Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Theatrical Review)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Comedy, Drama, 100 minutes
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Lea Seydoux, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban

I had been waiting to see Wes Anderson's latest project from the moment it was announced. The Canadian release date was delayed, and then ended up being limited to a few theaters. I'm happy to say that it finally made it to a local theater and I saw it at the earliest opportunity a few hours ago.

It's hard to imagine Wes Anderson ever having mass appeal, but the marketing for The Grand Budapest Hotel has been more widespread and noticeable than that for his other releases. In case you missed it, here is the trailer:

To describe the plot would be both difficult and pointless. Wes Anderson is an acquired taste and fans are likely to love everything he releases. The Grand Budapest Hotel certainly has the same tongue-in-cheek tone of his previous films, and the similarities don't end there. Neil Young once said that his output was all one song, and Anderson's feels like all one film.

The story is beautifully framed, with an old man recollecting his past to an interested writer. The images are typical Anderson, with the usual explosion of colors and storybook settings. This feeling is heightened by the use of title cards to denote the chapters and the familiar style of music used in previous efforts. The story takes place in three different time periods, but we spend most of our time in 1932. All of the scenes from the past are shown in full screen, while the main narration sequences are in widescreen.

All I will say about the plot is that is focuses on hotel employees M. Gustave (Fiennes) and Zero Moustafa (Revolori). Gustave dates old women and one of them leaves him a valuable painting in her will. Her family are rather annoyed, and hire someone to retrieve the painting. The story is incredibly detailed and vast, despite only running for 100 minutes. There are frequent moments of witty humor, farce, irony and visual gags. Most of Anderson's regulars appear in the film at some point, and it's a tribute to him that such talents are willing to show up for such limited screen time.

Fiennes is very effective as Gustave. He's eloquent, and fond of reciting poetry, but his comic timing is perfect throughout. The vocabulary is not what you would expect from a typical movie, but it is offset with occasional expletives, which are extremely funny in the context of the film.

I was reassured by the large audience that showed up on a Saturday morning to watch a film by a director who does nothing to try to appeal to the masses. There is a shootout scene, but not like anything you have ever witnessed. Wes Anderson is like Stephen King or David Lynch in the way that he slightly skews reality; unlike those two, Anderson's stories are much lighter in tone. I despise cruelty to animals, but you'll laugh at a scene involving a cat. It's similar to Snoopy's fate in Moonrise Kingdom.

It's so refreshing to see a filmmaker with ideas. Aren't you bored with seeing Hollywood blockbusters that are predictable and tired? Grand Budapest will never let you relax because there is so much information to absorb. The dialogue is strange, the settings are like something out of a dream, and numerous objects and props are weird in themselves. It took me a few moments to come back to reality after the movie because I was still in that world as I walked out of the theater. I didn't even hear someone call my name until their third try.

I imagine The Grand Budapest Hotel will reveal new things every time you watch it, and I can't wait to add it to my collection and see it again. This may be Anderson's most accessible film to date, but he definitely hasn't deviated from his unique style.

Overall score 5/5

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Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Wind Rises - Hayao Miyazaki's swan song?

The Wind Rises (2013)
Animation, Biography, Drama, 126 minutes
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Werner Herzog, Jennifer Grey and William H. Macy (English dub)

The trailer for The Wind Rises only hints at some of the film's secrets, but it's worth a look if you are completely new to the works of director Hayao Miyazaki. This is not a slick Disney production in 3D with modern graphics, but a softer 2D watercolor piece. All of Miyazaki's movies use this style and it can be disappointing for some. I find it utterly beautiful.

If you are familiar with Miyazaki, the important thing to note is that The Wind Rises is different in tone to all of his established classics. This is a movie set in the real world, and it tells the story of, Jiro Horikoshi, who designed Japanese fighter planes during the second world war. I was worried that the story might disappoint, as I love Miyazaki's fantasy worlds, but all of the magic was present.

One thing I should mention immediately is that this is not a story that is likely to engage young children in the way that Ponyo, My Neighbor Totoro, or Kiki's Delivery Service did. The two main themes are Jiro's passion for his work, and his love for a woman. People usually expect something light and family-friendly from animated movies, but this one includes a heartbreaking death and feelings that the very young would probably not understand.

Miyazaki uses a number of dream sequences to establish Jiro's passion for his career, so you'll see him walking along the wings of planes designed by his Italian hero, Caproni. Jiro gains experience by working in European countries, and we watch him and his friend develop their young careers.

One of the most charming things in the film is Jiro's love for Nahoko. The two have a chance encounter on a train when he is a boy, and he ends up saving her and her mother when an earthquake devastates their surroundings. Again, these scenes might worry or confuse small children.

The detail in the animation is incredible, despite the old-fashioned style. Miyazaki often puts in seemingly unnecessary detail, but it adds realism to the story. Watch the small stones rolling when someone jumps off a train and you'll understand what I mean. Another thing that adds to the depth of the story is Miyazaki's willingness to address issues that are rarely explored in the animated form. For instance, one major character suffers from tuberculosis, which afflicted Miyazaki's own mother from 1947 to 1955.

I hope that I'm not persuading you to give this film a miss with all the dark subject matter. It's an incredibly beautiful story with characters you'll really care about. The English dub features an incredibly strong array of talent and it works wonderfully. When Frozen wins the Oscar in a few hours from the time of writing, I won't be surprised, but The Wind Rises is just about perfect and deserves to win.

The story affected me deeply and I had to fight off tears in places. If I had been watching at home by myself, I would probably have been sobbing by the end. But that would be because of the extraordinary beauty present in the film and its characters, rather than true sadness.

If this is to be Miyazaki's final film, it's a great way to end a magnificent career. I was totally engrossed for two hours, just as I have been in the vast majority of his other films over the years. The Wind Rises might be remembered as his Grave of the Fireflies, but that shouldn't prevent you from seeing it. It's further proof that animation can be important as well as entertaining. 

Overall score 5/5

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