Tuesday, August 26, 2014

WES ANDERSON ROUNDTABLE: THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX


Every now and then at Screen Vistas I like to team up with Max O’Connell over at The Film Temple to tackle the work of one of our favorite directors. This time we’re looking at comedy stylist/master of whimsy Wes Anderson.

Loren Greenblatt: At the time, Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited left some people feeling that Wes Anderson was getting too caught up in his style.  He did little to assuage those anxieties with his follow up:  a stop-motion film, a form that, quite literally, gives him control over every hair of his mise-en sene.

Max O’Connell: Some already thought his films were cartoons – A.O. Scott seemed to dance around that idea in his The Royal Tenenbaums review, whereas those arguments become more common around The Darjeeling Limited. So, he did what anyone might do to counteract those arguments: he made a literal cartoon! And yet it’s become one of his most embraced films, well reviewed even if it didn’t do well at the box office, and a lot of people saw it as a return to form after Darjeeling and Life Aquatic split a lot of people.

LG: What else is interesting about the film is that Anderson doubles down on the storybook aspect. Like many Anderson films, it starts out with a book (the original Roald Dahl book), with an illustration of Mr. Fox, or “Foxy,” (Clooney) only to cut into a glorious sunset as Foxy listens to “Davey Crockett,” a spectacular myth-making song. Yeah, we’re in a fable all right!

MO: And part of what makes it such a wonderful fable is that it’s dealing with an antiquated style. 2D animation is becoming less popular as 3D animation boomed, and stop-motion has been almost completely phased out. Not too many people other than Laika and Tim Burton still do it. Which is a shame because it fits people like Wes perfectly, because while it’s not as fluid as, say, Up, that’s kind of the point. It has this wonderful warmth, this handmade quality. It looks like something out of a storybook.

LG: They animated the frames a little slower than they normally would have so we see the seams, too. There’s a sense of the thingness of things: you can clearly see that all of the smoke, for example, is made of little cotton balls and it’s adorable! And he’s adapting his overtly whimsical style that he used for adult stories to carry over to children’s films, which he’ll do again in Moonrise Kingdom.

LG: I think while there’s still some darkness and edge to both films, but it’s no secret that he’s let up on tone a lot here, this is by far his lightest film.

MO: Part of why it’s so wonderful is that it does maintain a bit of an edge, which is important. It’s something both Anderson and Dahl understood: children’s movies without any real conflict or sense of danger are really dull. Here, we get some of the Dahl macabre jokes. Fox gets his tail shot off, and it’s worn as a necktie by the main villain, Bean (Michael Gambon).

LG: And the hero actually kills someone, a rat played by Willem Dafoe. There’s not a lot of modern kids movies that have a death scene at this point, the kind of old-fashioned fairytale thing that a lot of recent kids movies have moved away from.

Anderson also lifts from film history. One of the big influences that struck me on this viewing is Raising Arizona. H.I. McDonagh and Foxy are both characters who give up a life of crime so they can raise a family, only to regress for their own reasons. Their animal instincts or criminal natures are still there, and both films are about putting those impulses behind you for the sake of growing up.

MO: I can see it. I’d also connect the film to traditions by Dahl, though, where family life is never ideal. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they’re all good people, but they struggle in poverty. In Matilda, it’s an unloving home. In Fox, the father’s kind of a cad (as George Clooney characters tend to be), and he’s a classic Wes Anderson bad dad. He’s not Royal Tenenbaum, but he’s not always the best father to Ash (Jason Schwartzman).

LG: He likes to give people false options to validate himself. From the first scene, he’s constantly intimidating people into going his way as a way to make them like him. It doesn’t always work.

MO: In Wes Anderson’s films, characters try to have an impossible level of control over their lives. Fox does that in an interesting way by trying to inject more spontaneity in his life rather than letting himself be controlled. He’s a wild animal, and he doesn’t want to give up that. He doesn’t want to be stuck in the doldrums, he wants to “steal squabs on the side.”

LG: He positions himself in ways where he’s almost trying to get into trouble, trying to inject spontaneity into his life where it might mess him up, and that kind of fits with what Wes is trying to do with animation and with his own style. There’s a sense of spontaneity here that’s rare in animation and I think it has a lot to do with the way the dialogue was recorded. In most animated films, actors record their dialogue separately in closed off sound booths, which is no way to act. Anderson was novel, recording his actors together, in physical locations mirroring those in the film. There’s a trade off sometimes in the technical quality of the recordings, but at the same time the technique adds life to the performances that might not be there otherwise.

MO: Yeah, the cast is wonderful. I’ve been on the record as being a semi-contrarian on Streep, in the sense that I think she’s frequently praised for performances that are well below par for her (*cough*Doubt*cough cough*The Iron Lady). Here’s a performance that’s actually underrated: she’s as warm and empathetic here in a way that she doesn’t always get to be, a companion character to Anjelica Huston’s mother figure in The Royal Tenenbaums.

LG: It helps that she’s picking better material and working with a great director for a change, instead of the auteur of Mamma Mia! 

MO: But while we’re talking about that new spontaneity, we shouldn’t undervalue how his films always the offbeat little character bits that stand out amidst the tight control over everything. What’s one of your favorite bits of side-whimsy here? Mine’s “Petey’s Song,” that wonderful Jarvis Cocker, playing the villain’s assistant, Petey, makes up a song that brings us up to speed but uses made-up words that displease the villain.

LG: “You can’t just make up words! That’s bad songwriting! Bad job, Petey!” The look on Petey’s face makes me feel that that this putdown is almost as big an act of villainy as Bean shooting off Foxy’s tail.

MO: Him making up a song on the fly infuriates a villain who’s one of Wes’s classic control freaks. Or maybe I’d go with the choice to have the characters say “cuss” instead of cursing, which hits its peak in that great little scene where Foxy and Badger (Bill Murray), his accountant, getting into a loud, wild animal argument.

LG: Yeah, there’s an interesting tension there, where they’re both anthropomorphized and animalistic at the same time. For me, I love Whack-Bat, with the ridiculously complex rules that remind me of Fizzbin from Star Trek. There’s this whole thing where Ash really wants to be the best Whack-Bat player like his dad, but he’s not an athlete. He’s trying to be his dad in a lot of ways, the mischief side especially, but he can’t really live up to it, so he’s inevitably going to go through sulky teenager phases. That’s only made worse by the arrival by his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, Wes’s brother), who’s very athletic and gains Foxy’s approval over his own son.

MO: This movie, like no Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore recognizes that kids can be cruel, too. It’s telling that Ash is played by Max Fischer himself. He doesn’t treat his cousin very well. Kristofferson is almost impossibly unassuming, even with all of his talent. He’s just a nice, calm kid trying to make the best of a situation where his father is deathly ill and he has to live with a bunch of relatives that he’s never met. Foxy takes to him right away, but Ash is needlessly cruel to him.

LG: We understand where that frustration comes: he’s jealous because of how his father takes to Kristofferson. But he can be cruel, yes. There’s a nice moment where Kristofferson wants to sleep in a less cramped position than under Ash’s bed, and Ash refuses. Kristofferson starts to cry, and Ash reluctantly realizes he’s being a dick and turns on his train set. There’s a moment of brief connection before more rivalry.

MO: “More rivalry” emphasized. He’s still awful to Kristofferson, even after he stands up for Ash when he’s being bullied.

LG: Every kid goes through a period where they’re dicks. It doesn’t help that he’s seen as “different.” It’s never mentioned that he’s dressed as a superhero with a little white cape and bandit hat. He’s that kid who’s a super-nerd and doesn’t understand why people don’t like him.

MO: He’s a strange little guy who’s trying to blend in and be something he’s not, much like Max Fischer. He wants to be an athlete and push down everything that’s unique about him, just like Max wanted to hide his working class roots.

LG: Though I’d stress that the pain isn’t as deeply felt here as it is in Anderson’s previous films, or even in another great children’s film from that year, Where the Wild Things Are, which has a similar theme running through it (and which we both love far more than the rest of the world).

MO: It makes sense that it is lighter, because he is making a children’s film. My minor complaints on this front is less that he’s treading lightly and more that there are times where I feel he spells something out a bit too much for kids or parents, as if he’s trusting them less. There’s a moment where Foxy says aloud to Felicity, “I need everyone to feel I’m the greatest.” We know his problems. We don’t need it restated. More notably is right after the rat, in his dying breath, gives them some information to help find Kristofferson, they say aloud something to the effect of, “He redeemed himself.” It’s already demonstrated beautifully in the scene before, so we don’t really need to be told, and I don’t think the kids need to be told either. Kids are smart. They’ll get it.

LG: Yeah, though I do love the line about him being “just another rat found in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.” It was a problem in The Darjeeling Limited too, what with the “you’ve still got some healing left” moment.

MO: Yeah, clonk. These aren’t as bad as that, they’re minor things.

LG: I can see Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach feeling out to what degree they can be themselves in this film in certain scenes, but at its best it’s wonderfully idiosyncratic in the best Wes Anderson-y way. In the opening scene, Felicity and Foxy break the chicken roost in a large simulated tracking shot set to “Heroes and Villains.” That’s just such a joyful moment.

MO: It is. We talk about Anderson’s great use of music in all of his films, and this is no exception. You mentioned “Heroes and Villains,” I’ll mention the other Beach Boys song used, their version of “Old Man River,” which is so gentle compared to the more raucous song they use earlier.

LG: The only bit of music that doesn’t quite work for me is the use of “Street Fighting Man.” It’s in a great sequence, but I don’t think the song quite fits.

MO: I’m on the edge for that one as well, maybe just because I want him to use another left-of-center choice like “I Am Waiting” or “She Smiled Sweetly” or “Play With Fire” instead of a big hit. But I agree, thematically it doesn’t fit.

LG: Then again, I don’t know how “Heroes and Villains” fits thematically, but it’s perfect for the feeling. It’s his first film with Alexandre Desplat doing the score, as well, which gives it a wonderful rustic feel that separates it from his Mark Mothersbaugh collaborations.

MO: Desplat does his best work with Anderson. It’s not just a wonderful, whimsical nursery rhyme thing to it, but it also reminds me of the kind of stuff that Georges Delarue would have done for Truffaut in the 60s and 70s (Wes does use a Delarue song at a key point in the film), a bit like the jaunty score for “A Gorgeous Kid Like Me,” which Baumbach later used himself in Frances Ha.

LG: They both have this warm, loving, inviting style, which is something I love about what Anderson takes from Truffaut. They both love playing with film history in a warm, affectionate way, rather than the playful but cold way Godard does.

MO: Some of the references are a real delight. There’s a scene where Boggis, Bunch and Bean meet up and Bean is framed in the dark almost like Vito Corleone, plotting the death of another man (er, animal). And Bean’s freak out tearing apart a room is a nice, funny reference to Citizen Kane, where he’s reimaging a life-crushing moment from that film as a petty moment in Bean’s life.

LG: That scene in the dark reminded me of Once Upon a Time in the West where Harmonica’s waiting out in the dark, being shot at.

MO: That’s an interesting comparison, too, because there are more overt Leone throwbacks, as in some of the eye-framing standoff moments. It’s a much smaller scaled film, but he’s trying to give it that same kind of epic conflict. There’s also the bit of the score where Foxy confronts a wolf and the score plays like Ennio Morricone. Though, honestly, I never really got why that scene was there.

LG: Well, it’s his pure animal nature physically embodied. It’s completely without borders. It’s dangerous. It goes back to the Raising Arizona comparison I made, with the wolf in the place of the biker. It’s also a bit of a Jeremiah Johnson reference, where Redford sees his opposite in the distance and they acknowledge the power they have over each other before passing.

MO: That makes a bit more sense, though I still wish they played with it a bit more. Then again, I complained about him being too on-the-nose earlier, so maybe I just don’t know what the hell I’m looking for.

LG: I really love the ending of the film. You complained that the action sequences in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou were clumsy, but he does a pretty wonderful job here. It helps that he can control everything in the frame. The go-for-broke rescue scene is wonderful. They have to race through town, hiding behind crates as they’re being shot at, and Anderson really uses the stillness of stop-motion to his advantage to emphasize motion. The ending, though, after they’ve lost everything, they find a way to live outside of their nature and find a way to survive by taking from this supermarket. They’ve found a civilized world to be a part of, even if the lighting is fluorescent and awful and the linoleum floor doesn’t feel great on their feet, but they have each other to get through it. Of all the Wes Anderson films, this film more than any other stresses community.

MO: I wouldn’t say more than any other, since Moonrise Kingdom expands upon that, but it does more than any other Anderson film before it. We have all of these wonderful side characters (Murray’s Badger, Wally Wolodarsky’s spiral-eyed opossum Kylie) that Fox constantly talks over. There are two important toasts in the film: in the first, Fox interrupts Badger’s toast and makes it about himself. In the second, it’s more about everyone. It’s about sticking together and surviving, about creating a giant family and being about more than just yourself. It’s another cautiously optimistic ending, as it was in Rushmore, because it’s not going to be easy for them, but they can get through it together.

LG: Everything that happens is Fox’s fault, and it’s about him learning to get over his own selfishness. We love Clooney, as he’s a wonderful rascal, but watching him grow is all the more satisfying. And then we get that last song, Bobby Fuller Four’s “Let Her Dance.” It’s a song about infidelity and breakup, but it’s such an upbeat song. It’s like “Ooh La La” in Rushmore. There’s a sly attention to a mix between happiness and sadness that makes the ending work.

Loren’s Grade: B+

Max’s Grade: A-

That concludes our discussion of Fantastic Mr. Fox if you agreed or disagreed, feel free to leave a comment below. You can also follow Screen Vistas on Facebook by clicking here.

Roundtable Directory:  
Bottle Rocket (short and feature)
Rushmore
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissiou
Hotel
Chevalier / Darjeeling Limited
The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Moonrise Kingdom
Shorts and Commercials
The Grand Budapest Hotel


Monday, July 21, 2014

SNOWPIERCER

Bong Joon-Ho is proving to be a director of considerable range. Since his breakthrough film Memories of Murder, he's ping ponged between somber procedurals and inspired popcorn fair. This apparent bipolar mindset is evident in the films themselves, all featuring broad slapstick humor, political undercurrents of varying subtlety and dark brutality, often in rapid succession. His latest film, Snowpiercer, loosely adapted from the French comic of the same name, aims itself squarely towards blockbuster crowds, skillfully combining the relentless action of George Miller's Road Warrior and the broad societal statements we might expect in a Fritz Lang film.

It's 2031 and mankind has inadvertently frozen the planet trying to solve global warming. The last remnants of humanity survive in the massive, titular train which endlessly circles the globe once per year. In such post-apocalyptic worlds, repressive social orders often assert themselves. Here the rich live luxuriously at the front while the poor live in horrific squalor at the back. The film follows Curtis (Chris Evans) as he tries to engineer a car by car takeover with his fellow caboose dwellers.

On the surface that hook might appear cloyingly simplistic, and would be in the wrong hands. It's easy to watch the trailer and recall last years insultingly dumb sci-fi allegory Elysium. But Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before The Devil Knows You're Dead) make the goofiness work by rendering the world with countless bold, imaginative strokes that are often as mysterious as they are revealing. Take the strange, black cubes our heroes are forced to eat, or how the guards take people away based on maddeningly bizarre criteria, sometimes asking for trained violinists but more often for children of very specific heights.

Then there are the characters. it's a large ensemble, so some sadly remain generic archetypes (albeit all gamely played), but many are made memorable with wonderful little quirks. There's the kindly mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) who for reasons revealed late in the film is a limbless torso making due with improvised hooks and canes. An artist who draws propaganda for the poor and Bong regular Song Kang-Ho awesomes things up as a security expert addicted to a drug made from industrial waste. The film's greatest performance though undoubtedly belongs to Tilda Swinton as Mason, a blood thirsty Thatcher surrogate who has a heated, possibly religious fervor for the train and its 'sacred engine' and is taken gleeful condemnations of Curtis's incursion: "Precisely 74% of you will die!" she cries while watching a fight through opera glasses.

Indeed, while the rebellion initially proceeds with the clean precision of a heist, it soon becomes a battle of blunt force and attrition. Bong has always had a dexterous sense of blocking which he puts to good use on the film's inventive action beats. The best of which takes place entirely in a single car but but goes through six distinct phases including near derailment of the train, tunnels and even finds time for Bong to homage the famous hallway fight from Oldboy. So much action gets tiring because it only attempts one note. Bong's action succeeds by never doing the same thing twice, unafraid to suddenly upend things, furiously determined to milk every possible train related gag.

But the train isn't merely a place for cool fights, Bong's attempts at political subtext may end up being a bit literal, but it spawns some jaw dropping production design in the train. Each car serving a different purpose and is its own self contained world able to ignore those around it. Indeed one of the most unnerving details of the film is how the aristos eerily seem not to notice our ever dwindling group of increasingly blood-stained rebels. The film occasionally suffers from a few dully conceived character arcs (Curtis's sadly among them) that feel like they were pruned back from a longer script, and maybe having the villains state their philosophy a few too many times without enough progression. But it hardly matters, Snowpiercer is a film of such propulsive gonzo imagination that it can spare to have a few details fall off the track, so to speak.

Grade: B+

Note: Snowpiercer is currently playing in very limited release and will hit VOD very soon. It was intended for wider release before Bong got into a notorious battle with U.S. distributor Harvey Weinstein who wanted to cut 20 minutes of the film's completely reasonable 125 minute run time. Weinstein agreed to leave the film alone but in return will only show it on art house screens (where it plays to sold out crowds). It's a shame not just because it limits how many people will be able to see the film, but because this film is clearly meant for the full multiplex experience (a good 3D conversion would be fantastic). It's possible that Weinstein felt the film too dark and somber for the popcorn populace, or it could be just another example of Weinstein's apparent disrespect for Asian movies despite the money they've made him.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

WES ANDERSON ROUNDTABLE: THE DARJEELING LIMITED

Every now and then at Screen Vistas I like to team up with Max O’Connell over at The Film Temple to tackle the work of one of our favorite directors. This time we’re looking at comedy stylist/master of whimsy Wes Anderson.

Loren Greenblatt: Wes Anderson’s fifth film is a bit of an odd duck. It’s actually two films, a short film and then a full feature which he made later. The short, Hotel Chevalier finds Jason Schwartzman, for the first time in an Anderson film since Rushmore, pulling a geographic. He’s a perturbed man who’s run away from his problems in a French hotel. He learns that an old flame played by Natalie Portman has tracked him down and is coming to see him. There’s a nice little stretch where he sets about making the room up, sprucing himself up, finding exactly which song he’s going to play (“Where to You Go To My Lovely by Peter Sarstedt) in anticipation of what he hopes will be a romantic event.

Max O'Connell: Yeah. It’s pretty extraordinary that we don’t know the full details of their relationship, but we can tell by the intonation in Schwartzman’s voice and in his body language that this is someone very important to him who’s hurt him. He’s trying to do whatever he can to get things in order and keep his life together, but when we see him for the first time, he’s retreated from the world. He’s in this nice warm place where everything is bright yellow, and he’s wearing a bright yellow robe. He’s watching Stalag 17 on TV. And when she calls, that shield from the rest of the world comes tumbling down. It becomes the kind of melancholy we’ve seen from Anderson before, but much older and deeper.

LG: There’s this really nice moment where they open the door, and they come into an embrace. Schwartzman goes in for the kiss, but Portman goes for his shoulder, immediately drawing of the lines of how they feel. They don’t really dwell on this moment, so it’s one of those quick little things. It is an older melancholy, and less whimsical film than we’ve seen from Anderson. The film is sort of about that song. A lot of the film takes place with the song playing seemingly in its entirety under the dialogue. The song is about this man who’s pining for a lost woman, and he knows all these great details about her but can’t quite get inside her head. The film is almost a music video, or as close as Wes Anderson has ever gotten.


MO: In part because it is so much shorter, and it does feature the song very heavily. So much of it is so wonderfully choreographed to that song, particularly near the end after they’ve decided to have sex, and you can tell they have a lot of feelings for each other, but it’s leftover affection for something that’s clearly not working and has not worked out. We don’t know the full details of her character – she has bruises, but he’s surprised to see them, and they haven’t been together for a while – so it’s a kind of thing that she’s equally damaged if more enigmatic. The way Anderson frames them, for the most part, it’s in a long shot to imply the emotional distance between the two or a tight close up. I love the intimacy when they finally embrace, start kissing, and he starts undressing her. They’re so close together, but so far apart because they know this is the end of it, because he doesn’t want to see her again after this.

LG: Yeah, and he’ll double back on this in the feature film, but it’s not looking great. She tries to repair their friendship, but he’s not going for it. He flat-out says that he doesn’t care she didn’t mean to hurt him, that he never wants to be her friend, and that he’s OK with her feeling like shit if they fuck. There’s a sense of finality at this point.

MO: And of bitterness. It’s not self-pity, necessarily, but it’s something we could understand. It’s a wallop of a short, and it ends beautifully. It’s so confident that a lot of people felt that the feature paled a bit in comparison.

LG: To some degree, I think that. We should talk about how this connects to The Darjeeling Limited. Wes Anderson at the time was wishy-washy on whether or not he wanted this to be a part of the film or not. He shot it earlier, didn’t have a script for Darjeeling so much as an outline. Initially it was not attached to the film theatrically. On limited release, it was left out and released on iTunes. On wide release, it was attached.

MO: Which is how I saw it.

LG: So there’s a question of whether or not it’s part of the film. It’s billed as “Part I of The Darjeeling Limited” in the credits, but how should it be consumed? It’s still not definitively answered. For this rewatch, I saw Darjeeling first to try to take them as separate films. I could definitely understand seeing them together, but they’re also separated by style. Hotel is very much a summation of the Wes Anderson style to this point, where Darjeeling departs from it in very important ways.

MO: Yes it does!


LG: The opening of Darjeeling is done in media res, which is unusual for Anderson, who’s given to gentler, storybook introductions. We open on an unnamed businessman played by Bill Murray trying to make a train in India. The cab is rushing, there a lot of chaotic whip pans and handheld shots. Murray makes it to the station as the train is pulling out, and he chases after it. We get this gorgeous slow motion tracking shot set to The Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow.” And there’s a much younger man, Peter (Adrien Brody), who overtakes him and makes the train as he’s left behind. I don’t see the film as one of his best, but the opening is so masterful and full of subtext and symbolism that I wonder why the rest falls so short for me and a lot of people.

MO: It’s an interesting question, though I’d like to double back a bit. You said it’s not totally resolved on how that short connects to the film. We’re split on this. You’re torn, I think as soon as he did end up continuing the story (the short’s events are mentioned in the film, and Schwartzman’s character is one of the film’s protagonists alongside Brody and Owen Wilson). For me it’s a definitive part of the film. The difference in style is important because Darjeeling was at a point where people started knocking Anderson not stepping outside of his aesthetic (which is a stupid criticism, but whatever). Hotel Chevalier sees him doubling down on that style for a character who’s receding into it. The feature is still recognizably Anderson, but it is a bit of a departure (ironically, people still complained that it was too Wes-y), because it’s about trying to get into something new. The in media res opening, which I see as a whimsical homage to The French Connection, is about trying to break away from that. It’s very purposeful.

LG: It’s not that Anderson has completely left whimsy and storybook trappings aside. That opening is very storybook but in a different way, but it’s not as booklike. This is the first film he’s done since Bottle Rocket without some sort of chapter heading or curtain raise at the start of every new section. His bright color pallet is still there, but he utilizes shallow focus and long lenses to much greater extent and he moves the camera in new ways. He’s very much taking for a new set of influences. He acknowledges Satyajit Ray and Jean Renoir’s film The River. There is a sense of stylistic exploration. I just wish it happened to more interesting characters.

MO: We’re going to disagree about how interesting they are, but let’s get into the style. It’s interesting how he’s sort of trying to have a lighter touch and mix the poetic realism of Renoir and Ray with his usual aesthetic. It’s still very colorful, and he does something with music that he had only hinted at before. Michael Powell had a theory of the “composed film,” where every element, from the designs to the actors to the music moving together and going together in a sort of synchronicity. Anderson played with that in the past, but it’s a lot more obvious here, particularly whenever he choreographs characters to music in slow motion to the Kinks with “Strangers” or “This Time Tomorrow” or “Powerman,” and I also think of the use of an underrated Stones song, “Play with Fire.” He’s choreographing to music pretty much the entire time, even if it’s just background music of Satyajit Ray’s films.

LG: His use of music has always been strong, but he does use it a little differently here. He let’s a lot of the pieces, particularly the non-English ones, play more atmospherically than in the past.

MO: Like the use of the Debussy piece when they’re around the fire.

LG: Or the stuff on the trains. It’s a huge stylistic choice, but it’s allowed to be more in the background than in the past. There’s a confidence to that.

MO: Something else that’s interesting: on the train, he’s using anamorphic framing for much tighter spaces. No matter how they try, these characters can’t really get away from each other. It’s a nice metaphor for how the family binds them together.

LG: We should actually talk about the plot. Jack (Schwartzman), Peter (Brody), and Francis (Wilson) are brothers, with Francis as a bit of an older, more damaged version of Wilson’s Bottle Rocket character, Dignan. These guys have been estranged for some time, and Francis has made a plan to get them back together in India, and they’re going on a spiritual journey because that’s what White people think you do in India. Francis has this very planned out with lists and itineraries, which are all laminated, and has a secret plan to bring his brothers to this place where their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston) is working as a missionary. But I don’t think these characters are as interesting. They have nice moments: I like that immediately as they arrive on the train, they bond by comparing the various illegal painkillers they’re on. But I thought a lot about The Royal Tenenbaums, which also has an estranged family trying to figure out if they want to be a family again. That film showed us what forced this fissure. Here, Anderson and his co-screenwriters Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola skip over that for the sake of narrative efficiency, but they end up doubling back, and a lot of the first half of the film feels like exposition to me in a very irritating way.

MO: You’re going to have to elaborate on that, because I don’t understand that criticism at all.

LG: There are all these running gags that inform us how they related to each other over the years. There’s a scene where one brother confesses a secret to a brother and asks for secrecy, and he’s immediately ratted out to the third brother. They do this seemingly endlessly and it got old for me pretty quick. Their bickering becomes more trying than interesting. These characters become more poignant by the end with the help of some really good filmmaking, but I think it’s the thinnest script he’s ever done and don’t find any of them compelling in the first half.

MO: They are to me. Part of it is me seeing them as all being connected to previous Wes Anderson characters with the wind knocked out of them by life: you mentioned Francis as being connected to Dignan, I see Jack as a sadder, more mature Max Fischer who’s retreated from the world –

LG: But Max Fischer has passions and interests. I don’t think Jack is that into being a writer. I think Owen Wilson has some sort of an education job, but it’s not explicitly mentioned…I don’t know who these people are outside of bickering.

MO: Huh. You don’t think Schwartzman is into writing? I don’t get that.

LG: He’s a writer who’s fallen back to just transcribing his life. That’s actually one of the gags I like. Every time he shares a story with his brothers, they’ll comment on how they like how they like that their characters did this or that, and Schwartzman will insist that the characters are all fictional.

MO: It’s not about falling back. It’s about how our art, however much we insist it doesn’t, reflects what we’re going through and who we are. Wes Anderson is a very private person, so we don’t know all the details, but so much of it is his addressing that his work reflects the struggles he’s gone through. And I do see him as being his into his writing. It’s his way of processing his grief, his melancholy, his problems, which is how many of us channel and understand our problems. He’s not admitting what he’s doing, though, so it doesn’t allow him to heal until later in the film.

LG: Part of it is that he’s such a depressed character in the short. The first image we get of him is him sitting in a bed, not moving much. All of these guys are on intense sedatives, so maybe that’s where I got that he isn’t into his work as much. And there’s also a sense in all of Anderson’s films after Rushmore that these characters wonder if they’re past their prime.

MO: Yeah. And I do see a bit of that in here, but that still connects him to Max Fischer to me in a really interesting way. Brody, meanwhile, hadn’t worked with Anderson before, but I see a lot of Margot and Chas Tenenbaum here, both in his secrecy and his prickliness. Where Schwartzman is mopey and Wilson’s trying to force the whimsy and spirituality (I love his insisting that everything around him is beautiful or incredible as a way to convince everyone, which will never work), Brody is the one who will lash out.

LG: But the thing is that you can describe the interplay between his characters in other films, but it also feels like a new thing. In Life Aquatic, the character relationships are among the most well thought out in the Anderson canon. I’ve always kind of felt that this was written more on the fly, a bit scrappier and ramshackle. He didn’t know what he wanted, but he wanted it in India, on a train and with these people. I think these are his flattest set of characters since Bottle Rocket.

MO: Hmm. I’d agree that they’re a bit more sketched out, and that is why this is probably his weakest film, but I view them more collectively than individually. Their relationship is the main character. It’s less about one of them and more about how they’re essentially symbiotic, whether they want to be or not. I also find the bickering funnier, and admittedly connect more to the characters than you do.

LG: You actually have siblings, I don’t.

MO: That could be part of it. And because it’s about a real family, it’s going to be at least partially in Tenenbaums’s shadow, and I think that’s why so many people are down on Darjeeling. I appreciate that we don’t get the full backstory, we just have to pick up from the way they act around each other what happened to them in the past. We get a bit about their mother’s distance, or about their father possibly having a favorite, without seeing it in a flashback or something. They’re so affected by how their parents have raised them, as with his previous film, but I appreciate that this film trusts us to pick up the cues.

LG: In theory, I agree with you. On paper, I understand that in terms of efficiency. But I don’t think it works with these particular characters, Though there are more moments of life as the film goes on like a wonderful reminder for how Anderson works with dialogue where Francis describes their mother: “She’s been disappearing all our lives.” That’s a wonderful line. When we meet her at the end of the film, that’s a fantastic moment. But there’s this shift midway after they leave the train and we’re meant to empathize with them more and it doesn't work 100% for me. They try to save three kids who fall into a river, and one of them dies. It becomes this sort of literary metaphor where the funeral for the Indian boy stands in for their father’s funeral, which they missed, and there's a greater metaphor where this exotic new land stands in for the alienation they feel living in a new world without their father. Which isn't completely invalid (Lost In Translation does something similar), but it's also a bit problematic seeing an entire country, and in this case a dead child, used to stand in for a dead white man. None of this is outrageously underlined in the film and it's not as big a problem as it could be but there’s a few people who point to Anderson’s treatment of race and point to this film as crossing a line and using Indian people as props and while I don't think it's as cut and dry as that, it's hardly invalid either.

MO: I do think that criticism is more merited here than in the past. Part of it is about these guys being ugly Americans abroad and not appreciating what’s around them, not being respectful of or interested in the culture except as a form of exoticism (which is something a lot of people knocked without realizing that the film is being autocritical). And they are more than props. I like the two major Indian characters on the train: The Chief Steward (Waris Ahluwalia), who’s furious with the brothers for their reckless behavior, and Rita (Amara Karan), who’s treated similarly to Inez in Bottle Rocket but more successfully.

LG: Because they can understand each other. Schwartzman goes after her because she’s hot and Indian, but back in reality, she’s clearly got some shit going on, and is in a complicated relationship with the train’s head steward that may or may not be on the rocks. That’s a very humanizing moment, but I wish we saw more of that character. She’s the one who reminds me of Margot Tenenbaum, not Adrien Brody. I really wish she could have shown up near the end. I could have seen a movie about her.

MO: But that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about these guys getting perspective. By the time they part, he realizes that she’s just as filled with life (and just as messed up) as he is, and that she’s not just some exotic object to be obtained.

LG: Then there's the way he shoots India. This is the most location based film he’s worked on at this point, there are still artificial sets, but less than in his previous few films, I do get the sense that he’s trying to portray India as a place that exists in reality rather than sticking purely to his normal fantasy diorama mode. But at the same time, I think he’s trying to have it both ways with how he portrays this foreign culture.

MO: That’s fair. I think she’s handled well, as is the head steward. His reactions are funny, he’s the straight man to these out-of-control characters, but he’s also the most reasonable person in the film. The only point where the film does have some problems for me is the death of the Indian boy, which is used as a way to bring them together and realize the importance of family. It ties into the film’s tendency to rely on big, literary symbols, like their fathers’ baggage that they cart around standing in for the baggage they carried over from their parents, or the physical scars Francis bears on his head from a motorcycle crash standing in for his emotional scars. It’s a bit much, and the boy’s funeral is an extension on that with the added problem of accidentally trivializing his death to bring them together and call back to their father’s funeral. It’s trying to be humane, it’s just a bit off in execution.

LG: The thing I wondered about probably around halfway through the film is, considering that this film is much more somber than most of Anderson’s work, is whether this film is meant to be a comedy or Anderson’s first drama that just happens to have comedic moments?

MO: That’s a good question. It’s certainly more somber than his previous work, it’s tipping towards drama, but there’s too much of Anderson who’s a comedic stylist to cancel that out. It’s closer to a pure drama than anything he’s ever made.

LG: I do feel that even though the film is indulgent in a lot of ways, he is trying to break out of his Wes Andersonisms, even though in doing so a lot of people think this is the most Andersonian thing.

MO: People who made the criticism that it was schtick rather than an aesthetic, which, no. It has different drawbacks, though I don’t think they’re as problematic as you do. Now, do you think it does gain cumulative power by the end? It might be a more personal thing for me, since I do have siblings and I do view them collectively rather than separately.

LG: Absolutely I do. There’s a lot of stuff that works, but I also found myself wondering whether it would be more powerful if it happened to the Tenenbaums or the Belafonte crew. Their dimensionality gets added in, but it doesn't totally make up for how much I was twiddling my thumbs in the first twenty minutes. But it does have some of his most masterful moments of filmmaking. We mentioned the opening, but there’s also a great flashback to them almost missing their father’s funeral (set within one of Schwartzman’s “fictional” stories). And when they finally meet their mother, Huston shows up in another wonderful role. I love these two together almost as much as I love him with Bill Murray. There’s a line where she suggests that they can have a connection better without words, if they say everything with glances. It’s a little cloying, but then it goes into one of Anderson’s most interesting sequences, set to “Play With Fire,” where there’s a tracking shot through all of these little vignettes between these different characters they’ve encountered, and it’s all shot as if they’re connected on a train, but it’s looking into their houses, their airplanes, their bedrooms. It pans off of it to this tiger in the jungle, a bit of an overt symbol, but very powerful when combined with the music. That got me. That always gets me.

MO: Here’s the interesting thing about Huston’s character: it’s a smaller role than we’ve seen from her in past collaborations with Anderson, and it’s a different role. In the past, she was a warm and giving mother figure or at very least the person who maintained a sense of order amidst the chaos. Here, she’s removed from them. She’s had the same effect on them that Royal had on his kids. She was absent at their funeral, but when we first meet her, her behavior echoes that of her sons. She’s very controlling about what they’re going to eat and do, like Wilson, but she also insults the flower pot that Brody’s wife made, which is interesting because it’s the kind of behavior that Brody does. And she’s retreated from the world, much like Schwartzman. That’s how much he’s reacted, he’s tried to get away from them just like she did.

LG: And up to this point, the questionable parent in Anderson’s films has usually been the father. Here, they lionize their father and have an issue with their mother.

MO: There’s a bit of an elephant in the room when it comes to this film regarding Owen Wilson. The same year this was released, Wilson attempted suicide after a relationship broke up. In the film, he claims to not remember the details regarding his motorcycle accident that smashed up his face and body, but we later learn it was intentional.

LG: I think it might have had a tougher overtone had he co-written the film, but it’s hard to watch without that extratextual knowledge. Obviously it wasn’t intentional.

MO: Which is also why the blatant symbol of Wilson removing his bandages and seeing that, in their words, he still has “some more healing to do,” is groan-worthy on one end but still very moving. I’m still shaken by how affected he is by everything he’s been through.

LG: Anderson and Coppola have worked together since, but Coppola also directed a little movie called CQ, which has an amazing score by Mellow but the film is just okay and clearly a Wes Anderson wannabe. It features a prickly artsy-fartsy guy editing a sci-fi movie who has daddy issues and want’s to assert his creativity in a meaningful way. They have the same cinematographer, Robert Yeoman. It’s interesting to see Anderson take in an imitator. Anderson wrote Darjeeling with Schwartzman and Coppola, which is interesting because both Schwartzman and Coppola are part of the Coppola family, with one as the son of Francis and brother of Sofia, the other as the son of Francis’s sister Talia Shire. It’s almost like Anderson is a lost Coppola cousin, considering the subjects he takes on.

MO: I hadn’t considered that, but it’s an interesting thought, considering that two members of a big, famous family are writing about family. It’s also worth considering that so much of this is about the possibility of losing a sibling, and Roman Coppola’s brother Giancarlo died in a boating accident in the late 80s.

LG: When there’s three screenwriters, we don’t know who’s responsible for what, and I don’t want to theorize too much.

MO: Me neither, but it’s an interesting parallel, and as I said, your art inevitably reflects your life to some degree. And that Schwartzman’s character acknowledges that by the end, that’s interesting to me. And I love the final gesture: Wilson, the controlling brother, tries to give back the passports he took from his siblings, and they trust him to keep them.

LG: That got me. That’s one part that got me that made me feel that it had to be those characters, and I wish they were just more interesting before that point. Also, there’s a very powerful snapshot as they let their baggage fall away.

MO: A shot that’s so well handled and set beautifully to “Powerman,” but it still kind of bugs me for the over-the-top symbolism.

LG: Maybe. But that final moment does tie back to their bickering well, yeah. I do think this is his weakest film, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff even if it’s minor. 

GRADES (SHORT/FEATURE)
LOREN:
A-/B-
 
MAX: A-/B+

That concludes our discussion of Hotel Chevalier and The Darjeeling Limited, if you agreed or disagreed, feel free to leave a comment below. You can also follow Screen Vistas on Facebook by clicking here.

Roundtable Directory:  
Bottle Rocket (short and feature)
Rushmore
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissiou
Hotel
Chevalier / Darjeeling Limited
The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Moonrise Kingdom
Shorts and Commercials
The Grand Budapest Hotel



Thursday, May 22, 2014

GODZILLA (2014)

It's common for Godzilla movies to overestimate our interest in their human characters. It's an honest miscalculation, after all cinema is about human concerns and heartbreak and we extend this to our monsters as well who are often anthropomorphized, but it is in this respect that Godzilla is different from all other kinds of movies. Even in the 1954 original, which heartbreakingly dealt with the Japanese psyche after WWII, the actual characters are mostly bland as to not steal focus and the appeal of much of the series is not in watching humans doing human things, or even in political allegory, but in watching Godzilla smash things and the beast has no human qualities except for those of a 5 year old smashing the giant Lego towers he just built.

Yet it's interesting that no film in the franchise has circumvented humanity completely, we're needed not just as filler but to give context to the destruction. In his new American reboot of the series, director Gareth Edwards has taken this series convention and run with it as an existential idea. He doesn't give us deep and nuanced characters, but highly sentimental ones to drive home the point that we, in a cosmic way, simply do not matter.

The human story, such as it is, is an inter-generational tale involving Joe (Bryan Cranston), an American living in Japan as a nuclear technician when a mysterious earthquake causes a meltdown that destroys the whole town and kills, among many other people, his wife. Joe doesn't believe it was a natural event and years later is still trying to find answers and looks to all the world like he's joined the tinfoil hat brigade. His now grown son Ford(Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is tired of him but reluctantly sets out to try and bring him back to reality.

In the background there's a lot of clever reconfiguration of the Godzilla mythos. We get Ken Wantanabe as a scientist who explains that Godzilla wasn't created by U.S. atomic tests but was simply awakened by them and later tests were really attempts to kill the beast. This doesn't shift responsibility for the monster away from America so much as reposition him as being an allegory not just for nuclear energy but for all attempts by mankind to tame nature.

The bursts of sentiment work wonderfully up to a point. It helps that Cranston is an actor of such electric intensity that I partly expect him to fight Godzilla. But the focus eventually shifts to Ford in a way that inadvertently also closes off his story and new goal the film gives him, simply isn't as strong and our investment wains somewhat to the detriment of the third act. But that's okay to a degree because none of this matters and for once the answer is deeper than "because it's a Godzilla movie." It doesn't matter if Joe is vindicated or reconnects with his son because these creatures are here to, in the words of the film, "send us back to the Stone Age." The humans are irrelevant but the film knows this and instead of just rushing past them, Edwards and screenwriter Max Brenstien pause to underline the futility and insignificance of humanity. After Godzilla and the other monsters show up and start smashing, NATO quickly drafts a plan to destroy them but we know that no matter what they do, they're essentially rearranging deckchairs. Humanity is basically impotent and all we can do is run and cower as these ancient titans do battle above us.

The fights themselves are beautifully done. They have everything we want out of large scale monster-smashing and there's a joyous element of this being a wrestling match but Edwards stages them with a canny mix of a Spielbergian wonder and Lovecraftian revulsion that gives everything in the film a unique flavor. He also manages to avoid many of the traps of large scale destruction by always sincerely emphasizing the humanity of the situation. The film isn't entirely successful, but it's rare to see a blockbuster with this clear an idea told with any kind of distinct voice, but Gareth Edwards is clearly onto something here. Finally after all these years, someone did something with the humans.

Grade: B+

Friday, May 16, 2014

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2

I knew Amazing Spider-Man 2, the sequel to the 2012 reboot which I defend with increasing faintness, was in trouble in its opening moments, which features characters we have no connection to in a dreadfully dull action prologue (never before has fighting on a crashing airplane felt this serene). But I expected the film to recover. After all Spider-Man is one of our most durable characters, but I was shocked to see that not only did it not recover but it got steadily worse over its extremely generous run time.

Almost nothing in this film works: the humor is off, the effects have no sense of weight (CG Spider-Man is often animated like a Loony Toon), the charm between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is weaker, but the worst problem is the script, the latest and reportedly final collaboration between Robert Orci and Alex Kurzman, which stuffs a plethora of subplots without the benefit of any connective tissue. At least Sam Raimi's overstuffed Spider-Man 3 had an emotional throughline. Worse still, while it's clear from the amount of fan service on display that returning director Marc Webb and co. know who Spider-Man is on a superficial level but have no understanding of who he is. They don't get him, they don't even try to get him.

Spider-Man is one of the most important characters in comic-books. The first generation of Superheroes (Superman, Batman, et all) were initially conceived as simple power fantasies. They're strong, wise, have amazing powers and represent the people we wish we could be. But creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko subverted that with Spider-Man by being honest about the emotional realities of being an ordinary person with superpowers. In the comics, TV shows and movies, Peter Parker is always on a path of emotional growth, learning that his powers are often a curse and come with, say it with me now, great responsibility.

But none of that ethos is present in this film, nor is it replaced with anything. This Peter Parker doesn't don the suit, which admittedly looks great, and use his powers for the greater good at the expense of his personal life, he does it because being Spider-Man is great ego trip. Take his introductory scene where he stops in the middle of foiling a plutonium robbery to give a meek scientist (Jamie Foxx) an inspirational pep talk, before going off to not just stop the robbery but needlessly taunt the ringleader. Spider-Man has often quipped while defeating his enemies but seeing him pull down Paul Giamatti's pants whilst humming his own theme song instantly made me side with J. Jonah Jameson.

Watching these scenes I expected this cruelty to be part of an arc about how Peter had let his powers go to his head and needed to tone it down, but no, he acts this way throughout the entire film with no sense of awareness. In fact the film does precious little to give him an arc of any kind. The closest it gets is a weird subplot where he occasionally sees the ghost of Gwen's dead father (Denis Leary) judging him for continuing to date his daughter. This leads to endlessly repetitive scenes of Parker and Stacy not committing to their relationship because being Spider-Man might put her in danger. The idea kinda worked in the Raimi films because it was based in 1) Parker's insecurities and 2) the fact that Mary Jane had been in danger because Peter was Spider-Man. But we don't get that in this iteration, Gwen is never in danger and when she finally is, it's not really Peter's fault.

The previous film had something with the chemistry between Garfield and Stone but this film doesn't do anything with their relationship but remind us (Spoiler Alert) that Stacy is the biggest fridge in comic-book history. The practice of killing off female characters simply to advance the hero's story is a hideously outdated trope that's only being used here because the comics did it 40 years ago. Worse still, that moment has no meaning. Sure Peter feels bad about it for a while but he gets a pass because the film carefully plays it so that it's entirely Gwen's fault for being there over Peter's objections. (End of Spoilers) Nothing in the film is Spider-Man's fault, he has no flaws, makes no mistakes and learns no lessons (except for how batteries work). For what it's worth, Stone does better than Garfield with the material (who is too twitchy), and my general feeling is that the franchise doesn't deserve her.

The villains are also a problem. Both Foxx's Electro and Dane Dehaan's Harry Osborn seem to have graduated from the Joel Schumacher school of subtlety: their motives and intentions constantly shouted yet change on a whim based on whatever the plot requires at that moment. After their first encounter Electro develops a Rupert Pumpkin style obsession with how great Spider-Man is until he hates him because – contrivances! The superfan angle could have worked but it would have required empathy and consistency, as it is, he could have been cut completely without losing anything. Osborn, dying from a mysterious skin illness that could perhaps be cured by Spider-Man's blood, fairs almost as bad. It's completely unclear what he's supposed to be: is he a tragic figure, pure evil from the start, smart, dumb, entitled, humble, does he know Peter is Spider-Man or not? Poor Dehaan is caught in the middle trying to mug his way through it, and his eventual transformation into Green Goblin is so completely unearned that he could, in a very literal sense, have easily shown up as Doctor Octopus or The Vulture.

If these were the extent of the film's problems, it would already be in trouble, but it continues on and on, for 142 agonizing minutes, to include other subplots that range from the inane (Aunt May is a nurse but has to keep it secret for no reason), to the damaging (the secret behind Peter's parents undoes even more of what makes the character special), all of which are handled by a tone deaf Webb who at one point the film literally goes from Spider-Man's first fight with Electro to a music video of Peter searching for his aforementioned parents, creating one of those string filled photo collages we see in conspiracy thrillers, set to an inspirational faux folk song from Philip Philips.

It is the expressed hope of Sony Pictures that this film will start a mega franchise á la Disney's Avengers. Indeed much of the plot seems designed to setting up not just a third of these things, but a spin-off staring Spider-Man's villains. But as mediocre and transparent as some of those Disney movies are, the Marvel suits at least know they need to deliver a semblance of a good time centered around a likable character. Instead Sony's corporate board seems to feel that if it puts a lot of shiny stuff in a box labeled Spider-Man, the unwashed masses will eat it up. One of the few chuckles I had during this film was recognizing that Sony's plan of creating wave after wave of shiny yet empty superhero movies mirrors OsCorp's evil plot almost exactly. For a second I thought maybe Marc Webb or someone had snuck a bit of meta commentary into the film but I discounted it, if that had been the case, the point would have been as loud and dumb as everything else.

Grade: D+

Saturday, April 19, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

Rarely has a franchise shifted gears so radically as Captain America. The character is, by far, the oldest in the Marvel Cinematic lineup, as testified by the decidedly retro tone of the original, a fun piece of jingoistic nonsense which saw Steve Rogers (Chris Evens) injected with super-serum and fighting rogue Nazi's. The sequel, subtitled The Winter Soldier, does away with the gee-wizz sensibility and thrusts it's boyscout hero into a much more paranoid and cynical world and even finds the time to cast the jingoism of the original in a colder light. There's still some retroness in this approach, but its 70's inspirations are carefully updated so that, until it goes completely nuts in the second half, it feels about as relevant and ripped from the headlines as any comic-book movie before it.

Part of the intrigue comes from Cap himself. Due to spending most of the last seventy years in stasis, he's about as removed from the modern world as it's possible to get. Sometimes that's adorable and winning (he keeps a running list of pop-culture to catch up on), but his rah-rah, straight arrow enthusiasm isolates him, he's almost friendless, and conflicts with his morally hazy missions for S.H.I.E.L.D., which often involve him flying into dangerous missions and busting chops of whoever he's being told is the bad guy that day. As the film starts, the once idealistic Rogers is harboring serious mistrust for his spymasters, a situation not helped when on one mission he discovers his partner Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) has a few secret objectives of her own.

For a little while, directors Joe and Anthony Russo (known mostly for their TV comedy work on Community), construct a fairly interesting social, political backdrop for Caps disillusionment that plays like a very savvy update of 70’s political thrillers. Cap's mistrust and discomfort mounts when he learns of a major operation to build a series of drone like helicarriers that can take out mass numbers of potential targets from sub orbit, completely at S.H.I.E.L.D.'s discretion. The film takes all the implications of this more seriously than previous Marvel films do, resulting in some interesting, character revealing discussions between Rogers, Fury and Johansson who all have different views of how to serve America. We also get Anthony Mackie as an ex-paratrooper suffering from PTSD who has some nifty superhero gadgets to rival Cap’s shield and, in a clear nod to the Russo's inspirations, Robert Redford as a S.H.I.E.L.D. higher up who will in no way turn out to be evil.

There's also the titular Winter Soldier, for which we should be grateful that, for once we have a compelling villain in this series. He isn’t the focal point we'd expect him to be, but he’s good for a few solid revelations (though fans already know what they are) and he gets a terrifying entrance, emerging out of a cloud of smoke after attacking Fury in broad daylight in the streets of D.C. with a cadre of mercenaries.

Action is, unfortunately, a bit of a weakness here. The Russos' smartly don’t oversaturate us with beats, but when the action scenes start, the sparse, almost minimalist aesthetic they’ve carefuly constructed falls by the wayside and we get a lot of shakycam set against bland backdrops. It’s not the worst example of the technique, but while the scenes stand in considerable contrast to classicism of the first film, they lack showmanship and the approach feels like a choice made by a second unit director rather than one that fits in with the rest of the project. The climax feeling particularly clumsy, with characters in multiple locations executing complex, partially unnecessary sounding objectives that editing refuses to make clear. The action is saved almost completely by virtue of the sense of danger the Winter Soldier brings with him as a character, which is a step in the right direction for a franchise where the stakes of action scenes are often flat.

Also, after all the enticing allegory of the first half, the film almost effortlessly jumps into la la land with a twist that attempts to further link the idea of mass surveillance to old-school fascism, and set up events for Avengers 2, but is so comically on the nose that the film looses all semblance of credibility. I suppose that is to be expected in this kind of movie, which is a slave to pulpy thrills before anything else, but with such a great setup and all that great character development, it's a shame that it moves so sharply away from the relevance it started with. The film is another missed opportunity for Marvel, but the mega-franchise is getting closer to making a meaningful film.

GRADE: B+

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

JODOROWSKY'S DUNE

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune would likely have been either been one of the greatest films in cinema history or one of its greatest follies. Likely it would have been both at once, so enormous and ambitious was the production, as chronicled in Frank Pavich’s enthralling documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, that it was likely destined to fail. It was simply too awesome to exist. 

By the mid 70’s Jodorowsky had already lead an impossibly eccentric life. He studied mime with Marcel Marceau, became a prominent theater director, his first film (made illegally) caused riots in Mexico, but his follow ups, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, turned avant-guard surrealism into box office gold despite occasionally stomach churning content. At this point he brashly decided to adapt Dune, a book he had not even read at the time.

It proved to be a good instinct. The psychedelic narrative of the book, centering around The Spice, a coveted drug used as spaceship fuel but is also a path to enlightenment, is a perfect match for Jodorowsky even as he stated throwing large parts of it out in favor of his own, deranged vision, which quickly swelled to 10 hours and featured galaxy spanning tracking shots, women being impregnated with drops of blood and other flights of fancy I'll leave the audience to discover.

To bring that vission to life he hired only artists whom he felt had the necessary passion. French comic artist Moebius doing storyboards and a great deal of the costumes, future Alien designer H.R. Gieger designing the villain’s homeworld, and British illustrator Criss Foss painting the most amazing looking space ships ever.


The documentary unfolds mostly in the increasingly old-fashion talking head format, which can be forgiven because the primary head belongs to Jodorowsky who is outrageously fascinating as he tells how he shamed Pink Floyd into doing the soundtrack, conned Orson Wells and Salvador Dalí to play key supporting parts or put his teenage son through rigorous combat training to play the lead. His passion and optimism for the project is hypnotic he comes off as history's most affable cult leader. His sales pitch to at least one collaborator consisted of: "Sell everything you own and move to Paris."

Other interviewees include Gieger, who's voice is nearly as terrifying as his art, a smattering of critics, producers, and, for some reason, Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. The stories don't always seem completely reliable, but they've been given just the right embellishments by Jodorowsky which are indulged by Pavich because they make such a good yarn. The documentary's best moments might be when he chooses to animate key segments from the script, including the opening shot which is so amazing I had had to remind myself to breathe.

For a time it all seems achingly possible. But the film never got the green light needed to go into production. Even in the 70's, the peak of the ambitious New Hollywood movement, no studio wanted to pony up the proposed $15 million starting budget for the film with special effects that had never been tried, might last 10 hours and would probably be explicitly violent and sexual from a director with a well founded reputation for being nuts.

Jodorowsky remains understandably bitter, in a touching moment he tears up, takes the money out of his wallet and curses it, not just for Dune but for all the other projects he's been burned on. He would eventually move on to other films of varying quality, but has mostly left cinema behind for comics were he's respected and budgets aren't an issue. Lots of his ideas for Dune ended up in a series he co-authored with Moebius, The Incal. Dune eventually did reach the screen as a different debacle helmed by David Lynch and latter as a pretty decent mini-series by John Harrison. But both of those try and take the book head on, Jodorowsky wanted to change to world with his mega budget, spiritual blockbuster and was rebuffed like many filmmakers with larger than life ambition. It's sad that his Dune had to join the parathion of other great unmade films such as Kubrick's Napoleon or Del Toro's Mountains of Madness, but it's fortunate we have Pavich's spellbinding documentary to give us just a tiny peak into a film that might have changed the world.

Grade: A


Thursday, April 3, 2014

WES ANDERSON ROUNDTABLE: THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU

Every now and then at Screen Vistas I like to team up with Max O’Connell over at The Film Temple to tackle the work of one of our favorite directors. This time we’re looking at comedy stylist/master of whimsy Wes Anderson.
 
Loren Greenblatt: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is Wes Anderson’s fourth film, and not his best received. Some might view it as his One From the Heart or New York, New York. It’s heavily stylized and he had more creative freedom, but it wasn’t well liked on its initial release.

Max O’Connell: Well, people think the reviews were worse than they were. They were highly mixed with a lot of disappointment, but it wasn’t seen as a disaster by as many people as the story tends to go.

LG: I can see why this film turned some people off, though. I wasn’t crazy about it on my first viewing (a bad projection didn’t help) but it’s grown immensely for me on repeat viewings. My initial complaints do line up with what the some of the critics said at the time. The film feels very arch and removed, and as stylized as The Royal Tenenbaums was, this is so much more. I can see a lot of people viewing it as hipsterish or ironic: it starts off with a film-within-a-film of oceanographic explorer/filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) brings his latest documentary to a festival, and the credits for the main film appear within the documentary in this 4:3 aspect ratio, with curtains on the side of the screen to emphasize that we’re in a movie. I can see how this turned some people off.

MO: Yes, but it turned off people who were previously fans, too, and of his archness. I wonder if it might be that he has a different screenwriter this time. For his first three films and his first short, Anderson co-wrote it with his longtime friend Owen Wilson. Wilson has the second biggest role in The Life Aquatic, but he was also becoming a more prominent comic actor at this point, and he didn’t have time to work as a co-screenwriter, or so I understand. Anderson instead brought aboard Noah Baumbach, a director who at that point hadn’t worked in seven years. He made a big splash with Kicking and Screaming, followed by a pair of indifferently received comedies (Highball, Mr. Jealousy), and Anderson is the one who brought him back out, first with this, then as producer for Baumbach’s best film, The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach is a much more abrasive collaborator than Wilson.

LG: It’s not like Anderson’s past characters were warm and cuddly, but Steve Zissou is by far his most prickly protagonist. In terms of archness, this is Anderson’s first big attempt at world building and on paper, the 60’s high seas adventure trappings make it look lighter and more rompish than his previous films. He’d get to making lighter films in the future, but here he actually doubles down and presents a world that under all the whimsy is darker and more bitter than anything he’d done until now. We meet Zissou, a washed up Jack Cousteau type who looses his best friend/right hand man Esteban (Seymour Cassel) when he’s eaten by a “Jaguar Shark” who Steve now hopes to track down and kill. Between the stop-motion sea creatures, rival ships and pirates, I don’t think any of us really expected to see this middle-age, hard to like control freak in the lead, even if that type of character is 100% in keeping with both Anderson’s AND Baumbach’s style.

MO: But oh, the wonderful things around him! How delighted are we by those?

LG: Pretty darn delighted! It’s telling that for Anderson, actual sea life isn’t sufficiently whimsical, so instead he invents sea life in stop motion creatures made by Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline.
MO: The stop-motion is really wonderful. It helps accentuate the fantasy of this world, they remove us from reality, the handmade quality of the whole thing, right down to the sets. They’re very lived in, but they have a dollhouse feel.

LG: He turns Zissou’s boat, the Belafonte, into an actual diorama. There’s a wonderful scene that’s maybe the most Andersonian scene ever, in which Anderson cuts the boat in half on a set so we can see all of the characters walking through the various rooms and we can see all the gadgets they have.

MO: There’s also a scene later that shows that diorama view where Steve has a fight with Ned (Wilson), the man who’s possibly his son, and there’s a long shot following the two as they argue. As they’re doing it, Steve stops the argument to address whoever he passes, and he’ll either lash out at them or, when he runs into the one intern who didn’t quit, he’ll swing to overwhelming praise and say, “Awesome, you’re getting an ‘A’,” followed by a slap on his injured shoulder. It’s a long take that shows the intricacy of the set, but also how Steve’s moods can swing from one moment to another. And it’s a case where I can’t picture it being done better than the way it was done with those dioramas.

LG: There’s a key moment in the film for me where they’re in Italy, and Steve is completely dominating Ned, the son he never wanted but now needs to micromanage. He changes his name to “Kingsley,” he orders wine for him, and he pushes away any sense of individuality Ned might express. And that’s interesting because he has this sort of Bill Nye/Jacques Cousteau profession where he’s supposed to foster individuality and imagination, but he actually stifles it.

MO: Yes, and Ned is willing to go with it for a while because he’s found a new father figure after having lost a lot personally (his mother killed herself after she found out she had terminal ovarian cancer), but after a while Steve micromanages to the point where he pushes away the one man who’s still on his side. Whenever Ned ad libs on camera, Steve is annoyed. The first time, Steve pretends to like it, and the second time he chastises Ned and demands that next time he whisper his idea in Steve’s ear so he can say it in front of the reporter, Jane (Cate Blanchett). Ned goes with it until it gets to this great scene where they’re underwater in scuba gear, and Ned asks Steve if he can call him dad. Steve quickly suggests a different nickname, “Stevesie.”

LG: And I like that it’s in scuba gear that obscures their faces and lets Wilson express his pain through his voice, his eyes and body language, and then the camera drifts away in a very expressive shot.

MO:  You talked about how Steve’s supposed to promote individuality while collecting all of these weird and wonderful misfits on his crew.

LG: That’s right, he doesn’t just do this to Ned, he has an entire crew of people to bully around. The crew of the Belafonte is like this big, dysfunctional version of the Enterprise.

MO: They’re also like a surrogate family that could fall apart at any moment, because they’re working at the whims of a very inconsiderate man. There’s Anne-Marie (Robyn Cohen), the script girl who’s casually topless, which seems to get no attention from anyone.

LG: It is Europe! But what I love about that character is that she’s kind of like the bratty yet very responsible sister, the only one who will tell Steve that his plans are going to get them hurt. Something I noticed is a dichotomy between the old and young in the crew. The young include Anne-Marie and Pelé (Seu Jorge), but then there’s the old, who in the documentary-within-the-film, are given ages that are way off. No way that Klaus (Willem Dafoe), Steve’s eternally loyal German second-in-command, is 45. Nor is the sound guy in his 40s. This is another part of Steve’s control over his world: he’s is living in the past, and not acknowledging their ageing he gets to avoid acknowledging his own. There’s a sense that these guys were once big (this is a world where oceanography and documentaries are big). In the 80s and 90s, they were big enough to have merchandising in the form of Adidas endorsements, action figures and pinball machines. But that’s halted. Steve admits, “I haven’t been at my best this past decade.”

MO: To which his estranged wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) plainly says, “That’s true.” It’s interesting considering Bill Murray’s background: onetime comic megastar who, in the 90s, started appearing in low-rent movies before Wes Anderson revitalized his career.

LG: And it’s easy to be on Eleanor’s side, because as they say, she’s the brains of the outfit. There’s a montage where we see everyone doing their job, and Eleanor’s crossing off things that they have planned that are too impractical, like “Skydiving into a volcano.”

MO: One of the interesting things about this movie is that it’s only Wes Anderson’s fourth movie, when he was in his 30s, yet it’s about middle-aged failure. It’s almost like he’s making a movie about not only what he could turn into, but what he could turn into soon enough following these massive successes.

LG: I don’t know how much he intended it, but there is a very meta angle to that.

MO: Owen Wilson is still there in a major role, but it’s interesting that he’s gone as the co-screenwriter in a film in which a man loses his right-hand man in the beginning. The other interesting thing is that there’s a concern about losing your touch by fakery. Steve is clearly affected by Esteban’s death, but he didn’t capture it on camera, so he restages it. That’s become a regular part of his movies, fakery, but here’s a point where it reaches its most egregious. He knows he doesn’t have it anymore, so he’s just going to fake it. And this is a point in Anderson’s career where some felt that it was a lot of fakery and not enough heart (which is absurd, but whatever).

LG: And there’s a classic Wes Anderson thing of people using fantasy to insulate themselves from the real world. Steve is dealing with tough stuff, so he uses the fact that he’s in a film to shield himself. Any time he starts to feel something, he asks if it’s being caught on film. That, for me, is him pushing away something real. That might have turned people off, too. There is a sense of remove, and Bill Murray’s performance is very minimalistic. At first glance, it seems like he’s not doing much, but he’s actually doing a lot. There are little tonalities that are very important. There’s this one moment near the end where he’s reading a letter he wrote to Ned many years ago, and the way he emphasizes, “I remember your mother…” is very subtle, pointed, and effective.

MO: Not just in emotional ways, because this is one of Anderson’s saddest movies, but Murray is also really funny in this. His timing in this is great. I love in the opening scene where he’s being interviewed by the press about his latest film, and his pauses for every answer are priceless. “What would be the scientific purpose of killing the shark?” (long pause, then very matter of fact) “Revenge.”

LG: I also love the autograph scene, where an older fan has around 20 posters that he wants Steve to sign (based on a real event Anderson saw Murray go through). After so many signatures, he just says, “Just sign the rest yourself.”

MO: To be fair to Steve, at that point, I might lose my patience as well.

LG: Let’s talk about the music. Every Wes Anderson film is somewhat anchored by one particular musician or style: British Invasion in Rushmore, mainly varying kinds of folk for The Royal Tenenbaums, etc. Here, it’s anchored by David Bowie songs, but not just the originals. Seu Jorge’s crew member plays acoustic David Bowie covers in Portuguese, and they’re wonderful. Bowie even prefers some of them to the studio versions.

MO: It’s interesting how he uses Bowie for key emotional scenes. The use of “Life on Mars?” when Steve first meets Ned, and later on the use of Seu Jorge’s version when Ned first realizes how awful Steve can be, it’s a terrific emotional standpoint.

LG: I love the use of the “Space Oddity” countdown by Jorge as a group of pirates arrive on the Belafonte in a really interesting shot as they emerge from the fog. And Anderson does have a proper rock star doing his music. This is the last score Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo did for Anderson, and the best. I hope they’ll work together again today.

MO: Now, what do you think is the major difference between Steve and his rival, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum)? It’s interesting how there’s a bit of an Indiana Jones/Belloq thing, where neither of them are necessarily great guys, but one of them is our guy.

LG: Hennessey is the more successful one. He’s just been made a knight in Portugal! I want to become a knight in Portugal!

MO: Hennessey is much more confident than Steve, but he’s also much slimier. Steve, at least, you know where you stand with him. Goldblum pretends he doesn’t hate you.

LG: He’s also a character who isn’t a complete villain, which is something about Wes Anderson films that I love. No matter what, there’s always a moment of empathy. Even with the Jaguar shark.

MO: Yeah. It’s funny when Hennessey is kidnapped and the pirates sink his ship, but it’s also moving when they do rescue him. He does seem genuinely a little touched that Steve took the time, because he knows Steve doesn’t like him.

LG: Yeah. The pirates killed his crew, and more hurtful to him, made soup out of his research turtles. I don’t know why but the way that line is delivered, it always registers to me like they might as well have been cannibals. The character relationships in this film are very interesting. Dafoe plays Klaus beautifully against type, more childish than scary. He’s competing with Ned to have Steve as his father figure, despite the fact that they’re clearly about the same age. And the reporter, Jane, has a difficult thing with Steve, who fancies himself as a bit of a stud and hits on her, but she’s not having it. But she develops a romance with Ned. So we gotta a a weird love triangle with a father figure/son fighting over the same woman.

MO: There’s a lot of stuff with father figures. Ned has a new father figure for the first time in his life, then finds out that he’s not a very nice man. Steve never wanted to be a father because he hates fathers, which implies something painful in his past. Jane finds a surrogate father for her child in Ned after the real father essentially abandons it. And Klaus sees Steve and Esteban as father figures.

LG: Wes Anderson maintains that he and his parents have wonderful relationships, but it’s much more interesting to write bad dads. There’s actually an ongoing art instillation at Spoke Art in San Francisco covering his work that was even titled “Bad Dads.” It’s a common trope in his work that also links him to Spielberg in a lot of ways.

MO: There’s a good dad in Rushmore in Seymour Cassel’s character, but they’re very rare.

LG: I’d like to believe that’s what his dad is really like. One of the things that still doesn’t 100% work for me is the implication that Steve has faked the death of Esteban, which I think the film plays with a little too long. There are a few moments that imply that Esteban is still alive somewhere.

MO: I didn’t think that. I thought it was more a thing where he’s taking advantage of his friend’s death.

LG: Eleanor says at one point that she doesn’t want be around because one is already dead, and it’s played as if he forgot or doesn't know what she’s talking about.

MO: Yeah, no, I didn’t get that at all. For me, Esteban is conclusively dead throughout, he just restaged it because he didn’t get it on camera and that’s kind of the person he’s become.

LG: It’s one of the lingering things that doesn’t 100% work for me.

MO: There are a few things that don’t work 100% for me. It’s odd, because there aren’t too many scenes that feel like they’re not there for a reason, but this film feels a bit flabbier compared to Anderson’s previous work. It doesn't move quite as well.

LG: For me it moves very well, but I understand, it does stop for whimsy a lot.

MO: An example would be the scene where Steve points out the radios they have in their headsets. It’s a funny bit, but it’s like, “We’re gonna stop now for a joke.”

LG: For me, it’s a transition to another scene, but I understand how you might think that.

MO: It’s an awkward transition for me. There’s a handful of those. And I think Anderson has talked about this, but the shootout with the pirates is not terribly well staged. I feel like he’s trying to go for chaos and clumsiness, but accidentally makes it more trouble than it’s worth.

LG: “John Woo I ain’t,” I believe was his quote. I actually like that scene. There’s a very handmade aspect to it. Like it was made by a bunch of energetic kids who just went out and grabbed some shots. It’s a cute action scene. I also love the gag where Bill Murray uses the unpaid interns for cover.

MO: That is funny, it’s just the directing of that scene is a bit clumsier than it’s supposed to be for me.

LG: I kind of felt it was going for clumsy.

MO: It is, but the execution is off.

LG: The weird moment where they pause for the Northern Lights does bother me.

MO:…yeah, I don’t know what that’s there for.

LG: I feel it's a "tide has turned and nature is with us" thing, it's just awkwardly done.

MO: Hmm. Maybe.

LG: It’s also one of his most overtly New Wave films – oodles of jump cuts, bright, saturated colors denote this as a “movie-movie” in a very New Wave way and when Ned dies at the end, there’s flashes of red and white frames that feel straight out of a late 60s Godard film.

MO: Not just that, but it’s at a point where Steve has come to terms with being a bad father and is trying to rectify that. It comes through on the raid in the pirates’ compound, and he tells Klaus how much he means to him, and he apologizes to Ned. Ned has become a full member of Team Zissou, and he’s extended the olive branch to Klaus, effectively becoming a surrogate brother. So much of this film is about not taking for granted the things that really matter, because they could be gone at any point, and Steve connects with Ned just as he loses him. There’s this great montage of Ned’s life flashing before his eyes as he dies in the helicopter crash. And that scene is shocking, but it’s not out of nowhere, because they do mention how the helicopter wasn’t in great shape earlier.

LG: And there’s a running gag with Klaus where he’s supposed to be the guy who fixes things but never does, and just as Klaus becomes friends with Ned, he loses him because he didn’t fix the thing. There’s two things I thought about in that scene. First, there’s a moment where Jane sends him a letter to Ned’s bunk before he leaves, and for me, I feel like that’s a marriage proposal, or an invitation to be the father to her child.

MO: Oh, you know what, that sounds about right. And this is the death that Steve doesn’t exploit, and he puts it in his film respectably, and he’s changed at a terrible cost. It’s brought back emotional honesty in his work.

LG: And I love the ending, the happy 80s Buckaroo Banzai homage where, out of the ashes, a new crew has emerged to go on new, presumably happier adventures together.

MO: Here’s the thing: we talk about all of the great David Bowie songs in this, including “Queen Bitch” over the end credits with the Buckaroo Banzai homage, but my favorite use of music in this film isn’t a Bowie song. It’s the use of the Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside” during Ned’s funeral. That’s a moment that’s almost as moving as “The Fairest of the Seasons” for me.

LG: That one gets me every time. There’s a really interesting touch in that ending, though, where as they’re walking to “Queen Bitch,” as they finally board the ship, Ned, despite being dead, is on top of the ship as a spirit of Team Zissou. That’s a very unusual, borderline surrealistic touch. You might not notice it the first time.

MO: I didn’t notice it until this time. That’s stuck in right at the end there. I love how accepting this film is. Even Bud Cort, the prototypical Wes Anderson character in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, plays a bond company stooge who’s in Steve’s corner, not just a bond company stooge. “No bond company stooge would stick his neck out like that.” And everyone who’s still alive is accepted into this big family when they finally see the jaguar shark. It’s wonderful how he uses that great anamorphic framing in a small space there to get it more intimate, to use density to imply togetherness.

LG: I know when he was making the film, he wasn’t always very clear what that jaguar shark scene meant to him. I think, it is a very interesting scene. A lot of people put Moby Dick stuff on it, because of surface comparisons, but that never really held a lot of water for me.

MO: I think it is there, in that it’s a revenge story where our Ahab realizes, as Matt Zoller Seitz suggested, killing his friend was “nothing personal.” Death comes for us.

LG: I don’t think of it as “nothing personal,” I think of it as Steve staring death in the face and seeing it as something big and awe-inspiring, which is kind of what he probably got into this business for in the first place. The world is so big, and beautiful and strange and more fascinating than we think.

MO: And uncontrollable. He’s tried to control nature in his documentaries, and now he’s accepted that he can’t, and here comes the most moving moment he’ll ever be able to capture. He’s encountered this thing that’s responsible for the death of one friend and tangentially responsible for the death of his son, since they died while searching for it, and he’s able to just let it wash over him.

LG: He lost his spiritual brother and spiritual son.

MO: It’s maybe not the cleanest thing Anderson has ever done –

LG: I don’t think it needs to be. Sometimes it’s better to be messy.

MO: Sometimes it’s messy to a fault, but it’s also messy to wonderful degrees, and it’s one of his most thematically interesting and adventurous films, which is why I’m glad it has found a cult following in the years since. Its most passionate defenders stuck by it.

LG: It’s one that’s gotten better on repeat viewings. All the stuff that bothered me fell away, and all of the stuff I was missing popped up

MO: It’s struck me as much richer on each repeat viewing.

LOREN'S GRADE: A-
MAX'S GRADE: A-

That concludes our discussion of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, if you enjoyed it, feel free to leave a comment below. You can also follow Screen Vistas on Facebook by clicking here.


Roundtable Directory:  
Bottle Rocket (short and feature)
Rushmore
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissiou
Hotel Chevalier / Darjeeling Limited
The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Moonrise Kingdom
Shorts and Commercials
The Grand Budapest Hotel