My Week in Movies: July 15-21

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) Considering their inspiration, I appreciate the filmmakers’ decision to not go the obvious route – rather than a zany comedy, we get a quieter, more introspective film, the kind of low-key dramedy where Aubrey Plaza stares forlornly out of car windows. Where that route leads, however, is to a movie that’s smug about being smug. That is, it looks down upon the kind of hipster ironic detachment that mocks the kitschy and the uncool, with Plaza slowly realizing the weirdo she’s investigating (Mark Duplass is wonderful in the role, by the way) is actually far more than just the sum of his obvious quirks – but it gets there with a style that’s, well, kinda loaded with hipster ironic detachment. The problem mainly lies in a subplot following Plaza’s boss, a jerky type who can’t leave his youthful glories behind. It’s meant to support the movie’s themes of regret (both Duplass and Plaza want to time travel in order to repair past losses and mistakes), but the screenplay turns him into a caricature that’s not in line with the main plot’s more heartfelt intentions. Plaza and Duplass save the film, but only just.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) I love filmmaker Chance Shirley’s comment about Wes Anderson: “I used to joke that Wes Anderson kept making the same movie over and over again, but it was cool because I liked that movie.” That pretty much sums it up. I should, by all accounts, hate Anderson’s overuse of the twee and the stylized, because it should be the sign of a filmmaker who’s more interested in art direction than in storytelling. But the art direction is always in service of the story, used to create the proper tone. Better still, Anderson’s stories and the performances he pulls from his casts are just so damn good. It’s impossible not to love the guy and his work. (Credit here, by the way, must be shared with Anderson’s co-writer, Roman Coppola.) For Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson delivers a wonderful slice of childhood fantasy that’s at once innocent and mature, with young characters far wiser and more emotionally adjusted than their adult counterparts. I’m disappointed (although not surprised) that this movie hasn’t been marketed more to younger viewers; it’s a darn near perfect kids movie, the sort of magical creation that I wish had been around when I was a tween.

Magic Mike (2012) This is definitely one of the more baffling pairings of director and material I’ve seen in a while. On paper, Magic Mike is exploitation schlock, a third-rate morality play filled with strippers, sex, and good people seduced into bad times. The working title might as well have been Showguys. The screenplay is loaded with cliché, right down to the run-in with drug dealers and the straight arrow big sister fighting for her brother’s soul. But the script landed in the hands of Steven Soderbergh, and that’s enough to stop the wreck. It’s still overlong and unfocused (the script can’t decide if it’s about the title character or the young stud he recruits; the third act abandons the latter’s character arc almost entirely, and while I like a certain ambiguity, I’m not sure it’s entirely intentional), but Soderbergh’s style creates some unexpected intimacy, which moves us away from the cheesy story beats and toward more involving character study. Great performances all around, too. And if nothing else, you get Kevin Nash trying to dance. Emphasis on the trying.

Moon Over Miami (1941) I’ve seen How to Marry a Millionaire a few times but have never seen Betty Grable’s earlier, better gold digger comedy until now. The plot is ho-hum in its romcom shenanigans, making the movie feel about a half hour too long (and the movie’s only 91 minutes), probably because it’s one of those stories where we figure out who’s going to end up with whom about an hour before they do, and the rest is a clumsy waiting game. What carries us through is the music – plenty of lovely songs and dynamite dance numbers, the kind of plot-stoppers that don’t belong but we don’t mind because the tap dancing is killer.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t yet mentioned the week’s terrible news, it’s because I write this diary throughout the week in order to keep thoughts fresh and organized. I watched (and wrote about) the above movies early in the week. Then Thursday night hit, and here we are.

The Dish (2001) I’ve been wanting to write something about the Aurora shootings, but any words I can think up, any topics I wish to cover seem trivial in comparison. Which brings me, oddly, to The Dish. Eager to find an escape from the anger and sorrow of Friday morning’s news, I sought out some cinematic gentleness (and wound up celebrating the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, as if to counter humanity at our worst with thoughts of us at our best). The Dish remains both one of my favorite films and one of the gosh darn friendliest movies I’ve ever seen. As a lighthearted tale of impossibly nice people doing impossibly smart things, it was the perfect antidote to tragic news, a bear hug of a movie, a reminder when we most need it that most people are good.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2012) More gentleness. Well, that was the plan, anyway, and for a good chunk of this one, we get just that: a sweet little picture about chasing an impossible dream. It’s the right kind of charming, bounding with optimism and filled with quirky characters, terrific performances, and some nice touches from Lasse Hallström. But, oh, that third act, which dumps upon us a string of clumsy dramatics – a love triangle here, an assassination attempt there – and that muddies up the proceedings just enough to dilute the magic. Shouldn’t a movie with a title like this not be something we feel like we’ve seen before?

The Dark Crystal (1982) I’m surprised at how clearly I can remember The World of The Dark Crystal, the making-of TV special I hadn’t seen in nearly three decades. I recall being mesmerized by seeing how Henson and Oz made their magic, which – far from the chestnut about the magician’s secrets spoiled – made me love their work even more. The movie remains a thing of great wonder, creating a world you know is artificial yet feels more alive than many of today’s computer generated creations. The audience never minds being able to find the seams (there’s where he’s obviously a person, not a puppet! there’s a bluescreen cheat! there’s the string!) – we’re so caught up in both the gorgeousness of the artistry and the majesty of a terrific fantasy yarn. I can’t imagine a day when The Dark Crystal fails to impress.

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