Sunday, August 24, 2014

Get On Up


Grade: 33/C-

Even before they were so indelibly parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, musical biopics were usually shapeless affairs that reduced whole careers and personalities to troubled genius templates, bonus points if their problems could be explained by childhood trauma. But even if Ray or Walk the Line had facile explanations for what made Ray Charles and Johnny Cash who they were, at least they attempted to have some sort of narrative throughline. The same can’t be said for Tate Taylor’s James Brown biopic Get On Up, which doesn’t seem to have any idea of what it wants to say about Brown’s music, his ego or his personal life.

The film follows Brown (Chadwick Boseman) from his beginning as an impoverished kid and troubled teenager to an up-and-coming musician with the Famous Flames. Brown’s clearly the star, so King Records changes the band to “James Brown and His Famous Flames,” forcing all but the loyal Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) to quit. Brown continues to test the patience of his musicians with his egotism and his poor treatment of them, all while conquering the musical world and making great strides for African-Americans. His personal life is a mess, too, with his marriages crumbling and Brown sliding into drug abuse after the death of his son in a car accident.

Like The Help, director Tate Taylor’s deeply patronizing previous film, Get On Up isn’t a cohesive narrative so much as it’s a bunch of events strung together with no clear rhyme or reason. Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth start the film with Brown’s infamous incident where he fired a shotgun into the ceiling of his strip mall, only to go directly to Brown and his band traveling to and performing in Vietnam. They then cut to Brown playing before and upstaging The Rolling Stones at The T.A.M.I. Show, then to Brown meeting Byrd in prison, then forming The Famous Flames following advice from Little Richard, then back to his childhood where he’s inspired by a funky band to win a boy’s boxing match (seriously). Just when this needlessly achronological approach starts to feel really enervating, they switch to a chronological approach when Brown and co. and signed to King Records, which only makes the earlier approach feel more pointless and slapdash.

What’s bizarre is that the episodes are simultaneously disconnected narratively and monotonous. Brown behaves badly, only to be validated when he displays some sort of genius immediately afterwards. Here he is treating his musicians like shit, but it’s OK because he’s explaining why “Cold Sweat” needs to be off-beat to work. There he is being a jackass to them again and refusing to pay on time, but it’s OK because he and Byrd have more great music to make together. Rinse, repeat. It seems to be going for a “he was a complicated man” narrative, but it mostly works to undersell his difficulty. That’s a constant tonal problem, which gets more uncomfortable when Brown is actively abusive. Here he beating his wife, and now we’re going to have him strut out. There he is waving a shotgun around, but it’s played as broad comedy. Taylor’s choice to open the film on that note is particularly miscalculated, as it shows more interest in showing Brown the mess than Brown the musical genius. Its even more embarrassing whenever Taylor and the Butterworths try to play with race. You see, deep down, virulent racists just want to get funky.

Chadwick Boseman, whose intense focus and anger as Jackie Robinson somewhat undercut the piety of 42, is stuck here doing a James Brown impression. He never hits a wrong note, but he’s not given a character to play beyond a superficial caricature of Brown. Get On Up even fumbles its attempt to tie Brown’s complications to childhood trauma, never giving his reluctant mother (Viola Davis in fine form) the screen time to make their distance seem significant. Get On Up wouldn’t have been a good movie had this material been reworked – it’d be the same reductive move that Ray and Walk the Line take – but it’d at least have some pretense to insight about Brown’s character. Note: if you’re trying to make a movie about a historical figure, you should have something to say about him other than “Well, he did all of this stuff.”

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Check out my account on
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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Wes Anderson Roundtable #6: Fantastic Mr. Fox


Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in our Wes Anderson Roundtable.

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-

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Boyhood


Grade: 88/A-

It’s not a new idea to watch a character or group of characters age on screen. François Truffaut did it in his Antoine Doinel series, the Up documentaries follow a group of Londoners over the course of 45 years and 8 features, and Boyhood director Richard Linklater himself has traced a relationship from college age to middle-age in the Before trilogy. But it’s remarkable to see the youth and adolescence of a boy over the course of one fictional film, which Linklater shot over the course of 12 years little by little, incorporating what was going on in actor Ellar Coltrane’s life to fit the film.  The conception of Boyhood is so remarkable that it’s hard not to focus more on the gimmick and overarching structure over the film’s smaller (yet greater) virtues.

Coltrane stars as Mason Evans, Jr., who lives with divorced mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Loralei) and sees father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) every other week. He witnesses his mother’s two additional failed marriages (including to an abusive alcoholic played by Marco Perella) and her transformation from back-to-school mother to college psychology professor. He experiences first love and first breakup, experiments with drugs and alcohol, and goes from quiet boy to talented teenage photographer and an amateur philosopher ready to join Linklater’s bull session films Slacker or Waking Life.

There’s an inherent fascination in watching Coltrane (and young Loralei Linklater, who could just as easily carry her own film, Girlhood) grow from a hesitant to a confident presence, both as a boy and as an actor. In Boyhood’s early sections, the key to his performance is its apparent lack of performance, of innocent mischief (an early comment about breaking a pencil sharpener by trying to sharpen rocks into arrowheads, pretending to know more about sex as an eighth grader than he does) and of a kid trying to process his parents’ divorce or his stepdad’s strictness and alcoholism.

As a teenager, however, Coltrane starts to form a more distinct personality, someone more willing to voice his frustration and confusion at what his place in the world is. Dazed and Confused fans might recognize traces of Wiley Wiggins’s dorky freshman, right up to the point where Mason hits his junior and senior years, stops faking confidence and starts (sometimes – appropriately – infuriatingly) actually developing it.

The genius of Linklater’s film is in how it’s somehow rooted in the perspectives of both the kids and the parents. Early scenes embody childhood confusion at the big, scary, complicated arguments world of the grown-ups, whether Mason hears mom’s boyfriend complaining that she can’t devote more time to them or, perhaps more distressingly, Mason and Samantha can see but can’t hear their parents yelling at each other outside for reasons that we can guess but can’t know; a later scene, in which Mason Sr. sells the car he promised his son for his 16th birthday without thinking of or remembering his promise, captures teenage disappointment and frustration as well as any scene in recent memory.

But we also see both Samantha and Mason act like, well, inconsiderate teenagers around their parents, with the former blowing off picking up her brother when her mother counted on her, then treating her mother’s complaints as an unfair annoyance. Some of Mason’s youthful tendencies are even simpler, like having to be chided to wash a dish to make his mother’s life that much easier, or coming home after curfew, or treating a school assignment to shoot a football game as an excuse to get arty with his photography. None of these moments feel like a head-shaking “kids these days” sentiment, nor do Mason’s experimentations with booze and pot feel sensationalistic. It’s all matter-of-fact, with Mason’s limited perspective sometimes clashing with the older, wiser view of his parents (and of Linklater). Part of growing up is not realizing how hard it is for parents to raise you.

That story is just as matter-of-fact, and with few exceptions, Olivia’s story never feels needlessly heavy. Arquette has the most difficult role in the film, as she’s required to be warm, scolding, frustrated and empathetic, often switching back-and-forth between modes in one scene. So much of what’s great about her performance is simply watching her become a more exhausted person as the film goes on, someone who had big dreams, reinvented herself, and gave her kids a better life but still hasn’t found the place she wants to be.

The film’s only real missteps are big ones, involving the men Arquette marries and divorces. With the first, there’s an immediate feeling of tiresome inevitability as soon as he’s introduced, of “how is this going to blow up,” and, when his alcoholism becomes a factor, “how long before he hits mom?” While the individual scenes are well-played, they feel programmatic compared to the free-flowing and adaptable nature of the rest of the film, as if there was need for Capital-D Drama somewhere in the story, and the stepfather goes from stern but empathetic to little more than a device, a heavy. And while the apparent rationale behind having Arquette marry another (thankfully not physically abusive) controlling alcoholic is sound (we often repeat ourselves in life), it can’t help but have the same mechanistic feeling where as soon as the character is introduced we know exactly what his function is.

The film’s better emotional scenes are less showy. Many will cite Arquette’s breakdown as Mason, her second and youngest child, leaves for college as a moving moment. It is, but an even smaller and greater moment comes earlier, as a character she helped earlier in the film approaches her to thank her for what she did for him; she’s in the middle of admonishing her kids to please just do what she said, and her switch from irritated mother to someone moved she could make a difference, especially when her life has been so disappointing to her.

So much of what’s great in Boyhood is about small observations and changes, like watching Hawke (in one of his most likable and empathetic performances) change from the good-time Hawke of Before Sunrise to the more sentimental Hawke of Before Midnight, or hearing the pop culture that matters to Mason and Samantha at any given point (Mason is astonished that the girl he likes could dislike The Dark Knight, Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express), or watching Hawke tell his kids all about supporting Obama or “anyone but Bush” without giving them a real idea of why they should actually care or what any of it means.

It’s watching how much and how little changes in children and parents over the years and between generations (admittedly something older and future generations will be able to speak to with more acuity, given my own close-ish proximity in age to Coltrane). It’s about becoming an individual and still searching for meaning in life, about dad’s awkward but truthful metaphors (“life doesn’t give you bumpers”) or mom’s mix of relief and sadness in her last kid leaving for college.

Through it all, Linklater maintains the same unshowy but assured touch, whether he’s giving the kids a limited POV shot during an argument or letting Coltrane and his girlfriend’s relationship play out in carefully-selected two shots and close-ups, drawing them closer to each other, and then, in the film’s final year, framing them in a wide shot far apart from each other after they’ve broken up. With each selection and each observed moment, Boyhood’s modus operandi is one of supreme empathy. It’s not a great movie because it’s relatable (a term that flaunts limited perspective and assumed universality). It’s a great movie because whether it’s seen from the perspective of the boy, the sister, the parents, a teenager, a twentysomething or older, it’s understandable.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.7: Akira Kurosawa's The Idiot


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: There’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 45/C

Kurosawa’s influences are as many as they are varied – John Ford, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, Frank Capra, William Shakespeare – but perhaps the most important is Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The great Russian writer’s interests in morality and human nature shaped Kurosawa’s own obsessions, and with films like Drunken Angel, Stray Dog and Rashomon he came closer to capturing Dostoyevsky’s philosophical inquisitiveness. Kurosawa finally got the chance to adapt his favorite writer’s work in 1951 with The Idiot, which reset the novel of the same name in Japan.

The film originally ran in two parts at 265 minutes, which would have made it the longest film of Kurosawa’s career by some margin (even Seven Samurai is "only" 207). But when an early screening was poorly received, the studio, Shochiku, demanded extensive cuts. The next cut was 166 minutes, which the studio still said was too long (Kurosawa bitterly remarked then that it "should be cut lengthwise instead"), but released it anyway to negative reviews. Kurosawa would try to find the lost footage while shooting 1991’s Rhapsody in August, but to no avail. It’s easy, then, to lament The Idiot as a lost masterpiece. That possibility exists, but the truth is likely closer to "lost folly."

Masayuki Mori (the samurai in Rashomon) stars as Kinji Kameda, a man whose being falsely accused of war crimes caused a series of seizures that have since rendered him mentally ill. On his voyage home, he befriends the wealthy Akama (Toshiro Mifune), who’s in love with Taeko (frequent Ozu muse Setsuko Hara), the former mistress of another man. Kameda falls for both Taeko and another woman, Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga, another Ozu regular). He’s torn between the two women just as Taeko is torn between the passionate but violent Akama and the simple and sweet Akama.

The Idiot works best in isolated moments – a festival set to "Night on Bald Mountain," a series of close-ups in a party where everyone’s too nervous to say anything about Taeko’s ill-repute, the introduction of a snowy and melancholy Hokkaido – than in full scenes. Much of that has to do with the extensive damage done to the film, particularly in the first half. Too often Kurosawa is forced to cut to an intertitle to fill in the gaps of what’s missing, both in terms of character, plot, and even original intention (example: "Dostoyevsky wanted to portray a good man and the destruction of a good soul in a faithless world"). Even when he reaches a point where this is no longer required, it still feels like characters have been simplified or we’re missing information that would make performances more coherent. Hara in particular is impressive mostly on a scene-to-scene basis rather than as a full performance.

But even had Kurosawa’s full version seen the light of day, it’s hard to imagine The Idiot being a particularly successful film. Like most great novels, the works of Dostoyevsky are difficult to translate to film because most of what’s great about them is in the prose and the thoughts of the characters rather than in the story. Removing that from the equation feels fundamentally misguided. And while Masayuki Mori was a talented actor, he can’t quite overcome his character’s function as the embodiment of human goodness and innocence, something that feels better suited to the page than the screen in this case.

Worse, Kurosawa is so reverent to the text that his imagination and usually immaculate sense of pacing have disappeared. Individual scenes drag on forever, while others repeat the same points made earlier in the film (if you didn’t get that Kameda is innocent and honest and wonderful the first time, you’ll get a reminder soon, possibly in the next scene). The Idiot has fewer memorable or evocative shots than nearly any other Kurosawa film, as if asserting his own personality would sully the work. Even scenes that feature strong work from the actors are frequently weakened by Kurosawa laying on a heavenly choir to underline Kameda’s saintliness. The great director would have far greater success years later by setting Shakespeare in Japan with Throne of Blood and Ran, but those works forced him to actually reimagine Shakespeare’s text and story for the setting and medium. This is mostly stenography in light, a film that captures Dostoyevsky’s text without preserving its pulse.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.6: Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon"


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: There’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 98/A

It’s hyperbolic to suggest that a film “changed everything,” but it’s hard not to be hyperbolic about 1950’s Rashomon. Akira Kurosawa’s first masterpiece took the formal and thematic sophistication he’d built in his first decade as a director and found a new way to tell a story, a structural gambit that was both radical for its time and directly connected to the central questions of the film. In a way, it serves not only as an introduction of a master director to the West (the film’s triumph at the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Awards shot him to the top of the list of great foreign filmmakers of the 1950s), but as Kurosawa’s thesis statement on humanity, moral failure, and the capacity for acts of great evil and good.

A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) gather under the Rashomon city gate to stay dry in a severe rainstorm. The priest is shaken by a story regaled to him by the woodcutter, about the murder of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and the rape of his wife (Machiko Kyō) by the notorious bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune).

The woodcutter then repeats the story for the commoner, first telling it from the testimonial of Tajōmaru, who claims the wife consented and he killed the husband honorably in a duel (after which the wife ran, frightened). But the wife’s story is varies greatly, as she claims that the bandit left her after the rape and the husband loathed her for being dishonored. And the samurai’s story (as told through a medium) is different still, claiming that his wife begged the samurai to kill him and he committed suicide after the incident. All three have twisted the story to their advantage, and while pieces of each might have some veracity, the plain and simple truth becomes hazier with each tale.

Kurosawa opens the film in the middle of a rainstorm, one of his many uses of weather to suggest a world bearing down on its inhabitants, and the sound of a drum and strings to suggest that something is not right with the world. Shimura and Chiaki are introduced slouching with bone-deep spiritual exhaustion; Shimura in particular is our moral center to the film, so his drooping, pained expression and grave intonations of the world’s disorder brings us into the inquisitive, mournful mood that Kurosawa wants us to be in. Why can’t we treat each other better?

Still, Ueda is essential beyond the need to hear exactly what it is that has Shimura and Chiaki so upset. Kurosawa often used the lower-class to contrast with the high-minded pursuits of the samurai, and that hits its stride here. The commoner is the healthy dose of skepticism in the film’s moral inquiries, the one who sees horror of the story but can’t help but point out that the idea man lying and killing for his own purposes isn’t exactly a new concept, and that our solemn moral voices of reason are hardly perfect themselves. It’s his presence that keeps the film’s morality from falling into naïveté. Plus, he gives Kurosawa a chance to use deep focus to contrast the ease and comfort in his body language with the way Shimura and Chiaki seem to fold into themselves.

When Kurosawa comes to the testimonials, he wisely chooses not to let the voices of the inquisitors be heard – he puts us in their perspective, lets us imagine that we are asking the questions, and puts us on their level, so as to hear their stories and take them at face value until we can’t anymore. Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa also get a lot of mileage out of slight contrasts in camera placement for each witness:  while the woodcutter and the priest are shot from roughly the same objective angle, there’s a greater distance when the arrested Tajōmaru and his captor are brought in. This has nothing to do with need for greater space – Kurosawa could comfortably fit both in the same shot from the same distance – and everything to do with making us more frightened of Tajōmaru. When the cop reaches the end of his testimony, the camera is closer to him, until it dollies out to show Tajōmaru lauging like a maniac. We’re then brought onto the same level for him that we were for the woodcutter and priest, then even closer…and we don’t want to be there.

A number of Western critics have found Mifune’s performance to be a bit too over-the-top; it is one of his Cagney-esque big performances, a lot of ranting and raving, but with purpose. Everything Tajōmaru does is exaggerated with an almost superhuman level of bravado. He’s playing up his fearsomeness, with occasional moments of relative calm in order to assert that he’s also a noble, dignified warrior who gave the samurai a chance rather than a cold-blooded murderer. It’s also a purposeful contrast to what we learn might be his true nature later in the film.

He’s not the only one performing. It’s more than understandable that Machiko Kyō’s character is distraught, but there’s something overly considered about her performance, with reason. She’s trying to represent herself as an innocent victim of both her attacker’s brutality and her husband’s indifference, omitting any sense of moral grey that might suggest she was a guilty party in the murder. Here, Kurosawa dances on a dangerous line, but it’s less about blame and more about suggesting her limited faculties in defending herself in this case. In that era, questions of her virtue overshadow any harm that might have been done to her (hell, just hear how lowly her husband considers her following the assault), so any slim hope for justice would be dashed if those suggestions came about. Perhaps without even intending to, Kurosawa exposes the inherent misogyny of the system and of the men of the era, and her omissions actually humanize her more than a standard grim victimization storyline would have.

With the samurai, Kurosawa goes one step further in exaggerated performance by bringing out a female medium (Noriko Honma), whose kabuki-influenced performance turns his anguish into a form of performance art. By necessity, Kurosawa uses a wider shot to showcase the performative aspect of the medium’s role, but he also turns up the fans to bring an even greater level of cosmic disorder, as if the earth screamed right along with the samurai. Sure, he might be tortured anyway, being dead and all, but combination of the writhing of Honma, the gasping voice of Mori and his perspective of victimization and being dishonored lend themselves to the idea that everyone performs when trying to represent themselves, so as to best convince the listener that their perspective is the correct one.

When Kurosawa takes us into their takes on the incident, then, we’re not just seeing what they see, but we’re seeing what they’re thinking about, what the environment was like, where people were in relation to each other. My fellow freelancer Kyle Turner wrote something on Letterboxd about how he felt certain POV shots in these sequences didn’t make sense, given that these sequences are about putting ourselves in their perspectives and these shots imply another person’s presence. With all due respect, I feel a closer comparison would be how David Cronenberg places Christopher Walken in the midst of the murder when he flashes back to them in The Dead Zone. We’re now seeing everything about their perspective and the incident as they describe it.

With that in mind, a shot that pivots from showing Tajōmaru by a tree, watching the samurai and his wife pass by to showing them in the distance after they’ve passed is there to suggest the bandit’s single-minded focus on and awareness of his objective (the wife) and his obstacle (the samurai). A low shot of the wife fighting off Tajōmaru with a knife places her on his level even though she’s actually lower than him as a way to suggest his admiration for her for being able to fend for herself; a higher shot afterwards shows how lowly he thinks of her once she’s driven to beg for the death of her husband. The camera’s dolly towards him as he stabs the samurai (after a thrilling swordfight) blocks out the man’s death, so as to honor the man after a valiant fight and, in turn, make Tajōmaru an honorable warrior rather than a murderer.

In the wife’s story, meanwhile, Kurosawa places greater emphasis on wide shots to show her distance, her abandonment by both Tajōmaru and her husband. A shot placed behind the husband, still bound, as she pleads for him to stop looking at him lets us imagine the look of judgment and anger on his face that she dare be violated. Fumio Hayasaka’s score takes on the driving rhythms of Ravel’s “Bolero” (something I had no idea was intentional until about a minute ago) in order to drum away at the wife’s remaining defenses. The camera shifts, still only showing the wife but suggesting that she can’t escape her husband’s terrible gaze no matter how she tries. We’re brought closer to her perspective and in his hateful expression as she begs for death, anything to escape her fate and judgment by the society; her pleas will not be answered.

The score takes on a more exaggerated tragic element in the dead man’s story, so as to change from a story about a defenseless woman being demolished by men to a story about a poor man who was unlucky enough to have his wife’s rape happen to him. We have a more limited perspective, both to put us in the man’s shoes (he’s still bound) and to suggest just how trapped he is by this incident, to grow more claustrophobic, to make suicide seem like the only out. Kurosawa gets a thrilling effect in a match cut between the man’s fall from his suicide and the medium falling in a final bit of performance, which only hammers away the samurai’s own sense of victimization.

All of these stories are shot so as to best support the given perspectives, but there’s a constant through all of them: the contrast between shadows from the trees and light from the sun. The mixture of shadows and light are there to suggest the moral ambiguity of the situation, the lies that all of the storytellers are telling to support their respective versions. Miyagawa is either the first or one of the first cinematographers to point a camera directly into the sun, and it’s a striking effect, but it’s also an important one to the storyline. One debated scene is whether, when the wife stares into the sun, the sun goes out or stays shining, and whether or not both could support the idea that evil is borne in that moment. To me, it’s as much about the doubt of what happened in that moment and in the aftermath, and the difficult need to search for the truth.

Perhaps we get closer to that truth in the fourth version of the story, where the woodcutter, finally revealing that he was a witness to the crime and not just a man who stumbled upon the aftermath, tells a version of the story that makes all three parties look bad. The bandit is not a valiant warrior, but a pitiful man who begged for the wife to be with him rather than the husband. The husband becomes a worm of a man who’s self-important and unforgiving of his wife. The wife becomes a new judgmental figure, one who recognizes the weakness in both of them and can’t help but laugh at her situation. Even the swordfight has changed: no longer the dynamic, highly choreographed battle of Tajōmaru’s story, it’s now a pathetic battle between two cowards; yet she’s also a coward in her own right, one who calls for blood but can’t watch the fight. It’s all shot in a more objective way that doesn’t psychologically support any of them, but rather undercuts them.

The woodcutter’s version is likely closest to the truth, yet he omits that he stole the woman’s priceless dagger, which went missing after the crime. This comes out after he, the commoner, and the priest find an abandoned infant and the commoner chooses to steal the kimono protecting the child; the commoner sees through he woodcutter’s moral superiority and calls him out on his own misdeeds. That's also the real reason the woodcutter is so shaken by the story: it's not just the lies and selfishness of these people, but that they bring to light his own lies and selfishness – he's no better than them. It’s in this moment that the film’s focus shifts from the subjectivity of truth to the question of whether morality is futile. The commoner might be doing a low thing in stealing an abandoned child’s only protection, but he has no illusions as to who he is. He does selfish things because, as the film has illustrated in the earlier stories, that’s what needs to be done to survive. The acts of goodness might not be worth a damn at all, and moral failure might be inevitable.

Yet Kurosawa maintains hope as Shimura’s woodcutter chooses to take the child in, to take on another burden even though he has six children to feed already (“one more wouldn’t make a difference.”) The child might not have a great chance in the world, but it has a chance, and the smallest of kind acts has the capacity to mitigate moral failure (Kurosawa and Shimura would revisit this two films later with Ikiru). The film isn’t naïve enough to think that all is right in the world (Kurosawa wanted the skies to look overcast rather than clear but couldn’t wait to shoot any longer), but for the time being, order is restored.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Wes Anderson Roundtable #5: The Darjeeling Limited

 Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in our Wes Anderson Roundtable.

LG: Wes Anderson’s fifth film is a bit of an odd duck. It’s actually two films, a short film and then the main feature he made, about a year 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.

MO: 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. There are moments of life as the film goes on, though. There’s a wonderful reminder for how Anderson works with dialogue. 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 where they suddenly change modes, and we’re meant to empathize with them more. They try to save three kids who fall into a river, and one of them dies. I don’t know if that shift works 100% for me. There’s this thing that works as a literary metaphor where the funeral for the Indian boy stands in for their father’s funeral, which they missed. But it also raises some questions. There’s a few people who point to Anderson’s treatment of race and point to this film as crossing a line to use Indian people as props.

MO: See, I actually 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 very clearly got some shit going on, and she’s 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. It almost infuriated me that she didn’t show 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: This is his most location based film he’s worked on. 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 his normal fantasy thing. 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 some 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. Hotel Chevalier gets an A-, The Darjeeling Limited gets a B-.

MO: See, if we’re going to separate them, then Hotel Chevalier is an A-, and The Darjeeling Limited is somewhere between a B and a B+. But I did watch them back to back, and I don’t separate them. They work better together, so I go 79/B+ for the whole thing.

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