Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
Wes Anderson´s The Darjeeling Limited seems to have received the least attention of all his films, passed over by critics and audiences alike. A cryin´ shame. The director is at the top of his game here, offering up a typically off-key but surprisingly profound and heartfelt film. Admittedly, it´s not for all tastes, but you should know that before coming in; though different in plot, Darjeeling is identical in style and tone to the director´s previous two films, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Anderson has been largely criticized for repeating himself here, but those who appreciate his work wouldn´t want it any other way.
After a nice opening cameo with Bill Murray as a businessman late for the titular train, we´re introduced to brothers Whitman: Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman). Still coming to terms with their father´s death a year ago, the brothers are undertaking a purported spiritual journey through India, sidetracked by a variety of Indian medications, a poisonous snake, romantic interludes, and rising tension between the three. Infractions leave them stranded in the desert with their father´s baggage (specially designed for the film by Louis Vuitton); to reveal any more would deprive the film from some of its best moments. I may be in the minority here, but no one can quite handle tragedy like Anderson; the attempted suicide scene in Tenenbaums was wonderfully affecting, and there´s a similar scene here. Some may reject it, not knowing how to react as it´s handled in the same kind of off-key manner of the rest of the film, but Anderson reaches a rare kind of truth; there´s a deep profoundness in his manner-of-fact presentation. I sometimes questioned the honesty in the terminally strange Life Aquatic, but Darjeeling comes straight from the heart. Cast is superb, right down to the smallest of roles; Anderson standby Wilson is at his best since Bottle Rocket, while Schwartzman and Brody add unexpected depth to their characters. The director makes wonderful use of music culled from other movies, specifically pieces from early Merchant-Ivory and Satyajit Ray. Cinematography and production design are breathtakingly beautiful; each frame of the film is a work of art.
At press and festival screenings, the movie was preceded by Anderson´s wonderful short Hotel Chevalier, which takes place some time before Darjeeling. The short features the characters played by Schwartzman and Natalie Portman (who only has a dialogue-free cameo in the feature) at a Paris hotel, with Portman more appealing – and underdressed – than she´s ever been before. The short won´t come attached to the feature for normal distribution, but you can download it for free through iTunes (click) or, perhaps, other sources.
Descriptions of Blair Witch meets Godzilla are wholly accurate; this handheld-cam, home-movie monster flick makes extensive use of its admittedly brilliant core idea though it often comes across as gimmicky. Opening with a Department of Defense message labeling what we´re about to see as found footage from the area formerly known as Central Park, the idea is played to the hilt. We begin with morning-after scenes of Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Yustman) before cutting to Rob´s going-away party a few weeks later, inadvertently taped over the intimate scenes. Through 20 minutes of tedious setup we´re introduced to our cameraman Hud (nicely played by T.J. Miller) and other side characters while tension escalates between Rob and Beth, who has brought male company to Rob´s party. So Beth leaves, and then a giant monster attacks New York City. Cue Statue of Liberty head flying down 34th Avenue.
Of course, it´s a bit more intense than that; we´ve never seen a monster movie told from the point of view of one of those people fleeing on the street, trying to avoid being crushed by Godzilla´s foot. This framework aids the film immeasurably; we´re so much more involved when we don´t exactly know what the hell is going on, and can´t really see much of the monster – until the end, in a tension-deflating full-on shot (clearly, they should have kept the beast out of complete view for the entire film). Story during the madness involves Rob and co. attempting to save Beth, trapped in an apartment building; light script could´ve used some work, though I guess they didn´t want to stretch things much past the short 74-minute runtime (which is just about all one can take of something like this). What little plot we´re left with, however, is hopelessly cliché. Scenes of the destruction of NYC precisely recall 9/11, with clouds of smoke billowing down city streets and, at one point, a shot of twin structures, one crumbling and leaning against the other. Poor taste or not, these scenes, and the movie as a whole, are undeniably effective; the mood here evokes something akin to the confusion in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Those prone to motion sickness are advised to avoid the film, as the shaky-cam stylistics are even worse than in The Blair Witch Project. Instead of amateurs attempting to handle a camera semi-professionally, we have a professional camera crew attempting to mimic an amateur style. The result is an exaggerated, unimpressive home movie that swings around the camera with wild abandon; not only is everything on the screen disorienting and aesthetically unappealing, but – just like bad acting – we´re always aware of the what the people behind the camera are trying to convince us of (the premise, of course, disables them from doing so whether this was filmed professionally or not; the movie isn´t Blair Witch, which thrived on the ‘it´s real´ promotional campaign for months before its wide release). Could it have been better? Possibly: if the characters were reporters/journalists and trying to cover the story with some degree of professionalism. Still, what we´re left with is some kind of revolution in the monster movie genre, and a genuinely tense and effective experience for as long as we can stand to look at the screen.
Also opening: the Czech thriller Na vlastní nebezpečí (showtimes), from director Filip Renč and starring Jiří Langmajer, Filip Blažek, Miroslav Krobot, Lucia Siposová, Václav Jiráček, Raluca Aprodu. Screening in Czech without subtitles.