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.
2014, Joon-ho Bong
Throughout the history of cinema, it makes sense that the issues facing the times we live in will be reflected in every era. As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise that class distinction has become a prevalent theme in many recent films. From blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises to smaller pictures like The East, we’ve seen plenty of films that have some focus on a clash between the privileged and the less fortunate. Snowpiercer follows in that spirit in many ways, but it also uses class warfare as a simple starting point for what is ultimately a much larger and more complex weaving of themes that extend beyond that simple initial classification.
The first English-language picture from South Korean director Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Memories of Murder), this adaptation from a graphic novel takes place in a future where a failed attempt to prevent global warming has resulted in the destruction of all life on our planet and a new ice age. The only remaining civilians are boarded onto a luxurious, massive train that travels around the planet non-stop and is split into chambers that are divided by class distinction. After seventeen years of living in the filth at the back end of the train, Curtis (Chris Evans) has finally readied an attempt at a revolt that will change everything to come and open up hell on board this train and a final truth that he could never fully prepare himself for.
Snowpiercer begins as an absolutely thrilling action piece and it continues employing some intensely adrenalized and expertly styled fight sequences throughout but as Curtis and his companions continue their push towards the front of the train in an attempt for the lower class to take control, things become much more complex than how they were initially painted. Curtis makes decisions that cost lives, doing whatever it takes to fulfill his goal and Evans wears the sins of his past on his brooding face like a warrior who is fighting for his own personal salvation as much as he is the freedom of his people. Bong wisely assembles a sprawling international cast to fill out this diverse ensemble, with actors like his frequent collaborator Kang-ho Song fighting alongside Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer. Each character has moments to shine and none of the actors miss a step when they’re given their opportunity in the sun.
Most impressive is an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, playing an intolerable member of the upper class while decked out in lavish clothing and some truly revolting fake teeth. Swinton’s performance is key to one of the more surprising elements of Snowpiercer; it’s extraordinarily funny. For the most part this film is brutal and aggressively dark, focusing on the depravity of human beings and the depths they will sink to in order to survive (a final act monologue by Evans is heartbreaking to watch and listen to, thanks in part to it being a finer piece of acting than I ever thought he was capable of) but Bong also manages to infuse it with some deliriously bizarre and uproarious slices of pitch-black comedy.
Whether it’s Swinton giving monologues about sucking on titties or an absolutely riotous Alison Pill with her angelic presence leading a classroom of children to sing a jaunty tune about the many ways they could all die, Snowpiercer keeps the laughs coming as ferociously as it does the heart-pumping violence. One of the most intense sequences in the picture is the most massive fight between the two armies, yet right in the middle of it we see Curtis slip on a fish and fall to the ground, followed moments later by a ceasefire as the New Year comes and the army of the oppressive regime cheerfully counts down in unison. Moments like these offset the mood in a way that’s extremely welcome and stops the film from stretching too far into one realm to a point where it becomes monotonous and too relentlessly grim.
It’s no short order to be able to balance these vastly contrasting tones but Bong does it with seemingly effortless ease, and it’s something that highlights the many ways that Snowpiercer is able to avoid expectation and keep itself from becoming too ordinary. One would think that a dystopian action picture taking place entirely on a single train would become too dour or bland, but Bong and his crew are able to keep it fresh and exciting all the way through and as Curtis and his team make their way through the many different cabins the production design becomes much more lavish and colorful, with it becoming almost like a video game where each new cabin represents a different level for this group. There’s never a dull moment in this picture as it takes a plethora of different genres and fuses them for something altogether original and unconventional, yet it remains a piece that never feels like it betrays itself. Snowpiercer is a social commentary, a dystopian thriller, a war movie, a character drama and so much more and it’s an absolutely thrilling, emotional and hilarious ride from start to finish.
Terry Gilliam’s latest opus, “The Zero Theorem,” has finally found a stateside home months after debuting at last year’s Venice Film Festival to solid buzz. Amplify and Well Go USA Entertainment have teamed up to bring the film to US audiences. They will open the film theatrically in the late summer with a home video release to follow.
2005, Francis Lawrence
Well, giving this a chance was a mistake. Did this movie have any idea what story it was trying to tell? I couldn’t understand anything that was going on, and for something that’s supposed to just be an amusing time it’s really not the best sign when the narrative itself is so over-loaded and muddled that none of it makes sense. Add into that Keanu Reeves at his most wooden, Rachel Weisz slumming it and the drastically underutilized Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare (whose castings as Gabriel and Satan, respectively, were the only potentially interesting things in this clusterfuck) and this was just a trying experience from start to finish. Akiva Goldsman produced it and I’m really starting to toy with the idea of just turning my life into nothing but a fierce quest to destroy Akiva Goldsman.
They say a good compromise is one where no one leaves the table happy, and that probably best describes the truce reached between The Weinstein Company and director Bong Joon-Ho. After months of rumor, anger and speculation that saw the filmmaker’s fans, key cast members and the director himself lay public their displeasure about Harvey Weinstein’s rumored plans to cut “Snowpiercer” by twenty minutes and add voiceover, the good news is that the director’s cut of the film will get a U.S. release. The bad news? It might not play a theater near you.