Saturday, August 30, 2014

Draft Day

Director: Ivan Reitman
Starring: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Tom Welling, Sam Elliot, Ellen Burstyn, Chadwick Boseman, Rosanna Arquette, Terry Crews, Arian Foster, Josh Pence, Sean Combs, Wallace Langham, Pat Healy
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Draft Day is an entertaining crowd pleaser that goes down easy, telling a tight, well-constructed story that accomplishes exactly what a movie of this genre should. But more importantly it's smart, while featuring a really impressive lead performance from an actor who again reminds us of his value in the right role. On paper, these would seem to be all the ingredients for success so it's perplexing that mainstream audiences, who usually eat this stuff up, stayed away. Until you consider this isn't about a superhero, but a general manager of a sports franchise struggling to rebuild his team and life. While it's loaded with football terminology and sports talk, it's basic stuff and not so "inside" that it would prevent those unfamiliar with the NFL from grasping the gist of what's happening or appreciating the protagonist's dilemma.

Cleveland Browns General Manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) has a lot weighing on his mind, having not only fired his own father as coach, but mourning his sudden death a week before the NFL draft. Holding the the seventh overall pick heading in, he's made the controversial decision to trade their next three first round picks over the next three years to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for their number one. It's a steep price to pay, but the reward could be University of Wisconsin quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), which sits just fine with Cleveland fans and team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), who demands Sonny "make a splash." But potentially giving up their future doesn't impress coach Vince Penn (Denis Leary) or current QB Brian Drew (Tom Welling), who thought he was that future before getting injured.

With lingering doubts about Callahan's potential starting to rear its head, Sonny has other options on the table like outspoken Louisiana linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman) and Florida State running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), whose father, Earl (Terry Crews) played for the Browns. But Molina only wants Callahan, and Sonny could be out of a job if it doesn't happen. And simultaneously, his girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner), who manages the Browns' salary cap, hits him with the news that she's pregnant. With his father gone, and lacking respect from both his staff and fans, he now must step out of that shadow to rebuild the franchise and carve out a new life that's uniquely his own.

Reitman's juggling a lot of balls at once here and manages to keep them all in the air with little confusion as to what's going on at any given moment in the plot. Like the superior Moneyball, it's loaded with scenes of big deals being made, decisions being second guessed and back peddling. But unlike that film, much of that conversational action is handled with a split-screen as Sonny spends what feels like over half of the film's running time on his cell, which is obviously a necessity given the nature of his job and the circumstances (not to mention the fact he's human). What's surprising is how exciting  this turns out to be as his decision to surrender all of this ailing franchise's first round draft picks for the foreseeable future, and his mad scramble to fix it, presents a certain side to the sports equation that does differentiate it from Moneyball.

Rather than relying on statistics, Sonny often acts only on gut feelings and emotion, much to the ire of the Browns staff who prefer to look at the cold, hard facts. Sonny's not as smart as someone like Billy Beane, but he's a hustler who can persuade people that even the craziest idea will work. And if he can't persuade them, well then, who cares? He can just fire them anyway. Many times in this movie he's wrong and sometimes even when he's right it looks like he just got lucky because he had to guts to risk it all. That's a shade of nuance you don't often find when managers are depicted on screen, until you remember he's at such a low point personally and professionally that he has nothing to lose. His reasons for doubting "can't miss" prospect Callahan seem really sound and crazy at the same time, even if I don't know enough about the intricacies of drafting players to speak on its accuracy. But the best thing about the movie is that you don't need to. It's accuracy is irrelevant since Sonny isn't making decisions based on that. The script creates a compelling mystery around what's wrong with Callahan, then engages us with an interesting discussion about why it matters.

This is exactly the kind of role Costner should be playing at this stage in his career and seems almost tailor-made for an actor who's experienced some of his greatest onscreen successes in the sports genre. It's not baseball, but all the qualities he brought to Field of Dreams, Bull Durham and For the Love of the Game transfer seamlessly to the context and setting of pro football. There are a lot of unfair misconceptions about him as an actor, but only times he's faltered was when asked to go over-the-top or play larger than life characters in big budget spectacles, rather than normal people struggling with real problems. He's always been an underrated character actor pushed down our throats as a movie star. That makes this is perfect for him, taking full advantage of the actor's laid back, cool persona in a believable way that doesn't ask too much of him or the audience. As a result, he's superb. Take how he plays a pivotal scene with Tom Welling's injured QB, silently acknowledging he's fully aware how angry and betrayed his player feels, while resolute in doing what's best for business and letting him know who has the final say. Welling is also phenomenal in his brief role, totally believable as an NFL QB and commanding the screen with an authoritative presence that feels miles removed from Smallville.

Aside from them, the rest of the film is equally well cast across the board with Frank Langella leaving no doubt he's the profit-driven owner of a major sports franchise, calling the shots and making everyone's job hell. Denis Leary is just as plausible as the loudmouth, opinionated coach who refuses to back down to his G.M. since he's ultimately held responsible for whatever team Sonny puts together. Jennifer Garner is saddled with the girlfriend role, but she's one of the few top actresses who can believably play a nerdy brainiac so the lawyer role fits, bridging the gap between the two worlds. She and Costner don't exactly light up the screen with their chemistry, but they're bickering and talking about football most of the time anyway. Their sub-plot's the weak link, but it isn't unnecessary, and doesn't distract any from the sports side of things. The backstory concerning his dad's passing and the arrival of his mom (played by Ellen Burstyn) is handled better and of greater interest since it directly informs the events surrounding the draft.

The best way to watch this is pretending that Moneyball never existed, but Reitman makes that task easy by not only covering an entirely different sport in similar detail, but choosing to focus on a specific aspect of the business within a constricted time frame. By doing that, and having a skilled cast carry it out, he delivers a surprising amount of tension, despite us having a pretty good idea of the outcome. It's a lot of fun just sitting back and letting the script and performances work their magic, taking us there in a sensible, intelligent way. The main character may be constantly on the clock, but when it's over it hardly feels as if any time has passed for us at all.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Dexter (Seasons 6-8)

Creator: James Manos, Jr.
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, David Zayas, C.S. Lee, Aimee Garcia, Geoff Pierson, Lauren Velez, James Remar, Colin Hanks, Edward James Olmos, Josh Cooke, Mos Def, Jason Gedrick, Katia Winter, Ray Stevenson,Yvonne Strahovski, Charlotte Rampling, Sean Patrick Flanery, Bethany Joy Galeotti, Darri Ingolfsson
Original Airdate: 2011-2013

Season 6: ★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Season 7: ★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Season 8: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

                                    Spoiler Warning: Following Review Contains Major Spoilers for the Entire Series

It was with great apprehension I recently resumed my viewing of Showtime's Dexter after a nearly three-year hiatus, during which time the series reached its highly controversial, much malig conclusion. It was time well spent, discovering Breaking Bad and Mad Men, the former being its closest thematic competitor in terms of featuring an anti-hero engaging in criminal activity that destroy the lives of those closest to him. It's a comparison that would seem to do Dexter no favors, despite it actually premiering first in 2007, since settling into a satisfying, if slightly predictable routine for its next five seasons, its quality remaining relatively consistent throughout. But whatever surface similarities may exist, Breaking Bad is the pinnacle of television drama. Dexter is Dexter. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Dexter opening title card
Having now actually binged it, it's a pleasure to declare that the final three seasons are as good (if not better) than much of what came before and the inexplicably reviled finale is a more than worthy show closer, ranking amongst the more intriguing dramatic finales of recent years. It's as gutsy as it is tragic, capping of a spectacular run of episodes under new showrunner Scott Buck, who followed through on promises to take the series in a different direction and shake things up. The series digs as deep as it ever has into Dexter's past and the creation of his Dark Passenger. With the big secret finally exposed to his sister and the introduction of some pivotal new faces, the lid gets completely blown off the series, resulting in a bloodbath that alters (or in some cases ends) characters' lives. This is what fans wanted, so it only figures once they get it, the complaining starts.

What really scared me away was all the internet bellyaching about how the show took a creative nosedive in its final seasons, a claim proven to not only be false, but littered with spoilerish details (i.e. lies) reconfigured to fit that very argument. It was impossible to avoid them all, but I should have known better than to even listen. An incest storyline. The Miami Metro Police Department not catching Dexter. Deb dying. Dexter as a lumberjack. And let's not forget a series finale many have already proclaimed the "worst ever." It's a a phrase we heard before when Lost concluded and again this year when How I Met Your Mother wrapped. Hyperbolic statements like that immediately kick my skepticism into overdrive, and for good reason this time.

An entire year has passed for Miami Metro's blood spatter analyst/part-time serial killer of killers, Dexter Morgan (Hall) since the events of Season 5. He's looking into schools for infant son Harrison while sister Debra (Carpenter) is promoted to Lieutenant, which is due less to an endorsement of her abilities than the fact she's caught in the middle of a political tug-of-war between Captain Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and superior Tom Matthews (Geoff Pearson). As her relationship with detective and former partner Quinn (Desmond Harrington) collapses and she deals with reluctantly accepting a promotion originally reserved for friend and mentor Batista (David Zayas), Dexter has a pair of new enemies to take care of.

"Doomsday Killers" Travis Marshall and Professor Gellar
Say what you will about Season 6 (a questionably scripted premiere sees Dexter taking inexplicable risks for mere shock value), but it is one of the more focused, thematically coherent seasons. That theme centers around religion and spirituality, with Dexter investigating a pair of ritualistic "Doomsday Killers" (guest stars Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks), whose murders are drenched in apocalyptic symbolism and cryptic tableaus, just as he starts examining his own spiritual convictions. With his Dark Passenger guided by the hallucination of late father Harry (James Remar) and a new confidante in murderer-turned-minister Brother Sam (Mos Def), Dexter attempts to curb his urge to kill, or at least tries to make sense of its origins. He isn't successful, but it sets the stage for the succeeding seasons.

No sixth season episode better illustrates this moral conflict brewing inside him than "Nebraska," which sees him driving cross country to investigate the mysterious deaths of the wife and daughter of the Trinity Killer. Guided not by the hallucination of Harry, but of his late brother, Brian Mosier AKA The Ice Truck Killer (Christian Carmago), it's a detour, but an important one as he continues to infuriate Deb with his secrets and wrestle with his past. While the sixth season does hue closely to the series' familiar format and is slightly hurt by a twist that could adversely effect rewatch value, it's better than most give it credit for and features a genuinely creepy performance from Colin Hanks that's anything but a throwaway.  But this season is mostly remembered for one moment that in hindsight divides the entire series into two parts: Pre-reveal and post-reveal.

How Deb would eventually uncover Dexter's secret life and what her reaction would be was already intensely speculated on by fans years before it happened. And the writers really couldn't have waited any longer before finally pulling the trigger since doing so freed them up to deviate from the show's format and start telling a different story. Would she turn him in and leave a son without his father? Help cover up his murders? How can she she go to work each day as a police Lieutenant knowing her brother's a serial killer?

Dexter's secret is finally uncovered by Deb
Of course, few could have guessed all these questions surrounding Deb walking in on a Dexter kill would have been preceded by the realization (prompted by her psychologist) that she had fallen in love with her own brother. Other than to hammer home Deb's sordid history of falling for damaged men like him, I'd agree with those unsure what the writers were trying to accomplish with this, but we can least give them credit for backpedaling fast and not following through with it. Occupying only two or three episodes and presented as a more of a psychological undercurrent, it's hardly the "incest storyline" it's been referred to as, almost immediately pushed aside in the wake of Deb's discovery.

Already having growing pains in her new position as Lieutenant, it's fair to say she doesn't take the news that her brother's a serial killer all that well, naively thinking she'll be able to rehabilitate him and help control his urges. Despite worries they wouldn't go through with it, the writers don't hedge their bets and go all the way, fully incorporating Deb into Dexter's dark universe. She knows everything, even as he tries to placate her with his explanation of Harry's Code and defenses that those plastic-wrapped victims who end up on his kill table deserve their what's coming, having evaded the law and prepared to kill again. The scariest part of the series has always been how true Dexter's defense is, but what it doesn't explain is why he enjoys killing so much, or even at all.

There's a lot going on Season 7 between the big reveal, Dexter tangling with the Ukranian mob and LaGuerta closing in on his crimes, as Deb still struggles to come to terms with it all herself. His ongoing feud with crime boss Isaak Serko (guest star Ray Stevenson) would feel like filler as we wait for the other shoe to drop with LaGuerta, if not for Stevenson's cool and cunning performance, but the entire story arc still brings back unfortunate memories of Miguel Prado from Season 3. But the  mob storyline does provide an excellent showcase for the continued downfall of Quinn, who must break some kind of record in terms of how much drinking, corruption, tampering and sleeping with witnesses one officer can engage in while not only keeping his job, but eventually being up for a major promotion. Whether he's taking payoffs from a strip club owner (Jason Gedrick), stealing evidence, or sleeping with a stripper (Katia Winter), you're aghast at how this guy is even still alive and not in rehab, much less following leads on big cases. He can thank Deb, Batista and eventually even Batista's sister (and Harrison's incredibly patient nanny), Jamie (Aimee Garcia) for keeping him on the straight and narrow.              

Yvonne Strahovski as spree killer Hannah McKay
With already enough plot for multiple seasons, it's the introduction of another killer, Hannah McKay (Yvonne Strahovski) that ends up shaping the remainder of the series and Dexter's emotional development. Finding the perfect match in a like-minded psychopath, he appears to have found the one person who finally understands his urges and accepts him for who he is. Unlike Julia Stiles' Lumen from Season 5, this isn't the single season, "one and done" guest arc we've gotten used to and those only familiar with Strahovski from Chuck will be surprised how chillingly she exudes a vacant,  cold detachment in the role, while still keeping Hannah stable enough to remain a viable long-term candidate for Dexter's affections. The only question is whether he's willing to risk the safety of his sister and son to enter a serious relationship with someone as potentially dangerous as he is.

The bumbling ineptitude of the Miami Metro police department has always been the show's creative Achillies' heel, as it was always tough to buy that they wouldn't have figured it all out by now, especially considering Dexter's increased sloppiness in covering his tracks. And it's that carelessness that points a suspicious LaGuerta in his direction.The image of Dexter being brought into Miami Metro in handcuffs as the Bay Harbor Butcher with his dumbfounded colleagues looking on ranks up there with the shocking moment John Lithgow casually walked into police headquarters to pay someone a visit. Of course, it doesn't take long for Dexter to play the victim card, successfully painting LaGuerta as a raving lunatic trying to frame him. But she won't give up that easily. While the seventh season finale could easily double as a series finale with Deb literally forced to choose between her brother and the life she's built for herself. Of course, she'll always choose Dexter.

Having Deb kill off LaGuerta was one of the best creative decisions they made, eliminating a character who had outstayed her welcome while sending Deb down a self-destructive rabbit hole for which Dexter's responsible. Season 8 belongs to Jennifer Carpenter, with the actress giving the performance of her life as Deb's self-loathing and seething resentment toward Dexter pushes her off the deep end. Regardless of what's been said about the final season, there's no way around the fact Carpenter was robbed of an Emmy nomination, even amongst the stiffest of competition. She's asked to play an entirely different character than previous seasons, so stung by her own actions that she's descended into an abyss of drugs, murder and sex.

Deb and Elway on the job
This all occurs under the guise of her new career for Elway Investigations, run by former detective Jacob Elway (Sean Patrick Flanery), who at first seems to merely be a slick used car salesman type. It's a surprise when he turns out to actually be a cool guy and an extremely fair boss, but a bigger one when Deb's allegiance to Dexter starts getting in the way of business, both personal and professional.  Bounty hunting and skip tracing would seem to be quite the fall from being Lieutenant of Miami Metro, but it fits Deb, a tough, foul-mouthed cop who was always more comfortable with the grunt work of active duty than dealing with red tape and politics. But this is really to escape, from Dexter and her guilt over killing LaGuerta to protect him.

The writers' willingness to reveal exactly how Dexter came to be at the risk of demystifying him elevates the final season into its strongest since the fourth. And it makes sense that there's no better person to do this than a criminal psychologist. Played by Charlotte Rampling in one the series' most rewarding guest arcs, Dr. Evelyn Vogel is initially brought in to help Miami Metro catch the "Brain Surgeon," a new serial killer removing pieces of victims' brains and leaving them at her doorstep. But she's really there for Dexter, as his surrogate mother figure who had a hand in creating him and the infamous Code. Now she desperately needs his help and protection.

Dexter's complicated relationship with Vogel hinges on her frequent inability to see him as anything more than a lab rat or a Frankenstein's Monster she created as the "perfect psychopath," unable to control his urges, but fine tuned to channel them in a direction that would cause the least amount of collateral damage.Her insistence that he's incapable of empathy, love, remorse or any other feelings associated with a normal, functioning human being is tested with Hannah's return and the responsibility he must take for essentially destroying Deb's life. For the first time, the siblings are at each others throats, with Dexter seriously contemplating his future as he plays a cat-and-mouse game with the mysterious Brain Surgeon, who proves to be his most dangerous adversary since Trinity.

Dexter confronts Dr. Vogel
Coldly robotic and almost Terminator-like in his presence (while being deeply obsessed with Mama Cass' "Make Your Own Kind of Music"), the reveal of who the Surgeon actually is and his purpose proves to not only be an absorbing look into the mind of a stone cold killer, but a bona fide shocker that actually makes sense in the context of the narrative. Besides leaving a trail of deaths, who he eliminates is important and personal, calling Dexter into action for reasons beyond merely the thrill of the kill. This time it feels like his moral duty. We also get the opportunity to see Dexter as a mentor, attempting to take a troubled young man under his wing afflicted with the same dark demons as he. But that project is short-lived, in more ways than one.

With LaGuerta gone and Batista, Quinn and Matthews taking on more prominent roles, Miami Metro isn't portrayed as incompetently as before, with even resident laughing stock Masuka (C.S. Lee) being given a somewhat serious sub-plot that subverts and challenges the character's loony reputation as a perverted horndog. And the writers knew something we didn't, as a long-term term plan was apparently put in place for Quinn that only comes into full view when the series concludes, as he becomes a rock for Deb when she needs someone most. Aside from Carpenter, Harrington's the actor who's grown the most in the series, ending his run ten times the performer than when he started.

Too often, series finales are judged by what fans believe THEY want to see or think should happen based on their expectations, rather than what serves the characters and story. Perhaps in their ideal finale, Dexter would be fully exposed for his crimes, caught by the police and sentenced to death. That's the only explanation I can think of as to why so some were disappointed by "Remember The Monsters?," which not only serves as a fitting final chapter, but one those rare finales that deserve to be considered amongst the series' best episodes, closing the door, yet leaving it cracked open enough to contemplate future possibilities. Some finales tie a series up neatly in bow. Others shock and polarize. There's no question which category this falls into. Dexter technically "survives," but the spiritual death he suffers is far greater punishment than his actual demise would have been.

Dexter says goodbye to Deb
The bond he and Deb share has always been the glue that holds the show together and in the last episode it's permanently torn apart. Him being thrown in jail or even sent to the electric chair for his crimes would have been too easy. Having seemingly rid himself of his Dark Passenger and need for Harry's advice, he's prepared to start a new life with Hannah and Harrison, at least until the full magnitude of his actions finally catch up with him.

With a potential escape from Miami cleverly juxtaposed with the landfall of Hurricane Laura (Mosier?), Dexter's final scenes with Deb where he's forced to pull the plug on his sister are the most emotionally devastating of the series, only magnified by the fact few saw her death coming, especially given her state at the beginning of the episode. And it's all his fault. He knows this, which is why he has to protect Hannah and Harrison from this monster. His Dark Passenger. As long as that side of him exists, he knows they're not safe. Just as Debra wasn't.

Seeing Dexter Morgan as a bearded Lumberjack having faked his own death and living under an alias in an Oregon cabin, it's hard not to be reminded of the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, "Granite State," in which Walter White is hauled up in a New Hampshire cabin dying of cancer. But even he got to put things right to an extent. We leave Dexter trapped in his own personal hell, staring vacantly into the camera knowing he'll never see his son and sister again. Without them and Hannah, he's nothing.

Lumberjack Dexter in "Remember The Monsters?"
The ending is more poetic and ironic than it's gotten credit for and doesn't feel manufactured so Showtime can milk more Dexter with a spin-off. For all we know they eventually might, but it sure doesn't feel like the motivating factor for a creative decision that more than holds up under logical scrutiny. And Michael C. Hall probably has enough offers on the table that the idea revisiting a character he's just played for the past eight years wouldn't be enticing. Could it happen? Absolutely, but it would take a lot of ingenuity to make it work.

That any continuation of the series is even being speculated is proof enough how compelling an end this was for the character and should silence dissenters claiming everything that came after Season 4 was "worthless." One can only hope the cast and crew tuned it out, especially Hall and Carpenter, who for 8 years carried this show on their backs. Everyone can agree their work never wavered. But   they couldn't have done it without an equally strong story driving them.              

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Under the Skin

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Joe Szula, Kryštof Hádek, Paul Brannigan, Adam Pearson
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: R

★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Every once in a while, an artsy, adventurous film no one can seem to agree on or make any sense of comes out and sparks debate. Such a movie divides critics while completely frustrating mainstream audiences gutsy enough to see it. It then starts showing up on year end lists, before eventually being discussed in the years ahead as some kind of "overlooked masterpiece," remembered long after the nominated features of that year have faded from memory. Other than alienating audiences (while actually focusing on an alien), Jonathan Glazer's bizarrely repetitive and dopey Under the Skin isn't one of these. Not even close. It isn't about anything. It has nothing important or even unimportant to say, save for a few gripping sequences that provide a temporary high. That it's well made and carried by a somewhat mesmerizing lead performance, is its saving grace. But let's be honest. It has to be carried by such a performance because, well, what else is there? When big name actors or actresses engulf themselves in edgy, artier fare it's usually to gain street cred or challenge themselves as a performer. Such a move is commendable, assuming said project also exists for reasons beyond that. purpose. I'm not sure this one does despite living up to its title by getting under my skin. In all the wrong ways.

Loosely adapted from Michel Faber's 2000 novel, the film is more of an atmospheric tone poem than a fully realized narrative, opening in Scotland as a motorcyclist finds a young woman's body by the side of the road. It's difficult to even describe what happens next other than saying this woman's skin is shed to reveal another nameless woman (Scarlett Johansson) who we can assume from events that follow, is an alien. And not just any alien, but one that's very seductive and overtly sexual, driving around Scotland in and and picking up men on the street via a selection process we're not quite privy to. These are her prey, whom she's easily able to lure back to her place, a black, vacant void where they find themselves submerged in a gooey liquid before meeting their demise. She continues to search for potential victims and finds them, all while the mysterious biker (real pro motor racer Jeremy McWilliams) follows her, retrieving bodies along the way. Becoming increasingly comfortable asserting control in an environment she knows little about, the hunter will soon become the hunted.

With a dialogue-free prologue and even very little spoken during the entire film, Glazer (who previously directed 2004's almost equally confounding Birth, with Nicole Kidman's dead husband reincarnated as a little boy), draws it's atmospheric inspiration from minimalist sci-fi head trips like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Man Who Fell To Earth, while matching neither in terms of content or ambition. But he deserves credit for trying, especially in terms of the imagery and visual effects, which were achieved practically and look all the scarier and more realistic because of it. The death scenes are mesmerizing the first few times, until you realize their conclusion will inevitably lead to her prowling the streets for men again and long, drawn out stretches of banality as she chooses her victims, and then, perhaps more painfully, engages them in what this movie considers conversation.

The only exception to the narrative's cyclical structure is alien woman's encounter with a lonely, disfigured man (played by actual neurofibromatosis sufferrer Adam Pearson) who's briefly enlivened and confused by her sexual advances in a scene that recalls the classic Twilight Zone episode, "Eye of the Beholder" in how we see how someone with no reference point for society's definition of physical beauty would view a disfigured person. Momentarily, the script has something important to say, making it easier to imagine the film earning all the wild praise it received had it focused exclusively on the ideas contained in that relationship.

That the cast consists mainly of unprofessional actors speaks to its authenticity and realism, even if they're trapped in a universe that doesn't do much with them and isn't all that interesting. But everything revolves around Johansson, who's appropriately seductive while also conveying the confusion and wonder of an woman dropped in an unknown world her character is struggling to understand. That said, you don't cast a big, recognizable star like her in something this weird unless you're trying to make a statement, and since we have no idea what that it is, at times her mere presence resembles a stunt. The most frustrating thing about the film is that she must have been cast for an obvious reason and we're left scratching our heads as to exactly why, besides providing male audience members the opportunity to see her strip down. She's effective in the part, but I never lost sight of the fact I was watching Scarlett Johansson in every scene since there's really no role for her to truly disappear into.

It's easy to understand why so many critics would embrace this risk-taking diversion, especially considering every other movie released these days seems to be a carbon copy of the next, more dependent on building a brand than creating a work of art that's unique or compelling. But this is an offender at the opposite end of that spectrum, trotting out highbrow arty fartsy nonsense at the expense of potentially intelligent observations about life and humanity, which is sci-fi's bread and butter. And that's coming from someone who loved Southland Tales, Synecdoche, New York, Enter The Void and Beyond The Black Rainbow, all movies perhaps even stranger than this, but containing real ideas. While it's problems don't seem likely to be remedied with a second viewing, you never know. If nothing else, Glazer deserves credit for infuriating me twice, and I hope he keeps doing it since the worst thing that could happen is his right to keep making bizarre movies being taken away. This is a bad one, but at least he had the talent and wherewithal to fail interestingly. That's more than you can say for most.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Léa Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban
Running Time: 99 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)
One thing Wes Anderson's never been accused of is his films having an overabundance of plot and action. Even his best work is thought of as primarily aesthetic achievements, his stories serving merely as backdrops for highly stylized costume and production design and visual flourishes. In some ways, the highest grossing and most favorably reviewed film of his career, The Grand Budapest Hotel, doesn't represent a deviation from that classic Anderson template. And yet it also somehow does. This is the closest he's come to directing a screwball action comedy and it contains more story and characters than most would know what to do with. For the first hour I thought I was watching a masterpiece, but by the second he kind of lost me, before recovering and delivering something that's still special. There's a nostalgiac sadness hiding under the humor  that stays with you, as the many colorful characters populating the hotel mourn an era that's rapidly slipping away, or in the case of some, slipped away a while ago. But at the same time, the whole thing still manages to be a lot of fun.

Featuring a story within a story within a story, the film opens in the present day with a teenage girl reading the memoir of an unnamed "Author" (Tom Wilkinson), who narrates the book from his office in 1985, recalling his stay at Europe's Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968. It was then, with the hotel clearly in decline, that the young Author (played by Jude Law) encountered its elderly, reclusive owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, he tells him the incredible story of how he took ownership of the hotel. We flash back to 1932 when young Zero (Tony Revolori) worked as a lobby boy under the Grand Budapest's eccentric concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), running errands and tending to the guests.

It's when one of Gustave's many older, wealthy mistresses, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies under strange circumstances and she leaves him a valuable painting, he finds himself at the center of a murder investigation and the target of her son Dmitri's (Adrien Brody) hired assassin, J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe). With the help of Zero and hotel baker Agatha (Saorise Ronan), he must evade capture and clear his name, even as war breaks out in their Republic of Zubrowka, signaling a cultural shift that will heavily impact all their futures.

I want to live in this hotel. That was my first thought upon seeing the majestic structure, which is rendered not by some fake looking CGI in wide, exterior shots but an actual handmade miniature model. Remember those? But it's what happens inside that ends being more impressive, with some jawdropping production design that makes you anxious to discover what secret or character is hiding behind every corridor, room and crevice of the building. The atmosphere may draw you in, but it's the story that keeps you there, as there's this pervading sense of melancholy that distinguishes it from Anderson's other work, despite still being very recognizable as such. The story's not only bigger than usual for him, but broader in scope and crossing over multiple timelines.

While Anderson's a filmmaker almost compulsively obsessed with the past, he's at least now found the ideal outlet by creating a story where all his characters are equally obsessed. Nearly every recognizable name in this fully stacked cast is given at least a moment or two to shine, but the the movie really hangs its hat on the friendship that develops between Ralph Fiennes' witty, somewhat delusional Gustave and his impressionable young lobby boy, Zero, played by newcomer Revolori. Not necessarily known for his comedic skills, Fiennes gives what may be his most memorable performance since his very different one in Schindler's List, while Revolori makes the perfect straight man to his zaniness. Of the rest, Goldblum and Ronan each make valuable contributions, while Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham breath real life and history into roles that could have come off as expository or mere bookenders. The rest of the cast have what amount to cameos, checking the usual boxes of Anderson's favorite actors. If pressed, the section during which Gustave and Zero find themselves on the run from authorities is the weakest, before the story regains its footing in the last third.        

This is actually one of Anderson's messier films, but that's of little consequence considering how ambitious the undertaking is and the ease by which it would rank amongst his most visually daring. He really swung for the fences this time and there's explanation as to why it all works other than the fact that he's become a brand unto himself, with no other filmmaker viewing the world quite like he does. As usual, his whimsical style perfectly suits oddball material, but it isn't calling as much attention to itself as it is reflecting the story's darker themes. And this is all about telling stories, to the point you could easily categorize it as a great epic novel put to film, right down to the impeccably realized hotel of the film's title, which seems as much alive (or in some cases as dead) as those inhabiting it. The more you start considering how much he accomplished here, the larger it looms.