Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Director's Report Card: Wes Anderson (2001-2007)

3. The Royal Tenenbaums
“The Royal Tenenbaums” is distinctive for having one of the best opening sequences of all time. Within a few minutes, it successfully introduces all of the lead characters, the film’s visual style and tone, while never coming off as boring or heavy-handed. Much like “Rushmore” was framed as a stage play, this film is framed like a novel. Which is very appropriate, given that it feels a great deal like a novel. Not in the sense that it’s story wanders on for a few unnecessary hundred pages but in a lyrical sense. That a good portion of the film is narrated by an omnipresent voice, provided by Alec Baldwin, only helps along this feeling. Another important aspect that helps along the feel is the painted, novel dust jacket style art design, many of which provided by Wes Anderson’s brother, Eric.

While the movie’s look contributes so much to its success, it’s obviously the characters that make it as good as it is. It’s rare that you see a film where you love every single character and want to spend as much time with them as possible. Every character, from Royal Tenenbaum himself to the afflicted youth Dudley, is great. Equally, each actor does a great job, many giving career best. One of the things that create such strong characters are the layers applied to them. Each one of the Tenenbaum children are given a personal musical theme, while, I feel, each one also has an animal symbolic of them throughout the film. (Chas Tenenbaum is dogs, Margot is the spotted mice, while Richie is Mordicai the Falcon, probably the most personable falcon to ever be on film.) Reading to much into it? Probably not, consider the movie and director were talking about. Though Royal Tenenbaum fits into the Gene Hackman “type,” it’s still a great performance from him, exciting, energetic, selfish, but undeniably lovable. He seems like the type of character you’d love to have as a friend but not as a father. Bill Murray is so low-key he’s practically asleep. Danny Glover is also agreeably laconic. Luke Wilson and Ben Stiller both give subdued, subtle performances, while Owen the other Wilson goes far in the other direction, creating an entertaining kook.

Though it would be easy to only laud the cast, I really think the film as a whole belongs to Wes Anderson. His dry and slightly slanted wit thrives in every frame of the film and little time passes between each hilarious line of dialogue or off-handed quirky comment. Though the film is certainly very funny, it is just as effective as a drama as it is a comedy. There is a palatable melancholy floating under the whole time which culminates in the suicide scene, a moment that might be out of place in most comedies but works here. The scene is one of the highlights and pretty much trumps every other movie’s use of an Elliot Smith song.

Ultimately, you want each of the characters to succeed in their personal endeavors. Because they are human, you are allowed to laugh at their follies, but because the viewer is human, you are allowed to relate to their failures. The movie leaves me with a good feeling every time I see it because with every rewatch it’s like revisiting a group of old friends and because of its refreshing, quirky, funny mood.
[Grade: A]

4. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Despite dividing audiences even more then usual, I feel “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is perhaps the Anderson film with the most replay value. It’s certainly the one with the most cult feel and the one that plays best over time. It’s a movie he’s been preparing to make for some time, considering his interest in Cousteau that has popped up in his previous efforts.

It’s the film that reinstated my faith in Bill Murray. After delving more and more into increasingly inaccessible pretentious indie films in which he brought nothing but a bored, detached moroseness (Including the vastly overrated “Lost in Translation.”), he actually acts in this one and is also for the first time in many years, seriously funny. While the interior disappointment and depression is here as always, Steve Zissou provides Murray with a detailed, multifaceted character. He’s cynical, lazy, over the hill, bitter, fully expecting everyone he’s ever cared about to abandon him, and full of self-loathing… Did I mention completely lovable? With a facial expressions or especially a funny turn of line, Murray reveals so much about Zissou while making him easily he’s most relatable and accomplished performance in some time.

But, least we forget, this is an ensemble film as well. While Owen Wilson’s accent is distracting, Willem DeFoe’s exaggerated German accent is funny but not as nearly as amusing as his performance. While relegated to playing psychos most of the time, he proves to be an accomplished comedic actor here, mugging like a petulant child at times, the constantly under-appreciated member of the crew. Jeff Goldblum also proves to be hilarious as Zissou’s rival, an expert in passive-aggression that mostly just seems to be good at everything Steve isn’t. As for the other cast members, Cate Blanchet is fine if unextraordinary and Angelica Huston is accomplished enough while Bud Cort has a great small role.

Music has always been featured heavily in Anderson’s film but it takes on a bigger importance there. Mark Mothersbough contributes another quirky, effectively tinny score which serves as a punch line on several occasions. Devo, The Stooges, and The Zombies are used well but it’s really the acoustic, Portuguese covers of Bowie songs that provide a large deal of personality here. To a major Bowie nerd as myself, this is just like a series of amusement tickling in-jokes. And, heck, it’s pretty much impossible not to get a kick when the opening bars to “Queen Bitch” start up at the end.

Henry Salick’s stop-motion creatures add a surreal, lyrical level, pushing the movie into its own little universe. Some people have called the big action sequences out of place but, I don’t know, the Rambo style breakdowns really breaks up the static. And, finally, this might be Wes’ funniest film or, at the very least, contains his funniest dialogue. From the interns, to the bound company stooges, Cody, revenge, dynamite, those goddamn dolphins… So on. Maybe it is too quirky for quirkiness’ sake for some people or maybe Wes Anderson just isn’t cool in the prep-school eyes of film critic cliques, but “The Life Aquatic” is awesome in my eyes, his most unhinged, inspired, comical journey to date.
[Grade: A]

5. The Darjeeling Limited
I love how this movie looks. Every thing is so colorful, every shot is filled with something bright blue or a soft sandy yellow. If this isn’t an influence of Indian film, maybe it’s just from the country itself. The beauty of India is shown off at seemingly every opportunity and adds a lot of character.

Beyond the gorgeous setting, the movie is pretty basic Wes Anderson. The tale of a dysfunctional family coming together and attempting to heal their wounds certainly isn’t anything new. Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrian Brody (in a part that feels like it was written for Luke Wilson) are all game and give good performances but none of their brothers are as likable or memorable as Anderson’s past protagonists. Though the movie is filled with at least two moments of inspired hilarity and at least one more of sullen sadness, the film is never as funny nor as emotionally effective as previous efforts.

The use of music, set design, and direction is at least as brilliant as the rest of Anderson’s catalog and I do love the numerous reoccurring symbols and motifs as well as Bill Murray’s just-for-fun cameo.

Don’t get the impression that “The Darjeeling Limited” isn’t good- it’s well-acted, expertly written, and ends with the same heart-filling humor and warmth as the director’s other movies. It’s just not as good, and maybe is a little disappointing because of that. Make sure to watch the short film, “Hotel Chevalier,” first as there are some minor moments that don’t make any sense without it.
[Grade: B+]

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson's first venture into animation and based on the children's book by Roald Dahl, is suppose to come out this fall. That's sounds pretty interesting, right?

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