Foxtrot

This is one of those polarizing movies which would be entirely unremarkable and uncontroversial if made in America, but Israel still has some elites on the pro-Israel side of their debates, so…yeah. The real problem with it, though, is that it’s a three-act play where the first and third acts are just kind of miserable. The first act is redeemed by the intensity of the drama and artful (if claustrophobic) cinematography, but the third act…isn’t. This is doubtless deliberate, but I wasn’t sure why I had been called to the theater, frankly.

This will be a spoiler heavy recap here. Very little was a surprise in this film, though. It’s not really set up that way.

Also, Israeli women. Amirite?
Very effective camerawork in act one.

Act One has a mother opening her apartment door only to be told that her son has died in service. The military messengers are on top of it, catching her when she swoons and having a syringe of (presumably) sedative ready. The rest of the act primarily concerns the father being briefed on how the funeral arrangements and processions will go. The father, while not freaking out, is not really handling things well. And at the end of the act, we discover that, no, the son isn’t dead at all, it was someone else with the same name. This is when the father loses it and demand his son, Yonatan, be immediately returned from his post.

Act Two is Yonatan at his post at the Foxtrot station. This is a fairly light-hearted and entertaining series of vignettes as he and his fellow soldiers stave off boredom, and deal with the weird sort of tension that comes from being in the middle of nowhere on a security detail where maybe one car comes through every eight hours, often driven by the same guy. A freak happenstance results the soldiers mistakenly killing a car full of (presumably innocent) young (presumable) arabs. And as Yonatan is struggling with the guilt, he is called back home for reasons unknown (to him).

Look at that hump! It's barely a b-cup!
Camel’s: Nature’s Sand Clowns

Act Three begins with mom and dad some months later—and Yonatan is dead. Apparently he never made it back. There are recriminations and grief, and it’s just miserable because you know this time, it’s for real. The mom gets more screen time (she’s mostly sedated in Act One), and there are some good moments here, but it basically borders on grief porn.

It’s not that I didn’t like it; I just wasn’t compelled by it. I kept looking for something to raise it to a higher plane but all the metaphors seemed so ham-handed (on the one hand) and so minor on the other. The very title, Foxtrot, is (as is explained) a dance where you always end up right where you started.

Huh.

The father isn’t admirable. He tells a story of trading in his family’s heirloom bible for a skin magazine, which he presents to Yonatan as a teen. Further, he’s hiding his own act of cowardice (beyond stealing the family bible and lying about it) that his son knows about. We actually don’t learn about the Mom much, and probably less still about their daughter. They’re a secular family (of course) so they have no tools to deal with their grief, but this feels like a void which the story itself rejects filling.

This crap bookends the movie!
I mean, look at this morose mofo.

The accidental deaths in Act 2 feel very forced. It’s so dull and so low-key out at Foxtrot, the idea that Yonatan is sitting with his finger on the trigger of a machine gun aimed at a car of kids—including a girl he’s flirting with—was a stretch.

It’s the sort of amorphous leftist war-is-bad-so-disarm-before-the-enemies-who-would-kill-you kind of anti-war message that goes over like a lead balloon among Israelis who don’t want to die, but compared to the America-is-Evil propaganda we get here, it seems pretty lightweight. I’m sure that message is what wins over the bulk of the critics.

It’s the lack of a genuinely larger issue, in my eyes, that makes it less worthwhile. It really does end up feeling like it has no other point than making one feel bad about the situation while offering no solution other than surrender. In the end, we all liked it all right, and really appreciated the artistry of the first two acts.

The Flower found it appealing as she’s reading the Bible lately, and appreciating God’s difficulty with his “stiff-necked” people. “They can’t get away from God!” she exclaims! My kids are funny.

Hump it for the camel!
Once again, the star of our show, The Dromedary.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

It was probably the whiff of family dysfunction that put me off The Royal Tenenbaums when it first came out. It is not at all that I can’t enjoy a good family dysfunction movie, as you can see by clicking on each of those words individually—and I assure you that those were just the first four movies that came up when I searched for family dysfunction films—but that a bad family dysfunction movie is second only to bad comedies and rape-heavy-torture-porn-horror in terms of unpleasant ways to spend an afternoon. This was the era of You Can Count On MeIn AmericaThe Hours and a host of other family dramas that (good or bad) were not necessarily something I was in the mood for.

Alas, they do not exist.
This is the only family dysfunction film featuring Dalmation mice, however.

But the thing about Wes Anderson films is that even when they deal with serious things—and all of them do—they use a light touch. We are all in this modern, soft world, sort of absurd characters, hyper-ventilating over minor offenses, while generally managing to rise to the occasion, to overcome the liabilities, to actually make something cool out of life. And The Royal Tenenbaums is a strong vehicle for that message.

In it, Gene Hackman, in one of his last roles, plays Royal Tenenbaum, a man completely unable to focus on his family. I don’t know quite else how to describe it. He’s unfaithful, sure. He can’t introduce his adopted daughter Margot (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) without pointing out every single time that she’s adopted. And eventually he just goes away, leaving his eccentric but driven wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) to raise the children. The children themselves are also eccentric, to say the least, driving toward their own sorts of success in their own weird ways.

We meet the kids as kids, and then flash forward about 20 years. Margot has written one book, well-received, but has basically caved in on herself, shacking up with a much older English professor (Bill Murray). Chas (Ben Stiller) is successful but has been widowed about a year before the movie’s current time, and has responded by being the prototype, archetype and apotheosis of a “helicopter parent”. Richie (Luke Wilson) was a fantastically successful tennis player—now traveling the world in obscurity because he flat out gave up at a single match. (The reasons for which are ultimately explained.) Added to the mix is Eli (Owen Wilson), the next-door neighbor kid who ends up being unofficially adopted by Etheline, and a good reminder that as weird as the Tenenbaums had it, it was still much better than many.

I played a lot of these.
Love this game closet.

The movie begins when Royal returns, seeking to reunite with his family, because he is dying of cancer.

This could be really bad. And if you don’t like Wes Anderson, this isn’t the movie that’s going to win you over, most likely. But the thing in evidence here is this: He respects his characters, even at their most ridiculous and even at their most awful. All of the kids have talent and ability—well, maybe not Eli, who seems to just be an opportunistic drug addict—and they are more or less able. As Royal rebuilds the bonds with his family (and tries scuttling Etheline’s burgeoning romance with her accountant, played by Danny Glover) the questions we are faced with are universal: What does family mean? Do we extend help to our family members even when they don’t deserve it? And if we can build bridges when things are desperate, why can’t we just build them whenever? Why does it have to be desperation?

And, when we’ve extended the mantle of family to another, is that a permanent, irrevocable thing? This movie seems to answer in the affirmative, as the roguish Eli, in his continuous evasion of the Tenenbaums’ attempts to get him off drugs, nearly kills Chas’ son. By the end, you’re less shocked by Royal’s uproarious laughter at a play based on him, written by Margot, and showing him to be callous toward her, and more just shrugging: Yeah, that’s who he is. He’s not even being mean. He just doesn’t comprehend the hurt.

Aw, Hackman! We hardly knew ye!
You probably wouldn’t want to sit next to him during the show, of course.

You could say this movie (and all them, really) is about tolerance. Family is a microcosm of society, and first and foremost, one must tolerate others. No matter how awful they seem. The nice thing about this movie is that you can see and empathize with the different characters. They all have good traits in the mix.

The kids all liked it. I did, too, quite a bit, and more than I expected. I suspect if I had seen it in 2001, I would be saying I liked it more this time—because that was true of all five films.

So good.
And look at that BLOCKING!