F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 20, 2014)

20 06 2014

Rian Johnson was announced this week as the next major architect in the “Star Wars” franchise, which was met with cheers from the fanboys.  And understandbly so, as Johnson is a brilliant creative mind who has recently given us the ingenious “Looper” as well as some of the best episodes of “Breaking Bad.”

But as for me, on the other hand, I found myself rather peeved.  The house that Lucas built will require non-stop attention for several years, leaving the cinemas without Johnson’s voice in peculiar but always memorable films.  He’s a master of mining subgenres for unexplored territory, be they high school movies or time travel sci-fi pics.  Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom,” not your average heist flick, is a unique and underappreciated film that earns my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Not unlike this year’s Best Picture nominated “American Hustle,” the film uses the art of the con as a means to explore individual identity as well as the nature of storytelling.  Filmmakers and hustlers often pull from the same theoretical toolbox, using the art of illusion to manipulate us into feeling exactly what they want us to feel.  As Mark Ruffalo’s Stephen puts it at one point in “The Brothers Bloom,” the perfect con is the one where  everyone involved gets just what they wanted.

While I’ll stop short of calling this a perfect movie, it’s certainly a very, very good one.  It’s thoughtful and entertaining, a mix that seems to be increasingly less common.  The performances are great, too – Ruffalo and Adrien Brody star as the titular fraternal con artists who pull bizarre stunts with the help of Rinko Kikuchi’s silent pyrotechnics companion Bang Bang.  The three make a hilarious pair, lighting up the screen with their off-kilter chemistry.

But the real dynamo of “The Brothers Bloom” is their target, Rachel Weisz’s cooped-up heiress Penelope Stamp.  Brody’s Stephen manages to win her affection, luring the quirky loner right into their trap.  They let her in on their chosen profession, and Penelope eagerly jumps right into scheme.  Who’s conning who and who’s being honest often gets a little hazy, but every moment is thrilling as we see simultaneously more and less of who the characters really are.  Johnson’s writing gives them so much to work with, and it saddens me to think we won’t be seeing another one of his movies like this for a long time.

REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel

3 06 2014

Just so we’re clear: I have no problems with auteurism.  For those of you who just saw a French word and panicked, I’m referring to a school of film criticism that looks for recurring patterns throughout the work of an artist (usually the director).  It can often be a very interesting lens through which to analyze a set of films, and auteurism has the ability to shine a light on filmmakers outside of the general circles of critical acclaim.

Like anything in life, the theory has a dark underbelly, and to me, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” represents the perils of auteurism run rampant.  The film is Wes Anderson’s “Django Unchained,” in the sense that it represents a moment of stasis in the progression of a great director.  Anderson is now more than a director; essentially, he’s a brand, expected by customers to deliver a certain consistency of product.

Put into the position of becoming a cinematic McDonald’s, Anderson takes the easy way out by providing an assembly-line reproduction of what he has already created to great admiration.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” feels like a less vibrant remake of a film he’s already made – or, perhaps more accurately, it feels like all of them at once.  Despite being set in a semi-fictionalized interwar Central Europe, the world Anderson portrays seems reassembled from pieces of “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” and even “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Even more than Anderson’s last feature-length cinematic outing in 2012, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” takes his telltale stylistic flourishes and puts them to an exponential degree.  Every other take in the film had to be a tracking shot, so it seemed.  The cameos and other miscellaneous odd appearances by acclaimed thespians is now less of an amusing diversion and more of a distracting parade.  The off-beat characters feel less like quirky people and more like paper dolls traipsing around in the elegant house Anderson created for their frolicking delight.

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REVIEW: Splice

3 06 2010

You should be warned: “Splice” goes there.  It pushes your moviegoing boundaries in unwanted and unsettling ways, which wouldn’t have bothered me had they not been so unrewarding.  Telling you the exact nature of how it will disturb you would undoubtedly spoil the movie, so I’ll just leave it at a very strong warning against seeing this movie if you are easily offended.  It had my packed preview screening groaning in disgust and shock.

I don’t mind being feeling these emotions while watching a movie, it just has to be done right.  The filmmakers need to present the edgy material and build the rest of the movie knowing the implications of it.  “Splice” simply disturbs you and then tries to act like it didn’t happen.  A heated argument between two scientists whose latest experiment has made them tense and frenzied (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) completely evades discussing unethical and immoral behavior.  There’s no point in destroying boundaries if you don’t explore what’s on the other side of them, and the movie abandons you with the empty feeling of shock value.

Really, this unspeakable scene turns “Splice” from bizarrely plausible to just plain bizarre.  I didn’t think the first two acts were all that bad.  There’s all sorts of parallels to “Frankenstein” as the two scientists create their monster out of anger.  But it’s actually a story about the perils of parenthood.  Elsa (Polley) was raised by an abusive mother, and it forever distorts her perception of the necessity of children.  When Clive (Brody) even brings up the subject, she seems to relate having a baby to having a parasite.  In some ways, she uses Dren, their creation bred from a hybrid of human and animal DNA, to give her the kind of parenting experience she wants.  The movie does a great job of showing us how twisted she really is, mainly through her undying love for the gross thing.  Props also the visual effects department for creating a monster in their own right.

But still … that one part.  It’s unfortunate when one part of a movie stands out so much that it overshadows the rest of the movie.  The scene has unintended consequences, particularly a dramatic shift in tone of “Splice.”  The movie becomes outrageously farcical as it comes to a close.  Because it enters such strange realms, it’s hard to take anything that follows seriously.  And for a movie that tried to sell itself as horror but is in reality all science-fiction, the whole thing just comes off as a jumbled mess.  D+ /

F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 25, 2009)

25 12 2009

As you are hopefully enjoying Christmas day with your family, watch the “F.I.L.M.” of the week, Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited,” and be thankful that you are not like this family.  Distant and dysfunctional, the movie follows three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman) on a spiritual journey across India.  However, the trip becomes about more than religion; it brings to the surface many feelings of dissent simmering between the brothers. But this isn’t an unnerving family drama.  It is a Wes Anderson movie, and he manages to delve into our deepest feelings using humor and panache.  “The Darjeeling Limited” is easily his most uproarious and poignant.

Anderson’s characters are always a little quirky and off-beat, but here they are much less bizarre than his other movies (such as “The Royal Tenenbaums”) and hence more relatable.  Each brother is stricken by some sort of painful feeling.  The eldest, Francis (Wilson), has been in a terrible motorcycle accident, forcing him to don an arsenal of bandages.  The middle, Peter (Brody) is still struggling to get over his grief from the death of his father.  The youngest, Jack (Schwartzman), is reeling from a break-up with his girlfriend, obsessively listening to messages left by her.  After a year separated from each other, they unite at Francis’ request on a train called the Darjeeling Limited that runs through India.  He hopes that some sort of grand spiritual experience will unite them again, but factionalism begins to develop among the brothers.  Francis and Jack are angry that Peter can’t seem to let go of his father; Francis and Peter are reviled by Jack’s pathetic handling of his break-up; Peter and Jack are constantly questioning the true motives of Francis and the trip.  Ultimately, it is really the lingering agony at their father’s death and their disgust with the absence and neglect of their mother (Anjelica Huston) that brings them back together.

“The Darjeeling Limited” stands out from Anderson’s other movies not only because it is notably funnier, but also because it is a story told with a great deal of compassion and introspection.  In less than 90 minutes, Anderson unravels the three main characters completely, getting to the core of what brings families together and tear them apart.  The movie’s success is not a solely a triumph of Anderson’s direction and writing (technically speaking, the script was a collaboration with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola).  Its success is due largely in part to the three leading men, constantly adjusting their emotions to fit the overall tone of the movie.  These incredibly aware performances are at times comical, at others somber, and often both.  Wilson, Brody, and Schwartzman are completely believable as brothers, and they are the perfect people to lead us on Anderson’s journey.