Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: "Noah"

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Runtime: 138 minutes

When a director gets the chance to make the big-budget extravaganza of their dreams, it's difficult to ignore the offer. Yet large budgets have a history of being more restrictive than liberating when it comes to the studio system. For months, rumors have persisted that this was the case with Noah, Darren Aronofsky's long-awaited follow-up to Black Swan (a low budget smash hit). Talk of feuding between studio heads and the director caused worry that the latter had been forced to compromise his vision. Yet despite all of the thorny territory that comes with scripture-based films (Noah has been banned in several countries), Aronofsky's latest is undeniably his vision. It may be bigger and a touch broader, but Noah still fits perfectly in line with the rest of the director's filmography. 

Like all Aronofsky films, Noah centers on a figure who is consumed by a driving goal. In Black Swan, it was the quest to become the perfect ballerina. In The Fountain, it was a time-spanning crusade to overcome human mortality. Yet all of these goals stem from human forces. Noah, obviously, finds its titular protagonist (Russell Crowe) receiving a task from none other than God himself (here referred to as The Creator). Noah lives a peaceful existence with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and three sons (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Leo Carroll). 

As the last descendants of Seth (brother of Cain and Abel), Noah and his kin live a life in harmony with nature. They use the land only for what they absolutely need, not even picking flowers. Unfortunately, Noah's way of life is often in danger of being swallowed up by the massive industrial cities filled with the descendants of Cain, who have figuratively and literally poisoned the world (can you spot the subversive environmental commentary?). So when the Creator gives Noah his famous task (communicated through a series of dreams and visions, rather than a conversation), he has no problem with the idea of humanity being completely destroyed.

Even amid some awkward establishing scenes, one of the strengths of Noah is how Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel cast Noah as a man whose obsessions lead to dark conclusions about his fellow men. Rather than consider himself superior to Cain's descendants, Noah sees himself as the last flicker of a race that deserves to be obliterated. His Old Testament fury is so strong that he considers it a blessing that his adopted daughter-in-law (Emma Watson) will be unable to bear his eldest son a child in the new world. As such, Crowe's casting helps bring the grizzled iteration of Noah believably to life. 

Crowe's cast members, sadly, are less fortunate. Aside from Watson, the rest of Noah's family are largely inconsequential stock characters. Jennifer Connelly tries her best to be a moral counter to Noah's rage, but her big moment is undermined by stilted dialogue. Booth, as Noah's oldest son, is barely a presence at all (though at least he's scene doing things, unlike poor Mr. Carroll as the youngest son). Logan Lerman as middle son Ham is easily the worst served by the screenplay. The idea for his motivation on the ark (which I'll leave unspoiled) is solid, and helps play off the contrasting ideaologies of Noah and his family. Yet Lerman spends most of his scenes staring in angsty befuddlement, his mouth hanging open enough that you wish someone would let him know, lest he start drooling on himself. 

In fairness, some of the blame lies with Aronofsky and editor Andrew Weisblum for constantly cutting back to these silly reactions, but Lerman certainly isn't doing anything to rise above the material. The last notable cast member, Ray Winstone's villainous king Tubal-Cain, isn't exactly good either, but at least he has overwrought dialogue to snarl through and a thoroughly off-putting beard.

It's the small scale parts, the characterizations, the emotional arcs, that give Noah trouble and keep it from being a full-blown triumph. Some significant developments are handled in a way that provokes unintended laughter. Some scenes do hit home, like an encounter between Crowe and  Watson during the ark's construction, but otherwise the supporting cast simply drift around Noah like distant moons.

When it comes to scale, however, Aronofsky's film is much more successful. Though the visual effects aren't uniformly strong, they're enough to get the job done without taking one out of the moment. It's hard not to share Noah's awe when hordes of birds, reptiles, and mammals fly, slither, and crawl aboard the ark in droves. More impressive than any real animals are the Watchers, fallen angels encrusted in rocky shells who come to Noah's aid. Surely one of the biggest departures from the Biblical text (though such creatures are mentioned in some parts of ancient Jewish lore), these hulking creatures are put to good use in the film as Noah's superhuman construction workers and defenders. No single Watcher is given an individual history, yet their collective struggle works in a way that many of the human characters don't. 

Working with many regular collaborators behind the camera, Aronofsky has created an appropriately grand-looking film that still possesses the right amount of roughness one would expect in such an ancient time. The interior of the ark, though often shrouded in swaths of darknesses, is effectively designed as a boxy cargo vessel, rather than a traditional ship, which fits in well with this grimier, grislier take on the tale. The big visual effects moments are also quite strong, with the build up and arrival of the flood set on an overwhelming scale. Most impressive, however, is the aftermath, when the film takes a moment to show the last descendants of Cain screaming for their lives on a rock being pounded by waves. Though at times too big for its own good, Clint Mansell's score ensures that every grand moment sounds even grander.

For all its visual grandeur, Noah is caught between its epic ambitions and its character-based drama. Were the film a one man show for Mr. Crowe, the journey might have felt more personal and better focused. Instead, the drama feels halfbaked, especially when contrasted with the admirable effort put into creating Noah's world and mythos. As far as scripture-based films go, Noah deserves praise for making the ancient story work to fit another man's vision. It doesn't pander the faithful, and its heart of darkness is able to lend the story more dynamism than a traditional treatment would have provided. Like the ark straining against the waves, Noah is able to hold off the negative effects of its weakness long enough to accomplish its Herculean task, even if it runs aground rather than come to a smooth landing.

Grade: B-

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review: "The Raid 2"

Director: Gareth Evans
Runtime: 150 minutes

Gareth Evans' The Raid was never the sort of movie that demanded a sequel. In fact, the idea of a sequel seemed, at first glance, like a cheap cash-in on the success of the outlandishly entertaining first film. Yet where many sequels either cover the same ground (The Hangover 2) or simply fail to extend a story (Pirates of the Caribbean 4), Evans has hit the bullseye. The Welsh-born director's follow-up, hitting the US two years after the original, proves to be more than worth the wait. Evans has retained all of the good things from The Raid, while smartly changing the pacing and upping the narrative complexity. 

The Raid opened in the confines of Rama's (Iko Uwais) apartment, which was fitting, seeing as the majority of the film took place in a single apartment complex. By contrast, the sequel opens on a wide shot of a field. It was hinted that there was more going on outside of the self-contained crime empire from The Raid. In The Raid 2, we, along with Rama, are finally dragged into the bigger picture. Barely after the events of the first film, Rama finds himself roped into a dangerous undercover mission. He'll be placed in prison to befriend Uco (Arifin Putra). Uco is the son of Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), an Indonesian patriarch and crime boss who has maintained a peaceful relationship with the competition, the Goto family from Japan. 

In the opening minutes of The Raid 2 Evans establishes more plot than the entirety of his first film. The Raid's narrative minimalism was a key component of its success. It allowed for an almost non-stop barrage of brilliantly executed fight sequences that never had to be broken up by excessive talk. Thankfully, Evans proves himself up to the task of widening the scope and changing his plotting format. The Raid 2 has plenty of action, but it also provides plenty of breathing room between melees. Evans' dialogue ranges from functional to melodramatic, but he never gives into to monologues or excessive exposition. 

Because, even with its added plot complexities, the real draw of The Raid's world has always been linked to its visual storytelling. Evans understands this as a writer, director, and editor (he has sole credit in all three departments, which is staggering). So even though the emotions and motivations are only marginally deeper here than they were in the previous film, Evans has once again provided enough to ensure that the combat-free scenes are worthwhile. 

And, frankly, it's a good thing that Evans decided to devote so much time to the plot in his sequel. The fights in The Raid 2 are just as fast, clear, and brutal, to the point where they can be exhausting. Evans and his pair of cinematographers keep a clear eye on the action, allowing the lightning fast fight choreography to actually shine. It takes a film like The Raid 2 to really demonstrate how gifted one must be to shoot and edit a legitimately compelling fight scene. Under different circumstances, these fights could have grown tedious after seconds. After all, they largely involve one simple character (Rama) fighting off nameless henchman. Even an intriguing brother-sister duo (he with a baseball bat, she with a pair of hammers) are given no development, and are only differentiated by being better fighters than the henchmen. There's minimal investment in Rama, and none at all in his opponents. By that logic, the film's fight sequences should be empty. Yet Evans' ability to highlight the high speed brutality of the choreography, coupled with truly outstanding sound work, ensures that every last punch, kick, and snap registers.

Where The Raid 2 starts to go astray is in its pacing. Evans builds the mayhem up to a point that feels like a solid moment to leave open for the already-planned part three. Instead, this moment is just another rest before the finale, which consists of three back-to-back battles. Thankfully, the fights themselves are varied, but the awkward shift feels out of place in a film that otherwise moves smoothly between drama and bloody mayhem. That said, Evans deserves credit for not lingering on the brutality longer than need be. Blood flies all over the place, but the camera hardly jams one's face in it. And, in a few instances, Evans pulls back and avoids showing the goriest details.

The Raid 2 also has flashes of humor that keep it grounded. The amount of violence that bodies take is insane, but the film compensates by having the blows hurt, and by not weighing its story down with self-importance. In doing so, Evans is able to achieve the epic scale he's so clearly wants to obtain. Where The Raid 3 can possibly go from here, I'm not sure. However, it's difficult to argue that Evans and his collaborators are onto something special with this story. By keeping the characterization straightforward and the action brilliant, they've hit a sweet spot that so many action movies could only dream of hitting. It's not high art, but The Raid 2 is a stellar example of action filmmaking at its absolute best. 

Grade: B

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: Blood Ties

Director: Guillaume Canet
Runtime: 128 minutes

There's no denying that the 70s were a golden era for gritty crime dramas. Sidney Lumet classics like Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico helped shape the new age of American cinema following the culture shock of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967). However, those eras have passed, as eras tend to do. Most attempts to recapture that rough and gritty side of 70s cinema tend to get swallowed by the decade's long shadow. Guillaume Canet's Blood Ties, sadly, isn't strong enough to buck the trend. The French director's English-language debut looks the part, but it's undone by a flimsy, cliche-ridden script that has neither originality nor dramatic spark.  

Co-written by director James Gray, Blood Ties has more of his voice than of the Frenchman behind the camera. Though the film is a remake of a French drama, Gray's treatment has effortlessly American-ized it to fit the mold of the classics from the 70s. Similar to Gray's own We Own the Night, Blood Ties centers on brothers Chris (Clive Owen) and Frank (Billy Crudup) as they struggle to live on opposite sides of the law. For the recently released Chris, that means trying to reconnect with his wife Monica (Marion Cotillard) and the children he's barely seen. For Frank, it's a matter of keeping his brother from falling back into old habits, even as he begins a romance with Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), the girlfriend of the recently arrested Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts). 

Yet all the talent on screen can't compensate for the fundamental weaknesses of Canet and Gray's writing efforts. Chris and Frank are so lazily defined that there's little motivation to empathize with either. To their credit, Owen and Crudup at least handle the shallow material well enough to suggest where they could have gone with better material. But even with the focus primarily on their intertwined stories, Blood Ties never builds a genuinely compelling emotional or thematic arc. Yes, there are lots of talented people in the cast, but even at two hours, Blood Ties doesn't know how to manage them all properly. Saldana starts off playing a significant role, then practically vanishes until the last second. The reverse happens to Cotillard, who appears briefly in the first half, and then gets dragged into a rushed subplot designed to get the dramatic engine restarted so it can reach the finish line.

For all of the talent wasted, however, the biggest offense is how badly it underuses Schoenaerts. Despite his Belgian origin, the actor has the most convincing accent in the entire film. More importantly, Schoenaerts' handful of scenes have more heat to them than anything else than transpires on screen. Considering the strength of his breakout work in Bullhead, the actor clearly deserves a better English debut vehicle than this. On the other hand, Cotillard, Schoenaerts' Rust and Bone co-star, comes off rather badly in a performance that's all over the place. There are flickers of potential in her work, and there are some convincing moments of acting that rely solely on her facial expressions. Yet when she opens up her mouth, things head south disappointingly fast. The clunkiness of Monica's dialogue doesn't help, but the page doesn't deserve all of the blame in this instance.

With so many moving parts to handle, it doesn't take long for Blood Ties to unravel. Though nothing spectacular, the film's opening stretches mostly get it off to a solid start. As the cliches and messy narrative choices pile up, however, Canet and Gray can't sort their way out. The love triangle with Crudup, Saldana, and Schoenaerts should be the driving force of dramatic tension, but even when Scarfo gets released from prison, there's little to do but shrug and wait for the next tired development. It certainly doesn't help that Crudup and Saldana's affair begins with a handful of rushed scenes that border on laughable. 

In fact, nothing sums up the failings of Blood Ties better than one of the pair's first scenes of courtship. We see them sitting in a restaurant while music plays (no dialogue is heard). Suddenly, Saldana explodes, and leaves Crudup behind. Do we ever learn anything about what might have prompted the outburst? Of course not. The film assumes that the production values (admittedly solid) and music will be enough atmosphere to hold it all together. Instead, it almost looks like a scene from a dating montage in a bad romantic comedy (albeit an extra gritty one). 

What's particularly disappointing about all of this is how little energy Canet's directing has. With a few shoot outs and chases, you'd think the director of Tell No One would be able to conjure up something moderately engaging. Apparently not this time. Effort clearly went in to making Blood Ties look and sound the part. Beyond that, however, Canet and his collaborators go through the rest on autopilot. It's not quite a numbing experience, but it also never finds any moments where it feels like more than hackneyed, surface-level mimicry. 

Grade: C-

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Review: "Enemy"

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 90 minutes

"Chaos is order undeciphered," reads the apt opening title card of Denis Villeneuve's Enemy, a film which either has quite a bit of order to decipher, or simply a small amount of order that's been reconfigured beyond recognition. The second, and artier, of the director's collaborations with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, Enemy escalates slowly, before finishing with a nightmarish bang. With strains of Kubrick, Lynch, and Hitchcock in its DNA, Villeneuve's latest finds the director focusing on atmosphere over narrative details, to positive and negative effect.

After an unsettling prologue, Enemy turns its focus to the humdrum life of college professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal). A neurotic shut in, Adam's life changes when he notices an extra in a movie he's watching who looks just like him. Rather than shrug off the incident, Adam lets his neuroses get the best of him, and he sets off to investigate. The other man is Anthony Saint Claire (Gyllenhaal as well), a haughty actor and motorcycle enthusiast. Adam lives in bland, cluttered apartment and has a girlfriend (Melanie Laurent), while Anthony is married to Helen (Sarah Gadon), who is six months pregnant. 

As the title suggests, the eventual meeting of the Gyllenhaals doesn't exactly bond the pair. Adam freaks out, and wishes he'd never pursued Anthony to begin with. Anthony, meanwhile, is tempted to toy with Adam's life. Their similar, yet oh so different, paths in life start to cross, and then they fold onto each other, before merging in thoroughly unsettling ways.

Rather than constantly play Gyllenhaal off of himself, Javier Gullon's adaptation of Jose Saramago's "The Double" is more interested in how the two men act as individuals. The cocky Anthony is keen to use Adam's life as another role to play, while Adam struggles to cope with the idea once he's actually confronted with it. Adam's mother (Isabella Rosselini) tells him that he's her only son, which takes out the only logical reason for Anthony's existence. There's also the matter of Adam's dreams, which may or may not be a sign of a deeper connection between man and doppelgänger (and vice versa). 

Yet compared to other media involving similar concepts, Enemy focuses less on the mystery of how than the ramifications of the collision of two lives that are only separated by a few threads. Twists aren't the driving force of Enemy's limited narrative. Instead, it's the gradual (at times too gradual) release of details that glues the story together. Rather than build to a big revelation, Enemy ends in a way that dares the viewer to go and figure it all out on their own (though I suspect certain details have meanings that will remain elusive).

It's all a marvelous showcase for Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve, even as Gullon's adaptation leaves them to compensate for the script's emptiness. Gyllenhaal creates clear distinctions between Adam and Anthony, most noticeably in posture. Though the film's decision to keep the two men apart pays off, a few more interactions between the pair would have likely only deepened the sense of danger that the aesthetics work so hard to create. Of the rest of the cast, only Sarah Gadon makes an impression as Anthony's vaguely paranoid wife. Meanwhile, Villeneuve and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc shoot the Toronto settings with a sickly, yellowish haze that lends even the most mundane skyscrapers a foreboding presence. Meanwhile, composing duo Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans turn up the atmosphere with their eerie, off-kilter score.

The big factor holding Enemy back from fully hitting its mark as a nightmarish psycho-drama is that it doesn't go far enough with its central mystery. There's quite a bit hinted at that could have been explored without 'solving' the case. Despite the 90 minute run time, the first act's glacial pacing is also partly to blame. It's long on atmosphere and short on character ground work. Despite some nice visual characterization and elegant editing, Enemy's initial foundation isn't as solid as the film thinks.

Shortcomings noted, though, it's refreshing to see a psychological drama/thriller that isn't afraid to leave most of the hard work to the audience. Villeneuve and his cast's commitment to the brazenly head-scratching material is admirable, and ensures that Enemy never sinks under the weight of its own weirdness. Spiders play a significant (albeit puzzling) role in Enemy's puzzle, which couldn't be more appropriate. Enemy lures you in with hints of danger, but only shows you enough to draw you deeper and deeper into its web. By the time you think you have an idea of where it's going, you're hit with the blood-chilling realization that it's already too late. 

Grade: B/B+

Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: "Grand Piano"

Director: Eugenio Mira
Runtime: 90 minutes

Style over substance is the name of the game in Eugenio Mira's Grand Piano, which only makes its moderate success more surprising. A modern attempt at Hitchcockian thrills, with a dash of Mario Bava, this music-driven thriller is a flawed but ultimately engrossing experience. Despite a frustrating lack of depth (or even an attempt at depth), Grand Piano makes the most out of its modest budget to deliver a polished visual and sonic experience. The suspense will never have you clutching your armrest, but it will be just enough to keep you engaged in the loopy set up (some suspension of disbelief and/or alcohol may be required).  

At the very least, Mira's film, written by Damien Chazelle, doesn't waste any time. Once the title sequence concludes, it's not long before Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is rushing from the airport to make a concert. And it's not just any concert. As we learn over the course of the narrative, Tom suffered a breakdown after a spectacular screw-up during a particularly difficult piano piece. His big night in Chicago is his chance at redemption, five years after his viral video-spawning flub.

Of course, if the sinister opening hasn't already clued you in, Tom's night is about to take a rather extreme turn. During the first movement of the concierto, Tom discovers a series of notes on his sheet music. Among the more important points: if Tom plays one false note, he'll be taken out by a silenced sniper rifle by an assassin hiding somewhere in the concert hall. 

As over the top as the premise is, Mira and company play it just straight enough to keep one invested, even though there's not much to be invested in. The particulars of Tom's background are parsed out over the first two acts, which means there isn't a whole lot to grab onto when the threatening messages first appear. Mira compensates by working with cinematographer Unax Mendia to stage and choreograph the central concert with copious style. The camera often glides over the sections of the orchestra, opening up the relatively constrained space where most of the action occurs. Coupled with the concert, which acts as the film's own soundtrack, the photography helps lift Grand Piano far above its pedestrian scripting.

Yet although Mira knows how to work the visual elements of his film, he does a puzzlingly mixed job with his actors. Wood is perfectly fine, and just the right sort to play such a meek, emotionally fragile man. A pity that he never has the time to express Tom's inner turmoil over the enormous pressure he's face, and that's before the sniper's dot lands on him. Kerry Bishe and a mostly hidden John Cusack are also perfectly adequate in their roles as Tom's wife Emma and tormentor, respectively. 

More disappointing is how Mira and his cast handle the bit players. From its opening scene, Grand Piano is filled with shoddy, albeit brief, performances in the simplest of roles (Tom's seat mate on the plane, a stagehand, etc...). The biggest offender, however is the film's use of Ashley and Wayne (Tamsin Egerton and Allen Leech). The duo's crude idiocy (they're not keen on classical music, you see....) is used for bad comic relief that's mostly just frustrating. Mira keeps the pace nice and tight, so the pair are never overbearing, yet they still stick out from the pack of poorly performed supporting roles. 

Thankfully, Mira knows how to get maximum mileage out of the concert, which saves Grand Piano by the skin of its teeth as it heads into act three. Some may find the conclusion (and the motive for Cusack's character) underwhelming, but I found that it acted as a nice escalation of an already over the top set up. Rather than try and play games with audience in regards to who the villain is, the big question is what he's after and how he's trying to obtain it. Unlike Non-Stop, another recent release that felt like a Hitchcock-lite thriller, Grand Piano turns its villain's motivation into a revelation worth waiting for. Grand Piano hits its share of false or missed notes along the way, but its effective atmosphere and over the top plot are enjoyable enough, even if it's but a pale imitation of its iconic influences. 

Grade: B/B-

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Review: "The Nymphomaniac - Part 2"

Director: Lars von Trier
Runtime: 118 minutes

By the time Part 2 of The Nymphomaniac comes to its bleakly humorous conclusion, one thing has become clear: despite the split release of Parts 1 and 2, this is truly one film. Von Trier doesn't bother with set up or introduction at the start of Part 2, which only further cements the idea that it should have, somehow, been released as a single 4 hour film. Taken as separate entities, however, it's clear that Part 2 is where The Nymphomaniac really comes together. With Charlotte Gainsbourg finally doing more than narrating, The Nymphomaniac gets a whole new life, and comes closest to achieving the sort of epic sexual saga that von Trier was striving towards.

This is, in large part, due to Part 2's descent into much darker territory. This was first hinted at in the final shot of Part 1, when young Joe (Stacy Martin) loses all sexual sensation. From this point on, we see Joe transform not only into her older self, but also into a woman caught up in the destructive side of her sexuality. In the confines of young adulthood, Joe was able to experiment without significant consequence. Now a grown woman, she's finally starting to feel the weight of expectations and social mores closing in on her. 

Joe initially wilts, but soon pulls herself together and starts using her sexuality to lash out against what she views as prudish bourgeois morality trying to shame her. Even so, her newfound sexual outlets aren't without their costs. At the start, Joe had a whole world open to exploration. Now she's finally run out of territory, and there's really something at stake for her. It's this significant shift that von Trier handles best in Part 2, and it's the reason why, even in isolation, Part 2 has the heft that Part 1 lacked.

In fairness, part of the credit is simply due to Gainsbourg appearing on screen in the flashbacks. Ms. Martin was quite effective in Part 1, but the disparity between narrator and protagonist proved something of an odd barrier to surmount. With past and present now inhabited by the same woman, The Nymphomaniac becomes a much richer work. Gainsbourg, relegated to passive narration in Part 1, finally has room to actually give life to Joe's journey beyond reciting it. Once again, Gainsbourg's gifts are an ideal match for von Trier's material, even if she never reaches the heights of her performance in Melancholia

The supporting cast, meanwhile, remains rather one dimensional, despite the increased number of recognizable faces. Joe leads a lonely life, and the film reflects this by not really delving into the backgrounds of other characters. The lone exception is P (Mia Goth), who Joe unwillingly takes on as a protege after getting involved with a seedy businessman (Willem Dafoe). Though P comes into play in, as Joe describes it, a remarkable coincidence, it nonetheless helps The Nymphomaniac come full circle in a deeply unsettling way. Even when doing her best to care for another life, Joe is still pitted against P in surprising ways. Their relationship is a microcosm of how parts of society treat women, never allowing them to be more than just friends. There must always be competition either in service of men or for the pleasure of men. 

With its noticeable stakes and sense of danger, Part 2 serves as a fitting conclusion to von Trier's would-be opus. Though at times unwieldy in its dialogue, (though less so than in Part 1), Part 2 is where Joe becomes more than someone to follow; she becomes someone to be invested in. After so much build up, Part 2 is where The Nymphomaniac feels more in tune with its characters than with its concepts and ideas. Taken as a whole, The Nymphomaniac is certainly a compelling portrait of a woman's sexual journey, but only it Part 2 does that journey fully come to life. 

Grade: B+

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Director: Wes Anderson
Runtime: 100 minutes

When the first promotional materials for The Great Budapest Hotel arrived, many were quick to proclaim it, "the most Wes Andersonian movie ever." Though the connotation changed depending on the individual, this line of thought has largely remained unchallenged in the run up to the film's release. Anderson's films have always been highly stylized, but with Budapest, he seemed to be charging ahead into previously unknown levels of Andersonian-ness, for better or for worse. Level shot compositions? Check. Deadpan dialogue and performances? Absolutely. Quirkiness that's often in danger of slipping into cloying preciousness? Of course. 

With so many prepared lines and jokes about how Anderson seemed on the verge of self-parody, all that was left was to examine the finished product. In a way, the joking gut reactions were right. The Grand Budapest Hotel is unmistakably an Anderson film. But this is hardly self parody. Building on the momentum of 2012's excellent Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson's latest is a culmination of his style, and his evolution as both stylist and storyteller. 

Yet where his previous film took its time setting up its characters and only gradually pushed the narrative forward, Budapest finds Anderson hitting the ground sprinting. Split across three different time periods, the narrative unfolds in the manner of a Russian nesting doll, with flashbacks giving way to flashbacks, and so on. Unlike a nesting doll, however, the layers of Anderson's film grow larger as we're taken deeper into the narrative. The outermost doll, involving an aging writer (Tom Wilkinson) recounting an incident in his younger days (as played by Jude Law), is barely there at all. It would be tempting to label it superfluous, but it adds a nice accent to the the infinitely more eventful pair of layers that dominate the story.

The most important of those layers takes us to 1932, in the fictional nation of Zubrowska. In a lavish mountain resort (the titular hotel), we meet the promiscuous, eccentric concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), and his new lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). Anderson has shifted his gaze from young love to the relationship between mentor and student, and it pays off rather brilliantly. The 1932 scenes dominate the film, with Fiennes and Revolori's unlikely chemistry acting as a lovingly silly anchor for the dozens of chess pieces moving around them. Fiennes, in particular, is outstanding, and proves to be a surprisingly adept match for Anderson's full throttle deadpan approach. His shifts from silky smooth calm to profanity-driven are perfectly timed, and only enhance the strength of Anderson's screenplay. 

Outside of Gustave and Zero, however, Budapest is more concerned with its narrative and structural intricacies than it is with fleshing out the rest of the ensemble. Thankfully, that's (mostly) the right decision. The supporting cast is filled with nice turns from an exhaustive list of previous Anderson collaborators (Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and aged-up Tilda Swinton), all of whom make a nice impression without throwing off the film's focus. The standout, though, is Willem Dafoe, whose inherently unsettling face is used for perfectly executed bits of dark comedy.

With so many players, it's remarkable just how effortlessly Anderson juggles all of the pieces of his intricate screenplay. At 100 minutes, it's hard to find a wasted minute. Anderson's pacing is snappier than ever, and it's complimented nicely by the sharp editing. I counted only one instance when I felt a scene was going on too long, and it wrapped up shortly after I had time to even make note of it.

More importantly is that Anderson is able to retain his distinctive voice while still focusing so heavily on plotting. Whatever parts of the trailers and clips looked like self parody fit perfectly into place in full context. The screenplay is stuffed full of good lines and exchanges, and the perfectly in sync cast hardly misses a beat. Visually, the film is easily Anderson's lushest, with the decades of change marvelously chronicled with the shifting interior designs of the hotel's lobby, as well as the vibrant costumes. Returning composer Alexandre Desplat adds a nice bit of extra momentum to the zippy pacing with his balalaika-infused score, ensuring that even the quieter moments are kept up to speed.

Where The Grand Budapest Hotel will likely prove divisive comes down to its darker elements. While Anderson has never exactly shied away from darkness, he certainly never dwells on applies it in a heavy-handed manner. The main flashback, though set in a fictional country, still takes place between the two World Wars, and there are hints of the oncoming destruction scattered throughout. There's also the nature of the violence that pops up in brief moments. Though the film is gorgeously designed and shot with the look of a fairy tale, it is punctuated by incidents of violence that are jolting. Not because they're particularly graphic, but simply because it sticks out and suggests a darker undercurrent to an otherwise charming world. Gustave uses the hotel to keep the changing world at bay, yet the moments of violence and darkness still find their ways in. It's not so much a battle between old and new as much as a test to see how long Gustave's old "civilized" world can hold out before caving.

These darker moments, however, are handled so efficiently that it's easy to understand why some would find Anderson's approach shallow. There's a lot going on at the surface of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but whether or not one connects to it will likely determine how much one feels is going on underneath the gloriously decorated facade. Personally, I found nearly everything about Budapest to be successful, even as I longed for a touch more of the humanity that Anderson brought to Moonrise Kingdom. But, of course, they're two very different types of films, and each demands a different combination of Anderson's expected ingredients. If Moonrise Kingdom was a small but shockingly satisfying dinner, then The Grand Budapest Hotel is his elaborate attempt at a desert. How much nourishment it provides will be up for debate, but you can't deny the thoroughly original level of thought that went into its execution.

Grade: B+/A-

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Review: "The Nymphomaniac - Part 1"

Director: Lars von Trier
Runtime: 118 minutes

Before the release of Blue Valentine in 2010, the film was caught up in a ratings controversy after being slapped with the dreaded NC-17 marker. The given reason? Footage of Michelle Williams' character receiving and, *gasp* enjoying oral sex (never mind that it's possible to earn a PG-13 with male character receiving fellatio, albeit not too graphically). The film was, thanks to pushing from Harvey Weinstein (see, he is capable of good deeds!), downgraded to an R, thus removing the snickering connotation that the film was somehow pornographic. Sadly, issues of female sexual pleasure remain a thorny issue, often prompting overly sensitive, and sometimes backwards responses despite the leeway granted for men on film.

Now, barely four years later, Danish director Lars Von Trier is back with a four hour, two part film that might as well be a massive middle finger to the sorts unable to believe in a woman's capability for independent sexual pleasure. Premiering in a staggered format (a VOD release, followed within weeks by a limited theatrical run), only the first half of The Nymphomaniac is currently available in the United States. Though I suspect it might be difficult to fully assess the film without seeing both halves, this review will try its best to tackle Part 1 as its own entity (much in the vein of the separately released volumes of Tarantino's Kill Bill). 

Rarely one to coddle audiences with style or content, Von Trier's latest begins with a near silent montage of falling rain and snow, before a blaring grunge rock track tears through the soundscape. Von Trier is known for using cinematic techniques to put the viewer ever so slightly on edge (ie: the constant jump cuts in Dogville), and Nymphomaniac wastes no time in announcing that it will be no different. Whether the techniques work in service of the story is another matter, one that is harder to assess without the full film available. 

What is available is the progressively intriguing, albeit slightly stodgy, tale of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in her third von Trier film), as related to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the man who finds her beaten and unconscious in the street. Where Joe's life is built around only one pursuit, Seligman's is filled with many (fly fishing, poetry, history, etc...). As such, he takes interest in hearing Joe's story, and spends much of Part 1 commenting on the literal and metaphorical parallels between Joe's life and his own interests. 

It's a clever idea, even when von Trier's screenplay stumbles. Seligman's comparisons, more analytical and flowery than Joe's recounting, contain interesting references, yet some of von Trier's dialogue is a bit too stiff, and too academic. This is only reinforced by the grungy look of the whole production, keeping in line with the director's tendency towards minimalism in terms of design and visual variety. Thankfully Mr. Skarsgard, another frequent von Trier collaborator, is talented enough to soften the blow of some of the more stilted passages. 

Gainsbourg, on the other hand, is set aside, despite being the primary storyteller. Part 1 is concerned with Joe as a young adult (played by Stacy Martin), which means that Gainsbourg spends a lot of time merely narrating. As Melancholia and Antichrist showcased, the actress is more than up to the task. That's why it's frustrating to see the actress sidelined in a film that is all about her character. Martin is effective enough, but knowing that we'll eventually get to see Gainsbourg on screen in the flashbacks makes her part of the story feel more like a necessary hurdle to overcome. 

The supporting ensemble, meanwhile, are mostly adequate, with a few exceptions. Christian Slater gets the job done as Joe's caring father, while Connie Nielsen silently glowers as his distant wife. Joe's never-ending parade of lovers (clients?), are played mostly by unknowns, which is for the best. It's her story, after all, and focusing too heavily on the men would distract from the central, female journey. Unfortunately, the one lover (so far) played by a name is Jerome, who has the misfortune of being inhabited by Shia LaBeouf. While not a disastrous performance, LaBeouf's work lacks the spark or magnetism required, seeing as Jerome is something of an object of fascination for Joe. 

On the other hand, Uma Thurman nearly steals the whole movie as the abandoned wife of one of Joe's clients. Thurman's screen time likely amounts to less than 10 minutes, but she adds a much needed jolt to the proceedings, which at the point have started to drag a little. With Gainsbourg and Skarsgard increasingly removed as Part 1 progresses, it's not too surprising that Thurman is able to swoop in and run away with the show. The worst part of the performance is that it's so brief, and that the actress is unlikely to reappear in Part 2 (which arrives April). 

The Thurman sequence aside, Part 1's strongest moments tend to come from the scenes detailing Joe's methods and ideas about sex and love. Despite her love of an act of pleasure, her interests stem from a more detached view. Sometimes she uses it to hurt men, other times to trick or manipulate them. It's underscored with von Trier's offbeat, dark humor, which keeps the whole enterprise from drowning in pretension (in some cases just barely). The Nymphomaniac's script does need a bit of smoothing out, but the parts that work instill hope that Part 2 will be richer and more emotionally involving. Von Trier also deserves credit for turning down the shock value elements. 

Rather than sensationalize female pleasure, he captures it as something totally natural, which is probably Part 1's biggest triumph. All that remains to be seen is if he can better synthesize his academic and thematic ideas with his storytelling. That's what will ultimately make or break this sex-driven tale as it continues to be both mundane and bold with startling ease. At last, Denmark's enfant terrible is finally starting to grow up.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Review: "Winter's Tale"

Director: Akiva Goldsman
Runtime: 118 minutes

The IMDB plot synopsis for Akiva Goldsman's Winter's Tale reads as follows: "A burglar falls for an heiress as she dies in his arms. When he learns that he has the gift of reincarnation, he sets out to save her." Are you simultaneously intrigued and stifling a laugh? Then you're probably the ideal audience for Mr. Goldsman's directorial debut, an attempt at magical realism that wields unapologetic sincerity as a blunt instrument. Too bad that said sincerity wasn't in service of something more coherent and engaging. 

Still coasting on the goodwill from his Oscar-winning screenplay for A Beautiful Mind, Goldsman's movie is more or less what its synopsis proclaims. Yet it is also so much more, often to a baffling degree. There are demons engaged in a vaguely defined spiritual war, a magic horse that turns into a Pegasus when convenient, and a cameo from a superstar actor as Lucifer that ranks as one of the stranger bits of stunt casting in recent memory.

The absurdity, however, isn't apparent right at the start. It's the turn of the century, and orphan Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is on the run in New York City. He spends his time stealing small objects, and storing them in his home, the attic of Grand Central Station (very Hugo-esque, no?). Mr. Lake is in hiding because he's run afoul of his former thieves, led by the intimidating Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, brogue-ing it up to high heaven). Things really get moving, however, when Peter is caught trying to rob the home of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey fame). She has consumption, just like Satine in Moulin Rouge!, but without the dancing skills, and knows it's not long before she shuffles off of this mortal coil to keep the plot going. 

In between its risible dialogue ("Is it possible to love someone so completely that they never die?") and bland performances (aside from Mr. Crowe, who is spectacularly bad), Winter's Tale spends most of its time being marginally interesting, albeit in the dullest way possible. The reason to stick with it is simply to see where the whole nonsensical journey goes. Goldsman's adaptation of Mark Helprin's acclaimed novel is crippled by one of the worst hallmarks of bad fantasy: the rules of its world are poorly established, giving off the feeling that Goldsman is making things up as he goes along. There's a convenient answer for everything, and it usually involves the magical horse (who is named, wait for it, Horse). 

This leaves Winter's Tale without any stakes or tension. We have no sense of what's possible or not in this low fantasy world, so barely any of the pieces ever come together to produce a moment of legitimate interest. Again, the story is only interesting in so far as it leaves you wondering what sort of half-baked nonsense the script will churn out next. And this is before the time travel. Remember that reincarnation bit? Well, somewhere past the halfway point, Peter winds up in present day Manhattan, and I'm not sure I can go any further without slipping into a state of slack-jawed awe. 

Even from a technical point, Mr. Goldsman's film is thoroughly lackluster. Despite a solid budget of $60 million, the entire film is shot and colored in murky shades of blue, grey, and beige. By contrast, something as sumptuous as 2012's Anna Karenina was made for a fraction of the cost. Other aspects, like costumes, sets, and music, range from bland to just slightly above adequate.   

Yet the question remains: just how bad is it? Well, it's certainly bad. Very bad. But, I must confess, the film's total sincerity is its own weird saving grace of sorts. It commits to this mushy fantastical nonsense, dammit, and that's probably the reason I felt no anger towards anyone involved. Winter's Tale isn't decent enough to be a noble failure, but it doesn't quite stoop low enough to be a disgrace. It's a film that's trying, yet simply putting all of its effort in all of the wrong places. 

Grade: C-

Review: "Le Week-End"

Director: Roger Michell
Runtime: 93 minutes

In the aftermath of last year's Before Midnight, speculation began as to whether Richard Linklater would eventually make a fourth film in his acclaimed Before series. Linklater has plenty of time, as nine years passed between each of the Before films. However, British director/writer team Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi have gotten a jump on Linklater and company with their newest collaboration, Le Week-End. Unintentionally continuing in the vein of Linklater's films, Le Week-End injects an extra does of emotional discord into its central relationship, resulting in a darker, yet still winning journey about love settling in for inevitable decline.

Rather than Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, Michell's camera finds itself following Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan around a major European locale. Said locale is Paris, where Broadbent's Nick and Duncan's Meg have returned in attempt to revisit their honeymoon spot and enliven their marriage. Like other duo-driven films, the plot is loose and open-ended, allowing the character's interactions to take center stage. 

The immediate difference, however, is that Kureishi's script doesn't spend time trying to charm the audience. Despite the visual splendors of the City of Light, Le Week-End is quick to point out that Nick and Meg's 30 year marriage has its share of weaknesses. Before Midnight showed its characters stumbling through their first major arguments. Le Week-End, by contrast, shows those arguments as having become woven into daily life. A simple moment can give rise to an uncomfortable confession or frustration, and vice versa. 

Despite immediately showing one the rockiness of Nick and Meg's relationship, the film still does an intelligent job of parsing out the actual details across the 90 minute duration. And, when information does arrive, it is either done so briefly (details from a phone call) or eloquently (a humbling speech at a dinner party). Whatever flaws these two have, Michell and Kureishi have still approached them with a measured sense of compassion. 

Said approach is showcased beautifully in Broadbent and Duncan's performances, which feel nicely lived in from the opening scene. Duncan, a veteran of British TV, may not be as well known to American audiences as her Oscar-winning co-star, but she effortlessly holds her own. If anything, the majority of the film belongs to her characters emotions, while Broadbent takes on the slightly passive role. Of the two, Meg is more easily frustrated with the relationship, and Duncan channels into a carefully balanced mix of tough love and anger. Broadbent, meanwhile, saves most of his energy for the later stretches, where he truly gets to grab hold of some rich material and nail it with understated mastery.

Cast wise, the only other notable name is Jeff Goldblum as Nick's former colleague Morgan. Early notices pegged Goldblum as a scene-stealer, though I'm not quite convinced. It becomes apparent that Morgan is supposed to be a bit smug, yet Goldblum's early scenes feel overly broad, with the actor resorting to a distractingly breathy delivery to indicate excitement. In a movie that has such a grounded, intimate feel, Goldblum's borderline schtickiness is irksome, and not quite in the way I suspect it was intended. 

Goldblum aside, the only other notable issue to be found is in the ending, where several important issues rear their heads in an unfortunately choppy way. Though it is the polar opposite in terms of scale, Le Week-End starts to develop Return of the King-syndrome, with one too many shots appearing as though they're meant to be the last. And, once the actual finale arrives, it feels inappropriately uncertain. On a cinematic level, it's charming, yet there are so many unresolved issues that it seems like a cop out. Michell maintains the emotional balancing act so well, so it's puzzling to see him stick such a wobbly landing. While that's hardly enough to undo the strength of everything else, it remains a minor frustration in an otherwise honest and touching exploration of love and marriage. Stick it between the Before series and Michael Haneke's Amour, and you'll have one hell of a complete look at the evolution of love, for better and for worse. 

Grade: B+ 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Review: "Non-Stop"

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Runtime: 106 minutes

It seemed only natural that Liam Neeson thrillers would eventually grow wings and take to the skies. Yet who would have thought that the result would be so engaging, despite the increasing levels of preposterousness? After several misses (Taken 2, Unknown), Mr. Neeson's stock as an action hero gets a boost in this Hitchcock-lite bottle movie, thanks to some dynamic directing and effectively managed suspense. 

When we first meet Air Marshal Bill Marks (Neeson), he's drinking whiskey in his car at an airport parking lot. As director Jaume Collet-Serra quickly sketches out with visual cues, Bill isn't doing so hot at the moment, what with the drinking problem and the estranged daughter. The rest of the work is simply up to Neeson, who, at 61, is still capable of effortlessly commanding the screen with all of his 6'4 frame. 

A good thing, too, seeing as much of the movie's first half is comprised of Marks facing off against some anonymous text messages. Aboard a flight to London, Marks learns that someone plans to kill off a passenger every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred into an account (almost as frightening as actual online banking transfers). 

Rather than immediately go into action, Non-Stop decides to have fun with the mystery portion of its story. Collet-Serra and his cast (including Julianne Moore and Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery) are all incredibly game in their approach to such middle of the road material. Non-Stop won't go down as one of the great modern thrillers, but it has enough fun with its concept to ensure that the ride is involving, rather than tedious. 

While not oppressively dark, Non-Stop's willingness to keep itself largely grounded is part of what makes it so easy to engage with. Even the more ludicrous elements of the story, which only rear their heads near the very end, are kept to a minimum. Instead of a bevy of over-the-top stunts, Non-Stop has only one, and Collet-Serra hardly drags it out or indulges the moment. 

Perhaps the lone disappointment is the eventual revelation of the killer's identity. Though the grandstanding and monologuing is kept in check, the killer's motivation is almost staggeringly stupid, and undermines the tension that should have driven the climactic action sequences. Had the whole movie been of drastically lower quality, the insanity of the villain's motivation could have provided some level of nonsensical cinematic glee. Instead, it puts a bit of a damper on a otherwise solidly assembled, B-level thriller. 

Yet, by the time the final moments, which don't overstay their welcome, roll around, it's difficult to be too angry about Non-Stop's flaws. Suspension of disbelief is key to a movie like Non-Stop, and thankfully everyone involved has largely done their best to make this an accommodating vehicle for that suspension. No one will care about the film in a a matter of weeks, but as movie-of-the-week escapism, Non-Stop gets more than enough right at the surface level to be worth the time. 

Grade: B-/C+