By Lynn Venhaus
Maybe it was the wake-up call – the clock radio hitting 6 a.m. and Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” blaring bedside at the quaint B &B. And then again the next day, at precisely the same time.

From the get-go, you knew “Groundhog Day” wasn’t your usual comedy when it premiered on Feb. 12, 1993. It could have been a one-joke movie, but in the hands of an appealing cast led by Bill Murray, director Harold Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin, “Groundhog Day” turned out to be fresh, original and enormously entertaining.

Today it stands as not only one of the best comedies of the 1990s, but a romantic comedy for the ages.

The movie’s ingenious hook was taking a classic American winter custom and turning it into a personal hell, then salvation, for an arrogant Pittsburgh TV weatherman. In a perverse twist of fate, Phil Connors must repeat the same day over and over and over again. It happens when he’s covering the most famous groundhog in the U.S., Punxsutawney Phil, in a nearby Pennsylvania hamlet, to witness the annual ritual of whether or not he saw his shadow on Feb. 2. It’s the fourth year for the assignment, and he’s beyond amused, with frustration seething from every pore. Oh, the irony — he gets stuck in the small town when a blizzard that he forecast as going elsewhere heads his way.

Murray was a natural for the role of the condescending and vain weather guy, with his deadpan delivery style well-suited for such lines as “I am a god, not THE God.”

By the early 1990s, Murray was working infrequently, and his previous films, “What About Bob?” in 1991, “Ghostbusters II” in 1989 and ‘Scrooged” in 1988 had received mixed reviews. His ’80s glory days of ‘Stripes,” “Caddyshack,” “Ghostbusters” and “Tootsie” were behind him, but he proved he could still carry a movie and was a comic force to be reckoned with, but also charming in a romantic part, too.

When he’s testing his immortal powers, that’s when he really draws laughs, but he becomes downright cuddly when he decides to use his powers for good, not evil. Murray’s expert comic timing makes everyone around him better, too.

Andie MacDowell is radiant as the sweet producer wooed by the weatherman and wacky Chris Elliott is just plain funny as the cameraman Larry.

And then of course there’s Stephen Tobolowsky, a character actor so memorable as Ned Ryerson. Who can forget Ned’s nerdy ways? His talent show act in high school? Bing!

“Groundhog Day” has aged well. It’s a movie whose elements will make you smile whenever you think of them, and will still make you laugh after repeat viewings.

For example, here is the snappy repartee between the morning radio show personalities:
First D.J.: Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cooooold out there today.
Second D.J.: It’s coooold out there every day. What is this, Miami Beach?
First D.J.: Not hardly. And you know, you can expect hazardous travel later today with that, you know, that, uh, that blizzard thing.
Second D.J.: [mockingly] That blizzard – thing. That blizzard – thing. Oh, well, here’s the report! The National Weather Service is calling for a “big blizzard thing!”
First D.J.: Yessss, they are. But you know, there’s another reason why today is especially exciting.
Second D.J.: Especially cold!
First D.J.: Especially cold, okay, but the big question on everybody’s lips…
Second D.J.: – On their chapped lips…
First D.J.: – On their chapped lips, right: Do ya think Phil is gonna come out and see his shadow?
Second D.J.: Punxsutawney Phil!
First D.J.: That’s right, woodchuck-chuckers – it’s
[in unison]
So come along to Gobbler’s Knob! Watch “Groundhog Day” and you won’t need a chill pill!

The movie’s authentic winter look got me to thinking about other movies set in massive amounts of snow. Here are nine others that make the most of their frosty settings, if you want to go that direction.

Doctor Zhivago (1965) – If you have never seen this David Lean epic love story set during the Russian Revolution, put it at the top of your list — and clear some time, for it’s 3 hours and 17 minutes. Omar Sharif plays the hunky lead opposite gorgeous Julie Christie while Geraldine Chaplin is his dumped wife. Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness and a cast of thousands. “Somewhere My Love” is the haunting “Lara’s Theme” of the Maurice Jarre soundtrack.

Fargo (1996) – The frozen landscape of the twin cities, Minneapolis-St. Paul, is really the setting of the Coen Brothers’ finest film, and it becomes as memorable a character as William H. Macy’s hapless car salesman Jerry Lundegaard and Oscar winner Frances McDormand’s very pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson. The murder-for-hire scheme is dark, as far as black comedies go, but what a terrific twisted plot, and both Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare play two of life’s biggest losers on the wrong side of the law. You feel Jerry’s pain as he tries to scrape ice off his car when his plans begin to unravel.

Miracle (2004) – Every four years, February means Olympic stars are born. And who can forget the 1980 USA Hockey Team’s quest for the gold? Even if you already know the story, “Miracle” is one terrific sports movie. Kurt Russell gives one of his best performances ever as Coach Herb Brooks, and the backstory of how they assembled this team is compelling human drama. And these players are kids who spent their childhoods skating on frozen ponds, so of course there’s plenty of snow and ice to qualify this movie as a winter wonder.

A Simple Plan (1998) – Director Sam Raimi’s excellent adaptation of Scott Smith’s novel features a wintry Minnesota backdrop for a hot potato story. A never-better Bill Paxton plays Hank, who along with his ‘slow’ brother Jacob (Oscar nominee Billy Bob Thornton in a heart-breaking performance) and friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) discovers $4 million in a plane wreck. They decide to keep quiet and divvy up the money — which they reckon is from a drug deal — but naturally greed takes over, and very bad things start happening. It’s very Shakespearean in a relatable small-town way.

Cliffhanger (1993) – Sylvester Stallone does what he does best in this taut thriller set in the Italian Alps — superbly playing an action hero with some serious dilemmas. Director Renny Harlin’s visual style is dazzling here, and the adventure has a sense of urgency that keeps you on the edge of your seat. John Lithgow is notable as the villain, one of his better roles.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) – Robert Redford is a mountain man who learns new ways to survive in the wilderness, circa 1830. Sydney Pollack directed this picture-postcard of a movie filmed in Utah. Will Geer, aka Grandpa Walton, is memorable as a trapper who teaches Jeremiah a thing or two.

Alive (1993) – If you think the plane crash on “Lost” was something else, you haven’t seen this amazing recreation of the horrific real-life accident stranding Uruguayan rugby players for 10 weeks in the remote Andes Mountains in 1972. Perhaps you recall what they had to do to survive. The movie, directed by Frank Marshall and written by John Patrick Shanley, focuses on the human drama. The cast features young stars Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton, Vincent Spano and in a small role, Josh Lucas.

Ice Age (2003) – OK, it’s animated, but it’s a clever and well-done family movie, featuring excellent voice work from comic actors as a motley crew trekking across the frozen tundras. Ray Romano is Manfred the Mammoth while John Leguizamo is Sid the Sloth and Denis Leary Diego the Sabertooth Tiger. It’s a fun prehistoric romp.

The Gold Rush (1925) – Charlie Chaplin is a prospector seeking gold in Alaska. Comic gems abound in this silent classic, most notable for eating the shoe.


By Lynn Venhaus
Dumbfounded, I can’t recall a recent movie that is as tone-deaf as “The Greatest Beer Run Ever.”

In 1967, John “Chickie” Donohue decides to track down his friends fighting in Vietnam and honor them with a Pabst Blue Ribbon for their service. When the pro-war Merchant Marine is confronted with the horrors of the conflict, he sees that the ‘real’ chaos is different than the ‘public relations’ portrait the powers-at-be are giving to the American people.

Director Peter Farrelly has followed up his Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser “Green Book” with another true story, although this one is harder to make palatable. Somehow, pairing a harrowing war drama with comedic elements doesn’t work, getting more head-scratching as it unfolds in 2 hours, 6 minutes.

This isn’t “M*A*S*H,” not even close. It is also a war depiction that we have seen multiple times, and with a much better story, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a dunderheaded protagonist.

Merchant Marine and world-class slacker John “Chickie” Donohue lives in Inwood, a working-class enclave in northern Manhattan. Without thinking, he agrees to a scheme suggested by bar owner “The Colonel,” a World War II veteran played by Bill Murray.

The bar crowd at Doc Fiddler’s Tavern is pro-war, this being early in the escalation, and everyone’s dad or grandad fought in World War II, aka “The Good War.”

So, when The Colonel says he’d like to send the guys serving in ‘Nam a beer to thank them for their service, Chickie volunteers: “I could do that.”

Well, nobody thinks he can, so he doubles-down. Zac Efron’s grown on me as an actor, but he can’t make such an idiot, with far too much hubris, that likeable. He thinks he will just hitch-hike through enemy territory handing out beers on the front lines.

And when did New York accents sound like Boston Southees?

His duffle bag of beer seems to have an unlimited supply of warm, maybe stale, Pabst Blue Ribbon. As Russell Crowe, playing a war correspondent for Look magazine says: “They have beer here,” Chickie retorts “but not American beer!”

(My Uncle Eddie, a career Air Force officer, was at Tuy Hoa Air Base for a year in 1968, and I know they had beer. He wrote letters home talking about the guys unwinding.)

The soldiers from back home don’t exactly know what to think about this gesture. Some are glad to see him, some think its foolhardy to risk life and limb this way.

Because people think no one would be a tourist in a war zone, guys believe he is a CIA operative, so he gets around using military and media guides to help him.

Along the way, he sees intense action. The tail-end of his visit actually coincides with the Tet Offensive. (Another aside – I had a cousin in the Marines who was killed right before Christmas in 1967. I’m sure he would not have appreciated some lunkhead roaming around where he shouldn’t have been. This movie is rather offensive, I would think, to those who served honorably.)

Chicken comes home a changed man because he learns “war is hell.” He’s seen the guys who love the smell of napalm in the morning. Once a hawk, he starts to understand the anti-war sentiment 

Russell Crowe, Zac Efron

So, that’s the takeaway. He has an epiphany that LBJ, General Westmoreland and others in the government are lying about how well the war is going, which the media keeps pointing out to Chickie over bars in Saigon.

Does he deserve a round of applause, a medal? He not only put himself in harm’s way but endangered his buddies too.

He does tell the barflies that the chaos is not like the previous world war, and they should be more skeptical of what the U.S. brass is telling citizens.

At the end, he doesn’t become a peacenik like his sister Christine (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis), who is seen chanting “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” earlier, but they come to an understanding.

Chickie’s harsh lesson is a good thing, and he’s endured the loss of several friends, which does tug at your heart strings — especially the flashbacks in which Will Hockmann plays Tommy, questioning if he did the right thing by signing up. He’s one missing in action early on, and it’s sad. 

The other soldiers – just kids – making an impression are Jack Picking as Rick Duggan and Archie Renaux as Tom Collins.

Crowe lends gravitas as the jaded journalist, but he’s been given the “important” task of being the voice of reason – and he’s not in the film that much (neither is Murray).

Farrelly, in an attempt to have lightning strike twice, debuted this at the Toronto International Film Festival, hoping to be in contention for the Audience Award, just like “Green Book” did. Well, it didn’t win – Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film “The Fablemans” did. 

The only awards I think this film might be considered for would be The Razzies, which honors the “worst.”

Farrelly’s used to success with low-brow humor, such as “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary,” but in recent years, he’s moved into more ‘prestige’ picks that seem pretentious.

He stages some harrowing action scenes and shows how a jungle climate threw wrenches into things, as in long slithering insects. 

Cinematographer Sean Porter’s work captures the madness that was an Asian country where you couldn’t tell the enemy from the supporters, and the dangers therein.

Just because this is based on a true story doesn’t mean it’s a sympathetic one to tell. There are so many WTH moments that it becomes painful to slog through. For instance, Chickie is riding in a helicopter. Another man is interrogating a Viet Cong operative. He tosses him out the chopper while The Association’s song “Cherish” plays.

Oh, the irony.

Farrelly co-wrote the script with Brian Hayes Currie and Pete Jones, based on the book by Chickie and J.T. Molloy. Did they not see that Chickie should have ‘read the room’ — or themselves?

The soundtrack is chock-full of groovin’ 60s hits, which is a plus when it’s used in context. But not suitable for a montage of dead soldiers in flag-draped coffins. Not sure it all fits or syncs well to the story, but sometimes it’s on the nose, punctuating a bizarre tale.

This buddy movie is a dud, and can’t quite blend the somber with the silly in an effective way.

“The Greatest Beer Run Ever” is a 2022 war drama-comedy directed by Peter Farrelly and starring Zac Efron, Russell Crowe, Bill Murray, Jack Picking and Will Hockmann. Rated R for language and some war violence. It is in theaters Sept. 30 and streaming on Apple TV+. Lynn’s Grade: C-

By Lynn Venhaus
Think New Yorker meets Highlights for the literary geek chic. As a paean to print, “The French Dispatch” is a glorious reminder of how turning pages, enraptured in an article, can take us away to other worlds.

Set in an outpost of an American newspaper – the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun — in a fictional 20th century French city. It brings to life a collection of stories published in the final edition of the newspaper empire’s Sunday magazine, following the death of the editor (Bill Murray).

Experiencing a Wes Anderson film is like being transported into an illustrated picture book with stunning artistically complex worlds both familiar and of wonder – feeling new and nostalgic at the same time.

It is always a unique event that I look forward to with great anticipation, having listed “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” among my favorite movies of the 21st Century. And his whimsical stop-animation features “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The Isle of Dogs” (his last movie in 2018) are genius.

No matter if they connect or not, all his films of the past 30 years are painstakingly detailed works of art that offer something different – and feature wit, eccentric characters, superb music accompaniment, and striking composed visuals as common threads.

Therefore, it pains me to say that while “The French Dispatch” is a love letter to journalists and has considerable quirky charms, with dizzying fanciful techniques and the director’s distinctive symmetrical style, color palette and designs, it is at once too much and not enough.

‘THE FRENCH DISPATCH.’ (Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved)

Set in the truly inspired metropolis Ennui-sur-Blasé (which translated, means “Boredom-on-Apathy,” with a wink), this sophisticated exercise is an overstuffed toy box that melds too many concepts to be as satisfying as his top three. And despite its splendid cast, there isn’t a single character that emotionally resonates.

This anthology, running 1 hour 48 minutes, is crowded with enough content for 10 movies. Anderson’s offbeat screenplay, with a story conceived with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Hugo Guinness, is divided to fit the magazine’s sections: arts and artists, politics/poetry and tastes and smells, but starts and ends with the life and death of diligent editor Arthur Horowitz Jr. – played by Anderson all-star Bill Murray, just as droll as ever.

In “The Concrete Masterpiece” by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), which goes off the rails two-thirds in, Benicio del Toro plays Moses Rosenthaler, a psychopathic artist who paints critically acclaimed abstracts in prison, uses Simone (Lea Seydoux), a female prison guard as a nude model, and attracts the attention of Cadazio, an imperious, impatient art exhibitor played by Adrien Brody, backed by his two businessmen uncles (brief appearance by Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban).

“Revisions to a Manifesto” has student radicals protest, which leads to “The Chessboard Revolution,” with rebel leader Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet), who gets the attention of no-nonsense scribe Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). This meanders and should have ended midway.

The third is “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” as recounted by urbane food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) in a television interview with talk show host (Liev Schreiber). This is a complex crime caper involving multiple characters, many locations, and quite a roster of talent.

At times, these short stories seem indulgent, rambling, and tedious. Sharper pacing would have helped with the storytelling, which does benefit from the gifted performers who find their rhythm and deliver crisp dialogue in the earnest manner one expects in these idiosyncratic tableaus.

Owen Wilson, who has been in eight Anderson movies, second only to Murray, is good-natured staff writer Herbsaint Sazerac, who takes us on an amusing tour of the city. Anjelica Huston, aka Mrs. Tenenbaum, capably handles narration duty this time –a lovely addition.

One of the pleasures of this film is to see such a star-studded array of repertory players, and more – among them, Saoirse Ronan, Tony Revolori, Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Steve Park, Lois Wilson, Fisher Stevens, and Griffin Dunne.

The pandemic delayed this film’s release by a year, which heightened expectations and allowed a clever literary marketing campaign to enchant with graphics and snippets, modeled after venerable periodicals from days gone by. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in July, where it received a nine-minute standing ovation.

Having spent nearly a half-century working at publications, the editorial office setting was the most intriguing yet the least focus — an aperitif instead of an entrée. With every bon mot that Murray tossed off as the veteran editor corralled correspondents, I wanted more of that colorful staff.

The sight of Murray taking a pencil to hard copy, as ink-stained editors once did in non-cubical newsrooms, should make journalists yearn for a grizzled authority figure to cut their long-winded prose and hand the typed papers back with gruff remarks and certain expectations. Writers may weep at the sight of a proofreader and a layout guy trying to fit linotype into a grid, for it’s part of a cherished past.

As a film, tightening those long-winded vignettes would have made a difference.

Nevertheless, the production elements are exceptional, especially from frequent Anderson cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, flipping between black-and-white and color, and other collaborators Oscar-winning production designer Adam Stockhausen (for “Grand Budapest Hotel”) and costume designer Milena Canonero, four-time Oscar winner including “Grand Budapest Hotel,” and composer Alexander Desplat’s score.

Still, a Wes Anderson movie is like hanging out with erudite English Literature majors, some of whom are raconteurs and iconoclasts, who motivate you to add books and adventures to your to-do lists.

The French Dispatch” is a 2021 comedy-drama directed by Wes Anderson and starring Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Lea Seydoux, Timothee Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Owen Wilson and Elisabeth Moss. It’s run time is 1 hour, 48 minutes and is rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual references and language. In theaters Oct. 29. Lynn’s Grade: B.
Portions of this review were published in the Webster-Kirkwood Times and discussed on KTRS Radio.

By Alex McPherson

Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” is an experience as eye-popping as it is utterly overwhelming.

“The French Dispatch,” largely inspired by writers at The New Yorker magazine, including James Thurber, James Baldwin, Mavis Gallant, and others this Gen Z critic has never heard of, recounts the experiences of four writers at the French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas, Evening Sun newspaper based in a fictional French town. These writings take place within “Ennui-sur-Blasé” (Boredom-on-Blasé), which proves to be far from boring. The editor-in-chief, a strict yet sentimental chap named Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), has just died, leaving behind one final issue of the paper filled with eccentric happenings and colorful characters. 

Anderson’s film is structured like an anthology narrated by the author of each “article,” opening with a biography of Howitzer and ending with his obituary. We get a scene-setter from a beret-wearing cyclist, Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson). Sazerac sets the scene, showcasing a French town packed with people of all sorts, as well as hundreds of rats and cats. We then delve into an arts report by JKL Berenson (Tilda Swinton) as she gives a PowerPoint presentation on an (in)famous incarcerated painter named Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), his muse/prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux), and a greedy art collector named Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) wanting to capitalize on Moses’ works.

Afterwards, viewers are launched into a rather intimate profile, written by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), of a young, insecure revolutionary named Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), who amid the student uprising in 1968 engages in high-stakes chess matches with authority figures. “The French Dispatch” saves the best for last, however, as food columnist Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) — a gay Black man — discusses on a talk show a profile he wrote of Lt. Nescafier (Stephen Park), an esteemed chef of a local police chief The Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric). Both Wright and Nescafier are dragged into a life-or-death situation. 

Timothee Chalamet as Zefferelli

If this sounds like a lot to digest, you’d be correct. There’s so much movie here that it’s hard not to be mentally swamped. This lessens the impact of individual vignettes that are, by themselves, quite profound. Nevertheless, “The French Dispatch” provides a nonstop barrage of aesthetically pleasing eye candy that holds attention even as the overstuffed whole threatens to undermine the compelling characters on display.

Ennui-sur-Blasé is a meticulously crafted setting, a cinematic dollhouse that refuses to be categorized in simple terms. In typical Andersonian fashion, everything moves like a clockwork machine coming to life. A quiet neighborhood suddenly fills with activity upon the rising sun, sets transition between one another as characters walk from room to room, and elegantly symmetrical shot compositions are once again used in full force. Interestingly, “The French Dispatch” also alternates between black-and-white and color photography shot-to-shot — perhaps representing timeless bursts of humanity that transcend the written word. 

Each section utilizes Anderson’s style in different ways, paying homage to French filmmakers like Jacques Tati and François Truffaut, as well as cartoonists from The New Yorker. That being said, “The French Dispatch” knows when to subvert its rules to emphasize the darker elements of this charming, albeit troubled dreamworld, particularly concerning the existential threats that tinge Wright’s perspective with sadness and dread. For brief moments, the madcap fades away to zoom in on true, deeply felt emotions. Alexandre Desplat’s score perfectly accompanies the action, eliciting joy and melancholy.

Of course, there’s an outstanding amount of acting talent here (including some cameos I won’t spoil), and everyone brings their A-game, even if we only spend a few minutes with them. Murray, Del Toro, and Wright are standouts — lending their characters a sense of three-dimensionality that’s all the more meaningful in such cartoonish locations. Although some performances are more effective than others — Chalamet is somewhat one-note, for example — they’re perfect vessels to deliver Anderson’s signature playful, occasionally irreverent dialogue that seems even more obsessive than usual.

Although some might say “The French Dispatch” is style over substance, Anderson’s film grows more meaningful the more I think about it, stretching my Film Studies muscles to approach coherent conclusions. We see a literal tortured artist being exploited for profit, an aging journalist mourning her youth, childish revolutionaries blinded by idealism, and outsiders seeking comfort in an alienating world. While the second portion featuring McDormand and Chalamet comes across as a bit precious and rushed in places, there’s rarely a dull moment. Despite the sections’ differences, they’re thematically bonded through exploring concepts of belonging, passion, storytelling, and the creation of art itself with a whimsical edge that likely benefits from repeat viewings. 

Additionally, the notion of this newspaper traveling all the way back to corn-covered Kansas holds its own significance. Stories should be universal, after all, and “The French Dispatch” underlines how this form of humanistic journalism shouldn’t be discarded amid the changing media climate. As a tribute to artists of all kinds and a wistful thesis on the future of print, this is a film that deserves to be mulled over, and I’m eager to research the people who influenced it. Tighter pacing and more focus could have made it one of Anderson’s best, but “The French Dispatch” is most assuredly worth opening up.

Jeffrey Wright and Liev Shreiber

The French Dispatch” is a 2021 comedy-drama directed by Wes Anderson and starring Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Lea Seydoux, Timothee Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Owen Wilson and Elisabeth Moss. It’s run time is 1 hour, 48 minutes and is rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual references and language. In theaters Oct. 29. Alex’s Grade: B+.

Benicio del Toro, Lea Seydoux