Directed by: Wes Anderson
Produced by: Wes Anderson
Steven M. Rales
Screenplay by: Wes Anderson
Story by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes
F. Murray Abraham
Music by: Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography by: Robert Yeoman
Editing by: Barney Pilling
Studio(s): American Empirical Pictures
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Release date(s): March 6, 2014 (Germany)
March 7, 2014 (United Kingdom)
March 28, 2014 (United States)
Running time: 99 minutes
Production budget: €23 million
Box-office revenue: $172, 711, 636
So, being in the midst of all of this hoo-ah, as Al Pacino would say, said hoo-ah being the crazy roundup of 2014. I'm catching up on as many of the releases over the course of the year as I can, and with Oscar season just around the corner, there is going to be a glut of movies, both good and bad I'm sure, to get through in run-up to what is considered, by many at least, to be the big event of the year in the movies. As such, I've always used it as a bookend to my calendar year, and before then, I can guarantee reviews of The Pyramid, Birdman, The Zero Theorem, Under The Skin, Nymphomaniac, Calvary, The Basement and many many more. Incidentally, on the subject of best films of a given year, I picked up a copy of Blue Is The Warmest Colour, one of my favourites from 2013, for £6 in Head in Castlecourt, Belfast today. Head have a fine selection of Artificial Eye DVDs, ranging from art-house classics, contemporary foreign-language features, cult films and independent features, all for affordable prices (many are actually better than that of internet-juggernaut Amazon; the Satyajit Ray collections, fetching for £14-£16 on Amazon are going at £6 each in Head, a bargain for fans of the Indian filmmaker). So, for all the latest and greatest according to the movies, keep your eyes posted.
Today's film up for review is The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latest film from indie darling Wes Anderson. Ever since the release of his 1998 picture Rushmore, Anderson has carved himself a reputation as unique American auteur with a quirky sensibility that not only has hipsters frothing at the mouth, but also many critics. Since its release back in March, The Grand Budapest Hotel has garnered significant acclaim, made a not-insignificant $172 million at the box-office (off a modest €23 million budget), and has racked up quite a few nominations in the awards season so far. I can near guarantee that this will be a player in the Oscars, not a major winner (Best Original Screenplay might go to Anderson, mind), but a player nevertheless. The big players, right now at least, appear to be The Imitation Game, Birdman and Boyhood. On a side note, a notable exception was the San Diego Film Critics Society, who went with Dan Gilroy's terrific Nightcrawler (which I still need to review) as their Best Film, notching seven awards, which also included Best Director for Gilroy, Best Original Screenplay for Gilroy again and Best Actor for Jake Gyllenhaal. Speaking of societies, and bringing me back to my point, the Online Film Critics Society declared The Grand Budapest Hotel it's very own Best Picture of 2014, something which my esteemed colleague over at Danland Movies was none too pleased about (that honour, he feels, belongs to John Michael McDonagh's Calvary). Me, well, I'm not done yet, but right now David Fincher's Gone Girl stands as my personal pick. Enough from me about all the contextual stuff; as interesting as I find this to be, it's a bit of a one-sided discussion and I'm probably boring the tits off you, so, shall we commence with a plot synopsis?: rightio, story begins in the present day as a young girl begins to read from a book the memoirs of a character known as The Author (Tom Wilkinson), who in 1985 begins to narrate from his desk about a trip he made to The Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968. As a Young Writer (Jude Law), he meets the hotel's elderly owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who proceeds to tell him his story and that of the hotel. Jump to 1932, when the young Zero (Tony Revolori) is a lobby boy, with the state of Zubrowka on the verge of war, and is under the wing of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the hotel, who is accused of the murder of 'Madame D' (Tilda Swinton), and much of the plot is devoted to Gustave and Zero working to prove the former's innocence. Got that? Good!
Now, just from the off it's important to say that there is, well, a lot to be said about The Grand Budapest Hotel, so let's start, as ever, with the good stuff. Ralph Fiennes gives a great performance as the suave, sophisticated concierge Monsieur Gustave H. I've always known that Fiennes is, to use a pun, a fine actor, but this is the kind of part that takes full advantage of his talents. His background in interpreting Shakespeare makes him a natural for translating the ribaldry of Wes Anderson's dialogue to audiences. It simply rolls off of his tongue with the greatest of ease, but most amusing is watching his character, who attempts to be all things to all people (strangely, I was reminded of Richard Gere's Julian from American Gigolo) in ensuring that they enjoy their stay of the hotel, battling frustration at the inferiority of other hotel employees, all the while maintaining this aristocratic air. Much of his wrath is incurred by Zero, played by young Tony Revolori in a breakthrough turn. Acting alongside Ralph Fiennes I'm sure is no easy feat, but Revolori has a natural quality that proves he's more than a match for the senior actor. Some of the film's best moments involve Revolori and Fiennes' chemistry, and it is at times empowering to see Revolori, who has enough strength of conviction to make us believe that Zero could stand up and challenge Gustave. Also, as with other Wes Anderson films, he has a mighty ensemble of a cast, and there are a few other actors whose work I'd like to point as noteworthy; Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum (between him and Dafoe, their short interactions get some of the best laughs of the movie), F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson (whose shouting at his young son gets a good gag) and Owen Wilson. I found some of the absurdist humour of Anderson to be amusing. As I mentioned, Dafoe and Goldblum get some of the best laughs, and that is because the humour is just so outrageous. Being a fan of all things surreal, some of the stuff in the film I dug, simply I suppose for Anderson having the sheer gall to do it. Speaking of Anderson, he's noted as an auteur for the mise-en-scenes of his pictures and I admired some of that aspect in the film. There is a meticulous attention to detail, from the production design to the costumes, right down to the Boy With Apple painting, a mock Renaissance piece commissioned specifically for the film. Say what you will, I have to admire what has been done here to realise this film world. It's also well-shot by cinematographer Robert Yeoman, Anderson's regular DP. Highlighting the world created in the film, everything made is up for show, establishing these big, wide cinematic spaces for the characters to inhabit. Furthermore, much has been made of the use of three different aspect ratios (1.33, 1.85, 2.35:1), for each of the film's separate timelines. It could have been a gimmick, but it works well, getting across a unique visual style for each period, but also in the little pieces making subconscious connections with the audience which a less keen-eyed viewer might not notice. Also, it's the second consecutive film I've had to review with Alexandre Desplat doing the score, and this time around, he delivers. I think when Desplat is at his best is when an auteur challenges him, demanding that he take his classical sensibilities and put them towards something more aesthetically dynamic and interesting. Here, he creates a wonderful little jukebox score that suggests something of the fairy tale quality of the story and the period setting. It reeks of nostalgia, and has a fascinating range of styles and instruments playing throughout. Finally, as perhaps you can tell from the amount I'm writing about, I have to admire the efforts of Wes Anderson as an auteur. He's someone who's obviously trying to make his own unique imprint in the history of motion pictures, and does it with all the sincerity of a toddler with a box full of toys to play around with.
So, as you can see, there was a good bit I liked about The Grand Budapest Hotel. Indeed, during the course of my reviewing of the film, I realised that there was more to admire about the film than I would have thought at first glance. However, as I said, this is one of those cases when there is a lot to be said about the picture, and I think that while there is much good to be said, the things that are wrong with it come in equal measure. This is probably the one review of all I have written this year that will probably get into the most trouble with people for my opines, so consider yourselves duly warned. I understand that loads of people adore this film and that I am in the minority here, but there are a number of reasons for my coming to this conclusion. The first of these is the script. While I admired some of the humour, I did find the plot and the characters both to be wafer-thin, the whole movie and any sense of legitimacy it had felt like it was hanging by a thread. For some reason, I'm thinking on Charles Montgomery Burns, threatening to crush Homer Simpson like a paper cup. If I was Mr Burns, this film would be the paper cup. I personally may not be as frail and weak as that much feared boss from hell, but this film certainly is, and almost threatens to implode upon itself. This is also part of the reason I never want to see a feature-length Mighty Boosh movie: there simply isn't enough plot to carry a ninety-minute movie. No amount of quirky, surreal or absurdist humour is an adequate substitute for story. Also, while I liked some members of the film's ensemble, sometimes it does seem like Wes Anderson is just dragging out a revolving turntable, a who's who of great actors to shove into bit parts in his movie and who are just there for window dressing or the factor of recognition i.e. "Oh look, there's so and so!" As such, you have top-tier quality actors like Bill Murray and Lea Seydoux (who last year won Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role from me for Blue Is The Warmest Colour) completely wasted in small parts, but also others like Edward Norton and Adrien Brody, who are not given characters befitting of their talents. Brody's character in particular is a terrible antagonist, who's neither funny or a legitimate foil to the central players. I also wasn't fond of the film's editing aesthetics. I'm sure the man in the cutting room, Barney Pilling, had Anderson probably in his ear telling him how to slice his movie, but this is where I thought all the little 'Wes Anderson traits' starting to go into overkill. Yes, we get that you're making a little tinkertrain of a movie, woop woop, but it doesn't mean that you go and have your editor do something so scattershot and all over the place. A lot of these decisions just didn't seem to make any sense or have any purpose, and I'm sure people defending the film would say "it doesn't need to" and in the process try to link it Dadaism or something of the sort, but I'm sorry, it does need to make sense. My final note of negative criticism has to be on Wes Anderson as an auteur. I've said it before, but I admire Anderson's intent and what he wishes to do with his picture, especially in his development of his own unique sensibilities and almost self-contained film universe. However, to me a real auteur must also know when to indulge oneself and when not to. They should have the self-awareness about just when to display tact. The best auteurs of recent years, filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Alfonso Cuaron, Bela Tarr, all have very distinct styles that are their own, but what makes them a notch above the rest is that the also know when to reign themselves in. Anderson displays no tact whatsoever here, going completely over-the-top here in what is an incredibly self-indulgent film. I might have enjoyed it a lot more if it didn't feel like such an exercise in overindulgence. It was like watching the fat kid in Matilda stuff himself full of cake. Not to sound like I'm making a cop-out argument, but maybe it's a taste thing, in that I froth at the prospect of anything David Lynch does when a lot of people can't stand some of his movies, but to me, I didn't like the taste of this. Like Quentin Tarantino, Anderson needs to learn how to stop indulging himself and be more focused with making the quality film that anyone with such a distinctive style has in them.
Not to wag the dog, but I think I am safe in saying that if there is one film review that will get me in trouble this year, this'll be the one. I am against critical and audience consensus, and not only that, I'm reliably informed that Wes Anderson fans are notoriously passionate in their admiration for the auteur, so I'm potentially incurring the wrath of an entire devoted fan-base. In it's defence, it has two strong performances from Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, who have great onscreen chemistry, some of the absurdist humour is funny, there is a strongly established mise-en-scene which well-shot, I liked the score and I have to admire Anderson not only for his meticulous attentions to detail(s), but also for his unique sensibilities. However, what he has put on the table is all of those things, but also an incredibly self-indulgent picture which I feel to be more lacklustre than the hype surrounding it. The plot is flimsy as all hell, the character development for many of the ensemble is nonexistent and the editing by Barney Pilling is too scattershot to have any consistency (though I suspect a little bird may have been whispering in his ear: cough, Anderson, cough!). Anderson may have admirable qualities but having an appropriate gauge as to what to focus on is not one of them here. There is none of the tact or self-awareness presently in the best of contemporary auteurs, and if he wasn't so self-indulgent, we might have got a better film in the process.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 5.0/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Cool (nice to chill, but still, work must be done!)