Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Essentials, Part 4: Comedy

Tati's social commentary tickles my funny bones all over!

          Humor isn't objective. All of these lists, these essentials lists, are just guides that are totally opinion-based. This is your road map to my favorite films of all time, and my reason for writing it is just so I can share my thoughts with you in the hopes that you'll do the same. I want to hear what films move you, and what films have shaped you as a person. Also, I am mostly trying to fill these lists with films you don't ordinarily come into contact with. So, of course, I also love Ghostbusters, Airplane!, Zoolander, etc.

         Here are some comedies that have shaped me. For better or for worse.

Playtime (1967)

          Jacques Tati's Playtime might be the most ambitious comedy ever made. He built an entire city, hired thousands of extras, and went completely bankrupt trying to get this movie produced. It is a sprawling, three hour epic that is told almost completely without dialogue, and the huge set pieces are so overwhelming that you have to see the movie twice just to see all of it.

           Playtime was shot on 70mm film, and it was screened on giant, IMAX-like screens for French audiences who had pretty much stopped paying attention to Tati's Mr. Hulot series. It took three years to film, and it is one of the most visually arresting movies of all time, with some of the greatest set designs you'll ever see. Three hours sounds like a hard sell for a near-silent comedy, but please give this one a try. It is one of the great cinema masterpieces.

Love and Death (1975)

          What more is there to say about Woody Allen? The man has had a huge impact on my life, from my sense of humor to my outlook on life and people and humanity. He releases a new movie each year, and each year we talk about whether or not it's as good as his "earlier, funnier"movies. And while I think that his '80s period is his most ambitious and interesting decade, I will say that the most enjoyable stuff that he produced, just on a laugh-a-minute scale, is his early '70's screwball comedies.

         And no other Woody Allen movie is as funny, and sophisticatedly ridiculous, as his Love and Death. It tackles everything from Russian Literature to empty marriages, from Socrates to Ingmar Bergman. It comes at you with a new joke ever couple of seconds, and nearly all of them work. This is the film that puts Woody Allen up there with the best humorists of all time.

The King of Comedy (1983)

          Martin Scorsese's oft-overlooked masterpiece is also one of the director's most poignant efforts. Robert De Niro plays the part of Rupert Pupkin, a bad stand-up comedian who will do anything to appear on a late night talk-show to perform his act and get the fame he so rightly deserves.

          When the host, played by Jerry Lewis, says no to his act, Pupkin decides that he'll just kidnap the man and hold him for ransom until he's allowed on the show. The movie is dark, disturbing, and strangely prophetic of current attention-seekers. Check it out.

Noises Off (1992)

           Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, and John Ritter headline this hilarious farce directed by Peter Bogdonavich. This film is actually based on a play, and the play is insanely impressive, but this movie's cast is so remarkable that you can't say no to watching this movie.

          The basic story is that Michael Caine is a theater director who cannot get his actors to stay happy during a particularly problematic stage production. This is some of the most clever writing I've seen, and the timing is impeccable. Pick up this movie. Watch it right now. It is amazing. Also, a shout out must be made for Bogdonavich's other farce, What's Up, Doc?, which is also quite hilarious.

Coffee & Cigarettes (2003)

          I like my comedies with a dash of melancholy, and I could have really chosen any of Jim Jarmusch's films for this list. His humor is as deadpan as it gets, and sometimes it's hard to tell if what you're seeing is even supposed to be funny. That's the way I like it. But Coffee & Cigarettes might be his purest expression of straight comedy he has ever released.

         The highlights include segments that center on Steven Wright, Alfred Molina & Steve Coogan, and Bill Murray & the Wu-Tang Clan. Most of the film is divided up and available on youtube, and I highly suggest you seek it out. Some of the funniest stuff I've ever seen. The Tom Waits & Iggy Pop bit is irresistible.

In Bruges (2008)
          I'm not kidding. I love my comedies with a side of melancholy. Otherwise, how do you know when to laugh? There has to be a contrast of some sort for the comedy to work at all. And with In Bruges, the very setting is the straight man. If you haven't seen this movie yet you are doing everybody a disservice.

         What are you even doing here? Get out. Get off my blog and watch the movie.

What are some of your favorite comedies?

Honorable mentions: Network, Broadway Danny Rose, Galaxy Quest (yes, seriously), Harold and Maude, Being There, Happiness

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom

          I've had several conversations recently regarding Tom Cruise. "He's the same in every movie," the other person says. "He's always Tom Cruise." Usually they cite a couple of his characters from different decades and smile at me: the argument, for me, is futile. And perhaps they're right. But I don't really believe in the every-good-actor-disappears-into-a-role thing. I believe in the theory of characters and stars, and Tom Cruise, obviously, is a star.

          Let me explain-- since the beginning of cinema, movie studios have invested huge amounts of money into recognizable stars for their films. The star was the connection between good movies, and people often made (and continue to make) their decisions based on what they already knew about the film going in. Oh, Buster Keaton is funny, let's go see the new funny Buster Keaton movie. Oh, Cary Grant is handsome and charming, let's go see the new romantic Cary Grant movie. And so on.

         These early stars weren't even allowed to disappear into their roles because these clearly defined roles were necessary for the film's income. Flash forward a few decades. The star-power theory is relatively unscathed. Sure, there are films starring unknowns that do well in the box office, but that is almost always because of genre-power or director-power, subsidiaries of the star-power theory. Paranormal Activity might not have any stars in it, or a popular director, but horror films are their own stars-- people go in expecting the formula to deliver.

        So when people tell me that Tom Cruise is the same in every movie, I usually vehemently agree. The problem with disagreeing is that I don't have very many roles to choose from to support my stance. Sure, there's Tropic Thunder and Magnolia, but these are only small attempts by Cruise in becoming a different kind of actor. Maybe, in another world, he could have been. But he isn't. He's a star.

I thought this was a Moonrise Kingdom review?

        There are two kinds of actors, the star and the character. We're all familiar with these terms. The star has his/her name above the title of the film. We go into the movie expecting what we've seen of this person, and if we're lucky, they will deliver the goods. For example, I love Will Smith movies. I can't help it. I find Will Smith to be effortlessly, brilliantly charming. Even in a bad movie, I will always like Will Smith. However, with only one or two exceptions (just like Cruise), Will Smith is always the same person. Always. George Clooney is the same way. As is Emma Stone (shock!).

          Calling a star a star is not an insult to me. It's just calling it as it is. The people I just mentioned are excellent at being stars. These are people who appear in several movies of various time periods, tones, and intents, and always come out of the other side satisfying that desire in us to get more of our stars. Sometimes they play their roles a little straighter, or a little looser, but they're always instantly recognizable. And don't act like you don't love this. It's comfort. It's home. Why else do we desire to see them again and again?

      The character is a whole different kind of animal. These are people who thrive on audiences not knowing their names. Plenty of stars have transitioned from being characters, but very, very few stars have transitioned into characters (see: Tropic Thunder). This is because stars have more at stake. They have empires built around their product. Characters do not. They often play small, but important, roles in big movies, and large, significant roles in small movies. These are people like Dylan Baker, Harry Dean Stanton, and Gary Oldman. These are people who make their living in becoming other people. They are there to help create the believable world for our star, whether that star be a genre, an actor, a writer, a director, or a franchise.

This is where I talk about the movie--kind of 
            You often hear the same kinds of criticisms about directors. "He always makes the same movie," they say. Again, I nod and smile. No other director in cinema today (besides maybe Tyler Perry) gets this criticism more than Wes Anderson. Anderson's star-power is palpable now that he has reached a Tom Cruise level of haters. Of course, he also has a Tom Cruise level of supporters. Wes Anderson has essentially made the same movie seven times. He has used the same jokes, shots, actors, themes, and moods throughout his career. Like Tom Cruise, Wes Anderson might perform at different speeds, but he is always Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson is a star-- his name is always above the title. However, as is the case with absolutely everything on the planet, some people do not like what he has to say.

         This is because people have lumped Wes Anderson into the same category as Tom Cruise. They say he's always the same, and is incapable of surprise. Even Anderson's stop-motion kid's film (his Tropic Thunder) has the hallmarks of his live-action counterparts. Does this mean that Anderson is lazy, or does this mean that Anderson is fulfilling the desires of his fans? Does he have any real reason to change? His movies do well critically and commercially (commercially not as much, but the films make money) and he has placed himself firmly into a niche from which he'll probably never want for anything.

        Anderson's detractors want him to be more like Michael Winterbottom-- eclectic and versatile and impossible to recognize. But Anderson can't be Michael Winterbottom; people already know who he is. He has already become a star, and stars have a hard time disappearing.

Okay, Okay. The actual review

       I'll confess that I wasn't all that excited about Moonrise Kingdom when I first heard about it. This is odd to me, because in my teens I was all about Wes Anderson. I particularly loved The Life Aquatic, which was, to me, one of the most interesting character studies I'd ever seen. And one of the most beautifully shot and art directed, to boot. I also loved The Darjeeling Limited for its slower, more serious delivery. It was Wes Anderson moving in a different speed, and I liked it. I saw both movies opening day and loved every second of them. I saw both movies multiple times in the theater, with different groups of people, and watched their reactions. To me, everybody was thinking "who is this guy making these weird little movies, and who is giving him the money to build those sets?"

      I heard the same thing last night, watching Moonrise Kingdom, in my own head. I asked myself around the halfway mark how this movie got made. The sets are spectacularly realized. Real money was spent on the look of this movie, and I couldn't, at first, wrap my head around it. And then I remembered that Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, and Tilda Swinton star in this film. I'm sure they had something to do with it. But then another voice asked me, in a much more confused tone, why is Bruce Willis in this movie? Bruce Willis is a star. He doesn't need to be a supporting player in a limited release film starring unknown child actors. But then I thought, yes, this is his Tropic Thunder. This is Bruce Willis holding on to the character actor buried inside of him, as he often does every few years, and in this case the gamble paid off. Bruce Willis is the heart of Moonrise Kingdom. 

      At the start of the movie, I realized two things: it is filmed in an aspect ratio Anderson hasn't used since Bottle Rocket, and he is using a different font for his opening titles. These changes may seem innocuous to those who are unfamiliar with the Tom Cruise Smile that is Anderson's visual style, but for those of you who follow the director, these are huge changes. Monumental, even. And I was listening once I realized these changes.

     Moonrise Kingdom follows the plot of two twelve-year-olds, Sam and Suzy, as they run away and try to make a life for themselves in the wilderness using Sam's Khaki Scouts skills. The two quickly fall in love and seek a life of adventure as fugitives. We follow two stories, the story of the lovers and the story of the adults who look for them. And, in keeping with perfect Anderson tradition, the irony here is that the adults act like children and the children act like adults. We get a very real love story between the leads, acted and blocked like a classic Jean Luc-Godard film (using a tripod), and the scenes are filled with warmth and unusually deep emotion. We also get a very real search-and-rescue story, complete with split-screen phone calls and perilous cliff-side chases.

     However, those looking for a truly different Wes Anderson movie will have to look elsewhere. His star power shines so brightly in every shot of this film that detractors might as well call it a parody. We have extravagantly designed sets, cameos from all the major players (excluding the Wilson brothers), the use of correspondence stock, a fantastic, eclectic soundtrack, warm, autumnal colors, and deadpan delivery of every funny line of dialogue. We get the classic Anderson conversations beats, such as "Aren't you concerned that your daughter is missing?"
"That's a loaded question."

       Those of you who are on the fence about Anderson's movies might not find much to be surprised by in his new film, but I will say that Moonrise Kingdom is much more fun than I anticipated, especially in its unusually cartoony third act, where any hint of realism is completely thrown out the window. I found Anderson's total departure from realism charming, and the finale helped me get on board with the movie. I also can't say enough good things about Edward Norton and Bruce Willis. Norton has the gee-whiz attitude necessary to make his character believable as an innocent and excited scout leader, and Bruce Willis has the world-weary exhaustion necessary to make him believable as a bored, depressed police officer stuck on an island with no easy exits.

       Bob Balaban also offers an interesting performance as the film's narrator, who guides the movie like he's part of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and I found his costume to be one of the highlights.

       It's hard for me to judge a star for using his gifts. I often find myself defending them vehemently at social gatherings, and sometimes I get exhausted at the very mention of Nicolas Cage or Tom Cruise. So when somebody mentions Wes Anderson, and another person inevitably sighs and says he keeps making the same movie, I sigh too. It's true, Anderson seems to be stuck, maybe even obsessed, with a very particular style of filmmaking and a very particular story, but let's stop expecting him to change. For me, he is good at what he does, and if you don't like it, you're not wrong or stupid or out of the loop, you're just not a fan of this particular star. It's okay. There's an infinite number of stars.

I give Moonrise Kingdom 8/10 vacant, deadpan stares into the camera.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Hint Reviews (Movie reviews in 25 words or fewer)

          Pixar tries its hand at making a Dreamworks movie, and it succeeds. Beauty and artistry mixed with well-worn plotting. 

          Mark Wahlberg proves yet again that he's one of the funniest men in Hollywood;  Seth Macfarlane proves he can write without tangents. 

          Not even a silly lizard can get in the way of this unnecessary, yet unnecessarily good, reboot of the popular comic. Garfield and Stone shine. 

          McConaughey gives the performance of his career in Soderbergh's under-written and over-directed crowd pleaser. 

      Excellent performances and direction try, but ultimately fail, to make Prometheus anything more than an okay Sci-Fi tentpole. Charlize Theron's character is wasted. 

          Mark Ruffalo raises the bar for Hulks everywhere; Whedon reminds us that superheroes are supposed to be fun. 

          Kristen Stewart falls victim, yet again, to lousy writing and poor direction. Nice visuals don't make up for another wasted Charize.