The Dead Don’t Die

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What a disappointment! What a waste of talent!

It is true that The Dead Don’t Die actually was the opening film of the 2019 Cannes Festival last month. It still stinks.

Who’s to blame? Jim Jarmusch. He wrote the script. He directed. He’s the guy responsible of the slow pace of the film’s feeble story. He’s the guy who is stingy with the funny stuff. For a “zombie comedy,” the laughs are scarce.

The cast includes people you know and like. Bill Murray is a police chief in the typical American small town of Centerville. Adam Driver is his partner. Chloe Sevigny is also on the force. Tilda Swinton is the new undertaker in town. Tom Waits is a local hermit. Also in the cast: Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, among other familiar faces.

The set-up: The world is in a minor panic after fracking messes with the earth’s rotation. This triggers, among other events, a return to the above ground world by the previously dead at the Centerville cemetery. It’s a decent framework for comedy storytelling but it never gets traction.

Sturgill Simpson’s theme song is played several times in the film. His song is okay but the running gag is weak.

Look, I’m sure people worked hard to make this movie. I respect their efforts. But The Dead Don’t Die is one you should wait for and watch via streaming or cable. Not worth the price of a ticket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Jungle Book

Is it possible for a movie to feel like a classic, but also seem fresh and original? Even though that may seem like a contradiction, director Jon Favreau’s new version of The Jungle Book has both qualities.

This is classic Disney stuff. Well, yes, it’s a remake of the 1967 animated Disney film.

It has the elements we’ve seen in numerous Disney films and TV shows. Animals interacting with humans, angrily and peacefully. Cute kids (human and animal). Benevolent adults and threatening adults (animal and human). Absent parents (human and animal). Moments of peril—some a bit frightening—and moments of sweetness. A manipulative—in a good way– soundtrack that plays almost constantly.

And a wise voice-over narration. On the Wonderful World of Disney TV show, it was generally the folksy Rex Allen Jr. Here it’s Ben Kingsley, who also voices the Panther, Bagheera, a good guy who helps guide the young man-cub Mowgli (the amazing Neel Sethi) through his upbringing in the jungle. (Sethi is an Indian-American, born in New York City, and he is brimming with charm and acting talent.)

The animals look realistic and move believably, thanks to actors wearing motion-capture gear and rapidly advancing CGI technology. There’s a reason the credits say the movie was made “in downtown Los Angeles” and that’s the outstanding work of the tech crews based there.

Along with Sethi’s charm and athletic skill, the highlights of the movie are two of the characters Mowgli meets in his quest. Baloo, the bear, is voiced by Bill Murray (who sings Bare Necessities) and King Louie, a monster gorilla, voiced by Christopher Walken (who sings I Wanna Be Like You). They are big characters, physically, and they make a huge impact on the story.

Other voice talents who shine are Idris Elba as Shere Khan, the menacing tiger; Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, the wolf mother; Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, the snake; and Garry Shandling as Ikki, the porcupine.

Clocking in at 1:45, The Jungle Book moves at a fast pace that will keep kids of all ages engaged. For those who might say, “Why did they need to remake this movie?—the first one was just fine,” let me suggest you go SEE the new version and you’ll understand why. The Jungle Book is not flawless, but it is an impressive, entertaining movie. (Spring for the IMAX 3D screening if you can.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

What The F is this movie supposed to be? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has a little bit of everything: action, comedy, romance and political intrigue. It is the story of a woman’s three-year adventure as a TV reporter based in Kabul, Afghanistan from ’03 to ’06.

Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is not unlike 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon. She’s a 40-something network employee whose professional and personal lives are not quite satisfying. Lemon was a show producer; Baker is a lowly news writer. When the opportunity to cover the allied peacekeeping effort in Afghanistan—with a chance to do on-camera reports—is offered, she jumps.

One of the first members of the media she encounters in Kabul is competing TV reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) who introduces herself by asking, “Can I [have sex with] your bodyguard?” Vanderpoel explains (and a Marine general played by Billy Bob Thornton later reiterates) that Baker may be a “6” or a “7” back home, but is a “10” to men in this foreign land. Baker replies to Vanderpoel, “What are you then, like a ‘15?’”

Despite the creature discomforts, Baker comes to enjoy the rush of being in a hot spot. She skypes with boyfriend Chris (Josh Charles) back home until she sees another woman in his bedroom. She hooks up with Scottish journalist Iain (Martin Freeman). She looks to get information from an Afghanistan cabinet member (Alfred Molina) who hits on her every time she calls on him.

A handful of chuckles and a few solid laughs make WTF a bit of a comedy. It’s also a bit of a buddy movie as Baker and Vanderpoel become chums. It’s a war movie, though the peril level varies throughout the film. The romance between Baker and Iain forms the crux of the third act. WTF covers a lot of category bases.

Co-directors are Glenn Ficarra and John Requa who scored big a few years ago with Crazy, Stupid Love. Robert Carlock who wrote and produced for 30 Rock wrote WTF. On the heavy to light spectrum, the script is on the light side, but not by much.

Last fall, another movie set in Afghanistan, Rock The Casbah starring Bill Murray, bombed badly. Can Tina Fey and Margot Robbie pull people into the theater to see a movie that sells itself as a comedy, but isn’t exactly a comedy? I think yes.

Most importantly (not really): Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has caused me to forgive Tina Fey for last year’s misfire, Sisters. You’re back in my good graces, TF!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rock The Kasbah

Goofy Bill Murray. It’s an act America has laughed at since his SNL days and Rock The Kasbah delivers a heaping helping. This amusing movie has a feel-good redemption factor, but the reason to see Rock The Kasbah is Murray being Murray.

Richie Lanz (Murray) is a small time L.A. talent agent who may or may not have been somebody at one time. His office is in a motel in Van Nuys. In the opening scene he signs to rep a singer of questionable talent after she agrees to pay him $1,200 upfront.

When his act Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) is booked as an opening act on a U.S.O. tour of bases in Afghanistan, Richie flies with her to Kabul. After Ronnie bails and takes his money, Richie pals around with two Americans (Danny McBride and Scott Caan) who are selling weapons on the down low.

At a club in a sketchy part of town, Lanz meets a gorgeous hooker (Kate Hudson) who develops affection for Richie.

When Lanz escorts a weapons delivery to a remote village he hears a young woman (Leem Lubany) singing in a cave and finagles a way to bring her to Kabul to sing on Afghan Star, an American Idol copy. This does not sit well with her father (Fahim Fazli), a man with a menacing glare, but Lanz attempts to smooth over the angst.

Yes, Rock the Kasbah has a convoluted plot that goes in multiple directions. The pace of RTK bogs down a bit around its midway point before powering up to a big finish.

Rock the Kasbah has a cool soundtrack, but does not include Rock The Casbah by The Clash! There are a couple of versions of Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home, plus Dylan’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door and Zooey’s version of Meredith Brooks’ Bitch. Murray entertains native Afghans with a goofy rendition of Smoke on the Water.

Bruce Willis appears as a mercenary who’s looking for something big to happen that will fuel sales of the book he intends to write.

Rock The Kasbah is not as strong a movie as last year’s Murray starrer St. Vincent. That movie had heart. And a cute kid.

But if you enjoy Bill Murray as his charming goofiest, Rock The Kasbah satisfies.

Aloha

Writer/director Cameron Crowe’s movies, whether good or not so good, are always interesting and always have entertaining soundtracks. Aloha his both those marks and turns out to be an enjoyable film with characters who are hard not to like. It may not be as quotable or memorable or funny as some other Crowe films, but Aloha has a number of good things going for it.

Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) is ex-military, now a civilian, returning to Hawaii on a private sector gig. Upon landing he runs into ex-girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams) and finds she’s married with two kids. Gilcrest’s Air Force liaison is Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a hardcore type-A.

Among Gilchrist’s objectives is to work out a deal with local natives to acquire land. He and Ng meet with the native leader. Gilchrist is the tough negotiator but Ng charms the natives with her personality and appreciation of Hawaiian culture.

As Gilchrist and Ng continue a low boil flirtation, Tracy and husband Woody (John Krasinski) invite Gilchrist and Ng over for dinner. Though they are not quite as intense as Rick and Ilsa from Casablanca, in a kitchen conversation, it becomes clear that Tracy and Gilchrist still have strong feelings for one another, even though she’s spoken for.

Other players in Aloha include Bill Murray as rich guy Carson Welch who provides private rocket launches for anyone with money, but with support from the military. Alec Baldwin is General Dixon, Gilcrest’s former commander, who’s on hand to help foster the deal making. It is always encouraging to see a strong younger actor who has great screen presence—Danielle Rose Russell is impressive playing Tracy and Woody’s daughter Grace.

Crowe has handed Cooper a character with a good backstory and an appropriate level of self-disgust. Stone is at her charmingly perkiest as Ng, a woman with loads of drive and ambition. McAdams’ Tracy is happy and but also frightened by the return of her ex. Krasinksi’s Woody is a quiet man who’s not oblivious to what’s happening. I like these characters.

Gilcrest’s interactions with these two women are the heart of the movie but Crowe does a neat job of stitching the private space mission story into the fabric. Aloha’s touching final scene may cause tears.

In the Cameron Crowe oeuvre, Aloha is no Jerry McGuire but it beats the heck out of Vanilla Sky.

St. Vincent

St. Vincent is a movie whose outcome you can predict as soon as it begins. Even though the destination may be preordained, the journey is fun, sweet and, at moments, poignant.

Bill Murray is Vincent, a curmudgeon who lives alone in a non-descript section of Brooklyn. Single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) make an auspicious arrival as Vincent’s new neighbors when their moving guys take out a tree limb and part of Vincent’s fence with their truck.

Maggie goes to work and Oliver goes to school. When Maggie has to work late, she hires Vincent to babysit the lad (who appears to be about 10 years old). While mom works, Vincent shares his world with Oliver, taking the kid to the horse track and a bar. He also introduces Oliver to pregnant stripper/hooker Daka (Naomi Watts with a bad Russian accent).

When Oliver is bullied at school, Vincent suggests a technique to take down his bigger intimidators. It works extremely well. (Charismatic Irish actor Chris O’Dowd is a priest who is one of Oliver’s teachers at school.)

As the movie proceeds, more of Vincent’s life is revealed and the grizzled old guy with a bad attitude is shown to have human emotions. He may not have a heart of gold, but at least he has a heart.

Bill Murray has been handed a role that’s perfect for him. His Vincent is not just a caricature, he’s a real guy, like you see on the street everyday. Murray should get awards consideration. But because he makes playing Vincent look so easy, he may be overlooked. The other performances are solid, but Murray carries the movie, so he is due the greater amount of acclaim.

First time director/screenwriter Theodore Melfi, a man with Missouri roots, has assembled a movie that’s funny but also brings real human emotion to the screen. You may not actually cry, but you’ll laugh. And you’ll ending up liking the key characters, too. (Stick around for the closing credits and Murray’s casual singing of Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm.”)

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men is a movie that could’ve been made any time in the last 50 years. It has an old-timey feel to it. The film is rated PG-13 for war violence and smoking, but except for a couple of exclamations of “holy s—,” there’s nothing in the script that might offend.

Based on a true story, this tale has Frank Stokes (George Clooney) gathering a team of art lovers to go into the rapidly cooling World War II European war zone and save classic works of art from the Germans. It’s a war movie complete with peril and death, but it lacks that gritty feel of the more hardcore war films.

The Monuments Men are James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). After they arrive in Europe, they add Dimitri Leonidas (Sam Epstein).

They begin their mission after D-Day when the Allies have the Germans on the run. Granger goes to just-liberated Paris where he tracks down Claire (Cate Blanchett) who provides vital info regarding certain works that were taken. After spending time working with him, she transforms from cold fish to would-be seductress.

Jeffries goes to Bruges, Belgium to protect a Michelangelo sculpture from Nazi capture. Campbell and Savitz encamp near the Battle of the Bulge in a sequence reminiscent of M*A*S*H. Garfield and Clermont go to the frontlines.

As the Monuments Men begin to recover these purloined art treasures, competition to regain the works heats up versus… the Russians! Our guys know that if the Ruskies—officially Allies versus Hitler—get to the paintings first, they will claim them for Mother Russia. The situation becomes tense, even after the Germans have surrendered.

In addition to starring, George Clooney directed and co-wrote The Monuments Men. It’s a vanity piece. He looks good. Rarely does he have even one hair of his 40’s-era haircut out of place. (He even gives his dad Nick a cameo.)

The Monuments Men is a decent, but not great, movie. Give Clooney credit for telling a story that’s not been told before. As mentioned above, this is not a gritty war film. So, for those who didn’t care for the language and the gore of Saving Private Ryan (which coincidentally had Damon in the title role), The Monuments Men may be the perfect war movie for you.

Hyde Park on Hudson

Hyde Park on Hudson is a slice of FDR’s life in the pre-war late 1930’s. It’s a light piece of fluff but totally enjoyable.

Bill Murray is fun to watch as FDR. This is not the FDR of stern speeches and wartime gravity. This is the warmer and fuzzier FDR, away from Washington to enjoy some time in the idyllic countryside, 90 miles upriver from Manhattan. This is not the goofy, eccentric Bill Murray. This time he brings depth and maturity to the role.

On one visit to Hyde Park, Roosevelt sends for his distant cousin Daisy, played by Laura Linney. She isn’t really sure why she’s been summoned to hang out with the president, but after a few visits and a drive to a secluded spot, she soon finds out. This is a plain, single woman who lives quietly with her mother. Suddenly, she’s having an affair with FDR.

What’s weird about their arrangement is everybody on FDR’s staff seems to be aware of what’s happening. Even the president’s mother and his wife Eleanor appear to know what the score is. Even the King of England and his wife who visit Hyde Park know that FDR is a philanderer. Compared to the secrecy, denials and shame of the Clinton-Lewinsky episode, this adulterous fling seems almost respectable.

Linney is perfect for the role of Daisy. She is revealed to be more than a blank, uninteresting woman. She has feelings and self-respect. Daisy’s self esteem rises and falls as the film’s events unfold.

Murray doesn’t really look like FDR, but with the trademark cigarette holder and glasses as props, he comes close enough. His late night conversation with King George of England is one of the movie’s highlights and one of his more presidential scenes in the movie.

Hyde Park on Hudson and its players will not be award winners, but this period piece takes us to a pleasant time and place. It provides a few laughs and tells a good story. If that’s what you enjoy in a movie, check it out!

 

 

 

Moonrise Kingdom

Did you have romantic fantasies when you were 12? Some of us did.

On the brink of puberty, we knew we liked the opposite gender, even if we did not know exactly why. That’s sort of the situation with Sam and Suzy. They run away together and set up camp at a spot they call “Moonrise Kingdom.”

This is a quirky movie from Wes Anderson, a director known for quirky films. But “Moonrise Kingdom,” while quirky, is not so weird that it will put viewers off. In “Moonrise Kingdom,” there is quirkiness, but there is also a great story. And the two main characters, Sam and Suzy (played by unknowns Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, making their movie debuts) are immensely likeable.

The story is set in 1965 on a fictional island off the coast of New England. Suzy leaves her home (and quirky parents, played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) while Sam leaves his Khaki Scout troop (and quirky scoutmaster, played by Edward Norton). The parents and the scouts attempt to track them down, along with help from the island’s police chief, played by Bruce Willis.

Along their journey, we learn about the kids and their backgrounds. We see in a flashback how they met at a church on the island the previous summer and continued their relationship via mail correspondence. Suzy reads her favorite books (all creations of Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola) aloud to Sam.

It’s an idyllic time they spend together, despite the constant overcast conditions, which lead to a big storm at the movie’s climax. These are two kids whose lives so far are generally unhappy, who are now greatly enjoying one another’s company. For anyone who had unfulfilled romantic fantasies at age 12, it’s a joy to see these two together.

Among the many quirks in “Moonrise Kingdom,” one of my favorites is the way Suzy’s mom often communicates with family members—with a bullhorn. Another, as with most Wes Anderson films, is the genre spectrum of the soundtrack. In “Moonrise Kingdom,” it ranges from classical music to Hank Williams, Senior.

Is this a movie for everyone? No, not hardly. But if you are up for a sweet story, with interesting (I’ve used quirky too much in this review already) characters presented in Wes Anderson’s special universe, give “Moonrise Kingdom” a shot. I loved it!