Criterion Sunday 300: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

A lot of people I follow on Letterboxd really like this Wes Anderson film, and it surely has all of his familiar touches: an emotionally resonant central story about grown-up fathers and sons trying to find some common ground; incredibly precise set and costume design; elaborate multi-room sets; bright colours; stop-motion animated ocean creatures; and all the actors you could want, most of them returning from previous Anderson endeavours. Of course, there’s also a frequent criticism of Anderson’s style that he is detached as a filmmaker, though it’s something that also used to get levelled at, say, Stanley Kubrick, and neither of them strike me as being unemotional. Quite often their stories revolve around very fraught, even melodramatic, relationships and that’s the case here too. However, for the first time in Anderson’s oeuvre, I don’t feel able to connect to these characters beyond their surface characteristics. The filmmaking, the texture, the detail is all there, but somehow for me, in this film, these traits are all just ciphers for some story ideas Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach were working through. There are little generic touches, like gun battles and pirates, which seem oddly out-of-place, even when filmed in Anderson’s elliptical and deadpan style, and elements which seem perfunctory at best and possibly a little ill-judged (the Filipino pirates, or the topless woman who assists Zissou as scriptgirl). That said, it’s certainly never boring and has ravishing production values that are probably worthwhile even if the story itself feels beside the point.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a number of deleted scenes (and one outtake), none longer than a minute and most around 20-30 seconds in length, which are just further little vignettes that round out some of the characters and situations, although it’s interesting to see how they look before post-processing and colour correction.
  • There’s an Italian television interview on a show called Mondo Monda which has an interview between the slick Italian host and Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach which is clearly a parody (like the fake talk show included on The Royal Tenenbaums as an extra). That said, you can spend some time imagining it’s real, except that it has all these deadpan reactions as the host largely refuses to translate his questions despite speaking perfect English, and in which Anderson and Baumbach are often reduced to single-word answers to extravagantly self-involved questions touching on poetic and philosophical nonsense.
  • There’s about half-an-hour of short interview featurettes compiling interviews with various actors and crew, as well as behind-the-scenes footage, on topics such as two of the main characters (those of Cate and Owen), the fastidious costume and production design, the animation of the sea creatures, et al.
  • A series of still photographs of the production and the design are included, which are visually striking.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Noah Taylor; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at Ritzy, London, Tuesday 22 March 2005 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 16 March 2020).

Criterion Sunday 157: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

There are a lot of charges that get levelled at Wes Anderson, his filmmaking and his films — often feelings that I’ve held at some time or another — which is usually around the fastidiousness with which the sets are designed, or the shots are framed, about the sense that emotion has been overwhelmed by the constructedness of the places within which they’re shared, stuff like that. And as I said, sometimes I really do feel that, but while ultimately he may have an outcome very clearly in mind, he’s also canny enough to hire actors who are able to get at something, and it’s something that in Royal Tenenbaums feels particularly deep and sad. Anjelica Huston and Gene Hackman really underpin this whole enterprise, as Etheline and Royal, the estranged heads of this particular family, and it all seems to first come together in the scene where Royal confronts her outside his building, in front of a Japanese embassy building, at first saying he’s dying then retracting that when she makes what he considers too much of a scene, all conveyed in small gestures with a largely static camera.

Thinking about the fact that I recall where it takes place, I don’t happen to think that these details, however elaborately placed, are always all that deep. The embassy has a zen garden after all, which we learn about (and becomes relevant) later, but also that idea of zen seems metaphorically perhaps to be juxtaposed with this emotionally-charged scene that plays out in front. The film is replete with such details, little flourishes around the edge of the frame, but they feel more like a crutch to help the actors, because it’s in them that the film lives. I’ve seen it many many times, but for the first half an hour I don’t particularly feel connected to any of them — they seem at first to be just a set of attributes that Anderson accretes, like the clubs that Max Fischer is part of in Rushmore, more a substitute for character than an expression of it. And when overlaid with the just-so music choices, it almost feels manipulative.

It’s just that, as the film progresses, a sense of this family’s atomisation and the way that every character, deep down (or not so deep in some cases), is fundamentally broken becomes overwhelming. And it’s at that point that I start to go with it, for all that I resist Anderson’s “quirks”. It’s at this point that the children, who seem at first to be so programmatic in their construction (a troubled sports star, an angst-filled artist, an over-compensating business savant), come centre stage, and even actors who I’ve never really felt particularly strongly towards, people like Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow, become so affecting, perhaps because of this. And so the expression of their pain, in conjunction with the sets, the props, the music choices, becomes really, almost strangely, comforting. It’s a film that seems to express the idea that everything can become alright, bearable and liveable despite all the pain.

What I’m left with, then, as something that I find difficult to therefore integrate into this world, is how white it is, Danny Glover’s accountant Henry Sherman aside. All the people of colour are supporting, in almost servile ways, emotional supports for damaged, rich white people. Too many of these minor characters, whom I recall as being treated rather generously, in fact seem rather the butt of jokes upon rewatching the film. How can I sympathise with Royal’s character (which is clearly the intention) when his idea of tearing it up and rebelling against the system seems to involve throwing water balloons at the “Gypsy Cabs”, amongst other things? I don’t know, this may be a blindspot for me, or it may be for Anderson, and it leaves me feeling slightly less generous, but on the whole this is a deeply affecting family drama dressed up as spritely comic fluff.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This disc is packed with little extras, primary among them being a short video documentary portrait directed Albert Maysles (with Antonio Ferrera and Larry Kamerman), With the Filmmaker (2001), in which you really get a sense of how fastidious Wes Anderson is about the details. He also opens up about his process, and the sense (which I think is apparent from the film) of how he feels less obsessed with cinematography and set design and more open to collaboration with actors, although you certainly don’t feel that from all the scenes of him, say, colouring in the hair on one of his brother’s illustrations that will be glimpsed maybe for a brief split-second in the corner of one shot. I end up feeling that Wes Anderson is just the kind of guy I imagined he’d be, and I think that’s a good thing?
  • There are two cut scenes in fairly rough form, one showing Eli Cash’s wife and children (incidentally the wife appears to be Olivia Williams, who starred in Rushmore, though perhaps I’m just wishing it were), presumably excised because that was just a little too much detail that was distracting, and another showing a dinner sequence in which Henry romances Etheline.
  • There are a number of ‘scrapbook’ entries, including some evocative production stills, as well as details of all Eric Chase Anderson’s drawings (the ones that Richie draws of his sister, as well as the ones that adorn his room’s walls), the book and magazine covers with their blocks of Helvetica text, a few choice storyboard pages showing Anderson’s clear visual sense of how the finished film would look, and a short radio interview with the artist Miguel Calderón whose large-scale paintings so memorably adorn Eli’s home.
  • The disc features a series of short interviews with all the leading cast members, reflecting on their characters in the film and their work with Wes Anderson.
  • One of the more interesting extras is an entire episode of the fictional show-within-a-show presented by Peter Bradley (an interviewer apparently modelled on Charlie Rose, and clearly a bit of a creep given we see him in the film at one point fondling Margot’s breast in a backstage scene). His interview is with many of the minor characters, including the Pallanas (father and son Kumar and Dipak), as well as the actors who play the Indian tennis player Richie breaks down while playing, and a guy with the surname of Tenenbaum who’s been in all Anderson’s films. It all feels pretty authentic, especially in the way it’s so excruciating at times to watch, as Bradley messes up all the names, and can’t seem to finish a coherent line of questioning.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Owen Wilson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Danny Glover; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 24 March 2002 (and later at Manners Mall Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 16 June 2002, as well as a number of times on DVD subsequently, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 27 October 2019).

Ghostbusters (2016)

It is apparently incumbent on every white dude on the internet to register his opinion on this new ‘reboot’ of Ghostbusters, the 1984 film which brought together a handful of comedic actors and writers (most prominently from Saturday Night Live) in a supernatural-themed comedy pitting aforesaid actors against a demonic threat to New York City. And so again we have a handful of comedic actors and writers (mostly from SNL) in a supernatural etc. etc. The remake largely refocuses the film on the four titular characters (three dorky scientists and one subway worker played by Leslie Jones) and their comedic interactions. Supporting characters — including their chief antagonist, who in a nod perhaps to the source of much of the online “criticism”, is an introverted, maladjusted guy with very little in the way of a defined character — are reduced to a number of cameos from the original cast, and a fine turn by another SNL alum Cecily Strong as the mayor’s sceptical and unhelpful aide. Oh, and Chris Hemsworth as a beefy but very very stupid receptionist, who threatens at times to steal the film. He doesn’t though, because Kate McKinnon does that, as the compellingly weird Jillian Holtzmann, who also gets one of the key later action sequences, a relatively short but thrilling single-handed paranormal combat. I don’t know, maybe the script isn’t so tight in all respects, and I have to concede I was pretty drunk when I watched it, but I really fail to understand a lot of the film’s critics. Perhaps the humour won’t appeal to everyone, but it all seemed pretty funny to me, plus there were scares reminiscent of the first film. And as far as I can recall, there aren’t any scenes of anyone being sexually pleasured by a ghost, so bonus marks for that. As I see it, though, quite aside from the comedy and horror, the key points are: representation for leading characters who are women, who don’t need the help of men, who get to be intelligent and have that define them rather than their looks or their sexuality, and who get a happy ending. That much seems rare enough in contemporary Hollywood blockbuster films that I think it’s worth trumpeting.

Ghostbusters film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Feig; Writers Katie Dippold and Feig (based on the 1984 film by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis); Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Friday 22 July 2016.

Criterion Sunday 65: Rushmore (2008)

I suppose one could call this Wes Anderson’s breakthrough movie after his debut Bottle Rocket (1996). It’s certainly eye-catching, with its saturated colours and carefully-honed set design and graphical effects, like the bold blocky typeface that sets out the titles and immaculate calligraphy, the theatrical curtains that part to open each chapter, and its clearly elaborately-storyboarded shot sequences. In fact, it’s one of the films that mines the most comedy I know just from the framing of the characters, as when Jason Schwartzman’s perennially overambitious underachiever Max Fischer steps into a two-shot with Bill Murray’s property developer Herman Blume, who looks suitably flabbergasted to find himself in such tightly-framed confines. This in many ways seems like his special skill — as if the fictional character had the power to force the film’s director to re-frame him in ways more befitting his overinflated sense of himself. In being such a boundary-busting egomaniac, Max is for much of the film an only barely-likeable dick, and much of the film’s pleasure lies in those supporting performances from Murray, from Brian Cox as Rushmore Academy’s matter-of-fact headmaster, and from Olivia Williams’ accommodating schoolteacher Rosemary Cross. If in looking back at Rushmore, it all seems a little bit arch at times, a little bit too-perfectly constructed and orchestrated — in ways that hamper the kind of emotional transference that Anderson’s later films would more successfully achieve — it’s still an excellent calling card, in many ways quite out-of-step with what was being made in the late-1990s and all the more refreshing for that.

Criterion Extras: There’s a rather fuller schedule of extras with this edition, all of which are interesting. First off, the commentary by the director, co-writer and star is chatty, with Anderson and Wilson taking up much of the chatter in the early portions, and Schwartzman pitching in more later. There’s a rather slight ‘making-of’ by the director’s brother Eric, some scratchy video audition footage, and some short works by the ‘Max Fischer Players’ that present amateur theatrics productions of scenes from three other nominated movies of the 1998 season. Most substantial is the episode of The Charlie Rose Show which features a lengthy interview with Bill Murray, who seems relaxed and talks at length about the film and some aspects of his career and persona, as well as a shorter head-to-head with the director.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Owen Wilson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Seymour Cassel, Brian Cox; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Saturday 22 May 1999 (and subsequently at home on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray, on many occasions, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 12 December 2015).

Love & Mercy (2014)

To be honest, I’m no huge fan of Brian Wilson or his music. Sure I have a copy of Pet Sounds and I acknowledge its undoubted artistry, but there’s a level of lionisation with Wilson’s work that sits uneasily with me. “Genius” is a word apt to be applied to creative white guys and the film uses it in a rather pointless final card, but at the very least he’s a virtuoso. Still, if you’re going to do a biopic of the man, this one certainly seems to take the right way, overlapping narratives (60s Brian played by Paul Dano, and 80s Brian played by John Cusack) to echo the way that Wilson himself juxtaposes harmonies and keys in his music. Cusack’s (lack of) resemblance to Wilson has already been covered pretty well elsewhere, but in large part he’s just a foil to Elizabeth Banks’s Melinda, who helps him to come out of the heavily-medicated dark hole that his doctor (an almost Grand Guignol villain turn from Paul Giamatti) keeps him in. That story feels like a bit of a cop-out (history is written by the winners after all), and Banks is almost too saintly, though she’s always been a sympathetic performer. However, when the film focuses on Dano’s remarkably poised performance, crafting music in the studio by channelling his wayward creative mind, it really hits its stride.

Love and Mercy film posterCREDITS
Director Bill Pohlad; Writers Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 July 2015.

Spy (2015)

I hated Paul Feig’s last collaboration with Melissa McCarthy, The Heat, so it’s fair to say I wasn’t expecting much out of this return to another well-worn genre (guess which). And though it’s not perfect in every respect, thankfully it’s a lot better — and more sustainedly funny, too. The set-up is that Susan Cooper (McCarthy) plays a shy back-room support role for Jude Law’s suave agent in the field, but when he is taken out of the picture she needs to step up to become a field agent herself. British TV audiences might have difficulty accepting Miranda Hart as a bumbling best friend, or Peter Serafinowicz as a sleazy Italian, but the way these archetypes are framed within the story is certainly done with a lot more intelligence than this year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, another (apparently) comic take on the James Bond ethos. Perhaps best of all — surprisingly — is Jason Statham, as an utterly unironic (and therefore hilarious) spy film superhero, embodying all the worst traits of Bond, and easily confounded by Susan Cooper. The simple twist is handled with aplomb, and McCarthy puts across her best comedy performance yet (especially when she sheds the shy persona to take control), but most importantly, Spy is funny when it needs to be.

Spy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Paul Feig; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Jude Law; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Saturday 13 June 2015.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

And thinking again of the sameness of Vinteuil’s works, I explained to Albertine that the great men of letters have never created more than a single work, or rather have never done more than refract through various media an identical beauty which they bring into the world.
— Marcel Proust, La Prisonnière (1923, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin)

Like perhaps many (too many?) in the English-speaking world, I have never encountered the writing of Stefan Zweig, from whom director and writer Wes Anderson claims inspiration for this confected mittel-European tale set over three successive post-World War II generations. However, I find myself drawn to comparisons with the work of Marcel Proust, which I am reading at the moment and have been for about the last year (making such connections rather more inevitable perhaps; I don’t know whether the quote above is really relevant, but I read it this morning, so it’s in my mind, and it does seem to speak to Anderson’s oeuvre). Mainly it’s the sense that this huge cast of characters have been distilled down into a series of fragmentary glimpses as relayed via an unreliable narrator through many layers of history and nostalgia and refracted by a world-changing war. It’s this last detail which seems most to suffuse the film, for it provides most of the pathos, that sense which is only hinted at around the edges and in small almost-throwaway lines, as it becomes clear in the telling that all of these characters — indeed this whole worldview and way of life — have since disappeared. But in many ways that’s what Anderson’s filmmaking has been building to, conjuring up a spectral reminiscence of a lost world.

Re-reading my pretentious opening paragraph, I suspect that it’s just in the nature of the film to encourage this kind of reading. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not abstruse or difficult in any way, but it is layered. The key metaphor for me is the elaborate layered cakes made by the bakers in the film, Mendl’s, which seem to reflect the way that the film is structured, not to mention its candy-coloured set design and the superficial sweetness of its surfaces. Most notably, the film is nested within four different generations of narration: the first is a young student visiting a statue of the Great Author and reading his eponymous account of his earlier life at the titular hotel; the second, the Author (Tom Wilkinson) at home in 1985; the third, ostensibly drawn from the book, is that Author as a young man (Jude Law) talking to Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) in the decaying 1968 lobby of the hotel; and finally, there’s Zero as a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) working under the concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) in the hotel’s 1932 glory days. For all these levels of narrative fragmentation, most of the film is set in the 1930s strand. The four are distinguished by different aspect ratios (a Cinemascope widescreen sweep for the late-1960s, with 1.85:1 at varying zooms for the more recent scenes, and finally ‘Academy ratio’ of 1.33:1 for the oldest), which along with the usual obsessively-detailed set and costume design, means it never gets too confusing when the film jumps around in time.

The actual plot of the film is something of a caper, as dapper roué Gustave H. is bequeathed the fortune of elderly heiress Madame Celine Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), which is quickly contested by her diabolical sons and leads to plenty of deadly ado, set against the background of a coming war. The posters already make clear quite how many people are in this film, but they and their stories all support the central picaresque tale of young Zero, accompanying Gustave everywhere, and in the process finding his way in the world. In the film’s title, location and the year of its setting, I am reminded of Grand Hotel (1932), itself a multi-character story of criss-crossing lives and old world European opulence. Perhaps more atmospherically linked are the mannered and beautiful films of Max Ophüls, such as La Ronde (1950) or his luridly coloured final work Lola Montès (1953) — indeed one of the best of his films (Letter from an Unknown Woman, 1948) is also based on a work by Zweig.

My point, in any case, is that Anderson has crafted a richly-detailed work that harks back to a history of twentieth-century culture and politics. One needn’t pick up all the references, so crammed in are they, but it adds depth to what at its heart seems like a very silly story with a large cast of colourful characters. All the small details accrue in the mind and work their way into the imagination, such that a week after viewing it I still have a strong sense of it and its delirious charms, which is more than can be said for most films. I can’t comment so soon on whether it’s Anderson’s best work (The Royal Tenenbaums remains my favourite), but it’s a strong reminder that he hasn’t yet disappeared within his own pretensions as many including myself had at one point feared. If he is here conjuring something of an identical beauty to those earlier films, it’s one that continues to resonate.

Update after Second Viewing: There’s a precarious sense of mortality which subtly encroaches around the edges of many of the film’s otherwise superficially innocuous action. It took me quite a while, after all, to realise that The Royal Tenenbaums was more than just a jolly colourful farce and realise it was laden with affecting pathos (which came home to me when I watched it with my wife, and found myself in tears at the end). Still, the febrile comic persona of Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H. comes through all the more strongly, with the running gags of his inappropriate swearing, not to mention the way his recitations of romantic poetry are consistently cut off, remaining especially funny on second viewing.

The Grand Budapest Hotel film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Wes Anderson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Saoirse Ronan; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 24 March 2014, and later at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 1 April 2014.

The Heat (2013)

I still think there’s a lot to appreciate about this film, and a lot of reason not to write it off from the outset. For a start, it’s from the director of Bridesmaids (2011), a very likeable comedy that was generous to its largely female cast, and the TV show Freaks and Geeks, which was unjudgemental about high school cliques and launched the careers of many of today’s comedy stars. The writer worked on Parks and Recreation, one of my very favourite TV comedies of recent memory, and it stars a number of alumni of the often very funny Saturday Night Live (including the wonderful Jane Curtin in a small role). And I remain very happy with the idea of taking a genre as hackneyed as the buddy cop film and giving it a gendered twist. In fact, I rather enjoyed the trailer to be honest, so I thought it might be worth a couple of hours of my time. It’s just that, as a finished film, it feels stale and underwhelming and lacks real laughs.

It trades in the most reductive stereotypes for a start, though I appreciate that’s not exactly a huge criticism for a comedy, and yet some tiny helping of subtlety wouldn’t go amiss. As Boston cop Mullins, Melissa McCarthy is just relentlessly full of physical abuse and pushiness, while Sandra Bullock’s Special Agent Ashburn is prudish and smugly supercilious. That these two diametrically opposed characters should have to work together is surely chapter 1 in Writing a Buddy Cop Film for Dummies, but even that text might suggest leavening the good cop/bad cop roleplaying with something a little bit sympathetic and human to these portraits. Sure, there’s a bit of backstory to explain away their respective behaviours (this is where the always-excellent Curtin comes in), but it’s tediously predictable.

And that’s the thing: the laughs just aren’t there. Sure, there are some, but it’s not sustained, and it doesn’t come from anything that feels like real understanding of these characters as humans, just as excuses for them to do ‘things which are funny’. They get drunk together and dance at a dive bar, but without any apparent spontaneity or fun; they aggressively trade insults, but it’s just to illustrate their different characters; they hang a drug dealer off a building to get information from him, but then drop him by mistake, and I just don’t know what that’s supposed to be (empowering? funny?). A lot of the comedy in fact seems to be solely in the idea of putting women in the place of the genre’s more familiar boorish, lawless men, but it needs more of a twist than that.

There’s a lot of plot too — something about taking down a notorious drug lord — and it feels as if it’s lifted wholesale from another chapter of the genre textbook. It’s not like the intricacies of this are particularly important to the film, but when the plot is quite so forgettable, it makes the jokes that hang off it easy to forget too. Added to this that the film is presented in a grungy neo-70s style, complete with vintage funk music soundtrack, and it doesn’t feel particularly fresh on the whole (even the 2004 Starsky and Hutch managed to feel more up-to-date, but perhaps the mid-2000s were a high-water mark for American comedy).

In truth, I wanted to like this film, still do want to like this film, but I feel let down. The potential was there, it just lost focus in the execution. Which is, after all, probably something I should have been clued into, given the hilariously bad airbrushing of McCarthy on the UK poster (the image with this review is of the US poster). ‘It could have been worse’ isn’t really a recommendation, but I remain in hope for future film collaborations by Feig and co.

The Heat film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Feig; Writer Katie Dippold; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 23 July 2013.