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Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Update 2019: Another viewing, and I’m still convinced that the central enigma of Anderson’s style is that it still feels as much like a reckoning as a refuge: for everything he asks of us, there’s as clear a sense that he is hiding more from us, and from himself. His brutally mannered style often feels like overprotective personal authoritarianism, the kind of excessive formalism of a director composing his characters’ worlds with an absolutist sense of extreme mastery. To that extent, this film’s style is actually more authoritarian than ever, the cleanliness of Anderson’s lines (both geometric and linguistic) all the more shielding and unyielding, all the more unforgivingly sculpted down to the most atomistic level. And, as with all of Anderson’s films, Moonrise Kingdom not only externalizes its characters expressionistically but defines those characters by their willfully expressionistic selves: at first blush, they simply refuse to not choreograph their very souls for us, to adorn their walls with markers of their core being, using style as a shorthand for self rather than asking us to figure out anything about them.

Moonrise Kingdom makes this manifest in the narrative as well: more than ever, his youthful protagonists’ childlike replication of emotional maturity and sensible domestication have the automatic quality of predetermined conclusions, children unthinkingly performing what they’ve been programmed to by adults. If Moonrise Kingdom is autobiographical, not necessarily at the level of narrative event mimicking his personal life but at the level of formal embellishment exposing his soul, then this becomes the first film where Anderson’s style finally peers back into itself to explore its own self-construction, and, more importantly, the nervousness underlying that construction. Perhaps because it meditates on the character Anderson might be or might become, it does feel as though Anderson’s aesthetics have stopped excessively signposting his characters and begun to tease out what they themselves don’t (or can’t) signpost for us. The effect of this is arguably to turn Anderson’s toyboxes into tragedies.

Rather than reassuring our own desires to manicure our personal images and govern our own personal spaces, his film (and his follow-up, The Grand Budapest Hotel) finally seems to actually delve into the chaos of the mind beneath the flattened diorama exteriors and precious costume shelters. The latter no longer seem representative of his characters’ souls but, rather, indicative of their anxieties, no longer expressing who they “are” so much as what they either refuse to admit or don’t realize they can’t admit. Their symmetrical equipoise (as domineering as ever in Anderson’s cinema) seems less the tyrannical domain of a dictator-director and more an admission of guilt on Anderson’s part, an acknowledgment of a cloistered soul whose personal directorial style has sometimes existed to protect him (and us) from recognizing our collective arrested development, from admitting to that which we can’t control, style, and comport with.

Moonrise Kingdom thematizes this tragic sense of self more eloquently than any previous Anderson film, evoking a greater sense of melancholic loss, of personal absence, his characters’ wounds starting to open for us to see. I, for one, still can’t tell that it doesn’t just amount to an overgrown child tidying up his soul with compositional tableau and cleansing his mind with figurines corralled, guarded, and stabilized rather than excavating his inner-self and exposing his raw nerves for us. In other words, Moonrise Kingdom tunnels so far down into Anderson’s personal underground warren that one can’t tell whether he is exposing new light or just hiding from it. But it certainly doesn’t feel like personal exhaustion, which is where I thought Anderson was heading circa 2010, and that alone suggests a director who still has crevices worth exploring.

Original Review:

And the story of Wes Anderson not so much reinventing or adding to his aesthetic but reigning it in continues.  When we last left him, he’d staved off a career of middling recreations of his first few films by turning to animation. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s return to live-action filmmaking, he seems to have learned a fair bit from his previous effort about loosening up and introducing a little fluidity and naturalism into his rigid formalism. The whole film is consummately Anderson-like – it would be a pale-faced lie to introduce this film as Anderson changing it up. But there’s a less suffocating air to the whole thing, more room for Anderson’s precision to breathe and infuse the wide open spaces of the New England vacation-land the film calls home. If Fantastic Mr. Fox was Anderson unhinged, this is him sitting back and relaxing, more comfortable than he’s ever been with himself and letting the wind take him any which way. Continue reading


Review: Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris feels like it was released forty years ago, when Woody Allen was still finding his way and knew what themes he wanted to address in his films, but hadn’t found a compelling way to address them. Released in 2011, it’s unfortunately more of a reminder that Allen has lost his touch for humanism. This is a guy, for all his nervousness and cynicism, who has made several of the most endearing, empowering humanist visions of the cinema, someone who seems to put on the airs of mockery to satirize a world he’s truly in love with. Or maybe, it’s the other way around. Maybe he is truly cynical and hopeless but remains in love with the idea of humanity and romanticism, feeling the need to put them in all his films even when he finds them dishonest. After all, many of his films are subtle fantasies about love and longing that match bitter, insightful truth with genuine pathos and effervescence pointed strictly at the human race. This is a man who understands the joys and sorrows of life and society, and puts them at work in his films like they are his playthings, all the while feigning a cute passivity and weakness, like he’s both confused and amused at the world and doesn’t want to get away. Perhaps in his old age he’s just given up on society and enjoys the act of getting together with actors in a nice vacation-land for a few months and ordering fine food and wine with a film, his in the making, on the side. Continue reading

Review: Gravity

Update (and edited score) 2018, on the eve of Roma’s release: It’s impossible as ever to ignore Cuaron’s signal audio-visual achievements with Gravity, but I find myself even colder on the film’s ability to connect the dots between charting our outer space, which it does so well, and truly destabilizing our inner space, a task on which it essentially punts entirely.

Original Review:

I’ve never seen a film quite like Gravity. On one hand, it’s a thrill ride to end all thrill rides, never letting up in subjecting its characters to situations from bad to worse during its slim but breathless 90 minute running length. Gravity is nerve-wrecking in a purely visual way that few films aim to be. This is a true edge-of-your-seat motion picture. But it’s much more than that too. Gravity is a film which tries to challenge what film can be on a technical level. Moreover, it tries to transform our understanding and appreciation of Earth and its surroundings visually while also playing to populist sensibilities and trying to earn its large budget back by showcasing destruction and visual splendor on a level beyond any other film of 2013. It’s 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Star Wars, and you’d be forgiven for thinking these two goals are incompatible, but more on that later. For now, I will simply say here that, for those simply looking for “the next big thing” in film technology, Gravity has anything else handily beat. This is a visually bold, singular, uncompromising film that will be remembered as a game-changer many years in the future. That it also happens to be quite good is just the icing on the cake. Continue reading

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel


Two years after the quietly affecting Moonrise Kingdom, a film which highlighted the best aspects of Wes Anderson’s work (visual composition, whimsy, formal symmetry redefining the objects of childhood) while moving away from his sometimes stuffy pretentiousness, The Grand Budapest Hotel doubles down on rigid, intricate, potentially suffocating framing only to open up the seems a little and air out some of Anderson’s internal demons. Admittedly, it sacrifices some of the childlike whimsy which highlighted his last two films, Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox, for a more openly stylized, boxy, comedic farce that still maintains a deceptively sweet center. Yet, repeat viewings bear a different beast than the clinical monstrosity it initially feigns, revealing more about Anderson’s intent and the complexities lying within the dense yet cavernous hotel of the film’s title. This may not be Anderson at his finest, but it’s a stirring example of his filmmaking prowess which lies comfortably within his canon and carves out its own temperamental niche. Around the mid-2000s, it seemed as if Anderson was simply content repeating himself, but this late career renaissance has proven not only that he won’t rest on his laurels but that he is actively invested in a bifurcated, simultaneous self-critique and a lovely pushing of his aesthetic as far as it can possibly take him.

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