Tag Archives: Ralph Fiennes

The Grand Budapest Hotel – 2014

WEK_GrandBudapestHotel_0307Wes Anderson’s newest film is full of pastel-pink dollhouse glamour, as always. At the beginning of the film we see a girl reading a book entitled “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. We then cut, and change aspect ratios to an author, who is being told they story that would later become the book the girl is reading. Cut again and we’re even smaller on the screen and starting the primary action: The Lobby Boy’s account of the story that happened to the Concierge at The Grand Budapest Hotel. The story which would later become the events he told the writer and were made into a book that a girl is reading. Confused yet? The film cuts between these two layers, the older man’s narration and the story he’s recounting, the whole way through. It’s interesting to see the use of aspect ratio, a largely ignored cinematic affectation until recently, but it cuts off the emotional thrust of the story since it feels like we are seeing it at least third hand. It’s hard to relate to a story told from such a great distance, even when it’s set in the same location only 30 years previously.

It seems to me that the film would be more successful if it just told the original story. The story of Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his inexplicably adopted protégée Zero (Tony Revolori). Both of these two give fantastic, tongue-in-cheek performances tinged with deep melancholy. Fiennes is dynamite, exuding effusive, camp wit through his very body language and Revolori matches him, grounding the characters and providing the audience with a lens. Through Zero’s eyes we see the obsessive, sycophantic M. Gustave entirely positively. Despite all his flaws we only see him as flamboyant and refined, a relic of a greater age, when elegance ruled the land.  The farcical nature of his whole world is revealed through the name of the fictional European land we find ourselves in, Dubrowka, which is, in fact, a brand of flavoured lime green vodka -A ridiculous indulgent frippery akin to the hotel at the centre of this film.

This candy-floss pink world is set against the unfortunate backdrop of war, both past and future. In a Europe still recovering from the loss of a generation it seems fitting that an old hotel finds that all its clients are dying and no new ones are appearing. In the midst of a Nazi invasion it’s natural that the luxury and decadence wouldn’t survive. None of the magic of the hotel survives, not M Gustave, not the sweet romance that Zero finds there, not even the whimsical building. War and politics strips the world of its beauty and intrigue and all that’s left is a book and an old man in a decrepit hotel. It’s very strange, Anderson went from Moonrise Kingdom, the moving-image fairytale to this, an assertion that time is fleeting and all the best things will disappear, only to be remembered in tiny 4×3 snapshots. The real world is much larger, and much more brutal, it surrounds us in widescreen making the dingy colours and indifference all the more upsetting.

Wes Anderson films have always been full of the kind of cinematography and visual wit that makes the world seem like a better place. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception and it’s entirely possible to find yourself giggling along with many of the scenes based purely on their whimsical, witty and perfectly calculated design. Anderson is, in his own way making the cinema into a hotel where he can create the perfect world during our stay.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5
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The Invisible Woman – 2013

invisible womanRalph Fiennes’ second turn as director is just as unapologetically English as the first. It seems that his goal truly is to secure himself as a national treasure taking on Shakespeare first and now Dickens. Another film destined to join the supply cupboards for English teachers with no lesson plan, The Invisible Woman is strikingly dull from start to finish.

The film’s topic is the hidden love affair between Charles Dickens and Nelly Turner, a young actress. In the plain light of day there is very little drama or intrigue to this story. There are rumours and the fear of discovery, but really nothing much more interesting than the usual “man in loveless marriage seeks attractive young woman”. By attempting to inject high level drama into this situation, mainly through a clumsy manipulation of flashbacks which serve to distract rather than enlighten, Fiennes’ film begins to feel like a two hour Downton Abbey special rather than a piece of cinema. Neither the direction nor the script has an ounce of subtlety or nuance and, as the music swells and we cut to Felicity Jones walking tearfully across a windswept beach, you have to wonder ‘oh what now’.

This is not helped by the entire lack of onscreen chemistry between Fiennes as Dickens and Jones as his lover. Fiennes is more predatory than romantic and Jones’ performance consists almost entirely of looking confused. An awful lot of the main characters seem to confuse stoicism for blankness and give stiff, uninteresting performances from behind their period trappings.

What cannot be faulted is the production design, every book, hair and speck of dust is painstakingly recreated to throw us into the Victorian age. Unfortunately, Fiennes doesn’t take advantage of the beautiful sets thrown up around him, instead relying on the production design to distract from the uninspired cinematography. In the end the film just feels weighed down by accuracy, as if the whole budget was spent on props and left no coin for a script supervisor.

The film will undoubtedly put bums on seats and sell a lot of DVDs. There will never be a shortage of people who watch quintessentially English films about quintessentially English things. Yet it truly saddens me that somewhere there is someone whose only understanding of what British culture and cinema is about comes from films like this one.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5

BFI London Film Festival – Day 9

Parkland – While excellent to watch the film is so American as to alienate other viewers.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5

The Invisible Woman – On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ralph Fiennes brings us a ridiculously English period piece with not a lot of substance.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5

Due to Ralph Fiennes thanking every single producer he worked with and their canine companions at the Q&A I missed the third film I planned to see today. Nevertheless, tonight’s viewing matter is reviewed below.

Austalia’s Masterchef – The going gets tough in the kitchen as the one to get eliminated is blatantly highest in the edit.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              0/5
  • Intellectual:       0/5

I don’t even care, I’m in my pyjamas on a sofa.

The Prince of Egypt – 1998

prince of egyptToday I had the rare luxury of re-watching a childhood favourite due to an unindentified malaise which has left me sofa-bound – Dreamworks classic “The Prince of Egypt.” I want to explain why I find this film to be such an achievement of cinema. I suppose, by this point, even a casual observer of this blog will have come across my passion for animation. Surprisingly, however, I find this film equally interesting for the fact that it is animated as for the fact that it is viewed as a “children’s film”. I say this advisedly since I do not believe there should be such a strong division between entertainment for children and adults. But that’s a whole other topic.

What is fascinating about children’s cinema, when done well, is that it can communicate difficult ideas to a child, while still having the emotional impact for an adult audience. As an example let’s take Mufasa’s death in “The Lion King”. Death is undeniably traumatic and not, by modern standards, “child friendly” viewing. Yet “The Lion King” effectively communicates this difficult concept. In fact, the sequence shows us the cub Simba understanding and processing his father’s death before Scar confirms it in words. In other words, a Disney film can communicate the shock and sadness of death to anyone, of any age or nationality, since the sequence is almost wordless. This is an art lost to modern conventional filmmaking, which often relies too heavily on a script and fears silence. It has reason to fear; when no one is speaking the visuals must stand alone and all too often they are not strong enough to do so. Silent cinema never had this problem. Buster Keaton’s films are still funny whatever language you are in. You can appreciate the bumbling inefficacy of the keystone cops even without intertitles. Without a script films had to be demonstrably funny or tragic on visuals alone. This is why these days, it is far more common to find true, global cinema in animated films. Films where, by their very nature, the visuals are strong because every single frame has been hand crafted to perfection over a period of weeks.

Returning to “The Prince of Egypt”. My admiration for this film results largely from the animating style. The film bridges a gap in the animation timeline and represents a merging of hand painted backgrounds, hand drawn line animation and computer generated special effects. The result is, that despite the huge number of special effects shots, the film retains the organic feel of earlier, line drawn, hand-painted animated features. This visual depth is positively enthralling. All that can be done by hand has been done, and so the computer images do not invade upon the visuals, but are more like the icing on the cake than anything else. The artistic style is shockingly different from that of, for example, contemporaneous Disney films. While Disney was relying on cultural stereotypes and caricatures to make Mulan (made in the same year), The Prince of Egypt portrays accurately and sensitively three different ethnic groups. While a lot of this is represented through location and costume design choices it is undeniable that all three of Egyptians, Hebrews and the Midian people are shown fairly and without generalization. These cultural details leak into the narrative, the Egyptian handmaidens trying to take the baby moses as their own, the traditional Midian dress style, even Moses’ hair colour. Moses is the only one among the Egyptians shown to have brown eyebrows, displaying his identity as an outsider, even as he is revered as their Prince. Also, I would like to call attention to the masterly use of traditional Egyptian art as a dream sequence.

Traditional art and culture played a huge part in the production of this film. Biblical and historical scholars were called in to ensure the film was accurate to all narrations of the Moses story. That is not to say that the director (Brenda Chapman) strayed away from any bold decisions. Quite the opposite, the voice of God in The Prince of Egypt is provided by Val Kilmer, the same voice as Moses. The subtle implication being that every man would hear God’s voice as their own. In some interpretations of the Bible that decision alone marks this film as heresy. This opens the film out to not just being a religious film. The Prince of Egypt adapts a Biblical story and, while it pays its dues to the version held dear by each Abrahamic religion, it does not alienate an audience who believes in one or none of these religions. Despite the religious themes even the most famous song “When you Believe” (Schwartz’s great Oscar winner) is at best an ambiguous exhortation of confidence and perseverance.

Powerillustration

Another brave decision is to present Rameses sympathetically. While he is clearly the antagonist, the film clearly steers away from making him the villain. This is of course this is helped enormously by Ralph Fiennes vocal performance. He is hot-tempered, yes, blinded by his hoodwinking priests, yes, but he is not evil as so many people are in children’s films. In fact, he is shown to truly care about Moses. It is only when he is totally rejected by his long-lost brother that he turns against Moses and his mission. The sorrow in Rameses voice even until the very end, shows us the pain of a man rejected by his father, then abandoned by his brother, who finally forms a family only to have his son stolen from him. Visually he is even assigned the colour blue, his headdress, horses bridle’s and jewellery are consistently sapphire, a colour with connotations of weakness and fragility as opposed to Moses’ robust red.

Returning to my earlier point about communication, this is one of the ways in which The Prince of Egypt transcends the barriers of comprehension. By showing Rameses in blue, and portraying him in despair as often as in anger it is impossible to come away from the narrative with an impression of evil or villainy. Both Rameses and Moses are true Aristotelian tragic heroes. Neither is guilteless in their fight, Moses even stoops so low as to send the plague upon the first borns – the very act which so disgusted him earlier in the film. It is a fantastic vote of confidence in the audience for the director to allow such contradictory portrayals to exist within a “children’s film”. Chapman does not simplify or remove the difficult aspects of the story for the sake of the childish audience but guides them to make their own conclusions from the subtle characterization. This trust in the audience is so strong that years of character development and a death can be explained in a single shot of Rameses standing where his father stood, dwarfed by the twin statues of himself and his father. The musical score adds to this communication more than words could in places, Schwartz gives us a score coloured by traditional instruments, gospel style musical patterning, and an emotional thrust unlike any other. The Hebrew interlude in “When you Believe” is almost a direct quote from the Hebrew bible and the framing of the film in the same musical motif in both “When you Believe” and “Deliver Us” lends weight to the narrative conclusion and makes the story a more coherent whole.

There are few films which achieve brilliance in visuals, soundtrack or storytelling. When I come across one which delivers on all three, I cannot write it off because it’s an animated children’s film. Any piece of filmmaking which can communicate in such a concise way on such a fundamental level is a film which brings humanity out of the gutter. . It is our ability to create art, and with it define emotion, which sets us apart from animals.