Movie Review ~ See How They Run

The Facts:

Synopsis: When world-weary Inspector Stoppard and eager rookie Constable Stalker take on a case of murder in London’s West End, the two find themselves thrown into a puzzling whodunit within the glamorously sordid theater underground, investigating the mysterious homicide at their peril
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, David Oyelowo
Director:  Tom George
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Never underestimate the power of a good puzzle. During the past two years, puzzle sales have increased dramatically, leveling off as more restrictions were lifted, and the world again gathered as groups. While we were all cooped up, there was fun to be had at the organization and completion of a tricky jigsaw. It certainly made the time fly by. I have a stack of puzzles in my closet that can attest to the popularity of this resurgent pastime. 

The same pull to find a solution to this game draws viewers into the mystery and thriller genre, which also was in declining output in recent years. This phenomenon is primarily due to the mid-range budgeting involved and fewer opportunities for studios to franchise future installments. It’s hard to sequel-ize a movie where the characters might not all make it to the final act. Then a film like Knives Out comes around along with streaming material like Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, and the genre feels revitalized. Before you know it remakes of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile are getting greenlit. Rather than blood, guts, and gore found in slasher films with an unknown killer, these more prestige releases represent the classic whodunit.

As audiences await the upcoming release of the third season of Hulu’s hit show and the upcoming Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, 20th Century Studios’ See How They Run is sprinting to beat the rush, and the timing couldn’t be better. It’s a breath of fresh air, though it often plays like Only Knives Out in the Theater, just with less crisp creativity for twists in the plot. What you see is what you get in director Tom George’s period mystery that plays with real elements of history, but with a production that has a zest for the era and natty performances you want to see more of, it easily laps the lesser fare we’ve been just getting by on.

It’s 1953, and the hot ticket in London’s West End is Agatha Christie’s original play, The Mousetrap. As it celebrates its 100th performance, the film rights have recently been sold, and dodgy film director Leo Köpernick (Adrian Brody, Clean) has arrived from America to attend the festivities. While the reclusive authoress herself doesn’t make the party, plenty of the who’s who do, along with a killer that strikes before the night is over. 

The keen Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan, Little Women) and the jaded Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell, Richard Jewell) are sent in to investigate. One brings an eagerness to solve the crime quickly, while the more seasoned detective knows not to trust everything you see. As they go down the list of suspects: a penny-pinching producer (Ruth Wilson, Saving Mr. Banks), a snooty screenwriter (David Oyelowo, The Water Man), and even the show’s star Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson, Where the Crawdads Sing), they’ll find out there’s more to the murder (and the killer) that meets the eye. 

More than anything, See How They Run showcases Ronan’s ease doing droll comedy as the dutiful constable with a penchant for cringe-y one-liners. She makes a nice counterpart(ner) for Rockwell’s boozy Inspector. The two can efficiently work independently but strike the best chords playing off one another. A great cast is assembled in the ensemble, but it’s a shame Mark Chappell’s script doesn’t afford them more to do throughout. I was often left wondering why particular characters had greater pull than others. It helps to level the playing field as to who might be the next victim but when you have a company this game, let them play. If anything, See How They Run screams to be played out over several hour-long episodes instead of the brisk 98 minutes.

Due to the fact it is so straightforward, you may be tempted to concoct numerous solutions in your head before you get to the final reveal. I wouldn’t put too much time into working things out because the answer to the film’s riddle isn’t as complex as you think (hope?) it is. That doesn’t speak to lessen the quality of the film; it just goes to the plot’s inherent weakness for curveballs that could have been tweaked. It’s still marvelously witty at times and catty at others. I’d stroll to See How They Run in theaters if you’re dying for a drawing room-style murder mystery but do keep it high on your list to catch eventually. This talented team is too delicious to pass up.

Movie Review ~ Clean

The Facts:

Synopsis: Tormented by a past life, garbage man Clean attempts a life of quiet redemption. But when his good intentions mark him as a target of local crime boss, Clean is forced to reconcile with the violence of his past.

Stars: Adrien Brody, Glenn Fleshler, Mykelti Williamson, RZA, John Bianco, Michelle Wilson, Richie Merritt, Chandler Ari DuPont

Director: Paul Solet

Rated: NR

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  For a while, it seemed that after winning an Oscar for Best Actress, women who tucked the award away on their mantle would suffer from some curse for some time after. Their following projects would tank, and they would struggle to regain the credibility that an Academy Award would bring them. For recent examples, I’d offer you Halle Berry as Exhibit A, and Hilary Swank as Exhibit B.  Swank even had to go back and win a second Oscar to get things back in order, only to return to making lesser-than efforts. My point to all of this is that no one seems to look at the Best Actor winners, many of whom walked the same path but, unsurprisingly, aren’t held to that same standard.

For the review of Clean, let’s look at Adrien Brody. To some, his win for The Pianist in 2002 came as a surprise, but one need only watch the film to know why Brody easily bested his competition that year. Since that time, Brody hasn’t exactly set the box office on fire and often plays third or fourth banana in ensemble projects (like 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel) or even takes the backseat entirely to special effects bonanzas (as in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong). Still, it’s not like Brody doesn’t seem aware of that. It’s probably why he’s generating his own work and curating projects that speak to him. However, if Clean is what he’s leaning toward, I’d rather see him in an update of 1986’s King Kong Lives.

Serving as the producer, co-writer, composer (!), and star, Clean is Brody’s take on the gritty dramas made famous in the ‘70s by unlikely stars such as Charles Bronson and his Death Wish series. The familiar tale of a man with a past (or, better yet, no past) who becomes the beacon of hope for a person (or family, or neighborhood, or city) in danger from violent thugs is well-worn enough to be threadbare but it isn’t without its merit and charm. When done right. There’s something kind of dirty about the entirety of Clean, which tends to have a grime that rubs off like a grease and makes it hard to wipe away when the film concludes. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad effect, per se, for a film to have on an audience. Still, I couldn’t get over feeling like director/co-writer Paul Solet (Tales of Halloween) and Brody’s persistent focus on the deep dark made any grasp at redemptive light nearly impossible to see.

Loner garbage man Clean (Brody) quietly works the night shift hauling away trash from decaying neighborhoods in a city that offers him little comfort. Plagued with nightmares from a horrific trauma he’ll never get over, he tries to distance himself from emotion by staying busy with work and repairing small appliances he finds on his route. With no family of his own, teen Diandra (Chandler DuPoint) is someone he can be a pseudo-father figure to, even if her mother Ethel (Michelle Wilson, Premature) has suspicions about the overly kind man that says he’s just watching out for her child. The enormity of violence and gangs creeping into the streets where Clean and Diandra live require constantly staying alert, and when Diandra begins to fall in with the wrong crowd (almost out of necessity for survival) and Clean intercedes, it puts him and those he wants to protect in the path of Michael, a most dangerous criminal.

Usually, the villain of a movie like this gets a scene here or there to illustrate the extent of their wickedness, and Solet/Brody don’t skimp on opportunities to show just how evil and manipulative Michael (Glenn Fleshler, Joker) is. He runs two long-standing family businesses in tandem. One is fish, the other foul (drugs), and recently paroled son Mikey (Richie Merritt) wants nothing to do with either one of them. The discord between father and son is another familiar device used to create a tension that boils over and leads to their paths crossing with Clean and the bloody repercussions of their actions.

As is often the case with these types of genre-specific films, the payoff for wading through some thick yuck in abhorrent violence by the bad guys in the first two acts of the movie is the reward of watching the good guys (and gals) take them down with extreme prejudice in the final salvo. The problem with Clean is that by the time we arrive at Brody strapping himself into tactical gear and literally pulling out the big guns, none of the “good” characters have won us over to give us reason to actively root for them. Sure, they’re far better than the vile alternative (Fleshler and specifically Merritt make it way too easy for you to want them exterminated), but we’re so little invested in the characters that Clean could have ended in multiple ways, and it wouldn’t have made much difference.

Movie Review ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

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The Facts
:

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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The Silver Bullet ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

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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.

Release Date: March 7, 2014

Thoughts: Are you ready for The Grand Budapest Hotel?  No, really, are you ready?  Because I have the inkling the first great movie of 2014 will arrive once Wes Anderson’s follow-up to Moonrise Kingdom opens its doors in early March.  Anderson is an acquired taste and truth be told it’s taken me a while to really warm up to his style but if it’s half as precise as Moonrise Kingdom this one’s going to be another strong entry in Anderson’s growing list of cinematic treasures.  As is always the case for an Anderson film, the trailer is more of an excuse to introduce the slam-dunk cast on board than it is to reveal plot details…I found myself saying “Like him, like her, love him, like him, love her…” as this second preview played on.  Highly anticipated to the point where it may not meet expectations, I’m trying to keep a lid on this one until I see it for myself.