Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Where do I even begin with The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)? Well, it's the latest from director Wes Anderson. That should tell you quite a bit; the movie contains his peculiar style of deadpan comedy, borderline fantasy, madcap adventure, and a touch of tragedy. It's got a cast comprised of many actors I like or have admired in other works including Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Anderson regulars Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum. Bill Murray also pops up for a scene.

But I'm still not sure of my response to the movie. Did I like it? Kind of. There are parts I found kind of funny, parts I found kind of moving, parts I think are kind of sad, and parts I think are kind of beautiful.

The first step to grasping, or at least enjoying, a Wes Anderson movie is accepting the world he has created. His movies are set in places that have a distinct artifice about them, a slightly askew sense of reality. Human beings inhabit them, and they have the same motivations that drive us - lust, greed, revenge, etc. - but they don't behave in a wholly plausible manner. Everyone and everything feels unorthodox. It's very stylish and very, very deadpan.

In the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, it's important to remember we're not seeing a "straight" depiction of the story; it's a depiction of an interpretation of a narrative of a memory. The movie begins in the present with a teenage girl approaching the monument of a famous, never named writer, and she carries a copy of the writer's memoir. As she reads it, the film jumps to the author, played by Tom Wilkinson, at his desk in 1985 where he begins narrating the book. From there, it moves on and shows the author in his youth, played by Jude Law, in 1968 as he visits the Grand Budapest Hotel, located in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. There, he meets the owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who tells him how he came to the hotel and how he came to own it. The bulk of the film is set in 1932, visualizing the story of how a young Zero (Tony Revolori) as arrives at the hotel and begins working as a bellboy for Monsieur Gustave H. (Fiennes), the debonair concierge.

The Grand Budapest Hotel has a lot on the table. There's the mystery of a missing will, a blossoming young romance, a country under the threat of war, a journey by railroad, an assassin working from the shadows, a butler with a secret in hiding, squabbling among heirs over the ownership of a valuable painting, a prison escape, a fraternal order of hotel concierges, and Gustave's various dalliances with the older women who stay at the hotel and enjoy the "exceptional service" he provides. Yet, the movie doesn't feel chaotic or busy. Rather, the narrative flows from one plot thread to the next, and because of the film's surreal style, none of them feel especially out of place. All of them are important to the history of the hotel, and like the characters, the viewers have to take everything in stride.

The film is colorful and not just because of it's characters and plot; the look of the film is filled with pink walls, purple uniforms, red elevators, and bright yellow lights. Exterior shots of the hotel itself look like a pastel painting. The world is one of artifice. Anderson, as in his other movie, uses a lot of closeups of his characters speaking directly ahead, and even the longer shots, whether of the front desk of the hotel or a group of prisoners plotting or Gustave and Zero sitting in a train car, are staged in head on shots, creating an often symmetrical, boxed-in feeling, like you're looking inside the room of a dollhouse.

Performances are solid, with Fiennes as the madcap ringmaster of the whole thing; there's just something about someone who's good at their job, enjoys it, and never waivers in the face of anything. Revolori is the relatively normal character, just trying to keep up with everything while Abraham as the older incarnation of Zero brings an element of pathos in his limited screen time. Also of note is Edward Norton as a surprisingly polite but ruthless fascist military officer. For some reason, Jeff Goldblum plays a lawyer who looks like Sigmund Freud, and his exit from the picture at the hands of Willem Dafoe is the funniest moment.

The effort and craft that went into The Grand Budapest Hotel is easy to admire. Some of the imagery is unforgettable, and I smiled a lot while watching the movie, but I'm not in love with it. There are a lot of small laughs but few big ones. The detached, deadpan tone is amusing and unique, but it also means it's hard for me to be invested in what happens. Hardly anyone in the movie seems particularly concerned by anything, so why should I be?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Professional

Say what you will about corrupt executives who lie and steal, but those are crimes that allow a person to live a luxurious, comfortable lifestyle and support family and friends, insulated from the consequences of his or her actions against the people they harm.

But take Leon, (Jean Reno) the eponymous hit man, or cleaner, of Luc Besson's The Professional (1994). He lives alone in a sparse, otherwise empty apartment. He kills (or as the opening action scene demonstrates, threatens to kill) people for living, not caring who or why; when his boss Tony (Danny Aiello) tells him to, he kills. He has no family, no friends, and no connections outside of his work. He doesn't even really enjoy the financial benefits, since Tony holds on to the money for him. At night, Leon sits in a dark corner with sunglasses on instead of sleeping in a bed. The only thing he cares for is a plant.

His life is one of routine job after another until Mathilda (Natalie Portman) enters it. Mathilda is a 12-year-old girl who lives in the same apartment complex as Leon. One day, her family is murdered by a group of corrupt DEA agents led by the nasty, classical music-loving Stansfield (Gary Oldman playing another one of his great psychotic villains). Mathilda is away from home when the violence occurs, and when she gets back, she turns to Leon as her protector, who reluctantly takes her in. Thirsty for revenge, she demands Leon trains her to be a "cleaner," and it isn't long before this orphan changes this contract killer's heart.

That is The Professional in a nutshell. It is a stylish, action-packed thriller with some show-stopping sequences, particularly Leon's first job and later his last stand against Stansfield and his men.  Leon's practically a superhero with guns in terms of his abilities. However, the relationship between Leon and Mathilda is the heart of the movie, and Besson builds it on a peculiar irony: Leon, a hired killer, is more child-like, naive, and uneducated than Mathilda, who in some ways is wise beyond her years. "I'm finished growing up, Leon. I just get older," she tells him. "For me it's the opposite," he replies. "I'm old enough. I need time to grow up."

Leon murders people for the Mafia, but his preferred drink is milk, he asks Tony for money the way a child asks a parent for an allowance, and he can't read or write. Mathilda, on the other hand, is someone who had to grow up very quickly: her father hits her, she's the one who goes grocery shopping for her family and later Leon, she smokes, and she's blunt about revenge, not caring that her parents and older sister were gunned because of the abuse they heaped on her. Nope, she wants revenge for her little brother because he didn't do anything to deserve what happened to him. "I wanna kill those sons of bitches and blow their fucking heads off," are the words she uses.

As the film progresses, so to does their relationship. He discusses the life of the cleaner, taking her on the rooftop for a little target practice with a sniper rifle, and she teaches him how to read. He originally intends to send her packing after initially securing her safety, but by the end, he's her committed guardian, willing to do anything to protect her. The cold, lonely assassin discovers happiness and family.

The film is strongly acted by Reno and Portman (in her debut), but there are times when Mathilda acts too old for her age, and those scenes made me uncomfortable. At one point, Mathilda flat out states she's fallen in love with Leon and even tells a hotel clerk he's her lover. Before that the two play a guessing game in which Mathilda dresses up as Marilyn Monroe and Madonna and sings "Happy Birthday" and "Like a Virgin" rather suggestively. I suppose it's understandable for a girl that age to develop a crush on an older man who protects and cares for her, and to be fair, Leon never demonstrates any amorous intention towards her, but a little goes along way. Maybe it supports the notion that Mathilda is the adult and Leon the child, but it feels icky.

From a filmmaking standpoint, The Professional is exceptionally well made. Besson brings a lot of style and energy, especially in the action choreography and editing. These guys don't just stand around and shoot; it's practically a ballet of bullets that's simply breathtaking. There's even some humor, and it doesn't feel forced in. For example, Leon cheers Mathilda up with a potholder that looks like a pig, and Oldman is such a wonderfully, sleazy bastard, it's impossible to not enjoy him as you root for his demise.

The Professional is not a gritty, plausible movie. It could have been, but Besson chose not to make the movie ugly and intense (like say Taxi Driver). Instead, he elected to make it eye-popping and stunning. It's pure film fantasy, but it is exhilarating.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

District 9

They're here! Aliens have arrived on Earth, and they're among us! What do they want? To conquer us? To help us? Nope, they're here for ... protected refugee status?!

District 9 (2009) puts a unique spin on the alien visitors theme. Most movies featuring humanity's first contact with visitors from outer space either give us the hostile species that wants to wipe us out, like in Independence Day if they're highly advanced or in Alien if they're not, or benevolent beings that guide us to new limits of understanding (2001: A Space Odyssey), try to save us from ourselves (The Day the Earth Stood Still), or instill in us a child-like awe and wonder (E.T.).

District 9 takes us past the discovery, past the first contact, and past the shiny-new-toy phase of alien encounters, picking up twenty-eight years after extraterrestrials arrive on our planet, and these otherworldly beings, bug-like creatures known derogatorily as "prawns," are just another persecuted minority in South Africa, a species confined to poverty, harassment, and confinement in an area outside of Johannesburg after their mother ship arrives and hovers near the city. The fenced-in collection of shacks the prawns (if the movie provides their actual name, I missed it) live in is known as District 9.

The story proper picks up when the government hires Multinational United (MNU), a private military corporation, to clear out District 9 and relocate the aliens to another camp far away from Johannesburg. The government official assigned to lead the operation is Wikus van Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a nerdy, somewhat bumbling bureaucrat with a loving wife (Vanessa Haywood) whose father (Eugene Khumbanyiwa) is Wikus' boss. 

While clearing out the shack of a prawn named Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and his son, Wikus is sprayed in the face with fluid from a device Christopher was working on to fix the mother ship. Slowly, Wikus begins changing, transforming into a prawn, and MNU becomes interested because with the alien DNA inside him, Wikus is capable of using the advanced prawn weaponry, something no other human has been able to do. Escaping from the MNU lab and pursued by a nasty MNU mercanary (Koobus Venter), Wikus turns to help from Christopher, who promises he can heal Wikus if they get the device back from the MNU.

In age when so many sci-fi action movies exist only to blow stuff up, it's refreshing that District 9 actually has a deeper level. The mistreatment of the prawns and their confinement to a militarized camp in South Africa is no doubt an allegory for Apartheid, the system of racial segregation in place in South Africa for decades. The prawns, like the black South Africans under Apartheid, see their rights severely restricted and are subject to arrest, torture, exploitation, and murder. This alien species, who arrived on earth sickly and impoverished, is, by the time the movie begins, treated with contempt, resentment, and outright hostility by the native human population, and the film shows a number of humans who say things like the prawns should go back to where they came from, don't deserve equal rights because they're aren't humans, and are a drag on society. 

Specifically, the allegory is about Apartheid, but it can be applied to any situation where the ruling body of a country oppresses a segment of the population. Many of these groups - like say, the Nazis - view the group they're oppressing as sub-human, people undeserving of basic human dignity, respect, and protection, making it easier to enact laws against them and commit atrocities. It's the stigma of the other, the group is not like me so I must fear and hate them. Consider all the propaganda and outright lies about minorities. Historically, there's the blood libel against Jewish people, the false claim that Jews use the blood of Christian children in their religious rituals. At one point in District 9, one native African claims the prawns steal human children, something never shown in evidence. Much oppression from a ruling government body succeeds by treating those oppressed as sub-humans, to stigmatize and keep them separate as the "other." District 9 takes this one step further by making the persecuted literally inhuman. In one of the more chilling scenes, Wikus casually burns a shack full of prawn eggs because it's against regulations.

This is where, crucially, District 9 succeeds. Even though the prawns are the creepy-looking, bug-like creatures - a design that probably could work in an alien invasion movie - they come off as sympathetic. The relationship between Christopher and his son is genuinely touching; his son was born on Earth and is excited to see his home planet for the first time, and Christopher will do anything to protect him. The boy even takes a liking Wikus, his alien innocence something that surprises Wikus. The prawns speak in a language that sounds like a lot of clicks, but the movie thankfully provides subtitles, and these beings don't speak in techno-babble jargon or aloof, polysyllabic pronouncements. They talk in a recognizable manner. When one prawn is evicted, he replies with a defiant "Fuck off." 

Stylistically, District 9 begins and ends as a mockumentary, featuring talking heads speaking directly to the camera and depicting ostensible news footage or recordings from surveillance cameras. As Wikus and his team issue eviction notices to the prawns, he's accompanied by a camera crew. At first, this is an effective strategy because not only does it convey important background information, but it creates a lived-in believability. Certain moments, like when one soldier's arm is ripped off during the eviction process, are all the more shocking because they have that feeling of immediacy. In that example, the action occurs in a long shot, and the soldier is sent flying out of frame, leaving us to wonder what happened to the rest of him. On a downside, the movie jumps between documentary style and traditional narrative style, and it's not always clear which is which, and it feels like cheating at times. Other times, it's just annoying; when Wikus is on the run, the movie has narrators explain where he's going and why as if we weren't able to figure that out on our own.

The action scenes consist of a lot of shootouts and explosions, true, but the alien weaponry Wikus and Christopher use give them life. The prawn weaponry involves energy blasts that cause soldiers' bodies to go pop, sort of like a more gruesome version of the Martians' heads exploding in Mars Attacks! These aren't fun-looking bullet ballets but desperate fights for survival. At one point, Wikus dons a suit of techno-armor that allows him to take on a swarm of enemies, culminating in the awesome shot of him catching a rocket in mid-air. This does make me wonder why the prawns never utilized their weapons against their human oppressors since they clearly outmatch them physically and technologically.

The movie also has fun sprinkling in little details not often explored in science fiction movies. A black market develops in District 9, in which the aliens trade their weapons for cat food, a substance that is like crack-cocaine for prawns. The movie also tells us inter-species prostitution exists but thankfully refrains from showing us how that works; the one image we see of prawn-human coitus is an in-universe photoshop designed to defame Wikus. There's also a group of humans who believe eating prawns will grant them powers, leading to a subplot in which Wikus is captured by a group of Nigerian criminals who want to chop off his arm (now transformed into a prawn claw) and eat it.

What can't be argued is the performance of Sharlto Copley, who not only gives us a human center to care about at the center of all the sci-fi allegory but also demonstrates a range rarely seen in any movie, genre or otherwise. Copley begins the movie as a not-too-lovable doofus and bureaucrat and transitions to a man terrified by the changes happening to his body and finally to a reluctant but convincing action hero. It's almost as if someone blended Steve Carell from The Office with Jeff Goldblum from The Fly and put the mix inside Robocop, and it's a testament to Copley's talent that he made a potentially incongruous character work every step of the way. Throughout the film, he runs the gauntlet through cheeriness, pettiness, nerdy charm, optimism, disgust, denial, anguish, anger, and heroism. Copley's had some high-profile roles since District 9 (Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy and Disney's Maleficent), and he should be a star for years to come.