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Hello! Here you will find occasional film reviews together with a few other things I notice along the way.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

I think I’ve only ever seen one Wes Anderson film before this one – The Royal Tenenbaums. I didn’t really enjoy that as I found it quite inaccessible and very flat, with lots of sitting around pontificating, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is a very different affair.

It begins with a lot of throwbacks to previous generations. The author narrating picks up the story earlier in his life (played by Jude Law) in the late 60s in the hotel, housed in the mountains in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka. The hotel is introduced to us in its spectacular setting and it looks like a beautifully hand-crafted model, almost like a stylish painting. In the hotel, the author encounters the hotel owner – Mr Moustafa – and the story gets thrown back further to when Mr Moustafa was a trainee bellboy for concierge Gustave H. The story now settles on this time period and our protagonists Zero Moustafa and Gustave H are played by Tony Revolori and Ralph Fiennes.

The film really has the feeling of a novel that meets a cartoon. Initially, and especially with Jude Law’s scenes, the dialogue feels straight out of a novel, and the visual style despite being live-action on the whole is very cartoon-inspired with bright colours, fantastical settings, caricatured characters and a sense of fun.

It’s the sense of fun from early on that makes the film work so well. It makes the introduction of the settings and the characters enjoyable and funny (even though everyone has an accent from a different place it seems not to be a problem), then as it moves to a more adventurous caper you feel happy to go on the journey with them and genuinely threatened by the baddies in the tale. One of those is played by Willem Dafoe and he is a brilliantly evil creation that had me genuinely concerned. But Ralph Fiennes is the star of the show. His camp character is nostalgic for the class structures and politeness of years gone by and he maintains a level of decorum, nobility and impeccable customer service which keeps the guests returning, but this exterior occasionally cracks and he blurts out expletive-laden attacks. His comic timing is spot-on. Mr Moustafa puts it well when he says “His world had vanished long before he entered it, but he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace.”

Some of the shots are fantastic as well, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s finer moments. I particularly loved the ski-chase! The film is in different aspect ratios according to the time period: starting in 2.35:1then thinning to 1.85:1 and finally 1.33:1 (the old 4:3 of squarer tellies). Whilst this is a nice touch, it does mean the bulk of the film is stuck with 1.33:1 which feels quite constrained and limiting at times.

A satisfying if poignant round up completes the story – it’s great: I loved it!

5 on 5

Info
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric, Saoirse Ronan, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Harvey Keitel
UK release: 7th March 2014

The double

Based on a novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this film concerns Simon James: a man who is anonymous, lonely and impotent in the constrained and prescribed world of a 1920s Orwellian future. He yearns for co-worker Hannah, but his crippling shyness prevents him from even talking to her.

One day a new worker called James Simon turns up in the office and he is the spitting image of Simon. His personality, however, is the complete opposite. James is confident, a hit with the ladies, doesn’t take any nonsense, a social climber: everything that Simon wants to be.

It’s directed by Richard Ayoade, a multi-talented man who apart from being a film and music video director also appeared in The I.T. Crowd and is a member of the Shaman Council as Saboo in The Mighty Boosh. He has Jesse Eisenberg as his leading man who plays the dual roles very well. He plays them very straight, especially Simon, and any laughs in the film are usually at the situation he finds himself in rather than physical comic acting. Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) plays a good contrasting character, similarly lonely but with a lot more confidence than Simon.

The visuals are impressive and allied with the soundtrack create a pleasingly strange world of contrasting repeating geometric patterns, muted colours in the foreground with bold primary colours in the background and industrial sounds leaking from one scene to the next. This place is a mash-up of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and David Lynch’s Eraserhead and has lots of very talented people calling in for cameos: Wallace Shawn is great, pretty much reprising his role as the yappy boss from The Incredibles, J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. appears as a janitor, Paddy Considine appears on the telly and Chris Morris and Tim Key are on screen far too briefly.

With all these great elements thrown into the mix, sadly it comes out a little bit without direction and purpose. The story never quite takes off and it’s all a bit one-note.

It’s a bit like a good looking pizza with far too many toppings. You like all the ingredients, but couldn’t really sink your teeth into any one of them. You leave the restaurant full up but a little disappointed.

2 on 5

Info
Directed by: Richard Ayoade
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, James Fox, J Mascis, Chris Morris, Yasmin Paige, Tim Key UK Release: 4th April 2014

Her

Another Spike Jonze film is something I look out for after the excellent ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Adaptation’. This film, set in LA, involves a recently-separated man (Theodore – Joaquin Phoenix) who has a job writing other people’s love-letters. It follows his increasing emotional dependence on his new operating system Samantha, which is programmed to have emotions and learn from experiences.

The voice of the OS initially seems disconnected and clearly added in post-production, as it is not coming through the computer but just from ‘everywhere’, but actually this is probably the effect they wanted to create as Theodore wears an earpiece to communicate with the OS. It offers a near-future that in one sense is disappointingly device-dependant, but on the other hand one where people would at least be talking to their devices rather than walking along or driving, looking at their screens and tapping away like they do today.

It doesn’t really cover any fresh ground and it follows the path you would expect. It’s quite dour in tone as the protagonist is still really hung-up about his divorce for most of the film (as I’m sure you would be!) and the colour palette seems to reflect this with beiges everywhere. Despite a good performance from Joaquin, there are inevitably an awful lot of scenes that just involve starting at his face as he talks to a computer. Still, there are occasional lighter moments: the brief day-out scene is welcome, the paper clip in the pocket is a nice detail and I found myself looking at the apartment and skylines with awe (possibly because the story wasn’t holding my attention). A lot of the filming was actually done in Shanghai (which seems to be happening more often), as well as in LA itself.

It’s very whimsical and a bit too long (what’s a surprise) and I’m sure some people will enjoy it, but it felt quite empty to me. The moral of the film appears to be that if you are going to invest in an emotion-based learning OS, then make sure it’s not a cloud-based solution, make sure it’s exclusive to your devices. A lesson for us all there then.

3 on 5

Info
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlet Johansson
UK Release: 14 Feb 2014

The Switch

Starring Jason Bateman and co-starting Jennifer Aniston, this film from 2010 is sold as a rom-com, but there honestly isn’t a single laugh in the film, nor even an attempt to get one really. No, this is a romantic drama. Jennifer Aniston plays Kassie Larson, an early-40s single woman in New York who decides she wants to have a baby and despite the protestations of her friend and repressed-admirer Wally Mars (Jason Bateman) opts to use a sperm donor. She throws an ‘insemination party’ to celebrate, where the donor provides his sample and the insemination takes place. If that wasn’t weird enough, Wally manages to spill the sample and decides to secretly provide a replacement.

Now, this film has all the hallmarks of an idea in a meeting which was green-lighted that has then proved difficult to pad-out to a feature film. It seems they lost interest and didn’t spend more than 5 minutes on the terrible poster and a few of the key scenes seem to be going to incredible lengths to make the conceit seem perfectly believable and normal, but it doesn’t work. Switching sperm samples without the woman knowing is disgustingly creepy and no amount of theatre can disguise that.

Wally is painted as such a feeble man that it takes him about 7 years to finish sentences, and he’s a upstaged by a child. He’s a very frustrating character to spend the vast majority of the screen time with.

Juliette Lewis and Jeff Goldblum supply the only light relief in an otherwise tedious, creepy trudge.

2 on 5

Info
Directors: Josh Gordon, Will Speck
Starring: Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Patrick Wilson, Juliette Lewis, Jeff Goldblum, Thomas Robinson UK Release: 1st September 2012

Anchorman 2

Will Ferrell and the rest of the cast return for Anchorman 2. Set around ten years after the last film, Ron Burgundy and Veronica Corningstone are still co-presenting the news and are living a happily married life with their son until a shake-up at the station causes Ron to lose his job and lay down an unrealistic ultimatum to Veronica that means he loses his wife as well. After an unsuccessful period at the local aquarium, Ron is offered a job at a rolling news channel in New York and attempts to get the old team back together.

That all happens in the first 5 minutes by the way, so no spoilers there.

So, it’s actually very funny at the start. The clips of Ron doing warm-up vocal exercises and the clips of him making on-air mistakes are very good. Once they arrive at the New York offices it’s promising initially, but it quickly loses all focus and direction. It resorts to a lot of shock and recovery just for something to do and it’s a bit like being on a fairground ride that keeps lurching up and down and up and down. It keeps leaving the newsroom, the area full of potential, for weird stretches in places like lighthouses where they scrabble around looking for the comedy.

Some of the scenes don’t work at all (the racial scenes are particularly wince inducing) and although it looks like they had a great time making it, you leave the cinema a little disappointed.

3 on 5

Director: Adam MacKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate, Meagan Good, James Marsden, Josh Lawson, Kristen Wiig, Harrison Ford UK Release: 20th December 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

Not on my initial to-do list from the premise, I must admit, it wasn’t until hearing the music played on the piano in a scene in the trailer that my interest was piqued. The film also starts with the familiar ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ played just on the piano and it really reminds you how great the music is.

The story is that author of the Mary Poppins book P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is grappling with whether or not to take Walt Disney’s cash and allow him to make a film adaptation of her book. Financial concerns are pushing her towards accepting, but she is loathe to relinquish her beloved characters and her artistic decisions. She meets with Walt to discuss how they can proceed.

At the same time, there is a back story told in flashbacks of P. L.’s childhood which is initially confusing to people not current with their Mary Poppins knowledge. This back story actually takes up a huge chunk of the film, sometimes competing with the main story in the present and is quite jarring and broadly drawn, although one could argue that this is told as per P. L.’s slightly distorted childhood memories.

It is the music that again wins you over though. A scene with the two Disney songwriters and a scriptwriter showing P. L. Travers their ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’ creation is fantastic and Emma Thompson again shows how to act in a physical way that is so emotional it makes you well-up.

It’s true that the two funniest bits are in the trailer (the sliding of the music notes behind another sheet on the piano and Walt’s Disneyland bet) and it’s true that the backstory is visited far too often, but Emma Thompson gives a great performance as the cranky old fusspot in this family film which will have you humming the tunes again for days afterwards.

3 on 5

Info
Director: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, John Lee Hancock
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, B. J. Novak, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson UK release: 29th November 2013

Gravity

So, starting on a positive – I hate 3D. To me it’s a gimmick that adds nothing to the experience of watching a film in the cinema, in fact it makes it worse. I can, however, see that there are other applications where it is suited, such as Disneyland rides and short, spectacle exhibits. ‘Gravity’ looked to me like a concept experience almost more akin to a fairground ride than a film, more like a long version of those funny moving simulators that you used to get at live events in the early 90s, so I thought I’d give 3D a try in this instance. After I’d paid for my ticket I then paid the 3D supplement (for nothing at all) and a glasses fee as well, put my 3D glasses on on top of my normal glasses and I was ready to watch.

The film starts with a wonderful, silent long shot of the earth from orbit, with the sounds of astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) talking to his companion Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) slowly and gently fading up into the foreground. It is done with confidence and restraint and it’s great. As Dr Stone works on the Hubble space telescope on her first spacewalk, Kowalski zooms around with an excellent jet-pack spacesuit on his final mission. Mission control shortly inform them of space debris heading their way and from that point it becomes a jeopardy thrill ride as they both try and get to safety.

The thing is, it still feels like a massive contrivance. Things are still constantly flying towards the screen just for the sake of using the 3D and it gets tiresome. Sandra Bullock is good as a rookie trying to control her fear and George Clooney ironically only shows his human side in the capsule! The plot actually becomes quite amusing after a while as you sit at a level of constant peril. Throughout I thought the sound was amazing and restrained, with the stereo effects adding depth and orientating you. There are no huge explosions where there shouldn’t be (like there were in the trailer for some reason).

It is a gimmicky film, but not a terrible one. It stays with you, but only in the sense that you can’t quite see properly from having worn the 3D glasses.

3 on 5

Info
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Uk release: 8th November 2013