Snowpiercer

Size ten chaos

snowpiercerYour first hint about the depth of Snowpiercer is that it’s named after a gigantic plot device: a self-sustaining train that bashes through solid walls of ice and snow in order to continue its eternal loop around the world.  The film is effectively the underdog version of Edge of Tomorrow: based on dystopic graphic novels, starring a reliable Hollywood actor, and far more concerned with what’s happening than why it’s happening or why anyone should care.  Which parts, I wonder, did Harvey Weinstein want to trim or change?

The story takes place after humans attempt to combat global warming, and instead cause a new ice age that apparently wipes out all life on Earth, though I’m not sure whose in-universe conclusion that was.  Either way, the remaining people have taken refuge on the aforementioned train, whose magic engine is responsible for sustaining the lives of the few thousand humans left.  A few issues already: why can’t they just turn on the engine and keep the train at a standstill?  The treacherous snowstorms at every turn aren’t exactly facilitating the goal of survival.  Also, even with the great length of the train, a few thousand people are not enough to keep the human race alive, so it’s kind of an all-for-nothing game already, but the narrative itself seems unaware of that, so we’re left to suspend our disbelief.

We start with Curtis (Chris Evans), a Boring Hero who has become sick of the caste system put in place by those who run the front of the train.  Those in the “tail section,” including Curtis’s friends Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Edgar (Jamie Bell), as well as one-armed/one-legged mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), live in squalor and eat nothing but blocks of protein that look like Jell-O and probably taste much less pleasant.  The story begins as a small army of mooks shows up and inexplicably takes away two of the tail section’s children, much to the chagrin of Curtis and Edgar, who spend five minutes speaking in exposition in a scene that would have been much more effective (and no less clear) if they hadn’t said anything at all.  A would-be riot occurs, during which inciter Andrew (Ewan Bremner) throws a shoe at the wrong person: Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton at her hammiest), who then makes an example of Andrew by making him stick his arm out the window of the train, exposing it to the cold until it is frozen and useless.  Then they slam it with a carnival mallet, because it’s fun to watch stuff shatter, and let’s face it, there’s nothing better to do.

Through some of the exposition, we gather that there was an attempt at revolution four years ago, but no one has been able to run the gauntlet to the front of the train.  But during today’s kidnapping, Curtis notices that Mason’s soldiers do not have bullets in their guns.  Gilliam agrees: these guys come in here with guns every day, but have never even fired a warning shot.  The next time they try something, Curtis rallies every able body in the tail section, including Tanya, whose son was one of the children abducted.  The good guys defeat the guards and rush through the gates that they’re not allowed to pass.  The movie still has two hours left, and it waits almost that long to try to develop the characters (y’know, after most of them are dead).

From here, Snowpiercer becomes a relentless Game-of-Death-style battle movie, in which each train car involves a different type of fighting, ranging from various Bull-shitsu to unnecessary slow-motion kills to Zero Dark Thirty found-footage night-vision.  The one bit of story that happens in between involves the freeing of Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), the film’s Belligerent Savant, from the prison car, along with his supposedly clairvoyant (because that’s normal!) daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung).  Nam is the creator of the gates that separate the train cars, so Curtis’s troupe needs him if they’re going to get far.  Through one thing and another, Curtis, Nam, and Yona make it to the end, where the two men have a heart-to-heart about whether they should open the final gate that leads to Wilford, the Godot Character who rules the train, or just blow a hole in the side of the car they’re in and see if they can survive outside (Nam has evidence that the snow is melting, but it’s mostly a blind-faith idea).  Just in time, Curtis is invited to the obligatory Dinner at the Ivory Tower, after which he has to choose whether to become the new, erm, “conductor,” as it were.

The scene prior to this, nearly two hours into the film, is the first time anything is revealed about Curtis and his motivations.  It’s a pretty good scene, but we needed it much earlier, before the exhausting battles and slaughter.  Chris Evans can act; there’s no question about that after The Iceman, but it would be nice if he were given the opportunity to do so before we’re asked to support his violent coup.  Sadly, his steak dinner with Wilford, which is thankfully not rushed (and which reveals that, much like the revolution in The Matrix, this revolt was planned by Wilford and Gilliam in order to keep the population of the train under control), brings attention to an important bit of Fridge Logic: why does the caste system exist in the first place?  No reason is given for the horrid conditions of the tail section, and it’s not as if finances have anything to do with it, since there’s no currency in this particular dystopia, just the damn train.  And after enduring so much intense violence, the lack of answers or depth is a real groin-punch, and it opens the sluice gates for a zillion other questions we’d have been willing to keep quiet about if we’d gotten some attempt at resolution or character development: why, if Wilford has spent his entire life obsessed with trains, does he never use one bit of correct railroad terminology?  How/why did the government greenlight the construction of a train that spans the entire world and never stops running?  How does a community of people survive on pure protein, without fruits and vegetables, without getting scurvy?  Why does Curtis react the way he does when he realizes that the protein blocks are made of processed insects?  People eat those in real life, and in many areas, are pretty happy to have them.  What is Minister Mason (Swinton’s character) “minister” of?  Why is she, in all her madcap glory, cast aside early and replaced by a silent Übermook?  How does such a large percentage of such a small human society have the exact body-type and low-rent aspirations conducive to becoming monstrous security guards who stand in a room all day, waiting for opponents to show up?  Why do they wear black masks?  Why use unreliable weapons like axes when the exact outcome of the battle is so vital to Wilford’s plan?  Why does a genius like Wilford think that cutting down an already-reproductively-insignificant population by 70% will ensure the survival of the human race?  Why keep the tail-section people in filth, poverty, and boredom, without even giving them the option to work jobs or somehow contribute, and then blame them for being useless?  Why keep them alive at all if you only want them for their children, when the people in the front are clearly reproducing too?  How did Edgar ever know what steak smelled like if he was born on the train?  Why are all the women either bereft mothers or vilified?  Does anyone not comprehend what Mason’s painfully obvious innuendo about keeping the aquarium population balanced is an allegory for?

Most important of all, if Curtis’s anger is based around the fact that he hates himself for becoming a selfish, deranged cannibal when he and his people were first corralled into the tail section – a scenario that almost saw him kill and eat the infant Edgar, after killing his mother, when food was scarce – how does he so readily abandon Edgar to die at the hands of Wilford’s forces, and then later execute a woman at pointblank range, right after ordering one of his mates to kill yet another woman (this time a pregnant teacher played by Alison Pill)?  Are we really supposed to sympathize with him after this?  It’s almost as if Curtis was deepened as an afterthought, without retrospect.  Does he really think he’s going to make humanity better by killing most of the remaining people?  Are we supposed to be inspired by the ending, in which two whole people survive the ordeal?  Good news for the polar bears.  Not so much for the humans.

The problem is the same one so many films and TV series have: the abundance of answers, and complete absence of justifications.  The focus on plot and not on characters.  We can’t care about what happens if we don’t care about the people it happens to.  Again and again, these House of Cards plots dictate a film’s story, and any coincidental characterization serves only to string one noisy, desensitizing fight scene to the next one.  Everyone loves to guess who will still be alive by the end, rather than get to know anyone before they’re put on the chopping block.

One piece of advice for aspiring dystopians: don’t struggle to have a point.  Don’t orbit some shopworn theme or broad idea.  Have a character worth caring about, and don’t kill them for shock value.  The rest is pretty easy.

Snowpiercer (2014); based on the graphic novels Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob; written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson; directed by Bong Joon-ho; starring Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Go Ah-sung, and Song Kang-ho.

 

Obvious Child

No snips

obviousOn a day that sees women being once again failed by our supreme court, there may be some solace in Obvious Child, a film written, directed, produced by, and starring women, and it’s a film that involves one woman’s choice to obtain an abortion, a simple procedure that women are still fighting to have recognized as a part of basic health care.  But screenwriter/director Gillian Robespierre does not present this as a big-issue film; she instead gives us a romantic comedy starring a character who refuses to be in one.

Donna Stern (the hilarious Jenny Slate) is a Brooklyn comedian who, immediately following a great set, is dumped and laid off within twenty-four hours.  Following a casual hookup with nice-guy Max (Jake Lacy), Donna becomes pregnant, though she doesn’t realize it for a few weeks.  She decides to get an abortion, but she has to wait for it, so she has plenty of time to let everyone know (other than the guy she had sex with, who disappears for awhile, then reemerges determined to take her on a “proper date”).  Donna’s roommate, Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) supports the decision, having had an abortion herself.  Donna is confident about having the procedure, but worries about telling her mother, Nancy (Polly Draper), who looks down upon Donna’s relative destitution, and often accuses her of wasting her life.  But it turns out that Nancy had an abortion when she was in college, and can vouch that this is most certainly not a bad or irresponsible decision.

The film portrays Donna as the typical grubby and lovable lead in any gender of rom-com, but Obvious Child isn’t precious about it.  In a film like A Life Less Ordinary, which starts similarly – Ewan McGregor is dumped and fired from his job in the same day, leading to a much different decision than Slate’s character makes here – the lead character is severely misunderstood at every corner, a handsome and well-intentioned guy who is recognizably perfect to everyone watching the movie, who cannot believe that he could be treated this way by the woman he loves.  Robespierre takes more of a risk.  She allows Donna to be herself, which means that some audiences might not like Donna very much.  The result is a more layered character.  Donna is unapologetically herself, and she makes no secret about what you’re in for if you choose to spend time with her – the film’s opening dialogue is one of many extended vagina jokes, and while it’s great gross-out stuff, it’s refreshing to hear female comedians let loose and be funny about their own bodies in a genre so dominated by shopworn dick jokes.

Perhaps best of all, despite the film’s identity in the media as the first mainstream “abortion movie,” it’s actually not so much a movie about abortion as it is a story that involves an interesting character deciding to get one.  None of the characters who have had abortions in the past regret it or let it consume them in any way, and Donna does not spend the film worrying about whether she’ll regret it, or whether it’s the “right” decision in the eyes of anyone but herself and her mother, and her concern about the latter has nothing to do with religion or unfounded fear that the clump of cells inside her is a person.  In fact, the film is careful to avoid bringing politics or religious hokum into any conversations, aside from Nellie’s brief diatribe about the patriarchal right attempting to assert control over women’s bodies, which is not only on point, but is something the character would say, and this is, again, where the film succeeds: its unabashed decision to let the characters be themselves.  Donna gets an abortion because an abortion is a good decision for Donna, not because it agrees with the politics of a studio or a distributor (I might argue that allowing women basic control over their bodies shouldn’t be an issue of “politics” at all, but alas, this is where we live now).

Not only does the film actually use the word “abortion” (something not even Ernest Hemingway, who freely threw around the N-word, would do),  it dramatizes some of the specifics of the procedure itself – Nellie lets Donna know that it’s painless, takes only a few minutes, and involves no cutting or snipping, despite the fear-mongering of those who demonize abortion as a violent act.  This information is for Donna, but also, by extension, for the audience, who at this point are not hung up on whether the abortion is “correct” (there’s never a doubt about whether it is), but more on whether Donna is going to accept Max’s rather sweet advances, have a successful comedy career, and ditch Spiteful Sleaze Sam (David Cross).  Because Obvious Child is about Donna, not about abortion, even while advocating a woman’s choice to obtain one, whereas films like Juno and Knocked Up, however lovable and hip their protagonists may be, allow the fetus to become the main character, and force the woman to carry the unwanted pregnancy to term because that must somehow be construed as the “happy ending.”  Not here.  Not in stories about characters who want real things.

Obvious Child (2014); written and directed by Gillian Robespierre; starring Jenny Slate, Gaby Hoffman, and Jake Lacy. 

 

 

 

Edge of Tomorrow

All you need is [to] kill [your script]

bluntedgeIs it still a ripoff of Source Code if it’s based on a Japanese light novel?  I’ll leave that to experts on things that don’t matter.  What Edge of Tomorrow does well is the blending of self-conscious humor into a run-of-the-mill doom/gloom alien invasion movie, complete with the characters becoming exhausted at the very mechanics of the sci-fi world they inhabit.  What’s exhausting to the audience, however, is its way of simply taking names of things from a book with a rich background, then providing none of that background, centering on two protagonists who should be starring in their own very different movies, and balling it all up with generic American military values and expecting everyone to care.  When Bill Paxton’s jokey, mustachioed Sergeant Farell character pontificates that “battle is the great redeemer” for the hundredth time, I start to suspect that the filmmakers and I have different thoughts on what constitutes parody.

An alien race known as Mimics (a name never explained in the film) are taking over Europe, and an incredibly badass soldier named Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), has had recent success in battling them.  Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is ordered by British General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to cover Operation Downfall, supposedly the humans’ endgame against the Mimics, on the beaches of France, to which Cage declines, citing no real combat experience.  Brigham, however, has Cage railroaded, and he awakens on an operating base at Heathrow Airport.  There, he is pressed into service with “J Squad,” a group of rejects that makes egregious use of the No Girls Allowed Clause.  He’s introduced as a deserter, and J Squad plans to make him their resident redshirt.  However, once the assault begins, it becomes apparent that the Mimics knew about the attack, and the entire force is decimated, including Cage after he attacks an abnormal “Alpha Mimic.”  But the movie can’t end after twenty minutes.  Cage wakes up back at Heathrow, and the day repeats exactly the same way.  We start to think maybe we should have paid attention to little things that happened the first time around.

From here, the film takes on the structure of a video game, from the constant “respawning” whenever Cage dies, to the “leveling up” he must do while learning to operate his futuristic mobile suit.  On the second loop, the version of Rita on the battlefield instructs Cage to “Find [her] when [he] wakes up,” and the next time the day begins, he approaches Rita herself, something everyone else knows better than to attempt.  But she knows exactly what’s happening to Cage, because up until recently, it was happening to her.  She and brainiac Carter (Noah Taylor) have spent plenty of time studying the Mimics, and have learned that the aliens obey the Omega Mimic, a gigantic Charybdis-like creature that hides underwater and has the power to restart the day whenever it wants to, explaining how the Mimics just happen to have the jump on the humans every time.  Due to the Law of the Inevitable Coincidence that governs most movies like this, the Omega has inadvertently passed this power on to Rita and Cage, and is hunting for them.

You know the plot from here.  The heroes figure out how to defeat the aliens, the plan doesn’t go exactly right, Cage loses the gift at a critical moment, and they improvise a solution.  There are predictably sweet/funny/gooey moments in between.  The only thing setting Edge apart from anything else Tom Cruise has done is characterization: at the outset, the female character is the renowned warrior, and Cruise’s character is a coward and a greenhorn.  A great start, but the film’s issues lie within that very characterization.

If this were a movie about a respected female warrior guiding a reluctant male sidekick along, that would be admirable, especially for a pre-summer blockbuster.  However, Cage is the main character, and Rita is not so much the star of her own story as she is an exotic creature whose job is to move Cage through the motions until he learns to become the hero (and thus achieve the male wish fulfillment that catalyzes virtually every single dude-centric action movie ever made).  On top of that, she’s the only female character in the movie (aside from Nance, a member of J-Squad, played by Charlotte Riley with an enormous hole in her sock).  She’s known in the military as the “Angel of Verdun” and the “Full Metal Bitch,” both gender-centric nicknames, neither of which are very complimentary.  And even her heroics at Verdun are essentially taken away from her upon the revelation that the Mimics have simply allowed the human military their biggest victories so that they’ll let their guard down in France.  Perhaps the most unsettling moment is one wherein Cage and Rita are stuck in an abandoned house, planning their next move.  Cage somehow knows how many sugars Rita takes in her coffee and that there is a dry shirt nearby in her exact size.  Rita gradually realizes that this means they’ve not only lived this day countless times, but that on at least one occasion, things became intimate, and she has no memory of it, while Cage does, and discusses it rather casually.  Maybe it’s supposed to be romantic, but it’s uncomfortable, and may be one of the more bizarre ways female characters have been stripped of agency on film this year.  That leads me to a question: if you had sex with someone, and you don’t remember it happening (not even the circumstances under which it happened, and even whether you consented), but the other person remembers everything, where does the situation fall as far as agency?

It’s a shame, because Emily Blunt is an actress who thrives at playing layered characters, and deserves more than one extreme or the other (or, in this case, as with Looper, one extreme and the other, which is also nonsense).  As a whole, Edge of Tomorrow is relatively harmless, but is full of missed opportunities, and tastes particularly sour when one considers all of the fascinating elements of the novel that go unexplored in favor of reliable formula.  O, what could have been.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014); based on the light novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka; written by Christopher McQuarrie; directed by Doug Liman; starring Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise.

 

 

 

Locke

This isn’t your home any more

lockeThe parameters of the 80-minute car ride that is Locke pretty much set themselves: once we get in the car, we cannot get out.  Once we are allowed out of the car, the movie ends.  Sort of like – y’know – a long-ass car ride.

The film, which centers on one character and relies entirely upon an excruciatingly-crafted plot, follows Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy doing an upper-class Welsh accent) as he drives from Birmingham to London in order to be with a certain woman while she gives birth.  Simple enough circumstances, but the conflicts pile up as we, the audience, watch Ivan placate countless people and keep the utter destruction of his life at bay via Bluetooth.  The woman giving birth, Bethan (Olivia Colman) is not Ivan’s wife.  He had a one-night stand with her seven months ago while away from his family, who know nothing about it (yet).  Moreover, he’s supposed to be rushing home from work to watch an important football (soccer) match with his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and kids.  What’s arguably worse: Ivan is a highly revered construction foreman, and is expected to oversee one of the most monumental concrete pours in the history of England the following morning – an event he will not be present for if he’s in London.

For many of us, this doesn’t sound too bad.  A lie here or there and the whole thing blows over.  But of course, Ivan, for reasons that are slowly peeled away during the few-and-far-between scenes when he’s truly alone, has decided to be completely honest with absolutely everyone tonight.  His boss, Gareth (Ben Daniels) – whose name is saved in Ivan’s Bluetooth address book as “Bastard” (really the only atom of humor in the entire film, and a damn refreshing running gag) – throws the fit you’d expect when Ivan gives him the news that he will not be coming in for the most important workday in his career.  Gareth knows that when he lets the true heads of the company (inexplicably located in Chicago) know this, Ivan will be fired, and he makes no secret about it to Ivan, even asking why Ivan didn’t lie and say he was sick, which would have been a valid excuse.  Things go as Gareth promises, and a call a few minutes later reveals that Ivan no longer has a job to return to, even though Gareth mentioned to Chicago that Ivan has served the company loyally for twelve years.  “Eleven years,” Ivan corrects him.  The honesty is painful.

But the bit of honesty that makes us cringe most of all is Ivan’s call to Katrina, explaining why exactly he will not be home tonight.  Katrina spends most of her in-between time considering whether to kick Ivan out of the house for his infidelity (and the fact that he kept this a secret for seven months), though of course we never see her, or anyone else but Ivan.  Bethan has her own problems in the hospital, at which you can guess, and about which Ivan spends as much time worrying as he does about the pour or his family.

Ivan’s journey over the spiraling English highways isn’t just a descent from one piece of terrible news to another, however.  Ivan still has a goal: he will successfully prepare the concrete pour over the phone despite the fact that he is no longer in charge of it.  He refers to the mammoth building that will soon be built as “my building,” and guides his former underling, Irishman Donal (Andrew Scott), whose predicament is somehow amplified when we cannot actually see his face, through the grueling preparations.

Locke is not a story with only one character, but it’s a film wherein only one actor’s face is seen, and the whole thing takes place on a single claustrophobic set.  Tom Hardy must carry the entire movie, and he does.  Whether his character is sympathetic is subjective, and doesn’t quite matter because his three major conflicts are so different, but his decision to play things Lawful Good seems like an attempt on director Steven Knight’s part to nudge the audience in the sympathy direction.  We want all of this to work out for Ivan, both as a film audience and as witnesses to the serious pain of several people, but as both of those things, we’d also feel cheated if everything did work out for him.

There are a couple of characterizations that don’t quite sit well: Katrina’s incredulity befits any stereotypical Wife to a Bearded Movie Hero, whether or not her final decision is understandable, and Donal, the film’s only Irishman, drinks heavily through almost the entire story (and gets more than a little feisty when you hassle him about it).  Missteps like this can’t be overlooked in such a tight film because they’re more glaring than they would be anywhere else.  Here, they remind us that everything and everyone outside of Ivan’s car are pieces that must fit into exact place at exact times, over and over, ad (almost) infinitum.

One-man and one-woman shows are all over the place, and the conventions of film, small-cinema and otherwise, are being reinvented on a yearly basis (check out last year’s Blue is the Warmest Color), so I don’t need to sell you Locke by calling it ambitious.  But it is.  In a world where the CG grows more ludicrous, advertisements for 3D movies won’t go away, and the explosions and giant robots only get bigger, Locke is unabashedly small, a deliberate implosion of all that big noise.

Locke (2014); written and directed by Steven Knight; starring Tom Hardy.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Magnificent Anderson

gbudaWes Anderson’s new film is about a girl reading a book.  I am serious.  And I love that about it.

The girl (Jella Niemann) approaches the grave of a beloved writer (referred to only as “Author” in the film, and played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson at different ages), and sits down to read his memoir, particularly a chapter on his visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka – an amalgam of Germany and other European countries during an obvious 20th century war-torn era.  It’s a Faulkner-esque flourish by Anderson, who opens a window to plenty of commentary and nostalgia as soon as we see the Grand Budapest itself, a gaudy pink blemish ensconced in the Zubrowkan mountains, with the sounds of a busy railway never far off.

The young writer, during his visit (in the memoir’s narrative), meets the mysterious owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who explains that the place was once decadent and bustling, which seems unbelievable considering its current state – a lack of money and interest is evident, and the few guests move about like ghosts, silent and distant from one another.  When the writer asks how Moustafa came to buy the hotel, the latter answers, “I didn’t,” and opens the film’s fourth narrative: the story of Moustafa’s relationship with the Grand Budapest, as explained to the writer by Moustafa, as written by the writer, as read by the girl.

As a child, Zero (Tony Revolori) is hired as a “lobby boy” for the hotel by the eccentric and anachronistically foulmouthed concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, essentially the film’s central character).  Gustave takes Zero under his wing, quickly (and predictably) seeing him as a son or (much) younger brother, rather than a pesky greenhorn.  Gustave, though, is in some trouble: after Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), one of Gustave’s frequent romantic interests, is poisoned and dies, Gustave is the prime suspect.  What’s more, upon visiting the estate where the will is read, Gustave learns that Madame D. has bequeathed him Boy with Apple, an incredibly valuable painting.  Needless to say, Madame D.’s unscrupulous family is not happy about this.  Her son, Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) vows never to let Gustave take Boy with Apple, but with Zero’s help, Gustave absconds with the painting and heads back to the Grand Budapest.  In the meantime, Zero falls in love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a baker’s apprentice, who we are told numerous times “saved us,” but the older Zero (the one talking to the young writer) doesn’t want to talk about her, because the thought of her makes him cry.

Gustave is eventually arrested, for the alleged murder of Madame D., by Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), who likes Gustave and is only doing his job.  Agatha and Zero help Gustave escape by concealing tools inside delicious cakes, and the film briefly becomes a wonky, Wes Anderson version of The Great Escape, which includes a hardened convict played by a fully shaven and shirtless Harvey Keitel, and a gargantuan, scarred inmate who, after stabbing a potential snitch in the neck in order to aid the escape, is referred to by Gustave as a “kind, sweet man.”

Gustave and Zero’s real adventure begins: finding an alibi.  At the same time, Dmitri conducts an investigation of his own, using his trusted associate J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) – a ruthless and detached assassin (a very different and intriguingly perfect role for Dafoe) – to shake down anyone who might know anything about the murder or the whereabouts of Boy with Apple, as well as to kill anyone who may be able to exonerate Gustave.

This is a film that demands attention from the first frame.  One of the four narratives takes the lion’s share of the story, but knowing where each narrative is placed in relation to the others is vital (and all the more satisfying when Anderson takes us out of each, gently and one by one, at the end).  On another note, it’s a film that can and should have more women in it (much like most of Anderson’s films, wonderful as they are).  Yes, he’s going for an old-timey and historically specific feel here, but it’s the history of a fictional setting.  Agatha only exists because Zero likes her.  Even the Crossed Keys Society (a nice excuse for a string of cameos by Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, and Fisher Stevens) could have included one or two women working as concierge.  Inmates?  Hotel guests?  Soldiers?  All could be mixed gender in a revised history of a place that isn’t real.  The absence of women isn’t part of the film’s various self-conscious ironies, so it’s a particular standout.  There’s an appearance by the incomparable Léa Seydoux (as Madame D’s maid, Clotilde), but the character is of little note and even less screen time.  The problem of American filmmaking box-vision continues: how often do American filmmakers (particularly male directors) fail to realize they’ve got a lead actress in a pathetic bit role?  For more, see Lawless, in which Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain were underused/ignored to near-criminality.

There is a sense of old-fashioned artificiality hovering in the white space (and in this case, the pink and orange space) of every scene: the exterior of the Grand Budapest is a hand-constructed miniature with an electric train zooming around it.  Various sequences are filmed in different aspect ratios to put a synthetic age on scenes filmed in a made-up country.  The older version of the Author seems to share some real insight on writing with his audience, but is actually reading from prepared note cards.  As we are enveloped in the candy colors and charming, heartfelt ridiculousness, Gustave admits to some of his own faults and fakeness during mirrored train rides along the war-threatened (and eventually war-damaged) Zubrowka countryside.  As we pop in and out of each narrative, we begin to wonder about the reliability of our multiple narrators – the old Author, bromidically delivering his thoughts to the camera, comes unhinged when his excitable grandson makes some noise in the adjacent room, and can’t even deliver real thoughts on writing without reading from a card.  Zero, in his Murray Abraham state, can barely mention Agatha without sobbing, and clearly skips or embellishes parts of the story for effect or for the sake of his own comfort.  The only trustworthy character is the girl reading the book, and she does not lift her nose from the pages to pay us one second of attention, nor does her expression while reading shift from pure inscrutability.

The Grand Budapest Hotel makes me pine not for the extravagant places I’ve visited (not that that list is particularly long), but for the studies, living rooms, and resting places of Melville, Brontë, Frost, and Plath.  The film claims to be inspired by the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (particularly The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity), and the bespectacled Author in both his “old” form and his young, idealized form undoubtedly resemble him.  But the film’s endearment is not reserved for only one writer (and it may have taken tragic turns had Anderson relied upon audiences to recognize Zweig references, while the numerous call-backs to classic films are a bit more recognizable – another issue altogether, maybe).  It comments on narrative reliability and familiarity, but commentary is not what the film “is,” exactly.  It’s conceptually more evolved than Moonrise Kingdom, but its characters aren’t as unique or as important in and of themselves (partially because they never slow down).  Its concerns are in a long-time-ago place wherein people sat quietly and thought about things – something we remember, in the final shot, is anything but extinct.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014); written and directed by Wes Anderson; starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, and F. Murray Abraham.

 

2013 Favorites

We now return you to 2014, already in progress

blackberrysnackSame rules as usual: winners are selected from the past year’s films that I’ve seen and written about on the blog.  This time around, I’ve limited each “Best” (including Pictures, Actresses, and Actors) to three winners instead of five (with an exception only if one film had two same-gender leads), and kept the single winner for the “body of work” category.  I’ve added “sleepers” this year as well.  First-time readers: note that each of the three listed items in each category are joint “winners” (not that they receive anything but my approval), not three nominees with one winner.  Use the left-side navigation to find my original write-ups of each film.

In some particular order:

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Best Pictures

Blue is the Warmest Color

Inside Llewyn Davis

Short Term 12

Sleeper: 12 Years a Slave

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Best Actress (single performance)

Brie Larson as Grace – Short Term 12

Judi Dench as Philomena Lee – Philomena

Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle and Léa Seydoux as Emma – Blue is the Warmest Color

Sleeper: Amy Acker as Beatrice – Much Ado About Nothing

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Best Actress (body of work)

Mia Wasikowska

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Best Actor (single performance)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup – 12 Years a Slave

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis – Inside Llewyn Davis

Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski – The Iceman

Sleeper: Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines – The Butler

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Best Actor (body of work)

Michael Fassbender

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Best Supporting Actress

Ellen Page as Izzy – The East

Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey - 12 Years a Slave

Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines – The Butler

Sleeper: Jena Malone as Johanna Mason - Catching Fire

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Best Supporting Actor

Keith Stanfield as Marcus – Short Term 12

Matthew Goode as Charlie Stoker – Stoker

Jared Leto as Rayon – Dallas Buyers Club

Sleeper: Jake Johnson as Luke – Drinking Buddies

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Best Screenplay

Frances Ha – Greta Gerwig

In a World… – Lake Bell

The East – Brit Marling

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Best Director

Lake Bell – In a World…

Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave

Joel and Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis

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Favorite Characters

India Stoker (played by Mia Wasikowska) – Stoker

Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) - Inside Llewyn Davis

Adèle (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) – Blue is the Warmest Color

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Best Cameo

Cameron Diaz as herself – In a World…

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Worst of the Year

The Wolf of Wall Street

Note: The Desolation of Smaug was very, very close.  Maybe next year, PJ.

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Most Unfortunately MIA

Jessica Chastain

Note: I’m aware of her practice of filming 5 or 6 movies back-to-back, not appearing in anything for a year, then having all 5 or 6 of those released at once.  But someone’s habit of taking long absences does not make one miss them any less.

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Oddest Thing to Happen Involving Richard Lives

Wentworth Miller’s sister quotes me on her “Everything Wentworth” blog, but requires me to sign up for an account and wait a month to be “approved” before seeing what the quote is.

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Predictions for Next Year

Adam Driver will be on the list of winners, but not for the Star Wars sequel.

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Retrospective (July 2014)

I have since seen All is Lost with Robert Redford, and would have had that film and Redford on this list somewhere if I’d seen it before.  What a powerhouse of emotion.

See you this year.  -RH

Dallas Buyers Club

‘Cause you’ve only got one

dallasFew of us are enlightened by the fact that the FDA is an organization interested only in profit and control.  That said, one unfortunate aspect of Dallas Buyers Club, a character study of Matthew McConaughey’s version of the real-life Ron Woodroof – a Texas cowboy unexpectedly diagnosed with HIV – is that the most moving scenes are spoiled by the marketing, a fact made more unfortunate in that a film so greatly lauded turns out to be surprisingly formulaic and sentimental.  If not for the cursing and occasional groping, it could air on ABC’s family night.

None of this is to discount the very real struggles depicted therein, nor the performances.  Woodroof, after his diagnosis, meets Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who tells him about the only FDA-approved drug suitable for treating AIDS: AZT.  He bribes another hospital employee to get him the meds, only to realize that AZT (in conjunction with his cocaine use) is detrimental to his health.  When the deal with the employee falls through, Ron drives to Mexico to get more AZT from Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who tells him that AZT is essentially poison.  He prescribes Ron peptide T and ddC, drugs unapproved by the FDA, and Ron finds that his health quickly improves.  He lives far past the 30-day death sentence given to him by the hospital, and quickly realizes that he can make money and help people by importing these drugs and selling them to other HIV-positive patients.

Enter Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman, also HIV-positive, who befriends Ron in the hospital and eventually becomes his partner in the “Dallas Buyers Club.”  The remainder of the film involves the successes and struggles of the Buyers Club, culminating in the all-powerful (and seemingly omnipotent) FDA shutting them down, as well as the characters’ respective battles against the knowledge that they do not have long to live.  Rayon and Ron form a reluctant partnership that transmogrifies, perhaps too quickly even given the constraints of a two-hour narrative, into a rather sweet friendship.  Rayon gets a pretty nice share of the narrative later on, as we get a glimpse at his relationship with his father, who has all but disowned him and can say nothing complimentary aside from “I guess I should thank you for wearing men’s clothes.”

The disjointedness of the narrative speaks volumes to the conflicts of the characters: here are people who can never be sure, at any single moment, what turn their health will take, and are essentially waiting for terrible things to happen to them.  The plot movement closely mirrors this “day-to-day-ness,” linked only by a mechanical squealing in Ron’s head that bookends the entire story and threads important moments together (sometimes functioning as an easy transition effect).

Leto’s performance as Rayon has received endless accolades, and for good reason, and the performance itself and the decision to place a transgender character in a big-budget movie (the first time I can remember this happening) completely warrant them.  But a close viewing reveals something a bit sad: Rayon’s existence in the story serves no purpose other than to help Ron get over his homophobia.  Rayon’s time and amount of focus in the film do not even gain him the status of deuteragonist; he functions as the “manic pixie dream girl” who helps the man come to terms with his issues before disappearing (in this case because he’s the film’s sacrificial lamb, which also serves to motivate one of Ron’s big decisions).  This character, not to mention this story, deserves better than that.  Rayon’s potential is limitless and his appeal undeniable to anyone with half a heart and a fraction of a sense of adventure (has anyone looked more beautiful dancing badly onscreen than Leto in this?)  If scenes like the one between Rayon and his father were more numerous and came earlier (or were at least more evenly balanced with Ron’s), we’d have a more fleshed-out family of characters here.  Instead, we have a traditional “guy gets over his issues after meeting good people” story, going from referring to Rayon as “whatever the fuck you are” to embracing him in a long, genuine hug.  The film is rife with deliberate imagery (could the bull rides from the opening and final shots be any more obvious in their joint purpose?), which only hammers in the shopworn theme of “one man overcomes adversity,” a dish the Academy is devouring this year.

The film is worth seeing once for the quality of McCoughnahey’s, Leto’s, and Jennifer Garner’s performances, and its treatment of HIV-positive characters.  I’m not sure it warranted McCoughnahey’s protracted speech about Neptune, though.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013); written by Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten; directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; starring Matthew McCoughnahey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner.

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