Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel: The Latest from Wes Anderson

Oh, Wes Anderson. So many feelings and opinions. But we'll get to that. First let's lay out the plot of this one.

The film is an interesting sort of story-within-a-story. It's told by an author who wrote the book The Grand Budapest Hotel and within the first few minutes, he informs us that the story is actually taken from a true tale that was related to him by the old man that owned the actual Grand Budapest Hotel in the 1930's. The ensuing plot is the story of Zero, a refugee, who begins working at the hotel as a teenager under the tutelage of M. Gustave (played by the impeccable Ralph Fiennes). After one of M. Gustave's favorite patrons/lovers is murdered, he is the prime suspect. And while the question of the old woman's estate is left hanging in the air, her despicable relatives try to bump off the competition one by one. It is then up to Zero, his beloved fiancee Agatha, and M. Gustave himself to clear his name and win the estate that is rightfully his.

I really did love this one. Wes Anderson is a bit hit-or-miss for me usually, but there's no mistaking his beautiful retro-colorful style, and in this one it really sings more than any of his other films that I've seen. The Art Deco age seems perfectly tailored to his meticulous eye for detail. The plot of the movie, too, is set up to be a sort of hilarious whodunit, and if you're an Agatha Christie fan like me, there's nothing like the 1930s for a good murder mystery.

Even more notable is the chemistry between the three "good guy" characters, Zero, M. Gustave, and Agatha; but most pointedly between M. Gustave and Zero. Zero's blunt teenager plays a perfect foil to the ever detail-oriented and poetic M. Gustave, and the chemistry between the two of them is nothing short of enchanting, hilarious, and beautiful. Honestly, I would recommend the movie on that basis alone.

A+ dynamic duo right there.

Still, there's something a little heartbreaking about all of Wes Anderson's movies.

Here's the thing: Wes Anderson's style falls into the "Distinctive Directors" category. When you're watching a Wes Anderson movie, it's obvious that you're watching a Wes Anderson movie. Kind of like when you're watching a Baz Luhrmann or a Stanley Kubrick or a Hitchcock or a Woody Allen. Ya just know, y'know? And for that reason, I really appreciate Anderson's style as a film auteur. He's an artist, and his movies are beautiful. But I find them so jarring sometimes. For someone so obsessed with having bright colors, distinctive characters (even in the small roles!), and plots that are extremely romanticized, there's always a little bit of heartbreaking sadness to his movies that kind of leaves you a little confused about the nature of what you've watched.

In the same way that you don't open a colorful children's book and expect to find death and realism, Anderson's movies always strike me in the same way. I always go in expecting laughs and great characters and great stories, but then he'll do something (as he does in all of his films) like kill off a beloved character, and I'm completely thrown off.

For some reason, though, that technique serves this movie well. Set against the backdrop of a pseudo-Nazi party's rise to power, it sort of makes sense to mix the painful and the beautiful and the funny all up together.

Very well-crafted. And I'm not usually an Anderson fan, but I'm going to give this one 9 outa 10.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Wind Rises: The Newest from Studio Ghibli

I'm not so much an anime hound. I've seen a handful of movies here and there, and grew up watching Pokemon (and occasionally Digimon and Yugioh) like most normal children. But there is something about the stuff that Studio Ghibli puts out there that just holds me captivated every. single. time. Between Miyazaki's gorgeous backgrounds, startling surrealism, and fully developed characters there is a supreme level of divine film-making that fully grabs me every time.

So pretty.

The Wind Rises is hardly an exception. A quieter film from the usually flamboyant studio takes a somber turn in examining the life of Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Joseph Gordon Levitt), the man that designed Japanese fighter planes during WWII. The film begins with Jiro dreaming of flying as a child, making his way to engineering school, surviving the Kanto Earthquake, falling in love with the ill-fated Nahako (voiced by Emily Blunt) and moving on to making fighter planes (sometimes revolutionary ones) for Japanese fight pilots.

Like these.

While the film definitely serves to give a perspective on Japan's side of the story (which was interesting), the focus is on the life of Jiro. While the pace of the movie is a little meandering, the way that he captures the dedication of Jiro to his life's work serves to explain his reserved manner and quiet personality. And it wouldn't be a Miyazaki film if there weren't some weird and melodramatic bits. Between lucid dreams in which Jiro repeatedly sees and converses with fellow airplane designer Caproni, and the dramatic (real) romance between he and his ailing love Nahoko, Mayazaki delivers some signature style.

The movie can be a little confusing at times as the time shifts with little hints that you have to pay attention to. For the American who is used to looking at WWII period films filled with hummers and army green uniforms the Japanese side of the story can get a little confusing. Again, nothing jarring, but you have to pay attention. Wind also cuts itself off before things get bad for Japan and for our lead character, so the majority of the film takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. With this in mind, it's a less than typical war film, and the mood is more peaceful and contemplative. The lead characters, Jiro and Honjo (voiced by John Krasinski), seem resigned to help their airline companies simply because it is their job to make beautiful planes, so a lot of what they talk about is, well, building planes.

Not my favorite Ghibli film, if I'm being honest. It's subtlety is to be admired for sure, but I wonder at the quiet manner in which the director has decided to say farewell to the studio. For a director as willing to take the fantasy genre and run with it, I'm wondering why he chose the life of a quiet airplane engineer as his farewell film for Studio Ghibli.

Still, The Wind Rises remains a creative, interesting, and refreshing take on the biopic genre, and is absolutely beautifully made.

7 outa 10.