Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Bethlehem, Particle Fever, The Face of Love, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

Particle Fever
The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Face of Love
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

Capsules on the week's new releases:

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is Wes Anderson's attempt to fill two hours as completely as possible with the sound of his own voice. You might find a chuckle somewhere in this story of the flamboyant concierge of the titular property (Ralph Fiennes) who moonlights as an escort to the elderly grandes dames of prewar Central Europe (à la "Along Came Bialy"), but I didn't laugh once. Anderson has outdone himself in terms of production design - both miniatures and full-size replicas - and I'd love to visit his sets (or a museum exhibit devoted to them). But what's lacking, as always, is the human element - in any way that holds its gaze for more than two seconds without winking. Alex Trebek famously said of Cliff Clavin that he was "obviously very eager to show how bright he is." No line could better sum up Wes Anderson.

Hot on the heels of the Palestinian Oscar nominee "Omar" comes "Bethlehem," another story of an Israeli intelligence officer working with (and growing overly attached to) a young Palestinian informant with split loyalties. This one has been directed by the Israeli Yuval Adler, though it too incorporates multiple points of view. The endings do in both films, leaving us with only the lesson that an agent who puts himself in this position is not going to meet a happy fate. What happens to Razi (Tsahi Halevi) at the hands of Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i) in this picture is so brutal - and the ending so abrupt - it's impossible to contextualize. All I could do was shrug, stand up, and go. Nothing in either film would dissuade one who believes the best solution to the stalemate in the Middle East involves massive amounts of explosives.

A well-timed companion piece to the new "Cosmos," Mark A. Levinson's documentary "Particle Fever" manages to make physics engrossing and even exciting, which certainly qualifies as yeoman's work. Levinson introduces us to the four groups of experimental and theoretical physicists - men and women of over 100 nationalities - working on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. We spend the most time with American postdoc Monica Dunford, who besides explaining many of the key concepts (the so-called "god particle" known as the Higgs boson, super-symmetry vs. the multiverse) conveys an unabashed love for hands-on science that's infectious and highly ingratiating. Levinson employs helpful graphics and builds real tension as these insanely smart people engage their five-story-tall machine (and a 17-mile-long wall) to try to answer some of the most basic questions of human existence.

I stand by my prediction that no movie this year will have a dumber plot than "The Truth About Emanuel," but boy, does "The Face of Love" ever give it a run for its money. Annette Bening stars as Nikki, an L.A. stager of homes for sale whose husband Garrett (Ed Harris) drowned five years ago. While visiting her beloved LACMA, she sees a man who looks exactly like Garrett - probably because he too is played by Harris! She stalks the man, Tom, an art professor at Oxy, and asks if he gives "private lessons." Boy, does he ever. Next thing you know, he's spending his nights at her (obviously perfectly appointed) home and she's hiding him from her daughter and best friend (Robin Williams), who might understandably FREAK THE FUCK OUT if they saw him. This is yet another "Three's Company" plot, in which there would be no movie if she told him he's a double for her late hubby or he told her about his bad ticker. Bening and Harris are talented actors, but don't stand a chance against this script. Moods, behaviors, fundamental personality traits all turn on a dime. You won't know whether to hoot, hiss, or howl.

The inimitable and incorrigible Elaine Stritch offers up a great many quotable lines in Chiemi Karasawa's documentary "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," which is terrific fun for theater and movie buffs alike. Stritch describes herself as a "recovered alcoholic" who now chooses to allow herself one drink a day - "Does anybody mind?" She lets us see the less-than-glamorous reality of life as a trouper in her late 80's - the endless self-testing of diabetes, the orange juice and prunes, the panicky trips to emergency rooms, the Sondheim lyrics forgotten off-stage and on - but embodies a pitiless sort of professionalism and resilience. I wish Karasawa had spent more time on her collaborations with Woody Allen - including her delicious turn in "September," one of my top three films of 1987 - but I'm glad she brought the film in at 82 minutes. Any longer and its considerable charm would wear thin.

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