“Understated” isn’t a word you’d ordinarily use to describe a Jerry Bruckheimer production, but that’s surprisingly what 12 Strong ends up being.
In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see who they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Scout Tafoya makes the case for the best original screenplay of 2014: "The Grand Budapest Hotel" by Wes Anderson. Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Picture and Best Director on Friday.
Wes Anderson has made it his mission to redefine symmetry in motion pictures and with "The Grand Budapest Hotel" he’s outdone himself. Every pull of the focus ring reveals anew geometric satisfaction in his compositions, every piece of music obeys the acoustic tide of scene changes, and every frame of exposed film looks like a freshly completed jigsaw puzzle, and none of that would be possible without a script that improbably reads like a 19th century novel (his claims to have stolen from Stefan Zweig are a defense mechanism so we’ll all stop complimenting him. Fat chance, darling).
The dialogue has that Andersonian specificity, as does every gear of that Swiss watch he calls a narrative. The camera moves down imperceptibly at the end of a shot of a door closing, so that when it tracks left in the following cut, there will be no spatial displacement. If that isn’t perfection... It is most fitting then that we recognize, here at RogerEbert.com, and if there’s any bloody justice in the world, over at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as well, Wes Anderson (with help from Msr. Hugo Guinness) for having crafted one of his most imperfect, asymmetrical characters, the last vestige of a world of voluptuous artistry that coloured even the simplest salutation.
Anderson doesn’t rhapsodize an era of prejudice and war, rather, he waves fondly at a time when every additional word in a sentence was designed to elucidate the connection one felt to their establishments, friends and family. Every superfluous adjective makes a big, scary world seem a little smaller and friendlier. Even when running for his life from the police, the fabulous concierge M. Gustave remembers that wherever he goes he represents The Grand Budapest Hotel and must be held to higher standards because of his bond to the place. The Grand Budapest is home to wayward orphans and refuges of every stripe and Anderson knows that a story like this cannot be told in the modern world, so into the past we dive. The one that belongs not to Churchill or de Gaulle but to Jean Renoir and Ernst Lubitsch.
The heart of The Grand Budapest is Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H. ‘Robbed’ I believe is the word, of an award for bringing this wonderfully crass old world gentleman to life. Let’s be honest, Anderson didn’t make it hard for Fiennes to step into Gustave’s shoes. He’s a perpetual motion machine, smoothing out his own rough edges every time they appear, too aware that his public face is everything. He’s racist, even to friends, vulgar, classist, and a womanizer to boot, but his charm is very real. When the film’s Nazi stand-ins come knocking at his door, he greets them with an unforced “Well Hello there, chaps.” He cannot lie his way through kindness; he truly believes in a good first impression. Here cites Romantic poetry (all of it written by Anderson) at the drop of a hat, and shudders at the thought of walking around smelling like a human being. The film ricochets from one madcap turn to the next like an errant bullet, but Gustave’s grace is straight as an arrow.
Anderson has crafted a character who breaks free from the confines of his too-perfect storybook world. Gustave’s search for meaning between two eras is impossibly compelling. Looking back, Zero sums up his mentor with the following: “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it.” And you can see the seams cracking early when after an attack from Storm Troopers he begins a manicured monologue about his function in a time of strife: “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed, that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant (sighs deeply) Oh, f—k it.” It’s heartbreaking, and yet he soldiers on. And there is a lovely symmetry in that; the one thing that all of Anderson’s heroes refuse to do is give up. And as long as he keeps writing them, neither shall we.
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