For the week of June 17th, Twentieth Century Fox is bringing Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel to Blu-ray. To date, the film stands as the most commercially successful picture that Anderson has made – it has grossed over $157 million worldwide, with $57 of that coming from the U.S. alone. These are astonishing figures, especially when you consider that The Grand Budapest Hotel might be the most self-referential and insular work of his career. In conveying the adventures of internationally renowned hotel concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, in an immensely charming, fleet performance) and his faithful lobby boy Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori) as they stumble through one madcap intrigue after another, Anderson turns the film in on itself. Narratively, it begins in the present, then burrows back to the 1980s through the visage of a respected writer (Tom Wilkinson), then uses his recollections to go back even further to the 1960s, where his younger self (Jude Law) listens rapt as a mysterious socialite (F. Murray Abraham) tells the pre-WWII story of Gustave and Zero. But figuratively, this twisting, inward-looking structure also reflects the myriad of ways Anderson is examining his own career. Almost every beat has its origin from another film: the friendship between an eccentric older man and his lonely young ward (Rushmore); their bumbling attempts to abscond with a priceless work of art (Bottle Rocket); a winsome story of young love between Zero and Saoirse Ronan's baker (Moonrise Kingdom); and all wrapped in the same melancholic tones that made The Royal Tenenbaums so resonant. There are even key scenes set on a train (The Darjeeling Limited), a Willem Dafoe villain that looks like a live-action version of his stop-motion rat from Fantastic Mr. Fox, and scenes of comic violence that play like the evolution of the pirate attacks in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
All that, plus a supporting cast loaded with familiar faces from the Wes Anderson Players, some of whom only pop up for a minute or two (Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, and Harvey Keitel play relatively central roles, but the efforts from Jason Schwartzman, Wally Wolodarsky, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, and – of course – Bill Murray amount to blink-and-you-might-miss-'em cameos). This should come off as too arch for its own good – fit for Anderson super-fans and no one else, maybe – but even as he's doubling back in on himself, Anderson never loses sight of a clear emotional through-line. Despite all the fun and comedy (and on a gag-for-gag basis, The Grand Budapest Hotel might be Anderson's most entertaining movie – it's practically a live-action cartoon), all the fanciful mayhem exists on top of genuine stakes. It isn't an accident that the film unfolds just before World War II, and that foreshadowing of tragedy to come makes Gustave's attempts at preserving some kind of decorum and propriety all the more heroic: he's trying, in his own small way, to push back the tide before it overwhelms everyone. And that's the broken heart behind The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the mission statement for all of Anderson's pictures. Yes, things may look silly, and art-directed to an inch of their lives, and existing on an alternate plane from reality, but given how brutal and scary the real world can be, isn't the fantasy better?
Jeffrey Kauffman commented that "Wes Anderson's often fairly fussy directorial approach might seem to be tonally at odds with the freewheeling ambience of screwball comedy, but in essence, that's more less exactly what The Grand Budapest Hotel turns out to be. In a typically Andersonian way, however, some of the genre's tropes have been twisted to the point that they're almost unrecognizable. While there's still the whiplash pace and completely bizarre occurrences that tend to be part and parcel of screwball, the film posits a male pair at its center, with Fiennes' slightly uptight and more than occasionally foul mouthed Gustave H. taking the place of eccentric millionairesses like Katharine Hepburn's Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby. That leaves the somewhat hapless but ultimately resourceful young Zero to act as a wide eyed foil for the more wordly and sophisticated older character. The sense of barely controlled chaos that tends to inform a lot of screwball is more than evident throughout The Grand Budapest Hotel both in terms of its plot (which tends to unfold as if it suffered from attention deficit disorder) and even Anderson's filming style, which frequently features cameras cartwheeling through sets to suddenly whip pan to whatever Anderson wants us to focus on in that particular moment. While a lot of screwball tends to feature more or less traditional romantic elements between seemingly mismatched characters, here Anderson traffics in more questionable formulations (Gustave H. evidently has a habit of bedding the elderly wealthy women who frequent The Grand Budapest, and in fact the death of one of them is what sets the main thrust of the plot into motion) as well as making the hotel itself the ultimate object of both Gustave and Zero's affections. It's a breathtaking realignment of traditionally accepted screwball elements, but just another example of how insouciant Anderson's construction is here. And no mere verbal or written précis can hope to adequately convey how rich Anderson's visual sense is in the film, something that elevates The Grand Budapest Hotel to a level that seems to echo the 'actual' hotel's mountaintop domain."
Even more fantastical is the smash animated comedy The LEGO Movie. To a certain degree, The LEGO Movie is a pretty typical hero's journey à la Star Wars or The Matrix: an average nobody named Emmet (Chris Pratt) learns that he is at the center of an ancient prophecy that foretells the defeat of Lord Business (Will Ferrell), an evil despot who hopes to destroy the world. And like those other features, Emmet has a butt-kicking love interest (Elizabeth Banks), a wise old man (Morgan Freeman) offering him guidance, and a host of personal inadequacies to conquer. However, as the title indicates, Emmet is a LEGO minifigure, and his whole world – from rocket ships to water – is constructed from the same iconic plastic toys, and this detail changes things significantly. For one, the whole environment becomes malleable, as Emmet learns to construct all measures of defense from the world around him. For another, his world is filled with LEGO characters from recognizable playsets, making this the only adventure movie where you can see Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Batman (a hysterical Will Arnett), Wonder Woman (Cobie Smulders), Gandalf (Todd Hansen), Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Shaquille O'Neal (himself, of course), and William Shakespeare (Jorma Taccone) all get involved in the fight to save the day (and that's not including the inspired vocal creations from a cast that includes Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day, and Liam Neeson, whose turn as the manic Good Cop/Bad Cop makes up for years of cruddy action-thrillers like Unknown and Non-Stop).
However, the amazing thing about The LEGO Movie is that it never becomes the most expensive toy commercial ever; directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord are established pros at making good movies out of terrible ideas (see also: the unexpectedly delightful Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, the reboot-that-could that is 21 Jump Street, and its way-more-enjoyable-than-it-should-be sequel 22 Jump Street), and this might be their most accomplished act yet. The LEGO Movie works on so many levels – CGI extravaganza, Pixar-esque insights, slapstick thrills, and corporate satire – and Lord and Miller aren't afraid to let these bits play out at the same time. Like a Chuck Jones cartoon or Frank Tashlin's live-action work, they pack the frame with gags and subtext (and The LEGO Movie has at least half-a-dozen major setpieces with this kind of density, from an assault on a Western-themed town to Emmet's arrival at Cloud Cuckoo Land), and if you miss something (or ten somethings) the first time around, no worries: all their films reward repeat viewings because there's always so much to see. Nowhere is Lord and Miller's off-center magic more evident than in the major twist that kicks off the third act; as divisive as it is, this beat shows how willing Miller and Lord are to demolish conventional narrative structure – even for their own movie! – and it also slyly criticizes the kind of nostalgia-obsessed man-children that help to...well, that help to make something like The LEGO Movie possible. I never thought I'd say this, but The LEGO Movie is easily one of the best films of the year so far.
Kenneth Brown's Blu-ray review indicated that the film has "a snappy free-for-all energy and crackling spontaneity that might strike stuffy-collared adults as seat-of-the-pants. Scatter-brained. Erratic even. But one trip down the LEGO aisle of your local Toys 'R Us reveals just how perfectly nonsensical the adjoining kingdoms and Master Builder ranks are. It's a film no other toyline could inhabit; one intimately connected to everything that's kept LEGO atop the toy heap for decades. A place where...almost anything could happen between anyone in any number of franchise universes. Where the craziest ship you can imagine could be built from street corners, ship hulls, conference rooms or Old West saloons. Simply watching The LEGO Movie play in its sandbox is endlessly entertaining. Seeing how intelligently it plays in several sandboxes at once even more so. The animators and voice actors are more than up to the task, taking inspiration from Lord and Miller's flights of fast-paced fancy. Pratt and company are hilariously cast and deliver the goods, without exception. Any one of the side characters and cameos could have been promoted from bit player to full-fledged leading brick and The LEGO Movie wouldn't flinch. Quips, one-liners and, yes, even puns are laugh-out-loud funny, and that's ignoring the never-ending sight gags, easter eggs and little, LEGO-fanatic touches that can only be unearthed on multiple viewings. The animation is glorious, a blazing blend of the new and nostalgic, brimming with meticulous stop-motion care, artistry and personality as brought to life with deceptively humble CG. The environments are comprised of LEGO bricks from dirt to river to sky. Flame jets spin and flicker, water flows by in a flood of single blue pegs, explosions and smoke plumes...all made of LEGOs. It's a LEGO movie by LEGO lovers, for LEGO lovers. It has fun with long-standing debates (free-lock vs. glue), takes a few jabs at itself (instruction booklets spring to mind) and has a wicked sense of humor when it comes to the toyline's limitations (unarticulated joints and a lack of opposable thumbs). Yet never at the expense of the deep affection of fans, young or old. There isn't an inch, shot or beat that undermines the totality of Lord and Miller's design methodology or LEGO life. Describing the impact of it all, particularly in breakneck motion and in delirious swing, is near impossible. The sights, the sounds, the jokes, the heartstrings, the struggles, the victories, that third-act twist...wow. Just... wow. Marveling at how effortlessly it comes together, though? That's a cinch. The LEGO Movie is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Unless mind-blowing exceeds jaw-dropping, in which case The LEGO Movie is mind-blowing. Mind-blowingly awesome. It had to be said."
The LEGO Movie is certainly the showiest animated release this week; by comparison, Cinedigm's quiet Ernest & Celestine has markedly less ambitious goals. Based on Gabrielle Vincent's popular series of children's novels, the film simply marks the beginning of the friendship between the title characters, a mouse named Celestine (Mackenzie Foy) and a bear named Ernest (Forest Whitaker). Though there is some adventure – Ernest and Celestine's respective troubles with the law culminate in a rollicking car chase and a fiery conflagration – directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner are content to maintain a much slower pace. They emphasize Ernest and Celestine as individuals: she wants to paint but is stuck collecting teeth for a local dentist, while his musical inclinations suffer under the artistically conservative attitudes of the town where he busks for food. Together, they form not just a makeshift family but a nascent artist's collective, and the highlight of the film is the lovely, twenty-minute sequence where the two use the winter hibernation period as a time to develop their gifts. If the Academy Award-nominated Ernest & Celestine has a major issue, it's that even by traditional animation standards, it feels slight. The lack of action isn't a real problem; it's the virtual absence of conflict that leaves the picture feeling somewhat insubstantial. The film sets up a "bear vs. mouse" dichotomy that quickly falls away - minus a few small blips, Ernest and Celestine seem destined to be best friends, and their legal troubles end benignly (Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey Wright provide the only tension in these sections as the pair's histrionically angry judges). Yet the film's gentle nature proves compelling, especially when coupled to the gorgeous animation that mimics the hand-drawn watercolor aesthetic of the source material. Ernest and Celestine is committed to the idea of friendship and of creative inspiration, and it makes those concepts matter to us, in its low-key, amiable way.
Jeffrey Kauffman noted that "A series of events soon forces Ernest and Celestine into a 'you and me against the world' scenario, as neither the mice nor the bears are content to see this interspecies friendship develop. What's interesting, though, is that freed from the morés of their individual cultures. Ernest and Celestine are finally able to truly express themselves, especially with regard to their talents. Celestine's facility with drawing and painting blossoms, as does Ernest's musical proclivities. Meanwhile, an almost hyperbolic response to the friendship ends with a potentially frightening scenario that may see the two iconoclasts jailed and perhaps even worse. Ernest and Celestine's interwoven morals aren't especially profound, but they're astute and meaningful nonetheless. There's an obvious warning here against prejudice and judging books by their covers (so to speak), but there's an equal (and probably equally obvious) lesson about just being oneself and letting the chips fall where they may. It's all dressed up in a patently fanciful storytelling style, and the whole toothy aspect to the tale gives things a decidedly odd ambience, but at its heart Ernest and Celestine is a simple, heartfelt tale of acceptance and personal integrity. The film may be geared toward children, but it contains a message that should ring true for even the most hard hearted of adults as well."
From Lionsgate comes the atmospheric thriller Joe. Based on the novel by Larry Brown, Joe centers on wayward teen Gary (Tye Sheridan) and how his bond with the titular ex-con (Nicolas Cage) forever changes his view of adolescence. At first glance, Joe seems to have a lot of overlap with last year's great drama Mud, and those similarities are certainly pronounced. Both films center on relationships between troubled teens and their criminal mentors, both films are rooted in the culture of the American South (Arkansas in Mud vs. Texas in Joe), and both films end with the title characters coming into contact with sudden violence; heck, even Sheridan stars as the aforementioned Troubled Teen in both pictures. But whereas Mud, for all its darkness, retains the overall feeling of a boys' adventure (as Matthew McConaughey plays him, Mud himself could be a forty-something Huck Finn, older but no wiser about the ways of the world), Joe is rougher, more psychologically penetrating. Gary's home life is abject poverty mixed with constant emotional and physical abuse, courtesy of his alcoholic father Wade (non-actor Gary Poulter, in an astounding debut performance that he didn't live to see – Poulter died just after production wrapped), and Joe's confidence and worldly nature belies his constant internal struggles. Joe desperately wants to keep his demons in check, but the more calamities befall Gary, the more he feels his violent tendencies rising to overwhelm him. As such, Joe is less purely entertaining than Mud, especially during its bloody third act, but it is also more clear-eyed and unforgiving in its vision of the world's cruelties, like some interesting fusion of Unforgiven and Taxi Driver. That said, it isn't completely as unrelenting as that comparison might suggest. Director David Gordon Green also made Pineapple Express and Prince Avalanche (he also executive-produced HBO's wonderful Eastbound & Down), and he lets his oft-loopy sensibilities shine through here, from time to time. The scenes of Joe and Gary hanging out have a dreamy, playful vibe, and even the fearsome Wade gets a left-field quirk or two – he turns out to be a committed (and not half-bad) breakdancer, believe it or not. Oddly enough, Cage's work doesn't contribute to Joe's quirks, but that's not a problem at all: for the first time in a long time, Cage abandons his meme-worthy tics and gives a full-throated dramatic performance. He's all coiled, contained power, and even when Joe lapses into pulpy miserablism, Cage keeps you riveted to the screen. This is one of his subtlest performances, and the best thing he's done since his Academy Award-nominated role in Adaptation.
Finally, the Criterion Collection is bringing an HD upgrade of Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock to Blu-ray. This 1975 classic ranks as one of the finest examples of Australian cinema: it's an eerie recounting of the 1900 St. Valentine's Day incident where four women from a Australian boarding school vanished during an afternoon outing. Rather than pace his film like a fact-based docudrama, Weir chooses to present this incident as a lucid dream. Characters move with deliberate languor even before the disappearance occurs, as if they know that they're wading through a fantasy – Weir's regular collaborator, DP Russell Boyd, aids to this sense of dislocation with his hazy, sun-kissed photography – a fantasy that has no resolution. There are no answers, merely speculations (an affair between the girls, an attack from some local boys, a slip into another dimension) that don't really explain what's happening. As Weir himself noted, the most important thing is for the viewer to "los[e] awareness of facts, [to] sto[p] adding things up, and g[e]t into this enclosed atmosphere. I did everything in my power to hypnotize the audience away from the possibility of solutions." The film is all the more incredible as an indication of how talented Weir is; only his second full-length feature film, Picnic at Hanging Rock established Weir as a master filmmaker, and one who would thrive on – not shy away from – profoundly ambiguous situations. That's the lone piece of connective tissue binding all the works from this most eclectic of directors. In pictures as different from one another as The Mosquito Coast, Fearless, The Truman Show, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and his underrated The Way Back, Weir allows for uncertainty, for mystery, for sudden wonder, even if these beats exist at right angles from the main narrative. The only difference with Picnic at Hanging Rock is that, in this case, the narrative is the mystery. Weir never tips his hand as to why the girls disappeared, and that unanswerable question gives the film its air of quiet horror and philosophical unrest. A deeply unnerving, remarkably subtle masterpiece.
In his Blu-ray review, Svet Atanasov wrote that "This strange atmosphere of uncertainty together with the mesmerizing visuals from the Australian Outback, however, is what makes Picnic at Hanging Rock so fascinating to behold. Indeed, the entire film feels like a giant dream - a beautiful, sad, and impossible to fully comprehend dream. The acting in Picnic at Hanging Rock is outstanding, but oddly enough none of the actors stand out - or so it seems. To be perfectly clear, Picnic at Hanging Rock is shot like a mosaic whose individual pieces must be properly aligned before one can fully appreciate the brilliant performances, and yet one is never given a chance to do so because the end credits roll before everything in the film begins to make perfect sense. The use of light and color is very effective, reflecting emotions and feelings that words could not possibly describe. The sequence where the girls disappear, for instance, is both subdued and remarkably intense - like a pure dream which Weir somehow captured with his camera. The film's fantastic soundtrack is legendary. The main theme is performed by the great Romanian pan-flute master Gheorghe Zamfir."
That has to do with a recent dispute between Amazon and Warner; to make a long story short, Amazon wants to renegotiate its financial arrangements for pricing Warner titles, Warner has balked, and now Amazon is refusing to offer preorders of certain Warner titles, "The LEGO Movie" included. The pictures in this article link to database entries with Amazon pages: hence the lack of picture.
Arriving from my preorders (and one day early) is The Grand Budapest Hotel, my new favorite Wes Anderson film and easily one of the best I've seen so far this year.
Sooner rather than later I will add to my collection...
—Joe, another terrific, though understated, film from David Gordon Green, the director of George Washington.
—Visitors, a wordless somewhat abstract documentary with a trance-like soundtrack directed by Godfrey Reggio; and
—Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir's famous film (which I still haven't seen)
I also plan to add to my stash Hearts and Minds and Judex (lots from Criterion this week) and maybe even rent The Lego Movie and Ernest & Celestine.