Moonrise Kingdom by Wes Anderson

Moonrise Kingdom by Wes Anderson

A pair of young lovers flee their New England town, which causes a local search party to fan out and find them.

The film has a strong ensemble cast. The two leads Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward carry the film just fine. I believed their romance, connected with their loneliness and rooted for them. It’s been a while since Bruce Willis played a character. In America they call it character acting; the rest of the world just calls it acting. Don’t ask me why. But it was refreshing to see Willis play someone who functions at a lower volume compared to his larger-than-life tough guy action roles. It was also nice to see Edward Norton doing comedy and playing a klutzier character as well.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Moonrise Kingdom was its storybook aesthetic, which acts as the engine pumping a vibrant energy through the story. To list a few examples, the story is set in an enclosed world. A narrator delivers story information straight to the camera in a vocal tone that sounds like he’s instructing a child on how to use a toaster. The cinematography, with its camera movements, deliberately flattens the framing, subtly embodying the two-dimensional quality of a children’s storybook panel.

I liked the world that was created in the film. It was believable and at the same time contained a fairy-tale-like quality and a sense of wonder. As the two lead characters were trying to escape their home like a cartoon character trying to run out of the edges of a page, I could not have imagined what the outside world would have looked like. The world was just that well established. For example, product placement would have completely shattered the illusion of the world. Not that I was specifically looking for it, but I’m glad I do not recall any in the film.

There is a real sense of a community that’s attached to this place and I like that even the smaller characters all contribute to the action of the story rather than acting as mere background decoration. And for that, the characters earn their quirks.

The only other Wes Anderson work I have seen was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. So I maybe unqualified to say this, but Moonrise Kingdom is probably the most accessible Wes Anderson film. The film is rated PG-13, but I do believe that the film will play well to children (from 9-10 onwards, it does have a few dark moments), particularly as a way to reach children who have been orphaned or have experienced a broken family. It feels as though Wes Anderson made this movie for them.

I was entranced, laughed and it put me in a fuzzy warm mood by the end. Moonrise Kingdom proves how simple stories can still be powerful and it does not take complex story structures to engage and move an audience. 

Looper by Rian Johnson

Looper by Rian Johnson

Time travel is invented by the year 2074 and, though immediately outlawed, is used by criminal organizations to send those they want killed 30 years into the past where they are killed by “loopers”, assassins paid with silver bars strapped to their targets. Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a looper, encounters himself when his older self (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to be killed.

First, to get this out of the way… the Bruce Willis make-up on Joseph Gordon-Levitt did not bother me. I stared at it for a while and eventually my eyes tuned to it. I can understand people being distracted by this but it ultimately works as a story device.

In short, Looper is a well-made science fiction actioner that asks its big questions while retaining its fun factor. The best thing it has going for it is that the film is hyper aware of movie genre conventions and chooses to play with them.

Ten minutes into the film, I was suddenly becoming very aware of the film’s influences, including Blade Runner, Terminator, and a Twilight Zone episode called It’s a Good Life. (There probably are more I haven’t named. I invite you to name more.) By the second shift, I was aware that this is part of the film’s design. Most movie-going audiences are pretty familiar with film genres at this point. Looper is aware that your mind is thinking back to another film you have seen, and the film uses that thought train to surprise you. Every time I had an idea of where the story was going, the film would mutate it’s genome, tonally shifting into a completely new territory of genre.

I have read that the genre shifting has been the major reason why a lot of people dislike the movie. It didn’t bother me because what really won me over ultimately was the film’s energy. Yes, the film a crackling independent film feel to it that was visceral and fresh in how the story was told and paced. Every time the story made its tonal shifts, I was renewed with excitement and found myself going along with it again and again. I even found myself excited by the camera movements during an action scene, particularly what they choose to show on and off camera.

The common time paradox issue in time travel stories is addressed by literally having a scene where its two leads sit down, discuss the science of it and arrive to the agreement that it does not make a lot of sense, but ask the audience to go along with it anyways. And that’s the key point to whether audiences will enjoy Looper: whether you choose to go along with it.

In the end, the pacing never lets its big existential questions settle in to ever let you really ponder deep thoughts about them, but that’s the point. It’s delivering a fun ride. And it’s plenty fun!

Oh, and by the way, Jeff Daniels was a great villain.

The Expendables 2 by Simon West

The Expendables 2 by Simon West

The Expendables undertake a seemingly simple mission that evolves into a quest for revenge against Jean Vilain, a rival mercenary who has murdered one of their own, and who threatens the world with a deadly weapon.

I enjoyed the first Expendables movie. It was great fun. It was very thin on story terms but the fact that all those action stars grouped together made it a fun guilty pleasure. When it wasn’t delivering action scenes, it was giving male banter, which I have a very big soft spot for. Even though I liked it, I would never recommend The Expendables to somebody else. I assume other people excited for the first Expendables movie would already rushed to see it. People going to see The Expendables coming out disappointed complaining about mindless action only have themselves to blame, right?

No, I have been proven wrong.

The Expendables 2 is bigger in scale and budget, but it’s not a better movie than the first.  The writing is fairly lazy, much lazier than the first movie. It relies too heavily that the audience is coming in with pre-existing knowledge of the 80’s and 90’s action era. There’s too much of a void that the audience needs to fill in their own heads. There’s no sense of who these characters are, instead we are meant to supplant them with their action hero personas.

One thing that really took me out was I was becoming very aware of the production schedule of the movie from seeing which actor was onscreen at different points throughout the story. I was disappointed how little Jet Li was in it, he may as well have just said no to reprising his part. I knew they shot his portion of the film in Hong Kong. The film was not interesting enough to take me away from that thought.

There’s some really key about henchmen in action movies that I was always want to bring up. There’s this one gag in the first Austin Powers movie where a henchman in Dr. Evil’s lair dies, and then we got a cut scene where there’s a birthday party in a suburban house where the family members of that henchman are told that the henchman is dead. Suffice to say, the family’s day is ruined. In The Expendables 2, as little as there already is that clearly establishes the enemy, we’re never really clearly see visually who these henchmen are. In the action scenes, the camera is focused on showing the heroes delivering the blows. This shifts how the audience experiences the fight because we’re watching the action movie star firing a huge weapon as opposed to the character in the movie shooting a henchmen to get over an obstacle in the story. There’s a pornographic sensibility within that hurts the film. At the finale, it gets to a Last Action Hero level of ridiculous self-parody, as there is a “line-o-rama” sequence where the heroes take turns sputtering their famous action catchphrases in a row. I laughed, but it was a cheap one-off laugh.

The fight between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone was pretty disappointing. It wouldn’t even have been hard to do. Only if there were more kicks… there’s really no excuse for this. That’s what I learned from watching The Expendables 2: there’s “dumb fun” ,which I would define as the first Expendables movie, and then there’s “way-too-dumb”, which is its sequel.

On a side note, Arnold Schwarzenegger can still deliver lines. Watching Schwarzenegger on screen really made me think about what a movie star he was and how odd that he is a movie star. It was a combination of the kitschy taste of the 80’s combined with the audience loving the presence of this hulking Austrian muscle man. Think about it, we do not think of him as a trained thespian and in his 80’s films we’re never really asked to buy him as anything but Arnold Schwarzenegger. Usually the things that are happening in his films are pretty far-fetched and insane, whether it’s him playing a machine, shooting an alligator in the face or teaching kindergarten. But whatever it was, we let it slide as an audience, he ultimately remains a very watchable screen presence. He’s also hilarious because he’s given these crazy lines to say and part of the fun is watching him deliver them with his thick Austrian accent.

Call me crazy, but I do not see a new action star rising to stardom the same way in 2012. That thought alone makes me miss the 80’s action era more than what The Expendables 2 managed to evoke. I really look forward to Schwarzenegger’s cinematic return.

NOTE: I’ve been away for a while. The movie I worked on is now officially in the can. It’s in post-production now and my part is currently over. I’ve drafted a lot of reviews that I intend to finish. So bear with me as I catch up.