Title: Bruce Almighty
Release Date: 12 February 1993
Director: Harold Ramis
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
I didn’t choose this movie, but I gave it a fair shake. Jim Carrey plays Buffalo tv reporter Bruce Nolan who seeks to move away from fluffy segments to an anchor position. But after a day of miserable bad luck – and learning that his rival was promoted to anchor instead of him – Bruce takes his anger out on God. And so God (played by Morgan Freeman, of course) decides to let Bruce take over His work while he goes on vacation.
Bruce starts off by causing mischief and doing pervy things like making a woman’s skirt fly up (although I’ll have to confess that I chuckled when Bruce literally made a monkey fly out of a bully’s butt). Then he uses his powers to create dramatic news events that he is onsite to cover for the local news thus enabling himself to move into the coveted anchor spot. But his increasing self-centered behavior drives away his long-suffering girlfriend (played by Jennifer Aniston) and he’s overwhelmed by trying to answer prayers. This leads to the formulaic part of this movie where Bruce learns a Very Valuable Lesson about life and love.
I find myself kind of surprised that this movie came out as recently as 2003. For one thing, it feels like a mid-90s screwball comedy built to capitalize on the popularity of Groundhog Day (complete with an selfish tv reporter gaining superhuman powers and then Learning a Very Valuable Lesson). For another, I thought after more nuanced, comedy-drama performances in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon (and soon to come in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) that Jim Carrey had moved on from broad dreck like this. I guess not.
This is obviously not my kind of movie, but I think Carrey and the rest of the cast can do better. Despite a handful of good laughs, this movie wasn’t worth watching.
Title: Eighth Grade
Release Date: July 13, 2018
Director: Bo Burnham
Production Company: A24
More than any movie I’ve seen before, Eighth Grade captures the reality of the insecurities and search for identity of a young teacher. Set in the last week of 8th grade, 13-year-old Kayla records advice videos to post online which act as narration as we see her attempt to build her confidence and try new things. Kayla is voted “most quiet” in her class and doesn’t have any close friends. With high school looming she has to navigate going to a popular girl’s pool party (only because she was invited by the girl’s mother) and trying to talk to her crush, awkwardly during an active shooter drill. Shadowing a genuinely kind high school girl boosts her confidence but then she endures an awkward come-on from a creepy high school boy.
This movie is carried by Elsie Fisher, who as a young actor has the unenviable task of having the camera on her at almost all times. Even when other people are talking, the audience sees the small but telling reactions in Fisher’s eyes and face, which is actually a really good representation of how a shy person experiences a lot of social situations. When using social media – which Kayla does often – the camera catches the reflection of her face on the screen. And while Hollywood loves to have “perfect” people in the movies, Fisher looks like a real kid with pimples and crooked teeth. Kayla’s description of having the scared feeling of waiting to go on a roller coaster without ever getting the good feeling of getting off a roller coaster is the best analogy for constant anxiety I’ve ever heard.
I see a lot of my younger self in Kayla, but all the more so, I get a glimpse of my future self in Kayla’s dad, Mark, portrayed by Josh Hamilton. Hamilton captures all the dorky awkwardness, anxiety, and pride of being a dad when one doesn’t quite know how to connect with the child changing before one’s eyes. This is brilliant movie and it honestly captures life experiences that many people will relate too, albeit not without cringing, because it cuts so close.
Title: Up in the Air
Release Date: December 4, 2009
Director: Jason Reitman
Production Company: Dreamworks Pictures
Ryan Cunningham (George Clooney) is a frequent business traveler who has become an expert in the ins and outs of air travel and enjoys the perks of loyalty reward programs [NOTE: this means lots of product placement for air carriers, hotel chains, and rental car companies]. His job is to work as a consultant who does the face to face work of firing employees and preparing them for their new job search, a job that is unspeakably awful although Ryan has a strong ethic for doing it as sympathetically as possible. Along his travels he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another frequent flier, and they agree to meet up for casual romance when their itineraries cross.
Back at the home office in Omaha, Ryan’s boss informs him that a new young hire Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has come up with an idea to fire people through videoconferencing thus eliminating travel costs. Before the transition, Ryan takes Natalie out on the road to mentor her in his way of doing things. Having to travel together makes each of them begin to question their life choices. Ryan also goes to his sister’s wedding despite being distant from his family, and brings Alex along as his guest and begins considering a more committed lifestyle.
This movie goes to pains to show that Ryan’s live as a frequent traveler is bad, although I’m not quite convinced that someone could not be happy enjoying that life if they chose to. Obviously they make it bad by having Ryan doing a terrible job, never keeping in touch with his sisters, and when he finally realizes he has feelings for Alex, making her a philanderer (the most unbelievable part of this movie is that any woman would agree to go as a date to a family wedding and not mention that she has a husband and children). Despite this central flaw, this is still an entertaining movie with some funny bits and some touching bits. Cooney, Farmiga, and Kendrick are all talented and charming actors, so they really make the movie.
Title: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 4, part 1
Number of Episodes: 6
Netflix recently released 6 episodes of what it says will be the 4th and final season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (another 7 episodes will be released in January 2019). While not quite Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, the half-season definitely has the feel of a contractual obligation rather than hilarious and insightful comedy of the first three seasons. Very little in these episodes made me laugh and the social commentary is smug rather than observant.
A key theme of the season thus far is women’s rights and sexual harassment, which is very topical, but the humor is done poorly. For example, in the first episode, Kimmy in her new HR job tries to fire a male employee in a “friendly way” that comes off in classic sexual harassment tropes. The joke completely misses the mark and is doubly unfunny since it doesn’t recognize Kimmy’s own history of sexual abuse by the Reverend. Speaking of the Reverend, he returns in the third episode, a laugh-free parody of a cheap documentary by a famed DJ who looks to the Reverend as a hero, and eventually turns the documentary into a mens’ rights crusade. As much as people (rightly) like John Hamm, the biggest mistake of this series is having the Reverend character return after the first season.
In other plotlines, there is a continuing mean spirited line of jokes about nerds (because punching down makes good satire?) which culminates in the punchline of Titus saying that nerds are actually real people with real feelings. Titus, Jacqueline, and Lillian seem to be treading water through these episodes which is disappointing since they’re all portrayed by wonderful actors who have brought so much growth to these characters over three seasons. It’s unfair to reduce them to caricatures of themselves at this point.
Tina Fey’s previous serious 30 Rock hit a low point before recovering and finishing strong in it’s final season. One hopes that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can accomplish the same feat in a more compressed time period.
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Director: Peyton Reed
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Ant-Man is the 12th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, introducing Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Hank Pym (Michael Douglass), and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) into the MCU. This may be the best “origin story” movie of the MCU and one of the funniest as well. Lang is an idealistic cat burglar trying to stay clean after a stint in prison so he can reconnect with his young daughter. Pym cleverly recruits him into putting his heist skills to work by introducing him to the Ant-Man suit and the ability to communicate with ants (this is not a movie for myrmecophobics!). Pyms estranged daughter Hope helps with training Lang while also working with Pym’s rival Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).
There’s some interesting digital manipulation in a flashback scene at the beginning of the movie that brings back the appearance Michael Douglass of the his 1980s peak. Douglass is rather hammy in his acting though. However, Stoll is far worse, as even for a comic book villain there’s absolutely no nuance to his portrayal as anything other than an evil psychopath. Rather unoriginally, Pym and Cross’s story is basically a recreation of the first Iron Man movie.
Luckily, there’s Paul Rudd there to make things interesting and funny. The concept of a “shrinking person” exploring a world where microscopic things are now giant is not new, but in this movie it’s filmed well with a lot of whimsy and attention to detail. Pop culture artifacts such as Siri, Thomas the Tank Engine, and the classic Disneyland attraction Journey Thru Inner Space make interesting cameos. Michael Peña steals every scene he’s in as Lang’s former cellmate and member of his heist crew, Luis.
I look forward to seeing the sequel this summer, especially since it will rightfully be expanding Lilly’s role as an equal partner.
Title: A Series of Unfortunate Events
Release Dates: 2018
Number of Episodes: 10
The second year of this Netflix series adapts books five through nine. As such, it suffers some of the problems as the books in the repetitiveness of the plots and the extreme frustration with the adult characters’ persistent obliviousness and casual cruelty. Neil Patrick Harris’ hammy performance as Count Olaf has its moments but too often veers into just plain annoying (especially in The Vile Village when he’s disguised as Detective Dupin).
But this series is saved by the women. In The Austere Academy, Kitana Turnbull as Carmelita Spats is absolutely hilarious as the evil, secretly cake-sniffing brat. Then in The Ersatz Elevator, Esme Squalor makes her debut as the most-stylish villain, wonderfully portrayed by Lucy Punch who basically steals the screen from Harris for the rest of the series (no small feet). One of the biggest changes from the book is greatly expanding and changing the role of Olivia Caliban, played by Sara Rue, into a librarian at Prufrock Academy who becomes a VFD agent and delightful – if short-lived – ally of the Baudelaires.
Another great addition to the cast for this season is Nathan Fillion as Jacques Snicket which allows for a long-awaited reunion with Harris of rivals from Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Isadora and Duncan Quagmire make their debut, although there part is smaller than I remember in the books (perhaps I’m conflating with later books in the series?). But the Baudelaires are what really makes this show succeed: Malina Weissman as Violet Baudelaire, Louis Hynes as Klaus Baudelaire, and the greatest toddler actor ever, Presley Smith as Sunny Baudelaire. This season shows them grow as characters, becoming more confident in their abilities, and willingness to stand up against those cruel, clueless adults.
The show remains a visual treat and is full of more memorable gags than I can document here. This show was made to be GIF-ed on Tumblr.
Title: Hot Tub Time Machine
Release Date: March 26, 2010
Director: Steve Pink
Production Company: United Artists
I’d be wanting to see this movie for some time even though I knew it was a low-brow, grossout movie. Still, I’m the target demographic for “men nostalgic about the 80s,” I like time travel stories, and I like the cast. The most interesting choice in making this movie is to have all the characters be so unlikable but have them played by likable actors. The mind spins as one finds oneself rooting for these jerks. And while these men returning to 1986 to relieve a weekend as their younger selves is the key part of the film, it doesn’t really feel like the film reached the potential it had to say something about past & present, youth & adulthood. It doesn’t even really seem like they tried to make it feel like the 1980s, although there are parallels to 80s comedies like Back to the Future and Weird Science. There are some good gags, but even with low expectations I’m underwhelmed by how Hot Tub Time Machine fails to explore the possibilities of its premise.
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.