Friday, May 25, 2012

Reach Out

Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Wes Anderson's Tall Tale

I have a more standard review of Wes Anderson's new, spectacular film Moonrise Kingdom up at Shadowlocked, but I wanted to use this space to address some of the film's more formal and auteurist concerns, because dammit that's my luxury.

Coming out of the initial screenings both here in Los Angeles and stretching all the way to Cannes, the main thread of conversation, particularly from its detractors, went, "well, that was a Wes Anderson film all right," which is sort of like when I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and my roommate noted, "that was definitely an Indiana Jones movie." There are implications in each, but the former suggests a stasis, and indeed, there was a lot of talk about how Wes Anderson hasn't changed much as an artist, an accusation I find baffling, but okay, let's start from there. Certainly you can trace some aesthetic concerns from Bottle Rocket (1996) all the way to Moonrise Kingdom, but they're a lot less pervasive in the former and much more developed in the latter. Moonrise Kingdom, despite lacking the ambition of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) or certainly The Life Aquatic (2004), is Anderson's most formally accomplished work. For once, no shot seems left to chance beyond the completely unpredictable elements of live action photography, and his mise-en-scene is, frequently, unbelievably complex, far too much to take in during a single viewing (I'll be seeing the film again this weekend).

And I know who find these aspects of his work suffocating, but I wonder if they would level the same accusations at Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, or Alain Resnais. When did "exacting" become a bad thing for cinema? Moving on...

Moonrise Kingdom also offers a renewed focus on exaggerated comedic visuals, which you can find in his earlier work certainly (the twins and Magnus in Rushmore (1998), for example) but which sort of petered out by the time of The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Here, he ends up in almost the almost surreal territory he tread in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), visually contrasting Sam (Jared Gilman) against his troop or fellow orphans to instantly demonstrate just how out-of-place he is. His whole conception of the Khaki Scouts is quintessential Anderson, capitalizing on American cultural heritage to create something at once laughable and comfortable. That Ed Norton makes the perfect scout leader, the very image of a boy in a man's body, is but icing on the cake.

Looking at those frames above, the Anderson devotee will also notice another major shift, away from the 2.35 anamorphic widescreen frames of his middle period (Rushmore through Darjeeling) that defined his aesthetic as much as anything else, and into the boxier 1.85:1 frame of Bottle Rocket and Fantastic Mr. Fox. It makes for an interesting transition, and some of his frames do feel a little crowded as a result. In that shot of the scouts, for instances, one sense more activity to the right of the screen that a wider frame could have accommodated, but others are perfectly calibrated - the opening sequence in particular, which sets the aesthetic stage for much of what is to come, is dazzling. The climax is one of the most simple, perfectly conceived and executed pieces of cinema we'll be lucky to get all year.

And don't worry, Anderson hasn't forgotten about the characters. I never bought the line that he ever did, and in particular, I found The Darjeeling Limited to be his most intensely character-focused effort. Redemption is a major thread in Anderson's work - it's part of what makes him a classicist - but the troubles of the brothers in Darjeeling were so much less tangible than the distant fathers of Tenenbaums or Life Aquatic, the criminal activities in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), or Max Fischer's pigheadedness in Rushmore, so Anderson's typically ecstatic outpouring of communion at the end of Darjeeling felt forced, and destined to be short-lived.

Moonrise Kingdom is nothing if not tangible - those visual contrasts that are immediately established ensure a line in the sand that Sam and Suzy will never truly be able to cross. Anderson has always been fascinated with the thin line separating childhood from adulthood, and he continues that exploration by similar means here - the kids all act a little older than they should, and the adults much younger. Sam and Suzy's escape is the very definition of adulthood, the final leaving of the nest to make a life for oneself, usually with the hope of starting a family. Their initial explorations of this freedom are awkward, and Anderson isn't shy about mining the humor, but he's not too snarky to overlook the beauty in their efforts, the earnestness of their intent. Usually when filmmakers look back to childhood, they find a "simpler time," but if anything, Sam and Suzy's lives are infinitely more complex. Suzy's parents (played beautifully by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) may be having marital troubles, but they know each other well enough to know the steps. By contrast, Suzy is at a loss for why she found a book in her house instructing her parents on how to deal with an out-of-control child. What's a twelve-year-old girl to make of that? Moonrise Kingdom may look on the surface to be a nostalgia trip, but it is so much about that initial peek into the world as it really is, and how terrifying that can be.

I want so much to talk more about it, but I want so much more for everyone to have a chance to discover everything else for themselves. Certainly to be reminded of just how great Bruce Willis can be, and how surprisingly suited he is for a Wes Anderson film. Few can do as much with so little. And after Fantastic Mr. Fox, arguably Anderson's funniest film to date, he doesn't sacrifice laughs here, either. This is a surprisingly plot-driven film, and Anderson uses the pace inherited from that form of storytelling to keep the humor alive. More than anything, I hope doubters and fans alike will be open to how much Anderson has grown as an artist, how much more his initial musings have become defined, and how adept a storyteller he is, compressing a whole world into scarcely more than 90 minutes. It's an astonishing film, simple by design, but so intricately and lovingly designed.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Tell Me Why I'm Scared

This piece contains spoilers for The Cabin in the Woods.

I saw The Cabin in the Woods under the best of intentions, albeit not in the exact circumstances that might be the satisfaction of many a reader. So insistent was the secrecy surrounding this movie that some critics seemed to get actively angry at the idea that someone could go in knowing anything, so I'm sorry if I'm disappointing you in saying that, yes, I did know in some vague sense that the movie was about Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford manipulating the events surrounding five college students' venture into the woods. But if the best thing you can say about a movie is "I didn't know anything about it before seeing it," that ain't much of a movie, now is it?

As this is the very model of a modern major crowd pleaser, I was quite happy that the screening room was jam-packed (a benefit of having access to industry screenings is that, even a month after a film's release, you still have a way to see it with a crowd), and geared they were. I've complained in the past about people talking during movies, but there are few more distinct joys than someone behind you whispering "go to the van, go to the van, go to the van," externalizing the tension inside every audience member. And as a guy who only sees a couple of horror films every year, I found the terror in The Cabin in the Woods plenty engaging, though it admittedly lacked the staying, I-can't-go-to-sleep-tonight power of more resonant, mysterious works. Perhaps it's just me, but I've never been scared of a defined threat in films, and as this film's undead-redneck-pain-worshippers (first), and bevy of monster-movie standbys (later), were very easy to define, I didn't find the film all that unnerving.

But then that's not really the point, is it(?). Like a great many modern, almost-clever pieces of popular entertainment, it seems like The Cabin in the Woods is first and foremost about genre deconstruction, a genre unto itself that I approach warily. Even Community, a show I adore and which takes a hatchet everything from horror to sci-fi to action to serialized television to the sitcom to, in many ways, itself, tries my patience from time to time. The Cabin in the Woods is not merely about a cabin, the woods, and the five stock teenage types who visit it, but also a mysterious organization who sets up the whole affair to appease "the ancient ones." Yup yup. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford predictably steal the show as two engineers who construct and maintain a vast board game in which the previously-mentioned teenagers visit the titular habitat only to be killed off in some horrible fashion of their own accidental determination, and it's all a big allegory for the way we consume mechanically-constructed entertainment. Which is kind of like saying "hey, we couldn't construct our own engaging piece of entertainment, so here's a kick in the balls for enjoying all those others movies."

Now, when the kick is delivered with some measure of glee or malice, I can kind of get behind it. I'm a big fan of Michael Haneke's Funny Games, which takes almost perverse delight in playing with audiences expectations and desires, but The Cabin in the Woods isn't quite as smart as its admirers posit it to be. It presents the material very literally, and as it goes on, becomes increasingly concerned with the mythological underpinnings behind the need to kill - nay, sacrifice - these teens in so theatrical a fashion. This is met head-on by the most enjoyable part of the film, in which movie monsters of all stripes, which the firm keeps in stock in case a given batch of teens unleash them (a collection of trinkets are left at the house, and whichever one the group engages will determine the eventual threat), are unleashed on the facility, creating a very literal bloodbath. It's a joy, but it is soon mitigated when it turns out this whole exercise was just an exploration of a genre lover's fan fiction, a much more elaborate version of "where does he get those wonderful toys?"

While the idea of an organization that sets up the premise of a vast quantity of horror movies is intriguing, the actual workings of it is considerably less so, and too much of the time spent in the bunker is devoted to exposition, courtesy (narrative-wise) of a new security man who apparently had no idea what goes on when he signed up for the job. So if you didn't find your own employee orientation all that electrifying, I can't imagine what appeal these sections held. Co-writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (who also directs) have been praised for their very smart screenplay, and I only wish they held the same opinion of the audience's intelligence as they do of their own. As much as they scramble to cover every empty base, questions still remain - it's said (by...someone) that the young people not only have to die to appease "the ancient ones," but must also suffer. So...THIS is the scenario they concoct? Of all the ways to make someone suffer, they build an elaborate facility with an old house on top of it, stock it with monsters, who are then unleashed according to the actions of the victims? Couldn't they just take over a hostel or something and beat the kids with a lead pipe?

And I know, I know - that's not the point. But then why do Whedon and Goddard spend so much time making that the point? If the point is to undermine genre conventions, just do that. Don't build up an elaborate, meaningless mythology surrounding "ancient ones," tack on some cheap philosophy about how the world needs to end and be rebuilt, and call it good.

The Cabin in the Woods is actually a pretty decent movie, insofar as it's a boatload of fun to watch and when those dozens of monsters are unleashed, it's really a treat, but it also represents everything that is reprehensible about modern mainstream cinema - the need to build a "world," and make sure that all your notes on this world end up in the screenplay so everybody knows you thought this shit out man. There's no confidence in this approach, no bravado, and worst of all, it's just bad cinema to have someone sit characters down and explain the damn thing to them. It's every part of every Charles Dickens story where he just describes the room people are in because he was getting paid by the word. I know many complained about the stock horror-movie aspect, in which the teens are dispatched in relatively predictable patterns (save for jock Chris Hemsworth's glorious, hilarious death), but at least that was a movie.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Khrustalyov, My Car! - Superficial Pleasures in Impenetrable Cinema

As of yet, I've been unable to find much substantial writing regarding Aleksei German's Khrustalyov, My Car!, which I saw at LACMA last Thursday and have found difficult to entirely dissociate from. And I wish I could, because, I'll be honest, while I understood the basic thrust of the story in a macro sense, I couldn't put two and two together for most of the running time. I've been assured by those who encouraged me to see it that this is not an unusual experience, so steeped is the film in references both literary and historical that one would need to be considerably well-read (and in Russian no less) to entirely grasp it.

If I were embarking on even a semi-serious consideration of the film (even a standard review), this would be no small cause for concern. But as I was there merely as an audience member and a cinephile, I have to say, I took enormous pleasure in appreciating its perhaps more superficial aspects. There are images enough to last a lifetime! A woman sensuously engaging in foreplay with the buttons of a coat, two really bizarre siblings that look like discarded Tim Burton creations, the disparate implications of roads in the opening and closing shots, repeated sequences in which people climb on top of walls only to fall over the other side (letting out yelps that recall the escalator to nowhere)...never mind the hulking, otherworldly presence of the protagonist with whom we're saddled. It's at times breathlessly funny without once letting up the pervasive nightmare it immediately conjures. The overall image of Russia is of a country in shambles, held together by little more than string, wire, nails embedded in rotting wood, ice, and the will of the few. It could as easily fall apart tomorrow as withstand another decade.

Khrustalyov, My Car! is, from a certain perspective, a ceaselessly entertaining film, so constantly does it bombard you with the weird, the absurd, the grotesque, and the inexplicable, frequently presented in gorgeous Bela-Tarr-esque long takes. In my review of The Turin Horse, I talked about how one of the pleasures of Tarr's cinema is just seeing how he'll get from point A to point B (and beyond) in a single take, almost always arriving at a composition that would put most other directors to shame. The thrills in Khrustalyov are not dissimilar, and, frankly, I can think of few better ways to spend two-and-a-half hours at the movies (certainly, one comes away a lot more enriched, and no less entertained, than the similarly-long The Avengers).

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Heed the Warning!

Hollis Frampton opened a great many of his films, which one could define as exhaustingly avant-garde, with the above image, alluding to the basic operation of cinema just before he's about to exploit it. Potential viewers would be well-advised to do either that, or the total opposite, and give yourself over entirely. The middle ground may spell trouble.

In a recent interview, which I sadly cannot find, coinciding with the release of his latest (and last) film, The Turin Horse, Bela Tarr was asked if he sees his films as "difficult." In his typical terse manner, he replied something along the lines of, "you're just sitting there, watching the movie. What is so difficult?"

Twenty-four of Frampton's films are collection in the magnificent A Hollis Frampton Odyssey, which I wrote about for Battleship Pretension.