Charming Interwar Entertainment
by Kristin Battestella
Despite the turbulent times before and after, these films and television series set in the twenties and thirties are brimming with charming wit – mostly.
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Snowy, bleak cemeteries contrast the orange mid century accents and picturesque postcard designs of this 2014 quirky comedy from director Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums). While the visuals are aesthetically pleasing; the books, voiceover jokes, timeline transitions, and Jude Law's (Captain Marvel) detailing of the kitschy, dilapidated hotel's off season are a lot to digest amid dialogue within the internal monologue, rapid newspaper headlines, zany zooms, action pans, elevator doors parting, camera ups and downs, and in and out of focus views. Fortunately, the busy exposition gives way to calm and curious introductions – our hotelier F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) nestles in the baths of this enchanted old ruin as we follow the inter title style chapter cards back to a grandiose thirties heyday. Choice reds, lush purple, vintage cars, trains, delightful architecture, and golden chandeliers set the period lavish while tight camera angles convey the cramped servant areas and sweeping pans reflect the patron's splendor. Tom Wilkinson (Essex Boys), Jeff Goldbum (Independence Day), Saoirse Ronan (Byzantium), Edward Norton (Red Dragon), Lea Seydoux (Spectre), Adrien Brody (The Jacket), Willem Dafoe (Shadow of the Vampire), Harvey Keitel (National Treasure), Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris), Bill Murray (Little Shop of Horrors), a dynamite in the sack old lady Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), and more star power cameos, however, make for a vignette feeling as viewers wonder which part of the story is the story and not just another scene change. Thankfully, such hotel hustle and bustle fits the nostalgic whirlwind, and swift “Are you fucking nuts?” asides pepper the rose colored glasses framework as our lobby boy learns the ropes from Ralph Fiennes' (The English Patient) sermon giving, tight ship running, serving all the rich blondes concierge. Modern sarcasm lifts the who's swindling whom heists, and the best zingers come in the one on one, smooth talker tongue in cheek. We're invested in the interplay farce but take nothing at face value, reading between the lines of the embellished court case, recountings to the camera, and butler did it gags. Conspiracies and suspects mount, however the loyalty and button up routine of the jailhouse isn't that different from the formality of the grand hotel. In fact, impoverished origins and unusual circumstances unite these quirky gents when the players themselves admit the thickening plot confuses them. Shocking heads in a basket and a larger than life scale keep the murder and suspense stylish while cable car graphics and cats tossed out the window picked up at the coat check add to the bemusing hotel prayer chain. Genuine characters and core friendships sustain the increasingly preposterous on the run adventure – speed walking chases, monastery disguises, second copies of the second will, shootouts, and macguffins create a knowing cumulative amid outlandish travels, whimsical ski jumps, and silly poetics straying into the fantastic. At times, this is quite pretentious and overly clever, doing too much when the casting winks and lavish production handle the complexity without any extra need to be high brow for the sake of it. Some outwitting and double crossings are confusing, and the redundant, intentionally unreliable narration builds toward a bitter, black and white montage that feels abrupt and unfair compared to the preceding yarn. Fortunately, a fuzzy frame within a frame game of telephone wraps the past grandeur almost in fiction – a long gone embellished splendor made up by an old hotel proprietor and compounded by a wayward writer. Although one needs to appreciate old movies and what this film is trying to do to enjoy its wit, this is an entertaining, intelligent piece with a careful, award winning attention to detail that takes more than one viewing.
Mapp and Lucia – Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers), Geraldine McEwan (Marple), and Nigel Hawthorne (Richard III) lead this charming 1985 coastal comedy based on the books by E.F. Benson accented by English gardens, pleasant melodies, and jolly good formalities flummoxed by over the hedge gossip. Foreign metaphors, “Au Reservoir,” and fake Italian make one sound fancy while seething sighs, squinting “dear” objections, and frienemy let's do lunch fakery punctuate arguments over everything from who gets to play Elizabeth I in the local play to who's servants are courting who else's servants. Nobody says what they mean thanks to the stiff upper lip tone and attempted continental refinement, yet the over the top gentility provides backhanded zingers to match all the haughty decorum, period stylings, and fur coats worn in the summer. A quaint local artist paints scandalous nude portraits and content domestic evenings full of piano duets replace sexual acts. Oh, such harmony when they finish together! Some taboos can be chuckled over at tea time yet others ruffle the snobbish feathers one and all as vain high society facades parallel the subtle gender bending innuendo. Everyone lives to push someone else's buttons – back then one had to make her own entertainment with country drives in classic cars, telegrams to famous friends, or rival parties and art exhibitions scheduled at the same time. Despite unannounced pop ins, overcharging for a broken piano, faking influenza to get out of a concert, and real estate low balling; the love to hate, doing dirty ladies remain bemusing and likable characters without any venomous soap opera nasty to the secret lobster recipes, exposés, and just deserts. Who's eating the produce from who's garden tiffs rage over bridge in “they know that we know that they know that we know” suspicions that can't be proven until one climbs the church tower to spy. Townsfolk take sides over pearl clutching shocks and sordid tales of the sea as the stock market bound women whip the embroidering men into shape by coloring the gray in a beard and serving giant cups of sobering tea. Intercut policy debates in the street and servants gossiping at the beach lead to gas line mishaps and delusions of Roman ruins bested by veiled pregnancy scandals. The vitriol remains scrumptious in spite of the selfish church organ dedications, ulterior hospital ward donations, and manipulated local politicians as our rich snobs insist on making this pastoral little seaside town's society page all about them. The eponymous ladies welcome every opportunity to help the needy in the most self serving ways possible, and their attempts to look good always leave egg on the other's face. Marriages of convenience understood to have separate bedrooms and no caresses feign to be simple unions when the couple really seeks the spectacle of the year on top of carefully orchestrated mayoress achievements and making the bicycle all the rage. The poor chauffeurs would be out of work if they weren't needed to run behind the peddling ladies, a dead pet bird sat on is reused as the feather in one's cap – literally – and a true opera diva and a real drunken duchess deliciously put our tiny village big fishes in their place. Although these ten episodes are a little long at fifty minutes, the ongoing comeuppance arcs are staggered over the time and thus easy to marathon– half of one tale leads into the next episode rather than the expected, typical one plot sitcom. Those of a certain age can certainly enjoy the dulcet period piece snobbery and the snappy, pip pip cheerio camp rhythms here.
For the Kids Perhaps
Tutankhamun – Lord Carnarvon Sam Neill (The Tudors) hires Max Irons' (yes, Jeremy's son) Egyptologist Howard Carter to dig for undiscovered tombs in this 2016 miniseries from ITV opening with turn of the century desert rocks and orange haze in the Valley of the Kings. When one has enough money, you can buy the past regardless of proper papers and techniques, and the sophisticated parasols, entitled rich, upscale parties, and vintage cars contrast the tents, lanterns, dust, and pottery. Despite the atmospheric spectacles, books, maps, sketches, and parchments; the story restarts several times with introductions, historical figures, and obvious scene setting CGI. Fortunately, there's an enthusiasm over the possibility of unplundered tombs – innocent questions on seemingly deliberately desecrated relics and Amarna and Luxor references to the heretic Akhenaten and his obscure pharaoh son Tutankhamun. Archaeologists put the puzzle together without over-explaining or trite monologues, but the deductions and withered ruins must wait as The Great War interferes – leading to local resentment, plundered digs, and years of no luck in the Valley. Withdrawn funding and arguments about searching on a whim, however, finally lead to uncovered steps, tunnels, sealed walls, and hieroglyphics. By 1922 the golden splendor, jewels, and “wonderful things” in the antechamber begat flashbulbs, new tools, and dark rooms in nearby tombs as stunning artifacts are photographed and cataloged. Crowds full of a new post-war hope arrive amid gunfire, mobs, and exclusive newspaper backlashes with stories of theft and ancient curses. Our archaeologists fight humidity and fresh air with wax preservation but technicalities arise between these British finders and the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Local authorities wanting to keep their royal artifacts at home are unfortunately made the villain against the young and lovelorn Carter – who was really a crusty middle aged man more concerned with what his find meant to the world. Further unnecessary liberties are taken with love triangles and grossly inaccurate fluff padding the series alongside juvenile acting and supporting ethnic characters' deaths used for white man angst. Contrived rifts and blood poisoning drama become uneven in the final hour compared to the wondrous opening of the titular burial chamber. It's the moment we've all been waiting for but early film reels and one telling another about the nested sarcophagi cheat on the historical achievements. Thanks to all the superfluous flirtations and overly romanticized aspects, important deaths and the famous golden mask reveal are glossed over in favor of sappy breakups, laughable portrayals, and annoying man tears. What should have been a two hour event film becomes an overlong yarn frustrating to any academic Egyptology obsessed audience. However, the inaccuracies here also lead one to read up on all the facts, and this may have some merit for youthful viewers new to archaeology looking for a fun adventure.
I Wanted to Like It but...
Death Defying Acts – Bubbles, boats, chains, and crowds at the docks counting down to the spectacle open this 2007 Houdini drama directed by Gillian Armstrong (Little Women) and starring Guy Pearce (Brimstone), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago), Timothy Spall (Harry Potter), and Saoirse Ronan (Byzantium). Unfortunately, the CGI and special effects are terribly cheap and noticeable, as are the poor accents. An unnecessary, flowery narration telling viewers nothing intrudes on visuals that need no explanation with spoon fed confusion, and the entire disjointed opening with our sassy gals picking pockets and living by their wits could have been left on the cutting room floor. Colorful on stage cons and exotic mediums better set the scene alongside period fashions, vintage streets, suave cars, and theatre marquees – mother and daughter seeing the Houdini mania newsreel at the cinema is all the connection needed. Instead, we have a little girl telling us about Houdini's inner dark side when viewers could be watching on mute and see his pesky manager or our psychic lady studying the newspapers for clues on the illusionist. The adults debate the fakery, hocus pocus, and mumbo jumbo, questioning whether showbiz needs proof or science, and the mature conversations prove this juvenile anchor is an absolutely unnecessary character altogether. Let us see the hotel maid stunts, handcuff tricks, and upside down tanks for ourselves as the onscreen audience holds its collective breath. Visions of dead mothers, $10,000 offers for psychics who can contact the great beyond, and pushing the titular limits are story enough alongside a bemusing montage of those tap dancing for that reward – literally. Edwardian sophistication sets off the experiments on the existence of the afterlife, pop powder cameras, and letters locked in a safe so a psychic can reveal the contents. Champagne dinners, playing hard to get, steamy dream sequences, and romantic evening races lead to ruined abbeys, gargoyles, and roof top stunts. However, the time wasting, childish storyline continues to sag, sputtering the already obvious and hamfisted by keeping the smoke and mirrors at arms length with superficial trite and no emotional depth. Third wheel intrusions replace the audience's fly on the wall view and we never get to be in on the daredevil charm. Though watchable for fans of the cast, the stars here deserved a better script, less liberties taken, and the gosh darn proper point of view. This picture is told from the entirely wrong perspective!