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Brigsby Bear (2017)/ Dave Made a Maze (2017)

One way to stand out in a crowded marketplace is to differentiate your movie by making it weird and whimsical. Just being different can grab your attention, and Brigsby Bear and Dave Made a Maze are definitely different. Both of these indie films attracted attention for their unusual concepts and lo-fi designs, banking on a sense of nostalgia for a homemade style of art that’s a little rough around the edges. These might be two of the strangest films that will be released in 2017.

James (Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney) is living underground with his parents, April (Jane Adams) and Ted (Mark Hamil). He does his homework, listens to his parents about never going outside, and anxiously waits every new episode of Brigsby Bear, a children’s fantasy TV show starring a Teddy Ruxbin-looking bear that teaches life lessons. Eventually we discover that April and Ted are not, in fact, James’ parents. They abducted him when he was a baby. The FBI raids their compound and returns James to his biological family, the Popes (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as mom and dad, Ryan Simpkins as younger sis). James just wants to know when the next episode of Brigsby will come out. Unfortunately for James, Brigsby isn’t real. Ted produced the show on a nearby sound stage. He’d even occasionally hire other actors. James is the world’s most knowledgeable fan of a TV show no other person knows one iota about. He’s determined to give it a proper ending and recruits family, friends, and neighbors to make the ultimate Brigsby movie.

I was pleasantly surprised at how effectively Brigsby Bear was at being cheery and sincere. I was expecting, given the premise, an ironic riff on nerd culture or obsessive fandom, and Mooney and company instead decided to play things very seriously. They take a fantastic premise that seems begging for derisive commentary and choose to find a human story within the absurd. That’s much more commendable and harder to achieve. As I’m aging, I’m becoming more and more appreciative of sincerity over irony (part of this is also that our modern age is inundated with irony). I was reminded of last year’s Swiss Army Man, an alarmingly strange movie with Harry Potter’s farting corpse and went for sincerity without any whiff of detached irony. Brigsby Bear isn’t at the same level of artistic accomplishment and lasting power as Swiss Army Man, but it’s an unconventional and touching movie that earns its quirky-yet-feel-good emotions.

It’s easy to see where this story could have exclusively dwelt in psychological darkness. James was abducted as a child and raised in a strange environment that makes him emotionally stunted and grossly ill prepared for the real world outside his reclusive safe space. The movie could have understandably dealt with James’ crippling sense of loneliness, betrayal, and inability to assimilate since his sense of self were cultivated by a fake children’s TV show. He could have easily been the creepy oddball who makes people uncomfortable. Instead, they made him the goofy oddball who makes people smile. His childlike sense of wonder is in tact and frees him from self-doubt. James is remarkably cheery for having his world turned upside down, and the movie follows his lead. This movie could have been another perplexing Dogtooth and instead it’s more accurately reminiscent of those old Mickey Rooney “we’re putting on a show” pictures. I was waiting for a moment of artificial conflict, a darker plot turn late into the film where perhaps it’s revealed that Ted was a molester. There’s 700 episodes of Brigsby Bear so I figured a few of them would reveal disturbing clues about something even worse. The film never does take that darker turn and instead stays upbeat to the very end.

As he adjusts to his new home, the movie serves as both a delayed coming-of-age movie and a love letter to the power of creativity and how it can build community. With James transported into the outside world, much is made over his awkwardness with human interactions and his complete lack of guile. He gets his first kiss with a girl, and shortly after his first handjob, and wonders if that means they have to get married. It’s a sweetly naïve reflection. We watch the growing pains of James as he starts to make friends and become more confident in himself, which is a surefire way to win over an audience. James isn’t held up for ridicule. People want to be part of his project. He’s overcoming adversity and triumphing through the transformative power of art. There’s a joy in watching characters find themselves anew, and James serves as the catalyst. This person knows how to do special effects. This person used to act when they were in college. In his heartfelt attempt to provide closure to the Brigsby series, and possibly a chapter in his life, James’ project takes on a life of its own that brings people together. It shows how the community of art can be an empowering venture that can freely inspire the best in others.

The movie doesn’t become overly reliant upon nostalgia either. I figured it would be an ode to 80s television and culture but it really just uses that as backdrop. The world building of the show of Brigsby is bizarre and entertaining every time it’s included, especially when you comprehend the propaganda messages that Ted is sneaking in like, “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion.” The sense of wonder and whimsy doesn’t overwhelm the movie and its poignancy. Director Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live) makes the most of the retro pastiches while still serving the story. James could just have easily been obsessed with any show or ongoing work of art. The content of the show is unimportant. It’s about facilitating his growth into a person comfortable and confident with whom they are. By the end of the film, I was fighting back tears as the full assembly of characters watches the finished product of their labor. You watch them smile, laugh, take a sense of pride in their communal efforts, and they can see the world as James does. It’s a whole-heartedly pleasurable movie with surprising currents of emotional uplift.

With Dave Made a Maze, the titular Dave (a beardless Nick Thune) is lost in a maze that he built in the apartment he shares with his beleaguered girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). This maze consists of a cluster of cardboard boxes taped together. In time, a group of their friends and even strangers have assembled to admire the maze. Dave warns them not to enter but they do so anyway, and once inside they realize that the maze is considerably bigger and byzantine, and everyone expectedly gets lost. Annie and a documentary crew travel (lead by James Urbaniak) deep into the maze to rescue Dave. They all must confront booby traps, a Minotaur, thirty-something existential ennui, and the unsettling realization that the maze is expanding all on its own.

The real star of Dave Made a Maze is the fantastical environment inside the maze. The resourcefulness, imagination, and implementation of such a bizarre vision on such a limited budget is incredible. Each new room offers a new opportunity for the surreal. The characters stumble from room to room in mixtures of awe and bemusement, and the audience will feel the exact same way. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sunner, and Art Director Jeff White, come from a world of animation, and they’re meticulous attention to detail pays off to an astonishing degree. In a just world, they would be nominated for an Oscar. There’s a DIY inventiveness that carries an irresistible charm with it, re-purposing everyday items to create a unique and whimsical world. Even when people are being gored to death and dismembered it adheres to the whimsical tone. The blood is replaced by red yarn, confetti, and silly string. The movie smartly underplays the lack of consistent logic within the world of the maze, and so weird things can just happen at a moment’s notice, like the main characters turning into puppet versions of themselves made out of paper lunch bags. There’s even a half-finished maze within the maze, which draws derision from the tired and frustrated people just seeking a way out. Some of the weirdness feels too half-formed and self-conscious, but the movie has an Eternal Sunshine quality where each new location provides another enjoyable opportunity for potential discovery.

Where Dave Made a Maze runs into problems is when you realize there isn’t anything beyond that sense of invention. There isn’t a larger thematic core to this movie and the characters remain, at best, background players elevated to starting status. Most of these characters are jokes but they don’t even supply much in the way of jokes. The closet to a substantive theme is simply an arrested development fable where the man-child is struggling to finish a laboring artistic accomplishment, he feels humbled and humiliated, and his strained relationship with his accommodating girlfriend will always come together in the clincher. Dave lashes out that he didn’t feel like an adult at 30, so maybe he retreated to the halcyon days of childhood, or maybe it was a nostalgic retreat. Whatever the case may be, the movie suffers from an inevitable lull once the giddy novelty of its DIY fantasy starts to wear off. There’s one sequence where Dave and Annie have a circular conversation that just keeps going, and I’m sure if the filmmakers weren’t so desperate for material that it would have been trimmed down significantly.

Even at 76 minutes before credits, this is a movie that feels stretched beyond the limit because it’s lacking greater consideration to story. There are jokes that feel like they should be funnier too, like a latecomer to the maze who sets off the traps that Dave warns about earlier. This should be a fun structural payoff, allowing us to see both sides of the rooms. It doesn’t really work out that way, and the bumbling latecomer becomes another relatively unmemorable and undeveloped body on screen taking up space. The documentary crew conveys some mild satire as the crew leader keeps prodding others into saying what he needs for his movie, but even this inclusion feels more like a transparent device to get the characters to talk through plot points. Another misfire is the curious lack of stakes. The movie has a light-hearted charm but then doesn’t ever quite make up its mind on the danger being confronted. Real friends die for real. By the end of the movie, they do not come back even after the maze is kaput. They are really dead. Yet the film plays the stakes at a low simmer and the survivors just sort of shrug and move on. The film gives me little reason to be attached to any of these people, alive or dead.

Whimsy is a fleeting feeling that’s hard to conceive and harder to hold onto. Both movies take whimsical premises that cater to the peculiar but only one delivers something of lasting substance. Brigsby Bear is a charming, heartfelt, and exceedingly sincere movie about an oddball finding his place in the world through the power of the creative process. He is transformed through his love of art and how that serves as the foundation for community. Whereas Dave Made a Maze is a lo-fi curio that I can admire more than enjoy. It’s missing crucial elements that make its journey worth the effort, beside its imaginative and scrappy production design. Both movies are charged by the power of the imagination to transport the ordinary into the extraordinary. Brigsby remembers to use its flights of imagination and whimsy to tell an engaging and ultimately touching story. Dave Made a Maze has cool sets and some infectious silliness. If you see one story of a man-child escaping into a world of nostalgic imagination and inviting friends to tag along, make it Brigsby, a film that uses whimsy to still tell compelling human stories.

Nate’s Grades:

Brigsby Bear: A-

Dave Made a Maze: C+

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The Lobster (2016)

lobsterWhen people decry the relentless slate of sequels, remakes, and redundancy from the Hollywood assembly line, they’re looking for something original and different, and there may be no movie more different this year than Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. David (Colin Farrell) is the newest guest at the Hotel, a place for singles to find their true love. He has 40 days to fall in love with a compatible mate or else he will be transformed into an animal of his choice (hence the title, David’s choice). The people at the hotel are all in competition to find their mate. Outside the confines of the hotel, in the woods, are dreaded single people, those who ignored the rules of society. They are to be feared and hotel guests are rewarded for capturing wild singles on weekly hunting trips. One way or another, David is going to have to decide his place in society as a person or animal.

The Lobster is daringly different, wildly imaginative, and drops you into the middle of its cracked, alternative landscape and expects you to pick things up as you go. It’s something that the writer/director already achieved with chilling, car-crash fascination in Dogtooth, a dark parable about extreme parental protection that crossed over into abuse. This is a world that opens with a distraught woman driving a long distance just so she can shoot a donkey in the head. Who is this woman? Why would she purposely murder this animal? Why is she so emotionally invested? And with that jarring act of peculiar violence, we’re off. We’re never told how this world came to be, it just simply is. There isn’t any extensive exposition save for one initial sit down David has with hotel management to determine what animal he’d like to turn into at the end of his stay if unsuccessful in love. There’s a genuine sense of authenticity to this deeply weird place and the characters all play it with straight-laced absurdity, which makes the satire land even harder. It sells even the most bizarre aspects, like the ongoing visual incongruity of wild animals just trotting around the background. You can sit back and think, “I wonder what that peacock’s story was, or that donkey, etc.” Its abnormal background pieces that add to the context of the world. I loved discovering new little wrinkles and rules to Lanthimos’ world that made perfect sense within its parameters. In a world where coupling is the only goal, of course masturbation would be a punishable crime. I enjoyed that there are other means guests have to stay at the hotel, chief among them hunting down the loners in the woods, which allow the more awkward or anti-social guests added time at the expense of others. Even in a world this bizarre, there are people who are making their own way, including the revolutionaries in the woods (more on them later). The movie is exceedingly funny and so matter-of-fact about its peculiarities to make it even funnier.

960The movie straddles the line between skewed ironic romance and cynicism, so I’m not surprised it’s rubbed people the wrong way. This can be a pretty dark movie and that’s even before the violence against animals/former people. It’s certainly written from the point of view of someone who is single and those currently in that category will likely relate the most to the film’s strident social commentary. “It’s no coincidence the targets are shaped like single people,” a man says in reference to target outlines. The pressures can seem absurd in their own regard, and the film has a clever concoction where the “happy couples” are merely two people who share a superficial physical trait. These two people are near-sighted. These two people get nosebleeds. These two people have a limp. Even the characters are named after their physical depictions, like The Limping Man and Short-Sighted Woman. It’s not exactly subtle but the satiric effect is still effective. The hotel manager says, to a newly cemented couple, “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children, that usually helps.” The humor can be very dry and very dark, never stopping to inform you where to laugh. There’s a sad woman played by Ashley Jensen (TV’s Extras, Ugly Betty) who is desperate for companionship, offering sexual favors to any man who might just alleviate her loneliness. She is ignored and often threatens to kill herself, and then one day she does it by jumping out a hotel window, but she’s not successful. It’s one more dark, awful ironic point of suffering for this woman, and she screams in agony while others ignore her, including a clearly affected David, still trying to play indifferent to win over the hard-hearted woman he sees as his best way out of the hotel. It’s a hard moment to process but one that made me admire the film even more for the cold courage of its convictions.

Supplementing the dark satire is an off-kilter romance that emerges halfway through the film once David escapes the hotel. He finally meets up with the source of our narration, the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). It’s here that the movie shows glimmers of hope for the hopeless as David and this woman are drawn to one another. They’re in a world of outcasts but the rules of those in the forest do not allow coupling. They reject the expectations of the ruling order, and so they must remain resolutely single. the only time David and the Short-Sighted Woman can be open with their affection is when they go undercover into the city, posing as a couple, and getting a chance to kiss with abandon, all as a cover of course. They build up their own secret non-verbal language to communicate their feelings, much like a couple builds its own personal shorthand and inside jokes. The loners are only to listen to music individually and dance the same, but David and the Short-Sighted Woman synch their CD players to listen to the same track, to simulate like they are sharing a dance together even if not in proximity. It’s here where The Lobster becomes a beguiling and surprising love story and one where the heartless may grow a heart, watching two odd people find one another in such an odd world. However, Lanthimos does not let this emergence of romance blunt his message. The loner leader (Lea Seydoux) suspects coupling in her group and goes to some pretty drastic lengths to test the fortitude of feelings between David and his secret girlfriend. It’s like getting cold water dumped on the runaway spell of optimism. The fitting ending is left in ambiguity for the audience to determine whether they were meant to be after all.

It’s also in the second half of The Lobster that the movie loses some of its grandeur and momentum. We’re introduced to a new primary setting with new rules to adapt to and a new order to follow, and there’s a general interest to discovering another competing area of this landscape with a diametrically opposed social order. They punish people by mutilating parts that come into affectionate contact with another person. We see a couple with bandages around their red, swollen mouths, and then the reference of the “red intercourse” makes your imagination fill in the horrific blanks. David has left one regime dictating his life to another regime dictating his life, but they just aren’t as interesting. It feels like the film is starting to repeat itself. I would say the second half world building isn’t as compelling as the first but that’s why the romance emerges, something for the audience to root for. Now that he’s finally found someone he connects with they’re not allowed to be together. There’s never a shortage of irony in a Lanthimos movie.

rs-240540-thelobsterThe actors are perfectly in synch with the strange rhythms of this world, and Farrell (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Weisz (The Light Between Oceans) deserve special attention for their committed performances. Farrell gained 40 pounds for the role, which seems to have translated right into his stint on season two of HBO’s True Detective. He’s a schlubby guy that’s still mourning the deterioration of his marriage and larger society is insisting he get over it. He has only 40 days to recover or he’ll be plucked from the ranks of humanity. There’s great sadness tinged in his nonchalant responses to the absurd realities of this world, and Farrell keeps finding ways to make you laugh and wince. Weisz is our placid voice into the strange new world and it helps establish a sense of grounding as well as connection to her character when she eventually emerges. She injects a palpable sense of yearning to her character, especially once David is in reach and they begin their relationship. It’s got the cute romantic comedy staples but on its own terms, and seeing Weisz smile warmly is a pleasure in a morbid movie.

The Lobster is a romance for our age and an indictment of the romance of our age, an era where the swipe of a finger on an app is the arbitrator of contemporary dating. It’s a satire on our fixation of coupledom and being in relationships even when they’re not sensible. It’s a cracked fairy tale that punctuates the romantic love we’ve watched distilled to an essence in Hollywood movies. It’s a surreal and dark movie that manages to become emotionally moving and poignant, leaving on a note of uncertainty enough for different factions in the audience to interpret as either hopeful or hopeless. The Lobster is a unique movie with a singular artistic voice that dominates every shape of the narrative, the characters, and the boundaries of this fantastic alternative world. I imagine my depth of feeling for the movie will only grow the more I watch it. This isn’t an overwhelmingly dark or unpleasant movie without the presence of some light. It’s not an overly off-putting movie without an accessibility for a curious audience, whether those people are single or in happy relationships. The movie is inventive, transporting, but still relatable, rooting the nexus of its weirdness on the same awkwardness and anxiety everyone feels with the prospects of prolonged romantic courtship. If 2016 was a year that celebrated the oddities of cinema getting their due, then The Lobster is a captivating and unusual creation deserving of its spotlight and surefire future cult status amidst lovers of the weird.

Nate’s Grade: A

Swiss Army Man (2016)

swast_89_m2-0v4-0Swiss Army Man shouldn’t work as a movie, and in fact it will only work for a narrow swath of the world’s audience. There were plenty of walkouts during its Sundance premiere. The triumphant riding of a powerfully flatulent corpse in the film’s opening ten minutes should seal the movie’s fate. How does a movie survive such a juvenile, taste-obliterating moment, and one that is meant as an introduction to the film? Amazingly, stupendously, Swiss Army Man delicately walks that narrow tonal path and succeeds wildly, rapturously, and produces the rarest commodity in Hollywood, something daringly different and excitingly new. I fully anticipate that sizeable portions of readers are going to have an immediate and repellent response from just reading the plot synopsis, and I can’t blame them. I will do my best to try and explain why the movie worked so well even if I know this will be a fool’s errand for many, but if I can convince one more human soul to give Swiss Army Man a chance, then I’ve done the Lord’s work.

Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a desert island and about to hang himself when a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. Unfazed, Hank is still determined to end his life, that is, until he can no longer ignore the farting of the body. That’s when he gets an idea and uses the power of the farting corpse to ride back to the mainland. Hank drags the corpse with him finding unique benefits, like his retention of drinkable rainwater. He’s still stranded and it’s at this point that Manny, the name he gives the corpse, begins speaking and inquiring about the world and what it means to be human.

thumbnail_24201Swiss Army Man is a disarming buddy comedy that weirdly yet miraculously deepens as it goes, becoming a genuine relationship drama that touches on the profound and philosophical. For the first act, the movie is an unconventional survival drama with Hank finding peculiar yet helpful uses with his savior, the dead corpse. It’s a guy lugging around a dead body at the end of the day. I was wondering if this was really a story that was more suited as a short and didn’t have the substance to merit a feature-length runtime, and that’s when the magic realism steps up and when Manny comes into focus. This is easily one of the most oddball buddy comedies ever. Manny is an innocent, a proverbial babe in the woods, and doesn’t know much about himself and the world, and Hank becomes his teacher. Through this process he’s forced to examine his own life from an altogether different perspective and actually starts to vocalize and come to grips with his own life’s shortcomings, insecurities, and frustrations. It’s through Manny that Hank is able to open up and examine what it means to be human. Their interaction becomes a truly rewarding and emotionally honest buddy film where one of them just happens to be a talking corpse that farts a lot. Manny wants to learn about the world and to feel what it means to be alive, and it’s this new path that emerges that gives the film a new life.

You would expect something this strange to be drenched in irony or pushing the audience to laugh at the characters, but you would be completely wrong. Swiss Army Man is one of the most earnest movies you will ever see. It is completely genuine, heartfelt, sincere in every crazy detail, and it’s what gives the movie its emotional resonance. It treats the relationship between Hank and Manny with credibility. It’s a movie about celebrating and claiming ones weirdness, told from a movie that is proudly offbeat. Hank feels left out by normal social interactions. He’s the typically withdrawn and awkward Dano character we’ve come to expect from his catalogue of films; however, rarely has he seemed this artfully articulated. He’s a man who has some deep-seeded neuroses and fears, including farting aloud in public, and he’s using his ongoing experiences with Manny to exorcise some of these past failings, to become the determined, self-actualized man he wants to be. There’s a touching part where Hank talks about the poor relationship with his father; the two have signed up for one another to get birthday e-cards via email. That’s the extent of their connection at this point, and yet Hank remarks that even if he were to die his father would still get a birthday card from him in perpetuity. It’s a small little thing but it hits and makes one think about the impact and legacy we’ll have after we’re gone for good. Are we more than just an occasional birthday card? The fact that the movie utilizes a climax that incorporates farting in public as an emotional catharsis is amazing, but what’s even more amazing is that this moment is completely earned and gratifying.

Another aspect of Swiss Army Man that kept me specifically amused is the clever use of ambiguity. As the fantastical plays out with even-keeled realism, it’s easy and expected to believe that much of what we are witnessing is all in the mind of Hank. He’s projecting his needs and hopes onto this analogue for a friend that also represents himself. That’s why Hank uses Manny to relive personal experiences and to try and get them right. Then the third act comes along and causes you to question even more, putting the behavior of Hank into a muddier realm that makes you wonder if he’s this innocent wounded heart we had come to know previously. Then there’s Hank’s fixation over the pretty girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he gravitated to on his bus rides. He looks to her as a goal, something he can return to once finally rescued and returned home. As he plays out his brief experiences with her, dressed as her, with Manny in the position of Hank, a faux courtship ensues. Hank, as her, and Manny, as stand-in for Hank, and it’s weird and wonderful and not afraid to accept the homoerotic qualities of its implications. This is a love story ultimately but a unique kind of love, and it’s up to the audience to determine what that means exactly. Is it romantic, bro-mantic, or simply a dude coming to terms with his own life in a very unusual therapeutic manner? The writer/directors The Daniels (Dan Kwan, Dan Scheinert) don’t outright tell you how to think or feel throughout any of this movie, which is a blessing. They present a complicated world with complicated and broken people doing their best to try and make their own sense, and they invite the audience along on this beguiling journey and just ask that they be patient and open-minded and then come to their own conclusions.

1238893_Swiss-Army-Man-1The music is a wonderful element that is also another facet of the characters, layering in even more whimsy and character depth. The music is often accompanied by Radcliffe and Dano, their mutterings and ramblings becoming syncopated and layered into a soothing collage of sound. They’re providing their own soundtrack to the movie of their life. Early on Hank describes the music from Jurassic Park as the proper accompaniment for life’s big moments, with a little nestling of nostalgia as well. It’s especially enjoyable to listen to either of the guys break out into their rendition of the majestic Jurassic Park theme. It’s silly and sweet but it also gets at the psychological element of Hank being outside himself, seeing his life as a movie and he as its lead. He also hums what he remembers of “Cotton Eyed Joe,” which reappears throughout with comically incorrect and changing lyrics. The music is another reflection of the characters and it imbues the scenes with an extra sense of whimsy that helps to maintain its magic realism tone.

Radcliffe (Harry Potter and the… everything) and Dano (Love and Mercy) are terrific together and Radcliffe gives a tour de force physical performance. The way he’s able to contort his body, malign his posture, make use of stilted facial expressions is amazing. This goes leagues beyond the simple slapstick of Weekend at Bernie’s. The way he’s able to convey a character and a performance through this crazy decaying prism. Manny wants to help people, is eager to learn, and it makes his character so endearing, and then you remember he’s a corpse who might just be a figment of Hank’s diseased imagination. Radcliffe completely lets go of vanity and delivers one of the best performances of the year. Dano is in more familiar territory but shines again, serving as a dry comic foil for Radcliffe. The two of them form a highly entertaining and winning buddy team.

Swiss Army Man is a unique film experience and one that shouldn’t work. It’s filled with juvenile body humor. Its key supporting role is a dead body. It’s about a guy who may or may not be a stalker living in a fantasy world in his own head. This should not be, and yet like Manny himself, miraculously it has been birthed into existence and we are better for it. Every time it feels like the movie is heading for a more conventional direction that will weigh it down, be it a love triangle or some slapdash “he was dead the whole time” twist ending, it calmly steers away. This is a wonderfully humane, touching, earnest, and emotionally affecting movie, one that, yes, also involves farting. The body humor stuff is a reflection over confronting what we feel uncomfortable with and why that is, what social conventions tell us is in poor taste, tell us to box ourselves in and play by the rules. Here is a movie that gleefully plays by its own rules. It’s not going to be for everyone but if it’s for you, like me, there might not be much else that can rival its cinematic highs. Even if you think you will hate this movie, see it. See it just to have seen one of the strangest and most beguiling movies of the modern era. See it and judge for yourself. I’m still awed at how life affirming and profound a movie with a farting corpse can be. Swiss Army Man is a labor of love, an explosion of feeling, and a declaration to stay weird.

Nate’s Grade: A

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Me-and-Earl-and-the-Dying-Girl-trailer-della-commedia-premiata-al-Sundance-1In many ways Me and Earl and the Dying Girl feels like the perfect specimen that was programmed and brought to life in some mad scientist Sundance film lab. It’s got a hip point of view, a meta commentary on its plot and the directions it doesn’t take, style to spare with lots of self-aware camera movements, and even Wes Anderson-styled intertitles and colorful visual inserts, including stop-motion animation. It’s about two amateur filmmaking teenagers, Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (R.J. Cyler), who befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who happens to have terminal leukemia. The movie has a good heart and it deviates from convention with its storyline, though it has to stop and add narration to point out how it does this, like it demands a pat on the back for not being a “typical cancer weepie.” The big problem is that we’re stuck with the perspective of Greg, who is the least interesting character and just trying to stay invisible. He has a low opinion of himself and his friendship with Rachel will somehow make him a better person. Earl and Rachel are both tragically underwritten but valiantly played by their actors. The annoying aspect is that Greg makes everything about him and so does the movie. The supporting parts are broadly portrayed and fit awkwardly with the larger setting, like Greg’s overenthusiastic teacher, Rachel’s lush of a mother who seems one drink away from committing statutory rape, and Greg’s mom, who forces Greg to hang out with Rachel, even though they were acquaintances at best, because the plot demands it. The script by Jesse Andrews, based upon his YA book, sets up the completed tribute film as an emotional climax that cannot be met, and the abstract movie results prove it. This is a likeable, funny, and entertaining indie with a sense of style and wit. It’s good, but it could have been better. I wish the “Me” had been removed from its title.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

112446_galWes Anderson is a filmmaker whose very name is a brand itself. There are a small number of filmmakers who have an audience that will pay to see their next film regardless of whatever the hell it may be about. Steven Spielberg is the world’s most successful director but just having his name attached to a movie, is that enough to make you seek it out and assume quality? If so, I imagine there were more than a few disappointed with War Horse and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Wes Anderson has gotten to that height of audience loyalty after only seven movies, mostly because there are expectations of what an Anderson film will deliver. And deliver is what the quirky, fast-paced, darkly comic, and overall delightful Grand Budapest Hotel does.

In the far-off country of Zubrowka, there lays the famous hotel known the world over, the Grand Budapest. The head of the hotel, the concierge, is Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a highly mannered Renaissance man who caters to the every whim of his cliental. Zero (Tony Revolori), an orphaned refugee, is Mr. Gustave’s apprentice, a lobby boy in training learning from the master in the ways of hospitality. Gustave likes to leave people satisfied, including the wealthy dowagers that come from far just for him (Gustave: “She was dynamite in the sack,” Zero: “She was… 84,” Gustave: “I’ve had older.”). One of these very old, very rich ladies is found murdered and in her rewritten will, the old bitty had left a priceless portrait to Gustave. Her scheming family, lead by a combustible Adrien Brody, plots to regain the painting, which Gustave and Zero have absconded with.

115032_galFor Wes Anderson fans, they’ll be in heaven. I recently climbed back aboard the bandwagon after the charming and accessible Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest is an excellent use of the man’s many idiosyncratic skills. The dollhouse meticulous art design is present, as well as the supercharged sense of cock-eyed whimsy, but it’s a rush for Anderson to pair a story that fits snuggly with his sensibilities. The movie is a series of elaborate chases, all coordinated with the flair of a great caper, and the result is a movie over pouring with entertainment. Just when you think you have the film nailed down, Anderson introduces another conflict, another element, another spinning plate to his narrative trickery, and the whimsy and the stakes get taken up another notch. The point of contention I have with the Anderson films I dislike (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited) is the superficial nature of the films. As I said in my review for Darjeeling, Anderson was coming across like a man “more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets.” With this film, he hones his central character relationships down to Gustave and Zero, and he can’t stop giving them things to do. Thankfully, those things have merit, they impact the story rather than serving as curlicue diversions. We get an art heist, a prison break, a ski chase, a murderous Willem Dafoe leaving behind a trail of bodies, not to mention several other perilous escapes. This is a film packed with fast-paced plot, with interesting actions for his actors, maybe even too packed, opening with three relatively unnecessary frame stories, jumping from modern-day, to the 1980s, back to the 1960s, and finally settling into the 1930s in our fictional Eastern European country.

The other issue with Anderson’s past films, when they have underachieved, is that the flights of whimsy come into conflict with the reality of the characters. That is not to say you cannot have a mix of pathos and the fantastical, but it needs to be a healthy combination, one where the reality of the creation goes undisturbed. With Grand Budapest, Anderson has concocted his best character since Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Gustave is another overachieving, highly literate, forward-driving charmer that casually collects admirers into his orbit, but he’s also a man putting on a performance for others. As the head of the Grand Budapest, he must keep the illusion of refinement, the erudite and all-knowing face of the luxurious respite for the many moneyed guests. He has to conceal all the sweat and labor to fulfill this image, and so he is a character with two faces. His officiously courtly manner of speaking can be quite comical, but it’s also an insightful indication that he is a man of the Old World, a nostalgic European realm of class and civilization on the way out with looming war and brutality. And as played by the effortlessly charming Fiennes (Skyfall), Gustave is a scoundrel that the audience roots for, sympathizes with, scolds, but secretly desire his approval, much like Zero. It is a magnificent performance that stands as one of the best in any Anderson film.

115052_galThe fun of a Wes Anderson movie is the zany surprises played with deadpan sincerity, and there is plenty in Grand Budapest to produce smiles and laughter. It’s hard to describe exactly which jokes land the best in a Wes Anderson film because they form a patchwork that elevates the entire movie, building an odd world where oddballs can fit right in. It was under a minute before I laughed, and I smiled through just about every remaining minute of the film. I enjoyed a joke involving a dead cat that just kept being carried from scene to scene. I enjoyed a sexually graphic painting that just happened to be lying around. I enjoyed the fact that Zero draws on a mustache every morning to better fit in with the men of his day. But mostly I just enjoyed the characters interacting with one another, especially Gustave and Zero, which forms into the emotional core of the film. It begins as a zany chase film and matures as it continues, tugging at your feelings with the father/son relationship (there’s also a subtly sweet romance for Zero and a pastry girl played by Saoirse Ronan). One of the big surprises is the splash of dark violence that grounds the whimsy, reminding you of the reality of death as war and fascism creep on the periphery. In fact, the movie is rather matter-of-fact about human capacity for cruelty, so much so that significant characters will be bumped off (mostly off screen) in a style that might seem disarming and unsatisfying. It’s the mixture of the melancholy and the whimsy that transforms Grand Budapest into a macabre fairy tale of grand proportions.

The only warning I have is that many of the star-studded cast members have very brief time on screen. It’s certainly Fiennes and Revolori’s show, but familiar names like Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Lea Seydoux, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Balaban are in the film for perhaps two scenes apiece, no more than three minutes of screen time apiece. Norton, Brody, and Dafoe have the most screen time of the supporting cast. Though how does Revolori age into the very non-ethnic Abraham? It reminded me of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (here me out) where, as she ages, Chun-Li becomes less and less Chinese in her facial appearance. Anyway, the brevity of cast screen time is not detrimental to the enjoyment of the film, considering all the plot elements being juggled, but I would have liked even more with the dispirit array of fun characters.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his best, pared down into a quirky crime caper anchored by a hilariously verbose scoundrel and his protégé. Naturally, the technical merits of the film are outstanding, from the intricate art direction and set dressing, to the period appropriate costumes, to the camerawork by longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The movie is a visually lavish and handcrafted biosphere, a living dollhouse whose central setting ends up becoming a character itself. The trademark fanciful artifice is alive and well but this time populated with interesting characters, a sense of agency, and an accessible emotional core. The faults in Anderson’s lesser films have been fine-tuned and fixed here, and the high-speed plotting and crazy characters that continually collide left me amused and excited. If you’re looking for a pair of films to introduce neophytes into the magical world of Wes Anderson, you may want to consider Grand Budapest with Moonrise Kingdom (Royal Tenenbaums if they need bigger names). In the end, I think Anderson more than identifies with his main character, Gustave, a man enchanted in a world of his own creation, a world better than the real one. Who needs the real world when you’ve got The Grand Budapest Hotel?

Nate’s Grade: A

Violet & Daisy (2013)

violet-and-daisy-posterIt’s not often that I say this but… what the hell did I just watch? I know it’s a movie called Violet & Daisy, written and directed by Geoffrey Fletcher, the man who won a screenwriting Oscar for adapting Precious. But what is this? It is some meta commentary on film violence? A twisted fairy tale? A dark comedy? Whatever it is, I know for certain that it was not very good or entertaining.

Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are teenagers who also work as hired assassins by their boss, Russ (Danny Trejo). Their next assignment has a personal angle: Michael (James Gandolfini) stole a large sum of money from Russ. The gals hide out in Michael’s apartment only to fall asleep. When they wake up, Michael is sitting there, accepting his fate, begging the girls to complete their job. He’s dying from terminal cancer, estranged from his daughter, and hoping to exit this world on his own terms. Over the course of one long afternoon, the gals run into rival gangs, a trained sniper, police, neighbors, and all sorts of other plot contrivances to delay the death of Michael.

violet__daisyIf you’re like me, with similar expectations when it comes to your moviegoing experiences, you’ll be left scratching your head and fumbling for some kind of rationale why people decided to make a film like Violet & Daisy. It feels instantly dated, relying upon the hook of young teen girls with big guns, you know, the same model that has translated to many a successful video game. More so than that, the aspiration, or at least direct inspiration, appears to be a Tarantino-knock-off. Not ripping off Tarantino, as many did in the mid-to-late 90s, but ripping off a poor Tarantino knock-off, like Two Days in the Valley or, the more adept comparison, The Big Hit. There is so much crap in this movie that exists merely because somebody thought it would look cool. Violet and Daisy open the movie dressed as pizza-delivering nuns (is this a fetish I am unaware of?) and open fire on a gang of criminals. But before their fateful gunfight, you better believe it, they have an innocuous conversation about something small, you know, like Jules and Vincent. Why are they dressed as nuns, let alone nuns delivering pizza? It doesn’t matter. This is a movie that doesn’t exist in a universe minutely close to our own. Everything about this film feels painfully and artificial. You know what previous job Violet and Daisy had? They worked at the “doll hospital,” a literal ward for dolls. The decisions of this movie are driven purely by a stylized self-indulgent whimsy. Once you realize this, and you will, the movie becomes even more of a chore to finish.

Then there’s the bizarre and sometimes uncomfortable infantilization of the female lead characters. These ladies do not act like adults; they don’t even act like teenagers. Even though they’re both over 18 years old, their behavior more closely resembles that of a flighty seven-year-old. Their speaking patterns are often in an annoying and partially creepy baby coo. They play paddy cake after successful hits. They ride tricycles. They chew bubblegum and blow bubbles during hits. They get excited about new Barbie Sunday dresses, and this is their real motivation for taking assassination jobs. Yes, to buy dresses. Then there’s their game, the Internal Bleeding Dance, where they hop up and down on the chests of their dying victims, blood spurting out of their mouths, the girls giggling, as if they were bouncing on a bed at a slumber party. These women aren’t remotely actual characters; they are masturbatory quirky hipster fodder, the ironically detached, sexy baby doll killer approximation. Except there is never any commentary at work. The depiction of Violet and Daisy as petite killers never approaches anything meaningful. They are killers because it’s cool. They talk like lobotomized film noir archetypes because it’s cool. This is quirk run amok, quirk with a gun and no purpose. I’m trying hard to ignore the obvious sexual kink undercurrents of the whole enterprise.

VIOLET-articleLargeEven with all these flaws, perhaps Violet & Daisy could have been morbidly interesting, except that the circuitous plot twiddles its thumbs, padding out a half-baked story. This is a movie that takes its time and seems to go nowhere. Once the girls meet Michael, the plot has to come up with numerously lame excuses to delay Michael’s execution. I kid you not, there are THREE instances where the girls run out of bullets and have to stop and walk back to the hardware store to go buy ammo. This happens. This is a thing that keeps the plot moving. It’s like as soon as the main characters get into a room together, Fletcher has to struggle to come up with reasons why his narrative should still exist. So we get a second group that Michael stole from because this guy has an even bigger death wish. This second group of spurned bad guys is on their way. If Fletcher was going this route, he might as well gone whole-hog imitating Smokin’ Aces and just had numerous crews all fighting over taking out this schlub first. It feels like Fletcher is making up the story as he goes, taking us on relatively pointless nonlinear interludes to pad the running time. The film, like Tarantino, breaks up the story into a series on onscreen chapters, though one of these only lasts like a minute. Then there’s a loopy dream sequence. The narrative is so stagnant that whatever interest you may have had will long be gone. By the time the movie actually does end, at about 80 minutes, it has long felt creatively exhausted, totally gassed. Fletcher throws out all the stops to get across that finish line.

Even though it was filmed way back in 2010, it’s hard to escape the morbid irony of Gandolfini (Enough Said) playing a character discussing his own inevitable death. He’s the best actor in the film, offering a paternal warmth that goes wasted amidst all the stylistic nonsense. Our other two featured players, Bledel (TV’s Gilmore Girls) and Ronan (The Host), have a sprightly chemistry together that works. I just wish all three actors had something to do rather than strike artificial poses and quip.

After enduring The Paperboy, and “enduring” is indeed the correct term, I was certain that the messy, tonally uneven, sometimes garish flights of fancy in Precious were due to director Lee Daniels. After enduring, and again “enduring” is the correct term, Violet & Daisy, I’m starting to think that Fletcher is deserves equal credit. Violet & Daisy is a curious exercise in twee indie hipness, suffused with quirk standing in place for characters, story, meaning, etc. It feels like the development stopped once the core concept of teen girl assassins was concocted. The off-putting childish nature of the adult girls, juxtaposed with the baby doll sexuality of the film, makes for an uncomfortable watch. To call the film bad taste is too easy. Whether this is a bizarre dark comedy, a whacko modern fairy tale, or whatever term you want to apply to justify the artificial excesses and emptiness, Violet & Daisy is a contrived mess that labors to fill out a basic feature running time, often doubling back and delaying. There isn’t a story here, more just an incongruent, irregular style. If you’re content with a knockoff of a Tarantino knockoff, with an extra dose of whimsy, then enjoy Violet & Daisy and you can dance your cares away atop bleeding bodies.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Escape From Tomorrow (2013)

107317_galEscape From Tomorrow built a wave of buzz coming out of the Sundance Film Festival, namely because it was a bizarre, psycho-sexual little indie film shot secretly on the premises of Disney World and Disney Land. Writer/director Randy Moore shot his movie in secret, unbeknownst to Disney and the park employees. He was so paranoid about word getting out what they had done that Moore edited the film in another country. There is palpable fear at the reach and power of Disney’s coffers, enough so that a character mentioning the very D-word is silenced, and so I recall early on that people predicted Disney and its armada of lawyers would never allow Escape From Tomorrow to be released. Rather than get litigious, the Mouse House has decided to simply clam up, refusing comment. It’s a smart move, because besides a passing novelty, no one is going to remember the oh so monotonous Escape From Tomorrow in a matter of months.

The wisp of a plot involves a family vacationing at a Disney park. On the final day, the father (Roy Abramsohn) has been told he has lost his job. The rest of the day follows suit as the father loses his grip with reality, interpreting sinister signs throughout the park. He also keeps running into a pair of French teen girls who enjoy holding hands, being flirty, and singing. After the third or fourth time, the father starts to trail the girls, eerily entranced. They warn him that dire things will befall him if he doesn’t go with them.

131011_MOV_EscapeFromTomorrow.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeTake away the ballsy, surreptitiously recorded angle, the “how did they do that?” factor, and ultimately is there a movie here worth watching? I would definitively say… no. Admittedly it’s interesting to dissect how this guerrilla-style stunt was accomplished, watching scene after scene and figuring out what was shot in the parks unbeknownst to tourists and employees, what was likely shot on a set, where the cuts marry the two, and what techniques the director and his crew utilized to film a movie without blowing their cover. I think many of the scenes had to be improvised, at least the dialogue within the park, because starting and stopping and repeating lines in public, out in the open, would seem suspicious (the cursing would also seem to be courting danger). The Disney theme parks have millions of visitors, so people recording every action would not seem out of the ordinary. Escape From Tomorrow works as a stunt, with the audience picking apart the magic trick simultaneously as it’s performed.

However, a stunt is all that Escape From Tomorrow is because from a thematic, subtext standpoint, this movie is a mess. There just isn’t enough weirdness going on here and whatever small doses of it we get is given precious little connection to any larger theme. It feels like the filmmakers settled on the most facilely subversive idea – Disney Land, the happiest place on Earth, is not. Undercutting all of Disney’s famous family-friendly iconography with the occasional weird thing is not enough. A kid has black eyes. Ten minutes later a stranger makes an offensive comment. Ten minutes later something in a ride that is supposed to be happy looks mean instead. The majority of the movie plays out like you’re watching someone’s boring vacation. You don’t care about the characters. There is no plot to speak of, and that can be acceptable in an atmospheric film that serves as a visual descent into madness. There just isn’t enough madness here. Escape From Tomorrow is far too tedious to be effective. Long stretches are just watching the family traverse the theme park, notably with the father always running into the French teens. There is far too much padding, little connection from scene to scene, and the end is just a confusing muddle groping for a deeper meaning. Midway through, when the father is captured and held underground at Epcot, it looks like the movie is going to take that next step, ramping up the weirdness. Well that conflict is readily solved and then we’re back to the occasional boring out-of-place item. I want to say that Escape From Tomorrow is like David Lynch’s vacation video, but that is giving too much undeserved praise. This is like the deleted scenes of David Lynch’s vacation video.

video-escape-anatomy-articleLargeMy colleague Ben Bailey countered my negative option with the idea that Escape From Tomorrow is meant to be a dark comedy and to view it through that lens; all right then, because as a “comedy” it still is half-baked, meandering, and poorly executed. The incongruous imagery, often sexual or demonic, is rather cheap in the sense that it’s just flipping the staid Disney script on wholesomeness with no more subversive substance than a moody teenager scribbling on his notebook. The Disney princesses double as high-priced courtesans? Okay, now go further rather than just taking a standard Disney character and making it adult in a shallow manner. There’s a scene where the father escapes by squeezing a tube of Neosporin to lubricate his hands out of confines, and oh boy, the white liquid shoots onto hanging pictures of female body parts. What a riot. Taking a cockeyed, perverted look at Disney is not the same as developing comedy, and even that cockeyed view is lame. I think that the father’s lustful pursuit of the French girls is meant to be comedic, but it was only creepy. When he sneaks up to spy on them in their bathing suits, how else should I interpret that? If this is supposed to be a comedy then Escape From Tomorrow is an even larger misfire.

Escape From Tomorrow is a nonsensical, plodding, superficial film, and it adds up to a whole lot of nothing. There isn’t a grander statement or sense of commentary. There is just scene-to-scene weirdness that grows old rapidly. I commend the ingenuity of the filmmakers for being able to secretly record a movie at one of the most heavily trafficked locations in the world. I don’t think the filmmakers had any clear vision of what they wanted to say with their movie, settling on “weird crap at Disney Land,” and then putting all their time and energy into planning how to pull off this coup, never mind the fact that the finished product was not nearly worth the effort. If you’ve ever wanted to be trapped on a bad vacation, then enjoy, movie masochists.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

I am in love. It’s been days since I watched Silver Linings Playbook and I’m still under its spell. It’s a movie that gave me such rapturous emotional peaks, a deeply satisfying crowd-pleaser that doesn’t just nail the big moments, it crushes them. This is a movie that works so well with just about every facet of storytelling, from acting to writing to directing, that you’re liable to be in awe as I was.

Pat (Bradley Cooper), a high school history teacher, came home one day to find his wife in the shower with another man. He admittedly lost it, beating the man bloody, and has been remanded to a state psych ward for the past eight months. It’s determined that Pat is an undiagnosed bipolar case, and the court orders him to stay on his meds and stay 500 feet away from his now ex-wife, Nikki. Having lost his home, Pat is living with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver), both of whom don’t know how to help their troubled son. Pat is convinced he can win back his wife. He starts conditioning by running, wearing a garbage bag to better sweat off the pounds, and meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s been fighting through depression after coping from the sudden death of her police officer husband. She agrees to help Pat get in contact with his ex, passing a letter, but at a price. He must compete with her in a dancing competition. They spend hours practicing their routine, getting to know one another, and stabilizing one another, providing a foundation for healing and success.

The story itself isn’t anything groundbreaking; you could glibly label it as the “bipolar rom-com” and it does adhere to that structure for the second half. But this is David O. Russell we’re talking about, the man behind 2010’s The Fighter, yes, but also offbeat dysfunctional family comedies like Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster. The man has a way of working within the framework of conventions and finding the rough edges, to make stories at once familiar and excitingly new. Is there anything groundbreaking with Silver Linings Playbook? It’s your boy-meets-girl formula at heart, but the execution is so extremely sure-footed, so exceptionally handled, that the movie leaves you buzzy and beaming. Once it ended, I wanted to run around, shouting from the rooftops for people to run out and see this movie. You want others to share in something so special and affecting. I felt a similar passion after seeing the unconventional romance Safety Not Guaranteed, and I’d advise any fans of Safety to certainly check out Silver. Being a rousing, crowd-pleasing sort of movie is not necessarily a yoke to weigh down its artistic integrity. As if enjoyment and creative accomplishment are opposing forces. I freely admit that Silver Linings Playbook is a masterful movie that knows what it takes to get an audience cheering, and I was thrilled to be part of that cheering throng. Here is a movie that just makes you feel good, and when was the last movie you saw that made you feel glowing with happiness?

This in an emotionally rich film; I was so happy after my screening that it felt like a high I didn’t want to come down from. To engineer a reaction that enhanced, that enlightened, that potent, well I must sing the praises of Russell and his actors. I bought into the love story and family drama big time. The payoffs are meaty and numerous, and I often found the film to be sincerely moving. There’s a great satisfaction in watching two oddballs find their special someone’s, and when the characters are this interesting, this human, and so well portrayed, it makes every stop along the journey that much more engaging and emotionally triumphant. It’s got an ending that pulls it all together in spectacular fashion, giving us exactly what we want while feeling earned and on its own eccentric terms. This is a deeply felt and compassionate film, one with as much uplift as acerbic rebellion. You feel like these people really do love one another. Silver Linings Playbook has memorized the playbook on how to win over an audience, but it always comes down to the same Xs and Os: strong characters, a compelling story, and people we genuinely care about, and that includes distaff supporting characters too.

The characters are so interesting and beautifully flawed, and the actors are so in tune with one another, delivering bar-raising performances that take the movie into another realm of enjoyment. When actors are given plum roles about people with mental illnesses or disabilities, it must be very enticing to overindulge in tics and self-conscious mannerisms. That doesn’t happen with Silver Linings Playbook. Beyond an uptick in tempo, the actors portray their parts as characters rather than ailments. If anything, the acting in this movie is practically restrained given the circumstances. What’s more, Silver Linings Playbook is a fine example of what can happen when the cast works in tandem, challenging one another to up their game. It’s like every actor felt revived from all the talent on display. Russell knows how to push his actors like few other directors, and while this has lead to notorious Internet videos of his actors losing their cool, it’s also given way to raw performances that burn in your memory. Russell gets his actors to bring their A-game and then some. The Fighter got three Oscar nods for acting and I wouldn’t be surprised if Silver Linings Playbook gets three as well (I think Lawrence and De Niro are locks).

Cooper (The Hangover) has always had a certain smirking, leering quality about him, a guy used to portraying louts with charisma. I have never seen him tackle anything nearly as challenging as what he does with Pat. He’s unpredictably combustible, ready to explode at any moment, but also empathetic, trying to do better. Pat isn’t meant to be seen as a loveable loser. This guy has serious problems he’s working through. Cooper is simply incredible, showcasing skills and nuance you didn’t know the man had, radiating with an intense outpouring of spontaneous energy that doesn’t ever feel forced. Cooper is not bouncing off the walls here as some wild-eyed loony, playing upon codified ideas of what a bipolar person behaves like. He’s a deeply complicated guy, processing challenging and contradicting feelings in a brain that doesn’t necessarily follow the rules. He has so many impulses leading him in different directions. Pat is obsessed with his goal of impressing his wife, so much that he seems blind to the tangible connection he’s formed with Tiffany, and we yearn that he realizes the catch in front of him. I was won over completely by Cooper’s committed, attentive, anxious, and lively performance.

Readers will know that I harbor a serious crush when it comes to the talented actress, Lawrence (The Hunger Games). I was expecting her to be great in this movie, as this is pretty much my default setting with the actress at this point. I was not expecting what she delivered, a performance that is so enthralling, so astonishing, that you’ll be left stupefied that a woman at only the young age of 22 could be this phenomenally gifted. Lawrence had several scenes that just left me speechless. Lawrence is in elite territory now as far as I’m concerned. Her command of the character is just about impeccable, and you perk up every moment she’s onscreen. She’s a damaged woman recovering from her own powerful grief, but she’s so many things at any one moment. She can be lusty, provocative, angry, sullen, commanding, vulnerable, and hurtful. There are scenes where she will bounce around a plethora of emotional states, but each one gradually shifts to the other, making the transformation genuine and another layer to the character. If she were just some crazy girl we wouldn’t care if she eventually got her happy ending with Pat. With Lawrence’s talents, and Russell’s sharp writing, Tiffany becomes a figure worth fighting for, a bruised romantic that finds her rare kindred spirit who accepts and appreciates her messiness.

The supporting cast from top to bottom may not be at the same level as Cooper and Lawrence, but their output is also impressive. De Niro (Limitless) hasn’t been this good in ages, delivering a few monologues that will hit you square in the gut. Weaver (The Five-Year Engagement) is something of an enabler for the family, but she also gets her moments to shine and reassert her strength and dignity. Chris Tucker (in his first non-Rush Hour movie since 1997) is the least Chris Tucker I’ve ever seen him. He’s downplayed his motor mouth tendencies completely, and he’s a wonderful presence as he ducks in and out. He even teaches Tiffany how to “black up” her dance, a fact that most heterosexual males in the audience will be thankful for this time of year.

Russell deserves serious credit for portraying mental illness in a manner that doesn’t dance around the seriousness of the condition. Statistically one in three people suffer from a mental illness at some point in their life, and I’ll even admit that post-divorce, I too fell amongst those ranks (I’m a statistic!). In the case of Pat, He’s not just some unfeeling jerk who says inappropriate things or has problems reading social cues. He’s a guy going through serious personal struggles, same with Tiffany. These are not jokes. They are not send-ups of mental illness; they are people. At no point does the humanity of these characters get lost. We will laugh at their inappropriate comments, sure, but we are never laughing at them from some cushy sanctuary of superiority. I also think Russell examines an interesting, more socially-acceptable form of mass mental illness, namely the OCD-nature associated with sports superstitions. Smart and capable people can get caught up in the allure of superstitions, and when it concerns sports in general, groupthink overpowers. I consider myself a sports fan as well (I’m a double statistic!) and fully accept the ridiculous nature of fandom, but I thought it was a clever move for Russell to hold the mirror up to our own cracked community and its irrational behavior. And as any Philadelphia sports fan will acknowledge, they take fandom to a whole other level.

At this point, I don’t know what more I can write about this movie without coming across as a complete, frothing madman. Football, mental illness, ballroom dancing! I’m smitten big time with Silver Linings Playbook. I’m completely in the tank for this film. Future viewings (already planning one soon) will probably highlight certain minute flaws I’ve failed to notice the first go-round. And even if those flaws become more apparent (yes the final dance is something of a contrived climax) I simply do not care. The movie’s many virtues far exceed any shortcomings that could potentially arise. It plays to some familiar rom-com elements but it goes about its business with its own funky charm. The acting, writing, and directing are all on such a heightened level of excellence, it’s amazing just to watch all the parts work together so masterfully. I wasn’t just won over by this movie; I’ve become its disciple. I preach the gospel of Silver Linings Playbook. Here is a rapturous feel-good movie that doesn’t feel like it’s pandering or dulling its edge even after it takes some conventional turns. Cooper is terrific, Lawrence is astounding, and together they form the couple you cheer for. Silver Linings Playbook is everything you’d want in a stellar movie. I can’t wait to watch it again and get caught up in its wondrous spell once more. It took a long ten months but The Grey has finally been knocked off the perch. Silver Linings Playbook is nothing short of the best film I’ve seen this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

Holy Motors (2012)

I like movies that are different. I like movies that can be hard to understand. Holy Motors, a surreal French film, is both very different and very hard to understand. The movie follows a man as he goes about transforming into nine different characters, each with their own bizarre mission. Is he performing? For whom? Who is behind all this? Does he ever stop assuming false roles? Questions such as these hardly matter in movies such as this. You’re either transported by the lyrical weirdness and unpredictability, or you find it tiresome and much ado about nothing. After a while, I just gave up with this movie. I’m not a fan of weird for weird’s sake and I felt like that was all I got with Holy Motors. I’m sure you could write a doctoral-level thesis decoding this movie, but why waste valuable hours of your life? This movie is nothing but strange imagery that adds up to precious little. I thought the concept of playing roles/manufactured realities was better explored in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. When a Kaufman movie is more accessible than your film, your name better be David Lynch or you’re in trouble. I’m sure several fans of the obscure and outrageous will find amusement at the sheer randomness with Holy Motors. It’s got martial arts acrobats, Kylie Minogue breaking out into song, magical resurrection, spontaneous band performances, talking cars, and for good measure chimpanzees. I hope you get more out of it than I did. I found the enterprise to be more tedious than titillating, more frustrating than fascinating, and not worth the trouble of fashioning meaning from the discarded puzzle pieces.

Nate’s Grade: C

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

It feels good to be a Wes Anderson fan once again. The indie auteur has a very distinctive style that he seems to have little regard in altering. I’ve been critical of Anderson’s idiosyncratic style, comparing it to crafting wonderfully composed, intricate dollhouses minus compelling or relatable characters to inhabit these artfully constructed mini-worlds. Without that necessary element, it’s all just fancy window dressing. Finally, Anderson, with Moonrise Kingdom, has concocted another movie where the characters grab more of your attention than the backgrounds.

Set in 1965 on a small island just off the New England coast, the movie follows the adventures of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), both twelve years old. Sam has run away from his summer camp, the Khaki Scouts, led by Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton). Suzy has run away from her parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand). The small island’s one police officer, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), enlists the help of several Khaki Scouts he deputizes to find the missing duo. It’s revealed through a serried of letters, and flashbacks, that Sam and Suzy have been plotting their escape for over a year. They’re in love, and they’re going to make sure nobody interferes.

What more relatable than young love? Sam and Suzy just want to be together and the rest of the adult world seems intent on keeping them apart. Right away you’re pulling for these kids, rooting for their triumph, and the movie does a fantastic job of replicating the innocence of young love without overly romanticizing a very nervous, awkward time in life. When Sam and Suzy practice kissing, for what is obviously the first time, I defy anyone sitting in the audience not to feel a recognizable pang of insecurity. The experimentation is a tad more realistic than you might expect with the PG-13 rating but still nothing to shatter the youthful innocence of the picture. There is not a tawdry moment in Moonrise Kingdom. It’s a time in life when the knowledge of sex existed without a keen understanding of sensuality, like in Miranda July’s Me, and You, and Everyone We Know. It’s more like fumbling around with what you think is appropriate activity. Still, the fact that the movie features twelve-year-olds in their underwear dancing and mildly experimenting means Moonrise Kingdom might draw a swath of ticket-buyers for the wrong reasons (beware the patron in a raincoat).

The scrupulous attention to detail is the same obsessive quality you come to expect from a Wes Anderson movie. He builds living worlds and his color schemes and shot arrangements add much texture to this idiosyncratic landscape. Unlike Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited, these artistic elements work in harmony rather than conflict; Anderson actually seems to care about the people here. Chances are if you’re not a Wes Anderson fan, Moonrise Kingdom will probably not be the movie to win you over. The whimsical, storybook nature of the film actually accentuates the broader themes; bright-eyed exploration, the magic of possibility with love, and an unyielding hope. The movie feels like one of Suzy’s storied adventures come to life but without compromising the relatable character conflicts. The movie does build a nice head of steam thanks to the pursuit of our runaway romantics. There’s also a palpable sense of danger lurking, as the kids risk life and limb and even experience death, albeit a dog (Suzy: “Was he a good dog?” Sam: “Who’s to say?”). It’s a poignant tale of childhood but it doesn’t feel childish, a family film meant for people probably too young for families.

Moonrise Kingdom walks a fine line between whimsical and overly precious. Less skilled filmmakers haven fallen suit to making insufferably twee film productions consumed by their own indulgent sense of preciousness. Moonrise Kingdom is full of the typical Anderson quirk but it doesn’t overpower the narrative or define the characters in such limited personal scopes. There’s plenty of laughs to be had with the film, most in the wry chuckle variety; I was laughing throughout, finding those staple peculiar touches to be the most amusing, from the Scout Master reading a magazine titled “Indian Corn,” to Bob Balaban’s questionably omniscient narrator, to some improvised natural earrings.

The movie is consistently funny but also far sweeter than I would have imagined given the detached, arch nature of Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Again, the kids are precocious and the adults act more like children, but everyone is really hurting and lonely and looking for a means of coping or persevering, with the biggest source of pain being love; the longing, the ache, the uncertainty of when and if it will return. Usually Anderson’s films involve dysfunctional families mending some degree of their brokenness by film’s end and formulating a connection. With Moonrise Kingdom, the plot is on two kids falling in love and their will to endure. I appreciate that Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola (Darjeeling Limited) do not trivialize or look down upon the relationship between Sam and Suzy (“Oh, it’s just puppy love you silly, naïve, waifs.”). To them it feels like everything. The tender approach to young love opens the film up to a broader audience without compromising the director’s unique vision. I’d hardly say the film approaches overt sentimentality. What’s there feels earned and more reserved than what we might expect from burgeoning romance. When the expressions of affection occur, they have greater weight and make a greater impact charming the audience.

The first-time child actors do a credible job with carrying the film. Hayward and Gilman are charming and easy to like, though I wish Anderson had pushed his young actors a tad harder. They seem stiff at times and a little above-it-all in attitude. I applaud the kids for acting somewhat reserved rather than going crazy with their budding hormones. Both characters are also characterized as “emotionally disturbed,” though this seems like another of the film’s damning details about the out-of-touch adults dictating their lives. I just wished we sensed a greater degree of urgency from them about this whole adventure and the possibility of losing one another. They feel a tad blasé, all things considered.

The bigger celebrity names in the cast assume smaller roles, and many of the supporting characters are thinly sketched with personal conflicts mostly kept at a simmer. These are grownups that, at their heart, don’t know what to do with their feelings. Sam and Suzy feel liberated by their feelings. I found Murray’s blustery sense of anger amusing, and Willis does some subtle work to give you a sense how truly lonely his character is to the core, but it’s Jason Schwartzman (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) who steals the show in my book as the fast-talking, mercurial, scheming Cousin Ben who seems to have whatever somebody needs. When he agrees to marry Sam and Suzy and acknowledges that their marriage will not be deemed official under any court whatsoever, you get a sense that Moonrise Kingdom has been missing a propulsive and delightful character like Cousin Ben. I wish he had been inserted earlier, but this is Sam and Suzy’s movie, after all.

It’s not on the same level as Rushmore of The Royal Tenenbaums (my favorite Anderson films), but it’s a film that feels a lot more alive and emotionally resonant. It feels like a return to form for Anderson, remembering that the characters and their drama need to be as engaging as the set design. The turbulent young love of Sam and Suzy is sweet and leads to some tender yet poignant moments that warm the heart without making you overdose on cheap sentiment. The idiosyncratic touches are all there, the ironic humor, and the stellar soundtrack selection (Benjamin Britten’s deconstructive orchestral marches stand out as a thematic core), everything you’d expect from a Wes Anderson movie, except this time you’ll find the characters recognizable, their struggle compelling, and the end rewarding. Moonrise Kingdom isn’t the most substantive film playing in theaters but damned if it isn’t the most alluring, amusing, and affectionate, yet all on its own terms. Who would have guessed that a pair of twelve-year-olds would help us show what real love is in 2012?

Nate’s Grade: A-

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