FRESH POUR: Need for Speed (2014) / The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal. 

Need_for_SpeedNeed for Speed
Dir. Scott Waugh
Walt Disney Pictures

Video game movies are always a dicey proposition: there are a few surprisingly unshitty ones (Silent Hill, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), but even those have significant flaws that keep them from being called great movies. They barely even make them anymore except for cranking out sequels to Silent Hill and Resident Evil, as everyone has pretty much thrown up their hands and given up. However, along comes Need for Speed to give this thing another shot, and whaddya know, it’s not terrible. It’s spotty and uneven as hell, but the good somewhat outweighs the bad as long as you’re lowering your expectations.

I’ve espoused the virtues of the Fast & the Furious series on Fresh Pour before, and Need for Speed is clearly an attempt to piggyback on their surprising success. The film tells the story of Tobey Marshall (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), a blue-collar street racing wunderkind who finds himself framed for his brother’s death by car crash. Getting out of jail two years later, Tobey reassembles his crew and plans revenge against old friend and real brother-killer Dino (Dominic Cooper) by beating him in the De Leon, a legendary secret car race. What follows is an extended race across the country, with police in tow, as Tobey and crew A-Team their way through America to get vengeance. Kid Cudi’s “Maverick”/”Liar 1” is basically fucking magic, appearing exactly when he needs to with whatever vehicle they need to get the job done.

Need for Speed, directed with flair by Act of Valor director/propagandist Scott Waugh, is one of the few films that is far better in its middle act than in the beginning and the end. The film is two hours and change, which is far too long for a plot this thin and characters this one note. The first twenty minutes (in which we see Tobey and his brother, who is such an awkward, prophecy-spewing goober that I was actually happy he died) could have easily been excised in favor of starting the movie when Tobey exits prison. On the other hand, we wouldn’t have that scene of characters in a Need for Speed film playing Need for Speed.

Luckily, Waugh directs with a nice sense of visceral flair and majesty; it’s understandably exciting to see so much car action pulled off entirely with practical stunts. Paul’s an interesting choice for the lead; he’s a character actor at the helm of an action film, and he manages to invest his one-note, brooding character with a few welcome moments of levity and excitement. Unfortunately, these are few and far between, leaving him a bit of a cipher in his own movie. His supporting cast (including a spunky Imogen Poots and the scene-stealing/streaking Remi Malek) do an admirable job of spicing up their scenes, to the point where I wish the film was more about them. At the very least, I wanted Paul’s character to not be so mopey so he could actually have fun with the rest of them. Michael Keaton also shines as an over-the-top Internet DJ overseeing the story of Tobey, acting as a cocaine-fueled Greek chorus a la Vanishing Point and The Warriors – another throwback to the film’s ancestry of 1970s car stunt films.

By the end, the moral code of the film is weird; the police are supremely incompetent, until they’re not. Some spoilerific questions follow (don’t read if you want to see the movie):

Why is it so hard to believe Aaron Paul is innocent? How could he have smuggled two experimental prototype cars from England 7 minutes before the crash? Where was the evidence on his car that he hit Pete? Why did absolutely no one see Dino?

How is Aaron Paul only given six months in prison for illegal street racing when he probably committed vehicular manslaughter or was an accessory to it, at least endangering police officers, during both his race to the De Leon and the De Leon itself? Also breaking parole?

How do the cops immediately know that the paint on his car matched Pete’s car that day? They hadn’t even arrested Aaron Paul!

Despite these weird flaws, it functions well as an odd, modern macho fairy tale, with Michael Keaton as the storyteller. While the script and characters are often aggressively stupid, there’s an odd charm to it (especially in the film’s middle when the group is having fun) that makes it hard to discount. The film is a flawed-but-joyful throwback to the gritty racing films of old, for good or ill, and so I’ll have to give Need for Speed a pass.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Need For Speed Drinking Game:
1) Drink for uncomfortable closeups of Aaron Paul’s face
2) Drink every time a car hits another car
3) Drink any time a character talks about “Pete”
Finish Your Drink When:
Monarch (Michael Keaton) says, “Six months in prison to prove your innocence. Was it worth it?”

Grand Budapest HotelThe Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir. Wes Anderson
Fox Searchlight Pictures

We’ve covered Wes Anderson films on the podcast before, so you may be familiar with our adoration of him; opinions seem to polarize when it comes to this particular filmmaker, as you love him or hate him. He certainly seems to have a limited number of tricks up his sleeve, but you can’t help but admire his affection for them and willingness to work within his distinctive style to give us something new. His latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is full of all the exacting, storybook whimsy that populates his other work, with a dash of pre-WWII pathos and authorly melancholy to go along with it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel tells the story (as told through a frame-within-a-framing device in which an old author harkens back to his young self hearing the story that is being told) of Zero and Gustave, played respectively by newcomer Tony Revolori and Ralph Fiennes, employees at the prestigious Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka in the 1930s. The film follows Gustave’s mentorship of young lobby boy Zero, his sudden inheritance of a painting by a dead older lover (Tilda Swinton), his subsequent framing for her murder and the chase to both recover the painting and break Gustave out of prison.

Anderson’s works sometimes seem to vacillate between a focus on the world they are creating and the characters they are following, and that dichotomy is well and present here. The pastel-colored world of Zubrowka is captured with all the idiosyncrasy and precision Anderson is known for: written notes, books and objects are shot straight on with loving detail, flat-planed shots center characters in the middle of the frame, and hand-crafted miniatures depict many of the film’s more fantastical settings and vehicles.

The cast is uniformly excellent, but to be honest it’s hard to be bad at the kind of understated monotone many Anderson characters speak in. (To that end, I can’t really decide if Tony Revolori is actually a good actor or just wooden enough to fit into Anderson’s aesthetic.) However, Ralph Fiennes is a highlight, showcasing an effete yet vulgar bastion of hospitality, something that is clearly lost to the ravages of war and time. Gustave is shown to be a proud, polite and giving man, carrying a sense of décor that has long since left the rest of the world – something the older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) clearly admires and attempts to carry on. The rest of the cast gets their moments to shine, particularly Willem Dafoe’s creepy hitman and Jeff Goldblum’s verbose lawyer, but the film starts to feel bloated at cameo after useless cameo of Anderson staples. Edward Norton doesn’t show the same gee-whiz spark here as a German commander as he did in Moonrise Kingdom. However, I will say that I love the film’s central conceit of The Pianist’s Adrien Brody playing a faux-SS officer chasing down Amon Goeth from Schindler’s List.

While this is filmed just as excellently and reliably as you’d expect from Anderson, he tries a few new tricks that add to its novelty. The story is filmed in three different aspect ratios, one for each timeline, but this trick doesn’t get played often; due to the nature of the story, most of the time is spent in the 1.33:1 Academy ratio used to tell the central story of young Zero and Gustave. At the same time, it’s probably been decades since someone shot a film meant to be viewed in that narrow square reserved for older movies, so I’m honestly not going to complain – the film looks gorgeous.

In short, The Grand Budapest Hotel is thoroughly middle-of-the-road Anderson, but for me that only means it’s sort of incredible. I hesitate to say there are flaws in the film, so I’ll simply say it didn’t thrill me in the way Rushmore or The Fantastic Mr. Fox still does for me. That being said, it remains an incredibly charming watch, and I look forward to the next time I’ll get to see it.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It!

The Grand Budapest Hotel Drinking Game:
1) Drink anytime Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) swears
2) Drink whenever a character looks straight at the camera
3) Drink for closeups of vintage-looking objects
Finish Your Drink When:
Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) says, “Did he just throw my cat…out of the window?”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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