Review: The Darjeeling Limited

<b>The Darjeeling Limited</b> (2007)
Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston, Natalie Portman, Amara Karan, and Bill Murray.  Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schartzman.  Directed by Wes Anderson

Francis has recently been in a terrible motorcycle crash.  Peter’s wife is seven months pregnant and he doesn’t know how to feel about it, since he always assumed his marriage wouldn’t last.  Jack has recently broken up with a girlfriend he doesn’t seem to want back, ‘though everything he does seems to be a reaction to this breakup.  The three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman, respectively) meet on the Darjeeling Limited, a train taking them to visit their semi-estranged mother, except that Peter and Jack don’t know it, because Francis has planned it to be a surprise.

A warm blanket of sadness covers the men, and it colors their every interaction.  Their lives apart from one another seem sad for sure, but there are also the relationships with each other, their relationship with their mother, the recent death of their father, and seemingly multiple unspoken layers in between each of these.

This is the first Wes Anderson film I’ve seen where the director’s visual style seems like more than just a style, but a storytelling device contributing to the viewer’s appreciation for the characters and their relationships.  “Here’s another way to look at these guys,” he seems to be telling us, rather than simply changing the backdrops behind the action on the screen like someone flicking through different greenscreen backgrounds while the brothers move through the plot.

Much of the action takes place in the confines of a train, and the movement from one part of the train to the next, superimposed on the movement of the train through the landscape is like looking at one slideshow on top of another.  It’s visually interesting, and it adds context to the spoken and unspoken words the brothers exchange as they navigate the complexities of their relationships.  It’s an unexpected pleasure, unlike the chore it was to follow The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I admit I fell asleep in the middle of and have therefore never reviewed.

Wilson, Brody, and Schwartzman are perhaps at their best in this film, and I’m reminded of what drew me to Wilson when I first saw him in Shanghai Noon.  His goofy, earnest charm has been absent these past ten years or so, and it’s nice to see it again.  The dialogue, consistently a strength in an Anderson picture, is fascinating here, rolling in like waves and sweeping back out, as interesting and comfortably lulling as the rattle of a train over the tracks.

What a pleasant surprise.  It’s not quite as good as Moonrise Kingdom, but in some ways it’s even better.  This feels like Anderson becoming the filmmaker I’d hoped he would become before I gave up on him.



Review: New York, I Love You

New York, I Love You (2008)
Hayden Christensen, Andy Garcia, Rachel Bilson, Natalie Portman, Irrfan Khan, Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Maggie Q, Ethan Hawke, Chris Cooper, Robin Wright, Anton Yelchin, James Caan, Olivia Thirlby, Blake Lively, Bradley Cooper, Drea de Matteo, Julie Christie, John Hurt, Shia LaBeouf, Burt Young, Shu Qi, and a few others. Directed by Jiang Wen, Mira Nair, Shunji Iwai, Yvan Attal, Brett Ratner, Allen Hughes, Shekhar Kapur, Natalie Portman, Fatih Akin, and Joshua Marston.

nyily2New York, I Love You is the second (of three, so far) in the Cities of Love series, preceded memorably by Paris, je t’aime and succeeded forgettably by Rio, I Love You. It is a good place for it in the chronological order, for if the series ends now, it will be the little downward-pointing bridge between the first and third films, the down staircase in the devolution of a great idea.

nyily1The concept of several short films by different directors, featuring different actors, with the loosely unifying theme of love is translocated to another great city that celebrates and destroys love in all its shapes and colors: New York, where there is a broken heart for every light, and all that. Although I’m about as personally knowledgeable about the Big Apple as I am the City of Lights, because I’m an American and I’ve seen a movie or two, I feel qualified to say that the stories in the first film seem to have emerged from the Paris’s many alleys and stages, while the stories in this second installment could have taken place in almost any city in the country.

nyily3This is a huge disappointment that could have been allayed by vignettes that deliver the promised goods. And they give it a good shot. Consider:

  • A Hasidic jeweler (Natalie Portman) and an Indian diamond merchant exchange barbs about the product they’re about to buy and sell, a give-and-take that leads to complaints about their respective religions and an unspoken sympathy.
  • A film composer (Orlando Bloom) works against a deadline, but the film’s director demands he read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for inspiration before he puts the music together. He complains to the director’s assistant (Christina Ricci), who offers support, and he is too stressed to receive it as anything more than the gesture of a sympathetic co-worker.
  • Ethan Hawke, playing whatever you’d call the opposite of against type, puts moves on a beautiful Maggie Q, who is unimpressed while Hawke explains what he would do to rock her world.
  • Robin Wright steps out of the restaurant where she’s dining with her husband. She bums a cigarette from Chris Cooper, standing on the sidewalk outside. She complains about all the ways marriage has become a disappointment, comparing it with the excitement of one-night stands.

nyily4There’s a lot of potential here, and while the majority of the eleven short films is fairly satisfying, none inspires a real wow, none really hits you in the gut in the manner of several chapters in Paris, je t’aime.  A few, like the Hasidic jeweler scene and a Fatih Akin scene involving an aging painter and a Chinese herbalist, deliver some nice, romantic arrows to the heart, but most don’t swing hard enough for the fences, eliciting more of a “that’s nice” than a “holy moly.”

I don’t fault the actors, most of whom find some really good notes in their short times on screen. I especially like Robin Wright, Chris Cooper, and Julie Christie as an aging actress visiting an old hotel whose young bellboy (Shia LaBeouf) may have a crush on her, ‘though it would be tough to find a bad performance anywhere in this.  Maybe Hayden Christensen and maybe Orlando Bloom are less than inspiring, but nobody sucks.

It’s unlikely anyone will hate this film, but not many will love it, the way they might love Paris, je t’aime. That’s a lot more than can be said for the film that follows, so it may be worth a look. I’ve spent far worse Tuesday evenings, like the Tuesday evening I watched Rio, I Love You.


Review: Paris, je t’aime

Paris, je t’aime (2006)
Margo Martindale, Nick Nolte, Steve Buscemi, Juliet Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Elijah Wood, Olga Kurylenko, Emily Mortimer, Alexander Payne, Natalie Portman, Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands, Gérard Depardieu. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Alexander Payne, Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuarón, and others. (English and French, with English subtitles)

parisA tourist in Paris unintentionally gets involved in a young couple’s spat when he makes eye contact in the metro station. An EMT tends to a bleeding man whom she doesn’t realize she’s met before. An American man escorts a much younger woman down the street, begging her to trust him. These are three of the eighteen very short films that make up Paris, je t’aime. Each short is set in a different Parisian arrondissement (a word I just learned), each written and directed by a different team.

jeFilms like this miss more often than they hit, but here is one that mostly gets it right. When you only have five minutes to tell a story, it seems you rely more on situation and pacing than on characters, dialogue, or plot, but characters, dialogue, and plot can make the difference between interesting and moving. Taken individually, not every short is moving, but most of them contribute to an overall stirring of feelings about (and feelings of) love. I especially like the sections directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Oliver Schmitz, Alexander Payne, and Paul Mayeda Berges with Gurinder Chadha (who directed Bend it Like Beckham together).

t'aimeThe acting is solid all around, but I was especially taken with Margo Martindale as a middle-aged American woman narrating her visit to Paris in an American’s schoolbook French. Martindale is an actor I’ve only recently discovered, and in this film, she is the best I’ve seen her.

Although I have mixed feelings about his chapter, Bob Hoskins is another standout: I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything except Who Framed Roger Rabbit, so his dignified English accent and bearing were a really nice surprise.

pjtIn Wes Craven’s scene, Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell do a nice job with a lovers’ argument in the cemetery where Oscar Wilde is buried, when Wilde’s grave inspires one to break up with the other, and Wilde himself seems to inspire the other to make it work. The scene is maybe the best put-together in the film, where everything seems to work together to shine on its own and contribute to the bigger picture.

If you like the film, see it twice. It’s a movie that rewards a second viewing, and if you see it on a DVD which includes the making-of featurette, see that too.


Review: Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo. Directed by Alan Taylor.

thor2The first Thor film was an unexpected surprise. I saw the trailer and thought, “There is no way that can be any good.” I was wrong. As utterly bizarre as the premise and plot were, it was an entertaining movie whose underlying conflict between immortal brothers was strangely humanizing. Add that to Thor’s fish-out-of-water story on earth, and there was something almost universal about a Norse god roaming the streets of New Mexico with Padme Amidala.

thor3I had high hopes for this sequel, but then reviews were lukewarm, and people close to me said it was a fairly unmemorable movie, so I didn’t go out of my way to see it until I decided two years later that I want to see all the films in this Marvel universe. Low expectations were surely part of my enjoyment of the first movie, and now they contribute to my enjoyment of the sequel. It’s compelling and funny, with characters I enjoyed spending time with, and I like it just as much as I liked the first film.

thor1Loki is imprisoned by his father Odin, the king of Asgard. Thor and his buddies are finishing a war across nine realms, sparked (I think) by the events in the first movie, so although his heart yearns to get back to Jane Foster in New Mexico, as he promised, he’s been a little too busy. Now the nine realms are about to converge, creating portals linking them directly, and an ancient foe who has been in hibernation arises to undo the mistake that was the creation of the nine realms. Jane gets involved, her life is in peril, Loki’s assistance must be solicited, and we get another round of the Thor-Loki love-hate dynamic.

And it is not tired. It’s still gripping. Don’t ask me how. There are so many ways Thor: The Dark World should just be laughable, but it’s not, and I don’t know how they do it, but it may have something to do with one very quick scene at the beginning of the third act. Thor shows up at Jane’s house, and as he enters, he hangs Mjolnir, the mighty hammer that has vanquished giants with one blow, on a peg on a coat rack. It is an acknowledgment of the strangeness of this film’s premise without conceding any of its reality within the universe it has created. Thor sees how out of place he is, how impossible it is for him to be there, but he is there, and Hemsworth plays his part with the right amount—just a smidgen—of awkward imbalance to flavor the rest of his utmost earnestness. It totally works, even with a nonsensical, ambiguously western European accent.