Sunday, March 30, 2014

Wes Anderson Roundtable #4: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou


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: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is Wes Anderson’s fourth film, and not his best received. Some might view it as his One From the Heart or New York, New York. It’s heavily stylized and he had more creative freedom, but it wasn’t well liked on its initial release.

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

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

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

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

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

LG: Pretty darn delighted! It’s telling that for Anderson, actual sea life isn’t sufficiently whimsical, so instead he invents sea life in stop motion creatures made by Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline.

MO: The stop-motion is really wonderful. It helps accentuate the fantasy of this world, they remove us from reality, the handmade quality of the whole thing, right down to the sets. They’re very lived in, but they have a dollhouse feel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LG: “John Woo I ain’t,” I believe was his quote. I actually like that scene. There’s a very handmade aspect to it, where it’s a very low-budget film where they’re going to go out and grab some shots, It’s a cute action scene. I also love that Bill Murray uses the unpaid interns for cover.

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

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

MO: It is, but the execution is off.

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

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

LG: Neither do I. Maybe a sense that the tide has turned and nature is with us?

MO: Hmm. Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LG: He lost his spiritual brother and spiritual son.

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

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

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

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

MO: It’s struck me as much richer on each repeat viewing. It’s an A- (87) for me, too.


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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Noah


Grade: 67/B

There’s an extraordinary sequence about halfway through Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s megabudget Biblical adaptation, that’s indicative of both the film’s grand ambition and beauty and of why it’s so often at odds with its director’s talents. Aboard the Ark, Noah (Russell Crowe) tells his children the story of how the Creator (as he’s referred to in the film) made the universe, earth, animals and man, told in a stunning time lapse that wouldn’t be out of place in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. It’s a well-known story, but its connection to Noah’s conviction that humanity must die out with his family gives it a new context, a mixture of wonder and fatalism that Aronofsky renders with supreme artistry (not to mention visual affirmation of evolution, just in case this film wasn’t going to vex the religious right already).

It’s one of the most stunning sequences in the film precisely because it’s so different from most of the special effects on display, and it only goes to show that perhaps blockbusters aren’t Aronofsky’s forte. The whole film has the same incredible scale, but this moment is closer to the Aronofsky who brought such thrilling (if upsetting) juxtapositions at the end of Requiem for a Dream, or the one who made the ballet of Swan Lake into a daring horror set-piece in Black Swan. Much of the rest of Noah sees the director wrestling between the impressionism of Reggio and the spectacle of De Mille, the thoughtfulness of Terrence Malick and elephantism of late-period Peter Jackson. The results are uneven, but never less than fascinating.

The film mixes the traditional story of Noah from the Book of Genesis with Apocryphal texts like the Book of Enoch. Noah is the last good descendent of Seth (brother of Cain and Abel), living a removed life from the hedonist descendants of Cain with his wife Naahmeh (Jennifer Connelly), his sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and his adopted daughter/Shem’s beloved Ila (Emma Watson). When Noah has visions of a great flood that destroys the earth, he interprets it as a call to build a great Ark, large enough for two of every animal to survive.

With the advice of his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) and the help of the Watchers (CGI rock giants voiced by Frank Langella, Nick Nolte, Kevin Durand and Mark Margolis), a group of fallen angels turned protectors of Methuselah, Noah builds the Ark. But as the Creator does not provide a wife for his other two sons and Ila is barren from a wound when she was young, Noah believes that his family must be the last. Things grow more complicated with the arrival of Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a descendant of Cain who murdered Noah’s father and who wants on the Ark.

Of all of Aronofsky’s previous works, Noah most closely resembles The Fountain, another wildly ambitious project that veered inelegantly back and forth between profundity and goofiness. Never the strongest writer of dialogue, Aronofsky hampered The Fountain with exchanges that sounded as if its characters were talking to deities rather than human beings, something that played like a bad parody of Malick’s voiceovers (which are only in voiceovers because they’re prayers, as the human dialogue takes on a different tone). That approach is more palatable in Noah, given that it’s set in an archaic period and the characters frequently are speaking to God.

Here, Aronofsky captures the frustrations of the faithful and nonbelievers and apparent fickleness (and possible cruelty) of the Creator that’s heavily featured in the writings but often glided over in biblical films. Without ever speaking, the voice  still thunders (pardon the pun) as the rain falls, a cleansing of the earth of those who didn’t follow and salvation for those who did. But in a characteristically smart bit of sound design, Aronofsky lets Noah’s family hear the screams of those left underwater outside the Ark. Were these people not worthy of forgiveness, and were there not innocents killed with them? And what of the times where there’s no answer to humanity’s call, whether it’s Tubal-cain looking for any sign of a higher power or Noah begging for guidance, for any sign that he doesn’t have to do the unthinkable to make sure his family is the last of man. It’s less a moment of judgment on either side than a question, one without an obvious answer for the faithful or the faithless.

Noah’s story fits nicely into Aronofsky’s tales of conviction and compulsion, of the clash between human feeling and a greater force, be it drugs, career, or a higher power. Aronofsky is lucky to have a strong center for that story in Crowe, who comes closer to the brutish sensitivity and intelligence he displayed in Gladiator than he has in some time. Noah is both a warm and protective father and a true believer, and the film’s greatest crisis comes from pitting those two aspects of the character against each other. Emma Watson is also strong as Ila, a woman in love but guilty over what she can’t provide for Shem. Her father-figure/daughter-figure relationship with Noah provides a much-needed emotional ballast for the film’s second half.

Pity that most of the other supporting characters aren’t nearly as strong. Connelly has one big emotional scene that doesn’t quite cover up that her character isn’t well-defined beyond “maternal,” while Lerman’s conflict between his love for his father and his desire for a wife is more interesting than the doe-eyed performance he turns in and the other sons barely register. Winstone, meanwhile, is typecast as a standard gruff villain that feels more at home in a Ridley Scott knock-off than here, and the film keeps him in the picture far too long for wholly contrived and unnecessary reasons.

That’s not the only part that feels poorly considered. While the character material and theological questions of the first half keep it engaging, Aronofksy’s handling of the “epic” part of the religious epic sees him struggling under the weight of heavy special effects and battle sequences. It isn’t as if he’s incapable of staging a battle sequence or realizing a fantastical creature (though they’re hardly exciting), but he can’t keep it from seeming like something out of a handsomely produced Lord of the Rings knockoff. Noah is never less interesting than when it temporarily drops most of the headier questions for a lengthy set-piece involving a battle between Tubal-cain’s men and the rock giants as Noah and company board the ark during the torrential downpour. And even when that section passes and Noah’s moral conundrum takes over, Aronofsky’s bombastic side gets the best of him in places where quiet might be better (we don’t need Clint Mansell’s score to go BWAAAAAM every time something happens) and as the level of dramatic convergence reaches ridiculous levels.

Yet even as the spectacle gets tiresome and the plot overheated, Aronofsky’s religious and moral inquisitiveness and his formal chops keep it from losing control. For every overlong battle, there’s a thrilling edit (Noah going out cold faster than we can realize what’s happened). For every moment of VFX overload, there’s a gorgeous tableau (Naahmeh approaching Noah against a sunset after his first vision). For every story misstep, there are two or three lasting emotional moments to make up for them. Aronofsky should probably stick to the art house after Noah, but I can’t help but be thrilled that a blockbuster this weird and this singular got made.

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

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

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.

GodzillaMania #6: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster/Invasion of Astro-Monster


Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Ghidorah Grade: 64/B

Toho had cracked the code: one kaiju good, two or more kaiju better. Mothra vs. Godzilla was so successful that Toho got moving and churned out another film featuring giant monsters doing battle with each other. The fifth official film in the series, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster wasn’t quite on the same level as its predecessor, but it’s nevertheless an important installment in the Godzilla franchise.

Detective Shindo (Yosuke Natsuki) is assigned to protect Princess Selina or Selgina (Akiko Wakabayashi) on her visit to Japan because of a suspected assassination plot, but the princess disappears shortly before her plane is destroyed. When she shows up again, she claims to be from Jupiter and to have information about horrible events in Earth’s future. Sure enough, Godzilla and giant pterodactyl Rodan (from another kaiju film, the tepid Rodan) return and wreak havoc. Worse, when an asteroid hits the earth, out comes the three-headed lightning-spitting monster King Ghidorah, destroying everything in its path. Selina’s prophecies reach the Shobijin (Emi and Yumi Ito), the tiny fairy guardians of Mothra, and they come up with a last-ditch effort to save the world: convince Godzilla and Rodan to band together and fight against Ghidorah.

Ghidorah was released only six months after Mothra vs. Godzilla, so it's not surprising that the script has a rushed feel. The political assassination subplot never really connects to the main narrative as well as it should, and feels like a needless distraction because of it. Shindo’s a bland hero, and the  human villain, assassin Malness (Hisaya Ito) never transcends his generic hitman type. Selina’s shift from princess to prophet is never explained – she’s seemingly possessed by an alien spirit until she isn’t anymore. Wakabayashi is good at projecting a removed, alien mood, but it never pays off. Granted, the human storylines in the Godzilla films are rarely as exciting as the monster action onscreen, but they never felt as perfunctory as they do here (I didn’t even mention the flagrant waste of Takashi Shimura as a psychiatrist who tries to find out what’s going on with Selina).

That isn’t to say that the film is dull before the monster material gets underway. Regular Godzilla team of director Ishirō Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa do a good job of setting up a mood of foreboding between the odd magnetic pull the meteorite has on objects to the casual what-the-hell moments of the princess just up and jumping out of a plane. Honda also gets a nice comedic moment out of a particularly obnoxious heckler of Selina’s prophecies going to retrieve a hat from the place Rodan is said to rest just as she tells him not to (it goes about as well as you’d expect). And credit to Honda and effects director Eiji Tsuburaya for the lead-up to Ghidorah’s reveal, where the meteorite starts inexplicably expanding in size before the three-headed terror breaks out.

And what a monster it is. Taking inspiration from traditional Japanese dragon legends and the Greek mythological figure Hydra, Ghidorah is a crueler sort of beast. Rather than something created by man’s own meddling with nuclear technology, this is a beast from beyond earthly realms, something seemingly ancient and evil. Where Godzilla breathes radioactive fire, Ghidorah breathes pure, destructive lightning bolts. Devastation is its design, and there’s a definite sense of earth’s need to rally against an otherworldly creature. That makes for some great fight scenes between Ghidorah and the trio of earthly monsters, with some of the stronger effects sequences up to this point, from Ghidorah using his lightning to the point where Rodan cowers to Godzilla offering his tail to Mothra so as to get closer to the three-headed monster. There’s some disappointment that Godzilla doesn't use his radioactive breath on Ghidorah (I dunno, that seems like an ideal point to me), but otherwise it’s among the most satisfying monster action in the series so far.

There’s an interesting shift in Ghidorah between the Godzilla of the previous films and the Godzilla of the future: in this case, Godzilla isn’t an instigator or a symbol of terror. Sure, he’s responsible for plenty of destruction anyway – the first thing he does upon awaking from his undersea slumber is destroy a cruise liner – but there’s a sense that Godzilla and Rodan are only back because of a great disturbance. Furthermore, this is the first film where Godzilla takes on the role of a protector of the earth rather than an aberration. After he and Rodan fight, Mothra (still a larva from the previous film) convinces them that the earth belongs to them too, and that they have to fight for it. It’s a bit of a silly scene, something the film acknowledges (“What are they saying?” “What do I know? I don’t speak monster language!”), but it’s the first step in turning Godzilla into the fun heroic figure he would be for the rest of the first series (or Showa series).

Astro-Monster Grade: 69/B

The next film in the series was more or less a direct sequel to Ghidorah, albeit without Mothra’s presence. Invasion of Astro-Monster (aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) sees Honda and company doubling down on the alien elements from the pervious film, but this time they actually develop them. The result is one of the most self-consciously B-movie oriented films in the series, and one of the most entertaining.

Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (American actor Nick Adams) are a pair of astronauts on the Rocketship P-1 on the way to Planet X, which as we all know is just behind Jupiter. The two encounter a group of aliens who implore the earthlings to lend them Godzilla and Rodan in order to battle Ghidorah, who terrorizes their water-barren surface. In exchange, they promise the cure for cancer. Earth acquiesces, but soon finds that it was all a ploy to get Godzilla and Rodan under the same mind control that the aliens have Ghidorah under, and they begin their invasion and colonization of earth. Now Glenn and Fuji must find Fuji’s sister’s boyfriend, Tetsuo (Akira Kubo), an inventor who’s created a loud alarm that the Xians find extremely upsetting, in order to thwart their plan.

Astro-Monster’s spaceman storyline reflects the times in a few interesting ways, first in its fantastical depiction of the space race, and second in the fear of what might be found. The casting of Adams (an Academy Award-nominated actor who, in a bit of meta-revenge, is hilariously dubbed into Japanese) may be a bit of international marketing, but it’s also a continuation of Ghidorah’s theme of earthly cooperation against horrible outside forces. Granted, it’s not exactly a grand sweeping statement on the Cold War, given that the Japanese and Americans weren’t enemies at the time, but it’s still an encouraging trend for the times.

Honda’s clearly working on a low budget, but Glenn and Fuji’s journey to Planet X is surprisingly one of the tensest non-monster moments in the series. There’s a slow build in Akira Ifukube’s score as their ship approaches the planet, and an appropriate “what the hell” vibe after Fuji discovers humanoid footprints on the surface. Even better is Honda’s use of limited perspective and lighting to create suspense: after Fuji finds the footprints, he turns around to find Glenn and the ship missing, and a voice imploring him to enter a bright cylinder/elevator down under the planet’s surface. When Fuji rejoins Glenn, they find a number of corridors that only light up as they walk through them, never giving them a perfect picture of where they’re heading or where they’ve come from. The exaggerated use of angles in this sequence is nice, too – it’s not exactly Fritz Lang, but it’s proof that Honda still had some ingenuity in him six films into the series.

That sequence brings a sense of mistrust between the earthlings and the aliens, which helps mitigate the fact that the Xians’ appearance is pretty goofy. Then again, there’s a certain amount of humor built into the film, starting with the bizarre clucking laughter the Controller of Planet X (Yoshio Tsuchiya) bursts into following the exit of the earthlings and culminating in the most gloriously silly moment the King of the Monsters ever had. Honda went on the records that he wasn’t completely pleased with the more lighthearted direction his creation went down, but that doesn't mean that he wasn’t willing to commit to it. 

After a relatively quick-paced first half, Astro-Monster starts to get a little poky as the aliens take control and certain story elements are given the short shrift. Fuji disapproves of his sister marrying Tetsuo in one scene, but his concerns don't really come up again in the film. Tetsuo himself is sidelined too early after he’s captured by the Xians. Glenn has an intriguing romance with one of the Xians (Kumi Mizuno), but we never see the two get an emotional scene together until she’s finally dispatched of by her masters. And when the Xians do start to take over earth, Honda makes the strange decision (probably budgetary) to have the earth’s furor play as sound of war and crowds over stock photos as a narrator speaks of mass protests (which I highly doubt would prove effective against laser-wielding aliens).

But sound also plays an important role in the climax of the film. Honda and co. layer the screeching of Tetsuo’s invention with another device that blocks the mind control signals from the kaiju, the destruction of the Xians’ spaceships, and the sound of the monsters losing consciousness. Sound has always been a major element in the success of the Godzilla series, but Astro-Monster is the first to actively draw attention to its importance.

As for the monster fights, they play like improved versions of what we saw in Ghidorah, proving that to be a bit of a dry run for this more successful effort. On top of more consistent teamwork between Rodan and Godzilla (and Godzilla actually using his radioactive breath on Ghidorah), there’s the added bonus of seeing the three under mind control in an onslaught of destruction and terror before they snap out of it. Astro-Monster also continues Godzilla’s journey into anthropomorphization, as the big green guy exhibits joy (see: that silly dance from above) and anger, and even seems to start boxing Ghidorah at one point. It isn’t quite the Godzilla from the original, but it’s a new version that’s satisfying in its own right.

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

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

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.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Nymphomaniac


Grade: 77/B+

Lars von Trier is many things: a provocateur, a neurotic, a depressive, a trickster, and an immensely skilled filmmaker. These traits frequently wrestle with each other within his films, with the deliberately galling elements clashing with the always beautiful form, or the prankish side juxtaposing oddly with the miserable. Rarely has this been more clear than with his new two-part epic Nymphomaniac, a bold, often brilliant, frequently frustrating and always fascinating film that’s as much a self-searching personal statement as it is a new work from a master filmmaker.

Frequent von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg stars as Joe, a self-identified nymphomaniac who’s found beaten up in an alley by the analytical Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Seligman asks Joe how she ended up there, and she proceeds to lay out her life story: her close relationship with her father (Christian Slater), her deflowering as a young woman (Stacy Martin) by the callous Jerǒme (Shia LaBeouf, briefly taking a break from not being famous anymore) and their subsequent relationship, her encounters with a dominator (Jamie Bell) and other men, and the vast lengths she’ll go to satisfy herself. As she confesses to being a bad person, Seligman tries to understand and empathize with it by drawing parallels to his knowledge of the world.

Nymphomaniac was released in a bifurcated form not unlike that of Kill Bill (although longer versions of both segments are on the way); as with Tarantino’s film, the split is more commercially oriented than it is in service to the work, but there is a decided difference between the two halves. Nymphomaniac’s first two hours see von Trier the prankster at work. Shocking and audacious as some of the material might be (a blowjob that has to be on a prosthetic but still looks awfully convincing; numbers showing up onscreen for every thrust from LaBeouf), it’s wildly funny stuff, made more so by Seligman’s often irrelevant observations (the second half even shows Joe losing patience with him, “I think this was one of your worst diversions.”)

But there’s a careful balancing act between the hilarious moments and the deeply  uncomfortable ones, including an astonishing sequence in which Uma Thurman, playing the wife of one of Joe’s conquests, arrives at her apartment to take her sons on a tour to “the whoring bed.” There’s an element of dark comedy at work, but it doesn’t undercut the genuine pain on display. What’s remarkable is that, for a long time, the film’s attempts to find meaning in these episodes – whether these moments of pleasure and sadism are signs of a bad person or an exploratory one – avoid feeling didactic, even as Seligman analyzes and overanalyzes everything Joe tells him. The film shows von Trier drawing a parallel between himself and Joe and Seligman with his critics, attempts at empathy or criticism being met with either derision or deflection, depending on the moment.

The second half, by contrast, takes on a much more depressive tone. Sure, there are moments of comedy – two African immigrants arguing, without subtitles, over something regarding a threesome with Joe, their erect penises wiggling all throughout – but it takes a backseat to often literal moments of sadism, from Jamie Bell whipping Joe until she bleeds to an encounter between Joe and a debtor with a terrible secret. It’s at this point where the throwbacks to earlier von Trier films (the overt political incorrectness of Manderlay, a moment that recalls the opening of Antichrist) start to feel too considered, as do many of Seligman’s observations. When Seligman admits to being asexual and inexperience with sex, it’s hard not to smack your forehead for the critic corollary falling into such an obvious straw man (seriously, Lars, you can voice your frustrations without resorting to hackneyed arguments). The final twenty minutes in particular fall close to Antichrist in terms of trying way too hard to be provocative at the expense of finding a more natural conclusion.

Still, even with its missteps, Nymphomaniac is a fascinating capstone to von Trier’s Depression trilogy (Antichrist, Melancholia), filled with strong supporting performances and a bravura turn from Gainsbourg. It’s a film about trying to understand one’s sins and experiences, and the frustration of therapy and analysis not being of any use. We may not like every turn Joe (or von Trier) takes us down, but it’s hard not to want to know where it’s leading.

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

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

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.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Wes Anderson Roundtable #3: The Royal Tenenbaums


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: I think in some ways The Royal Tenenbaums serves as a companion piece to Rushmore, where the earlier film gives us a young precocious lead bursting with talent and ambition, Anderson’s third film shows us the same kinds of people only to fast forward to show us how that talent and ambition can be beaten down and diminished.

Max O’Connell: It’s a more mature film, one that recognizes that initial success can lead to great failure.

LG: I’ve always felt that The Royal Tenenbaums was Wes Anderson’s greatest masterpiece, and it surprised me when I figured out recently that a lot of people don’t rate it so highly.

MO: It surprises me more when people don’t rank it in their top three. It’s so clearly his most personal, his most ambitious and his most formally exciting to me. It’s bizarre that there are Wes Anderson die-hards who don’t adore it the same way.

LG: It’s his first foray into this really large palette of world building in filmmaking. It’s a multigenerational New York tragedy, to some degree his version of The Godfather.

MO: More specifically, it’s his version of The Magnificent Ambersons, which it’s very consciously modeled after: the title, the downfall of a great family, and the detached narrator (Orson Welles in Ambersons, Alec Baldwin here)…

LG: And that Amberson-esque opening is one of the most arresting moments in Anderson’s carrier. It’s a prologue where we get the details of the Tenenbaum glory days along with the cracks in their façade of perfection. It starts with Royal (Gene Hackman) announcing that he and Ethel (Anjelica Huston) are splitting up to the kids. In a roundabout way, he sort of blames it on them even as he says that it wasn’t their fault. “Obviously we made certain sacrifices as a result of having children…”, cue the butler entering with a martini.

MO: It’s perfect, because kids tend to blame themselves regardless, and he has not made things any better.

LG: Something I really keyed into with this viewing was Royal and his intentions. He’s passive aggressive towards his kids because he’s intensely jealous of them. Everyone else in the family is a genius from a young age: Chas (Ben Stiller) is a real estate agent as a teen, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), whom he introduces as his “adopted daughter,” won $50,000 for a play she wrote in the ninth grade, and Richie (Luke Wilson) is a tennis champion. These kids are so bright, and the mother is also a beacon of warmth and supportiveness. I don’t think Royal felt like he was ever a part of that. He needs their love, but he needs to push them away.

MO: And I don’t think that’s ever a conscious thing for him. He doesn’t seem to totally understand how horrible he’s been to them.

LG: But at the same time, he’s consciously manipulative.

MO: Yes he is, but he doesn’t take into consideration how this has shaped his kids until late in the film. But that opening, while not my personal favorite scene in the film, is right up there. It closely models Ambersons in how much ground it covers in six minutes. You have a similar montage to the buildup of clubs in Rushmore, but in a much more melancholy way. Instead of a joke about how overcommitted our young hero is, we see of buildup of how doomed they are.

LG: And it’s scored beautifully to an orchestral version of “Hey Jude,” which is notable because Paul McCartney wrote the song to John Lennon’s son, Julian, when John abandoned him. It’s very conscious, watching Royal interact with and then abandon his kids. It’s one of several songs choices where Anderson seems to be playing extratextual notes.

 There’s this glow of the past, but also this bitterness to it that reverberates throughout the film. I always get the sense that the Tenenbaum family is almost living in exile, that there’s this magical place of happiness they could return to if only the figured out their own demons. After the prologue, we jump twenty years and see that everything the kids have done in the interim is an attempt, to some degree, to hold onto the promise they had as kids.

MO: Most of them are dressed in a slight variation of the way they dressed as kids. They’re all damaged to some degree. Margot is almost totally withdrawn emotionally, and she doesn’t respond to most of the people around her. Chas lashes out at everyone. Richie, meanwhile, is too sensitive. He’s so willing to forgive and embrace everyone in a way that’s not necessarily healthy, and whenever he is hurt, his reaction is completely without control.

LG: Royal related to Richie more than the others, took him out while he left the others behind, and that’s why Richie responds to him. He actually has a relationship with him. And he doesn’t understand the bitterness that Chas and Margot have, because he didn’t experience the same degree of alienation that they did.

MO: And it’s sad, because Richie tries to be empathetic towards everyone, even Chas, who really tears into him, but he doesn’t fully appreciate how fully hurt everyone else is in that family. Chas confronts him, saying that he’s been suckered and that whatever he’s trying to get, it isn’t worth it. Richie responds by saying that he loves him, but he also unintentionally downplays the real pain that Chas feels.

Now, there’s another major player here, who is notably not a Tenenbaum: Eli Cash, played by Owen Wilson (who served as Anderson’s co-writer for the last time and received a Best Original Screenplay nomination for his efforts), once again playing best friend to his real life brother.

LG: Here it works. For me, the characters they were playing in Bottle Rocket should have been brothers, because of the dynamic in that film. Here, the separation is more intentional. Eli “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.” He lived in a little apartment with his grandmother, where he slept on a futon, and he’s very drawn to the Tenenbaums and their perceived encouragement. He’s not quite there in terms of their brilliance, but he tries to be. As an adult, he’s become professor and writer (just about everyone in the film has written a book other than Royal). Eli’s a third-rate Cormac McCarthy type who doesn’t get good reviews but has been very successful lately. He’s secretly in love with Margot, as are a lot of other people, most notably her husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), whom she’s drifting apart from, and Richie, who notes that Margot is only his adopted sister. As the film begins, Richie has been traveling the world to get away from her.

MO: It’s interesting to see Eli looking for the kind of approval that the Tenenbaums got. He didn’t get the kind of encouragement that they got from their mother (though Royal sanded away a lot of that), and whenever Margot makes an off-handed remark about how Eli’s talents are limited, he’s really hurt. “Please stop belittling me” is one of his key lines. Moving onto another subject, I feel like this is the best cast Anderson every assembled.

LG: It has a lot of actors who don’t really get their due. Luke Wilson is fantastic as this sensitive, forlorn man, and I never understood how he didn’t become a bigger star. There’s a lot of levels. He’s very funny and warm, but remote. It’s a difficult balance to pull off.

MO: He’s frequently cast as the handsome but generic love interest, and he’s capable of so much more. We see that sometimes in stuff like Idiocracy, but not enough.

LG: Then there’s Ben Stiller, a performer I have a very contentious relationship with, because he does a lot of terrible stuff. I think he’s a very smart guy who doesn't always pick the right projects. He’s good at goofball but even in a lot of his comedic performances, he’s really good at playing abrasive, but until this point I don’t think  he’d ever played anyone quite this misanthropic and certainly didn’t again until Greenberg.

MO: Both characters bring up the neuroticisms to a pathological degree, where he lashes out at everyone around him. It’s easy to empathize with him even though he treats people terribly. Even Margot, who’s emotionally withdrawn, will defend people from Chas, as she does with Ethel’s suitor Henry Sherman (Danny Glover, perfectly understated). But Chas is an intensely lonely, intensely unhappy person, which has been exacerbated by the death of his wife in a plane crash. I’m not just thinking of his outbursts, I’m thinking of the scene where he briefly leaves his twin sons alone in his old room (they’ve moved back in with Ethel), only to re-enter about two seconds later and decide that he’s going to sleep in their room, too. It’s played for a laugh, but it’s so fucking sad to see how he has nothing else but his children, and he’s smothering them, and Wes uses the song “Look at Me” by John Lennon perfectly here. Royal warns Chas later, after he realizes what a shit he was, to go easy on his boys, because he doesn’t want Chas to end up like him for the exact opposite reasons.

LG: I think to some degree he has. He decided early on not to be his father, but he’s ended up just as bitter and vindictive, if not more so. At least Royal can be avuncular and warm in moments, even if you can’t tell if he’s being genuine. Since the death of his wife, Chas and his sons dress up in matching Adidas jumpsuits so he can pick them out of a crowd quickly, and he’s started running endless safety drills. He never feels safe, and that leads to him moving back to the Tenenbaum house. And that feeling of never being safe ties in perfectly to how a child might feel if they were raised by someone as untrustworthy as Royal.

MO: Wes Anderson wrote Royal directly for Gene Hackman, who wasn’t sure he wanted to take it because he prefers to disappear into characters…but how perfect is he here?

LG: He’s excellent. He’s retired recently, and this is easily the peak of his late-period performances which consists mostly of thrillers of varying quality (let’s ignore that his last film was Welcome to Mooseport).

MO: It’s a really important mixture of genuine charm and casual cruelty, one that another actor might overplay or, worse, underplay and try too hard to ingratiate himself to the audience. Or how about Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s received a bit of a backlash from overexposure recently, but I’ve always thought she was a talented actress. She’s frequently cast as a very charming character, even if they’re hurting on the inside (Hard Eight, Seven, Two Lovers). Here, she is against type, not even sort of hiding her unhappiness. She’s so close to being emotionally dead that she’s had a number of affairs (and an annulled marriage that no one in her family knows about), because she’s looking for anyone to connect to. It makes the way she shuts people out even sadder – her family doesn’t even know she’s smoked since she was 12.

LO: I love the black eyeliner she has. It makes her sad eyes so much more expressive, like a silent film character. Anderson also does a good job of framing her in ways that accentuate her loneliness. She’s often either to the side of everyone or in the far background compared to everyone else. The removal is a reaction to her, but it’s also a choice that she makes.

MO: She doesn’t trust anyone to not hurt her. Even from the beginning, when we see the doors to all of the children’s bedrooms, hers is the only one that’s closed.

LG: She was adopted, and Royal never let her forget it, so she never felt like she belonged. Maybe that’s why it was emotionally okay for her to embrace the feeling she has for Richie. It’s a way for her into the family, just like she’s a way into the family for Eli. It’s this very weird push-pull element.

MO: We should talk about the style of the film. Anderson really doubled down on the densely-packed anamorphic compositions, the dioramas.

LG: He’s pushing his wide angle, anamorphic diorama aesthetic harder than ever before. The Tenenbaum house is treated very much like a dollhouse visually, particularly in the opening where Anderson moves from floor to floor carefully noting the intensely manicured décor of each room. At one point in that sequence, we see young Margot building a model set for one of her plays, and we can’t help but notice the echo.

MO: And while there’s a lot of sadness, how joyous is it to watch the way the film was made?

LG: Oh, I absolutely adore it. It’s so meticulous and perfectly done. One thing I noticed about the house is…normally, especially in early color films, you paint the walls a pale color, then dress the characters in something more saturated so they pop out. Wes Anderson and a lot of other 90s directors said “fuck all that.” The Tenenbaum house is filled with saturated reds and pinks and blues, and it’s a very warm, cozy look for all the coldness within the façade. There’s also a lot of little text inserts, which we saw a bit in Rushmore, but here there’s Helvetica and Futura fonts in here. He’s moved away from that a bit in recent years, but it’s very emblematic of Anderson’s style. Those modernist fonts call attention to themselves as objects first, and parts of words second, just like Anderson’s style does.

MO: And yet, there are moments of…I wouldn’t say extreme verisimilitude, but we’ve talked about how handheld shots are an underrated part of Anderson’s style. There are two that are used as bookends of sorts, both related to Chas. The first shows him racing through his house with his kids for a fire drill that shows just how much his attempt to instill order on his life has actually thrown him into chaos. The second is at his mother’s wedding, after a stoned Eli crashes a car and almost runs over Chas’s sons. Not only is it the same style, but the same pounding drum music theme plays. It’s a nice touch that doesn’t get called out enough.

LG: Those drum parts of the scores are another underrated Wes Anderson element. Every score Mark Mothersbaugh did for him have them. Maybe Wes is a frustrated drummer?

MO: How about the framing, how it’s used as a way to hammer a joke home? Raleigh is a neurologist, and his recent subject, Dudley (Stephen Lea Sheppard) is, among other things, colorblind and dyslexic, but has an extraordinary sense of hearing. When Raleigh mentions that Dudley is color blind, Dudley is shown in a long shot down a hallway, and he overhears it and questions it, because he doesn’t realize he’s colorblind. As written, it’s kind of funny, but with those visual dynamics it’s hilarious. It doesn’t work without that framing.

LG: We talked about darkness, loneliness, and suicide, but we should stress that this is a comedy, and a very funny one. Dudley has a few other great moments, like when he points out something that’s beside the point for the rest of the scene (“there’s a dent in that cab…and another dent…and another”).

MO: There’s a bit that was played up in the trailers, but it does make me laugh – Chas mentions in a flashback that Royal stole bonds from him, to which Royal can only pause and give a nervous laugh. It’s played perfectly.

LG: There’s a montage at one point after Raleigh and Richie hire a private investigator to find out about Margot’s infidelities, and after we see a litany of men Margot has slept with (set to “Judy is a Punk” by the Ramones), and all Raleigh can say is a quiet, understated, “She smokes.”

MO: And that’s only my second favorite montage in the movie. The best for me is set to Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” in which Royal takes his grandsons out on the town for a day of recklessness. It’s so joyful, and there’s an increasing level of absurdity, starting with them running into pools or racing go-karts, leading to theft, riding on the back of a garbage truck, and watching a dogfight.

LG: That’s an interesting turning point in the film. He still has ulterior motives but it’s the first part where Royal does something that isn’t purely selfish.

MO: Yes. He tried bringing his family to his mother’s grave for the first time (Richie was the only one who was ever invited), but he botches it badly, especially as he trivializes the death of Chas’s wife with “oh, yeah, we have another body buried here.” Which is funny, but I felt terrible for laughing because he’s such a bad person.
We’ve talked about how Anderson pays tributes to his favorite films without doing it in an obvious way. He reimagines his homages. Did you see any examples?

LG: There’s three I noticed in the “Me and Julio” sequence alone. There’s a moment of them driving go-karts under elevated trains that looks like the climax of another Hackman film, The French Connection. The scene where they steal milk plays like a similar scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (it should be noted that there’s a bit of Blake Edwards in Anderson’s sense of framing). And there’s also a sequence of three characters jumping into a pool that’s reminiscent of The Graduate (a scene he already referenced in Rushmore the twist here is that the people jumping into the pool are happy).

MO: Two that struck me are Elia Kazan homages. One is a new version of what Kazan did for East of Eden, where James Dean was framed in a hallway to make it look very claustrophobic (using CinemaScope in a similar way that Anderson uses anamorphic framing). This is a bit of a jump, but there’s a shot of Ben Stiller on the stairs that’s somewhat similar, and this is a similar tale of generational conflict. The other is another homage to the scene in On the Waterfront where Brando confesses to Eva Marie Saint. Here, it’s a scene between Eli and Margot on the bridge, where they discuss Richie’s love for Margot. It’s not exactly the same, because instead of using a shot/reverse shot rhythm and drowned out dialogue, here we hear the dialogue and Anderson uses slow whip pans between them.

LG: It’s one of Anderson’s most interesting use of whip pans.

MO: It’s a very deliberate shift to see how their words can hurt each other even without them intending it.

LG: It’s almost like they’re playing tennis and the camera is following the ball.

MO: Speaking of Margot’s veil coming down, there’s a great two-shot of Margot and Raleigh at a key point in the film where he confronts her about her infidelities. It’s so simple, yet so effective, to see those two finally brought together and having a frank conversation about what’s going on between them without them dodging. That actually joins the “I coulda been a contender” scene from On the Waterfront as one of my favorite two-shots, because it relies on the two actors to carry the scene and let their characters finally be honest with each other.

LG: Let’s talk some more about notable uses of music. There’s a lot of really sorrowful songs here, like Nick Drake’s “Fly,” or the Velvet Underground’s “Stephanie Says.” One of my favorites comes with Richie’s arrival in New York, where he’s waiting for Margot to pick him up, and she gets off the bus in slow motion to the sound of Nico singing “These Days,” and it’s gorgeous. There’s a great reverse of the camera dollying to Richie, and the look on his face is, “yep, that’s my girl.” And these sailors walk behind him like The Beatles in the Abbey Road cover. It’s this beautifully orchestrated moment of artifice. I feel that a lot of undue emphasis has been placed recently on films needing to look and feel realistic. Shots like that make me think, “No, why are we bothering with realism? Film can do so much more!”

MO: It can be so much more expressive, just like it is here (in a shot that’s a subtle take on the bit of Cybill Shepherd in slow motion in Taxi Driver), and that moment never fails to send a chill down my spine. As for the scenes where Wes tones down the artifice, I love the shot of Royal following Ethel and lying to her, saying “I’m dying.” For the most part, it’s a single wide shot that shows Ethel going in and out of the frame as Royal changes his answer, but on “I’m dying,” there’s a very effective axial cut (or close to an axial cut) that brings us closer to Ethel but maintains an illusion of continuity, so it almost doesn't register with us. I love when he tone it down, because it makes stuff like “These Days” feel all the more powerful.

I also love how each Tenenbaum has their own theme music: Eli has some of the more coked-up rhythms of The Clash’s  “Police & Thieves” and “Rock the Casbah.” Chas has the drum music. Ethel has two Bob Dylan instrumentals. We talk about how Anderson uses left-of-field songs from greatest artists. How’s “Billy” from Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and “Wigwam” from the much-derided Self Portrait.

LG: That album isn’t his best but it’s still underrated, but that song is so joyous that every time I feel sad, I listen to “Wigwam” and I feel happy again.

MO: We need to also talk about…oh boy…”Needle in the Hay.”

LG: (heavy sigh) Gimme a second…

MO: That is still the toughest scene that Anderson has ever shot.

LG: We’re in the middle of this comedy that’s dark, but still very funny. But Richie is at his lowest point. Margot has been with so many men, none of them him, and he’s so sensitive that he’s thinking, “She’ll never look at me.”

MO: And when Richie enters the bathroom, the lighting is much darker than it’s been in the rest of the film. It goes from a warm look to a darkish blue hue, as if Ridley Scott briefly took over.

LG: He takes off his thick sunglasses for the second time in the entire film. He cuts his hair, he shaves his beard, and it’s cut in a very French New Wave style with a lot of jump cuts. And as “Needle in the Hay” plays, he decides he’s going to kill himself, and there’s a lot of blood. It’s the most unexpected and daring thing Anderson has ever done.

MO: But it’s a very well-handled tone shift for what’s one of the major fulcrums of the film, not just for how it sets up Richie’s relationship with Margot, but it’s also the point where the family starts to come together a bit, and where Royal realizes what a shit he’s been and how devastating his affect on his kids was.

LG: “Needle in the Hay” works so well that it makes you sad that the initial plan to have Elliott Smith record material specifically for the film, including a cover of “Hey Jude” for the opening, but that plan didn’t pan out due to his mounting personal issues (his death by suicide two years later doesn't make it any easier to watch).

The “Hey Jude” choice at the begging was apparently part of a larger plan to bookend the film with Beatles songs that fell through due to the difficulty of getting Beatles material which is the start of a general theme in Anderson films after this to highlight a particular artist in each soundtrack (Wes’s original choice for the ending was an alternate take of “I’m Looking Through You,” after which he moved on to the Beach Boy’s “Sloop John B” before settling on Van Morrison’s “Everyone”).

MO: Another key musical scene involves The Rolling Stones: a left-of-field choice with “She Smiled Sweetly,” followed by “Ruby Tuesday,” a big hit, both off of the Between the Buttons album.

LG: It’s a very intimate scene, the first where Richie and Margot get a real chance to be alone. It’s post-suicide attempt, and they’re being very frank with each other. It’s interesting to see two songs by the same artist used back-to-back, that’s something people don’t do often. He’s playing these songs against type. So even though Ruby Tuesday is easily the more melancholy song. The way he uses it, it becomes downright triumphant.

MO: For the record, we completely disagree on the meaning of that song’s placement. You see it as a moment of progress for Richie, now that he and Margot have acknowledged their love for each other. I see it as a moment of great uncertainty, not unlike the ending of The Graduate, because they’re unsure of how they’re going to deal with it or move forward. I also think that viewing that scene as a triumph makes the cigarette exchange between Richie and Margot, the real triumphant scene, redundant. Considering Margot’s “I think we’re just going to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that, Richie” line, “Ruby Tuesday” is used perfectly to type, not against type. It’s a beautiful moment because they’re so uncertain. The song just happens to have an up-tempo rhythm that makes it a perfect segue to the next chapter, where things actually do start to get a little better for everyone.

LG: Another interesting thing about the style is the conceit that the film is a novel. Every section of the film is broken up into chapters, complete with a shot of a title page. It’s such a cute thing that goes right in with the literary New York fairytale thing, not to mention the fact that just about everyone in this film is a published author.

MO: Here’s the thing about it, though: I remember reading in a review of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou where Owen Gleiberman said that he wished that Anderson would stop having a tone of “Isn’t it ironic?” for everything.

LG: What? No…

MO: His films are so earnest that I don’t know how anyone could get that. You’ve mentioned what separates Anderson from imitators like Napoleon Dynamite is the level of empathy that Anderson allows his characters, even the minor ones, while being just removed enough to avoid wallowing like Garden State. Something that struck me this time was Dudley, who’s the jokiest character in the film, but there’s a shift that Raleigh takes towards him. In the beginning, he laughs at Dudley’s predicament. “How bizarre!” By the end, he still has a sense of humor about Dudley (“Can the boy tell time?” “Oh, my lord, no”), but he hugs Dudley closer to him. This is the kid he’s living for now, someone he can help.

LG: His characters are so well realized that we could spend the whole review psychoanalyzing these people.

MO: I can empathize with everyone on screen. It’s a real Renoir feeling. Richie is quick to forgive, but he doesn’t understand the depth of Chas’s pain, and Chas resents him because of it, not to mention because he was Royal’s favorite. The level of resentment these characters have for each other is understandable, and yet by the end we see how much they care for each other.

LG: Agreed, there’s a lot of Rules of the Game in this film (lots of hidden and unrequited love affairs between upperclass people). One of the most heartfelt moments is between Eli and Richie. Richie tries to get him into rehab, and Eli says, “I wish you would’ve done this when I was a kid.” “You didn’t have a drug problem then.” “Yeah, but it would have meant a lot to me.”

MO: The two best directors working today, for me, are Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson, and The Royal Tenenbaums has a lot in common with P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia. Both are about how what happens to people as children shape their adulthood, about their pain and loneliness, about the humanization of the people who hurt them, and how difficult it is to move on, but both films are ultimately optimistic. And you talked about that moment, but I’m always touched by everything Chas does in the final twenty minutes. First, when he goes up to Henry Sherman to say that he’s a widower too – it’s like he’s looking for a new dad. And he does finally embrace Royal, saying, “I had a rough year, dad,” the response being, “I know you have, Chazzie.” I always need a minute.

LG: Wes has these moments of empathy with these characters. It never feels fake. Sometimes it’s a bit buried because the performances are minimalistic, or the style is arch, but the more you rewatch them, the more you realize how much the emotion is there and how genuine it is.

MO: Yeah. Another example is when Royal realizes how bad his advice has been for his children, and he admits that to Richie. He wants to have done better, and that counts.

LG: “Can’t someone be a shit their whole life and repair the damage?”

MO: There are so many lines that could serve as the thesis. That’s just one of the best. And I love how the first things he can do to repair that damage is get a divorce.

LG: We need to make sure we talk about Anjelica Huston, who’s so warm and so amazing in this film. You almost wonder how it is that she and Margot never connected more, I think Margot was always going to be on the outside, but Ethel tries so hard to do good for them.

MO: Yeah. They’re messes of people, but they’d be a lot worse without Ethel.

LG: There’s something interesting that I noticed this time around. When they announce the divorce, it’s Royal by himself. I don’t think he’s doing this to take initiative. I feel like she left it to him to do this. And that’s an interesting choice, that she put it off.

MO: Why don’t we talk about the last 15 minutes, which wreck me completely. It starts with this great long crane shot that’s maybe slightly ostentatious, but essential. It moves around after the car accident at the wedding, where Eli everyone has found some solace. Eli is confessing that he’s on drugs and he needs help, but the cop booking him is a fan. Raleigh and Dudley get goofy and they get a connection. The Shermans are analyzing. Ethel is taking care of the boys. And Chas and Royal finally mend their relationship.

LG: And then, after we get through the scene where Richie and Margot embrace their odd let’s-forget-we-were-raised-as-siblings relationship, “The Fairest of the Seasons” by Nico starts. The epilogue is perfect because of how it ties Chas to Royal, the son who hated him the most turns out to be the one who’s closest to him. It’s such a perfect moment of catharsis, and the shot of Gene Hackman on the ambulance gurney, slowly looking over with the air mask on gets me every time.

MO: You talked about how Rushmore was a happy ending that nonetheless wasn’t naïve and knew that they’d still have to work through problems. That’s here, too. There’s negative stuff left behind: Margot’s play fails, Eli’s in rehab working through things but he’s lost Margot, Raleigh has Dudley but lost Margot, Richie is teaching kids, probably better adjusted than most. They have each other, so they’re going to be OK, and Royal finally made things right after being a shit his whole life. Those hurt feelings can be mended even if they can’t be totally cleared away.

LG: Then there’s the funeral, which I think is the last time Wes Anderson used slow-motion as the last shot if you include the end credits of the other movies. And it’s perfect here. My favorite detail about this funeral, because it needs a laugh for all of the somberness, is that Ari and Uzi have black jumpsuits for the funeral, and they’re firing BB guns in a salute. That’s a Wes Anderson detail if there ever was one.

MO: It’s a Wes Anderson detail, and it’s a nice throwback to Chas having been shot in the hand by Royal, showing how he’s let his anger go. And then that epitaph is perfect: “Died Pulling His Family From the Wreckage of a Destroyed, Sinking Battleship.”

LG: With “Everyone” by Van Morrison playing them out in slow-motion. It’s just…I don’t know what else I can say. I think it’s his best film, I give it A.

MO: Yeah, no contest his best, A (99).