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Out in Theaters: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Lea Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Mathieu Amalric, Tom Wilkinson
Comedy, Drama  
100 Mins
R

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Fiennes, Brody, Dafoe, Goldblum, Murray, Law, Swinton, Ronan, Norton, Keitel, Schwartzman, Seydoux, Wilson, Balaban, Amalric, Wilkinson. Wes Anderson‘s latest may have more big names working for it than ever before but their characters are more paper thin than they’ve been, more fizzle than tonic, more Frankenstein’s creations than humans. His company of regulars – joined by a vast scattering of newbies – are relegated to playing furniure-chomping bit roles, filling the shoes of cartoonish sketches, slinking in long shadows of characters. From Willem Dafoe‘s brutish, brass-knuckled Jopling to a caked-up and aged Tilda Swinton, gone are the brooding and calculated, flawed and angsty but always relatable characters of Wes yore. In their place, a series of dusty cardboard cutouts; fun but irrevocably inhuman.

Here in 2014, Anderson’s ability to attract such a gathering of marquee names to his eccentric scripts has never been as potent. He’s a talent magnet and his tractor beam is set to high. It’s just too bad that this gathering of the juggalos is as caricaturesque as they are (arguable even more than the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox). But what can you expect when your face is painted up and you’re dressed like a Slovenian underground fashion show. Upon dissecting what he’s got to offer, the seemingly indelible Wes Anderson appeal is as clear as day.

In the jungle of Hollywood, roles are mostly relegated one of two ways: the tentpole blockbusters, where characters are written like ham steaks – vessels for plot diversions, jukeboxes for one-liners, sarcophagi for the next action scene – and the smaller budgeted “independent” movie, wherein the tone is usually somber, the scenery is left unchewed, and emotional preparation ought to be through the roof. Anderson’s films flirt a very thin middle ground, a Bermuda triangle between indie cred and mainstream. To his credit, it looks like a blast.

Inside his pictures, Anderson’s stars are afforded a chance to play dress up in the midst of gorgeous sets at exciting locales. What’s not to love? Plus, this particular project had an added advantage: European travel. For these thespians, being a part of Anderson’s playground is like being a kid again. However, their childishness is more apparent here than in any of Anderson’s finest work (save for maybe Moonrise Kingdom). But through the haze of these colorful yet superficial oddities shines Ralph FiennesMonsieur Gustave, a beacon of complexity in an otherwise skin-deep cast of characters.

Gustave is a relic of the past. He’s an icon of chivalry, a servant dedicated to his craft, a well-groomed pet for his adoring clientele. He sluts it up for the elderly ladies who pass through his hotel (but he enjoys it too, so he tells us), making him a bit of a tourist attraction in himself. A hot springs for wilting feminine physiques, Gustave becomes the recipient of a pricy artifact (an ironic art piece called “Boy with Apple” – the customary brand of wry Anderson platitudes) when one of his doting golden-agers (Swinton) bites the dust. With her family trying to discredit him and blame the murder his way, Gustave must go on the run.

The cat and mouse, European romp to follow is as much an episode of Tom and Jerry as it is The Great Escape. Fiennes’ soulful gravitas brings immeasurable life to what is otherwise a series of cartoonish escape plots and hijinks. Anderson’s offerings are easy to consume and his persnickety eye for detail and Fiennes’ brilliant performance brings life by the pound to the otherwise far-fetched proceedings.

In this recent turn in his career, Wes Anderson has almost becoming a mockery of Wes Anderson. Though I thoroughly enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel it lacks the rounded emotional honesty of his pre-Fox efforts. He’s lost the intellectual intensity he had going in Rushmore, The Royal Tenanbaums and (I know I’m in the minority here) Darjeeling Limited, largely replaced by quirk by the bucket and enough billable names to make your head spin.  Nevertheless, Fiennes is magical; a perfect vessel for Andersonisms, the savior of the show.

B+

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Out in Theaters: THE MONUMENTS MEN

“The Monuments Men”
Directed by George Clooney
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Winslet, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban
Action, Biography, Drama
118 Mins
PG-13

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George Clooney
‘s The Monument’s Men is a monumess. A sloppily assembled patchwork of scenes, it’s a great story with no backbone that flops from event to event like a fish out of water. Without the propulsion of any kind of momentum, the tale sags, leaving us dulled to the story’s eventual important moments. With all the talent involved and Clooney behind the camera, we expect something with panache, wit and style and instead are served up this goofy slop of events thrown at the stage with all the disheveled precision of a pie-in-the-face. However intriguing the “true story” behind the film, it is apparently best left in books or relayed in insightful anecdotes as Clooney has all but snuffed the life out of what ought to be a monumental account. As Roger Ebert famously said, “Movies are not about what they are about, but how they are about it.” Here, Clooney’s how looks a lot like wingin’ it.

As mentioned above, the biggest problem holding The Monuments Men back from glory is how frumpily the series of events are organized. Scenes flow into each other like class five rapids, positively clashing and jarring any sense of time or place. Tacking a scene set in France onto one in Germany or America, we never have a foothold on where we are or when exactly anything is taking place. Clooney throws date on the screen but they will hop to another moment in time and another character whose location and significance we can only guess. Only when Clooney’s voiceover cuts through are we informed of the context of the content; a sure sign of narrative failure. When you’re tasked with explaining to the audience what they’re seeing, you know you’re taken a wrong turn off the successful storytelling highway.

So as the film crashes from one scene to another, we’re left trying to hold onto some semblence of structure and even the characters give us little to grasp onto. With the likes of Bill Murray, John Goodman, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban assembled, one would expect stirring ensemble work but, for the most part, Clooney shies away from satisfying character development or captivating ensemble work. The only time he stops to really try and delve into characters are when they face death. What he fails to understand is that we already need to be invested at that point. You can’t kill someone off and then try and make them important posthumously. These “oh wait” moments ring a clear signal of his inability to save the unfocused screenplay from itself and a blinding sign of his desperate attempts to course correct too late in the game.

Even with all these missteps, there are a number of intriguing and poignant scenes interspersed throughout but even they come across as too clunkily set and architecturally inorganic to propel the audience into a suspended state of caring. We want to know who these characters are but we rarely do. Goodman is just kind of there, Dujardin plays up his irresistible French charm and Balaban has some nice material to work his mousey persona on but none really amount to much more than appreciators of art. When Murray is given a dramatic moment to break down in the shower, he puts in some solid work but it makes no sense in the context surrounding that moment. It’s like watching wrestling at the nail salon. It just doesn’t gel.

Where Monuments Men’s biggest disappointment is its squandered use of a killer cast. I will give credit to Cate Winslet, who will soon likely be an Academy Award winner, for her work as a Parisian art aficionado as her work is more notable than any of the gentlemen with whom she shares the screen.

And if you thought War Horse was old-fashion wait until you get a load of this. From the hokey John Williams-wannabe score (courtesy of Alexandre Desplat) to the almost played-for-laughs Nazi presence, it’s just one long page in the book of cinematic taboo. While this may have worked better in 1965, it certainly doesn’t fit 2014. Clooney has been able to manipulate time periods to his liking in the past but his attempt to do a period piece told in dated fashion works about as well as telling the Rwanda Genocide as a rom-com.

One thing is abundantly clear at this junction, Clooney’s art junkie project was certainly not moved from its original release date to “fix up the effects.” Columbia must have know they had little more than a hodgepodge of scenes and didn’t know how to piece them together. The resulting papier mâchéd clunker of a wartime dramedy is a futile effort at grasping at straws. Worse yet, it’s boring.

C-

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