Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Review

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel is a delightful adventure comedy/drama that encompasses all the intricacies and indulgences of (its writer, director, and producer) Wes Anderson’s style and puts them to their best use, creating a film that feels utterly joyous to behold. The film is about Zero Moustafa, the owner of The Grand Budapest Hotel and former Lobby Boy for the very same hotel. Now retired, Zero recounts his adventures with the hotel’s extraordinary concierge M. Gustave to an inquiring writer who is staying at the now rundown hotel. Their adventures took place during the early 1930s as Europe was about to be once again engulfed in war.

The narrative structure of the film is multilayered (reminding me of The Hours a bit – for those who have not seen the film, it takes place in three different time periods, all centered around Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway; the first sees Woolf struggling to write the novel in the 1920s, the second features a melancholic suburban wife reading the novel in the 1950s, and the third revolves around a woman who very much encompasses the character and story of Mrs. Dalloway set in the present). The prologue and epilogue that bookend the film feature a young woman in present day paying her respects to the statue of a famous author, carrying a book entitled The Grand Budapest Hotel. The next layer sees the author in the 1980s making a recording of how he came upon the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel, leading to the next layer in which the author, now much younger, is having a conversation with Zero. The final layer sees Zero as a young man working as a Lobby Boy in the hotel. There are also two narrators, as there are essentially two perspectives: the first being the author’s and the second Zero’s. This all sounds complicated and very easily could have ended up a confusing mess, the narrative jumping around in time; yet, writer-director Wes Anderson skillfully manages the narrative and his use of two distinct narrators enables the audience to follow the story with ease.

The differences in time period are also expressed in a cool artistic/aesthetic manner. The aspect ratio changes depending on the time period, which does create some pretty striking cuts between time periods. That said, the change in aspect ratio is probably something that is only “cool” to students of film (I am curious if average moviegoers even notice the change). Anderson also uses special effects (miniature models, rear projection, and other older techniques) to give the film a feel similar to films from the 1930s. All in all, the whole thing looks and feels a bit like it takes place in an elaborate children’s book, but with a sharp edginess, startling violence, and cursing.

Like Anderson’s other films, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a treat of brilliant and colorful aesthetics. Anderson has created a quirky romantically nostalgic world – a world that maybe only ever existed in the imagination/memory of those classic films from the 1930s. While Anderson does borrow from others (the film has elements from Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo/Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, and Yasujiro Ozu, among others), he makes it all his own. The film has a unifying style that is very evident and specific.

Often in the past, critics of Anderson’s work have called his specific style alienating, as if he were merely creating pretty lifeless dioramas. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s style is again in full swing, but the film seems to have a broader appeal than his past works. Is this due to the momentum building off the breakout success of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom (which both also saw general moviegoers take a bigger interest)? Is it the film’s fantastical world that just glistens with Golden Age nostalgia (something that worked well in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris)? Or, is it the film’s overall jovial feel, mixed with elements of adventure, mystery, and romance/friendship? Probably all three. The film, too, resembles Anderson’s own work, particularly The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited (other examples of Wes Anderson style adventure films); yet, those two were not nearly as well received (however, I do love them both and count them among my favorite films). The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, feels a bit more accessible than those two.

In many ways, The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like a grand film: almost like a tall tale of larger than life characters leading extraordinary lives (other modern examples would be The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Life of Pi). Anderson does a fabulous job mixing biting humor and absurdist humor with a tone that is light and creates a fun experience for the audience, but also has an undercurrent of sadness to it. Much in the way we look back at fond memories. They were happy times, but they have come and gone and we can never go back.

The set of eccentric characters that is featured in the film is also a lot of fun. M. Gustave is just electrically dynamic. It is hard not to be pulled in by his charisma. Meanwhile, Zero makes for a great straight man and in for the audience. Although the characters are all a bit off, Anderson still makes them relatable, because the themes of the film and the desires of the characters are all very much relatable. The audience is dazzled by the aesthetics, charmed by the humor, but left satisfied by the development of the central characters and their relationships with each other.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is wonderfully compelling not just because of its visuals, tone, characters, or ambitious narrative but because Wes Anderson weaves all these elements together, creating what feels like a magical world; yet, one filled with relatable characters (even though they are all a bit fantastical) and emotions. It is probably not too early to call it a strong contender (if not lock) to be among 2014’s ten best films (it is that good).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Wes Anderson has now made eight feature films; each film seemingly becoming more and more steeped in Anderson’s all-consuming style (a style that is part French New Wave and part Ozu with a few other things thrown in too). It is a style that I really enjoy because it is clear that Anderson cares about and is very much in tune with every aspect of his narrative, actor performances, visuals, and accompanying music. Every detail is specifically designed. This is a trait of only the truly great filmmakers, whom I consider Anderson among. I also love Anderson’s sense of humor, a dry crisply edgy wit. Upon one viewing it is difficult to name The Grand Budapest Hotel as his best film as a few have (for me, at present, it probably stands number four); however, it is so rich and spectacular that I can see it only blossoming with even more radiance with each additional viewing (there is also apparently a George Clooney cameo I missed – though this is unconfirmed).

Wes Anderson is known for his aesthetic, but he is a very collaborative filmmaker. He often works with the same people over and over (both actors and other technical crew members). Composer Alexandre Desplat scores the film – his third collaboration with Anderson – turning in his best score with Anderson to date. It is a wonderful mix of infectiously festive/lighthearted pieces, rousing adventurous pieces, and somber dramatic pieces, all with a very Prussian feel (while also seemingly somewhat building off his score for Moonrise Kingdom). His score sets the tone for the film very well and perfectly accompanies the visuals – and it needed to more than past Anderson films, as this film only sparingly uses found music (and they are all classical pieces). Robert D. Yeoman returns as Anderson director of photography, their seventh collaboration. As always, the look of the film is perfect – from the lighting to the framing and camera moves. Here, however, Yeoman has to create a film that feels both classic and modern in its visual approach, and he pulls it off splendidly. Production designer Adam Stockhausen, working with Anderson for the third time (second as production designer), does his best work to date with the filmmaker as well. Some of the credit does go to the beautiful locations that the film takes advantage of, but for the most part it is Stockhausen, working with Anderson and his art department, who creates the magnificent sets and mise en scene. The film is a visual splendor.

The film is also stuffed with fun performances from a stellar cast (most appearing in brief roles). The highlights among the small roles include: Tilda Swinton who is quite remarkable as the elderly Madame D. (can you be nominated for an Oscar for less than five minutes of screen time?), Edward Norton who is funny and endearing as Henckels, Tom Wilkinson who is just right as the older version of the author, Jude Law who is great as the young version of the author, Mathieu Amalric who is sniveling as Madame D.’s head servant Serge X., Adrien Brody who is wonderfully snide as Madame D.’s awful son Dmitri, Willem Dafoe who is the embodiment of a classic henchman as Jopling, F. Murray Abraham who is touching and mannered as the older version of Zero, and of course Bill Murray who is a lot of fun as the concierge of another grand hotel. Saoirse Ronan plays Agatha, a local cake baker and candy maker, who gets wrapped up in the adventures of Zero and M. Gustave after she falls in love with Zero. Ronan plays Agatha to be a little more pragmatic than the other characters in the film, not as quick to just jump in; but, she is very brave and very lovely. Ronan’s strong performance is a crucial element in fully pulling the audience into the narrative on an emotional level. Tony Revolori gives what could be a breakthrough performance as the younger version of Zero, and arguably the film’s main character (though he is not as flashy as M. Gustave). Revolori acts almost as a wall, allowing the other characters (primarily M. Gustave) to bounce off him. He grounds the film and gives the audience a way into the world. It is very good work.  And then there is Ralph Fiennes who is completely and wonderfully brilliant as M. Gustave, giving one of his best performances to date (up there with his characters Amon Goeth, Charles Van Doren, Count Laszlo de Almasy, and Lord Voldemort). M. Gustave is played to be exceedingly charming, always pulling all focus towards himself. He is the biggest and loudest presence in a position in which most might consider small and quiet. It is certainly to be among this year’s best performances.

Summary & score: The Grand Budapest Hotel encompasses everything fans of Wes Anderson love about his films, while incorporating just enough nostalgia, humor, and positive buzz to attract the masses as well. This very well could be Anderson’s biggest critical and commercial hit to date. 9/10

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