If you’re writer/director Robert Eggers and just made a most delicious impression with your debut movie, 2016’s The Witch (or, stupidly, The VVitch), where do you go next? Apparently it was off the coast of Nova Scotia with Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, and a sexy mermaid? The Lighthouse follows the story of two men, Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), as lighthouse keepers trapped during a torrential New England storm in the 1890s. This fraught relationship comes undone over the course of some very severe cabin fever. While The Lighthouse might not be as enjoyable as The Witch, nor the arthouse genre masterpiece some critics have been hailing, it is an exceptionally realized throwback with its own beguiling sense of peculiarity. They don’t really make them like this anymore, folks.
The Lighthouse feels exactly like somebody meticulously melded an episode of The Twilight Zone with an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The vision is so specific and so fine-tuned that it can be startling, like watching a high-wire act of an artist perform a feat and so well. Eggers is definitely a man with definite talent and here is a movie that serves as a strange, loving homage to an earlier age. The shooting style, camera equipment, lenses, and nearly 4:3 aspect ratio coalesce to make The Lighthouse feel like a forgotten curio of an older age. The very nature of the movie’s presentation adds to the enjoyment level of the two hours of madness. This is a highly impressive movie, first and foremost from its technical side. The black and white photography is rich and stunning, making elaborate and precise use of shadows and camera movement. You feel the grime and salt. Pattinson’s face is filmed with such heaviness, shadows draped over him, that he looks like he was carved from stone to resemble a modern-day Robert Mitchum. There are several moments that unveil themselves with startling meticulousness. There are several images that stick in my memory. There are moments of levity that had me snickering madly. Eggers has a terrific instinct when it comes to staging scenes and drawing out the suspense as well as the humor. Some scenes will cycle from horror to comedy and then back again, allowing the movie to continuously feel slippery in tone as well as effect. It’s such a handsomely mounted production that it’s easy to admire the dedication. The craft is remarkable. Eggers had a very exact style he was going for with his second film,and he commits fully to the process. Whatever you think of the lasting impression, the man achieved his vision to the bitter end.
Being a two-hander, the entire movie is going to rest on the shoulders of our acting duo and what insights we can glean from them as they become combative and ultimately suspicious. There’s only one other credited actor for the entire film, Valeriia Karaman, as a lustful fantasy for Winslow, or maybe she’s not a fantasy? We’re stuck with two very capable thespians and they just dig into these meaty, hammy roles. The dialogue has a delightfully daffy out-of-time cadence and vernacular that adds authenticity as well as a sprinkle of approaching madness. Dafoe (Aquaman) is a delight as a soused old captain given to self-important and abrasive behavior. An insult over his cooking unleashes a ridiculous monologue where he lays out in great, poetic detail a curse, and like much in the movie, it goes from being funny to being serious to being outright impressive. It’s like watching actors get to play with Shakespeare, that’s how immensely pleasing it can be to listen to Dafoe and Pattinson deliver Eggers’ dialogue with great flourish. Pattinson (Good Time) has gotten a bad rap for being the Twilight pretty boy but he’s taken exciting chances on artistically daring and dangerous prospects (this is his SECOND 2019 indie thriller that prominently features his furious masturbation). Pattinson serves as our entry point into this secluded seaside shack, and it’s through him we watch the madness of the movie plant. He’s got a real fire he’s able to harness that makes him vulnerable, sympathetic, and dangerous. Should we root for Winslow? Being trapped alone with them never gets boring because of their characters, the revelation of secrets each man may or may not be embellishing, and their explosive confrontations.
This is also very funny movie. Eggers understands the thin line between madness and humor and uses this to his great advantage where the embrace of comedy enhances the overall feeling of WTF insanity. You’ll be forgiven for laughing but Eggers seems to invite it almost as a needed release. Much like Ari Aster did with Midsommar, the filmmaker is clearly playing with camp elements intentionally. It’s a tricky artistic maneuver to willingly invite camp and to make sure it doesn’t pervert the rest of the film and its ambitions, but I think Eggers pulls it off. There is literally an audible fart before the two main characters share a line of dialogue together. You’ll be surprised how much farting is actually in the movie (all added in post-production, the Internet trivia proudly crows, because I guess Dafoe didn’t want to go that far Method). There’s an exciting unpredictability to the movie even as it feels very much on a foreseeable collision course that you await.
After all that artistic sturm und drang, I was left wondering what exactly there was to hold onto for clarity and substance. Firstly, the artistic exercise, dedication to a specific vision, and level of execution will likely be enough for a certain group of viewers, especially those titillated by old school horror peppered with David Lynch peculiarities. It’s a moody work of art with definite finesse but ultimately I don’t know how much there is to take away from it. The Lighthouse feels like a well-handled experiment that deserves your admiration but I don’t know what engagement exists beyond simply the experience and then the discussion it leads. There are plenty of movies that invite an active deconstruction and this interactive interpretation serves as a central selling point, but I was wondering what I should be thinking here. I don’t know if the movie is adopting Winslow’s point of view and I shouldn’t trust what I see onscreen, or I shouldn’t trust Thomas, or I shouldn’t trust either, or whether the movie was adopting either of their perspectives or neither. By the end, I don’t know what is supposed to be taken as legitimate, and this can work with plenty of movies but the majority doesn’t seem to operate on a dream-logic. It’s a dank, claustrophobic, paranoid thriller but it’s so dutiful to an older style of thriller that the eccentricities don’t take over and become the movie. It’s entirely a movie about men being stranded, going mad, and turning on one another, and that’s about it. There is a definite Promethean analogy with Winslow’s desire to “have the light” and the old man standing in his way (this is hit even harder in the very obvious, concluding image). If you cut out maybe 40 seconds of the movie it could have played on TV back in Hitchcock’s day and would fit.
It’s hard for me to articulate but The Lighthouse is an A-level execution of an idea that feels all too limited and small. It’s thrilling and accomplished and a fun movie to just get lost within and laugh at the screen when it goes overboard. I wouldn’t even mind taking another trip and getting lost in this sea-soaked curiosity. Maybe I’ll be able to impart more meaning, because while the technical craft and extraordinarily honed artistic vision shine through, the lasting power of the whole enterprise feels a bit too locked in place. It very much is a remnant of the past, a loving homage to old Hammer films and television anthologies and tales of men losing their minds when it comes to loneliness, desperation, and helplessness. There’s much to champion with The Lighthouse and I’ll assuredly be in line for whatever Eggers decides will be his next project (a quick search comes up with a tenth-century Viking revenge thriller starring Dafoe, Ana Taylor-Joy, two Skarsgards, and Nicole Kidman). When Eggers commits to a story and style, he commits completely and the results can be breath-taking. I hope he aims for more than A-level execution with his next movie and goes for an A-level story experience to match. Still, The Lighthouse is a fascinating and delightfully weird experience that will enchant and baffle.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I don’t know what this movie was trying to say about anything. Vox Lux stars Natalie Portman as the adult Celeste, a survivor of a school shooting as a teen who became an international pop star in the months after. Is there something writer/director Brady Corbet wants to say about the transformation of tragedy into mass entertainment? The dulling effect of an entertainment industry to grind up human beings and re-purpose them into shiny, inauthentic, easily marketable figurines? I don’t know. I warily thought as we open on an upsetting school shooting, “I don’t know if the final product will justify this tone,” and it doesn’t. There are decisions that feel like they should mean something, like having the same actress, Raffey Cassidy (Tomorrowland), play both young Celeste and her eventual teen daughter, but what? It feels like an idea looking to attach to an interpretative message. Then there’s a modern terrorist group dressing like one of Celeste’s iconic music videos. She distances herself from the violence and even publicly challenges the perpetrators. This will obviously come back and mean something, drawing upon her own beginning stages of fame derived from the bloodshed of others, right? Or during her big concert the terrorists will invade and attack her, bringing the main character face-to-face with the ramifications of hubris. None of these things happen. Instead, Portman enters the scene at the 45-minute mark and proceeds to lash out at others, lament her parenting deficiencies, gets drunk, and then puts on her show. That’s it. It’s like Vox Lux forgot to be a movie for the final 20 minutes and just becomes a numbing series of EDM pop dance numbers. Portman is actually very good and digging deep into her anxious, entitled, and spiraling pop star, rounding out her dimmed humanity when Corbet cannot. There’s a solid storyline here between the adult Celeste trying to reconnect with her teen daughter who she’s been neglecting. This isn’t it. The pretension level of the pedantic exercise made me think of Lars von Trier as filmed by Darren Aronofsky. Skip it.
Nate’s Grade: C-
It’s hard not to talk about the fledgling DCU without grading on a curve. Wonder Woman was a great success and a definite step in the right direction but it still had clear Act Three problems. However, when your previous movies are the abysmal Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman, anything in the right direction is seen as enlightenment. There are currently no planned Superman films, no planned Batman films, and it looks like the teetering DCU is banking its future on the success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman. If you had told me that the future of an interconnected series of franchises would rest upon the shoulders of a man who talks to fish, I would have laughed. Enter director James Wan, best known for the Conjuring franchise and plugging into Furious 7 without missing a beat. Warner Bros. desperately wanted Wan’s stewardship to get a notoriously difficult comics property to float in the modern market. The early marketing was not encouraging but I held out a slim degree of hope that Wan would make it work. While Aquaman as a whole has its share of problems, Wan has done it. He’s made a big screen Aquaman movie that is fun, visually immersive, weird, and packed with great action. I was just as surprised as you, dear reader, but the smile on my face was evident.
Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is heir to the undersea throne of Atlantis. His mother (Nicole Kidman) fled her arranged marriage and had a son with a human lighthouse keeper. She retreated back into the ocean to prevent further harm to her shore side family. Arthur is approached by princess Meera (Amber Heard) to return to Atlantis and claim his birthright to the throne, currently occupied by Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson). The reigning king is planning to unite the seven sea kingdoms to launch an attack against the surface-dwellers. Arthur must go back to the people who reportedly killed his mother and challenge his half-brother for supremacy. Along the way he’ll have to venture across the globe with Meera for a series of adventures to reclaim lost artifacts, while also dodging Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate gifted with underwater technology who swears vengeance against Arthur for letting his father die.
Make no mistake, there is definitely a ceiling capped for Aquaman. The characterization is pretty standard stuff with little added nuance. It’s a dash of Chosen One destined to bridge communities, a dash of Prodigal Son outcast trying to make amends and duty, and there’s the general pledged vengeance that reappears again and again for motivation. The plot is reminiscent of a video game, structured so that Arthur and Meera have to travel from one stage to another, finding an important artifact and then going to the next stage. Sometimes there are mini-bosses at these various video game stages. The antagonists are acceptable but without much in the way of depth or charisma. You might even find yourself agreeing with King Orm as far as his pre-emptive strike over mankind (the latent racism of “half-breeds” maybe not as much). The leads are also given little. Momoa (Justice League) is a naturally charismatic actor but his range is limited; he basically has two modes, off and on. This might have been one reason why the screenplay resolves to merely push him toward his “call to action,” which I thought was his Justice League arc. Still he’s an affable and handsome presence even with lesser material. Heard (London Fields) is struggling to find her character’s place in the story. She’s a romantic interest, quest cohort, and there are attempts to push through more feminist agency but it’s too murky. It feels like she’s trapped by her character and her giant Halloween store red wig. If you cannot get over these deficits, it’s going to feel like a relentless 143-minute video game.
And yet the movie works thanks to the talents of Wan and the overall abundant sense of exuberant fun. Wan has become a first-class chameleon, able to adapt his skill set to whatever genre he attaches himself to, be it high-octane car chase thriller, slow burn horror to grisly torture porn, or now splashy superhero blockbuster. Early on, I knew we were in good hands when Wan showcases a destructive fight scene between Kidman and a group of aqua storm troopers in long takes and wide angles, letting the choreography speak for itself and allowing the audience to fully take in every smash and crash. The action is consistently interesting and filmed in ways to highlight its best points. An underwater brotherly battle takes the movement within water into account, adapting fight choreography to add this new dimension. That’s what good action movies should be doing, applying their unique settings into the action development. There isn’t a boring action moment in the film. Even when we get to the big CGI armies duking it out, Wan instinctively knows to pull back to avoid overkill. Even the otherwise normal hand-to-hand combat is clever and consistently entertaining. The highlight of the movie is actually on land, an extended chase through the villas of Tuscany. Arthur and Meera are battling Black Manta but they’re also divided, and Wan’s camera will zoom back and forth between the two, connecting each on their parallel tracks. They jump from tiled roof to tiled roof, escaping danger. There’s one super aqua storm trooper who takes a more direct approach and just runs through room after room, and the camera follows him on this direct line of destruction. There’s even a payoff where Meera uses her powers in a wine shop to her great advantage. It’s moments like this where Wan is clearly having fun and demonstrating that he and his team have put good thought into their action.
The visuals are wildly immersive and amplify the sense of fun the film has to offer. There are plenty of cinematic reference points of influence here, from George Lucas to James Cameron, but Wan and his team do an excellent job of making this universe feel full. We visit many different undersea realms and people, including seahorse people, crab people, and just taking ownership of the weirdness without irony is refreshing. With the exception of Momoa’s need to undercut moments with quips, the film feels genuine and proud of its old-fashioned mentality, taking the ridiculousness and treating it with sincerity. That doesn’t mean there aren’t campy and absurd moments that are enjoyable precisely because of their camp and absurdity. There are people riding great white sharks and battling crab people to the death. How can that not be silly? There’s one group of creatures that feel plucked from Pitch Black, a band of feral monsters vulnerable to fire. There’s a fun and effective sequence where Arthur and Meera must dive to escape with their lit flare and we see the full totality of their situation, a literal sea of these monsters breaking apart just so as they dive. It’s a creepy moment made even better by Wan’s visual choices, which always seem to correspond to what’s best for the experience. The special effects are uniformly great and the attention to the undersea worlds is pristine.
Ultimately your view of Aquaman will come down to what you’re willing to forgive in the name of fun spectacle. Its best Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) equivalent are the pre-Ragnarok Thor films. There are definite deficits with the minimal characterization and the familiar hero’s journey plot arc, but the execution level and the sheer energetic entertainment are enough to rise above. The action sequences are routinely thrilling, eye-catching, and wonderfully alive and clever thanks to Wan. They’ve found a way to make Aquaman cool and fun, which is what rules the day when it comes to the film version. Aquaman is another step in the right direction for the notoriously gloomy DCU. If Wan was attached for a sequel, I’d genuinely be interested. This is nothing you haven’t seen before in any number of movies (just now underwater), it’s not exactly intellectually stimulating or emotionally involving, and yet the sheer success of the visuals, action orchestration, and the sense of fun override the rest of the detractions for me. It reminds me of the Fast and Furious franchise. I don’t care a lick for any non-Rock/Statham characters; I’m just there for the physics-defying stunts and set pieces. It provides the goods when it comes to action spectacle, and so does this movie. If you’re looking for a 90s throwback to big, fun action movies, then take the dive with Aquaman.
Nate’s Grade: B
Director Sean Baker has become one of indie cinema’s most probing, humanist voices for the outliers of our society. His previous films looked at aspiring adult film industry performers, transsexual prostitutes, and now with The Florida Project, an assortment of low-income and homeless families. The film has been buzzed about by critics for months and has started to pick up some serious awards traction. The film does an admirable job of illuminating a childhood on the fringes of society. I just wish it had done more.
Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) is a young child living in a rundown motel miles from Disney World. Her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), relies chiefly upon hustling Disney tourists to make money. Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the manager of the motel. He’s sympathetic to the families turning their stays into homeless residency, but he also needs rules to be abided and rent money paid. He’s concerned about Halley’s choices and how they are impacting, and will impact, the life of her daughter. Over the course of a few weeks during the hot summer, Moonee’s life will never be the same.
The Florida Project is a slice-of-life drama from the perspective of a young child, and to that end it’s quite immersive and empathetic. Little Moonee and her group of friends feel extensively real, so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if director/co-writer Baker just turned on his camera and simply said, “Go,” and sat back. Much of the movie, and perhaps even half, is watching Moonee and friends play, explore, and interact with a larger world that they don’t fully understand. There are heavier realities kept at the peripheral. Moonee doesn’t know that she and her friends are living in poverty. She doesn’t know that her fun mom is actually an irresponsible parent. She doesn’t know that the weird guy watching them play that Bobby forcefully removes is very likely a pedophile. She doesn’t know the illegal activities of her mother to make ends meet. This limited perspective is also the same given to the audience. A mother/daughter photo session that seems innocuous and a little sweet is later revealed to have seedier ulterior motives. We follow Moonee on her jaunts to investigate the rundown neighborhood, and somehow in that missing time Halley has gained money for rent. It’s not quite a whimsical, romanticized version of life in poverty like the misguided yet critically beloved Beasts of the Southern Wild. Instead, it’s more a selective perspective that focuses on the innocence and imagination of children but without romanticizing the reality of poverty. It’s like a different coming-of-age film where future versions of characters would look back and think about all the things they didn’t know when they were just kids.
Baker and his production do an excellent job of making you feel the day-to-day reality of modern poverty and the struggles of people to simply exist and without condemnation. Halley would be charitably described as a bad mom, and yet she finds ways to provide for her child even if they jeopardize her custody. Halley is far too immature to be responsible for another human being, but not all of the other women are that way. Other women in the purple motel find legal means to provide and they take a concerted interest in the well being of their children. Halley’s adult friend is able to hold down a stable waitress job. Halley is too unruly, immature, and careless to do the same. Halley’s last job was working as a stripper, though she never tries getting a job at what I have to assume are a plethora of competing strip clubs adjacent to the commercial Disney tourist empire. This is very much a visual document of systemic poverty that illuminates the hardscrabble lives of people on the fringes of society trying to stay afloat. It’s rich in details like the knowing swapping of residents between local motels for one day a month to skip past residency declaration laws. It’s an interesting hidden world that feels rarely given this kind of caring close-up.
Baker has a great talent at finding non-actors who have great acting potential to essentially play versions of themselves. From Starlet, Tangerine, and now Florida Project, Baker has a tremendous gift for discovering people. There is an absence of mannered performance tics; the characters feel real because the actors are acting very naturally. These unsupervised kids are behaving like bratty kids. Brooklyn Prince is phenomenal as Moonee and a born performer. She has an innate charm that left me laughing often. Her improvisation is terrific although some of her lines definitely out themselves as being the written ones (“I can always tell when adults are about to cry”). Vinaite (Harmony Korine’s upcoming Beach Bum) is aggravating and yet you still wish that at some point she would turn it around or come to some latent epiphany. Halley feels, infuriatingly, very authentic in every one of her moments. She is dooming her child to a comparable trapped life of limited appeal and escape, but she can’t help herself and only focuses on the immediacy of life when life is so transitory and pessimistic. Dafoe (Murder on the Orient Express) is the moral center of the film and you feel his genuine unease in every pained glance. He has to hold his authority but he’s still very sympathetic for the motel’s collection of people that modern society has easily forgotten about.
With that being said, I understood what Baker and The Florida Project was going for and I found it to be underwhelming because there wasn’t much more than an established world. This is a movie with a very loose definition of plotting. After a while, without a better sense of plot momentum, it all starts to blend together into redundancy. It doesn’t help when many of the scenes can be less than ten seconds long. Here’s Moonee and her pal eating ice cream. Here’s Moonee and her friend running in the rain. Here’s Moonee and her friend hugging. Here’s Moonee in the bathtub. It becomes a lower class triptych of establishing its world and mood, but a little goes a long way. All of that could have been established and sustained in the first act, and then the story could have launched into a greater sense of change. I may lose some hipster critic cred points but as it continued I was partly wishing that the movie had been more conventional. Perhaps Bobby becomes more involved in the life of Moonee, taking custody of her while her mother was missing or going through social services review. He’s already a quasi-surrogate father figure so why not better explore that dynamic? The characters lack a depth to them, partially because we’re following children just being children, partially because we have characters drifting through life. It’s still lacking.
This was another example of an indie film sacrificing character and story to the altar of realism. I wrote a similar complaint in my 2012 pan of Beasts: “But all of these setting details do not take the place of an involving story and characters we should care about. I felt sorry for the various residents and their lot in life, but I never felt attached to any of them. That’s because they’re bland and simplistically drawn, but also because Beasts doesn’t bother to do anything else other than create its rich, tragic, harsh world. It’s authentic all right, but what does all that authenticity have to add to genuine character work? Artistic authenticity is not always synonymous with telling a good story.”
Immersive and genuine, The Florida Project is awash in details for a way of life rarely given this much attention and empathy. The acting is very natural and the young children especially behave recognizably like young children. Keeping the perspective of the film attached to the child is an interesting gamut as it keeps some of the harsher aspects of this world and the people from the same kind of direct exposure. It allows the film to have a degree of innocence without romanticizing poverty as some kind of fairy tale. It was a perfectly fine movie that I just happened to want more from, in particular a non-redundant story with more significant plot events and characters that felt multi-dimensional and developed over the engagement. I kept waiting for more and was simply left waiting. Even the symbolism of being on the outskirts of Disney World, the materialistic “happiest place on Earth,” felt barely toyed with. The Florida Project is a good start to a good movie but it needed continued refinement and attention to be something more than an inquisitive magazine article brought to careful cinematic life.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Take my opinion with all the caution you need when I say this: I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie mysteries. Sacrilege, I know, but I just don’t find enjoyment from a mystery that is too convoluted, oblique, dense, and purposely unable to be solved until the clever detective explains everything. That’s not a mystery that engages an audience; it’s a problem that is followed by an intermediate period of downtime. Murder on the Orient Express is a remake of the 1974 Oscar-winning film, this time with Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as Christie’s brilliant Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. The original film’s appeal wasn’t the story (see above) but in spending time with the colorful suspects played by many older actors decades removed from their Hollywood peak. It was scenery chewing of a first order. The 2017 Orient Express has some slick production design and requisite big name actors but that’s about it. There are a few alterations here and there but the big moments are the same as is the ending, which means it’s another mystery primarily of obfuscation. I just don’t find these fun to watch. I wasn’t bored but I wasn’t really involved. It failed to provide ways for me to connect, to put the clues and pieces together, and confused volume with development. The new actors feel wasted, especially Judi Dench. I was most fascinated by Branagh’s extensive mustache that seems to have grown its own mustache. If you’re a fan of Poirot, Christie, or the original film, there will probably be enough in this new edition to at least tide you over. I wasn’t too sad to get off this train by the end.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Great Wall is the most expensive film in Chinese history and the first major co-production between an American film studio and a Chinese-owned studio. While Matt Damon is the name above the title, it’s filled with recognizable Chinese stars, like Andy Lau, Eddie Peng, and pop star Lu Han. China’s most renowned action filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, serves as the director. It has the look and feel of a Hollywood special effects epic but it’s very much a Chinese film in ownership and execution, perhaps marking a new synergy of East meets West blockbusters. With a whopping budget of $150 million, the same as the last Star Trek movie, it looks like a typical Hollywood big-budget epic with visual spectacle and sweeping vistas. It’s up to the viewer whether a majority-Chinese production successfully imitating Hollywood middlebrow action spectacle is a brave step forward or just another source for mediocrity.
In the 11th centruy, traveling European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal) are looking for black powder, an explosive substance that’s worth serious money back home. A mysterious feral creature attacks them and William cuts off the beast’s hand, taking it as a trophy. The Nameless Order, Chinese military officials stationed at the titular great wall, capture them and want to know exactly how these foreigners were able to defeat this beast. Legend states that long ago a meteor crashed to Earth, and with it came a horde of green monsters with big teeth lead by a queen that psychically controls her thousands of attack drones. Every 60 years the creatures emerge searching for food for their ravenous appetites. The Imperial City must be protected at all costs and that is why the wall was constructed. Lin Mae (Tian Jing) is thrown into command when her male superiors are killed, and she relies upon her unexpected Western allies to throw back the evolving horde of monsters.
As the first major big-budget collaboration between studios in China and the United States, The Great Wall feels like something that would have escaped from the 1990s era of tentpole filmmaking, and it’s clearly a paycheck film for all involved. Now that doesn’t condemn in either regard. There’s a certain charm to the relatively dumb sci-fi action movies that started being prepped with steady regularity in the 1990s when advancing special effects made it possible for hordes of CGI monsters to thwart. There’s an obvious point of engagement that crosses all translations: man versus monsters. The film even somewhat admirably knows its own ridiculousness and embraces it. I was reminded of the go-for-broke silliness of Jerry Bruckheimer’s movies like National Treasure’s positing that maybe, just maybe, there’s a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. This feels like the biggest budget Asylum movie you can imagine, and that in itself is not necessarily a problem. However, because of the mechanical nature of so much of its storytelling and the safe territory it resolutely occupies, The Great Wall is a mediocre monster movie that aims right down the middle for cross-continental mass appeal and nothing more. I’m almost certain that Damon had to have been paid $20 million dollars to justify his participation. The actors and the director go about their business in a professional manner but you feel the lack of passion. It’s a film looking to appeal to the most people and losing any sense of distinction.
Credit director Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) for keeping the film on life support, providing just enough action variety and pleasing visuals to stir an audience awake. The monsters are introduced very early into the film, around the twenty-minute mark, and their CGI horde definitely presents a worthy challenge. In fact they feel too overwhelming in their numbers. Early on we see that the ferocious creatures, which closely resemble the Ghostbusters demon dog painted green, are hard to kill outside of a straight shot to their shoulder-eyes (they have eyes on their shoulders… because…). The first creature that successfully scales the wall takes out a slew of Chinese warriors. If one of these things is that hard to kill, how in the world can a limited number of people, even with high ground, defend against a sea of a hundred thousand? The mismatched numbers deflate the stakes and lessen the tension, which isn’t helped from subpar characterization. The world building is certainly hazy (Why do they come out once every 60 years? Why do magnets affect them? Why all the effort for small food supplies?) and some of the elements feel inserted just for their “cool” factor. A group of female warriors bungee jump off platforms to spear the monsters, but why is this necessary when we’ve already seen that China has fiery projectiles that are far more effective? It is cool though.
Thankfully a movie with little going for it other than spectacle at least knows to vary up its action sequences. Each encounter with one of the monsters is structured differently. The best sequence may be William and Tovar navigating through a blinding fog and relying upon the sounds of whizzing arrows to alert them to approaching hungry monsters. It provides some fun tension and pop-out moments. There’s a beautiful sequence commemorating a fallen friend with the launching of hundreds of floating lanterns. The concluding sequence involves our remaining characters climbing to the top of a pagoda lined with stained glass. As the characters rush up flights of stairs, the screen is lovingly diluted with colored shafts of light, which also add extra visual flourishes when the monsters begin to leap through the glass level by level. Yimou’s use of color has always been a hallmark of his career and it translates even into the color-coded amour of the different divisions of the Nameless Order. They look like ancient Power Rangers. While lacking a great deal of overall tension due to its predictable nature and dull characters, there are fleeting moments of suspense drawn out in individual action set-pieces. The overall movie is generally unremarkable CGI carnage reminiscent of a too-late Lord of the Rings rip-off, and yet there’s at least a general professionalism to its unremarkable CGI carnage.
Early on the movie was hit with accusations of whitewashing, and given Hollywood’s recent track record with the likes of Exodus, Aloha, and Gods of Egypt, it would be entirely conceivable that producers felt Damon needed to be a white savior role. That’s not the case at all and in fact the Chinese forces are shown to be flawless specimens. Damon’s character is the out-of-place European (complete with hard to place accent) who represents selfish and arrogant Western attitudes. He’s routinely awed by the ability and precision of the Chinese warriors, who dutifully sacrifice for the greater good and safety of others they will never know. They are symbols of power, teamwork, courage, strength, and dignity. The lessons can be rather blunt (a woman… in charge?!). The portrayal of the Chinese forces is so honorable and so empowered that they come across as boring moral paragons without an ounce of traceably human nuance. They don’t come across like characters so much as interchangeable warriors, and so when they start dying one-by-one their sacrifices ultimately leave little impact. It turns out that the non-Chinese actors, Damon and Pascal, supply the most interesting characters because their roles are allowed personality, basic moral ambiguity, and inner conflict beyond a sense of duty and the requirements of achieving that duty. The Great Wall drafts off Damon’s worldwide star power to teach him a lesson about Eastern values. It certainly presents China and Chinese characters in a very positive perspective, but being so broad sanitizes their humanity and transforms people into boring paragons.
Given the pedigree of those involved, it’s completely expected to be underwhelmed by the end results of such an expensive East meets West collaboration. The Great Wall is ultimately too safe and stately to satisfy beyond generic genre thrills; lowering one’s expectations is highly advised in order to properly appreciate the goofy action spectacle. The Great Wall of China being constructed to protect from a horde of ravenous, possibly extraterrestrial monsters is certainly a silly premise, but the movie doesn’t pretend it’s anything than what it is, a large-scale monster movie with a sense of fun. It’s not soaked in deconstructive irony or meta commentary. Instead, The Great Wall is a straight-laced action spectacle that treats its absurdity with conviction. It’s not much better or worse than other empty-headed big-budget action cinema from the Hollywood assembly line, but is that progress? Is making an indistinguishable mediocre B-movie a success story?
Nate’s Grade: C
John Wick hits you like a breath of fresh air. The plot isn’t anything new. Once again a semi-retired hitman (Keanu Reeves) is pulled back into the fray. Once again Russian mobsters are the primary villains, a popular adversarial force in the fall of 2014. What makes Wick an enjoyable throwback is its dedication to action staging that is crisp, balletic, but most importantly, clear and engrossing action. Reeves may not be as agile as he once was when he first learned kung-fu, but the man still has some serious moves, and the action choreography and stuntwork of Wick allows him to display them in long takes with lots of decisive movement. It’s no Raid 2, but it’s well ahead of most American action films of late. There’s a nice variety of action along with lots of casual headshots, which seems only natural for a trained hitman. Then there are the small touches that add intrigue and help it stand from the pack, notably a hotel with an exclusive clientele of hitmen and women who must abide by a set of rules while on “safe ground.” It’s just enough to make a well-worn genre start to feel different again. The problem with John Wick, however, is that it runs out of steam too quickly, peaking right at the beginning of Act Three. There’s a whole other twenty minutes where the film has to establish a new antagonist to get us to the finish line. It just feels like John Wick accomplishes his goal too quickly and the movie doesn’t know exactly what to do after. The conclusion of several storylines feel clumsy, drawn out, and anticlimactic. But when it’s working, John Wick is a stylish and bloody action thriller that is fun and with the right sense of macabre humor to halt it from ever getting too laboriously serious.
Nate’s Grade: B
With a premise involving two teenagers with terminal cancer, you’d be correct to assume that The Fault in Our Stars is a sad experience. It wants to be an unsentimental version of the Big Cancer Weepie, like a more hip version of Love Story. It wants to obliterate your tear ducts but in a way that won’t make you roll your eyes from an overdose of maudlin material. Based upon John Green’s international best-selling young adult novel, the doomed romance of the year has already devastated millions of moviegoers. Is it the feel-bad movie of the summer with a soundtrack Zach Braff would approve?
Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) is a 16-year-old girl dealing with lung cancer. She lugs around an oxygen canister to her group therapy sessions, really to everywhere she goes. Her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) try and give her enough space, try to make her feel like a normal teenager, but they all know what is coming. Then one day at group therapy she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a tall, handsome, effortlessly confident young man in remission himself (he had a leg amputated from cancer). Gus hones his sights on wooing Hazel, winning her over. She resist at first but then finds herself falling for the charming fella (“I fell for him like falling asleep; at first slowly, then all at once.”).
With constant life and death stakes and the certainty of a young life, it would be easy for the film to go overboard with its emotional histrionics, and yet the real grace of the film is its more realistic approach to portraying this life. It just doesn’t seem fair for someone so young to be stricken with a deadly disease that will pluck him or her from the Earth before settling into adulthood, but these things happen. Hazel and Gus are characters that aren’t begging for sympathy or even special treatment; they’re tired of being treated like lab specimens too fragile to be left on their own. It’s easy to lose the person when the outside world completely identifies them as afflicted. The skill of this movie is that it’s heavy with drama and sadness but it doesn’t quite overwhelm, at least until the last act. Until then, much like the characters, the movie finds the moments of happiness, connection, and tenderness with human contact. You feel the bursts of nerves and excitement over the flirty connection between Gus and Hazel. You’ll enjoy the couple-y moments they share, finding their own identity as a pair, like claiming “okay” as their own secret coded language. You’ll feel warm and fuzzy over that first kiss. It’s a winning pairing that produces a steady stream of sweet exchanges and discoveries. This is something of a silver lining movie that can make you ruefully smile through your tears.
But as a Big Cancer Weepie, and with two suffering lovers, there is a definite cloud that hangs over the entire movie. You’re nervously waiting for some sort of turn for the worse. From a storytelling standpoint, I think every ticket-buyer knows with two cancer-stricken leads that at least one of them will be dead before the end credits. And so we wait for the bad news, wait for that other shoe to drop, and this unsettling dread permeates the first half of the movie, tainting all those happy couple moments. Gus and Hazel have several cute moments, but I found myself holding back, waiting for the proverbial hammer to drop on their small shared happiness, and sure enough it will come. The entire third act is dominated by one character’s descent into terminal. For the sake of spoilers I won’t say which, though readers with keen analytical skills can likely guess which of the pair is more expendable from a plot standpoint. It’s at this point when the movie transitions from sad to full-blown weepie, looking to draw out every last tear. With the diagnosis set, our couple heads toward that date with oblivion, and we get all sorts of weight heart-to-hearts, teens grappling with their own legacy, and even a practice funeral for friends to say exactly how much the soon-to-be-departed loved one mattered. Every step is wrung out, even to the point of one last letter/message before death that serves as the closing, considerate voice over. It’s hard to resist the cumulative effect of all these big dramatic plays at your emotions (I got teary at several points but held my ground).
The question arises at what point is this blatant emotional manipulation? The first half of The Fault in Our Stars finds a balance between the heaviness and the levity of first love, grounding its characters and their emotional highs. However, with that aforementioned turn of sullen events, the plot then becomes one long series of Sad Ruminations. What will the friends do without their pal? What will the family do? What does this harsh realization do to other terminal characters and their own family relationships? What about coming to grips with certain death? And then there’s the practice funeral. For a movie and a set of characters that refused to dwell in a pit of sadness, that’s all that the second half of the movie feels like. It also feels like the two-hour-plus plot is overextended to squeeze in one sad ruminating scene after another. In a way, it reminded me of the onslaught of emotional punishment that was the last act of Marley & Me, an otherwise enjoyable movie that devastated every dog owner by its conclusion. It feels a bit much.
And this leads me to another issue with the adaptation process, namely that Gus is actually a character with little depth to him. He’s a smiling, immensely likeable figure who doggedly pursues Hazel and falls for her hard. But what is he as a person? He’s overly confident, compassionate to others, witty, charming, but these are more superficial descriptions than deeper analysis. I suppose one could argue he’s just decided to embrace life smiling, but for the most part Gus comes across as a prime figure of squishy wish fulfillment. He’s too good to be true, and with a lack of stronger characterization, that’s the way he plays. Now, I certainly liked the character and found Elgort (Divergent) to be a charming lad, but when the film transitioned to sadder territory, my feelings felt blunted. I would have felt more for this couple had Gus felt more like a real person.
It’s a good thing then that Hazel is the protagonist and main point of view, especially when Shailene Woodley as lead actress. I’ve raved about Woodley before, particularly last year’s underrated Spectacular Now, but every new leading performance is further proof that she is one of her generation’s best young actresses. There is no artificiality in this woman’s body. Her performances are master classes in exuding naturalism, blending into the character, finding subtle ways to express a wide range of emotions; seriously, this woman can express so much just with a tilt of her head and the right kind of smile. Woodley is terrific once again, instantly locking in your sympathy. Her trial of love and suffering run the danger of being heavy-handed but Woodley seamlessly anchors the movie, guiding the audience back to her sphere whenever things get too overwrought. When she tears up, I teared up. When she unleashes a howl of grief, I had to fight every impulse in my body to join her. Her chemistry with Elgort is suitable if unspectacular, but Woodley sells every emotion and without a hint of artifice. If she were in a Big Cancer Weepie, you’d never know it given the skill of her performance.
I can’t imagine there will be much surprise for anyone who watches The Fault in Our Stars. Two young lovers with terminal cancer have a way of writing itself. What separates this story from other sappy tearjerkers is its presentation and perspective. This is a movie that flirts between jaded and maudlin, scoffing at the overt sentimentality of grief culture yet finding a middle ground that feels humane and honest and earned. Woodley’s strong, emotive performance helps ground the film even when the long string of manipulation begins. I wish Gus was a stronger character rather than a charming romantic compliment, a dream boyfriend who indeed comes across as too good to be true. I wish the movie also would not get swallowed up by the heavier elements it found balance with before. With all that being said, this is an engaging drama first and an amiable romance second. You may see the end coming from the start, but the same can be said about all of us. We all know how our own story is going to end. The only difference is the people we touch in between the start and the stop. That is our lasting legacy. The Fault in Our Stars is more a journey than a destination, and it does enough right with enough sincerity and intelligence to endure the pain.
Nate’s Grade: B
When Danish film director Lars von Trier said he wanted his next movie to be “porn” he wasn’t kidding. The controversial filmmaker wanted to explore the world of a woman addicted to sex, following her history of varied experiences over the course of two movies/volumes. Actors lined up for the notoriously demanding filmmaker. During the sex scenes, computer effects magic married the actors’ faces and upper bodies with the lower parts of porn stars. Upper half, Charlotte Gainsbourg, lower half, some pornographic double, all spliced together into one onscreen human being. Think about that little special effects ground-breaker, putting Hollywood faces into hardcore sex scenes. Knowing von Trier’s pessimistic tendencies, and his penchant for heaping abuse upon his female leads to the point of uncomfortable exploitation, you may rightly cringe about the prospect of a von Trier “erotic” movie. That’s the funny thing about Nymphomaniac; it’s all about sex, sometimes graphically so, but it’s never erotic. It’s an intriguing, sometimes maddening look at human sexuality and our inhibitions and frailties, until a horrible ending spoils it. In the end, von Trier just couldn’t help himself.
The story boils down to this: Joe (Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as the younger version) is found beaten and unconscious in an alley. The kindly, monk-like Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her, brings her back to his home, and tends to her wounds. Joe says she brought all of her pain upon herself. Seligman finds this hard to believe. She uncorks a lengthy series of tales about her sexual awakening and desires.
In many ways, Lars von Trier is the best and worst candidate to present a four-hour opus on the life and times of an avowed nymphomaniac. The man approaches the idea of sex addiction in practically the most clinical way possible while still being cinematic. You can practically envision Seligman as a stand-in for von Trier, countering Joe’s sense of shame with a broader, scientific perspective. Really, this is the tale of a woman spilling her guts about all her dirty little secrets and a man nodding along, asking questions, and dismissing her self-loathing with his reason and empathy. It’s sort of like being inside a therapist’s office. I can’t say whether or not I find all the analogous asides to be interesting or simply insufferable pretension. While Joe is detailing her behavior, Seligman will stop her and provide further context, often bringing in such subjects as fly fishing, the mating habits of fish, the Fibonacci sequence, Eastern Orthodoxy, and classical music. It’s almost absurd how encouraging Seligman is, dismissing every action of Joe’s sordid past through an example. After a while, it almost becomes a humorous game all its own, as we know Seligman will use every story as a stepping off point to some weird outside connection. Every item in Seligman’s bare bedroom inspires a story from Joe, which leads to a suspicion that she is something of a salacious Keyser Soze, piecing together her story on the spot; some of the coincidences with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) seems just a bit too much. Seligman’s enlightened and intellectual asides force the audience to consider deeper meaning with Joe’s actions. Is she irredeemable, does she have control over what she’s doing, is she doing anything even bad? Over the four hours of psychological examination, the doctor is out. Nymphomaniac, especially in Volume Two, is the best film yet on sex addiction. It doesn’t demonize the behavior, it doesn’t treat it as sensationalistic, and it doesn’t overtly judge its lead characters and the choices they make, nor does it spare them the devastating consequences.
The graphic nature of the film is getting all the headlines but Nymphomaniac treats its heroine as an addict trying to get a hold of herself. We begin with young Joe innocently discovering her sexuality, especially discovering the pull she can have over an almost endless parade of weak-willed men who will follow her every whim. If that was the only plot, then there would be little separating von Trier’s film from any late-night cable erotic series (“Oh, let me tell you the time I met this man and we did this…” –Repeat). Over the two movies, we get a stronger sense of how utterly trapped she is by her urges, by her addiction. When she’s dealing with the undignified death of her father, Joe finds whatever solace she can with a willing bedmate. She places herself in precarious situations chasing after that orgiastic high, which disappears at the conclusion of Volume One. The cliffhanger separating the two volumes is that Joe loses her ability to feel sexual pleasure, which is rather problematic for a nymphomaniac. And so in Volume Two, Joe desperately searches for a means to get her groove back, at one point abandoning her own child so that she can pursue her kink. Joe goes to counseling, joins a sex addict group (she bristles at the term and prefers “nymphomaniac”), and tries to detox, at one point removing everything vaguely sexual from her apartment, including anything knob-shaped.
The film is structured as a series of vignettes and anecdotes, broken up with von Trier’s tried-and-true onscreen chapter system. As expected for a film based around anecdotes, some stories are more interesting or revealing or simply entertaining than others. The stories are a little more whimsical in Volume One but by the time we get to Volume Two, they become more punishing and sad. It’s one thing to bet your promiscuous gal pal who will have sex with the most people on one train ride home, or on a prank to stick a restaurants dining utensil up your vagina, but it’s another when an adult woman, night after night, leaves her toddler at home so she MAY have the opportunity to have her behind whipped. The young Joe stories are easier to shake off as youthful experimentation and thrill seeking, which Seligman rationalizes as well. However, they set up just exactly the path that the adult Joe was destined for. The tales in Volume Two have to ratchet up the stakes, given Joe’s absent mojo, so what was once titillating can become downright disturbing. von Trier’s four hours offer plenty of feel-bad feel-good opportunities along the human sexuality sphere. Adult Joe thinks introducing a language barrier could be enticing, so she asks an African immigrant if he’ll have sex with her. He agrees, but brings his brother along. The two men bicker in a different language, while Joe sits there, head slumped against her hand, comically waiting for these two naked men, their penises wagging in the foreground of the camera, to get to business. It’s quite a funny and ludicrous turn of events.
One story in Volume One stands out for its raw emotional power. Joe has a whole schedule of lovers visiting her door. Well one such older man wanted to have Joe all to himself but her price was high: he had to leave his wife, “Mrs. H.” Surprise, he does, and Joe is already uncertain if this new arrangement is what she wanted; her offer was better in the theoretical sense that he would never cross that line. Well the misses (played with chomping disgust by Uma Thurman) comes for a visit and she brings her kids along. She wants her children to see what their daddy traded them away for. At first, the wife acts civil with some stinging passive-aggression, but the uncomfortable incident is dragged out, and the emotions reach a fever pitch, with crying all around. It’s so uncomfortable, so potent, and so memorable, forcing Joe, and the audience, to think of the ripples of consequences from simple sexual dalliances. While Joe is having her fun, unbeknownst to her, there are far-ranging consequences that she, and by extension the audience, choose to ignore because all those pesky details would get in the way of our fun.
The most troublesome storyline is also one of the longest, with Joe having her backside swatted by a no-nonsense sadist played by Jamie Bell (Man on a Ledge). This guy insists there will be no penetration and his rules are to be followed strictly. It starts out intriguing to get a sense of who this guy is and what his practices will be. Joe has to sit with other women between the hours of 2-4 AM, and maybe she’ll get picked. Night after night, she goes through this setup, so desperate to feel the spark of desire again. This situation feels like it goes on forever. There is no easy climax. Rather it sets up the darker turn for Joe’s character, as she gives up being a mother and a wife. To make ends meet she becomes a debt collector, using her knowledge of men, particularly heir weaknesses, to coax them back into paying. There’s one disarming moment when she takes great pity on a pedophile that will surprise you, and it’s the only incident that causes Seligman to disapprove. Her boss (Willem Dafoe) advises her to think of an eventual replacement she can groom, and his method is singling out a young girl with no support, becoming her world, and slowly manipulating her to do your every wish. In a von Trier film, that is what a retirement 401k package looks like. This whole storyline, including her young mark (Mia Goth) romantically falling for her would-be maternal figure, just feels misplaced, like von Trier doesn’t know how to bring his four-hour opus to a close.
That’s because he doesn’t! This paragraph is going to delve into the conclusion of Nymphomaniac, so be warned that there will be major spoilers being discussed. If you wish to remain pure, skip to the next paragraph. During Volume One, I had the unmistakable feeling that all of this had to be leading somewhere. It wasn’t just going to be one woman distilling her life stories over the course of one night. I also figured there had to be a reason for why Seligman would rationalize every one of Joe’s actions, shifting blame away from herself. And there’s truth to what he says, namely that the world judges Joe far more harshly for her actions because she happens to be a woman committing them. If a man was performing the same stunts, or left his family, he would not be seen as damningly. Then early on in Volume Two, Seligman reveals himself as asexual, a man born without any sexual desire. He argues he’s the perfect person to hear out Joe’s tales of woe, as he can objectively analyze them free from lust and desire and titillation. Then, by the end of volume Two, Joe as decided to change her ways. She wants to be someone different, someone better. She’s turned the corner. What, a glimmer of well earned hope emerging at the end of a von Trier film? That’s impossible. This natural ending is destroyed thanks to von Trier’s nihilistic perspective; he just can’t help himself. And so, though it makes no narrative sense and seems completely out of character, Seligman comes back to Joe, tries to rape her, and is then shot dead. That’s the end. Every man is a deviant. It just completely undoes Seligman’s entire perspective, as von Trier abandons whatever gains he’s made over four hours for what amounts to a groan-worthy joke. It is without question one of the worst, most misguided endings I’ve seen in a film. It makes the previous four hours feel like a lousy setup for a lousier joke.
It’s a shame because Gainsbourg gives a terrific performance as the older Joe. The actress is no stranger to von Trier and his sadomasochist ways, having also starred in Antichrist and Melancholia. You get a sense of her character’s desperation, the thrills of her youth now gone. She’s also grappling with her own fallibility, the anger that comes from that, her antipathy with others, and the regrets and jealousy that penetrate her hard exterior (no pun intended). She’s trying to act above society, an operator who plays by a different set of rules, but it’s fascinating when the emotions reveal themselves from the sensations. And Gainsbourg puts all of herself into this role, submitting to her character’s many mental and physical tortures. Even if she has a body double pasted in, it’s still representational of her and Joe. Gainsbourg manages to draw us in, not wanting our sympathy but eventually earning it. Martin, as young Joe, gets just as much screen time as Gainsbourg, but there’s a vacancy there to her acting, a certain passivity that makes young Joe feel more like a spectator than a participant in her life. Skarsgard (Thor: the Dark World) is an appealing foil for Joe, almost comical in how accepting he is and how excited he can get with his digressive connections. The only other actor of note in the large ensemble is LaBeouf (Transformers) who affects a strange accent but sticks with it. We’ll see if his self-imposed exile from Hollywood and acting sticks as well.
I’ve spent this entire review talking about everything else rather than detailing the nature of the graphic sex, the point that earned Nymphomaniac much of its curiosity with the general public. That’s because the explicit nature of the sex is inconsequential. I understand that that may sound odd for a movie literally called Nymphomaniac, but that’s because von Trier’s movie is less interested in the salacious and tawdry acts and more about deconstructing a life lived and the increasingly fraught rationale for her choices. Much like Blue is the Warmest Color, the graphic sex is the headliner, and it is occasionally graphic and unsimulated, with more than a few vaginal close-ups. The sex is incidental, a symptom of the human condition, and von Trier’s less-than-sensational look at such a sensational topic grounds the movie intellectually. With Nymphomaniac, von Trier is posing questions, pushing his audience to question our own views on sexuality and concepts of normalcy and what is and isn’t in good taste. We’re prurient creatures lapping up all the dirty details and copious amounts of nudity, but the introspection is what sticks, and it’s an incisive character study that opens up in many beguiling, illuminating, and surprisingly relatable ways…. Until the end. There’s no way to account for Nymphomaniac and just forget the ending. Four hours and for what? I cannot fathom what von Trier was going for rather than a return to his M.O. of humanity resorting to casual cruelty. If you can bear it, Nymphomaniac is a fitfully entertaining film, provocative to the end, and then it all slips away thanks to cinema’s worst practical joker.
Volume 1: B-
Volume 2: C+
The Ending: F
Nate’s Grade Overall: B
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