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.

 

Coriolanus

Hear you this Triton of the minnows?

Ralph Fiennes’ modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic Coriolanus is either a masterpiece or a travesty depending upon your level of reading comprehension in high school and college.   When I was working on my theatre minor, this was one of the plays I wished our department would put on (next to George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House), but alas, we were stuck with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that one bit of Shakespeare that’s impossible not to “get.”

Fiennes’ version of the story takes place in “Rome,” though the soldiers wear American army fatigues, and the streets and the protesters occupying them look painfully familiar.  As contemporary as the scenery may be, however, we’re still playing by Rome’s rules, and if you want to be on the same level as the characters when the story begins, a basic understanding of Roman government is necessary.  Fiennes plays Caius Martius, a newly appointed general in the running for consul during the era of popular rule.  He almost gets there, but because of the scheming tribunes (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson), the people realize that Martius, a brutal, idealistic military man who believes the people should have no control over the patricians (“allowing crows to peck at the eagles”), may not be the best person to represent them.  The tribunes push Martius over the edge during a heated conversation in front of the entire capital, driving the latter to denounce the government and its people, a crime punished by banishment.  Eventually, Martius, a shell of himself, forms an alliance with his blood enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), concerned with nothing but vengeance against his country.

Fundamental issues already exist in this narrative, including the fact that Martius has a wife, Virgilia (played by Jessica Chastain, the most prolific actress working today, as far as I’m concerned), often described as one of Shakespeare’s loveliest female characters (which isn’t saying much, but that’s neither here nor there); an overbearing mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), and a young son.  He leaves them behind without a word, also forsaking his friends, including Senator Menenius (Brian Cox).  If Martius loses his self-righteous battle against Rome, can we really see this as a “tragedy?”  He’s a violent maniac, a pathetic husband, and a dangerous political figure.

Performance-wise, Fiennes, Chastain, Redgrave, Cox, and Nesbitt bring their A-games, as one would expect in a film of this type.  Butler, billed as the co-star but playing a character who doesn’t actually appear much, does a competent job looking menacing, but I occasionally got the sense that he memorized the thick Shakespearian dialogue without much thought about its meaning.  Unfortunately, the second half of the film does not live up to the first.  Aside from an extended battle that might make you think you’re watching The Hurt Locker, the film’s first hour is ripe with drama: Martius vs. his mother, Martius vs. his wife, Martius vs. the people, Martius vs. Aufidius, Martius vs. the tribunes.  This is all forgone once he is banished, and the “raid on Rome” is never actually shown, so the desperation of Volumnia and Virgilia to stop him in the climactic confrontation is not completely evident; the scene itself, however, shines.

Additionally, material from the original play is changed and removed, often for incomprehensible reasons.  Why, for example, does screenwriter John Logan choose to have Menenius commit suicide in the latter 3/4 of the film after being unable to convince Martius to halt his advance on Rome?  The danger is not real enough for him to think the entire city is doomed, and his friendship with Martius is never developed enough to make us believe he would be so devastated.  The other unforgivable change is the omission of Aufidius’ final speech in the play, where after seeing to Martius’ death, he expresses not satisfaction despite his lifelong desire to kill the man, but a great sorrow, and orders that Martius be given a noble burial.

Coriolanus is a good film because of its cast.  Fiennes is rarely so fierce, and we’re reminded why Vanessa Redgrave should be leading more ensembles.  I can only assume that the modern combat visuals and bizarre revisions are an attempt to rope in the Call of Duty crowd, but hey, if it gets young people to absorb staples of literary culture (and more so to attempt to understand their construction, flaws, and their racial and gender issues), I support it.

Coriolanus (2011); written by John Logan (adapted from William Shakespeare’s play); directed by Ralph Fiennes; starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, and Gerard Butler.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

And we all fall down

deathlyWouldn’t you know it; the local movie theatre finally developed an organized and professional way to hold midnight premieres for the Harry Potter films, just in time for the final installment in the series.  I guess they can keep the new and improved process in mind when The Hunger Games and whatever other angsty young-adult books are translated into film next.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is, as the title suggests, the second part of a 5-ish-hour film, and believe me, this one feels like the second half of a film.  Director David Yates, in one of his only wise moves in this film, wisely avoids rehashing Part 1 and wasting time.  We get right into the story, with stubbly young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) chatting with the folks he rescued in the previous film and attempting to learn the secrets of two sets of MacGuffins: the Deathly Hallows, mystic objects most people do not believe exist, and therefore, in the realm of movie logic, must exist; and the Horcruxes, objects tainted with dark magic by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), which contain pieces of his soul.  The falling action of the Potter series follows Harry’s mission, along with Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) hunting for a way to destroy Voldemort, as Voldemort’s forces close in on Hogwarts School and prepare to annihilate its inhabitants.

Performance-wise, the film is solid, and as mentioned in my review of Part 1, seeing so many legendary British actors together in one spot is a treat.  As such, the supporting cast is infinitely more interesting than the main trio, as Harry remains stalwart throughout seven (or in the film’s case, eight) stories and never shirks his Boring Hero act.  Rickman as Severus Snape, Fiennes as Voldemort, and Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall steal much of the show here.  The film also features a nice scene with Kelly MacDonald (of Boardwalk Empire fame) as Helena Ravenclaw, a ghost who possesses secrets about one of the final Horcruxes.

Yates’ use of character is not as strong here as it once was, and on some occasions, we really feel as though we’ve missed something.  Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), Tonks (Natalia Tena), Kingsley (George Harris), Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson) and several others are given very limited screen time and not allowed to say much, yet we’re expected to feel sympathy at their deaths (which are mostly unseen), and satisfaction at their killers being brought to justice.  Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) and Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), two of Harry’s more interesting schoolmates, are given plenty to do, and to the film’s credit, it’s nice to see virtually every minor cast member from the last four or five films involved in the defense of Hogwarts, even if they’re just standing there.  Nick Moran, Chris Rankin and a few others reprise their roles, but keep silent, as though they’ve been told not to speak lest the studio have to pay them more if they utter a line.

Yates makes several good choices and slightly more bad ones.  Aside from character issues, little of the actual fighting is shown in the much-anticipated Battle of Hogwarts.  We get snippets of unnamed extras fighting and dying as Harry and the gang run past to their next objective, but little to no fighting footage of any supporting cast members (characters with names) is seen.  I do wonder if there were deleted scenes featuring these characters.  As this movie is shorter than the last one, would it have been so bad to keep the footage in?  Additionally, after the already action-heavy opening third of the film ends, the clever and occasionally well-written dialogue of Part 1 gives way to nonstop action and CG.  Many of the scenes feel rushed, and I felt like I was being asked not-so-politely to simply accept character relationships forged five films ago and not worry about “talking” in this one.  Do filmmakers realize that battle scenes are especially boring when we don’t care about the characters who do the battling?

I would also like to ask David Yates why villains must crumble to pieces or melt when they die.  The heroes are seen bloodied and beaten, sometimes torn apart, while the main bad guys vanish into dust or explode into a gemlike blue substance.  This is not what death looks like.  When Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) died in the fourth film, there was impact.  Know why?  Because he is cruelly murdered at point blank range, and his lifeless body flops unceremoniously onto the ground, eyes open and lustrous.  We know who, we know why, and it feels real.  The old Wicked Witch death (i.e. melting, crumbling, vanishing into smoke, or otherwise completely transmogrifying) is not an effective portrayal of death if you’re trying to evoke emotional impact, because the audience cannot equate it with anything from real life.  There is nothing to associate the feeling with.  If you’re a big fan of the books and don’t care about any of this, suffice it to say “it didn’t happen in the book,” and have at it.

The strongest section of the film involves revelations about Snape’s past, and Alan Rickman does not shortchange us with his performance, nor does Yates with the time he devotes to these scenes.  There’s a lot to like in the film, particularly the memories sequence, the wonderfully-done special effects (especially the multiplying treasure in the Gringotts vault), and the appropriate level of climax, given what this story has been building up to.  Perhaps the most enjoyable part of a film like this is seeing it in a crowded theatre with an audience who doesn’t know what’s going to happen.  Reactions are golden.

The film, while not the best in the series and far below the best of art, is an experience worth having, and closes out the series with Seinfeldian flair. It’s time to bid these characters farewell, so if you’re a big fan of the series, fret not.  Your life is not over.  There’s a world of amazing books out there, for which these served as barely a warm-up.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2; written by Steve Kloves; directed by David Yates; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Ralph Fiennes.

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