Every cloud has a silver lining and if the COVID-19 lockdown means I get to watch more films then great. Just like in May, I am seeing more films than will comfortably fit into one post per month, so here’s a mid-month ramble about the films I’ve seen so far in June.
As you might expect, if you’ve been following my recent viewing habits, I start with three Wes Anderson films. Maybe when I’ve watched them all again I’ll chuck all these into a post solely dedicated to the auteur, but for now here’s another instalment. What’s been the best film so far you ask? Well I’ll leave that until last. You may be surprised that it was a documentary.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) is touted by many as Anderson at his peak since it showcases so many of the elements that run throughout subsequent films. Elements that were only hinted at in previous films are the use of on screen text to assist the story telling, an obsession with colour, symmetry, and frame-in-a-frame dare I say framing. He also appears to have quite a penchant for 70s rock especially the Rolling Stones and Bowie (more later).
However the film wouldn’t be half as good if it wasn’t for the great performances of an ensemble cast portraying the larger than life characters in the Tenebaum family forced back under the same roof for a variety of strange reasons. Gene Hackman plays the estranged father Royal faking serious illness to be near his wife Etheline played by Anderson regular Angelica Huston. The almost ever-present Luke Wilson and Owen Wilson play brother Richie and best friend Eli to sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), Ben Stiller plays the second brother Chas, Bill Murray has a small part as Margot’s husband Raleigh St. Clair and Danny Glover plays the mother’s new love Henry Sherman.
The interplay between all these family members is both comedic and a little tragic at times. Margot seems to carry on an obsession with play writing that we saw in Rushmore, the father-trouble is there again and so too is a rivalry for love. These latter two elements will reappear in Anderson’s next film too.
I’ve seen The Royal Tenenbaums before. It’s perhaps the first Anderson film I saw and I think I enjoyed it more this time around as part of the exercise of watching his film work develop. However, those who say it is Anderson’s peak perhaps spoke too soon. I think that film is yet to come, and indeed is not among the three here. I’ll let you know when it arrives and you’re free to disagree with me in the comments of the post when it does.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) is an adventure comedy that tells the story of a jaded documentary maker and oceanic explorer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray, again) toward the end of his career who is in the middle of filming the second half of a film in which he has vowed to hunt down a Jaguar Shark that ate his partner.
Murray’s character was originally supposed to be called Steve Cousteau, as in the famous real-life ocean-documentarian Jacques Cousteau whose films I loved to watch when I was a kid. Just like the real Cousteau’s, Zissou’s ship, the Belafonte, has a mini-sub, a gyrocopter, and a research balloon albeit in various states of disrepair.
Among other crew members aboard the Belafonte are Klaus a sensitive and needy German crewman played by Willem Dafoe, a pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson played by Cate Blanchett, a young airline pilot Ned Plimpton who might by Zissou’s son (Owen Wilson, again!) and sometimes Zissou’s estranged wife (Anjelica Houston, again).
Jeff Goldblum has an oddly small part playing rival oceanographer Alistair Hennessey who is well-funded, far more professional than Zissou and one-time lover of Zissou’s wife. Zissou is interested in Jane who seems to running away from the father of her child, but his advances are complicated by the bond she makes with Ned. There’s that old man / young man love rivalry again with the kooky woman stuck in the middle, along with the father-son thing. To complete the ensemble exquisitely voiced actor Michael Gambon (I could listen to him all day) plays Zissuo’s struggling financier.
Again Anderson provides a fine balance between character-driven comedy and tragedy and introduces some bizarre stop-motion underwater creatures to the show along with some cleverly laid out sets showing the innards of the Belafonte and allowing for some clever panning shots as we follow characters from room to room. This latter technique is used again for the compartments of The Darjeeling Limited train. Also worth a mention here in terms of all the things that make The Life Aquatic a great film (again more fun the second time around) is the music – lots of Bowie tracks covered by Brazilian artist Seu Jorge who plays one of the crew members.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007) is the last of the Anderson films I will write about in this post and one I had not seen before. It sees the return of Jason Schwartzman (looking a lot like Luke Wilson) to the Anderson fold playing Jack one of three brothers aboard the titular train in India, Anderson-regular Owen Wilson is brother Jack, and newbie Adrien Brody makes up the trio as Peter. They join together ostensibly for a fun sight-seeing trip after the death of their father (father issues again!).
The trip takes a darker turn once the brothers are kicked off the train for accidentally letting a poisonous snake escape form its cage. And Jack (I think) reveals that he has brought his brothers together under false pretences to seek out their (once again) estranged mother who now lives as a nun in a convent. No prizes for guessing who plays the mother.
The film is comprised of three distinct acts that feel a little clumsily stitched together despite Anderson’s very clever filmmaking and a great performance from the soulful Adrien Brody. However, I enjoyed it a lot and again the soundtrack was great. It was also good to see an American film based in India that didn’t smack of cultural appropriation and indeed did a good job of portraying the brothers as fish out of water in some segments.
Get On Up (2014) is a somewhat gritty biopic of the Godfather of Soul Mr James Brown played by soon-to-be Marvel’s very own Black Panther an initially unrecognisable Chadwick Boseman. I say somewhat gritty because I read about Brown’s various brushes with the law back when I wanted to know more about the story behind Pop Will Eat Itself’s song ‘Not Now James… We’re Busy‘ and I feel (much like for Queen in Bohemian Rhapsody) that a lot darkness in Brown’s life was just hinted at.
However, it’s a good film all told, showing a real rags to riches and down again story which seems to be typical of a lot of musicians. Boseman is great in the lead role and it was nice to hear a lot of James Brown’s music again. Like a lot of people, I went through a stage of listening to his music, perhaps after his song for ‘Living in America’ for Rocky IV (I think), and then gradually moved on to more current music but was more fully aware of his influence to the sound of artists like Prince and all the tracks that sampled his work.
Border (2018) which I recorded along with Get On Up from Film4, was co-written by Swede John Ajvide Lindqvist (who wrote the brilliant Let The Right One In) and directed by Iranian director Ali Abbasi. It a creepy film about an odd looking woman (an unrecognisable Eva Melander) who works as a customs officer at a ferry terminal. She has the uncanny ability to smell passengers’ fear and so can tell if they are smuggling stuff into the country (I assume Sweden) or have something else to hide.
She is drawn to an equally odd looking man (Eero Milonoff who is also covered in very good prosthetic makeup) who she sees a few times at the border and also drawn into a police investigation of a pedophile ring. This film is not for the faint-hearted and if you bear in mind that Let The Right One In was a modern vampire story then you should expect that all is not what it seems with this pair of misfits. I won’t say anymore than that.
Alone in Berlin (2016) is a film adaptation of Hans Fallada’s initially slow-moving book about one German man’s resistance to the Nazi regime in 1940s Berlin. The book, which is based on real events, picks up about a third of the way into the tale after introducing most of the characters in the story. The film, as is typical with book adaptations, is quicker to get to the point.
I think my enjoyment of the film was perhaps skewed by my having read the book and while I appreciated that many of the minor characters and nuances of the story needed to be cut for the movie what was left wasn’t half as atmospheric or impactful. Brendon Gleeson and Emma Thompson are both okay in the main roles, but I do wonder why some real German actors couldn’t be found to play Otto and Anna Quangel.
While the book spent many pages describing the imprisonment, interrogation and trial of the Quangels before their inevitable fate at the hands of the Nazis, the film seems to rush to conclude. Therefore we miss the culmination of the story of refound love between the two based on their grief at the loss of their only son and their heroic dismissal of the opportunity of an easier way out of their predicament. If you were thinking about watching this film I would recommend that you read the book instead, but be prepared for a hard slog and a sad ending.
The Addams Family (2019) was somewhat of a surprise. I was not a huge fan of either the original TV show or the two movie early 90s adaptations, but this animated tale really tickled my funny bones. It has all the various elements, in-jokes and tropes one has come to expect from the much-loved family of Hammer horror misfits and a well-written script.
This time around Charlize Theron, rather than the much aforementioned and 90s cast member Anjelica Houston, was cast for the voice of the stone-faced Morticia Addams along with Star Wars’ Oscar Isaac as husband Gomez. Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) plays Wednesday whose story of discovering one’s identity is at the heart of the new movie along with It and Stranger Things actor Finn Wolfhard as brother Pugsley.
Oscar Isaac really stood out for me in the voice-acting department along with Nick Kroll (Sausage Party) as Uncle Fester and Allison Janney (Juno) as evil real-estate agent Margaux Needler. The animation wasn’t as eye-poppingly detailed as Pixar movies but the film is just a huge dollop of fun loaded with some great one-liners.
And finally, for now, the film I liked the most so far this month was…
Apollo 11 (2019) is a BAFTA-nominated documentary about the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon led by commander Neil Armstrong and pilots Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Director Todd Douglas Miller has done a great job of piecing together archive footage, photos and audio recordings from the days just before, during and after the mission. Some of the footage is surprisingly high-quality and where it’s not the great soundtrack, picture-in-picture layouts and simple animations lend a hand to the storytelling.
For anyone with even a passing interest in this special moment in the history of mankind this documentary is a must-see and far outstrips the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man I saw recently.
Where I felt First Man fell down a little was that it didn’t show the three Apollo astronauts’ journey home. To me, getting them back home safely was just as important as setting them down safely on the moon, but maybe that’s because I remember the tension of watching Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon portray the trial and tribulations of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. Apollo 11 tells the story of the return with footage of the helicopter patrols off the USS Hornet, the heat of reentry, the splash landing of the Columbia Command Module in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, and the subsequent quarantine of the astronauts once they were aboard.
Maybe lockdown is getting to me, but I felt very emotional watching this film as it is a story of what can be achieved when hundreds of people work toward a common goal.