Zombieland: Double Tap

Release: Friday, October 18, 2019

→On Demand

Written by: Rhett Reese; Paul Wernick; Dave Callaham

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer

I’m not much of a zombie guy but I have a lot of time for Zombieland. The original, now over a decade old, was this fun little hang-out movie set at the end of the world, a nice, self-contained story that took the zombie threat about as seriously as any movie needs to in my opinion. Its energy was propelled by banter and pop culture references almost in equal measure, as a group of strangers tried to survive a particularly bad outbreak of a disease that turned cows mad and people into, well, ravenous bloodthirsty creatures.

The last time we saw the old crew, they — the rule-making Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Twinkie-loving tough-guy Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and the clever and resourceful sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) — were leaving the scene of a major zombie beat-down at an amusement park somewhere in California. It seemed to me and I think to pretty much everybody that this was a natural end to their story. Clearly director Ruben Fleischer didn’t have enough closure and in 2019 he dropped the long-not-awaited sequel, hoping to recapture at least some of the magic from the first.

As it turns out, he was on to something.

When it comes to style, Zombieland: Double Tap — the name is inspired by Rule #2 in Columbus’ handy little survival guide — definitely has it. That’s because it is pretty much the same movie, now with Homers, Hawkings and T-800s (suborders of zombie that are hilariously dumb, horrifyingly intelligent and near-impossible to kill, respectively) thrown in the mix. The flashy presentation is a carbon copy, right down to certain camera angles and motifs — scenes of Woody Harrelson briefly losing it in a fit of rage and of gnarly zombie kills choreographed sublimely to the blasting guitars of Metallica . . . oh, and the neat little thing the editors do with the on-screen text, integrating words into the environment in some really creative ways.

It’s the way Fleischer justifies all the time in between that makes Double Tap a surprisingly substantive and sentimental update. It helps to have your entire original cast return and to have the caliber actors who can easily slip back into character like no time has passed and yet still convey that it has. This is a sequel that not only benefits from consistency, but a natural sense of evolution. While most of them don’t look like they’ve aged (and Eisenberg is almost comically eternally boyish), Abigail Breslin was a mere 12 years old at the time Zombieland was filmed. The young actor has done the most growing up and shrewdly Fleischer and his writing team offer the sequel as a coming-of-age story where, effectively, every A-lister in the movie defers to her arc, even Eisenberg and Stone, whose Columbus and Wichita are dealing with their own little fall-out after the former proposes the one thing that scares the latter more than any zombie — marriage.

Through a combination of cabin fever and having tired of Tallahassee’s overly protective quasi-parenting, Little Rock desperately seeks independence, eventually crossing paths with a pacifist named Berkeley (Avan Jogia) who whisks her away to this zombie-free utopia called Babylon where guns and troublemakers are the only things unwelcome. The resulting movie becomes another cross-country adventure that, along with culturing the viewer in the diaspora of post-apocalyptic American landmarks, introduces some solid new supporting characters en route to reuniting with Little Rock.

Thomas Middleditch and Luke Wilson pop up briefly, mostly to get turned into zombies, but not before serving up a surprisingly effective and protracted doppelgänger gag, while Rosario Dawson is in as Nevada, who is pitched not just as an obvious savior for Harrelson’s lonely soul but also his intellectual/emotional equal — one of my out-and-out favorite scenes in either movie is the hostile manner in which they first meet near Graceland.

And we may have lost Bill Murray along the way, but Double Tap does counter-offer Zoey Deutch in what is easily the movie’s stand-out performance, playing this total space cadet named Madison who, relative to this narrative at least, comes from a shopping mall freezer and adds this whole other whacky dynamic to the mix. Instead of being an annoyance her dumb-blonde archetype is the movie’s revelation and I for one would recommend the movie on her contributions alone. Her Madison becomes a part of the crew’s growing pains and really inspires some good reactions from Emma Stone.

Anyone who has sat through a Zoolander 2 or a Dumb & Dumber To or — yikes! — an Independence Day: Resurgence knows not to trust the ten-year belated sequel. In fact it almost feels like Double Tap breaks the rules by actually being good, that oh so rare justified sequel that delivers both on world-expansion and character growth while never abandoning the breezy narrative formula that made the original a hit. With a cast this good, it’s easy to keep the good times rolling even when the world is falling apart around you.

I know. I know it’s a spoiler. But it’s just too good not to share.

Recommendation: I’m having serious debates with myself over which movie is better. I’m actually leaning toward the sequel. Think about it. A sequel has to do something extra just to draw even with, be as good as, its predecessor. A good original movie debuts with no standard set against it. Double Tap has to overcome familiarity and it does that really well by introducing some quality new characters and perhaps most importantly by keeping the tone light. There’s a version of these movies that could be really dark, like The Road dark; remembering back to Columbus’ narration in the original about how everyone has been made an orphan in the wake of the virus. But these are stoner comedies of equal value. The fact Double Tap outgrossed its predecessor might be the strongest testament to that.

Rated: R

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “There I was, hiding in the woods, when I thought, ‘I used to live in a freezer, so why not a freezer on wheels?”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #2

Being quarantined at home may be the perfect time to look back on a movie that explores loneliness and connection. This was obviously not something I planned, but social distancing has a way of making us look at things differently and that includes the way we experience certain movies. That’s what’s happening with me and the classic romantic comedy Lost in Translation (2003) anyway.

I have a lot of love for this movie and I do think the feelings it evokes are intensified by this interruption in normal social life we are going through. Lost in Translation is a bittersweet story focused on two kindred spirits floating through weird periods of their lives. Neither know what they want, and both happen to meet in a foreign city and find something in each other that bonds them in a profound way. Lost in Translation featured a 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson alongside comedic great Bill Murray, who was stepping into a dramatic role for the first time in nearly 20 years. Director Sofia Coppola was completely blown away by the reception her movie received, feeling certain it would be viewed as pretentious and self-serving. It ended up netting her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year.

In rewatching it in preparation for my monthly feature, I had forgotten how fleeting Lost in Translation really is — it’s all wrapped up in about 96 minutes. What happens within that time, however, what is said (and almost as often, what is not said), makes it so hard for me to leave the movie behind. I simply love these characters, especially when they’re together.

Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo. (IMDb)

Character Background: Charlotte is a native New Yorker and recent college grad who is feeling unsatisfied and disillusioned with her marriage to John (Giovanni Ribisi), a celebrity photographer. On assignment in Tokyo, he’s kept busy and away from the hotel room leaving Charlotte alone and with plenty of time to wonder why she ever married this guy. She’s empty inside and her wandering eyes say as much. So she gets out into the city and does some exploring, soon turning acquaintances into friends, such as Charlie Brown (Fumihiro Hayashi). Over the course of about a week she also forms a deep connection with an older man named Bob Harris (Murray), a fading actor who’s staying at the same hotel while he endures a dreadful commercial shoot promoting whiskey. It is through their meaningful conversations and one really fun night soaking up the nightlife that we learn more about her and see her personality open up a bit more.

What she brings to the movie: very little experience for a role that aged her up 4 years from what she actually was. When Lost in Translation started shooting Scarlett Johansson was only 17 and had but a handful of acting credits total. Her claims to fame at the time were a starring role in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) and a supporting role in the Robert Redford drama The Horse Whisperer (1999). Charlotte is her first adult role as far as the emotional complexities involved and the thematic content. Yes, it is true that Sofia Coppola would not have made this movie had she not been able to get Bill Murray, but Coppola also enjoyed Johansson’s performance in the 1996 comedy Manny & Lo so much she had to land her as a lead in one of her movies (Johansson would pass on Coppola’s début effort The Virgin Suicides, feeling it wasn’t right for her at the time).

In her own words: [on the age difference between her and Bill Murray, who is more than 30 years her senior] “It was hard to relate to one another, but I think what worked is that when the cameras were rolling and [it] actually came time to do the work, we worked really well together.”

Key Scene: I mean . . . there are other choices. There’s a really nice moment when Bob and Charlotte are talking while laying on a bed, having a deep conversation about whether life or marriage get any easier as time goes by. It’s a quiet but important moment that further solidifies their bond. But the key scene is in the way Sofia Coppola brings this wonderful week to a close. The kiss that almost never was, the mystery of whatever it is that Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear. The sounds of the streets teeming with passing strangers. By the time The Jesus and Mary Chain come in with “Just Like Honey,” it’s very close to a perfect ending. Well, it’s one of the most bittersweet endings I’ve ever seen anyway. I never wanted this story to end, and yet Coppola does it about as gracefully as she possibly could have. According to her, “I just wanted to show a whole relationship just in a few days.”

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb

Isle of Dogs

Release: Friday, April 13, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Wes Anderson

Directed by: Wes Anderson

When it comes to Wes Anderson, ‘more of the same’ is absolutely a compliment. I don’t find myself saying that about many other filmmakers. Now nine films deep into a career that has netted him an ever-growing, passionate and devoted fanbase it is clear he isn’t changing tacks. On evidence of his latest effort, a visually dense yet lucidly told saga about a young Japanese boy in search of his lost pup, it is clear he doesn’t need to.

With Isle of Dogs, it is more than just a case of absence making the heart grow fonder. (It has been four years, apparently, since The Grand Budapest Hotel.) Isle of Dogs has the distinction of being only the second animated feature film on Anderson’s résumé. Like 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, it is rendered in stop-motion animation, an aesthetic choice that on its own attests to a profound commitment and love for the craft of telling stories in moving pictures. His live action films feel restrictive by comparison in terms of the number of aspects he can control and customize to his completely obsessive liking. This new offering is so meticulously crafted you can easily take its beauty for granted.

Set in the fictitious metropolis of Megasaki City in a near-future Japan, trouble begins when the new, authoritarian, cat-loving mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) orders the exile of all dogs from the city to an off-shore wasteland called Trash Island following an outbreak of “snout fever.” A brief timeline of events is immediately established, tracing the downward trend in the public repute of our canine companions. The relationship has deteriorated from dogs being subjected to harsh verbal treatment from their owners to being flat-out persecuted. So when I say this film is beautiful, I suppose I’m being shallow because if you do a little thematic digging you are sure to find some things that are actually quite ugly. Elements of immigration, of second-class citizenship and racial prejudice, even slavery are touched upon.

In the present/future/future-present/whatever, a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), who happens to be the nephew and ward of Mayor Kobayashi, flees the city in an attempt to reunite with his best buddy. His dog Spots was the very first to get booted to Trash Island. Upon his crash-landing there several months later Atari meets a group of abandoned mutts — Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) — who prove surprisingly willing to aid in his quest. After mistakenly identifying the remains of another dog as Spots, they seek the advice of wizened old fools Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton) who point them to the remote reaches of the island where they might have luck finding him amidst the cannibalistic tribes rumored to be living there.

Luckily, a post-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston isn’t in his first Wes Anderson movie just to give a whimper of a performance. He has real bite here, playing a tough pooch who must break free from his habit of distrusting others, especially he who walks upright. This is his movie more than anyone else’s, and that of course means sacrifices on the part of Anderson regulars in order to elevate his status. Good for fans of Cranston, but perhaps a disappointing revelation for those wanting more Bill Furr-ay.

Isle of Dogs is a very busy place, a fully realized environment bustling with activity and overloaded with imagery that pays tribute to Japanese culture and iconography. To this viewer, that effort comes across as sincere and respectful but that hasn’t been the case for everyone. If your experience was anything like mine you may have spent more time and a frustrating number of scenes trying to figure out which famous actor was voicing which animal rather than all the ways in which this movie appears to reinforce negative stereotypes. My head hurts already from overthinking things.

And then there are those obligatory subplots to contend with as well, which are considerably less interesting this time around. More often than not these asides tend to chop the central conceit up into annoying bits and pieces of doggie chow. One involves the predictable repercussions of Atari’s disappearance as his uncle vows to bring him and his newfound friends to justice. The other, also an attempt to balance perspectives, finds an outspoken animal rights activist (Greta Gerwig with HUGE hair) stumbling upon a potential conspiracy involving the corrupt mayor and a group of scientists featuring Yoko Ono. (Like I said, there’s just a lot going on.)

Much of the ambition pays off. How can it not when you have a filmmaker as uncompromisingly idiosyncratic as Wes Anderson, and especially here, when he is in complete control? Unfortunately not all of it succeeds and a few bells and whistles feel unnecessarily tacked on. Frances McDormand’s inclusion is a shining example of Anderson trying to do too much. The talented actress fulfills this really weird-bordering-on-condescending role as an English translator in select scenes where Japanese is spoken. She more often than not just gets in the way, neither becoming an interesting character nor a necessary plot device. In fact her function is borderline insulting, not simply to the few Japanese characters who actually do get speaking roles, but to those of us who are even decent at reading body language and facial expressions. Never mind the fact that the movie stops dead in its tracks just to explain such superfluity.

Ultimately though, Isle of Dogs does a lot of good. It is as uplifting in its action sequences as it is saddening in its darkest trials, of which there are quite a few. The whimsical spirit of the adventure and the often comical physical renderings — the scrappy dog fights are true highlights — go a long way in making a somber reality more palatable. The film is perhaps the darkest one yet in his filmography, yet it is perpetually buoyed by its fascination with the simple but unconditional love a dog has for his owner. Isle of Dogs may not be Anderson at his narrative best, but its flaws are not enough to stop me from asking for more of the same. Please, just. More.

Dog day afternoon

Recommendation: Isle of Dogs represents only the second time Wes Anderson has gone the way of stop-motion, but it is a welcome return to a form that I find he actually excels even more in. Barring a few niggling detours here and there, Isle of Dogs is consistently entertaining, surprisingly dramatic and a visually enthralling experience. Four barks out of five.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “You’ll meet a bitch named Nutmeg. Tell her Chief says, ‘I’ll see you in Megasaki.'”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

May Blindspot: What About Bob? (1991)

Release: Friday, May 17, 1991

[YouTube]

Written by: Tom Schulman

Directed by: Frank Oz

Given the career Frank Oz has been able to enjoy over the span of some 40 years, a gentle comedy like What About Bob? tends to get lost in the shuffle. That’s a shame, because it’s quite funny. Wholesome in that 1990s PG-comedy kind of way; sentimental in the same.

Oz has directed Steve Martin twice and he’s kicked it with DeNiro once, so his collaboration with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss isn’t some crazy cosmic event. He’s put in the work to get here, having helped launch Jim Henson’s career in the early going with his development of both Sesame Street and The Muppets. He also curiously remade The Stepford Wives and brought chaos upon a British family in his 2007 farcical comedy Death at a Funeral. But his behind-the-scenes work didn’t become the stuff of cinematic legend until Henson repaid the favor by turning down the part of Yoda in Star Wars, recommending George Lucas cast his friend instead. And history, the rest is.

By comparison What About Bob? feels like a rather modest achievement. Modest, but not insignificant. It’s a film whose fixation upon mental health was taboo then and is, sadly, taboo now. It tries to define what sound mental health is through an exploration of an unorthodox relationship between Dr. Leo Marvin (Dreyfuss), an accomplished psychotherapist, and his high-maintenance, multi-phobic client, a neurotic New Yorker named Bob Wiley (Murray). Of course, that’s not to suggest this is a thorough interrogation of perpetually un-PC subject matter as what unfolds aims for entertainment rather than the provocation of thought and discussion. Think of it more as a friendly PSA urging us to be more tolerant of others’ quirks and mannerisms, regardless of whether they’re clinically diagnosable traits.

Dead Poets Society screenwriter Tom Schulman’s work is simply but effectively constructed, the farcical events forcing the pair of well-matched leads into comically and diametrically opposed character arcs, with Murray slowly regaining his dignity and Dreyfuss steadily going mad over the course of a fleeting hour and forty minutes. Murray is an ideal spokesperson for the quirky and off-kilter. Ostensibly, he’s bringing nothing new to his role, but that’s ironically what this overly familiar movie needs. It needs Bill Murray being Bill Murray. When Bob is first pawned off by his former counsel and onto Dr. Marvin, the actor’s eccentricities embrace you as a warm hug from a grandparent.

Meanwhile, Dreyfuss arguably outshines his costar in doing the dirty work, exuding a level of self-absorption that makes him an easy target. He comes across cold and clinical, a puffed-up, red-faced bureaucrat who cares not so much about the hippocratic oath (or maybe even his family) as he does earning more accolades and climbing further up the career ladder. Dreyfuss’s performance is outstanding, a controlled caricature of professional hubris that so perfectly culminates with a man drooling in a wheelchair.

The plot remains obvious and more than a little contrived in parts — it’s really difficult to believe a man as neurotic as Bob would actually board a public bus for New Hampshire, but we acknowledge the plot must move along somehow. You tend to get over those sorts of things, because there’s a lot of it to go round, and while the film relies mighty heavily on its star power, it’s frequent pit stopping into cliché is justified.

Dr. Marvin learns the hard way that “I’m on vacation” is a foreign concept to his oddball client. The story proper gets underway when Bob manages to track his impatient doctor down in his New Hampshire hideaway and begins the process of integrating himself into the family. Compounding Dr. Marvin’s discombobulation is the rapidly growing divide between himself and his family. He can’t comprehend the fact his wife Fay (Julie Hagerty) and children, Anna (Kathryn Erbe) and Sigmund (Charlie Korsmo), have taken a liking to this possible sociopath. Bob, who has justified his sudden appearance as him taking some of Dr. Marvin’s advice to heart (“take a vacation from your problems”), is viewed by the majority as the fun-loving drunk uncle rather than a pest who needs to be flushed out.

With all due respect to Murray, the genius that he is (and Bob is certifiably a great character), the schadenfreude that comes with Dreyfuss’ energetic, unhinged performance simply makes this experience what it is — granted, something of an echo of the trials endured by Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles four years earlier. In that film, a similarly obnoxious but well-meaning northerner effectively infiltrated the personal life of a gruff stranger, often to his own detriment, and ever-so-occasionally to surprisingly poignant effect. However, where that film truly satisfied with the way John Candy was able to finally win the other guy over, What About Bob? clumsily tries to contrive that same feeling in the final few seconds.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: With two outstanding performances from Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss, What About Bob? becomes something I can easily suggest to viewers who are looking for another solid, perhaps overlooked Bill Murray comedy from the early ’90s. Funny, heartwarming, ultimately predictable but definitely worthwhile. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “Shit-eating son of a bitch! Bastard, douchebag, twat, numb-nuts, dickhead, BITCH!” [Editors note: I love the MPAA ratings of the ’90s.]

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Ghostbusters

Dont answer the call man

Release: Friday, July 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Paul Feig; Katie Dippold

Directed by: Paul Feig

It’s fun, and perhaps more than anything inspiring, watching a foursome of funny women transforming and transcending in what was supposed to be a god-awful Ghostbusters reboot. Yeah, I said it — I enjoyed the new movie. Bring it on, man. I ain’t afraid of no haters.

Before things get out of hand I have to say Paul Feig is no Ivan Reitman. And as fun as this truly becomes, the diaspora of knee-slappers and laugh-out-loud one-liners are still no match for the collective comedic genius that is Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. Comparing the two — and I’m going to have to try hard to avoid an overdose of comparisons in this review — is like comparing . . . well, I just don’t want to do it. We are living in a completely different era. An era, mind you, that’s without Harold Ramis. We have lost our beloved Egon. But his spirit can live on. I’m not naming names but . . . Kristen Wiig. Damn she’s brilliant.

The set-up is familiar but far from derivative. Wiig plays Columbia University lecturer Erin Gilbert. Her past comes back to literally haunt her as she sees that her former paranormal research partner Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) has made available for purchase online a book the two worked on years ago that posited the existence of ghosts in a world parallel to our own. Seeing this as a potential road block to her success in academia, Erin confronts Abby and asks her to take the book off the web. That’s when she makes the deal to join Abby and her eccentric engineering pal Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon — remember that name) on a quick adventure to see if their life’s work is legitimate or not. In exchange, Abby will honor her request to stop publicizing said book, as much as that may hurt Abby on a personal level.

They visit an old, haunted mansion that still offers guided tours, as one of their tour guides (the perpetually creepy Zach Woods) claims he saw something spooky. There they encounter a ghost, confirming that their life’s work is indeed legitimate. Abby’s psyched, Jillian goes berserk and Erin . . . well, she just gets covered in ghost vomit. A recurring theme, we’ll come to find. The team starts to take shape and quickly. Perhaps too quickly, but delaying any further isn’t an option for a movie not planning on breaching the two-hour mark. Now they need a work space. They can only afford the upstairs loft above a crummy Chinese restaurant, one that seemingly can’t grasp the concept of properly portioned wonton soup. The trio take on the services of Chris Hemsworth‘s Kevin, nothing more than a good-looking but incredibly dumb blonde. (We’ll get into the reversal of sexist stereotypes in a bit, because it’s better that I keep you in suspense.)

Meanwhile a lonely MTA worker, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), witnesses an isolated ghost-related incident on the subway line and reports it to the fledgling “Department of the Metaphysical Examination.” Having extensive knowledge of the city she makes a pitch for joining them in their efforts. She can even provide transportation. They end up creating what amounts to a nuclear reactor mounted atop a hearse that may or may not still have bodies in the back. It even comes complete with a “very un-American siren.”

Life in the ghost busting world is pretty interesting. Friendship dynamics are as well-defined as they are compelling: whether it’s the stunted growth in both the personal and professional relationship between Erin and Abby, the general insanity of Jillian or Patty’s confidence, there is a lot to latch onto here. Feig manages to create an environment in which his actors can really flourish. Strong positive vibes emanate. The camaraderie between the four is contagious, even if it waltzes often into goofy territory. McCarthy dials down her sass to affect a genuine personality we can actually cozy up to, necessarily establishing this as her best work to date. Wiig continues to perfect the deadpan. McKinnon is just plain fun. Jones has less work to shoulder but she’s nowhere near as boisterous and overbearing as her SNL résumé would have you believe.

I wish Ghostbusters handled its themes more delicately though. I guess subtlety goes out the window when you’re dealing with hundred-foot tall Stay Puft Marshmallow Men and thousands of other spirits. The casting of an all-female team should be enough to suggest it is doing something about the glaring gender inequality in modern cinema, but apparently it’s not for Feig. He, along with MADtv writer Katie Dippold concoct a fairly thinly veiled critique of the negative reaction to their own film by frequently drawing attention to the Youtube comments section on videos the ghost busting ladies have posted, in an effort to spread awareness of a potentially apocalyptic threat in New York at the hands of freak/genius Rowan North (Neil Casey).

Couple that with the fact that every significant male character is either a villain (the aforementioned Rowan is one particularly weak link) or just an idiot (the annoyance Hemsworth creates is absolutely intentional which in and of itself is annoying) and you have the recipe for a million “I told you so”‘s from anyone who has been against such a film in principal from the moment it was announced.

No, Ghostbusters is best when it’s focused on the friendships (the ghosts are pretty cool but largely forgettable, as they were in the first). McCarthy and Wiig are at the center of what eventuates as a heartwarming tale of loyalty and not giving up on lifelong goals. Their comedic repartee is energetic and surprisingly wholesome, even if the comedy they’re working with is largely inconsistent. It is true that what passes as comedy today barely passes as watchable, never mind as the stuff that elicits the kind of belly laughs the originators could. But there is so little of that limp in Ghostbusters. Instead it kind of struggles to keep the greatness going, occasionally succumbing to a lesser script and less experienced principals. That said, I wasn’t prepared to endure the hardest laugh I have had in a theater all year. Wait for that metal concert to go down. Wait for that scream. Oh my god, that scream.

Look, trying to convince anyone who has taken it upon themselves to let Akroyd and Murray personally know they suck just for endorsing such a thing, well that’s just a fruitless endeavor. To those people I’m sure I’ve betrayed something or other. I am not even going to address those who think bringing women in to do what was once done by four men is a mistake (although it is ironic that the film couldn’t dispense with sexism entirely). The original was apparently the paragon of excellence and therefore is lesser just because 2016 happened. A reboot just seems sexy and trendy and the cool thing to do, and maybe it is, but there’s one thing I know for sure: Ghostbusters is not another regurgitated, passionless affair. It likely will never garner the nostalgia the 1984 film did, but it is much farther from being the movie that an alarming number of fanboys seem to assume it is.

Ghostbusters gif

Recommendation: Massively negative hype is unfortunately going to impact box office intake, but my advice is this: don’t skip out on the movie based on hear-say and an admittedly poor trailer. It would be a shame to think millions missing out on this just because of the power social media gives people. Ghostbusters is well-acted, funny — unfortunately not consistently but the good bits hit hard — and surprisingly moving when all is said and done. I really had a good time and in the interest of full disclosure I wasn’t expecting to at all. Not because of the cast. But because most modern comedic adventures turn out to be a bust. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “It smells like roasted bologna and regrets down here . . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.weknowmemes.com 

The Jungle Book

'The Jungle Book' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Justin Marks

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Forgetting about your worries and your strife is pretty easy to do when Jon Favreau’s bold decision to remake the Disney animated classic all but steals you away to a wonderful world filled with adventure, danger and English-speaking animals.

It’s actually quite amazing how talented a director Favreau (yes, as in Tony Stark’s favorite body guard, Happy) is as his latest passion project showcases a knack for both interpretation and reinvention, borrowing that which made the 1967 animation a timeless adventure while modifying certain elements with an even more intimate examination of life in this complex jungle, first envisioned by 19th Century poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling. Though it’s not the first time the actor/director has offered up a heaping helping of popcorn-munching entertainment, The Jungle Book could well be his most complete and emotionally satisfying piece. And it has just one human actor in it.

The Jungle Book, first and foremost, is the epitome of a Disney production. It’s wholesome, family friendly and heartwarming. Our capacity for empathy is a testament to the effectiveness of the digitally-rendered characters; by all accounts this is the film we remember, only it’s not animated. Bathed in the same effervescence of innocence and self-discovery that defines Disney’s animated offerings, Favreau’s interpretation gains strength as playfulness and good spirits eventually give way to danger and darkness as the story we fell in love with so long ago is played out once more but on a much more visceral level.

That the film actually benefits from treading familiar ground is also a testament to the strength of Favreau’s convictions that this is a story worthy of the live-action treatment. More importantly, The Jungle Book hits all the beats we expect it to, even finding time to add new dimensions to the many character interactions we’ve held so dear for nearly half a century. A fixation on the harsh realities of surviving in this tropical environment also helps steer the production away from utter predictability, even though the showdowns that threaten the very fiber of the MPAA’s standards for what makes a PG-rated film are expected from the very beginning.

Favreau (yes, as in the guy whom Paul Rudd puked all over in I Love You, Man)’s wisest decision was to place emphasis on characters, letting the nature-versus-nurture debate at the heart of this tale of survival manifest naturally. As Mowgli learns the kinds of things he’s capable of — he’s quite handy when it comes to building things — is he doomed to repeat the actions of his elders? Can he be taught to be different, to not abuse the power of fire?

Mowgli (introducing Neel Sethi) first comes flying into the frame with wolves in hot pursuit, an apparent training exercise designed by his panther protector Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to help the man-cub outlast predators. We get a deeper sense of his adoptive family unit as we’re introduced to the wolf pack clan gathering at the edge of a rocky precipice, preparing for the rains that are soon to come, soon to summon animals of all kinds to a nearby watering hole. Life seems pretty swell as a member of the pack, especially if you call the honorable Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) dad and the warm, fiercely protective Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) mom.

But then there are threats to such peace, like the prowling beast Shere Khan, a villain made viable on the virtue of Idris Elba’s deep, booming voice alone — a monster of a tiger whose facial scars are inextricably linked to Mowgli’s past. This isn’t, however, a villain introduced for the sake of it. Khan’s concern is actually one shared by all sorts of animals, including the wolf pack: that the man-cub will one day be a grown man and, based on experiences, fully grown men bring nothing but death and destruction to the jungle. Animals greatly fear their “red flower;” fire, the ultimate villain, plays just as dramatic a role here as it did in the 1967 version.

Mowgli’s fate, with one or two wrinkles thrown in, is the same as before: his future is largely unknown. Bagheera and Akela agree that he’d be safer with his own kind, and Bagheera sets off on a journey with the boy that will expose the pair to intermittent treachery and silliness, including, but not limited to, seductive snakes (Scarlett Johansson as Kaa is genius casting, even if she’s underused), oafish bears desperate for honey (Bill Murray is, and probably to no one’s surprise, the pinnacle of excellence here, making for an arguably better Baloo than Phil Harris) and one gigantic ape with delusions of grandeur. (On that note, Christopher Walken unfortunately shares Johansson’s plight of being stuck with an underserved subplot; it’s basically a cameo.)

You can’t really overstate the impact an A-list cast has on a movie like this; personalities fit the wild animals to a T and all signs point to everyone involved taking this project extremely seriously . . . even Emjay Anthony, who Favreau liked enough in the making of Chef to give him a small part as one of the wolf cubs. And the knock-on effect: we, the paying customers, get to kick back and enjoy the simple bare necessities of escaping from reality and into the visual wonderland and heightened sense of humanity only anthropomorphic animals who have a tendency to break out into song and dance can provide.

The Jungle Book is many things: it’s one of the year’s biggest surprises, an achievement in CGI rendering, and a new standard to which all upcoming family outings must rise this year. Above all, it’s an immensely enjoyable blockbuster-type release. It is that way from beginning to end. Even though a few scenes expose the more obligatory side of Favreau’s directorial style — King Louie really needed a longer introduction and a less rushed exit, as did Kaa — there’s more than enough here to proclaim 2016 as the year in which Kipling’s visionary tale about man and animal coexisting became immortalized.

Recommendation: The Jungle Book is proof that sometimes, just sometimes, with great risk comes even greater reward. Jon Favreau rewards audiences with a remake that stays true to not only the characters, but the emotional challenges and even a few of the songs that popularized the original animated version. Fans of the original, it’s time to let out that sigh of relief. Favreau and his excellent cast have truly outdone themselves. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “No matter where you go or what they may call you, you will always be my son.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

A Very Murray Christmas

A Very Murray Christmas movie poster

Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Sophia Coppola; Mitch Glazer; Bill Murray

Directed by: Sophia Coppola

A Very Murray Christmas is kind of an odd package. It’s a fairly self-indulgent vanity project but only in the best way possible. I mean, how do you say ‘no’ to Bill Murray?

It’s a movie but not a movie; a musical but not really a musical; a short story without much of a tale to tell. It’s roughly an hour of Murray lamenting being left alone for Christmas Eve as he’s holed up in the famous Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan as a blizzard rages outside, preventing anyone from traveling anywhere and from taking part in his Christmas Special in which he is to live broadcast a number of classic tunes for the masses to enjoy.

Then the weather intensifies and shuts down the production, leaving him to his own devices in the hotel lobby, where he slowly starts gathering random hotel guests and staff members together for an impromptu session of Christmas caroling. In essence, this is Murray’s way of saying Happy Holidays without resorting to social media. It’s a live recording of him nudging even the grumps into the holiday spirit. He starts off the film in a lousy mood and slowly overcomes his depression as said guests gather round in drunken merriment.

Despite the aimlessness of it all, A Very Murray Christmas is a good bit of fun. It’s cozy and will fill your heart with warmth come the surprisingly entertaining introduction of Miley Cyrus and George Clooney in a bizarre dream sequence that results after Murray collapses in the hotel lobby after drinking one too many shots of tequila.

It’s a who’s who of the Murray entourage. The guest list is rather impressive: Amy Poehler, Paul Shaffer, Jenny Lewis, Maya Rudolph, Michael Cera, Demitri Dimitrov, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, David Johansen, Miley Cyrus, Julie White, Chris Rock, George Clooney (he seems to be owing Murray a favor after Murray did Monument’s Men) and members of the band Phoenix all donate their time to the cause.

Ultimately this is nothing you will regret having missed but for the Murray faithful, this Christmas special makes one feel as though this is the closest they can get to actually interacting with the great Bill Murray. That in itself is a gift.

A Very Murray Christmas

Recommendation: Fans of Bill Murray are going to greatly enjoy this while anyone else who isn’t so much a fan are probably going to find it a chore to sit through. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 56 mins.

Quoted: “I don’t even know how to express my shame in this moment. The Murricane skulking down the back stairs like some $25 an hour, Twin Cities hooker.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.theguardian.com 

TBT: Caddyshack (1980)

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Okay, so I admit it’s not quite golf season yet. However it has been ‘good movie’ season for a couple of weeks now so I think it’s time we feature a quality comedy in this month’s batch of TBTs. And you might as well throw in the very compelling reason that this comes very close to being this blogger’s favorite comedy ever. Also, having seen Hot Tub Time Machine over Christmas I was painfully reminded of how much the film industry misses Chevy Chase as a comedian. Saw him in that thing (forgetting he was in it) and had trouble recognizing him. It’s time to scrub that image from my memory by commemorating his excellent work in

Today’s food for thought: Caddyshack. 

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Harassing gophers and golfers alike since: July 25, 1980

[DVD]

I’m not really sure whose movie this is. The gopher’s? Carl Spackler’s? Judge Smails’? This was actually the late Harold Ramis’ directorial debut, but with the way Rodney Dangerfield takes the luxurious golf resort by storm you’d think it was his own work he felt comfortable improvising over.

A tough pill to swallow, knowing we live in an era without Ramis now and that his infectious sense of humor isn’t likely to be duplicated anytime soon. But he did leave us several great gifts behind for us to cherish, and this is certainly one of them. A zany comedy stuffed to the brim with memorable characters, strange plot developments and absurd sight gags, Caddyshack freewheels its way from one silly scene to another, incidentally weaving a timeless tale about “the snobs versus the slobs” in the process. Golf season has never been this much fun; I don’t care how great it was speculating whether it was a car accident or a neglected wife that gave Tiger those scratches on his face in 2009.

Danny (Michael O’Keefe) needs a part-time job to save up money for college. He wants to be a caddy at Bushwood. So he becomes one. He wants to impress the club owner, and he ends up sleeping with Smails’ promiscuous daughter Lacey (Cindy Morgan). (Whoops.) At the end of the day though Danny just wants to be a good person and maybe even a father, so he makes it all up to the girl he’s actually dating, Maggie (Sarah Holcomb), when he admits to her that caddying isn’t all he’s been doing around Bushwood.

While on the grounds Danny falls under the tutelage of one Ty Webb (Chase), who helps him less with his real-world concerns as he does boost his confidence. Ty is a good guy and a better golfer, who could care less about the tradition of this so-esteemed white-people-only resort. Ty is there for the booze, the babes and the. . . wait, who the eff is this new guy?!

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Al Czervik (Dangerfield) arrives with a golf bag the size of Africa and a brand new ‘tude to awaken the crotchety, ostensibly whites-only golf club from its comatose state of stuffy traditionalism. A cantankerous, boisterous personality, Al seeks primarily to irritate everyone named Judge Smails. He accomplishes this through a series of hijinks that understandably upset the overbearing, silver-haired braggart:

  1. consistent insults, ranging from his disproval of golf attire to him hitting on Judge’s wife, implying she “must have been something before electricity.”
  2. his obnoxious presence on the golf course (party on the ninth hole, anyone?)
  3. sinking Smail’s beloved schooner during its christening
  4. claiming he’s not interested in becoming a member of Bushwood, but rather someone who’s looking at the property in terms of development for potential condominiums

But this isn’t about Judge, this isn’t about Al — hell, this isn’t even about Danny and his girlfriend who is so Irish it hurts. This story boils down to a psychological battle between a varmint and groundskeeper Carl Spackler (Bill Murray). Carl had been doing a swell job of making sure Bushwood was in as fine a form as it can be, whilst maintaining his own personal economy, which consisted of extensive supplies of weed, alcohol and self-loathing. The guy’s a hero. But that was before the gopher got inside his head. Obsessed with maintaining the grounds, Carl goes about trying to keep pests away from the greens, and by pests I do mean ridiculously bad CGI-ed gophers who scurry through underground tunnels only to resurface at another hole in time to bust out the cutest little gopher dance that you ever did see.

Caddyshack is a rather giddy and silly film. It’s also a comedy classic. Amongst the raucous set presence of outlandish comedian Rodney Dangerfield serving up ample doses of crazy in each of his scenes (a scene-stealer if there ever was one), Chevy Chase’s nonchalance as resident pro golfer — not to be believed either, which makes it even better if you ask me — and the drama that unfolds between Bill Murray and a goddamn gopher, rests a true Harold Ramis test piece. We miss you dearly, Mr. Ramis. Golf courses just haven’t been nearly as humorous since you left us.

I don’t care how fun it is to make fun of Tiger Woods ever since his little “accident” six years ago. I only wish you had written that script . . .

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4-0Recommendation: Would it be just too obvious to state that you don’t have to be a golfer to appreciate Caddyshack? Yeah, okay, maybe. Perhaps what Caddyshack should be recommended for is in how it so cleverly and effectively subverts the sport as a stuck-up culture. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

TBTrivia: Chevy Chase and Bill Murray could not stand one another ever since some stuff went down on Saturday Night Live back in the day. They only have one scene together in the entire film, during a scene that was scripted on the fly over a lunch one afternoon in which Ty drives a ball through Carl’s ramshackle house windows. The scene they share is perhaps one of the best in the entire film, in my eyes. 

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Photo credits: http://www.barbarafilmcritique.wordpress.com; http://www.tumblr.com; http://www.imdb.com 

St. Vincent

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Release: Friday, October 24, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Theodore Melfi

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

In St. Vincent Bill Murray is the sort-of-bad guy, and Melissa McCarthy is the sort-of-saint. The role-reversal almost seems self-congratulatory it’s so overt. But does that make this comedy a bad movie?

That largely depends on how you define ‘a bad movie.’ That nine-letter phrase can imply so much. So let’s, before the headache, establish that ‘bad’ in this case translates as lazy; predictable; easy. In which case, you might as well stick a fat check mark in that box. St. Vincent rests on formula when it’s strongest and tugs violently on the heart-strings when all else fails. Had it not been for solid performances (I suppose here’s where I could include ‘predictability’ within the parameters of ‘bad movie’) this unapologetically manipulative and downright boring affair would likely be one of the year’s biggest letdowns.

Bill plays a curmudgeon named Vincent — a veteran of some war (let’s call it the Vietnam War — that’s the one where American troops were appreciated the least, right?) who these days is more comfortable with a bottle of whiskey in hand rather than a woman. But he’s not completely stupid. He makes sure to exude the one other classic symptom of hardened-vet status: a fascination with ladies of the night. In particular, it’s this Daka girl — I can only hope Naomi Watts isn’t usually this annoying — whom Vincent is taken by. He manages to scrape by with a pack of cigarettes and his shitty home cooking and makes regular rounds to the horse track to pay off whatever debts he owes to whomever it may be.

Oh yeah, that reminds me: Terrence Howard is in this.

Vincent’s ability to wall himself off from everyone becomes a character defect best disposed of when the script calls for it; i.e. when young and earnest Oliver (an undeniably excellent 11-year-old Jaeden Lieberher) needs a place to hang out for a few hours while his hard-working mommy (McCarthy) slaves at the hospital to pay the bills after moving to Brooklyn in the wake of a nasty divorce. Credit needs to also be given to McCarthy who, for the first time in some time, seems to be caring about what she offers a film. She’s fantastic. She’s the rock currently holding the two together as she staunchly defends her right, as a good and basically decent human being, to entrust another person to look after her son while she tries to fix things at home.

Too bad her mistake was to loan the babysitting reigns to next-door-neighbor Vincent. After all, isn’t he a man still trying to make things work with a stripper? In a series of “unlikely” events — made actually quite likely given the grouch’s understandable routine of bars, booze, and race track backtrackings — the man and the boy grow into a weird friendship of sorts. Again, this is at the behest of this script. I see no natural development here. (Nor do I have much inspiration to go back and find it, either.)

While enrolled in a private Catholic school, Oliver is asked by his teacher (Chris O’Dowd) to find someone students know, or know of, who may have qualities befitting a saint. Well gee-golly-willickers — I wonder who our fearless Oliver is going to pick? Surely not the bastard who once guilt-tripped his own mother into paying for the fence (and the fucking tree branch) that the moving company she hired was truly responsible for destroying. Yup. That’s the one. Yeah.

In the same way I’m willfully dismissing St. Vincent as a hollow exercise director Theodore Melfi is trying to prove his production has depth; originality. It relies heavily on Bill Murray to provide the gravitas, Melissa McCarthy the humor, and the child actor the quotient of precociousness a film like this needs to survive. Well you know what? It all just fails. Nothing about it seems saintly or even vaguely redeemable.

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2-0Recommendation: I really don’t recommend this to many. For fans of Bill Murray, go watch Ghostbusters; pop back in the Caddyshack DVD; Moonrise Kingdom; hell, go re-watch Space Jam for something that better showcases his talents. Just stay away from this if you’re thinking all things Bill Murray. Unfortunately I’m in a bit of an awkward position because Melissa McCarthy is indeed saintly here. She’s great because she offers a great counter-balance to the permanence of Vincent’s depressive state, which is something Murray sells to great effect.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “A saint is a human being we celebrate for the sacrifices they make, for their commitment to making the world a better place.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Release: Friday, March 7, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Getting to work with Wes Anderson on any given project just has to be an unforgettable experience. If he called, I honestly don’t know how one would be able to use the word ‘No’ during that conversation; that scheduling conflict better be worth it.

Whether just a weekend visitor or planning to rent out a room for the long term, an actor who steps foot inside the lobby of Wes Anderson’s creative space is never quite the same afterwards. Ideally, this is what happens anyway. The opportunity of getting to work alongside such a unique and self-assured director has been one a diverse collection of actors has already taken advantage of and benefitted from.

It’s like clockwork with this guy. Each time he has a new offering there are more big names to point out in a cast that seems to continuously expand. In the case of his latest, the roster has swelled to very grand proportions indeed. Weekend visitors this time around include the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Tom Wilkinson, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Saoirse Ronan and Léa Seydoux — all names that bear much recognition already but that also decided they could use some time away at the Wes Anderson school hotel of filmmaking in order to tap new potential.

Their career moves aren’t so much brave as they are smart. In 2014 the aforementioned names are to join the Wes Anderson fraternity — Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, among others all being potential role models for the newcomers to this wild and wacky world created by one of the most original filmmakers in the business today. By attracting this large of a cast, his new work seems to be bursting at the seams with potential to take his signature quirk to the highest level.

This year Anderson has whipped up The Grand Budapest Hotel, a rollercoaster ride of a friendship between hotel concierge M. Gustave H (Fiennes) and his lobby boy-in-training, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). Taking up the task of training the wet-behind-the-ears lad, Gustave proudly and confidently tours both Zero and the audience through the expansive and elegant enclaves of the hotel whilst explaining the proper etiquette that is expected of its staff. Gustave is something of a celebrity in the mountainous region of the Republic of Zubrowka, where his hotel is located, as he has been known to go to bed with several of his female guests — all of whom have been blonde.

His latest escapade with an elderly woman leaves Gustave embroiled in controversy when evidence of her mysterious death surfaces and doesn’t exactly cast him in a favorable light. As it turns out, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) was an incredibly wealthy individual with a number of possessions to give away. In a surprise move, she bequeathes a rare painting to Gustave for his kindness and care in her later years, and this is done to her surviving family’s great chagrin.

Embittered and angry sons Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and Jopling — which must be a Zubrowkan name for ‘Dracula’ or something because Willem Dafoe looks the part — plot Gustave’s demise in the ensuing chapters. Gustave and Zero bond over the years as they attempt to prove his innocence in the matter by traveling all over the ridiculous place just to get him an alibi. He has to consort with the mysterious Serge X (Mathieu Amalric) in order to do so and at the same time, avoid the increasing threat posed by Jopling and Dmitri. For his assistance and loyalty in this most trying time, Gustave promises to make young Zero his heir at the Grand Budapest, all in due course. . .of course.

Despite the film borrowing shamelessly elements from all other Anderson films — as all other Anderson films do of all other Anderson films — The Grand Budapest Hotel is decidedly one of the darker tales. It shares the same giddy levels of cartoonish action and physical comedy, and the writing is sharply written to the point of guaranteeing at least one painful laugh per half hour. It is even divided up into small chapters like other films are. It features heavy narration and a bevy of well-known actors in funny roles and outfits.

Upon reflection, the 2014 effort features a central story that’s generally bleaker than a lot of his other material has been. Though it is not completely lacking, there isn’t quite as much adoration or affection presented in the affairs ongoing. Even though we’re told about it, we don’t see Zero’s passionate love affair develop much with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan); there are more threats than laughs coming from Madame D’s family as the investigation continues into the death of a member of elite society; Gustave goes to prison for some time because he gets framed for the murder. When Zero’s backstory is given time to be explained, the film looks to be heading in the direction of full-on drama but thanks to the strength of the screenplay and the awareness of Anderson, we never quite go there.

Even when it is apparent that the fate of the hotel is anything but certain given the looming violence on the European horizon, this is through-and-through a Wes Anderson comedy-drama that banks on the same appeal his films have consistently displayed and been appreciated for over the last 20 years.

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4-0Recommendation: Although it doesn’t do much in the way of providing an argument as to why it should be considered his best, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a traditional Anderson dish with a European flare. Almost slapstick in delivering the laughs, the tale is quickly paced once it gets going, though first-time or on-the-fence viewers might find the first twenty minutes or so a bit tedious. Although, the Anderson tropes and the film’s slow opening may all be forgotten if one is a big enough fan of Ralph Fiennes. A stellar turn for the man in a role that contrasts considerably from his usual fare.

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “You’re looking so well darling, you really are. I don’t know what sort of cream they put on you down at the morgue but, I want some.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com