Any film director worth caring about is sure to have enemies. For everyone who sees Scorsese as a keen chronicler of the American male’s id, there’s another who thinks he’s nothing but a machismo-obsessed director stuck in the past. You like Spielberg, you say? Dressed-up commercial schlock, says your seatmate. Fan of Woody Allen’s work? Well, the varied takes on Allen these days could fill a column of their own.
The point is (usually) that what makes a director’s style so his or her own—what sets him or her apart from the herd of directors who merely get movies finished—is a unique, personal thing for both the moviemaker and the viewer alike. And odd as it may seem, Wes Anderson, whose quirky, mannered, but generally genteel movies hardly seem likely to offend, is one of the most divisive of directors working today.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, screening at Amherst Cinema, is the latest from the director of Moonrise Kingdom. As with most of his work, the story it tells is at once grand and intimate—a group of talented kids putting on a play about the Franco-Prussian War for their aunts and uncles. Here, Ralph Fiennes stars as Gustave H, a well-known concierge at a famous European hotel; and Zero Moustafa plays a young “lobby boy” who becomes the older man’s protégé, friend and co-conspirator.
Monsieur Gustave, as he is known, takes very good care of his guests, particularly if they are women of a certain age. When one of them dies under mysterious circumstances, her family is appalled to learn that she has left a valuable Renaissance painting to the concierge. With the extended family plotting to get it back, Gustave is framed for murder, setting off a string of prison breaks, sled chases and gunfights as he tries to prove his innocence and return to his beloved hotel. That story is itself set within a memoir penned by someone known simply as The Author, which in turn is being read by a young girl seen at the beginning of the film.
Gunplay, robbery, prison breaks: all of it could just as easily be a Scorsese or a Mamet film, but because it’s Anderson, the violence is never truly violent, even when war encroaches on the story. (Where normally a gunshot might be followed by a bloom of blood, with Anderson one expects the red burst of a magician’s flower.) There’s a dollhouse effect to the director’s work that people either love or hate; every aspect of his filmmaking is so carefully stage-managed that one sometimes feels that his actors—and here he has a great cast including Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and many more—are more playthings for their storyteller than active participants in the work.
On the other hand, it’s that feeling of a miniature world that has made Anderson who he is today. He makes us interested not in the real world, but in his real world, which bears only a passing resemblance to our own. I was going to say “surface resemblance,” but that wouldn’t have been true—Anderson delights in art-directing the surface look of his creations, so much so that at least one designer took the time to create color palettes based on the meticulously crafted look of his films. How you feel about it might vary, but it’s that attention to detail that makes Anderson such a recognizable presence in film today, and one worth keeping up on.
Also this week: We all have those movies that we can never get enough of, and for one friend of mine that movie is The Shawshank Redemption. Any time she happens upon it (and given the film’s ubiquity on cable, that’s at least a few times a year), she feels compelled to sit down and watch it through to the end. Starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, Frank Darabont’s 1994 film is a great, old-fashioned story about a man surviving in (and, spoiler alert, escaping from) a Maine prison that may just become your own new favorite. It screens at Cinemark theaters on Sunday and Wednesday.•
Jack Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.