Extended Thoughts: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest HotelThe highly stylized and ever whimsical Wes Anderson has struck again with his latest gem, The Grand Budapest Hotel. A delectably decadent treat, the film unfolds as a kind of matryoshka nesting doll: a story within a story within a story. Peppered with his usual array of players, the troupe is joined by newcomers Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, and Saoirse Ronan to stupendous results. The film hums with zealous energy, rife with vulgarity-laced elegance. It hovers, its feet inches above the ground, the ethereal existence of a Wes Anderson creation done to perfection.

The scene opens on a young girl in present-day, a book firmly clutched in her arms, as she visits the gravesite of who we will come to know only as Author. Hotel room keys adorn a bronze bust of the man, reminiscent of the romanticism of attaching locks to bridges. Lifting another layer, we are in the office of Author (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985, as he recounts his visit to the titular hotel in 1968. You can see where this is going.

In 1968, we encounter a younger Author (now played by Jude Law) at the Grand Budapest Hotel. Shockingly reminiscent of the Overlook, it’s hard to imagine the place as a residence of glamour and class. The wallpaper peels, the orange carpets look as if they haven’t been cleaned in well over a decade, and the tiles crackle and fall from the walls. It’s a sad, desolate place, where the sparse tenants keep firmly to themselves. That is, of course, until our young Author encounters the mysterious Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the current overseer of the Overlook Grand Budapest. With nary a cajole, Mr. Moustafa agrees to tell Author his life’s story over dinner. Would you like to know more…?

Extended Thoughts: A Field in England

A Field in EnglandBen Wheatley has asserted himself as the new face of avant garde cinema. From Down Terrace’s darkly comedic family crime story in 2009, to 2012’s bleakly hilarious Sightseers, nothing is by-the-book. Wheatley’s latest venture is no exception. Desolate, oddly funny, and visually volatile, A Field in England, while not a perfect film, certainly solidifies Wheatley’s role in the contemporary culture of cinema.

Set in the thick of the English Civil War, the story focuses on a band of merry deserters. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), an alchemist’s assistant, flees the field of battle. Terrified, he runs from the chaos, and encounters a threatening man named Cutler (Ryan Pope), and his two companions, the slovenly Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and simpleton Friend (Richard Glover). Attempting to find a nearby alehouse, they inexplicably discover a lost alchemist, an Irishman by the name of O’Neil (Michael Smiley). Holding them captive, O’Neil forces the men to help him find a treasure presumably buried in the field they’ve been trudging through.

In spite of its relatively straightforward plot, the execution of the film is far more mystifying. A highly visceral sensory experience, the film is shot in stark, at times flat, black and white. The dutiful warning at the film’s start that there are strobes used is, by the film’s end, not nearly warning enough. The experience is jarring, and at times physically difficult to withstand. Unless you’re into less accessible, more confounding content. Would you like to know more…?

Extended Thoughts: Ender’s Game

If there is one thing to get a passionate response from yours truly regarding Gavin Hood’s cinematic adaptation of Ender’s Game, it is not the social viewpoints and activism of the original novel’s author, Orson Scott Card. Yes, the man’s personal politics are vulgar and disturbing to say the least, but we’re nearly 30 years out from the original penning of the novel, so I am inclined to take the book on its own merits, namely the printed page, as with the film, for what is up on screen. No, if I am to get passionate, it is the litany of missed opportunities that pile every upwards as the film progresses: Rushed plotting; Bad dialogue and shoddy characterization which likely resulted in the poor performances from actors who are normally better (particularly the ladies Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin and Hailee Steinfeld); Failure to commit fully to its themes; Alluding to both Full Metal Jacket and Starship Troopers, yet having not an ounce of self-awareness or wit to warrant such allusions. I supposed like similarly handsome yet toothless 2013 science fiction with an about face, Oblivion, we should just forget about it and move on, but I find missed opportunities more risible than simply commercially crass filmmaking, and thus my dander is a bit up.

So, let us go through things. But first a few words on the source material.

When I read the book in 1985, the final twist was so astonishing that the any denouement failed to convince younger me of the moral ugliness of divorcing command decisions from the folks in the field. Or for that matter the atrocity in equal measure of taking children so young and sacrificing their psyche and childhood on the alter of ‘pre-emptive strike’ military tactics. It was just a cool story of a bullied by smart kid who comes into his own self confidence via his applied intelligence in zero-G war games and the resulting trials of leadership and friendship only to be used ‘a little early’ by a disingenuous senior command. It was a neat story, compelling characters and maybe a bit of wish fulfilment to a budding science fiction nerd. When reading things as a parent in 2013, post American Pre-Emptive Strike (aka Gulf War II) geopolitical landscape, coupled with ubiquitous and complex video games accessible to increasingly younger kids and a particular enhanced sensitivity to bullying, the story struck me as something vastly darker, more sinister and flat out disturbing. It was more along the lines of Paul Verhoeven’s slyly satirical take on Starship Troopers than Robert Heinlein’s more earnest read on military service and moral obligation. Years ago, I felt that 1999 was the right year for an adaptation of the book, perhaps with The Sixth Sense‘s emotive Haley Joel Osment in the lead, after all, that was the year peak of ‘reality vs. fantasy’ and ‘big twist’ movie making. But clearly the ground is more fertile after 9/11 and Microsoft’s Halo and the “It Gets Better Project” in 2013 which makes Gavin Hood’s adaptation, as humourless as it is, flirts with all the opportunities to actually say something with the material, but fails to be anything but a lumpy mass of mushy confusion about anything. It is a frustrating experience.

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Sturm und Trek: Brief thoughts on the Con Game of NuTrek

[There are more than a few *Spoilers* in here, so beware of both the following text, as well as the comment section if you are concerned about such things]

I have been falling off the summer movie blockbuster for some years now, there are fewer reviews of such in these pages, and the discussion revolves more around the box office and cultural acceptance of these things than the films. Prometheus excepted. So this is not a review as such of Star Trek: Into Darkness, but rather what the Rebooted Trek universe, hereafter, NuTrek, is about. The writers and creative team wrote themselves out of a continuity corner with the first entry by using (creatively) the old time-travel saw to offer themselves a tangent universe. Now all of a sudden, there is a bright open canvas to paint new Star Trek movies, with a different tone and different versions of the lead characters. So why come back and play shadow puppets with Star Trek II? The line of prequel, sequel, sidequel, reboot has never been more blurry than it is here.

I certainly had my nits to pick with a planetary organization such as Star Fleet show-building an aggressive preemptive strike military branch without any seeming public debate, but that is the state of the nation with NuTrek. Things just happen, and they happen very quickly. As best as I can determine the bulk of the films plot happens here within a 48-72 hour span. That’s two ships heading out to the neutral zone, a significant portion of the Starfleet brass executed, and a goodly portion of San Francisco destroyed. This is not to mention the understanding of arming and timing a host of bleeding edge experimental proton torpedoes and figuring out a curious side effect of a blood sample. Don’t get me wrong, Karl Urban’s portrayal of Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy is once again a high-light of the film, he sells his throw-back lines with gusto, and offers an avenue towards the film suspending disbelief on the actions of the executive officers on the Enterprise, and somehow goes a long way to shielding his own tough-ideas-to-swallow. Bravo. But really, everything was said in the 2009 version of Star Trek about J.J. Abram’s ability to keep the plot moving so fast that it doesn’t allow the audience to over think what is actually happening. It’s not so much the ‘not opening the Mystery Box,’ but rather juggling five different boxes and asking you to guess which one to not open. Part of me is saddened that NuTrek is not about an optimistic future and a co-operative human spirit, but rather a bit of a short-con game in one-upping the movie-plot surprises – to seek out new gasps and new sleight of hand and to boldly re-create funhouse-mirror-images of things seen before. The audience seems quite satisfied with the slick reboot and high-budget gloss. This is the greatest trick the director ever pulled.

In spite of all of the running around and explosions, the actors continue to do the lions-share towards making NuTrek better than their woeful screenplays. Embodying the much prettier, leaner, aspects of the original cast’s bodies and personalities, they are, at this point on the verge of actually making the beloved (and familiar) characters their own. Bruce Greenwood once again brings a real touch of class to the proceedings as Kirk’s mentor and father figure. John Cho, Simon Pegg and Anton Yelchin all get their moment or two to contribute, but function here in a more reduced capacity from the previous film. This makes way for the addition of Alice Eve as wild-card science officer Dr. Carol Marcus, exist as a cipher and more than a bit fan-service (the character was mom to Kirk’s kid) more than as an actual realized character. Much like blonde Marcus and her connection to doing much of anything (in a previous life, she was chief scientist behind the Genesis project, also delivered by experimental proton torpedo, beyond being just Kirk’s main squeeze) here she takes off her close to show us she shops at La Senza. Hers is not the only short shrift. So too does the entire Klingon race just kind of sit there because the plot requires it. The NuCrew personality and character development are actually quite stagnant in terms of character arc – James T. is back in the bar drinking and flirting when the fall out from his rule-breaking prime directive stint stings his career – with the exception of Zoe Saldana and Zachary Quinto who get enough screen time together to build on their chemistry from first film. Spock and Uhura’s romantic squabbles are certainly a new addition to the character dynamics of this crew, and it certainly works onscreen, but it further underscores that these films are no longer science fiction films, but are now fully Space Operas in the Star Wars tradition. Han and Leia have been down this road before.

So, this brings us to the elephant in the room: Benedict Cumberbatch.

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Extended Thoughts: Chronicle

*Some Spoilers, Fair Warning*

Perhaps a goofy co-incidence that Facebook filed with the SEC to launch its $5 Billion (with a B) initial public offering in the same week as this virally advertised film hit cinema screens. The dollar value for the filing is itself equal parts news-catcher, market-hubris and ultimately an underscore on where society, in the here and now, lays its value: Social Networking. Even more curious that the script for Chronicle makes room for Carl Jung and Arthur Schopenhauer, but relegates Facebook and Twitter curiously to subtext. Chronicle is an interesting name for the movie; perhaps more literal in meaning (a chronological ordering of events – here by an unseen editor) but also less on-the-nose than say, “Status Update.”

I’m getting ahead of myself, perhaps.

The latest found footage movie is one of the more interesting uses of this increasingly strained sub-genre and this is why: The main character, an angry young man with nascent telekinetic powers who is well on his way to becoming a super-villain, not only self-incriminates himself by filming the process of his road to villainy but (and here is the kicker) he uses his powers control the camera’s framing of his own story. In the case of the films big climactic show-down, the full self-realization/actualization of himself as the Apex-predator, he uses dozens of cameras to capture things from multiple angles. The thing that always struck me as strange with the outbreak of social networking, is how so many young people capture themselves drinking underage, skipping school, or other such activities that are both unacceptable in society (but also loaded, perhaps, with a cachet of cool) and upload it THEMSELVES to later be prosecuted, ostracized, or whatnot by their own self-publication. To make the the unspoken, but underlying ‘thesis’ of the film is interesting to me. I wish the filmmakers (Josh Trank and Max “son of John” Landis) did not have to be so overt with every character justifying or explaining why they are filming all the time (see also George Romero’s Diary of the Dead) because, dammit, it is 2012 and rather obvious that we are race of beings whose souls are been stolen by the camera on pretty much an hourly basis – from mall and street security, to our own goshdarned phones!

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Extended Thoughts: Drive

I often find myself at a loss for words when trying to encapsulate my thoughts on a film. This is true with films that I love, films that I hate, and most everything in between. Truly, my appreciation for cinema as an art runs so deep that I cannot help but feel as if I have done a disservice if I do not spend ample time digesting what I have just seen before regurgitating something onto the page. That more so than anything else explains my meandering thoughts that constitute my reviews. Such is not the case with Drive, as I departed from the theater with one word on my mind:


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Extended Thoughts: Submarine

Director: Richard Ayoade
Story: Joe Dunthorne
Screenplay: Richard Ayoade
Producer: Ben Stiller
Starring: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 97 min.

It was nearly a year ago that those of us in the third row ventured to the Great White North for TIFF, and it was there that the discussion of the remarkable Submarine essentially began and ended. I cannot say whether this was a product of ambivalence or the simple fact that the widening release of the film has progressed at a veritable trickle … but I can say with certainty that further discussion is a necessity.

Speaking in broad strokes, it is fairly simple to see the ample influence of Wes Anderson and, to a lesser extent, Michael Gondry. I feel that that is something of an oversimplification, as we are oftentimes pigeonholed into a comparative mindset in the all too common “coming of age tale,” but it would be naive to suggest that the similarities aren’t there. That being said, I do feel that viewing Submarine as an homage of sorts is a great disservice to a very charming, very personal film.
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Extended Thoughts: True Grit

With their love of American film genres, and a penchant for turning them inside out whilst still offering solid examples of whatever they do, be it the gangster picture (Miller’s Crossing), the noir (Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn’t There), the ‘based-on-a-true-story’ (Fargo, even if it sort of wasn’t), and screw-ball comedy (Intolerable Cruelty, Raising Arizona), it was only a matter of time that they got to The Western, the most iconic of them all. Now they sort of went there with No Country For Old Men, a revisionist western set in the 1980s, complete with all the violence and nihilism fixins, but True Grit feels a lot more like a classic western, a good heaping dose of American myth-making where the brothers are more interested in classic entertainment, and leave the snark and the irony to only small scribbles in the margins (an Indian is hung before he can get his final statement to the crowd for instance, or Indian children are casually kicked around like stray dogs for another). Oddly enough, this is probably the closest the film the Coens have made in their career to what one might call a ‘family film.’ Certainly in the fine tradition of an American family film, something that has been all but morphed into awful, puerile Adam Sandler comedies or Pixar animated kids films.

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Catfish: Why the ‘Hoax’ is Probably Fake


***Warning: In-Depth Spoilers of Catfish to follow***

Since its premiere at Sundance, the documentary Catfish has had more than its share of controversy. Many critics, bloggers and industry types have loudly challenged the filmmakers’ ethical stance towards their subjects and the credibility of their document (on occasion citing the film to be, if not liberally fabricated, then an outright hoax). Having had some time to mull over the fine points of the debate and my own distilled impressions of the experience, I wish to defend the documentary against what I consider to be largely baseless accusations of its lack of authenticity. I do not claim to know the whole story and if any undiscovered evidence one way or the other should grace the comment thread I would welcome any revision to my opinions, but as it stands Catfish, though fortuitous, appears sufficiently plausible.

With the cover my ass clause out of the way, let’s proceed.

First, I dismiss wholesale the claim that everything in Catfish is faked, my mind cannot process how that could even be possible, and in particular, how mentally handicapped children would be used as props in such a deceit (forget ethics, what about commonsense?). This rebuttal is in response to the claims that Nev and the filmmakers (hitherto known as ‘the protagonists’) covered-up their foreknowledge of the peculiarities of the online encounters; whether they knew that Abby, Meghan and Angela were all manifestations of the same person or knew in vaguer terms that something was fishy earlier than the Colorado visit, it becomes an accusation of entrapment and exploitation for what transpires in Michigan. I believe the integral part of the official story in Catfish to be true: until Colorado, the protagonists were unaware of any deception. For me their version of the story hinges on the authenticity of one scene: the discovery that Meghan did not perform the songs she claimed to. If some of the interviews of Nev were staged at the beginning because of lack of footage that, to me, is excusable and no different than what a lot of documentaries engage in. If the song scene is genuine and place-time specific in Colorado before deciding to surprise visit ‘Meghan’ in Michigan then everything that follows has a strong probability of being authentic.
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Extended Thoughts: Another Year



Mike Leigh’s tenth Feature film, assembled in the usual fashion of character and screenwriting collaboration with his actors, is very much his typical take on the various work-a-day folk in Britain. But then again, glancing at his C.V. you will see that his films which consist of mainly people talking and talking and talking have won pretty much every major world cinema prize imaginable, BAFTA, Oscar, Palm D’Or, Golden Lion, you name it, so the run-of-the-mill Mike Leigh film is pretty fucking excellent. Of the nearly 50 features I caught at this years edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, Another Year comes out on top. I laughed, I cried, I begged for more drinking, smoking and gardening with these regular folks, some of whom have found out the secret of partaking of life’s joys, and others on the rock-bottom pit of despair. But mostly, the ritual of social behavior, how the tone and the attitude of the conversation is equally telling, perhaps moreso, than the content. People love to talk, but when they actually ‘communicate’ that is when the warm and fuzzy thing we call intimacy is achieved.

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Extended Thoughts: MR. NOBODY

[Oh those clowns at E1! Why in gods name would you release (In Canada, anyway) a cerebral science fiction film for adults on the same day as Christopher Nolan’s juggernaut? Without any marketing! Do you want your movie to fail, is this some sort of real-life version of The Producers? An echo of the old Miramax days? Either way, a wonderful film (one deserving of as many screens as Splice at the very least) as ambitious and visually elegant as Inception at a fifth of the cost!]

Nemo Nobody (a wide eyed Jared Leto) is the last mortal and he is about to die. Or is he? Much can be made of all the heady, esoteric mathematical and physics concepts (String theory, tangent universes, brain chemistry, nature of time and entropy) that the film juggles like so many brightly coloured balls. Despite being set in the far future, 2092, where mankind has achieve quasi immortality and the broadcast news has gotten louder and more blunt, the film plays both as a nostalgic reflection regret and confusion of our titular everyman, but it plays equal measure as the dreams and hopes of finding true love and happiness and several metaphysical attempts along the way. If you have ever been uncertain as to how a known big decision (or the ripple effects of unknown small ones) are going to change the trajectory of your life, then this film indulges the very human desire to follow those paths along for a bit and give them a look-see.

Mr. Nobody is almost a ‘what-if’ challenge to the universe and suggests that the playground of the mind is as vast as the infinite reaches of space. Are there really tangent universes moulded around each decision (or failure to make a decision) that Nemo makes or is it the mental representation of all the possible future worlds when you are five years old? There is a fairy tale quality in Mr. Nobody with its more-often-than-not candy coloured palette that seems to suggest this. Certainly as a viewer, that is the takeaway of the film. Strange that it settles on the romantic nature of ‘one-true-love’ and that Nemo has a ‘right choice’ (insofar as right = happiness) between his potential three wives and mishaps in love and lust and compassion. In a way, the film plays out in some heartbreaking and depressing avenues. The grass is always browner on the other side of the hill if you could see and trace the correct trajectory of your life.

Interesting too that how adult Nemo shifts between quietly suffering saint to starry eyed love-sick puppy, to pampered and suicidal across three (or five) different lives with his three potential wives. Or as a teenager between quietly soldiering on, or outright angry rebellion. I imagine that if Mr. Nobody does one thing well it is to ponder the nature of the universe as it dishes out suffering to one lot, and life’s riches to another, all as a function of random chance.

Pray there is a God that pulls the strings in your favour, even though the christian angles visualized in the film are harbingers of ‘oblivion’ committing all those potential possibilities into one straightforward path. That would make ‘god’ (the film is does not delve into one faith or another, focusing on potential more than morality or subservience) a fairly reductive deity. I might say that this ‘reductive-ness’ is a blessing in disguise, but by the end of the film (the beginning?) Nemo more or less has his shit together and can laugh and cry along with this big old universe.

Also, be sure to have a look at Andrew’s more traditional review of Mr. Nobody.