All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)




Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
I've been a bit of a Wes Anderson skeptic for quite a while. I'm not entirely sure why I've resisted these films, but I think it has to do with the sense that they have miniaturized, if not exactly minimized, what appear to be sincere emotions. There's a long literary history into which Anderson is maneuvering himself (Salinger and Fitzgerald, especially), but I'm not really a literary man; the boxy diorama mise en scéne of "Wesworld" has always imposed itself upon my thinking much more than the character studies that, presumably, form the other side of the dialectic. So instead of feeling a productive tension in the works, I've almost always felt an impulse to resist, as if the genuine tinges of pathos -- regret, unrequited love, even growth and revelation -- were beats in a confidence game, one against which I'd better steel myself. It's much easier to convince others that this reluctance to give in to Wes Anderson is a valid stance by pointing to his consensus failures, of course. The forced brotherly rapprochement of The Darjeeling Limited displays just how Anderson's apparent sincerity can undo itself with self-regard and gimmickry. But then again, I'm an admirer of The Life Aquatic, another of the director's alleged failures. The patent artifice of the claymation sea creatures, the Ladies Man / Tout va Bien scaffold-set, and Bill Murray's hyper-deadpan, all colluded to produce a stark meditation on death. In fact, all of the film's massive, lumbering apparatus seemed designed to offer a bulwark against mortality, like an oyster excreting an ever-thicker shell around its soft center. In contrast to all of this, the near-universally lauded Royal Tenenbaums just feels like a puppet show to me, the work of someone still fighting their way out of the "McSweeney's" / "This American Life" idea of pathos wrapped in a defensive mode of whimsy.

As of right now, Anderson's best film remains Fantastic Mr. Fox. This is because it represents not so much a "left turn" for the filmmaker, but three left turns, if you will -- the radical realignment of available style in order to accommodate, and deepen, pre-existing sensibilities. Wes Anderson, after all, stages his films like meticulous dollhouses and dresses his actors up in outfits that are eye-poppingly ridiculous and seldom change. So why not make an actual film with dolls? Wes is so suited to the control of minutiae that goes into stop-motion animation, and Fox provided the oppotunity to generate a true "Wes-world," with all the performers under his command. Not so ironically, perhaps, this absolute control seems to have loosened Anderson up. Fox is his most playful, relaxed film to date, with the possible exception of Bottle Rocket. Somewhat adjacent to this logic, and in fact reflecting an impressive artistic development from it, Moonrise Kingdom is a film that takes many aspects of Anderson's cinema that had been latent or even (to me) twee window-dressing and brings them front and center, not only formally but thematically and emotionally. The film opens with one of Anderson's most flagrant dollhouse shots, a series of lateral pans and tracking shots that systematically introduce us
to the home and family of 13-year-old Suzy Bishop (the great Kara Hayward) as she scopes out the surrounding island confines of New Penzance (a sort of Cape Cod of the mind). We see her brothers playing; we see Suzy's binoculars zooming in on details in the oceanside landscape; we hear Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" as it plays on a phonograph in one of the sparse but meticulously appointed rooms. For the first time, kids will be the narrative center of Anderson's film. And by this, I mean true adolescents coping (and groping) with the onset of puberty love, which is very different than the impossible crush that drives precocious childman Max Fischer in Rushmore. Here, budding sexuality, along with the struggle of a young man finding his place in the world, are given full attention, with small dashes of warm humor but virtually no irony whatsoever. Sam (Jared Gilman), Suzy's enamorata, is an orphan and an outcast, given to troublemaking simply by following his own nonconformist whims. He is, in fact, a younger Max Fischer, but without the overweening confidence or the social and familial safety net. (The two, naturally, go hand in hand.) When Suzy, fed up with her WASPish, ineffectual parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) tells Sam that she wishes she were an orphan, Sam (and Wes) replys with Moonrise Kingdom'ssingle most memorable line: "I love you, but you don't know what you're talking about."


The manner in which Anderson constructs the adult world here is notable for its relative seriousness and widespread entertainment of doubt. Characters may appear in the same uniform throughout the film, but this is largely due to their occupations rather than their definition by quirks and tics. And although we cannot be said to see them solely through Sam and Suzy's point of view, Anderson does cut them to the measure of a very formal, almost legal notion of responsibility. Do they or do they not do right by the children in their charge? Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) leads his platoon of gruff, exaggeratedly salty Khaki Scouts with a relaxed paternalism that runs counter to the boys' strange (and echt-Andersonian) Dirty Dozen typology. When Sam goes missing, and it's clear that he may have failed to observe that this troubled young man's problems were in fact compounded by the ostracism he faced in the troop, the Scout Master refocuses, making Sam "the mission," and bringing the other boys in line around the need to locate and help this misfit. That is, a parenting instinct kicks in, one that is less about faux-military discipline than strong humanist pedagogy. His "double," as it were, is Island Police Capt. Sharp (Bruce Willis, in one of his best performances since Unbreakable), another traditional authority figure whose interests ultimately become less aligned with the abstract letter of the law than about Suzy and especially Sam. Sharp identifies with the young orphan, clearly, but whereas the older man, at some time or another, found his career and the ideals it requires him to uphold, as a surrogate structure for setting his life on track, he's not sure what will happen to Sam if he disappears into the black hole of "Social Services" (Tilda Swinton). (True, Moonrise Kingdom has a slight conservative, pro-masculine, benevolent-authority, anti-lawyers-and-bureaucrats streak, which seems to be of a piece with the whole notion of New Penzance as an island, part of the U.S. but also not, an enclosed community that cannot be fully understood by interlopers.) Sharp, all alone with the Law (and his illicit relationship with Suzy's mom now ending), also has to break out, make a connection beyond the known confines of pattern and regulation. And this is true of Anderson as well. Moonrise Kingdom's most significant departure from previous forays into WesWorld is its location in a particular time ("The year is 1965") and its somewhat open diegetic flow. While some of Anderson's films have relied on a para-literary narrator (Tenenbaums) or a theatrical proscenium (Rushmore) for their organization, Moonrise Kingdom brings Bob Balaban right into the film as a local sage who both narrates and displays. He is a kind of benshi figure, bringing Anderson's film squarely into the avant-garde "cinema of attractions" territory that it always skirted but never quite committed to. And then, at a crisis point, when the characters themselves -- i.e., the story-world of Moonrise Kingdom -- require intervention, Balaban "becomes" a character himself, not exactly dropping his omniscence but tempering it in order to communicate with New Penzance's "mortals." It's as though he alone can see both childhood and adulthood, existing (to paraphrase another great chronicler of benighted romance) on "both sides, now."




The Great Cinema Party (Raya Martin, The Philippines / South Korea) [v]

Here is a link to my Cinema Scope article on all three of 2012's Jeonju Digital Shorts, of which Martin's was, in many respects, the most aesthetically adventuresome. Although I'll confess to finding Party a more fully realized work than Raya's last feature length effort, Buenos Noches, España, I'll freely admit to preferring the more opaque, batshit-insane quality of BNE. That said, I do hope that the piece below fully articulates the extent to which I find GCP to be an exciting, almost unclassifiable artifact of love and friendship. Sadly, this makes it "disorganized" by conventional standards, as human enjoyment seldom fits into helpful categories. For this reason I actually feel a bit protective toward GCP, as though it were a strange, misunderstood kid who's unlikely to get picked for the team. I'd love to be proven wrong.


When Night Falls (Ying Liang, China / South Korea) [v]

If Raya Martin's film was the most creatively daring work among the three in this year's Jeonju Digital Project, then there's no doubt that Ying's was the gutsiest. Effectively denounced by the Chinese government, When Night Falls has nonetheless gone on to take major prizes in Locarno and will soon be making a stop in Toronto, thanks to Wavelengths programmer Andréa Picard. As I think back on When Night Falls, I find myself above all impressed with and moved by its subtlety and overall humility. Ying's tableaux and fixed-frame shots are never showy or overtly "modernist." Rather, they work to drain the scenarios of their blatant "cinematicity," all the better to let the sad tale of Wang Jingmei soak through the screen, like blood on a bandage. Here's Cinema Scope's reprint of my piece, in advance of the TIFF presentation; scroll down, but only after reading Phil Coldiron's excellent work on Leviathan.




Light in the Yellow Breathing Space (Vimukthi Jayasundara, Sri Lanka / South Korea) [v/m]

I don't have a great deal to add to what I wrote for the Cinema Scope Jeonju piece, so here it is. However, I will say that Jayasundara seems to be moving in a promising new direction, abjuring the grim developing-world miserablism of his early work in favor of offbeat, poetic images. The fact that the overall tone does seem to be a bit too Apichatpongish is indeed worrisome, but I figure it's only temporary. Breathing Space's best moments are its most personal, particularly when Jayasundara grapples with his father as a nonconformist philosopher and metaphysician. The blending of (fake / mocked-up) documentary and Surrealist styles recalled Marlon Fuentes's academic, playful whatsit Bontoc Eulogy, which is certainly worth a look.