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The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s humane intelligence and sense of humor suffuses every striking frame of his new comedy, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”  Indeed, so distinctive is his style by now that one could recognize this picture as a Wes Anderson without even seeing his signature.  It is, I believe, minor Anderson, but minor Anderson is still a thing of many pleasures.

In one of the director’s signature tracking shots, a young girl strides purposefully towards a statue of a writer.  He was a favorite son of her country, Zubrowka, a fictional nation in Central Europe.  She carries a little pink book: the writer’s memoirs.   When she cracks open the volume we're back to 1985, when the writer (Tom Wilkinson) tells us a story.  Back in 1968 he had occasion to visit the Grand Budapest Hotel, a stately, pastel Beaux Arts building way, way up in the mountains.  Already past its heyday, it was even then a largely forgotten place, almost as deserted as the Overlook during the winter off-season, though travelers still arrived to take the cure in its deserted, crumbling spas.  It was then that the writer (played as a young man by Jude Law) met a lonely, mysterious old man, Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham).  Rumor has it that he owns the Grand Budapest.  Over dinner in the vast, lonely dining hall, Mr. Mustafa tells the writer the story of his extraordinary adventures back in 1932.

Then he was a young refugee, the intrepid Zero (portrayed by a teenaged actor called Tony Revolori, delightfully deadpan).  Zero has managed to ensconse himself as the hotel’s new lobby boy, having slipped in under the nose of the legendary Gustave H., that most gallant of concierges (Ralph Fiennes, perfectly cast).   A fop with a remarkably heightened verbal capacity, Gustave’s grace was the mark of an age on its way out.  Or rather, it was being snuffed out by the “ZZ,” the fascist forces whose encroachment forms the backdrop of the story.  In Anderson's aesthetic terms, it may be that of all the ZZ’s crimes, the most heinous is that they violate Gustave’s sense of manners and propriety.  (This put me in mind of Andrew Sarris on Lubitsch, when he said that for Lubitsch it was enough to say that the Nazis had bad manners, and then any horror became permissible.)

Gustave was the apple of the eye of rich old ladies, even their playmate in the sack.  Indeed, their largesse seems to be the only thing keeping the hotel afloat, yet if there’s any exploitation in these relationships it’s mutual, and seems motivated at heart by Gustave’s basic kindness.   The great Tilda Swinton, looking like a monster out of Monty Python, plays one of these old-lady friends, Madame D. (a nod to Ophuls).  When she is murdered, a controversy erupts over her legacy, which includes Van Hoytl’s priceless painting “Boy With Apple.”  Her estate’s lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) must contend with the deceased’s scheming son (Adrian Brody) and his gunsel (Willem Defoe, whose amusingly menacing mug here should be in the dictionary next to “missing link”.)

 When Gustave is framed for Madame D.’s murder, Zero must help him stage a prison breakout.  They’re helped by Gustave’s new friends, a prison gang led by Harvey Keitel.  Zero’s girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) helps as well.  She is a pastry chef at Mendl’s patisserie, whose signature creation, the Courtesan au chocolat, turns out to be good for hiding prison-break tools, as not even the prison inspectors can bring themselves to smash such a delicate creation.  

All the while Gustave and Zero are pursued by the ZZ chief of police (Edward Norton), who can’t forget that as a child he was treated kindly by Gustave.  

Anderson’s troupe is all here, including Jason Schwartzmann as the 1968-era concierge.  One can almost picture Anderson looking into Terry Zweig’s writings (one of the inspirations for the movie), being amused by Zweig’s descriptions of the concierge (this is a fellow who seemed at once utterly uninterested while somehow still endeavoring to please), and picturing Schwartzmann in the role.  There’s a cameo by Bill Murray, without which an Anderson picture would not feel complete. 

I’ve always liked how Anderson uses music, specifically the way he uses rock ‘n’ roll in a way that makes emotional if not literal sense.  In “The Darjeeling Limited” he was even bold enough to recycle film music by Ravi Shankar and others from his favorite Satyajit Ray, Nityananda Datta and Mercant Ivory films.  This film features Alexandre Desplat’s lovely orchestral score, Russian folk music, and Vivaldi.

When I think of this picture’s antecedents, I think more in literary terms than filmic ones.  Its tone puts me in mind of P.G. Wodehouse crossed with Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” and Mordecai Richler’s “Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang.”  (The prison is menacing in a children’s book kind of way.)

I love that in 2014 the movie industry still has room for an auteur like Wes Anderson to dream, to create his droll world.  If I allow myself to worry, it’s only that with every picture his actors become more and more like elaborately-costumed dolls he moves around his meticulously designed dollhouses, and less like flesh-and-blood people.

But then, that he never lost his childlike sense of imagination and wonder is precisely what I like about Wes Anderson.  Come to think of it, children’s movies may turn out to be his true métier, rather than adult subjects.  Recall “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” and how good he was with the children in “Moonrise Kingdom.”  He sees the world with affection and humor, and that is a very good way indeed to see it.


Rating: ***

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)


Oscar roundup: "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Her," "Nebraska," "American Hustle," "Dallas Buyers Club"

To think about movies in terms of the Oscars is to distort our thinking, and not only about the movies themselves.  Still, as much as the Academy Awards is an excuse for celebrities to slap each other on the back, it also must be seen as a time to celebrate the artists who are great at what they do, in all the arts that make up that art we love, cinema.  It's as much a part of the pageantry and history, the dream and illusion of the movies as Hollywood itself.  Every great director has coveted a little golden statue (and many of the very best, from Chaplin to Welles to Hitchcock to Lynch, never won one). 

That said, here's my take on some on some of the Best Picture contenders.  (I made a comment or two on "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave" here.) (What about "Captain Phillips" and "Philomena," you ask?  I simply haven't had a chance to see them yet.)  

The Wolf of Wall Street

Louis Rukeyser never hinted at this sort of thing.  Could this be Scorsese's “Fire Walk With Me,” a Dionysian unleashing of the id that may be his purest self-expression even as it threatens to careen off the rails?  (And this at a time when David O. Russell was threatening to out-Scorsese Scorsese with “American Hustle.”)  This is exhilarating, ultimately empty cinema: it’s like the cinemamatic equivalent of a hit of the cocaine that everyone here hoovers up so greedily.  It’s another depraved, juicy role for Leonardo DiCaprio for Scorsese.  Leo sinks his teeth into it, giving a performance of remarkable physical comedy.  He plays a real-life character, an amoral trader who rose from penny-stocks to become a king of shady financial instruments.  A clever cop (Kyle Chandler) brings him down.  Jonah Hill is hilarious as a cracked-out greedhead with a big prosthetic knob.  I suppose for people not already accustomed to viewing Wall Street as a more or less criminal milieu, every bit as "gangster" as the worlds of "Casino” and “Goodfellas,” this film might shock.  It didn't show me anything about the money milieu I didn't already suspect.  Like those pictures, this is darkly funny: it always seems a bit dangerous to laugh.  Once again Scorsese delights in delineating the trajectory of a criminal enterprise in a rush of cuts and comic psychos, here borne along by great gusts of “f-bombs” from screenwriter Terence Winter.  Any fan of cinema will get a rush from the energy of the pure cinema here.  Arms outstretched to the roar of the floor, Leo is king of the world amidst Scorsese’s moving camera and Thelma Schoonmaker rhthymic cutting, with Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge” on the soundtrack: yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah YEAH!!!”  (That soundtrack is as electic as all get-out, thanks to music supervisors Randall Poster and Robbie Robertson, featuring everything from Elmore James to Cannonball Adderley to Billy Joel to Joe Cuba to Ahmad Jamal Trio to Howlin’ Wolf to Naughty by Nature).  The guys in this movie are clownish versions of the Wall Street titans who brought death to our hometowns.  Fascinating, subersive, as empty as the people it's about, "The Wolf of Wall Street" may go down as Scorsese’s last word on the subject of money.    


“I think, therefore I am,” was one of Descartes's good ones.  His zinger resounds down the centuries all the way to this movie, a sweet, lyrical “Spike Jonze love story.”  (The subtitle mentions the auteur, I suppose so we don't think we're going to get Richard Curtis.)  It's a colorful canvas.  In the near future a sweet, geeky man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his phone, "Samantha" (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).  This does seem to be the way we’re heading.  Samantha is a creative entity: she draws, she composes music, she changes based on her "life" experiences.  It's a story told largely in close-ups; Phoenix's expressive face carries the movie.  Theodore's best buddy, Amy, is played by Amy Adams, as sexless here as she was sexed up in "American Hustle."  “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do,” she says.  “It’s kind of like a socially acceptable insanity.”  Carried away by his love for Samantha, Theodore dances, sings, takes long walks in the snowy wooded mountains.  Olivia Wilde is heartbreaking in an early scene as Theodore's blind date, her desperation barely hidden beneath a too-cheery surface.  Jonze has said that his film is not really about technology.  It's about the pain of change, of growing apart.  How sad it is, to lose someone through growing up.  The movie is wise about Theodore's complex feelings for his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara).  She is the person from whom he grew away.  What he comes to understand is, that’s just another way of saying she was the person he grew up with


In Alexander Payne’s latest film, his fourth set in Nebraska, silos line the skyline of cinematographer Phedon Papmichael's black and white landscapes, sad and beautiful.  Payne puts people on screen we don’t usually see in the movies.  They huddle in flannel.  They may never have seen color.    (Their only sin, to paraphrase Dylan, is their lifelessness.)  Life has been such for these men that there’s really nothing much to say.  Bruce Dern plays Will Forte’s elderly dad, Woody.  He’s non-verbal, a dazed, shambolic alcoholic.  A wispy halo of white hair springs from his hard pate, a pate as hard as the land itself.  This is a showcase role for Bruce Dern, who must use his eyes, the set of his mouth, a stumbling gait to suggest a lifetime of pain tamped down, with only the quick pleasure of a sexual grapple to redeem it.  There's a raw defiance there, too.  The scene Karolyn and I won’t forget: when June Squibb, playing Woody's hilariously tart wife, who’s been riding him mercilessly for the entire film, visits him in the hospital and tenderly smoothes down that flyaway hair as he lies unconscious, “making him a gentleman,” as Karolyn so movingly put it.  What does Payne think of these people?  I think he regards them in much the same way as Will Forte's character does.  He grew up around them, but as much as he'd like to understand men like his father, he knows they will always remain a mystery.  He doesn't laugh at them either, exactly (although they can be very funny).  He has come to a place in his life where he accepts them as they are.      

American Hustle

You just want to say it's a cracking entertainment and leave it at that, as though that were a small thing.  It's based on a real-life political scandal, and it's evocatively rooted in a specific time and place, the 1970s in New York/New Jersey.  It's a real movie, with outrageous costumes, funny hair, great music and energy, delicious performances, and copious "side boob" (although David O. Russell's camera doesn't leer at his friends Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams: it's almost as though he doesn't want to see these women as sexy, but like sisters playing dress-up.)  The movie is not as empty as its critics would have it.  It's sincere.  And it's not without thematic resonance (everybody does the American hustle, after all).  Still, some of the material has a warmed-over feeling, as if Russell still doesn't quite have a style of his own.  What stays with you are moments: Bradley Cooper, high on himself (among other things), overcompensating for being a sheltered mama's boy, sitting on a couch giddily mocking the recently departed Louis C.K., as his hapless boss.  Jennifer Lawrence is very funny as the wild card: when she sidles up to the bar next to the gangsters in her slinky gown, she's brassy, gutsy, insecure, awkward, reckless, naive, so many things all at once.  Christian Bale is the potbellied, oddly decent con-man who can't help caring about her.  (Karolyn and I saw this picture after just having seen Bale in "Out of the Furnace," playing a guy who might as well have been from a different planet than this guy.)  Russell is on a roll with this and "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter." The most moving moment is when Bale's character confides that the greatest regret of his life is losing the friendship of his friend, the mayor of New Jersey (Jeremy Renner), whom he more or less reluctantly conned.  He really means it.


Dallas Buyers Club

We'd had hints of how good Matthew McConaughey was becoming (and what a surprise!), but we didn't know he had this in him.  He’s perfectly cast, playing a real person, Ron Woodroof, a homophobic cowboy in the near past (1985), who is blindsided when he learns he has contracted AIDS from too much partyin' and lovin'.  This was in the wake of Rock Hudson's death, a time I remember well, when awareness of AIDS was just breaking in the wider culture, when it could still be the subject of nervous death's-head jokes amongst us adolescent boys.  When Big Pharma and the FDA ban the meds Ron needs to stay alive, he smuggles them in, opening a "club" where, for a fee, members get the drugs.  (He's about "doing well" much more than he's about "doing good," initially.)  Jared Leto is unforgettable as Rayon, a transvestite who would have fit right in as a Warhol "superstar," yet couldn't be more out of place in mid-80s Dallas.  He's a survivor, though.  No one could be less likely to accept Rayon than Ron, yet he comes to love him with a tough love.  This is never discussed but is instead shown, in that great supermarket scene where Ron twists his redneck buddy's arm, forcing him to shake the despised Rayon's hand.  The director, Jean-Marc Valée, proves here how very good he is with actors, guiding both McConaughey and Leto to Academy Award nominations.  And it's not just the physical transformations, as a stunt, we should note here.  It's the uncanny way that McConaughey inhabits not just Ron but the 80s as a time, even down to the way he wears his glasses, somehow.  It's a raw, furious, wary performance, and he never hits a false note.  As for Leto, he does not make Rayon a "tragic" figure.  The tragedy is in the raw fact, which Leto makes you feel in your gut, that the very essence of who Rayon is, is a survivor: he does not want to die.  And that is tragedy enough.  You could say we needed this movie years earlier, but maybe that just goes to show how far we have already come from a time when people had to be ashamed to be themselves, had to die scared and more or less alone.  After the distortions of awards season have come and gone, this picture will continue to haunt its viewers.  In the unforgiving fact of these alarming bodies, we see the true story of AIDS inscribed.  Of the contenders I've seen, this is the best picture.  


Inside Llewyn Davis

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is at once the new Coen Brothers picture and a movie about the early-60s folk music scene in Greenwich Village, which means that here we have a film that interests me both for its subject and its directors.  It’s a curious film that I’m not sure will entirely satisfy fans of either.  Quietly haunting, sometimes hilarious, the movie observes distantly, obliquely, just like the titular Llewyn (Oscar Isaac). It has a sly way of working on you, which has everything to do with the Coens’s by-now serene style.     

Llewyn is an insolent, hard-knocked, big-mouthed, self-absorbed young folksinger, chasing his dream, the kind of fellow who gets his ass kicked in the alley of a folk club for heckling other performers.  Always broke, he lives off the good graces of others, including his fed-up girlfriend Jean, a folksinger herself.  Played with withering contempt from under her bangs by Carey Mulligan, Jean informs Llewyn that everything he touches “turns to shit.”  It's a funny turn.          

Llewyn is modeled--very, very loosely--on Dave Van Ronk, the “musical mayor of MacDougal Street,” that legendary New York street lined with coffeehouses like the Gaslight.  Van Ronk was a hero of the very young Dylan.  Indeed, Llewyn inhabits a chilly Village that’s just as we imagine it must have been on the eve of Dylan blowing in to electrify everything.  It’s all just a backdrop for the Coens’s constant theme: the dance of fate and chaos.  Signifiers and allusions float past in the wintry palette by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, like the street names that briefly focus as the subway rollicks towards the Village (from a cat’s point of view, no less). 

That cat is one of the movie’s key characters, actually.  He belongs to a sweetly square professor and his wife (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), who are always happy to host their “folksinger friend from the Village,” imagining him to be quite a soulful fellow.  It's a sort of mutual exploitation.  Having crashed at their apartment the night before, Llewyn watches as the cat darts out the door.  He’ll be trying to keep the cat in his grasp for the rest of the movie, but nothing is really ever quite within Llewyn’s grasp.        

The joke of the movie is that there doesn’t really seem to be that much going on “inside” Llewyn Davis.  That’s until he opens his mouth to sing, that is.  Suddenly a guy who seemed shallow has soul for ages, and he’s singing of legends and lore, of loss and love and sacrifice.  (We learn that he used to be in a duo until his partner jumped off a bridge, and maybe it's when he sings that you can see what that really meant to him).  For as long as it takes him to sing “Hang Me, O Hang Me,” Llewyn is that guy facing the gallows.  Oscar Isaac performed the songs himself, sullen, cigarette hanging from his mouth.  These are the moments when a rather ghostly movie has some blood and guts. 

There’s also a guileless young soldier (amusingly played by Stark Sands), a folksinger himself, just passing through.  Because Llewyn happens to be chasing the cat, he catches a glimpse of the soldier again, walking away into the distance.  The effect is odd: it's as if we’ve glimpsed a story-strand after it’s moved off the “stage” of the movie. 

This is a very early bohemia.  There is a funny scene in which Llewyn’s “straight” sister (Jeanine Serralles) reproaches him for his cursing by saying, “I’m not one of your Greenwich Village friends.”  Actually it’s funny how clean-cut, even collegiate, the café denizens look by today’s standards.  The earnestness of the performance, too, is from another era, like that of duo “Jean and Jim” (Mulligan and a bright-eyed Justin Timberlake).  Though the mighty T. Bone Burnett supervised the music, as he did on “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, I’m not sure I need the soundtrack separated from the visuals (not when the original recordings are still out there).  Still, it’s fun to hear Timberlake sing folk.  I got a kick out of the scene where Llewyn and Jim go into the studio to cut a corny novelty number (“Please Mr. Kennedy”), complete with hilarious basso interjections by Adam Driver in a cowboy hat. 

Hoping to make it to Chicago to audition for “Grossman” (Albert Grossman, of course, was Dylan’s manager), Llewyn hops in a car driven by the brooding Johnny Five (Garret Hedland), one of those odd characters who populate Coen movies.  Slumped in the back is a massive smack-addicted jazz musician (John Goodman), like a dinosaur of early-60s bohemia.  


When Llewyn finally gets to audition for Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), his song stirs such a deep, quiet well that it made me tear up.  For at least those few minutes he’s as great as anyone ever has been.  So it’s quietly heartbreaking when Grossman greets the performance with, well, there’s no commercial potential. 

The ending is a mirror of the beginning.  Only this time when history repeats itself, the cat does not escape.  In a blow-by-blow replay, Llewyn finds himself once again in an alley getting his ass kicked by a shadowy figure.  Except this time, a young Bob Dylan is singing inside the club as it happens.  It’s almost as though we’re seeing Llewyn getting beaten up by history itself.  (Llewyn glimpsed Dylan onstage as he moved towards the back of the club, curious, with no way of knowing he's witnessing the birth of history.)  And so this curious film leaves us there with Llewyn, lying in an alley somewhere near the intersection of Bleecker and MacDougal, caught forever at the crossroads where fate and chance dance. 

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

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