“AQUAMAN” (2018) Review

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“AQUAMAN” (2018) Review

Following the failure of “JUSTICE LEAGUE” to storm the box office during the fall of 2017, Warner Brothers Pictures and the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) turned to the franchise’s sixth installment to carry it and the studio to both financial and especially critical glory. That movie proved to be 2018’s “AQUAMAN”

The character of the DC Comics superhero, Aquaman aka Arthur Curry has made extensive appearances in both television and movie animations. His biggest role proved to be one of the main characters of the 1973-1986 Saturday morning animated series, “SUPER FRIENDS”. The character also made occasional appearances in the live-action WB (later, the CW) series, “SMALLVILLE”. The WB had plans for a series about Aquaman, starring Justin Hartley (who later became known as Oliver Queen aka the Green Arrow on “SMALLVILLE”), but nothing came from it. In the end, it took Zack Snyder to bring Aquaman to the fore as a live-action figure, when he cast actor Jason Momoa in the role for the DCEU franchise. “AQUAMAN” would prove to be Momoa’s third appearance in the franchise, after a brief cameo in 2016’s “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” and a more prominent role in “JUSTICE LEAGUE”, the following year. However, “AQUAMAN” is the first film to feature Momoa as the lead in a DCEU film, but also the first movie that is actually about the “King of the Seven Seas”.

Directed by James Wan, “AQUAMAN” is a two-fold story that explores the drama behind Arthur Curry’s family conflicts. The movie also told how Arthur aka Aquaman went on a quest to prevent his half-brother King Orm Marius from uniting the seven undersea kingdoms in order to inflict war upon the surface world. The story begins in 1985, when a Maine lighthouse keeper named Tom Curry rescues a woman who has washed ashore during a storm. The mysterious woman turns out to be Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis, who had left her ocean world to escape an arranged marriage to another member of Atlantean royalty, Orvax. Both Tom and Atlanna fall in love, marry and conceive a child, whom they name Arthur. Unfortunately, Atlantean soldiers manage to find Atlanna. She decides to leave Tom and Arthur behind and return to Atlantis in order to protect them from Orvax’s wrath.

Over thirty years later, Arthur has become known as the metahuman vigilante, Aquaman. Months after the Justice League’s defeat of Steppenwolf, Aquaman prevents a group of pirates led by the father-son team, Jesse and David Kane, from hijacking a Russian Naval Akula-class submarine. Jesse dies during the confrontation with Aquaman, while David, vows revenge against the hero. Meanwhile, Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm of Atlantis attempts to convince King Nereus of Xebel to help him unite Atlantis and the other ocean kingdoms for an attack against the surface world for for harming the Earth’s oceans. Orm also hopes to solidify his position as Atlantis’ king. Nereus’s daughter and Orm’s fiancee, Princess Mera, heads to the surface to recruit Arthur in stopping Orm’s plans against the surface world and to present himself as the true king of Atlantis.

Over a year had passed between the release of “JUSTICE LEAGUE” and “AQUAMAN”. I noticed that many film critics and moviegoers seemed willing to heap lavish praise on the 2018 film, following the other movie’s poor performance and lack of critical acclaim. I will be honest . . . I did not dislike “JUSTICE LEAGUE”. I had mixed feelings about it. I still do. But I must admit that “AQUAMAN” is a better film. To a certain extent. “AQUAMAN” is a curious mixture of a family drama, a political film, an Indiana Jones-style adventure and the usual “save-the-planet” scenario.

For me, the best aspect of “AQUAMAN” is the family drama that centered around Queen Atlanna. David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall did an excellent job in conveying the consequences of Atlanna’s initial refusal to be dragged into an arranged marriage. Her actions resulted in eventual exile and possible death for her, two sons in conflict with each other, a political vacuum and one of her sons becoming a future costumed hero. The political vacuum left by Atlanna also led to an exciting and action-filled search for a missing magical artifact – the Trident of Atlan, which used to belong to Atlantis’ first ruler and had been missing his disappearance. This search would lead Arthur and Mera on a picturesque journey from the Mediterranean region to the depths of the ocean’s most elusive worlds, the Kingdom of the Trench.

I also liked the fact that Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall’s screenplay did not rush in conveying Orm’s story arc. They did not rush his efforts to solidify his position on the Atlantean throne or his efforts to convince or coerce the rulers of the other ocean kingdoms to acknowledge and join him in the attack against the surface. And what seemed to be the cherry on the top of this particular story arc is that the two screenwriters managed to utilize Aquaman’s other major nemesis – David Kane aka Black Mantis – into Orm’s story arc. In doing so, the two screenwriters and director James Wan managed to establish David Kane’s own origin story and major conflict against Aquaman for future movies. But what I really liked about “AQUAMAN” is that instead of the outsider or the interloper of a royal court being the main villain, he is the main protagonist. In other words, the main protagonist is the one who shakes up a society and not the villain. I found this refreshing after movies like “THOR” and “BLACK PANTHER”.

Another aspect of “AQUAMAN” that I enjoyed was the film’s visual styles. Bill Brzeski did an excellent job as the film’s production designer. I thought he did a competent job in not only re-creating Atlantis and other ocean worlds . . . to an extent. I also enjoyed his designs for those scenes that especially featured Arthur and Mera’s adventures in both the Sahara Desert and especially Sicily. Don Burgess’ cinematography did a great job in enhancing Brzeski’s work. This especially seemed to be the case for his photography of the shooting locations in Australia, Morocco and Italy. I am going to be frank. I am not a big fan of the traditional Aquaman suit . . . at least for Jason Momoa. From a visual perspective, I believe the suit he wore in “JUSTICE LEAGUE” worked better for him. But I must admit that I did enjoy Kym Barrett’s designs for the costume worn by Momoa in the Sicily sequence. And I especially enjoyed Ms. Barrett’s costumes for the other Atlantean and Xebel characters. Especially those costumes worn by Amber Heard. However, the one aspect of “AQUAMAN” that truly impressed me were the visual effects for the Atlantis scene created by the Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) team led by Jeff White. I mean . . . oh my God! Those visual effects truly blew me away with the sharp colors, beauty and originality, as seen in the images below:

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How on earth did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences fail to nominate White and the ILM team for their work in this film? It is simply criminal that the organization had failed to do this.

The performances featured in “AQUAMAN” struck me as either first-rate or solid. I would certainly describe Jason Momoa’s portrayal of Arthur Curry aka Aquaman as first-rate. One, the guy has charisma and presence oozing out of his pores. And two, Momoa did a great job in utilizing both his comedic and dramatic skills, when required by the screenplay. However, a part of me wishes there had been more of a balance between comedy and dramatic scenes for the actor. Another first-rate performance came from Amber Heard, who portrayed Princess Mera of Xebel. If I must be honest, I had been impressed by the way she had taken control of her performance in “JUSTICE LEAGUE”. Her portrayal of Mera as a strong-willed and commanding personality seemed even stronger in this film. “AQUAMAN” features the second time I have seen Patrick Wilson portray a villain. In this film, he gave a strong and intimidating portrayal of Aquaman’s half-brother, King Orm Marius aka Ocean Master. Wilson’s character was not as . . . amusing as his character in 2010’s “THE A-TEAM”, but I must admit that he did a great job in conveying Orm’s arrogance and bigotry. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II portrayed the film’s other villain, sea pirate-tech specialist David Kane, who will become one of Aquaman’s biggest nemesis, Black Mantis. Since he was not the main villain, his presence was not as extensive. But I cannot deny that Abdul-Mateen gave a very intense and memorable performance. I really look forward to seeing him in future DCEU films.

“AQUAMAN” also featured strong, yet solid performances from the supporting cast.  Those performances include Nicole Kidman, who portrayed Arthur’s mother Queen Atlanna; Temeura Morrison as Arthur’s father, Tom Curry; Willem Dafoe, who portrayed Arthur’s mentor Vulko; Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus of Xebel; Michael Beach as Jesse Kane, pirate leader and father of the future Black Mantis; and Graham MacTavish, who provided the voice for Atlan, the first king of Atlantis. I also wanted to point out Randall Park, who gave a rather funny and entertaining performance as Dr. Stephen Shin, a marine biologist obsessed with finding the lost city of Atlantis. I was surprised to discover that the movie also featured voice performances from the likes of Julie Andrews, Djimon Hounsou and John Rhys-Davies.

As much as I enjoyed “AQUAMAN”, I had some problems with the film. My biggest problem proved to be director James Wan. I realize that he has managed to establish a positive reputation from the horror flicks he had directed in the past. The problem is that there were times when I found his direction rather clunky. A good example would be the film’s opening scene that featured the introduction of Aquaman’s parents. It struck me as a bit rushed.

Utilizing slow motion scenes can annoy me in any movie. But what I found particularly annoying in “AQUAMAN” was that Wan did not use slow motion in action scenes. Instead, he used it for shots featuring Momoa in various poses . . . as if he was some kind of fashion magazine model. Also, it seemed as if Wan was incapable of going from action to drama to comedy in a seamless way. Perhaps he will be able to flow his scenes a little better as he become more experienced, but I did not sense such a skill in “AQUAMAN”.

Also, I am a little . . . confused about Queen Atlanna’s position in Atlantis society. Was she the ruling monarch when she first met Tom Curry? Was she ever the ruling monarch? Or did Atlantis society forbade women sovereigns and would only allow the royal spouses of a direct female heiress or sovereign to be considered for the throne? The movie never made it clear. According to the movie, one of Orm’s major reasons for planning an attack upon the surface world was humanity’s pollution of the ocean. Aside from one minor sequence featuring news reports of piles of garbage washing up on many beaches, I feel the movie did not explore the topic of pollution as much as it should have, considering IT WASone of Orm’s reasons to attack humanity.

I realize that “AQUAMAN” is at the moment, the DCEU franchise’s most successful film. It is the only one that has managed to earn over a billion dollars so far. But do I consider it the best in the franchise? Not really. Between James Wan’s uneven direction, some plot points regarding the Queen Atlanna character and the film’s use of the pollution topic; it did not quite impress me as I had hoped it would. On the other hand, I found some of Wan’s direction rather impressive, especially the action sequences. The visual effects struck me as stunning, the movie featured excellent performances from a cast led by Jason Momoa and I thought screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall wrote a first-rate adventure. I am more than satisfied.

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Favorite Movies Set in OLD HOLLYWOOD

Below is a list of my favorite movies set in Hollywood’s past, before 1960: 

FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN OLD HOLLYWOOD

1. “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) – Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds starred in this musical classic about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies. Kelly co-directed with Stanley Donen.

2. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988) – Robert Zemeckis directed this adaptation of Gary Wolfe’s 1981 novel, “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?”, in which a 1940s private detective who must exonerate a cartoon star “Toon” for the murder of a wealthy businessman. Bob Hoskins, Charles Fleischer and Christopher Lloyd starred.

3. “Moviola: The Scarlett O’Hara War” (1980) – Tony Curtis starred as producer David O. Selznick in the second episode of the miniseries, “Moviola”. The television movie featured Selznick’s search for the right actress to portray the leading character in his movie adaptation of “Gone With the Wind”.

4. “The Aviator” (2004) – Martin Scorsese produced and directed this biopic about mogul Howard Hughes’ experiences as a filmmaker and aviator between 1927 and 1947. Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio starred.

5. “Hitchcock” (2012) – Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren starred in this comedy-drama about the tumultuous marriage between director-producer Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Alma Reville during the former’s making of his 1960 hit, “Psycho”. Sacha Gervasi directed.

6. “Trumbo” (2015) – Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston starred in this biopic about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and his troubles after being jailed and blacklisted for being a member of the Communist Party. Directed by Jay Roach, Diane Lane and Helen Mirren co-starred.

7. “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) – Vincente Minelli directed this melodrama about the impact of a Hollywood producer on the lives of three people he had worked with and betrayed. Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Barry Sullivan and Dick Powell starred.

8. “Hollywoodland” (2006) – Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck starred in this intriguing tale about a private detective’s investigation into the life and death of actor George Reeves. Allen Coulter directed.

9. “Hail, Caesar!” (2016) – Ethan and Joel Coen produced and directed this fictional account in the life of studio executive/fixer, Eddie Mannix. The movie starred Josh Brolin.

10. “The Artist” (2011) – Michel Hazanavicius wrote and directed this Academy Award winning movie about a silent screen star and the disruption of his life and career by the emergence of talking pictures. Oscar winner Jean Dujardin and Oscar nominee Bérénice Bejo starred.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

When news of Twentieth Century Fox releasing its own version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, “Murder on the Orient Express”, many people groaned. In a way, I could understand their reaction. This new movie would mark the fifth adaptation of the novel – the second theatrical version. However, being a major fan of Christie’s story about a murder aboard the famed trans-European train, I was among those who did not groan. 

Directed by Kenneth Branaugh, who also starred as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” begins in Jerusalem 1934, where Poirot has been asked to solve the theft of a valuable artifact from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. After achieving his goal, Poirot boards a boat that conveys him to Istanbul in Turkey. Among his fellow passengers is a British governess named Mary Debenham and a Afro-British former-Army soldier-turned-physician named Dr. John Abuthnot. Poirot plans to remain in Istanbul for a few days of rest. But he receives a telegram, summoning him to London to solve another case. Monsieur Bouc, a young friend of his who happens to serve as a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, manages to acquire a berth in one of the second-class compartments in the Calais coach of the Orient Express.

Both Poirot and Bouc are surprised to discover that the Calais coach is unusually full for the winter season. A day following the train’s departure from Istanbul, one of the passengers – an American “businessman” named Samuel Rachett – informs Poirot that he had received death threats and wants to hire the Belgian detective to serve as his bodyguard. Due to his instinctive dislike of Rachett, Poirot refuses the offer. During the second night of the train’s journey, the Orient Express becomes stranded somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, thanks to an avalanche. The following morning, Rachett’s dead body is discovered with a dozen stab wounds. Bouc asks Poirot to discover the killer’s identity. Since each train car was locked at night, Poirot has focused his suspicions on those who were inside the Calais coach:

*Mary Debenham
*Dr. John Abuthnot
*Hector McQueen, Rachett’s secretary
*Edward Masterman, Rachett’s English valet
*Mrs. Caroline Hubbard, a middle-aged American tourist
*Pilar Estravados, a Spanish-born missionary
*Princess Dragomiroff, an exiled Russian princess
*Hildegarde Schmidt, Princess Dragomiroff’s German maid
*Biniamino Marquez, a Spanish-born automobile salesman
*Count Rudolph Andrenyi, a Hungarian aristocrat/acclaimed dancer
*Countess Helena Andrenyi, Count Andrenyi’s German-born wife
*Gerhard Hardman, a German scholar
*Pierre Michel, the Calais coach’s car attendant

Not long after he begins his investigation, Poirot discovers Rachett’s true identity – a gangster named Lanfranco Cassetti, who had kidnapped a three year-old heiress named Daisy Armstrong two years earlier. After Daisy’s parents had paid the ransom, Cassetti killed young Daisy and fled the United States. It becomes up to Poirot to discover which Calais coach passengers have connections to the Armstrong kidnapping case and find the killer.

What can I say about this adaptation of Christie’s 1934 novel? Of the five versions of “Murder on the Orient Express”, I have only seen four. But I am not here to discuss the other three versions I have seen . . . only this new adaptation.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” was not a perfect movie. Well to be honest, I have yet to see a perfect adaptation of Christie’s novel. But there were a few aspects of this film that I did not like. Most of those aspects had a lot to do with camera shots. I did not like how Branaugh had allowed his passengers to board through the dining car at the end of the train. Honestly? I did not care for that tracking shot of Poirot making his way through the train . . . with the camera focused on him through the windows. I found it rather distracting and slightly confusing. Nor did I care for how Branaugh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shot the scene featuring the discovery of Rachett’s body. From the moment when the victim’s valet discovered the body to Dr. Abuthnot examined it and conveyed his prognosis, Branaugh and Zambarloukos did the entire scene from a high angle shot from above in which I could barely, if at all, see the victim’s body. I found it very frustrating to watch. And rather unnecessary. I have one last complaint and it concerned a character. Namely . . . Count Rudolph Andrenyi. In Christie’s novel, Count Andrenyi was described as a hot-blooded Hungarian and a diplomat. In “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the Count remained a hot-blooded Hungarian. But for some reason, Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green had decided to change his profession from a diplomat to a professional dancer. Why? Other than showing Count Andrenyi in a fight with two men at the Sirkeci train station, I saw no earthly reason to change the character’s profession. Worse, while being questioned by Poirot, the latter brought up the matter of a diplomatic passport. Why would Poirot bring up this matter to a man who was a professional dancer?

Thankfully, I managed to enjoy “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” a great deal, despite its flaws. Thanks to Branaugh and a first-rate crew, the movie radiated a sharp rich elegance that struck me as different as the previous adaptations. And I have to give credit to cinematographer Zambarloukos for this look. There were others who had contributed to the film’s look and style. I especially have to commend production designer Jim Clay for his re-creation of the Orient Express – along with the help of the art direction team led by Dominic Masters and set decorator Rebecca Alleway:

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I doubt that the film’s re-creation of the famous luxury train at Longcross Studios was completely accurate. But I must admit that I was more than impressed by how people like Clay, Masters and Alleway still managed to re-create the style and ambiance of the famous train. My admiration for their work at Longcross also extends to their re-creation of the famous Sirkeci railway station. I found it rich in detail and atmosphere . . . and if I must be honest, slightly mind blowing:

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I suspect that none of crewmen who worked on “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” will receive any recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their work. Pity. As for Patrick Doyle’s score, I must be honest and admit that I did not find it particularly memorable. In fact, I found Doyle’s occasional use of 1930s tunes more memorable than his original work.

How did I feel about Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green’s treatment of Christie’s novel? Aside from my nitpick about the Count Rudolph Andrenyi character, I had no problems with it. Yes, I realize that both Branaugh and Green had made some changes to Christie’s story. But you know what? So did the other versions I have seen. And there were no real changes to the plot, aside from allowing the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping to occur two years previously, instead of more. Most of the changes were made to some of the characters, instead of the plot. For instance:

*Although Hector McQueen had remained Rachett’s secretary, he was discovered to be embezzling from the latter.
*John Abuthnot is portrayed as an Afro-British doctor, who is also a former Army sniper, instead of a British Army colonel stationed in India
*Swedish-born missionary Greta Ohlsson becomes the Spanish-born missionary Pilar Estravados, whose name was borrowed from Christie’s 1938 novel, “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”
*Italian-born car salesman Antonio Foscarelli becomes the Spanish-born salesman Biniamino Marquez
*Monsieur Bouc is portrayed as a much younger man, who profession is dependent upon family connections

As one can see, the changes in characterizations is based upon changes in ethnicity and nationality. Hell, I had more of a problem with the changes made by the Count Andrenyi character than I did with the above changes. And if I must be honest, I found the changes made to the John Abuthnot character rather impressive and interesting. Despite these changes, he remained intensely in love with Mary Debenham and protective of her. Another change I noticed is that Branaugh and Green had allowed Poirot to question the suspects in different parts of either the Calais coach, the dining car, the Pullman lounge car and various spots outside of the stranded train. I must admit that I found this variation in minor locations around the train rather refreshing. Watching Poirot question most of the suspects (with the exception of Princess Dragonmiroff and Hildegarde Schmidt) inside the Pullman coach had struck me as a bit repetitive in the 1974 and 2010 versions.

I would not be surprised if certain Christie fans and film critics had accused Branaugh of political correctness. Not only did the screenplay pointed out Dr. Abuthnot’s race via characters like Gerhard Hardman, but also Biniamino Marquez’s ethnicity via Hector McQueen. Considering that the movie is set in 1934, I did not mind. More importantly, it would have been odd if someone had not commented on Dr. Abuthnot’s race or Senor Marquez’s nationality. In fact, in Christie’s original novel, some characters made a big deal over the nationalities of the other suspects.

The important thing is that despite these changes, Michael Green’s screenplay more or less adhered to Christie’s novel. And he did so with style and a good deal of pathos in the film’s last half hour that I found more than satisfying. I was especially surprised by how the film treated Poirot’s character in the end. In the novel and previous adaptations, Poirot had remained on the train after solving the murder. Not in this adaptation. After exposing the crime and reporting his findings to the police in Brod, Poirot left the train. And I was thrilled. As I have stated numerous times, if I had been Poirot, I would have left that train myself.

I must admit that I had experienced a few qualms when I learned that Kenneth Branaugh had cast himself as the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The large moustache he had utilized for his performance did not comfort me, until I realized that it matched the description of the literary Poirot’s moustache. I have stated in the past that I believe that British actors with a Continental background – like Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina and David Suchet – tend to give more believable portrayals of Poirot than English speaking actors. Branaugh ended up proving me wrong. He gave a very charming and energetic performance as Poirot, without wallowing in the occasional moments of hammy acting. I also enjoyed how he portrayed Poirot’s development in the story from a charming and intelligent man seeking a little peace before his next case to the slightly outraged man who found himself conflicted over how to handle the consequences of Rachett’s murder.

There were other performances that I found very interesting. One came from Johnny Depp, who gave an effectively slimy portrayal of the former kidnapper-turned-murder victim. His performance really impressed me, especially in one particular scene in which Rachett requested Poirot’s services as a bodyguard. Depp displayed his versatility as an actor by conveying his character’s attempt at friendliness and a sinister form of intimidation. I also appreciated Michelle Pfieffer’s portrayal of the extroverted Caroline Hubbard, which I found both humorous and sexy. And yet, Pfieffer’s finest moment came near the film’s end, when Poirot exposed her character’s deep secret. She gave a very emotional and effective performance. Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley portrayed the two suspects that Poirot had first encountered – namely Dr. John Abuthnot and Mary Debenham. It is interesting that the literary versions of this pair proved to be more hostile (and bigoted) toward Poirot than the other passengers. In this version, both are more friendlier toward Poirot, yet both maintained a subtle wariness toward his presence. I also enjoyed how Odom and Ridley managed to convey more complexity into their performances, when confronted with their lies by Poirot and their willingness to fiercely protect each other.

I never thought I would say this, but I thought Josh Gad gave the most complex performance as Rachett’s secretary, Hector McQueen I have ever seen on screen. Thanks to Gad’s first-rate performance, his McQueen literally oozed with moral ambiguity – especially in the film’s second half. Another interesting performance came from Derek Jacobi, who portrayed Rachett’s English valet, Edward Masterman. I was particularly impressed at how Jacobi conveyed his character’s nervousness in being caught in a slip of character by Poirot. And there was Penelope Cruz’s performance as the Spanish missionary, Pilar Estravados. Cruz’s portrayal of the missionary was a far cry from the literary character by portraying her not only as intensely religious, but also intense and slightly intimidating. I found her performance very interesting. Judi Dench gave a very imperious and entertaining performance as the elderly Princess Dragonmiroff. The movie also featured first-rate performances from the rest of the cast that included Olivia Colman, Tom Bateman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Willem Dafoe, Marwan Kenzari, Lucy Boynton and yes, Sergei Polunin. I may not have liked the change made to the Count Andrenyi character, but I cannot deny that Poluin gave an effective performance.

I recently learned that 20th Century Fox given approval for a sequel to “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. It may not have been a major box office hit, but it was financially successful. Personally, I am glad. I really enjoyed this new take on Christie’s 1934 novel. And I was not only impressed by the cast’s excellent performances in this film, but also by Kenneth Branaugh’s direction and his superb portrayal of the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. If a sequel is being planned, I cannot wait to see him reprise his portrayal of the famous literary sleuth.

 

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

I have never been a major fan of Wes Anderson’s films in the past. Well . . . I take that back. I have never been a fan of his films, with the exception of one – namely 2007’s “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. Perhaps my inability to appreciate most of Anderson’s films was due to my inability to understand his sense of humor . . . or cinematic style. Who knows? However, after viewing “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”, the number of Anderson films of which I became a fan, rose to two.

Written and directed by Anderson, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” is about the adventures of one Gustave H., a legendary concierge at a famous hotel from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka during the early 1930s; and his most trusted friend, a lobby boy named Zero Moustafa. Narrated from a much older Zero, the movie, which was inspired by the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zweig, begins in the present day in which a teenage girl stares at a monument inside a cemetery, who holds a memoir in her arms, written by a character known as “The Author”. The book narrates a tale in which “the Author” as a younger man visited the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 Zubrowka. There, he met the hotel’s elderly owner, Zero Moustafa, who eventually tells him how he took ownership of the hotel and why he is unwilling to close it down.

The story shifts to 1932, in which a much younger Zero was one of the hotel’s lobby boys, freshly arrived in Zubrowka as a war refugee. Zero becomes acquainted with Monsieur Gustave H., who is a celebrated concierge known for sexually pleasing some of the hotel’s wealthy guests – namely those who are elderly and romantically desperate. One of Gustave’s guests is the very wealthy Madame Céline Villeneuve “Madame D” Desgoffe und Taxis. Although Zubrowka is on the verge of war, Gustave becomes more concerned with news that “Madame D” has suddenly died. He and Zero travels across the country to attend her wake and the reading of her will. During the latter, Gustave learns that “Madame D” has bequeathed to him a very valuable painting called “Boy with Apple”. This enrages her family, all of whom hoped to inherit it. Not long after Gustave and Zero’s return to the Grand Budapest Hotel, the former is arrested and imprisoned for the murder of the elderly woman, who had died of strychnine poisoning. Gustave and Zero team up to help the former escape from prison and learn who had framed him for murder.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” not only proved to be very popular with critics, the film also earned four Golden Globe nominations and won one award – Best Film: Musical or Comedy. It also earned nine Academy Awards and won four. Not bad for a comedy about a mid-European concierge in the early 1930s. Did the movie deserved its accolades? In spades. It is the only other Wes Anderson movie I have ever developed a real love for. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. When I first heard about the movie, I did not want to see it. I did not even want to give it a chance. Thank God I did. The movie not only proved to be my favorite Anderson film, it also became one of my favorite 2014 flicks.

Is “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” perfect? For a while, I found myself hard pressed to think of anything about this movie that may have rubbed me the wrong way. I realized there was one thing with which I had a problem – namely the way this movie began. Was it really necessary to star the movie with a young girl staring at a statue of “the Author”, while holding his book? Was it really necessary to have “the Older Author” begin the movie’s narration, before he is replaced by his younger self and the older Zero Moustafa? I realized what Anderson was trying to say. He wanted to convey to movie audiences that M. Gustave and Zero’s story will continue on through the Author’s book and they will never be forgotten. But I cannot help but wonder if Anderson could have conveyed his message without this gimmicky prologue.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” may not be perfect. But I would certainly never describe it as a mediocre or even moderately good film. This movie deserved the Academy Award nominations and wins it earned . . . and many more. It was such a joy to watch it that not even its angst-filled moments could dampen my feelings. Anderson did a superb job of conveying his usual mixture of high comedy, pathos and quixotic touches in this film. Now, one might point out this is the director’s usual style, which makes it nothing new. I would agree, except . . . I believe that Anderson’s usual style perfectly blended with the movie’s 1930s Central European setting. For me, watching “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” seemed like watching an Ernst Lubitsch movie . . . only with profanity and a bit of sexual situations and nudity.

I have only watched a handful of Lubitsch’s movies and cannot recall any real violence or political situations featured in any of his plots. Wait . . . I take that back. His 1942 movie, “TO BE OR NOT TO BE” featured strong hints of violence, war and a touch of infidelity. However, I believe Anderson went a little further in his own depictions of war, violence and sex. But this did not harm the movie one bit. After all, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” was released in the early 21st century. Sex and violence is nothing new in today’s films . . . even in highly acclaimed ones. Despite the presence of both in the film, Anderson still managed to infuse a great deal of wit and style into his plot. This was especially apparent in two sequences – Zero’s initial description of M. Gustave and the Grand Budapest Hotel; and that marvelous sequence in which a fraternal order of Europe’s hotel concierges known as the Society of the Crossed Keys helped Gustave and Zero evade the police and find the one person who can who can clear Gustave’s name and help him retrieve his legacy from “Madame D”. I especially enjoyed the last sequence. In my eyes, Lubitsch could not have done it any better.

There were other aspects of “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” that enhanced its setting. First of all, I have to give kudos to Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock for their work on the movie. Stockhausen, who also served as the production designer for the Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, did a superb job of reflecting the movie’s two major time periods – Central Europe in the early 1930s and the late 1960s. Pinnock served as the film’s set decorator. Both Stockhausen and Pinnock shared the Academy Award for Best Production Design. Milena Canonero won an Oscar for the film’s costume designs. I have to admit that she deserved. I feel she deserved it, because she did an excellent job of creating costumes not only for the characters, but also their class positions and the movie’s settings. She did not simply resort to re-creating the fashion glamour of the 1930s for the sake of eye candy. Robert Yeoman’s photography for the movie really impressed me. I found it sharp and very atmospheric for the movie’s setting. I can see why he managed to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.

I was shocked when I learned that Ralph Fiennes failed to get an Academy Award nomination for his performance as M. Gustave. What on earth was the Academy thinking? I can think of at least two actor who were nominated for Best Actor for 2014, who could have been passed over. Gustave is Fiennes’ masterpiece, as far as I am concerned. I never realized he had such a spot-on talent for comedy. And although his Gustave is one of the funniest characters I have seen in recent years, I was also impressed by the touch of pathos he added to the role. Another actor, who I also believe deserved an Oscar nomination was Tony Revolori. Where on earth did Anderson find this kid? Oh yes . . . Southern California. Well . . . Revolori was also superb as the young Zero, who not only proved to be a very devoted employee and friend to M. Gustave, but also a very pragmatic young man. Like Fiennes, Revolori had both an excellent touch for both comedy and pathos. Also, both he and Fiennes proved to have great screen chemistry.

Revolori also shared a solid screen chemistry with actress Saoirse Ronan, who portrayed Zero’s lady love, pastry chef Agatha. Ronan’s charming performance made it perfectly clear why Zero and even M. Gustave found Agatha’s sharp-tongue pragmatism very alluring. Another charming performance came from Tilda Swinton, who portrayed one of Gustave’s elderly lovers. It seemed a shamed that Swinton’s appearance was short-lived. I found her portrayal of the wealthy, yet insecure and desperate Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis rather interesting. Adrien Brody gave an interesting performance as Dmitri Desgoffe und Taxis, Madame Villeneuve’s son. I have never seen Brody portray a villain before. But I must say that I was impressed by the way he effectively portrayed Dmitri as a privileged thug. Willem Dafoe was equally interesting as Dmitri’s cold-blooded assassin, J.G. Jopling. And Edward Norton struck me as both funny and scary as The movie also featured first-rate performances from Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban and especially Bill Murray as Monsieur Ivan, Gustave’s main contact with the Society of the Crossed Keys. The movie had three narrators – Tom Wilkinson as the Older Author, Jude Law as the Younger Author and F. Murray Abraham as the Older Zero. All three did great jobs, but I noticed that Wilkinson’s time as narrator was very short-lived.

What else can I say about “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”? It is one of the few movies in which its setting truly blended with Wes Anderson’s off-kilter humorous style. The movie not only benefited from great artistry from the crew and superb performances from a cast led by Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, but also from the creative pen and great direction from Wes Anderson. Now, I am inspired to try my luck with some of his other films again.