April 20, 2014

Identity Mongering: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' and 'Divergent'

I've been lost in a whirlwind of books. It's as though the crippling pall of academia has finally been lifted and I am struggling to keep up with my newfound desire to just read, read, read. Yes, I was an English major and an English graduate student who hated being forced to read books. It took me about a year and a half to get into the discipline of reading for pleasure. Since January, I've finished eight books, including John Steinbeck's East of Eden, Shirley Jackson's Hangsaman, Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, and Tab Hunter's autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential. I also gave up on one: Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which was truly the definition of dismal reading.

The movie watching has suffered as a result I'm afraid. I've been thinking about this blog and what it means. Whether or not I want to continue it, whether or not I want to be a film critic. I've been thinking about this whole internet life we lead, and how it's not working for me. This need to put myself out into the online world for all to dissect and consume. It doesn't satisfy. So, dear readers, I don't know what that means for Panned Review. I'm not going to make any big statements because I'm likely to change my mind in two weeks. But there is a stirring in me to leave this big technological monstrosity behind, or at least, to take a few steps back and get to know the person who doesn't need to stare at a screen for some semblance of an identity.

For now, let's talk about the two movies I did see in theaters this month, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Divergent. As for Grand Budapest Hotel: I'm not in any way a Wes Anderson fan. I remember watching The Life Aquatic with my good friend Neal in pure agony. He was laughing at it, I wasn't. I didn't, I don't, I probably never will, get it. Moonrise Kingdom only reinforced this feeling about Wes Anderson movies for me. I fell asleep. The reason Wes Anderson annoys me is the reason he annoys everyone else who finds him annoying: His movies are just so precious, so cutesy, so meticulously storybook, as though Anderson had stumbled across a myriad of dollhouses and toys in his attic and breathed some kind of pompous auteur's life into them. He's the puppeteer who can't decide if he finds puppets amusing in a sentimental or an ironic way. He probably wants it to be both.

That being said, I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel. At first, there was the same cutesy-ness and the same stultifying flawless-beauty aesthetic that permeates his other work. But then the story grabbed my attention, and the film's quick adventurous tale transcended all the obviousness of Wes Anderson-land. The story is about a hotel clerk in-training who becomes the protegee of Liam Neeson, a wise and seasoned concierge at the titular hotel. Neeson's character is named Gustave H., and he maintains emotional and sexual relationships with many of the hotel's elderly female guests. One of them (played by Tilda Swinton, entombed in aging make-up so that she looks like poor, shriveled Bette Davis did in the late 1980s) croaks and leaves him a priceless work of art which her son (Adrian Brody) tries to keep for himself. He employs a murderous thug to aid him in this endeavor. Eventually, Gustave is arrested when the angry son accuses him of murdering his mother. Thus the young hotel clerk (Tony Revolori) is enlisted to help bust Gustave out of jail.

Grand Budapest moves with verve and comic charm, and even when I rolled my eyes at Wes Anderson laying his usual bag of tricks out on the table and then parading them around the room with the kind of hipster-reverie that only Wes Anderson can exhibit, I couldn't help liking it. It was fun. Maybe he's just worn me down and my defenses are so low that I'll take anything remotely enjoyable. I think this may be the Wes Anderson film that the non-initiated can finally get behind. (It may also be our last.) With Saoirse Ronan. Featuring cameo appearances by Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bob Balaban.

And then there's Divergent (directed by Neil Burger) the latest trend in pop young adult dystopian story-telling. It's based on the book series by Veronica Roth. I liked it, but are we ever going to be released from the prison of dystopian craptacularness that permeates popular movies and literature? This kind of gook is somehow highlighted as the catalyst to a reading revolution among young people. I recently read in the book The Dumbest Generation that what's actually happening--with successful book series such as Harry Potter and the like--is that most kids who read them read nothing else. They read these books to be in on the cultural event that they perceive is taking place and dare not do so without them on board.  The author, Mark Bauerlein, points out how many people under 30 are proud of their anti-literate sensibilities. They're too worried about pop culture, too obsessed with engaging social media to keep their social lives alive. This may be cynical, but it's certainly compelling. I imagine that there are plenty of people who read widely. They're the ones who aren't on social media 24/7. That's why we think they're non-existent. They aren't making any noise because they're reading. Right now. Let's join them, shall we?

Okay, back to Divergent. The basic structure of Veronica Roth's futuristic, post-apocalyptic world had me laughing inwardly. Everyone is divided into one of five factions, according to their gifts and personalities. Once adolescents come of age (i.e. when they become old enough to theoretically figure out who they are), they are allowed to choose one of these identities. The trouble is when someone doesn't fit in just one box. That's where Beatrice Prior (played by Lindsay Lohan-ish looking Shailene Woodley, a compelling young actress who impressed me in The Descendants) finds herself. She fits into multiple categories. The community has a word for people like her. (Any guesses?): Divergent. Divergents are seen as a threat to the stability of the community, so the villainous Kate Winslet, head of the faction of smarties known as Erudite, has basically issued death warrants for any Divergents who might be wandering around. It's kind of Blade Runner mixed with The Hunger Games mixed with The Giver mixed with Every Other Futuristic Movie/Book Ever Made.

On the plus side, Divergent is an interesting movie, once you get past the inane set-up and the inevitable message of "being yourself" and "not letting people put you in a box." (These two slogans comprise the messages of 97% of all high school yearbook inscriptions.) The whole training program that Beatrice undergoes when she makes her choice is quite absorbing. (She's pretending to be one of the athletic, super-energetic, comically over-the-top Dauntless people, who are basically like a bunch of hot young things on steroids who protect the city from danger.) There's a little romance between Beatrice and one of the Dauntless trainers, a guy who's imaginatively named "Four" and played by hunky Theo James. (He manages to keep his shirt on most of the time, and even when he removes it, it's not gratuitous ala Taylor Lautner in Twilight.)

Also, it's somehow very gratifying to see Kate Winslet play the heavy. Has she ever played the heavy before? Her performance was cool and collected, smoothly and elegantly evil. She reminded me of Jodie Foster in the wretched Elysium. Foster was the wicked wasp queen keeping the dregs of society away from the privileged. And while Foster's performance didn't really work for me, the general idea is the same: a revered screen actress taking on the part of a couth, clean, polished Cruella Deville. Winslet's quite a natural at it. And Shailene Woodley holds her own.

With Ashley Judd, Zoe Kravitz, Mekhi Phifer, and Miles Teller.

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