A Very Murray Christmas


More fun to make than it is to watch?

More fun to make than it is to watch?

(2015) Musical (Netflix) Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Chris Rock, Michael Cera, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Jenny Lewis, Amy Poehler, David Johansen, Dmitri Dimitrov, Julie White, Phoenix. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Back in the day, celebs like Dean Martin and Judy Garland used to put on Christmas specials and variety shows that would have the thinnest of plot lines but were mainly an excuse for them to sing a few Christmas tunes, have a few friends show up and generally just be themselves.

Director Sofia Coppola is trying to resurrect that vibe and has picked the perfect guy to do it; Murray plays a version of himself, contracted to do a live Christmas special at the Hotel Carlyle in New York City with its retro-cool Bemelmans’s Bar and Cafe Carlyle. An impressive guest list and audience however has evaporated as the city is paralyzed by a blizzard. Sensing catastrophe, Murray sinks into a booze-fueled depression as Hollywood handler-types (Poehler, White) and wanna-be agents (Cera) beset his Christmas mellow.

Guests happen by (Rock) or turn up as hotel employees (Lewis as a waitress, who has one of the better songs when she covers the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, the band Phoenix whose frontman is married to Coppola, as a group of singing chefs) and musical numbers ensue. Murray captures the barfly/hipster mode nicely and sings adequately, but this is the type of Christmas show you’ll want to watch with a shaker full of martinis, a bowlful of peanuts and a pack of cigarettes.

Murray is a genial host but not in the tradition of a Dean Martin, a Mel Tormé or a Steve and Edie. Yes, he’s got that same rumpled charm that Dino had, but there is a weather-beaten feel to him, like someone who’s been too far and seen too much. The show opens with a bluesy downbeat Christmas song that sets the tone; world-weary Murray feeling the depression that often accompanies the Holidays. Essentially confined to the hotel by the weather and prowling the hallways like a claustrophobic cat, he hangs out in the bar and drinks away his sorrow, interacting with a bride (Jones) and groom (Schwartzman) whose wedding fell apart and whose relationship may be as well and listening to a lounge singer (Rudolph) belt out a few Christmas tunes.

Much of the action takes place in the hotel, other than a fantasy sequence featuring Clooney and Cyrus that takes place after Murray passes out. This is the kind of Christmas special for the crowd that identifies strongly with Mickey Rourke in Barfly or Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. And yet, there is a hipness to it, like Murray has us in on the coolest night in that crazy New York town ever, a place where Chris Rock might just stumble in from out of the cold and warble a duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with Murray.

So this isn’t for everybody, needless to say. Some will find it too irreverent and even take insult – those who think there’s a war on Christmas might see this as yet another salvo (it’s not). I think it’s far more subversive, taking a pot shot at our attitudes towards the holiday and snickering at it, reminding us at once that there are those who are lonely and depressed at this time of year, but also reminding us that the holidays can take a bunch of strangers and make them family, even if just for one night. In that sense, A Very Murray Christmas is suffused with holiday magic. I don’t know that this would bear repeated viewings but I suspect that those who revel in this sort of thing will make it an annual tradition. As for me, I’ll take A Charlie Brown Christmas every time.

REASONS TO GO: Hippest Christmas special ever. Murray is always a hoot.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be overly irreverent for some. A bit heavy on the quirk.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, adult themes, drinking and general attitude.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bill Murray doesn’t have Netflix and refuses to get it, which means he won’t be able to watch his own movie – not that he does that anyway.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scrooged
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Children of Men

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The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond


The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

Bryce Dallas Howard incurs the wrath of PETA.

(2008) Drama (Paladin) Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Evans, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margaret, Mamie Gummer, Jessica Collins, Will Patton, Peter Gerety, Marin Ireland, Zoe Perry, Barbara Garrick, Zach Grenier, Laila Robins, Susan Blommaert. Directed by Jodie Markell

Tennessee Williams is one of the greatest writers in American literature so when a previously unproduced television script (meant for director Elia Kazan and actress Julie Harris) was unearthed, it was reason for celebration. Sadly, rather than be the subject of a major studio release being heralded for Oscar gold, instead it is the subject of a well-cast but ultimately little-promoted indie film.

Fisher Sparrow (Howard) is a Memphis-area socialite in the 1920s whose family has fallen on hard times. Her father was the center of a scandal when he dynamited a levee, causing a low lying area to flood and drowning two sharecroppers who lived there, as well as ruining land downriver of the levee. Fisher had no knowledge of that before she returned from some time in Europe.

She is supposed to be making her debut in Memphis society (a big deal back then) and because of her supposed wild behavior and her daddy’s reputation, she can’t find a decent gentleman willing to escort her to the balls and parties of the social season. She resorts to paying a field hand, Jimmy (Evans) to be her escort. Jimmy’s a decent sort who has a governor of Tennessee in his bloodlines but his family has been driven to poverty, with an alcoholic father (Patton) and a mother who is in an institution which Fisher hints she can get her out of, or at least into a better facility.

An aunt of Fisher’s gives her a $10,000 diamond earring set to wear for the season. The first party turns out to be a disaster; Fisher has a meltdown wanting the band to play music more in the flapper style which causes the party guests to say cruel things to her. Jimmy rushes to her aid and takes her home. The party invitations dry up after that and the only one Fisher can get is a Halloween party on the other side of town which was unaffected by her father’s actions.

On the way to the party, Fisher and Jimmy stop at the levee for a few moments. Fisher attempts to kiss Jimmy but he pulls away. Angered and humiliated, Fisher tries to jump out of the car as they pull up to the house where the party is being held. Shortly after she notices one of her diamond earrings is missing. A misunderstanding causes Jimmy to believe that she is accusing him of taking it.

Heartsick, Fisher goes away from the commotion to find her Aunt Addie (Burstyn) lying in bed, wracked in pain. The two have a heart-to-heart and Aunt Addie advises Fisher to leave and go back to Europe which she is more suited for. Addie makes Fisher promise to give her a bottle of pills so that Addie can die with dignity; Fisher promises she will as soon as the missing earring is found.

Devotees of Tennessee Williams will find some of the characters familiar; the down on their luck Southern family, the crumbling gentility and honor, the fiery sexual Southern belle. However, the characters and situation aren’t the best to come from his pen.

The movie is subdued in many ways and a bit mannered; modern audiences might find it too slow paced for their tastes. Still, there are some good performances here. Howard turns in one of the better performances of her career (and certainly her best since The Village). She is at once brassy and vulnerable, ambitious and un-self confident. She isn’t the most likable movie heroine ever, but she has enough flaws to be interesting.

Evans is mostly known for comic book roles in Fantastic Four and Captain America: The First Avenger. A few decades ago this kind of role would have been played by Paul Newman and not so long ago by Matthew McConaughey. Evans doesn’t have the best Tennessee accent ever but that’s ok; it’s the man inside the accent that makes the role memorable and Evans does that.

This has all the tawdriness and quiet desperation of some of William’s best work but none of the really interesting, unique characterizations that make his best work great. It’s worth seeing from a standpoint that it’s Tennessee Williams but in all honesty there are far better movies of his work out there, not the least of which are Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. You’d do better renting those to get an idea of how great a writer he once was.

WHY RENT THIS: Howard is impressive and Evans is pretty good too.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Way too mannered and slow-moving for modern audiences. Not one of Williams’ better works.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality as well as some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lindsey Lohan was originally cast in the lead role but her legal problems precluded her doing the movie. Howard was given the role instead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Cast Away

The Great Buck Howard


The Great Buck Howard

Colin Hanks and Emily Blunt are blissfully ignorant that Steve Zahn just grabbed John Malkovich's privates.

(2008) Comedy (Magnolia) John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, Ricky Jay, Tom Hanks, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne, Debra Munk, Wallace Langham, Adam Scott, George Takei. Directed by Sean McGinley

Show biz is heroin. It gets into the system and stays there, mercilessly demanding the entire attention of the poor sap who gets addicted to it, until there is nothing left but a chewed-out husk. Once in awhile, it brings the seductive allure of success and acclaim, but more often than not, disappointment and obscurity.

Buck Howard (Malkovich) is a mentalist (don’t call him a magician unless you want to be chewed out and humiliated) who has 61 appearances on the Tonight Show – the real one, the one with Johnny Carson hosting, not the one with that Leno fellow. However, since his heyday Buck has fallen on hard times, taking his act to smaller and less glamorous venues, but with the never-say-die attitude of a true show biz trooper, cries out in every Podunk Berg he plies his trade in, “I love this town!!” followed by “I love you people!” Both are about as heartfelt as a 10-year-old saying he didn’t eat the cookies.

Howard is in need of a new road manager, and he gets one in the form of Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), who has left law school in search of something more meaningful, much to the dismay of his dad (Tom Hanks, Colin’s real-life pa). Troy quickly discovers that Buck’s unctuous charm is a mask that hides a bitter man who refuses to admit that his best days are behind him, yet is deeply afraid that it is so. He resolutely soldiers on, a relic in a time of extreme street magic and wacky comic magicians, wearing a tux and warbling “What the World Needs Now” in a say-singing manner at the piano. Once upon a time he would have felt right at home with Steve and Edie. Hell, maybe he did.

Buck realizes he needs to jump-start his career and decides to take on a stunt guaranteed to get attention; but at the moment of his triumph, it all comes crumbling down when the reporters in attendance leave to get on a bigger story – a minor traffic accident involving Jerry Springer.

But such is the netherworld that the has-been exists in, a purgatory of missed opportunities and that oh-so-close taste of the brass ring that is never completely swallowed. Yet Buck becomes hip in spite of himself and when a Vegas show opens up for him, the show biz Gods have an even crueler fate in store for him.

McGinley based the movie on his own experiences as road manager for the Amazing Kreskin years ago. Hopefully, Kreskin was nicer than Buck is; Malkovich plays him as a diva with anger management issues, fixing his minions with withering glares and outbursts of vitriol that would do Gordon Ramsay proud.

The younger Hanks goes for a kind of hangdog performance, making Troy both victim and enabler. His romance with publicist Valerie (Brennan) is sad and ultimately distracting, but it is his relationship with Buck that centers the movie. While you get the sense that Troy is meant for bigger and better things, Buck also senses it and in a sense, envies him – and in the end finds his own vicarious success through Troy.

The movie’s pacing is somewhat deliberate; those who like their jokes rapid-fire may find this annoying. For my part, I found it refreshing that the filmmakers chose to take their time and establish atmosphere and characters, allowing audiences access to the movie’s heart. To my way of thinking, that’s much more gratifying than being assaulted by one gag after another.

This is not glamorous in the least; it’s about the vast majority of those who go into show biz with some dream of success and wind up sorely disappointed. In Buck’s case, that success was there for awhile but like a fickle lover, moved on to the next flavor of the week, leaving Buck to wallow in memory trying to recapture something that never can be truly kept.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a real sense of fun and looks at a less glamorous side of the business. Hanks and Malkovich make a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie takes it’s time which may not sit well with audiences used to much faster-paced comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some language issues, as well as a sexual and drug reference or two, but by and large acceptable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck is depicted as appearing on MTV’s TRL show, which had been canceled between the time the movie was filmed and when it was released.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a small featurette on the Amazing Kreskin whose real-life exploits were the loose inspiration for Buck.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $900K on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Skyline