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Blu-Ray Review: ‘THE JUNGLE BOOK’

Synopsis: “Raised by a family of wolves since birth, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) must leave the only home he’s ever known when the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) unleashes his mighty roar. Guided by a no-nonsense panther (Ben Kingsley) and a free-spirited bear (Bill Murray), the young boy meets an array of jungle animals, including a slithery python and a smooth-talking ape. Along the way, Mowgli learns valuable life lessons as his epic journey of self-discovery leads to fun and adventure.” Read More

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Out in Theaters: ST. VINCENT

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I could watch Bill Murray read a phone book. Or hose down a patch of dirt. Correction: I did watch Bill Murray hose down a patch of dirt. For about five minutes. This is what makes up the end credits of St. Vincent, a somewhat sentimentally told tale of a sun-ripened curmudgeon softened by the articulate innocence of the new runt neighbor kid. The kicker is a brilliant ploy to get people to stay through the bitter end: frame Bill Murray chewing a cigarette, rambling along to Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm”, playing with a watering hose. I’d watch Murray butcher Dylan all day.

Eleven years after Lost in Translation, nine years out from Broken Flowers, Murray’s career has been more an internet sensation than anything resembling that of a hard worker’s. He picks his project like I shop for pomegranates. Very carefully, except sometimes when, fuck it. And good on him. But don’t get me wrong: Bill Murray is the best thing that has ever happened to the internet and, quite possibly, humankind. He lends his face to each and every Wes Anderson project, to the undying thanks of this critic (though he hasn’t had anything particularly juicy since what I just might consider his best ever role as Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic). He mic dropped perhaps the ultimate all time cameo in Zombieland (the man really needs to be knighted the king of meta). He even tried his best for gold with the critically dumped upon Hyde Park on Hudson, the FDR handjob in a field story. With St. Vincent, Murray’s not only returned to comedy but to the spotlight. Where he belongs.

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Throughout the years, the one thing that has made Murray so infinitely watchable is his 8-mile thick slab of sarcasm, a trait that writer/director Theodore Melfi exploits to the fullest. With a (not totally consistent) Brooklyn accent, Murray’s drab sense of banter makes him the perfect jackass. Here’s a guy who’ll crash into his own fence, blame it on the neighbor and insist she pay for it. And yet, we’re still able to like him through it all. He gets cut off at the bar (with child in tow), smashes a glass and is kindly escorted out. Who other than Murray could pull off such a feat?

After a night of particularly committed drinking, Murray smashes up his face like he owes himself money. Bleedy, grumpy and hungover, he emerges from his dinky man-cave the next morning to a moving truck smashing its way through his yard. Without holding back a full blown hissy fit, he meets new neighbor Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her shrimpy son Oliver, played by notably not annoying newcomer Jaeden Lieberher. Maggie’s a single mom and an MRI tech so her hours are numbered. When Oliver gets a beat down at his new Catholic school – Chris O’Dowd plays his irreverent but nonetheless clerically collared teacher – he’s sans keys and can no longer get into his house. With a politely timed “Excuse me, sir?”, he asks to take shelter in the very, very humble abode of the crotchety “but interesting” neighbor, Vincent.

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At first, Vincent treats Oliver as one would a louse with halitosis. He makes him a plate of sardines and saltines (a dish my inner-child would very much not be opposed to) and calls it sushi. He takes him to the bar to get some drinking done. “Shut up” is the word of the day most days. He’s the babysitter equivalent of Taz, after a bottle of bourbon and a bong rip. Along the way, the two become accidentally close (as they always do in movies of this sort.) A trip to the horse races is laced with a real mix of uplifting dramatics and laugh out loud humor. There’s a montage to follow that will get you grinning like a loon. But it always comes undone. Vincent won’t ever leave good enough alone and Melfi won’t let his lovable asshole off that easily.

There’s tension were it needed be – bookie tough guy Terrence Howard adds nothing to the bigger picture – and that distracts from the emotional honesty at St. Vincent‘s core but as it crescendos towards its heart-rending finale, you’ll find yourself uncommonly willing to forgive it its sins. Scenes Vincent shares with his hospitalized wife are few – almost leaving me (shockingly) wanting more – and handled with delicacy and care, the touch of a director with real sensitivity. The more layers of the onion we peel back on old man Vincent, the more pavement is laid for the barrage of third act lumps in your throat.

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By most accounts, St. Vincent shouldn’t work. It’s too tender in some parts, too chewy in others, like a microwaved steak. The conveniences are many, the happy resolution unnaturally tidy. Cruddy, pervy old men, though cruddy and pervy, can be made of gold. We’ve seen it before. It’s basically the Weinsteins’ retelling of Bad Grandpa. And did I mention Naomi Watts is a pregnant Russian prostitute? That casting alone is unthinkable strange, but it somehow works. And like the choppy cadence of Watts’ prego lady of the night, it moves indelicately, but ultimately wins us over. It just goes to show that maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but when you’re old dog is Bill Murray, you don’t need any new tricks at all. Then, the old ones do just fine.

B

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Out in Theaters: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Lea Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Mathieu Amalric, Tom Wilkinson
Comedy, Drama  
100 Mins
R

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Fiennes, Brody, Dafoe, Goldblum, Murray, Law, Swinton, Ronan, Norton, Keitel, Schwartzman, Seydoux, Wilson, Balaban, Amalric, Wilkinson. Wes Anderson‘s latest may have more big names working for it than ever before but their characters are more paper thin than they’ve been, more fizzle than tonic, more Frankenstein’s creations than humans. His company of regulars – joined by a vast scattering of newbies – are relegated to playing furniure-chomping bit roles, filling the shoes of cartoonish sketches, slinking in long shadows of characters. From Willem Dafoe‘s brutish, brass-knuckled Jopling to a caked-up and aged Tilda Swinton, gone are the brooding and calculated, flawed and angsty but always relatable characters of Wes yore. In their place, a series of dusty cardboard cutouts; fun but irrevocably inhuman.

Here in 2014, Anderson’s ability to attract such a gathering of marquee names to his eccentric scripts has never been as potent. He’s a talent magnet and his tractor beam is set to high. It’s just too bad that this gathering of the juggalos is as caricaturesque as they are (arguable even more than the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox). But what can you expect when your face is painted up and you’re dressed like a Slovenian underground fashion show. Upon dissecting what he’s got to offer, the seemingly indelible Wes Anderson appeal is as clear as day.

In the jungle of Hollywood, roles are mostly relegated one of two ways: the tentpole blockbusters, where characters are written like ham steaks – vessels for plot diversions, jukeboxes for one-liners, sarcophagi for the next action scene – and the smaller budgeted “independent” movie, wherein the tone is usually somber, the scenery is left unchewed, and emotional preparation ought to be through the roof. Anderson’s films flirt a very thin middle ground, a Bermuda triangle between indie cred and mainstream. To his credit, it looks like a blast.

Inside his pictures, Anderson’s stars are afforded a chance to play dress up in the midst of gorgeous sets at exciting locales. What’s not to love? Plus, this particular project had an added advantage: European travel. For these thespians, being a part of Anderson’s playground is like being a kid again. However, their childishness is more apparent here than in any of Anderson’s finest work (save for maybe Moonrise Kingdom). But through the haze of these colorful yet superficial oddities shines Ralph FiennesMonsieur Gustave, a beacon of complexity in an otherwise skin-deep cast of characters.

Gustave is a relic of the past. He’s an icon of chivalry, a servant dedicated to his craft, a well-groomed pet for his adoring clientele. He sluts it up for the elderly ladies who pass through his hotel (but he enjoys it too, so he tells us), making him a bit of a tourist attraction in himself. A hot springs for wilting feminine physiques, Gustave becomes the recipient of a pricy artifact (an ironic art piece called “Boy with Apple” – the customary brand of wry Anderson platitudes) when one of his doting golden-agers (Swinton) bites the dust. With her family trying to discredit him and blame the murder his way, Gustave must go on the run.

The cat and mouse, European romp to follow is as much an episode of Tom and Jerry as it is The Great Escape. Fiennes’ soulful gravitas brings immeasurable life to what is otherwise a series of cartoonish escape plots and hijinks. Anderson’s offerings are easy to consume and his persnickety eye for detail and Fiennes’ brilliant performance brings life by the pound to the otherwise far-fetched proceedings.

In this recent turn in his career, Wes Anderson has almost becoming a mockery of Wes Anderson. Though I thoroughly enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel it lacks the rounded emotional honesty of his pre-Fox efforts. He’s lost the intellectual intensity he had going in Rushmore, The Royal Tenanbaums and (I know I’m in the minority here) Darjeeling Limited, largely replaced by quirk by the bucket and enough billable names to make your head spin.  Nevertheless, Fiennes is magical; a perfect vessel for Andersonisms, the savior of the show.

B+

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Out in Theaters: THE MONUMENTS MEN

“The Monuments Men”
Directed by George Clooney
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Winslet, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban
Action, Biography, Drama
118 Mins
PG-13

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George Clooney
‘s The Monument’s Men is a monumess. A sloppily assembled patchwork of scenes, it’s a great story with no backbone that flops from event to event like a fish out of water. Without the propulsion of any kind of momentum, the tale sags, leaving us dulled to the story’s eventual important moments. With all the talent involved and Clooney behind the camera, we expect something with panache, wit and style and instead are served up this goofy slop of events thrown at the stage with all the disheveled precision of a pie-in-the-face. However intriguing the “true story” behind the film, it is apparently best left in books or relayed in insightful anecdotes as Clooney has all but snuffed the life out of what ought to be a monumental account. As Roger Ebert famously said, “Movies are not about what they are about, but how they are about it.” Here, Clooney’s how looks a lot like wingin’ it.

As mentioned above, the biggest problem holding The Monuments Men back from glory is how frumpily the series of events are organized. Scenes flow into each other like class five rapids, positively clashing and jarring any sense of time or place. Tacking a scene set in France onto one in Germany or America, we never have a foothold on where we are or when exactly anything is taking place. Clooney throws date on the screen but they will hop to another moment in time and another character whose location and significance we can only guess. Only when Clooney’s voiceover cuts through are we informed of the context of the content; a sure sign of narrative failure. When you’re tasked with explaining to the audience what they’re seeing, you know you’re taken a wrong turn off the successful storytelling highway.

So as the film crashes from one scene to another, we’re left trying to hold onto some semblence of structure and even the characters give us little to grasp onto. With the likes of Bill Murray, John Goodman, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban assembled, one would expect stirring ensemble work but, for the most part, Clooney shies away from satisfying character development or captivating ensemble work. The only time he stops to really try and delve into characters are when they face death. What he fails to understand is that we already need to be invested at that point. You can’t kill someone off and then try and make them important posthumously. These “oh wait” moments ring a clear signal of his inability to save the unfocused screenplay from itself and a blinding sign of his desperate attempts to course correct too late in the game.

Even with all these missteps, there are a number of intriguing and poignant scenes interspersed throughout but even they come across as too clunkily set and architecturally inorganic to propel the audience into a suspended state of caring. We want to know who these characters are but we rarely do. Goodman is just kind of there, Dujardin plays up his irresistible French charm and Balaban has some nice material to work his mousey persona on but none really amount to much more than appreciators of art. When Murray is given a dramatic moment to break down in the shower, he puts in some solid work but it makes no sense in the context surrounding that moment. It’s like watching wrestling at the nail salon. It just doesn’t gel.

Where Monuments Men’s biggest disappointment is its squandered use of a killer cast. I will give credit to Cate Winslet, who will soon likely be an Academy Award winner, for her work as a Parisian art aficionado as her work is more notable than any of the gentlemen with whom she shares the screen.

And if you thought War Horse was old-fashion wait until you get a load of this. From the hokey John Williams-wannabe score (courtesy of Alexandre Desplat) to the almost played-for-laughs Nazi presence, it’s just one long page in the book of cinematic taboo. While this may have worked better in 1965, it certainly doesn’t fit 2014. Clooney has been able to manipulate time periods to his liking in the past but his attempt to do a period piece told in dated fashion works about as well as telling the Rwanda Genocide as a rom-com.

One thing is abundantly clear at this junction, Clooney’s art junkie project was certainly not moved from its original release date to “fix up the effects.” Columbia must have know they had little more than a hodgepodge of scenes and didn’t know how to piece them together. The resulting papier mâchéd clunker of a wartime dramedy is a futile effort at grasping at straws. Worse yet, it’s boring.

C-

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First Poster for Wes Anderson's THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

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As an obsessive Wes Anderson fan, I relish in any piece of his inspired artwork, so while most posters don’t really get me excited, this one for The Grand Budapest Hotel does for all of its Wes Anderson-esque goodness. While I rather enjoyed his last film, Moonrise Kingdom, it was hardly one of my favorite of his and I’m excited to see Anderson return to the adult world. As always, he’s got a cast and crew to be oogled with season Anderson loyalites Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton and Adrien Brody will join Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Saoirse Ronan, Mathieu Amalric, Lea Seydoux, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Wilkinson, and newcomer Tony Revolori.

Although little is known about the film, the plot description per IMDB details:

“A famous hotel’s legendary concierge strikes up a friendship with a young employee who becomes his trusted protégé.”

For me, Anderson’s best films come from with exploring themes of wounded humanity. Films like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Darjeeling Limited are as deeply tragic as they are comedic and I’m hoping for something of the same from his latest without quite as much snarky childhood wist as his last two, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom.

With this first poster debut, we can hopefully expect a full synposis or trailer in the near future.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is directed by Wes Anderson and stars Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Saoirse Ronan, Mathieu Amalric, Lea Seydoux, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Wilkinson, and Tony Revolori. It will hit theaters sometime in 2014.

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