Friday, June 1, 2012

the Directors: Wes Anderson

When you start listing the most influential and assertive of contemporary directors, Wes Anderson has got to be close to the top. After he made his first feature at the age of 27, many said he was going to be the next Scorsese, which, in a way, is exactly what he’s become.

No, Anderson hasn’t become famous for depicting street-level mobsters or shooting iconic scenes of horrific violence, but he has proclaimed himself as one of the most branded filmmakers currently working in film. At the risk of being presumptions, I think most any person with a basic interest in film can recognize a Wes Anderson movie within 30 seconds of watching it. The sepia-infused tones, the normal-to-slow motion shots, the witty, upper-class dialogue, the antique set props – it’s all part of the formula.

Many people say that you either love or hate Wes Anderson. I’m not sure I agree with that, I can’t say all of his films justify that level of polarization (some do, though). But love him or hate him or like him, it’s impossible to deny his influence.

Bottle Rocket – short (1994)
The best, most inspiring aspect about the short that started Anderson’s career is that it clearly displays that Wes Anderson wasn’t born with a knack for visual talent. It was something he grew into. The quality of the short is crap – shot in harshly overexposed black and white – but that doesn’t matter. Why? Because the film is smart, authentic, hilarious, and most importantly, evident of the filmmaker’s passion.

It’s so amusing to see what a crappy camera, a few friends and a witty script can eventually lead to. And with today’s digital transformation, the sky really is the limit. B

Bottle Rocket (1996)
The first 40 minutes of Bottle Rocket represent my favorite filmmaking of Wes Anderson’s career. There’s the 75-year plan, the robbery of the parents, the robbery of the library, Future Man, Bob – it’s all perfectly written and magically executed. When we watch those scenes, we’re watching something we’ve never seen before. A new style, a refreshing view – we’re watching a kid subtly declare that, Hey, I’m here too.

With all that in mind, it simply kills me to say that once Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen Wilson, delivering by far the performance of his career), flee their life of crime to hide out in a motel, the film drops off. It loses its fast pace, its insanely snappy banter; essentially, it loses its charm. I revisit the film often, hoping I’ll appreciate its second half better, but it just always ends up disappointing me. No matter, the best parts of Bottle Rocket are Anderson at his finest. They make it easy to forgive the rest. B+

Rushmore (1998)
After the monster critical success of Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson was given more than double the budget to make Rushmore, a hilarious and heartfelt indie wonder about the trials and tribulations a precocious overachiever goes through at his private school.

Fifteen-year-old Max Fischer (a perfect Jason Schwartzman), has the drive to do it all, but none of the sense to properly execute it. He belongs to (or starts) damn near every extracurricular activity he comes across, but he gets bad grades, mouths off to superiors, and most significantly, begins acting on his love for a first grade teacher. When his good friend and fellow goon, Herman (Bill Murray, in his best role) falls for the same teacher, all hell breaks loose.

But really, Anderson’s films are not best characterized by their plot descriptions (if, in fact, the movie in question actually has a plot). Instead, it’s important to note how Rushmore is presented, rather than why. Notice the block-text title cards, the oddly appropriate rock ‘n’ roll songs, set pieces that look like they belong in Leave it to Beaver, and, of course the slow motion shots. Those ingenious, regular-to-slow shots that have become Anderson’s trademark. Rushmore is laced with a few of them (including during its final scene), and no matter how many times I watch the film, those shots still manage to put a smile on my face. Much like the entirety of Rushmore, those shots are just that good. A

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Stepping his game up and going all in, The Royal Tenenbaums is some kind of modern, hip, aristocratic work of art. The film depicts its own world in its own time, surrounded by things we think we recognize, but come to learn are notions and concepts and techniques we never could’ve imagined.

In documenting the life of Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and his family, Anderson delivered his magnum opus; an epic tale filled with unimaginable humor, unexpected dread, and enough panache and style to fill 10 feature films. Narrated flawlessly by Alec Baldwin, the film weaves in and out of the lives of its many characters with seamless effort. In short, The Royal Tenenbaums just feels new. It’s different and alive, which is one of the finest compliments I can give a modern American film.

There are too many noteworthy performances to touch on here, but what Hackman does with his character is nothing short of revelatory. Hackman justly won Oscars for his work in The French Connection and Unforgiven, and I love him in a number of other films, including The Conversation and Another Woman, but there’s something about his performance as that son of a bitch Royal that I’ll always consider Hackman’s best. Same can be said the man who made the film, as The Royal Tenenbaums is Wes Anderson’s masterpiece. A+

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
To tone down the hyperbolic bliss a few dozen levels, I’m just going to come out and say that I hate The Life Aquatic. I for the first (and only) time in Anderson’s career, this film is evidence of a filmmaker who knew just how good he was. Like a hot blonde who dismisses a guy in a bar simply because she knows she’s a hot blonde, The Life Aquatic has a pretentiousness about it that says, I don’t give a shit if you don’t like me, I was made by Wes Anderson.

And, believe me, my distaste for this film hasn’t been without lack of trying. I’ve given The Life Aquatic several chances to somehow wow me. To convince me that it contains something I didn’t see before. In fact, I watched it just last night but unfortunately came close to turning it off several times. The film is too heavy on style and too lacking in substance, with over the top acting to boot. In short, The Life Aquatic is just too much Wes Anderson. A rare misstep in an otherwise impeccable career. D

Hotel Chevalier – short (2007)
Anderson’s flawless prologue to The Darjeeling Limited takes place almost entirety in the vast Paris hotel room occupied by Jack (Schwartzman). He sits on his bed, ordering room service and watching movies before his ex calls unexpectedly saying she’ll be at the hotel any minute. Jack freshens up, and when his ex (Natalie Portman) arrives, they engage in, well, a few things, all of which are best experienced while watching the film itself.

Hotel Chevalier garnered massive critical praise, and was commended for its ballsy marketing tactic (it was available on iTunes a few months before The Darjeeling Limited hit theaters), all for good reason: the short is quick and factual, but never reveals more than it needs to. It’s a perfect way to spend 13 minutes. Forget trailers, or, hell, trailers for trailers, THIS is how you hype a flick. A

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
In The Darjeeling Limited, three grown brothers who haven’t seen each other in the year since their father died embark on a train journey across India. They travel in hopes of reconnecting, both to each other and spiritually as individuals. What ensues is a journey of annoyance, distrust, abandonment, trepidation, and eventual acceptance. And because this is a Wes Anderson flick, everything the Whitman brothers do and say is done with comic zeal, and everything the audiences sees looks gorgeous.

I really enjoy The Darjeeling Limited, but I acknowledged that it may be Anderson’s most dividing work to date. Many of its critics argued that, because Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) come from such wealth, their trek is presented with no conflict. As if to say, because the Whitman brothers are rich and can spend money like its nothing, then it’s impossible to find them interesting. I disagree. I don’t think making a character rich makes them any less interesting, in fact, I think it is hilarious, for instance, to watch Francis rip up three first class plane tickets, just because the brothers change their mind at the last second.

I appreciate that Anderson seriously scaled back his budget (going to $17.5 million against Life Aquatic’s $50 million), because, for richer or poorer, I find The Darjeeling Limited to be an exquisite character study into the minds of three very complicated men. Also, it’s worth noting that the film takes an unaccepted, emotional turn that is unlike anything Anderson has ever put on screen. Anderson’s films always touch on the dark side of human nature, but never with such innocence. A

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
The perfect adjective is used in the title of this PG-rated, stop-motion animated film, because it is just that: fantastic. The film follows a family of foxes as its patriarch (George Clooney), is tempted back into the life of crime he left years ago. Look, if I’m being honest, I am not a fan of animated films. At all. There are a few classics I enjoy, but mostly, I have trouble buying into what I often call the “forced happiness” of it all. With that in mind, everytime I watch Fantastic Mr. Fox, I do it with a big fat giant smile on my face. It’s just delightful.

I never thought Anderson’s trademarked styles – the warm colors, snappy editing, and bitchin’ rock tunes – would translate into the world of animation. How wrong I was. A-

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Much like The Life Aquatic, Moonrise Kingdom relies far too heavily on its style to help propel its story. The film tells the humorous tale of a young boy and a young girl who attempt to flee the New England island they live on, and the search party that ensues to find them. And although it tells that story well, using all of the tricks and glitz that one has come to expect in a Wes Anderson film, there simply isn't much going on here. In fact, in my full review, I explain that I found a majority of the film to be boring and uninspired. Yes, you can definitely tell within seconds that Moonrise Kingdom is a Wes Anderson film, but what's the point in knowing if nothing great comes from it? B-

In Summation
The Royal Tenenbaums

Bottle Rocket
Hotel Chevalier
The Darjeeling Limited
Fantastic Mr. Fox

Bottle Rocket (short)

Moonrise Kingdom

Just Plain Bad
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Previous Director Profiles include:
Listen to my podcast on Wes Anderson:


  1. I love Wes Anderson. It really speaks to me when a filmmaker makes an effort to make their films, and every element thereof, their own.

    I haven't seen Life Aquatic yet. The D doesn't really help either.
    I am actually not a fan of Royal Tenenbaums, save the visuals and the character of Margot who I completely worship. My favourite Anderson film by a mile is Rushmore.

    Can't wait for Moonrise Kingdom. I just know it in my bones that I will love it.

    1. I couldn't agree more - it's nice when a director is so in command of every single aspect of their film.

      Sounds like your Royal Tenenbaums is my Life Aquatic, and that's fair enough. It really seems like he's movies have the ability to spawn those kinds of reactions. I can't wait for Moonrise Kingdom either!

  2. I've only seen the first three of these, but I don't understand the hate Anderson gets. He's creative. How is that a bad thing? Bottle Rocket might be my favourite but The Royal Tenenbaums is also awesome.

    1. I don't understand the hate either. I guess people are just intimidate by this much style, but I have no idea. Fucking love Bottle Rocket, and Tenenbaums, well, yeah...

  3. Wes is among my favorite filmmakers. I still like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I'm glad I got to see it at a free screening on Xmas eve 2004 where I won a Steve Zissou beanie. Yet, the reception it got in that screening was mixed. Some clapped, including myself, while others were like... "what the fuck did I just see?"

    I think the reason it's everyone's least favorite is because the quirks aren't as natural, the humor seems forced, and some aspects of the film gets old very quick. Still, I like it because of Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston, and of course, Willem Dafoe as Klaus who is one of my favorite Wes Anderson characters.

    If you own the 2-disc Criterion DVD of The Life Aquatic, there is a excellent making of documentary but watching it gave me a headache considering the ambition it took to make that film. I don't think Wes Anderson wanted to do that film ever again.

    I'll definitely be seeing Moonrise Kingdom hopefully within a few weeks.

    1. I think my friend has the Criterion, so I'm definitely going to check out that making of doc - I've heard he had a hell of a time making that thing. I do appreciate his effort, as always, but yeah, that flick just doesn't do it for me.

      Pretty damn cool that you got one of those beanies though.

  4. rushmore is still my favorite film in general.

    the criterion version is a must, the quality is so so much better than the grainy dvd.

    i like your nurses uniform, guy.

    1. I love that Criterion, the transfer is so crisp. Love everything about the movie.

      Murray blocking the lay-up is the best scene of his career.

  5. I haven't seen the Bottle Rocket short and I've only seen about half of the full length version. Everything else of Anderson's I adore.

    Life Aquatic isn't my favorite (that would have to be the Royal Tenenbaums) but I really love it. It's fair to say that it's Anderson's broadest film and it's very heavy on the humor, but I love Murray's performance (I think the way he chokes up in the sub at the end is fantastic).

    Rushmore is great and extremely quotable ("Your mind's as warped as your ear, Magnus.").

    Darjeeling is probably my least favorite of his films, but I appreciate the drama and the cast. Natalie Portman in Hotel Chevalier? Yum.

    I've only seen Fantastic Mr. Fox once but I really enjoyed it. I'd like to see Anderson and Clooney team up for a live action film (I thought they were going to for a remake of the French film "My Best Friend". Maybe someday).

    Cannot wait for Moonrise Kingdom. Very stoked to see Anderson working with some new folks.

    Fantastic post on one of my favorite directors. Great work.

    One last thing - was Gwyneth Paltrow's work in RT her best ever? I think so.

    1. Dude you MUST see Bottle Rocket - it is classic Anderson.

      Fair enough about Life Aquatic man, that one has just never done it for me. I have friends that swear by it, and who can argue, you know?

      I definitely think Margot is Paltrow's best role. Although she is really good in Proof as well.

      Thanks for the kind words buddy! Hope you like Moonrise Kingdom more than I did :(

  6. Alex, I'm also a big Wes Anderson fan. I also was not a fan of the Life Aquatic, though I've only seen it once (in the theaters). I'm curious if I'd enjoy it more now that it's freed from the expectations of following the combination of Rushmore and the Royal Tenenbaums. Those two are neck and neck for which is my favorite of his movies. I liked the Darjeeling Limited, but I still wasn't blown away by it. It was The Fantastic Mr. Fox that brought me back into the Anderson fold. I'm really looking forward to seeing Moonrise Kingdom in the next few weeks. Nice job.

    1. Thanks Dan! I admittedly like Darjeeling more than most people, and who knows why? It just works for me. Such a close call between Rushmore and Tenenbaums as my fave, but I gotta go with Tenenbaums. Classic stuff there.

  7. (Sorry, I wanted to see more Wes Anderson films before I tell my opinion about him.)
    First I want to ask what do you think about the fact that The Grand Budapest Hotel is nominated for Best Picture and Director.

    Wes Anderson is, maybe, one of the best directors I ever saw.
    What I've seen from him is fantastic:
    The Grand Budapest Hotel
    Fantastic Mr. Fox
    Moonrise Kingdom
    The Royal Tenenbaums
    Castello Cavalcanti

    You know how it is when you are totally indifferent through out a movie and then when you rewatch it you start to like it more. I now love The Grand Budapest Hotel. It is perfect. It is my first Wes Anderson film and I think it is his best. Ralph Fiennes and the cast are great, the music is fantastic, the cinematography is excellent, the editing is genius, the comedy is hilarious, the drama is heartbreaking, the story is interesting and never boring and the style is just gorgeous. If you don't like it because you think is style over substance I'm okey with that but that means the film needs to have style for 50 films (at least) to be in the style over substance category because there is substance in this film. If you didn't watch it since it came out and you don't watch it again, believe me, it is better every time I watch it. A+.
    One day were discounts for DVDs and I got a handful of great films at just 1$ each (Pulp Fiction, Memento, Somewhere, The Ghost Writer, The American, Last Night and Good Night and Good Luck but I didn't bought The Shawshank Redemption) and for 1.5$ Moonrise Kingdom. Was amazing. It was a little boring but more I got in the story less boring was the film and that means on my second watch I wasn't bored. Bruce Willis shows to me (and also in Looper) that he still got it. The music was pretty good and catchy. I agree that is style over substance but that doesn't stop me liking the film. I think that the story about love and being young and in love is damn good, the child actors were great and ad a great cast and you have a great film. A-.
    Then I saw Castello Cavalcanti and was pretty good. I want to hear your opinion about this film. B or B+.
    I saw The Royal Tenenbaums and was good at some parts and great at others. But suffers from too much caricature, one-note performances, costumes and an ungainly slathering of music. First what I liked Gwyneth Paltrow, Alec Baldwin was good, Luke Wilson was very good, and Anjelica Huston and Gene Hackman were amazing. The story is well narrated, the style matches with the tone. There were a couple of great moments in the film where I was like WOAU! like when Royal told to Etheline that he is dying or when there was presented the life of Margot. Now what I hate is Ben Stiller, I saw just how Ben Stiller tried to act and failed. I felt that the film could been a lot shorter but I should and I'll see it a second time. The film is great, just that is the Wes Anderson that I liked the least. A.
    Fantastic Mr. Fox is fantastic. I can't agree with just an A-, this film is an A. The scale of the film is impressive. Instead of recording in a studio the took boom mics in location that mimic the ones that characters are in, that gives much more realism to the film. George Clooney and Meryl Streep give fantastic performance, even that is just voice over. The humor is clever and woody and actually it has genuine emotion that is hard to pull off for films that don't take themselves too seriously. There is not a single bad thing I could say about this film. The film also has a fantastic score. Now I'd say this is the best stop motion animation film that I ever saw.

    Overall I really want to see Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited.

    1. Great comment. The Royal Tenenbaums will always be my favorite, but I do need to give The Grand Budapest Hotel a rewatch. I liked it when I first saw it, but I suppose I was left wanting more. So I'm excited to check that out this weekend again.

      I don't mind at all that The Grand Budapest Hotel is nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, and I think it's cool that Anderson has a really good shot at winning Best Original Screenplay (though Birdman and Boyhood would get my vote over it). I'll be curious to hear your thoughts on the Anderson films you haven't seen yet.

  8. I discovered something very intresting watching Bottle Rocket. It takes time to me to accommodate to Wes Anderson's style. I watch the film and the first 30 minutes I'm completely indifferent to the story and characters. Like you are expose to powerful light, your eyes need to accommodate. For that I'm sure that the third or forth time I watch the film I'll love it more. The first 30 minutes, right now, are blank space for me and I can't remember nearly nothing about them. The rest of the film on the other hand was amazing. I love Owen Wilson in this film and I think this is his second best performance (I still love Midnight in Paris). What Wes Anderson does best is to make a great romantic story and this is my favorite part about the film. I laughed a lot and I really want to see it again. Same goes with all the Wes Anderson films. It is better to watch them more then one time.

    1. Anderson's style can take a while to grow on you, for sure. I actually love those first 30 minutes of Bottle Rocket. And when you consider that it was Anderson's first film... it's such a confident tone. Not at all safe.

  9. Well the three brothers weren't boring at all. Adrien Brody was great and Jason Schwartzman was good, sadly I think that Owen Wilson wasn't so good. He wasn't bad either just meh. The film is the worst of Wes Anderson that I've seen till now (I need to see just Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). It's very repetitive, and it's really silly. The cinematography is good but it doesn't stick with me. The music choices were from good to great and the final song was perfect. Anjelica Huston was really the scene stealer. The movie itself was missing something very important: the flow. All the Wes Anderson films are very breezy. Moonrise Kingdom starts slow but it builds up so well. This one not so much, it really doesn't gain much. It's very Spielbergian: it started well but it more I watched less I cared. But the flash back scene on the other hand was better executed then the film itself. The acting was better, it felt refreshing, there were more effective and it was better then the film itself. The humor has fantastic. I laughed multiple times. The drama of the film was handed rather well enough but it fails in comparison with the B&W train scene in The Grand Budapest Hotel. The mountain scene was done so so poorly that it can be a statement when a director is going to far and it goes into parody. I want to give it less, but Adrien Brody, man, he is so great. B-. Like my grandma said 'this actually sucks'.
    This is how I would rank his films:
    Fantastic Mr. Fox
    The Grand Budapest Hotel
    Bottle Rocket
    Moonrise Kingdom
    The Royal Tenenbaums
    The Darjeeling Limited

    1. Very interesting rankings. Moonrise Kingdom didn't do it for me, but I wonder if I'd like it more watching it again. I thought The Grand Budapest Hotel was just okay when I first saw it, but no I absolutely love it. Anderson's films definitely have a way of growing on you.