REVIEW: “A Most Wanted Man”

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Anton Corbijn’s brooding espionage-thriller “A Most Wanted Man” doesn’t follow any popular spy movie blueprint or formula and the movie is better for it. It won’t take audiences long to notice the intentionally deliberate pacing, dialogue-driven suspense, and strong character focus. All of these elements create a very grounded and methodical procedural that relies heavily on great performances and a strong screenplay from Andrew Bovell.

“A Most Wanted Man” isn’t just a unique thriller. It also has the sad distinction of being Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s final performance. He plays G√ľnther Bachmann, the head of a German anti-terrorist group. He’s a heavy smoker, drinks a lot, and often times looks unkept. In fact, in an unfortunate case or art imitating reality, he looks terribly unhealthy. But Hoffman takes whatever personal struggles he may have been going through and injects them into this character creating someone full of raw authenticity.

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When a Chechen Muslim on Interpol’s radar illegally enters Hamburg G√ľnther and his team begin tracking him down in hopes of catching bigger fish in a potential terrorist ring. Complicating things is a German security official (Rainer Bock) who wants to apprehend the Chechen instead of using him. Then there is an American intelligence agent named Sullivan (played with fascinating mystery by Robin Wright). No one knows her intent and G√ľnther doesn’t trust her from the start.

The story spins in several different directions and we are kept on our toes by some interesting twists and character developments. It becomes a movie of ‘who is a terrorist and who isn’t’ and ‘who can I trust’. Watching Hoffman navigate through this maze of clues and information is half the fun. Willem Dafoe shows up as a banker with a very shady past and Rachel McAdams has a hefty role as a human rights attorney who latches on to the Chechen suspect’s case. Both characters play key roles in the unfolding story.

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When you’re working with this type of material you have to trust your cast and they are all good here. I still find myself drawn to Wright’s performance and the unshakable confidence she brings to her character. Dafoe is also spot-on and many of the film’s great scenes have him in them. McAdams
is good although she often has trouble keeping her accent. But this is truly Hoffman’s film and he strips away every shred of showmanship in portraying this sad and weary soul whose life revolves around his work. He is obsessive to a fault, but that’s also what helps to make him such a compelling character.

“A Most Wanted Man” may not be for everyone and that’s a shame. It’s a slow burn meticulously built around nuggets of information we glean from conversations, interviews, and observations. It’s compelling stuff – crisp and razor sharp. There was a moment or two where I wasn’t sure what was being discussed and there are a couple of lulls. But even in those moments there is still Hoffman’s sublime performance. If there had to be a final performance this a fitting one – conscientious, complex, and forceful. It’s a clear reminder of the natural ability this man had as an actor.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

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When Wes Anderson releases a movie it’s almost like an event for me. I’m such a fan of his work and I enjoy each visit I make to his unique and eccentric world. Finally his latest film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” made its way to my area. After a grueling wait the film finally cured my impatience but did it meet my ridiculously high expectations? I’ve come to expect so much from Anderson’s movies and my lofty expectations seem almost unfair. And perhaps those same expectations contributed to my somewhat cold and indifferent reaction to this film.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” features so many signature trademarks of other Wes Anderson films. We get the quirky period design, an assortment of offbeat characters, a host of stylistic visual flourishes, and a level of expected absurdity. All of those things are present here and they all work to the film’s advantage. These are some of the fingerprints I want to see all over a Wes Anderson movie. But there were other signatures that injects his movies with their own personality and vibrancy that I found missing in this film.

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The story is told in a fractured style but the vast majority of it takes place within a fictitious Eastern European country during 1932. We are introduced to Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel during its glory days of luxury and prominence. Gustave is meticulous in his running of the hotel and his love for extravagance is only outdone by his adoration for strong cologne and for his elderly clientele. The story becomes a murder mystery after one of his close acquaintances Madame D (Tilda Swinton) is found dead and Gustave becomes the key suspect. It also becomes a heist film and of course a comedy.

The film is also loaded with a massive number of side characters. Some are like Fiennes and new to Wes Anderson’s world while others are old faithful stalwarts who find their way into nearly every one of his movies. Toni Revolori plays a young lobby boy named Zero who becomes Gustave’s prot√©g√© and faithful sidekick. Adrien Brody plays Dmitri, the son of the murdered Madame D. Willem Dafoe plays a grunting snaggletoothed hitman. I could go on and on listing small characters who service the story (some better than others). They are all sprinkled onto stylistic canvases that include an alpine village, a prison, and of course The Grand Budapest itself. There is truly an artistry to the entire visual presentation and all of that worked for me.

But what was it about the film that at first held me at arm’s length? Why didn’t I have the same wonderful experience as I usually have with Wes Anderson pictures during a first viewing? First off I just didn’t find it as funny as I had hoped. Certainly there were moments where I laughed but as a whole the dry humor wasn’t that effective. Even the crowd I watched with had their giggles held to a minimum. This film was also coarse and crasser than most of Anderson’s other pictures. Much of it is played for laughs but I found it to be distracting and it felt as though Anderson, normally known for his creative freedom, was really stretching.

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Another missing component for me was the deeper emotional thread that every Anderson film has had. For example in “The Royal Tenenbaums” you have the destructive results that a father’s behavior has had on his family. In “The Darjeeling Limited” you have three separated brothers each carrying the baggage of their father’s death. “Moonrise Kingdom” features two kids with no stable adult presence in their lives. They find their refuge by running away together. The same thing applies to “Rushmore” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Anderson has always had a knack for presenting a deeper and more piercing subject and effectively surrounding it with humor. Every sense of that is vague and almost absent from this entire film. He does tinker with a few themes via the impending war that lingers in the background, the desires for the nostalgic “better days”, etc. But none of these stood out to me at all.

This is the first screenplay that Anderson has written by himself. Does that play into the things I found lacking? I don’t know, perhaps. Anderson is also often accused of going overboard with his eccentric style. I’ve never found any merit to that accusation but this is the first film where there just might be. Could that be linked to Anderson’s solo screenplay? Again, I don’t know. What I do know is that there were parts of this film that really worked and after a second viewing I definitely began to appreciate the film more. At first “The Grand Budapest Hotel” didn’t fully work for me. It definitely comes more into focus the more times you see it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“JOHN CARTER” – 4 STARS

After seeing the mixed reviews for Disney’s $250 million “John Carter”, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s the kind of movie that you automatically expect to¬†receive some unfavorable reviews. It’s a large-scaled¬†science fiction epic and they simply don’t appeal to a certain group of people. I’m a pretty big sci-fi fan but even I had concerns going in to “John Carter”. Being someone completely unfamiliar with the source material, could the movie pull me into its¬†enormous, sprawling world? Could Taylor Kitsch¬†headline such a huge, ambitious project? Let me just say I was thoroughly drawn in right from the start of the film and Kitsch, while certainly not profound,¬†does enough to get the job done.

“John Carter” is based on of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel “A Princess of Mars”, the first¬†book of the 11-volume “Barsoom” series. The movie starts with Edgar Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) arriving in Richmond, Virginia after inheriting the estate of his recently deceased uncle, John Carter (Kitsch). Edgar hasn’t seen his uncle in years but he’s always cherished the wonderful stories he used to tell. Edgar is given a¬†private journal that John Carter said was to only be read by his nephew. It’s through Edgar’s reading of the journal that we’re whisked away on the interplanetary journey that makes up the majority of the story.

In the journal John Carter writes of his time prospecting for gold in the Arizona Territory after the Civil War. He’s taken into custody by a U.S. Calvary officer (Bryan Cranston) who wants to recruit him to join their fight against the Apache. Carter finds himself caught in the middle¬†of a shootout between the Calvary and the Apache. He¬†takes shelter in a cave where he finds not only gold but a mysterious medallion that ends up transporting him to what he later finds out¬†to be¬†Mars. He quickly finds that the planet is inhabited by a race of four-armed aliens called Tharks. Their leader, Tars Tarkas¬†(Willem DaFoe)¬†takes a liking to¬†him and is especially intrigued by Carter’s newfound gravity-manipulating leaping abilities. We also learn that two humanoid cities, Helium and Zodanga, are at war with each other. At the center of the conflict is the beautiful Princess Dejah¬†(Lynn Collins). Her father and Helium leader (Ciaran¬†Hinds)¬†is pressured into giving his daughter in¬†marriage¬†to an evil Zodanga¬†general (Dominic West) in hopes that it will bring peace between the two groups. Dejah wants no part of it and of course John Carter finds himself right in the middle of it.

The movie puts together a solid supporting cast of quality actors. In addition to DaFoe, Hinds, West, and Cranston we also get Mark Strong¬† as the leader of the god-like Holy Therns, a¬†sinister¬†group of shape-shifting eternals¬†who have been manipulating historical events on several planets. Strong is good here and he adds yet another solid “bad guy” performance to his resume. Thomas Haden Church has a lot of fun playing an evil Thark¬†who desperately wants to overthrow Tarkas and gain power over the Alien tribe. But the main focus is on Taylor Kitsch. The first thing you notice is that he has all the physical attributes needed to play John Carter. He’s quite believable and he certainly knows how to handle a sword. The one thing I noticed is that he didn’t have a very wide range of emotions. The character is intended to be cold and reserved. But there are scenes that call for more emotion and Kitsch doesn’t add much to them. He’s not bad, but he doesn’t have a lot of charisma. I did buy into the chemistry between him and the lovely Lynn Collins. While her character is given a few pretty cheesy lines, she’s still pretty good and she shares some really¬†fun scenes with Kitsch.

While Kitsch may not necessarily stand out, the special effects certainly do. “John Carter’s” assortment of creatures look impressive and its alien technologies¬†are a cool cross between futuristic and archaic. I was blown away by the detailed¬†structure of the solar-powered air ships. I also really liked the CGI design of the Thark creatures. Director and co-writer Andrew Stanton, better known for his work at Pixar Animation,¬†creates a planet that’s full of life yet that looks barren and on the verge of death. And while the landscapes do look fitting, they resemble an Arizona desert far more than what you would expect Mars, The Red Planet, to look like.

Stanton’s Mars is also a place of a strained but structured social order. There are a lot of politics at work between the two humanoid cities and we even get a bit of rather corny social commentary along the way. Mars also has its¬†system of theology that ends up¬†helping Carter and Dejah along the way but I would be lying if I said I understood exactly how. But together, the politics and theology of the planet do make it more than just a wasteland full of monsters and little green men. It makes it’s inhabitation feel more structured and complex and I actually bought into it (with a slight bit of suspension of disbelief).

“John Carter” is the first big blockbuster of 2011 and it’s already been viewed as a “flop”. It’s mediocre opening weekend at the box office did little to cover the film’s $250 million price tag. But I have to say that I had a lot of fun with the film. I enjoy good science fiction and I feel this qualifies. “John Carter” isn’t without its faults but it overcomes them by creating a huge new world that I had never experienced. I’ve never read Wright’s books but I think I could, and I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing “John Carter” become the full trilogy it was intended to be. I’m certainly not calling this the best movie of the year. But I’m also not calling it the terrible movie that some are. For me it was a creative and¬†entertaining motion picture experience – the type of thing that makes the movies fun.