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Craig's Movie Club
Film Reviews

Comedies reviewed with a discerning eye.

Ian McNaughton's And Now for Something Completely Different

And Now for Something Completely Different is the first Monty Python film and is really just a collection of some of their most famous skits. It starts out strong, gets a little weak in the middle ("Nudge Nudge" used to be a favorite, but now seems tired), and, fortunately, ends strongly with "Upper Class Twit of the Year."

One can tell from just looking at the And Now for Something Completely Different that the quality is better than television allowed -- mainly that they had a higher budget. Another difference is that, in order to help the flow, some editing has been done ("Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit" is notably truncated) with sketches being presented in different manners ("The Lumberjack Song" being sung by the Parrot Shopkeeper instead of the barber, for example).

Overall, And Now for Something Completely Different is a fine representation of the Pythons' work, and works well as an introduction to their style of comedy. It also works for those simply wanting to revisit their favorite skits.

Jay Roach's Austin Powers in Goldmember

Our shagadelic hero returns again in this third outing for Mike Myers and Co. In Goldmember, he travels to the 1970's to save his father Nigel Powers (Michael Caine), who has been kidnapped by the titular Dutch villain Goldmember (so named for an injury sustained in a smelting accident).

The usual gang is back for another go-round: Austin Powers (Mike Myers), Dr. Evil (also Myers), Mini-Me (Verne Troyer), Frau Farbissina (Mindy Sterling), Number Two (Robert Wagner), Scott Evil (Seth Green), and a character I'm not sure I can name on a family website (Myers again). But this time they are joined by Foxxy Cleopatra (Destiny's Child's Beyonce Knowles, in a role which gives her little to do, but which she carries off with aplomb) and, of course, Goldmember (still Myers).

After a terrific ten-minute opening action scene (which also includes the best two jokes in the movie), Goldmember degenerates to the usual anachronisms, sight gags, and bodily-function humor. Mini-Me in particular is treated with as little dignity as possible -- substituting generally for a dog or a child. (I'm surprised that Little People around the world aren't protesting.)

The Dutch don't do so well here, either, as Goldmember speaks in a strange accent that is continually ridiculed ("I don't speak Freaky-Deaky Dutch," says Dr. Evil and Goldmember himself ponders that "I have a Dutch accent. Isn't that weird?"), not to mention the tirade Nigel Powers blasts him with (especially in an outtake). Goldmember also exhibits a strange dermal paraphilia.

But it's all in fun and I did laugh in spite of myself at times. Myers just puts such gusto into his roles that it is hard not to like this movie. It's certainly better than The Spy Who Shagged Me (the lessening of appearances by F.B. helped in that regard, as well as having a strong female lead), but holds no candle to International Man of Mystery, but then what sequel does?

Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High

I hadn't really watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High since my teen years and was happy to revisit these characters. I hadn't remembered just how dark this film is and how the lives these kids lead are really more mature than they are ready for. I think it is a wonderfully accurate depiction of the teen lifestyle. Having sex at 15, when many adults are not even prepared for its repercussions, is simply part of their lives. Drugs aren't really touched on so much (except for surfer marijuana use which is played for laughs), but the character of Stacy is confronted with the reality of pregnancy and subsequent abortion (although after the event, she doesn't really seem to suffer) after a one-time encounter in her pool changing room.

So, okay, maybe Fast Times is not so realistic, but, hey, it's got a great cast of then-unknowns like: Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Eric Stoltz, and blink-and-you'll-miss-him Nicolas Cage. As well as an insightful screenplay by Cameron Crowe and spot-on direction from Amy Heckerling.

A note on the commentary from Crowe and Heckerling: while not terribly enlightening about the process of movie-making, one does get the impression that everyone had fun making the film, and they two seem to be having fun making this commentary. Interestingly, it continues on well past the end of the film--almost ten minutes after. Which isn't so entertaining, having to look at a black screen and all, but is the first time I have seen this happen.

Also included: Reliving Our Fast Times at Ridgemont High
This short documentary included on the Collector's Edition DVD and consisting mostly of interviews with the cast and director--including, surprisingly, Sean Penn!--and longish clips from the film (which, presumably, you had just watched) is entertaining, but only relatively informative.

It's good, though, to revisit the cast members twenty years later and see how they have changed (all except for director Heckerling appear to have aged). Several cast members are missing including Cates and Leigh, but the most notable absence is that of screenwriter/novelist Cameron Crowe, although he is well spoken of and pictures of him at the time are shown. He is, however, present on the film's commentary.

Enlightening enough on the subject of how fun the film was to make and how the casting process went about, and all in all a pleasant expenditure of thirty minutes.

Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day had much more substance than I had remembered. Bill Murray gives a fully-rounded performance and Andie MacDowell doesn't annoy nearly so much as in Green Card. Chris Elliott's characteristic dark humor is absent here, however.

Harold Ramis proves himself yet again as co-writer/director. You already know the plot: guy lives the same day over and over and over and ...well, you get the idea. But it doesn't get boring!

We watch Bill's Phil Connors character grow from selfish to loving, and the film has a reincarnation karma theme underlying as it appears he only gets to go on to the next day once he gets this one right.

The love story in Groundhog Day is believable and Murray proved he could do drama in The Razor's Edge, which, unfortunately, few saw, so look out for this one and give it a revisit. You'll be surprised.

Reginald Hudlin's The Ladies Man

The Ladies Man was much better that I expected -- but then again I wasn't expecting much, I have to say, given that it is just one more in the continuing series of movies based on characters that are better off in short skits on Saturday Night Live.

But The Ladies Man is more intelligent and wittier than most of its ilk, and contains almost no bodily-function humor, which is something in itself. It's not a thought-provoking movie, mind you, I'm not saying that, but it follows the Hollywood formula well, with an interesting lead character (and a fully realized performance from co-writer Tim Meadows), a believable love interest, and the expected happy ending.

Plus, Julianne Moore has a cameo, and that's enough to raise the quality of any movie.

Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

What is the big deal? Ever since Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels came out I've not stopped hearing about writer/director Guy Ritchie. As a follow-up, he did Snatch, which was simply considered pretty much as a remake, and then (for heaven knows what reason) he directed his wife Madonna (who can't act anyway) in a remake of Lina Wertmuller's classic Swept Away...by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August. (Which was absolutely panned and rightfully so. Why do people continually try to remake good films? Remake the bad ones.)

Well, after finally seeing it, I know why. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels just isn't that good to begin with. The best aspect of it is the acting -- by "Soap" (Dexter Fletcher from The Rachel Papers), in particular. And Sting gives a nicely underplayed performance.

But, on the whole, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrelsis far too long and has about three too many endings. Purely of interest to those who've worn out their Reservoir Dogs videos.

Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale

We knew Kenneth Branagh could act, direct, and adapt Shakespeare, but who knew he could write comedy? A Midwinter's Tale is a discovery: Branagh got some of his friends together (you'll recognize many actors from his other films) and made this gem about an amateur theatre company putting on Hamlet at Christmas time! The audition scenes are priceless.

The script is excellent, the acting is wonderful, and -- a rare treat in films -- you will care about every character. They all go through changes and become better people as a result of their time together.

Michael Maloney is fine in the lead role of the director (playing Hamlet himself, of course; the comparisons to Branagh are unmistakable), and the rest of the cast give it their all. A standout is John Sessions as the drag queen playing Gertrude. He has the most heartbreaking scene in the film.

All in all, A Midwinter's Tale is an inspired concept rendered beautifully. A movie with a heart as well as a funny bone.

(A Side Note: The original title was "In the Bleak Midwinter," suggesting the Christmas aspect, but I prefer the alternate "A Midwinter's Tale" as it is more Shakespearean.)

Peter Bogdanovich's Noises Off

Peter Bogdanovich directs an all-star cast in this adaptation of the hit Broadway play by Michael Frayn. Noises Off is a portrait of the behind-the-scenes goings-on of a cast attempting to produce a Broadway run of the play "Nothing On," a British sex farce. Michael Caine is director Lloyd Fellowes, increasingly frustrated (and increasingly absent), who has hooked up with various members of the play's cast and crew: first, Polly (Julie Hagerty) -- who has recently announced her pregnancy -- and second, Brooke (Nicolette Sheridan), the eye candy of the play (and thus the film) as she spends the majority of her screen time in lacy underthings.

The star of the play is Dotty Otley (Carol Burnett), middle-aged but not letting that stop her from romancing both Garry (John Ritter) and Frederick (Christopher Reeve, who was the closest thing the modern day had to a Cary Grant). The content of the play onstage is mostly unimportant as anything you don't pick up on at the beginning is conveniently repeated numerous times. This is actually a benefit as the viewer can therefore concentrate on the backstage fracas, which comprises the meat of Noises Off. Combine these romantic entanglements with the inebriation of character actor Selsdon Mowbray (Denholm Elliott, a real discovery as he is mainly known for dramatic roles with the occasional foray into "sophisticated" comic roles like Trading Places), and you have a play that is barely going to make it onto the stage, and a movie that is a (cliche alert!) nonstop laugh riot. (It's also a delight to see Reeve and Caine together again after Deathtrap, a personal favorite.)

Other directors have tried to bring back the wild comedies of the thirties and forties but Bogdanovich seems to be the only one who can pull it off (see What's Up, Doc?), and with Noises Off, he has done it again. Of course, credit must be given to the cast, who gives it their all (John Ritter giving a spectacular downstairs tumble, in particular) in what are not particularly dignified roles. Intelligent comedy, it is not, but if you like your pratfalls done quickly and well, check out Noises Off.

Joel Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou

O Brother, Where Art Thou, the Coen brothers' adaptation of Homer's Odyssey, is the first film of theirs where I have felt disappointed. It could be because I expect such high quality from them, but I noticed a few points in the film where more could have been done with a scene.

Personally, I believe they were hampered by having to follow a strict story path. Being an adaptation does not allow for much in the way of imagination. One must do what one can with what one is given. The weakest points were those with Everett (George Clooney in a terrific comic departure from his normal "cool guy" roles) and Penny (Holly Hunter), the Ulysses/Penelope story. I also felt not enough was done with the Sirens.

But the performances in O Brother, Where Art Thou are top-flight all around, with only Pete (John Turturro) not given much to do. Tim Blake Nelson (director of O and writer/director of The Grey Zone) is a discovery as Delmar, showing he has talent before as well as behind the camera. But once the film was over, I didn't feel that it had left me with much to chew on, as the saying goes, except that I was humming "Man of Constant Sorrow" for the rest of the evening.

(Trivia: The title comes from Preston Sturges' masterpiece, Sullivan's Travels. It is the name of the movie that Joel McCrea's character wanted to make about the plight of the common man.)

Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums

I enjoyed many aspects of The Royal Tenenbaums, most of all Royal Tenenbaum himself. It is easily one of Hackman's greatest roles, and he dives in head first. Screenwriters Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have done a wonderful job of making a sympathetic character out of a bad man. And he's funny. Oh, is he funny. He has all of the film's best lines and they're delivered naturally because they're organic. Anderson and Wilson weren't just forcing some great one-liners for a cheap laugh; you can tell that they are things that a totally non-empathetic guy like Royal would say.

On the other hand, why was Bill Murray's character (something St. Clair? I can't even remember his name) even here except to be someone for Margot to leave. And that boy, Dudley. Is it just me, or is that Tim Burton, Jr.?

Generally Owen Wilson draws my attention in whatever he is in, but in The Royal Tenenbaums he seems to be wasted in a thankless role of author/druggie/Tenenbaum-wannabe. But that's the sign of a good writer/actor: not writing yourself the best role.

I was entertained by most of The Royal Tenenbaums (the narration by Alec Baldwin didn't even bug me), but about two-thirds of the way through, I started losing interest. Sure, the ending wrapped everything up nicely, but perhaps it was too nicely? Should a movie about these people even have a happy ending (such as it was)?

But, anyway, I wouldn't know whether to recommend The Royal Tenenbaums or not. It's not a great film, and even some fans of their previous works don't seem to like it, but it appears to be attracting a devoted following, so I guess it's just one of those films that stands alone and draws its own crowd slowly. Check it out and see what you think.

Herbert Ross' The Sunshine Boys

Neil Simon, oddly enough, has written some of the funniest movies I have seen. The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, Brighton Beach Memoirs: these are films I could watch over and over again -- and do.

I say "oddly enough" because they were originally written as plays for Broadway and their adaptation for film has lost none of the humor. If only other screenwriters could capture this talent and translate to modern films, which seem to have lost the ability to be funny based purely on natural situations. Most seem to have the responses they want already and then create situations to respond to. Inorganic humor, I call that. Give me organic humor any day.

I prefaced this review in that way because I recently saw The Sunshine Boys and, expecting nothing but the best from Simon, was certainly not disappointed. In it an old vaudeville team, Lewis and Clark (a contrived name, yes, but easy to remember), that broke up inamicably years ago, are reunited through Clark's nephew to perform on a "history of comedy" style TV show. The humor and pathos all come from their simple love-hate relationship.

Walter Matthau (a last-minute replacement for the late Jack Benny) is terrific playing a man much older than himself, in fact a man supposed to be a similar in age to his ex-partner played by George Burns. Matthau plays the "crotchety old man" role he would grow to perfect over the years (he gets to use the word "putz" decades before Grumpy Old Men), while Burns is milder and more sympathetic; giving a deeper performance (for which he won a career-capping Oscar) than in, say, the Oh, God! films.

Although I can't help but wonder what it would have been like had Jack Benny survived, The Sunshine Boys does not suffer from his absence. Clark is simply given a different performance by an equally great actor. It is a very funny film and very moving, both Simon specialties.

Roger Kumble's The Sweetest Thing

(This is a review of the R-rated version, since that's the one I saw. An unrated version is also available, with extra footage and a different commentary track. Of course, true fans will want both.)

The most interesting aspect of The Sweetest Thing is how traditionally banal it is. With all the talk about it being a gross-out sex comedy for women, at its heart it is really just a romantic comedy. It even has the requisite happy ending.

Cameron Diaz is Christina Walton, to whom we are introduced by some of the many men she has kept at arm's length. At a party, she attempts to seduce a man for her friend Jane (played by Selma Blair), who has just been dumped. This man, one Peter Donahue (Thomas Jane), of course (there's little original about this film) becomes the object of Christina's affection, beginning with a heated argument of the type where you can see the emotional heat building underneath.

After a little deception and a lost opportunity, Christina and her other friend, Courtney (Christina Applegate, using her body to full effect as a comic property), set out on a road trip to find this guy. But they are in for a surprise.

Diaz is charming as always and Applegate excels at this sort of physical comedy, but there's something wrong with this Thing. Instead of missing something, there's too much going on. Had screenwriter Nancy Pimental decided to stick with the romantic comedy angle, we would have had nothing particularly special (except that the chemistry between Cameron Diaz and Thomas Jane may have carried it to another level), but with all the shenanigans going on (a scene in a men's public restroom; discussion over the aromatic quality of respective nether regions) there's little room for sweetness in The Sweetest Thing.

Admittedly, I laughed in spite of myself (particularly at the source of the smell in the car and at Applegate's tour de force arousal of a passing biker) but once it was over, very little of it remained in my memory. The Sweetest Thing is simply a good idea gone wrong through the unnecessary addition of extraneous "humor."

John Landis' Trading Places

I saw Trading Places years ago on cable in my teens and thought it was an intelligent, witty comedy with a double fish-out-of-water twist. That opinion has not changed. I watched it again recently and found myself remembering jokes, but that did not diminish my laugh response.

Trading Places again proves my theory about Eddie Murphy: he is incredibly funny when given good material. Other evidence: Bowfinger, Shrek, and 48 Hrs. He is obviously a good actor to be able to create many believable characters within the same film as in The Nutty Professor and Coming to America (which also has a scene that humorously references back to Trading Places), he just needs the funny material to work with (unlike The Nutty Professor, Metro, Vampire in Brooklyn, Harlem Nights -- sorry, Eddie -- and the last twelve Beverly Hills Cop films).

But Trading Places is a modern comedy classic, a film that can be relied on to elicit laughs regardless of age or familiarity with the material. Watch especially for the subtlety of the late Denholm Elliott's performance as Coleman the butler.

Robert Zemeckis' Used Cars

Who would have guessed that the director of Used Cars, at its best a perfect piece of low humor, would go on to become the most technologically forward-thinking director of his age and come up with such classics as Forrest Gump and Cast Away (although wild humor was his specialty in the pre-Gump era)? Kurt Russell stars as Rudy Russo, used car salesman for Luke Fuchs, in competition with Roy Fuchs, across the street.

The bulk of Used Cars is taken up with the competition between the two lots and the sabotaging of the other lot's sales opportunities. The humor is involved in the drastic measures used to sell used cars. Freddie and Eddie (David L. Lander and Michael McKean) are communications experts that Rudy uses to interrupt via satellite both the Super Bowl and the State of the Union Address to broadcast their cheesy commercials involving gunfire and women in various stages of undress.

The jokes come fast and furious, but if you like your comedy sophisticated, you'd best stay away from Used Cars. This is for fans of simple car-crash flick like Smokey and the Bandit. The climax involves having 250 used cars driven by student drivers. Jack Warden gives a two terrific performances as the Fuchs brothers, co-seller Jeff's (Gerrit Graham) superstitions are also good for several belly laughs, and Russel makes Rudy a surprisingly sympathetic character (considering he's an "uncompromising" salesman).

Used Cars is the perfect film for when you've had a rough day and are just looking for some mind-numbing way to kill a couple of hours. Car crashes, naked women, false advertising, this movie has it all.

Frank Coraci's The Wedding Singer

They try soooo hard!

But unfortunately The Wedding Singer is on the same level as Adam Sandler's singing. (Solidly mediocre.) And Drew Barrymore is too worldly to be believable as the na´ve woman she plays here.

The Wedding Singer's misplaced 80's references (the film is set in 1985, but is peppered with items from throughout the decade) are distracting as well.

David Wain's Wet Hot American Summer

If you liked The State, the sketch comedy show from MTV, then you'll most likely laugh at the same people here. Most of the cast is in Wet Hot American Summer, and Michael Showalter and David Wain (also the director) co-wrote it.

It's the last day of camp in the summer of 1981. Janeane Garofalo plays the camp director who falls in love with the local physicist, David Hyde Pierce. But the real star is Showalter, who plays "Coop," trying to get the girl of his dreams to fall for him, in spite of her "love" for vapid Paul Rudd (who reminded me a lot of Trey Parker here, for some reason).

Wet Hot American Summer is basically a take-off of the '80's camp films like Meatballs and its ilk. You know, the ones they used to show on USA Up All Night. And every possible gag is included here, including a few I didn't see coming (like the trip to "town").

One thing, though, keep in mind while you watch Wet Hot American Summer that all of this is happening during the span of one day.

Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein is one of Brooks' three best films (with The Producers and Blazing Saddles), and this one is best seen having done a little research.

If you are familiar with the Universal horror films of the thirties (especially, of course, the Frankenstein family), this should make more sense as a parody than to those uninitiated viewers.

Although, there is plenty to amuse even newcomers to the genre. But beware, because to paraphrase an old Oldsmobile ad--this is not your grandfather's Frankenstein.

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