Revisiting Magic Mike and Moonrise Kingdom

Like 2011 with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, 2012 has two great summer movies to call its own: Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Very different pictures thematically and aesthetically, both films underscore how distinctive Soderbergh and Anderson’s directorial voices are. While no one would accuse either director from departing from their comfort zone, both Magic Mike and Moonrise Kingdom display such an intrinsic understanding of craft. The skill on display is of the highest caliber, as both directors compose images of rich detail, moving from scene to scene with such an impressive understanding of the mechanics of film. With the recent Blu-ray releases of both films, I thought it appropriate to revisit both pictures and hopefully rekindle some conversation on films that might get lost in the shuffle as the awards season reaches its loudest.

Throw away any homoerotic fears associated with enjoying Magic Mike – it’s the most entertaining wide-release Hollywood picture to come out this year. What’s most interesting about the film is the traditional perspective it takes into probing its niche subject matter. Much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, Soderbergh adapts Reid Carolin’s script with lighthearted reverence and great formal proficiency. The film adapts a familiar rise-and-fall arc with a slight hand. Tonally, however, Magic Mike balances its risqué material with sincerity, opting to bare its emotional complexities while maintaining a traditional plot-driven narrative.

Rewatching the film, I was caught by the tightness of its plotting – adopting a summertime narrative timeframe, the picture is paced and cut strategically. Soderbergh, who has been critiqued for making two types of films, that of the art house variety and clear-cut Hollywood efforts, arrives at a middle ground with Magic Mike. The deft skill and precision of his work calls to mind some of his more art house-minded pictures like The Girlfriend Experience whereas the narrative itself is one of a traditional Hollywood structure like Ocean’s Eleven. The two concepts merge into a picture of rigid formality while remaining boisterous and fun.

Brown-hued symmetry composes so much of the rich imagery in Moonrise Kingdom. Few directors possess such a distinctive visual style that prompts audiences to recall exactly who composed the image. But much like the iconic imagery that comes from directors with peculiar stylistic tendencies (such as Stanley Kubrick or even Tim Burton), Wes Anderson’s directorial presence is palpable through every frame. While Moonrise Kingdom is not quite my favorite of his works (Rushmore takes that honor) and as the picture did not hold up quite as well as I remembered, it’s a remarkable achievement of growth from a director who maintains such a distinctive visual sensibility.

The central relationship between on-the-run Khaki Scout Sam and a wayward girl named Suzy has this sort of urgent poignancy that’s rarely seen in contemporary films. Anderson captures a sense of anxiety in youth with melancholic reverence. This sense of anxiety is what his pictures tend to address, but to utilize such young proxies for his cinematic thesis gives the material surprising emotional heft.

Upon rewatching Moonrise Kingdom, I was taken aback by the pristine compositions, stellar production design, and immaculate dedication to craft. Perhaps that’s why some of the picture’s running themes of anxiety, loneliness, and abandonment don’t always register completely. Within the cutesy universe that Anderson constructs, its visual representation perhaps does not lend itself to such heavy emotional work. But this detraction is not meant to discredit just how incredibly touching and powerful Moonrise Kingdom can be. Moving through the picture, I found added reverence for Edward Norton’s work. His character exudes the melancholic contradictions that compose much of the picture. Dressed in his Khaki uniform, he does his due diligence to mold the future. Somewhere along the way, a sense of his identity gets lost. The subtle touches to his character, particularly toward the end, have an aura of optimistic profundity that caught me off guard on my rewatch.

Awards considerations for both films are somewhat limited. Unlike the aforementioned Tree of Life or Midnight in Paris, neither picture truly gripped the necessary critical acclaim to such an infectious degree. And one could argue that 2012 is a more competitive year to 2011. Magic Mike strongest play rests in Matthew McConaughey’s Best Supporting Actor bid. It’s an uphill climb that will require critics to pull it back in contention once year-end awards are announced, but it’s certainly not out of the questions, especially given his career revival following critical acclaim in both William Friedkin’s Killer Joe and Jeff Nichols’s Mud.  Nominations for Steven Soderbergh’s direction and editing, Channing Tatum’s revelatory lead turn, or Reid Carolin’s script are unlikely nominations – even if I consider them to be the finest examples of their craft this year.

Moonrise Kingdom is in a somewhat loftier position. It’s not particularly hard to believe that the film could be nominated for Best Picture or for Wes Anderson to get a Best Director nod. And had it been released last year, I suspect it would have been in a stronger position. But it’s hardly a leading contender either. And with so many contenders yet to be unveiled, its insecure position could be further jeopardized. Most are content with recognizing Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s writing for the picture, as a Best Original Screenplay nomination is about the only thing that pundits are willing to suggest for the film’s awards prospects. But there’s a lot of detail to this film, from Robert Yeoman’s gorgeous cinematography to Adam Stockhausen and Kris Moran’s impressive production design – none of which should be ignored. As the fall festivals reach their end and the winter awards push begins, I can only hope that the conversation for both Magic Mike and Moonrise Kingdom continues.

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)

Moonrise Kingdom functions as a fairy tale bludgeoned by insecurities of adolescence. Perhaps that description relates to most of Wes Anderson’s filmography. But criticisms of repetition have plagued Anderson for years now. And while Moonrise Kingdom strikes me as a sort of compromise between Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the film stands on its own for its compelling treatment of the nature of youth and the subsequent troubles of adulthood. The film is Anderson’s most emotionally dense picture to date, as well as his most impeccably crafted.

With an opening sequence that breaks down the symphony arrangement of “Playful Pizzicato”, one cannot help but admire the rich aesthetic on display in Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson’s staple techniques are dispensed one after the other within the picture’s first fifteen minutes, prompting an uneasy anxiety from the first act. But Anderson is simply arranging his pieces, wherein he is providing crucial narrative cues that he will be utilizing throughout the picture. It comes as somewhat of a surprise to have seen such a bombastic prelude followed by a fairly simple narrative.

As an orphan boy named Sam (Jared Gilman) and misfit girl named Suzy (Kara Haywood) wander a New England isle in 1965, they’re sought after by the girl’s detached mother and father, the boy’s scout troop, and the island’s lone police chief. A storm is quickly approaching and everything reaching a tipping point as Sam and Suzy carry their emotional baggage with melancholic awareness.  In my favorite scene in the film, Suzy’s admiration for Dickensian literature prompts her to exhibit a tinge of jealously for Sam’s upbringing – Sam bluntly replies with “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about”. The direct response expresses the two opposing forces within Sam, as his growing love for Suzy confronts the harsh childhood.

Despite the deep-rooted sense of sadness found in Moonrise Kingdom, the picture’s sentimentality and yearning desire for love and acceptance inspires more glee than gloom. Anderson’s immaculately lit sets provide the usual yellow and brown hues that inspire a lighter tone.  It serves as an interesting contrast to Richard Ayoade’s 2010 film Submarine. Both Moonrise Kingdom and Submarine dwell on similar insecurities with adolescence, but their difference rests in their formal execution. The rigid symmetry in Anderson’s images carry an air of distinction compared to the whirlwind frenzy of Ayoade’s visual approach. Regardless, I’m in love with both pictures and would make for an interesting companion viewing.

Rating: 9/10

Thursday Ten: Best Animated Films of the Past Five Years

Apologies for this late installment of the Thursday Ten. Busy, busy, busy…

I have quite the soft spot for animated films. Like most of my generation, I grew up with Disney’s yearly efforts. The serene carpet rides of Aladdin were one of my earliest theater going memories. Beauty and the Beast would get weekly, almost daily, viewings in its VHS form. Their rich hand-drawn appeal and musical numbers are etched into my memory. I would gather with my family and appreciate the simple story-telling. These early film experiences exposed me to how viscerally engaging a film can be. I doubt I was the only one who shed a tear when Simba lifted his dead father’s paw in The Lion King or feel goosebumps when the Beast battled with Gaston atop his castle in Beauty and the Beast.

Eventually the American animated crown would be bestowed upon Pixar. Their 1995 feature debut, Toy Story, would be one of the most revolutionary films of the modern era and usher a change in the way animated films would be made. They eventually reached a renaissance period in the late aughts, with films like Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 engaging both younger and older audiences. Unfortunately, their latest effort in Cars 2 showed the first signs of fatigue from the studio.

DreamWorks is a studio that has played second fiddle to Pixar’s brand name. After some commercial successes and the creation of the profitable Shrek franchise, the studio seems to be more concentrated in garnering critical favor than ever before. They haven’t quite achieved a masterpiece work as of yet, though 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon was their best effort to date. Meanwhile, Japan’s Studio Ghibili releases their animated films on a quasi- biannual basis. Typically involving Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghbili is perhaps the most consistent animation studio going at the moment. Unfortunately, the case tends to be that their films simply don’t get the wide-spread American release that they deserve.

Given the rather dismal state of animation for 2011, I thought it appropriate to look at the past five years for a brighter time. Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but this week’s animated offering of Happy Feet 2 is unlikely going to be the film that reignites my affinity for animation.

10.  Wallace and Gromit in: A Matter of Loaf and Death (Nick Park, 2008)

Wallace and Gromit run a bakery and get involved in a murder mystery. It’s a simple premise with absolutely enchanting results. What Nick Park achieves in all of his animated endeavors, whether it is in the Wallace and Gromit franchise or in Chicken Run, is a rich sense of developing characters. Through simple actions, whether it is Gromit furrowing his brow or Wallace singing along to a commercial jingle, you get a deep-rooted sense of personality and spirit. The fact that Park can achieve this within a 30-minute period is almost as impressive as the absolutely painstaking patience it must take to achieve his stunning stop-motion animation.

9.  Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)

One of the truly unsung filmmakers of recent years has to be Nina Paley. Her debut 82-minute feature was largely made on her own, as she edited, produced, and animated the whole endeavor. She acutely takes a story from the Ramayana, focusing on the lovelorn relationship between Sita and Rama, and uses the epic to frame her own failed relationship. It’s a collage of visual design, as various stages of the narrative are drawn and animated differently. Sita Sings the Blues operates as both a rich feminist critique on marriage and relationships as well as an impressive exhibition of how various animation methods can be bridged together in an effective manner.

8.  Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008)

Accusations that Ponyo is minor Miyazaki have struck me as a bit odd. But then again, I’ve gravitated toward Miyazaki’s more quiet and restrained efforts. The childish exuberance that Ponyo dives into is of innocence and patient control. What Miyazaki achieves with Ponyo is an everlasting sense of wonder and spectacle, as his vibrant animated sequences are grounded in a close relationship between a child and princess. Akin to Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ponyo retells that story with children, effectively examining the threshold between childhood and adolescence. Mostly calm in tone, the film ruminates over the magic of childhood, with the astute awareness that it doesn’t last forever.

 7.  Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)

Wes Anderson’s first foray into animation proved how incredibly versatile that director can be. In a new realm of filmmaking, the director managed to maintain his stylistic integrity and inclinations. One could have easily been able to tell that they were watching a Wes Anderson film simply based on the droll dialogue, visually sharp set pieces, and incredible art direction. It’s the only kind of film that Anderson makes, and it’s the sort of film that feels so fresh within an animated context. Featuring George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Billy Murray, and Jason Schwartzman, Fantastic Mr. Fox examines youthful indiscretion with a wink – it’s simply the sort of film that really has a good time with itself, and as a result, you do too.

6.  Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

I saw Persepolis at a very crucial point in my life, wherein I was deliberating my own goals while delving into the richness that cinema could provide. What Persepolis accomplishes better than virtually any modern animated film I’ve seen is develop a female character on both a universal and abstract terms. Initially taking place in Tehran during the late 70s, Persepolis is about a young girl named Marjane. The film follows her ascent into adolescence and adulthood, wherein she encounters war, death, heartache, and love. While its setting can be difficult to comprehend for those not living in the period, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, paints the world in broad strokes that effectively makes it universal. Very much a coming-of-age story, Persepolis’ uniquely feminist perspective is a rarity in live-action films – it’s virtually nonexistent in the realm of animation.

5.  WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

I tend to gravitate toward films that revolve around the dichotomy of love and loneliness (yikes, what does that say about me!). WALL-E explores that dichotomy so sharply, while juggling concepts of environmentalism and the nostalgic value of media, that it’s a wonder that the film works at all. And while the Pixar crew fumbles a bit in its middle section, there is a persistent sense honesty to the proceedings. With a dash of Charlie Chaplin and 2001: A Space Odyssey, WALL-E marries its cosmic setting with something entirely human – incredible given that it’s lead character is a mute robot. Along with such an incredibly rich visual palette to work with, WALL-E marked a significant turning point in how mainstream animated films have bridged a gap between what is exclusive for children and what has adult appeal.

4.  Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)

For a film that explores a world of suicides, mental disorders, and bullying, Mary and Max might be the most optimistic film on this list. It’s a film that follows the correspondence between a young girl named Mary living in the suburbs of Melbourne and a middle-aged New Yorker with Asperger's Syndrome named Max. Mary and Max is one of the most remarkable examinations of friendship that I’ve ever seen. Max sends a letter out of sheer loneliness, and Mary responds for the same reason. Their correspondence spans twenty years, where Mary grows into womanhood while Max’s health wanes. The two know each other based entirely on their correspondence, where they find a true human connection. The world that director Adam Elliot paints makes use of black, white, and multiple shades of gray, but within this gloom, the innocence and fragility of Mary and Max’s friendship shines bright.

3.  The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)

As we live in Pixar’s age of computer animation, there’s a novelty to watching something as beautifully illustrated as Sylvain Chomet’s sophomore effort, The Illusionist. It’s a film comprised of visual sights, wherein characters don’t utter words so much as merely speak in garbled terms. Based on an unproduced script from Jacques Tati, The Illusionist addresses a time where, as children, we embrace a certain level of mysticism in the world. Concepts of a Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, etc. were embraced at one time or another in people’s lives. But what Chomet beautifully encapsulates in The Illusionist is that there is a line we cross when we realize the reality of the situation, and in so, we’re stripped of a little bit of wonder.

2.  Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009)

The opening sequence to Up has the distinction of being one of those moments where just about everyone begins to shed tears. It’s a sequence that details a loving relationship between husband and wife. Simply thinking about it now has me trying to fight back the tears. It’s majestic and a true wonder in contemporary animation. With Michael Giacchino’s wonderfully delicate score underlining the beauty of the sequence, I recall successfully restraining myself from weeping buckets.

That is until a certain other scene toward the beginning of the final act, that doesn’t get quite the attention that the opening sequence gets. As our lead character Carl (Ed Asner) opens a scrapbook that belonged to his deceased wife, screenwriters and directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson effectively level their audience with a genuine display of love and emotion. Up doesn’t just tell a story about love and friendship, it comes close to viscerally engaging you with the concepts.

1.  Everything Will Be Ok (Don Hertzfeldt, 2006)

There are routines we all experience. We don’t talk much about them, but they exist and we deal with them in our ways.  In Everything Will Be Ok, our lead character contends with those routines, observing with an astute eye the trivial social situations that we get ourselves involved into. The film is clever in its observations, but director Don Hertzfeldt extends the meaning behind these situations by commanding a sense of realism to the affair. There’s something so inherently palpable about the way the stick-figure character named Bill moves through his daily routine.

Upon Bill’s mental breakdown, you get a greater sense of those around Bill. His family comes to his aid, though their intervention is a mixed blessing. In the film’s most touching moment, we see Bill come to grips with his disorder as he questions the help he’s receiving from the one person who seems to care from Bill. It’s a painstakingly true moment, which is all the more impressive given the limitations of the simple animation – the stick figures in Everything Will Be Ok are more expressive than most contemporary mainstream actors.

There’s a subtle sadness to the film’s title that comes full circle upon the film’s conclusion. Perhaps we all venture back into the world of the mundane. But amidst the sadness, Bill returns to his life, knowing more about himself, and in that, there’s a glimmering sense of hopefulness.