Six Degrees of Separation: “The Grand Budapest Hotel” to “American Sniper”
In Six Degrees of Separation, we take two films and connect them through directors, actors, and characters using six or fewer connections.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (global ranking #387) has a complex plot that spans over decades in the life of the world-famous Grand Budapest Hotel located in the fictional Republic of Zubowka leading up to a Second World War climate. It follows the adventures of legendary concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and his most trusted friend, lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). Gustave isn’t only legendary for his unrelenting pursuit to make the Grand Budapest the greatest hotel that ever existed, but he also has a tendency to bed the elderly and wealthy female guests of the hotel. “I’ve loved every one of them,” he explains to Zero. It’s this love that starts off the adventure. When his wealthiest and almost oldest lover, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies suddenly and mysteriously, Gustave is requested to attend the reading of the will. Madame D has left him, much to the dismay of her family, the priceless painting “Boy with Apple.” He gets kicked out of the reading, after grabbing the painting, then Zero and him head back to the Grand Budapest to hide the painting and continue life as normal. Soon after Gustave is thrown in prison for the murder of Madame D and it’s up to Zero and his girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) to help clear Gustave’s name. They also have to avoid being imprisoned or killed themselves by the Nazi-esque military that’s seizing control of Zubowka. While all this is going on the film cuts back and forth between three different time periods each having their own stories that add context and sometimes a surprise to the main story.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s eighth film and his most financially successful. It also happens to be one of his most critically beloved films, and for good reason. Ralph Fiennes as Gustave brings a real pathos to the movie, something that is missing from most Wes Anderson movies. Anderson’s movies often feel cold. His scripts, all of which he has at least a co-writers credit on, are so mannered that the actors come off sounding unnatural. It can be distracting and cause a feeling of having just watched a facade, where the characters rarely come off as believable living people. Fiennes overcomes that and makes Gustave, with all his idiosyncratic behavior, a real person. It’s hard to see the characters in The Grand Budapest Hotel as real people. Jeff Goldblum as the lawyer who brings his cat everywhere or Willem Defoe as the knuckle cracking, snarling henchman would fit better in Fantastic Mr. Fox, but by putting Fiennes at the center of this film The Grand Budapest Hotel only comes off as warm and lovely.
First Connection: Ralph Fiennes was in In Bruges with Brendan Gleeson
In Bruges (global ranking #434) directed by Martin McDonagh is a darkly comedic crime movie about two London hit men, Ray (Colin Farrel) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), who travel to Bruges to lay low after an innocence bystander is killed during their most recent hit. They’re waiting to hear from their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) on what the next steps are. “Maybe that’s what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in f—ing Bruges,” Says Ray. Ray’s not happy about staying in the boring town in Belgium especially since he can’t shake the feeling of having innocent blood on his hands. Ken, on the other hand, falls in love with the sleepy little hamlet and spends most of the time dragging Ray along to sight-see. During one of these outings, Ray meets a woman and a romance starts to form while Ken receives some unsavory instructions from Harry. He’s not enthusiastic about performing Harry’s task, given that he has recently been enchanted by Bruges and is contemplating leaving his life of crime. Soon as an angry Harry shows up to take matters into his own hands.
All the actors in In Bruges do well in handling the twisty, witty dialogue and are able to bring out the humor in what can be a very dark script. Brendan Gleeson is playing a similar character to that in his other films, a soft-spoken working class man who is surprisingly gentle incongruous to his size and naturally grumpy demeanor. Here he’s added a bit of danger to him, not just because he’s a hit man and certainly not because he wants to spend his time in Bruges taking in the history, but in how he interacts with Ray. Instead of shrugging off every one of Ray’s filthy negative comments he occasionally lashes back, reminding Ray that he kills people for a living. Gleeson plays this balance so well. The cuddly Doberman that is kind, loving, and loyal then you stand over it the wrong way and it can bite your face off. In Bruges was a sleeper hit, now a cult classic, that very well could have ended up being a second tier “dark comedy” that had a few funny lines and then forgotten. It’s success has to be in part if not mostly because of Gleeson’s humble performance.
Second Connection: Brendan Gleeson was in Breakfast of Pluto directed by Neil Jordan
Breakfast on Pluto (global ranking #3546) set in the 1970s stars Cillian Murphy as Patrick “Kitten” Braden a young trans woman who was placed on a priest’s rectory doorstep as a baby and raised by a strict foster mother in a small Irish Catholic town. Kitten grows up to become a unique individual who wants to travel to England to search for her biological mother. All Kitten knows is that she looks like Mitzi Gaynor and her town doesn’t understand who she is. Along her journey, Kitten sings with a rock band, is arrested for being a suspected IRA bomber, becomes a magician’s assistant, and works at a peep show. Throughout her journey Kitten’s optimism is tested and her life is threatened on many occasions, not to mention the general fear and disgust she receives from other people, but she stays true to Kitten and doesn’t let all the seriousness of these people bring her down.
Breakfast on Pluto is a solid movie all around, but the stand out is Neil Jordan’s direction and co-writing with Patrick McCabe. Kitten’s story isn’t about someone trying to find who they are or where they belong. There are too many movies, mostly bad ones, like that. It’s about a person so secure in who they have chosen to be that it can speak about big themes using small experiences. Kitten doesn’t change the world or make it a more accepting place, but she does have an effect on everyone she meets and they turn out to be better people usually at her expense. Neil Jordan doesn’t judge these characters, even the ones who are most cruel to Kitten get a fair shake in Breakfast on Pluto. The non-judgmental way Jordan directed this movie has made a wild story about a unique person, very universal and easy to identify with. Like Kitten, the film Breakfast on Pluto won’t change the world, but it could help one person try to understand someone else, which can make a huge difference in those two people’s lives.
Third Connection: Neil Jordan directed The Crying Game staring Forest Whitaker
The Crying Game (global ranking #1605) is a 1992 Oscar winning, best screenplay, film directed by Neil Jordan that again like Breakfast on Pluto was dealing with the same kinds of equality and acceptance issues we are now in 2015. Stephen Rea plays Fergus a IRA volunteer who along with other IRA members capture Judy (Forest Whitaker) an english soldier to use as an exchange with the English government for a imprisoned IRA member. The English have three days to make the trade or Judy will be killed. The first third of the film is basically a two man show with Fergus being the prison guard for Judy. Soon Fergus has taken off Judy’s blind fold and they are talking as if they’re friends and not prisoner and guard. Judy starts wearing down Fergus’ defenses with stories and a genuine charm that makes us question whom’s holding whom captive. Judy tells Fergus about his special girl and in a really touching scene makes Fergus promise that he will look after her once Judy is dead – asking someone to promise to look after your loved one wasn’t as big a cliche in 1992 as it sounds today. The three days end and no trade has been made, so Fergus is forced to march Judy out to the woods to kill him. After some hesitation and yelling Judy runs away. As Fergus catches up to Judy and draws his gun an English Military truck runs over and kills Judy. This all happens with in the first act of the film. Then it becomes Fergus’ story as he fleas to London to start his life over and slowly tries to keep his promise to Judy.
The Crying Game is a Forest Whitaker movie regardless of the fact that he’s only in the first 30 minutes. The other actors turn in good performances, but Whitaker has so much charm and passion injected into his roll that after he dies the film drops drastically. When Judy dies you see it coming, not in a telegraphed lazy way, but the scenes between him and Fergus build in tension so mush that it’s the only logical place the story could go. It’s superb writing and the actors know exactly how to handle it. The film deserves its best screenplay award for the first act alone. Forest Whitaker carries the film so well in those scenes he should have at least been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The next hour and fifteen minutes of The Crying Game are good, but it never reaches that tension level again. It almost reaches a level of bad melodrama. The brash and cocky Forest Whitaker in The Crying Game isn’t the same Forest Whitaker that we see in his recent performances, but it’s a Forest Whitaker that takes the best scenes of a decent movie and makes them fantastic scenes of a very good movie.
Fourth Connection: Forest Whitaker was in Where the Wild Things Are with James Gandolfini
Where the Wild Things Are (global ranking #2238) directed by Spike Jonze is based on the children’s book of the same name written by the late Maurice Sendak. It’s about Max (Max Records) a tween who has trouble fitting in with other kids, probably due to the fact that he prefers to wear a furry jumpsuit that has wolf ears and a tale rather than regular clothes, as well as his own family. His older brother hates him as only siblings can hate each other, with every fiber of their being. His single mom (Catherine Kenner) is trying to work, be a good parent, and have a social life of her own. She is constantly getting frustrated with Max, who is immature for his age, and lashes out at him. On one such occasion her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) is coming over and Max is being especially difficult about cleaning up the house. His mom sends him to bed without dinner. Max sneaks out of the house and gets on a boat and sails away to a land inhabited by creatures. Some ferocious, some fairly nice, and some that are down depressed. Luckily Max is wearing his wolf costume and with the over confidence that comes from being a twelve year old he scares the creatures into making him king. The rest of the film is Max dealing with all the ups and downs of ruling a kingdom where he just might be the most mature creature.
“Let the wild rumpus begin!” Max screams after he is crowned king and rumpus they do. So does director Spike Jonze. He dove head first into this wild children’s story and creates such a believable world. He accomplished this by having the creatures be real people in suits and only accenting them and their world with CG. Seeing Max physically bounce off these creatures is so dynamic and wonderful compared to the weightlessness, unsubstantial CG characters, such as the newest Ninja Turtles. These creatures are living, not just because of the space they take up, but the voice cast brings them to life. Catherine O’Hara is Judith, motherly creature to Max, who calls him out on his baloney where his real mother it at a loss. Paul Dano voices Alexander, one of the smallest creatures, who’s the most neurotic and is battling depression. Forest Whitaker plays Ira the shy and biggest of the creatures. It’s as if the roles where cast first and then the story was written. The main creature and the one most like Max is Carol, voiced by the gone too soon and great James Gandolfini. Instead of relying on Gandolfini’s thunderous voice and type-casting him in a head of the family role, in Where the Wild Things Are his voice is vaguely childish. Ranging from higher pitched excitement to a very kicking-the-can, Eeorye-ish mumbling. The minimal CG on the faces of the creatures means it’s up to the voice cast to sale the emotions of the characters. James Gandolfini does so much for his character with just his voice it’s a shame he didn’t get more voice work or more roles like Carol in live action films.
Fifth Connection: James Gandolfini was in Killing them Softly with Ben Mendelsohn
Killing Them Softly (global ranking #3231). Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is a hit man who likes to “kill them softly,” from a distance, it’s less emotional that way and Jackie doesn’t like emotions. Two men bust into a private card game to steal all the winnings and the player’s valuables. It turns out that this card game is protected by the mob. You don’t rob from the mob. They hire Jackie to come to town, a beautifully shot broken down Louisiana, and he gets to work trying to find the men that committed the robbery. Robber Frankie (Scoot McNairy) is laying low in Louisiana and his partner Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) an Australian expat, took his spoils to Florida to start a drug dealing business. Then there’s Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) the mastermind behind the heist, the only one of the three who seems to know what he’s doing as well as the actual stakes that are involved in robbing the mob. He also is “friends” with Jackie and believes he’s above suspicion. Russell ends up bragging to the wrong person about the heist, which of course gets back to Jackie. Jackie then goes after Frankie and Russell, but brings in Micky (James Gandolfini) another hit man from New York to take out Squirrel, since Jackie knows Squirrel and the hit might get emotional. Things get even more complicated from there. Jackie also thinks Markie (Ray Liotta), who was running the card game, should also be killed. Plus Micky broke his parole to come do the job, but is spending most of his time drinking and sleeping with prostitutes. All this is set against a back drop of the 2008 financial crisis and then congressman Barack Obama’s HOPE campaign and Presidential run.
The cast of this film is stellar and everyone is firing on all cylinders. Killing Them Softly is an examination of the way Americans were feeling during the 2008 crisis and after. The fear and anger with the people in charge and the frustration of being impotent when it came to getting one’s life back together. It captures the U.S. spirit at the time perfectly. The spirit is broken down in to different aspects in the three robbers. Squirrel is doing fine and doesn’t seem to need the money. He’s the greed that is selling Frankie on a deal that is too good to be true. Frankie is that ever optimistic down on his luck guy, who is willing to take a huge risk. He’s been down so long he’ll do anything to come back up. Russell is the cynical one and the most interesting. He was low to begin with and America has come down to his level. When we first meet Russell he’s got several dogs on leashes, that he claims are pure breads, he stolen to sale down in Florida. Once he’s at seven grand he’s going to buy an ounce of smack and deal that. If Frankie wants to do the job, he will. If Frankie doesn’t, that’s fine too. Russell has this new world figured out. Ben Mendelsohn’s Russell isn’t in much of the movie after the initial set up and heist, but he steals the show when he’s on screen. Mendelsohn has a presence, it never seems like he’s acting. Mendelsohn’s character has been living long before the film started.
Final Connection Ben Mendelsohn is in The Place Beyond the Pines with Bradley Cooper
The Place Beyond the Pines (global ranking #1100) is really two films. The first half of the film is all about Luke (Ryan Gosling) a motorcycle stuntman who travels around with a small fair. When he ends up back in his home town for a show, Romina (Eva Mendes) an ex-girlfriend shows up to let Luke know he’s the father of her infant son, but she doesn’t want him to be involved. Luke isn’t the best candidate for a father. He decides to quit the fair circuit and stay in town anyway, hoping to become a fixture in his young sons life. He gets a part-time job with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) at an auto-repair shop, but times are tough and it’s not long before Robin convinces Luke to start robbing banks, a line of work that Robin used to be in. Money starts rolling in and Romina is giving Luke opportunities to be a father until he gets arrested for getting in a fight with Romina’s current boyfriend. After Robin bails Luke out, Luke wants to immediately start robbing again, but Robin doesn’t. The two have a falling out and Luke storms away and straight to a bank without any prep or backup. The job goes sour and Luke gets held up in a house trying to escape. This is where Bradley Cooper as Avery comes in. He’s a rookie police man who chases Luke down after the robbery and ends up shooting Luke in a questionable stand off. This is were the movie shifts from Luke, Romina, and Robin story to Avery, his family, and the fall out of him shooting and killing Luke. It also shifts to a less interesting more standard fare.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a unique movie. The first half is a very interesting take on a redemption story that goes terribly wrong. This is only amplified by the fact that it’s romance genre heart throb Ryan Gosling covered in tattoos, barely speaking, and occasionally lashing out in great violence. It’s so interesting to watch. Again Ben Mendelsohn shows up to steal scenes, playing a very meek character. He cares for Luke and shows real concern. He helps the audience get on board with Luke’s character. There is a sadness in Mendelsohn’s eyes when Luke storms away for that last robbery. Once the movie switches its focus to Bradley Cooper’s character the movie does lose most of its interestingness. Bradley Cooper does a good job with the material, but the story gets bland in second half. It could have benefited from being trimmed down. The Place Beyond the Pines is one of those movies that is hard to get a hold of, but once it’s seen it very hard to forget.
Bradley Cooper stars in American Sniper
American Sniper (global ranking #2351) is a bio-pic directed by Clint Eastwood and adapted from the book “American Sniper: An Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.” It’s about Chris Kyle’s life starting as a child in Texas, growing up to become a Redo Cowboy, getting married, and joining the Navy after watching the 1998 US Embassy bombing. Once enlisted he becomes a Navy Seal Sniper and is sent to Iraq after 9/11. He becomes know as the “Legend” while in Iraq for all his successful missions. He does four tours of duty, each time is harder than the last and makes him more distant from his family on his return. After his final tour he’s on the edge of a breakdown, haunted by fallen friends, he seeks help from a psychiatrist who is able to him back from the bring. Years later a adjusted and healing Kyle goes out on a shooting range to spend time with another veteran, who for reasons unexplained kills Chris Kyle.
American Sniper has become surrounded by a bit of controversial. The public has basically demanded a Best Picture recount. This seems to be a product of the content in the film rather than the quality of it. One thing’s for certain about American Sniper is the great performance of Bradley Cooper. Clint Eastwood is a very capable director, but he’s not really innovative nor does he add much to the scripts he’s working from. This makes Eastwood’s films an actors showcase. Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar, and now Bradley Cooper in American Sniper. Bradley Cooper has steadily gone from broad big budget comedies to nuanced dramatic roles, with a few forays into horror and a space jaunt as a raccoon, and cinema has and will have more richer, better characters for it.
What connections can you make? Can you do it in less than six?