The French Dispatch (2021)
Wes Anderson’s latest quirk-fest is his usual cavalcade of straight-laced absurdity, exquisite dollhouse-level production design, famous faces popping in for droll deadpans, and the overall air of not fully getting it. The French Dispatch is structured like you’re watching the issue of a news magazine come to visual life, meaning that the two-hour movie is comprised of mainly three lengthy vignettes and a couple of short asides. This narrative decision limits the emotional involvement and I found myself growing restless with each of the three segments. I was amused throughout but each felt like a short film that had been pushed beyond its breaking point. Perhaps that is Anderson’s wry, subtle point considering the entire journalistic voice of the movie feels like somebody made a movie in the style of one of those esoteric, supposedly “funny” New Yorker cartoons. It’s occasionally so arch and droll that it feels too removed from actual comedy. This is not the most accessible Anderson movie for a newbie; it’s very bourgeois in the kinds of people it follows, the stories it pursues, and the intellectual and political conflicts it demonstrates. The first and best segment follows Tilda Swinton discussing a heralded but imprisoned experimental artist (Benicio del Toro) who is dealing with the pressure to produce. The second segment follows Frances McDormand as she investigates a Parisian student union revolting against the ignorant powers that be. The third segment follows Jeffrey Wright recounting an assignment where he investigated a master police chef (not “chief”) and gets in the middle of a wacky hostage negotiation. Each of them has the requisite charm and random asides we’ve come to expect from Anderson, including a leotard-wearing strongman that is called upon by the police to help during the hostage crisis, but it felt more like a collection of overlong short films than a cohesive whole. If you’re already a fan, by all means, step into The French Dispatch. If you’re new to the idiosyncratic world of indie film’s most precise curator, then I’d advise starting with a more digestible and earlier Anderson entry. I enjoyed myself during stretches, was getting frustrated during other stretches, and I hope Anderson focuses more on the big picture of his next picture.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Fair or unfair, my mind kept comparing Ammonite to 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, another period film about repressed women, furtive expressions of forbidden love, and isolation-fueled intimacy, and Ammonite was inferior in every regard. In all fairness, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was one of the best films of 2019 and deeply emotional, romantic, and sumptuous. It would be hard for many films to compete in direct comparison, and as such Ammonite can’t compare.
In 1840s England, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a nationally renowned paleontologist. She spends her days digging up fossils along the rocky shore of her small town, caring for her aging mother, and keeping to herself. Her life is turned upside down when Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) becomes her boarder while recuperating from some melancholia following a miscarriage. Charlotte wants to learn from Mary but Mary is more annoyed, and yet the two lonely women find a kinship in one another that turns into a romantic courtship neither knows where it will lead.
Repressed romances work best when you feel the connection between the characters, a growing hunger or desire, and you’re compelling them together from afar. This was the case for me with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. This was not the case for me with Ammonite. I cannot tell you why either Mary or Charlotte fall for one another. Neither is a very interesting character, especially Mary, who is very private and closed-off. She’s been hurt in the past with a previous gay romance (an underused Fiona Shaw) so likely gun-shy about risking vulnerability once more. There are mentions about her career and the satisfaction it provides but much of it is kept as generalized motivation, a woman making a name for herself in a man’s world. Charlotte is recoiling from a personal tragedy and an absent husband, but why do these two feel any spark of romance for one another in this oppressively drab setting? There’s more intense heat between Winslet and her fossils than with Ronan. It feels like we’re only at this point out of boredom and a lack of better options.
For a movie about repressed passions, Ammonite is decidedly grey. This muted color palette and tone extends to everything about the movie. It’s all grey skies, grey pebbles, grey shores, grey bonnets, grey leggings, grey carts, grey houses, grey this, grey that, irrepressible grey. This dreary life is effectively conveyed and saps the movie’s energy. The characters go about their dreary lives that you, as the viewer, are begging for some renewed life to emerge. We’re begging for these characters to find something with one another because the world, as depicted, is bereft of life and excitement. To that end, the movie has established a favorable threshold to succeed and yet it still falls short.
This stark, stately, and tight-lipped style of writer/director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) smothers the resulting romance and drama at play. These two women should be able to unwind with one another, open up, become their true selves the rest of the world is denied, something that cannot be manifested separately. They should be more interesting together, plain and simple. This person should unlock something within. I don’t feel like I gained any more insight into either Charlotte or Mary when they were together. Part of this is because it takes so long to get there and also because their coupling seems, in retrospect, to be completely surface-level in personal meaning. Looking back from its completion, it appears that each woman seems to misread the other person and what their intimacy has meant. I’ll credit the filmmakers for at least tacking on a resolution that amounts to more than “woman returns to husband and they can never ever be together again because Evil Patriarchy.” There is an ending but it’s not that much better than the two of these women sadly parting knowing they’ll never see one another again and that this brief time together will remain precious. I don’t know if I’m supposed to leave with the impression that Charlotte and Mary have the opposite conclusion. While they likely enjoyed the companionship and sex, as the camera seemed to, it seems like maybe both women are realizing that’s where it stops. If this was the intended goal, that’s fine, but don’t set up the entire estate of your storytelling upon this romance if it’s meant to fizzle. This ends up becoming the latest film example of Women Looking Sad in Bonnets.
I’m sorry dear reader but I was growing bored with this movie. In comparison, I was spellbound with Portrait of a Lady on Fire and found its awakened passions to be luminous and directly tied to two interesting characters. Charlotte and Mary are quite boring. Again, they have potential to be interesting; any lesbian romance set in the 1840s certainly has potential for appealing drama. I was asked by my girlfriend, who herself was giving voice to an argument carrying on social media, why there must be no shortage of forbidden queer romances, and why can’t gay audiences just have movies where gay characters can fall in love and be comfortable being gay? It’s a legitimate question, though my only answer is that these period piece queer tales inherently involve internal struggles given the secrecy and consequences that make for ready drama for big-time actors. There’s also the fact that Mary Anning is a celebrated paleontologist and recognized superstar in her field and there is no evidence that any of her close female friendships were anything more than that. I’m fine with rewriting historical figures as queer and changing things up (I heartily enjoyed the queer revisionism in The Favourite) as long as it still makes the people interesting. Imagine taking a historically celebrated female paleontologist, making her gay, and then somehow making this character even more boring? How do you even do that?
Winslet (Steve Jobs) does a fine job of looking and acting glum. My trouble was trying to determine what points of life were recognizable with her character. How does one acknowledge what this change agent is doing to her when she’s, by nature, so insular and shut off? Winslet is one of her generation’s finest actresses and can do so many amazing things, and yet her guiding directorial note must have been, “Can you dial it back even more?” There’s a fine line between subtlety and just being lifeless. Ronan (Little Women) has even less substance to work with. At first, her character is suffering and lonely, but she leaps at companionship with abandon. Her character doesn’t seem like she’s wild or reckless or impulsive in any other regard. She stops wearing black when she embraces her feelings for Mary (Get it? She’s no longer in mourning). Still, Charlotte’s ultimate view of the world is one of privilege but this doesn’t inform her character until the very end. Ronan does her part making an audience believe she’s lovesick for Mary, but feeling it is another matter, and even an actress of Ronan’s caliber cannot accomplish this with this flagging script.
Ammonite is so drab, so passionless except during its sweaty sex scenes, that you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone would even bother making this story come alive in the first place. If you’re all about furtive gestures and glances and the color grey, well you might be in luck. Look, I’m just going to be blunt. If you’re even remotely thinking about watching Ammonite, just seek out and watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s superior in every regard and a forbidden romance that is actually, surprise surprise, romantic and full of evocative feeling. Plus it’s French, so automatically more romantic. Watch that instead.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Little Women (2019)
By my count, this is approximately the 182nd version of Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War sisterhood. There must be something universal about the trials of the March sisters and their struggles for independence, agency, love, and happy endings on their own turns. Greta Gerwig, fresh off her Oscar nominations for Lady Bird, has given Little Women a decidedly modern spin. The story flashes back and forth between past and present, sometimes in consecutive shots, and feels full of authentic youthful energy. It’s also the first adaptation I’ve watched that has fixed the problem of Amy (Florence Pugh, affecting), widely regarded as the least liked sister. Through Gerwig’s telling, she becomes a self-determined woman, just like Jo (Saoirse Ronan), who recognizes the social trappings holding her back but chooses to do her best within this unfair system rather than rage against it. It’s like an empathetic reclamation for this often reviled character. The enjoyment of Little Women is how vibrant and different each of the March sisters is and how an audience can see degrees of one’s self in each little woman. Jo is by all accounts our lead and her struggle to be a successful writer pushes her against conventions of the era. There is an invented and very amusing bookend where Jo bickers with a blowhard male publisher (Tracy Letts) about “women’s melodrama.” It’s a meta commentary on Alcott’s book herself, especially with the helping of marriages and happy endings by story’s end. Ronan is a force of nature in the film and sweeps up everyone around her with charm. Meryl Streep is supremely amusing as an older rich aunt bemoaning the girls won’t get anywhere without marrying a wealthy man. The limited options for a working-class family are given great consideration, but it’s really a movie that seems to pulsate with the exciting feelings of being young, having the world stretch out before you, and chasing your dream, rain or shine. It’s also gorgeously shot and feels so assured from Gerwig as a solo director. There are a few detractions for this new 2019 Little Women, the biggest being how confusing it can get with its melded chronologies. If this is your first exposure to Alcott’s story, I fear you’ll get lost more than a few times trying to keep everything in order. The love story with lovesick pretty boy Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) feels tacked on even though it’s a feature of the novel. This newly structured, reinvigorated, charming remake of a literary classic feels definitely of the period and of today. It’s the first Little Women adaptation that made me realize how timeless this story really can feel in the right hands. It may be the 182nd version but it might be the best one yet.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
Serving as a feminist reclamation project, Mary Queen of Scots attempts to re-contextualize “Bloody Mary” in the royal dispute for the English throne. As played by Saoirse Ronan, Mary is portrayed as an empathetic, open-minded but strong-willed ruler looking to make peace between the two nations, and Elizabeth is portrayed as a flinty, scared, aloof woman that literally tells her younger cousin that she is her better in every manner. It’s a flip of how the two women are often portrayed throughout history, which raises the question of whether history has been twisted from centuries of revisionist and political obfuscation. There are definitely elements in this movie that I know are historically questionable, like Mary accepting a gay man into her royal court of ladies with open arms and a dismissive view of his sexual leanings. I find it hard to fathom that a devout Catholic woman who ordered heathens burned at the stake would be so anachronistically tolerant of homosexuality. If there’s a new theme for this costume drama it’s that women, even those in power, even those who were deemed wicked or corrupt by historians (universally men for centuries), were hemmed in by scheming men who were trying to usurp their power, undermine them, and manipulate them. Mary is thrown into one faulty suitor after another, positioning her as the victim of a patriarchal society. Again, I suspect there is validity to this context but it treats Mary with kid gloves, denying her righteous impulses. Ronan (Lady Bird) delivers a fine performance of grit and grace, but it’s Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Elizabeth that really misses the mark. She is sadly miscast and seems to shrink in the role. The depiction of Queen Elizabeth is also a disservice for drama and the concluding makeup reminded me of the Queen of Hearts from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderand. Mary Queen of Scots is an acceptable costume drama told with a little more heat (it’s R-rated for some reason) and a little more consideration to its subjects, but Mary Queen of Scots made me question the voracity of its portraits and made me really wish I was watching the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movie instead.
Edit: There are two Marys at this time, Stuart and Tudor, and I have conflated them. In my defense, it seems like there shouldn’t be more than one Mary by name when you’re talking about a Catholic rival who is related to Elizabeth. I’ve left my review uncorrected to further own my ignorance.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Lady Bird (2017)
Coming-of-age movies typically coast on a combination of mood, sense of place, and character, and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird excels in all areas and supplies a straight shot of happiness to the senses. Gerwig serves as solo writer and director and tells a semi-autobiographical story of “Lady Bird,” a quirky, determined, feisty, self-involved, and vulnerable teenager (Saoirse Ronan) trying to leave the lower-middle-class confines of her Sacramento life for bigger pastures. Ronan (Brooklyn) is spectacular in the title role and displays a heretofore-unseen sparkling sense for comedy, punctuating Gerwig’s many witty lines with the exact right touch. This can be a very funny movie and it has a deep ensemble of players. Ronan’s character is a magnetic force of nature that commands your attention and finds ways to surprise. The film follows her high school senior year’s ups and downs, potential new friends, bad boyfriends, social orders, family struggles, jobs, and most importantly her dream of getting into an East Coast college and leaving the trap she sees is her hometown. Her parents (Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts) are stressed and exasperated with their demanding daughter. Metcalf (TV’s Roseanne) is outstandingly affecting as the beleaguered matriarch. Much of the movie’s ongoing conflict, and later triumphs, revolve around the fraught mother/daughter relationship, and Ronan and Metcalf are never better than when squaring off. This is a movie rich in authentic lived-in details and observations. It can stray into overly quirky territory but Gerwig as director has a remarkable feel for when to hold back. There’s a genuine and poignant family drama at its heart that doesn’t get lost amid the whimsical additions that cater to Lady Bird’s vibrant personality. By the end of a coming-of-age movie, the characters should feel a little wiser, having learned through heartache, bad choices, and changes in perspective. This isn’t a movie about big moments but about the ebb and flow of life and the formation of one’s sense of self. We should enjoy having spent time with these characters on their journeys. With Lady Bird, I couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot.
Nate’s Grade: A-
If you’re looking for an Oscar movie this award season that will be perfect for grandparents, I direct you to the perfectly pleasurable Brooklyn. Beyond the throwback to the 1950 setting, it’s a movie that can appeal to multiple generations of audiences. There’s an admirable classical sense of filmmaking with Brooklyn, a delightful and charming movie with a healthy dose of nostalgia and heartfelt sincerity that should find a wide range of appeal to all ages.
Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is an Irish immigrant who leaves her sister and mother to start a new life in Brooklyn. Thanks to a kindly Irish priest (Jim Broadbent) who had settled from her village, Eilis finds housing and a job. New York takes some getting used to, especially the density. Eilis is attending night classes to become a bookkeeper, but by day she works at a department store counter. It’s at one of the socials in her new Irish neighborhood where she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a smitten yet confident Italian boy. She agrees to go on a date, actually two upfront, and it’s no time before Tony is walking her home from her night classes and talking about all his dreams. Eilis must return to Ireland for a family emergency. While she’s there, a bookkeeping job opens that needs her help, and a nice boy named Jim Farrell (Domhall Gleeson) grows closer to her with affections that aren’t exactly unwarranted. Eilis must decide which place to call her home and which life she wants to seek.
While the story is set in the early 1950s, this movie could have been made in any decade of the film industry. It would not be out of place with the films of the 40s and 50s, hopeful and romantic odes about women finding new lives in the land of opportunity. There’s a classical sense to its storytelling that is rather universal about the struggles of self and independence. While this movie is awash in the period details of 50s New York City, it really could be told anywhere. The personal struggles of Eilis are completely relatable, which makes her an instantly engaging heroine. She’s a kind-hearted woman who’s trying to step out and discover who she wants to be, and this promising reality is a pleasure to watch. We’re watching the maturation of a person, watching her find her footing and gain confidence small victory after small victory. There aren’t any large or arch plot events to navigate. It’s the small moments in life, from starting a job, to becoming more sure of one’s self, to knowing whom to open up and trust. The movie is kept at a pleasantly low simmer of intensity, which works just fine. The gentle tone does not imply a lack of urgency but more so the beguiling and romantic spell. Thanks to writer Nick Hornby, who is becoming an ace screenwriter, the movie tells such a heartfelt and emotionally rich and resonate story in 100 carefully paced minutes. There’s a general joyous sensation that washes over you, elongating smiles naturally. The dialogue is often clever without being glib and the characters come across as realistic and humane. There’s only one character that is thinly drawn to approach being stock (well two counting the precocious “tells it like it is” kid). The others are hopeful, yearning, and fundamentally decent people. There’s something quite nourishing about watching decent people try and navigate their desires while maintaining their decency.
I think that’s what makes the love triangle work as well as it can, the fact that both options, not just the gentlemen at the center, are appealing. New York and Ireland both present options that afford Eilis opportunities in a career she wishes to pursue, both have compassionate men who have expressed an interest in her and are supportive of her education and goals, and both locations have a support system of friends. It may sound boring that Eilis can’t really go wrong with where and whom she chooses but I think that makes the ultimate decision that much more engaging. If these options weren’t so appealing then it wouldn’t be so interesting to watch. The mistake is that because the choices are good that there is less at stake when the opposite is true. She could rightfully be happy with either choice but which representation of Eilis will she decide? One life represents the old, the other he new. As I stated above, the characters in Brooklyn have an commendable decency to them, which makes the love triangle more difficult. Tony loves her completely but fears she may not come back, and yet he knows he has to let her go and she has to decide on her own where to call home. Jim is thoughtful and even though he obviously has feelings for her Jim knows that now is not the right time to ask, and so he too waits and hops he presents enough worth staying over. It’s a love triangle where you like all three participants, which happens so rarely in movies.
Another strength of the film is that Ronan (The Grand Budapest Hotel) delivers a wonderfully felt performance. Much is placed upon her shoulders as our entry point into this world, and Hornby doesn’t resort to his characters explaining everything they’re thinking and feeling. Eilis is a woman who doesn’t speak in paragraphs but in short succinct sentences. She’s guarded but observant, and Ronan’s face is our great tapestry for understanding Eilis and her changing demeanor. We can watch her process the intimidating and invigorating world and read her thinking. It’s the most realistic Ronan has come across on screen as she has a habit of coming across slightly robotic, whether it’s as a pint-sized killer (Hanna), slain teenager (The Lovely Bones), or whatever the hell they were going for with the atrocious Violet & Daisy. With Ronan’s care, Eilis comes across like a resourceful young woman who is growing her sense of self. She’s a deserving lead for our simply story told with excellent care.
The only problem with a simple story told well is that it can also be predictable, which is a minor fault that doesn’t negate the impact of Brooklyn’s conclusion but does make it easy to anticipate. I’ll dance around spoilers but in a way I feel like even discussing the topic is going to be sufficient for you, dear reader, to accurately infer what direction the movie takes and which choice Eilis makes in the end. In short, Eilis makes a decision before leaving back to Ireland that somewhat stacks the deck in the favor of one of the two locations. This kept me from feeling like the choices were evenly considered. In the end, it’s a decision for Eilis about embracing her home and native culture and sense of community or branching out on her own and building something new and exciting. It’s possibility and independence versus comfort and family. It’s what can be versus what she’s known. It’s a decision that is universally relatable. Few of us have had romantic suitors and prosperous situations to vie over but many people have to make the normal decision of what path to embark, whether it’s the risk of something different or the reassurance of what is familiar and what has been earned. These aren’t the life-and-death stakes we see typically in the movies but they’re the decisions that often dictate fates.
Brooklyn is an easy movie to be carried away with. It’s full of honest and earned emotions that resonate from its reletability, tender heart, and gentle observations of watching a woman navigate the choices of her life. It’s an immigrant story and a coming-of-age tale, a romantic triangle with some fish-out-of-water elements. It’s a lot more than the sum of its parts, but with actors this good and with a script this tailored to deliver emotional uplift and satisfaction, those are some mighty impressive parts. If you’re on the hunt for a feel-good movie that won’t make you roll your eyes or overdose on sap, then I advise you and your family take a trip to Brooklyn and enjoy the sights.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Wes Anderson is a filmmaker whose very name is a brand itself. There are a small number of filmmakers who have an audience that will pay to see their next film regardless of whatever the hell it may be about. Steven Spielberg is the world’s most successful director but just having his name attached to a movie, is that enough to make you seek it out and assume quality? If so, I imagine there were more than a few disappointed with War Horse and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Wes Anderson has gotten to that height of audience loyalty after only seven movies, mostly because there are expectations of what an Anderson film will deliver. And deliver is what the quirky, fast-paced, darkly comic, and overall delightful Grand Budapest Hotel does.
In the far-off country of Zubrowka, there lays the famous hotel known the world over, the Grand Budapest. The head of the hotel, the concierge, is Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a highly mannered Renaissance man who caters to the every whim of his cliental. Zero (Tony Revolori), an orphaned refugee, is Mr. Gustave’s apprentice, a lobby boy in training learning from the master in the ways of hospitality. Gustave likes to leave people satisfied, including the wealthy dowagers that come from far just for him (Gustave: “She was dynamite in the sack,” Zero: “She was… 84,” Gustave: “I’ve had older.”). One of these very old, very rich ladies is found murdered and in her rewritten will, the old bitty had left a priceless portrait to Gustave. Her scheming family, lead by a combustible Adrien Brody, plots to regain the painting, which Gustave and Zero have absconded with.
For Wes Anderson fans, they’ll be in heaven. I recently climbed back aboard the bandwagon after the charming and accessible Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest is an excellent use of the man’s many idiosyncratic skills. The dollhouse meticulous art design is present, as well as the supercharged sense of cock-eyed whimsy, but it’s a rush for Anderson to pair a story that fits snuggly with his sensibilities. The movie is a series of elaborate chases, all coordinated with the flair of a great caper, and the result is a movie over pouring with entertainment. Just when you think you have the film nailed down, Anderson introduces another conflict, another element, another spinning plate to his narrative trickery, and the whimsy and the stakes get taken up another notch. The point of contention I have with the Anderson films I dislike (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited) is the superficial nature of the films. As I said in my review for Darjeeling, Anderson was coming across like a man “more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets.” With this film, he hones his central character relationships down to Gustave and Zero, and he can’t stop giving them things to do. Thankfully, those things have merit, they impact the story rather than serving as curlicue diversions. We get an art heist, a prison break, a ski chase, a murderous Willem Dafoe leaving behind a trail of bodies, not to mention several other perilous escapes. This is a film packed with fast-paced plot, with interesting actions for his actors, maybe even too packed, opening with three relatively unnecessary frame stories, jumping from modern-day, to the 1980s, back to the 1960s, and finally settling into the 1930s in our fictional Eastern European country.
The other issue with Anderson’s past films, when they have underachieved, is that the flights of whimsy come into conflict with the reality of the characters. That is not to say you cannot have a mix of pathos and the fantastical, but it needs to be a healthy combination, one where the reality of the creation goes undisturbed. With Grand Budapest, Anderson has concocted his best character since Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Gustave is another overachieving, highly literate, forward-driving charmer that casually collects admirers into his orbit, but he’s also a man putting on a performance for others. As the head of the Grand Budapest, he must keep the illusion of refinement, the erudite and all-knowing face of the luxurious respite for the many moneyed guests. He has to conceal all the sweat and labor to fulfill this image, and so he is a character with two faces. His officiously courtly manner of speaking can be quite comical, but it’s also an insightful indication that he is a man of the Old World, a nostalgic European realm of class and civilization on the way out with looming war and brutality. And as played by the effortlessly charming Fiennes (Skyfall), Gustave is a scoundrel that the audience roots for, sympathizes with, scolds, but secretly desire his approval, much like Zero. It is a magnificent performance that stands as one of the best in any Anderson film.
The fun of a Wes Anderson movie is the zany surprises played with deadpan sincerity, and there is plenty in Grand Budapest to produce smiles and laughter. It’s hard to describe exactly which jokes land the best in a Wes Anderson film because they form a patchwork that elevates the entire movie, building an odd world where oddballs can fit right in. It was under a minute before I laughed, and I smiled through just about every remaining minute of the film. I enjoyed a joke involving a dead cat that just kept being carried from scene to scene. I enjoyed a sexually graphic painting that just happened to be lying around. I enjoyed the fact that Zero draws on a mustache every morning to better fit in with the men of his day. But mostly I just enjoyed the characters interacting with one another, especially Gustave and Zero, which forms into the emotional core of the film. It begins as a zany chase film and matures as it continues, tugging at your feelings with the father/son relationship (there’s also a subtly sweet romance for Zero and a pastry girl played by Saoirse Ronan). One of the big surprises is the splash of dark violence that grounds the whimsy, reminding you of the reality of death as war and fascism creep on the periphery. In fact, the movie is rather matter-of-fact about human capacity for cruelty, so much so that significant characters will be bumped off (mostly off screen) in a style that might seem disarming and unsatisfying. It’s the mixture of the melancholy and the whimsy that transforms Grand Budapest into a macabre fairy tale of grand proportions.
The only warning I have is that many of the star-studded cast members have very brief time on screen. It’s certainly Fiennes and Revolori’s show, but familiar names like Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Lea Seydoux, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Balaban are in the film for perhaps two scenes apiece, no more than three minutes of screen time apiece. Norton, Brody, and Dafoe have the most screen time of the supporting cast. Though how does Revolori age into the very non-ethnic Abraham? It reminded me of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (here me out) where, as she ages, Chun-Li becomes less and less Chinese in her facial appearance. Anyway, the brevity of cast screen time is not detrimental to the enjoyment of the film, considering all the plot elements being juggled, but I would have liked even more with the dispirit array of fun characters.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his best, pared down into a quirky crime caper anchored by a hilariously verbose scoundrel and his protégé. Naturally, the technical merits of the film are outstanding, from the intricate art direction and set dressing, to the period appropriate costumes, to the camerawork by longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The movie is a visually lavish and handcrafted biosphere, a living dollhouse whose central setting ends up becoming a character itself. The trademark fanciful artifice is alive and well but this time populated with interesting characters, a sense of agency, and an accessible emotional core. The faults in Anderson’s lesser films have been fine-tuned and fixed here, and the high-speed plotting and crazy characters that continually collide left me amused and excited. If you’re looking for a pair of films to introduce neophytes into the magical world of Wes Anderson, you may want to consider Grand Budapest with Moonrise Kingdom (Royal Tenenbaums if they need bigger names). In the end, I think Anderson more than identifies with his main character, Gustave, a man enchanted in a world of his own creation, a world better than the real one. Who needs the real world when you’ve got The Grand Budapest Hotel?
Nate’s Grade: A
Violet & Daisy (2013)
It’s not often that I say this but… what the hell did I just watch? I know it’s a movie called Violet & Daisy, written and directed by Geoffrey Fletcher, the man who won a screenwriting Oscar for adapting Precious. But what is this? It is some meta commentary on film violence? A twisted fairy tale? A dark comedy? Whatever it is, I know for certain that it was not very good or entertaining.
Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are teenagers who also work as hired assassins by their boss, Russ (Danny Trejo). Their next assignment has a personal angle: Michael (James Gandolfini) stole a large sum of money from Russ. The gals hide out in Michael’s apartment only to fall asleep. When they wake up, Michael is sitting there, accepting his fate, begging the girls to complete their job. He’s dying from terminal cancer, estranged from his daughter, and hoping to exit this world on his own terms. Over the course of one long afternoon, the gals run into rival gangs, a trained sniper, police, neighbors, and all sorts of other plot contrivances to delay the death of Michael.
If you’re like me, with similar expectations when it comes to your moviegoing experiences, you’ll be left scratching your head and fumbling for some kind of rationale why people decided to make a film like Violet & Daisy. It feels instantly dated, relying upon the hook of young teen girls with big guns, you know, the same model that has translated to many a successful video game. More so than that, the aspiration, or at least direct inspiration, appears to be a Tarantino-knock-off. Not ripping off Tarantino, as many did in the mid-to-late 90s, but ripping off a poor Tarantino knock-off, like Two Days in the Valley or, the more adept comparison, The Big Hit. There is so much crap in this movie that exists merely because somebody thought it would look cool. Violet and Daisy open the movie dressed as pizza-delivering nuns (is this a fetish I am unaware of?) and open fire on a gang of criminals. But before their fateful gunfight, you better believe it, they have an innocuous conversation about something small, you know, like Jules and Vincent. Why are they dressed as nuns, let alone nuns delivering pizza? It doesn’t matter. This is a movie that doesn’t exist in a universe minutely close to our own. Everything about this film feels painfully and artificial. You know what previous job Violet and Daisy had? They worked at the “doll hospital,” a literal ward for dolls. The decisions of this movie are driven purely by a stylized self-indulgent whimsy. Once you realize this, and you will, the movie becomes even more of a chore to finish.
Then there’s the bizarre and sometimes uncomfortable infantilization of the female lead characters. These ladies do not act like adults; they don’t even act like teenagers. Even though they’re both over 18 years old, their behavior more closely resembles that of a flighty seven-year-old. Their speaking patterns are often in an annoying and partially creepy baby coo. They play paddy cake after successful hits. They ride tricycles. They chew bubblegum and blow bubbles during hits. They get excited about new Barbie Sunday dresses, and this is their real motivation for taking assassination jobs. Yes, to buy dresses. Then there’s their game, the Internal Bleeding Dance, where they hop up and down on the chests of their dying victims, blood spurting out of their mouths, the girls giggling, as if they were bouncing on a bed at a slumber party. These women aren’t remotely actual characters; they are masturbatory quirky hipster fodder, the ironically detached, sexy baby doll killer approximation. Except there is never any commentary at work. The depiction of Violet and Daisy as petite killers never approaches anything meaningful. They are killers because it’s cool. They talk like lobotomized film noir archetypes because it’s cool. This is quirk run amok, quirk with a gun and no purpose. I’m trying hard to ignore the obvious sexual kink undercurrents of the whole enterprise.
Even with all these flaws, perhaps Violet & Daisy could have been morbidly interesting, except that the circuitous plot twiddles its thumbs, padding out a half-baked story. This is a movie that takes its time and seems to go nowhere. Once the girls meet Michael, the plot has to come up with numerously lame excuses to delay Michael’s execution. I kid you not, there are THREE instances where the girls run out of bullets and have to stop and walk back to the hardware store to go buy ammo. This happens. This is a thing that keeps the plot moving. It’s like as soon as the main characters get into a room together, Fletcher has to struggle to come up with reasons why his narrative should still exist. So we get a second group that Michael stole from because this guy has an even bigger death wish. This second group of spurned bad guys is on their way. If Fletcher was going this route, he might as well gone whole-hog imitating Smokin’ Aces and just had numerous crews all fighting over taking out this schlub first. It feels like Fletcher is making up the story as he goes, taking us on relatively pointless nonlinear interludes to pad the running time. The film, like Tarantino, breaks up the story into a series on onscreen chapters, though one of these only lasts like a minute. Then there’s a loopy dream sequence. The narrative is so stagnant that whatever interest you may have had will long be gone. By the time the movie actually does end, at about 80 minutes, it has long felt creatively exhausted, totally gassed. Fletcher throws out all the stops to get across that finish line.
Even though it was filmed way back in 2010, it’s hard to escape the morbid irony of Gandolfini (Enough Said) playing a character discussing his own inevitable death. He’s the best actor in the film, offering a paternal warmth that goes wasted amidst all the stylistic nonsense. Our other two featured players, Bledel (TV’s Gilmore Girls) and Ronan (The Host), have a sprightly chemistry together that works. I just wish all three actors had something to do rather than strike artificial poses and quip.
After enduring The Paperboy, and “enduring” is indeed the correct term, I was certain that the messy, tonally uneven, sometimes garish flights of fancy in Precious were due to director Lee Daniels. After enduring, and again “enduring” is the correct term, Violet & Daisy, I’m starting to think that Fletcher is deserves equal credit. Violet & Daisy is a curious exercise in twee indie hipness, suffused with quirk standing in place for characters, story, meaning, etc. It feels like the development stopped once the core concept of teen girl assassins was concocted. The off-putting childish nature of the adult girls, juxtaposed with the baby doll sexuality of the film, makes for an uncomfortable watch. To call the film bad taste is too easy. Whether this is a bizarre dark comedy, a whacko modern fairy tale, or whatever term you want to apply to justify the artificial excesses and emptiness, Violet & Daisy is a contrived mess that labors to fill out a basic feature running time, often doubling back and delaying. There isn’t a story here, more just an incongruent, irregular style. If you’re content with a knockoff of a Tarantino knockoff, with an extra dose of whimsy, then enjoy Violet & Daisy and you can dance your cares away atop bleeding bodies.
Nate’s Grade: D+
The Host (2013)
It’s impossible for me to ever separate The Host, a sci-fi would-be romance based upon the best-seller by dubious author Stephenie Meyer, and the demise of famous film critic, and personal influence, Roger Ebert. On April 4, 2013, America’s most prominent film critic, a man who with Gene Siskel changed the face of film criticism and the dialogue with movies, died after his cancer had returned. Upon hearing the news, I was overcome with grief and shed a few tears for the loss of a great writer and a great man who influenced a generation of online film critics like myself. Then I saw what was Ebert’s last published film review — The Host. Knowing his last review on this Earth is this awful movie, that it may be the last new release he ever saw, well it just feels ignoble. The man deserved better and so does anyone else who watches The Host, a movie I saw the very day of Ebert’s death.
Set on earth years after an invading alien race has already conquered, life isn’t too bad. There aren’t any wars or pollution or hunger. The aliens, looking like little glowworms, latch onto the spines of humans and use them as hosts. They control the bodies of the humans but some of us won’t go down willingly. Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) is an 18-year-old gal who fights as part of a resistance movement, led by her Uncle Jeb (William Hurt). The aliens abduct her and Melanie’s body gets a new owner – Wanderer, also referred to as Wanda. Good old Melanie is still in her head, feisty, and goading Wanda into finding Melanie’s family hiding out in the desert with Jeb. Also there is Melanie’s boyfriend, Jared (Max Irons), who is upset that his girlfriend has become “one of them.” Ian (Jake Abel), on the other hand, is adjusting well to the change, as he falls for Wanda and she him. In between these hormonal complications, Wanda is being chased by the appropriately named Seeker (Diane Kruger), who is deadest on bringing some human-style violence to Wanda/Melanie and the resistance fighters.
The Host, like much of Meyer’s more popular Twilight saga, is a rather dramatically inert story that just seems to exist with little sense of momentum or direction or purpose, beyond providing another bloodless onscreen romance that ceaselessly finds unsettling messages to convey to young girls. Once again it all comes down to a stifling romantic triangle where none of the participants ever seems to work up the necessary passion to garner continual interest. There’s a bit more heavy petting going on but even when these people are having sex dreams, they imagine Melanie with her bra on (such a limited imagination). Please don’t confuse this as some implicit regret on my part that the movie didn’t sexualize its lead heroine (she’ll be turning 19 soon, so fear not pervs). At least the Twilight movies can be seen through the prism of pre-teen wish fulfillment. The Host, on the other hand, is just an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style sci-fi movie where no one seems that preoccupied with anything too urgent. If the aliens are really that gung-ho to root out the resistance fighters, why aren’t they looking for heat signatures? Why aren’t they studying truck movements? The fighters aren’t very stealth-like in their comings and goings either. Hell, why don’t they even just keep a lookout for people wearing sunglasses, an obvious sign they have something to hide. It’s like the aliens and the humans are simply just going about their business without any danger. That’s because the ultimate fulcrum with which all the plot hinges upon is the romantic whims of a teen girl teaching an alien how to love. Sigh.
The least successful adaptation is likely including Melanie in the action through the use of bratty voiceover. She likes to chime in with snide remarks and pushes Wanda away when she starts getting feelings of her own for another boy. It is simply unbearable. You ever been stuck in the car with a really annoying brat? That’s what it felt like. Now I realize that having the dueling voices was an easier prospect on the printed page, but a similar challenge was tackled with 2003’s Dreamcatcher when an alien possessed Damien Lewis. We had a visual representation of Lewis taking refuge inside his own head. That was better than watching him, and it pains me even now to type it, engage in an argument with himself where the voice of the alien adopts a British accent. Maybe we could have had a better visual representation of Melanie inside Wanda, or maybe something with mirrors, that’s always a good go-to visual for characters of dueling minds. As developed, The Host feels like Melanie’s strapped in next to you, providing incessant and annoying commentary, and all you want to do is tell the kid to shut up.
Given the world-conquering plot elements, I can’t help but think Meyer found one of the least interesting stories to tell within this world. The invasion aspect seems far more compelling a story to tell than one girl stuck in a love triangle. I suppose it’s because Meyer is bringing a different perspective to science fiction, but I found most of this movie to be unbearably boring. And her premise, while flawed, could have been workable. Learning to live a symbiotic relationship with an alien that controls your physical being, there’s plenty of room there to tell an interesting and insightful story. The issues of identity and control could be richly explored. Instead, we get Melanie liking one boy and Wanda liking another, and so Melanie fights from inside to stop Wanda from acting out her exciting new feelings. Given the scope of everything going on, alien invaders and underground resistance organizations, it all feels so slight and myopic and overindulged melodrama. I suppose the whole thing could be a metaphor for puberty, a teen girl whose body is taken over by an alien presence, causing her to act irrationally and deal with swoons of affection she doesn’t know how to properly handle, causing her to act out and alter her perceptions of herself. Then again, I may just be giving Meyer and the movie more credit than they deserve.
The saddest part for me was that Andrew Niccol directed this movie as well as adapted the screenplay. He is responsible for these characters, these plot beats, these samples of dialogue. This is the man who gave us The Truman Show, Gattaca, and Lord of War. Granted, Niccol’s last movie, 2011’s In Time was a great idea in need of a far better script, but I always have high hopes with this man given his track record. From a visual standpoint, he takes a few pages from Gattaca where everything in the world is sleek and shiny and looking like an orgasmic car commercial. The shimmering cinematography by Roberto Schaefer (Marc Forster’s longtime DP) is crisp with plenty of cool colors to signify the mood of our pleasant overlords. There are plenty of nice things to look at, and female fans will likely extend that compliment to the young men duking it out for Melanie/Wanda’s affections. It’s just that everything moves so glacially, so stubbornly slow, that the movie feels like it’s run out of gas long before it’s over. At over two hours, there desperately needed to be some judicious chopping with this movie’s flabby midsection. If you’re not a fan of Meyer’s book, Niccol fails to give you any tangible reason why you should care or keep watching. I even thought about leaving at one point, and that’s an urge I can usually quell, so that’s how monotonous it truly got.
It’s nice to see Ronan (Hanna) growing into the capable leading lady we all thought she could be, though this movie does her no favors (gone is the gangly awkwardness of The Lovely Bones). I understand that for the majority of the movie she’s playing Wanda, the alien controlling the body of Melanie. There are going to be certain limitations to this portrayal, but Ronan just sounds overly sedated for most of the movie. Then there’s her annoying voiceover, which dips into a Southern accent at several intervals. I guess when Mel gets mad it brings out her roots? Likewise with Meyer’s heroine du jour, Bella Swan, I just don’t see what all the fuss is about over this character. She’s a pretty plain heroine with courageous whims but it’s another example of a film where the supporting characters have to key us in on character traits we just aren’t picking up on our own.
I’m always puzzled when filmmakers decide to make their aliens so, well, alien. Independent evolution in a different star system is going to develop some funky designs, sure, but when you got magical glowworms as your sentient life, I find it hard to believe that they built all that super duper technology to achieve their world-domination. A glowworm made a spaceship? With its glowworm tentacles and its size of about three inches? At least the aliens on Star Trek looked like they knew there way around auto shop. For that matter, we’re in the future where everybody drives a crazy shiny vehicle no matter how off road it gets, but the stupid alien occupiers can’t master the tricky science of contact lenses? And this goes for the human rebels as well. The telltale sign you’re controlled by the aliens or not is the translucent blue ring around your iris, but why hasn’t either side just popped in some contacts to blend in? The aliens can master space travel but get squeamish about things touching their eyes?
The Host is another of Meyer’s poorly plotted, insipid melodrama that manages to be all about teen hormones except those hormones feels so hermetically sealed off. It’s another neutered romance, and this was supposed to be her so-called “adult book”? It’s the same themes and tropes from her non-adult Twilight series, just with a coating of sci-fi rather than supernatural. Even Niccol, admittedly in a bit of a slump, can’t save this picture, and ultimately the overly long, lightly plotted, and tremendously tedious affair lumbers to its predictable conclusion, replete with happy ending (let’s just say that Ian gets a hotness upgrade as far as his lover). The concept of an alien species stripping human beings of free will and living not just amongst us but within us, that’s a solid idea that could make for a compelling story. Meyer found the dumbest story to tell, her bread and butter, a love triangle where both guys have struck her at some point in the film (dwell on that). It pains me that The Host may have been Roger Ebert’s last movie. As far as I’m concerned, this movie murdered Ebert.
Nate’s Grade: D
We all seem to love child prodigies. The concept of someone so small doing something well ahead of their years seems to fascinate our minds. I suppose the same holds true for professional killers. We all seem smitten with teenage depiction of super-powered killing machines. Last year presented Kick-Ass whose real star was the adolescent Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz-Grace), pint-sized reaper of carnage. Then there’s River from Serenity, Gogo from Kill Bill: Volume One, the ladies of Sucker Punch, the Heavenly Creatures girls (at least this one is based on a true story), and pretty much half the cast of Battle Royale. Just wait until The Hunger Games comes to screens in 2012, built upon the premise of 12-18-year-olds fighting to the death on national television (so the premise is almost exactly Battle Royale). We love our innocence mixed with ironic cynicism. Along comes Hanna, the tale of another teenage girl leaving a trail of bodies in her wake.
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a sixteen-year-old girl living above the Arctic Circle with her father, Erik (Eric Bana). She’s been in survival mode all of her life, preparing for a day when she would finally break free and seek vengeance. CIA Agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) killed Hanna’s mother and has been lying in wait to finish the job, eliminating the rest of the family. Erik has taught his daughter well to think on her feet, master several languages, and become an excellent marksman/fighter. Hanna makes the choice to set their plan into motion. She triggers a device that signals to the CIA where they are. Marissa sends a crew to pick up Hanna and Erik, but only finding the girl. Once in an underground CIA compound, Hanna turns her focus on Marissa, killing her double (good call, lady), and breaking out of the compound. She finds that she’s been taken to Morocco. Fortunately, a family is traveling through the land and Hanna can catch a ride before she meets up with dear old dad in Berlin. Marissa sets out on a manhunt to find Erik. She hires a group of German criminals (led by Tom Hollander) to retrieve Hanna (“I need you to do things my agency will not let me do,” she reasons). Everyone is on a crash course to Berlin, where Hanna’s mysterious origin will be finally revealed.
Director Joe Wright blew away all my expectations for him. The British director was mostly known for visually lavish period pieces like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. This is a drastic change of pace and proof that the occasional art director can produce a great-looking, meditative action thriller that still delivers the goods. Wright’s camerawork is beautiful, making artful use of composition, lighting, and editing to deliberate purpose. There were several moments that I just got caught up in the look of the film, aided by the energetic if sadly too-often absent score by The Chemical Brothers (I love the chunky bass groove on “Container Park”). I was just impressed what could be produced under the guise of action cinema. This is an elevation of the genre. Wright’s color palette is awash in ominous reds, soft blues, and delicate yellows, which helps give the film this painterly approach to photography. Pay attention to the dream-like visual metaphors connected to fairy tales (Marissa seems to have a tooth cleaning fetish –“What big teeth you have…”). At the same time, Wright knows how to stage a terrific action sequence. His signature tracking shots allow the audience to become enveloped in the action, taking in the punches and kicks without the disorientation of the popular erratic editing style of modern action cinema. Bana taking down a bunch of goons in a subway level is made more thrilling because we see every second of activity, allowing the moment to build in tension as he is followed, then cornered, then strikes out.
17-year-old Ronan has left the awkward pubescence of The Lovely Bones far behind her. Like her Atonement director, she too steps far beyond our concept of what she is able to perform. Ronan is a five-foot-tall wrecking crew. She keeps her eyes intensely focused, tense blue orbs. At the same time that she convincingly kicks butt up and down the screen, Ronan successfully communicates the internal drama of her character. Hanna is an outsider trained her whole life for a single purpose. When she’s left in a Moroccan back room, Hanna is overwhelmed by the cacophony of noises by electronic appliances, at a loss to make the melange of sound cease. She’s a victim of her own upbringing and her father’s quest for vengeance. Ronan keeps her icy cool demeanor when she means business, but the Irish lass and her straw-blonde hair manage to find the girl inside the super girl. Bana (Star Trek) is suitably stoic and conflicted as the father, and all hail Blanchett (Robin Hood) as a good villain for once. With her Southern drawl, she presents an alluring sense of menace throughout without breaking down into over-the-top histrionics. Blanchett is so good as a slippery CIA agent that you wish she didn’t farm out her villainy to a group of German goons.
What holds Hanna back from greatness is it uneven natures of its plot and the lack of sustainable action. The movie is just as much a strange coming-of-age saga for a girl who was raised in the woods. The lengthy travelogue with the British family from North Africa through Spain kills the film’s momentum routinely. Things will start picking up, the excitement builds, and then we cut back to the goofy caricature of a flighty liberal family (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemying as the parents). Despite the painful “do what you feel?” parenting cues, the family unit seems to have some level of functionality. These scenes are meant to contrast with Hanna’s own upbringing. It’s meant to show the life that Hanna has never been allowed to choose. But I got that rather quickly. Also, if you want to sell the “alternative path” contrast it would have more impact if this foil family were more appealing and less annoying. Even moment Hanna tags along as a stowaway with this family it disrupts the momentum. I understand that Hanna needed some narrative excuse to get from the rocky deserts of Northern Africa into central Europe, but when you’re dealing with a super kid, why rely on her just hitching a ride with a van full of hippies?
What really let me down was the lack of sustainable action that developed. While I’ve already credited Wright’s handling of the onscreen fisticuffs, I just wish there was more of it. The action occurs in spurts that fail to keep up. That tracking shot fight sequence is wonderful, but it’s too short. Hanna taking out men twice her size is undeniably enjoyable, but short of an excellent sequence of hide-and-pummel through a cargo ship yard, Hanna is never put in a position of risk. Sure she’s in danger but she’s never overmatched, which is part of the reason why the action sequences only happen in bursts. Her competition never seems to be truly threatening. Hollander (looking eerily, eerily like celebrity blogger Perez Hilton) in white bike shorts is not that intimidating. He’ll stand out, which might not be what a CIA agent wants when she hires goons to track and kill a super kid, but he’s never more threatening than Henchman #2 status, though he’s been irresponsibly promoted for the purposes of this movie. I realize that Wright and his screenwriters, Seth Lochhead and David Farr, wanted a character-based action thriller. Hanna is that film, but it could have been a more thriller vehicle if more attention was spent on the realities of their dramatic setup. The problem with making Hanna a super kid warrior is that she needs either BETTER competition or MORE competition. Pick one. But having a small number of inferior toughs seems like the worst outcome for people who want solid, sustainable action.
The plot of Hanna is fairly conventional but the style and feel of the film are anything but. Wright has assembled a first-class art-thriller that would have been a work of true greatness if the plot could have gotten itself figured out. Splitting time between action set pieces and a family road trip is not an ideal use of running time. The action works fantastic, that is, when it does make its too-brief appearances. I’ve read several comparisons to Run Lola Run due to the stylized visuals, pace-setting electronica score, and likely general German setting, but I feel these comparisons are surface-level; Lola was a firecracker of style and energy rarely replicated in film (it’s my go-to film to show people who are self-described haters of foreign films). Hanna is no Lola, but Hanna is still a class ahead of her peers. Wright and company have produced a film that is moody, stylish, thrilling, and just a little bit ridiculous. As Hanna says to her prey, she just missed your heart. Whether that’s by design or accident, we’ll never know.
Nate’s Grade: B
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