The train is the world. We the humanity. 

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. 

B

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 HostMemories 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. 

B+

The Engine is eternal, the Engine is forever.

Terry Gilliam's Anticipated 'The Zero Theorem' Finally Lands US Distribution

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.

D-

'Snowpiercer' Director's Cut Coming To The U.S., But Only In Limited Release

Trailer for Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem

2005, Jim Jarmusch

With a premise that seems cut from an Alexander Payne film, Jim Jarmusch brings the story of Don Johnston to the screen with his wonderfully idiosyncratic European-meets-Americana sensibility. With Bill Murray in the leading role, the actor and director provide a perfect match with their sand dry humor that belies a deep sadness in this character that is only exposed in the bitter end. An aging lothario, upon discovering a letter in the mail stating that one of his many past lovers had a son who is now 19 and looking for him, Don is encouraged by his friend Winston (Jeffrey Wright, always welcome) to go on the hunt to discover which woman could be the one responsible for the letter and the search leads Don to an understanding of his life and the consequences of his actions. 

It seems like a sort of hokey premise — the road trip movie of an aging man who finally comes to terms with all of his past mistakes, but with Jarmusch’s unique sensibility it is turned into a Rubik’s Cube of fascinating motifs, symbolism and metaphors. The way that each lover on his journey represents a different type of life for Don, going up the scale from the young and exciting lover to the settled, timid and secretly unhappy married man, the unconventional eccentric, the miserable ruffian and all the way to the grave, Don’s journey through Broken Flowers is one that represents the universal narrative of life as much as it is simply a mirror for Don to chart all of his own possible endings. Jarmusch wraps this road movie in so many other wonderful trappings, filling his mystery with plenty of red (or shall I say pink) herrings that offer up a lot of clues with no defining resolution. 

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter who birthed Don’s son, who his son is or whether or not there really is a son out there at all. Don’s ultimate realization is that his carefree, selfish ways have led him into this life where any young man out there could be his son. The handsome young traveler on the bus who is fawned over by women, the vagabond traveler he buys a sandwich for and philosophizes with, the portly fellow who stares him down while driving by in a VW (a cameo by Murray’s real-life son). Any of these men could be Don’s son and as the camera spins around on him at the end of his tale we see that his life will forever be crippled by this idea — a searing display of the heartbreaking consequence of a life led with no one in mind other than himself. 

Broken Flowers has plenty of charming moments with a wealth of interesting side characters played out by great actors (I would kill to see Jarmusch and Wright do a pulp noir flick about Winston) but at the end of the day it’s the tragic tale of a man coming to terms with who he is and the damage he’s done to those he passed through on the way to the lonely existence he currently inhabits. Road movies are often a peppy little remedy for fixing a broken life, but Don’s journey shows him that everyone he loved is broken in some way and their lives are nothing but fractured remnants of lost hope — the same as his is. 

A-

U.K. Teaser for Only Lovers Left Alive