Monday, June 18, 2012

Movie Monday: Moonrise Kingdom / Prometheus

This week we're going to do something a little different--instead of reaching back to some obscure title, I'm going to talk about two major films in current release. I haven't been seeing a lot of movies in the theater lately, but I just happened to see both Moonrise Kingdom and Prometheus within a week of each other, so I thought why not have a double feature for this week's Movie Monday?

Before we start: don't worry, I will not be spoiling anything from either of these movies!
Moonrise Kingdom is set, as all of Wes Anderson's tend to be, in its own little universe, in this case in a small island community in New England. The narrator (Bob Balaban) sets the scene, warning us that the events we're about to see take place just a few days before a historic storm.

A young cub scout named Sam (Jared Gilman) decides one to up and leave camp, which is run by the officious but good-natured Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). Once Ward discovers Sam is missing, he sounds the alarm, alerting the local constabulary (Bruce Willis, a seeming odd fit for a Wes Anderson movie). Also missing is a young girl named Suzy (Kara Hayward), and it soon becomes abundantly clear they have run off together.
We get to see their courtship through a montage of letters they wrote to one another, and even though Sam seems nerdy and bookish, compared the to beautiful and already statuesque Suzy, they are obviously kindred souls: Suzy just can't seem to get along with her parents (played with sad resignation by Francis McDormand and Wes Anderson regular Bill Murray) and is deemed a "difficult child."

Sam and Suzy narrowly escape capture from Sam's fellow scouts, in an altercation that turns violent (there's a moment involving violence towards an animal that made me uncomfortable, even more so when I realized Anderson used the a similar plot device in The Royal Tenenbaums--I'm guessing he didn't have pets as a child).

The film cuts back and forth between Sam and Suzy's Blue Lagoon-esque voyage of discovery, and the lives of the adults. Willis' sheriff clearly cares for Sam, and just wants to bring him home safely; Norton's Scout Master Ward is similarly sympathetic, but seems more concerned about the Natural Order being disrupted for its own sake.

Bill Murray is, well, Bill Murray--always funny, but now with a bigger taste of melancholy added to the mix. His Walt Bishop is someone who is supremely comfortable in life, and is also terribly bored, so he spends his time goofing around, mostly to entertain himself, like when he tells his three young sons he's going outside to drink and chop a tree down:
The film surprised me a bit by changing plot in mid-stream, and showing us that the kids will not be denied. As the storm approaches, everyone ends up at the local church, where Sam and Suzy make their last stand:
Wes Anderson gets a lot of criticism, and rightly so, for his seeming obsession with all the homemade accoutrement of his characters: the funny wardrobes, the esoteric books and records, the toys that reveal the characters' inner turmoil. In some of his lesser films, Anderson seems like one of those kids who pinned bugs to a board, more concerned with dutifully categorizing and documenting rather than just enjoying the thing in front of them. Since his breakout film, Rushmore, it seems like it's been a series of diminishing returns with each new movie, like the world his characters inhabit is getting smaller and smaller.

I'm happy to report that I think Moonrise Kingdom bucks that trend, coming alive in ways that (IMO) The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited did not (though I did enjoy both those films). And I think the lion's share of that is the work of the two young leads, Gilman and Hayward--as child actors, I think they had a freshness and awkwardness that more polished, adult actors do not, and that can't help but come across, no matter how much Anderson's instincts as a director would be to turn them into characters in a Wes Anderson Movie.

The scene where Sam essentially picks Suzy as the love of his life is utterly charming and I thought quite touching; taking their relationship from one of doomed young love to something more timeless and beautiful. I was genuinely rooting for these kids to make it, no matter how hare-brained their schemes were. The ending of the film is simultaneously satisfying and realistic, and I left the theater happy that I went on this journey.

Wes Anderson's films are bound to be an acquired taste; they'll never be big market blockbusters. But from what I've read Moonrise Kingdom is cleaning up in the art houses it's playing in, which to me signifies that he has perhaps regained some of the audience that started to drift away over his last couple films. It's no masterpiece, but I thought Moonrise Kingdom was charming and funny; a sweet story well told.

Okay--now we get as far away from the world of Wes Anderson as possible with Ridley Scott's Prometheus, a sorta-kinda-maybe prequel to his 1979 classic Alien.

There's no real way to discuss the events of this movie without spoiling stuff, so I'm going to stay away from that stuff and just cover the film more generally.
Prometheus is never boring. Right from the first scene (which features none of the main cast, and remains mostly unexplained), I found myself captivated what I was seeing on the screen. Visually, the film is gorgeous, filled with creepy and/or wondrous sci-fi landscapes, wonderful sets, and classic yet futuristic-looking sci-fi costumes. I was totally engaged from beginning to end.
My main problem with Prometheus is, it's utter nonsense. Worse than that, it's dumb movie that thinks it's a smart movie. It brings up all sorts of heady questions about life and death, Heaven and Earth, only to drop them all about halfway through. The characters have conversations about motivations and who's in charge that would have been had five minutes into this whole project, not years later in deep space when it's too late to do anything about them.

Almost every single character in this film takes huge risks, the kinds of brainless, careless stuff that makes them more like the morons you see in slasher movies, not brilliant professionals sent on a historic mission. Think of who we've sent to the moon--the moon, which is comparatively next door--and compare them to the knuckleheads that the Weyland Corp. (a holdover from the Alien movies). It's like if Neil Armstrong, half way towards landing on the moon, decided to hell with the mission, let me see if I can do a loop-de-loop with the lander, just for fun!

The main character, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), has a throwaway line about, if aliens created us, who created the aliens, meaning that of course God had a hand in it (her crucifix is repeatedly displayed throughout to signify that while she might be a scientist, she still has faith). Yet when that very scenario essentially plays out, she has a giant scene where she's crying and screaming to the heavens, about how her faith has been shattered. Why? Didn't the thing she guessed might happen ten minutes into the movie just happen?

Charlize Theron's character is almost always hovering around the edges, generally never participating in the main action, as if it's saving her to really come in at some point and be significant. When she finally does engage in the main action...nothing comes of it. The movie dispatches her, and that's that. You needed an Oscar-winning actress for this?

I could go on and on, but I'm going to jump ahead to where I think this movie went wrong the most: in it's desperate attempt to make this film part of the Aliens franchise (and it is doing that, that's why getting Ridley Scott to do it is such a big deal), it's weighs down the whole Aliens "mythology" with thematic weight that it can't sustain.

In preparation for seeing Prometheus, I went back and watched Alien and Aliens, and was impressed all over again by how good those movies are. But they're not thematically deep--basically Alien is about being unprepared when you're in over your head, and Aliens is about human hubris in our belief that we can control anything and use it to our own ends. But the xenomorphs are essentially just icky monsters, a sci-fi extrapolation of the kinds of monsters we might encounter here on Earth; I never took them as representing anything other than that. In Prometheus, they're brought on stage to stand in for Evil or Sin or whatever, and it just doesn't work.

Prometheus proves that Ridley Scott, who is in his 70s, can still make a crackerjack movie, filled with brilliant set-pieces and compelling visuals. But the script is so woefully misguided that I'm not sure anyone could have made a coherent movie from it. Which is a damn shame; despite all the terrible post-Aliens Alien movies that have come down the pike, I still have affection for the franchise and would have loved to have seen another solid installment. Instead, we get a mushy-headed movie that is neither fish nor fowl; it's too dumb to be a true classic piece of science-fiction, and too pretentious to be a gut-wrenching action thriller set in space.

For Further Reading: Check out this interesting theory on what Prometheus is really about. The author makes many good points, stuff that didn't occur to me, but still (IMO) doesn't negate anything I've said above. Also, once you're done with that, read this hilarious breakdown of the movie, which takes a more critical view of the nonsense that transpires in Prometheus!

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