Thursday, May 31, 2012

the crushing defeat of adulthood: MOONRISE KINGDOM

"I love you ba-aby, but you gotta understand. 
When the lord made me. He made me a ramblin' man." 
Hank Williams 

The year is 1965. The sepia soaked celluloid immediately orients us in uniquely symmetrical cinematic space. Welcome to a Wes Anderson movie.

A field of tall grasses displayed in a wide shot, two children are in the frame. A girl on the left and a boy on the right. The girl in a pink jumper and bobby socks is carrying a yellow suitcase, a portable record player and a wicker basket, something meows from inside it. The boy is decked out from head to toe in khaki, merit badges, a coon skin hat and a backpack with two small sleeping bags hanging underneath. We meet Sam (Jared Gilman) through the Suzy's binoculars, her magic power as she calls them. They help her to see things, even when they are up close. Sam, gazing sweetly at Suzy (Kara Hayward) also sees the world through lens. His wide black frames consume his small face. The two meet in the field with no name and hatch a plan to leave their worlds behind and travel together into the unknown (or as far as the map they have will take them). It turns out they met the year earlier in a very enigmatic fashion. As if struck by some magical arrow, niether Sam or Suzy would ever be the same from that moment on.

The island of New Penzance is the perfect stomping ground for Anderson's usual suspects. A few new faces grace his fairytale setting. Frances McDormand, plays Mrs. Bishop, Suzy's disillusioned and achingly lonely mother. Bruce Willis plays Captain Sharp, the sweet but somewhat absent-minded town policeman set to find the missing kids. Edward Norton plays Scout Master Ward, a man with the best of intentions for his small Khaki scout charges but who ultimately is unable to keep them under wraps. Bob Balaban plays the narrator, lovely in a heavy red coat and small snow hat and gloves. He takes us through the storybook that is Moonrise Kingdom.

This is the seventh feature film by Wes Anderson, the first of which began with Bottle Rocket (1996). Building on and expanding from his previous work, Anderson takes his characters out into the wilderness and out of the cookie cutter world they normally inhabit. Anderson uses a lot of hand-held camerawork and sets out to create a lot of movement with his characters and the space they inhabit onscreen. Unlike his previous work, Anderson allows his characters room to breathe here. They are stuck in the enclosed space of a small island but they can roam "free" within the space. The location shooting is still seeping with Anderson's visual style; symmetry abounds, even in the woods. There is a particularly Andersonian shot with a police station-wagon, a flag and a lighthouse, set side-by-side, all matching perfectly. His visual style is his most impactful mark as a filmmaker and his fans wait years to see what new worlds Anderson has been creating. His characters are always set up to inhabit a piece of celluloid that is uniquely their own. There are also plenty of the tracking shots that have become synonymous in Anderson's films, creating a specific orientation of space. They are stiking in Moonrise because they occur both inside and out. The camera is set up as if it's an active audience member, the characters have set the stage onscreen and the camera moves along a stationary plane, acting as the shifting eyes of the audience. We learn about the characters as they learn about themselves.

Moonrise Kingdom harks the same lyrical melancholy present in all of Anderson's films. Music directly influences the tone of the film, the characters and their emotional state of mind. Several songs in the film are by cowboy country legend Hank Williams.  His twangy blues perfectly represent the quiet surrender of the adults in this film; all struggling with their adult problems that seem to pale in comparison with the angst of being young.  Moonrise constantly toes the line between somber melancholy and sweet joy. It seems that New Penzance is an island of misfits. Parents act like children and children act like adults in this topsy turvy world of imagination. Anderson creates a world within the frame that alerts the audience that we are in a fantastical expression of reality. The dramas and actions of the characters of this film are extreme but completely believable expressions of loss, love and beauty. We can find a part of ourselves in all the characters onscreen, we have all been there; lost in the throes of first loves, dying loves, unfulfilled dreams and jobs that change who we are. We are Sam and Suzy at the same time. Anderson encourages us to find that sense of childish wonder singed with bitter realization of future disillusionment and get lost in love. The marching musical themes creates a calling to arms, a sense that both real and imagined doom is not far off on the horizon. The threat of a hurricane looms in reality while the emotional storms of the characters on Penzance churn as well.

Storytelling is of the utmost importance in this imaginative tale. Suzy packs a bright yellow suitcase to run away with; filled to the brim with stolen library books with stories of fantasies and mythical muses. There are several instances in the film where Suzy reads aloud from these books (the stories themselves created by Anderson and cover artwork commissioned specifically for the film). She invites us into the imaginative world that she so yearns to belong to.

The film almost feels as if Wes made a book for his audience to climb inside, making us long for a time gone by. A time where your favorite record, dancing in your underwear on the beach, and sweetly falling into your first kiss, is all you will ever need. At the end of this film, as the camera tilts down to Sam's just- finished painting, we all want our own private Moonrise Kingdom.

 Suzy and Sam 

 Mr. Bishop, played perfectly by Bill Murray 

 The quiet troublemakers

 Suzy and the world through her window 

 Sam and Suzy make a plan

 Sam flys the coop 

 The dysfunctional yet extremely forgivable adult band of misfits 

 Suzy's magic power

 The cast 

 Edward Norton as the lovable Scout Master Ward 

 We've lost them again 

Suzy's perch 

The narrator, the storm is impending

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Whimsy and Wonder: Chaplin's CITY LIGHTS

The Studio System embraced sound in 1929. Chaplin, among many other filmmakers, was a reluctant convert to the new technology and believed that the introduction of spoken words to the screen would mean the end of the silent characters he had created. Chaplin understood that the Tramp would no longer carry his magical gait through the advent of sound in moving pictures. The silents had captured the imagination of an international audience, and Chaplin believed that sound would close the boundaries between nations with differing languages.

Chaplin's misanthropic tramp; Keaton's coy and socially stunted traveler; and Lloyd's rich man with a purpose, brought years of films that will forever be cemented in film history precisely for their timeless and enduring nature. We didn't need words to feel their pain, the awkwardness, their sadness and their fantasies. We felt their moods through movement and fluidity in a way that we are unable to replicate in film's today. Physical humor has been much reduced to bathroom humor and stupidity but the films of the 20's represented a space to allow comedy to unveil itself in mood and body language rather than speak for itself.

City Lights (1931), was Chaplin's last "silent" film before transitioning over to "talkies" five years later with Modern Times (1936). Although Modern Times was his first sound film, Chaplin stills defies the transition. When the tramp speaks his first words, (he sings a song to a crowded room) it's famously in gibberish.

City Lights is said to be a "crossover" film. Chaplin's use of simple sound effects and a synchronized score mimic the feel of the new talkies. He utilizes sound effects to replace speech in the opening sequence of the film, where unintelligible beeps mimic speech. Chaplin seems to be hinting that words are not always necessary to tell a story. Dialogue is still represented on intertitles.

In City Lights, the Tramp wakes atop a statue at it's unveiling. He is forced leave the square and aimlessly wander the streets. He buy a flower from a beautiful girl on the sidewalk. He quickly finds out she is blind when a car door slams and she tries to return his change to the wrong man. The Tramp sits by as she watches the man drive away. He falls instantly in love with her innocence and grace. He leaves her and she goes back to her daily routine with her live-in grandmother. Later that night, the Tramp is wandering alone by the waterfront, the girl's flower in hand, and convinces a suicidal, rich and inebriated older man to change his plans and return home. In a effort to thank the Tramp for his help, the rich old man showers him with gifts. Only to wake up the morning to not remember what had happened.

The Tramp is again turned out onto the street, but this time visits the girl in the rich man's car. He courts her for a while and states his intention to take care of her. The young girl believes that this rich man will be her prince charming. When she and her grandmother fall on hard times, the Tramp insists that he will take care of everything. He embarks on several wild adventures to procure rent money for the girl. Including a humorous interlude at a nightly boxing club. He eventually seeks the financial help of the rich man he saved but is mistaken as a thief immediately thereafter. The Tramp runs to the girl, gives her all the money, some for the rent and the rest for eye surgery, to get her sight back. He is then taken to jail after he leaves her house.

We see the girl again some months later, she has regained her sight and has opened a flower shop. The Tramp, after being released from jail, sees her in the window of her shop. The girl, finding a strange man staring at her through the window, goes outside to offer him some money. When she holds his hand, she finally realizes that this Tramp, not a man of means, was the one who ultimately saved her.

Chaplin was able to fund and distribute City Lights through United Artists, allowing him to make a silent picture amongst the new world of talkies.  Ironically, even with the new sound technology, City Lights was, and remains, one of Chaplin's finest feature films and was his most financially successful venture at it's opening (it made over $5 million during it's initial release).

The final scene of the film remains one of the most beloved moments in cinematic history and was even a personal favorite of Chaplin himself. He believed it to be his most honest and least rehearsed moment on screen in all of his illustrious career. The final moment of the film between the girl and Tramp will leave you feeling wistful for a time that can only be relieved through the magic of cinema.

City Lights was selected for admission to the National Film Registry in 1992. Remembered for it's lyrical romanticism, especially in Chaplin's interaction with the blind girl. Most of Chaplin's film tend to grapple with social issues and strife but City Lights carries an air of simplicity and genuine good-hearted fun.

Chaplin's Tramp utilizes physical humor and exists on the fringes of society. He used body language as  a form of speech that allowed him to interact with the space around him. Unlike Keaton who coexists with society, Chaplin is always in a stuggle with it. Chaplin's only friends in City Lights are those who cannot see him. They can't even remember he exists. The Tramp is a man living on the edges of the world, wandering around without purpose, but who helps his audience see themselves in a new light.

This film is, at its core, a humanistic struggle to survive in this cruel world. The little things; a dropped flower, the kindness of strangers, love in unexpected places, are the things propelling us through this hardness and Chaplin's Tramp helps us to remember them.

 Opening sequence, the reveal of a new statue in the square reveals a sleeping tramp

 Chaplin at the camera, still dressed as the tramp 

 The tramp wanders down to the river, where fate will change his life

 The tramps first interaction with the blind flower girl, for him it's love at first sight

 In an attempt to earn money for the blind girl's rent, the tramp enters the boxing ring

 Opening Titles of City Lights 

 The tramp is smitten 

 The blind girl dreaming at the window of the love she seeks to find

The tramp awaiting his "fixed" fight at the boxing ring, things don't ultimately go his way

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Hayao Miyzaki's film Howl's Moving Castle (2004), based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, creates a fantastical world in which witches and wizards live among ordinary people. From the opening scene, Howl's castle, on mechanical legs, moves majestically and somewhat heavy handed through the lush and vibrant landscape that is the wasteland.

Sophie is Howl's Moving Castle shining achievement. She is brought beautifully to life with the voices of Emily Mortimer (young Sophie) and Jean Simmons (Grandma Sophie). She transforms from a timid, fragile and isolated young woman into a self-assured, at peace and family forming old woman. Of course the aging is anything but willful, she is bewitched by a jealous woman's spell and is forced to live as an old woman until love can break it.

Sophie, an old woman now, leaves on a journey to find the Witch of the Waste (voiced by the always magnificent Lauren Bacall), but realizes her old bones are unable to get her there. She befriends a jovial scarecrow, which she nicknames Turnip Head, and she sends him off to find her a resting place. Little did she know he would summon Howl (voiced by Christian Bale) and his moving castle. She reluctantly (Howl is known to be a savage, heart stealing man) enters the strange castle and finds a small fire and a chair. She quickly falls asleep. She awakes to a ringing doorbell, a little boy named Markl (voiced by Josh Hutcherson) and a fire demon named Calsifer (brilliantly voiced by Billy Crystal) settled into the ashes on the hearth. Sophie immediately finds a way to stay on board the magical castle as the cleaning woman. Howl soon returns and the makeshift family of bewitched beings share their first family meal.

It is the journey that these unlikely characters find themselves embarking on together that is the heart and soul of this film. Through an impending war, followed by its actual commencement, these characters beging to realize that love is the only thing keeping them together. Howl is a moody and unpredictable master of the house. Each character finds his or her own way to maneuver around Howl's petty obsession with beauty and Sophie finds a way to teach him that he cannot always be afraid of his own shadow. Sophie is a willful and determined old woman, who overcomes her greatest fears and compels those around her to fight against the forces of evil to do right by each other.

Color plays a very important role in this film, from the lush green and blue landscape to the flame engulfed skies, Miyazaki creates a vibrant playground for his characters to move within.  The bustling cities burst with color at the markets, in the peoples faces, and into in the sea. The castle is able to navigate between settings by a flip of the door handle. Sophie and Markl move between these doors quite often, enjoying the differences they bring. But war is moving closer and closer and Howl is forced to quit abandoning the real world for his fantasies. Sophie's courage sparks a fire in Howl's heart and he begins to find that staying to protect the ones you love is worth the costs of potentially losing them. Sophie teaches Howl that life requires reliance on other people, no matter what the cost.

Miyazaki plays with themes of beauty and ugliness, physicality is what hinders and also propels the characters of Howl's Moving Castle. Sophie believes that she is ugly and unwanted in her young state but immediately embraces her perceived imperfections as unnecessarily important with old age. Howl is unusually consumed by his physical beauty and only through an act of melodrama, when Sophie decides to leave, does his intense obsession begin to fade. Other characters deal with their various forms and measure their worth through the eyes of others. Only when they form their makeshift family do they begin to realize that beauty is so much more than physicality.

This is one of Miyazaki's finest achievements. The story is magical and yet grounded in reality. Sophie is a delight to follow and the people who become her family become ours as well.

Sophie with a renewed Calsifer 

Sophie watching the war consume her world 

The magnificent legs to the castle 

Sophie and Howl at the market where they first meet

Madame Suliman's faithful companion 

Howl in his bewitched state with Sophie clinging to him 

Grandma Sophie and Markl outside the castle 

The wonderfully realized moving castle

Sophie's first encounter with her transformed self 

Sophie in the hat shop 

The wicked Witch of the Waste 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A fight to the death: WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

"They dance like they've danced before" -Honey 

Mike Nichols' directorial debut film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is a character drama based on the play by Edward Albee. The film begins as the camera looks on, from far off down the campus green, as two figures emerge from a lit hallway, and exit into the dark woods. The two characters walk, silently and without touching, back to the house they live in nearby. All is silent except for the lulled music playing quietly over the opening sequence. As the figures approach the house, they are surrounded in darkness until the doors of the house open and Martha flips the switch, throwing them into the stark brightness, then George and Martha come out to play.

Martha and George silently survey the landscape of their disheveled living room and Martha declares, "What a dump." This single sentence begins the onslaught of the next two hours of screen time. It will not be this quiet again until two minutes before the curtain folds.

Nichols 1966 film is shot in black-and-white, a deliberate choice to utilize lightening as a means of distinguishing the opposing personalities of the film's four trapped characters. George (played by Richard Burton), Martha (exquisitely played by Elizabeth Taylor), Honey (Sandy Dennis),  and Nick (George Segal) become lightening bugs trapped in a jar, bouncing off the walls, desperate to get out of the darkness and into the light. These two hours of unrelenting celluloid capture two deteriorating marriages brought to their knees by deception, jealousy, and hatred. Love has long left these four and they must each find a way to make the others weak so that they can stand a victor. Nichols traps both the old and the young under one roof and makes us watch until the the participants are beaten, bloodied and on the ground.

Nichols took extreme care with the blocking of his actors in this film. Each time a character stands, sits, or moves around the enclosed space of the house, the bar, the car, and even the front lawn; they are instantly imbued with a sense of power or impotence. George consistently towers over Martha's head, both in stance and through the camera angle. Most of the shots of George are from a low angle, giving him a perceived power over his wife. Martha in contrast with George gains her power when the camera goes wide and lets her move about the space. When she is in opposition of George, Nichols chooses to show her from a high angle, a position of submission, even if only physical. George and Martha only move with purpose, they move like boxers in the ring, each ready to throw out the next fatal punch.

Their are four locations in the film; the house and its grounds, the car, the roadside bar, and the party from the opening shot. Each location serves as a metaphorical cage for the characters that inhabit it. The confided quarters create a sense of mistrust that breeds paranoia. The increasing interest in getting drunk helps to fuel the linguistic battle. The camera moves in, out, and through these locations with the ease of someone looking on but unwilling to participate. The camera in this film feels more like an voyeur onscreen, and at times, the audience wants to turn away but the relentless stare of the camera denies us this simple pleasure.

The film also expertly uses sound to create an unrelenting cacophony of noise; screeching, yelling, growling, and screaming. The characters, as well as the audience, feel claustrophobic from the volume and consistency of the noises. Tone and inflection of the actors creates an immediate sense of intimacy with the audience. Over the course of the film, this forced intimacy creates an alienating effect on the viewer. When the final moment of the fim ends, and the camera blurs the image in front of the frame; we are glad to leave George and Martha clutching each other, we have finally found a way out.

Nichols' film expertly navigates the disillusionment and deterioration of a single portrait of a marriage. He examines the confines of social distrust and hierarchic structures that society has dictated to George and Martha and has slowly begun to work its way into Nick and Honey's lives as well.  Through the quippy and sharp dialogue read by all the actors, Nichols was able to create a film that sought to define truth and illusion and argue that in the end truth is nothing more than a illusion.

Nichols debut film won five oscars at the 1966 Academy Awards for Best Actress (Elizabeth Taylor), Best Supporting Actress (Sandy Dennis) , Best B/W Cinematography (Haskell Wexler), Best B/W Art/Set Direction (Richard Sylbert and George James Hopkins) and Best B/W Costume Design (Irene Schaff) . The love and admiration shown by the academy and audiences effectively put an end to the Production Code. This film broke down the final barriers of language and themes that were beginning to overturn the code in the early 60s. It is still seen as a landmark achievement that cemented Nichols into a rare cinematic circle of auteurs, where he still stands today.

 Nick, beautifully contrasted in the world of black and white

 A beautiful rendering of the claustrophobic use of space

 Opening title credits 

 Martha and her many forms of illusion

 Nichols directs husband and wife in the kitchen

 George pretends to execute Martha

 Another glorious angle as Nichols directs

 A rare wide shot to establish space and characters 

A perfect view of Burton towering over Taylor's space