Movie Review: Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Title: Muppets Most Wanted
Release Date: March 21, 2014
Director: James Bobin
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Mandeville Films

As much as I enjoyed The Muppets, the movie did play it safe and nice.  Any restrictions on pure Muppet anarchy were removed for the sequel which picks up immediately from the end of its predecessor.  The Muppets are lured into going on a world tour by the vinous Dominic Badguy (played by the villainous Ricky Gervais).

Badguy is actually working for Constantine, the World’s Most Evil Frog (Matt Vogel). Constantine swaps places with Kermit (Steve Whitmire), leading the Muppets to various European destinations to pull of heists while the rest of the troupe performs (did Spider-Man: Far From Home kind of borrow this plot?).  Meanwhile, Kermit is stuck in a gulag in Siberia where he’s watched over by an obsessive guard, Nadya (Tina Fey), and forced to direct the prisoners’ talent show. A CIA agent, Sam Eagle (Eric Jacobson) and French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) form a comic duo investigating the heists related to the Muppets performances.  I particularly like their “Interrogation Song,” which sounded like it could’ve fit in Hamilton.

Like it’s predecessor, there are touches of nostalgia with the plot being a throwback to The Great Muppet Caper, and a wedding scene and the song “Together Again” (which is now “Together Again, Again”) hearkens back to The Muppets Take Manhattan. It’s great to see the Muppets continue to be creative and funny over all these years and I look forward to watching their new program Muppets Now.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Dial M For Murder (1954)

Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: Dial M For Murder
Release Date: May 29, 1954
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Warner Bros

I watched this movie when I was younger and remember that it was Hitchcock’s only movie filmed in 3-D with a famous scene of Grace Kelly reaching toward the camera to get a pair of scissors.  That was about all I remember.  Like Rope, Dial M for Murder is set primarily in one apartment although without the tension of taking place in real time. Retired tennis player Tony Wendice (played as a gleeful sociopath by Ray Milland) comes up with an elaborate plan to murder his wife Margot (Kelly) as revenge for her having an affair with crime novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), while also being able to inherit her wealth. Tony comes up with an elaborate plan to blackmail a university acquaintance and low-level criminal, Charles Alexander Swann (Anthony Dawson), into carrying out the murder while he’s at a party with Mark.

Of course, Tony’s plan goes awry, although he is resilient in improvising alternate plots. There are a lot of twists in the story but it also feels overly talky and focused on tiny details. A lot of Hitchcock movie plots don’t make much sense when you think about them after the fact, such as Vertigo, but Dial M for Murder strains its credulity as its playing.  This is especially true in the final act when both Mark and police inspector Hubbard (John Williams) each individually come to realization of what Tony really did and challenge him in his apartment.  The script also doesn’t give Grace Kelly much to do other than react to things happening to her, which seems a big waste of her talent.

Dial M for Murder is mildly entertaining, but by Hitchcock standards it’s a dud.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Title: The Lavender Hill Mob
Release Date: 28 June 1951
Director: Charles Crichton
Production Company: Ealing Studios

The Lavender Hill Mob is an Ealing Studios comedy starring Alec Guinness, much like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955), and directed by Charles Chrichton, who later directed A Fish Called Wanda (1988).

Guinness plays Henry Holland, a fastidious bank clerk who spends twenty years in charge of transfers of gold bullion.  While known for his honesty, he’s in fact playing a long game to steal the bullion.  The only problem he faces is how to smuggle the bullion abroad so that he can sell it.  The solution comes when he meets a new boarder at his boarding house, Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), who runs a foundry that produces souvenirs for the export market.  The two men come up with a plan to steal the bullion, melt it down, make it into Eiffel Tower paperweights, and then ship it to France.

Things, of course, go very wrong.  But the way they go wrong and how the characters react is where the humor lies.  As an added bonus, much of this film was shot on location in London and Paris.  We get to see London still bearing the damage of World War II, and a stunning sequence where Henry and Alfred run down the circular staircase of the Eiffel Tour.  It all makes for an enjoyable, laugh out loud film with many twists right up to the conclusion.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

TitleTaxi Driver
Release Date: February 8, 1976
Director: Martin Scorsese
Production Company: Bill/Phillips Productions | Italo/Judeo Productions

Taxi Driver is one of those movies constantly marinating in the ether of popular culture, but another one I’d never watched before.  It wasn’t quite what expected, at least the first half of the movie had some surprises.  I knew that Robert DeNiro starred as a taxi driver named Travis Bickle who becomes obsessed with protecting a child prostitute, Iris, played by Jodie Foster.  I also knew that in the twisted mind of John Hinkley, this movie played a part in his plan to assassinate Ronald Reagan.

I didn’t know that this movie also starred Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, and Peter Boyle.  Shepherd plays Betsy who is a campaign worker for a presidential candidate, and Brooks is her very funny co-worker.  Bickle initially becomes obsessed with Betsy and the first half of the movie shows his extremely awkward and uncomfortable attempts to date her. Boyle plays Wizard, a fellow cab driver who attempts to mentor Bickle but fails to have any influence.

It’s only after being rejected by Betsy that Bickle begins his obsession with Iris, and Jody Foster only appears in a small part of the movie (albeit a brilliant acting performance, especially for a 12-year-old). Bickle stocks up on weapons and trains to both assassinate the presidential candidate and kill Iris’ pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel).  It’s extremely disturbing and the final scenes where Bickle goes on a murderous rampage are gory but glamorized violence. The movie reflects the white moral panic of the 1970s when the victims of disinvestment and poverty in cities like New York were blamed for the degeneracy.  It also foreshadows the rise of MRA/incel ideologies with Bickle the prototype of men who feel that rejection by women gives them license to carry out unspeakable murder.

There is nothing technically wrong with this movie.  The acting, especially by DeNiro and Foster, is terrific.  The cinematography is stunning with many shots that are instantly iconic.  The musical score by Bernard Herrmann is both brilliant and disconcerting.  I can even admit that this movie depicts accurately the way a person like Bickle acts and thinks.  Nevertheless, I absolutely hate this movie and never want to watch it again.

Rating: *** (to be honest I don’t know how I can rate this movie at all, so I’m just giving it the standard ***)

Movie Review: Violet & Daisy (2011)

Title: Violet & Daisy
Release Date: September 15, 2011
Director: Geoffrey S. Fletcher
Production Company: Magic Violet | GreeneStreet Films

Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) and Violet (Alexis Bledel) are young women with an air of innocent naivete who like puppies, lollipops, and the new dress line from they’re favorite pop star.  They are also killers-for-hire who casually shoot down their targets and jump on their bleeding corpses for fun.  Much of the movie suffers from the style over substance emphasis on being quirky and grotesque, as if Wes Anderson took the reins of a mafia movie.  The movie improves some when they are sent to take out The Guy (James Gandolfini), who turns out to be nice – bakes them cookies, talks to them about his daughter, and listens to their concerns.  There is a lot of acting talent that carries this movie, but it can only go so far as the script and the premise is beneath them.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Memento (2001)

Title: Memento
Release Date: March 16, 2001
Director: Christopher Nolan
Production Company: Summit Entertainment | Team Todd

Here’s another movie I can scratch from the list of movies everyone has seen except me. The movie stars Guy Pearce as Leonard (in a very different role from The Adventures of Priscilla), a man who has lost the ability to retain new memories after a home invasion where the attackers also raped and murdered his wife.  Leonard has dedicated his life to investigating the attack and avenging himself on the murderer of Catherine (Jorja Fox).  He keeps track of facts through notes, Polaroid photographs, and by tattooing the most important details on his body.

Stylistically, the movie is designed with the scenes played in reverse order so that the audience can get a sense of Leonard’s experience of not know what comes before.  These scenes are intercut with black & white scenes, played in the proper chronological order, where Leonard talks on the phone about a story from his earlier life as an insurance investigator, where he dealt with the case of a man with a similar short-term memory loss condition.  Joe Pantoliano stars as the undercover cop Teddy and Carrie-Anne Moss plays a bartender named Natalie, each of whom may be untrustworthy and using Leonard’s disability against him.

Memento is a creative movie and an interesting story with a creative structure. I can’t get too enthusiastic about the movie’s revenge and dead wife tropes, and as a mystery it’s mostly a trick of the film’s structure.  Like Christopher Nolan’s later movie Inception, it plays with the ideas of reality and how people create reality for themselves.  These are interesting ideas to play with and make entertaining films but not something I’m going to want to revisit.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Quick Change (1990) #atozchallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

TitleQuick Change
Release Date: July 13, 1990
Director: Howard Franklin and Bill Murray
Production Company: Devoted Productions

There are not a lot of Q movies out there, much less ones I want to watch again, but here’s one I enjoyed 30 years ago.

Dressed as a clown, Grimm (Bill Murray) robs a midtown Manhattan bank, holding the staff and customers hostage in the vault.  While negotiating with police Chief Walt Rotzinger (Jason Robards), Grimm makes ludicrous demands in exchange for hostages.  As the demands are fulfilled he releases his lifelong friend Loomis (Randy Quaid) and girlfriend Phyllis (Geena Davis), as well as himself (sans clown costume).  While the police are distracted by the seeming ongoing hostage situation in the bank, the trio slip off with cash taped beneath their clothing.

The heist goes without a hitch, but their efforts to get to the airport to fly out of the country are met with increasingly ludicrous obstacles.  They get lost in Queens, get robbed by a Yuppie conman, lose their car, ride in a cab with a driver who knows no English, accidentally walk in on a Mafia operation, and deal with an anal bus driver who gets them within walking distance of the airport.  They finally make their flight, but Rotzinger boards to make an arrest, only to take away an obnoxious passenger who is a notorious Mafia boss.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I saw this with my sister when it first came out, probably because we both like Bill Murray.  I remember thing it was outrageously funny and surprised that the movie seemed to vanish from the theaters and no one else I knew saw it.

What Did I Remember?:

I remember the clown bank robbery and Geena Davis wiping off a bit of white makeup that Bill Murray missed, getting lost in Queens, the Latin people jousting on bicycles, and the eerie empty streets they walk through near the airport before boarding the baggage train.

What Did I Forget?:

I forgot about the whole mafia subplot, the visit to Phyllis’ old apartment where they run into Phil Hartman, the cab driver, and the bus ride.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

There are moments of inspired comedy in this film, with Bill Murray robbing the bank and negotiating for hostages being the part that holds up the best.  It’s also very funny when Murray talks himself through the encounter with the mafia, and even makes up with some more money.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

This movie is cynical and angry and built around the idea that New York City is an awful place, something I’ve never believed in, so I don’t know why I thought it was so funny 30 years ago.  A lot of what the characters hate about New York seems to involve people with darker skin and different accents, which is more than a little bit racist.  A lot of the gags fall flat.  The relationship between Murray and Davis is not believable and they have no chemistry.  And Quaid’s character, despite his best efforts, is a one-note “dumb guy” that ceases to be funny after too much repetition.

Is It a Classic?:

No, not at all.

Rating: **1/2

One other all-time favorite movie starting with Q:

  1. Quest: A Portrait of an American Family (2017)

What is your favorite movie starting with the letter Q?  What is your guess for my movie starting with R (Hint: The film score is by the same composer as another of my favorite R movies, The Right Stuff)?  Let me know in the comments!

Movie Review: A Fish Called Wanda (1988) #AtoZChallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: A Fish Called Wanda 
Release Date: July 15, 1988
Director: Charles Crichton
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | Prominent Features

English gangster George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) and his right-hand man Ken Pile (Michael Palin) plan a jewel heist. They bring the American couple Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Otto West (Kevin Kline), who claim to be siblings but are actually lovers. The robbery goes off without a hitch and then the members of the gang double-cross one another.  Wanda and Otto turn in George to the police, and Wanda plans to turn on Otto too, until they discover that George moved the diamonds to a different hiding place.

Wanda decides to seduce George’s barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese) so she can learn if George plans to turn over the diamonds for a reduced sentence.  Her attempts to get to know Archie are interrupted by a jealous and stupid Otto (“Don’t call me stupid!”).  Meanwhile, Ken attempts to assassinate an elderly woman who is a witness that identified George as being a robbery.  An animal lover, Ken is broken-hearted that each of his three attempts to kill the witness lead to the deaths of one of her tiny dogs.

Despite the odds, Archie and Wanda form a real attachment and through a screwy series of events the diamonds are recovered, and they escape to the South America with them.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I was at my peak period as a Monty Python fanatic, watching all their movies and taping every Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode off of MTV and PBS, as well as various other projects involving one or more Pythons.  I was ecstatic when I learned that there was a brand new movie involving two members of Monty Python and saw it soon after release with my family.

Kevin Kline was the revelation of this movie.  At the time he’d been mostly in serious dramas up to this point (although later in life I saw Sophie’s Choice where his character was both hilarious and terrifying).  His performance as a stupid American, ultraviolent jerk steals the movie.

What Did I Remember?:

“What was the middle part?”  I remembered pretty well how the movie began and ended but it was fun to rediscover how they got from point a to point.

What Did I Forget?:

Like I said above, I forgot the middle part.  I also forgot the subplot about Otto pretending to be gay with a crush on Ken, probably because it’s one of the few gags in the movie that doesn’t hit the mark.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie features a hilarious script by Cleese and Crichton and four actors putting in one of their career best performances while all playing against type. It’s really sad that they couldn’t find the magic again when they made Fierce Creatures.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

So many comedies that I loved in the 80s cause severe cringe, and I was worried that A Fish Called Wanda would be the same. Blessedly, the movie holds up well, I think because of the fact that everyone in the movie is clearly an awful person, so it’s not like your dealing with a sympathetic character doing awful things.

Even at the time it was released, the movie was criticized for Ken having a significant stutter.  I enjoy Michael Palin’s performance so I want to find a way to justify it, but there’s no denying that the jokes come at the expense of people who stutter.

Is It a Classic?:

It’s definitely a standout comedy film, although it may fall short of the all-time great movies list.

Rating: ****

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with F:

  1. Fargo (1996)
  2. Field of Dreams (1989)
  3. Finding Nemo (2003)
  4. The Fisher King (1991)
  5. The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)

What is your favorite movie starting with F? What is your guess for my movie starting with G? (Hint: this movie gave rise to a psychological term). Let me know in the comments!


Classic Movie Review: The Godfather, Part II (1974)

Title: The Godfather, Part II
Release Date: December 20, 1974
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Production Company: Paramount Pictures | The Coppola Company

The follow-up to The Godfather features two intertwining stories of the Corleone family.  The first is a prequel about Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) from around 1901 to 1923.  As a boy, Vito witnesses his family murdered by a Sicilian Mafia don and flees to the United States (with some great scenes on shipboard and at Ellis Island). Establishing himself in New York’s Lower East Side, Vito takes on an extortionist who exploits the poor immigrants and becomes a trusted member of the community of whom the people can ask favors.

The other storyline picks up after The Godfather in 1958 when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has moved the family to Nevada, but has yet to legitimatize their business.  After an assassination attempt, Michael travels to Florida, New York, and Cuba (just as the revolution is brewing) to try to firm up his business partnerships and track down his rivals.  The movie depicts Michael in a downward spiral as he’s unable to maintain the closeness of the family the way his father did as he pursues a more capitalist course.  As a result his relationships with his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), and brother, Fredo (John Cazale) begin to unravel.

De Niro does a great job of channeling Marlon Brando while looking a lot like Al Pacino.  Meanwhile, Pacino gets a lot of time for serious brooding.  Some good performances also come from newcomers Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth, Michael’s main antagonist, and Michael V. Gazzo as Frank Pentangeli, a Corleone family caporegime who remains in New York and represents the family’s old ways.  I also like that Bruno Kirby – of future City Slickers and When Harry Met Sally fame – plays a younger version of Vito’s friend Clemenza. Women characters are once again treated as non-entities in the “manly-man” movie.

I like how historical events such as Estes Kefauver’s Senate investigations into organized crime and the Cuban revolution are worked into the story.  The sets and costumes of early-20th century New York and the 1950s mid-century modern are also really well-done.

Many people consider The Godfather, Part II to be better than the original, but I don’t see it.  There are a lot of interesting parts, but the movie is very episodic and just doesn’t flow into a cohesive story the way the first one does.  There are a lot of parallels between the two movies. Whereas the first movie starts at a wedding, the second features a first communion party early on.  This communion party shows how Michael has lost touch with his Italian heritage by forging partnerships with WASPy people in Nevada, but it’s not as good at establishing characters as the wedding.  Similarly, the climax of the movie features simultaneous “hits” and deaths, but it feels like a pale imitation of the christening scene in The Godfather.

It’s still a good movie but not one that will make my all-time favorites list.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Chinatown (1974)

Title: Chinatown
Release Date: June 20, 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Production Company: Penthouse | Long Road Productions | Robert Evans Company

I watched this movie with some reluctance as I find Jack Nicholson overrated in that he always plays some variation of the same wiseass character.  I also think Faye Dunaway is not a good actor at all.  But more seriously, this movie is directed by someone who would go on to be a notorious child rapist.  With those reservations in mind, I gave Chinatown the benefit of the doubt.

Much as The Godfather put a New Hollywood spin on the gangster movie, Chinatown attempts to reinvent the film noir detective story.  Nicholson portrays a Los Angeles private detective, Jake Gittes, in the 1930s who typically investigates infidelity cases.  The case he takes as this movie starts is another cheating husband case but leads into a scandal involving the construction of a new aqueduct and the accumulation of land alongside it that will become more valuable when it can be irrigated.

Gittes investigates Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Dunaway), the spouse of LA’s water department engineer, and her father, Noah Cross (John Huston), who was the former business partner at a private water company. Only a small part of this movie, at the end, takes place in the neighborhood of Chinatown in Los Angeles.  Instead “Chinatown” is used as a metaphor for the unsolvable mess of a situation that Gittes finds himself trying to unravel.  It’s kind of racist since it’s an all-white cast involved in this mess (the treatment of Asian characters in the movie is stereotypical as well).

I guess Chinatown was a pithier title than Los Angeles Water Rights Scandals, but I found myself deeply intrigued in the subterfuge around bringing water to the city in a desert. The movie is based loosely on the historical California water wars, although they took place 1-2 decades before the movie is set.  A nice touch is that frequent motif of water and the sound of water throughout the movie.

Chinatown is a pretty good movie but I wouldn’t rank it among the all-time greats.

Rating: ***