Wes Anderson's whimsical offering is one of his best films yet, says PEOPLE's critic

By Alynda Wheat and PEOPLE Movie Critic
Updated March 07, 2014 03:35 PM
Fox Searchlight/AP

Rise of an Empire is a fine sequel to 300, but PEOPLE’s critic says you should check into The Grand Budapest Hotel instead. Here’s what to see and what to skip in theaters this weekend.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel
Whimsy gets such a crappy rap. Granted, too many directors use it poorly, spraying their sketchily plotted, inartfully written films with cinematic chintz. But Wes Anderson is of an entirely different vintage. He uses massive amounts of whimsy – more than just about anyone else – but the difference is that he knows just how.

Take The Grand Budapest Hotel, for instance. The hysterically funny, criminally charming adventure could not be cuter or flightier, but Anderson grounds the film with genuine emotion and a fantastically ingenious plot that easily ranks as one of his best.

The film is structured like a Matryoshka doll, with nested plots and multiple narrators, all leading deeper inward. At the center is M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the effete concierge of the Grand Budapest, an old-world repository of charm and hospitality. M. Gustave is no less courtly, mentoring new lobby boy Zero (played through the decades by Tony Revolori and F. Murray Abraham) and delighting his wealthy guests, like the ancient Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, nearly unrecognizable). He barely keeps his genteel facade from crumbling when police officers make their way into the hotel and put him in the clink. It seems he’s accused of murder.

While Gustave employs his talents in the joint, Zero looks for help on the outside, with enough celebs to fill an Oscars selfie popping up in small but delightful roles, from Bill Murray, Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson, to Jude Law, Jeff Goldblum and Edward Norton. Meanwhile, a killer (Harvey Keitel) is on the hunt for anyone unfortunate enough to be connected to the murder, including Zero and his beloved, a gutsy baker named Agatha (Saoirse Ronan).

What follows is a rousing epic, with quintessential Anderson touches (miniatures, quirky camera work, fantastically implausible stunts), and beautiful set design. The performances step up to match, as they usually do in Anderson’s work, with Revolori playing it dead straight as Zero, to terrific effect, while Fiennes revels in Gustave’s archaic manners and amorphous sexuality. The effect is engrossing, a story in which one can get ever more lost until, sadly, the final chapter ends, the cover closes. But the feeling of The Grand Budapest lingers long after checkout.

Flip the Coin on This

Mr. Peabody & Sherman
This big-screen update of the beloved Rocky and His Friends/The Bullwinkle Show characters is appropriately punny and packed with action, but it’s not nearly as smart as its resident genius, time-traveling dog Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell). After a fight at school between bully Penny (Burrell’s Modern Family daughter Ariel Winter) and his son, Sherman (The Neighbors‘ Max Charles), Mr. Peabody throws a dinner party to broker peace between the families. Instead, the kids take off in Mr. Peabody’s WABAC time machine, leaving the top dog scrambling.

Burrell makes a dandy Peabody, with a fun but restrained voice performance that belies the loopiness of the action, as he and the kids venture back to the French Revolution, ancient Egypt and the Trojan War. But though the film makes her a mainstay in the action, Penny never becomes likeable, as she “matures” from torturing Sherman, to merely encouraging him to do dangerous things. By the end, though, she’s hardly the problem, as the film devolves into mess that barely knows how to get back on track. Take the kids if you must, but otherwise, consider sitting this one out.

And You Bloodthirsty Types Should See This

300: Rise of an Empire
Welcome back to the ancient Greece of 300, where human life is cheap but the special effects decidedly are not. Fans of the ’06 original should take to this sequel, with its unrelenting gore and familiar plotline. But even the twisted charms of Eva Green, as a vengeful Greek running the Persian forces, and Lena Headey returning for a small role as Spartan Queen Gorgo, can’t replace the heft of the last cast, which included Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender and Dominic West.

With Leonidas (Butler) dead, along with his elite 300 Spartan soldiers, Rise of an Empire backs up to a critical point in the conflict, when Athenian warrior Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) slays Persian king Darius (Igal Naor), but leaves son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) alive to avenge his father. When the 300 fall, Themistokles again faces Xerxes’s forces, this time led by the beautiful, ferociously lethal Artemisia (Green, who was the best thing about Johnny Depp and Tim Burton’s 2012 Dark Shadows).

Empire borrows much of its fire from Green, who’s a wicked delight as she seduces and destroys, separating men from their heads and their senses. And though Stapleton is solid as Themistokles, the rest of the film’s modest fun comes from the clever plotting of its battles, as Artemisia and Themistokles take their epic fight to the sea.

For those who came for blood, you’ll get it, spouting like geysers, splashing the screen and turning the waters crimson. What you probably won’t feel is much of a connection to the Athenians, our purported heroes, who are as washed out as the signature 300 color palette. Still, if you’re a fan of this ultra-macho franchise, that’s hardly enough to turn you away.