Motion Pictures Reviewed: Elysium

Following his hugely successful Apartheid-with-aliens film debut, District 9 director Neill Blomkamp sets his sights on more dystopic science-fiction social commentary with the gorgeous Elysium. Does this tale of futuristic class warfare prove a blockbusting game-changer or another video game-esque blockbuster?

Totally original marketing.

It’s good to be rich in 2154. As the privileged elite took to orbit in their giant, outer-space Mercedes Benz logo, totally inconspicuously dubbed Elysium (FORESHADOWING ALERT!), they took all their fancy cancer and deformity curing technology with them. Left behind were the 99%, now living in a collection of literal shanty-towns that all curiously look like the eponymous South African ghetto full of aliens in District 9. Needless to say, the destitute state of the world the wealthy have all but abandoned leaves the masses looking to the glittering station in the sky for salvation: a salvation the occupants of Elysium are keen on keeping to themselves. That is, until Matt Damon, replete with power armor and a handful of really cool guns, comes knocking.

Introducing the 2154 Model Mercedes-Benz Elysium series…

Within the first fifteen minutes of Elysium, it becomes wholly apparent that Neill Blomkamp has come to embrace Hollywood, as well as its age-old philosophy that successful followup features are built on bigger SFX budgets and rapidly depleting sets of neurons. One needless, goopy origin-story and a couple of eye-popping establishing shots of our respectively glittering and dirt-caked settings later, it’s easy to get the sense that Blomkamp is far more interested in treating his audience to a visual feast rather than a full-spectrum epic. After all, an epic in the truest sense usually entails a smidgen of depth behind its setup, and here all we get is a shiny new matte on a Pinto: sure, it looks like a brand-new, gorgeous, compact vehicle, but it’s really an outdated model practically begging to explode the moment you put the keys in.

Looking classy, Los Angeles: I’m guessing the movie industry tanked around 2050…

Given the wizardry at work in Elysium, however, the Pinto-metaphor is, admittedly, an ill-suited comparison on a technical level. From the dilapidated sprawl of the LA-wasteland to the sterilized office-park paradise of Elysium itself, the film does a fantastic job drawing its audience into the dystopic future setting. Robotic police units patrol seemingly endless barrios with inhuman coldness, while the city’s hapless denizens are forced to take dangerous factory-floor jobs, usually building the various hi-tech treasure-troves that are shipped off world to the wealthy in wait. Design work for everything from cars to spaceships to robocops to Blomkamp’s typically over-the-top weapons of mass destruction are (literally) beautifully realized and believable.

“RIPPIN’ SOMEONE’S HEAD OFF”- Matt Damon does his best Fred Durst impression (http://youtu.be/ZpUYjpKg9KY). The movie and the song are intellectually made for each-other.

If only the narrative held the same engrossing promise as the film’s look, Blomkamp might make it into the same pantheon of ad-guys-turned-auteurs as Ridley Scott; Scott enthusiasts will undoubtedly draw parallels between Elysium and Blade Runner, as both are visually stunning but flawed story-wise. However, where Blade Runner still managed to tackle relatively fresh concepts using tested, noir-ish tropes, Elysium falls back on tested-tropes without offering the necessary freshness in concept. At its core, Elysium is a messiah story with an Occupy-movement latency: urbane social commentary plastered over a predictable and all-too familiar fable about a hero who’d give everything to even the score. While it makes for a brisk, exciting two hours, it won’t tickle your psyche over any of its ideas.

Spider digs that exosuit, bro!

Convenience becomes Blomkamp’s all-encompassing plot-device, as each circumstance our savior, car-thief on work parole, Max (Damon), finds himself stuck in leads him closer and closer to his childhood dream-turned-nightmare trip to the big Dubai in the sky. On his way to work one morning, he is promptly harassed and beaten by a couple of aforementioned law-enforcing tin men he may or may not have helped build on the factory-line he works during the day. After visiting his equally robotic parole officer in the film’s smartest scene, he just so happens to go to the hospital where his childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga) ever-so-selflessly works as a nurse and cares for her leukemia-stricken daughter. Long story short, Max gets blasted with enormous amounts of radiation following a work accident, is given a week to live, and, appropriately, a week to get his ass to space to cure his rampant case of multiple organ failure. Helping him out along the way is a crippled weapons-dealer named Spider (Wagner Moura), a handful of culturally diverse cannon-fodder characters, and a surgically grafted “exosuit” that gives Max the power to rip the heads off robots and deflect blows from a futuristic samurai sword.

Samurai swords are so future.

While Damon plays Max with an understated grace the character barely deserves, his foes bide far less promisingly in the acting and storyline department. William Fichtner’s steely industrialist is about as thinly drawn an antagonist as one can probably fathom, while Jodie Fosters’ inexplicably blood-thirsty Elysium Defense Secretary sports an accent as corny as her motivations are mind-numbingly simplistic. Doing a far better job being bad, Blomkamp’s perpetual partner in celluloid, Sharlto Copely, chews scenery left and right as mercenary Kruger. Holding no love for his two-dimensional employers above, this rampage-prone psychopath is a far cry from Copely’s meek government stooge, Wikus, in District 9. Letting Copely go off-hinge was a smart move on Blomkamp’s part, as Kruger quickly proves the most memorable villain of the film.

Yeah, so this happens… Sharlto throws a BBQ.

Despite it’s exhilarating chase-scenes, bullet-ballets, and inspired environments, Elysium‘s storytelling disappointingly takes a backseat to its displays of artistic carnage. Had Blomkamp and his writing team taken more time to flesh-out the denizens of this twisted, promisingly dark future, the film would have evoked its desired conversations about contemporary wealth-gaps rather than inevitable whining about its blunt narrative-shortcomings. A treat to watch, but a bust to analyze, Elysium plays it safe with its formula, yet triumphs with its aesthetic. While I can hardly wait to see what Blomkamp offers up next, I’m less stoked to eventually “engage” with it.

3.5/5

Moving Pictures Reviewed: Only God Forgives

Bloody brilliant or just bloody?

Riding high off the critical and commercial success of 2011’s Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn and new-found partner in crime(film-making), Ryan Gosling, re-team on the obsessively brooding Only God Forgives. Does this neon and crimson-soaked tale of ruthless revenge live up to the duo’s prior triumph or does it take a beating under all its own pretensions?

He’s a very dangerous boy…

Nicholas Winding Refn has fallen hard for Ryan Gosling, and, honestly, who can blame him? Their previous collaboration, 2011’s love-letter to 70’s crime-and-car capers, Drive, stood as a testament to Refn’s ability to squeeze tension out of every uncomfortable silence and thundering engine roar, not to mention Gosling’s endlessly endearing ability to communicate with others solely through icy, unblinking stares. Critics and audiences alike loved it, and the duo clearly felt there was more movie magic to be had from the blossoming bromance. Lucky for the two, Refn had put one of his personal projects on hold prior to shooting Drive: this project, a revenge tale set in Thailand, promised to be darker and more brutal flick than Drive. There would be fists. There would be blood. There would be immaculate camera work. There would be Gosling. Of Course, if good looks alone could carry 90 minutes on celluloid, perhaps Refn would’ve been on to something here. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case.

Maybe that “unfortunately” is a bit unwarranted- don’t get me wrong: Only God Forgives is by no means the movie-buff wet-dream that Drive was. That said, it’s hardly a disappointing film when weighed on its own merits. Hauntingly (and sometimes downright beautifully) shot against the neon-tinged backdrop of Bangkok’s many alleys, karaoke bars, and dens of malicious intent, the film is visually absorbing. Refn clearly goes to painstaking lengths to meticulously frame every punch, gunshot, and swing of the sword. Even idle characters take on a hint of artistic exhibitionism, surrounding themselves in creeping strands of cigarette smoke or dousing themselves in crimson store-front street-light.

Kirsten Scott Thomas glows in Refn’s neon-tinged dreams.

The soundtrack is hardly a slouch either, for that matter. Cliff Martinez, another Drive alum, does an admirable job imbuing each scene with an appropriate sense of surreal and terrifying electricity. Minimalist synths carry the suspense of a long walk down a dimly lit hallway with understated grace, while the occasional blast of an organ cuts through digitized arpeggios during a climactic duel between protagonists. Martinez’s use of eastern-tinged rolling drums that echo throughout much of the film are key to bolstering OGF‘s pacing, not to mention the audience’s attention to the carnage that usually accompanies it.

Wanna fight?

If you’ve noticed, I’ve kept talk about silly things like, say, plot and acting, pretty hush-hush up till now. Not that either of those things are particular letdowns here: everyone on screen seems completely game for the task at hand, and the story, in which Gosling’s boxing manager/drug dealer goes on the hunt for those deemed responsible in his older brother’s death, is both seedy and bloody enough to keep your eyes glued to the action behind the slits of your fingers. The trouble is, there just isn’t enough of either to warrant much ado about them.

Bromance in its natural habitat

Gosling’s lead billing is confusing, given he probably has less than 15 spoken lines throughout the whole movie. While his screen-time, as Julian, is considerable, he spends most of it lugging around with a manic, wide-eyed expression plastered over his mug as he stares at hookers, boxers, cops, and his arms, over and over AND over again. Sure, it can be gleamed as symbolic of Julian’s stranger-in-a-strange-place-out-for-vengeance character arc (if that’s what you think you can call it), but whereas Gosling’s titular Driver wore his silence like a badge of badass honor, Julian wears it like a ball and chain weighing down what could easily make for a more engrossing character study.

“I haz arms.” – Julian

Likewise, Vithaya Pansringarm plays the near enigmatic Lt. Chang (aka, the not so subtle “Angel of Death”) with comparable restraint, though his icy silence makes far more sense given the near supernatural nature of his hound-of-justice character. The rest of the mostly Thai cast put up a good show (and occasional beating), though the real scene stealer of the flick is a very, very high strung Kirsten Scott Thomas as Julian’s mother, the aptly named Crystal. Offering both an air of venerability and maniacal intensity to this drug queen, Scott Thomas is not only believable in the role, but utterly terrifying. The overt hints at Oedipal interplay between herself and Julian flesh out the film’s commentary on the nature of family between savages, and elevates the film beyond its otherwise run-of-the-mill premise.

Somebody’s gearing up to get sliced

One might expect action to be the selling point in a movie like this, however Only God Forgives is far more a mood piece than a standard summer slug-fest. Sure, there’s violence, but most of it is carried out after a quick cutaway, leaving much of the bloodshed (honestly, quite thankfully) to the viewers imagination. Nobody’s head explodes à la Drive‘s shotgun scene, however there are plenty of gnarly fisticuffs and sword disembowelment to be had here. Keep in mind, this is not a film for the squeamish. That said, the violence itself is hardly tasteless, often playing out in a brutal ballet of flying steel and surging red. If anything, this is Refn’s most reserved outing yet, the shockers paling next to his earlier forays into the genre.

Pretty brutal… prettay, prettaay, prettaaay brutal.

Overall, Only God Forgives proves both an equally impressive and frustrating journey, an engrossing and stylish neo-noir piece bogged down by occasional bouts of self-indulgence and a lackluster script. It’s not Drive, but it’s still a helluva movie. And what’s not to like about that?

3.5/5

Moving Pictures Reviewed: Europa Report

In space, no one can hear your hype.

After a near year-long hiatus, I’m turning Sound/Off back on, bringing you some overdue insights into new and upcoming releases that may otherwise float under your radar.

Aptly labeled “hard science fiction” films are occupy an oft overlooked but beloved niche in a time of explosive blockbusters. Drawing from and yearning for a place in the pantheon of every-other-year smart space movies, Europa Report thrives on gritty believability in the face of otherworldly unknowns.

It’s rough not being Avatar. Hell, it’s rough not being Transformers. Trying to sell a science fiction film without the aid of 3D-enhanced explosions, Smurf-cat-people, or, for that matter, hundreds of millions of dollars, requires a certain tenacity and stringent adherence to understatement most movie studios and goers are quick to dismiss. That said, there have been some pretty stellar (HA! See what I did there???) exceptions to that rule over the past few years, particularly out of the independent sector: 2009’s Moon managed to merge space-based hard sci-fi with classic identity-thriller hallmarks, while, that same year, District 9 used a faux-documentary style to further the otherwise action-heavy alien apartheid film’s believability. Taking more than a few hints from both, Sebastian Cordero’s Europa Report blends hard sci-fi with found-footage and faux-doc structure to admirable and mostly successful results.

“Houston, we have a movie.”

Set in the not very distant future, the film follows an international team of intrepid explorers and scientists who set off to Jupiter’s moon of Europa in the hopes of discovering life underneath it’s frozen, jagged ice sheets. Predictably, things don’t really go as planned: after an early tragedy, as well as a communications blackout, the space-farers are left drifting towards their enigmatic destination without guidance or the certainty of returning home ever again. Built around the aforementioned framing of a found-footage documentary, Report takes recorded video feeds from the mission and tosses it together with interviews collected from the team’s coordinators back on Earth. It’s an intriguing model to frame the action around, but consistently feels forced to the point that the mission’s actual narrative feels a bit to jumbled at times.

TIGHT.

Luckily, once the comm-towers go down and the astronauts are left to their own devices, the film takes a sharp turn toward the engaging. The faux-doc framework pops up only occasionally after the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, and the rest of the story is basically told through crew logs. Surprisingly enough, the found-footage feel works pretty well here given the claustrophobic nature of the events at hand. Stuck in their proverbial tin-can and left without direction from their Earth-bound overwatch, the team is forced to move past their various personal differences in the name of science and human discovery to carry out their primary objective: to search for traces of alien life in Europa’s icy oceans. Of course, what they end up discovering is far more terrifying and dangerous than any of them bargained for.

Good to go?

The film boasts a pretty strong, under-the-radar cast: Michael Nyqvist (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo [Swedish], Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) aptly plays a veteran cosmonaut in the thralls of guilt over an early mission mishap, while Christian Camargo (Dexter‘s Brian Moser) and Karolina Wydra (House) are familiar and welcome faces. Lead billing goes to Sharlto Copely, coincidentally revisiting the faux-doc sci-fi niche he helped pioneer with the aforementioned District 9. Interestingly enough, Copely’s role in the film, while pivotal, is fairly confined, his screen-time cut down to the first-half of the adventure.

Copely isn’t in Johannesburg anymore…

While the actors all seem game, sadly, their characters are underwritten, basically boiling down to tropes like hopelessly inquisitive scientist, snarky skeptic guy, space janitor, and survivor chick with short haircut. Nyqvist breathes some life into the hardened yet vulnerable Andrei, though, given the filmmakers’ preoccupations with focusing on the science more than character development, any depth these personalities have are put on the back-burner. It’s a shame, considering the opportunity a claustrophobic environment like a space capsule can offer for inter-character conflicts and complex relationships.

Michael Nyqvist hates this mission.

Thankfully, the mechanical aspects of the film are tied together quite nicely. The special effects are admirably effective, from a lander’s slow descent onto an alien moon to a dramatic POV shot of an ever shrinking spacecraft in an endless blanket of black. It looks low-budget in a way that only adds to its plausible aesthetic. The editing is all over the place: structurally, the film crumbles under its jumbled and jumpy faux-doc narrative, though when the action stays within the confines of the mission, the cuts are done quite effectively. Flourishes of “radiation interference” cause color bursts and video noise and act as nice visual touches in contrast to the blue-tinged HD cams the mission logs are mostly comprised of. Every so often, a crew member picks up their own handheld cam, often leading to some of the most intimate and surprisingly touching moments in an otherwise strictly business outing.

On approach to awesome.

Without going into much detail (which, luckily the filmmakers don’t really, either), the extraterrestrial presence bolstering heart of the flick is tastefully and intriguingly presented. The nature of this outside force is kept a cleverly veiled, yet accessible, mystery that will keep you guessing till the last few frames of the movie. Without exaggeration, this is one of the finest portrayals of a third encounter I’ve ever seen. There’s no early reveal, no shadowy figures coming up behind our heroes and heroines, and really no explanation. And it’s cool, because we really don’t need one. Hats off to Cordero for holding back just enough to draw us in completely.

Brian Moser’s in spaaaace….

While it can be a bumpy ride, this trek to Europa is ultimately rewarding, offering not only a delicately reserved and believable look at a deep space search for alien life, but a fresh blending of sci-fi filmmaking styles that pay tribute to those that preceded it, while offering something fresh and understated to the pantheon. An impressive feat for an indie release, and for a genre that relies so heavily on inordinate amounts of money to draw in an audience. It may not pioneer the concept, but, despite its shortcomings, Europa Report boldly goes where few films have gone before and makes it feel like something exciting and new. Cheers to that.

3.5/5

Motion Pictures Reviewed: Prometheus

The wait is over: three decades after Blade Runner, Ridley Scott returns to the genre he redefined in Alien‘s spiritual precursor/successor, Prometheus. Does Scott’s bombastic space case make for universal appeal, or does it find him going boldly where every man has gone before?

A few months back I posted a relatively breathless preview of Ridley Scott’s new film Prometheus, the insanely-hyped science fiction creationist epic set before the iconic space-horror visual orgasm that was 1979’s Alien. Ever since 1982’s Blade Runner, Scott’s spent the past 30 years distancing himself from the genre that put him in the critics’ corner, inspiring film students, sci-fi junkies, and popcorn-lovers alike to openly embrace the ideas of subtly dystopic, corporately-controlled intergalactic shitshows. Alien, in particular, broke new ground in removing most of the sheen from futuristic space operas, opting for ethereal, industrial settings full of claustrophobic hallways, junktastic computer interfaces, and VHS-quality video feeds: it was situations and characters were realistic and the horrors that followed them were as strikingly inventive as they were visceral. Flash forward another three decades to 2012, and Scott’s budget (not to mention his ambitions) have become substantially… well, larger, a scale he uses to crank everything in Prometheus to an eleven on the “holy cow”-scale.

How is babby formed?

Scott’s desire to “think big” and “go big” with his artistic homecoming carries over into the main gist and (initially) driving idea of Prometheus: who are we, as human beings, and where did we come from? Scott’s “answer”, at least for the second half of that question, is a giant, bald, blue-pale muscleman who drinks some nasty black stuff in the first minute or so of the movie that causes him to rapidly decay, fall over a waterfall and spread his DNA around a prehistoric landscape, all after watching a gigantic spacecraft silently float away through thick grey clouds, back into the infinite sea of space. It’s an almost poetic hook that begs more questions than it does answers; fitting, given the nature of the ideas Scott aims to tackle here.

What’s with the sci-fi tendency to name spaceships after ill-fated mythological characters???

From there, we’re whisked off to 2093 aboard the Prometheus, a corporately funded deep-space research vessel tacked with uncovering the origins of mankind from the furthest regions of our galaxy. Their destination (with nods to devoted fans of the Alien franchise) is LV-223, a distant moon archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Repace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find numerous references to in ancient pictograms they found around the world. The uber-old depictions of humans worshiping giant humanoid figures that point toward a star system lead the two young scientists to conclude that these “gods” were actually prehistoric astronauts, inviting latter-day humans to “meet their makers” (a phrase ironically and a bit too overtly thrown around throughout the flick courtesy of Damon Lindelof’s crack/cracked-up script).

Brushing up on their history, no doubt…

What follows would be a bit too telling for people looking forward to literally unearthing the mysteries Scott hints at here, but I guarentee you there’s plenty of blood, sweat, and tentacles lurking in man’s cradle once the Prometheus has landed. Alien-franchise fans will have a blast with the impressive mythology-integration Lindelof brought to the table, particularly the shady background dealings of Weyland Industries, the company funding the expedition. Aside from the aforementioned alien nasties, the movie’s primary antagonists are these slippery corporate-types pulling the operation’s strings. Charlize Theron’s appropriately icy expedition supervisor Meredith Vickers makes interesting character-development turns, going from skeptical authority figure to surprisingly desperate woman-wronged; it’s fascinating and impressive that Lindelof could make such a seemingly two-dimensional character as deep as she is, but disappointing how short-lived and under-utilized her potential ends up given her strengths.

She’s as cold as ice…

Most other characters fall under this catagory as well: Repace’s Shaw goes full 360 on her concepts of faith throughout the film and demonstrates jaw-dropping resilience, yet lacks the rebellious punch of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in Alien. Idris Elba’s role as a blue-collared ship captain is appreciated but underplayed by the action at hand, especially given that he barely leaves the cockpit the entire movie. Marshall-Green’s Holloway character is wasted as a mere foil and romantic connection for Repace’s, leaving his potential impact in the film relatively unrealized.

Elizabeth Shaw’s not quite Ripley, but she still has to put up with some horrific situations in her underwear.

The rest of the crew are unfortunately underwritten, often carrying glimpses into what could have been (Sean Harris’ Fifield, the stoner geologist very much opposed to going down that dark, scary looking hallway over there) rather than what ends up being, which most of the time is a bloodied corpse. Most the blame falls on Lindelof here: he spends far too much time seeking ways to satiate franchise fan-bases without paying enough attention to drawing out his characters and making them act in believable ways. Believable character action, in particular, becomes an increasingly rare commodity as the body-count rises, crew-members often showing a lack of scientific restraint unbecoming of supposed world-class scientists.

Rising above the pack, however, is the ever lauded Michael Fassbender, sporting a fascist-esque blonde hairdo and impressive Peter O’Toole inflection. Playing the ship’s synthetic science officer (again, wetting the mouths of every Alien-franchise fan ever), David, Fassbender wryly takes his familiar role and inventively turns it upside-down, dropping hints at David’s underlying intentions and curiosities lost on the rest of the crew which merely shrugs his being off as pure mechanization. Watching Fassbender’s near-invisible wince when his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce under a crapload of makeup), says via hologram that David is “the closest thing to a son he has” despite the fact he “will never have a soul” is as heart-wrenching a display of humanity as any Scott has ever filmed in his near 40 year career. Early parts of the film dedicate themselves to observing David’s routines prior to the rest of the crew waking from their two-year hypersleep: he shoots hoops one-handed riding a bicycle… he studies countless languages and recites them perfectly… he watches Lawrence of Arabia, quoting O’Toole obsessively… he even watches crew-members dreams, a robotic voyeur seeking to understand what makes us tick. It’s creepy and intriguing all at the same time, ultimately trumping the initial creationist tones the rest of the script begs the audience to pay heed to.

Something to behold.

When Fassbender’s not busy stealing the scene, however, the scenes themselves are: despite character flubs, Lindelof and Scott have established a very impressive universe in Prometheus, one that ties into the Alien-franchise without necessarily feeling constricted by its design choices. Indeed, here Scott aims for grandiosity on a level unseen in Alien, dreaming up cavernous structures, gigantic alien creatures, massive action set-pieces, and gorgeous landscapes. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is no slouch on the visuals, his framing artful and technique engrossing. The 3D visual effects courtesy of the Moving Picture Company are some of the best realized since (as much as I hate the movie) Avatar, coming across as tastefully immersive rather than gaudily exploitative. Disappointing, to a certain extent, are some of the creature designs, branching a bit too far away from H.R. Giger’s source designs and opting for familiarly fleshy beings rather than distinctly (and bracingly) alien ones. That said, the visuals, as a whole will definitely not disappoint.

Nothing ominous about this at all…

Aside from somewhat sloppy writing and lackluster character development, the only other glaring problems with Prometheus are the numerous plot-holes and unexplained circumstances that sometimes pop up in the film’s second-act. I feel like the ball’s in Ridley’s court here: he overtly (and, even cheekily) sets up the film’s finale less as a culmination and more as a launching pad for a potential franchise, leaving his big questions mostly unanswered and his remaining characters’ blindly heading again into the unknown. For some, this turn may cheapen the experience, but for others (franchise fans in particular), it will only whet appetites for another outing. Visually stunning but a bit too rough for its own ambitions, this hype-machine grinds metal on literary levels, but proves ample popcorn-potential for most movie-goers. Prepare to meet your makers!

Moving Pictures Reviewed: Moonrise Kingdom

Indie filmmaking darling and eternal retrophile Wes Anderson sets his heavily stylized lens on sleepy New England coastal communities in his new adolescent love yarn Moonrise Kingdom. Does this jaunt into 1960’s fantasy escapism mark a return to Steve Zissou-esque majesty or is it just another dull ride a la Darjeeling Limited?

It’s hard to believe it has been over a decade since Wes Anderson became a household name in the cineniche with The Royal Tenenbaums and, still, nearly fifteen since his first major breakout with appropriated celebrated Rushmore, especially in light of how fresh and glaringly hip those films continue to be even by today’s standards. Anderson’s story-book approach to the cinematic narrative that surrounds is wholly human and relatable characters often proves the perfect balancing act between the fantastical novelty of their circumstances and the sardonic commentaries about relationships that permeate and sizzle in each film with understated immediacy. In this sense, Anderson is a rare auteur capable, at his best, of incomparable storytelling satisfaction when it comes to character arcs, stylistic presentation, and ironic appeal. In other words, the guy’s a deserving hipster magnet.

He saved Latin… what did you ever do? (Wes Anderson)

That said, Anderson’s career hasn’t been without it’s fair share of missteps and mixed reception. 2007’s Darjeeling Limited, for example, proved relatively disappointing despite the exceptional cast and setting, mostly because it buckled under its own thematic pretensions. The same can be said, at least in my opinion, about Tenenbaums, where precocious and intriguing story-lines end up sacrificed for overly sentimental undertones midway through the film. In both cases, the films are eventually redeemed through excellent and bittersweet final acts, though, when held next to gems like Rushmore or the criminally underrated Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson’s crushing commentaries on the nature of broken family-life tend to overwhelm his lesser pictures, removing his audience from the sense of wonder and stylishly ridiculous excitement he is fully capable of bringing to the table.

Okay, where do we start?

Lucky for us, Anderson’s newest flick, coming-of-age fantasy Moonrise Kingdom is far and away better than Darjeeling Limited, and, in many ways, his most readily accessible film (yes, even more appealing to mainstream audiences than Fantastic Mr. Fox). Shot with his signature eye toward retro-stylism (aided by the 1960’s setting) and intimate attention to subtle human eccentricities, Kingdom is the rare movie that strikes its audience as elaborately constructed without ever feeling contrived; formulated without feeling formulaic. Sure Bill Murray mopes around and Bob Balaban offers whimsically informative on-screen narration every so often, but it never comes across as pretentious as much as it does engrossing and engaging in familiar yet novel ways.

“Oh hai, Bob!”

The set-up is simple enough: orphaned and jaded Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) runs away from his regiment with pen-pal/first-crush Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) as both seek solace from broken homes, bullying, and adults brushing their feelings aside. As their adventure is paralleled with the small-knit island community’s rally to find them, Anderson puts surprising emphasis and depth into seemingly cookie-cutter characters like Bruce Willis’ Captain Sharp and Edward Norton’s Scout Master Randy Ward charged with rescuing them, painting them less as antagonists and, rather, as kindred spirits capable of empathizing with Sam and Suzy even as they seek to tear them apart. The same can be said for Billy Murray and Francis McDormand’s performances as Suzy’s fractious yet aloof lawyer parents, who slowly grow to maturity, much like Sam and Suzy do, throughout the film. Yes, there are a couple villains sprinkled here and there: Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts agree early on to hunt him down with weapons against their Scout Master’s wishes; Tilda Swinton’s late-game turn as the ominously nameless Social Services plays bad with icy demeanor, but as her lack of name implies, she’s less of a character here than she is a looming, dangerous situation Sam has to avoid in the last 30 minutes of the film, leaving her character feel a little wasted in hindsight.

Cool cast, bro!

Moonrise Kingdom is, however, replete with Anderson’s noticeably eclectic and approachable humor: his situations are almost always brimming with humor and magic that manages to come across as both ridiculous and totally appropriate. Pairing absolute stylistic likability with sincere commentary about learning to love and live (and learning to love and live again), Anderson once again crafts a rewarding yarn that manages to both entertain and enlighten audiences. So grab a ticket when you can: I guarantee it’ll be an illuminating experience (okay, pun aside, you’ll dig it)!

Moving Pictures Reviewed: Kill List

Genre-bending UK thriller Kill List has been turning heads on the festival circuit for a while now. Does this independent darling bring the goods to match the hype or does it buckle under the weight of its own twisted ambitions?

Hearts in darkness: hitmen of Kill List caught in a deadly, nightmarish game.

Ever since catching websphere rumblings about Ben Wheatley’s hitman-horror hybrid back in March, I’ve kept my ear close to the ground when it came to Kill List and its eventual theatrical release in the states. Well, despite a lengthy delay, the film has finally made it to limited release here in the US, and, rest assured, the wait has been worth it.

Every bit a disenchanted love letter to two of film’s most iconic (and maligned) genres, the seedy underworld/hit-man narrative and 1970s psychological-horror, Kill List immediately sets itself apart from the contemporary cinematic crime exploration in tone and (pun intended, I guess…) execution. Twists, turns, and torment abound, Wheatley daringly takes narrative niche on a slow-burn to the maniacal, the likes of which have rarely seen comparison.

That "Oh sh*t..." moment you get when you realize this isn't the movie you thought it was going to be.

If the ominously etched rune introducing the film doesn’t cue you into the devious intents lurking just beneath the surface of the first half hour or so, than you’re in for way more than you probably bargained for. Nestled in an unassuming British suburbia, Jay, an Iraq War veteran who’s turned to contract killing to make ends-meat for his family, finds himself deep in paralyzing emotional turmoil after an enigmatically botched job in Kiev. With the fam in dire financial circumstances and Jay unable (or unwilling) to find work since the incident, tensions run high between him and his wife, Shel. Explosive spats during listless days and dinner parties leave Jay seeking refuge in best friend/partner-in-homicide, Gal. At said dinner party, Gal propositions Jay about a potential job, eventually convincing Jay to get out of his psychological rut. All the while, Gal’s new girlfriend is stealthily carving runes on the back of Jay’s bathroom mirror, and the “WTF”-fest begins!

Deals with the devil? Explorations on the cunning nature of evil in "Kill List".

What follows includes blood-pacts, necrotic wounds, clergy assassinations, overzealous fake-swordfights, mercilously beating the sh*t of a pedophile with a hammer, droning chants, enough cult-based weirdness to make Kubrick cringe in his coffin. Wheatley goes heavy on violence, light on the dialogue, mysterious on the backgrounds, and deep on the connotations: who are the guys Jay and Gal are working for? What happened in Kiev? Do the desired ends justify the deplorable means? The film’s at its best when exploring the complexities of human relationships (whether familial or fraternal) under terrible ethical circumstances, and engrosses with a convincing portrayal of man split between his morals and his job. The horror aspects, which play significantly into the narrative in the latter half of the film, are quite effective and intense, though less impressive than the preceding melodrama. The finale in particular, while shocking, desperately lacks satisfactory conclusion, leaving the audience with far more questions than answers. That said, its obvious Wheatley’s aims for such an abrupt and brutal ending were meant to leave the film feeling shrouded and hauntingly mysterious.

Oh that crazy last half...

While it does some things better than others, Kill List is nonetheless an unnerving jaunt into unique film-making territory. Grounded by a strong cast, jarring style, and unsettling atmosphere, it definitely managed to surpass my expectations and slay the stale image of the cinematic hitman saga with brutal effectiveness. Consider yourselves warned!

Hidden Gems of 2011 (or 2010, if you wanna get technical…): Hesher

Hesher (2010)

Scalding to the touch (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eponymous miscreant)

The past couple years have been particularly kind to Joseph Gordon-Levitt. For an actor who had his career jump-started on syndicated TV face-palmers like Roseanne or 3rd Rock from the Sun, Gordon-Levitt has risen above the two-dimensional caricatures of the 1990s teenager and into the more diversified and weighty shoes of the post-2k twentysomething. Despite the stereotypical pratfalls many actors of these niche roles often take to (inexplicable wealth and undeserved senses of self-importance, I’m looking at you), Gordon-Levitt has a seemingly magical ability to convince an audience that he, as a person, is just as fiercely intelligent, charming, and empathetic as his characters are written to be. So it’s easy to see where his decision to take up the titular role of a nihilistic, violence-prone, anti-authoritarian metal-head in Hesher might inspire a few heads to start scratching.

Definitely not 500 Days of Summer.

The film itself (which made its festival circuit in 2010 but didn’t see theatrical release till this past year) plays out less like a story about Gordon-Levitt’s character than it does a vehicle for him to drive head-long through your HD-TV, leaving a sparks and jagged pieces of shrapnel flying in his wake. The bulk of the narrative is focused, rather, on T.J. (Devin Brochu), an angsty pre-teen with a gnarly bowl-cut and a royally f*cked-up family situation. After his mother dies in a car-accident, T.J. has devoted himself entirely to recovering the newly impounded station-wagon she lost her (and, as he believes, his own) life in. T.J.’s dad (Rainn Wilson) has retreated into a state of reclusive, strangling depression, wandering around the family home in tighty-whities and a bathrobe for a majority of the film, and T.J.’s live-in grandma battles dementia and arthritis with medical marijuana (to space-tastic results). As T.J. finds himself increasingly isolated both at home by a family caught up in their own problems and at school where bullies seem to prey off his recent tragedy, he gets increasingly frustrated and eventually lashes out at a nearby housing construction site, throwing a rock through a window… unfortunately for T.J., Hesher’s been squatting in the house.

TJ! Watch out! There's a totally crazy, badass metalhead behind you!!!

From there Hesher descends into a blur of dynamite, lighter fluid, Metallica-worship, and all-around nihilistic mayhem. Gordon-Levitt’s deadpan, dead-serious, and dead-on character study is wholly engrossing: to think an actor usually caught in cardigans on-screen could pull off a long-haired, shirt-ripping, perpetually anarchistic metal-head is utterly fascinating, not only because it defies logic but because Gordon-Levitt does it so well. Beyond the chaotic fun to be had with the eponymous character’s antics, the film also manages to put its heart on display despite the insanity at the centerpiece. As Hesher becomes a forced fixture in T.J.’s life (literally invading his home and going on a personal crusade to terrorize T.J.’s bullies), his pattern of destruction becomes something more along the lines of therapy, allowing T.J. a chance at moving past his mom’s death through learning how to live on his own again.

Nothing quite like rolling your grandma's corpse down a public street to get your spirits up. Thanks Dr. Hesher!

Overall, the film is fantastically realized and darkly hilarious. The cast, which also includes Natalie Portman as the object of T.J.’s ill-directed affections, are all well suited for their roles but rarely push their characters past the narrative moment. Gordon-Levitt, on the other hand, is nothing short of phenomenal: his uninhibited performance leaves a mark you won’t soon forget. A must watch for anyone who’s looking for a little therapeutic chaos in their lives.

Leaving his mark.