Criticism, Movies

Critic’s Pick: ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

No Comments 17 February 2014

Grand Budapest HotelBill Murray whisked onto the stage wearing a small black hat and funeral formal wear to introduce Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” at the opening night of the Berlin International Film Festival. Murray proclaimed that this was Anderson’s best movie. “It will blow the hair right off your head,” he told the overflow crowd at the Friedrichstadt-Palast with the kind of hyperbole audiences get accustomed to at premieres.

Right, Bill. We’ll be the judge of that!

But here’s the surprise: Murray was absolutely right!

The “Moonrise Kingdom” director has conquered scale and story, and found a perfect balance between humor and deep emotion. His antic period piece about a “liberally perfumed” concierge of a once-grand Eastern European resort, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and his lobby boy protégé, Zero Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori), is charming, wondrous, nostalgic and dazzlingly original.

[Related: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' Clip: The Concierge Did it?]

At the center of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a radiant character study, illuminated by a brilliant yet soulful performance from Fiennes. In his best comic turn to date, Fiennes inhabits a man dedicated to his profession and a fading social order beautifully described in voiceover: “His world had vanished long before he entered it.”

Fiennes gives color and depth to his preening gallant with a penchant for elderly women. Sure, he is blond, vain, and needy, but he also has an abundance of old-world charm. And he demonstrates a genuine affection as he services the elderly widows that regularly visit his hotel. So, if they leave him lavish gifts, does that really diminish their passion?

The plot thickens, as it must, when one of these tottering grande dames (played by Tilda Swinton in aging make-up that would have made Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar Hoover swoon) dies under dodgy circumstances. Her will names Gustave as a beneficiary, setting into motion her avaricious son (Adrien Brody) and his vicious henchman (Willem Dafoe). The pair pursues Gustave to The Grand to squash him like an unwanted codicil.

All of this is fun and fluid, fueled by marvelous set pieces: a slalom chase down a snowy mountain with sled and skis, a Rube Goldberg of a jail break, a reading of the will straight out of a cockeyed live version of “Clue.” The supporting characters curtsy in and out: Swinton and Murray, F. Murray Abraham and Edward Norton and Bob Balaban and Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan as the Lobby Boy’s beloved baker.

[Related: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' Clip: The Police are Here]

Anderson has mastered a hipster Barbie Dream-house style of set and costume design in movies like 2012′s “Moonrise Kingdom.” Bolstered by a dry wit, with an irony allergy and an ensemble cast of regulars, his movies can come perilously close to being “twee.” The danger is that they glitter like groovy snow globes, but never achieve the kind of emotional resonance toward which Anderson is reaching.

That’s absolutely not the case here. The whole is larger than the set pieces, although those work, too. And Anderson has scaled new heights at the corner of storytelling and emotion. The love he clearly feels for his characters — flawed though they are, petty, vindictive, with an array of sexual peccadilloes and peculiar hairstyles — flows from the screen and seduces the audience.

And, while the elements reflect the merits of “Moonrise Kingdom,” or my favorite, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Anderson paces it perfectly. He gets the balance right between the big and small characters, reveling in the set decoration and costumes but not tripping over the furniture or becoming tangled in the wigs.

The danger here — like Murray’s superlative pronouncement at the premiere’s start that this is Anderson’s best — is to raise expectations too high. This is delicate fluffy stuff, a glorious pastel macaroon of a movie. And it should be savored, not over-thought or overcooked.

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Criticism, Movies

Critic’s Pick: ‘Nebraska’

No Comments 26 November 2013

Dern, Forte in black and white (Photo Credit Paramount Pictures)

Dern, Forte in black and white (Photo Credit Paramount Pictures)

In Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” Bruce Dern reveals flesh, bone, even DNA, and the kind of screen wisdom built on years of experience, good and bad. It’s a performance that may very well pit him against another sage actor of the same age come Oscar time.

At the center of Bob Nelson’s subtle, funny-sad script is Woody Grant (Dern), a disappointing and disappointed Midwestern father on a quixotic mission to redeem a dubious lottery ticket. The septuagenarian travels from Montana to the Cornhusker State despite the disapproval of his bristly wife Kate (a tartly perfect June Squibb), and with his reluctant son David at the wheel. Along the way, in dribs and drabs, switchbacks and a lost set of dentures, Woody reclaims his dignity and reaffirms the core values of America without waving a single flag.

[Related: Academy Conversations: "Nebraska" with Bruce Dern, June Squibb and Albert Berger]

Dern, At 77, born during the Great Depression in the same year as “All is Lost’s” rugged Robert Redford, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was reelected president, gives the transcendent performance of a very long career that began with playing an uncredited local in Elia Kazan’s Montgomery Clift drama “Wild River.” The man has been around — and won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival last Spring for playing Woody.

It’s as if everything Dern has ever seen, every lesson he’s ever learned (or unlearned), and all the guidance of Payne, who told the actor “don’t show us anything, Bruce, let us find it,” has culminated in this performance, this comic Cornhusker Don Quixote. At his side is Forte, who has flipped the switch from comedy to drama with a still, soulful-eyed performance. And Squibb creates the signature moment of her career when Kate visits her hometown cemetery and lifts her skirt in front of a long-dead high school suitor to show she still has game.

In iconic black and white, the brilliant, empathetic Payne (“Sideways”) delivers another fully realized road movie – and Oscar contender. It’s a homecoming for the Omaha native that drives deep into America’s heartland, and the heart of a single fly-over family, the Grants. The funny-sad film starts shaggy as Woody wanders along the blistered side of a Montana highway on a ridiculous odyssey to his home state, then achieves a deeply moving finish with the realization that sometimes what we want is small potatoes, not millions, a newish truck, and the look of respect, even love, in the eyes of an estranged son.

Bottom Line: Visit “Nebraska” and the great state of Alexander Payne

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Criticism, Movies

Review: ‘Lone Survivor’

No Comments 23 November 2013

Kitsch, Wahlberg, Foster, Hirsh: the band of bearded brothers (photo credit Universal Pictures)

Kitsch, Wahlberg, Foster, Hirsch: the band of bearded brothers (photo credit Universal Pictures)

With a title like “Lone Survivor,” clearly this war drama will not end well. And since it’s a documented case of 19 Navy Seals on a mission to take out isolated, high-level hard target Ahmad Shahd in Afghanistan in June 2005 narrated by the last man standing, Marcus Luttrell, the blood, sweat and tears will be mixed with a minimum of triumph.

Director Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”), working from his own script adapted from the New York Times Bestseller, proceeds to dig in deep to the Navy SEALS psyche and to understand who these individuals are, rescuing them from reductive statistics. At the same time, he embeds the audience so deeply in the men’s perspective on the doomed “Operation Red Wings” mission, that the experience is visceral and intensely disturbing.

The result is a contemporary “Platoon,” a band-of-brothers war story. Even for someone like me that isn’t a natural or easy fan of that genre, I recognize that one chief pleasure is the opportunity it provides for a group of actors to peel back pretense and reveal their characters at their most frightened, challenged and, even, transcendent. Real men cry on the battlefield, particularly when it’s a stony outcropping in Afghanistan and a once buff body has become a rag doll chewed by a vicious pit bull. Continue Reading

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Criticism, Movies

Review: ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’

8 Comments 17 November 2013

Girl and Boy on Fire - Again (Photo Credit Lionsgate)

Girl and Boy on Fire – Again (Photo Credit Lionsgate)

“Catching Fire” picks up where “The Hunger Games” left off. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned home to District 12, triumphant but troubled. The pair’s impromptu final act of defiance at the 74th Annual Hunger games – their decision to commit double suicide by poison berry (berry kari?) – has seeded rebellion against the Capitol across the districts.

Meanwhile, Katniss has boy probs: Peeta feels played because his true-love Katniss was apparently acting for the cameras to save their lives during the last games. And her jealous hometown soul-mate Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) isn’t so sure it was an act. Continue Reading

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Criticism, Movies, Oscar Race

Review of ’12 Years a Slave’ by Vassar Student David Lee

No Comments 15 November 2013

Ejiofor (left); Fassbender (photo credit Weinstein Pictures)

Ejiofor (left); Fassbender (photo credit Weinstein Pictures)


It is difficult to watch Director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” without looking away from the screen every so often. Lynched, murdered, raped, sold, traded, and owned: these are verbs we never want to associate with human existence. But it’s undeniable that these acts are a part of our legacy as Americans. And it’s utterly painful. It doesn’t play into our national denial, like “Lincoln,” by marginalizing the black experience by lionizing white political leaders, or like “Django Unchained” by reimagining the past as a Spaghetti Western. McQueen (“Hunger,” “Shame”) mounts horrifying images of the shredded backs, twitching feet, floating bodies, and chained limbs atop another to give a glimpse into the lives of slaves lived in constant fear and oppression. With strong performances by the incredible Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender among many, McQueen delivers one of the greatest films about American slavery and the need to own up to our checkered past.

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