The Dead Don’t Die (2019): Clever Ideas in an Empty Story

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       The type of comedies I’m usually into are British style or dark comedy. This is a film that truly wants to be a dark comedy but I’m sad to say I didn’t laugh once. The premise is intriguing, the execution looks good but the writing just doesn’t work and none of the jokes landed for me. Comedies are a strange thing to review given how subjective it can be. There is such a thing as a film believing it to be more clever than it actually is, and this is that film. I think was the story was going for was calling out the tropes in horror but it forgot to give character arcs and a compelling story in the process.

The film was written and directed by Jim Jamusch who wrote and directed a different film I like in “Only Lovers Left Alive.”

The story follows Sheriff Cliff (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie (Adam Driver) as they deal with the zombie apocalypse in their small town of Centerville.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful. The colors are stark and it does a good job of paying homage to classic zombie films by using red when death is happening and giving a little bit of light and day. Frederick Elmes really did a great job. Within the film you can see what inspirations he pulls from. It is really well done too.

The Cast – Bill Murray, Adam Drive, Tilda Swinton…this is an amazing cast who really deserved a better film. They act the hell out of their tropes, the problem is there isn’t much of a story to hang it all on, so they are wasted.

The Tropes of Zombie Films – We got the zombie invasion of a small town, survivors holed up in the Police Station, Hardware Store and a fight in a cemetery. All of these are so common and if they’d been played it straight like in “Shaun of the Dead,” I think this film could have worked.

Okay:

The Writing and Characters – The writing is all tell and can’t help but referencing itself. We have hipsters from out of town who all get killed (no surprise in a horror film) we have the mysterious owner of the funeral home who is an alien we find out at the very end, the hero cop and the veteran cop who doesn’t care anymore. Somehow the script thought making this about consumerism would give a greater point? The writing is just awful. The jokes fall flat and the characters don’t have arcs. They are static tropes reacting to the situation.

The Cons:

Poor Use of Meta-Humor – Early on Officer Ronnie references the song “The Dead Don’t Die,” as the theme song. He knows it will end badly because he read the script and Bill Murray’s Sheriff Cliff feels that he should have known some of what was going to happen because the director owes him. This is the kind of film that feels like an extended vacation that a director and his friends take in an Adam Sandler film.

An Empty Point – The point is about consumerism but there is nothing to show this beyond a gas station with a lot of horror memorabilia that is being sold. If you want to make a larger point about society you can, just work it better into the script. This film failed at that.

The more I talk about this film the more I dislike what this film is. This film could have worked as a meta-take on consumerism and movie culture but it doesn’t even have that as part of the world of the characters beyond one person. This one person isn’t integrated enough in the plot to illustrate the point either. What also sucks is it is a horror comedy but it wasn’t scary or funny. I can’t recommend this film and saying it okay is being generous. Don’t waste your time and just watch “Shaun of the Dead.”

Final Score: 4 / 10

Isle of Dogs (2018): Overlong Beginning Leads to a Good End

Wes Anderson is one of my Top 3 favorite directors (the other two being Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter). How does this film stand up compared to his other works? It is good, I loved the visuals and characters, but it doesn’t have the depth as some of his other works and it never reaches greatness, even though it is really good. The location and characters are wonderful with some beautiful homages to Kurosawa, and the main cast is wonderfully quirky with the main character arc being solid. So for my non-spoiler thoughts, this definitely gets a strong recommend.

The film was directed by Wes Anderson, who also wrote and was one of the producers of the film. With the other producers being Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson.

The story follows Atari (Koyu Rankin) a young Japanese boy and ward of the new authoritarian Mayor. He travels to the Isle of Dogs to find his dog Spots (Liev Schrieber) on the Island after all dogs are exiled there due to the Dog Flu. Five dogs help on his quest, with Chief (Bryan Cranston) being the stray who hates humans but must learn to trust Atari for them all to survive the quest. As the quest unfolds a conspiracy is revealed on the Isle of Dogs and Megasaki City.

The Pros:

The Animation and Visuals – The film is done in highly detailed, beautiful stop motion animation. Wes Anderson’s use of symmetry is on full display, as each character and their emotions stand out like drum beats on the screen. You can tell that Kurosawa inspired Wes Anderson, and the making of the film. Both directors are good at using wide open spaces to tell stories of travel, and color to express life and death. We get all of that in this film.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack, like the visuals, takes a lot of inspiration from Akira Kurosawa, from the quiet openings with stark drums, and the emphasis on percussion. Alexandre Desplat captures the world so starkly, bringing the characters and scenes to life.

The Pack – The Pack is wonderful. Goldblum’s Duke is a gossip and hears things, Murray’s Boss is kind of oblivious and likes wearing trinkets, Norton’s Rex is the default second-in-command and sometimes leader, Balaban’s King is the washed up ex-celebrity dog who goes through bouts of depression, and Chief is their tough battle-worn leader.

Chief’s Arc – The main arc of the movie belongs to the stray, Chief, who goes from hating humans to becoming Atari’s new bodyguard. His story is believable too, with a dog he likes (Nutmeg) first suggesting he give the kid a chance, and ending with the Atari caring for him as he goes from covered in black soot, to looking just like Spots. He was my favorite character, and I loved how as standoffish as he initially was. There were reasons behind it, just like his transformation made sense due to Atari’s compassion. By the end, he’s the main connector between humanity and the dogs.

Atari and the Mayor – The Mayor is a distant relative of Atari, and for some reason really hates the dogs (it is implied that his ancestors did, and of course they loved cats). In the end Atari’s love for the dogs changes his heart. He does what he can in the end to stop the dogs from being destroyed due to that last minute change of heart. I liked Mayor Kobayashi in the end, he was a great antagonist and had a level of complexity to him.

Okay: The Foreign Exchange Student / The Student Arc – Tracy Walker leads her class in saving the dogs on the Island. My issue with this was that we never get what brought her to Japan, so it gives a bit of a white savior vibe to her interactions, especially since the other students are never given words. I’m still putting her at okay as Tracy was a compelling character, the downside is she could have been anyone, and I would have preferred she’d have been Japanese like Atari.

What About the Cats? – I’m putting this as okay as the film could have become overcrowded if we had the cats speaking. I also wanted to know the cats motivations. It implies they are the leaders of Japan, but it never does anything with it. The cats never have a voice, and it takes away from the overall point. They weren’t even needed, since the focus was on the dogs.

The Cons:

The Japanese are Only Given a Voice Through Limited Translation – This ties into Tracy and the students. Most Japanese never get the chance to speak, or be understood, as they are filtered through translation. This wasn’t needed at all. I think it was meant for us to focus fully on the story of the dogs, but the story of humanity and the dogs is interconnected, so both should have their voices fully heard.

Pacing – The pacing is the biggest issue, about 20 minutes in I was exhausted (I walked from Ready Player One to the awesome indie theatre, Salem Cinema, for this double feature). This may have been a contributing factor to how slow it felt, and why it took me out of the film early on. It is slow, even though the payoff later is fantastic.

This was a film that I really enjoyed, and captures so much of why Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors. From the characters and their detachment, to the fight against the stronger enemy (Atari against the government), and the quirky characters (mostly the dogs)… If you are a fan of Wes Anderson, you will love this film. If you aren’t a fan, or haven’t heard of him… I’d still recommend it. This is an original story that may take a while to reel you in, but once there you’ll be hooked.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

The Jungle Book (2016): Great Cinematography But Extremely Boring and Slow

The Jungle Book

     As someone who wasn’t a fan of the original animated “The Jungle Book,” I think this was a movie that wasn’t made for me. The original is better though by leaps and bounds…as this at the end of the day this was a film that bored me so much I fell asleep during part of it. That hardly ever happens to me during films. So before non-spoiler thoughts, the amazing voice cast can’t save this boring film that would only really work as a movie playing in the background for kids…I don’t know how much of their attention it would be able hold of it is the core focus.

      “The Jungle Book” was directed by Jon Favreau who was also one of the producers while being written by Justin Marks. The other producer was Brigham Taylor and the film is based off the book of the same name by Rudyard Kipling.

    The story involves Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) telling the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and how his arrival changed everything in the Jungle while he and the other animals must deal with the threat of Shere Khan (Idris Elba) who wants Mowgli and any who support him dead.

     The film is beautiful, but that is about the only thing positive I can say about it. The Special Effects look great and manage to make some of the action meaningful, but there isn’t much to say beyond that.

    This is a film with an amazing voice cast…Murray as Baloo, Kinglsey as Bagheera Nyong’O as Raksha and Elba as Shere Khan is brilliant casting…but the writing is so bland and the characters are so one dimensional that none of it matters. Mowgli has a few chase scenes but they hold no power since he starts out doing a fake chase and the action is so slow…it doesn’t matter if there is an amazing voice cast since they just seem to exist. Nothing meaningful really happens beyond Mowgli making new friends.

    This was an uninspired film and it doesn’t give me much hope for the other films that Disney turned live action from what were originally their animated films. I hope “Beauty and the Beast” is good, but if it is like this film it is going to be really boring and not worth anyone’s time. A story has to have meaningful action and change and I didn’t see that in Mowgli’s story or in relation to the characters around him, they are all just kind of there and there isn’t any music to give it more life like the animated film where at least music can keep a boring or simple story interesting.

    If you have kids, they might enjoy it…but honestly just take them to “Finding Dory” or get them a Pixar film or “Zootopia.” That is a much better use of their time and your time and you’ll be a lot more entertained and experience a film that would actually have purpose.

Final Score: 3 / 10

Ghostbusters (2016): A Decent Comedy With a Villain and Climax That Don’t Work

Ghostbusters 2016

   For being one of the most politically controversial films this year, “Ghostbusters” was actually enjoyable. I wouldn’t go so far as calling it great as it did have a major villain issue and the finale went on a lot longer than it should have, but it had enough going for it in the main characters and the comedy that I was entertained. This film didn’t have to be made, as goes for most films that have been turned into soft reboots and Franchises and that mentality is one I dislike in Hollywood as I want more original stories. Given all of that though, if you are looking for a decent comedy you will no doubt be entertained by this film.

  The film was directed by Paul Feig who was also one of the writers, with the other writer being Katie Dippold. The producers were Ivan Reitman and Amy Pascal.

   The story involves Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) seeking out her friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) from her past when Abby publishes their book on the paranormal and ghosts and Erin realizes her tenure at Columbia at risk. When they reunite they find themselves pulled into the paranormal and must stop the villain raising ghosts around town while facing the city of New York who doesn’t believe them.

The Pros: The Comedy – The comedy is a lot of improv but works overall. This is largely due to the chemistry between the leads. I prefer the dry humor of the original but these 4 ladies are fantastic.

Charles Dance – He plays Wiig’s boss at the University and is great at being stuck up and overly conservative. He only has 2 scenes but they are quite funny and that is largely due to Dance’s charisma.

Kevin – Hemsworth is an underrated actor and this movie really showed that he can play both the hero and the dolt as Kevin is a hilarious beefcake model who has to learn basic skills over the course of the film.

The Cameos – Murray as a skeptic, Aykroyd as a Cabbie, Ernie Hudson as Toles’s Uncle and Potts as the Hotel Desk Clerk where the most memorable ones. I would have preferred a sequel and passing of a baton if they were going to make this film but since they didn’t, I’m glad they got to at least show up to remind us of the classic film that started everything.

The Leads – The four leads are the best part of the film. It was very smart casting on Sony’s part as this could have easily been with the Adam Sandler crew (seriously Sony, stop giving him money) or any other comedy group. I liked who they chose since they weren’t going for a 3rd film.

Dr. Erin Gilbert – Wiig is great at being the nervous professor who is always trying to overcompensate. She is someone who is unsure and is the who really helps illustrate the quirks of the others. Her arc is getting confidence and healing her friendship with Abby.

Dr. Abby Yates – It is Melissa McCarthy, she is one of the better comedians when she is in her element and given decent writing. She is here and it is awesome to see her in the Aykroyd role as the believer in the paranormal who is the most competent businesswise because she’s had to live off nothing because of how out there her career is.

Jillian Holtzmann – Jillian is crazy and offputting and was probably my favorite character in the film. She’s very much someone who isn’t quite there and because of that her friendship with Abby made sense. McKinnon is fantastic and I can’t wait to see her in other stuff.

Patty Tolan – Leslie Jones does a great job as the one who knows what is going on and whose fear was the most believable. She sold a lot of the scenes for me because of how in it she was. Her scenes were the most natural it felt like too and it felt like she wasn’t doing as much improv as the others which gave strength to the overall film.

Okay/Con: Been Here Before – The original “Ghostbusters” is a classic for a reason and I have fond memories of it and look forward to reviewing it, “Ghostbusters 2” pretty much re-did the same story over again in a weaker way and plotwise this story suffers from the same problem. I hate that this is common and this was a rightful issue with “The Force Awakens.” If you are going to have original characters, tell an original story. The Four starting a ghost hunting business and having to face their own doubts, the city as an enemy and a supernatural foe is exactly “Ghostbusters 1 and 2.” This main cast deserved better as they had good chemistry.

The Cons: The Villain – I can’t remember his name or anything about him besides the fact that he was someone who hated being bullied so wanted to bully the town. He dies, becomes a ghost, posses Kevin and wants to cause the Fourth Apocalypse. The fact that his name isn’t even memorable and his actions are cliche are a major problem with the film.

The Climax – The fight goes on way too long and just keeps going and going. The animation isn’t all that great for the ghosts either so it stands out as well. I missed how quite and subtle so much of the action was in the original compared to this. This one is going loud and “Marvel” Movie climax and it takes away time from our characters who we really needed more time with to get their motivations more fully.

  This is a film that could have been awful, the trailers certainly made it look like it would be awful…and if the villain had been more front and center as unmemorable as he already was, the climax gone on another 5 minutes…it would have been worse. Luckily the actual film itself was entertaining. The humor worked for the most part, I cared about the leads and if you are looking for a decent comedy this summer, you will probably enjoy this.

Final Score: 7.6 / 10

Top 5 Films of 2014

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This is the first time that I’m doing a Top 5 list for the year, but there shall be many more to come as the blog continues to exist. This was a great year for films and there are a lot of films I’m going to mention that didn’t make the list that I still think you should watch, again this was a great year for films. The films that made the list are ones that stand out to me though and are ones that I plan to own and would watch multiple times…these are the movies that stand on their own as a film and are the best of the best for this year. So, before I get into the list, here are the honorary mentions.

“Big Hero 6” Disney Studios did it again, it’s rich and deep and worth seeing. “X-Men Days of Future Past,” Bryan Singer is back and the X-Men series is great again. “Gone Girl” and “Interstellar” almost made the list but after re-reading my reviews I realized that the problems they have don’t elevate them to best of the best. Still worth seeing, “The Book of Life,” excellent animation and story, which “How to Train Your Dragon 2” also did and had loss, in a kids film just like “Big Hero 6.” This was a good year for animated stories. None of these are in the top 5 though, but you should still check them out. Also, “Mockingjay Part 1” is the best of that Franchise so far too.

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5) Guardians of the Galaxy

Director James Gunn

This script is hilarious, the characters are rich and you know what…you will care about what happens to a talking Racoon and a Tree Alien that can only say, “I am Groot.” That is the magic of this story as it shows just how expansive the marvel universe really is.  James Gunn is clearly the right guy to be put in charge of this franchise and I can’t wait to see how he expands the universe. These characters are broken and flawed and we love them because of it. They are forced to grow from the mistakes they make and they learn to care about each other. It also has a rocking soundtrack full of that 70’s rock n’ roll that adds humor to scenes and provides an epic feel in many scenes. My issue with why it isn’t higher on the list are two reasons…Thanos is just kind of hanging around, and Gamora’s development doesn’t really happen. The guys have great character arcs, but Gamora doesn’t get enough screen time for her character and and her character’s motivations to be developed. Still made the top 5 for a reason though. Definitely worth checking out and multiple watches. It truly is a masterpiece.

Score: 9.8 / 10

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/guardians-of-the-galaxy-2014-a-masterpiece-of-sci-fi-action-and-comedy-gold/

Captain America Winter Soldier

4) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Director Anthony and Joe Russo

I didn’t care about Captain America in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” after “Winter Soldier” he is my favorite member of the Avengers. This is a movie with consequences which “Guardians of the Galaxy” lacked in regards to the Marvel Continuity. One of the major parts of the world is destroyed and we learn that one of the enemies that was a nobody enemy before is like a virus in the world of Marvel. This is powerful as we finally have an enemy that feels like a threat, Captain America has to wrestle with being a moral hero in questionable situations where there isn’t a clear good or bad. Hell, the bad guy is sympathetic even though he only appears in this movie. We also realize just how complicated Black Widow is, it was this movie that made me want the Black Widow film…her story is rich and we get glimpses of this in this film. We are also introduced to Falcon who is one of my favorite characters now in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He may someday be Captain America’s replacement too when Chris Evans leaves, at least the new comics leave that option open which makes me happy. Again, this is a movie with consequences in the world of Marvel as a whole and has so many rich characters who all receive development. The scenes at the end also set up “Age of Ultron” really well in regards to two characters who will be appearing in it. Only issue with the film is that the Winter Soldier doesn’t get enough of development. He is a force of nature more than anything else. Still worth checking out though. It’s my favorite of the Disney Marvel films so far and stands strong on it’s own as a part of the greater whole. Not only that the issue of freedom and security is addressed in an awesome matter. It answers the “So what?” in regards to it’s own existence better than any Marvel film prior.

Score: 10 / 10

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/captain-america-the-winter-soldier-an-amazing-spy-thriller-that-changes-the-marvel-universe/

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3) Birdman

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu

Alejandro truly created a masterpiece here. This movie critiques the culture of New York City, reveals the nature of lies (acting in a way is a lie, playing pretend and people want the lie for the story) and dealing with Ego and pride as Michael Keaton plays his greatest character so far in his best performance of all time. Not only does the film deal with issue that actually matter and how to grow beyond the ego and have an all star cast but it also has beautiful cinematography and the music which as a constant drum throughout is great at adding tension. This film was also filmed to look like a continuous shot so you feel like you are in a lived in world. The characters are all flawed and all of them are forced to grow from circumstances and situations. My only issue with this film is the ambiguous ending. So much of the film is about breaking out of ambiguity which is embraced at the end which sadly takes away from what could have been a perfect film. I put it above “Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” even though it has a lower score since it is an original film and not part of a franchise. In the era of franchises I greatly value the self-contained story.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/birdman-2014-a-surreal-exploration-of-meaning-and-ego/

Noah-2014-Banner

2) Noah

Director Darren Aronofsky

“Noah” is the best of Darren Aronofsky’s work in my opinion. It has a much better reason for it’s existence than “Black Swan” which is another favorite film and tackles if humanity is truly worth saving. It also has some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in any movie. What elevates this film above “Birdman” it isn’t ambiguous. “Noah” is mad clearly and God is an abstract. It’s such a beautiful take on a mythological tale that I can’t help but appreciate it simply for existing. It gives fallen angels the look of giant rock golems and we see just how dark humanity can become and just how flawed Noah and his family are. There are no heroes in this film which gives the dilemma of humanity being worth saving truly an issue. It’s dark which is what Aronofsky’s specializes in, though as far as the ending goes it is more bittersweet than some of his other films… which is saying something,  given the premise of Noah is mass genocide of the human race. Great performances from Connelly, Watson and Crowe as well. Some of the best work I’ve seen from all of them. Definitely check it out if you like dark films with a point.

Score: 10 / 10

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/08/16/noah-2014-the-meaning-of-humanity/

The Grand Budapest Hotel

1) The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director Wes Anderson

The greatest film of 2014 goes to “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” This film tackles the very nature of story in that it is presented to us as the author talking about the book, which before is lead into with a child reading the book, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” at his monument. From here the richness only goes deeper as we see a country torn apart by war and corruption that our heroes live in. From the refugee Zero finding love with Agatha as they are both poor people with nothing except each other and Gustave H. who lives only for them and The Grand Budapest Hotel which is his legacy and what he puts his lifeblood into. The film explores the nature of humanity and we see cowards, heroes, villains and people of all types living in a harsh world where the people who have the ability to push forth their will use it to supress others…from the outcast immigrants like Zero, to Gustave H. because he doesn’t come from money and was loved by an old woman who was old money. This film shows us that family is more than blood and that sorrow can be around any corner, just like the good moments and adventures we have will always be with us. This is the best Wes Anderson film and one of my favorite film of all times. If you are looking for a timeless film and the best film of 2014, check this one out. It is worth every bit of praise it has received and is one of the greatest films of all time.

Score: 10 / 10

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/edthe-grand-budapest-hotel-2014-of-story-the-nostalgia-from-loss-and-a-life-lived/

St. Vincent (2014): A Dark Comedy With a Good Heart

St. Vincent Poster

     “St. Vincent” pretty much shows that Bill Murray is still in great form and part of what makes a good comedy (or any story) is caring about the characters. Everyone in this is flawed but not to the point of likability which means the humor comes from who the people are. This is the key to good comedy. Suffice to say I did like a lot about this film, though I wouldn’t call it great or a favorite. I’ll explain why in the assessment.

     “St. Vincent” was directed by Theodore Melfi who was also the writer and one of the producers. The other producers were Fred Roos, Jenno Topping and Peter Chernin.

     The premise is Vincent (Bill Murray) is someone who is very down on his luck both literally (gambles and loses) and figurativly (in debt to everyone and something personal that is revealed later). Everything comes to a head and things change when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) break his fence and tree which later leads to Oliver being babysat by Vincent as his mom is working long hours. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Soundtrack – I really enjoyed the music in this film. It has an indie feel to it and Theodore Shapiro did a great job capturing the emotions. If you aren’t into comedies, definitely at least check out the soundtrack.

Daka – Naomi Watts plays a Russian stripper who sleeps for sex on the side but soon develops a relationship with Vincent over the course of the film, as well as Oliver and Maggie. She is the one who doesn’t put up with crap and speaks clearly to all of them. This gives her a breath of fresh air in a few situations where Maggie is dealing with crap from the courts and her ex-husband and Vincent refuses to deal with his problems and finds himself unable to speak or move that much after a stroke. She adds a great dimension to it as she doesn’t like people it appears at first but in fact does care about those she adopts as family and her baby.

Zucko – Terrance Howard plays a small but essential role in this. He’s the loan shark who in the end causes Vincent to get a hard attack after Vincent loses all his money and he comes to collect. He’s interesting in that he does keep giving Vincent chances and after never appears again. In that way he must have noticed that Vincent was already in a hell of his own creation and decided he should stay there.

Maggie – Melissa McCarthy is really good and playing the single mother on hard times is something she does really well in this. We see how overwhelmed she is just trying to make ends meet post divorce and how no one has her back. This remains the case until Daka (the stripper in a relationship with Vincent) and Vincent finally come through and she finds support and community. This is really the entire arc of the picture but it does it well.

Vincent – Vincent is a terrible human being in many ways, but you also get why he is that way at the start. His wife has Alzheimers and he goes to take care of her and reach out to her and puts most of his money towards giving her a comfortable life. This motivation is one reason he’s afraid to get close to people until others (Daka, Maggie and mostly Oliver) break through that as they accept him as he is and in the case of Oliver during his Saints Speech expresses how grateful he is that Vincent is a part of his life and recounts the life he lived and how he lived like a saint (leading to the movies title). Of course he still drinks, smokes…though probably doesn’t gamble anymore and is still a bit of a prick but he finds community and in it acceptance and love he hasn’t experienced since his wife lost her mind. Bill Murray did an amazing job in this, playing both the dark humor that makes up Vincent and the affection that shines through as he shares his world with Oliver.

The Comedy – There are some great comedic moments in this and the movie succeeds at being a comedy. One moment is when Oliver is reading “The Giving Tree” and how giving is the most important thing. Maggie expresses herself as the tree and the boy as her ex in how she gave everything and got nothing back. How McCarthy executes it is brilliant. Bill Murray does too in his monotone execution of scenes and when he and Oliver are in the bars, hanging out with Daka and when they go gambling at the races.

Okay: Oliver – The guys a child actor and the really great ones are few and far between, but he does alright. He starts out as the kid afraid to stand up for himself, but after Vincent teaches him how to fight he defeats the bully and becomes friends with him.

The Ending – Vincent finds acceptance from the community and keeps doing what he’s doing but with more awareness of others. The speech recounting his life was great but in the credits he’s just listening to music and not caring about anything…the two are pretty stark contrasts and that hurts the ending making it okay but not a pro.

The Cons: Where is Zuko? – Zucko disappears. I would have liked some sort of follow up since Vincent owed a lot of money.

The Catholic School – The teacher who does the Saints report is quite funny and an interesting guy…though we don’t get much of him beyond him being accepting of others and devoted to his faith. The school functions as an antagonist until the end when things are resolved with Vincent but that process is more sudden than anything else. I wish it had happened gradually as we saw more of their interactions with Maggie.

      This was a good but not great comedy. I would definitely recommend it nonetheless. If you are a fan of McCarthy or Murray they are in top form in this and Naomi Watts has some great joke moments too in relation to the two of them. The story is really good and cares about it’s characters. The characters have actual arcs and change over time and we see relationships form in realistic ways. If you like comedy, drama, Murray and McCarthy definitely check this out!

Final Score: 8.2 / 10. It was a good dark comedy.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009): A Fun Tale of Finding Freedom Through Struggles

Fantastic Mr. Fox

     “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is in no way the best of Wes Anderson’s work…but like all of his works it is a lot of fun and has some pretty amazing characters. There aren’t many characters in it, but the characters who do have arcs get the time and attention they deserve that shows just how complex they are as well as giving some great threats to face as they are all forced to grow.

      The film was directed by Wes Anderson who was also one of the producers and screenplay writers. The other writer was Noah Baumbach and the other producers were Allison Abbate, Scott Rudin and Jeremy Dawson. The story came from the same Roald Dahl book of the same name, which I hope to read.

     The premise follows the story of Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) getting caught in a fox trap where Mr. Fox learns she is pregnant. She makes him promise if they escape to give up stealing food which he agrees to. They settle down in the Tree that is close to three dangerous farmers and are raising their son Ash as Mr. Fox begins to get back into the stealing business with their neighbor Kylie Opossum which gets more complicated when Ash’s cousin Kristofferson arrives making Ash feel like even more of an outcast as he is rejected by his father who pulls Kristofferson into his stealing plots. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: Production – Everything is miniatures and is done with stop motion animation making the film really unique and cool as the animals move like animals and it gives an organic reality to it you would be more hard pressed to find it was done with animation or cgi.

The Script – Wes Anderson’s script is quick and witty and he does a good job paying tribute to Roahl Dahl as there is a dark survivalist undercurrent through the script and the characters are all reckless in different ways as the war with the farmers gets more intense.

The Soundtrack – Alexandre Desplat does a fantastic job with this soundtrack and gives the world a very lived in feel while paying tribute to bluegrass and country which fit with the survival themes of the film.

Badger – Badger is voiced by Bill Murray and is Mr. Fox’s lawyer and he is the one who should have been listened to. He was right about how dangerous the house in the tree was by being close to the farmers and because he was listened to (and his client Mr. Fox harassed the farmers) he and the rest of the forest creatures became refugees. He holds Mr. Fox accountable and like Felicity forces Mr. Fox to take action to right the wrongs he did by his selfish actions.

Kylie Opossum – Is voiced by Wallace Wolodarsky and is one of the folks who sees the big picture in a lot of ways. He has a credit card and good credit, he is happy in his life but is pulled into Mr. Fox’s schemes because he above all else is a follower looking for identity and fun. In the end he finds both as he comes up with his catchphrase (like Mr. Fox’s whistle and wink) and dances with all at the end.

Ash – Ash is played by Jason Shwartzman and is a disgruntled teen through most of the film. His arc is accepting that he is different as he glares and spits a lot but he learns from his mom Felicity that weird runs in their family and when he makes peace with that he is able to accept responsibility in regards to how cruel he was out of jealousy to Kristofferson. His arc is the most solid as when he accepts himself he is able to have a relationship with everyone else around him and shows that it is the strange stuff about us that are part of what make us who we are.

Kristofferson – Kristofferson is one of my favorite characters. He is a calm, talented fox who does yoga who Mr. Fox adopts as a son by pulling him into his schemes. Kristofferson clearly feels grateful as he eventually gets caught by the farmers and used as bate to catch Mr. Fox. He makes peace with Ash as the end and teaches him to meditate. He doesn’t really have an arc but is mostly put together (more so than Mr. Fox) so others learn from his cool. He was voiced by Eric Anderson.

Felicity – Mr Fox’s wife Felicity is the character who is just as reckless as him until she is pregnant with Ash. We learn she always had that risk taking in her though and see that she sees beyond herself more easily than Mr. Fox as she cares for the forest refugees and pulls Mr. Fox out of himself to where he sees the consequences of his actions and works harder to care for others because of it. I really liked her character and Meryl Streep is fantastic.

Mr. Fox – George Clooney owns this role as his addiction to the thrill of the hunt and experiencing great food and drink lead him into trouble. He is a good person at his core but extremely selfish as the farmers were minding their own business until he began stealing from them again. He justifies it initially as he is a wild animal but when he’s reminded he’s also a father and husband he gets his act together and works on making the refugees a home. His arc is getting outside of himself and he eventually gets that as others risk for him forcing him in turn to risk for others.

Okay: Agnes – Is the fox love interest of Kristofferson who makes Ash jealous. She exists mostly as a plot device and isn’t much of a character sadly beyond supporting Kristofferson and eventually becoming friends with Ash.

The Other Minor Characters – There are Otters and Rabbits and a few other creatures who are mostly background. They have great design but aren’t memorable as characters, they aren’t bad either for what it is worth.

The Cons: The Farmers – The farmers are a good threat but they aren’t all that complicated. They are just defending their property and going to great extremes to do so. The fact that they aren’t complicated is one of the things I didn’t like as they weren’t super memorable and could be interchanged with any farmer threat in a film that follows the story of forest creatures…and they are as complex as their last names (Bean, Boggis and Bunce).

    This was an extremely fun film and my second time watching it. My favorite parts were the interactions between Ash and Kristofferson and Mr. Fox and everyone as he is a selfish guy who creates most of the conflict in the first place, and realizes it so much of his arc is trying to make amends. There are constant consequences and there aren’t really any happy endings…it’s bittersweet as the animals are living in the sewers now and the three farmers are still seeking their destruction, but it has hope. Part of what I always like about Wes Anderson films is how bittersweet they are as well as fun and this film captures both those things beautifully. If you like Wes Anderson, chances are you will like this film.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great.

Where the Buffalo Roam (1980): An Okay Hunter S. Thompson Film

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         Hunter S. Thompson is a fascinating character, he was a journalist who critiqued the world around him and was always getting into trouble and messing with his own perception through the use of drugs. This of course has lead to some interesting books and films…the best of which thus far “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which feels like a drug fueled trip. “Where the Buffalo Roam” is a much smarter film as far as story goes, but in many ways just as random which brings the story structure down. Beyond this I’ll get into why it’s okay, but not great in the assessment.

         “Where the Buffalo Roam” was directed by Art Linson, who also produced the film and written by John Kaye. The story is based on The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat and Strange Rumblings in Aztlan by Hunter S. Thompson.

        The premise of the film is Thompson recalling the adventures with his lawyer Lazlo and the situations and exploits they were a part of created. The story begins with Lazlo defending teenagers for possession of marijuana and fighting the prosecutor which leads to him being arrested. We than jump four years later, as Lazlo has grown popular and but goes missing and draws Thompson into his life again during Super Bowl VI. From here the story unfolds as they clash and we see how different they truly are in their idealism.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Music – Music is taken from the sixties, seventies and eighties which gives the movie a real lived in feel. Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” is played at some point, as well as some other classics. This was a pro for sure.

Lazlo – Lazlo is Thompson’s idealistic lawyer who gives us a glimpse of the many arms of the activist community during the sixties. This makes him a fascinating figure as we see him fight physically in a court room after a young kid gets 5 years to life for possession of marijuana. Lazlo is fighting to change it and stands by the activists. This is the good of the character, the darker side is when he joins some of the more violent movements and tries to create an isolated community in the middle of nowhere. It is here we see his selfish side comes out as he talks about saving a woman for Thompson (Really? She’s not a thing). I liked Del Toro in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” better in this role, but Peter Boyle does alright and is good at showing both the idealism and violence that made Lazlo who he was.

The Super Bowl – We see the guys who got the press passes go backstage drunk and say hello to their mom on live television, we see Thompson drunk and tripped up playing football with the staff and turning his room into a field and of course Lazlo arriving in a Nixon mask.

The Campaign Trail – This is after Lazlo has gone and Thompson adopts the identity of Harris (Rene Auberjonois) and get him tripped up on acid while he goes and talks to the Candidate and takes off his clothes in front him while advocating for the doomed while the Candidate tells him the “Doomed can fuck themselves.” You pretty much see how his charisma and crazyness is able to put people at ease to reveal themselves to him, making his stories interesting.

Harris – Rene Auberjonois (Odo from “Star Trek: Deep Space 9”) Does a great job as the nervous reporter from the Washington Post stuck in the crazy plane with all the activist journalists. He connects with Thompson though and Thompson’s hallucinatory drugs make him super relaxed and fun. Rene does a good job playing both the different parts and I wish we’d seen more of his character after what went down.

Hunter S. Thompson – Bill Murray does a good job humanizing Thompson and his perspective. What we see is a guy who is a bit of a troll and loves poking power and authority while standing up and helping the poor when he can, as well as just seeking a good time. All these parts of him are shown really well and we get that he’s a genius but not very responsible as he runs away from assignments (he gives his press pass to two strangers to get them into the Super Bowl) but he is aware enough to not join Lazlo’s violent cult that plans to kill those who disagree as he has violent people in his organization. Thompson never loses his idealism, and we see it in his conversation with students at a university where he doesn’t advocate for his lifestyle of drugs and insanity but tells them it worked for him. Murray brings an every man approach to the role that humanizes more than the insane Johnny Depp from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” though Depp is much more fun to watch because of his insanity.

The Cons: Cinematography – “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” felt like a drug trip, this film, even though Thompson is on drugs throughout it, is not. It is almost like the biographical approach was taken too literally in how it’s presented, which takes away from some of the more insane scenes…like spraying people on an  airplane, a drug addled game of football and others.

The Story Structure – Because Thompson is recounting the story, nothing feels at stake. No matter how crazy things get, we know he’ll get away. This is another way “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was better since we didn’t know that. It is also hard to see him his praise for Lazlo when at the end they are fighting all the time and Thompson clearly doesn’t like the revolutionaries after one of them beats up his own men and almost shoots up Lazlo’s cabin. If this is Lazlo’s story, it remains unfinished, so what was the point?

The Beginning – The story kicks off really slow and it is hard to sympathize with Thompson at first as we see him constantly skirting his responsibility and using random people. He becomes more sympathetic in contrast to Lazlo, but the story doesn’t start off making him endearing…even if he’s played by Bill Murray.

The Ending – The Ending just kind of ends, he leaves Lazlo again (when it wasn’t needed, he left him before when Lazlo and his group were getting weapons). It would have been stronger if Thompson had any desire to join the group, but we never see him wanting too. He enjoys what he gets from his work and being able to drink and do whatever drugs he wants while covering interesting events. So Lazlo’s temptation doesn’t really feel like a temptation, which again we see Thompson at his ranch so we can guess even earlier that never took Lazlo up on his offer.

      This movie was enjoyable, it was okay…but it wasn’t great. The story structure and how the film is presented don’t lend themselves will for getting fully invested in the different adventures and events. We in the end, have no reason to care about Lazlo and Thompson is interesting, but without a concrete structure it is hard to get invested in the events that unfold. Knowing he’s writing the story takes away from it too. If it was him writing his biography it should have been revealed at the end, so we wouldn’t know how things would end up in the end. I’d say see it if you like Hunter S. Thompson’s writing and like Bill Murray but if you don’t, you aren’t missing much.

Final Score: 7 / 10. Solidly okay.

The Razor’s Edge (1984): The Quest for Enlightenment

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“The Razor’s Edge,” this version at least, is one of my Grandfather’s favorite movies. I had the chance to watch it with him today and I must say I was impressed. It’s a powerful film that reminded me a lot of the book Remains of the Day and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Both of which are favorites of mine. Suffice to say this became a favorite movie, I’ll get into the reason for this in the assessment of the film.

“The Razor’s Edge” is based off the novel of the same by W, Somerset Maughman’s book published in 1944 of the same name and the original 1946 film that came out of it. Which I’ll be reviewing at some point to contrast with this version and the book.

This version was directed by John Byrum, written by John Byrum and Bill Murray and produced by Rob Cohen.

The story involves a man named Larry (Bill Murray) from high society who is sent with his friend Gray (James Keach) who will be going abroad to Europe to serve as ambulance drivers on the front lines for France and England. He is looking forward to marrying his love Isabel (Catherine Hicks) but things change when he loses his mentor and friend Piedmont in the War from a bayonet from an enemy soldier, and returns lost. From here the story unfold as he seeks meaning behind all the needless loss and suffering he’s gone through and how his and his friend’s relationships play out.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography in this film is fantastic! Given how many places that Larry goes (America, France, India) it does a good job of capturing these places through his eyes…whether he’s distant and detached, or in the thick of it working.

How the War Changed Larry – Larry watches his friend die from a gunshot in the trenches after he’s been shot and he weeps as he insults him the way their commander insulted the rich guys from Harvard who were serving since he in fact did care for them and distancing was the only way to deal. Before this Larry is happy go lucky, he is connecting with the two women he loves (Sophie and Isabel) and is happy with the promise he gets from his position as a wealthy aristocrat. The war changes him when he sees how fleeting life can be and how purposeless death is.

Finding Enlightenment – It’s weird that this isn’t the end since most movies would have this as the end. The main character realizes it’s all about the purpose in actions, or using the meaning from books in the world to make a difference. Larry goes with a dishwasher in India to visit a Lama high up in a Temple. It is there he climbs the highest peak and realizes that words are meaningless without action and to live with purpose behind all he does. The thing is though, he has to actually do that in the world and enter back into the relationships in his life that caused him so much pain. Just because he realized that didn’t mean his suffering or work stopped. So many books and stories stop at this point, they never answer, what after? That’s one of the issues I have with Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha even though it is a favorite book. This story doesn’t end there. He has to keep living.

Everything Changes – Sophie loses her husband and son in a car crash, before Larry heads to India Isabel has a one night stand and leaves him when living in poverty is too much and she marries Gray, Gray is a stock broker who loses all his money in the Depression and his father commits suicide and they stay with Uncle Elliot in France, Sophie is also there and has become an addict and prostitute. Things change and continue to change throughout the film.

The Characters – I’ve already gone into some of the rich dynamic of the characters above. Suffice to say this is the best Bill Murray film I’ve ever watched, but the others do a great job too.

Uncle Elliot – Played by Denholm Elliot of “Indiana Jones” fame (the professor who got lost in his own museum). He owns this role as the high society man who wants to be a part of the big wigs but is always on the outside because of how odd he is. He always accepts Larry even when Larry destroys his things and lets characters make their own choices even if he disproves. For these reasons his death at the end means something as it reveals characters intentions and relationships are resolved.

Piedmont – This guy is gruff but good hearted and the actor Brian Doyle-Murray does a fantastic job! We see him try and teach the rich students who came over by destroying muddying their ambulance so it wouldn’t hinder them but only Larry gets it. He later shares their loss with Larry and after Larry is the one who truly feels the loss of Piedmont who had become his friend and mentor by this time and the reason he survived the War.

Sophie – Loses her husband and son, becomes a prostitute in France after losing everything and all support and is building a life with Larry when Isabel turns her fears on her and manipulates her into drinking again which brings back all her self hatred. Her story is a tragedy that shows how staying strong is being at the razor’s edge…which the Lama expresses to Larry. She also has things going against her from the beginning as Robby and her marry when she gets pregnant…which everyone looks down upon. Theresa Russell is great in this role.

Gray – Gray is the well meaning socialite who escapes the experiences of the War by embracing work and the role everyone wants him to play, which leads to him and Isabel getting married and having two kids. His friendship with Larry feels real though he never fully gets over losing his position of power which is why he and Isabel end up living with Uncle Elliot in France, it’s a shame that they never learn empathy from that. Regardless he has a great moment at the end where he tells Larry that Larry is one of his best friends and Larry tells him Isabel will explain all that’s been going on.

Larry – This is Bill Murray’s best role I’ve seen him in. He’s got comedy, drama, the quest for enlightenment and experiencing so much suffering. He co-wrote the Screenplay and put his character through Hell. You think things are going to work out with Sophie but after Isabel sabotages her and one of the pimps kill her we are left with a Larry that could be very desolate. Instead he accepts the suffering, like he did when he was in India and knows he’s got to go back to America. That’s he’s been away too long. Bill Murray owned this role and his actions of empathy…from telling the truth Isabel and Gray, to building a life with Sophie when she was in the lowest place and pretending the Princess sent a telegram to Uncle Elliot since it was all he wanted in the end.

Okay: Isabel – Catherine Hicks is a little over dramatic at times but she’s not a bad character. She’s written primarily as an adversary to Larry which is a shame though, we never get her point of view and her shaming and destroying of Sophie was unforgivable. For these reason I can’t put her in the pro. Not when all the other characters are fully fleshed out.

The Beginning – When we’re in Illinois in high society it’s really slow and you can’t help feeling detached. For this reason I can’t put it as a pro, since more could have been done to build and establish relationships here.

This is one of my favorite films and one I’d highly recommend. I can’t wait to see the first version and read the Novel. This film had a great cinematography, writing and cast and I can fully understand appreciate why it is one of my Grandfather’s favorite films. If you are looking for a film with complex characters and depth, this is the film for you.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10. Nearly perfect.