Archive for the Comedy Category

Magic in the Moonlight

Posted in Comedy, Romance on August 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Magic in the Moonlight photo starrating-2stars.jpgWoody Allen has been making films for close to 50 years, so it goes without saying that his productions run the gamut from masterpieces (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors) to instantly forgettable (September, Anything Else). I’m sorry to report that Magic in the Moonlight sits firmly in the latter category. Even the best of us can have an off day, but I still find it fascinating that a filmmaker can immediately follow up a work of art like Blue Jasmine with an offering that is flawed at such a rudimentary level.

As is often the case with his fumbles, Woody starts out with an interesting idea. At the behest of his fellow illusionist colleague, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is invited to the mansion of the Catledge family on the French Riviera to debunk an ethereal young woman named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who claims to be a psychic. The family is apparently beguiled by this attractive twenty-something. British Stanley is a celebrated magician who performs in disguise as a Chinese conjuror named Wei Ling Soo. With the exception of the friend who invites him, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), no one at the estate is aware of Stanley’s other persona. This then will allow him to observe the clairvoyant and ostensibly expose her as a fraud.

For half the movie, the director has our attention. Colin Firth is enjoyable as this cranky cynic looking to demystify an inscrutable but charming visionary. They banter back and forth. The mood is light, the scenery is pretty and the 1920s milieu is enchanting. As they spend time together, Sophie is able to discern personal details about Stanley’s life and even those of his aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). Incidentally her minor role was my favorite part. At this juncture, Stanley begins to seriously question his deep-rooted rationalism. Then he decides he has feelings for this girl. Sorry. Nope. Not buying it.

These realizations are a complete betrayal of Colin Firth’s character. That this lifelong curmudgeon would all of sudden, fall head over heals in love with a woman he had regarded as a charlatan is a bunch of hooey. Add to this the unsavory fact that he is old enough to be her grandfather and it adds another layer of ick. Who’s Helena Bonham Carter’s love interest going to be in her next film….Justin Bieber? Because their age difference is exactly the same. Everything up until this point is decent.  However the story falls apart from there. Then a plot twist is added and the reveal is like deflating a hot air balloon as it rapidly descends back to earth. From then on there is absolutely nowhere for the narrative to go. His comment on faith is by now a Woody Allen cliché. Magic in the Moonlight isn’t the worst Woody Allen film, but it’s 238,855 miles away from being the best.

08-06-14

A Hard Day’s Night

Posted in Comedy, Music, Musical with tags on July 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Hard Day's Night photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt was fifty years ago today…well August 11, 1964 to be exact….that the picture A Hard Day’s Night was unleashed onto the American public. The soundtrack was The Beatles’ third studio album. Beatlemania was already in full swing and the teen public’s hunger for anything having to do with the British phenomenon was insatiable.

After signing them to a 3 picture deal, United Artists could have put anything out with John, Paul, George and Ringo in it and it would’ve been a success.  The surprise was that A Hard Day’s Night was actually quite good on its own merits. The production was helmed by an American movie director based in Britain named Richard Lester. He had created a short called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film starting Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. The Beatles loved it and selected him from handful of choices to direct their first feature.

The plot for this mock-documentary is simple. It’s a day in the life. The Beatles, playing themselves, are on their way to perform on a London TV show. The ongoing constant is that the Fab Four are eternally having to duck hordes of screaming fans at every stop. They board a train, get settled at their hotel, rehearse at the studio. Then Ringo gets separated from the group. Along the way on their various lightweight adventures, the Beatles display a charisma that is irresistible. The script is filled with little exchanges like the following.

Reporter: Are you a mod or a rocker?
Ringo: Um, no. I’m a mocker.

A Hard Day’s Night is not particularly deep but it is fun – displaying an irreverent charm that is joyous. The Beatles come across as likable and witty. It simplifies their personalities and then amplifies them in short easy to digest sound bites. Yes, they are caricatures of their personas but these are appealing distortions of themselves. The production is highlighted by a manic energy. There are a lot of funny bits contained within. My favorite: Ringo puts his coat down for a girl so that she can walk across a muddy puddle several times before she ultimately falls down a deep hole. Oh and let’s not forget the music! As far as this Beatles fan is concerned, every song is gold, but highlights include: “If I Fell”, “And I Love Her”, “She Loves You” and the title hit of course. Incidentally “I’ll Cry Instead” was excised from the sketch where the Beatles flee their hotel room via the fire escape. It can still be found on the soundtrack. However the more upbeat “Can’t Buy Me Love” was used in its place because Richard Lester felt the tune suited the scene better.

The cultural impact of the film cannot be underestimated. Its importance was immediately understood even garnering two Academy Award nominations at the time (Best Original Screenplay and Best Score). Although uncomplicated and seemingly insignificant, the narrative had an impact on spy thrillers like Dr. No, inspired 60s TV sitcom The Monkees and influenced later day pop music videos. It additionally makes a strong case as to why the Beatles became a worldwide sensation.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of A Hard Day’s Night, a spectacular new restoration was released to theaters on July 4th by Janus Films. If you can’t make it to the cinema, Criterion Collection has assembled a special new edition on DVD and Blu-ray. You’ll marvel at the stunning black-and-white cinematography. Please re-discover this classic.

Begin Again

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on July 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Begin Again photo starrating-4stars.jpgBegin Again is a horrible name for a film. It’s generic and bland and forgettable. Everything that the actual drama is not. Let me be clear. I loved the film. Hated the title. Apparently test audiences didn’t agree. Back in the Fall of last year the picture was called Can a Song Save Your Life? Oh how much better and more interesting that quirky caption would’ve been had it stayed. This is a pure, effervescent slice of happiness that celebrates the beauty of music. The current moniker doesn’t do this inspired tale justice. For the life of me, I always struggle to remember what it’s called.

Begin Again is a distinctly New York saga. Keira Knightley is Greta, a young songstress still stinging from the breakup of the relationship with her “no-good ex-boyfriend” Dave Kohl, played by Adam Levine. Mark Ruffalo is Dan a once prosperous A&R executive whose career has hit the skids. Now disillusioned, he hasn’t had a success in years. Then one day their paths cross on open-mike night in some nondescript East Village club. Could the promising folk singer and the struggling A&R rep have the right chemistry to make it big? If this slice of life sounds thematically similar to the musical drama Once, that’s because Director John Carney was also responsible for that surprise indie hit in 2007. It’s been about that long since we’ve had such a sweet ode to musicians who write, compose and perform their own material. Most people will remember Once for the ballad “Falling Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The singing-songwriting stars won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year. Begin Again is highlighted by a delightful soundtrack as well.

The story works because of the authenticity of the performances. But this is a film that relies just as heavily on its soundtrack. Gregg Alexander, best known as the frontman of the New Radicals, co-wrote the music with Nick Lashley, Danielle Brisebois, and Nick Southwood. If there’s anything here that might break out, it would be the quietly soaring “Lost Stars”. Director John Carney does the impossible. He deftly extracts the talent to sing from Keira Knightley with the ability to act from Adam Levine. He minimizes their limitations and highlights their strengths. Knightly isn’t the greatest singer in the world but Carney wisely doesn’t have her push her voice beyond a pleasant lilt. She comes across like someone who idolizes Sara Bareilles. The script namechecks Nora Jones. Adam Levine plays a hungry singer who has recently been signed to a major record label – a moment he once occupied in real life before he achieved mega superstardom. He gets to sing several songs here stripped of the traditionally slick production of a Maroon 5 single. Marc Ruffalo’s appearance as Dan borders on crazy homeless guy. It’s supposed to highlight his downward spiral from success but he’s sheepishly charming by nature so Carney simply allows his personality to assert itself.

Begin Again is a beautifully realized valentine to the visionary forces that create music. Director John Carney fashions a collection of snapshots that wonderfully detail the inspiration in producing an album. Dan and Greta first meet in a joyful scene. Dan watches Greta sing “A Step You can’t Take Back” accompanied by nothing more than her strumming guitar. But he imagines the little ditty with a full accompaniment behind her. Each instrument sonically realized before our very eyes as they start playing by themselves in the background one by one: strings, a piano, the drums behind her. Each addition technically only existing in his mind, but we the audience experience what he hears and the results are a window into how an A & R executive might envision the work of an artist.

Begin Again is filled will little vignettes that feel like authentic depictions of the music business. It’s a romantic comedy in which you’re never quite sure if the sparks you see happening between Greta and Dan will ever actually erupt in romance. That little guessing game makes the script a bit unconventional. It’s reminiscent of director John Carney’s previous showbiz drama Once. I loved that film so I’m happy to revisit its style. Along the way we’re treated to some beautiful musical numbers as Greta and Dan record an album at various locations throughout New York City. Now excuse me while I go buy the soundtrack.

07-02-14

22 Jump Street

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 15, 2014 by Mark Hobin

22 Jump Street photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgOfficers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are back in this follow-up to the wildly popular 2012 hit 21 Jump Street. There isn’t much new or fresh added to the original idea of the first. Sequels are usually more of the same, just bigger with an increased budget. The whole production is rather pointless, but that IS the point. Familiarity is a major component of the laughs. The truth is, the only thing a comedy really needs to be, is funny and 22 Jump Street is indeed that.

I don’t even think the narrative matters but here’s a little recap anyway. Instead of high school this time, the two go undercover at a local college. They’re out to investigate a new designer drug called WHYPHY (pronounced Wi-Fi) which the students are using to help them study. Instead of locating their base of operations in the Korean church at 21 Jump Street, this satire has them setting up headquarters on the opposite side at 22 Jump Street. That’s the level of humor on display here. The screenplay keeps everything that made the original hilarious and even a few things that didn’t. The first movie’s villains Dave Franco and Rob Riggle cameo as prisoners whose interaction is profoundly unfunny. It borders on embarrassing. However, there are new additions like Jillian Bell as Mercedes, a college student that sees right through Schmidt’s weak cover.  Her deadpan delivery had me in stitches. Whenever she appears, the scene springs to life. Then there’s the twins that occupy the dorm room across the hall. As portrayed by the Lucas Bros., they provide an off kilter stoned out presence that is reminiscent of Cheech & Chong. In the words of Keith Staskiewicz, they’re “so laid-back, they’re practically lying down.”

22 Jump Street is keenly aware of itself in every way possible. The picture is one big meta joke. Nick Offerman’s grumpy police chief shows up in the beginning to explain we’re going to do EXACTLY the same thing as before. Just in case you didn’t pick up on that from the title, the trailer and everything we’ve seen prior to his appearance. What, are we dead? Three main themes are beaten into the ground ad nauseam. One, that the actors know they are making a sequel, Two, that the principals look too old to be in college, and three that the male camaraderie between work partners Schmidt and Jenko have the superficial characteristics of a romantic relationship. The script persists in exploiting different ways to make gags about these topics. For the most part, they are amusing, but I don’t know how much longer directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller can continue in this vein. There’s a final bit regarding the ongoing monotony of additional episodes in the future: 23 Jump Street, 24 Jump Street, etc. It’s presented as if doing so would be a joke. I hope so. I am not too keen on a protracted franchise that makes fun of routine by being routine.

06-15-14

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Posted in Comedy, Western with tags on June 3, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Million Ways to Die in the West photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgTaste is debatable, but comedy is the most subjective of genres. I have always maintained this and will continue to do so. Don’t believe me?  Millions of fans flocked to see Grown Ups 2 in 2013 much to the chagrin of the cognoscenti. Meanwhile in that every same year, audiences largely ignored critical darling The Way, Way Back, a far superior comedy in my opinion. Show me a person who doesn’t giggle once watching Office Space and I’ll show you someone who thinks it’s the funniest classic of the last 15 years. Unlike adventure, drama, romance or even horror, a good farce isn’t as reliant on quality. It simply needs to make you laugh. Sometimes a witty observation is all it takes, other times it’s a complex visual gag. Humor is in the mind of the beholder.  A Million Ways to Die in the West is a movie that made me chuckle. Quite a lot in fact.

Arizona in 1882 is a land meant for the rough and tumble macho cowboys of the Old West. Enter Albert Stark, a cowardly man who herds sheep. Writer/director/star Seth MacFarlane is a fish out of water very much in same spirit as Bob Hope in The Paleface (1948) or Don Knotts in its remake The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968). Right from the start we can see that Albert would rather tell jokes to get out of a tough situation than face a shootout with an outlaw. He makes crude gestures using the shadow of his opponent. It’s hysterical on one level because it’s a juvenile prank, but it’s also amusing because the shadow puppets are so unbelievably elaborate, no one could possibly do them. The layers is what makes the gag powerful and understanding that adds to its brilliance. Sadly some of the bits fail.

The pacing is already really slow and this picture feels overlong by about 30 minutes. It’s easy to see where cuts could’ve been made. Even the most sophisticated of us will laugh at scatological humor in the right context. Unfortunately, Seth MacFarlane too often wanders down that path. Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) is the mustachioed businessman who stole his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried).  It’s nice to see him get his comeuppance, but that doesn’t include what happens after Foy is slipped a laxative in his beer. Likewise the repetitive hammering of the same schtick doesn’t increase its punch, only time to the excessive length of the movie. Case in point. The town prostitute (Sarah Silverman) will sleep with anyone at the drop of a hat for money, yet is saving herself for marriage by abstaining with her boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi). She is a good Christian woman for goodness sake! The joke is slightly amusing once, but not over and over throughout the entire film.

Seth MacFarlane plays Albert Stark like a modern man from 2014 plopped down in the middle of the Old West.  Anachronistic humor abounds. This gives him ample opportunity to riff on the difficulty of living on the wild frontier. Seth MacFarlane extracts wit in things that we have always known, but rarely stopped to think about. The idiosyncrasies of the era are mined for jokes. Whether it be that nobody ever smiled in photographs or that medicine was so bad, going to the doctor could actually make you sicker.  Most of his targets are clever and unique.  At times it’s almost like a stand-up act.  He exploits simple but obscure truths out loud. That makes them effective. There are several cameos too and every single one of them is a riot. Just don’t watch the trailer because it will spoil the best one. MacFarlane has nice chemistry with Charlize Theron who plays Anna, the wife of a notorious outlaw. When she busts up at his shenanigans, you genuinely feel like she’s not just acting. She truly thinks he’s funny. I have to admit, I do too.

06-01-14

Chef

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on May 21, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Chef photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgChef is about following your passions. I love the fact that writer/director/star Jon Favreau still has time for these pet projects. An executive chef drama doesn’t exactly scream mainstream Hollywood blockbuster.  Jon Favreau started out writing more intimate ventures in the beginning of his career. Swingers is a classic to people of a certain generation. After Jon Favreau’s achievement directing Iron Man 1 & 2, it would seem sensible to continue with big budget Hollywood fare. Let’s face it, that is where the money is. Perhaps it was the middling success of Cowboys & Aliens that prompted this return to his roots. The narrative thrust could easily be taken as a metaphor for his own life.  Chef is clearly a personal project. It concerns rekindling your lust for life. Certainly making a living doing what you genuinely love, but also placing an emphasis on things that matter like family.

When Ramsey Michel, an important food blogger announces his visit to a popular LA eatery, head chef Carl Caspar sees it as his opportunity to get creative and dazzle him with new creations. But restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) will have none of it. He wants to rely on their old standbys, dishes that have long been a staple of the popular restaurant. Carl follows orders. The result gets a nasty review that reads more like a personal attack. It’s interesting to note that there is a subtlety to this critic character portrayed by Oliver Platt. We’re obviously meant to not like him. However his negative review is borne out of a frustrated disappointment from eating uninspired cuisine. In truth, Ramsey Michel deeply believes chef Carl to be talented. Anyways, the bad experience has repercussions. Carl is inspired to make some changes in his life.

You need not be a foodie to appreciate the merits of Chef. The film was surely made by people who appreciate culinary delights, but this passion translates on screen to the regular movie-goer. One of the things that Chef gets really right has nothing to do with food at all. Our digital media age and the power of social networks, in particular Twitter, is perfectly represented. Carl’s feud with the aforementioned food critic begins online. The ability for news to travel throughout the Internet and go viral, that is spread in seconds to the masses, is exploited with humorous results. Jon Favreau is sort of an innocent and his ignorance to the service is humorously explained by his tech savvy son. His awkwardness to the technology and its effect on his business are fun to watch. Emjay Anthony’s performance as the smart tyke is refreshing. He’s precocious but not in an annoying way.

And then of course there’s the food. Chef is the latest in a long line of food porn movies. I’m talking Babette’s Feast (1987), Like Water for Chocolate (1992), Big Night (1996), Ratatouille (2007) Julie & Julia (2009). Movies that lovingly present the beauty of food so that it elicits a physical reaction from an audience. The creations are so seductive you feel as though you could almost taste them. If I need to further my case, right after seeing this movie, I felt compelled to visit La Bodeguita Del Medio, a local hangout in Palo Alto and ordered the Cuban sandwich, one of many dishes highlighted. I suggest going to the movie hungry because you will want to eat immediately after, even on a full stomach. If there’s a quibble, it’s that his success all comes too easily. I would’ve preferred a bit more conflict. The story doesn’t yield many surprises. The script encourages one to do what they love. Good luck will follow. Maybe not pursuing what we truly love is motivated by a fear of failure. Chef is a dear statement from Jon Favreau and I loved what he was putting down. It’s a unique picture, particularly for the Summer. We need more movies like this. You should seek it out. You’ll be glad you did.

05-17-14

Neighbors

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

Neighbors photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgMac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) are a young couple with a baby who’ve recently moved to the suburbs. When the Delta Psi Beta fraternity moves in next door to theirs, mayhem ensues. Their differing values give birth to rising tensions in the neighborhood. You’d think the saga would be about the rude, obnoxious frat boys pitted against the uptight intolerant thirty-somethings, but you’d be wrong. That is merely the beginning of where this culture clash comedy deviates from conventions.

The principals do not fit neatly within the traditional stereotypes of this genre. Yes the greeks are obsessed with partying at all hours of the night. They even have a shrine to great blowouts over the years on their wall. Yet these adolescents are more compassionate than others of their ilk. The script takes the time to develop distinct personalities among the frat guys. While Teddy (Zac Efron) is an athletic party boy with swagger, Pete (Dave Franco), also a partier, is academically inclined. Teddy and his right-hand dude Pete are sympathetic when dealing with harassment at the hands of the Radners. The adults, Mac and Kelly are overly concerned with trying to appear hip and cool while they assert their need to have peace and quiet at a reasonable hour. Seth Rogen has always hilariously embodied that intellectually stunted adult. Rose Byrne is his equal.

The performances are good across the board. There’s a collection of bros in the fraternity that have speaking lines but Zac Efron and Dave Franco are the ones that get the main focus. They put in memorable work and straddle the line between charismatic and contemptible. They’re more than the arrogant stock characters I expected them to be. Seth Rogen, and Rose Byrne are engaging as the mellowing couple that’s starting to grow up. On the surface Mac and Kelly kind of represent the archetypes made famous on the TV show The King of Queens. The clumsy schlub with a inexplicably hot wife that constantly needles him when he messes up. The self-aware script even has the characters themselves bring up the model simply to subvert it. And let’s not forget their baby! Baby Stella is played by twins Zoey and Elise Vargas.  I only looked this up because I was convinced that she was really a 30-year-old actress who just happened to look like a baby. Her expressions are priceless. What a little scene stealer! In truth Neighbors doesn’t re-invent the wheel. I mean their idea of innovation to make the wife as loud and dumb as her husband. However that is precisely what raises the bar. It overturns expectations.

Neighbors displays a surprisingly amount of empathy for both sides. That’s admirable I suppose. It’s funniest though when the ridiculous pranks push the envelope of what would be considered acceptable hijinks. The comedy excels when it’s a back and forth game of one-upmanship. The biggest laughs come when things develop into all out war. Please do note, it’s the aging Radners that get nastier. By the end, I was actually siding with the fraternity who act more reasonably, although I appreciated the Radners’ willingness to go for broke. The Radner’s earn more laughs. After she sets her evil plan in motion, Rose Byrne’s self assured slow-motion strut at the frat party is everything. This comedy ultimately gets by on raucous vibes. In terms of story, though, this is pretty basic stuff. The dramatic beats of the simplistic tale won’t resonate hours after you’ve seen it. It’s fitfully entertaining for the moment. In many ways, that makes it the perfect summer comedy. It‘s equal parts funny, flashy and fleeting.

05-08-14

Bad Words

Posted in Comedy with tags on March 23, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Bad Words photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCritics often use the expression “check your brain at the door” for movies that are best enjoyed without thinking about their inherent ridiculousness. I’d like to coin the phrase, “check your morality at the door“ for Bad Words. The production has a gleefully amoral sensibility when it comes to what is socially acceptable to say in polite conversation. The story concerns Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a middle aged man who has strong-armed his way into a national spelling bee on a technicality. You must not have completed the 8th grade, the rules state. This junior high drop-out never did. Why he wants to compete in a children’s spelling bee is a bit of explanatory information that should be gleaned from watching the film.

Bad Words has a profoundly cynical overtone. The humor is pitch black so many viewers will understandably not warm up to its prickly charms. Guy walks through this chronicle perceptually annoyed with everyone and everything. He’s racist, sexist and an all-around first class SOB.  Perhaps anyone who’s ever been pestered on a plane by a child when you’d prefer just to relax, might sympathize a little with this jerk. Some of the putdowns he dishes out to the adults (and even some kids) are downright nasty in nature but they’re so creatively written that you’ll find your self gasping and laughing almost at the same time. The attitude is usually the kind of stuff I hate. Vulgarity is no substitute for wit. Yet Andrew Dodge’s script is intelligently irreverent. It doesn’t rely on mere shock value. Plus the drama doesn’t hold up Guy as someone to emulate. There is an ultimate point to the madness.

For most of the picture, Bad Words’ dark outlook means to subvert clichéd Hollywood tales where the optimistic adult inspires a youngster to be a better person. If Bad Words is guilty of a legitimate offense, it would be in betraying its initial politically incorrect premise with an ending that devolves into saccharine schmaltz. The change in atmosphere doesn’t ring true because it’s a complete sellout of the acerbic first half. A sincere but awkward 10 year old proves to be his undoing. Pint sized actor Rohan Chand is a genuinely sweet presence. He is really winning as Chaitanya Chopra. The descent into sentiment is both the screenplay’s weakness and success. It’s hard not to appreciate Chand’s toothsome tyke who balances out a lot of the nastiness. The saga still treats Guy Trilby as a misanthrope. But it makes Jason Bateman’s character easier to take because the child becomes his comic foil. Underlying the “clutch the pearls” shenanigans is a moral center that has its heart in the right place. You might roll your eyes at the resolution, but you’ll savor the warmth as well.

Muppets Most Wanted

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Crime, Family with tags on March 18, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Muppets Most Wanted photo starrating-3stars.jpgHistory repeats itself. Much in the same way that The Muppets (2011) was a reboot of The Muppet Movie (1979) so too does Muppets Most Wanted (2014) follow in the burglar footsteps of The Great Muppet Caper (1981). The Muppets burst out singing in their opening number “We’re Doing a Sequel.“ In a nod that acknowledges a regrettable reality, they sing “And everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good.” I wish I could say the lyrics were just a lighthearted bit of self-depreciation but the acknowledgement is sadly prescient.

In this go-around the gang are led astray by a slick manager named Dominic Badguy. That’s pronounced “Bad-JEE” he says. “It’s French.“ That’s a well written line. He convinces the Muppets to take their act on a worldwide international tour. Kermit’s better judgment warns that renting out the largest theater in Berlin for their opening-night performance is probably not a smart idea. But strangely he turns out to be wrong and the show sells out. Dominic‘s increasingly outlandish ideas and ‘say yes to everything’ attitude secures favor in the group. As he gains their confidence, he secretly replaces Kermit with Constantine, the World’s Most Dangerous Frog. Save for a mole on his upper lip Constantine is a dead ringer for Kermit in appearance. His personality on the other hand, is quite different. Constantine and Dominic work together as a team although the evil frog’s song “I’m Number One” clearly delineates their relationship. Meanwhile Kermit is correspondingly mistook for the master criminal and thrown into a Russian Gulag.

Most of the ingredients are here to have another success. Director James Bobin is back as director. He also co-wrote the script with Nicholas Stoller who returns as well. Bret McKenzie is doing the music again. The songs stand on their own, but are less essential to the narrative this time around. They’re often shoe-horned into a scene forcing the action to take an abrupt stop rather than truly adding to the mood.  Jemaine Clement, the other half of McKenzie’s comedic Flight of the Conchords duo, plays one of Kermit’s fellow inmates at the prison. Despite all the returning talent, this doesn’t have the sincerity or integrity of the previous entry. I have to wonder if the missing ingredient is Jason Segel. His presence is nowhere to be found.  He not only co-wrote The Muppets but he added a human element as an actor that gave the story a genuine warmth. I’ve already mentioned Ricky Gervais as the central villain. He‘s entertaining. Ty Burrell is an Inspector Clouseau type paired up with Sam the Eagle who plays his American counterpart at the CIA. The two are investigating a string of bank robberies. He is very amusing as French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon. But Tina Fey is wasted as Nadya, a Russian prison guard that has the hots for Kermit. That’s a shame because her part is a sizeable chunk of the movie. Unfortunately she is given little to do other than affect an exaggerated accent and mug for the camera. It’s a poorly written role. None of her scenes are funny. Oh alright maybe one.

Muppets Most Wanted is a respectable entry. It’s impossible not to enjoy the return of Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, et al. These characters are enduring personalities for a reason. It’s really a pleasure seeing the old gang reunited in anything at this point. The Muppets was a heartwarming confection. It mixed in a lot of sweetness amongst the self knowing cynical jokes to make it one of the best releases of 2011. It made my Top 10 of that year in fact. Muppets Most Wanted, in contrast, is a collection of scattershot humor that never quite gels into a cohesive whole. It has positive qualities, but much of the story is just a setup for gags. The story doesn’t really add up. Case in point: Dominic Badguy’s master plan, actually costs an insane amount of money to make it work. It also takes the entire film for Kermit’s lifelong friends (with the exception of Animal) to even notice his personality shift.  The fact is a little hard to swallow.  Constantine speaks with a bizarre Russian accent to boot so he doesn’t even sound like Kermit. I’m nitpicking. These issues are unimportant if the laughs are there. There are some sprinkled throughout but they are mild chuckles rather than actual knee-slappers. The picture’s funniest parts, like the “my badge is bigger than yours” bit, were shown in the trailer. The best production number hints at what could have been. When Miss Piggy turns to singer Celine Dion in a moment of crisis, the vocal pairing of the two divas is hilarious. As the two duet on “Something So Right”, the production hits a high note of lunacy that is truly inspired.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on March 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Grand Budapest Hotel photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Grand Budapest Hotel is a dazzling slice of enchantment. It’s a tale wrapped up in a tale wrapped up in a tale. Try and explicate the nested account and its convoluted evolution threatens to implode upon itself. I’ll admit the chronicle is, shall we say, meticulous?  Ok so naysayers might say tortured. If you‘re not already a Wes Anderson fan, this film won‘t change your mind. But for this aficionado of the auteur, the intricate set up was only the beginning of an exquisite yarn that had me captivated from the get-go.

We begin in the modern day with a young fan reading a book at the grave of a dead novelist. Zoom to 1985, the writer is played by Tom Wilkinson who recalls a time that he stayed at the hotel. We then flashback to 1968. That same writer is now Jude Law interacting with F. Murray Abraham as Mr. Zero Moustafa. As the hotel’s old owner, Moustafa reminisces about a time when the place was more opulent. Another flashback to a grander time, 1932 to be exact, where we meet the boyish Moustafa now played by Tony Revolori. The main narrative concerns the friendship that develops between M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), as the hotel’s respected concierge, and the youthful Moustafa who becomes his devoted protégé.

Have you marveled at the depth of acting talent on display? I’ve only barely begun to name-drop. Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray are all present and accounted for. The latter’s presence in a Wes Anderson film shouldn’t be a surprise, yet his role as the concierge at Excelsior Palace, Grand Budapest’s rival hotel, was greeted with cheers of applause at my screening. Despite the expanded cast, everyone adds value. But I digress.

Wes Anderson has done a most noble thing. He has taken the fabric of a genuine reality and formed an alternate universe. His amalgamation alludes to history but manipulated to suit his romantic world. The Grand Budapest Hotel is located in the Republic of Zubrowka. I’d place the fictional European nation somewhere in the vicinity of Germany and Hungary. The proper saga begins in 1932, a year when elections in Germany would appoint Hitler as the head of government. A time between the two world wars, still several years before the outbreak of WW2, Yet Germany, Hitler, Nazis and Jews are never mentioned. The SS for example is actually the ZZ — the Zig-Zags. The director has carefully fashioned a drama set within his impressionist vision of a country on the brink of war and the results are intoxicating.

The plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel seemingly hinges on the fate of a priceless Renaissance painting. “Boy with Apple” is a key plot device credited to artist Johannes Van Hoytl the Younger, an entirely fictional construct. Once again Anderson’s attention to detail is impressive. The mannerist artwork is impressive in its own right, perhaps something attributed to Albrecht Dürer or Il Bronzino or Hans Holbein the Younger. I can’t decide which. At one point M. Gustave is bequeathed the valuable painting in the will of a wealthy old dowager who has died under mysterious circumstances. The objet d’art represents something over which everyone obsesses. When the canvas is removed from the wall, it’s replaced by a lewd watercolor that suggests Egon Schiele. It’s a hilarious visual joke. Ah but the piece isn’t the point at all. Its existence is really the MacGuffin if you will — an unimportant bit of nonsense deliberately constructed in the same playful spirit as everything else in Wes Anderson’s universe.

The composition of a scene has always taken precedence to actual story in a Wes Anderson picture, but here even more so. The ornate milieu is home to an offbeat comedy that focuses on a missing painting. But what makes the narrative so affecting isn’t the future of the portrait. It’s the fastidiously created world in which our characters live. I could spend pages explicating the distended cast. In the interest of brevity, I’ll merely disclose numero uno: Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave. As the hotel’s concierge, he is nattily attired and consistently perfumed. Then there is the hotel itself, a beautiful storybook creation that is the soul of the film. The stunning art nouveau palace is highlighted by a funicular and rows of columns. An edifice photographed with an eye for detail not seen since Stanley Kubrick’s ode to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Notice the red lacquer walls in the elevator or the pink pastels of countess Madame D.’s suite. Naturally the architecture is the director’s vision but it’s flawlessly presented through the work of cinematographer and frequent Wes Anderson collaborator, Robert D. Yeoman. One does not simply watch a Wes Anderson film as you would say a pot on the verge of a boil. No you experience it. The Grand Budapest Hotel is best appreciated as a work of art in which to luxuriate in the glorious ambiance of its fastidious charms.

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