Thursday, February 21, 2013

Anderson and Tarantino Embrace Their Quirks to Great Effect with Moonrise Kingdom and Django Unchained

Wes Anderson (left) and Quentin Tarantino (right) are two of Hollywood's
half-dozen or so auteurs under 50.
It’s odd to say because of how vastly different their output is, but it occurred to me recently that Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino have had eerily similar career archs.
If you count the Kill Bill saga as one film, both writer/directors have made seven full-length features that have defined them as modern day auteurs with idiosyncratic approaches that countless filmmakers have unsuccessfully tried to emulate.
Both emerged with ’90s indies and gained increasing acceptance through their first three films before backlash hit in the middle of their oeuvres. Many critics and fans took issue with the likes of Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2, Death Proof, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited, basically inferring they were derivative “style over substance” trifles, while decrying each man for growing stagnant in their all-consuming quirks.
Interestingly, both Anderson and Tarantino reclaimed critical adoration by releasing films in 2009 and 2012 that were, in many ways, the most Andersony and Tarintinoesque movies of their careers. Somehow two filmmakers that were criticized for working within defined wheelhouses were able to rewrite the narratives around their careers by going even further down their own stylistic rabbit holes.
Let’s start with Anderson. For a long time, he has been criticized for his meticulously detailed almost dollhouse-like mis-en-scene, twee sensibilities, use of slow motion, and deadpan dialogue, as well as a supposedly increasing inertness and lack of emotionality. I’ve always thought these were odd criticisms – I never could grasp why people so detested the idea of a filmmaker creating his own visual identity, and always thought that Anderson did a wonderful job of crafting wonderfully emotive and cathartic moments strikingly set against artifice. 

Moonrise Kingdom features slow-mo walking. Duh.
 Nevertheless, the complaints existed, and many people had begun to tune Anderson out as a significant purveyor of American cinema. Then, somehow, the man got back into the good graces of many and landed his second Oscar nomination for The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film brimming with deadpan quirk and featuring costumes and set design so detailed that the they are almost otherworldly (and, in fact, they are literally slavishly rendered doll clothing and dollhouses).
Anderson has followed that success with Moonrise Kingdom, a film that garnered him another Oscar nomination and that many have called the best of his career, despite the fact that it contains all of the same Anderson eccentricities and ups the twee to even higher levels.
 Although I prefer several other Anderson titles, I found Moonrise Kingdom to be a great little film, choke full of richly thematic undertones involving first love, destiny, abandonment, and the need to be, if not understood, than accepted. The film focuses on two 12-year-olds – Sam (Jared Gillman), a resourceful orphan Khaki scout, and Suzy (Kara Hayward), the mostly ignored black sheep child of two checked out lawyer parents – who decide to run away together after courting via a series of letters.
Anderson nails the uncertainly, exhilaration and sensitivity of navigating love for the first time. Sam and Suzy know what their supposed to do and awkwardly go through the romantic motions, but what really forges their bond is a refreshing and needed dose of head-on openness.
Importantly, Gillman and Hayward are inherently interesting and natural performers, and the absurdity that these kids decide to run away together on an island is part of the charm. So too is the contrasting lack of purpose present in all the adult characters (Edward Norton as a scout leader, Bruce Willis as a local sheriff, and Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s parents), although, other than Willis, I’d say they are largely wasted.

The chemistry between Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx is
the heart of Django Unchained.
Tarantino has operated on a larger scope than Anderson, making larger, more popular movies, while having already landed an Oscar for writing Pulp Fiction. However, backlash for his incessant concentration on ironic violence, endless bouts of verbal dexterity, use of fake brands, and employment of eye-popping angles and zooms, as well as his penchant for fawning riffs on genre movies seemed to reach a boiling point with the release of Death Proof.
And yet he reemerged in a big way three years ago when Inglorious Basterds – an alternate take on WWII that plays up the revenge-tinged violence and indulges Tarantino’s love for stylistic embellishment and long, immersive dialogue scenes – dominated at the box-office and grabbed eighth Oscar nominations (including best director and screenplay). 
This year he’s repeated the trick with Django Unchained, another genre exercise revenge story mash up. This time, the director combines spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation in an examination of slavery. Although that seems a dicey prospect, the film has become Tarantino’s highest grossing film and nabbed five Oscar nominations to boot (including another writing nod for him).
The entire film is conceived with a wink and a nudge, even more so than Inglorious Basterds, which felt more realistic in a way, despite the fact that it was rewriting known history while this story is at least probable. The film is often comedic in the way it’s shot, scripted and acted, and although it contains tracks from Ennio Morricone the legendary composer of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy, most of the soundtrack is composed of funkified originals and classic pop tunes. 

The film focuses on Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist-turned-bounty hunter who buys a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) to help him locate and take out several marks. In return Schultz offers Django his freedom and agrees to help him save his enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from Candie Land, a plantation lorded over by the maniacal Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and run by treacherous house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Waltz steals the picture outright with a role that was likely written in direct response to his head-turning turn in Basterds. I imagine Quentin so loved Waltz’s take that he was inspired to convert the archetype into a good guy and get back in the sandbox with him. Schultz is the same type of pragmatic and dangerous charmer as Hans Landa, except he’s layered with a level of humanity and compassion that none of the hardened Americans in the piece seem to possess.
DiCaprio and Jackson also are afforded larger-than-life characters and they more than make their mark in transformative roles, despite being absent for the first two-thirds of the film. DiCaprio shows a different, more flamboyant side of his range, while Jackson manages to keep Waltz at bay for the title of greatest Tarantino collaborator based on the sheer diversity of their collaborations alone. 
By design, Foxx is given less to work with, as Django is rejiggered version of the badass of few words made famous by western luminaries like Clint Eastwood. He’s solid and projects the right amount of attitude, but it’s hard to deny that the life begins seeping out of the film once Schultz is out of the picture and Django takes center stage. A lot of that has to do with the minimal amount of investment put into his relationship with Broomhilda. She barely registers as more than a plot device, and the heart of the film is the bromance between Schultz and Django (Foxx’s delivery of expertly set up “Auf Wiedersehen” is a sweet coda to the relationship).
I greatly enjoyed the tone and pulpy aspects of Django but I felt it didn’t have half the momentum or development of Inglorious Basterds, and so it plays like a lesser version of a similar movie. That said, there’s so much to like here that it hardly matters it fails to reach such lofty heights.
Overall, I’m glad to see both Anderson and Tarantino back on top. I never understood the backlash against them, because I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want these men to make films that weren’t personal and drenched in their own eccentricities. While I admire filmmakers like Ron Howard who are almost invisible in their ability to craft diverse, four-quadrant movies with minimal overlapping distinctiveness, I don’t think we should be forcing specialists like Anderson and Tarantino to stifle their artistic identifies. To me, it’d be like forcing Picasso or Salvador Dahli to paint classical art – an utter waste of individuality and talent.
Fortunately, that’s not the case with these two great filmmakers. Moonrise Kingdom A-, Django Unchained B+