by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Amara Karan
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 69%

PLOT: A year after their father’s funeral, three brothers travel across India by train in an attempt to bond with each other.

In one of the bonus features on the Criterion Blu-ray for Wes Anderson’s charming The Darjeeling Limited, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz compares it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey because (I’m paraphrasing here) it is the perfect distillation of the director’s method, mood, and style.  I would reserve that distinction for either The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel, myself, but The Darjeeling Limited certainly does capture everything that is typical of a Wes Anderson film: charm, whimsy, troubled souls, a quest of some kind, attention-grabbing camera moves, frequent slo-mo (but not too much), cameos, light and dark material jockeying for position, and a denouement that may signal the end of the film but certainly not the final arc of the main characters.

Meet the Whitman brothers: Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman).  A year ago, their father died, and for the first time since that day, they’re about to meet each other and speak to other on board The Darjeeling Limited, a train that will take them across India on a spiritual journey.  Francis, the eldest, is the eager organizer of this little pilgrimage, providing everyone with laminated daily itineraries that are produced by Brendan, his personal assistant who is also travelling in a separate train car.  Francis will spend much of the film wearing bandages on his head and face that make him look as if he lost a fight with a honey badger.  What caused these injuries is not for me to say.

The ostensible reason for this journey is spiritual awakening and reconnecting with each other.  “I want us to become brothers again like we used to be and for us to find ourselves and bond with each other,” says Francis.  Peter and Jack are skeptical and not exactly psyched for this little trip, each for their own reasons.  Peter has a wife back home, 7-and-a-half months pregnant, who has no idea he’s in India.  Jack, a writer, has broken up with his girlfriend, but he obsessively checks her voicemails remotely because he still has the code to her answering machine.  (Hey, this was made in 2007 when you could still do that.)  He has his own return ticket in case he wants to leave the trip early.  Of course, he’ll find that difficult without his passport, which Francis has confiscated.  “For safety,” he argues.  Yeah, right.

There is an ulterior motive for the trip, having to do with who did and didn’t attend their father’s funeral, but ultimately the ins and outs of the characters, while engaging, kind of take a back seat to the trademark Wes Anderson visual style.  This is not a bad thing.  I am not a fan of Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, because I felt it was all posturing with no meat to the story.  However, with each successive film of his, I become more and more endeared and captivated with his trademarks, especially when he uses it to tell stories that I would never have thought would “mesh” with his style.

For example, near the halfway point of the film, an extremely unexpected crisis occurs.  Because the movie has been happy and bouncy and witty up to now, it comes completely out of left field.  But remarkably, in the middle of this action, Anderson’s camera remains as “Anderson-esque” as ever, still performing quick pans and push-ins and keeping me involved in the story.  This crisis might have felt contrived in another film, a plot device to inject some needed drama into the story.  Not here.  Anderson’s storytelling methods made the event feel as random as anything life might throw at us on any given day: the death of a parent, the birth of a child, a snake getting loose in your train compartment, etcetera.

With one or two obvious exceptions (I think), the entire film was shot in India.  The trusty IMDb trivia page informs me the train scenes themselves were filmed inside a moving train travelling from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer.  The beautiful Indian locations are a major feature of the film.  They visit temples, marketplaces, a monastery, and hilltops overlooking vast Indian vistas.

And all the while, Francis, Jack, and Peter struggle to come to grips with their differences and their brotherhood.  “I wonder if the three of us would’ve been friends in real life,” Jack asks at one point.  Great question.  Given what we see in the film, it’s sometimes hard to believe they ever loved each other.  At one point, Francis and Peter get into a wrestling match and Jack has to step in: “I love you, but I’m gonna mace you in the face!”  That’s real love right there.  Right?  I guess…

I’ve heard that if you’re ever not sure what a book or a movie is about, just look at how a character has changed at the end of the story as opposed to what they were like at the beginning.  In The Darjeeling Limited, that’s not so easy to pin down.  I can see that Francis has grown a bit (he eventually relinquishes his brothers’ passports).  But when it comes to Jack and Peter…I’m not sure much has changed with them at all.  Does that make this Francis’s movie through and through?

I’m not sure it matters.  I mean, yes, the story is fun to watch, and I wanted to see where this journey would lead each one of the three brothers.  But for me, the element, or factor, or whatever, that makes The Darjeeling Limited so fun to watch is the directorial style of Wes Anderson.  In this film, as in so many of his films, it’s not about the destination.  It’s about the journey.

[Trivia note: the Criterion Blu-ray also contains a short film called Hotel Chevalier which is intended as a kind of prologue to The Darjeeling Limited.  Don’t make the mistake I did…if you get the Blu-ray, be sure to watch the movie with the prologue.  Don’t wait until after watching the main feature.]

[Super-nerdy trivia note: every musical cue in the film was cribbed from the early films of James Ivory and Satyajit Ray; Wes Anderson wanted to pay tribute to the filmmakers who influenced so much of his style.]

KLAUS (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

KLAUS (2019)
Directors: Sergio Pablos, Carlos Martínez López
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Norm MacDonald, Joan Cusack
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The origin story of a certain jolly fellow in a red suit is told with beautifully enhanced hand-drawn animation in a film that deserves to be ranked with the best holiday classics.

I was not prepared for this.

Netflix’s Klaus from 2019 is one of the most beautiful, magical, and relentlessly original holiday films I’ve ever seen.  And heart-rending.  There are emotional beats in Klaus that rival anything in Pixar’s catalog, from the opening sequence of Up to the finale of Inside Out.

Short review: Go. Watch it now. Why are you still reading this?

Long review:

It starts an unspecified number of years ago somewhere in what appears to be Scandinavia, but it could be anywhere.  Or nowhere.  Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) is the ne’er-do-well son of the postmaster general, or something like that.  Determined to make a man out of his son, Jesper’s father assigns him a task: start a post office in a remote northern village on a desolate island and generate 6,000 letters in a one-year period or get cut off from his family’s substantial wealth.

The visuals in this forbidding village could warm the surrealist cockles of Tim Burton’s heart.  Rooftops aren’t so much pointed as sharpened.  Wide-eyed children make snowmen that would give Calvin nightmares.  A generations-long feud between two families on either side of town seems to be their only purpose for staying in town in the first place.

(So far, I’m thinking, okay, kinda weird, not sure where they’re going with this…is this scrawny dude gonna be Santa?)

One thing leads to another and Jesper travels to the other end of the island to visit the isolated house of someone known locally only as the woodsman.  Here he discovers shelves and shelves of handmade toys, gathering dust.  One of these toys finds its way into the hands of a child back in town who wrote a letter asking for a toy…

And here is where the story’s streak of inspired originality really took off.  Virtually every aspect of the legendary Santa Claus is given its own special origin story, from the reindeer to the sleigh to the concept of a Naughty List, right down to getting coal in your stocking instead of a present.

Aha, you say, but this has already been done!  I liked it better when it was called Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, on TV in 1970, with Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, and Keenan Wynn!

True enough.  But Klaus ups the ante by imagining this tale in a way I’ve never seen before.  I’m finding it difficult to express my admiration without giving away key aspects of the film that make it such a delight.  It’s all done so organically, so naturally, that something happens, and you think, “Well, of course they think reindeer can fly, after seeing that!”  I found myself laughing out loud due to the sheer ingenuity on display.

I think it’s a great companion piece to that much-maligned holiday classic, The Polar Express.  Both films approach the Santa legend from different angles, but neither one talks down to its intended audience.  Here is a mystical figure, possessed of magical abilities beyond mortal man.  Both films treat him with the kind of childlike reverence he deserves, and if he’s a little scary sometimes, well…he is always watching…

But none of that would be enough to achieve perfection on its own.  What makes this movie perfect are the heart-rending emotional beats that come as complete shocks to the viewer.  You may notice that I haven’t mentioned Mrs. Klaus, nor is she listed on IMDb.  There’s a very good reason for that, but you won’t get it out of ME.  You may also be asking yourself, well, if this hermit woodsman turns into Santa Claus, what’s the deal with the postman?  Great question!  Watch the movie and find out.

(Pay attention to the wind…that’s all I’ll say.)

These and other surprises pop up here and there, like searching through old clothes and finding folding money in the pockets.  The finale might make you cry like a baby if you’re not careful.  You’ve been warned.

Klaus is buried treasure, lost amid the hubbub of many other films from that year that have been forgotten.  This one does not deserve to be forgotten.  It belongs on any list of classic holiday films, old and new.  If you’ve made it this far in the review, congratulations, thanks for reading, but now it’s time to GO WATCH THIS MOVIE.

Now available on Netflix.