Thursday, April 24, 2014

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL




Being a massive fan of Wes Anderson and his films, it was quite a shock when, unlike the rest of the world, I found myself less than impressed with his previous film “Moonrise Kingdom”.  While I was definitely in the minority, with most people counting the film as the director’s best, I just found the film to be too self consciously quirky for its own good, and the (over) stylization of the film ended up suffocating the emotional drama within.  What is most surprising about this is that it is these quirks and his exact visual stylisations of his films that I usually find the most endearing about Anderson’s features, and yet with “Moonrise Kingdom”, I found these same things the film’s greatest deficiency.  I was worried that Anderson had come as far as he could with his style of making films or I had just grown tired of it; either way it saddened me.  Thankfully, Anderson’s follow up film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, has come out in quick succession and as soon as I saw the film’s first trailer, I knew that I was going to love this film; strange, considering it looked his most stylised film to date.

The majority of the film is set in the early 1930’s in the fictional European country of Zubrowka, where we are witness to the many adventures of the famed concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustave H. and his trusted lobby boy, Zero.  The oddball couple find themselves mixed up in a story involving a murder mystery, an art theft, a jailbreak and a battle of wills in regards to a family fortune, all against the backdrop of impending war.

After watching “The Grand Budapest Hotel” it goes without saying that my reaction towards “Moonrise Kingdom” must have been an anomaly because I absolutely love Wes Anderson’s new film, to the point that it may even be my favourite film from him yet.  As the trailers indicated this is indeed Anderson’s most stylised film to date, but unlike the previous film, this style works in favour of the film, not against it.  Whilst Anderson’s previous films have always been quirky, there was always a reality within them; be it the very human themes he was dealing with or the characters that inhabited his worlds.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is pure fantasy, playing more like an animated film than anything that exists in the real world, and it is this reason that the stylisation within the film works so well.  Anderson actually appears to be celebrating the artifice of the film, and of filmmaking in general of that period (the 1930’s) with his use of matte paintings and extensions, his use of models and miniatures and even the odd scene done via stop motion.  In fact the film reminded me a lot of the British films that Hitchcock made back in the thirties which is a huge compliment.  Even though I feel this is Anderson’s most stylised film to date, I also believe that he uses restraint in regards to this style beautifully.  He seems totally in control of the film at all times, with his minute details and exact framing coming through in every shot, and yet it never feels overdone here.  It goes without saying that the work done by Anderson’s greatest collaborator, Robert Yeoman (his cinematographer), is yet again exemplary.  One thing I was happy to see go was Anderson’s fascination with the colour yellow, with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” using a slightly different colour palette than normal.  While the film is still full of pastel colours, pink seems to be the dominant colour here with the hotel itself being that colour, as are the boxes containing the famous pastries used in the film.

While I stand to be corrected here, I’m guessing that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” has the largest number of characters so far in a Wes Anderson film and amazingly all of these characters seem to be played by huge stars of both Hollywood and abroad.  Anderson’s regular troupe of actors all show up here, some in blink-and-you will-miss-it roles, but it is always great to see Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe and Jason Schwartzman show up in these films.  Anderson has yet again introduced a number of new faces into his team with characters also being played by Saorise Ronan, Lea Seydoux, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel and MatthieuAmalric to name but a few.  However the greatest performance in the film comes from none other than Ralph Fiennes who plays our lead character Gustave H.  He is absolutely hilarious in the film and for mine, this is his best performance to date.  Casting directors need to take note at just how great Fiennes is at doing comedy, because in both this film and “In Bruges” he absolutely shines at his brightest, but it appears that he keeps getting relegated to the same stuffy type period roles.  Anyway, the way he portrays Gustave is as a man who takes his job as concierge with the utmost respect and sincerity (which he expects from all his staff), and if he happens to get something out of it, it is all well and good.  He also sees himself as something of a poet and his use of the English language is always of an appropriate nature although he is not above dropping the odd “F” bomb or making insulting generalisations if backed into a corner.  What I also loved about Fiennes’s performance was the physical side he brought to the character particularly the ridiculous way Gustave ran.  However, Fiennes is only as good as he is due to his partner he is acting with and the chemistry between he and Tony Revolori (who plays Zero) is sublime.  The way the two bounce off of each other is hilarious particularly with the deadpan way Revolori delivers his lines.   

While the film is no doubt a “Wes Anderson” film, it is something of a departure for this talented director.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is his first murder/mystery and it is also his most violent film to date.  At no times would you call the film a gore-fest, but there is enough blood and dismembered fingers within to differentiate it from the rest of the Anderson canon.  The film also has a number of suspense sequences, including a spectacular one involving Jeff Goldblum’s character, and I must admit I was surprised at just how well Anderson was at constructing the sequences and maintaining the suspense throughout.  It proves that there is more to Anderson than just the quirks and visual ticks of his films.

Another interesting thing in regards to “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the fact that the story is told across three different time periods, with Anderson differentiating each period by a different aspect ratio.  The majority of the film plays in the 1930’s and during these scenes Anderson employs the Academy ratio or the 4:3 “square” ratio that was used in films of that era.  The parts that take place in the 60’s and modern time are shot in the 2:35 “widescreen” ratio and the 1:85 ratio (of today’s television screens) respectively.  While artistically the change in ratios is a great idea, it does seem to cause problems when the film is being shown theatrically.  From a personal standpoint I must say that I like the fact that the old Academy ratio seems to be in vogue these days, and that more films and filmmakers are using it.  It is great at showcasing depth in a shot and with the amount of detail Anderson puts into every frame of his film, it seems obvious that he would have no problem mastering the frame and that it would benefit him greatly.

Due to the fact that the film is about a character reminiscing, there is obviously a sense of nostalgia in the story being told.  The film takes place between two wars, and as such cannot have been the nicest of times, but due to the nostalgia infused into the story, it is always presented in the most positive of lights.  And yet the film also has strong sense of melancholy attached to it, which is always present but never overpowers the film.  It is always in the background, never front and centre, but comes from the inevitable outcomes of a number of the characters and the fact that the story takes place during a time of great change; it is the end of an era and the things that Gustave loves about the world are slowly disappearing.

Overall, I just fell in love with “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.  It is a fantastically scripted film that is full of hilarious one liners delivered with vigour by the entire cast but particularly by Ralph Fiennes.  With Gustave H., both Anderson and Fiennes have made their greatest character yet.  The only issue I have with the film is that I think the “double” framing device may be a little too cute for its own good, but that is it.  The film is hyper-stylised but Anderson keeps everything in check and never lets the style overpower the story he is telling.  The murder/mystery, while light, is perfectly handled by Anderson and he also shows great skill in creating and sustaining suspense in a number of scenes.  Also with a running time of just 100 minutes, the film is crammed to the gills.  It is thoroughly entertaining and is arguably Anderson’s greatest achievement to date.


4 Stars.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

ENEMY




Denis Villeneuve’s previous film, “Prisoners”, caught me off guard and absolutely blew me away with its intense look at two men pushed to the brink and forced to do extreme things after one of their daughters is kidnapped.  After watching this harrowing film, I made sure to search out any other projects directed by this talented French Canadian, and have so far caught up with his 2009 film “Polytechnique” and a short film he did entitled “Next Floor” (with my “Incendies” blu-ray currently in transit to me).  Everything I have watched by Villeneuve up until this point has impressed me, but the film that I was most looking forward to checking out, was his latest film “Enemy”.  Although the film has been released after “Prisoners”, it was actually shot before it, thus making “Enemy” the first collaboration between the director and its star, Jake Gyllenhaal.  The two films could not be more different, as “Enemy” is a mind bending mystery/thriller that seems to have been tailor made to my own obsessions within cinema.

The film is about a university teacher, Adam, who one day by chance, happens to notice his exact double in a movie he is watching on dvd.  This revelation seems to shake Adam up, and he becomes obsessed with meeting the actor, Anthony, at first on just a curiosity level.  When the two boys finally meet and realise that they are indeed exact doubles of one another (with matching scars to boot), it sets into motion a series of events that sees Adam and Anthony start to infiltrate the lives of the other, with their unsuspecting wife/girlfriend being pawns in their games of duplicity.

As I mentioned above “Enemy” is the type of cinema that I just adore.  I love movies that are open to interpretation, that feature characters who may or may not be suffering a mental breakdown, and the phenomenon of doppelgangers totally intrigues me.  What is so exciting about “Enemy” is working out just what is going on in the film.  Villeneuve has smartly chosen not to explain anything, leaving it totally up to interpretation, while littering the film with clues throughout.  Like pieces of a puzzle that could be put together in a number of different ways, there are a plethora of theories that could be concluded in regards to what is happening in “Enemy”.  The big question is whether or not both Adam and Anthony are real, and if not, just which one is a figment of whose imagination?  Are the events of the film happening concurrently, or do they represent moments of the past and present combined?  The fact that both characters seem to be going through very similar things in their lives, particularly from a sexual standpoint, is very interesting, to the point that the entire film could be based around the guilt of a sexual affair.  While I am not going to go into massive detail on my own interpretation I will mention that my personal belief is that the two guys are one person, and that the other is a representation of his guilt (or his temptation) from a past affair.  Who is who though, I will leave up to you.  To get to this conclusion, you need to look at the many clues in the film which include the wedding ring, the conversations with the mother, the wife’s suspicion, the key in the envelope, the blueberries, the car crash, the topic of history repeating itself, the photographs and of course, the big one, the spiders.  While I am not saying that my theory is the correct one, I do have my own theory mapped out in my mind, but knowing that there could be numerous more explanations is what makes a film like “Enemy” so exciting.

In regards to the visual representation of the world of “Enemy”, I found it to be a bit of a mixed bag.  Personally I was not a fan of the over-filtered look of the film, particularly the choice of using the dirty yellow/orange filter as the predominate colour.  While the film does look unique, to me it came across incredibly ugly and even made it hard to distinguish between some of the images.  What I did like however was the way Villeneuve chose to shoot Toronto.  This is Toronto as it has never looked before and he gives the place an appropriate “alien” feeling to it all.  There is a coldness to this world that just seems right, and it also has a level of decay to it that seems spot on.  In terms of set design, Adam and Anthony’s worlds are distinguished by their apartments with Adam’s being very empty and rundown, whilst Anthony’s is more lived in and polished.

From an acting standpoint, Jake Gyllenhaal does an amazing job of differentiating his two characters, but does so in such a subtle way.  Firstly he makes Adam less assertive and nervous and as such he holds his body much differently than his counterpart.  He is more slouched over, with his shoulders down, whilst Anthony appears more confident, standing straighter and more upright at all times.  Adam always seems more nervous in his speech, whilst Anthony has a sense of arrogance to him.  It is too simple to say that Adam is the good guy, and Anthony the bad, but aspects of their personalities deem this to be so.  After both “Prisoners” and “Enemy” I must say that I am becoming seriously impressed by Gyllenhaal’s ability to create a character particularly with the use of his body.  He is outstanding in “Enemy” and is the sole reason the film works as well as it does.  Saying that, the girls are no slouches either, with both Melanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon both impressing in their roles.  Gadon in particular is fantastic, as she plays the pregnant wife of Anthony who must deal with the suspicions that he is having an affair, or worse, losing his mind.  You can sense in her that she wants to forget the past, although trusting her husband outright, may be a luxury that she no longer can afford and that the man she once fell in love with, may not be the man he is now.  I also applaud the choice to use two actresses who look similar in nature, as it helps to blur just what is going on in the film.

A film like “Enemy” is extremely hard to talk about without imposing your own opinions on it, which in turn has the potential to colour someone else’s interpretation, and as such, I really do not want to say much more about it.  All you need to know is that “Enemy” is a mind-bender that is well worth your time; it is exciting and energetic cinema and I wish that there was more films like it.  The film is brilliantly acted by a superb Gyllenhaal, who creates two distinct characters out of Adam and Anthony, and Villeneuve backs him up in the directing department by creating a surreal world for him to inhabit.  The best thing about “Enemy” though is its repeat value, as this is a film you can see again and again, and get something different from each time.  This is highly recommended folks, if just for the final image in the film.  (Oh, and the poster for “Enemy” is the best I have seen for a very long time).


4 Stars.

Monday, April 14, 2014

STAGE FRIGHT




Proudly being marketed as a cross between “Glee” and “Scream”, “Stage Fright” is the (surprisingly) much hyped feature debut from director Jerome Sable.  Similar to this film, Sable’s short film “The Legend Of Beaver Dam” is a hybrid of the horror and musical genres and is loved by all that have seen it.  “Beaver Dam” was staged around a campfire ghost story that somehow awakens an evil spirit that terrifies the campers.  Having great success with the short film, it is perhaps no surprise that Sable has chosen another musical / horror film for his debut, this time a riff on 80’s slasher films.  Did Sable succeed in proving that lightning can indeed strike twice?

“Stage Fright” begins ten years prior to when the bulk of the film takes place, as we are witness to Kylie Swanson, mother of twins Camilla and Buddy, being brutally murdered just as she was on the brink of stardom.  Kylie is killed by a masked bandit; the same mask which happens to be worn by her co-star in the play she is acting in, “The Haunting Of The Opera”.  Leaving her kids orphaned, Roger McCall (the theatre’s artistic director and producer) takes up the position of guardian and raises and brings up Kylie’s children.  Cut to ten years later and McCall’s career is basically dead in the water with him now running a musical theatre camp where the twins work as both cook and cleaner.  McCall sees one final chance to revive his former glory by producing a new version of “The Haunting Of The Opera” (a play that has not been performed since the brutal murder) and impressing an important theatre critic.  Casting of the project begins immediately and surprisingly Camilla shows an interest in reprising the role that would have made her mother famous.  Against McCall’s better wishes, he agrees to let Camilla audition, who succeeds in being one of two actresses groomed for the main role.  However, while the girls compete with each other to get the coveted opening night performance, a much more serious issue is affecting the camp.  A serial killer who despises musical theatre is offing camp members at an alarming rate, but with all his hopes and dreams (not to mention money too) attached to this production, McCall is reticent to call the whole thing off.  However, by the time opening night comes around, will anyone be left to perform in the play?

The combination of comedy, horror and music must be a hard thing to get right and yet surprisingly there are a number of great examples of it coming together perfectly.  Films such as “Phantom Of The Paradise”, “Sweeney Todd” and “Repo! The Genetic Opera” are all examples of the horror musical working at the peak of its powers.  Sadly, “Stage Fright” is an example of the opposite.  The problem with the film is that Sable has failed to get the balance right between the horror and musical elements.  It is much more successful with the musical elements, with the scenes of horror falling very flat.  They are very bloody and I appreciate that the majority of the gore effects were practical, but there was no set up or build up for each gore gag.  With little or no suspense, it feels as if people just suddenly die.  Also there is a surprising number of off-screen killings where we only see the aftermath of the mayhem, which is a little disappointing.

Another big issue I had with “Stage Fright” was the decision by Sable to make the killer’s identity a mystery because it is anything but.  It is very easy to work out just who the killer is because it can really only be one person.  Once the mask is removed and we see who it is, it is like “Well, duh”.  Even the design of the “metal killer” has been handled poorly, with the dark variation of the kabuki mask looking rather ridiculous, and those lame songs that he randomly belts out………do not get me started.

As I mentioned though, as a musical “Stage Fright” is much more successful with a number of the songs (particularly early on) being very catchy and filled with some quite clever lyrics; in fact the opening half an hour of “Stage Fright” is when the film is at its most enjoyable, even though most of its comedy falls embarrassingly flat.  The film’s hyper-colourful style also seems most appropriate during these early scenes too.

In terms of acting, no one really impresses although I enjoyed seeing Minnie Driver on-screen again (what did happen to her career?), even though it was far too short, and I thought Meat Loaf did his best with his underwritten role (and at least he impressed lyrically).  In fact that is a problem with all of the characters; there is nothing to any of them and they are totally interchangeable, making it hard for us, the audience, to care for them and for an actor to inject any personality or emotional honesty in their roles.  The person who struggles the most though is poor Allie MacDonald who plays our lead Camilla.  She is just terrible, giving a flat and lifeless performance.  Even musically she sounds shocking, making it hard to believe she would ever legitimately get the type of role she does here.

So did I like anything about “Stage Fright”?  Sadly, the answer is not much, although I thought the casting couch antics of the director and his two stars were slightly amusing.  The other thing I liked was the film’s amazing retro poster that captures the 80’s spirit perfectly; something the film was unable to achieve.  Also while I initially liked the trailer for “Stage Fright”, after seeing the movie now, I can say it gives away too much of the film leaving no surprises.

Overall, I wanted to like “Stage Fright” so badly, but in the end I just couldn’t.  The film suffers due to a lack of balance between the horror and musical scenes and the mystery of who the killer is, is anything but.  Sadly my recommendation in regards to “Stage Fright” is don’t believe the hype; there is nothing special to see here.


1.5 Stars.