Monday, March 10, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place in a small country in Eastern Europe, but it's no place you've heard of. The land of Zubrowka is the creation of Wes Anderson, a filmmaker who has always paid as much fastidious attention to the world his films take place in as he has to story and character, and here he has concocted a deliberately artificial and anachronistic alternate vision of 20th century history. He opens the film in 1985, where a teenager in a grey communist society takes refuge in a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel, and then he takes us back through 1968 to 1932, when the events depicted in the book took place. As Anderson moves through the decades, he delineates the different periods by shifting from a widescreen frame to an unfamiliar academy ratio, but as his image contracts his imagination expands.

Working with the artist Hugo Guinness, Anderson unveils his narrative through multiple storytellers. The ageing author of The Grand Budapest Hotel (initially played by Tom Wilkinson) recounts his late ‘60s visit to the fading establishment (when he is played by Jude Law), where he happened to meet a mysterious fellow guest named Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, Mr. Moustafa tells the writer how he first came to visit the hotel when it was in its prime, an enthusiastic young lobby boy (Tony Revolori) who became the protégé of the resident concierge Gustave H, a man who dedicated himself to ensuring that ensuring that every guest's need was catered to before they even have to ask. Gustave is one of Anderson’s greatest creations; a ripe blend of old-world charm and slightly camp elegance, who has a penchant for spouting poetry and seducing rich old women. He is played by Ralph Fiennes, giving the actor an opportunity to display a wonderful lightness of comic touch that is unprecedented in his work, but Fiennes also bring a gravity and sincerity to the character, making him a much richer figure than the pompous cad he appears to be.

Even in this period setting, Gustave is a man out of time. We are told that “His world had vanished long before he entered it, but he sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace," and this makes him the perfect protagonist for Anderson, a filmmaker markedly out of step with contemporary cinema. Here he is reaching back to filmmakers of a bygone age for inspiration, with The Grand Budapest Hotel displaying more than a hint of the Lubitsch touch, and traces of Ophüls, Powell & Pressburger and Rouben Mamoulian are evident in its construction too. The Grand Budapest Hotel is as finely assembled as you would expect, with the more compact frame being no less packed with detail, and with every composition and right-angle camera movement being meticulously controlled. Of course, by this stage in his career you'll probably know if his style works for you or not. In the past, I've found the fussiness of Anderson's filmmaking a barrier to enjoying them on more than a surface level, but The Grand Budapest Hotel has a sneaky emotional sting.

This feels simultaneously like Anderson's lightest and darkest work. The plot is a gleefully silly trifle surrounding the theft of an invaluable painting and a missing will, but the knockabout comedy is frequently – sometimes jarringly – interrupted by violent acts, most often perpetrated by a Willem Dafoe, in the guise of a brass-knuckle clad henchman. There's also a genuine sense of threat in the imminent arrival of a fascist regime, complete with Swastika-like insignias, and a lament for an age of innocence and civility that is about to be washed away. For all of the sparkling comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel contains, it may actually be Anderson's saddest and most subtly humane work.

This is Wes Anderson's eighth feature as a director, and many respects it feels like his most ambitious effort to date. A glance at the film's poster, which displays 16 very recognisable faces and one newcomer, suggests that this will be a very busy film, and so it proves to be. The film's farcical narrative finds room for shootouts and chase scenes (featuring some beautifully handcrafted effects), and many of Anderson's favourite actors pop up for little more than a single line. The Grand Budapest Hotel might be the most Wes Anderson-ish film that Anderson has made yet, but his refinement of his idiosyncratic style has also revealed unexpected depths, making this a film that might satisfy both Anderson devotees and sceptics alike.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney is a fine actor and a great movie star, but the qualities that makes him such an appealing screen presence – his instantly engaging charisma, his light comic touch, his facility for gravitas – seem to instantly desert him as soon as he steps behind the camera. The films he has made since his energetic and creative debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which now looks like the work of a completely different director) have been handsomely mounted, nostalgic and tasteful pictures that deal with notions of honour and decency. They have also been rather dull.

The shame about all of this is that Clooney has an eye for a great story, he just doesn’t have the capacity to realise it. He seemed like the perfect man to make a 1930s screwball comedy throwback, but his leaden directorial hand killed whatever sense of charm, humour or fun it might have possessed, and The Monuments Men suffers a similar fate. There’s plenty of promise in this story of US soldiers being sent into war-torn Europe to save the great works of art being systematically destroyed or stolen by Hitler. Clooney sets the film up as an Ocean’s-style caper, opening with a jaunty getting-the-gang-together montage sequence and introducing us to an ensemble that appears to promise a good time.

Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville star as the soldiers enlisted for duty, with Dimitri Leonidas bringing the average age down and Cate Blanchett adding a negligible female presence. The stars are paired off for separate narratives that run parallel throughout the picture, but everything they do is so oddly muted and flat. Damon and Blanchett make some half-hearted gestures towards romance before eventually walking away, while Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are set up as a bickering double-act but their one-liners are delivered with such little spark or conviction, it’s as if we’re watching them in an early rehearsal, reading from the page.

Perhaps Clooney was operating under the impression that the sense of camaraderie a film like this is propelled by would instantly form through some kind of movie star alchemy. He makes no effort to develop these characters and their prior relationships with one another through the writing; we are told that they are all tangentially connected to the world of art – curators, restorers, etc. – but they seem to have little interest in or perspective on the art they’re looking for. Clooney barely gives us any opportunity to see it for ourselves either, beyond a couple of listless close-ups and a few brief shots of the characters standing in mute awe in front of either intact or destroyed artworks. The only way the art itself really factors into the film is through the central theme of whether saving such art is worth risking a man’s life, a question that Clooney only asks via laborious lumps of voiceover, never really engaging with it in any but the most facile way.

In fact, facile is the best word to describe The Monuments Men, and to describe Clooney’s directorial work in general. It strikes a serious pose but makes no attempt to engage with the complexity or tragedy of its subject; Clooney is happy to let the movie coast along on the surface of things, and to let his actors do the same. This might not have been an issue if the film was engaging and entertaining on any level, but The Monuments Men is lumpy and staid, with Clooney proving unable to infuse any of the key moments with a sense of tension or excitement. In particular, two scenes in which Goodman and Dujardin find themselves in a pickle are directed in the most frustratingly ham-handed fashion, and a later comic set-piece in which one of the team stands on a landmine has all of its potential for danger and humour leeched out of it by the careless staging and editing that suggests Clooney just wants to get it out of the way. What drew him to this project? It’s a cracking story, for sure, but we get no sense of passion or urgency from watching the film itself. For a film about the value of art, The Monuments Men is bafflingly artless.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Lone Survivor

Peter Berg was so determined to make Lone Survivor he directed Battleship for Universal Pictures in 2012 to help secure funding, and his passion for this project is evident from the opening minutes. Berg begins the film with documentary footage of real-life Navy SEALs undergoing a rigorous and intense training process, learning to withstand extreme pain and being shaped into hardened warriors. A little while later, we see one new recruit reciting a macho SEAL mantra in front of his admiring fellow soldiers: “There ain't nothin' I can't do. No sky too high, no sea too rough, no muff too tough…Never shoot a large calibre man with a small calibre bullet…” In every scene Berg reaffirms that these men are brothers and heroes, and that his film is a tribute.

Lone Survivor is the story of the disastrous Operation Red Wings incursion into Afghanistan in 2005. 19 American soldiers were killed during the course of the mission, with the lone survivor of the title being Marcus Luttrell (played here by Mark Wahlberg), whose book was adapted for the screen by Berg. Luttrell was one of four men deployed as an advance force in a mission to capture or kill the Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, but as they observed their target from a vantage point in the surrounding mountains their position was compromised by a trio of goat herders. After some debate about whether to kill, detain or release the civilians, the soldiers decided to follow the rules of engagement and let them go, retreating from the scene before the alarm was raised.

What followed was an almighty firefight, with Luttrell and his team finding themselves outnumbered and outgunned by a Taliban army. Berg recreates the battle in what feels like real time, with the volume being pumped up to an ear-splitting volume as Berg pitches us right into the crossfire. Berg is a decent director of action and he does well to maintain a sense of coherence here as the four Americans face an onslaught that comes at them from all directions, but it’s hard to admire any of the technique involved when you’re having your senses battered so comprehensively. The other three men are played by Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, but the characters they play are entirely interchangeable (in fact, it’s sometimes hard to tell which one if which). We are given no reason to care about their fate beyond one simple fact – they are American, therefore the good guys, and their assailants are the bad guys. “You can die for your country, I'm gonna live for mine” Foster growls as he lines one up in his sights.

The contrasts drawn between the two sides is stark. As we spend our time with the Americans, we see them talking to their girlfriends at home, joshing with their buddies and conducting themselves at all times with dignity and honour, while their enemy is seen terrorising villagers and beheading a man in front of his family. Each of the Taliban fighters is taken down by a single bullet to the head or chest, while our four American protagonists each suffer numerous wounds and keep on fighting. We see every bullet that tears through American flesh and feel every crunch as the soldiers hurl themselves down a rocky mountain face to escape the gunfire (in a manner that recalls Homer’s trajectory down Springfield Gorge). Berg fetishises their suffering to emphasize their courage and resolve, and when the time comes for them to die, the director ensures it is a glorious death, with each of Luttrell’s three companions exiting in slow-motion and adoring close-up.

Is this how it really happened? Perhaps, but the simplistic nature of Lone Survivor is reductive and the high-octane style Berg employs just wears the viewer down. The film will draw comparisons with Black Hawk Down – a film coincidentally based on an operation that also left 19 soldiers dead – but I found Ridley Scott’s film to be more varied and more cinematically interesting, whereas after 20 minutes of gunplay in Lone Survivor I’d had enough. What are we supposed to take from the film? The fact that war is hell and the men who fight are very brave? Peter Berg may have succeeded in his stated aim to honour these fallen soldiers, but I found little else of value in his orgy of violence. The film is relentless, dispiriting and numbing.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Grudge Match

I’m sure many producers have dreamed of pitching “It’s Rocky versus Raging Bull!” in meetings with Hollywood studios since the early 1980s, but as the decades slipped by that pitch has seemed less like an exciting proposition and more like a something depressing that we’re just going to have to get through together at some point. Sylvester Stallone’s penchant for trading on former glories and Robert De Niro’s willingness to settle for any half-baked script that comes his way meant that there was a certain inevitability – or should I say, inescapability? – about a film like Grudge Match tarnishing our memories of what these two men were in their prime.

Both actors are clearly playing variations on Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta rather than Henry “Razor” Sharp and Billy “Kid” McDonnen, the roles they are supposed to be inhabiting here. Stallone’s Razor is a sweet-natured blue-collar guy who just wants to keep his head down and do an honest day’s work, while De Niro’s Kid is an infamous womaniser whose lame cabaret act recalls the one performed by the washed-up LaMotta in Raging Bull. We are told that these two shared an intense rivalry three decades ago (images of which are created for us with some fuzzy CGI effects), but Razor walked away from the sport before they could have a third, defining bout, and the pair have kept their distance ever since, a bitter resentment simmering between them. They are brought together by an energetic low-rent promoter (Kevin Hart) who could easily be speaking for the producers of this film as he plots to unite these faded stars and trade on our nostalgia.

Beyond the initial casting hook, not a lot of thought appears to have been expended on the construction of Grudge Match, with Razor and Kid going through the motions of comical training montages and undignified publicity stunts, as you’d expect, and each having to deal with some personal issue as well as focusing on the fight. In Razor’s case, it’s a rekindled relationship with Sally (a distractingly drowsy Kim Basinger), the woman who came between him and Kid in the ‘80s, while Kid tries to come to terms with the fact that he has a son (a well-cast Jon Bernthal) and grandson in his life now. Each man faces a moment of crisis that threatens to derail everything just before the fight, and the film generally hits every beat that you would expect a film of this nature to land on.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. It would be foolish to go into a Peter Segal-directed comedy sports movie anticipating surprises. The laziness inherent in its writing is disappointing, but the bigger issue here is that it simply isn’t funny enough to mitigate that laziness. The jokes are older than the two stars (“Gutsy move, going without a bra!” “It don't look like you're missing any meals!”) and there’s a whiff of desperation over the attempts to eke humour from Bernthal’s character being named BJ. Comic relief is ostensibly provided by Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart, but both actors wear out their welcome almost as soon as they appear on screen. Arkin's performance as an old man who shouts inappropriate things is one that he has given before, with much more energy than he provides here, while Hart’s endless stream of shrieked pop culture references and “white people are crazy” gags makes him come across as nothing more than a pound shop version of Chris Tucker.

But of course, the only reason anyone is going to see Grudge Match is for the leading men. I won’t reveal the outcome of the climactic fight, but Stallone emerges as the victor in the acting stakes here. He is able to settle into this kind of broad, self-deprecating fare with more ease than De Niro, who always looks uncomfortable and often seems to be wishing he was somewhere else. “A great performer knows when to leave the stage” Kid is told at one point, and watching De Niro sleepwalk his way through films that are so far beneath him remains one of cinema’s most dispiriting spectacles. When I watch Robert De Niro these days, I can’t help thinking of the line Samuel L. Jacksondelivers to him in Jackie Brown: “What the fuck happened to you, man? Shit…your ass used to be beautiful.”

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

"The year I turned 26 I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week." The bragging voiceover sets the tone. The Wolf of Wall Street is a tale told by a man revelling in his escapades, proudly showing off the spoils of his criminal activity. As Jordan Belfort, Leonard DiCaprio turns to address the audience directly in the middle of a scene and begins explaining the mechanics behind his IPO swindle, but then he breaks off: "You know what? You’re probably not following what I’m saying. The question is, “Was it legal?” Absolutely not." He knows that we're not here to gain an insight into the financial workings of Wall Street in the early 1990s, but to be entertained by the debauched, hedonistic lifestyles of Belfort and his band of thieves.

In many ways, The Wolf of Wall Street feels like the completion of the loose thematic trilogy that Scorsese began with Goodfellas in 1990 and continued with Casino in 1995. In these films we see the rise and establishment of a criminal operation, before watching it finally crumble, leaving our protagonists with nowhere to go but back to living their lives "like a schnook." The difference with The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is played explicitly for laughs  - being the closest thing Scorsese has made to a pure comedy since After Hours 30 years ago – but the broad hilarity is frequently undercut by grotesque, horrific scenes. Within the first 15 minutes, as a wild celebration rages in the offices of Belfort's Stratton Oakmont firm, we see a young woman volunteer to have her head shaved by the baying mob around her for $10,000. Scorsese presents this environment as a Bacchanal, with Belfort as the young emperor indulging his every whim.

This wealth of outrageous material seems to have brought the best out of both Scorsese and DiCaprio. Scorsese's camera thrusts and soars through Belfort's glittering but sordid world, mimicking the drug and testosterone-fuelled energy of the film's characters and maintaining a relentless pace throughout the film's three hours. Scorsese is now in his 70s, but The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't feel like the product of a filmmaker in his dotage, with the audacity and verve of this picture matching his most dynamic work from across the past forty years. His fifth collaboration with DiCaprio also marks the point at which he has unlocked something within the actor – DiCaprio is a consistently bold and intelligent performer who has given many fine performances, but he has never popped off the screen in the way he does here. This is a magnificent display of movie star charisma, which seduces us even as we are repelled by Belfort's behaviour. He comes to life when taking the microphone and addressing his acolytes, empowering them to greater acts of greed and basking in their adoration as he leads them in a chest-thumping tribal chant. This is the same man we see crawling and drooling on the floor later on, reduced to an infant state by the drugs he has ingested – DiCaprio makes Belfort a figure both chilling and ridiculous.

Can you stand three hours in such loathsome company? The Wolf of Wall Street is an excessive film about excess, with Scorsese continually pushing his actors to fresh moral lows and comedic highs, but it's all to a clear point. Against the boys' club at the centre of the film, Scorsese places supporting actors who lend some perspective; Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie as Belfort's two canny wives, Joanna Lumley's delicious "seen it all, darling" cameo and, most potently, Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent trying to bring him to justice. Chandler represents the ordinary working-class guy who can occasionally gaze with envy at the lifestyles of the rich and famous but who ultimately has to get back to the mundane business of trying to maintain law and order. And what is his reward for taking down this swaggering crook? The juxtaposition of Belfort relaxing in a jail that resembles a holiday resort while Chandler sits disconsolately on the same subway he takes every day hammers the point home.

Scenes like that make the very idea that The Wolf of Wall Street somehow endorses or glorifies Belfort's lifestyle seem absurd to me. I found much of the movie exhilarating and hilarious, but with a troubling undertone that became more prominent as the film progressed, as he turned on his family and escaped any serious censure for his crimes. Some have attacked the film for failing to deliver a morally satisfying conclusion by making Belfort face the consequences of his actions, but it's hardly Martin Scorsese's place to impose such punishment if society as a whole has failed to do so. Scorsese simply shows us everything that Jordan Belfort is, and everything he represents, and then leaves it to us to make our own moral judgment on what we have witnessed. The final shot poses a lingering question – what are we to do about people like Jordan Belfort? Do we take action, or do we simply sit and gaze slack-jawed at their destructive antics, wondering what it would be like to be that guy?