The Darjeeling Limited (Anderson, 2007)

Wes Anderson’s recent pretentious work (The Life Aquatic, Hotel Chevalier) feels cold, cynical, and outlandishly self-conscious, a troubling trend considering these films come right on the heels of his early, more humane masterworks, films which harbor untapped amounts of creativity and sincerity.

With The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson rediscovers this joyous sensibility toward movie-making and character, completely reveling in the diverse and colorful setting of India which acts as metaphor for his protagonist’s evolution toward understanding and transcendence. Anderson’s heroes are The Whitman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, and Owen Wilson), a trio of estranged siblings who meet up on a train (named The Darjeeling Limited) traveling through the Indian countryside. While the men are trying to reconnect with each other and their long lost mother (Angelica Huston), Anderson paints them as individuals consumed by the past and their place within the family. In fact, the entire film charts the brother’s progression from singular, destructive entities to a collective unit, beautifully evolving each character with astute attention to their familial patterns and hierarchies.

As with most Anderson films, The Darjeeling Limited uses setting to highlight vibrant colors and sounds, in this case yellows, oranges, blues, reds, and sitar music all acting to offset the pain hiding beneath the Whitman’s monotonous surface. These men learn to move past mere language and gestures toward a relationship ripe with substance. Spending time with each other produces a number of life-affirming and fascinating experiences, and like the Whitman’s themselves, we never want to leave their side.

Redacted (De Palma, 2007)

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If Brian De Palma spent more time thinking about how cinema can document the way new media enhances and changes point of view and less time sensationalizing the subject, his film Redacted might have had more resonance. Shot entirely on DV via blogs, online video, MiniDV cam, and security camera’s, Redacted charts the story of a cliched bunch of U.S. soldiers stationed in Samara, Iraq, manning a volatile checkpoint outside the city. Seemingly too bored, drunk, and stupid to care about the ramifications of their actions, a couple of G.I.’s decide to rape and kill a 15 year old girl. De Palma is obviously revisiting the themes of his earlier Vietnam War film Casualties of War, but where that film embraces cinematic movement and style to comment on the psychological horrors of combat, Redacted brazenly adopts an incoherent blend of modern technology to show the discombobulated effect these tools have on soldiers today. The result is a jarring, amateurish take on the extremes of the situations in Iraq, neither adding new insight to the discussion nor adhering to the Bush Administration’s equally idiotic status quo of operations.  With Redacted and its over-the-top credo on Military operations, De Palma thinks he’s making a bold and risky statement on the role of communication in today’s war torn world. Instead, he’s made a simplistic, forceful, and trying film that dismisses the brutal complexities of the region and gives plenty of ammunition to the right wing electorate hoping, wishing, and praying for some liberal filmmaker to outwit themselves. In that, De Palma has succeeded.

Margot at the Wedding (Baumbach, 2007)

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Margot (Nicole Kidman), the anti-heroine of Noah Baumbach’s frigid dark comedy about family traumas and savagery, remains a muddled monster of spite and venom throughout. She’s a walking minefield of passive aggression brimming with ego and short on confidence, both as a parent, a sister, and possibly a wife. Most of all Margot’s a catalyst for doubt, infecting her sister’s wedding plans by opening up old family wounds with ease and never fully recognizing the damage she’s done. Baumbach parallels Margot’s subtle destruction with Harris Savides’ bleached out hand held camera, a strange juxtaposition of style and content. The proceedings are so tiresome one wonders why Baumbach felt this particular story, one of self hatred being projected onto family and friends, needed to be told in the first place. It seems he’s already fleshed out this material with better results in The Squid and the Whale, a far superior character study which gives equal voice to child and parent. The performances in Margot at the Wedding, while all valiant attempts considering the downer material, spring with life only when given the chance to see hope in each others eyes. Being a rabid fan of Baumbach’s earlier, more sunny fare like Kicking and Screaming, it’s disheartening to see his relentless pursuit of this special brand of cynicism start to overwhelm the films he makes. Baumbach’s final grasp at hope in the last scene of Margot at the Wedding feels both dishonest and tacked on, completely out of place with a steady demon like Margot.

The Big Steal (Siegel, 1949)

A fun, rough and tumble south of the border romp from director Don Siegel that neither hits hard nor folds softly. Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer create some light-hearted chemistry balancing out the seedy chase scenes through the Mexican countryside, but ultimately the film feels too fluffy for a Noir and too gritty for a comedy. The Big Steal entertains somewhere in the middle.

Park Row (Fuller, 1952)

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There’s a biting moral edge to Sam Fuller’s Park Row, a masterful look at the rise of a small independent newspaper during New York City’s journalism boom in the 1880’s. The importance of a free press rests at the heart of Fuller’s expose, a riveting theme which feels just as vital today as it did at the height of the McCarthy era.

As in The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets, Fuller puts Gene Evans front and center as the director’s alter ego, this time playing hard-nosed newspaper editor Phineas Mitchell. Showing a true testament to ethics and ambition, Mitchell fights off doubt and economics and challenges the behemoth publishing giant The Star, brutally reminding the big business/yellow journalism types of the core values newspapers must abide by.

In typical Fuller fashion, the colorful characters and snappy dialogue crackle, highlighting a professional life brimming with passion and heartache. Fuller hypnotically glides through his layered set design with a fluid camera, the highlights being a series of tracking shots that foreshadow the steadicam some thirty years later, proving once again Fuller’s innovation as a filmmaker. Park Row, made for a modest 200,000 dollars out of Fuller’s own pocket, represents a true independent vision built around universal commentaries worthy of discussion.

Eight Men Out (Sayles, 1988)

Gambling in the early days of baseball has unfortunately evolved into the steroid era of recent years, but the negative affect on the game will eternally be the same. Corruption in professional sports might not seem like a pressing matter in these turbulent and violent times, but we must remember the ones hurt most by the cheating of sports heroes is always the youngsters who idolize them. While John Sayles mosaic of the 1919 Black Sox scandal adopts an appropriately detailed and historically savvy approach, it’s his treatment of the child fan that stands out, boys whose faith in the purity of baseball becomes tarnished forever. These street urchins feel incredible disappointment when the grown up world of greed and intimidation invade their national pastime, and the results linger long after the film. The only word that comes to mind for Shoeless Joe, Bucky, or their modern day counterparts, has to be shame.