by Steve Habrat
By this point, you know if you’re a proud member of the Wes Anderson fan club. After films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenebaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom, you know if you’ve developed a taste for his meticulously organized frames, quirky casts of characters, dry sense of humor, and surprisingly touching dramatics. If you’re one that hasn’t been tickled by Anderson’s cinematic efforts, don’t expect anything to change with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which finds the auteur indulging his whimsical artistry like a kid in a candy store. With all of the usual traits in place, Anderson sends the audience spiraling through a small slice of history—one fashioned from the winking cartoonish touches that Anderson has become noted and celebrated for. While this zany murder mystery is contagiously colorful and cute even in its raunchier moments, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fuzzy tribute to storytelling, and a sugary tribute to classic slapstick comedy of years past presented to the viewer in 1.33 aspect ratio, common in silent cinema, which appears to be a major influence here. And then there is his cast, a list bursting at the seams with fresh and familiar faces ready to take a big bite out of the oddball creations that Anderson has scribbled up for them.
The Grand Budapest Hotel tells the story of Monsieur Gustave H (played by Ralph Fiennes), the beloved concierge of the magnificent Grand Budapest Hotel, nestled in the snowy mountains of the Republic of Zubrowka. The tale picks up in 1932, with young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (played by Tony Revolori) arriving at The Grand Budapest Hotel and having his first encounters with Gustave H. It turns out that Gustave H was carrying on an affair with a wealthy elderly woman named Madame D (played by Tilda Swinton), who, while visit Gustave H, reveals that she has a premonition that something bad is going to happen. Despite Madame D’s concerns, Gustave H laughs off her premonition, but a few weeks later, Madame D turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. Together, Gustave H and Zero travel to Madame D’s home, where her will is read to a house full of grieving friends and family members. Much to the horror of the guests, Madame D’s will states that she is leaving him a coveted painting called “Boy with Apple,” something that enraged her son, Dmitri (played by Adrien Brody), who vows to come after Gustave H. After making off with “Boy with Apple” and returning to the hotel, things get worse for Gustave H when authorities led by Inspector Henckels (played by Edward Norton) arrive to arrest him for the death of Madame D. Stuck behind bars and with Zubrowka on the brink of war, Gustave H races to escape from prison and prove his innocence with the help of Zero and some unlikely inmates. Meanwhile, a shadowy assassin called J.P. Jopling (played by Willem Dafoe) closes in on Gustave H and those closest to him.
There isn’t a shot in The Grand Budapest Hotel that isn’t littered with Anderson’s cinematic fingerprints. Nearly each and every frame is neatly arranged down to the fussy tilts of a pencil or the messy stack of legal documents. It’s unmistakably Anderson to the point where if you scrubbed his name from the credits, it wouldn’t take the audience long to figure out that it sprouted from his distinct imagination. There are the tracking shots that explore the inside of The Grand Budapest Hotel as if someone sliced it down the center and peered into it like a dollhouse. There are also the glaringly artificial miniatures, which Anderson presents with his expected winks and grins. Though what sets The Grand Budapest Hotel apart from other Anderson fare is the nods to classic cinema, particularly silent slapstick comedies. The Grand Budapest Hotel could be muted and converted to black and white, have intertitles placed strategically throughout, and the film would work marvelously as a silent comedy. There are also a number of chase sequences throughout the film, the most outstanding—and vaguely Hitchcockian/German Expressionist—is a shadowy game of cat-and-mouse through a museum between Dafoe’s vampiric thug J.P. Jopling and Jeff Goldblum’s lawyer, Deputy Vilmos Kovacs. It’s the highlight of the picture, followed closely by a snowy ski chase that keeps you doubled over in laughter over how preposterous the action is.
As usual, Anderson enlists the help of an ensemble cast, many of which will be familiar to Anderson aficionados. The newcomer here is Fiennes, who takes great pleasure in applying his gentlemanly demeanor to Gustave H, the flamboyant concierge who sleeps with elderly woman, gags at the thought of drinking cheap wine, and is bound-and-determined not to become the “candyass” in prison. Fiennes is exquisite, but hot on his coattails is Dafoe, who excels in the role of the stocky assassin J.P. Jopling, a brick of a man who sports skull rings on each one of his fingers and mercilessly tosses cats out of windows. Other standouts include Norton’s dweebie Inspector Henckles, the barely-recognizable Swinton as the elderly Madame D (she’s basically an extended cameo that acts more as a visual chuckle), and Revolori’s Zero, Gustave H’s young sidekick who inks on his pencil-thin mustache and essential acts as our guide through the halls of the hotel. There are a number of other cameos from faces you’d expect to see, although, the most severely underused is Saoirse Ronan’s Agatha, Zero’s birth marked love interest who isn’t give much to do yet acts as a huge emotional weight. Overall, though The Grand Budapest Hotel may not rank as my favorite Wes Anderson picture, and it may not be as funny or tender as some of his previous work, it’s still an enchanting ode to the art of storytelling (it concludes with a nod to Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig), and to the eternal joys of silent cinema.
by Steve Habrat
One of the most controversial and shocking films to emerge from the 1970s is without question Michael Winner’s 1974 vigilante thriller Death Wish, a big studio production that seems like it would have been right at home in a seedy 42nd Street theater during the heyday of grindhouse theaters. At the time of its release, most critics waved off Death Wish, which was based off of the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield, as a tasteless and empty-headed exploitation film that advocates vigilantism. While the film certainly never judges Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey, a liberal man who takes the law into his own hands after his wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted by a trio of drugged out street thugs, Winner certainly doesn’t make this transition from mild-mannered architect into cold blooded killer look easy or glamorous. About as bleak and unsettling as they come, Death Wish certainly isn’t as dumb as it has been made out to be. Star Bronson has said that he doesn’t believe that the film promotes an ordinary citizen taking the law into his or her own hands, but rather points out that violence just leads to more violence. No matter which way you choose to read Death Wish, I think we can all agree that this a film that really sticks with those who have seen it. It certainly isn’t a film that is afraid to shake the viewer up.
Shortly after returning from a sunny vacation in Hawaii, liberal architect Paul Kersey (Played by Charles Bronson) and his wife, Joanna (Played by Hope Lange), return to their upscale New York City apartment. The New York streets are a far cry from the sunny and peaceful beaches that the Kersey’s were lounging on. Crime runs rampant through the city streets and the police appear to be helpless to stop it. One afternoon, a group of street thugs break into the Kersey’s apartment and viciously assault Joanna and their daughter, Carol (Played by Kathleen Tolan). The attack results in the death of Joanna and Carol is sent into a catatonic state. Devastated, Paul and his son-in-law, Jack (Played by Steven Keats), slowly begin to realize that the police have little hope in catching the men who are responsible for this heinous crime. After receiving a gun as a gift from a satisfied client, Paul begins taking shooting lessons and then takes to the streets to hunt down muggers who hide in the darkened alleys. As the crime rates begin to fall, the police begin to secretly debate whether they should allow the vigilante to continue fighting back against scum or if he should be arrested for the killing spree.
Death Wish certainly takes its good old time getting to Paul’s killing spree. His slow descent into bloodthirsty madness is eerily realistic, especially when he dashes home after claiming his first victim and then vomits over what he has done. His revenge doesn’t come easy and I’m glad that Winner points this out. It is painful to watch his hope die as he the police fail to deliver any answers. It makes sense that Winner lingers on Paul’s emotional turmoil, because if the film jumped right into the killing spree, the film would be wildly redundant. When the film erupts in its fits of violence, it will make the hair on your arms stand up. The sequence between the street thugs and Paul’s family will have your stomach churning and you may even cover your eyes once or twice, especially when Carol is sexually assaulted. The scenes where Paul confronts muggers on the New York streets are tense and unpredictable, as Paul throws himself into vulnerable situations, only to reveal a pistol and blow the bad guys away. It is truly terrifying the way Paul begins to enjoy his work, faintly smiling when he hears news reports where ordinary citizens praise his work and even offer up their own tales of brutally fighting back against the unruly crime. One story about a little old lady stabbing a thug with a sewing needle was particularly disturbing.
In addition to the controversial subject matter, Death Wish also contains a classic performance from Charles Bronson, the mumbling hardass with a mustache. Bronson’s Paul is a seemingly peaceful and loving family man, a man who was a “conscientious objector” in the Korean War. He appears to have a great relationship with his son-in-law, who is quite fond of calling Paul “dad.” Even when Paul begins to really loose his marbles, he seems like he is coolly in control of his appalling actions. After his first squeamish night, he develops an insatiable love for punishment. Keats gives a jittery performance as the twitchy Jack, who is constantly looking to Paul for some sort of reassurance. He paces and slicks back his hair as he pours over the comatose Carol, desperate for her to be the person she once was. Vincent Gardenia shows up as NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa, the man tasked with tracking down the vigilante and bringing him to justice. I was genuinely captivated by his confliction over bringing Paul in for his nightly actions. Also keep a look out for a young Jeff Goldblum as one of the thugs who breaks into Paul’s apartment and Denzel Washington as a mugger who makes the mistake of trying to stick up Mr. Bronson.
Despite being released in 1974, Death Wish still resonates today, especially when you turn on the news and hear about mass shootings and other unspeakable acts of violence tearing through America. It’s message is certainly troubling, especially since it refuses to ever criticize the trigger happy Paul. Yet when viewed as a portrait of a man consumed by grief, Death Wish is about as haunting as they come. You weirdly root for Paul to make his escapes from the scenes of his crimes and when one thug stabs him, things really get intense. It is incredibly difficult to believe that Paramount Studios, a major Hollywood Studio, was behind a film that is loaded with this much unblinking violence. The real shocker hits about fifteen minutes in with the prolonged torture of Paul’s family, a scene that more than once crosses into exploitation territory. It is tough to find Death Wish entertaining but it certainly is a thought provoking reflection of the violence in all of us that you can’t pull yourself away from. A gritty and unforgiving vision that I would certainly consider one of the most disturbing movies you are ever likely to see.
Death Wish is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
One of the best science-fiction thrillers from the 1950’s is without question 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a paranoid creep out of a movie that follows a small town whose residents are being turned into emotionless drones by pods from outer space. It is a gloomy affair, boasting one hell of a bleak climax that features our hero screaming; “They’re here!” on a clogged highway filled with trucks transporting the cloning pods to other communities. It was a film that did not need a remake, let alone two remakes but that is Hollywood for you. While one of those remakes is really bad (2007’s The Invasion), one happens to be really, really well done. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an unforgiving film, one with paranoia that surpasses the ’56 original in ways you can’t fathom. He accomplishes this through simple close-ups that repel the viewer, turning every shot of a leaf, flower, or human face into psychological torture that will practically have you tearing your hair out in dread. I can guarantee that you will never look at a plant the same way again.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers picks up on an unidentified planet that appears to be dying. The alien beings, which appear to be gel-like suds, begin drifting through the galaxy where they finally end up on earth. These gel-like suds are washed to earth in a rainstorm and end up in San Francisco. The suds grow into ugly pod-like flowers that catch the eye of Elizabeth Driscoll (Played by Brooke Adams), an employee at the San Francisco health department, who takes one of the flowers home to identify it. She shows the flower to her boyfriend, Geoffrey (Played by Art Hindle), who is equally perplexed by the flower. The couple leaves the flower on their nightstand in a glass of water and the next morning, Elizabeth awakens to Geoffrey cleaning up a broken glass and acting extremely distant. Concerned, Elizabeth confides in her friend and fellow health department employee Matthew Bennell (Played by Donald Sutherland), who attempts to calm Elizabeth and suggests that she speak to his friend and psychologist David Kibner (Played by Leonard Nimoy). The next day, Matthew hears a strange story from the owner of Chinese Laundromat that he frequents. The man tells Matthew that his wife isn’t acting like his wife anymore. As more and more stories emerge about people not being themselves, Matthew and Elizabeth begin trying to uncover what all the hysteria is about, only to make a horrifying discovery that there may be extraterrestrial beings walking among us, looking to clone us, and erase all human emotion.
While the ’56 version slowly crept up on you from the shadows, the ’78 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn’t slowly mount the tension. There is something off about this film in the opening scenes of the alien suds washing down to earth. It helps that the soundtrack, which is filled with spacey chimes, fries your nerves down and makes you feel like you are plopped on a seat of pins and needles. From the first time we realize that there is something wrong with Geoffrey, our paranoia sets in and things get more unbearable from there. We are skeptical of every single person that walks onto the screen, right down to the individuals in the distant background. Director Kaufman knows that this film, with its surging no-one-believes-me jitters, can really mess with us psychologically. He knows we will be afraid of every single face we see and we will be second guessing everyone our protagonists come in contact with. When the pod-people finally reveal themselves, they make a horrible shrieking noise and they turn into sprinting zombies who will stop at nothing to get a hold of their victim. If you think they were creepy when they were lifeless drones, wait until you see them when they explode into this form.
Director Kaufman allows us to easily identify with the brainy heroes that are front and center in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We can feel for their desperation in trying to get someone to believe them that something terrible is going on and we do not even realize it. The increasingly frantic pleas from Sutherland’s Matthew are especially scary, his fear increasingly more erratic as each second passes. The scenes when he stumbles around downtown San Francisco as people push past from all angles is appropriately claustrophobic (a nod to the tightly focused original film), like chilling conformity is crashing in from all sides. His fate is especially devastating, mostly because he puts up one hell of a fight to stay alive. Brooke Adams also grabs the viewer early on due to her pleas for someone to hear her out. Everybody just dismisses her suspicion, instead advising that she see a doctor, psychologist, or to just get some sleep. We root for her to keep her hope alive, even when her optimism is slowly fading away.
The supporting cast is just as awesome as the two leads, especially Hindle as Geoffrey, who will cut right through you with his icy stare. He is especially disturbing in the extreme close-ups that Kaufman chooses to show him in. Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright as Jack and Nancy Bellicec are equally pathetic as Matthew and Elizabeth. They form an alliance with Matthew and Elizabeth in trying to stay human after they have a memorable run-in with a slimy pod person that will have chills shooting up and down your spine. You will find yourself getting attached to this small band of survivors, making things even more piercing when one of them falls victim to the pod-people. Leonard Nimoy steals the show as David Kibner, who at first feels like there is some sort of reasonable explanation for all the hysteria but slowly comes around (Or does he?!).
Invasion of the Body Snatchers ’78 is a lot more disgusting than the ’56 original, especially a scene where the group goes to sleep and while they are out, strategically placed pods begin birthing clones of the group. Between the gasping and gagging sound effects and the graphically evocative visuals, it is not only the most terrifying scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers but also the one that will stick with you the longest of any scene in the film. The extended chase at the end, with the group of fugitives on the run from a conformist holocaust are wonderful, each route that offers hope ending in a dead end of roaring and silhouetted monsters. There is also a brief glimpse of a mutant dog, another highlight that will equally make you giggle and give you the willies. Yet it ends up being the frantic hopelessness that is what will make you a nervous wreck while watching this ageless remake. For fans of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, keep an eye out for cameos from the original’s director Don Siegel as a taxi driver and star Kevin McCarthy as a man screaming his famous lines from the original’s climax. Overall, I still prefer the original Cold War/post-World War II suburban conformity that gripped the original to this strictly conformist-terror reimagining. The feeling that our backs were against the wall was greater in the original to this much larger vision of identity loss. Still, there is a lot to admire in Invasion of the Body Snatchers ’78, and lots to scare the living daylights out of you too.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Corinne Rizzo
In Bottle Rocket, Anthony falls in love with Ines while swimming in the hotel pool, a pool that was the center of the hotel universe with multiple scenes shot in and around it. In Rushmore, Max plans to build Ms. Cross an aquarium the size of a baseball field and brings additions to the classroom aquariums in the meantime. The Royal Tenenbaums finds Margot in the bathtub for hours every day, while Ethylene practices archeology in the inner city. Similarly, Richie and Margot runaway to live in the public archives for a few weeks to get away from their family. The ocean, water and exploration are major themes in Wes Anderson’s films and in Anderson’s fourth film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the filmmaker displays an outward celebration of aquatic life and adventurism, themes Anderson has previously suppressed in earlier films.
Set on the Belefonte (Zissou’s research ship) , and subsequent island locales, Steve Zissou, played by Bill Murray (formerly Raleigh St. Claire), is an aging explorer bent on discovering the shark that killed his best friend Esteban, and rediscovering his edge as a documentary film star.
The film begins at a festival in honor of Team Zissou’s latest documentary in which it is revealed that Esteban has been consumed by an unrecognizable shark he names the Jaguar Shark. It is apparent that the documentary has fallen flat with the audience and in a fit of defeat, Steve swears to make his next documentary the one of exposing this new fish, hoping to regain his strength as an explorer.
During the after party for the documentary, Steve is approached by Ned Plimpton (played by Owen Wilson). Plimpton is at the wrap part y to meet his father, who he believes is Steve Zissou. Steve is unexpectedly warm toward Ned, soon offering him his own last name and suggesting he change his first one also, to Kingsly, what Steve says he would have named him, had he had a say.
The adventure ensues. A motley crew of characters, including Willem Dafoe, all wearing matching light blue uniforms with bright red skull caps, set off to find the shark. In the meantime, the Belefonte is pirated by strangers, Team Zissou breaks into the Hennessey laboratories (Captain Hennessey played by Jeff Goldblum), boats are blown up and three legged dogs are left behind. All lead by Zissou and all conquered as well.
Anderson’s depiction of the sea is magical in this film. It is not a dark scary place down in the depths like biology books would have one believe. It is a place of illumination and Anderson shows that in a very unique way. All sea and island life are clay-mation interjected into the film with neon color. Electric jellyfish, neon trout, Technicolor pony-fish, and even the jaguar shark himself are bright, vibrant creatures that illuminate the sea with a magic that displays an affection for the ocean and the wonder involved in exploration.
In the film, all colors are paired with their contrast, where there are blues there are yellows, where there are reds there are greens. Anderson does an awesome job at creating this world of discovery and adventure that harkens to classic marine biology documentaries one might have seen in middle school—colors heightened to show the viewer an image not witnessed before. Obviously inspired by the deep-sea creatures that illuminate their own way through the ocean and other phosphorescent life forms that glow.
The Life Aquatic is a film packed with sarcastic humor and an almost obligational form of love for exploration. The relationships that evolve around a Steve, designated as delusional by his peers at the onset of the film, would be impossible without the situations he pulls everyone into. Bill Murray is a most excellent addition to Anderson’s films and his role as Steve Zissou can easily be touted as one of his best. The film mixes his lust for excitement with the reality of his apathy.
Featured also in The Life Aquatic is yet another musical journey set by Mark Mothersbaugh, complimented by Pele played by Seu Jorge, and David Bowie. The multiple renditions of Life on Mars, reminds the viewer that the ocean is a frontier, just like space and there is still so much to know. Wes Anderson in no way hits his peak with The Life Aquatic, but sure does give himself a run for his own money in his next film.
Top Five Reasons to Watch The Life Aquatic:
1) The colors. Did you know that Mark Mothersbaugh attended Kent State?
2) The music.
3) The adventure.
4) Willem Dafoe as Klaus!
5) The idea that life’s drama, highs and lows, can occur anywhere, even in the middle of nowhere.
by Steve Habrat
Leave it to Canadian horror director David Cronenberg, the man called the “King of Venereal Horror”, to make a film about freakish asexual dwarfs who attack and kill people. Cronenberg, who is most known for the Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis mutation gross-out The Fly, is basically an auteur of highbrow exploitation and body horror that eventually made transition into simply highbrow territory. The Brood is one of those highbrow body horror exploitation forays. The Brood is critical and certainly unkind to psychology and experimental science in the vilest ways possible. Cronenberg could be considered the ringleader of body horror, as he is a big fan of placing awful deformities on his actors, usually sexually suggestive in some way, shape, or form, an addition that usually sets his work apart from the rest of the horror pack. For those who are familiar with Cronenberg, The Brood is a bloody doom and gloom flick with a dark ending and a dead serious gaze that never breaks into a smile to laugh at itself.
Dr. Hal Raglan (Played by Oliver Reed) is an experimental psychotherapist who has created a technique called “psychoplasmics” which manifests traumatic memories on a patient’s body in the form of physiological changes. The changes depend on how severe the memories are. Raglan’s star patient is Nola Carveth (Played by Samantha Eggar), who is currently going through a messy separation from her husband Frank Carveth (Played by Art Hindle). Frank and Nola are also tangled up in a messy custody battle over their young daughter Candice (Played by Cindy Hinds). As Raglan treats Nola, he begins to discover how severely disturbed she is and as treatment goes on, her inner anger and rage manifests in small, dwarfish creatures that attack and kill those close to her. As Frank launches his own investigation into the mysterious deaths surrounding him, he learns how the creatures are being created and he discovers that Candice’s life is in danger if the experimental treatment is not stopped.
Blending horror and science fiction, Cronenberg makes a slow building and icky creep-out that is not for the squeamish. Cronenberg has an eye for truly repugnant deformities, a talent I would have never thought I would be praising but Cronenberg does it better than anyone else. Even though The Brood is basically an exploitation film, it understands that there should be a brain in this grotesque creation. Though Cronenberg never outright suggests it, I’ve always found the architecture in his films, usually scientific institutions contrasting in a cold, natural settings to be a subtle commentary. The wooded setting usually engulfs these institutions, a subtle suggestion that perhaps a natural treatment is the answer to scientific gambles. I have noticed this in Scanners and Rabid but it seemed incredibly heavy-handed in The Brood. This choice also adds a surreal apocalyptic touch, always suggesting isolation and no true safe place to hide from the evil that has been unleashed. It’s this visual cue that separates The Brood from the rest of the exploitation horror pack. Cronenberg encourages us to work through our inner turmoil on our own without the help of an outside third party.
The Brood is not ashamed to feature expert acting from its leads. Everyone is convincing, a rarity in films of this sort and another reason why The Brood is much better than most films of this kind. The final showdown between Frank and Nola is hypnotic, a battle of words and pleas with just enough gore to satisfy those watching The Brood simply for that reason. You won’t be able to pull yourself away from the exchange and you’ll be frustrated when Cronenberg’s camera cuts to other scenes of action. The film also contains a restrained performance from Oliver Reed who never goes full baddie and adds a few layers of regret both in his scientific work and himself for what he has unleashed in Nola. Reed’s performance parallels the direction from Cronenberg himself who is never in a hurry to show us everything. I admire the way he makes the audience wait for the pay-off and, I admit, I never mind waiting for the freak show to emerge when I’m watching a Cronenberg film. He usually crams his frames full of gratifying acting from his leads and fascinating story lines.
The Brood features a wallop of a final shot that will majorly freak you out and that, my dear readers, is a promise from this horror buff. This is an otherworldly horror flick that won’t scare you right off the bat but rather have you thinking back to it long after you have seen it (I just love films like that if you can’t tell). I rank The Brood as one of Cronenberg’s finest cinematic efforts, sitting comfortably next to Rabid, Scanners, The Fly, and Eastern Promises. The film lacks a huge price tag, which I think adds to Cronenberg’s own temperance and actually aids the film in its rise to a crescendo of terror in the final frames. With a premise and monsters that could have been laughed off the screen in the first attack sequence, The Brood miraculously keeps its cool and shrouds itself in grotesque horror and perplexing mystery, revealing plot points at just the right time and meticulously planning its next move. To those on the prowl for a good horror film you have never seen, you can do much worse than The Brood.