Modern Auteurs: The Wonderful World of Wes Anderson

This is the first in a series of articles about modern filmmakers (started in the ’80s or later) who could be considered auteurs.

Auteur: noun. A filmmaker, usually a director, who exercises creative control over his or her works and has a strong personal style.

The reigning king of hipster films. Wesley Wales Anderson, a Houston native, coolly sauntered into the film world (in slow motion, of course) with 1996’s Bottle Rocket. Since then, he has been making films that are both beloved and derided. To some, his films are brilliant, dryly comedic, and poignant. To others, they’re merely ironic, hipster quirk-fests, with little to offer beyond surface appeal. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, however, you can’t deny that the man has style. Anyone familiar with Wes Anderson can pick out one of his films within about 5 seconds. This makes him the very definition of an auteur.

Anderson is very, very detail oriented. Meticulous doesn’t begin to describe his visual style. Everything from his stage play-like camera framing down to the colour, font, and card stock of a notepad, are painstakingly fussed over by Anderson. The sheer amount of control he wields over his mise-en-scène is incredible, and it makes for a truly unique viewing experience. His very symmetrical shots are carefully blocked out and utilize deep focus. He contrasts these wide shots with personal, straight-on, closeups of characters faces. Thrown into the mix are zooms (rare these days) and the obligatory ramping shot (quick change from regular speed to slow-mo) of characters walking towards the camera. His colours are often primary or warmly autumn. And accompanying all these lovely visuals is usually a soundtrack heavy on ’60s music.

Most people can get on board with Anderson’s visuals, but when it comes to his stories, and the acting style he promotes, audiences become a bit more divided. His screenplays often involve dysfunctional, upper-class families – and there is almost always father figure issues. These stories always weave together a mixture of dry humour and understated drama, and are acted out in a muted style usually by a stable of actors that Anderson uses regularly. It’s this muted acting style and dry humour that can be off-putting to some, and, if you don’t get into it, you will be at a loss for as to why so many people love his films. I do love his films, and find them to be quite hilarious, but I can see why people don’t jive to his style.

If you haven’t seen a Wes Anderson film, there’s only one way to find out whether or not you’ll like them.

Where to Start:

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – Starring Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Luke and Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, and narrated by Alec Baldwin. Probably the best place to start for someone to looking to get into Wes Anderson. This could be considered his most mature film. The screenplay, by Anderson and Owen Wilson, was nominated for an Oscar.

Rushmore (1998) – Starring Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Olivia Williams. Anderson’s sophomore effort about a rivalry between a precocious teenager and a middle aged businessman over a school teacher. One of the more purely comedic films by Anderson. Bill Murray’s deadpan performance is absolutely hilarious.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) – Starring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Bill Murray. Anderson’s first, and only (so far), foray into “family films”. The quotations are there, because I’m not quite sure how kids will really take to this movie. However, it’s a pure gem for anyone interested in seeing a finely crafted, and amusing, film. The stop motion work alone is worth the watch.

Where Not to Start:

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) – Starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman as brothers on a spiritual quest across India in the wake of their father’s death. Maybe Anderson’s weakest effort, but still not without merit. Just don’t start here.

Deep Cut:

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, and Willem Dafoe. A fan favourite, but not for anyone. Bill Murray’s aging oceanographer is absolutely hilarious, as is the rest of the cast. A personal favourite of mine.

Cool…

Movieline

Break open the bubbly! Alfred Hitchcock’s newly restored silent comedy, Champagne will get be streamed live and exclusively on the visual arts website The Space on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time (or 3:30 p.m. Eastern time).  Champagne (1928) was Hitch’s eighth film as director and tells the story of a playgirl (Betty Balfour) living off the profits of her father’s champagne business, and her father’s plan to get rid of her fiance, who he suspects is a gold-digger. Father knows best!

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“You Just Don’t Get it”: A Primer on Cult Comedies

Note: Most of this can apply to cult films in general, but sticking to comedies makes it a little easier in terms of scope. 

Cult comedies. Those weird, wacky, and often times darkly subversive films, that inspire both fervent devotees and confounded dismissal. Films such as: The Big Lebowski, Repo Man, Happiness (really any Todd Solondz film), and Office Space have HUGE fan followings, yet they never quite made it to mainstream success. These films often die at the box office, but are resurrected on video (DVD, Blu-Ray, whatever) by niche audiences. These fans quote the films endlessly, will often dress up, and even hold conventions devoted solely to a single film. However, most people find these types of films confusing, weird, and painfully unfunny – and find their hardcore fans somewhat scary. What is it about these films that inspire such diverse opinions?

I guess we should first start with what a cult comedy is and isn’t. What separates the cult comedy from a mainstream comedy? It’s not simply whether or not a film succeeded at the box office. Most Eddie Murphy films in the last ten to fifteen years would be considered mainstream, despite bombing in theatres. Conversely, Napoleon Dynamite found pretty good success at the box office (despite a slow roll out), yet it’s considered by many to be a cult comedy. Why? Well, because cult comedies are just different. Their characters are different. Their plots are different. Their humour is different. They challenge conventions and are often subversive. Whether it’s the outrageous, in-your-face style of John Waters or the sly and dry poking and prodding of Mike Judge, cult comedies often confront preconceived notions of society or normalcy, or even what makes a film a comedy. It’s because of this, I think, general audiences usually steer clear of these films, while others hold them in such high esteem. Does this mean that cult comedies are superior to mainstream comedies? Does the fact that they are challenging and different make them better?

The short answer is yes. They are superior. Mainstream comedies are often bland and uninteresting. Their characters are stock. Their plots are stock. And their humour is stock. Can anyone name a mainstream comedy in the last ten years, aside from maybe The Hangover (which can somewhat be considered mainstream), that is memorable? Cult comedies don’t always work, but at least they try for something different. However, just because you don’t like some cult comedies doesn’t necessarily mean you have bad taste. Comedy is subjective. Critics give negative reviews to cult comedies all the time. It is easy to see why people wouldn’t like Napoleon Dynamite, for instance (it does rely an awful lot on ‘quirk’). Just because you don’t like Holy Grail or The Big Lebowski doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got poor taste in film. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to taste (however, I would argue that if you don’t like any cult comedies, you’re probably boring).

The thing with cult movie fans is that they can make you feel like an outsider. If you’re not a fan ‘their’ film, you’ll be met with derision and, more often than not, that “you just don’t get it”. And maybe that’s true, you don’t get it. However, that’s your opinion to hold. You gave the film a chance and you didn’t enjoy it. Fair enough. You can get into a serious argument over a film, but it ultimately comes down to taste. What I think is worse is not having seen said cult movie that everyone is quoting. At least if you’ve seen it, you can agree or argue with them, but you won’t feel lost. Thankfully, I’m here to help.

There are a ton of cult comedies and it’s hard to know where to start or what to see. Here are some Cult Comedies that you Must See (if you don’t agree, remember that this is just, like, my opinion, man):

 

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Classic. That’s all that can really be said about Monty Python’s first feature film. Chances are that, even if you’ve never seen this, you’ve heard someone repeat a line or even a whole scene. And it really is endlessly quotable. If you’ve never seen this film, go out and see it NOW. This will also be a great starting point into Monty Python’s work in general.

 

The Big Lebowski (1998)

A modern classic. The Coen brothers’ bizarre, meandering film centering on Jeff Bridges’ iconic Dude. Also endlessly quotable, due to the Coens’ sheer love of vocabulary. The Dude makes use of terms he hears (often in an incorrect fashion) and the same odd words and phrases pop up from multiple different characters. The movie also contains weird dream sequences, German nihilists, kidnapping, and John Goodman’s immortal Walter Sobchak.

 

Office Space (1999)

Another modern classic. Mike Judge’s biting satire of dull office jobs – and really work in general. Classic lines, classic characters, everything you need for a cult comedy hit.

 

Caddyshack (1980)

Harold Ramis’ golf classic doesn’t have much of a plot to it, but damn is it funny. Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Rodney Dangerfield pretty much steal the show from Michael O’Keefe’s Danny, the protagonist of the film. Danny’s problems are really secondary to the hilarious, mostly improvised scenes with the a fore mentioned comedians.

 

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Any number of Mel Brooks’ comedies could be on here, but this is my personal favourite. Brooks deconstructs the western genre with glee. There’s plenty of slapstick, breaking the fourth wall, very un-PC comedy, and great performances.

 

Repo Man (1984)

This weird film from Alex Cox combines punk rock, repo men, and aliens all in one seriously funny film. Emilo Estevez stars as a directionless youth who’s recruited by Harry Dean Stanton to join his repossession team. This film is very strange, but awesome. “The life of a repo man is always intense.”

 

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

This might not be purely a comedy, but it’s funny enough to classify as one in my books. This is the very definition of cult film: super weird, shocking, subversive, and absolutely loved by its fans. I’m sure most are familiar with the midnight screenings that happen all over the world, in which people dress up as characters and shout and throw things at the screen. All for a musical about transvestite aliens. This is about as cult as it gets.

 

Pink Flamingos (1972)

John Waters is the king of trash, and it doesn’t get much trashier than Pink Flamingos. Warning: this one is definitely not for everyone. Waters set out to offend everyone and everything with this movie, and he pretty much succeeds. It’s funny and horrifying all at once. More of an endurance test than a movie, Pink Flamingos will definitely stay with you after you’ve seen it.

 

Happiness (1998)

I’d be remiss to leave Todd Solondz off this list. He has created quite the cult following around his body of work, and Happiness is probably his best. This film is also not for everyone. It is incredibly dark, forcing the viewer to laugh at quite disturbing situations and to also look differently upon outcasts. It’s got a lot on it’s mind and it’s wickedly funny.

 

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

One of the first mockumentary films ever made. Rob Reiner’s classic story of an aging rock band is still hilarious today. Endlessly quotable and endlessly re-watchable.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Ghost World (2001) – Excellent slacker film with female protagonists (which is good for a change). Steve Buscemi gives one of his best performances.

Clerks (1994) – Kevin Smith’s first and best film.

Rushmore (1998) & Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – Two of Wes Anderson’s funniest comedies. Bill Murray is awesome in both.

Up in Smoke (1978) – Classic Cheech and Chong.

Orgazmo (1997) – The first film from Trey Parker (of South Park) about a Mormon getting involved in the porn industry.

Half Baked (1998) – Classic stoner film written by and starring Dave Chappelle.

Dazed and Confused (1993) – Richard Linklater’s classic 70s hang out movie.

 

I’m probably forgetting a lot, but these will suffice for now. Suggestions? Let me hear them.

An Interview with Werner

Here’s an interesting interview Werner Herzog did last year for his film Into the Abyss. I could listen to Werner describe paint drying and it would be riveting, but here he has some pretty interesting things to say about film making and his philosophy.

REVIEW – Terrence Malick’s ‘To The Wonder’

Terrence Malick’s films are a little tricky to review. People are either on board with his oblique, beautiful style or they’re not. Therefore, opinions are usually very polarized. Tree of Life was booed at Cannes, but went on to win the Palm D’or. Similarly, his new film, To the Wonder, was booed at Venice but still garnered a few rave reviews. I tend to fall into the Malick fanboy camp, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand his detractors – his films can be extremely pretentious and meandering. And To the Wonder is a prime example of Malick’s tediousness.

Following his first two stunning films in the 70s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, Malick famously took about twenty years before he made his next film, The Thin Red Line. With that film, Malick began drifting further and further from conventional narrative films into more abstract and poetic ones. Last year’s Tree of Life saw Malick reach the zenith of this style. It was bold, adventurous, flawed, but overall an amazing experience. To the Wonder plays more like Tree of Life’s outtake reel. It has all the trademark Malick-isms: beautiful cinematography, nature, voice over, themes of love and spirituality. But where Tree of Life used these conventions in unique and, above all, interesting ways, To the Wonder offers nothing beyond surface level beauty.

The way in which the story is told is interesting, but, unfortunately, the story itself is not. Ben Affleck plays an American man who brings his French girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko) and her daughter to live with him in the States. Kurylenko tries her best to keep the magic of their relationship alive, but Affleck gradually becomes aloof and the couple drift apart. Enter Rachel McAdams, Affleck’s childhood friend, who becomes another love interest. Meanwhile, a priest played by Javier Bardem struggles with his faith in the face of the miserable and sick members of his congregation. The story is mostly wordless, save for cryptic, ‘poetic’ voice overs, and the odd line or two. Instead, Malick uses gorgeous shots to get across all we need to know about the characters and the story. The problem is we’ve seen this before from Malick – and done in a much better way.

The themes in this film – love, nature, religion – are present in pretty much all of Malick’s films, but never have they felt so shallow and obvious. He has nothing new to say here, and you have to wonder why he bothered making this film at all. The characters are thinly drawn and lack the depth of Brad Pitt or Jessica Chastain’s characters in Tree of Life – despite basically being the same types. Affleck is grim and aloof, Kurylenko is full of life and constantly dancing around. Kurylenko does her best, and, at times, is able to get you to feel for her. Affleck, however, seems a little lost. Perhaps a more magnetic actor would’ve made his scenes a little more interesting to watch. Javier Bardem is the strongest actor here, but his story ultimately doesn’t lead to much. The voice over, usually fairly strong in Malick films, feels almost like a parody (“Your love lifts me, but I am being constantly dragged to Earth.” “God is everywhere, yet I can’t see him.”, etc). However, the film is beautiful to behold (courtesy Emmanuel Lubezki) , and it almost makes you forgive the weak subject matter – almost.

Malick seems to be aiming for an emotional love story, but presents it in such an oblique and distant way that you can’t connect to the characters (odd, since he has succeeded in doing this before). There’s nothing wrong with being unemotional, but there’s nothing intellectual to the film (beyond “love is good but fleeting”) to warrant that approach. Instead, To the Wonder sits awkwardly in an odd middle zone – neither emotional nor intellectual. But damn is it pretty to look at.

Grade: B-

TIFF Time 2012

The Toronto International Film Festival is now in full swing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people will be descending upon the city over the next few weeks hoping to catch a glimpse of the slew of superstars in town – stars at the apex of their career like Winona Ryder and Gwyneth Paltrow. And while most will be busy chasing stars like flocks of Japanese school girls, some are actually in town to see a few films. As a cinephile, I have my eye on a few films being screened at TIFF, but, as a broke film school grad, I can scarcely afford to see even one of them. That still won’t stop me from listing some films I want to see, and will be looking for when they are released wider.

Here are 10 films to check out:

1. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

 

Obviously. I don’t think there’s any film fan not looking forward to this. Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and a score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood – who isn’t down for this? The good thing about The Master is that it will most likely be playing in wide release shortly after TIFF, so not a big deal if you miss it at the festival.

2. To The Wonder (Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick’s latest was made in record time for him – less than a year. There isn’t too much information available about To The Wonder but reports from Venice indicate that the film is: difficult, lacks a story, and is heavy with narration – pretty standard for Malick. Although, apparently, it’s his most non-narrative film to date, which could be good or bad. Either way, it’s Terrence Malick, so I’ll see it. This is also the only movie I was able to score tickets for at TIFF (I’ll post a review after I see it).

3. Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh)

 

Martin McDonagh’s previous film, In Bruges, was a great little film that featured one of Colin Ferrell’s best performances to date. Ferrell teams up with McDonagh again, this time as a struggling screenwriter who gets entangled in a bizarre situation in the L.A. crime world. Aside from the obvious appeal of McDonagh’s smart writing and directing, the cast he’s assembled is phenomenal. Besides Ferrell, there’s: Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Tom Waits. A great group of eclectic actors. This should be a really fun film and I hope it gets a wide release.

4. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)

 

A Harmony Korine film starring tween stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens who get tangled up with a bizarre, thugged-out James Franco. Franco plays a drug and arms dealer who recruits Gomez and Hudgens while they are on spring break. Sounds pretty awesome to me. Anyone who is familiar with Korine’s difficult, shocking, and experimental work will know that this won’t be any ordinary film. Don’t expect a wide release for this one.

5. A Liar’s Autobiography – The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman (Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett)

 

Utilizing multiple animation styles and featuring the voices of the remaining Monty Python members, this film looks like a must for any Python fan. Chapman had a rough life, so expect a mix of comedy and pathos.

6. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

 

Thomas Vinterberg is one of Denmark’s foremost directors (anyone who hasn’t seen his Dogma 95 masterpiece A Celebration should check it out). In his newest film, Mads Mikkelsen stars as kindergarten teacher who is falsely accused of child abuse. Vinterberg is a powerful director, and Mikkelsen is a powerful actor, so I expect a pretty damn powerful movie.

7. A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman)

This film’s all about the cast. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, and Catherine Keener. They are three members of a world-renowned quartet who are struggling to keep the band together (not exactly a band, but whatever). This looks like a dialogue driven drama that will allow for some great performances from the leads.

8. The Iceman (Ariel Vromen)

 

Michael Shannon plays real-life notorious hitman Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski who was responsible for anywhere between 100 and 250 murders. This film boasts a pretty decent supporting cast – Ray Liotta and James Franco – and Shannon is always great to watch. This could be a pretty entertaining crime film.

9. Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon)

Not sure if this will be good or not, but it certainly looks interesting. Whedon shot this Shakespeare adaptation in only 12 days on a cheap budget. It’s modern and stylized, but retains all the original text. This could actually turn out pretty well. Shakespeare’s witty barbs could make for a pretty good fit for Whedon, who is no stranger to banter.

10. Looper (Rian Johnson)

 

Another predictable pick. Looper will probably end up being a big hit – and that’s a good thing. We need more intelligent blockbusters.

Honorable Mentions:

Frances Ha – Noah Baumbach’s latest film. I’m a fan, but this looks like it could suffer from quirk overload.

Hyde Park on Hudson – Bill Murray as FDR.

Room 237 – A doc exploring insane theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell’s newest pic. A lot of people are looking forward to this, but I’m not the biggest O. Russell fan.

The Place Beyond the Pines – Ryan Gosling re-teams with his Blue Valentine director, Derek Cianfrance, for a story about a motorcycle stunt driver. Could be good, but looks kind of similar to Drive.

Stinkers (Or What is Garnering Buzz but Will Probably Bomb):

Cloud Atlas – The latest from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer. A lot of people seem to be eagerly awaiting this epic, sprawling movie, but I think it looks overlong, cloying, and pretentious.

Antiviral – Brandon Cronenberg, son of the legendary David Cronenberg, premiers his first feature film at TIFF. A lot of Canadian media have been pushing this film, but I have serious doubts about it. I saw one of Brandon’s short films, and it wasn’t too strong. This also looks like territory the elder Cronenberg would explore, which makes me think that Brandon is riding the coattails of his famous father.