Grand Budapest Hotel a Romp, Not a Masterpiece

Directed by Wes Anderson
Fox Searchlight, 100 minutes, R (because of totally innocent nudity, F-bombs, and paranoia!)
* * * *

Wes Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, isn’t as funny as it’s billed, but it’s a delicious romp and perhaps Anderson’s best realized film to date. Even when its humor falls flat, it’s wildly inventive and off-kilter.

Set in the mythical Alpine nation of Zubrowka, Grand Budapest Hotel is essentially a caper film centering on the swishy Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of an elegant hotel retreat/spa for fading European aristocracy and shady characters posing as genteel. The year is 1932, and M. Gustave is breaking in a new lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), an orphaned Indian lad in whom Gustave takes a shine. Are his intentions paternal, philanthropic, or sexual? It’s one of the film’s purposefully ambiguous questions; all we know for sure is that, though Gustave set offs gaydar a mile away, he definitely beds aging dowagers such as Madame D (Tilda Swinton). When she dies several days later and leaves an insipid but precious painting to M. Gustave, heirs led by thug son Dimitri (Adrien Brody channeling John Turtrurro) seeks to dispossess him.  On a whim, Gustave and Zero steal the painting. Thus begins a madcap set of misadventures in which baddies, including the psychotic Jopling (Willem Dafoe), try to frame Gustave for Madame D’s murder and briefly jail him before he, with Zero’s help, breaks out of prison. The subsequent chase takes Gustave and Zero across the Alps by ski, snow machine, auto, train, and other forms of conveyance. Gustave calls upon a secret network of other concierges to stay one step ahead, whilst Zero longs merely to survive and marry Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a pastry chef’s daughter whose face is inexplicably marked by a stain in the shape of Mexico. Military police—led by Chief Hackels (Edward Norton)–also give chase against a backdrop in which war looms on the horizon. (The film is supposedly set in the Alps, but its politics seem a pastiche of the pre-World War One Balkans.)

From this you might deduce that the narrative is slight, and so it is. The film is really a series of offbeat sketches held together loosely by a (sometimes imposed) narrative. There are tasty cameos throughout (Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartman, Léa Seydoux) and the adjective ‘wacky’ probably best describes the movie’s tone. There is no attempt whatsoever at realism; many of the situations and hair-raising escapes are absurd, and the hotel and mountains are often represented as hand-tinted color cutouts. Anderson washes his film in those same washed out Instagram-like cartoonish colors—thereby adding to the notion that we are: (a) witnessing the fading of a way of life, and (b) you shouldn’t try to attach too much meaning to any of this. The film is also bookended by a prologue and epilogue held in the now seedy Grand Budapest Hotel, where a nerdy and reclusive young writer (Jude Law) seeks to prise the hotel’s story from its aging proprietor, none other than Zero–played by F. Murray Abraham, who looks about as Indian as a cannoli. Was the decision to cast Murray Anderson having us on one last time, or just sloppy filmmaking? You decide, but it is one of my reservations about the film.

The tone of Grand Budapest Hotel is evocative of Jean-Pierre Jeunet projects (Delicatessen, Amélie, City of Lost Children) but Anderson lacks Jeunet’s narrative talent and his understanding of irony. (Anderson often thinks that detached sarcasm is the same thing as irony.) I always enjoy Wes Anderson films; I’m yet to declare one a masterpiece. In some ways his is classic slacker filmmaking—offbeat and wild ideas that he thinks speak for themselves, even when they don’t. This film, like his others, is a mix of creative and conventional. The prison scenes, for example, are deliciously droll, but the chase sequences evoke the cheap jokes we saw decades ago in Pink Panther films. Nor does the omniscient narrator gambit rise to the level of innovative filmmaking. It’s convenient and nothing else.  

The Grand Budapest Hotel is, though, visually entertaining and choked full of clever background jokes you need to stay on your toes to see. (Pay attention to the newspapers that appear on screen!) Fiennes is a hoot as Monsieur Gustave and Edward Norton chews whatever scenery Fiennes leaves undigested. Ronan wafts through the movie as an odd butterfly–often wordlessly strange, but always beguiling. Overall it’s a very pleasant way to spend 100 minutes–just don’t expect a masterpiece; Wes Anderson still has some growing up to do.
Rob Weir

Postscript: Need more proof that the ratings system is a farce? This got an R for brief frontal nudity that’s no more naughty than an unruly school child, and I’ll bet that same kid drops more F-bombs as well. Titanic got a PG-13. Is that because Kate Winslet’s breasts are British and don’t count?


The Ghost of the Mary Celeste Continues to Haunt

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste (2104)
Valerie Martin
Doubleday 978-0385533508, 306 pages
* * *

With the exception of the Flying Dutchman, the Mary Celeste is probably the most famous “ghost ship” of all time. Launched in 1861, the brigantine already had a long record of misfortune when Captain Benjamin Briggs, his wife Sarah (“Sallie”), their two-year-old daughter Sophia, and an experienced crew of seven loaded a cargo of 1700 barrels of commercial alcohol in New York City and sailed for the Gibraltar Strait. On December 5, 1872, the abandoned ship was discovered adrift near the Azores. The cargo was nearly intact, the ship was fully provisioned, and aside from some water damage, the Mary Celeste was completely seaworthy. There was no sign of foul play, but one boat was missing, so what happened to her crew? Theories abound from the fanciful (sea monsters, giant water spouts, piracy, mass hysteria, an Atlantic earthquake) to the prosaic (alcohol fumes that forced abandonment). Every few years someone purports to have “solved” the mystery, but there’s enough margin for error that the legend lives on. References to the Mary Celeste show up everywhere–in Star Trek episodes, in sci-fi novels, in a Stephen King story, on film, and in various books, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s historically inaccurate J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement, which was serialized in Cornhill Magazine in 1884.   

Pardon the longwinded introduction, but many of these elements make their way into the Valerie Martin’s fictional treatment of the Mary Celeste. Hers is a mishmash of history, faux memoir, speculation, and invention. She mostly deals with real historical characters, though she manufactures dialogue, circumstances, and motives. The first third of the novel, though necessary, is confusing so hang on to the ship's rails. Martin introduces us to the blended Gibbs/Briggs family–one in which sisters and spouses are often also first cousins. The Briggs part of the clan suffered numerous losses at sea long before young Benjamin took command of the Mary Celeste. In fact, the book opens with an 1859 wreck off the North Carolina coast that drowns Benjamin’s aunt and her sea captain husband, a foreshadowing of Benjamin’s fate and a life-changing experience for Sallie’s 13-year-old younger sister, Hannah, who cares for the sickly one-year-old nephew left at home.

Spring forward 13 years. Hannah has disappeared, but Sallie is now Benjamin’s wife of three years and they (plus two-year-old Sophia) have sailed the world together. Martin cleverly connects their final voyage aboard the Mary Celeste and Victorian culture. The Mary Celeste cannot simply be an unsolved mystery within a culture as obsessed by the need to have a “good death” as that of American Victorians. The Civil War was both blood soaked and faith shaking in the sense that the bodies of many young men that died far from home were never identified or recovered. Spiritualism thrived after the war. How else would one know if Johnny died a good death if he didn’t come marching home? Swedenborgianism, Mesmerism, and séance leaders such as Cora Scott and the Fox sisters thrived during the late 19th century, especially among the middle classes that often became patrons for favored mediums. Martin asks us to consider an intriguing question. We know that most of those purporting to commune with the dead were as crooked as a snake on hot macadam, but does this mean all were fakes? Can we allow for the possibility that some people are more spiritually attuned than others, even if such individuals can’t articulate fully what or how they apprehend? Your answer to that question will determine what you think of frail spiritualist Violet Petra and of Phoebe Grant, the reporter who seeks to unmask her and ends up befriending her.

Among those believing in Spiritualism and (maybe) in Ms. Petra is Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle–who really was a Spiritualist–populates the novel first through contact with those who took umbrage with his mistelling of the Mary Celeste story, and again as an examiner of Violet Petra. In Martin’s book, Doyle is a bourgeois boor far removed from Sherlock Holmes’ intuitive skills or Doctor Watson’s charm. But can he, Petra, Grant, or anyone else unravel the Mary Celeste mystery?

Martin’s novel is ambitious–often overly so–and one certainly takes a risk when assigning fictional events and thoughts to well-known historical people. When this novel works best, Martin conjures images plucked from Tennyson, Melville, Stephenson, and Conrad; when she misfires, the novel drags under the weight of contrivance and turgid prose. Mostly it works because the central mystery continues to intrigue more than 140 years after the fact. Does Martin solve that mystery? It would be wrong of me to say.

Rob Weir  


Nistha Raj Debut is Sensational

Exit 1
* * * *

If you mixed the lonesome fiddle sounds of Mark O’Connor with the sweeping majesty of Alasdair Fraser, and the classical precision of Yehudi Menuhin, you’d still be a few elements short of Nistha Raj. Transpose some of Wu Man’s pipa and Anoushka Shankar’s sitar for violin, add Christylez Bacon’s human beatbox artistry, and filter it through Hindustani traditions and you still come up short. You’d also need to add some tabla, cello, guitar, bass, harmonium, and piano. All of this adds up to a stunning debut release from Ms. Raj, who spent much of her youth in Houston and is classically trained in both Western and Hindustani violin. This is an album of many moods, beginning with “Shivranjnai,” a reworked raga that sounds like Exit I might have been somewhere in Appalachia. Or is it on the road “From China to India,” her meeting-of-cultures masala that’s part Tibetan, part Chinese, and part Hindustani? Perhaps it’s the ingress to an innovative jazz club where an alto saxophone blares, as we hear in “Jayanthi,” or somewhere in Serbia (“Adje Jano”). And just when you think Raj is overcome by wanderlust, she bends her violin notes to emulate the sitar and muse upon traditional alaps and ragas (“Gravity” and “Alibi”). Hell’s bells––she even plays her instrument while sitting cross-legged on the floor. Expected only the unexpected! Rob Weir