fbook icon 60Film Review: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

Yes, I know the next Academy Awards are still almost a year away, but I’m making a prediction right now - that Wes Anderson’s film will win Best Picture.

In brief, it’s the story of a hotel concierge who is accused of murdering an elderly female guest, one of his many paramours. The setting is an alpine region* somewhere to the east of Germany, and most of the action takes place in 1932, although there are segments set in 1968 and 1985 featuring characters from the thirties and serving as 'bookends' to the story.

As a film, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is full of contradictions. It's highly stylised and decorative, full of farcical elements, yet there are also serious political undercurrents. It makes gentle fun of cinematic storytelling traditions: the voiceover narration, the story within a story, the chase scene, the prison break, the buddy movie, but it also takes these to new levels. And although there are echoes of 1930s classics such as ‘Grand Hotel’** and even the romantic comedies of Ernst Lubitsch***, this film is far more than an homage.

The cast is superb. There are some brief but memorable cameos from Tilda Swinton as Madame D; Adrian Brody as the rapacious son, Dmitri; Willem Dafoe as a suitably creepy villain; Owen Wilson as the delightfully named Monsieur Chuck. But the standout performances come from the two leads: newcomer Tony Revolori as the wide-eyed lobby boy, Zero Mustafa, and Ralph Fiennes as the vain and supremely confident concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. Just when we’ve decided he’s a rather obnoxious character preying on ‘women of a certain age’, we catch a glimpse of him eating dinner alone in his spartan room, clad only in his underwear. Is he equally as vulnerable as the women he sleeps with? As the story progresses, we begin to see other aspects of Gustave H which make us question our early assumptions about him. 

The film is a visual feast. As a Libran, I just can’t resist the symmetry of the set-ups. As an artist, I’m drawn to the sumptuous Art Nouveau/Art Dec interiors. Like Luchino Visconti in ‘The Damned’, Wes Anderson has an impeccable eye for detail. Every set is perfectly decorated, from the painted wall panels to the bric-à-brac. One scene in particular stands out for me – the reading of the will. The ghoulish family has assembled in front of the dour Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), executor of the estate. He stands behind a desk trimmed with antler-horn legs. Beside him is a rampant stuffed bear and in the background there’s a folk-art style painting of a pig. Everything mirrors the greed of the family.

The voiceover narration is brimming with in-jokes, sub-text and double-entendres. Writers suffer from ‘scribe’s fever’; the annexation of Zubrowka is compared to an epidemic of ‘Prussian grippe’. There is amusing signage everywhere. In fact, during the prison break sequences, the signs literally point the way to freedom. So much is going on visually and verbally that you’d have to see the film many times to take it all in.

But this isn’t just a clever and entertaining confection; it’s also a sad political allegory about the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe.

If you loved Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘A Very Long Engagement’, I feel confident that you’ll enjoy this. Wes Anderson is an American with a European sensibility and a deep appreciation of the traditions of 1930s cinema.

In a nutshell, this a a delightful, quirky and poignant film. I rarely use the term ‘masterpiece’ but I suspect that ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ will go down in cinematic history as one of the greats.


* Writer/director Anderson is playfully vague about the location – at times the film seems to be set in Sudetenland (the part of Czechoslovakia which was annexed and occupied by the Nazis in 1938). But ‘Budapest’ would of course place it in Hungary!

** Filmed in 1932, (the year in which Wesley Anderson sets his film) ‘Grand Hotel’ was based on the 1929 German novel by Vicky Baum, ‘Menschen im Hotel’ (People in the Hotel).

*** Often set in a mythical olde-worlde Vienna.


Deborah O’Brien

May 20, 2014


fbook icon 60Launching ‘A Place of Her Own’

APOHO coffee 420 

Completing the final draft of a manuscript is only the start of the publication process. It’s followed by months of revising, tweaking, polishing, editing and checking. After a final proofing, the book goes off to the printer. A month or two later, there's a courier at the author’s front door, delivering a box of advance copies. You tear open the box and smile with pride at the finished book. You run your fingers over the embossed lettering on the cover, only to realise that your name is bigger than the title! And you wonder if it shouldn’t be the other way around. With considerable trepidation you begin reading the text. On reaching the end you sigh with relief that you haven’t found a typo . . . or shudder at a mistake you missed and pray nobody will notice.

A couple of weeks pass and suddenly it’s launch day. You emerge from your writing cave, blinking into the bright sunlight, and head off to meet the people who make books come alive – the readers. Without a reader, a book is just a collection of printed pages bound together inside a cover, or a digital file hovering in cyberspace.  It is the reader who brings his or her own experiences and emotional agenda to the author’s story and adds dimensions that weren’t there in the first place.

Lunchtime, Thursday, May 1 and I’m at Hurstville City Library where I feel honoured that sixty people have gathered to listen to my launch talk.

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Naturally enough, I speak about ‘A Place of Her Own’ but I also outline my own journey towards becoming a novelist, with all its twists and turns. Afterwards members of the audience ask insightful questions about the writing process and I have to confess that I’m the kind of wayward author who doesn’t plan her work beyond an initial premise and some guideposts.

Launch audience 420I also discover that there are several enthusiastic members of the ‘Richard Scott fan club’ in the audience. Since I’ve always considered Richard the unlikeliest heart-throb of all time, I’m rather puzzled by this phenomenon.

The lovely library staff, including Sue, the ‘Adult Collections’ librarian (no, it’s not as racy as it sounds – it simply means books for adults as opposed to children) have organised everything meticulously, including a delicious array of nibbles and glasses of champers.

The next day I’m on my way to the country for Saturday’s book signing at the delightful Miss Ruby’s Bookshop in Braidwood.

Miss Rubys 420

Housed in a row of Victorian-era shops with cast-iron lace verandahs, Miss Ruby’s exemplifies everything I love about small local bookshops – a cosy interior with comfortable armchairs, a mix of new and recycled books, and friendly owners who will do their best to track down obscure books for you. To complete the picture, there’s a rescue cat called Millie.

Saturday, May 3 also happes to be Braidwood’s heritage festival, celebrating 175 years since the town was founded. The Governor herself is in town for the occasion. She seems to be enjoying herself immensely. And no wonder – it’s a fabulous day with heaps of things to do – watching the street parade, visiting the Heritage Art Prize exhibition, buying bric-a-brac at the heritage markets, watching maypole dancing in the park and enjoying the random acts of art and music staged along the main street.

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Deborah O’Brien

May 6. 2014


fbook icon 60Free Bookmarks to Download

Designed by Deborah O'Brien 

Three bookmarks 600

As a reader, you can never ever have enough bookmarks, especially if you’re the kind of person who has several books on the go at the one time.

So I’ve designed a range of bookmarks for you to download and print. Some of them feature my new book, ‘A Place of Her Own’ (coming May 1), but there are also ‘generic’ designs with my favourite quotes about books and reading. There’s even one for the blokes.

Keep the bookmarks for yourself or feel free to give them to family and friends or share them with your book club. But please note that the designs are not to be sold or used for commercial purposes.

There are three bookmarks on each A4 pdf page.

Just click on the link beneath each set of three.

OBrien Bookmarks 1 Bookmark set 1 (PDF) 

OBrien Bookmarks 2 Bookmark set 2 (PDF)

OBrien Bookmarks 3  Bookmark set 3 (PDF)


As a former DIY author and teacher, I just can’t help myself when it comes to giving make-it tips! So here are a few ideas for making the bookmarks. 

THE EASY OPTION

You can print them on ordinary 80 g/m² white photocopy paper and cut them out, but because the paper is relatively lightweight they may tend to curl. Then again. if they get tatty, you can always print some more!

THE STURDIER OPTIONS

1. Use heavier paper. I like HP 200g/m² Colour Laser Paper in white.

Always check that the paper you choose is suitable for your particular printer.

OR:

 2. Cut out the bookmark and glue it to cardboard. This is what I did with the examples in the photo.

I used black cardboard and left a cardboard border all the way around. If you want to make the bookmark special, you could rule a line-border with a gold pen.

If there are white edges showing around your bookmark, wait until the glue is thoroughly dry and use a coloured pencil to camouflage them.

 

This is a project which would be perfect to do with the kids in the school holidays. It’s suitable for older children (late primary and high school) and really encourages a love of books. They might even be inspired to design bookmarks of their own!

I do hope you enjoy your bookmarks as much as I enjoyed designing them for you.

fbook icon 60  If so, please let me know by liking my Facebook page or sending a note via the Contact page of this website. 

Deborah

March 25, 2014


 

 

fbook icon 60Film Review: 'The Monuments Men'

 

Ghent Altarpiece: Hubert and Jan Van Eyck; Source: Wikipedia Commons


I’m not sure what I expected from ‘The Monuments Men’ but when I heard it was based on a real story about the team commissioned to save European artworks from the Nazis, I was hoping for something like the wonderful 1960s movie, ‘The Train’ featuring Burt Lancaster and Paul Schofield. Well, this isn’t ‘The Train’. In fact, at times it’s more like ‘Oceans Eleven’ - or in this case, ‘Oceans Seven’ - meets World War II.

But despite its flaws, I enjoyed 'The Monuments Men.’ It’s an entertaining movie which also delivers a history lesson, albeit Hollywood-style. There’s an interesting cast led by George Clooney (also the director), who, to my eyes at least, bears an uncanny resemblance to 1940s heart-throb Robert Taylor but is thankfully a far better actor. John Goodman literally grounds the film with his tree-trunk physique and hang-dog face which can speak a thousand words without uttering a single one. The ubiquitous Cate Blanchett (when does she sleep?) does a fine job as the art curator at the Jeu de Paume, desperate to keep the collection safe and battling Goering’s underling, Viktor Stahl. Of all the characters in the film, I found him the most interesting.

As an artist, I like any movie which has art at its heart, and this one features the Ghent altarpiece which happens to one of the most beautiful works of art ever created. But it’s not just a story about saving one particular work. We’re shown how the Nazis went about stealing art, both private and public, on a massive scale. Unfortunately, in attempting to cover this entire story in two hours, ‘The Monuments Men’ sometimes loses its focus and veers towards the superficial.

On the historical front, I don’t mind a bit of artistic licence in telling a true story as long as the framework is essentially accurate. This film certainly has an authentic 1940s feel about it and the cinematography is glorious. However there are problems with the dialogue. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know I have a ‘thing’ about linguistic anachronisms – a paranoia about committing them and a penchant for finding them. It really annoys me that in a film with a multi-million-dollar budget, they couldn’t employ someone to check that the language was right. At one point George Clooney says that his team was ‘tasked’ to undertake the mission. Nobody used ‘task’ as a verb back then. And during a conversation with Hugh Bonneville's character, a Brit who has a sorry record with women and booze, Clooney says that everyone is ‘screwed up at some level’. Surely this is sixties psycho-babble, not 1940s conversation.

For me, one of the most moving moments in the film is Matt Damon’s attempt to return a family portrait to the home of a Jewish family from whom it was stolen. Another poignant scene is the cameo appearance by George Clooney’s real-life father. I don’t want to give too much away here so I’ll just say that you should watch the credits and everything will make sense. I also liked the black-and-white photographs of the actual Monuments Men which are shown at the end.

In summary, if you want the serious story about the MFAA*, get hold of the book that inspired the film, Robert M. Edsel’s ‘The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History’. But don’t dismiss this film – it’s entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking. I just wish it hadn’t tried to do so much.

*Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives programme

Deborah O’Brien

March 23, 2014


 


fbook icon 60Film Review: ‘Twelve Years A Slave’ 

Engraving from Solomon Northrup's 'Twelve Years a Slave' (1853). Source: Wikipedia


Back in the mid-1970s I was mesmerised by the miniseries ‘Roots’, based on Alex Haley’s novel about his African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, a young man who was captured by slave traders and transported to 18th century America. It was ground-breaking television, particularly for someone like me who knew nothing about slavery in the American South except for the 'Gone with the Wind' version. Forty years later, having just seen Steve McQueen’s ‘Twelve Years a Slave’,  I realise that for all its considerable strengths, the 'Roots' miniseries was essentially a sanitised version of what happened.

Based on Solomon Northup’s memoir published in 1853, McQueen’s film is confronting in its realism. It begins in 1841 when Northup is a free man with a wife and two children, living a comfortable life in New York State. After being drugged and kidnapped, he finds himself enslaved on a Southern plantation where he witnesses and experiences unspeakable cruelty.

What makes the film particularly moving is the character of Solomon Northup himself, a man who never loses his humanity, even during the most dire moments of violence and pain. The brilliant British actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor brings dignity and intelligence to his portrayal of Northup/Platt. (Platt is the name given to him by his kidnappers.)

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as the plantation owner who shows sympathy towards Platt but refuses to listen to his claims that he is a free man and instead sells him to the demonic Mr Epps, played by Michael Fassbender. Epps justifies his claims to ownership of his workers by quoting and paraphrasing Bible texts. The verse he doesn’t quote, however, is Galatians 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

As Patsey, the young woman raped and abused by Mr Etts, Lupita Nyong’o imbues her role with nobility and spirit. Alfre Woodard (from ‘How to Make an American Quilt’) makes a brief cameo appearance as Mistress Shaw, a former slave and now the wife of a neighbouring plantation owner, and the versatile Paul Giamatti (last seen in ‘Saving Mr Banks’) is a vile slave trader with a veneer of gentility.

It seems ironic that a film, which depicts inhumanity and violence in such a realistic way, should look so beautiful, but it does, and that’s due to the painterly cinematography and the lush Louisiana landscapes. Think Spanish moss hanging eerily from cypress trees, dark brooding swamps, cane fields stretching into the distance, and antebellum mansions with imposing columns and broad verandahs.

When I came home from the cinema, I went straight to my computer and searched for Solomon Northup’s memoir. Sure enough, there it was – a facsimile version complete with engravings. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop. The good news is that the film is basically true to the book.

In summary: ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ is a powerful film. You’ll find parts of it difficult to watch but you’ll also find yourself so immersed in the story that it will linger long after you’ve left the cinema.

Expect this film to win a swag of Oscars at the 2014 Academy Awards including Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Deborah O’Brien

February 22, 2014