Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 
Author Message
PostPosted: Thu May 18, 2023 8:49 am 
Site Admin

Joined: Sat Mar 08, 2003 1:50 pm
Posts: 4680
Location: California/NYC

Emma's adventures in nightmare-land

Five-year-old Emma, a cloyingly cute Shirley Temple type (Haven Lee Harris, the director's daughter), lives with her unhappy mom Sara (Augie Duke) and angry dad Alex (Brionne Davis), whose marriage is now understandably on the rocks and who seem to fight lately much of the time. One night, while her parents are having a loud argument, Emma in her upset trips and rolls down the basement stairs, lands at the bottom in a coma - and is swept off into a noisy, frightening, phantasmagoric, but sometimes beautiful landscape of dreams. And we follow her along this path for the rest of the movie, whether we want to or not.

What unfolds of this vision in the bulk of Moon Garden involves a dazzling use of various informal but ingenious bricolage effects and animation techniques (including stop-motion) to depict a child's-eye-view story of purgatory, or something awfully close to it: life dominated by the constant fighting of the child's parents, which the mother tries to escape, but seems unable to]. The multi-media visuals create a series of bizarre, dreamy, melodramatic sequences in glowing colors and constant motion and sound. The eye may delight (or not), but all this effort to unleash surreal images might have been better spent on depicting the actual lives of the parents and the little girl in a subtle and complex way instead of the trite, sentimental frame tale the movie unthinkingly provides us with.

However, realism is not what the filmmakers were in search of, or the kind of storytelling that would somehow show us what apparently is going on: little Emma's struggle to regain consciousness. As the early dialogue announces, daddy is a writer, or at least wants to be, who wishes he could dream in bright colors the way little Emma tells him she does. He is frankly jealous, believing his daughter's vision to represent the font of creativity. "Wish I could dream like that," he says to Emma.. "It'd make writing my book a heck of a lot easier." Moon Garden is a celebration of the vividness of the childish imagination. Hence this is one of those films where the filmmakers are self consciously celebrating themselves - because these beautiful images are, after all, their own creation. But as the comatose imagined vision develops, it can hardly be seen as the product of a such an imagination - or at least one hopes not.

At first (in the dream, apparently), we see the little girl, and hear and glimpse the couple, now embracing, now panicking, and the emergency vehicle coming to take the girl to the hospital. But this morphs more and more into gooey scenes of insectoid monsters and dark, Dantesque, infernal visions at once gorgeous and terrifying. There are sequences of water that alternate between sunny swimming lessons of the girl and her parents at a happier time, and little Emma floating about alone in a muddy, leaf-filled morass surrounded by fencings of pipes. Masked and hairless creatures come and go, while the film ingeniously keeps alive the idea of the child's comatose state and the adults trying to signal to her.

A hyperactive sound design and Michael Deragon's vivid score maintain violent energy, with many crashes and explosions and eccentric fantasy scenes maintaining excitement and melding all together. There are numerous interesting little sequences. An ashen-skinned black gentleman in a mask, for instance, gives Emma a transistor radio that seems a talisman for her: its staticky transmissions represent Emma's shaky effort to connect with her mother's voice. A huge, papier-mâché rhinoceros floats high above. Emma is ordered to clean a horribly dirty and dilapidated bathroom, and she undertakes this overwhelming and disgusting chore cheerfully. What might that mean?

Well-realized though the scenes may be, it becomes harder and harder to see the unfolding images as related to any unified storyline. Sound and image dominate as things of themselves. There is no narrative of the sort created by Louis Carroll, no matter how much Emma's adventure may initially remind us of Alice's. Nor, for that matter, does this fragmented world compare with the equally bizarre and fantastical but more coherent one of Guillermo del Toro. Moon Garden could be seen as frequent editor Ryan Stevens Harris' calling card to do mise-en-scène for somebody else's movie. Harris' well-realized but meandering sequences seem to hover between sophisticated horror film with nightmarish storyline and the pure warped, nightmarish virtually abstract surreality of Phil Tippet's [url=""]Mad God[/url] seen last year on Shudder.

As a Letterbox'd commenter says, Moon Garden is derivative to the point of exhaustion, and being shot on expired 35mm stock can't be the main selling point of a film. There need to be more interesting characters and a solider story, and less treacly emotional content. But as with Mad God, the filmmaker seems to be so wholly absorbed into the intricate physicality of his sequences - this is what makes them fascinating - that he really can't be bothered with the larger picture of a narrative arc. People who like this kind of film are like children: a film for them is like a series of delightful baubles, bright shiny things that dazzle, and for them that's enough. (I found the YouTube reviewers "Spoiler Alert" helpful.)

Moon Garden, 93 mins., debuted at the Dances with Wolves and Micheaux festivals in Los Angeles and the Motor City Nightmares fest in Detroit in June and July 2022. Its US theatrical release distributed by Oscillooscope begins with IFC Center in NYC May 19, 2023.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 

All times are UTC - 8 hours

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 6 guests

You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum

Search for:
Jump to:  
Powered by phpBB® Forum Software © phpBB Group