Some people call me the Stephen Hawking of film review. Not because I have overcome any obstacle whatsoever to bring you this measly post once a year, and not because I am able to understand or convey anything of or with significant intelligence, and not even because I often drive my kids to the bus stop in the morning when it’s just down the block. In all honesty, no one has ever called me the Stephen Hawking of film review. However! Once again I will seek to connect the prominent films of the past year under one unifying theory:
With the rare exception of an unheralded festival breakthrough, no film is appreciated in a vacuum. We live in a world that strategically creates, venerates, and aggressively concentrates on expectations. As such, there are films that defy expectations, whether falling short or surpassing them, and then there are those that hit it just about right.
With media, both social and archaic, so obnoxiously prevalent, the hype and expectations precede (and even at times supersede) the work itself. Doesn’t it seem that there is often as much attention given to how satisfying the teaser as the film it teases? Never mind the final product is being edited, not to be released for fourteen months…but can you believe how underwhelming (and downright insulting!) the sixty second preview was?! Movies are often shredded and degraded based on casting choices, directing choices, leaked on set photos, or even unsubstantiated rumors.
So the job of the critical or professional analyst (or even the thoughtful enthusiast), is to let the movie breath. To make sure we are consuming and judging the product – the film itself – and not the movie we were encouraged and programmed to expect. And certainly not to be swayed by public opinion, which may boil down to nothing more than who tweeted first and loudest.
As the years go by and the media onslaught will continue to snowball, those who seek reasonable conversations about film need to be up for this challenge. There is debate, there is sensationalism, and there is argument for argument’s sake. There is praise, hype, and there is fanatical fawning. There is critique and there is hostility. It is our job to rise above the fray and remember the difference.
No film tantalized and tested this dynamic more than
Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s mind and time bending epic that arrived as an enigmatic package on our doorstep in the guise of a galactic tsunami.
When you have the sort of genre and artistic success of a Chris Nolan, the expectations are in place with or without tweets, blogs, or a panel at Comic Con. When your shoots are notoriously cloaked in secrecy, you are, arguably with intention, setting your own lofty bar.
Interstellar ponders the great mysteries of the universe and space a la Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, and presents it in a layered, labyrinthine approach imitative of Nolan’s own Inception. What is somewhat troubling is that Interstellar does not equal the sum of its parts. It is no better than either film, nor does it represent an evolution for Nolan. This comment is probably (okay, definitely) unfair, but it’s important to note. It is unfair because it suggest that Interstellar, a very good, smart, provocative film, grand in scope, suffers only in comparison to its predecessors (its parents), which were far more impressive and memorable. While that argument is valid, Nolan’s more than generous nods to these prior films evoke them so starkly, it precludes his asking us to view Interstellar on its own terms. The comparison is not only necessary, but premeditated.
Regardless of this design flaw, there is much to enjoy with Interstellar. Even more to think about.
It’s frightening to accept that the one perfectly relatable element of this recklessly (in a commendable way) imaginative odyssey is that we have irreparably broken our planet. Witnessing Nolan and his brother Jonathan’s script’s interpretation/premonition about our future – where corn is our only surviving crop and dust overwhelms the atmosphere like a plague, is entirely believable (predetermined, expected…). Who could honestly deny that the earliest signs of our extinction are faintly visible on the dark horizon? So Nolan has us on board, trusting in his enormously ambitious vision, which is no small victory. The leap from there; that (apparently) the last man who remembers and yearns for the past (though he is curiously not that old) also happens to be a space explorer – at heart, by nature, and in expertly trained actuality – and the Earth’s final hope…well, that requires a healthy dose of faith. And aptly so, since Nolan’s film is very much about faith. Not the religious kind, since G-d does not factor in, but of the “we are not alone” kind.
That the universe contains phenomena eons beyond us while at the same time intimately close is a beautiful concept and Interstellar seeks to orchestrate its own moment of revelation. It certainly builds deftly toward it. The question is only whether the audience is carried along in the spirit. This was a question M. Night Shyamalan asked of us a number of times when he was the biggest idea man in Hollywood. And the answer was yes, yes!, YES!!!…until it was no.
Interstellar revels, almost indulges, in two arenas. One is the tear ducts of its stars, and the other is the visual and theoretical marvels of space-time.
Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, our ever-rugged, ever-ingenious philosopher prophet, and Anne Hathaway is Brand, a melancholy straight arrow, too young, lithe, and swanlike to shoulder the future of humanity, and they each get their poignant soliloquies and opportunities to cry, and cry, and cry. Jessica Chastain as Cooper’s grown up daughter is able to well up for the camera as well. But what do all the tears amount to? Was this Nolan taking a baby step toward Kubrick or slipping into a comfort zone, however prestigious.
I would argue the latter. That Interstellar is a film that suffered under the weight of its expectations.
Way over on the opposite end of this spectrum is
Edge of Tomorrow (clumsily titled, then clumsily retitled Live Die Repeat, all based on the cleverly titled Hiroshi Sakurazaka novel All You Need is Kill). Like Interstellar, we are in the science fiction, time bending, alien encounter genre, but alas, we approach with far different expectations, which colors the entire experience.
There was a time when a Tom Cruise movie meant something – something bigger than young moviegoers can relate to. There is no contemporary comparison. We live in a post-box-office-draw era. Movie stars don’t bring people to the cinema anymore; media does.
It has been announced that Cruise has signed up for his 5th Mission Impossible movie. This should boggle the collective mind of a generation. That the most dominant and dynamic leading man of the past thirty years has been forced to cling to a not particularly beloved or celebrated franchise to keep his mojo going.
There was a time when a Doug Liman film meant something. Liman burst onto the scene in 1996 with a no-budget, slick as hell riot called Swingers; which launched the careers of Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, and a number of irritating, however money, catchphrases. What followed was Go, a sharp caper in the frenetic Quentin Tarantino style with all of young, hip Hollywood along for the ride. With that success and newfound credibility, bigger offers came, and Liman found himself directing massive budgeted action thrillers such as The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Jumper. And with those well executed, but generic popcorn flicks, Liman’s roots as a smart, edgy, hungry filmmaker were forgotten.
Cruise and Liman have been an afterthought for a decade. When was the last timeeither was a must see. When was the last time either was hungry?
Cruise is respected for his body of work, but between Scientology jokes and few and far between memorable films, his luster has been severely diminished. Not gone. With a smile like his, that reminds us in an instant of Maverick, Daniel Kaffee, Jerry Maguire, gone is impossible. But it’s merely a luster that reflects very sweet nostalgia.
How wonderful then that this collaboration between Cruise and Liman is one of the most watchable, brilliant, charming, and satisfying films of the year. And, yes, satisfying has a dual meaning in this context. On one hand, for fans of certain age, to see Mr. Cruise prove his wattage still shines bright. But also, and more-so, rewarding and almost pride inducing to find a summer blockbuster that had critics rallying audiences, practically begging audiences to give it a shot. It was as if those who saw the film expecting the worst, or at least the mundane, were stopped in their tracks. They were ready to pounce on another vacuous Cruise vanity project (Jack Reacher, Oblivion, Knight and Day) and….wait…wait a second! Film reviewers became matchmakers clamoring for audiences to give the old withered romance another shot.
Strangely enough, Edge of Tomorrow happens to be about giving Cruise’s soft military officer, William Cage, a second chance, and a third, fourth, fifth, and you get the idea. It is a bold concept which could have easily resulted in tedium, but not in Liman’s hands (with a standing ovation for editors James Herbert and Laura Jennings). We are privileged to watch Tom Cruise awaken each day to repeat (or change) the steps he must take to save mankind from annihilation. And I didn’t even get to an ass-kicking Emily Blunt or the real good stuff. To echo my brothers and sisters: Go See This Movie!
Somewhere between the high expectations of Interstellar and low ones for Edge of Tomorrow falls Guardians of the Galaxy.
There were so many reasons Guardians of the Galaxy should have failed. And I mean failed on the Battlefield Earth, Pluto Nash, John Carter level. Its background plot is a tad complicated and requires a working knowledge of the Marvel universe. It’s based on a group of heroes that even comic book fans would deem obscure. Its lead was Chris Pratt, last not seen as a voice from the Lego Movie and last seen as a minor character on an Amy Poehler comedy series. Its biggest stars, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, were relegated to voice-work emanating from a raccoon and a single-phrase-grumbling tree person, respectively. The rest of the cast is covered in makeup rendering anyone of note nearly unrecognizable. The director had not a single impressive directing credit on his resume. And finally…has Marvel really been anything more than hit or miss over the past decade? Sure, their productions earn a boatload, but in terms of really giving us bangs for our bucks…it’s been more of a mass X-ploitation as we are nothing more than insects caught in their massive entertainment web.
By now, we all know, that despite all these disadvantages, James Gunn’s summer extravaganza was not only critically acclaimed, but was the most smashing financial success of the year.
How did they do it? How did a film with low expectations floating in a cosmic sea of big expectations deliver so resoundingly?
We begin with a plot that involves treaties between alien races we have never been introduced to and characters that have grudges and histories that are never fully explained or explored. While this does not equal the dryness of Star Wars’ endless Trade Federation nonsense, if handled poorly, it could have had audiences throwing up the
“I Don’t Care” flag. Instead, Guardians wisely and gracefully sidesteps much of the foundation to cut to the action. By not grinding to expository or narrator driven halts, the film uses attitudes, reactions, music, and story (as the saying goes: show me, don’t tell me) to deliver its messages. Without much ado, we are exactly where we need to be, identifying the role players and comfortably grounded. I mean, if John C. Reilly is your police chief, we pretty much know you are the really fun and likable good guys. Totally worth saving/guardian-ing.
Okay, so we may not have heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy exactly before the film was announced. And if we did, we may not have known whether they hopped the same planets as Warlock or Superman or Savage Dragon or Turok Dinosaur Hunter. But comic book sophistication is also made a non-issue (no pun intended) by Gunn and Nicole Pearlman’s straight forward, easily navigable script. The screenplay (adapted from Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s story) does an exceptional job of incorporating this film into the pre-existing and percolating Marvel cinematic universe. We already know what an infinity stone is and, basically, Gunn tells us…that’s all you need to know. Everyone wants it and we best make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Let’s get it on!
At the same time, the introduction of these Guardians wakes us up to such new and exciting possibilities. That Marvel knows they have some real gems in the old vault and will not be resting on their Avenger laurels.
One last word…and it’s about Pratt, who plays team leader Peter Quill, though this rakish bandit prefers to be called Star-Lord (now, doesn’t that nuance, casually inserted, speak volumes – more than any flashback explaining such a quirk could). There is nothing like an unexpected, pre-fame, pre-accolades, pure as the morning dew performance. Pratt will only get away with it a few times – where everything about his mannerisms and delivery are new and refreshing. Eventually we will become accustomed to it (he headlines the next big Jurassic Park movie), and his aura will fade somewhat. But let us appreciate this moment. Where we can watch Guardians of the Galaxy in full blown awe and admiration. Where Chris Pratt is newly discovered, dancing obliviously to his awesome mix and is still waiting to be admired.
Using the same methodology, but jumping categories (hey, I’m the theorizer here!), we arrive at a film that hits on all cylinders under the shadow of sizeable expectations. Unlike anything we have yet discussed, Gone Girl is the exception to the rule. Where expectations and execution meet in elegant, symphonic synchronicity. We have the beloved source material with passionate fan-base. We have the director carrying a sparkling track record. We have the star (yes, we live in a post-modern Ben Affleck era). We have a supporting cast that both comforts and peaks our interest. Although it confoundingly appears to be off the Best Picture radar, David Fincher’s devilishly succulent morsel serves as one of the great, most complete, tantalizing, and satiating entertainments of the year.
The morning after Gone Girl is a foggy, uneasy one. You wake up disoriented, still shaky from the assaulting, dagger twisting spectacle. Even before you can fully digest the experience, you respect its power, like a wide receiver might respect an adversary following a menacing hit over the middle. Yet, despite this reverence, I also found myself poking the film…to test it; to see how it withstood some recoil. Scraping at minor narrative discrepancies to find if they’d bleed, and if so how badly. Would they trickle and quickly scab over or become gushing geysers of gore. Could Gone Girl really have been as relentlessly tight a masterwork in performance, pacing, plot, artistic merit, and fun as it seemed? Did Fincher, writer Gillian Flynn (both the novel and the screenplay), and Rosamund Pike as the titular gone girl really just pull of such a trick?
Now, I must admit as may be already obvious, I never read Flynn’s bestseller and therefore my rapture had as much to do with exquisite visual storytelling as being carried along in the winding current of a killer yarn.
There are many ways to grip an audience – show-stopping musical numbers, eye-popping special effects, violence, sex, snappy dialogue – but nothing electrifies quite like a good old fashioned mystery. And Gone Girl’s mystery comes fully charged and crackling (again, presuming you have not read the book first).
Rosamund Pike seizes the hell out of an opportunity to join the A-list. She has stood out before in smaller roles, both dramatic (Barney’s Version), romantic (Surrogates) and even vicious (Die Another Day), but Amy Dunne gives her a defining role; a career maker. Something to own and call her own. And Ben Affleck continues to avoid the roles that originally placed him on the A-list, and he has accomplished a transformation that few have ever executed so proficiently. Talk about earning a full pardon.
Besides the big screen upon which images are cast, Fincher projects the movie upon Affleck’s simpleton face and vanilla-blank expression. Without Affleck’s inscrutability, we have nothing. Fincher needed a blank canvas to unfold his layers, flaps, bows, and ribbons. And Affleck, whether he is in reality the smart guy who made Argo or the dumb guy who rode Matt Damon’s coattails to fame, obliges. Everyone obliges.
There is not a false note in the cast. From larger, juicier parts, like Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), delightfully chewing scenery, to Tyler Perry as a slick yet down to earth lawyer, to Sela Ward as an icy interviewer, each performance is box-cutter sharp.
What begins as a beguiling whodunit takes an abrupt, choke on your popcorn turn midway through and, believe it or not, the ride is just getting started. Although (effusively glowing review notwithstanding), I must admit the film loses some momentum once the premiere shocker manifests. Even so, there are so many sparks spitting from the screen like so much heat and flame. We are held under its deranged spell until the very last frame.
And speaking of dangerous females who emit electricity and cast spells, no one puts Angie in the corner. With the hit Maleficent already under her size zero belt in 2014, Angelina Jolie stepped up her game and released a creation of her own, if not in her own image.
That a film called Unbroken should be so damaged is cruel irony. Unfortunately, the situation is irreversible, much like the torture and anguish Jolie strives to depict Olympic runner-turned-POW Louis Zamperini endured at the hands of the Japanese during WWII. A shame that all the well-intentioned, big budgeted, feel good, triumph of the human spirit, based on a true story kinetic energy that was at her disposal is reduced to so much overcooked schmaltz. I take to task Jolie because she is the big name as well as the talent (hacked Sony emails aside). She should know better. But equally to blame are screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen (it must be a different Coen brothers and I’m not even going to check!) and editors William Goldenberg and Tim Squyres. The high expectations for Unbroken emanate not only from Jolie’s attachment, but also from the affection and loyalty afforded the popular writer Laura Hillenbrand and her book, as well as the unbelievable events upon which the book is based. Zamperini is a national treasure. The Christmas Day release boosted Unbroken’s profile, telling us the studio approved and believed.
Unlike Gone Girl, I had read Unbroken in advance, but with the cinematic rendering of a true story, such preparations and familiarity should mean a lot less. When filming a historical account as opposed to a work of fiction, one cannot reasonably expect audience ignorance as to the narrative. The enterprise forces filmmakers to work that much harder to generate suspense. I mean, Jolie was doing press with Zamperini (before his passing). For a movie entirely about Zamperini’s against all odds survival of horrifying battles, trials, and prisoner camps, there is no tension in reaching the conclusion that he does in the end – SPOILER ALERT – survive. Gone Girl’s magnificence is derived from our appreciating the unforeseen and unforeseeable curves in the road. Unbroken must, by inherent nature, be about nothing but the journey itself.
Simply put, Unbroken fails to translate the journey in a compelling way. As vivid and relatable as the races, raft, wretchedness, and redemption may have been on the page, the on screen rendering manages to suck the life and vitality from Zamperini’s ordeal. Moreover, it trivializes the journey by compartmentalizing it into set-piece chapters. The biography format and Hillenbrand’s keen yet unassuming style lent itself to an intimacy and richness; it had a sense of both whimsy and gravitas. I think, most significantly, it had a sense of humor. Unbroken, on film, is humorless (and if the Coen brothers I know truly did write the screenplay, the result is even more perplexing since dark humor is their forte). Instead, we are treated to a shove it down your throat, beat you over the head with a switch, dare you not be “moved,” “inspired,” or at the very least impressed marathon of cookie cut excerpts.
The irony continues. Though Jolie is not a maniacal tyrant like the Bird who serves as the key domineering and despicable character in the book, transformed into the film’s Bond caliber villain (painfully wrong for the part Takamasa Ishihara), she does seem to think bullying us toward emotional investment will work. Feel something! she demands. But, of course, our hearts and minds are not won over by calls for submission. A film needs to do its own grunt work. To provide characters we care about, relationships that matter, challenges that appear not only challenging, but authentic. As if they are happening to someone in the moment; not a clinical (however well photographed) representation of something that happened long ago to an individual being portrayed by someone far better looking. Jolie, for an inexplicable reason, particularly considering her work on the emotionally shattering and gritty A Mighty Heart, goes the Disney route here, laying on melodrama and synthetics. And just exhausts us in doing so.
And speaking of exhaustion and strong females, is our actress of the year not Reese Witherspoon? She is back with a vengeance (three films this year including the just released Inherent Vice) and get out of her way come Awards season. No one will come close to touching her outstanding work in Wild.
Ms.Witherspoon is an intriguing case study. Both professionally and in reality, she has a tendency to get her hands dirty (no judgments, but Julia Roberts was never one for drunken tirades or giving police officers the high hat). So let’s just come out and say it: She is a mom and an Oscar winner and looks like an angel, but she’s no angel. She likes to party. She’s a real person. In fact, I just saw her in person at the Fox Searchlight holiday party earlier this month, but she left before I could buy her ten drinks. Just kidding, the drinks were free. The point being though not made, no one who is familiar with her range would ever question her capabilities as an actress. We must divorce the person from the actress from the performance. But, wait, must we? Perhaps this is why Reese is such a compelling case study. Maybe the actress stabilizes the person and the tension between both fuels the performances. Maybe she is an outlier. Regardless of this hypothesis’ validity, watching Wild, its raw authenticity, the fierceness and ferocity Witherspoon brings to the role, we have to accept and appreciate that, whether we like it or not, Elle Woods is the cover.
Without further insight, we can only speculate why an actress would take one role over another, or purposefully chase their tail in a rut of romantic comedies, but we do know that when an actress takes the road always traveled, we will assuredly forget her prowess and by default lump her in with lightweights.
In Wild, Witherspoon plays Cheryl who adopts the name Strayed to brand herself guilty, a sinner. The film is an exercise in self-immolation and penitence, through pain and excommunication – some deserved, some fabricated. We submit that Witherspoon is at her best, most present, most appealing, when she strays from the roles that Hollywood designates for her due to a cheerful demeanor and bright eyed charms. While films such as Legally Blonde, Sweet Home Alabama, Just Like Heaven, Four Chistmases, How Do You Know, and This Means War are far from sins, they are wasteful and represent a laziness, a caving to pressures, and/or a harmless payday. One cannot help but wonder whether Wild, a difficult, challenging film about a woman struggling to make amends, serves its star as both personal and professional penance.
Even as Ms. Witherspoons’ performance remains the dominant force propelling Jean-Marc Vallee’s film, there are so many other reasons to appreciate it.
We begin with the knowledge that there is something called the Pacific Crest Trail – a hike that takes liberated, introspective, and fearless individuals 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada – through dessert and snow. Beholding the scenery – at times desolate and haunting, and then suddenly majestic and intimidating – is its own reward.
And Nick Hornby’s script (from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir) does a tightrope walk conveying the loneliness and self reliance of the journey, but never turning into Castaway or Into the Wild (both excellent, but it’s important to know that Wild is NOT a survival against the elements movie). Cheryl is no hiker, and though she is prepared and equipped, she is a novice. We are supposed to be connecting, not to her will to survive the undertaking, but her will to undertake it.
If there is a third act here, which reviews our themes, rearticulates them, and brings the affair to a close, it’s in evaluating the pitfalls and benefits of style over substance. We saw how commercial hype helps and hurts a release. We analyzed how actors and directors and the baggage they bring affect, both positively and negatively, our prejudgments of their product. Well, sometimes it is the construction of the film itself that determines our immediate, visceral, non-negotiable reaction. In a word; when the film is a gimmick. When it is hyper-stylized for no other reason but to transfix us. When the film can be deemed nothing more than a circus stunt. Now, this does not mean that quality is thrown out the window, as we will see below, but, for our purposes, we ask whether the gimmick does the film any favors before, during, and after a viewing. Indeed, whether we perforce and subconsciously wind up rating the quality, dexterity, and originality of the gimmick instead of the movie.
Birdman is not purely a gimmick film, but it contains so many gimmick ingredients that it was bound to be confused for one. What makes this even more of a trap for evaluators is that it just begs for the headline “Birdman Soars.”
If one was able to resist that compulsion, the next rigged device awaits – Michael Keaton plays a famous Hollywood has-been superhero (get it?!), Zach Galifianakas is the straight man, Emma Stone against type and seething, Edward Norton in a frenzy, plenty of name dropping. Oh yeah, and the illusion that the film was shot with one continuous swooping, diving, panning, tunneling, shuttling camera – one take. These elements all scream gimmick. Judge me not for what I am, but for the cool tricks I can do. And, do not underestimate director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; these are some fantastically seductive and stunning tricks.
There is no doubt that Inarritu has unleashed a hypnotic film. Just as he did with Babel, another high concept, highly acclaimed gimmick film (though the interconnecting “random” storylines bit was and still is far more prevalent), it’s hard not to fall for what may or may not be a sly manipulation posing as highbrow art.
Birdman showcases Michael Keaton…and why not? I’m a Michael Keaton fan. I grew up on Johnny Dangerously (“Once…only once!”) and Beetlejuice (“It’s showtime!”). We were pleasantly surprised when he was cast as Batman for Tim Burton’s 1989 phenomenon, and we rooted for him all the way. We never rejected him even when Hollywood could no longer find his proper utility. So it’s nice to hear the praise heaped upon him, the awards recognition, the red carpet appearances. To see Keaton in pensive cover shots gracing important magazines where he and interviewers wax philosophical about life and career. To read pretentious writers tout their sit downs with the former mega-star and describe the nuances of Keaton’s receding hairline as if it were a trade secret. As if we didn’t notice. As if Keaton wasn’t in last year’s Robocop, or 2010’s The Other Guys. As if we are archeologists brushing off Michael Keaton who has been recently excavated like a fossil beneath a tomb.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, buy the hype beak, talon, and feather, and become hopelessly seduced, let us recall Mickey Rourke, Darren Aronofsky, and The Wrestler. Let us not pretend we did not actively participate in a similar “resurrection” only a few short years ago. That we have not been through this self-congratulating glory cycle. The similarities are so apparent I need not list them. And how did that story end?
Rourke was allowed the bad guy role in a terrible Iron Man movie and back to the scrap yard. Most recently he was in the ring, throwing phantom punches, and otherwise fighting for his life.
Birdman has its merits as a commentary about fame and loss. It is a finely concocted curiosity. But, we must objectively decipher whether it is much more than that. Whether Birdman soars or just manufactures an illusion of flight.
As touched upon in the introduction to this final act, there is a distinction between gimmick and hyper-stylization.
Between Saturday Night Live’s The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders and the army of You Tube filmmakers reimagining movie previews under his “direction,” Wes Anderson might have become a parody of himself. This was inevitable considering how unapologetically invested Anderson has become in honing his particular craft. How saturated his productions have become in Andersonisms.
And it’s hard to argue that Anderson didn’t have it coming. That he isn’t a victim of his own pretensions. However, if The Grand Budapest Hotel – a magically delicious, deliciously ludicrous, ludicrously hysterical, and hysterically magical film – is as distracting an Anderson affair as ever; why change?
Despite his elaborate, inimitable aesthetic, we can easily translate it into a formula: Take an eclectic ensemble (recycling is encouraged), and orchestrate them in madcap animated fashion through a convoluted plot, as they deliver overly polite dialogue amid a school-play chic landscape. This is Anderson’s own novelty, developed over his a career and perhaps now perfected. His films are routinely delightful, and although I’d love to see him try his hand at something out of the box, why would he? There was nothing great about Noah. Planet of the Apes and Spy Kids were regrettable.
With Grand Budapest, Anderson expands his usual suspect cast by a few, but none more prominent and promising than Ralph Fiennes. While no sane person would consider Fiennes a risk or a even a bold choice, the payoff of bringing him into the fold is astonishing.
Fiennes embodies M. Gustave, the concierge of a thriving, luxury hotel in some fictional European mountainous region circa 1932. Although it is told in flashback within a flashback format to provide some additional suspense and depth, we are immersed in the chronicles of M. Gustave and his lobby boy in training, Zero. You see, there is an old woman who loves Gustave, and after she dies, her will is being read, and of course the painting ‘Boy with Apple’ is coveted by all, including her nefarious children, and…well…really, none of this much matters. Anderson (his screenplay from a story by himself and Hugo Guiness) could have really chosen any set of plot developments and arrived at the same place. While the enigmatic details and nuances are the very treasures and treats being gifted, they are mere trinkets when not combined with the style and imagery that Anderson has forged from his creative spirit.
It appears to be a genuine pleasure for actors fortunate enough to be in his inner circle. Why else would so many big names (Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, and Jeff Goldblum to name a few – though the latter two fit in like square pegs) pop in for just a cameo. Surely it is to collaborate with a master. And perhaps the master will reward his humble actor with a repeat invite. And who wouldn’t want to collaborate and be included? It is a class-A production all the way, from set design and costumes, to score and cinematography. And those precision-guided words! With pauses and overlapping line readings like tiny nukes!
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a grand example of meeting our expectations. Mr. Anderson appears to be, legitimately, the one.
Another filmmaker of Anderson’s era that showed promise and vast potential was Richard Linklater. Five years before Anderson wrote and directed Rushmore, Linklater wrote and directed Dazed and Confused. Neither has disappeared or disappointed. Both have continued to evolve and improve and find new layers of talent within and the intricacies and adjustments necessary to make extraordinary movies. They have both continued to meet our very high expectations.
And then Linklater went and exceeded them.
As I write this, I feel alive. Not for the first time, I am sure, but perhaps alive to this degree. I must credit Richard Linklater for the unsettling sensation. The closing credits roled on his Boyhood not a half hour ago.
It’s not what you think…unless you have seen the movie and were equally overwhelmed by its powers.
Human beings typically substitute exhilaration for feeling alive. You’re at a rock concert, bouncing up and down with friends, maybe one is a girl (or guy) you like, buzzed on something. “I’m aaaallliiiiive!” your mind screams. You are kissing that girl (or guy) and you have pined for them for soooo long and you had figured the romance unattainable. “Yes, yes, YES, I’m alive!”
No and nope.
Later at night, it is dark and quiet, you are alone. You are thinking about the concert and the music and friendship and stimulants. How delectable the blend. You are remembering, replaying, restructuring the chain of circumstances, the anatomy of a moment. The kiss, the details including with particularity the taste, textures, and scents. Well, you see, now we are getting somewhere.
Feeling alive does not mean feeling the untamed rush of life in a moment of sensory overload. It certainly cannot mean feeling spectacular joy or elation. We can absolutely feel alive while grieving or miserable.
Feeling alive means, simply, fully experiencing the awareness that one is alive. Knowing, on the transcendent level, that during every conscious moment of every single day, whether you are picking a wedgie, buying a Snapple, hugging your grandmother, distractedly praying, filling out a medical form, writing about Boyhood, or participating in a million possible other monotonous daily activities – that is you living your life. The only one you got.
Boyhood is a stupendous reminder of that fact. A frightening reminder. It makes you notice the enormity of minutia. Who needs that?! It confronts you, albeit passively, with the splendor of our trivial travails. We so often (okay, constantly) get lost waiting for the next big thing to happen. Life becomes a series of anticipations with fleeting satisfactions. And then it’s gone. Woe is us.
As far as the film being a shameless gimmick…oh, it is. It’s the gimmick film to end all gimmick films. It’s Linklater on a bike, holding his breath, crossing his eyes, puffing out his cheeks, going full speed at that ramp yelling, “Look, Ma! No hands!”
If you do not already know, Linklater began filming Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, and Lorelei Linklater in 2002 and shot a few scenes every year until the present. There is no binding narrative other than the fact that family and friends bind. People change, seasons change, bit players become essential before fading into background noise. Eventually dissipating into memory – some pleasant, some not pleasant. It’s a film that plucks a number of strands from the tapestry and lays them out for inspection. It sure doesn’t hurt that the cast (each performance gleaming in its own distinctive way) grew together and that genuine bond is apparent.
I could write about Boyhood all day and merely scratch one of its multitude of surfaces. To call it groundbreaking or daring is redundant. It’s not a perfect movie. It contains its fair share of false notes (stepdads are drunken caricatures, we are teased with danger in an artificial way), but the overarching achievement – the audacity of the gimmick – will never happen again.
So concludes my not so tidy stream of consciousness musings on the year in film and how they relate to our sometimes unrealistic, sometimes non-existent, sometimes perfectly reasonable expectations.
Stephen Hawking of Film Review, out!
What’s that? There was actually a movie about Hawking and his Theory of Everything released this year?
Fine, you win. One more.
I have never been a fan of the nice little British movie. I’ll see one begrudgingly if I must. I’ll understand if Judi Dench wins an Oscar for appearing. I’ll tip my hat to Colin Firth because clearly he is one droll bastard. Every awards consideration season there are films we must watch to satisfy the requirement. After all, how else will we know where to cast our vote for best costumes?
That said, The Theory of Everything – a biopic of celebrated theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (whom I must admit, didn’t even know was English) was initially a tough pill that needed swallowing. But once swallowed…yum.
Although I am certain the direction of the film was handled astutely by James Marsh from Anthony McCarten’s script (based on the memoir of Jane Wilde Hawking), the splendidness of the film radiates from the performances of its leads.
There is chemistry and then there is the starburst ring of light that envelops Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as love at first sight soulmates Stephen and Jane. There are obstacles to a relationship working and then there are crucibles of commitment which Stephen and Jane face as Stephen’s motor neuron disease takes hold and his health rapidly deteriorates.
While there are requisite substantive historical details to note as Hawking is a relevant figure in our culture and the scientific community, it doesn’t take an Einstein to ascertain that The Theory of Everything is about love. Love being a singularity that defies explanation via formula or equation.
The genius of the script (and, really, who knows how generously or stingily Ms. Wilde Hawking shaded her version of the facts) is that we are never required to judge the couple as they face each impossible challenge (mobility, child rearing, desire). Even more remarkable and commendable is that we are discouraged from pitying them. Stephen and Jane don’t judge each other and they absolutely do not want our pity (or even sympathy).
Unbroken, is presented and advertised and marketed as a story that “needed” to be told. As if publicizing and shining a spotlight upon Louis Zamperini was the ultimate goal and the right thing to do. Unbroken, the film and the book, make clear: Zamperini earned this!
The Theory of Everything takes the opposite approach. It’s a film about the expanding universe that seems to want to contract and contract and eventually shrink into itself and be gone. Marsh appears to be saying, here is this troubling yet inspiring little story about love, determination, and…well….I hate to use this word….but…miracles. Stephen and Jane are miracles, but they don’t really want us to know about it. Maybe they are even embarrassed by it. Maybe she regrets sharing.
Regardless, we have been given a window into their chaos, their mess, their pain, their miracle. Maybe we’ll learn from it. If not, carry on. No expectations.