Moonrise Kingdom

It’s not stretching the imagination to any unreasonable degree to proclaim Wes Anderson’s films as an acquired taste. His characters are well-spoken, measured, dry and unflinchingly deadpan. His films put these characters into unconventional situations but present them in a stoic reality. They’re not instantly accessible and can leave you feeling thoroughly patronised if you don’t click with Anderson’s style. The man himself doesn’t always strike gold, but when he does, it’s often very rewarding. After the potentially dodgy task of adapting Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was navigated with charming aplomb, Anderson has assembled another wildly impressive cast for Moonrise Kingdom, and created probably his best picture to date.

Centred around the burgeoning affections between two pre-teens on a small North American island, orphan scout Sam Shakusky and rebellious Suzy Bishop cause a storm when they run off together, forcing everyone from Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) the local Police (consisting solely of Bruce Willis) and even Sam’s local scout master (Edward Norton) and his troop to search for them.

Essentially, the less you know coming in to Moonrise Kingdom, the better. It develops at its own pace, revealing a superb cast of characters and setting. Once you get over the shock of seeing Bruce Willis in such unorthodox territory, his turn as the island’s lone voice of authority is delicately understated (for him, anyway). Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are irresistibly sweet, awkward and direct as Sam and Suzy, and Murray turns in another Bill Murray performance so Bill Murray-esque as to somewhat negate his onscreen wife. Barring a quite surprising yet charming scout-overlord cameo role for Harvey Keitel, Norton steals the show as Randy, Sam’s scout master, however. In a film full of endearing people, Randy is modest, determined and thoroughly committed to leading his young charges. It’s a role that could easily become farcical quite quickly were it not for Norton’s steady but honest delivery.

As with every Anderson film, Moonrise Kingdom is very visually rich. The 1960s setting means some striking period dresses for Suzy and tight, short-shorts for every scout on patrol. New Penzance acts as a stunning backdrop, successfully making the setting feel remote, yet never so backward as to do the film a disservice. Musically, Anderson’s choice of Alexandre Desplat is spot on once again, with a fantastic main theme amongst others. Perhaps where the film distances itself from the likes of Anderson’s predecessors The Darjeeling Limited or The Life Aquatic is in its use of children to lead the story. Sam and Suzy face their own difficulties but their actions, reactions and their resolution makes for a much more affecting journey because of their age.

Considering how 2012 has been about huge movies in which a bunch of costumes swoop around broken dystopias, it’s refreshing to consider that a film as delightful as Moonrise Kingdom is one of year’s standout experiences.

The Armando Iannucci Shows

The skinny, if you please?

British satirist and all-round comic legend and his dark yet hilarious take on modern life. He wrote, directed and starred in this.

Sitcom?

Hell no. It’s more of a sketch show than anything else. A lot of those don’t even feature Iannucci, but he sort of holds it together with his awkward daily experiences and interactions.

I need more. 

Iannucci plays a fictionalised version of himself trying his best to navigate social pitfalls, existentialist queries and humdrum aspects of our day-to-day existence. Using extensive monologues and bizarre sketches, each episode follows a rough theme combined with recurring characters and how it all fits into Iannucci’s life. For example, East End Thug pops up occasionally to offer violence as a means of solving problems, and local OAP Hugh often pops by to offer off the wall observations of the past; “We always watched Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush with Chris Evans, till he disappeared up his own arse.”

As one of the men who helped to devise Alan Partridge, it’s not that much of a shock that Iannucci’s work here often leads into exceptionally embarrassing and uncomfortable territory. The comedy can be exceptionally dark, absurd, awkward or just plain ridiculous. Just to give you an idea of what we’re dealing with here, you’re going to see our fearful hero find ridiculous slogans taped under cars so mechanics can bluff their way through repairs, taunt zoo animals with a ten-colour pen exclaiming “You can’t even write. I mastered this when I was three” and attempt to navigate dinner parties where hilarious observations are baked into pies to help their guests appear smart and funny. His style is very deadpan and doesn’t have a hint of irony or realisation for the ridiculousness of the events going on around him, which just makes  it all the more awkwardly enjoyable. If you’re asking me (and we’re going to pretend that you are), best advice would be to not overdo things here. The surrealist element to the show can get dizzying after more than two episodes, so it’s best to watch it slowly. I’m saying that having watched four episodes in a row, and I currently feel like my brain wants to escape from my skull and slap me for putting it through so much mental.

In short:

Crazy, dark, surreal, very funny but best taken in short doses.

Being John Malkovich

From classic to ultra weird?

Yep. A puppeteer down on his luck takes a menial office job on floor 7 1/2 of an office building where everyone’s weird and there’s a portal to jump inside John Malkovich’s head.

…….Muh?

Well, there’s more to it than that. John Cusack plays Craig Schwartz (said puppeteer), a guy helplessly devoted to a craft no one gives two hoots about, and on the advice of his animal-loving wife Lotte (a magnificently unrecognisable Cameron Diaz), he goes in search of a proper job. This leads him to Lester Corp, located on floor 7 and a half in a large New York office building, a secretary who mishears every single thing he says and a harmless yet lecherous boss. Somehow, he lands a filing job and meets Maxine. Instantly, he’s enraptured, whilst she couldn’t care less. Then, he stumbles across a small door whilst trying to recapture a file that’d escaped behind a cabinet. The door leads into John Malkovich’s head, allowing him to see through Malkovich’s eyes and experience his existence, before promptly dumping him on the New Jersey turnpike after fifteen minutes.

I’ll say it again. ……Muh??

It doesn’t get any less weird. Maxine and Craig decide to strike up a business, charging $200 for people to use the Malkovich portal. It doesn’t stop there; Craig and Lotte develop an overpowering lust for Maxine, but she only cares about them when they’re in Malkovich’s head, overpowering him and assuming control. The man himself finally realises something’s up and……well, that’ll do for now. It’s exactly the kind of utterly obtuse concept you’d expect from the writer of Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, but it’s still Charlie Kaufman’s most recognised work despite its craziness. It’s constantly surprising throughout, and never really lets up. Only real problem with that is that you’re essentially bombarded with it’s off-kilter nature, and that can get a little disorientating.

Mostly a winner, though?

Predominantly. Diaz and Cusack do well in their weird, socially bereft roles, but the film belongs to Malkovich. He’s fantastic playing a fictionalized version of himself; brilliantly off centre, hilarious and absorbing. Taking the film at face value isn’t difficult, but keeping up with it can be. Then again, anything Kaufman comes up with always benefits from repeat viewings.

Beetlejuice

What’s it about? As if we didn’t already know.

Yeah, well some of us missed the boat on a lot of 80s classics as we were too busy watching Power Rangers.

What, for 12 years?

Shut up. Anyway, a deceased young couple spend the early stages of their afterlives attempting to scare an obnoxious family out of the recently vacated country home with the help of the titular ‘bio-exorcist’.

Feel a bit late to the party?

Definitely. Beetlejuice feels like the sort of movie anyone could enjoy. The story, haphazardly and quickly told, is very much a product of the decade it was made in; it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s so much fun that you don’t really care. The tale of a young couple, Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) dying in a tragic car accident, being bound to their house in spirit form and having to suffer the indignity of seeing a new family move into the home they’d slaved over only to see it turned into a ridiculous vision of modern art (plastic everything and large shapes a-go-go) by the family’s suffering artist might initially seem quite bleak. Of course, when you factor in that neither Adam or Barbara can leave the confines of the house after their death lest they get sucked into a shadow dimension populated by giant sandworms, taking the film seriously would be a mistake.

Adam and Barbara inhabit an absorbing and fantastical world where they get assigned to a careworker who advises them on how best to scare the new tenants out of their house. Unfortunately, their attempts backfire spectacularly, accidentally making the new family warm to them, and they soon enlist the help of freelance bio-exorcist ghost, Beetlejuice to get rid of them properly. Michael Keaton is fantastic in the title role, combining off-kilter comments, cartoon mayhem and just enough menace to steal every scene he’s in. Of course, it helps that director Tim Burton is in full-on fantasy mode. This might not be a story he’s written but the special effects, settings and characters are all so well realised that it may aswell be. It’s imaginative, random and damn funny.

Final thoughts?

Enjoyable offbeat story, wonderfully unique special effects and animation, and Michael Keaton is freakin’ awesome.

Flight of the Conchords @ The NIA, Birmingham

The venue is huge, the tickets are expensive and at the merch point, you’ll be charged ten pounds for a poster. Yep, through no fault of their own, the Conchords have turned into the Metallica of comedy acts. So at least it’s nice to see that there’s no huge pyrotechnics, flame jets or massive production on offer: Bret and Jemaine each walk out with a cardboard box on their head adorned with large flashing lights and launch into Too Many Dicks on the Dancefloor. Actually, that’s quite flashy for them…

It was difficult to know quite what to expect from a Conchords live show. Part of their appeal lies in the endless quotability of their musical material, but at the same time, why bother going to see them perform songs you know off by heart when you can just watch them on DVD? The simple answer is that you’re in the presence of the most charming comedians in recent memory. Bret and Jemaine’s dry, deadpan delivery between songs is reason enough to spend an evening in their company, an equally important component to the music on offer. Perhaps the best aspect is how they deal with the incessant stream of female screams of love, heckling, sheep noises (Jemaine: ‘You might laugh, but you could be saying something very stupid in sheep language’) and shouts for certain songs. Just as Bret had sat down in front of a tiny drum kit and raised his sticks to begin a song, a fan shouts out ‘ALBI!’, to which Bret responded by heading over to a small piano to begin tinkling out that most famous of children television shows intros. It’s a show that lends itself to that amount of flexibility, as all they have onstage are a few microphones and a large selection of instruments, allowing them to play whatever whenever.

As the evening winds down, the lights go out towards the end of a rousing rendition of Bowie. When they come back up, the boys are wearing the most ridiculous sparkly shellsuits you’ll ever see before beginning an amazingly lo-fi rock version of Demon Woman, with Bret weilding a tiny Flying V guitar and Jemaine sporting a huge white flowing scarf frozen in a comically mid-air position. The Conchords are more than happy to look a little silly for a laugh, and their charm still lies in the fact that they don’t take themselves too seriously, onscreen or onstage. The only real downside of the evening is that you know all the words to all the songs, so it’s down to Bret and Jemaine’s credit that what could have ended up being simple, tedious performances of tunes already tattooed into your subconsciousness turned into a hilarious, charming  and entertaining evening. In short, the Conchords are just as awesome in front of 10,000 people as they are on your TV screen, which just makes it even more of a massive shame that we won’t be seeing a third season of the television show featuring two of the best comedians alive today.

8/10

The Invention Of Lying

What would it be like to be the only person in the world who could tell a lie? Well, if The Invention Of Lying is anything to go by, it’d be fun for about ten minutes and then mostly suck. Here’s a film that delivers a promising concept but never really goes anywhere, undoing some good groundwork and ending up an unfulfilling, empty experience.

Mark Collison (Ricky Gervais) lives in a normal world where no one cal lie; everyone compulsively tells the truth, no matter how blunt or bleak. Mark’s not having the best of days either; he’s just been on a date with a girl he’s had his eyes on for years, but unfortunately Anna (Jennifer Garner) thinks he’s unnattractive, a loser and only wants to date men who’ll give her pretty babies. To make matters worse, Mark gets fired from his job the next day, and then is on the verge of losing his apartment when he lies to a bank teller and asks for more money than he actually has in his account. It’s this world’s first lie, and subsequently, everything Mark says, even great big whopping lies with a cherries on top are taken as gospel by everyone around him, because they can’t question them.

If it sounds like a good premise, the idea and the world that Mark inhabits is particularly bleak. No one seems happy, everyone seems depressed and the idea of everyone constantly telling the truth often leads down a bleak, morbid road. It’s slightly funny, but it’s uncomfortable at the same time. It’s so odd to see a writer as talented as Ricky Gervais (who co-wrote and co-directed the film) deliver an idea that seems half-baked, one that promises so much but delivers some downright baffling direction and ends with such a cliched romantic comedy conclusion that it just isn’t believable. If the film was fun, smartly written and had interesting characters then it’s faults could be forgiven, but it doesn’t have enough quality in any of those aspects to really pull it from surprising mediocrity.

Ricky Gervais deserves to take Hollywood by storm, but this certainly won’t be remembered as his best work. As with his previous release, Ghost Town, The Invention Of Lying never really fully realises itself, and as a result it doesn’t get anywhere near being an absorbing film.

4/10

500 Days Of Summer

You know those rare but incredibly satisfying moments you get when you think you’ve figured something out that most people haven’t? They’re great. Last I had was in the cinema whilst watching 500 Days. It struck me as odd that there was more desire from the male contingent of our group to watch this movie instead of the female (admittedly she was outnumbered three to one), and that wasn’t just because we wanted to lust after Zooey Deschanel for an hour and a half.  The film itself isn’t your standard rom-com affair; its tagline is “Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t.” It’s quirky, sharply written, brutally honest, told from the perspective of a romantically intense young man and it’s a thoughtful, sometimes moving experience. It’ll make you think, it’ll make you laugh, it’s definitely romantic and it looks cool. Wait a minute……it’s a romantic comedy for dudes! Awesome.

In all honesty, 500 Days does seem like it’s billed slightly more towards males perhaps a little too in tune with their feelings who fall head over heels with girls who just doesn’t feel the same. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works for a greeting card company and falls instantly in love with the new secretary Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). They seem to share similar interests and clearly have a spark. Tom cannot get Summer from his mind, obsessing over her every action and word before the inevitable eventually happens and they get it together in the copy room. Summer doesn’t believe in true love, and as they spend more time together and their relationship develops, she hesitates to ‘label’ what they have, which as we all know is another way of saying she isn’t sure about being with Tom. They remain happy up to a point, but as ever, it really starts getting interesting when things start going wrong.

The plot actually develops brilliantly, going back and forth to different points in the 500 days that Tom and Summer know each other. We see scenes from the beginning of their relationship, the good parts, the bad, the upsetting conclusion and Tom’s reaction to it, but in a random order. It’s not exactly a new cinematic idea, but it’s used to great effect here as we get to see the unflinchingly bad parts of a relationship early on, followed by how Tom and Summer got like that.

As mentioned, 500 Days follows Tom around absolutely, and we never see Summer on her own. As good as Gordon-Levitt is as Tom, presenting his lovelorn state and his huge love for Summer without going too far overboard, it’d be great to see Summer’s reactions to the really bad times instead of just Tom’s. Then again, the relationship between the two of them will hit extremely close to home for a lot of people watching the film, so a chance to view the really difficult parts of a relationship from the perspective of the person more into the other, or the  ‘victim’, if you will, will strike a chord with many people.

500 Days is a damn good movie, extremely honest in its portayal of an exciting relationship hitting the skids and the fallout from it. Deschanel is an evil, beautiful genius of a woman, Gordon-Levitt is a naive, loving man and his reactions to everything that happens to him with Summer are spot on to the point of being stupidly accurate. There are laughs in this film thanks to a small but great supporting cast, and there are as many sad moments to go along with the happy ones, including a stunningly moving scene where Tom’s expectations and contrasting reality are shown side by side in a later meeting with Summer.

It’s not perfect; an annoying, deep voice-over adds nothing to proceedings as almost everything it tells us could be figured out because of how good Tom and Summer portray their feelings. A docummentary style scene and song-and-dance routine after Tom finally gets lucky certainly take away from the rest of the movie. Still, in the same vein of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science Of Sleep and this year’s Away We Go, 500 Days is another imaginative, honest and jilted take on love with indie quirkiness that you don’t have to feel ashamed to watch. You’ll probably like it more if you’re a hopeless romantic, male or (heaven forbid) both, but anyone with an old story of unrequited love will find something to call their own in 500 Days. Just be prepared to be thinking of your own love story for a good few hours after you’ve watched it.

8/10