A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 427 – The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited – May 1st, 2011

I feel slightly conflicted about this movie, but mostly I enjoy it. There are things I don’t like. Things I have reservations about. But for the most part I enjoy it and I enjoy how it was made, because I enjoy Wes Anderson movies. Now, if you don’t like Wes Anderson movies then it’s probably enough of a warning to know that this is one of his. If you do like his movies, well, this isn’t the best and it has some issues inherent in its setting, plot and characters. But it has plenty to make it worth watching. You know, if you like this sort of thing. I do. And not just because it has Adrien Brody in it.

This movie has two beginnings. One I like, one I don’t, though it ends up being important later. There’s a short film that comes first, where we meet one of the main characters of the feature. He’s been living in a hotel suite in Paris after running away from his girlfriend for an undisclosed reason. She shows up and they’re dysfunctional and unhappy at each other, which is pretty much a summation of how Wes Anderson’s movies tend to go. It feels a little self-indulgent, which is almost meta as the point of the location is that the character of Jack is being self-indulgent by living at the hotel. I’ve never been overly fond of the short and I can’t entirely articulate why aside from that it feels awkward. Like it should have been part of the movie because it figures in later on but it couldn’t be fit into the confines of the movie’s conceit. Which, to me, means that it should have been worked in some other way. It’s disjointed. But then, given how very carefully Wes Anderson puts his movies together, and given how he doesn’t shy away from making his audience uncomfortable, I can’t say that this wasn’t done intentionally. The second beginning, on the other hand, drew me into this movie immediately. And not just because I enjoy seeing Adrien Brody running in a suit.

Okay, maybe that’s some of it. I do enjoy seeing Adrien Brody running in a suit. But there’s also some fantastic misdirection going on there and it makes for such an excellent introduction to the situation. The story follows three brothers, Peter, Jack and Francis, as they take a trip by train through India a year after their father’s death. Now, this could be sentimental and touching, but this is Wes Anderson at the wheel, so while it has sentimental and touching moments they come in the midst of a sort of morass of awkwardness and ridiculousness and miscommunication and familial dysfunction that Anderson enjoys so much. Peter’s the one running for the train at the outset. Jack and Francis are already on the train. Francis is the one who set the whole thing up in the first place, going so far as to bring an assistant with him to prepare daily itineraries and laminate them and slide them under the door of the brothers’ compartment each morning. He’s a bit of a control freak and has recently been in a motorcycle accident, which he is still recovering from. We never get much about Peter aside from that he’s somehow managed to acquire a number of their late father’s personal belongings (razor and sunglasses, for example) and that he’s going to be a father soon. As for Jack, well, Jack we learned about in the short film.

One of the devices the film uses to tell the story of the brothers and the death of their father and how they coped with it at the time of the funeral is through a short story written by Jack. And this is where the short film fits in, because the story is written on the hotel stationery and the next story he writes makes it very clear that his characters aren’t fictional at all. He writes what happened and he’s not particularly nice about it. His second story quotes directly from the short film’s dialogue and I think it’s a cue to make it clear that the short story he’s had Francis and Peter read is one they’re all intimately familiar with even if they deny the details. Eventually we do get to see what happened, in a flashback that happens mid-movie. And what happened was that Peter tried to get their father’s car from the garage that had been working on it. It didn’t work out, they almost missed the funeral and en route found out that their mother was not going to be coming as she had never gotten on the plane to come home.

Being a Wes Anderson movie there is, of course, a hell of a lot of family dysfunction going on. All three brothers have significant character flaws and haven’t spoken to each other in the year since their father’s death. They talk behind each other’s backs, tell secrets, keep secrets, steal, lie and fight, and that’s just in their interactions with each other. Jack’s really pretty loathsome, if you ask me, and immediately fixates on the train attendant, announcing that he wants her. Peter’s thoroughly conflicted about becoming a father himself and has surrounded himself with his father’s things without telling his brothers that he has them. Francis orders their food for them, decides where they’re going and hides their passports. Oh, and they’re all dosing themselves up with the strongest painkillers they could get at the pharmacy next to the train station they started at. Their horrible behavior ends up getting them kicked off the train, which ends up being a good thing for all involved, really.

This is where I start to be frustrated with the film. Because the original conceit of the trip by train and the attempt to have a spiritual journey planned by itinerary on a set course is a fun one and the characters and their interactions are so incredibly clueless and damaged that it makes it absurd. But that leaves you with characters who won’t grow at all and therefore remain fairly unlikeable as people. Sure, it’s funny, but only to a point. So eventually something has to change. And what changes is that they save the lives of two boys and fail to save a third. This is a huge turning point for all three, but especially Peter, who takes the failure hard. On a simplistic level, this works for me. The three brothers have an experience that forces them to interact with each other and with people who have nothing to do with their family and it forces them to deal with life and death in an immediate setting.

On the other hand, I feel uncomfortable about the Big White Savior thing going on here. The boys they try to help are from a tiny and impoverished village in the Indian desert and the villagers take in the three men for the night, welcoming them and helping them and inviting them to the one boy’s funeral before then showing up at the bus stop to see them off. It’s using the lives and deaths of Indian people as a way to give a trio of wealthy and over-privileged white men some emotional growth and that doesn’t sit terribly well with me. When the brothers’ assumption that a spiritual journey in India would solve all their problems was presented as farcical then, well, I can get that. When a child there has to die in order for these guys to get over themselves? That’s something else entirely. If we’d known these people as fully formed characters that might have helped, but the movie focuses so intently on the brothers and wants us to relate so firmly to them alone that we aren’t even given subtitles to know what the villagers are saying. They aren’t people, they’re a tool.

On a plot development level, I understand what the purpose of the village episode is. I understand what’s going on and why it matters to the main characters and the story being told. I just don’t like the particulars and their implications and I wish it could have been managed some other way. Thankfully, the movie then picks back up with the brothers finally finding their mother and things regain their somewhat sceptical view of the whole ‘spiritual journey’ idea when she’s presented as totally blind to pretty much everything but herself even as she professes to be helping others. I love the reveal of the mother and the entire section at the convent in the mountains where she’s living. It’s so wonderfully written and put together and it clarifies so many of the behaviors and habits of the three main characters. And then they get on another train to continue their trip, which I really like given that they’ve changed as people.

After watching a making-of special that was on the DVD I have to wonder what they did with all of the set pieces. The entire train was decorated and furnished by hand. The plates were hand painted for the movie. The chairs were built for it. The train itself was painted with intricate paintings of elephants and scenes from the movie, things you never get to focus on when they’re on screen but which are amazingly detailed all the same. So many set pieces and props in other movies are things I assume were purchased for the movie and then sold or stored for later film use, or they were rented and returned. These things? I’m just stunned by them. And I’m in love with the train itself, which was customized for the shoot and ran on the real tracks and everything. Then again, I grew up with a model train enthusiast (my father collected HO scale trains and would set them up every so often and let me run them) and I would love to do more travel by train myself.

Overall, my issues with the middle of the movie and the short film aside, I do really love this movie. There’s one fantastic scene near the end where we see little one-room dioramas for all the side characters, set up like compartments of a train, and it just makes the movie for me. It’s such a perfect little way of capturing everything about this movie and it’s so quintessentially Wes Anderson. I have to wonder if he had model trains as a child, or as an adult. They seem right up his alley. Then again, once you’ve had your own real train customized to shoot a movie on, would models suffice?

May 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Darjeeling Limited

May 1, 2011

The Darjeeling Limited

From the very beginning of this movie it is clear that is another Wes Anderson film. It has the blocky yellow title cards. It has the strangely composed dolly shots that feel like the camera is moving across intricate dioramas. It has the awkward and broken people who say dreadful and honest things to each-other. It has the idiosyncratic music choices that periodically replace dialog as a means of storytelling.

My first impression of this movie when I saw it in the theater was not too favorable. I enjoyed it well enough, but I couldn’t help feeling like I had seen much of this before. Wes Anderson has such a distinctive style that after a while his films start to have a somewhat “samey” feel to them. It’s in his shot composition, his camera moves, and in his stilted and stylized dialog. I will say, however, that my opinion of this film has improved with subsequent viewings. It will never reach the level of respect I have for The Royal Tenenbaums or The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but I do enjoy watching it.

Part of the reason I didn’t enjoy it so much the first time around was probably that the first character we meet in the movie is somewhat loathsome. There’s a sort of preamble – a short film before the film (in the spirit of the Crimson Permanent Assurance at the start of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.) This introduces us to Jack – a lost soul who is living in a hotel room in Paris. Wen his ex-girlfriend tracks him down in the hotel (“It wasn’t actually very hard” she says) he is simultaneously obsessively welcoming to her (putting their song on his iPod and drawing her a bath) and despicably cold to her. It’s a strange little interlude that does not endear me to Jack. It also has one of the least sexy sex scenes ever filmed. Natalie Portman plays the ex-girlfriend and she has obvious bruises that are revealed as her clothes come off. Jack basically tells her that he doesn’t care if he hurts her.

Cut to a harried Bill Murray being rushed by a crazy taxi driver through the streets of India. He doesn’t catch his train (and this movie isn’t really about him anyhow) but Adrien Brody does and so starts the movie proper. Soon we meet Jack’s brothers. There’s Adrien is Peter and Owen Wilson is Francis. Francis has called the other two together to this train in India on a sort of mystical quest after he had a near death experience. The three of them haven’t spoken in a year and don’t seem to get along particularly well. The whole movie is about just why that is, and how they can come back together as a family.

I’ve already mentioned how Jason Schwartzman as Jack is not a particularly appealing character. He’s gone through some kind of break up and is clearly still obsessed with his ex girlfriend. (He has the code to her answering machine and periodically calls it to check her messages.) He’s also somewhat of a letch, though that might just be him looking for something or somebody to forget his ex with. Francis is obsessed with bringing the family back together again but is more than a little eccentric. He’s bringing his two brothers to every spiritual shrine and tabernacle along the way through India looking for something, and he secretly wants to find their estranged mother who is living as a nun st the foot of the Himalayas. Meanwhile Peter is having a tough time letting go of their deceased father. He wears his prescription sunglasses (which he can’t see out of) and uses his antique razor. All three of the brothers use their father’s unique and strange matched luggage, of which there seems to be quite a massive collection.

What ultimately wins me over and makes me enjoy this movie is the spectacular production design and attention to detail. The train itself, the titular Darjeeling Limited, is stunning. It’s a complex set in an actual operating train modified to accommodate a film crew. Every inch of the train is filled with intricate hand painted detail, and even though the film doesn’t linger on it that detail seeps into the entire production. There’s an absolutely spellbinding shot that shows the world as a train and connects all the characters in the movie into a single narrative. It has to be seen to be believed.

There’s also a lot of humor to this movie. It’s filled with classic Wes Anderson moments that shouldn’t be funny but are. Like the complete break down when the brothers simply cannot stand to be with each other any more. Like Francis laying out agreements for his brothers to live by and ordering their dinner for them. Like the misdirection involving Bill Murray.

It’s a strange sort of film. It has some fairly touching moments. It has a lot of awkward confrontation. It has astonishing artistic shot composition, a completely incongruous score and fantastic actors. It has characters confronting mortality and learning to deal with being different. In short – it’s a Wes Anderson film. No matter how formulaic his films may seem after watching sour or five of them over and over as I have, I can’t help but think that it’s a good thing that he just keeps making them. because there’s nothing quite like them out there.

May 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment