Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

The mere fact that I’m writing this review sort of gives away my feelings, as I didn’t intend to write anything — or, at least, not much — about it at all. But History Repeating – Blue absolutely shocked me with its quality. For anyone who’d like to purchase it before reading my spoilers, be my guest. I recommend it outright.

History Repeating – Blue is the first half of the Mega Man 3-themed rock opera by The Megas. It’s been years in the making, which for a long time had some folks wondering if it would ever see release. It was not only worth waiting for, but it represents an enormous step forward for the band in both their writing and musicianship.

The fact that History Repeating is being released in two parts is my only real disappointment, but stick with me because I’ll negate that disappointment before this review is through.

The 10 tracks on this album suggest that the Mega Man 3 rock opera is going to be significantly longer than its Mega Man 2-inspired predecessor, Get Equipped. After all, that album only had 13 tracks, and two of those were less than 20 seconds long. Here we have four robot master themes (Top Man, Magnet Man, Spark Man and Snake Man), two Wily themes, a long intro theme (split in half) and a gloriously meditative tune built upon the simple Game Over theme.

I can’t stress enough how impressive it is that the band weaves such an emotionally-invested story based on the Mega Man games. Those titles were famously slight on the storytelling. There were hints of themes and continuity, but, overall, they were just an excuse to dodge traps and shoot things. That’s fine. What The Megas choose to explore is the mindset of somebody trapped within such an existence. On the surface, it’s a fun game. On the inside, though, what is happening? What kind of thoughts would he have? How would he cope with them?

The Megas have now covered three Mega Man games, and the psychological progression of the protagonist is noticeable. Throughout the EP based on the first game, Mega Man is silent. He’s been told to destroy the enemies of Dr. Light, and he does that. The closest thing to an emotional response comes from Dr. Wily, who pleads with Mega Man to acknowledge the destruction that he himself has caused in his mission to take the old man down.

Throughout Get Equipped Mega Man is similarly enthusiastic about his quest, but the album ends on the tellingly introspective “Lamentations of a War Machine.” It’s here that Wily’s words seem to have at last gotten through to him. As Mega Man’s body count rises, is there any reason that he can’t be tarred with the same brush? The refrain sees Mega Man questioning his creator, Dr. Light, and pleading for some justification of his actions, or at least reassurance that he did the right thing. We don’t hear an answer. Mega Man’s concerns go unresolved as the song ends, and the rain begins again to fall.

Here, in History Repeating – Blue, Mega Man opens the album by openly wondering how many more times he’ll need to do this. (If he’s feeling this way now, I can only wonder how exhausted he’ll be by Mega Man 10.) His future seems to be set in this cycle of torment, this unending gauntlet of villains and a race of people that turn only to him when they need help. He’s still going about his work, but he’s at least aware that there are alternatives…which is why “Continue” works so well at the end of the disc.

I was a bit worried about the interruption of narrative flow that would occur with a split release, but “Continue” is as perfect a disc-1 conclusion as anyone could ever hope for. Sung by an unknown figure (Dr. Light? Roll? Mega Man to his reflection?) it gives our hero a chance to consider an alternate path for his life. He never would take such a path, the song assures us, but he’s starting to notice that it’s there. Mega Man is, three games and albums later, finally acknowledging the paradox in his prime directive to fight for everlasting peace. That kind of self-questioning is a beautiful sentiment, and it’s handled with impressive atmosphere and emotion.

The fact that it comes after Mega Man is tempted by Snake Man — who, with a smart move, is portrayed here more as a Biblical serpent than with the more naturalistic connotations of a true-to-life snake — to defect and join Wily’s team. While there’s no chance of that happening on disc 2, the question is more important than the answer. Snake Man weaves a tale of murder, hatred, coldness, blindness and…well…evil. But it’s a tale he’s weaving about Mega Man. Both Dr. Light and Dr. Wily send out their creations to destroy and to kill. Can one be inherently better than the other? Their intentions may be different, but their methods are not. Is Mega Man just as culpable for the war? It’s an interesting question, and it’s clear that Snake Man’s words would indeed resonate for the super fighting robot.

One other fascinating theme is continued from Get Equipped, and it has to deal with the concept of surrogate children. In Get Equipped one of the standout tracks was “The Message From Dr. Light,” which revealed that Dr. Light created Mega Man not as a peace keeper or a war machine, but as a son. Unable to have one of his own, Light created a mechanized replacement. He feels a great deal of affection for his creation for that reason, and Wily by this point has decided to adopt and corrupt that idea as well, and has also begun referring to his own creations as children. This leads to a humorous, almost Sonichu-like, frequency of artificial creations addressing humans as “father.”

Dr. Light legitimately wanted a son and transferred that dormant love to Mega Man. Dr. Wily, by contrast, saw how well that helped keep Mega Man in check, and began employing it himself. It’s a brilliant way of subverting the protagonist’s driving force. He fights for his father because he cares about him…but is that any different from his enemies, who are also fighting on behalf of their father? As Snake Man observes, the lines are blurring between wrong and right. Things are starting to look pretty similar on both sides of the fight. Mega Man takes a walk in the sand halfway through his journey — unlike Get Equipped he can’t even finish his mission first — and looks inward. That’s “Continue,” and it’s one of the album’s many accomplishments. We don’t know what he sees, but we know he doesn’t like it.

Elsewhere we have a pair of swirling, rocking Wily tunes as he preps Gamma, his latest WMD, and the other three robot master songs. Top Man’s is a relentlessly danceable masterpiece of mindlessness and Spark Man’s is a militaristic call to arms, but the real winner here is Magnet Man’s, which characterizes the villain as something of a delusional romantic, who may or may not have actually had a fling with Mega Man’s sister, Roll. It’s funny, catchy, and probably the most accessible tune in the collection.

I was prepared to be disappointed by this release, as I thought it would feel like one half of a greater piece. However it just feels like an extremely cohesive and exciting first act. There’s more to come, and we’ve likely got a pretty long intermission, but it’s already worth waiting for.

I used to wonder what it might have been like when Frank Zappa released his masterpiece Joe’s Garage in 3 parts, with delays in between. How did it feel to have that one story, that one work of art, that one musical journey, interrupted and dispersed over a much longer period?

Now I have a much-smaller-scale analogue. It feels pretty great. It’s a sense of creative excitement. And it gives me a chance to focus my attentions more strongly on a first half that, very likely, could have otherwise been buried beneath the impact of the conclusion.

As such, I’m left with a paradox of my own. I can’t wait…and yet I hope The Megas take their time. I’m happy to savor this as long as I can.

It’s finally happened…Denver has Moonrise Kingdom. And while I’m sure it will take me several more viewings to really formulate a thorough opinion, I can confidently say this much: it was worth waiting for.

The plot, as everybody knows by now, is that two lonesome youngsters named Sam and Suzy fall in love and take off together, as a massive storm brews and the small town becomes increasingly desperate to find them. Because I’d like to keep this review relatively spoiler free, I won’t say much more than that. I do say “relatively,” though, so if you’d like to remain totally unspoiled, stop reading now…and just know that, yes, it’s a film worth experiencing.

Moonrise Kingdom is a strange film…it both feels like a Wes Anderson film and yet stands pretty uniquely among them. Part of this might be due to the fact that he focused the film completely on a pair of unknowns — the first time he’s done that since Bottle Rocket — and sidelined the few regular collaborators that do appear. This movie very distinctly belongs to Sam and Suzy…and that does leave me with mixed emotions, though they are almost uniformly positive.

The two young actors — Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward — are each fantastic finds. Gilman in particular does an excellent job of portraying Sam as a young man who’s not necessarily wise beyond his years, but certainly troubled beyond them. He’s guileless and without any sort of malice whatsoever…which is both why he becomes an easy target to his fellow scouts, and eventually earns their sympathy.

Hayward’s work here is much more subtle — especially as her more manic moments all occur offscreen, thanks to some artful editing — but ultimately Suzy comes across as someone who alternates seamlessly and immediately between frightened and frightening.

Between them, the two leads do most of the emotional heavy lifting…though it’s almost as though Anderson doesn’t quite trust them to handle the load (more on that later). Regardless, Moonrise Kingdom contains its expected share of painful exchanges, revealing character not by what they say and do, but by what they fail to say and restrict themselves from doing.

One particularly intelligent choice on Anderson’s part was to provide us with information that each of these children, separately, is seen by others as being emotionally disturbed. The intelligent choice is to actually bear that out in how they act and react in their various adventures; this isn’t a case of adults failing to understand their children…this is a case of adults correctly assessing the fact that their children have problems, but not knowing how to handle them.

Suzy, for example, is prone to violent outbursts. It’s completely at odds with her conservative dress and meticulously composed hair and makeup, but it’s always there in her eyes…a lurking, relentless darkness that prevents her from ever feeling at ease. One of Hayward’s best scenes in the film is one in which we can’t hear her…an outburst at her family in the middle of dinner. We catch her in mid eruption, and though we can’t hear a word she’s saying, that’s not important. What’s important is that she can’t contain her anger — which may or may not even have definition — and also that her family sits quietly, absorbing it, not reacting. They don’t know how to handle their daughter…and therefore cannot help her.

Sam’s issues are rooted a little more deeply, and are therefore that much more obscured. He is an orphan who has not recovered from the deaths of his parents, and he wears his mother’s brooch like an exposed scar. At one point he confesses to having committed arson while sleepwalking…and he got in trouble for it because nobody believed he was actually asleep. What neither Sam nor Suzy understands is that it doesn’t matter whether or not he was asleep…either way, he needs help that is not being offered to him.

But the two understand each other, and the two accept each other, and those are things that neither has ever really felt they’ve had before. They each come burdened with baggage, but they’re not judgmental of each other. In fact, Sam takes great pains to transport all of Suzy’s overloaded luggage along with them, regardless of the trouble it causes him to do so. In a clever inversion of the moral of The Darjeeling Limited, which requires each of the brothers to leave their accumulated baggage behind, Sam embraces Suzy’s, understands that that’s who she is, and is always careful to let her know that he’s comfortable with that.

Of course, the two are each living in a fantasy of their own devising. Why this works, however, and why we root for them, is that these fantasies are compatible. Suzy wishes to be swept away, and Sam wishes to sweep away. It gets them each where they think they need to be, and it’s a seductive combination. As short-sighted as their plan really is (tellingly, Suzy only borrows her brother’s record player for 10 days), we want this for them. After all…what else do they have?

One line that many reviewers seem to latch onto as a pretty clear distillation of the film is what Sam says to Suzy when she tells him she’s envious of the fact that his parents are dead. “I love you,” he says, “but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Personally, I think the defining moment came for me when, early in the film, Suzy asks about a recently deceased dog that Sam used to know. “Was he a good dog?” she asks. Sam, more sagely than he realizes, replies, “Who’s to say?”

It’s a very Anderson-like response, tapping into very Anderson-like themes. Who is to say? We all view ourselves in some way, but, if that’s not what the world sees, then what does it matter? Who are we? Are we the people we try to be? Or are we the people everyone else believes us to be? What are we? What defines our identities? Or, to phrase it in the parlance of this film, what kinds of birds are we?

Moonrise Kingdom catches the protagonists at a pivotal point in their lives, during which the promise of a magical future has yet to die and become the lingering echo that haunts the Tenenbaum family, or Team Zissou. For Sam and Suzy, whatever the future may actually turn out to hold, there is still time.

For the other characters in the film, there’s less time. The major adult characters are resigned to their roles, to their failings, and to their fates. Bill Murray’s character expresses exactly one wish in the film, and that’s for the storm to pull the roof from his house and suck him into space, because his family would be better off without him. It’s a fantastic line perfectly delivered, and it conveys a concentrated lifetime’s worth of disappointment.

There’s more I could say about this film. Maybe, eventually, I will. But, for now, I’ll move on to the very small complaints I think I have after one viewing, which will likely be totally erased after another few, if history is any example.

For starters, this is absolutely Anderson’s most overtly comic film. Jokes and sight gags are packed into these scenes, and they often dominate. It’s not a bad approach, but it’s certainly somewhat jarring for Anderson to be chasing the more obvious laughs, and I almost wonder if it’s because he didn’t trust his young leads to handle the emotion on their own. By undercutting himself and giving the audience a chance to relax into a more comfortable form of humor, he is lightening the loads that his protagonists actually have to carry. It’s a noticeably unrestrained variation on his typical approach, and while I don’t think it hurt the impact of the film, it did seem to make it feel unfocused at times.

Also, I’m not entirely sure that any characters outside of Sam and Suzy experienced any clear growth. The film suggests that they did, or at least that some of them did, but it would have been nice to spend more time with them along the way, and perhaps come to understand precisely how they’ve changed, and exactly why that’s important. Then again, as my girlfriend correctly put it, Anderson isn’t one to dwell on information he doesn’t think we need, and we, as members of the audience, should be meeting him at least halfway. For now, however, after one viewing, I feel as though Captain Sharp and Scoutmaster Ward had their most impressive moments when the cameras weren’t on them.

Overall, though, I loved it. At the end of the film I wasn’t sure what I thought, but by the time the credits ended I was already cycling through dozens of conflicting emotions, and I still am right now, as I write this. Moonrise Kingdom left a mark. I don’t know what that mark is, just as none of the other children understood their compulsion to listen to Suzy read from her stolen library books. It’s a story, and it means something to them. They might not know what. They don’t mind. The experience of feeling it unfold is the reward.

Moonrise Kingdom unfolds in enormously satisfying ways. And it’s okay if you feel a little bit confused…young love has that effect on people.

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