12/5/16

A MERRY FRIGGIN' CHRISTMAS - REVIEW


One of Robin Williams' last films, A Merry Friggin' Christmas got a limited release in 2014 so you shouldn't be too surprised if you missed it. Unfortunately, good Christmas movies are hard to come by so let's see if this one is worth checking out.

The film sees Boyd Mitchler (Joel McHale) and his wife Luann (Lauren Graham) having to spend Christmas with Boyd's father Virgil (Williams), who doesn't get along with his son, and the rest of the family. Boyd's primary goal, to keep the magic of Christmas alive for his young son, is soon put in jeopardy when he realises he forgot the kid's presents back home. He jumps in his car and sets off to recover them but he faces several setbacks along the way. In the vein of Bad Santa, this is a black comedy with a dash of Christmas spirit and it's a refreshing change from the sappy releases this season tends to churn out. This one isn't too focused on gross-out humour and, instead, it prioritises the thorny relationships between the main characters and how those evolve.

Robin Williams isn't given too many opportunities to go all out but he does a reliably good job, especially with the more emotional moments, once again effortlessly juggling comedy and drama. The story could have probably been fleshed-out a tad more as neither the National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation-style set-up or the road trip plot thread deliver completely. Bigger, more unexpected things needed to happen to Boyd and his dad to make their eventual reconciliation worth it and it's unclear why we had to spend this much time with the rest of the family when they really offer little by the end. Having said that, a sharp script and a lively cast which also includes Tim Heidecker, Mark Proksch, Jeffrey Tambor and Oliver Platt make this movie entertaining throughout.

While never quite as hilarious, dark or unpredictable as it could have been, A Merry Friggin' Christmas is nevertheless an underrated comedy with lots of funny moments and just the right amount of Christmas spirit to make it worth a watch, especially during the holidays.

Grinches need not apply.

12/4/16

PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES - REVIEW


Released in 1932, Pack Up Your Troubles was Laurel & Hardy's second feature film and it threw the clueless duo in the middle of WWI as they are sent to fight in the trenches despite them initially trying to dodge the draft.

They are quickly found to be incompetent and are sent to work in the kitchens but they eventually redeem themselves by (accidentally, of course) capturing a whole bunch of enemies when they take over a tank and ride it out-of-control over the trenches. When one of their soldier buddies is killed in action, Stan and Ollie have a new mission: take care of his little girl until they can find her grandfather. Most Laurel & Hardy features tend to be just farce but this one has a bit more heart and is therefore more reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's films like The Kid or City Lights. There's something refreshing about seeing Stan and Ollie actually care about someone else and do everything they can, however clumsily, to see their good deed through.

The little girl in question, played by Jacquie Lyn, is pretty adorable and her friendship with Laurel & Hardy is a joy. Pack Up Your Troubles never gets cheesy, thankfully, and even when our heroes are doing something honourable, they still find a way to do it in the most monumentally stupid way possible. Whether it's physically visiting every single Mr. Smith in town instead of just calling them or mistakenly robbing a bank when asking for a loan in order to not let the little girl get sent to an orphanage. This movie rarely makes people's Top 5 Best Laurel & Hardy Movies lists but it really should: it may not be the funniest but it's definitely one of their best.

Unlike A Chump At Oxford, which really felt like 3 shorts roughly linked together, Pack Up Your Troubles is one well-told story with laughs and heart in equal amounts. I would definitely recommend you check this one out, whether you're a fan of Laurel & Hardy or not.

Good stuff.

12/2/16

A CHUMP AT OXFORD - REVIEW


Laurel & Hardy star in A Chump At Oxford, a feature released in 1940 in which a reliably down-and-out Stan and Ollie go to an employment agency and try out a couple of different jobs before realising that what they really need is an education.

They first attempt a butler and maid job with Laurel pretending to be the maid, of course. A shambolic dinner party ensues as they unsurprisingly trash the classy gathering, and they are soon chased out at gunpoint. After unwittingly catching a bank robber who bumps into them when trying to flee while they were working as street sweepers, Stan and Ollie are offered a job by the thankful bank manager but, since they lack a proper education, he enrols them at Oxford University instead and they are promptly off to England. There, they somehow get lost in a garden maze where some undergraduate students play a bunch of pranks on them. This lands everyone in trouble with the Dean but then we discover that Stan is in fact Lord Paddington, an exemplary athlete and scholar who once lost his memory when a closing window hit his head. Another bump on the head quickly turns Stan back to his old self and Ollie is forced to suffer the consequences.

A Chump At Oxford was originally a 40 minute-long short but it was later stretched to feature length. The whole dinner party scene doesn't exactly add anything to the main plot, which is paper thin, but it includes some of the film's best moments. Essentially, this is three Laurel & Hardy shorts played together back to back and it feels like it. Having the entire thing take place in Oxford University would have made more sense, especially with that title. Some of the gags in this one last a little too long and it's not all gold but there are some funny moments, for sure, especially near the end when Stan/Lord Paddington treats Ollie like a manservant. Laurel & Hardy regular Jimmy Finlayson (aka the angry moustache guy) plays the dinner party's host Mr. Vanderveer and look out for a young Peter Cushing in a minor role as one of the undergraduate students.

While fans of the legendary comedy duo will have a decent time with this one, it's definitely not one of Laurel & Hardy's best and it feels a little unfocused and slight. I wouldn't say it's essential viewing but even at their worst, these guys are enjoyable to watch so you won't regret checking it out.

Average outing.

11/30/16

SUPERSTAR - REVIEW


The SNL spin-off movies are a patchy affair, to say the least. For every Blues Brothers, there's a Blues Brothers 2000, for every Wayne's World, there's an It's Pat: The Movie. Superstar sees Molly Shannon reprise her Mary Katherine Gallagher role from the show.

Molly Shannon's creation is awkward and odd yet egomaniacal and driven: she's deeply unpopular at the Catholic school she attends but remains convinced that she is a "superstar" and that her big break is coming. Cue lots of jokes about how desperate she is and some loud slapstick where she crashes into things. There's also a romantic subplot as she soon becomes interested in the school's most popular hunk Sky Corrigan, played by a reliably entertaining Will Ferrell. Story-wise, it's all rather predictable, mostly because it parodies teen movies centred around a school competition and the clichés of the genre are so familiar they leave little in the way of surprises. There's admittedly not much else they could have done with this character but Napoleon Dynamite this isn't.

While Shannon can be very funny, Mary Katherine Gallagher just did not warrant her own feature film. Superstar has nothing new to say and most of its jokes fall flat. Like it or not, at least A Night At The Roxbury made good use of its leads, two of which being Shannon and Ferrell, by the way. That movie maybe didn't need to exist either and not having Jim Carrey in it cost it some major points but it was fun and most of its jokes, surprisingly, worked. Here, you keep waiting for something unexpected and clever to happen but it never does. Not that the film is particularly bad, it does have a couple of funny moments, but it's very underwhelming and considering the talent involved, that's a real shame. If anything, the best joke in the entire movie is that the secondary school students are all played by people over 30.

If you're looking for a great SNL movie, those do exist but Superstar isn't one of them. It's amusing in short bursts but the central character is not likeable or all that funny and the plot lacks creativity. Maybe watch it once on Netflix if you're a fan of SNL but don't expect to remember it the next day.

Not so super.

11/28/16

CAFÉ SOCIETY - REVIEW


This year saw the release of Café Society, the latest film by Woody Allen. Set in the 1930's, it starred Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell as three parts of an awkward love triangle.

Jesse Eisenberg is Bobby Dorfman, a young neurotic who moves to Los Angeles to work for his uncle Phil (Carell), a wealthy talent agent. Though he is tasked with small errands, he gets to opportunity to attend a lot of fancy parties and he soon falls in love with Phil's secretary Veronica (Stewart). What Bobby doesn't realise, however, is that Veronica is having an affair with Phil, who is unsure whether to leave his wife for her or not. This sort of plot is very reminiscent of other Woody Allen films so this new outing definitely suffers from some overly-familiar scenes here and there. The love triangle is only the focal point early on in the film as Bobby eventually moves back to New York where he starts working in a club run by his brother Ben, who happens to be a gangster.

The interesting thing about Café Society is how it gradually merges Bobby's story with his brother's. A rather subtle parallel is drawn between how Ben, a criminal, is in the middle of a Jewish family with a religious side and a more humanist side and how Bobby himself is having to decide between pursuing his true love Veronica or settling with his new wife also called Veronica (Blake Lively). Had the film been a little more creative and unpredictable with its storytelling, this could have been fleshed out further and made for a fascinating gem. As it stands, this is a slight effort by the prolific director with a lot of interesting things to say but no unique way in which to say them. It's well made, the performances are all solid and it looks great but Café Society is more fun to think about than it is to sit through, especially with a particularly unenthusiastic narration by Allen himself.

Although it certainly could have done with more surprises plot-wise, Café Society remains one of Woody Allen's better recent efforts. It's definitely worth checking out but I wouldn't say it's essential viewing unless you're a fan of the filmmaker's work.

Good, not great.

11/26/16

SONS OF THE DESERT - REVIEW


Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy star in Sons Of The Desert, a 1933 feature that's often quoted as being one of the legendary duo's best comedies.

The plot sees the two friends, who are also next door neighbours, having to announce to their wives that they are planning to go to some convention related to the Freemasons-style organisation they're somehow a part of, whether they are given permission or not. Of course, the ladies aren't impressed and Hardy is promptly forbidden to go. This leads him to fake an illness and get Laurel to hire a doctor (or veterinarian, rather) to prescribe a stress-free holiday to Honolulu so both pals can sneak off to Chicago for the convention and make it back without their wives knowing. Unfortunately, the plan backfires when the boat that was meant to bring them home from Honolulu sinks, much to their spouses' chagrin. Laurel and Hardy are then forced to improvise by hiding out in the attic overnight.

While this may not be one of Laurel & Hardy's flashier films, it's still remembered just as fondly as the likes of Way Out West and others because, quite simply, it's that funny. Between Laurel eating wax apples, constantly tripping over his own words or feet and Hardy trying to act tough in front of his dominating wife (the excellent Mae Busch) as he clumsily falls backside-first into scolding hot water and hits his head on wooden planks repeatedly, there are a lot of laughs in this movie. The writing is particularly good here as no line is wasted and the slapstick is reliably inspired. Other memorable moments include a dated, if charming musical number and comedian Charley Chase in a fun extended cameo. Frankly, there's very little that doesn't work in Sons Of The Desert.

Fans of the iconic comedy duo will tell you this movie's a treat and, even if you're the most reluctant viewer, chances are you'll soon agree. This is a very funny, snappy and clever gem with Laurel & Hardy at their best.

Another fine mess, indeed.

11/23/16

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL - REVIEW


Before Disney decided to remake all of its classic animated films in a big way, the studios turned to theme park rides for inspiration (as you do) and picked one of their oldest and most popular to adapt into a big budget feature film.

And so we got Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl.

The 2003 supernatural swashbuckler would, of course, become a significant success and spawn several sequels but we really didn't know what to expect from this first instalment. The pirate genre hadn't exactly been a hit in a while, if ever, so this was a risk for Disney. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Gore Verbinski, The Curse Of The Black Pearl was by no means a cheap, small scale project but the risk paid off in the end. The plot sees Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the daughter of a wealthy Governor, help rescue young shipwrecked pirate Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) during a sail. She finds a golden medallion around his neck and decides to keep it. Years later, the crew of mythical ghost pirate ship The Black Pearl come back to reclaim the medallion. In the process, flaky pirate Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), Turner and Swann all find themselves entangled in an unlikely sort of treasure hunt as the Pearl's Captain Barbossa (an excellent Geoffrey Rush) aims to gather all the gold medallions/coins to end a sinister curse.

It's no secret that Depp steals the show as Sparrow, a seemingly clueless yet smart and sneaky dreadlocked pirate with tons of eyeliner. He's very funny, he gets all the best lines and yo-yos between the good guys and the baddies constantly making him a pretty compelling character indeed. The two leads, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley aren't quite as annoying or pointless as they become later on in the series but they remain this film's biggest flaw as their characters are much too bland and earnest compared to literally everyone around them. Visually, the film is a treat: the cursed crew of the Black Pearl turn into zombie skeletons in the moonlight thanks to cool special effects that miraculously still hold up, the naval battles are exciting and the whole thing is colourful yet dark and gloomy at times. It's a terrific popcorn movie that's never boring and it's hard to not get swept up in Hans Zimmer's epic score. If I had to nitpick, I'd say there's maybe too much comic relief throughout which can take you out of the film as the jokes are corny more often than not.

The franchise may have overstayed its welcome to some by now but it's impossible to deny just how much fun this first film is. This is an old-fashioned yet boldly gothic action-packed adventure kids and adults alike will have a great time watching.

If only Summer movies were still this entertaining.

Watch it, savvy?

11/19/16

MASCOTS - REVIEW


10 years after his last feature film For Your Consideration, Christopher Guest is finally back with a new zany mockumentary, this time for Netflix. Packed with some of his regular cast members, Mascots follows the build-up to a contest where the "best" mascots battle it out.

This is a such an obviously funny concept that the jokes write themselves so it's not exactly a big risk for the filmmaker as Mascots is essentially Best In Show crossed with Waiting For Guffman. Guest even reprises his role from the latter as camp musical director Corky St. Clair in an amusing cameo. With the likes of Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr, Fred Willard and others, this is familiar territory for sure so don't expect too many big surprises. That said, it's hard to make a bad film when this many funny people are in it so Mascots is just as enjoyable as you'd expect with plenty of goofy lines and gags to keep you entertained throughout. Seeing all these larger-than-life characters take such a silly competition so seriously is very funny in itself but, like Waiting For Guffman, it's really all about the actual show.

You can tell that a lot of effort was put into making the mascot contest look as ridiculous as possible and you almost wish that the whole film had been the show rather than the set-up for it. You've got a plumber mascot dancing with a giant piece of poo, an incomprehensible modern armadillo dance, an ice-skating fist, a rabbi and a worm, two mascots genuinely fighting during a performance, it's all great stuff. Mascots feels more like a reminder of how much fun these mockumentaries can be rather than something completely new and ground-breaking. What it lacks in surprises and originality, the film makes up for in reliably funny performances and by making the most of its silly concept. Fans of Christopher Guest's movies will be in safe hands and should have a good time with this one, same goes for the uninitiated who will no doubt then want to check out the director's earlier stuff.

Nothing really wrong with Mascots except for its predictability, otherwise this is a funny little film with an excellent cast and a lot of clever jokes. Here's hoping Christopher Guest's next one tries something a bit more unexpected, though.

Worth a watch.

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