Nostalgia and intrigue at the Grand Budapest Hotel

I struggled to start writing this review because I wanted to communicate as powerfully, as effectively as possible how much I loved Wes Anderson’s eighth feature film The Grand Budapest Hotel. Luckily, I don’t have the same degree of difficulty when I write a review as Wes Anderson has when he makes a movie. He can’t start with a character – or himself – saying, “I am making a bittersweet comedy about love and honor.” However, Anderson does do something similar: He begins in the near present day with a writer (Tom Wilkinson) describing how he found the story he’s about to tell. It’s a common misperception, he tells us, that writers are constantly creating new characters, new scenes, new plots. Rather, when you become a writer of some note, people tell you their stories.

Suddenly, it’s 1965, and the writer is now played by Jude Law, and he’s spending a vacation in the Grand Budapest Hotel, a once sparkling and ornate playground of the rich and famous of the fictional nation of Zubrowka in Eastern Europe, now a mostly deserted, very Sovietly decorated shell of its former self. It is there, while soaking in the dilapidated baths, where he meets to hotel’s mysterious, aging owner, Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who proceeds to tell the writer over dinner how he came to own the hotel, and we’re transported back to 1932.

The hotel is now in its heyday, packed with suited dignitaries and their bejeweled wives, and the regimented staff is legion; over all of it presides the hotel’s slightly foppish and nearly over-competent concierge M. Gustave, played by a miraculous, David Niven-inspired Ralph Fiennes. Gustave is not only devoted to his hotel, but also to the numerous lonely older women who frequent it, and his favorite is Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), an 84-year-old countess who adores Gustave. As she leaves the hotel, she is convinced she will never return, and Gustave assures her she will. She asks him to light a candle at the nearby cathedral, and after she leaves, he tells the closest lobby boy to do it.

This boy is Zero (Tony Revolori), who has just started work at the hotel. Gustave takes the boy under his wing, training him like a stern, loving uncle. When the countess dies, Zero accompanies Gustave to the reading of the will, when it turns out Gustave will inherit a priceless paining, Boy With Apple. The countess’s dastardly son Dmitri (Adrian Brody) is livid, demands that this never happen, but with Zero’s encouragement and help, Gustave steals the painting and returns to the hotel.

Dmitri decides to frame Gustave for the countess’s murder, and the rest of the film follows Gustave through prison, escape, and, as he and Zero try to clear Gustave’s name, travels around Zubrowka, chased by the army and its leader Henckels (Ed Norton) as well as Dmitri’s violent stooge Jopling (Willem Dafoe). Along the way, they’re helped by numerous minor characters including Zero’s girlfriend (Saoirse Ronan), Gustave’s cellmates (including one played by Harvey Keitel), the countess’s butler (Mathieu Amalric), and a network of concierges (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Bob Balaban). As with every Anderson character, the actors are directed to such mannered behaviors as to be almost abstracted; they archly speak as if they have hopped out of a Roald Dahl or JD Salinger story, and they move like gorgeously drawn cartoon characters, sharply and exaggerated, influenced by slapstick and mime.

The result is the opposite of natural or subtle, but Anderson’s direction, of actors and art and photography, communicates the themes and emotions – the sadness of nostalgia and growing up, the power of loyalty and courage – with something approaching grace. It’s hard to say whether The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s best movie, but it may be his first truly adult film, despite it being, at its heart, about a teen-aged boy.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Written and Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham
Inexplicably rated R

My 10 Favorite Movies of 2012

I saw about 75 movies in 2012, and while I saw a couple dozen that I liked a great deal, very few movies about LGBT people or queer themes were given a wide release. And that is disappointing in general, but particularly for a critic writing for a paper called San Diego LGBT Weekly. This year, the many of the “serious” movies were less concerned with identity, sexual or otherwise, than they were with history, power, revenge, and the human costs of both well-meaning and ill-advised idealism. At the heart of Lincoln is the decision to prolong the relentlessly bloody Civil War in order to pass the 13th Amendment, and Zero Dark Thirty, the best movie officially released in 2012 (which opens in San Diego on January 11), is a disturbingly amoral depiction of the search and annihilation of Osama Bin Laden. Even the best Hollywood films intent of money making were darkly cynical; The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall were exhilarating, but downers. (The Avengers and Pitch Perfect were exceptions, pretty good movies that didn’t reflect the world’s ennui.) And this means that some movies were finely, even brilliantly, crafted, but I didn’t enjoy watching them. What follows are not the 10 best movies of 2012, but rather my 10 favorite movies of 2012.

10. Hitchcock. Most assuredly, this movie is not a realistic depiction of actual events, but Anthony Hopkins does a hilarious and often poignant impersonation of the director and Helen Mirren, as his sarcastic and long-suffering wife, is subtle, arch, and sympathetic.

9. Magic Mike. Unfairly maligned for its subject matter – it’s about male strippers in Florida, after all – Magic Mike was still a Steven Soderbergh film: per usual, it was beautifully shot, tautly edited, and perfectly cast, particularly with Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum.

8. Bernie. A picturesque small town, a weird murder, bizarre and hilarious supporting characters, and a protagonist who is as gay as he is loved by the town’s little old ladies. It’s my favorite Richard Linklater film, and it is without a doubt the performance of Jack Black’s career.

7. Cabin in the Woods. Co-written by the great Joss Whedon, the film is scary, gory, and thrilling, as all horror movies should be, but it’s also ingeniously, surprisingly plotted and catch-your-breath funny.

6. Les Miserables. Russell Crowe is miscast and it’s too long, but Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, and especially Anne Hathaway make Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the great Broadway musical about love, pain, and grace in 19th century France a deeply emotional experience.

5. How to Survive a Plague. This documentary about ACT-UP and its off-shoot the Treatment Action Group features incredible found footage, insightful interviews, and a narrative that is moving, essential, and instructive.

4. Moonrise Kingdom. It’s ultimately a movie about a boy who runs away from camp to hang out with his girlfriend, but it is also a tone poem about childhood, parenting, wonder, and love. Some scenes are so beautiful they should be hung on the walls of a museum. Wes Anderson’s direction of his and Roman Coppola’s ingenious, intricately plotted script is a marvel.

3. Silver Linings Playbook. Again, David O. Russell has taken a standard genre structure – this time, the romantic comedy – and lifted it to high art with beautifully written, deeply nuanced characters and actors directed to their greatest performances. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are damaged and troubled, and watching them fall in love is redemption as entertainment.

2. The Master. Using the relationship between two men – Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a restless, somewhat disturbed, somewhat animalistic drifter, and Lancaster Doss (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic, charming, and narcissistic metaphysicist — writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson explores what it means to be human, what it means to have control, and what it means to relate to other people. The resulting film is weird, disturbing, fascinating, entertaining, and profound.

1. Argo. Ben Affleck’s film about the insane plan the CIA devised (“This is the best bad idea we have”) to rescue six American embassy workers from Iran in 1980 is thrilling, funny, and nearly flawless. The merging of a satirical comedy about Hollywood, the paranoid suspense in Iran, and the wonkish, but often very funny drama of Washington, D.C. is seamlessly handled in Chris Terrio’s masterful script and Affleck’s direction of himself, his all-star cast, and the complex action sequences.

Honorably Mentioned: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Sessions, Pitch Perfect, Brave, The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, The Avengers, The Intouchables

Note: I’ve left Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained off of both lists because while they are great works of art, they are so morally and politically upsetting that I almost wish I had never seen them.

“I want to go on adventures, I think.”

I think I may love Moonrise Kingdom more than any other Wes Anderson film.

Sam Shakusky, the hero of Moonrise Kingdom, is an awkward 12-year-old boy. An orphan living in a foster home for troubled boys in 1965, he is the only one who doesn’t look like an extra in Rebel Without A Cause. Tough guys, the other boys are all in white T-shirts and blue jeans and their hair is greased into a perfect sheen. But Sam has a mop of black curls and a tiny frame and is as weird and precocious as the other boys are conforming. He’s the sort of kid who, when asked what he wants to do when he grows up, says, “I want to go on adventures, I think.” This makes him endearing to me, but to others he’s just off; when Sam’s scout leader calls the foster home to say that he’s run away from camp, Sam’s foster father says that he doesn’t want Sam to return.

In the incredibly arch Moonrise Kingdom, where writer-director Wes Anderson laces most intense emotions with irony, this moment is so awful, the audience laughs in discomfort, but the three adults listening to the foster father – Scoutmaster Randy Ward (Ed Norton), local cop Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and the phone operator – are visibly, indelibly saddened. Like in Roald Dahl’s children’s stories, in Moonrise Kingdom both humor and pain, and irony and sincerity exist side-by-side. The result is a profoundly entertaining and also profound film that matches and perhaps surpasses Anderson’s best achievements, which include the minor classics Rushmore, The Royal Tanenbaums, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was based on a Dahl story. Continue…