from email 30 May 2008
I’ve been wanting to write a little on what I know of the films of Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas (credited as p.t. in earlier films) Anderson. As I said before, these are two very different directors not related to one another, at least not by “Blood” (I’ll explain that later). However, I pair them because they started making films around the same time, in the mid to late ’90s, which is also when I became aware of them, and because that they each have unique characteristic filmmaking styles. As different as they are I always think of them together. Somehow like a “Bizarre Love Triangle” I fit Sofia Coppola into the mix – sort of a female counterpart to the two Andersons, with a style and perspective as different from the Andersons as they are from each-other. Coppola shares some actors with at least one of the Andersons, so a link there too.
A couple notes: I’ve added Erik to the distribution on these as he expressed an interest. And again, unless I specify otherwise, I am writing only about films that I recommend, and usually greatly so, as long as you’re in that sort of mood. Because there are so many films I want to touch on, I am not going to provide much of a review or analyis on any one film, but hit a couple key points.
OK, the fun stuff first – the films of Wes Anderson. The first really signature movie, and most highly recommended is Rushmore, 1998, about private high school student Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) who is sort of captain of the school, in the sense that he has become involved with everyone and everything, chair of a multitude of school extracurricular clubs. He is kind of a quirky, somewhat goofy guy, and has some character flaws which belie his assumed mantle of chief-of-all. A new, very attractive young teacher comes to school, and Max instantly has a crush on her. He deludes himself into thinking that he may actually have a chance with her, but therein fits our third major component, a school father played with wonderful weary charm that is Bill Murray’s alone.
This is my most highly recommended Wes Anderson film. It is fun and different from any other film you’ve seen, with a great window into the humanity of the main characters. The storyline is straightforward and hence easy to follow, but that’s a good thing – the focus here is on the characters and how they go about there business. This one really works in a way that is difficult for me to describe right now.
If you like Rushmore, another fun one is The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001. The highlight of this is a richly played starring role (of Royal Tenenbaum) by Gene Hackman. It’s about a big family that is sort of bursting at the seams in a few ways. The tag line / preview line sums it up nicely: “Family isn’t a Word… it’s a Sentence.” I have to say I’ve only seen this once, in the theater 7 years ago, but I remember at the time being a little confused by all the characters, especially the Owen & Luke Wilson ones (these actors are common to most Wes Anderson films). Still a fun film for the exchanges with Gene Hackman. Also stars Gwyneth Paltrow as a Tenenbaum who surreptitiously smokes in her bathtub, Ben Stiller, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Alec Baldwin — and, did we forget anyone in this kitchen-sink cast? — of course we couldn’t leave out Bill Murray. Again, the highlight and fun of this film is the interaction of all these characters, while the plot may be a weak point — but judge that for yourself.
The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore share a style of filmmaking which includes a way of placing titles or large captions on scenes or mini-scenes, a sort of Anderson trademark. Also with these captions is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, again with Bill Murray, this time portraying his equivalent of Jacques Cousteau. I have only seen parts of this one, so I cannot give a recommendation one way or the other. Some people think this film is a lot of fun; Rebecca is among them so maybe she can comment further (than she did in a previous email). Obviously if you’ve established yourself as an Anderson fan, you’ll want to see it. Wes Anderson’s first film was Bottle Rocket, which I saw in the theater but really cannot remember (high praise there, eh? But it did get some praise by the critics at the time), and his latest one was The Darjeeling Limited, which honestly looked pretty lame in the previews I saw, but some said it was his best since Rushmore. All this is a little moot at this point, because, as I said, you should see Rushmore first to tell if you like the Wes Anderson Way.
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A LITTLE MORE serious tone with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. What an extraordinary, visionary filmmaker he is. The first of his that I saw – in its theatrical showing – was his first major release, the masterpiece Boogie Nights (1997). I won’t say a whole lot about it, except it’s about the burgeoning porn industry in the ’70s disco era. Mark Whalberg, an actor in a very select class, plays screen character ‘Dirk Diggler’; Burt Reynolds, in a sort of rebirth role for him, plays the porn family patriarch. As this is the porn industry, and as cocaine is thrown in the mix, you can imagine not everyone is on the path of enlightenment. This is an outstanding film, and has some sequences in it which to me are right up there with the greatest scenes in film history, e.g. Marilyn Monroe’s dress being blown up by a sidewalk air vent or Luke Sykwalker blowing up the Death Star. One that stands out is an attempted drug heist while one of the lackeys throws out a punctuating staccato of little firecrackers.
The plot is very strong, and supported by an excellent cast including William H. Macy, Don Cheadle, Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, and an early role by Heather Graham as ‘Rollergirl.’
Magnolia (1999) I recommend if you want to see a lot of neat stuff and don’t mind that it does drag in the second half at Jason Robards’ death bed – the film is over 3 hours long. There’s a number of storylines moving simultaneously and seemingly independently of one another. The best part is the beginning – about the first half hour or so. The film begins with 3 introductory historical stories told by a narrator, followed by a great, nearly feverish entry pitch into the thick of the film. This first part of the movie alone makes it worth watching. I won’t bother trying to provide a synopsis of the film, but main characters are “Whiz Kid” Donnie Smith, now grown up, washed out and played by William H. Macy (an element that binds certain filmmakers like the Andersons, David Lynch, Marty Scorsese, etc. is the repeated use of favorite actors), and a fun performance by Tom Cruise as a male-empowerment, i.e. woman dominator twist on the Tony Robbins type.
I’d like sometime to write about or discuss this film further, as there is a lot to talk about. Towards the end a quite unexpected event occurs which acts to change the course of events at that point; it’s unbelievable but the camera zooms in on a small caption within a picture on a wall, “But it did happen.” Really a wonderful film about compassion, humanity, disease and love, and one could argue that even where it does drag is essential to the story.
Punch-Drunk Love, 2002 with Adam Sandler and Emily Watson – people get confused about this one. Punch-drunk is not drunk. There is no drinking to speak of in this film. Punch-drunk means that you’ve been punched in the head so many times that you start to effect the symptoms of intoxication by liquor.
I am so happy that films like this are being made – just to know that there are movies out there which present such an alternate take on common themes. Like Rushmore, there is nothing even remotely close to Punch-Drunk Love. It is the story of a quirky man (Sandler, who, like Jim Carrey, is an excellent serious actor as well as a good comedic one (unlike Carrey, though, I don’t find his comedies particularly funny)) who has trouble relating with people, especially women. He is set up by his family with a prospect played by Emily Watson. Running through the film is a plot involving some nasty people who have got hold of his personal information and are exploiting him for it.
This is essentially a romantic movie, and I can be a sucker for a good, standard romantic movie. But it is nice, as I said it makes me happy to watch the romantic movie pretty much thrown on its heels. This is, again, a unique vision, a little disturbing, but I’m going to keep pulling the rabbit out of my hat and use the lesson of Breaking the Waves — sometimes the most disturbing, difficult film can leave you with utter joy and deep, lasting contentment. This one is no Breaking the Waves, but it does take you to a place you’ve not been before.
Due to a lack of the directorial style and quirky nature consistent with the track that P. T. Anderson’s previous films had been on, I was surprised at the end of There Will Be Blood (last year) to find that it was one of his. I wrote briefly of Blood in a previous email, “Daniel Day-Lewis plays an oilman at the dawn of the oil age. It was good and compelling, but I wouldn’t say you must rush out and see it immediately…”
No, not immediately, but it is a good one and recommended. I actually really loved this one. It is an alternate take on the sprawling Western epic (runtime almost 2 hrs 40 min.), though I call it a ‘personal epic’. It is centered on an outstanding performance by Day-Lewis – his picture should be in the dictionary under the term “Tour de Force.” I remember the big splash he made coming on the scene with My Left Foot, though I have never had a desire to see that one. He won Best Actor for that, and again for this one, quite deservedly I should say in this latter case.
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BOTH Andersons, and Coppola films are somewhat few and far-between, but this is also true of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. There’s nothing wrong with that when the films being produced are each unique, strong visions, little masterpieces or flawed masterpieces, the types of films I remember in a world of forgettable pictures.
Sofia Coppola is, as I said before, a sort of third spoke in this odd directorial wheel. Her first film of significance was The Virgin Suicides (1999). An introspective piece which I saw at home, and don’t remember as standing out in any very exceptional way, which is to say I can’t recommend it. It does have Kirsten Dunst, who I think is fabulous, and amazingly prolific — I’d like to write about her oeuvre, as it were, some day.
Coppola’s next film I really took to heart: Lost in Translation, with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, who play strangers in the strange land of Tokyo, Americans quite out of place. Bill Murray is wonderfully entertaining and endearing in the picture. There is a budding friendship – something the two can cling to in the foreign metropolis. Does it develop into any sort of romance? You’ll just have to watch and wait. I really identify with this picture, with the concept of being on your own in a big strange city.
Marie Antoinette (2006) is Coppola’s latest film, which I saw in Portland, Oregon, the night after having watched another queen film, The Queen, about the current queen of England. This is a vivid fresh take on Marie Antoinette, and I highly recommend it. In fact, I’m glad I saw it because I could just have easily not. As you can expect from Sofia Coppola, there is a unique female perspective on Marie Antoinette, which is rather appropriate I’d say. One thing about these three films of hers is that though they each have a distinctly female sensibility, the filmmaking styles of each are not in any particular way linked. Which is to say you can’t point to one thing like you can with films by either Anderson and say “ah-HA! – this is a Sofia Coppola picture.”
I very much enjoyed Marie Antoinette (who by the way is played by Kirsten Dunst, and you know what I think of her), and I recommend this one probably as the one Coppola picture to see, if you see just one. Though she may not have a distinct filmmaking style that is common to her pictures, each one has an intelligence which I appreciate. And all three of these filmmakers have created pictures filled with intelligence, a sign that they respect their audience. And I like that.