Skip to main content

You’re looking so well darling, you really are. I don't know what sort of cream they put on you down at the morgue but I want some.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
(2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a dizzying medley of all that is finest in Wes Anderson’s films. Which is to say, if you aren’t a fan already this is highly unlikely to convert you. Except, perhaps, by virtue of its pace. A madcap escalation of stories within stories, episodic incidents, arch dialogue, eccentric characters, and musical staging, all set against his familiar tableau compositions, Anderson’s latest film is an irresistible feast that serves its final course long before you’re in danger of feeling bloated. One might argue this isn’t a terribly deep film, its undercurrents shy of announcing themselves too forcefully, but then Anderson’s is surface detail of the highest order.


The director’s films are generally suffused with a melancholy at odds with the featherweight whimsy in which they revel. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception in this regard. But, there’s an additional factor at work here. Through fully embracing characters and scenarios that speak in bold and cartoonish broad strokes, Anderson has to taken a further step away from any semblance of naturalism, seemingly emboldened to present exactly the heightened milieu he favours by his (not wholly successful, depending on your love of the Roald Dahl source material) recent foray into animation, The Fantastic Mr Fox. His closest previous live action approximation to this kind of hermetically fashioned world is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but that picture beached through a listless lack of forward momentum. Hotel has pace and energy in abundance. Its ensemble sensibility, focused on a single character around whom the others revolve, recalls his best film The Royal Tenenbaums, and this is his best film since. It may not have the heart of that picture, but one would have to ignore Hotel’s distinctive and abundant merits to see that as a deficiency.


I won’t attempt to sound knowledgeable about Anderson’s inspiration, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (tie-in, repackaged highlights of his work have been published in the wake of film’s release). Anderson sets the bulk of Hotel in the 1930s, when Zweig was at the height of his popularity. He was the world’s most translated author, although he never caught on in Britain and has even received some particularly his share of scathing critiques (as, of course, some dissenters have accused Anderson of a pervading lack of substance); "each sentence incredibly pretentious, false and empty – the whole thing a complete void". The director has taken the film’s Russian doll structure from the author; a tale within a tale within a tale. A girl in the present day reads a memoir at the memorial of its author. Said author is then seen in 1985 in the form of Tom Wilkinson, who relates his encounter in 1968, in the form of Jude Law, with the Hotel’s owner Zero Moustafa (the splendid F Murray Abraham, finally getting some big screen roles lately deserving of his talents). In turn, Zero recounts how he came to inherit the Hotel (a dilapidated, undernourished establishment in the ‘60s). It is at this point events displace to 1932, where concierge M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes, enters the scene; a time when Zero (Tony Revolori) is a mere bellhop.


Anderson has little interest in realism or authenticity; mood and tone is everything. So M. Gustave is the epitome of English etiquette and manners, a more animated take on Jeeves whose veneer is periodically shattered when he reveals the existentially despairing and sometimes uncouth sentiments beneath (which are made all the more amusing for Fiennes’ mannered, fey delivery). Edward Norton appears as Henckels of the military police, nursing his native accent. And why not? The hotel is located in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka after all, a realm identified by architecture and machinery that look almost exactly like models (because that’s what they are). Anderson delights in  the artifice of his world; there are underlying themes concerning the rise of fascism, intruding on this just-so idyll (Zweig committed suicide in 1942, despairing at the fate that had befallen Europe), but they are never allowed to overpower Hotel’s studied frivolousness. I was going to express the sad resignation that it takes an American to write a lovely caricature of English starch and entitlement these days, probably due to pervading middle class embarrassment at the implications of espousing such airs and presumptions. But he co-wrote the script with British artist Hugo Guinness. Still, the general point remains. The truth is, much of the best British comedy is to be found in variants on rotters, cads, scoundrels and bounders, a celebration and evisceration of shallow aristocracy, from Terry-Thomas and Dennis Price to Peter Cook and the Python/Oxbridge set of the ‘60s and beyond. Now posh means Michael McIntyre. The hilarity of Fiennes’ Gustav is that his persona is now fresh and novel; his inflections and deportment are rarely seen outside of Heritage dramas these days.


Anyone who has glimpsed Anderson’s curious fashion sense and general demeanour will be quickly convinced the man reflects the idiosyncrasy of his films. Even if Gustav is based in part on Zweig, Anderson is putting something of himself into the character; a man whom M. Ivan (Bill Murray) reflects wasn’t even of his time in his time; he summons a bearing based on a idealised interpretation of his world and his place in it, and wont be swerved (mostly) by intrusive and gnarly realities. And Anderson has a lot of fun both venerating Gustav and depicting his peccadillos. He is outwardly unflappable, the picture of gentility. Yet he also takes pride in servicing the elderly residents of the Hotel (one of whose devotion, Madame D played by Tilda Swinton, in some very impressive old age prosthetics, sets in motion the chain of events in question). His slightly camp demeanour lends Gustav an indeterminate sexuality, remarked on disparagingly by Dmitri (Adrien Brody) the son of the ex-Madame D, requiring him to defend himself in prison, and provoking the jealousy of Zero when he flirts with his beloved Agatha (Sairose Ronan using, of course, her natural accent). His greeting of “darling” has the theatrical abandon of a luvvie, and this larger than life inscrutability is the perfect centre to Anderson’s outlandish story. Even when Gustav’s facade crumbles, despairing over the meaninglessness of life or losing it in a confessional booth, the pleasure comes from seeing that composure demolished while his cadences remain intact. Then there’s his love of poetry; his daily sermons to staff include daily recitals during which an uninterested congregation are not expected to pay attention. This simultaneous elegance and mockery encompasses Hotel, identifying the picture as a comedy of opposites. Anderson is much more willing than before to play with extremes, be it of manners and vulgarity or civility and violence.


If the man out of time quality lends the picture a tinge of sadness, the framing device serves to emphasises this. Times pass, entropy increases; we no longer fit in with the changing tomes and crumble or decay. Anderson captures this through showing the extremes of age, and the ungraspable nostalgia for a time that probably didn’t exist (Moonrise Kingdom is awash with this, and at times its depiction of young love carries a slightly uncomfortable vibe). But I disagree with those who suggest it’s a more persistent theme here; it’s merely more identifiable because Anderson has established broader tonal boundaries. I quite recall the same criticisms with each of his new films; that he’s stylistically distinct but essentially vacuous. Or the ones who say finally, this one shows he has some depth after all. And I can only conclude you either dig his style and personality or you don’t. It’s no use hoping he’ll “mature” or find a different voice. If you ask for that you’re looking for the wrong thing from the wrong filmmaker (not dissimilarly, those suggesting Tarantino has any depth, or that his films are about anything, are barking up the wrong tree).


Indeed, while Anderson has clearly honed his skills he admirably appears to have little interest in developing his technique; he knows what he likes in terms of framing and (lack of) camera movement. His choice to use three different aspect ratios, reflecting the different time frames, is noticeable but not distracting, which is how it should be really (no one I saw the film commented on this, if they even consciously noticed the changes). Anderson doesn’t attempt to imbue any great psychology into his choice, it’s purely aesthetic and instructive of the narrative form; I’ve seen the case made that the 1:37:1 of the main body of the film reflects the typical aspect ratio of films of that period (1930s) and accordingly 2:35:1 widescreen resembles the grand productions of the 1960s, while 1:85:1 for the 1985 and present scenes is indicative of the modern standard format. That may be the case, although Anderson doesn’t seem to have endorsed that view per se, but the latter two are surely somewhat arbitrary and interchangeable since each is as commonly used in either era. Anderson’s choices were based on a desire to shoot in the Academy ratio, for its compositional possibilities; additional interpretation seems like overlaying meaning to an extent. 


Notably, he has said he hadn’t realised how slow-paced the opening time frames are in comparison to the mayhem of the 1930s section but that it seemed completely appropriate in context – and it does. I think that’s illustrative. For all the fine crafting Anderson is no more inviting of elaborate readings of sustained subtexts, themes and compositional elements than, say, the Coen Brothers. Robert D. Yeoman, Anderson’s regular cinematographer lends the images a richness that recalls Jean Pierre Jeunet. Composer Alexandre Desplat clearly needs to be guided or inspired to do his best work. His score for the recent The Monuments Men is horrible, but this is great stuff, perfectly complementing his director’s pacing and tone (there are a number of singularly different songs and pieces from other musicians also, typically of the director).


Fiennes is the glue of the film; he informs its attitude and (obviously, it’s an Anderson film) quirkiness. Those around him are accordingly little more than amused caricatures and cameos. On the one hand, so many great performers have rarely been used to so little end (Murray barely registers, even though it’s always nice to see him). On the other, the constant parade of familiar faces is a delirious delight. Besides Murray, Monuments Men co-star Bob Balaban turns up for a scene (The Society of the Crossed Keys sequence, featuring a steady succession of concierges to come to the aid of one of their own, is a comic highlight and includes Fisher Stevens and Anderson semi-regular Waris Ahluwalia amongst its faces).  Of the Anderson regular-regulars, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman appear as concierges; there’s something very resonant of the latter’s general pose and air in Revolori’s Zero. The biggest problem with these actors is that you’re left wanting more. Léa Seydoux, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, Harvey Keitel (randomly presenting himself as at-very-least topless in his prison scenes). Anderson may have hit upon Adrien Brody’s most perfect physical depiction, his gangly frame exaggerated by a tailored greatcoat and a wild mess of sky bound hair. He’d look at home in Disney’s 101 Dalmations. It’s fun to see him acting the villain too, since he’s often called on to supply doleful sympathy. We don’t see nearly enough of Edward Norton, and Henckels is a little too close temperamentally to the scout master in Moonrise Kingdom; Anderson needs to give him the full Brody treatment next time out.


Aside from Fiennes, and his double act with the devoted Revolori (who, as the straight man, gets none of the credit but should be congratulated for his deceptively simple work), the two actors who make the biggest splash are also from the Anderson repertory company. Both also appeared in Life Aquatic. Perhaps it’s just because I always find them a pleasure to watch, but there just isn’t enough of them. Jeff Goldblum throws out less of the pauses and inflected speech patterns than usual as Deputy Kovacs but he makes no less of an impression (including in a scene that… well, with this and Inside Llewyn Davis it doesn’t seem to be felines’ year in film; perhaps worrying also that they’re also my favourites of 2014 so far). Then there’s Willem Defoe, enjoying himself immensely in dogged psycho mode with a touch of the vampiric (he also gets some great extended motorcycle shots).


Defoe’s Joplin is key to one of the film’s best sequences, although there are so many it’s difficult to single any out. The pursuit of a freshly prison-broken Gustav takes in only-in-Anderson-land cable cars and high flung monasteries before arriving at an extended chase of Joplin that wouldn’t look out of place in Fantastic Mr Fox. There’s a larky Road Runner quality here, in particular the showdown with Joplin. That Mr Fox feel is also very evident in the preceding prison break, which sees the inmates follow a truly ridiculous route to freedom. The sudden lurches into ultra-violence are a strange departure for the refined director.  But they are still shot with the signature remove of an unobtrusive and rigid camera; which serves to make the joke an extra sick one, a punch line where you didn’t expect it.


It won't be long before Wes Anderson celebrates 20 years of (big screen) movie making, so it’s nice to see how he has expanded his audience of late; rather than redefining a niche, there appears to be a guaranteed reception for whatever he has to offer. Before it seemed a little bit as if The Royal Tenenbaums would remain the never to be repeated breakout success. The Grand Budapest Hotel looks to be his highest grossing film yet (worldwide). It’s easy to see why as it’s his most accessible, vibrant and star-laden. It’s a much-deserved hit too, since this is one of his best. If Hotel doesn’t make regular appearances in the year’s end Top 10 lists it will only serve to highlight what a great year it’s been.


*****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

I can't explain now, but I've just been murdered.

The Avengers
5.21: You Have Just Been Murdered
Slender in concept – if you're holding out for a second act twist, you'll be sorely disappointed – You Have Just Been Murdered nevertheless sustains itself far past the point one might expect thanks to shock value that doesn't wear out through repetition, a suitably sinister performance from Simon Oates (Steed in the 1971 stage adaptation of the show) and a cartoonish one from George Murcell (1.3: Square Root of Evil) as Needle, of the sort you might expect Matt Berry to spoof.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …