Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

As Wes Anderson movies have progressed, they've taken on a distinctively unique style separate from everybody else currently making films.  I realize that saying "distinctively unique" is rather redundant, but for some reason it feels particularly accurate with Anderson.  Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, Joss Whedon, and Kevin Smith are all unique in the types of films they produce, but it's not to say that someone couldn't come along and do a passable facsimile.  Aside from Bottle Rocket, his first (and honestly, rather forgettable in comparison) film, Anderson's unique touches of work seem unreachable and undeniably his own, with nobody else coming close to doing anything like it.

There's an old joke in Hollywood that the five stages of fame are (let's use Cameron Diaz as an example):

"Who's Cameron Diaz?"

"Get me Cameron Diaz."

"Get me someone like Cameron Diaz."

"Get me a younger Cameron Diaz."

"Who was Cameron Diaz?"

Wes Anderson appears to have shot past the "Who's Wes Anderson?" stage and is dragging the second one well into the third as Hollywood struggles to find the next "him."

His most recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is so "Andersonian" that I actually had to just make up that word to appropriately describe it, but I'll attempt to go into more detail.

There are three things you can expect from any Wes Anderson movie:

1)  A cast that, by any other filmmaker's standards, would cost enough money to assemble to bankrupt the film, ignoring the fact that most of them are only in bit roles.

2) Set designs that look like intricate paintings or models, too perfect to actually exist in the real world and leaving you wondering how many people Wes Anderson has scouring the planet to locate these settings.

3) A plot that starts out remarkably simple but quickly spirals out of control because of misunderstandings, poorly explained secrets, and the need for even more exotic locations to be brought in.

Consider this:  The film begins at a graveyard where a young woman approaches a statue devoted to the author of a book.  We then jump to the author as an old man as he starts to remember his time as a younger man, and we jump to that time period.  The man then interviews the owner of the Grand Budapest hotel, and we then jump to his story from when he was young.

That's three flashbacks within just a short time of the movie beginning, and while it does help us set the time frame of the story (as does the increasing threat of a fascist nation spreading across the continent), it can leave people unprepared rather lost right off the bat.

We follow the young Zero Moustafa as he trains under M. Gustave, played superbly by Ralph Fiennes.  I won't spoil (or even try to explain) much of the plot except that it involves the suspicious death of an elderly,  wealthy dowager, a painting, a bakery shop too perfect to exist, and a perilous trip up a mountain.

Ignoring the story, I feel the need to again express just how incredible each set piece is.  The fine details, from the background characters to the peculiar way the cobblestones meet in the street all make the whole thing feel otherworldly, like it's all being imagined (or perhaps just recalled by an elderly mind).  Even simple locations, such as a train, the back of a car, or a haystack all feel like they were crafted from how people imagine such things would look instead of how they actually do.

Part of this is due to Anderson's particularly clever choice of camera angles and lens choices.  A simple shot might feel "off" simply because of how close or distant he lets the camera rest from where the action is happening, or he utilizes windows and doorways in ways to let you know something is happening just past the room you're currently in, but only know enough to realize it's something important that the characters are also viewing.

I find myself constantly thinking about the fact that the characters live in this world that could only be crafted in someone's stories (much like I felt about the show Pushing Daisies, which I think is the closest I've ever seen to someone being like Wes Anderson), and yet harsh truths of reality keep edging their way in.  M. Gustave's manners and elegance doesn't work against fascists (well, not against most of them anyway) and he continuously finds himself in physical struggle against them.  His elegance and class is punctuated by regular bursts of swearing that I found quite jarring, as if they didn't belong.  Slowly, through the film, the character is stripped of things that were staples of everyday life at the Grand Budapest Hotel, and while we see him adapt to these changes (and see the world even shape itself slightly to fit around how he feels things should be), it seems to disorient the other characters just as much when they see him later in the film not carrying the same grace, panache, and "character" as he previously had.

I really recommend this film to anybody who appreciates a film that isn't simply mindless action or dumbed down comedy.  The jokes are extremely well-placed, the twists and turns of the plot can be a smidgen predictable, but are enjoyable when they do show up.  If for nothing else, a Wes Anderson movie should be experienced, not just watched, as you come away from it always feeling like you need to view the world around you a little bit differently than you normally have, if just to try to make the mundane of every day mesh with how interesting it appears the world could be.

No comments: