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A grand 'Budapest Hotel,' an American hero returns and a festival for young filmmakers

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All the hallmarks of a Wes Anderson film are present in his latest comic concoction “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” opening today at Liberty Hall: Ornate production design, symmetrical framing, cheeky self-awareness, miniature models, obscure references, and at least 10 former cast members of his ever-expanding American Empirical repertory company.

In fact, the farcical “Grand Budapest Hotel,” which, like "Duck Soup," takes place in a fictional Eastern European country and lampoons the onset of war, and is the closest thing to the fast-paced, anarchic comedy of the Marx Brothers I’ve seen in a while.

The screenplay, written by Anderson and Hugo Guinness, is inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer who embraced Old World European culture and decried the rise of fascism, committing suicide with his wife in 1942. Anderson’s movie is a nostalgic look back to that era through his own larger-than-life, hyper-stylized lens.

Starting with a melancholy tone and a forgotten statue of a man in the present day, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” flashes back three times to get to 1932. Ralph Fiennes is Monsieur Gustave, the legendary concierge of the titular hotel, where the wealthiest families in Europe vacation, and where Gustave attends to their every need. Not long after his new lobby boy (Tony Revolori) arrives and is put through the ringer, the pair are forced to go on the run, engulfed in a full-on murder mystery.

Certainly the most plot-driven of Anderson’s films, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is fast-paced and light on its feet, as it zips from one fantastical European location to the next, always aware of the threat of an encroaching fascist military that sports “ZZ” emblems.

The fantasy world extends to other elements as well, as everyone from Anderson regulars Jeff Goldblum to Bill Murray speak in their normal American accent rather than adopting a European one, and a secret underground network of hotel concierges not only exists, but holds massive sway and power.

Gustave regularly puts a shimmer of hope on things, literally and figuratively. He insists on wearing the fancy perfume L’Air de Panache even in the most dire of circumstances, and he spouts the rotten truth underneath the veneer of sophisticated life even as he upholds the lie.

Like Anderson, Gustave revels in artifice. But with “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the writer/director delivers not only the expected amount of craftiness but also infuses the movie with an unexpected resonance.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

For a film that’s tasked with fitting into an overall Marvel strategy of long-term storytelling across several movies, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” feels enough like its own entity, and succeeds greatly on the level of being a pure action film, not to mention a looming shadow of political relevance.

There’s plenty of references to 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” but the new movie does a fantastic job of setting the stage quickly: 1940s super soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a man out of time, and the world isn’t as black and white as it seemed during World War II.

Cue Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, a powerful figure who has convinced his old comrade and current director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury that world peace can be achieved through three floating warcraft carriers that monitor our every move. Uploaded with a massive amount of digital records culled from smartphones and everywhere else, these warships can strike down enemies of the state faster than you can say "drone warfare."

Real matters are at hand (in a comic-book/super villain fashion of course), but in the prevailing Marvel tradition, the film doesn't get bogged down with too much seriousness. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo do an excellent job of bringing superhero characters like Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Anthony Mackie's Falcon down to Earth and making them relatable, while blending in the more fantastical elements of the story. It's also a natural juxtaposition to have the patriotic Cap awaken to the complicated "moral authority" of the 21st century.

Much has been said in the press about the Cold War/espionage thrillers that "The Winter Soldier" was modeled after, and certainly the plot revolves around a sweeping conspiracy. But let's be clear about one thing: This is not a frosty psychological suspense film. It's an upbeat, all-out action film with some of the most impressive fight choreography and pulse-raising mainstream action around.

The Winter Soldier of the title may be the least fleshed-out part of the story, but it's a small grievance for a movie that's packed with this much guilty fun.

Lawrence High School Focus Film Festival

The time for fledgling young local talent to express themselves through filmmaking is here again. The Ninth Annual Lawrence High School Focus Film Festival is being held and winners from across northeast Kansas will accept awards and have their student shorts screened at Liberty Hall at 1 p.m. Sunday, April 13, at Liberty Hall.

"The range of subject matter is pretty phenomenal, reinforcing the idea that teens today live complex lives and are struggling with questions of identity and meaning," says LHS film teacher Jeff Kuhr. "The fact that they are able to have the opportunity to express themselves through film in a high school setting — sharing their stories of love and loss, pain and joy and using film as a sense-making mechanism, and are doing so quite successfully — is fantastic. The arts are important — and in high school, maybe most of all."

Admission is free, though donations are gladly accepted although, and there will be a free raffle with prizes donated by local businesses. For the fourth year in a row, the winning dramatic film will be selected by "Winter’s Bone" director Debra Granik.

The Lawrence High School Focus Film Festival was organized by Maya Brinton, Hunter Ramer, Zachary Spears and Miller Wolf, all seniors and students in Kuhr’s advanced video production course.

“Filmmaking gives me the ability to convey stories in a way no other medium can do," Spears says. "It’s exciting and therapeutic, but at the end of the day, there is nothing more exciting than watching other people react to your work. It’s incredible.”

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