“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

I have never been a major fan of Wes Anderson’s films in the past. Well . . . I take that back. I have never been a fan of his films, with the exception of one – namely 2007’s “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. Perhaps my inability to appreciate most of Anderson’s films was due to my inability to understand his sense of humor . . . or cinematic style. Who knows? However, after viewing “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”, the number of Anderson films of which I became a fan, rose to two.

Written and directed by Anderson, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” is about the adventures of one Gustave H., a legendary concierge at a famous hotel from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka during the early 1930s; and his most trusted friend, a lobby boy named Zero Moustafa. Narrated from a much older Zero, the movie, which was inspired by the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zweig, begins in the present day in which a teenage girl stares at a monument inside a cemetery, who holds a memoir in her arms, written by a character known as “The Author”. The book narrates a tale in which “the Author” as a younger man visited the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 Zubrowka. There, he met the hotel’s elderly owner, Zero Moustafa, who eventually tells him how he took ownership of the hotel and why he is unwilling to close it down.

The story shifts to 1932, in which a much younger Zero was one of the hotel’s lobby boys, freshly arrived in Zubrowka as a war refugee. Zero becomes acquainted with Monsieur Gustave H., who is a celebrated concierge known for sexually pleasing some of the hotel’s wealthy guests – namely those who are elderly and romantically desperate. One of Gustave’s guests is the very wealthy Madame Céline Villeneuve “Madame D” Desgoffe und Taxis. Although Zubrowka is on the verge of war, Gustave becomes more concerned with news that “Madame D” has suddenly died. He and Zero travels across the country to attend her wake and the reading of her will. During the latter, Gustave learns that “Madame D” has bequeathed to him a very valuable painting called “Boy with Apple”. This enrages her family, all of whom hoped to inherit it. Not long after Gustave and Zero’s return to the Grand Budapest Hotel, the former is arrested and imprisoned for the murder of the elderly woman, who had died of strychnine poisoning. Gustave and Zero team up to help the former escape from prison and learn who had framed him for murder.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” not only proved to be very popular with critics, the film also earned four Golden Globe nominations and won one award – Best Film: Musical or Comedy. It also earned nine Academy Awards and won four. Not bad for a comedy about a mid-European concierge in the early 1930s. Did the movie deserved its accolades? In spades. It is the only other Wes Anderson movie I have ever developed a real love for. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. When I first heard about the movie, I did not want to see it. I did not even want to give it a chance. Thank God I did. The movie not only proved to be my favorite Anderson film, it also became one of my favorite 2014 flicks.

Is “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” perfect? For a while, I found myself hard pressed to think of anything about this movie that may have rubbed me the wrong way. I realized there was one thing with which I had a problem – namely the way this movie began. Was it really necessary to star the movie with a young girl staring at a statue of “the Author”, while holding his book? Was it really necessary to have “the Older Author” begin the movie’s narration, before he is replaced by his younger self and the older Zero Moustafa? I realized what Anderson was trying to say. He wanted to convey to movie audiences that M. Gustave and Zero’s story will continue on through the Author’s book and they will never be forgotten. But I cannot help but wonder if Anderson could have conveyed his message without this gimmicky prologue.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” may not be perfect. But I would certainly never describe it as a mediocre or even moderately good film. This movie deserved the Academy Award nominations and wins it earned . . . and many more. It was such a joy to watch it that not even its angst-filled moments could dampen my feelings. Anderson did a superb job of conveying his usual mixture of high comedy, pathos and quixotic touches in this film. Now, one might point out this is the director’s usual style, which makes it nothing new. I would agree, except . . . I believe that Anderson’s usual style perfectly blended with the movie’s 1930s Central European setting. For me, watching “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” seemed like watching an Ernst Lubitsch movie . . . only with profanity and a bit of sexual situations and nudity.

I have only watched a handful of Lubitsch’s movies and cannot recall any real violence or political situations featured in any of his plots. Wait . . . I take that back. His 1942 movie, “TO BE OR NOT TO BE” featured strong hints of violence, war and a touch of infidelity. However, I believe Anderson went a little further in his own depictions of war, violence and sex. But this did not harm the movie one bit. After all, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” was released in the early 21st century. Sex and violence is nothing new in today’s films . . . even in highly acclaimed ones. Despite the presence of both in the film, Anderson still managed to infuse a great deal of wit and style into his plot. This was especially apparent in two sequences – Zero’s initial description of M. Gustave and the Grand Budapest Hotel; and that marvelous sequence in which a fraternal order of Europe’s hotel concierges known as the Society of the Crossed Keys helped Gustave and Zero evade the police and find the one person who can who can clear Gustave’s name and help him retrieve his legacy from “Madame D”. I especially enjoyed the last sequence. In my eyes, Lubitsch could not have done it any better.

There were other aspects of “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” that enhanced its setting. First of all, I have to give kudos to Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock for their work on the movie. Stockhausen, who also served as the production designer for the Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, did a superb job of reflecting the movie’s two major time periods – Central Europe in the early 1930s and the late 1960s. Pinnock served as the film’s set decorator. Both Stockhausen and Pinnock shared the Academy Award for Best Production Design. Milena Canonero won an Oscar for the film’s costume designs. I have to admit that she deserved. I feel she deserved it, because she did an excellent job of creating costumes not only for the characters, but also their class positions and the movie’s settings. She did not simply resort to re-creating the fashion glamour of the 1930s for the sake of eye candy. Robert Yeoman’s photography for the movie really impressed me. I found it sharp and very atmospheric for the movie’s setting. I can see why he managed to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.

I was shocked when I learned that Ralph Fiennes failed to get an Academy Award nomination for his performance as M. Gustave. What on earth was the Academy thinking? I can think of at least two actor who were nominated for Best Actor for 2014, who could have been passed over. Gustave is Fiennes’ masterpiece, as far as I am concerned. I never realized he had such a spot-on talent for comedy. And although his Gustave is one of the funniest characters I have seen in recent years, I was also impressed by the touch of pathos he added to the role. Another actor, who I also believe deserved an Oscar nomination was Tony Revolori. Where on earth did Anderson find this kid? Oh yes . . . Southern California. Well . . . Revolori was also superb as the young Zero, who not only proved to be a very devoted employee and friend to M. Gustave, but also a very pragmatic young man. Like Fiennes, Revolori had both an excellent touch for both comedy and pathos. Also, both he and Fiennes proved to have great screen chemistry.

Revolori also shared a solid screen chemistry with actress Saoirse Ronan, who portrayed Zero’s lady love, pastry chef Agatha. Ronan’s charming performance made it perfectly clear why Zero and even M. Gustave found Agatha’s sharp-tongue pragmatism very alluring. Another charming performance came from Tilda Swinton, who portrayed one of Gustave’s elderly lovers. It seemed a shamed that Swinton’s appearance was short-lived. I found her portrayal of the wealthy, yet insecure and desperate Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis rather interesting. Adrien Brody gave an interesting performance as Dmitri Desgoffe und Taxis, Madame Villeneuve’s son. I have never seen Brody portray a villain before. But I must say that I was impressed by the way he effectively portrayed Dmitri as a privileged thug. Willem Dafoe was equally interesting as Dmitri’s cold-blooded assassin, J.G. Jopling. And Edward Norton struck me as both funny and scary as The movie also featured first-rate performances from Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban and especially Bill Murray as Monsieur Ivan, Gustave’s main contact with the Society of the Crossed Keys. The movie had three narrators – Tom Wilkinson as the Older Author, Jude Law as the Younger Author and F. Murray Abraham as the Older Zero. All three did great jobs, but I noticed that Wilkinson’s time as narrator was very short-lived.

What else can I say about “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”? It is one of the few movies in which its setting truly blended with Wes Anderson’s off-kilter humorous style. The movie not only benefited from great artistry from the crew and superb performances from a cast led by Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, but also from the creative pen and great direction from Wes Anderson. Now, I am inspired to try my luck with some of his other films again.

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“QUANTUM OF SOLACE” (2008) Review

“QUANTUM OF SOLACE” (2008) Review

I am going to be perfectly frank. When I first saw the 2008 James Bond movie, “QUANTUM OF SOLACE”, I  had hesitated to write a review.  Why? Because it had left me in a daze. Four days after I saw the movie I continued to experience slight feelings of confusion about it.  It was not until my second viewing of the film that I finally developed solid opinions of the film.

”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” was a direct sequel of the 21st film in the Bond franchise, ”CASINO ROYALE”. The previous movie ended with James Bond’s (Daniel Craig) discovery that the woman he loved – an accountant for the British government named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) – had betrayed him during his dealings with a banker for terrorist named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Before she committed suicide during his fight against some thugs hired by the organization behind Le Chiffre in Venice, Vesper left Bond a name and telephone number that linked to a Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), a business middleman with connections to an organization that finances terrorism. By the end of”CASINO ROYALE”, Bond managed to capture Mr. White with a well placed shot to the latter’s kneecap. ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” picked up with Bond being chased by Mr. White’s associates on a road to Sienna, Italy. After eluding the thugs in a deadly road chase, Bond delivered a wounded Mr. White to a MI-6 safe house in the Italian city.

Due to Mr. White’s capture and unsuccessful interrogation, Bond and ‘M’ (Judi Dench) learned that the organization behind the prisoner – Quantum – has many spies planted throughout top-level government agencies around the world. One of those spies turned out to be ‘M’’s bodyguard, who allowed Mr. White to escape via an attack on ‘M’. Bond managed to track down and kill the traitorous Mitchell before he could question the man. However, a few banknotes found in the latter’s pockets allowed MI-6 to track down one of Mitchell’s contacts – a man named Slate in Haiti. This encounter with Slate led Bond to a revenge-bent Bolivian Secret Service agent named Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko) and her connections to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) and Quantum. The rest of the movie focused upon Bond resorting to almost any means possible to learn more about Quantum, foil their plans to control the water supply in Bolivia, and help Camille deal with her desire for revenge against General Medrano (Joaquin Cosío), a Bolivian general responsible for her family’s death and who has a business/political arrangement with Greene and Quantum.

I have to admit that I found ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE”to be a well written film. I believe the screenwriters did a first-rate job in creating a sequel to ”CASINO ROYALE”. Not only did they bring back characters like Mr. White, Rene Mathis and Felix Leiter from the last film, the script even continued the issue of Bond’s relationship with Vesper Lynd and his reaction to her death. Several scenes touched upon this continuation:

*Mr. White’s mention of Vesper’s death in Venice
*’M’ and Bond’s discussion at MI-6 Headquarters of Vesper’s French-Algerian boyfriend
*Rene Mathis and Bond’s discussion of Vesper during their flight to Bolivia
*Mathis’ insistence that Bond forgive Vesper for her betrayal and himself for being fooled before the former’s death
*Bond’s reaction to Camille’s revelation about her own desire for vengeance against General Medrano
*Bond’s encounter with Yusef, Vesper’s French-Algerian boyfriend and member of Quantum, who was hired to compromise her, at the end of the film
*Shots of Vesper and Yusef in a photograph
*A shot of Le Chiffre on a computer screen.

When I had first learned of rumors that Quantum, the organization behind Le Chiffre, Mr. White and Dominic Greene, would be on the same level as S.P.E.C.T.R.E. from the 1960s films, I nearly had a negative reaction to the idea. The last thing I wanted was for EON Productions to attempt to turn back the clock and rehash old storylines. Fortunately, Quantum seemed more representative of the present-day practice of socio-economy by multinational corporations than a criminal organization that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. represented. Yet, like many of these corporations, Quantum does not seem above using violence to achieve some of their means. One of my favorite scenes about Quantum featured Bond’s discovery of certain members of the organization holding a clandestine meeting during an opera in Bregenz, Austria. Another favorite featured a meeting about Bond’s actions between ‘M’ and the Foreign Minister (Tim Pigott-Smith), in which the Minister reminded ‘M’ that they live in times in which governments for countries like the U.S. and Great Britain have a need to cooperate with organizations like Quantum for declining natural resources.

Like ”CASINO ROYALE”, this latest Bond film is blessed with a first-rate cast. Cast members like Judi Dench, Jesper Christiansen, Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini repeated their excellent performances. Not only did Dench get a chance to repeat her electrifying chemistry with leading man Daniel Craig, she and Pigott-Smith gave excellent performances in the scene featuring the tense meeting between ‘M’ and the Foreign Secretary. Jesper Christiansen returned in his role as the mysterious Mr. White. Only in this film, he is not as reserved as he had been in “CASINO ROYALE”. Still, I could tell that Christiansen seemed to be enjoying himself. The character of Mr. White managed to escape MI-6’s clutches after Mitchell’s attack upon ‘M’ and a few other agents. How he managed to achieve this with a busted kneecap is beyond my comprehension.

Not only was I pleased to see Jeffrey Wright reprise his role as Felix Leiter, I was especially pleased that Wright was given a chance to expand on his work from the previous movie. In ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE”, Leiter and a fellow CIA agent named Gregg Beam (David Harbour) are offering U.S. support to Quantum’s plans to help General Medrano stage a coup in Bolivia for oil leases. This situation allowed Wright to masterfully display Felix’s torn loyalties to what he seemed to consider as a distasteful duty and his newly established friendship with Bond. And it was great to see Giannini return as the wise and always witty Rene Mathis. After his arrest in ”CASINO ROYALE”, MI-6 realized they had been wrong and compensated him with a villa on a small island near Italy. Bond and Mathis make their peace before the former convinces the latter to help him deal with Greene and General Medrano. In one of the movie’s best scenes, Giannini and Craig gave beautiful performances in a scene featuring a heart-to-heart discussion between Mathis and Bond about Vesper aboard a Virgin Airline flight to Bolivia. Giannini had never been better.

Most of the supporting characters in ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” turned out to be a mixed bag for me. I was impressed by Joaquin Cosio’s portrayal of the greedy and ruthless General Medrano, the Bolivian strongman who had murdered Camille’s family and wants Quantum and the CIA’s help to regain power in the country. Instead of indulging in the usual clichés of the archtypical Latin American dictator, Cosio portrayed Medrano with more restraint and some intelligence. David Harbour was effective as the smug CIA agent, Gregg Beam, who viewed Bond’s activities as nothing more than a threat to his agency’s plans to acquire Bolivian oil leases. On the other hand, I was not impressed by Anatole Taubman’s role as Elvis, Dominic Greene’s cousin and henchman. I had no problem with Taubman’s performance. The problem seemed to be that . . . his presence in the movie was useless. It added nothing to the story. I could almost say the same about Gemma Arterton’s role as MI-6 agent, Strawberry Fields. In fact, I could honestly say that I wish she had never been included in the story in the first place. Her presence in the film was a waste of time. One, she was an unpleasant reminder – at least to me – of those past Bond girls with the ridiculous names and who did nothing more than serve as Bond’s bed warmers. This is exactly how Arterton’s character served the movie. Even worse, the discovery of her body covered in oil brought about an unpleasant reminder of the 1964 movie, ”GOLDFINGER”. It was bad enough that the movie’s screenwriters felt they had to pay homage to a past Bond film. But that the movie in question turned out to be one that I more or less despise was a bit too much for me.

Fortunately, ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” also featured an impressive Olga Kurychenko as the Bond leading lady, Camille Montes. The Ukrainian-born actress had to adopt a South American accent for the role as the feisty Russian-Bolivian woman who joined her country’s secret service to avenge the deaths of her family by killing General Medrano. I had first saw Kurychenko in ”HITMAN” with Timothy Olyphant. Although I found the movie rather mediocre, I was more than impressed by her acting skills and her energy, which she effectively infused in her portrayal of Camille. Camille must be the only Bond leading female who has not shared a love scene with the MI-6 agent. Mind you, Camille is not exactly the most impressive Bond girl I have come across. Her personality struck me as a little too impatient and not very skilled as a killer. But Kurychenko did an effective job of conveying this part of Camille’s nature. Ironically, this served the movie rather well considering that both characters were too obsessed in their goals to even consider romance with each other.

The prevailing view of Mathieu Amalric’s role as Dominic Greene, the film’s main villain, seemed to be divided amongst Bond fans. Some view the character as weak and others seemed very impressed. Count me amongst the latter. I had first been impressed by Amalric’s performance in the Steven Spielberg film, ”MUNICH” (in which Daniel Craig also co-starred). My positive view on the actor’s talent continued in ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE”. I realize that many Bond fans seemed to be more impressed by over-the-top villains. My tastes in villainy seemed to swerve in the opposite direction and I felt more than pleased that Amalric’s Greene strongly reminded me of more subtle villains like Georgi Koskov, Le Chiffre and Ari Kristatos. Amalric gave a skillful performance of a complex man whose witty persona hid a ruthless and cold-blooded nature.

Finally, we come to the man of the hour – namely Daniel Craig in his second outing as MI-6 agent James Bond. His performance in ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” was just as superb and breathtaking as his debut performance. I have spent several days trying to find something wrong with Craig’s acting skills in this film. Honestly. So far, I have yet to find fault with his work. Craig effectively managed to continue Bond’s story by conveying the agent’s reactions to the events of ”CASINO ROYALE”. Burned by Vesper’s betrayal, Bond has become an angry man who is also grieving over the death of a woman he had loved very much. Although he tries to keep his anger in check and simply do his job in investigating and exposing Quantum, there are times when his emotions threatened to spiral out of control. And Craig did a superb job in projecting this stage in Bond’s emotional state. Once again, the actor gave a performance that certainly deserved recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And I am quite certain that for the second time, he will be ignored by them.

As I had stated earlier, ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” had a good, solid story that could have effectively served as a follow-up to ”CASINO ROYALE” thanks to screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis and uncredited writer Joshua Zetumer (uncredited). Remember when I had stated that the movie had left me in a daze? The following is the reason why. Despite the solid screenplay scripted by the four writers, director Marc Forster nearly ruined the story’s effectiveness with what I can only describe as a rush job with the help of editors Matt Chesse and Rick Pearson. There seemed to be a lot going in the movie’s plot. But Forster failed to unfold that story with a slower pace that would have served the movie in a more effective manner. Instead, the director filled the movie’s first half with a countless array of action sequences that almost left me as dizzy as the last two movies from the ”BOURNE”franchise. It almost seemed as if Forster had channeled Paul Greengrass’ worst directorial traits. This was especially true in the movie’s first two sequences – a mind altering car chase from Mr. White’s villa to Sienna and Bond’s pursuit of the traitorous MI-6 agent Mitchell through the streets of Sienna, Italy. By the time the movie shifted to Bond’s appearance at Mathis’ Italian villa, I was finally able to catch a breath and enjoy the movie without any accompanying dizzy spells. Another victim of Forster’s fast pacing was the story itself. The plot had nearly fallen victim to Forster’s attempt to be stylish and unique with his fast pace and editing.

Thankfully, not all seemed lost for the film’s action sequences. There were three of them that I found impressive. I enjoyed Bond’s deadly fight with Slate inside the latter’s hotel room in Haiti. I also enjoyed the finale sequence in which Bond dueled against Dominic Greene, while Camille struggled in her attempt to kill General Medrano. But the most effective action sequence – at least for me – turned out to be the aerial dogfight between Bond in a Douglas DC-3 propeller plane and Quantum pilots in both an Aermacchi SF-260 fighter and a Bell UH-1 helicopter. As far as I am concerned, Chesse and Pearson did their best work in this scene. And they were ably assisted by Roberto Schaefer’s excellent photography.

James Bond traveled to many locations in this film – Sienna, Italy; Haiti; Bregenz, Austria; back to Italy and Bolivia. Despite this dizzying array of locations, I must admit that I found most of them rather uninspiring aside from Haiti (filmed in Panama) and the Italian location that served as the backdrop for Mathis’ villa. ”CASINO ROYALE” had surprised the world with a very memorable gun barrel sequence, following its pre-title sequence. ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” did the same with a gun barrel sequence near the end of the film. Unfortunately, the latter sequence was not only very ineffective, but rushed . . . just like the movie’s pacing. One major controversy had arisen from the film. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson had decided to bypass Amy Winehouse as the performer for the film’s theme song and selected Jack White and Alicia Keys. White provided the song, ”Another Way to Die”, and Keys the vocals. Granted, the song is not that memorable to me. It was tolerable, but not memorable. And it is certainly not the worst Bond song I have ever heard. The song, ”Goldeneye”, still holds that honor in my eyes. And quite frankly, I preferred listening to ”Another Way to Die” over watching the horrendous main title designs created by a company called MK12. From what I understand, Marc Forster had been the one who wanted the company hired for the job, instead of Daniel Kleinman. That man has a lot to answer for.

In the end, ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” was a memorable follow up to Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond, ”CASINO ROYALE” Was it just as good or better than the 2006 film? No. If EON Productions had hired a director more suited for action, remove characters like Strawberry Fields and Elvis from the cast and slowed down the movie’s pace, it could have been just as good. Instead, ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” turned out to be a movie that I would rank as ”Very Good”, instead of ”Excellent”.