Point/counterpoint – Ann Arbor’s Rebecca Biber offers guest critique of The Grand Budapest Hotel

Roy Sexton and Rebecca Biber

Roy Sexton and Rebecca Biber – Photo by Dawn Marie Kaczmar

So, I did not like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. I mean I didn’t like it a lot. However, never let it be said that we here at Reel Roy Reviews aren’t equal opportunity reviewers.

My dear friend, the talented pianist, musical director, and instructor Rebecca Biber shared the following (beautifully composed) counterpoint today on Facebook, and I asked if I could pay it forward here. She graciously obliged. Her take actually makes me want to revisit this film … almost. 🙂

Bookbound April 26 Event

Bookbound April 26 Event

And, if you’d like a chance to meet the supremely talented Ms. Biber in person, Megan and Peter Blackshear of Bookbound, in Ann Arbor (1729 Plymouth Road), have generously agreed to host a Reel Roy Reviews book-signing/Q&A on Saturday, April 26 at 3 pm.

Rebecca will accompany me as I sing a few of my favorite movie themes and show tunes. She actually selected the numbers from our nearly decade-long musical partnership, so, if you like ditties from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, you are in luck!

(And be sure to check out this thoughtful response by my gifted mom – author Susie Duncan Sexton – to my review of Disneynature’s Bears.)

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Here’s Rebecca’s delightful take on The Grand Budapest Hotel – enjoy!

[Image Source: ComingSoon.net]

[Image Source: ComingSoon.net]

In a made-up land resembling Germany or Austria (with Alps) on the eve of WWII, a charming, perfect hotelier played by Ralph Fiennes struggles to maintain his composure, help his friends, and avoid bad guys. His tale is narrated by his protege, Zero the Lobby Boy, now grown up into F. Murray Abraham. But this is merely the nugget at the heart of the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Abraham is speaking with a writer played by Jude Law, whom we have earlier seen in his aged incarnation, telling the viewer that if you are a writer, there is no need to make up stories: they will come to you. Earlier than that, we have seen a young woman placing a tribute of hotel keys at the base of a statue honoring her favorite writer, and holding a book that contains, we think, the story Jude Law has retold from F. Murray.


This movie is a typical Wes Anderson confection in some ways, with fanciful lettering, folk-tale inspired landscapes, and gorgeous color schemes throughout, not to mention the usual rapid-fire dialogue and the panoply of famous faces. While it can be entertaining to play Name That Actor, it is distracting as well – just as we are settling into the story for its own sake, what’s-his-name pops up and we’re back at the level of being mere viewers. Characters are pretty much as they first appear, with clear goodies and baddies. Edward Norton gets to play a Nazi (again, previously having played the neo-version in American History X) and Adrien Brody gets to…weirdly…also play a Nazi. Tilda Swinton is unrecognizable, Bob Balaban pops up like a fairy tale imp, and Harvey Keitel has jailhouse tattoos resembling middle school doodles. Young actress Saoirse Ronan is perfect as the young Zero’s girlfriend and pastry chef. But the standout, and one to watch, is Tony Revolori, who plays the Lobby Boy not merely as a supporting character with some great lines (which he does have) but as a complicated, unexpectedly fearless and wise young man. He has an unblinking gaze straight at the camera that compels both laughter and serious attention.


Unlike Moonrise Kingdom, which had all of the Wes Anderson cute and very little of the sad, Budapest has some moments of real darkness. And they always come unexpectedly. This movie is probably not safe for devoted animal lovers or the very squeamish. There are several bloody fights and, for those with Holocaust survivors in the family, the train scenes were a bit too close to real history despite Anderson’s attempts to fictionalize the material.
With all that goes on in the film, I haven’t even mentioned the stolen art, murder mystery and contested will (with legal executor played by an uncomfortable looking Jeff Goldblum). There is much to enjoy, and I came away glad I had watched this quirky adventure/love story with true friendship at its core. It is a visual feast with some nice musical touches (nothing overblown) and, if the story doesn’t make perfect sense outside of its own world, well, it does such an excellent job of conjuring that world that I was delighted to spend a couple of hours among its inhabitants.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound, Common Language, and Memory Lane also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

“The U.S. Army might not care about art, but they sure as sh*t care about gold!” The Monuments Men

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I am the sort of person that, if I see a forlorn Lego mini-figure abandoned in a snowy mud puddle as I’m leaving the movie theatre, will “rescue” it, put it in my pocket, wash it off when I get home, and set it on a shelf in our over-crowded basement alongside sundry other “misfit toys.”

(Yeah, that happened tonight.)

So, George Clooney’s latest directorial effort The Monuments Men, in which a ragtag team of sentimentally minded art lovers bands together to snatch classic sculptures, paintings, and other works from the fiendish grip of the Nazis in World War II, spoke to this “leave no stuff behind” part of my soul. (I likely need an intervention.)

A less rambunctious hybrid of Raiders of the Lost Art, Inglourious Basterds, National Treasure, and Clooney’s own Ocean’s 11 trilogy, The Monuments Men is b-movie silliness disguised as a “based on true events” prestige picture. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The plot, which is a bit wispy, concerns Clooney’s character convening a number of his aging buddies (museum curators, architects, and scholars who include Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Matt Damon, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin, and John Goodman) for one last great adventure, taking on Nazi forces in the latter days of the war and returning lost works to their original owners (both private collectors and museums).

Y’see, the film posits that Hitler, a failed painter turned insane dictator, is hoarding as much of Europe’s great art as he can get his grubby mitts on, aiming to populate a proposed “Fuhrer Museum” with his haul. I don’t know how accurate that is – it very well may be – but it conveniently offers the film its “stop Darth Vader’s Death Star at all costs” whiz bang roller coaster motivation.

The film does stop periodically in its “gang of great joes making the world safe for democracy/creativity” whimsy to ground us in the stark realities of the era (albeit rather superficially). A few characters do not emerge unscathed; we see varied references to the darkest atrocities of the Nazi regime; and Clooney, at the film’s conclusion, has a marvelous speech delivered to a captured SS officer sharply illustrating both the broad scope and ugly futility of Hitler’s hate-filled tyranny.

Largely, however, the film is a frolic and a throwback to a simpler cinematic era. In fact, some of the movie’s most salient observations emerge from comic throwaway lines. At one point, when “The Monuments Men” (they actually were called that) unearth a ton of gold bricks (the entire Nazi treasury) alongside some stolen art, the joint chiefs swoop in and take credit for the find. Goodman intones, “The U.S. Army might not care about art, but they sure as sh*t care about gold.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I have to say that I adore latter-day Bill Murray (I wasn’t as much a fan of his younger days, post-Saturday Night Live.) He has transitioned from shaggy, petulant misanthrope to a warm, world-weary presence. Maybe I am just as exhausted by this planet now as he has always been, but I find his gentle emotional dyspepsia completely identifiable. He even accomplished the impossible for me and made his film sidekick Bob Balaban tolerable … and even kinda cute.

Cate Blanchett, so good in the recent Blue Jasmine, has another great, if more understated turn here, as a frustrated art curator who may or may not be a Nazi sympathizer. She has to pull off a tricky part that is one part 40s spitfire moll, one part “Marian the Librarian,” and two parts tortured aesthete. She does a fine job, quietly grating and heartbreaking at the same time.

Continuing my track record of crying at the darndest movies, I found myself weepy (and snotty) a couple of times. (I won’t tell you where, though one may involve Jean Dujardin and a horse and one may include Clooney’s aforementioned speech.) Yup, add The Monuments Men alongside Star Trek Into Darkness, Captain Phillips, and even The Lego Movie as films that made me (and likely no other humans on the planet) cry.