The Grand Budapest Hotel

Man: “Who’s Gustave H.?”

Gustave H.: “I’m afraid that’s me, darling.”

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a welcome return to best form by the genius Wes Anderson. Yes, dear friends I used the “G” word. His previous effort “Moonrise Kingdom” left me underwhelmed but in this amazing comedy caper Anderson’s craft is close to his masterpiece, “The Royal Tenenbaums”.

The movie is set largely at a prestigious hotel in a fictional middle European nation before the war. The hero’s are the concierge, Gustave H., portrayed with brilliant swagger bij Ralph Fiennes, and his trainee bell boy Zero, played with great charm by new revelation Tony Revolori. They are involved in a convoluted caper involving a inheritance, a rennaissance painting, love, war and that great hotel on the hill.

The further cast is a veritable who’s who of Hollywood character talent. Obviously eager to give Wes their very best. A special shout must go to Jeff Goldblum for his portrayal of lawyer Kovac.

The story defies many rules of screenwriting, with heady voiceover, a convoluted story structure and a mix of humor and violence that writers are often counselled to avoid. But mr. A. has really pulled it all together. The movie offers a truly convincing balance of romanticism, a yearning for a glorious pre war era that may in fact, never have existed, humor, and action. It is easily Anderson’s most tightly plotted film.

GBH (also short for grevious bodily harm, of which there’s quite a lot in this film) is a visual spectacle. Never before has Anderson pulled out the stops to this degree. Shades of Monty Python, with certain scenes rendered in colourful animation.

The locations will leave you breathless in their design, both colourful and amazingly detailed. For example in the beginning of the movie we see the great Hotel, once opulent and stylish now reduced to a 70’s hell, complete with a plethora of signs on the walls with instructions, directions and prohibitions. I would love to see the movie again just to take in more of the backgrounds of practically every scene.

Yet, and this is where the film truly stands out, all the visual bravado and pomp never gets in the way of the characters. They feel truly human in their hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses. This is a great improvement over Moonrise Kingdom which at times felt like an exercise in esthetics rather than a movie about people…

In short, please go and see this movie.

Hunger Games 2 Catching Fire

“We’re all so disappointed that there’ll be no wedding” – Caesar Flickerman

This second part of the Hunger Games trilogy (which having read the third installment, could easily end up being four movies) has been received even better by critics than the first. And the crowds have voted with their butts on seats.

Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, the Games’ victors from the first film are not exactly enjoying the bounty of their triumph. The opposite in fact and matters are about to take a turn for the worse.

What makes this sci fi dystopian series stand out from similar franchises is the honest focus on its main characters. Character driven rather than high concept if you will. Even though the high concept is there, of course. It wouldn’t be sci fi without!

But having made the correct choice to follow the lead of the novels on which the films are based, placing people first makes the whole premise just so much more horrifying. We know what our heroes feel, why they care, and we care about them. So, even though I had read the books, I found myself on the edge of my seat as the film unfolded. The plot twisting and turning like a ravenous mamba snake!

As per the first instalment, there was plenty of colour and really cool design which makes for a nice change to the set rules of the dystopian genre. It also increases the contrast of the predicament of the main characters with the world that surrounds them. Great.

A lot of good acting again. Stanly Tucci stood out again as show host Caesar Flickerman, Jennifer Lawrence was great, although I personally am not a fan of her acting voice when she goes into overdrive. Not even Philip Seymour Hoffman felt out of place. A big shout out finally to Sam Claflin who made the most of playing Finnick Odair, a slightly odious character from the books. This is good news as he will feature heavily in the third part.

Let downs: sure, the open ending left everyone confused. But I’ll give you one thing to think about if you’re pondering whether to go or not:

After we saw this movie, the wife and I went home and we didn’t speak for a day or two while she read part three – absolutely riveted.

Go see it!

 

The Hobbit 2 Desolation of Smaug

This Christmas was a big one for tentpole sequels. And they killed. The Hobbit and Hunger Games both packing in the punters, yours truly among them.

“Stay on the path!” – Gandalf

Christmas came early when I chanced upon the Desolation of Smaug at my local cinema in 2D. I have to admit, I really don’t get the whole 3D thing. Aside from Avatar, I’ve never really seen a 3D movie where it really added much. And oftentimes, aside from to uncomfortable murky glasses, I found that the darkened image detracts from the film experience.

On to the movie itself. I’ve heard many gripes about this film series and have to say that I don’t get it. As in the first installment, I simply really enjoyed the movie. Plenty of action, beautiful set design and a solid cast, including the always brilliant Stephen Fry as the wildly excentric mayor of Laketown. Yes, the music is the same Celtic mist cacaphony that Peter Jackson seems to love. But crikey, it’s got giant spiders in it too. And the lovely, did I say lovely Evangeline Lilly.

Hey what’s not to like? Sure it’s not high art, it is high entertainment. To me, the two meet somewhere in the middle, and to be honest, I simply enjoy things that are executed this well.

That said, it’s not particularily memorable. I don’t really know what the missing ingredient is. Perhaps it’s too slick. And some scenes are reminiscent of computer games rather than movies. Then again, the two are melding more and more into one and the same.

Finally, the fact that it is filmed primarily for 3D distribution leads to some strange un-cinematic framing choices. Shots that may work in 3D but just look awkward in 2D.

All in all, recommended to all.

The Counselor

“That’s what greed does, it takes you to the edge.” – The Counselor

“That’s what greed is, the edge” – Reiner

The Counselor is about an attorney, played well (but not brilliantly) by Michael Fassbender, who gets “in” on a huge drug deal. The others involved in this shady business try to warn him of the dangers but he ignores them. In stark contrast to this risky business is his true love for his fiance played by a very sultry Penelope Cruz.

There has been much negative press about Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott’s collaboration. I think much of it has to do with preconceptions about what this movie is. This is not a heist movie, nor a gangster/mob movie in any classical sense. What it is, is a cautionary tale, pure and simple. As such it is a great succes. Just don’t go in expecting a plot that you can really follow and you’ll be fine.

A stellar cast: the aforementioned Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Pitt, Bardem and a surprisingly excellent Cameron Diaz, fill the screen in filmic splendour. Sure, the dialogues are oftentimes convoluted. The plot is downright confusing. Many reviewers find that they just don’t get why the Counselor buys in on the deal.

But it all serves a purpose. We are watching the haves play risky games, whilst the have nots are largely silent and do the suffering. At least, until the shit hits the fan. And then, as the expression goes: everybody gets stinky or worse. No amount of coolness, aloofness or indeed true love can shield the players from the deadly fallout of their game. This is a harrowing tale that gets its message across by having the viewer experience the chaos, confusion and pain first hand.

For all those who think that cocaine is a harmless guilty pleasure, think again. There are people dying gruesome deaths to traffic it up your nose. That is the message Cormac seems to be sending. Coupled with the fact that its not really that much fun to be a gangster..

I was pleasantly surprised by The Counselor and give it a wholehearted thumbs up for being immersive, tragic and inevitable.

 

Elysium – review

“Activate Kruger” – Delacourt

Just recently I lucked upon District 9 on the telly. This 2009 film was Elysium writer/director Neil Blomkamp’s break into world cinema. A clever, cool, gripping, just frankly brilliant sci fi movie. Elysium mirrors District 9 in many ways, not least an overlap of a few cast members. Most notably Sharlto Copley in a great turn as evil enforcer Kruger, an exact reversal of his starring role in District 9. However, to me, Elysium lacked the emotional punch and impact of its precursor. And here’s why.

The titular “Elysium” is an off world paradise, whence the rich have escaped a distopian overpopulated earth. To get there, is to live forever in health and wealth. Matt Damon plays Max, an orphan whose ambition in life has always been to make it to Elysium – as he has promised his child hood friend (and sweetheart?) Frey.

The paradise is run by an ice cold Jodie Foster, in a weird off world accent that she pulls off really well. She’s ruthless in protecting Elysium from attempted illegal immigrants.

The movie takes its time in laying down the ground rules, which is so often the bane of hard sci fi. It does stick to those rules, so there is some pay back for a rather slow first half. The stakes are high, and the plot meshes reasonably well.

But there is something lacking. Is it simply hard to really care about Matt Damon? To me the most effective scene in the movie was where Max confronts his parole officer – a robot (pictured above) to no avail. Reminding me of the infuriating exchanges with AT&T automated call centres…..

The reunion with Max’ estranged childhood friend feels forced, and their relationship never really convinced me. This is a serious problem, as this is the main emotional through line.

A shout out to Neil Blomkamp’s designs and visual style though. That guy is seriously good. The insectoid designs of space craft and droids are simply finger licking good. He also has a real eye for combat action direction and I salute him for not filming in “glorious”3D!

So, sure, it’s a fun ride, but in the end it all clicked together too smoothly and rather predictably, and I felt no emotional pangs at the dramatic close. In fact, the ending was almost completely ruined by a very sappy voice-over….

All in all, if you want to be amused for a few hours by stunningly styled sci fi action, Elysium is your bet. If you want to be moved…look elswhere.

 

World War Z

“Mother nature is a bitch”

Just a quicky, as I’ve been pretty busy refurbishing my new house. The missus and I found time to go see this summer blockbuster. And, to be frank, I really enjoyed it. The wife did so too, though she is still worried about zombies getting into our house, which just goes to show that the movie is certainly effective.

Brad Pitt plays the lead as a retired UN special agent, who is forced back into his old job in order to save the world from a mysterious and rabid plague that has all but destroyed the civilised world: a zombie plague. He has a wife and kids and such, but they disappear from the movie in any real sense after the first act. Which is a wasted opportunity. The movie’s plot consists of mr. Pitt zipping around the globe searching for a cure against the zombie plague. Amazing how it’s still possible to travel with the world in turmoil…

The film is shown in 3D, once again I have no idea why. I have heard from Hollywood sources that due to the strange logic in Tinseltown it’s now easier to get financing for a 200 million dollar 3D movie than a 50 million dollar “normal” movie. Alas.

The story is well thought out, fun and exciting. There are a few plot holes, but on the whole the movie adheres to Hitchcock’s “sandwich logic” rule. (The average viewer will figure out the plot holes only when making a late night sandwich, at home, hours after seeing the movie).

The zombies are well done, and in contrast with the existing “mythology of zombie-ism” move with lightning speed. This makes them a lot more scary than the usual lollygagging zombies of yore.

There are some great set pieces which use effective CGI, although the lemming-like crowd storming that is shown to great effect in the movie’s trailer is less of a feature in the actual movie, which is a shame. Here’s the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Md6Dvxdr0AQ

The way Brad finally figures out a way to defeat the zombies is well thought out and occurs in the most exciting part of the film: an almost classic set-up of man vs. zombie in a laboratory. After all the whizzing round the globe to find the clues to the solution, this cramped, tense finale just goes to show that less may in fact, be more…

Winding up. It’s a summer blockbuster, but a pretty good one, which I can recommend to most. It’s not half as frightening as my wife made it appear, but we did agree to go see something more akin to Despicable Me 2 next time we go to the theatre to relax…