Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review: Delightful Water Universe (2009)

So, it’s 2009, and what has Trent Harris been up to all this time? Well, some documentary shorts have been made, some books written. The last thing I saw with his name on it were a few video/music collages done for the “Hearing Voices” website. (A few of which are on the YouTube.) And then, seemingly out of nowhere, “Delightful Water Universe” crops up.

What to say of it? Well, first off, Harris fans (How many of us are out there?) will probably go ga-ga over it. What will everyone else think? Who cares! Right out of gate, the movie inundates us with his unique brand of weirdness. The movie claims to be based on true events that will take place in the future. From here, we are reintroduced to the director’s trademarks. Plenty of funny, quotable dialogue, most of it in the form of obtuse insults, are on display here. (The writer/director can’t take credit for the highly amusing real Dan Quyale quotes that are trotted out a few times.) Perhaps more important is the odd story which involves a number of things, such as a dark future where corporations own everything and Bigfoot controls our thoughts with a hat made of windshield wipers. A vast conspiracy threatens to unleash the Delightful Water Universe on the world, enslaving us all to prime-time television.
Or is it? Perhaps the whole thing is just the incoherent ramblings of a nut locked up in an asylum, besieged on all sides by paranoid beliefs and delusions, and an apparent Burning Man festival going on just outside his walls.

Off-beat obviously but the movie is not as immediately accessible as some of Harris’ previous work. The whole thing is set up as a novel, leading to a heavy use of voiceover narration. Initially, it’s slightly off-putting and takes some getting use to. Also, one of the running jokes here, is that a lot of the big action takes place off-screen. Some times things are just described to us, more often we are presented with blindly artful montages. The best sequence in the film is such a scene standing in place of a wild sex scene. Instead of the hot action, we see the characters doing odd dances all set to infectious electronic music. (Also apparently composed by Harris. What doesn’t that guy do?) Though certainly a response to the paltry budget, this ends up working very well. These are moments of pure art tossed into the middle of the movie that somehow not manages to sidetrack or derail the momentum of the story. The other montages composed of old stock footage are less successful though no less hypnotic. And the long bits of underwear clad hotties seem slightly out of the place, even if it makes sense. (The movie has an overall sense of sad horniness, which it actually ends up justifying before the conclusion.)

Bill Allred isn’t buyable as a lady’s man, a joke the movie is in on, but is an amusing, easy to hang out with lead. Stefene Russell resurfaces for the first time since “Plan 10 from Outer Space” and shows the same sort of easy charm she did in that film, even if her Elmer Fudd lisp growls old by the end. However, it’s Dan Morley that gives the best performance, captivating in his derangement as the captured author that is writing the story we’re watching.
As much as I’d like to proclaim it as, “Delightful Water Universe” isn’t a full-fledged obscure weird classics like “Rubin and Ed.” The movie doesn’t really have an ending and instead just sort of circles out of logic before finishing up. Neither of the stories present have a proper conclusion and I can’t help but wonder if funding ran out or something. But still, there’s an emotional completeness here. Even if some things are left up in the air, the characters arrive at a better place then they began. The DVD case proclaims “Delightful Water Universe” as about heroic misfits, for heroic misfits. Truthful, as always. Not perfect but too infectiously quirky not to embrace, it sits proud among the rest of Trent Harris’ filmography. I mean, hell, it’s got a random musical number. You can’t resist the charms, it’ll make you as happy as a clam. [Grade: A-]

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?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Director's Report Card: Wes Anderson (1996-1998)

So it's back to business as usual for the ol' movie blog now. Here's a report card for the director responsible for the majority of my Criterion collection.

1. Bottle Rocket
In today’s world when the quirky indie comedy is largely a genre onto itself, it’s sort of interesting to go back to the beginning, before that concept was so overplayed. “Bottle Rocket,” in addition to being the beginning of that sub-genre, more or less, also comes out of the door as a bold statement for Wes Anderson. His style is apparent pretty much from the opening scene. And while it hadn’t totally developed to the strength and instantly recognition that would later happen, you can definitely see the roots. We’ve got a story revolving around a group of misfits character, with the lead being a total rogue, trying to bring his wacky plans to fruition, much to the chagrin of everyone around him. You’ve got heavy use of early English pop/rock and an eccentric, catchy score courtesy of Devo’s Mark Mothersbough.

And, of course, the Wilson brothers. (All three of them actually. Andrew has a small role as super prick Future Man.) Now a days, when both brothers are associated with highly advertised but shallow studio comedies, usually of the romantic or family variety, it might be hard to remember they were actually talented once. It’s really Owen that shines here. While Luke’s often conflicted and concerned lead certainly isn’t a light job, Owen’s Dignan is obviously the most interesting character in the film and drives much of the action.

Actually, it’s in the second act, when the story’s focus shifts to the romantic subplot, that the movie falters. While fun to watch in its own right, compared to the very funny botched heist elements of the beginning, it seems mostly laugh-free. The movie makes up for this problem by returning to another messed up heist for the awesome conclusion, a brilliant series of humorous sequence that pretty much makes the whole movie.

The supporting cast is all right, with James Caan and Lumi Cavazos making impressions, though I found Robert Musgrave slightly annoying. While he would easily top it over time, “Bottle Rocket” is a good beginning for Anderson and certainly shows off his stylistic trademarks.
[Grade: B]

2. Rushmore
It’s really fascinating to see a director’s style evolve from film to film, especially if that director’s style was distinct to begin with. “Rushmore” is a full scale improvement over “Bottle Rocket” and displays Wes Anderson really coming into his own as a filmmaker.

First off, it’s much funnier. The razor sharp, endlessly quotable, laugh-out-loud dialogue makes it first appearance. Honestly, a lot of the lines here had me bowling over with laughter. Also appearing are a number of subtle sight gags, like the nonsensical appearances of Halloween costumes or, most notably, Max’s (in)famous stage productions. Midway through the film, the one-up-man-ship between Murray and Schwartzman provides some of the biggest laughs of the picture.

Of course, “Rushmore” isn’t just a highly successful comedy. It's primary a focused character study. (Maybe that’s the biggest different between “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore.” A sense of focus on one character.) Max certainly proves to be one of Anderson’s most memorable characters. A hero to a whole generation of overachievers, attempting to do everything at once without really succeeding at any of them, the character is a little hard to pin down and could very well be unique. Maybe most interesting is how the movie avoids the typical coming-of-age story clich├ęs. Max grows throughout the story but how much does he really mature? Maybe the most important lesson he grabs is which battles to fight. Either way, Jason Schwartzman is awesome, fully becoming the character, delivering a break-out part if I’ve ever seen one.

Another important event to happen here was Anderson’s first collaboration with Bill Murray. A lot has been written about the direction Murray’s career would take following this film. His journey from cut-up Hollywood class clown into melancholy, slightly pretentious, indie film mainstay started here. It had been coming a long time. Murray isn’t just depressed the whole movie, providing plenty of laughs of his own, proving the comedy sophistication that was always lurking below the surface. Olivia Williams, playing the object of obsession for both man and boy, seems to one of the few semi-grown up people in the movie. She’s enchanting and you can see how easily both could fall for her. Points need to be thrown out to Mason Gamble and Stephen McCole, both hysterical, and Sara Tanaka, who I probably would’ve had a crush on if I she went to school with me.

All the other Anderson pieces are in place: The montages set to English pop music and the Mothersburgh score that’s as eccentric as the movie. It’s the first one hundred percent Wes Anderson movie and his first real triumphant.
[Grade: A-]