The Film: 4/5
The story begins in the present day when a teenage girl arrives at a monument to a great author and reads his novel The Grand Budapest Hotel, a tale told by the author (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985 of the time he (played as a young man by Jude Law) went to stay in the titular hotel while on a visit to the Republic of Zubrowka in Europe and struck up a rapport with the once-opulent hotel's aging owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner Zero tells the author a story of his own. In 1932, just as Zubrowka is about to become ravaged by war, Zero (Tony Revolori) is working at the Grand Budapest as a lobby boy and becomes friendly with its dedicated concierge Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a gentleman whose taste in women tends to favor the quite old and wealthy. One of his eldery paramours Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton) passes away under questionable circumstances and bequeaths to Gustave the priceless painting "Boy with Apple" to the shock of her covetous descendants, including her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody).
After attending the reading of Madame Desgoffe und Taxis' will Gustave and Zero covertly make off with the painting and return to the hotel, but Gustave is later arrested by the police when it's determined the Madame was murdered and he is the culprit. The concierge is sent to prison and with the help of his friend and lobby boy must escape and clear his name before Dmitri and his henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe) can recover the painting, all while Zero is in the midst of a rather sweet courtship with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), the lovely local confectionist with a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her right cheek. The one on her face, you sniveling guttersnipes!
Filmmaker Wes Anderson speaks the language of whimsy better than any cinematic artist to emerge in the past two decades. His movies are delightful concoctions of the imagination fused with visual invention and an aching soulfulness that can never be replicated. Anderson has his share of critics and not every film he makes is a complete winner and though I have yet to catch his directorial debut Bottle Rocket I can state without hyperbole that he is one of the greatest filmmaking talents working today. He doesn't believe in wasting his precious time on cookie cutter studio products. The Grand Budapest Hotel is by far the most ambitious film of his career to date in terms of narrative construction and visual scope. The world of the film is a deliberately artificial one crafted from the writings of famed Austrian author Stefan Zweig and the director's own eclectic vision. Grand Budapest was filmed at several locations throughout Germany but nearly every scene - including the exteriors - looks to have been created on a soundstage. Credit production designer Adam Stockhausen (12 Years a Slave) and Anderson's go-to cinematographer Robert Yeoman for giving the film its marvelous pop-up book facade. The filmmaker used miniatures for wide shots of the hotel itself and the fact that you don't need the most accurate of eyesight to tell the practical effects apart from the real locations is all part of Anderson's grand design. His painstaking attention to detail could be compared with that of the late Stanley Kubrick, but Anderson always makes it look effortless and an extension of the exacting nature of his monomaniacal characters.
They also provide fodder for some wonderful visual gags, another of Anderson's stocks-in-trade. Grand Budapest has much heart and soul existing beneath its screwball surface, but the director purposely designed it to be more of a "movie" movie than any of his other works. The spine of the narrative is contained within the pages of a novel being read by a character to whom we are never properly introduced, and the storyteller inside her head takes the form of the book's writer recounting a tale once told to him that could be purely apocryphal because it's almost too absurd to be anything but a clever fiction. Maybe that's all it is, but in the end does it really matter? We are swept away as the story hurtles forward on a breakneck pace from one incident to another, in the process giving us some of Anderson's most memorable sequences including a prison break orchestrated by Gustave and his jailhouse compatriot Ludwig (Harvey Keitel) and a high-speed ski chase right out of a James Bond adventure where the concierge and his protege and friend pursue Willem Dafoe's sleazy villain down dangerous slopes and through tunnels of ice.
The film's European influences extend to the playful and appropriately dramatic score by Alexandre Desplat, who contributes a rich musical tapestry evocative of Grand Budapest's shifting tones. The tight 100-minute running time is primarily dominated by the budding friendship between Gustave (a terrific Fiennes getting a rare chance to deliver a comedic performance and defying expectations in a role originally meant for Johnny Depp) and Zero (relative newcomer Revolori, another discovery by Anderson that pays off splendidly) and Gustave's troubles with the law and the machinations of Madame Desgoffe und Taxis' heirs. Anderson has assembled possibly his largest cast to date, with the fresh faces in his unique cinematic universe (Fiennes, Law, Abraham, Revolori, Saoirse Ronan) getting along famously with the veterans (just about everyone else). Every actor is on top form regardless of their limited screen time. Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Dafoe, Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Swinton, Mathieu Amalric, and Bill Murray do characteristically fine work, while Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, and Fisher Stevens make the most of their glorified cameos. There are clearly no small parts in this film, and definitely no small actors.
The technical specifications included on the Blu-ray packaging lists the aspect ratio as 1.85:1, which is true but only for the wraparound scenes set in 1985. The A.R. shifts throughout the film from 2.35:1 for the 1968 scenes to the 1.37:1 Academy standard for the 1930's scenes. Anderson and Yeoman decided to do this in order to distinguish between the three alternating timelines within the story for the audience. For movie buffs the changing aspect ratios is also a geeky nod to the evolution of widescreen photography in motion pictures. Prior to the 1950's when 20th Century Fox introduced Cinemascope as a way to give audiences a grandiose moviegoing experience that couldn't be captured through economical television broadcasts most films were shot and projected in the Academy standard ratio. Theatrically the film was projected at the industry standard 1.85:1 ratio with precise instructions on how to frame the picture, adjust the image brightness, and properly configure the audio. For its home video exhibition The Grand Budapest Hotel opens with black text on a white background instructing the viewer to adjust their television monitor to the 16:9 setting to replicate the director's desired effect outside of the cinema screen. The shift in aspect ratios can be jarring at first, but if your attention is with the narrative then you won't mind at all after a while.
Now that this pertinent information has been disclosed, The Grand Budapest Hotel looks spectacular on Blu-ray. The picture quality is very clean and free of defects. Grain content is minimal and lends the visuals an enriched textural beauty, which does wonders for Yeoman's sumptuous cinematography. The film's candy store color spectrum is preserved with warmth. Fine details have been presented with stunning clarity. Fox's Blu-ray presentation comes equipped with four audio tracks, the best of which is the 24-bit English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that captures the film's meticulous, immersive soundtrack with strong volume control and a lack of distortion. The narration and dialogue come through with perfect audibility, as does the Desplat music score and the carefully-crafted sound design. For non-English-speaking viewers the disc also offers Spanish Dolby Digital and French DTS tracks - both in 5.1 - that will provide them with the same benefits of the English track but with slight differences in the language dubbing, and an English 5.1 descriptive audio track is also available. English, Spanish, and French subtitles have been provided.
It has long been protocol for the initial home video release of a Wes Anderson film to be pretty light in the way of bonus features so that it can handily justify the inevitable Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD editions. The exception to that cherished rule would be The Life Aquatic, which premiered on Criterion DVD right out of the gate in 2005 and only recently was upgraded to Blu by the same company. I'm hoping to see Moonrise Kingdom get an extras-packed release announced this year or at least before Blu-ray technology gets surplanted by something vastly superior. Grand Budapest Hotel might get one first though. Until then, Fox has provided their edition of the film with some fine supplements that offer some interesting insights into the development and production that occasionally go beyond mere electronic press kit fodder and are only hindered by their brief length.
"The Making of The Grand Budapest Hotel" (18 minutes) is split into four parts and provides a basic overview of the production, with the interviewees singing the praises of the story and Anderson. "Bill Murray Tours the Town" (4 minutes) features the living legend hanging out at the production's German locations. Three "Vignettes" (9 minutes) - "Kunstermuweum Zubrowka Lecture", "The Society of the Crossed Keys", and "Mendl's Secret Recipe" - and short featurettes about the cast (3 minutes) and Anderson's filmmaking ethic (4 minutes) supplement the main documentary further. A stills gallery, theatrical trailer, and "Sneak Peeks" of other Fox releases close out the disc-based extras. Fox has also enclosed a digital download code with the Blu-ray.
Anderson's style may never change, but it's refreshing to see that he will continue to challenge himself and evolve as a filmmaker as long as he's in the game. The Grand Budapest Hotel didn't move me as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom did, but it's still a hilarious and touching comic thriller that never ceases to be entertaining. One of the finest films of 2014, the Fox Blu-ray makes for a dandy purchase.