In this episode we’re going to be talking about one of our favourite film-makers, the director, writer and producer Wes Anderson, darling of The Criterion Collection, whose distinctive style has led to him being considered something of a Marmite director, i.e. people tend to love him or hate him, with seemingly little middle ground.
Anderson, born in Houston, Texas in 1969, has nine feature films to his name (all of which we will be talking about in this episode), and with his aforementioned distinctive style, both in narrative and visual terms, along with his frequent collaboration with the same cast and crew and the fact that he has written, or co-written all of his features, and produced all but one of them, is widely considered to be a modern example of auteur theory. Certainly his films have a characteristic style, and if you took any given scene from one of his films you could have a reasonable degree of confidence that, on showing it to someone familiar with at least some of his work, it would be readily identified as, at the very least, Anderson-esque.
He is noted for his symmetrical composition, restricted colour palettes, and his themes of familial conflict, grief, friendship and parenthood, especially fatherhood (Anderson may want to quote Tom Cruise’s Lt. Kaffee in A Few Good Men and say, “Oh, spare me the psychobabble father bullshit”, but it’s very difficult to deny), as well as quirky and eccentric characters and dialogue and a lot of humour. His work has also been described by many, including me, as whimsical, another potentially polarising trait in entertainment media, and one that can succeed when it is done by someone to whom it comes naturally (Anderson), or fail utterly when it is forced (for example, the painfully unenjoyable, try-hard PlayStation 3 video game Puppeteer).
So, I suppose we should begin talking about the films, huh?
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Bottle Rocket, based on a short film of the same name from a few years before, with the same cast and similar story, begins in a mental health facility, though one that seems to bear considerably more resemblance to some sort of resort, full of young and beautiful people, than a medical institution. Here we meet our heroes, Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen Wilson), who are about to leave. Not by the front door, though, though that option is open to them, but out of the window and over the wall because, despite this being a voluntary facility, Dignan has his heart set on a daring escape.
Dignan also has a (meticulously, if naively, constructed) 75 year plan for their future, which begins with becoming criminals, going on the lam, through various more stages before going straight and creating legitimate businesses. While Anthony is depressive and struggles to see where he fits into the world, Dignan is more of a dreamer who prefers not to let such petty considerations as reality get in the way.
After recruiting their friend, Bob (Robert Musgrave) – key characteristic: has a car – to join their crew, they rob a bookshop and skedaddle, holing up in a motel elsewhere in Texas. There Anthony meets immigrant maid Inez (“What part of Mexico are you from? Paraguay.”) and falls in love. This disrupts Anthony and Dignan’s plans and threatens to damage their friendship, and indeed the two separate for a while, before reuniting to work a “real” job for a very real criminal in the form of James Caan’s Mr. Henry.
Though Rushmore had been in the works for years before this, Bottle Rocket was Wes Anderson’s feature debut and, though it received critical acclaim, flopped commercially and could well have ended his career. It certainly nearly ended Owen Wilson’s, who was so disheartened by the failure that he reportedly nearly gave up on acting to join the Marines, and that would have been a pity for so many reasons, most particularly because of his frequent collaborations with Anderson. It also would have been a shame because this is a good film. (As an aside, I wonder how much harm was done to this sweet and good-natured comedy by a harsh 15 rating here, and an R in the US, both of which seem entirely unnecessary. Though perhaps I will save another rant on the idiocies of rating systems which punish bad language more harshly than violence for another day. I’m sure you could all stand to wait.)
Bottle Rocket, though it only runs to 91 minutes, has a low-key, meandering nature that plays to the strengths of its Texas setting, its cast (it is quite a gift that Owen Wilson has that means that he can do meandering at the same time as his trademark energetic, slightly manic “isn’t everything amazing?” style) and its plot, where nothing much happens because the characters want to do only as much as they need to in order to do as little as they can. It has some, though not a lot, of the trademark style that would define Anderson’s work in the future, but you can see its beginnings here.
Where Bottle Rocket could suffer, I think, for some viewers is that it is so clearly dependent on real life, by which I mean the shared history and friendships of co-writers Anderson and Owen Wilson, and their families. It relies on the camaraderie between the Wilson brothers (older brother Andrew is also present as Bob’s sibling, Future Man), and the friendship and understanding between Owen and Wes Anderson: the two met while they were both studying at the University of Texas at Austin, and they lived together, along with the two other Wilson brothers and lifelong friend Robert Musgrave, in a Dallas apartment.
But what this produced is easily watchable performances and some excellent, witty and very funny dialogue, as well as the origins of the style and composition which has come to define Anderson’s work: Bottle Rocket marked Anderson’s first collaboration, and perhaps the most important regular collaboration he has had, even more so than Bill Murray or Owen Wilson, with cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman. Anderson and Yeoman worked so well together and had such a mutual understanding that Yeoman has been the DP on all of Anderson’s live action films.
While there are, perhaps, moments that feel like private jokes, for me it all pretty much works, and I find this a charming, very funny and thoroughly entertaining film. It’s an impressive start.
Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer very much enjoys his robust schedule of varied extra-curricular activities at the swish Rushmore Preparatory School, although it turns out his teachers are rather less impressed with his academic performance. Given a final warning to shape up or ship out, a plot arc that seems to be heading in an entirely conventional, Ferris Buller-esque way takes a sudden right turn when Max becomes, lets euphemistically say “romantically obsessed” with new teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams).
Further complications occur when his, let’s reduce this to friend, Bill Murray’s Herman Blume, a crumpled, lonely industrialist also takes a fancy to Rosemary, setting off a spiral of conflicts ranging from minor to stalkerific, culminating in Max’s booting from the the school he has so closely tied to his identity, and the loss of his few friends.
Max is, I find, a compelling character, at once far more adult and far more childish than the adults around him. He is by turns a really sympathetic character and a monster, grounded and wildly deluded but all of the time a fun character to watch. It also, I think, marked the first time I’d see Murray embody that sadly hollow, defeated character that he’s returned to time and time again over the past few decades with generally excellent results.
If there’s a flaw in the film it’s come more through my evolved understanding of women’s situation in modern life – it’s not that Max’s actions towards Rosemary were ever not seen as creepy and stalkery, but it was easier to understand Max’s actions as youthful hijinks, ultimately harmless, in an environment when there was less understanding of how threatening and demeaning “harmless” behaviour can be seen in a world where you can’t readily tell who the harmless and dangerous men are. That said, on returning to this for the first time in I don’t know how long, Williams does a very fine job of capturing this, I think, so perhaps it’s more a flaw with me than the film.
You could argue this is a film about a lot of things, but one that doesn’t say all that much about any of them. Obsession, relationships, class, identity, all get briefly landed on before flitting off to some other aspect, which is something perhaps common across all of Anderson’s work, but it’s no less fun for it. If you think you’ll be turned off by the quirkier aspects of his more recent work, then this would be a good entry point into his canon.
Wes Anderson’s work is nothing if not highly contrived, a characteristic sure to be polarising and one perhaps most fully exemplified by 2001’s The Royal Tenebaums, the story of a dysfunctional family of over-achievers.
Patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and matriarch Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Houston) have three children: financial wizard Chas (Ben Stiller), tennis ace Richie (Luke Wilson) and adopted critically-acclaimed playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). Due to Royal’s extra-marital dalliances the Tenenbaum parents separate, and the children are largely raised by their mother in the family home, with Royal’s influence only being seen rarely, and only to demonstrate what a woefully inadequate father he is.
Whether due to his influence, or lack thereof, or the pressures of achieving so highly at such a young age, the Tenenbaum children are all varying degrees of cussed-up as adults, and all involved are stuck firmly in the past (specifically the 70s, as demonstrated visually by their clothing and other things, such as the cars and décor), and all save Chas with their glory years all firmly in the rear-view mirror. After having lived for years in a hotel, former lawyer Royal is now out of money and is forced to seek new accommodation. The fine, upstanding, fellow tries to buy himself some time by claiming to his family that he is dying, and moving into the family residence with his estranged wife.
This coincides with the return home of Chas, struggling to cope in the aftermath of his wife’s death, Margot, who is experiencing difficulties in her marriage to Bill Murray’s Dr. Raleigh St. Clair and Richie, who returns for Royal’s sake, but also happens to be in love with his adoptive sister. Complicating this further is Etheline’s relationship with Danny Glover’s Kofi Annan-styled (no, really) Henry.
At first Royal is only looking out for himself, but he eventually comes to realise that his family is important to him, and he tries to make amends, and help where he can, while the rest of the family come to various degrees of epiphany or resolution.
The Royal Tenenbaums is perhaps a little less funny than much of Anderson’s other work, and has a stronger sense of melancholy throughout, rather than reserving it for the end, but it has the same pervasive warmth for its characters, and is probably the strongest example of Anderson’s redemptive approach to his characters’ wrongdoings, a hopeful trait that marks out his stories in a way that sets them apart from the much more common punishment and conviction.
The acting in Tenenbaums is superb, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson in particular giving understated, nuanced yet affecting performances, and the acting in general anchored by the heft of Anjelica Huston and Gene Hackman. Ben Stiller is perhaps the odd one out here as, while it is possible for him to give a lower-key performance, probably exemplified most well in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, he still comes across as very, well, Ben Stiller. It’s a relatively minor gripe, though.
If there’s a singular, big, issue I take with The Royal Tenenbaums it’s with Alec Baldwin’s narration, which, as in the majority of cases, is simply unnecessary. On occasion the device works, of course. Indeed, Anderson himself employed it in a way that fits with the structure in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but while the style of Tenenbaums is somewhere between stage play and novel, the narration is unnecessary, and has the added problem of it seeming like Baldwin is trying to sound like Gene Hackman (which he, in fact, was).
As with most of Wes Anderson’s work, though, it is exquisitely crafted and detailed, and maintains the aesthetic throughout. There’s also plenty of potential to get really deep in this film, and plenty of more subtle references: when asked by Ben Stiller why Chas and his sons wear their distinctive red Adidas tracksuits throughout the film, Anderson explained to him it was because red signified danger, a preoccupation of Chas’s, and would also allow him to easily spot his children, yet in subsequent interviews explained that “he always just imagined them in red Adidas tracksuits”. However, I am struck by the fact they wear Adidas tracksuits with Puma trainers; Puma and Adidas were companies famously founded by warring brothers, and in the city of Herzogenaurach, home of both businesses, you are either an Adidas family or a Puma family, and no-one, until one brave mayor at least, would be seen wearing both. I could be reading too much into this, but it does seem to be another reference to unresolved familial conflict and the long-term consequences.
Not my favourite, but a delight nonetheless.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
If there’s any one film that established Anderson as Lord Whimsy Whimsington the Third, it would be The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Bill Murry returns as the titular famous, but faded oceanographer, who swears Ahab-ian enmity upon the Jaguar Shark that killed his best friend and sets a course for vengeance.
On his trip he’ll take his recently discovered, probable son, Owen Wilson’s Ned Plimpton, and Cate Blanchett’s Jane Winslett-Richardson, a journalist that he hopes will capture this journey in a positive light and bring him back the respect he feels he has unfairly lost of late. Also joining the trip are his usual crew headed by Willem Dafoe, and some interns that really ought to have been issued red shirts, going up against nature, pirates and Zissou’s bitter rival, oceanographer Jeff Goldblum.
It would be foolish to deny the whimsy of this – just look at the underwater life scenes that have more in common with The Fantastic Mr. Fox than a David Attenborough join, or the incredible in both sense of the word layout of Zissou’s vessel. It’s often as much of a storybook as it is a film. However you can’t write it off as entirely a journey of whimsy either – perhaps more than any other of his films, Anderson undercuts it with action scenes – action scenes! – that are entirely at odds with the rest of the content.
It’s a hell of an ensemble cast performance, with an excellent soundtrack that stands out even amongst Anderson’s typically excellent soundtracks, and I still find this one of the most entertaining of Anderson’s works and until relatively recently my favourite of his. I don’t think it’s doing a great deal to further our knowledge of humanity, and given the number of characters involved it’s not going all that deep on any of them. But they’re all memorable, and all entertaining, as is the film overall. And sometimes that’s enough.
Wes Anderson’s films about absent or inadequate parents continue with The Darjeeling Limited (this theme is fairly obvious in his work, the daddy issues in particular, but when you watch nine of his films in three days it really stands out, and perhaps never more so than in this title). Here three estranged brothers, played by Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and newcomer Adrien Brody, meet in India about a year after their father’s death to try to repair their estranged relationship. They take a cabin aboard The Darjeeling Limited, a train on India’s vast rail network, that will take them towards a meeting with their mother (Anjelica Huston), who has gone into seclusion in an abbey in the Himalayas.
The brothers, in the confines of a train, really needle each other and tempers flare, while truths are also uncovered. The bandaged Francis (Wilson) was in a near-fatal motorbike accident that was perhaps not quite such an accident; writer Jack (Schwartzman) is unhealthily obsessed with his ex-girlfriend and scared of commitment while being afraid of letting go of the past and, Peter (Brody) is terrified of his impending fatherhood, not least because, while he loves his wife, always assumed that he would get divorced and he wasn’t prepared for this eventuality. Each also tortures and punishes himself in his own way: Jack checks his ex’s voicemail while Peter suffers inexplicable headaches while wearing his father’s old glasses which still contain the prescription lenses.
As the film progresses they shed their baggage (literal baggage which is also, of course, metaphorical emotional baggage), and after the film takes an unexpectedly tragic turn, by far The Darjeeling Limited’s most effective portion, wounds begins to heal, perspectives are corrected and relationships are restored.
There are no Wes Anderson films to date that I don’t like, but this one is, by far, the one I am least enamoured of. Like much of his work it meanders, and is open to criticisms of lacking any particular point, but here is where I feel those criticisms are probably most valid. It is still though, as you would expect, beautiful, with the varied and often highly-saturated colours inherent to India a perfect fit for the director’s aesthetic. The performances are also good, with the bickering of the three brothers being very believable, and it has a strong emotional core. It just lacks… something. A certain je ne sais quoi that makes his other films special but The Darjeeling Limited simply… fine.
I’ve not read the Roald Dahl book this adapts through the medium of stop motion animation, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is a loose interpretation. Mr. Fox, voiced by George Clooney, settles down to a quiet life as a newspaper columnist after discovering that his wife Mrs. Fox, voiced by Meryl Streep, is pregnant, giving up a wild life of chicken rustling from evil British farmers.
Years later, the now teenaged son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is struggling to fit in with society and his family, exacerbated by the arrival of his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) to stay while his father recovers, and is seemingly effortlessly better at everything than Ash. Perhaps relatedly, Mr. Fox undergoes something of a mid-life crisis and attempts to recapture his glory days by robbing some chickens from the farms of the evilest British famers of them all, Boggis, Bunce and Bean (Robin Hurlstone, Hugo Guinness and Michael Gambon).
The response is swift and entirely asymmetrical, with Bean in particular out for the blood of Mr. Fox, his family, and every other woodland creature in a ten mile radius, most of whom are voiced by actors we’ve already mentioned, a good few of which in roles so small it must surely speak to Anderson’s likability as a director. Fox and friends (eugh) must fight back against this oppression, while also managing some perhaps surprisingly delicate and subtle relationship dramas, given the overall concept of the piece.
I think I was a little non-plussed on my first viewing of Fantastic Mr. Fox, back in the day, and hadn’t really thought much about it since then. I think in the week since rewatching it I’ve though about pretty much every day, perhaps mainly to work out what in the hell was wrong with me at the time. It’s doing a much better and more believable job of exploring family relationships than The Darjeeling Limited, despite being nominally about foxes.
It’s very funny, and I think does as good a job of being entertaining for kids and adults as anything I can think of (although this is largely based on my inner child, rather than any reports from actual children), and it had a wonderful visual style that’s only not unique because Isle of Dogs is a thing now. One of Anderson’s best.
Like the disguised New York of The Royal Tenenbaums, the unfamiliar exoticism of India in The Darjeeling Limited or the high seas of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson’s locations are not quite of this world, or at least of this reality, and Moonrise Kingdom is no exception, with the fictional New England island of New Penzance being located outwith the laws and province of the real world.
Here we find Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and his group of Khaki Scouts at Camp Ivanhoe, preparing for the 1965 Scout Hullabaloo. Here we don’t find that which is conspicuously missing: Sam (Jared Gilman), the troop’s least popular member, an old soul (probably Davy Crockett’s) in a twelve year old’s body, who has renounced the beige lunatics and run away with Suzy (Kara Hayward), the penpal he met the summer before during a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludd, where she was a raven.
Like Sam, Suzy is old before her time, world weary (in many ways she recalls the young Margot Tenenbaum) and fed up of her family, where she feels that she does not fit in. The two young would-be lovers learn about each other and develop a relationship as they follow the old Chickchaw migratory trail, while avoiding the members of the troop sent to look for Sam, but definitely not avoiding The Lord of the Flies references.
Elsewhere on the island are frantic parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), Scout Master Ward, the remainder of the troop and the local police captain (Bruce Willis) trying to find them, with the threat of an immense storm looming over them all.
As Sam and Suzy go on their coming of age journey the difficulties and sadnesses of the lives of the adults involved in their story are exposed, the calcified, loveless relationship of Suzy’s lawyer parents and the loneliness of Captain Sharp, and the director’s usual sense of melancholy hints towards similar unhappiness in the future for our two young heroes, yet, as is often the case in his work, there is a sense of hope and opportunity here, too. While the film evokes François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (an acknowledged influence) it is less hard, more hopeful than that.
Moonrise Kingdom displays many Anderson trademarks beyond those already mentioned, his sense of colour being one, though here they tend more to earthy tones than is typical for him, and his wonderful, often comic, composition (more usually he uses background action for laughs, here it’s the trampoline on the right hand side of the frame). Plot-wise the final act feels a little forced, though it is enlivened by a wonderful turn by Tilda Swinton, looking like some kind of science-fiction flight attendant, as a woman who inhabits her job as if it were her personality, receiving no name other than “Social Services”.
In fact the acting is almost universally excellent and probably the film’s greatest strength: Frances McDormand and Bill Murray are, naturally, excellent, and the two leads act beyond their tender (and, highly unusually for Hollywood, nearly appropriate for their characters) age, Kara Hayward coming across as particularly accomplished. And special mention goes to Bruce Willis who, in recent years, tends to register as “just picking up a paycheque” or, more commonly, “arsehole”, but reminds me here that he is capable of a sensitive, vulnerable and understated performance that has the power to be affecting.
Odd, unreal, beautiful, melancholy, sad, hopeful, funny, whimsical, quirky… A Wes Anderson film, in short.
Framing devices aside, The Grand Budapest Hotel mainly concerns itself with the glory days of the now faded high end hotel, in-between World Wars, when it was staffed by the legendary concierge M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes. He’s more than happy to serve the needs of all guests, particularly, it would seem, lonely widows.
While showing newly hired lobby boy, Tony Revolori’s Zero Moustafa the ropes, events kick off in earnest when one widower dies, leaving Gustave a priceless painting in her will, to the abject disgust of her family. He is quickly framed for her murder, and aided by Zero and his girlfriend, Saoirse Ronan’s Agatha, he must escape from jail, and clear his name, all under the shadow of increasing militarisation.
A perhaps overly succinct summation for 100 exceptionally entertaining minutes, a sort of Wes Anderson does Agatha Christie without taking it altogether too seriously. It’s probably my favourite Ralph Fiennes performance – I don’t know if he’d agree, this isn’t stretching his dramatic chops all that much, but it shows a real ear for comic timing that I don’t believe I’d associated with him before and it’s as much of a pleasure to watch now as it was then.
In style I suppose it’s most similar to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – a shaggy dog story adventure with purposefully twee effects and entirely unlikely characters, and by this point in his arc you could be thinking that we’d seen enough of that sort of thing. We haven’t, and I’ll more than happily watch something like this every few years until the end of my days if Anderson sees fit to make them. For my money, Hotel takes everything good about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and hones it to perfection. Sweet.
This stop-motion charmer sees a young ward try to recover his banished canine compatriot against a background of anti-dog conspiracy and corruption. It’s often very beautiful, technically impressive, dryly humorous and just a lovely thing indeed.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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