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Cinema Signal: A howler of serio-comedy from the mind and heart of Wes Anderson. A must go! MOBILE version |
. "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Imagine an artist who paints on canvas being given a camera, a crew and a budget with which he is to write and direct a movie. You might expect that his scenes would be framed within a space that doesn't move, although his subjects do. Which is precisely what Wes Anderson does, although, as far as I know, he doesn't have oil paintings hanging on museum walls.

Making a movie mostly within static frame lines isn't new. It's a style which the French describe as Mise en Scene -- literally, "placing on stage." The action is composed or frenetic, the lighting seems to come from warm natural sources in the early going, dissipating to cool and bluish when the good times are over. No matter the tonal range, any single frame qualifies for wall space in a cinematic museum. (The camera does pan once or twice).

Anderson, a fabulist master of visual arts, employs the technique as a means to characterize the triumphs and tragedy that took place in a mountain resort in the unmapped region of Zubrowka. It's complications stem from the changing values in European values and culture after one war and approaching the next. With subtlety and pistache, he gives us a sense of the outside world evolution through set design, art direction, lighting and color balance, and the players who so ingeniously adapt their emotive elasticity to fit the Anderson universe.

As to content, he's not focused so much on the dynamics of young love as he was in his prior "Moonrise Kingdom," (although that strain isn't entirely excluded here). Through flashback upon flashback, he steps through the lores and heartbreaks of an Alpine hotel's former grandeur and sad demise. The evolution is pure Anderson whimsy and sadness over the effects and causes of elegant chic in decline through bad human behavior.

The main characters are doubled, as in then, and now. Hence, the reporter who recounts the tale as it was told to him, speaks in 1985 (Tom Wilkinson) of the events that go back to 1968 and his lonely visit to the almost uninhabited shell of the great place after the ravages of greed and turmoil have taken their toll.

At this time, when our narrator was a quiet young writer (Jude Law), he attracts the attention of the elder Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who, over dinner and fine wine, recounts the convoluted tale of how he inherited the palatial resort in the days between the world wars.

Grand Budapest was run by the meticulous M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a concierge who lived to preserve its order, tradition and non-pareil reputation of the European elite who booked his rooms well in advance. But, for the very rich elder ladies, the attraction consisted of more than the rooms and appointments. Gustave, who had a particular liking for old, blond, rich women was there to provide a rather earthier form of service for them than the job description called for.

A decent man to the core, the underlying beneficence of M. Gustave expresses itself by his treatment of lowly "lobby boy" Zero Moustafa (expressive Tony Revolori in his feature debut) who turns his passion for the hotel into his employer's total dependence on his sense of duty and loyalty. Moustapha becomes Robin to Gustave's quirky Batman.

When Gustave's 84-year-old enamorata and favored guest, known to us as Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), dies and leaves her most valuable possession -- a priceless painting -- to Gustave, the place becomes rife with devious cutthoats and ambitious heirs who come out of the woodwork -- particularly the less than noble son of the deceased (Adrien Brody).

This brings trouble in the form of the son's vile criminal thug (Willem Dafoe) and a string of bodies that sets the place ablaze with warring factions in a race to obtain the painting, the possession of which trumps any question of inheritance. The scheming son, besides being set back by Gustave's ingenuity, comes up against the strict, lawyerly executor of the old lady's will (Jeff Goldblum), bent on satisfying her wishes.

If these threatening complications aren't enough, lobby boy Zero falls in love with hotel maid Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) and Gustave is framed for murder, getting us into a third act, highly animated, high stakes drama twisting toward a crescendo that leaves us breathless but with a fuller understanding of the hotel's boisterous prosperity and ultimate destiny.

There's so much to enjoy here, with performances so in tune with Anderson's screwball comedy take on a supposed legend topping the charts. Fiennes' command of his character would seem to demand Oscar level recognition in a movie released too early in the year for such thoughts. Revelori's portrayal might have inspired talk of stealing the show except that the sheer richness of the tale blunts that idea.

Maybe I'm as nuts as the fantasy, but I find a certain similarity Anderson has with Federico Fellini ("La Strada")... in the use of casting as part of his visual pallette. Abraham and Revelori, Tilda Swinton and Lea Seydoux, Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray, etc., etc. The faces aren't everything, but they add amusement and texture to the Anderson big top.

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                                                                             ~~  Jules Brenner  

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