March 31st, 2014

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: WES ANDERSON

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014) *** ½

Well, Wes Anderson keeps his incredible streak going. The man has made eight movies so far and there hasn’t been a bad one in the bunch. Half of them (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom) have been instant classics. His latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, isn’t quite in the same league as those films, but it is pretty awesome.

Ralph Fiennes stars as M. Gustave, the concierge of the titular hotel who makes a habit out of romancing rich widows. When one such widow (Tilda Swinton) dies under mysterious circumstances, she leaves him a valuable painting in her will. Her spiteful family (headed by Adrien Brody) then blames him for the murder and Gustave is sent to jail. He eventually escapes, and with the help of his faithful lobby boy (Tony Revolori), Gustave sets out to clear his name.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is full of all the quirky characters and dialogue you’d expect from a Wes Anderson joint. It also features some of the best use of font in his entire career. (I have this image in my head of Anderson taking as much time crafting the font for all his movies with the same care he takes in sculpting his script.) The impressive supporting cast (which includes Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, and F. Murray Abraham) are all excellent. I do think that some of the cameos by Anderson regulars (like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Bob Balaban) fall flat because they really aren’t given much to do.

The film starts out fairly great. However, it runs on a bit too long and some of the complications that arise in the third act seem out of step with the rest of the movie. But the flick does have a great prison break sequence and a good amount of surprising gore, so that almost makes up for it.

But if you still need a reason to see The Grand Budapest Hotel, then see it for Fiennes’ performance. The man is firing on all cylinders here. You wonder why it took him so long to star in a Wes Anderson movie because he is a perfect vessel for Anderson’s idiosyncratic dialogue. The Oscar race has already started and I would be shocked if Fiennes didn’t get nominated for his performance here.

Fiennes also gets the best line of the movie when he tells Swinton, “You’re shaking like a shitting dog!”

UBALDA, ALL NAKED AND WARM (1972) **

Olimpio (Pippo Franco) is a bumbling knight who returns home to his sexy, but promiscuous wife (Karin Schubert). However, when she won’t give it up to him, he runs off. Soon, he gets the hots for the miller’s wife, and since she’s played by European sex symbol, Edwige (Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key) Fenech, it’s hard to blame him. The problem is, she’s locked up a chastity belt and only her husband has the key. Since the miller also has a thing for Olmpio’s wife, they decide to swap spouses, which leads to even more hijinks and shenanigans.

Ubalda, All Naked and Warm is a rather lousy bedroom farce. The various scenes of Schubert and Fenech hiding their many indiscretions from clueless husbands aren’t very funny and Franco’s constant mugging is almost guaranteed to get on your nerves. At least the final gag is good for a chuckle.

The good news is that Edwige Fenech and Karin Schubert get naked and they get naked often. If you are a fan of either lovely lady, you’ll gladly sit through a ton of awful comic relief to get to the scenes of them cavorting around naked. But if you’re watching it for any other reason (and let’s face it, why would you?), it’s going to be a tough sit.

SABOTAGE (2014) **

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as the leader of an elite SWAT unit that specializes in dirty jobs. During a raid on the palace of a drug lord, they steal $10 million from his stash and hide it away. Later, when they go to retrieve the money, they are dismayed to learn someone has already taken it. The team is taken off active duty pending an investigation, and after six months of scrutiny, they are sent back out in the field. Pretty soon, Arnold’s team members start dying one by one in horrible ways. Is it the drug cartel trying to get revenge, or has one of the team snapped and starting killing his friends?

Directed by David (Street Kings) Ayer, Sabotage is a needlessly muddled and overlong action flick that never really decides what it wants to be. It starts off as a heist flick before turning into a 21st century giallo (complete with spectacularly gory deaths), before morphing into a Death Wish kind of deal in the last reel. Had Ayer tackled any one of these plotlines separately, the results could’ve been decent. However, by cramming it all together, nothing really sticks.

I give Arnold credit for trying to play his age and inhabiting a more world-weary character to boot. I think he signed on to the flick to show he could play more mature types of characters. And in theory, working with a guy like Ayer would seem like a good fit. But the movie is just so over the top and in your face trying to prove how hardcore it is that it winds up being off-putting. The violence and gore I was okay with, but the characters are just so thoroughly unlikeable that it makes the simplest scenes hard to sit through.

I mean all the foul-mouthed team members have stupid names like “Monster” and “Pyro”. They all have tons of dumb tattoos and idiotic hairstyles to show how “macho” they are too. In one scene, one of the interchangeable team members gets a new tattoo. This is what is known as “character development” in the world of Sabotage.

Arnold skates by on his chops alone, but the rest of the cast more or less flounder. It doesn’t help that all of them blur together. Only Joe Manganiello comes the closest to earning any sympathy.

Still, there is some fun to be had here. Just see if you can keep track of how many times Olivia Williams’ accent changes. In some scenes she’s speaking British. In some scenes she’s speaking with a southern accent. In some scenes she has an urban twang. (Charisma vacuum Sam Worthington pulls a similar feat in the film too, although he’s strictly an amateur compared to Williams.) Sure Sabotage is a forgettable entry in Arnold’s oeuvre, but I think it might gain a second life on video as a drinking game. Seriously, if you take a shot whenever Williams’ accent changes, you won’t live to see the end credits.

Manganiello gets the best line of the movie when he says, “We should’ve never fingered the devil’s pussy!”

GRAVITY (2013) ***

Director Alfonso Cuaron wowed audiences last fall with this tale of survival set amongst the stars. I never got around to seeing it in the theater, and I’m a bit bummed I didn’t. Sure, it played just fine at home, but I bet the 3-D was really something to see on the big screen.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are two astronauts working on a space station. It gets hit by some debris and sends Bullock off flying through space. Clooney uses his jetpack to save her and together they try to make their way to an international space station.

The opening scenes of the space station getting decimated are really cool and the special effects are awesome. Cuaron’s camerawork is quite dizzying and some of the seemingly never-ending shots (although sharp-eyed viewers will be able to spot the seams) are pretty great. And I liked the camaraderie between Bullock and Clooney, especially during the scenes where he tries to get her to stay focused and not burn up her oxygen.

The scant 90 minute running time helps, but even then the flick sorta runs out of steam (oxygen?) before the finish line. The third act in particular is patchy (like the scene where Bullock starts hallucinating). Plus, Bullock’s perpetual string of bad luck gets a bit unbelievable after a while. And I have to tell you, the floating tear bit was pretty damn corny. But whenever the flick is in the midst of Bullock battling the elements, it’s quite gripping.

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: LUIS BUNUEL

THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOIS (1972) **

I’ve always wanted to check out more of Luis Bunuel’s work. I really dug Un Chien Andalou, but never saw anything else by him. The purpose of this month’s theme, Director Spotlight is for me to play catch up on some of the world’s top directors, so what better time to check out The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois?

Six people (among them, Fernando Rey and Daughters of Darkness’ Delphine Seyrig) try to go find someplace to eat. The first restaurant they go to winds up being closed because the manager died. Then they try to meet for lunch, but the main dude gets paranoid that the police are after him and he bolts. There are several more attempts by the disgruntled dinner guests to share a meal, some of which are interrupted when random people tell them about their dreams.

Bunuel is one of the most famous surrealists of all time. His jolting imagery is what made Un Chien Andalou so memorable. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois is like 100 times more lightweight than that flick, but it does have its moments. The constant dream sequences (which become more frequent as the film goes on), don’t exactly help, although there’s a scene where a kid has to poison his evil stepfather at the behest of his mother’s ghost that’s pretty cool.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois is mostly harmless. It’s watchable, but it never really kicks into gear either. The dream sequences feel sort of slap-dashed together and they never really amount to much in the end. I still appreciate what Bunuel was going for. And while I’m glad I watched the film, I can’t exactly say I “liked” it.

That’s going to wrap up Director’s Spotlight for this month. Since I recently bought the Criterion Zatoichi box set, next month’s movie-watching-palooza will be Zatoichi-Palooza!