Listen Up Phillip ***

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Films about writers are notoriously awful. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry deals himself a smart deck by making Phillip (Jason Schwarztman) a genuine anti-hero, heavily self-obsessed and with his judgement clouded by vanity. Phillip falls under the spell of Philip Roth-like writer Ike Zimmermann (Jonathan Pryce), who offers him the use of his summer-house, but strings are attached. Elizabeth Moss makes a strong impression as Phillip’s frustrated girlfriend Ashley, and the writer’s milieu is well caught from the start.  With Wes Anderson cornering the market in upscale feyness, Listen Up Phillip could well be a caustic update to Anderson’s Rushmore, with the knowingness reflected in the ingenuously 1970’s style cover art and credits featured here.

 

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The Life Aquatic 2004 ****

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Wes Anderson’s films have often been divisive; his studied quirkiness can come off as annoying or smug, and the potential for visual tweeness is sometimes at odd with his willingness to confront the darker side of life. Starting out as a cheerful homage to the underwater adventure of Jacques Cousteau, The Life Aquatic ducks and dodges down a number of surprising side-lines, and mixes bright character comedy with dark shafts of poetic realism. Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a bobble-hat sporting oceanographer who is searching for the shark that killed his friend. His crew, including Ned (Owen Wilson) and Klaus (Willem Dafoe) have anxieties about Steve’s mission, and when the adventure leads to mutiny and an encounter with pirates, Steve’s ability to hold his crew together proves crucial. The colourful depiction of on-board life allows Anderson to showcase his gift for comedy, while a selection of David Bowie songs performed by Seu Jorge add to the whimsical charm. But The Life Aquatic builds to stark tragedy; the bitter-sweet comedy of Steve Zissou’s life is perfectly encapsulated in an early scene in which he carries a fish in a glass through the streets. Caught in a bubble of visibility, he wrestles with his own inner demons in a public way, and earns the respect of his brothers for the way he internalised the cruelty of nature and learns to find his own personal accommodation with death. A little knowledge of Cousteau’s own life is the key to Anderson’s darkly comic masterpiece.

The Grand Budapest Hotel 2014 ***

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Wes Anderson’s eclectic films have sometimes seemed burdened by the cinema of the past; The Royal Tennenbaums recalls John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, while The Darjeeling Limited references Indian cinema. By looking back to the writings of Austrian humourist Stefan Zweig, whose The World of Yesterday is suffused by nostalgia, Anderson finds a common soul to work with, and the result is a complex, over-stuffed but frequently delightful film, at odds with modern fashions.

Ralph Fiennes plays Gustave H, a concierge at a glamorous eastern-European hotel who takes an interest in a lobby-boy Zero (Tony Revolori). Gustave has a secret passion for the elderly Madame D (Tilda Swinton), but when she dies, an act of art-theft sets himself up as her killer, and Gustave and Zero break out of jail to attempt to clear his name.

Told through flashbacks between an older Zero (F Murray Abraham) and an interested writer (Jude Law), The Grand Budapest Hotel is busy even by Anderson’s standards, with cameos from Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Tom Wilkinson and a host of other familiar faces. The effect is charming, in that it evokes a past where character and style were omnipresent, contrasting nicely with the somewhat tatty setting of Zero’s recollection.

The Grand Budapest Hotel has lots of comic situations, and even if there are fewer laughs, the elaborate staging and cheerful air of anything-goes storytelling will ender it to a small but passionate group of cinema-goers. Fiennes wasn’t first choice for the role, but he plays it with gusto, and the whole cast seem to be in on the joke.

Rushmore 1998 ***

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The first of writer/director Wes Anderson’s regular collaborations with Bill Murray, Rushmore is an ingenious comedy featuring Jason Schwarztman as Max Fischer, a prep-school rebel who finds himself competing in love against Herman Blume (Murray) for the affections of Rosemary (Olivia Williams). Co-written with Owen Wilson, Rushmore features many of the tropes of Anderson’s later films, from an eclectic soundtrack to the creation of lively tableau in a Jacques Tati-style. Support from Brian Cox and Stephen McCole adds a Scottish twist, but Rushmore is a all-American rebel’s story, a smart comic variation of The Catcher in the Rye.

The Hotel New Hampshire 1984 ***

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British director Tony Richardson (Tom Jones, The Charge of the Light Brigade) was an unlikely choice for this adaptation of John Irving’s novel, but makes a decent fist of the many disparate plotlines concerning the Berry family, whose dream of living in a hotel makes them the focus for many different elements of society. Beau Bridges plays patriarch Win, with Jodie Foster, Rob Lowe and Seth Green as his children. Irving’s book lays the groundwork for taboo subjects, with incest, terrorism and bestiality all on the somewhat unappetizing menu, and Richardson’s scattershot approach means that several key scenes miss the mark. But with Irving’s usual trademarks, from wrestling to genital injuries, all prominently displayed, this is a brave stab at a difficult novel, and one that features Natasha Kinski in a bear costume can’t be considered to be bland in any way.