Saturday, May 26, 2012


It's the summer of 1965 on the small, sleepy island of New Penzance off the coast of New England in Wes Anderson's return to live action after his "Fantastic Mr. Fox." The film opens on a quaint lighthouse home, and we're given a tour as a camera moves around laterally perfectly framing different rooms and introducing us to the Bishop family. And with this is a boy narrating the parts of an orchestral piece announcing the addition of each new instrument. In a sense, Anderson's latest feature plays in this style of a building symphony. More parts and flourishes get added and added until it crescendos to a grand and beautifully tumultuous finale. That's without even mentioning Alexandre Desplat's score which, in its own right, mirrors the symphony theme wonderfully.

The story centers around a blossoming young love between two precocious 12-year-olds. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) is a nerdy orphan scout, and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), is the troubled daughter of her family who's otherwise occupied with three younger boys. Her parents, played with effortless deadpan nuance by Frances McDormand and Bill Murray, are distracted with their own marital malaise. It's one morning when Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) finds Sam's tent empty and discovers from a written note the boy has ran away. And when the local cop, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), gets involved in the disappearance, the Bishops realize their daughter has run away with the boy.

The children are no-nonsense about their plan. They look each other squarely in the eyes without blinking and tell each other how they feel, how dedicated they are to the other -- Suzy with her heavy, blue eye shadow and Sam behind his black, thick-rimmed glasses. Running away from home in such a small setting is absurd, especially considering it's an island. But the fanciful nature of their journey is the idea behind it, the dreams it holds for these displaced children. Meanwhile they're being relentlessly pursued by adults, notably Social Services -- not the organization, but one severe-looking woman played by Tilda Swinton.

Expertly shot by longtime collaborator Robert Yeoman, he knows Anderson's classic style inside and out. The movie is shot straight-on with each scene meticulously propped and detailed as to look like a vintage still photograph. The miniature look to each setting, as well, is reminiscent of Mr. Fox's underground animal dwelling. And no Anderson film would be complete without the appearance of Jason Schwartzman, although both Wilson brothers are conspicuously absent.

Some people may find it irritating that this is very much a Wes Anderson film. I used to be one of those people. "Moonrise Kingdom," however, contains a newfound emotional undercurrent. In evolving and perfecting his technical mastery, he's infusing it with new elements creating a deft and rich blend of humanism and surrealism. Among all the magic and whimsy, there's a sorrowful look at childhood, the spirit and hopefulness of youth, the adventurous spirit and the ever-present potential for it to get lost in passing time and age.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


When it comes to "What to Expect When You're Expecting," what you end up failing to expect is how bad the whole affair turns out to be. Based on Heidi Murkoff's bestselling 1984 self-help book of the same name, the thing about this fictional adaptation is that even the title is a sham. This doesn't even begin to prepare expecting mothers at all for what to expect when they're expecting. Unless their life is, well I don't know, a Hollywood movie.

Director Kirk Jones seems to be channeling his inner Garry Marshall as this clearly will remind audiences of his big ensemble rom-coms "Valentine's Day" and "New Year's Eve," but this time with pregnancy. Instead of watching glamorous A-list stars fall in love, we're watching them take the next step of childbearing. Still glamorous, and still coated in swift manufacturing and a shine of high-gloss. It's all so overly produced that you'll wonder if you're watching mannequins instead of real people.

The screenplay gives us every type of expecting mother. Not to mention every type of unique and colorful job imaginable perhaps required to not confuse one character with another. We begin with Jules (Cameron Diaz), a tough-love weight-loss TV guru who just won a celebrity dance show with her boyfriend, Evan (Matthew Morrison). Next is Holly (Jennifer Lopez), a famous photographer who, wouldn't you know it, does underwater scuba photo shoots. She and her husband, Alex (Rodrigo Santoro), plan to adopt a baby from Ethiopia.

Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) is perhaps the most down-to-earth with her husband Gary (Ben Falcone). A bookshop owner and renowned breast feeding advocate, she and her hubby have been trying to conceive for years. All unsuccessful attempts -- until now. But, of course, there's more. Gary is constantly having to put up with his overly competitive dad (Dennis Quaid) who is, wouldn't you know it, having twins with his much younger blonde bombshell of a wife, Skyler (Brooklyn Decker). Overshadowed by his dad yet again.

Then there's the youngest couple with the competing food trucks. After playfully betting over who gets the most business from an event at which they're both vending, Rosie (Anna Kendrick) and Marco (Chace Crawford) have a one-night stand and, wouldn't you know it, she gets knocked up. Interlaced between these five couples is the "Fight Club" styled baby daddy group who banter over stroller outings. It's meant to bring in the laughs, but it mostly falls flat as hard as Chris Rock, the ring-leader of the group, may try.

The Jennifer Lopez storyline comes across as a recycled version of "The Back-Up Plan," or whatever that was. That and the celebrity couple scenes become painfully uninteresting, like a pick your poison of predictable story arcs. It's all sugar-coated and sweet, mostly light and reassuring. There are flutters of dark moments, but they're never warranted. It's too superficial with nothing genuine, every character exaggerated into a caricature. There have to be more honest movies about pregnancy out there like perhaps Jessica Westfeldt's "Friends With Kids."

What keeps it from being flat-out excruciating is the highlight of a pregnant freak-out exhibited by Elizabeth Banks, the movie's only moment of real humor. She teams up nicely with two small-role players from "Bridesmaids," Rebel Wilson and Ben Falcone. Also appreciated is the low-key effort from Oscar-nominated Anna Kendrick and Chace Crawford who make their relationship the most real.

Still, though, much like the upchucking of the featured mothers-to-be, each storyline here is regurgitating the same tropes and end moral; that is, being pregnant sucks, small children are an inconvenience, but it becomes all worth it in the end when, as a new parent, you're holding that little bundle of a miracle in your arms.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


Marvel's "The Avengers" gives us much, much more of the same we've come to expect from all the Marvel movies of years past. It has basically become its own genre even outside of the superhero genre. What keeps this from becoming a clustered onslaught of big personalities all coming together into a bloated mess is the real hero of the party: writer/director Joss Whedon. He brings a fanboy enthusiasm to the massive blockbuster and gives audiences exactly what they want.

Much in the way he helped write "The Cabin in the Woods," which turned the horror genre on its head, here he does something similar. He thwarts our expectations while winking at us all the way with his tongue firmly placed in cheek. "The Avengers," believe it or not, is in many instances hilarious. The humor Whedon brings to the table is a quirky surprise and really makes the movie. The one-liners are countless with a unique self-knowing comic book brand of wit and snark. With this, Whedon very well may have given the Marvel movies their own new flavor. It's like the playful polar opposite of the wealth of emotional pathos Christopher Nolan achieves with his "Dark Knight" franchise.

With six superheros gracing the screen, it's never too much with each one getting his or her own time to shine. Remember, though, there is lots of homework before diving in. You'll have to have already seen "Thor," "Captain America" and "Iron Man 2" to get the idea of what's going on. There are the familiar faces: Chris Hemsworth as Thor from the mystical realm of Asgard swinging his mighty hammer; Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, who's a genius millionaire with an amazing suit of armor; and Chris Evans as the first avenger Captain America who was frozen over time and has recently thawed to join a new decade.

Then there are the less familiar faces -- those who either received only cameos or haven't even been introduced yet. First there's the new Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, played by Mark Ruffalo. Simply forget Ang Lee's "Hulk" or that newer one with Edward Norton, "The Incredible Hulk," ever existed because this newest iteration from Ruffalo is the real deal. Two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents finish the team, including Natasha, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson), and the powerful arrow-wielding Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). They  all report to the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). This is an organization whose purpose is vague -- perhaps just to protect the planet, or something.

The Avengers are assembled because of a new threat from Thor's villainous adopted brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who controls the Tesseract, a cube of energy that can open a hole in the universe. With it, Loki plans on unleashing his horde of flying reptilian-machine monsters on Earth. The duration between the introduction of this evil plan and the Avengers actually going out to stop it is a lot within the two-and-a-half hour running time. Within this gap, though, is plenty of opportunities to watch as the six heroes banter, bicker and form camaraderie. These interactions between our Avengers is when Whedon works to surprise us. The only problem is that he goes for the heavier stuff, too, which falls flat. In between the jokes he gives his characters existential crises to chew on, but it feels like dramatic fodder for the sake of dramatic fodder. Do we honestly care about Loki's threat? Nah. We just want to watch the Hulk playfully sock Thor in the face again.

The twiddling of your thumbs becomes worth it, however, once the final climactic battle set in Manhattan gets set up. This 45-minute barrage of swift, thrilling, exuberant action and CGI is an absolute knockout. And it looks phenomenal, too. The colors are bright, the effects are big and brassy, and it's a concluding set piece that is worth the price of admission alone -- and perhaps even worth the 3D.

For all the hype and anticipation surrounding this whiz-bang superhero conglomerate, Joss Whedon delivers the goods. In a sense, this massive Marvel outing is the beginning all over again. Just when we thought this might be the big finish for Marvel, instead it acts as a kickstarter to a whole new strain of Marvel movies. And quite honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about that.