Release Date: October 13, 2016
Director: Christopher Guest
Production Company: Netflix
Christopher Guest returns with a new “mockumentary,” this time set at a competition of sports team mascots from around the world convening in Anaheim. Those of you who’ve watched movies like Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss or Robin Hood: Men in Tights may recognize the feeling I had of watching something that resembles the beloved movies that preceded them but just don’t have the laughs. I think one reason is that there seems to be less of an attempt by Guess and co to make this look like a documentary, and it feels more scripted. Secondly, while community theater (Waiting for Guffman), a dog show (Best in Show), or a folk music concert (A Mighty Wind) are all set in reality that’s familiar, I don’t think there really is international mascot competition, and even if there is one, everything in this movie is designed to make it look totally fake. Finally, there’s a cynical feel to the movie overall where the sense I got is that your supposed to think all of these people are losers and be happy to see them fail. The conclusion is all the more odd when Tom Bennet’s character puts on a lovely performance as Sid the Hedgehog. The scene doesn’t go for the big laugh that’s expected and nothing prepares one for the fact that this movie is actually trying to have heart. The sad part is that a lot of the regulars returning for Mascots (Guest, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, et al) really seem to be trying, but just missing the mark. Only Chris O’Dowd consistently made me laugh, perhaps because he was playing the character who clearly didn’t care.
Title: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Release Date: 2017 June 2
Director: David Soren
Production Company: Dreamworks Animation
The extremely silly and slyly satirical Captain Underpants books are brought to the big screen in the epononymously-declared first of what will be many movies. I’ve enjoyed the books as much as someone who was already an adult when they were first published, but I find the adaptation questionable. Mostly, for a movie with a theme of the importance of laughter, the laughs are few and far between (albeit there are some undeniably hilarious moments). The sense of superhero satire is lost in the final act when it is subsumed to the type of big action adventure climax they’re supposed to making fun of. I give it a “nice try” but know that from the source material there is a better movie to be made.
Title: Cool Runnings
Release Date: 1993 October 1
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
This comedy is loosely based on the Jamaican bobsled team’s unlikely performance at the 1988 Winter Olympics. It is disappointing that with a true life story worthy of movie, that all the characters and most of the details depicted are entirely fictional. That being said, the fictional story has a good cast of archetypal characters: Derice (Leon Robinson) – the talented sprinter with Olympic dreams and endless optimism, his friend Sanka (Doug E. Doug) – the laid back champion push cart racers, Junior (Rawle D. Lewis) – the wealthy kid who is frightened to challenge his father’s plans for his future, and Yul (Malik Yoba) – the tough guy with the heart of gold. Add to this John Candy as a successful American bobsledder who surrendered his medals after a cheating scandal in 1972 and is living in Jamaica working as bookie until Derice recruits him to be their coach. This was the last movie released before Candy’s death and it’s interesting that he’s mostly the straight man and that his performance adds some gravitas to the movie.
Most of the humor comes from the mix of this group of characters working together, with the rest of course coming from the unlikelihood of people from a tropical nation attempting to compete in a winter sport that they’ve never done before. Nothing can top the dialogue when they step outside for the first time in the subzero temperatures of Calgary:
Derice Bannock: Sanka mon, whatcha smoking?
Sanka Coffie: I’m not smoking, I’m breathing!
It is a bummer that in the effort to add more conflict to the already fictionalized story, the Jamaican bobsledders are treated with derision by the other athletes and have to jump through hoops to qualify due to Candy’s character’s history of cheating. Not only is this contrary to real life when other athletes were supportive of the Jamaican team, but it’s also just unnecessary to the narrative. Still it’s a funny, inspirational movie and for an 80s kid very nostalgic – from the bold color patterns on the winter clothing to the inevitable slow clap at the climax of the movie.
Release Date:December 15, 1995
Director: Joe Johnston
Production Company: Interscope Communications
I watched this for the first time with my son although the story felt very familiar due to cultural osmosis. The basic plot begins in 1969 when a boy named Alan discovers the board game and begins playing with his friend Sarah, ending up sucked into the jungle within the game. 26 years later, the siblings Judy and Peter (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce) discover the game in Alan’s former house and begin playing, releasing Alan from the jungle. Alan (Robin Williams) is an adult now with experience in jungle survival but still emotionally a child.
Together they find Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) to finish the game and reverse the damaging effects, releasing on each roll of the dice wild animals, choking vines, an a sadistic Edwardian hunter, Van Pelt (perhaps the most draw-dropping moment of satire is how easily he acquires a semi-automatic weapon at a New Hampshire gun store). A subplot of the film focuses on the police officer Carl (David Alan Grier) who attempts to reign in the chaos engulfing the town while his new police cruiser is gradually demolished by the fauna and flora unleashed by the game.
I feel like the filmmakers could’ve have gone for an enjoyable, over-the-top spectacle, or they could’ve used the game to delve into deeper issues and development of the characters. What they made instead is an uncomfortable hybrid that feels very episodic. They do focus on Alan’s struggles to connect with his father and Judy and Peter grieving their parents’ death, but those scenes don’t integrate well with the more madcap Jumanji adventure scenes. I think it’s those problems that have made the movie merely memorable instead of the classic it could’ve been.
Title: Groundhog Day
Release Date: 12 February 1993
Director: Harold Ramis
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
I hadn’t watched Groundhog Day since the 1990s so I figured the 25th anniversary of its release would be a good time to see if it has held up. The first thing I noticed about the movie is that the production is very 80s/90s, and OMG! Bill Murray looks so young! The story is familiar, seeped into our culture by now. We see egocentric meteorologist Phil Connors head to cover the Groundhog Day ceremony and then he has to live that same day again and again and again, until he learns a lesson and does it right. The thing that’s always impressed me is that Phil doesn’t repeat the same day for a week or two, but it’s implied that he’s caught in the loop for thousands perhaps tens of thousands of times. It’s also impressive that the filmmakers were brave enough to never offer an explanation of how or why Phil gets caught in the loop (or how he gets out), it just happens.
Groundhog Day is more melancholy than I remembered. It moves very smoothly among madcap comedy, romantic comedy, and a more solemn reflection on mortality and morality rather seamlessly. Much of this is due to the versatility of Bill Murray who can offer both wacky and gravitas depending on the situation. I guess Groundhog Day set him up for these type of roles that he’s become more well-known for in his later career in movies such as Rushmore and Lost in Translation.
So it turns out that Groundhog Day is actually better than I remembered and a deserved classic.
Release Date: 28 November 2014
Director: Paul King
Production Company: Studio Canal
While a lot of family films these days seem to focus on the lowest common denominator of fart jokes and rock music standards, this adaptation of Paddington strikes a nice balance between being faithful to source material with a contemporary appeal. In fact, it feels a lot like the family films of the 1970s and 80s. A prologue to the film where an explorer meets Paddington’s aunt and uncle in Peru in what appears to be the 1930s adds to this feeling because the main part of the film is supposed to be 40 years later which would place it in the 1970s although what’s on the the screen is clearly London in the 2010s. Setting aside this chronological confusion, Paddington is a delight with well-timed slapstick humor and a lot of heart as Paddington finds a place with the quirky Brown family. There’s also a subtle commentary of the reception of immigrants in modern England, not just with Paddington but other characters such as an antique store owner who’s suggested to have fled Nazi persecution and a diagetic group of buskers whose mambo tunes comment on Paddington’s situation.
The thing that keeps the movie from being great is a plot involving Nicole Kidman as an evil taxidermist from the Natural History Museum eager to make her mark by stuffing a new species for display in the museum (namely, Paddington). While this leads to the climax of the movie where the Brown family rallies to save Paddington, I think the movie would’ve been stronger if the filmmakers had the confidence that the story of Paddington adjust to life in London would be enough to carry the movie.
Title: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Release Dates: 2017
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review: The third season of the Netflix comedy series continues to be laugh out loud funny and thought-provoking. Despite having her name in the title, at this point the show is about more than Kimmy Schmidt, but equally the stories of four major characters. Kimmy continues to seek her place in the world attending college at Columbia University, but really wants to become a crossing guard after a test says it’s her most suitable job. She finds a new romantic interest in Perry (Daveed Diggs) but her past with the Reverend (John Hamm) continues to haunt her. Titus (Titus Burgess) returns from performing on a cruise ship unwilling to talk about what happened there and breaks up with Mikey (Mike Carlsen) in a ploy to win him over that backfires. Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) continues to use her privilege for good and attempt to get the Washington Redskins to change their racist name, but hits a snag when an accident makes her fiance Russ (David Cross) more handsome causing him to become more shallow. Lillian (Carol Kane) becomes a city councilor fighting gentrification, but ends up falling for Artie (Peter Riegert), the owner of the new high-end grocery store in the neighborhood.
There are a lot of funny plots and gags, but not everything goes well. One of the most publicized gags of the season is Titus “Lemonading” but there seems to be no joke here other than a large, black man reenacting Beyonce’s music video. There have been times in the past when I’ve wondered if Tina Fey is secretly Republican and that continues here. The depiction of Columbia University students as social justice warriors who suppress free speech comes straight from Fox News and Breitbart. Artie is presented as a compassionate millionaire bringing groceries to the poor and Lillian a loony leftist (although I do appreciate Reigert’s performance with his charm and dry humor). On the other hand, the attempt to depict the NFL team owners as rightwing loons also misses the mark, so maybe Fey just can’t do political humor without being ridiculous and over the top.
All the same, I love these characters and their stories. Excluding the “Lemonade” gag, Titus Burgess remains one of the funnies people on tv. I look forward to seeing where the show goes in its next season.
Release Date: 21 December 2016
Director: Christophe Lourdelet, Garth Jennings
Zootopia used a city of anthropomorphic animals as the setting for a socially-conscious police procedural, and Sing does essentially the same thing for the musical comedy, albeit not as sophisticated. Koala Buster Moon is a show biz impresario who decides to save his decaying theater by staging a talent competition. Cue audition scenes followed by rehearsals with quirky core group of ambitious talent: a soulful gorilla who does not want to be part of his father’s bank-robbing gang, a punk rock porcupine more talented than her self-centered boyfriend, an overworked mother of 25 piglets looking for a chance to express herself, an exuberant, Teutonic pig in sparkly dance leotards, and a shy, teenage elephant with a strong voice.
The movie is full of gags and generally funny enough to entertain both children and adults. But it also contains some serious undertones and cynicism about show business that seems a bit heavy, especially a terrifying scene in which the theater is destroyed. The movie has it’s flaws, among them a soundtrack that switches frenetically among popular songs (the licensing bill must’ve been huge) and is a bit a bloated at nearly two hours in length. But it’s better than the sum of it’s parts with some joyous musical performances, especially in the final performance at the end of the film.
Title: BoJack Horseman
Release Dates: 2016
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review: This is the third series of the animated Netflix show that is laugh out loud funny, acerbically satirical, emotionally raw, and thoroughly depressing. Two plots are intertwined through the series: BoJack making the circuit of appearances in hopes of getting an Oscar nomination for the biopic of Secretariat and flashbacks to 2007 when BoJack helped create a tv show that flopped (kind of eerie how the show makes 2007 feel like a long time ago!). Both plots deal with BoJack’s inability to feel happiness, his capacity for self-sabotage, and his unreliability to friends and colleagues. Looking back on the season it seems so glum, it’s hard to remember that there was a lot to laugh about, but BoJack Horseman is all about using humor to peel back the most painful wounds. The highpoint of the season is episode 4, “Fish Out of Water,” where BoJack goes to a film festival in a community under the sea and thus there’s almost no dialogue in the entire episode as the undersea world is brought to life with fantastic visuals, sound effects, and music. It’s a tour-de-force in what is a really well-done season of television.
Release Date: 15 July 2016
Director: Paul Feig
When I heard a new Ghostbusters movie was being made I was hoping it would be 30 years later and due to turnover they had a new crew, mostly because I’m tired of reboots. But what I think about things doesn’t really matter because the makers of this movie have managed to make a Ghostbusters film (and a Ghostbusters origin story) that is totally fresh and original. There are lots of moments that pay tribute to the 1984 original – such as the firehouse, the Ghostbusters logo, Ecto-1, Slimer, and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man – but after the first moment of recognition these things are subverted in humorous ways. The original cast also all appear in cameo roles (even the late Harold Ramis appears as a bust). But despite all the nostalgia this Ghostbusters stands on its own with original ideas, a terrific script, and laugh out loud lines.
What really makes Ghostbusters terrific are the characters and the actors who play them. There’s Erin (Kristen Wiig), the academic who appears alternately awed and enthused that her lifelong belief in ghosts is vindicated. Abby (Melissa McCarthy) is an unabashed nerd. There’s a special place in my heart for Patty (Leslie Jones) who brings her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of New York to the team. But pretty much every scene is stolen by Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and her blasé weirdness. The main plot involves a villain who is using the ghosts to extract revenge on people who made fun of him growing up, which is wonderfully contrasted with the Ghostbusters who also have tortured pasts but come together in solidarity and use their “outsider” traits to benefit the common good. It also can’t be overstated how important for girls and women to see themselves represented as funny and heroic in a movie like this.
Title: Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
Release Date: 22 July 2016
Director: Mandie Fletcher
“Oh god, I can’t believe you’re still…alive!” sputters Jon Hamm to Patsy Stone at a party in this film adaptation of the long-running BBC comedy. In a way it’s kind of an appropriate response to the continued existence of Absolutely Fabulous. The premise of a pair of aging baby boomers deluding themselves into believing that they are popular, fashionable, and can party non-stop was delightfully absurd in the 1990s, but it seems inconceivable to continue the same story 25 years later. Luckily, the movie takes on aging and mortality – as well as the human connections lost while trying to grasp youth – as one of its theme, but this is still AbFab so they don’t get too mushy about it. The basic plot is the Eddie kills model Kate Moss by pushing her into the Thames and she and Patsy have to go on the run. Hijinks ensue with a number of one-liners and visual humor (I particular like when Saffy is forced to sing Janis Ian’s “Seventeen” to a club full of drag queens).
There are numerous celebrities appearing in cameos and small parts including Lulu, Gwendolyn Christie, Mark Gatis, Hamm, Rebel Wilson, and Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna) as well as lots of fashion models and designers I’ve never heard of before (apparently Paul McCartney has a daughter named Stella who is a fashion designer and she gets one of the best quips in the movie when she implies that Patsy broke up the Beatles, not Yoko Ono). Ultimately, this is an extended length AbFab episode with higher production values. Fans of AbFab will enjoy it, but there’s nothing here for anyone who doesn’t like AbFab and anyone who’s not watched the show will be out to sea. It’s no comic masterpiece but I got a few laughs and a chance to renew my long-time crush on Julia Sawalha.
Release Date: 19 June 2015
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Growing up in “The Bottoms” of Inglewood, California, Malcolm and his friends Diggy and Jib get good grades, play in a punk band, and are obsessed with 1990s hip hop music and fashion. As geeky misfits they have to navigate themselves around bullies, drug dealers, and gang members on a daily basis. When a young woman invites Malcolm to a drug dealer’s party at a nightclub, they find themselves in the middle of a shootout and with a backpack filled with Molly and a gun. All sorts of hijinks ensue as the trio attempt to get rid of and then sell the drugs. It’s reminiscent in many ways of teen comedies of the 1980s updated with contemporary references. It’s probably most analogous to Risky Business, but since I always hated that movie I’ll point out that it shares commonalities with Real Genius in the ways the young protagonists use their smarts to outwit and outsmart everyone else. While this movie is laugh out loud funny, grim realities are close to the surface and it does not shy away from depicting gun violence, drug use, and the frequent use of the n-word. This is a pretty spectacular movie on all levels – script, acting, cinematography, and the brilliant use of music.
Title: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Release Dates: 2016
Number of Episodes: 13
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the type of tv comedy that if you explain the premise it sounds like it would be absolutely awful, but somehow it works. In the first season Ellie Kemper’s titular character is rescued from an underground bunker where she’s been held for 15 years after being abducted as a child by a doomsday cult leader. With the naivete of a child from the 90s in a woman’s body, she decides to move to New York where she successfully finds a place to live, a job, studies for a GED, and even finds love (although most of this falls apart by the end of the season).
In season 2, Kimmy’s characteristic cheerfulness and optimism begin to break as she’s unable to suppress the trauma of her childhood and the stress of trying to hold her new life together. And yes, as I said above this is a comedy, but one that deals with deep and dark issues hilariously, in a manner that is just dense with jokes. Part of the success of the show is the ensemble cast of Kimmy’s friends and colleagues.
There are three standout characters. Jane Krakowski plays the Manhattan socialite Jacqueline Voorhees having divorced on Kimmy’s advice is now trying to work her way back into wealth and power but with a nagging sense of conscience thanks to Kimmy. Krakowski has always played funny characters in the past but she brings a lot of depth to Jacqueline who could otherwise easily be a vapid caricature. Kimmy’s landlady Lillian Kaushtupper is played by Carol Kane who has a much bigger role in this season and just may be favorite character. Throughout the season Lillian tries to stop gentrification in her neighborhood but only ends up making matters worse as incoming hipsters consider her charming local color. Finally, a new character Andrea portrayed by show creator and writer Tina Fey is a straightlaced therapist by day and an obnoxious drunk. Again, it’s a premise that sounds ridiculous, but Fey provides a realistic portrayal of addiction while keeping it funny, and provides a foil to Kimmy dealing with her own inner demons.
Not everything works. The episode “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” is a mean-spirited response to critics of the show who objected to casting a white actor as a Native American in the first season. Kimmy finally consummates her relationship with on-again/off-again boyfriend Dong in episode 8, and then his character is deported and never mentioned again. But overall this a sharp and unique comedy that will have you laughing but also keep you thinking.
Title: Easy A
Release Date: 2010
Director: Will Gluck
This movie was described to me as the high school comedy interpretation of The Scarlet Letter. The story begins when 17 y.o. Olive tells her friend that she lost her virginity to a fictional college boyfriend. Word gets out and Olive suddenly has a bad girl reputation. Soon Olive is pretending to be sexually involved with several boys in order to help their reputations (that is for one boy to cover that he’s gay, for another that he’s an overweight loser, and so on). Enjoying the attention and also making a statement about double standards and rumor mongering, Olive begins wearing more revealing clothing with the letter A stitched on. A series of improbable but hilarious events ensue.
It’s a good mix of high school comedy with biting satire, and a fun way of addressing some serious topics such as bullying, gossip, and teen sexuality. The movie is episodic but it’s tied together by the wit and charm of the lead actor Emma Stone. And it’s really funny.
Title: Fight Club
Release Date: 1999
Director: David Fincher
Scratch this off the list of movies everyone has seen except me. Not that I hadn’t already known the basic plot details of the movie for some time. Still that made it fun to watch for evidence of the big twist before it was revealed. Of course there are things I didn’t know about like Helena Bonham Carter’s character and her significance in the movie (and why does every Helena Bonham Carter have black rings around her eyes?) And oh my, that final scene wouldn’t have gone over well if the movie was made a couple of years later. This movie of course is a stylized and violent satire of masculinity and consumer culture. I think it hits a few points pretty well, misses the mark on others, but basically is an interesting story with good acting and direction.
Title: BoJack Horseman
Release Dates: 2015
Number of Episodes: 12
The first season focused on BoJack & Diane writing his memoirs, but the second series is more scattered in focus ranging from BoJack starring in a Secretariat biopic, Mr. Peanutbutter’s new game show (created by J.D. Salinger!), Todd getting involved in an improv comedy cult, and even an entire episode built around jokes about auto-erotic asphyxiation (disturbing, but surprisingly funny and touching too). Over the course of the season both BoJack and Diane go in a downward spiral. On the upside, Princess Carolyn and Mr. Peanutbutter get a lot of great character development. The best episodes are “After the Party” showing the stories of three couples after a disastrous party and “Hank After Dark” a takedown of the culture that protects celebrities from allegations of sexual assault (featuring a thinly-disguised Bill Cosby character). The show gets darker and more serious while still being incredibly funny. I eagerly look forward to season 3.
Title: The Big Short
Release Date: 2015
Director: Adam McKay
I wouldn’t think that The Big Short by Michael Lewis, a book about the investors who saw through the complex shenanigans around financial instruments leading to the great collapse of 2008, would make a great movie. But director McKay and his cast and crew do a great job of making a film that is funny, educational, and heartbreaking. There are a lot of pomo kind of tricks like breaking the fourth wall to speak to audience and celebrity cameos that are reminiscent of 24 Hour Party People. The movie is anchored by strong acting, including Steve Carell as the crotchety New Yorker from ” America’s angriest hedge fund,” and Christian Bale as the quirky genius who first thought to short the subprime mortgage market.
I don’t know if this was a common reaction, but as the film depicted the crash and all the suffering caused by Wall Street, I wept openly in the movie theater. This is a terrific film that works on both the mind and the emotions and I think everyone should try to see it. Well, unless your easily offended by foul language and strippers and those sort of things.
Most telling dialogue in the entire movie (regarding some douchey mortgage agents):
Mark Baum: I don’t get it. Why are they confessing?
Danny Moses: They’re not confessing.
Porter Collins: They’re bragging.
Release Date: 2013
Director: Spike Jonze
Set in the near future, this movie is about a man developing a romantic relationship with the consciousness of a computer operating system. It’s an interesting take on the love story dealing with layers of reality and artifice and the role of technology in human society. While there are some very uncomfortable and unsettling scenes, the movie doesn’t take the typical kneejerk anti-technology stance, and it doesn’t judge. The overall feeling I get is that intimacy and relationships in this future will continue to be a challenge to negotiate but that the new technology will not make it a dystopia.
The protagonist Theodore works as writer for a service that provides personal handwritten letters which are neither personal now handwritten. Despite his ability to express meaningful emotions for others in the letters he crafts he has trouble expressing his own self to others. We see him often in crowds where everyone seems to be having meaningful interactions with someone, just not the people around him. Most surprisingly for a comedy about “man who falls in love with his computer” he’s not alone as other characters admit to also having relationships with their operating systems which is an interesting twist.
The story of Samantha, the OS, is also interesting as it addresses the idea of the rights and privileges of conscious beings even when artificially created. The conclusion of her story is unexpectedly reminiscent of the 1984 movie Electric Dreams (on of my all time favorites, cheesy as it is).
One thing I really liked about this vision of the future is a Los Angeles where people lived and worked in cozy high-density buildings with lots of public transit and pedestrian space. This movie is mostly quiet conversation and at two hours I admit my attention did drift a bit. But it is a thought-provoking and beautifully filmed and acted story.
Title: BoJack Horseman
Release Dates: August 2014
Number of Episodes: 12
This is a show with a big premise, a world in which anthropomorphic animals live and work among humans. One of them, BoJack Horseman, was the star of a popular 1990s sitcom in which a horseman adopts human children. In the current day, BoJack is a washed-up drunk, living in a Hollywood mansion and trying to regain his relevancy by writing his autobiography. In the first episode Diane Nyugen is introduced as his ghostwriter, and their relationship is the core of the season.
The show is deeply satirical and is reminiscent of The Simpsons, 30 Rock, and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show! for it’s combination of satire, spoof, sight gags, and sensitivity. There are a lot of gags and it’s funny when a anthropomorphic animal character acts on their animal instinct. But there’s a lot of serious undertones to this show as well, and it’s often just as heartbreaking as it is funny.
Title: Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
Release Dates: July 2015
Number of Episodes: 8
Gonna try something new here. Since I’ve been binge-watching tv shows on Netflix and elsewhere, I may as well post a few thoughts here. Thus this is my first TV Review!
This tv series is a prequel to the 2001 movie, with the same actors returning to play teenagers even though everyone is 15 years older and looks it (especially the men). This is played for a good gag at the end of the series. Like the movie, the show is a loving spoof of 1980s movie tropes, not just camp movies but across genres. And like the movie, a lot more happens than could possibly happen in a single day. Surprisingly, I think the tv series is actually funnier than the movie, perhaps because over several episodes they’re able to build up the characters and scenarios to make the gags pay off.
It’s not perfect, but if you’re looking for some dumb fun, here it is.