Archive for the Comedy Category

Birdman

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on October 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Birdman photo starrating-4stars.jpgVivid, flashy meditation on fame has Michael Keaton as a washed up actor named Riggan Thomson, once known for playing a superhero character named Birdman in the movies – three times in fact. Now he is desperately wanting to re-invigorate his career with the mounting of a Broadway play. He is both directing and starring in an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The parallels between Keaton’s real-life celebrity as Batman and Riggan’s role as Birdman are just as overt as Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Keaton is perfect in the part because he IS this guy. And the opportunity to send-up his own reputation allows the actor to give the finest performance he’s possibly ever given, or at least since Beetlejuice. The production is a dizzying look into the backstage shenanigans of the theater, from rehearsals, to previews, to opening night. Truly Birdman is the best film “All About” Broadway since that movie with Bette Davis.

Riggan is supported by a coterie of oddball characters. On the day before previews, the co-lead is injured and he must quickly scramble for a replacement. Riggan’s slightly off-kilter female lead Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her boyfriend, theater critics’ darling Mike Shiner (Ed Norton). He turns out to be a completely bonkers method actor that has an ego unchecked by his unrelenting bravado. It’s a masterful performance – one that cleverly draws on the star’s own notoriety gained after starring in The Incredible Hulk in 2008. Idiosyncratic actress (and Riggan’s girlfriend) Laura also stars in his play. She is portrayed by Andrea Riseborough. Emma Stone is Riggan’s recovering drug addict daughter who now works as his assistant. Then there’s Riggan’s best friend and theatrical producer Jake. When Zach Galifianakis embodies the most sane person in the ensemble, you know you’re surrounded by a zany lot indeed.

What really sets director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s tour de force apart is the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. The film is shot, or made to appear like it was shot, in one single long take with no edits over the course of a few days. The result is a you-are-there heightened sense of realism.  The proceedings have an immediacy that is exhilarating. Iñárritu directs his cast like a symphonic piece, each one carefully entering and exiting the scene at various parts of the 119 minute movement.  It’s similar to a musician awaiting their cue in an orchestra. The locale is almost exclusively set inside the St. James theater in New York City.  The lens navigates the cramped cavernous halls of the Broadway institution.  The camera swoops and turns, doubles back and around through the stage show separately focusing on assorted conversations at different times throughout the venue.  The display occasionally induces claustrophobia in the observer but the effect can be breathtaking as well. It’s a spectacular feat that could have become a gimmick, but the manipulation here is so effortless that it is a welcome and, dare I say, vital component of the production. The achievement makes this Iñárritu’s most accessible work since Babel.

Birdman is a densely layered comedy that is open to numerous interpretations. It’s a dissertation on acting vs. celebrity. It’s a rumination on show business and the fleeting nature of fame. And it’s a satire on the acting profession. Regarding that last one, this is a pretty savage portrait on the existence of an actor. There is an element of fantasy to this too. Michael Keaton as Riggan has a constant interior monologue in the guise of his alter ego Birdman. These Shakespearean soliloquies add to the experimental feel of the spectacle. The drama opens with him meditating, seated in the lotus position, floating in midair. Later he’s moving objects with his mind. The drum heavy score by jazz artist Antonio Sanchez, accentuates many scenes with a thudding percussion beat. The stylish flourishes are to subvert reality. It adds to the manic tension that continues all the way to the ending. It’s one of those head scratchers that leaves the audience with a big question instead of closure. That’s ok because with Birdman it’s about the journey. The chronicle takes the viewer on a wildly inventive and smartly written ride. Hold on tight because once it starts, it doesn’t stop.

10-23-14

St. Vincent

Posted in Comedy with tags on October 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

St. Vincent photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBill Murray is Vincent McKenna, an aging curmudgeon who drinks, gambles and frequents prostitutes. Ok so he really only patronizes one prostitute in particular (Naomi Watts), a hooker with the proverbial heart of gold. Into his life enters new neighbor Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). They have recently moved in next door. She is trying to make a life for her 12 year old the best way she knows how. Earning a living as well as raising a child can be difficult. As the sole provider, she makes an arrangement with Vincent where he can conveniently watch the little tyke while she works from morning to night, for a fee of course. An odd rapport blossoms between the improbable duo that ultimately benefits them both.

As you read that synopsis you’re likely to roll your eyes at the utterly hackneyed contrivance being set up. What saves St. Vincent from mawkish sentimentality is the presence of Bill Murray who hasn’t anchored a comedy since Rushmore 16 years ago, and that was more of a co-starring role anyway. It’s easy to dismiss his performance as merely an exaggerated version of himself. He’s boozy, cantankerous, carries himself with a “I don’t care attitude” and dresses the part. But he settles into the role with such a relaxed easiness that we are intrigued by this heightened version of his embittered self . There’s no doubt that Murray is the reason to see St. Vincent.

That’s not to say the rest of the cast isn’t spectacular. Murray’s scenes wouldn’t have had such power if he didn’t have chemistry with his budding co-star, Jaeden Lieberher. As the puny kid who gets picked on at school, he is in need of some guidance. Oliver’s interactions with Vincent are sweet and they form an engaging twosome. Jaeden really holds his own with the comedic legend. In fact the entire climax rests on the young actor’s shoulders and he delivers the emotionally affecting speech like a pro. It’s nice to see Melissa McCarthy underplay in a restrained turn as the single mom. One might question her choice to leave her son with Vincent. However it’s a choice we accept because she’s likable and we feel sorry for her plight. Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian stripper is as ridiculous as it sounds, but her scenes are good for a few scattered laughs. However the part is essentially window dressing and not intrinsic to the plot.

St. Vincent is a comedy with some real drama sprinkled throughout. Bill Murray and Jaeden Lieberher form an implausible mentor / student relationship that is genuinely appealing. Incongruous pairings, particularly involving corrupt adult authority figures, is kind of routine these days. The way this production entertains is not. The script has a lot of heart and the ensemble elevates what could have been corny into something enjoyable. St. Vincent is a reliable old couch that is broken in and comfortable. There’s bona fide joy in seeing an elder statesman of comedy do what he does best. Murray started his career in films playing the rumpled goofball. I’m talking about his early hits like Meatballs and Stripes. When was the last time Murray starred in a comedy that broad? Too long is the answer. Welcome back Bill Murray, it’s always good to see you again.

10-22-14

One Chance

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on October 19, 2014 by Mark Hobin

One Chance photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgHis tale reads like the most clichéd underdog success story you‘ve ever heard. Paul Potts was a mere mobile-phone salesman who ultimately went on to win the first season of Britain’s Got Talent back in June of 2007. He was a shy, unassuming man in his mid-30s with a decidedly un-glamorous appearance. Yet he fought his own insecurities to win over audiences and the judges alike with his astounding ability to sing opera. Paul became the stuff of legend in Britain. In the U.S. he remained largely an unknown. However his “from nobody to somebody” saga would be repeated during the third season by another contestant. This time with the similarly plain but spectacularly gifted Susan Boyle who would take the competition by storm in 2009.

Note: Boyle did not win but became the runner-up in Season 3. Yet she ironically achieved more success in the U.S. than actual Season 1 winner Paul Potts.

Paul Potts’ saga is nothing new, but these accounts of fame do captivate the heart on some level. David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me) lays on the schmaltz and the narrative hits all the beats you expect a soap opera collage to hit. Perhaps screenwriter Justin Rackham (The Bucket List, The Big Wedding) is a bit to blame as well. You want to take him to task for fabricating such a rote story from Paul Potts’ rise to fame. There is very little here to set this apart from the 2 minute bio you get on these singing competitions in their recorded segment. In this case they’ve optimistically expanded that human interest story to a feature length 103 minutes. Where the chronicle sets itself apart is in its handling of the relationship with his girlfriend Julie-Ann (Alexandra Roach) whom he calls Julz. After flirting online, the two finally decide to meet. Their awkward chemistry is warm and appealing. They complement each other and it’s nice to see a relationship between two people that don’t look like Hollywood actors after having visited a stylist.

One Chance is pleasant, but it isn’t innovative enough to make this different from a dozen other rags to riches stories you’ve already seen fifty times before. The story really botches the ending too. The fact that Paul succeeded is already a foregone conclusion so the inevitable climax simply becomes a waiting game for Paul’s TV triumph. Actor James Corden plays the lead character with a lot of humanity. The comic is set to take over Craig Ferguson’s place on The Late Late Show in 2015. Corden ably lip- syncs while the real Paul Potts supplies the vocals. That all works. But then actual judging panel footage from the Britain’s Got Talent TV show is used, Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden and Piers Morgan’s historic responses are intercut with footage of actor Corden reacting to their evaluations. The assembled editing is not organic. The pastiche drains the moment of the drama of Paul intenerating with real people. If this were the only problem, I might’ve forgiven the misstep. The problem is this is merely the icing of an issue on a very uninspired cake.

10-12-14

Maps to the Stars

Posted in Comedy, Drama on October 14, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Maps to the Stars photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn theory, Maps to the Stars wants to be a savage satire on Hollywood as seen through the eyes of the Weiss family. Our story begins with Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), a chauffeur. Like everyone in this city, he’s actually a struggling actor writing a screenplay. At the start he picks up Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who has hired him to drive her. She is newly arrived to Tinseltown and eager to start a new life. Her relationship to the rest of the ensemble is a bit of a mystery. She ultimately gets hired by Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a waning superstar.  Havana is a woman fiercely seeking a role in the remake of her mother’s 1960 movie Stolen Waters. Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon) was an iconic actress who died tragically in a fire. She now appears as a ghost apparently only to torment her daughter. John Cusack is Dr. Stafford Weiss – Havana’s new age therapist. He’s father to Benjie, a child celebrity and a recovering drug addict. Benjie got famous from a popular film franchise called Bad Babysitter. Cristina Weiss (Olivia Williams ) is his exploitative mother who enables his bad behavior.

There’s something a little off kilter about this tale – and not in a good way. For a comedy-drama set amongst the politics of La la Land, the ambiance is surprisingly lethargic. The picture occasionally makes an impression.  When Havana’s lucky break comes at the expense of her colleague’s son drowning, she belts out “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”.   But the milieu never quite feels like The Entertainment Capital of the World.  Anyone who has witnessed reality TV train wrecks like The Anna Nicole Show (2002–2004) or Whitney Houston’s behavior on Being Bobby Brown (2005) will get a better window into the perils of fame.  Just 30 minutes of those reality series are more savage attacks on Hollywood excess than anything in this script.  The production notes tell us this is director David Cronenberg’s first film shot in the U.S. but his overwhelming reliance on interior shots have the prefabricated feel of a Toronto soundstage. There’s a noticeable lack of stars playing themselves in this land too.  Carrie Fisher pops up briefly to give the dialogue some much needed levity that doesn‘t rely on vulgar discourse. We find out the Star Wars actress became friends with Agatha on Twitter. That could be a joke. It’s hard to tell.

David Cronenberg satirizes those washed-up starlets that want to remain relevant at any cost. It’s easy to see Julianne Moore as sort of a amalgamation of former stars like Lindsay Lohan or Kim Richards. The authenticity of her performance is never a question. She portrays this fading actress like a woman who has already lived the experience.  Moore is brave, but at times the determination to shock the audience reeks of desperation. Too often the atmosphere devolves into crudeness without purpose. The offenses are many. Julianne Moore’s big moment occurs while sitting on the toilet. Her demand to her PA for laxatives augmented by sound effects. Incest is a recurring theme. At one point, Havana’s dead mother takes the place of the other woman in her ménage à trois.  When Dr. Stafford started punching Agatha on the floor of his meticulously decorated living room, I could’ve sworn I saw that same scene in Mommie Dearest. I get it. In Hollywood, everyone is a mess. Unfortunately so is this production.

10-14-14

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Posted in Comedy, Family with tags on October 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day photo starrating-3stars.jpgYou got to give the producers of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day points for chutzpah. They took a 32 page picture book about nothing more than a boy who has a bad day and stretched it into a feature film. Its moral? Life is full of unfortunate events. First published in 1972, the title has since sold over four million copies. It’s safe to say it’s now considered a literary classic, but I hold the work in less enthusiastic regard. The Alexander of the text is a sulking brat that pouts from life’s drawbacks with which he is beset. These include: no prize in his cereal box, not getting a window seat in the car and a teacher that doesn’t fawn over his drawing of an invisible castle. He turned in a blank piece of paper for goodness sakes!

Thankfully screenwriter Rob Lieber has significantly expanded on the book’s flimsy premise. For one, the pitfalls that Alexander encounters really are things to justifiably get upset over. For instance, all of his friends are skipping his birthday for a more popular student’s party. That’s legitimately painful. To add insult to injury, everyone else in his family is living a charmed life of perfection. So much so that they seem oblivious to his woes. After having a particularly horrendous day, he retreats to his bedroom with a cupcake. Tomorrow is his birthday. On lighted candle, he wishes that his family could understand his plight by also having a bad day like him. Any bets on whether he’ll get his wish?

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a pleasant comedy that earns its laughs from slapdash shenanigans. This is comedy at its most basic form. I’m surprised no one actually slipped on a banana peel or threw a pie in someone’s face. Bad things happening to people has been the basis for many comedies: The Out of Towners, Home Alone, etc. The cast gamely registers discomfort in awkward situations with amusing results. Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner embellish this production with star power as the parents. Even Dick Van Dyke shows up in a funny bit playing himself. Let’s be realistic. The repetitive screenplay would be more at home as a made for TV movie on the Disney channel than as a cinematic event. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. I mean High School Musical captivated millions. I had pretty low expectations given the source book and they were exceeded. This is a decent picture that entertains just enough to make it passable time filler. It’s fast paced and breezes by in a scant 80 minutes. If you’ve got little ones to entertain, this should fit the bill.

10-11-14

Pride

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on October 8, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Pride photo starrating-4stars.jpg“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an old proverb that can be traced back to a concept that has been around since at least the 4th century BC. The sentiment is particularly apropos with Pride, a feel-good drama about a group of gay and lesbian activists who join forces with the miners during the lengthy Mineworkers strike that began in the summer of 1984.

But first a little history. Our tale is set in the UK during the Margaret Thatcher era government.  The conservative Prime Minister was intent on free market reform at the expense of unions. Rising tensions between the two sides was exacerbated when the administration announced on March 6,1984 their intention to close 20 coal mines or “pits“. The British coal industry ultimately decided to strike led by the National Union of Mineworkers. The government subsequently seized all union funds, making official donations to the NUM impossible. The necessity for a more grassroots campaign was required. Sensing a common threat, an alliance of lesbians and gay men (LGSM) rose up to raise money to support the striking miners and their families. The NUM was reluctant to receive help from the group and so a faction of London activists decided to take their donations directly to Dulais, a small mining village in Wales. This is their story.

A hand picked ensemble acts this earnest saga with real heart. Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) is a charismatic young lad who galvanizes his reformist friends to back the working class strikers by making a connection between the oppression felt by the miners with that of the gays and lesbians under the current political climate. Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy and Paddy Considine represent the traditional families in the Welsh mining town. Dominic West, Fay Marsay and George MacKay are the liberal activists in the LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) coalition. These diverse groups are thoughtfully represented by a colorful cast. Everyone makes an impression. Veteran thespians Staunton as a stern but understanding matriarch and Nighy as the miners’ shy treasurer, are especially memorable. Despite a fairly large assemblage of speaking parts, the characters are clearly delineated individuals with unique personalities. There are a lot of plot threads, but the production handles them with interest so each one seems necessary to the overall picture. It makes the implausible accord that actually happened seem like the most logical association in the world. Politics makes strange bedfellows, as they say.

Pride is an uplifting heartfelt film constructed to appeal to the masses in the most entertaining way.  Tony Award-winning director and dramatist Matthew Warchus (God of Carnage) directs from a script by Stephen Beresford. It simplifies in the clearest possible approach to present a feel good tale that effectively manipulates the emotions. By focusing the struggle on a small, but distinct circle of people, the audience can connect to the intimate human drama that played out in the much larger public arena. The lightness of tone when dealing with heavy issues is appreciated. In the process it sidesteps the pitfalls that could’ve made this account preachy or didactic. This might alienate some seeking more hard hitting controversy, but the script fashions a narrative much in the way a powerful sports movie works. It creates a David and Goliath story and invites you to cheer for the underdog.

10-01-14

The Boxtrolls

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on September 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Boxtrolls photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgOregon-based Laika Animated Studios is best known for the films Coraline and ParaNorman. Each one is an impressive feature that blends an engaging story with stop-motion artistry. Quite simply, they’re extraordinary works of entertainment. In fact, both were such successes they each made my Top 10 in the respective years they came out. Given that, The Boxtrolls was among my most eagerly anticipated releases of the year. It goes without saying that my expectations were very high. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to report that Laika’s latest offering is a crushing disappointment.

The Boxtrolls are a community of odd creatures that dwell underneath the cobblestone streets of Victorian era Cheesebridge. Legend has vilified them as evil bandits that prey on the town’s most precious resources: their cheeses and their children. The two things are not necessarily listed in order of importance. The Boxtrolls are a curious sort. They wear recycled cardboard boxes the way turtles inhabit their shells and have names designated by the cover of their box. Fish, Wheels, Bucket and Shoe are some examples. I’d be hard pressed to discern the personality of one from another. Their nonsensical babble-speak begs comparison to the Minions from Despicable Me. The Boxtrolls are a sharp contrast from those similar though much more successful critters. I mean those delightful little rapscallions are getting their own movie. One would think these oddballs were meant to be endearing given they inspired the title of this movie. However the Boxtrolls have been relegated to the sidelines in favor of two other human characters.

Laika’s latest is based on Alan Snow’s 2005 book “Here Be Monsters!” but the real protagonists of the film are two human children. Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) is a boy that, was given to the Boxtrolls to raise. He’s later discovered by Winnie (Elle Fanning), an overbearing young girl that becomes Eggs’ first friend from up above. Apparently she is there to berate him that he’s a human boy and not a troll at all. Ok, you’re technically correct, but seriously, could you please just shut up?  She’s such a killjoy. Their shenanigans didn’t amuse or interest me in the slightest. On the baddie side we have Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) as the main antagonist. He’s also got three henchman Mr. Trout, Mr. Pickles and Mr. Gristle voiced by Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan. They provide what little humor there is. Mr. Snatcher is out to exterminate every last Boxtroll so that he can become a member of the White Hats, an elite club of cheese aficionados that serve as Cheesebridge’s city council. Yes, he’s essentially advocating genocide with his bizarre Steampunk fashioned metal contraption. Heavy stuff that feels out of place. It’s important to infuse the macabre with some emotion. This doesn’t. Side note: his allergic skin reaction to his beloved cheese is pretty disgusting.

It pains me to say this, but The Boxtrolls is a charmless, tedious bore. The picture attempts to be something that it is not, an American attempt at British humor. Aardman Studios, excels at this. Remember Chicken Run? Of course you do because it was enjoyable fun. The Boxtrolls in contrast has a meandering plot largely devoid of laughs. It’s hampered by stock characters that fail to enchant. The story and the personalities are thoroughly uninvolving. Sadly generic to the core. Despite all that, the technique is gorgeous. Visually the production is a WOW. The beautifully rendered world with remarkable attention to detail, does captivate the senses. It’s easy to forget this is not computer assisted. These puppets have been painstakingly moved one frame at a time. Although the movement is so seamless, I can’t help but question whether some trickery is being employed. Regardless, it looks stunning. The hand drawn closing credits sequence which encapsulates the entire tale, is beautiful too. It’s even accompanied by a lovely cover version of the Pete Seeger hit “Little Boxes” by Portland band Loch Lomond. Additionally a brief post-credits scene highlights the painstaking process of stop motion animation. I suggest sticking around to enjoy it. It’s the most fascinating display in the whole film.

09-25-14

The Skeleton Twins

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Skeleton Twins photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgMilo and Maggie are one of those brother and sister pairs who put the fun in dysFUNctional. The Skeleton Twins are so named because of a couple of toy skeletons their father handed them on Halloween when they were kids. The thirty-somethings have been living angst-ridden lives set adrift since the death of their father many years ago. A strange twist of fate unites the two after a decade of estrangement. A despondent Maggie is contemplating a handful of pills in her hand when the phone rings. “How did you get this number? I’m on the National Do Not Call Registry!” without realizing the severity of the message. It’s the hospital. Her brother has unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide and he is currently under their care. The perfect timing means her own suicide will go unsuccessful as well. Look beneath that dark surface and there is an ironic glimmer of hope. There’s humor too. The Skeleton Twins is a movie that touches on pain, but it’s also about that silver lining.

Newbie director Craig Johnson co-wrote the brilliant script with Mark Heyman (Black Swan).  Their screenplay snagged the prestigious Waldo Salt screenwriting award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in January. But their words would be nothing without the stellar talents of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. They’re at the core of this trenchant drama giving a pair of extraordinary performances.  Hader and Wiig are Saturday Night Live alums who started together in the program’s 2005-06 season. They have genuine chemistry displaying a beguiling closeness in their interactions. They are every bit as believable as twin siblings. This could’ve been “The Stefon and Gilly Show” based on their popular sketch characters but they rein in their frenzied tendencies. Both actors’ portrayals are among the best of the year. Additionally it’s worth mentioning Ty Burrell and Luke Wilson who epitomize crucial supporting roles that are just as beautifully acted as they are written.

The Skeleton Twins deftly blends savage drama with honest laughs. It’s kind of an odd mix, but stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader’s easygoing familiarity is mixed with such sarcasm, that the irregular tonal shifts work. The highlights of the film are scenes where they just play off one another as a finely tuned comedy machine. Hader’s invitation to Wiig to lip-sync Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” could’ve come across as supremely cloying. But his exaggerated theatrics and amusing gestures to the music are so dead-on that they almost parody the song.  The vignette is so infectious that you can’t help but want to join in. The tune was first featured as the theme to the 1987 hit Mannequin. I will no longer associate the upbeat anthem with that romantic comedy anymore. Wiig ultimately succumbs to his charms no matter how hard she tries to resist. We the audience likewise do the same.

09-17-14

The Trip to Italy

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 17, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Trip to Italy photo starrating-3stars.jpgLike The Trip in 2010, this follow-up was edited down from the series of the British TV sitcom with the same name. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, are enlisted for another restaurant tour in the second series. The inaugural one was in England. This time it’s in Italy with stunning locales from Liguria to Capri. Their destinations follow the Grand Tour of Italy, the beaten path of 19th century Romantic poets like Byron and Keats.

Anyone who has seen the first picture knows what to expect. More fantastic meals filmed in beautiful locations, accompanied by humorous conversations. There’s no denying that the duo has some amusing observations scattered throughout. Although any screenplay that zeroes in on Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill as a target of humor two decades after the fact, isn’t aiming for timeliness. There’s an air of melancholy too. Rob Brydon contemplates an affair from his apparently unhappy marriage. Coogan laments his waning sex appeal to young women. The script is witty, but it lacks confidence to add something fresh to the familiar concept. It saunters along with no direction. It’s more of a reflection than a focused film.

The Trip to Italy is more of the same. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are a funny comedy team. Their dueling Michael Caines were a standout in the original. This time however the shtick comes across as a bit desperate. The movie has barely begun and they’re already going back that well again. “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” Steve Coogan shout at the top of his lungs. The obvious Caine quote from 1969’s The Italian Job. Then the pair discuss The Dark Knight Rises and who is less understandable – Tom Hardy as Bane or Christian Bale as Batman. Do you like the impressions? Then I have very good news for you – a whole slew of celebrities are mimicked: Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Humphrey Bogart. Some are good (Woody Allen). Others are just awful (Al Pacino). Perhaps that was the point. Most of these are done by Brydon who once again plays the irritant to Coogan’s agitated fellow. So how do you say déjà vu in Italian?

09-10-14

Around the World in 80 Days

Posted in Adventure, Comedy with tags on September 10, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Around the World in 80 Days photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn 1956 Around the World in 80 Days was a luxurious bubble bath – a warm comforting experience. It was pleasant and enjoyable. As time wore on though that tub water deteriorated. The bubbles dissipated, the water got cold and the qualities that initially made it such a joy were no longer present. The production that apparently charmed audiences in 1956 has aged horribly. Today the Technicolor phenomenon now remains a long, bloated curiosity that stands as one of the most shocking peculiarities to have ever won Best Picture.

The feature is a distended 175 minute bore based on the 1873 Jules Verne classic and that’s not even including the 10 minute intermission. Our story begins with a long introduction by Edward R. Murrow seated behind a desk discussing the” fantastic fiction” of Jules Verne, including the novel From the Earth to the Moon, which was the basis for the 1902 Georges Méliès silent A Trip to the Moon. Murrow lectures on the advances we‘ve made in space travel since then. After that disastrous opening, the main story opens on a scene in London, England, in 1872 about Phileas Fogg, a Victorian gentleman who bets his friends at the Reform Club that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days on a £20,000 wager (roughly £1.6 million today) . Accompanied by his newly employed valet Passepartout he visits many locations as he interacts with various people along the way.

The production was American theater producer Mike Todd’s crowning achievement.  The theatrical impresario who had produced 17 Broadway shows during his career had never produced a theatrical feature. This was his first…..and last. He would tragically die in a plane crash a couple years later on March 22, 1958. He was married to Elizabeth Taylor at the time. It was her only marriage that didn’t end in divorce.  The drama was filmed in a high resolution widescreen format called Todd-AO first used successfully in Fred Zimmerman’s Oklahoma! (1955). Mike Todd developed the 70mm print format with the American Optical Company in the mid-1950s.

If nothing else, Around the World in 80 Days is a spectacle. The period piece was shot extensively in thirteen different countries, utilizing 70,000 extras and 8,000 animals. Areas from all around the world were represented including such distant spots as Paris (France), Chinchón (Spain), Bangkok (Thailand), Calcutta (India), Hong Kong (China), Yokohama (Japan), and the USA (Colorado). These locales provided the setting for various vignettes, none of which are particularly exciting. For example the flamenco dance and bullfights in Spain go on for far too long. Perhaps the promise of actual location shooting was enough to sustain a film at that time. Air travel was a luxury of the wealthy in the 1950s. Travel to far flung places wasn’t common. Regardless, these days any locale can easily be rendered via blue screen and computer, so the extravaganza doesn’t fascinate in the way it might have in 1956.

Then there’s the stunt casting. David Niven’s distinctly British (read fastidious) portrayal of Phileas Fogg is a saving grace. Ditto the appearance of Mexican movie star Cantinflas. The latter makes his American screen debut as Fogg’s sidekick Passepartout. The screen legend gets a comic bullfighting sequence created just for him, not in the text. But Shirley MacLaine, in only her 3rd screen role, is forgettable. She is perplexingly cast as a princess from India heroically rescued from being sacrificed by our heroic duo. Robert Newton is a Scotland Yard detective who mistakenly thinks Fogg is a bank robber. His presence is charitably best described as an amusing annoyance. For star watchers there are nearly 50 cameos from then famous personalities, many of which are unknown today. I watch a lot of old movies and even I didn’t recognize a lot of these stars. However a few stood out including Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton and Frank Sinatra. This isn’t a quality film. It’s a sightseeing excursion with a chance to play “spot the star”. Call it an unfunny version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or a cinematic version of the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland.

There’s no other way to say it. Around the World in 80s Days is nothing more than a bland travelogue. What must’ve seemed like an grandiose marvel in 1956 doesn’t translate to the modern era. Our technologically advanced age makes this once epic period piece seem like an old dated relic.  It still has value. Anthropologists should study this as a faded artifact of a bygone era. How this film won the Academy Award for Best Picture must certainly be one of the great anomalies in the Academy’s illustrious history. Now reflect on the fact that it beat The King and I, The Ten Commandments and Giant and the win seems even more egregious. But the accolades didn’t stop there. It snagged 5 Academy Awards out of its 8 nominations. The mind boggles. The only one it seems remotely worthy of consideration was for Best Cinematography and I would still argue it was up against stiffer competition. David Niven and Cantinflas make an entertaining duo. I liked them and the cinematography is pleasant. Oh and then there’s that animated end credits sequence titled “Who was seen in what scene…and who did what” created by Saul Bass. The whimsical cartoon is most delightful thing in the whole production.

09-07-14

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