THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Generally speaking, I'm not one to argue for the inclusion of more foul language and bloody violence in a director's oeuvre, and feel especially awkward doing so a mere week after being bored silly by the endless profanities and exploding squibs in the latest Schwarzenegger flick. But I'll happily make an exception in the case of Wes Anderson, at least based on his most recent outing, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Like all Anderson efforts, this one, too, could be filed in the "precious comic bauble" category, given its deliberately artificial production design and obsessively controlled compositions and overall suggestion of an improv-free zone. Yet this endlessly inventive and funny new work might boast more interior life than any of the writer/director's other live-action achievements, and for that I'm afraid we have to thank the forcible removal of Jeff Goldblum's fingers, and Ralph Fiennes' tendency to drop the F-bomb into every other sentence.
That's not to say that the movie - set in the fictional, central-European province of Zubrowka - isn't incredibly ambitious in its own right. At the very start of Anderson's Russian-nesting-doll narrative, we see a young girl lay keys at a tombstone boasting the granite bust of a famed writer, and immediately flash back to the writer himself (Tom Wilkinson) promising to tell us the true story of what transpired at the titular hotel. (The Grand Budapest Hotel is also the title of the book the young girl carries with her to the grave site.) We then continue to flash back to the writer in his younger years, when he's played by Jude Law, and when, at the Zubrowka establishment, he's introduced to its proprietor Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Then, with the two men conversing over dinner, we flash back even further: This time the narrator is Moustafa, speaking of his years as a lobby boy known as Zero (Tony Revolori), and the winter of 1932 in which he served as chief counsel and friend to the hotel's concierge, M. Gastave (Fiennes). And that's really where the movie begins.
I guarantee that the preceding paragraph is more exhausting than Anderson's handling of its contents. Working with a speed that never turns frenetic, the filmmaker whisks us through the decades with alacrity and confidence, giving us just enough time to marvel in the surface details (such as the blood-red elevator that might've been borrowed from the set of Kubrick's The Shining) before depositing us in another strange new locale with another set of fascinatingly cryptic characters. Yet with the arrival of M. Gustave - an orderly, prissy, loquacious fussbudget who routinely services his hotel's decrepit female guests - The Grand Budapest Hotel begins to morph from one of Anderson's more traditional, hermetically sealed entertainments into something far nuttier and livelier. Gustave's, and the film's, main plotline involves him being a suspect in the killing of a fantastically wealthy matriarch (Tilda Swinton in full, glowering-dowager mode), one whose will, to the horror of her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), leaves Gustave a priceless painting titled Boy with Apple. And with Gustave's accusal, the whimsical eccentricity that we've come to expect from Anderson gets turned on its head in favor of pure, madcap, hellzapoppin' slapstick. There are Keystone Cops-esque chases and riotously complex prison-escape tactics and a mind-blowing slalom through a snow-covered forest (the latter presented, hilariously, through some inspired stop-motion animation), and Willem Dafoe shows up as Dmitri's enforcer, a grim-faced thug who doesn't hesitate in throwing a Persian cat out a high-story window or stashing a severed head in a laundry basket - or doing unspeakable things to the digits of Goldblum's left hand.
Plus, Fiennes' delivery of Gustave's dialogue is practically a slapstick comedy of its own, considering that the actor seems more relaxed and alert than he's been in years, and that his character's hysterically florid recitations are so frequently interrupted - though more accurately augmented - by anachronistic crudities that surprise you, and tickle you, every time you hear them. ("What happened, my dear Zero, is I beat the living shit out of a sniveling runt called Pinky Bandinski.") In past films, Fantastic Mr. Fox excepted, Anderson's humor has tended to sneak up on you a beat or two after the fact. Yet The Grand Budapest Hotel's laughs - like Fiennes' unanticipated cuss words - come fast and furious. It might even be fair to say that you don't laugh so much as you involuntarily cackle, sometimes at the sheer velocity of the jokes (Gustave tells Zero that he'll keep his bequeathed painting forever one smash cut before announcing his plans to sell it), and sometimes at your astonishment at how spectacularly well Anderson pulls them off. (The man delivers not one but two gags involving ladders of comically impossible proportions, and nails them both times.)
There are intimations of darkness throughout Anderson's latest - a near-inevitability given the setting and 1932 time period. But the film's spirit is relentlessly playful, with characters occasionally seen merely popping out from some small corner of the screen, and the candy-colored scenic and costume design providing plenty of their own pop. I had an absolute ball at The Grand Budapest Hotel, and if you choose to see it yourself, I can only hope that you see it with a large crowd as apparently film- (or at least Anderson-film-) savvy as mine. This was a group that caught all of the movie's most Anderson-y flourishes and chuckled with recognition and appreciation at the very first sights of Edward Norton and Harvey Keitel and Bob Balaban (Balaban's arrival got an especially hearty response), and one patron, no kidding, was even audibly happy at our quick sighting of Fisher Stevens. Fisher Stevens! Great entertainments such as Anderson's latest are rare. Great audiences such as this one, if possible, are even rarer.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
There's little overtly wrong with Captain America: The Winter Solider beyond Captain America himself, and in directors Anthony and Joe Russo's comic-book adventure, even that's not much of an issue. I maintain my opinion that, as superheroes go, the good Captain is one of the Marvel universe's less interesting ones, especially as embodied, in recent films, by Chris Evans; the foursquare patriotism and unassailable decency of Steve Rogers and his masked alter ego may be commendable, but they aren't terribly exciting, and neither are Evans' blandly serviceable portrayals. (I'm hardly asking for a burst of Zack Snyder Superman murderousness in the role, but wouldn't any of the other big-screen Avengers - even Jeremy Renner's thus-far-unformed Hawkeye - be a lot more fun at a party?) Thankfully, though, the movie he's in makes up for the personality that its star character, and the star himself, lacks.
The pacing is sharp and the visual effects are strong and the main storyline - involving an infiltration of Hydra vipers within the seemingly incorruptible S.H.I.E.L.D. agency - lends this sequel some paranoid kick, as does the casting of White Knight emeritus Robert Redford as a high-ranking, completely untrustworthy S.H.I.E.L.D. official. Anthony Mackie, as new ally Sam Wilson (a.k.a. Falcon), is a sensationally welcome addition to the Marvel-flick franchise, with solid-or-better turns also offered by Scarlett Johansson (back as Black Widow), Sebastian Stan (unexpectedly back as the titular Winter Soldier), Toby Jones, Frank Grillo, and even Garry Shandling (whose cameo, here, snagged a big laugh from my fellow patrons right before his whispered aside sent a chill down our collective spine). And happily, when it's not wowing us with blockbuster-sized grandeur, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is also really, really funny. The opening visual/verbal joke - with our hero, at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, jogging past Falcon with comically enhanced speed and a repeated "On your left" every time he passes - was pretty great. But I positively cracked up when Captain America and Black Widow sized up a roomful of antiquated computer equipment and the latter, viewing the once-familiar bright-green lettering on a monitor, asked her companion, "Do you want to play a game?" with perfect, WarGames-y lack of inflection. If these are the sorts of unanticipated curlicues we can expect from future Captain America installments, hell yeah I do.
Famously, nearly all of the funding for the new Veronica Mars movie came from a Kickstarter campaign, with the canceled TV show's fans collectively ponying up some $5.7 million for this big-screen act of closure. I humbly salute these fans - and the good schedulers at Moline's Nova 6 Cinemas, where the film is playing locally - because without them, I might never have found entry into this make-believe universe, and I'm now quite glad I did. Knowing only of Kristen Bell's onetime teen sleuth by reputation, director Rob Thomas' feature - which picks up, with a new mystery, on the eve of Mars' 10-year high-school reunion - seems the best kind of cinematic follow-up: a bright, cheerful outing that (I'm presuming) re-introduces us to beloved characters and their quirks, and gives a bunch of recurring TV actors the chance, for a couple of hours, to play movie stars. I can't say I ever bought the plot, in which Mars' former beau (Jason Dohring's Logan) is the prime suspect in the killing of a pop-star classmate; for a guy internationally famous as a potential killer, he seems awfully unencumbered by paparazzi when moseying about town. (At one point, he even hits a nightclub with a woman who looks uncannily like the deceased, which you'd think would land him on TMZ in record-setting time.) But the Veronica Mars movie, while silly and mostly unconvincing, is still a fast and unpretentious good time with more than a dozen exceptional one-liners; I particularly liked Veronica haranguing a murder suspect for her room decorated with photos of the victim, or "what we in the business call a crazy-ass-murderer wall." And as with Firefly's big-screen sequel Serenity, I'm now looking looking forward to some serious binge-watching of a previously unwatched series, and hoping this Kickstarter thing manages to gain favor with a few other ambitious TV talents. So don't let me down, creators of Twin Peaks, Freaks & Geeks, and Slings & Arrows. I've got my debit card right here waiting.