that diminishes the appeal it might have been had it simply been its own thing-- a darker chapter in the Snow White canon.  The lengthy prologue tells us the earlier beginnings of Snow White, one who had "skin white as snow, lips as red as blood, hair black as night."  She's a beaut who lost her mother early and whose noble father was taken by a vain beauty, who in this version is named Ravenna (Charlize Theron.)  Theron is easily the best part of Snow White & the Huntsman; beautiful, yet vulnerable that her vanity might be stricken from her at any time.  She camps, and vamps, and makes full gestures that imply a greater deal of fun in store than the rest of the film can firmly deliver.

As Snow White grows up, locked inside her tower, she ages into Kristen Stewart, a shy, awkward waif.  Once she steals her freedom, Snow ends up in the Dark Woods, a chilly and illusive place where all the branches and nature springs to life as a coming of the most fearful of things-- the trees attack, the branches spawn into snakes-- it's a shatteringly evocative piece of art direction.  Queen Ravenna needs that bloody heart to keep her beauty thriving and she hires a huntsman (played by Thor's Chris Hemsworth) to hunt her down.  One of the niftier character decisions on the part of screenwriter Evan Dougherty (with an assist from John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini) was the reworking of Prince Charming into a drunken, Viking badass, a twist of sorts that brings out the best in Thor (I mean Hemsworth.)  The trouble is that while the story can never quite get a heads-up on the design.  The Dark Woods is a magnificently scary set piece, as is the movie's version of Eden, an idyllic Sanctuary where nature thrives, and sprightly faeries roam free.  Stewart herself acquits herself decently, even with an awkward British accent.

Snow White & the Huntsman devolves into a derivation of countless other films including The Lord of the Rings (the dwarfs strangely recall the behaviors of the hobbits, in body and spirit, while being digitally performed by actors by Ray Winstone and Ian McShane), Twlight (there's a-for-no-reason love triangle set up for Snow's affection), Gladiator and, of course Alice in Wonderland.  For some reason, the filmmakers felt the need to model Snow White in to some sort of Joan of Arc-type figure for the films climax; a strange and uneven attempt at putting a feminist spin on the fairy tale perhaps.  Another sequence, for some reason, I suppose, other than to show-off visual effects splendor seems to pay homage to last year's foreign art-house horror film TrollHunter.  That's the marketing angle of Snow White & the Huntsman that leaves the overly-long film a bit empty.

Like the Queen herself, the beauty of Snow White & Huntsman is sadly but skin deep.  C+

Moonrise Kingdom

In the cinematic universe, the arrival of a new film by Wes Anderson brings about a divisive chime.  To some, it's a movie-land dream, to others another picture accentuated by immaculate set decoration in search of story and soul.  I'm on the former front, and Anderson's latest, Moonrise Kingdom, is a wistful ode to youthful innocence, seemingly concocted from very personal, albeit heightened memories, compressed into ninety minutes of slickly and grandly paced joyfulness.  Seemingly filmed as a postcard from another era, one that most certainly never existed, but evocative of a sense of first time love, discovery and adventure, Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson's most vital movie since 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums and showcases a deeper thematic maturity of his idiosyncratic strengths as a filmmaker.  The mis en scene at play here is even more striking and luminous, more visually plush, pulsating with a romantic sweetness and melancholia; it's a film that Anderson fans will likely want to get up from their seats and hug.  There's something even more interesting; a naturalistic quality that hangs on to Moonrise, even while the masterfully choreographed aesthetic of the film is taking hold.  Here just might be the smart, much needed anecdote to the summer movie season.

Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphan khaki scout member, nearly pubescent, has runaway from his tribe headed by scout master Ward (Edward Norton.)  He's a nerdy young man, an outcast, with diminished popularity in his team of scouts in the waning days of Summer on a fictional New England island in 1965.  Suzy (Kara Hayward) is a wayward youth, ignored by her litigator parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), who on a whim for adventure joins Sam along for the journey...the two met a year prior and bonded over correspondence.  What results is a two-fold story of the two kids (both of whom feel ostracized and marginalized by the disjointed grown-ups in their lives)  and their puppy-love crush turned into something special, and the rag-tag group of people looking for the runaway fugitives.  Along with Norton's scout master, and Murray and McDormand, Bruce Willis helps out as the towns police captain, and a team of khaki scouts who are more interested in a cold capture than helping the boy out.

There's a delicacy and poignancy (one that to Anderson's critics would read as overly precocious) to the kids will be kids developing romance between Sam and Suzy.  The film partially plays like a chapter of a children's adventure story; one that Suzy herself admittedly relishes.  However fleeting, there's touches of singular grace as the two interact.  Sam, determined to figure things out for himself, and maybe feel a sense of connection; Suzy, more bored than damaged, in awe of the attention she's never received before, their union, while unlikely, is uniformly sweet.  In a time where romantic comedies feel ever more disconnected from any sort of reality, it says a lot (in good ways and bad) that Moonrise Kingdom feels more authentic in the human spirit than a thousand cliche girl-meets-boys-stories in the past twenty years of film.  Even in the artificially pastel-colored world of scout leagues and impossibly constructed New England home furnishings, Moonrise Kingdom has a soulfulness and aching heart to match every idiosyncratic Wes Anderson quirk.

Impeccably performed by a stellar ensemble, one that matches the auteurial challenges of Anderson's artifice while never outstripping the filmmaker from true star credit.  Gilman and Hayward in particular are impressive for their natural line delivery and non-fuss chemistry, while the starry cast outside of them impressively (and seemingly relish) the poetic, heightened fantasy of summer camp that Anderson (and co-writer Roman Coppola) created.  Alongside first time Anderson co-horts Norton, McDormand and Willis are Harvey Keitel as a rival scout leader, Bob Balaban as a sort of master of ceremonies and Tilda Swinton as a social worker known simply as Social Services.  Anderson-alum Jason Schwartzman pops in as an officiator to Sam and Suzy's primal wedding.  All seem to sparkle and jell to Anderson's wonderfully inventive, weird vision of past-time summer loving and adventure, marking Moonrise Kingdom a seductive art house diversion.  It takes a gifted crew to make something that could come across so arch and overly staged, seemingly natural and playful.

While, alas Moonrise Kingdom likely won't convert those immune to Anderson's charms, it's still a distinctive, and I feel, definitive piece of his cinematic resume.  After the sublime trip into stop motion with his last feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and the diminishing returns of his last two live-actions films, The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and The Life Aquatic (2004), Anderson appears to have returned with a greater cinematic perspective of his offbeat sensibility, distilling what appears to be fragments of lost childhood in the shape an adventure that will likely be more absorbing than any battleship, alien invasion or superhero antic to be offered this summer.  A- 

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Dictator

Sacha Baron Cohen further drifts into irrelevance with yet another character study meant to offend and gross out its audience.  This time playing the leader of an oil-rich North African country of Wadiya, Cohen again fully immerses himself into a cartoonish buffoon parodying social norms and politics of the western world.  However, in The Dictator, the joke is fully out of steam.  While in previous characterizations of Ali G., Borat and Bruno, Cohen brilliantly went there, consistent in shape and size of his massive cartoons alienating innocent bystanders along the way, as Aladeen, Cohen takes the formally scripted approach for the first time (Cohen shares writing credits with Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer; Borat's Larry Charles directs) and the result stifles the free associative grooves of the past.  The other problem is that Aladeen feels hardly constructed at all, instead just a hit and miss patch-up of ridiculous cliches filtered through an uneven accent.

While The Dictator fulfills its quotient of scatological, sexist, racist and all consuming offensive humor (yet again, Cohen gives his genitals screen time), there's little bite or sting, for the shots seem cheaper and thornier than ever before.  We first meet Aladeen enjoying his stupidly rich existence, extolling the pleasures of his nuclear program.  He joyfully orders insubordinates executed and engages in one of favorite hobbies of bedding famous celebrates and chronicling them on a Polaroid Wall of Fame (Megan Fox makes a game cameo), but really, deep down, behind all the war crimes he's most proud, Aladeen wants someone to hold.  That's the best plot description for the insipid sight gags that make up the majority of The Dictator, which grow tiring before the first reel.  Legitimate thespians (like Ben Kingsley, John C. Rielly and Anna Faris) make up a supporting cast, most of whom floundered by the scripted shapelessness of the film.

After arriving in New York to abhor his dictatorial triumphs, Aladeen is back stabbed by his duplicitous older brother (Kingsley) and mistaken for a Wadiyan dissident by a feminist tree- huger (Faris), who the rape-loving Aladeen begins to have, shudder, feelings for.  All of which makes for a strange bedfellow of genres: political parody meets fish out of water romantic comedy; neither of which are particularly inspired.  Even more so is the treacly climax which proves that even international war criminals can be redeemed by the love of a good woman.  C-
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