This is the first in what will hopefully be an ongoing classic film review segment I’m writing in NZ vintage lifestyle magazine Glory Days. It’s a really cool mag, so be sure to check it out here.
Just the fifth recipient of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel is, like so many early classics, a template setting picture in a number of ways. The entwining of stories from several characters is wonderfully engaging yet also deliberately trivial, a simple slice of life from a single floor in the opulent, cavernous Grand Hotel in Berlin.
Following an effortless but undeniably effective set up, John Barrymore charms as the dapper Baron Felix von Gaigern, a shadowy con man intent on relieving melodramatic ballet dancer Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) of her jewels in the hope of paying off an old debt. Meanwhile, the leering General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery) vies for the affections of his beautiful stenographer (Joan Crawford) while trying to salvage a troubled business deal, and all are somehow drawn together by the doomed optimism of the hopeless Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore).
Every member of the all-star cast brings just the right tone to their characters. John Barrymore delivers a dashing, confident performance right up until he is thunderstruck by love for the first time in his life, and Garbo shows desperate vulnerability and a prima donna’s desire for fame and affection sharply contrasting her own intensely private life. A very young Joan Crawford plays Flaemmchen as a classic cinematic tomboy so common to Classical Hollywood, adorable and accessible in equal measure, and Lionel Barrymore serves as comic relief with work regularly bordering on slapstick.
It is a somewhat hackneyed film criticism trope to refer to location as an extra character in a given film, but Grand Hotel’s titular location is an early example of how a filmmaker can use their backdrop to subtly flesh out a particular thematic aspect of the picture. Goulding uses expansive establishing shots and sweeping pans to emphasise the labyrinthine nature of the hotel before narrowing his gaze to just one small portion. He also gives much attention to the lobby’s revolving door, returning to the image again and again and driving home the key piece of the puzzle in Grand Hotel, a place where, as one character notes in the film’s bookending monologues, “People come, people go, nothing ever happens.”
The joys of decoding the dialogue don’t end there, given that Grand Hotel falls right in the early days of the strict censorship of the Hays’ Motion Picture Production Code. The first meeting of John Barrymore and Crawford crackles with thinly veiled desire, and the lustful euphemisms of Beery are as hilarious as they are loathsome.
As is often the case when reaching back far into cinema history, Grand Hotel might seem familiar to many first-time viewers due to its influence. For those of us who appreciate the past and hunger for experience of the origins of style however, the film is an absolute treat, offering romance, wonderfully drawn characters, and more than a few surprising turns.
The following is a review I wrote for Thread, a new publication on the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand. Pick up a copy if you’re in the area, or you can visit their blog version here. Hopefully this will be a somewhat regular thing, so support a really cool new thing!
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s No tells the story of René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), the creative mind behind the scenes of the campaign to democratically oust Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1988. Using his advertising background, Saavedra crafts a campaign that runs against the grain, favouring a seemingly superficial and disposable delivery system that shakes established convention and ushers in a new era in political maneuvering.
The film documents a little seen side of politics, with Larraín employing intimate handheld camera work to create a great sense of urgency and authenticity, as the grainy video look blends seamlessly with the large amount of archival footage culled from the real campaign. Taken with the sharply detailed period dressing, the technique elevates No from the unremarkable reconstruction it could have been to something much more engaging.
García Bernal’s Saavedra is established as an odd choice for running the ‘No’ campaign, but Larraín again shows a knack for getting the most out of a fairly dry script. Saavedra is the man for the job not because of any obvious or outspoken opposition to Pinochet’s regime, but because he is something of a futurist, and understands the importance of boldly stepping forward rather than dwelling on history’s failures. To him, it seems, the campaign is scarcely more important than the new microwave oven; what matters is whether he can sell either to the Chilean people.
Impressively for a story now a quarter of a century old from a part of the world distant from many of us, No remains relevant and familiar. Much of the politics depicted is not dissimilar to what we’ve become accustomed to today, and the film is a reminder that a functioning democratic process can be ripe ground for compelling drama.
Any movie concerning the manipulation of a character’s mind is going to present an unreliable narrative. Inevitably the rug is going to be pulled from said character, usually upending the audience as well.
Danny Boyle’s latest Trance is but one more film that tries to bait and switch us, but unfortunately the only effective twist in this tale is the rapid deterioration of an illogical but often gripping thriller into a sloppy and occasionally puerile mess, with a third act that lands with such a thud that any goodwill earned early on seems to be a hazy memory of a different film.
Trance tells the story of Simon (James McAvoy), an apparently naive auctioneer caught in the middle of a high stakes art heist who loses his memory after a crack on the head from the heel of a shotgun wielded by thief Franck (Vincent Cassel). Enter Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), the hypnotherapist hired by Franck to break through Simon’s amnesia to reveal the location of a £25 million painting that vanished in the robbery.
The logic of the film is murky from the get go, but Boyle fires Trance out of the gate with such furious pace that allows little time to stop and pick apart the pseudo-scientific aspects of hypnotism as depicted here. Typically of the director, they style seems to take precedence over the substance, and a terrific soundtrack (all the better if you’re fortunate enough to see the film in a Dolby Atmos theatre) contributes to the slickness of it all.
Truth be told, there’s a lot in Trance that is pretty enjoyable. The cool neo-noir vibe works well despite the obvious cracks in the surface of the script.
Until, that is, the cracks become a gaping crevasse, torn open by the baffling decisions to hang a fairly significant story point on a frankly idiotic idea, and grind the relentless charge toward the climax to a halt with turgid exposition that makes little sense in the context of the story. It’s simply bad writing, and the film has no time to recover, left instead with an ending that has zero real impact beyond the crushing confusion of it all.
Trance had the potential to see Danny Boyle to get back on track after a couple of minor works (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) that generated a lot of awards buzz but little enduring quality. It’s disappointing to see a filmmaker with such a unique and varied catalogue of work hit a rough patch like this, but if you’re waiting for a work that shakes Boyle from his slump, Trance just isn’t it.