The Grand Budapest Hotel is a comedy-drama from writer/director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou). It is Anderson's 8th feature film and is a British/German co-production. The story takes place within and around the hotel and occurs within a fictional place known as the Republic of Zubrowka (itself a metaphorical state representing Germany before WWII), where poverty is rampant despite the frivolities of wealthy attendees of The Grand Budapest.
There are ways in which The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson's most accomplished film to date: the art direction, the stylish cinematography, and the elaborate set-pieces and design elements are absolutely stunning to behold. The level of detail and thought put into the film design is astonishing and is nothing less than what one expects to find in a Wes Anderson production. Each Anderson film has an element of theatricality and impressive visuals. Exploring the film's hotel corridors is fascinating: Anderson was involved in so many fundamental aspects of the film's design, with aspects like color schemes, pastry treat presentations, articles featured in the film, and logo design (the 'ZZ' Zig Zag Division). Creativity is abundant in these aspects of the filmmaking.
The storytelling of the film is both whimsical and dark at the same time. This is easily the most dark and pessimistic of Anderson's films. The story's central protagonist is M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who delivers one of his career-best performances as the oddball concierge working within The Grand Budapest. We first meet his character as he is working with the hotel lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) who is new to the trade and is being trained by Gustave. In almost no time at all Gustave takes him on as a personal assistant of sorts and these unlikely friends end up becoming (almost) inseparable during the story.
Gustave is known for being generous and kind to clients of the hotel and for 'knowing their needs before they known them themselves'. One thing he is also known for is having relationships with the hotel's elder, wealthy women. One of The Grand Budapest's guests, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), whom Gustave had known for quite some time, passes away early on in this story. Gustave inherits an incredibly valuable painting known as 'Boy With Apple' from Madame D.
Gustave takes the news of her passing somewhat lightly (as does everyone else who knew her, apparently) as the will reading has an abundance of guests all waiting to hear who will inherit 'Boy With Apple' as nothing else she owns is considered that valuable. Madam D's son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) is shocked and angered when he hears that Gustave has inherited the painting and accuses him of murdering her. Somewhere along this line of thought, Gustave becomes framed for her murder and is thrown into prison (but not before being aided by Zero in the 'stealing' (of sorts) of the painting the family tried to prevent them from taking despite the clearness of Madam D's will. The pair receives aid by Serge X. (Mathieu Amalric), who conveniently slips a note to Gustave inside the painting's wrapper. Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) tries to sort things out at the reading and is listened to by no one.
The story becomes more complicated as characters encounter a wicked group known by the emblem 'ZZ' (a group which is symbolic for the Nazi party). Henckels (Edward Norton) is someone high in command in the ZZ group but he helps prevent Gustave from being quite significantly injured or killed at multiple times in the film (as he apparently used to know Gustave and likes him for whatever reason). Every other character in the ZZ is just a cold character adding an undercurrent of looming horror in the film's symbolic backdrop to the ridiculous events unfolding. The message or importance of this backdrop seems to be a bit unclear but one might infer by events in the film that the story is meant to suggest that the character's and the nature of their story is frivolous within the context of what was soon to happen within Germany despite the location also being set in a fictional universe. (Though everything was filmed in Germany and the distinction is clear.)
One of the main elements of the film is a wild plot with a murdering henchman named Jopling (Willem Dafoe) chasing after everyone who knows something about the death of Madame D. This character is a coldblooded killer and begins to 'knock-off' one person after another and is looking to find Gustave. Dafoe plays one of the most sinister Anderson characters in any of his films, and in a way it's quite reminiscent of old-school gangster pictures, with his role being that of the thug-for-hire (in an over the top way).
The majority of the film is spent with the film's characters running around in a quest to get the wealth and riches associated with the rare painting. Considering the humor associated with the events that unfold, the style and approach is much darker and less whimsical than in most other Anderson films. One bright spot in the film is the underlying romance between Zero and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), but there is also sadness mixed into this plot and not as much development as I would have hoped for.
A side-element of the film is the introduction of some of the staff of the Grand Budapest known as the 'Keys' of the hotel who are able to do almost anything for those there. This amounts to an enormous roster of cameo appearances from the likes of Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Lea Seydoux, Bob Balaban, and Fisher Stevens. Owen Wilson also makes a cameo as the Budapest concierge during Gustave's absence. (You can even spot Harvey Keitel as a character named Ludwig in a brief part.) Lastly, as far as discussing the long cast roster of primary roles goes, Tom Wilkinson plays the role of the writer and Jude Law plays the role of the young writer whose encounter with an older Zero, known as Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) is the storytelling source recounting the adventures and misadventures of Zero and (especially) Gustave that is seen in the film.
This was the first film in the entirety of Anderson's career to be written alone, though the material was reportedly inspired by the writings of author Stefan Zweig. The story is by Anderson and Hugo Guinness. Anderson's frequent writing collaborators (such as Roman Coppola, Noah Baumbach, and Owen Wilson) were not involved in the screenplay. This is particularly interesting to me as the script is significantly darker, both in terms of some of its themes and in some of the primary characterizations.
Characters and events feel more cynical. Whether this is an indication of how Anderson's writing style diverts on its own or was a choice specific to telling this particular story is an interesting question. As a longtime fan of Anderson (for around half my life) the filmmaker's storytelling approach feels different here and I wondered afterwards how much of this was due to writing solo.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is attempting to say something about World War II and the impact it had on people's lives but the method of storytelling utilized (including a fictional, metaphorical 'ZZ Zig Zag' group standing in for Nazi's) seems less effective and it takes away from some of the film's joys even as the film still remains one that has a lot to offer. The story is too focused on Gustave's misadventures for such a serious backdrop that is not given enough room to be as well developed or explored. While the film's ideas are deep the execution is not as perfect as it could have been.
There's a sadness to the storytelling and a lack of whimsy to these characters which separates it from everything else the filmmaker has done before. The lush visuals and the extravagant sets, costumes, and set-pieces amaze and add wonderment that is perhaps better than anything else done in cinema in 2014 altogether but some of the offbeat and enchanting elements that made myself one of Anderson's biggest supporters feel misplaced amidst the shuffle in perfecting a visualized feast of creativity. The film is no doubt entertaining, but I was not as emotionally invested in the story and character's this time around. (Perhaps with future viewings the film might grow on me.)
The screenplay also leaves room for the cameo appearances by staples of Anderson's acting troupe but these actors are given less to do in The Grand Budapest Hotel than in most of his works. There are other films by Anderson where significant actors have been given a small cameo-sized part, but none of his other films have featured as large a cast and with so many prominent performers being included in such brief roles).
Some might find these cameos a joy but the fact that so many talented actors are given brief cameos here is a little bit disappointing given the wider array of characters delivered in the majority of Anderson's films. Even primary supporting parts felt less developed. The only performers in The Grand Budapest Hotel given enough material to qualify as leads are Ralph Fiennes as Gustave and Tony Revolori as Zero.
Given that Zero mostly serves as an essential aid to the misadventures of Gustave, one could argue that everything in the story is a part of telling Gustave's story. The supporting players? Everyone else. In true Anderson fashion, everyone involved does good work: exceptional performances are found even when there isn't as much material to work with.
The music in the film is a bit of a departure for a Anderson film despite the return of collaborator Alexandre Desplat (who previously worked with Anderson in composing Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom). The music uses traditional score methods by Desplat as well as some significant choral elements. The film also employs some masterful pieces of classical music. There's nothing in the way of classic rock tunes to be found here (though one would be hard pressed to find a spot to include such songs), so viewers shouldn't expect to find The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, Hank Williams, and other staples of previous Anderson films. Desplat has crafted another typically stellar score for The Grand Budapest Hotel which blends in with the craft of the filmmaking prominently and seamlessly.
This is one of the most beautiful looking of Anderson's films. The cinematography by his longtime collaborator Robert Yeoman is astonishing. The creative decision to employ the significantly wider 2.35:1 framing for the present-day scenes and the 1.33:1 full frame for everything being conveyed by the narrator is a fascinating decision and makes for a unique viewing experience.
Anderson and Yeoman throw in some other slightly different ratios for brief parts of the film. It makes the film's visual approach stand out in a way that isn't exactly common and it feels more unique for taking this kind of technical filmmaking approach. The use of color within the film also astonishes with an assortment of vivid displays of prominent pinks, blues, and gold-hues filling the film with more visual wonder. There is also a purplish hue that is a distinct element featured in the color-grading.
The Grand Budapest Hotel was a tremendous box-office success worldwide and seems to be amongst Anderson's most successful films to date. There is a lot to appreciate in The Grand Budapest Hotel and I am glad that one of my favorite filmmakers is finding more success (even if this effort was not amongst my favorite Anderson films). Regardless of where fans are going to rank The Grand Budapest Hotel when comparing it to Anderson's other efforts, this is a film that is sure to make a big impression.
Check into The Grand Budapest Hotel with an impressive Blu-ray presentation. The film has been encoded in 1080p MPEG-4 AVC with an average bit-rate of 24 Mbps. The encoding is nearly perfect but there are some moments of softness where a slightly higher bitrate would probably have helped perfect the presentation. Contrast is generally strong throughout though and the colors are vivid and have an immense depth to them. The film's unusual photography is well represented. The film was shot with an array of aspect ratios. The primary method used was to feature present day scenes in 2.35:1 and the storytelling flashbacks in 1.33:1. The framing that Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman decided upon works well with the film and these aspect ratio alterations feel unobtrusive to the enjoyment of the presentation.
The film received a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The clarity of the dialogue and the music score by composer Alexandre Desplat is superb and highly effective in The Grand Budapest Hotel. It isn't an overly ambitious surround mix (at times it feels more front-centered and could easily be confused for a lossless stereo mix) but occasionally some sound effects are utilized in the rears and Desplat's wonderful score is opened up throughout for music envelopment. This is a solid audio presentation that works well with the filmmaking.
The disc includes a wide array of audio options. The disc contains lossy English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, French DTS 5.1, Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1, Russian DTS 5.1, Czech Dolby Digital 5.1, Hungarian Dolby Digital 5.1, Polish 5.1, and Turkish Dolby Digital 5.1.
Personally, I feel dubbed soundtracks should not be included for live-action films and if they are to be included it would be nice if studios printed separate disc-content releases for other foreign territories. Then additional disc space could be given to expanding the video bit-rate for as good of a presentation as possible. (I'd much prefer studios to include a wide array of subtitles.)
Luckily, the release does contain a lot of subtitle options too. Subtitles include: English SDH (for the deaf and hard of hearing), Spanish, French, Portuguese, Czech, Dutch, Greek, Hungarian, Hebrew, Icelandic, Latvian, Mandarin (Simplified), Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovenian, Turkish, and Ukrainian.
There are a number of short supplemental features included on this release. Extras fans might want to hold out for the inevitable Criterion edition (if they can manage it), as the extras that have been included here are brief and aren't as informative as one might hope.
Vignettes (9 min.) include:
Kuntsmuseum Zubrowka Lecture (a slideshow-like short on the fake area), The Society of the Crossed Keys (a piece on the supporting cameos and their characters in the film), and Mendl's Secret Recipe (which is a step-by-step guide on how to make one of the pastry treats featured in the film).
The Making of The Grand Budapest Hotel (18 min.) is a fun but typical short making-of supplemental with brief interviews with cast, crew, producers, and the filmmaker. It has a relatively brief run-time which doesn't help it showcase much given the type of film this is. However, there are still some interesting tidbits and it's worth a watch for fans.
Cast (3 min.) is a brief piece about the cast of the film.
Wes Anderson (4 min.) is a short piece about the filmmaking by writer/director Wes Anderson.
Bill Murray Tours The Town (4 min.) is a Blu-ray exclusive short featurette where the actor is roaming the streets where the film was being made and talks and interacts with some locals in the area. Murray visits a local eatery to get a hotdog, too.
The Grand Budapest Hotel isn't Anderson's best film (as many critics have suggested), but the film has enough inventiveness and creativity to keep things interesting. Fans of the filmmaker should certainly seek this out and anyone with an interest in visually imaginative films and the tremendous cast will find something to enjoy.