Monday, April 14, 2014

Review: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: Shall I yet learn love?


Everyone who knows me and has heard me ranting like a tramstop psycho about how much I hate Wes Anderson's films will be intoning Wha!? after their own fashion. More on that later.

Set in the fictitious country, Europe, east of centre, of Zubrowka, this is the tale of how legendary concierge Gustav H. who pampers the rich and wintry dowagers among his guests to a sexual extent and is rewarded after the death of one with a priceless painting from her collection. The remainder of her family are stirred to jealous action. A chase and fun ensue.

To his credit, Wes Anderson has crafted an enjoyable tale that moves at a clip and doesn't flab out in the third act while he struggles both resolution and attempts to smuggle great clanking deus ex machina moments past his audience. It's pretty good. Why am I being so nice? Why did I pay for a cinema ticket and choctop tax and sit in the dark with a lot of other people on a beautiful autumn day in Melbourne to watch what I expected, from the execrable trailer I endured for the past summer, to be dreck? Well, I suspected, from some varying reviews, that it would have its good points.

Here they are:

Ralph Fiennes. He plays a campy Ronald Coleman, the kind of Ronald Coleman we might have seen on screen if he'd been allowed more of himself there; intimidatingly urbane but equanimitous, an observer of strict protocol but no snob in real world situations. This would fail without Fiennes or someone from the very very few like him. Just as he made the bad guy in Schindler's List the most magnetic thing on screen he inhabits the solar centre here. This is because for all the literary quirks of the character, for all his fussiness here and resignation there his words and actions feel natural. Anderson has gone for the same kind of thing as the butler in Arthur (John Gielgud breaking his gravitas with blunt swearing) but Feinnes refuses to surrender to the cheapness of the ploy and plays his expletives the same way he played them as Amon Goeth, as though that's what he'd say anyway. What this loses in laughs it gains in sympathy and in a film so long on artificial charm and so short on the natural variety, this is a golden hen's tooth.

Narrative tropes: We begin the film by going through a series of spheres of narrative as a young literary pilgrim hangs a hotel key on to the monument to the writer of the book The Grand Budapest Hotel that glitters with them. She then sits on a bench nearby and reads that tome which has a cover of a pink we shall see again. As she reads we hear the voice of the middle aged author who turns into Tom Wilkinson attempting to film an introduction to it which gives way to his younger self, Jude Law, who is told the story of the film by the Hotel's owner, Zero Mustapha (F. Murray Abraham), of how he came to own the hotel. In this sphere, the narration goes beyond the conventional voiceover to sound like the written word. When a character says a line it is followed in Law's voice by something like, "he said."

See what I did there? I put the bit that describes the speech in quotes. I am clever. Well, I am reporting cleverness, he wrote.

This is a film as much about storytelling as it is about nostalgia and the passing of epochs. Perhaps because of this Anderson has reigned in his urges to destroy his own narratives with mishandled final acts and keeps the tale moving at a clip. This film, unlike any other of his, is never sluggish (fans would use the word lackadaisical there).

Cineform. Anderson represents the different eras or spheres of the tale with appropriate aspect ratio. For the 1930s it's the 4X3(ish) academy ratio. For the 1960s it's scope (2.35:1) and for the present day it's the more standard 1.85:1 (the majority of cinema releases but also, cleverly, the shape of contemporary tv screens). This kind of time/form mix has usually been highlighted by contrasts between black and white and colour and even different colour timing. Anderson keeps as much as he can centre screen and the changes are, remarkably for him, as unobtrusive as the reel-end cigarette burns were in the film projection aeon. Anderson presents one and only one scene in black and white and its well chosen (by recalling Schindler's list, apart from anything else).

 Evocation: Anderson has created a Europe that never could have existed but feels comfortable and so appealing that we are lulled into a kind of cinematic paralysis as we watch. This is in evocation of the kind of film Hollywood studios set in Europe in the 1930s, a filmic space to indulge in alien traditions of privilege and rebellion and to meet forces like fascism with cheekiness and win. It's strange but filtered through familiarity. The signs we read are in English. Zero's uniform cap bears the words Lobby Boy. Everyone speaks English in their own accents: Adrien Brody is a harsh NYC, Fiennes is a natural sounding uppercrust English, Tony Revolori is all LA as the young Zero but F. Murray Abraham is cultured Manhattan as the older Zero, and so on including, delightfully, Saorise Ronan in her native Irish lilt. This is Lubistch's Warsaw in To Be or Not to Be or Design for Living. It's Chaplin's Vienna in The Great Dictator. The evocations are pointed and, for once with this director, entirely appropriate. And they work.

And here's what bothered me:

While the calling of the old cinema to stand in for a sense of loss is poignant and effective, at the edges there's something else going on that made me wince. Every time I saw characters as cartoony silhouettes scurrying down steps against obvious backdrops or flagrant use of models or anything that pushed the vintage cart out a little further I recognised something I wish I hadn't. Each of those moments, and there are many, feels not like the innovation of a familiar scheme, a cineartiste improving on tradition, but a style lift from someone else whose profile is low enough for it not to be noticed. I just kept thinking of the name Guy Maddin.

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has been making feature films since the 1980s which blend the look of silent cinema expertly with an earthy worldliness which feels contemporary. The result is startling. A glittering ice nymph might emerge from a night sky made of black velvet and sequins, look around her and say: "well, fuck me." The thing is that in Maddin's realm that is not meant to draw a belly laugh, more a wry smile, and any serious themes will emerge as they need to through the weird stark kind of camp. They do emerge and in a setting as alien as Eraserhead still is, and we are visiting a strange new world. Everything in a Maddin film is as obssessively placed as anything out of an Anderson one and you are meant to notice and respond but Maddin's films end up feeling more rewarding because they feel truer. His cinema seems a happy coincidence between therapy for compulsion and real joyous expression. Anderson's feel like a beg for approval.

I've always thought the Pascal's wager of post-modernism (it works whether you get it or not just like this phrase) was a twee evasion. Wes Anderson's po-mo grated with me because it always felt try-hard. And, more immediately, his films played for me like the guy who finally hears the latest joke and tells it in its tatters as though it's fresh. His big jokey setups are so intent on impressing that you can hear the old collapsable telescope creaking. Yes, he knows his Nouvelle Vague and his Preston Sturges. Yes, he knows his British Invasion b-sides. Yes, he can arrange all of them into tableaux that drone with overarticulate dialogue. But what does it amount to beyond a few adolescent themes masked by good casting?

For me it amounts to wasted time, his and mine, as attention-deficit whining like Rushmore, Royal Tennenbaums or Life Aquatic push out their increasingly sludged up flows. Anderson isn't the Kubrick of quirk, as I heard one reviewer declare, he's its Michael Bay, delivering the mightest and most powerful form of tweeness since .... his last one. That's what I saw in the trailer that infuriated me so much but drove me to at least see if my hatred would endure. Would I be charmed by this critics' darling and mooted contemporary master?

Well, no. This film is mildly enjoyable but consistently so. The charms it offers are like the cakes and pastries in the little pink boxes that litter its screen, pretty, perfectly sugared and textured, impressive as artifacts, and utterly unpalatable to those without a sweet tooth. Ralph Fiennes' Ronald Coleman riff just makes me want to see a Ronald Coleman film. Grand Budapest Hotel makes me want to see any of the films it evokes rather than it ever again. It's enjoyable. No, it's the best Wes Anderson film yet but coming frmo me that only means I didn't find it infurating or wearisome three quarters of the way through. Faint praise? Faint film. Sometimes faint is what you want. Well, faint is what this is. Enjoyable. Faint. Oh, good, here's my tram.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Ghostlights That Failed: More Imaginative TV Fiction

A sci fi premise in the first episode was quickly discarded to become a show about little people evading big people.

90s paranoia premise in which a man's identity is erased. His pursuit by a mysterious malevolant group makes a FUGITIVE of him which means that, apart from a sprinkling of conspiracy tidbits, he's really just going to place to place lending a hand. The finale was apparently intriguing but dismissive programming by the network and a lack of strong continuity left me uninvolved.

Another in the wake of Twin Peaks begat X-Files, Dark Skies might fare better now on the coat-tails of Mad Men as it was Johnson-era USA. The alien invasion thread was a lot stronger than its 60s progenitor The Invaders but the thing soon flubs down into encounters with the famous (one of the co-leads meets the Beatles) and soon to be famous (Jim Morrison, student filmmaker who screens a potentially damning reel of film and then, when it ticks off, says "this is the end"). The presence of the late great character actor JT Walsh could not save this from disappointing.

Not only in the wake of the X-Files but from the same team. Chris Carter wanted something even darker than the murk Scully and Mulder moved through. They cast beautifully, including Lance Hendriksen in the lead as Frank Black and Terry O'Quinn as his chief contact with the vigilante Millennium Group and the mood was a pleasant sombreness. But there were problems.

First season was serial killer of the week during the final wave of that genre on cinema screens and, while there was a gloomy apocalyptic thread sewn throughout it didn't really amount to much. Second season concentrated on the approaching apocalypse and saw Frank turn from the Group and get pursued by it. This mixed jarringly with the continued serial killer theme and felt as patchwork and messy as the conspiracy arc in the X-Files. The finale was astouding and daringly ... final ... but ... the third and last season saw Frank go back to the FBI and bounce between an attempt to explain away the apocalypse of the last season as a local incident and get on with the now routine weirdo killer of the week.

Despite perhaps over half of the episodes approaching real greatness the reason I seldom recommend it to folk looking for something from the coffers of a dark 'n' troubling nature is that the consistency is just too low to expect them to wade through the lot. I can watch this for the atmosphere alone but the middling really does outweigh the good.

Made to cash in on the success of The Twilight Zone, this series ran for three years in the early 60s. Apart from a few impressive episodes from writers like Harlan Ellison that influenced 80s sci fi cinema The Outer Limits' default position had to do with evil aliens who were thinly veiled communists. This might lend an archeological thrill to current viewing but the pre-school level of allegory and insistence on a very few variations on a theme give it an exhausting air of diminishing returns.Twilight Zone rand for five seasons and changed its own game several times. Outer Limits never managed to consistently rise above its sponsors LCD requirements despite some fine talent involved.

An attempt to render the Twin Peaks scenario more accessible by applying generic horror fiction templates to a soap opera. If that sounds dismissive it's only because of the temporal context. If you made it today, scene for scene in 16:9 you'd have a season of American Horror Story. Some enjoyable characters like the little boy and his sister's ghost as well as bad guy in chief Sherrif Buck. After Twin Peaks' intrigue and during the X-Files much fresher approach to things like supernature American Gothic didn't stand a chance. We're a lot more eager now to add irony to what we don't get or might otherwise ridicule. Some very fine moments, though.

Great idea! Put a suave James Bond type in a western setting based on a train filled with gadgets that pushed the envelope of nineteenth century technology and have him fight supervillains. This steampunk scenario was cast in the 60s so it has a certain grooviness to boot. The leads and villains are well cast and there are babes falling from the scenery. So whats wrong? Hard to say exactly but it's as though the premise seemed enough for the writers so that they never seemed to go beyond the wow factor: hey Belle Epqoue torpedos! Beyond that it's really only babes fatales swooning o'er Dan West and panto villains in frock coats. For contrast, google some of the cp graphic novels around and pay some heed to the roll call of steampunk animes from Japan. That's how to do it. This first go does get a lot started, though. Pity it ventures so timidly beyond.

Winning theme of cold war fed paranoia of alien invasion glued to a Fugitive kind of wandering capable hominid. 60s style all over the place. What's wrong? It's the Fugitive with aliens. The assimilation of the latter is borrowed from almost every episode of The Outer Limits and is diverting enough but just never peaks. See also Dark Skies which was little more than an update.

Through a mumbled science explanation two scientists move around in time and find that the future is easier to change than the past. Several Twilight Zone episodes posed deeper questions with shorter screen time and lesser effects budgets.

Great idea! Vampires are real but a minority that faces the bigotry of the majority. They drink synthetic blood at bars and have their own night clubs. Vampire blood is a highly hallucinogenic aphrodisiac declared illegal but in use as a very black market item. All good stuff until you get into tight corners and start adding other creatures with any powers you want to save the day until the idea of the magic that separates human from humanoid-beast fades away and it chows down to the same soap as anything else. I gave up after the 3rd season, having failed to get through the opening shots of the following one.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review: TRACKS: What Without Why

I remember this story from the time and how it felt, in however slight a way, that things were changing in the world. There was a little in the media about it but it didn't really come alive for me until the edition of National Geographic landed at the door of my subscriber family home. What I recall first from reading that was the golden hue of the cover and the impression that I was looking at a demi-god descended. What I don't recall was the reason this young woman trained for years to make a trek of thousands of kilometres through such hostile terrain. This film, as a narrative fiction ought to anchor itself on that very thing. Goody, closure!

Whether it is the sweep of the aerial photography of the terrible beauty of the land or that it is effectively personified in the subtle power of Mia Wasikowska's face what I saw was the same as the magazine story: the feat outranks the need. We get a good idea of the time and patience Davidson put in to do this mighty thing and there is a real sense of determination on screen but we just don't get why. Some scenes of childhood trauma are inserted and mount towards a confrontation that never quite happens. So, if it was a massive exercise in emotional analgesia it's still a mystery, by the end credits.

Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock was made only a few years before Davidson's feat and it used its setting to show the spooky effects of overdressed Edwardian stiffness confronting and perhaps being consumed by an alien nature. This film works best when it is showing us something similar, landscapes that could be from a planet simliar to ours but a slight kick further towards the star. But how effective can this be when we already know that Davidson who began life in rural hardship in western Queensland. The learning curve between the nature she was born into and this amped up version is a gentle one. The sense of conquest is only lessened by her own account.

The opportunity to extract herself from the chattering crowd seems reasonable but spending that much time and effort in her impatient mid twenties suggests a kind of sociopathy rather than hermit-like reclusion. The self administered secular baptism that we know is coming feels like much more than relief but, really, that's all we are privy to. We are given many signs of the magnitude of the physical journey but are left guessing about the personal one.

Mia Wasikowska has power as a screen presence and this performance does nothing to subtract from that. What she does give feels natural but it still falls short as she is simply not given enough to work with. This creates the same tension whenever we see an accomplished player in an undistinguished piece, a Michael Fassbender in Jane Eyre, an Ellen Page in Inception, a De Niro in  ...  anything since Goodfellas. Was director John Curran unable or perhaps unwilling to overegg the splendid visual pudding before us with character depth? Is Davidson herself a poker faced misanthropic thing of stone (well, she did famously have a fling with fatwa-bound and camera-shy Salman Rushdie but .. ok, apart from wowing at that when I read it, that really has no place here)?

There is a decided lack of moment at points that ought to shake with it. Finding a safe swimming hole. Reaching the coast (oh come on that is not a spoiler). The very hard thing she is forced to do along the way (which I won't spoil). None of these things feel that important (even the very hard thing). Similarly, the sense of the danger she frequently finds herself in is suspense-free. All this is strange considering it is the story of someone whose confrontations with nature form the essence of the tale. Without the provision of anything else, a more than sketchy commentary by Davidson as a character on her journey for example, we are left wondering "so what" at an endeavour that few in the comfort of their cinema seats would dream of undertaking. Whether she is or not it just feels as though she's pretty much ok for the whole trip. A few prickles in the grass here and there but she's essentially fine.

We might be thankful that the relationship with National Geographic photographer Rick Smoalan is not overblown into a burgeoning romance of life-affirming power that lures Robyn back from the emotional wilderness and into modern wellness. It's played out quite naturalistically with help from a believably socially awkward Adam Driver but soon begins to serve as an assurance that Davidson is never really going to be tested unto death in the wilderness. One international poster for the film features the pair in a kneeling embrace on desert sands. If anyone pays for a ticket to this thinking they're in for a love story then I hope the choctops are good that day.

Oh and, is it too hard to imagine beyond an off the rack orchestral score for something like this. The pan flutes in Picnic at Hanging Rock added something alien to both civilisation and nature which fuelled unease and a real spookiness throughout. An electronic score comprised of the sounds of the locations would, with a little imagination draw the eerie beauty of the land out from the slide show we get.

So, we still don't why this extraordinary thing was done by this extraordinary person. We do know that it was done. With a mechanism designed to extract the conflict and jeopardy from everyday life and deliver a concentrated dose of it for our emotional and philosophical well being how can we end up with this dilution? How can, in other words, this cinematic representation be less engaging than the lines around the photographs of a few pages of a magazine from the 70s? All I know is that it shouldn't. Why don't I read the book, then? After this feckless teaser the best I'll say is that maybe I shall.