It should be possible to recommend a director-driven indie movie at this point in the summer, but thankfully the good folks behind Wes Anderson’s latest opus have decided to release it on screens in May. It’s not his best movie, but a welcome break from all the blockbusters coming out every week. Speaking of which, there’s another expensive flop this week in Men In Black 3 if you refuse to consider attending any movie without at least one major explosion this time of year.
Finally, if neither of those options are appealing and you’d rather just see a bunch of nondescript youngsters get killed in a horror movie this week, then there’s always Chernobyl Diaries. A few very different options, but only one qualifies as “good” in my three-tier judgment system. Guess which one that is this week? Please don’t cheat and look at the answer one line down. Okay, okay, so that’s pretty much impossible. Let’s just dive into the reviews and forget about the whole guessing game.
The Good: Moonrise Kingdom
Writer/director Wes Anderson has got to be the most widely imitated filmmaker of the last ten years. His meticulously designed deadpan melancholic comedies about broken families like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic have become the lifeblood of hipsters and film students everywhere. Some pretty terrible movies have been made that desperately try to knock off Anderson’s aesthetic, but we can’t blame him for the imitators. Thankfully, through it all Anderson has never tried to change what he does and even though his work has become increasingly repetitive, no one makes a movie quite like this guy.
Anderson’s latest effort, Moonrise Kingdom, takes many of his oft-repeated elements like hyper-articulate genius children, vintage pop, rigidly composed frames, and Bill Murray and yields another equally hilarious and emotionally resonant movie. With each passing project it becomes clearer what Anderson’s limitations are as a filmmaker, yet he always consistently proves that he can take the same themes, cast, and visual design and create something that feels fresh every time out. That’s the sign of truly gifted filmmaker.
The plot follows a 12-year-old boy scout (Jared Gillman) and a melancholic rich girl (Kara Hayward) who fall in love and run away together. While they are off playing at being renegade young lovers in pup tents, a search party is formed combining the forces of a scout master who takes his job too seriously (Edward Norton), the girl’s bickering/casually alcoholic parents (Bill Murray and Francis McDormand), the local sheriff (Bruce Willis), and social services (embodied by Tilda Swinton).
Like all Wes Anderson movies, it’s a whimsical comedy with undertones of pathos. The cast deadpan their way to fantastic comedic performances, cameo roles from other Anderson regulars like Jason Schwartzman pop up left and right, the soundtrack and style place the story in an indeterminable '60s setting, and the director manages to find some relatable emotions amidst all the chuckles. In theory this formula shouldn’t work anymore, but it does. Anderson creates a quietly moving ode to the gap between adulthood and adolescence and the challenges of finding genuine human connections.
Moonrise Kingdom is funny from start to finish (as must be expected from any movie featuring Billy Murray), yet Anderson always finds a way to use the laughs as an entry point for deeper emotions. The film is an interesting companion to his previous feature, the stop motion Fantastic Mr. Fox. On a certain level, both movies are essentially children’s stories told from the perspective of a nostalgic adult looking back without ever ignoring the complicated emotions and sadness that tend to get left out of most big screen representations of childhood.
Though his films are infinitely more stylized, the undeniable influence of Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) can be felt in Anderson’s completely unsentimental and honest portrayal of adolescence and it’s a world he seems to find limitless inspiration in. At this point you should know how you feel about Wes Anderson’s movies and Moonrise Kingdom will not win any new supporters. However, those who have long been seduced by his literate comedy charms will find plenty to fall in love with. I wish the guy could make a new movie every year. None of his legion of imitators are a substitute.
The Bad: Men in Black 3
Men in Black 3 comes
to screens as one of those notorious, out of control productions. The budget
reportedly swelled to $375 million and production had to be shut down for weeks
in the middle of shooting so that the screenplay could be radically rewritten.
It’s safe to say that the threequel developed a bad reputation before anyone
got their eyeballs on the finished product and as much as I’d love to be able
to say that the film is a secret success, I can’t. This thing is a mess.
Combining complex special effects spectacle with goofy character comedy ain’t easy and the original Men in Black was one of the rare blockbusters to pull it off. Both sequels offer improved special effects and fewer laughs than you’ll get out of the particularly depressed 2pm Wednesday drinking crowd at a dive bar. This new franchise entry might be slightly better than the last one, but not by much.
The plot is barely worth discussion. A confusing concoction of bad fatherhood jokes and a growling supervillain (Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) is used to give Will Smith an excuse to go back in time to the '60s and partner up with Josh Brolin doing an impeccable impression of Tommy Lee Jones as a younger man. None of it makes much sense, which would be fine if it were funny or moderately amusing, but that’s just not the case. A decade of drama has robbed Smith of much of his comedy timing and it’s kind of sad to watch him try and play the wisecracking young buck even though he’s slipping into middle age. Tommy Lee Jones is so visibly bored that he’s barely present. Brolin is admittedly fantastic, but his section of the script was the most radically rewritten and the life has been sucked out of his jokes. The rest of the cast are all wasted on delivering exposition to try and force something resembling a passable narrative out of nothing.
It feels like director Barry Sonnenfeld simply stopped caring about the script at a certain point during shooting and focused entirely on the visuals. There are some fantastic special effects sequences (and with that budget, there had better be), but without a decent context for them to arrive or intriguing characters to share the screen with the effects, it’s hard to really care. Granted, the movie whizzes by at a sharp enough pace to never feel boring. That’s just not enough. For a sequel arriving this late to the party to land an audience, there has to be something new to add to the experience to justify the extension of the franchise.
There’s nothing of the sort here and it should vanish into obscurity pretty quickly, killing off the franchise along with it. I’ll bet the filmmakers wish the Men in Black’s memory erasers were real so that they could treat every audience member to a complimentary memory wipe shortly after every screening. It’s really the only way they could get viewers to sit through this thing more than once.The Mutants: Chernobyl Diaries
Finally, if you don’t really have an interest in attending a movie this week unless it involves jump scares, blood, mutants, and bad dialogue, don’t worry, there’s a horror movie coming out as well. Bumped up to a May release rather suddenly, Chernobyl Diaries is the first official follow-up project from Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli. The man who made a $200 million hit from his house might not be directing this particular outing, but he wrote and produced this globetrotting little horror tale with links to that old nuclear disaster. It’s pure nuts 'n' bolts horror stuff that doesn’t have ambitions beyond making the audience jump in their seats. However, it’s at least an efficient little scare factory with an evocative location that hasn’t been seen (or exploited?) before.
The film centers on a group of fairly indistinguishable 20-somethings. Two impossibly beautiful women and a somewhat dorky guy with a terrible sense of humor make a pit stop in Kiev during a Euro-trip to visit the dork’s brother. Even though the plan is to go to Moscow, the local bro has another idea. He found out about a secret tourist trip to Pripyat, the city that was evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster that can now be visited by tourists. So they all pile into a beat-up van with a sketchy tour guide to visit a radioactive ghost town.
A military post outside the city refuses to let them enter, but the guy running the tour knows a secret entrance and takes them into the town anyway. Everything seems fine at first despite the deeply creepy location and then the van refuses to start and they are trapped overnight. Once the sun goes down, they hear strange noises, so the tour guide goes to investigate and doesn’t come back. Soon the young folk are being hunted, but they aren’t sure exactly what’s hunting them. Spoiler alert: it might be mutants from the nuclear disaster well, it couldn’t really be anything else, could it?
Chernobyl Diaries features some of the most poorly written characters and dialogue from a horror movie in recent memory. However, the good news about that is that little time is wasted developing character. The filmmakers use the absolute minimum number of scenes to get their characters trapped in the rotting city so that most of the running time could be dedicated to creep-outs and attacks. Aside from the setting, there isn’t much here that hasn’t been seen in other horror movies, but it’s executed so efficiently that it’s hard to care. Enough of the scenes work to make it worth seeing provided that you enjoy this type of movie and go in with appropriately lowered expectations.
Accusations that the movie exploits a genuine disaster have already been made and they aren’t without merit (this flick does turn the tragedy into a mutant freak show after all). However, Chernobyl Diaries offers such basic and predictable monster movie entertainment that it’s hard to imagine anyone actually getting upset. It you want to jump at loud noises in the dark this weekend, there’s only one option. The movie will never be considered a classic, but given some of the crap Hollywood has cranked out over the last few years claiming to be horror movies, you could do a hell of a lot worse.