Sisters


Sisters partying like it's 1989.

Sisters partying like it’s 1989.

(2015) Comedy (Universal) Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ike Bairnholz, James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Greta Lee, Madison Davenport, Rachel Dratch, Santino Fontana, Britt Lower, Samantha Bee, Matt Oberg, Kate McKinnon, Jon Glaser, Chris Parnell, Paula Pell, Emily Tarver. Directed by Jason Moore

I’m a big fan of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. For one thing, they’re really, really funny and when paired up, even funnier. As a matter of fact, they might just be the best all-female comedy team of all time. Think about it; how many all-female comedy teams are you aware of? There definitely should be more of them.

So this is their second movie together after the successful Baby Mama and it has kind of a John Hughes-like scenario. Two sisters – Kate Ellis (Fey), a 40ish foul-up who is brash and sexy, and Maura (Poehler), a divorced nurse with a charitable compulsion that sometimes leads to awkwardness – are summoned home to Orlando (although only one scene was filmed here) to their ancestral family home which their parents (Brolin, Wiest) are putting on the market so that they can move into a retirement community and divest themselves of most of their possessions. The girls are meant to clean out their rooms so that the sale can be finalized the following Monday.

Much nostalgia ensues as the girls decide to throw one last blow-out party like the ones they threw in high school…when Maura would be the responsible one and Kate would party hard. With the realization that Maura never got laid in her own bedroom and the window of opportunity closing, Kate decides to snare James (Bairnholz), a hunky neighbor, to seal the deal.

Kate offers to be the designated party Mom and stay sober, which is a new role for her. She does have a teenage daughter (Davenport) but their relationship is rocky. In fact, the daughter has left the nest, exasperated by her mom’s irresponsibility and party party party attitude and she refuses to tell Kate where she is. Determined to prove herself responsible, Kate throws herself full tilt into her new role.

And that’s really it for plot. If you’ve seen one high school blowout party movie, you’ve seen them all and this is essentially a middle aged riff on that. It has that 80s John Hughes movie kind of vibe which isn’t a bad thing at all, but lacks the really laugh-out-loud consistency that Hughes was able to create for his movies. There’s more of a Farrelly Brothers consistency in which everything is thrown at the comedy wall and whatever sticks does, the more outrageous the better. There are more bra jokes in this movie than I think have been in any movie in cinematic history, and some drug humor (although nothing like a Seth Rogen film) for people who don’t do drugs. There is most definitely a been-there done-that feel to things, and while that can make for cinematic comfort food, it really isn’t what you want out of talents the likes of Poehler and Fey.

The good thing is that Fey and Poehler are one of the greatest comic teams in history – not just female, but any. Their chemistry is undeniable and the two play off of each other better than anyone working in the movies today. It’s at the center of the movie (as well it should be) and makes their roles as sisters thoroughly believable. Da Queen, who has a sister, agreed that it was a realistic portrayal of the dynamic between sisters.

There is a cornucopia of supporting roles, from SNL veterans (Fey, Poehler, Dratch, Moynihan, Rudolph) to WWE wrestlers (Cena) to Daily Show stars (Bee) and sitcom regulars (Bairnholz, Brolin). Most of the roles are essentially one-dimensional who are there to add a specific element (angry rival, studly drug dealer, drugged-out class clown, Asian pedicurist) to the proceedings, but like the leads are given very little to do that is really genuinely funny. Bairnholz shows some promise as a comic leading man though, and Rudolph manages to express every annoyed expression that it is possible for a human face to make.

Don’t get me wrong; this is entertaining enough that I can recommend it, largely due to Fey and Poehler, but this isn’t as good as it could and should have been. A pedestrian plot and lack of actual laughs turn this from what should have been a showcase for two of the most talented comedians working today into a just average comedy with too many characters and not enough character.

REASONS TO GO: The chemistry between Fey and Poehler continues. Some fine supporting performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Not enough laugh-out-loud jokes. The plot is too been-there done-that.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of crude sexual content, a fair amount of profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brolin and Wiest also play parents in last year’s indie film Life in Pieces.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Step Brothers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Won’t Back Down

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon


Shenanigans in a bygone era.

Shenanigans in a bygone era.

(2015) Documentary (4th Row) Henry Beard, Matty Simmons, Bruce McCall, P.J. O’Rourke, Tony Hendra, Anne Beatts, Christopher Buckley, Ellis Weiner, Al Jean, Chevy Chase, Sean Kelly, Ivan Reitman, Judd Apatow, Jon Landis, Michael Gross, Judith Jacklin Belushi, Chris MIller, Danny Abelson, Mike Reiss, Beverly D’Angelo, Jerry Taylor, Brian McConnachie, Meatloaf, Kevin Bacon, Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by Doug Tirola

Florida Film Festival 2015

In the interest of transparency, I was a Mad magazine kid growing up and the National Lampoon, while on my radar, was a bit more sophisticated than my young mind could grasp. However, there’s no denying that for the last 40 years, the Lampoon has been essentially the wellspring of American humor, From its pages, films, radio and stage shows have come some of the most important writing and performing talents in comedy. It has directly or indirectly inspired the comedy of Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and the comedies of John Hughes, Jon Landis and Judd Apatow. Even for those who weren’t directly involved with either writing it or reading it, its influence has shaped them whether they’ve known it or not.

The Lampoon began with the Harvard Lampoon, one of the country’s oldest humor magazines. Two Harvard grads who’d worked on the magazine (and also co-wrote the now-classic parody novel Bored of the Rings) named Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard. After creating some parody magazines for such publications as Mademoiselle, they got together with Matty Simmons to create the National Lampoon.

The nascent magazine was able to attract such talent as writers Michael O’Donoghue, P.J. O’Rourke and Anne Beatts, as well as artists like Rick Meyerowitz and Michael Gross. Their heyday, during the heady days of Watergate and Vietnam, reflected the country’s angst, anger and frustrations but also pushed the boundaries of humor beyond what had been acceptable what to then. The Lampoon printed what most people were already thinking, only funnier.

The magazine was as rock and roll as comedy ever gets and as most students of rock know, that’s a double edged sword. Sure the magazine was innovative and ahead of its time in many ways, but the creative forces that powered it were prone to drug addiction, burn-out and attrition. While the 70s waned and the 80s waxed, the magazine which had by then branched out into films with Animal House and National Lampoon’s Vacation series, had lost most of those who were it’s creative soul – Kenney died under mysterious circumstances in 1980 and the company really never recovered.

But oh, what a legacy it has left behind. The filmmakers sift through hundreds of hours of archival footage including their stage shows, audio of their radio show and page after page after page of their magazine. Those who were readers of the magazine will get a nice sense of nostalgia while those who weren’t will get a wonderful opportunity for discovery. Nearly the entire original cast of Saturday Night Live worked on the Lampoon stage show, and director John Hughes was on the writing staff during the later years of the magazine, as were Simpsons show runners Al Jean and Mike Reiss.

There are a ton of interviews with the surviving staff of the magazine’s golden era, with Simmons and Beard getting the lion share of face time, while much attention is paid to the writers, artists, performers and celebrity fans of the magazine and its spinoffs. While this isn’t groundbreaking style here, because the material is just so freaking funny (I was breathless with laughter when the film finally spun its final credits) that I’m willing to overlook the lack of innovation, which is a bit ironic since the magazine was known for innovation.

Be that as it may, this is one of the funniest films you’ll see all year and likely for a lot of years to come. Even though some of the material is dated, a lot of it is timeless as well and is as funny now as it was then. Whether you’r of the generation that made the magazine what it was or a Johnny-come-lately, this is a don’t-miss documentary that you should be absolutely certain to catch when it hits the festival circuit near you, or hopefully when it gets a richly deserved distribution deal and shows up either theatrically or on VOD. Whatever the case may be, see it. Or I’ll shoot this dog.

REASONS TO GO: Excepts from Lampoon radio broadcasts and live shows hysterical. The source for humor in its era.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a product of its era. Lots and lots of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Nudity, crude and sexual humor, plenty of foul language and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s poster was drawn by Rick Meyerowitz who also drew the poster for National Lampoon’s Animal House and is modeled on its design.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Live From New York!
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Welcome to Leith

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation


Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

(1989) Holiday Comedy (Warner Brothers) Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Randy Quaid, Miriam Flynn, Cody Burger, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, William Hickey, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brian Doyle-Murray, Mae Questel, Natalia Nogulich, Nicolette Scorsese. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechnik

hollynquill-2013

We all have our ideas of what an ideal Christmas is – snow on the ground or fun in the sun. Most of our ideals however involve being surrounded by family. There’s nothing quite like a traditional family Christmas.

Clark Griswold (Chase) believes that with all his heart. He has become reasonably successful and provides well for his wife Ellen (D’Angelo), his daughter Audrey (Lewis) and his son Rusty (Galecki – yes that one). His gift to the family is a swimming pool and although the ground is too hard to start digging, he needs to put the deposit down for it before Christmas. He’s counting on his bonus at work to pay that bonus but it is late in arriving.

Clark is planning on having all the grandparents at his place this year – his own parents Clark Sr. (Randolph) and Nora (Ladd) as well as Ellen’s mom (Roberts) and dad (Marshall). Naturally the two sets of parents take to ceaseless bickering.

Add to the mix the unexpected arrival of cousin Eddie (Quaid) and his family in a dilapidated RV which it turns out the family is living in after Eddie lost his job and was forced to sell the family home. Clark offers to buy cousin Eddie’s Christmas presents this year which Eddie gratefully expects. With senile Aunt Bethany (Questel) and crotchety Uncle Lewis (Hickey), things descend into utter chaos.

With nothing going right, Clark loses it a little bit – all right, he loses it a lot, especially when he finds out that his bonus isn’t what he thought it was going to be. Power grids will be overloaded, sleds will fly as will flaming Santas and sewage will explode before Christmas comes to town.

The third movie in the Vacation franchise broke with formula a little bit. For one thing, the Griswolds weren’t fish out of water in some unfamiliar place – they were in their home base which was being invaded by others. Legendary director John Hughes wrote the screenplay based on his own short story which had been published in National Lampoon (the first movie in the franchise was also based on a short story in National Lampoon). Quite frankly this wasn’t his shining hour.

And yet it was a cut above the odious National Lampoon’s European Vacation. There are some terrifically funny moments (like Clark’s sled ride from hell) but not enough of them. However the funny moments are so hilarious it kind of makes up for it. There’s also a heartwarming element that’s present in most of the other Vacations but more so here than in any of the others.

There are those that consider this a “classic” Christmas movie. I wouldn’t quite go that far but it certainly is one of the more popular ones from the 80s. By this point in his career I was finding Chase less funny than he had been during his SNL days (and I think most people agree) and certainly less funny than he’d been in Caddyshack. Still while the Griswolds weren’t particularly subversive, they did strike a chord with the American public and for many people of a certain generation this is required Yuletide viewing. To each their own.

WHY RENT THIS: When it’s funny, it’s funny.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s not funny often enough.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some rude humor and sexuality, more than a bit of bad language and comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be Mae Questel’s final film. She is best known as the voice of Betty Boop.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition comes in a Christmas tin with a Santa hat, coasters, an “I Survived a Griswold Family Christmas” button and a plastic cup. While no longer available in stores, you might try picking one up on E-Bay or Amazon. Otherwise you’ll just have to make do with the standard Blu-Ray or DVD which have the same features as this more expensive edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.3M on a $25M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Christmas With the Kranks

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: More of The Holly and The Quill!

Drillbit Taylor


Drillbit Taylor

It's Owen Wilson vs. the world.

(Paramount) Owen Wilson, Leslie Mann, Danny McBride, Josh Peck, David Dorfman, Alex Frost, Troy Gentile, Nate Hartley, Stephen Root, Lisa Lampanelli, David Koechner. Directed by Steve Brill

Sometimes standing up for yourself is a lot harder than it looks. Once in awhile, in order to stand up you need someone there to help you get off your knees.

Skinny Wade (Hartley), portly Ryan (Gentile) and nerdy Emmett (Dorfman) are all being picked on by a school bully, Filkins (Frost) who is psychotic enough to give Freddie Krueger nightmares. Despite their best efforts the hazing continues so they do what any sensible children of rich parents do; place an advertisement for a bodyguard.

They have to wade through a list of candidates that range from the unsuitable to the downright bizarre before they get the right guy. Who they get is Drillbit Taylor (Wilson), a homeless ex-Army ranger who has something of a Zen style of self-defense and for someone who is supposed to be lethal is awfully laid-back. After his attempts to instruct them in self-defense go hideously wrong, he decides that he needs to take a more direct hand in their protection; by taking a position as a substitute teacher in their school.

Things go really well for awhile, with Drillbit striking up a romance with comely English teacher Lisa (Mann) and the boys finally getting some relief from the constant harassment. Unfortunately, Drillbit’s secret comes out – he’s not discharged Army, he’s a deserter – and that his homeless buddies, led by Don (McBride) see his arrangement as more or less an invitation to rob the homes of his “clients.”

Humiliated and disgraced, Drillbit gets ready to leave for Canada, something that he’s always wanted to do but never been able to afford to. However, his charges are now back in miserable Hell, getting seriously beaten at every turn. Will he turn his back on them and run, as he’s always done? Or will he stand up for his new friends? Better still, will they stand up for themselves?

This is yet another comedy from the factory that is Judd Apatow, who produced this; his buddy, Seth Rogen co-wrote it. Usually you expect an Apatow movie to veer off course into something original but that really didn’t happen here.

Instead you have a bit of a mess. The jokes aren’t really funny although in all honesty, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of humor to be had in kids getting bullied. What saves this movie from complete and abject suckiness is Owen Wilson. He’s one of the most dependable comic actors working today, and even though he’s been in a lot of turkeys lately, he is usually the best thing in them and that is no less true here. He’s totally miscast – can you imagine Owen Wilson kicking anybody’s ass? – but he manages to infuse the part with his laidback charm, enough so that you are thoroughly engaged by his character even if you don’t quite believe him.

The three juvenile leads are more or less cheap-ass knockoffs from Superbad nearly down to a “T” (Rogen also co-wrote that movie) which may or may not have been intentional. Personally, I can’t say for sure. They are decent in this movie, but they don’t really stand out.

I can’t really say why I didn’t like this movie – oh wait, sure I can. For one thing, the jokes didn’t really work for me. For another, I didn’t connect with most of the characters the way I wanted to. Even Drillbit Taylor, the lead role, in the end fell kind of flat for me. The movie’s pretty disingenuous – there’s nothing particularly threatening about it – but a good comedy needs a little bit of edge, and this just doesn’t have a single one. In fact, it’s like a big ol’ beach ball on a beach full of razors; you just know the outcome isn’t going to be very pleasant for the beach ball.

WHY RENT THIS: Wilson has a certain off-beat charm to him and the movie is generally harmless.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An attempt to make a John Hughes-style movie falls flat and it isn’t really funny enough for modern comedy audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some crude jokes (mostly sexual) and some fairly raw depictions of bullying, as well as a bit of partial nudity. Okay for older teens but I’d hesitate before letting the younger kids watch this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A friend of Apatow’s gave him an unfinished script treatment by the late John Hughes which Apatow gave to writers Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown to build a script off of.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Funny People