Looking at WNY’s visual art, theater, music, and dance scenes.
Oct 22, 2012
07:48 AMTalk about Arts
Mondays with Schobie: Wes, Whit, and Wit
A look at the films, books, music, and more you should be experiencing this month.
I have often argued (to the one or two people who will listen) that many of the most heavily criticized late-period Woody Allen films suffer more than anything else due to the name “Woody Allen” being slapped on the poster. In other words, even something relatively weak-kneed, like Anything Else, would seem fresh and sweet were it directed by, well, anyone else.
This thought was in my head upon re-watching two of 2012’s most interesting movies, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. What I discovered surprised me: If Damsels was directed by someone other than Whit Stillman, I would have found it slight and forced, and if Moonrise Kingdom was directed by someone other than Wes Anderson, I would have been utterly blown away.
In truth, originally, I was not. On the big screen, Moonrise seemed … good. But not great. The story seemed predictable, and sometimes too outlandish (the lightning strike, especially). I found young star Jared Gilman obnoxious, even though he does look like young Stanley Kubrick.
And, even though this will sound like a negligible criticism at best, the soundtrack disappointed me. I don’t mean the score; Alexandre Desplat’s work is predicatbly nice. But the songs were a letdown. Part of what drew me in to the world of 1999’s Rushmore was the British Invasion music: the Creation, the Kinks, the Who. Even the latter-day John Lennon song, “Oh Yoko,” instantly became one of my solo Beatle favorites. Tennenbaums and Darjeeling continued his use of 60s rock and pop.
Moonrise, though, is mostly classical and country. And that’s fine. But it surprised me to only one “typical” Anderson soundtrack song, from Francois Hardy. And yes, it disappointed me.
That’s not to say I found Moonrise is a bad film—nowhere near it. Were I reviewing it on the four-star scale, it would surely be a three-star film, if not better.
But watching it again, on the glorious Blu-ray recently released by Universal (Universal Home Stdios Entertainment), I felt as if I was seeing a different film. Removed of the initial hype of a new Wes Anderson film, it seemed more enchanting, involving, and genuinely moving than The Darjeeling Limited or The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and while Zissou is more fun, Moonrise feels infinitely more emotional.
While I still feel that young lead Kara Hayward gives the better performance, Gilman’s Sam Shakusky felt less annoying, more rounded, and infinitely more likable. The story, music, and casting seemed … well, just better. This is a movie that I think plays better at home, and while I’d still rate it in the middle of the Anderson oeuvre, that’s still pretty good. After all, it’s a heck of an oeuvre.
Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress is no less stylized, and no less in its director’s wheelhouse. But it’s important, I think, that it was Stillman’s first film in a decade. He burst onto the scene with 1990’s Oscar nominated prep-epic Metropolitan, followed it with more ambitious but no less talky Barcelona in 1994, and then made the film I consider to be his greatest, 1998’s The Last Days of Disco. Then … nothing. In the decade that followed came vague rumors of a Christopher Buckley adaptation and one set in Jamaica, and the occasional Guardian column.
So the news that Stillman was in production with Damsels in Distress, a comedy about a trio of suicide-prevention volunteers at the fictional Seven Oaks College, was greeted with great enthusiasm among his followers. I sadly missed the Greta Gerwig-starrer at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, but it finally arrived in theaters this past April. I loved it. In fact, I’d call it No. 2 on the Whit scale.
Watching it on Blu-ray (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), I enjoyed it almost as much—almost. Admittedly, it is a bit too zany—I’m looking at you, Sambola dance craze—and at least ten to fifteen minutes too long. (It begins to feel a little stale near the end.) But it’s still wildly funny, with wonderful performances from Gerwig and Analeigh Tipton, who gives one of the freshest, sweetest performances of the year. And Stillman proves that he remains one of the finest writers of dialogue in North America. (“Have you heard of Nasal Shock Syndrome?”)
Is it a more successful film than Moonrise Kingdom? Hard to say. As previously stated, I’m not sure how one would feel about Damsels were it directed by anyone else. Quite honestly, it elevates the material. However, that doesn’t make it better than Moonrise, which is certainly more ambitious, and more emotionally satisfying.
Of course, watching both films in close succession hammered home the many similarities between the directors’ cinematic worlds. Grantland called Stillman “the man who paved the way for Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and all the other disciples of the cinema of precociousness,” and surely there is an element of truth to that. “Precious” is apropos. In many ways, the characters in their films seem to exist in an alternate universe, one with a tenuous grasp on the realities of modern life.
Yet I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I love that the film of Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman feel informed by their other films, an odd sort of circle that as a viewer, feels refreshingly original. Oh, they also tend to make me laugh.
A few other quick hits for the month:
• Perhaps no memoir this year came with more prerelease hype than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall. And yes, the tale of Ah-nuld’s child with the family housekeeper is here, along with how he told Maria (and why he lied when she’d asked him about it years earlier). He doesn’t come off well, but I don’t think he expected to. The juicy stuff is all well and good, but I found it more interesting to hear his tale of attending the Golden Globes fresh off the success of Stay Hungry, or offending Henny Youngman at the Friar’s Club, or chatting with Teddy Kennedy when he decided to turn to politics.
I was especially pleased to see Schwarzenegger discuss the failure of Last Action Hero. I vividly recall seeing his 1994 flop on opening day, and coming away … pretty bummed. While wife Maria Shriver consoled him, “I think she too was disappointed and embarrassed when friends call,” Schwarzenegger writes. “They say, ‘I’m so sorry about the box office grosses,’ when they are really trying to see how you respond.”
I’ve always been fascinated by failure … and it’s nice to see Arnold look at it honestly. Is the rest of Total Recall honest? Not sure. But I know I enjoyed it. (Simon & Schuster)
• I’ve been a Richard Hawley fan since his days as a member of Pulp, and his Mercury Prize-nominated 2005 album Coles Corner was one of my favorites of that year. His most recent album, Standing at Sky’s Edge, is one of the few new releases in 2012 that truly grabbed me. The first track, “She Brings the Sunlight,” might be the most epic tune he’s ever written, the album’s first single, “Leave Your Body Behind You,” has a swagger that’s intoxicating. This is an artist at the peak of his powers. Even the album art is gorgeous. (Mute)
• I’ve always found it fascinating that the great Cary Grant retired from acting after 1966’s Walk, Don’t Run, but after reading Nancy Nelson’s Evenings With Cary Grant, it’s not difficult to see why this appealed to the star—his post-screen life was quite nice. It, and his early days, are covered in detail in Nelson’s book, a fine biography that makes use of its subject’s own words, as well as those of his friends and colleagues. My favorite bit is Ingrid Bergman on kissing Grant in Hitchcock’s Notorious: “A [approved] kiss could last three seconds. We just kissed each other and talked, leaned away and kissed each other again. … But the censors couldn’t and didn’t cut the scene because we never at any one point kissed for more than three seconds.” (Applause)
Until next time, "Come get me, you bastards."
Photos: Moonrise Kingdom still courtesy of Focus Features and Damsels in Distress photo by Sabrina Lantos, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.