The Grand Budapest Hotel(3/22/2014)

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I’m a pretty dyed in the wool auteurist and usually view films within the context of a director’s body of work, but I suppose there are exceptions.  I’m not sure if I’ve ever written a review that didn’t mention the director at all but there are filmmakers like Jean-Marc Vallée or Joseph Kosinski who are anonymous enough that their contributions end up being the last thing you think about when you remember their films.  On the other side of the spectrum are the directors who so thoroughly mold their films that they may as well put their names at the beginning of all their films’ titles.  Such is almost certainly the case with Wes Anderson, a filmmaker who has over the course of eight films established an oft imitated but seldom matched style that can be instantly identified by anyone who’s in the know.  That’s partly because Anderson has a really overt style and partly because he’s stuck to that style so consistently that many have accused him of being a one-trick-pony.  There’s some truth to those accusations, but they’re also maybe a bit simplistic.  Even if you’re using the exact same ingredients, a recipe can be dramatically changed by alterations made to the amount of each ingredient that the chef chooses to use, and it’s also the differences in quantities that differentiate the various approaches that Wes Anderson makes to each of his films.

Anderson’s newest film is a sort of tribute to early 20th century European adventure stories, and cites the writings of author Stefan Zweig as its primary inspiration.  The bulk of the narrative revolves around a luxury hotel in a fictional Eastern European country called Zubrowka during the early 30s.  The concierge at this hotel is a demanding but charismatic man named Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), who hires on a young man named Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) to be his lobby boy.  Together, these two become embroiled in a crazy adventure after Gustave unexpectedly become the heir to a priceless painting that was owned by a recently deceased elderly woman that he had had an affair with at one point.  This turn of events was a shock to her ridiculously evil son (Adrien Brody), who makes it his mission to stop Gustave from receiving this inheritance at any and all costs.

That’s the main story anyway, but it should be noted that this is all actually told through a flashback within a flashback within a flashback.  That sounds confusing, but it doesn’t really matter.  The point of doing this is simply to tell the viewer that all this craziness is brought to us through multiple layers of unreliable narration and that the whole thing should probably be viewed as a tall tale of sorts rather than a straightforward narrative.  Anderson marks these different timelines by using different aspect ratios for each of them, and for the main narrative (which probably comprises more than 80% of the run time) he uses the 1.37:1 Academy ratio. I think this was mainly done in order to give the movie a sort of kinship to the filmmaking style of the era in which it’s set without having to film it in black and white (which wasn’t really an option, because a black and white Wes Anderson movie is nearly unthinkable).

Anderson uses a few other old-school filmmaking techniques as well, like matte paintings and miniatures, but I feel like he probably could have gone a bit further than he did if he really wanted to capture the look and feel of classic cinema. For the most part it just feels like another Wes Anderson movie but with a few added tricks.  The one stylistic element that does feel really different is the film’s music, which is almost all supplied by an original score composed by Alexander Desplat.  It’s a good score for the most part, and it makes sense that they’d take this approach given the film’s period setting, but peppy popular music is a pretty important part of Anderson’s aesthetic and the absence of it does leave something of a void.

Anderson has long populated his casts with a lot of name talent, but he’s really outdone himself with this one by casting no fewer than seventeen famous people in his film.  The cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel is quite large and nearly every single speaking role (with the notable exception of Gustave’s lobby boy) has been filled by a celebrity.  In another context this degree of stunt casting would be a complete distraction, but it mostly works because Anderson’s films are always inherently artificial endeavors and that’s especially true of this one.  Anderson’s filmography can generally be placed on a spectrum of fantastical-ness that begins with the mostly realistic Bottle Rocket, goes through to movies like Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited which are Anderson-esque but still seem to take place in a world that is recognizably our own, and ends with films like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou which seem to take place entirely within Wes Anderson’s imagination.  Were it not for his stop-motion animated project The Fantastic Mr. Fox I would say that this latest film is far and away the furthest movie down on this spectrum of Wes Anderson weirdness.  I personally probably like Anderson’s grounded approach a little better, but I think he makes the fantastical approach work better here than he has in the past.

At the end of the day, all I can really say about The Grand Budapest Hotel is that it’s a lot of fun and that this fun is a type of fun that’s not easy to find anywhere else.  It’s not a movie with any kind of real message it expects the audience to take away, and there isn’t much in the way of human drama at its center, and I wouldn’t even call it laugh out loud funny, but it still works as a sort of cultural roller coaster ride of interesting literary/historical allusions, funny characters, and sight gags.  Despite having worked for nearly two decades and despite having many imitators, Wes Anderson still seems to be a really unique voice in American cinema and he gives his audiences experiences that they can’t find anywhere.  Within the context of Anderson’s filmography, I’d probably rank The Grand Budapest Hotel somewhere in the middle, but a middling Wes Anderson flick is more worth seeing than many directors’ best works.

***1/2 out of Four

Philomena(1/26/2014)

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Every year I try pretty hard to see all the movies that are likely to be Best Picture nominees before the nominations are announced.  I don’t do this just to have bragging rights; I do it because I know that more often than not my knowledge that something is an Oscar nominee will have an effect on how I watch the film.  Specifically I want to avoid situations like what happened in 2008 where I had to go see The Reader half out of obligation and spent the whole movie thinking “why the hell did this thing take up the nomination slot that The Dark Knight, The Wrestler, or Rachel Getting Married should have taken.”  It wasn’t an overly fair mindset approach that film with and while I did ultimately give it a marginally positive review I still wonder if I would have liked it a lot better under different circumstances.  Well, history has repeated itself and a film that I had dismissed as minor has once again gotten a surprise nomination that I went to with complete skepticism.  This time around that film is a low-key British drama called Philomena.

The film’s basic set up is oddly similar to, of all things, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Both films are about disgraced professionals who, out of desperation, decide to conduct journalistic investigations that they weren’t otherwise interested in only to discover that the case they’ve stumbled upon is far more interesting than they would have otherwise suspected.  The similarities end there I suppose because rather than stumbling upon a sordid series of murders and disappearances the reluctant hero here, a former journalist turned former politician turned journalist again named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), runs into an old Irish woman looking for her long lost son.  That woman is the title character, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who was forced to give her child up for adoption at one of the Magdalene Asylums back when the Catholic Church more or less ran things in Ireland.  These were institutions where unmarried pregnant women were sent, forced to work for four years in order to pay for the expense, and then forced to give up their child, all while being treated like crap by the holier than thou nuns running the places.  Thinking that this has the makings of a good article, Sixsmith offers to help track down Philomena’s son, who would be in his fifties at this point.  This trail eventually leads them to the United States where these two rather different people must track down this missing son together.

The character of Martin Sixsmith is obviously meant to be an audience surrogate, and he’s a better one than most.  Usually characters like these just sort of exist to be sort of a blank slate, but Sixsmith bucks this trend by being a skeptical snob who thinks he’s above the film that he’s in the middle of in.  People like me, who go into the films expecting it to be a hallmark card masquerading as Oscar-bait, will instantly relate to him.  When Sixsmith first hears about Philomena’s case he says it sounds like a human interest story, a form of journalism he (accurately) claims is “a euphemism for stories about vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant, people to fill up the pages of newspapers read by vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people.”  In doing so he establishes the central question at the center of the film: “is Philomena Lee’s story really important in the grand scheme of things or is it just being told to make its audience feel good about the fact that they’re collectively making the poor old woman at its center queen for the day?”  Bu the end of the film, Sixsmith certainly comes to think it’s the former.  I’m not so sure about that, but I do admire that this is a film that at least bothers to ask the question in the first place.

Philomena herself couldn’t be more different from Sixsmith.    She’s a soft spoken though not overly somber person who isn’t overly cultured, but who does have the capacity to surprise the audience at times.  Needless to say her personality grates on Sixsmith at times and Sixsmith’s occasional rudeness is sometimes off-putting to Lee.  So, in many ways this is a traditional example of a movie where two people come to respect one-another over the course of a road trip.  The specific personalities here are somewhat different from the norm though, so it mostly works.  When the film ended I was ultimately a lot more enticed by the two characters than I was by this particular story of injustice.  At the end of the day, I pretty much do regard this film with about the same amount of respect that I regard a “human interest story,” which is to say I see it, it makes me go “hmmmm,” and then I never think about it again.

*** out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 2/3/2013

You’re Next(1/25/2014)

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2013 has been a truly terrible year for horror cinema in which pretty much everything that’s come out has ranged from being over-rated to being just awful.  I was kind of hoping that You’re Next, a home invasion thriller about a family being attacked by people in animal masks, would be the horror savior of the year but I’m afraid its left me disappointed once again.  The film is part of a breed of self-aware horror films that seems to believe that its use of horror clichés is okay so long as it points out that they are clichés just so you know that they know that what their presenting is kind of silly.  It’s the same thing that Cabin in the Woods was doing last year, but at least that movie had the conviction to really lean into its satirical side.  This one on the other hand stands as a film that’s too deconstructionist to really be scary but also not deconstructionist enough to simply thrive as a sort of meta exercise.  It ends up feeling like a movie made by people who understand the mechanics of a gory slasher movie, but who have no idea how to create that tone of dread which really fuels those movies and even if they did it almost certainly would have been killed dead by their smart-alecky sense of humor.

**1/2 out of Four

Cutie and the Boxer(1/29/2014)

In thinking about the lives of artists, there are generally two predominant stereotypes: the starving young artist who struggles to make a living while being unrecognized by those who don’t “get” his work and the smug older artists who can get away with all sorts of douchey behavior while selling his work for millions.  The documentary Cutie and the Boxer is an interesting reminder that this binary is a bit simplistic because it’s about an older artist who has been recognized in art circles but who is nonetheless barely able to make rent payments each month.  The documentary follows Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, a pair of married Japanese artists who have been living in New York for upwards of forty years as they prepare for a joint Gallery show.  The film does a good job of portraying what these two artists’ lives are like and I was very fond of the way it used animated versions Noriko’s art as a means of presenting backstory.  However, the film is more of a portrait than a story.  Nothing overly eventful happens during the period in which these two are being filmed so the film is really more about giving the audience an idea of how the two got to this point than about turning its footage into a real narrative.

*** out of Four

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2 Guns (1/31/2014)

1-31-20142Guns I have some fondness for the “buddy cop” sub-genre of the action/comedy, but pretty much every one of them that’s been made in the last… oh, fifteen years, has been pretty lame.  It’s a genre in need of some serious re-invention and the new Denzel Washington/Mark Wahlberg film 2 Guns is a good example of why.  It’s the kind of movie you catch one day on basic cable, enjoy while you watch, and then never think about ever again.  That’s partly because it really has almost no high concept to distinguish it at all.  I guess the story set-up in which two undercover cops are actually investigating each other instead of real criminals is a somewhat original starting point, but, not really.  The action here is serviceable at best, the comedy isn’t overly funny, and the two movie stars at the film’s center don’t really do much to make their characters unique or memorable.  It is quite possible the most mediocre film ever made and I’m baffled as to what motivated its makers to put this much effort into creating such a thing.

**1/2 out of Four

Leviathan(2/1/2014)

Leviathan is a film produced by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab that is ostensibly about a commercial fishing vessel.  It’s sort of a documentary, but, not really.  The film has no voice over, no talking heads, almost no audible dialogue, and no intentional narrative arc to speak of.  Rather, what they’ve done is place a number of small consumer grade cameras throughout this ship and managed to film it from a ton of weird camera angles in an attempt to get a new perspective on what life is like on this vessel both from the perspective of the fishers and the fish.  The movie is extremely experimental, and I thought some of the things they were doing were… kind of neat.  There were certainly a handful of shots they managed to get that I would have liked to rewind and watch over again, but I can’t say I got much out of sitting down and watching all 87 straight minutes of the thing.  That said, it’s good that things like this exist and I wouldn’t be too surprised if in the future we see filmmakers taking some of the tricks that were developed here and incorporating them into more rewarding narrative films.

** out of Four

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We’re the Millers (2/3/2014)

2-3-2014WeretheMillers In my mind, We’re the Millers is destined to be remembered as “that 2013 R-rated comedy that was bad, but not quite as bad as Identity Thief.”   If nothing else I view it as a missed opportunity because I do think that the film’s central high concept (that of a pot dealer hiring a bunch of degenerates to pose as his family for drug smuggling purposes) did have some comedic potential.  The problem I think is that the film’s cast just wasn’t up to snuff.  I’m not a huge Jason Sudeikis fan, but I think the bigger problem is just that the rest of the people cast as his “family members” are just not overly funny performers.  Jennifer Aniston certainly has some screen presence, but she is not known for improvisational comedy, and it shows.  The logic of the film’s story also kind of breaks down at a certain point: I’m not sure why these people keep thinking they’re obligated to stick together once the border has been crossed for example, and the distances involved in the road trip don’t make a whole lot of sense either.  Despite all that, I wouldn’t say I hated We’re the Millers so much as I merely disliked it.

** out of Four