Hail, Caesar! (2016)

I’ve been on holiday for much of March, hence not posting so much, but I found the time to go and see the latest Coen brothers film twice in that time. Partly this is because since seeing their last film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), I’ve found something new to enjoy and celebrate in their work — an attitude not based on snide self-congratulatory archness, or so it feels to me (perhaps unfairly). However, I went to see it a second time also because the critical response — and my own initial reaction — feels so much like it misses the point of this latest work. Yes, the pacing seems initially quite odd — it has a slowly unfolding stiltedness that treads heavily somewhat like the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s which it pastiches — and yes it’s a light and warm-hearted embrace of the era, but neither is surely a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost a release after the dour depression of Llewyn, but it’s not shallow. There’s a significant subplot that burrows into the contortions Hollywood found itself in during the McCarthy period, as his House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Communist sympathies within the industry. Even if leading man Baird (George Clooney) confronts a cabal of screenwriters (“The Future”), who have kidnapped him for possibly nefarious reasons, with a genial good humour, their presence is still given a voice, and not even a mocking one at that (Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse pops up at one point). It also has a great line in fabulous supporting performances (Josh Brolin is the lead as studio boss Eddie), whether Tilda Swinton’s gossip columnist sisters, Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-like tap dancing showman, Ralph Fiennes’ director or, perhaps best of all, Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie. It’s sweet, and for the Coens it’s played fairly straight, and it’s all the better for that.

Hail, Caesar! film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 8 March 2016, and at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 17 March 2016.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

And thinking again of the sameness of Vinteuil’s works, I explained to Albertine that the great men of letters have never created more than a single work, or rather have never done more than refract through various media an identical beauty which they bring into the world.
— Marcel Proust, La Prisonnière (1923, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin)

Like perhaps many (too many?) in the English-speaking world, I have never encountered the writing of Stefan Zweig, from whom director and writer Wes Anderson claims inspiration for this confected mittel-European tale set over three successive post-World War II generations. However, I find myself drawn to comparisons with the work of Marcel Proust, which I am reading at the moment and have been for about the last year (making such connections rather more inevitable perhaps; I don’t know whether the quote above is really relevant, but I read it this morning, so it’s in my mind, and it does seem to speak to Anderson’s oeuvre). Mainly it’s the sense that this huge cast of characters have been distilled down into a series of fragmentary glimpses as relayed via an unreliable narrator through many layers of history and nostalgia and refracted by a world-changing war. It’s this last detail which seems most to suffuse the film, for it provides most of the pathos, that sense which is only hinted at around the edges and in small almost-throwaway lines, as it becomes clear in the telling that all of these characters — indeed this whole worldview and way of life — have since disappeared. But in many ways that’s what Anderson’s filmmaking has been building to, conjuring up a spectral reminiscence of a lost world.

Re-reading my pretentious opening paragraph, I suspect that it’s just in the nature of the film to encourage this kind of reading. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not abstruse or difficult in any way, but it is layered. The key metaphor for me is the elaborate layered cakes made by the bakers in the film, Mendl’s, which seem to reflect the way that the film is structured, not to mention its candy-coloured set design and the superficial sweetness of its surfaces. Most notably, the film is nested within four different generations of narration: the first is a young student visiting a statue of the Great Author and reading his eponymous account of his earlier life at the titular hotel; the second, the Author (Tom Wilkinson) at home in 1985; the third, ostensibly drawn from the book, is that Author as a young man (Jude Law) talking to Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) in the decaying 1968 lobby of the hotel; and finally, there’s Zero as a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) working under the concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) in the hotel’s 1932 glory days. For all these levels of narrative fragmentation, most of the film is set in the 1930s strand. The four are distinguished by different aspect ratios (a Cinemascope widescreen sweep for the late-1960s, with 1.85:1 at varying zooms for the more recent scenes, and finally ‘Academy ratio’ of 1.33:1 for the oldest), which along with the usual obsessively-detailed set and costume design, means it never gets too confusing when the film jumps around in time.

The actual plot of the film is something of a caper, as dapper roué Gustave H. is bequeathed the fortune of elderly heiress Madame Celine Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), which is quickly contested by her diabolical sons and leads to plenty of deadly ado, set against the background of a coming war. The posters already make clear quite how many people are in this film, but they and their stories all support the central picaresque tale of young Zero, accompanying Gustave everywhere, and in the process finding his way in the world. In the film’s title, location and the year of its setting, I am reminded of Grand Hotel (1932), itself a multi-character story of criss-crossing lives and old world European opulence. Perhaps more atmospherically linked are the mannered and beautiful films of Max Ophüls, such as La Ronde (1950) or his luridly coloured final work Lola Montès (1953) — indeed one of the best of his films (Letter from an Unknown Woman, 1948) is also based on a work by Zweig.

My point, in any case, is that Anderson has crafted a richly-detailed work that harks back to a history of twentieth-century culture and politics. One needn’t pick up all the references, so crammed in are they, but it adds depth to what at its heart seems like a very silly story with a large cast of colourful characters. All the small details accrue in the mind and work their way into the imagination, such that a week after viewing it I still have a strong sense of it and its delirious charms, which is more than can be said for most films. I can’t comment so soon on whether it’s Anderson’s best work (The Royal Tenenbaums remains my favourite), but it’s a strong reminder that he hasn’t yet disappeared within his own pretensions as many including myself had at one point feared. If he is here conjuring something of an identical beauty to those earlier films, it’s one that continues to resonate.

Update after Second Viewing: There’s a precarious sense of mortality which subtly encroaches around the edges of many of the film’s otherwise superficially innocuous action. It took me quite a while, after all, to realise that The Royal Tenenbaums was more than just a jolly colourful farce and realise it was laden with affecting pathos (which came home to me when I watched it with my wife, and found myself in tears at the end). Still, the febrile comic persona of Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H. comes through all the more strongly, with the running gags of his inappropriate swearing, not to mention the way his recitations of romantic poetry are consistently cut off, remaining especially funny on second viewing.

The Grand Budapest Hotel film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Wes Anderson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Saoirse Ronan; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 24 March 2014, and later at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 1 April 2014.

The Invisible Woman (2013)

It’s that time of year when the cinemas screen a lot of serious films by serious directors looking for awards recognition, so I’ve seen quite a few of them, and may be suffering from fatigue. I think this sophomore effort by renowned English actor Ralph Fiennes is far from being dull, but it trades in a soft, underplayed sensitivity that perhaps isn’t really in vogue right now. It tells the late-19th century story of a famous author, Charles Dickens, and his affair with a younger woman, actor Nelly Ternan, but in a way that really de-emphasises the sex and salaciousness. One might uncharitably say it’s replaced that with some lovely, detailed period costumes and other such details, but there’s still plenty of emotional heft.

What in fact we get is a film very much focused on this once ‘invisible woman’, played by a radiant Felicity Jones, and such is her centrality to the film that maybe it’s Charles Dickens’s real wife Catherine who should be labelled as such. The story takes Nelly’s later marriage to a respectable middle-class educator in Margate, Kent — and her exchanges with a local curate — as a framing story for her youthful dalliance with Dickens. The romance between the two is developed very slowly and without any showiness on either’s part. There’s nary a hint of any bodice-ripping or heavy-breathing lust, but instead a romance founded at first on artistic and intellectual appreciation.

One wonders, indeed, if our director perhaps sees some points of contact with the character he plays, a man as famous in his time as any modern screen celebrity. There are some conversations devoted to his relationship with his public, and how that dominates his life. But this isn’t really a story about Dickens, as about Nelly. It’s her face the camera lingers on (especially when Fiennes isn’t also on screen), often in extreme close-ups.

One recurring visual motif in the film is the faces of Fiennes and Jones in the windows of a train, their shadowy reflection superimposed over the passing English landscape. It suggests a sort of liminality that encapsulates some of the doomed nature of their characters’ love; eventually we find out that this train journey took place at a very delicate point in their relationship. That the romance never really resolves itself positively is largely a reflection of how it was subject to the mores of the times (as well, perhaps, as how very circumstantial most of the surviving evidence for it is). Nelly finds herself adhering to these societal standards, and is repulsed by the freer, unmarried relationship of Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) with his partner Caroline. So the story begins with her difficulty reconciling these pressures, at a point when she is enjoying the kind of marriage which she had been conditioned to covet and which she could never have had with Dickens.

There’s something about the way the story focuses on this inner turmoil within Nelly, and set against her society, that make it a bit difficult to really hold onto. This emotional evanescence is well-handled by the actors, though, and it’s never less than a sumptuously-mounted period piece. It treads delicately through its hidebound Victorian setting, against which all the characters — Dickens, his mistress, his wife, his children, his audience and his friends — come into conflict. Some do manage to prevail, but its the cost of that which the film is interested in above all.

The Invisible Woman film posterCREDITS
Director Ralph Fiennes; Writer Abi Morgan (based on The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin); Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 11 February 2014.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

“It all ends.” By this point, the eighth and final film in this massively popular franchise, this was all the posters needed to say — indeed, I scrolled through many pages of images trying to find any with the movie’s title on it. And I suppose you might say that I was disappointed by this finale, but in truth it has everything I imagine the audience wants in this kind of thing. I can hardly, in fact, suggest that anything else would have been suitable. It’s just that, having invested so much time over so many films in these characters and the actors who play them, the kind of frenetically-paced action setpieces and big emotion-laden sentimentality that HP7b delivers feels just a mite generic. Still, aside from a humorous possibility held out by the very final scene of a ‘Harry Potter: The Next Generation’, it does at least deliver on the poster’s promise. It all ends.*

Trying to rehash the plot at this point feels like an exercise in futility, though in fact this film was my first encounter with the universe of Harry Potter (aside of course from its fandom’s appearances in various media reports over the previous decade or more). I don’t imagine that at this point anyone is going to start with this instalment, and from personal experience I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. Distinguished character actors from the previous seven films show up here, often in shots so brief as to be easily missed in the general tumult, though seeing them creates a little frisson of recognition and warmth of feeling (my favourite was Maggie Smith magically rousing into action the stone soldiers in Hogwarts’ façade). Not to mention that what feels like the entire series’ emotional climax — the point at which the links between the hero and his antagonist Voldemort become clear — is also completely incomprehensible without at least an understanding of the “horcrux” concept, and certainly not communicable in whispers from one’s partner in the darkness of a cinema.

These are the film’s highlights. Elsewhere, though, as I’ve mentioned, it becomes a little generically deadening, particularly a vast massed battle scene set at Hogwarts involving plentiful destruction that takes up most of the film’s second hour. There’s all kinds of running about, a bit of slow-motion, and loads of special effects. There’s rousing, grandstanding moments of brazen emotionalism (reader, I shed a few tears) and moments where the protagonists stop to share their feelings. I may come across a bit cynical here, but I can concede that these have I suppose been earned, and did not at least overwhelm the narrative.

I daresay, then, that this is the point where I should be attempting a grand summation of the Harry Potter film experience. If like a lot of modern blockbuster series it somewhat resembles a rollercoaster ride, then at least it is backed up by some strong writing and tightly-structured character development. On the one hand, Rowling has clearly embraced the hoary old archetypes of the genre — wands, pointy hats, broomsticks, and all that spell casting ‘abracadabra’ (sorry, “avara kedavra”) gubbins — but what I like about the films, not being familiar at all with the books, is that it harnesses this essentially childish nonsense world to a distinctly darker-hued palette of gloom and chiaroscuro (okay not so much in the first two films, but from Azkaban onwards at least). There are moments of levity (largely in the sixth film) but few are the times when the lowering clouds part — and when they do (as in the opening of that same film), it is as likely to be to better set off the inky black messengers of Voldemort’s destructive wrath sweeping across the sky.

As for the characters (Harry, Hermione and Ron of course, along with their more prominent classmates like Neville, Draco, Luna and Ginny), they convincingly progress from chirpy tweens to emo-wracked teenagers to ultimately well-adjusted young adults, in a quite literal coming of age for both them and the actors portraying them. After all, they pull through morbid fixations (tests to their mortality in the fourth film), the depths of depression and the awkwardness of socialising (in the fifth), and a paralysis of uncertainty about what to do when finally free from the guidance of adults (in the first part of this finale).

I find, in the end, that I am rather fond of this world through spending time in it, but then opening oneself up to any ongoing series can often have this effect. The narrative doesn’t make any formal demands on the viewer (it’s all straightforwardly and linearly plotted), and the universe has a cosy reassuring quality to it — sure there are unexpected deaths, but they are all motivated and explained within the narrative. Ultimately, after all, this is a straightforward battle between Good and Evil and as viewers/readers we are conditioned to know how those generically turn out. So (and here we come back to my rating of this final film), finding out quite how things conclude is not in the end the most enjoyable aspect of the series. Instead, it’s in the journey, and thankfully for the most part that has been a pleasurable one to take.

Footnote: * If in fact it turns out that in the fullness of time, for whatever reason, the franchise is brought back to life, whether for sequels, prequels or reboots, I reserve the right to rewrite this review in the most excoriating terms.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 film posterCREDITS
Director David Yates; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Eduardo Serra; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Tuesday 26 July 2011 (and on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 7 January 2014).

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

It seems nowadays like almost a cliché of the tentpole blockbuster adapted from a popular source text, that the final book will be split into more than one film — as if it’s just so sensible a commercial manoeuvre that why would we question it? It happened with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (2011/12), and is set to happen with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (2014/15) — and then there’s The Hobbit (2012/13/14), which has been split into three — so it’s worth recalling that before Deathly Hallows there hadn’t been much of a precedent for this kind of thing (Kill Bill, perhaps, though that wasn’t from a novel). Wanting to be faithful to the text and make the inbuilt fans of the franchise happy, and wanting to create a good cohesive piece of narrative cinema, can often pull filmmakers in two directions, so splitting a text can also be a means to ensuring there’s enough time to do justice to the author’s intentions (see also: making a miniseries). And it’s true that previous instalments have had so much plot in them, that just trying to keep up with what’s going on is quite an exercise. So going into the denouement to this wizarding saga, the producers have decided two films are necessary, and who am I to argue?

What this means in terms of the final film is that the plot’s longueurs are preserved, though I don’t mean this as a criticism necessarily. It’s rare in a blockbuster for the action to slow down, but here it does on a few occasions: at one point for an extended animated sequence narrating the backstory to an arcane symbol, and at another for almost half an hour, as the protagonists try and figure out what they need to do, albeit set against some ruggedly beautiful scenic backdrops. It allows some of the interpersonal relationships to be teased out — the sense of resentment that Ron (Rupert Grint) has built up towards Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), and particularly Harry’s relationship with the more intelligent Hermione (Emma Watson). And when they do all figure things out a bit better, it makes them stronger as a group — necessary if they are to face up to the final, looming battle with Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

But despite the tangled interpersonal web of the film, there’s also a relative freedom, in the sense that it is set more in nature than previous instalments. Sure, there are still hideaways like the Blacks’ home in London, and an enjoyable caper sequence set in the labryinthine underbelly of the Ministry of Magic (set up by the introduction of Bill Nighy as a new Minister), but elsewhere the film sets itself in the wide expanses of various far-flung locales: an undulating beach; a rocky coastline; a woodland clearing; Lovegood’s little cottage out in the middle of a plain. That freedom to run — whether in chase of or in flight from foes — is captured by the poster, a headlong rush by the characters that pushes the quest forward to the discovery of further horcruxes that will weaken Voldemort, but it’s a feeling that in the film is in tension with those scenes of the protagonists’ confusion, doubt and stasis.

At some level, I’m not surprised to see contemporary reviews exhibiting some disappointment with this instalment, given the way it slows things down in anticipation of a breathless conclusion still a year away. However, in retrospect and in the knowledge that I’m able to immediately move on to the second half, I really appreciate the way that Deathly Hallows Part 1 paces itself and gives more time to the central characters we’ve been following for so long; few other characters make much of a mark, as their illustrious actors are shuffled off into what are basically cameos. If it represents the confused calm before a gathering and inevitable storm, it’s a pause for breath that’s richly deserved by this point.

Next (and Last): Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 film posterCREDITS
Director David Yates; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Eduardo Serra; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Bill Nighy; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 1 January 2014.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

As the series has progressed, there’s been a definite move towards darker textures and emotions. The possibility was always hinted at by the looming gothic architecture of the main locations, but now that the leads are in the midst of adolescence, one gets the sense that the filmmakers feel safer venturing into rather more disturbing territory. Hence the presence here of the “Death Eaters”, a cult-like fraternity dedicated to the resurrection of the spectacularly creepy Lord Voldemort (played appropriately by Ralph Fiennes), as well as far more terror and peril than the previous instalments allowed — even the otherwise more assured Prisoner of Azkaban — reflected in its higher classification (a 12 certificate rather than PG for the previous films).

There’s still of course a fantastic amount of plot, as well as of wizardy nonsense, on show, making this also the longest film of the lot so far. We move breathlessly from a shadowy opening which introduces David Tennant as someone clearly evil, to the Quidditch World Cup, where the Death Eaters make their first terrorising appearance, straight on back to Hogwarts, where there’s yet another new Dark Arts teacher (Brendan Gleeson’s delightfully unhinged Professor Moody) and a big competition between three different wizarding academies which takes up the remainder of the film. Thankfully, with all this to shoehorn in, we don’t have to sit through too much Quidditch, still the silliest of all possible sports (where the spectators in the stadium get to watch teams scoring goals, while somewhere out in the ether far from view, a couple of wizards chase a little flying thing, the capture of which pretty much renders all the stadium play meaningless).

We do, however, get a sense of a far bigger world of magic, as students from two different countries enter the picture — the elegant French ladies of Beauxbatons, and the beefy Germanic boys of Durmstrang. One student from each academy gets to compete in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and while the French lady doesn’t fare too well, somehow the weedy Harry (who is also competing, much to everyone’s surprise) manages better pitted by now against the glowering East European chap (their provenance is all rather vaguely Teutonic). There’s also a second competitor from Hogwarts, the taciturn pretty boy Cedric (played by a gurning Robert Pattinson, in his first taste of adolescent-centred blockbuster franchise filmmaking). Meanwhile, threading through the whole thing are hints at the upcoming and unholy resurrection of Lord Voldemort, and his presence in the background makes everything in the film seem rather more grave. Even the Tournament is a treacherous and potentially deadly affair, as the wizards are pitted against huge fire-breathing dragons and sent into dangerous waters to complete their quests, though health and safety has never seemed to be a particular concern of Hogwarts or the wizarding world.

The visuals are all handled perfectly competently by the director and cinematographer roped in for this latest instalment (the director being the venerable Mike Newell, a journeyman who has shown competence on comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral as on the mafia drama Donnie Brasco), and if nothing impresses quite as much as in Cuarón’s film, at least it never gets too plodding. It all adds up to a fine two-and-a-half hours of entertainment, and at long last, with the arrival of Voldemort, has begun to resolve more strongly into an ongoing storyline that one suspects will be developed further in the final four films of the series.

Next: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire film posterCREDITS
Director Mike Newell; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes; Length 157 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 28 December 2013.

Skyfall (2012)


FILM REVIEW || Director Sam Mendes | Writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan | Cinematographer Roger Deakins | Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw | Length 143 minutes | Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Sunday 28 October 2012 (and at home on Blu-ray, Wednesday 10 July 2013) || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Sony Pictures International

Whatever they try to do with James Bond, however they try to update the archetype with those familiar post-Bourne trappings of propulsive action/espionage mayhem intended to reflect the modern world, there’s always that nagging sense that Bond as a character is trapped in the past — the guns, the girls, the cocktails, the sense of macho imperialist entitlement. It’s certainly acknowledged here with plenty of hat-tips to the supposed old world charms of this retrogressive character, but despite Judi Dench returning to provide a strong female presence, by the end it feels like the series has been firmly returned to its cosy blinkered stasis.

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