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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): Written and directed by Wed Anderson.  Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Tony Revolori.  Running Time: 99 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            When looking at the general body of Wes Anderson’s work, it’s all too easy to see his strange mix of the outlandish and the dark as simply the strange, meaningless byproduct of a person too caught up in his own fantastical whimsy to be able to piece together something of genuine substance or deeper emotional importance.  And without a doubt, his methods and styles of telling his tremendously strange tales lend themselves to such misinterpretation, making no effort to bring uninitiated newcomers in on the joke.  Which is, for me, tremendously unfortunate, because when I look beyond the unabashed silliness in his movies, I find a treasure trove of interpretation, symbolism, allegory, and philosophical commentary that is clearly the product of a piercingly intelligent and sharply organized mind, albeit a partially insane one.  This became clear to me after seeing Anderson’s previous film, Moonrise Kingdom (which I still consider to be a minor masterpiece), and this impression has only been strengthened by his newest contribution to the world, The Grand Budapest Hotel.  

            The story begins in the future (relative to the main plot), working its way backward before skipping forward again.  A young girl, all alone, enters a graveyard to hang a key on the tombstone of a writer, obviously honored as a national treasure, made clear by the rows upon rows of shiny, gaudy room keys covering the stone marking of his final remains.  The girls opens the book (titled, of course, The Grand Budapest Hotel), and we suddenly jump back in time, seeing the writer as an old man (played by Tom Wilkinson), who begins to explain to us (and it is most definitely us, not some off-screen cameraman) how he chanced across the story of the hotel. 

            This leads to the next time skip, as Jude Law, playing the writer as a younger man, visits the hotel in questions shortly before it was torn down for being unprofitable (and, let’s be honest, for having become a massive, Soviet-esque eyesore).  During his stay, he encounters Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the mysterious owner of the hotel and a number of castles around Europe.  After meeting him in the baths, Zero agrees to tell the writer the story of how he came into possession of the old establishment. 

            We are now led once more into the recesses of time to the main story.  Zero, a young refuge, successfully wins the confidence and respect of Gustave H. (a magnificently comical and boyish Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Budapest when it was still the go-to, gloriously tacky resort for all manner of aged, wealthy clientele.  Gustave rules this establish as a benevolent dictator, exacting in his standards, yet given over to composing his own, God-awful poetry and reciting it at every staff dinner.  Zero is a slight wisp of a lad, soaking in every word Gustave tells him, determined to make his mentor proud. 

            While not necessarily the focus of the story, it is the relationship between Zero and Gustave that provides most of the film’s emotional center.  At first, it looks like their characters and interactions will be nothing more than skin-deep farce- Gustave is overweening, pompous, and demanding to a ludicrous extreme.  Zero is wide-eyed and innocent, merely seeking to become a carbon copy of Gustave.  Thankfully, Anderson very quickly moves to dissuade such notions almost from the get-to.  Gustave strives so very hard to be the model of a respectable, “civilized” gentleman, yet he sleeps with nearly all of his regular clientele (the gender of a given client being of no apparent concern).  He is unfailingly polite even when threatened with death (which soon becomes a regular occurance), but when his patience runs out, few sailors in the British navy could hope to match his verbose swearing.  A working-class background is hinted at, but never explored, leaving the man an enigma wrapped in a mystery.  Zero is equally complex, although we do get a bit more of his backstory.  He has seen tragedy and war, but never allows its terrors to prevent him from seeking love in the form of a village bakery girl.  And his determination and resourcefulness soon win him not only the respect, but eventually the deep love and friendship of Gustave.  Instead of staying in rigid, master/apprentice roles, the two become a dynamic team in every sense of the word, and seeing this change wrought over time is not only funny, but also immensely touching at times. 

            Zero’s love for said bakery girl, Agatha, deserves special mention, even though it is not a terribly large part of the film.  This is not deliberate ignorance on the part of Zero, or even Anderson, since it is quite clear that the focus is on Zero and Gustave.  Her few moments are, however, suffused with a love and a reverence that few protagonists manage to show for their significant others.  They may not be on-screen together for long, but their few scenes together, along with a minor reveal concerning the future of Zero’s ownership of the hotel, provide some of the more genuine romantic moments I’ve seen in theaters in recent years.  

            To briefly return to the aforementioned story- the second act of the movie kicks in when one of Gustave’s favorite elder female guests, Tilda Swinton looking unrecognizable in old-lady makeup, dies under suspicious circumstances (a failure to resolve this part of the story is one of the film's few flaws).  He immediately falls under suspect, primarily because the woman willed to him an immensely valuable painting, which her vicious son (Adrian Brody) is determined to regain.  To this end he lets loose his vicious attack-dog of a lackey (a wonderfully evil William Dafoe) to keep the family lawyer quiet (Jeff Goldblum) and to make sure Gustave meets a brutal end before he can discover the secret of the woman’s horrible murder.  What follows- a serious of chase sequences, prison happenstances, an encounter with a secret society of hotel managers, enchantingly beautiful cakes, and the takeover of the Budapest by an SS mock-up called the “ZZ”- is not something I can delve into without spoiling the whole, wonderful affair.  Suffice it to say that it is a wonderful journey well worth every minute spent in the theater. 

            The constant theme woven throughout the story is the paradox that is humanity’s ability to be both beautiful and brutal, and how the two are never fully reconciled with each other, and perhaps never will be.  And if I had to sum up the film in one sentence, it would be in the form of a question related to this very conflict- are our efforts to hold back the base, the rude, and violent in ourselves noble and brave, or pathetic and hopeless?  Is Gustave a tragic hero for striving to desperately to maintain his tiny little oasis in a sea of darkness?  Zero himself, as an old man, confides to the writer that he’s never sure Gustave’s world existed in the first place, or if it did, “it died long before he was born.”  He then adds an afterthought, which only adds to the ambiguity of what the answer to my question is, if such an answer is even relevant; “He certainly did his best to maintain the illusion.” 

            The Grand Budapest Hotel is every bit as wacky, zany, and whimsical as we’ve come to expect from Wes Anderson.  Like with Moonrise Kingdom though, the silly is permeated with a sense of nostalgic sadness, whispers of things lost, and things that never were, and never could be.  Its outer appearances to the contrary, it is a weighty film, another wonderful accomplishment from one of the most unique filmmakers alive today, and a resoundingly strong start for another year in film. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Why Zoe Saldana needs to be Wonder Woman

                I was in the middle of watching the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer for about the third time when it hit me- Zoe Saldana needs to play Wonder Woman. 

                I can’t be the only one thinking this, right?  I can’t be.  It seems too obvious.  And yet, I’ve heard nothing from anyone else suggesting this.  And before you try to interrupt me, yes, I am aware that Gal Gadot is currently cast as Wonder Woman for the (supposedly) upcoming Batman/Superman combo act.  You’ll have to forgive me for being skeptical, at least for the immediate future, that that will actually pan out.  The movie has already been pushed back another year to avoid the space-time-continuum-obliterating singularity that would have resulted had that film really ended up duking it out for box office dominance with Avengers 2 and Star Wars 7 in 2015 (just thinking about even the possibility of that happening gave me the shivers).  And Nolan’s Batman trilogy aside, Warner Brothers has had a terribly troubled time of it making any other efforts of theirs stick, capped by the ongoing debate over whether or not Man of Steel went way too far, so for now, shut up and let me fantasize about that particular casting choice getting flushed down the tube somewhere down the line. 

                Look, there’s no getting around a very uncomfortable truth when you look at a lineup of the main characters of each superhero/comic-book film that’s come out since this current age roughly began with the release of Batman Begins and Marvel’s launching of the Avengers project; all of them (at least the ones to get prominent, successful releases) have been about white men.  All of them, without exception.  No main female characters, no main characters of color other than Greek yoghurt.  The lone African-American characters of note thus far have been Idris Elba’s Heimdall (granted, an AWESOME bit character), and War Machine, and anyone who’s been following this blog long-term already knows how I feel about his on-screen treatment.  Same goes for Pepper Pots (worst waste of a superpower EVER), and while I proffer my hat to Scarlett Johansson for her considerable efforts as Black Widow, there’s no use pretending her existence on screen is not purely a product of the studio wanting a token fan-service character on screen to kind of balance out the gender factor (but NOT the race one).  Case in point- the very first shot of her in The Avengers is literally a 3D breaking-image of her boobs threatening to burst out of the screen.  There is also Nick Fury, but he barely counts, because Samuel L. Jackson is not bothering to create a character or give a performance for that role. 

                Granted, it does look like this will be partially remedied this year.  The Winter Soldier will introduce Falcon to the Marvel movie universe (also a side role, but still), and Guardians of the Galaxy will feature a female co-lead (possibly two?) duking it out right alongside the guys.  A female co-lead who, coincidentally, is being played by Zoe Saldana. 

                Which brings me back to my original point; we need, in a very bad way, a superhero movie starring a female hero.  We need, in an equally bad way, a superhero movie played by a minority, be it black, Hispanic, Asian, or (my personal preference) Native American (ahem, Lone Ranger is racist horseshit, ahem).  An African-American (or Hispanic, or Native American) Wonder Woman is the perfect, kill-two-birds-with-one-stone solution for both problems. 

                As far as a need for a female comic book hero is concerned, Wonder Woman is the obvious choice, because she is easily the most well-known female comic figure currently in existence, and honestly, she’s every bit as pervasive and recognizable a part of our culture as Batman and Superman are, so it’s really nothing short of a federal crime that the latter two have a combined 13 movies between them (no, really), and Wonder Woman has…..none.  No, the direct-to-video one doesn’t count, I’m talking about a big-screen, summer release with full studio backing.  So, yeah, there’s no good reason this to not have already happened. 

                Now, as far as having a lead of color is concerned…..okay, obviously, the big issue here is that, since comics started out within the white domain, there really aren’t any mainstream, instantly recognizable superhero figures who are “traditionally” portrayed as anything other than white.  Hence the inexplicable outrage over Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall in the Thor series, even though he has been nothing other than amazing in both films thus far.  There was the black Green Lantern in the Justice League show (which is the version I actually grew up with, it’s still the only image I can conjure up when you say the words “Green Lantern” to me), but again, that’s a show, and it’s a lone example among dozens of Green Lantern incarnations.  So in order for this very pressing issue to be properly tackled, a studio, any studio, is going to have to gird their loins, get in a good stretch, pick a character, making a daring, all-balls-to-the-wall casting pick, and just stick with it to the end, taking on all the pain and, to be polite, utter bullshit that will inevitably be piled on them as a result.    

                Alright, alright, I’ve extrapolated long enough.  That the first movie featuring a female hero will be Wonder Woman goes without question.  And I think most people (that is, most people with functioning frontal lobes) would be perfectly fine with her being cast by a woman of color, provided, obviously, that it’s a smart casting choice.  So why do I think that perfect choice is Zoe Saldana? 

                Well, to be blunt?  Why the hell not?  What isn’t there to like about that?  First off, her action chops should not be a question mark in anyone’s eyes, given her roles in 3 massively successful summer action blockbusters (Avatar, Star Trek, Star Trek Running Into Darkbrain), and her role in Guardians looks like it will be even more fighting-heavy than her previous films.  Granted, the sequences in Avatar were done almost solely with a massive special effects department, which included CGing nearly all of the actual fighting, but there’s no use pretending for a second that the eventual Wonder Woman movie will be any different.  The days of Bruce Lees, Jackie Chans, and Keanu Reeves dominating major summer action pieces will likely be a thing of the past before too long. 

                Second, and most importantly, the woman is a damn, damn good actress, evidenced by the fact that, although the previous movies of hers mentioned above were primarily visual spectacles with mostly shallow characters and tired plot devices, she was able, in each and every case, to give a performance on which each of the films end up turning.  She’s the most interesting character giving the most heartfelt performance in Avatar (where nearly every other performance was just as phoned in as the effects), and she has been the soul of a Star Trek reboot that is starting to stretch itself thin attempting to hide how little service it does to nearly every other member of the crew.  It is an impressive feat to be able to shine through even the laziest Abrams screenplay, one that far too many people seem to be underestimating (although plenty are not). 

                In short, she is a gorgeous and immensely talented woman, I’d argue one of the most underrated actresses in the business today, and her own personal record in summer blockbusters thus far has been impeccable.  She has all the needed chutzpah to give us a Wonder Woman worth remembering, regardless of how the rest of the movie ends up being.  It’s worked for Marvel thus far, there’s no reason it can’t work for Warner Brothers, if they would only see the light. 

                So there you have it.  I believe quite firmly that the smartest move any American movie studio could make in the immediate future would be to throw their weight behind a Wonder Woman project that makes the bold, courageous decision to make her a woman of color (perhaps getting a female director to take the helm?), and I further posit that Zoe Saldana is, at present, the perfect actress in the game to take on such a great and laudable challenge.  Disagree?  Don’t care, it’s my blog, but feel free to lambast me in the comments either way. 

                Let’s do this people.  Zoe Saldana for Wonder Woman.  Make it so. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Reflections on the 2014 Oscars:

                Another awards season has come and gone, and now we can finally dive into the long, long waiting period until the really good stuff of 2014 hits theaters.  That’s sarcasm, obviously, since some good stuff has already broken through early; I am eagerly awaiting the German release of The Lego Movie, and The Grand Budapest Hotel won’t be too far behind.  For now, though, let’s take one last opportunity to look back at the past year of film and the ever-controversial awards seasons. 

                Looking back, I’m surprised at how free of vitriol, controversy, and bad choices this year’s Oscars ceremony was.  True, the awards were not spread around as liberally as last year, when 8 of the 9 Best Picture nominees had at least one trophy to take home (granted, the fact that the lone one left out in the cold was the ferociously beautiful Beasts of the Southern Wild was its own special travesty).  Only 4 of the Best Picture nominees won anything at all, and with the exception of the documentaries, shorts, and foreign films (whose ghettoization will one day be another hurdle for the Academy to clear), only Frozen, Blue Jasmine, and the Great Gatsby walked away with anything out of the rest of the nominees.  Also, there were really no surprises to speak of, other than Great Gatsby’s second award for Production Design, which I felt should have been given to 12 Years A Slave to give it a leg up over the significantly less-powerful Dallas Buyers Club

                Before I go further, a breakdown of the winning films:

Gravity- 7 (Visual Effects, Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Soundtrack, Cinematography, Director)
12 Years A Slave- 3 (Picture, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay)
Dallas Buyers Club- 3 (Actor, Supporting Actor, Makeup)
Frozen- 2 (Animated Feature, Song)
The Great Gatsby- 2 (Production Design, Costumes)
Her- 1 (Original Screenplay)
Blue Jasmine- 1 (Actress)
20 Feet From Stardom- 1 (Documentary Feature)
The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life- 1 (Documentary Short)
The Great Beauty- 1 (Foreign Language Film)
Mr. Hublot- 1 (Animated Short)
Helium- 1 (Live-Action Short)

                In a way, however, the lack of surprise was a pleasant change this time around, since Oscar-related surprises tend to be of the more disappointing, “they-gave-the-Oscar-to-THAT-instead?” variety.  The Wolf of Wall Street will simply join the ranks of influential, highly-regarded Scorsese fair that also didn’t win (still disappointing, but hardly surprising), Inside Llewyn Davis will become another ahead-of-its-time cult classic for the Coen brothers, and while most of the other films nominated were nearly all deserving of being talked about last night, no others were really so powerfully overwhelming as to absolutely demand getting something, unlike the powerhouse lineup from last year. 

                Before I go into the performances and show itself, as well as the speeches, I will devote one final line to American Hustle.  I do sort of understand why lots of people liked the movie.  But really, it is still baffling to me that two such alright movies, from the same director and involving the same cast, could ever combine for more nominations than Inside Llewyn Davis, Zero Dark Thirty, Her, and The Master combined.  This has been an odd two years, and I sincerely hope this phase of David Russell’s career is over and he can go back to making genuinely great movies like The Fighter.  And that Jennifer Lawrence finally starts to grow as an actress by taking on roles that she can actually play. 

                Now, about the show itself.  There are, supposedly, people who found it boring.  Why, I cannot imagine, because the show was a far, far sight better than the past few telecasts, especially considering the drab jobs of the past few years.  Ellen kept it loose, as always, and while she kept the humor light, she at least found a few ways to literally keep the audience on their toes.  Everything was as mercilessly drawn-out as always, but at least there were more, better performances that were much better spaced this year.  It was a pleasant change to actually hear ALL the songs performed, even in shortened versions.  Shockingly, Idina Menzel was the worst of the bunch.  Why, I can’t fathom, but I couldn’t help but feel that she was a) holding back a cold, or b) really, really nervous about that mike she kept smothering her mouth with.  Why did she even have one?  Pipes like hers, she shouldn’t need to be amplified in a space like that. 

                I really have nothing to offer in regards to the presenters or the montages.  Bill Murray’s shout-out to Harold Ramis was easily one of the night’s most moving moments, the kind of personal, off-script addition that ceremonies like this are always in desperate need of.  More of that would have been appreciated, but as it stood, there were no major issues or hiccups that broke my enjoyment. 

                Looking at the speeches themselves, I would have to select Steve McQueen’s as my favorite, partially because it ended with him pouncing upon his crew like Shere Khan, but largely because he used the historic chance to provide the single-greatest argument for his film winning Best Picture (aside from the fact that it was, you know, one of the year’s best films); not only is American slavery still an indelible and unavoidable part of our society to this very day, the film is also powerfully and viscerally relevant because slavery just as bad (and in many cases, worse) as that depicted in the film still happens to this very day.  And we cannot allow ourselves to forget that, even if we need such stark reminders every so often. 

                Cuaron’s was my second favorite by a close margin (oh Lord, he nearly made ME cry), followed by McConaughey’s (which I found hilarious), Lupita’s (gracious and heart-warming as ever), and Blanchett’s (the world IS round, Fox News).  The word that I can use to describe the night as a whole, really, was pleasant. 

                There is, of course, the usual debate that gets brought up this time of year; are the Oscars really relevant, and is there any value left in holding something up that so, so often, merely reinforces the limited and narrow worldviews of a tiny sliver of the population of a single country in a world of 7 billion people?  This argument is given particular weight when one considers the slew of important, ground-breaking, and damn-bear revolutionary films that are inevitably ignored by nearly all awards ceremonies, not just the Oscars.  The Wolf of Wall Street is no less an incredible cinematic achievement (and is no less relevant and important to our society) than 12 Years A Slave, but only the latter will have any awards attached to its name.  Cloud Atlas, 2001, Citizen Kane, Psycho, and many, many other highly regarded, influential, and ground-breaking fair have no awards attached to their name, and yet their legacy is undeniable. 

                Does such inevitable snobbery make the Oscars irrelevant?  Does it mean they are ultimately worthless, and that any honors they bestow on a movie should be treated, at best, with utter disregard, and at worst, with contempt?  Does the fact that Oscar glory ultimately has no impact on the long-term legacy of a film (other than perhaps being road markers in the careers of particular figures in cinema) make them useless? 

                Those questions have never been more relevant than today, where the number of great movies made outside the traditional studio system  vastly exceed those made within it.  I don’t pretend to have any new, groundbreaking arguments either way up my sleeve.  All I have is my opinion, and in my opinion, no, the Oscars are not irrelevant, nor do I want them to be.  I believe that it is important to at least try to have a regular method of selecting, praising, and formally honoring the best of each year’s crop of films, just as its important to have awards and honors for music, literature, sports, scientific achievements, peace movements, and anything else where good can be done.  What’s crucial, of course, is to remember that all such efforts to laud and applaud the worthiest of human achievements will always fall short in some ways.  There will always be great works that don’t get their due until much, much later.  And while that can be sad, and sometimes heartbreaking, I am of the opinion that our efforts to the contrary are still worthwhile. 

                In a way, the proliferation of film outside traditional, white-male-dominated power structures has also allowed awards systems to break out of said molds as well.  The Oscars no longer stand alone as THE definitive awards of the year.  The Globes, the BAFTAs, and a slew of guild awards and critic’s choice awards of all possible stripes have it more possible than ever for deserving films to be recognized by someone, somewhere.  My beloved Inside Llewyn Davis may have only been tossed handful of Globe and Oscar nods, but it received over 70 nominations from other associated voting groups and awards associations, and won 20 of them, including the Grand Prix award at Cannes. 

                Maybe those awards don’t make the same impact that the Oscars do, since those awards are really the only ones people outside diehard film circles pay the slightest bit of attention to, and that has been and is a problem, but at least it’s something.  I fully admit that the Oscars are problematic, as much now as they have ever been.  But the last 5 years have actually provided me with much more hope that I would have had otherwise for the future of mainstream film.  Since 2009, we have seen the first female (Kathryn Bigelow), Asian (Ang Lee), and Hispanic (Alfonso Cuaron) to take home Best Director, and the first movies to win Best Picture that were directed by a woman (The Hurt Locker) and a black man (12 Years A Slave).  The expansion of the Best Picture category, while allowing some lesser fare to sneak in, has also allowed a broader interpretation of what constitutes a “best movie” and has inspired some great debates, and has allowed the kind of small-budget indie and sci-fi fare to get Best Picture nods that otherwise would have never been allowed near the red carpet (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Her, District 9, and Inception, to name a few). 

                It’s a work in progress, make no mistake.  But then again, we all are, and so are our stories and movies.  I’m just happy to be part of the process, in my own, small way. 

                Here’s to another great year in film.  It’s already looking like a good one. 

-Noah Franc