Archive for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

I see France

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2021 by dcairns

I thought I was going to miss THE FRENCH DISPATCH out of sluggishness but had a morning class at the Art College, filling in for someone else, so I dropped in on a matinee at the Cameo, where I hadn’t been since before Covid I guess.

This might not be a very interesting piece — the movie is a mixed bag, like everyone says. The short bits are OK, short enough not to be a problem, though when the movie attempts to do gags I found it unfunny in a way that hurt it — Owen Wilson crashing his moped was never amusing, always mistimed, and too CGI-fake to have slapstick appeal. When the movie is merely quirky it’s funny enough.

The three main chunks are: Benicio Del Toro as a criminally insane artist, in which Del Toro is droll, Lea Seydoux has the same daunting self-assurance I sensed when I met her at Telluride, and Adrien Brody is very, very good. Bonus Bob Balaban and Henry Winkler, Tilda Swinton (well-observed caricature, easier to take than her SNOWPIERCER grotesque); student riots with Timothee Chalomet and Frances McDormand, the long pointless episode everyone complains about; Jeffrey Wright as Wesworld’s answer to James Baldwin, profiling gourmand detective Mathieu Amalric and his chef, Steve Park — prime Wes Anderson, if you like Wes Anderson.

Anderson, asked about political content in his films, has said it might be nice to do politics the way DUNE does politics — imaginary politics. His films are hermetically sealed miniatures but increasingly detailed exercises in worldbuilding, so this makes a kind of sense — allowing the worlds to expand into the political sphere, but not letting in the oxygen of reality, which he perhaps would fade everything away like the fresh air corroding the unsealed frescos of Fellini’s ROMA. The problem with this is that DUNE has no real politics, it’s just a choice of dictators, benign or malign. Factions, not politics. The first stab at this in Anderson’s oeuvre, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, actually worked and was even moving, because the substitution of a Chaplinesque equivalent for Nazism was quite fitting — REAL fascism WOULD corrode a Wes joint, would be too toxic and acid, the paper-thin pretence of the ZZ initial instead of swastikas allows just enough distance from pain and tragedy for the comic-opera tone to take root.

But in THE FRENCH DISPATCH the denatured student riots are rendered silly, trivial and meaningless, and so is the episode. And, frankly, the behaviour of the French police has been fascistic enough during the historical period covered, that they might need a fictional alibi too. They work better in the third episode, where what holds it together is the amusing crime story, the really excellent perfs, the genuine emotion. Wright proves a transfiguring addition to the Wesverse — he doesn’t do a straight impersonation of Baldwin, which might be rather insulting, but works with a different timbre altogether, maybe a touch of Orson Welles? Just really pleasurable to watch. But Baldwin, as I understand his work, was concerned with the world, and making him a food critic in a dollhouse world is definitely robbing him of a lot. Maybe the experiment is to see how much that’s powerful is left when you do that. The “disputed passage” which Wright’s character cuts from his piece and Bill Murray’s editor reinstates, a beautiful scene played with Park (and it’s very encouraging to see that both actors are to return in Anderson’s next film), becomes, as Murray says, “the reason for writing it.” That kind of reason has sometimes seemed absent in W.A.’s precious productions. He’s wary of emotion (the French Dispatch’s office bears a No Crying sign), commitment, commentary — which makes the subject of journalism maybe an oddball, unpromising choice for him.

While the nested narratives of BUDAPEST worked well for his style, the discrete boxes of DISPATCH seem to overemphasise the airlessness and anxiety about meaning. And Anderson is perhaps not quite a brilliant enough writer to pastiche the varied literary styles he’s looking at: the narrators mostly sound the same. His nods to Tati and Tardi don’t quite get there either — Hulot’s house from MON ONCLE is reconstructed practically brick by brick, and just feels like plagiarism, and the animated section is fun but the artists can’t ink with Tardi’s wondrous fluidity — everything is clenched. (Just read that the actual inspiration was Tintin and Blake & Mortimer — the latter explains the stiffness.)

But the good bits are great. And, while Anderson repeats himself — he did better Tati pastiche in his little ad films — we get another cutaway diagram of a vessel, as in THE LIFE AQUATIC — he’s still adding to his toybox. I counted the following new elements: the varied aspect ratios of BUDAPEST are enhanced by b&w sections; tableaux vivants (which the classic Anderson shot is always verging towards anyway); theatrical lighting changes; the aforementioned animation insert, supposed to evoke a bandes dessinées version of the true events; more non-white faces than previous Andersons.

If I sound picky, it’s because Anderson’s work is very irresistible, except when it’s irresistible (as in, for me, for instance, MOONRISE KINGDOM, ISLE OF DOGS). This one didn’t wholly overcome my defences.

THE FRENCH DISPATCH stars Dr. Gonzo; Wladyslaw Szpilman; The Ancient One; Sabine Moreau; Marge Gunderson; Paul Atreides; Constance Bonacieux; Felix Leiter; Serge X.; Peter Venkman; Coy Harlingen; Orr; Principal Arthur Himbry; Partita Dupea; Zero; Dr. Astrov; Dr. King Schultz; Chéri; Cotton Weary; Max Schreck; Sheldon Mopes / Smoochy the Rhino; Lady Bird McPherson; Kitty Tyler / Dahlia; Gag Halfrunt (uncredited); Rock Bork; Jack Goodman; and the voice of Morticia Addams.

The Furry

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2009 by dcairns

fantastic-mr-fox-3

Wes Anderson’s FANTASTIC MR FOX is as good as they say. Not only a free-yet-faithful adaptation of the Roald Dahl source, but a very satisfying Wes Anderson film, with all the trademarks (dysfunctional extended families, flat compositions, “offbeat2 comedy, a created world at several removes from our own). And in fact it’s Anderson’s best film for some time. His irritating tendency to undermine any credible emotional development — seen at it’s worst in THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, where Bill Murray spends the whole film slowly engaging with his son, reaches an apparently genuine tragic crisis, then pisses it all away for the sake of a cheap joke — is suspended here, maybe because it’s a kids’ film.

I have to admit to some inconsistency here. When I saw the first TOY STORY, what I admired most about it was the way it delivered the emotional requirements of a dramatic story without stopping being funny. For instance, Buzz Lightyear’s traumatic realization that he is, after all, only a toy, is comedically undercut by the TV ad that’s responsible for the revelation. The toy Buzz is pictured jetting through the air, and a caption superimposed beneath reads “Does not fly.” This is both cruelly funny and oddly moving.

On the other hand TOY STORY II departed from this approach with the heartrending song “When She Needed Me,” which is totally serious and utterly affecting, no ironic underlay required. Both techniques are valid.

I think what had been bugging me in Anderson’s films is that they were, at base, always all about emotions, but the filmmaker seemed embarrassed by the idea of resolving emotional knots, committing himself to a view of the behaviour he presented, or allowing the characters to grow and face their difficulties (full disclosure: still haven’t seen THE DARJEELING LTD). The very real problem to be faced by the maker of comedy-drama being that characters are funny when they have blind spots and stubborn areas where they cannot adapt to circumstance — they insist on being themselves at the very times they should change. And that change, very welcome in a drama, kills the laughter. So there typically is a problem to solve — some comedies successfully do without any character arc, generating laughs from the inflexibility of a character, but such films must be about something other than emotions — there must be plot. And Anderson’s stories tend to be character-driven, so there’s a requirement to deliver some kind of redemptive change or realisation, but can that be made funny? Well, if it happens late enough in the story, maybe it doesn’t have to be funny…

George Clooney is a magnificent Mr Fox, capitalizing on that air of self-satisfaction that can be his undoing in buddy fluff like the OCEAN’S films. We expect George Clooney to be glad he’s George Clooney, anything less would be ungrateful and strange, but he has to modulate away from smugness. Here, Mr Fox’s total self-belief and amoral opportunism are the very character flaws that are addressed in the adventure, so Clooney’s casting is a triump, using to the full his skills as light comedian, even if he’s apparently present only as a voice (we know that’s really him under the fur, amid the stuffing, within the puppet armature, somewhere in there). And pairing him romantically with Meryl Streep is delightful, and the kind of thing which, sadly, might be deemed impossible in a live-action film.

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I love the way the long-shots make everything look like crap toys, too. Anderson’s Keatonesque flatness is finally used to serve up visual gags, as it always should’ve been, and his penchant for designing alternative universes is taken to a new extreme in a film where even the landscapes are unreal.

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If some of these stills have the quality of roadkill taxidermy, it’s because they lack the alchemy of animation and voice-work. The cast, featuring several of Anderson’s usual gang (Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson) underplay in the usual Anderson manner, creating a feeling quite atypical to the world of the animated film, and it all works marvelously. And Michael Gambon, as the No. 1 villainous human, gets to apply his characterisation from THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER to a puppet seemingly modeled on Rupert Murdoch (with a wife who looks not unlike Camilla Parker-Bowles).

Now, since there’s no real way to type the finger-point, whistle and click-click which is Mr. Fox’s trademark, you’ll just have to use your imaginations.