Rushmore (1998)

2016 #146
Wes Anderson | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

RushmoreThe breakthrough film of cult writer-director Wes Anderson, Rushmore is the story of high school student Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, making his debut, aged 18 but still looking like one of those twentysomethings-playing-highschoolers you so often see in US productions). He’s a prolific participator in extracurricular activities at the prestigious Rushmore Academy, but is put on notice for his failing academic standard. At the same time, he becomes infatuated with first grade teacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) and attempts to woo her by building an aquarium on school grounds. He enlists the support of local business magnate Herman Blume (Bill Murray), but soon Blume is falling for Miss Cross too, setting the men on a path of mutual enmity.

Having only seen Anderson’s three most recent films, it’s interesting to observe the early days of his distinctive style. The squared-off framing and blocking, the mannered acting, the interludes and asides, the not-quite-real / not-quite-fantasy quirkiness of it all… These things have only become more pronounced since, presumably as Anderson has become more confident in his own voice, or possibly as other behind-the-scenes forces have become more comfortable letting him do his thing. There might be an argument for newcomers to ease into Anderson’s unique world via something like this, but I kind of prefer the in-at-the-deep-end way I encountered him.

What do you mean 'quirky'?Part of that is probably tied to Anderson’s own development. It’s not only his very personal touches that have flourished with further films, but I feel like his storytelling and depiction of character has become more sophisticated, too. That’s not to say Rushmore comes up short, but coming to it for the first time with that degree of hindsight, it feels very much like a formative work.

Maybe I’m being unfair to it — it’s amusing and delightfully unpredictable in its own right — but it didn’t excite me in the same way as the other Andersons I’ve seen. Perhaps if I revisit it once I’ve plugged the gap between this and his later work, I’ll be able to enjoy it for itself rather than playing “spot the directorial development”.

4 out of 5

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

2014 #95
Wes Anderson | 83 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Fantastic Mr. FoxQuirky cult-y director Wes Anderson tries his hand at stop motion animation with this Roald Dahl adaptation, in which an all-star cast voice the tribulations of a gaggle of talking animals — led by the eponymous vulpine — who come into conflict with three vicious farmers.

I’ve never seen a Wes Anderson film before, but his reputation is such that I don’t think you need to have to spot that Mr. Fox has been heavily Anderson-ised. It’s probably for the best I’ve not actually read Dahl for decades, because the purist in me would hate it for that. So it’s Quirky with a capital Q, and yet, miraculously, not irritatingly so — it feels like it should be considered self-consciously Quirky, but somehow isn’t. Instead, it’s almost (almost) charming. Whatever, it works.

Ostensibly a kids’ film, because it’s based on a children’s book and it’s animated, I don’t think it really is a film for kids. Not that it’s unsuitable for them, but only so in the literal sense that it’s an animated movie without extreme violence or swearing. A lot of the humour and the storytelling style, not to mention the slightly-creepy animation, are clearly aimed at a more mature viewer. The aforementioned animation was shot at the half-normal speed of 12 frames per second, to emphasis the nature of stop motion. That’s part of the creepiness, but it’s also the gangly designs, and that the animals look like they’ve been made out of real fur (because they have), which ruffles all of its own accord (accidentally moved by the animators’ hands, of course, but when seen in motion…) Honestly, I think it would give some kids nightmares more than joy.

Fox familyCompositionally, I thought I’d get sick of the squared-off 2D style, but Anderson’s cleverer than that. It might look flat and lacking in dimension at first, but that’s the starting point for variation, including some great bits of depth (farmer Bean trashing a caravan is a particular highlight of this), and when it breaks form (like a rabid dog chase) it’s all the more effective. There’s also a fantastic score by Alexandre Desplat. Not your usual plinky-plonky Quirky Kids’ Movie music (though there are instances of that), but something more raucous. Nice spaghetti Western riffs, too.

The main downside is the ending: it kind of reaches a conclusion, but also kind of just stops. It’s like Anderson doesn’t know how to end it… which, as it turns out, is almost exactly true. The ending isn’t the same as the book, because Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach weren’t happy with it, but they couldn’t think of anything else. The final moments they’ve ended up with are apparently based on alternative material found in Dahl’s original manuscript, making it faithful (in its own way) while also settling the writers’ desire for a new finale. As I said, I’m not convinced.

(While we’re on trivia, residents of or regular visitors to Bath may spot the recognisable red facade of the Little Theatre towards the end. Its appearance is indeed based on the real one, though goodness knows why.)

Fantasticer in the future?Fantastic Mr. Fox is the kind of film I feel I may enjoy more on a re-watch. Indeed, some comments on film social networking sites (e.g. Letterboxd) do suggest that it only improves the more you see it. Having parked any desire for faithfulness to the original at the door, then, I feel there’s a chance the film’s boundless originality and almost-incidental outside-the-norm creativity may potentially render it an all-time favourite. But that’s something future viewings (if or when ever they occur) will have to ascertain.

4 out of 5