Wes Anderson's eighth feature is a clockwork wedding cake, an eccentric caper movie sprinkled with pixie dust, a picture that sends you scrambling for clever metaphors and failing to find them. It's a movie of enormous charm, thanks to its many fine actors, and it has a serene formal beauty (cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, production designer Adam Stockhausen and composer Alexandre Desplat are all veteran Anderson collaborators). If it were a wedding cake, it might be found to consist mostly of icing. But the icing is very tasty.
The story is set in the fictitious Central European republic of Zubrowka, at the titular Grand Budapest Hotel, an Alpine spa resort of celebrated elegance. It begins in 1985, with an unnamed author (Tom Wilkinson) recollecting a pilgrimage he made to the place in 1968, when it was sunk in the shabby decline of the Communist era. At this point, the writer is played by Jude Law, and in the hotel's largely empty restaurant, we see him dining with the current proprietor, one Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Zero regales him with tales of the hotel's cosmopolitan heyday in the early 1930s, and in particular its legendary concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a lovable martinet by whom the very young Zero (diminutive Tony Revolori) was employed as a lowly lobby boy.
The story takes root in this period, situated precariously between the two world wars. Many odd things happen. Gustave has a romantic taste for the hotel's elderly lady patrons. On hearing news of the death of one such ancient crone—a countess called Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, buried alive in prosthetic droops and wattles)—Gustave feels compelled to pay his respects. "She was dynamite in the sack," he tells Zero, hauling the boy along with him to the train station.
Upon arrival at the countess' mansion, they learn that she died under mysterious circumstances. They also encounter her devious son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who is not at all happy to see the interloping concierge, and even less delighted to hear from his mother's attorney (Jeff Goldblum in a trim Freudian beard) that she had recently made out a new will. Panicked that he might not be the sole heir to the countess' estate, which includes a priceless Renaissance painting, Dmitri dispatches a prognathous thug named Jopling (Willem Dafoe, delightfully fearsome) to eliminate any possible complications.
Gustave is startled to find himself arrested for the countess' murder. He's thrown behind bars and there enlisted in a jailbreak being planned by a heavily tattooed con named Ludwig (Harvey Keitel, sounding as if he just stepped away from a Scorsese shoot). Meanwhile, Zero falls in love with a baker's apprentice named Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), who's renowned for her pastry skills. Gustave, on the run, appeals for help to an underground league of fellow concierges (Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are among its members). There's also a sympathetic army captain (Edward Norton), a terrified butler (Mathieu Amalric'), a group of mountaintop monks and a fluffy cat that comes to a flattening end.
The movie is an exercise in amiable whimsy. Anderson's familiar techniques are in full blossom: the deadpan framing, the obsessive shot geometry, the madly detailed furnishings and carefully graded color designs (cherry reds into pinks and purples and mauves). The story is as light as a cream éclair, but its fanciful incidents are shaded by real-world history. The director says his script was inspired by the works of the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, who was forced to flee the rising Nazis around the time in which the story takes place. And so along with all the movie's madcap helter-skelter, there are occasional intrusions of ominous soldiers who could easily pass for Nazis themselves. But these intimations of approaching horror are a little too weightless; and when in a postscript one of the characters is said to have later succumbed to "the Prussian Grippe," the strained euphemism seems unpleasantly arch.
Still, the many characters and their peculiar doings have a certain dizzy appeal, and Fiennes in particular lends the picture a lightly demented comic energy. (At one point he addresses the dead countess in her casket: "You look better than you have in years," he fondly observes.) Anderson may not have intended the story to engross us in any meaningful way; if he did, well, it doesn't. It's a pleasant journey to a stylized simulacrum of a quaint, vanished age. But when it's over, you might wonder where it is that you've actually been, and maybe even why you were taken there.
300: Rise of an Empire
Here, at last, is the long-time-coming follow-up to 300, Zack Snyder's 2006 sword-and-sandal slaughterfest. Severed limbs once again fly, skulls split wetly, and fat gobbets of slo-mo blood squirt through the air, this time in 3D. You expect this sort of maximum flesh-rending (along with maximum CGI), and if anything the movie over-delivers. But who would expect the epic gut-ripping to be executed at an even higher technical level this time around, or the vividly smoldering Eva Green—in and out of various black-leather outfits—to march in and virtually take over the picture?
The year is still 480 BC, as it was in the previous film, where we saw the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, only a flashback this time) and his hardy band of Greek warriors getting tromped at the Battle of Thermopylae by the vast army of Persia's King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Rise of an Empire isn't really a sequel to that story; it's more of a "meanwhile." Now the focus shifts to Athens, where the hunky naval commander Themistocles (persistently bare-chested Sullivan Stapleton) is attempting to rally the independent Greek city-states in united resistance to the Persian onslaught. He's not having a lot of luck, however, especially with steely Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey), Leonidas' newly minted widow.
This is obviously not a movie for history nit-pickers, but they can stick with Herodotus (himself something of an approximator). Rise—once again drawn from Frank Miller's comics—is an action blowout with a rich pulpy narrative, and it's set in a computer-generated world that demonstrates how far digital effects have advanced over the past eight years. The huge heaving seas on which so many of the naval battles take place set a new standard for maritime mayhem, and new director Noam Murro thrusts his cameras into the middle of all the uproar with unflagging energy and invention. (He brings off some knockout sequences. In one of them, we see battling sailors reeling about on lurching, blood-slicked decks, and then Themistocles leaping into the fray on a horse.) Munro also has a notable talent for poetic effects (he shifts underwater to show us debris and corpses drifting down eerily in the aftermath of an especially calamitous encounter). The movie is thick with gruesome visual wonders.
The script, by Snyder and his 300 collaborator Kurt Johnstad, provides an amusing backstory for two of its central characters. We meet Xerxes as the timid young son of the dying King Darius (Igal Naor). Xerxes has long been outshone as a fighter by his fierce adoptive sister Artemisia (Green), whom Darius rescued as a girl from years of Greek enslavement. Darius has told these two that only the gods will ever defeat the Greeks, so Artemisia undertakes to transform Xerxes into a god—which turns out to involve nothing more than a bit of one-stop shopping. She leads him off to a mysterious cave of weird hermits, where he steps into a magical pool and emerges as the Xerxes we've previously come to know and love—heavy with bangles and nose rings, resplendent in tweezed brows and eyeliner, and homoerotically hot in tight golden shorts. Thus dressed for success, he launches his invasion of Greece, with Artemisia leading his fleet.
Green is a marvelous warrior woman, soul-kissing severed heads and spitting out ripe lines like "Humiliate the Greeks and lay waste to their tiny ships!" But although Artemisia's forces far outnumber those of Themistocles, his wily strategies continually frustrate her objectives. Finally, she summons this cagy opponent to her ship for a time-out parlay in her quarters. This doesn't change much, battle-wise, but it does lead to what must be the wildest sex scene in any action movie ever.
For viewers who know in advance what they're getting into, and are happy to get into it, Rise of an Empire should be great, bloody fun. The movie does have a problem, though, and it's the same one that attended the original 300: after an hour or so of walloping carnage, I began to feel as if I were being hammered into submission On the other hand, feel free to take that as a recommendation.