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Knight at the Movies: The Grand Budapest Hotel; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2014-03-12

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Being in the audience for a Wes Anderson film has become akin to the delicious sensation one felt as a child when movie fever first took hold. There is a certain giddy excitement that has increasingly greeted each of Anderson's movies—at least from hipper, more sophisticated audiences. ( His comedies are not for those who cite Identity Thief and The Hangover Part III as laugh riots. ) Perhaps Anderson's popularity has to do with the fact that he makes movies that have no truck with the rampant cynicism of the present. ( Even the modern-day ones exist in their own alternate universe. ) Or perhaps it's because Anderson has also been so good at creating movies that combine whimsy, eccentricity and melancholy without being heavy-handed ( a rare feat ) and are matched by their delightful visuals.

Whatever the reasons, The Grand Budapest Hotel—Anderson's latest and most audacious yet—once again pulls off this sleight-of-hand. Wanna feel pixilated? Get in line for this screwball comedy that's an homage to the genre it so lovingly embraces.

The plot is a story within a story within a story—starting briefly in the present day and then spinning quickly ( nothing happens slowly in a Wes Anderson movie ) back to 1968 and then further back to 1932. We land in the lobby during the halcyon days of the pale pink-and-white confection known as the Grand Budapest, a luxury hotel in the fictional middle European country of Zubrowka. The Grand Budapest resembles a multi-tiered wedding cake and is run by the impeccably mannered concierge Gustave H. ( a droll and very funny Ralph Fiennes ), who runs the place with the precision of a Swiss watch.

In between training his staff to meet the exacting standards his rich and titled clientele has come to expect, Gustave finds time to romance an endless parade of wealthy, elderly blonde dowagers who are grateful for his "exceptional service." Chief among these is Madame D ( Tilda Swinton in old-lady makeup so pronounced she's unrecognizable ), who spends one last night with Gustave and then dies under mysterious circumstances.

Sensing something's afoot, Gustave and Zero, his newly ensconced Lobby Boy ( newcomer Tony Revolori ) arrive at Madame D's estate in time to hear the reading of the will. Much to the fierce derision of Madame D's rapacious relatives headed by the snapping Dmitri ( Adrien Brody ), a valuable painting has been left to Gustave. He and Zero happen upon the painting as they are making their speedy getaway from the estate and decide to take it along with them. Soon, both Dmitri's villainous henchman ( Willem Dafoe ) and a fascist military force led by Edward Norton are in hot pursuit.

The plots and pratfalls pile up as the movie zips from one fantastical set piece to another. We find ourselves aboard speeding trains and automobiles, locked up in a prison labyrinth, skittering up walls, skiing down mountain slopes and always just one step ahead of whatever latest trial Gustave and Zero find themselves in. Gustave insists on treating everyone—prince and thug alike—with the same level of refined courtesy that he has drummed into Zero's head is a hallmark of the life of a true gentleman. ( The role, believe it or not, has similarities to Steed, the upper crust spy Finnes played in The Avengers. )

Throughout, actors are often positioned in the center of the frame and speak very quickly ( a true hallmark of screwball comedy—in this way the movie honors His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby ). The dream cast also includes Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Saoirse Ronan, Harvey Keitel and many others. They look like a collection of Diane Arbus photos brought to life. With its painted backdrops and use of miniatures, the movie is like a series of dioramas in an obscure museum. The effect of this glittering toy is like looking into tiny dollhouse rooms or the windows of Marshall Field's at Christmas—the artifice is so breathtaking and fun you gasp in endless delight. You're always aware of Anderson's control and attention to the smallest detail—that you're enveloped in a carefully created world.

Who would have thought audiences would respond to this kind of silly made-up stuff—this madcap Marx Brothers-Ernst Lubitsch era kind of thing? Maybe that's the ultimate reason why The Grand Budapest Hotel feels fresh and vibrant—it harkens so far back in movie history to find its inspiration that it proves the old "everything old is new again" maxim is true—to which I would add, "Vyborne" ( Czech for "bravo" ).

Film notes:

—Cinema Q IV, the fourth annual LGBT-themed movie series, continues tonight with Pawel Pawlikowski's sensual lesbian romance, 2004's My Summer of Love. The film stars Emily Blunt ( The Young Victoria, The Devil Wears Prada ) in her feature debut. The series continues each Wednesday in March at 6:30 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center in the Claudia Cassidy Theater, 78 E. Washington St.

The Queer Film Society ( of which I'm president ), the Legacy Project, Reeling Film Festival and Affinity Community Services are presenting the series in partnership with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Windy City Times, ChicagoPride and the Reader are media sponsors. The screenings are free. www.queerfilmsociety.org

—CLAW: The Movie is not, as one would imagine upon first hearing that title, a sci-fi horror flick. "CLAW," in this case, stands for Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers and this cultural phenomenon—this "massacre in mascara," as it has been described—has been captured in what certainly looks like a freewheeling documentary. The film will screen at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., on Friday, March 14, at 10:30 p.m. Co-director Brian Wimer will be present for what promises to be a raucous screening event—the evening kicks off with a short wrestling exhibition and will be emceed by one Rokke L. Squelch ( aka Karrie Miller ) and feature the Sideshow Theatre Company. www.musicboxtheatre.com

—The Rainbow Alliance of the Unitarian Church of Evanston ( 1330 Ridge Ave., Evanston ) will present the 2009 lesbian romantic drama Hannah Free, from director Wendy Jo Carlton, on Friday, March 21 at 7 p.m. ( doors at 6:30 p.m. ). Sharon Gless stars in the film, which is based on Claudia Allen's award-winning play, and it was shot locally with many familiar Chicago actors. Windy City Times Publisher/Executive Editor Tracy Baim produced the film and will be part of a panel discussion following the screening that will also feature editor/producer Sharon Zurek and actors Taylor Miller and Maureen Gallagher. http://ucevanston.org/

—Four more 2013 LGBT indie festival faves are just out on Blu-ray and DVD ( or both ) and worth adding to your queer movie collection: Daniel Radcliffe as gay poet in the making Allen Ginsberg who falls under the spell of his blond, handsome and decidedly unhinged college classmate Lucien Carr in out director Jon Krokidas' 1940s period winner Kill Your Darlings, the red hot gay German romantic drama Free Fall, the twisted and sexy gay crime thriller Truth and the winning high-school coming-out dramedy Geography Club.

Caption: From left: Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan and Tony Revolori in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Photo from Fox Searchlight


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