Impressive #CrimsonPeak is Vintage Guillermo del Toro

Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, movie, poster

Contrary to those ads you’ve been seeing and the trailers with Nick Cave‘s “Red Right Hand” playing beneath it, make no mistake, Guillermo del Toro‘s Crimson Peak is a true Gothic romance that just happens to have ghosts in it (as well as copious amounts of blood and blood-like substances).What it is not, is a horror movie. The director himself has not called it that. He’s actually compared it to Hitchcock, particularly Rebecca or George Cukor’s Gaslight (both of which are apt comparisons), but it is as a horror film, that it is being marketed. It was shot February through May and completed in December 2014, but Universal wanted to release it at Halloween, so here we are in October 2015. Make no mistake, there are thrills and chills, and it’s full of murderous intent and malice-aforethought, but no real “scares”, at least in terms of what movie-goers born post-Freddie Kruger and weaned on the Paranormal and Insidious series’ as well as remakes of Halloween, The Fog and Poltergeist, would consider truly scary.

Mia Wasikowska is Edyth Cushing, an aspiring novelist, whose biggest champion is her wealthy industrialist father (Jim Beaver). Her aspirations make her something of an outsider to her social climbing contemporaries who prove that the male publishing world isn’t alone in thinking she should be concentrating on getting a husband.  So of course, it is is Edyth that the mysterious Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a rakish English demi-noble (his title, “Baronet”, is thrown around a lot) plucks from the bouquet of dewy young things presented to him upon his arrival in turn-of-the-century Buffalo. He quickly marries her, after the shocking (and incredibly brutal) death of her father, who had objected to the match on grounds we are not immediately privy to (made known to him by his hired detective Holly, played by Burn Gorman), then whisks her away to a molding, crumbling estate back in (extremely) rural England, full of ghastly secrets and even ghastlier ghosts.

When her heart is stolen by a seductive stranger, a young woman is swept away to a house atop a mountain of blood-red clay: a place filled with secrets that will haunt her forever. Between desire and darkness, between mystery and madness, lies the truth behind Crimson Peak.

The film, written by the director and Matthew Robbins (Mimic) who started it in 2006 and finally finished during filming, is visually stunning in typical del Toro style. All of the colors are rich and over-saturated. Both Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain often look like they belong in a Pre-Raphaelite painting. A lot of the sumptuous fabrics used in designer Kate Hawley‘s costumes are vintage, from the period depicted. The set design (all of which was built from the ground up specifically for the film by art director Thomas E. Sanders) is, in a word, incredible. Every scene, particulary once the film moves to spooky Allerdale Hall, could have been captured by an artist’s brush as well as the lens of Danish cinematographer Dean Laustsen.  del Toro has said that he wanted his movie to look like a Technicolor Mario Bava film (Bava was a painter before he was a director/cinematographer) and, JMHO, he’s succeeded. (You will hear about Crimson Peak come awards season. It will be up for all of the technical awards – as it should be.)

But this film owes as much to Bava as it does Hammer Studios in its hay-day. Charlie Hunnam‘s Dr. McMichael is a “good guy” straight out of their repertory company. The grand score, by Fernando Velasquez, and the dialogue, particularly in the early scenes, is straight out of a period-perfect Penny Dreadful (speaking of which, there are shades of the Showtime series as well – again, not a bad thing at all), with a lot of stilted delivery of the phrase “my child”.

Watching Wasikowska and Hiddleston, it’s hard to imagine Emma Stone and Benedict Cumberbatch in their roles. Hiddleston, in particular, was made for this type of film (if you haven’t seen his tortured, soulful vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive, remedy that. Immediately) and the site of him in white tie and tails is indeed impressive and utterly swoon-worthy. Wasikowska gets to be the heroine of her own story, in a departure from the Gothic formula. del Toro has imbued her with the intelligence and resiliance to not only recognize the dastardly shenanigans of her new husband and his creepy sister, but to defend herself against them.

The Sharpes are a tragic pair, certainly not your typical villains, created by equal parts nurture and nature, and it is Jessica Chastain’s Lucille that is the beating pulse of this movie. Lucille is fierce and determined, with a stare that is both ice cold and blazing with intensity. She doesn’t go full-tilt bozo until the final reel, but it is a payoff the film has been ratcheting toward from the start and what we’ve been waiting for. (Even then we feel some small measure of sympathy for her.) I don’t want to spoil anything, particularly since most of the plot twists are easily untangled while you watch, but trust me – there are monsters and there are monsters.

See Crimson Peak and see it at a theater in all its glory. I’m not usually one to endorse what I consider marketing gimicks, but I highly recommend IMAX for this one.  It deserves the biggest screen  you can find. Come back and let me know what you think.

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Cotillard, Phoenix and Renner in The Immigrant – Now Streaming!

Cannes 2013, poster, movie, The Immigrant, Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner

Poster for The Immigrant – Cannes 2013

 

Turning on Netflix the other day, eager to hunker down and binge on the last six episodes, ever, of “The Killing”, I was surprised to learn that The Immigrant, James Gray’s tale of life in New York during the early part of the 20th century, a gorgeous film that I’m almost sure you missed at the theater, is available for streaming. That’s right, like a number of other hot titles have done lately, it skipped right over premium cable channels such as HBO or Starz and went right to Netflix, where we can watch it free (well, not quite free, assuming we’re not pirates and we’ve paid our monthly $7.99).

I’m not here to judge, so either way, let me tell you why you should be interested. (Frankly, the name Marion Cotillard will pique the curiosity of most cinephiles, however, for those of you that require more…)

The beautiful opening shot is of the Statue of Liberty shrouded in mist. (It’s a scene worthy of Chaplin – if he’d had access to the same technology while making his own The Immigrant in 1917.) It’s 1921. Ewa Cybulska (Cotillard) a Polish Catholic, has just arrived in New York after fleeing the deprivation caused by the First World War. She and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafian) are seeking a fresh start and their own piece of the American dream. What transpires next is what happens after the promise heralded by that first glimpse of America meets the grim realities of immigrant life. Magda is ill, and she and Ewa are immediately separated. For her part, Ewa, for reasons we don’t yet understand, is classified as a person of ‘questionable morals’ and in danger of being deported. Everything that follows results from Ewa’s efforts to both get her sister off of the island and keep them both from being sent back to Poland.
Enter Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). Is he a Good Samaritan in the right place at the right time, a well-dressed representative of the “Traveller’s Aid Society”? Or is he a pimp? He does in fact produce burlesque shows. And while it does not take long for Ewa, who is desperate rather than naïve, to figure out that her savior is indeed also a predator, Phoenix’s Bruno is no Snidely Whiplash and by no means a simple villain. He’s certainly charming, but is also by turns wicked as well as vulnerable.

Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, photo, The Immigrant, movie

Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix in The Immigrant

At what would seem to be her lowest point, Ewa crosses paths with the suave, and equally as charming magician, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), whom we come to learn, happens to be Bruno’s cousin. He’s instantly smitten. She tries to resist, but he sweeps Ewa off her feet and would appear to be a chance for her to escape the cruel world in which she finds herself. But is he everything he would seem to be? Or is he what the jealous Bruno says he is?

How about both?

 Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Renner, photo, The Immigrant, movie

Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner in The Immigrant

There is history between them and that history will practically dictate their futures, but neither Bruno nor Orlando are all of one thing and none of the other. This makes sense, both because life exists in the gray areas, but also because the immigrant experience of the late-19th and early 20th centuries consisted of both struggle and triumph. Part of writer/director James Gray’s point would seem to be that although we now see the transition from the Old World to the New through the prism of time, tinged with nostalgia and family memories, to those making that long journey it was often terrible, and certainly strange.

Ewa is forced into prostitution and rejected by relatives she thought would care for her,  but she also must be devious and at times a thief.  She is treated with suspicion by some of her new companions, particularly Belva (Dagmara Dominczyk – Mrs. Patrick Wilson – who is wonderful and should be seen more), another of Bruno’s girls. Through it all, Cotillard makes her shine like a diamond in a coal heap. The part of Ewa was written for her and I cannot imagine it without her. Ewa is intensely luminous, vulnerable, fragile and yet dignified. The camera lingers on her face in much the way it might have done with the silent stars of the era in which she’s placed. (She particularly brings Greta Garbo, in her early silent roles, to mind.) Cotillard projects precisely the qualities that would cause not just one, but two men to be prepared to risk everything after just a mere glimpse of her.

Purposely melodramatic, The Immigrant, of course, is not a silent film and in fact has some beautiful dialogue, but cinematographer Darius Khondji has used a soft-focus, luxuriously grainy palette so that it feels almost like a long lost gem from the era it depicts. (If the silent film comparison doesn’t work for you, think Theodore Dreiser and “An American Tragedy”. Bruno has a lot in common with that novel’s protagonist Clyde, whose destruction was brought about by his innate moral and physical weaknesses including a lack of scruples, self-discipline and unfocused ambition. If you need a more recent cinematic comparison, try Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.)

Of course, in a film more interested in mood and feeling than in the mechanics of plot, some elements don’t work, and unfortunately Ewa’s relationship with Orlando seems little more than a structural convenience. While he serves to move the story forward, his character should have been more fully realized and his subplot given more time to develop. I have to wonder if there weren’t more to it that didn’t survive the cutting room.
Ultimately, what we’re left with is a glimpse of early 20th century urban life, complete with a performance by Enrico Caruso (and set to the gorgeous score by Chris Spelman). The “doves” in Bruno’s employ, as well as their customers emulate the Astors and the Vanderbilts of Fifth Avenue in dress and mannerisms. It’s difficult to distinguish art from sleaze, since popular entertainment brought strippers, comedians and musicians together under one roof. Which is America in a nutshell. The tawdry exists side by side with the exquisite, brutality with tenderness. So it is with Bruno, and why we can’t quite separate the lost boy from the scoundrel.

The Immigrant gives us the flip-side, or the mirror image of the American dream. It’s the warts-and-all version of the tale your great grandparents told about their adventures in “coming to America”, the antithesis of the Hollywood-glamorized version one would expect, but probably much closer to the truth.

The Immigrant directed by James Gray, written by Gray with Ric Menello, with Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Robert Clohessy, Adam Rothenberg, and Angela Sarafian. It debuted at Cannes in May 2013, has played film festivals all over the world, and now, thanks to Harvey and The Weinstein Company, can be found on Netflix.

Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin Deliver a Steamy Labor Day

Josh Brolin, movie, photo, Kate Winslet,  Jason Reitman, Labor Day

Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day

Another film you more than likely missed in the theaters is Labor Day, directed by Jason Reitman with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. (I’d been following it since filming began, since the story takes place and was filmed in the suburbs west of Boston. But I digress.) The movie is a sweet, old-fashioned love story. The type that could easily have been made by Howard Hawks in the 1940s or Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk in the 1950s, the type about which it could appropriately be said, “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”. Until this one came along, that is.

Critics, for the most part, savaged the film. Perhaps they’d have found it more plausible if it starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (or Gloria Grahame) or even Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. It was the first of Reitman’s films to earn a “rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes, let alone fail to earn a single Academy Award nomination (although Winslet did earn an obligatory Golden Globe nod. The HFPA loves her).

Never one to let someone else tell me what I should like, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fact that Reitman took a chance on a genre completely out of his comfort zone. I enjoyed seeing Josh Brolin’s tender side. And of course, I enjoyed Kate Winslet as Adele, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown who not only finds love, but manages to find herself again, over the course of this one strange and sticky long weekend.

It’s not really a spoiler if I mention the pie-making scene in which Brolin’s escaped convict, Frank, teaches Winslet’s blowzy single mother how to bake a peach pie. It rivals Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore and the clay in Ghost.

But that’s getting ahead of myself. There is no “meet cute” for Frank and Adele, it’s more a “meet terrifying”. It’s 1987. The agoraphobic Adele and her 13 year old son Henry (an amazing Gattlin Griffith) have made the painful journey out of the house and into town because school is about to start and Henry has outgrown his old clothes. She’s terrified, he’s patient. While Adele trepidatiously pushes her cart through the store, Henry wanders off to look at comic books. Out from behind the rack pops a bleeding man. Having recently escaped from prison, Frank forces Adele and Henry to drive him to their house where he proceeds to hold them hostage.

There is, of course, a lot more to Frank than his arrest record. The house is, of course, as unkempt and rundown as Adele herself and soon, as only happens in the movies, the hostage situation dissolves into something else entirely and we see Frank teaching Henry how to throw a baseball; he waxes floors and even irons. And again, as only happens in the movies, pretty soon it’s not only Adele’s car that gets a tune-up.

For her part, Adele used to be a bright, vibrant woman until tragedy struck. As the adult Henry explains in voice-over (Tobey Maguire), “I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart, but rather losing love itself”. It’s plain to see from the beginning that these two people need each other.

Reitman admits that the hardest hurdle raised by the story was why this woman would take in this strange man in the first place, one who’s bleeding and probably dangerous to boot. And what about Henry, who is obviously a mature and savvy 13, why wouldn’t he stop her? But if you’re along for the ride, you understand. It’s because Adele sees the way he treated her son, and she responds to his courtesy toward her as well, and whenever she thinks he’ll behave one way, he surprises her.

Adele also can’t bring herself to turn her back on Frank’s wound. Despite the fact that she can’t take care of herself, she has the skill to care for Frank. Again, we know that there is much more to the stories of these people, some of it we’re shown, some of it we intuit. If you’ve seen and enjoyed any of Reitman’s previous films, you know he is a master storyteller, and one of the biggest reasons is that he understands human nature. He helps us to understand that these two wounded people just fit.

Okay, okay, before the eyerolling begins, let me add that I can understand how you might have some difficulty buying into all of that, at least on the face of it. But it is Winslet and Brolin, (such an unexpected pairing in real life and on film), and their earthy, sexually-charged chemistry that sells the entire package. Sure it’s a preposterous premise. But it was no less preposterous when Joyce Maynard published the novel in 2009. It became a bestseller and achieved widespread critical acclaim. Why any of this would be any less easy to accept in film form, from a cast and crew as talented as this movie had, doesn’t make much sense to me.

Jason Reitman read the book and immediately knew he wanted to adapt it for a film. He told a TIFF 2013 audience, “I wanted to know why these broken people needed each other, and slowly, the answer unveiled itself to me. I was overwhelmed. Parts of the book leveled me, and I cried.”

For my money, Labor Day is a warm and lovely little film about longing, hope, and the redemptive power of love, beautifully photographed by Reitman regular Eric Steelberg, with an evocative score by another regular, Rolfe Kent (who also composed the score for Dom Hemingway).

It was a novel, not a memoir. It’s a movie, not a documentary. If it’s a good story, emotionally gripping, well told and well acted, isn’t that enough?

Labor Day also stars Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek, J.K. Simmons, and Brooke Smith. It’s out on dvd and blu-ray today, August 5.

Trailer:

Jude Law Gets Hilariously Filthy in Dom Hemingway

Dom Hemingway, Jude Law, movie, poster, Richard Shepard, Richard E. Grant

Poster for dvd release of Richard Shepard’s Dom Hemingway with Jude Law

Dom Hemingway, a movie I’m almost certain you missed in the theaters, is out now on dvd and blu-ray. It’s about a Cockney safecracker of the same name, zealously played with bawdy, psychotic, raunchy, balls-out , go-for-broke bravado by Jude Law like you’ve never seen him before – and not just because he gained thirty pounds to play him. Dom is Bricktop from Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (sans pigs), if Ritchie were Francois Rabelais channeling Mickey Spillane.

Actually, Dom Hemingway sprang from the talented and slightly twisted mind of writer/director Richard Shepard, whose last movie, 2005’s The Matador, gave us Pierce Brosnan strolling across a hotel lobby in a Speedo and ankle boots.

After spending 12 years in prison for keeping his mouth shut, notorious safe-cracker Dom Hemingway is back on the streets of London looking to collect what he’s owed.

The story begins as we listen, likely in slack-jawed wonder, watching Law’s face in close-up, as Dom addresses the audience and delivers an ode to his favorite part of his anatomy. As the camera pulls back we realize he’s talking all the while being “serviced” by a faceless someone whom we come to recognize as a fellow inmate. It is a truly awesome monologue, an efflux of Shakespearean proportions, both epic and surreal, funny and jaw-droppingly filthy.

jude law, shirtless, movie, photo, dom hemingway

That stunning scene pretty much tells us what we’re in for as we follow this violent, poetic, hilarious, anachronistic gangster on his quest to get the money owed to him for not ratting out his boss… plus a present.

Then there’s Dom’s best friend, Dickie, played by the under-rated Richard E. Grant, as a toff in leisure suits and aviator shades, with a prosthetic hand. Dickie is at Dom’s right hand, observing everything and responding with a verbal or literal eye-roll, but we know instantly that this is just par for the course and there is deep affection between the two.

Dom: Fontaine better have a well-stocked bar.
Dickie: He was raised in a Russian orphanage and kills people for a living. Of course he has a well-stocked bar.

In fact, all of the characters, from the double-crossing Russian mobster Mr. Fontaine, played Demian Bichir (!) to Melody (Kerry Condon), whose life Dom saves in a rare moment of unselfishness, to an unrecognizable Emilia Clarke as Dom’s estranged daughter Evelyn, are very well drawn. The problem is that Dom is such a BIG character that everyone around him is dwarfed.

It’s a story we’ve seen play out countless times before with varying degrees of success, but a character like Dom, rarely. Shepard’s twist is the humor with which he tries to balance his main character’s amoral behavior. However, that we are not repulsed by Dom is, of course, down in part to the clever things Shepard has given him to say, but mostly it’s all Law, who manages to remain as charming as ever. He embodies every aspect of Dom, from the way he walks (more like swaggers bow-legged with hips thrust forward like a cowboy or porn star, usually with a cigarette plugged between his teeth), talks, swears, drinks, laughs, and cries with every bit of the bold presumptuousness needed to make the character come to life.

The movie ultimately can’t decide what it wants to be. Instead of letting Dom just “be”, Shepard sees the need to add a redemption plot to his otherwise slight tale of an ex-con looking for payback. Dom’s efforts to repair his relationship with his daughter, despite how good Clarke is, and how good Law is in the scenes with her son, feel tacked on. It really wasn’t necessary to give Dom any redeeming qualities when the reprobate is so much fun.

Dom Hemingway as a whole should not work, but amazingly it does, for the most part – including the striking and vibrant color palette, the soundtrack full of instantly recognizable classics by The Alarm, Primal Scream, Big Country, Pixies, Godfathers, Motorhead, and Citizen Cope, as well as a very sweet version of The Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues” sung by Emilia Clarke, and a truly memorable car crash sequence – as long as you don’t ask too much from it.

If for nothing else, though, I recommend the film for Jude Law, who at 41 has eschewed “pretty boy” status for good and Dom Hemingway finds him at his very best.

Red-band trailer:

Dom Hemingway, written and directed by Richard Shepard, with Jude Law, Richard E. Grant, Demian Bichir, Emilia Clarke, Kerry Condon, Jumayn Hunter and Madelina Ghenea, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013 and is on dvd and blu-ray now.

Only Lovers Left Alive: A Romantic Vampire Tale for Grown-ups

Only Lovers Left Alive, movie, still, Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton
Only Lovers Left Alive, an official selection of Cannes 2013, is stylish, hip, sexy and smart, all of which are things I’m generally in favor of. It’s also, despite the scenes of Jim Jarmusch’s creatures-of-the-night (the word vampire is never used) imbibing “the good stuff” from delicate cordial glasses and antique flasks (or even “on a stick”), the most sanguine vampire tale I’ve ever seen.

Actually, it’s a film that is more about eternal love, not just eternal life; a character study in which our Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) just happen to be vampires. Other than their quest for a blood supply untainted by the poisons of modern life, they fill their endless lives much as we mortals do: searching for ways to amuse themselves as well as give meaning to their existence. Twilight, this is not.

We will learn that Swinton and Hiddleston are lovers, that they have been married for centuries, that they are soul-mates. But from the first scene, we already know they are connected even when they’re apart. The film opens with intertwining shots of the two, spun to the tune of “Funnel of Love”. ( I thought I was listening to the song played at half speed so that Wanda Jackson sounded less like Minnie Mouse on helium than I’ve ever heard, but it’s actually director Jim Jarmusch’s band, SQÜRL with singer Madeline Follin, of Cults.)

Adam, who refers to humans as “zombies”, is a musician, who is hiding out under the perfect cover of a decimated Detroit. His devoted “Renfield” is manager/enabler Ian (Anton Yelchin), who would love to be able to promote him so that Adam’s music could reach a wider audience, but Adam won’t have it. The zombies love his music, but he ‘vants to be alone’. He collects antique instruments and shuns modern anything, unlike Eve who embraces the technology that allows her to stay connected to Adam. Sensing Adam’s growing despair, which is only confirmed via a Skype chat (the Rube Goldbergian way in which Adam has rigged his antiquated analog devices to accomplish this task is comical, yet indicative of what an intelligent mind can come up with when one has all the time in the world),  Eve decides to make the transatlantic journey to see him, despite the intrinsic difficulties of traveling by day.

Eve is a seeker, and a lover of knowledge, currently residing in Tangier. She’s worldly and as much of the world as reclusive Adam wants to shrink from it. I’m not sure the part wasn’t written specifically for Swinton, she is just so perfectly cast, and her chemistry with Hiddleston is palpable. (I know I’ve mentioned that Michael Fassbender was Jarmusch’s original choice. I, as I believe you will, have no trouble embracing Hiddleston as Adam.)

Watching Eve make her travel arrangements is just one of the sly and witty ways that the script pokes holes in well-known vampire lore. It also hints at the possibility of the presence of vampires throughout history. Adam gave an adagio to Shubert. Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt) is not only “alive” but a vampire and used the “illiterate” Shakespeare as his front to continue to “get the work out there” long after his supposed death. There are also odes to the same lore that the script deflates eg: vampires must be invited to cross a threshold. And there are things that Jarmusch may have made up, yet seem like they should be part of the myth, for instance, vampires also need permission to remove their gloves, which they always wear in public. I’ve never heard of that one (or have I just forgotten it? Anyone? Bueller?)

Adam plays word games with a hematologist (Jeffrey Wright) who calls himself Dr. Watson, that he bribes for access to pure blood. He calls himself first Dr. Faust then Dr. Caligari. Eve expresses her love for Jack White, who has always looked a bit like a vampire, although to my knowledge, there have been no rumors of blood drinking.

At the end of Eve’s journey, she and Adam reconnect in a dozen sexy, slinky, sultry ways, including sinuously dancing around his crowded manse in silk dressing gowns (wouldn’t it be nice if Denise LaSalle and Charlie Feathers experienced career resurgencies?) and driving through the desert of Detroit at night, discovering its lonely beauty. Their reunion, however, is interrupted by the arrival of Eve’s irresponsible and uncontrollable little “sister” Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Although both Adam and Eve (as well as Marlowe) had dreamt of her arrival, it was anticipated with dread.  Ava’s bratty antics become the catalyst for all that follows, including the funniest lines in the movie.

Example: Adam and Eve watch a body melting in acid. “That was visual”.  (You just have to see it.)

Jim Jarmusch doesn’t like digital cinematography and wanted to shoot on film, but could not due to budgetary constraints. He and his director of photography, Yorick Le Saux, whose last English-language film was Arbitrage, worked with low lighting (they were after all, shooting entirely at night) and experimented with a variety of lenses until they were able to achieve the look they wanted, one that approximated “film”. However they got there, they’ve found a prism of color in the blackness and the result,  in which the cold dark night of Detroit is contrasted with the exotic warmth of the Morocco where Eve lives and walks among the locals, is mesmerizing.

Adam and Eve glide along to the trance-like soundtrack provided by SQÜRL (which includes Carter Logan, and Shane Stoneback, in addition to the director), and Dutch minimalist composer Jozef Van Wissem, with a guest appearance by Yasmine Hamdan, the singer for Soapkills, the first indie/electronic band in the Middle East, and nod their heads in unison to the beat. Jarmusch has given his immortals a “been there and done that” insouciance, but if there’s one thing that they still can’t get enough of after all these years, it is each other.  So, aptly, we are left with Adam and Eve, determined to survive, if only so that they can continue to be together.

Ultimately, Only Lovers Left Alive is a hypnotic paean to the mysteries of true love.

“Make me immortal with a kiss.” – Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus

 

 

Bit of trivia that may or may not have been intentional: One of the books that Eve packs for her trip to Detroit is a catalog of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work. Jeffrey Wright’s film breakthrough was as the title character in Basquiat.

 

Locke Is a Ride You Want to Take

Locke, Tom Hardy, movie, review

Chances are, if you’re taking the time to read this, you’ve already made up your mind about whether or not you’ll see a movie in which nothing happens other than a man gets in his car, drives all night (which is what Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive sounded like it would be about, but don’t confuse it with Roy Orbison) and talks on the phone (relax, he has Bluetooth). Truly. That’s what it’s about and that’s all that happens. Or is it?

All of that might not seem even noteworthy if we were talking about a play, in fact I can well imagine someone picking up the script for writer/director Steven Knight’s Locke and deciding to mount a stage production (especially given that film seems to be the most fertile field from which the theater is now harvesting ideas), but for Knight and Tom Hardy to do what they do in a movie is a feat of daring.

It’s even difficult to talk about Locke without spoiling it. But on the off chance that you are still on the fence (or worse, haven’t heard of it), how else do I (or anyone) get you to see this film? I can tell you that you need invest less than an hour and a half of your time, which is true. I know you can think of at least five films that were a lot longer and were totally unworthy of your time and attention, not to mention your ducats. (I’ll bet Adam Sandler’s name appears on your list at least once, am I right?)

I can tell you that if you don’t see it you’ll be missing out on a singular bit of film making with a tour de force performance by Hardy – which is also true and I am far from the first person to use that phrase. If all you know of Tom Hardy is either Eames from Inception or Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, then it’s time you were introduced to a different side of the man. The part of Ivan Locke was written for him* and it is one of those roles and performances that, after one has seen it, one will never be able to imagine anyone else doing it. If he weren’t so utterly engrossing, it would be difficult to forget that all we’re doing is watching someone steer a car.

The journey begins when Locke, a Welsh construction foreman, gets in that car at the end of another day on a building site.  Before we know anything else about him, we know that he’s just made a conscious choice to turn right instead of left. It is over the course the film that we learn why that was such a momentous decision. It starts with the first phone call. Ivan’s wife and two sons are expecting him home to watch a big football match on television. He’s promised his boys he’ll be there and when Locke informs them he won’t be back in time, we know he’s not in the habit of breaking promises to his children.

Nor is he in the habit of letting down his employers. The next day, a day on which he will not show up for work, he is due to supervise a major concrete pour, a job on which a lot of money, as well as  the structural dependability of a tall building, is riding.

So what could possibly cause this usually solid and conscientious man to suddenly abandon his responsibilities?

He made a mistake. One very costly mistake.

About eight months before this night, Ivan had a brief encounter with a woman named Bethan (Olivia Coleman – heard, but not seen).  He barely knows Bethan, as he matter-of-factly informs his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson), but she’s pregnant and he’s “the cause”. Upstanding Ivan has decided that regardless of the circumstances in which the child was conceived, it is his responsibility to be there for his or her birth.

Of course, once all of this is out in the open, the next eighty minutes are spent dealing with the fallout. Because he’s got it settled in his mind, he expects his wife to accept this bombshell as well.  He’s more worried about the concrete and having to leave the details to an underling (who drinks). It becomes clear to us why this is so difficult for him during a particular speech in which he rhapsodizes the properties and capabilities of good cement.

Ivan is determined to see the job through, and his determination keeps him calm as he talks the increasingly worked-up Donal (Andrew Scott “Sherlock”) through the steps he must take to ensure that everything goes as planned.

Ivan Locke is a soft-spoken man, and that is meant in every sense of the term, but he’s also a man with an excessive, perhaps even obsessive, need for control. It is obvious that Locke believes that doing the right thing is all. When he tells his son, “I’ll fix it and it’ll all go back to normal,” we are concerned that he might be coming unglued and are holding our breath waiting for the explosion.
While we feel his desperation and watch Ivan’s world crumble, Hardy’s voice never wavers, the Welsh cadences becoming almost hypnotic as he issues instructions and provides information to the people closest to him, including his boss Gareth (Ben Daniels “Law & Order: UK”) and his family, whose world he has just blown to pieces. He’s trying to keep steady the delicate balance of his life, with construction on one side of the scale and destruction on the other.We see it by watching Hardy’s face.

Locke never loses control until he’s addressing his father. We know the father isn’t in the car, but is he absent or invisible in Ivan’s life? I think these scenes have been misunderstood. They are not a misstep by Knight, providing too much backstory, as some have asserted. When Ivan looks in the rearview mirror, we see his own reflection. What Ivan sees is his father, something it becomes more and more apparent he wants to avoid becoming. This is, in fact, why he’s on this road on this particular night.

We only see Hardy, but while he (and therefore we) listen to various voices over the phone, we are able to picture so much of Ivan’s world, including the family life that proves to be so fragile, the people with whom he works that had heretofore seemed to hold his competence in such high regard, even Bethan’s lonely existence. (Her repeated requests for him to say that he loves her, along with his refusal because they “hardly know each other,” is heart breaking.)

Steven Knight, who has only one other feature to his credit as director, the Jason Statham starrer Redemption (aka Hummingbird), which made nary a blip on the radar in this country (I liked it. It had problems, but Knight got an actual performance out of Statham – something the great Taylor Hackford couldn’t do with Parker), manages to dial up the stress by careful degrees. I wanted to smash that damn Bluetooth and its automated call-waiting voice. I’m sure Ivan did too, deep down.  Knight also knows when a respite is needed, injecting a bit of humor here and there, like Donal’s description of the Serbian road-gang and the city councilor who doesn’t want to be bothered because he’s “in an Indian restaurant!”

Improbably, this movie about a man in his car becomes a roller coaster of ups and downs so that when some good news finally comes, we don’t trust it and continue to hang onto that breath we’ve been holding.

What we see takes place almost in “real-time”, just not in one continuous take. There was some very clever editing involved. They filmed this eighty-five minute movie sixteen times over the course of seven nights, which by movie-making standards is the equivalent of a nanosecond. Technically, it is still a movie, but this is practically guerrilla filmmaking.
At one point Hardy claimed that he had no idea what his lines were going to be before he said them and simply read them from cue cards. Given his performance (and that Knight wrote those lines specifically for him), that’s difficult to believe. It’s doubly so when you factor in Hardy’s growing reputation for having a laugh at the expense of the press. One recent prank involved a remark uttered to one unsuspecting journo, which was then, of course, picked up to boomerang all over the web, that despite the fact that he’d recently been hired to play Sir Elton John in a new biopic, he couldn’t “carry a tune to save {his} life”. The producers were quick to quash that one. Brits (and Celts) are a cheeky lot.
Ivan’s belief that he can make everything all right again reminded me a lot of Maggie at the end of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. It will be true because he’ll make it true through sheer determination and force of will.  There are those that think that the film doesn’t have a lot to say, other than to deliver the terrible news that a single bad choice can ruin your life. But the film is not just a cautionary tale about the dangers of one night stands. Because while it is true that at the end of the ninety minutes it appears that Ivan has lost all of the things he started with…job, family, professional respect…he has retained his self-respect, which is even more valuable to him… and he has hope. And hope is everything.

 

*Bit of trivia: on Ivan’s car we see very clearly a sticker for “Help for Heroes“, a UK military charity that provides assistance to wounded British veterans. It’s an organization near and dear to Tom Hardy’s heart.

Make a Reservation For Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel, movie, Poster

via imdb

Wes Anderson‘s The Grand Budapest Hotel, while definitely for adults, earning its R-rating with mature themes as well as blood, death and copious f-bombs, is also as delightfully flaky and multi-layered as one of the beautifully decorated pastries, the “Courtesans au chocolat”, that play a key role in the film. It’s lovingly crafted in Anderson’s signature candy colors and wrapped in an equally pretty pink box, not the one tied with a blue ribbon, but the Grand Budapest Hotel itself.

The film recounts 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. The story involves the theft and recovery of a priceless Renaissance painting and the battle for an enormous family fortune — all against the back-drop of a suddenly and dramatically changing Continent.

The film is another in a line of Anderson’s charming and brightly colored shadowboxes, this one awash in extravagant shades of topaz, rose and amethyst, and filled with the director’s usual complement of wacky characters to whom he’s given lots of amusing and eloquent things to say and lots of screwball antics to perform.

It begins with an aging writer embarking on a story told to him when he was a younger man, by another aging raconteur who then proceeds to tell the tale of The Grand Budapest Hotel when it was indeed still grand.  So it’s a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, telling a story within a story within a story, spanning three different eras, each with its own production design and color palette. The setting is the fictional European country of Zubrowka, an obvious stand-in for any of a number of Eastern bloc countries like Czechoslovakia or Poland. When the film opens, the titular castle-like hotel, though clearly fallen on hard times, stands as a remnant of a bye-gone era – an era of grace and beauty…and excess.  The year is 1968 and the Grand Budapest Hotel has been refurbished to reflect more utilitarian times, but it is one of the mysteries around which the film revolves that it has been allowed to remain otherwise untouched, a gracefully aging doyenne atop a mountain, looming over the villages below when private property is clearly frowned upon. (Think of how many families could make use of the hotel’s rooms!)

As all of Anderson’s films revolve around some variation of a father/son dynamic, usually a quirky middle-aged man and the precocious boy he takes under his wing, The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception. This time around, the mentor is played by Ralph Fiennes as “the mysterious Monsieur Gustave H.”, the consummate concierge who is by turns fussy, fastidious, charming, condescending, a little creepy and sweetly endearing. Often these traits are all visible within the same scene The elderly society matrons who seem to make up the lion’s share of the hotel’s guests, provide Monsieur Gustave with ample opportunity to polish his gifts for seduction and flattery to a fine patina, even when they’re dead.

The Grand Budapest Hotel finds Anderson at his most spirited and stylish. As Gustave and “his  lobby boy” named Zero embark on a fateful trip to honor one such dearly departed guest’s memory, they wind up embroiled in a zany murder mystery comprised of a string of antic set pieces that take them from a vast and spooky mansion to a hilarious prison break to a cartoonish ski-and-sled chase from a mountaintop monastery.

Of course along the way they’ll run into a colorful array of  Anderson’s regular company of players. It would be too spoilery for me to tell you who Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson play but part of the fun is waiting for them to pop up, since you know they’re bound to. Adrien Brody is obviously having a blast as the villain, all but twirling his mustache like Snidely Whiplash in melodramatic glee, as is an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, who has far too little screen time. (Apparently both she and Ralph Fiennes agree as Swinton has said that they’ve talked about doing a “prequel” depicting Monsieur Gustave and Madame D’s “love story”.) Edward Norton does a variation of Scout Master Ward from Moonrise Kingdom, as Henckels. New members of the company include F. Murray Abraham, and Jude Law, among several other familiar faces. But it’s Fiennes to whom this movie belongs and who provides the gravitas and is the ambiguous heart and soul of the film. He’s in nearly every frame of the picture. As an actor he’s gotten so good at playing villains or heavy dramatic roles that it’s almost a giddy surprise to discover his impeccable comic timing. He inhabits Monsieur Gustave in such a way that we cannot doubt his sincerity whether he’s berating his lobby boy, vetting Zero’s young girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) or complimenting a corpse on her complexion, despite the fact that he remains a bit of a cryptic figure. He’s civilized and refined, at least superficially, but he’s also prone to vulgarity and casual cruelty and his own background is left purposely vague.

The spectre of impending war looms large and the Nazis are given the thinnest of veils instead of being named outright, but Nazi-era anxieties play a huge role.  If one compares The Grand Budapest Hotel to another film set during the same time period, Cabaret, then Gustave H. is like a more genteel version of Joel Grey’s Emcee.

If the only Wes Anderson film you’re familiar with is 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, a gently deviant story of first love, it might surprise you to discover that The Grand Budapest Hotel is peppered with startling images of violence. After a character tosses a cat out a window, we see its bloody remains on the pavement below before it’s off-handedly discarded in a trash can, not to mention the close-up of some recently amputated fingers. There’s also a brief glimpse of sexual explicitness that feels almost shockingly out of place in a Wes Anderson film. (It’s meant to be jarring and it does earn a well-deserved laugh from the audience.)  Anderson seems ready and willing to indulge a taste for the crude and grotesque. He treats characters’ physical blemishes and deformities as visual one-liners like the shoeshine boy with the prosthetic leg and the bakery girl with “a port wine stain in the shape of Mexico” on her face.

Anderson has said that his inspirations were the wartime comedies of Ernst Lubitsch, like To Be or Not to Be, but this isn’t so much a satire as it is an homage or soft focus mirror image of those films. He gives us the abhorrence of authoritarianism which marked that earlier genre,  not as a crime against humanity, but more as an affront to good taste and Old World etiquette. Despite the humor, the pastels and jewel tones and the near slapstick energy of some of the vignettes, there is a tinge of melancholy wafting through the film, particularly in the section that takes place post-war, centering on Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) and The Writer (Jude Law).

The dialogue written by Anderson from a story by Hugo Guinness and inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, is heavily laced with poetry and gives Gustave the right to be called a genuinely romantic figure, in the truest sense of the term.

Part of Anderson’s charm is his ability to put together the perfect musical canvas upon which to draw his pictures. I’ve been listening to Alexandre Desplat’s memorable score for weeks now.  It will carry you along until it dares you not to tap your toes, especially during the final credits. (You do stay, right?) You must. You’ll want to dance the Hopak like a Cossack or at least throw your arms up to shout “Hey!” when the music stops.

Ultimately, The Grand Budapest Hotel is enchanting,  as well-appointed and smoothly run as its titular establishment. So here’s a question, why is a movie this much fun, this well made and well acted, released in March?  Why wasn’t it saved for the big end-of-the-year awards circus? It played a few well respected festivals like Berlin and Glasgow earlier in the winter, but not the biggies like Cannes, Toronto or Venice or even Tribeca. Was releasing it in March Anderson’s way of thumbing his nose at awards in general? Am I reading too much into this? Quite possibly. Okay, probably.  But I submit that all those of us who care about such things should agree to keep talking about this film and keep it in people’s minds –the minds of the people in a position to have an impact anyway – so that it’s not forgotten at the end of the year.

Sure there will be a lot more films released between now and then, some of them may be flashier, some of them may even be better. But some may not, but by virtue of their place on the calendar may get the accolades.  Just my humble opinion, but I think that at the end of the year we’ll still be thinking that Ralph Fiennes will deserve some mention as a candidate for Best Actor. Even Edward Norton admits, despite the fact that he really wanted to play Monsieur Gustave himself, that no one could have played him as well as Fiennes. Sure he didn’t have to gain or lose any weight or wear a prosthetic nose or anything else, but the delicate balance of the movie rests on his shoulders. Lord knows Fiennes has deserved the recognition many times before and has been overlooked (*coughCoriolanuscough*). He hasn’t been nominated by the Academy since 1996. 1996! C’mon.

Okay, I’m off of my soapbox. Bottom line, you need to check into the four-star establishment that is The Grand Budapest Hotel and let Monsieur Gustave see to your comfort for a couple of hours.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, written and directed by Wes Anderson, with Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Mathieu Amalric, Lea Seydoux and Fisher Stevens, is open in select cities in the US and Canada now and is rolling out to more tomorrow March 21.

Final Trailer – Red Band:

How to Make “Courtesans au Chocolat”:

Meet the Cast:

The Central Conceit of Wes Anderson:

Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel, elevator, Tony Revolori

courtesy Fox Searchlight