GFF 2014: The Grand Budapest Hotel 0 92

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Opening this year’s Glasgow Film Festival is The Grand Budapest Hotel from quirky auteur Wes Anderson, yet another film that proves no one makes them quite like him.

A charming journey into the past to tell the story of the eponymous institution and its various occupants, we start things in the present day when a travelling writer (Tom Wilkinson) describes his time visiting the Grand Budapest in the ’80s. We cut back to his time there (now played by Jude Law) where he meets the mysterious Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who is more than happy to tell his story.

Cut back even further to 1932 where we find Mr. Mustafa as fresh-faced lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) under the employment of Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes), a perfectionist concierge who takes more than a professional interest in his rich, elderly guests. When one of his beloved patrons, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), dies suddenly, he promptly finds out he has been left a very valuable painting in her will. The family isn’t too happy about this, not least of which her son Dimitri (Adrien Brody) who sets out after Gustav and Zero to retrieve the painting when they go on the run after being accused of Madame D’s murder.

This is unmistakably an Anderson picture, impeccably designed down to the smallest detail – you can just tell every inch of the titular building has been meticulously planned and inspected – and dialogue delivered in the quirky, deliberate manner his fans have come to know and love. On a purely technical and visual level the film is exquisite, from its eclectic pastel-shaded colour palette to the costumes and sets, all of which make it seem like some sort of idiosyncratic painting come to life.

But there’s also more to it than surface level perfectionism. The script is beautifully structured with this three tiered flashback approach that ties into its themes of legacy and looking back with fondness and longing. The dialogue is zippy, funny and eminently quotable, the humour pitched just at the right level of wry and knowing without tipping over into pretentiousness. And while it’s not as emotionally engaging as something like Moonrise Kingdom, there is still some emotional resonance to be found, particularly in a scene in which Gustav realises the error of his his passive, rude behaviour towards Zero.

It’s populated by an absolute stellar cast, some of whom will be welcome and familiar faces to Anderson fans like Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, while the likes of Fiennes, Abraham, Saoirse Ronan and newcomer Revolori inject fresh blood into the director’s inimitable world creation, which in this case feels at once knowingly manufactured and entirely believable in its own right. Fiennes is particularly great here, giving a nuanced performance that brings a humanity to a potentially unlikeable character. Even when he does something stupid or says something rude and mean we’re still right along with him.

Part comedic character study, part farcical adventure, The Grand Budapest Hotel is another charmer from a director who is, like him or a not, a truly unique cinematic voice. While the multiple narration throughout as we jump between each of the time periods is a little unnecessary and distracting, it doesn’t take away too much from what is otherwise a beautifully designed delight, filled with great performances of characters that are a joy to be around. I’m not sure it will convert anyone who isn’t already an Anderson fan but it’s made with admirable affection and feels as much like a film made to satisfy the director’s own artistic ambitions as it does those who wait with bated breath for each and every one of his projects.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is released in UK cinemas on March 7th.

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 422

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 454

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10