Rob Harmon’s Picks 7/8/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksThe Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson, 2014)

Recently I was at a tag sale when I spotted a children’s book which looked familiar to me. Picking it up I realized that it was a decommissioned library book with Dewey Decimal sticker still intact on the spine and that it was, in fact, a book which I remembered checking out of the library a dozen times or more as a child. I ran my hand over its buckram cover, frayed corners, and weather-beaten, heavily broken-in pages, seemingly softened by the oil from a thousand children’s fingertips as they feverishly thumbed through it over the years. The title, pictures, captions, and the font all seemed vaguely familiar to me and even comforting; the book’s pleasantly sweet, slightly musty smell brought back memories. Sure enough, as I turned to the endpaper, I discovered a library card in its familiar Manila sleeve. As I slid it out I scanned through the names to see if… could it possibly be the same one from my youth?

No, I did not find my name, but that did not alter the essential nature of the experience for me: communing, so to speak, with something from my past; something which, like myself, was once young and new.

A similar quality—the interaction with a shabby-yet-redolent past which yields unexpected and unforeseen insights—could be said to be sprinkled liberally throughout the work of director Wes Anderson, who is not only the cinema’s foremost purveyor of fantastically-tinged comedies about lost youth and the perspectives brought on by aging but, at this point, almost an institution unto himself, much like the title subject of his latest, extraordinary effort, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.

The story—introduced through a series of ingenious framing devices—concerns an older man (F. Murray Abraham) in the 1960’s looking back on his youthful adventures in the fictional central European country of Zubrowka, in a time roughly around the 1930’s. Zero Moustafa (played by newcomer Tony Revolori) is an orphan and the newly inducted, wide-eyed lobby boy of the revered Grand Budapest Hotel, a bustling top-tier mountain retreat for Europe’s elite, and Monsieur Gustave (the nonpareil Ralph Fiennes) is the head concierge and his boss.

Gustave, as Zero soon discovers, is a whirling dervish of activity, and the epicenter of the hotel’s daily life, the very glue which holds everything together. Gustave, it turns out, is also popular with the ladies—those of the geriatric set that is, such as Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, or “Madame D” (a heavily made-up Tilda Swinton), who clings to him in her old age for his charm, looks, and impeccable sense of taste. Zero and Gustave become fast friends and when news of Madame D.’s death abroad reaches them it trumps even the forecast of imminent war in Europe. In her will she leaves to Gustave a priceless painting—”Boy with Apple”—which is coveted by her jealous children, especially Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Gustave and Zero return to the hotel with painting in hand and later, on trumped-up testimony, Gustave is imprisoned for the murder of Madame D.

The remainder of the story concerns Zero’s first love—an apprentice cake maker named Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Gustave’s escape from prison, and Gustave and Zero’s attempts to stay one step ahead of the rise of fascism in Europe, Dmitri, and Dmitri’s bloodthirsty henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe), as well as their efforts to finally prove Gustave’s innocence and establish once and for all who the real owner of the Grand Budapest really is.

Wes Anderson burst upon the scene with the impishly exciting BOTTLE ROCKET in 1996 before making career-defining works in RUSHMORE (1998) and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001). Thereafter began a period of deep introspection for Anderson where he made the strangely discordant THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004)—a bit of rock star-like navel-gazing—and the oddly affecting but not totally satisfying THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007). Adapting Roald Dahl’s FANTASTIC MR. FOX in 2009 as an animated film may have at least freed Anderson to seek new paradigms for storytelling—instead of making films about characters grounded in any sense of reality he seemed to finally embrace pure, unalloyed fantasy… yet fantasy grounded in the real and with a sense of the achingly familiar about it. 2012 brought the wondrous surprise MOONRISE KINGDOM—a sort of comeback picture for Anderson though he had not really gone anywhere—a film of hilarious invention and deep meaning.

The Grand Budapest Hotel—a rollicking, old-school buddy picture—continues this fascinating trajectory for Anderson and his focus on storybook settings. The film’s framing device specifically reflects his obsessions with the transformative aspects of literature on young readers and the film itself was specifically influenced by the work of Austrian author Stefan Zweig.

Anderson—much like Monsieur Gustave—remains a bottomless source of invention and a tireless perfectionist, changing décor, for example, as effortlessly as the film’s ratio to fit the tenor of the time, from earth-tones, wood paneling, and CinemaScope to represent the 60’s, to bright wool carpets, pencil moustaches, and the postage stamp-shaped Academy ratio (think of films like GONE WITH THE WIND or CASABLANCA, made before the advent of “widescreen”) to represent the 30’s.

The film itself is a paean to mainly pre-World War II European films, such as, but not limited to, Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR, Carol Reed’s NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH, and just about anything directed by German great Max Ophüls. The score—by French composer Alexandre Desplat—is filled with the ringing sounds of the Russian balalaika which helps to accentuate the film’s undercurrent of insistent yearning and even pining for the past.

The bravura camera work (courtesy of frequent Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman) features hair-pin 90- and 180-degree turns, lightning-fast dolly-in, -out, and lateral tracking shots, as well as Anderson’s trademark tableaux—shots composed in flattened perspective but with such surprising stores of depth and density of meaning that they seem more like a beautiful, ornate cake (like those made in the film’s fictional bakery, Mendl’s). From every angle it may appear a little different but slice into it and one is presented with endless layers—alternating cake, frosting, cake, etc… delicate, petite, and impossibly sweet.

New releases 7/1/14

Top Hits
The Unknown Known (documentary, recent history, politics, Donald Rumsfeld. Rotten Tomatoes: 83%. Metacritic: 69. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “And The Unknown Known, which draws its title from one of Mr. Rumsfeld’s most famous rhetorical flights, is very much a battle of wits and words. Yes, it is a probing and unsettling inquiry into the recent political and military history of the United States, but it is also a bracing and invigorating philosophical skirmish. The tension between those two registers — between hard facts about state violence and devilish abstractions about causes and consequences — is what gives the film some of its energy and suspense. It is clear enough that an ideological chasm separates the unseen interviewer from his crisply dressed subject, but the real drama between them arises from a clash of epistemologies.” Read more…)

This Is Martin Bonner (drama, Paul Eenhoorn. Rotten Tomatoes: 93%. Metacritic: 71.From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “In Chad Hartigan’s resolutely low-key film, the Martin of the title, a fresh transplant from the East, is starting over as an outreach counselor at a Reno, Nev., penitentiary after a crisis of belief. He meets Travis, who is newly sprung after years in prison, and takes him under his wing. The slightly bewildered new ex-con sees freedom stretched out before him and immediately worries that he’ll blow his chances.” Read more…)

Afflicted (fantasy/horror, Derek Lee. Rotten Tomatoes: 79%. Metacritic: 56.)
Whoopi: Back to Broadway (stand-up comedy, Whoopi Goldberg)

New TV
Helix: Season 1 (sci-fi/thriller series, Billy Campbell. Rotten Tomatoes: 81%. Metacritic: 68.)

New Documentaries
The Unknown Known (recent history, politics, war, Donald Rumsfeld, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 83%. Metacritic: 69. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “And The Unknown Known, which draws its title from one of Mr. Rumsfeld’s most famous rhetorical flights, is very much a battle of wits and words. Yes, it is a probing and unsettling inquiry into the recent political and military history of the United States, but it is also a bracing and invigorating philosophical skirmish. The tension between those two registers — between hard facts about state violence and devilish abstractions about causes and consequences — is what gives the film some of its energy and suspense. It is clear enough that an ideological chasm separates the unseen interviewer from his crisply dressed subject, but the real drama between them arises from a clash of epistemologies.” Read more…)

Rob Harmon’s Picks 7/1/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksThe Unknown Known (dir. Errol Morris, 2013)

Since the subject of Errol Morris’s latest film-ic conversation THE UNKNOWN KNOWN is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it is fitting that the title of said film derives from a famously obscure bit of Rumsfeld political double-talk. In Rumsfeld’s own words—both when he first uttered the lines at a 2002 press conference while serving in the George W. Bush administration and in the studio with Morris reciting from the original memo—he explains that there are four categories of knowledge: known knowns (things we know and that we know we know), known unknowns (things that we know we do not know), unknown unknowns (things which we do not know and which we do not know that we do not know), and, finally, unknown knowns, things that we thought we knew but it turned out we knew less than we thought… or more… depending on which Donald Rumsfeld is speaking!

Confused? You should be. Welcome to the elusive world of political gamesmanship, a world in which a neoconservative lion like Rumsfeld feels eminently at home. In fact, of all the many archival clips of Rumsfeld in the film, (his career begins in Congress in 1962 and extends through various positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations) he seems most at ease between 2001 and 2006, the years in which he served as Secretary of Defense during some of the most difficult and controversial military deployments of our modern era. In these segments Rumsfeld seems to take to his “War on Terror” press conferences like a fish to water, bending truths like a strong man at a carnival bending metal into odd shapes. Like the oxymoron of the title, Rumsfeld’s words oftentimes seem like a form of meta-nonsense, providing the Washington press corps and the American public with some of its more surreal moments in recent memory.

Morris’s style in The Unknown Known will be familiar to those who know his movies. Rumsfeld sits in studio and speaks to Morris’s live video image in a teleprompter screen which covers the camera lens, creating the strange effect that the interviewee is sitting before the audience and speaking directly to them.

The ability to put subjects at ease before the camera is a Morris specialty, as are his use of hypnotic re-enactments (many of which call into question or undermine what the subject is saying, and, at times, even the nature of “truth” itself!), archival footage, and visuals which are skillfully edited and intercut, and the use of mesmerizing music (Danny Elfman being the composer in this case) to settle the viewer into a sort of trance-like state more receptive to the film’s occasionally-omnipotent viewpoint.

The Unknown Known may not be Morris at his strongest or his best, perhaps because Rumsfeld himself is such a frustratingly difficult personality, or perhaps because the career of this Machiavellian kingmaker is still too recent and too shadowy for the proper perspective. But it is a fascinating sparring match nonetheless and worthy of seeing, if only to marvel again at “”Rummy” in his element, greying temples and fixed, vague smile, cheerfully deflecting and volleying questions around the room like a tennis champ, his endless stream of words metaphorically piling up like drops of water in the ocean (an ocean which he invariably does not drown in, it should be noted).

It is also a joy to hear the tone in Morris’ implicitly moral, interrogating voice when—obviously puzzled at why Rumsfeld would agree to sit down with him in the first place—he bluntly asks with part exasperation, part amusement, “Why are you doing this? Why are you talking to me?”

Hmmm, good question. Perhaps Rumsfeld remembers that in 2003—the year in which the Bush administration invaded Iraq—Americans were finding solace in THE FOG OF WAR, another Morris film about another former Secretary of Defense named Robert McNamara who had a few things to say about lessons learned from the Vietnam War? Or, perhaps he is worried about his legacy?

If you are interested in the work of one of America’s foremost documentary filmmakers check out our Errol Morris section at Best Video, where you can find movies like GATES OF HEAVEN, THE THIN BLUE LINE, The Fog of War, and many others!