The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The-Grand-Budapest-HotelI was reading a poll of top films of the year in a music magazine the other day and to my horror I realised that I hadn’t seen any of them. Admittedly it was a magazine that catered for a fairly specific and narrow musical taste and so I assumed approached film in the same way, but still, to draw to complete blank was a bit shocking. It was, therefore, with some delight that I noticed that the film that had come top in that poll was showing on TV the next night. The gods who oversee my cultural education had obviously called in a few favours.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of those films that seems deceptively light, a simple story with no obvious moral message, but at the same time makes you think about how quickly society changes. The plot revolves around the concierge of the hotel of the title and a lobby boy who becomes his friend and confidant in the theft and recovery of a priceless painting.

 

The film itself plays like a well-oiled farce, as the clockwork plotted action flits and hops against the hotels grandeur, the back streets of urban eastern Europe, grand family estates and the grim dens and workplaces of an almost Dickensian world. But the real delights come from the cast, in both the volume of supporting actors and the unlikely roles that they are assigned. The lead Gustave H. is played by Ralph Fiennes, who proves to be a very underrated comic actor, a casting so unexpected that it doubles the joy of his antics on screen. But this truly ensemble piece also casts Jeff Goldblum as a stern family attorney, Edward Norton as a very apologetic police inspector and best of all Willem Dafoe as a cartoon henchman straight out of a Tin Tin book.

 

But for all the wonderfully quirky casting, the fast moving plot and backdrops that mix grandeur and grime as if it had come from the pen of Mervyn Peake, the real theme of the film is obvious. It is Europe itself, the haughty and deluded state between the wars, a world that Gustave H. is desperately clinging on to with its elegance and pomp, its etiquette and self- assurance. This changing world is highlighted succinctly as the story is topped and tailed by a modern day conversation as the now elderly lobby boy recants the story to a guest amid the garish Eastern Bloc décor that the near vacant hotel now sports.

 

A film that for all it’s hidden depths is easy to watch and brings smiles and raised eyebrows all round as much for it’s quirky characters and it brave casting as for the action itself.

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Noah, lost at sea.

noah-movie-2On paper, at least, Noah, the latest epic from Darren Aronofsky, should have been right up my street. As someone interested in ancient history and mythology, a fan of the two leads, Russell Crowe and Ray Winston and also having greatly enjoyed Aronofsky’s previous films such as the sinister Black Swan and the existentialist rom-dram, The Fountain. You even had back up from Jennifer Connolly and Emma Watson, both of whom have decent track records. So what went wrong? Well what didn’t?

 

We all know the story, even those who don’t profess to be scholars of the Old Testament will be familiar with this most fundamental and widespread creation myth, an archetypal take that echoes throughout almost every culture on earth in some form or another. Noah (Crowe) is tasked by God to save the world from the growing wickedness of man by saving his family and two of every animal from an impending flood by building an ark, riding out the storm and then beginning the repopulation of the earth. Set against him is the king of his land, Tubal Cain (Winstone) who believes that if anyone is going to be saved it is him and his family, an situation he will ensure by force if needs be.

 

The film has a very dark demeanour, low lit and brooding scenes mix with dream sequences, which instead of adding a gothic intensity just seem to wallow in their own grumpiness. A sense of dread is what was aimed for; a sense of a teenager being asked to clean his room is what resulted, all sulky looks and overly earnest diatribe.

 

And I have to take issue with the scenery. I can excuse the lack of sweeping sand dunes that you half expect from your Biblical epic, most of the stories that have come to us from the earliest parts of the Old Testament have a very vague sense of location. From a purely historical view point any references to a large scale deluge probably point to an origin around the Black Sea which underwent vast geographic changes due to flooding in the earliest of history. But to set the backdrop as a blasted post-apocalyptic earth that you expect Mad Max to come racing through at any moment was bewildering to say the least. And the less said about a distinctly unseaworthy vessel that they constructed, more like a cross between a American Civil War submarine proto-type and a modern container ship.

 

The Watchers of the Bible have long been a contentious and interesting subject for scholars to ponder. Fallen Angels? An advanced creator culture that has been lost from history? An alien race? Sadly Aronofsky is content to borrow the Stone Giants from Lord of The Rings and in doing so misses what may have been a captivating take on the argument.

 

And if the setting is a massive re-imagining bordering on a fantasy setting, neither does the script and direction do much for the acts. Crowe broods, Winstone shouts, Connelly and Watson simper and faff around and even Anthony Hopkins looks embarrassed to be there.

 

Basically, to take the analogy to its illogical conclusion, Noah sinks without trace, is soggy and far too self-conscious to be to hold water. Abandon ship!

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20,000 Days on Earth

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Jolly Goodfellas:- a review of Love, Honour and Obey

081112103325_l“Love, Honour and Obey” is not only a funny film parody of the London criminal underworld, it is an interesting experiment in film making techniques, the results of which seem to have polarised its audience into people who either love it or hate it. Like Monty Python, the Goons and other such trail blazers viewers seem to hold very strong opinions on these types of shows with very few falling into the belligerent middle ground. I’m not for one minute suggesting that this film stands shoulder to shoulder with those luminaries but it is worth mentioning that both the aforementioned had very poor early reviews but have since gone on to be regarded as turning points in comedy. So what is it about this film that was original in its concept? Whilst working as directors at the BBC Dominic Anciano and Ray Burdis developed a free style of film making where the actors improvise dialogue within a loose script brief as the cameras roll. It is something that they used in their first film “Final Cut” and the TV police series “Operation Good Guys” which featured many of the same actors.

The film centres on Johnny (Johnny Lee Miller) who is fed up with his dead end job and so talks his best friend Jude (Jude Law) into getting him a job in his uncles less than legal operations. Whereas Johnny is hankering after a flash and exciting lifestyle, the gang boss (Ray Winstone) is after a quiet life, he is trying to plan his wedding and his right hand man (director Ray Burdis) has his own problems. Johnny’s answer is to make trouble with a rival gang from South London and becomes involved in a personal squabble with his opposite number (Rhys Ifans) a fight that is in danger of spoiling the respectable status quo that has up until now been maintained. As the personal vendettas escalate, the two protagonists become obsessed with each other’s destruction until they cross the line and fall under the wrath of their relative bosses.

So does the improvisational style work? Well largely yes, at its best it is razor sharp, Ray Burdis and Kathy Burkes interactions are top notch but some of the scenes too often become reduced to slanging matches with too many characters trying to be heard over the rest and reminiscent of Grange Hill. What also works so well is the low-key British feel to the film. If this was an American production it would be centred on large drug shipments or expensive arms deals and all of the gang members would be carrying half a ton of automatic weapons. Here the two gangs clash over the supply of fruit machines to small boozers and by and large actively avoid weapons. As Sadie says to her husband as he is reaching for a pistol before heading off to sort out a problem “put that away, you’ll get four years for that” with this realistic mindset behind it falls into a cross between a kitchen sink Eastenders style drama and a black humour parody of small time gangs. All of the elements may be familiar but you have never quite seen it done like this before. Often the free style the decidedly ordinary camera work and the decision not to shoot in a digital format makes you feel that you are watching a reality show or fly on the wall documentary. Although there is continuity to the film, it still comes across as a series of loosely related scenes, many of which seem to be chunks of a sketch show and which often do little to move the film along. Some of these scenes are memorable as one off pieces of humour, Ray Winstone yelling, “fix bayonets” during a shoot out in a lumber yard as his gang fall apart with fits of giggles. Some are just bizarre; one poor guy being force fed LSD and forced to eat dog food. After previously being stabbed and then later blown up he admits that he doesn’t think that he should be in this line of work anymore.

The actors mainly use their own names which may seem an endearing touch but apparently has more to do with the improvisational style, when you are working off the cuff it is easy to resort to the other actors actual names, so they used them all the way through. There is a strange mix of well-known British film actors and recognisable TV comedy stars, the type you recognise but can’t put a name too. Whilst Law, Burke and Winstone all stand out, which is what you expect from such talents, Millar as the main character fails to impress and the rest of the cast seem to be just…well, present.

This was never going to be a British response to Pulp Fiction, but I’m sure that was never their intention and to be honest Tarrentino’s style of film doesn’t really translate to a London landscape. It isn’t a million miles away from “Snatch”, but whilst that is played slightly tongue in cheek, this is played unashamedly for laughs, even if they are often borne of the brutal and the bizarre. It is a film with moments of genius but on reflection it falls slightly short on almost every level. It has to be satisfied to be a great concept downgraded to a half decent film, rather than a great one. That said its an interesting concept to film in such a free form way and maybe the importance of the film is that it will show people that there are some merits to this style of work. If you like British dark humour or gangster films then you may find much here that you like and if you have experienced “Operation Good Guys” on TV and liked what you saw there then this is definitely for you. As I said in the opening pushing boundaries and creating new ways of making films is not something that pays its dividends immediately and it will be interesting to see how this film is regarded twenty years down the line.

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A film that will both stand…and deliver:- a review of Plunkett and Macleane

220px-Plunkett_&_MacleaneDo you think of period drama as being dry and dusty, Colin Firth wooing well starched young ladies in the clipped accent of an Alexandra Palace announcer, spotless pressed linen clothes and dry sherry and cups of earl grey being drunk with the finger arched at 90 degrees as etiquette demands. Then the perfect antidote is at hand. A film that, as its own blurb claims, “sticks two grubby fingers up” to the whole period drama, a self proclaimed “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels for the Georgian era. Forget Jane Austen’s prime and proper world of tea parties and proper courtships, this film offers an alternative view of the eighteenth century.

Captain James Macleane is languishing in a prison for public drunkenness, a place where he could end his days if the situation doesn’t change. Then like a bolt from the blue his small cell is smashed in by an out of control coach in the process of being robed by highwayman. This lucky break leads to first a temporary freedom, a chance meeting with the Highwayman behind the crime, Will Plunkett, and then a reuniting with a prison cell. After securing their freedom again from ill-gotten gains they hatch the idea of working together. Plunkett has the brains to orchestrate the robberies and Captain Macleane has the society connections that allow him to find out the best people to rob. Always following in their footfalls is the Thief Taker General, a cold and violent man called Chance whose career path is totally dependent on eradicating the increasingly successful pair of “Gentlemen Thieves”.Nothing new there really, pretty much the same old highwayman versus the law story that we are all familiar with. And that is very true, but the films brilliance lies not in the originality of the plot but in the stellar cast, the honest attention to realism and the black humour that lies just under the surface of almost every scene. The setting is reminiscent of a Monty Python film set, muddy with rubbish everywhere, people covered in filth and dressed in rags and tatters and it is this that makes the film look authentic. Even the high society locations show the truth of a period when personal hygiene was an unknown concept and everything was hidden under a wad of wigs, powder and paint. And if the look is right the language goes hand in hand. Instead of sticking to a blanket one-dimensional prime and well-enunciated Georgian English, here we find a mix of styles. In fact it is these whole juxtapositions that set the style of this film. From gentry turning phrases such as “I don’t like the cut of your jib, sir” to rakish cockney playboys retorting “dogs bollocks, that was close”. Whereas most period pieces hone in on what we think of as authenticity this film seems much more realistic due to the attitude and swagger that falls somewhere between Hogarth and the Sex Pistols. Even the music is a pleasant mix of in context chamber music and contemporary beats and rhythms.

But if the background seems to be a perfect canvas upon which to set such a film, what makes the film shine is the acting. The two leads met before in Trainspotting, and the parallels between that deranged and grubbily decadent world are easy to be seen. Robert Carlyle is the out of work Apothecary who has turned his hand to crime and Johnny Lee Millar is the Captain fallen from grace. The two make a fantastic double act as two people who won’t admit that they have so much in common and that eventually genuinely grow to be close friends. But the support cast is also a star turn out, many lead players in their own right. Ken Stott as their cold, calculating and brutal adversary is a joy to watch. A man who has made a name playing police and authority type figures is typically mesmerising as the Malvolio like commoner trying to rise above his station and become an equal to his masters. Alan Cumming also plays a blinder as the bisexual dandy, Rochester, a character that seems to be dressed by an ancestor of Jean-Paul Gaultier and possesses more campness than a Graham Norton convention. The only one of the big names that doesn’t really hit home is the romantic interest, Liv Tyler, who adds her usual stunning looks to the proceedings but adds no massive acting ability. You may even find the likes of Alexander Armstrong, David Walliams and Matt Lucas under all the bouffant wiggery and face powder.As I said this is not a film that offers anything new in the storyline, it contents itself to take the traditional format and represent it as a mix of contemporary and period styles and rely on some damned fine acting and great comic timing and a good script. The action quota is pretty high, there is even a Butch and Sundance style shoot out, and the humour is ever present, from the tried and tested:

Chance: Does that hurt?
Plunkett: Only when I laugh.

To the bawdy:

Macleane: Oh, my angel, my siren’s song, you’ve ambushed me in the forests of your hair, you’ve drowned me in the pools of your eyes, you’ve shackled me to the…
Lady Darcy: Do shut up! F*** me!

Yes some of the script is a bit adult but the film is set in the decadent high society and immoral underworld of an age when ethics and morality had different importance attached to it and to be honest it is nothing you wont find these days on mainstream TV.

The film was directed by Jake Scott, son of the more famous Ridley and good though it is there seems to be an over the top use of directorial flourishes which makes for a sometimes cluttered film where the actors are often in danger of becoming the background and the scenery and effects the primary feature in many scenes, it would appear that he is yet to learn some of the restraint and story telling that comes with experience. That aside it is still a great move and combining an MTV style editing and a lush historical action romp this film really does deliver…should that be stand and deliver.

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Break for the Border :- a review of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

the-three-burials-of-melquiades-estrada-originalAt a time when the world as at it most mistrusting in a cross cultural sense, with one secular or religious group suspiciously eying and pointing fingers at the next, this film, in many ways is well timed and very relevant. But with the focus on the middle east and 9/11 in films and on TV maybe for a more general understanding of cultural intolerance we need to step back a little further, forget the specifics and just view these problems from a higher, less specific position. Tommy Lee Jones directorial debut offers us this and much more besides. By focusing on a story that takes place over the Texas-Mexican border and the relationships and attitudes formed between the two sides, “The Three Burials of Meiquiades Estrada” acts as a microcosm of human nature and makes for a good analogy of a much bigger problem. Jones said in a recent interview “What I’d like the audience to take away is the realisation that it’s possible to look across the river and see yourself”

Whilst the basic plot is a simple one the way it plays is not, as you would expect from screen writer Guillermo Arriaga, the man that brought you 21 Grams, a film that has the same fractured storyline style as this. Simply put it is a story of a friendship, revenge and justice. But it’s not the usual eye-for-an-eye justice usual to this sort of film, but more of a poetic justice, which raises this tale to the realms of parable whilst keeping it realistic and human. Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) is a grizzled ranch foreman who hires and then befriends illegal immigrant “Mel” Estrada. When Mel is found shot and hidden in the desert, the first of the three burials of the title, Pete resolves to take his friends body over the border to bury him in his home town in Mexico. This is where his problems begin as he faces racism and deliberate awkwardness of the officials and Pete finds his only way out is to steal the body and do what is right by his friend. This puts him in conflict with a jaded border patrolman, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) who becomes entwined in Pete’s plans and carried along against his will.

Jones has created a real Tex-Mex back drop to play his story against, a contemporary western in the style of Peckenpah and especially referencing his 1974 nihilistic romantic “Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” Its use of a killing to highlight the tensions in the heterogeneous southern frontier communities smacks also of John Sayles powerful “Lone Star”. There is a lot of symbolism at work here and the characters themselves stand in for bigger concepts. The dead body of Estrada represents a complex question about the illegal immigrant, controversial and unplaceable. Throughout the course of the film his body is subjected to all number of horrors and ill treatment and is somehow transformed in the eyes of the view from the lifeless body of a lost and misplaced ordinary Mexican into an almost saintly figure being taken on a pilgrimage of grace towards his rightful resting place.

As you might expect the journey being undertaken here is not so much physical but more in the soul and neither is it Pete’s journey that is the important one here. It is the rookie patrolman Norton, representing the sad, vacant, materialistic lives on the American side of the border who is forced to confront the world that he lives so close to yet has no understanding of and undergoes a forced evolution into the opposite of a wetback, wearing Estrada’s discarded clothes as they head down Mexico way. It’s one of those films that really leave you thinking about a lot of stuff, from mortality and loss to the very real problems of racism and inhumanity. It’s never preachy or self-aware and isn’t out to impress, it’s just telling a story. I highly recommend this movie. Tommy Lee Jones is blessed to be working on his first venture with the great cinematographer Chris Menges. Mr. Menges’ take on the scenery is one of the best things in the film, much of which was filmed on Jones own west Texas ranch. The musical score by Marco Beltrami is also another asset. The editing of Roberto Silvi sets the tone for the early part of the movie. The script is so well conceived that even though the characters do many misguided things, the viewer can still understand why they are the way they are, there’s no polarised good and evil just intertwined human traits.

Jones film is a powder keg, filled with brutality, gallows humour and deep soul-searching questions, which explode in compassion when you are least expecting it. A great, challenging but ultimately very rewarding film.

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The Prints of Darkness:- a review of One Hour Photo

220px-One_Hour_Photo_movieSince bouncing onto our screens as the fast talking alien in “Mork and Mindy”, Robin Williams film career has been full of varied and interesting choices. Some have been little more than vehicles for his own stand up routine, such as “Good Morning Vietnam” with its semi-ad-lib script and wise cracking motor mouth central character and some have been undertaken for either the pure entertainment value that appeals to Williams nature or possibly for the associated pay cheque. But for every throwaway, Mrs Doubtfire, Flubber and the like, there has been and equal amount of work that reminds us that here is an actor worthy of our admiration, someone who is equally up to the challenge of darker, deeper and questioning films. “The Fisher King” showed us Williams suffering from the repercussions of horrific events from his past and “Awakenings” was a monumental triumph both for Williams as a doctor trying to find a solution for coma patients but also for Robert De Niro as his co-lead. “One Hour Photo” shows us Robin Williams in this light too, in a deep, thoughtful and disturbing role and for the first time we see him as the villain rather than as the good guy, though thinks are not as straight forward as that makes it sound. This film eradicates any doubts about his ability to play a completely straight role.

Williams plays Sy Parish, a long term and very experienced worker in a one-hour photo developer in a large hypermarket. For all his cheery manner and everyman quality, his life is an empty one, a single lonely man, a creature of habit, an empty shell, he eats alone in the local dinning hall and his co-worker observes that he has no friends. There is however one thing that colours his life, the Yorkin family. In the Yorkin’s he sees everything that completes his image of the perfect family, a successful couple, a loving relationship and a young son who is the apple of Sy’s eye. Having seen their life evolve over the years through the photographs he develops, he has fallen in love with everything about his imagined surrogate family, but photographs only show the good things in life, the happy times. Beneath the smiles and the seeming American dream existence there are cracks that have been papered over and it is when Sy finds the evidence of this, his whole demeanour towards the family changes. The film also moves into more gritty territory, Sy the ordinary, lonely, harmless guy becomes a man out for revenge for his shattered dreams and for a secret deep rooted in his past.

What makes Williams so good in this role is his ability to begin the film as this seemingly charming happy and carefree character, the sort of person that populate every shop counter around the world. From the moment we meet him we totally buy into his depiction of mister ordinary and the realisation that these still waters run deeper than we could image makes even more impact because if it. Connie Nielsen as Nina Yorkin, Williams main scene partner for the first half of the film plays the dream mother to a tee and all this smiling normality lulls us into a false sense of security until director Mark Romanek is really to pull the rug from underneath our feet. There are some subtle moves off the beaten track to begin with, one scene that has Sy committing a seemingly remarkable sochttps://thewessexfilmreview.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/220px-one_hour_photo_movie.jpgial trespass begins this quiet re-orientation of the film and by the time we get to the all important reveal scene we find ourselves re-thinking what we thought we knew about the main character. I have had to describe these events in very vague terms as its one of those films that can be ruined by the smallest of information. There is a nice contrast in the settings, and it’s the cinematography itself that builds the atmosphere to a great degree here. Jeff Cronenweth’s bright and intrusive florescent and white interior to the hypermarket make the place seem alien and otherworldly and are a stark contrast to the later more normal backdrops to the action. Even the store uniforms and Williams himself, with his pallid skin tones, add to that ultra vivid image.

The film follows Sy’s mental path as he moves from a lonely fixated man to something far more dangerous when he finally can’t differentiate between reality and the fantasy his mind has created. Once he is no longer satisfied to be a distant voyeur and feels compelled to take matters into his own hands he crosses a line into altogether more dangerous territory. The story is a one-man show and Williams’s character is a very complex character and although he is not mentally complete or balanced there is sympathy for his actions given his past which although only hinted at near the end of the film is evident to the viewer. Its not your usual thriller, there is an everyday quality to the backdrop that makes things even more creepy, these are normal lives, lives like yours and mine. Where as many films involve plots that require a large degree of suspending reality, this film seems far too real. You may ask how a man that prints your photo’s can hold any power over you, but in a world when photographs of a naked baby can be misconstrued as child abuse, the man with access to your family’s photograph album can cause you a lot of problems.

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