Rushmore (1998)

The theme of the month at the local bijou is “Wes is More”: I think, capitalizing on the phenomenal success of the Paul Thomas Anderson month—every movie sold out, basically—our clever programmers have tried the same tactic with the whimsical Wes Anderson (no relation, as far as I know) with nearly as promising results. The first film Rushmore, sold out, as would the next week’s Royal Tennenbaums and the third week’s Bottle Rocket, though there were no second theaters opened to catch the overflow, as with the PTA films. I feel like Wes is not as popular here as Paul Thomas, but it could also be the big budget openers like Black Panther that are prohibiting the use of extra screens.

You'll get over it.
It’s hard being less popular.

Anyway, Rushmore was Wes Anderson’s second film, and the first one of his that I saw. I remembered liking it at the time, but not loving it, and I wanted to see how I would feel about it 20 years later. (I actually skipped seeing The Royal Tennebaums, and come back to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which is the weakest of his films except maybe Darjeeling Limited, which is week 4.)

I loved it. Better than I remembered, and a sharp reminder of what it was about Zissou I didn’t like: You have a whimsical world which is, nonetheless, meant to be literal. Your characters are prickly—difficult, even—but they must be charming and good at heart. And behind it all, the world view must be benign.

Otherwise you got bad people doing bad things for bad reasons and sorta getting away with it—and they’re not even fun to hang out with.

OR scrubs, you see.
One of Max’s less fun moments: “O, R they?”

Rushmore features 17-year-old Jason Schwartzman as Max, a kind of BMOC at the prestigious Rushmore Academy, which he has gained entry to by way of a scholarship based on a play he wrote as a youngster. He is the head of seemingly dozens of extra-curricular activities, including the chess club, the theater club, the fencing club—but he is failing virtually every actual class he has.

Max is a salesman, a bit of a con artist, and a guy whose vision of himself is bigger than the actual product, but one of the saving graces of him as a character is that it’s not that much bigger. He wants to be a math genius and to revolutionize the world through his scientific and engineering brilliance—which he falls dramatically short of—but when you start to think that maybe he’s all talk, you realize he’s done quite a lot.

I guess?
And his plays are RIVETING!

He actually does organize and motivate people, and this is a real skill that he carries with him in the third act, when his shenanigans with a beautiful kindergarten teacher (Olivia Williams) gets him expelled.

The movie is basically a love triangle: Rosemary (Williams) captures Max’s heart (no matter how hard she tries to prevent it) while the hapless wealthy Rushmore benefactor Herman (Bill Murray, who took scale and paid for aspects of the movie) also ends up falling for her, result in an ever escalating campaign pitting the two former friends against each other.

It can get mean. Lives are destroyed, sorta. Herman is married but the only time we see his wife, she’s expressing far more intimacy with the pool boy—at her son’s birthday party—than is appropriate, so we can assume that Max’s efforts only accelerated the inevitable.

Max is Russia.
A big part of the fun is the implicit story behind a few briefly shown images, such as this Model U.N.

But that’s the way of Wes Anderson’s movies: Things are funny, quirky, seemingly benign, and then something comes up to remind us that as amusing as people are (and they are, very often), they’re also real, they feel pain, and actions do have consequences. It keeps things from just being silly or easily dismissed. Even, as what might observe, when they have many of the characteristics of fairy tales.

Max, for example, has as a long deceased mother, and his father is way too old, and a simple barber, not befitting his son’s vision of himself. Parents are conspicuously absent in Bottle Rocket, as well, and orphans abound in Anderson’s other films. When parents are around, they often don’t act like parents, or with a highly misguided view of what parents should do (Royal Tennenbaums).

Yikes.
“The paths of glory lead but to the grave”?

Ultimately, though, the film works because the people—for all their quirks and comical irresponsibility—seem real. We’re all Max to a degree, and/or Herman, and/or Rosemary, and even the school bully Magnus (Stephen McCole), gets a measure of depth and kindness that is often missing from films. And for all his grandiosity, Max’s plays seem to be genuinely good, giving us a little more reason to respect and admire him, even when he can be very awful, indeed.

The acting is always good in Wes Anderson films: They rely on it, are powered by it as well as top-notch editing and comic timing, but I was deeply moved by Olivia Williams performance on this viewing. It’s a very difficult role, really, since she has to be tragically romantic (she’s a young widow), tolerant of Max, tolerant of Herman, and then she has to deliver a cutting blow to get Max to back off. It’s kind of brutal, but we know, as the audience that not only is Max not the kind of guy to take “no” for an answer, he’s the sort of guy you might have to call the cops on to get through to. (Not that he’s dangerous, but he just doesn’t give up.)

So she must deliver this speech, and carry with it all the pain of her loss, and the anger at being pestered, and on and on, and still be likable. And it works. It’s one of those hard little gems in Anderson’s films that remind you that while his tone is generally light, he respects his characters. He’s not putting on a clown show.

Quite a talent.
Awkward funny isn’t that far from awkward tragic, really.

The kids really liked it as well, but I may have liked it most of all. I surely appreciated it more now than 20 years ago.

 

Fantastic Planet (1973)

This weird little French animation was a common sight on the “Pay TV” channels (back in the day when “Pay TV” had a specific meaning both technologically and culturally) and, to be honest, I never thought of it as a “drug movie”. I guess there’s an oblique reference to drugs when the Oms do their little rituals, though I think (watching it now) that it was actually sex making them glow, not drugs. (There’s a joke about the proper use of lubricant here, but I’m way too skilled in the art of apophasis to make it.)

Looks like steam coming out of his ears.
Cruelty to pets.

The thing about this crudely animated movie—besides the fact that the crew was entirely animatrices…animatrixes?…all girls!—is that it never misses an opportunity to say “HEY! THIS IS A zatracený ALIEN WORLD!” In situations where most cheap animated films would just pan over a static landscape, this one will show one bizarre large alien animal bonking other, smaller bizarre alien animals to knock them out—and then laughing. (Not even for food, in other words, but just entertainment.) I suspect it’s this more than any given presumed drug-consumption from the aliens, that indicates this is a “drug movie”.

So fine, we can't find it.
It’s a fine line between creative whimsy and “DUDE!”

The story is that, for reasons unexplained, an alien world is populated by giant piscine-humanoids called Draags, and overrun by Oms—who are human beings. A few are kept as pets but most are considered vermin, and the Draags routinely exterminate them en masse. Our narrator, Terr, is an Om whose mother is murdered by some Draag children at play, and who is adopted by a Draag girl. The Draag’s learning device also works on Terr, and he begins to realize certain truths about the world he lives in. When his owner’s parents want to kill him, he escapes dragging the learning collar with him.

I’d say “from there, he leads a rebellion” but for the most part, he ends up the victim of his fellow Oms animalistic/tribalistic fears and politics. At least until the end.

I mean, honestly.
Pet clothes are undignified for any species, anywhere.

It’s trippy, crude (but fortunately recently restored so I think it looks better now than it did when I was a kid) but adequate visually, and abrupt (in terms of plot points and story revisions). It works, though. The abruptness is doubtless an unfortunate side-effect of the budget, but you can forgive a lot of abruptness when no time is wasted, and there really isn’t a wasted frame here. At 72 minutes, it manages to tell quite a story and in a unique way. (The closest thing I can think of to this, really, is Yellow Submarine. Which isn’t very close.)

The girls bowed out of this one, maybe because it’s a little off-putting from the trailers, but The Boy really liked it, as did I. I’d say “check it out” but…it’s really more bizarre than a lot of people would care for.

Still! Not boring!
I haven’t even scratched the surface of the “weird”, really.

Till the End of the World

An arrogant businessman demands his charter flight to Antarctica take off as scheduled, despite inclement weather, resulting in the plane crashing and killing everyone on board.

THE END.

Good Meet-Cutes always involve blood.
Not quite the Meet-Cute but pretty close.

No, not really. Though you could make an interesting movie with that beginning, in this movie, arrogant businessman (ABM) survives the crash, along with science nerd girl, who is ridiculously beautiful for a science nerd girl but, you know, Asian, so it’s almost believable. (I kid! My momma was a science nerd girl!) But science nerd girl (SNG) has a broken leg, and they’re going to freeze to death shortly ’cause, you know, Antarctica.

They find a little shack that ABM carries SNG to, allowing them to survive the first day, and ABM must apply first aid to SNG’s broken leg under her direction. Just for starters. SNG—a seasoned Antarctic expeditioner—realizes that the shack must be an abandoned station she’s heard about, and that the currently populated station is about 20 miles from their current location. She doesn’t know where they are and she doesn’t know where it is, of course, so ABM must venture out to find other humans.

I love The Science!
It’s somewhere on this icy thing.

What follows is a series of increasingly harrowing events that mark ABM’s transition from successful-but-ultimately-unserious-businessman to hard-core-survivor, as he endures blizzards, snow blindness, bottomless pits and, perhaps worst of all, falling in love.

Yes, this is a love story. It’s an action/adventure love story, which is possibly the best kind. Mark Chao who plays ABM, and Zishan Yang, who plays SNG, struggle for survival in the cold, and it’s just wonderful. Chao gives the bolder performance, because he’s really the main character and the arc is his. But Yang gives a subtle performance that is simply beautiful as well. There is a terrific moment where ABM comes back after nearly freezing to death and SNG disrobes and warms him with her body. There’s no real nudity, and it’s done in a very modest, chaste way that makes it especially sweet. (No American movie would be able to do that.)

This is after a previous scene where the two, having grown fond of each other, clash because she wants to bathe and he doesn’t want to leave when she does—he’s snow blind, as he argues! She makes him anyway.

For all I know this says "Eat Panda Express Orange Chicken". And that would be wrong.
Cute. Sweet. But REALLY hard to find stills without freakin’ writing on them.

It’s sweet, in other words. And the sweetness makes it work at a higher level. They’re literally struggling for survival, but they’re not barbarians, dammit. At the last possible moment, they marry each other in an impromptu ceremony—and he goes out on one last expedition while she expects to stay there and die. (But she insists.)

The ending of the movie. This is also one of the greatest movie endings I’ve seen for a love story in a while. There’s a last minute rescue, followed by a shocking disaster, followed by a sudden realization, and a reuniting of the couple. I think, if we’re being strict, literal, and hard-ass then death almost certainly must be involved. But the movie doesn’t give us that. It gives us a happy, spiritual ending. And you can believe what you want to. I think The Boy preferred to believe that it was a literal happy ending as well, too.

The Boy absolutely loved it and named it his top movie for 2018 so far, which may not seem like much, but no other movie has been even in the running.

The spirituality aspect of the movie is fascinating, too. SNG is a Buddhist, ABM relates a lot of information given to him by his psychic, and there’s a Mary statue in the shack, presumably leftover from the Russians(?) who previously dwelt there. It’s interesting the span of spirituality from pagan bone-casting to Hail, Mary that Chinese people are comfortable with. I liked it.

And I loved the movie! Check it out, if you can. Shot in the Antarctic, allegedly, though with tasteful (if obvious) CGI touches.

Take that, Shakespeare.
The course of true love never…Oh, what? I’m trapped in an ice cave? I’m out…

 

A Better Tomorrow 2018

The thing about the Koreans and the Hong Kong guys is that they apparently didn’t get the message about what movies are supposed to be about in this modern age. Like saps, they’re making fun, exciting, interesting films about people, without the misanthropy, promiscuity and politics that drain the life from western movies.

I wonder if they even have guns over there?
But with just as many guns!

I mean, I don’t wanna be a weeb here—and technically, I guess I can’t because I’m not really talking about Japan—but if these movies we’ve been seeing are meant to teach us things, they’re in the general human moral lessons of “treat people well”, “observe your code of honor”, “don’t sell love short no matter how tempting it is”. Even an overtly political movie like 1987: When The Day Comes is less about political hay being made and more about how the events affected various people.

I thought about this because A Better Tomorrow 2018 (a remake of John Woo’s 1986 film A Better Tomorrow) is cut from the same cloth as Hollywood Golden Age films like Dead End and Angels with Dirty Faces. But you’d never see it today from my city. Dig it:

Kai runs a smuggling ring with his sidekick, Ke, whom he loves like a brother. His real brother, though, is Chao, a recent graduate from the police academy. Kai and Ke are just out there having fun, smuggling, when they get invited to a confab with a Japanese drug lord who—

Very Japanese-y.
I couldn’t find any pictures of this guy from the front, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

I wanna pause here for a second on the Japanese drug lord: I’ve written before about how, when Japanese appear in Korean movies, something real bad is going to happen. It’s not typically any good when they show up in Chinese films, either, in my experience, but what I delighted in here was the stereotype. Our Japanese gangster is a kimono wearing savage surrounded by the most cliché koto music while sumo wrestlers smack each other in the background. A movie made here with that kind of ham-handed (but not necessarily wrong) approach would probably result in some white liberal arts student trying to set the theater on fire.

—anyway, the drug lord wants to, duh, smuggle drugs and our boys just aren’t into it. They like money, and they don’t really want to hurt any one. When they’re nearly captured by a police ship on the way back, they have a fun little chase and nobody gets hurt.

Classically, this sort of movie ends with a bloody showdown of brother against brother, but here that plot point happens at the end of the first act, when Kai and Ke are betrayed by the Japanese warlord and some of their own gang. Chao ends up shooting him and sending him to jail, which is bad enough, but the baddies come after Kai’s Little Black Book Of Smuggling and in the process attack both Chao and their father.

Kai serves three years and gets out to find that his smuggling ring has been taken over by his crazier crony, Cang, who (of course) is shipping over the Japanese drugs. Cang’s also got his girl strung out on drugs, just to be a jerk. Ke embarked on a spree of vengeance in Japan and ended up a cripple, cleaning rich dudes’ boats. Stung by his blood brother’s rejection, Kai determines to embark on a straight life from here on.

They write her STRAIGHT OUT OF THE MOVIE after one scene!
What they do to his girlfriend is a shame.

Which, of course, society does not make easy. Besides only being able to score crap jobs, Chao is convinced big brother hasn’t really gone straight, and dogs the old smuggling ring. Cang approaches Kai to tell him to get Chao to back off, and Kai’s determined to spare his brother the sort of brutality he knows firsthand these guys can dish out.

Well, it all gets out of hand from here, as you might imagine, with bullets flying and things blowing up, and the three brothers forming a bond in an ending that didn’t quite make logical sense but definitely made a Hong-King-John-Woo-action-flick kind of sense.

In other words, it was fun. The Boy really liked it. He had a little trouble getting into it at first because it was not, as he said “a glorious Korea movie” but instead “a glorious China movie”. There is a distinct difference in the aesthetics, emotional content and customs, with HK having a unique style even among the Chinese. (And, I note pointedly, the Chinese do not have the Korean trope of incompetent bureaucrats. The police here are pretty ruthlessly efficient.)

It’s a very guy film. The women are damsels-in-distress, and they don’t fare that well. (This is okay, too.) Our second feature would be a survival/love story by contrast, where the female character is the strong, deep one and the male sort of a shallow figurehead—at least at first.

No spoilers!
Guy movie happy ending?