Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Film Appreciation - Ain't No Trip to Cleveland

Cody Hamman doesn't think showing Film Appreciation for Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket (1996) is a pointless act.

A while back, Anthony had a nervous breakdown. He was hanging out with some friends when he had a sudden epiphany that he didn't want to see or talk to any of these people ever again... And then he ran off into the desert. Ten miles a day.

Eventually, Anthony checked himself into a psychiatric hospital, and after he's worked through his issues, his longtime pal Dignan, unaware that it's a voluntary facility, shows up to help him bust out of the place. Dignan has big plans for himself and Anthony, in fact he has the broad strokes of the next seventy-five years of their lives planned and written out by hand in a notebook.

To set in motion everything Dignan has in mind for them, they must first embark on a life of crime as thieves. The idea is that if they can be successful enough at robberies they might get accepted into a crew run by the mysterious Mister Henry, who runs a landscaping business called The Lawn Wranglers as a front for his criminal endeavors.

Anthony and Dignan make a test run B&E into Anthony's parents' house, stealing various items but leaving behind the things of real monetary and sentimental value that Anthony made Dignan promise not to touch. A list was made and Dignan signed it. That goes reasonably well, so it's time to step it up a notch. They enlist a getaway driver: their pal Bob Mapplethorpe interviews for the job, his main selling point the fact that "I'm the only one with a car." He gets the job. They buy guns. They pull off an armed robbery of a bookstore, get away with a little cash, and then it's time to, as Dignan says, "go on the lame".

On the run from Johnny Law, they end up at a motel in the middle of nowhere, actually a great location right at the edge of an open farm field. It's there that a sweet little love story begins to develop. Anthony spots a maid from Paraguay named Inés and is infatuated with her at first sight. He follows her around like a lost puppy as she does her housekeeping duties, and despite the fact that neither speaks the other's language very well, they quickly fall for each other.

But then complications arise, fights and disagreements break out between the thieving trio, and Mister Henry enters the picture to stir things up some more...

Bottle Rocket was the feature debut of writer/director Wes Anderson, who's gone on to become a favorite among cinephiles. The project started off as a thirteen minute long black & white short film that was shot in 1992 and first screened in 1994. That short caught the attention of L.M. Kit Carson (screenwriter of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Paris, Texas), who passed word of it on to producers James L. Brooks and Polly Platt. Soon, Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson were directing a feature length version of the story with a 7 million dollar budget.

Everyone cast as a lead character in the short would reprise their roles in the feature version. Luke Wilson plays Anthony, the most sensible of the bunch despite his past emotional issues and his drive to always coddle his buddy Dignan. Luke's brother Owen Wilson plays Dignan, a character who walks a fine line - he's a liar, he takes advantage of his friends, always wants to boss people around, needs constant placation. Owen found just the right balance, though, and through all his faults Dignan is still very likeable. The high-strung Bob Mapplethorpe is played by Robert Musgrave, who is terrific in the role. It's disappointing to me that Musgrave doesn't work as an actor more, he should at least be showing up regularly in Wilson and Anderson projects.

Lumi Cavazos comes off very sweet as Inez, James Caan has some fun moments as the legendary Mister Henry, a third Wilson brother, Andrew Wilson, appears as Bob's bullying older brother Future Man, Shea Fowler has a good scene as Anthony's younger sister Grace, and Jim Ponds and Kumar Pallana are part of why the climactic caper is so hilariously bungled.

Although it took years of work for "the Bottle Rocket boys" to get their movie made, years for them to get the script to a point where they were satisfied with it, the finished film didn't fare well at first. Test screening scores were low, the movie was given a limited theatrical release, it didn't earn much, it was considered a bomb. The cinematic careers of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson could've ended right there. Owen hadn't even wanted to act in the movie at first, and now that it had gone nowhere he contemplated enlisting in the Marines. Of course, we now know that everything turned out alright.

The movie found its audience eventually. I became a fan of Bottle Rocket as soon as it hit VHS. The likes of Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, and Quentin Tarantino had gotten me into these sort of movies, and this had the perfect tone and aesthetic to appeal to someone who was a fan of those filmmakers. It was sort of a blend of what I liked from the others' movies - comedic banter, a Texas setting, Gen X characters trying to find themselves, here by attempting to be gun-toting criminals and not being very good at it. Plus it had its own, very appealing quirkiness. Upon watching it, it instantly became one of my favorite movies. When the video store I had rented it from put a used copy on sale, I snatched it up to buy it... But I owed some late fees and didn't have enough money with me to pay for those, my new rentals, and Bottle Rocket, so I had to put it back. The next day, I came back with more money, made a successful transaction, and added Bottle Rocket to my VHS collection. I've sinced upgraded it to Blu-Ray.

Anderson got to write and direct more movies and became a favorite among cinephiles. Looking back on his debut now, you can see him starting to establish elements that would run through most of his films, like the characters being precocious children (Grace) and childish adults (pretty much everybody else), classic rock on the soundtrack, etc. As he's gone on, the quirkiness has been amplified and the movies have started taking place in a highly stylized world that exists only in his head. While that's enjoyable and I like his other movies, it's also part of why Bottle Rocket remains my favorite Wes Anderson film. It has the style that most appeals to me, it's very real and down-to-earth, shot in naturalistic locations, not overly designed.

I also love its characters; regular, relatable guys who are very funny to watch.

Owen Wilson delivered one of his greatest performances ever here in his first movie. I became a fan, and thought it was awesome when he started showing up in movies like The Cable Guy and Anaconda soon after, and then suddenly he was a high profile movie star, his career going from a bottle rocket onto a rocket launched into space. Literally. He was in Armageddon.

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