Ralph Fiennes is at the centre of a star-studded comedy drama set in a hotel.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (15)
When Wes Anderson is good, he’s very good – dare I say it, brilliant – and when he’s occasionally off-key, the Texan writer-director still puts other filmmakers in the shade.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a tour-de-force of invention and creativity that leaves no narrative stone unturned in its quest for laughs and heartfelt emotion.
Anderson is in sparkling form, tracing the history of the titular establishment from 1932 to the present day through the eyes of two lovers, who become embroiled in a madcap crime caper involving a stolen painting.
It’s a brilliantly bonkers ensemble comedy from a filmmaker who marries quirky production design with eccentric characters and wry humour, yet still manages to find a nub of humanity in every outlandish situation.
Anderson marshals an incredible cast including regular collaborators Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray, plus he teases out an uproarious and energetic performance from Ralph Fiennes as the suave protagonist at the centre of the mystery.
The British actor’s comic timing is impeccable.
Nightmares conjured by his portrayals of Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List or Voldemort in the Harry Potter saga are banished forever.
A neat framing device introduces Zero Moustafa (Tony Tevolori), who secures a coveted position as lobby boy at one of eastern Europe’s celebrated establishments, the Grand Budapest Hotel in the Republic of Zubrowka.
Zero works under legendary concierge Gustave H (Fiennes), who the lobby boy fondly remembers as “the most liberally perfumed man I’ve ever met”.
Clients, especially older women, are putty in Gustave’s well-manicured hands and he lavishes them with affection, including ageing matriarch Madame D (Tilda Swinton).
When she perishes in suspicious circumstances and leaves a priceless Renaissance painting entitled Boy With Apple to Gustave in her will, grief-stricken relatives including Madame’s greedy son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) plot the concierge’s downfall.
The finger of suspicion for Madame D’s demise points at Gustave and he goes on the run with wily police chief Henckels (Edward Norton) and Dmitri’s sadistic henchman (Willem Dafoe) in hot pursuit.
With the continent changing at frightening speed, Gustave and accomplice Zero attempt to outwit their pursuers and prove the concierge’s innocence, aided by a pretty baker’s assistant called Agatha (Saoirse Ronan).
The Grand Budapest Hotel offers audiences a luxurious five-star stay inside Anderson’s vision.
Every frame is beautifully crafted, set to a jaunty score by composer Alexandre Desplat.
If Fiennes is a revelation in a rare comedic role, supporting performances are equally memorable including Swinton’s cranky grand dame and Jeff Goldblum’s ill-fated lawyer.
Bookmarked into five chapters, the narrative twists and turns at delirious speed.
“The plot thickens, so they say. Why? Is it a soup metaphor?” wonders Gustave aloud as the truth about Madame D’s death comes into focus – and we lap up every sublime soupy metaphor with gusto.
300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (15)
Pecs flex, torsos ripple and bearded men growl, but it’s a woman scorned who spills the most blood in this turgid sequel (of sorts) to the 2007 swords and sandals epic.
Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel Xerxes, 300: Rise Of An Empire unfolds before, during and after the fierce Battle of Thermopylae chronicled in the first film.
Zack Snyder, who helmed the original and has since made Watchmen and Man Of Steel, has handed over the director’s throne to Noam Munro.
He continues the heavily stylised, slow-motion slaughter and eye-popping production design.
Once again, colours are saturated and the contrast between light and dark intensified, although jettisons of blood have lost their rich scarlet hue in the sequel, presumably to guarantee a 15 certificate given the profusion of decapitations and dismemberments.
Carnage is unrelenting, as are the legions of swaggering beefcakes with impressive sweat-glistened six-packs, who allow their perfect gym-toned bodies to be impaled and maimed as they fight for the honour of Persia and Greece.
Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) is both protagonist and narrator, succinctly summing up events at Marathon where courageous Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) fires the arrow that slays Persian King Darius (Igal Naor) in front of his son, Prince Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro).
“It was Darius’s son Xerxes’s eyes that had the stink of destiny about them,” remarks Gorgo, exemplifying the overblown floweriness of the script.
Darius’s adopted daughter Artemesia (Eva Green), who was raped and discarded by Greek soldiers, pledges to avenge the king.
She masterfully manipulates Xerxes in his hour of grief, transforming the weak-willed mortal into a strutting God-King, then leads the Persians into battle on the high seas while Xerxes overcomes King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) at Thermopylae.
All that stands between Artemesia’s vast armada is a few hundred boats under the command of Themistokles, flanked by close friend Aeskylos (Hans Matheson), brave warrior Scyllias (Callan Murphy) and his son Calisto (Jack O’Connell).
300: Rise Of An Empire intercuts footage from the first film with the breathtaking action at sea.
Clashes between the Greek and Persian ships are choreographed with aplomb and the 3D format comes into its own as hulls smash through the bellies of enemy ships.
But Stapleton fails to fill Butler’s huge sandals. He has neither the imposing physical presence nor the deep growl of his predecessor so when Themistokles delivers a rousing call to arms – “Let it be shown that we chose to live on our feet rather than die on our knees!” – our blood isn’t even slightly stirred.
Green is more convincing as a vengeful harpie, who gleefully cuts off the head of an underperforming subordinate then steals a final kiss before tossing the dripping noggin at the camera.
Date her at your peril.
ESCAPE FROM PLANET EARTH (U)
Jealousy, fear and the menace of Simon Cowell test the bonds of fraternal love in Cal Brunker’s uninspired computer-animated adventure.
Establishing a brisk tone from its opening sequence, Escape From Planet Earth charts a predictable course from conflict to reconciliation as feuding alien siblings put their differences aside to overcome the galaxy’s great menace: man.
A bright colour palette and cute otherworldly characters should hold the interest of younger viewers who relish slapstick and armpit farts with their mawkish sentiment.
However, Brunker’s script, co-written by Bob Barlen, doesn’t cater for older audiences.
There are no close encounters with laugh-out-loud gags and the rickety plot has been dusted off from the vaults of Area 51.
Parents who blast off for this routine mission with excitable children should expect to drift pleasantly into hypersleep well before the 86 minutes are up.
Escape From Planet Earth never threatens to reach warp speed as Gary realises that true heroism is protecting the people you love.
The animation throughout is pristine, albeit lacking in personality, while vocal performances are solid, including Ricky Gervais as a sarcastic BASA computer.
Corddry essays a likeable hero while Fraser purrs as the egotistical golden boy, who always has one eye on his lucrative sponsorship deal with Scorchio’s cereal, which promises “a surprise in every box”.
Regrettably, there aren’t any in Brunker’s film.