I quite like Wes Anderson. Now on to the reviews.
Bottle Rocket (1996)
Bottle Rocket is not a bad film (just awfully not good), but Martin Scorsese’s love for it has to be one of the world’s biggest mysteries. Martin Scorsese – with his gutsy shots and his invigorating intensity. Needless to say, Bottle Rocket has none of that. Essentially, it’s a short student film from 1992 (co-written with Owen Wilson) stretched over an hour and a half. I guess ‘bloodless’ would be the word. And no, it’s not the only film by Wes Anderson where you constantly want to donate blood to his flimsy-floaty characters, but there’s no question that it’s a particularly anaemic, occasionally rather painful experience. The story involves Anderson’s usual ‘hopeless optimist’ line and features his already recognizable style fed on the trademark whimsy and awkward pauses. However, with a plot so hollow I don’t see why anyone would bother. There’s one brilliant scene (bookstore robbery), but otherwise no amount of good Arthur Lee songs can save it from its mildly satisfying (a few chuckles) mediocrity. Even Anderson’s fans would have to meditate themselves into loving it.
A huge improvement. Suddenly Wes Anderson shows not just good taste in music (British Invasion this time), but in filmmaking, too. College farce Anderson-style: Jason Schwartzman plays a 15-year old student from Rushmore Academy who becomes infatuated with a young widowed teacher. You just know Anderson could pull that off. The ever reliable Bill Murray is here too, the beginning of a long-lasting partnership with the director. Rushmore won’t knock you off your feet, but it’s an entertaining, quirky little comedy. Scenes which in the sorry case of Bottle Rocket would be filled with languid, cringe-worthy mellowness, are preposterously amusing little incidents in Rushmore. It’s not the sort of film you could get your teeth into (which is typical of Wes Anderson), but there’s at least some substance to it. The revenge scene with The Who’s “A Quick One While He Is Away” in the background is an absolute belter.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
You probably have to have a bit of that ‘hopeless romantic’ thing in you to get into Anderson’s style of filmmaking. Cynics will just find it terribly wishy-washy. And since I’m pretty much what you might call a cynical romantic, I’ll be objective here: The Royal Tenenbaums is hilarious twee entertainment that occasionally verges on saccharine and slightly annoying. For me, it’s a little uneven. For instance, while all the scenes with Gene Hackman are wildly enjoyable, most of the scenes involving Luke Wilson range from passable to wince-inducing. Having said all that, The Royal Tenenbaums is still an effective tale of a dysfunctional family made up of the most tender and gentle weirdos, freaks, losers, headcases imaginable. All layered with an almost excessive amount of great music (you get an occasional feeling that Anderson just wanted to cram all his favourite songs into this), from Nico to The Clash.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
Wes Anderson’s art is vulnerable. It is so vulnerable that I constantly get this feeling that if you happen to push it or even nudge it slightly, it will crash down on the floor. But crash like a feather. Well, Anderson’s next one was The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and in all honesty, that title alone should scare you away. Still, no fan of this here filmmaker would be disappointed; for all its sprawling messiness, it is quintessential Wes Anderson. Just longer and even sillier (I use the word somewhat affectionately) than usual. The film is a Jacque-Yves Cousteau pastiche with Bill Murray brilliantly capturing the character of a half-romantic/half-narcissistic seaman Steve Zissou. In fact, there are lots of great actors here (special kudos to Anderson for reviving Bud Cort of the classic and unfading Harold And Maude fame), and lots of great music, too (mostly David Bowie). Not that it can save The Life Aquatic from occasional tediousness, but some of that absurdist stuff simply can’t be beaten. I give it a six, but you might knock it up to a seven for Cate Blanchett. She is as amazing as ever.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
While you wouldn’t find too many people who sympathise, but ten or fifteen minutes into The Darjeeling Limited I already knew that this was going to be Wes Anderson’s best film. I don’t know whether it’s India that can work wonders or the brilliant Adrien Brody, but this looks like Anderson’s wittiest, most fully-fledged work to date. Again, it’s a dysfunctional family, it’s three young men (brothers) embarking on a spiritual journey, it’s Owen Wilson, it’s Jason Schwartzman, it’s Anjelica Huston, it’s Bill Murray, it’s amazing British music (three main songs, “Powerman”, “This Time Tomorrow” and “Strangers”, are from The Kinks’ classic Lola album)… Only it’s somehow better. Anderson’s clever understatements do appear clever; the awkward silence is actually not annoying, but awkward for a reason; the situations are more amusing than self-consciously whimsical. The dialogues are terrific, too, that dining car sequence being my favourite Anderson ever. Minimalist and hilarious. Normally I wouldn’t put ‘Wes Anderson’ and ‘gutsy’ in one sentence, but The Darjeeling Limited doesn’t have a single scene I would call bloodless. Certainly something to do with a strong script.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Without a doubt Wes Anderson making a cartoon based on a Roald Dahl children’s story is an absolutely mouthwatering proposition. Anderson’ films have always had those childish, eccentric, humorous vibes about them, so tackling a whimsical little book like Fantastic Mr. Fox seems like a most natural step for him. Still, don’t expect it to be too fresh and challenging: cartoon or not, the cast is still pretty much the same. He keeps adding a new face or two (voice in this case), but all the same: Wes Anderson will not leave his comfort zone. Which is both bad (little artistic growth) and good (style is style). Wikipedia can describe the plot a lot better than I can, so I’ll just say that Fantastic Mr. Fox looks stunning. The stop-motion animation looks old-fashioned and slightly amateurish, but has a truly charming, heartfelt quality to it. Opossum Kylie could be my favourite character Anderson has ever done. Nothing particular to say about music – just that it’s reliably good and features, among others, artists like The Beach Boys and Jarvis Cocker.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
And, finally, here it is: Wes Anderson’s long-awaited foray into paedophilia… Well, no, not quite. Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s seventh, is his usual mix of whimsy and romantic idealism. This time, however, it’s children who are at the heart of this beautiful, occasionally quite hilarious narrative. Interestingly, while in Anderson’s films you usually have grown up people acting in a blatantly infantile way, here you have kids trying to be adults. Moonrise Kingdom sees two kids, Sam Shukusky (that’s the sort of name Anderson would use) and Suzy Bishop, fall in love and run away into the wilderness (and to a 'distant' place they call Moonrise Kingdom). It all involves a ‘Khaki scout’ summer camp, Bill Murray with an axe, Benjamin Britten, and all those other tasteful and deliciously silly things that make Wes Anderson so singular and so good. As expected, the acting is superb (the film features the likes of Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis and others). Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t quite hit me the way The Darjeeling Limited did, but I’d still rate it as his third, maybe second best. At this point in time, I’d have to say this again: Anderson has found the perfect balance between preciousness and substance