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.

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L.A. Noire

Aside from the odd handheld adventure, Rockstar’s been taking an extended break from its flagship Grand Theft Auto seriese to take its influential sandbox approach to gaming to new territories. Last year’s Western-based Red Dead Redemption and Sydney-based Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire (which Rockstar have published) are good examples of the company attempting to break out of their comfort zone, and whilst the latter may still hold some of the conventions that’ve made this gaming powerhouse so successful, it’s a step into a bold new world in many ways.

Players assume the role of Cole Phelps, a returning WW2 ‘hero’ working the beat on the streets of 1940s Los Angeles. He’s the sort of determined, uncompromising character that we’ve seen before; he doesn’t earn many friends but he earns the praise he gets. After impressing his superiors with his investigating and interrogation skills, he gets promoted to a detective, and subsequently plunges deeper into L.A.’s seemingly bottomless cesspit of corruption, murder and greed. It might not be the most original concept in the world, and you can spot Cole’s eventual fall from grace a mile off, but he’s an engaging enough leading man for his trials and tribulations to be an engrossing experience, even if he isn’t the most likeable guy.

(This is actually one of the more cheery crime scenes.)

Whilst there’s been enough coverage focusing on what L.A. Noire does differently, it’s worth noting that it isn’t a million miles away from anything in the GTA series. How can it be? It’s a Rockstar game. The difference here is that you’re on the right side of the law for once. You can’t go around running over pedestrians, smashing into cars and causing mayhem (well, you can, but it won’t do you any favours). There’s still a healthy emphasis on driving and gunplay, which forms the crux of a lot of Rockstar games, but the biggest difference here is that most of your time here will be taken up by investigating. This involves rocking up at a crime scene, searching for clues, questioning witnesses and putting clues together to get your guy (or gal). The real hook behind this game are the interrogations, however. Your clues will give you a basis upon which to grill your suspects, and every time you ask them a question, you’ll be forced to use a combination of intuition, body language and fact to discern whether they’re telling the truth, stretching it or if their arses are aflame. This is only enhanced with the fantastic facial animations on offer. Rockstar have been promoting their MotionScan technology for a while, and finally getting to see it in action is well worth it. This isn’t simple motion capture; each actor involved in the game had their lines recorded by over thirty cameras trained on their faces. It’s stunning to see detail on this level, and it opens the door to judge many more games on the performances of their actors, not their voices. These aspects are something that simply haven’t been seen in gaming before, and it’s an intriguing, rewarding side to L.A. Noire’s presentation that gets more absorbing as the game progresses.

The cases themselves get progressively more detailed and elaborate, but you’ll still find yourself doing the same things; driving from place to place, searching for clues, maybe having a scrap, interrogating and perhaps having a shootout before you’ll finish each mission. Sure, these aspects of gameplay can be somewhat monotonous, but during the Homicide missions, for instance, the thread tying each case together is so brutally engrossing that you’ll truly want to press forward. If you really don’t want to rush through everything, then you can busy yourself with forty street crime side missions, automobile collecting and discovering the landmarks of this massive, realistic slice of L.A.

That’s part of the games problem, however. The setting may be lovingly rendered and bursting with activity, but there’s not nearly enough to do to justify its size. It’s unnecessarily huge for a game that almost fools you into thinking that it has sandbox potential, but in reality, there’s no reason why this city had to be so large when, outside of the main story, what you’re offered has surprisingly little substance.

That places a touch too much emphasis on the game’s story. Not that it doesn’t progress with each rank you earn and every new set of cases that come your way; one of L.A. Noire’s plus points is pairing you up with a new partner each time you’re promoted and letting you see different areas of the city with each new investigation, which definitely helps to keep things fresh. Adding flashbacks to Phelps’ time in the war, his experiences with various soldiers and the way in which those men tie into the story was a good move, but some of the key relationships you’ll come across whilst in control of Phelps, particularly his partners, feel somewhat underdeveloped, detracting from the power of the plot’s biggest moments. Bit of a case of the sum of the whole being greater than the parts, unfortunately.

L.A. Noire is flawed, no doubt. Driving and shootouts have never felt so run of the mill, and they’re certainly scaled back here, but thankfully, there’s enough focus on the game’s plus points that it doesn’t totally hamper your enjoyment. L.A. Noire is something new, something a bit different and it gets that right. Mostly.

Rear Window

Bit of a change of pace. What’s going on here?

Classic Alfred Hitchcock suspense picture. James Stewart is laid up in his apartment and has nothing to do but observe his neighbours from his studio apartment, and gets a whole lot more than he bargained for whilst doing so.

Ahh, healthy voyeurism for all…

Well, what would you do if you were stuck in a wheelchair with a broken leg during the summer? Listen to the birds? Photographer L.B. Jeffries breaks his leg on location, and we find him restless, confined to his apartment and getting very bored. Thankfully for him, the view from his huge rear window allows him to observe the comings and goings of some of his neighbours. There’s a beautiful dancer, a newly wed couple, a lonely middle-aged woman and several couples. What starts out as mostly innocent surveilance start to go awry when Jeffries notices one of the husband’s of these couples cleaning a large knife, with his bed-ridden wife nowhere to be seen, and slowly, his nurse (Thelma Ritter), girlfriend (Grace Kelly) and an old friend in the Police (Wendell Corey) are all sucked into Jeffries determination to prove that something awful is afoot.

1950s + Hitchcock + James Stewart = awesome?

It might not be the most evocatively titled movie of all time, but it’s a classic for a reason. Hitchcock nailed the art of the  suspense thriller during his career, and Rear Window is probably the best example of it you’ll find. Stewart spends almost the entire film sat in his wheelchair, yet he slowly drags those around him into the drama unfolding from outside of his studio apartment. What’s even more impressive is that the film manages to hold your attention despite its exceptionally limited setting; we only ever see the main room of Jeffries’ apartment, the courtyard it looks out on and the rooms of those he spends his time watching.

(Kelly and Stewart’s performances are in truly awesome territory for the entire film)

It’s a treat to watch Jeffries become more and more involved in what’s going on outside his window, almost to the detriment of everything around him. At first, his relationship with Lisa (Kelly, being exceptionally enchanting) seems to be on the verge of ending because of their differences, but sure enough, she gets as engrossed in the drama as he does. When the tension hits its highest point towards the film’s conclusion, it’s absorbing and genuinely involving. Yet, Jeffries’ focus doesn’t linger on the potential murder, taking in the beautiful dancer’s long line of suitors in the evening and the lonely lady’s attempts at finding love amongst the other residents’ activities. Keeping Jeffries’ focus wide was a masterstroke, and it’s great to be kept up to speed with all of these engaging characters even though you’ll rarely get to hear them talk.

In short?

A movie that could’ve been poor in the wrong hands that instead deserves its classic status, thanks to Hitchcock, a great turn by Stewart and amazing, slow-burning tension.

Away We Go

I seem to be in something of a minority, but 2009 has been a pretty empty experience in terms of cinema-going. Almost everything I’ve seen has been preceeded with good reviews and recommendations, and it’s mostly all been soulles, flawed and stunningly popular. Thank God for Away We Go, then. Director Sam Mendes’ return is an indie romantic comedy with tons of wit, feeling, laughs and emotion.

Burt and Verona (the excellent John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) are expecting their first child in three months, and preparations were going smoothly until Burt’s self-centered parents decide to move off to Belgium before their grandchild is born. With no reason to stay in Colorado, the couple decide to go on a roadtrip around North America, visiting family and friends in an attempt to decide where they should settle. Along the way, they encounter some quite stunning examples of the word ‘family’ as each visit takes another maturing and often hilarious turn. Without wanting to ruin the numerous visits, highlights include visiting Verona’s former boss Lily in Phoenix. Played by Alison Janney, Lily is loud, brash, bright and insanely inappropriate along with being the stand-out supporting performance. Maggie Gyllenhaal also excels as Burt’s new-age hippie cousin, a character so stunningy unaware and oblivious to those around her that again, she brings laughs in the most inopportune circumstances.

If the tag of ‘indie romantic comedy’ put you off, its simply because its the easiest way to describe the film. Its comedy is often stunningly dark at times, its quite romantic and there’s nothing big budget about it. There’s no A-list actors, no lavish sets, nothing to distract you from the brilliant script and cinematography. Writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida have crafted a really touching script with an instantly likeable central couple in Burt and Verona. Both are quirky, funny and human enough to be relatable from the get-go, and Krasinski and Rudolph have a great chemistry that helps you really believe in them.

Krasinski isnt a million miles away from the character he’s best known for (Jim in the American version of The Office), but he’s childlike and also combatitive enough to make enough of a distinction. Rudolph is enchanting as the heavily pregnant, sweet and measured Verona, who really holds the film together. You’re not likely to find a more believable on-screen couple than Burt and Verona this year, and as they move through each city, you might not see them change, but you certainly see them learn more. That, perhaps, makes Away We Go that much more real; Burt and Verona note that they’re in their 30s, and are certainly responsible enough that they needn’t go through some drastic Hollywood character developments in order to get to where they need to be as you will have seen in the glut of romantic comedies littering cinemas this summer.

I’ll freely admit, I’ve been looking forward to Away We Go for a good few months. The best thing I can say about it is that whilst my expectations were high, the film met them with aplomb. A lot of films have been a victim of overhype and backside-kissing hyperbolic reviews, and this film certainly isn’t one of them. You’re going to have to go far to find a film with as much heart, as many laughs and as well written as Away We Go this year. 2009’s best road trip, hands down.

9/10