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Mini Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

the grand budapest hotel

by Steve Habrat

By this point, you know if you’re a proud member of the Wes Anderson fan club. After films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenebaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom, you know if you’ve developed a taste for his meticulously organized frames, quirky casts of characters, dry sense of humor, and surprisingly touching dramatics. If you’re one that hasn’t been tickled by Anderson’s cinematic efforts, don’t expect anything to change with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which finds the auteur indulging his whimsical artistry like a kid in a candy store. With all of the usual traits in place, Anderson sends the audience spiraling through a small slice of history—one fashioned from the winking cartoonish touches that Anderson has become noted and celebrated for. While this zany murder mystery is contagiously colorful and cute even in its raunchier moments, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fuzzy tribute to storytelling, and a sugary tribute to classic slapstick comedy of years past presented to the viewer in 1.33 aspect ratio, common in silent cinema, which appears to be a major influence here. And then there is his cast, a list bursting at the seams with fresh and familiar faces ready to take a big bite out of the oddball creations that Anderson has scribbled up for them.

The Grand Budapest Hotel tells the story of Monsieur Gustave H (played by Ralph Fiennes), the beloved concierge of the magnificent Grand Budapest Hotel, nestled in the snowy mountains of the Republic of Zubrowka. The tale picks up in 1932, with young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (played by Tony Revolori) arriving at The Grand Budapest Hotel and having his first encounters with Gustave H. It turns out that Gustave H was carrying on an affair with a wealthy elderly woman named Madame D (played by Tilda Swinton), who, while visit Gustave H, reveals that she has a premonition that something bad is going to happen. Despite Madame D’s concerns, Gustave H laughs off her premonition, but a few weeks later, Madame D turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. Together, Gustave H and Zero travel to Madame D’s home, where her will is read to a house full of grieving friends and family members. Much to the horror of the guests, Madame D’s will states that she is leaving him a coveted painting called “Boy with Apple,” something that enraged her son, Dmitri (played by Adrien Brody), who vows to come after Gustave H. After making off with “Boy with Apple” and returning to the hotel, things get worse for Gustave H when authorities led by Inspector Henckels (played by Edward Norton) arrive to arrest him for the death of Madame D. Stuck behind bars and with Zubrowka on the brink of war, Gustave H races to escape from prison and prove his innocence with the help of Zero and some unlikely inmates. Meanwhile, a shadowy assassin called J.P. Jopling (played by Willem Dafoe) closes in on Gustave H and those closest to him.

The Grand Budapest Hotel #2

There isn’t a shot in The Grand Budapest Hotel that isn’t littered with Anderson’s cinematic fingerprints. Nearly each and every frame is neatly arranged down to the fussy tilts of a pencil or the messy stack of legal documents. It’s unmistakably Anderson to the point where if you scrubbed his name from the credits, it wouldn’t take the audience long to figure out that it sprouted from his distinct imagination. There are the tracking shots that explore the inside of The Grand Budapest Hotel as if someone sliced it down the center and peered into it like a dollhouse. There are also the glaringly artificial miniatures, which Anderson presents with his expected winks and grins. Though what sets The Grand Budapest Hotel apart from other Anderson fare is the nods to classic cinema, particularly silent slapstick comedies. The Grand Budapest Hotel could be muted and converted to black and white, have intertitles placed strategically throughout, and the film would work marvelously as a silent comedy. There are also a number of chase sequences throughout the film, the most outstanding—and vaguely Hitchcockian/German Expressionist—is a shadowy game of cat-and-mouse through a museum between Dafoe’s vampiric thug J.P. Jopling and Jeff Goldblum’s lawyer, Deputy Vilmos Kovacs. It’s the highlight of the picture, followed closely by a snowy ski chase that keeps you doubled over in laughter over how preposterous the action is.

As usual, Anderson enlists the help of an ensemble cast, many of which will be familiar to Anderson aficionados. The newcomer here is Fiennes, who takes great pleasure in applying his gentlemanly demeanor to Gustave H, the flamboyant concierge who sleeps with elderly woman, gags at the thought of drinking cheap wine, and is bound-and-determined not to become the “candyass” in prison. Fiennes is exquisite, but hot on his coattails is Dafoe, who excels in the role of the stocky assassin J.P. Jopling, a brick of a man who sports skull rings on each one of his fingers and mercilessly tosses cats out of windows. Other standouts include Norton’s dweebie Inspector Henckles, the barely-recognizable Swinton as the elderly Madame D (she’s basically an extended cameo that acts more as a visual chuckle), and Revolori’s Zero, Gustave H’s young sidekick who inks on his pencil-thin mustache and essential acts as our guide through the halls of the hotel. There are a number of other cameos from faces you’d expect to see, although, the most severely underused is Saoirse Ronan’s Agatha, Zero’s birth marked love interest who isn’t give much to do yet acts as a huge emotional weight. Overall, though The Grand Budapest Hotel may not rank as my favorite Wes Anderson picture, and it may not be as funny or tender as some of his previous work, it’s still an enchanting ode to the art of storytelling (it concludes with a nod to Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig), and to the eternal joys of silent cinema.

Grade: B+

Skyfall (2012)

by Craig Thomas

For me, my favourite Bond film is Goldeneye. I think it is by far and away the best of the bunch. That may be due to it being released when I was at a formative age and it containing all sorts of things I was interested in. It had revenge, exploding pens, computer terrorism and sexy Russian ladies who could kill you with her thighs. In short, it had everything 13 year old me could desire. After that, I could take it or leave it. The older films seemed overly camp whilst the ones that followed just propelled the series further into the ridiculous at every opportunity (invisible cars, anyone?)

Then they decided as is the fashion these days, to do a reboot, a new origins story and a new Bond for a new millennium. The reason in the 40-odd years since Bond first graced our screens in Dr. No, was that the world had changed. No longer were the Russians the main threat. No longer was there a bipolar world with the obvious dynamic of good and evil. No. Now the world was much more complicated and it was time for a more modern, more relevant, more human Bond. One that reflected the uncertainties and complexities of living in the post-9/11 world. There was also the small matter of the Bourne films having a massive impact on the genre, by being “the opposite of Bond”. He went on to say, “The Bond character will always be anchored in the 1960s and the values of the ‘60s. Bond is an imperialist and a misogynist who kills people and laughs about it and drinks Martinis and cracks jokes.”

And so they remade Casino Royale and everyone hailed it as a return to form (even Quentin Tarantino, though he still insisted it was his idea), a great achievement and one that showed Bond still had a place in the world. It transformed him into a 3-dimensional, flawed and emotionally-scarred character, with feelings and emotions and all that stuff that people seem to want nowadays. Then they made the follow-up, Quantum of Solace which carried on the Bond revolution, though in such a way that after the film no-one could understand what the hell had happened.

So when Skyfall was announced, people were clearly nervous. Obviously, it would make a ton of money and loads of people would go to see it (it was after all, still Bond), but would it be any good? In a word, yes. It is better than QoS and probably Casino Royale. It is certainly my second favourite Bond film, but the difference between Skyfall and Goldeneye in my eyes is still immense.

I believe it is important to present your biases upfront, so that people can try to compensate for that. So, as you might have guessed by now, I don’t really like Bond. It just isn’t my cup of tea. I had high hopes for the reboot and, whilst they were certainly better than the rest of them, it still contained the fundamentals of why I dislike Bond. All of these problems are still in the new film, so it was inevitable that by the end I would be punching myself in the face, which I very literally was. But that’s just me.

The plot is fine. It is a simple story of revenge. The gadgets (if you can call them that) are pretty basic. There aren’t any sexy Russian thigh-killers, but then you can’t have everything. In short, it’s a relatively stripped-back Bond and carries on the feel of the last two outings.

In case you missed it, Bond is 50 years old now and the film revolves around this idea. It asks the question “can Bond still cut it?” and the answer is obviously going to be “yes!” For anyone even slightly versed in Bond folklore, this makes the first 40 or so minutes of the film pretty redundant as we all know what is going to happen, but I suppose that is part of what makes Bond so appealing (I guess, I don’t really understand it). Anyway, this idea flows through the movie. Bond is broken, M is hung out to dry and the whole idea of human espionage in general, and the 00 program in particular are questioned, in a very public manner. Throughout, MI6 struggles to cope with the very 21st century phenomenon of cyber-terrorism and the reaction to this is to relocate MI6 into the underground bunkers used during World War Two by then Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Oh yes, and to emphasize the point that Bond might be getting too old for this shit, the new Q is about 12 years old.

There has been a lot of buzz about there possibly being an Oscar-buzz about this film, but that is clearly all studio hype. There is nothing particularly special about this film in any regard, with the possible exception of the official song by Adele, which is actually really good.

On the acting front, Dame Judy Dench is great as always, but I am quickly coming to the conclusion that Daniel Craig is not a good actor, or at least not good for Bond. Perhaps I am being unfair so I will try to address that point in a moment. First, I would like to mention that all the supporting-cast, with the exception of the main bad guy had very little time for any kind of character development and were just kind of there out of necessity.

Now that’s out of the way, I would like to take a moment to say that Raoul Silva (played by Javier Bardem) is possibly my favourite (male) Bond villain of all time. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, Bardem is a really great actor and once again gives a brilliant performance as someone supremely creep (see No Country for Old Men for a further example of his ability to be wonderfully evil). Secondly, he has all the best lines and thirdly, I don’t really like any of the other (male) Bond villains.

This brings me to the point both about Silva and Bond, their strengths and their weaknesses. Now, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Daniel Craig in a good film so I can’t really assess how he would do with a good script and I didn’t found out from this. The script could have been almost entirely written by pumping the plot into an online auto Bond dialogue generator. It has all the sophistication of a Marx Brothers film, with none of the humour. Every time someone speaks to Bond it is only to set up another pun or dry comment. They aren’t funny, they aren’t smooth and if you paused the film every time someone said something to Bond and wrote down what you expected him to say in reply, you would be right every time. In short, it is very tiresome and explains why everyone wants Bond dead! I think this also explains why Silva is so much better; he is actually given dialogue! True, it isn’t Shakespeare, but at least it’s something more sophisticated than smart-arse tourettes.

As you would expect, the explosions are great and the action sequences look great, when they are physically done. There is quite a lot of CGI in this film and it’s not difficult to see where this is, but that’s the deal with every big film that comes out nowadays. It is still awful that a visual medium often sacrifices the visuals first, but that is for another time.

Coming to the end, I think there are only two more areas of this film I want to touch upon. The first is the nostalgia. Being the half-centenary of Bond, they also took the opportunity to make a whole bunch of not-at-all-subtle references to a whole host of Bond films which even I noticed. If you’re a fan you could probably play Bond bingo. Some people in the audience were laughing, but I found them as grating as the self-referencing jokes in The Dark Knight Rises.

The second is the product placement. The good news is, it isn’t quite as blatant and in your face as in the first two movies, but it is still there and it is still in your face. From what I noticed, there was the beer, the glasses, the watch, the computers, the cars, and I’m sure there’s a whole host of things I’m missing. But what I didn’t miss was that literally half of the adverts before the trailers were for Bond products. There was the watch, obviously. And the beer. And a Bond-specific movie channel. And the 007 cologne. And a host of other things. All of those are real. Yes, even the 007 cologne.

Personally, I think advertising in general, and product placement in particular, are evil. But I also understand that is a reality of the world in which we live. However, having had such prominent placement in the previous films and a big in-your-face one in the opening scenes I find it hard not to keep searching them out. So when there was a big emotional scene, I was thinking “yep, make sure the watch is in a prominent position out front”. Cynical? Yes. Wrong? Unfortunately, probably not.

One final thing, I found the narrative to lack any real sort of drive. Each particular bit was pretty good, but the driving force seemed to be the need to drive the film forward, rather than being driven by the characters. That’s why Bond is left for dead about half-a-dozen times and no-one seems to learn their lesson. There was very much a sense, in my mind at least, of the creators sitting down and saying “we need to get to x, so we’ll make this guy do y even though it doesn’t make sense either logically, or to the essence of the character.”

So, you can probably tell that I didn’t like it. But I should stress the reason I didn’t like it was that there were a thousand tiny things that irritated me all the way through, and the stupid reveal right at the end really had me boiling with rage, particularly as I’m vaguely aware of it conflicting with something from Casino Royale.

I saw it with a friend who isn’t particularly fussed about Bond and he really enjoyed it. Saying that, he really enjoyed Prometheus and I was sent on a similar trip of movie-rage about the flaws in that film. So, if you just want to see a stupid action movie then you’ll have a really good time. If you’re a fan of the Bond films, and the last two in particular, you will absolutely love this . I am in no doubt about that. And at the end of the day, despite all my vitriol and irritation at the thing, that is all that matters.

Grade: (Bond fans and people who don’t hate Bond) A

Grade: (people who really don’t like Bond for the exact reasons I don’t like Bond) D