Archive for the ‘murray christmas’ category

Isle of Dogs

July 15, 2018

isleofdogsWes Anderson’s stop-motion fantasy Isle of Dogs supposedly unfolds in a futuristic Japan, but it really takes place in one of the many neat boxes in Anderson’s head. And yet Anderson’s characters always yearn to escape their boxes. In Isle of Dogs, the mayor of the fictitious Megasaki City commands that all dogs, supposedly infected with a species-jumping flu, be shipped off to Trash Island and mostly left to fend for themselves. The story begins when the mayor’s 12-year-old ward, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), flies a rickety plane over to the island to find and rescue his “bodyguard dog” Spots (Liev Schreiber). Atari encounters a pack of dogs who agree, mostly, to help him find Spots.

Like Anderson’s maiden voyage in stop-motion, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs owes itself to a great many craftspeople besides Anderson, chief among them animation director Mark Waring, who worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox and a couple of Tim Burton’s stop-mo projects. Anderson also shares this story’s credit with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman as well as Kunichi Nomura (voice of the dog-hating mayor). Yet the movie always feels utterly Anderson. Some read his style as rigid or controlling, which it can be, but again, thematically the films are most often about breaking out of the confines of one’s situation, family, location; essentially, Anderson’s characters rebel against him.

At this point, when Anderson does stop-motion, it’s the purest expression of what he strives to do in live-action, screamingly symmetrical, not a hair out of place, etc. In stop-motion, even the hair out of place is out of place for an aesthetic reason; the use of real fur in stop-motion is usually a no-no because it won’t stay reliably still and the eye can catch it moving from frame to frame, but Anderson loves that effect, so the characters are covered in fur. Thus: chaos inside obsessive order. When the dogs in Isle of Dogs get in scraps, they kick up cartoonish dust clouds rendered in cotton. Steam coming out of the nostrils of an angry man looks like string. Using such a clunky, analog style calls attention to the creative workarounds and inventions, but here it also seems like a sly wink at the tech-obsessed entertainment of Japan.

Anderson corrals the usual large cast, though among the dogs, only Bryan Cranston’s battle-weary stray Chief and Jeff Goldblum’s gossip-loving Duke are especially individualized. Nobody in the film really pulls ahead to grab the golden ring as the dominant hero — it seems a team effort, with the American foreign exchange student voiced by Greta Gerwig only one of several components in the campaign to free and restore the dogs. (As for charges of cultural appropriation leveled against the movie, I’m partial to Moeko Fujii’s New Yorker defense enumerating various details in the writing or sight gags comprehensible and enjoyable only to Japanese viewers.) The film is also, by virtue of existing in Anderson’s astringent, deadpan reality, the rare dog movie without a drop of maudlin dead-dog bathos. Our young hero buries what he thinks is his beloved dog and moves on.

Isle of Dogs started filming a month before the 2016 election (and was in pre-production long before that), so its echoes of the world in which we now find ourselves — a harmless, loyal population being expelled from a country while politicians lie about them — are coincidental. And Anderson is never much concerned with current affairs. But in his world, two packs of starving dogs at least stop to wonder whether a package of rancid food is worth fighting over, and when the mayor makes a gruff anti-dog statement, he at least gives the floor to a rebuttal. I wouldn’t mind living in a Wes Anderson film: The people there, even the dogs, seem more rational and polite than what we’ve got here. Perhaps that means all of Anderson’s films, even the ones without talking animals, qualify as fantasies.

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Ghostbusters (1984)

June 5, 2016

ghostbusters-1984-harold-ramis-dan-aykroyd-bill-murray-ernie-hudson-e1446269406109As we approach the dawn of the Ghostbusters reboot, the original film seems to have assumed the status of a sacred text, an inviolable classic, so it’s good that the thing itself is getting a brief re-release in theaters nationwide. That way, we can be reminded that the movie is … good. Often very good. But great? There is a collaboration between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis that does achieve greatness, and that’s Groundhog Day. But Ghostbusters? It’s fine, funny, painless entertainment, and it benefits from co-writer Dan Aykroyd’s soulful sincerity on the subject of metaphysics. It’s also formulaic and made out of a bunch of older parts — which, I suppose, one could also say about Raiders of the Lost Ark,  except that Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman on his best day can’t come near Steven Spielberg on his worst.

For all its wit and snark and baggy-pants-Lovecraftian mash-up, Ghostbusters is very much an ‘80s film, and not just because of the pop music on the soundtrack (even Air Supply pokes their heads in, and Reitman buries their smarm as best he can). It’s a bit thoughtless politically; it has the same slobs-against-snobs structure as earlier Ramis efforts like Animal House and Caddyshack, but here the stakes are much bigger, so the snobs are represented by the Environmental Protection Agency, as obvious a Reagan-era straw man as any (Reagan and his advisors loved the film). The Ghostbusters begin as a trio (Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis) and then bring in an African-American (Ernie Hudson) who seems a sop to tokenism even though he’s more likely meant to be a regular-guy avatar for the many non-techies in the audience. (Which means the black guy gets to have metascientific concepts whitesplained to him.) Women are receptionists or bimbos or victims of the uncanny; even Gozer, the plot’s evil entity from another dimension, is played by foxy Serbian model Slavitza Jovan (“prehistoric bitch,” “nimble minx,” etc.).

Most of this, though, is mitigated by a surfeit of personality. It’s tempting to say that Murray, Ramis and especially Aykroyd were ideally cast at that point in their careers — the more I see the film the more the enthusiastic, emotional, uncool Aykroyd shines through as the movie’s true hero by right of sheer likability. Sigourney Weaver wrote herself a second career as a screen comedian (she’d been funny onstage for years by 1984, often in plays by Christopher Durang) and also got to be empoweringly erotic in a way that trumped Leia in the previous year’s Return of the Jedi. Rick Moranis’ Louis, the single-minded accountant, is a fresh and gently satirical creation, and William Atherton contributes the first of his ‘80s triptych of assholes (continued with Real Genius and Die Hard) with that aforementioned EPA agent. Reagan-friendly as that villainous character is, he has a point, and it’s only his arrogant manner that truly marks him as deserving of ridicule and Stay-Puft glop.

The movie is ‘80s-slick, with the typical soundtrack selected to shift units — Ray Parker Jr. had his one hit with the theme song and was seldom heard from again — and a certain flashy, bluish-purple look courtesy of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. The lighting has that big-movie John Badham nighttime sheen to it, wedded to Elmer Bernstein’s usual semi-parodic instrumental score he specialized in for various comedies (in, again, the ‘80s) involving SNL alumni. The human beats in the story are small (the biggest arc is Bill Murray’s as he becomes less of a pig to deserve Sigourney Weaver’s hand), but the scale is vast — though not as wild as Aykroyd originally envisioned, apparently. That’s the true conflict of the movie, between shlubby humanity and filmmaking gigantism.

And yet, despite the flaws I’ve dwelled on here, I feel real affection for Ghostbusters. How could you not? It’s goofy, funny, homey — it’s genuine comfort food. It’s just that I don’t see a great difference, qualitatively or thematically, between it and Caddyshack or Stripes or Meatballs; it just has massive effects by Richard Edlund and company. It’s probably the most kid-friendly of those four Murray vehicles (if you ignore a quick PG-rated blowjob joke), and thus it has endured as a horror-comedy alongside such peers as Gremlins and Beetlejuice. (A case could be made that Ghostbusters was a Tim Burton film a year or two early.) Its jocular DNA persists in blockbusters ranging from Men in Black to Guardians of the Galaxy, and it was one of the movies “sweded” in Be Kind Rewind. And its honor is now being defended against the girl cooties of the reboot by aghast baby sexists from sea to shining sea. The anti-establishment supernatural farce has become, finally and inevitably, establishment.

A Very Murray Christmas

December 6, 2015

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In the Netflix Original holiday special A Very Murray Christmas, Bill Murray exists in a weird holiday-special reality where some celebrities appear as themselves and others are playing roles. Chris Rock, for instance, exists here as himself, but Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph don’t; neither do Rashida Jones or Jason Schwartzman. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for this, just as there wasn’t in most star-studded holiday specials since the dawn of TV. If it’s funny for you to be up there playing yourself, as with George Clooney or Miley Cyrus or Bill Murray, you play yourself. Everyone else acts, although the milieu here is dark and artsy enough that even those playing themselves can be said to be playing fictional roles.

The special was directed by Sofia Coppola and written by Coppola, Murray, and Mitch Glazer. It plays like an off-market continuation of Scrooged, which Glazer cowrote, and Lost in Translation, which Coppola wrote and directed. It has the vague form of the former (we gotta put on a Christmas show!) and the ennui of the latter (what does it matter if we put on a Christmas show or not?). The two moods conflict entertainingly. Murray is stuck in a swank New York City hotel while a blizzard batters the metropolis. Nobody can make it into the city to join Murray for the live holiday special he’s obligated to host. Then the power goes out and there’s no more pretense of a show within the show. There is now only the show we’re watching, full of bored people who congregate around Murray to sing tunes both holiday and non-holiday.

Murray never had much of a singing voice; his Nick the lounge singer got by on sheer Vegas brio, and his karaoke crooning in Lost in Translation spoke volumes with its self-aware sadness. His performances here don’t have those Nick quotation marks around them — the joke isn’t that Bill Murray is the one singing these songs. The Murray we see here seems to want to discover some truth in the melodies, particularly the opener “Christmas Blues.” Accompanied by Paul Shaffer on piano — oddly, the only SNL veteran here from Murray’s era as a Not Ready for Prime Time Player among several other SNL-ers from later years — Murray brings a melancholy dignity to the music. What he lacks in technique (he wouldn’t make it far on The Voice, but then neither would Tom Waits or Warren Zevon) he compensates for in open emotion.

The special is light on narrative and wants to come across as tossed-off, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to unpack here. The bluesy, mildly sardonic tone will make A Very Murray Christmas a welcome perennial for those who resent the season’s omnipresence, its commercialism, its bullying insistence that everyone celebrate in the same way. After Murray has had too much brandy and passes out, he dreams that George Clooney and Miley Cyrus ride in on a sleigh to save the show, and they bring some razzle-dazzle (Clooney more or less hilariously Dean Martins his way through “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”). After that, though, Murray is more or less left alone again in his hotel room, albeit with Paul and the room-service guy. He looks out his window at the city, embodying the cliché of being alone among millions of strangers, same as in Tokyo.

What About Bob?

November 29, 2015

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Almost 25 years later, What About Bob? stirs up debate in some quarters: Who is the villain of the movie? Is it Bob Wiley (Bill Murray), a bottomlessly needy and boundary-disregarding phobic? Or is it Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), an arrogant psychoanalyst, publicity hound, and author of a bestselling pop-psych book? From where I sit, they’re both pretty awful, and they make a natural match. Bob is palmed off onto Leo by another shrink, and even when Leo goes on vacation with his family, Bob shows up at the door of their lakeside summer house. Bob gloms onto Leo as his only road out of fear. Leo just wants to be left in peace.

And so begins a classic battle of wills based on how each man relates to the world. Introduced to Leo’s somewhat intimidated family, Bob almost immediately drops most of his neuroses and snuggles into their good graces, befriending Leo’s son (Charlie Korsmo) — unfortunately named Sigmund — in particular. Leo’s wife (Julie Hagerty) and daughter (Kathryn Erbe) likewise love Bob, while Leo fumes in solitary fury. All Leo wants is to be able to prepare for his upcoming interview with Good Morning America; he obsesses about it so much that fans of the film could get a decent drinking game going by slamming a shot every time someone says Good Morning America.

Bob represents a true challenge to a boastful man who prides himself on helping people. For a while, the movie plays like Frasier Meets the Devil, with Murray as the nightmare patient whose depredations nobody but Leo can perceive. But Leo has his own demons, and Bob functions as brute therapy for Leo (and gentler, fun therapy for his family). What About Bob? isn’t perfect; its script is a bit sloppy at times, or perhaps interfered-with at the studio level. For instance, it sends Leo around the bend that Bob seems to have ingratiated himself with Leo’s sister, a character we’ve only seen in a photo before; we are asked to take Leo’s closeness to his sister on faith, but we don’t feel it or see it, which relieves the plot’s final twist of some of its intended sting. And the director, Frank Oz, enjoys his actors but treats them like Muppets, and doesn’t much care about anything else in front of the camera: there’s an exterior shot with a thunderstorm that’s so blatantly faked by a rain machine it’s a little embarrassing.

Still, this is essentially a two-man comedy riff, of the sort we see less and less at the movies, and as much as I love Bill Murray and admired the skittish technique of his performance, it was Richard Dreyfuss — grinning viciously and ironically becoming the Wile E. Coyote that Bob seems at first to be named after — who got more laughs out of me. Partly it’s the fun of seeing a stuffed shirt spattered with mud and finally becoming homicidally insane, but partly it’s the palpable glee Dreyfuss takes in his middle-period second career as a cartoonish farceur. By both men’s accounts, there was no love lost between Murray and Dreyfuss on the set, and this sharpens Leo’s rage, gives it roots in something real.

This is not to ignore Murray, whose Bob begins as exasperating but develops into something more complicated and mysterious, and perhaps darker. Does Bob only wedge himself into Leo’s family as a way to punish Leo for rejecting him? How much of what Bob says or does is well-meant as opposed to passive-aggressive and only incidentally therapeutic? Murray kind of keeps it ambiguous, at least as much as a mainstream comedy (with yet another terrible generic-comedy music score by Miles Goodman) will allow, while Dreyfuss certainly plays it as though he considered Leo the hero. It could very well be that the Dude’s words to Walter in The Big Lebowski apply equally to Leo: “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole.” Leo thinks Bob is a monster and a pain and potentially dangerous, and maybe he’s not wrong, but…

Quick Change

November 21, 2015

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Quick Change finds Bill Murray paddling into the uncharted waters of sincerity. To be fair, Murray had dipped his toe in earlier, at the end of Scrooged and in some parts of Ghostbusters II, and of course in his early dramatic attempt that was greeted with bafflement, The Razor’s Edge. But in Quick Change Murray gives a fresh performance, one that dials down the jaded snark while still cashing laughs. He plays Grimm, a New York city planner turned bank robber. Grimm is sick of the city and wants to get out, taking as much of its money with him as possible. Here, Murray doesn’t seem as though he’s critiquing the movie from its margins. Grimm cares about his goals, cares about getting the hell out of Dodge.

The movie, adapted by Howard Franklin from a Jay Conley novel, and co-directed by Franklin and Murray, begins as a farcical take on Dog Day Afternoon and eventually rolls into a variation on After Hours or The Warriors. After the bank robbery — which attracts the expected volume of police and media buzz — Grimm and his accomplices Phyllis (Geena Davis) and Loomis (Randy Quaid) fumble around the city, trying to get to JFK Airport. But New York throws all its snarls and roadblocks and crazies in their path; Grimm wants to escape the city, but it doesn’t seem to want to let him go. New York becomes a major character the way it did in the aforementioned three films.

Grimm and Phyllis aren’t just partners in crime; they’re lovers, and Phyllis spends much of the movie figuring out how to tell Grimm she’s going to have his baby. The sadness in Geena Davis’ eyes when Grimm says he feels “complete” — and presumably not welcoming a child — is one of her great moments as an actress, and it colors everything else she does in the role. Likewise, the eager, somewhat doltish Loomis has been friends with Grimm since grade school, but somehow fears his anger, specifically being hit by him. These two have a strange, complex emotional bond to Grimm that might have been unthinkable in an earlier Bill Murray comedy.

Quick Change is smarter, even more literate, than it needs to be — I remember back in 1990 being surprised that the movie’s commercials included a joke about Thor Heyerdahl (maybe part of the reason it wasn’t a big hit). It’s full of great New York faces and personalities: Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci, Victor Argo, Kurtwood Smith, Philip Bosco, as well as comedians old (Bob Elliott) and then-young (Phil Hartman). There isn’t much filmmaking excitement in it; the two rookie directors (Murray has never directed again) essentially just point a camera at funny people, which turns out to be just enough. There’s enough breathing room in its anecdotal structure for absurdist throwaways like the jousters on bicycles, whom our protagonists — and seemingly the movie itself — pause to watch in wonderment. About the only true aesthetic bummer is Randy Edelman’s cheesy score, interchangeable with that of a dozen generic ’80s comedies.

At the movie’s genially chaotic center is a funnyman (he literally starts off as a clown) who seems to yearn for something different. Groundhog Day was only three years away, and that mystical repetition trip sealed the deal: Bill Murray still wanted to make people laugh, but no longer at the expense of squares, of people who dared to care. In an interview with Roger Ebert promoting the film, Murray said that people were calling the movie “gentle,” which didn’t sit well with him because he considered it “weird and funny,” which it is, but it is also gentle. It’s gentle not only because it has no violence but because almost nobody in it is held up for ridicule; even the chief of police (Jason Robards, and I can’t get over how he went from running around looking robust in this film to being a wheezing husk in Magnolia in just nine years) is allowed to be smart and funny. The two exceptions are a mobster who goes out of his way to be mean to an airport clerk, and a yuppie who insists on being the first hostage to be let free. Grimm uses each man’s aggression against him; it’s comedy aikido.

Saturday Night Still Alive

February 16, 2015

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It was an irony of sorts, I guess, that the special program commemorating 40 years of Saturday Night Live aired on a Sunday night. (Also quite a few months premature; SNL actually debuted on October 11, 1975.) But for those of us in the northeast battered by relentless snow and cold, the show provided some respite, all three and a half hours of it (not including an hour-long “red carpet special” beforehand). If you want to know why the show went all out to mark its 40th instead of waiting for its 50th, it’s likely because many of the original talent might not be around by then. In 2025, show producer and creator Lorne Michaels will be 80. Dan Aykroyd will be 72. Bill Murray will be 74. Chevy Chase will be 81, and Generalissimo Francisco Franco will still be dead.

The show, I guess, is still alive. I don’t think I’ve watched it at all this season, or last, but then I’ve never been quite loyal to SNL. My college years were my (sporadic) SNL-watching years. So I missed a fair bit of what the 40th Anniversary Special served up as “greatest hits.” Did anyone ever laugh at the Californians, and did that deserve to be re-animated here along with Wayne and Garth, Aykroyd’s Bass-O-Matic, and Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer? I suppose it was a good excuse to get Kristen Wiig in there somehow, but by my lights she’s becoming more interesting as a comedic-dramatic actress than as the farceur she was on SNL.

I didn’t mind the special’s self-indulgent sprawl, though a lot of it smacked too much of white male baby-boomer self-congratulation. The ghosts of the original cast have haunted Studio 8H for at least 35 of the show’s 40 years, and a viewer’s estimation of SNL’s peak depends on when he or she started watching. (Even the now-revered comedy godhead Murray was once regarded as a poor replacement for Chevy Chase.) It was touching to see Emma Stone pay her respects to Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna, and interesting to see that the character Melissa McCarthy felt worthy of emulation was Chris Farley’s bull-in-a-china-shop Matt Foley. I didn’t resent the newer performers for their attempts, but I did resent Death for taking Radner, Farley and too many other cast members too soon.

Belushi was the first to go, and his notoriously ironic short film “Don’t Look Back in Anger” (with Belushi as an old man reflecting on all his castmates who beat him to the cemetery) kicked off the special’s In Memoriam segment, which was about the only time we saw acknowledgment of any of the writers. (During a mildly funny q&a bit, Jerry Seinfeld explained that a tribute to the writers was tossed out in favor of “Randy Quaid saying something.”) Michael O’Donoghue appeared onscreen by virtue of his sharing the show’s first-ever sketch with Belushi (“I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines”), and of course Tina Fey got her share of stage time, but no other writers who weren’t also performers were deemed ready for prime time.

In brief, the special was overlong, flawed, riddled with weird choices (Kanye doing whatever that was; Eddie Murphy marking his return to the show after decades by saying not much of anything), and occasionally funny, which puts it one up on a lot of the actual SNL episodes that had all those qualities except for the funny. Mostly I sat through it and didn’t mind it: I didn’t mind Miley Cyrus’ cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (if nothing else it probably scandalized the baby boomers), I didn’t mind Martin Short doing his smarmy-show-biz specialty while Maya Rudolph’s Beyonce vamped, and I didn’t mind seeing old friends like Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks again. Lorne Michaels sat out the special until the very end, which could signal fatigue or modesty; let’s hope it’s the latter. However iffy my allegiance to SNL has been over the years, and even if I usually don’t make it to 11:35 most Saturday nights, it’s comforting to know that it, and Lorne, are still there.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

April 6, 2014

20140406-211249.jpgIn The Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson makes no pretense whatsoever to reality. Anderson’s films, of course, have all been fanciful and fantastic, but this one ensconces itself in a fictional European country whose characters all speak in different accents, the natural accents of the actors playing them. When Edward Norton turns up as a fascist military inspector named Henckels, he doesn’t bother sounding like a fascist military inspector named Henckels; he just sounds American, and Ralph Fiennes, as a hotel concierge known as M. Gustave H., uses his native English tones. This prepares us to view The Grand Budapest Hotel as a fable told via actors playing dress-up. It’s consciously artificial in a way that Anderson’s films haven’t been before, and that’s really saying something.

The key to the movie, for me, is its elaborate matryoshka structure. The story is told to us by The Author (Tom Wilkinson as an older man, Jude Law as his younger self), who talks about the time he was told a story by the elderly Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) about the time he, as a young man (Tony Revolori), worked as a lobby boy in the Grand Budapest Hotel for Gustave. The Author tells this story in a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel, read in the present day by a girl standing before a monument of The Author. We are seeing all this in a movie called The Grand Budapest Hotel, making us the audience to a reader to an author listening to a storyteller. What’s more, Anderson evokes each era by using a different aspect ratio — in 1968 the frame is enormously wide, in 1932 it’s a demure square.

The events surrounding the story — Nazism encroaching like a bloodstain on a map — suggest that Anderson is boxing off the historical nightmare the way his compartmentalized, symmetrical compositions box off everything else. Just outside the colorful wackiness in the frame, shadows lie. The plot itself, sectioned off by all the narrative scaffolding, is almost inconsequential: a rich matron of the hotel (Tilda Swinton) has been murdered, leaving a priceless painting to Gustave in her will, and the police nab Gustave for the crime. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, the movie isn’t about this plot; it’s about how we use stories to keep thorny emotions in manageable spaces. People die, and the deaths aren’t felt, at least not in the story as it is told. A major character’s great love dies offscreen, her fate covered by a couple of lines of narration. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a callous work, but it’s about packing painful experience in storage.

On the most basic level, the movie is visually sumptuous, with Anderson’s fizzy deadpan comedy ladled over the immaculate design. The elegance of the look and sound is broken every so often by salty language, glimpses of surreptitious sex, even some bloodshed, all of which are relatively scarce in Andersonworld. When the jailed Gustave takes a sip of water and sets the glass down, we see a little cloud of red swirling in it. That’s about all the reality of prison brutality that Anderson wants to, or needs to, show us. Yet severed body parts and a breathless chase between a skier and a sled are also on the menu. There may be several floors of story here, but the overstory is a movie — the movie is the hotel itself, a story for each room. So Anderson gives us movie-ish thrills and a mystery of the sort we’ve seen umpteen times.

Of all the divertissements, I think what I enjoyed most was the implication that every great hotel back in the glory days of hotels was distinct only in design. A passage titled “The Society of the Crossed Keys” gives us a montage of concierges responding identically to a crisis, saying “Take over” to their right-hand men no matter what they’re doing. For all the moneyed prestige and pride of their architecture, functionally they might as well all be in the same motel franchise. This, of course, is never true of Wes Anderson’s films, which always manage to be utterly unlike anything else surrounding them in adjoining theaters. As for this one, it’s almost as if Anderson is addressing the detractors of his hermetic-dollhouse style and saying that wildness and weirdness are possible inside the dollhouse, and darkness outside.