The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Dir. Wes Anderson

Written by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan

 

I think that Wes Anderson is one of the more polarizing filmmakers working today. He has achieved a distinct and instantly recognizable visual and narrative style over the course of his twenty-year career, and is often recognized by contemporary critics as a visionary and important filmmaker, but it seems to me that when I talk about his movies with people in the real world, they don’t share this universal admiration. Anderson’s films seem to engender a love it or hate it reaction, with many people I’ve met finding his aesthetic to be too twee, too precious, and too affected. To them, Anderson is the quintessential hipster director, making ironic and precocious art meant to be taken seriously by those for whom cultivating a perfect vinyl collection and sourcing the best knit fabrics for a sweater vest are matters of grave concern. Conversely, I’ve met an equal number of people who feel that Anderson’s humor and sensibilities reflect the sarcastic, wry, and ironic zeitgeist of the 21st century, and that his vintage aesthetics and concern with evoking a sense of place in time through mise-en-scene and music are perfect for a digital age in which nostalgia is only a click away. I find myself firmly in the latter camp, having been a fan of Anderson since the late 1990s, but I suppose that I can see why some people can’t seem to penetrate his filmography and have trouble relating to his movies. One thing that I think shouldn’t be up for much debate, even among those Anderson detractors, is that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a great movie. It marks Anderson at the height of his powers, and seeing one of the last quarter century’s most important and recognizable auteurs turning in a masterpiece is what makes it one of the greatest movies of the young 21st century.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel is a nesting doll of a caper that unfolds over several distinctive period settings, telling the history of the titular hotel and its staff and inhabitants. The tale is related by the hotel’s proprietor, the aged Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), and it centers on his arrival at the Grand Budapest Hotel where he gained employment as a lobby boy under the supervision of the hotel’s famed concierge, M. Gustave (Fiennes). The young Moustafa, whose first name is Zero (Revolori), shows promise as a lobby boy and Gustave takes him under his wing, teaching him the ins and outs of hospitality. Shortly after Zero begins his employment at the Grand Budapest, Gustave receives notice that Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), one of his many elderly paramours, has died under mysterious circumstances, and he and Zero travel by train to her estate to witness the reading of her will. Madame D. wills Gustave a priceless painting, enraging her family, particularly her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Though Zero and Gustave are able to safely return the painting to the Grand Budapest, Dmitri frames Gustave for his mother’s murder and he is subsequently jailed. Gustave manages to escape from prison with the help of his fellow inmates, and also Zero and his new fiancée, Agatha (Ronan), a baker’s apprentice with a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her cheek. Zero and Gustave then set off to find the identity of Madame D.’s true killer, and, so doing, clear M. Gustave’s name.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel takes many of Anderson’s directorial quirks and dials them up to 11. It’s certainly a treat for the initiated, but I think that it’s also a film that can be enjoyed by just about any fan of movies. While it features much of Anderson’s stock cast, and expands upon his visual and narrative style, Grand Budapest sticks out among Anderson’s filmography as somewhat less precious and precocious. Though the Grand Budapest Hotel is one of Anderson’s most exquisitely realized dollhouses come to life, the story that he tells about the hotel and its inhabitants is darker, more action-oriented, and more steeped in actual history than any of Anderson’s earlier films. In Grand Budapest it seems that Anderson has managed to adhere his style onto a skeleton of classical Hollywood references and a more traditional structure. Though he still utilizes familiar cutaways, intertitles, and meticulously crafted miniatures, Anderson eschews some of his other trademarks, such as his frequent use of 1960s and 1970s pop music for the soundtrack. This pairing of Anderson’s whimsical tendencies with more traditional, grounded influences is a marriage for success, and makes for Anderson’s richest, most cinematically rewarding film.

Another way that Anderson deviates from his established norms is by sidelining the majority of his stock cast of actors. While Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson all appear in The Grand Budapest Hotel, they, and many other Anderson regulars, take a backseat to a trio of actors who are making their first appearances in a Wes Anderson film, led by Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave. I’m not overly familiar with Fiennes body of work as an actor, aside from some of the obvious roles that he’s most well-known for, but this is my favorite performance of his. He completely plays against his usual type, playing Gustave as a somewhat effete, surprisingly capable, and mildly authoritarian figure. He is the efficient center of power that propels the Grand Budapest Hotel, and Fiennes’s performance is the celestial body around which all of the other elements of the film’s universe orbit. He embodies the Old World elegance that is beginning to fade from existence in the time period Anderson depicts in the film. Fiennes’s clipped delivery and quick wit help to inform the film’s sense of humor and reflect the incredibly efficient pacing that the film adopts in its second half. Once The Grand Budapest Hotel goes into full caper mode, it’s propelled by the energy of Fiennes’s Gustave, and drops its mannered comedy for a full screwball turn. His performance is a delight to watch and the movie would likely wouldn’t work as well as it does with another actor in its most prominent role.

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If Fiennes is the propulsive engine driving the plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel forward, then Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan give it its emotional depth, and the romance shared by their young characters, Zero and Agatha, provides its beating heart. I’m fairly certain that this movie was the first time I’d seen either actor in anything, and I can remember leaving the theater really impressed with both of them, but particularly with Revolori. His performance provides the film with much of its physical comedy, with his large eyes and expressive face often giving humorous counterpoint to the antics going on around Zero. Though the lobby boy is fairly meek, when the chips are down and his friends are threatened, Zero draws from a well of strength and comes through to protect them. Ronan provides a steadying presence in the film, balancing the energy of Fiennes and Revolori with her more grounded performance. Agatha is resourceful and smart, and Ronan imbues her with a natural goodness that makes it easy to see why Zero would fall head over heels for her. Though both characters are endowed with obvious Anderson-ian affectations – Zero’s penciled on mustache and Agatha’s birthmark in the shape of Mexico – the young actors’ performances shine through. They both radiate kindness and affection, and their characters’ dedication to one another, and to M. Gustave, is the glue holding the film together.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel also marks a shift in Anderson’s sensibilities towards a slightly less cynical tone and point of view. Much like in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson allows young actors to explore and express more genuine displays of affection and romantic love than are present in his first few films. Whereas in movies like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic, romantic love is viewed extremely suspiciously, and in nearly all of Anderson’s films up to and including The Darjeeling Limited, familial love is basically nonexistent, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, we see an example of a truly powerful love between Zero and Agatha, and a functioning surrogate family formed between the two of them and M. Gustave. This shift is likely a product of Anderson simply maturing and his views on love and life changing as he has evolved as a person and an artist. In Grand Budapest Hotel the romantic subplot and the film’s occasionally raw emotionality provide an inroad for viewers who might have trouble connecting with Anderson’s earlier, more ironic output. That being said, The Grand Budapest Hotel is still very much a “Wes Anderson movie,” and for all of the deviations from what might seem to be his stock pallet, Anderson hasn’t changed his formula, so much as enriched and perfected it. It’s a movie that checks off all of the requisite boxes for me, both as a fan of Wes Anderson and as a fan of cinema, in general. The world building here is typically rich, and that world is peopled by some of Anderson’s most memorable, relatable, and tragic characters to date. The stakes in the film seem high, and Anderson proves himself more capable of creating narrative tension and directing visual action scenes than he previously had in his career. The Grand Budapest Hotel represents a big step forward in artistry for one of my favorite, and, objectively, one of the best, filmmakers of the early 21st century. It’s both a pleasant diversion and a film that rewards multiple viewings, and one that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who has an interest in cinema.

Good Night, and Good Luck.

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

Dir. George Clooney

Written by: George Clooney and Grant Heslov

Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey, Jr.

 

Good Night, and Good Luck. came out at a time in my life when I was rapidly expanding my viewership. In 2005, I was starting my second year of college in Pittsburgh, and I was diving deeply into the Film Studies program at Pitt, filling my schedule with courses that required constant engagement with cinema and encouraged me to explore filmmakers, genres, and national cinemas that I otherwise wouldn’t have considered. I spent that year of school living alone in a single room, in a dormitory where it seemed no one was particularly interested in socializing or meeting a new friend, so I turned, instead, to my movies, watching three or four in a day sometimes. I signed up for a Netflix account and attempted to maximize the efficiency with which I could receive, watch, and return those little red envelopes and the discs inside of them that contained a passport to other worlds. I watched a half dozen movies every week just for the classes I was taking. I rented as many DVDs and VHS tapes as I was allowed every single week from the Carnegie Library’s impressive collection. All the while, I still managed to find the time to make it out to the theater to see the latest new releases, both popular and independent. It was something of a solitary year for me, but it was also a year in which my interests and tastes in movies began to crystallize, and during which my dedication to a scholarly pursuit of the movies was strongest.

I say all of that to illuminate the point that while I was spending so much time collecting stories and images, there were certainly moments where I caught lightning in a bottle and experienced a film that would stay with me for years and through which I would gain a better understanding of the medium and of myself, there were other films that simply didn’t stick and whose plots and characters have been lost in the shuffle entirely, and then there were films that felt incredibly impactful to me at the time, but which have proven not to have the staying power that I assumed that they would. Though I think that it’s an enjoyable, and somewhat important, film, Good Night, and Good Luck. largely falls into this latter category.

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Relating the true story of CBS journalist Edward Murrow’s (Strathairn) public feud with notorious U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, Good Night, and Good Luck. is a stylish, artfully produced period piece. It’s the type of film that seems destined for mainstream award recognition, an Important Drama, and it was rewarded with several Academy Award nominations, but no wins. It’s a film that is designed, with its star-studded cast, serious subject matter, and black and white cinematography, to be appreciated as a serious work of art, but one that stops just short of truly challenging its audience, at the same time. Seeing the movie in the winter of 2005, I felt that Good Night, and Good Luck. was an immensely important movie, and one of high quality, and while it certainly is quality entertainment, its vitality seems to have faded over the course of a decade, and like many other prestige films, its brief run as a must-see movie seems to be all but forgotten. I don’t mean to deny the film any of its artistry, or to suggest that the telling of Murrow’s insistence on speaking truth to power is any sort of frivolity, but there is something about going back to watch this type of prestige film from the mid-2000s that feels absolutely quaint to me. As a commentary on the role of journalism, the film might be more prescient in 2018 than it was in 2005, but watching it again after not having seen it in so long I couldn’t shake the feeling that Good Night, and Good Luck. is simply the product of a radically different time. That’s really neither a bad or good thing, but a truth about the rapidly changing nature of studio cinema, and something of a reflection on my own changing habits as a movie-watcher now compared to 13 years ago.

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What I mean by the first part of that last statement is that shortly after the release of Good Night, and Good Luck., models of distribution began to change radically, as did the consumption habits of the public. Home video was in its heyday and streaming services were beginning to emerge on the horizon, giving audiences access to more and more content in their own homes. The subsequent, relative leveling of the distribution playing field was a definite blow towards the idea of a monoculture, and a single taste-making entity, such as the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, that acts as an imprimatur of filmic quality. In the age of Internet streaming and distribution, the content consumer reigns supreme, with a plethora of viewing options at her fingers. With so many services designed to satiate every individual artistic taste, the idea of prestige films that audiences and the industry rally around is an idea that exists largely in think pieces such as this one, rather than as a reality in practice. These films are certainly still being made, distributed, widely seen, and lauded with awards, but their impact and importance seems more fleeting by the year. One such film, Spotlight, which bears many similarities to Good Night, and Good Luck., was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture recently, and it is a fine movie that tells a story that deserves to be told. However, when it comes to rewatchability and cinematic importance, to me, it doesn’t hold a candle to other memorable films from that year, including Tangerine, Anomalisa, and Carol. Aside from Tangerine, these are somewhat high-profile, mainstream indie movies, but I think that they are also movies that likely wouldn’t get distribution in 2005. Their success is contingent on a shift in the industry towards niche marketing, which isn’t new, but which has intensified thanks to the increased accessibility offered by alternative distribution models.

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As to my own personal viewing habits having changed, I’m not nearly as consumptive of media as I was in 2005. To be honest, I really haven’t been since that time, which is probably a good thing in most respects. While I do still try to eventually see major awards contenders, my limited available time to consume movies necessitates being much more choosy than I was in the past. Trips to the theater are limited for the movies that I really feel I must see immediately upon their release, or the type of blockbuster action movies that really benefit from a viewing experience on the big screen. I do the bulk of my movie watching at home, and I subscribe to a plethora of different streaming services which provide me with a pretty wide range of new release and classic movies. I watch whatever I want to watch when it becomes available, largely unaffected by the cinematic zeitgeist, because so frequently I’m watching these movies a year or more after they were released in theaters. The experience of watching Good Night, and Good Luck. seemed vital in 2005, so much so that I felt the need to purchase the movie on DVD after having seen it in the theater, but only a decade later, Spotlight received little more than a cursory watch on a Redbox disc on a random, snowy Tuesday night. This divorce from the prestige picture as a theatrical event in my life has shifted my attentions towards movies that might otherwise have gone under my radar. Just like studios keep making safe, awards-friendly fare, I still watch these movies, but frequently in a fashion that is far removed from their moment in the cultural spotlight.

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This post is obviously short-changing Good Night, and Good Luck. which is actually a pretty good movie. I think that its level of cinematic artistry rises significantly above that of many films in the “Oscar bait” category, which is a term that I think I’ve danced around a bit here. The cinematography is beautiful, and Clooney makes an interesting directorial decision to include actual footage of McCarthy, rather than represent him with an actor. Strathairn’s interactions with McCarthy’s image, which is seen on television screens, which abound throughout the film, have an odd quality that is at once truthful and false, piling levels of representation upon one another, creating some disorientation. Strathairn’s performance is powerfully understated, and it’s matched by great work from the rest of the film’s cast. As I’ve alluded to, the film, with its political commentary being matched by the realities of the world today certainly seems prescient and contemporary. In the era of “fake news,” a movie about a journalist risking his career to condemn and expose a hypocritical, cruel bully who found himself in a position of political power rings true, indeed. One of the purposes of this project was to explore movies from my past in a new context, and watching Good Night, and Good Luck. in 2018 certainly changed the way I think about that movie, but also it prompted me to think about the way that I relate to movies in general in 2018, versus the way I did in 2005. My world has expanded so much since then, and, luckily, so have my viewing options. In 2018, I long for a more varied cinematic experience, which is likely a consequence of my voracious media consumption in college. There’s still room for movies like Good Night, and Good Luck., which is to say, movies that are fine to good artistically, and which gain the mainstream approval of what is left of a rapidly dispersing monoculture, but there’s increasingly less and less so as new, and more varied, entertainments come streaming into my life.

The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man (1980)

Dir. David Lynch

Written by: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch (from the medical records of Dr. Frederick Treves)

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Freddie Jones

 

As I mentioned when I was writing about Blue Velvet last year, I have been an obsessive fan of David Lynch’s work since I was about 16 years old. That film and Mulholland Dr. were my introductions to Lynch’s cinema, and they were the only films of his that I watched regularly until I came to college. The Elephant Man was actually one of the last Lynch films that I saw, never seeking it out until it was screened in a class that I took when I was a junior in college. At the time, the movie felt decidedly out of step with the rest of Lynch’s oeuvre, with its period setting and traditionally romantic narrative sticking out like a sore thumb among Lynch’s less direct, more decidedly surreal output. However, as I’ve spent more time with the movie, and as my own opinions on Lynch’s cinema have changed and evolved over the intervening decade since my introduction to The Elephant Man, I’ve discovered that it absolutely fits into Lynch’s strange filmography and shares a distinct affinity with much of his more overtly experimental and strange output.

Based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (although in the film he’s called John), a medical anomaly who lived in England during the end of the 19th century, The Elephant Man focuses on the final portion of Merrick’s (Hurt) life during which he was under the care of Dr. Frederick Treves (Hopkins), and during which he gained a level of fame and notoriety in British society. The film opens with Treves attending a carnival freak show where a cruel and greedy master named Bytes (Jones) is displaying the unfortunate Merrick as an oddity that he has dubbed “The Elephant Man,” due to his unnaturally distorted and enlarged features and the preponderance of tumors that have given Merrick’s skin a hardened, scaly look. While the rest of the audience recoils in horror at the sight of Merrick, Treves recognizes him for what he is: an unfortunate human being afflicted with a debilitating and rare malady. Treves gets Bytes to agree to submit Merrick to medical testing, and Treves presents him to his colleagues at the hospital, where Merrick eventually is allowed to live as a ward. Though they initially assume that Merrick is an idiot, incapable of speech or advanced thought, the medical staff learns through Treves’s work with the patient that Merrick is, in fact, fairly intelligent and is quite capable of thought, emotion, and self-determination. Treves begins to work closely with Merrick, and as the two develop a bond, and the word of Merrick’s unique condition spreads, he becomes something of a celebrity, receiving letters from adoring fans and visits from members of the royal family. However, while he is enjoying the fame of celebrity by day, Merrick is still being subjected to brutal exploitation by night, as a porter (Michael Elphick) at the hospital has begun charging admission to sneak the curious into Merrick’s room where they can gawk at and mock the unfortunate man. Despite this daily torture, Merrick seems to take solace in his relationship to the kind Treves and maintains his quest for some small dignity up until the end.

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Although The Elephant Man would seem to be an outlier in Lynch’s body of work, it actually has more similarities to his other films than might be initially apparent. Though this film and its follow up, Dune, a project fraught with tension and one that Lynch would ultimately disavow, find the filmmaker operating with the least amount of authorial control in his career, decidedly Lynch-ian motifs and themes abound in The Elephant Man. The most apparent aspect of the film that could be considered Lynch-ian is the character of John Merrick, himself. Throughout his career, Lynch has exhibited a fascination with the grotesque, the macabre, and the freakish, and the tale of poor, malformed Merrick is one that the filmmaker would seem to naturally gravitate towards. That he presents Merrick as a pitiable, complex character, rather than a monstrosity is also trademark Lynch, as he has shown a career-long sympathy towards characters in crisis such as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks or Dorothy Valens in Blue Velvet. Lynch gravitates towards dark subject matter, but he attempts to find the light and the life in the characters that people his films, and Merrick is clearly no exception. Though the film, and by extension the filmmaker, certainly relishes the monstrous reveal of Merrick’s deformed body, a revelation that doesn’t fully come until 30 minutes into the movie, it goes out of its way to emphasize Merrick’s innate humanity and civility from that point on.

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The film’s structure also belies Lynch’s influence. After Merrick arrives at the hospital, the day/night dichotomy that is so often present in Lynch’s work becomes the film’s operative framework. By day, Merrick is able to enjoy his time with Dr. Treves and visitors who look upon him with curiosity, sure, but of a more benign sort. Merrick’s daytime world is one in which he can aspire to some level of normality, and gain a modicum of acceptance within society. By night, however, Merrick’s life is a dark carnival led by the greedy porter, Jim, who is reminiscent of the drunkard Bytes in his exploitation and mistreatment of Merrick. All of the basic humanity that Merrick has been able to achieve through his work with Treves during the days is washed away as Jim turns him back into an inhuman monster, something to be feared and scorned, by night. When he isn’t being tortured by Jim and his band of morbid curiosity seekers, Merrick is tortured by nightmares, his restless sleep interrupted by visions of terrifyingly rampaging elephants. These dreams have a specifically surrealistic bent to them, and are reminiscent of Lynch’s early experimental shorts, particularly in their marriage of monstrous imagery to chaotic, industrial soundscapes. Though he was working from adapted material for the first time in his career, Lynch found ways in The Elephant Man to further his cinematic vision, and established patterns and artistic tendencies that would continue throughout his career.

This was the film that broke Lynch into the mainstream, as The Elephant Man was a major critical and commercial success. It’s interesting to see a filmmaker who would become known as something of an iconoclast working in a more traditional milieu, but as I mentioned, this isn’t some generic film without artistic merit and beauty. The black and white cinematography is at once sumptuous and primal, remarkably beautiful, but not in a gauzy or nostalgic way. Instead, the film’s imagery is suggestive of the dark, dingy world of turn-of-the-century London that Merrick inhabited. The film’s greys recall not just the skin of the elephants that Merrick was compared to, but the cold greyness of industrial machinery. This focus on the industrial is backed up by the film’s soundtrack, which often features a faint, impersonal thrum, as of a distant engine cranking away somewhere. Lynch uses the full array of cinematic tools at his disposal to create a rich and evocative period piece, including the famed actors who perform in the film.

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Though Hurt was not yet a household name in America, which is part of the reason he was chosen to portray the deformed protagonist, Hopkins certainly was established as a renowned thespian by this point in his career. The two actors form a complementary pair, with Hopkins’s mannered, urbane performance giving the film a tranquil bedrock upon which Hurt can do his work. Though it would be easy to dismiss Hurt’s performance as being solely the work of the incredible makeup job that renders him totally unrecognizable, but it requires an actor of great sensitivity and poise to humanize the monstrous Merrick. Physically, Hurt renders Merrick’s anguished movements a grace that a man of his stature and predicament should not have, but the actor’s greatest work in the film is in his voice acting. Hurt uses a strained falsetto, giving Merrick’s voice a querulous timbre, both the result of his facial deformities and his constant mistreatment at the hands of others. Merrick stammers and stutters with the hesitance of a dog that knows it will be beaten for barking. Hurt’s belabored words drip with emotionality, revealing the broken, emotionally responsive and receptive heart that beats inside of Merrick’s chest, while his coal-black eyes reflect the deep despair that Merrick must feel. Merrick is a pitiable character by his very circumstances, but it is Hurt’s sensitive, emotive performance that brings him to life and helps the film reach heights of pathos and emotionality unseen again in Lynch’s filmography. In later Lynch films, displays of raw emotion are highly stylized, rendered nearly inhuman in their dissonance, but in The Elephant Man, Lynch gives in to sentimentality and Hurt’s genuinely plaintive performance shines through. It’s an exceptional and memorable turn.

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Though it might feel like an early career diversion, The Elephant Man is actually an important film in the development of Lynch as an auteur, and one that marked a breakthrough into the mainstream for the director. Though his experience on his next film would likely prompt his turn away from prestige projects towards a personally-focused filmmaking, The Elephant Man proves that Lynch can helm a mainstream narrative film while also imbuing it with his unique cinematic vision. It isn’t a movie that I watch frequently; in fact I almost only bring it out when I’m going through a heavy Lynch phase in which I find myself watching through his entire corpus, but it’s a movie that deserves as much attention as his later masterpieces. The film is enjoyable enough on the merit of its beautiful cinematography and the captivating performances from its leads, but for fans of Lynch’s work, The Elephant Man holds hidden pleasures in its somewhat overshadowed affinities with the rest of his cinema. It’s a movie that I should probably watch more often, because I really enjoy picking out the instances of Lynch-ian weirdness that seep into the film at the cracks. It is probably the one Lynch film that I can unequivocally recommend to anyone, as well.