Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Randi Reviews the Oscars: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The very name Wes Anderson conjures up images of opulence: crazy miniature sets, witty and dry humor, symmetrical shots, maybe a Bill Murray cameo. For some people, it sticks. For others, not so much. I've always been a fan of Anderson's whimsical story telling (The Darjeeling Limited is one of my absolute favorite movies), but The Grand Budapest Hotel is the best blend of all of these signature ingredients, coming together to make a film that is deliciously and deliriously great.

Ralph Fiennes is at his best as the decadent and hilarious hotel concierge M. Gustave. He's like James Bond if Bond had any manners. Hilarious and just a little heartbreaking. You can usually find Fiennes playing villains or at least morally gray characters, so seeing that he does indeed posses excellent comedic timing and a pitch perfect sense of ridiculousness makes the performance that much more awesome.

The cast around Fiennes is just as amazing. Tony Revellori as Zero the lobby boy and F. Murray Abraham as Zero's older self are both fantastic. Tony plays straight man to Fiennes whacky concierge, while also lending that note of sadness and seriousness to the story. Saorise Ronan as Agatha, Zero's love interest, is as always great. I'd love to see her do a more major role in an Anderson film. Jude Law as our narrator is great in a mostly only speaking role. As with many Anderson films, the very very minor characters make it great too. It's good to see Jason Schwartzman, the expected Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton (in old lady make-up nonetheless), Edward Norton, and many others, obviously having fun.

It's a good old fashioned caper movie that in any other hands would probably not have been not nearly as good. The amazing set design, full of bright colors and eye popping intricacy is even better than what one has come to expect from Mr. Anderson. Alexendre Desplat's score, full of jangling strings and weird yodeling, is one of his best.

It's clear that everyone involved in this movie really loved it, from behind the camera to those in front of it. And that's what makes the Grand Budapest Hotel so great, is that it is unapologetic in its silliness and its clear that it was a labor of love. It's a candy coated escapsim with just enough below the surface to not come off as shallow.  I adored it.


Monday, January 19, 2015

2015 Oscar Nominations

Believe it or not, I've actually seen a lot of the Best Picture nominations this year.

Best Picture
American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

So my pick for the film that will actually win is either Boyhood or Birdman. As far as the one I liked better? Boyhood all the way. I'm going to try and review all of these films so I can get back into writing reviews (I felt that my last couple have been kind of bad because I just haven't had a lot of time to write a lot of things in the past couple of months), but I can tell you right now that Birdman was the most pretentious piece I've ever seen in my life, and it didn't sit well with me. If I want meta, I'll go watch Community. I also really really loved Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson's magnum opus for sure. It's such a fun, well designed, and whacky movie you can't  help but enjoy. I also loved the beautiful romanticism of the Theory of Everything, and the Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are stellar (haha). The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing's code breaking days, was so bland for me, so I'm very meh about that one. I'm planning to see Selma soon, I'm interested to see a good civil rights biopic (I feel like a lot of them are just pats on the back to white people), extra points for being directed by a woman. Whiplash is the obvious underdog, and its greatest reward is probably just being nominated, but I do still want to see it. As for American Sniper, I'll probably skip because it looks just a tad too intense for me, but I'm totally rooting for Bradley Cooper because he has been making some super quality movies in the past few years.

Best Actor
Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

As far as who is actually going to win, I'd say it's evenly matched between Keaton and Cooper, with Eddie Redmayne possibly upsetting. Again, I'm not worshiping Birdman like everybody else, so I'm definitely hoping for a Bradley Cooper Oscar, but alas, that's how the world turns.

Best Actress 
Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

First of all, let's talk about who is not here, because it is a travesty. Amy Adams gave what I thought was the best performance of the year in Big Eyes, a movie that was also not nominated for anything else, which is terrible, because it was fantastic. It was unpretentious and beautifully done, and perfectly sad and funny in equal amounts. Also, Emily Blunt's excellent turn as the Baker's Wife in Into the Woods should have earned a nod, because not only was she a fantastic singer, she really brought energy to a part that absolutely requires it, without being really over the top. It was a beautifully subtle performance. But nope, we had to nominate Marion Cotillard again fr a movie that nobody saw. Anyway, with Adams out of the race, I'm really not sure who will win, so I'm going to say it's between Felicity Jones and Reese Witherspoon, with maybe Rosamund Pike thrown in as the upset.

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall (The Judge)
Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
Edward Norton (Birdman)
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

I have to admit, I'm kind of wanting J.K. Simmons to go in for this one, he's been doing quality work for years and really has never been recognized. But realistically, Ethan Hawke vs. Edward Norton. And again, where is Christoph Waltz for Big Eyes? I know he just won, but I really enjoyede this more nuanced take on characters that he has played more zainly in the past. He truly depicts the intricacies of a controlling and abusive husband perfectly.

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Laura Dern (Wild)
Keira Knightly (The Imitation Game)
Emma Stone (Birdman)
Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

For once in my life, I actually really want Meryl Streep to win (I usually think someone else deserves it). But her work as the witch was fantastic, so I'll take that. This is probably the only category I actually agree with in the entire Oscars race this year. If not Meryl, Patricia for Boyhood.

Best Director
Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)
Richard Lanklater (Boyhood)
Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)
Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

I'm calling Linklater on this one, this movie was a miracle shot over twelve years and it was so good. If not Linklater, Birdman, for pretentious reasons.

That's it from me for now. I'll keep checking in to review these films, and maybe a couple of other things too. Stay tuned!

Randi Reviews the Oscars: Whiplash

I'm going to attempt to review all of the films nominated for Best Picture in the weeks between nominations and the Oscars (and maybe a few that just strike my fancy), just to get me back into writing for my various blogs again, so here goes!

Whiplash is the story of man vs. music, which of course, strikes home with any musician sitting in the audience.

Miles Teller plays an up and coming jazz drummer at the Schaffer Music Conservatory. J.K. Simmons plays the demanding (and that's putting it lightly) instructor/conductor of their top jazz band. It's about how far one will push themselves for music, for becoming great. It's a fairly simple concept but makes an electrifying film.

J.K. Simmons is on fire in this movie. There's one particular scene where he's talking to a colleauge's daughter in the hall before rehearsal, all sweetness and smiles a la his portrayal of fatherhood in the fantastic Juno, and once the door shuts to the rehearsal space, in the blink of an eye, he becomes intense, loud, rude,  and utterly unpredictable. It's one of the most enjoyable performances I've seen from anybody this year.

Miles Teller usually is better than the movie he is in, but here we see a perfect match of actor and material. Teller takes a role that could work on a lot of people and owns it, putting everything in. It's a quietly smoldering performance of a driven musician building himself from the ground up. He matches Simmons in intensity equally throughout the film.

The remarkable thing about Whiplash is how sparse it is. There's nothing between Simmons and Teller physically speaking but a drum set. There are not a  lot of other side characters, and they are usually done away with in a scene or two. It's about the music,and the literal blood, sweat and tears that go into making it well. The final sequence will leave you speechless.

It doesn't stand a chance of winning Best Picture but it is a must see for any musician, or anyone who has ever been completely devoted to something.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Into the Woods

Another Christmas, another movie musical.

Into the Woods, considered the most accessible of Stephen Sondheim's challenging canon, has made a movie debut at last. And just as it did on Broadway, is garnering everything from confusion to cheers to... more confusion.

I was admittedly a little hesitant about this one. I'm a pretty big fan of the original Broadway production with Bernadette Peters in the role of the Witch. A musical movie that does not have a lot of Broadway people in it is usually a warning sign for me that I might be getting something that does not do a fantastic score justice (see Les Mis). And Into the Woods, which features actors who have done musical movies before i.e. Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia, Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect which kind of counts I guess, Daniel Huttlestone was a standout Gavroche in Les Mis (edit: I found this out after the first draft of this post but Lilla Crawford who plays Little Red was Annie on Broadway in a production that closed about a  year ago).  Anyway, not a lot of Broadway people in this show that is very Broadway. Into the Woods score is not in any way pop, like the tunes of Frozen or even the bit-of-both in Les Miserables (sorry for all the comparisons). This initially worried me.

However, I am happy to report that I quite liked the movie. I think it is one of the better results of what is beginning to be a new era for the movie musical.

Into the Woods is the most accessible for a reason. It takes some of your favorite old fairy tales, and then some new stuff, and basically runs with it, examining morality and wishes, and that happily ever after rarely turns out like we think it should. It's about delving into the psychological depths of some of the world's most beloved characters.

It follows the baker and his wife, cursed with barrenness by their next door neighbor, the witch, and how they intertwine with stories like Cinderella and Rapunzel and Jack and the beanstalk and Little Red and so on so forth. It plays off of your  Disneyfied expectations of these stories to create something new and not entirely nice.
Which is awkward, because Disney produced the movie.

Therein was another of my doubts about ITW. It was created as a rebuttal to the sanitized fairy tales the youth of American grew up (and are still growing up) on. A PG rating for a musical that could easily be rated R in its original content produced by a company famous for child-safe sanitary fairy tales? It was puzzling to say the least.

And therein was probably the biggest, but one of the few, gripes I had with this film. Did you know Rapunzel dies in the original? Did you know that Cinderella's prince and the Baker's Wife do more than just kiss? I'm not trying to be on my high horse or anything of that nature, but I feel that it took away some of the emotional punch of the story, all in the name of getting it a kid's rating in order to perhaps entice some families. The kid behind me started crying when Milky White, Jack's cow, died. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the things these kids would have to deal with later on in the movie.

However, that was one of my only gripes. This movie surprised me in how good it actually was.

There is not a bad singer in the bunch, thank God. Meryl Streep positively kills it as the Witch, one of the most demanding Sondheim roles. She absolutely commits to it. James Corden and Emily Blunt are perfect for the Baker and his Wife, possessing that kind of every-person quality necessary for this kind of thing. Lilla Crawford brings a Broadway edge to the role of Little Red (which makes sense, since she was in the latest Annie revival that closed about a year ago). Little Red is easily my least favorite character of the bunch in Into the Woods, but Crawford manages to make it more likeable in the film, which surprised me so, so kudos for that. Daniel Huttlestone, who killed it in Les Miserables, plays Jack of beanstalk fame, and does an excellent job.  It's a little weird to see someone who actually looks Jack's age playing him (it's usually someone in their late teens early teens) but Huttlestone is really good and his singing sounds fantastic. Again, it lends that credibility to it. What works on stage doesn't always work on film, and it'd look super weird to have some late teens early twenties  guy playing a kid in a film, even though it works in the show.

I was just a tad disappointed in Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, but only in regards to her singing. It's not that it was bad by any means, I just feel like it did not fit the character as well as a more classical soprano might have. although Kendrick's acting is spot on. She's a very endearing Cinderella. On the other hand, Chris Pine has a pretty good singing voice as the Prince (and gets easily the best moment in the show along with Rapunzel's prince), his acting is so phoned in it takes you out of the story. Luckily, he's not that involved in a lot of speaking scenes. Rapunzel and her Prince are super minor characters, but both are excellent, and I have no bad words about either.

On another note, can we stop putting actors who don't have more than five minutes in the movie top billing on the poster? Johnny Depp makes a very creepy wolf and does good with what is given to him, but he is literally only in it for one song. From the way they were promoting it, I thought that maybe they'd given him some extra stuff, which is confusing, but they didn't.

In technical aspects, the movie also excels. The costumes and make-up are a fantastic compliment to the story, and I especially adored the Witch's costume post-transformation (I promise, that's not a spoiler). The set and production design are just the right blend of realistic and fairy-tale, and the actual Woods themselves are just perfect, so props to the set team. And the orchestrations and music are just beautiful, and props to putting in the first Night Waltz from A Little Night Music in the scene at the ball, that's a really neat Sondheim easter egg!

Anyway, I really did enjoy the movie, and hope this continues to bring movie musicals that are good adaptations that are made to work on screen as opposed to just copying what was on the stage. They're different, and that's not a bad thing.