2014, Richard Shepard
I’m not sure what’s in the water that’s making these pretty boy actors suddenly decide to go full-tilt against type and get down in the mud with utter depravity, but I’m absolutely loving it. We’ve seen Leonardo DiCaprio’s electric Jordan Belfort and James McAvoy’s detestable Bruce Robertson, and now Jude Law’s making it a trio with his new role as the bigoted, narcissistic and grimy Dom Hemingway. Back in 2005, writer/director Richard Shepard took Pierce Brosnan and pulled apart the prestige of James Bond to portray the actor as a large-bellied retiring hitman in The Matador and now he’s gone even further by taking Law and turning him into something so far removed from anything he has ever played up until now. In recent years the actor has thankfully begun to accept his growing age by departing from the kind of philandering playboy roles he had frequented a decade ago and doing more of the complex character work he is incredibly equipped for, but even still his work in Dom Hemingway is a brazen and unexpected turn that fully embraces a sinister quality he’s rarely tapped into before and never quite to this extreme.
Getting out of prison after 12 years, Hemingway is ready to make up for lost time with all the drugs, sex and boozing he has missed out on. His first action after stepping out of the gates is to go and beat the living hell out of the man who married his ex-wife (who has been dead from cancer for some time) while he was inside, and after that he heads to a bar and meets up with his best friend Dickie Black (such a perfect British gangster name), played by the great Richard E. Grant. After a few nights of fornication with some prostitutes, Dom and Dickie head up to the luxurious mansion of Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir), the man Dom worked for who he refused to give up when he was arrested even though it meant spending considerable more time in prison. For all of his character flaws, Dom has a code and he sticks to it, a code that he thinks and expects everyone in his line of work to live by.
The sad thing is they don’t all believe the same way and over the course of the film Dom is constantly confronted with the fact that when you’re a criminal there are no rules and sticking with a code is what led to him being locked away for over a decade and stranded from his wife and daughter (played by Emilia Clarke). This is a bad guy who constantly has bad things happening to him, yet Law is able to portray him in a way that makes Dom somewhat charming through all of his ugliness. Law fully commits to this role in every which way, altering his stunning looks to get filthy with this character and never wavering in his believability through all of his many vulgar, expletive-laden monologues. When the film opens with Law staring in the camera saying the line “my cock is exquisite” before launching into a full monologue about the many ways that his member should be worshiped, you know this is a different side of the man than we’ve ever seen before.
Existing somewhere between the sheen and extravagance of The Wolf of Wall Street and the bleak, dirty grime of Filth, Shepard balances a tone in Dom Hemingway that keeps things dark but also incredibly fun. Law and Grant have a tremendous chemistry with one another and the film has a great deal of entertainment value simply in watching the two of them muck about. Yet through all of the first section’s raunchy kicks, there are little moments that show a heart beating somewhere in there so when the emotion of this character takes over it feels like a natural transition as opposed to something incredibly jarring. Hemingway launches into his insane monologues that must have been an absolute blast to perform, but there’s such an anger and bitterness in the way Law delivers them that hides a deep pain underneath the fun of watching an actor such as him behaving so badly.
Hemingway isn’t a great guy, but you can actually see that there’s a possibility of redemption for him and Law plays it in such a remarkable way that makes him fully convincing when he’s in the gutter just as well as when we’re supposed to be hoping for this guy to pull it together. For all of those hilarious rants of insults to everyone around him, when his final monologue comes it’s an absolutely heartbreaking moment of genuine emotion and it actually feels real. Dom Hemingway isn’t an easy kind of film to pull off at the end of all things, but through the great work of Shepard and especially Law it really succeeds in balancing the many areas of its tones (there’s even an existential element with Kerry Condon’s character that could have gone so wrong but I thought added something great and unique to the film) while keeping everything darkly amusing and surprisingly emotional.
2014, Wes Anderson
It’d be hard to argue with anyone who stated that Wes Anderson is the most efficient and creative world-builder working in cinema today. Each of his films exist in their own universe outside the realm of the normal and even further outside any other films existing alongside them. Lately his work has become even more of its own invention and his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, certainly follows in that tradition by being far and away his most constructed and inventive world to date. Technically taking place in several time periods but ultimately having the large majority set in 1932, Budapest is a story told by an elderly hotel owner named Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) about a grand, perilous and comically riveting adventure he experienced in his time as a lobby boy under the service of the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).
Gustave is a glorious creation straight out of the Anderson wheelhouse and played with marvelous precision by Fiennes, showing us a comfortably comedic side that we have not seen from him before in quite this way. A poetic perfectionist and effeminate ladykiller, Gustave gets in trouble when he’s suspected for the murder of Madame D (Tilda Swinton in impeccable age makeup), a hotel guest he has bedded who in her passing left him a very valuable painting to the dismay of her children. This sets the stage for a cat-and-mouse thrill ride that has Gustave pursued by enemies from all sides of the law while he and Zero (played in the ‘32 scenes by Tony Revolori) try to clear his name and claim what is rightfully his. Anderson is known for being the kind of filmmaker whose particular style is something you either gravitate to or you don’t and Grand Budapest doesn’t do anything to steer the audience away from whatever path they’ve already been set down. Your experience with his work in the past should give you a basic measure of how well you’ll take to this film, and for someone who has a great fondness for the unique worlds and eccentric characters he creates I was fully along for this wild ride.
Grand Budapest starts off strong and really doesn’t slow down for a single second, moving through the narrative with a swifter pace than any of his other work and not really stopping to allow much time for character development or building any dynamics, which is a shame. There’s a slight bit of work in the depiction of Gustave and Zero but not nearly enough for my liking and as a result I found the film to be severely lacking in the emotional core that has made all of Anderson’s other films resonate with me so deeply long after I’ve finished watching them. I have to admit that because of this lack of heart Grand Budapest is my least favorite of the director’s works to date but that’s not really a big slight on the film since I still found it to be an absolute joy to watch and one I’m looking forward to revisiting many times over. It may not have the emotional value of his other films but it does its best to make up for it with plenty of entertainment and incredibly consistent laughs.
In Gustave, Anderson and Fiennes become such a well-choreographed team from cadence to simple character movement and in the script’s dialogue the two are able to make vulgarity something jarring and uproarious again. Along with him, Adrien Brody (playing Madame D’s son) was a particular highlight and made for some of the best moments of the film, especially his introduction. The cast is loaded from top to bottom with a wide range of some of the best actors working today (Anderson regulars like Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe along with plenty of newcomers into his group like Saoirse Ronan, Mathieu Amalric and Jude Law) and unfortunately most of them don’t get nearly enough screentime to deliver something memorable, but it remains a treat to see all of these characters navigating a Wes Anderson world and it’s truly his most extravagant one to date.
Taking place in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka on the verge of the great war in the ‘32 sections, Anderson’s attention to detail is so dedicated that there’s no hint of the slightest bit of imperfection from the choreography to the set design and beyond. Every actor moves in perfect coordination, each setpiece so elaborately designed and the world around them staged with an astounding attention to detail. It’s almost as if Anderson was so obsessively focused on creating such an extraordinary and immersive world that he wasn’t able to draw enough attention to the characters themselves, who are easily the most shallow we’ve seen from the filmmaker. Still, despite missing that core element that really makes me fall in love with a Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an absolutely joyous romp of an adventure that is plenty of fun for anyone enamored with the worlds he creates.