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 Dark Knight Rises

In many ways, Christopher Nolan had set himself up for a fall with his Dark Knight trilogy; no director had ever had a third crack at Batman. Coupled with the phenomenal critical and commercial success of The Dark Knight, then following it up without the late Heath Ledger and the biggest stars of Batman’s rogues gallery already used up was a tall order. That Nolan has been able to round off his vision for this group of characters and give each one an appropriate send-off is a triumph enough; that it’s an engrossing, epic and thoroughly enjoyable experience at almost three hours in length is even better. And to top it all off, it’s an awesome representation of one of the biggest superheroes of all time. Tidy.

The Dark Knight Rises is a more important film than its predecessor, no doubt about it. The Dark Knight was all about seeing how far things could be pushed after the success of Batman Begins. Characters, setting, tone and Bat-related support had all been established, now it was time to see how far they could be stretched. TDKR has to react to that in the sense that there were expectations that had to be met in terms of scale, antagonists and threat. Couple that with Nolan confirming this was his Batman swansong, a fitting end had to be constructed. It all begins by keeping the focus away from the cowl, with Bruce Wayne’s self-imposed exile shaken by the monstrous terrorist, Bane, his attacks on Gotham and the apparent bankrupting of Wayne Enterprises. With Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman)in hospital after a Bane-related attack, and the city crumbling, Bruce’s apathy is smashed long enough for him to don his costume once more. But after eight long years spent mourning the death of Rachel Dawes at the hands of Joker, and with his body ravaged from years of fighting his endless battle against crime, it remains to be seen whether or not he has the strength to overcome Bane and his army of mercenaries.

What Nolan does spectacularly, albeit slowly, is up the ante. As mentioned, Bruce is trapped very firmly within Wayne Manor as the film opens and doesn’t seem willing to escape his mourning. Gotham is still mourning Harvey Dent, and the secret behind his death is slowly consuming Gordon. This allows Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman (never mentioned by name) and Tom Hardy’s Bane to initiate their own plans for taking over Gotham whilst Bruce gears himself up for yet further fisticuffs. With Gordon out of picture, it’s down to the emergence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s idealistic good-guy cop John Blake to help lead the Police charge, which swaps the authority role quite nicely for a good chunk of proceedings. Michael Caine gives a far meatier turn as Alfred with his total opposition to Bruce’s re-emergence as Batman offering up several highly charged scenes, whilst Morgan Freeman successfully if unspectacularly reprises his Lucius Fox role.

As with The Dark Knight, the antagonists do provide some big hooks to the experience. It’s no great shock that Catwoman toes the line between crafty burglar and Batman’s ally, but she appears capable of kicking butt in a much more hard-hitting fashion than previous incarnations. Nolan’s reimagining of Bane from the goliath Mexican wrestler of comic  lore to the intelligent, resourceful and ruthless revolutionary provides a seminal take on the character, offering Batman his biggest physical test on film to date. As such, their fight scenes are awesome to behold, both highly charged, emotional and brutal. Bane’s plans for Gotham are more elaborate, calculating and more focussed than Joker’s in The Dark Knight, making him much more malevolent even if not quite as engrossing as the clown prince of crime. Hardy does a wonderful job of projecting Bane’s authority even with a mask, thanks to some smart work with his facial expressions (what you can see of his face, anyway) and an oddly regal but commanding, articulate voice. And then you’ve got Christian Bale, offering up his strongest turn in the Batman role. He takes both Bruce Wayne and his alter ego through hell and back, offering up more power, command and humanity to contend with the character’s biggest challenge yet.

Without wanting to divulge too much of what is a quite intricate and detailed plot, Nolan has managed to do a lot right with TDKR’s long story; offering Batman a credible, physical adversary, plunging Gotham into its bleakest moments yet, casting a group of actors capable of carrying this tale to its conclusion and offering necessary endings for each of these big characters.

The easy criticisms for the film stem from its tone, which is admittedly quite bleak and laced with little shade. Criticising such a stylistic choice feels somewhat pointless when the stakes are considered; Batman and Gotham City are facing its biggest threat yet, and for that to be believable, the tone has to be dark, and perhaps somewhat suffocating. Contrary to some reviews, it isn’t humourless, it rightly doesn’t overdo it in the laugh department. Those looking for greater depth in that field can always bugger off and watch Batman & Robin instead.

Could the film be a bit shorter? For the story Nolan’s trying to end, probably not. He makes some bold moves, but makes the odd misstep within those decisions; a visual representation of Alfred’s described dream of seeing Bruce happily wed having never returned to Gotham was utterly unnecessary, and appeared to suggest his audience had no imagination.  TDKR connects with some big points from Batman Begins, so the level of flashbacks and references to the trilogy’s beginning is understandable but handled in such a way that it too becomes a distraction and a detriment. Also, for a series so rooted in Gotham’s salvation, there’s so little time spent with the citizens at the mercy of the film’s villain.

These aren’t major gripes, because Nolan has managed to do a huge amount right with this saga’s conclusion. There are plenty of nerdgasm-inducing moments for the die-hards to latch onto, the scale of Gotham’s terror is unreal and, most importantly, there’s a solid ending for the most important superhero film series of our time.
9/10.

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

Up

 

There’s a scene at the start of Up so shockingly real and seemingly at odds with anything remotely close to the notion of ‘kids entertainment’ that it makes you wonder if Pixar actually WANT children to ask their parents uncomfortable questions. It’s not that the content is shocking, it’s just not something you’d associate with Pixar. But then again, Up is probably Pixar’s most unconventional film to date, continuing a recent trend to make unconventional stories make total sense. Unconventional how? Well, the main character is an aged widower, his sidekick is a young cub scout whose parents are no longer together, they make friends with a talking dog and a female bird called Kevin. No, I am not kidding, and yes, Pixar have made another winner.

Up stars Carl; old, grumpy and alone after the death of his wife Ellie. The couple were bound by their desire for exploration, meeting as children and marrying before Ellie’s passing in their later years. In her absence, Carl constantly laments the fact that they never got to explore Paradise Falls in South America together, so he decides to attach hundreds of helium balloons to his house and turn it into a flying ship house….thing so he can make that dream come true. The house takes off, and all goes well for around a minute or two, before Carl realises an eager cub scout named Russell has accidentally snuck along for the ride. The odd couple set course for South America, making friends of a large rare bird christened Kevin and a clueless dog with a collar allowing him to talk named Dug. Carl and Russell run into trouble in the shape of Muntz, a famous aged explorer who needs Kevin, an ultra rare specimin of bird to prove his greatness to a world that has forgotten him. Carl and Russell aren’t so keen on this, and must escape Muntz’s clutches along with his pack of talking dogs to save Kevin.

Well. It’s not Cars, is it?

If that synopsis confuses you in any way, I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s the oddest concept for a Pixar film yet, but at the same time it’s grounded in the same sort of reality that made Wall-E such a highlight. Yes, there may be talking dogs but this is a very real world, perhaps the starkest vision of realism Pixar have ever given us. For example, Carl and Ellie’s relationship is shown in silent montage form at the film’s beginning, and we see them married, working and enjoying each others company. We also see a short clip of her and Carl in the hospital shortly after we think they’re ready to have a child, only for Ellie to be told that she cant. As with Wall-E’s strong environmental message, Up presents a story where bad things happen. Russell, Carl’s young sidekick is almost always all smiles and willing to explore until the conversation turns to the father that is never around to spend time with him. It hits home early and often that these are real characters with real problems, and whilst Pixar have always acknnowledged its older audience in some way in its films, they have never tugged at the heartstrings quite like this. That’s not to say the film’s overly dark, it’s just more real and a little more sad than we’re used to.

It’s also the most randomnly funny film Pixar have made. Dug is the star of the show; a hapless but happy dog with a collar that translates his thoughts into speech, Dug is voiced in such a confused but enthusiastic manner that almost everything he says and does is worth a laugh. As ever, the film is masterfully animated and makes full use of the jungle setting to produce some impressive environments. The story itself, whilst certainly odd and never really revealing its true objective until the half way point is a triumph simply because Pixar have again tried something now, and succeeded in creating a moving, involving and entertaining film. This is one huge film studio with universal appeal who seemingly enjoy taking chances on telling different stories, and that’s certainly refreshing.

However, it’s not Wall-E’s equal, not quite. Without spoiling anything, villain Muntz might perhaps be another realistic character in the shape of a man desperate to prove himself, willing to do whatever it takes to get his way, but Pixar have made him perhaps their most evil villain yet, and as such, unrealistic in a film of realistic characters (well, human characters at least). Perhaps, at times, this realism is too much to take in. Carl understandably cannot let go of his wife, but he doesn’t let us forget it for a long time, constantly mentioning her and bogging down some scenes.

But these are minor gripes. Pixar have continued their fine tradition of excellent storytelling and memorable characters whilst taking on some of Wall-E’s startling realism to create their most moving film to date. It’s still as funny, colourful and entertaining as any of the company’s classics, but it’ll move you more than most of the other films you’ll see this year.

8/10

District 9

I’ve got to admit, this film has been annoying the hell out of me. I saw it last Monday with a spring in my step and my backside on an extra comfy cinema seat, and I can honestly say I haven’t been so fantastically let down by a film like I have with District 9. I don’t think I’ve ever left a cinema feeling so horrifically empty after watching a movie, like my life (or at least in the short term, my afternoon) would’ve been better if I’d have just stayed home and watched Top Gear reruns on Dave. I’ve been sitting on this review for over ten days, and after running into yet more folk who seem to love it, I’ve decided it needed a good seeing to. Take it or leave it.

The story goes that after Peter Jackson and director Neill Blomkamp’s attempt to make a picture based on the massively popular Halo game series fell through, Jackson and his production company Wingnut gave Blomkamp $30 million to make ‘whatever he wanted’. Blomkamp, a native of Johannesburg, South Africa who grew up during apartheid chose to make a sci-fi epic about aliens settling on Earth, but certainly not being welcomed. The prawns, as they’re nicknamed, arrive on a Mothership (don’t they all?) hanging high over the skies of Johannesburg having run out of fuel, and are forced to settle on earth. They live in squalid conditions in shanty town shacks in a place dubbed District 9, and face prejudice and poor treatment by the local humans. Determined to curb the problems the prawns have brought upon the city, a company seemingly created to foster relationships between humans and the visitors decides to attempt a mass-relocation to a new site, essentially a concentration camp.

We follow office worker Wikus Van De Merwe around District 9 as he heads the relocation operation. Wikus seems to have a good understanding of prawn behaviour and can understand their language, which sounds oddly like a collection of clicks and belches, but he, like the soldiers and officials he travels with has a passive racism towards the prawns, treating them as a sub-species throughout the alien evictions. However, it all goes horribly wrong when Wikus accidentally becomes infected by a prawn biological agent, which begin to transform is body horrifically into one of the prawns. His company turns on him and experiments on his changing body, but Wikus escapes into District 9. Soon after his arrival, Wikus learns he must form an alliance with the prawns to restore his transforming body and return home to his wife.

Ok, so far so good. The idea of having native South Africans vehemently opposed to the prawns was an engaging touch, and worked very well. In tandem, the opening is one of the film’s strong points, and is told in docummentary style, interspersed with interviews with prawn experts and employees of the company Wikus works for. This was going really quiet well until Blomkamp decided to use interviews referring to Wikus negatively, seemingly stating that he had turned from the company and betrayed them. Great. So now we already know something terrible happened to our main character and we’ve barely even started the film. I’m stunned that Blomkamp decided that such blatant storytelling and spoon-feeding was necessary this early on in proceedings, as it’s not a particularly nice way of treating your audience. Blomkamp clearly decided that his audience would be focussed on Wikus for most of the film’s first half hour, which is pretty detrimental to the rest of it. Wikus, after infection, isn’t feeling too good by the time he gets home, and has a surprise party thrust upon him as soon as he walks through the door to his loving wife. Who we barely see. For the entire film. Now, the relationship between Wikus and his wife is the real core of the film, because she is why Wikus does what he does. How are we supposed to believe in it if we barely know anything or see anything of the relationship?

Such criticisms don’t overshadow District 9’s strong opening. Oh no, that distinctive honour is left almost entirely to the second half of the film. We abandon the docummentary style and instead follow Wikus on a high-octane action thriller ride as this meek, ill and scared man wields devastating alien weaponry and decapitates, explodes and maims enough soldiers to constitute a war. Wikus’ action hero turn is just about forgiveable, because it makes sense for his character to be upset, and willing to do whatever it takes to get his life back. But from the point that he teams up with his prawn friend and attempts to storm the offices of his former employees, all of the promising build-up work, intelligent dialogue and plot is just thrown out of the window, never to be seen again. In its place, what we get is a dumb, bloody, explosive summer blockbuster. It’s impossible to take District 9 seriously from here onwards, especially when the violence is cranked up to stupendously hilarious proportions.

I’ve had a good look at reviews for District 9, and quite a few people have forgiven the film for this rather gigantic lapse, but why? If you went to a restaurant and had half a good meal followed by a disgusting dessert, would you still mark it highly? Films shouldn’t get free passes just because they look cool, or they start off well. Consistent engagement is something that was clearly beyond Blomkamp when making District 9, which is a shame because there are some good points. Sharlto Copley is quite impressive as Wikus, transforming his character’s behaviour as the film dictates it must. This is Copley’s first film role, and when I discovered that the interview segments conducted with Wikus in his office were ad-libbed, I was certainly more impressed. Sadly, there are no other real performances of note. The worried wife, the lethal businessman, the maniacal shocktrooper are all stereotyped to a T, and are simply functional performances. Again, that engaging secondary apartheid between the prawns and South Africans that was presented so well at the beginning of the film is a missed opportunity to make District 9 into something more, something bigger and ultimately, something worth taking seriously. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t happen.

Trust me, I did want to like District 9. Really. This isnt criticism or negativity for the sake of evening out the praise heaped upon the film, as I can understand why people regard it so highly. It wouldn’t surprise me it Neill Blomkamp came back with a much better second effort in a few years time, because there’s some impressive groundwork laid here. It’s just a shame it all fell through before the film was over. Recommended if you don’t feel like thinking for too long.

5/10

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