Mini Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
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.
Out of the Furnace (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Over the past few years, it seems that it has become routine for Hollywood to release one or two rundown drama-thrillers a year that feature blue collar characters having it out with one another in a gasping American neighborhood on the verge of total collapse. We’ve seen it in films like Winter’s Bone, The Fighter, The Beasts of Southern Wild, and Killing Them Softly, all of which relished immersing audiences in family squabbling, filth, decay, and boarded up structures. This year we have director Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, another downbeat family-drama/revenge-thriller set against a dying industrial town in Pennsylvania. While Out of the Furnace may not necessarily win any points for originality (this is definitely a seen-it-all-before exercise), Cooper’s Rust Belt tale of revenge is comprised of heart pounding backwoods atmosphere, bare-knuckle brutality, and gripping melodrama guaranteed to make that hour and fifty minute runtime fly by in a flash. It also features enough A-list talent to fuel a dozen Oscar bait movies, with stars Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard all bringing the true grit required to allow a film like this to really take shape.
Out of the Furnace introduces us to Russell Baze (played by Christian Bale), a steel mill worker who slaves away taking double shifts to help out his brother, Rodney (played by Casey Affleck), a war veteran struggling to adapt to normal life after several tours of duty in Iraq. Despite some differences, Russell and Rodney still band together to look after their terminally ill father, who seems to be getting worse by the day. One evening, Russell is driving home from a local bar when he strikes a car and kills the occupants inside. Russell is sent away to prison for some time, but when he emerges, he realizes that his life hasn’t gotten any easier. As he tries to come to terms with the passing of his father and his break-up with his beautiful girlfriend, Lena (played by Zoe Saldana), Russell learns that Rodney has become involved with bare-knuckle boxing. Concerned for his safety, Russell attempts to persuade Rodney to leave bare-knuckle boxing behind and come work with him at the steel mill. Refusing to listen to his brother, Rodney demands that local gangster John Petty (played by Willem Dafoe) get him fights that are run by Harlan DeGroat (played by Woody Harrelson), an extremely dangerous backwoods thug who has a grudge against Petty. After Rodney mysteriously disappears at the hands of DeGroat, Russell takes the law into his own hands and sets out to find his brother before it’s too late.
While there are several elements borrowed from other films and there is a slight predictability to it, Out of the Furnace takes great care in really making both its story and its characters seem as genuine as possible. Russell struggles to find the motivation to pull himself from the comfort of Lena’s arms to work a double at the sweaty steel mill. With circles under his eyes and his dreams smothered under protective gear, he keeps a dignified poise as he tries desperately to keep his brother on the right track. This proves challenging when Rodney retaliates with the horrors he saw in Iraq (some of the stories he shares are deeply disturbing), which really allow us a clear understanding as to why it is so difficult for him to find his place in normal society. Russell’s composure remains in tact when he is involved in that gruesome car accident, which places him behind bars and at the mercy of vicious inmates for some time. When he finally gets out, things have gone from bad to worse, as he grapples with the loss of his father, his break up, and the horrors of that terrible accident. Despite his weary exasperation, when he finally has to confront the demons that claim his brother, there are no exaggerations in the actions taken. The frustration with local authorities and his determination to not loose his brother open a door for careful plotting that leads up to a low-key final showdown with the devil himself that is shockingly convincing.
While Bale makes Russell’s soft-spoken composure, self-assurance, and deteriorating compliance in the face of tragedy and failure electrifying cinema, it is Harrelson’s sadistic Harlan DeGroat that is ultimately in charge of Out of the Furnace. With a crack-rock smile and zero patience, DeGroat relishes his rotten existence, proudly declaring that he “has a problem with everybody.” He pyshically and psychologically bullies anyone and everyone for the smallest things, proudly beating up his girlfriend at a drive-in and then viciously attacking a man who tries to intervene. It’s an unforgettably evil performance from Harrelson, who completely fills out DeGroat’s filthy-dirty skin. Affleck is perfectly suited for Rodney, a haunted soldier who just can’t seem to get his life together. He comes home with his face pounded into oblivion and sips liquor to make the pain go away. He’s on a crash course, and his fate is tragically foreseeable. Dafoe is fantastic as John Petty, a small time thug in over his head with the wrong people. He’s far from a hard-ass gangster, and when the people he has wronged come calling, the quiver in his voice will have your stomach in a knot. Saldana is given a small but pivotal role as Lena, Russell’s one and only escape from his daily grind. Forest Whitaker is present as Chief Wesley Barnes, a gravel-voiced cop who stole Lena away from Russell. His strained relationship with Russell is put to the test when he attempts to get to the bottom of Rodney’s disappearance. Sam Shepard also stops by as Gerald Baze, Russell and Rodney’s uncle who joins Russell in his quest to track down his brother.
Considering that Out of the Furnace draws from other intense works of cinema, the film dishes out plenty of scenes drenched in blood and violence. The bare-knuckle boxing scenes are difficult to watch, as each punch thrown isn’t accompanied with an over-the-top sound effect to embellish the force of the blow. The beatings are savage and the violence is shown in up-close-and-personal detail, especially one character taking a bullet to the head. We also can’t forget Rodney’s war stories, which will certainly repulse and remind us all of the horrors of war. Equally disturbing is a trip to a rundown crack house hidden in the dense hills. We glimpse junkies sprawled across ripped sofas, sucking on crack pipes and shooting heroine in between their toes. Overall, while the lack of originality will hold the film back this awards season, Out of the Furnace is still a riveting, emotional, and uncompromising backwoods drama/thriller. It makes great use of its backdrop, it’s appropriately moody, and it’s comprised of actors who take familiar characters and really give them distinctive life. It’s capped off with an abrupt finale that is welcomingly blunt and haunting.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
by Corinne Rizzo
To break third person perspective is to break that fourth wall, to bring to light the idea that the reviewer is not just speaking on the audience’s behalf, but on the behalf of a more biased or more personal concern with a particular film. To break third person perspective goes against all the rules of formal thesis and proper reporting. Breaking third person perspective is necessary here though, as I want to talk to you about James Franco, or as Peter Parker knows him, Harry Osborne.
The choice for casting a character like Harry Osborne could have been a fatal one. The slightest personality trait off, and the whole character is thrown. Harry plays an integral part in the three films and in the legacy of Spider-Man in general, as he is not only the source of Spidey’s eternal struggle with himself (Harry also loves MJ, Harry never has to work for what he wants, Harry has perfect vision, Harry had a psychopath father whom Spidey had to kill, etc.) and without Harry, Spider-Man would have no sense of himself. A reader or viewer would never be able to relate to Peter Parker without a guy like Harry, an outcast but for reasons that are untouchable rather than socially awkward.
The third installment of the Spider-Man trilogy is one of many comparisons, which is why bringing Harry’s character under the microscope was a task worth undertaking. One could argue that there was too much happening in the final film. One could debate whether New Goblin was ever really a threat to Spider-Man. The obvious comparisons involved with knowing that this is the last in a series are limitless, but here is one that got me: We (the collective audience and the physical cast of the film) go from having Willem Dafoe, James Franco, Alfred Molina and Thomas Hayden Church, to Topher Grace as venom. In honest defense of Mr. Grace, the only time I ever think of Thomas Hayden Church is when I think of Sandman, but that is not necessarily a defense when you consider all I ever think of when I hear Topher Grace is Eric from That 70’s Show.
All of this unfair and biased and yes, I understand, but Willem Dafoe needs no defense. James Franco as Harry Osborne, this very specific and integral image in the saga, passes every test and even goes beyond expectations for someone who has a knack for Spidey. Alfred Molina? Who else was supposed to play Doc Ock? And let me tell you that Sandman wasn’t even on my radar so that was just a bonus.
The question even arises in this case, was Venom necessary? Well, I believe he was necessary to the film. He is a dark and twisty character that gave the film edge and so I would even go as far as saying that Sandman was unnecessary, but the casting for what harkens to Spider-Man’s alter ego—Topher Grace?
There is a lot happening in Spider-Man 3—three whole villains. Or two and a half when you consider Harry changed his mind half way through. The list of things to keep track of is tremendous for watching a film that is released as a summer hit and the film seems to rely on some master editing that is supposed to seamlessly take us from one idea to the next—though that master editing left something to be desired. I have never witnessed a selection of scenes quilted together so aimlessly. It was almost as though in an attempt to avoid a fourth episode, there was some agreement to fit everything into the third. That sort of editing is evident in all three films though hadn’t made me say “What the fuck?” until this one.
To his credit, Raimi’s Venom was eerie and unrelenting. Sandman seemed an afterthought in comparison, though a man made of sand doesn’t exactly cause one to shudder. In my humble opinion though, that is where Raimi should have stepped up. Two unrelenting and ridiculous characters could have made up for casting Topher Grace, but Sandman seems to fall to the wayside once Venom latches to Grace’s character, though not for the acting skills, but simply for the doom Venom inspires.
McGuire’s opposite could have been female for all it mattered. Actually, that would have been radical and even creepier. Maybe even a threat to Mary Jane.
It goes without saying that the thinner you spread a plot, the more holes you are going to have to patch and Spider-Man 3 just might have been a stretch. Harry Osborne carries the film with his ability to reinstate the hope and good that all super-hero’s strive to belay and James Franco is just the right class of man to carry a film when it’s on its back. While Peter is traipsing around doing theatrical dance numbers, the plot gets lost and Harry is there to remind the viewers of what is important. When faced with the challenge that is Sandman, it should be a no brainer for Spidey to defeat him and it should have been a no brainer for Raimi to either step it up or leave him out. And Topher Grace just bothers me—he must have a good agent.
Spider-Man 3 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
For more from Corinne, check out her new website the ish.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
by Corinne Rizzo
If the first installment of the Spider-Man trilogy didn’t quite drive home the idea that Sam Raimi can and should always create a villain, Spider-Man 2 should be able to convince any audience that Raimi is essentially the king of all that is evil.
Here in the second installment, the viewer meets Raimi’s portrait of Doc Ock, or Doctor Octavius—a man that shares a love of science with Peter Parker as well as the capacity for good and for hope. For the most part though, Octavius reins darkness over the film as he attempts to show investors his latest energy experiment, harnessing a man made fusion, similar to the effects of the sun. When all is said and done and the experiment is near a successful exhibition, the villain can’t exist unless something goes wrong and surely it goes wrong in every possible way.
With Peter Parker foreshadowing the idea that the good doctor could blow the entire city to smithereens if the procedure isn’t handled correctly, Octavius loses control of the fusion experiment and is left with the death of innocent spectators, and a terrible mutation leaving him and the doctors who are trying to save him in a predicament they’ve never encountered.
Though it is the scene that follows the downfall of the experiment that makes the film a signature Raimi film and that scene is one of operating rooms, slain nurses and doctors, loads of horrific screaming and operational power tools buzzing about, blood splatters. Four extra limbs, mechanical, maniacal. The scene is straight out of a horror film and for a minute, the viewer is no longer watching a summer blockbuster, but a suspenseful and graphic thriller.
In fact, the sequel in this trilogy is probably the best out of the three films and one could say that it’s Raimi’s style to not only make the horror film, but make the sequel to the horror film one debatably superior.
Parker finds his own struggles in this sequel and becomes even more tortured than last the viewer received him. The charade with M.J. is on-going and is almost too belabored. For the sake of the audience, it can be assumed that Raimi made the choice to cut the romance dance short and just get the two kids in love and talking marriage already, which makes Spidey happy, which makes Spidey possible. All things the audience responds to.
Meanwhile, the darkness inside of Harry Osborne rises and becomes just another threat to Spidey, after Spidey killed his best friend’s father. No longer are the headlines making things rough for Spider-Man, it seems as if his competition is multiplying as well. Will the conclusion to the three films be a villain paradise?
Spider-Man 2 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
For more from Corinne, check out her new website the ish.
by Corinne Rizzo
If ever a man could give a modest superhero the edge of one who not only slays science fiction-y comic book villains but ones who truly threaten our psychologically modern society, Sam Raimi would be that man. In his first attempt at a feel good blockbusting summer flick, Raimi takes an undertortured and understated high schooler turned college student and turns that character not only into our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but a superhero of classic proportions. Raimi shows the story of Peter Parker, not by using the drama of his own life, but the drama involved with the villain, which any viewer or Raimi fan can tell, is the character type he seems most comfortable with creating.
Though Raimi does forge Spider-Man’s character without the drama of Uncle Ben and Aunt May, the Mary Jane saga or the idea that Peter and his best friend are as estranged as long lost cousins, Raimi does seem to pile the heaviest load of drama on to the villain in the first of the three Spider-Man films.
In the first installment, Raimi’s villain of choice is the Green Goblin, played by Willem Dafoe. Dafoe is a surprising choice for such a summer blockbuster, as he can be truly menacing in appearance while also offering a cynical yet terrifying psychological aspect to his characters. Dafoe does this with the Green Goblin as he illustrates how Norman Osborne is so bent on the results of his laboratory, that he tests his latest chemical weapon on himself, spawning the Green Goblin’s character.
But what sets apart the development of this villain is the style with which Raimi exposes the viewer to the grit and horror involved with these changes. While Peter Parker simply gets bitten by a spider and gets a bit of a fever, the villain is clearly shown to the audience while in the midst of change. Locking himself in a glass chamber and exposing himself to a gas that has been shown to increase violence and aggravation in rational men, Osborne seizes and foams at the mouth, his eyes roll back into his head when his assistant attempts to stop the experiment, Osborne murders him almost immediately. Then in a fit of exhaustion, Osborne falls asleep and awakes with no memory of the events and experiences a sort of schizophrenia, a divide within his personalities of ration and greed. Dafoe’s face becomes even more upturned and menacing, his voice just a bit more terrifying and now rounded out by a villainous laugh.
Raimi does well to ensure a wholesome superhero like Spider-Man doesn’t become a film about a boy scout trying to better his city and save his girlfriend from evil-doers, by focusing on the villain, which is where the most creativity can be found in this film and the subsequent Spider-Man films. Though here in the first film, it is as if Raimi’s imagination is too much for the practical applications available to him at the time.
The film, printed in 2002, already looks its age. At a time when a lot of great strides were being made in CGI film editing, the magic was in not indistinguishable from reality. Many scenes appeared as though one could almost see the green screen in use, as though no wool was being pulled over the viewer’s eyes. This gives the film a super-campy effect, but with no real sense of itself.
While Raimi does an excellent job of keeping the action and fear alive in the film, he attempts to cover too much ground, which is unfortunately a common situation when dealing with the presumed massive exposure of a character only truly familiar with comic hero buffs. The attempts to tell back story, while creating the current story of Ben becoming a victim of a car-jacking and Aunt May being lonely and warm hearted, don’t really come alive, as the viewer might feel a sense of being rushed into knowing them—in other words, Peter Parker’s drama doesn’t seem as interesting and it is because so much is being introduced at once and so rapidly that one loses sight of who is important and why the audience should care.
Ultimately, Raimi wins the affection of the viewer by trusting him to build a truly terrifying and psychologically thrilling villain and surrounding circumstances. By using his talents for creating fear and anxiety with his typical scary movie formula, Raimi successfully turns an underwhelming, seemingly too classic for true nail biting potential, into an edge of your seat thriller that at the very least, leaves you open to a sequel.
Spider-Man is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
For more from Corinne, check out her new website the ish.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
by Steve Habrat
What an idea it was to produce a film about the making of the 1922 German silent horror film Nosferatu while infusing it with a fictional, supernatural side. E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire is a refined vampire drama that miraculously pulls off this incredibly wild and inspired idea. F.W. Murnau’s original masterpiece is a film that has carried with it rumors of the occult, largely stemming from Murnau’s producer and production designer Albin Grau, who was also an artist, architect, and occultist. Merhige takes these dark aspects of history and uses them to ask us, “What if Nosferatu was made with a REAL vampire?” But Merhige doesn’t stop here; he then transforms his vampire, Max Schreck, into a difficult and greedy star who pushes Murnau to the brink of madness, madness for perfection in his art. Infinitely better than his visually striking but infuriatingly cryptic debut Begotten, Shadow of the Vampire has all its major components (acting, writing, and direction) in synch, creating a clear, concise vision that we can actually wrap our heads around. It seems that maybe Merhige learned that accessible core meanings have just as big of an impression as petrifying images.
Shadow of the Vampire takes us right onto the set of F.W. Murnau’s (Played by John Malkovich) Nosferatu, an unauthorized film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Murnau and his crew have tweaked Stoker’s story ever so slightly, altering names and places so they can still make the film. He drags his crew to places like Slovakia and Poland for on-location shooting, snapping at any crewmember that dares try to make any suggestions or attempt at slightly altering his vision. As filming in Czechoslovakia commences, Murnau’s loyal producer Albin Grau (Played by Udo Kier) and his photographer Wolfgang Mueller (Played by Ronan Vibert) have to consistently keep the eccentric Murnau grounded in reality. Soon, his “method actor” Max Schreck (Played by Willem DaFoe), who is portraying the vampire Count Orlok in the film, arrives to the shoot in full make-up and consistently in character. Murnau tells his impressed crew that Schreck will only mingle with the crew when filming and that he will always appear in character. It turns out that Schreck is actually a real vampire, one who Murnau has made a sinister deal with. Muranu promises Schreck he can feed on their vampy leading actress Greta Schroder (Played by Catherine McCormack) when they are done filming only if Schreck completes his work on the film. As the shoot unfolds, Schreck becomes increasingly difficult, threatening the entire crew and the outcome of the project.
While Shadow of the Vampire sounds like a horror film, it is actually more of a character drama and is often times surprisingly humorous. There are a few chilling moments, mostly a handful of exchanges between Dafoe’s Schreck and Malkovich’s Murnau and the final fifteen minutes. In fact, I would classify the film as more of a drama rather than a full-blown horror film. Shadow of the Vampire is chock full of must-see performances, particularly Dafoe’s transforming turn as Schreck. Much like Klaus Kinski’s unglamorous turn as Count Dracula in Werner Herzog’s faultless 1979 remake Nosferatu the Vampyre, Dafoe makes his vampire a grotesque oddity that is so old he can’t quite recall how he was turned into a vampire. You will be bowled over every time he enters the screen, the highlight moment coming when he snatches a bat out of the air, bites its head off, and then sucks the blood out of it while his eye roll around his skull in ecstasy. Dafoe successfully mutates his character into more of a creature than a man and disappears behind bulging eyes, understated fangs, pasty fake skin, and pointing ears. He really does take on a life of his own.
It may be Dafoe’s show but Malkovich makes damn sure he is remembered long after the credits have rolled. You may emerge talking about Schreck but your conversation will turn to Malkovich’s Murnau. Malkovich makes his determined director out to be pompous and pretentious, demanding but bursting with vision that he can’t quite convey unless he points a camera at something. He is as much a method director as his “star” is a “method actor”, willing to stop at nothing to capture an unmatched realism within his film. He will sacrifice any and all of his crew to achieve this and make something that is remembered for years to come, even running himself into the ground for greatness. Was the real Murnau like this? That is anyone’s guess but it could be said that Murnau did make something that is still popular today, still frightening, and contains one of the greatest performances (Max Schreck’s Count Orlok) ever filmed. Malkovich also gets the film’s best line, coming at the last second of the film.
Compliments should also go to the way Merhige approached the overall look of the film. He mixes German Expressionism, surrealism, black and white, and silent film techniques together to create a consistently alluring piece of cinema. After seeing Begotten, we know that Merhige is a stylish artist, at times getting carried away with the visuals over the story. Here he applies each technique to drive the work forward. He even goes so far to add some footage from the original Nosferatu into Shadow of the Vampire, blending his actors into that specific film. The film could almost double as a film history lesson the way he applies little qualities (gothic atmospheres, use of shadow, intertitles, kaleidoscope images, and even behind-the-scenes Easter eggs) of the genres listed above and it becomes a real treat for cinema fans, allowing them to spot and identify the traits.
All the supporting actors do fine work in Shadow of the Vampire. The best behind Dafoe and Malkovich are Udo Kier’s occultist and producer Albin Grau and Cary Elwes as the replacement photographer Fritz Arno Wagner. Over the years, much has been made over the minor occult touches in Murnau’s Nosferatu, specifically the way he used shadows, which were supposed to symbolize the dark side of reality and occult symbols that were stamped on a document that Count Orlok reads. Well, in shadows lie demons, NOSFERATU, the undead, and what if the undead were really used in the making of the 1922 classic? Shadow of the Vampire is a dramatic and entertaining “what if” that is also a great exploration of method acting and dedication to one’s own art. At least Shadow of the Vampire can spark clear conversation over the bewildered head shaking that Begotten lured out of its viewers. There is nothing to fear in Shadow of the Vampire, only much beauty to drink in and delectable performances to savor.
Shadow of the Vampire is now available on DVD.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
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.