Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Version I Watched: Standard definition library rental DVD.

History: Inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, a famous Australian author who died in the early 1940's. While not directly based on any piece in particular Wes Anderson has admitted to taking the most inspiration from the novels Beware of Pity and The Post-Office Girl. The inspiration goes so deep that the character only known as 'Author' is Stefan Zweig without saying it out loud.
It was released in early 2014 and was greeted with overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. For the commoner it is currently holding a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. A very positive review for an otherwise pessimistic and harsh set of critics. Financially it did succeeded greatly as well. At a budget of only $31 million it managed to get back almost $170 million worldwide. Proving once again that a movie can be made on the cheap, have excellent A-list actors, and succeed financially and critically.

Personal History: First viewing but am very familiar with the work of Wes Anderson. I'd put him in my top ten favorite directors. Of the eight features he's directed the only ones I haven't seen yet are The Darjeeling Limited and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The former I'll get around to eventually. The latter, however, it is a crime that I haven't seen it yet considering how much I adore stop motion animation.

Review: Well this is a first. First I can remember in recent memory. I am doing this review because it was requested when I wasn't planning on doing anything outside a quick comment on Facebook. So, Ben, this one goes out to you. It's nice and reassuring to know people do read these and do care about my opinion. Makes the hours I put into this blog worth it even though I do it for nothing except catharsis.

As I stated in the 'Personal History' section I am a big, big fan of Wes Anderson. To recap, I've seen most of his movies. So far I've loved them all as he has a style that appeals to me an awful lot. He's a smart man with a quirky sense of humor. Not only do I get the intelligently written material done in an artsy way I also get a goofy and fun sense of humor to go with it. A breath of fresh air showing it's possible to take a film as seemingly silly as, let's say, Moonrise Kingdom or The Royal Tenenbaums and see them as art. Even if they have jokes that start with the approach of 'act like a bumbling idiot.'
With that said I want to get a few things out of the way. Like any other director with common themes and traits there are a lot of things in Budapest that are in every other Wes Anderson story. With that said, Budapest has:
-Great cinematography.
-Colorful set design.
-Goofy, elegant, sophisticated, absurd, blunt, and/or overly intense characters.
-A plot with moments that rely on random chance or hilariously convoluted explanations or outcomes.
-A robust soundtrack filed mostly with classy, cultural, or ironic choices.
-And a very likely chance it'll be released on The Criterion Collection one day.

I hope I don't touch on the obvious while reviewing this. I'll do my best to touch on what makes Budapest unique among the others Wes Anderson stories (based on the ones I've seen at least.) Cause, really, Wes Anderson are some of the most consistently samey movies I've seen by any director.
While I'm on the subject, I'm not necessarily saying that's a bad thing. I referenced something like this in my 2014 Preview post. Saying "I'm sure it'll be great like all other Wes Anderson flicks." Even putting it in my honorable mentions section with a two sentence commentary. But again, not that that's a bad thing. I knew what to expect and what to expect was good. Hard to get excited for something and pumped for something when you already know how it'll turn out even if it is good.
If that makes any sense.

Yet instantly this movie made itself unique when I loaded in the DVD and this popped up.

At first I thought this was Wes Anderson being particular. Every so often there's a DVD released where the director gives his or her own special touch making sure you'll watch their art properly. There's a special feature on the DVD for Inland Empire where David Lynch makes sure your TV has the proper brightness setting. It was a nice touch to see something like this but I quickly found out Wes had different intentions other than general annoyances and being particular (as he should be.)
I quickly noticed the aspect ratio was jumping around. In the very, very beginning it was 1.85:1 but quickly jumped to 2.35:1 as it jumped time periods from late in the mysterious author's life to him as a young man visiting the hotel when it's in a run down state. In layman's terms it went from the standard widescreen your flatscreen TV does to a wider, more cinematic widescreen. I thought it was odd at first and didn't fully realize what he was going until it went back to the 1930's wherein most of the story takes place. It jumped from the very wide 2.35:1 to the old fashioned, square shaped 1.33:1.
This is a technique that is thankfully not used a lot because it would otherwise be spoiled. I like when stories change this way because it helps signify where you are in the story and/or in time. Since the story is told entirely in flashbacks it would make sense to reminisce in a movie as if it's an old movie from the period it took place. Like Wes was taking notes from The Artist only not as extreme in technique and style. Simply utilizing the film standard of shape and size at the time. Even then cramming the story into a square box it is still beautiful to look at.

Like I said in the Wes Anderson cliches his films are always beautifully shot. That's because he (or his cinematographer) knows how to make the best of the camera when most just point and shoot it seems. Not really thinking about what they're doing or making it look as good as possible. But the thing is it's actually pretty easy to make something look good in standard widescreen with a pinch of effort. That's because widescreen has natural beauty whereas 1.33:1, or 'full screen' does not. Widescreen is like looking at art on display in the Louvre whereas 'full screen' is like looking through a window.
So shooting in full screen provides a challenge. A challenge Budapest overcame quite well. The cinematography is still beautiful. I can't think of any point when the cinematography felt cramped or improper. It was all done masterfully well making me forget there were black bars on either side of the screen.
This coming from someone who tends to think wider is better because of the potential. Not here. Here it was reminiscent of later Kubrick films when he insisted on shooting like this specifically for the purposes of transferring his art to home video (a time before 16x9 TV screens.)

However I felt the aspect ratio did hurt the film if not only slightly.
I had a biased toward this film going in. I am a big, big fan of old hotels like this. The type stuffy rich people stayed in before the big wars and whatnot. To me they shine an elegant beauty comparable to some of the greatest mansions while retaining what makes them unique. With that said having this in 1.33:1 took away a lot of visuals of the hotel. I wanted to see more of the beauty of the hotel. Many of which was cut off by cramming the picture. I appreciate artistically what Wes did in aspect ratio style, but don't like how it took away the visuals I could have had in seeing this gorgeous structure.
Matter of fact, I didn't care for how little time was actually spent at the hotel. Call me crazy but when you're presented a movie called The Grand Budapest Hotel you'd imagine you'd get a lot of time in said hotel getting to know more characters that work there. Instead it felt like more time was spent away then there. We did get a fun and exciting story outside the hotel that used it as a central point to the story. I just felt it was a tad misleading, which is a petty complaint I realize. Not like every movie has to be literal with it's title, does it?

Something that was especially great were the performances. I know, I know, probably saw that coming. But I'm not usually keen on all star casts like this. It takes something really special to get immersed into a story with as many recognizable faces as this. In comparison I recently watched American Hustle, which also has an all star cast. I found Budapest to be incredibly immersive with memorable characters. Whereas American Hustle was fun and exciting, but partially felt like a bunch of celebrities got together at a party and said "Let's play 1970's dress up for a couple hours." which I realize is making Hustle sound worse than it is. I just couldn't get as immersed due to the way the characters were played and portrayed in Hustle, unlike Budapest.
Was I staring at Ralph Fiennes most of the movie? Yes. Did it feel like I was? No. I felt like I was looking into the world of M. Gustave and his lobby boy Zero (played by an unknown making immersion easy.) This rang true for most of the cast including: Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Saoirse Ronan (the always lovely), and Tilda Swinton. The last only having a small part and in heavy duty makeup as an 80 year old woman, and knocking it out of the part because her performance made her unrecognizable. Still the makeup did a lot of the cover up.

Bet you wouldn't have guessed if I hadn't said anything.

However it wasn't all around great. While most of the cast was top notch I didn't care for a few of the performances. Basically because they did what they always do and didn't immerse themselves as much as the other actors who (some of which were doing their thing but proper to the character and story) were far more into it. I didn't care for Edward Norton here. Didn't feel like he fit. Felt like Adrien Brody was trying too hard. Then Jude Law played the role of Jude Law in the few scenes he's in.

I'm not really sure what else to say about Budapest. Really if you've seen other Wes Anderson movies and liked them you're likely gonna like this one. It's a fun and fantastic romp through the lives and situations of quirky characters with a fun sense of humor. Like the rest of his movies.
How does it rank? Well that's hard to say. Yet I can't really think of a better way to demonstrate it's positives and negatives than comparing it to it's older brothers and sisters. It's more fast paced and exhilarating than Life Aquatic's slow burn. Despite the ensemble it's not as robust in overall character as The Royal Tenenbaums. Could even be considered a more adult-oriented Moonrise Kingdom with it's goofier tone than his other movies, and that's saying something. Again I haven't seen Darjeeling or Mr Fox so I can't compare it to those. But I heard Darjeeling wasn't so hot (that could have been everyone coming down from the high of Life Aquatic) and Mr Fox is animated.
Which surprisingly brings me to a point I wasn't expecting. Budapest both is and isn't like everything else Wes has brought to the screen. It's got all the same ingredients, including the actors, but is hardly comparable to most of his previous work because of how different those ingredients were sprinkled together.
With that I'd like to say thank you to Wes. For giving me exactly what I wanted out of him and then taking another step forward by telling me what more I wanted without me asking. Well, despite the few missteps. You should know by now I don't like it when the end of the movie is at the start. Kills some of the tension of what could happen next.

I'd still say my favorite Wes is tied between Tenenbaums and Life Aquatic. Only time will tell.

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