Monday, 26 January 2015

250W: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson/2014)

Director Wes Anderson has a unique charm. A clean, symmetrical composition is expected when viewing his work. Whether it’s the impeccably aligned farmhouses opposite Fantastic Mr Fox, or the arrangement of a tent in Moonrise Kingdom, you know his orchestrated style. Satisfyingly, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the perfect, inevitable consequence of his filmmaking to date. The story is set within a book, of a memoir, of a memory that is broken into five memorable tales. This Russian-doll context establishes a playful understanding of art from the outset. It hints at how an exciting endeavour will last forever. And The Grand Budapest Hotel showcases a fascinating adventure from a broad range of distinctive characters. Romance, capers and a cast that could rival the star-power of a Marvel studio flick, this is the Greatest Hits of Wes Anderson in a single film. The scale of the hotel is emphasized by puzzling zoom-outs, while each caricature speaks directly and to-the-point. Ralph Fiennes, as Monsieur Gustave, steals every scene he’s in. Whether he’s making sure an elderly woman (an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) is “comfortable”, or explaining the role of a lobby boy, he is witty on an illogical scale. Considering the engaging Zero (Tony Revolori) is his straight-guy side-kick, it is of no surprise that his warm, gormless face attracts the equally-stunted Agatha (Saorise Ronan). Not a single moment is wasted as The Grand Budapest Hotel ensures that pure joy and a love of artistry is central to its story. An outstanding achievement.

Rating: 10/10

Wish I Was Here (Zach Braff, 2014)

Turn back the clocks. It’s May 2013 and Zach Braff is ‘kickstarting’ his latest cinematic endeavour. He says it is a sequel of the “tone” of Garden State. Regarding funding, “this could be a new paradigm for filmmakers who want to make smaller, personal films without having to sign away any of their artistic freedom”. The film will be “the truest representation of what I have in my brain”, as after donating he will have “final cut”, and the film will be made with “no compromises”. Everything he promises – a brother at Comic-con, Jim Parsons – all appear in Wish I Was Here. But it doesn’t reach the lofty heights Braff promises, despite his sincerest intentions.

Braff is Aiden Bloom, father to two adorable children (played by Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) and husband to a gorgeous woman (Kate Hudson). He is an aspiring actor while his wife is the breadwinner. Their two children, one a little rascal and the other a studious role-model, attend a private Jewish school funded by Aiden’s father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin). But Gabe reveals that he’s dying of cancer. After trying everything, Gabe intends to undergo treatment that is in its experimental phase. Aiden’s brother, Noah (Josh Gad) has to reconnect with him before he passes and Aiden has to figure out how to home-school his children as his father inches closer to death.

It’s clear that it’s partly based on Braff’s own experiences. Though he has no children, he and his brothers (author Joshua and co-scriptwriter Adam) are involved in the arts, and were all raised in a Jewish family. Though Wish I Was Here does manage to elicit a positive response, it is more akin to Jewish-family comedy This Is Where I Leave You, starring Jason Bateman, opposed to an uncompromising portrayal of adulthood. Interestingly, both films centre on a dying father and how this loss brings the family together. This Is Where I Leave You begins as the family sit Shiva, while patriarch Gabe says he is “a Shiva waiting to happen” in Wish I Was Here.

Taken on its own terms, Wish I Was Here does manage to include a few smart gags and brief moments of heartfelt honesty. His daughter, Grace, has an intelligent, rebellious charm. Her decision to shave her head, after flippant fatherly advice, is with the best intention but reveals an unattractive quality in her Dad, rather than in her own appearance. The constant cheeky adjustment of words to suit the children can’t help but force a grin as you are told how ‘poontang’ is a space drink and how ‘the oldest profession’ is that of an angel. Braff doesn’t shy-away from some challenging final moments in the closing act but it’s not consistent. In fact, he jarringly counterbalances a heart-breaking phone-call between family members with rampant, sci-fi costumed sex. It may fit the comedy-drama mould effectively, but “artistically free” films would surely aim for a higher bar of truth.

And a less-glossy truth is what‘s missing. Knowing the nature of audiences and the inevitable requirement for, ultimately, his money back, Braff has turned his ‘final cut’ film into a by-the-book indie dramedy. Bob Dylan and acoustic music on the soundtrack? Check. Slow-mo montages with narration? Check. A subplot on sexual harassment that’s used cheaply as ‘exposition’, opposed to acknowledging the larger issue of sexism? Check (though I don’t believe that is an indie requirement).  Happiness is about risk-taking, and ironically I Wish I Was Here takes very few risks, undermining the ‘personal’ film Braff intended to make. It’s an acceptable, twee family drama – but sadly, nothing more.

Originally written for Flickering Myth on 26th January 2015

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

250W: Whiplash

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Whiplash (Dir. Damien Chazelle/2015)

Whiplash smashes through the screen, past the mahogany walls and smooth décor that oozes class. Glistening trumpets and sexy saxophones sing. These Jazz musicians are above the common goal of acceptable standard. They are like sports athletes, and they are shot as such. Director Damien Chazelle frames men and women, preparing to rehearse Whiplash, as if they are on the blocks of a 100m race. Trombones boldly play as a piano slinks in and out of rhythms and meandering melodies. The percussion is the glue that holds them together. Conductor and teacher, Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), will rip the beat out and force it to stick if necessary. He’ll hire a musician merely to raise another’s game. He’ll fire a musician because they’re out of tune. It is the unworkable expectations of a man in search of the next Charlie Parker. Andrew (Miles Teller) wants to be this man. Friendship and relationships are second place to his ambition. A relentless onslaught of dominance, Whiplash captures the raw animalism of these duelling beasts. It’s inevitable that one will devour the other. The moment we sniff a human grin of subtle pride, Andrew is immediately knocked down by Fletcher. He needs to bleed for his music and plasters only hold so much blood. The ‘fun’ Fletcher claims Andrew should seek, is sadomasochistic and destructive. If, and how, he survives is what we’re observing. And it is an awesome sight to behold. You’ll be out of breath when the credits hit the snare.

Rating: 10/10

Sunday, 18 January 2015

250W: American Sniper

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

American Sniper (Dir. Clint Eastwood/2015)

Down the barrel of a long, military-grade sniper-rifle sits Bradley Cooper, portraying the deadliest marksman in America’s military history, Chris Kyle. The infamous trailer depicts Kyle spotting a Muslim woman and child who are initiating a suicide attack on a convoy. Before he shoots, the trailer cuts to title. A deft piece of marketing that earned the film a $90m opening weekend in the USA. American Sniper, taken on its own terms as a patriotic, passionate picture of the legendary hero, is flawless. We witness a significant number of kills through his sights, and feel the adrenaline rush of fire-power and skilled, marksmanship within the fast-paced two-hour runtime. Syrian, Olympian-shooter “Mustafa” (Sammy Sheik) is the ‘evil sniper’. While armed with a rifle, “Mustafa” is Kyle’s primary target, but he has his own post-traumatic demons when he arrives home. But American Sniper, unfortunately, lacks a human sensitivity that should be considered when tackling warfare. The Hurt Locker actively portrayed innocent civilians, dragged into a battle they despised. American Sniper fails to show such balanced views. Every kill is justified and every dark-toned man, woman and child is a villain. At Kyle’s wedding, the men cheer about going to war. Describing Iraq natives as ‘savages’, is nothing more than a passing comment. War is complex, and the simplified stance of Kyle’s father, dictating how men are either “sheep, sheepdogs or wolves”, is not challenged. Instead, it is near-on supported and a man who isn’t a “sheepdog” is a threat to America, apparently.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933)

When told about the Marx brothers, I often think of Groucho. Until I watched Duck Soup, I didn’t know what his shtick even was. Were they silent comics, akin to Chaplin and Keaton? Did they transcend the talkie-divide like Laurel and Hardy? Were they lightning-fast talkers, in the same vein as Woody Allen or Henry Youngman? It turns out that the family of the Marx Brothers – Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo – are a bit of everything. Each sibling either prefiguring or directly influenced-by a specific comic of the past. Chico, the smart-talking but not-so-clever one.  Harpo, the physical silent one. Groucho, the intelligent, one-liner one. Zeppo, the one many forget. Considering their work included Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera (films that appear on the vast majority of ‘Best Comedies of All Time’ lists), it comes as no surprise that the extended runs playing at the BFI Southbank are a must-see for fans of the funnies and comedy connoisseurs.

Duck Soup, in particular, is a seminal starting point. Considered by some (including Barry Norman) as their masterpiece, the comics shine as innovative and inventive characters, that scene-after-scene, steal the show. When they are paired up, or bouncing off each other in a group, the gags are fireworks, snowballing and escalating to a crescendo of silliness that you cannot help but belly-laugh before it finishes. The plot is secondary to the snappy jokes that showcase the brothers ability to entertain. Akin to Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police, this comedy of war is also a musical, whereby Groucho’s ‘Laws of administration’ only serves to highlight the self-serving attitudes of those in power, akin to how ‘America, F*** yeah!’ directs our attention to the arrogance of a superpower. In fact, though set within the fictional country of ‘Freedonia’ with a European look, the anthem includes the Star-Spangled inspired “Hail, Hail, Freedonia, land of the brave and free".

As with greatest comedies, Duck Soup has sequences that are unforgettable. Despite the imitators, they are still as fresh as they must’ve been when first screened. The energy and intelligence of the jokes complement the actors physical skill with their clearly pre-planned miming. The “Mirror” sequence, as a missing mirror prompts two Marx brothers to reflect each other seamlessly, is genius. What appears to be an unbroken scene, you can only marvel at the inventive selection of movements that run parallel to each other. A three-way scene between Chico and Harpo as they steal a hat, grab a leg and bonk each other on the head is mesmerising. We relate to the frustration of the straight man in between them, but we simply don’t know where it will lead. Suffice to say, it leads to somewhere unexpected and provides the theatrical bang the moment requires.

Woody Allen clearly owes a debt to the timing of Groucho Marx. Hilarious retorts such as “Go, and never darken my towels again” would slip straight into an Allen film. Duck Soup deserves to be placed on the pedestal it has been hoisted upon. It failed at the box-office on its initial release, moving Chico, Harpo and Groucho from Paramount to MGM – without Zeppo. Then they made A Night at the Opera.  It does include a joke of its era (always tricky with these older comedies) but it is throwaway, and can be ignored. The film on the other hand cannot be. When Freedonia call for help, we see a wonderful montage of elephants and dolphins crossing oceans and deserts to support. A joke that only gets better the longer the montage continues for. We desperately don’t want the film to end considering its short, crisp run time of only 68 minutes.

These brothers were a troupe of comedians who knew what jokes could be, and between the three of them, they learnt from the best of their time – Buster, Charlie and Harold all preceded them. But less than a decade from when talkies took over cinema, the brothers balanced physical, verbal and intelligence within Duck Soup, pushing them up the table to join their mentors as timeless comics. I can only hope that elephants, dolphins and film fans of every animal trait seek this film out during January - as I know I will.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth