In the Best Shot series The Film Experience’s Nathaniel Rogers encourages willing participants weekly with a new movie and a particular image (or set of images) within that stand out for us. Every movie has its challenges, this week’s selection being The Royal Tenenbaums being particularly daunting – I imagine any but two Wes Anderson with be equally difficult.
Which one that features a quirkily costumed character or occasional animal, setting or breaking the shot’s symmetry? Which segue shot showing a fictional book written by and/or about one or some of the characters? Which room or façade that Anderson himself meticulously planned and decorated, arguably trapping the movie’s said characters?
One of the rooms depicted is a product of Etheline Tenenbaum’s (Anjelica Huston) worldly education for her sons and daughter. There’s the one with younger Chas in his childhood room, dwarfed while sitting on a table near his shelves filled with monotonous finance books as large as his torso. Even if it’s one of the most monochromatic shots and mises-en-scene within Anderson’s oeuvre, it almost became my favourite shot because it’s the first one to crack me up.
And while we’re at it let me say that I’ve never seen this movie ever. I don’t the do the ‘let’s watch the director’s other movies’ kind of shit that other, better bloggers do before watching Moonrise Kingdom. I don’t subscribe to that time-consuming insanity because I have other time-consuming insanities. I didn’t even know if I was ever going to watch the latter at all, with my shifting mood and schedule.
Anyway! So yes, if you’re paying attention, I watched that before Tenenbaums. And I couldn’t shake what my favourite shot is in the former – Sam piercing Suzy’s earlobe – and I was thinking about how a man’s present work influences and/or mirrors his past, instead of the other way around.
There were many candidates for this Moonrise-like shot, the ones featuring the tent being too obvious. There’s widower Chas (Ben Stiller) dragging his kids Ari and Uzi out to a fire drill. But there are more moments like that when the main conflict surfaces, as the movie belongs to a sub-subgenre of family reunion dramedy. It’s no longer just Chas and his two sons, it’s the three of them and the rest of the family, particularly the dynamic between the three guys and their boor-in-a-suit grandfather Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman). The rotten dad suddenly wants to change.
If I kept my Sociology of the the Family texts – ugh – I can tell you exactly what they say about grandfathers and grandparents’ role outside the nuclear family but it could be one of two ways. One is to instill traditional values to the children that the latter’s parents forego or rebel from, which Royal doesn’t do. The other is to be the lax influence in those children’s lives, which is a roundabout way of explaining why my best shots belong within this glorious montage of Royal and the kids making harmless mayhem in Upper West Side.
I don’t participate at this kind of activity but I’m of a child siring age. So when I look at children in the movies I think of the fun times I had as a child that I wouldn’t let my future kids do because they’re dangerous. Or realizing how fucked up these activities were in hindsight, like running across incoming traffic! But it’s this complicit nature within childhood, the bleeding ears and scraped knees and the pain being a temporary part of the fun. Kids egg each other on to this as much as adults do to kids. Even the passive aggressiveness that Chas and Royal inflict on other characters have traces of this behaviour.
Besides, Royal eventually jumps to this regressive state caused by the foresight that time is fleeting, when he no longer gives a fuck and wants to have the same fun as he did as kid. He’s the truth-teller within a family of uptight, stunted intellectuals. And even if they don’t take place within the doll house rooms or 388 Archer Avenue, Anderson unleashing his characters out to the chaos of New York, they still engender the director’s glowing childlike ethos.
- Best Shot: “The Royal Tenenbaums” (thefilmexperience.net)
Adapted from Don Winslow’s acclaimed pulp novel of the same name, Savages’ occasionally changes from black and white to glaring, grainy 8mm-like colour, worrying me that it is as visually schizophrenic as his better movies. And I understand why Stone chose this reliable technique in depicting the ocean’s waves slapping the rocky shore and the character watching the waves, Ophelia or O (Blake Lively), the latter venerating closeups as the epitome of the blonde Californian bombshell.
O has the same amount of passport stamps, credit limit and invisibly rich parentage as Lively other famous character, Serena van der Woodsen, but she attempt on range by playing O, just like her characters in other movies, as trashy as she can. She narrates playfully, that quality mixed with what I assume are director Oliver Stone‘s notes telling her and the younger half of the cast that “You’re stoned. Tone it down a little!” which hampers whatever life they could have injected – oops, wrong drug! – into their characterizations. She is 33% of a business cooperative/bigamous arrangement that also includes Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), all three of them based in Laguna Beach. The two men are similarly passionate with their weed business, O and sharing the same muscular body type.
But as O insists, they’re different and she needs their opposites as a guiding influence for her or something. Ben is a loving botanist, Chon is the no-nonsense payment collector. Chon thinks that Buddha is a ‘fat Chinese guy’ like every tenth grade drop-out does, Ben corrects him and practices Buddha’s teachings. And most importantly, Ben makes love in the spirit of mutuality, Chon fucks while he’s in some vampiric state.
Now here’s my question or set of questions – why is O tolerating this from Chon? Why is Chon having sex with her without eye contact? It’s the hair isn’t it, his buzz cut more aesthetically pleasing and less pungent than Ben’s annoying Rastafarian dreadlocks. Let me tell you, hair is not a good enough reason to have sex with a guy as if he’s some gay for pay prostitute having sex with a man twice his age and weight. And white guys with dreadlocks are the kind of men you avoid in a Bushwick party, but Johnson accomplishes a Samson-esque feat in making them look attractive. During and after sex O looks like she can never smoke enough weed for the pain on the inside part of her belly button piercing to stop. She proves nothing about her love for Chon or Ben for that matter other than her saying it. She should have just friend zoned the guy or at least admit that she sleeps with both of them to keep the peace instead of pretending that she actually loves them equally.
After Ben and Chon’s failed negotiations with Mexican drug lord middle management (Oscar nominee Demian Bichir) and a shopping mall scene that tries too hard to make Blake Lively seem like Danielle Darrieux, both call each other the titular savages, reminiscent of that musical segment in the Disney version of Pocahontas. The middle management’s boss, the Reina Elena (Oscar nominee Salma Hayek) decided to use a henchman named Lado (Oscar winner Benicio del Toro) to kidnap O.
This event becomes the turning point where some characters get more compelling. Elena has a daughter, Madgalena, who shares the same mall with O, but Magdalena rolls her eyes while talking to her on the phone while O actually wants to talk to her. She becomes maternal, while her amoral pragmatism calling O’s ‘needing my independence,’ lost rich free love white girl BS. She might make a better evil queen than Julia Roberts or Charlize Theron, playing Elena with enough camp to sustain the comparison to equally veteran actresses.
On the other hand, Ben and Chon use their differences to guide them. Chon has had tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and uses that experience to help get O back from Elena’s cartel. Strangely, Chon speaks as if he is a jihadist instead of fighting them. Ben’s Eastern ethos loses to Chon’s urgings to become just like latter’s past and present enemies, and watching the former transform from altruist to criminal is seamless. But let’s look at it this way, this is a story burdening Elena with the onus to prove that she is compassionate while giving Ben and Chon as much leeway into ruthlessness. As if stooping down to her level is punishment enough for both.
This all adds up to a double standard but there’s something fascinating with these characterizations, or enough to latch on to, even if the ending comes too late and too terribly. John Travolta and Emile Hirsch also appear in supporting roles. 2.5/5.
- Chris Jancelewicz: Review: ‘Savages’ Overdoses On Itself (news.moviefone.ca)
This week’s choice for Nathaniel’s Best Shot series, ROAD TO PERDITION, is undeserving of my tardiness but here it goes. ROAD TO PERDITION is probably my favourite Sam Mendes film because it’s one with the least conflictophiliac historionics, if my newly coined word makes sense. It doesn’t have Kevin Spacey, Jake Gylenhaal or Leonardo di Caprio yelling at their co-stars (AWAY WE GO is up for eventual investigation), and misanthropy never ages well for me. Sure there’s a lot of conflict in this movie too. There’s a scene with Paul Newman‘s character, mob lord John Rooney beating this hit out of his son Connor (Daniel Craig) that can put the latter half of Liam Neeson’s career to shame. But the characters’ destination might be perilous but it’s a smooth ride to get there or in other words, their damnation is certain but it comes as a smoulder instead of a sadistic arsonist.
There are also white picket fences in AMERICAN BEAUTY and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, as well as the glaring deserts in JARHEAD. ROAD TO PERDITION is on the opposite side of the spectrum, evoking what would happen if Norman Rockwell carved in cozy mahogany. And its gloss and shadows, fitting for adapting a graphic novel, will have its echoes in movies today, almost a decade after this one. But it’s always a new experience watching this movie again, the colour palette more diverse, its blocking beautifully done. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall does all of this while also redefining symmetry, as cheesy as that sounds. Every group of images holds a newly discovered theme. Like this one of crowds!
This shot above is the best of the movie, an introduction to John’s grand-godson Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin). We the audience can barely see him but here he is trying to sell newspapers. Since Michael is our narrator his character transforms into a troubled adolescent. This might be too simple of a character and story arc, but this shot shows the child coexisting with the world-weary, faceless, Kollwitz-like figures. The world is already full of terrible things but his innocence makes him oblivious. He’s also biking towards them, diving inadvertently and cheerily towards damnation. And as a parting gift here’s my second favourite shot that ties in with the first, Michael waiting for his father (Tom Hanks), wading within men looking through the wanted ads during the Depression, a few seconds before he breaks down.
- Hit Me With Your Best Shot: “Road to Perdition” (thefilmexperience.net)
William Inge‘s work like Bus Stop and Splendor in the Grass are heart wrenching narratives about people who may or may not just find each other once in their lives. The depiction of women in his work are also memorable, from Cherie’s sequined exhaustion and Wilma Dean Loomis’ slow burn. These portrayals are my points of comparison with today’s ‘Best Shot‘ selection, PICNIC, and its leading female character Madge (Kim Novak).
Madge is a reluctant ideal, a woefully un-rehearsed queen with a cardboard crown, a deconstructed female character (I use ‘deconstructed’ instead of ‘evolving’ but evolution to me suggests a certain fullness which Madge never really has). She’s a trapped in a fictional world ruled by the female gaze, targeting both her and her male counterpart Hal Carter (William Holden). She’s never fully glamourized because of our raw first impressions of her, which is probably a more honest and refreshing depiction of women during the postwar era. All of this drama is shot by James Wong Howe (occasionally aided by a young Haskell Wexler). Wong Howe’s transforms his use of dazzling light, normally seen in his contrast-heavy noirs, to the kind of nature-philia and human choreography reminiscent of rococo and impressionism seen in this movie. It’s like using the artistic systems of the old world to depict the new, the latter’s white people entitlement marred hierarchy and rebellion.
And that is why this shot is my best. This scene isn’t the climax of the movie, neither is it integral in Madge’s ‘construction’ but it’s a part of the process. A lot is discussed in this room, marriage, a woman’s desirability, intelligence. And a fight is going to break out, as Madge is simultaneously being built up and torn down.