About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Film Review: "Moonrise Kingdom" directed by Wes Anderson 5/5

Preface: Wes Anderson has perfected his visual style (and re-perfected his style over and over again) to the point that every film he has made since The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) has attracted criticism and praise across the board.  Those that didn't enjoy his 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited might argue that the film was only style and no substance, and additionally may agree that his 2004 epic dramedy The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is evidence that Anderson's style can't function in every genre (even though it's a heightened-costumed-up Anderson flick in disguise).  His stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), though not a traditional Anderson film, was essentially a return to form for the young director as he was able to adapt his visual style to the realm of animated feature films.

Speaking about Wes Anderson's visual style is almost essential to the on-going conversation about his filmography (as it is – and should be – with every filmmaker), but the visuals are key to dissecting his films.  There's something nostalgic and heavily sentimental about the level of detail within one of his films.  Within each outfit and color palette, not only are his films visually cohesive, but the milieu of a Wes Anderson film reflects the backstory of his protagonists.  His characters are often filmed dead on (as compared to at an angle) as though we are seeing his outlandish characters as the people they really are.  All of these elements blend together to create a portrait of an individual (or a series of individuals).

[Just to get it out there, his visual motifs span his entire filmography and I've included examples of a few of these visuals (and much more) at the bottom of the review using a still from each of his feature films.]

Review: With all of that in mind, Wes Anderson's latest film Moonrise Kingdom (2012), is not only a return to live action, but is also a wonderful companion piece to The Royal Tenenbaums.  Co-written with Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom is a traditional Anderson coming-of-age film (but told from a different perspective than usual).  The children act like adults, and the adults act like children as they bounce in and out of relationships in an effort to gain a sense of satisfaction in life.  Many of the characters are broken:  Jared Gilman stars in the lead role as Sam Shakusky, a twelve year-old orphan attending Camp Ivanhoe who falls in love with a girl from a town nearby, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) a troubled twelve year-old girl.  Together, the two scheme to escape their current residencies and run away together.  A concept I've come to know as "The-End-All-Escape-Dream-Plan" theory.

Meanwhile, Suzy Bishop's parents (Bill Murray and Francis McDormand) are potentially nearing the end of their marriage as Mr. Bishop becomes suspicious of his wife's relationship with the local police officer Captain Sharp. When Sam and Suzy are finally united, all of these characters are forced to interact with each other to locate the children.

This film is brilliant, and easily one of the best of the year.  It has a lot of heart, and though it may not be as powerful as The Royal Tenenbaums, this film is aiming for a different tone.  Moonrise Kingdom has a magical quality to it as innocence is lost and paradise is discovered.  

Wes Anderson is a known lover of cinema (something that shines through in all of his films), and his ability to homage to the films that influence him is always endearing and exciting to observe.  Moonrise Kingdom feels akin to Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 film The Last Picture Show.  Beyond the obvious plot-points such as a young couple running away, and parents having affairs etc; Moonrise Kingdom is a film about people who want a better life, the emotions of children being neglected by adults simply because "kids are not old enough to understand love".  The Hank Williams song "Kaw-liga" is used as a song within both features (which both happen to take place around the same decade).  Hell, one of the kids even has an eyepatch.  Interestingly, these similarities feel like a tribute within Wes Anderson's film (similar to the Jacques Cousteau imagery found within The Life Aquatic).

The opening title sequence is set against a Benjamin Britten song entitled "The Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra" which introduces each instrument within an orchestra, in the same way that a Wes Anderson film flaunts every aspect of its existence through its misè-en-scene (or production design).  When the title appears with a loud thunder clap, the title quickly transitions in color (almost like an effect from Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange).  Even during a more violent scene in involving a pair of scissors, upon impact the film cuts to a series of vibrant drawings of scissors for only a second (which also calls to mind the skull-crushing stone-penis scene in A Clockwork Orange).

Moonrise Kingdom is truly a must-see (I saw it twice while it was in theaters in May).

My ranking: 5/5

Centered Shots:
Deadpan Comedy:
Dolly Movements:
Color Palette:
Slow Motion:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Film Review: "Skyfall" (2012) directed by Sam Mendes 3/5

[It's been a while since I have formally reviewed a film, but the praise surrounding the latest installment in the 007 franchise has beckoned me to return from hibernation.]

Skyfall (2012) is the 23rd "official" (MGM produced) film in the James Bond franchise which also marks the 50th anniversary of the films – as Dr. No was released in 1962.  Beyond the hype that any 007 film gathers, this film features a stellar amount of cast and crew known for more artistic film endeavors.  With Sam Mendes (American Beauty (1999), Revolutionary Road (2008), etc) helming the film and the Coen brothers' long-term collaborator Roger Deakins as cinematographer, the latest Bond film was off to a great start.  Add to it Daniel Craig returning as the famed secret agent, Judi Dench reprising her roll as M for the seventh time, and a supporting cast featuring Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes... this is looking like a winner.

However, Skyfall is a decent film (even within the lengthy list of Bond films, it is not the best).  The movie begins with a classic Bond opener which throws the audience into the action as 007 is about to complete a mission.  The danger and thrills are sublime as Bond moves from vehicle to vehicle in pursuit of a terrorist with a rather important hard-drive.  Moving from a foot chase, to a car chase, which transitions into a motorcycle chase and transforms into a train battle, all of the Bond hallmarks are at play but with the gritty feel that the past two Bond films introduced.  This is not a spoiler, but similar to the beginning of You Only Live Twice (1967), James Bond is "killed off", but this time it's because of M's impatience.  Life without 007 in the world is bleak as obituaries are written, spies are being captured and executed, and identities are being revealed.  Everyone is in danger from a madman who lurks within the shadows of the cyber world.  When M's computer is mysteriously hacked and a Live and Let Die-esque skull appears on her computer with the words "Think on your sins", MI6 is bombed – an event that catches none other than James Bond's ear.  Naturally, Bond survived death and decided not to return to her majesty's service until news of the terrorist attack on MI6 made it his way (via CNN's Wolf Blitzer).  Here comes Bond to save the day... right?

Javier Bardem is not introduced into the film for a good hour, but his entrance is brilliant.  His blonde hair and Gucci outfits make him a mysterious rival for Bond, and his voice is intriguing with an ambiguous accent.  It's like Bardem's performance in No Country For Old Men (2008) all over again, except less subtle.  However, this is where Skyfall becomes irreversibly weak.  The villain seemingly has no master plan (except for seeking revenge on M concerning a past grievance).  Sure, Bardem's character might be a crazy madman hell-bent to achieve his goal, but his back story doesn't merit a conflict at a 007 status.  Bond essentially becomes a bodyguard in this flick.

Skyfall is oddly just as much about M – the head of MI6 – as it is about 007, but this factor also proves to be a weakness.  Characters are often referring to past events that the audience has never seen nor heard about prior to this film – which is fine except that the payoff is that the audience gets to observe people act and think upon past decisions outside of the parameters of the narrative.

I stand by this, though it is controversial, but Casino Royale (2006) is the best of the 007 franchise.  James Bond is humanized in that film as we witness his first missions as a double-o agent, he actually falls in love with a woman only to have his heart broken, and by the end of the film we (as an audience) get to see Bond evolve into the suave and cold spy that we know him as.  Skyfall tries to go even further on a personal level with 007, but it all feels contrived and unnecessary (again, we're told about prior events instead of shown these pivotal moments).

The final showdown in Skyfall feels a lot like Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), which isn't a bad thing, but it's certainly there.  There's even a touch of Apocalypse Now (1979) as a helicopter menacingly plays rock music through a megaphone.  What the film does best though is set up for the next James Bond adventure (which is sad, since this felt like it could have been a lot more than a set-up for inevitable future 007 adventures).  

The action in this film is exciting and thrilling (as it always should be and almost always is in this on-going series), and the self-references to previous Bond films and the 50 year-old Scotch that Bardem and 007 interact with all feel well placed and don't attract attention to themselves in the way that franchises often do.  I don't mean to be too harsh on this film, but as a life-long fan of the series I want more.  I know Bond's history and remember the time Bond got married in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), and even that film successfully conveyed an emotional arc while containing exciting action sequences better than in Skyfall.

Thankfully though, "James Bond will return".


My ranking: 3/5