Friday, August 22, 2014

Republic of Zubrowka

My biggest bias to overcome with Wes Anderson's films is the nagging reluctance I have to root for his brand of protagonists which I tend to deem lame White nerds. Don't get me wrong, I think Anderson is one of our brightest auteurs. While I prefer everything after The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004, Anderson), my favorite of his films, I only say that I respect his earlier work (not like). I hated Rushmore (1998, Anderson) even though many of my dear friends adored it. Rushmore for me was always problematic because I couldn't get past the big-headed (ego and cranial mass) manchild in a weird little schoolboy uniform with shorts like Angus from AC/DC used to wear (although in Max Fischer's case seemingly unironic), who treated everyone around him like shit basically.

Then I despised The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Anderson) essentially because it felt like a failed tragedy on the grounds that all of those good looking rich White brats didn't generate any empathy from me whatsoever and I felt like the only one who wasn't engaging with these whiny pussies.

But The Life Aquatic found Anderson brilliantly mastering artifice. The sets were unashamedly fake in a fun way. The costumes were cartoon inspired. And the location work was exotic and gorgeous. Anderson blends real locations with miniatures all the time now. I love The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012).

Bigger biases that awaited me for Anderson's latest include the aforementioned lame White nerd contempt but also add that of taking place in a hotel and centering on the bond between a young lobby boy and a middle-aged slightly effeminate single male concierge.

Seriously? People think hotels are cool? Thinking about hotels makes me psychosomatically sleepy. A bond between a man and a boy? Aww hell no.

But indeed Wes Anderson succeeds with his genuine knack and commitment to original storytelling in his latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

The film opens with a layered framing device. An unnamed girl in the present visits a statue of a writer from the Eighties who wrote a book about a hotel owner he met about 20 years prior whom he was told a story about a concierge that worked at the same hotel from '32 to around '38. Or, we're hearing a story of a man that inspired a man to tell another man who wrote it and a little girl read it. Why? Umm, I can't say exactly. Cause it's cool?

Right off we're introduced to M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the head concierge of the Grand Budapest. What ultimately separates this man from other of Anderson's lame White nerds is his proclivity for having sex with several different old dowagers who are all blond, self-absorbed, and rather like himself in these ways oddly. Kind of like Monsieur Verdoux (1947, Charles Chaplin), Gustave is a platform for rather Black Comedy, but Chaplin killed old ladies; and, Gustave is somewhat more disturbing because he actually may love and be turned on by his assortment of octogenarian lovers, even though he doesn't murder them. There's a great moment early in the film when Dmitri (Adrien Brody) exclaims in front of a crowded room: "...he sleeps with old women... and he probably fucks them!" And there's even what I take to be the first (partially) nude sex scene in a Wes Anderson film (?), a shot of Gustave getting a blow job from an elderly woman.

And as Gustave is introduced there is a music box effect on the score which accompanies him. I don't know, it sounds like children playing an xylophone.

Along with M. Gustave we are introduced to The Grand Budapest Hotel. A truly delight to behold, the miniatures of the edifice, surrounding snow-capped Alps, ascending ski lifts, and majestically perched Elk atop a peak are cleverly old fashioned and carefully chosen. The interiors are pink, purple, orange, and a golden champagne. The architecture is symmetrically foreboding.

The supporting cast is marvelous, but special mention should go to the antagonists Desgoffe und Taxis: Dmitri and Jopling (Willem Dafoe). Dmitri has that special brand of Anderson's trademark insolent arrogance. And Jopling is truly menacing and darkly hilarious with his crew cut, 8 identical rings on his knuckles, missing front teeth, and leather trenchcoat (with snap flap where he keeps his pistol and liquor). Jopling is homicidal. Is this the first Wes Anderson movie with murder?

Another cute old-fashioned touch is Jopling's iris in device with accompanying organ swell as D.u.T. leitmotif. Then there's the baking of tools to escape prison into pastries as a means of smuggling them inside; the fake yet kinetic staging of the downhill sled chase; Jopling's demise with accompanying Wilhelm Scream.

The pacing of this movie is relentless and I commend Anderson for it. It's classic adventure which is rarely found nowadays.

Gustave's language is crafted extensively and is a real treat. Yes, the requisite flash and filigree are amusing, but his process of deduction, charm, and colorful expressions ("She was shaking like a shitting dog.") round out the finished work.

I wish I could go more into the cast and compliment the various international players, but instead I'll just close with saying how much I loved the scene where Jopling throws Deputy Kovacs' (Jeff Goldblum) cat out the window and Kovacs replies: "Did you just throw my cat out the window?" and the reactions of the female cousins, some of them claiming they don't think he did--mastery of comedic tone. And the moment Gustave acquires "Boy with Apple," saying: "I'll never part with it. I'll die with it above my bed. Actually we should sell it..."

But finally, a word on Grand Budapest Hotel's aspect ratio. The film was shot in 1.33:1, resembling a square--which in this case resembles exotic Hollywood films of the Golden Age. Gus Van Sant has shot a few films: Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005) and Paranoid Park (2007) he exhibited in this ratio, but it's been virtually obsolete when showing first run mainstream Hollywood films since the Fifties. I love it and wish other filmmakers would use it more often.

Congratulations to Anderson again. He won me over, this time, again.


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