The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Having seen all of Wes Anderson’s films one and only one time, there is a roughly upward trend in my appreciation of the works. This could be the result of a director honing his skill, but in the case of Anderson I’m equally willing to accept that this has more to do with my growing awareness and comfort with what Anderson has to offer. What I might have dismissed as quirk and artifice a decade ago becomes escapist delight. This development has taken Anderson from a director I was fairly ambivalent about to one I feel compelled to seek out, yet even with this growth I don’t recognize any of his films as truly great. Even though there are plenty of dark and even emotional moments in his films, I can’t help but view the stories as being like a meringue, light and insubstantial.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is pretty much what I’ve come to expect, for better and worse, from Wes Anderson. It is a solidly entertaining film with marvelous design of spaces, which combined with the cinematography is pure art. Set at the dawn of a fictional equivalent of WWII, this is used more for an establishment of time and place than to say anything about that. Focused on a matter of probate, that is enough to spur dramatic conflict, but again, it is more narrative convenience than thematic key. The most emotionally relevant aspect is the mentor-mentee relationship of M. Gustave (Ralph Finnes) and Zero (Tony Revolori), staff of the titular hotel. Contrasted against the probate issue, it tells of the power of friendship over family. Whether one’s family is nasty, in the case of Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), or deceased, in the case of Zero, those unrelated individuals can rise to the crucial roles that are typically handed to relatives, providing wisdom or comfort. This exists sufficiently to make the film not feel like a completely hollow exercise in style while also not really deviating from the sense of lark in the whole venture. Ultimately, I feel slightly less enthusiastic than I was for Moonrise Kingdom, but it is another very solid effort.

B

P.S. Saoirse Ronan for perhaps the first time I’ve seen breaks out of that mold I’d seen her sliding into of always playing slightly ethereal characters that have a certain naivety. Here she plays much more in command of herself and the world around, especially in contrast with Zero. It was nice to see because her talent does seem too great to be pushed into a narrow band of characters.

Jerry Maguire (1996)

As the latest rewatch of films I own to determine if I want to keep them, I’ll ruin part of the suspense and say I won’t be keeping Jerry Maguire. However, of the three now put in that camp, it is by far the best film. What it has to say, about the role of sports agents, sure, but about sports more generally, is at least as relevant now with even more injury concern and problematic criminality as ever. The interaction between Jerry (Tom Cruise) and Rod (Cuba Gooding Jr.) hits on problems from both sides. The now nauseating phrase “help me help you” is really a central tenet, it looks at this relationship as a long-term investment that has to take a lot more into account. While focusing on Rod as a client is good and necessary, perhaps it could have used a more solid B-plot related to sports to push home this aspect, a contrast story with Sugar and Cush or something.

The second aspect that works, to a certain degree, is the character of Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) as a single mother. Even all these years later it feels like a character I don’t see much that deserves representation. The problem is in the interaction of Dorothy and Jerry. I just don’t feel the chemistry, starting from their interaction in the airport to her joining his departure from the company, which feels pretty implausible. This relationship just takes the film to a really schmaltzy place. That combined with the kind of all over the place opening (the little black book video, the departure) definitely angles the film as more comedy than drama but it isn’t a good comedy and its most interesting points are dramatic. Ultimately it feels too watered down and perhaps overwritten (and overlong at 2:15) to be as vital a film as it should be, yet it is still a solid work, and I do think Cuba is a strong presence.

B

Fargo Film Festival 2014

I managed to catch two features while the Fargo Film Festival was going on and liked both.

The Fabulous Ice Age (2013)

This documentary highlighted the history of ice shows, a sort of broadway on ice, that dates back to the early 20th Century in Germany before really exploding in the US through the depression and into the 50s. While this sounds a bit prosaic, it is actually very gripping seeing the passion for it of those involved who are interviewed. It hits up against certain political aspects, including the Cold War and in a sense gay rights. While there is so much joy in the film, it is also bittersweet in the sense that this represents a bit of a bygone era. Ultimately, it is cut together so well by first time director Keri Pickett (who was present at my screening) that it moves along at a good pace and really engages you emotionally. If you have any interest at all in the topic, it is available on Netflix Instant.

B+

The Retrieval (2013)

This is a curious and well made film looking at a Black uncle and nephew who are working with white bounty hunters in the South during the Civil War, tracking down runaway slaves and the like. The bulk of the film involves their effort to bring in one man, Nate (Tishuan Scott). What plays out is almost a battle for the soul of the Black community, represented by young Will (Ashton Sanders). His uncle is perfectly willing to sell out his own kind for money and to steal while Nate becomes an influence of greater dignity in Will’s life. The film has a very deliberate pace with a lot of scenes walking through forests and swamps (recommended for Sam) but there are a couple bigger scale scenes, as they encounter the war, that help make the film feel bigger budget than it undoubtedly is. Quite moving if occasionally rough.

B

In addition to these two, I had previously seen three films that played the festival. I wrote about There She Is for my Rated XX column over at Sound on Sight. I can also recommend the shorts Sleight of Hand and Noah.

The Price of Gold (2014)

There are three sure things in life: death, taxes, and that the media will be horrible. This documentary from Nanette Burstein, as part of ESPNs 30 For 30 series, explores the Kerrigan-Harding incident by using the 20 years of distance to desensationalize what the media had turned into a sideshow, driving the highest ratings for an Olympic program ever. I’m not sure that Tonya Harding’s participation in the documentary makes you sympathetic for her, she seems evasive and not always so well spoken, but seeing the media coverage in hindsight certainly does. What does it say about the media and its sense of entitlement that their persistent hounding with questions can make you feel bad for someone who quite possibly instigated an assault? It really makes one question the slightly absurd constitutional argument that free speech/free press demands this kind of unimpeded ability to harass.

The strength of The Price of Gold is more in its brushes with the role of class and gender within the sport of figure skating, a topic that would deserve its own documentary for an expanded exploration beyond the confines of these two, though they hold a symbolic place in that discussion. We learn that Nancy Kerrigan was of fairly modest upbringing herself, but actual money aside, the socioeconomic divide was massive, especially as it interacts with gender expectations. Kerrigan was trim and elegant where Harding was powerful. Kerrigan’s appeal earned sponsorship to pay for the full assortment of support while Harding had to scrap together on cheaper, less elegant or even homemade dresses (Michelle Kwan, a footnote of this story, would go on to generally sport Vera Wang designs). The differences were real and the media never failed to draw the differences out. There’s a glimmer that this aspect, especially the difference in sponsorships, in many ways sowed the environment for what ultimately happened on Harding’s behalf. The history of abuse by her mother, and how that may have shaped her draw to similarly tough men, may have trapped Harding anyway, but the sport that provided so much of an escape ultimately only let her in halfway.

So much of women’s sport in general is a tension between pure athleticism and the marketability of sex appeal, thus every Olympics in particular we have to fret about what it means that so many female athletes pose provocatively in order to raise their profile. This feminine ideal lives more in skating than anywhere else and certainly plays into the debate over this year’s gold medal, where some see the silver medalist, a more purely graceful skater (though the distinction is far less than Kerrigan-Harding) as having been snubbed. The sport has tried to burnish its sporting credentials by making things more mathematical and I see the critiques of this year’s result (including Ashley Wagner’s complaint lower down the rankings) in a large part an effort, often unconscious, to fight to reinstate the ideal of the ice princess. Kerrigan’s suffering is not to be overlooked (even if she and all of the skating world may have profited from it in the long run) and her effort to come back is inspiring, but in many ways the real tragedy is that because Harding was disgraced in this way, it only helped to solidify the gender and class barriers within the sport. This is why revisiting the story and delving into the real individuals and not just the media portraits of them is so vital and this documentary does a solid job at it.

B

20 Feet From Stardom (2013)

In 2013, for the first time in its history, the Billboard Hot 100 had no black artists top the chart. With many of those who did, like Macklemore, Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke operating in musical genres or styles that evoke historically black music there has been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation. In 20 Feet From Stardom, the Oscar-nominated documentary, we see almost a history of popular music told from the perspective of almost entirely black background singers, generally with roots in gospel music, frequently in support of white artists. Such is the influence of traditionally black musical styles that it is a virtual constant, and 20 Feet From Stardom has a few sequences that really hit that home as they pull out the back-up singers and it suddenly hits you how crucial this was to so many legendary songs.

The film is something of an emotional pendulum. On one hand we get a certain celebration of a joy of music and some real stars talk about the importance of these women (and it is mostly women in the focus of this film) to their music. On the other hand, we get stories about how their relative anonymity opened them up to some mistreatment from some producers and see the struggles if they try to become solo or lead artists. As a documentary, it really does succeed because of this balancing of emotions and the historical breadth.

As an individual viewer, the issue of appropriation that isn’t vital to the documentary still loomed. While I can certainly appreciate the talent of most of the singers, I wouldn’t be inclined to buy their albums or go see them live because it isn’t really my type of music. Watching the early years of American Idol I always had a conflict with others over the qualities of singers like Jennifer Hudson with that big, gospel-inflected, diva voice, full of crazy vocal gymnastics, which I saw as just unpleasantly too much (a conflict I often have when it comes to big acting as well). Yet when that same style of music is toned down a bit, such as one hears with Adele, I am more inclined to listen.

Ultimately, the thing that stops me short on discussion of cultural appropriation is it feels slightly segregationist. If white audiences embrace a black artist (and there were plenty of white boys listening to rap before Eminem and Macklemore started) or even more, a white artist succeeds in a traditionally black genre, critiques of cultural appropriation come in to say this is bad, perhaps because they make it palatable (whether that is because of skin tone or musical tone). To me that seems to be drawing thick racial divides in a society that is blurring the differences, and that blur is what I thought was the point. It is a problem if there was a persistent pattern of white artists co-opting styles and rendering black artists perpetually as being in the background, and there is some of that historically so I understand why many are sensitive about it, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case right now. It seems that taking pride in their influence is more useful than resenting how that influence is exerted and that kind of acceptance seems to be key to the happiness of a lot of the backup singers featured in this documentary.

B

Wadjda (2012)

Sometimes you can be heard more clearly by talking softly. Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a curious girl on the cusp of adolescence and in Saudi Arabia this means she, like many of the girls around her, finds herself occasionally having a desire that runs up against the restrictive religious standards for women in their country. This desire could be popular music, nail polish, or primary for Wadjda, getting a bike. It would be easy to make a highly dramatic film about the injustices of this kind of repressive gender norms, and that film might be well deserved, but something about the quiet tone of this film fits with the normalcy of these rules within the context of this society.

Wadjda is a lovable “spunky” character, crossing cultural divides to be like so many precocious girls from coming of age stories from all around the world. There is a satisfying contrast set up as she decides the best way to pay for the forbidden bike is winning a religion club contest that values piety. This is a contrasting hook that also feels very cinematic and universal, even with a distinctly local manifestation. The secondary narrative involves Wadjda’s mother as she tries to remain central in her husband’s heart, as he drifts in part due to not giving him a male heir. We see how this concern affects her relationship with Wadjda, making it fit in effortlessly.

If the story in what is billed as Saudi Arabia’s first ever feature film shows some inspiration from international cinema tropes, helping make its story feel assured, the filmmaking also displays a well-studied level of skill as it never feels or looks anything less than the work of an experienced crew. The various hardships that director Haifaa Al-Mansour had to weather, due to gender restrictions that occasionally made her direct from afar, are not evident in the finished product, which just provides context to the film rather than asking for or requiring any grading on a curve. Ultimately, this is a very welcome new voice in world cinema.

B

The LEGO Movie (2014)

A driving complaint of a certain type of baby boomer social commentator describes the Millennial generation as spoiled or entitled, owing in part to being raised in an era of focus on self esteem, complete with participation trophies for all, that told everyone that they are special and can do anything they put their mind to. It is debatable if this actually reflects the Millennial upbringing (I certainly don’t recall things that way), but the negatives it allegedly caused are demonstrably false. Measures show this generation as smarter, more tolerant, less criminal, less sexually reckless, less materialistic, etc. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there is every reason to expect great things if they are given a chance in an economy ruined by boomers.

This might sound hefty for a movie about kids’ toys, but at its heart, this battle between cynical adulthood and creative youth is the same. In the slightly cliche moment where the evil Lord/President Business reveals the reason for his evil plot, the line about trophies even gets tossed right there in the script along with a lot of talk about being special. In some ways this film’s everyone can be special is a direct rebuttal to The Incredible’s meritocratic war on denying exceptional people their exceptionalism. Even though this theme struck me most, the film isn’t necessarily singular or always coherent or fleshed out, but it does dovetail. Early on is the notion of casting off the yoke of societally (and corporately) approved behaviors. This calls to mind the political activism of the Occupy movement or the general tattoos and piercings, etc. kind of individualism that can put one at risk in a boomer-driven world. The bigger message later about finding your own way to incorporate the tools around definitely fits with modern mash-up/remix culture. Yet there is a respect for needing some order in the chaos of individualism. So while the film is definitely hitting at something, it never really hits that crystalizing moment.

Thankfully, one doesn’t have to rely on thematic impact to enjoy the film as it is a thoroughly enjoyable ride. It can be rather manic but with the unique digital block-mation stop-motion technique it has a distinctive feeling. It is a grab bag of cultural reference with general zaniness (I did mention the mash-up thing). If one applies the five-laugh test, this one has individual jokes that work so well you might laugh five times at the one joke but plenty more to cover the count all the same. This enjoyability patches over any weaknesses it might have in its depth, and the emotion of the final act is well earned and more powerful than so many films about humans.

B+

The Square (2013)

The biggest surprise in The Square comes about 10 or 15 minutes in when Mubarak resigns. Obviously that it happened isn’t a surprise, but I feel like the average Western observer conceives of the Arab Spring in Egypt as a revolution that ended largely with Mubarak leaving. Sure, we might generically acknowledge that other troubles exist, but to us that was the big prize. Arguably, the film does get to this point too quickly, underselling the efforts that led to that point, but the documentary’s bigger point is the struggle that ensued to ensure that this first victory led to the ultimate outcome of free and democratic life, something that has proven extremely difficult.

The film isn’t exactly even-handed, it seems more intimately embedded with one revolutionary interest over the others, but it does have access to both military interests and those in the Muslim Brotherhood to give a slightly broader perspective of the groups jockying for their place in the political structure after Mubarak. It is a film of complex emotions and situations and doesn’t settle for any easy answers, instead it just shows you the heart and soul of a revolutionary movement. It shows the media savvy that can power a revolution, from viral video to protest anthem or graffiti. Probably not hurting the film’s marketability is the presence of The Kite Runner star Khalid Abdalla as an active spokesperson for the revolution. The Square isn’t always the most coherent documentary, but it is one that speaks to an important and central aspect of humanity and its yearning to be free.

I feel like in cineaste circles, the dominance of The Act of Killing is almost assumed. It is a more artistically daring documentary than the others by far and covers a hefty topic. Yet I get the sense that The Square might just be the dark horse for the Oscars in part because it isn’t as daring, the Oscars rarely rewarding that, and in part because it does feel more timely and thus more important in the moment. Considering my reservations in the effectiveness of The Act of Killing, I also think The Square would fully deserve the win. It isn’t my favorite documentary for 2013 but it is a really strong work.

4/5

Videodrome (1983)

Generally speaking, I like a fair amount of precision from films: stories that are tightly written accompanied by seamless production that absorbs you into the world. For this reason, B-movies have often left me a bit cool. Videodrome is fairly typical of David Cronenberg’s body horror in that the effects aren’t really aiming for making the hideous and fantastic elements look real, rather it is perfectly content to have it all be kind of fake and silly. The narrative, following TV producer Max Renn (James Woods) as he descends into hallucination, is also something that wouldn’t necessarily hang up to scrutiny for logical consistency.

However, with Videodrome, these things at best hold it back only slightly as its broader satirical weight is well enough appreciated to make it a ride worth taking. Walking a line between fetish and horror to start, it provides a commentary on what we can normalize if we think it is artificial, and asks whether we can keep perspective quite as well as we might claim. Perhaps this is the great meta-benefit of Cronenberg’s more artificial presentation is that it keeps things more clearly in the realm of fantasy. With more realism may come more responsibility to use horrors in a stronger moral context. This thesis isn’t clearly stated but it is a rich soup of ideas and probably one of Cronenberg’s greatest successes for me so far.

RATING PROJECT SCORE: 8

August: Osage County (2013)

Early moments of A:OC evoked memories of watching adaptations of plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Closer, films that entail actors acting extremely big and extremely nasty. These are also two films I detest with every fiber of my being. So watching Meryl Streep early in this film (and to be honest, through most of the film), I was worried this was going to be headed in the same direction. Fortunately, even though there are a number of moments that either go too big or just don’t have the dialogue to support the heat of the moment, there is a great deal of humanity and heart in A:OC that I didn’t find in those other films and that makes all the difference.

Violet (Streep) is the matriarch of a family, suffering from cancer and a pill habit, who convenes her three daughters and her sister, and their associated men, when her husband leaves. Violet and her sister are products of hard times, economically and emotionally, which has left them pretty bitter and this family reunion is an opportunity to see how this has paid forward unto their children, even as their lives may be economically advantaged and the risk that it will continue to echo through the generations.

A fascinating dynamic here is the contrast of the big, domineering female and the relatively more sedate male, true of almost every relationship in the film. Given the generally negative nature of these female characters, it is a slightly muddled feminist victory, and the men often get to play the heroes, having the time to shine amid the chaos, but the characters, in particular daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) are so strong, and the detail of the interrelation of all these women so potent that it is a useful story. Imperfect, and I think Streep is vastly overrated (and overacting) here, but there is a lot of quality to be had.

4/5

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