Tired old Margaret Thatcher died this week, FINALLY, and news of her death immediately made me turn my thoughts to how happy republican Irish folks (and apparently most British folks as well) would be about her passing, especially those that engaged in paramilitary activities during The Troubles. Bobby Sands and the other nine hunger strikers – Francie Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Mickey Devine – that Thatcher and her bullshit conservative politics allowed to die while in prison were the first people I thought of. All associated with the IRA (Irish Republican Army), these men wanted to be considered political, not criminal, prisoners and to have these few rights:
the right not to wear a prison uniform
the right not to do prison work
the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organize educational and recreational pursuits
the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week
full restoration of remission lost through the protest
The Republican paramilitaries’ armed struggle was a war to them. They, unlike their Unionist (pro-British) counterparts the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), all of whom were as brutal if not more than the IRA, were instead considered terrorists. When negotiations with the government for these demands failed, the men listed above began their hunger strikes, starting with Sands with each new man starting, staggering every two weeks. This film follows the brutality that the men faced while in prison at Long Kesh/HMP Maze located just southwest of Belfast as well as the documentation of Sands’ (Michael Fassbender in one of the finest performances of the new millennium) hunger strike.
McQueen‘s choices for this film are pretty ballsy. He and co-writer Enda Walsh open the film with prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), almost as if they intend to trick us into identifying with him from the outset. We see him soaking his hands in water in the sink in the bathroom, then getting dressed and leaving for work. He inspects under his car, which may confuse some people who don’t know the history of The Troubles. Lohan is looking for bombs, a tactic frequently employed by the IRA as well as the Unionist groups. And for the first ten minutes of the film, we are only privy to his point of view, what goes on in his world.
Lohan, taking a break from his “work.”
It isn’t until Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) is processed as a political prisoner that we get a sense of the violence enacted on the prisoners. As he is ushered to his cell, the shot of the bleeding, open wound on the top of his head is prominent. When we finally get a shot of Gillen’s face as he enters the feces smeared cell (the prisoners in Long Kesh were on a “dirty” protest, refusing to shower or remove their own waste from their cells), we see the blood streaming from a cut and him with an already black eye. Having been escorted by Lohan, our perception of the man the film spent the first ten minutes privileging is now changed. And it only gets worse.
Gillen and Gerry Campbell (background) on the blanket.
For the next 15 to 20 minutes, we see Long Kesh and the prisoners plight through the point of view of Gillen and his cellmate Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon) as they navigate life in prison as protestors. We see how the prisoners pass and receive information to the outside world, smuggle things into the prison (usually via women) and how they carry out their protest – wiping feces on the walls, dumping their urine into the hallways outside the cells, dumping food scraps in the corner to rot, etc. When the guards come to remove the prisoners to clean them and their cells up, we get the first taste of REAL violence and we see why Lohan was soaking his hands in the sink in the opening scene – they are bruised and scarred from beating the prisoners.
The aftermath of cleaning up the prisoners.
This depiction of violence is exceedingly visceral and as the guards hold down the prisoners, cutting their hair and trimming their beards, actually knicking the scalp and chins causing them to bleed, we see what bastards these prison guards and the policies they enforce really are. As each snip of the scissors covers the gloved hands of the guards with blood, the more we flinch. The last shot of the scene with Lohan once again soaking his bloodied knuckles in the sink, we see the bathtub used to wash the prisoner (with pushbrooms and stiff-bristled brushes against his will), water still sloshing, rust-colored from the blood. Such a haunting image.
Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands.
It is 30 minutes into the film that we finally meet the main character of this story – Bobby Sands. This is also an interesting choice by the filmmakers, but one that I think pays off. Rather than focusing on Sands from the outset, McQueen and Walsh instead focus on the struggle for rights that these men were fighting for, the absurdity of the government’s position with regards to them and the clear violation of human rights involving their treatment. To me, Sands’ entrance into the film is that much more powerful. He literally embodies the Republican movement, heart and soul, and that’s no more obvious than this scene with Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham):
This scene might be my favorite of any in any film. Rarely is it that there is a back and forth like this in film, one that, while conveying a tremendous amount of information/exposition, doesn’t take away from the film or take you out of the frame of mind that you are watching a film. If you’ve ever tried to write a script, this is one of the hardest things to keep from doing. That the scene is shot in one take is all the more impressive.
Almost as impressive is the monologue by Sands directly after this exchange:
His strength and resolve are confirmed and undeniable for what he’s about to undertake. Exceedingly powerful.
That violence begets violence is kind of a treatise in the struggle the Catholics of Ireland have with Britain. The centuries of violence, discrimination and abuse that the Irish have felt at the hands of the British only had one natural outcome – that they, too, would respond with violence. It was necessary (in my mind) and it worked, well partially. Unfortunately, these acts of violence and their outcomes cost Ireland one of its most effective leaders in Michael Collins, may he rest in everlasting peace. We see this notion play itself out in the film as well when Lohan is executed while visiting his mother at an old folks home. Sins of the father, visited upon the son.
And so it is that Sands begins his hunger strike, turning the violence that he and the IRA had directed at the British on themselves. Thatcher, the fucking nerve of her, had this to say about the hunger strikes in a speech at Stormont Castle, the seat of government in Northern Ireland:
“Faced with the failure of their discredited cause, the men of violence have chosen in recent months to play what may well be their last card. They have turned their violence against themselves through the prison hunger strike to death. They seek to work on the most basic of human emotions—pity—as a means of creating tension and stoking the fires of bitterness and hatred.”
The effects of the hunger strike on Sands.
It is this quote the leads us into the final act, where Sands’ health slowly deteriorates as his hunger strike carries on, his body withering away until it finally shuts down. That Sands was elected as a Member of Parliament during the hunger strike is not mentioned in this film, but it adds to the collection of crimes to which Thatcher is guilty – letting an elected official of the country die because she was too busy trying to emulate chief American dick at the time, Ronald Reagan. Even he negotiated with terrorists, Maggie.
Sands and the other hunger strikers, like so many Republicans before them, gave their lives to something bigger than themselves. Whether you believe in their cause or not, they had the conviction to stick to their beliefs and paid the ultimate sacrifice. I believe Fassbender gave himself over to something bigger as well in his performance of Sands and Steve McQueen as well. That an Englishman made this film, which is a searing portrait of the wrong done these men by the government of his country, speaks volumes as to how far relations have come with regards to this subject.
Hunger Strike Memorial – County Armagh
May 5 will be the 32nd anniversary of Sands‘ death. I wonder what he and the rest of the strikers would think of how the tensions have died down, that there is a power-sharing structure in place, the IRA have lain down their arms, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness have become politicians and that Catholics will very soon outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Hunger is available on a beautiful Criterion Collection DVD and it is also available to stream through Netflix. This film is devastating and haunting and I can’t recommend it enough. Steve McQueen is a talent to be reckoned with. His follow up to this film, Shame, also featuring Michael Fassbender, is as unflinching as Hunger. His newest film, Twelve Years a Slave, will be released around Christmas and stars Fassbender again, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti and a host of other top-tier talent.
Key parties, infidelity, family dysfunction, the Watergate hearings – all play a part in Ang Lee‘s The Ice Storm. A wonderful period piece which seems to encapsulate the discontent of the middle 70s, The Ice Storm covers Thanksgiving in affluent NYC suburb, New Canaan, Connecticut. Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) returns home from boarding school to encounter Watergate obsessed and sexually curious younger sister Wendy (Christina Ricci), adulterous father Ben (Kevin Kline) and a mother, Elena (Joan Allen), who senses it all slipping away.
An awkward family dinner.
Based on the novel by Rick Moody, Taiwanese director Ang Lee tackles 70s American malaise with such a deft touch. Much like the most of the country at the time, every character in this film is miserable. And when the smallest of bright spots open up for the characters, an unforeseen tragedy occurs, shaking their world at its roots. The foreboding titular ice storm threatens the characters from the outset and literally freezes them in time, making each of them take stock of their lives.
Mikey (Elijah Wood) contemplates the storm and its destructive power.
Joan Allen has always been one of my favorite actresses and her performance in this is outstanding, without a doubt my favorite of hers. The moment she figures out Ben is cheating on her is so devastatingly crushing, all told with a simple look on her face.
So, since you and your families will likely be arguing about something this holiday, why not click this perfectly crafted period piece on and have it join the party as well. It will go well with all of the tryptophan you are consuming.
With Wes Anderson‘s Moonrise Kingdom arriving on DVD this week, I thought I might as well put some thoughts down about his films leading up to this latest release. While not the largest collection of films, they represent a group either widely loved or widely dismissed for their hipster-ish quirkiness.
Here is the order I believe to be his least fine to his absolute best:
7. Moonrise Kingdom
By rating Moonrise Kingdom as my least favorite Anderson film doesn’t mean I didn’t like it or that it was a bad film. To me, it didn’t seem to fit well into his collection of work despite receiving some of the best critical reviews of his career.
The story follows young love as it blossoms between Sam (a A Khaki Scout attending camp on New Penzance Island) and Suzy (a resident of the island) despite protestations from family members and scout troop leaders forcing the two to run off together. There are some very tender moments in this film and it is one of the better and most accurate depictions of young love I’ve seen in a long time. However, this film is a good example of Anderson being able to get great actors for his films and really doing nothing with the characters, a problem he has had since The Royal Tenenbaums. I thought that TildaSwinton, while having a hilariously wonderful character name Social Services and knocking her role out of the park, was underused. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand play Suzy Bishop’s father and mother. They add a little depth to the film, but they too are underused. Criminally so. Anderson‘s landscapes are populated with interesting characters, but frequently there are too many. This film is the most egregious on that front in the Anderson universe. Also, Anderson‘s departure from using his signature final shot in slow-motion in this film bummed me out. I always looked forward to seeing how Anderson would end his films. I was let down with this one.
I would still rank this film above virtually everything being released in theaters these days. Its heart is in the right place, but when taken in context with other Anderson works, it just didn’t hit me at the level that the rest of his films did.
6. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
When I heard that Bill Murray was reuniting with Anderson to star in the leading role of thi film, I was VERY excited. Murray shines when they work together and I had very high hopes, especially with Cate Blanchett lending her incredible talent to the picture. I wasn’t disappointed either. Even though this ranks #6 on my list of Anderson‘s films, I love it dearly and it illustrates how good his films really are…at least in my estimation.
The Life Aquatic follows the story of Cousteau-like documentarian/mariner Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) as he tries to find the rare and elusive jaguar shark that killed his best friend and fellow mariner Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel). As he is about to start the mission, which is also being filmed, a man named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) introduces himself to Steve claiming to be his son. So this further strains his already tenuous relationship with his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) as well as with his crew chief Klaus (Willem Dafoe) who sees himself as the son Steve never had. Couple this with Ned having to fund the new expedition as investors have become scarce, tension mounts. As the expedition commences, the crew comes under attack by Somali pirates, robbed, and the bond company stooge (Bud Cort) present to keep the film is kidnapped initiating the crew of the Belafonte (Zissou’s ship) to take action. And all of this is being covered by pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (played by the magnificent Cate Blanchett) for a cover story for Oceanographic Explorer magazine.
The father-son angle is a little overplayed, but never tips into ridiculousville. The animation of all of the sea animals by Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) is awesome and gives a cool additional touch of detail to the film. Pelé dos Santos'(Brazilian musician Seu Jorge) renditions of David Bowie songs played throughout the film (in Portuguese no less) are fun and a typical Anderson touch whose soudntrack choices go from the amazing (Rushmore) to the overwrought (The Royal Tenenbaums).
This film was co-written with one of my all-time favorite writer-directors Noah Baumbach whose Kicking and Screaming I have highlighted before. These two are a match made in heaven. Their dialogue is second to none in contemporary film.
5. The Darjeeling Limited/Hotel Chevalier
The Darjeeling Limited is one of Anderson‘s films that I think most would put at the bottom of the list. I’ve always been curious as to why others feel that way about this film.
I will be the first to admit that this isn’t the strongest film of the group However, there is just something about it that I love. The film follows three brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) as they travel through India on a mystery trip. The three brothers haven’t spoken since the death of their father and really don’t get along all that way. Francis is hoping the trip helps them bridge the gap that has been built between making them close again. As you might expect, that isn’t the case. While all of Anderson‘s film focus on relationships, this one rings best with me. I have three siblings, all of whom I get along with very well, but I understand the problems that can crop up between them. This film is a good depiction of issues that can tear apart a family and somewhat bring them back together.
The claustrophobic nature of the titular Darjeeling Limited train that the men are traveling on helps bring conflict about quicker and with greater effect. I think this is one of the genius parts of the script and the film. After having been apart from one another for a while, being forced into the same cramped space draws out the issues each of them have with one another. How many families could survive a trip like this, even on the best of terms?
This is Anderson‘s first film shot on location outside of the country and cinematographer Robert Yeoman (who has shot every Anderson film) really captures the beauty of India showing us the exotic people and landscapes. Get this man an OSCAR. This film was co-written with Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, son of Francis Ford Coppola and represents Anderson‘s first deviation from writing by himself or with the Wilson brothers.
Hotel Chevalier is a short film that played in front of Darjeeling Limited in theaters and is the prologue to Jack’s story. Living in the Hotel Chevalier in Paris since leaving America after his father’s death, Jack gets an unexpected phone call from his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman), one that isn’t exactly welcomed. When she comes to the hotel, they start to have sex, but stop in the middle, the pain of the past gaffes in the relationship surfacing. Jack asks her if she wants to see his view of Paris (see picture above) and they retreat to the balcony, contemplating what has transpired and what may transpire between them. Watch here:
As Darjeeling Limited tells us, Jack has left this girl behind, on the run from her again. This is an interesting little film. It is typical Anderson, flush with camera moves taken directly from Luis Buñuel and employed in so many of his other films.
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Anderson‘s first foray into animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox is just that…fantastic. Based on the children’s novel by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox is the story of Mr. Fox (George Clooney), Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) are trying to live a normal life. Mr. Fox, a newspaper columnist, has lost his former spark, his zest for life, when he was an animal thief. So, on the sly, he decides to revive his old thieving habits with the help of Kylie Sven Opossum (Wallace Wolodarsky) and commences stealing from the big three farmers in the area – Boggis (Robin Hurlstone) who specializes in chicken farming, Bunce (Hugo Guinness) who specializes in duck and goose farming and Bean (Michael Gambon) who is a turkey and apple farmer. When the farmers find out that Mr. Fox is stealing from them, they decide to kill him. They lay in wait as he returns from a night mission and Mr. Fox narrowly avoids death as they blast him with shotguns shooting off the trademark of any fox, his tail. Needless to say, it hits the proverbial fan when Mrs. Fox finds out about this. Mr. Fox had sworn to never jeopardize their lives stealing after a close call when they first met as young foxes. The farmers then decide to go all-in and dig the fox out. This sets off a shockwave through the underground animal community of which Fox and his family are a part. Since the farmers are hell bent on eradicating Fox, they have no regard for the others if it means getting him. The animals lose their homes, have no food and are angry with Fox…until he initiates the heist of all heists.
This film is one of very few examples where I think the film outshines the book. Now, this is one of my favorite kids books of all-time, so that’s quite an endorsement. Anderson and Baumbach‘s additional material that didn’t appear in the book are some of the film’s strongest parts. I loved the Kristofferson (voiced by the director’s brother Eric) addition and the fleshing out of his interactions with Ash (who is merely a supporting unnamed character in the book). They are very funny and poignant. The Whackbat scene is the best inclusion of new material because it is adds to the Kristofferson-Ash rivalry, but also encompasses all that is really Wes Anderson‘s quirkiness. Have a look – pardon the bad video quality, but it’s the only full clip I could find:
Another detail I appreciated was the substitution of “cuss” where actual curse words would be. Mr. Fox’s usage of clustercuss makes me smile every time I hear it.
The top-notch voice cast helps add to enjoyment of the film, and it is chock full of Anderson, but also features folks like Darjeeling script co-writer Roman Coppola, revered Italian-American chef Mario Batali, and former MTV VJ Karen Duffy thus adding to the eclecticism of his films.
Once again, I dearly love this film and it is one that I will show my children, gladly, when they get just a little older.
3. The Royal Tenenbaums
The Royal Tenebaums is perhaps Anderson‘s most serious film. All of his films tackle depression and alienation, but this one has it in spades. It’s also the first film to really feature an all-star ensemble cast, something that Anderson has kept up in each of his films since.
The Royal Tenenbaums focuses on the Tenenbaum family, headed by lawyer and patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman in arguably his best role since the French Connection) and matriarch/archaeologist Etheline (Anjelica Huston) and their three children – Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson) and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). All three children had above average aptitudes in their own areas – Chas in international finance, Richie (“The Baumer”) in tennis and Margot in dramaturgy. Etheline wrote a book about them making them famous and simultaneously synonymous with being a prodigy. However, as time went on, each of them with exception of Etheline has their own downfall: Margot wilts under criticism for her work, drops out and marries stiff psychologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), Richie falls in love with Margot (who is his adopted sister) and after she marries Raleigh has a breakdown on the court costing him (and Royal) money and fame, Chas loses his wife in a plane crash and becomes obsessed with the safety of him and his children, and Royal is disbarred and jailed for tax evasion and sued twice by Chas. So after giving us this story (narrated masterfully by Alec Baldwin), the film gains traction as it chronicles the contemporary Tenenbaums.
Royal fakes like he has stomach cancer in order to gain back time and trust from his children and Etheline. All bite on the bait except for Chas, who still remains skeptical of his father and his intentions. During this time, Royal finally gets the chance to know his family in a way that he never had. He meets and spends time with Chas’ two sons Ari and Uzi, makes peace with Margot since he was critical of her always making sure to point out that she was his adopted daughter, and bonds with Richie, who is the only one who shows real compassion toward Royal.
Of course, it all blows up as Royal is found out to be faking it by Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), Etheline’s new fiancee. Royal, in addition to reconnecting with his kids, was trying to rekindle the fire with Etheline. In one of the funniest exchanges in any Anderson film, Henry and Royal have this back and forth, which is enough reason to watch the entire film:
Margot’s relationship with Tenenbaum-wannabe and best friend to Richie, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) tips Richie over the edge in the most somber and serious scene in any Anderson film. Richie is still in love with Margot and the news of her affair causes Richie to attempt suicide. Here is the clip (not for the faint at heart):
That this sequence has Elliot Smith‘s “Needle in the Hay” playing over it is extremely prescient in that Mr. Smith himself committed suicide in 2003.
This film has much to like about it. The cast, despite Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow (both of whom have very limited range or utility to me in any film), shine. Gene Hackman, like Bill Murray in Rushmore, delivered an Oscar-worthy performance and one of the best of his career. The quirkiness that Anderson started in Rushmore is amped up in this film x100 and to great effect. Have a look at one of artist Miguel Calderon‘s paintings featured in Eli Cash’s apartment:
It is details like these that separate Anderson from most contemporary filmmakers. I will admit that Anderson tries too hard in certain aspects of his films to make them “cool” and the soundtrack to this film fits that bill. Whereas the Rushmore soundtrack complemented the film, the soundtrack for this film seemed to be populated with songs that were cool rather than serving a purpose to advance or enhance the story. I will say that Mark Mothersbaugh‘s score is just as lovely as that of Rushmore, though.
Nevertheless, this is a movie that has all of the hallmarks of a great film. Check it out if you haven’t.
2. Bottle Rocket
Bottle Rocket is Anderson‘s first film, the one that got it all started. It was my first introduction to Anderson and the Wilson brothers. It was one of those transformative experiences when you realize that all of the big budget glitz, in almost every case, can’t match a well-written story that highlights interesting characters in challenging, humorous situations. No egos get in the way in this film since everyone involved, with exception of James Caan, are virtual unknowns at the time this film was made. This is a film with edges, unpolished in places, but is better off for it.
Bottle Rocket is an almost Capra-esque, slapsticky version of a crime film. It is one that has a heart and, unlike films like The Godfather, you end up sympathizing with criminals that have earned that sympathy.
The story of this film follows Dignan (Owen Wilson), a wannabe criminal who “breaks” his best friend Anthony (Luke Wilson) out of a mental health facility (which Anthony checked himself into voluntarily) so that they could start a crew of guys to work with local crime boss Mr. Henry (James Caan). Dignan prepares a 50-year plan, which is carefully sketched out in marker in a spiral-bound notebook. With Anthony in, they only need a getaway driver and they enlist the help of their friend Bob (Robert Musgrave). Here’s his interview, which really gives you an idea of who Dignan is:
After getting the crew set, they rob a bookstore to get Mr. Henry interested in what they have to offer his operation. While on the lam (“On the run from Johnny Law…ain’t no trip to Cleveland”), Anthony meets housekeeper Inez (Lumi Cavazos) at the hotel where they are staying and falls in love with her. Their relationship blossoms over the few days, annoying Dignan who believes this will interfere with his long-term plan. Things are really thrown off when Bob’s brother Future Man (played by a third Wilson brother, Andrew) is arrested and Bob deserts Anthony and Dignan causing a rift between the two that appears unbreachable.
After all settles down, the three men come back together to pull off a large-scale caper with Dignan at the helm. And just when we think Dignan is going to get the payoff for his hard work…
Bottle Rocket was actually shot as a short film before being turned into the feature-length film. Of course it’s different, but it’s good to see where the film started and to see its evolution. You can watch the short here:
Future Man is without a doubt my favorite character name of any movie character. It is so incredible. I only wish I had crafted such a character myself. And one of the great triumphs of this film is when Future Man meets Mr. Henry. Absolutely hilarious. It’s so hard not to root for Dignan throughout this film. He is so dedicated to his preparation and work, that you just want to see him succeed.
Finally, this film’s ending is one of the most devastating things I’ve ever seen. That it’s shot in slow motion, an Anderson trademark up to Moonrise Kingdom, is key. We are forced to linger in Dignan’s realization of his future and it is painful.
This film is as good as any first feature I’ve ever seen. Anderson started off with a bang, no doubt.
In comparison to Bottle Rocket, Rushmore is a polished film without the edges that Anderson‘s first feature has. With an increased dose of eccentricity, at least on the part of the main character, Max Fischer (so ably brought to life by Coppola family member JasonSchwartzman in his first film role), Rushmore sails. The story of Rushmore follows Max as he attends Rushmore Academy, a private school for children of the local and international elite. Max’s father (Seymour Cassel) is a barber and normally wouldn’t be able attend; however, when he was young, Max wrote a one-act play about Watergate that netted him a scholarship to the topflight academic institution. Max takes his involvement at Rushmore very seriously, enlisting himself in a plethora of clubs and activities and largely ignoring his studies, eventually finding himself on sudden death academic probation and facing expulsion. In the meantime, he befriends local steel magnate and father to twin classmates, Herman Blume, played by Bill Murray in what I believe is his finest performance. Herman takes Max under his wing and as they both fall for widowed Rushmore teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), tensions and rivalries get the better of them.
There are plenty of reason this is my favorite film of Anderson‘s. Bill Murray‘s performance is certainly one of them. His malaise and apathy towards his life is refreshing. Murray, for the bulk of his career, has always played such self-assured, confident characters. His turn as Bob Harris in Lost in Translation changed all of that and I think we as moviegoers are better for it. His collaboration with Anderson has been hit or miss, though. His supporting roles have been throwaways, which is a shame since he clearly shines in his work with Anderson.
The explosive debut of Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer is another. While his work outside of his collaboration with Anderson hasn’t been as strong (Bored to Death is pretty damn awesome), he clearly works well within the Andersonsystem. Max Fischer is not your typical high school character and Schwartzman brings him to life in memorable fashion. It would be hard to imagine anyone else in that role or any of the subsequent roles he’s played in with Anderson at the helm. When watching Rushmore, I find that I want to be Fischer, even though he has issues. To be dedicated to anything as much as he is to Rushmore is enviable. Here is a short example of who Max is:
Without the likeability that Schwartzman brings to the role, I doubt that would be the case. Imagine if someone like Shia LeBeouf were cast? Sweet Jesus in a dump truck. He couldn’t get away with something like this:
I would measure Rushmore‘s soundtrack against any other in an argument about which might be best. Anderson‘s nearly all-British Invasion track list is a sonic tour de force that stands on its own as a killer mixed CD. When coupled with the film, it’s a knockout. Is there a song better than “Nothing In This World Can Stop Me Worryin’ Bout That Girl” by the Kinks that could have been played during Herman Blume’s sons’ birthday party as he jumps into the pool? I doubt it. In the clip above introducing Max Fischer, Creation’s “Makin’ Time” is the perfect accompaniment. The good thing about the songs used on the soundtrack is that they aren’t this big hits of any of the bands, with the exception perhaps of “Ooh La La” by The Faces.
And this film has my favorite ending to any movie I’ve ever seen and the bulk of the reason for that is the usage of said The Faces song. Growing up, my father played Ooh La La the album a lot. Many good memories are attached to listening to this song and playing with the album cover (yes, we listened to it on vinyl) – the mouth opened and the eyes went from side to side when you pushed the top of it. So when Ruben, the DJ at the cotillion, spins it and the first guitar chord hit I was already in love. As the camera pulls back to capture Max and Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) enter the dance floor, Anderson employs his signature move of having the final scene of each of his films in slow motion. The song coupled with this technique is so perfect. For the first time, we see all of the major players of the film – Max, Blume, Miss Cross, Max’s father, Max’s new girlfriend Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka), best friend Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble) and even headmaster Nelson Guggenheim (Brian Cox) – in the same frame, happy. By using slow motion, Anderson allows us to linger in this moment with the characters, to leave behind the viciousness with which the characters set upon one another leading up to this point and creates one of the most cathartic film moments I’ve ever witnessed. Part of me wishes it lasted the entire song.
So that’s that. If you had to rate your favorite Wes Anderson film, what would yours be? Click it below!
Confession time: when I sat down to watch “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” I had never even heard of the man. I know, I know. Three Nobel Prize nominations, 35 novels, 25 plays, 8 volumes of essays and 200 short stories are nothing to sneeze at. As a literature major I should know better. Plus his name is bound to show up in “Trivial Pursuit” or “Jeopardy” eventually.
Perhaps Yukio Mishima’s focus on ever-decaying beauty, along with a protective grandmother, helped create the self-destructive obsession that Mishima would eventually embrace to the fullest extent.
To be honest I was drawn to “Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters” mostly because I am a bit of a Philip Glass dork. It turns out there is a lot more going on in this movie than I anticipated. I learned that Mishima, possibly Japan’s most celebrated author, walked the walk in a way that few artists ever have.
The film itself presents as a patchwork of color-coded vignettes. Black and white scenes illustrate four of the author’s most significant life experiences. Sequences depicting four of Mishima’s novels disperse the action in brilliant color and provide further insight into the author’s views on sexuality, self-destruction, tradition and aesthetics.
Sounds like a pretty standard artist biopic, right? Let’s see: a weird childhood? Check. Some disappointment and a tormented psyche? Check. This film could easily fall into the same narrative rut that imprisons films about Pollack, Basquiat and seemingly every other tormented artist.
Ken Ogata as Mishima: “Hold still, just a little pin prick”
I was pleasantly surprised when “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” went in a refreshing new direction. Mishima doesn’t perceive himself as a victim. His true desire is merely to either write or do something meaningful and beautiful. It is in fact this duality, the duality of the written word and the physical world that defined Mishima.
“Words are a medium that reduces reality to abstraction for transmission to our reason, and in their power to corrode reality inevitably lurks the danger that the words will be corroded too,” Mishima once wrote.
Director Paul Schrader’s execution isn’t really anything to write home about. Most of the visual highlights of the film predictably occur when Mishima’s novels come to life. These scenes take place in a dreamscape of stage sets, giving a nod to the author’s intimate involvement with the theater as a writer, director and performer. The soundtrack stands out, but it is probably among the most mainstream and least avant-garde of Glass’s soundtracks. Most of the most poetic moments of the script borrowed directly from the author’s own venerable canon.
What really fascinates is the exploration of Mishima’s philosophy. Mishima challenged established norms while at the same time fervently embracing Japan’s rigid imperial heritage. He was as obsessed with perfecting his physical form as he was his poetry. When working with the written word, Mishima could feel like a god that could move mountains. Yet those words became impotent the instant they joined physical reality through utterance.
“Is that a hose in your mouth or are you just happy to see me?”
As Mishima says in the film, “all my life I have been acutely aware of a contradiction in the very nature of my existence. For forty-five years I struggled to resolve this dilemma by writing plays and novels. The more I wrote, the more I realized mere words were not enough. So I found another form of expression.”
Boy, did he ever. What made Mishima’s final piece of (for lack of a better term) performance art so unique is that he did it to satisfy a personal aesthetic. Critical reaction and commercial success obviously had nothing to do with his thought process at that time. Mishima’s final statement is just about as honest as art can be.
Yukio Mishima encourages troops to embrace their Japanese-ness
After his famous speech to the army garrison, the real-life Mishima was rumored to have come inside and commented “I don’t think they even heard me.” What Mishima did next was surely louder than any words he could have uttered.
As per usual, the Criterion Collection edition of this film is incredible. With an extra disc of special features, there is plenty to peruse about the film and Mishima himself, most notably The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima, a 55-minute BBC documentary about the author. And if Donald Richie is involved, you know it’s top notch. Schrader himself said, “Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie.”
The Criterion Collection is a company that releases some of the best films ever produced, contemporary and classic, for home exhibition on DVD and Blu-Ray. Their mission is dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions of the highest technical quality, with supplemental features that enhance the appreciation of the art of film.
This series will focus on why Criterion releases are great and my perception of those traits that make each film great.
First thing’s first – this is not a post about the terribly unfunny Will Ferrell soccer movie. The executives who greenlit it should be fired and everyone else associated with it should be forced into retirement. Let it never be confused with the following.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s get on with it.
Kicking and Screaming is one the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. After watching it, it was clear that writer-director Noah Baumbach was the heir apparent to Whit Stillman, something I gladly welcomed as his films Barcelona and Metropolitan were faves of mine when I first watched Kicking and Screaming. I think the reason this film resonates so well with me is that I was in the exact same position as the characters in the film at the exact same time in their lives. The basic premise of the film centers around four friends – Grover (played by Josh Hamilton), Max (played by Chris Eigeman), Otis (Carlos Jacott) and Skippy (Jason Wiles) – who remain in their college town after graduation trying to figure out what to do with their lives. They feel like they are too old to hang out with the college kids and too young to choose the final path of their lives. We are all fortunate that the Criterion Collection rescued this film from oblivion, anointing it as one of the important contemporary films that they rarely included at the time. This films is now housed in a collection alongside some of the greatest films ever produced, and in my opinion, rightfully so. It is a strong first film by Baumbach and it is one of my all-time favorite films.
And here are five reason why it rules:
Ding! Monkeys, Monkeys, Ted & Alice! (from left to right – Otis, Max, Grover and Skippy)
5) Banter – Realistic dialogue for college age characters is rarely realized. It is frequently too clever for its own good and this is one area that Kicking and Screaming excels. The conversations between the friends are easily imaginable for me because I seem to have had many similar ones with my own friends. When Skippy throws out ideas as to what they should call their group of friends, Cougars or Hawks (“something that won’t sound so stupid, look good on a satin jacket…something tough. Cougars?”), I couldn’t help but to lose it. Just a priceless moment and indicative of the dialogue throughout the film. This is the tip of the iceberg as I believe this film to be as quotable as any film out there. A nod given directly to Noah Baumbach for writing a wonderful, timely film. I wish Hollywood would take more looks at scripts like this one rather than adaptations of the latest teen novel or the 44th sequel in a transforming robot series.
I like a bartender who drinks. Otherwise I feel like I’m being poisoned.
4) Chet the bartender – As told in the series of interviews/documentary included in the extras on this DVD, Noah Baumbach states that he wrote the character of Chet into the film so that Eric Stoltz’s participation could help secure the financing to make it. And even though he was a late addition, Chet actually adds to the chemistry of the film in that he gives us a reminder of the liberal arts/college town mentality and environment that the four friends are occupying and from which they are trying to break free. Chet is a man who has given his life to being a student, 10 years dedicated to his studies. When asked if he is planning on leaving the college town, he answers, “Why would I leave here?” and later on says, “Some people need to have a real career, which is something that I’ve never understood…you know, why someone would want to be a vet or a lawyer or a filmmaker. I’m paraphrasing myself here, but I am a student and that’s what I chose. You might need to choose something else, and that’s…” Chet, as is to be expected, is the sage in the film, dispensing advice even to those who don’t ask for it. “If Plato is a fine red wine, then Aristotle is a dry martini” he tells a nameless townie drinker who could care less about philosophy. How can you not love this character?
Mark it 8, Dude.
3) Inclusion of Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Braver, Newer World” on the soundtrack – Most people probably wouldn’t know Jimmie Dale Gilmore‘s name if they heard it, and likely wouldn’t know his music either. However, most would know him as Smokey, the bowling pacifist on which Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) pulls a piece in The Big Lebowski. The song is the perfect accompaniment to the predicament that each of these characters is in, afraid of tackling the braver, newer world that is out there before them. That the song is featured in a flashback makes it all the better because Grover is wooing Jane (Olivia d’Abo), talking about how they wish they were old and retired and reflecting back on a lifetime together, the song is giving them the blueprint to enjoy the now, highlighting the fact they are missing all of the amazing things that are out there to experience. That Grover is afraid to travel to Prague with Jane as she studies writing after graduation makes the appearance of this song all the more powerful. I had never heard this song anywhere before seeing this film, but it stuck with me from the first time I watched it and has been a regular play on mixed CDs and my iPod ever since even though I have a strong distaste for anything music that is remotely country in flavor. That is the power this song has in this film and in the moment it is used. Very crafty of Mr. Baumbach.
Oh my God. Jesus. Look at this, there’s like…food in here.
2) Food in the beer scene – writers take note because this a great character development moment. As Otis is delivered a beer with some type of food floating in it, we see who he really is. Even though his tentativeness is hinted at in the first scene we are introduced to him (“I can’t do the things other big guys can do”), here is where we see Otis’ true colors. The waitress delivers Otis a beer that clearly has a large chunk of something floating in it. Even though he is disgusted by it (“It’s like a piece of chicken wing or a cheese fry. I mean look at this!”) and against the urging of Grover, Otis refuses to return the beer. He says, “I don’t want to bother her, she seems a little distant…I want her to like me. I like it better this way.” Otis is still negotiating his position in the town hierarchy and rather than disrupt the status quo, he is willing to accept this less than acceptable item. This speaks volumes about his character and this plays out handsomely later on in the film. The fact that Otis actually drinks the beer, taking the piece of mystery food into his mouth rather than removing it from the beer prior to drinking it may speak even louder. Otis is the best character in this film, hands down. You can see many of his finest moments here.
Okay, Mr. Book Club!
1) Chris Eigeman – Mr. Eigeman’s spot-on portrayal of the surly Max Belmont is basically a redux of his roles in the aforementioned Whit Stillman films Metropolitan and specifically as Fred Boynton in Barcelona. The essence of Fred is channeled into the Max role and is best shown when reprimanding Otis for his many social indiscretions or chastising Chet for being smug. I could literally watch Eigeman play this same role in a hundred films because he does it so well. As he said in Barcelona after arriving unexpectedly at his cousin’s house and being told that guests, like fish, begin to stink on the third day, he replied, “I think you’ll find that I begin to stink on the first day.” And this carries over to his his role as Max. It’s a wonder that he is friends with any of the others as they really don’t seem to have much in common with Max, who apparently has wealthy parents whereas the rest of the group are either townies or come from less well-to-do families. Grover points out that, “Since graduation, I’m poor, you’re rich. We are no longer equals.” Max doesn’t do anything except crosswords and drink 40s of Colt .45. He too is awash in the aimlessness and apathy that has also gripped the others. So perhaps it’s here that they find common ground, that this affliction knows no boundaries, especially economic ones. Even though this character’s attitude is familiar space to Eigeman, he nonetheless knocks it out of the park and perhaps is this film’s greatest attribute.
Parkey Posey as Miami
While these five aspects of Kicking and Screaming represent what I think is best of this film, I would be remiss not to mention the contributions that both of the lead female characters/actresses add to it. Call them honorable mentions, if you will. Parker Posey, who plays Skippy’s girlfriend Miami, is as good in this as she is in anything. She is the consummate indie actress and it shows in this film. When she and Skippy are talking about her cheating on him and she describes what she doesn’t like about him – WOW. Hard to top.
Olivia D’abo as Jane.
Jane, played by Olivia d’Abo, delivers one of my favorite lines in the entire film about paying people for wasting their time when she says something stupid. I have tried to hold other people accountable in this same way in the years since seeing this.
So I urge any who have not seen this film to go watch it. Now. What are you waiting for? It’s too good to not be seen by any and all. Grab the Criterion DVD and poke around in the extra features. Hell, even the cover is clever. This is as good as it gets, folks.
The Criterion Collection, perhaps the finest of the boutique DVD distribution companies out there, announced their December titles today, and boy did they outdo themselves.
The much requested Terry Gilliam film Brazil finds itself onto blu-ray. If you follow Criterion on Facebook, you’ll know this is a title that Criterionphiles have flooded their page with desperate pleas for a blu release. Finally those folks will be silenced. Not a fan of the blu-ray format myself – I think the films look like cheap British soap operas and they tend to give me motion sickness. I might be one of the few people out there who isn’t concerned with making a move to HD for my films.
It was also announced that Christopher Nolan’s first feature, Following, will also finally see it’s release. Following was one of the first films expected for future release after Criterion and IFC Films announced a partnership three years ago. It along with Y Tu Mamá Tambiénwere the remaining two in that initial deal who hadn’t been released. I guess the fans of the Alfonso Cuarón film will have to remain content with his other Criterion release, Sólo con tu pareja for now.
Perhaps the most exciting of the releases is Godfrey Reggio’s The QatsiTrilogy – Koyaanisqasti, Powaqqatsiand Noqoyqatsi– which had been given away as a hint in last month’s Criterion newsletter. These films are “immersive sensory experiences that meditate on the havoc humankind’s fascination with technology has wreaked on our world.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. The films features insane scores by minimalist composer Philip Glass, whose works has been featured in the films of documentary extraordinaire, Errol Morris.
Lastly, we get René Clément‘s Purple Noon, a film I certainly didn’t expect, at least not now. This film appears on Criterion’s Hulu Plus channel, which has been a repository of most of the films they’ve released on DVD already as well as all of the films for which they holds rights but have yet to produce for sale to consumers. While I haven’t seen this film, I am very excited about it. A culture vulture like Tim Canterbury from the original Office, I love the work of Alain Delon whose performance as cool hitman Jef in Le Samouraï stands as one of my all-time favorite performances.
Quite a month of announcements from the good folks at Criterion, as good as any month in recent memory and quite a bit more than we have come to expect for December. So now there are 105K+ Criterionphiles out there who now know what they’ll be getting for Christmas. Well played, Criterion.