Monday, May 12, 2014

Grandly Lighter Than Air: Wes Anderson's Hotel Movie.

Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director: Wes Anderson

Reviewed: 12 May 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson's new film, most closely resembles its central chocolate delicacies, prepared by Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) lighter than air, exquisitely handcrafted, meticulously prepared in a striking pink box, and piled high in the air. However, the film's ethereal qualities are grounded quite frequently by wonderful cursing and intense violence. But, to get back to the desserts. These studied pieces of confectionary move the plot forward, connecting the machinations of lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and the debonair Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, shedding the skin of Voldemort with a refined glee), the head concierge at the eponymous hotel, an imposing castle of elevators, stairways, and cavernous dining rooms. Gustave H. runs the Budapest with an imperious precision; his marches through its hallways dictating impossibly precise orders at those around him suggest an older version of Max Fischer given the keys to a greater kingdom than the mere Grover Cleveland High School. In the republic of Zubrowka, a Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, aged extensively, hair piled high with a wig, and powdered like a cake) departs the embraces of the hotel and Gustave H. leading to a scandal involving a disputed will and an expensive painting, all set against the backdrop of a brewing war.

In a way, the film is more expansive than those of Anderson's past which have confined themselves to a single family in a single city or a series of groups on an island. Here, the trains crisscross Zubrowka, as well as gondolas, motorcycles, and sleds. He reveals an elaborate underground society of hotel concierges who will stop at nothing to help a person in need in addition to menacing groups of fascists awaiting you at the border, ready to check that your papers are in order. A triple-frame story opens us into this world, contrasting the hotel's rundown 1985 days with its 1932 glory. There is a slow-chase through a museum with a marvelously violent payoff, the severe mistreatment of a feline, a malevolent monster named Jopling (Willem Dafoe) who seems to grow fangs, and a glorious jailbreak and rescue of epic proportions. The canvas here is so wonderfully large that one is left pining for more time with even very minor characters.

I think Ralph Fiennes is a revelation here, not just because he does not have to play a heavy villain as he so often does (though as the new M in the Bond films, I guess we will be entering a new phase) but instead a flawed man with impeccable charm. With his "darlings" softly inserted at the end of conversations, Fiennes wonderfully plays up Gustave's theatricality as part of a bygone era, a desire to satisfy his guests and preach to his staff during their meals. Fiennes adapts his performance to each scene, holding the core of Gustave H. despite radical changes in station. The film struggles to fully show Gustave H.'s hold over young Zero, and their relationship while obviously the core of the story faltered a bit for me. I was left a bit cold by later developments, but perhaps I need another viewing of the film. The ending has an abrupt air to it, but it may be in keeping with the world that he's portraying. The checking of papers and harsh treatment of Zero foreshadows the atrocities of fascism in World War 2, making Gustave H.'s decision late in the film even more grand and noble.

I am adding this to the middle pile of Wes Anderson films, the ones that I am happy to return to viewing again and again. Although I cannot yet anoint The Grand Budapest Hotel as worthy to stand amongst Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and last year's wonderful Moonrise Kingdom, it stands closer to those films than his misfires. Anderson creates worlds that are fun to watch actors and actresses play around inside, worlds of intricately designed boxes of impossibly fine desserts that seem both familiar and completely unique at the same time, and I bet they enjoy the anarchic, highly structured fun. The sense of joy permeates his film, but as he harshly shows, all good things must end.

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