Tag Archives: bill murray

Get Low (2009)

8 Feb

In our information saturated age, it is a fun novelty to come into a film blind. It is an approach that harks back to a time when only the most expensive films were aggressively marketed and spoilers were not readily available, when one could stumble upon a film and be surprised by its contents. Now even the most marginal arthouse film will spend a relative fortune on advertising, in the vain hope of piquing the casual audience’s interest. The sum total of my knowledge going into ‘Get Low’ was that it was a hit on the festival circuit and stars Robert Duvall and Bill Murray.

Felix Bush (Duvall) is a hermit in 1930s Caleb County. Shunned by the community, he is a local boogeyman who is the subject of wild speculation amongst the townsfolk. Felix makes a rare trip into town to plan his funeral with Rev. Horton (Gerald McRaney). His exchange is overheard by Buddy (Lucas Black), who works for a struggling funeral home owned by Frank Quinn (Murray). Buddy and Frank approach Felix, who asks them to arrange a ‘funeral party’ for him, which will take place before his death and allow everyone to share their stories about him.

On this somewhat slender conceit is built a charming, cathartic, elegaic tale spearheaded by a masterful central performance. Duvall connects with the role of the grizzled, laconic outsider in a way he hasn’t since he single-handedly carried ‘The Apostle’ (1997), every gesture and inflection articulating some facet of Felix’s emotional baggage. Murray brings his wounded wit and hangdog charm to a role that could have done with more definition. The character only exists in relation to Felix; which is a shame, as there seems to be a story waiting to be told that Murray could have sunk his teeth into. Equally, Sissy Spacek’s considerable gifts are not fully utilized as Mattie; an old flame of Felix’s who has just returned to town following the death of her husband. Her scenes with Duvall are touching and compelling, but their relationship feels like a narrative device. My only recollection of Lucas Black is from his starring role in the execrable ‘The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift’ (2006); which makes the fact that he is not overawed in the presence of his prestigious cast mates all the more miraculous.

‘Get Low’ is the debut feature of Aaron Schneider, who was a cinematographer for thirteen years before winning an Oscar for directing the short film ‘Two Soldiers’ (2003). Schneider’s photographic background is apparent in the film’s luscious visuals, washing the bare trees, lamp-lit interiors and roaring fireplaces in a warm, earthy glow evocative of the period. The production design is meticulous, but is not a crutch on which to pile all manner of broad totems in lieu of dramatic authenticity; a trap so many period pieces fall into. Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell’s screenplay is executed with tremendous economy, though sometimes to the detriment of character development. It thrusts the viewer into an initially disorientating world without the comfort of exposition, taking a Coens-esque delight in the nuances of language.

A common thread of ‘Get Low’ is the idea of people running away from their past – be it Felix from his guilt, Frank from his failed marriage or Mattie from her widowhood – and that they can only keep running for so long before this tangle of experiences poisons the soul. It is refreshing to see a film where older actors are not used merely as venerable supporting players, but given substantial parts that call on their vast reserves of experience. Though not without its faults, ‘Get Low’ is an uplifting antidote to the sneering misanthropy of so much indie cinema, apparent in films like Noah Baumbach’s navel-gazing ‘Greenberg’ (2010). Without resorting to mawkish platitudes, ‘Get Low’ posits that we are neither saints nor sinners, but a little of each, imperfect by nature, capable of immense good and terrible evil, that forgiveness is the only cure for a restless soul.

Duvall debates whether or not to get cornrows.

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Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

15 Sep

Having spectacularly missed the mark with the sombre, ponderous, meandering ‘The Darjeeling Limited’, arthouse darling Wes Anderson tackles Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s classic. Alas, this is not the way to celebrate the source text. Anderson approaches ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ in a manner befitting his oeuvre but detrimental to the effectiveness of the material. He essentially turns it into a stock Wes Anderson film – but with puppets.

For anyone unacquainted with what this involves, it can be summarized thus:
Snappy but vacuous dialogue that fancies itself as arch.
Frenetic editing that makes a virtue of drawing attention to itself.
Copious amounts of music – from twee folk to ‘Street Fighting Man’ in this case.

Anderson has excelled at making films about flawed intellectuals grappling with their inadequacies, but, on the evidence of ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’, it appears that this is the only thing he can do, regardless of its suitability to the project.

In his ‘re-imagining’, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a journalist with a gauche son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and a frosty wife (Meryl Streep). Against the advice of his attorney (Bill Murray), Mr. Fox moves his family into an upscale townhouse situated inside a tree. Despite assuring Mrs. Fox that he has moved on, Mr. Fox cannot fight his instincts and sets about raiding three nearby farms owned by the villainous, and inevitably British, Boggis, Bunce and Bean – with Michael Gambon essentially reprising his role in ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’ as Bean. There is also a sub-plot about Ash and his more outgoing cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), wherein Ash is intimidated by the more precocious Kristofferson.

Can you feel the magic yet?

The end result is a film uncertain of its identity, outlined by the fact that it is crammed with references to films like ‘Rebel without a Cause’, The ‘Dollars’ Trilogy and ‘West Side Story’ while nominally being a film for children. Where the equally lacklustre ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ could at least lay claim to being a film ‘about childhood’, ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ appears to be a film about existential crisis and adolescent angst and is therefore unlikely to appeal to anyone beyond those with a fondness for Wes Anderson films.

It is, however, quite an achievement on Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach’s part to have taken these inherently lovable characters and turned them into such neurotic, self-absorbed Yuppies, blathering on about meditation, mobile signal and credit cards.

In the age of the CGI/3-D spectacle, animated films that use more traditional methods must possess enough warmth and charm to compensate for their lack of visual finesse; qualities which this film sorely lacks. The voice acting is stilted, the character models lifeless and in comparison to the yardstick for all things stop-motion – the films of Aardman – it is found wanting. ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ ironically feels less human and organic than something like ‘Toy Story’.

It is hugely disingenuous to claim that this is a screen adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel. Beyond the title and the names of the characters, ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ bears little relation to the original. Anderson falls back on the archetypes that litter his previous work when he should be delivering something truly populist, sabotaging a film that should have been joyous in the process.

For adaptations that retain some of the magic and mischief of Roald Dahl’s work see:
‘The Witches’ (1990)
‘Matilda’ (1996)
‘James and the Giant Peach’ (1996)

The perpetrators.