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Wes Anderson’s
The Darjeeling Limited
2007 New York Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The Darjeeling Limited opens with Bill Murray in a crazed attempt to catch, well, the Darjeeling Limited—an intra-India train that has already departed. As we watch Murray, huffing and puffing and running as fast as he can, we soon see Adrien Brody entering from screen-right, catching up to him, then passing him and hopping onto the train—leaving Murray behind.

If you’ve never seen a Wes Anderson film, the moment might just seem a funny throwaway, but for filmlovers and Anderson fans the intertextuality is a joy to soak in. Murray has appeared in the last three Anderson films (Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic) but isn’t, well, young enough to play one of the brothers in this film. Brody takes his place. Call it mental auteur-masturbation. Call it ostentatious. I call it brilliant. The movie is filled with such moments, scenes that are smart, keen and clever, and some of them even have to do with the actual narrative—or what little there is of one.

The plot follows three estranged brothers who embark on a healing voyage through India. As usual in Anderson cinema (most notably his masterwork The Royal Tennenbaums) the sibs are eccentric, idiosyncratic oddballs at ‘odds’ with each other and out of touch with the world around them.

Francis (Owen Wilson) is the control-freak, older brother who recently had a near-death experience. The trip is his attempt to reconnect with his sibs. (And, yes, there are chilling moments where Wilson’s dialogue about death and sorrow are eerie and goosebumpy). Francis has organized the entire journey and even laminated the itinerary.

Peter (Adrien Brody) arrives with the secret that he’s about to become a father, uncertain how he truly feels about that. Finally, Jack (Jason Schwartzman) has just been dumped by his girlfriend and is writing about his life experiences but insisting it’s all fiction.

The trio have assembled to attempt to mend fences after the death of their father drove them apart. The result is a bittersweet and, ultimately, transcendent, picture. The journey becomes quite spiritual and culminates in a visit with their estranged (and strange) mother (Anjelica Huston) who is now a nun in the Himalayas!

Anderson has a highly stylized manner. Some may be turned off by his use of slow motion to heighten a point he wants to make. Still others might be maddened by the constant quirkiness of his characters or his insistence on cross-blending genres. (Criticisms I have heard at screenings.) To me, one misses the deeper and rich meaning complaining about Anderson’s style. He is who he is and should be celebrated for his originality.

I found the film to be mesmerizing and quite moving. Robert Yeoman’s cinematographic work is to be commended for making the trek so visually inviting. And Anderson’s choice of music goes a long way to set mood and tone. In particular, a song called: “Where Do You Go My Lovely.” (featured pretty prominently in the wonderful prequel Hotel Chevalier starring Schwartzman and Natalie Portman).

The script (by Anderson, Schwartzman and Roman Coppola) is refreshingly more visual-centric than dialogue-heavy resulting in marvelous tableaus and amazing shots of the trio reacting to one another’s lunacy.

All three leads deliver terrific performances and, despite the fact that they do not resemble one another, make you believe they’re actually brothers. Ms. Huston makes quite an impression in the final reel as well.

The Darjeeling Limited kicks off the 45th New York Film Festival with a quirky and exhilarating bang!





Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Noah Baumbach’s
Margot at the Wedding
2007 New York Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Like Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach’s characters are usually affluent and quite eccentric. This doesn’t mean they don’t suffer from the same familial crises and complications as the rest of the world. They just appear to do so at a more heightened and self-involved level.

Baumbach exploded onto the filmmaking scene two years ago with the deservedly lauded The Squid and the Whale. His follow-up proves that, like Anderson again, he has no intention of ‘going Hollywood.’ Quite the contrary, thank the film gods. Consequently, his work is going to alienate many an audience member and critic. It will also please many an audience member and critic.

In the audacious serio-comedy Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach presents us with such searing, uncompromisingly-flawed, psychologically damaged characters involved in hurtful relationships, that it’s sometimes difficult to figure out who you dislike more. And how damned refreshing is that?

The brilliant yet abrasive short story writer, Margot Zeller (Nicole Kidman) sets off on a trek with her adolescent son, Claude (Zane Pais), a typical raging-sack-of-hormones teen. They are going to attend the wedding of Margot’s estranged, self-pitying sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to unemployed shlub, Malcolm (Jack Black). From this, a cornucopia of baggage is unearthed and the sisters are forced to come to certain unpleasant realizations about themselves and their relationship--ah, but not in the typical studio film way or even the ever-growing indie-feel-bad-then-good way (Little Miss Sunshine anyone?)

Baumbach’s world, filled with foibled, frayed and flawed folk is a welcome tonic to the eventually-likeable, always-redeemable creations we are used to. And the look of the film perfectly captures the ominous, festering mood.

Nicole Kidman is one of the most fascinating actresses of her generation. She seems unafraid to take great chances with her choices. And many, of late, have been questionable but always interesting. Her devotion to each character must be commended, regardless. With Margot, she has her best role since Grace in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, and she gives an extraordinarily nuanced and brave performance. She doesn’t play Margot for sympathy. She doesn’t feel the need to soften her. As a matter of fact, one gets the idea that her Margo resists wanting to be liked. It’s not a necessity—making it a great necessity. Always demanding to know if people talked about her when she is out of the room, Kidman’s Margot is a delightfully idiosyncratic mess…someone who is never happy with herself, ergo never satisfied with others. She also happens to be a snob of sorts.

Margot and Pauline are a study in sisterly contrast. Locked into this notion that they should be best friends, they have very little in common and barely like each other. They do, however, seek each other’s approval…and that cuts to the core of something we can all relate to on some level.

What bonds these two together is not the sisterly-love we are told they should feel because they’re family, but the fact that they were both sexually mistreated by their father making them borderline bi-polar adults. This, as well as the theme of Claude’s Freudian love for his mom, may turn a few folks off, which is a shame because it’s exciting and rarely investigated territory.

Leigh hasn’t had a role worthy of her talents in a long while. Here she proves she’s a formidable actress with tremendous gifts. Pais portrays all the pains and joys of the early teen years without being precocious. Black does his thing and goes a bit beyond, for a change. John Turturro shows up in a seemingly thankless role that he makes quite important.

At a press screening, I overheard one male critic complain to a female critic that there wasn’t enough plot for him. How sad that he needed to bring his own baggage to this film instead of realizing the pleasures that can be found in a non-action-oriented but character-driven gem.

Margot at the Wedding is a great leap forward for Baumbach and one of the best films I’ve seen this year.




Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men

Joel & Ethan Coen’s
No Country for Old Men
2007 New York Film Festival


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

“This country’s hard on people,” is the simple yet profound line that defines the themes inherent in Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. And while the film is absorbing and quite powerful, it also feels disjointed and somewhat meandering. I have not read the acclaimed novel, yet all accounts (including the Coens statements at the Festival press conference) seem to dictate that they have remained steadfastly faithful to the original work. This may very well be where some of more problematic factors come into play.

The story takes place in 1980, and is about the excesses of greed…as well as pride in a changing southwest, US. Texan Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles on a briefcase filled with two million dollars and a stash of heroin amidst a slew of dead bodies, and one who is not yet dead. Moss, quite literally, takes the money and runs. Riddled with guilt, he returns that night and is wounded by gunfire but is able to flee. For the remainder of the narrative, he is relentlessly pursued by the diabolical Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), as well as local ‘good ol’ guy Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones).

The exciting story that evolves is a genre-twisting, unpredictable saga that is both a sad meditation on human nature and a portrait of a country that has quickly gone to hell—it’s citizens plagued by avarice, anger, ego, envy (actually MOST of the seven deadly sins!) and resorting to senseless violence.

The Coens are masters at presenting the underbelly of America, and how most folk are ready to sell their souls for a buck, while others live by an old world moral and ethical code. It’s a black and white that can be seen as a bit too simplistic at times, but the Coens are too clever to not add fascinating character shadings to these otherwise despicable and/or saintly characters. And they’re savvy enough to cast their film with amazing talent!

No Country for Old Men brings to mind 1996’s Fargo, and is arguably their best film since that Oscar-winning work. Fargo was a film I had to view at least three times before I could strip away the cold, cleverness of the Coens and allow myself to truly enjoy it. I had a similar experience watching No Country--a sense of detachment, admiration for the stunning filmmaking technique but feeling a definite disconnect.

Another key problem I often encounter in Coen films is what comes across as an obvious contempt the brothers have for their more, shall we say, hickish/towny characters. There’s seems to be a judgment portrayed onscreen that shouldn’t be, especially when you’re taken out the film because it’s so obvious. It goes beyond satire and seems to crop up in many a Coen picture.

If I find fault with the filmmakers, I do not with the actors. Brolin has finally found his breakthrough role with Moss, a man who makes an extreme mistake and must fight for his life. Jones is saddled with the sage role, but plays it masterfully. Woody Harrelson pops up briefly but effectively as a cocky lawman. And Kelly Macdonald holds her own as the lone female character of any substance.

Javier Bardem, however, steals the picture and enters the annals of vicious and creepy screen villains with his astonishing portrayal. His Chigurh is a devious blend of the subtle and the heavy-handed. With a wickedly memorable haircut and a menacing smile, Bardem unleashes Chigurh on his unsuspecting audience, as he tinkers with the minds (and lives) of his prey. He is motivated by greed, but, moreso, by his own discombobulated notion of honor, with a heaping dose of pride tossed in. It’s an unabashedly fearless performance that will, deservedly, reap plenty of awards at year’s end.

The production values are excellent across the boards with Roger Deakins doing stunning cinematographic work.

The final scene (which is taken directly from the novel) is a big letdown and left me feeling unsatisfied. Of course, maybe, that was the point. I’m not certain. With all of my criticisms, No Country does stand tall as one of the most challenging films of 2007. I did like it. I may, one day, love it. And I do look forward to a second viewing.

No Country for Old Men was the Centerpiece at this year’s New York Film Festival.



 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 


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