REVIEW: “Listen Up Philip”

PHILLIP POSTER

It’s a good thing that you aren’t required to like or root for a main character in order to enjoy a movie. If that were the case the film “Listen Up Philip” wouldn’t have a fan in the world. This is the third movie from 30-year old independent filmmaker Alex Ross Perry and it can be a challenge. It is relentlessly unpleasant and it may feature the most detestable lead character you’ll see this year. Yet at the same time the dialogue is razor sharp, it is at times darkly funny, and it features a wickedly good lead performance from Jason Schwartzman.

The opening scene reveals to us the type of man we will be spending our time with. Philip (Schwartzman) sits in a restaurant impatiently waiting for his ex-girlfriend. She is 20 minutes late and he has already rehearsed how he’s going to belittle and confront her, not just for being late, but for never supporting him during their time together in ways he finds satisfactory. Philip is a writer who has just completed his second novel. His taste of success has fed his insatiable narcissism and he can’t wait to rub it in his ex’s face.

PHILLIP1

Philip’s haughty self-absorption isn’t just reserved for his ex-girlfriend. We see it with a stranger at a bar, with his publisher, and we mostly see it with his current girlfriend Ashley who is played wonderfully by Elizabeth Moss. Ashley is one of our few refuges. She is a likable character who loves Philip and seems to have found a way to navigate his crazy range of emotions. But relationships can only sustain so much when a toxic character like Philip is factored in.

Now throw in an accomplished but aged writer Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). He is Philip’s literary idol and a man desperate for new inspiration. Having appreciated Philip’s first two books, Ike contacts him with an invitation to stay at his country cottage and write. Philip jumps at the chance, leaving Ashley behind and fully expecting her to wait for him. We quickly learn that Ike isn’t the blueprint Philip follows in writing only. Ike’s also shares the same miserable self-centered lifestyle. The question becomes will Philip learn from Ike’s pathetic example or emulate it?

“Listen Up Philip” can be seen as many things. For one it’s a gut punch to many of the creative elites. It shows the striking differences between the happiness they bring through their creativity and the self-inflicted misery many of them live in. The film shows the fantasy world many elites live in built upon self-importance and the idea of being better than anyone else. These acidic personalities also bleed over into relationships. We see it with Philip and Ashley and later when he meets a French professor played by JosĂ©phine de La Baume. For Ike it’s evident by his strained relationship with his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter).

PHILLIP2

As I mentioned, the real challenge is in staying with these characters. I can easily see some people struggling with the film as they wait and search for at least an ounce of humanity in Philip. It seems as if Perry anticipates this problem. At one point in the film Philip vanishes for nearly 20 minutes and we follow Ashley and her struggles with Philip being gone. I’m still struggling with how I feel about the narrative shift. I like the Ashley character and there are some good moments in our time with her, but I’m not sure the divergence fully works. On the opposite end, by the films final act I did find myself worn down. I had grown tired of Philip despite the compelling nature of the character.

A part of me is thankful that people like Philip and Ike do crave some degree of solitude. This film pulls no punches in conveying these corrosive personalities, but it does so with a nice smattering of humor and with some very committed performances especially from Schwartzman who is perfectly cast. But in the end I felt exhausted and I was ready to close the book on these people. Was that the film’s desired effect? I’m not certain.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Big Eyes”

BIG EYES POSTER

At one time director Tim Burton was on top of the world and his ghoulishly gothic style seemed fresh and unique. But recently his career has been marred by several flops and people seem to be growing tired of his darker approach and constant Johnny Depp collaborations. Personally I had been off the Burton bandwagon for a while, but his 2012 animated gem “Frankenweenie” won me back a bit. His latest film is “Big Eyes” and Burton is one step closer to having me back in his corner.

“Big Eyes” is a biographical drama that tells the story of American artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter. Margaret (played by Amy Adams) was a talented sketcher and painter whose work came to prominence during the 1950s through the 1960s. It was a time when little thought or consideration was given to “lady art” (as her husband so insensitively puts it in one scene). Her art style was uniquely her own and featured children with big, wide eyes.

BIG2

The film begins with Margaret leaving her first husband and moving to San Francisco with her young daughter Jane. We see Margaret as timid and unsure of herself. She finds her one true emotional release in her art. Enter Walter played by the always fascinating Christoph Waltz. He too is an artist and he woos Margaret with his charisma and exotic tales of his time spent in Paris. The vulnerable Margaret, needing a whole filled in her life, marries Walter.

At first their life together is fun and free, but we see the first ripple when Walter sells one of Margaret’s paintings as his own work. What followed was a 10 year ruse that saw Walter taking the credit for the paintings while a guilt-ridden Margaret did all of the work behind closed doors. Her naĂŻve and timid personality was no match for Walter’s manipulative and shameless character. In essence he was a snake oil salesman both as an art dealer and a husband. The popularity of the art grew and grew, but behind the scenes a much more personal struggle was taking place.

This is truly a strange and compelling story and I love the way Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski tell it. It’s written in a way that allows its two top-tier stars to form these characters through their performances. Interestingly enough Adams and Waltz have two very different approaches. Adams is quiet, serious, and reserved. Waltz is big, energetic, and hyper-charismatic. It may sound like the performances clash, but that’s not the case because they are perfectly in tune with the characters. Margaret is subdued and unassuming. Walter is a showman and a salesman.

BIG1

And I tip my hat to Tim Burton for stepping outside of his routine and showing nuance in his filmmaking. A sensibility and thoughtfulness takes the place of his normal macabre style. It’s a much lighter touch yet there are still a number of subtle Burton signatures. Quirky bits a humor shake the tone up a bit and Burton does several things with his camera that hearkens back to some of his earlier films. But overall it’s a refreshing turn from a filmmaker who a short time ago had found himself in a rut.

I can see people having problems with “Big Eyes”. I can see people bothered by the shifts in tone and what they perceive as clashes between the two lead performances. Not me. I was locked into the story from the start, I appreciated the visual representation of the 1950s and 1960s, and I loved the performances. Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds were first attached to the film, but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing better than Adams and Waltz. Add in a much different Tim Burton approach and you have a very entertaining film that tells a truly surreal story.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Budapest Poster

When Wes Anderson releases a movie it’s almost like an event for me. I’m such a fan of his work and I enjoy each visit I make to his unique and eccentric world. Finally his latest film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” made its way to my area. After a grueling wait the film finally cured my impatience but did it meet my ridiculously high expectations? I’ve come to expect so much from Anderson’s movies and my lofty expectations seem almost unfair. And perhaps those same expectations contributed to my somewhat cold and indifferent reaction to this film.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” features so many signature trademarks of other Wes Anderson films. We get the quirky period design, an assortment of offbeat characters, a host of stylistic visual flourishes, and a level of expected absurdity. All of those things are present here and they all work to the film’s advantage. These are some of the fingerprints I want to see all over a Wes Anderson movie. But there were other signatures that injects his movies with their own personality and vibrancy that I found missing in this film.

Budapest3

The story is told in a fractured style but the vast majority of it takes place within a fictitious Eastern European country during 1932. We are introduced to Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel during its glory days of luxury and prominence. Gustave is meticulous in his running of the hotel and his love for extravagance is only outdone by his adoration for strong cologne and for his elderly clientele. The story becomes a murder mystery after one of his close acquaintances Madame D (Tilda Swinton) is found dead and Gustave becomes the key suspect. It also becomes a heist film and of course a comedy.

The film is also loaded with a massive number of side characters. Some are like Fiennes and new to Wes Anderson’s world while others are old faithful stalwarts who find their way into nearly every one of his movies. Toni Revolori plays a young lobby boy named Zero who becomes Gustave’s protĂ©gĂ© and faithful sidekick. Adrien Brody plays Dmitri, the son of the murdered Madame D. Willem Dafoe plays a grunting snaggletoothed hitman. I could go on and on listing small characters who service the story (some better than others). They are all sprinkled onto stylistic canvases that include an alpine village, a prison, and of course The Grand Budapest itself. There is truly an artistry to the entire visual presentation and all of that worked for me.

But what was it about the film that at first held me at arm’s length? Why didn’t I have the same wonderful experience as I usually have with Wes Anderson pictures during a first viewing? First off I just didn’t find it as funny as I had hoped. Certainly there were moments where I laughed but as a whole the dry humor wasn’t that effective. Even the crowd I watched with had their giggles held to a minimum. This film was also coarse and crasser than most of Anderson’s other pictures. Much of it is played for laughs but I found it to be distracting and it felt as though Anderson, normally known for his creative freedom, was really stretching.

Budapest2

Another missing component for me was the deeper emotional thread that every Anderson film has had. For example in “The Royal Tenenbaums” you have the destructive results that a father’s behavior has had on his family. In “The Darjeeling Limited” you have three separated brothers each carrying the baggage of their father’s death. “Moonrise Kingdom” features two kids with no stable adult presence in their lives. They find their refuge by running away together. The same thing applies to “Rushmore” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Anderson has always had a knack for presenting a deeper and more piercing subject and effectively surrounding it with humor. Every sense of that is vague and almost absent from this entire film. He does tinker with a few themes via the impending war that lingers in the background, the desires for the nostalgic “better days”, etc. But none of these stood out to me at all.

This is the first screenplay that Anderson has written by himself. Does that play into the things I found lacking? I don’t know, perhaps. Anderson is also often accused of going overboard with his eccentric style. I’ve never found any merit to that accusation but this is the first film where there just might be. Could that be linked to Anderson’s solo screenplay? Again, I don’t know. What I do know is that there were parts of this film that really worked and after a second viewing I definitely began to appreciate the film more. At first “The Grand Budapest Hotel” didn’t fully work for me. It definitely comes more into focus the more times you see it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Darjeeling Limited”

DARJEELING POSTER

I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan so whenever he makes a film I take notice. But oddly enough his 2007 comedy/drama “The Darjeeling Limited” is one I still needed to see. In true Anderson style “The Darjeeling Limited” has a quirky sense of humor and it dabbles in several of the filmmaker’s familiar themes. It also features some of Anderson’s acting staples including his old college buddy Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, and Bill Murray. And while some people consider this some of Anderson’s lesser work, I think it’s a movie that captures what I like about his films while carving out its own unique path.

In this offbeat concoction the opening scene is important. In India a businessman (Murray) tries unsuccessfully to catch his train as it departs the station. While he fails another man, encumbered by heavy luggage, just manages to board the train as it heads down the tracks. This short sequence is a microcosm of the entire film. It’s strange, funny, well shot, and filled with meaning.

DAJEELING1

The man who made the train is Peter (Brody). He is onboard the Darjeeling Limited passenger train to meet his two brothers, the controlling and downright anal Francis (Wilson) and the brokenhearted and obsessive Jack (Schwartzman). The three haven’t seen each other since their father’s funeral and Francis sets up the reunion in hopes of bringing them closer together. The train trip across India is framed as being a spiritual awakening of sorts but Francis may have something else as his motivation.

The movie pulls many laughs from these odd personalities, but that shouldn’t come as any surprise. Wes Anderson’s wacky cinematic worlds routinely feature idiosyncratic people with an assortment of troubles and in various states of despair and melancholy. His humor can be a bit prickly. By that I mean it isn’t easy for some viewers to cozy up to. Personally I love his unique brand and we get plenty of it in this film. But there is also a strong dramatic thread that runs throughout the film and really shows itself in the last act. This mix of well executed comedy and heartfelt, meaningful drama is what drives the picture.

Considering the amounts of dry kooky humor, it may surprise some people to find this much heart. But Anderson has always had a knack for that. He’s always dealing with family troubles as well as feelings of isolation and despondency. We certainly get that in this film. There is symbolism scattered throughout the film that deals on more emotional levels once they are realized. For example, take the aforementioned luggage. Anderson takes something simple like luggage, weaves it throughout the narrative, and uses it to make one of the movie’s more effective points. These treats are clever and satisfying.

Darjeeling2

I also must give credit to Wilson, Brody, and Shwartzman. These guys work so well within Anderson’s narrative style which probably explains why he keeps going back to them. The three offer great subtlety in their humor and watching them play off each other is a lot of fun. But they also dial it back when the story calls for it which is vital. Theres some good supporting work from Amara Karan as a train stewardess, Wallace Wolodarsky as Francis’ “assistant, and Waris Ahluwalia as the Darjeeling’s chief steward. Bill Murray has a brief but fun role and Anjelica Huston has a small yet important appearance. There are also some nice cameos from Natalie Portman (remember Hotel Chevalier?) and Irrfan Khan.

“The Darjeeling Limited” is soaked with Wes Anderson’s style. Whether it’s the humor and storytelling or his visual methods which include panning cameras, use of colors, or his particular use of music. There are a few lulls that the film experiences particularly in the second half. They never last long but they are noticeable and maybe they do keep this from being some of Anderson’s best work. Regardless I’m still a big fan of this film. I laughed a lot and I really responded to the emotional tugs we get later on. In the end it’s yet another example of why I love Wes Anderson movies.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“RUSHMORE” – 4.5 STARS

Whenever you’re watching a Wes Anderson movie, there’s no denying that you’re watching a Wes Anderson movie. The writer and director has made a number of films that feature profound uniqueness that set them apart. His quirky humor is unique in itself but Anderson is also known for his own visual style and presentation, his clever use of music, and familiar reoccurring themes that you can’t help but notice. In 1998, Anderson released “Rushmore”, his second feature film and one of his many collaborations with old friend and co-writer Owen Wilson. “Rushmore” is a perfect introduction to Anderson and his special brand of humor. And while the movie – just like all of Anderson’s pictures – won’t appeal to everyone, I found it to be an infectious comedy from start to finish.

“Rushmore” was the film that launched Wes Anderson’s career. He and Wilson began working on the story a few years prior to the release of his first film “Bottle Rocket”. The two took memories and experiences from their childhoods to form the foundation of this truly hilarious story which also flirts with some darker underlying themes. The movie also launched the career of Jason Schwartzman who plays Max Fischer, an eccentric and egocentric 15 year-old student at Rushmore Academy. Max is a underachiever in the classroom but is by far the most extracurricular student in the school. He’s the leader of school groups ranging from the French Club and the Debate Team to the Calligraphy Club, the Rushmore Beekeepers, and a goofy dodgeball club called Bombardment Society. It turns out Rushmore is his life but he finds himself in jeopardy of expulsion due to his horrible grades.

Max develops an unusual friendship with a wealthy but disenchanted business man named Herman Blume played by Bill Murray. Murray is fantastic and he delivers some of the story’s more straightforward laughs but he also adds lots of humor through his straight-faced, deadpan performance. Blume is a miserable fellow not at all happy with his life. But despite his troubles, particularly with his whacked out kids, he’s drawn to Max, so much so that he offers him a job and funds some of Max’s outlandish school “projects”.

But Max and Herman’s friendship takes a hit when they both end up falling in love with the same woman, Ms. Cross (Olivia Williams), a 1st grade teacher at Rushmore. Ms. Cross becomes aware of Max’s infatuation with her and tries to head it off. But Max is impervious to the truth that she is too old for him. It’s here that the movie is really intriguing. Their “relationship” leads to some really funny moments in the picture. But on the flip side, it’s here that we do get hints of a darker more troubling component to the story. There were several scenes where the internal struggle within Max felt real and in turn made him into a really sympathetic character. But Anderson would then draw out a good laugh from the most unexpected place. So it’s safe to say that “Rushmore” had the uncanny ability to make me laugh out loud in one scene and then feel uncomfortable in the very next one. In other words, there’s much more going on underneath the surface.

Anderson also employs several visual gimmicks that I’ve noticed in the handful of his other films that I’ve seen. Some people don’t really respond to his approach but I thoroughly enjoy it. He never frames an ugly shot and while some of “Rushmore” quick snippets may seem jarring to some, I think they brand the film with a quirkiness that I love. Helping out “Rushmore’s” presentation is the interesting choices of music including a selection of 60’s pop songs that feel surprisingly at home even though there doesn’t seem to be a single connection to the story. But again (at the risk of sounding like a broken record), this is typical for a Wes Anderson picture.

True comedy is subjective and that is never more obvious than with “Rushmore”. Many people wrestle with Anderson’s unique sense of humor and visual flair. But I found myself laughing all through this movie and the style of storytelling really helped the quirky humor. The cast is superb and it’s easy to see why Schwartzman took off from here and why this helped rejuvenate Bill Murray’s career. “Rushmore” is a genuinely funny movie laced with some darker undertones that will cause you to laugh and squirm during the same scene. Considering the majority of modern comedies, that’s something I can really appreciate.

REVIEW: “Moonrise Kingdom”

Going into a Wes Anderson film there are several things you know to expect: a healthy dose of dry and sometimes offbeat humor, a unique visual style, and familiar aesthetics that permeate each of his movies. “Moonrise Kingdom” is no different from other Anderson efforts in terms of it’s storytelling style and visual presentation.  This is his first film since 2009’s Oscar winner “Fantastic Mr. Fox” but it’s clear from the opening credits that his dedication to his style of filmmaking is still as strong as ever.

“Moonrise Kingdom” takes place in a small community on a New England island in 1965. A very Wes Andersonish  narrator sets the table for us and we meet several of the community folks including Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) the leader of the island’s branch of the Khaki Scouts. While doing morning inspections, he discovers that 12 year-old Sam (Jared Gilman), a picked on, eccentric young boy has run away from the camp. Elsewhere on the island young Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) lives at Summer’s End, her home shared with her parents and three young brothers. Suzy is a reserved introvert who has no friends and finds refuge by retreating into her fantasy novels and looking through her binoculars – something that she pretends gives her super powers. It’s through her binoculars that she discovers her mother Laura (Frances McDormand) meeting secretly with the community policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Her father Walt (Bill Murray) is impervious to the signs of his wife’s secret fling mainly due to their fractured relationship.

Suzy ends up running away from home and through a flashback we learn that it’s something she and Sam had been planning since they first met at a local church play the year before. The two meet in a meadow then set out on a journey together through the rugged and rainy island terrain. Sam flexes his extensive outdoor knowledge before Suzy by pitching tents, building fires, and catching and cooking fish. Meanwhile, after discovering the kids are gone, the dysfunctional community sets out to find them.

Anderson has several interesting dynamics at work, the first being the relationship between the two kids. It’s easy to see why they are drawn to each other. Both feel detached and out-of-place. There’s a void in their lives and they find solace in the fact that they no longer feel alone in the world. Both Gilman and Hayward are stunningly good especially considering this is the first feature film for both. Anderson’s childlike deadpan dialogue flows naturally from the two characters and he really gives them a believable foundation for the budding adolescent romance. Some have argued that the romance between the two was lacking and never provided the spark to drive the relationship. I argue that there’s no huge passionate spark mainly due to the children’s age and the newness of love and romance. I feel that their attraction to each other is based more on their personal, emotional, and social similitude. Being in each other’s presence fills a substantial emptiness in their lives and let’s them know they aren’t alone. A form of love sprouts up from that and Anderson depicts it with tenderness even amid the laugh out loud moments and the hilarious, straight-faced dialogue.

My biggest problem with the way Anderson handles the children’s relationship is the way he handles his child actors in one particular scene. Intended to show a sexual curiosity and almost unwanted compulsion, there is a brief scene where Gilman and Hayward are asked to engage in something that I have no problem saying I was uncomfortable with. At the time of filming, both actors were 12-years old and the willingness of Anderson to shoot this particular scene is disappointing. It’s certainly not graphic but it’s also not appropriate and that fact that it’s used more for comic effect is even more frustrating.

But while the story of Sam and Suzy drives the main narrative, perhaps the biggest microscope is put on the community and the fact that they are each flawed individuals forced to make important and sometimes redemptive decisions. As you look at each character you see situations unfold that bring them to the point of either doing the right thing and changing the direction of their lives or watching as things crumble in around them. In a very real sense, the disappearance of Sam and Suzy is the catalyst for some pretty real and important character transformations in Captain Sharp, Scout Master Ward, Laura, and Walt. Even Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts are faced with their own moment of truth.

I talked about Gilman and Hayward’s performances but they’re surrounded by some equally strong work. I was particularly drawn to Bruce Willis who delivers some great laughs but through a very controlled performance that’s perfectly fitting for Wes Anderson material. Willis occasionally gets to show his acting range and this is a good Oscar caliber example of that. And I have to say, as someone who isn’t the biggest Edward Norton fan, that he was a lot of fun here. He’s goofy, nerdy, and his delusion of control that’s evident in some of the early scenes results in some of the films funnier moments. Frances McDormand is perfectly cast and Bill Murray is funny as always. I also thought Anderson favorite Jason Schwartzman was funny running around in full Khaki Scout attire.

“Moonrise Kingdom” is another Wes Anderson picture that’s a side-splitter to some but a head-scratcher to others. I laughed a lot through the film but I was also touched by its tenderness and care in addressing struggling children with feelings of isolation and insecurity. Anderson does get careless and I feel irresponsible in one brief scene but there are still several undercurrents that touch on important themes without fully diving into them. We not only see it with the children but in the community and it really worked for me. “Moonrise Kingdom” may not be for everyone but I loved its full package and stylish presentation. It’s a breath of fresh air in a comedy genre filled with raunchy movies and lazy humor. I’ll take this over them any day.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS