“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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“THE AVIATOR” (2004) Review

 

“THE AVIATOR” (2004) Review

There have been many films, television episodes and documentaries that either featured or were about aviation pioneer and movie producer Howard Hughes. But Martin Scorsese’s 2004 biopic, “THE AVIATOR”, was the first that featured a large-scale production about his life.

Set twenty years between 1927 and 1947, “THE AVIATOR” centered on Hughes’ life from the late 1920s to 1947 during the time he became a successful film producer and an aviation magnate, while simultaneously growing more unstable due to severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. The movie opened with the Houston-born millionaire living in California and producing his World War I opus, “HELL’S ANGELS”. He hires Noah Dietrich to run his Texas operation, the Hughes Tool Company, while he becomes increasingly obsessed with finishing the movie.

“THE AVIATOR” not only covered Hughes’ production of “HELL’S ANGELS” in the 1920s; it also covered his life during the next fifteen to twenty years. The 1930s featured his romance with actress Katherine Hepburn and his aviation achievements in the 1930s, including his purchase of Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA). However, the second half of the movie covers the years 1941-47, which featured his relationships with Ava Gardner and Faith Domergue, his obsession with construction his military flying ship the Hercules (Spruce Goose), his near-fatal crash in the XF-11 reconnaissance plane, his legal and financial problems that led to conflicts with both Pan Am chairman Juan Trippe and Maine Senator Owen Brewster, and most importantly his increasingly inability to deal with his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I have never maintained a strong interest in Howard Hughes before I saw “THE AVIATOR”. One, his politics have always repelled me. And two, most productions tend to portray Hughes from an extreme point-of-view, with the exception of Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in the 1980 movie, “MELVIN AND HOWARD”, and Terry O’Quinn’s more rational portrayal in 1991’s “THE ROCKETEER”“THE AVIATOR” seemed to be another exception to the rule. With Hughes as the main character, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Josh Logan managed to delve into the millionaire to create a portrait of a admittedly fascinating and complex man. Foreknowledge of Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder allowed Scorcese, Logan and DiCaprio to approach the subject, instead of dismissing it as a sign of the millionaire’s growing insanity. Both Scorsese and Logan seemed willing to explore nearly all aspects of Hughes’ personality – both good and bad – with the exception of one area. I noticed that both director and screenwriter had failed to touch upon the man’s racism. With the exception of one brief scene in which Hughes briefly pondered on any alleged sins of a fictional columnist named Roland Sweet, the movie never really hinted, let alone explored this darker aspect of Hughes’ personality. I have to applaud both Scorsese and Logan for the manner in which they ended the film. “THE AVIATOR” could have easily ended on a triumphant note, following Hughes’ defeat of both Juan Trippe and Senator Owen Brewster. Instead, the movie ended with Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder slipping out of control, hinting the descent that he would experience over the next three decades.

Many recent biopics tend to portray the lives and experiences of its subjects via flashbacks. Why? I do not know. This method is no longer revolutionary or even original. Yet, many filmmakers still utilize flashbacks in biopics as if it is something new. Thankfully, Scorsese and Logan tossed the use of flashbacks in the wind and decided to tell Hughes’ story in a linear narrative. And I say, thank God, because flashbacks are becoming a bore. However, Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson, with the help of Legend Films, did something unique for the film’s look. Since “THE AVIATOR” was set during Hughes’ first twenty years in Hollywood, the pair decided to utilize the Multicolor process (in which a film appeared in shades of red and cyan blue) for the film’s first 50 minutes, set between 1927 and 1935. This color process was available during this period. Hollywood began using Three-strip Technicolor after 1935. And to emulate this, Scorsese, Richardson and Legend Films tried to re-create this look for the scenes set after 1935. And I must say that I really enjoyed what they did. Apparently, so did the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Richardson won a Best Cinematography Oscar for his work.

“THE AVIATOR” earned ten (10) more Academy Award nominations; including including Best Picture, Best Director for Scorsese, Best Original Screenplay for Logan, Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio, Best Supporting Actor for Alan Alda, Best Supporting Actress for Cate Blanchett, Best Film Editing for Thelma Schoonmaker, Best Costume Design for Sandy Powell, and Best Art Direction for Robert Guerra, Claude Paré and Luca Tranchino. Along with Richardson, Blanchett, Schoonmaker, Guerra, Paré and Luca all won. I would have been even more happy if Scorsese, DiCaprio and Logan had also won. But we cannot always get what we want. I realize that “THE AVIATOR” is not the most original biopic ever made. But there is so much about the film’s style, content and the acting that I enjoyed that it has become one of my favorite biopics, anyway. I was especially impressed by Schoonmaker’s editing in the sequence featuring Hughes’ crash of the experimental XF-11 in a Beverly Hills neighborhood, Sandy Powell’s beautiful costumes that covered three decades in Hughes’ life and the rich and gorgeous art designs from the team of Guerra, Paré and Tranchino; who did a superb job of re-creating Southern California between 1927 and 1947.

But no matter how beautiful a movie looked, it is nothing without a first-rate script and an excellent cast. I have already commented on Josh Logan’s screenplay. I might as well do the same about the cast of “THE AVIATOR”. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of John C. Reilly as Noah Dietrich, Hughes’ right-hand man; Ian Holm as Hughes’ minion Professor Fitz; Matt Ross as another one of Hughes’ right-hand men, Glen “Odie” Odekirk; and Kelli Garner as future RKO starlet Faith Domergue. Danny Huston was stalwart, but not particularly memorable as TWA executive, Jack Frye. Jude Law gave an entertaining, yet slightly over-the-top cameo as Hollywood legend Errol Flynn. Adam Scott also tickled my funny bone, thanks to his amusing performance as Hughes’ publicist Johnny Meyer. And Gwen Stefani gave a surprisingly good performance as another film legend, Jean Harlow.

As I had stated before, Cate Blanchett won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Hollywood icon, Katherine Hepburn. At first, I had feared that Blanchett’s performance would turn out to be nothing more than mimicry of Hepburn’s well-known traits. But Blanchett did a superb job of portraying Hepburn as a full-blooded character and stopped short of portraying the other actress as a cliche. I could also say the same for Kate Beckinsale, who gave a more subtle performance as another Hollywood legend, Ava Gardner. At first, Beckinsale’s portrayal of Gardner’s sexuality threatened to seem like a cliche. But the actress managed to portray Gardner as a human being . . . especially in two scenes that featured the latter’s anger at Hughes’ possessive behavior and her successful attempt at drawing the aviator out of his shell, following Congress’ harassment. Alan Alda was superb as the manipulative Maine senator, Owen Brewster, who harassed and prosecuted Hughes on behalf of Pan Am and Juan Trippe. He truly deserved an Oscar nomination for portraying one of the most subtle villains I have ever seen on film. And Alec Baldwin gave a wonderfully sly and subtle performance as the Pan Am founder and Hughes’ business rival.

But the man of the hour who carried a 169 minutes film on his back turned out to be the movie’s leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio. The actor, who was twenty-nine to thirty years old at the time, did a superb job of re-capturing nearly every aspect of Howard Hughes’ personality. More importantly, his acting skills enabled him to convey Hughes’ age over a period of twenty years – from 22 to 42. What I really admired about DiCaprio was his ability to maintain control of a performance about a man who was gradual losing control, thanks to his medical condition. I suspect that portraying a man with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, over a period of two decades must have been quite a task for DiCaprio. But he stepped up to the batter’s plate and in the end, gave one of the best performances of his career.

For me, it seemed a pity that “THE AVIATOR” had failed to cap the Best Picture prize for 2004. Mind you, it is not one of the most original biographical dramas I have ever seen. Then again, I cannot recall a biographical movie that struck me as unusual. Or it could be that the Academy has associated Martin Scorsese with crime dramas about the Mob. In the end, it does not matter. Even after nearly eight years, “THE AVIATOR”, still continues to dazzle me. Martin Scorsese did a superb job in creating one of the best biographical films I have seen in the past two to three decades.