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Column Fri Mar 14 2014
Need for Speed
So I guess there's a video game called "Need for Speed" that in at least some versions involves driving across the country, not unlike the plot of the new film version, made by former stuntman and Act of Valor director Scott Waugh. Much as he did with Act of Valor, Waugh has emphasized authenticity. In his military movie, he used real members of the military. And in a film that recalls quite frequently the great muscle car films of the 1960s and '70s, the new film features no computer-enhanced stunt work, instead allowing real cars to race at top speeds, often wrecking spectacularly. And anyone who thinks it doesn't make a difference is fooling themselves. The stunts in Need for Speed look and feel undeniably dangerous.
Granted, a film featuring grown men sitting around revving their engines as loud as they can, as well as a sequence involving a character forced to take an office job suddenly strip naked and walk outside in just his socks clearly isn't emphasizing character development, but anything would have helped make me care about these gear heads. I never quite understood why guys who race cars in movies also have to prove they they can beat another driver up, or why any of the drivers or mechanics insist on constantly measuring each other's penises to see whose has the most horsepower. There's a whole lot of posing in Need for Speed, and it borders on distracting.
The film opens in an unnecessarily complicated fashion with struggling garage owner and sometime-racer Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul, from "Breaking Bad" and Smashed) accepting a major job from his former friend and famous NASCAR driver Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). Tobey's shop is having a tough time financially, and he needs the money, so he and his team, played by Scott Mescudi (aka Rapper Kid Cudi), Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez and Harrison Gilbertson as Little Pete, the younger brother of Tobey's ex and Dino's current love interest Anita (Dakota Johnson, soon to be seen as the female lead in 50 Shades of Grey), take the job. But after Tobey delivers and tests the car, Dino challenges him to race illegal (in America) cars on open roads; Little Pete hops in one of the sleek machines as well, and before long tragedy strikes, thanks to Dino bumping Pete's car. Tobey gets the blame; somehow not a single car that they pass can even confirm there were three cars racing let alone Dino in one of them; and Tobey goes to jail for two years for manslaughter.
When he gets out, Tobey formulates a plan for revenge against Dino (which includes a bit of professional humiliation) and gathers his team to find the right car to drive across the country to beat Dino in the highly respected underground race, the De Leon. When Dino finds out Tobey is coming, he puts a bounty on his head, leading to a cross-country journey becomes a long-ass chase with bounty hunters on Tobey's ass most of the way. Joining Tobey in his car is Julia Bonet (Imogen Poots), who represents the actual owner of Tobey's very expensive car and has been charged with driving as his passenger for the whole ride.
Since the De Leon race is illegal, there aren't sportscasters doing the play-by-play and color commentary. Instead, we get Michael Keaton as the reclusive former driver and web series host Monarch, who has no scenes with the other actors, but is holed up with his broadcast equipment giving details of a race he can't even see. The level of detail he can assess just from his computer is just plain stupid and impossible, but lately, any movie with Keaton in it is often better than one without.
As I said, the racing scenes and other stunts are second to none, the crashes hurt too much to even contemplate, and the driver's seat POV shots give a real sense of both the origins of the Need for Speed material and just how fast these vehicles are going. Even some of the more outrageous stunts (including a helicopter lifting a moving car off the ground using wires) are amusing in the way crazy stunts just are. But the minute the characters start talking to each other, all of my good will toward the film began to drain out of my head. Aaron Paul does the best he can to add a little weight to his single-minded, empty-headed character, but he ends up looking like exactly what he is — a great actor trying to save a dopey film. Faring slightly better is Poots as Julia, who at least has the courtesy to not play the helpless girl screaming from the passenger seat. Naturally, the two bicker in the beginning, but once that subsides, things between them get more tolerable for us.
The most frustrating part of Need for Speed is that it wouldn't have taken much more effort to make it something worth recommending. Screenwriter George Gatins (who shares a story credit with more famous writer brother John Gatins of Flight and Real Steel fame) just doesn't have an ear for diglogue or a real idea about pacing this overlong (well past the two-hour mark) piece, which is a shame because the other tools at his disposal are exceptional. With so little to work with in terms of script, I think Waugh does a fairly admirable job pulling together some great muscle car moments that don't quite reach the heights of the Fast & Furious films (thank goodness), but still make us long to get behind the wheel of a classic Gran Torino and get it up past 200 mph.
With the exception of Poots and Keaton, the supporting players don't add much to this story, and Cooper's character is so bad, all he needed was an eyepatch and a goatee to make sure there was no doubt as to his intentions. The final De Leon race sequence is lengthy (in a good way) and surprisingly brutal as car after car is eliminated from the event via some supremely nasty crashes. But by then, you've likely given up caring who wins, loses or dies as Need for Speed careens to its inevitable conclusion. As strange as it may sound, I actually think a sequel for this film might work better than this one simply because we could hopefully dispose with some of the introductory elements and concentrate on impressive action sequences. You may not want to hold your breath for that, but this Need for Speed runs out of gas early on and waits until the end to refill. That's not how you win a race.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The latest from writer-director Wes Anderson is so gleefully ambitious and darkly comic, it's difficult for me to believe that any even-casual fan of Anderson's work (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom) wouldn't enjoy it immensely. Then again, there are undeniably those in the world who don't like Anderson's style of filmmaking that presents a world in horizontal movement, with actors often playing against type, and a heightened sense of reality that still seems to have very recognizable counterparts in the real world. As one colleague of mine put it after watching The Grand Budapest Hotel (and loving it): "Anderson gets more Anderson-y with each new film." I couldn't agree more.
With perhaps his largest collection of characters and a story set in a fictional European nation between the world wars, Anderson gives us this tale of longing for a past that seemed simpler when it fact it probably wasn't. It was simply a time when these characters were younger and felt invincible and adventurous. Through a series of storytelling devices that will sound far more complicated than they actually are (so I won't got into them), the main tale is that of a lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revelori), who works at the titular hotel under the watchful eye of the legendary concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, whose performance will transform what you think he's capable of as an actor), and man who is the pinnacle of taste and culture. But he not only serves his guests, he services them when called upon. Yes, the rich, old ladies who frequent the Grand Budapest do so because Gustave is also a bit of a gigolo. I'm going to let that sink in with you for a minute.
One of his richest is a dowager named Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, unrecognizable buried under very believable old-age makeup), who is deeply in love with Gustave and leaves her most valuable possession to him upon her death — a painting — much to the dismay of her nasty family members, including Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Gustave and Zero hatch a plan to steal, hide and eventually sell the painting, and thus begins the caper aspect of the film. It's difficult to discuss The Grand Budapest Hotel without wanting to go through it scene by scene to discuss how wonderfully each shot is composed and realized, in an almost artificial world that Anderson has created. Some of the snow-covered mountain vistas look like they were constructed like a pop-up book — just pull the paper lever and the tram goes up the mountain; pull on another, and a little skier goes down the mountain.
But make no mistake: despite its storybook qualities, The Grand Budapest Hotel is probably Anderson's least kid friendly (not that many of his movies are) and most openly violent work to date. It's still pretty tame by today's standards, but when a character loses his fingertips when a door slams on them, it's fairly shocking. Still, even the small amount of blood is spilled in a playful manner that seems necessary rather than grotesque or exploitative.
The life that Fiennes adds to the Gustave character needs to be seen multiple times to really grasp how magnificent his work is. At first glance, the concierge seems to be the epitome of elegance and decorum, but there are times when he gets frustrated or anxious where another, darker figure emerges — one who swears with a casual "Fuck it!" or lets his brasher side show, one who hints at once being a con artist or some other brand of thug.
Revolori's Zero is a wonderfully understated counter to Gustave silk-smooth mannerisms. Zero is the constant student, always observing, learning and following suit. He's also in love with young pastry chef Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), who assists the men in their schemes regarding the painting and with a jailbreak later in the film.
For a film that runs far less than two hours, Anderson has packed it to the gills with events: chases, fighting, love, mystery, skiing, monks, elder sex, fascists, you name it. Not to mention the dozens of characters played by the likes of F. Murray Abraham as the elder Zero, Jude Law as the writer who is hearing Abraham tell his story, Edward Norton as a military investigator with has a past with Gustave, Mathieu Amalric and Lea Seydoux as the French help of Madame D., Willen Dafoe as the downright feral right-hand ruffion of Dmitri, Jeff Goldblum as Madame D.'s estate lawyer, Harvey Keitel (!) as one of Gustave's fellow inmates, and an army of hotel workers, played by the likes of Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban and Fischer Stevens.
In many ways, The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like an Anderson greatest hits of visual tricks, methods and acting styles. But it's also the film that finds him borrowing the most from other sources, most notably the credit "inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig," the Austrian writer who used dry humor to convey his societal commentaries; and the films of German-born Ernst Lubitsch who made a career in Hollywood (The Shop Around the Corner being one of the best known). Anderson isn't stealing from these artists, so much as paying tribute their all but lost works in the memories of filmgoers. It's a worthy endeavor, but hardly the sole reason to see this film.
The real reason to make seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel a priority is that it's the sly, hilarious and darkly brilliant culmination of all that Anderson has been building toward, and it features several eye-opening performances by actors whose limits we had assumed we knew in the hands of a director who still has the capacity to surprise us in small but significant ways. It's joyous and melancholy in the same breath, a cautionary tale about nostalgia and a very funny romp through a fictional troubled time that still feels familiar. Send me a postcard from the Republic of Zubrowka.