The Pianist (2002)

2016 #175
Roman Polanski | 143 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Poland, Germany & UK / English, German & Russian | 15 / R

The PianistRoman Polanski’s semi-autobiographical biopic of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), who survived the Warsaw ghetto in World War 2 primarily through luck and good fortune, is a subtly powerful work. It may not poke at your emotions quite so readily as, say, Schindler’s List, but that’s because Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood dodge histrionics or an operatic envisioning of events. Instead this feels like a grounded relation of the facts, with everyday heroism (and cruelty) the order of the day — but, of course, there’s nothing “everyday” about it.

If this were fiction it would seem improbable; because it’s true, it’s extraordinary.

5 out of 5

The Pianist was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Come Together (2016)

2016 #185a
Wes Anderson | 4 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Come TogetherChristmas adverts are all the rage these days, thanks to the likes of John Lewis and their beautifully affecting tributes to the holiday season / twee pieces of emotionally manipulative crap (delete as appropriate). This year clothes retailer H&M got in on the act by hiring everyone’s favourite go-to example of an idiosyncratically quirky director, Wes Anderson, to helm a short film-cum-advertisement — the first part of that equation being why I’m reviewing it here.

For me, Anderson pitches the tone just right. Rather than making a four-minute festival of sappiness that rots your brain with its generic sugary sentiment, or a music video for a slow breathy cover of a once-famous song, or a long build-up to a cheap punchline, Anderson instead brings his own familiar style to a brief narrative that comes to a surprisingly heartwarming conclusion. In the process, he’s made an advert that doesn’t feel like an advert — another reason to factor it in here.

I suppose for that same reason it almost fails — I’m no more or less likely to shop at H&M than I was before (in truth, I had to even double check they were a clothes retailer) — but as brand awareness goes, well, it doesn’t make me want to kick their teeth in until they go away and never bother me with one of their stupid adverts every again. Suck on that, John Lewis.

4 out of 5

Come Together can be watched on YouTube here.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

2015 #20
Wes Anderson | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.37:1 + 1.85:1 + 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Germany / English | 15 / R

The Grand Budapest HotelThe latest from cult auteur Wes Anderson, which managed that rare feat of enduring from a March release to being an awards season contender, sees the peerless concierge of a magnificent mid-European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) accused of murdering a rich elderly guest (Tilda Swinton, caked in Oscar-winning prosthetics) and attempting to flee across the country to clear his name. More or less, anyway, because this is a Wes Anderson film and so it takes in all kinds of amusing asides, tangents, and recognisable cameos.

The film has the feel of an artisan confection: candy-coloured, precisely designed and constructed, sweetly enjoyable, but with a hidden bite. Something like that, anyway. There are many praises to sing along these lines. The visuals are the most obvious. As is apparent even from the trailer, the shot composition is tightly controlled, squared-off but using that formalism to its advantage in various ways. I don’t know if this is always Anderson’s style (this is only the second of his films that I’ve seen, but it was similarly employed in the other), but here it works in ways almost indefinable.

The performances are just as mannered, and equally as fantastic for similar reasons: they exist within very specific constraints, but then push at their boundaries. Fiennes displays a perhaps-surprising flair for comedy in the lead role. Apparently Johnny Depp was Anderson’s initial choice — thank goodness that didn’t happen! You can completely see Depp in the part, bringing his rote whimsy to it, but how much more entertaining it is to have Serious Actor Ralph Fiennes going somewhat against type, and playing the role beautifully too. A host of familiar faces turn up in supporting roles that display various degrees of individualistic eccentricity, and there’s no weak link, but Fiennes is the stand-out.

Not suspicious at allI suppose the kooky idiosyncrasies of Anderson’s brand of storytelling and filmmaking will rub some viewers up the wrong way, looking on it all as vacuous affectations signifying nothing. To each their own, but, whatever the merits (or not) of Anderson’s style as a kind of one-man genre played out across his oeuvre, The Grand Budapest Hotel displays a synthesis of contributing elements that creates a movie that’s ceaselessly inventive, surprising, amusing, and entirely entertaining.

5 out of 5

The Grand Budapest Hotel placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

The Brothers Bloom (2008)

2011 #84
Rian Johnson | 114 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Brothers Bloom“Crikey, time flies!” I thought when I compiled this listing and saw that The Brothers Bloom was released in 2008. Somehow it felt like it was only last year, not three (or, if at the start of 2008, closer to four) years ago.

Then I happened to spot the UK release date on IMDb: June 2010. That explains that then.

From the director of the acquired taste that was Brick, The Brothers Bloom looks like it might be a little more mainstream: it’s got a lead cast who are all Oscar nominees, and half of them winners too, and it has a con/heist plot — always popular — and a light tone — a very funny and enjoyable trailer, I thought. But while it’s not as specialised as Brick’s near-impenetrable dialogue and considered (over-considered?) tone, it’s certainly Quirky.

The capital Q may give a clue that I think it may be too forcibly quirky at times. Genuine quirkiness can be a lot of fun, though there’ll always be people who don’t get it, but if you force it then it comes across as weird; silliness for the sake of silliness; trying to be Cool. I don’t think Bloom goes quite that far, but I did feel those involved were trying too hard.

Despite that, it can be surprisingly dramatic in places, at least more so than the trailer suggested. It’s not quite as all-out-fun as it looked… The titular Brothersbut then the job of a trailer is to sell you a film, so if the end result doesn’t match it 100% is that a failing? How are you meant to summarise the entire tone of a film in a two-minute spoiler-free sales burst anyway? That dilemma is emphasised in this case because it’s the opening that feels least like the trailer. I mean, the pre-titles is kinda quirky-fun, but then it gets a little serious and slow, and later — perhaps half-an-hour or three-quarters of an hour in — you get to all the stuff the trailer was selling. And then the last act is back to something more unusually — or, if we’re to be unkind, unevenly — paced and toned. I can imagine the marketing meetings for this were a struggle…

Despite (or perhaps because of) all those shifts, it drags a bit at times, but it still has lots of amusing, quirky and fun moments to help make up for that.

I’d heard the last act was incredibly twisty; too twisty, according to some. Perhaps it was because I read that and was prepared, but I didn’t find it to be so. It has twists, sure, but this is a con movie — con movies have twists. That’s almost the point. They weren’t all the twists I was expecting either, which is probably a good thing.

The cast of the conPerhaps the problem for others was that the ending doesn’t quite spell everything out. I’m certain every question you might have is answered, more or less, but it doesn’t lead you by the hand back over the film pointing everything out, as many twist-ending-ed films do. Part of me appreciates this assumption of intelligence; part of me would like it all handily explained so I don’t sit here wondering it for myself. I don’t feel completely lump-headed not wanting to do that — there’s no Deeper Meaning or Philosophical Insight gained from sorting this out, I don’t believe; just an understanding of who was being conned and when, and who knew what and why.

I score most films right after watching them, even if I don’t post the review for many months. I thought I’d given The Brothers Bloom a three, but coming to write this I find it has a four. Make of that what you will.

4 out of 5