Behind-the-Scenes Comedy Review Roundup

A lot of people seem to enjoy spending October watching and reviewing horror movies all month, just because of one day at the end. Well, fair enough, if that’s your bag. But for now, let’s lighten the mood with a handful of pretty good comedies, all of which are related to the making of film and television… in one way or another…

In today’s roundup:

  • Mindhorn (2016)
  • In & Out (1997)
  • Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)


    Mindhorn
    (2016)

    2018 #34
    Sean Foley | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

    Mindhorn

    Back in the ’80s, actor Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) starred in Mindhorn, a successful TV show about a detective on the Isle of Man who has a cybernetic eye that can see the truth — think Bergerac meets The Six Million Dollar Man. When an escaped lunatic insists he will only speak to Mindhorn, a washed-up Thorncroft sees an opportunity to revive his career by solving a real crime.

    Produced by and co-starring Steve Coogan, there’s definitely something a little bit Alan Partridge about Mindhorn — the blustering nobody who thinks he’s a star, rubbing people up the wrong way but carrying on regardless. It’s just one of several things Mindhorn is likely to vaguely remind you of. Even if it feels somewhat derivative, it’s still pretty funny, with some of the best bits coming from throwaway cameos. The whole supporting cast is very good indeed, actually, full of strong British actors having some fun. The film seems to derail a bit when it pretends to wrap the case up after half-an-hour, but it gets funny again once it has the common sense to restart it.

    So, not the greatest Brit-com ever — heck, it’s not even the greatest action-movie-spoofing Brit-com ever (*coughHotFuzzcough*) — but it’s mostly pretty amusing.

    3 out of 5

    In & Out
    (1997)

    2018 #39
    Frank Oz | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    In & Out

    Inspired by Tom Hanks’ acceptance speech at the 1994 Oscars — when, after winning for Philadelphia, he thanked a gay teacher — In & Out is about a teacher whose former pupil wins an Oscar and, during his acceptance speech, outs the teacher as gay. The twist is, the teacher in question (Kevin Kline) didn’t know he was gay, and nor did anyone else — including his fiancée (Joan Cusack). As the media descends on the quiet little old-fashioned town and whips up a frenzy, the whole thing turns into a bit of a farce, albeit with a positive underlying message about sexuality and, ultimately, community. The premise barely sustains even this brief running time, but it’s all quite good-natured and likeable.

    3 out of 5

    Zack and Miri Make a Porno
    (2008)

    2018 #179
    Kevin Smith | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Zack and Miri Make a Porno

    It’s funny how some movies cause a stir on release and then get kinda forgotten. The very concept of Zack and Miri Make a Porno (it’s in the title) was enough to give some people palpitations a decade ago, and the poster that alluded to oral sex (less a visual double entendre, more a single one) did nothing to help. And yet, does anyone really talk about it now? It’s only stuck in my mind because it’s on my 50 Unseen list from 2008, and I’ve not been able to cross it off because for a very long time it was never available to watch anywhere (it finally popped up on Netflix a couple of months ago). Well, I’m glad it did, because I really enjoyed it.

    As I said, the pitch is in the title. Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are two old friends and housemates struggling to make ends meet, and who (through various plot machinations) decide to make a porn film together. As you do. Despite that risqué theme, the main relationship follows all your typical romcom beats; but those work because they work, and the edgy subject matter covers them up somewhat. Most surprisingly, their romance turns out to be actually quite sweet — even if major turning points hinge on things like them fucking for the first time in front of an audience. Aside from that, the film is full of the rude, crude, gross-out style humour that you’d expect, but I found it very funny nonetheless.

    4 out of 5

  • Muppet Review Roundup

    In today’s roundup:

  • The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
  • Muppets from Space (1999)


    The Muppets Take Manhattan
    (1984)

    2018 #48
    Frank Oz | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U / G

    The Muppets Take Manhattan

    Apparently (so I read somewhere) at the time this was intended to be the end of the Muppets — the performers were fed up and wanted to move on to other things, and they conceived this third movie as a capstone on the whole affair. That seems inconceivable now — I mean, just how much Muppet stuff has followed it? To date, five more movies, at least two TV series I can immediately think of, plus other specials, countless guest appearances, a theme park attraction…

    I think that tiredness shows through in the finished product. Or maybe it’s just the changing attitudes — they’d just made The Dark Crystal, which maybe indicates they had a hankering for more serious fare. Supposedly the first draft was dismissed by director Frank Oz as being “way too over jokey”, which is surely a terrible criticism of a Muppet screenplay, but Jim Henson encouraged him to tinker with it to emphasise the characters and their relationships. This was partly in response to The Great Muppet Caper, a particularly wacky effort that hadn’t done well at the box office, so they were toning it down.

    Well, I regard the Muppets as primarily comedy characters, and so it’s no wonder this one seems to miss the mark. There’s some occasional funny stuff, the odd good skit, but mostly Take Manhattan just kinda plods along. Personally I thought Caper was a bit of a poor sequel, but this is less good again. It straight up lacks some of the things that make the Muppets so memorable — there isn’t a single fourth wall break, for instance. There’s all together too much focus on plot, even though it’s a very thin one, and the gang spend most of the movie split up, meaning it lacks their camaraderie. So much for focusing on the relationships!

    Muppets in Manhattan

    There are still celebrity cameos, at least, though I feel they’ve aged particularly poorly. Well, there’s Joan Rivers (even if her younger self is always unrecognisable to those of us who mainly knew her in later made-of-plastic years), Elliot Gould, and Liza Minelli, so it’s not all bad. Other than that, the credits explicitly name who the cameos are, but I didn’t even recognise half the names. In fact, the best one is some other Henson puppets: the cast of Sesame Street! Though the presence of puppets isn’t always welcome: a furious Miss Piggy rollerskating after a mugger, filmed in wide shots that I can only assume feature a human in a Miss Piggy suit, is the stuff of nightmares.

    Nonetheless, I shall give The Muppets Take Manhattan a 3 — just. That’s the same as I gave Muppet Caper, which is a shame (that film was more of a 3.5 whereas this is a 2.5), but it’s not so bad that I can give it an outright 2. It’s middling. It’s fans-only, I guess. Some bits work, some bits are good, but overall it’s not quite there as a Muppet movie.

    3 out of 5

    Muppets from Space
    (1999)

    2018 #75
    Tim Hill | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U / G

    Muppets from Space

    I’m afraid things aren’t going to pick up here: Muppets from Space is the lowest rated Muppet movie on IMDb. Personally, it would not be my pick for the worst film starring our felty friends… but it’s not that great, either.

    Hailing from the same era that gave us the likes of Independence Day (which gets directly spoofed), Men in Black (some of them show up), and The Phantom Menace (no references that I could detect, but they came out the same year, so…), you can see why the Muppet movie makers would’ve been inspired to move into the sci-fi realm. The plot concerns finally explaining just what Gonzo is, which is not only unnecessary but feels kind of against the spirit of the thing — no one knows what he is, there’s only one of him, that’s kind of the joke. Well, not after this film…

    Related to that, there’s almost a good thematic thing about belonging, and who your real family is or can be, but it’s only loosely nodded at early on before sort of popping up right at the end, without enough building blocks in between to really make it work as a payoff. But we don’t come to the Muppets for the themes, we come for the gags, and in that respect From Space is… fine. Well, I mean, it’s not really all that funny… or interesting… It just kind of toddles along until an underwhelming ending (it would’ve been better if (spoilers!) it turned out the aliens weren’t Gonzo’s people, thereby leaving what he is a mystery). And there’s a Dawson’s Creek cameo, because they were filming in the studio next door, which obviously feels terribly dated now, but that’s how these things always go I guess.

    So, I didn’t actively dislike it in the way I did Muppets Most Wanted (that’s why I’m giving it a 3 rather than a 2), but that might be the kindest thing I can say about it. Like Muppets Take Manhattan, it sits firmly in the middle of the field — not expressly unlikeable, if you enjoy the Muppets, but with nothing to elevate it.

    3 out of 5

  • The Verbose Monthly Update for March 2018

    As the year reaches its quarterway point, my eponymous goal has (not for the first time) passed the halfway point. That and other equally delightful observations from my March viewing now follow…


    #37 Sausage Party (2016)
    #38 Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)
    #39 In & Out (1997)
    #40 The Jungle Book 3D (2016)
    #41 Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
    #42 Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
    #43 Happy Death Day (2017)
    #44 Death at a Funeral (2007)
    #45 Annihilation (2018)
    #46 Death at a Funeral (2010)
    #47 Transformers: The Last Knight 3D (2017)
    #48 The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
    #49 Black Narcissus (1947)
    #50 Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964), aka Zatōichi abare tako
    #51 Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
    #52 Victoria & Abdul (2017)
    #53 Benji (2018)
    #54 Cars 3 3D (2017)
    #55 It Comes at Night (2017)
    #56 The Hangover Part II (2011)
    #57 Rocky (1976)
    #57a The Silent Child (2017)
    Happy Death Day

    Annihilation

    Benji

    .


    • This month’s 21 new feature films see me sail past the halfway mark.
    • I viewed #50 on 22nd March, which is the second earliest I’ve reached that milestone (behind 2016, when it was on 6th March).
    • 21 is the same number of new films as last month, both of which are ahead of January, so it again raises the 2018 average, from exactly 18 to exactly 19.
    • It also surpasses the rolling average of the last 12 months, but it’s only a sliver higher than March 2017, which means it only increases the average from 15.1 to 15.2.
    • The 2018 Oscar winner for Best Live Action Short Film, The Silent Child, becomes the first short I’ve watched this year. (The previous low for number of shorts watched in a year was 2014, with just two, so I only need to watch a couple more in the next nine months to avoid that fate.)
    • This month’s Blindspot film: Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, which I selected because it was on TV shortly afterwards and it’s always nice to a tie a review to something. But then I had conflicted feelings about the film, so no review yet while I continue to ponder it.
    • This month’s WDYMYHS film is the Best Picture Winner that inspired a nation, apparently: the original Rocky. Now, just six more of them to go…



    The 34th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    There wasn’t a single 5-star film this month, but I do have a solid array of 4-star-ers to choose from for this award. Similarly, while there were a couple of very acclaimed features amongst my March viewing, I think the movie I most enjoyed was Groundhog Day-meets-Scream horror flick Happy Death Day, which I can’t help but feel has been somewhat underrated.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    There were also very few disasters this month. That said, I did finally get round to Where the Wild Things Are and was thoroughly disappointed. However, while that may’ve been the greatest gulf between my hopes and the reality, I’m still going to plump for the remake of Death at a Funeral in this category — I may’ve had low expectations, but it still didn’t meet them.

    Most Prolific Director of the Month
    I watched three films directed by Frank Oz this month — not deliberately, it was just one of those random coincidences. He’s only directed 12 films, so that’s a full quarter of them. They were: In & Out (which has been available to stream on Sky Cinema for years and goes on my “to watch” long-list every time I get a subscription; this year, it actually made it, on Oscars Sunday (if you’ve not seen the film, it was appropriate viewing for the occasion)); Death at a Funeral (for a while I’ve wanted to watch both this and its remake side by side, and one each was available on Netflix and Sky Cinema while I happened to have both services (a rare occurrence)); and, finally, The Muppets Take Manhattan (because I’m gradually making my way through all the Muppet movies (this is the third)). Review spoiler: I gave them all 3 stars.

    Most Number of Film Series I’ve Been in the Middle of Watching at Once (Probably)
    While I was watching Rocky towards the end of the month, I realised that technically meant I’d embarked on watching the Rocky series; and that made me realise how many film series I’m in the middle of right now. Not counting ones that we’re all in the middle of while we await further instalments to be released, but including rewatches as well as first-time viewings, I reckon I’m currently partway through fourteen different series (“series” being anything that’s a trilogy or greater). Those include, in alphabetical order: the Back to the Future trilogy, Die Hard, the Disney canon, the Hangover trilogy, James Bond, Jaws, the Man With No Name trilogy, Mission: Impossible, the Muppets, Rocky, Shrek, Terminator (though I only really intend to follow up December’s viewing of The Terminator with T2 in 3D and then stop, so maybe it shouldn’t count), Twilight, and Zatoichi. Phew! (And I still feel like I’ve forgotten something…)

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    For much of the month my review of much-discussed Netflix “original” Annihilation was in pole position here, but in the last week it’s been pipped by my monthly TV column — the first time that’s bagged the award this year, but (based on last year) surely not the last.



    After last month’s larger-than-average selection, this one is half as big… but that still leaves me slightly ahead of target.

    #11 Bad Boys (1995)
    #12 The Jungle Book (2016)
    #13 Bad Boys II (2003)

    Like The Love Punch last month, The Jungle Book earns a speedy rewatch by being all-round family entertainment (and by being freshly added to Netflix the day we watched it, too). Similarly facilitated by a streaming service, I’ve been intending to rewatch and reassess the Bad Boyses for a while, and the opportunity presented itself while I had Sky Cinema to watch the Oscars.

    Next month, hopefully I’ll get back to my Shrek and Mission: Impossible series rewatches. Plus, perhaps a Marvel or two before Infinity War arrives.


    Marvel Cinematic Universe: Episode XIX.

    Make/Remake: Deaths at a Funeral

    In 2007, Frank Oz directed a gaggle of British thesps (plus Peter Dinklage) in a darkly comic farce set during an English funeral.

    Just three short years later, director Neil LaBute and a gaggle of American comedians (plus Peter Dinklage) remade it in the US.

    Why did they so speedily re-do an English-language film in English? Goodness only knows. But I watched both versions almost back to back, so here are my thoughts…

    Death at a Funeral
    (2007)

    2018 #44
    Frank Oz | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA, Germany & Netherlands / English | 15 / R

    Death at a Funeral (2007)

    The plot of both versions is identical: a group of family and friends gather at the home of the family’s patriarch for his funeral. A variety of subplots unfold from there, but the main one revolves around the appearance of a guest that no one knows, and what he wants.

    The thing that surprised me most about Death at a Funeral is how well-liked it is online. I vaguely remember it coming out but thought it had been mostly ignored, but it has a fair amount of ratings on IMDb (a similar number to films like All About Eve or Dumbo), and relatively high user scores on sites like Letterboxd too. I thought maybe people (well, Americans) had come to it via the remake and it seemed a lot better by comparison, but that has less than half as many ratings on IMDb, so…

    I was mulling on this a lot because often I like films a bit more than the online consensus, but I wasn’t feeling it with this one. I certainly enjoyed it, but it takes a while to warm up, the laugh rate isn’t quite high enough, and some of the storylines feel overly familiar (how many times have we seen someone accidentally take drugs and try to hide it? I don’t know, but it feels like I’ve seen it a lot). Nonetheless, it develops into a decent little farce. I suppose it’s a black comedy too, what with it being set at a funeral and some of the events that unfurl, but other people have pushed the boundaries of “black comedy” so far in the past couple of decades that it didn’t feel that dark to me.

    Peter Dinklage with one of the few British actors who hasn't been in Game of Thrones

    The cast is a quality array of recognisable British faces, many of them not known for comedy (Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes, Rupert Graves), which lends some surprising strength to a couple of scenes. Others that are more familiar from the genre (Andy Nyman, Ewen Bremner, Kris Marshall) keep the guffawing in check. And there are some Americans too, including an exposed performance from Alan Tudyk (who’s doing a British accent) and a pre-Thrones Peter Dinklage (who isn’t), but they both fit in well.

    The film’s best gag, in my estimation, comes courtesy of the entire cast, in a way; an in-joke that I wasn’t 100% sure was deliberate: the end credits begin with each cast member’s name accompanied by a brief shot of them corpsing. Corpsing, during a film called Death at a Funeral. Well, I do like an in-joke.

    Anyway. Although this original British version of Death at a Funeral wasn’t quite as hilarious as I’d hoped for, it’s worth a watch as a well-performed and amusing farce. And it does improve somewhat when compared to to its remake…

    3 out of 5

    Death at a Funeral
    (2010)

    2018 #46
    Neil LaBute | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Death at a Funeral (2010)

    Where the original was a little underwhelming, this is just kinda shit. It’s the most pointless remake since Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

    That comparison isn’t a bad one, because this is a scene-for-scene remake — sometimes shot-for-shot, line-for-line. Even the title sequence is an inferior riff on the original. Not only that, but some bits aren’t even done as well. If it worked the first time, why are you changing it? Maybe the original cast and crew made it look more effortless than it was. Some of it doesn’t even translate very well. For example, there’s a joke in the original about how “tea may solve many things”. Here, that’s translated to be about coffee. Yes, it’s been adapted to suit the different culture, but in the process has lost the cultural significance (to Brits, tea is more than just a popular beverage).

    I guess he's showing him the screenplay

    There are some new gags, most likely the result of the cast improvising (this version is more populated by comedians than the British one). Some of them are even funny. Unfortunately, more often the cast don’t hold up. Most of the performances are like an under-rehearsed am-dram version of the same screenplay. They certainly don’t have the acting chops to sell the more emotional moments. James Marsden is quite good in the Alan Tudyk role, though. Peter Dinklage plays the same part, but not as well — it’s less nuanced, less believable.

    Director Neil LaBute previously found notoriety as writer-director of the Nic Cage Wicker Man remake. This does nothing to rehabilitate his reputation (what is this guy’s obsession with re-doing and ruining British films?) Again like Van Sant’s Psycho, it’s more interesting as a cinematic exercise than as a film in its own right.

    2 out of 5

    The Dark Crystal (1982)

    2015 #124
    Jim Henson & Frank Oz | 89 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | PG / PG

    High-fantasy adventure about some elves trying to stop a crystal from destroying their planet.

    It’s by Jim Henson, so there’s fantastic puppetry and strong design… but the story and the manner of its telling — the dialogue, structure, and characters — alternate between boring, annoying, and laughable. The hero is irritating, the dull villains are given too much focus, the plot borders on nonsensical, it takes forever for barely anything to happen, and the sequence where our heroes accidentally share their memories has to be the cheesiest thing since fondue.

    Some people properly love this, but I thought it was just awful.

    2 out of 5

    This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    What About Bob? (1991)

    2010 #15
    Frank Oz | 95 mins | TV | PG / PG

    What About Bob is a comedy about mental health. As such, it feels primed for misunderstanding and inappropriateness. And it is indeed a little worrying early on: Bill Murray’s performance is, from the off, superbly believable, but it’s undercut by bad ‘this is a comedy’ music that suggests we’re meant to laugh at his impairments rather than feel sympathy. And maybe that’s what the screenplay, direction and performance were actually aiming at, but, personally, I don’t find laughing at the mentally disabled all that funny, even in a film nearly 20 years old. At one point, people clap as Bob gets off a bus he struggled to even get on — perhaps this is meant to indicate “thank God he got off!”, but I choose to take it as them celebrating his achievement, because, if not, it’s just attacking the disabled again.

    Fortunately, after these troubling moments in the film’s early minutes, the tone becomes more settled. Once Bob’s made it to New Hampshire, inappropriately on the trail of his new therapist Dr Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), and begins to get to know Dr Marvin’s family, the film really lifts off. From here out we get a nice array of, essentially, related sketches. That does them something of a disservice: each is linked and they build in a well-structured fashion as Bob finds himself accepted as part of Dr Marvin’s all-important family, leading to the turning point of a Good Morning America interview, where love for Bob spreads out into (to all intents and purposes) the whole world; and then Dr Marvin’s last potential safe haven of sanity, his fellow therapists, are won round too.

    The film hinges entirely on Murray and Dreyfuss, and both are excellent in their respective roles. Murray portrays Bob’s mental health struggles early on in a way that would garner wider praise for accuracy if this were a drama, showing the potential he’s only unleashed in more recent years to play straight roles. But he’s equally good as the film becomes a clear-cut comedy: Bob doesn’t suddenly become a caricature, but is revealed as a good-natured, child-like, fun-loving person who, perhaps, just needs some care and love from others to help his conditions. Dreyfuss, meanwhile, is slickly believable as the uncaring fame-minded therapist, whose true nature — and problems — begin to unravel the more he’s confronted with Bob.

    What we see here is that the apparently-afflicted patient is actually in a pretty good place (almost), while the apparently-perfect doctor is actually on the verge of a complete collapse (which, of course, he ultimately has). If it feels a little like a stereotyped plot arc, I’m not entirely certain why; and What About Bob? plays it out with enough truthfulness and humour to make it entirely palatable.

    Believe it or not, some side with the psychotherapist, viewing Bob as a damnable annoyance that no one but Dr Marvin can see. It’s an interesting way to view the film, certainly, but I suspect whether you ‘side’ with Bob or Dr Marvin says more about you as a person than it does about the film, the characters or the performances. It seems starkly obvious to me that Bob is the ‘good guy’, a nice but troubled chap who just wants to get by and have a good time, while Dr Marvin is a control freak with a raft of suppressed problems that are gradually unveiled throughout the film until they ultimately overwhelm him. He’s not a bad chap per se, but he is in the wrong.

    What About Bob? seems to have been forgotten — I’d never even heard of it until it was on TV at the tail end of last year — but that’s unfair. I can only assume it stems from those people who seem to have misinterpreted it, because such a misinterpretation must make it quite an awkward experience. Seen correctly, however, What About Bob? is a funny, heartening, feel-good comedy that deserves to be better remembered.

    4 out of 5