ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 25 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language including Sexual References, and brief Nudity

Directed by: Terry Jones

Written by: Terry Jones & Gavin Scott

Starring: Simon Pegg, Kate Beckinsale, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Rob Riggle, Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley, Robin Williams, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones & Michael Palin

Simon Pegg was funny in the Cornetto trilogy (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, and THE WORLD’S END). Rob Riggle delivered some of the biggest laughs in both JUMP STREET films. Eddie Izzard’s stand-up comedy is hysterical, while Robin Williams is arguably one of the funniest men who ever lived. Also, the Monty Python troupe were groundbreaking for their irreverent humor and uniquely British sensibilities. With all of these funny and talented people crammed into one film, you’d think that ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING would, at the very least, be fun to watch. That’s what I thought and it turns out that I was sadly mistaken. Learn from my error and avoid this disappointing excuse for a comedy.

After a group of hyper-intelligent aliens (voiced by Monty Python) stumble across a space probe, the extraterrestrials begin a test to decide whether or not Earth needs to be destroyed. This test selects a random human and gives them god-like powers. Unluckily for us, that test subject is amateur writer/teacher Neil (Simon Pegg) and he begins using his amazing abilities to do absolutely anything (see what I did there?). Before you can say BRUCE ALMIGHTY, Neil’s powers start landing him in hot water as he tries to win over the affection of his neighbor Catherine (Kate Beckinsale).

One of ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING’s biggest problems stems from it feeling like a Monty Python sketch that was extended 75 minutes past the point of being funny. There are a couple of chuckles to be had here and there, but the script doesn’t have much compelling flow. The repeating joke is that Neil keeps wording his wishes incorrectly and hijinks ensue. Some of these bits run for almost all of the film (with one co-worker’s crush taking a cult-like turn), and others are over in a matter of minutes (wishing people back to life and winding up with a bunch of decaying zombies).

The film’s characters aren’t worth much either. Simon Pegg is playing a bland nobody and that might be part of the joke, but you’ve seen this type of boring protagonist a million times before. There’s nothing to this person. He’s boring and his biggest story arc is the clichéd motivation of trying to win his neighbor’s love. Kate Beckinsale attempts to make her love-interest/supporting character worth something and winds up with mixed results. She definitely delivers the biggest “life lesson” in a scene where she explains how god-like powers might not be the best thing ever. Also, Robin Williams’s final role was the voice of Neil’s dog Dennis. Much like the rest of the film’s attempts at humor, Williams’s sentient pooch gets a few chuckles at first and then becomes boring.

The biggest conflict comes from Rob Riggle as Catherine’s headstrong, cocky ex-boyfriend Grant. He only plays a tiny part in the film and brings a plot point that exists for a total of 10 minutes, coming off as lame and needlessly dark in the process. A pretty huge plot hole also rears its head during Riggle’s final minutes of screen time. It’s sad when the viewer can figure out how to get out of a dilemma before the main character can, but this protagonist is so much of an idiot that he doesn’t take advantage of an obvious flaw in the villain’s half-assed plan. Also, the Monty Python cast seem like they reunited purely as a favor for director/co-writer Terry Jones (one of the members of Monty Python). Eddie Izzard also shows up for about five minutes a strict head teacher, so there’s that.

ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING is a bland excuse for a comedy that wastes an unbelievable amount of talent. The premise might have made for a fun ten-minute skit, but it simply repeats its one-note beats for 85 minutes that drag out in a manner that feels like three hours. The film is a missed opportunity all around, but I don’t know if it ever had much of a chance with its flimsy concept. Pegg, Riggle, Williams, Izzard, Beckinsale, and the entire Monty Python troupe deserved better than this.

Grade: D

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild Rude Humor

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Directed by: Sarah Smith & Barry Cook

Written by: Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith

Voices of: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Marc Wootton, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Ramona Marquez & Michael Palin

Aardman Animation is primarily known for their Claymation (WALLACE & GROMIT, THE PIRATES!), but have dipped their hands into computer animation back in 2006 with FLUSHED AWAY. That flick didn’t exactly impress. This past iffy effort and poor marketing are why I was turned off from watching ARTHUR CHRISTMAS for about three years. Turns out that I was cheating myself out of a modern Christmas classic. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is one of the best animated films to come out of the new millennium that doesn’t have the Pixar label attached to it. Combining imagination, lovable characters and a heartwarming sense of childlike wonder make for a phenomenal film that is sure to become a holiday tradition.

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Santa Claus is very real, but not an immortal jovial old man flying around the world in a single night. There’s a dynasty of Clauses living in the North Pole and they are aided by tons of elves. The current Claus family has three completely different generations of Santas. There’s the retired grand-Santa, the active Santa, and his two sons, technologically advanced Steve and bumbling Arthur. Santa and his elves are in charge of delivering presents and Steve is in charge of the S-1 (an enormous computer-powered sleigh), but Arthur is in charge of reading the letters of children around the world. After a child’s gift is mistakenly undelivered, Arthur takes the initiative and journeys across the world to make sure that one little girl has a merry Christmas. Since Arthur isn’t exactly a trained Santa, his race against time goes a little awry to say the least, which causes conflicting views in the Claus family to butt heads.

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One special factor that makes ARTHUR CHRISTMAS unique from other family films of this kind is that there’s no real antagonist. The family members have conflicting viewpoints causing friction in their relationships, but nobody is perfect as each generation of Santa has their own flaws. Grand-Santa glamorizes the good old days and yearns for the fame he once had. The current Santa is too self-centered to realize that he’s hogging glory that should rightfully be passed down to his sons. Steve is so obsessed with the technical side of Christmas that he neglects the pure emotion surrounding the season. Arthur is a clumsy and cowardly guy who’s sort of roped into this quest.

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These characters are all essential pieces in a brightly colored world that’s filled with imagination around every corner. The visuals here are crisp and vibrant. There’s a warm holiday glow around the environments, but each location is given a unique flare. Let’s just say that England isn’t the only place that Arthur rides a sleigh through. Vocal talents of big actors bring these various Santas to life. James McAvoy’s voice disappears into the overly eager Arthur. Bill Nighy nails it as Grand-Santa and Jim Broadbent plays the current Santa. Hugh Laurie is excellent as Steve. Finally, there’s my favorite character, Byrony. This punkish elf (complete with unique hair-style and facial piercings) provides the biggest laughs in the whole film. She’s in charge of wrapping presents and accompanies Arthur on his trip. Not to mention that’s she is just plain adorable. I want a stuffed Byrony and I’m a grown-ass man.

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Another top-notch quality that seals the deal in ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is a brilliant sense of humor. There are jokes being thrown out at a mile a minute. Running gags pop up frequently and one of them (involving wild life that gets in when you leave the door open at the North Pole) absolutely cracked me up on multiple occasions. There’s plenty of witty banter among the characters and the script is far more clever than one might initially expect going into this film.

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The best thing about ARTHUR CHRISTMAS that separates it from many other holiday films and animated family fare is that a lot of heart was clearly put into this whole movie. The story is funny and imaginative, but also has the genuine sweetness that makes beloved Christmas classics worth watching year after year. It’s simultaneously heart-warming and hysterical, which are two good qualities that go great together.

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I’ve said before and will say again that the best children’s films are the ones that make adults feel young at heart as well as delighting younger viewers. These movies respect the intelligence of the audience, in spite of supposedly being constructed only for kids. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS nails every quality that matters in a story like this and manages to be perfect all around. I don’t have a single complaint or problem with any part of this movie. The feeling that ARTHUR CHRISTMAS leaves is specific to the holiday season should be cherished by viewers of every age. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is a modern, magical holiday classic that I will watch repeatedly for years to come.

Grade: A+

MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones

Written by: Monty Python

Starring: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, & Michael Palin

Monty Python is a group reveling in absurd humor. Their first film was an anthology consisting of the best sketches the early seasons of their show had to offer, but HOLY GRAIL was the troupe’s first real feature. It serves more like an excuse to connect a series of original skits. The special thing about this material is that all of the laughs revolve around the legend of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail. It should come as no surprise that Monty Python’s dedicated fanbase have since made HOLY GRAIL into one of the biggest cult classics of cinematic history. I watched this film many times in my childhood and found it hilarious back then. Years have passed and this was my first viewing in a long time. Truth be told, I now find it to be slightly overrated, although there are still plenty of wacky antics to be had.

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King Arthur gathers a band of trusty knights and is appointed by God to find the Holy Grail. The knights stick together in the first and last third of the film, but there’s also a good chunk of the middle portion that revolves around the separate knights on their own individual searches for the blessed artifact. In these segments (ranging from as short as three minutes to about 7 minutes long) they each encounter unique dangers. The oddball animation frequently seen in the FLYING CIRCUS series makes an appearance here and the humor is totally surreal. This movie in no way, shape or form tries to take itself seriously. This provides lots of silly scenes that either hit or miss, depending on what jokes work for each viewer.

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To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed that this film wasn’t nearly as hysterical as I remember it being. Nostalgia definitely has a factor in the enjoyment level. If you didn’t grow up with HOLY GRAIL, then you’re not likely to love it as much as everybody else. Certain jokes feel really forced in areas. Sir Galahad’s encounter at the Castle Anthrax is among one of the more annoying scenes in the movie. At one point in that sketch, the characters even break the fourth wall and ask if the scene should have been cut. The answer is yes, because it’s not on the same level as most of the ridiculous moments on display. Another sequence that feels like the Monty Python group is trying too hard involves evil knights that say the dreaded word “Ni!” Those are just two of a handful of jokes that aren’t that solid to begin with, but drag on too long.

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With these more annoying bits aside, the movie is genuinely funny in plenty of areas. The Monty Python team take on multiple roles (Michael Palin plays more than 10 characters) and it’s quite entertaining to spot their familiar faces over and over in different scenes. Some actors even talk to themselves (dressed in different clothing) during some moments. The film makes no qualms about the shoe-string budget it was filmed on, going so far as to poke fun at the low-quality of sets and use actors banging coconuts together to simulate sounds of horses clopping. The highlights include a vicious Black Knight, a cave guarded by a hideous creature (anybody who’s seen this film knows which specific scene I’m referring to), a historian narrator, and Sir Lancelot’s adventure.

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This is a film that I really can’t critique in the same sense that I review a traditional narrative. HOLY GRAIL doesn’t have so much a story, but rather a bunch of set-pieces that are loosely connected in the King Arthur legend. The quality ranges from excellent to iffy, but no scenes is outright horrible or bad. The movie is self-aware and its sudden conclusion (a joke within itself) may disappoint some viewers. I didn’t find HOLY GRAIL to be as awesome as I remember it being and the acclaimed reputation is a little much. This still stands as ridiculous fun, but younger viewers are likely to enjoy it more than adults.

Grade: B

BRAZIL (1985)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Violence

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Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Written by: Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, Charles McKeown

Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, Ian Holm, Jim Broadbent

BRAZIL is George Orwell’s 1984 with a sense of humor. This is an overly comical view of a depressing industrial world where paperwork proceeds every tiny action. This is a bleak future where a totalitarian government monitors everything, keeps the public in a constant state of fear from supposed unseen terrorists, and specializes in making free-thinkers simply vanish in the blink of an eye. BRAZIL, much like 1984, strongly resembles some issues currently happening in various countries around the world. Besides maintaining some solid laughs throughout, the film also is unrelentingly dark and never loses focus of the story being told. This is the kind of science fiction satire that simultaneously made me laugh and want to cry from the dire circumstances unfolding before my eyes.

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In a metallic-tinted bureaucratic-laced future, Sam Lowry lives a perfectly suitable existence in his meager position as a low-level government worker. He has frequent dreams about flying the skies and rescuing a beautiful girl he has never met before, but is completely content with his way of life. After a minor error is made in a typewriter that sends an innocent man to a horrible fate, Sam finds himself caught in the web of dangerous repercussions following that paperwork mistake and indeed trying to save the very girl of his dreams.

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To give anything more specific away would spoil some of the fun. The plot of BRAZIL is at the same time overly complicated and extremely simple, much like the processing system of the asinine society running the show. The film also blends the dark nature of the plot with frequent laughs. One thing that should be noted about the tone is that it grows progressively more grim as things go along. The first 40 minutes are comedic genius and then things begin to get more twisted and serious. If you go into this film expecting an all-out comedic tour-de-force, then you’ll finish the experience mighty depressed from just how alike it is to 1984 (a story you really have to prep yourself for due to the sheer unrelenting bleakness of the content).

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The real complaint I have about BRAZIL is that the movie comes close to wearing out its welcome on more than one occasion. There were some scenes that could have easily been cut. The film runs at over two hours (nearly two and a half if you’re watching the director’s cut). It’s not that things drag out to the point of being insufferable, but some sequences do seem to go on a bit too long. One thing that might annoy certain viewers, but I totally dug it was that lots of different variations of the song “Brazil” were used throughout the entire film. I know there was probably some other music in the score, but that piece of music (used hauntingly as the end credits roll) will forever stick out in my mind when this film is brought up in conversation. Some of the running gags (of which there are quite a few) work better than others, but I did appreciate that there were still some chuckles as the story tauntingly played with my emotions.

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Terry Gilliam is known for being a visionary director and that’s certainly the case here. Every little detail added to the sets is well-realized. Little touches to this world only further enhance the sensation that I was looking into a vision of the future and what I saw made me wish that tomorrow would never come. The depressing roots of 1984, which Gilliam admitted to liberally borrowing from, are still very much intact in Gilliam’s vision of Orwell’s novel. In fact, I’d dare say that the final 30 minutes play out like one long extended nightmare that had me glued to the screen.

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As far as the cast goes, there are some great performances and a notably mediocre one. Jonathan Pryce is a phenomenal lead and it helps that Sam Lowry is a likable character. He signifies a good man trying to keep his moral compass in a broken society, which makes his struggles all the more difficult to watch. Katherine Helmond, covered with layers of make-up, appears as Price’s mother at varying ages and a friend of hers provides one of the best recurring jokes throughout the film. Those interested in seeing younger versions of Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, and Ian Holm need look no further as they appear as a maintenance man, a plastic surgeon, and Price’s boss, respectively. Robert De Niro has a few scenes as a wanted would-be terrorist that are entertaining. The only real let-down is Kim Greist as Price’s love interest. I don’t know which direction to point the blame in. Her character isn’t exactly given a lot of development, but Greist doesn’t raise her above a one-note rebellious damsel-in-distress whom Price to trying to save.

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BRAZIL may wind up pushing the time limit this story might have been told in (over two hours was a tad too long) and some jokes may fall flat, but it remains a wonderful classic dystopian future tale. One entirely forgettable love interest aside, the film is packed full of colorful characters and great performances. The contrast of dark material and quirky humor works wonders, though the humor really begins to disappear as the film reaches nightmarish levels in the final act. Gilliam’s unofficial adaptation of Orwell’s famous novel is weird, strange, oddly funny, and doesn’t skimp on the entirely grim subject matter within the book. I recommend bracing yourself for a tough, heady piece of art before sitting down to watch BRAZIL. This all being said, the film is phenomenal and comes highly recommended for those wanting something completely out of the ordinary.

Grade: A-

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