Isle of Dogs (2018)

Isle of Dogs (2018) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 04/07/2018 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Even as a fairly inveterate Wes Anderson film aficionado, it’s pretty easy to see the problematics of Isle of Dogs and its version of Japan and the Japanese. Even while trying to be overtly respectful (the film is meant in part as an homage to Akira Kurosawa), you can still wind up with something that is culturally tone deaf and resultingly offensive.  The fall-out from responses to Kubo might have been a signal if caught early enough in production.

In part, I think Anderson’s approach here works. The whole film is taken as translations. The dogs barking is translated into English. The Japanese is paraphrased in translation, whenever actually translated.

The film is totally gorgeous. And if you’re apt to like Wes Anderson films, it’s certainly that with snappy dialogue, amusing characters, deadpan humor. Though Anderson himself is not an animator, this stop-motion design and animation team is so perfect for his aesthetics, which I’ve compared before to cinematic dioramas or shadowboxes.

What’s most interesting to me about this movie is that its Wes Anderson doing speculative fiction. The story is set 20 years in the future and the world is totally garbage and destroyed (or at least Garbage Island is, where we spend most of the film). It starts from a pessimistic point, in which “man’s best friend” and a metaphor perhaps for what is good in humanity is removed from human society due to a variety of diseases. To further the dystopia being shoved down society’s throat, the replacement dogs are robots, capable of viciousness only.

Ultimately, the film resolves itself too easily. The villainous Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has a change of heart for no apparent good reason. The stakes in a Wes Anderson film are typically not so high, and viewers can usually guess that things will work out in the end more or less.

I enjoyed the film, as did my teenage daughter. But I tend to like Wes Anderson constructions. It really is beautifully rendered.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 01/20/2018

I think you either like Wes Anderson movies or you don’t. No judgment either way. I fall into the former boat, and interestingly The Royal Tenenbaums was one of the first movies I logged on my movie site in 2002, when I started tracking all the movies I watch.

Thousands of movies later, I come back to it, to watch it with my teenage children, the first who was born the year it came out, the second who was yet to be a sparkle in her father’s eye, so to speak.

For all that, I think I feel much the same as I did sixteen years ago when I first saw this. I’ve come to have seen all of Anderson’s movies since and have much more of a spectrum upon which to measure it.

That said: Gene Hackman. All day. Every day. Especially in scenes with Pagoda
(Kumar Pallana, RIP). Other Anderson alums like Angelica Huston and Bill Murray, always appreciated as well.

The kids both liked it.

Rushmore (1998)

Rushmore (1998) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 05/23/2015

Felix has decided that Wes Anderson is his favorite director, and who am I to argue?  I really like Anderson’s films.  Some of them are favorites of mine as well.

I hadn’t seen Rushmore since it originally came out in 1998, the first of Anderson’s films that I saw.  Unlike Felix, I only had Bottle Rocket (1996) of Anderson’s films to seek out at the time.  I’ve kept up with him since then.  Felix is interested in moving through them and I thought Rushmore might be a good place to start.

It’s funny, what you remember and what you don’t of a movie that you’ve seen nearly 20 years ago.

I’d forgotten that this was the film that introduced Jason Schwartzman, or that he was actually a teenager back then.  I had recalled the battle between Schwartzman’s Max Fischer and Bill Murray’s Herman Blume over a teacher at the school.  I’d forgotten how pretty Olivia Williams was (she’s shown up in a couple of more recent films that I’ve seen, the awful Seventh Son (2014) and the intriguing Maps to the Stars (2014)).

Felix noted how some of Anderson’s aesthetics had yet to come into full development, which is true, though this is the first that I think we see of some of his theater and artifice, what I’ve referenced as cinematic dioramas.  You see this in particular in two pieces, the science fair displays and in Max’s many theatrical re-stagings of crime films.

The film seems to possibly be the most personal of Anderson’s films, though it’s hard to project on it like that, co-written as it was with Owen Wilson (as many of his best films have been).  Maybe it’s Wilson’s most personal film?  Max’s unending search for places in the school, clubs, teams, interests, while ignoring actual schoolwork, his eventual triumphant staging of elaborate dramas finds him his ultimate place in the world.

Felix enjoyed the film.  As did I.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

The Life Aquatic (2004) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 05/23/2014

After watching Meatballs (1979) with Felix, I felt kind of inspired to watch a second Bill Murray movie, and suggested one of my favorites, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), which I’ve already acknowledged as one of my all-time favorite films.  Such a category is a slippery slide, but it’s actually a kind of interesting contrast, Murray’s first starring role with a starring role 25 years later (and here it is even a decade out from it).

Felix has actually developed a liking for Wes Anderson films.  He had me take him to see his most recent, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).  I’m not entirely sure what he thought of this one, my personal favorite of Anderson’s.

There is an interesting trope that I picked up on more this time through the film, the film within a film, which is typically meta, but in the case of documentarian Steve Zissou, it’s about the artifice versus the reality.  Zissou’s documentaries are full of artifice, are questioned for their veracity, are shown to have been constructs of both reality and embellishment.  Anderson seems less interested in deconstructing “the documentary” as a form and more interested in the way that Zissou constructs his entire world, perception of himself.  He tries very openly to hijack the journalist (Cate Blanchett) who is there to write about him.  He’s absolutely intent on managing his image in every form.

I guess that is one of the things about the film that I like so well, the density of constructs within it.  There is plenty to see anew in any viewing.  It’s as ornate and lovingly developed as any of Anderson’s films.

I’d actually been kind of wanting to watch the movie with Felix for a while.  Like I said, I don’t know entirely yet what he thought of it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 03/16/2014 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the new Wes Anderson movie and it is indeed new and indeed a Wes Anderson movie.  Me, I really like his movies, so I get excited by such a prospect.  But even so, a Wes Anderson movie is a Wes Anderson movie, not really like anyone else’s films and if you didn’t care for Wes Anderson movies, chance is that you won’t like any Wes Anderson movies.

I was struck by how much a Wes Anderson movie is like a cinematic diorama.  A little world seen through perhaps a peephole, an elaborately detailed, perfectly wrought microcosm, operating almost like an automaton, wired perfectly to do its thing that it does.  In fact, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, as in a couple other of his films, Anderson uses miniatures for scenes of scale, to depict the complex totality of his universes in cross-sections.  It seemed like animation sort of opened this world up for him in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), but here he adds it to an overall aesthetic mixing artifice with location and scenery.

The other big thing of a Wes Anderson film is his hilarious, extremely particularlized characters.  He has his group of actors that appear consistently in his films and many are here as well, playing almost cartoonish creations each of whom is “ever so” him or herself.  Again, to some, this could be a criticism, to others, it’s just wonderful fun.

The stars of Grand Budapest are Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori.  Fiennes is M. Gustave H., concierge at the titular hotel, a perfectionist of meeting every need any hotel guest should have, and also an avid lover of aged women who visit the hotel.  Revolori is the young Zero Moustafa, lobby boy in training under M. Gustave H.  It is Zero’s story being told, after all, in flashback by F. Murray Abraham, the aged Zero, relating the story to a young writer, Jude Law, who is in turn a flashback for the established writer played by Tom Wilkinson.  It’s a bit like the stacked babushka dolls, the packaging and telling of the story, miniature within a miniature, artifice within artifice.

Felix was actually keen to see this movie, which pleasantly surprised me.  Both of the kids love Fantastic Mr. Fox and were both kind of warm to Moonrise Kingdom (2012), though I guess it grew on Felix in retrospect.  I’m not entirely sure what he thought of Grand Budapest in the end.  He seemed to like it fairly well.

I do like Wes Anderson films.  I guess my favorites being Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and with The Darjeeling Limited (2007) at the bottom of the scale.  I’d read some assessments of Grand Budapest that placed it as his best work.  I don’t know.  I still like the ones I do, but I did enjoy it quite well.  Fiennes is perfect as the impeccable M. Gustave H.

The film is a fantasy of a Europe that only possibly ever existed in anyone’s imagination and Anderson plays that well.  All of his worlds are perfected fantasies, wonderfully detailed, ornate, nearly sublime.

I’ve had a nagging question though in my mind about Anderson’s very WASPy universes.  There are Indians often, and Zero, as played by Revolori is of undetermined Mediterranean background.  I was struck by this in Moonrise Kingdom and see it here again, too.  It’s not that I think that movies should be meeting quotas of ethnic diversity or anything, but I do wonder about these wondrous fantasy worlds and why they so often seem so white.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 06/09/2012 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

It’s easy enough to see how Wes Anderson’s films aren’t necessarily going to appeal to everyone.  Their intensely crafted worlds are fantastical fictions, ornately, intricately detailed, loaded with whim and whimsy.  His characters are characters all, not so much people as characters.  His visual style is idiosyncratic.  His stories, little wind-up dioramas, generally of a wistful East Coast Americana, a very largely Caucasian Americana, gleaning the cool and the weird into these strange pristine visions.

Derisively, he’s potentially very twee, cute, too clever, lacking depth, diversity.

On the other hand, if you’re like me, and you really like Wes Anderson’s films, you might be watching a film, like his new one, Moonrise Kingdom, hungrily devouring the images as the whiz and bang by, trying to succor the details too refined for a single viewing.  As contrived as the characters can be, you utterly enjoy them, as contrived, but vivid, pleasurable artifices.  Anderson’s craze for schematics, details, maps, blueprints.  Every house is a dollhouse and can be traveled through room to room floor to floor as the camera eye declares.  And though, like his cast, like many of his themes and ideas, carries over film to film, it’s perfectly unobjectionable because who doesn’t love Bill Murray?

Honestly, I enjoyed the film thoroughly.  I took Felix and Clara because they had enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) enormously, so enormously, I was willing to give a shot to a non-animated version of Anderson’s hijinks.  Though I also thought that Fantastic Mr. Fox was fantastic and benefited in breaking from his characterizations by repopulating his world with stop-motion creatures.

Moonrise Kingdom takes place in 1965 on a fictional island off the coast of New England, in which an orphaned “khaki scout” named Sam (Jared Gilman) and a troubled girl named Suzy (Kara Hayward) run away together to experience some life on their own, away from their tormentors and disappointments.  The whole island gets looking for them as a massive storm approaches.  That’s about all you need to know of the story.  It’s a pre-teen love story.   It’s sweet.

I found myself thinking as the film was rolling past how wonderful it was to be watching a new Wes Anderson film, perhaps at the peak of his game.  It’s one of those odd positive emotional asides that strike me while watching movies, an awareness of the great joy of some things in their time, seeing them fresh, experiencing them new and of the moment.  It’s a joy that I’ve only else thought to attribute to Hayao Miyazaki in recent years.  In fact, I was sort of surprised how much I was enjoying it.

Clara also really liked it.  Felix didn’t care for the narrative breaks in which Bob Balaban, dressed in storm gear, addressed the audience directly.  One of my main thoughts, though, was how we could have been watching Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2012), which had opened the day before and would likely have been the kids’ first choice had I offered it up that way.  I don’t mean to entirely denigrate the Madagascar series because I think they’re created some very funny characters.  But I much preferred sharing the quirky Moonrise Kingdom with them over the more blatantly child-friendly animation.


Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: 06/19/10

It was only just Thanksgiving last year that we went to see Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) in the cinema.  I liked it a great deal, listing it among my personal favorite films of 2009 (Best of 2009).  And oddly enough, Felix really liked it a great deal, too, listing it among his favorite films period.  Heck, it was enjoyed by all, so it was a pretty safe bet to add to the kids’ DVD collection.

I don’t buy a lot of DVD’s for myself, largely because I am so keen on seeing the films that I haven’t seen, this long, long seemingly endless list of films.  But with the kids, especially such a watchable and lively film like this, it’s the kind of thing that I think will get more mileage than general films on my shelf.

And again, the film was a total hit both with Clara and Felix and again with myself.  In reading over what I’d written about the film back in November, I don’t have a lot additonal to offer.  It’s charming, entertaining, a fully realized world with all of the markings of a Wes Anderson film, but also so much more as well.  In the stylish stop-motion animation and design, Anderson’s vision and style are utterly evident, as are his themes of family, heroism, and quirky comedy.

It’s greatly enjoyable.  If you haven’t seen it…well, you should.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: 11/26/09 at CineArts @ Empire Theater, SF, CA

How unusual is it that two of the best new films that have come out in 2009 are stop-motion animated?

Fantastic Mr. Fox is the new film from Wes Anderson, writer/director of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), among others.  It’s his first foray into a fully animated feature film, which is interesting in and of itself.  Though, it’s an utterly different type of film, tonally and thematically, from Henry Selick’s wonderful Coraline(2009), they employ the same medium, stop-motion animation, a time-intensive physical craft.  Selick had done the stop-motion work on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and apparently was working with this project before it moved studios.

Anderson collaborated on the script with Noah Baumbach, with whom he  had previously shared co-writing credit on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (my favorite of Anderson’s films).  And it seems to have paid off again.  The film is funny, sweet, clever, and fun.  We went on Thanksgiving, after dinner, three generations represented in our group, and I think it’s fair to say that a good time was had by all.  That’s what marketing people want to hear, “a film for the whole family”.  But how often does it really work out that way?

Anderson adapts Roald Dahl’s children’s book with a lot of additional wit a verve.  And the voice acting is great too, with George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, and the always fantastic Bill Murray.  Anderson creates another convoluted family unit, centered around a charismatic patriarch and the odds and ends of familial weirdness, such as when a cousin, Kristofferson, who is great at everything and deeply mellow, comes in and makes as yet non-fantastic Ash, the son of Mr. Fox, feel like a failure.  Anderson’s familial landscape is familiar, but in this case, the story is more about the adventure and the moodiness of the family more just a tone.

I’ve also noted that in both The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and then again in The Darjeeling Limited, the characters are spurred into greatness by action, an event that requires them to take a heroic stance, fighting off pirates and rescuing crew or attempting to save children from drowning.  Action ultimately is some catharsis, taking the characters out of their middling issues and elevating them to heroes of varying sorts.

Mr. Fox, who is slicker than grease, having given up his chicken-stealing ways and settled down when his son was born, is unhappy in his new found mediocrity.  He wonders aloud if anyone even reads his newspaper column, his “regular” job, and he yearns for more, a life in a big tree high-rise.  His “one last big score” thievery, stealing from the three loathsome local farmers, sets his whole community into chaos and danger when they come to track him down.  And even when he is physically emasculated, losing his tail, he rises to heroism in setting things to rights, saving his nephew, and saving the community.

Anderson’s camera at times follows characters as they move from room to room, like the cut-away image from a children’s book, showing what is happening in every room in a house.  It’s visually playful, viewing omnisciently the inner workings of the home or the extended family unit.  Of course, with the stop-motion animated figures, this probably loaned itself a little more easily than perhaps having to construct a full-size set to do the same thing as he did in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  This visual theme infers the sense of complexity and interconnectedness of the characters’ social unit and functions, part of the ornateness of Anderson’s worlds.

What does all this mean?  I don’t know exactly.  I think that Anderson’s films tend to have a cheerful melancholy, stirred into the cathartic motions by something that necessitates action and change.  They tend to be tonally similar, which suits me fine since I like them.  They are funny and whimsical.  Interestingly, I read that they shot the film at 12 frames per second instead of the normal 24 frames per second to highlight the twitchiness of the imperfections of the hair movement shifting between frames, drawing attention to the technique, highlighting the medium itself.

Anderson’s characters seek to be “fantastic”, and as Mrs. Fox tells her son, he certainly is, a charmer, leader, clever, unsinkable fellow, a classic Anderson hero.  Fantastic indeed.

The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: 10/09/07 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA

Wes Anderson is one of those few directors in Hollywood that I look forward to his films no matter what they are, when they come out, and anything.  I like the style of his visual aesthetics and humor, and find some sublime pleasure in what I still think is his best film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).  The Darjeeling Limited, his latest film, is no departure from his area, characters, issues, approaches, even though it’s set in the exoticness of India.  His characters, all therapy-deprived, emotional, intelligent members of an off-beat family, are trying to find themselves, quite literally, in a spiritual quest for brotherhood.  Like the adage “No matter where you go, there you are,” the characters find that finding themselves is no easier in a foreign land than anywhere else.

Anderson loves the foreign landscape, the details of decoration, the colors and the outright difference of India to the characters.  Of course, his take on it is highly stylized, as is his visual take on anything.  Using the compartmentalization of the train space, Anderson loves to shift between berths and windows, showing the segments of people in one room, or reframing them time and again within a single scene.  Like in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, in which the ship was a visual playground, cut open and tracked through, the train also is chopped and dissected to allow vantages on the characters and extras.  It’s a strong visual for Anderson, and it’s engaging and interesting; it’s is a strong part of the visual aesthetic.

One of my thoughts that arose while watching the film, thinking about its intentions and depths (or lack thereof), was how simply enjoyable it was, the tone and the humor, the characterization (even if it leans in the direction of pretense rather than reality), is just that it is fun and it is funny.  The images of the brothers: Owen Wilson’s bandaged face, Adrien Brody’s lanky body and face with the over-sized sunglasses, and Jason Schwartzman’s retro mustache all positioned time and again in shots together, ultimately winding up on a motorcycle, images that have an iconic quality to them, something akin to Frank Capra’s classic It Happened One Night (1934)…there is something of verve and I don’t know how else to say it, but it has that classic feel to it, even when it shows its weaknesses.

The film’s weakness, I suppose, is only if you look at other of Anderson’s films.  He mines the same territory, uses some of the same narrative devices (most notably the action sequence in which the brothers show sudden heroism, akin to the bizarre over-the-top action sequence in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), and tones.  It’s a bit samey.  Which is fine to enjoy, but sort of limits Anderson from really achieving something more with his films.  Even his emotional landscape of characters with their deep familial obsessions and dysfunctions is no different in many of his films.  Maybe, within this film itself, it’s not an issue, but only if you take the others into consideration.

Still, I do like his humor, his writing, his visual style.  It’s charming and amusing and engaging and entertaining.  The Darjeeling Limited, whether its his best film or not, is lovely and sweet and funny.  I will continue to anticipate his future films and hope that he can continue to develop as a filmmaker.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The Life Aquatic (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: 09/09/06

I’d seen this film originally in the theater when it came out (during a period that I wasn’t updating this diary), and I’d enjoyed it significantly, as I had enjoyed Anderson’s other works, Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tennenbaums (2001), and I guess was pretty primed to enjoy this one.  On initial viewing, I felt it echoed an emotional sentiment that reeked of Tennenbaums, considerably, in the protagonist is an aging egotist, who is also incredibly sensitive and insecure and despite his selfishness, is loved by the complex and intelligent people around him despite how much they despise him too.  Not to mention that half the cast is exactly the same.

Not to criticize the extent of Anderson’s foci, he creates a full, and well-imagined world of Zissou.  I love the costuming and the schtick with the red woolly caps and the Zissou-wear, including Nike shoes.  The characters are not well-rounded, but well-conceived, funny and strange in their imagining, while always feeling a little “put-on”.  Anderson does nice work, as well, aesthetically, framing shots in interesting ways, creating scenes that fail to feel “natural” while still being amusing and clever.  Somehow he comments on this in Zissou’s own film productions where genuine moments are exploited if possible and if not are re-created with complete faux empathy.  This seems self-reflective but I take it no further.

Bill Murray is brilliant.  I mean, I think that he’s brilliant in general, in all of his work.  But this character, I think, is the best he’s ever played.  It’s a mixture of sadness, self-loathing, self-love, and insecurity, all while deep down an exuding and predominant genius and wonder that attracts the world around him.  There is an artifice to the film, which I think Anderson acknowledges, but it also evokes a genuine sense of his character that juts forth from the strange menagerie of characters with whom he lives and interacts.  It is both fun and sad.

I bought the DVD used on Netflix for $6.50, which is a comment in itself.  I buy hardly any DVD’s.  This one was incredibly cheap and was a Criterion DVD.  It made sense.  It is good.

The other utterly significant thing about this film are the David Bowie songs performed acoustically by Seo Jorge.  I bought the CD of his songs, not the soundtrack, but the 100% Jorge/Bowie songs and it’s utterly fucking brilliant.  It adds an atmosphere to the film that is hard to describe.  It’s something sad and yet uplifting, mesmerizing and yet…who knows?  It’s je ne sais quois.  It’s a unique and clever film.  And despite the strangely animated fish which bothered me on the first viewing, I think it’s pretty great.

Let me know if you would like to borrow it.