Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

The Budapest.

Fresh off the success of his pre-adolescent love story that is "Moonrise Kingdom", Wes Anderson is back, after a mere 2 years, for "The Grand Budapest Hotel", a film that is as deeply troubling as a penny dreadful yet as deft in its storytelling as a great piece of literature. It is also particularly notable for having in its disposal a wide array of well-known actors, no matter how out of place some of them may ostensibly be in a Wes Anderson picture,  that figure perfectly into this otherwise odd little film.

For almost every single one of the esteemed filmmaker's niche fan, this project is undoubtedly a great step towards the right direction because Anderson finally ventures into a genre that is yet to be tread by his cinematic shtick. If almost all of his previous films deal largely with the dysfunctions of certain families and how they affect the already idiosyncratic world they live in, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" adversely creates a vast, "Dr. Zhivago-like" dreamland of quirks and unexpected politics that seem to overwhelm the main characters in ways both good and bad. Reminiscent of Charles Chaplin and how he has specifically concocted fictitious nations that mirror real countries (Tomainia as Germany and Bacteria as Italy) for his dim-witted dictators to rule over in "The Great Dictator", Wes Anderson has created the Republic of Zubrowka: the place where the titular hotel is situated. Run by the charismatic, well-mannered, and overly cordial Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) and assisted by the 'divine' lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori), the hotel, as lavish as it is, is shown as something that's kept alive not just by the quantity of rich guests that flock it, but also by the odd kind of discipline Gustave indoctrinates to his subordinates. It is also quite in order to mention that Gustave consistently engages in sleazy friendships with "rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial, and blonde" women, which makes his job all the more financially rewarding.

For Wes Anderson purists, watching "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a gratifying experience, and even that, for some, is an understatement. With his visual symmetry evidently at its most impressive in this film and his deadpan humor now deliciously lined with some hints of classic slapstick and shocking violence, he has admittedly upped the ante. Because of how Anderson has slightly altered his game for this film while tackling themes previously unfamiliar to him (murder, wartime politics, and the likes), he has made genre archetypes conform to his patented aesthetics and not the other way around, and that, at least from where I see it, is a mark of a true auteur.

On the other hand, though, for film fans that are slowly getting quite irate of Wes Anderson's gimmicky style, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" may very well sound the death knell for any chance of them being endeared to his future works. Abundant and almost abusive in its use of tableaux, intentional lack of comic timing, and self-conscious clichés, the film can very well turn people away because Wes Anderson's deadpan approach to filmmaking is at is final, most unbreakable form here. In "Rushmore", it's quite obvious that he's still unsure if what he's making is a coming-of-age dramedy or a romantic comedy. In "The Royal Tenenbaums" and even "The Darjeeling Limited", the emotions are still that of a traditional indie crowd-pleaser. Even the "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is still a children's movie in every sense. But here in "The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson seems to care lesser about what people may say about it or whether or not it defies genre classification. There are moments where vignettes are used in awkward ways while there are also scenes where movements are obviously sped up (perhaps to channel comedy pictures from the silent era). Also, he is quite unapologetic in using artificial-looking backdrops to reinforce the film's cartoonish appeal, which unfamiliar viewers may perceive as utterly phony or just plain indulgent. But on the upside, the film's screenplay is clever, fast-witted, and absurdly hysterical, which is the primary reason why Wes Anderson is still quite a darling among film critics despite the fact that he often inspires polarizing sentiments among cinephiles.

As for the performances, Raph Fiennes may have just punched his ticket for a trip to Dolby Theatre for his scene-stealing yet completely effortless turn as Gustave H, while the all-star cast never faltered in providing the film some energy to convince us to be part of the almost magical realist world of Zubrowka for less than 2 hours, and also the ample wit in delivering seemingly archaic lines in sarcastic ways that miraculously make them seem very much refreshing.

Reality check: "The Grand Budapest Hotel" may not be Wes Anderson's best work (though it's really, really close), but it's definitely the most entertaining, what with its chase sequences, all that Willem Dafoe moments, plus that specific (at least for me) "Holy shit, is that Jeff Goldblum?!" scene. Though its wartime setting may put off some fans who have grown accustomed to Wes Anderson films that are typically smaller in scale and centered on a particular family's collective troubles, this film is a peek into how great Wes Anderson can be if he tries out things and themes that are on the opposite side of his comfort zone. There's something in this film which really suggests that Wes Anderson, despite the fact that he will no doubt live and die by his trademark aesthetics, is in for a certain reinvention, storytelling-wise. Indeed, I am sold; sold to this man who was once only seemingly concerned in featuring the Futura font and some gramophones in his films but is now adventurous enough to take on murder, war, and politics and make them seem laughable instead of distressing. It's a 'grand' illusion, what he has created here.     

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

A mad gaze.

For the sake of posterity, I will dare state that this is my first Thomas Vinterberg film (it has always been all Lars von Trier for me), and though I'm not yet fully familiar with his style as a whole, I think it's already fair enough to believe that his polished visual approach for this one is already many years removed from his Dogme 95 roots. But what "The Hunt" lacks in showcasing its director's cinematic trademarks it more than makes up in its intense exploration of everything morally gray. There has been this widely held belief that the things children say are almost always true. Although "The Hunt", even in itself, can't dispute this very fact, what it really wants to say is that once a rare white lie comes out of a kid's mouth, that of which involves you as the make-believe perpetrator of an abhorrent deed, prepare for hell.

Set in a sleepy town populated by people who know each other like family, "The Hunt" is as innocuous as any film can be. And to add yet another dose of harmlessness to this calm and collected scenario, it stars Mads Mikkelsen as a kindergarten teacher named Lucas who does nothing all day but play with his diminutive students. Among the kids is a cute girl named Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), daughter of Lucas' best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), who is as mysterious as she is irresistibly adorable. Lucas often walks her to school, and Theo does not seem to mind. One day, though, after Klara inexplicably kissed Lucas in the lips and was subsequently rejected, she then unexpectedly concocted a story detailing how Lucas has shown her his 'willie' and then proceeded to molest her. Shocked and distressed, the school's principal and also the entire community, without even thinking twice, immediately turned their back on poor Lucas.

Ostracized and alone, Lucas, aside from being socially banished from the town he grew up in, also becomes a victim of mass hysteria that he never could have foreseen. Slowly, even the boys who he often plays with in the playground start to craft their own anecdotes of how they were sexually abused by Lucas, even going as far as vividly describing the minute details of their teacher's rustic household. Like a more infuriating, teeth-gnashing small town version of "Rashomon", "The Hunt" is an even trickier film about subjectivity and perception mainly because the bending of facts comes from innocent children who do not even have any stake on anything. If nothing else, it is a grating essay on how a person's deeply-held beliefs about perception can destroy the life of another. Who said innocence is bliss?

Mads Mikkelsen, who most of us will recognize as Le Chiffre in Daniel Craig's very first Bond outing, is utterly believable as a mild-mannered teacher who, in some ways, is content in living a very simple life. Though one must only look at his face to realize that he's the perfect actor to play any psychotic character (hence why he was cast as Hannibal Lecter in the on-going TV series), Mikkelsen has still made me believe in this film that he can play a wronged everyman in such a way that you will back him fully no matter what he does, ala Dustin Hoffman in "Straw Dogs". And yes, this may be far-fetched, but I believe "The Hunt", as much as it is a quiet drama film, has borrowed elements from the western genre, specifically on how Mikkelsen's nursery teacher role closely mirrors the brash town outsiders guys like Clint Eastwood have played in countless gun-toting films in the past, but without the oozing bravado. And as with all western films, it is but necessary for the 'wronged outsider' to prove that he's worth the ounce of respect that his co-villagers owe him. Lucas may not be a gunslinger (well, his affinity for hunting does not count) in the mythical sense of the word, but he treads such a path towards vindication just the same. 

If the film portrays, in detail, how easy it is be put in utter disgrace based solely on a baseless accusation, it also deeply shows the difficulty of reclaiming respect after losing it overnight. Lucas learned it the hard way, and although it's easy to make amends with people, it is hard to re-tie the knot that was already severed. The film is by no means a thriller, but how it unfolds really does flirt with the conventions of the genre. There's also a certain kind of emotional impact in the film that makes it just as powerful a depiction of incorrect indictment as "Dancer in the Dark", which is coincidentally a film directed by Vinterberg's Dogme 95 co-pioneer, Lars von Trier.

"The Hunt", as with all slow-moving drama films of its kind, requires a considerable amount of patience. But at the same time, the film is also borderline humorous in its intense elicitation of anger that it almost literally asks for us viewers to control our collective fury as we watch Lucas' bleak attempt to prove everyone his innocence unravel in all its futility. As frustratingly polished as "The Hunt" may be for a film directed by a Dogme 95 luminary, its themes are still fairly consistent to the said film movement's loose collective intention to explore isolation and moral ambiguity in claustrophobic social settings. There is pure power hiding beneath the film's seemingly plain nature, and it will suck you in until you can only look at a lie, no matter how harmless and white, whether by a sickly octogenarian or a naïve child, as something that truly destroys.

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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)

A family on fire.

"Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter... Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold... that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle."
 – Dr Manhattan (Watchmen, 1987)

Starting off like a typical 'family' film as we get to see the twin siblings Simon and Jeanne Marwan (Maxim Gaudette and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) trying to make sense of their late mother's strange last will, the film makes it apparent that the film's conflict will strongly be of familial nature, and its plot revelations be more implosive in tone. "Incendies", which is basically Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex" minus all the prophecies and is based on a play written by Wajdi Mouawad, is Denis Villeneuve's quiet yet intense study of a nuclear family that harbors a secret so painful that it gives the film a distinct feel of a horror story. The film may not be necessarily entertaining or generally appealing for audience to thoroughly enjoy, but it is the kind which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, and then makes you wonder if such bitterness is really that of a bad thing.

"Incendies", as what I've repeatedly said about emotionally unsettling films, is a difficult one to sit through, but will nonetheless make you sit back in awe at Villeneuve's deftness as a peculiar storyteller. Instead of letting the film progress just like the objective mystery piece that it should be, Villeneuve is quick on shifting the film's point of view, with it jumping from the twins', their long-lost brother's, to their mother Nawal Marwan's, and then back again. There's also this ambivalent placing of blood-red title cards in the beginning of each of the film's chapter, which does nothing but enforce the film's narrative ambiguity even more. The heavy reliance on political and religious overtones, coupled with the positioning of Nawal Marwan as a reckless activist, also cleverly distracts from the film's shocking twist in the end, which, as what I've mentioned, hits close to freaking home as any bloody secret can get.

The performances in the film, which are all quiet, naturalistic, and nothing particularly scene-stealing or remarkable, take the backseat in favor of the film's slew of heavy and perception-altering revelations, which is, admittedly, "Incendies'" true selling point. Lubna Azabal's turn as Nawal Marwan, however, is, simply put, nothing short of stunning, which is only fitting because her character is, without a doubt, the film's heart and soul.   

Again, just like any other film with such a quiet, economical pacing, it may really take a while before "Incendies" can grab your attention. But once it does, rest assured, it is as tight as any strongman's grip, and the bad news is that it will keep on tightening the more you think about the film. It's a 'Holy shit, what the hell have I just seen?!' type of cinematic experience, and I tell you, its effect simply just won't go away. And even though its impact ranges from the religious to the utterly ideological, what "Incendies" is all about is how it has miraculously managed to make a film about an otherwise obscure conflict in an equally unknown Middle Eastern country and make it very personal and relatable regardless of racial boundaries. The film is a powerful examination of faith marred by senseless conflicts, and also of fate and how it oftentimes fucks everything up to the point that life ultimately mirrors the cruel formula of a Greek tragedy. But as what this film suggests, out of such an anomalous fate, out of a myriad of almost literary misfortunes arises a certain kind of miracle that "Incendies", despite it being a thematically unsettling film, was able to hold on to the same way Dr. Manhattan, a God-like entity, did when he mused about how the conception of human life is the reason why the world is worth saving.

Villeneuve may have directed the most disturbing family film there ever will be, but in the middle of "Incendies'" abundant cynicism, he also wants to make it known that there's still something pure and outwardly lovely in the sordid little truth that the Marwans are trying to unearth. Suffice it to say, there's still an element of bittersweet pain in finding out a certain secret no matter how pedestrian or persistently life-changing it is. This then reminds me of the ending to Roman Polanski's "Chinatown". Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), after witnessing with his own eyes how a decades-old secret savagely unravel, his friend whispered to him, distraught and all, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." Now, if only someone can gently whisper the same to any of the Marwans, then coping would be easier. Or would it? Though the film's story consistently progresses with closure in mind, the film is still, by and large, a haunted soul. The secret was known, but then what? Villeneuve seems content in ending his film with a depleted sigh of relief and chests heavy with sadness and guilt. And as how Dr. Manhattan would put it, "It ends with you in tears."

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