Wes Anderson outdoes Wes Anderson with “Moonrise Kingdom”

Wes Anderson does the near-unthinkable with “Moonrise Kingdom”: he manages to blend a sort of messy emotional buzz with his trademark uber-controlled direction. From top to bottom it’s a project whose clashing qualities threaten to sink it — but it never happens. “Moonrise Kingdom”, like the best of its creator’s work, tells an organically touching story in a meticulously crafted way.

“Kingdom” tells the story of Sam and Suzy, two relative loners on the fictional East Coast island of New Penzance. It’s the 1960s and as they dawn on their teenage years, they seem to find a solace from their loneliness in each other. Before we know it the two are on the run, leaving Suzy’s parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray in fine, if underused form), Sam’s Scout troop (led by a khaki-shorts rocking Edward Norton) and the town sheriff (Bruce Willis in a surprisingly reserved role) on a frantic search to find them.

And while these adults’ incompetent, yet well-meaning attempts make up much of the running time, this story is unquestionably that of Sam and Suzy. Played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, the two, who have never acted in a film before, bring an off-kilter nervousness that’s really appropriate for the nature of their roles. This is a film where two people really begin to discover themselves, and yes, even physically each other, for a while. These scenes, bringing groans to the more conservative patrons of my theater, are the ones that stuck out most to me; simply put, teenage sexuality is rarely portrayed this openly and this bluntly. It certainly isn’t obnoxious or overt, it feels exactly as two 12-year olds should.

Emotional though it may be, Anderson still brings his trademark dry wit to the film. His tendency to blend dialogue quips with densely packed visual gags clicks better here than ever before. Tone, too, is something he seems to have mastered by now. While disaffected irony often threatens to swallow the film whole, here he manages to alternate his somber milieu with his more light-hearted, humanist moments. It’s unified in tone while varied in emotion, something many filmmakers, Anderson included, tend to stumble in pulling off. Major props.

In pulling many dissonant elements together, Anderson has made his most cohesive, and “Royal Tenenbaums” aside, perhaps best film yet. With its painfully evocative, almost eerie 1950s’ opera and children’s soundtrack choices, he makes full use of sound as an extension of the mood he sets to strike. And what mood! “Moonrise Kingdom” is fairy tale by way of French New Wave, a film that for all of its limitations and labels, seems to inspire and entertain more than most. A

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“Prometheus” a unique blend of body-horror, think-piece and adventure

Although frenzied, even slightly messy works often provoke the greatest reactions in me as a filmgoer, sometimes the more controlled ones inspire just as much love. To call “Prometheus” controlled is an understatement; as a work of Ridley Scott the perfectionist production-design and visual detail is almost a-given. But indeed, the fact that “Prometheus” may be among the most visually beautiful things I’ve ever seen comes as an afterthought. Perfectly framed and hauntingly lit, using 3D technology to its full potential as an immersive device, its a thing whose sheer technical prowess has already inspired books. But pretty pictures do not linger for long, it’s the kind of conversation they provoke that does.

“Prometheus” has certainly been a conversation-piece for some time now, but what exactly these conversations have been is most intriguing. There are, of course, the traditional “masterpiece!” vs. “crap!” declarations, but most interesting is watching peoples’ takes on whether the film, simply, makes sense. In my eyes, it is a great film; one with ideas to match its scope, and the sense to give both a bit of mystery. Its imperfections are maddening, but it just gets too much right to neglect.

Director Ridley Scott uses the universe of his 1979 masterpiece “Alien” as a starting point for “Prometheus”‘s exploits, although the exact relationship between the two is one detail I’d rather not spoil. He’s a filmmaker whose output ranges from the highs of “Blade Runner” to the lows of “Robin Hood”, but it seems for the first time in a few decades he’s set out with true ambition.

“Prometheus”, set a few decades in the future, is the story of an expedition to a nearby planet believed to contain clues to humanity’s origins. Aboard are scientists, geologists, corporate tools, quirky navigators, and an android named David, among the more compelling film characters in recent memory. Played by perhaps our finest working actor, Michael Fassbender, David is as blunt as he is enigmatic, and as all-knowing as he is inquisitive. Noomi Rapace proves to be much more than a gimmicky new Swedish import; indeed, as the main scientist, she’s as brave and admirable a female protagonist as any other. It’s always a joy catching “The Wire”s Idris Elba in work as quirky as his ship captain character, and Charlize Theron continues her fairly unstoppable career comeback as the representative of the trillion-dollar corporation that green-lit the whole thing.

What exactly happens to these people when they land on the planet is something best left unknown before seeing “Prometheus”. Beliefs are confronted, true motives unveiled, and heads roll. Lots.

I implore you to see “Prometheus”, not because it solves humanity’s search for meaning, creation, and the meaning of creation. But because it has the gall to confront these issues head-on and incorporate it into its narrative. It has much more on its mind than probably any other work this summer, and three viewings deep into this thing, I’m only now beginning to unpack it.

This is not to call it the de-facto masterpiece of the decade — writers Jon Spaihts and “Lost” show-runner Damon Lindelof leave many narrative questions unresolved, and not the mere sort that can be answered in its inevitable sequel. The sheer sloppiness of some of their plot threads is what undoes some of “Prometheus”, dinging it down from bravura to flawed greatness.

But by all means, while buzzing about all the deeper questions, don’t forget to get excited. Alas, “Prometheus” represents the best of two genres — explorative adventure and disgusting body horror. The sense of mystique and world-building here rivals “Avatar”, with some action sequences engaging enough to rival the best from that film. But there’s one sequence about two-thirds into the film that’s an instant stone-cold classic, a little gruesome three-minute nightmare ranking right up there with “Scanners”-era Cronenberg. For this alone “Prometheus” outshines practically the past decade in horror, a genre it’s hardly dipping its toe into. Great stuff.

“Prometheus” has been compared by some to the most recent “Indiana Jones” installment, with regards to its perceived tarnishing of a cherished movie franchise. I’d find a comparison that I think is more fitting, but then I realize: there is none. I can’t recall anything quite like “Prometheus”, a work whose ambition is stunning, whose qualities are innumerable, and whose flaws only seem to deepen my fascination with it. A-

Prometheus

“Rock of Ages” a bubble-gum musical treatment of hard-partying lifestyle

One doesn’t need to dislike hair-metal to have a distaste for “Rock of Ages”. They just need to want a cohesive story. Director Adam Shankman, whose distinguished past as a filmmaker includes “The Pacifier”, “Bedtime Stories” and “Cheaper by the Dozen 2”, seems to have little interest in such a thing. This may not be entirely of his doing, considering that “Rock of Ages” is based on a long-running Broadway musical. To simplify the matter, it’s a film where young attractive people leap around belting 1980’s metal tunes. On occasion, an older, attractive person may step in to croon their own number, and even rarer, an unattractive older character given a moment to speak. It’s a sanitized look at a subculture whose characteristics lean towards the loud, the abrasive, and the out-of-control. It’s Guns-N-Roses by way of “High School Musical”, which is about as painful to watch as it is to type.

Center of “Rock of Ages” are two young, star-crossed lovers, Drew and Sherrie. Sherrie’s an Oklahoman teenager who arrives in Los Angeles with a case full of records and a heart full of dreams, both of stardom and of love. She finds a good counterpoint in the talented bartender Drew, and the two fall in love. Duh.

“Rock of Ages” seems to use these two as an introduction to the dozen other characters it wants us to get involved in. Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand play the co-runners of frequent metal hotspot The Bourbon Room, Tom Cruise plays Stacee Jaxx, an extravagant, talented rock-star who plays at this venue, Paul Giamatti is his sycophantic manager and Malin Akerman a lovestruck journalist who pursues him throughout the film, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the conservative mayor’s wife whose attempts to shut the Bourbon Room down are the dramatic hook of the film, and Mary J. Blige….well, I took a 2-minute bathroom break and appear to have entirely missed her “top-billed role”. Heh. The film intercuts randomly between these people, who all seem to be scamming each other or falling in love with each other. The general stakes are the love between Sherrie and Drew, the Bourbon Room’s existence, and whether Stacee Jaxx will get a grip on his inflated ego and self-worth.

I can tell you that whatever it is Alec Baldwin did in this film, I was charmed and I smiled. This said, I don’t recall what exactly he pulled off. This sort of reserved praise is widespread for all of these immensely talented actors; making for a motley batch of performances with individual moments amusing enough for a smile but not for a memory. “Rock of Ages” is cinematic (and aural) cotton-candy, dissolving in the mouth as quickly as one can register pleasure.

The song-and-dance numbers are choreographed with skill and clarity, but then, one can’t be too sure how much is of the film’s doing or its source material. Aces to Tom Cruise and Russell Brand, two actors about as different as I can think of, who manage to bring the same sort of lively spunk to the film that it seems to miss. Cruise in particular taps into a bad-boy fury not seen since his turn as a contract killer in ’04’s “Collateral”, and watching him strut around with leather chaps, pet monkeys and endless booze is great fun.

The fundamental issue with “Rock of Ages” is that it’s far too in love with its own music. This brings the film down on many levels: for one, it will often sacrifice an emotional moment or human gesture for more bombast and Journey. True, this film is a musical, but it must also fulfill its role as a story. Sadly it just doesn’t click.

But secondly, any film built on such a subjective ground is doomed to divide. Music is as difficult a topic to agree on as any other, and having a 2-hour film with about 100 flat minutes of metal performances simply won’t click for most. “Rock of Ages” further digs its own grave by making these hard-rock tunes into ones of almost bubble-gum consequence, with about as much weight and heft as a Disney Channel musical. (And near identical faces, to boot.) Sure, the stars look like they’re having a blast, but they’re making “hard” songs “soft”, alienating both audiences in the process. It’s not a bad film or an offensive one, a mean-spirited one or a hard one to sit through. It’s just hackneyed and inoffensive, which in my eyes, may be the worst offense of all. C-

“Men in Black 3” as obligatory a sequel as they come

The biggest movie star in the world seems to have a hard time picking his roles these days.

Will Smith is a fixture in our culture, one about as concrete and as wholesome as American pie. The delicacy, for the record, not the franchise. From a financial perspective he’s as untouchable as they come, and for damn good reason: he has a particular persona and skill-set, and caters his films around them. Not a bad thing, just a safe one. Perhaps one of his most distinctive roles is in the long-running “Men in Black” franchise, as one-half of a secret government duo dispersed to police undercover aliens in New York City. It’s been his rock for the better half of two decades, and he returns for another round with, get this, “Men in Black 3”. Smith’s character, J, finds that he may have been warped into a different timeline, wherein his partner of 15 years, K, was killed four decades prior. He then takes it upon himself to travel back to 1969 (by time, rather than car), saving K before his untimely fate and remedying the space-time continuum. Oh yeah, and saving the world, of course.

“Men in Black 3” has had a long, storied history in getting to the screen, including a halt midway into production in order to finish the script, which in spite of the $215 million budget…wasn’t exactly, hem, completed. Resentful attitude, you say? Never. Creative re-tinkering, they say? Never. The result is a film lopsided in tone and quality with moments sporadically veering from the dull to the delightful. “Men in Black 3” is a pastiche of wisecracks, action-sequences, plot-twists and digital bugs whose charm isn’t intended to stem from them, but rather, the pace at which they’re lobbed. Needless to say, it doesn’t quite work.

There is something seriously damaged about “Men in Black 3”, evident from the second the credits begin to roll: tone. This is not a film taking itself or its audience seriously, and that’s not traditionally objectionable, were it not so dead-set on simplifying its dialogue and situations down to the simplest possible combination of words. Instead of having a villain with some degree of depth or texture to him, we literally get conversations in which two versions of him converse with each other, discussing “his” problems. This is a film in which an impending alien invasion is established and suddenly depicted, all within a 60-second timespan. It’s not economic storytelling in the vein of, say, the recent “Mission Impossible”. It’s simple laziness.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld’s ambitions seem to have dimmed progressively as he’s continued with the series. 1997’s first installment seemed to, underneath all the quirk and all the goo, a fairly vital message about finding ways to assign meaning to our lives. With his flawed 2002 sequel, while focusing more on the spectacle of his alien anarchy, he still found a heartfelt love story between Smith’s character and Rosario Dawson. With “Men in Black 3” he’s become so buried under all his responsibilities as coordinator that he’s neglected to lend any heart, any soul to it. It’s all mechanism and no function, with a story that’s as quickly forgotten as its protagonists after one of their little memory-wipe gadgets. I mean sure, Will Smith is charming and series newcomer Josh Brolin brings dry humor and humanity to a revitalized K. But then, when isn’t Will Smith charming and Josh Brolin dry? They could have at least made the picture pretty. D+