Film and drama

Screen Themes: Grand Budapest Hotel and Wes Anderson

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This week, entertainment editor John Turnbull takes a look at the career of auteur Wes Anderson up to and including recent masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel.

IT SORT OF SNUCK UP ON ME, but over the last few years Wes Anderson has become one of my favourite directors. I didn’t really care for his early movies on first viewing, partly because they starred Owen and Luke Wilson, two actors of considerable charm but limited range.

Anderson’s first film was Bottle Rocket, starring the aforementioned Wilson brothers playing a pair of ambitious morons on a low-rent crime spree. Written by Anderson and University of Texas buddy Owen Wilson, the production ran out of money half way through filming. Undeterred, Anderson decided to cut the existing footage into a short black and white film to attract financing – the entirety of which can be seen here;

The ploy worked and Bottle Rocket was released in 1996 to mixed reviews and modest box office receipts, but the experience led to the development of Anderson’s breakout film: Rushmore.

Starring a young Jason Schwartzman and a never-better Bill Murray, Rushmore tells the story of two men in love with the same woman. It’s essentially a study of friendship and the adolescent struggle for identity, with a pinch of screwball comedy thrown in for good measure.

In an example of the loyalty that actors tend to show the quirky director, Murray has gone on to feature in every film Anderson has made since.

Following on from Rushmore was 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, an ensemble piece led by Gene Hackman and featuring a cast of great actors — and also Gwyneth Paltrow. The story of three child prodigies (Paltrow, Luke Wilson and Ben Stiller) returning home to encounter their overbearing father (Hackman) was a success both critically and financially, earning over $71 million at cinemas internationally.

Essentially a story of loneliness and wasted potential, Tenebaums managed to tap into a deep emotional core of characters who at first seemed venial and shallow. Written by Anderson and Owen Wilson, the film polarised audiences, who either loved the understated whimsy and long takes or hated the mannered performances and deliberate artiness.

Anderson took three years to make his next film, the under-appreciated Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Putting frequent collaborator Bill Murray into the title role, the movie also starred Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe in an unexpected comic turn. While the film was comparatively unsuccessful (both critically and commercially) it did introduce Anderson to stop-motion director Henry Selick.

Next up Anderson took a trip to India and resolved to make a tribute to filmmaker Satyajit Ray, a film which went on to become The Darjeeling Limited. Taking full advantage of the stunning Indian landscape, the movie tells the story of three bickering brothers (regulars Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman along with newcomer Adrien Brody) taking a train trip across India in an attempt to bond after the death of their father.

One of the first directors to really embrace the internet as a legitimate distribution channel, Anderson accompanied The Darjeeling Limited with the short film prequel Hotel Chevalier. (Note: slightly NSFW due to Natalie Portman’s bottom)

Anderson’s 2004 meeting with Henry Selick came to fruition with 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox, a family-friendly stop-motion comedy based on the Roald Dahl book. With voices by George Clooney and Meryl Streep along with regulars Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Willem Dafoe, the film was a critical success and was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2010 Academy Awards.

In 2012, Anderson released what may be remembered as his sweetest movie, the touching Moonrise Kingdom. Ostensibly a pre-teen romance, the film features unknown actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward along with an ensemble cast, this time including new faces Bruce Willis and Edward Norton.

It is a testament to Wes Anderson’s directorial skill that both of these notoriously difficult actors (see Kevin Smith’s description of working with Willis and the stories of Norton’s petulance on The Italian Job among other films) deliver honest, un-self conscious performances that demonstrate a depth previously untapped by lesser directors. 

Released online as Anderson was putting the finishing touches on his next feature length project, Castello Cavalcanti is a seemingly throwaway short about a racing driver who crashes in what turns out to be his ancestral home town. Starring Jason Schwartzman, the film is a bite-sized piece of vintage Wes Anderson — if you hate this, chances are you’re going to hate everything else he’s done (except maybe Moonrise Kingdom):

Bill Murray and Ed Norton return in small roles in 2014’s Grand Budapest Hotel, a love letter to grandeur and nostalgia. Set across multiple time periods distinguished by different aspect ratios (the old-timey stuff is displayed in TV style format, the modern bits in widescreen) the movie tells the story of the glory days of the titular hotel and it’s iconic concierge Monsieur Gustave.

Gustave is a complex character, a man of deeply held morals and startling contradictions. Refined and reserved yet profane and passionate, Ralph Fiennes delivers a career-best performance, supported ably by main players Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan and F. Murray Abraham. The narrator is played by refined Brits Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson in different time periods, and Tilda Swinton is almost unrecognisable as the decrepit Madame D.

The Verdict

Wes Anderson makes films for people who love the cinema. They don’t necessarily have explosions or car chases (except when they do) and they frequently feature characters slightly at odds with the world. If you’re a fan of well-made movies, I strongly encourage you to check out his work — starting with The Grand Budapest Hotel at the cinema or Moonrise Kingdom on DVD.

Bottle Rocket — 6/10

Rushmore — 8/10

The Royal Tenenbaums — 8/10

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — 7/10

Hotel Chevalier — 7/10

The Darjeeling Limited — 7/10

Moonrise Kingdom — 10/10

Castello Cavalcanti — 7/10

The Grand Budapest Hotel — 9/10

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