Monday, April 28, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited

Wes Anderson and Christopher Guest have a lot in common as directors. Both tend to rely on the same stable of actors. Both direct character-driven comedies. Both appreciate their characters to have a touch of zaniness. And both organize their films around the hopelessly optimistic quests of their very flawed main characters.

Of course, there are differences. Guest films straightforwardly and values improvisation. Anderson constructs incredibly detailed and meticulously composed shots. Guest goes for the chuckle; Anderson goes for the smirk.

These tendencies continue unabated in Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited--fortunately, they're almost entirely endearing.

The Darjeeling Limited begins with Bill Murray--an Anderson staple--racing to catch a train. He's eventually overtaken by Adrien Brody--an Anderson newcomer--and the scene seems to suggest nothing more than the fact that Brody will be occupying a central role in this film rather than Murray this time around. Murray appears only once more in an inconsequential scene.

That's how The Darjeeling Limited starts, but that's not where we begin. We begin with a short film called Hotel Chevalier, which introduces Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman--Anderson regular) and his complicated relationship with his (ex?) girlfriend, played by Natalie Portman, an Anderson newcomer. Seen before the main feature, Hotel Chevalier leaves the viewer with more questions than answers, and seems to have little purpose more than displaying Portman semi-nude.

The relationship is further explained in the main feature, though Portman never appears again. In any case, that relationship is secondary to the film; the primary relationship is that between brothers Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson--Anderson regular), Peter Whitman (Brody), and Jack Whitman (Schwartzman). After Francis' disfiguring motorcycle accident, he decides that he wants to reconnect with his estranged younger brothers on a spiritual journey through India. Peter and Jack consent to the idea, but it's clear that it's neither are too excited about it.

The series of events that follows seems to pale in importance compared to the character tics that each of the leads establish: Francis' overprotective older-siblingness, Peter's tendency to nick their deceased father's personal effects, Jack's crush on one of the train's attendants, and the tendency of all three to confide things in one that they keep from the other. And--in another Andersonian theme--all three demonstrate the various ways in which their parents have screwed them up.

Watching an Anderson film puts you into a certain mode: two parts confused, one part amused. Anderson doesn't go for many laugh-out-loud moments--which may be frustrating for those used to the Will Ferrell school of comedy--but he does throw in plenty of smirks. And, in large part, the reason you can't laugh out loud more is because Anderson keeps so many details close to the vest--it's hard to be sure what's funny and what's not, but the films almost always warrant and reward a repeat viewing.

That said, it's difficult to fully gauge The Darjeeling Limited having only seen it once. As it stands right now, I'd put it behind Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums--both of which I've seen multiple times--but ahead of The Life Aquatic, which I've also seen once. The movie is intriguing and the characters are endearing--and while it seems to wear on a bit long (suffering a bit from multiple-ending syndrome), it offers a satisfying (if just a tad too neatly wrapped) conclusion. Given the caveat about Anderson movies improving with repeat viewings--as Guest's movies do--I'll give it an 8 for now.

An Iconic Lines section might be helpful here:
Jack: What did he say?
Peter: He said the train is lost.
Jack: How can a train be lost? It's on rails.

Francis: [
Francis and Peter are beating each other up] You don't love me!
Peter: Yes I do!
Jack: I love you too, but I'm gonna mace you in the face!

Jack: I wonder if the three of us would've been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people.

Monday, April 07, 2008


I remember loving this movie when I was in high school. I was less experienced then, and my tastes were a little different, though they hinted of things to come. Now, approximately ten years later, I can recollect exactly the things that made this movie so great to me then, even though they don’t really have that effect now. Eleven years later, Face/Off doesn’t have the same effect on me, but it still holds a bit of the person I used to be, and I’m kind of fond of that person.

Directed by John Woo, the king of modern Hong Kong action flicks, Face/Off is only his third North American offering, though he has over 20 Hong Kong films to his credit. It stars John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, both playing the same two characters: FBI supercop Sean Archer and criminal kingpin Castor Troy. After a high-action first act with Travolta playing Archer and Cage playing Troy, they do a little switch. The movie, very wisely, doesn’t do this through some mystical means that makes them trade bodies; it’s not that kind of movie. Instead, it uses ordinary science… Okay, not ordinary, as this advanced of science isn’t actually possible, but the movie certainly goes all out to make you believe it. Both starring actors did extensive development of the characters, and also studied each other very minutely, getting all the movements and mannerisms of the other one down. The results are the viewer having a very definite idea of who’s Castor and who’s Sean, despite the fact that each is played by two different actors. You see Troy and Archer, not whoever is playing them at the time.

Face/Off contains all the prerequisite explosions, gun battles, and general mayhem for any John Woo film, but what I found more interesting was the question of self that the movie presents. There is one scene where Archer and Troy are facing each other with guns drawn, only there is a mirror between them on each side. So each is seeing himself in the reflection, only it’s not really himself; it’s his rival. The hatred these two share for each other is long-standing, and in that moment, you see it in both of their eyes; not only in the men, but their reflections as well. It is a masterfully done scene.

Face/Off doesn’t get everything right, though. Like in any action movie, every single character in it is an absolutely terrible marksman. There is shooting up the wazoo, but people only actually get shot when it serves the story. Dominique Swain, who plays Archer’s teenage daughter, proves her utter uselessness and lack of any acting chops here. When Troy masquerades as Archer, living in his home and interacting with his family, he is so obviously not Archer, and Dr. Eve Archer (Joan Allen) should have realized that from her first encounter with him. The entire sequence where Archer (as Troy) goes to prison stretches believability beyond its limits. Everything from the prison being a giant magnetic field to the set-up and layout prove that the designers didn’t have a freakin’ clue how a prison actually works. But the best part is this: the prison is built on a converted oil rig, and there is just ocean all around. Despite this, Archer escapes by jumping in the water and swimming to shore… which is where, exactly? About 100 miles sound right? Also, the guys in the helicopter fire their guns where the bullets could reach explosives stored on the rig’s deck. Oops, I guess they forgot where they were. WTF???

But, it’s an action flick, so those issues can be put aside with a little effort. The mano a mano fight scenes are top notch, and the two stars play both of their characters extremely well. The ending, however, is so sappy that it almost cancels out the rest of the film… almost, but not quite. I can understand what got me so jazzed about it when I was in high school, but I’ve moved on the what I think are better things. Still, Face/Off provides great thrills, and even a bit of nostalgia for me.

Iconic Lines:
“I could eat a peach for hours.”
“Wheeeeee! What a predicament!”
“No more drugs for that man.”

22 Rating: 6

Particle Man