You don't arrive at the Grand Budapest Hotel without your share of Wes Anderson baggage. Odds are, if you've booked a visit to this film, you've enjoyed your past trips to the Wes Indies (I promise I'll stop this extended metaphor soon), delighting especially in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and his most recent charmer Moonrise Kingdom. On the other hand, you could be the adventurous sort — a curious diplomat who never really got Anderson's uric-toned deadpan drudgings but can't resist browsing through the brochures of his latest European getaway. First off, neither community should worry about a bias in this review — I'm a Life Aquatic devotee, equally alienating to both sides. Second, neither community should be deterred by Andersonian expectations, be they sky high or subterranean, in planned Budapest excursions. No matter who you are, this movie will charm your dandy pants off and then some.
While GBH hangs tight to the filmmaker's recognizable style, the movie is a departure for Anderson in a number of ways. The first being plot: there is one. A doozy, too. We're accustomed to spending our Wes flicks peering into the stagnant souls of pensive man-children — or children-men (Moonrise) or fox-kits (guess) — whose journeys are confined primarily to the internal. But not long into Grand Budapest, we're on a bona fide adventure with one of the director's most attractive heroes to date: the didactic Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes mastering sympathetic comedy better than anyone could have imagined he might), who invests his heart and soul into the titular hotel, an oasis of nobility in a decaying 1930s Europe. Gustave is plucked from his sadomasochistic nirvana overseeing every cog and sprocket in the mountaintop institution and thrust into a madcap caper — reminiscent of, and not accidentally, the Hollywood comedies of the era — involving murder, framing, art theft, jailbreak, love, sex, envy, secret societies, high speed chases... believe me, I haven't given half of it away. Along the way, we rope in a courageous baker (Saoirse Ronan), a dutiful attorney (Jeff Goldblum), a hotheaded socialite (Adrien Brody) and his psychopathic henchman (Willem Dafoe), and no shortage of Anderson regulars. The director proves just as adept at the large scale as he is at the small, delivering would-be cartoon high jinks with the same tangible life that you'd find in a Billy Wilder romp or one of the better Hope/Crosby Road to movies.
Anchoring the monkey business down to a recognizable planet Earth (without sacrificing an ounce of comedy) is the throughline of Gustave's budding friendship with his lobby boy, Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori, whose performance is an unprecedented and thrilling mixture of Wes Anderson stoicism and tempered humility), the only living being who appreciates the significance of the Grand Budapest as much as Gustave does. In joining these two oddballs on their quest beyond the parameters of FDA-approved doses of zany, we appreciate it, too: the significance of holding fast to something you believe in, understand, trust, and love in a world that makes less and less sense everyday. Anderson's World War II might not be as ostensibly hard-hitting as that to which modern cinema is accustomed, but there's a chilling, somber horror story lurking beneath the surface of Grand Budapest. Behind every side-splitting laugh, cookie cutter backdrop, and otherworldly antic, there is a pulsating dread that makes it all mean something. As vivid as the worlds of Rushmore, Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise might well have been, none have had this much weight and soul.
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So it's astonishing that we're able to zip to and fro' every crevice of this haunting, misty Central Europe at top speeds, grins never waning as our hero Gustave delivers supernaturally articulate diatribes capped with physically startling profanity. So much of it is that delightfully odd, agonizingly devoted character, his unlikely camaraderie with the unflappably earnest young Zero, and his adherence to the magic that inhabits the Grand Budapest Hotel. There are few places like it on Earth, as we learn. There aren't many movies like it here either.
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September 15, 2010 7:54am EST
If DreamWorks’ 2005 sci-fi flick The Island had been directed by Friedrich Nietzsche then you’d probably have seen something like Never Let Me Go. Strip the spectacle from that over-the-top actioner and you’re left with some heavy subject matter; a meditation on life and death and an allegory for the pro-life/pro-choice debate or lack thereof when concerning clones. Director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later Sunshine) explore the same ethical dilemma as proposed by Kazuo Ishiguro’s best-selling novel by creating an alternate reality that isn’t much different from our own considering the often shameful and self-serving nature of homo sapiens.
The film is set in a world where medical advances in the mid-20th Century have allowed humans to live as long as 100 years on average at the expense of “donors” – test-tube babies created from the genes of junkies and hobos. These unfortunate individuals are raised at facilities like the Hailsham House (essentially upper-crust English boarding schools) where they are controlled cut off from society and kept healthy and clean so their organs are in tip-top shape to fuel the failing bodies of the general population. Some donors qualify to become “Carers” who tend to the others when the surgeries begin. Upon “completion” the Carer moves on to the next subject until they receive their notice and become a donor themselves.
Though the children learn about their morbid fate at a young age thanks to their guilt-ridden school teacher Miss Lucy (played with fragile insecurity by Sally Hawkins) the psychological and emotional strain of their existence becomes painfully clear during the second act where main characters Kathy Ruth and Tommy travel to and reside in Cottages in the English countryside. There they mature in different ways: by connecting with the outside world via day trips to a nearby town by being exposed to television and pop-culture and perhaps most significantly by connecting with each other through sexual exploration. But like all humans – and make no mistake donors are characteristically human – they each lose their innocence in some form as they grow. They end up scattered throughout the country reuniting years later to right the wrongs in their lives with the little time that they have left.
The circle of life in Never Let Me Go is painful and bleak but the creative team captures the environment with an eerie beauty and calmness that is as deceiving as Hailsham’s headmistress Emily played with aristocratic authority by Charlotte Rampling. The heightened atmosphere is amplified by Rachel Portman’s peculiar musical arrangements that slyly accentuate the mystery. Quite often cinematography is wrongly mistaken for photography in decently shot movies but at any moment in this film a single frame is literally worth a thousand words. Much praise must go to director of photography Adam Kimmel but you mustn’t overlook the uncanny abilities of Carey Mulligan Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield who respectively play Kathy Ruth and Tommy with such intimate delicacy that their tears will likely bring on some of your own.
A wrenching drama with a subtle backbone in science fiction you’d never know that you’re looking at a dystopian past because of the reserved production design and humble costumes. There aren’t any fantastic visions of a technologically superior society because there’s nothing superior about it. The unseen citizens of Romanek’s England proper though far from tabloid superstars are as aesthetically obsessed and superficial as the Paris Hilton's of 2010 America. Why else would they inflict pain and death on innocent lives? In the answer to that question lies one of the core themes of Never Let Me Go; the devaluation of life and further a lack of understanding of what makes us human.
If I’ve got any complaint with Never Let Me Go it has to do with the unavoidably frustrating inaction of the protagonists. Even after a devastating and climactic revelation where Kathy and Tommy’s hopes for prolonged life are crushed once and for all the thought of a Logan’s Run-style rebellion is never a consideration. They weren’t complacent but were perhaps fully aware of the futility of revolution. Rather than run from their destiny they opted to embrace it by cherishing every last moment they had together and that of course is the moral of this heartbreaking tale. It doesn’t make for a very exciting plot but it is an exemplary case of exceptional storytelling.
Drab prim and more than a little prudish Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) isn't a very good governess--her rigid personal beliefs keep getting in the way of her ability to hold a job. Homeless and hungry on the streets of 1939 London she's on the verge of despair when fate sends her to Delysia Lafosse's door. Flighty enthusiastic and impulsive Delysia (Amy Adams) is a club singer with aspirations of becoming a serious actress; to achieve her goals she'll literally charm the pants off of any man who can help her--even at the risk of losing her one true love forever. Equally shocked and fascinated by Delysia's sophisticated fast-paced colorful lifestyle Miss Pettigrew uses her brief time as the young woman's faux social secretary to try to save her from herself. At the same time she begins to let go of old fears and finds the way to her own happiness. Miss Pettigrew benefits immensely from the strengths of its two stars. McDormand is both funny and affecting as the title character; she plays a recurring gag in which Miss Pettigrew almost gets to eat with just the right notes of humor and pathos. The twinkle in her eye as she takes the measure of Delysia's world is convincingly conspiratorial and her scenes with co-star Ciaran Hinds who plays courtly lingerie mogul Joe are both sweet and realistic. Adams meanwhile is just as captivating as she was in Enchanted. Delysia's perky effervescence hides both determination and vulnerability and Adams mixes all three elements expertly. The ladies get strong support from their fellas particularly Hinds and Pushing Daisies' Lee Pace who plays Delysia's poor-but-ardent suitor Michael. And Shirley Henderson is perfectly poisonous as socialite/salon owner Edythe. Parts of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day have a distinctly screwball feel -- particularly the early scenes in which Miss P. arrives at Delysia's and must immediately juggle four or five different crises for her new client. The brink-of-World War II setting with its cocktail parties jazz clubs and dames in bright red lipstick encourages that association. But director Bharat Nalluri's movie is also a touching romance with scenes of true poignancy that centers on a complex mature heroine who knows life isn't all roses. His ability to balance the two yields a genuinely funny accessible comedy that has some real depth to back up its lighthearted romping. Even if like Delysia Miss Pettigrew is only a passing presence in your life you'll likely remember her quite fondly.