Friday, 14 March 2014

'The Grand Budapest Hotel', 'Only Lovers Left Alive', 'Nymphomaniac', 'Dallas Buyers Club', and 'A New York Winter's Tale': review round-up

'The Grand Budapest Hotel' - Dir. Wes Anderson (15)

If the move from 'Bottle Rocket' to 'Rushmore' onto 'The Royal Tenenbaums' marked a gentle progression of his style, Wes Anderson's subsequent films - 'The Life Aquatic', 'The Darjeeling Limited' and even the animated 'The Fantastic Mr. Fox' - took the recognised tropes of that style and crystallised it into something that often flirted with self-parody. Then 'Moonrise Kingdom' came along and seemed to indicate a maturation of his by now well established visual motifs, storytelling themes and even the highly stylised performances drawn from his familiar band of recurring actors. It was a refreshing change of pace, which felt paradoxically both less self-conscious and yet more intensely focused. At a first glance his latest, 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', superficially reassembles a return to the larger-scale, ensemble-driven fare that directly preceded 'Moonrise Kingdom', though it's actually a subtle synthesis of the two being expansive, broad, imaginative and, well, grand, whilst also being restrained, focused and tightly wound.

Though bookended in such a way that potenitally makes it a fourth-hand account of events, the film primarily follows Ralph Fiennes as the mannered and enigmatic Gustav H, widely-respected concierge of the titular hotel. After a regular guest and occasional lover (Tilda Swinton) dies in mysterious circumstances, Gustav goes on the run with his faithful lobby boy (Tony Revolori) and - with a big European war looming ominously in the background - attempts to solve the mystery, clear his name and uncover the secrets of her will - the contents of which set of their own chain of murderous events. Even as its focus remains on character detail and small-scale interactions, it's easily the most traditionally plot-heavy of Anderson's films - helping again to separate it from what's come before - and, even if death and grief play a part in all but one of his other movies, it's also one of the saddest - with an overriding feeling of entropy and a sense of sadness at the passing of time.

Fiennes, as the archetypal Anderson protagonist (with a passion for teams, uniforms and all things un-cynical), displays a great gift for comic timing and delivery, fitting in alongside cameos from members of the established troupe - from Owen Wilson to Bill Murray. Though most of the famous faces that dominate the film's marketing campaign have extremely brief screen time, it feels like a calculated use of star semiotics rather than an attempt to boost box office, with recognisable actors imbuing blink-and-you'll-miss-them characters with immediate personality. If a venerable and charming character actor like Bob Balaban pops up on the screen for a moment as an important hotelier it has an effect, and attracts a degree of audience investment in that minor character, that filling the role with an equally competent yet comparatively unknown actor would not. Not to say that's an approach that would suit every movie (sometimes a hotelier only need be a hotelier) but it's entirely appropriate for a Wes Anderson film, where characters are expected to arrive fully formed and to jump off of the screen.

'Only Lovers Left Alive' - Dir. Jim Jarmusch (15)

Languid and atmospheric - with musing about art, literature and music taking precedence over matters of plot - 'Only Lovers Left Alive' casts two supremely watchable actors, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, as Eve and Adam, a pair of above-it-all vampires whose love has spanned the centuries. Making the most out of its compelling leads, slick editing and a terrific soundtrack, the combined effect is something that washes over you for an enjoyable two hours without leaving much in the way of a long-lasting impression. That said, it is interesting to see vampires played as these eternal art critics, whose often downright snobbish opinions are invested with an unassailable amount of cultural capital when compared with us mere mortals. You're never going to impress these guys with a boast that you discovered a band before they were popular, because they knew William Lawes and Schubert and are good friends with a still-living Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt).

With their longevity also comes, naturally enough, a nonchalance towards the passage of time and history (and even mortality itself), with a world-weary cynicism directed towards us "zombies" when Adam asks if we've yet started the, apparently inevitable, Water Wars yet. In this version we're the monsters, though not through our violence but through stupidity and ignorance and, worst of all, appallingly bad taste. There's an underlying tension, with violence often a distinct possibility due to the nature of the protagonists, but Jarmusch avoid treading that well-worn path for the most part, instead offering something more contemplative and mood-driven.

'Nymphomaniac' - Dir. Lars von Trier (18)

Technically divided, 'Kill Bill' style, into two standalone parts (volumes I & II), Lars von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac' does not really work on those terms. It's one ambitious, lengthy and typically (perhaps knowingly) controversial movie which only makes sense - thematically and narratively - viewed as a complete whole. In it Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe, a self-described nymphomaniac whose lifelong pursuit of love-free sex has contributed to her questioning whether she is a good or a bad person. On hand to judge is a middle-aged virgin named Seligman, who takes Joe into his disheveled, drab apartment after finding her beaten unconscious in a neighbouring alley. Determined to discover why she believes she's such a bad person he insists that she tell her life-story up to that night - interrupted only by his trite observations and strained analogies - and it's this recollection of events (which feature Stacy Martin as young Joe), mostly in chronological order, that occupy the bulk of the film.

Set in a dour and nondescript Northern European country, that seems to be something between England and the director's native Denmark, von Trier tells this story with his trademark mix of uncompromising, gritty frankness and confrontational, occasionally uncomfortable use of acerbic black comedy (one scene with a show-stealing Uma Thurman could easily be a sketch from Chris Morris' Jam). Divided into individually titled chapters, 'Nymphomaniac' uses different scenarios and brings in a number of disturbing and extreme characters to explore a wide range of sexual practices and fetishes, whilst also discussing (or providing a platform to discuss) attitudes towards them.

There is always, nagging in the background, the question of morality (to what extent are Joe's actions potentially "wrong") though the film makes no judgments in most instances - except when combatively challenging the judgements of others (for instance regarding the subject of so-called 'sex addiction' and, in it's bravest and best scene, attitudes towards pedophiles). Even its ending, that could read as a pessimistic final judgement on humanity - or, at the very least, men - is more even-handed than it might first appear, with denial of experiencing sexual urges the ultimate villain of the piece rather than an interest in or enjoyment of sexual behaviour itself.

'Dallas Buyers Club' - Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée (15)

Sporadic as posts are on this blog, in the time since I saw 'Dallas Buyers Club' both its lead actors - Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto - won Academy Awards for their respective roles in this watchable but fairly telegenic little biopic, made on a commendably low budget and built almost entirely around the charisma and skill of the two actors. McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a brash, ignorant and oddly likable Texan electrician who's diagnosed with AIDS and given approximately 30 days to live by the local hospital. Heterosexual and prejudice, he is ostracised by his like-minded friends and forced to abandon his old life. Leto plays Rayon - a transsexual Woodroof reluctantly joins forces with as a business partner (and later befriends) after taking it upon himself to increase his life expectancy (and in doing so make a good living) importing effective yet legally unapproved drugs into America from abroad - giving the FDA and American Pharmaceutical industry the finger during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 80s.

Both actors are terrific, with Leto a big surprise after moving away from acting and focusing on his music career in recent years - and he perfectly underplays a role here that other actors might have made bigger or brasher. But it's McConaughey's film with the actor, whose relaxed charm and good looks had so long seen him associated with dire rom-coms, deservedly receiving mass acclaim - as much for his other recent, stunning work as for this. It's a meat and potatoes, by-numbers, "based on a true story" drama in many respects - solid but unspectacular. Though the two headline performances, combined with the extraordinary nature of the true story itself, make it stand out above similar movies of its kind, and its comparatively slender budget makes it admirable.

'A New York Winter's Tale' - Dir. Akiva Goldsman (12A)

After stunning audiences with his complete inability to sing in 'Les Miserables', Russell Crowe has outdone himself again in the shambolic mess that is 'A New York Winter's Tale' with his complete inability to do an Irish accent - made even funnier by the fact he's acting opposite actual Irishman Colin Farrell, who must've been struggling to suppress the giggles throughout the production. Not that Farrell has too much to feel smug about either, after adding this dreck to a dubious filmography that stands as a mockery to the great talent displayed in films like 'In Bruges' and 'The New World'. Joining them on this ignoble quest to shit away the last vestiges of credibility and integrity are Will Smith - whose last big roles came in 'Men in Black 3' and the Razzie-dominating 'After Earth' - who makes an unconvincing Satan and Jennifer Connelly, who confirms the difficulty faced in finding work for actresses in their 40s (even Oscar-winning ones) by accepting the thankless role of "mum of small child", and only turning up when the movies nearly over.

Standing uncomfortably in the middle of all this cinematic horror is poor Jessica Brown Findlay, a young, British actress who actually comes out of this looking fairly good but who probably won't find putting this on her CV a terrific boon going forward. There's far more that's wrong with this tonally inconsistent, shallow and cynical exercise - which spends most its time peddling comforting nonsense about how special each and every one of us are and culminates in a quest to save a sweet, little photogenic child from imminently terminal cancer - but those criticisms can be neatly summed up into a dismissive "everything is total rubbish". Which saves us all a lot of time.

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