THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)
The buildup: The aging owner of the lackluster Grand Budapest Hotel (F. Murray Abraham) recounts to a writer (Jude Law) stories of its grand past and the youthful adventures and association with its late concierge (Ralph Fiennes) that got him caught up in a web of intrigue surrounding a contested will, a stolen painting, a jailbreak, and more.
The breakdown: Director/writer Wes Anderson delivers his usual trademarks: witty, zippy dialogue, colorful cinematography, centered and sometimes symmetrical shots, and an atmosphere unique to the story. Fiennes shines as the hotel manager who seduces aging women to hopefully inherit some of their money when they die, while his new lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) livens up the screen as his young, devoted, and very clever protégé. It’s best not to spoil the comedic story by slipping out too much detail, but expect all sorts of quirky characters played by the likes of Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, and many others.
JODOROWSKY’S DUNE (2013)
The buildup: In 1975, nearly a decade before David Lynch directed his own version, avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to bring Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi tale Dune to the silver screen. Completely storyboarded and thought out, the original movie would have been supported by the likes of H.R. Giger, Moebius, Salvador Dali (as an actor), Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, French prog rock band Magma, and writer Dan O’Bannon, among many others.
The breakdown: Director Frank Pavich attempts to show what Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been like through art, animated storyboards, and intimate interviews and accounts. It is clear that if not for studio politics and budgetary issues Jodorowsky could have pulled off a marvelous epic, and the large tome of pre-production materials that made the studio rounds, most notably the intricate storyboards, seem to have influenced later films like Star Wars, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and Prometheus. The best-selling point for the documentary and the unmade Dune is Jodorowsky himself, a man who even in his 80s still exudes passion and love for the project as he recounts the crazy circumstances behind his quest to create it. After watching this, you’ll wish he had.
SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981)
The buildup: Made between the seminal The Warriors and the box office hit 48 Hrs., director/co-writer Walter Hill’s gritty film focuses on a training exercise in the bayou that goes horribly wrong when Louisiana National Guardsmen antagonize a small group of Cajuns who then wage a homicidal game of cat and mouse. As they are slowly killed off, the company begins to fall apart, which leads to numerous personal clashes.
The breakdown: Hill has allegedly said that every movie he has made is a Western, and Southern Comfort takes that approach and applies it to a swampland variation on Deliverance. The superb cast, which includes Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, Peter Coyote, and Brion James, helps drive this suspenseful tale of culture clash that seems a bit improbable at first but sucks you in fast. As noted in the half-hour documentary that comes with this reissue, Carradine thought it was an allegory for the Vietnam War, while Hill says he did not intend that, but either way it shows the futility of needlessly executed combat.
The buildup: DEA task force leader John “Breach” Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his highly trained team attempt to steal $10 million during a raid of a Latin American drug lord. But when their stash is stolen and the Feds realize what they were attempting to do, they are suspended while he gets a desk job. Once reinstated after their shenanigans cannot be proven, the team gets picked off one by one as someone, likely the cartel they tried to steal from, wants them dead. Bloody carnage ensues.
The breakdown: Part macho military movie, part underhanded crime thriller, Sabotage takes an interesting ensemble—Olivia Williams, Terrence Howard, Sam Worthington, Mireille Enos, Joe Manganiello, and Josh Holloway—and gives them an ugly tale to tell. While the interplay between Schwarzenegger and Williams helps drive this action vehicle, it’s hard to exude sympathy for a boozing, brawling bunch of misogynists whose seeming desire to stop the “bad guys” is overridden by an impulse to just wreak havoc with impunity. Sabotage needs more humanity to make it work.
UNDER THE SKIN (2013)
The buildup: A strange, sexy woman (Scarlett Johansson) of unknown origin stalks Scotland by car as she seeks out young male victims for sustenance and seemingly to learn more about human interaction. As she gets more in touch with her humanity, she learns more of the disturbing side of human behavior.
The breakdown: Jonathan Glazer, who previously directed Sexy Beast and Birth, has created a highly original film with a dazzling visual palette and erotic overtones. While told simply enough, the story in many ways is more abstract than a basic synopsis will let on, particularly as most of the film is dialogue free and much of the public conversations are muffled or unintelligible. It’s best not to say too much about this sci-fi/fantasy narrative—just experience it and let it wash over your senses.
TRUE DETECTIVE (2014)
The buildup: The first season of HBO’s crime thriller series is an eight episode arc that follows two radically different detectives—one a cop with a conflicted marriage (Woody Harrelson) and sympathy for the locals, the other a methodical, cynical Texas transplant (a gaunt Matthew McConaughey) who bemoans people’s ignorance—as they investigate a brutal ritual murder in rural Louisiana.
The breakdown: It’s easy to see why this series has garnered so much attention. The two anti-heroes make for a great sparring pair that goes beyond the usual cop show clichés, and the approach of having them interviewed separately 17 years after their original investigation into a killer who may have returned, provides for frequent soul searching and dramatic possibilities. Nic Pizzolatto’s nuanced writing allows for plenty of interplay that makes us switch between rooting for and cursing the characters, and as their interrogations and past stories play out, we dive deeper into a world that scars them in different ways.
Available only through digital outlets, Zak Knutson and Joey Figueroa offer a detailed, compelling examination into the life of right-wing filmmaker and self-proclaimed “Zen anarchist” John Milius, who wrote Magnum Force, co-wrote Apocalypse Now, and wrote and directed the classic Conan The Barbarian, among numerous other films and uncredited work. His off-the-cuff style, brash manner (he allegedly once brought a pistol into a studio meeting), and conservative views have both endeared and irritated people in Hollywood—the ludicrously jingoist Red Dawn helped sink his career in the mid-1980s—and names such as Harrison Ford, Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese weigh in on his art and personality. The director himself is quoted from older interviews as (spoiler alert) he suffered a stroke about four years ago. Love or hate him, Milius is a fascinating, talented figure who polarized many of his peers even as he entertained them, and this film captures his maverick spirit.