I’ve liked Wes Anderson a lot over the years, but I’ve always felt like a spectator of somebody else’s delicately maintained toyhouse. Moonrise Kingdom was ornate and lovely, but felt routinely and conveniently simplified, but admittedly boy scout narratives rarely feel as complicated or turbulent as I remember my time as a Webelo. The Grand Budapest Hotel is absolutely in the same vein, but cut from less scrappy, more colorful clothe. In place of the lost era of childhood is the lost era of pre-World War II Europe, with Anderson’s fictional province of Zubrowska standing in for Germany-bordering state Austria-Hungary. The ostensible differences end at the name, though Zubrowska certainly looks more like a carefully layered pastry than a country.
As is often, if not always the case with Wes, it’s a storybook world, literally represented by its layered framing device. A girl reads a book at the grave of a deceased author. The author narrates how he came upon the story, both in old (Tom Wilkinson) and young (Jude Law) age. The actual story itself is narrated by a sullen and lonely Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham, looking and sounding vaguely like Mufasa, so build your Lion King parallels from there). Young Zero Moustafa, however, is not the protagonist of his own story, following under the advice of the eponymous hotel’s concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, delivers his most carefully tuned performance since he landed gloriously on the scene with Schindler’s List 20 years ago, so build your Schindler’s List parallels from there), a man with an eye for refined detail, geriatric lovemaking, and hilariously indecipherable poetry.
Bypassing exactly how the plot clicks into place – a series of murders, conspiracies and breakouts propel our characters from splendidly designed set-piece to raucous escape, which is understood to anyone familiar with the plot of a Wes Anderson film – what’s most intriguing about Grand Budapest is how unevenly these characters come off in terms of morality, most particularly Gustave H., whose pleasure of serving others doesn’t omit the occasional sense of vanity. His past is scarcely revealed, but we’re deliberately suggested to fill the blanks into slight curves on Fiennes face, defiantly blended into a visage of the world he’s only occasionally reminded doesn’t exist. It’s already a fairytale world that Anderson has concocted, but it’s not the paradise Gustave would envision. There are monsters in this world with no knowledge of what civility is. That does give a giddy thrust to the action, but icing is laid on, we’re still left with a sense of loss. Thankfully, it’s one that has us embracing Wes’ artifice more than ever before.
2014 is proving to be a pretty idiosyncratic year in film, and that’s actually not quite as problematic as it seems. Grand Budapest Hotel and The LEGO Movie burned with restless design detail, and even Nymphomaniac can’t restrain itself from using every quirksome rule in the book, but they surprisingly don’t suffer from style diluting substance. Having had the time to dwell on it, I’m not sure there’s much style or substance to Muppets Most Wanted, but I find myself incredibly reluctant to judge it on either of those terms given the immensely fun time I had with it. You won’t recognize the Muppets for artistic value or sophistication, but at their best they’re anything but lazy.
From start to finish, Muppets Most Wanted is a relentless stream of goofy humour and off-the-wall musical numbers, all encapsulated under the caper premise of Kermit being replaced by a Euro-criminal doppelganger while the gang is on a world tour. Tina Fey is the Gulag warden whose romantic entrapment of the frog is slightly less constricting than Miss Piggy’s. Ricky Gervais is the evidently sleazy tour manager Dominic Badguy. Ty Burrell is the French Interpol agent – clearly the latest example of Hollywood’s horrendous Americanizing different ethnicities – teaming up with Sam the Eagle to track down the criminals behind a string of art thefts across Europe. They’re only the tip of the celebrity laden antics, though one wishes Saoirse Ronan and Christoph Waltz had as delicious bit moments as those handed to Stanley Tucci and Usher.
That may give the impression that Muppets Most Wanted is hit and miss, but the ratio is tipped enough in the former’s favor to gloss hysterically over much of the latter. The Muppets’ brand of comedy is naturally somewhat bankrupt, which only eggs on their intense eagerness to please. If an occasional joke is wasted, I can’t recall it as easily as I can Ty Burrell’s pun-heavy sweet-talking of Piggy, a key celeb dressed up in a hysterically thinly-held lemur costume, or an Ingmar Bergman reference that assures The Muppets aren’t opposed to obscure jokes that will make more seasoned viewers giggle with joy. I know not all will be on board with it, finding it hideous, obvious and artless. It depends on how far you want to go out of your way to deny unhinged joy in your life.
Marvel has a problem that the men in charge of it seem unable to solve. They’ve lost the ability, or more crucially the will. to make movies. I struggle to call Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World films, as they more often come across as extended episodes of a television series almost as dull as Marvel’s own Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Why was I seeking optimism heading into Captain America: The Winter Soldier? It’s because, against my better knowledge and judgment, I still care about superhero movies. It’s not born out of affection for the films, concern for the messages it’s sending a mass audience, or even personal investment in any such comics. It’s because I know people who enjoy these movies and use them as a reason to build a community out of likeminded viewers.
Personally speaking it should come as no surprise that I like Captain America: The Winter Soldier less and less the more I think about it. I did not expect to be so disappointed, though, because all the ingredients for an entertaining and invigorating blockbuster are here. Game performers, large scale action with major stakes, but most crucially a story with the potential to right the wrongs of Marvel’s misdirected Phase Two. Steve Rogers’ acclimation to 21st century culture is less of importance than his adjustment to the shifts in U.S. security, now stretching from invading privacy to total death-grip of every person on the planet. It’s ambiguous, but ever-present enough a threat to be more intimidating than a legion of robo-alien Chiwetauri… that I don’t care what they were called speaks to their relevance.
The film starts off well by utilizing the political thriller genre in the reliably loony vein of The Manchurian Candidate, but with the silly surprises doled out all too systematically and without much character in between. It gains much from pairing Steve Rogers with Scarlett Johansson’s snappy sexpot spy Natasha Romanoff, who brings all the self-analyzing doubt that his character isn’t weighed down enough by. “You seem pretty chipper for a man who just found out he died for nothing,” she quips at him, only for him to continue smiling and mugging. Their dynamic does bring out the most interesting qualities of him, including his personal difficulties finding somebody to connect to.
Those slightly tender moments, while much more interesting, don’t work in tandem with the rest of the film as much as they should. This is a movie about literally and figuratively lowering shields, for the better of others and oneself. The changes that Natasha, Steve and Nick Fury go through should feel more world-changing than they ultimately read. By the end the system that’s built order out of the appealing chaos of the Marvel universe is torn down, so why does this feel like just another episode of Marvel’s ongoing big screen serial? The fault may lie with directors Joe & Anthony Russo, who overlight nearly every scene with florescent lights, blotting out all the shadows that a film about government deception should utilize. That there are more shadows in the end title sequence is not an encouraging notion about the productions themselves. Marvel will certainly live on for years to come, quite possibly even decades. With this in mind, would it not be prudent to start making movies that are more than just serviceable and actually carry dramatic weight?
His first English-language films have done much to prove Incendies was a dreadful show of Denis Villeneuve’s talents. Chide Prisoners‘ ludicrous plot turns, but he crafted an appealingly dank and dingy New England environment – I wouldn’t believe it being anywhere else. Obviously Roger Deakins was a big help on that score, but Villeneuve proves with Enemy that his style isn’t merely defined by cinematographer. Enemy is a chamber piece, but one that happens to use the murky cityscape of a rather pale, urine-stained Toronto as the grand-scale mindscape of its main character(s), both played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Are they two separate individuals or merely different facets of his psychological persona? To choose one over the other would probably serve only to sever the film’s collective effect in both regards.
The two Gyllenhaals, Adam Bell and Anthony St. Claire, are of course totally opposite of one another. The former is an anxiously detached professor; the latter, a third-rate actor who probably thinks himself as complete a chameleon as Gyllenhaal is in both roles. The two, or one, you could certainly venture, only have two scenes together, which is quite often where sparks fly. Not here, since Adam books it out as quickly as Anthony gets excited at the possibility of a convenient getaway from his lovely, but rather pregnant wife Helen (razor sharp Sarah Gadon, whose ever appealing and piercing face is given much to perceive here).
Of course the film has to go the whole mile, which is where the most fascinating things happen both in human interactions and in Villeneuve’s freakish twists. As stated above, this film’s world can be totally perceived as in the collective mind of Gyllenhaal’s characters, but it’s more of an effective delight to take its arachnophobic manifestations ludicrously literal. I mean, in a world where Isabella Rosselini plays Gyllenhaal’s mother, we have to assume it’s logical for a giant tarantula to be idly walking above Toronto’s skyscrapers. It goes without saying this is a study of duality, which quite often goes hand-in-hand with masculinity – Melanie Laurent’s character is diminished and duped by both Gyllenhaals, be it in very different ways. In fact, pretty much everything in Enemy goes without saying, which isn’t to say it’s overly obvious. Villeneuve isn’t one to hide his symbolism, but he styles his films in such a way to lend the most obvious screenplay a layer of cryptic confounding. One of these days it’ll amount to quite a masterful crescendo, but I can’t think of a better utility for his revealing talents than cutting his teeth on genre material.
The only question Enemy left me with that I feel pressed to find an answer to is this: In what ways do you think Muppets Most Wanted is a portrait of masculinity? I feel like that conversation’s been really neglected.
Far be it from me, the still historically undereducated moviegoer, to say we’re in a new era of documentary, but it feels like experimental strategies have been reemerging over the past couple years in a big way. Last year’s Leviathan and this month’s Manakamana are the present poster-children of the new age of experimentation, but let’s not assume that Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab is the only hub of such formal testing. Filmmakers globally are testing limits and approaches, and A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness represents a fusion of two such voices. Ben Rivers’ work occupies an often natural environment. Ben Russell’s work has been fairly more brazen. It’s an interesting balance that both Bens get to work in their preferred environments, made convenient by the film’s clear-cut three act structure.
The film ostensibly follows a single man through three environments, the first a seemingly separated-from-society artistic community. We see little of him in this environment, but much of others whose conversations should last more in memory, but it’s the carefully observational images of this artistically experimental group that stick with us. Much more visually lasting is the middle section’s mooring of the man in wilderness, which, while rather beautifully, feels faintly like it’s not making enough implicit points for the time it’s spending on the images. A gorgeous section-capping bonfire thrusts us into the third act, a carefully suspended and disguised one-take of a neo-pagan death metal band. Whatever themes the rest of the film brings up almost certainly come to a fierce climactic head in this sly nod to Russell’s Trypps short films.
But what are those themes exactly? The film’s opening long take indulges a certain view of nature, particularly the care specifics of light, or lack thereof. This image, and many others thereafter, implore us to study the frame and consume every detail over time. It quite often reveals a deeper beauty in the image, though the risk is tiring an audience at risk of nodding off. That may be A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness‘ goal, to send us asleep in its pleasant hypnotic trance, only to rouse us with an ugly, yet still gorgeous rude awakening. Is it speaking to alternative lifestyles? Almost certainly, but there’s enough ambiguous wiggle-room to draw our own conclusions from there.