The Darjeeling Limited (2007, Wes Anderson)

The first sequence in The Darjeeling Limited suggests a far worse film than Anderson actually delivers. A frantic taxi race to a train station with Bill Murray suggests Anderson has become–well, I really don’t know who, but someone who miscasts incredibly. Besides the Murray cameo coming off like Anderson fulfilling his image, the taxi race also features really fast editing… suggesting Darjeeling is going to be, just like The Life Aquatic, more in love with the Anderson composition and editing than actual storytelling content. It gets better quickly, but it’s still empty. The glib answer is Anderson obviously needs Owen Wilson co-writing, but The Darjeeling Limited provides various other reasons….

The film does feature the best lead character since Bottle Rocket, in this case, Adrien Brody’s. Brody definitely becomes the main character after a specific plot twist, but long before it occurs, he’s the one. For a simple reason too. Because Owen Wilson is playing the standard Owen Wilson in a Wes Anderson film role and because Jason Schwartzman is playing… well, Schwartzman isn’t really playing anyone. He never learned, apparently, to act. But he’s generally fine, even though his most frequent form of emoting is mugging knowingly at the camera. Wilson’s good, occasionally even touching with Schwartzman and Brody, but it’s not a stretch. It’s the kind of role he’d do in a television commercial.

Anderson released a prologue to Darjeeling online and the film annoyingly starts with a reminder to go and watch it, then the film proceeds to directly reference it… which is more annoying than Murray’s dumb cameo and the second cameo (though this one turns out all right) combined. It really does feel like Anderson’s turning in to the hipster Kevin Smith with Darjeeling, particularly the use of Schwartzman and his vapid character. It takes the entire movie (ninety minutes) to figure out what Schwartzman’s supposed to be doing and he co-wrote the screenplay.

Did I already mention Brody’s absolutely fantastic, a really wonderful performance in what turns out to be a wonderful role? I think I did.

Darjeeling is also very funny. I’m not sure who wrote the best jokes, but they’re played more for audience response than Anderson usually tries for. They keep the movie going.

When the film gets really good for a while, really effective, it’s unfortunately in a moment the film cannot close on. Instead, it keeps going and going, trying everything it can to force a satisfactory conclusion. The one it comes too, unfortunately, is cheap and awkward, like Anderson wasn’t ready to stop writing the characters yet.

Strictly speaking about Anderson’s direction–and not his writing–Darjeeling shows off how good a director he’s become. Unfortunately, his writing has become lazy. In order to allow his characters this adventure, Anderson makes them limitlessly wealthy. It gets annoying after a while, after the third crack about the six thousand dollar belt.

Because Brody’s not central throughout (in many ways, it’s Anderson’s most traditional film), it’s… like I said, a little empty overall. And people do too much for laughs, say too much for them, don’t say too much for them.

It’s a fine enough film–with some excellent scenes in it–but Anderson very obviously needs different co-writers.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; edited by Andrew Weisblum; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Anderson, Scott Rudin, Coppola and Lydia Dean Pilcher; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Owen Wilson (Francis), Adrien Brody (Peter), Jason Schwartzman (Jack), Amara Karan (Rita), Wallace Wolodarsky (Brendan), Waris Ahluwalia (The Chief Steward), Irfan Khan (The Father), Barbet Schroeder (The Mechanic), Camilla Rutherford (Alice), Bill Murray (The Businessman) and Anjelica Huston (Patricia).


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Avenging Angelo (2002, Martyn Burke)

Avenging Angelo plays like a Sandra Bullock comedy from the late 1990s, except it’s Madeleine Stowe in the Bullock role and… I don’t know Stallone in the Keanu Reeves role, if Keanu Reeves did romantic comedies. Maybe still-on-“ER” George Clooney or someone. There aren’t any Italian movie stars in Hollywood right now… oh, obviously, Antonio Banderas playing an Italian. Anyway, instead of Bullock and Banderas, it’s Stowe and Stallone, which makes Avenging Angelo all of a sudden a very different romantic comedy. First, it’s a romantic comedy about the Mafia; that genre is rarely explored. But the reason it works as a romantic Mafia comedy is because of the second different aspect… Stallone and Stowe aren’t young. Stowe being a bored wealthy housewife on Long Island makes a lot of sense. Stallone as the bodyguard who’s always been too busy protecting Stowe (without her knowing, of course) to have a life of his own. Too little of the time lost angle is discussed in the film–it’s way too subtle, to the point I almost suspect the writers never went in and made it age appropriate for Stowe and Stallone, leaving it for Bullock and Banderas or whoever.

Stallone pretty much makes the movie; it’s clear from the beginning, he’s having a great time, whether it’s working with Anthony Quinn (in these scenes, Stallone doesn’t even bother acting, just spends them enjoying Quinn’s company) or doing the romantic comedy lead. The movie’s not long, so the first act is when Stowe actually has the most character-defining acting to do and she’s fine. There’s not much of a role (her husband is a louse, she misses her kid, her life is boring and shallow) for her to work with, but, since it’s a short movie, pretty soon she’s in full romantic comedy lead mode too.

A film made in 2002, Avenging Angelo has as much use of songs for background music as one made in 1988. There are at least six of these montages and the film’s got a nice Bill Conti score, so either the script really didn’t have enough going on (as it plays, the film’s sub-plotless) or Conti was just too busy… or I suppose they wanted to have enough for a soundtrack release?

Being a romantic comedy, the film hinges on Stallone and Stowe’s chemistry and they’re good together, but it’s understandable why the film didn’t get a theatrical release. Stowe never recovered from her disappearance from the screen in the late 1990s (at the height of her career) and Stallone’s fans never went for his comedic turns… and it reminded me a lot of Faithful (the comedy with Chazz Palminteri and Cher)–down to the action being centered around two people in a house. And no one ever asked for another Faithful….

But, all in all, it’s a pleasant, traditional romantic comedy. Perfectly fine.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martyn Burke; screenplay by Will Aldis and Steve Mackall, from a story by Aldis; director of photography, Ousama Rawi; edited by David Codron; music by Bill Conti; production designer, Eric Fraser; produced by Tarak Ben Ammar, Elie Samaha and Stanley Wilson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Frankie Delano), Madeleine Stowe (Jennifer Barrett), Anthony Quinn (Angelo Allieghieri), Raoul Bova (Marcello), Harry Van Gorkum (Kip Barrett), Billy Gardell (Bruno), George Touliatos (Lucio Malatesta) and Angelo Celeste (The Priest).


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Pleasantville (1998, Gary Ross)

All through Pleasantville, I kept wondering how–for a film with so many problems–it could have not only some of the most emotionally affecting (not effective) scenes I can remember seeing, but also an overwhelming ending, which makes the whole film seem like it was better than it was… Then I saw Steven Soderbergh’s name at the end on the producer list. That one’s a cheap shot at Gary Ross, but there’s a litany of things wrong with Pleasantville.

Firstly, it makes no sense. It doesn’t establish any reasonable rules for its fantasy (in fact, it seems to be trying to play down the fact it’s a far out science fiction story about a couple kids’ adventure in an alternate reality). The people and objects colorize for emphasis, not for any logical reason. It’s distracting and cheap–Pleasantville is very cheap. It’s the intelligentsia (or what passes for them in America–and in Hollywood films for that matter–so think Spielberg, which Ross does a lot) sucker punching the right wing. There’s another problem with Pleasantville: it presents a number of complicated problems and gives them all easy solutions. Some people exist after they switch universes, others appear to be gone from the collective memory. But back the sucker punching the right wing. The bad guys in Pleasantville are a bunch of white guys who are pissed off their wives aren’t cooking them dinner. I had to remember it came out before 2001, because I really can’t see it being released otherwise until a couple years ago (when Hollywood finally stopped lionizing fascist white men). Ross is real cheap with his comparisons too–are the newly conscious people of Pleasantville supposed to be stand-ins for blacks in America circa 1958, Jews in Germany circa 1934, or something else entirely? Or all three, whenever it suits Ross for the most effective scene (he loves the Nazi imagery though).

It’s weird to see a film, recognize it’s working you over, yet still let it do that number on you. And Pleasantville does it. It might be the only film to do it.

Ross’s composition is poor, the editing of the film is atrocious, so what drives it home. Randy Newman’s score is immeasurably important and the film couldn’t work without it, but it also couldn’t work without the performances. Tobey Maguire’s been so ineffective for so long, it’s a bit of a shock to see him act so well. Reese Witherspoon is even good, though her role is very simple. But the film works because of two people–Jeff Daniels and Joan Allen. Allen’s too good for it and she brings the material up to her level. Daniels’s role is also geared to be cheap (the character goes through extraordinary change in five hours, which take place over five minutes in the film, and we’re supposed to be wowed), but his performance is touching and tragic and wonderful and the longing in the scenes between the two of them, the longing for something unknowable… it makes Pleasantville a significant and essential viewing experience. It’s a cheap film, terribly, terribly cheap, but it’s a magnificent two hours and four minutes.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Gary Ross; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by William Goldenberg; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Ross, Jon Kilik, Robert J. Degus and Steven Soderbergh; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Tobey Maguire (David), Jeff Daniels (Mr. Johnson), Joan Allen (Betty), William H. Macy (George), J.T. Walsh (Big Bob), Don Knotts (TV Repairman), Marley Shelton (Margaret), Jane Kaczmarek (David’s Mom) and Reese Witherspoon (Jennifer).


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The Seventh Sin (1957, Ronald Neame)

If only it weren’t for Bill Travers… his performance drags the film into the realm of absurdity. It isn’t just his inability to act, it’s also his utter lack of charisma. It’s unbelievable anyone could like Travers the movie star (I’m thinking there must be or have been Victor Mature fans and George Raft fans, though I think Mature’s probably a better actor than Raft or Travers), so his having a role in an MGM picture with so much merit otherwise is puzzling.

Travers’s lack of a performance does everything it can to turn The Seventh Sin into a debacle, but it’s not quite enough to overcome Eleanor Parker and George Sanders. The film’s also well-paced at ninety-four minutes, but it’s Sanders and Parker who really give the film life. There are some problems, therefore, with the plot, because it centers around Parker and Travers’s broken marriage, except Travers is so bad, the real meat of the film is Parker’s friendship with Sanders, which opens up in to her altruism for the Chinese orphans. The Seventh Sin would have also been immeasurably helped if Miklos Rozsa hadn’t turned in an “Oriental” score. It’s rather annoying.

Until the end, when the film gets cheap in its happy resolutions (I’m wondering if the cheapness comes from the Maugham novel or if it’s a screenwriter’s invention… my only other experience (in memory) with a Karl Tunberg script has been a bad one, so it was a pleasant surprise he provided a framework Sanders and Parker could excel in filling), it’s a gradual, building experience about Parker. It’s a little too eventful to be a character study, but it comes really close and, as such, provides her with a great role. The film is filled with easy contrivances her performance makes not only believable but good.

Without Sanders, however, the film would be that debacle. It’s a perfect role for him–drunken, lecherous English businessman in China who is deeper than he appears–and it’s an essential element to the film… The Seventh Sin is set in 1949 and, to some degree, it really resembles a 1949 handling of the story. The Westerners in the Orient genre had slowed down by the late 1950s and the film follows a lot of the genre standards. Sanders’s character being one of those standards (as a comic foil, however, not as an actual character).

Unfortunately, Turner Classic Movies only plays a pan and scan print (IMDb has, in addition to lame user comments for the film, a seemingly incorrect aspect ratio of 2.35:1 listed… the titles are in 1.85:1 and the panning and scanning–and shot framing–suggest that aspect ratio), so it’s hard to say for sure how well or how poorly Ronald Neame does composing… but it seems like he did a fine, mediocre job. He has a definite understanding of how to shoot to best utilize the actors (Sanders and Parker take an excellent walk), but it’s not like he could have fixed Travers’s performance.

As unappreciated as Parker is an actress, I imagine Sanders (even if he is in a number of famous films) is even more so and a film with them together, giving such great performances, is a nice find.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ronald Neame; screenplay by Karl Tunberg, based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Ray June; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by Miklos Rozsa; produced by David Lewis; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Carol Carwin), Jean-Pierre Aumont (Paul Duvelle), George Sanders (Tim Waddington), Bill Travers (Doctor Walter Carwin), Françoise Rosay (Mother Superior) and Ellen Corby (Sister Saint Joseph).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 2: TECHNICOLOR.

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