Beware of Maya: Illusion, Cary Grant, Wes Anderson and Owen in Paris

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Towards the end of Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the elderly Moustafa (played by F. Murray Abrahams) says this about his mentor, the concierge M. Gustav H.:

“His world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”

And this reminded me of Cary Grant.

I saw three movies this week. And oddly–and not purposefully– they dovetailed into a similar theme.  I was sick as a dog in the beginning of the week and so, lazing around, I  watched two films on television.

The first was To Catch a Thief.  How gloriously campy it now seems.  Cary Grant’s ascots alone are only outdone by the sweet innuendos that he and Grace Kelly ad-libbed with Hitchcock’s permission.

Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief

Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief

It is all pure fantasy. Pure illusion.

One time, when Cary Grant was told by an interviewer that countless men would love to be “like Cary Grant,” he replied that so would he.  For he knew it was all illusion: the sophisticated banter, the artless seductions, the calm equanimity.  It was his job, being Cary Grant.  In the end, Grant ultimately left the movie business when the illusion gave way to reality. His type of character–as unreal as it was–was no longer in fashion in the gritty, realism of modern cinema.

A few days later I watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The entire movie is built on illusion, one that we all suffer from. The plot deals with the idea that we all believe that an earlier time was more exciting, more inspiring, more fulfilling.  The fallacy of the belief is wonderfully depicted, as Owen Wilson’s character–Gil Pender–returns to the 1920s and falls in love with a beautiful woman whose dream is to live in the 1890s. Even in the presence of his literary and artistic idols, Wilson’s character comes to realize that the past is painted with gold dust and that our image of that past is greatly unreal.


Owen Wilson with Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein.

And in the end, it is all illusion. Many of us believe that another time was better than the one we live in. And some believe that, if only, they had been born at a different time their lives would be so much different–and better. (At this point read, E. A. Robinson’s poem “Miniver Cheevy” which is referenced in the film as well.)

And so, I finally go out and go to the movies and I see Wes Anderson’s The Budapest Grand Hotel.  It is a beautiful movie to look at and the performances of Ralph Fiennes and his young protege, Tony Revolori, are extraordinary.  But it too is all illusion. The world it describes is long gone, if it ever existed at all. And the heroism of the film–if it can be called such–is that Fiennes’ character maintains the illusion that that world still exists, still matters. And we are even more removed from it than he.

And after all that is what movie making is about.  Sixty years ago, Cary Grant left movie making because he believed the magic had left, that hard-nosed grittiness had blown the magic away.

But that is not the case.  Most of the time, we still go to the movies for the magic. Whether it is the unreal pleasures of the moneyed classes in Monte Carlo or the time-tripping adventures of a sincere romantic in Paris, the movies still provide a good dollop of magic. And in The Grand Budapest Hotel all that magic comes full circle. For not only is the set and the landscape and the costumes and the cartoonish villainy not part of our real world, but even the characters themselves are clinging to an illusion, to a world that has longed passed, but which in our “Golden Age” memories is a thing of refinement, class and excitement…more civilized world than the one we know.


Movie Review: Frances Ha (dir. by Noah Baumbach) —-running in place and getting nowhere

Frances running through the streets of Brooklyn

Frances running through the streets of Brooklyn

Frances runs a lot during the course of Frances Ha.  She leaves a restaurant and runs to the ATM, she runs to work, she runs to her parents in Sacramento, she runs back to New York, she runs to Paris, she runs from New York, she runs back to her old college, and she returns again to New York.  And until the end, she doesn’t get anywhere. She’s just running in place. She is hapless and feckless and lonely and dangerously stuck in the past.  And she is endearingly quirky.

Frances is played by Greta Gerwig who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach. (There is a follow-up collaboration already in post-production, tentatively titled Untitled Public School Project). She–like countless others–have come to New York, because it’s the world’s biggest stage and she is a dancer. However, we are to infer, not a very good one.

So we follow her trajectory as she breaks up with her boyfriend, as her roommate leaves to move in with her mate, as she “crashes” in various friends’ apartments, and as she is “fired” from her job.  What is a poor girl to do?  Certainly, she makes some bad decisions–an impulsive trip to Paris on her credit card and a friendship shattering tantrum at a restaurant–but ultimately we know she is decent and hard-working, and we hope that things will pan out for her.

I had seen the trailer for Frances Ha a few months back, but hadn’t put it on my “must see” list. Then I saw an article in one of the free newspapers that ran with this headline:

“Woody Allen Call Your Lawyers…Someone has Stolen your Style.”

Greta Gerwig as Frances in Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig as Frances in Frances Ha

So of course that sent me to the theaters.  (I didn’t even read the article, just the headline.) The “stolen style” is the cinematography. It is filmed in black-and-white, and there are scenes that very much have a “Woody Allen” feel: New York street scenes, a shot going down into the subway, a scene around a table in an up-scale apartment, a family Christmas dinner.  These all very much LOOK like a Woody Allen film.

However, the similarity stops with the dialog.  What, I assume, is meant to be witty and quirky and insightful is not.  It simply does not come off.

Instead, we follow Frances (and her friend Sophie, played by Mickie Sumner) as she stumbles forward, sometimes awkwardly and sometimes ineptly.  And we want to root for her except that we often lose interest in her.  No doubt that her travails are all true to life, but more often than not it is simply that–true to life.  And life is often not all that interesting to watch.

I realize that Gerwig and Baumbach both have solid credentials in films about life’s wry moments. Baumbach has successfully co-written with Wes Anderson and has written and directed such films as Margot and the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale; while Gerwig has been working–non-stop it seems–with directors as varied as Daryl Wein and, yes, Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), while increasingly taking part in the screenwriting, as well.  But Frances Ha left me wanting something more.

I want to like Gerwig and Baumbach’s work. I want to very much. I am excited about what they are trying. But so far, I am lukewarm with the results. I feel as if I know what they are trying to say, to do, but it is not coming across.

I feel as if they are running in place.

Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom

There are some real heavy weights here:  Bill Murray (can there be a Wes Anderson movie without him?), Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Bob Balabay, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel.  And yet Wes Anderson’s delightful, quirky, warm-hearted movie is completely stolen by the two young stars who play 12-year-old runaways.

Jared Gilman plays Sam, an iconoclastic, orphaned Khaki Scout who is not liked by any of the other scouts. Kara Hayward plays Suzie, the disturbed and angry daughter of Bill Murray and Frances McDormand.  For over a year, after Sam saw Suzie playing a raven in a local production of Benjamen Britten’s children’s opera Noye’s Fludde, the two have been planning to escape their unhappy lives.

When Sam escapes his Scout camp, the authorities are alerted.  When Suzie is discovered missing, everything goes into overdrive.

As the two twelve-year-olds make their way through rugged country–Sam is an extraordinary Scout–we get to witness one of the most beautiful, innocent, and real love stories.  Maybe the most intense love is that one that is first felt when you are twelve years old?  It certainly is for them.

Yet the real world, in the guise of hurricanes, adulterous unhappy parents, foster parents, social services, man-scouts, and a lonely policeman, comes crashing in on them.

This is a comedy, so everything ends well. But the journey towards that ending is filled with all the anguish and hope of being in love at 12 years old; it is defined by  that feeling of being too small against the world while believing that one’s unique love will protect you from everything.  In many ways, it is perfect. (One reviewer said that it was made by the 12-year old Wes Anderson, so perfect is the point of view.)

The two young stars are extraordinary. They are playing children who are precious, treading in the murk of real life, battered by injustices and misunderstandings that are too big for them to withstand, and roiled by all the passions of first love.  And they play it perfectly.

And aside from the two kids, and the A-list group of adults, the set designers, graphic artists, and cinematographers are also front and center in the film.

From the quirky credits and the Bishop’s  loopy house to the book covers on the adventure stories that Suzie reads and the watercolors that Sam paints, everything pops with an fresh palate of color and tone and liveliness.  You are aware of the filming–not in an obtrusive way but in a way that stuns and delights you. This is not cinema verite; it is very aware of its artfulness and it succeeds at it.

The natural setting is gorgeous–our two runaways have found Eden–and the sets are filled with color and eccentricity.  While the island New Penzance is based on Fishers’s Island, NY, I am not sure where it was actually filmed. But it is romantic–in the original sense of the word–and sublime.

I have enjoyed all of Wes Anderson’s films, but am often left with a sense of emptiness, with a sense that surfaces were barely scratched and characters hardly born. Moonrise Kingdom is different.  While not a character study, by any definition, it is a beautiful study of original love, love that is pure and scary and wonderful and all of that.