Groundhog Day (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
For the fourth year in a row, Phil (Bill Murray), a weatherman, is assigned to go to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover a Groundhog Day report. He resents this annual task and he makes his sentiments known to everyone. On the second day of February, Phil believes it is just another day. He figures if puts in half the effort and gets through the day, the torture would soon be over. To his surprise, he wakes up the next day and discovers that it is still Groundhog Day. And no matter what he does, the next day is the same, like he is stuck in a hell specifically designed for him.
Based on the screenplay by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, “Groundhog Day” is lucky because although it exhausts its premise rather quickly, it remains buoyant, once in a while reaching creative peaks, with the help of the lead actor. Take away Murray’s signature quirks and style of humor and the material is reduced to a mechanical formula with many of its plot developments readily seen from a mile away.
I enjoyed that Phil is an unlikeable guy. He knows he has a sharp tongue and is not afraid to use it because he knows he can get away with it. What makes the character very funny is that Murray plays him smart. His caustic sarcasm is always padded with an eye of condescension. Instead of simply playing a guy who says mean things from time to time, the performer in a way dares us to think that we are as witty as his self-centered character. How much of what he shares is the real Phil relative to Phil the TV personality? The irony and what makes him fascinating is that his two selves have become so in sync that discerning between them proves difficult for him, too.
Occasionally, the days on repeat have a freshness to them. The writing reaches a zenith when Phil is allowed to revel in his fantasies. Some standouts include stealing money from a bank, regaling a woman for a one night stand, and getting in trouble with the law for driving under the influence. He knows that his decisions for the day will bear no consequence so he lets loose. These scenes are executed with wonderful enthusiasm without losing track of the character’s rather offbeat personality. Also, I liked that it touches upon the other side of the spectrum by tackling more sensitive moments. I wished there had been more scenes between Phil and the homeless old man he passes by every morning.
The heart of the picture is the romance between Phil and Rita (Andie MacDowell), the producer, which left me lukewarm. Initially, the attraction is difficult to buy into because we get the impression that Phil just wants to get inside her pants. This is not helped by scenes that come just before when Phil tries to bed an unsuspecting woman who comes to believe that he is a former classmate. Eventually, through a slow burn, we get a sense that Phil’s feelings for Rita are real. Still, I did not believe it completely because I was never able to let go of the fact that Rita has really only come know Phil for a day—and on a very good day. The problem is that she has no recollection of the other bad days they share. They never feel as though they are functioning on the same page.
“Groundhog Day,” directed Harold Ramis, could have done without the undercooked romance. A more interesting trajectory might have been an exploration on how to earn mutual respect among colleagues. It seems as though Larry (Chris Elliott), the cameraman who seems to have a seething frustration, might have wanted to give Phil a piece of his mind every so often. But since the romantic relationship takes center stage, everything else gravitates around it.
Isle of Dogs (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
As a visual exercise, it cannot be denied that “Isle of Dogs” excels. Its stop-motion animation is a dream to observe even without sound, the dogs are aww-shucks adorable (even the ones that bite), images unique to Japanese culture inspire curiosity, and there is courage in employing different styles of animation when, for example, we are watching something through a television or looking into someone’s memory. And yet, like a typical Wes Anderson film, the technical excellence is unable to overshadow the fact that it left me cold emotionally. While not an intolerable experience, I was not invested in its core story.
The picture is supposed to be a love letter to dogs, why dogs are a man’s best friend. In a world where all dogs are exiled to a place called Trash Island after an outbreak of canine flu, it is bizarre that the material offers minimal emotion. Dogs and people shed tears during would-be moving situations but instead we end up studying how the tears look rather than actually feeling the moment. This cerebral approach might have worked given a sharper a screenplay with something important to say about humans’ relationship not just with domesticated dogs but all animals that we must share the planet with. The elements are there: bureaucracy, the media, politics, science, and rebellion. But they are not put together in a way that tells a grander story of why there is a natural bond between man and dog.
The voice cast is impeccable. Particularly enjoyable are the dogs that Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) meets when he crash-lands his plane onto Trash Island in the attempt to locate and rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). It is led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray dog who does not trust humans. Cranston plays the role not as a voice but as a consciousness, so to speak. I felt he really embodies the sadness and loneliness of a dog who survived in the streets following a tragic incident with his former owners. Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum round up the ragtag team who end up aiding in the boy’s mission.
Most distracting is a near pointless subplot involving a girl from Ohio named Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) who is compelled to expose Mayor Kobayashi’s devious plan (Kunichi Nomura) in order to get re-elected. I found the girl’s look to be odd and unpleasant. Perhaps the point is for the American exchange student from Ohio to stand out visually, but I felt her extreme look neither fits nor complements her surroundings. Her headstrong personality matches her extreme looks, but nearly every time the attention is on her and away from the dogs, the material verges on boredom. This character is classic Anderson: it must exist simply because it is quirky without necessarily being of service to the story. Take away Tracy’s scenes and recognize we can get to the same destination.
I give credit to the writer-director for creating a work that I know he is happy with. Sometimes you just feel that a filmmaker loves his project, and I feel it is the case here. Visually, there are hundreds of details worth putting a magnifying glass over, studying, and appreciating. Many filmmakers of poorer caliber settle for skeletal details—even within the realm of animation. For me, however, I require another level of quality. In this case, it is the emotional kind because the point is to tell a story of man’s relationship with dogs. Predictably, because I am familiar with Anderson’s oeuvre, it is most frustrating that his latest work is so unfeeling still.
★★ / ★★★★
Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), a military contractor who currently works for a billionaire (Bill Murray), visits Hawaii for five days in order to make an important deal with the locals and to supervise a gate blessing at an airport. A member of the Air Force, the very enthusiastic Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), is assigned to be his escort. The two soon hit it off despite Brian’s initial reluctance because his former flame (Rachel MacAdams), currently unhappy with her marriage, also lives on the island.
“Aloha,” written and directed by Cameron Crowe is a fine movie—which is not a compliment. It is too vanilla—divorced from people’s outrage regarding the casting of Stone playing a character who is supposed to be a quarter Asian—meaning there is not much flavor in the story, script, and style of direction. There are, however, highly watchable performances, particularly by Stone who is radiant in just about every scene. Cooper has a strong, likable presence, sort of like an uncle you want to hug and share a beer with, but it is Stone who steals the movie.
There is some believable chemistry shared between the central potential couple. The two eventually realizing that they feel attracted to one another does not take half of the running time which is a nice surprise because this decision makes room for other, more interesting avenues. I particularly enjoyed the strained relationship between Brian and Tracy, his ex-girlfriend with whom he had not seen for over a decade. Because Cooper and McAdams are seasoned performers, comfortable with projecting emotions under multiple wavelengths, I believed that they have history and that is hard for them even being in the same room, let alone excavating a bit of the past.
One might argue that the story does not truly come into focus. Another might claim that it is really about nothing new or deep, just a series of scenes where we follow the main character and events unfold. Neither would be wrong. What I liked, though, was the feeling of being involved in the light comedy-drama despite not having a classic story arc. For example, there is no expected villain here—which is surprising because the ex-girlfriend could have been an easy target. Another potential source of conflict could have been Tracy’s husband (John Krasinski). Instead, these two are actually likable even though there are some problems with their partnerships.
Less effective are scenes involving the military and the billionaire which comprises about a third of the picture. Those in position of power are written and played like caricatures. While it is apparent that none of them are supposed to be taken seriously, I found them rather dull and boring. Casting big names to play these men is a waste.
Although Alec Baldwin and Bill Murray have at least one scene where they are allowed to shine, neither character says nor does anything that impacts the story significantly. I argue that if these scenes were removed altogether or only mentioned, the final product would have been stronger because the material would have turned out leaner. Emphasis would likely have been on human relationships rather than a thinly plotted redemption/patriotism subplot that comes across as highly tacked on.
“Aloha” is predictable and strange tonally—the latter being a compliment. I was curious, never frustrated, with where it is going and as far as light fares go, it could be worse. Still, aside from pretty good performances from actors with whom we know we can rely on to deliver, there is nothing much to recommend here.
Monuments Men, The (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Frank Stokes (George Clooney) has managed to persuade the president of the United States that victory against the Nazis in World War II would hold less meaning if some of the greatest achievements known to man—pieces of art such as sculptures, paintings, tapestries—end up being destroyed or forever lost. So, a group known as the Monuments Men, comprised of seven scholars that range from art collectors, architects, curators, are sent to Germany to collect and protect works that have been stolen.
The heart of “The Monuments Men,” based on the screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, is in the right place but it is not a good movie. Perhaps most problematic is that the men that the material urges that we remember and appreciate are not painted as very interesting people. Although they are played by big names—Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville—none of them are able to do anything with a script that lacks intensity and focus.
In an attempt to inject some sort of personality in the group that tries to acquire countless invaluable artwork, the members are given lines, would-be jokes, to utter. Less than few work because there is almost always no attempt at building up the punchline. Or maybe too obvious a comedy does not have room in the subject matter that is WWII. Millions of lives were lost during that time and yet the main characters look like they are on vacation. They do not look dirty enough, desperate enough, traumatized enough especially since their lives are supposed to be in constant danger.
The score is overbearing and annoying to the point where the audience is taken out of the experience. When someone is starting a speech, one can bet that the melodramatic score will start in about five seconds. Why does Clooney, the director, feel the need to give some sort of signal on how the audience should feel? Since he helped to helm the screenplay, it gives the impression that he is not confident with his own material. It is an elementary miscalculation—one that is expected from a filmmaker who is directing his or her first feature. Clooney ought to have known better.
The picture is confusing at times. The Monuments Men are paired up eventually and sent to various parts of Europe to collect stolen art. However, after spending about three to four scenes apart, they are quickly back together. The picture gives an impression that traveling from one place to another, especially in times of war, is incredibly easy. We all know that this is not the case. Thus, the whole charade comes off silly and we are never convinced that any of the men are ever in any real danger—even though not all of them live by the end of the movie.
What “The Monuments Men” is missing is complexity. Its subjects put their lives on the line and yet we never learn anything particularly compelling about them. More importantly, it lacks courage—the courage to dig deeper than ill-executed jokes and really hone in on the meaning of preserving culture. I worked in a gallery. I like art. But if someone who may not necessarily feel strongly about art watches this movie, he or she will likely not be convinced why, to some, art should hold equal importance as human lives.
Jungle Book, The (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
These days it is simply not enough to have beautiful images gracing the screen, especially when it comes to family-friendly films where every age must be engaged and entertained. “The Jungle Book,” directed by Jon Favreau, is able to translate a Disney animation classic, about a boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) who is raised in the jungle by wolves, into a live-action adventure that is full of thrills and wonderment. Favreau takes a beloved material that has been told a number of times before and breaths new life into it.
Although the majority of the animals are made using a computer, they are convincingly life-like. The details of their furs, ears, snouts, tails, and eyes are impressive; the longer one admires every feature, the more tactile they appear to be. But it doesn’t stop there. Look at how the filmmakers manage to capture the correct posture of the computer-animated animals when they rest, eat, and interact with one another. One gets the impression that great efforts were made to research actual animals in order to create a most convincing universe.
The film offers numerous memorable sequences, from Mowgli being mesmerized by a giant Indian python (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) to heart-pounding chases involving a villainous Bengal tiger (voiced by Idris Elba) whose face is half-burnt. But one might argue that the best parts of the movie are times when nature is front and center. Two standouts include a terrifying mudslide as unsuspecting water buffaloes make their way on the side of a mountain and the other involves Mowgli’s attempt to kick down honeycombs hanging from a cliff as he is stung by bees.
These two scenes are vastly different yet somehow they fit perfectly in the film. For instance, the former is drenched in black and gray while the latter features kaleidoscopic hues. The mudslide scene reflects a struggle for survival, as signaled by rapid camera movements, while the honey gathering scene highlights a growing bond between a man-cub and a new friend (voiced by Bill Murray)—this time the camera still and overall tone playful. The balancing act is assured and professional. What keeps it all together is the consistent eye for detail.
Admittedly, it took me a good while to get used to the animals’ mouths moving when they speak. The mouth movements and voices are not distracting—in fact, all of the voice actors are well-chosen—but the partnership is, at first, unnatural. After about thirty minutes, however, the transition was complete and I was able to get into the reality that some of the animals were able to speak.
“The Jungle Book,” based on the collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling and screenplay by Justin Marks, dazzles and delights the senses. It might have been improved if the subject of belongingness and home were explored more deeply and with more mature insight.
★★ / ★★★★
John (Bill Murray) was so sick of being a taxi driver, he abandoned his rude customer in the middle of a bridge and threw away the key in the water. After he tells his girlfriend what he had just done, she tells him that their relationship is over. Desperate for direction, a U.S. Army recruitment commercial appears on television. John becomes convinced that enlisting is an excellent idea, but there is no way he is going to sign up alone. So, he persuades the dependable but equally dissatisfied Russell (Harold Ramis), his best friend, to enlist with him.
Although “Stripes,” written by Len Blum, Daniel Goldberg, and Harold Ramis, is set in the military for the most part, its technique in terms of how to deliver the comedy involves throwing random jokes on screen to see what would stick. This is very unreliable: the ones that work are really funny but the ones that fail to inspire even a hint of a smile come across as filler. The unsatisfying jokes outnumber those with wit and sense of irony which results in a very mix bag.
What I found reliable, however, are the performances. Murray is very entertaining as a goofball who is convinced that military training will be a breeze because, unlike holding a job, it does not have to be taken seriously. He is sarcastic and appropriately annoying at times which inspires Sergeant Hulka (Warren Oates) take notice of him in a negative way. When the two are at each other’s throats, the screenplay has spark and energy. While the camera stays in one place during their arguments, I noticed that I could not help zeroing in on their faces and wondering, “Oh, you’re going to take what that guy just said?”
I enjoyed listening to them bicker. If there had been more scenes of control being forced upon John, the material would have been more amusing because John absolutely despises authority. The more someone holds onto him, the wilder he becomes. And just when we think John has learned from a situation and has gained a bit more maturity, he proves that one cannot teach an old dog new tricks.
John Candy as Ox, another volunteer recruit, is enjoyable to watch particularly the scene when he wrestles five or six women in the mud. There are times, however, when I wondered if the writing would stop using his size and weight as a source of comedy. I sensed an intelligence in Ox, thanks to Candy for bothering to put a enough subtlety in his character, but I felt as though Ox is not given a chance to become more than just the fat guy in the army. The joke turns stale quickly because it is one-dimensional.
Lastly, the picture, directed by Ivan Reitman, completely falls apart in the third act. When the 3rd Platoon Bravo Company arrive in Czechoslovakia, everyone except for John, Russell, Stella (P.J. Soles), and Louise (Sean Young), the latter two a part of the military police, ends up with having no mind of their own. Didn’t anyone learn anything from their training in boot camp? Just because the picture is a comedy of errors, it does not justify allowing the characters to act dumb when we know that they are smarter than what the scene minimally requires.
Ghostbusters II (1989)
★ / ★★★★
Five years after they saved New York City from Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the Ghostbusters (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson) are out of business. The city also has a restraining order against the team which prevents them from pursuing and solving paranormal activities. Meanwhile, a spirit (Wilhelm von Homburg) inside a strange painting in a museum wishes to be reborn. Dana (Sigourney Weaver), divorced, happens to have a baby boy who just may be a perfect vessel.
“Ghostbusters II,” written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, begins promisingly but its paranormal subplot involving a river of ectoplasm beneath the city is overshadowed by the sheer joy of watching Murray and Weaver’s characters flirting with one another. The premise involving the slime is potentially interesting. When the guys are in the lab and test its capabilities, I was as curious as they were and there are times when I was genuinely surprised by its biology.
However, when the Ghostbusters are out and about the city, most of the humor either comes off forced or falls completely flat. There is only one time when I caught myself laughing out loud which involves the Ghostbusters pretending to be construction workers. A pair of cops are suspicious of their digging in the middle of the street but the boys must somehow persuade them, by acting like how they perceive construction workers are like, that they have been authorized to create a big hole and cause a commotion.
Unfortunately, this moment of inspired comedy is diluted by endless aimless gags where the jokes lack punch. I did not enjoy that I felt as though I was always one step ahead of our protagonists. For a bunch of really smart guys, the screenplay gives them too much time to finally make the connection between the research that Dr. Spengler (Ramis) is conducting and the slime that reacts to extreme emotions. I got the impression that padding is inserted between interesting scenes for the sake of bulking up the running time. As a result, the film’s pacing is slow and there is barely a sense of magic, despite the generous special and visual effects on screen, in the discovery of the evil plot.
Furthermore, I sensed a lack of creativity in the resolution of the bizarre happenings all over the city. While it is hilarious to see a woman’s fur coat come alive and attack her, why even bother showing us the police receiving calls from citizens about, for instance, being attacked by a park bench and other inanimate objects if the police were never shown doing anything about the report? Also, it is not necessary that we see another giant prancing around the city because that has been done before.
The film’s strength is its quieter moments. For example, Dr. Venkman (Murray) playing with Dana’s baby and Dr. Venkman and Dana going on a date and discussing what went wrong in their once promising romantic relationship. Such moments of reality should have been the anchors of the picture. If the screenplay had given the human angle to simmer and evolve and the paranormal quirks had been dialed down a notch, “Ghostbusters II,” directed by Ivan Reitman, could have had a chance to be good. Instead, the picture feels as weightless and lifeless as its transparent, raggedy-looking ghosts.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) owns a flower shop on Skid Row and manages two employees, Seymour (Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Greene). Business is not doing so well so the owner is considering to close permanently. Audrey has an idea: they can promote unique-looking plants by the window to lure potential customers. Incidentally, Seymour, particularly interested in strange plants, has just purchased a flower from a Chinese vendor during a solar eclipse a week prior. Seconds after it is placed by the window, customers begin to enter the shop with very enthusiastic questions about its origins and buying whatever is on sale. But success does not come without a price.
“Little Shop of Horrors,” based on the screenplay by Charles B. Griffith and Howard Ashman’s musical, benefits greatly from well-cast actors. Although a bit one-dimensional, even for a musical, I was interested in how fortuitous circumstances will allow Seymour and Audrey to end up together.
We learn about their backgrounds as well as what kind of future might be in store for them through very energetic and well-written songs. Moranis balances vulnerability and geek-chic without coming off as cloyingly goofy. Greene, on the other hand, has to play an abused woman who sports a black eye and an arm cast at work while at the same time being in control of exuding a certain level of charm and wit to prevent us from perceiving her character as weak. Moranis and Greene function on the same wavelength so their romance is believable and one that is enjoyable to cheer for.
The supporting characters shine brightly. One who stands out most is Orin Scrivello (Steve Martin), Audrey’s boyfriend, a dentist who enjoys inflicting pain on his patients–stemming from his sadism toward animals as a child–and is addicted to nitrous oxide. He is a villain because he abuses his girlfriend physically, derives pleasure from it, and never feels guilty about his actions. And yet he, too, is fun to watch on screen with that maniacal laugh brought on by the gas he so joyously inhales and the hilarious Elvis Presley impersonations.
One of the best scenes involves the dentist and Arthur Denton (Bill Murray), a patient who actually enjoys being in pain. As Seymour sits in the waiting room for Orin, he hears screams from the operating room–screams that sounds like two men are engaging in a sexual act. But the scene never comes off homophobic. Seymour is very innocent, very clean-cut and so much of the humor is rooted from his response.
Risks are taken in the way many scenes are executed. With regards to the strange plant, named Audrey II, it can survive only by drinking blood. Seymour, desperate to keep the flower shop open out of loyalty to Mr. Mushnik as well as remaining in close proximity to his crush, feeds it droplets of blood from his fingers. Eventually, though, it has grown so big that it requires to eat entire humans, preferably chopped, to flourish. People do get eaten, but it is more comedic than horrific.
Furthermore, the plant learns how to speak (voiced by Levi Stubbed), commanding “Feed me!” to its caretaker. As the plant grows stronger, the romantic becomes weaker. There is a reason the carnivorous plant is named Audrey II. There comes a point in which Seymour will have to choose between a life of success with Audrey II or a life of simplicity with the original Audrey.
“Little Shop of Horrors,” directed by Frank Oz, is aware of what it has to offer, from fun and colorful characters to bounce-worthy song and dance. These are executed with zestful freshness that when the film switches between light zaniness and dark humor, it feels exactly right.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) expects it to be just another day of camping, leading, and teaching his fellow Khaki Scouts in Camp Ivanhoe. During breakfast, however, he notices that one of his students is missing from the table, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), the least popular among his peers. A letter of resignation is found in his tent, leaving everyone at a loss as to why he’s done such a thing. With a storm rapidly approaching, expected to arrive in three days, a search party is formed to get Sam to safety.
“Moonrise Kingdom,” written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, offers a distinctive style and vision, its images cutely retro, appropriately dyed with a golden yellowish tinge, so fitting considering its 1965 milieu. And while it is an absolute pleasure to look at because of the vintage clothing, old school gadgets, and its loving attention to nature, it has a voyeuristic element about it that at times it feels like looking into a personal memory of a boy experiencing his first romance with a girl named Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), his perfect, at least for the time being, other half in that both have their share of imperfections, weirdness, and awkwardness.
When the picture focuses on the duo’s excursions around the beautiful island of New Penzance, it is at its most engaging. The script, as should be expected from a Wes Anderson film, has its own rhythm, sometimes a bit obfuscated in that it challenges our minds to drill into exactly what is being communicated. The lack of range in terms of evoking precise emotions between Gilman and Hayward work because a case can be made that Sam and Suzy are still trying to figure out who they are. Sometimes I wondered if their idea of romance is a reflection of pop culture at the time which supports their mindset of running away together and living happily ever after. Their youth has a potent spark, fueled by their need to connect with someone willing to listen and embrace because they feel like outcasts in their respective worlds.
Unfortunately, the film entertains far too many subplots and each one is not given sufficient time to be nurtured. The only strand that works involves Laura (Frances McDormand) and Walt (Bill Murray), Suzy’s parents, who tolerate a near passionless marriage, deciding to stay together for the sake of their children. Their one scene in the bedroom, occupying different beds, communicates a sadness with an underlying air of apathy—an emotion that holds more bite than hatred—that it dares the viewers to wish they would lash out on one another. At least then they may not have to guess what the other is thinking. Despite their current unhappiness, we can accept the possibility that they were probably very much in love when they were young which directly ties back to the Khaki Scout and his pen pal.
What does not work at all is the affair between Laura and a Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the cop who leads the search. Their interactions are supposed to be comic but I found them boring and lacking in energy. Perhaps this might be attributed to the Captain’s Sharp’s story—which is too broad, not containing enough specific details to warrant belief that he is a beacon of hope even though he has had his share of problems.
Further, when the storm arrives in the back half of the picture, the chaos that ensues is only mildly interesting. It is off-putting that the balance between visuals and heart is thrown out the window, heavily relying on the strength of the former while the latter is slowly reduced to a footnote until it is convenient to wring out syrupy emotions for the audience. Director Wes Anderson has a habit of doing this to his projects and it is a great frustration.
Get Low (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
A reclusive man named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) retreated into the Tennessee woods forty years ago for an unknown reason. Friends didn’t visit him, he never had a family, and the people in town either looked down on or were completely afraid of him. Nasty gossip such as Felix being a cold-blooded killer was the talk of the town. His only companion was a mule. It was rightly so because he was as stubborn as. After decades of being a hermit, he walked into a funeral parlor led by Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his assistant (Lucas Black). Felix said he wanted to throw a funeral party for himself. He wanted to hear the many colorful stories people heard about him over the years. In order to attract people, there was to be a raffle after the party and whoever’s ticket was chosen would own Felix’ acres of land when he died. Half the fun of the film was watching Duvall and Murray interact. Duvall is an expert in playing mysterious characters but with surprising amount of heart. His interactions with his former lover’s sister (Sissy Spacek) were tender, sometimes strained, but consistently interesting. Their first scene together was surprising because even though it was the first one they shared, I already felt like there was a history between them. The actors managed to express a handful of emotions without necessarily talking about them. On the other hand, Murray’s blank expressions and deadpan delivery of his lines made up the bulk of the humor. Frank wasn’t happy because not enough people were dying in town so he was so desperate in keeping Felix as his client despite his customer’s many strange requests. Was he only motivated by the vast amount of money he would eventually earn? Another key figure was Frank’s assistant named Buddy. He was like a son that Felix never had. They were strangers to each other and they never did get close as one would consider them friends, but there was something beautiful and touching about the way Felix learned to open up to someone else other than his mule. Maybe our protagonist saw a bit of himself, back when he still had his youth, on the honorable and well-meaning assistant. But the most powerful aspect of the film was the hermit’s speech during his funeral party. In ten minutes, he started from being the joke of the town to someone who everyone should be able to sympathize with. “Get Low,” directed by Aaron Schneider, tackled serious issues like death, aging, and guilt with glee and eccentricity yet it successfully maintained a certain level of respect so the issues and the characters were never the punchline. The funny moments were in the way the characters responded to the ridiculous beauty that life sometimes offers.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on a book by Roald Dahl, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” directed by Wes Anderson, told the story of Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) who promised his wife (Meryl Streep) that he would stop stealing food from farmers when she told him that she was carrying a child. Twelve years later, right around the visit of Mrs. Fox’ nephew (Eric Chase Anderson), Mr. Fox felt the need to return to his schemes and eventually got his entire animal community into trouble. The first thiry minutes of this animated film was strong. I was amused with the scenes involving Mr. Fox sneaking into the farmers’ respective lands and facing different and fun challenges. I also liked the scenes that highlighted the insecurities of Ash (Jason Schwartzman), Mr. and Mrs. Fox’ son, when he would often compare himself to his cousin, especially in terms of physicality and athleticism. Those were enjoyable because it had a certain energy and excitement so I couldn’t help but look forward to what would happen next. Unfortunately, like in most of Anderson’s work, the movie began to run out of fuel past the forty-minute mark. When the animals were forced to live underground, the picture felt like it didn’t know where it was going and random references to other films started popping up like the plague. The attempts for dry humor were unoriginal and I could feel the material’s desperation to get any kind of laugh. Despite many things happening at the same, unlike the first third of the film, the material no longer felt fresh. It lost intelligence, tenderness and spark. In fact, the characters started to blend amongst one another. As a result, I merely saw the animals as pests instead of creatures that supposed to reflect us humans. While I thought the animation was interesting to look at (and I did embrace its flaws), the way the story unfolded wasn’t strong enough to get me to care for the characters. Quirkiness could only get a movie so far and unfortunately, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” relied too much on the superficial. Other actors who contributed their voices include Bill Murray, Michael Gambon and Willem Dafoe. However, I didn’t recognize their voices because the picture was too busy trying to deal with the conflict between the animals and humans to the point where it didn’t have enough time to take a minute and convince us why we should care. For all I care, the big names’ voices could have been played by unknowns and it wouldn’t have made a difference. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” received a lot of comparisons with Pixar movies. However, I think Pixar films are much more effective because they are aware of the fact that since we’re not seeing human faces, they highlight the animated characters’ human characteristics to lure us and, more importantly, keep our attention. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” managed to lure me but it didn’t keep me interested.
Broken Flowers (2005)
★★ / ★★★★
It all started with a pink letter from an old flame with a message written in red that Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a father of a nineteen-year-old boy. Don, having been dumped by his most recent girlfriend (Julie Delpy), is serious about finding the mother of his son so he makes a list of his former lovers and visits them across America. I liked the premise of the film but the execution was a bit weak for me. I thought the set-up of the story went for too long: the scenes with Jeffrey Wright as Don’s friend who’s enthusiastic about everything may be amusing once in a while but most of their scenes together did not really contribute to the big picture. When Murray finally met the various women in his life (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton), the picture only spent about five minutes for the characters to interact. Five minutes would have worked with a more efficient director or writing but this film needed an extra ten or fifteen minutes with each women. It simply wasn’t enough and was somewhat unforgivable because I thought that the movie was supposed to be about a man who realized how much he missed out on these women and why he was now a lonely aging guy with no wife and child. Those intermissions after he met each women which consisted of driving around and sleeping could have instead been used to explore his former relationships and why some of them were very unhappy when they saw him. It was such a shame because the actresses featured are very talented and they really could’ve elevated this film to a new level. Instead, I felt that it was ashamed to explore the underlying emotions and would rather take the route of dry comedy with too many coincidences and potential explanations. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, if it weren’t for Murray’s performance, I would’ve been more critical of this film because it was borderline pretentious about the journey of a lonely man. Those little character quirks such as the lead character’s desperation to find anything pink that might give him a clue to who was the one who sent him the letter took me out of the experience. A similar storyline reminded me of Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” only that picture was a lot more fun to watch because it had small payoffs throughout even though it was a more typical Hollywood fare. I say see it for Murray because he really does nail characters who says a thousand words with silence and glances. If only the material was able to match his talent.
Lost in Translation (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first time I saw this movie back in 2003, I thought it was mediocre at best because I didn’t see what the hype was all about. I didn’t see what was so profound about it; all I saw were a series of strange scenes about culture clash and two lonely people with a significant age difference meeting and saying goodbye. Watching it for the second time six years later, I found so much more meaning in terms of what Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray were going through. Johansson plays a neglected wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who realizes that maybe she is falling out of love with her husband. Murray plays an actor who is hired by the Japanese to endorse several products but is conflicted with what he’s doing in a foreign country when he’s having problems at home. What I loved about this movie is its ability to use the characters’ loneliness as a common bond and go from there. Sofia Coppola, the director, was able to tell a somber (but refreshing) story without succumbing to the typicality Hollywood pictures about two people meeting each other in a foreign country. I’ve heard and read that lot of people thought that the two lead characters were involved in a blossoming romantic relationship. I disagree with that point of view because the two leads simply needed each other for some kind of solace. I thought what they had was a special kind of friendship–the kind that might last even after they leave Japan. Even though they were vastly different from one another, there was no language barrier (unlike with the Japanese) and each was actually willing to listen to one another (unlike Ribisi to Johansson and the wife to Murray). I also enjoyed how Coppola made the background conversations louder as the main characters were giving each other looks and smiles. Cinematic techniques like that made me think about the disconnect between ourselves and other people. More than half of the conversations in this picture were heavily one-sided. The characters may be talking to each other but they’re not really engaged or interested in what others have to say. Such scenes were painfully reflected in Johansson and Ribisi’s scenes of generic questions and one-word answers. I thought it was very truthful because sometimes I do feel like that with the people in my life. And like Johansson’s character, I sometimes take it so personally to the point where I start questioning whether I’m mature enough to emotionally handle such things. This is not the kind of movie that is strong when it comes to its plot. My advice is to really take a look at the characters, how their behaviors differ from their words and how lonely they really are underneath the smile and the sarcasm. The film may be a bit hard to swallow at times because one might feel that the pacing might be too slow. However, the melancholy tone was spot-on (with bits of comedy sprinkled here and there) and the characterizations ring true in actuality.