Sunday, March 23, 2014

Budapest, Bad Words, Bad Boys

I was networking and doing some TV gigs in New York City early this month.  While there, I had a chance to go to the movies.  What a joy.  I'm currently but temporarily in a suburb that has no nearby cineplex.  So, when in a big city, going to the movies is my version of a kid having a week at Disneyland.

Here's a current movie rundown.  I had some Greek action in New York City.  I had to see 300:  Rise of an Empire so I could review it for Arise TV's On Screen show.  If you want to spend a couple of hours seeing male body fluid spurt at your face, then this is the film for you.  It's not a sequel to the box office hit, 300.  It's more backstory in another adventure.  An angrier, bloodier adventure in 3D.  The Spartans are back in battle, there's more carnage and more blood comes shooting at the screen in slow motion 3D.  Most of these Spartans sound like they just marched in from Downton Abbey.  Also, you have hundreds of ancient Greek musclemen warriors...and not a single one has chest hair.

Before battle, did they all go to a spa in Mykonos and get a wax job or what?  I went to my favorite diner in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.  It's run by a Greek guy.  You could  comb his chest and probably find the body of a missing person.  These characters are supposed to be ancient Greeks in battle but they look like they're headed to a circuit party in West Hollywood.  There's a lot of anger and aggression in 300:  Rise of an Empire.  There's also a Goth-like villainess leader.  She dresses in black, kills a bunch of men and has aggressive sex with her Greek rival.  She's the aggressor.
It's aggressive.  And incomplete.  He leaves her frustrated.  Draw your own conclusions.  There's excessive graphic novel-type violence and not much of a script.  But what little there is seems like Citizen Kane compared to Need for Speed.  The less said about that one, the better.  Those screenwriters owe me $14.50 and two hours of my life back.  Aaron Paul (TV's Breaking Bad) and Dominic Cooper (The History Boys) are in it.  They're very good actors.
Aaron Paul and Dominic Cooper should've slapped the screenwriters like they were Faye Dunaway's character in the last 20 minutes of Chinatown.

Remember the teen comedy, Superbad, starring Jonah Hill and Michael Cera?  If a psychic was a guest on a daytime talk show when that movie came out and predicted that Jonah Hill would be a two-time Oscar nominee -- and that one of those nominations would be earned for dramatic work in a Martin Scorcese film -- the audience would have snickered.  But today, Jonah Hill has two Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations to his credit and one came for his terrific performance in a Martin Scorcese drama.  I got to see The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorcese's cautionary tale of greed.  It had some of the Scorcese trademarks like high testosterone, hot-tempered guys and hot blondes being the object of desire.  Think Raging Bull and Casino. For a hot blonde, you can even include The Age of Innocence starring Michelle Pfeiffer.  The Wolf of Wall Street has a hot blonde who carbonates his hormones.  Leonardo DiCaprio earned his Best Actor Oscar nomination as the brass balls bad boy addicted to big bucks and party drugs.

Scorcese's The Wolf of Wall Street is well over 2 hours long and it's the kind of tale that's already been told by Oliver Stone in Wall Street.  It definitely could've been about 20 minutes shorter and still pack a punch.  However, you didn't feel the length.  It's as vulgar as a hooker having sex in an alley below your apartment window and it's fascinating to watch.  The performances are riveting -- especially the one from Jonah Hill as the sidekick swindler. You feel like you know that guy from the moment you see his eyeglass frames and that button-down shirt.  Those were inspired details.

He transforms from preppy-dressing outsider who's a bit of a dork to a superbad crook drunk on his own privilege when he starts making big Wall Street money.  It's an excellent performance.  And, yes, this is the same guy from Superbad (2007).
When I saw Jonah Hill play the lead role in a small budget comedy/drama called Cyrus (2010), I knew that he was a serious actor.  I said so in my review.  With the depth he showed as that alienated fatherless son, I knew he was destined for bigger things.  He was quite touching in that film.
I was not surprised at his Oscar nomination for Moneyball.  I'm not surprised he was nominated for The Wolf of Wall Street.  That was fine character acting.
Side note:  Have you ever noticed that Hollywood never shows blacks or Latinos as upscale Wall Street types? From Wall Street (1987) and Working Girl (1988) to The Wolf of Wall Street, there's never a black actor or actress with a sizable role as a Wall Street stockbroker.  One thing I absolutely hated about Scorcese's movie -- the role of the black female domestic who worked in the Wolf of Wall Street's Long Island mansion.  The story takes place in the early 1990s but her part was similar to a black maid role in a 1930s Hollywood costume drama with lines like "Oh, Lawd, that po' child!"  I hated that.

When I saw the trailer for Bad Words directed by and staring Jason Bateman, I was positive I'd hate the movie because his character was so verbally inappropriate in the presence of a child.  I saw the movie and I liked it very much. Bad Words won me over.  Rude, crude, funny and heartfelt.  It's a witty revenge story that uses a spelling bee championship as its mode of revenge.

The grown man and the little brainiac are both contestants and rivals in the same national spelling bee.  They're booked in the same budget hotel on the same floor.  Bateman's character has a legal right to be in the competition.  He has a love-starved female reporter pal help him with that.  He is like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and Jack Nicholson's romance novelist in As Good As It Gets.  He pushes people away with his rude behavior because there's a pain inside that he doesn't want to reveal.
Yes, obnoxious Guy Trilby (Bateman) is inappropriate with the language he uses in front of little Chaitanya (young Rohand Chand), his rival.  Yes, Guy introduces the conservative 10 year old bookworm to a hooker for a quick visual lesson.  But there's balance because there will be karma.  Guy gets his comeuppance for that behavior.  I won't tell you any more because I don't want to spoil discoveries for you.  But I will tell you that Bateman skillfully shows the character change and grow.  The revelation of the hurt behind the eyes and other changes are subtle, simple motions.  It's good work.  This movie is about the power of words, the strength we give them and what we choose to do with them.  It's also about moving on.  There are some flaws but there's also humanness and brevity that many comedies nowadays lack.  Give Bad Words a try.  Bateman is a generous actor/director who shares the spotlight.  His movie is not all about him.

Thank you, Wes Anderson!  I absolutely loved The Grand Budapest Hotel.  I loved it so much I wanted to go see it a second time but my schedule got really packed before I had to fly back from New York City.  I still want to see it a second time.  I guess I have a comedy sweet tooth.  There are times when I crave a stylized, snappily-paced comedy with some loopy characters.  The kind the old Hollywood masters gave us.  If there's anyone today delivering screwball comedies with a touch of Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges with a zest of Billy Wilder about them, it's Wes Anderson.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is a rich example.  Who knew that Ralph Fiennes, an actor known for deep-dish dramas like Schindler's List, The English Patient, The Constant Gardener and Quiz Show, had such exquisite screwball comedy chops?  Who knew?

We go back to the grand days of the Grand Budapest Hotel when it was run by Gustave H (Fiennes).  He had a thing for older women.  Much older. I'll put it like this -- had they been ships, their speed would've been clocked in granny knots.  He's also quite fond of Zero, his devoted immigrant lobby boy.


There's a death.  There's a caper.  There's love.  There's danger.  Here's the trailer.

I've grown fond of Wes Anderson movies.  Watching Fantastic Mr. Fox is now an annual Thanksgiving Day tradition for me.  I love that he writes good roles for ethnic actors.  In The Grand Budapest Hotel, there's Southern Californian Latino actor Tony Revolori almost stealing the film as the lovable lobby boy with the deadpan expression.
 There's Amadeus Best Actor Oscar winner, F. Murray Abraham.  In The Darjeeling Limited, there was the wonderful Irrfan Khan and Waris Ahluwalia.  In Anderson's movies, there seems to be two constants:  A melancholy nostalgia for a time gone by and characters faced with a present-day danger.  There was Man out to exterminate the dear family of foxes in Fantastic Mr. Fox, the fury of Mother Nature in The Darjeeling Limited and a severe thunderstorm in Moonrise Kingdom.  In The Grand Budapest Hotel, there's a killer and a police force.  Like Preston Sturges had, Anderson has actors he brings back into service. Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, Adrien Brody and Tilda Swinton do Anderson duty again.  So does the very funny Edward Norton as a European police inspector with a handlebar mustache.
Talk about versatile.  Edward Norton can go from Fight Club to playing a racist skinhead in American History X, do a Bobby Van-like musical comedy turn for Woody Allen in Everyone Says I Love You, be memorably dramatic as the angry married British doctor with an unfaithful wife in The Painted Veil, then give wacky performances for Wes Anderson as a scout master in Moonrise Kingdom and the inspector in The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Wow.  What a talented actor.
If you're a Wes Anderson, make a point to visit The Grand Budapest Hotel.  The Ralph Fiennes performance is a revelation.  Bravo Tony Revolori and the rest of the cast.  I'll be seeing you all again.

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