“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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“ATONEMENT” (2007) Review

“ATONEMENT” (2007) Review

Based upon Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel, ”ATONEMENT” told the story about how the lies and misunderstandings of 13-year-old girl from a nouveau-riche English family affected the romance between her older sister and the son of the family’s housekeeper. The movie starred James McAvoy, Keira Knightely and Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan.

Comprised in four parts (like the novel), ”ATONEMENT” began with the 13 year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring novelist with a crush on Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the family’s housekeeper. Robbie, along with Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) have both returned for the summer in 1935, following their education at Cambridge. Although both Robbie and Cecilia have been aware of each other at Cambridge, neither have not bothered to acknowledged their romantic interest in each other until recently. Also at the Tallis home for the weekend are Briony and Cecilia’s cousins – the 15 year-old Lola Quincey (Juno Temple) and her younger twin brothers – and their older brother Leon’s friend, the owner of a chocolate factory named Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch).

After Briony had witnessed several disturbing scenes – at least in her eyes – between Robbie and Cecilia, she comes to the conclusion that Robbie might be a sexual threat to Cecilia. Matters worsened when Briony joined the rest of the household in the search for Lola’s twin brothers, who had ran off in protest against their parents’ upcoming divorce. During the search for the twins, Briony witnessed the rape of her cousin Lola on the family estate by a man in a dinner suit. In the end, Briony claimed that the man she saw raping Lola was Robbie. Aside from Cecilia, the rest of the family believed Briony and Robbie ends up being sent to prison. At the outset of World War II, the British government released Robbie from prison on condition that he enlist as a private in the British Expeditionary Force. The rest of the movie, set during the early years of World War II, featured Robbie’s brief reunion with Cecilia – who had become a nurse – before his journey to France and the now 18 year-old Briony’s (Romola Garai) experiences as a wartime nurse.

”ATONEMENT” turned out to be a first-rate film about the destructive consequences of lies and illusions. Both director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton structured the movie in an unusual way in which not only did they allow moviegoers different conflicting perspective on certain incidents in the story – a prime example would be both Briony and Robbie’s different points-of-view on an incident regarding Cecilia’s retrieval of a broken vase from the estate fountain, but also quite cleverly hinted that certain aspects of story – especially the World War II segments – may have been colored by Briony’s own emotions and imagination. Also, Wright, along with art directors Ian Bailie, Nick Gottschalk and Niall Moroney; and production designer Sarah Greenwood did an excellent job in re-creating the rich atmosphere of Britain in the mid-1930s and 1940 and especially the Dunkirk expedition. I also have to commend Paul Tothill for the film’s superb editing. Tothill managed to give”ATONEMENT” a rhythmic style that matched the sound of a typewriter that added an illusionary sense to the unfolding story. In other words, by editing the story in a way that allowed certain scenes to be told from different points of view and added a sense of illusion, Tothill’s work gave the audience a false sense of illusion – at least for those who have never read McEwan’s novel.

I do have one quibble about the movie’s production . . . and I have to place the blame on Wright’s direction. I am referring the sequence that featured Robbie’s arrival at the beach at Dunkirk. At first glance, I was struck by the spectacle of Wright’s direction and Seamus McGarvey’s photography of the entire montage. Like I said . . . at first. Unfortunately, the montage ended up lasting several minutes too long. Not much time had passed when I found myself longing for it to end. I realized that Wright wanted to reveal the horror and chaos of war in all of its glory. But in the end, he simply went too far.

I must admit that I was not as impressed by most of the cast of ”ATONEMENT” as most critics and moviegoers. There was nothing earth-shattering about most of the performances . . . just good, solid work. Many moviegoers and critics had been surprised when both James McAvoy and Keira Knightley failed to earn Academy Award nominations. After watching the movie, I am not really surprised. Mind you, both gave very competent performances as the two lovers – Robbie and Cecilia But I had two problems with McAvoy and Knightley. One, their screen chemistry was not that explosive, considering the heated romance of their characters. It took a love scene inside the Tallis library to truly generate any heat between them. And two, I think their performances were hampered by Wright’s decision to allow the characters to speak in a staccato style that was prevalent in the movies of the 1930s and 40s in both Hollywood and Britain. I hate to say this, but McAvoy and Knightley never really managed to utilize this speech pattern with any effectiveness. There were times when their attempts to use it threatened to make their performances seem stiff and rushed. Perhaps they were simply too young and inexperienced.

On the other hand, I was very impressed by the three actresses who portrayed Briony Tallis at different stages in her life. Legendary actress Vanessa Redgrave portrayed a 70-80 year-old Briony, who had not only wrote a novel based upon the events surrounding Robbie’s arrest, but also confessed to the mistake she had committed decades earlier. And Romola Garai portrayed the character as an 18 year-old wartime nurse. Both actresses did an excellent job of portraying these older versions of Briony. But it was the young actress Saoirse Ronan who stole the movie as the 13 year-old Briony, whose naivety, jealousy toward Cecilia and Robbie’s budding romance and penchant for illusions led to devastating consequences for the romantic pair. Unlike McAvoy and Knighteley, Ronan gave a superb and natural performance as the confused and emotional Briony. It is not surprising that her work eventually earned BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress.

Before I end this review, I have to point out something that trouble me about ”ATONEMENT”. I might as well admit that I have never read McEwan’s novel . . . which is why the following storyline left me feeling confused. From what I have read about the film and the novel, Briony’s cousin, Lola Quincey, had been raped by the Tallis’ guest, Paul Marshall. And yet . . . she married the man, five years later. Why? Was it because she never knew that Marshall had been the one who had raped her? But judging from the hostile look she had given Briony at her wedding, Lola seemed well aware of that fact. Did Marshall actually raped her? Or had he seduced her that night the twins disappeared and Robbie was arrested? Perhaps the novel made the details of Lola’s storyline clearer. The movie left it murky. At least for me.

In the end, I must admit that ”ATONEMENT” proved to be one of the best movies released in 2007. Was it the best movie of that year? I have no idea. I have not seen ”NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN”. At least not yet. But despite some of the movie’s flaws, director Joe Wright managed to lift the usual Merchant Ivory façade of Britain’s past and create an emotionally dark film from Ian McEwan’s novel.