by Steve Habrat
Up until yesterday, my favorite Wes Anderson film was 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the hilarious aquatic escapade that was one of Bill Murray’s finest hours. I think I may have a new number one pick. The hipster auteur’s latest quirky adventure Moonrise Kingdom could be his crowning achievement, one that has staggering amounts of feeling and emotion behind every single frame. If you were to just show someone Moonrise Kingdom without telling them who the director is, they would be able to figure it out at lightning speed just by the obsessive compulsive organization of every frame and the deadpan humor. This is perhaps Anderson’s most stylish film to date (yes, even more so than The Fantastic Mr. Fox), yet Anderson’s work has always been plagued by style threatening to overtake the narrative but not in Moonrise Kingdom. Along with screenwriter Roman Coppola (son of Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola), Anderson crafts a fragile tribute to young love and innocence that will slowly take over you for the hour and forty minutes that it inhabits the movie screen. It is a love story that could only be told by Anderson himself and no one else.
Moonrise Kingdom begins on an island off the coast of New England in 1965, where twelve-year-old “Khaki Scout” orphan Sam Shakusky (Played by Jared Gilman) and forgotten bookworm Suzy Bishop (Played by Kara Hayward) have run off together into the thick wilderness. After waking up to discover that Sam has “flew the coop”, bumbling Scout Master Ward (Played by Edward Norton) quickly alerts island police Captain Sharp (Played by Bruce Willis), who puts together a ragtag search party that consists of Suzy’s parents, Mr. Bishop (Played by Bill Murray) and Mrs. Bishop (Played by Frances McDormand), and the rest of Ward’s “Khaki Scouts” to locate the two lovebirds. Sam and Suzy are quickly discovered and ripped away from each other, but the “Khaki Scouts” begin to suspect they have made a terrible mistake by helping the adults. They quickly draw up a plan that would reunite Sam and Suzy, taking them on an adventure of a lifetime. Their adventure threatens to turn deadly as a violent hurricane makes its way towards the island.
Anderson makes what could possibly be the most organized film of his career, every single shot done up to maddening perfection. A leaf is perfectly placed on the corner of a picnic blanket while a Tang can is tilted just right. Yet it is a lot of fun to spot the tiny details that he throws in to make it 1965, the Tang inclusion actually being the funniest one along with all the slouchy horn-rimmed glasses that obscure the eyes. Anderson finds a way to allow the whimsical composition to really compliment our misfit heroes, a magical frame to compliment the magical feeling that has wormed its way into their small hearts. Gilman and Hayward give some of the finest and most touching performances of the year so far, even more amazing because these are child actors. I was completely engrossed in their budding young love, chuckling over their first encounter, which takes place a year earlier in 1964, where Sam sneaks into the girls dressing room during a church play and demands to know what kind of bird Suzy is playing. She’s a raven, if you must know. Their connection is misunderstood by the melancholic adults that wander the island, all who are searching for some strand of happiness to shake them out of their funk. You will find yourself longing for the spark that these two kids find earlier on. They just understand each other from the first time their eyes lock. Hey, isn’t that what love is all about?
While Gilman and Hayward own every scene in Moonrise Kingdom, the adults do a fine job of keeping us engulfed in all the surreal dramatics. Norton seems right at home as Scout Master Ward, a lanky buffoon who stomps around his campsite spouting off camping tips to his “Khaki Scouts”, the best one being his questioning the shoddy construction of a dangerously high tree house (one of the film’s best jokes). Bruce Willis as the deflated Captain Sharp is a character that just longs for someone to share his time with in his cramped little trailer. He carries on an affair with Mrs. Bishop, who crushes his spirits even more when Mr. Bishop begins to suspect something is up. You’ll beam when he finally gets his moment to shine in the final moments of the film. It is such a nice change of pace to see Willis actually doing something more than running from explosions and firing a machine gun. Murray chews up his scenes as the preoccupied Mr. Bishop, a man who barely notices his own family until he suspects something odd going on between Sharp and Mrs. Bishop. McDormand is cold as Mrs. Bishop, an equally preoccupied and firm force in the Bishop household. She’s hilarious as she storms through the house bossing Suzy and her three younger brothers around with a bullhorn. Also keep an eye out for hilarious cameos from Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, and Jason Schwartzman.
Moonrise Kingdom is brimming with an innocence that never seems to slip away. Suzy and Sam seem more comfortable dancing away on a secluded beach rather than attempting to get “fresh” with each other. It is almost paralyzing to the viewer when Sam and Suzy are separated and Social Services (Played by Tilda Swinton) shows up to have Sam carted off to an orphanage. It is devastating to see these two misfit children, who glow when they are in each other’s company, separated by a sea of frowning adults that don’t have a clue what happiness is. That is the exact message of Moonrise Kingdom, young love may be reckless, a bit irresponsible, but it knows what it wants and we can’t possibly fault it for that. Gloom and routine are for the adults! It is that longing to be young again that really hits hard in Moonrise Kingdom, making the older viewers walk away aching for an innocence that can never be obtained again. Overall, Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s masterwork, a flawless film that is warm, dreamy, and relentlessly funny, drenched in the sunrays of summer, feeling the wind in its hair, and relishing the sand between its toes. Moonrise Kingdom is one of the best films of 2012 so far.
by Steve Habrat
As you exit the theater after viewing Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, there should be theater employees stationed by the door that snap a picture of you and toss you a t-shirt that reads, “I survived Transformers: Dark of the Moon!” I kid you not that when the theater lights come up, the gleaming credits roll across the screen, and Linkin Park blares down on you from the theater speaker system that you will need to take a minute to compose yourself. Your brain will be reduced the pancake batter, your ears will ring, your bones will ache, and you may suffer from a pounding migraine headache as your try to decipher what it is that you just saw. The truth is that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is infinitely better than the previous installment in the Hasbro toy franchise, but the bottom line is that the film, which hints at an intriguing concept early on, single handedly creates a new subgenre of action film: Explosion porn. In the last hour of this film, I’m absolutely astounded that you could not hear Bay’s maniacal laughter as he reduces Chicago to a pile of smoldering embers, reduces the premise to ash, and leaves you reeking of gasoline and defeat.
Almost everyone I talk to about the Transformers films seem to agree that the first film was a charming action film about a boy and his car. About an eccentric kid grappling with problems most teenage boys face (girls, popularity, money, ennui in suburbia) getting thrust into something that is larger than life. Then came the second film and the awe factor was reduced to racist rubble at the pyromaniac claws of Michael Bay. The first film was clearly overseen by Spielberg, who is the executive producer of these films; because Bay demonstrated some disciplined restraint and didn’t blow up EVERYTHING he pointed his camera at. The second film was an incomprehensible mess that was nothing but one confusing fight sequence after another. Furthermore, halfway through the film, it seemed like the writers realized the storyline was rancid and tried to redirect the entire film. Bad idea.
So how does the third entry in this lucrative franchise fair? Well, it manages to be pretty average in the story department. It has a beefier plot than the previous film but the film is so garish and cramped that it almost bursts on screen. The plot wears thin after the first hour and a half and the film spends the next hour using an epic showdown in downtown Chicago as a dazzling diversion to the fact that the storyline has run out of fuel. The film begins with a nifty prelude that suggests that the space race of the 1960s was in response to a ship that had crash-landed on the dark side of the moon. Turns out that the ship actually belonged to Sentinel Prime, an Autobot that fled the planet of Cybertron during the war between the Autobots and Decepticons. He took with him a precious weapon that would have decided the outcome of the war. Flash forward to present day and the Decepticons are lurking on earth and looking for the weapon to launch a massive campaign against Earth and wipe out the remaining Autobots.
Back at the center of all the action is the bumbling hero Sam Witwicky (Played by motor-mouthed Shia LaBeouf). Once Sam was a lovable hero who just wanted to get the girl. Now, he’s been reduced to a shadow of his once beloved character. He’s set up shop with Carly (Played by Bay’s curvy Babe-of-the-Month Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) in what appears to be a left over set of a Victoria ‘s Secret commercial. The two can’t even come close to emulating the bizarre chemistry that LaBeouf had with Megan Fox in the first two installments. They seem like the most improbable couple on the face of the earth. The rest of the cast is back too and they are all as colorful as ever. We have the tough-as-nails army officers Epps (Played by Tyrese Gibson), and Lennox (Played by Josh Duhamel) back on the front lines of the alien/robot battle. Also back is Sam’s TMI-spouting parents and the eccentric former Sector 7 agent Simmons (Played with berserk delight by John Turturro). Newcomers include John Malkovich as Sam’s unhinged new boss, Ken Jeong as Sam’s jittery coworker, Frances McDormand as an icy government agent, and Patrick Dempsey as a charismatic boss.
It truly is enigmatic how Bay convinced some of the talent to actually agree to be in this beast of a movie. They must have all been desperate for a payday because I can’t imagine stars like Malkovich and McDormand actually biting at this tomfoolery. They do the best job they can with the material they are given. Let’s not forget that some of the dialogue has never been some of the sharpest banter ever projected onto the silver screen but it is given some life by these accomplished actors. Yet somehow all these characters are the reason that these films astonishingly stay afloat. Granted the second film may be one of the vilest movies of recent memory, but you have to admit that it had spunk. The characters are effervescent and so are their alien allies even if tired clichés pour from their CGI mouths.
While many are swift to accuse Bay of producing empty cinematic experiences, they are correct to an extent. Bay does action well and he can frame a scene better than most directors out there, but the problem with Bay is that he sabotages his own film’s potential. This film has plenty of said potential and the first twenty minutes of it are expertly constructed. He weaves history and fiction together just as effortlessly as they did in X-Men: First Class. But then Bay can’t resist himself and pulls the pin out of the grenade. He does this with a single shot that throws off the momentum that the film has been gathering—a shot of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s ass as it sways up a set of stairs. It sucks the life right out of the film and for the next hour, the film scrambles to gather back that momentum. It doesn’t help that the premise here is stretched to the breaking point, snaps, and then continues on for another hour. I believe that the first film worked so well because we knew so little about these alien visitors. Now, the films have been steeped in geek lore and suffer from being completely overblown. Everything is given a longwinded explanation that drags the events on another ten minutes. This entry keeps it a bit simpler but I still firmly believe the franchise should have been left at one. Shame on Hollywood’s gluttony.
Overall, Bay has become a target for another crime against his audience—making them feel no emotion whatsoever. His films are more concerned with the action sequences than any redeeming quality like emotion. Yes, a film should send you away with a feeling. That can include walking away sad, overjoyed, depressed, moved, or, yes, thrilled to your core. While the last entry sent you away confused and simply infuriated that it exists, Transformers: Dark of the Moon sends you away overwhelmed and disoriented. You will feel like you just stepped off of a rollercoaster. I guarantee that your stomach will be doing somersaults for hours after in your gut. We can spend all day arguing over the mediocrity of his latest film, or we can just agree on the obvious: At least Bay sent you away FEELING something this time around. Grade: C+
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is available on Blu-ray and DVD Friday.