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Wes Anderson makes films that aren't like the films of anyone else. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on whether you 'get' them. I've always felt his films were like live action versions of the cartoons in 'The New Yorker'; sometimes they're funny, most of the time they're clever and always they seem to be designed for the intelligentsia. Perhaps that's why Wes Anderson's films don't make lots of money or win Oscars. Even the 'intellectual' New York comedies of Woody Allen have a wider appeal, not that their films have a great deal in common except, perhaps, their 'smartness'. Although "The Grand Budapest Hotel" has secured a multiplex release I doubt if it will wow them in Des Moines which is a pity since this is a film of considerable charm and a good deal of wit. OK, it's hardly laugh-out-loud funny but I had a silly grin on my face from start to finish. Like all his films it's set in what we might call 'Andersonland', a totally fabricated country made up of scraps from his favourite fiction, in this case the writings of Stefan Zweig who gets a special dedication at the end. It's literary in that words matter a great deal and play an important part in the development of the story and it's a film in which stories are crucial, (it's divided, like a novel, into chapters). Indeed, the story that makes up the body of the film is told as a story within a story begun by elderly author Tom Wilkinson informing us of how he first met the owner of the The Grand Budapest Hotel many years before when we was a young writer, (played by Jude Law), and the owner was an old man, (an excellent F Murray Abraham), who in turn tells the story of when he was a mere lobby boy, (newcomer Tony Revolori), under the tutelage of the hotel's concierge and the films central character, M Gustave, (a superb comic performance from Ralph Fiennes). It's when we get back to this point in time that the dimensions of the screen change from today's customary widescreen to the box-like dimensions of '30's cinema. It's as if Anderson is paying tribute, not just to writers like Zweig, but to film-makers like Ernst Lubitsch as this is a Ruritanian romance set in the kind of Mitteleuropa so beloved of Lubitsch and others of the period. All it lacks are the characters periodically bursting into song. If the film doesn't quite live up to its predecessors such as "The Royal Tenenbaums" or "The Life Aquatic" I think it's because there's no emotional commitment to the characters, It's too skittish, too self- consciously smart to draw us in. On the other hand it looks amazing. The hotel itself is like a giant cake that the baker in the film, M Mendl, might have made, and then there's always that extraordinary cast to keep us entertained. The film reads like a Who's Who, not just of Anderson regulars, but of moviedom's best character actors. None of them are, of course, remotely 'realistic', not even Fiennes. They remain the stock characters we find in those 'New Yorker' cartoons but they remain good company nevertheless. One thing is guaranteed, of course; you won't find anything else like it, at least not until Anderson makes his next movie.
"All the Young Men" is a Korean war movie that finds an aging Alan Ladd and an up-and-coming Sidney Poitier leading a platoon of soldiers into a snow-bound Korean pass where they have to hold a farm-house against all the odds. It's not a bad film, just a rather formulaic one full of stock characters yet it's even quite exciting at times. The writer/producer/director was Hal Bartlett, a B-Movie stalwart of the period who liked to tackle 'difficult' issues, a kind of poor man's Sam Fuller, (Poitier's presence here ensures racism rears its ugly head). The first-rate black and white photography was by Daniel L Fapp who was to win the Oscar a year later for his work on "West Side Story".
Zachary Heinzerling's wonderful documentary "Cutie and the Boxer" is about the Japanese action painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife, the graphic artist Noriko and their life together in New York. Ushio was eighty when the film begins, (Noriko is 21 years younger than him), and it shows him at work today preparing for a new exhibition. His action paintings are created by his 'boxing' great daubs of paint onto large canvases, hence the name ' the boxer' while Noriko has created a young girl whom she calls Cutie and her graphic stories are brought beautifully to life in black and white animation. These and the film itself chart the course of their relationship, both personal and working, from their first meeting to the present day in a way that is highly original and really rather sad. Though it is obvious they really love each other the tensions of a working relationship keep bubbling to the surface. When Ushio heads off to Japan to try to sell some of his work Noriko almost feels happy at being left alone. The film is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year's Oscars and is very fine.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Stranger by the Lake" arrives already garlanded with the very highest praise possible including a four star review from my friend Michał Oleszczyk. Perhaps, then, my expectations were simply too high but this gay serial-killer thriller never quite took off for me. It started well. It's lakeside setting and the woods around it were beautifully captured in Claire Mathon's cinematography, those characters crucial to the action nicely established; the handsome hero, the over-weight straight guy he befriends, the tall, sexy swimmer he falls for and the swimmer's jealous boyfriend while the sex looks and feels, and is indeed, real. I liked that the film never leaves this setting and I liked the naturalistic use of sounds, the total absence of music and the way director Alain Guiraudie brilliantly establishes the passing of time by long shots of the car-park with the hero's car coming into sight to signal the beginning of a new day. I didn't even mind the first murder which added a frisson of danger to the act of cruising which can be dangerous in itself. But in the end I found it deeply conventional; the characters are never developed beyond the stereotypical and the downward spiral into gay slasher movie is very regrettable. I had hoped for a more subtle comment on this rarely touched on topic than the fairly obvious one we get here. I wanted to come away from this movie feeling something other than "if you go down to the woods tonight be afraid, be very afraid", and sadly I didn't.
Jim Jarmusch's delicious new comedy is a vampire movie unlike any other. It's set in the present but forget those "Twilight" sagas; these are vampires for the art-house crowd, smart, funny and yes, sexy creatures of the night, (the whole film takes place at night; there isn't a single shot in daylight), and I was crazy about them. Indeed Jarmusch has fashioned a masterpiece about a couple of lonely people whose only solace is each other, doomed if you like to be together for all eternity or until one of them gets a stake or a wooden bullet in the heart or drinks some 'bad blood'; (I loved the subtle AIDS metaphor; be careful who you bite). Adam, (tall, dark and sexy Tom Hiddleston), and Eve, (a mesmerizing Tilda Swinton), have been married to each other, several times it would appear, over the centuries but living separate lives, he in Detroit as a reclusive musician, she in Tangier where she has another old vampire for a friend. He is Christopher Marlowe, (yes that Christopher Marlowe), and he's played by John Hurt with a twinkle in his eye. It's when Eve visits Adam in Detroit, flying by night, (in a plane; what did you expect - bat-wings?), that all hell breaks loose in the shapely form of Eve's sexy sister, (a terrific Mia Wasikowska), who can't keep her fangs to herself. As you would expect from Jarmusch this is funny, intelligent and off-the-wall. Hiddleston proves to be a highly dapper comedian while Swinton is superb as Eve, getting all she can out of a life she knows is going to go on forever. Unmissable.
Alexander Payne could now best be described as a world-class director
whose every film is an event to look forward to and to celebrate and to
paraphrase John Ford when he said "I make westerns", Payne could just
as easily say "I make road-movies", and he makes road-movies unlike
anyone else. Like Ford, Payne's films deal with small people in large
landscapes coping with the daily grind of the mundane, the comical and
the tragic. Death, loss and regret figure prominently in Payne's
landscape but he handles these subjects with a remarkable lightness of
touch and his films deal with journeys, both literal and metaphorical,
that end in an epiphany.
In Payne's latest film, "Nebraska", the journey is of a father and son, (and latterly a mother), back to the place of the father's upbringing. But this is no nostalgic bonding exercise; the father, (a magnificent Bruce Dern, in a career-defining performance), believes he has won a million dollars and must travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. The son knows it's all a scam but indulges his father's whim and drives him there, mostly because there is nothing much else going on in his life. The journey, like the journeys in "About Schmidt", "Sideways" and "The Descendants" is, of course, about more than the literal travelling from one place to another and about moving to another place within ourselves that we had either lost or have yet to find. Dern is a simple man who believes anything he is told and everyone who tells him. Consequently he is taken advantage of by everyone around him and it's only his son, (a lovely, subdued Will Forte), who is prepared to tell him the truth yet even he is prepared to hide those truths that he knows will hurt his father.
In dramatic terms not a great deal happens yet you could say all human life is here. Most of the characters are old and have lived lives of little consequence in the greater scheme of things yet they are mostly happy. They haven't missed what they haven't had. Life hasn't passed them by; it's just something they've observed from the sidelines and a million dollars will buy Dern the new truck he has always wanted and the compressor he gave to an old friend thirty years before. That's all a million dollars means to him.
It is, of course, a comedy; as funny and as sad as "About Schmidt" and "The Descendants" and like those films the humour is largely organic, stemming from the characters and not the situations. There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny while others will move you to tears and it's beautifully written, (by Bob Nelson), and played, not just by Dern and Forte but also by June Squibb, (Nicholson's wife in "About Schmidt"), as the foul-mouthed mother, Stacy Keach, in a stunning return to form, as Dern's old friend and nemesis and a whole load of faces so lived in they don't seem to belong to actors but the people they are playing.
Payne chose to shoot "Nebraska" in monochrome, conjuring up images and memories of a past literal and cinematic. In that respect it sits well beside Bogdanovitch's tributes to Ford and earlier cinema, "Paper Moon" and "The Last Picture Show" as well as a number of classic Ford films going all the way back to "The Grapes of Wrath". It's as good as anything I've seen this year and it confirms Payne as a master.
"In Their Skin" is another movie that came and went without anyone paying too much attention to it and while it's not likely to win any Oscars it's still a pretty good genre picture, in this case 'the family menaced in their home by malevolent neighbours'. The couple are Joshua Close, (he also wrote the script), and an excellent Selma Blair and, let's just say, they aren't wanting for a penny while the vicious couple who treat them very badly indeed are Rachel Miner and a very creepy James D'Arcy. If the film has a fault it's that D'Arcy and Miner are such obvious nut-jobs from the first time we see them any self-respecting couple who meets them should run in the opposite direction as fast as possible and anyone who's seen either version of Michael Haneke's "Funny Games", (both vastly superior to this), should know what to expect. Still, this delivers the requisite frissons and chills and should make you think twice before spending your vacation in a lonely house in the middle of nowhere.
The stairs in question are those of a bar in the red-light district of Tokyo and the woman who ascends them is Mama-San, the bar's chief hostess, but the stairs may just as well be those of a brothel for the girls who work these bars are basically prostitutes, (even in Japan in 1960 you could never be that explicit). Of all Japanese directors Mikio Naruse was the one most concerned with the plight of women in contemporary society and he brought to his tales of women fallen on hard times an almost Sirkian sensibility though even Sirk's melodramas stayed clear of the brothel. This may also be the most 'westernized' of all Naruse's films. We could be in the New Orleans of "Walk on the wild side" and even the credits of this film have a touch of the Saul Bass about them. (If only Dmytryk's film could have been this good). There is a naturalism to Naruse's film that American melodramas lack and it's this naturalism that lifts it out of being mere melodrama and into the realms of tragedy. Fundamentally, Mama-San is a woman who hates the life she has chosen but feels powerless to move on and Hideko Takamine, (from "Floating Clouds"), is superb in the role. Yet here is an actress and a director whose work never really traveled beyond Japan and even today Naruse trails in popular opinion well behind the likes of Ozu and Mizoguchi. Hopefully the release of this film in a DVD box set together with "Floating Clouds" and "Late Chrysanthemums" will rectify
The most remarkable thing about Stephen Frears' remarkable film "Philomena" is just how unsentimental and just how funny it actually is. Human Interest stories, the phrase Martin Sixsmith, (played superbly here by Steve Coogan), uses to describe exactly what it is he is doing in taking on the case of Philomena Lee, usually leave me cold for the very reasons Sixsmith describes in the film. But this is no ordinary 'human interest' story but a study of goodness triumphing over evil in a very real sense for surely Philomena Lee, as portrayed here, is a truly good person and the system she found herself fighting, though hardly by choice, namely the Catholic Church in Ireland, is in this instance anyway, evil. It's a heart-wrenching story but told with a good deal of natural humour and a distinct lack of lachrymation, (though you would need to have a heart of stone or no heart at all not to be moved to tears). The director is Stephen Frears who almost takes a back seat and lets the tale tell itself. The script is by Coogan and Jeff Pope and it beautifully encapsulates the book that Sixsmith wrote about Philomena Lee's search for the son who was taken away from her by Irish nuns and sold to an American couple simply because she had given birth out of wedlock at a time when such 'sins' were considered almost unforgivable. But Philomena never displays bitterness nor does she feel hatred. It simply isn't in her nature and in the end it is she who forgives rather than feel the need to ask for forgiveness. All the performances are first-rate and in the title role Judi Dench is simply phenomenal. This could so easily have become a display of actorly histrionics but Dench underplays almost to the point of invisibility. We certainly never see Dench up there on the screen but the incredible woman she is playing. Her performance is heart-breaking but then so is the whole film. Oscars are just not good enough.
Unlike those of his contemporaries, Mizoguchi, Ozu and Kurosawa, the films of Mikio Naruse are mostly unknown in the West and yet they are just as relevant and just as powerful. The "Late Chrysantehmums" of this extraordinary film are four ageing former geisha's with money problems and this is one of the most insightful of films dealing with the role of women in post-war Japanese society and not just the women at the centre who once sold their bodies but who now have nothing to barter but also the daughter of one of them who is prepared to marry an older man for financial security. Money is at the basis of everything that happens in the film and it taints the lives of all the characters. It is superbly played, particularly by those great Japanese actresses Haruko Sugimura as the moneylender Okin and Chikako Hosokawa as the drunken Otamae. Like Naruse, these two actresses never really 'crossed over' to the West and yet their work in Japanese cinema is as fine as any to have graced international cinema while this is a film on a subject that, in hindsight, would never have been tackled in Western cinema at this time. Of course that, in itself, does not make it a masterpiece but a masterpiece it is, nevertheless. It is one of the greatest of all films on the disappointments that life throws at us.
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