Well folks, we’re technically approaching the end of the summer anime season, though we’re actually on the verge of October. That’s okay though, since I didn’t technically watch any anime beyond my Current Projects shows this week, and so I’ll once again be offering you a grab bag of scattered media experiences. As far as those go, this week was both diverse and lucrative; I watched a satisfying array of films in a variety of genres, and am eager to share my findings with all of you. Let’s explore the miracle of cinema together, in yet another Week in Review!
First off, I started this week with El Mariachi, the first film in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado trilogy, and also just Rodriguez’s first full-length film, period. Initially filmed for just seven thousand dollars, El Mariachi is as lean as they come, all taking place in one small town, and all concerning a mix-up between two men who both favor black coats and guitar cases, one to carry his dazzling array of weaponry, the other to carry his guitar. An associate of the first puts out a hit on him, the second ends up getting accidentally tangled in their web, and delightful chaos ensues.
El Mariachi is a classic action-adventure caper, and at a lean eighty minutes, there’s not an ounce of flab on its narrative bones. The film’s setting and many of its shots evoke classic western cinema, as well as the rugged, masculine action cinema of the ‘70s (films like Dirty Harry or Bullitt). But along with that, it’s also afforded a touch of lightness through the casual goofiness of its chase scenes – there were sequences in this film that made me think Rodriguez had to be a fan of Jackie Chan, and he handles that style very well. In fact, the young Rodriguez seems to throw everything he can into the cinematography of this film – there are wild zoom shots, manic perspective shots, surrealist dream sequences, and all manner of other sequences that speak to a young, talented, and extremely passionate director who’s not sure he’ll ever get to make another film.
It was interesting watching El Mariachi while also knowing how Rodriguez’s career would eventually get intertwined with Quentin Tarantino’s. Though they’re both attentive students of classic action cinema, Tarantino’s work always feels like a winking pastiche of his influences set within a modern frame, whereas El Mariachi just felt like a ‘70s film that fell out of a time warp. Rodriguez feels like a true original, and I’m eager to see where this trilogy leads.
I also watched one of Wes Anderson’s most acclaimed films, the lightly toned yet sprawling Grand Budapest Hotel. Grand Budapest Hotel does the best it can to obscure itself; its introduction carries us through three separate framing devices before settling us in its central narrative, and even the relationship between its protagonists arises incidentally, out of a series of escalating contrivances that align the Budapest’s concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and its newest bellhop Zero (Tony Revolori). From there, it rambles through an escalating hunt across the tempestuous borderline of the second world war, as Gustave gains and loses riches, is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and leads a perfectly cast Willem Dafoe on a merry cross-country chase.
Like all Anderson films, Budapest is overflowing with inventive, symmetrical set designs, all festooned in his usual array of ornate, archaic furniture and pastel coloration. Anderson’s movies are so consistently beautiful that it’s hard to not take that for granted, even if their beauty tends to be concentrated in that specific “look at this dollhouse that I have decorated” direction. The film’s narrative affectation is similarly a love-it-or-leave-it affair, as Anderson embraces the heightened narration of something like a classic English gentleman’s travelogue, with events or even character turns that don’t interest him frequently being reduced to offhand summary.
But in this case, Anderson’s stylistic quirks are absolutely part of the film’s point, and not just its charm. The Grand Budapest Hotel exists in a deliberate unreality that is constantly punctured with holes, from the unnerving appearances of Edward Norton’s politely fascist enforcers, to the geopolitical tension inherent in the relationship between Gustave and Zero. Gustave is an anachronism, a polite, considerate gentleman in a world that has been nearly destroyed by the colonizing influence of his people; it’s no wonder all the rich elderly ladies love him, as he’s essentially an artifact from the world as they wish it was. Budapest Hotel manages that thematic tension with a masterful delicacy, only erupting into open conflict between its leads in the film’s crucial moment – when, prompted by a flash of cruelty from Gustave, Zero reveals precisely why he came here.
The Grand Budapest Hotel succeeds as an aesthetic marvel and as an exciting buddy caper, and its lightly threaded themes are still turning around in my head days after my viewing. I highly recommend this one.
Finally, we also had an extended action cinema evening, where we watched Real Steel followed by Guardians of the Galaxy. Real Steel is a movie where washed-up boxer Hugh Jackman reconnects with his son, through their shared appreciation for the hot new field of robot boxing. Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie where Chris Pratt flies around in a spaceship and does that smirking face thing he likes to do. Between the two of them, I was surprised to find out that Real Steel is actually the significantly superior film.
The worst thing about Real Steel is absolutely its incredibly stupid premise. However, in spite of sticking to a hackneyed genre format, centering itself on a worldbuilding conceit that doesn’t make any fucking sense, and being predictable in basically all of its narrative turns, Real Steel succeeds simply by doing the absolute best with what it has. The film’s cinematography is actually excellent; there’s lots of evocative scene-setting, the color and shadow work are dynamic and dramatically resonant, and the film frequently employs neat compositions that layer foreground and background action.
Additionally, its fight choreography is actually terrific – not only is the robot CG convincing, but the robot combat is some of the best, most clear-to-follow boxing I’ve seen in cinema, with a clear sense of dramatic ebb and flow, and lots of neat tactical twists. And finally, the film’s actors give 110% percent, with both Jackman and his child costar Dakota Goya totally selling their characters and their bond. Evangeline Lilly is mostly just there, but I wasn’t particularly surprised that a movie about robot boxing was an unabashed Boy Movie.
In contrast, Guardians of the Galaxy just felt sort of reheated in all respects. I think the film’s unique position within Marvel is “it’s the Marvel movie with lots of jokes,” but the jokes generally felt too soft-edged and obvious to land with much impact; punchlines like “now we’re all standing here, like a bunch of jackasses” just made me wish they’d hired stronger writers. Chris Pratt always plays himself, and none of the other characters in this film gained enough texture to feel investment-worthy; ensemble films definitely have a harder time developing their whole cast, but in GotG, sequences like the romantic turn for the leads just came totally out of nowhere, building on the slightest fragments of common rapport.
All of this would generally result in a resoundingly Okay action-adventure film, but unfortunately, like most Marvel movies, GotG’s action scenes are atrocious. There was never any sense of clear conflicts or escalating tension – just a lot of visual sound and fury, with characters and their spacecrafts frequently too close to the camera to create any sense of relative space, and fights often ending in comic anticlimax, a trick that is easy to overuse. I got the feeling that the fights were just visually gravy intended to reinforce our affection for the characters, but I didn’t really feel any affection for the characters – outside of Dave Bautista, who did a great deal with very little in this film, and absolutely killed every one of his line reads.
All in all, Guardians of the Galaxy felt like a film about Han Solo that was also written by Han Solo, with predictably unsatisfying results. The film’s saving grace is its absolutely stellar soundtrack, full of classic ’70s tracks that the film frequently uses to juice its dramatic payoffs. But I can always listen to those songs without also watching a pretty bad movie.