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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Director Report Card: Wes Anderson (2014)

8. The Grand Budapest Hotel

As a director, Wes Anderson has never backed away from ambitious stories. His second film, “Rushmore,” was a simple story of a love triangle between a student, an old man, and one of his teachers. Within that story, he inserted a reenactment of the Vietnam war. “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” was primarily a comedy about a ragtag team of ocean life documentarians heading out on a mission of revenge, led by their ramshackle boss. In the middle of the story, that film exploded into a crazy action parody before inserting a moment of genuine loss and sadness. My point is, even when ostensibly telling simple stories, Anderson is known to make incredibly ambitious films. So, when I say “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is his most ambitious film yet, believe it to be true.

The primary plot of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” takes place in 1932 at the titular hotel, located in the fictional northern European Republic of Zubrowka. Though long gone now, and dilapidated in the mid-seventies, the hotel was the crown jewel of the alpines in the thirties. The hotel’s concierge, Gustave H., maintains the strictest level of quality, while caring greatly for the building, its staff, and its residents. In particular, Gustave has a bit of a fetish for rich, old ladies. When one of those ladies dies suddenly, Gustave is suddenly thrust into an international plot. See, that old lady left the concierge a priceless painting in her possession. The woman’s children, especially her devious son, are enraged that Gustave is entitled to any of their mom’s fortune. Spiting them, Gustave steals the painting and runs off. Now, Gustave is pursued by the family, the son’s seedy hitman henchman, and the military police who suspect him of murdering the old woman. All of this and more is seen through the eyes of Zero Moustafa, Gustave’s faithful lobby boy and constant companion.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is not as straight-forward a story as that plot synopsis suggests. Aside from its numerous narrative details, the film is told within several framing devices. The story begins in the present day, with a young girl sitting in a park. She picks up a book by a beloved author – so beloved that a statue has been built in his memory – and begins to read. The film leaps back to 1985, where the author dictates his latest book from a desk into a camera, a young child distracting him a few times. As he speaks, the film moves further back to 1968, when the author was a young man, staying at the Grand Budapest Hotel during its waning days. There, he meets Zero Moustafa as an old man. Curious about the odd man, the two sit down to talk. Over lunch, Zero tells the young writer his story. Finally then, the meat of the film’s story begins. This narrative nesting doll of a plot serves one important purpose. It shows how stories are passed on from generation to generation, and through them, people’s legacies. It cements “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as a story about stories and how they propagate through history.

Wes Anderson’s films are usually slower paced affairs, full of small character moments and tiny bits of hilarious dialogue. This isn’t a complaint. I love his movies for that. “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” however, moves. It’s a speedy film that rarely slows down, moving from one wacky plot development to the next. Anderson has always fancied himself a visual novelist. “The Grand Budapest Hotel’s” structure blatantly recalls a novel and even has chapter stops. The film has a novel’s worth of story to cram in. In order to get to everything that happens, it has to move fast. The story is in constant motion, always moving ahead. There’s plenty of fast-paced action too, making things progress at an even quicker clip.

The pacing isn’t the only thing about the film that moves fast. The film is, as you’d expect, full of Anderson’s whip-smart dialogue. The characters trade barbs and statements, their thoughts sometimes coming out in quickly spoke bursts. Moreover, Anderson’s camera is constantly moving. It gracefully slides through locations, transferring from one scene to another. The long hallways of the hotel are shown in detail, as the camera moves through them. We see the cast move up a spiral case, the viewer following them. My favorite shot in the movie has the camera moving through a set of doors, which appear to be models. This lends the movie a sense of motion to accompany its speedy screenplay. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is easily the director’s most exciting looking film, packed full of action and a dynamic sense of movement.

Anderson’s previous films are best described as "dramedies," mixing a lot of madcap hilarity with some very real human emotion. “The Life Aquatic” dropped some unexpected action sequence into a similarly themed movie. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is an even wilder experiment in genre. What starts life as a quirky comedy evolves into an equally quirky action film of sorts. There’s an exciting chase down a mountain slope, the heroes on a sled pursued by a man on a motorcycle. The camera rushes along, frequently in a first person perspective, really giving the audience a sense of speed. This moment is proceeded by a funny but exciting chase through a mountaintop chapel, which takes increasingly convoluted twists. An earlier moment, during the film’s brief detour into a prison, has a character slashing through five guards with shiv, a moment of violence you’d never expect to see in a Wes Anderson film. (Expectantly, the film defuses the violence with a typical dose of Anderson humor.) The film, in general, features way more murder then you’d expect. The villain of the story is creepy hitman, played with relish by Willem Dafoe. He picks off characters throughout the film, littering dead bodies in his wake. One extended sequence has the killer hunting a target through a museum. Without ever loosing the film’s sense of humor, this scene gives you a good idea of what a Wes Anderson horror movie might look like. Heck, it even ends with some dismemberment!

The director at first wanted Johnny Depp for the central part of Gustav. Instead, he wound up with Ralph Fiennes. I feel like he traded up. Usually cast as villains or stodgy men of order, the part allows Fiennes to show his skills as a comic actor. Gustav is a fop and a dandy. When the villain accuses him of being bisexual, he can’t deny it, allowing him to play his duel role of a stylish prancer and a ladies’ man. He is a man who holds no shame in seducing old ladies, because he genuinely enjoys it. He loves to please people, making him an ideal concierge. Amusingly, even while in princess, he delights in making others happy, serving salted gruel cell-door-to-cell-door to his follow in-mates with a smile. When Gustav blows his cool, which happens more often then you’d think, it’s inspired, his perfectly presented exterior tearing away. Fiennes is fantastic in the part.

There’s an important emotional bond at the center of “The Grand Budapest Hotel:” The platonic love between a concierge and his lobby boy. Newcomer Tony Revolori plays Zero as a young boy and is the co-lead of the film. Revolori has no problem with Anderson’s circular dialogue. He keeps up with the film’s manic sense of humor. He has an immediate rapport with Fiennes which, arguably, carries the entire film. While they are mostly buddies forged in the middle of a crazy adventure, the film pauses for one poignant moment between the two. After helping him escape prison, Gustav chastises Zero for forgetting disguises, a getaway vehicle, a safe house, and most everything else they need. After criticizing his up-bringing, Zero delivers a steely, soft monologue about how his parents where tortured and killed during the First World War and he is a refugee, proving that this young man has already seen a life time’s worth of tragedy. How this moment plays out is similarly touching, the two coming to a mutual understanding that informs the rest of their relationship. The pause is brief, as the movie is back to its wacky adventure soon afterwards. Yet without it, the movie would lacks its all-important heart.

That same heart is most evident in one of the film’s many delightful detours. The main story checks out for a number of loosely related sequences, such as Dafoe’s creepy henchman tracking down a minor character’s sister, a funny montage showing the similar bond other concierges have with their lobby boys, a brief peek at the Nazi government taking control of the area, or a prison break in a movie otherwise unrelated to prison breaks. However, my favorite is the love story between Zero and Agatha, the talented young baker that works in the hotel and proves invaluable to the story repeatedly. Agatha has a distinctive birth mark across her face but, considering she’s played by the ever graceful and gorgeous Saoirse Ronan, the audience hardly takes notice of it. She creates such charming baked goods that a prison guard can’t bring himself to cut them up, even when they obviously hide tools perfect for a jail break. There’s very little time to develop the romance between Zero and Agatha. The scene that properly introduces her is when she says yes to his marriage proposal. The film pulls it off, however, specifically with a moment when the two ride on a carousel together. The camera focuses on Agatha’s face, and Ronan’s mesmerizing eyes, the background swirling around her head. We are seeing Agatha the way Zero sees her. The audience falls in love with the girl too. Their interaction is tinged with a meloncholey though, as the narrator obliquely refers to something happening to the girl. This deepens the relationship even more, making the brief time they have together count for something.

The supporting cast is full of prime players as well. F. Murray Abraham plays Zero as an old man. Abraham’s narration is full of soul and wit. When Agatha’s fate comes up, the story snaps back to the then-present, a tear running down his face. Adrien Brody is hilarious as the film’s de-facto villain, the profane Dmitri. Brody’s rarely used comedic precision is well used in the part, especially during the shoot-out filled finale. Dafoe shows a subtle humor as the creepy killer, adorning a look of surprise or a crack of a knuckle with various comedic gestures. Edward Norton plays a role similar to his part in “Moonrise Kingdom.” Unlike that film, his tightly-wound character is never allowed to break loose, giving his military man a sense of melancholy and funny frustration. Harvey Keitel provides plenty of quiet humor to his tough-guy prison inmate. Tilda Swinton’s role is brief. As the old woman whose death motivates the plot, she is buried under mounds of make-up and latex. Swinton’s own swirling eyes make her stand-out. Anderson sneaks in cameos and bit parts from his regular players, such as Jason Schwartzman as an incompetent hotel worker, Owen Wilson as Gustav’s put-upon replacement, Jeff Goldblum as the jittery lawyer, and Billy Murray and Bob Balaban as quiet, relaxed members of the secret society of hotel concierges.

Like every Wes Anderson production, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is immaculately designed. The movie is full of the filmmaker’s trademark symmetry. Everything, from the cramped room where the employees eat, to the crowded hallways of the Budapest, are evenly spaced out from each outer, lining up perfectly. The titular hotel is a masterwork of production design. From the way the walls are painted to the interiors of the room, each contribute to the film’s world, mood, and story. Every setting, from Madame D.’s estate, to the prison, to the mountaintop monastery, are similarly detailed to absurd levels. It almost goes without saying that Anderson has made another film that is impeccably built and glorious to look at. Every frame is like its own art project.

Another interesting thing Anderson has repeatedly done is call attention to his movies’ own fakeness. In “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the director takes this trademark to new heights. The hotel itself is always shown in exteriors as a flat model. The railcards that carry people up and down the mountain slide along like props in a pop-up book. During the snowy mountaintop chase scene, the characters repeatedly turn into obviously fake models flying around miniature sets. Yet this is more then just stylistic excess. A few times throughout the film, the camera will iris in on a character, surrounding their face with a dark circle. This technique is meant to invoke the style of the cinema of the film’s period setting. In this light, the use of obviously artificial models adds another layer of ingenuousness to “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” And think about this as well. The modern day framing device is shot in a very crisp manner. The television sequences from the eighties are dark and washed-out, like a cheaply produced eighties television program. The seventies set framing device is danker and grittier, as in the cinema of the day. Finally, the bulk of the film is shot in a colorful, nearly Technicolor manner. These varying styles is another building block in the film’s central thesis, about how stories are told and how they change.

Those with little tolerance for the quirkiness of Wes Anderson’s previous films probably won’t enjoy “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Those of us who do love his films will find an adventurous, funny, and beautifully acted comedy that pushes the director’s style into areas previously unseen. It’s not the funniest, most touching, or high concept of his films. However, it is is easily his most exciting, a crowd-pleaser of the most unlikely type. Anderson holds fast to his trademarks and favorite elements but continues to evolve in fascinating new directions. [Grade: A]

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