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.
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.
by Steve Habrat
Up until yesterday, my favorite Wes Anderson film was 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the hilarious aquatic escapade that was one of Bill Murray’s finest hours. I think I may have a new number one pick. The hipster auteur’s latest quirky adventure Moonrise Kingdom could be his crowning achievement, one that has staggering amounts of feeling and emotion behind every single frame. If you were to just show someone Moonrise Kingdom without telling them who the director is, they would be able to figure it out at lightning speed just by the obsessive compulsive organization of every frame and the deadpan humor. This is perhaps Anderson’s most stylish film to date (yes, even more so than The Fantastic Mr. Fox), yet Anderson’s work has always been plagued by style threatening to overtake the narrative but not in Moonrise Kingdom. Along with screenwriter Roman Coppola (son of Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola), Anderson crafts a fragile tribute to young love and innocence that will slowly take over you for the hour and forty minutes that it inhabits the movie screen. It is a love story that could only be told by Anderson himself and no one else.
Moonrise Kingdom begins on an island off the coast of New England in 1965, where twelve-year-old “Khaki Scout” orphan Sam Shakusky (Played by Jared Gilman) and forgotten bookworm Suzy Bishop (Played by Kara Hayward) have run off together into the thick wilderness. After waking up to discover that Sam has “flew the coop”, bumbling Scout Master Ward (Played by Edward Norton) quickly alerts island police Captain Sharp (Played by Bruce Willis), who puts together a ragtag search party that consists of Suzy’s parents, Mr. Bishop (Played by Bill Murray) and Mrs. Bishop (Played by Frances McDormand), and the rest of Ward’s “Khaki Scouts” to locate the two lovebirds. Sam and Suzy are quickly discovered and ripped away from each other, but the “Khaki Scouts” begin to suspect they have made a terrible mistake by helping the adults. They quickly draw up a plan that would reunite Sam and Suzy, taking them on an adventure of a lifetime. Their adventure threatens to turn deadly as a violent hurricane makes its way towards the island.
Anderson makes what could possibly be the most organized film of his career, every single shot done up to maddening perfection. A leaf is perfectly placed on the corner of a picnic blanket while a Tang can is tilted just right. Yet it is a lot of fun to spot the tiny details that he throws in to make it 1965, the Tang inclusion actually being the funniest one along with all the slouchy horn-rimmed glasses that obscure the eyes. Anderson finds a way to allow the whimsical composition to really compliment our misfit heroes, a magical frame to compliment the magical feeling that has wormed its way into their small hearts. Gilman and Hayward give some of the finest and most touching performances of the year so far, even more amazing because these are child actors. I was completely engrossed in their budding young love, chuckling over their first encounter, which takes place a year earlier in 1964, where Sam sneaks into the girls dressing room during a church play and demands to know what kind of bird Suzy is playing. She’s a raven, if you must know. Their connection is misunderstood by the melancholic adults that wander the island, all who are searching for some strand of happiness to shake them out of their funk. You will find yourself longing for the spark that these two kids find earlier on. They just understand each other from the first time their eyes lock. Hey, isn’t that what love is all about?
While Gilman and Hayward own every scene in Moonrise Kingdom, the adults do a fine job of keeping us engulfed in all the surreal dramatics. Norton seems right at home as Scout Master Ward, a lanky buffoon who stomps around his campsite spouting off camping tips to his “Khaki Scouts”, the best one being his questioning the shoddy construction of a dangerously high tree house (one of the film’s best jokes). Bruce Willis as the deflated Captain Sharp is a character that just longs for someone to share his time with in his cramped little trailer. He carries on an affair with Mrs. Bishop, who crushes his spirits even more when Mr. Bishop begins to suspect something is up. You’ll beam when he finally gets his moment to shine in the final moments of the film. It is such a nice change of pace to see Willis actually doing something more than running from explosions and firing a machine gun. Murray chews up his scenes as the preoccupied Mr. Bishop, a man who barely notices his own family until he suspects something odd going on between Sharp and Mrs. Bishop. McDormand is cold as Mrs. Bishop, an equally preoccupied and firm force in the Bishop household. She’s hilarious as she storms through the house bossing Suzy and her three younger brothers around with a bullhorn. Also keep an eye out for hilarious cameos from Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, and Jason Schwartzman.
Moonrise Kingdom is brimming with an innocence that never seems to slip away. Suzy and Sam seem more comfortable dancing away on a secluded beach rather than attempting to get “fresh” with each other. It is almost paralyzing to the viewer when Sam and Suzy are separated and Social Services (Played by Tilda Swinton) shows up to have Sam carted off to an orphanage. It is devastating to see these two misfit children, who glow when they are in each other’s company, separated by a sea of frowning adults that don’t have a clue what happiness is. That is the exact message of Moonrise Kingdom, young love may be reckless, a bit irresponsible, but it knows what it wants and we can’t possibly fault it for that. Gloom and routine are for the adults! It is that longing to be young again that really hits hard in Moonrise Kingdom, making the older viewers walk away aching for an innocence that can never be obtained again. Overall, Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s masterwork, a flawless film that is warm, dreamy, and relentlessly funny, drenched in the sunrays of summer, feeling the wind in its hair, and relishing the sand between its toes. Moonrise Kingdom is one of the best films of 2012 so far.