Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Grand Budapest Hotel Check Out

My relationship with Wes Anderson's films is starting to feel needlessly complicated. I could easily just end this one-sided, loveless affair by not seeing anymore of his movies - as I haven't particularly enjoyed them for some time. But for some reason I'm compelled to view them all, and the results have become invariably the same: I am left empty.

At this point I don't really blame Anderson, because when you purchase a ticket for one of his movies you should know by now what you're getting. You know how scenes will be framed and how dialogue will be delivered. You know the whimsy levels will be redlined and that at some point Bill Murray will enter the picture and everyone around you will roar in laughter at nothing in particular. 

Anderson is a true artist in his craft and I respect how he makes the films he wants exactly the way he envisions, while existing (profitably) in the Hollywood mainstream. In other words he's an auteur, of which very few seem to remain in American cinema. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a film shooting for broad appeal; it's the successful realization of a director's unique vision. 

That vision - part of his alternate universe - creates a place that I can't stay for long because the absurdity, at least for me, eventually becomes exhaustive and predictable. 

The main character in "GBH" is Ralph Fiennes, a vamping 1930s hotel worker with a penchant for wealthy older woman (and men?) who does things like serve delicate pastries to fellow inmates after he is wrongly incarcerated for stealing a priceless painting. After escaping, he is chased through Europe by a screwball version of the Nazis as all of Anderson's talented regulars show up in one capacity or another. Yet none - neither Bill Murray nor Owen Wilson - are able to give the film a notable lift. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel, as seen in the movie's poster above, is presented with light pinks and one dimensionality - like a giant dollhouse - and this is exactly how the director treats what's inside. I half expect Anderson's hand to enter the picture to open a window so that we may see Ed Norton (playing something like an SS officer) deliver his clipped lines or Zero (Fiennes' brooding bell boy shadow) stare wide-eyed straight into the camera. 

I deeply appreciate Anderson's romance with a lost European world of elegance and the literature of WW2 survivor Stefan Zweig, who inspired this film. But how could such an emotionally-charged story like Zweig's lead to a film so resiliently detached? It's like there's always a whimsy wall between the film and viewer, and all you can do is sit and titter at the silliness going on on the other side.

That being said, I fully expect to be behind that wall again in a couple years when Anderson's next feature roles out. If you're a fan of cinema, he's a compelling figure. 

In case you haven't seen SNL's near-perfect send-up of Anderson movies, I've posted it below. To say "they nailed it" would be a criminal understatement.  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Draft Day Sticks To Playbook

The experience of seeing Draft Day is something akin to Seattle Seahawks fans re-watching this year's Super Bowl. They know the outcome, yet still enjoy watching the good guys triumph in the end.

In the case of "Draft Day" it's the Cleveland Browns and its fictitious general manager Sonny Weaver Jr., played by a rounded-looking Kevin Costner. Through most of the film we see Weaver grappling with a decision on whether to draft a franchise QB golden boy named Bo Callahan or a lesser-known defensive tackle named Vontae Mack (42's Chadwick Boseman).

Callahan is the consensus choice and Weaver has leveraged the team's future to land him. The team's steely owner, played by Anthony Langella, also wants to "make a splash" and give long-suffering Cleveland football fans a reason to live (ie. buy season tickets). Simple enough choice, right?

Not when Callahan is seen lounging with his slick agent (lamely played by Puffy) while Mack - a glowing halo floating above his head - is shown playing with his nephews at gym class and giving a game ball to his dying sister. Hmm, which will Weaver choose? I'm not sure why director Ivan Reitman (he of Ghostbusters legend) decided to show us the playbook so far in advance because it definitely zaps the film of its tension.

But Costner is the veteran charmer who can be counted on when the game is in question. He sells the procedural with a convincing acting job and has a quality freak-out scene when his mother and ex-wife storm into his office making untimely demands. Why Sonny's mother (Ellen Burstyn) has chosen this day of all days to insist he join her in scattering the ashes of Sonny Sr. at the 50-yard line is not entirely clear.

What is clear is Junior is saddled with more issues than who to select in the draft. His father was the team's coach and Sonny fired him shortly before his death. He's also just learned that a fellow executive and love interest is pregnant. That would be Jennifer Garner, who cuts through the film's overloaded testosterone. There's also a self-absorbed coach (Dennis Leary) who second guesses Weaver's every move.

Go long!
The predictable ending plays out like an elongated version of the two-minute scene from "Moneyball," where Brad Pitt wheels and deals on the telephone. In fact, it must be noted that "Draft Day" often feels like a more sitcom-y version of "Moneyball," which is maybe why the National Football League - famous for refusing to allow its trademarks to be used in films - fully cooperated with this production. This is definitely not a warts-and-all look at the NFL.

There is one particular aspect of "Draft Day," though, that offers a compelling look into the politics behind NFL scouting. If you listen to sports radio shows like ESPN First Take you'll hear endless scrutiny of football prospects like Johnny Manziel or Jadeveon Clowney and it's not always regarding their skill. It's often about their personal character and off-the-field conduct. These players are expected to be perfect humans and they are held to the highest standards by holier than thou team executives and onlooking pundits.

"Draft Day" touches on this part of the going-pro process, but it's only a halftime show amidst Costner's game of winning his career. I wouldn't say "Draft Day" is touchdown of a movie. More like a field goal from about 20 yards out. You know it's most likely going straight through the uprights, but that doesn't detract from its watchability.  

Monday, April 7, 2014

Judging Silicon Valley

If there was ever a guy you could rely on to properly skewer a corporate culture, it's Mike Judge.

The director, writer and animator dropped Office Space on our heads 15 years ago and still to this day nothing touches it in terms of picking apart the subtle absurdity of conventional work environments. Perhaps the British version of the Office does, but it's a totally different beast.

Office Space is one of my all-time favourite comedies and I enjoyed his other stab at workplace humour in Extract, though that film isn't nearly as memorable.

After feeding off the mundane existence of the average worker drone, it's nice to see Judge shooting higher with his excellent new series, Silicon Valley.

I watched the pilot episode last night on HBO and it was like a getting a drink of water in a desert of tech titan worshipping. This is a culture that has been screaming to be made fun of, and Judge appears more than up to the task.

The episode starts with Kid Rock playing a private party for some new startup while guys like Elon Musk and Eric Schmidt mingle, oblivious to his blasting rock. The startup's leader blathers on about "changing the world" with their new app and creating "disruption" in the digital age. Judge nails the diluted self-importance radiating from many of Silicon Valley's would be masters.

T.J. Miller as a tech guru
The show centres around a nerdy group of programmers (is there any other kind?) being mentored by a dim Svengali-like character played by T.J. Miller. This guy always does overconfident and obnoxious perfectly and I maintain that he and Jay Baruchel did great work together in the underrated She's Out of My League.

And of course it's nice to see Martin Starr playing a semi-grown up version of his Freaks and Geeks character, Bill Haverchuk.

Silicon Valley has a blast highlighting the ridiculous names that come out of tech culture. The lead character, played by Nelson, B.C.'s Thomas Middleditch, works at a company called "Hooli," while Miller's character laments selling his startup, "Aviato." The show also has fun painting SV billionaires as over-the-top eccentrics who drive ultra-narrow smart cars and wear ugly toe shoes while consulting their spiritual gurus.

The show is slated for eight episodes and it will be interesting to see how deep Judge plunges his satire knife. Hopefully guys like Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin can take a joke.

Here's the entire first episode: