Friday, March 1, 2024

The (Moon)Rising Career of Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson’s directing career can be summed up in a single word: whimsy.  The eleven features he’s made since 1996 are unique partly because of their skewed vision of the world we all know. His fans enjoy the idiosyncratic performances he gets from his informal stock company of actors, which includes such big-name talents as Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Anjelica Huston, the always amusing Bob Balaban, and of course Bill Murray. Then there’s his distinctive approach to set design: his visuals tend to make everything look just a wee bit artificial, as though the characters are living and working in a giant dollhouse.

 Anderson’s work is not to everyone’s taste, and I admit that his droll , deadpan approach sometimes strikes me as too much of a good thing. Asteroid City, for example, is so busy being spoofy about the threat of extraterrestrials and the production of a theatre extravaganza that I gave up on trying to find a thread between the film’s various component parts. Anderson is at his best when he can find the heart of the matter: the human emotions connecting the artistically clever touches.

 That’s what I like about 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom. Yes, this island-set film has many of the familiar Anderson touches, like a cast of legendary faces, an oddball use of music (here Benjamin Britten’s “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” is featured, played on a kid-sized portable record player), and a mischievous use of maps, letters, and other documents to tell the tale. There’s satire aplenty in Anderson’s look at a troop of Boy Scouts (led by Edward Norton and here called Khaki Scouts) who are working hard on their eccentric wilderness skills. Characters have funny jobs, or do their jobs in a funny—though sometimes grotesque—way. (Bruce Willis is a local police chief embroiled in a secret affair with one of the island residents; Tilda Swinton plays a straight-laced social services officer who seems to be keen on electroshock therapy.)

 But the chief focus of Moonrise Kingdom is on two young people unwilling to learn the ways of their elders. Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, are both about 12 and on the brink of puberty. Neither is at all comfortable with the adult world that seems to have no place for them, and a chance meeting leads to a clandestine correspondence, and then a daring attempt to break away from civilization and live on their own, as a sort of pint-sized Adam and Eve. (Suzy is rather taller than the clever but nerdy Sam, one of the film’s endearing details.) 

 Pretty soon everyone on the island is engaged in the effort to find the missing pair, and then figure out what to do with them. The ending is about as quirky and happy as a Wes Anderson project can be, leaving the viewer content that life—in all its craziness—will go on. I love the fact that Anderson’s sometimes over-the-top visual ideas vie for attention here with the island’s natural beauty. (The scout troop’s treehouse is an eccentric marvel.) I also love the sense that the story at times mirrors some of the grand old tales we all know. Sam is, picturesquely, an orphan wanted by no one. And the scene of Suzy in the woods, reading from one of her enchanting storybooks to a rapt circle of Khaki Scouts, seems straight out of Peter Pan. This is Anderson’s stab at a coming-of-age film. As the young characters find love, it’s easy for the viewer to fall in love with them.


Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Mary Poppins Runs Afoul of the Language Police

The film Mary Poppins—the one starring Julie Andrews that was so much a part of my growing-up years—has just had its rating changed in Britain from U (for “universal”) to PG (“parental guidance“). At issue is what the British Board of Film Classification now considers “discriminatory language.” I was completely flummoxed, at first, by the switch. It goes without saying that the original Mary Poppins series of children’s novels, published by P.L. Travers beginning in 1934, contained racial stereotyping and language use that today make us squirm. (Travers herself later made some changes, though she resisted others, as a piece in yesterday’s The Telegraph makes clear.) But the 1964 Disney musical extravaganza would seem at first glance to be as innocent as any movie could be, unless you consider Dick Van Dyke’s excruciating attempt at a Cockney accent a crime against humanity.

 Van Dyke, though, is off the hook. At issue, it seems, are two references within the film to “the discriminatory term ‘hottentots.’”  Which gave me pause: what exactly is a hottentot? Apparently this is a word first used by the Dutch in South Africa to refer to an indigenous nomadic people, more correctly known as the Khoekhoe, who roamed the Cape region. For a time it had some validity among anthropologists to refer to a specific ethnic grouping. And its comic possibilities led to its showing up in tongue-twisters and in popular culture, including as part of a song lyric in The Wizard of Oz.  (The Cowardly Lion asks, “What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the 'ape' in apricot? What have they got that I ain't got?" The answer, of course, is “Courage.”)

 But the fact that word’s meaning has ballooned to imply ignorant savages from the heart of the Dark Continent has apparently made it uncomfortable to use. This is why the British, well aware of their own history of racial and ethnic condescension, have seen fit to use the ratings change to warn parents. It’s not by any means a severe punishment, but it does suggest that words are a serious business, and that it’s all too easy to overlook slurs from another era. Which reminds me of the controversy involving Disney’s 1941 animated feature, Dumbo. As I understand it, the film was vilified for years because of a musical number in which a flock of crows led by a so-called Jim Crow perform a song that can be seen as stylistically reflecting the blackface minstrel entertainments of the Old South. It was critic Richard Schickel, in 1968’s The Disney Version, who loudly accused the studio of resorting to racist stereotypes in the way the crows speak and move. (In recent years, a number of critics and movie performers, including Whoopi Goldberg, have stuck up for the role of the crows as parent-figures to the needy little elephant. They’re even the ones who teach him to fly!)  Today, Dumbo screens on Disney+ cable uncensored, but with a warning that the film “may contain outdated cultural depictions.” Disney’s 1946 Song of the South, though, continues to generate racial controversy.

 Personally I shrink from uncomfortably pejorative depictions of racial and ethnic minorities in both films and literature. There’s a lot to cringe about in Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, but I don’t believe that artistic works should be rewritten to suit our modern sensibilities. (See current debates surrounding Roald Dahl’s writings for children.) Britain’s mild actions regarding Mary Poppins do seem appropriate, and I’m grateful to the British Board of Film Classification for cluing me in to what a Hottentot actually is.



Friday, February 23, 2024

Sweets for the Sweet: “Wonka”

Timothée Chalamet, all of 28 years old, has certainly been around. In 2017, barely 21, he rose to international fame as a lovestruck Italian teenager discovering his gender preference in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. The role brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, along with a raft of other honors, while he was also being feted as the “cool” boy who deflowers Saoirse Ronan’s character in Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig..

 He has also portrayed a drug addict (Beautiful Boy, 2018), a young cannibal (Bones and All, 2022), a revolutionary student (in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, 2021), and—just for variety—the handsome young love interest in Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women (2019)  Very soon audiences will be able to see him as heroic Paul Atreides in Part II of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the science fiction classic, Dune.

 But at the moment he’s busy making chocolate. I’m talking about his starring role in the prequel to everyone’s childhood favorite, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). I suspect many of us have fond memories of Gene Wilder playing a mature Willy with bright blue eyes, flyaway hair, and an impish sense of humor. (And I suspect most of us were turned off by Johnny Depp’s more sinister approach in 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which bears the name of Roald Dahl’s original novel.)  Movie franchises being what they are, it wasn’t surprising that someone would decide the tale of Charlie Bucket’s visit to the Wonka factory required a prequel. And so we get to find out, via Chalamet’s performance, just how the young Willy founded that amazing factory in the first place.

 Roald Dahl, of course, was famous for being curmudgeonly. A specialist in creating monsters of various odious sorts, he tempered his sweet story about the magic of chocolate with some very sour characters. The new Wonka does something of the same, with none other that Olivia Colman playing an evil landlady who keeps Willy and a clutch of other unfortunates in thrall, once they’ve had the misfortune of spending a night in her seedy hotel. Her sardonic gloating over her victims is something of which I suspect Dahl would approve. I’m much less sure he would have liked the treacle in the story, like Willy regarding chocolate-making as the legacy passed down to him by his dear, departed mother.  (She’s played in several brief scenes by Sally Hawkins, always a genuinely delightful performer with a heartbreaking smile—but here asked to be part of a saccharine moment of magical beyond-the-grave reunion.)

 The  new film  benefits from lots of fizzy and phantasmagoric visuals (oh, that giraffe!), in a charming European setting. I’m not sure, though, that it needed to be a musical. The various pleasant but not memorable songs (sung well enough by Chalamet and others) simply make a longish film longer. There’s also lots of time spent on building the backstories of some of the lesser characters. A writer of my acquaintance wonders why, in today’s cinema, we can’t simply accept quirky characters for who they are, without giving them all past lives that might possibly lead to sequels, thus broadening the Wonka Universe. This comment made me think of a film with some similarities, Chocolat. In it, the past life of wandering candy-maker Juliette Binoche is left mysterious, and we’re none the worse for that.

 I can’t say enough, though, about Hugh Grant’s role as the drollest of Oompa-Loompas. Now that he’s too old for romantic roles, he’s sure enjoying letting his freak flag fly.