Monday, August 20, 2012


Some people find Seth MacFarlane's humor very off-putting. His mix of puns involving popular-culture, politically incorrect depictions of race/gender/age, uncomfortably raunchy moments, and all-around vulgar humor has defined not one, but three half-hour animated network primetime comedies. Due to the success of those programs as well as the fact that the longest running show (Family Guy) is entering its eleventh season, MacFarlane has become pretty self-indulgent at times. Something that is only natural with a lot of authored visual media. I've found a middle ground with a lot of what he puts on television as a good episode of Family Guy has me laughing uncontrollably, while a bad one has me opening another window on my computer to see what is new on Facebook.

Surprisingly, with his feature-film debut, Ted, MacFarlane's voice feels fresh. He is present as the writer with a hilarious screenplay with well-written if slightly predictable character and story development. He is present as the voice-actor as he gives Ted this perfectly Bostonian potty mouth to match lead actor Mark Wahlberg's own voice. Finally, he is present as the first time director as he lets his actors commit to the role, gives the camera a lot of space and breathing room, and still comes to each scene with fresh ideas about what he could do with the story on the screen in every aspect.

Maybe this praise will sound ridiculously high to some, but this is clearly the better of the comedy films I've seen this summer. The jokes build in a ridiculous manner and they are only more believable because of the casting. Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, and co. really dive into the nature of the film and treat the story as serious and believable as they should. MacFarlane only enhances the film with appropriately wide cinematography, which helps to capture the CGI visual effects that never treats Ted the bear as a prop, but as a character. Ted appears agile while still having the qualities of Winnie the Pooh, but it's the bear's dialogue that really comes as a great enjoyment.

The occasional joke will miss or not hit as strong as the others with the story entering some relatively standard territory of the "idiot man-child" character arc, but MacFarlane includes enough genuine moments as well as over-the-top laughs to make the film be one of the better surprises of the summer.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

2012 Submissions for FS's Top 50 Animated Films of All Time

1. Wall-E (2008)- Andrew Stanton

2. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)- Isao Takahata

3. Spirited Away (2001)- Hayao Miyazaki

4. The Lion King (1994)- Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

5. Beauty and the Beast (1991)- Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

6. The Incredibles (2004)- Brad Bird

7. A Sanner Darkly (2006)- Richard Linklater

8. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)- Wes Anderson

9. Persepolis (2007)- Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi

10. Peter Pan (1953)- Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske

Saturday, August 18, 2012


With a running time of about 80 minutes, Roman Polanski's Carnage is essentially a filmed version of the play by Yasmina Reza. Perhaps it is for that reason, that the film lacks a certain energy at times. The conversation flows well, but having seen the play performed on stage, this is something that can be difficult to justify cinematically. Tommy Lee Jones' The Sunset Limited had pulled it off and James Foley's Glengarry Glen Ross (even just looking at the scenes that are set in the office) is a near masterwork in how to translate a stageplay to the screen. Still, Polanski somehow falters with his presence almost feeling low-key, but his hand as the director isn't necessarily needed or pertinent as this film is a really a performance piece for four massively talented actors.

The acting and Reza's words (co-adapted by Polanski into a screenplay) really help the conversation flow. Each of the characters make their own points and the four of them are each at one time or another in their own corner against the other three. Sometimes it's two against two or one against one against one against one. The way in which the dialogue and content move forward is fascinating in a sort of modern day version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which civility quickly goes out the window. As opposed to two couples people coming back from a party, Carnage is about the parents of two kids who got into a playground fight. Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) are the parents of the son who was hit with a stick and lost his teeth. They've invited in Allan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), the parents of the boy who wielded the stick, over to their nicely accomadated Brooklyn apartment to discuss what happened between their kids. If the title is any indication, kindness quickly disappears in the place of resentment.

Each of the four players have distinct characteristics and the casting of four distinct actors propels this into an instantly watchable experience. In the same way that having Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson trade wits or Al Pacino exploding at Kevin Spacey as Jack Lemmon looks on, the casting is key to creating such memorable moments for a story that is set in a limited space. Polanski does allow us to leave the apartment building at two separate occasions at the beginning and end of the film, which I won't spoil, but progressive parents versus type A parents in a lavish room can only go so far even with four immensely talented performers working together.

Polanski is stuck with the choice of where to put his camera. He does a pretty good job, but he struggles with how much his choices are going to accomadate the performances. Sometimes there is a unique angle that is forcing everyone in the room into one shot with a longer lens. This continues throughout and there is almost a certain space created between us and the character. It's as if Polanski can't decide whether he wants the camera to be an active observer or not (see Taxi Driver or The Conversation for what I mean by a self-aware camera).

Still, the acting and the directing of the actors outweighs any issues I might have with Polanski's efforts behind the camera. The themes may at times be worn on the sleeve (adults becoming children, the need to assign blame, picking sides, lack of forgiveness, kids just being kids), but the four stars, working with Reza's words, find and understand their characters to make it appear seamless enough. Life is life and we complicate it because of our personal individuality to point where the drama created by a God of Carnage is constantly at work, even in such simple scenarios as eighty minutes in an apartment building.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

I always question when talking about a movie with others who are less ardent moviegoers than I, if I should recommend they see an auteur's previous films before diving right in. Then again, how else are they supposed to experience a new style unless they do in fact just give it a go. I remember having these discussions when Quentin Tarantino made Inglourious Basterds, when Terrence Malick made The Tree of Life, or when Nicolas Winding Refn made Drive. If David Lynch was more active I'd probably be using him as a prime example as well. This is not to say that filmmakers like Woody Allen, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg have cornered the market on noted stylistic directors who've passed through the mainstream, but their flourishes are disguised or blended with more recognizeable genre conventions that the average public is familiar with.

I only mention all of this because when I talk about Moonrise Kingdom with someone who has yet to see the film, I'm immediately debating whether I should talk about Wes Anderson. An article from They Shoot Pictures Don't They? or Sight & Sound could do a better job of pinpointing every exact aspect of the man's directorial vision (and his influences- Orson Welles, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, etc.), but I'll just say that despite the similar themes and tropes, I still walk away from each of his films with a different feeling. His style and voice haven't changed all that much as many who have discussed Moonrise Kingdom are quick to point out, but perhaps that is because Anderson is so distinct and noticeable that you are immediately curious as to how Wes Anderson'ey a new Wes Anderson film is going to be. The fact that I walked away from Moonrise Kingdom feeling like I've just experienced something special and unique I think is testament enough that Anderson doesn't necessarily have to change his perceived voice. The style is his, but the experience is our own.

At a glance, Moonrise Kingdom is a tale of innocence lost. A classic theme for many stories involving child protagonists and yet... Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzie (Kara Hayward) have a sense of maturity to them, but they are still children. One has to credit Wes Anderson and his co-writer Roman Coppola for the colorful characters in their script (and as fellow Anderson fans know, the word "colorful" doesn't do them justice). So much detail is given to Sam and Suzie as characters that we as the audience can appreciate their romance, but thanks to Anderson's style we can also recognize the fantastical nature of it all. An example of that would be that they are entering the hurricane of adolesence as adults race to find them before a literal storm destroys the coast of their 1960s New England isle. Ad one cooky and crazy sequence after another (all being enhanced by Robert Yeoman's most "showman" cinematography to date) and Anderson blends the emotional and character-driven story that he has concocted into his stylistic blend of homages and originality.

The great thing about all of this is that I'm still drawn to the characters first and foremost. For all of the talk about Anderson's diaroma-esque shots, his films also resemble a diorama in an emotional sense. We are able to follow these detailed characters through these situations and have a sense of the space they take to evolvet or de-evolve through their respective arcs and changes. Having two new performers play the title roles completely works to the film's advantage as no matter how good an actor the others such as Edward Norton and Bruce Willis can be as Hayward and Gilman bring a complete fresh-faced auroa to the movie. The characters and their love-struggle is full of sullen tragedy and ironic humor that feels real and true no matter how fantastical the surroundings become.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Movies Watched in July

*- Means I've seen it before.

Amazing Spider-Man (2012, Marc Webb)
A Dangerous Method (2011, David Cronenberg)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)
Dick Tracy (1990, Warren Beatty)*
The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich)
Immortals (2011, Tarsem Singh)
In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011, Angelina Jolie)
The Mortal Storm (1940, Frank Borzage)
Ted (2012, Seth MacFarlane)
Throne of Blood (1957, Akira Kurosawa)
To Rome with Love (2012, Woody Allen)
The Watch (2012, Akiva Schaffer)


Prometheus, Ridley Scott's first science-fiction film in twenty years, is a big movie. No other word with the exception of synoyms like colossal, gigantic, etc. etc. can do the film justice. Like many of Scott's successful epics, this is not just big in scale, but it is also "big" in ideas. Whether it is Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, or Kingdom of Heaven, Scott is capable of bringing an aesthetic vision that is quintessentially his while still including and expanding on all of the fascinating themes and tropes that the screenwriters plant in the script. This is even noticeable in his more intimate and "quiet" films like Thelma and Louise or Matchstick Men. They all demonstrate a distinct presence of an auteur in every sense of the word as Scott knows how to use every tool in his directorial arsenal to tell a story. When he makes a film on the scale of Prometheus he seems to go big and constantly just give the audience more. More character moments, more beautiful imagery, and most importantly- a more interesting movie.

Of course, with a career as long and diverse as his, Scott does falter on occasion, but even then he always creates such a distinct visual world (his last film, Robin Hood, comes to mind). For example, Prometheus (both the movie and the spaceship of the same name where much of the film takes place) is at a glance just full of gritty titanium walls with moisture flowing everywhere. Then one just has to notice the way that Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, move the camera along these vast sets of metallic walls and rock pyramids. The film instantly becomes this dynamic exercise on just a purely visual level. On that superficial level, it's interesting of how I'm immediately reminded me of Danny Boyle's Sunshine (which I just re-watched recently) and that movie certainly takes a lot from Scott's own film Alien. I suppose it could be said that Prometheus is set in the same universe as both those films literally (in the case of Alien) and spiritually (in the case of both). This is a story about us as human beings attempting to satisfy our own existence whether it be for knowledge or safety. Although, where Alien was the lingering-shadows-on-the-wall survival thriller, Prometheus is on a much larger canvas.

The script, by Jon Spaihts and most importantly Damon Lindelof (ABC's Lost) takes advantage of using this large scale to tell a story that is the most atypical of the current slate of Hollywood films (The Avengers, Men in Black III, etc.). The story is incredibly ambigous and one question's answer leads to another three questions. Take the opening sequence for example. A grey being gives a piece of his body to the ground and water as a ship flies away. Immediately we are asking- where are we? Who is he? Why is he here? I personally thought this showed the creation of life. Well is it on Earth? Wherever it is, why was this being left here? What was his intent in doing this? The film then jumps to the year 2089 where two archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have found a series of star maps in various ruins that they believe ancient beings placed on the planet Earth. Along with a crew of scientists and soldiers, they board the spaceship Prometheus to head to another ruin located on a desolate planet. The characters soon find themselves confronting everything from life to death, all of which harkens back to the grey being that began the cycle that these humans soon find themselves facing.

Most importantly, no matter how beautiful this film can be made to look, Scott is sure to use Lindelof and Spaihts' script as starting point to brilliantly cast this movie full of diverse actors for these distinct characters. Many of these people are opposites in more ways than one and whether they are clashing or agreeing with each other, the conversation is always interesting and furthers their own arcs. Shaw is very faith-oriented and the most heavy-handed conflict she comes into is with Holloway who is more of a believer in science. They are accompanied by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) who is part of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (Alien reference!) that wishes to use the findings by the archeologists for some sort of mysterious gain. She obviously comes into conflict with Captain Janek (Idris Elba) who is representative of the military and is able to glean the truth off of those who might wish to hide it. There are others as well, but perhaps the most perplexing character that we can learn the most from is David (Michael Fassbender). He is an android that learns human behavior from watching movies and can sometimes be the most intuitive of the group even though he still only does what he is told. Fassbender handles the character like a cross between Roy Batty from Blade Runner and Hal 9000 from 2001. He steals just about every scene he is in, while Rapace showcases a strength reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, and Marshall-Green gives a noticable and perhaps still somewhat understated performance as a man who is thrust into a complex situation of his own creation that is both physically dangerous and theologically based as well.

The film can feel incredibly long-winded when all is said and done, but it at least makes you think about its characters and story. Nothing feels mindless here as almost every moment and person has a purpose. The mythology can feel heavy and overbearing (just look at how I'm trying to make sense of the characters- am I overthinking them or just not thinking enough?), but Lindelof, Scott, and co. have created a movie where one doesn't need to understand much because the film leaves us as the audience to comprehend quite a bit about what the story is ultimately about. The truth behind the puzzles these characters are involved in becomes ours to solve at our own discretion and that is a highly rewarding experience no matter how long, flawed, or heavy-handed the film can ultimately be.