The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

★★★

TGBH PosterDirector: Wes Anderson

Release Date: March 7th, 2014 (UK); March 28th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Comedy; Drama

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori

It goes without saying that Wes Anderson rustles up his films to appease a desired taste and The Grand Budapest Hotel, despite its universal recognition on the awards circuit, is another fine delicacy. That’s not a bad thing, especially if you’ve previously been a fan of Anderson’s work. Cards on the table: I haven’t seen enough to really form a stalwart opinion on the director. Moonrise Kingdom was a charm-fest and although The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t quite match up for my inexperienced liking, it is still a fun one hundred minutes.

This is the story of a much admired hotel concierge and his invaluable lobby boy. Not for the first time we watch a Wes Anderson flick that is tremendously well crafted, with everyone from prolific cinematographer Robert Yeoman to those in the costume department really pulling up trees to make the outing a visual feast for the audience. It rattles on without so much as a chink, fluent and meticulous in full flow. Walls are painted the right shade of blonde or pink to suit the mood at any given moment, and we watch the madness unfold as if perched on a stand measured to a ninety degree angle with the utmost precision (at one point a character fixes a lopsided painting to maintain this custom).

The piece is a real gem to look at — you could easily spend the entire run-time focused on how minor details play out in the background without as much as a glance towards the immediate plot and still be pretty satisfied. Different aspect ratios are employed at different points in the film, from the older traditional 4:3 to current traditional 1.85:1. It’s fairly enjoyable watching hotel concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his young partner in crime Zero (Tony Revolori) scamper around, but the purpose of the varying ratios gets somewhat lost as time passes.

There is an almost slapstick element to the film, one that totally suits its colourful, comic-ey surroundings. Every movement is overly emphasised, from running with knees aloft to plate-setting. The characters are all sky high on the eccentric scale — Tilda Swinton appears as an elderly lover and we even get Harvey Keitel in especially nutty convict form. The sheer volume of famous faces that show up, many of whom only appear for a scene or two, is a testament to Anderson’s strongly regarded reputation around acting circles, as well as the jovial atmosphere apparently present on set. This star-studded Hollywood collective helps fund a comedic tone — funniest when it breaks the mould with common insults (“that little prick!”; “who’s got the throat-slitter?”) as opposed to long-winded monologues, some of which can be a tad egregious.

And The Grand Budapest Hotel can be difficult to get into, simply because the screenplay’s ferocious nature doesn’t offer as much as a breather for the audience to adjust and then readjust. It might be a personal thing, in fact it almost certainly is, but the constant velocity can be off-putting (despite it enabling much of the sharp humour). As a viewer, you’re either strapped in and along for the ride or still weighing up the height of the roller coaster. For me it’s a bit too tall.

Much of the film’s allure emanates from the charismatic Gustave, played brilliantly by Fiennes. Fairly short of previous comedy chops — he was part of In Bruges, though his performance in the Martin McDonagh piece was far darker — Fiennes is quite the surprise here. He gets the funniest gags (“you know the drill then? Zip it”) and the actor plays the popular Gustave with an amusing air of receptive non-discrimination; he engages with everyone equally, from jail mates to lobby boys to militant inspectors.

Tony Revolori is a fine assistant to Fiennes on screen, and the two strike up quite the odd chemistry. Members of Anderson’s large cast move in and out of shot as if through a revolving door — Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Léa Seydoux all show face, to name but a few. The film isn’t as fun when we’re not watching Gustave and Zero in tandem, but thankfully they’re together for most of the piece.

The question remains: is there anything going on beneath the surface, or is it all just that — surface? The director doesn’t appear too fussed about incorporating deep meaning and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. He is more than an aesthetic filmmaker, as evidenced by the humour on show here, but his approach does to an extent alienate those without wholesome affection for it. There isn’t really a plot, rather a whole host of five minute segments incorporating many different Hollywood stars.

As such The Grand Budapest Hotel is an enjoyable spectacle, rampantly good fun on occasion, but not much more than that.

TGBH - Fiennes and Revolori

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures

Midnight in Paris (2011)

★★★

Director: Woody Allen

Release Date: June 10th, 2011 (US); October 7th, 2011 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Fantasy; Romance

Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard

As images of modern Paris caressed by romanticising tones that blare heartily from a trumpet fade in and out of vision, we are made aware of perceived idealism and hereditary sentiment. The French capital has forever been associated with society’s most esteemed virtues; desires of art and literature and fashion and love, a variety of tropes that amalgamate together as one in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. You may find yourself all at sea, or at least caught by the tide as events unfold on screen if, like myself, you’re not a quintessential artiste, or a fashionista, or a literary encyclopaedia. Perhaps some form of salvage anchor exists for those who have experienced the aura of Paris. For this artless dodger though, Allen’s highly nuanced nostalgic whim certainly paints a beautiful picture, but ultimately fails to connect.

For Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), achieving success as a Hollywood screenwriter isn’t enough. He wishes to expand his artistic portfolio by penning a novel, but is unfortunately struggling to gather any inspiration. That’s where a wander to Paris offers respite, therefore off the back of a vacation funded by his wife Inez’s (Rachel McAdams) parents, Gil sees hope. Only, hope isn’t all he sees. Having escaped both the drones of an obnoxious family friend and his other half’s party manifesto, Gil finds himself slap-bang amongst the dazzling costumes and enigmatic personalities of an era he vociferously admires, the 1920s. It could be the wine, or perhaps Gil’s quest for inspiration has genuinely uncovered the Lost Generation.

Illuminated by quarantined nostalgia, Midnight in Paris firmly sinks its reels into a refined foundation. Gil champions the past, whereas others are either sceptical over his ambition or simply put-off by his tendency to reminisce. He lusts over the 1920s, wishing nature had granted him a spot at the dinner table of said time period. The main character in Gil’s novel works in a “nostalgia shop,” essentially reflecting the writer’s non-peripheral outlook on life. For 15 minutes, the presentation of a man who seemingly has everything going his way — affluence, a beautiful wife and a prosperous career — but remains unable to shake the cobwebs of a non-romantic reality, carries some weight.

Unfortunately the narrative somewhat spontaneously retreats a century backwards and kick-starts a conveyor belt of the intellectual. We meet Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Dalí and a whole host of other scholars, artists, and fanciful knick-knacks. As Gil interacts with his heroes the problem is never clearer: these people are his heroes, not the audience’s — that would be to assume all Woody Allen outings are observed by a precise denomination, a notion that’s simply untrue given Midnight in Paris made over $150 million at the box office. Traits that may be recognised by artistically knowledgeably viewers otherwise play unsuccessfully to puzzled minds. Perhaps this is not a fault on the filmmaker’s end and an issue that instead lies squarely with those, like myself, who are less well-versed in the lives of Hemingway and company. Not every film is shot through a universal lens. Sadly for us common folk, much of Midnight in Paris renders superfluous as more vague faces appear spouting diatribes that are relayed with concealed significance. The phrase “we should quit the idle chatter” reverberates without implementation.

Allen formulates a familiar whimsical tone that brims full of quirkiness. Abiding by this eccentric slant on proceedings, the highbrow collection of 1920s (and earlier) historical figures are all portrayed without too much sincerity. The actors take to the screen like a hungry herd of cattle, displaying enough scenery chewing to clear any field of its green sheen. Everyone seems to be having a blast and although the various classical persons fluctuate in terms of how decipherable they are, an infectious joviality often washes over proceedings. Tom Hiddleston couples with Alison Phil as F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda respectively, and both are undoubtedly enjoying playing dress-up; Phil in particular accentuates those vowels. Kathy Bates shows up as Gertrude Stein, delighting as ever on cue. Adrien Brody hams it up more than any other as Salvador Dalí in a truly humorous display that overrules any notion of personal ignorance.

The film plays up the juxtaposition of modern American consumerist Paris versus romantic Renaissance-laden Paris, a contradiction embodied emphatically by Gil and his wife Inez. Owen Wilson is very good as the inspiration deprived writer turned wide-eyed child in a candy store, whose dream to live in Paris is far from the mind of Rachel McAdams’ Inez. Inez is the typical tourist who sees Paris merely in its present day form as a temporary drop-out zone, and not for its natural inbuilt beauty — unlike her husband, she hates how the city looks in the rain. McAdams is fine in her role too, but struggles for breath at times given the nature of her one-dimensional character. The pair’s relationship is never really believable, a sentiment raised by Marion Cotillard’s Adriana in between escapades of Basil Exposition (“I dropped in from 2010″… “You DID?!”).

Shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji, the film basks in a wonderfully rich texture that is quite the opposite of the quaint plot which invariably ducks and dives. Too many on screen presences mean a few are lost in the shuffle; antiques dealer Gabrielle feels like a character without conviction, and Inez’s mother, other than manifesting as a dead ringer for Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine a decade on, has very little to do. After traipsing through party after party full of observant pundits you begin to wonder why nobody is picking up on Gil’s 21st century fashion sense.

Midnight in Paris’ admirable intentions are there for all to see, but perhaps only a few will fully comprehend. That is not to say the film is lacking in watchability, for a host of energetic performances alongside a narrative that accommodates more than a trace of intrigue through its humorous comparison in culture certainly offers delight in small doses.