Moonrise Kingdom

What kind of bird are you?

Wes Anderson has somehow generated a collection of movies (with the possible exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox) that can be watched in any order and seemingly belong to the same universe.  The dry humor, the pallet of exclusively primary colors, the jump-cuts that act like missing reels, and the delicious mulligan of working class heroes and frustrated rich people pop up again and again.  Moonrise Kingdom features Anderson’s most eclectic ensemble cast yet, and the most amazing part is that these characters revolve organically around two first-time child actors.

The story focuses on the adventures of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), penpals who decide to run away together, the former from his blooming career as a “Khaki Scout” and the latter from her dysfunctional family, who live in a lighthouse.  When their respective caretakers discover their disappearance, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) is dispatched to find them.  Unbeknownst to Suzy’s father, Walt (Bill Murray), Sharp is having an affair with Walt’s wife, Laura (Frances McDormand).  In addition, Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), who cares deeply for his scouts (including Sam), leads the rest of the Khakis on a journey to apprehend the wayward couple.  Throughout the story, the threat of a terrible storm looms over New Penzance (the fictional New England town in which the story takes place), reported via the amusingly-named “Narrator” (Bob Balaban), an incredibly dry documentary filmmaker.  The storm, which in part provides a reference to Noah, serves more to foreshadow Sam and Suzy’s coming adulthood: they both know this is the final summer during which they’ll be young enough for these sorts of adventures.

The cast is fun to spend time with, especially as the people and conflicts accumulate.  Jason Schwartzman, who appears in most of Anderson’s films, shows up here as Cousin Ben, a relative of one of the camp scouts who offers to help Sam and Suzy escape.  He never removes his sunglasses.  Tilda Swinton appears as Social Services, a stern character who embodies her job, and there’s even an appearance by Harvey Keitel as Commander Pierce, the leader of the Khaki Scouts.  The world Anderson has created for this movie does not operate under the parameters of real life; desire reigns supreme here, and simple imagination can translate to very real magic.  This sense of fantasy is buttressed by the intricate maps of the fictional region and the nonexistent (in real life) young adult novels that Suzy brings along for the trip.

As the adults scramble and worry, the children enjoy the only true freedom either of them have ever had, as far as we can tell.  Walt, played with a familiar melancholy by Murray, seems to look at the world with a resigned disappointment, performing certain functions only because his maleness demands him to.  “I’m going to find a tree to chop down,” an axe-wielding Walt informs his three young sons as he wanders shirtless out the back door of his home.  None of these scenes are delivered with any kind of self-conscious humor.  Sharp and Laura know their affair cannot go on; Laura is simply bored with Walt, and Sharp has no companionship in his life.  There seems to be no escape for adults in the world of Moonrise Kingdom; there is only the cage of childhood, the thrill of adolescence, and the frustration and dissatisfaction of adults who were once thrilled to be alive.  The individual conflicts are resolved in the film’s colorful and imaginative finale, but we have to wonder, what is the trigger?  The storm?  The influence of the children on the stilted grown-ups?  Genuine epiphanies on the part of the adult characters?

The dialogue between Sam and Suzy during the soon-to-be iconic beach scene (after they discover their hiding-out spot, name it Moonrise Kingdom, and adeptly set up camp there) is delivered as thoughts-out-loud, a decidedly Anderson-esque method of conveying information and deepening characters.  For example, the children discuss kissing before they actually do, and grant verbal permission for other activities (“You can touch them if you want,” says Suzy).  It’s hard to put a finger on this technique, but it gels with the story’s pacing and provides several very funny moments (if not only serving to remind us how awkward everyone’s first romantic encounters actually are).

Lastly, a dog is killed in this movie.  People get upset about that.  I admit, sometimes these moments are sad, but I cannot understand being on the fence about an entire film (especially a wonderful one such as this) due to the appearance of a fake dog corpse.  At least the dog in this one didn’t deserve it; I recall a viewing of the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men during which two friends (a couple) became vocal and disturbed after Josh Brolin’s character kills a vicious hunting dog in self defense.  They did not, however, bat an eyelash during scenes in which Javier Bardem brutally murders countless innocent bystanders.  This oversensitivity to dog death in movies – and it’s always dogs; cat death is often portrayed humorously (see The Boondock Saints) – was parodied to an unbelievable extent in What Just Happened with Robert de Niro and Michael Wincott, in which a test audience has a berserk reaction to the ending of a film: they’re okay with Sean Penn being shot a zillion times by gangsters, but not with the fact that the gangsters also kill his dog.  Bruce Willis also appeared in that film, not as a cop, but as an exaggerated version of himself.

Canine murder aside, Moonrise Kingdom is one of Anderson’s best live-action movies, an adolescent echo of The Darjeeling Limited’s sensibilities, and if its characters will one day become the characters of that film, let’s allow them to live on their fantasy island for good.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012); written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola; directed by Wes Anderson; starring Jared Gilman, Sarah Hayward, Bruce Willis, and Edward Norton.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

You and your mind control thinga-ma-jigomy

Can anyone other than Terry Gilliam make a film that manages to be colorful, imaginative, gritty, funny, and ironic all at the same time?  Well, yes, there are others, but Gilliam has a unique touch, seen in several of his great and wild films including Brazil, The Brothers Grimm, and his latest, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a mesmerizing journey through (what appears to be) the imagination.

The story involves a traveling performance troupe led by the 1,000 year-old Doctor Parnassus (played by the immortal Christopher Plummer) and which includes Anton (Andrew Garfield), Percy (Verne Troyer), and Parnassus’ daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole).  Since his days as a monk, Parnassus has made several wagers with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a personification of the Devil, and in exchange for eternal life he must relinquish his own daughter (unbeknownst to her) on her sixteenth birthday.  While traveling, the troupe finds a stranger named Tony (Heath Ledger) hanging by his neck from Blackfriars Bridge.  Claiming to have amnesia, Tony joins the troupe as a barker, and Mr. Nick soon returns with a new wager for Parnassus: if Parnassus can convert five souls to good before Mr. Nick can make them give in to greed or petty desires, he can have his daughter back. Valentina, of course, while being wild and independent, is the bargaining chip, the subject/object to be bought, sold, traded, and possessed.

The film contains the last footage of Ledger’s acting career, and it’s a strong enough film that if he had to have a final film at such a young age, I’m glad it was this one.  Three other actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell), all good friends of Ledger, take on the role of Tony as he passes through the mirror into the Imaginarium, and Gilliam shoots them in such a way that Tony’s transformations seem like an organic part of the story and not a production issue.  The three have to do very little to look like Ledger, and they do the character justice.  Using Depp as the first was a wise directing decision: in the words of Gilliam himself, “I just thought if it works with the transition to Johnny and if the audience goes for it, they’ll follow the next two. And that’s exactly how it works.”  It does.

Christopher Plummer surpasses nearly everything he’s done, and he even gets a sequence in which he’s reverted to his youth and we’re treated to The Sound of Music Plummer for just a moment.  Lily Cole’s Valentina is a character we can all believe both Tony and Anton would be crazy about – confident, strong-willed, and mysterious in that male fantasy sort of way (which lends itself well to a fantasy film, but is problematic in the usual ways, not least of which is the ratio of women to men in the cast).

As mellowing as the ending is, it’s the only ending, and it’s the only farewell we’ll ever have from Ledger.  Thankfully, it’s Gilliam’s most solid work since Brazil, and although the loss of Ledger is devastating, maybe there’s some solace in the fact that we’re leaving him in a place so full of magic.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009); written and directed by Terry Gilliam; starring Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Tom Waits, and Lily Cole.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

And the mome raths outgrabe

I know Tim Burton has been accused lately of repeating the same cycle: Danny Elfman’s wild ensemble themes, Johnny Depp playing obscure characters, Burton’s own goth-punk visuals, and so on.  I’ve never claimed to be the biggest follower of Burton’s work, but when he gets his mits on a chunk of material that has been important to me since childhood, I start to pay attention.

It took me awhile to get out to see Burton’s re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland, based of course on Lewis Carroll’s works of children’s literature, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass.  Thankfully, the Crossgates Mall has more theater rooms than they know what to do with, so I was able to snag a single ticket at the last possible second and grab a seat as the previews were starting.

First off, the source material.  This film is a re-imagining, as previously mentioned, so it doesn’t follow the story of the two novels exactly.  We begin during Alice’s younger days when she’s traveling to “Underland” (Wonderland) in her dreams, and we quickly cut to her late teens and the day on which she is to be engaged to a homely, stuck-up English gentleman (Leo Bill).  She’s a rebellious, non-corset-wearing girl who has different ideas about how the whole arranged marriage thing should work, and we can see from the start that it’s not going to work out so well.  As the story we know goes, she sees the White Rabbit and falls down the rabbit-hole, returning to Wonderland and forgetting her childhood visit.  This decision gives the filmmakers more breathing space with the story (which usually turns out for the worst; see Peter Jackson’s butchering of The Lord of the Rings, another piece of literature that means the world to me), but in this case, it’s handled relatively well.  

The film draws heavily on Carroll’s poem, Jabberwocky, and uses the “frabjous day” as a prophecy.  In the film, the Jabberwock itself is a minion of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and must be slain in order to end the Red Queen’s reign of terror.  In a very good scene with shrunken-Alice, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) speaks a good-sized chunk of the poem in a Scottish accent, which I found satisfying.  The film retains a great atmosphere despite the fact that most of its landscape calls for CG, and the assorted creatures, which include the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Absalom the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) seem like they’re there with Alice in the same way Roger Rabbit was there with Bob Hoskins.  In too many movies lately, CG seems to be a requirement, and the telltale signs that the actors are looking at nothing is all too evident.   

Mia Wasikowska is superbly cast as Alice, and Burton’s choice to portray her as a unique girl with engaging motives (continuing her father’s legacy in oceanic trading) instead of creating another Lydia Deetz is truly inspired.  The art direction, especially in Wasikowska’s scenes, is invigoratingly fresh and visually stimulating.  The “drink me” scene, which could have been quick and throwaway, ends up being one of the best in the film, as we are trapped in that room with Alice until she figures out the puzzle, and we learn a lot about her in the process, at the same time as we share the voyeur’s seat with the Wonderland inhabitants wondering why she doesn’t remember the solution.  Pay attention to Alice’s socks as the film goes on.

The film is going out of theaters now, but I’m sure the DVD version will be equally colorful and satisfying.  Watch it on a large television.

Alice In Wonderland  (2010)- written by Linda Woolverton (based on the works of Lewis Carroll), directed by Tim Burton, starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway.

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