Saturday, April 12, 2014

Fight, Fight, Fight: THE RAID 2

Writer, director, and editor Gareth Evans’ action film The Raid: Redemption was 100 minutes long and spent about 98 of those minutes in constant motion. It followed a brave Indonesian cop (Iko Uwais) fighting his way up and down a towering building controlled by a drug lord, busting heads and snapping limbs as he bloodily brought them to justice or something like it. Evans has clear exuberance for martial arts combat and the various configurations of combatants and circumstances had flashes of wit – I liked best when Uwais hides in the walls of an apartment as a baddie looking for him stabs into them with a machete. But the movie was way too much of a good thing; the nonstop violence and commotion grew monotonous. It’s an overdose.

Now we have The Raid 2, which runs a full 150 minutes. Wisely, Evans builds some downtime, spreading the action around in a film that’s larger in scope, but as claustrophobic in its inevitable bloody conclusions. I can better appreciate moments of gripping action filmmaking when I have time to catch my breath, let the bludgeoning blows stop ringing in my ears, and allow the gore to fade from my vision before it all starts up again. Unfortunately, Evans fills the spaces in between the action with a plot that’s conventional when it’s not convoluted. Once again, we follow the insanely talented fighting cop. Iko Uwais keeps an expression of deadpan disbelief and scowling determination while facing his fate. Here he agrees to go undercover in Indonesia’s biggest crime family and bring down corrupt cops on their payroll. It involves a lot of fighting. By the midpoint I had lost track of who was fighting and why.

The plot is made up of standard mobster power plays and double crossings, the better to baffle me as I lost track of everyone’s goals and why, say, a girl with two hammers (Julie Estelle) is fighting a group of knife-wielding men on a subway car. The scheming seems to chiefly concern a frustrated man (Arifin Putra) working for his father (Tio Pakusodweo), head of a mob empire. The son befriends Uwais and takes him along on trips to shake down local criminals for bribes. His real goal is taking over his dad’s job, so he negotiates help with shady elements like a guy (Alex Abbad) we can tell is bad because he’s never without his sunglasses, leather gloves, and flashy cane. The movie loses its whole undercover-cop thread, letting Uwais drift out of the spotlight for a while as we watch a confusing number of characters plot to start some kind of war between competing crime families.

Characters who lumber through the plot are thinly developed, recognizable not by their actions or allegiances, but by their murder weapons of choice. In addition to the aforementioned Hammer Girl, there’s a guy with a bat, a guy with hooked blades, and a homeless guy with a machete. He has a fight scene in which he uses the big knife only once; the rest of the time he grips it in one hand, beating down the oncoming combatants with the other. That’s the kind of thing Evans is serving up here, action memorably staged. I don’t know why the homeless guy was fighting, who he was fighting, or why this wasn’t just a deleted scene to enjoy on the Blu-ray. But I do remember how sparingly he used that machete.

Evans builds an entire movie out of such striking choices. He has a good eye for compositions and with cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono builds some great sequences out of memorable images. A prison riot takes place on a muddy field, guys slipping and sliding, colliding in the puddles of slimy dirt. An incredible car chase finds the camera slipping in and out of cars, sometimes in deceptively complicated unbroken takes. One shot starts on a fistfight in the backseat of an SUV, dips out the window, and moves backwards into the front seat of the car behind. (I fleetingly wondered what Evans could do with a Fast & Furious movie.) The climax finds our hero fighting wave after wave of attackers, each progressively tougher than the last, as he storms through a building on his way to the Big Bosses he needs to take out and finish his mission.

These Raid movies are like video games, and I don’t necessarily mean that pejoratively. The first was a compact side-scroller, all jumping, ducking, and punching, minimal context required. The sequel wants to be taken more seriously and so expands the point of view, getting loaded down with laborious cut-scenes in the process. So each Raid is frustrating and exasperating in its own way. Evans is not an untalented director, but I’d like to seem him put his inventive action to use in a good script. He increased variety and staged some memorable moments, but The Raid 2 is still a film of unrelenting repetitive brutality, sadistic in pursuit of kills that’ll make audiences audibly wince in unison. A particularly nasty moment finds a bat smashed so hard into a man’s head it gets stuck in the skull. But once you’ve seen one anonymous bad guy’s skull cracked open, you’ve seen them all. Without fail, the action scenes are lengthy, loud, bloody, and visceral, separated only by stretches of confusion and convention. Too thin and monotonous to sustain itself, it’s exciting at times, but adds up to a dull headache.

Friday, April 11, 2014

For the Birds: RIO 2

Three years out from Blue Sky Animation’s Rio, the only thing I can remember is the vague sense of surprised enjoyment I had with the film’s pleasantly colorful, vibrantly musical nature. The story wasn’t much. It followed the world’s last male blue macaw (Jesse Eisenberg) as he was taken from wintry Minnesota to mid-Carnival Rio de Janeiro to meet the world’s last female blue macaw (Anne Hathaway). Fish-out-of-water – or is that bird-out-of-something? – antics ensued. It was cute and amiable, but what elevated it to minor noteworthiness is the charm and novelty in its Brazilian setting and mood, communicated with a sense of authenticity. Director and co-writer Carlos Saldanha was born in Rio, so the delight in its locale felt genuine. The movie was a big hit, so here’s the inevitable Rio 2 in which Saldanha takes those birds on a logical plot progression. The first movie was about the last two blue macaws. What the sequel presupposes is, what if they aren’t the last?

The goofy birder scientists from the first film (Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro) are off on an expedition in the middle of the Amazon when they think they’ve spotted a hidden nest of blue macaws. This excites Anne Hathaway’s bird, so Jesse Eisenberg’s bird (Jesse Eisenbird, if you will) agrees to pack up their three little kids (Rachel Crow is the only voice that stands out) and fly off to meet up with others of their species. Of course, these city birds aren’t used to jungle living, so much time is spent on the expected culture clash. Some food chain related violence leads to some bits of dark humor that’s cute sometimes. I liked the singing capybara that gets swallowed by a predator and then keeps on singing. Later, some capybaras are rapidly eaten down to the bone by piranhas for no other reason than a quick sight gag. I laughed then, too.

Once our protagonists meet the wild flock’s gruff patriarch (Andy Garcia), his dotty sister (Rita Moreno), and a strong, handsome alpha-male (Bruno Mars), the story really gets going. Hathaway takes flight with this flock, fitting in right away. They’re her long-lost family! Eisenbird grumbles, pouts, and stubbornly wants to head back to the city. He bristles when the wild birds mock him, saying he’s just a “pet.” Which he is, but never mind that I guess. Built out of plot points and conflicts that are instantly familiar to anyone who has seen a Hollywood animated film in the last thirty years, Rio 2 is entirely devoid of surprise. Every subplot resolves precisely like you’d guess, lending the time spent getting there a sense of thinness slowly stretched to fill space. It even trots out the old accidentally-shoot-the-winning-goal-into-the-other-team’s-net trick. Originality is not high on the agenda here.

The narrative splinters, unfocused, with little momentum. Characters from the first movie are dutifully roped into this one. Two little musical birds with the voices of and Jamie Foxx tag along to the Amazon to look for fresh talent for their animals-only Carnival talent show. At least it gives them something to do, which is more than can be said for comic relief toucan George Lopez, who joins the trip and is basically forgotten. Also lurking around is the mad cockatoo voiced by Jemaine Clement. This time he has two sidekicks: a poisonous frog (Kristin Chenoweth, who gets a chance to sing, of course) and a silent anteater. They’re superfluous villains, as the movie builds a far more tangible threat in the form of illegal loggers threatening to imperil the blue macaws’ habitat. Essentially a group version of George C. Scott’s poacher from The Rescuers Down Under, these guys menace our kindly scientists with chainsaws and machetes and eventually plan to dynamite the macaws’ gorgeous jungle oasis. So what’s the big deal about a maniacal cockatoo in the face of all that?

At least Rio 2 still finds reasons to sing and dance, where the movie’s color and sound really get to stretch their wings. I lost interest in the plot and found the characters – Eisenbird, especially – grating in their repetitive predictability. But when those birds take flight in Busby Berkeley formations to a syncopated Brazilian/hip-hop beat, it provides fleeting satisfaction. Its best is the short opening number by Janelle Monae, worth hearing on its own. The version on the soundtrack album is better, anyway. Plus, that way you don’t have to sit through the rest of the movie. As a whole it is big, empty, and generally pleasant. I just wish it could’ve told a story worth telling or figured out how to make the characters interesting on any level. Maybe kids will like this, but it certainly lacks the depth and invention better family films can provide. At least it’s better than any of Blue Sky’s Ice Age sequels.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Not-So-Perfect Getaway: IN THE BLOOD

I’m rooting for Gina Carano. As an action star, she has plenty of promise. She’s a former mixed martial arts fighter who carries that physicality with great calm and capable choreography into a screen presence that’s compelling and intriguing. Her weird blend of unruffled expression and tight body language gives her a real ease that draws me in, even in the center of the terrible cheapo actioner that is In the Blood, her latest film. After her first lead role in Steven Soderbergh’s sleek Haywire and a choice supporting turn as The Rock’s right-hand woman in Fast & Furious 6, she deserves better than the woefully generic, bungled B-movie she’s headlining here. It’s the kind of movie that should have a simple hook, but takes its nugget of pulpy interest and muddles it up with belabored backstory and dropped subplots that add up to nothing much, stuck somewhere frustrating between trying too hard and not trying hard enough.

Director John Stockwell has made that his trademark as of late, with slight B-movies like Cat Run and Dark Tide that are too lazy to be effective and too clumsily plotted to fully activate what small simple pleasures they could generate. It’s no wonder that his best film of this kind (leaving out his actual best film, the nicely observed 2001 teen drama Crazy/Beautiful) is his simplest. That’d be 2005’s diving-for-treasure thriller Into the Blue which used a nicely photographed beach-side setting as an excuse to stage sequences of moderate suspense when it’s not ogling stars Jessica Alba and the late Paul Walker, hired to look good in swimwear and filling their roles splendidly. Still, it’s nothing more than a barely passable matinee diversion on a lethargic day.

In the Blood also takes place by the beach, looking at times like a nice paid vacation for all involved. But the movie spends little time in bikinis and almost as little time taking in the scenery. Just as well, since the movie is shot on some of the cheapest, ugliest digital video I’ve ever seen professionally projected in a movie theater. Sometimes, Stockwell cuts to pixilated cell phone video (shot on what appears to be circa 2003 technology), smeary surveillance feeds, and chunky GoPro footage, the better to make us grateful for what subpar cinematography we get, I suppose. The story follows Carano as a newlywed honeymooning on a small Caribbean island with husband Cam Gigandet. He goes missing in the aftermath of a suspicious zipline accident. She sets out to find him and get to the bottom of the apparent conspiracy to keep her from the truth about why he was taken.

As if that’s not enough, we also get flashbacks to Carano’s character as a teenager. She’s toughened up and taught to fight by her father (Stephen Lang) who tells her “scars are tattoos with better stories.” She has killed multiple people in self-defense on separate occasions. We hear she met her husband at Narcotics Anonymous. So she’s had a hard life. Why all this overly tragic backstory is loaded on top of this relatively simple story is beyond me. If a movie’s going to traffic in stereotypical character types as thoroughly as this one, why bother explaining? Maybe screenwriters James Robert Johnston and Bennett Yellin thought we would want to know why Carano is such a good fighter. Thanks, but no thanks. No Gene Kelly movie ever felt the need to take the time to painstakingly let us know how his characters became great dancers.

Into the Blood is lazily plotted, with little energy to the mystery. Methinks a problem might be the movie’s assumption that we’ll miss Cam Gigandet. He’s so painfully unconvincing in the opening scenes I was all too happy writing him off as an unseen MacGuffin character for most of the movie. (The reveal of the details of his fate is a big let down, too.) As Carano goes looking for him, scene after scene is shaggily, sloppily assembled. The action is sporadic, in murkily shaking shots, and torturous without impact. When not brawling, scenes are brightly overlit. You can see the actors sweating and squirming in front of the camera, trying and failing to make the tortured twists and clunky dialogue work.

The ensemble includes Ismael Cruz Cordova, Amaury Nolasco, and the always-welcome Danny Trejo as locals who spend their time helping and hindering the search. They’re fine, I suppose, but utterly indistinct. Most everyone is just there to move things along and not pull focus from the star. She’s great, but so underserved by the material that she fails to live down to it. If the story was sharper or the ensemble more vividly sketched, maybe she’d have something to work off of. The best part ends up being the wonderful Luis Guzmán as a laid-back local cop who has exactly zero interest in the situation in which Carano’s found herself. I liked that about him. I could relate.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Just the Start: NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. I

It’s difficult not to be aware that writer-director Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is half of a movie. Even if you didn’t hear that the Danish provocateur’s latest film ran nearly four hours at its festival debuts and has been cut into two parts for American release, or didn’t understand the title, you’d realize there’s more to the story when the film fades to black, plot and theme left tantalizingly unresolved. Next to the end credits runs a rapid-fire montage of context-free imagery next to the words “from Nymphomaniac: Vol. II.” And so it is hard to come up with a definitive statement one way or the other about the film in its totality, since such a declaration depends partly on where it goes from here. What can be said is that Vol. I is an often dazzling film, intense and thoughtful even as it sets out to shock and amuse with blisteringly matter-of-fact frankness.

As the title suggests, the film is about a sex addict. We first me meet her (Charlotte Gainsbourg) passed out in an alley. A kind older gentleman (Stellan Skarsgård) stops to help. She refuses an ambulance, but agrees to accompany him back to his apartment where he makes her a pot of tea. There’s no sexual tension between them, but there is a mutual human curiosity. She launches into her life story, rattling off anecdote after anecdote. She becomes our complicated, and maybe unreliable, narrator, telling him and us about her family, her friends, and, most of all, her sexual encounters. These she takes special pleasure in lingering over sordid details, making sure to emphasize the role each one plays in forming her shame and self-loathing. The man, to his credit, does not judge her. Her engages her, talks her through her feelings, tries to shift the subject by drawing comparisons to fly fishing, math, and art, Bach, Poe, and Fibonacci. Where this conversation is leading neither seems to know, but the steady hand of directorial vision seems guiding them to some kind of conclusion.

Von Trier’s recent films have directed sharply interior emotional landscapes outward into the world at large. Antichrist, his dark and troubling 2009 film, suggested that profound grief could radiate into the environment, deteriorating and rotting surroundings until chaos reigns. His Melancholia, one of the best films of 2011, was even more overwhelming, finding deep depression so destabilizing and overpowering that nothing less than the end of the world becomes sublime release. But in Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, the woman’s interior desires, a mingling of hunger and disgust, are expressed in the world only insofar as she needs other people to fulfill her needs. In long flashbacks, anecdotes sad and funny, energetic and elegiac illuminate her progression from curious teen to a young woman juggling dozens of encounters a week, leaving a trail of bewildered and exhausted, and sometimes happy, men in her wake.

At the center of the stories, quietly commanding the screen, is young French/English actress Stacy Martin in her acting debut. She has a fresh face and eager features, hesitant innocence and starving desires swirling underneath her smooth skin and big eyes. It’s a marvelous performance, tricky and demanding physically and emotionally. She’s just as convincing sweetly asking her father (Christian Slater) to tell her one more time her childhood stories as she is propositioning a man on a train (Simon Böer). Composed, she plays slow-burn infatuation with the boss at her first job (Shia LaBeouf) with appealing earnest yearning. She also plays quiet mortification in the film’s biggest and best comedy sequence when her apartment is invaded by her current lover’s wife (Uma Thurman, in a remarkable scene-stealing performance) who confronts them, three towheaded youngsters in tow.

After each of these varied and compelling anecdotal flashbacks, we cut back to the narrator sipping her tea in the present. She seems to be testing her audience, looking at the patient, kind, inquisitive man from over her mug as if to say, “have I shocked you yet? Are you disgusted with me?” So too does Von Trier seem to be goading his audience, right from the assaultive heavy metal that blasts apart aching silence in the opening scene. Throughout the film, by turns explicit and oblique, he varies the presentation. There are shifting aspect ratios and color, sometimes flat, over-lit digital video glow, other times stretching across the wide screen with vivid colors and marvelous grungy grain. One anecdote, a harrowing hospital stay for a supporting character, is filmed in textured black and white, the better to make blood and excrement the same harrowing darkness on pristine white sheets. Von Trier uses archival footage, gynecological diagrams, and wry charts and graphs, placing them over moments both innocuous and filthy. He creates a world that is flexible, and a vivid and playfully dirty dichotomy between education of the mind – books, statistics, research – and education of the body – biology in practice.

At the end, the film finds a fine stopping point, but not a conclusion. It’s tantalizing and thought-provoking – I haven’t really stopped turning it over in my head since I saw it – but naturally feels incomplete. Vol. I sets up a fascinating character study that I’m eager to see resolved. I could’ve sat through the next two hours of it right then and there. Both volumes are available on video on demand as I write this, but I’ll wait and catch the second half on the big screen as well. A film as cinematically vital as this one deserves to be seen that way if possible.

Friday, April 4, 2014


What keeps the movies in Marvel’s Avengers multi-franchise franchise somewhat fresh is the way each film exists in a different setting and plays variations on different genres. They’re all shot in a bright house style, the tone always serious enough to generate suspense, but light enough to accommodate bantering between chummy characters. In other words, going into one of these movies you know exactly what you’re going to get, but not necessarily the way you’ll get it. Captain America: The First Avenger was a B-movie World War II picture with snarling Nazis, martyred scientists, and brave soldiers, with a square-jawed superpowered all-American hero in the center. Now its sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, finds the star spangled man dropped into a paranoid conspiracy actioner, danger from unexpected sources at every turn.

In this new film, the Captain is still the same old patriotic freedom fighter he always was. Captain America may not be the role Chris Evans was born to play, but, between his capacity for unsentimental earnestness and obvious classically handsome features, it’s certainly the superhero role he was born to play. After being frozen in a block of ice for 70 years, thawed out, welcomed into SHIELD (the fictional Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), and sent out to fight off an alien invasion with the help of Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk, he’s finding himself borderline disillusioned. He asks Director Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) why the intelligence community is ramping up pervasive worldwide surveillance, building a massive apparatus to predict trouble and arrange preemptive strikes. Fury wearily tells him the world has grown dangerous, and they must be prepared for anything. Cold comfort, that.

The film smartly pivots from stars-and-stripes propaganda to clammy paranoia. In the first action scene Captain America and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) free hostages on a freighter in a fanfare of military might. But it’s not long before a high-ranking SHIELD official is gunned down by an assassin, men in suits force good spies on dubious missions, and Fury whispers to the Captain a stern warning:  “no one can be trusted.” It’s a surprisingly sharp – and totally on-the-nose – commentary on contemporary concerns over NSA surveillance and intelligence agency overreach. Though, shadowy governmental conspiracies aren’t exactly only current. Robert Redford, with a history of appearing in paranoid thrillers from Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men to Sneakers and Spy Game, appears as a suit, exuding gravitas in a fun echo of the genre’s past.

What follows is a tangle of twists and turns punctuated with exciting, lengthy action sequences all around Washington D.C. as loyal SHIELD agents reveal dark intent and showy conspiracies are yanked into the light. The blows land harder for the film’s mercilessness when it comes to mortally wounding characters and institutions you’d think the Marvel Cinematic Universe would want to keep around. The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely moves quickly and coherently, dragging in familiar franchise faces (Sebastian Stan, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, and Jenny Agutter) while smoothly integrating new characters into the action. I particularly enjoyed Anthony Mackie as a former soldier who finds new reason to fight when Captain America calls upon him and quickly establishes an easy, warm friendship between them. It’s nice the movie takes time between the explosions and chaos to make new friends and keep the old, interested in some small way in relationships and how they play out through slam-bang rat-a-tat movement.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, sitcom veterans who, Community paintball episodes aside, make a big action debut here, filming the action in a clean and comprehensible style. The early boat-set sequence includes plenty of shots that refreshingly reveal the entire action head-to-toe, sometimes for seconds at a time. In later car chases, gun battles, fisticuffs, and aerial commotions, they cut rather deftly between perspectives and don’t let chaotic close-up inserts confuse too badly. The majority of the action – a one-against-ten fistfight in an elevator, a man in a winged jetpack outsmarting heat-seeking missiles – is cleverly staged. It’s all so engaging and enjoyable that it’s a bit of a let down to admit it’s also all a tad exhausting in the end. It’s exciting and it wore me out. After over two hours with often pervasive rounds of gunfire – minions just shoot and shoot and shoot, the body count looming large – it grows wearying. By the time the movie is well into its big blowout finale, twists and surprises largely in its rearview, I was ready for the punching and shooting to reach their inevitable end. It’s fun, but I had my fill.

Still, reliable and dependable, this Marvel universe of interlocking franchises has dropped another quality product off of the assembly line. At worst, these films can feel slight and predictable, pinned in by the corporate dictates of the overarching narrative. Much as I’ve enjoyed all of these movies to some extent or another, I’m interested, but not overly invested in the big picture. In individual films, moments of straight-faced near-campiness (anything Asgardian in the Thor movies), side pleasures (the first Captain America’s unexpected and delightful musical number), and funny supporting performances (Tom Hiddleston, Sam Rockwell, Kat Dennings, Tommy Lee Jones), stick with me the most. So it is to the filmmakers’ credit that in Captain America: The Winter Soldier they shake things up, providing all the expected thrills and smiles along with a welcome modicum of complexity to the characters' primary-colors comic book world as it crumbles around them in entertaining explosiveness.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Rainy Day: NOAH

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is abstract and literal, bombastic and tender, reverent and perverse, overwrought and undercooked, vindictive and compassionate, spiritual and silly. That may make it tonally and thematically more authentically Old Testament, but it also makes for a rather unsatisfying movie. Aronofsky’s vision is one part Biblical epic, two parts digitally enhanced fantasy, both informed by an occasionally fevered approach to a quasi-environmentalist message. All of the above is then filtered through the Hollywood expectation machine, where you can’t be given over $100 million dollars and not throw in a third-act fight, an easily recognizable antagonist, and CGI rock giants. It’s nothing if not serious in the execution, faithful to the Biblical story about a righteous man told by God to build a massive ark to save animals (two of every kind) from an imminent worldwide flood meant to wipe out sinful hordes of humanity. The result is a film too glum to be of much camp value and far too ridiculous to take it all that seriously.

At the center of it all is Russell Crowe, wearing the burden of Noah heavily on his shoulders. He trudges with his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and sons (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Leo McHugh Carroll) to get advice from his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). The old man gravely helps him to interpret his vision of the world underwater, corpses floating by, animals swimming up towards the sunlit ark above. It’s a nightmarish image that gives Noah the strength to move forward and do what must be done. As the plot moves forward, the film addresses some of the tale’s most preposterous elements with answers that seem at once gloriously symbolic and thunderously inane. How did Noah and his family get the wood to build the ark? It was a magic forest they grew from a seed grandfather gave them that ancestors saved from the Garden of Eden. How did the animals show up, two by two no less? They followed a magic stream that bubbles up from that same seed. How did the family deal with the animals once on the ark? They put them into deep, peaceful comas with a magic potion. Later they wake them back up with the antidote.

These elements are treated so seriously, with much weight and overworked awe that it’s hard to know how we’re supposed to take it. Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel wrestle with this simple story by turning the symbolic literal and back again. With cinematographer Matthew Libatique, he’s quick to sketch vivid, epic imagery and slow to synthesize coherence. It’s a clear labor of love, but that’s what also makes it a bit of a mess. This pre-flood world is a sparse, fallen fantasy world, a sort of Lord of the Rings-esque place of magic and monsters, sin and scares. It’s all so serious despite those rock giants (voiced by the likes of Nick Nolte and Mark Margolis) who are fallen angels cursed to walk the Earth who decide to help Noah build his ark, magic stones – strike them and they become fire – and Hopkins made up to look like a white-haired cave-dwelling wizard.

The mythic fantasy Aronofsky constructs appears meant to be partly a vaguely historic reality and an obvious abstraction for us to think through the notion of the relationship between man, the environment, and the divine and the obligations they have to each other. The intent is serious. No kid-friendly animal antics here. (Would you expect it from the director of The Wrestler and Black Swan?) But in striving for both reality and fantasy, it’s often neither, a colossal bore that no amount of dramatic imagery and intense emoting from the cast can cure. It’s no help that the film has some real transcendence within it, rubbing up against cheap drama that feels out of place.

A magical sequence has Crowe intone the story of Genesis while Aronofsky cuts to a Malickian Tree of Life time-lapse creation of the universe, the Big Bang sending the cosmos rapidly spinning down to Earth, evolution, Eden, exile, and, finally, the flood. Elsewhere, much is made out of Noah’s middle son’s preoccupation with finding a wife. His older brother already has a woman (Emma Watson, quite good) and he thinks he better get one while he still can. This subplot takes up a fair amount of energy, although the film doesn’t seem too preoccupied with how humanity will grow post-flood. Still elsewhere, conflict comes in the form of a villainous Ray Winstone who wants to kill Noah and his family for being so holier-than-thou, then leads armies to attack the ark once the rains come.

What is all this conventional interpersonal melodrama doing in a movie about spiritual crisis and the end of the world? That’s where the film is best, growing poignant and provocative. Aronofsky, echoing his 2006 ambitious philosophical sci-fi film The Fountain, is best at locating the real test of faith and emotional strain in his characters. The first night the family spends in the ark, the howling screams of those left to drown are carried in on the buffeting winds. The weight of morality weighs heavily upon them. Who are they to choose who lives and who dies? Perhaps they, too, should perish, the better to let nature take its course unblemished by human hands.

The entire flooding sequence, as the wood creaks, the door slams shut and the water crashes down, is effective and stressful. Aronofsky cuts to a wide shot of their boat in the distance, a craggy rock closer to the camera covered in a mass of people, clinging for their lives before slipping, washed off the face of the world. It’s a harrowing image articulating the great paradox at the center of the Noah story, as scary and searching as a pious Renaissance painting. But the great paradox of this Noah is how deeply strange and yet how weirdly conventional it manages to be. It’s not particularly good, often straight-faced silly in its loosely Biblical fantasy. (When the snakes slither up to the ark, Noah’s wife gives him a look that says, “Snakes are coming, too?”) But it’s so ambitious and thought provoking it is hard to dismiss entirely.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Story Told in a Twilight: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a caper perched between the World Wars. Writer-director Wes Anderson (inspired by the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zweig) creates an abstracted Old World caught as it is disappearing, a colorful fantasy Europe that’s poisoned by drab fascist forces and left forever changed. In true Anderson fashion, he’s designed his fictional European country (Zubrowka, he names it) as a candy-colored dollhouse of meticulous design. At the center is The Grand Budapest Hotel of the title. It’s a wondrous creation, a massive structure nestled in the Alps where it looks for all the world like a hotel Rankin and Bass characters might’ve passed on their way to the North Pole. Its exterior is a pale pink, floors stacked like a cheerfully, elaborately frosted wedding cake. Inside, a lushly carpeted and handsomely furnished labyrinth of luxuries wraps around itself in a square that forces guests and employees alike to walk in crisp geometric patterns. At this Hotel, a caper is hatched, a war encroaches, then years later a writer is inspired. Still later, that writer’s work lives on, calling us back into its melancholic past.

Layers upon layers, the film is a memory inside a book inside a movie. As it begins, a young woman opens a book and begins to read. The author (Tom Wilkinson) appears to us in his office, ready to recount the time he first heard the story his book relays. We see The Author as a Young Man (Jude Law) at the Grand Budapest in the late 1960s, now a cavernous, sparsely populated space not too far removed from The Shining territory, albeit without the supernatural elements. The author meets a lonely old man (F. Murray Abraham) who invites the author to hear the story of how he became the owner of the hotel. Intrigued, the author agrees. And so back once more into the past we go, to the 1930s, when the Grand Budapest was at its peak. For each time period, Anderson designates a different aspect ratio, boxy Academy Ratio 30s stretch into anamorphic late-60s, before growing shallow and simple in 16x9 present day. It’s as mischievous as it is exact, moving through time with clear visual orientation.

The film spends the bulk of its time in the 1930s. We meet Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a supercilious dandy who manages the Grand Budapest Hotel with a suave charm and a composed pompous sincerity. His new lobby boy (Tony Revolori) tells of the man’s peccadilloes, namely wooing the little old ladies that visit the hotel. These early passages operate with a dizzying fizz, whiffs of the Lubitsch touch generating much sophisticated posturing and door-slamming farce. Anderson here, working with deep focus lenses and finely calibrated tragicomic performances, has the giddy architectural design of Lubitsch’s silents and the bubbly urbane wit of his talkies. The boy and his boss move through a world of color as vivid as in any Powell/Pressburger film, helping the Grand Budapest’s guests in any way they can. Fiennes and Revolori’s performances are nicely synchronized, the former a fatuous perfectionist, the latter a wide-eyed innocent whose deadpan acceptance in the face of disbelief and disaster balances it out.

Through briskly delivered dialogue and a lovely score by Alexandre Desplat, the metronome is set perfectly for a caper that’s about to erupt, escalating in suspense and incident at an engaging tempo. As the plot gets underway, one of Gustave’s very rich elderly lovers (Tilda Swinton, beneath a generous application of makeup) has died. At the reading of the will, all her most distant acquaintances arrive, shocked to hear that the hotel manager has been left her most valuable painting. While her lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) assures her son (Adrian Brody) that this late-arriving addendum must be authenticated, Gustave and his lobby boy abscond with the painting and take off for the Grand Budapest. Soon, the woman’s son’s thug (Willem Dafoe), a missing butler (Mathieu Amalric), a fascist Inspector (Edward Norton), a scowling prisoner (Harvey Keitel), a sweet baker (Saoirse Ronan), the leader of a team of concierges (Bill Murray), and more get pulled into a scampering plot involving locating, hiding, or aiding and abetting the movement of this most desirable painting.

All the while, the threat of violence looms large. Soldiers brutishly ask travelers for papers. Guards are stabbed to death. A pet meets a gory end. Fingers are misplaced. The film is crisply playful in unspooling its brisk and wry heist plot, loving in its evocation of period-appropriate cinematic touchstones, from the aforementioned Lubitsch and Powell/Pressburger to a mountain cable car right out of Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich. It’s affectionately constructed, miniatures adding whimsy that somehow doesn’t distract from the real menace in the action.  Nonchalant gore, periodic splashes of vibrant red and matters of life and death in an otherwise charmingly pastel, idealized Old World Europe maintains reality as an inescapable intrusion. No matter the perfectly constructed melancholy nostalgia, the violence of greed and war are an inevitable erosion of this ideal.

The fizzy sophistication of loose permissiveness as signified by Gustave’s unflappable reign of pleasure in the Grand Budapest grows frazzled and tossed as he’s thrown, by his plotting and by the march of time, into danger and exile, on the run from dark intimations of violence and despair. Though, like a typical Wes Anderson protagonist, he projects confidence, even when circumstances are at their most dire. He thinks he’ll get by because that’s all he’s ever planned on. He carries himself with great sense of purpose, even when stumbling into situations deteriorating rapidly, falling into doom, or at least humiliation. The entire oddball ensemble has characters similarly driven towards their goals, a perfect set of traits for people in a story of careful caper construction. When the cogs fall into place and the wheels make their final turn, interlocking every variable, it’s most satisfying, indeed.

For Anderson, film is an artifice, but his style is never an affectation. His pictorial beauty (again with his usual cinematographer Robert Yeoman), visual wit, symmetric blocking, high angle shots, laconic profundities, dead-pan peculiarities, 90-degree whip pans, finicky fonts, cutaway gags, witty repartee, and editorial precision (this time with editor Barney Pilling) add up to an intensely personal and deeply felt playfulness. He comes by his style honestly, carefully, a magic blend of planning and happenstance. It’s all too easy to imagine making a mockery of such meticulousness, but all Anderson parodies miss the depth roiling within the rich and lovingly assembled surfaces. Here is a film that’s on one level a lark, with its bouncy caper, funny lines, and familiar faces. Crescendos of tension and suspense build into action sequences of tremendous delight and dips of apprehension. But underneath sits the darkness.

Here he creates a world of colorful eccentricity soon to be snuffed out, or at least irreparably damaged, by the marching armies at the border. After it all, the Grand Budapest remains, but the world it represents can only be accessed through stories. Layers upon layers of storytelling, of artifice, are not arbitrary comic filigrees or distancing effects. Here the tragedies of the past linger with overwhelming melancholy as we back out of our main story, to the old man who at one point stops his tale to wipe back tears, to the young woman who cherishes the book in which it was immortalized, to the audience as the lights come up and the credits roll. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a totally enveloping aesthetic pleasure, funny and exciting, sharp and sad, so very moving, so completely transporting.
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