I went and saw three films recently, all of them adapted from books.
Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel, a comic adventure based around an inheritance dispute.
Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin, a subtle and sinister science fiction about an alien abducting Scottish men in a Transit van. Richard Ayoade's The Double, a tale of a low-level corporate employee whose uninspiring life is turned upside down by the appearance of his charismatic doppelganger.
And below you'll find what I thought about them.
Wes Anderson continues his habit of making essentially the same film again, but with a different lead. But at least he does it well, and the story of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a charming, vain and rakish hotel concierge caught up in an inheritance dispute with Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) and his menacing right-hand man J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) is a witty, quickly-paced adventure across a picturesque re-imagining of turn of the C20th Germany, with more than enough laughs and set pieces to entertain.
To be honest, if you don’t like the aesthetics and costume design of Wes Andersons’ other films, you aren’t going to like this one either. But for those who do, you are in for a bloody treat.
The locations are bright and strange, like locales in a dream, which what seems to be a genuinely charming mix of CG and miniature work. Think the underwater scenes of Life Aquatic writ large with a Germanic twist. They manage to evoke a sense of nostalgia for a time and place that never really existed, which is quite an achievement. A rather psychedelic chase through a museum breaks up the twee nostalgia at just the right moment though. The titular hotel is understandably a highlight, as is a ski chase on top of a mountain. Wes Anderson should pay his location scouts a lot of money for some of the interiors and buildings they find. The whole thing has a sort of ‘toy-set’ feel, like the entire film was made for children to play with. This is not a bad thing.
|Now that's some hot symmetry|
The costumes carry over this general feel, with the uniforms of the various hotels seen being made only of the most pastelly of pastel colours. Willem Dafoe has one of the finest ‘bad guy’ coats I’ve seen for a while, with a brilliant gun/whiskey pouch I now demand on all my outerwear. Jude Law spends a lot of his time in a sort of tweed safari jacket which may be one of the most English sentences ever typed, and only serves to further evoke a general feeling of “The Past” without being specific.
While a lot of the dialogue and related acting is pretty standard Wes Anderson business, i.e. white people speaking rather quickly and quietly about their emotions with a dry wit, there is enough humour and laugh-out-loud jokes that you sort of forgive this cookie-cutter dialogue kit. The aforementioned nostalgia, and the reticence with which almost all the character smother themselves in like emotionally reserved honey make swearing funny again.
Ralph Fiennes is the absolute highlight for the film, with a deliciously camp and louche drawling turn as the hotel concierge. His unflappable and all-knowing demeanour is punctured on a few occasions, leading to some brilliantly funny strops and tantrums which make Fiennes the best thing about the cast. But then what would you expect, it’s Ralph Fiennes. It’s kind of what he does.
|And look, they let him have a nose this time|
That may sound like the rest of the cast isn’t up to snuff, and that is not true, Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe make some brilliant villains, Edward Norton plays a surprisingly anaemic sounding police inspector with an excellent moustache, and the Anderson Cameos (Wilson, Murray, Harvey Keitel, Swinton, Schwartzmann) are as scene-stealing and effortlessly cool as ever. The only slight disappointment is Tony Revolori as the young Zero Moustafa, Fienne’s lobby-boy and partner-in-crime. I don’t think this is down to the actor himself, as he did what he was asked to do very well, I simply think that he was not given enough leeway to emote the character or play with it more. The same could be said for Saoirse Ronan, who play’s Zero’s love interest and local baker Agatha. Considering she was been nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, letting her actually do some more acting rather than making her be the stoic and quiet love interest would have probably been a good idea.
Also, you get to witness the Goldblum in full effect.
|Now that's a nice bit of the 'Blum|
Plot and related gubbins
At it’s heart, the film is like one of those old adventure movies that directors are always trying to ape but no one seems to have actually watched. It’s a caper, a series of whimsical and funny japes across a series of set pieces and backdrops, with a revolving cast of characters to keep the pace up. In this respect, it is more like Life Aquatic than Moonrise Kingdom, thankfully with less overly-held long shots than Anderson’s previous effort. It’s a fun film, a classic case of over-thinking it is unnecessary and won’t add anything to the experience. Utterly fails the Bechdel Test but I can’t be bothered to dissect that, I don’t think it’s worth it.
IF YOU LIKE IT, YOU’D SAY: It’s a fun silly film that makes you laugh and has some excellent performances and locations. A visual treat.
IF YOU HATE IT, YOU’D SAY: Style-heavy twee bollocks for grown-up children and parents who think they’re hipsters.
Under The Skin
Jonathan Glazer, a man who certainly doesn’t rush his projects (his last film, Sexy Beast came out in 2004) and has crafted some of the most memorable music videos of recent times (Blur, “The Universal” Radiohead, “Street Spirit” and “Karma Police” Jamiroquai, “Virtual Insanity”) and possibly one of the most famous adverts for over-priced future-CAMRA member bait (Guiness, “Surfer”, you know, the one with the horses coming out of the waves and the “tick-followed-tock” over the bass beat and aww it’s genius) Has bounced back onto the film scene with Under The Skin, a low-beat science fiction of the old-school about an alien (Scarlett Johansson) sent to Scotland to abduct men for nefarious alien purposes. It’s actually a lot more complicated than it sounds.
I’m going to be honest, if you are planning on seeing this soon, don’t read this, it’s a film better experienced raw. Or hit yourself in the head with a pipe to forget, or have a loved one. Get an adult to help you.
This is a bleak film. It’s set in Scotland, much of it was filmed in Glasgow, and that really shines through. The landscapes are dark and intimidating, the natural peaks, valleys and dramatic coastline of Scotland seeming sinister in their own right. The city and townscapes are grey, crowded and run-down. Much of the film is shot with hidden cameras, as Johansson drives a Transit van around Glasgow (with Glazer and crew hiding in the back) pulling over and talking to random, genuine Glaswegians.
|Visit Beautiful Scotland|
This method makes these scenes look and feel more like a reality show (a genuine reality show I mean) or documentary than an arty science fiction, which contrasts with the (urgh) spoiler alert alien abduction scenes. Which take place in a crisp, open, pitch-black space and are suitably other-wordly and unreal.
The whole affair feels sinister, in how Johansson assesses the suitability of her prey walking down quiet streets, the questions she asks, and her ‘handler’ (played by motorcyclist Jeremy McWilliams) is one of the most intimidating characters in film I’ve seen for a while. I’ll explain more later, but his motorbike leathers and helmet, combined with shots of him racing through deserted stretches of road instill a sense of dread about his presence that has to be seen to be fully understood. Even the crowds of unsuspecting humans somehow seem threatening when seen though Glazer’s lens.
It’s an interesting film to talk about, acting-wise, as so many of the characters were incidental passers-by which Glazer filmed. You can sort of guess which ones are actors (the ones which get their knobs out probably) but that’s only if you deliberately try too, if you went into the film without knowing you wouldn’t be able to tell.
Johansson, who looks a bit like an alien when placed in Scotland, does very well with a limited range. Her transformation from predatory automaton to something distinctly different is subtle, but then hits like a train when you notice. Not given much dialogue, much of her performance is through body language, and the sudden bursts of movement in an otherwise quite slow film are almost shocking. Her accent, the Queen’s English is pretty good too.
McWilliams, her sort weird alien boss, has no dialogue whatsoever. His performance is sold entirely though action. A deeply threatening and unpleasant screen presence, our introduction to the guy is him biking out to a remote lay-by, dragging a body out of a tent and dumping it in the back of a van. He doesn’t get much nicer than this, an ever-present hunch and glare on his face, the scene where Johansson attempts to seduce a swimmer on the beach, and it’s aftermath, cementing his complete inhumanity and unfeeling nature. He’s really quite impressive.
|Not very subtle, however|
Plot and other gubbins
An interesting mix of case study in human emotions, body horror and thriller, the story could be summed up as someone discovering their humanity. Sort of. It’s an odd one, go see it, I really urge you too.
Some may be frustrated that the film is defined as a ‘science-fiction’ yet only suggests alien technologies. This was a deliberate effort on the part of the director as far as I can tell, but I think it works. By not really explaining what the aliens (or even confirming that’s what they are) are doing, why or how, the film really amps up the whole “unknowable alien intelligence” thing that many recent films have tried but then fucked up gloriously.
If you’ve got this far, I’m going to assume you don’t care that much about potential spoilers. While I won’t go into details, this is a film which does not go in the way you’d expect from the way it’s described in blurbs and abstracts. It’s what is often derided as an art-house film, there’s lots of slow shots, periods without dialogue for a long time and nothing is ever explained. I really recommend it very highly.
|Spoilers: This guy is fuuuuuuccckkeed|
IF YOU LIKE IT, YOU’D SAY: An adult science fiction, with an unusual filming method that really pays off. An honestly unique and strange experience with great visuals and a fantastically bizarre soundtrack.
IF YOU HATE IT YOU’D SAY: Boring art shit with not enough words or action but at least Johansson takes her clothes off.
Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace but really come on you knew that) follows up 2010’s Submarine with another comedy about an awkward loner chasing a girl. But this time it’s adapted from Dostoevsky novella, about a government employee whose mediocre and unfulfilling life is suddenly broken into by his doppelganger, who is his opposite and begins to take his life. Simon James and James Simon are played by Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network, Zombieland), and Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre) plays the longed-after Hannah.
Ayoade has traded C19th Russia in his adaptation for an Orwellian-style future, complete with giant grey apartment blocks, out of style furnishings and strange music and television. Technology is weird mix of the 80’s and futuristic stylings, with giant computers that only do one thing, tiny televisions and old vehicles. The whole thing just looks run-down and cheap, like a holiday to a faded sea side town, or Essex.
The locations are never labelled, you don’t really see any signs pointing to where you are in a geographic sense, it’s rather like a dream, in that the places you see are suggestions, you know what they are even if they don’t quite make sense. An example would be the nursing home in which Simon’s mother lives, which is too small, strangely lit and apparently just sort of runs by itself. Simon’s office is also an interesting location, with odd cubicles and exposed venting. World-building is done through these details, with newspapers in the background implying some sort of collapse, police officers casually mentioning how many suicides they deal with, portraits of important people and television adverts of data organising machines. It’s good shit man.
The clothes are part of this overall atmosphere, with few colours, designs which aren’t even ironically cool anymore and few changes in wardrobe.
|David Byrne would like his suits back please|
I was skeptical about Eisenberg going in, having always viewed him as a sort of Chinese-knock off version of Michael Cera, which in hindsight was probably unfair. He doesn’t even sound Chinese. He pulls off both characters very efficiently, the stammering, socially awkward and useless Simon James, as well as the brash, manipulative and charismatic James Simon. Personally, I thought the slightly ridiculous machinations of James Simon were more enjoyable to watch, as he swans his way around this grey world taking whatever he wants and busting out one-liners and insults. This isn’t to say you sympathise with him, it’s testament to Eisenberg that this is a character whom you really want to have his comeuppance by the end, but equally Simon James is actually quite annoying in his initial impotence and creepy habits of watching Hannah.
Mia Wasikowska is also excellent, lending an ethereal air to the character of Hannah, without straying too much into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory. Not so much a Zooey Deschanel, as Hannah makes paintings out of her blood, and at point after being hurt by James, lambasts Simon’s ineffective approach to seduction where he seems to think that just by standing near her she will eventually just fall in love with him. I think the speech required a standing ovation as it skewers the phenomenon of the friend-zone and nice guys quite thoroughly, which probably was not it’s intention.
There are also cameos from a huge range of actors from Ayoade’s friends and work colleagues, Tim Key (poet and comedian) as the nursing home staff, Chris O’Dowd (IT Crowd, Bridesmaids) as a nurse, Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) as a gorgeously petulant receptionist, Wallace Shawn (Rex in Toy Story, Vizzini in The Princess Bride as Simon’s excitable and well-meaning boss, Mr. Papadopoulos, Submarine stars Noah Taylor, Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige as Simon’s seedy work friend, a detective and bored, sensual and naïve Melanie Papadopoulos. Kobna Holbrook-Smith also has a brilliant turn as an uncaring security guard who never recognises Simon until his doppelganger turns up.
|King Kong is there too, as his spirit guide|
Paddy Considine deserves a mention for his role inside an in-universe science-fiction show full of cheap effects, guitar riffs and spandex. It’s really funny and would be worthy of a short.
Plot and other Gubbins
The central idea, of a man so uninteresting and who makes so little of an impression that no one even notices when his doppelganger shows up is inherently extremely funny. Ayoade and the cast run with this and really take it to the peak of the idea, crafting a world of eternally bored people just getting on with it, deliberately not bothering to see the ridiculousness of their situation.
The downward spiral of Simon as James turns on him, initially befriending him, then taking over his life, is a tense ramping up of suspense, as Simon’s life falls apart and he begins to plot his revenge. As Simon becomes more disjointed, so does the film, shots getting cut faster and faster, with tighter shots and dutch angles.
IF YOU LIKE IT, YOU’D SAY: Another surprisingly sweet yet dark film from Richard Ayoade, who is starting to carve out an interesting style in his work, and continues to write snappy dialogue.
IF YOU HATE IT YOU’D SAY: Confusing vague weirdness, with bad lighting and attempts at pretentiousness.