Fiennes Indeed.

Posted: April 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Grand Budapest Hotel ****1/2 (out of five)

PHCX0XcfxkfDFK_1_mWes Anderson’s masterful The Grand Budapest Hotel is not really about that (fictional) hotel, but about its concierge, M. Gustave H., who actually spends most of the movie not actually in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but having adventures in the most playful Europe you’ve ever seen on-screen. M.G.H. is played by Ralph Fiennes, and, if you don’t come out of the film swearing he’s your favourite actor, it’s because he was your favourite actor going in. This is a case of a director at the absolute peak of his abilities handing a huge, fantastical, multi-faceted, movie-reliant role to an actor at the peak of his abilities, and that actor absolutely, positively nailing it. The film is a wonder and a delight from start to finish, as is Fiennes’ performance, and if he isn’t nominated for an Oscar next year, I’ll have to make some angry calls.

There is a shot in the film – a relatively speedy zoom-in on a cake box – that, to me, sums up where Wes Anderson is at. It’s a punch-line shot, but it’s so fiendishly, brilliantly clever, relying on our deep, ingrained, almost folklorish knowledge of storytelling conventions and the repertoire of classic jokes, that some people will inevitably get it faster than others. Hence Anderson lets the zoom go on too long, allowing people to get it when they get it – and that element becomes a second joke, and, if you see it in a cinema with a healthy house, the staggered laughter at the first two jokes then laughs at itself – a third joke, all achieved with one simple but perfectly planned-out and ascended-to shot containing one sublimely loaded prop.Wes-Anderson-The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-and-His-Secret-Ingredient-Revealed

Inside that cake box is a colourful, perfectly constructed, obviously very sweet little cake, and I’m sure I’d be the millionth critic to compare that cake to the film, but the comparison is so obvious it feels like another of Anderson’s perfect jokes. The film is a sweet confection, light and airy, delicious, fleeting, wispy, as delicate and well-constructed as it is ephemeral, and, like the best dessert, it brings nothing but pleasure and smiles and happiness and love.

hero_GrandBudapestHotel-2014-1Although all the stars of Anderson’s previous films are here (some just for single shots, and some, like Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe, doing seminal comedic work), the film belongs to Fiennes and young Tony Revolori, who nails the Anderson style just as a young Jason Schwartzman did in Rushmore. Later joined by a truly luminous Saoirse Ronan, these jaunty “European” caperers, all speaking in their natural accents (but with the diction that only comes in a Wes Anderson movie, clipped, fully-voiced, complete), have the time of their lives, as do we in their company. A fairytale for adults, this is Anderson’s über-film thus far, utilising the entire breadth and astonishing depth of his imagination to bear exquisite humour and life in every single, immaculately composed shot. Suffice to say, if you don’t like Anderson’s style, you’ll hate this film; if you’re a fan – a “Wesbian” – you’ll be in movie heaven. The only reason this review isn’t five stars is that I’m convinced that Anderson, only 44, still has higher to go.

A Great Muppet Caper

Posted: April 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

MUPPETS MOST WANTED ***1/2 (out of five)
hr_Muppets_Most_Wanted_11James Bobin (who directed eleven episodes – the vast majority – of Flight of the Conchords, and co-created it) has proven to be the perfect director and co-writer (with Nicholas Stoller) for the continuation of the Muppets mythology. As with The Muppets (2011), Muppets Most Wanted achieves the one thing a Muppet fan wants more than anything (and which is so hard to achieve, one would think): keeping true to the Muppets vibe, in every single way – intention, manifestation, ideology, and most importantly, character and sense of humour – that was established in the original television series (1976-1981) and first series of movies (1979-1999).

I wrote at the end of 2011, for my Films of the Year column, of The Muppets: “Jim Henson would be proud. SO funny, and so true to the real nature of the muppets.” Nothing has changed. In the same way The Muppets honoured The Muppet Movie, Muppets Most Wanted echoes The Great Muppet Caper: the Muppets go to Europe, and bump into criminal shenanigans. Like the original films, the second one adds a bit more “plot” to the mix, but, as with Caper’s relationship to the first movie, at its heart, it’s all about show business; even when Kermit the Frog finds himself in a Siberian Gulag, he mounts a Revue with the prisoners, all-singing, all-dancing, all Kermit, the showman – for who is Kermit really, but an admirer, an adherent, a follower, and an artistic descendant… of Jim Henson?

Henson would, once again, be proud, of this very funny, very silly, extremely well-made, colourful, joyous – and did I say deeply silly – movie. Brett McKenzie, who won an Oscar for a song from the 2011 film, again writes very funny (and catchy!) original songs and brings, under his title of music supervisor, great wit to his arrangements of others. It’s all great fun, and it’s all very, very Muppet.jim-henson-beard

NOAH **

noahMy initial hesitation about Noah was the source material. Amidst a lot of silly stories in the bible, that of Noah is one of the silliest. If you don’t agree it’s probably time you read it again: it’s Genesis 5:32 – 10:1.

That’s a short passage in biblical terms, and writer / director Darren Aronofsky has made a long movie in modern terms, though not in terms of the history of biblical movies, which have traditionally been long (The Ten Commandments started at 1pm on most Sundays of my youth, and never finished until about seven the next morning; it was always a pain to try and watch only the Red Sea parting, which was the only reason to try and watch the film).

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS... the one bit that's any good.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS… the one bit that’s any good.

I would never have gone, therefore, to Noah, were it not for Aronofsky. Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan are both in my personal Top 50 of All Time, so he’s a director that I’ll always see. But boy, was I reticent. I didn’t even see The Passion of the Christ, and that was meant to be out there. Why would I see the dumb bible on-screen? But I did.

Aronofsky lets you know from the get-go that he’s going to show you “a story”. Using big CGI monsters (“The Watchers”, which are to stone what those big tree-men in The Lord of The Rings were to bark), sped-up film, silhouette, overexposure, obvious green-screen, a narrated, cartoonish prologue and a hundred and one other tricks, this artful director lets you in on his artifice. We’re not trying to be real here, he sees to be saying. This is just a fun story. As such, it plays not dissimilar to an animated feature.

noahs-beaver-problemMy big problem is I never care in animated features, and I found it impossible to care here, because the story is so – well, silly - and the characters are also – well, silly – lumbered with dialogue that’s really silly. As the extremely dull (and confusing!) set-up droned on, complete with long-white-haired-and-bald Anthony Hopkins havin’ a cuppa tea with Russ, it became obvious that caring for anything happening was never going to happen, at least for me.

Perhaps if I was a true believer – a literalist – it might have helped. The problems of old-school bible movies unfortunately are here in abundance. Just like that parting of the red sea, the flood is the only good bit here, and that’s the bit you’ll be waiting for when Noah plays on the telly for eons to come.

Oh, and Big Russ? He’s fine. He’s got Charlton Heston lines and he does what Charlton Heston would do: speak gravely and deeply, look very concerned, and squint.Noah_Russell_Crowe

 

NYMPHOMANIAC (Parts I and II) ***1/2 (out of five)

hr_Nymphomaniac-_Part_One_23A solitary, mature gent (Stellan Skarsgård) finds a bruised and slightly bleeding woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in an alley at night. He takes her to his rather depressing flat, puts her in bed with a nice cuppa tea, and listens sympathetically and attentively, occasionally offering his own insights and queries, as she tells him her life story through the prism of her sex addiction, with particular emphasis on her relationship with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). So much of that sounds ludicrous, and much of the first twenty minutes of Nymphomaniac, Part I are (absolutely unintentionally) laugh-inducing. But then, somehow, like into the clutches of a very strange mini-series (the cinema release of Nymphomaniac, Parts 1 and 2 has been released as a single, nearly four hour, film), you get hooked, or at least sort of mesmerised. It’s episodic, vague and self-indulgent (perhaps pretentious?) but there’s no denying that it’s also original, committed and borne of a highly determined voice.

That’s the voice of Lars Von Trier, of course, Denmark’s (reasonably) self-proclaimed most original and provocative filmmaker, whose festival press-conference antics belie the skill he has as a filmmaker when he wishes to show it. Melancholia, his last film, was pretty excellent; AntiChrist, his film before that one, was pretty awful. He’s made at least one masterpiece: Breaking the Waves, and one true piece of totally provocative cinema, The Idiots. Father of Dogma, iconoclast, maverick, fool: he’s all of these, a hodgepodge of concepts, as is this film, sometimes to its great benefit, sometimes to its deficit, but always intriguing.movies-lars-von-trier-nymphomaniac

The film is set in a sort of Danish England or English Denmark (in Part Two we definitely see London, or at least English, streets), but it’s really set in the arthouse, or in Von Trier’s mind. Skarsgård’s apartment, and the alley in which Gainsbourg is found, are both obviously, unapologetically sets (though not to the extent of Dogville, when Von Trier took the artifice of film to its natural conclusion). Most of the characters speak with British accents, but with Gainsbourg and Skarsgård, you can always tell they’re not British, and Shia LaBoeuf’s accent, certainly unintentionally, is sometimes Australian, sometimes South African, and sometimes something to make any dialect coach gouge her eyes out.

I don’t know how much LaBeouf had to pay Von Trier to be in his film, but, accent aside, Von Trier gets the best work from him he’s ever done (and possibly the only good work of his other than for John Hillcoat in Lawless). Jerome is a complicated, slippery character, and LaBeouf’s dubious qualities – his utter rootlessness and seeming mystification at how the real world works – complement Jerome’s silver-spooned, baffled existence, a boy in a man-boy’s body, capable of all the physical things a man can do (the sex act being the big one here) while incapable of grasping even a fraction of its emotional and psychological complexities.

Prelude-to-a-Wholesome-EveningUma Thurman plays in her natural American accent, and does some brilliant work in her own “Chapter” of Part One (the whole film – both parts – is subdivided into chapters). She gets to show elements of her emotional range that I literally can’t recall seeing since Dangerous Liaisons. Although her character is on a mission of vengeance, this is a world far away from Kill Bill, Volumes One and Two – although that resonance will not have escaped either Thurman or Von Trier, and may have even been why she was cast. The whole film is extremely conscious of its place within the world of cinema, and in Part Two in particular Von Trier goes full-bore into this meta-mode, visually referencing, at times shot for shot, Melancholia and AntiChrist, which, together with Nymphomaniac, make up his self-described “Depression Trilogy” (and if you watch all three in a row you’ll definitely feel pretty blue afterwards).

Nymphomaniac-24-photo-by-Christian-GeisnaesThe cinematography is exquisite and, given the huge range of characters, the acting is excellent: naturalistic yet always aware of what the Von Trier Universe demands. Jaime Bell – little Billy Elliot himself – forever banishes that dancing coal-miner’s son from his palette with his character in Part Two. Extremely dark, “K” is a man who exists to gratify women with a very particular need. The entire film takes a leap here, and if “K” was badly cast or performed, the whole thing could have fallen brutally apart, but Bell comes through with shining colours, giving his depraved character an essence that could not have been on the page. Either expect him to get a lot of villain offers next – or to never work again. He’s terrifying, and not because of what he does, but because of why he does it – and since that is never stated, it’s all to do with Bell’s performance. Whatever sickening stew of backstory and fractured neuroses he had going on in his head, we can see it in his eyes, starkly contrasted with the barren whiteness of his grotesquely under-furnished lair. Did I mention he’s terrifying? Terrifying. Watch Billy Elliot and Nymphomaniac Part Two as a double feature and have your brain fried.

The other acting revelation of the film, and the real lead actor in Part One, is Stacy Martin, who plays Joe as a very young woman in the flashbacks (and thus has the vast majority of Part One’s screen time). Besides being totally acceptable as a young Gainsbourg, she’s just excellent. I think Von Trier must be a truly terrific director of actors, because he somehow gets them all on the same page – his page – and it’s a strange, difficult, at times demented, at times stodgy, and at all times elliptical – page. Martin gets the vibe in every one of her many, many scenes, and her inner life during the crucial sex scenes is every bit as layered and fractured as that we could feel during Michael Fassbender’s Shame sex scenes (watch that with this for an afternoon of sexual addiction movies, then go out and hang yourself).

Unfortunately, for the most part, the framing scenes between Skarsgård and Gainsbourg are interminable and ludicrous, sounding too literary, too pretentious and portentous, too written. Von Trier wrote the whole thing himself, and it’s strange how clunky this dialogue feels compared to some of the naturalistic banter of the flashbacks. Perhaps he allows some improvisation, some times. Since the whole movie is in flashback, our sense of suspense is muted; Joe is wounded, but, honestly, not very severely, and she certainly doesn’t seem at all traumatised or even mildly shaken. Skarsgård, after a couple of tiny shots on the alley set, is confined to one room for the whole film, and he and Gainsbourg do their best, but, seriously, in a four hour film, these are the scenes to use to go to the bathroom, or better yet, to the bar.

Despite the shamelessly provocative marketing, this is Von Triers’ least sensationalistic, most mature film since Dogville, and it is never titillating or “sexy”. Nymphomaniac is trying to say a lot, and along the way it achieves all sorts of brilliant notes. Some of the scenes are truly exceptional, mini-masterpieces; some of it is turgid. It’s far too long. I suspect, over the four hours, most people will fall asleep once or twice, to be awoken by the sounds of rooting, rutting, whipping or crying. Perhaps this is a good way to experience it, in a fractured dream (or nightmare) state. Really, it should have been placed into theatres in two parts, as its title intended, perhaps a month or six apart, as Tarantino did with Kill Bill’s two volumes. At four hours, it’s all too much. But at two by two, it’s totally worth taking in. That’s how I did it; I’m not sure I could have made it through the other way. Von Trier is promising a five and a half hour cut still to come. I’ll have moved on. Von Trier doesn’t move on, continuing to delve into his obsession – men and women and their union in sex and violence. He’s a one-theme director, and he’s absolutely, resolutely, and wonderfully one of a kind.

 

NEIx6hevwmSiLO_1_1By the time Corey Feldman writes, in Chapter Fourteen of his memoir Coreyography, “He was the only person in my immediate circle who wasn’t molesting me”, he’s already dished enough tawdry shenanigans among the young Hollywood set, and those who exploited them, to gain your trust: He’s telling the truth and he’s not holding back. Eminently, incessantly readable – indeed, compulsively readable, and digestible in one sitting if you’ve got the stomach – Feldman’s memoir has enough drug abuse, child molestation and general sleaze for a month of miniseries.

Of course, you’re going to ask, Why would I want to read Feldman’s memoir? To which I can only reply, Why in the world wouldn’t you? Feldman, now a father, was hugely famous, with some of his monster hits being Gremlins, Goonies, Stand By Me and The Lost Boys, the latter with Corey Haim, with whom he’d be forever linked and with whom he became lifelong (Haim died in 2010) best friends. This guy took meetings with Spielberg before he was a teenager. His is the inside story of what it was like to be a working child actor, and then a teenage movie star, in Hollywood in the 80s and 90s. You have probably, at some point, wondered what that kind of upbringing would be like. Here it is.

08_corey_haim_dec92There’s more too: stage parents from hell (indeed, just parents from hell), trashed hotel rooms (literally), behind-the-scenes scoops on famous scenes and moments from the films and the lives (wait’ll you read about an appearance on Larry King Live) and a cast of characters that includes Spielberg, Joe Dante, Richard Donner, Drew Barrymore (one of Feldman’s girlfriends), Ricky Shroder, Crispin Glover (whom Feldman seems to be channeling for the book’s cover photograph), Sam Kinison, River Phoenix (and the full family Phoenix), Robin Williams and, in a truly memorable portrait, Joel Schumacher. (In the audio book, Feldman, who reads, does truly excellent – and very funny – impersonations of all of these, and everyone else, including a version of his mother that sounds like Patty and Selma from The Simpsons).

Haim, not at his best.

Haim, not at his best.

Of course, the main other character is Haim, who comes and goes throughout the book like Mercutio to Feldman’s (admittedly drug-fucked) Romeo. As Feldman laments late in the book, Haim never told his story, and Feldman’s will almost certainly be the best primary-source version we get. Haim’s was a truly tragic Hollywood tale, and seeing the famous Two Corey Story from the inside is, if you’re into this sort of thing, incredibly revealing.

The other argument you may have against reading Feldman’s book is that Feldman is cheesy, and that’s harder to refute. That title is enough of a super-cheesy turnoff, and Feldman is prone to stacking on the cheese at times, especially in his audio book reading, which makes everything… a little too… dramatic. But he’s definitely likeable, and while not possessed of rivers of humour, the book’s stories are so outrageous that a human comedy exists; Feldman just has to relate it, and relate it he does: one thing that cannot be denied is the book’s honesty. He’s willing to tell you everything. (One area he keeps away from: his own, personal, consensual sex life. But there’s plenty of molestation).

NEIx6hevwmSiLO_1_2The book could’ve been longer, but maybe that would be pressing the point, or maybe Feldman’s skills as a writer would become more and more exposed as he strove to embellish or deepen his descriptive imagery. As such, he lays the many sordid anecdotes down, straight and no-frills, and lets you hoover them up like a line of cocaine. Seems appropriate. I got addicted, and it was a rush.

Despite The Man

Posted: March 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

9780345803221_custom-6d500a2e0c2c1f89197fd6f0574851f252e232a4-s6-c30In Spite of Myself by Christopher Plummer; Published 2008; newly available as an audiobook read by Plummer.

It isn’t until Chapter 41 of Christopher Plummer’s more-revealing-than-he-intended memoir In Spite of Myself that what you may have suspected for awhile becomes clear. Alongside his brief evocations of a couple of large-scale films, Plummer, in this chapter, expresses great love for, and spends a decent chunk of prose, on his growing pack of dogs – far more prose than he has spent on his daughter, Amanda, who, you realise, he has barely had any contact with her entire life. He also, in this chapter, tells you about his haunted house.

Chapter 41 thus reveals both Plummer’s enormous self-absorption (or, frankly, selfishness) and the fact that he’s a little batty. All actors are self-absorbed and a little batty, and many, many actors have drinking challenges. Plummer’s life has taken these elements to a far greater extreme than most, something which is hidden, but there – “in spite of himself” – in his pages. His chosen title essentially acknowledges that he’s had a miraculously charmed life despite his own shortcomings, but he is sometimes annoyingly coy about them, at least directly. Thus we are told of hundreds of drunken adventures, but never with any tinge of regret – and nor is there regret for his complete rejection of any fatherly duty. This is hardly a mea culpa. Rather, it’s a bit of a gloat: “Look at me! I was a drunken cad, quite horrible to many people, and I got away with it! Hell, last year they gave me an Oscar!” The closest he comes to any form of acknowledgement that his behaviour may not have been, always or perhaps at all, conforming to society’s preferences, would be in his (guiltily short) chapter on The Sound of Music, in which he admits to being a prize dick.tumblr_me6xf7qqKp1qgpddwo1_500

His philandering is treated with the same celebratory air, and, in least in his younger years, his bawdiness will startle some readers who see him as nothing other than the epitome of elegance. As a husband, he’s obviously been lacking (he’s on his third wife) but he’s proud of himself as a cocksman. Indeed, he’s quite simply very proud of himself, something that comes through in his prose style, which is gratuitously florid; it’s as though he’s set himself the task of writing a theatrical memoir in the style of those grand actor-managers from a bygone era, and, while he’s certainly earned the right to do so, the effect is unintentionally almost parodic; it’s certainly pretentious, especially when he quotes long passages of Shakespeare (and in the audiobook, very much performs them). He also chooses, very often, the weirdest anecdotes to include: from the set of Waterloo, he spends the better part of a page detailing the time the crew started lunch without him; it’s as though he’s still pissed off about it, decades later, and wants to have a little sulk. When he commits a truly appalling act – not attending the funeral of his lifelong theatrical agent, who literally would cross oceans to bring him his contracts to sign, and who spent her life serving him – he tosses it off in a quick sentence without explanation, excuse or, again, regret.

Plummer would probably be a fantastically entertaining guy to have a bunch of drinks with, a boorish dinner guest, an ungrateful houseguest and a hellish husband or co-star. I realised at some point during his book that I didn’t like him. But his career has been so huge that it has a thousand points of light, and I liked the book, for all its stories, places, and characters, despite the man.

Plummer reads the book beautifully, of course: he’s got one of the most beautiful speaking voices in the world. But he has a hugely unflattering habit of laughing at his own witticisms, as well as his own more outlandish behaviour. Almost any reference to getting loaded is followed by his little chuckle, which again smacks of nothing less than and I got away with it. His reading is a perfect metaphor for the book itself: he comes off sounding very much in love with the sound of his own voice, knowing that we’re pretty much guaranteed to fall in love with it too.Christopher Plummer--credit Richard Bain

article-2173384-140DC805000005DC-996_634x691I saw Jessica Chastain today in Whole Foods. If not, I saw her stand-in (these are people paid to stand on a movie actor’s mark while the DP lights the setting; they are often extremely close physical types so the lighting can be as precise as possible, and they often are employed by a movie actor on movie after movie for this reason). It made me wonder what she was working on. Then I thought of how quickly these days the flame of fame can cool. It’s not just that Jennifer Lawrence is the new Jessica Chastain – it’s that Lupita Nyong’O is the new Jennifer Lawrence.091013-global-kenyan-actress-lupita-nyongo-tiff

And then I thought, what if, unlike the above-mentioned, your level of beauty steps far outside the “Hollywood” norm? I was tremendously guilty of thinking this when Gabourey Sidibe stepped out to present an Oscar this year: “Boy, you haven’t capitalised on being an Oscar nominee, have you?” The capitalisation, of course, being to lose weight.

gabourey-sidibe-2010-oscars-red-carpet-01This led me to worry about Barkhad Abdi, especially since I read in the Sydney Morning Herald that he’d been paid slave wages to appear in Captain Phillips and was now destitute and surviving on “per diems”. He was actually, in turns out, paid sixty-five thousand American dollars for his role – pretty sweet for an amateur – and personally, I would like a Hollywood Studio’s per diem. Turns out the studio was also paying for his accommodation. The Herald also reported that he was “lent a suit” but almost every actor at the Oscars has been lent a suit. You think they’re all given those Alexander McQueens, Georgio Armanis, Tom Fords and the like? Think again.maxresdefault

Luckily, the Herald redeemed itself by making me feel better about Abdi. Turns out “He has reportedly been in talks over starring in The Place That Hits the Sun, a drama about South African marathon runner Willie Mtolo, who won the New York marathon in 1992 once sanctions against South African athletes competing internationally were lifted.” If this is true, obviously this is a script that’s been kicking around, waiting for an appropriate actor. Abdi is nothing if not that actor.

But if that project pans out for Abdi, it’s very much “right place at right time”. I don’t know what the key is to capitalising on an Oscar or a Nomination, but I know one thing: do it immediately. Because the flame dies quickly. No-one at Whole Foods seemed to notice Chastain, even if it was her stand-in.