When I reviewed Moonrise Kingdom over a year ago, I complained that it… MoreWhen I reviewed Moonrise Kingdom over a year ago, I complained that it was hard to form strong emotional bonds with the characters because the entire film felt overly choreographed. While Wes Anderson's brilliance as a cinematic craftsman was never in any doubt, it all felt a little too tightly controlled to pass muster as a genuinely heartwarming story about young love and free spirits.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is equally meticulous in its craft, but it is a much better vehicle for Anderson. Its status as a caper comedy places a much more conscious emphasis on the various plot machinations, allowing him to show off his knowledge and affection for cinema without undermining or overshadowing his characters. The result is a very funny slice of finely-tuned frivolity which finds Anderson almost back to his best.
As with all of Anderson's work, The Grand Budapest Hotel looks absolutely beautiful. There is the same powdery quality to the colour scheme as in Moonrise Kingdom, but the emphasis has shifted from summery yellows and woody browns to darker, more regal blues and frothy pinks. Anderson's compositions are as meticulous as ever, and the film utilises many of his familiar tricks, such as symmetrical wide shots, carefully timed circular pans and quirky model shots.
As with all of Anderson's films, however, there are unusual narrative quirks which can sometimes threaten to make the experience too arch and alienating to bond with the characters. In this case, there is his device of handing over the telling of the story from one person to another. The film begins with a lady reading a book in front of a statue of Tom Wilkinson; then Wilkinson (the author of the book) hands over to Jude Law (his younger self); then Law talks to F. Murray Abraham, who finally begins to recount his memories.
It's easy to understand the point that Anderson is making through this device. He is positively besotted with the art of storytelling and is trying to convey that love through a visual medium rather than a literary one. There's also a sly nod with the casting of Abraham, since Amadeus employed a similar device of its main character recounting the story in his old age. But while this device is affectionate, it is not entirely necessary to the story being told, and your enjoyment therein will depend on whether you regard it as an apt demonstration of passion or a needless indulgence.
To some extent, this dilemma is presented in the visuals of the film. While the main action takes place in the early-1930s, with the horrors of World War II still far away, the introduction takes place in the late-1960s. Interwar opulence and luxury is counterpointed with Soviet-era functionality, and by repeating mechanical actions in both periods (such as the strange transport to the hotel), an air of decline and melancholy quickly descends upon proceedings.
Having created an intriguing mood, Anderson gives us a number of quirky, interesting characters with whom we bond and whom we find very funny. Much of the praise has deservedly centred on Ralph Fiennes, who is absolutely brilliant as Gustave H.. The performance works because he believes so deeply in the character on a dramatic level; Fiennes' chops give Gustave a sense of weight and purpose which an out-and-out comic actor might not have achieved. It's an irresitible blend of whimsy, pathos, elegance and mischief, and may be one of the best of Fiennes' illustrious career.
As I mentioned in my Moonrise Kingdom review, much of the pleasure of Anderson's films comes from him getting performances out of actors that no-one would have expected. It's not too much of a stretch to have Willem Dafoe as a thug in knuckle-dusters, or Jeff Goldblum as a stuffy, by-the-book lawyer (who ends up losing his fingers). But it is a pleasant surprise to see Adrian Brody as the villain of the piece, or Tilda Swinton as Gustave's elderly lover whose death sets off the entire caper.
In executing the caper aspect of the film, Anderson plays a very crafty trick. The quirkiness of his characters leads us to accept that they will speak in a manner which is different to our own; we accept this within the first five minutes as part of the overall style. This quirkiness allows him to have characters delivering exposition at break-neck speed, and yet it feels like a long joke rather than plot details.
There are numerous scenes in The Grand Budapest Hotel which are just characters reciting plot exposition directly to camera, something that would have been roundly lambasted had the film been helmed by another director. But rather than do as Hitchcock did and "sugar-coat" exposition with suspense, Anderson deliberately draws attention to it and uses it to celebrate the caper genre in all its ridiculousness. It's not so much hidden in plain sight as a Brechtian device, with the film constantly reminding you of its artificiality.
This is further reflected in the film's set-pieces. Take the hysterically funny sledging sequence, in which Gustave and Zero chase Jopling down a slalom course and ski jump, ending with Zero flinging Jopling off a cliff. The close-ups are achieved with the Hollywood technique of back projection, while the aerial shots are consciously done with detailed scale models. It's arguably just a massive Hitchcock reference, looking back to the skiing scene in the opening of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Like Bertolt Brecht's work, The Grand Budapest Hotel draws our attention to the artificial, mechanical nature of the story in order to illuminate some deeper, universal truth. On top of being a great, frothy caper, the film is about the passing of an age and with it a particular kind of character. Gustave is characterised throughoutt as being the last of a breed, someone already out of sorts in his own time and longing for release. The film presents its own fictional take on the build-up to World War II, with Gustave coming across like a lighter, more dandyish companion to Christopher Tietjens, the protagonist of Parade's End.
The true success of Anderson's film is that it allows you to enjoy it on whichever level you please. It operates on the same principle as Gladiator: it is both a philosophical exploration of death, morality and a life beyond this, and two hours of people hitting each other. You can read into The Grand Budapest Hotel's colour schemes, seeing the pink motif as a symbol of faded passion and sexuality, or you can just sit there laughing louder and louder at the brilliant action. Both responses are valid, and while the film is not as deep as Gladiator, it deserves praise for achieving this balance.
The Great Budapest Hotel sees Anderson returning to form, delivering a film whose whimsy and quirkiness is anchored and balanced by enjoyable, empathetic characters. While some will still balk at his approach to storytelling, and it isn't as thematically rich as perhaps it could have been, it is still an immensely enjoyable, funny and rewarding watch. It is a good way to introduce newcomers to Anderson's signature style, and is the most enjoyable film of the year to date.
There are a select number of films held in such high regard in popular… MoreThere are a select number of films held in such high regard in popular culture that to even faintly criticise them is considered heresy. Like Star Wars before it, Ghostbusters is a film which seemingly everyone is aware of, and even if you've never seen it you can probably hum the theme tune or quote the script. It's a seemingly iconic work, a high-water mark of American comedy that anyone with a sense of humour should enjoy.
What such an attitude fails to acknowledge is that film taste is inherently subjective, particularly when it comes to comedy. Regular readers of my reviews will already have a fair idea of what my tastes are: I like my comedies on the darker side, preferably surreal but crucially substantial - I like comedies that are about something. It may be, therefore, that I am predisposed to dislike Ghostbusters, being as it is a shallow, high-concept star vehicle. Or, just as probably, it may be that it just isn't funny.
There are a couple of aspects to Ghostbusters which we are able to admire regardless of how funny we find it. Despite being essentially a vehicle for former Saturday Night Live stars, the film is a reasonably literate affair, at least as far as the horror genre is concerned. There are big references throughout to the work of H. P. Lovecraft, including the isolated, academic nature of its protagonists, the slimy nature of the ghosts (such as Slimer himself), and of course the involvement of ancient gods who are at best indifferent towards humanity.
The film also deserves credit for being a mainstream blockbuster which has intelligent people as its protagonists. We've become used to our summer blockbusters being populated by characters who are complete idiots, bound up in plots which can only make sense if everyone involved is either stupid or doesn't care. Ghostbusters, one of the biggest blockbusters in history, bucks this trend: it unashamedly celebrates the cleverness of its male leads, giving us characters who succeed through brains rather than good looks or good luck.
Unfortunately, this bit of praise also brings us onto one of the big problems with Ghostbusters, namely the characters. While Dan Aykroyd and the late Harold Ramis made their heroes intellectual in nature, each of the three main parts are severely underwritten. Bill Murray's character seems driven only by a need to be sarcastic or seductive, while Aykroyd and Ramis do little else but stand around explaining the plot. No matter how many dry one-liners Murray gets through, the characters don't feel like real people.
The best way to illustrate this point is the words of Stephen Fry, when he was interviewed about the difference between British and American comedy. Fry argued that the archetypal American comic hero is a wise-cracker who is above those around him, embodiying the belief in American culture that everything can be bettered or improved. While British comic heroes are distinctive characters (and expressions of failure), American comic heroes are "not characters at all, they're just brilliant repositories of fantastic, killer one-liners."
Aykroyd, Murray and Ramis are all essentially playing to type, and there is no real chemistry between them because the types are constantly in awkward competition with each other. Murray's deadpan wise-cracking doesn't gel with Aykroyd's fast-talking or Ramis' forgettable geekiness. The same goes for Rick Moranis, whose socially incompetent accountant is excrutiating: it's played so broadly and unrelentingly that it always grates against the story. Even Sigourney Weaver is underused, with her character existing only to get hit on, first by Murray and then by Zuul.
Of course, it is possible for a film with stereotypical characters to still fire if its script has a strong enough story. The James Bond series is absolutely littered with archetypal characters, with the best films in the series having a good enough story to make them not matter so much. But despite its faithful nods to Lovecraft and its intellectual protagonists, Ghostbusters still manages to make the very least of its material.
The plot of Ghostbusters essentially takes the first half of the 1946 film Spook Busters and then slowly unravels it through a steadily increasing parade of special effects. Like the Beverly Hills Cop series, the story is not so much a story as it is a series of set-pieces; they are linked together loosely by montage, but you could still watch them in any order with the same impact. As for the dialogue, 80% of it is meaningless jargon designed to big up the characters' intelligence. But simply saying a lot of long words doesn't make a character smart, giving us even less reason to bond with them.
As with Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters could have had a much more complex and satisfying story if a little bit more effort had been put into it. The idea of man-made structures being engineered to harness the power of gods is a nice, pulpy idea; it's only a hop, skip and jump from the work of Erich von Däniken, whose writings were a big influence on the fourth Indiana Jones film. When allied to Lovecraft, this could have formed an interesting premise, with a team of scientists seeking to stop an individual driven mad by knowledge of ancient demons, and trying to unleash those demons onto the human world.
Part of the reason Ghostbusters doesn't work on a story level is its indecisive pussy-footing around spiritual questions. Any film or story in which ghosts are involved immediately raises questions about the afterlife - what ghosts are, how they function, where the boundaries lie between different worlds and so forth. But the film either fails to acknowledge such questions or provides contradicting answers; for instance, it accepts the existence of extremely powerful gods, but also believes that humans can conquer said gods with little more than beams of energy. It's another indication of the laziness present in the script, as the film squanders another interesting angle for the sake of a simple, easy-to-follow climax.
The special effects in Ghostbusters were provided by Boss Films, who later provided the effects for John Carpenter's cult disaster Big Trouble in Little China. In both films they dominate the visual landscape rather than adding to the physical sets, to the point where the characters become swamped by them. The big special effects ending, involving the gateway on top of the skyscraper, is a big anticlimax because it doesn't feel physical or like a natural continuation of the narrative. Even the physical effects, such as Zuul's appearance in the fridge, aren't that convincing even for the day.
Then we come to the problems with the film's direction. Ghostbusters looks and sounds perfectly okay, boasting decent cinematography from László Kovács (Easy Rider) and a score from John Landis' long-time collaborator Elmer Bernstein. But as far as its direction goes, Ivan Reitman is every bit at sea with his cast here as Martin Brest was on Beverly Hills Cop. In both cases the camerawork is overly basic and the editing is slack, as though Reitman just left the cameras on until someone said something funny.
In a further comparison with Beverly Hills Cop, there are a number of tonal problems with Ghostbusters. The film doesn't have the uncomfortable homophobic undercurrent running through it like Brest's film, but it doesn't have a great deal of respect for its female characters. The scene where Zuul captures Dana, in which hands come through the chair and grab her, is uncomfortably rapey, and the levitation scene (which rips off The Exorcist) is just another excuse to put the character in needlessly sexual situations. Blockbusters are often accused of being built around the needs of teenage boys, and looking at scenes like the latter, it's not hard to see why.
Ghostbusters is a deeply unfunny comedy which deserves little if any of its glowing reputation. Despite a number of dry laughs and admirable decisions, it squanders most of its potential in favour of cheap stereotypes, sex jokes and special effects, none of which engage to any satisfying degree. It's not the low point in the careers of any of its stars (which is very telling of each of them), but it hasn't stood the test of time anything like as well as we've been led to believe. In short, it's a massive disappointment that's even bigger than the Twinkie.
Ever since the credit crunch broke six years ago, there have been… MoreEver since the credit crunch broke six years ago, there have been clarion calls from the artistic community in Britain about the need to preserve funding for the arts. Social media has been awash in recent times with 'I Value The Arts' twibbons and Winston Churchill's widely misquoted line. Contrary to popular belief, he did not say "then what are we fighting for?" when asked to cut the arts to support the war, but instead advised that paintings and other priceless works should be buried in caves.
All of which brings us to The Monuments Men, a film set in World War II in which the arts are no longer seen as a priority. The film repeatedly proclaims the importance of preserving and celebrating Western art and culture, arguing like contemporary campaigners that they reflect our humanity, our creativity and our capacity for good. Ultimately the film is a flimsy, stuffy affair with none of the current campaigns' dynamism, but it is still enjoyable enough to pass the time.
The big problem facing The Monuments Men, as so often in war dramas, is one of tone. It can't decide whether it wants to be a properly dramatic war film like A Bridge Too Far, full of good, honest men doing good, honest things, or a caper film like Ocean's Eleven or to some extent Inglourious Basterds, playing faster and looser with the truth. Only Soldier of Orange manages to somehow balance the two, and this falls far short of Paul Verhoeven's film.
Much of the explanation for this lies with the director; in so many ways, George Clooney is no Paul Verhoeven. He's not a bad director, insofar as he knows how to assemble a shot and light a scene in an appealing way. And there's no denying the admirable intentions behind his work, as previously demonstrated in Good Night and Good Luck. The problem is that his passion for an idea or subject matter comes across in a heavy-handed way.
Clooney's biggest fault as a director is constantly drawing attention to the message he is delivering, rather than letting the drama speak for itself. In Good Night and Good Luck, he did this by including stock footage of the real Joseph McCarthy ranting about communism. If Clooney were so confident that his film would work as a paean to 'proper' journalism and common sense, he would not have felt the need to have this footage of McCarthy to constantly remind us who the bad guy is.
It's much the same story with The Monuments Men, which gives us a compelling thesis and then somewhat squanders it through the kind of didactic scripting that would make Oliver Stone proud. The basic idea is a very interesting one, namely that the artistic values of a culture or nation must not be sacrificed for the sake of short-term political or military gain. But the idea is conveyed less through character development than through characters making speeches about it, with said speeches often interrupting the enjoyable action.
The Monuments Men explores an interesting phase of World War II, namely when it became a question of 'when' Germany would surrender, rather than 'if'. With the goal of their united campaign in sight, the different Allied nations were already looking ahead towards the potential fall-out of the surrender. There was a big race to be the first to reach Berlin, which through a series of unfortunate events eventually led to the Cold War. Arguably military leaders were more ruthless in this period than at any other period during the war, as epitomised by Hitler's own Nero Decree.
Seen through this prism, the film is a document of the nobler side of Man's nature in extremis. While it's sympathetic towards the ends of the Allies, it challenges the means by which Germany is being defeated. Clooney's men are seen to be fighting for a higher cause amongst the short-term barbarism of the field commanders. Matt Damon's character spends much of his time trying to challenge America's image as a careless conqueror, an image that extends from its army to its art collectors.
But again, there's a problem. While it is refreshing to have a bunch of characters who are not cynical in nature or in action, they are not written well enough to make them feel like anything more then vessels for speeches. Aside from Damon's relationship with Cate Blanchett and the tragic fates of Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin, it is very difficult to tell the characters apart. Blanchett herself is somewhat off the boil, with her French accent comically slipping on more than one occasion.
As a result, it becomes difficult to enjoy The Monuments Men as anything more than an old-school romp like The Dirty Dozen, in which a lot of famous people run around stiffing Nazis and Russians. There is a certain amount of pleasure to be wrought out of John Goodman getting his gun off - just look at his performance in The Big Lebowski. And as a film about older men being put in combat situations, it's a damn sight funnier and more entertaining than The Expendables.
The film also boasts better cinematography than many of the old-school romps that it eventually resembles. Phedon Papamichael is best known for his work with Alexander Payne on Sideways and Nebraska, but he also has form in period works, having lensed the remake of 3:10 to Yuma and Walk The Line. Some of the exterior shots are exquisite, such as the wide shot of the abandoned castle or the field in which Goodman and Dujardin are ambushed.
Credit should also go to the props department for recreating all the masterpieces that are referenced, including the joint MacGuffins of the Van Eyck altarpiece and Michelangelo's Madonna and Child. Often in war films there is so much collatoral damage that the artistry of a particular building or object doesn't seem to matter, but here we are given the chance to appreciate the craft on offer. The scene inside the castle, featuring all the different sculptures, is one of the highlights in this regard.
Ultimately, however, there is only so much that visuals and humour can do to keep a story going. The speechifying nature of the characters reflects the fact that the narrative keeps needing a shot in the arm, being unfocussed and needlessly meandering as it follows the different groups of characters. Like Nixon before it, it is a film of enjoyable moments which struggles to connect them either convincingly or compellingly.
The Monuments Men is an admirable failure from Clooney which comes to us with the best intentions and falls well short of expectations. Clooney's right-on credentials aren't in doubt, and as a modern-day take on old-school war films, it's reasonably entertaining. But its lack of character depth, coupled with the odd bad performance, prevent it from being anything more than forgettable fun. You won't rush to destroy it afterwards, but there won't be much call for preserving it either.
In my review of Avatar, I spoke about how American filmmakers have… MoreIn my review of Avatar, I spoke about how American filmmakers have historically struggled to do justice to certain kinds of stories, namely "stories about American settlers encountering natives, and stories about Man destroying the environment." American filmmakers have also traditionally struggled when it comes to tackling distinctly British stories, of which the legend of Robin Hood is a prime example.
Ridley Scott's Robin Hood made a good fist of medieval English politics but was let down by a lack of focus and Russell Crowe's wandering accent. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is at turns tedious and over-the-top hilarious, depending on whether Kevin Costner or Alan Rickman is on screen. Even the classic versions with Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn come up short in some capacity. The Disney version of Robin Hood is like many of its companions: it realises some of the story's potential, but there are plenty of missed opportunities along the way.
Before we begin examining the narrative merits of Robin Hood, it's worth remembering that the mythos of this famous outlaw is rather fluid. Most of the 20th century versions of Robin Hood are derived in some way from Howard Pyle's The Many Adventures of Robin Hood, a Victorian children's book which cemented our hero as a localised philanthropist. But the earliest versions of his story date back to 1450, with the only vaguely consistent elements being the Nottingham setting and the Sheriff - frankly, everything else is up for grabs.
The point here is that all the usual arguments about Disney being economical with the truth are perhaps not as valid here, given that the truth is so elusive to begin with. This is complicated further by the knowledge that Robin Hood was not originally intended to be about the character at all. Ken Anderson originally wanted to make a film about Reynard the fox, an anthropomorphic trickster prominent in medieval European literature. But Walt Disney overruled Anderson early in production, believing that a fox would not make an appealing protagonist unless he was fighting for a good cause.
Disney's version does include many of the most familiar and much-loved plot elements of the Robin Hood legend. The story is still set in Nottingham, our heroes are still reacting against King John's punitive taxation, Richard the Lionheart is still off fighting the Crusades, and John himself is still a pitiful coward. For those only familiar with the basics of the story, it earns a pass on this level, just as any version of The Hound of the Baskervilles might be praised so long as it's set on Dartmoor and has a lot of fog.
The film also possesses one really funny set-piece, which occurs during the archery tournament. There is something inherently funny about a chicken with a Scottish accent beating up half a dozen rhinos and then running off into the woods. Even if this doesn't appeal to you, the scene is well-paced and well-structured, with physical humour and slapstick that builds and escalates to a series of fitting punchlines, mostly at the expense of John or Sir Hiss.
Unfortunately, that's largely where the plaudits end with Robin Hood. Like most of the films Disney produced in the 1960s and 1970s, it is riddled with compromises, cost-cutting measures and a general lack of creative energy. I've talked to death in my reviews about the negative influence that Wolfgang Reitherman had on Disney's output, and his fingerprints are all over this both as a director and a storyteller.
For starters, the animation is very mediocre. Even if we make allowances for the more pastoral, understated environments that the story of Robin Hood demands, the backgrounds are very plain and lacking in detail. The colours look pale and faded, and as always with Reitherman there is a blatant recycling of footage from previous films.
Many of the character designs are derived in some way from The Jungle Book, with Little John being a straight copy of Baloo in body and in voice (both characters are voiced by Phil Harris). 'The Phony King of England' musical number is similar to both 'Bare Necessities' and 'I Wanna Be Like You', both in its orchestration and in the dancing of its characters. Likewise Hiss is a poor man's Ka, the young turtle is a lift from Snow White, and there are big hints of Dumbo in the title sequence.
The film is also tonally unsure of itself, something which is reflected in the voice acting. Some of the cast are in full-on pantomime mode, with Peter Ustinov hamming it for all his worth as King John and Terry-Thomas providing a fitting foil as Hiss. Others are earnest to the point of being bland, such as Brian Belford as Robin or Monica Evans as Maid Marian. Others still are behaving like the whole thing is a Western: the conflict between Pat Buttram (the Sheriff) and Andy Devine (Friar Tuck) is like a watered-down version of the banter before a bar-room brawl.
These points reflect the apathy that surrounded much of Disney's output in the 1960s and 1970s. Because the budget for Robin Hood was relatively low, at $1.5m, Reitherman stuck to what he knew, and in doing so removed many of the genuinely creative aspects that would have made the film more distinctive. While Anderson wanted to make the Sheriff a goat, Reitherman settled on the tried-and-tested wolf, missing an opportunity to move the Disney brand on a bit and experiment with different kinds of characters.
This apathy also manifests itself on a narrative level. While many of the familiar plot elements are there, the plot as a whole is a series of bits which don't really lead on from each other. The narrative is less episodic than The Jungle Book, but the film does feel like it has been thrown together quickly without due care and attention. Roger Miller's narrator is completely surplus to requirement, being included to plug the gaps between set-pieces (and provide a more American sensibility).
In spite of all this, it is possible to enjoy Robin Hood as a vaguely passible distraction. Like The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, it is pretty innoucous fare, and its flaws are not so striking that they will offend the target audience. The more pantomime elements are amusing, the set-pieces are well-constructed, and while the score is repetitive it is also deeply forgettable. Like Pooh, it is the kind of film you show on a rainy afternoon, when nothing else is available to take your mind off things.
Robin Hood is an indifferent and innocuous effort from Disney which epitomises many of the company's flaws in this time period. It has its moments of fun and contains very little that could offend, but it's also a big missed opportunity which puts cutting corners above encouraging creativity. It's not Reitherman's worst outing as a director, but that's hardly a ringing endorsement.