Tag Archives: Wes Anderson

Odds and Ends: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA/Germany, 2014) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 8.4

budapest

In my positive review of Moonrise Kingdom from two years ago, I lamented that something in me always “resisted” the films of Wes Anderson — even while acknowledging that I also liked most of them. I’m therefore happy to report that not only is The Grand Budapest Hotel my favorite Anderson movie to date, it’s also one that sweeps aside all of the prior reservations that I had about his work. While the director’s signature precocious “touches” are all over this (a confectioner’s approach to set and costume design, quick 90-degree pans from one perfectly symmetrical, planimetric composition to another, montage scenes accompanied by faux-Baroque music cues, etc.), The Grand Budapest Hotel devises an ingenious narrative structure that for once completely justifies even the most fanciful aspects of Anderson’s mise-en-scene: the film begins in the present where a little girl is reading a novel that was written in the 1980s by an author who based his fiction on an ostensibly true story he was told in the 1960s by someone who knew firsthand the story’s hero whose real-life exploits took place in the early 1930s. Got that? The Grand Budapest Hotel is a story inside of a story inside of a story inside of a story — with the different “periods” represented being cleverly shot in different aspect ratios that correspond to how we think of movies from those respective eras (i.e., the square Academy ratio for the 1930s, widescreen CinemaScope for the 1960s, and “1.85:1” for the 1980s and the present).

The true subject of The Grand Budapest Hotel then is storytelling itself, as it also is in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (another recent film that employs an elaborate framing device that calls into question the reliability of the narrator). The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s chief narrative — a shaggy-dog story about a hotel concierge, one Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), and his trusty “lobby boy,” Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), solving a murder against the backdrop of a fictional, war-torn European country — resonates through the decades like an absurd cinematic version of the “Chinese whispers” game. The other thing here that feels gratifyingly new is Anderson’s tone of moral seriousness: for all of the ridiculous humor on display (and Fiennes proves himself to be a surprisingly deft physical and verbal comedian), this tall tale grows not only unexpectedly dark but, as fascism ominously encroaches upon the characters, increasingly death-haunted as well. The protagonist of The Grand Budapest Hotel may be a rapscallion with an eye for wealthy older dames (by which I mean octogenarians) but he’s also a fellow of great integrity who understands what things in life are worth sacrificing oneself for. This moral-clarity-in-the-midst-of-screwball-chaos is finally what makes The Grand Budapest Hotel a worthy heir to the films of the great Ernst Lubitsch, its most important cinematic precedents. I can’t wait to see what Anderson does next.

Up to Speed — Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2012) – Streaming

uptospeed

If, like me, you’re waiting with breathless anticipation for the forthcoming release of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which recently wowed critics and audiences alike at the Sundance, Berlin and South By Southwest film festivals, here’s another recent Linklater project you may not be aware of to tide you over: Up to Speed is a quirky travel show consisting of six half-hour episodes created by Texas’s favorite filmmaking son exclusively for the Hulu website in 2012. The premise of the show is that unconventional historian and motormouthed raconteur Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch (still perhaps best known as the subject of the cult 1998 documentary The Cruise) serves as a tour guide of the “monumentally ignored monuments” of America’s greatest cities. I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t direct my readers specifically to the second episode in the series, entitled Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood. This episode, which marks the first time Linklater has ever set down a tripod in my fair city, focuses almost exclusively on the history of Chicago’s considerable role as a leader in the national labor movement. Levitch, who dubs himself a “blue-collar historian,” recounts how Chicago, beginning in the late 19th century, had arguably the most organized labor force in the world and was instrumental in establishing such basic workers’ rights as the eight-hour work day. From there, Levitch — aided by a fair number of amusing “talking” buildings and props (not to mention snazzy animated graphics) — visits such important local landmarks and monuments as: the Haymarket statue, the Balbo monument, the former home of the Dill Pickle Club, and “Hobohemia” (home of both Bughouse Square and the infamous “Hobo College”). To watch Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood is to learn some fascinating, lesser-known trivia about the Windy City’s radical past, as well as, I hope, to be inspired to fight the powers that be (as Chuck D would say) in the here and now.

The full Up to Speed episode of Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood can be viewed online for free via Hulu below:


Odds and Ends

Some random thoughts on the three different movies I’ve seen in the past three days at the same Evanston multiplex.

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA, 2012) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 7.9

Although I still haven’t caught up with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom is easily my favorite Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore. While Anderson’s singular gifts as both writer and director are undeniable, there is something about the progression of his career, a tendency towards increasingly arch stylization, that has rubbed me the wrong way. Candy-box color cinematography and ostentatious set design may have always been important ingredients in the Anderson universe but it’s been a while since his impeccable sense of style has been balanced by anything as emotionally raw as Olivia Williams asking “How would you put it to your friends? Do you want to finger me?” Instead, we’ve gotten an overuse of Bill Murray at his smuggest, a grating sense of whimsy, a distasteful sense of class privilege, an egregious showing off of a bitchin’ record collection, and an approach to both composition and the direction of actors that occasionally resembles those science fair exhibits where butterflies are pinned to a styrofoam board. While Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t correct all of these problems for this Anderson agnostic, I’m happy to report that it does have a genuinely poetic feeling for the emotions of childhood, including an appealingly pervasive and piercing sense of melancholy that lurks just beneath the picture postcard exteriors. And while I could’ve done without some of the film’s more over the top elements (the flood, the lightning strike, the threat of lobotomy, etc.) there’s no denying that the lead child actors are amazing and that their odyssey at its most stirring takes on some of the hypnotic quality of The Night of the Hunter. Also admirable is how Anderson has created a scenario where his too-hip, classic rock “deep cuts” would finally sound appropriate, and yet he goes and loads up the soundtrack with Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams Sr. instead.

The Searchers (John Ford, USA, 1956) – Theatrical viewing


Hmmmm. The Searchers or Madagascar 3? Decisions, decisions!

Teaching John Wayne is a funny thing. Two days ago I took a class to see a one day only screening of a new digital restoration of The Searchers at the Century 12 theatre in Evanston, easily the single best viewing of the movie I’ve ever had. While discussing it with my students afterwards, I was reminded yet again how, in spite of the fact that it is considered by cinephiles to be the quintessential Wayne performance, the quintessential John Ford film, the quintessential western, it just doesn’t play as well to the uninitiated. It is indeed the Wayne-starring movie that has consistently ranked the lowest when I ask my students to rate the films we’ve watched in class at the end of each semester on a scale from 1 – 10. (The Searchers is currently rated 6.8 on my “student tomato-meter,” followed by, in ascending order, Stagecoach with a 7.2, Fort Apache with a 7.5, Rio Bravo with an 8.0 and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with an 8.3)

What I’ve come to realize from this is that everyone who’s never seen a John Wayne performance has preconceptions about who Wayne is. The Duke vehicles that play the best are therefore the ones that run counter to their expectations. Students expect Wayne to be a stern, moralistic, patriarchal authority figure – someone who is essentially like their fathers or grandfathers, but probably more of an asshole. When they encounter the Wayne of Liberty Valance or Rio Bravo, what they find is someone graceful, super-relaxed and easily likable (Manny Farber’s great line about Wayne’s “hipster sense of how to sit in a chair” is apropos here). This of course is the true Wayne persona, the way he comes across in most films. When my students see The Searchers, which ironically is a very different type of performance for Wayne, it somehow conforms more closely to their negative preconceptions; they are offended by the racist, borderline-crazy Ethan Edwards, with his barely concealed rage towards Native Americans, because they cannot imagine a difference between Wayne and Edwards, nor, for that matter, between John Ford and Edwards. The idea that Ford is viewing Edwards from a critical distance, that the character is meant to be something other than a pure “hero” is difficult for many first time viewers to fathom.

Nonetheless, I relished this particular screening, which made visible many details that had always previously eluded me (even after dozens of viewings that include watching the superb Warner Bros. blu-ray on my 42 inch home television screen), such as the initials “C.S.A.” on Ethan’s belt buckle. That Ethan would be wearing this article of clothing, advertising the “Confederate States of America” three years after the Civil War ended, is a fascinating detail that speaks volumes about his character.

To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, USA/Italy, 2012) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 7.2

Woody Allen follows up the great Midnight in Paris with another winning, though lighter and frothier, tourist’s-eye-view-of-Europe concoction. The omnibus nature of this Roman holiday deliberately recalls the European anthology films that were popular in American arthouses during Allen’s formative years (including such quintessentially Italian movies as Vittorio de Sica’s Gold of Naples). And while the format is somewhat limiting when combined with Allen’s inherent weaknesses as a writer/director (some of the one-dimensional characterizations found in Paris that seemed excusable by that film’s deft sense of expedient storytelling are actually harder to take in the more bite-sized episodes on display here), Rome‘s frequently hilarious one-liners and general sense of good-spirited fun make this nothing less than a nice, refreshing summer entertainment. The best of the four stories, by far, involves Alec Baldwin as an architect who revisits, Ebenezer Scrooge-style, his younger self in the person of Jesse Eisenberg. Among the rest of the cast, Roberto Benigni is, as usual, about as welcome as a fart in church, which is fortunately more than compensated for by Penelope Cruz as a voluptuous hooker in a skin-tight red dress. Watching the Spanish Cruz playing a hot-blooded Italian is not only delightful but also fitting: no contemporary Italian actresses come as close as she does to inheriting the throne of Sophia Loren.


%d bloggers like this: