The Grand Budapest Hotel

ImageThe films of director Wes Anderson have obtained a cult status with a shrewd and astute base of fans. His niche style of film making is chocked full of trademark set designs, deadpan dialogue, and plots that can be best described as Norman Rockwellesque…on acid. However, with 2012’s Oscar nominated film, Moonrise Kingdom and this year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson is looking to expand his fan base not by sacrificing any of his trademark oddities but by writing brilliant characters who are far more developed than those in his previous films.

Moonrise Kingdom was a nearly perfect cinematic experience, and it was Edward Norton’s portrayal of Scoutmaster Ward that made the film so enjoyable from start to finish. Anderson capitalizes on this character-driven amusement again with Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, legendary concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of a fictional Eastern European hotel located in the republic of Zubrowka and the concierge, Gustave, whose reputation elevated it to its legendary status.

Told in flashback through the eyes of Gustave’s trusted lobby boy, Zero Moustafa to a young author, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a murder-mystery story that takes place between the World Wars where the Hotel becomes the constant in an ever-changing European continent.

Starting out in 1985, the story jumps and bounces through three main time periods. An aging author (Tom Wilkinson) addresses the audience to discuss how a writer is able to tell great stories. He mentions that great writers establish credibility with those with great stories so that they can write them. The film then jumps to 1968 where an adult Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) recounts the outrageous and fabled story of Gustave to a young author (Jude Law) about his own life under the charge of the famous M. Gustave.

Gustave is established as a gifted concierge who sacrifices often to bring joy and comfort to the guests of The Grand Budapest. When an affluent and elderly guest (a barely recognizable Tilda Swinton) passes away, the future of the hotel and the future of a rare renaissance painting are in jeopardy as the selfish family of the deceased are pitted against the preservationist Gustave.

Fiennes is excellent as Gustave, emphasizing the importance of identity, culture, and heritage in a time of extreme instability. His fearless adventures find he and Zero in all kinds of situations where they must rely on a slew of imaginative supporting characters all from the mind of Anderson.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, like many of Anderson’s films, has a fabled tone and novel-style plot progression. It also has spirit and heart that are on full display. Never has an Anderson film had more fun with foul language, dark subject matter, and true human consequences. This elevates The Grand Budapest Hotel to the height of Anderson’s achievements. A-

The Grand Budapest Hotel is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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The Way Way Back

ImageThere is something compelling about Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s new coming of age comedy, The Way Way Back.  In the tradition of Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and Moonrise Kingdom, The Way Way Back unfolds in a deliberately subtle way, drawing audiences in with charm and substance.

The story follows 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a wallflower who spends the summer with his mother at her new boyfriend’s seaside resort home on the East coast.  Duncan’s mother Pam (Toni Collette) hopes the trip will give Duncan a chance to bond with her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and his teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) as well as give Duncan a chance to make some friends and come out of his shell.  Things do not go as planned as Trent’s overbearing personality clashes with Duncan’s, and Steph is more interested in getting a tan than hanging out with Duncan causing him to feel more isolated and undervalued than ever.  It is not until he stumbles upon the nearby Water Wizz waterpark and unexpectedly befriends its manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell) that Duncan discovers who he really is and what is most important.

It is difficult to put your finger on exactly what it is about The Way Way Back that is so engaging.  On the surface, it is simply a story about a young boy who doesn’t fit in until he meets a group of confident, expressive people that teach him to value himself.  This is all well and good, but there is more to this film than just that.  What writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have made is a subtle allegorical film that symbolically captures the nature of growing up, and that’s what makes it special.  Scenes where characters argue over the rules of Candy Land, discuss the ocular abilities of ghost crabs, and ponder the mythology of what happens within the tube on a waterslide all assist in deepening the figurative message of the film.

Furthermore, the film sets its aim on the hypocrisy of adults who have it set in their mind that they deserve an extended childhood of poor decision making but shouldn’t expect such behavior from their own children.  Many of the adults in the film are seen shouting orders to their kids, setting curfews for their kids, and giving advice about how their kids should act only to turn around and get fall-down drunk, cheat on each other, and disappear all hours of the day and night.  This is perhaps the film’s most dynamic and serious theme and it is worth noting that the film does not attack the idea of an extended childhood for adults, but rather it attacks childish adult role models who have unrealistic expectations for those who look up to them, given the example they set.  This point is most successfully made in the character of Owen.  As a water park manager and perpetual goofball, Owen is constructed as a foil to the other adults in the film.  His character is honest and dependable while also being a child at heart.  The relationship that develops between Owen and Duncan is touching and welcomed.

Beyond the writing, what makes The Way Way Back such an enjoyable and poignant film is its ensemble cast.  James is very good as Duncan, who in the film’s first act successfully depresses the audience with his extreme “introverted-ness.”  Collette expertly reveals Pam’s conflicted nature throughout the film, and Rockwell gives an immensely enjoyable performance as Owen where he gets a chance to showcase his warmth and quick wit rather than his usual quirky, off kilter types.  Steve Carrell does well against type as the highly unlikable Trent and Allison Janney adds one more scene stealing role to her already abundant resume as Trent’s neighbor, Betty.  Additional side characters are well cast including Duncan’s potential love interest, Susanna (Annashophia Robb), mismatched couple Joan and Kip (Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry), and Owen’s girlfriend Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph).  The strength of the cast and the film’s symbolic texture do well to balance out the fairly predictable story and the audience familiarity with the shuffling, depressed American teenager (which is becoming a somewhat unwelcomed cliché).  Rash, fresh off of his Screenwriting Oscar for 2011’s The Descendants, emulates his enigmatic title by illustrating that he will not be sent to the “way way back” of the film industry any time soon.   B+

The Way Way Back is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes.  As summer winds its way to a close, this is a fitting film to make an effort to find and see. 

Oscar Predictions: Part 3 – Cinematographer? Damn Near Killed Her!

Oscar Predictions: Part 3 – Cinematographer?  Damn Near Killed Her!

Week three of The People’s Critic’s Oscar predictions begins the major film awards.  This week’s predictions will be for six very different categories: Documentary Feature, Animated Film, Foreign Language Film, Original Screenplay, Adapted Screenplay, and everybody’s favorite – Cinematography.  Readers are invited to continue to weigh in with their own opinions by submitting to the public polls following each category’s predictions.

13.  Best Documentary Feature:

Nominated films are 5 Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, and Searching for Sugar Man

Generally, the winning documentary has more than spunk and spirit.  Many documentaries are made yearly since they are easy to produce and cheap to make.  The key is content, pacing, accuracy, and perspective.  The swift and breezy Searching for Sugar Man was an early favorite.  However, it will most likely collapse under the weight of provocative films like the charged up history of the AIDS crisis, How to Survive a Plague or the bleak and honest The Gatekeepers, which shines never before seen light on the historic conflicts in Israel.  A dark horse candidate for Oscar is the creepy exposé The Invisible War about rape in the US military.    The Peoples Critic Selection: How to Survive a Plague

14.  Best Animated Feature Film:

Nominated Films are Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Wreck-It Ralph

If you’ve read The People’s Critic’s review on Brave, you may find this pick hypocritical.  First given in 2001, Best Animated Feature Film is the newest of all 24 categories in the modern Academy Awards.  During these eleven years, a Pixar Studio film has won this Oscar six times.  In fact, the studio has only lost once when one if its films was nominated (2006’s Cars lost out to Happy Feet)Cars is probably a better film than Brave, however much was made of Brave’s decision to finally feature a female lead and a more feminine story focus, something Cars obviously did not have going for it.  Therefore, while the nostalgic, personal, and enjoyable horror throwback Frankenweenie has the win in my heart, it won’t have the win in the votes. The People’s Critic Selection: Brave

15.  Best Foreign Language Film:

Nominated films are Amour (Austria), Kon-Tiki (Norway), No (Chile), A Royal Affair (Denmark), War Witch (Canada)

What, Norway, Chile, Denmark, and Canada?  You want to win?  Well you will lose to one of the biggest conundrums of the nomination process – those pesky well-made foreign films that worm their way into the Best Picture category.  This has only happened eight times, and only one has ever lost this category, go figure.  The People’s Critic Selection: Amour


16.  Best Original Screenplay:

Nominated films are Amour Written by Michael Haneke, Django Unchained Written by Quentin Tarantino. Flight Written by John Gatins, Moonrise Kingdom Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola, and Zero Dark Thirty Written by Mark Boal

As a writer (or to put it more modestly, one who appreciates writing), the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay has a special significance.  Four of the five films nominated here are actually mentioned on The People’s Critic’s List of the Top Ten Films of 2012 (although one is listed for adverse reasons).  Nonetheless, the number one choice on that list earns its place because of its writing.  Quentin Tarantino is an auteur like none before him and Django Unchained will be recognized for its reverent and consummate writing.  The People’s Critic Selection: Django Unchained


17.  Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominated films are Argo Screenplay by Chris Terrio, Beasts of the Southern Wild Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin, Life of Pi Screenplay by David Magee, Lincoln Screenplay by Tony Kushner, and Silver Linings Playbook Screenplay by David O. Russell

This is the award that combats the old adage, “the book was way better than the movie.”  Generally, these films are the rare few who challenge and overcome that too often reality.  A screenplay of note is certainly Kushner’s Lincoln.  Spielberg deserves far less credit than Kushner does for why this film is deserving of its accolades.  Often Shakespearean at times, the screenplay is adapted in such a way that the film is elevated to what earned it 12 nominations.  Kushner’s only real competition here is David O. Russell.  Silver Linings Playbook is enjoying a tremendous spike in momentum heading into Oscar weekend.  With it being the first film in 31 years to be nominated in all four acting categories, Russell’s screenplay cannot be ignored as unrelated to that achievement.  My gut tells me that just might be the tipping point.  The People’s Critic’s Selection: Silver Linings Playbook


18.   Best Cinematography:

Nominated Films are Anna Karenina, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Lincoln, and Skyfall

If you’ve ever wanted to be scorned or looked at in utter disgust, then comment on the cinematography of a film in front of a group of people.  Eyebrows will raise, hair will stand on end, under-the-breath comments will abound. It’s the fastest way to claim your role as a “know-it-all,” and yet, it is so worth it.  Cinematographers are the directors of photography who oversee decisions on camera and lighting concerns.  To excel at this requires the talent of an artist and the technical knowledge of a director.  This year’s group makes for a tough category.  Deakins’s latest film, Skyfall marks his 10th nomination without a win.  This should certainly be a consideration in choosing a winner since repetitive nominations in this category are not easy to get, but well earned when they happen.  Tarantino’s go-to guy, Robert Richardson is nominated again, but he did win last year for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  However, resident know-it-all The People’s Critic is going to go in a different direction.  Ang Lee has the perspective to make great films, but the pure visual delight and majesty that was achieved by Life of Pi is equally a result of Claudio Miranda’s cinematography.  The People’s Critic Selection: Life of Pi


The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Films of the Year

Top Ten2012 has been a juggernaut of a year for the cinema. With a record-breaking box office year thanks to big blockbusters like The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Breaking Dawn Part 2, and The Hunger Games, ticket sales have been the highest they’ve ever been. However, the quality of films released this calendar year has been excellent, rivaling 2007, my favorite release year in recent memory with There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men. While Oscar nominations will be announced this Thursday, January 10th, a more important announcement is being made right now. Without further ado, I present The People’s Critic’s Top 10 films of 2012.

10. Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson presents one of the year’s most original films with his coming of age pageant of a film, Moonrise Kingdom. Chocked full of Anderson’s trademark set designs, deadpan dialogue, and Norman Rockwell-on-acid plot, Moonrise is a nearly perfect cinematic experience. Edward Norton’s portrayal of Scoutmaster Ward is hands-down the best part of this movie, but the film is enjoyable from start to finish and welcomes multiple viewings.

9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyWhile it lacks the epic quality and complex narrative of The Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a beautiful and energetic film. The groundwork is truly set for an excellent companion trilogy that is fun, technically impressive, and brilliantly respectful to fans and film lovers.

8. The ImpossibleThe Impossible is the true story of a family’s disastrous experience during the Thailand tsunami disaster of 2004. Ewen McGregor and Naiomi Watts are the key reasons for this film making the top ten. There are a couple of scenes in this movie where the audience is forced to experience the emotions attached to the most unforeseen natural disaster one can imagine, and it is absolutely raw, heartbreaking, and powerful. Rarely does a film manage to showcase such relatable energy.

7. Flight Like number 8, Flight is also a ‘disaster’ movie, but a very different type of ‘disaster’ movie. It is an excellent narrative that explores the dangers of addiction in an impressively unique way. This is a strong film that expertly demonstrates the talent of its cast and its director, Robert Zemeckis.

6. The Dark Knight RisesThe Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to one of the strongest trilogies in cinema history. I think, taken as a whole, what director, Christopher Nolan can be most proud of is that he has captured the attention of a massive audience and taught them that escapist entertainment can be thoughtful and precise. This is miles beyond what any other so-called “comic book” movie has achieved or has even been capable of so far, and thus it deserves special accolades.

5. Lincoln Lincoln offers plenty for history buffs to sink their teeth into, and yet the story is accessible to all audiences. Director, Steven Spielberg takes some narrative chances to use unknown history to make well-known history compelling and interesting, especially in the film’s final act. Writer, Tony Kushner deserves special attention for some brilliant writing while Daniel Day-Lewis turns out the performance to beat. This is Spielberg’s finest effort in some time.

4. Argo Argo was the first great movie of the fall season and delivered as both a historical snapshot and an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Ben Affleck certainly has solidified his reputation as a director. Regardless of predictability, Argo is a deeply involving film, and it is a perfect team effort. At its heart, there is a tremendously powerful and amazing story told in an uncomplicated way, which is just what every good movie needs at its core.

3. Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell’s movies are traditionally about passion, and none have better successfully illustrated that theme than Silver Linings Playbook. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper play Pat and Tiffany, two people full of passion who have lost their way. Both turn out Oscar worthy performances, and it should not surprise anyone if they both win. Furthermore, Russell’s screenplay is excellent as he also manages to give Robert DeNiro something he’s finally worthy of acting in.

2. Life of Pi Life of Pi is a low-key masterpiece. It sneaks up on you and while not complicated, welcomes multiple viewings. Ang Lee presents a very enjoyable and thought-provoking version of Martel’s widely admired source material. It was said that Life of Pi was one of those unfilmable stories- that it can exist in the mind of the reader and nowhere else. Lee has proven those skeptics incorrect. Furthermore, no film, including Avatar, has achieved this level of visual grandeur with 3D technology. Lee’s careful precision as a director, takes full advantage of every opportunity to amaze the audience with wonder.

1. Django Unchained Django Unchained is the year’s best film as well as a front-runner for one of Quentin Tarantino’s best films. The cast is impeccable, the script is original, and the style is enjoyable. Few films ever combine such intriguing dialogue with such ambitious storytelling, and the film deserves sincere consideration from the academy in all major categories. It is a difficult film to watch at times, but not a scene is wasted or unnecessary.

Honorable Mentions (and an angry side-note) – Films deserving honorable mentions are Looper, To Rome with Love, Friends With Kids, The Avengers, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Wreck It Ralph. Also, this was a year that saw a Christopher Walken trifecta as the distinctive and unparalleled actor appeared in three films this year: Seven Psychopaths, A Late Quartet, and Stand Up Guys.

On an ANGRY side-note – Year after year, films vying to qualify for Oscar eligibility will open their films in the minimal markets (LA and New York) and then choose some obsequious and noncompetitive weekend in January to open wide to audiences. This year the film most guilty of this is the controversially acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty (An additional film guilty to a lesser degree would be The Sessions with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt). The buzz is that Zero Dark Thirty will be the one to beat, but major film critics and academy members are the only ones who will have seen it before the nominations are revealed later this week. Films should have to be widely released in the year that they wish to be nominated. Audiences should have access to all academy qualified films and an opportunity to share their points of view before the “so-called” powers that be cast their votes. The films listed above all played fair and deserve to be seen and commended. Shame on you Zero Dark Thirty, shame on you!