Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties 2004 ****

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‘I’m not doing the ugly American thing,’ says Garfield (Bill Murray) in this souped-up sequel to 2004’s pretty awful Garfield, which takes the feline sour-puss off in a much more plot-driven direction and generates a good few laughs in the process. As the title suggests, Tim Hill’s film used Charles Dickens as a jumping off point, although The Prince and the Pauper’s dual protagonist is also a clear inspiration. Garfield stows away with his doggy-pal Odie when his own heads to London on holiday, but unknown to them, lookalike Prince (voiced by Tim Curry) has been exiled from his castle after inheriting it; the nefarious Lord Manfred Dargis (Billy Connolly) is responsible. When Garfield meets Prince, predictable music-hall mirror gags abide, but there’s also plenty of life in the minor characters, with Ian Abercrombie, Roger Rees and Lucy Davis all having a laugh. A Tale of Two Kitties was less than enthusiastically received in 2004, but it looks much brighter in the light of cheap imitations like The Queen’s Corgi; predicable gags like Garfield getting chased by palace guards while shouting ‘The British are coming!’ or Garfield’s doppelganger saying ‘I used to be formerly known as Prince’ hit exactly the right spot. And the perennially underused Connolly shines in a role presumably intended for, and rejected by John Cleese; the Glasgow comic throws himself into the role of thwarted wannabe aristocrat with genuine glee.

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The Dead Don’t Die 2019 ***

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‘This is going to end badly’ says cop Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) repeatedly in Jim Jarmusch’s zombie film, and he’s right, although if you’re looking for thrills or comedy, it doesn’t start well either. Jarmusch has a celebrated off-beat style; The Dead Don’t Die shoe-horns the director’s unique sensibilities into a conventional zombie film. And it is conventional; minor characters in the small town of Centreville wonder if the attacks that plague them could be caused by fracking or wild animals, while the protagonists debate the best way of killing zombies. Knowing dialogue references Driver’s Star Wars involvement, while late exchanges see Driver and Bill Murray discussing how many of the script pages Jarmusch has allowed them to see. Such fourth-wall breaks will alienate many, but they add layers to what seems a straightforward film; Jarmusch seems content to riff on George A Romero and his use of zombies to offer a critique on capitalism and that’s largely what The Dead Don’t Die offers. It’s a whimsical, evasive work from a great director, designed to be problematic and not for the horror comedy crowd, despite some gore and some smart moments. As a side note, Tilda Swinton’s appearance as a quirky Scottish mortician is regrettable; while she herself is Scottish, leaning into racist stereotypes seems to be part of her on-going campaign to alienate herself from her homeland. It’s only one small element in an anything goes movie, but the accent and the appearance are about as sensitive as blackface if you’re Scottish.

Aloha 2015 ***

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Maybe how much we invest in films colors our judgment; people put so much weight on the Marvel universe that casting Tilda Swinton as a Asian character in Dr Strange was deemed acceptable practice, but for Cameron Crowe to cast Emma Stone as a part Asian in Aloha elicited howls of derision and led to public apologies from both film-maker and star. This mistake aside, there’s always something of interest to mine from a Crowe film, and Aloha has some hidden merits. Crowe is a Billy Wilder fan, and there’s elements of classic character-clash here as Brian (Bradley Cooper) travels to Hawaii and has to make a choice between his ex (Rachel McAdams) and his liaison (Stone). The sub-plot is unwieldy, but pertinent, as Bill Murray’s mogul Carson Welch attempts to ‘buy space’ through his satellite launches. Aloha doesn’t quite work, but has a few moment of greatness, particularly a space-docking scene scored to the Blue Nile’s haunting Let’s Go Out Tonight. Like Crowe’s Elizabethtown, Aloha is a misfire, but it’s not a complete bust and deserves a little forgiveness for its casting sins.

The Razor’s Edge 1984 ***

1984-the-razors-edge-el-filo-de-la-navaja-ing-hsBill Murray only agreed to do Ghostbusters so he could make this hugely underrated period adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s book. Widely ridiculed on release, The Razor’s Edge is now gaining a cult reputation and deservedly so. Murray plays Larry, an everyman whose experiences of war as an ambulance driver provide existential leanings, and send him on a globetrotting search for meaning. There’s great support from Denholm Elliot, and the production is handsomely mounted. The Razor’s Edge was made when Murray was seen as a comic rather than an actor, and his refusal to play Larry’s quest for laughs worked against the film at the time. It certainly works for John Byrum’s serious-minded drama now that Murray’s reputation for bring real gravitas to roles is secure. And the long speech that Murray gives for a fallen comrade, which clearly echoes the actor’s friendship with the late John Belushi, is a moment of stunning, moving and heartfelt cinema.

The Life Aquatic 2004 ****

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Wes Anderson’s films have often been divisive; his studied quirkiness can come off as annoying or smug, and the potential for visual tweeness is sometimes at odd with his willingness to confront the darker side of life. Starting out as a cheerful homage to the underwater adventure of Jacques Cousteau, The Life Aquatic ducks and dodges down a number of surprising side-lines, and mixes bright character comedy with dark shafts of poetic realism. Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a bobble-hat sporting oceanographer who is searching for the shark that killed his friend. His crew, including Ned (Owen Wilson) and Klaus (Willem Dafoe) have anxieties about Steve’s mission, and when the adventure leads to mutiny and an encounter with pirates, Steve’s ability to hold his crew together proves crucial. The colourful depiction of on-board life allows Anderson to showcase his gift for comedy, while a selection of David Bowie songs performed by Seu Jorge add to the whimsical charm. But The Life Aquatic builds to stark tragedy; the bitter-sweet comedy of Steve Zissou’s life is perfectly encapsulated in an early scene in which he carries a fish in a glass through the streets. Caught in a bubble of visibility, he wrestles with his own inner demons in a public way, and earns the respect of his brothers for the way he internalised the cruelty of nature and learns to find his own personal accommodation with death. A little knowledge of Cousteau’s own life is the key to Anderson’s darkly comic masterpiece.

Kingpin 1996 ***

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Anyone who has read Peter Farrelly’s book The Comedy Writer will understand something about the darkness that underpins the cheerfully bad-taste comedies he makes with his brother Bobby. Kingpin is a good example of their tragic-comic style, with Woody Harrelson as Roy Munson, whose bowling career is ended when he loses a hand. He joins forces with Amish man Ishmael (Randy Quaid) and attempts an unlikely comeback, with competition with bewigged star player Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray) their ultimate goal. The acting talent involves suggests that Kingpin could be a serious, melancholy drama, but instead it’s a silly, good-natured and boisterous parody of sports-movie clichés, with Murray in typically good form.

Rushmore 1998 ***

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The first of writer/director Wes Anderson’s regular collaborations with Bill Murray, Rushmore is an ingenious comedy featuring Jason Schwarztman as Max Fischer, a prep-school rebel who finds himself competing in love against Herman Blume (Murray) for the affections of Rosemary (Olivia Williams). Co-written with Owen Wilson, Rushmore features many of the tropes of Anderson’s later films, from an eclectic soundtrack to the creation of lively tableau in a Jacques Tati-style. Support from Brian Cox and Stephen McCole adds a Scottish twist, but Rushmore is a all-American rebel’s story, a smart comic variation of The Catcher in the Rye.