The Grand Budapest Hotel

March 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody
Directed by: Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”)
Written by: Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”)

If filmmaker Wes Anderson simply isn’t your quirky cup of tea – the handmade look and feel of his sets, the subtle and oftentimes dry humor, the eccentric overall nature of his characters – not much is going to change your mind with his latest opus, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” For fans of his authentic and whimsical work who really don’t understand what everyone else is missing, a trip with Anderson to the fictional Republic of Zubrowka (because in Anderson’s world Hungary would be just too square) is like an inclusive tour of his 10-year-long career. From his 1994 film “Bottle Rocket” to his prior art-house success, 2012’s Oscar-nominated “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson seems to have taken elements from his past work to fashion together another satisfying creation. It doesn’t top some personal favorites (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), but even Anderson’s middle-of-the-road entries should never be described as such.

In “Grand Budapest,” Anderson uses an assortment of flashbacks cutting from the 1980s to the 60s and again to the 30s to tell the story of how Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the hotel’s aging owner, came to take possession of his fine establishment after working as a lobby boy there decades ago. Under the tutelage of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes in a role unlike anything he’s ever done), a faithful concierge employed during the hotel’s glory days in the 30s, a young Zero (Tony Revolori) gets mixed up in family affair when Madame D (Tilda Swinton), one of the wealthy female hotel guests Gustave takes special care of (wink), dies and bequeaths to him a priceless painting much to the chagrin of her extremely serious family (Adrien Brody plays her irate son). When Gustave is accused of actually murdering Madame D, he and Zero set out on a mission to prove his innocence, which includes evading an evil assassin (Willem Dafoe) and the local police (Edward Norton plays Inspector Henckles). It also features an outrageous jail break that could only be invented in Anderson’s head.

As silly as Anderson’s past films are, “Grand Budapest,” with its crime-caper narrative, feels even more madcap than, say, a group of stop-motion mammals digging underground escape tunnels in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The “Keystone Cops”- atmosphere, however, isn’t a bad thing to see in an Anderson film. If anything, it keeps the story moving swiftly and on edge. So, along with the pastel-colored designs, the dollhouse appearance, and detailed imagery, Anderson packs his film with kooky chases and vaudevillian-esque comedy.

Finding some of his vision from the work of German American director Ernst Lubitsch, Anderson can take the most random film references and styles and build on them to mold his own cinematic flair. It might feel typical to those who can’t differentiate between Anderson’s more entertaining albeit mature storytelling, but there are plenty of new nuances in “Grand Budapest” that continue to elevate his filmmaking charm and spark more artistic inspiration.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” screened as a part of SXSW 2014.

For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.

The Invisible Woman

January 24, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas
Directed by: Ralph Fiennes (“Coriolanus”)
Written by: Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”)

In a follow up to his 2009 directorial debut, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” actor Ralph Fiennes returns behind (and in front of) the camera in “The Invisible Woman,” the story of literary legend Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and his secret mistress, a school teacher named Nelly (Felicity Jones).

The performances in “The Invisible Woman” are one of the stronger elements of the film. Fiennes, who is a consistently strong actor, delivers again on the expectations of a solid leading role. As a celebrity like Dickens, Fiennes is able to channel not only the magnetic personality of a public figure, but the passion, intelligence and grasp of language that an author like Dickens would possess. Jones, who is still in the process of introducing herself to American audiences, is also good as Nelly. Where Jones succeeds is taking a relatively quiet and subdued character and finding areas to give her a dramatic performance. The character itself might be a little bland, but Jones does everything she can to elevate it.

The crux of the film relies on the relationship between Fiennes and Jones, a relationship humorously juxtaposed from their father/daughter relationship in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s “Cemetery Junction.” While their relationship is spoken of in a lyrical and poetic sense, there are very few moments where we actually see their love for each other physically displayed. As a result, their romance never quite hits a fever pitch and the most affecting scenes come as consequences and results of their relationship, rather than the relationship itself.

The film is at its best in its portrayal of the unease of Dickens’ affair and its toll on those around him, such as scenes where his wife and his mistress interact, as well as the coldness Dickens had to display in an effort to keep suspicions about his affair quelled. Despite these strong sections and strong performances, the relationship between Dickens and Nelly never hits those moments of intensity and therefore comes off as occasionally dispassionate. As a result, and due to some slow pacing and general dullness, “The Invisible Woman” just narrowly misses the mark.

Coriolanus

April 6, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox
Directed by: Ralph Fiennes (debut)
Written by: John Logan (“The Aviator”)

Social and economic inequality set the cinematic stage in “Coriolanus,” a highly-inspired adaptation of William Shakespeare’s early 17th century play, which, in many ways, parallels the protest movement against governmental power tripping that began in New York City late last year and has since spread across the U.S. While some literary pundits would call the original text one of the more minor tragedies written by Shakespeare (or whomever, for all you Anti-Stratfordians), first-time director and two-time Academy Award-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes (“Schindler’s List”) builds a fascinating modern-day narrative on familiar themes including political corruption and blood-lusting revenge and drills it straight into a belief system that rebellion is the only way to save a threatened democracy. It’s a stark depiction of war and societal oppression complemented by a frighteningly intense performance by Fiennes as the title tragic character who gives Coriolanus its impressive scowl.

When scarred and stern-faced Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes) steps out from behind a line of shielded soldiers and toward a riotous mob that is demanding the government provide them food, the seething look he gives them only hints at the depth of the the Roman general’s loathing (though he’ll soon be seeking support from those same detractors during his transition from despised war hero to demeaning political figure). His hatred, however, is mostly concentrated toward the Volscian army and his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), who he later joins forces with to get revenge on Rome when its citizens banish him from the impoverished city.

As Coriolanus’ prideful mother Volumnia, Oscar winner Vanessa Redgrave (“Julia”) is a standout, as is Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (“The Help”) in a smaller yet significant role as his concerned wife Virgilia, and Brian Cox (“Red”) as Senator Menenius, an ally who keeps the pendulum swinging steadily in Rome before Coriolanus shoves it over violently. It’s Fiennes, however, as both the visionary debuting filmmaker and lead that deserves the most credit for taking Shakespeare’s distinct language and allowing it to flourish in a contemporary setting and from the tongues of proven actors. While the decision to stay committed to the original text might turn away some viewers who would’ve rather seen “Coriolanus” set in a high school starring Zac Efron, perhaps, purists can take solace in the fact that Fiennes’ ambitious interpretation of Shakespeare’s work is well executed and unsettlingly relevant even after four centuries.

Wrath of the Titans

March 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Rosamund Pike
Directed by: Jonathan Liebesman (“Battle: Los Angeles”)
Written by: Dan Mazeau (debut) and David Leslie Johnson (“Red Riding Hood”)

When we last left our hero, half man/half god Perseus (Sam Worthington), he had saved a princess, squared off with the gods, and defeated the Kraken to wrap up 2010’s “Clash of the Titans,” the poorly-received remake of the 1981 film of the same name. While the weak script was about as deep as a Grecian urn, the spectacular action sequences drove the mythological motion picture to nearly half a billion dollars at the box office, paving the way for more adventures featuring the ass-kicking demigod in the sequel “Wrath of the Titans.”

“Wrath” picks up the story 10 years after the events of the first film. The time of the gods is drawing to a close thanks to humanity’s lack of devotion and worship, and their weakened state has made containing the imprisoned Titans a difficult task. Led by Kronos, a giant lava monster and father to Zeus (Liam Neeson) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes), the angered Titans threaten to wipe out both the gods and mankind. The world’s only hope lies in convincing Perseus, content as a father and a fisherman, to hop on the back of his Pegasus and wield his sword once again.

Even with a sparse script that seems better suited for a video game, “Wrath” manages to improve on its predecessor in the screenwriting department. That isn’t to say it’s well-written or anything, but at least the brevity of it leads to it being not quite as big a mess of mythology and melodrama this time around. Director Jonathan Liebesman (“Battle: Los Angeles”) wisely amps up the action, pausing only long enough on plot points to set up the next set piece. From a forest battle with a pair of giant Cyclopes to perilous trek through a massive labyrinth to a final battle with the aforementioned towering lava monster, “Wrath” rarely lets up the visual assault.

Worthington’s Perseus remains a hero of few words, which is probably for the best. As estranged godly brothers, “Schindler’s List” co-stars Neeson and Fiennes bask in the cheese while making the most of their expanded screen time, getting a chance to enter the battle this time instead of standing around in the heavens unleashing Krakens and whatnot. While Rosamund Pike’s Queen Andromeda (replacing “Clash’s” Alexa Davalos in the role) merely fills the generic love interest role in Perseus’ team, Toby Kebbell’s demigod Agenor brings some welcome comic relief to the quest. And an always-welcome Bill Nighy delights as daffy fallen god Hephaestus, who’s choice in a conversation partner proves that the only people who still want a goofy clockwork owl hanging out in their fantasy action movies are, indeed, crazy.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

November 19, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Directed by: David Yates (“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”)
Written by: Steve Kloves (“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”)
 
Don’t anticipate some sort of shocking cliffhanger at the end of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” the first half of the final chapter of the imaginative franchise that started back in 2001. It’s almost as if director David Yates (his third “Potter” film) and screenwriter Steve Kloves (who has adapted all but one of J.K. Rowling’s “Potter” books) found a reasonable stopping point, hit the pause button, and asked us to come back in eight months.

It wasn’t a bad decision to split “Deathly Hallows” into two parts other than the fact that “Potter” fans will be climbing the walls until next July when Part 2 hits theaters. Although “Deathly Hallows” is much less action-driven than its predecessors, it’s evident the material from the original book was much too extensive to try to squeeze into a single feature. To do the final book justice (and to wrap up the nine-year adventure the right way), “Deathly Hallows” needed extra time to manifest.

In “Deathly Hallows,” Yates and Kloves understand exactly where our heroes are at this point in their lives, not only based on Rowling’s narrative, but also on a deeper, more emotional level. It’s the most mature film of the series and also the best since Alfonso Cuarón’s “Prisoner of Azkaban.”

Playing like an epic version of hide-and-seek, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) are far from the comfortable confines of Hogwarts, which has been taken over by the Death Eaters. Now, on a journey to find the last remaining Horcruxes (if you don’t know what those are by now hurry and catch up), the trio evades the even-more-terrifying Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and spends most of their time trying to understand clues left behind by the now-deceased Dumbledore. How else will Harry get revenge for the murder of his parents during his inevitable final battle with the dark lord? These clues include the “Deathly Hallows,” three powerful objects that Harry may need to defeat Voldemort, who is becoming more powerful by the second. The eerie animation built-in with the mythology of these objects is impressively artistic.

Knowing the franchise is almost complete makes “Deathly Hallows” all the more serious as we inch closer and closer to the finale. While there are less spells cast and typical Harry Potter moments from earlier films, fans can find satisfaction in the darker elements and conflict between our heroes. We’ve invested in Harry, Hermione, and Ron for nine years. Now it’s time to reap those benefits. Sure, it’s might be impossible to get the full effect of what this film will be until the story is complete, but “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” is an impressive start to what we hope will lead to a memorable showdown.

Clash of the Titans

April 2, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes
Directed by: Louis Leterrier (“The Incredible Hulk”)
Written by: Travis Beacham (“Dog Days of Summer”), Phil Hay (“Aeon Flux”), Matt Manfredi (“Aeon Flux”)

“Clash of the Titans” is the type of movie where overblown ideas are enough to get a studio to pull the trigger on a production. Disregard a descent script; gigantic scorpions should be just enough to keep the box office bustling for a while.

While adding big-budget special effects to 1981’s kitschy Ray Harryhausen-inspired cult classic might be passable for teenage boys waiting on the next “Transformers” installment, anyone actually interested in the mythological context of our heroes and villains will be hard-pressed to uncover an actual dramatic narrative to go along with the raging CGI and lax 3-D images. If studios were looking for someone to be interchangeable with Michael Bay, they may have found him in director Louis Leterrier (“The Incredible Hulk,” “Transporter 2”). Leterrier – along with his trio of screenwriters – offers some escapism, but fails to deliver much more than the stock epic standard.

In “Clash,” Sam Worthington (“Avatar”) plays Perseus, the demigod son of Zeus (Liam Neeson) who wages war against Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and his Underworld minions. Hades has killed Perseus’s mortal family and is conjuring up some trouble for his brother Zeus on Mount Olympus. He has also threatened to unleash a massive sea monster known as the Kraken on the people of Argos if they do not kill the princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos).

Chaos reigns for the most part in “Clash” as Leterrier sidesteps any real characterization when introducing us to the men (and one woman) on Perseus’s crew. Gemma Arterton plays the lone female warrior Io, who is also Perseus’s spiritual guide. The rest of the cast has about as much personality as a colossal Greek column. Even Worthington, when he’s not flanked by computer-generated creatures, couldn’t be labeled much more interesting than any of the oiled-up heroes in “Troy” or those in the original “Clash” for that matter.

If watching Perseus chop the head off the slithery Medusa, ride a Black Stallion version of the Pegasus, or duke it out with the Kraken is enough, have at it (save some cash and watch it in 2-D though. The updated 3-D version is a mere marketing ploy and does nothing for the action sequences). If, however, you’re looking for even the slightest bit of cohesive storytelling, “Clash” is a mediocre entry into the fantasy genre. Medusa might turn men into stone with one glance, but Leterrier and company are just as guilty of turning it into a movie as dumb as a bag full of rocks.

The Hurt Locker

March 19, 2009 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Ralph Fiennes
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow (“Strange Days”)
Written by: Mark Boal (debut)

Director Kathryn Bigelow (“Strange Days”) transports audiences into an intense sequence of wartime heroics set in Iraq in “The Hurt Locker.” In the film, SSgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) plays a hotshot solider on an Army bomb squad that is in harms way every single day on the job. Without a heavy-handed political message about the war, the characters in “Locker” are easier to relate to as we watch them put their lives on the line for the greater good. Renner is great as William, but it’s the direction of Bigelow that is the real gem here. Not only will she be the first woman since Sophia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”) to earn an Oscar nomination in 2003, she definitely has a viable chance to be the first to actually win. Along with the extreme combat situations, the film also delivers an effective message about a soldier’s addiction to danger that cuts to the heart of the deep issue of commitment to country and family.

The Duchess

October 17, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper
Directed by: Saul Dibb (“Bullet Boy”)
Written by: Saul Dibb (“Bullet Boy”), Jeffrey Hatcher (“Casanova”), Anders Thomas Jensen (“After the Wedding”)

Let’s not kid ourselves. We’ve seen this period piece before and not just because of the exquisite costumes and ballroom dances. It might be hard to differentiate between period pieces these days, but with “The Duchess” there is enough enthusiasm from Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes to make it worth another trip back in time to the 18th century.

Set in 1774 England, Georgina (Knightley) has just been called upon by the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes) to become his new bride. Unlike Knightley’s reaction as Elizabeth Bennett in the most recent “Pride and Prejudice” remake, Georgina is thrilled with the idea of being matched to someone she has never met to secure her and her family’s well-being. Early scenes show Georgina flirting with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a young man who is the token love interest most period pieces will flock back to when their leading lady is fed up with her exalted husband. It happens again here in “Duchess,” (as do a few other plot points in films like “The Other Boleyn Girl”) but not before some interesting forks in the seemingly straightforward road.

Failing to give birth to a male heir, the Duchess, who ignores her husband’s extramarital affairs, gives her trust and friendship to a woman she meets at a party named Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell). Georgina even gets the Duke to allow her to move into the estate when Elizabeth falls on hard times. It doesn’t take long for their new tenant to use her friendship with Georgina to begin a relationship with the Duke. The bizarre love triangle is taken up a notch when, instead of ridding himself of Georgina, the Duke decides that he wants to live with both women and continue their lives as he sees fit. The tension is at its highest during scenes when all three are at the breakfast table masking their displeasure and anger.

Of course, Georgina finds her way back to the now-political Charles Grey, who has never forgot about her. They’re relationship gets melodramatic and predictable, but roles like this are so second nature for Knightley, she does them in such a fascinating way it’s hard to imagine anyone else (even her lookalike Natalie Portman) playing the same part.

Where “The Duchess” fails is not building on Georgina’s character outside the walls of her castle. Although the scenes are few and far between, the Duchess was known for her taste in fashion, and political interest, but there’s really no mention of them despite Knightley’s take on her outgoing personality when she is away from the confines of her own home. We may not really see how Georgina affects the people of Devonshire on a cultural level, but as an emotionally wrecked figure Knightley captures her essence wonderfully.