Talking Movies

January 14, 2016

Top Performances of 2015

As the traditional complement to the Top 10 Films list, here are the Top Performances of 2015. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as the top of the class, and the runners up being right behind them, and the also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

sils-maria

Best Supporting Actress

Kristen Stewart (Sils Maria) Who knew Stewart had it in her to stop biting her lip and actually act again? As Juliette Binoche’s foil she displayed an unsuspected flair for comedy alongside an argumentative intelligence.

Suzanne Clement (Mommy) Clement as the neighbour across the way was the heart of Xavier Dolan’s movie. She recovered from her own trauma by helping troubled Steve, and stood in for us; bearing tearful witness to events.

Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice) Waterston made an unexpected breakthrough as Doc’s ex-girlfriend. She had few scenes, but the memorable mix of warmth and wisdom in the opening convincingly set Doc on his quest.

Runners Up:

Mackenzie Davis (The Martian) Davis broke out from indies with panache, grabbing a blockbuster role where she wasn’t just random NASA tech, but instead shared many archly comic moments with Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Julie Walters (Brooklyn) There was great comedy from the nightly dinner-table feuds at Mrs Kehoe’s and Walters provided most of it as the landlady with a waspish putdown for every tenant and every occasion.

Lea Seydoux (The Lobster) All the qualities attributed to her in Spectre, and entirely absent there, were on display here where she was icy cold, forceful, implacable, and without vanity as a sharp-suited rebel leader.

Also Placed:

Elizabeth Debicki (UNCLE) It was only in retrospect I realised she wasn’t actually a great villain. Debicki had used her commanding presence to temporarily conjure the impression of greatness from a threadbare part.

Chloe Grace Moretz (Sils Maria) Moretz was a hoot as a misbehaving starlet doing a play to gain prestige. She pulled off an uncanny balancing act between elements of Jennifer Lawrence and Lindsay Lohan’s personae.

Elisabeth Moss (Listen Up Philip) Moss, as the long-suffering photographer girlfriend of novelist Philip, confidently took over the film for an unexpected segment tracing her own independent story of artistic development.

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Best Supporting Actor

Edward Norton (Birdman) Norton was transparently playing with his own persona, and having the time of his life doing it, but the hilarity of his preening self-regard was balanced by his self-awareness of his failings.

Benicio Del Toro (Sicario) Del Toro cut lines to make stoic DoD ‘adviser’ Alejandro troublingly mysterious, an inspired move as he slowly revealed himself to be a man without limits; breaking the law to do the right thing.

Colin Firth (Kingsman) Firth was effectively playing The Avengers’ Mr Steed, and clearly loving it. His A Single Man tour de force of dry heartbreak now has a stellar contrast on his show-reel: his amazing kill-crazy rampage.

Ewan McGregor (Son of a Gun) McGregor rediscovered his charisma as an armed robber in a post-Moulin Rouge! best. Charming, but ruthless on a dime, he combined both qualities in a deliriously jump-started interrogation.

Runners Up:

Jeff Daniels (The Martian, Steve Jobs) Daniels’ Newsroom-based resurgence saw him verbally duel with Sean Bean and Michael Fassbender with much gravitas, but he also displayed his considerable comic abilities in both roles.

Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice, Sicario) Brolin played law-men fond of crossing the line, but Graver’s dirty warrior sought cynical order rather than law-abiding chaos, while Bigfoot suffered from incommunicable psychic pain.

Benedict Wong (The Martian) Wong was wonderful as Bruce, the ever-harried Jet Propulsion Lab director given impossible deadlines and tasks; his hang-dog expression always one step away from total defeat.

Michael Pena (Ant-Man) Ant-Man sans Edgar Wright’s visual panache plodded like hell for the first act and a half, save his showpiece narration, but Pena’s hysterically distracted inept nice guy criminal kept it going.

Also Placed:

Sean Harris (MI5, Macbeth) The wiry, soft-spoken Harris was scary in MI5 by virtue of his villain’s cunning and utter indifference to casualties, and, as Macduff, he set about revenge with an unnerving feel of unfussy control.

Jonathan Pryce (Listen Up Philip) Pryce let rip as the elder statesman novelist: self-preening, condescending, and supportive to his protégé; hiding his guilt behind anger to his daughter; and denying to himself his own sadness.

Seth Rogen (Steve Jobs) Rogen’s shambling, slightly bewildered Steve Wozniak was a man on a mission, and always bound to fail, but his live-action Fozzie Bear helped humanise Fassbender’s Jobs tremendously.

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Best Actress

Emily Blunt (Sicario) Blunt is assured as an FBI ‘thumper’ who joins a taskforce to hurt drug cartels. Mission-creep gives her doubts, but she’s too dogged for her own good, staying to find the task-force’s true purpose, becoming a Creon to Del Toro’s Antigone – devotion to the law is the right thing.

Rooney Mara (Carol) Mara is terrific as the ingénue who is seduced by Carol and her high society, but has both cruelly taken away from her, and then sets about making her own way in the world. Rooney uses the most subtle facial expressions to chart her transformation from ingénue to equal.

Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) Gerwig shines as the somewhat ridiculous, casually abrasive Brooke, who stumbles through life from one disaster to the next with little self-pity and can charm and/or guilt-trip people into bailing out her last/buying into her next madcap venture.

Lola Kirke (Mistress America) Kirke impressively held her own against Gerwig as the perceptive, quiet Tracy; an aspiring writer who got carried away by Brooke’s mad enthusiasm, but never quite lost sight of the ridiculousness of her venture; and played disappointment exceptionally well.

Runners Up:

Cate Blanchett (Carol) Blanchett was rather good as the socialite whose charming facade masks despair, exhaustion, desire, and a recklessness that at times comes very close to making her dangerous to herself and others. But Carol’s fiery decision to be herself gave her less a meaty arc than Mara.

Rebecca Ferguson (MI5) Was Ilsa Faust a properly defined femme fatale or not? Does it matter when Ferguson gave a performance of such rare mystery and ambiguity? In never quite being able to count on her there was a mix of Han Solo roguery with a more enigmatic quality; even after all explanations.

Emma Stone (Irrational Man, Birdman) Stone delivered an amazing rant in Birdman as well as sparking off Edward Norton, and then displayed her full range with a quiet performance as a student enamoured with her professor in Irrational Man; articulating outraged conscience with great sincerity.

Also Placed:

Juliette Binoche (Sils Maria) Binoche was fully committed to her role as an actress over-analysing to death taking the other part in a two-hander play that made her, and her failed attempts to keep a straight face and seriously engage with  her while she PA defended comic-book movies was a particular joy.

Maika Monroe (It Follows) Monroe gave a strong performance, especially in playing early scenes with a dreamy quality which allowed an ambiguity later about her character hallucinating as PTSD before it became clear ‘It’ was very real and needed a Ripey response Monroe was well capable of giving.

 Steve-Jobs

Best Actor

Michael Fassbender (Macbeth, Steve Jobs) Fassbender’s low-key delivery gave us a weary warrior who lost his mind from one damn killing too many, while his irrepressible warmth allowed Jobs say horrible things but remain charismatic till the belated quasi-apology “I’m poorly made.”

Michael Keaton (Birdman) Keaton made a spectacular leading man comeback with a transparent riff on his own persona. His comic timing was superb, his lack of vanity Oscar-worthy (cough), and he outdid Edward Norton (Greatest Actor of His Generation TM) in artistic and emotional angst.

David Oyewelo (Selma) Oyelowo gave a fiery performance as MLK, whipping up a mass demonstration for a Voting Rights Act. He oozed charisma in three speeches, but was extremely vulnerable in King’s guilt and self-doubt over deaths caused by his rhetoric and leadership, and shame at his infidelities.

Matt Damon (The Martian) Damon’s best studio lead since The Adjustment Bureau was powered by Drew Goddard’s hilarious screenplay. As a one-man show on Mars his sequences were a never-ending vlog of riffs and one-liners, and Damon delivered with immense charm and comic timing.

Runners Up:

Jason Schwartzman (Listen Up Philip) Schwartzman was on familiar Bored to Death turf but he made Philip intriguing. A hugely narcissistic novelist, lacking in empathy, and casually abrasive, but also talented, capable of being hurt to a devastating degree, and perhaps too emotionally guarded because of that.

Keanu Reeves (John Wick) Keanu made one hell of a comeback as a civilised hit-man universally beloved in the hit-community, larger underworld, and the small town he retired too. Keanu’s stunt-work was an endearing mix of fluency and occasional rustiness, and he made us love Wick too.

Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice, Irrational Man) Phoenix shambled endearingly as the perma-stoned PI straight man to a merry-go-round of lunatics, while his self-loathing philosophy professor embracing Dostoyevskyean freedom saw him deliver a truly amazing expression: guilt, fear, relief, and panic.

Also Placed:

Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) A Pacino quality came off Isaac’s performance as oil entrepreneur Abel Morales. Early, subtle Pacino. Abel would not be bullied, would not break the law, and would not accept dirty deeds on his behalf. Isaac played this principled soul with a quiet, dignified stillness.

Tom Cruise (MI5) His implausible early escape up a pole got a few laughs at my screening. I believed Cruise could do it, he’s a fitness nut. Also in other ways, but plane stunt nuts is good; and there’s a self-deprecating quality to Cruise, absent from his 90s heyday, that makes him very winning.

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October 28, 2015

Spectre

Daniel Craig reunites with his Skyfall director Sam Mendes for a bloated follow-up that seems more interested in rushing the exit than whooping things up.

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James Bond (Craig) is in Mexico City for the Day of the Dead, so more people join the ranks of the dead; to the displeasure of M (Ralph Fiennes). M is under pressure from C (Andrew Scott), a connected bureaucrat merging the intelligence services into CNS; a nightmare of Orwellian surveillance. C wants to replace the erratic 00s with drones, and M’s case is not helped by Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) enabling Bond every step of the way as he causes chaos in Rome and Austria. Bond murdered Mr Sciarra at the posthumous behest of M (Judi Dench), and, via Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), becomes entangled in the tentacles of an organisation run by ‘dead’ foster-brother Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Bond’s only lead is old adversary Mr White (Jesper Christensen), and White’s daughter Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux)…

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’s opening gambit looked foolhardy in throwing away the film’s best sequence, until you reached the opera assassination, but Spectre’s cold open is its best sequence. Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema produce a Wellesian flourish with a mind-blowing long-take following Bond down a street, into a hotel, out the window, and across rooftops for a hit. After that, beginning with the execrable Sam Smith song over misjudged titles, proceedings are less surefooted. Spectre is looong. 2 ½ hours that pull off the paradox of not doing enough. Tanner (Rory Kinnear) and his MI6 crew recall Henry IV: Part Two; all the collegial bonhomie and agency freedom achieved by Skyfall is vanished, and they get little of consequence to do. It is a full 65 minutes before Swann (please let that not be a Proust reference) appears, and her delayed entrance is not for effect like Skyfall’s Silva, but a consequence of Spectre’s deliberately slow pace. The grand summit of Spectre, with Oberhauser creating a frisson of fear from his shadowy chair, is less impressive than Silva’s soliloquising entrance, and this stately subtlety is thrown away anyway with the excessive grand guignol introduction of Hinx (Dave Bautista).

Hinx has a terrific fight scene with Bond, think Robert Shaw’s dust-up in From Russia with Love, which may end with the most oblique Jaws reference imaginable; as pointed out to me by my sometime co-writer John Healy. But it’s preceded by Swann and Bond dining on a train, which constant reminders of dead characters cue us to read like Bond and Vesper’s first meeting. Only one thing is missing: Paul Haggis. Seydoux doesn’t have the material to convince us of her importance to Bond that Eva Green had, and a literal jump-cut to romance is an admission of defeat. Haggis’ Quantum; a network of ex-spooks, shady businessmen, and politicians; was more plausible and scary than de-contextualised Spectre. Waltz’s misfiring Blofeld has a desert lair and a fluffy white cat, what he doesn’t have to go with his premature recourse to torture is psychological depth or cartoonish fun, while Bond’s outrageous marksmanship against incompetent goons is the Austin Powers fodder from which Haggis rescued the franchise. The underwhelming finale poorly replays Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to end with a visual choice between two lives which is absurdly literal. Spectre loses what momentum it had on hitting Morocco, and never recovers.

Spectre has more good elements than bad, but it’s hard not to be disappointed that, having placed all the pieces on the board, Mendes and Craig belatedly remembered they didn’t like chess, and sought a graceful way to bolt.

2.75/5

February 4, 2015

2015: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 7:22 pm
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Chappie

The Water Diviner

Russell Crowe makes his directorial debut with a timely WWI tale about the formative trauma for the Antipodes of the slaughter of the ANZAC in Turkey. TV writer/producers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios provide the screenplay, which is a step away from their usual crime caper comfort zones, in which Crowe travels to Gallipoli in search of his three missing sons in 1919. He is aided in this likely fool’s errand by Istanbul hotel manager Olga Kurylenko and official Yilmaz Erdogan, while familiar Australian faces like Damon Herriman, Isabel Lucas and Jai Courtney round out the cast.

 

Chappie

Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver are career criminals who kidnap the titular character and raise him as their own adopted son – but he’s a robot! Yeah… This peculiar feature is definitely a change of pace for writer/director Neill Blomkamp but it’s not clear from his first two features District 9 and Elysium whether he has the chops for a smart sci-fi crime comedy mash-up. District 9 was a gore-fest with a hysterically muddled message about apartheid, while Elysium was an embarrassing, illogical call to arms for Obamacare. Jackman’s been on a bit of a roll though so fingers crossed.

 Furious 7 Movie Poster

The Gunman

March 20th sees Sean Penn attempts a Liam Neeson do-over by teaming up with Taken director Pierre Morel for a tale of a former special forces operative who wants to retire with his lover, only for his military contractor bosses to stomp on his plan; forcing him to go on the run. The lover in question is Italian actress Jasmin Trinca, while the organisation and its enemies have an unusually classy cast: Idris Elba, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, and Ray Winstone. Morel will undoubtedly joyously orchestrate mayhem in London and Barcelona, but can he make Penn lighten up?

 

Furious 7

The death of Paul Walker delayed his final film. Following the death of Han, Dom Torreto (Vin Diesel) and his gang (Walker, Jordana Brewster, Ludacris, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Dwayne Johnson) seek revenge against Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham as the brother of Fast 6’s villain). Chris Morgan pens his third successive Furious screenplay but, apart from dubious additions like Ronda Rousey and Iggy Azalea to the cast, the main concern is how director James Wan (The Conjuring) will rise to the challenge of replacing Justin Lin. Wan can direct horror but how will he handle Tony Jaa’s chaos?

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John Wick

April 10th sees the belated release of Keanu Reeves’ acclaimed low-fi action movie in which his sweater-loving retired hit-man wreaks havoc after his dog is killed; it being his last link to his dead wife for whom he’d quit the underworld. M:I-4 villain Michael Nyqvist is the head of the Russian mob who soon discovers his son Alfie Allen has accidentally unleashed a rampage and a half. Chad Stahelski, Reeves’ stunt double on The Matrix, directs with a welcome emphasis on fight choreography and takes long enough to make the action between Reeves and Adrianne Palicki’s assassin comprehensible.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

Well here’s an odd one and no mistake. Original director George Miller returns to the franchise after thirty years, co-writing with comics artist Brendan McCarthy and Mad Max actor Nick Lathouris. Max Rockatansky is now played by Tom Hardy channelling his inner Mel Gibson, roaring around the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback with Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult. This does look like Mad Max 2, but it’s not a remake; merely an excuse to do Mad Max 2 like sequences of vehicular mayhem but with a huge budget for the mostly practical effects, and some CGI sandstorm silliness.

Jurassic World

Jurassic World

Jurassic World opens its gates in June, boasting an all-new attraction: super-dinosaur Indominus Rex, designed to revive flagging interest in the franchise park. From the trailer it appears that in reviving this franchise new hero Chris Pratt has combined the personae of past stars Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill. Bryce Dallas Howard meanwhile takes over Richard Attenborough’s presiding over disaster with the best of intentions gig. Apparently there will be some animatronic dinosaurs, but the swooping CGI shots of the functioning park emphasise how far blockbuster visuals have come since Spielberg grounded his digital VFX with full-scale models.

 

Mission: Impossible 5

July sees Tom Cruise return as Ethan Hunt for more quality popcorn as Christopher McQuarrie makes a quantum directorial leap from Jack Reacher. Paula Patton is replaced by Rebecca Ferguson, but Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Ving Rhames all return, as do Robert Elswit as cinematographer and JJ Abrams as producer. The trademark stunt this time appears to be Tom Cruise hanging onto the side of a flying cargo plane, the villain is possibly Alec Baldwin’s character, and the screenplay is by a curious combo of Iron Man 3’s Drew Pearce and video game writer Will Staples.

ST. JAMES PLACE

St James Place

October 9th sees the release of something of an unusual dream team: Steven Spielberg directs a Coen Brother script with Tom Hanks in the lead. Hanks plays James Donovan, a lawyer recruited by the CIA to work with the Russian and American embassies in London in 1961 after Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane is shot down. The Company hope to secretly negotiate a release for the pilot, and keep all operations at arms’ length from DC to maintain plausible deniability. Amy Ryan, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, and Eve Hewson round out the impressive cast of this drama.

 

Crimson Peak

October 16th sees Guillermo del Toro reunite with Mimic scribe Matthew Robbins. Their screenplay with Lucinda Coxon (Wild Target) sees young author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) travel to the titular mansion of a mysterious man, who lives in seclusion in the mountains. Apparently del Toro has outdone himself with the production design of the mansion’s interior. The cast includes Supernatural’s Jim Beaver as Wasikowska’s father (!!!), Tom Hiddleston, Doug Jones, Charlie Hunnam, and the inevitable Jessica Chastain. But can del Toro, who’s not had it easy lately (The Strain), deliver a romantic ghost story mixed with Gothic horror?

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Spectre

The latest Bond film will be released on November 6th. In a hilarious reversal of prestige John Logan’s screenplay was overhauled by perennial rewrite victims and action purveyors Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Sam Mendes returns to direct as Daniel Craig’s 007 investigates the titular shadowy organisation, which makes a most welcome return after decades of lawsuits. Christoph Waltz may be Blofeld, Daniel Bautista is definitely his henchmen, Lea Seydoux and Monica Belluci are Bond girls, and charmingly Jesper Christensen’s Mr White links Paul Haggis’ Solace and Spectre. And Andrew Scott joins the cast! Perhaps Moriarty’s a Spectre operative.

 

Mr Holmes

Writer/director Bill Condon has been on quite a losing streak (Breaking Dawn: I & II, The Fifth Estate). So he’s reteamed with his Gods & Monsters star Ian McKellen for another period piece. Adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty) from Tideland novelist Mitch Cullin’s work, this finds a 93 year old Holmes living in retirement in Sussex in the 1940s troubled by a failing memory and an unsolved case. Condon reunites with Kinsey’s Laura Linney, and intriguingly has cast Sunshine’s Hiroyuki Sanada, but this will be closer to ‘His Last Bow’ or Michael Chabon’s retired Holmes pastiche?

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Mockingjay: Part II

All good things come to an end, and Jennifer Lawrence’s duel with Donald Sutherland’s President Snow reaches its climax in November with what director Francis Lawrence considers the most violent movie of the quadrilogy. Familiar TV faces join the cast, with Game of Thrones’ Gwendolen Christie as Commander Lyme and Prison Break’s Robert Knepper as Antonius, and Philip Seymour Hoffman takes his posthumous bow as Plutarch Heavensbee. The last movie shook up the dynamic of these movies with a propaganda war, so it will be interesting to see how Lawrence stages an all-out rebellion against the Capitol.

 

Macbeth

Arriving sometime towards the end of year is Australian director Justin Kurzel’s version of the Scottish play starring Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. That pairing enough is reason to be excited, but we’ll also get Paddy Considine as Banquo, Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Macduff, David Thewlis as Duncan, and Jack Reynor as Malcolm. Not to mention that Kurzel directed The Snowtown Murders and his DP Adam Arkapaw shot True Detective. Hopes must be high therefore that this will be both visually striking and emotionally chilling in its depiction of Macbeth’s descent into bloody madness.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The movie event of 2015 arrives on December 18th. The original heroes (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford) and their sidekicks (Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels) will all be making a welcome return after the passionless prequel protagonists. Director JJ Abrams has also cast a number of rising stars (Domhnall Gleeson, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Gwendolen Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar Isaac) and a total unknown (Daisy Ridley – allegedly the protagonist!) The trailer seemed to indicate that this trilogy might actually be some fun, but Super 8 showed that fan-boys sometimes forget to bring originality.

March 6, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s second period film in a row is a considerable contrast to the charmingly nostalgic Moonrise Kingdom, and that’s not necessarily a good thing…

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To begin at the beginning, a young woman visits the grave of a writer. Wait, no, that writer (Tom Wilkinson) before he died recorded a talk about the background of his most famous novel. Hang on, when he was a young writer (Jude Law), [now we’re getting somewhere] he stayed in the Grand Budapest Hotel. There he met ineffectual concierge M. Jean (Jason Schwartzman). Wait, no, M. Jean didn’t matter, what mattered was that the young writer met Mr Moustafa (F Murray Abraham), who told him about the glory days of the hotel in the 1930s. Back then, [finally, real progress!] Moustafa was known as Zero (Tony Revolori), and he was the lobby-boy to legendary concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave was completely devoted to rich, widowed, amorous guests such as Mademe D (Tilda Swinton, after she wrecked the picture in her attic.) So much so that when she unexpectedly died after leaving the hotel he was summoned by her staff Serge X (Mathieu Amalric) and Clotilde (Lea Seydoux), to hear her lawyer Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) read the will – which left a priceless painting to Gustave, much to the fury of Mademe D’s son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), and as he had the scary thug Jopling (Willem Dafoe) on retainer that meant Gustave was well-advised to run for his life, despite the protestations of policeman Henckels (Edward Norton); who remembered Gustave’s abundant kindness to him as a boy. And after that, reader, things really got complicated.

Anderson’s film is bursting at the seams from sheer busyness, and the film thus lacks emotional depth even as it boasts under-used actors (Harvey Keitel, Saoirse Ronan), a deliberately unnecessary Chinese box of narratives, and a sequence in which Anderson tests how many times the same gag can be made in succession; even by Bill Murray and Bob Balaban; before an audience grows restive. His regular production designer Adam Stockhausen’s archly mannered sets are the most artificially coloured he has rendered for Anderson to date. Think about that.

Anderson showcases an unexpected flair for blackly comic suspense but there’s an odd and draining mean-spiritedness to this film’s gruesomeness. Fiennes’ dialogue makes no sense for the setting, lurching as it does from a gentlemen quoting poetry to an R-rated Oddball from Kelly’s Heroes, but it does make for some spectacular laughs. Anderson is apparently honouring the terrifyingly obscure author Stefan Zweig, and the worst thing I can say about this film is that after seeing such loving homage I have no desire to read Zweig’s work.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is an impeccably mounted film, but it unavoidably disappoints because it doesn’t come close to The Darjeeling Limited for depth or Moonrise Kingdom for whimsy.

3/5

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