Though I enjoyed Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, Wes Anderson's big-budget spectacles have never had much draw for me. Like a beautiful soufflé that somehow fails to rise, they've always been missing something. If The Grand Budapest Hotel is any indication, Ralph Fiennes may have been that missing ingredient.
The baking metaphor is an apt one for the films of Mr. Anderson, whose storybook films always take on a certain didactic tone as if the director were talking, or reading to a child. Nowhere is this more evident than in a short feature released in advance of film called "How To Make a Courtesan au Chocolat," which features rather explicit instructions on how to compose, and serve, one of the Budapest's oft-eaten treats. The "courtesan cake" is an able signifier for the perfection and delicacy of the film's construction, wherein Fiennes' hands maintain a great deal of pathos and humor despite the precious clockwork nature that has at times undercut the enjoyability of previous Anderson features. His performance is only part of the appeal of course – with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson has truly built a better mousetrap.
The story (nested within a story, naturally) in Grand Budapest is that of its genteel concierge, one Monsieur Gustav H, and his favorite lobby boy, Zero Moustafa, who, in the course of running the western world's grandest hotel in the fantasy kingdom of Zubrowka, become embroiled in a great deal of intrigue following the death of one of Gustav's favorite patrons (a well-transformed Tilda Swinton). After Gustav cheekily takes the painting willed to him by the great matron against the wishes of her inheritance-hungry family, he's promptly accused of her murder and goes on the run, bringing Zero with him and drawing him – and audiences, by extension – further into his world. As the film takes place at the beginning of a fictional war very much resembling World War I, there's surplus time spent avoiding para-Nazi militia, or the "ZZ," the funniest of whom is Adrien Brody playing a gleefully unhinged mirror version of his role in The Pianist.
Over the course of the film's escapades, the usual spate of Anderson heavies all get to have their moment, aided by a vast staff of the silver screen's most beloved including Harvey Keitel, Lea Seydoux, Jeff Goldblum, Ed Norton and Mathieu Almaric. Even Willem Dafoe manifests as Brody's henchman, as a nasty real-world reincarnation of his character in The Fabulous Mr. Fox. All parties seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and why not? The Grand Budapest is a site of magic, and the best film Anderson's made by more than a pinch.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is now playing at theaters around the Bay. Rotten Tomatoes: 90%.
Bottle Rocket - Anyone lamenting Roxie's failure to include Wes Anderson's early films in its recent 35mm retrospective, take heart! His first full-length effort screens in two 'midnight' shows this weekend. Friday and Saturday only, The Clay. Rotten Tomatoes: 84%.
Silent Running - Before he was a duddering fuddy duddy in Alexander Payne's Nebraska, he was an taciturn interstellar park ranger in this overlooked sci-fi made by the guy that did the visual effects for Kubrik's 2001. Though it's rather simple, the apocalyptic eco-paranoia of this flick still rings true. March 17 only, Castro. Rotten Tomatoes: 67%.
Omar - Palestine's first feature film, nominated for an Oscar, adds a pinch of Bourne Identity to the frequently told border-crossing romance that seems to have captured the attention of regional filmmakers of late. Roxie. Rotten Tomatoes: 89%.
Particle Fever - Scientist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson presents the launch of the world's biggest particle accelerator and the discovery of the Higgs Boson (big, big news in the science world) with all the excitement and anticipation of a big sports event. Extremely tight editing by veteran Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) keeps the sometimes-heady concepts on the rails. Embarcadero. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%.
Love and Demons - Local filmmaker JP Allen (Centaur) follows his own idiosyncratic, micro-budget vision deeper down the rabbit hole with this tale of a couple tempted by demons, in which he stars as a demon. Chron's Mick LaSalle loved it. One week only, Opera Plaza.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me - Your ability to enjoy this doc will be limited (or bolstered) by your adoration for the gravel-voiced Broadway bigwig, now an octogenarian. If you just love her – as many do – it's an 80-minute hang sesh you'll happily sign on for. Opera Plaza. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%.