The Top Films of 2012 (Take 3)

The Night of the Living Oscars is almost upon us, which means it’s time for film buffs everywhere to make lists and make desperate attempts to compare apples to oranges in order to decide which one goes where. My attempts are as follows:

The Top 10 Films of 2012:

10. The Raid: Redemption
This is the Tony Jaa film with no Tony Jaa, and I wish that Ong Bak 2 & 3 had been anywhere near as good as The Raid. With a similar setup to Dredd, involving a multi-storied building on lockdown while hordes of tenants fight our protagonists, The Raid has excellent fight choreography that is creative, rapid-paced, and as is essential for a martial-arts action film, in plentiful supply. The Raid doesn’t bog itself down trying to make the story any more than it needs to be; it doesn’t feel tacked on but it doesn’t overburden the rest of the film and take away from the action either. A solid piece of adrenaline-laced action filmmaking.

9. The Grey
A sobering story about a man who has nothing to live for fighting to survive in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, The Grey isn’t just a film about the struggle against the natural world, but a personal look at a man’s conviction in the face of death, despite the pain and sadness in his past. Liam Neeson shows some real acting chops here, and seems to really delve into the role instead of going through the motions. What could have been a by-the-numbers survival story digs a little deeper and the result is powerful.

8. God Bless America
Perhaps it’s the cynical asshole in me, but throughout almost all of God Bless America I had a smile plastered across my face. With his death looming over his day-to-day suffering, Frank (Joel Murray) decides to cleanse the world of modern society’s shortcomings. Watching Joel Murray do what we have thought about once or twice in our darker moments is almost cathartic, and the entire film has a biting wit to go with the carnage that it portrays. Dark comedies, such as the work of Todd Solondz, never seem to get much exposure; perhaps because they sometimes strike a little too close to home. God Bless America fits the genre perfectly by making you want to laugh and despair at the same time.

7. Cloud Atlas
The Wachowski’s & Tom Tykwer’s brazenly ambitious Cloud Atlas is a film I kept thinking about for days. At first it was almost difficult to keep up with the many stories running concurrently, but the film quickly settles into a rhythm, and it’s an impressive sight to behold. Each arc goes through the build up and climax of their story simultaneously, with actors playing multiple characters at different points in time, all the while different key elements of one story will have an effect on another that takes place later in time. Some elements aren’t even central to the plot, but when you notice that the buttons stolen by one character are now a necklace worn by his descendant in the far-flung future, it’s a nice touch. Cloud Atlas is a multilayered epic that deserves multiple viewings.

6. Prometheus
As a long-time fan of the Alien franchise, this was easily my most-anticipated film of 2012. The original director my personal favorite, Alien (1979), returning to create a prequel that delves into the origins of the Xenomorphs? Yes, please and thank you. Prometheus, however, is quite the tease. While we get fantastic special effects, some great sci-fi storytelling and a healthy dose of horror and action, we also get plenty of questions that don’t get answered. While some may feel this detracts from the film, with a Prometheus 2 allegedly in the works, those questions may yet be resolved, and really, Prometheus stands just fine without having everything explained. Didn’t the original Alien? With that in mind, there’s plenty to love here, and Fassbender’s excellent performance as David deserves a little more attention. For Wes’s review of Prometheus, go here.

5. Frankenweenie
Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s love letter to the films of his youth, proves that Burton still has that charm that makes his older films so enthralling. It’s a shame that this and ParaNorman did somewhat poorly at the box-office, especially since stop-motion is one of my favorite methods of filmmaking; we may be seeing some of the last big-budget stop-motion films for quite some time. For a more in-depth look at Frankenweenie, check out my original review here.

4. Life of Pi
Not having read the book, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. From the trailers I had no doubt the film would be a visual feast (and it is), but all the visuals in the world mean nothing if there isn’t a solid core story. Fortunately, Life of Pi is a colorful and vibrant story about a young man who survives a shipwreck told in flashback, and somewhat like 2003’s Big Fish shows that the perception of a story may in fact be more honest than the basic truth. Simply put, Life of Pi is a fantastical tale that blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

3. Cabin in the Woods
As much as I love horror films, I’ll be the first to admit that the bulk of the genre is plagued by almost anything that can be bad in a film. Perhaps one of the worst is the overuse of clichéd plots that we’ve all seen a billion times over. And surprisingly, that is what makes Cabin in the Woods such a stellar film. I had expected a decent movie, I wasn’t expecting a film that poked fun at tired horror conventions while using them to construct an enthralling look at the horror movie itself. Even those who aren’t horror fans should give Cabin in the Woods a look, if only to see the jaw-dropping turns the story takes. For David’s review of Cabin in the Woods, go here.

2. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson continually impresses with his work, Moonrise Kingdom is likely one of his best efforts. Between the amazing cast all turning in excellent performances, the camerawork so good each shot could be a piece of art, and a compelling story that captures youthful love and rebellion, it’s hard to find anything that hasn’t been carefully tuned to perfection by Mr. Anderson. This editor hopes that we can look forward to more of the same. For David’s review of Moonrise Kingdom, go here.

1. Django Unchained
While Quentin Tarantino had used elements of the Western genre in nearly every one of his films, he’d never simply made a Western. Django Unchained is that Western, and it succeeds admirably. A revenge/rescue story set in the pre-Civil War south, the oftentimes cartoonishly violent and racially charged plot sees Django (Jamie Foxx) becoming a bounty hunter as he attempts to rescue his wife. Where Tarantino’s films really shine is with character performances, enhanced with great dialogue for those performances, and Django Unchained does so through superb performances by the always-impressive Christoph Waltz and a knockout performance by DiCaprio as the villainous Calvin Candy. With yet another of Tarantino’s carefully picked soundtracks backing it, Django Unchained is a fine addition to the director’s lexicon.

Honorable Mentions:
Stuff that didn’t make the cut, but is still worth talking about.

7 Psychopaths – Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008) was easily one of my favorite films of that year, and his latest offering is nothing to sneeze at either. With some excellent performances (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Tom Waits are all great) and repeated “I didn’t expect that at all” moments, 7 Psycopaths was just shy of making the list.

Argo – Ben Affleck’s film about the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis is a competent film, and while I’m not sure that I’m as impressed as some are by it, there’s certainly nothing overtly wrong with it, and it’s a solid, engaging piece of work.

The Avengers – I doubt there’s anyone who hasn’t seen this film, but I’m including it here simply because when it was being made I thought that I was going to hate it. There was no way that anyone could make a superhero league film that wasn’t all over the place. But Joss Whedon managed to make a decent film that, though not flawless by any means, surprised me. Kudos to you, Mr. Whedon. Wes’s review can be found here.

The Dark Knight Rises – After The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises had some big shoes to fill. Too big, perhaps. While I still maintain that it is a good film, I can’t get past some of the suspension of disbelief that is required. It’s a shame that it doesn’t live up to its predecessor, but there’s still plenty of cinematography, great acting, an impressive score and intense action sequences that make it better than just average.

Dredd – Though Stallone’s Judge Dredd (1995) does the comic book character no justice, 2012’s take on the character was much more in-line with the tone of the comics. A gritty, brutal action movie that was a pleasant surprise, especially given that didn’t expect anything from it.

Looper – While Looper might have some major plot holes, the film is done with such style and conviction that they can be set aside. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a notable performance as a young Bruce Willis, and the subtle make-up only enhances the effect. The psychic-powerhouse bit is cool too. Wes’s review can be found here.

ParaNormanParaNorman is a stop-motion film about a boy who can see the dead and must save his town from a witch’s curse. Like the aforementioned Frankenweenie, ParaNorman is visually impressive, and though the story drags sometimes, it’s worth noting for the amount of craft the Laika team put into it.

The Pirates!: Band of Misfits  – Yet another stop-motion film worth mentioning, from the amazing team at Aardman (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run). It gets a bit too juvenile for my tastes at times, but the entire film is a visual treat, and genuinely funny at times.

Sinister – Though there are issues with Sinister, it still is one of the better horror films to come out in 2012. There are moments that are truly creepy, and moments that are truly disturbing. Something about the home camera aspect makes the entire movie have an unsettling vibe, the atmosphere (aided by some great use of the band Boards of Canada) will stick with you, and that alone makes this film worth mentioning.

Skyfall – A noticeable improvement over Quantum of Solace (2008), the newest Bond film serves up some great sequences and top-notch cinematography, and one of the better Bond songs. Craig continues to impress as a no-nonsense take on the 007 character, and more of these to come is good news.

Wreck-It RalphWreck-It Ralph was a strong contender for my Top 10, but Sarah Silverman’s character too often tread into annoying instead of charming. That aside, it’s a great movie that is considerably improved by the plethora of videogame character cameos. If you consider yourself an avid gamer (not you, CoD players), you’ll get a kick out of simply spotting all the references.

Worst 10 Movies of 2012
Though I wish I had descriptions for each of these films, I’m finding it hard to muster up the desire to expend any more time on them than I already have. They already stole several hours of my life, so this simple list will hopefully represent the last of such theft.

10. Step Up Revolution
9. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
8. The Cold Light of Day
7. Resident Evil: Retribution
6. Mirror Mirror
5. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
4. The Devil Inside
3. That’s My Boy
2. One for the Money
1. 3 Stooges

Disappointments:
The stuff that should have been great, but wasn’t. YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE!

The Man with the Iron Fists
Despite David’s review, I still had this one on my watchlist because the trailer had looked promising. While The Man with the Iron Fists does many things well, such as the multitude of eccentric characters, it just isn’t quite what it could (and should) be. The camerawork leaves something to be desired, the CG blood / special effects look terrible and take you right out of the film, and the ending could have really used some extended fight scenes. Hopefully RZA can fix these kind of grievances and give us the 70’s kung-fu film that will do the genre justice.

Iron Sky
Unlike Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Iron Sky seemed to have tongue planted firmly in cheek from the outset. Nazis on the dark side of the moon is a delightfully ridiculous premise, and the trailer had me excited for something that played up the cheese while being thoroughly creative with that license. While Iron Sky attempts to reach this goal, it bogs itself down by going in the completely wrong direction, and while there are laughs to be had here and there, too much of what we get consists of a boring subplot and wasted potential.

Brave
Now, let’s be clear that I don’t consider Brave a bad film by any means. It’s a visually impressive movie that doesn’t have any major flaws. But Pixar has a fairly impressive track record (barring the Cars films, in this editor’s opinion), so I had very lofty expectations after seeing the first trailers. Brave’s story, however, is simply lacking that special touch that would make it stand with the other Pixar greats. In other words, Brave is a good, not great film. And that is disappointing.

Missed:
Films that weren’t seen in time to make (or not make) this list.

Amour
The Imposter
Lincoln
The Master
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Robot & Frank
The Secret World of Arrietty
Silver Linings Playbook
Shame

-Adam

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

So Moonrise Kingdom finally decided to show up in Raleigh this weekend past. After a decade spent living in the mountains of Western North Carolina, I’ve become used to platform releases over the years; after all, a majority of the films that interest me are rolled out this way to build up word of mouth and generate buzz for awards season. But this wait was ridiculous! Do you hear me American Empirical Pictures?! RIDICULOUS! Wes Anderson’s latest opened up on May 27 on 4 screens, which is not an unusual way of handling things—those bastards in New York and Los Angeles always get first crack at films like this. The weeks preceding its initial release is where it got stupid, going from 4 screens to 16, to 96, to 178, and finally, to 395 screens this weekend when it showed up in most major markets in North Cackalack, and most important, Ruff’ Raleigh, home of Petey Pablo. What kind of world do we live in where a major music star like Petey is denied the right to view the latest effort from one of the strongest and fiercely individualistic auteurs working in the business today? For shame, Scott Rudin Productions. For shame *shakes head*. I had hoped to have this review up closer to the Wes Anderson week we had to celebrate Moonrise Kingdom’s release, but sometimes we don’t get what we want—much like the Christmas when I asked for Tommy Lasorda Baseball for the Sega Genesis but got Hardball instead.

But now the wait is over and I’m pleased to report that it was well worth the time I spent shaking my fists at the sky, cursing my current geographical location. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson once again creates a world that is unmistakably his, a film that any cineaste could identify as his by merely viewing one scene, in or out of context with the rest of the picture. This, of course, could be a good thing or make you not want to waste your time at all, depending on where your opinions on the director fall. If you find his output to be too precious or calculated, a hypercontrolled, diorama-like universe that is constantly threatening to collapse under the weight of ideals and aesthetics that have come to define him, you will hate this picture. If you love his elegant tracking shots, intricate production design, symmetrical compositions, and the way his films labor in his own, extremely personal space, you could have a new favorite film from the auteur, as Moonrise Kingdom not only embraces all of these characteristics but also ratchets them up to a level that blows past his prior, most meticulous creations, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Royal Tenenbaums.

Anderson’s latest is also his first period piece, even though his prior efforts have always carried with them an obsession with the sounds and look of decades past. The setting is the land of New Penzance, a fictional island off the coast of New England in the year of 1965. Through the use of a narrator (Bob Balaban) the audience is given a tour of this imaginary location, finding out that in 3 days’ time a rather large storm will pass, wrecking the coast and, in general, causing a mess of epic proportions. It is during this time that Sam (Jared Gilman), a disliked Khaki Scout spending his summer at Camp Ivanhoe, and Suzy (Kara Hayward), a young girl who is depressed and isolated from her schoolmates and family, run away together, using provisions and knowledge that Sam has appropriated from his troop, led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, in a most earnest, hilarious performance). The young lovers met at a church pageant a year prior, Sam dressed to the nines in his scout uniform, Suzy costumed as a raven, locking eyes in the girl’s dressing room, their souls managing to make a deep connection before Sam is forced out, it being improper of him to hang out in the girl’s changing room. The two become pen-pals, overcoming the long distance between the two while Sam is back in his foster home before returning to camp the following summer. It is during this time they decide to run off together, causing panic in the adults charged with their safety. Suzy’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), both lawyers by trade and long fallen out of love with one another, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), a cop who is dedicated to his profession but in over his head nonetheless, possibly due to the fact that his affair with Suzy’s mom has entered its autumn stage, and the aforementioned Scout Master Ward lead the charge, but none are truly up to the task. With the storm fast approaching, this unusual quartet must find a way to locate the missing duo before the island battens its hatches in preparation for inclement weather of epic proportions.

The two young leads tear into their debut roles, both giving performances that are wonderfully gratifying in a noncloying fashion that typically dogs performances of this nature. As I was sitting in the darkened movie theater, it became impossible to not see Suzy and Sam as younger versions of Margo Tenenbaum and Max Fisher. He the overachieving outcast, at least when it comes to extracurricular activities that scouting provides him; she well set in her melancholy ways, even seen as an outcast from her own family (spurned on by the theft of his record player, her younger brother points out that she is a traitor to her family).  In my favorite segment of the film, the duo share secrets, frolic and dance in the sand, and share their first kiss, bringing to the screen one of the more honest portraits of summertime romance and first loves in recent memory all the while sporting a grace that is typically reserved for the understated classics of European cinema. The big name actors melt into their roles, each of which seems perfectly tailored to not only play to their strengths but to play off their previous roles and, by extension, their personas as well. Willis and Norton haven’t been this good in years, and in particular, it’s good to see Willis burrow into a role that brings out the best in him as it seems easy for an audience to forget how great he can be when given the chance to shine. At first glance, Murray seems to only be playing a variation of the depressed midlifer roles that have become a specialty of his—at least when paired with Anderson-penned characters—but, in his performance here, I believe he pushes the boundaries of those prior roles, enthusiastically mining a darker, more desperate mental space that fundamentally acts as a summation of his best roles in this particular period of the actor’s career.

Technically speaking, every set-up in Moonrise Kingdom is brilliant. Robert D. Yeoman’s camerawork is elegant and graceful, with his equipment placed just so in every scene, the actors positioned in front of it in an exact way, maximizing impact of every frame and the well-timed sight gags that pepper the film’s runtime. Props and sets are meticulously designed to fit seamlessly into Anderson’s storybook world, operating with a logic and reality bent to conform to his endlessly brilliant imagination. The covers and titles of the children’s books that Suzy holds so dear serve as standouts, recalling the artwork of the Newberry Award winners of my youth. The lessons and techniques the director absorbed during the time he time he spent in the universe of stop animation shines through in his follow-up effort, so much so that several scenes feel like they could have been cut from the runtime of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, making this fan hope that the director will revisit that medium of expression sooner rather than later.

All of these qualities help to make Moonrise Kingdom an unforgettable experience, a film that captures—with a stunning accuracy that few films prior have been able to deliver—that thrilling flush of a first love (or crush if you’re a cynic) while still remembering the agony that accompanied pre-teen solitude. The feeling that you have no place in the world to call your own, and that no one—even (or especially) your family—will ever understand you. And then for some out there in the world, the film is astute enough to note, this is a feeling that will never go away.

-David

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

It seems crazy that its been 2 ½ years since Wes Anderson’s last film, Fantastic Mr. Fox. Feels like it was not that long ago that I was putting the print together myself. I was shocked that in the 22 screen theater that I worked in, we were only getting one print of it. Surely the combination of a great director like Wes Anderson with a devout fan base and the appeal of a family film completely suitable for children opening right before Thanksgiving break would translate to a very good turn out. How wrong I was. The film struck out at the box office, but was a home run with critics and anyone else with half decent taste in movies.

I admit that I am completely unfamiliar with the source material for the movie. However, I am not unfamiliar with the author, Roald Dahl, who wrote some of my favorite books that I remember reading during my childhood like James & The Giant Peach, Danny: Champion Of The World, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory along with his autobiography centered on his childhood entitled Boy. Fantastic Mr. Fox seems to be held up along with his most popular works, so I have no doubt that it is of the same caliber. Turning a beloved childhood story into a feature film is a daunting task for any director. Usually there is about 20 minutes worth of actual story in most fairy tales and kids books, so turning 20 minutes into roughly 90 minutes is going to take some creativity. With a talented screenwriter and director you will get amazing results like Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox or Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are. However, in the train wreck department we have the vile, terribly misguided Cat In The Hat adaptation, which may soon be gracing the Cinematic Putrescence section of this blog. So the film itself is not an easy task to assemble. Add in the fact that Fantastic Mr. Fox is a stop motion animated film akin to Wallace & Gromit and I really believe that this is Wes Anderson’s most accomplished work as a filmmaker.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a typical fox in many ways. Mostly in the fact that he loves stealing chickens. Upon being caught in the act one night and with a baby one the way, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) asks him to give up his criminal career and fly the straight and narrow, so he can be a proper family man. Two years later, that’s 12 fox years, the two have a son named Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and Mr. Fox works as a newspaper columnist. They purchase a new home, which happens to be next to three very successful farms. The temptation is too much and Mr. Fox embarks on one last heist. The voice cast is grade A. Most of the actors in this had appeared in Anderson’s other films as well, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe & Michael Gambon to name a few. This makes for a familiar sensation. Also, Anderson has certain signature cinematic shots that he has brought to the animation world. His tendency for having a set appear bisected, for example, seeing every room in a house or compartments in a ship. The actors walking through the set like it was a living, breathing diorama. His main characters are always young men and/or their father figures. Both of which are having a difficult time finding acceptance or purpose within the world or with the other. This is his signature style and storytelling coming through, and the fact that this is undeniably a Wes Anderson film despite being animated is an amazing feat. I’ve never seen another filmmaker make that leap before.

I mentioned that I believe this is his most accomplished work. This might not be your favorite film that he’s done, it certainly isn’t mine, but as a filmmaker he is going to have to try very hard to top this when you look at the entire process of making this film. Stop motion animation is a labor of love, even more than film making is already. It has to be if its going to be done right. Nick Park, has spent the last 20+ years animating Wallace & Gromit. He’s put out 4 short films and 1 feature film in that span. It is incredibly time consuming and minutely detailed. I believe it took Anderson and his crew about 2 years to film Fantastic Mr Fox, which is very impressive. The screenplay that Anderson and Noah Baumbach put together is a ton of fun, and the cast just runs with it.

I can’t recommend strongly enough watching any of the films reviewed here at Filmsokay this past week, if you haven’t already seen them. Even if you have, they are more than worth another look. I’d like to close out with a preview of Wes Anderson’s next film Moonrise Kingdom. Enjoy.

-Wes Kelly

GUEST POST: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

For me, the genius behind Wes Anderson’s films isn’t the ornate sets and detailed costumes, or the cinematography and beauty of the worlds he creates, or even the underlying themes highlighting the importance and need for family and community and personal connection.  While those are all great things that give his films meaning, relevance, and feeling, what sets them apart, what makes them hilarious, is the silence.  The pauses.  The absence of reaction and drama in dramatic moments. It is what I love the most and what I expect when I see a Wes Anderson film.  Especially one with Bill Murray in a leading role (Bill being the master of deadpan and pausing for effect).

“I’m right on the edge… I don’t know what comes next.” 

-Steve Zissou

And while a pause or outright silence seems simple, it is super rare in TV and movies… someone stopping to think before they say something.  A lack of repartee.  A calm and calculated response. Someone in the crowd asks Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) what the purpose of killing a shark that ate his friend would be, and he pauses, looks at the speaker, and says, “revenge”, without a hint of emotion. Super funny. Oddly honest and heart felt.  The conversations in Anderson’s films, but especially in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, often feel, at least to me, the way most conversations are… often awkward and hilariously painful (at least in my head), with the struggle of how to appropriately respond to the people and events happening around  you being constant.

And that is the struggle that Steve Zissou has throughout the movie…responding and reacting to the insanity that is happening around him… an aging oceanographer/documentary filmmaker who is suddenly introduced to Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a young pipe smoking co-pilot for Kentucky Air, and allegedly, Steve’s previously unknown son.  Oh, and Steve’s best friend was just eaten by a giant spotted shark right in front of him, his marriage to Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), who is also the “brains behind Team Zissou”, is falling apart, and he’s broke.  So, that’s a lot of stuff to respond to when you aren’t someone who is good at responding to things (which is a direct quote from a graduate of the Derek Zoolander Center For Children Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too).  When he first meets Ned and hears for the first time that he might have a son, he simply says, “I’ll be right back”, and walks away to Bowie’s, “Life on Mars” to smoke a joint alone.

But ultimately, the film is about the need to have other people close to you, and the difficulty of overcoming personal flaws to achieve that end.  And it’s about David Bowie songs in Portuguese.  And poorly maintained helicopters.  And silence.

***

Okay… so I’m not the greatest film analyst, and there are a bunch of thoughts that I wanted to mention but that didn’t really fit into my narrative above, so here is just a list of some other things that I love about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou:

-The music.  First, there is Seu Jorge’s character, safety expert Pele dos Santos , who is continuously playing the aforementioned live acoustic Bowie covers. Then there is the score composed by longtime Anderson collaborator and Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh. And of course there is the climatic finally of the film, which is set to Sigur Ros’ beautiful and intensely building,Staralfur (a track oddly absent from the official soundtrack, despite its significant and memorable role).

– Jeff Goldbum.  He plays Alistair Hennessey, nemesis and ex-husband of Zissou’s wife Eleanor.  Self-described as “half gay”.  His character is one of the best in the movie.

– Costumes.  From the custom vintage Addidas that said ‘Zissou’ above the stripes, to the matching wetsuits, pajamas, speedos, beanies, and Glock handguns, Team Zissou rocks only the finest attire.

– The Belafonte.  A former long-range sub hunter for the Navy, the Belafonte gave Anderson an opportunity to create his smallest and most detailed world yet….crafting an intricate and fascinating mini-universe from a shitty old blue boat.  I want a poster of the cut-through map of the Belafonte when Steve gives the ‘tour’ of the boat.

– The last line of the movie.  “This is an adventure.”  -Steve Zissou

JMG

John-Michael Gillivan is a professional insurancer and amateur Batman from the Midwest who now lives in North Carolina. In his free time, he writes about music, his favorite fruits, and bears over at MusicsOkay.tumblr.com. He owns socks with tiny anchors on them. 

GUEST POST: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

There are few, if any, straddlers on the Wes Anderson Fence.  People either love his work and celebrate his relentless attention to detail and characters or they loathe him for what usually amounts to superficial reasons (‘That stupid font!’ they cry.  ‘Oh, another slow-motion sequence set to a song from the ‘60s’ they moan).  But, whether you adore or despise him, there is no mistaking that Anderson is a director in the truest sense because his films are unmistakably his, a feat easier said than done.  It’s apparent that every frame of his movies are painstakingly prepared for, obsessed about, and executed to match his vision.  How many other directors working today can you say that about?*

I, like the fine editors of this website, love Wes Anderson.  The Royal Tenenbaums is a movie I’ve watched countless times, a cinematic comfort food for my brain.  I’m normally terrible at remembering quotes from shows and movies but I have vast chunks of dialogue from RT safely lodged upstairs for instant recall.

RT opens with Alec Baldwin providing the voiceover for a faux book by the same name.  Here we learn about the ‘family of geniuses’ when they were at their apex, growing up at the house on Archer Avenue**.   In a sprawling, 15-minute montage that opens the film we meet the children – Chas, the business genius, Richie, the tennis savant, and Margot, the budding playwright (shown as ‘grown-ups’ as Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow, respectively).  And, naturally, we meet Royal (Gene Hackman), who makes an immediate impact as the aloof patriarch who would put his foot in his mouth if he was conscious of just how unintentionally offensive he could be (he introduces his daughter as ‘This is my adopted daughter, Margot’ without fail; he chuckles after shooting Chas with a BB gun in an act of backyard treason).  The dream cast is rounded out by: Anjelica Huston as Etheline, Royal’s wife by title only; Danny Glover as soft-spoken accountant and bullshit-sniffer Henry Sherman; Bill Murray, donning a Freudian beard and eyeglasses as Margot’s psychologist husband Raleigh St. Clair; and Owen Wilson (who co-wrote the film) as pseudo-intellectual hanger-on Eli Cash.

And that’s one of the great commonalities in all Wes Anderson films: a wide cast of characters who are simultaneously ridiculous and yet totally relatable.  In the kids, we’re shown the promise of youth; as adults, expectations left unfulfilled.  Eli Cash (co-writer Owen Wilson), the drug-addled friend from across the street who “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum” is jealousy/approval-seeking personified.  Who, as a kid, hasn’t wanted to join another family?***  Royal, a man who just wants to put a nice bow on a life where he misplayed a number of hands, is man’s want for redemption and closure.

The plot finds the entire family back under one roof in a perfect storm of circumstance; Chas is worried about the safety of his sons, Ari and Uzi, an extension of his grief over losing his wife the previous year.  Margot’s severe writers block can’t be salvaged by secretly chain-smoking in the bathtub anymore and needs to recharge.  And Richie, who post-tennis has traversed the world trying to get over his (adopted!) sister, decides to come home as well.

Meanwhile, Royal gets kicked out of the hotel where he has taken up residence for not paying his bill and decides that the only way to get his family back is to fake having stomach cancer.  True to his character, Royal’s intentions are both well-meaning and ulterior; he wants to make things right with his family only because it conveniently coincides with his eviction.  When he’s found out to be a faker, the family is not so much mad or disappointed as they are mildly unsurprised; it’s just Royal being Royal.  It’s only after Richie attempts suicide (forever making Elliott Smith’s ‘Needle In the Hay’ one of the most depressing songs ever since it foreshadowed Smith’s own suicide…. and yes, this is still a comedy) that a switch is really flipped in Royal.   That’s what makes RT  my favorite Wes Anderson movie (a Sophie’s Choice on steroids if there ever was one): seeing Royal finally figuring things out by the movie’s end is proof that an old dog can learn new tricks, but they might take a whole lot of practice to get right.

– Baron

*Here, in the cowardly confines of the footnotes, I’ll make a confession – the first time I saw Rushmore I didn’t ‘get’ it.  I was also a dumb college freshman whose horizons were about as broad as dental floss, still a few years off from realizing there was more to cinema than what the Blockbuster New Releases section had to offer.  Not to mention that so much of really appreciating movies is circumstantial.  The when/where/who with can really effect your perception, especially when your brain is still in kind of an embryonic state.  So maybe half-watching it in a stuffy dorm room was not my best introduction to old Wesley.  Watching it again a few years later I felt ridiculous for not having embraced it immediately, the same way someone who voted for Ralph Nader might feel.

**The Royal Tenenbaums takes place in a weird, timeless Manhattan (save for the tombstones in the cemetery, which let you know that this takes place in the early 2000’s… though everything else in the film would lead you to believe its the 80’s.  That could just be due to the Tenenbaum childrens’ clothing choices [Chas’s Adidas jumpsuits, Richie’s Bjorn Borg-inspired outfits] as an outlet for their arrested development).  The Tenenbaums’ house on ‘Archer Avenue’ (of which there is one in Queens) is actually on 144th Street in Harlem.  Royal recoups after being kicked out of the house at the 375th Street YMCA (no such thing).  Even the shot in Battery Park where Pagoda (the ultimate wingman, if not for the whole stabbing thing) is telling Royal about Mr. Sherman’s proposal to Etheline was done so that he would block the Statue of Liberty (see below).

*** Particularly when you get a narrow glimpse of what it’s like in someone else’s house, where dysfunction is stowed away just enough to make you question your own family’s normalcy (when, it turns out, everyone is a little nuts in the end).

Baron is an editor at the sister website, Music’s Okay (I Guess). Click on the hyperlink to read his thoughts on all things music.

Bottle Rocket (1996)

The Royal Tenenbaums was my first Wes Anderson film, and with a cast like that, how could I not love it? Well, I guess there was a possibility I wouldn’t, as numerous films have proven that having the right actors does not necessarily a good movie make. But this was not the case, and I made sure to watch all of his subsequent films as they came out, and have enjoyed each of them (some more than others) in turn. I also made sure to hit up his preceding film, Rushmore, but his first full-length feature, 1996’s Bottle Rocket, was the only one of his films that I simply hadn’t gotten around to. What better excuse to tie up that loose end than a week of Wes Anderson here on Film’s Okay (I Guess)?

Bottle Rocket centers around Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen Wilson), the latter assisting the former “escape” from a voluntary mental ward. Dignan is obsessed with planning out anything and everything he does, and this naturally includes anyone working with him. After a test heist on Anthony’s house, the two ask Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) to be their getaway driver, the main reason for this being that he’s the only one of the three who owns a car. After successfully robbing a small bookstore (which is comic in its casualness between the robbers and the victims, including chasing down Rob who’s supposed to be in Literature but isn’t), they decide to lay low at hotel now that they’re “fugitives.” Here Anthony meets Inez (Lumi Cavazos) and is immediately smitten. Despite the fact that she speaks little to no English, Anthony manages to woo her.

Bob suddenly must leave after finding out his brother has been arrested following the discovery of Bob’s marijuana plot in their backyard, and sneaks out in the middle of the night, leaving his partners in crime on their own and Dignan incensed that Bob “stole” his own car. After using an exasperated dishwasher as a translator, Inez tells Anthony that she can’t come with him, nor does she want him to stay. Heartbroken, Anthony gives her an envelope that, unbeknownst to her, contains the majority of their recent spoils, and leaves. Inez decides after the fact that she does indeed love Anthony, and asks the aforementioned dishwasher relay to Dignan this information. Unfortunately, Dignan thinks that the dishwasher is confessing his love for Anthony, and dismisses him outright.

Afterwards, Anthony decides to try living an honest life, only to find himself dragged back into another one of Dignan’s plans along with Bob, this time with a larger group and backed by the well-to-do Mr. Henry (James Caan). As Anthony and Dignan prep themselves for the heist, Dignan mentions the dishwasher’s message, and Anthony, realizing what has happened, contacts the now English-fluent Inez, and they decide to start their relationship anew. Anthony returns to the heist, and naturally everything begins to go wrong, culminating in one of the group being shot in the arm by Bob and Dignan’s arrest while he attempts to help the injured member of the team as the rest of the group flees.

Later, it is revealed that Mr. Henry robbed Bob’s house, but this has apparently brought a form of peace between Bob and his usually abusive brother. Bob and Anthony visit Dignan in prison, and after leading them on with an elaborate escape plan, reveals that he’s only joking, and comments on the irony of how he’s in jail but Anthony is no longer in the nuthouse. He then heads back into prison with a slight grin on his face.

The best part of Bottle Rocket is probably seeing the beginnings of Wes Anderson’s signature style emerging, even at this stage, his trademark camera work, writing (although half of this is Owen Wilson, a frequent collaborator) and quirky characters are all present. While some filmgoers may dismiss Anderson’s work as “pretentious” and “indie hipster trash,” it’s important to note that this type of argument is used by those who don’t understand the kind of film Anderson creates. He practically dissects his characters right in front of us, lays open their eccentricities and flaws, and takes us (and them) through situations that tend to only exacerbate their problems. We really get into the meat of the characters, we relate to them, and to put it in another way, it’s simply very human.

Some have described Bottle Rocket as their least favorite Anderson film, so I was somewhat wary. But one must keep in mind that “least favorite” does not imply in any way that the film in question wasn’t up to par, rather, that in the company of great films, being at the bottom of the totem pole isn’t a bad thing. Interestingly, at the time Bottle Rocket was made it reportedly scored the lowest of any film during a test screening at Columbia Pictures, and while I can definitively say that there are other Anderson films that I like more, I’m pleased to say that I personally found Bottle Rocket to be just as well-crafted as the director’s other offerings, and in many ways, a look at the beginnings of great things to come.

-Adam

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

A dazzling display of the talents of Wes Anderson. Inspired by a screening of Jean Renoir’s The River with Martin Scorsese and the works of Satyajit Ray and co-written by Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, The Darjeeling Limited is the tale of three brothers who reunite about a year after their father’s death in order to reconnect with each other, reunite with their absent mother and quest to find spiritual enlightenment.  It’s also a masterclass in screwball comedy, sibling rivalry and brilliant character study.

The film technically opens with the very European short “Hotel Chevalier” in which we are first introduced to one of the three titular brothers, Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and his tumultuous relationship with his ex (played by Natalie Portman) as they reunite in a French hotel room. Their relationship recalls a little Last Tango in Paris a little Bad Timing as they interrogate each other on their recent paths (he has been residing at the hotel for some time, she appears with mysterious bruises on her body). The short sucks you in with their mysterious relationship and leaves one pondering many questions. I often wonder what the correlation is between Jack wearing a full suit but bare feet and (in the final shot) his ex fully nude but wearing socks. The short features many items which will appear prominently in the feature film including a briefcase marked with the initials J.L.W., an expensive ladies’ perfume and Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To My Lovely” cued up on Jack’s iPod. The short climaxes with one of my favorite Wes Anderson moments to date. His signature slow motion shot, this one involving a nude Natalie Portman perched against an armoire as Jack crosses the room and covers her with a yellow bathrobe.

The real feature kicks off with a marvelous Wes Anderson bang. A taxicab rushes in and out of traffic. Its nervous passenger is an American businessman (Bill Murray in a nearly wordless performance). In a hilarious display of physical comedy and Murray’s prowess we watch him desperately attempt to catch a departing train and as he fails to reach the train’s rear entrance the film slow mos into Adrien Brody running along side of him and leaping aboard. He looks back, removes his sunglasses and gives a long look at the middle-aged, well-dressed and now stranded stranger. A reminiscence of his father? More on this to come.

Once aboard the train, The Darjeeling Limited, we witness the reunion of Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Schwartzman) and a brilliant chemistry of three male leads is quickly revealed. Trivia: The names of the brothers are taken from Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Jack Nicholson. We quickly learn that its been some time since these three were together: Francis sports a head bandage from a motorcycle accident, Peter has a child on the way and Jack has been living in Europe hiding from his past for nearly a year. Francis has a plan to talk to each other “like they used to” and travel India in search of a spiritual experience. Secretly he also plans to track down their mother (Anjelica Huston) who has moved to a convent somewhere in the Himalayas.

The first half of the film is absolute hilarity. The brothers clash over everything from Francis’ fake tooth, to the length of Jack’s short stories to Peter’s wearing of their father’s glasses. The quest for enlightenment falls apart in a series of events as the train gets lost (“How can a train be lost, its on rails?”), a local shoeshine boy steals one of Francis’ designer shoes, and Jack pursues the girlfriend of the train’s chief steward. The combination of non-prescription Indian painkillers, a poisonous snake and a physical fight between brothers gets the trio kicked off the train and stranded in the desert. It is at the seeming end of their relationship that their true journey begins.

Despite all of Francis’ planning and attempts to get a spiritual connection with his siblings it is not the beautiful temples of India that bring the trio together but real life itself. A horrific incident at a river brings the boys into the heart of a small Indian village and for the first time they get the connection they’ve been looking for. The reluctant father-to-be Peter is emotionally tested and the problems between the three begin to fade away. Immediately following a slow motion take of the newly bonded threesome we see a brilliant flashback of the family just before their father’s funeral that expertly displays what separated them in the first place. Its a perfectly choreographed segment and placed elegantly within the film, giving this viewer a deeper emotional response.

Anyone who writes off Wes Anderson’s films as style over substance is pure bullshit. First off anyone who complains about Anderson’s signature camera moves, framing, color palette or quirky dialogue being too similar or typical to his other films is missing the point of being a filmmaker. To direct is to be an artist and to be an artist is to have your own style. To be a great director you must have a style that is unique to you, a way of standing out from all other films. When you watch a Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg film you KNOW your watching a Tarantino or Scorsese or Spielberg film. If it wasn’t for Scorsese’s dolly shots or Spielberg’s lens flares or various other trademarks then every movie and its director would look the same. And yes Anderson pays a lot of attention to detail: the train was built specifically for the production, each plate or silverware on board is hand crafted, each wall paper designed with hand painted animal designs. But the work of cinematographer Robert Yeoman, production designer Mark Friedberg, art director Aradhana Seth and original artist Eric Chase Anderson would be all for nothing if the film wasn’t packed with lovingly written and fully fleshed out characters. If Anderson and his cronies weren’t such masters at dialogue, character development and the emotional beats of a scene and where to hit them. But they are. And if you don’t get the references to Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and Satyajit Ray’s ‘Bengal Lancer’ in the film’s climax then your just not operating on the same plane that Wes Anderson and I are.

-John