Monday, May 28, 2012

Films of Wes Anderson, a film-by-film analysis

The Films of Wes Anderson


In March, it was the Duplass Brothers; April - Whit Stillman; now this month I've decided to delve a little deeper into the rest of Wes Anderson's filmography. Watching Moonrise Kingdom has made me want to watch his other films again, but I actually haven't. Still, I've seen the rest of his films at least twice now so I feel I have a good handle on the man. Considering the three filmmakers I've done specials on this year, you'd think I have a special affinity for niche American directors - that may be true, at least with some of them.

The truth is Wes Anderson was the beginning of "serious" filmmaking for me. It's not that I'm saying that Wes Anderson should be taken really seriously as a filmmaker, but at age 14, seeing "Rushmore" for the first time was a bit of a revelation to me. And I had the fortune of being able to see that and "The Royal Tenenbaums" almost back to back and it was really the first instance where I realized that the people behind the films have a specific style. I mean, I knew who the Farrelly Brothers are and what kind of films they made. I knew Kingpin, Dumb & Dumber, There's Something About Mary were all made by the same guys. I knew Steven Spielberg made Jaws, Jurassic Park, etc... but Wes Anderson was the first to really make me think about directors in terms of style. He's a good filmmaker to start off with. You start with him or Tarantino, and then you work your way to the classics. After all, nearly all of Anderson's films are in the Criterion Collection and that label alone introduced me to hundreds of classics. Wes Anderson was that gateway for me, albeit indirectly.

So having said that, I have a special place in my heart for the guy and I actively anticipate his films when I know they're about to come out. I wouldn't call him one of my all-time favorites, but he was the gateway to my favorites. Among his generation, I personally prefer some of the other guys like Tarantino or PT Anderson and I think it's because I feel they have made masterpieces in their filmographies. If that's too much, I would at least say they've made films that truly solidify their standing as master filmmakers. Moonrise Kingdom was close to being truly representative of Wes Anderson's style, but it's not an A+ film. He hasn't made an A+ film yet in my opinion. But for the most part, he's remarkably consistent as I will explain better by going through film after film.

Bottle Rocket (1996)

I can understand the shrugs that audiences came away with after seeing this movie when it came out and even with some critics. But the film gets better with repeated viewings and in retrospect, it's great to watch as you get to see Wes Anderson before his style was 100% realized. All we have here is a funny little gem about three criminal friends who ultimately try to pull off a big robbery together. Like I said, at the time, it may have been seen as a minor, quirky crime comedy, but repeated viewings really gives you a great introduction into the comic sensibilities that Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have without the extreme OCD-like precise production design that Wes Anderson would later continue to explore with his subsequent films. Bottle Rocket is a cute little gem of a movie. Grade: B+

Rushmore (1998)

Rushmore officially marks the birth of an auteur. Martin Scorsese loved Bottle Rocket so much that he listed it among his top 10 movies of the '90s, but I'm surprised he prefers that over this. Rushmore easily improved upon Bottle Rocket. It has wonderful performances from Jason Schwartzman (his first film) and Bill Murray. This film also re-launched Bill Murray's career and he's been working with Wes Anderson ever since. Rushmore is a wonderful comedy about a 15 year old student at a prep school who falls in love with a teacher and the odd friendship he makes with an aging, rich father of twin boys who also go to the school. What follows is a highly unlikely love triangle and rivalry that leads to a lot of humorous moments. But what sets this apart from other films and makes it a great Wes Anderson film is the remarkable craftsmanship and the heart. That's what makes it such a welcoming film to Wes Anderson newcomers. Grade: A-

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

A part of me wants to consider Moonrise Kingdom to be Wes Anderson's best film, but there's something about "The Royal Tenenbaums" that really makes it stand out. With Tenenbaums, the writing of Anderson and Owen Wilson started to enter darker territory with this story of a wealthy, yet unsuccessful and emotionally empty family and their series of problems. There's quite a bit of comedy in this film, but there's an overall aura of sadness to it that actually makes me feel more connected to the material than normal. I feel like Wes Anderson was really going for something deeper here and there are certain scenes that really trigger emotions from me. It definitely doesn't help that Richie Tenenbaum's attempted suicide scene happens while now-deceased Elliott Smith's song "Needle in the Hay" plays in the background (who killed himself two years later by stabbing himself in the chest... yeah). This is a film that isn't afraid to go to some pretty dark places, but it also has Wes's typical dry humor that keeps it from getting too heavy-handed. Gene Hackman also gives one of his last great performances before he decided to retire as an actor. This is still probably my favorite film from Wes Anderson. Grade: A

 The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

So two things happened with this film: Owen Wilson didn't co-write it, Noah Baumbach co-wrote it instead. The other thing is that this is where Wes Anderson started to really fall in love with production designs. The house that the Tenenbaums lived in was quite detailed, but the Bellefonte ship that's used in The Life Aquatic really took things to another level. So while the production design in this film is second-to-none, the story is just not that engrossing. There was a time where I thought there was perhaps more to this film than initially met the eye and while I like the film a little more now than I used to, it's still quite disappointing. The story of Steve Zissou hunting for the jaguar shark that killed his best friend is just not as fun of an adventure as it should've been. I think a large part of the problem is that I think they made the dramatic parts too dramatic. It's like Wes Anderson liked the dark direction that The Royal Tenenbaums went to, but this could've been a fun adventure film with some drama, the tone just feels off. Maybe some of it had to do with the combination of Baumbach and Anderson's writing styles. I like both filmmakers and they got it right with Mr. Fox, but I think they missed the mark when it came to establishing the tone of this film. That being said, there's some highlights: Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe were fun in their small roles, Bill Murray was fine as Steve Zissou and would've been better if his character wasn't so dour. Also, the Portuguese renditions of David Bowie songs somehow made perfect sense. And there are some really fun comedic moments and some good dramatic moments. The scene where we finally see the Jaguar Shark was quite touching, but would've really knocked it out of the park if the writers allowed us to care more. But Zissou is a little too self involving, the film takes a little too long to really get going, and the whole "Steve Zissou might be Ned Plimpton's father" storyline just never really feels right. An interesting misstep, but a misstep nonetheless. Grade: C+

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

This film penned by the trio of Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman may feel a little too much like a "film for them, not for us." Nothing wrong with making a film for yourself if you can allow it to resonate with your audience too, but this story of three brothers going to India to find their mother just didn't resonate at all. I've watched the film three times and I really find it hard to care about their journey. They have some funny little moments, but the dryness just doesn't jive too well with the naturally warm and frantic cinematography that makes India look amazing. Wes Anderson succeeded in making a film in India and it's wonderful to look at, Anderson also began to increase the sophistication of the camera movement here. Overall, The Darjeeling Limited is far from a bad film and I actually thought Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson had good chemistry together that lead to some fun moments. Also, once again, the production design absolutely stands out. Wes Anderson showed us what he could do with a ship, but here he films on a moving train and it's outstanding work. There's no doubt Wes Anderson is a great craftsman, it's just a shame that the story doesn't connect. Grade: B-

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

If you ever wondered what it would look like if Wes Anderson directed an animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox definitely answers that question. I would say that this marks as a return to form, but keep in mind that he started work on this before The Darjeeling Limited. Another collaboration between Wes and Noah Baumbach, this time they're able to adapt a Roald Dahl children's book and make it their own while leaving the heart of the story in tact. Is it still very Wes Anderson-esque? YES. This is Wes Anderson getting all wrapped up into himself and it's glorious. It just seems like Wes just really wants to take us into a completely new and different world with each of his films, this time he actually creates this world. It's a wonderful look inside the imagination of Wes Anderson and it's aided by Roald Dahl's wonderful story. The stop-motion animation made the characters look life-like and more relate-able. Honestly, I feel that this may be the ultimate children's film if today's parents thought better of their children and if most children today didn't have ADD. Even if they did, the film's pace is extremely brisk and it wastes no time going from plot point to plot point. Thankfully, it still manages to add enough details and personalities to the characters that it makes you care about them, including Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney). I wouldn't quite call this a classic, but it's a wonderful little film. Grade: A-

So there you have it. Add my review of Moonrise Kingdom and you get a full glimpse of what I think of Wes Anderson's films. I didn't really explain the plot of Fantastic Mr. Fox, but hopefully, you get the gist. Some may think I'm too easy on Wes and on Darjeeling Limited. It could easily be a C+ too, but I actually was really taken by how gorgeous India looked in the film, much more than how The Life Aquatic attempted to explore the vast oceans.

Wes Anderson said in one of his many Cannes interviews that this is the only way he knows how to make films. He found his niche, his way to make films, and he's not about to change. Will he 10 years from now? 20 years from now? Will his tastes evolve over time? Or will his specific, idiosyncratic style always be present in his work? What Moonrise Kingdom showed me though is that, his style was never the problem and has never hindered his films. In fact, he's still been able to expand on it. The problem with some of his lesser films is the lack of care and attention paid to the characters and the story. Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited are nice to look at, but they're kind of shallow.

On the other hand, Moonrise Kingdom has the superb production design and sophisticated camera movement but it also gave us a story that we care about and that resonates. It's funny almost all throughout and it's delightfully cute. It's Wes Anderson at his best, not because it shows just what a master craftsman he is, but because he shows what true care and heart he can put into his characters. Let's hope he continues down that road.

He's only 43. Scorsese is about 70, Woody Allen is 77, Clint Eastwood is 82... none of those guys look close to slowing down. So we could have another 35+ years of Wes Anderson films. When you look at it that way, he's barely cracked the surface. I just hope that he has way more interesting stories to tell us. Judging from "Moonrise Kingdom," I would say he most definitely does.

By the way, I haven't forgotten. I previously included Bottle Rocket (99) and Rushmore (58) in my top 100 films of the 1990s. I also included Fantastic Mr. Fox (66) and The Royal Tenenbaums (45) in my Top 100 films of the 2000s. These lists were from two years ago but I still think they deserve to be on the list. I may be updating both lists as, since then, I've seen more films from those decades that I feel deserve to be included as well. I'll probably re-visit those lists later this year.

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