The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Magnificent Anderson

gbudaWes Anderson’s new film is about a girl reading a book.  I am serious.  And I love that about it.

The girl (Jella Niemann) approaches the grave of a beloved writer (referred to only as “Author” in the film, and played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson at different ages), and sits down to read his memoir, particularly a chapter on his visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka – an amalgam of Germany and other European countries during an obvious 20th century war-torn era.  It’s a Faulkner-esque flourish by Anderson, who opens a window to plenty of commentary and nostalgia as soon as we see the Grand Budapest itself, a gaudy pink blemish ensconced in the Zubrowkan mountains, with the sounds of a busy railway never far off.

The young writer, during his visit (in the memoir’s narrative), meets the mysterious owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who explains that the place was once decadent and bustling, which seems unbelievable considering its current state – a lack of money and interest is evident, and the few guests move about like ghosts, silent and distant from one another.  When the writer asks how Moustafa came to buy the hotel, the latter answers, “I didn’t,” and opens the film’s fourth narrative: the story of Moustafa’s relationship with the Grand Budapest, as explained to the writer by Moustafa, as written by the writer, as read by the girl.

As a child, Zero (Tony Revolori) is hired as a “lobby boy” for the hotel by the eccentric and anachronistically foulmouthed concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, essentially the film’s central character).  Gustave takes Zero under his wing, quickly (and predictably) seeing him as a son or (much) younger brother, rather than a pesky greenhorn.  Gustave, though, is in some trouble: after Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), one of Gustave’s frequent romantic interests, is poisoned and dies, Gustave is the prime suspect.  What’s more, upon visiting the estate where the will is read, Gustave learns that Madame D. has bequeathed him Boy with Apple, an incredibly valuable painting.  Needless to say, Madame D.’s unscrupulous family is not happy about this.  Her son, Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) vows never to let Gustave take Boy with Apple, but with Zero’s help, Gustave absconds with the painting and heads back to the Grand Budapest.  In the meantime, Zero falls in love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a baker’s apprentice, who we are told numerous times “saved us,” but the older Zero (the one talking to the young writer) doesn’t want to talk about her, because the thought of her makes him cry.

Gustave is eventually arrested, for the alleged murder of Madame D., by Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), who likes Gustave and is only doing his job.  Agatha and Zero help Gustave escape by concealing tools inside delicious cakes, and the film briefly becomes a wonky, Wes Anderson version of The Great Escape, which includes a hardened convict played by a fully shaven and shirtless Harvey Keitel, and a gargantuan, scarred inmate who, after stabbing a potential snitch in the neck in order to aid the escape, is referred to by Gustave as a “kind, sweet man.”

Gustave and Zero’s real adventure begins: finding an alibi.  At the same time, Dmitri conducts an investigation of his own, using his trusted associate J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) – a ruthless and detached assassin (a very different and intriguingly perfect role for Dafoe) – to shake down anyone who might know anything about the murder or the whereabouts of Boy with Apple, as well as to kill anyone who may be able to exonerate Gustave.

This is a film that demands attention from the first frame.  One of the four narratives takes the lion’s share of the story, but knowing where each narrative is placed in relation to the others is vital (and all the more satisfying when Anderson takes us out of each, gently and one by one, at the end).  On another note, it’s a film that can and should have more women in it (much like most of Anderson’s films, wonderful as they are).  Yes, he’s going for an old-timey and historically specific feel here, but it’s the history of a fictional setting.  Agatha only exists because Zero likes her.  Even the Crossed Keys Society (a nice excuse for a string of cameos by Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, and Fisher Stevens) could have included one or two women working as concierge.  Inmates?  Hotel guests?  Soldiers?  All could be mixed gender in a revised history of a place that isn’t real.  The absence of women isn’t part of the film’s various self-conscious ironies, so it’s a particular standout.  There’s an appearance by the incomparable Léa Seydoux (as Madame D’s maid, Clotilde), but the character is of little note and even less screen time.  The problem of American filmmaking box-vision continues: how often do American filmmakers (particularly male directors) fail to realize they’ve got a lead actress in a pathetic bit role?  For more, see Lawless, in which Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain were underused/ignored to near-criminality.

There is a sense of old-fashioned artificiality hovering in the white space (and in this case, the pink and orange space) of every scene: the exterior of the Grand Budapest is a hand-constructed miniature with an electric train zooming around it.  Various sequences are filmed in different aspect ratios to put a synthetic age on scenes filmed in a made-up country.  The older version of the Author seems to share some real insight on writing with his audience, but is actually reading from prepared note cards.  As we are enveloped in the candy colors and charming, heartfelt ridiculousness, Gustave admits to some of his own faults and fakeness during mirrored train rides along the war-threatened (and eventually war-damaged) Zubrowka countryside.  As we pop in and out of each narrative, we begin to wonder about the reliability of our multiple narrators – the old Author, bromidically delivering his thoughts to the camera, comes unhinged when his excitable grandson makes some noise in the adjacent room, and can’t even deliver real thoughts on writing without reading from a card.  Zero, in his Murray Abraham state, can barely mention Agatha without sobbing, and clearly skips or embellishes parts of the story for effect or for the sake of his own comfort.  The only trustworthy character is the girl reading the book, and she does not lift her nose from the pages to pay us one second of attention, nor does her expression while reading shift from pure inscrutability.

The Grand Budapest Hotel makes me pine not for the extravagant places I’ve visited (not that that list is particularly long), but for the studies, living rooms, and resting places of Melville, Brontë, Frost, and Plath.  The film claims to be inspired by the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (particularly The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity), and the bespectacled Author in both his “old” form and his young, idealized form undoubtedly resemble him.  But the film’s endearment is not reserved for only one writer (and it may have taken tragic turns had Anderson relied upon audiences to recognize Zweig references, while the numerous call-backs to classic films are a bit more recognizable – another issue altogether, maybe).  It comments on narrative reliability and familiarity, but commentary is not what the film “is,” exactly.  It’s conceptually more evolved than Moonrise Kingdom, but its characters aren’t as unique or as important in and of themselves (partially because they never slow down).  Its concerns are in a long-time-ago place wherein people sat quietly and thought about things – something we remember, in the final shot, is anything but extinct.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014); written and directed by Wes Anderson; starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, and F. Murray Abraham.

 

Reservoir Dogs

You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize

In celebration of twenty years of filmmaking on the part of Quentin Tarantino (and the upcoming release of his newest film, Django Unchained, which I’m tempted to dodge family holiday obligations in order to see), I was finally able to see Reservoir Dogs, a film that has topped my list for the better part of a decade, in the theatre for the first time.  Instead of the theatre’s usual shameless ads and blockbuster trailers, viewers were shown the original trailers for Quentin’s previous films (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, etc.) and a bunch of Tarantino trivia.  There were also ads for a new Tarantino Blu-Ray box set, but as Miramax hasn’t yet realized that not everyone has/needs/wants a Blu-Ray player, I tuned out.  The VHS-DVD transition was organic and took decades.  Stop trying to force the next magic discs on us; forcibly rendering the current generation of technology obsolete creates endless waste and yard-sale fodder (plus you’re expediting the takeover of the machines).

It occurs to me that despite my years-long love of Reservoir Dogs, I have yet to write a word about it.  I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t been said in the past twenty years, but it would seem that in a case like this, people want to know if an old movie “holds up.”  Of course it does, dummy.  But this has also been a big year for anniversaries and re-releases and general love for the cinema (look at the Oscar winners from February): with the somber 100-year anniversary of the Titanic sinking, the film holding its namesake was screened in theatres for the first time since I was in eighth grade.  With twenty years of Quentin behind a camera, we get to see ‘Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the theatre again.  The best part of the overall experience, maybe, was that several moviegoers around me had not seen the film.  They knew Quentin’s name, they’d probably been told that filmmaking was forever changed after his first two films, they’d heard of Mr. Blonde, but hadn’t actually sat through what Quentin once referred to as his equivalent of Kubrick’s The Killing and what many consider to be the greatest independent film of all time.  The reactions, which included gasps, cackles, and plenty of audible occurrences of  “jeeeeezus” said it all.

Reservoir Dogs is a heist film without a heist.  We begin in a diner, with a bunch of guys in identical black suits – Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino), and Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker) – eating breakfast and hashing over the meaning of Madonna songs.  The exceptions to the suits are the two “bosses”: Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn).  The “diner scene,” as it’s known, has come to be one of the most quotable sequences in film history.  I’ll spare you direct quotes (because your friends surely haven’t), but the scene remains a diamond of screenwriting that sets a precedent for the rest of the movie: dialogue, not contrivance, deepens characters and pushes scenes forward.  Buscemi’s legendary “tipping” vignette is something few of us can avoid thinking about while computing gratuity at a restaurant.

I have always considered Reservoir Dogs to be two separate films.  The diner scene (i.e. everything before George Baker’s “Little Green Bag” and the famous slow-motion walk under the opening credits) is one film, whose attack, rising action, conflict, and resolution are all composed and accomplished through dialogue.  Then, we’ve got a relentless crime film.  Keitel’s character, Mr. White (arguably the only character with any sort of conscience, and I include the police characters in that statement) drags a gut-shot Mr. Orange into a warehouse where Joe, the boss, has instructed everyone to rendezvous.  After Mr. Pink arrives, we learn (through dialogue) that something went wrong with what was supposed to be a simple, two-minute robbery.  An employee set off the alarm, Mr. Blonde executed several innocent people, Mr. Orange was shot by a civilian during the getaway, a legion of police showed up out of nowhere, and Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue were killed.  Most of this, at least at the outset, is not shown, and we are left to imagine the horrific events.  White and Pink deduce that someone in the group must be a rat (i.e. an undercover cop).  White rules out Orange, who is slowly dying from his wound, and doubts that Joe knew anything about the setup.  Mr. Blonde, who casually arrives drinking soda from a paper cup, dismisses their theory, dodges questions about why he became a psychopath at the jewelry store, and reveals that he has kidnapped a police officer (Kirk Baltz), whom the trio savagely beat for information (and also out of boredom, as they are to wait for Joe and Nice Guy Eddie to meet them for further instruction).

Through a series of flashbacks that play like the three acts of a stage drama (complete with titles over a black screen), we witness Joe’s recruitment of Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Orange, each of which reveal something else about where the story is headed.  The film’s events (in the present) are pushed along by accidents and severe mistakes, which turns the film into a comedy of errors that is anything but funny (as much as we may laugh and grin at the amusing dialogue).  The biggest mistake since the initial heist happens when Eddie decides to leave Mr. Blonde alone with the unconscious Mr. Orange and the tied-up cop.  This gives way to the iconic “ear-cutting scene,” which many exclusively remember Mr. Blonde (and Madsen) for, and which rendered “Stuck in the Middle with You” virtually unlistenable without picturing Blonde’s sadistic antics.

The longest and most well-crafted of the flashback acts belongs to Mr. Orange, who is revealed to be the informant after gunning down Blonde in defense of the cop, and contains the only story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story I’ve ever seen done on film (Inception doesn’t count).  The story plays out violently, yet controlled, when the others discover Orange’s identity, and the final smash-cut to the credits and Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” leaves the audience fatigued, somber, and still thinking.  Consider the fact that in 2012, the most expensive of indie films (the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas) can only accomplish two of those.

The film’s violence is the primary struggle of the film’s detractors, aside from the rough and unapologetic language.  It’s not because of gratuity or the sheer amount of red Kool-Aid seen smeared all over the backseat of Mr. White’s car and the floor of the warehouse; it’s because the violence is portrayed in such a realistic and disturbing way.  Here, we do not have James Bond twirling around and gracefully blasting supervillains over bridges with only a hole in the enemy’s shirt to indicate damage taken.  Here, people bleed when shot, the wrong people die, and the cops aren’t the good guys – in fact, without police involvement, no one would have been injured (much less killed) in the heist.  An anecdote told by an L.A. Sheriff in Mr. Orange’s flashback in which he finds humor in verbally brutalizing and threatening to kill a “stupid fucking citizen” still haunts me more than most of the shooting.  The film’s realism is also bolstered by the fact that there are very few, if any, reshoots and retakes.  Most of the shots are long and wide.  Buscemi, speaking at 100mph, stumbles over lines and loses his breath.  Tierney, bookending his career as a crime actor, repeats lines and thinks so hard about what he wants to say that we’re not sure he’s actually acting.  The lack of jump cuts makes us forget that we’re watching a scripted film and not just a bunch of guys in a room trying to find their way out of a life-and-death predicament.

To those who count the film’s disturbing portrayal of violence as rendering the film somehow unwatchable, I’ll say this: you should not be comfortable while watching Reservoir Dogs.  Not at any point.  Not even when you know what’s coming.  I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, and I have yet to eat during it or to find amusement in the in-and-of-itself facts of what happens.  Discomfort during a movie like this, the act of looking away when a guy has his face slashed by a straight razor, might be a glimmer of hope in disguise: perhaps we are not completely desensitized to blood and gore and murder, not when it’s shown to us as it actually exists.  I called out the violence of Cloud Atlas for being gratuitous and unnecessary, but in that case it’s done for a different reason – Reservoir Dogs is not an action epic nor a film during which to cheer; it offers more than violent spectacle.  There are no stylish flourishes during shootouts.  There’s cinematic artwork involved.  There’s something you can take away besides fatigue, but you’ll have to decide for yourself what that is.

Reservoir Dogs is a 101 course on film structure, and its re-release will net a few new fans for Quentin (not that he’s got a deficiency).  The re-release is also a breath of cool air for those of us who just want to see a higher ratio of good films to disappointments when we go to the theatre; for the rest, maybe it’s a nudge into the correct queue line.  All that’s left is for the corporate theatres to mimic this event and put a serious damper on all the shameless advertising.  Blu-Rays reign supreme?  Tell that bullshit to the tourists.

Reservoir Dogs (1992); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Madsen.   

Moonrise Kingdom

What kind of bird are you?

Wes Anderson has somehow generated a collection of movies (with the possible exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox) that can be watched in any order and seemingly belong to the same universe.  The dry humor, the pallet of exclusively primary colors, the jump-cuts that act like missing reels, and the delicious mulligan of working class heroes and frustrated rich people pop up again and again.  Moonrise Kingdom features Anderson’s most eclectic ensemble cast yet, and the most amazing part is that these characters revolve organically around two first-time child actors.

The story focuses on the adventures of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), penpals who decide to run away together, the former from his blooming career as a “Khaki Scout” and the latter from her dysfunctional family, who live in a lighthouse.  When their respective caretakers discover their disappearance, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) is dispatched to find them.  Unbeknownst to Suzy’s father, Walt (Bill Murray), Sharp is having an affair with Walt’s wife, Laura (Frances McDormand).  In addition, Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), who cares deeply for his scouts (including Sam), leads the rest of the Khakis on a journey to apprehend the wayward couple.  Throughout the story, the threat of a terrible storm looms over New Penzance (the fictional New England town in which the story takes place), reported via the amusingly-named “Narrator” (Bob Balaban), an incredibly dry documentary filmmaker.  The storm, which in part provides a reference to Noah, serves more to foreshadow Sam and Suzy’s coming adulthood: they both know this is the final summer during which they’ll be young enough for these sorts of adventures.

The cast is fun to spend time with, especially as the people and conflicts accumulate.  Jason Schwartzman, who appears in most of Anderson’s films, shows up here as Cousin Ben, a relative of one of the camp scouts who offers to help Sam and Suzy escape.  He never removes his sunglasses.  Tilda Swinton appears as Social Services, a stern character who embodies her job, and there’s even an appearance by Harvey Keitel as Commander Pierce, the leader of the Khaki Scouts.  The world Anderson has created for this movie does not operate under the parameters of real life; desire reigns supreme here, and simple imagination can translate to very real magic.  This sense of fantasy is buttressed by the intricate maps of the fictional region and the nonexistent (in real life) young adult novels that Suzy brings along for the trip.

As the adults scramble and worry, the children enjoy the only true freedom either of them have ever had, as far as we can tell.  Walt, played with a familiar melancholy by Murray, seems to look at the world with a resigned disappointment, performing certain functions only because his maleness demands him to.  “I’m going to find a tree to chop down,” an axe-wielding Walt informs his three young sons as he wanders shirtless out the back door of his home.  None of these scenes are delivered with any kind of self-conscious humor.  Sharp and Laura know their affair cannot go on; Laura is simply bored with Walt, and Sharp has no companionship in his life.  There seems to be no escape for adults in the world of Moonrise Kingdom; there is only the cage of childhood, the thrill of adolescence, and the frustration and dissatisfaction of adults who were once thrilled to be alive.  The individual conflicts are resolved in the film’s colorful and imaginative finale, but we have to wonder, what is the trigger?  The storm?  The influence of the children on the stilted grown-ups?  Genuine epiphanies on the part of the adult characters?

The dialogue between Sam and Suzy during the soon-to-be iconic beach scene (after they discover their hiding-out spot, name it Moonrise Kingdom, and adeptly set up camp there) is delivered as thoughts-out-loud, a decidedly Anderson-esque method of conveying information and deepening characters.  For example, the children discuss kissing before they actually do, and grant verbal permission for other activities (“You can touch them if you want,” says Suzy).  It’s hard to put a finger on this technique, but it gels with the story’s pacing and provides several very funny moments (if not only serving to remind us how awkward everyone’s first romantic encounters actually are).

Lastly, a dog is killed in this movie.  People get upset about that.  I admit, sometimes these moments are sad, but I cannot understand being on the fence about an entire film (especially a wonderful one such as this) due to the appearance of a fake dog corpse.  At least the dog in this one didn’t deserve it; I recall a viewing of the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men during which two friends (a couple) became vocal and disturbed after Josh Brolin’s character kills a vicious hunting dog in self defense.  They did not, however, bat an eyelash during scenes in which Javier Bardem brutally murders countless innocent bystanders.  This oversensitivity to dog death in movies – and it’s always dogs; cat death is often portrayed humorously (see The Boondock Saints) – was parodied to an unbelievable extent in What Just Happened with Robert de Niro and Michael Wincott, in which a test audience has a berserk reaction to the ending of a film: they’re okay with Sean Penn being shot a zillion times by gangsters, but not with the fact that the gangsters also kill his dog.  Bruce Willis also appeared in that film, not as a cop, but as an exaggerated version of himself.

Canine murder aside, Moonrise Kingdom is one of Anderson’s best live-action movies, an adolescent echo of The Darjeeling Limited’s sensibilities, and if its characters will one day become the characters of that film, let’s allow them to live on their fantasy island for good.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012); written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola; directed by Wes Anderson; starring Jared Gilman, Sarah Hayward, Bruce Willis, and Edward Norton.

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