Rushmore (1998)

2016 #146
Wes Anderson | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

RushmoreThe breakthrough film of cult writer-director Wes Anderson, Rushmore is the story of high school student Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, making his debut, aged 18 but still looking like one of those twentysomethings-playing-highschoolers you so often see in US productions). He’s a prolific participator in extracurricular activities at the prestigious Rushmore Academy, but is put on notice for his failing academic standard. At the same time, he becomes infatuated with first grade teacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) and attempts to woo her by building an aquarium on school grounds. He enlists the support of local business magnate Herman Blume (Bill Murray), but soon Blume is falling for Miss Cross too, setting the men on a path of mutual enmity.

Having only seen Anderson’s three most recent films, it’s interesting to observe the early days of his distinctive style. The squared-off framing and blocking, the mannered acting, the interludes and asides, the not-quite-real / not-quite-fantasy quirkiness of it all… These things have only become more pronounced since, presumably as Anderson has become more confident in his own voice, or possibly as other behind-the-scenes forces have become more comfortable letting him do his thing. There might be an argument for newcomers to ease into Anderson’s unique world via something like this, but I kind of prefer the in-at-the-deep-end way I encountered him.

What do you mean 'quirky'?Part of that is probably tied to Anderson’s own development. It’s not only his very personal touches that have flourished with further films, but I feel like his storytelling and depiction of character has become more sophisticated, too. That’s not to say Rushmore comes up short, but coming to it for the first time with that degree of hindsight, it feels very much like a formative work.

Maybe I’m being unfair to it — it’s amusing and delightfully unpredictable in its own right — but it didn’t excite me in the same way as the other Andersons I’ve seen. Perhaps if I revisit it once I’ve plugged the gap between this and his later work, I’ll be able to enjoy it for itself rather than playing “spot the directorial development”.

4 out of 5

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

2015 #148
Roger Michell | 90 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / R

Wannabe-prestige picture Hyde Park on Hudson is like two films playing at once: the dramatic/romantic story of President FDR’s (Bill Murray) burgeoning affair with his distant cousin Daisy (Laura Linney), and the comedy-drama of his meeting with King George VI (aka “the one Colin Firth played in The King’s Speech”; here, Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth 1.5 (Olivia Colman) in the build up to World War 2, at a time when America really didn’t want to get involved.

This internal battle between the two plots — and, consequently, the ways in which the film was promoted — seems to have caused some confusion with viewers. The trailer (or the British one, at least) sold it as being about the UK/US culture clash, a four-hander in which the British monarchs met FDR and… some woman. See how the British poster is a three shot of Murray, West and Colman, while the American one makes it all about Murray with Linney behind him (and they retained those images for the DVD and Blu-ray releases, too). Understandably, therefore, British viewers seem to expect a film about the UK/US meeting, and are surprised to find the visit is a poorly-integrated subplot to a tale of FDR’s philandering, while US viewers seem to expect a film about FDR having an affair with his cousin, and are surprised by how much time is spent on a poorly-integrated subplot about a British state visit.

For what it’s worth, the film was born of the discovery of Daisy’s letters and diaries, which told of the relationship. Apparently the screenwriter was one of the people who found these, so I guess that’s where his interest lies. The film is a UK production from Film4, however, and made in the wake of the global success of The King’s Speech, so perhaps that explains the root of the royal involvement. While both stories have some potential, they aren’t made to gel, switching back and forth as if in some kind of narrative relay that enables the film to run a theatrical distance.

The screenplay doesn’t help the cast, either. West and Colman are quality actors, but they’re not given good enough material to work with — they’re little more than the funny-Brits comic relief. Their performances seem pitched as a cheap Sunday afternoon TV movie, and are further hamstrung by the inevitable comparison to Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter’s award-winning portrayals of the same people just a couple of years earlier. With the material they’re given, West and Colman never stood a chance of matching that standard.

Elsewhere, Murray gives a good performance, though equally he’s never afforded a scene to really dig into his character, to display some of his inner life. Linney is landed with an over-explanatory voice over, and a character who’s three steps behind the viewer.

Roger Michell’s direction is adequate if unremarkable. DoP Lol Crawley provides a few spots of nice cinematography during any scene set in daylight, with vibrant colours evoking a place of sunny happiness, but anything set at night is graded with a terribly extreme, not to mention awfully rote, case of teal-and-orange.

While not strictly speaking a good film, Hyde Park on Hudson is passable as a Sunday-afternoon-style period drama (albeit one with an occasional risqué edge). One wonders if it could’ve been something more, somehow.

3 out of 5

The Last Days on Mars (2013)

2015 #22
Ruairí Robinson | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Ireland / English | 15 / R

The Last Days on MarsThe first manned mission to Mars is reaching the end of its six-month tour. As they count down the final hours, battling a dust storm and its attendant power outages and communications blackouts, one of the team secretly discovers bacterial life on the surface. Attempting to recover further samples, a sink hole opens beneath him. When the rest of the crew try to recover his body, it’s not there. Then he arrives back at base… only, he’s not quite himself anymore…

Starting as a sophisticated, plausible vision of what a manned Mars mission might look like in the relatively-near future, The Last Days on Mars attempts an awkward transition into schlocky B-movie horror when Space Zombies turn up about half-an-hour in. Unfortunately, it’s not really trashy enough to work on that level, but equally, it’s not classily written enough to transcend the genre limitations the undead bring. The attempts at a kind of realist sci-fi are to be appreciated, particularly by genre fans who might fancy a change (though in the wake of Gravity, near-future realism may be in vogue), but it doesn’t gel with the often-rote zombie elements. To really succeed it needs a more original threat. These may not be zombies in the “magically brought back to life” sense, but having a semi-scientific explanation for their existence doesn’t negate their storytelling function, which is very trad.

People who aren’t normally in sci-fi moviesThese faults persist despite the best efforts of a quality cast, particularly Romola Garai as (in functional terms) the capable sidekick, and Olivia Williams as the bitch whose heartless practicality becomes an asset when the going gets tough. First-time feature director Ruairí Robinson assembled his cast on the principle of “people who aren’t normally in sci-fi movies”, and that does feed in to the sense of realism. It also looks great, the production, costume and effects designs gelling to create a believable Mars mission, all in spite of a tiny budget (funded by the BFI and the Irish Film Board, it had about a tenth of Gravity’s budget, for example). Credit, too, to cinematographer Robbie Ryan for lensing the Martian surface convincingly (it’s actually the Jordanian desert). The editing may descend into fast-cut blurriness during action scenes — only emphasised by Max Richter’s predictably derivative horror movie score — but during calmer moments the film looks very good.

All things considered, it plays a bit like an R-rated, traditional-zombie-emphasised remake of Doctor Who adventure The Waters of Mars (it’s actually adapted from a 1975 short story, but hey-ho). From the tail end of David Tennant’s time in the role, the award-winning Who episode concerns the first manned mission to Mars battling a previously-undiscovered alien menace that mysteriously turns them into zombie-like creatures and prevents them leaving the planet. And the similarities go further than that, including sequences involving a hydroponic dome, a race down the tunnel that links said dome to the main base, and fears about bringing the deadly virus back to Earth. Thinking through the comparison perhaps enlightens some of where the film goes wrong, as the Who episode had a more effective and original enemy, had more thematic weight to explore (in fairness, concerning Who-specific time travel issues), had characters who were better drawn than the repeated “I’d like to see my kids again” simplicity of the ones here, There's a storm comingand was more sure of its tone. There may be elements to commend The Last Days of Mars in this comparison (the much bigger budget pays off in the scope of the visuals, of course), but as a story and viewing experience, The Waters of Mars wins hands down.

It’s not just Doctor Who — despite the film’s plus points, most of what The Last Days on Mars has to offer has been done better elsewhere. There are certainly superior zombie thrills to be found. The well-realised plausible Mars mission makes the movie more enticing for sci-fi fans, though your mileage will vary on how much that justifies the investment.

3 out of 5

The Last Days on Mars debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 10am and 9pm.