The Grand Budapest Hotel

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★★★★

‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is by far the finest cinematic achievement of 2014. If I was to pick my favorite moment (in a film filled with many wonderful moments – hardly a moment went by when I wasn’t smiling), it would be the scene where the prison inmates escape by using miniature sledgehammers, and pickaxes that were smuggled past prison officials inside fancy frosted pastries. If I could describe this scene (or the entire film) in two words: joyous artifice. If this sounds like a Wes Anderson picture, that is because it is.

On the surface, this is a comic caper that defies description. But, it’s a story about storytelling. It’s 1985, and we see a young girl carrying a book called ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. Then we see a status of that very writer; following this, we see the writer as an old man (Tom Wilkinson) telling the story behind the story to a documentary crew. Then, we jump back nearly twenty years when he (Jude Law) arrived at the one-time glamorous but now fading Grand Budapest Hotel situated in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. He ends up having dinner with the owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who tells the story of how we came to run the place (the story that would later become the novel). Rewind back to 1932 when Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori) was the new lobby boy working under the strict command of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).  M. Gustave not only keeps the hotel and its staff in tiptop shape but also attends to the needs of his clientele – this includes fulfilling the bedroom desires of 84-year-old Madame D. (Tilda Swinton).  

When she ends up dead (her death sets everything else in motion), Gustave learns from her attorney (Jeff Goldblum) that he has inherited a priceless painting. This news doesn’t sit well with her adult son Dmitri (Adrien Brody); and there’s a cold-blooded assassin Jopling (Willem Dafoe) to make sure Gustave never gets it. But, Gustave and Zero manage to grab the painting and return to the hotel; at this point, Gustave is framed for her murder. Other players enter: Agatha (Saorise Ronan), an apprentice in Zubrowka’s pre-eminent bakery, Captain Henckels (Edward Norton), the military police chief after Gustave and Zero. The excellent cast also includes Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, Harvey Keitel, and Anderson devotees such as Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson.

All of this material is presented in standard Wes Anderson style, which is to say, there is nothing standard about it. The recursive story-within-a-story structure signifies the importance of storytelling, or at least how it provides weight to something seemingly meaningless. The filmmaking consists of densely packed compositions and framing, meticulously composed and designed shots, precise and detailed traveling shots to supplement his ingenious and oddly practical imagination, and action sequences absent of digital wizardry in favor of something more old school. The story itself is presented in narrow, orthogonal dimensions that are reminiscent of the films of its 1930s setting. Or at least a third of it; actually, the film presents us with three different layers of history. ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is set in three different time periods: present day 1980s, 1960s, and 1930s – early 1940s. Anderson switches between three different aspect ratios so we know where we are (1.85 in the 1980s, 2.40 in the 1960s, and 1.37 in the 1930s-1940s).

Anderson is now one of my favorite filmmakers and I think this is because he has one thing most filmmakers lack – an original vision and one that is expressed seamlessly. Even with a reasonably short runtime of 100 minutes, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is Anderson’s most ambitious undertaking yet. In tackling a complicated section of 20th century European history, and by merging playfulness and humor with some serious and ugly history, Anderson is tasked with the challenge of maintaining tone, but the balance between comedy and drama is perfect. His style has become so distinct and evolved that revisiting his debut feature ‘Bottle Rocket’ will have you thinking “This doesn’t quite feel like Wes Anderson yet.”

For those hoping that Anderson would take a new direction, this isn’t the movie where he does what you want him to. His distinct visual sensibilities remain intact, and he continues to elaborate on familiar themes, and present us with eccentric characters – they appear silly on the surface but contain a lot of depth. Despite its setting, the dialogue is contemporary American. (Almost) no one bothers with European accents – this only adds to the film’s playful absurdity. For some reason, Gustave has an English accent (though his character is modeled after an Austrian). Fiennes’ performance is brilliant; downright hilarious when he needs to be, yes, but his angry outbursts only allude to the darkness of this period. Anderson’s last two efforts had an MPAA PG-13 rating – this one has an MPAA R-rating and so the screenplay offers up plenty of naughty words, naughty deeds, grisly slapstick, and a cat is thrown out the window (well, in ‘The Royal Tenanbaums’, a beagle is flatted by a sports car and a dog is shot with an arrow in ‘Moonrise Kingdom’). These elements don’t sit well with everyone and a cheap argument can be made about how Anderson dislikes pets. But I admire him for having the courage to “bring these pets into the equation” (his words to a Toronto Star reporter). Don’t animals face the same cruel world we humans do?

 The movie credits the writings of Stefan Zweig, the Viennese writer whose memoir ‘The World of Yesterday’ was the film’s inspiration. I’m not the least bit familiar with Zweig’s work (and clearly, it’s not a prerequisite to enjoying the heck out of this picture).

 On more than one occasion, Gustave speaks of a “glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we now know as humanity.” He is a fierce survivor. In real-world 1930s, places akin to Zubrowka were on the brink of barbarity and carnage, essentially surviving as an object of nostalgic longing – this longing is embraced by Mr. Anderson. Secondary settings include a muggy prison, a sublime bakeshop, the railway (and other steam-powered modes of transportation); objects (physical and intellectual): telegrams, handmade luggage, paintings, poetry, and psychoanalysis. Anderson captures the strange essence of a bygone world. 

The movie is a blast, yes. But, it’s at the service of something more substantial. Others may feel differently, but I can admire the use of comedy as a means of opposition against political oppression. There is a lot going on in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ – Anderson has conjured a world which is subject to tensions that exist on the outset. We don’t see Hitler or Stalin; for all intents and purposes, they don’t exist in this world. But, offhand references to tragic occurrences call attention to the unseen; the darkness that exists outside the frame. And this tension is reflected within the Gustave character – his refined appearance masks some adolescent vulgarity, and angry outbursts, eluding to the darkness of the period. This isn’t real life, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a mostly tasty pasty; that is until, we discover the corrosive properties contained within the bottom layer. 

‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is Wes Anderson’s eighth feature and I think it is best since ‘Rushmore’. I was charmed (as I usually am with his work) but didn’t expect to be as moved as I was. Here’s to the best film of the year so far. QED.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Last weekend, my friend sent me a text saying “Hey, let’s go see ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman. It’s playing in 3-D at Varsity at 5:05 p.m.” These characters weren’t familiar to me; I hadn’t heard of the film. Apparently, I had seen a trailer for it prior to ‘The Lego Movie’, but it escaped my memory very quickly. Then, there’s the 3-D aspect, which I always dread (unfortunately, a 2-D version of the picture wasn’t playing at a convenient time for us). Then, I read the synopsis online only to discover that the movie’s two main characters were a time-traveling talking dog and his human son. My reply text was “O…k, if that’s what you want to see.”

I’m glad I went. I can’t comment on whether purists who know every episode of the circa 1960s television show will have a great time, but as a newbie who wasn’t in the least familiar with these characters or the premise, I found it to be an imperfect, but fast-moving, witty, consistently funny, and well-intentioned picture.

Like ‘The Lego Movie’, ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’ has a number of sight gags and pop-culture jokes that will ricochet off the heads of younger viewers only to have the adult audience members bursting with laugher.  One scene in particular had me laughing louder than anyone else in the theater, including the young ones – without spoiling it, be on the lookout for what Beethoven does when he finds himself in 2014.

Oh, and it has some terrific voice performances (which any successful animated comedy needs).  Ty Burrell (or Phil Dunphy from ‘Modern Family’) has the perfect line delivery; you know, for Earth’s lone talking dog and the planet’s smartest creature. His credentials: Harvard graduate, Nobel Prize winner, pun enthusiast, Olympic medalist, political advisor, master of every musical instrument, and language known to man. His greatest challenge, though, is being a father to his adopted human son, Sherman. He teaches Sherman about world history by traveling through a time machine he invented called the WABAC (pronounced “Way Back”, get it?). Together, they manage to meet everyone from Gandhi to Jackie Robinson. Does this sound like ‘Bill and Ted’ to you? I was reminded of those pictures. In any event, the best parts of  ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’ are the encounters with these storied figures. 

Max Charles voices dorky 7-year-old Sherman, and Ariel Winter (Alex from ‘Modern Family’) is Penny Peterson – she’s threatened by Sherman’s intellect and life experiences.  The two get into a fight at school; Mr. Peabody then arranges a dinner party to meet and smooth things over with Penny’s parents. Sherman tries to impress Penny by showing her the WABAC. Their time-tripping adventure results in a rip in the space-time continuum; and so, they must work together (alongside Mr. Peabody) to repair it.

I noticed all the characters have big heads and large eyes; I guess if you want to illustrate cartoonish facial expressions, um, a cartoon works best for this? Animated feature? You know what I mean. But, for a “large head” animated feature, the human characters don’t seem the least bit freaked out by a talking dog, and so the animation design doesn’t fully serve its purpose.

Because this is a family film, the recipe includes several drops of unabashed sentimentality. Part of the present-day plot involves a child services worker who is unable to accept that a dog (even one as brilliant as Mr. Peabody) is fit to parent a child. Mr. Peabody standing up for his parental rights can be seen as a testament to the increasing prominence of non-traditional family units in our real world. Sherman shows signs of rebelliousness; his genius father always calls the shots and takes care of everything; canine parents don’t seem to recognize the importance of their children’s independence (ahem, or human parents, ahem). I admire the fact that the movie didn’t hit me over the head with this message of family love; the preachyness is limited to a teary, short set of speeches towards the end. The focus is where it ought to be – on the father-son relationship; in this case, the father just happens to be a beagle.

The feature was directed by Ron Minkoff (‘The Lion King’). Now, ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’ isn’t nearly as memorable as that picture. It isn’t even in the same league as the recent ‘The Lego Movie’, or ‘The Wind Rises’. But, it succeeds in what it sets out to do: it is a bright, gentle, funny, and good-natured picture.

As fun as the adventures were, they aren’t able to justify the in-your-face 3-D surcharge. Even with the limitations presented by the added dimension, the visuals are vibrant and richly detailed. And, I didn’t suffer a headache watching it (what a complement!). See it in 2-D if you can. QED.

The Wind Rises

Hayao Miyazki has made nine animated features, including ‘Princess Mononoke’ and ‘Spirited Away’ since he founded Studio Ghibli in 1985. Now, at the age of 72, the filmmaker has announced his retirement and so ‘The Wind Rises’ is his last picture. My guess is he will pass the reigns over to his son, Goro Miyazaki, whose animated feature ‘From Up On Poppy Hill’ played in limited release last year. 

Just this past week, we saw ‘Frozen’ win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. However, the picture that deserved the win in this category is ‘The Wind Rises’ if only for the beautiful way it captures the dream of flight. This isn’t the first Studio Ghibli production to feature flying machines (‘Castle in the Sky’, and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ come to mind). Even the name of the studio, Ghibli, means “wind”. To call Miyazaki an aviation enthusiast may be an understatement

It might seem crazy to say ‘The Wind Rises’ is grounded in reality but I’m going to say it. The best animated films make us forget that we’re watching artificially created characters and immerse us into the story. What’s especially distinctive about this work is the absence of fantastical elements, which is usually the trademark of Miyazaki’s features. Instead, this is something of a biopic; a story based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi. That is to say it is the story of a young man who pursues his dreams of being an aeronautical engineer in Japan during the 1930s.

What he ends up designing, though, is Japan’s zero fighter plane – which we know from History class was the aircraft used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. In his dreams, Jiro meets the Italian aircraft designer Count Gianni Caproni who shows off the nine-winged flying boat he would one day build and throws in several philosophical lemmas such as: i) airplanes are beautiful dreams, ii) engineers turn dreams into reality, iii) airplanes are not tools of war, iv) airplanes will be used to bomb cities.  Notice the conflicting nature of axioms iii and iv. Jiro seems aware of but seemingly unconcerned with how the fighter plane will be utilized by the military in the event of war.

Personally, I would have preferred a little more attention to Jiro’s inner conflict extending beyond his various dreamed interactions. Any ounce of self doubt or reservations about what he’s doing is shrugged off with serene resignation. He is fascinated with design, even mundane aspects, such as the curvature of a mackerel bone. Of course, such rudimentary fascinations eventually lead to more substantial scientific discoveries – for example, how flush rivets reduce drag.

There is a lot going on in this picture; on top of Jiro’s transition into adulthood and how that is shaped by Japan’s rigid nationalism, we get a glimpse into Japan’s tempestuous history between the two world wars (including the Kanto earthquake, the Great Depression, the tuberculosis epidemic, the thought police, and the nation’s dependence on Germany for technology).

But, what ‘The Wind Rises’ lacks in thematic elements it compensates for with a hypnotically mesmerizing visual palette. No one does dreams better than Miyazaki, particularly the dream of flight. The flying sequences, among others, are lyrical, luminous and painted with a surrealism-dabbed vibe, which makes it completely different from the photo-realistic image-sharp quality of today’s 3-D computer-animated features.

Some will dismiss the film as a celebration of a weapon’s designer. This is hard to argue, and consequently for such viewers, it will be difficult to see Jiro from a nonjudgmental lens. Somehow, I was able to, maybe because I saw the picture as a celebration of an artist actively pursuing his dreams. Especially true is the burden of trying to balance work life from family life (even when his new bride is dying from tuberculosis, Jiro remains hard at work).  

If this is indeed Miyazaki’s last film, he is certainly flying out on a high note. So, thank you, Hayou Miyazaki, for the cinematic memories you’ve given us for the last 30 years. ‘The Wind Rises’ is currently playing in an English-language dubbed version and in Japanese. A colleague of mine gave the picture a 3/4 star review claiming what hurt the picture was “brutal dubbing”. Lucky for me, I saw it in Japanese with excellent English subtitles and award the film 3.5/4 stars. You should too. QED.