The Grand Budapest Hotel *****


Director Wes Anderson’s mind is a fascinating one, managing to engage us with imaginative characters and locations that have a warm but barmy feel to them. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception, as theatrical and slightly obsessive as his others, but charmingly told. Ralph Fiennes has morphed into many characters over the years, and his delightful turn as camp, legendary concierge, Gustave H is one of the most splendid in some time.

The story begins in the ‘present day’, where a young writer (Jude Law) visits the notorious European hotel and meets with the current proprietor, Mr Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) to discuss how he came to be in such position. Jumping back in time, the story unfolds around about the time between the two World Wars, centring on Gustave H (Fiennes) and his flamboyant but attentive nature that won him many fans and lovers among his guests. One influential one is the neurotic, wealthy widow, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), who he has a close relationship with.

At the same time, a new lobby boy starts, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), who is put through his paces by Gustave but soon becomes his most trusted protégé and usual companion. After news of the sudden death of Madame D., Gustave and Zero set out to visit her home then hear the will read by her lawyer, Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum). The consequences of which set them on a perilous adventure that sees them entangle with the late Madame’s hotheaded son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), his henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe), and police chief Henckels (Edward Norton). Meanwhile, a budding relationship begins between Zero and his sweetheart, patisserie girl Agatha (Saoirse Ronan).

The cast alone is a mightily impressive draw – as the trailer shows, but in Anderson’s brilliant storytelling fashion, each character is not squandered but has its place and curious significance, like a well planned, well written fairytale; you never get to learn everything about each one but enough to make them individually intriguing. There is an eager pace too, that never tires, even when Gustave is sent down in midway through. Everything is precisely choreographed. An understated comic genius is the vein running right through, with a delivery like a latter-day Groucho Marx production. With this witty underpinning, all lurid subjects (sex, murder etc) are effortlessly dealt with, without losing their impact or shock value – it’s a very clever balancing act. All in all, there are layers of fun to be had within exquisite design and palette.

The film flows beautifully, thanks to Fiennes as Gustave who is meticulous and as proud as his establishment. The wonder in watching Fiennes/Gustave is the gentile comments that are often fully loaded and his decorum that never slips in any provocative situation but also feels wreckless and almost self-deprecatory. This contradictory façade hides a very dark side that may just materialise at any moment, as well as an implied bisexuality. Anderson gives us a delicious, multifaceted character to indulge in while Fiennes proves how much of a natural he is at comedy.

Great comic support also comes in the shape of Swinton as haggard old dear Madame D. with OCD and a walnut-whip of a hairdo – as much a manipulator as Gustave. There is a sense that the only one without an agenda is stalwart Zero, exceptionally acted by feature-film newcomer Revolori. The actor must own a lot of the mise-en-scène close-ups without moving much of a facial muscle. Goldblum, Brody, Norton and Dafoe play panto parts that instinctively compliment the tale and its eccentricities. Anderson has coaxed the best out of his cast, including Ronan sporting a cool birthmark. There is a real sense of total belief in the success of the film from all involved. It combines, comedy, theatre, murder and mystery in one hoot of a time. It’s an Anderson delicacy, much like the tale’s baking, to taste and savour.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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How I Live Now ***

It’s safe to say, there would be little of interest to Kevin Macdonald’s (The Last King of Scotland) How I Live Now if it weren’t for the ever-beguiling Saoirse Ronan at the helm. Perhaps he knows this as the production compliments her every thought and expression in this apocalyptic story set in the not-too-distant-future in our fair land.

Based on Meg Rosoff’s novel of the same name, emo-dressing American teen Daisy (Ronan) reluctantly arrives in the UK to visit her aunt and cousins in the countryside, only to find she has arrived when World War III breaks out in Europe, and her aunt gets stuck in Geneva. She must fight for survival while searching for the brief idyll she encountered before her dream existence was shattered.

Surprisingly, there is a certain ‘upbeat’ attitude to the whole affair, given the bleak subject matter. It’s like a wake-up call to embrace the simpler things in life. Experiencing events via a bunch of independent kids emphasises this too. There is also an eccentricity, a quaintness that highlights the film’s ‘Englishness’ too, with the country life creating a false comfort before things are turned upside down. After that anything goes, complete with some shocking scenes as a consequence of wartime.

Ronan as Daisy is set up as the unsettling factor to the status quo, initially, a girl with very many issues and unhealthy mantras playing out in her head, who subsequently grows into a leader. Think Hunger Games minus the archery in the English undergrowth, coupled with a bit of Children of Men, and you’re not far off. There’s also a lingering vulnerability that arises from children being left in charge, made all the more apparent by the lack of information about who has attacked and why?

As appealing as Ronan is to watch, there doesn’t seem to be enough on-screen brooding time for love interest George MacKay as Edmond to firmly melt teen hearts, however ‘wounded’ he mopes around as. Hence, the attraction for the teen crowd – aside from knowing the novel – is Ronan, plus the dream of independence and how liberating and scary that must feel simultaneously. It’s these qualities that underpin the film, including the foreboding that anyone, whatever age, is a potential victim.

Ronan, who has a commanding presence for such a young actor, may have brought Rosoff’s anti-heroine Daisy convincingly to life but it’s subjective whether enough of the character’s personality shines through for fans of the novel. The problem with adaptations is often what makes a character really tick is lost in screen translation, and there may be an element at play here in the rush to get to the dramatic, traumatic parts. Still, How I Live Now is a solid enough, homegrown apocalyptic drama with some very relevant concerns, as well as another nice showpiece for Ronan’s growing popularity.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Byzantium ***

Think ‘Twilight on the English Rivera’ but all the more seedier and desolate, Neil Jordan style. The director who admits to being ‘fascinated by monsters and monstrous people’ shows a sensitive side to the plight of the creatures of the night in his latest film Byzantium, taking note of the recent appeal of vampire films for female audiences after his male-dominated Interview With A Vampire back in 1994, but not necessarily following all the traditional attributes of the genre.

Gone are the tantalising romantic notions of erotica to be distorted into brazen carnal sexuality and the use of female ways to survive in a current-day environment – as ever with Jordan’s Catholic spin of bodily sin injected and a little social economics, reflecting today’s gloomy austerity. However, the familiar bond is still very much alive in this, complete with two empowering performances from Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan.

Two mysterious women – creative, sensitive Eleanor (Ronan) and the wilder, older Clara (Arterton) flee to a coastal town, hiding a dark bloody secret. They take shelter within the town’s underground trade routes, familiar to both, hiding from those who seek to destroy them after an ancient right of passage is broken.

In film theory, independent women usually get punished for their wayward ways, especially where sexuality is explored. Along the same tropes, Jordan’s attempt at Gothic suggests no good will come from the antics of his female leads here, however endearing and conscientious Eleanor is deemed to be. That said there is apparent empathy, where the director again masterfully creates subtle moods between the pair that are sensed, without having to explore them as part of the discourse. He also champions these females in the end, making an altogether compelling feminine affair and pouring scorn on those who deny female dominance, or indeed, that of change within stubborn institutions.

Ronan’s ever-considered performance always makes her an exciting watch as she explores the character’s depths, choosing to inject principles into the standard vampire feeding affair and prompting comment on the ethics of euthanasia. In a way, Jordan tries too hard to flesh out more avenues of interest than the normal bloodsucker behaviour which kind of works, but at the same time, gets diluted as the plot moves between extravagant costume drama and present-day social despair essay. Arterton comes across as slightly uneasy in the downtrodden vice girl role, but soon regains familiar ground when the fight is on and she can be feisty once more. Nevertheless, both actors are compelling to watch and compliment each other nicely.

The males come off the worse in this, with no titillating whiff of Cullen sensuality, ranging from a sickly waiter (Caleb Landry Jones) who Eleanor adopts as a pet project and a way of redeeming herself and Clara, to a miserable, pushover of a guesthouse proprietor (Daniel Mays). Jonny Lee Miller’s vampire character Ruthven poses an intriguing, alpha male threat that fizzes out as the pursuit draws to a climax. There is even the suggestion of a sequel as the story is left, should Byzantium succeed and grab the vamp fan’s imagination. However, without a decent dollop of lust and more of a grim social picture, this could be a hard sell to the ready-made audience of Twihards, and not dark enough or steeped in enough folklore to entice serious Gothic enthusiasts either, even with the promise of an attractive and solid female casting.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Special Forces ***

Remember last year’s The Way Back, starring Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris and rising Hanna star Saoirse Ronan, where Siberian gulag escapees seem to walk half the planet to reach a safe destination, and defy all of nature’s odds? Well, writer-director Stéphane Rybojad’s new French action drama Special Forces feels much the same, only swapping Siberia for the unforgiving terrain of Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the Taliban in hot pursuit. If ever there was a recruitment advert for the military might of France, it’s this.

Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) plays Elsa, a determined journalist after the inside scoop in Afghanistan, who is kidnapped by the Taliban and on course to die at their hands. In fly the French ‘special forces’, an elite bunch of six commandos, armed to the teeth and with a no-holds-barred ticket to rescue her. After successfully doing so, they miss their rendezvous point and have to form their own plan of escape and survival to bring her to safety.

Much of Rybojad’s film plays out like a gun-ho video combat game that turns into a nature adventure programme. But with its infectious French swagger – heightened by the unflustered determination of Commander Guezennec, played by international cinema heavyweight Tchéky Karyo, and the bravado of our six hero rescuers on the way to their mission who “love their job”, it’s highly entertaining and even humorous at times (considering the subject matter). Rybojad’s glorification of mighty firepower is mostly set against an over-the-top, pumping techno tracks with slow-mo action and death-defying moves, all designed to place us firmly on the side of the elite killing team.

With all-masculine names like Kovax (Blood Diamond’s Djimon Hounsou), Tic-Tac (Benoît Magimel), Lucas (Denis Menochet), Elias (Raphaël Personnaz), Victor (Alain Figlarz) and Marius (Alain Alivon), we’re given salt-of-the-earth, testosterone-fuelled and committed men who start out as one camouflaged force, but who develop personalities along the way as the story alters from war film to survival mission among the stunning but cruel terrain. The great performances from Kruger and the boys give the desired impression of unfaltering unity as the stakes get higher (making you earn for a blast of Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero” at times), resulting in the grand end scenes managing to tug a few heartstrings and get a few cheers. There are the inevitable clichéd and groan-inducing moments at humanitarian attempts, but such theatrics within a gallant French film production are carried off without much adversity.

Rybojad’s tale does suffer from the inevitable, overly lengthy moments, though, as he tries to stuff his visuals with even more breathtaking landscapes – like a Gallic Peter Weir. The pursuit scenes and subsequent defence ones begin to drag a little, and even Taliban chief Zaief, played (ironically) by striking-looking Israeli actor Raz Degan, and his men begin to look a little weary after their cross-country marathon. Degan is incredibly charismatic in the role, a mixture of intelligence and brewing danger, but who comes to a less than satisfactory conclusion, which renders the previous padded scenes fairly redundant. It is certainly at this point that you know Rybojad’s primary aim is to unify all sides by suggesting that man’s biggest enemy is nature itself.

Special Forces has an amusing, arrogant French Rambo-esque appeal to it that paints an uncompromising and lengthy black-and-white picture of the Afghanistan issue. Amongst the killing and body count is the contrary desire to end the conflict and heal the wounds. In this sense, it is a film you can get behind in its end goal. With an attractive international cast in tow, it should translate well for global audiences – and beguile the viewer at the locations’ magnificent beauty, while banging the drum for “vive la France.”

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Hanna ****

After the profound Atonement and whimsical Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright demonstrates that not only can he bring his trademark subtle tones and emotion to an action film, but also inject humour and dramatic style. Hanna is the outcome, an intelligent action thriller with a pumping Chemical Brothers soundtrack, combining fairy tale with a strong European modernist, almost Bauhaus trait. As a coming-of-age road movie, Hanna, starring The Way Back’s Saoirse Ronan as Hanna, offers an intriguing journey, laced with unexpected bouts of humour that give it a quirky, eccentric edge.

Hanna starts out like many other action thriller out on the unforgiving land, for example Shooter, with a slightly convoluted, but necessary start to show the basic origins of our young heroine, Hanna (Ronan), and her development, both in mind and body. Hanna is raised in a remote environment by her ex-CIA operative and fugitive father, Erik (Eric Bana), to be the perfect assassin – and walking encyclopedia – and always to expect the unexpected, even when half asleep. As in the animal kingdom, when she’s ready, she must fly the nest by pressing a button to signal where father and daughter have both been hiding all these years. Her dangerous mission takes her across Europe to a designated meeting place in a disused amusement park in Berlin, where Erik will find her. Tracked by a ruthless intelligence agent, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), and her sinister henchman Isaacs (Tom Hollander), Hanna finally does what she’s been taught to do, and delivers her own kind of blunt justice.

Unlike Luc Besson’s stroppy ex-addict-cum-assassin Nikita, Hanna is refreshingly focused and resourceful for a teen killer, partly due to the exceptionally mature acting talents of Ronan in the lead, who gives the same attention to detail to her performance, as she does in The Way Back and in Wright’s Atonement. Much like her character, Ronan has developed into quite a force to be reckoned with, and proves such a strong and hypnotic lead that she almost outshines her older co-stars, Bana and Blanchett, in the process. She combines innocence and virtue with a deadlier mindset in a deadpan delivery, captivating us until the end as to the real reasons she’s so special and desirable to the authorities. Ronan also embraces the action sequences head on, and one escape sequence simultaneously shows Wright could make a decent pop-video film-maker for all its artistic cinematography, patterning and chic style.

Blanchett is no stranger to playing strong women, and again, delivers a faultless performance as complex character Marissa who’s like a dangerous chameleon of easy-going one moment and cold-blooded the next. There’s one point in the story where it’s suggested that she’s Hanna’s birth mother, and with Hanna‘s ever-present sci-fi connotations, this inference never quite disappears. Adding an unnerving edge to Marissa’s endless, bloody pursuit is Hollander in a camp psychotic performance that fizzes with dark humour, but that the accomplished actor keeps reasonably contained.

It’s Bana who gets to demonstrate his solid action-man credentials again in one of two awesome set pieces, with some The Matrix-style moves and accompanying camera angles. What the first – set in a Berlin subway – does is spark nostalgic survival moments of Bana in the excellent Munich, but also gives Wright an opportunity to adapt his infamous long and complex tracking shots into an action sequence of breathtaking proportions. The second is a beautifully choreographed chase across a container park that feeds into the architectural Bauhaus design of simplistic patterning and movement, as Hanna nearly comes close to capture.

In stark contrast is Hanna’s exploration of child-like innocence, with the character’s hilarious, almost clinical discovery of the opposite sex and teenage angst, after meeting a travelling Brit family and making her first friend (played by Jessica Barden of Tamara Drewe fame). Coupled with this is the film’s references to the good and bad aspects of fairy tales, including a stylised, if slightly (and unshamedly) over-egged scenario, where Marissa is portrayed as Hanna’s Big Bad Wolf who needs slaying. The end confrontation results in one of the most recent, chilling and memorable child deliveries, said by Ronan: “I just missed your heart”.

To describe Wright’s Hanna as ‘an action thriller’ actually does it little justice, as does the snappily-edited international trailer, in capturing its unique look and feel and scenarios. So, if you’re searching for something out of the ordinary from the genre with a distinctly eccentric European perspective, Hanna is a must-see cult film in the making.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

The Way Back – 3*

With highly respected film-maker Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) behind a new adventure, you know you are in for a visually stunning treat, born of meticulous planning and hard graft to get it factually right. The Way Back is no exception to the Weir catalogue of cinematic triumphs, a sumptuous film adaptation based on the equally fascinating true story of a 4,500-mile trek against nature’s odds by seven escaped prisoners from Stalin’s Siberian Gulag in 1940.

Weir spares no expense in the grand scheme of things, whilst managing to convey the intricate personal stories of all his characters, played by an intriguing variety of acting talent. Jim Sturgess is Janusz, a polish national who falls foul of Stalin’s ideals, opposite Colin Farrell as the dangerous and blade-obsessed street criminal Valka. Ed Harris is American prisoner Mr. Smith, a man of few words, alongside the only female lead in the film, The Lovely Bones star Saoirse Ronan as runaway Polish orphan Irena. Harris and Ronan develop a convincingly tender father-daughter relationship, in the midst of the harshest of living conditions – both on and off set – that makes Weir’s film even more compelling, as Irena unlocks each man’s inner personality.

Indeed, the four leads deliver some exceptional performances, and some of the best of their respective careers, which is hardly surprising, given the rich subject matter and history at their disposal. In fact, this is an enlightening history lesson with lots of danger and action on its own about a period that’s often overlooked in the classroom, in favour of Nazi domination in mainland Europe at the time. Therefore, it can be argued that it’s hard to detract your feelings about the then-realities, from whether or not this is a good film.

As journeys on film go – and there haven’t been many epic ones, the likes of Lawrence of Arabia or Out of Africa in decades, unless you count Australia by Weir’s countryman Luhrmann, The Way Back is one that sounds incredulous, had it not been based on truth. This entanglement of truth and fiction shows the power of Weir’s storytelling skill, as well as his commendable casting.

Admittedly, the lead performances are strong on their own, but are helped by an excellent supporting cast of foreign actors that provide some of the lighter moments in the film; Romanian Alexandru Potocean is wise-cracking accountant, Tomasz who likens eating snake to eating a “big black poisonous chicken with no legs”. Weir nicely balances these very detailed human exchanges in the face of adversity with the wider ones, to avoid pretension and possible tedium. However, as with such a film, it does suffer from flatter moments, as you wait for the next thing thrown at the group, even with yet another breathtaking panoramic wide to feast on.

Weir fans will not be disappointed, though, and fans of the cast members will be equally impressed, too. This is solid, old-school epic film-making that is deeply affecting with its captivating human spirit, and makes for a welcome break from the incessant 3D out there.

3/5 stars

By L G-K