The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

An unusually serious film from director Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a joy from start to finish.

Grand Budapest HotelUSA
4*

Director:
Wes Anderson

Screenwriter:
Wes Anderson

Director of Photography:
Robert Yeoman

Running time: 100 minutes

The Grand Budapest Hotel, besides being a much more serious film than we’re used to seeing from director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), makes many a direct play for the hearts of Central and East Europeans.

With its mixture of exquisite period detail, albeit slightly exaggerated, overt references to historical turning points in the region and a typically “Wesandersonian” presentation of the story as visibly but immersively fictional, the film is almost certain to be well received both behind the former Iron Curtain and around the world.

In 1985, an elderly gentleman looks straight into the camera and starts telling us a story that takes us back, first to 1968, and then to 1932, as the rise and fall of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a luxurious establishment somewhere in the Republic of Zubrowka, is displayed in all its alternately decrepit and extravagant excess.

The abovementioned Zubrowka, obviously named after one of the best vodkas I have ever tasted, Poland’s bison-grass infused Żubrówka, is almost as difficult to place as The Simpsons’ city of Springfield. The opening scene, set in a cemetery in the fictional city of Lutz, obviously refers to the Polish city of Łódź, and yet the name of the hotel refers to Hungary, although it is located in the “Sudetenwalt,” or Sudeten Forest, which suggests pre–World War II Czechoslovakia, or thereabouts.

The doubly encased storytelling mechanism (the man in 1985, a nameless author, shares with us how he came to meet the owner of the hotel, Mr. Moustafa, in 1968, who told him the story – one that dates to 1932 – of how he came to possess the grand establishment) is further framed by the very first scene, in which someone opens a book titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, neatly divided into chapters. Also, the exterior of the Grand Budapest Hotel is not life-size but rather immediately recognisable as a small, detailed model; many other tricks that sometimes bring to mind Anderson’s work on the stop-motion The Fantastic Mr. Fox continue to make it clear this is a tale enriched by reality rather than one seeking to emulate it.

While Mr. Moustafa is the proprietor in 1968, played by the wonderful F. Murray Abraham (who recently had an equally short but deeply satisfying role in Inside Llewyn Davis), he is but a teenage boy – first name Zero – in the story taking place in 1932, when he starts his work as a lobby boy, in service of the hotel’s famous concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Monsieur Gustave personally tends to every need of his guests, and often those needs require him to spend some time in their private rooms, especially if they are blond.

Monsieur Gustave is great fun, soaked as he is in his L’Air de Panache perfume. Although fastidious to the point of being obsessive, he also has a big heart, and while he has his doubts about Zero’s qualifications to carry out his duties, he quickly warms to the boy and teaches him everything he knows. He also protects him with his life, and his magnanimity, or even friendship, is rewarded when he is locked up after being framed for the murder of a former hotel guest, Madame Desgoffe und Taxis, simply known as Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, enchanting as ever, even as she plays an 84-year-old woman).

The film presents itself as strictly removed from reality, but the traces of history are recognisable and remain potent despite being altered. The Nazi lightning symbol of the “SS” has been modified to appear as “ZZ” in this film, and the delicious pastries are provided by a fancy bakery called Mendl’s, very likely drawing its inspiration from the Austrian producer of gourmet foods, Julius Meinl. Sometimes, not unlike the approach taken by Joe Wright in his film adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the lighting changes to indicate a shift in tone, done in such a way as to bring it closer to the theater (in other words, overt performance), and eschews any attempt to give the film an air of grittiness.

And yet, as Anderson has proved so often in the past, his characters can still elicit emotions in us even though they belong to a world so obviously different from our own. Friendship and family are two key themes in the films of the director, and here, too, despite the countless cameos (many well-known actors each appear only in a single scene, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban) and the film’s many moments of whimsy, it ends with a sudden rush of emotions as we come to realise how beautifully The Grand Budapest Hotel and its characters fit together, how much they have been through and how much we have enjoyed their adventures, notwithstanding the unspoken Nazi and communist uprisings that we can read between lines.

This film brims with creativity and ingenuity, as even a ride in a funicular or a bobsled can turn into something unforgettable (for the latter, think of the game of “hotbox” in The Fantastic Mr. Fox rather than bobsledding at the Winter Games). The emotions are also there, very competently handled by Anderson, whose direction of the young Tony Revolori, as Zero, elicits a performance that is flawlessly part of the film. There is also one of the most unusual escapes from prison you will have ever seen on film and a handful of small pans that produce, as Anderson learned so well in The Darjeeling Limited, moments of visual bathos that are as hilarious as they are unexpected.

A very different kettle of fish compared with his other films, this is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most subdued film to date, but he deftly handles the balance between the comical and the dramatic, yielding a work of beauty, comedy and mystery that is every bit as enchanting, funny and ultimately moving as some of his best films.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Wes Anderson, stuck in a creative marshland, needs a new muse because Moonrise Kingdom is just more of the same.

moonrise-kingdomUSA
3*

Director:
Wes Anderson

Screenwriters:
Wes Anderson

Roman Coppola
Director of Photography:
Robert Yeoman

Running time: 95 minutes

The worlds of Wes Anderson, the ones he created in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, among others, can be magical in a way few others are. His images are immediately recognisably his, and his characters are quirky and endearing despite them never being very complex.

In Moonrise Kingdom, arguably his least interesting film since his 1994 début, Bottle Rocket, he focuses his energy on a very small love story about a 12-year-old orphan boy and a 12-year-old girl with some anger management problems, and presents it in his cute but formally conscious way.

In 1965, when Sam (Jared Gilman), a nerdy boy scout, escapes from his camp on New Penzance Island, somewhere off the New England coast, and Suzy (Kara Hayward) disappears from home on the other side of the island at the same time, many parties, including Suzy’s mother’s boyfriend, the simpleminded but good-hearted policeman played by Bruce Willis, try to track him down.

Small details about Sam’s childhood are uncovered along the way, and there is an adorable flashback to the first time Sam saw Suzy, a year earlier; we are also informed a hurricane will strike very soon and, in typical Wes Anderson style, the artifice of the fictional reality is taken one step further by having a play performed that employs flood imagery.

Moonrise Kingdom’s highlights are in the vein of that famous moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones comes up against a large and very intimidating sword-wielding fellow in a Cairo marketplace, whom he quickly and unexpectedly dispatches with a mere gunshot. Anderson surprises us in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

As a result, the film is consistently charming, even though there is very little plot to hold on to. Anderson has always liked to play around with form and here too, he uses the narrator character played by Bob Balaban to inform us point-blank, in shots that are mostly empty save his head way at the bottom of the frame, about upcoming events or to fill in the background at some points.

But while the director’s playful approach to the construction of his images – including the great number of smooth lateral or vertical tracking shots that almost exclusively comprise the opening sequence – has evinced enormous creativity in the past, his film this time around is oddly stripped of emotion. Think back to the emotion conjured up in the scene by the sighting of the jaguar shark in Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Moonrise Kingdom mimics the previous films’ form but not their concomitant emotive force.

The film is more of a cardboard spectacle than any of his previous films, and Anderson seems to be treading the water of his imagination. This fact can also be surmised from the intertextual references he makes, always well integrated in his previous films but here not quite on the same level. A nifty but completely out-of-place reference to Citizen Kane occurs in the opening sequence when the camera literally passes through a table, and it’s easy to guess where Anderson got the idea of having Sam’s escape route from his tent masked by a poster.

Such references are quaint but become burdensome when we realise McDormand’s character is not all that different from the wonderful performance she gave in Almost Famous. Not to mention the Looney Tunes moment when Sam gets hit by lightning.

The director appears to have fallen into a creative rut. He would need to cut down on the big names and find his next muse, because when Jason Schwartzman briefly appears in this film, he only makes us long for the good old days of Rushmore.

For those who have never seen a Wes Anderson movie, Moonrise Kingdom will be a wonderful entry into his world. For those who are familiar with his work, the film provides more of the same – a safe retreat to gorgeously framed images and perennially eccentric characters, but nothing more than that.