Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wes Anderson Twofer: The Grand Budapest Hotel / Moonrise Kingdom

d. Wes Anderson, 2014/2012 -- in theatre/netflix

Some people find Wes Anderson movies far too twee and way too calculated to be enjoyable.  His characters and films have a surreality to them that can be hard to buy into if you're unprepared, or not otherwise in a position to concede to his nuanced charms.  Each of his films exhibit a universe all their own, rife with a colloquial patois that's overly eloquent and verbose, old-worldly and out of step with the modern tongue.  At the same time, his characters are soft-edged, living in a fantasy world that's not entirely divorced from reality, but still quite distanced.  A lot of his pictures are period pieces, but even those are separated from the truth of their times by a layer of nostalgic wish fulfilment. Yet even as Anderson specializes in escapist entertainment, a getaway from normalicy, he always always seems to provide hints at exactly what his work is escaping from.

It's been over 2 months, a trip to NYC, a cruise through the rocky mountains, and hours of other entertainment/alcohol consumption since I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, but facets of that film still linger strong in my memory.  From the very first moment of that film you know you're in a Wes Anderson picture, but then the same could be said for all of his films since The Royal Tenenbaums, so strong is his creative vision.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in a fictional hotel at the top of a mountain in a fictional land, and this film is the story if its most notable concierge.  Or rather, in true Anderson fashion, it's the story of a girl, reading the book of an author, who listened to the story of the owner of the hotel in 1968 telling the story of the concierge's most daring adventure in 1932.  As we eat our way through this convoluted but utterly amusing layer cake at the start of the film, Anderson switches cameras, film stock and aspect ratios, creating his own weird little Inception-style story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-etc.

The concierge is Monsieur Gustav H (Ralph Feinnes, in a career-best performance), an apparently flawless dapper man who has sight over the entire hotel, its staff, and its guests at all times.  He lives modestly, but he expends his energy lavishly, loving more than a few of the hotel's elderly patrons, including one Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton under piles of ageing make-up) who dies a short time after our story starts.  Monsieur Gustav is willed a priceless painting, which infuriates Madame Céline's thuggish children (including Adrian Brody and Willem Dafoe) and they set out to make Monsieur Gustav's life a miserable one.  Meanwhile, Monsieur Gustav has taken on a new protege, in the form of young Zero (a bold introduction to Tony Revolori, who most assuredly deserves a best supporting actor nod), whom he reluctantly learns to rely upon and in turn benefit him with his own good charity.

The film is a sprawling epic of whimsy, the likes of which have not been made in decades, and even then, were never made like this.  I dare say there's barely another director out there who can come close to touching Anderson in this department.  A film like Amelie or The Brothers Bloom have the feel, but those directors don't have the consistency or interest in consistency across their works.  Every single object on display in a scene, actors included, seem purposefully placed in this film, and the 1:33 aspect ratio of the main story creates a wonderful  boxed-in frame to attempt to examine it all.  This is easily Anderson's most ambitious and rollicking story (The Fantastic Mister Fox included) with an exceptionally game and in-tune cast to execute it.

There's such a joie de vivre to this picture, even the menacing evil of Willem Dafoe, the harsh undercurrents of war and regime changes, and even the harsh bandaid-tear of the characters' ultimate fates once we revert back through the layers can't sully the overall good-timey feel.  Beyond that even, there's a particular sadness to Monsieur Gustav H. that always threatens to rear its head, but never does...but you see it there in Feinnes' performance.  He's a man revelling in life almost desperately, clinging to the almost inconsequential status he has as concierge, but even when that's gone, he never loses his ability to pick himself back up and make something of himself.  There's such unabashed delight throughout the picture that Anderson's subtle insertions of cold, harsh reality only server to make that delight even more delightful.  This may well be Anderson's masterpiece, in a career that's been somewhat defined by them.

Moonrise Kingdom, on the other hand, is a lesser effort, but only in comparison to what came next.  Having just watched this days ago, rather than months, it should be fresher in my memory, but there was a cloud of Grand Budapest over this film as I watched, and it couldn't live up to it.  Oh, I can take it and accept it on its own merits, but it's such a smaller-scale picture in comparison, and it's not as outrageous.

Anderson has a bit of a fascination with youths and their parental/authority figures.  Rushmore is the story of a boy's crush on a teacher, and his relationship with a mature, much older rival. Tenenbaums, Darjeeling Limited, and The Life Aquatic are all about the affect parents have on their children, especially once they're grown.  The Fantastic Mister Fox was Anderson's wry way of presenting a grown-up story (despite being based off a children's novel) forward as a children's film, exposing them to adult themes, worries and conflicts but in a palatable presentation.  Moonrise is his most direct effort at tracking the life of children and their somewhat helplessness living in an adult world.

His protagonists here are Sam Shakusky, age 12, and Suzie Bishop, age 12, young, disenfranchised outsiders who have found kinship and solace in one another.  The film is set in the early 1960's on a fictional New England island where Suzie's lawyer parents maker their home, Sam is in the vicinity thanks to participating in a Khaki Scout summer camp.  But Sam "resigns" from the scouts and disappears into the wilderness, having plotted with Suzie who wishes to escape her own troubled existence.

Anderson mounts a sweet romance between Sam and Suzie, as well as a wickedly entertaining manhunt as his scout leader (Ed Norton), the local sheriff (Bruce Willis), Suzie's parents (Francis McDormand) and his old scout troop scour the island to find him, all with the spectre of an incoming storm looming (thanks to Bob Balaban's foresight-filled exposition).  Eventually the kids are found and torn apart, but in the process, exploring these troubled children's past, there comes a greater sense of understanding, a reason to why they run.

There again is the undercurrent of sadness and pain that frequently find their way into an Anderson picture.  Sam is an orphan whose foster family have turned their backs on him, meaning he will be lost to Social Services.  Suzie has her issues and has found her parents' book on dealing with a disturbed child, but it's obvious she's reacting to her mother's infidelity and her father's depression more than anything.

It's not that Anderson sweeps these things under the rug.  They wouldn't be there at all if they didn't have a purpose, but they're such subtle background elements to the events on screen.  They shape the characters but barely the story at hand, and I can see how some might have a problem with this penchant of Anderson's.  The events of the story pull the characters through, but how they handle them is as a result of the people they are.

Moonrise is probably the least opulent of Anderson's movies, in that he strips things down more on screen with more basic imagery and style.  The camps are designed with minimal details (though each detail has its place as always) and the film spends most of its time outside, in fields, woods, on the water and beaches.  Even still, some of the outdoor scenes seem so surreal in the Anderson way that they seem more of his design than mother nature's.

The summer was filled with a tremendous amount of highly entertaining blockbusters which satisfy my "geek tooth" so sweetly, it was indeed a year of riches.  And even though it came out far earlier in the year, I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel in late June and it beats out every nerdy summer movie by some margin as the one I enjoyed the most.  Moonrise Kingdom I sat on for far too long in watching, and had I sat down to watch it before Grand Budapest I would probably like it even more than I already do, but comparatively it just isn't on that same scale, but it's more than worthy, a genuine great movie that precedes an even greater one in the director's oeuvre.

For those who care, Wes Anderson's films in order of appreciation:
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
2/3. The Life Acquatic With Steve Zissou/The Royal Tenenbaums (it alternates)
4. The Fantastic Mister Fox
5. Moonrise Kingdom
6. Darjeeling Limited
7. Rushmore
8. Bottle Rocket

(It think Bottle Rocket is the least Anderson-esque, while Rushmore I just didn't *get* when I watched it)