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 6/17/14

Top Hits
The Grand Budapest Hotel (comedy, Ralph Fiennes. Rotten Tomatoes: 92%. Metacritic: 88. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “It’s a tough choice, but if I had to pick the most Wes Anderson moment in The Grand Budapest Hotel, it would be the part when inmates escape from a prison using tiny sledgehammers and pickaxes that have been smuggled past the guards inside fancy frosted pastries. This may, come to think of it, be the most Wes Anderson thing ever, the very quintessence of his impish, ingenious and oddly practical imagination. So much care has been lavished on the conceit and its execution that you can only smile in admiration, even if you are also rolling your eyes a little. The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mr. Anderson’s eighth feature, will delight his fans, but even those inclined to grumble that it’s just more of the same patented whimsy might want to look again. As a sometime grumbler and longtime fan, I found myself not only charmed and touched but also moved to a new level of respect.” Read more…)

The Lego Movie (animated feature, Chris Pratt [voice]. Rotten Tomatoes: 96%. Metacritic: 82. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The visual environment created by the filmmakers [Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of 21 Jump Street wrote and directed; the animation is by Animal Logic] hums with wit and imagination. Although the images are computer generated, they move, for the most part, according to the pleasingly herky-jerky logic of hand-guided stop-motion. You are always aware that you are looking at a world of interlocking plastic blocks, an illusion enhanced in the 3-D version of the film. Smoke, sand and water are all made out of Lego, as are high-rise cities, pirate ships, mountains and a zone of free-form fantasy called Cloud Cuckoo Land.” Read more…)

Ernest & Celestine (France, animation/comedy/drama, Forest Whitaker. Rotten Tomatoes: 97%. Metacritic: 86. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “A tale of mice and bears, derring-do and dentistry, this lovely animated movie originated in a cycle of children’s books by the Belgian writer and artist Gabrielle Vincent [1929-2000]. The books have simple stories, titles like Celestine and Ernest’s Picnic, and Vincent’s enchanting illustrations, which are characterized by graceful lines, muted colors and blurred edges that focus your attention on animals that, in their poignant delicacy, evoke Beatrix Potter. The screen character designs are broader and more overtly comic, but the three directors — Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier — have retained enough of Vincent’s charming vision that the movie feels intimate and personal, as if it, too, had sprung from a single hand.” Read more…)

House of Cards: Season 2 (political drama series, Kevin Spacey. Rotten Tomatoes: 85%. Metacritic: 76. From Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times television review: “Season 2 is as immersed in the battlegrounds of governing as The West Wing was: entitlements, Chinese cyberespionage, anthrax scares, parliamentary procedure, government shutdowns. But that Aaron Sorkin series on NBC ennobled politics. House of Cards, which was adapted from a 1990 British series of the same title, eviscerates it. And while the second season picks up where Season 1 left off [the tagline is ‘The race for power continues’], this continuation is possibly even darker and more compelling than the first.” Read more…)

Alan Partridge (comedy, Steve Coogan. Rotten Tomatoes: 86%. Metacritic: 66. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Can unpleasantness be its own kind of charm? The British comedian and actor Steve Coogan has built a career around the answer “well yes, sort of.” American audiences that know him for his uncharacteristically sweet turn in Philomena or his role as the miniature Roman soldier in Night at the Museum movies may have a distorted view of his talents. As a character named ‘Steve Coogan’ [in The Trip and elsewhere], he has satirized the fragile vanity of the semicelebrity class. But his greatest creation may be a broadcaster named Alan Partridge, a man whose Wikipedia entry helpfully describes him as ‘an insecure, superficial and narcissistic “wally.”‘” Read more…)

Mother of George (indie drama, Danai Gurira. Rotten Tomatoes: 93%. Metacritic: 77. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “There is something irresistible about a movie that begins with a wedding [think of The Godfather], and there are few movie weddings as beautiful as the one at the start of Mother of George, Andrew Dosunmu’s gorgeous and delicate new drama. The party, a swirl of color, music and sentiment, observed with an eye for telling details of behavior, sets the tone — exuberant, dignified, a little bit anxious — for what is to follow.” Read more…)

Broken Side of Time (drama from local filmmaker Gorman Bechard, Lynn Mancinelli)
Son of Batman (animated comic book action)

New Blu-Ray
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Lego Movie

New Foreign
Ernest & Celestine (France, animation/comedy/drama, Forest Whitaker, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 97%. Metacritic: 86. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “A tale of mice and bears, derring-do and dentistry, this lovely animated movie originated in a cycle of children’s books by the Belgian writer and artist Gabrielle Vincent [1929-2000]. The books have simple stories, titles like Celestine and Ernest’s Picnic, and Vincent’s enchanting illustrations, which are characterized by graceful lines, muted colors and blurred edges that focus your attention on animals that, in their poignant delicacy, evoke Beatrix Potter. The screen character designs are broader and more overtly comic, but the three directors — Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier — have retained enough of Vincent’s charming vision that the movie feels intimate and personal, as if it, too, had sprung from a single hand.” Read more…)

Omar (Palestine, drama/thriller, Adam Bakri. Rotten Tomatoes: 91%. Metacritic: 75. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: :”Hany Abu-Assad’s new film, Omar, is about Israeli-Palestinian violence and also about three friends, young men who seem familiar almost as soon as we see them together. Tarek [Eyad Hourani] is the leader, Amjad [Samer Bisharat] is the joker, and Omar [Adam Bakri] is the sensitive one, handsome and athletic with the soul of a poet. He and Amjad are both in love with Tarek’s sister Nadia [Leem Lubany], but their rivalry is kept in check by their affection for each other and by strict customs governing courtship and family life. As he did in earlier films like Rana’s Wedding [2003] and Paradise Now [2005], a sympathetic portrait of two would-be suicide bombers, Mr. Abu-Assad, a Palestinian born in the Israeli city of Nazareth, juxtaposes the routines of everyday life in the West Bank with the brutal facts of Israeli occupation and the resistance to it.” Read more…)

New British
Alan Partridge (comedy, Steve Coogan, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 86%. Metacritic: 66. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Can unpleasantness be its own kind of charm? The British comedian and actor Steve Coogan has built a career around the answer “well yes, sort of.” American audiences that know him for his uncharacteristically sweet turn in Philomena or his role as the miniature Roman soldier in Night at the Museum movies may have a distorted view of his talents. As a character named ‘Steve Coogan’ [in The Trip and elsewhere], he has satirized the fragile vanity of the semicelebrity class. But his greatest creation may be a broadcaster named Alan Partridge, a man whose Wikipedia entry helpfully describes him as ‘an insecure, superficial and narcissistic “wally.”‘” Read more…)

New TV
House of Cards: Season 2 (political drama series, Kevin Spacey, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 85%. Metacritic: 76. From Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times television review: “Season 2 is as immersed in the battlegrounds of governing as The West Wing was: entitlements, Chinese cyberespionage, anthrax scares, parliamentary procedure, government shutdowns. But that Aaron Sorkin series on NBC ennobled politics. House of Cards, which was adapted from a 1990 British series of the same title, eviscerates it. And while the second season picks up where Season 1 left off [the tagline is ‘The race for power continues’], this continuation is possibly even darker and more compelling than the first.” Read more…)

New Documentaries
The Upsetter: The Life & Times of Lee Scratch Perry (reggae titan/eccentric bio)

New Music
The Upsetter: The Life & Times of Lee Scratch Perry (reggae titan/eccentric bio, in New Music)

New Children’s DVDs
The Lego Movie (animated feature, Chris Pratt [voice], in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 96%. Metacritic: 82. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The visual environment created by the filmmakers [Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of 21 Jump Street wrote and directed; the animation is by Animal Logic] hums with wit and imagination. Although the images are computer generated, they move, for the most part, according to the pleasingly herky-jerky logic of hand-guided stop-motion. You are always aware that you are looking at a world of interlocking plastic blocks, an illusion enhanced in the 3-D version of the film. Smoke, sand and water are all made out of Lego, as are high-rise cities, pirate ships, mountains and a zone of free-form fantasy called Cloud Cuckoo Land.” Read more…)

Ernest & Celestine (France, animation/comedy/drama, Forest Whitaker, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 97%. Metacritic: 86. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “A tale of mice and bears, derring-do and dentistry, this lovely animated movie originated in a cycle of children’s books by the Belgian writer and artist Gabrielle Vincent [1929-2000]. The books have simple stories, titles like Celestine and Ernest’s Picnic, and Vincent’s enchanting illustrations, which are characterized by graceful lines, muted colors and blurred edges that focus your attention on animals that, in their poignant delicacy, evoke Beatrix Potter. The screen character designs are broader and more overtly comic, but the three directors — Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier — have retained enough of Vincent’s charming vision that the movie feels intimate and personal, as if it, too, had sprung from a single hand.” Read more…)