Thursday, June 7, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (Sunday, June 3, 2012) (53)

Wes Anderson is basically the most accomplished director working today at making really symmetrical shots in movies. I can't think of another director who puts as much effort into creating each and every shot and filling the screen with "a look"that evokes some sort of phantom nostalgia -- that is, nostalgia for something that has never really existed and only comes through in a simulacral least common cultural denominator. He makes beautiful movies that are technically perfect. Seriously. The problem is that his movies are frequently so denatured, so dehumanized that it's hard to connect to tehm. All the doors seem to be sealed from the inside with a rich, battery goo that we'd like to lick, but can't break through.

Moonrise Kingdom is probably his most form-forward film to date. The story is particularly banal, but the art direction, colors, lighting and sounds are overwhelming. The film opens in 1965 with a gorgeous title sequence (Wes loves titles) that makes the Bishop family house (located on some New England island that doesn't really exist, but seems like it really could) seem like a doll's house. We casually meet Suzy (Kara Hayward), 12, the oldest child and the only daughter. She has a precocious mind and is always reading and doing non-kid things.

We then meet Sam (Jared Gilman), 12, a boy at the local boy scout-like camp across the island, who is an orphan being passed from one foster family to another when he's not alienating himself from his peers who see him as a nerd, and overachiever and a freak. Both Sam and Suzy are outsiders in any nuclear family and connect (during a community theater pageant) over their mutual weirdness. The agree to run away together and explore the island together. They claim to deeply be in love with one another and seem to see the world more clearly than the gray adults who surround and dominate them.

There is what seems to be a superficial examination of "authority" and "childlike wonder" and how the two ideals do not relate. Clearly the scout camp has some connections to the Vietnam war that is lurking over the shoulders of each boy (although the fact that they all seem to be white and upper-middle class could possibly suggest a bitter attack on the "rich man's war, poor man's fight" reality of the conflict), or even related to the present wars the US military is in. But then I have to ask, so what? How does this banal attack on war bare any relevance on the twee love story we see between Sam and Suzy?

Formally, Anderson is very interesting, though I'm not sure why he chooses to do what he does. Almost every set-up in the film is a short interior or an exterior with a short depth of focus. (The two long shots of the film seem to be accidents, or the exceptions that prove the rule.) These mostly normal to short-lens shots give us an uncanny feeling of unease, making this whole world a doll's house (like in the titles). This is an interesting effect, but I'm not sure what to do with the information.

Is Anderson making an anti-Jean Renoir film, where humans are stage-settings for some bigger kabuki story? (Are we merely playthings of the gods?) Why? This doesn't really seem like a political movie - and it seems to be politically moderate or middle, if anything - but this could be an interesting window to see the world (somewhat reminiscent of the implied Marxist polemic in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman). I love taking theory and critical thought (like that of French film thinker André Bazin) and turning it on its head, but I don't really understand why Anderson is doing that -- and I'm not sure if he knows either. At least there's not evidence in the text that these questions lead anywhere but into a deep chasm of uncertainty.

Is he intentionally trying to make it difficult for us to connect to the characters and the story or is he just looking to make a movie that alienates on a superficial level, not knowing it is incredibly hard for us to make any visceral connection? Are the impossibly symmetrical shots a critique of a world that is in fact incredibly lopsided? Is Anderson a formal polemicist who is sneakily assaulting our political traditions through overindulgent stylistics? I don't know if the answers to these questions are really present in the film. This isn't really ambiguity or obliqueness; it's just under-developed.

Taking away all the theory, this is a great looking and sweet, if unfulfilling love story between two presexual kids. That's nice. But so what? Why should I love this movie? What is its point? I really don't get it.

Stars: 2 of 4

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Saturday, June 2, 2012) (52)

Oy vey iz mir. The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel. Oy vey. I'm not sure who was asking for this movie, though it's not at all a surprise that it was made. In an era when we celebrate old people just simply for being old and celebrate brown people just simply for being poor, this movie was bound to come about at some point. John Madden, the sentimentalist who brought you Shakespeare in Love and Captain Corelli's Mandolin, directs what is sure to be his most beloved movie in the years to come. Because it's so nice. Pardon me while I wipe the vomit from my t-shirt.

This ensemble piece has every old actor in London (all of 'em) come together to show us how just because people live around the poverty line in a developing country doesn't mean that they don't have love in their heart (in case we were wondering about that). So a listing of the case would take up six pages here, so I'll just say you have a bunch of cranky or nice Englishfolk over the age of 70 who all decided to move to a hotel that's being advertised online. They all go for different reasons (some of which are totally unclear) and all end up living next to one another in what turns out to be a ramshackle lodging (what a surprise! and - that's so funny!). They slowly help to make their world more nice (because they're white and rich) just as the hotel owner and his mother fight about his future with his girlfriend (hmm - that seems random and disconnected...). Then all the old people find love and happiness or die in peace.

I'm really over this cultural fetishization from a very Western, white point of view. Isn't it nice that white people can visit these places and bring their money and help these people? Isn't it nice that a untouchable warms the cockles of the cold woman's heart? Isn't it wonderful that homosexuality is not a death sentence in a developing nation? The answer to all these questions is, of course "no" in the real world, but in the universe of this soft-focus kingdom, economics and social mores mean nothing. As long as we can pat ourselves on the back when driving out of the multiplex parking lot. We are modern and liberal and understanding and warm to all peoples. Yes we are.

There's no real substance to this film. It's mostly loathsome because of how reluctant it is to offend anyone and how rosy a picture it paints. Yes, India is a land of bright colors... and so what? Does the untouchable's life get better after her brief interaction with the mean white lady? Does the growing service-economy middle class in India really have much more room to grow and does it train its workers in skills that are at all transferable? What sort of security net do most entrepreneurs have in such a place? Clearly this isn't a political movie, but then what is it? A sweet romance? Eh - that's not really that interesting... and not really that romantic or heartfelt.

This is the most maximalist superficiality you might ever seen in a movie. It generally looks good (photography by Ben Davis), but that has more to do with the setting and the wide aperture than anything particularly interesting or more than one would expect. It's just that this movie really is just about the surface of things. Relationships are defined in metonymic terms where one untouchable symbolizes the suffering underclass of society, unable to ever reach the middle class and where one love affair between a black sheep son of rich people and a successful yuppie woman equals the difficult love the white people have for this non-white country. It's all deeply boring and trite and mildly offensive in it's tone-deafness.

Stars: 1 of 4

Bernie (Saturday, June 2, 2012) (51)

Bernie is a very clever and funny comedy by writer/director Richard Linklater (co-written by Skip Hollandsworth). In era when auteurist theory dominates film thinking in the critical and popular world, I really appreciate Linkater's oeuvre as it seems like he makes movies that he likes and always tries to tell good stories. This is not to say that I love everything he does. I don't. In fact, I probably don't really connect to most of what he's made, but I recognize that he's very technically daring and accomplished. I also like that fact that he seems to have a more "blue-collar" way of approaching his craft, rather than making movies that are necessarily going to be popular or art-house darlings. I think there is some line from Sam Fuller (or was it Billy Wilder?) who once said something about how directing is a job and you have to go and do it. Linklater does it well and doesn't get bogged down in his cult of personality or his auteurist canonizers.

Bernie is based on a true story about the eponymous guy (Jack Black) who moves to the small town of Carthage in East Texas in the early/mid-'90s to work in a funeral home. It seems he is a bit of an eccentric for this tiny place, but also a multi-talented ball of energy. He's basically the best undertaker anyone has ever seen, brilliant at up-selling people on bigger and better caskets and more elaborate ceremonies. He's a singer in the funeral services he oversees as well as in the church choir. He's also involved in the town's community musical theater. He's probably gay, though in in East Texas in the '90s that's something that's only whispered about.

One of his biggest impacts on the community is that along with his standard work-related duties, he takes it upon himself to continue to look after the widows of the town after he buries their husbands. All the old ladies love him, and, like a world-class walker, he loves them back. One widow, however, is a bit harder than the others. Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine) is a bitter old crow who hates everyone, including her own family. Her husband was the richest man in town (oil money) and she has a team of people looking after her at all times.

After awhile, she starts to spend more and more time with Bernie and he becomes her main caregiver and helper. Meanwhile, she's a mean woman and treats him terribly. He decides one day to kill her, not because he's a bad person (he's quite the opposite), but really out of self defense from the psychological trauma. He then has to face the D.A., Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) when he's tried for her murder.

The film is mostly told through interviews with the townsfolk of Carthage. Linklater scripts their dialogue, but they are by and large people from that town who truly knew Bernie. These are generally funny and silly interludes between stretches of narrative, but really do effectively and efficiently move the story along and set a bright and fun tone. All these people really loved Bernie when they knew him and really hated Marjorie, so it's interesting to see how what they say directs our view of the story.

Bernie is a totally lovable guy -- in large part because Jack Black is really great in the role. In most of his movies, I find Black to be a bit too big for life. His outsized temperament is generally too big for the films he's in and he falls back too frequently on cheap physical comedy. Here he's much more restrained and really gives us a lot of soul with the comedy.

Bernie is clearly a lonely and nice guy who sorta doesn't belong where he is (perhaps he would have done better in a bigger city or not in Texas). He's somewhat pitiful, which also adds to the humor of the story. When he gets dressed up to sing "76 Trombones" in a local production of The Music Man, it's silly because the costume doesn't fit well around his weird body, but there's also a sadness and desperation to his situation that's implied.

I also have to mention that Shirley MacLaine is really wonderful in this role. She's totally bitter, mean and unlovable... and yet we're weirdly attracted to her still... just like Bernie is. MacLaine's body of work is really amazing and over the years she's really mastered a keen ability to play straight characters in dark comedies. Yes, this role is not the same as her Fran in The Apartment or her Ginnie in Some Came Running, but we get a similar sense of a character at the end of her rope, and again, a deeply sad context.

This is a really good movie. It's funny and sad, it's efficient and original. I'm not sure how it will hold up over time, as it sorta feels small, even compared to other Linklater films, but it's really well made and well acted.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Friday, June 1, 2012

Polisse (Monday, May 28, 2012) (50)

Movies and TV shows about cops make it clear that police work is really hard. Totally unrelated to that is the fact that kids are really cute. If you could somehow combine these two elements (kids and cops) you'd have a movie about how hard it is for cops to help kids (particularly those who are being molested and raped). Well, there is such a movie and it's writer/director/actress Maiwenn's Polisse.

This cinema-verité-style look into the Parisian police's Child Protection Unit (that also deals with the white slavery part of Vice) feels very much like a number of cop shows we've seen for years on TV (Homocide, The Wire, the "law" part of Law & Order) and doesn't have any more through-line plot than six episodes of any of those shows strung together one after the other.

The structure of the film basically has a child or parent visit the police station to introduce a case and meet with some members of the CPU team (there are about eight officers in the unit, a very diverse group of men and women). We then see how the team takes down the perpetrator or organization that's doing whatever it's doing to the innocents. Each of these sequences ends with the group of cops going out to blow off steam as a group, in bars and clubs or at the homes of one another.

They each battle small demons of their own (one is anorexic, one is getting a divorce, one is already divorced, although she regrets it, two are interested in dating, despite the fact that one of them is pregnant with her husband's baby) and seem to take the interactions with the kids very personally and hard. Maiwenn herself plays a photojournalist who is documenting the team for an art project... and trying to stay objective as she falls in love with one of the cops.

There are some wonderful moments of comedy (dark comedy, but funny) and tragedy, supported by some really wonderful acting. Karin Viard plays Nadine, one of the senior members of the team, is particularly good, although she's helped by her character being the most deeply developed. Frederic Pierrot plays Baloo, the leader of the group, and does it beautifully. Still, the film feels much more like a list of situations than a single particular story. There no connection from one episode to the next and kids who we get to know briefly and seemingly deeply vanish once their situation is solved.

Clearly this is a commentary on cinematic plot structure and a way of getting the audience to identify more with the cops. Maiwenn is specifically putting us in the position of the cops who can't totally remain connected to any individual kid because they will be gone soon and a new case will come up. The main problem with this is the the cops do seem to connect deeply to the kids, forcing us to connect in a rather forced situational way. Kids being cute make us immediately love them -- they're total proxy emotion devices. That the cops in the film connect to them is not really the same thing as when we connect to them. In principle they're connecting to the human being, while we're connecting to the idea of a "kid in trouble". This dissimilarity in our relationships to the children only goes to shed light on a major flaw in the film.

I am predisposed to hate movies about "kids in trouble" because they're cheap and emotionally insincere. This, however, is a good movie with some great stuff in it. I wish it had more structure to help guide our connections and feelings in a more purposeful way. What we get is really just a substitute for deep relationships that makes everything annoyingly superficial.

Stars: 2.5 of 4