narration: Swan > Henry > Rat > Poison
visuals: Henry > Rat > Swan > Poison
story: Henry > Rat > Poison > Swan

The Swan:

Poison:

Richard Brody:

Anderson has long mastered the lesson that Godard delivered from Breathless onward: that viewers can remain deeply engaged in the events of a drama even while being pulled outside of that drama by fillips of form or fourth-wall-breaking winks and nods. Here he stands that notion on its head; he never breaks the framework of classically realistic drama because he never establishes it in the first place. It is not a question of characters breaking the action to address the camera but the reverse, and, for this reason, the direct address comes off as natural and central, and the acted-out drama as strange and supplementary. Ever since Rushmore, Anderson’s work has been an ongoing reproach to the unquestioned dramatic realism of even most of the great filmmakers of the time, and these four new shorts both heighten the audacious inventiveness of his wondrous artifices and sharpen their powers of critical discernment to a stinging point.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar:

The Rat Catcher:

Somehow this is already Junior Stargazer Woodrow’s third Wes Anderson movie.

Good movie, need to see again.

Bilge Ebiri:

We’re told that what we’re watching is really a theater piece written by the legendary American playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). The film actually begins on a black-and-white television stage with the story narrated by a Rod Serling–like Host, played by Bryan Cranston. (So, really, it’s a play within a play within a TV production within a movie.) The Host reminds us that “Asteroid City does not exist. It is an imaginary drama created expressly for the purposes of this broadcast. The characters are fictional, the text hypothetical, the events an apocryphal fabrication.” In other words, the story itself is a phantom, unknowable … Late in the movie, Jones steps away from playing Augie and runs into the actress (Margot Robbie) who was to play the part of his wife but was reportedly cut from the finished piece. As the two recall the scene they would have had together, the Andersonian whimsy slips away to reveal a perfect moment: two people communing with the messiness of life through their memory of a scene that doesn’t exist, from a play that never happened, presented within a theatrical-cinematic fiction pretending to be a TV show.

Sam Adams [after making some connections to method acting]

Anderson’s not aiming for pointed or even coherent critique of the method, so much as to contextualize it as one style among many—perhaps a road to the truth, but not the only one … Fiction often seeks to explain the human condition, to offer answers to questions that elude us in our own lives, but Asteroid City refuses that mandate. Toward the end of the movie, we see the actors in the play attending a lecture by the teacher Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe), who instructs them to approach their characters from “the outside in”—the practical opposite of the method approach. Dafoe has worked with Anderson before, but he’s particularly apt for this part as a longtime member of the Wooster Group, the experimental theater troupe that rejected method acting in favor of having the actors “simply do things on stage.”

Vadim Rizov:

Asteroid City‘s closest relationship to the immediate present comes from its intricate echoes of Anderson’s own work, especially Rushmore: Augie’s wife is dead when the film opens, just like Max Fischer’s mom, as Schwartzman has aged from playing a single father’s child to the solo parent himself … What’s definitely new, for Anderson and for all of us, is the look of the widescreen narrative that makes up the bulk of film. Shot in Spain, Asteroid City‘s fully constructed American Southwest looks like Looney Tunes meets Red Desert, an unlikely and fairly breathtaking synthesis; I couldn’t even initially tell if I was looking at live-action, cardboard cutouts or some kind of weird and imperceptible layering of the two.

David Ehrlich:

Royal Tenenbaum only needed a narrator, but Augie Steenbeck requires such an elaborate framing device that it ultimately becomes impossible to parse where he ends and the next person begins. And so it goes with many of the characters in a movie that never lets you forget that Scarlett Johansson is an actress playing an actress who’s playing an actress. But if the interstitial scenes in Asteroid City are destabilizing by design (in a why is Augie suddenly making out with a Kentucky fried Edward Norton? sort of way), you don’t need an airtight grasp on the mechanics of how everything fits together in order to be knocked flat by the effect of feeling it all click into place.

Vikram Murthi:

Anderson eventually collapses the film’s dual characters and settings via Schwartzman’s performance. Schwartzman-as-Augie leaves the Asteroid City set during its physical climax to return backstage where, as Jones Hall, he asks Schubert, the director, whether he’s playing the character right. Schubert assures him that he is, despite some “actorly business,” and to just read the story if he doesn’t understand the play. Immediately afterwards, he heads to a fire escape to smoke a cigarette where he speaks with the actress (Margot Robbie) who once played Augie’s late wife, standing on the opposite fire escape of a neighboring theater. Together, they perform their cut scene — a dream sequence between Augie and his wife that occurs on a moon of the alien’s planet — for themselves across a chasm of darkness. It’s difficult to put into words the complicated magic that arises from these two successive scenes. As a child, Schwartzman starred in Rushmore as the precocious teenage playwright/director Max Fischer, arguably the most autobiographical Anderson character; the conversation between him and Brody feels a lot like an older Schwartzman (or a grown-up Max) asking an older Anderson for guidance and being assured that he’s still doing okay, despite all the loss and confusion. (It’s also as if Anderson is using his once-younger surrogate to assure himself of the same thing.) Meanwhile, the scene between Schwartzman and Robbie speaks to Anderson’s late-era project, which testifies that authentic candor, about grief or real-world concerns, can arise from the stagiest settings: two “real” people perform a scene for no one but themselves, and in the process, transcend the confines of fiction and reach profound understanding.

Back in theaters for this one. I love going into Wes movies with absurdly high expectations, because he always meets them. I’ll read the hater critics some other time – maybe they were looking for something more than an endless parade of favorite actors and impeccable production design, but I wasn’t. Much of the movie is in 4:3 black and white, and either my screening was over-matted or the titles appear at the extreme top and bottom of frame.

Bookending segments in the newspaper office, with editor Bill Murray alive in the first piece and dead in the second. Bicycle tour through the town of Ennui by Owen Wilson. Story 1 is relayed by Tilda Swinton, involving art dealer Adrien Brody patronizing imprisoned painter Benicio del Toro whose guard/model is Léa Seydoux (they get some actual French people in here sometime). I was least involved in the middle piece, about faux-May’68 student revolutionary Timothée Chalamet’s affair with reporter Frances McDormand. Then Jeffrey Wright is reporting on celebrated police chef Steve “Mike Yanagita” Park, who helps foil a plot by Edward Norton to kidnap chief Mathieu Amalric’s son.

Michael Sicinski (Patreon) also liked the Benicio story best:

By contrast, Anderson’s snotty riff on May ’68, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” succumbs to the director’s worst comedic instincts, essentially declaring that political desire is nothing more than sublimated horniness … The final segment, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” sort of splits the difference, although it is elevated considerably by a fine performance from Jeffrey Wright, channeling James Baldwin as a melancholy ex-pat uncomfortable with his journalistic distance. The story itself is mostly just a riff on The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s portrait of courtly civility as a bulwark against anarchy. But it’s Wright’s representation of honest inquiry, and humanistic curiosity, that makes it far less silly than it should be.

Watched again a month later, with Katy this time.

Placeholder post until I watch this again on blu-ray, since it didn’t stay long in theaters. Doomed adventure story in a hopeless land, like a post-apocalyptic Fantastic Mr. Fox. The animation, voice acting, production design all perfect, and an overwhelming joy to watch in theaters. Haven’t yet read the articles about how Wes’s representation of Japan and treatment of women are problematic, so I’m free to love the movie in blissful ignorance, for now.

Things I Can Remember: Yoko Ono is the scientist who leaks the government-suppressed cure for snout fever to the exchange-student leader of the revolutionary youth. The conflicted lead dog of the pack who finds young Atari is a long-lost brother of Atari’s companion/bodyguard Spots, who now runs with a gang of suspected cannibals. And I can’t think too hard about the ending when they swap dog-to-human translation devices because it makes me emotional.

EDIT: watched again two months later on blu-ray

“This is a distant uncle’s worst nightmare”

That familiar Fantastic Mr. Fox feeling… whenever I think about this movie for any reason, I have the strong urge to rewatch it immediately.

The story of Tony Revolori, who loved Saoirse Ronan and grew up to be F. Murray Abraham, told his tale to Jude Law, who grew up to be Tom Wilkinson, whose book inspired many. Zero worked with Ralph Fiennes, who slept with Tilda Swinton, who was murdered by Willem Dafoe at the behest of Adrien Brody, who framed Fiennes by threatening Mathieu Amalric and later murdering Lea Seydoux and Jeff Goldblum (and his cat). Fiennes escapes prison with help from Harvey Keitel, runs into cop Edward Norton and military concierge Owen Wilson, clears his name but sacrifices himself to nazi authorities to save Revolori and Ronan. Jason Schwartzman is a Jude Law-era lobby boy, and Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and some others are shoehorned in.

See also: what I wrote on The Wind Rises.

Stefan Zweig (Letter From an Unknown Woman) gets an “inspired by” credit. Cowritten with the guy who drew the paintings at Eli Cash’s house in Royal Tenenbaums.

Katy liked it alright. My mom did not.

Castello Cavalcanti (2013, Wes Anderson)

Cute – Schwartzmann is a racecar driver who happens to crash in his ancestral village then decides to slow down and hang out for a while.

Aningaaq (2013, Jonas Cuaron)

The other side of a radio conversation Sandra Bullock has in Gravity, with a man in the icy wilderness who doesn’t understand her. It’s fun as a companion short but gets all its emotional weight from the Gravity recall.

Stephane Mallarme (1968, Eric Rohmer)

A visit with a typical pretentious french poet. Or I can’t tell if he’s pretentious since the spoken interview is translated but his written poetry excerpts are not. It’s all starting to seem odd, when the “documentary” short ends and the credits tell me Jean-Marie Robain (of Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer) played the poet, who died in 1898.

“In a society without cohesion, without stability, it’s impossible to create stable, definitive art.”

Weed (1996, Fatih Akin)

A corny-assed comedy starring Akin with Counting Crows hair, who tries to impress his new dance-club friends by claiming he has amazing weed at home, which he does not. So in order not to get killed once the lie has spun out of control, he brings them weeds from the garden, which they smoke and find to be amazing, because potheads have no standards I guess.

Precocious children with parental issues, highly-organized secret plans and old-fashioned craftsy props surrounded by superstar actors including Bill Murray – so yes, it’s like any Wes Anderson movie, but it’s a good one. He has a unique talent for collapsing different locations into one hermetic snowglobe of a film. The visual/conceptual unity is helped by the soft, grainy 16mm cinematography, and that fact that all the action takes place on an island.

In the celeb-actor world, Frances McDormand is cheating on husband Bill Murray with local cop Bruce Willis. Edward Norton leads a troop of scouts, hopes to join his idol, scout commander Harvey Keitel, at the big convention where Jason Schwartzman is some kinda mercenary merchant. And Bob Balaban is a sort-of-present character/narrator.

But one of the movie’s strengths is that it focuses primarily on its young heroes, Sam and Suzy, who run off together and camp on the beach, leaving the celeb-actors as background players. Willis and Norton lead search parties as two threats approach: an epic storm, and Tilda Swinton of Social Services, coming to take Sam to a home.

Katy liked it more than she thought she would.

Plastic Bag (2009, Ramin Bahrani)

An American Beauty plastic bag, dancing with me for twenty minutes. Only this bag’s journey is very well filmed and the bag has the voice of Werner Herzog – two innovations that would have greatly helped the last plastic bag movie I saw, The Green Bag. A blatant environmentalism screed, but I really enjoyed it. I thought it’d have the same ending as Children of Men, but it had the same ending as AI: Artificial Intelligence instead.

The Dirk Diggler Story (1988, PT Anderson)

An actual fake doc, but not a polished one. I thought it was rigged to look amateurish until I read online that it was actually edited on two VCRs by young Anderson. Narrated by PT’s father Ernie Anderson, a big-time TV announcer. It’s nice that he was willing to participate in his 18-year-old son’s movie about pornography, homosexuality and drug addiction. The most fun part of the movie is hearing this straightlaced announcer pronounce titles like “White Sandy Bitches” and “Bone To Be Wild”.

Dirk is explicitly bisexual in this one, but otherwise it hits some familiar plot points from Boogie Nights: Dirk’s drug addiction, his ill-advised recording career, his buddy Reed. There’s less nudity in the short, and it ends with an on-set fatal overdose for Dirk. My favorite bit that didn’t make the feature was a group prayer for God to protect us against premature ejaculation.

Horner (Burt’s character) is played by The Colonel in Boogie Nights, the only actor who returned. Well, Michael “Diggler” Stein had a cameo as “stereo customer”. He turned writer/director after that – his last film starred Andy Dick and Coolio.

Las Hurdes/Land Without Bread (1933, Luis Buñuel)

A half-hour documentary that has been discussed to death – how much of it is real? Can it be considered surrealist? Etc. Taken at face value as a portrait of an extremely poor mountain community, it’s well made, interesting, and too vibrant (and even humorous) to blend in with your average educational short. I still can’t believe they had a donkey killed by bees, and shot a mountain goat then hurled its body off a cliff, all to make points about the difficulty of life in this place. At least they didn’t kill any people on camera, although the narrator may have exaggerated (or undersold, who knows?) their conditions. Was released in ’33, had a French voiceover added in ’35 then a newsreel-toned English voiceover in ’37 – I saw the French version. I assume the bombastic music was on all three versions.

Senses of Cinema calls it “a documentary that posits the impossibility of the documentary, placing the viewer in the uneasy situation of complicity with a cruel camera probing the miseries of the urdanos for our benefit.”

The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1998, Sylvain Chomet)

This 20-minute movie gives me inexpressible joy. It’s a good antidote to the world-weary realism of The Illusionist, back way past the anything-goes surrealism of Triplets of Belleville into a pure comic cartoon world. A starving policeman dresses as a pigeon, barges into a bird-feeding old woman’s house and demands a meal, then does the same all year until she tries to eat him for Christmas dinner. Full of delightful little details (and at least one sad bird death).

The Italian Machine (1976, David Cronenberg)

“Let’s figure it out, Gestapo-style.”
A series of betrayals leading to an obsessed mechanic gaining ownership over a unique motorcycle. Made for TV, so people call each other “meathead” and “turkey”.

Beardy Lionel (Gary McKeehan of The Brood) hears that a collector’s-item motorcycle is in the hands of a collector. This will not stand, so he grabs his buddies (Frank Moore, second-billed in Rabid, and Hardee Lineham who had a cameo in The Dead Zone) and heads over posing as reporters to figure out how to free the bike from the boring rich guy (played by Guy Maddin’s buddy Louis Negin). Lionel sucks at pretending, though, so they’d be screwed if not for Ricardo, a dull cokehead hanger-on at Negin’s house who helps them out. Cronie’s fascination with automotive machinery peaked early with this and Fast Company, then came back with a brief vengeance with Crash.

Our beardy hero first meets Louis Negin:

Bottle Rocket (1992, Wes Anderson)

Cute sketch, with the Wilson brothers and Bob from the Bottle Rocket feature, plus the gun demo scene shot exactly the same way (just in black and white). They’re budding criminals, robbing Luke’s house then a book/video store, taking one guy’s wallet. No Inez, Futureman, Kumar or James Caan.

Something Happened (1987, Roy Andersson)

An AIDS lesson with didactic narration, illustrated with Andersson’s expertly composed setups of depressed-looking white people. One particular pale balding guy is seen a few times. It ends up less depressing than World of Glory, at least. Commissioned as an educational short but cancelled for being too dark

Within The Woods (1978, Sam Raimi)

Ah, the ol’ Indian burial ground. “Don’t worry about it,” says Bruce Campbell, “You’re only cursed by the evil spirits if you violate the graves of the dead. We’re just gonna be eating hot dogs.” Then he immediately violates a grave of the dead. Nice test run for The Evil Dead, with many elements already in place, like the the famous monster’s-pov long running shot, girls being attacked by trees, evil lurking in the cellar, knifing your friend as he walks in the door because you thought he was a demon, and of course, “JOIN US”. Hard to make out the finer points of the film since this was the grossest, fuzziest, lowest-ass-quality bootleg video I’ve ever seen.

Clockwork (1978, Sam Raimi)

Woman at home is stalked by jittery creeper (Scott Spiegel, director of From Dusk Till Dawn 2). He sticks his hands through her crepe-paper bedroom door, stabs her to death, but she stabs him back, also to death. It’s not much in the way of a story, but Raimi already has a good grip on the editing and camera skills for making decent horror. How did 19-year-old Raimi get his lead actress to take her clothes off in his 8mm movie?

Sonata For Hitler (1979, Aleksandr Sokurov)

Music video of stock footage from pre-WWII Germany stuck inside a ragged-edged frame surrounded by numbers and sprocket holes. Halfway through, the music mostly fades away, replaced with foreboding sound effects.

Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers (2001, Simonsson & Nilsson)

Drummers break into an apartment, play catchy beats in the kitchen and bathroom, with a slow bedroom number in between, then a destructive romp through the living room. But just as they finish, the inhabitants return. Clever and fun, and just the thing that probably should not have been extended into a two-hour feature.

The stop-motion in Coraline seemed untoppable, and now a few months later this seems untoppable. Coraline felt slicker and this had more rustling animal hair which gave it a rough feel without ever looking less than terrific. Anderson’s controlled compositions and affinity for tiny visual details are a perfect match for the rigorous stop-motion process, and the writing and voices and action were all wonderful – this was better than I dreamed it would be.

So I don’t know the original story, but in the movie Meryl Streep agrees to marry Fox on the condition that he stop stealing livestock from farmers. Years later Fox, still a “wild animal,” has a midlife crisis, enlists his buddy and his nephew and sets out to defeat the security systems of the three farmer fatcats in town. Bandit hats are handed out (seems to steal too obviously from Bottle Rocket) and all kids have major parental issues (Anderson would’ve added those if they weren’t already in the book), and Fox ends up getting all the animals in trouble when the fatcats team up to retaliate. Ends happily with a grocery-store hoedown.

Katy liked it, too.