Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The end credits of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ prominently acknowledges the inspiration of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. I’ve never read anything by him, but if his work gave Wes Anderson – one of the most unique talents in contemporary cinema – the impetus to make something as witty, inventive and sublime as this, then I need to read everything by Zweig I can get my hands on.

Remember the sequence of nested flash-forwards that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ‘The Lives of Others’ ends with? Anderson reverses the trick, opening in the present as a studious young woman visits a cemetery and stands before the monument to an author (the author is referred to solely as The Author). The monument is hung with hotel room keys. The woman begins reading from one of The Author’s books. Flashback to The Author as an older man (Tom Wilkinson) being interrupted by a potato-gun wielding grandchild as he delivers a monologue to camera on how he came to write his most famous work. Flashback to The Author as a younger man (Jude Law), sojourning at The Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968. The place is run-down, a shadow of its former self. In the bath-house, The Author meets the establishment’s reclusive owner Zero Moustafa (F Murray Abraham), who happens to me a fan of his work. Zero invites him to dinner and proceeds proceeds to tell him the story of how he came to own the hotel. Flashback to 1932 and … And here let us pause a moment.

Remember the opening sequence of Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s ‘Cold Fever’ where the 1.66:1 aspect ratio for the crowded Toyko scenes is superceded by the full 2.35:1 widescreen as soon as the action shifts to the rugged vista of Iceland? Anderson reverses the trick, reducing the screen to a smaller aspect ratio as the 1932 story (i.e. the rest of the film) plays out. Contrapuntally, the screen floods with colour and the hotel in its glory days comes bursting to life. There are entire articles to be written on the production design, the look of the hotel and the matte painting landscape it occupies; personally, I’ll go for one of those “x-meets-y” cheats – imagine ‘The Shining’ made by Powell & Pressburger circa ‘Black Narcissus’ – and leave it at that.

The hotel is run to sycophantic perfection by its concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, in what the history of cinema may well record as his finest performance), who becomes mentor to newly appointed lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori, making his acting debut). Gustave insists on discretion, servility and good manners, and personifies every aspect of the old world civility that he holds dear … until something annoys him and he fires off a litany of curses as inventive as it is vehement. Gustave also offers services of a more intimate nature to a succession of eccentric and lonely dowagers. When one of these grande dames, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), dies under mysterious circumstances, she leaves Gustave a priceless painting, Boy With Apple, in her will.

It looks for a moment as if Gustave’s ship has come in. One problem, though: the will is subject to several hundred codicils and solicitor Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) cautions that her extended family – headed up by the villainous Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his psychopathic associate Jopling (Willem Dafoe) – should be patient while the legal formalities are completed. Decidedly unwelcome at the wake, Gustave and Zero expedite the matter of Gustave’s inheritance by simply making off with the painting. Meanwhile, the political face of Europe is changing, with troops are amassing at borders; Gustave, however, is able to rely on his connection with Henckels (Edward Norton), commanding officer of a battalion which later occupies the hotel. But even nepotism can’t be relied upon when he’s accused of Madame D’s murder. Arrested and imprisoned pending trial, Gustave falls in with a group of hardened criminals led by Ludwig (Harvey Keitel), who are planning a jailbreak. But some outside help is required. Gustave ropes in Zero and the young baker’s assistant, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), with whom he has become smitten. Cue the best “cake with a file in” gag ever.

By the way, we’re merely half way through a 100 minute film at this point. To say ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is rich in incident is like saying Metallica play a bit loud. And there is still plenty of incident to come: a break-out that plays like ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ re-orchestrated as a minuet; an “on the lam” sequence which sees Gustave call upon the services of The Order of the Crossed Keys (cue cameos from Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Bob Balaban, just in case, y’know, the cast wasn’t awesome enough already); a couple of pure horror movie moments courtesy of Jopling; and a subplot wrapped up in espionage thriller imagery regarding Gustave and Zero’s pursuit of Serge X (Mathieu Amalric), the one man who can clear his name.

In lesser hands, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ would be a curate’s egg at best, and a tonally schizophrenic disaster at worst. Anderson’s control of the material, however, is so intuitive, so masterful, so sure-footed that there isn’t a wrong note in the whole thing. The balance is absolutely perfect: visual dexterity; knowingly ironic nods to diverse genres; intellectual wit tempered with beautifully timed moments of lowbrow humour; a propulsive screwball narrative of the type that even the Coen Brothers don’t trade in anymore; and (with the possible exception of Ronan’s slightly bewildered turn) a cast who are utterly in tune with their director, who “get” what he’s about and bring their A-game and then some.

Am I gushing? That’s because ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is one of the finest films I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s Anderson’s masterpiece in a filmography that is uniformly excellent. It provides the perfect material for the fullest synthesis yet of his trademark visual style and aesthetic concerns. Its touches of melancholy are acutely judged and give just the right amount of weight to a film that otherwise puts the fun in fin de siécle.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


‘Drive’ is the best film Michael Mann never made. If Nicolas Winding Refn wasn’t watching ‘Thief’ on a loop at every stage of pre- and post-production – not to mention mainlining Tangerine Dream during the shoot – then I don’t know jack shit about cinema and I’ll draw down the shutters on this blog. ‘Drive’ is ‘Thief’ reimagined, from its clinically professional anti-hero betrayed by a yearning towards a domestic idyll, to its depiction of a precisely striated criminal hierarchy and the spiral of violence that represents the fallout of its protagonist’s careening journey from the periphery of said hierarchy to its viciously amoral centre.

But it’s more than mere copyism. ‘Drive’ is about as pure a cinematic love letter to a particular genre and a particular style of filmmaking as I’ve ever seen. Even the post-‘Jackie Brown’ movie movies of Tarantino are shot through with a knowing sense of post-modern irony even as they lovingly trawl the all-but-forgotten quarters of 70s exploitation cinema. ‘Drive’ never once tips a wink to its audience or takes a wily bow from the gallery. It lives its influences with the utmost passion and respect and sincerity.

It’s also the film I’ve been wanting Mann to make for a couple of decades now; or rather the style of filmmaking I’ve been wanting him to get back to. From the scrawled day-glo lettering of its opening credits, to its neon-drenched back-street cityscape, ‘Drive’ embodies the cool-as-fuck, unpretentious purity of Mann’s work before his gorgeous melding of perfectly lit visuals with the grittiness of film noir was bleached out by his wholesale embrace of digital cinematography. Certainly ‘Drive’ is a better nocturne – a far more aesthetically appealing black valentine to a violent city – than Mann’s own ‘Collateral’.*

In ‘Drive’, Ryan Gosling plays a character known only as The Driver or “Kid”, the latter appellation bestowed upon him by Shannon (Bryan Cranston) for whom he works, by day, as a movie stunt driver and a mechanic in Shannon’s autoshop. Shannon has dreams of managing The Driver on the professional racing circuit, and to this end solicits backing from mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman). By night, The Driver is a getaway driver for hire to LA’s underclass, his terms and conditions ruthlessly simple: “You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you're on your own.”

Thus the stripped-down, automotive existence which defines The Driver. Adapted from the novel by James Sallis, Refn and scriptwriter Hossein Amini eradicated The Driver’s backstory, miring him in a moment-by-moment present. He emerges, variously, as enigmatic, romantic, brutal, heroic and just about anything else you care to project onto the existential canvas of Gosling’s minimalist performance.

What happens to complicate The Driver’s life, and to uncover the various facets of his persona, is a platonic romance with his elfin neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan). Her latino husband Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac) is serving out the last weeks of a jail sentence. The Driver is drawn, protectively, towards Irene and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), but seems to harbor no antagonism towards Standard. When Standard is released from prison, he is initially wary of The Driver. When Standard is assaulted by goons in the pay of Cook (James Bibieri), a gangster to whom he owes $40,000, The Driver finds himself acting for Standard in his professional capacity when Cook coerces Standard into a pawn shop robbery to pay off the debt.

The job goes wrong from the beginning and The Driver, by now Irene’s protector in very real terms, is forced into an odyssey through LA’s underworld to track down his and Standard’s betrayer. No prizes for guessing how close to home the trail leads him.

‘Drive’ occupies a crime movie aesthetic of which ‘Thief’ is but its most obvious touchstone. The Driver’s name (or rather the job description by which he’s known) conjures the Walter Hill classic of the same title. His transition from focused professional to someone whose façade of calm masks a feverish working out of all possible angles establishes him as a continentally-separated next-of-kin to Alain Delon in Melville’s ‘Le Samourai’. The crunching but somehow morally-centered violence – notably scenes involving the non-woodwork-based application of a hammer and a repeatedly stomped-on head – could have issued from, say, Chan-wook Park’s psyche. The car chases, slow-burn tension and effortless moody cool evoke the glory days of American cinema (i.e. the 70s) when every other film seemed to be a masterpiece.

Do I consider ‘Drive’ a masterpiece? By a short margin, yes. I think it’s the fullest expression thus far of Refn’s ability to meld form, style and content. Granted, it doesn’t so much wear its influences on its sleeve as stitch them into a onesie and fully engulf itself, but this works to its betterment where a lesser director would just emerge as a cheap plagiarist. Refn coalesces a cinephile’s lifetime love of genre tropes, moody anti-heroes and iconography that functions on an almost pornographic level, and creates something, underpinned as it is by the most demure romantic subplot that an 18-rated movie has ever crafted, that is flavoured with the immediacy of his own authorial signature.

*In the interests of accuracy, ‘Drive’ was shot on an Arri Alexa digital camera. Amazingly, given the vast budgetary difference between the two, ‘Drive’ avoids the “flat” cinematography of ‘Collateral’ and boasts such a rich palette and depth of focus that I honestly believed it had been shot on film.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sienna Guillory

Happy 39th to Sienna Guillory, still best known as Jill Valentine in the ‘Resident Evil’ saga (which is, dear God, about to deliver us its sixth instalment), but who has always seemed on the verge of that defining breakout role. Here’s hoping the best is yet to come.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Jack Reacher

Regular readers will be aware of my Werner Herzog obsession. It’s always been in the back of my mind that one day I might be called upon to codify the depth of my abiding love for all things Herzogian. A fixed point now exists from which that measurement can be taken.

Last night I watched ‘Jack Reacher’. Purely because Werner Herzog was in it.

Just to contextualise: ‘Jack Reacher’ is a film starring Tom Cruise, adapted from a novel by Lee Child. Let’s consider the two halves of that statement. I’ve only ever read one Lee Child novel and it was a blandly written thing that consisted of stock characters reacting with violence to contrived situations. 400 pages as a delivery system for a lunk-headed protagonist punching, head-butting and shooting one-dimensional villains. It made Andy McNab look like Dostoyevsky. Hell, it made Duncan Falconer look like Turgenev. The one defining characteristic of Child’s scrap-happy hero Jack Reacher (a surname that veers too close to reach-around for me to take it seriously) is that he’s a big bloke. This brings us to Tom Cruise and here I will simply quote a comment my friend Mark left on Facebook last night when I mentioned my choice of viewing for the evening: “Sorry, but Tom Cruise was completely wrong for the role. Jack Reacher is a very big man not a shortarse like Cruise.”

Which is as accurate a summarising comment as I’ve come across. McQuarrie’s script labours to portray Reacher as enigmatic, elusive and dangerous before the character has even made an appearance. Then Tom Cruise shows up and scowls and reminds us that he’s a bit too short for this kind of role.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the first ten minutes of the film, before Reacher shows up, are superb. Compressing three different narrative strands – the build-up to a shooting, the sniper making infinitely patient preparations; the shooting itself; the police investigation that swiftly identifies a suspect – into a pacy and tautly edited montage, this opening sequence gave me real hopes for the film. However, it settles into mundanity far too quick and the grace notes that enliven it thereafter are few and far between.

The spiciest of said grace notes is Herzog, playing a sinister eminence grise known as The Zec. His first appearance, emerging from the shadows at a subterranean rendezvous, delivering a sibilant-heavy monologue about the brutal nature of survival, is gonad-shrivellingly scary. If Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson haven’t earmarked him for Blofeld duties on the next Bond outing, they’re missing a trick. He doesn’t get much more screen time until the final act, and a rather flabby mid-section – enlivened only by a decent, old-school car chase – presents us with a succession of bored performances by people from whom we expect better: Richard Jenkins delivers the only bad Richard Jenkins performance I’ve ever seen, Robert Duvall chuckles a lot and gives line readings that suggest he’s having difficult focussing on a teleprompter; and Rosamund Pike’s cleavage plays the most unconvincing lawyer in the history of cinema.

The climactic action scene at last returns Herzog to the stage, and proves that as long as someone has an intensity and a dark charisma, they need do nothing more than sit perfectly still in the unlit corner of a room and still pose an infinitely greater threat that the pumped-up muscle men running around firing off the ordinance outside. And even then, McQuarrie (also directing) keeps cutting away from Herzog to revel in the mano-a-mano nonsense. How nonsensical? Here’s an example: having mown down two antagonists with a submachine gun and got the drop on a (more dangerous) third, Reacher tosses away his weapon and a beatdown ensues .... while two further aggressors are lurking nearby and the life of a hostage is still at risk. The groan that accompanied my face-palm was probably heard miles away.

Despite the juvenility of its source material, ‘Jack Reacher’ could have been a decent movie. Michael Fassbender as Reacher? He has the size and the physicality, not to mention the acting chops to imbue the character with some depth. The rest of the existing cast? Responding to a director who energizes them, why not? And speaking of directors, I can only imagine how batshit crazy wonderful it would have been helmed by Herzog himself and conceived as an action movie companion piece to ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Juan of the Dead

Dawn of the Unread is a multi-media project headed up by some of the finest artistic talent in my hometown of Nottingham, and I'm incredibly honoured that the brrrraaaiiinnnssss of the outfit, James Walker, asked me to be part of it. Go to the Dawn of the Unread website for more details, and sign up to receive each month's downloadable graphic novel instalment.

And keep checking in on the Dawn of the Unread blog, where they're featuring a dozen of my film reviews. I'm travelling the world to explore the diversity and cultural differences of twelve zombie movies. The grand tour begins in Cuba with 'Juan of the Dead'.