Tag: Jason Schwartzman

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Luscious visuals, hilarious gags mix with an air of sadness and regret in Wes Anderson’s masterpiece

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (M. Gustav), Tony Revolori (Zero), F. Murray Abraham (Mr Moustafa), Mathieu Amalric (Serge X), Adrien Brody (Dmitri), Willem Dafoe (Jopling), Jeff Goldblum (Deputy Kovacs), Harvey Keitel (Ludwig), Jude Law (Young Writer), Bill Murray (M. Ivan), Edward Norton (Inspector Henckels), Saoirse Ronan (Agatha), Jason Schwartzman (M. Jean), Léa Seydoux (Clotilde), Tilda Swinton (Madame D), Tom Wilkinson (Author), Owen Wilson (M. Chuck)

I wrote recently I could forgive the flaws I’ve found in Kurosawa’s work, for the majesty of Seven Samurai. I can totally say the same again for Wes Anderson. He is a director I’ve sometimes found quirky, mannered and artificial – but God almighty he deserves a place in the pantheon for directing a film as near to perfection as The Grand Budapest Hotel, a delight from start to finish, as beautiful to look at as it is whipper-snap funny, as heart-warming to bathe in as it is coldly, sadly bittersweet. After three viewings I can say it is, without a doubt, a masterpiece.

Like many Wes Anderson films, its storyline is eccentric, halfway between fantasy and absurdity. In 1932, in an opulent hotel, The Grand Budapest, concierge Monsieur Gustav (Ralph Fiennes) is the pinnacle of his trade: precise, fastidious, perfectionist, he can fix anything anywhere – opera tickets, the perfect table placement and a night of passion at any time for the elderly widows who visit his hotel. When one of them, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies leaving him a priceless painting, Boy with Apple he suddenly finds himself framed for her murder. Only his ingenuity, and the dedicated help of his protégé, best friend and surrogate brother/son, lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) will save him.

You can’t escape on the first viewing that The Grand Budapest Hotel is an extraordinarily funny film. Crammed with superb one-liners, it’s a showcase for a breathtakingly, blissfully funny performance from Ralph Fiennes whose comic timing is exquisite and whose mastery of the perfectly structured monologue of flowery language is as spot-on as his ability to deliver a crude punch-line. Anderson fills the film with clever sight-gags, bounce and a supreme sense of fun. You’ll laugh out loud (I frequently do, and I remember most of the gags) and wind back to watch them again.

But what lifts this is the wonderfully evocative, elegiac piece this beautiful film is. For all its comic zip, it unfolds in a romanticised past already a relic in 1932. We can’t escape the rise of Fascism that fills the film. Jack-booted soldiers accost and hunt Gustav and Zero. Adrien Brody’s furious heir to Madame D looks like a Gestapo officer, and his vicious heavy Jopling (Willem Dafoe so weathered, he looks like he’s been beaten by a carpet duster) has a stormtrooper menace. En route to Madame D’s funeral, Zero is nearly dragged off the train to be lynched by fascist thugs for being an immigrant and The Grand Budapest is taken over by this dreadful movement, filled with Mussolini-inspired ZZ insignia and blackshirts.

Under the jokes, the world Gustav represents has already died and been buried. We are never allowed to forget we are marching, inexorably, towards a very real-world war that will rip apart this fictional country and leave millions dead. Gustav’s gentile old-school charm ended with 1920s: and he sort of knows it. Fiennes, under the suaveness, conveys a man who falls back into potty language when he can no longer maintain his assured confidence that a straight-backed, polite assurance will solve any problem or a poetic reflection will allow them to put any unpleasantness behind them. Those days are gone and it makes for a deep, rich vein of sadness just under the surface.

It’s particularly acute because it’s made clear this is a memory piece. Anderson constructs the film like a memory box. It has no less than three framing devices. It opens and closes with a young woman in 2014 visiting a monument to a great writer, the author of the book The Grand Budapest Hotel. From there we flash back to the author (a droll Tom Wilkinson) in 1985 recounting how he met the man who inspired the novel, before heading again to a flashback to the 1960s where the young author (Jude Law) meets the man we discover is an older Zero (F Murray Abraham) who recounts the story we then watch. Each layer of the film descends deeper into Anderson’s artificial, carefully structured visual style, with its heightened sense of reality.

Old Zero – beautifully played by F. Murray Abraham – is introduced as a man of acute loneliness and sadness, who tells us early on the woman his young self loves, Agatha (a radiant Saoirse Ronan) will die and shuffles around the nearly abandoned The Grand Budapest (now a concrete nightmare of Communist architecture) with only his memories for comfort. No matter how jovial and bright the events of the 1930s are, we can’t forget that these are the reflections of a man full of regrets.

When old Zero’s narration turns to remembering Agatha, the lights around him dim: Agatha even enters the narrative almost by the side door: Gustav is arrested and imprisoned before she appears, along with a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks to Zero and her meeting and her first meeting with Gustav, as if Zero had to steel himself to remember her (as reflected in Abraham’s tear-stained face). Later, when remembering the fates of Gustav (his best friend) and Agatha (the love of his life) he almost draws a veil over it (even their final scenes in flashback play out in monochrome). There is a deep, moving sense of humanity here, a powerful thread of grief that adds immense richness.

But don’t forget this is also a funny film! Anderson is an inventive visual and narrative director at the best of times, and here every single beat of his playful style pays off in spades. The entire 1930s section of the film (the overwhelming bulk of the narrative) plays out in 4:3 ratio, which to many other directors would be restrictive, but seems a perfect fit for a director who often composes his visuals with the skill of an expert cartoonist. The frame is frequently filled in every direction when within the grandeur of the hotel, but then feels marvellously restrictive for Gustav’s prison cell or the train compartments that seem to constantly carry Zero and him to disaster.

Anderson’s wonderfully precise camera movements also reach their zenith here. His camera is deceptively static, often placed in a series of perfectly staged compositions that places the characters at their heart, frequently looking at us. But then the camera will turn – frequently in a fluid single-plain ninety degrees to reveal a new image of character. There are Steadicam tracking shots that are a dream to watch. It’s combined with some truly astounding model shots (parts of the set are not-even-disguised animated models and miniatures, adding to the sense of fantasia) and the detail of every inch of the design (astounding work from Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock) is perfection. The film is an opulent visual delight.

It’s a film of belly laughs and then moments of haunting sadness. But also, a wonderful celebration of friendship. The bond between Gustav and Zero is profound, natural and deeply moving – grounded, fittingly, in adversity from the agents of a hostile, oppressive state – and carries real emotional force. Newcomer Tony Revolori is hugely endearing as naïve but brave Zero, making his way in this new world (fitting the theme, he left his homeland after his family was destroyed by war) and sparks superbly with Fiennes and Ronan.

There is a wonderful beating heart in The Grand Budapest Hotel, amongst the farce, perfectly timed gags and cheekiness, that makes it a rich film you can luxuriate in. Anderson’s direction is faultless, Fiennes is a breathtaking revelation, both hilarious, affronted, decent and fighting the good fight. Gorgeous to look at, thought-provoking and laugh-out loud funny it’s a dream of a film.

Saving Mr Banks (2013)

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson clash on the making of Mary Poppins in Saving Mr Banks

Director: John Lee Hancock

Cast: Emma Thompson (Pamela Travers), Tom Hanks (Walt Disney), Colin Farrell (Travers Robert Goff), Ruth Wilson (Margaret Goff), Paul Giamatti (Ralph), Bradley Whitford (Don DaGradi), Jason Schwartzman (Richard M Sherman), BJ Novak (Robert B Sherman), Kathy Baker (Tommie), Melanie Paxson (Dolly), Rachel Griffiths (Ellie), Ronan Vibert (Diarmuid Russell)

Walt Disney was a man used to getting what he wanted. And what he wanted more than anything was the rights to PL Travers’ Mary Poppins series. It was his kids favourite books, and he had promised them he would make the movie. It took decades – and Disney had to wait until Travers needed the money – but finally a deal was struck, with Travers having full script approval. So the hyper-English Travers is flown across the Atlantic to Los Angeles where she reacts with a brittle horror to every single suggestion from the Mary Poppins creative team, and distaste at the commercialisation of Disney’s enterprise. Based on the actual recordings (which Travers insisted on) from the script meetings, Emma Thompson is the imperious PL Travers and Tom Hanks the avuncular Walt Disney.

John Lee Hancock’s film is a solid crowd pleaser that, if it feels like it hardly delivers a completely true picture of the making of Mary Poppins, does put together an entertaining and interesting idea of the difficult process of creation and the tensions when writers (who don’t want to change a thing!) clash with film production companies. These problems being made worse by the clashing worlds of the loose, casualness and breezy friendliness of Los Angeles, and the intensely cold, buttoned-up Edwardianism of Travers, hostile to all shows of affection and any touches of sentimentality.

The film gets more than a lot of comic mileage out of these mixed worlds, with Travers’ every look of aghast, repressed, British reserve (“Poor AA Milne” she mutters while manhandingly a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh toy out of her way, followed by “You can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety” as she dumps a massive Mickey Mouse cuddily toy against the wall of her bedroom) bound to raise sniggers at both her blunt hostility and cut-glass wit. Against this the American characters – all of them forced to dance to her tune – meet wave after wave of hostility with a practised American friendliness and warmth. It works a treat.

The film walks a fine line with its portrayal of Disney who is both a charming uncle figure and also a savvy and even ruthless businessman. Tom Hanks is spot-on with showing both sides of this man, making it clear how he managed to make so much damn money but also from how he managed to inspire such loyalty from many of his staff. Yes the film soft-peddles on many of Disney’s negatives – from refusing to show a single second of Disney smoking, to no mention of his active union-busting activities – but this is a film focused on Disney the impresario and negotiator. 

And what a person to negotiate with! That the film works is almost exclusively down to Emma Thompson’s imperious performance in the lead role. Thompson has a very difficult job here of turning someone so consistently rude, aggressive, arrogant and unpleasant as Travers (and over half of the film goes by before she says something nice to anyone) into a character we genuinely invest in, care about and laugh with as much as gasp at her rudeness. It’s a real trick from Thompson, adding a great deal if inner pain and vulnerability just below the surface, but only allowing a few beats of letting these feelings out for all the world to see. It makes for a performance that is superbly funny, hugely rude but also someone we end up caring about.

A lot of that spins from the careful recreation of Travers’ past in flashback, particularly her relationship with her father, Travers Goff (played with charm by Colin Farrell), an alcoholic bank manager in Australia when Travers was a child, who lived a life of irresponsibility mixed with bursts of playful, imaginative games with his daughter. It’s the realisation, by the elderly Travers, that her father was feckless and irresponsible that motivates her writing of Mary Poppins, the super-Nanny who flies in and saves not just the whole family, but specifically the father. Equally good in these sequences is Ruth Wilson as the despairing Mrs Goff.

It adds a sadness to the backstory of Travers – and an understanding of why she behaves the way she does – and the film also brings it round to a neat mutual meeting ground between her and Disney, who himself had problems with a father who drove him hard to achieve. It also explains Travers’ growing warmth to her chauffer, played by Paul Giamatti as a loving dad, the one person she demonstrates some affection to within the film.

It’s a film that wants to have its cake and eat it though, and it can’t resist adding a “happy ending” to the story of Travers finally accepting (even if she denies it) that she enjoys the Mary Poppins film and is moved by the saving of Mr Banks that it contains. In reality of course, Travers hated the film (though claimed some of it was passable) and refused Disney all permission to ever make any sequel. But that hardly matters here, to this fairy tale of saved souls which wants to see Travers saved – even if the truth was far more complex.