Three movies to see
By Dan Cohen, Santa Monica Reporter
Wes Anderson’s inspired “Moonlight Kingdom”
Those who have longed for Wes Anderson to revisit the comic landscape of “Rushmore,” will be tickled by his latest, “Moonrise Kingdom.” An inspired comedy about two twelve year olds on the run, it provides solid rolls for a large cast that include Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Frances McDormand, and others. It’s funny where it could have been sad, and wise where it could have been smug.
As he has in the past, Anderson uses his settings, a sprawling, island house and a goofball scout camp (that might as well serve as a summer retreat for Rushmore) as launch pads for his two lead characters. The deadpan, almost completely silent introductions of the locations, and the people who inhabit them, are rendered with such precision you know the director has complete confidence in his material. As the story alternates between the flight of two twelve year olds and the havoc it wreaks on the adults chasing after them every offbeat element effortlessly gels.
After a chance introduction at a quirky theatrical production, Sam and Suzy, two quirky eleven year olds, find a common ground in their disaffection. For the next year they write to each other, making plans for a summer getaway. Although only dimly aware of it, they share the same impulse; to keep the older generation from imposing the kind of limitations that stifled their own lives. It’s only much later that they come to appreciate each other’s individuality and develop the kind of affection that makes their relationship special. We’ve seen this many times before; it’s a classic archetype. But rarely has it been done with the same mixture of dry eyed wit and affection.
Part of the magic is in the casting. Anderson has given the roles to two virtual newcomers, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, who have yet to develop the manners of more seasoned performers. Anderson directs these two in the same way that Milos Forman handled the non actors in his early, Czech comedies, “Loves of a Blonde,” and “Fireman’s Ball.” Forman understands that some people have a natural ability to perform on screen, and that they can be successfully integrated with professionals. Anderson has the same instinct.
In the case of “Moonlight Kingdom” it was a real gamble, because the roles are complicated; Sam is a skilled survivalist, narrowly focused on the mechanics of escape. Suzy is a thwarted romantic, who shows up with books and a record player. There was a good chance the two kids wouldn’t be able to make the parts work; that they’d remain a puzzle to the audience. But over time Hayward and Gilman convince us of their mutual affection, as well as their stubborn individualism.
The movie is set in the late sixties, when the mail, outside of the considerable expense of long distance calling, is the most efficient means of communication. It seems odd in a world of instant messaging, texting and Skype, where the concept of absence, at least in terms of sound and image, is almost unimaginable. But the script has no trouble getting the idea across.
Harvey Keitel shows up mid-way through, as a scout commander who takes over the search after his subordinate, played by Ed Norton, fails. His appearance here echoes his role in “Thelma and Louise,” but with an eye to making fun of the iconic aspects of Callie Khouri’s script.
“Moonrise Kingdom” barely runs 90 minutes, but every one of them adds to its momentum. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s off kilter framing and wandering camera are a good fit for the material. Like so many post-modern comedies, the style draws attention to the conventions of filmmaking, becoming a kind of in joke between the creators and the observers. In this case it works. The script remains above the smug superiority of siding with either the kids or their elders; none of the characters, with the possible exception of a social worker, played by Tilda Swinton, gets short changed by parody.
The story stumbles a bit, during several half-baked finales. There are moments when Anderson’s direction veers into the self-consciousness that soured “The Darjeeling Limited,” “The Life Aquatic,” and to a lesser extent, “The Royal Tennenbaums.” But after minor lapses “Moonrise Kingdom” ends on a note wry comedy that compensates for the two or three mannered minutes that precede it. All and all it’s one of the most enjoyable movies of the year.
“Moonrise Kingdom” isn’t playing local theaters, but it will be coming soon.
Looking back at Sasha Baron Cohen’s “Dictator”
About halfway through “The Dictator” I surrendered to my baser instincts and went with it. Resistance became impossible. A lot of it was just too funny.
The latest Sasha Baron Cohen isn’t the explosive frontal assault that was “Borat.” And it lacks the vulgar leaps into fantasy that distinguished its poor relation, “Bruno.” But Cohen’s obsessive comic energy finally overcomes the limp direction and strait jacketed story line that keeps his first narrative feature earthbound. And for every misfire in the scattershot script, there are two hits. Since those hits keep you laughing through the slower passages, and outnumber them about two to one, you have no choice but to give in to the thing.
“Borat” slapped so many faces, and so rudely, it ratcheted up the stakes for the “mockumentary.” Before Cohen took a whack at it the genre was wheezing, as Christopher Guest, its most inspired practitioner, (“Spinal Tap,” “Best In Show,”) softened in middle age. Late night comics (Jimmy Kimmel in particular) and the guys behind the shockingly funny “Jackass” movies, had taken the most jarring elements from the genre and repackaged them in short blasts. Their stuff, while often hilarious, is narrowly focused, and fails to deliver the satisfactions of long form storytelling.
Cohen came along, after getting his feet wet in TV, and imposed Borat, his eerily spaced out Eastern European, on the most volatile fringes of US culture. In addition to hilarity, Cohen generated suspense as you began to wonder how much he could antagonize his unwitting, real life co-stars, without having his head handed to him. “Bruno,” to a lesser extent, takes the same tack, using sex as the main provocation. While it’s uneven, the high points keep it alive. And, like “Borat,” the potential for bloodletting creates a fair amount of tension.
So now, with a studio budget and the semblance of a story line, Cohen and his collaborators have moved a little closer to the territory carved out by Jerry Lewis, who no doubt, owes his anarchic impulses to the Marx Brothers. Cohen’s sensibility is closer to Groucho than Jerry. And given the liberty of an R rating, he can fling sharper brickbats at a wider range of totems.
Like Borat, his General Aladeen is tailored to raise hackles in both the East and West, a good thing. But the shopworn plot contrivances, many as old as Mark Twain, too often shackle him. He and his co-writers try to joke their way out of the hoariest devices, but the exits often saddle the talented supporting cast with second rate dialogue. It’s disappointing to see high class talent like Anna Farris and Horatio Sanz stuck dragging the movie forward while the star gets most of the freshest material.
What saves “The Dictator” is the many inspired sketches, a handful of them gut splitting. A sequence with a pregnant woman on the verge of childbirth soars on the wings of bad taste. A helicopter flight over Manhattan yields expected but hilarious results. There are more funny throw away jokes than you can count. And two thirds the way through Cohen’s Aladeen delivers a speech about the advantages of dictatorship that reaches the satiric level of Groucho’s harebrained monologues in “Horsefeathers,” and “Duck Soup.”
“The Dictator” is now on its last theatrical legs. You might want to catch it on an uneventful weekday night. Its impulsive vulgarity is bound to seem more provocative in public than your living room.
“A Dangerous Method” on DVD
Let’s face it; there wasn’t much of substance in the theaters this spring. The result is a blah summer of DVD releases. There was a sprinkling of bracing comedy, the kind of thing you might enjoy sitting outside with friends, on a balmy night in front of a large flat screen. I’ll cover some of that in an upcoming column.
But among the things that escaped my attention earlier is David Cronenberg’s complicated and informative “A Dangerous Method,” The movie made the rounds of the specialty houses in the late fall of ’11, but failed to attract Oscar’s Midas touch. As a result it remained in obscurity.
Viggo Mortensen is Carl Jung, Michael Fassbender is Sigmund Freud, and Kera Knightly is the archetypal “neurotic,” in this well-articulated study of the ideas the two doctors developed to treat what was then called “hysteria.“
The noted playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, whose credits include two movies you need to see in order to appreciate his range, “Dangerous Liaisons,” and “The Quiet American,” penned the subtle script. Given the wealth of material on his subjects, Hampton was wise to hone in on Freud and Jung’s disagreement over the nature of the subconscious. The material is more biographical than dramatic, but it keeps things moist with the affairs that dogged both marriages.
Renowned for his horror films and “A History of Violence,” director Cronenberg slows the pace here, subordinating his penchant for bloodletting to Hampton’s attempt to clarify the murky relationship between Jung and his former mentor. Vincent Cassel gooses the middle with an extraordinary, but all too short appearance as the infamous Otto Gross. Kera Knightly takes on a difficult part and shows us more of her guts than she has in the franchises that have earned her millions. The handsome production takes us back to Austria and Germany between the wars, then reminds us of the devastation wreaked by the Nazis in a poignant postscript.
Those curious about the origins of analysis and psychoanalysis will be compelled by this well-acted and directed period piece. As a DVD experience this one shines; you can stop and review passages that may seem too weighty to absorb on one viewing.