The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

★★★

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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

Daybreakers (2010)

★★★

Directors: Michael and Peter Spierig

Release Date: January 6th, 2010 (UK); January 8th, 2010 (US)

Genre: Action; Drama; Horror

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan

As a commentary on modern-day civilisation and western domination, Daybreakers is very good. As a scattered action romp where humans are pitted against vampires, Daybreakers is not too bad either. Where the film does fall on flat on its face though, is when it tries too hard to combine the two without properly answering all of the questions or delivering the most exhilarating action. In the end, there is just far too much going on.

Daybreakers is set a decade in the future, in 2019, where the human race is almost entirely extinct and the world is primarily inhabited by vampires. As the number of remaining human beings diminishes, so too does the amount of blood, the vampire’s means of function. A dominant vampiric corporation headed by owner Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) sets out to find an adequate blood substitute, while researcher and reluctant vampire Edward Dalton (a vampire named Edward? that will never work), played by Ethan Hawke, aligns with a group of humans in order to find a cure and save mankind.

From the get-go, Daybreakers develops a collection of parallel analogies with life in the present day, and all of the social, environmental and political problems the world currently faces. For example, the rapid depletion of human blood and local conflicts over obtaining the substance can be understood as a reference to the imminent decrease in water levels around the globe, along with the ‘water wars’ going on in many third world countries. In Daybreakers, cities are controlled and domineered over by a ruthless police force, much akin to the security forces inhabiting dictatorship regimes in varies reaches of the planet, where many civilians are wrongfully oppressed (in the case of Daybreakers, the humans). These are only two of a whole host of succinct and well established connections that writers and directors, the Spierig brothers, obviously had in mind when creating the film. The directors’ thematic inclusions are stimulating, as their representation of modern society works very well throughout. When attempting to incorporate select societal elements into a film it is important to ensure that the piece does not become too overawed with commentaries, and that it does not become a parody of modern existence. The film successfully steers clear of any such dangers for the time it spends on-screen. If part of the job of cinema is to get its audience thinking about issues relevant to them, then Daybreakers hits a home run.

However, where the film begins to lose its way is when the narrative itself becomes to over-run by plot points and sub-plots. The directors do so well in keeping the societal analogies in check that they seemingly forget about the actual events of the film, and the sheer volume of goings-on. Not only is the set-up to the main story confusing and does not really make much sense (Ethan Hawke’s character works for a corporation dealing in blood harvesting, yet he is opposed to drinking human blood and is sympathetic towards humanity), but before any of the main plot-points can be concluded, more and more sub-plots are added to proceedings. Along with the group of humans and Hawke attempting to find a cure and Neill’s corporation making inroads into discovering a blood substitute both playing out on-screen, so too does Hawke’s tumultuous relationship with his brother, Neill’s battle with the remorse he holds over the disappearance of his daughter and an underlying problem with subsiders around the city (vampires who feed on themselves, subsequently turning rogue). With all of these separate events divulging information at the same time for the audience to attempt to soak in, matters quickly become overbearing. The absence of many of the sub-plots would not have made the slightest difference to the outcome of the film.

Daybreakers also runs into trouble as it progresses along the cure story-line. A key event in the narrative takes place mid-way through the film which is intended to have harrowing connotations with what came before it and what comes later on. Unfortunately, the reveal goes the other way and comes across as a tad lazy and nonsensical. With that being said, this problem does sort itself to a degree as Daybreakers nears its conclusion, and to the Spierig brothers’ credit, the final few scenes are very smart and well thought-out. The film looks tremendous, with everything from the metallic, sharp city-scape to the visceral, gory horror elements mesh together to create a diverse-yet-encapsulating visual offering. Sam Neill is wonderfully wicked as the rich, oligarchical business leader who shares one or two similar characteristics with Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter. The rest of the film is efficiently cast, as Ethan Hawke (who has a vampire-like quality to his look in general) is effective in his role as the well-meaning protagonist. Willem Dafoe’s charismatic turn as “Elvis” Cormac is a far cry from his usual outings, and he is slightly underutilised here.

Running at just over an hour and a half, Daybreakers does not overstay its welcome as it brims with ideas and comments on modern society, successfully posing questions to its audience and generating the mind. However it simultaneously loses focus on the meat of events, as too many things are going on at once when a simpler narrative would have been the perfect accompaniment to the thought-provoking themes which the film boasts.