Movie Review ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson

Director: Wes Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  In the interest of total transparency, I wanted to let you know that I’m not a dyed in the wool devotee of Wes Anderson.  Sure, I devoured The Royal Tenenbaums as fast as the next art house hound but I started to have my doubts with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and, full disclosure, didn’t even bother with The Darjeeling Limited.  Meryl Streep got me back to Anderson providing a voice for the clever clever clever The Fantastic Mr. Fox and my journey was complete with 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, one of my top films of that year.

It’s March now but I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel in February and knew even then that another Anderson film would be near the top of my list for 2014 because this film represents the filmmaker at his most imaginative, most focused, most comedic, and most free from the convention and chumminess that I felt stymied some if not all of his pre Moonrise Kingdom works.

Here’s a director with that rarest of rare gifts…a point of view.  You don’t even need to know this is a Wes Anderson film to know it’s a Wes Anderson film.  His use of color and his attention to symmetric detail demonstrates a skill very few directors possess and Anderson continues to lead the way.  It says something that in Hollywood’s copy happy climate I can’t recall another studio or director that has even attempted the kind of precision and whimsy Anderson makes look effortless.

His new adventure (and it’s truly an adventure) takes place in three different time periods (and, if your theater is heeding the filmmakers instructions, three different aspect ratios) and charts the goings on of the titular lodging and it’s charismatic concierge that made it famous   Inspired by the writings of Austrian Stefan Zweig, Anderson’s film has a little bit of everything from campy farce to murder mystery foibles.  Behind every door of the hotel could lie danger or a lusty encounter with lord knows who.

Priding himself on his exceptional service in and out of the bedroom, randy would-be sophisticate concierge Gustave H (an inspired Ralph Fiennes, Skyfall) mentors young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (perfectly etched by Tony Revolori in the past and F. Murrary Abrahm in the almost present) in the ways of love and lodge, eventually embroiling him in a family squabble after a rich old lady (a marvelously brief cameo by Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin) kicks the bucket under suspicious circumstances and leaves a prized painting to the concierge that warmed her bed.

Chock full of familiar Anderson players, some are seen briefly while others have meatier roles that allow them to go all out.  All are standouts but notables are Adrien Brody (The Pianist) as Swinton’s son wanting his just reward, Willem Dafoe (Out of the Furnace) drawing on his Shadow the Vampire character to play a ghoulish thug, Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, The Big Chill) odd as ever as a family lawyer, Jude Law (Side Effects) as a curious writer, Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom) turning up as a detective while Saoirse Ronan (How I Live Now, The Host), Jason Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks), Tom Wilkinson (The Lone Ranger), Owen Wilson (The Internship), and of course Bill Murray (The Monuments Men) pop up when you least expect them to.

No big surprise that Anderson’s film is given the grandest of grand production designs courtesy of production designer Adam Stockhausen (Oscar nominated in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave), art directors Stephen O. Gessler (Cloud Atlas), Gerald Sullivan (The Dark Knight Rises), & Steve Summersgill, set decorator Anna Pinnock (Life of Pi), and three time Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero (Carnage).  Frequent collaborator Alexandre Desplat composes a typically tonally perfect score that sets the mood with style.  Count on all to be recognized with Oscar nominations a little less than a year from now.

Hopefully, Anderson, Fiennes, and the picture itself aren’t too distant of a memory when the award nominations are announced at the end of the year.  It would have been so easy for Anderson to toss this jewel of a picture into the 2013 award race but I think it was a wise choice for Fox Searchlight to hold this one back a bit and let audiences come down from their American Hustle and Gravity highs to start their new season off with a bang.

A film of numerous superlatives, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, for my money, Wes Anderson’s finest film to date.  Energetic, often hysterically funny, and excellent from the first frame to the last it’s as close to a perfect film experience as I’ve had in some time.  For some, it may be too left of center to feel the same way but I was bowled over with little reservation.

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Movie Review ~ Need for Speed

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Fresh from prison, a street racer who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross country race with revenge in mind.

Stars:  Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Scott ‘Kid Cudi’ Mescudi, Michael Keaton, Dakota Johnson

Director: Scott Waugh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Though I want you to read the whole review, let me say right off the bat that there’s no real need to see Need for Speed.  It’s a hare-brained, noisy, overlong film that most will probably find subpar in comparison to other muscles and muscle car films like Fast & Furious 6.  Even with that disclaimer, I’ll tell you that I found myself enjoying Need for Speed more than I thought I would/could.

Based on a popular game from Electronic Arts, Need for Speed has a rather lenghty set-up that takes up a good half hour of your time but ably covers a lot of bases you’ll need to get something out of the final 100 minutes.  Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a good ole boy living in the kind of quaint small time town that so many city denizens would long to visit…for a weekend.  Taking over an auto-body shop from his recently deceased dad, he’s seeing the bills pile up and begrudgingly takes an offer from rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) to soup up a car to be sold at auction.

Said car is a beaut and attracts the attention of a Julia, a comely associate (Imogen Poots) of a wealthy business man…and leads to a dangerous situation that sees Tobey imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.  Upon his release he sets out for revenge, bringing Julia and a bunch of emotional baggage along for the ride.

A gigantically silly film, I couldn’t help but just sit back and enjoy the ride that the 3D converted film provides.  Needing to make it cross-country in less than 48 hours, Tobey burns rubber though scenic vistas while avoiding the police and an array of roadblocks both literal and figurative.  Culminating in an illegal street race across the beautiful coast of California, Need for Speed should be credited with never slowing down…because it’s only after the lights come up that you realize how ludicrous the whole thing is.

Compensating for his tiny facial features by pitching his gravely voice to the Christian Bale basement level and over emoting the simplest of line readings, Paul isn’t nearly as impressive here as he was in his award-winning turn on TV’s Breaking Bad.  He’s better than Cooper (Dead Man Down, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), though, who isn’t the formidable foe the character and movie calls for.  Michael Keaton (recently seen in 2014’s failed Robocop reboot) must have filmed his scenes in a day and laughed all the way to the bank as a hyper mastermind behind the final race.

The grand prix winner of the film is Poots who works the same kind of magic she did with That Awkward Moment earlier in 2014 by effectively stealing the role out from under her male counterparts.  I had forgotten she was in this so when she appeared on screen I had the feeling the movie was about to be kicked into a higher gear…and I was right.

Though it hits the skids plot-wise as it nears the finish line, director Scott Waugh stages some mighty fine action sequences that don’t fall victim to repetition.  Using very little in the way of visual effects, Waugh is able to up the ante on race films without coming off as showboating.  It adds a considerable amount of realism to a non-realistic flick and I enjoyed his employment of interesting camera angles.

This is a film I wish was released later in the summer when I could have seen it at a drive-in movie theater.  Though set in present day it has a pleasingly retro-vibe to it even if it lacks the overall cool factor that made classics like Bullitt so monumental in the race genre.  If you’re in the mood to put your brain on cruise control and can take your hands off the wheel, Need for Speed could be a road trip worth taking.

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Movie Review ~ Divergent

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoё Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I knew from the early previews of Divergent that it was going to be derivative of several other films released in the past few years.  And hey, I get it, studios have been scouring the bookshelves of young adults for the next big thing and Veronica Roth’s bestselling trio of futuristic novels was a tantalizing treat that could capture males and females in that prime target market studios gnash their teeth for.

Trouble is, the film that’s been made out of Roth’s first novel winds up being so cobbled together from other, better, books/films that by the end of the numbing 139 minute running length audiences may feel like they’ve been barreled over by this Frankenstein of a film.  Considering the caliber of the cast and the impressively mammoth production design, that’s pretty depressing because had director Neil Burger and screenwriters Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daugherty trimmed some of the fat, a true franchise starter could have emerged.

You know the drill… a futuristic society that appears utopian really hides dystopian tendencies that threaten the lives of everyone.  The good are really bad and those considered bad are really good.  The opening narration from Beatrice (the usually stellar but oddly uncomfortable Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now, The Descendants) lets us know this world is divided into five factions and the time draws near for her to choose which group she wants to belong to.  Does she stay with the good Samaritan faction her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) raised her in, does she go with the one a never fully realized loopy test assigns her to, or does she choose her own path?

Without spoiling too much, Beatrice (soon to be just Tris, if you’re nasty) finds herself in a tribe that will challenge everything she knows to be true while putting her life at risk from the very people she thinks are her friends.  It’s a tricky set-up and the exposition of such is handled well…but it all seems to be in service to future films not yet greenlit.  That leaves newcomers to Roth’s world in a paint-by-the-numbers environment where everyone is exactly who they appear to be, though the film would have you think its throwing you off the scent at every corner.

Like Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games and its sequel, Tris is a symbol of heroism for young girls/women but unfortunately lacks the overall growth that made Everdeen such a relatable character that could cross gender lines.  Tris never seems to overcome her weaknesses and hang-ups, not helped by Woodley’s awkward approach.  I’m a big fan of Woodley and can’t quite decide if it’s her performance that I didn’t care for or the milquetoast character she’s bravely tackling.

Alarming in its violence, especially toward women, I never could figure out what kind of film Divergent was aiming for.  Equal parts Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Host, Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, it never breaks away from the pack to blaze its own trail.  Though a huge bulk of the film centers around Tris being brutally trained by faction leadership, there’s never a decisive moment when Tris takes her life into her own hands.  Though the make-up team ably shows the bruises and effects of her training, Woodley’s flowing locks seem straight out of a Pantene ad.

Rounding out the cast are Theo James, a Franco family look alike that is a surprisingly strong leading man for Woodley, Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher) as a tattooed ruffian keen on taking Tris down, Miles Teller (That Awkward Moment) as a classroom foe, and Ansel Elgort (Carrie) as Tris’s brother who makes an equally tough decision on his future.

Then there’s Kate Winslet (Labor Day) and here’s where I’m treading lightly.  You see, I’m a huge Winslet fan so saying anything bad about her is tantamount to breaking my own heart.  However, in her first attempt at villainy I found her wanting.  As a politicized blonde ice queen she’s not benign enough to share the bad with others and she’s never evil enough to justify our needing to see her taken down spectacularly.  I don’t think it’s necessarily her fault but Winslet has the star power to tailor the role to her talents.  Go bad or go home, I say.  Pregnant while filming, she’s almost always shown with a large notebook in front of her stomach and one close-up scene clearly is a reshoot with her hair and make-up not matching shots before and after.

As the intended start to a major franchise, Divergent doesn’t make the case for a sequel.  When the film was winding toward its conclusion, I realized that I had no investment in what happens next.  If the second book is adapted into a film, I’m hoping for a new team behind the scenes that will help move the film into an event that leaves audiences excited.  The cast is ready and willing…now the material just needs to be there.

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Movie Review ~ Muppets Most Wanted

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The Facts:

Synopsis: While on a grand world tour, The Muppets find themselves wrapped into an European jewel-heist caper headed by a Kermit the Frog look-alike and his dastardly sidekick.

Stars: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey

Director: James Bobin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The release of The Muppets in 2011 represented a new start for the felt character franchise that had seen its share of ups and downs during its history spanning over three decades.  Though I found that film to be fun overall, I felt that it wasn’t as Muppet-centered as it could be, focusing too much time and attention on the human stars (Jason Segel and Amy Adams, American Hustle) instead of the characters so many of us grew up with.

Wisely, Walt Disney Studios (which now owned the trademark for Jim Henson’s creations) wasn’t above retooling their reboot and righted some of the past wrongs with this much better sequel that keeps the  puppets front and center were they belong while keeping the humans at bay on the sidelines.  Original director Jams Bobin is back as are screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement, Neighbors) and songwriter Bret McKenzie (who won an Oscar for “Man or Muppet” and then went on to star in the awful Austenland) and all seem to be on better footing this time around.

If the first film was more akin to The Muppet Movie from 1979 then Muppets Most Wanted could be compared (favorably) to 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper.  Picking up literally where the first one left off, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the rest of their comrades are sweet-talked into capitalizing on their popular resurgence and going on a world tour.  Trouble is, the man behind the tour is Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais, almost as intolerable as Segel was in the previous film) and he’s in cahoots with a criminal mastermind named Constantine.  Recently escaped from a Siberain gulag, he looks an awful lot like Kermit though he sounds like a amphibian Borat.

This leads to a switcheroo landing Kermit back in the gulag and Constantine using the world tour to steal pieces to a puzzle that will help him to snatch the crown jewels.  Along the way there are musical numbers, a sizable amount of cameos (none of which I’ll spoil here), and quite possibly a long-overdue wedding that I thought had happened in a previous film.

The voices and talents behind The Muppets are beyond reproach (kudos Steve Whitmire, Bill Barretta, Matt Vogel, David Rudman, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz) so let’s focus on the flesh and blood stars that are getting in on the Muppet action.  As mentioned previously, Gervais is a lot to handle and the film features far too many close-ups of his fang-y mug…though a song and dance number that finds Constantine tap dancing on his head provides a hearty chuckle.  Tiny Fey (Admission) has a thin singing voice and an even thinner Russian accent as the gulag grand dame that takes a shine to Kermit.  Ty Burrell plays a Jacques Clouseu-esque detective always ready to go on break…the jokes here get repetitive and old pretty quickly.

McKenzie’s songs are better than the original with several of them landing squarely on target.  Though he stumbles out of the gate with the obvious “We’re Doing a Sequel” he lands a one-two punch of the Barry White-like disco seduction “I’ll Get What You Want (Cockatoo In Malibu)” and the fun  “Interrogation Song” delivered with rap panache by Burrell and Sam the Eagle.

Though it runs ever slightly too long at 112 minutes and lacks the free spirit charm that came with the first trio of adventures to hit the big screen, Muppets Most Wanted is a marked improvement on every level from the previous entry…even though the new Muppet, Walter, is still featured too prominently.  It can’t be a coincidence that those early films were the entries that Jim Henson was most involved with and that kind of vibrancy is hard to duplicate…but this one inches closer to that pleasant territory.

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