Identity

Identity (2003)

Dir. James Mangold

Written by: Michael Cooney

Starring: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John Hawkes

 

Identity has been quietly resting on my shelf for a decade, unwatched. It’s a disc that got mixed into my collection from a previous roommate at some point, and I have never had the urge to watch it. I saw Identity in the theater, with this same eventual roommate, no less, and I can remember both of us being wholly unimpressed with the movie, and with its prominent plot twist. In the years following up the success of The Sixth Sense and M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent couple of movies, it seemed like the game-changing plot twist was the flavor of the month for Hollywood studio thrillers, and I think that some fatigue from the overwhelmingness of the trend led to my total dismissal of Identity. I largely forgot about the movie until discovering it in a box of DVDs when I moved into the house that I’ve been living in for the last six years, and in the time between then and my decision to start this project, I only thought of Identity, cursorily, as a real-life version of “The Three,” Donald Kaufman’s asinine screenplay from Adaptation. in which all three principal characters are revealed to be the same person. Since starting this project, however, Identity has loomed large in the back of my mind as a movie that I was both anticipating and dreading screening and writing about. I fully anticipated Identity to be, at best, a generic and predictable thriller not worthy of the collected talent that it assembles, and, at worst, a derivative and implausible B-movie driven by a third act plot twist it doesn’t earn. Maybe it was the low bar that I had going in, but I was pleasantly surprised by Identity, and I found most of my remembrances of it from 15 years ago to be incorrect.

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Identity begins by introducing Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), an inmate set to be executed for several brutal murders. Rivers’s legal team and psychologist, Dr. Malick (Alfred Molina), file a midnight appeal for a stay of execution, arguing a legal defense of insanity citing new evidence that has come to light in the form of a diary. The midnight hearing is assembled during a tremendous storm, and begins without Malick, who is being transported from prison. At the same time, a group of ten strangers become stranded at a roadside motel, forced to bed down for the night due to the storm. They include a former cop, Ed (Cusack), who is now working as a limousine driver, a Nevada state trooper, Rhodes (Liotta), who is transporting a convicted murderer, a prostitute on her way to a new life in Florida, Paris (Peet), and the hotel’s manager, Larry (Hawkes). The group have come together in spectacularly coincidental fashion, which is shown in a flashback, involving a family getting a flat tire from striking a loose high heel that flew out of one of Paris’s suitcases. The mother, Alice (Leila Kenzle), is struck by Ed’s limousine when he is distracted by his passenger, the actress Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca de Mornay). Ed brings the injured woman to the motel in search of a working phone, and while he is trying to get help for her, the rest of the group assembles at the motel. As they realize they are stranded for the night and begin to bed down, a killer starts to pick them off one by one, leaving motel keys with the bodies, counting down from 10 to 1. The group begins a paranoid hunt for the killer, and the bodies continue to pile up in rapid fashion, while at the same time the survivors begin to discover more inexplicable coincidences, such as the fact that they all share a birthday. Meanwhile, as the competency hearing continues, and Rivers arrives, the extent of his multiple personality disorder is revealed, and it becomes apparent that the events at the motel are the representation of the psychic trauma of Rivers’s multiple identities being dragged to the surface and vying for primacy in his mind. Dr. Malick makes contact with the Ed personality and urges him to save Rivers’s life by eliminating the personality that drove him to commit the murders, and the action returns to the motel for the film’s climax.

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While Identity certainly owes a massive artistic debt to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, even going so far as to obliquely reference one of the novel’s many film adaptations, it still managed to feel relatively fresh to me. While the film’s revelation that all of the characters at the motel only exist inside of Rivers’s mind is a little bit predictable, Identity still managed to largely keep me interested and on my toes. The movie brings in the twist a little too early, but it leads up to it with a series of McGuffins and red herrings that I actually found to be pretty satisfying. It’s a movie that strives towards prestige, and though it doesn’t quite achieve the level of a top thriller, it’s a workmanlike effort that I found to be much more enjoyable than I ever would have imagined. Mangold turns the desert motel into a disorienting funhouse maze, utilizing canted angles, tight shot framings around corners and down narrow hallways between the buildings, and the persistent rain and gloom, to disrupt the audience’s sense of visual continuity of space. While the mystery isn’t particularly compelling after it’s revealed that the characters are all psychic projections, up to that point, the film’s visual style and a few well-timed surprise killings had me heavily invested in discovering the killer’s identity. I had the knowledge that Ed, Rhodes, Paris, and the others are all just manifestations of Rivers’s psyche tucked away in the back of my mind, but the taut editing and brisk storytelling of the first segment at the motel all but made me forget that the reveal was coming.

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The film’s cast, which is surprisingly stacked for a movie of this sort, also does a lot of heavy lifting in making Identity a more successful film than it otherwise might have been. I don’t think that either Cusack or Liotta, who are the leads of this deep ensemble, are particularly inspired in their performances. Both of them are as solid as they typically are, but neither really brings much new to the table, either. The supporting cast, however, comes on strongly, with Peet doing a nice job of maximizing her role as the film’s third lead. She’s steely and resilient, managing to give some depth to a character that is probably a bit underwritten. We don’t get many specific details about Paris’s back story, but Peet’s performance gives hints towards the type of life that she’s running from. John Hawkes, who I had completely forgotten was in the movie, is the real gem in the supporting cast, though. While his character seems at first to be relegated to a comic relief role, his story is fleshed out and given a surprisingly dark makeover halfway through the film, and the shift in how the audience perceives his character from that point is a testament to Hawks’s versatility as an actor. He goes from being agitated and put-upon to eluding a quiet menace after it’s revealed that he isn’t actually the hotel manager, but that he found the manager dead one day and assumed his responsibilities while hiding his body in the freezer. All the while, though, he imbues Larry with the sympathy-evoking beaten dog qualities that are so common in Hawkes’s characters. The strong assemblage of veteran character actors that round out the cast, and the A-list stars in the film, help lift it above genre material and convincingly sell a movie that might otherwise have collapsed under the weight of a less-than-novel structure and narrative contrivance.

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I was actually really satisfied that I found myself to be a bigger fan of Identity that I had expected. I’ve written before that I don’t particularly enjoy writing about movies that I don’t like and that I find it difficult to produce quality writing about films that I don’t think are of a very high quality. I was totally psyched up to write about how much I hated Identity, but, luckily, I was able to avoid that and instead write about what a pleasant surprise it was that this movie wasn’t total trash. Of course the movie has its faults. It really is fairly predictable, with its major twist being telegraphed from the beginning, but it packs in enough genuine surprises along the way that it makes up for the larger lack of mystery surrounding its central narrative. I don’t see myself returning to Identity anytime soon, and I wouldn’t really recommend that anyone go out of their way to see it, because it really is a pretty paint-by-numbers example of a thriller, but it’s a decent enough diversion. It’s the sort of movie that if I caught it on basic cable in another decade I would probably have forgotten about all over again, but I guess that could make the rediscovery that much more satisfying. There’s not anything being offered here that hasn’t been done before, and probably done better, as well, but the cast is solid and the atmospherics are actually quite well done. Identity isn’t the sort of twist movie that requires a lot of active thinking or reflection on the part of its audience, but it’s an entertaining enough ride if you want to turn your brain off for a while.

Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz (2007)

Dir. Edgar Wright

Written by: Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton

 

I can remember the anticipation surrounding the second installment in Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” (though I doubt it was referred to as such at the time) leading up to its release in the spring of 2007. The trilogy’s first entry, Shaun of the Dead had been a cult hit upon its release, and it had become a favorite of mine in the few years after its release. Of course my friends and I were eagerly awaiting the sequel, and Hot Fuzz definitely did not disappoint. The comedic team of Wright, Pegg, and Frost shift their sense of humor and aesthetic from the horror genre to the action blockbuster and they don’t miss a beat in the process. I don’t think I felt this way at the time, but I think that they managed to improve upon Shaun of the Dead in every way with Hot Fuzz. The film is bigger in every way, and Wright starts to really come into his own as a visual filmmaker as he attempts to ape the style of Michael Mann and Michael Bay. I love all three movies that make up this oddly-named trilogy, but Hot Fuzz has always been the standout for me. Despite that fact, it’s the entry in the trilogy that I had watched least recently, probably not having watched it since shortly after I purchased The World’s End. As always, it didn’t disappoint.

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In Hot Fuzz, hotshot cop Nicholas Angel (Pegg) finds himself transferred from the London police department to Sandford, a sleepy, rural town in the English countryside. Upon arrival, Angel has trouble adjusting to the slower pace and lack of crime in Sandford, as well as to his slovenly, unskilled partner, Danny (Frost). The town elders, however, including Danny’s father, Frank (Broadbent), who is the chief of police, and the local grocer, Simon Skinner (Dalton), hope to keep Sandford quiet and crime free to boost their image in the upcoming Village of the Year competition. When villagers start dying in a series of unlikely freak accidents, Angel begins an investigation that threatens to damage Sandford’s reputation and standing in the competition. He and Danny continue their inquest into the deaths, despite the protestations of the village elders, and discover a secret that Sandford has been keeping under wraps for generations.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to pick a favorite out of the three films that make up Wright, Pegg, and Frost’s feature film collaborations. All three films feature a perfect blend of cheeky parody and reverent homage to the genres that they’re working in. All three films feature perfect casting, with a collection of characters that are both outlandish and utterly relatable. And, finally, all three films use the shield of adherence to genre sensibilities as a Trojan Horse for a heartfelt story about the development of a relationship, whether it be romantic or platonic. Shaun of the Dead laid out the template for the Cornetto Trilogy, and established its creative brain trust to worldwide audiences. The World’s End felt like something of a victory lap, with the whole gang getting back together for one last romp through the familiar landscape that had been established in the first two films. Hot Fuzz, the second entry in the trilogy, stands head and shoulders above those two as the crystallization of the Cornetto aesthetic and as Wright’s ultimate parodic achievement. It broadens the scope of Shaun of the Dead while maintaining its independent feel, and stops short of pulling out all of the narrative stops that The World’s End is determined to barrel right through. It introduces a more complex story with better and more interesting supporting characters that Shaun of the Dead, and the blockbuster milieu in which the film operates gives Wright full license to start branching out and developing as a visual filmmaker.

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When I first saw Shaun of the Dead in 2005, it seemed like a perfect answer to the glut of studio comedies that had been clogging American theaters during the beginning of that decade. While I enjoyed, and still rather do enjoy, the comedic stylings of Judd Apatow, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, and Will Ferrell, I was quickly starting to age out of their more sophomoric movies, and discovering the offbeat humor of Pegg, Frost, and Wright felt like a breath of fresh air. That sense was only expanded upon when I saw Hot Fuzz, with the film packing in more memorable supporting roles for great British character actors, more reverent, humorous genre send ups, and more perfectly-timed asides and one-liners. Pegg playing against type as the uber-competent Nick Angel is a great wrinkle in Hot Fuzz that adds to its comedy quotient. Frost expands on his fairly dim everyman best friend character from Shaun of the Dead, ably providing both physical comedy and a broad foil for Pegg’s frustrated cop. The scenario that the three dreamed up for Hot Fuzz, involving a shadowy cabal of village elders who have been engaging in a decades-long covert war against petty crime in Sandford, is more involved and audacious than the simplistic narrative pleasures afforded by Shaun of the Dead. It’s a sublimely absurd conspiracy that’s played totally straight throughout the film, and the principal antagonists being a malicious group of Boomers dead set on maintaining their own standards of proper decorum rather than a gang or a drug cartel is a perfect send up that turns a foundational trope of the action genre on its head.

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November will have to be a month of shorter posts by necessity for me, so I won’t get too much more involved with Hot Fuzz. It’s a movie that I think most people should have seen by this point because, while it hasn’t necessarily gained the cult following of its predecessor, it was more widely successful upon its release than the other two entries in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. That success is well deserved and reflective of Hot Fuzz’s impact on a big screen. It deserves a spot in the canon of early 21st century comedies, but it is every bit as entertaining and valuable as a meta-action movie. Wright, Frost, and Pegg have created a love letter to the genre more compelling, more thoughtful, and more nuanced than any Expendables sequel could hope to be. Though I haven’t had a cable subscription in about five years, I wonder if Hot Fuzz has ascended to the once-vaunted status of TBS weekend afternoon movie. I’ve written before about the existence of these movies in the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was a pre-teen and teen, that aired on cable on the weekends and gained an iconic, populist-classic status, despite, or perhaps because of, their lack of prestige trappings. Popcorn fare like Point Break, Con Air, Bad Boys, movies that if they were on, I’d more than likely just stop and watch through until the end if I didn’t have anything else to do. I think that Hot Fuzz is a better movie than all of those, but it would be in perfect company among their ilk, because those are exactly the movies that Hot Fuzz is celebrating. It’s a perfect, fun, funny, movie that can be just as satisfying for a mid-afternoon partial watch as it is to dissect for a tenth time, picking up on clues to the film’s central mystery and sly jokes along the way.

Holy Motors

Holy Motors (2012)

Dir. Leos Carax

Written by: Leos Carax

Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob

 

I’ll never forget my initial attempts to see Holy Motors, a movie that I knew nothing about from a French filmmaker whom I’d never heard of, at the Three Rivers Film Festival in 2012. The film festival, organized by Pittsburgh Filmmakers every October, is an event that I look forward to as an opportunity to catch up on the year’s small indies, arthouse releases, and foreign films that didn’t find their way into wide distribution. I often go into these movies blind, choosing from the three dozen odd films based mostly on their paragraph-long blurbs on the Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ website, and this was certainly the case with Holy Motors. The promotional image chosen, of Edith Scob’s Celine donning an unsettling mask meant to be a direct homage to the French horror classic Eyes Without A Face, was enough to sell me on Holy Motors as the one movie that I absolutely had to see at the film festival that year. I tried twice to make that happen, and twice my screening had to be aborted due to projection issues. Each time, I got far enough into Leos Carax’s surrealist fairytale for it to fully sink its claws into me, and, each time, I was disappointed when I couldn’t experience the ending of this one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. I had to purchase Holy Motors on DVD a few months later when it was released just so I could see the movie in its entirety, and it is one of the most satisfying movie purchases that I’ve made in the last decade. Holy Motors is nothing short of a masterpiece of absurdity, with Carax proudly bearing the surrealist torch. It’s a unique movie experience, and one that might not be easily digested by many or most audiences, but it is, nonetheless, one of my favorite films of the 21st century.

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Holy Motors begins in a place of incoherence, with its opening scene featuring a character named “The Sleeper (Carax),” who rises from his slumber, approaches a hidden door in his bedroom wall (which resembles a forest), and opens it, stepping into a crowded cinema. The Sleeper looks down from the cinema’s balcony, where he stands alone, observing a small boy and a giant dog who prowl the aisles, as the film begins. We then meet Mr. Oscar (Lavant) who exits his home, a brutalist compound patrolled by armed guards, and is picked up in a stretch limousine driven by Céline (Scob). As the two drive away, Céline reminds Mr. Oscar of the number of appointments he has that day, and refers him to a dossier which contains the details thereof. When he arrives at his first appointment, Mr. Oscar emerges from the limousine wearing heavy prosthetics, dressed like a crone, and walking, stooped, with the assistance of a cane. On this assignment, he begs for a while, lamenting the status of the old beggar woman, forgotten and ignored by all who pass, and then returns to the limousine where he removes the false nose and teeth, preparing for his next assignment. In this assignment, Mr. Oscar accesses a high security facility, donning a motion-capture suit, and performs a seductive dance with an actress, which is revealed to be the basis of a computer animation that has turned them both into water dragons. The film continues in this way with Mr. Oscar going from assignment to assignment, assuming various roles and performing a series of vignettes, many of which are absurdist or surreal in nature. While the film continues to defy strict narrative continuity, a thematic coherence begins to emerge, with Mr. Oscar’s assignments standing for film genres and his job emerging as that of the actor and audience surrogate.

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I’ve written before about my love for movies about movies and movie-making, but Holy Motors is a tour de force of meta commentary and heady, involved film theory. This is a movie made for those who love to speculate about the role of art and media, and film, specifically, in the life of the individual and within society. It’s a veritable buffet of sumptuous imagery and provocative narrative posturing. Carax, who is importantly positioned as The Sleeper in the film’s first scene, seems to be casting his gaze across the spectrum of visual media and casting a judgment upon society’s use of film as a distraction and as a communication medium. It’s a movie that I didn’t completely understand when I first saw it, and one that I still don’t claim to have mastered. I could go to its deep well of philosophical import a hundred times and find myself drawing new insights. I think that this mystery is what made me want to go back after my initial screening cut the film off before its end, and then made me want to purchase the film after my second screening experience was botched, as well. I didn’t need to go back to Holy Motors to gain some sense of narrative completion, but rather to wash myself in its utter strangeness time and time again, and to see how Carax would tie all of these disparate, surrealist threads together in the end. I was less interested in figuring out the film’s story as I was in exploring its philosophical home base. Carax’s film opens itself up to a wide number of interpretations from a film theory standpoint. It’s just as easily read as a treatise on screen theory and the role of the spectator as it is an examination of film genres, or on post-modernism and the role of the traditional film in 21st century society, at all. As a critic, I love to wrap myself in the film’s layers and feel its all-encompassing content engulfing my brain.

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Holy Motors is an invigorating and rewarding deep dive for theory nerds, but it still retains the pleasures of watching a breezy, if sometimes inscrutable, piece of entertainment. While the film’s structure and loosely-plotted nature might turn off some casual viewers, I think that most people would find quite a bit to like about Holy Motors. For starters, Lavant puts in a great, understated performance. Though he doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue, he provides a blank template upon which the various “assignments” that Mr. Oscar acts out can exist, and those “assignments” leap into life on the screen. One early role, M. Merde, stands out as particularly memorable, with Lavant ditching the elegance of his choreographed motion capture lovemaking in favor of the animalistic, gestural M. Merde who arrives into the film as an agent of chaos. Clad in a shabby green suit, his skin and shockingly orange hair covered in filth and grime, M. Merde crawls out from a sewer, and shambles his way through a cemetery, where he feasts on graveside flowers and assaulting mourners before stumbling upon a fashion shoot. He crashes the photo shoot, kidnapping the model (Eva Mendes), and secrets her away to his subterranean lair where the two smoke cigarettes, and M. Merde eats various non-food substances, including money and the model’s hair. He then fashions her dress into a burqa and leads her deeper into the cave where he strips naked, climbing into her lap and reclining in a pose that is not dissimilar to Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” The scene is profane, perverse, and purposefully obfuscates meaning, but there is obviously some deep theological and artistic significance to this reference, and it is also absurdly comical in its trashy nature.

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Contrast this moment with one later in the film in which Mr. Oscar meets up with a former scene partner (and perhaps lover) on the way to one of his last assignments. In this scene, Lavant plays Mr. Oscar naturalistically, free of any of his previous affections. He has been aged up for the role, but otherwise isn’t heavily made up. He and Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue) reminisce about their work and time together as they leisurely explore an abandoned and crumbling hotel. The faded opulence surrounding the characters reflects the maudlin song that Eva Grace sings, the refrain of which, “Who were we when we were who we were back then?” in turn reflects the shifting nature of these characters’ identities. Who, indeed, were they when they were important to one another, and what weight does that importance really carry if they were only playing out roles. The camera largely follows Eva Grace with Mr. Oscar following behind her, somnambulant, reticent. It’s a far cry from the aggression and grotesquery with which Lavant played M. Merde. It’s fitting, though, and shows off his range well. Though little is made explicit about their relationship in the scene, the tenderness with which Mr. Oscar holds Eva Grace, and the devotion in his eyes when he watches her perform the song tell the tale well enough.  Minogue’s windswept performance is every bit as dramatic as something from a Hollywood musical, and the brief scene gives the film its heart, without ever delving into the details of the pair’s history. Carax is able to create a swell of feeling by manipulating a combination of these great subdued performances, Minogue’s expressive singing voice, a beautiful swell of well-timed strings, and a deeply evocative setting. It’s movie-making 101. Coming near the end of a film that has so wildly veered into experimental territory, this conventional scene surprisingly doesn’t feel out of place, but on the contrary provides the film with its emotional climax.

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Though its surrealist veneer and artsy trappings would likely prove difficult for many viewers to overcome, Holy Motors is the type of varied movie experience that anyone who likes movies should be able to draw some enjoyment from. It contains a handful of moments of high drama, a lot of absurdist comedy as well as sharp satire, and it borrows liberally from science fiction, horror, and action films. It’s a broad and multi-faceted piece of art that seeks to examine why people choose the distractions and the entertainments that they do, and whether film as an entertainment has the hold on the collective imagination in the 21st century that it did in the century before. In addition to being so rich with meaning for cineastes, the film is well-acted, visually sumptuous, and thematically engaging. While not every viewer might respond to the film’s metaphor of the cinema as an aging and dying art form, surely most can relate to Mr. Oscar’s concerns about his own obsolescence as he transitions into middle age, or to Céline’s obvious care and concern for Mr. Oscar, a man who she can never really know. If nothing else, its individual vignettes provide brief moments of engagement that, when taken separately, don’t add up to much, but prove that even the most esoteric of films is an entertainment, because the process of engaging with movies is fun. What makes Holy Motors successful is that even its most absurdist moments are grounded in a bedrock of strong realism, and that as convoluted as its structure and narrative might become, it continues to draw inspiration from the familiar tropes of genre films. It’s a reach for me to say that Holy Motors is accessible, because it really isn’t, but it’s so richly rewarding that I just want more people to see it. It’s the type of movie that reminds me why I fell in love with movies to begin with. It’s a big, all-encompassing, genre-bending work of art, and I want it to get as much admiration as possible.

High Plains Drifter

High Plains Drifter (1973)

Dir. Clint Eastwood

Written by: Ernest Tidyman

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Billy Curtis, Geoffrey Lewis

 

I was introduced to High Plains Drifter when it was described to me by a professor in film school as “the movie in which Clint Eastwood paints a town red and calls it Hell.” While this curt description leaves out some of the nuance of the plot, it is, at its essence, what the film is about. Though we didn’t screen High Plains Drifter in the Film Westerns class during which it was first mentioned to me, the attitude of that particular professor did a great deal to help form my own viewpoints on movies, and watching this particular film always reminds me of him. Prof. Best was as likely to recommend a Kaiju movie as he was Kurosawa, and was more interested in comics than he was in literary classics. His open-minded approach to movies and to art helped to open up my own thinking on what could or should be considered valid as a subject of academic study. If Prof. Best could champion Star Trek, Godzilla, and anime, then why shouldn’t I seek to explore the artistry in whatever text I might see fit. Breaking out of the ivory tower mentality of academia was freeing, but it was also a development that likely pushed me away from continuing to pursue my education beyond my undergraduate studies. When I entered into a graduate program at Pitt, I found that the canonization and attention to classical theory completely turned me off, and I longed for the freedom that I had found studying under Prof. Best. I’m always reminded of him when I watch High Plains Drifter, not just because he was the person who first introduced me to it, but also because it is typical of the type of B-movie that he would have found artistically valid and criminally under-considered.

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High Plains Drifter opens with a lone stranger (Eastwood) riding into the mining town of Lago. Upon his arrival, The Stranger is warned by the town’s saloon keeper that range types such as himself don’t often stop in Lago, finding the town to move too quickly for them. He insinuates that The Stranger ought to keep moving, and a trio of rough types in the saloon follow him across the street to the town barber shop, where they menace The Stranger. He takes the three by surprise, spinning out of the barber’s chair with his pistol drawn, and quickly dispatches of the trio. After having witnessed his lethal capacity, the town’s sheriff offers The Stranger the job previously held by the three roughriders that he killed, defending Lago from Stacy Bridges (Lewis) and his gang of outlaws who previously menaced the town and who are soon set to be released from prison. The Stranger learns that the town’s previous marshal was whipped to death in the street by the Bridges gang, and he is plagued by dreams of the marshal’s torture. The Stranger reluctantly accepts the job of defending the town, with the caveat that if he protects the town that the townsfolk must give him anything he wants. He takes full advantage, buying rounds for the whole bar at the saloon, loading up on supplies at the town store, and appointing Mordecai (Curtis), a dwarf, to the position of sheriff and mayor of Lago. The Stranger begins to devise a plan and instruct the townsfolk on how to defend themselves from Bridges’s gang. The Stranger’s plan involves painting the town red and staging a welcoming party for the gang, during which the townsfolk will ambush them. However, when Bridges and his outlaws are about to arrive in Lago, The Stranger rides off, leaving the townsfolk to fend for themselves, and the gang overruns the town and begins to burn it down. The Stranger returns to the town, emerging from the flames, to stalk and murder the Bridges gang. The next day, The Stranger rides out of town as Mordecai is engraving the previously unmarked grave of the murdered marshal.

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That plot summary of High Plains Drifter is a bit more involved than the one-sentence summary that had first piqued my curiosity about the movie, but its essence can really be boiled down into the fact that it is a movie in which Clint Eastwood paints a town red and calls it “Hell.” When I eventually got around to seeing the movie sometime in my early 20s, I found the pervasive strangeness and otherworldly tone of that abstract but powerfully evocative summary informed the film completely. High Plains Drifter seems equally influenced by Eastwood’s directorial mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, and by Italian horror masters Dario Argento and Mario Bava. The film initially seems to hew close to the blueprint that Leone and Eastwood had established in the “Dollars” trilogy, but it quickly adopts a rather unsettling tone and it contains supernatural elements that are rare in the Western genre. It contains a level of violence, gore, and nihilism that would have been thought unseemly for the All-American film genre just five years prior. This is a revisionist Western, through and through, and it establishes Eastwood as a director who would continue to be interested in exploring and shifting the boundaries of the Western genre. Though it’s a bit of an uneven effort, High Plains Drifter is only Eastwood’s second feature in the director’s chair, and it deserves special commendation as a wholly unique vision of the West and of the Western film.

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High Plains Drifter isn’t a great movie; in fact, I think many people would say that it isn’t even a very good movie. It doesn’t really feature any standout performances, as Eastwood is essentially reprising his Man With No Name role, and the rest of the cast suffers from sorely lacking character development. These are stock Western characters, meant more to stand in for types than to differentiate themselves from one another. The movie’s production value is also fairly low, although its sets are decently impressive, featuring full buildings rather than false fronts, which gives the town of Lago some sense of depth. Rewatching High Plains Drifter, I was struck by the sense that some of the scenes weren’t finished, featuring abrupt endings, seeming extraneous to the plot, or just not quite matching up with the tone of the rest of the film. However, I still find this to be an incredibly enjoyable viewing experience. While it isn’t perfect, High Plains Drifter nails the right balance of pulp, action, and horror, even peppering in moments of levity. It’s schlocky and campy, but I’ve always found something intriguing about Eastwood’s injection of the supernatural into a Western revenge story. It’s a fresh take on the Western and one that I’m pretty happy to explore whenever the mood strikes me. For a movie that was introduced to me in such an inauspicious way, it’s one that has become a go-to Western, despite its obvious flaws.

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I don’t know if High Plains Drifter is underseen, or if I just don’t know that many people who like Westerns, generally, but I think that it’s a really fun movie that deserves a little more attention. It isn’t as iconic or groundbreaking as Eastwood’s work with Leone in the 1960s, or as paradigm shifting as something like The Wild Bunch, but it continues the revisionist ideas of the West that those films started to explore. It’s a refutation of the idyllic vision of American society in the Old West, and despite its supernatural overtones, it’s a position that rings true to me as a viewer. Watching this movie and High Noon in succession for this project, I was struck by the honesty that the townsfolk of Lago who would stand by and watch their Marshal whipped to death in the street are a natural extension of the cowardly townsfolk of Hadleyville who abandoned Marshal Kane, leaving him to face his fate alone. The major difference is that in a classic Western such as High Noon, the basic decency and virtue of the hero is assumed, whereas in Eastwood’s savage vision of the West, decency has been stripped away in favor of vengeance. I think it’s also interesting that both of these films drew the ire of none other than John Wayne, who posited that they both misrepresented the good, honest people of the Old West. I don’t bring that up to paint Eastwood as some sort of progressive in contrast to the virulent, reactionary Wayne. I think that Eastwood is presenting the same sort of paranoid, cut-throat world view that was on display in Dirty Harry, but something about the transposition to the Western setting makes it easier for me to stomach as a viewer in 2018. There are a couple of other Eastwood films that I’ll be writing about for this project, and I’m sure that my relationship and consideration of him as an actor, star persona, and director won’t get any less complicated, but I think that High Plains Drifter is a movie of his that I can pretty wholeheartedly endorse. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a really fun Western that inverts many conventions and traditions of the genre, and it offers enough stylistic variance to please fans of other genres, as well.

High Noon

High Noon (1952)

Dir. Fred Zinnemann

Written by: Carl Foreman (from the magazine story by John W. Cunningham)

Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Lloyd Bridges

 

It’s a bit surprising to me how few Westerns I’ve written about so far in this project. There will certainly be more upcoming, but, for a favorite style of mine, the Western genre is somewhat underrepresented in my collection. High Noon is one of the most classic examples of the golden age of Hollywood Westerns, and it stands out in contrast to the later Westerns of Sergio Leone that I’ve already written about, and even to the contemporary output of Western auteur John Ford. High Noon is something of a morality tale, and an allegory for the HUAC hearings led by Joseph McCarthy, with the film using the quintessential American film genre to subvert conventionally understood “American values” of the time. It’s one of the most important movies of its time, both for its content and message, and for its unique presentation of a story unfolding in real time. Watching it for this project, however, I was left wondering how a movie like High Noon might connect with modern first-time viewers.

High Noon takes place in the span of a couple of hours on the morning that Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) is married to his new bride, Amy (Kelly), and is preparing to leave the town of Hadleyville for a new life on the frontier as a storekeeper. However, that afternoon brings the news that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a murderer whom Kane had jailed, has been released and is set to arrive in Hadleyville on the high noon train with a score to settle. The town elders, along with Amy, a Quaker pacifist, urge Marshal Kane to flee the town and Miller’s gang, but he finds himself duty-bound to protect his town until the new Marshal arrives. In the short amount of time that he has left until Miller’s train arrives, Kane tries to round up a posse of deputies to head off the gang, but one by one, the townsfolk turn their backs on him, including his deputy, Harvey Pell (Bridges), and his new bride. When high noon comes around, Kane is left alone to defend the town he swore to protect, despite their unwillingness to fight alongside him.

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Taken on its own merits, High Noon is a pretty great Western. It features Gary Cooper in a signature performance, one that would codify the trope of the stern, virtuous lawman. The cinematography is beautiful black and white, and it captures the essence of the stock frontier town perfectly. In fact, I think when most people picture a town’s main street from a Western movie, it’s the main street of Hadleyville that they envision, complete with Marshal Kane striding across the boardwalk towards his fateful confrontation. The film’s theme, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” is featured throughout the film, echoing its plot points, and kicking off a trend of Western films featuring country theme songs. The film builds suspense throughout, delaying the gratification of its central conflict until the final few minutes, but constantly teasing its villain’s arrival through the highlighting of clocks and other markers of the passing of time. This device of a film playing out in (almost) real time must have seemed incredibly novel at the time, as the audience is put into the same mindset as Kane, counting down the minutes and seconds until Miller arrives, bringing with him vengeance and destruction. In short, High Noon is one of the most influential and innovative Westerns of its time period. Though there are a handful of other 1950s Westerns that could stake claim to this title, it’s not hyperbole to mark High Noon as the archetype of the classic Hollywood Western film.

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Digging below the surface of the film’s production, and exploring its historical context, one in which cowboys became culture warriors, reveals a deeper level of significance and importance to High Noon. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, a one-time member of the Communist party, had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and had refused to implicate others, resulting in his blacklisting from Hollywood. The incident resulted in the dissolution of his partnership with Hollywood mogul Stanley Kramer, and in Foreman’s eventual expatriation to Britain along with a handful of other blacklisted screenwriters and directors. Though High Noon was currently in production when Foreman was called to testify before the HUAC, it isn’t difficult to read between the film’s lines and see it as a critique of the Red Scare, generally. Like those accused of Communist sympathies and associations in McCarthy’s witch hunt, Kane is abandoned and disowned by longtime friends and family. Though she returns to his side in the end and plays a pivotal role in Kane’s defeat of Miller’s gang, even Amy abandons her husband. Kane is forced, largely, to stand on his own, defending his values and principles in the face of unpopular public opinion. The film’s political allegory was publicly acknowledged at the time, and John Wayne famously turned down the role of Marshal Kane because he thought that the film was un-patriotic, later publicly relishing his role in chasing Foreman from the industry. In films like High Noon and Wayne’s response film, Rio Bravo, the frontier provided a historical context for a debate over modern American ideology.

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High Noon shows further progressive leanings in its treatment of the character of Helen Ramirez (Jurado). Helen is the only Hispanic character in the film, and, though it isn’t made explicit, she is clearly a prostitute. Despite this, she is granted a position of great importance in the film’s narrative, and also within the hierarchy of the town. Helen has been romantically involved in the past with both Frank Miller and Marshal Kane, and when High Noon starts, she is with Deputy Pell, however her promiscuity isn’t judged by the film or the characters in it. She’s a source of wisdom and strength within the community, and she’s respected as a businesswoman by the town’s elders. When contrasted with Kane’s wife, Amy, Helen is shown to be more loyal and pragmatic, reminding Amy that if Kane were still her man that she would stand by his side. By choosing her battles, Helen remains above the fray, and, from this vantage point, she seems to have the best perspective on the town’s conflict. I’m not exactly sure what to take away from High Noon’s treatment of its only ethnic minority character, but I think that it’s an honest and unusual characterization for the time, and I appreciate that the filmmakers made it a point to include a character this complex in a film that is otherwise fairly straightforward.high noon 8

It was nice to have an excuse to go back and rewatch High Noon, because it had been at least a decade since the last time I really watched it all the way through, and I doubt that the urge to pull it off the shelf would have otherwise presented itself anytime soon. For Western fans, I think that the movie is still pretty enjoyable, but I imagine that many other audiences might have a bit of trouble getting into it. Although it’s briskly paced, clocking in under 90 minutes, there is little action to speak of. I think that most modern audiences might find the film’s central conflict to be boring, rather than fraught with tension, and that the subtext of the Hollywood blacklist might be less interesting to viewers not already invested in film history. Still, though, it’s difficult to underestimate the importance of a film like High Noon at the time it was released. It introduced progressive ideologies into what was, to that point, a fairly reactionary and conservative film genre. High Noon also transformed film style and introduced a radical new storytelling device by letting its story unfold in real time. However, I think that these stylistic innovations would probably be lost on most modern audiences because we’re so far removed from the film’s initial release. I enjoy High Noon, and I was glad to have the opportunity to watch it again, but it will probably be another ten years before I decide to revisit it. It’s a great movie, and deserving of the praise that it’s received throughout the years, but there are other Westerns of this period that I just enjoy a bit more.

High Fidelity

High Fidelity (2000)

Dir. Stephen Frears

Written by: D.V. DiVencintis, Steve Pink, John Cusack, Scott Rosenberg (From the novel by Nick Hornby)

Starring: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Lisa Bonet

 

“Which came first, the music or the misery?” This maudlin bit of dialogue opens High Fidelity, and it came to be something of a mantra for me in my teen years. I imagine that there were quite a few young, nerdy, socially maladjusted misanthropes who took Rob Gordon’s words and neuroses to heart after seeing High Fidelity. It seemed like the perfect movie for me at 15 or 16 years old, justifying my obsessive interest in music, movies, and pop culture ephemera. Though Rob is certainly meant to be seen as a shallow, narcissistic protagonist, one who can even identify those qualities in himself, I consistently misread the film’s message as a young person. By my late teens, I think that I started to understand the film’s third act, in which Rob starts to accept some responsibility for his own shortcomings and becomes a better person and partner, but I still saw more of myself in the Rob of the early film, who is so wrapped up in the minutiae of collectorship and curation that he fails to fully form a personality for himself. Watching High Fidelity in my thirties is almost cringe-worthy, as it reminds me of my early attempts at romance, of the person who I was nearly twenty years ago, but it’s also a powerfully nostalgic trip that does provide some wistful smiles and laughs.

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The movie opens with Rob Gordon (Cusack), fresh on the heels of a break up with Laura (Hjejle), trying to take stock of his life and his failed relationships. On the cusp of middle age, Rob is more grown child than man, defining his personality and interpersonal relationships through his encyclopedic knowledge of music and pop culture. Rob has parlayed this knowledge into a job running his own record store, Championship Vinyl, where he spends his days trying to impress customers and one-up his fellow music-nerd employees, Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black). Rob’s self-examination takes the form of an exhumation of his loves and losses, Top Five style, as is his wont throughout the film. We see Rob grow from an immature, elitist, young hipster, into an immature, cynical, older hipster and along the way meet some of the women who he blames for turning him into the self-loathing, but still self-obsessed, ball of neuroses and music trivia that he is. Eventually, Rob’s soul searching brings him back to Laura, and the two reconcile as she tries to rekindle not only the spark in their relationship but in Rob’s personal life, as well. High Fidelity finishes up with a conventionally happy ending, but its always struck me as fraught with uncertainty, much like the ending of The Graduate.

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I’m probably being unfair to Rob as a protagonist, but that’s only because I can sometimes see so much of my younger self in his character. As I mentioned, High Fidelity was an early touchstone for myself, and I embraced its esoteric hipster-dom. It was the movie that made me feel ok to be as wrapped up in music and movies as I was as a 15-year-old kid, but I think that it also gave me a pass to become too maudlin and too self-involved for a while in that period of my life. There’s only so long that you can substitute depression, teenage alcoholism, and a record or movie collection for an actual personality. Rob is a prick when we meet him, a prick in his own remembrances, and he remains at least a bit of a prick until the movie’s end, when he does manage to, at least partially, redeem himself by embracing a more healthy, positive outlook on life. I think that I stopped watching High Fidelity almost entirely after my high school years simply because it was too difficult to stomach Rob’s elitism and moping. His attitude reminded me of a phase of development I was desperately trying, and often failing, to grow out of. Ironically, if anything, I probably became more of an ivory tower elitist in college than I had been in high school, although I couldn’t see that particular forest for the trees of academia that were surrounding me.

But still, uneasy self-revelations aside, I found a lot to enjoy about High Fidelity watching it for the first time in at least a dozen years. While Rob might not be an easy guy to root for or sympathize with, High Fidelity is an easy movie to settle into and enjoy. It’s light and funny, it has a fittingly great soundtrack, and the grand gestures of love depicted in the movie seem perfect to its target audiences of young people and hopelessly romantics. I’ve never been a big fan of traditional romantic comedies, but High Fidelity injects enough pessimism and cynicism into its saccharine core that it avoids turning my stomach. The movie walks the line between loathing and loving, and it depicts the balance between the two sentiments as existing within all of Rob’s relationships, including the one that he has with himself. That seems like a much more honest depiction of love to me than most romantic comedies of the early 2000s were peddling. By the film’s end, Rob and Laura are in love again, and, while it’s not difficult to envision a future where they really do share a fairytale happy ending, it’s more likely that their relationship will continue to be defined by the careful balance of their very different, but complimentary, personality types. Throughout the film, Rob’s relationship with Laura was shown as having elements of humor, affection, contention, and understanding, depths that clearly aren’t represented in any of the previous relationships that he posthumously examines for clues as to his failings. That depth is what builds a strong and lasting relationship. I like that High Fidelity depicts this sort of relationship as a continuous work in progress. It feels genuine and affirmational, especially when that work leads to an ecstatic moment such as the one depicted in the film’s musical finale where Rob proposes to Laura. It’s a really good scene and it feels like a great payoff for the cast of characters who have all grown in some way.

high fidelity 8I’d also kind of forgotten what a pleasure the supporting cast of High Fidelity is to watch. Jack Black’s performance in the movie always sticks out in my head, and certain line deliveries of his tend to pop up in conversation for me still, but I had forgotten how much of his humor is drawn from the perfect interplay between his character, Barry, and Todd Louiso’s Dick. The two actors are perfectly paired, with Louiso embodying the introverted, nerdy stereotype of the record obsessive, while Black’s Barry is the brash, know-it-all music nerd. I’ve known several people who fit into both sides of this stereotype, and the actors chosen are perfect for their roles. Louiso lurks quietly in the background of scenes, mumbling lines both pithy and sincere, and, seemingly in compensation, Black’s mania is ratcheted up to 11, with the actor dancing and bouncing through the record store, while bursting into gleeful song. Both characters are genuine and fun, and it’s a pleasure to watch them grow a little bit throughout the movie, with Dick finally getting a date with his crush and Barry finally getting to sing in a band, by the film’s end.

On a similar note, Lisa Bonet deserves acclaim for her role as Marie de Salle, a musician whom Rob develops a crush on while he and Laura have split up. Bonet also feels genuine, tapping into her sensuality and performative streak when Marie is on stage, but revealing a natural, fun side to the character when she’s off it. Marie feels real in a way that none of Rob’s previous girlfriends have, and I attribute much of that to the inherent warmth in Bonet’s performance. She exudes coolness, but also caring, seeming to develop a real connection with Rob in just a short period of time. She also nails her performance scenes, and the cover of Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way,” still sticks in my head sometimes. Overall, I think that High Fidelity shortchanges most of its female characters because they’re being imagined through the prism of Rob’s post-breakup mindset, but Marie de Salle is allowed to exist fully on her own terms as a character, and Bonet brings that character to life vibrantly.

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I found this rewatch of High Fidelity to be something of a mixed bag, which is a fairly common theme among the movies in this project. Sometimes art that we love when we’re young doesn’t age so well, but High Fidelity is largely as I remember it, for better and for worse. I suppose that it’s fitting for me to have such a nostalgic affection for a movie that is so obviously steeped in nostalgia already. The laughs and the funny characters are just as I remember them from so long ago, but part of those characters being just as I remember them means that I’ve also largely outgrown them. A movie that I used to strongly identify with has become one that I merely enjoy, and even then I doubt that High Fidelity is a movie that I’ll be pulling off the shelf again any time soon. When it’s good it’s really good, and it still brings a big smile to my face, but the movie also feels incredibly dated, not just in its content but in its style, as well. High Fidelity has more in common with studio romantic comedies from earlier than it does with newer, more interesting movies like Her. This isn’t a terrible thing, because High Fidelity largely delivers on the promises of its genre, and, as I mentioned, I think it presents a realistic and relatable portrayal of romance, but it does mean that the movie was far less influential than I probably felt like it was, or should be, when I was 15 years old. That’s probably a good thing, though.

Her

Her (2013)

Dir. Spike Jonze

Written by: Spike Jonze

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara

 

Her is one of the most recent movies in my collection, and it’s one of the very last movies that I ever purchased on home video. By the time Her came out on DVD in May of 2014, I was already primarily consuming all of my media through streaming services. My DVD collection had seldom grown in the past couple of years, but I was compelled to add this particular movie to my collection. Despite knowing that with the breadth of streaming services and premium channels available to me, I could likely dial up a popular, recent movie like Her at any time, I needed to own it. Such was the impact that this movie had on me when I saw it in the theater in early 2014, after having just experienced a recent minor heart break. I clung to the movie after that first viewing, declaring it one of my favorites of 2013, a year in which I made it a point to see a great many of the critically-acclaimed films. In the weeks after seeing Her, I played over small moments from the film in my head, comparing them to my own experience of loss. Admittedly, nearly five years later, watching the movie again I realize how short-sightedly maudlin my initial appreciation of it might have been, but I still find Her to be a richly evocative movie that plumbs emotional depths and treats the audience to a sumptuous imagining of a tech-driven near future. Spike Jonze crafts a heartbreakingly beautiful love story in his first solo script, and he further explores the nuances of modern love that he explored in his early collaborations with Charlie Kaufman. It’s a lovely movie that I’m glad to have fallen in love with, even if it was for the wrong reasons.

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The titular Her is Samantha (Johansson), an operating system on a tablet with whom introverted, romantic, lonely poet Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) falls in love. Theodore lives in Los Angeles, sometime in the not-too-distant future, in a world in which people have become even more enamored with their PDAs and other screened devices. Theodore is adrift in this impersonal world, still reeling from the dissolution of his marriage over a year ago, working a dispiriting job in which he pens happy couples’ love letters for them. He has alienated his few friends, including his close friend, Amy (Adams), preferring to spend his evenings alone with his personal assistant and his video games. That all changes, however, when Theodore’s, and everyone else’s, computers are updated to feature a new artificial intelligence-based operating system that will function as a personalized virtual assistant and colleague. Theodore’s OS names herself Samantha, and, within a matter of weeks, the two have sprouted up first, a friendship, and then, an uneasy romance. Though it lacks the physicality of a traditional romantic relationship, the bond that Theodore and Samantha form is emotional and real, and the affections that the two share for one another are, too. Samantha is the coolly unattainable, but imminently approachable woman who Theodore desires, and Theodore provides a human outlet for Samantha to begin to experience the world. Inevitably, though, Samantha, with her computer brain’s limitless ability to expand and process experience and information, begins to outgrow Theodore. He is left devastated, trying to pick up the pieces of a relationship that, on the surface, seemed so immaterial.

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The premise of Her would be laughable if we weren’t in a pervasively digital era, in which people are free to meet and bond online, sharing mutual interests and experiences. In the age of online dating, long distance relationships, and catfishing, meeting someone on the Internet and allowing a friendship or romantic relationship to bloom has become extremely commonplace. Jonze simply takes this idea and stretches it to its most extreme iteration, essentially crafting a love story in which a man falls in love with a personification of the Internet itself. It’s conceptually daring and high-minded, to be sure, but at its root, Her is a fairly conventional love story. Theodore and Samantha form an unlikely pair, but the stages of their courtship would be familiar to anyone who has ever fallen in love, and the ups and downs of their relationship are blissfully and painfully real. Jonze is careful to depict their love as being rooted in deep and true emotions, rather than some tech fetish, as he allows the audience to contrast Theodore and Samantha’s relationship with Theodore’s unsuccessful attempts at connecting with real humans through virtual means. Their relationship is certainly untraditional, but it seems almost quaint in its simplicity and earnestness, and in the unabashed love that the two exhibit for one another.

This central relationship wouldn’t ring as true, though, without the stellar performances of Phoenix and Johansson. I don’t know that I had really recognized Johansson for the great actress that she’s become until I saw Her. I had often enjoyed her performances in movies that I’d seen her in, but her performance as the disembodied voice of Samantha elevated her status as an actor in my mind. Through a purely vocal performance, Johansson is able to fully flesh out Samantha’s character and personality. Her vocal inflections and expert timing lend a layer of humanity to the OS that feels slightly unnatural, at first, but then becomes unmistakably warm and inviting. She gives Samantha sass, feeling, and depth. Her performance is memorable, and it made me realize just how unmistakable her voice is. She plays Samantha as coy and playful, but also vulnerable, searching for meaning and identity. Jonze’s excellent script helps to provide Samantha with some of her layers, but its Johansson’s performance that truly brings the character to life and turns her into a relatable, sympathetic presence.

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Theodore is a somewhat thornier character, not entirely sympathetic, but played to excellent pathos by Phoenix. I’ve long felt that Phoenix was a great artist, and I think that in time he’ll be recognized as one of the best actors of his generation. He is able to shift seamlessly from character to character, channeling different facets of the human experience for each role. The change up in demeanor that he shows from a signature performance in The Master, released just a year before Her, is indicative of the range that he possesses as an actor. Gone are the outbursts and the primal, animalistic rage that he displays in the latter film, replaced here with a gentleness and a reticence previously unforeseen. There’s a bit of the everyman in Theodore, but his social development is stunted just slightly from the trauma of his failed marriage, and Phoenix displays this interiority subtly and masterfully. Though he spends much of the film closed off, watching Phoenix unfurl his easy smile as Theodore’s world begins to open up through his relationship with Samantha is one of the film’s small pleasures. Once his walls begin to come down, Phoenix plays Theodore with a weightless, if nerdy, charm. Theodore is a somewhat unlikable character, prone to self-defeat and neurosis, but it’s hard not to be won over by Phoenix’s nuanced performance.

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Jonze creates a sumptuous visual world for his characters to inhabit. The Los Angeles that he imagines is familiar, maybe a decade or two advanced beyond our world, but filled with just enough technological advances and novelties to give it a sense of whimsy and wonder, placing the film squarely in the realm of speculative fiction. Technology in Her is pervasive but never insistent. Jonze uses screens and virtual reality to give us a glimpse of life in his near-future, but they are merely the window dressing on the human love story that he wants to tell. Technology exists all around, and as such, its presence doesn’t hamper Jonze’s desire to explore a breezy, sun-splashed world. The exteriors of Her are bathed in warm light, and Jonze uses a summery color palette full of warm hues that reflect the film’s inherent romanticism. A love story between a man and an operating system could certainly be an interiorly-focused film, and one without many humanistic touches, but Jonze’s direction and mise-en-scene breathe warm life into Her. Much like in his work with frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman, Jonze’s visual work provides a grounding and inviting element to a script that could otherwise become esoteric and inaccessible.

Her is a movie that still feels incredibly real and raw when I watch it. I’ve watched and rewatched it a half dozen times in the last few years, and though I’ve grown past the disappointment that I was feeling from a rejection on my initial viewing, it’s a movie that manages to make me feel emotions that few others can. A beautiful relationship, whether it be romantic or platonic, should be about growth and learning, and supporting a partner as they grow and learn, too. The only thing constant in life is change, and as humans we are always changing and growing through experiential learning. In Samantha’s awakening, Her depicts exactly the sort of growth that we should all hope for our partners, but it also accurately depicts the pain that can be caused when one half of a partnership outgrows the other, or grows in new and different directions. Love can be scary, and it can be beautiful, and it can feel immensely overpowering, opening up new experiences and ways of being, and I think that Her captures all of that perfectly. It’s a movie that calls into question what it means to feel, what it means to be human, and it finds the core of humanity in the desire and ability to connect. That connection can be physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual, or, at times, all of the above, as we see in Her through Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. It’s an earnest and honest movie, one that isn’t afraid to wallow in the depths of sadness and explore the dizzying heights of euphoric love, and it’s a movie that I likely won’t ever tire of returning to when I’m looking to feel affirmed of my own humanity.

Heart of Glass

Heart of Glass (1976)

Dir. Werner Herzog

Written by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Josef Bierbichler, Stefan Güttler, Sonja Skiba

 

Heart of Glass is the fourth Werner Herzog-directed film that I’ve written about for this project, and it’s one of the ones included in the Herzog box set that I own that I actually hadn’t watched before. As is typical with my first experience with a Herzog film, I was left with a curiosity, a sense of wonder, and a desire to watch the movie again almost immediately. The film isn’t likely a great introduction to the work of Herzog, but it is typically Herzog-ian in its themes, its presentation, and its formal and narrative strangeness. The film is somewhat famous as one in which Herzog hypnotized nearly his entire cast, and had them perform their scenes while in a trance state, but, to my knowledge, it’s not nearly as widely seen as many of his other films. I can see why the film’s somnambulant tone and pacing, plus its highly esoteric subject matter, might turn off casual viewers, but fans of Herzog shouldn’t miss this hidden gem. It seems to have missed out on classic status, but it provides a richly rewarding cinematic experience, and it’s a movie that I will certainly be thinking about for many days to come.

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Heart of Glass is set in a pre-industrial Bavarian village, whose citizens’ livelihood depends on the highly valued “Ruby glass” that is produced in their factory. At the film’s outset, it is discovered that the foreman of the factory has passed away without bestowing on any of the villagers the secret of making the beautiful rose-colored glass. The factory’s owner (Güttler) tries in vain to find someone in the village who can recreate the Ruby glass, but as it becomes more and more apparent that there is no replacement for the deceased foreman, the villagers become increasingly depressed and erratic. All the while, the village’s seer, Hias (Bierbichler) is prophesying doom and destruction, perhaps not only for this village and its people, but for all mankind.

This is an exceedingly simple plot synopsis, but aside from a few highly impressionistic passages, and a visual coda at the film’s end that could serve as a sort of allegory for the preceding narrative, it’s accurate. Heart of Glass is a simple film, but it’s certainly not direct, and, as always, the real value of a story lies in the telling. Though it isn’t as decidedly abstract as Fata Morgana, this film finds Herzog operating a similar mode, privileging feeling and mood over narrative clarity. Though I think that the events of the film are meant to be taken at face value, they also operate just as well on an allegorical level. The fate of the villagers can stand in for the fate of humanity over the ensuing centuries, as humans’ worth became more and more closely tied to their ability to produce goods through heavy industry. Hias’s visions are specific to the village, its inhabitants, and its treasured factory, but his dark proclamations seem to ring with resonance for the modern world, as well. The hypnotized actors are stand-ins for modern workers, and the secret of the glass is the only thing that gives their labor some small purpose. Without that drive and purpose, the villagers have lost all will to live. This fable breaks down a very modern conundrum to its core essences, and presents many of the problems of a modern industrial society with such shocking frankness that they’re rendered almost unrecognizable.

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At the heart of the film’s inherent strangeness are the haunting, affected performances of the hypnotized actors. Through the hypnosis, Herzog gets pure performances, stripped of any artifice or emotionality. It’s a daring directorial choice, and it leads to some highly uncomfortable moments throughout the film, but it also leads to a uniformity of performance and mood throughout the film that is enveloping. The actors register less as characters, or even as people, than as types, vessels through which Herzog can articulate his philosophies on the nature of man and work and life. Some directors would seek to explore these themes emotionally, through heightened character/audience identification, but Herzog breaks in the other direction, seeking to get to philosophical truth through a stripping away of comfort and identification, and the extreme use of cinematic devices aimed towards a particular sort of distancing effect. I’m sure that the style isn’t for everyone, and this performance decision might be why Heart of Glass is less seen than other Herzog films of the period, but, for me, the dreamlike acting style was perfect. I won’t forget the hollow eyes and disimpassioned line delivery of these actors any time soon.

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Despite being a rather pessimistic and dour film, Heart of Glass contains several moments of absolute sublime beauty. As in Fata Morgana, Herzog captures scenes of immense natural beauty, and, in so doing, creates a deep sense of awe and wonder, and causes the audience to question the role of man and society within nature. The drab village, and its strong association with ideas of society and industry, is the purview of man. As we see in Heart of Glass, lacking for purpose, man becomes his own worst enemy and society cannot thrive. The woods around the village, which Hias calls home, and the other natural locations that Herzog highlights are associated with magic, visions, and spirituality. Through his association with nature and his visions, Hias is freer than the villagers, and more in tune to the natural rhythms of the world. It is important to note, also, that Hias’s visions are not associated with any religious belief. Natural mysticism is given priority, and though the film doesn’t make any explicit claims about organized religion, there are several telling symbols that pop up on the fringes of scenes which give clues as to Herzog’s position on religion’s role in spoiling the decency of a pure and natural society. The film’s coda could potentially throw into question the primacy of nature, but I think that it even more underscores the point that man must seek to find himself within nature, rather than attempt to bend the natural world to his will.

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I wish that more people, particularly more people who are somewhat familiar with Herzog’s work, would see Heart of Glass, but it’s also a difficult film for me to recommend unequivocally. Though I think that it is a film approaching masterpiece territory, it’s also a dense, meditative, and difficult film, and one that isn’t likely to appeal to most, or many, viewers. It is a film that is designed to make the audience uncomfortable, to jar them out of a sense of complacency and understanding, and awaken within them a desire to receive a particular message. Herzog’s delivery method is unique, but the themes that he is exploring appear time and time again in his body of work. For Herzog fans, Heart of Glass is richly rewarding, and not to be missed. For fans of experimental or art cinema, it’s a challenging film worth exploring. I know that I’m anticipating my next opportunity to submit to this film’s particular brand of hypnosis. I don’t think that I totally understand everything that I saw and experienced while watching Heart of Glass, and I know that I’ve done a poor job in adequately discussing the film, but it’s a movie that crawled under my skin and it will take a long time before I’ve shaken it.

Hard Eight

Hard Eight (1997)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson

 

Hard Eight is the story of a friendship that begins when an older man meets a young man, down on his luck, and offers him a cigarette, a cup of coffee, and, eventually, a path to a new lease on life. John (Reilly) is sitting on a curb outside a diner, having come to Las Vegas to win money to bury his mother, when he meets Sydney (Hall), a longtime card shark who sees something in the desperate young man, and offers him help. Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature begins simply, lacking the bombast and import that would come to define his masterful later work. It’s a small, character-driven drama that explores the seedy world of small time cons and the seedy characters who pull them in casinos and pool halls. It’s an aimless, meandering sort of picture for the first hour, allowing the audience to really get a sense of who these characters are and what their relationships are to one another, and to completely get a sense of place as the action shifts to small town Reno, Nevada. The film’s final act picks up the pace, providing a few surprise reveals and some violent retribution, but at its core, Hard Eight is a movie about four desperate people and their desires and shortcomings. It isn’t a pretty movie, or a fancy one, but when I’m looking to briefly dip my toes into the type of world peopled by figures both sad and seedy, it’s a perfect choice.

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I’ve written about a lot of first features and debuts in this space, but I think that Hard Eight is the most accomplished yet. Though it offers only fleeting glimpses of the cinematic mastery that Anderson would eventually display, the film stands on its own as a tight and entertaining caper. The thing that I’m always impressed by when I return to Hard Eight, which I do fairly frequently, is the efficiency with which Anderson builds up these characters and their relationships. A few lines of perfectly written and delivered dialogue are enough to make the audience feel that they know each of the principals and their motivations. Though each of them keep secrets until the end, these characters are familiar and, mostly, endearing. In a way, these characters are tropes – The Benevolent Grifter, The Down-on-his-Luck Loser, The Hooker with a Heart of Gold – but Anderson’s narrative subtlety and the excellent performances of the entire cast, elevate them beyond thin stereotypes.

Anderson managed an impressive assemblage of talent for his debut feature. Hall, who also starred in the short film Sydney, from which Hard Eight is adapted, is perfect in the role of the paternalistic, wise conman. His lined face speaks to the years of experience Sydney has had and the things that he’s seen in those years, existing on the fringes of underworld societies. Watching Hall take a long, patient drag from a cigarette is akin to taking a master class in world-weariness. There is a hardness at the core of his performance, but it never registers as cruel, rather that hardness is earned through experience, and in his interactions with the other characters, it manifests itself as a persistent, paternalistic care, especially for Reilly’s John. The two make a good pair of foils, obviously forming a father/son pairing as Sydney takes the place of the father who John lost many years ago. John is a typical Reilly character, kind and sweet, but more than a bit naïve. I’ve always been impressed by the vulnerability that Reilly often shows as an actor, and that openness and vulnerability is on full display here, as he plays a character completely set adrift in the world, looking for any harbor.

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Though the film is, without a doubt, the story of Sydney and John, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson round out the supporting cast and are each given a few scenes in which to shine. Both characters are used to reveal deeper characteristics of the two principals, with Paltrow’s Clementine falling for John, and vice versa, and helping to introduce a stronger, more independent side to his character in the film’s third act. Clementine has an inner strength that’s belied by her made-up exterior, a quality that Paltrow fully puts on display in the film’s pivotal scene. She and John have beaten and kidnapped a john who refused to pay Clementine after sex, and they call Sydney for help. Though she’s understandably emotional and hysterical, Clementine is pulling all of the strings in the scene, urging John and Sydney to kill the man, remaining singularly focused on her money and her besmirched dignity while John is spinning out of control in the face of a situation he can’t comprehend. This is Paltrow’s only featured scene in the movie, but she makes the most of it, revealing a nuance to her character that wasn’t readily apparent earlier in the film. Likewise, Jackson isn’t afforded many opportunities to really shine in Hard Eight, but he plays the role of Jimmy, a small-time hustler and keeper of an important secret, perfectly. Jimmy’s big scene comes near the film’s end, when he confronts Sydney about a secret from his past, and demands that Sydney disappear. To this point, Jackson has played Jimmy as an affable, if sleazy, character, whose sinister side is well contained. However, when he confronts Sydney in the parking lot, he seethes rage and righteous anger, delivering the sort of monologue that Samuel Jackson has become known for. Jimmy is intimidating without ever becoming unhinged, and his malice is all the more potent, because Jackson’s restrained performance gives the impression that it could be wielded as a club, if need be. It’s a short scene and a small role, but it’s vintage Samuel L. Jackson, and the venerable character actor nails it.

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Beyond just crafting realistic, relatable characters, Anderson also brings Las Vegas and Reno to life in subtle ways. His casinos feel lived in, a bit worn down at the heel, but authentic. He isn’t interested in the glitz of the strip, but rather in the second-rate casinos and the seedy, extended stay motels that proliferate throughout the rest of Las Vegas. Hard Eight does every bit as much examining and extrapolating on the character of Nevada as does Casino, but the stakes here are smaller, simpler. When Sydney introduces John to a particular hustle early in the film, the object is not to get rich quick but to get a comped room, and maybe a free meal voucher. The scene in which Anderson introduces the con is brilliant, Hall breaking down the intricacies of the simple grift in voiceover while Anderson meticulously documents the ins and outs of the scheme, which involves John appearing to spend more than he is by cycling his chips and a small amount of cash through different cashier windows and getting a player’s card stamped for money that he isn’t really spending. It’s a simple but effective con, and the scene is, likewise, a simple but effective way of suturing the audience’s interest to this particular world and expanding their understanding of it. The rest of Hard Eight is understated and murky, while this early scene is insistent and direct, but it serves as the perfect introduction to the film’s world. Anderson does the one thing a gambler should never do, by tipping his hand early, but it works.

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P.T. Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, and I think that he will be thought of as one of the greatest directors of all time, if that consensus hasn’t already been cemented. Hard Eight, of course, falls short of the cinematically sublime level that a few of his more recent pictures have achieved, but it is a great achievement in and of itself. It might be easy to dismiss this small film as an inauspicious debut, but it’s such a well-crafted, fully formed work, one that features hints of the greatness that Anderson would go on to achieve. Hard Eight is, honestly, the Anderson movie that I end up rewatching most frequently, probably at least once a year. It simply never disappoints, and when I’m looking for a taut, character-driven drama, there are really few better in my collection. It’s a movie that I suspect is still rather underseen, but it really deserves more attention, even outside of the context of Anderson’s larger body of work, or his auteur status. From its well-written characters, to its perfectly established and envisioned world, and impressive performances across the board, Hard Eight has a lot to like on its own. It’s a somewhat forgotten movie worthy of reflection and reevaluation.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Dir. Wes Anderson

Written by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan

 

I think that Wes Anderson is one of the more polarizing filmmakers working today. He has achieved a distinct and instantly recognizable visual and narrative style over the course of his twenty-year career, and is often recognized by contemporary critics as a visionary and important filmmaker, but it seems to me that when I talk about his movies with people in the real world, they don’t share this universal admiration. Anderson’s films seem to engender a love it or hate it reaction, with many people I’ve met finding his aesthetic to be too twee, too precious, and too affected. To them, Anderson is the quintessential hipster director, making ironic and precocious art meant to be taken seriously by those for whom cultivating a perfect vinyl collection and sourcing the best knit fabrics for a sweater vest are matters of grave concern. Conversely, I’ve met an equal number of people who feel that Anderson’s humor and sensibilities reflect the sarcastic, wry, and ironic zeitgeist of the 21st century, and that his vintage aesthetics and concern with evoking a sense of place in time through mise-en-scene and music are perfect for a digital age in which nostalgia is only a click away. I find myself firmly in the latter camp, having been a fan of Anderson since the late 1990s, but I suppose that I can see why some people can’t seem to penetrate his filmography and have trouble relating to his movies. One thing that I think shouldn’t be up for much debate, even among those Anderson detractors, is that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a great movie. It marks Anderson at the height of his powers, and seeing one of the last quarter century’s most important and recognizable auteurs turning in a masterpiece is what makes it one of the greatest movies of the young 21st century.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel is a nesting doll of a caper that unfolds over several distinctive period settings, telling the history of the titular hotel and its staff and inhabitants. The tale is related by the hotel’s proprietor, the aged Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), and it centers on his arrival at the Grand Budapest Hotel where he gained employment as a lobby boy under the supervision of the hotel’s famed concierge, M. Gustave (Fiennes). The young Moustafa, whose first name is Zero (Revolori), shows promise as a lobby boy and Gustave takes him under his wing, teaching him the ins and outs of hospitality. Shortly after Zero begins his employment at the Grand Budapest, Gustave receives notice that Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), one of his many elderly paramours, has died under mysterious circumstances, and he and Zero travel by train to her estate to witness the reading of her will. Madame D. wills Gustave a priceless painting, enraging her family, particularly her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Though Zero and Gustave are able to safely return the painting to the Grand Budapest, Dmitri frames Gustave for his mother’s murder and he is subsequently jailed. Gustave manages to escape from prison with the help of his fellow inmates, and also Zero and his new fiancée, Agatha (Ronan), a baker’s apprentice with a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her cheek. Zero and Gustave then set off to find the identity of Madame D.’s true killer, and, so doing, clear M. Gustave’s name.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel takes many of Anderson’s directorial quirks and dials them up to 11. It’s certainly a treat for the initiated, but I think that it’s also a film that can be enjoyed by just about any fan of movies. While it features much of Anderson’s stock cast, and expands upon his visual and narrative style, Grand Budapest sticks out among Anderson’s filmography as somewhat less precious and precocious. Though the Grand Budapest Hotel is one of Anderson’s most exquisitely realized dollhouses come to life, the story that he tells about the hotel and its inhabitants is darker, more action-oriented, and more steeped in actual history than any of Anderson’s earlier films. In Grand Budapest it seems that Anderson has managed to adhere his style onto a skeleton of classical Hollywood references and a more traditional structure. Though he still utilizes familiar cutaways, intertitles, and meticulously crafted miniatures, Anderson eschews some of his other trademarks, such as his frequent use of 1960s and 1970s pop music for the soundtrack. This pairing of Anderson’s whimsical tendencies with more traditional, grounded influences is a marriage for success, and makes for Anderson’s richest, most cinematically rewarding film.

Another way that Anderson deviates from his established norms is by sidelining the majority of his stock cast of actors. While Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson all appear in The Grand Budapest Hotel, they, and many other Anderson regulars, take a backseat to a trio of actors who are making their first appearances in a Wes Anderson film, led by Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave. I’m not overly familiar with Fiennes body of work as an actor, aside from some of the obvious roles that he’s most well-known for, but this is my favorite performance of his. He completely plays against his usual type, playing Gustave as a somewhat effete, surprisingly capable, and mildly authoritarian figure. He is the efficient center of power that propels the Grand Budapest Hotel, and Fiennes’s performance is the celestial body around which all of the other elements of the film’s universe orbit. He embodies the Old World elegance that is beginning to fade from existence in the time period Anderson depicts in the film. Fiennes’s clipped delivery and quick wit help to inform the film’s sense of humor and reflect the incredibly efficient pacing that the film adopts in its second half. Once The Grand Budapest Hotel goes into full caper mode, it’s propelled by the energy of Fiennes’s Gustave, and drops its mannered comedy for a full screwball turn. His performance is a delight to watch and the movie would likely wouldn’t work as well as it does with another actor in its most prominent role.

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If Fiennes is the propulsive engine driving the plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel forward, then Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan give it its emotional depth, and the romance shared by their young characters, Zero and Agatha, provides its beating heart. I’m fairly certain that this movie was the first time I’d seen either actor in anything, and I can remember leaving the theater really impressed with both of them, but particularly with Revolori. His performance provides the film with much of its physical comedy, with his large eyes and expressive face often giving humorous counterpoint to the antics going on around Zero. Though the lobby boy is fairly meek, when the chips are down and his friends are threatened, Zero draws from a well of strength and comes through to protect them. Ronan provides a steadying presence in the film, balancing the energy of Fiennes and Revolori with her more grounded performance. Agatha is resourceful and smart, and Ronan imbues her with a natural goodness that makes it easy to see why Zero would fall head over heels for her. Though both characters are endowed with obvious Anderson-ian affectations – Zero’s penciled on mustache and Agatha’s birthmark in the shape of Mexico – the young actors’ performances shine through. They both radiate kindness and affection, and their characters’ dedication to one another, and to M. Gustave, is the glue holding the film together.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel also marks a shift in Anderson’s sensibilities towards a slightly less cynical tone and point of view. Much like in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson allows young actors to explore and express more genuine displays of affection and romantic love than are present in his first few films. Whereas in movies like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic, romantic love is viewed extremely suspiciously, and in nearly all of Anderson’s films up to and including The Darjeeling Limited, familial love is basically nonexistent, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, we see an example of a truly powerful love between Zero and Agatha, and a functioning surrogate family formed between the two of them and M. Gustave. This shift is likely a product of Anderson simply maturing and his views on love and life changing as he has evolved as a person and an artist. In Grand Budapest Hotel the romantic subplot and the film’s occasionally raw emotionality provide an inroad for viewers who might have trouble connecting with Anderson’s earlier, more ironic output. That being said, The Grand Budapest Hotel is still very much a “Wes Anderson movie,” and for all of the deviations from what might seem to be his stock pallet, Anderson hasn’t changed his formula, so much as enriched and perfected it. It’s a movie that checks off all of the requisite boxes for me, both as a fan of Wes Anderson and as a fan of cinema, in general. The world building here is typically rich, and that world is peopled by some of Anderson’s most memorable, relatable, and tragic characters to date. The stakes in the film seem high, and Anderson proves himself more capable of creating narrative tension and directing visual action scenes than he previously had in his career. The Grand Budapest Hotel represents a big step forward in artistry for one of my favorite, and, objectively, one of the best, filmmakers of the early 21st century. It’s both a pleasant diversion and a film that rewards multiple viewings, and one that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who has an interest in cinema.