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

JUMANJI (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Menacing Fantasy Action and some mild Language

Jumanji poster

Directed by: Joe Johnston

Written by: Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh & Jim Strain

(based on the book JUMANJI by Chris Van Allsburg)

Starring: Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, David Alan Grier, Jonathan Hyde & Bebe Neuwirth

JUMANJI is one of three films featuring Robin Williams that I wore out on VHS as a child (the other two being ALADDIN and HOOK). It was also from an era where family entertainment took more risks and didn’t mind having an element of real danger in any threats being shown. Based on a children’s book of the same name, JUMANJI can be considered somewhat of a scary movie for children. It doesn’t feature any out-and-out monsters, but the idea of having two kids exposed to deadly jungle animals unleashed from a supernatural board game isn’t necessarily going to suit all ages. However, if a child can handle the likes of GREMLINS or HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, then this should probably be fine. Despite being nearly two decades old, JUMANJI holds up remarkably well.

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The year is 1969. Alan Parrish is a young boy bullied by his classmates and living under the name of his rich factory-owner father. One day, Alan uncovers a mysterious board game called Jumanji buried at a construction site. After beginning to play Jumanji with his best friend Sarah, Alan disappears inside of the game and Sarah is chased out of his house by a pack of wild bats. Twenty-six years later, orphaned siblings Judy and Peter move into Alan’s old home with their aunt and stumble upon Jumanji.  Two rolls of the dice later and they realize that the game possesses some kind of supernatural power and releases something from the jungle each turn (e.g. dangerous animals or natural disasters). It’s up to young Judy and Peter, a now-grown Sarah, and a returned fish-out-of-water Alan to finish the game and end the chaos.

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I didn’t know that this film was directed by the same guy who made HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS and THE PAGEMASTER. While those films aren’t perfect by any means, they inject some palpable danger into usually safe kiddie fare. This film is far from your average kid’s flick. JUMANJI is full of creativity and imagination. The story is fast-paced and danger lurks around every corner. The various threats are likely to get the intended reaction of frightening kids or even scaring adults in some cases. Besides some expected animals from the jungle (e.g. a lion, some monkeys, rhinos, etc.), we do get deadly plants and some freaky looking spiders that pop up near the end. Though the film is not nightmarish, it could easily give kids bad dreams from those spiders alone.

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The characters are well-developed, despite a couple of iffy performances. Without a doubt, Robin Williams is the stand-out as Alan. He’s not so much a comedic figure, but a hero facing his fears. There’s an element of heartbreak to his character and Williams does the best he can with that. This is a kid who’s barely returned to the modern world and is adjusting to everything around him, including one of the more emotional moments of the film that winds up strengthening the relationship between himself and the two orphaned siblings. I didn’t care too much for Judy or Peter at the beginning as they come off as stereotypical kids. After the touching moment with Williams, I bought their characters. This is all in spite of shaky acting from both Bradley Pierce and Kirsten Dunst. Bonnie Hunt is solid as Sarah and delivers more comic relief than Williams, but it’s not enough to derail how dire the circumstances are in this film. Another wise move was casting Jonathan Hyde as both Alan’s tough father and a villainous hunter from the game.

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The movie is not without a few other problems that come in two areas. The humor can be a bit much at points. A band of monkeys make repeated appearances in jokey scenes that almost feel like they’re from a completely different film. Also, there’s an extended sequence with Van Pelt (Jonathan Hyde’s evil hunter) in a store that was too forced and played like a bad slapstick routine. To be completely fair, the movie is based on an award-winning children’s book, so some of the silliness can be seen from the source material. The effects are a blend of practical and CGI. Most of these hold up, but some CGI hasn’t aged too well (e.g. the monkeys and a comical moment involving quicksand).

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Distinct deviations were made from the children’s book and these benefit the movie as a whole. The story is more complicated, rules to the game of Jumanji drive everything forward, and the end result is as enjoyable for adults as it is for kids. The soundtrack is also great and conveys the danger/emotion of certain scenes very well, but not in any over-the-top way that might annoy viewers. Another cool thing is how little details occur around the characters. The movie doesn’t stay confined to within the walls of one house. The world outside plays a big part in the story and plot elements make it apparent that the perils of the game aren’t just affecting the main protagonists. A stampede of large animals running loose on the street and deadly bugs are attacking people around the town. It’s not only the characters’ lives are at stake, but the lives of everyone in the city around them.

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As the film comes down to an exciting climax, Alan’s home is in shambles and the experience has almost worn the viewer to exhaustion in a very good way. I was sucked into the world of this movie. It felt like I had gone on for the ride with these characters. The performances aren’t stellar across the board and some of the comedy relief falls flat. Not all of the effects hold up. However, a great deal of respect should be given to JUMANJI as it’s a piece of family entertainment that takes risks and is original. Rewatching a movie like this makes me wish that more films today were original adventures that had big budgets thrown into them. JUMANJI is a rollicking adventure that stands the test of time!

Grade: B+

WORLD’S GREATEST DAD (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, Crude and Sexual Content, some Drug Use and Disturbing Images

WGD poster

Directed by: Bobcat Goldthwait

Written by: Bobcat Goldthwait

Starring: Robin Williams, Alexie Gilmore, Daryl Sabara, Evan Martin, Geoff Pierson, Henry Simmons

Dark comedy is a specific subgenre that will either make people laugh or sicken them to no end. I’m the former. I love dark comedy and if it’s done right, it can be nothing short of hysterical. Bobcat Goldthwait (comedian/actor turned director/writer) has a knack for incorporating some really disturbing jokes into his stand-up routines that simultaneously shock and receive an uproar of laughter! WORLD’S GREATEST DAD is Goldthwait’s fourth directorial effort and he hones in on some really unsettling material for this 2009 comedy. It’s bound to turn the stomachs of sensitive viewers, but it does have a remarkable human element under the story as well. I can’t get too specific in details with this review. This is because some of the fun comes from the next unexpected twist around the corner. I will try to be vague enough not to give anything away, but know that this is a dark comedy at it’s darkest with a true point in its center.

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Lance Clayton is a high school English teacher that has written many novels, stories, and articles. The only work of his that has been published are a couple of greeting cards, as he gets reject letter after reject letter on a daily basis. Lance is also a single father struggling to raise his douchebag son, Kyle, all while secretly romancing a fellow teacher, Claire. Kyle frequently makes life difficult for his father. Through it all, Lance always loves his son but also wants to strangle the life out of him for being such a jerk. Some plot synopses give away a detail that is better left unknown walking into the film, so all I’ll say is that one night something bad happens and a lie is told. This lie sets in motion a series of unintended consequences that offer Lance a change of lifestyle, but also test his moral compass.

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WORLD’S GREATEST DAD is basically a story about a lie that keeps spiraling further out of control and this plot has been seen before in other films. However, Bobcat Goldthwait makes the wise decision of carving out these characters. Robin Williams usually struggles in comedic roles (which is highly ironic given that his stand-up performances are pure gold), but he’s given a more dramatic role here as Lance. This elevates the material to something higher than just a cheap independent comedy that moves through familiar territory. It’s less about outrageous silly scenarios and more about human nature. The character of Kyle is a thorough punk. Daryl Sabara does a wonderful job of bringing the most unpleasant traits out of this little sex-obsessed foul-mouthed asshole and it causes the viewer to feel some real sympathy for Lance’s struggles with this difficult child.

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The morality play that primarily is shown in the last hour is a compelling one to watch. It’s not as if certain characters asked for their lie to go out to so many people and cause the insane amount of attention that it brings. In fact, I really felt bad for Lance, though he can come off as a pompous prick himself in a few cases. The film is well paced. Character development is front and center for the first third of the movie. Some may turn the film off within those 30 minutes due to the frustration they feel about these people. Every bit of the time spent with these characters is essential in bringing out the consequences and motions that come later on.

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The big thing I take issue with is that I knew where things were heading as soon as this lie began being spread. We’ve seen this kind of story a million times and there are only two ways it can really end. Something should be said about the good execution, because I find the conclusion to be both satisfying and bittersweet. The pure uncomfortable nature of the material may cause many to dislike this film, so I have to vaguely warn you (again not to give anything major away that comes later on) that you have to enjoy really dark comedy to enjoy this film. It’s not outright hilarious, but it’s well-crafted and rings true of certain things. There is a point being made in all of this grim humor and that’s what some of the best comedy does. It moves on from just a mere series of jokes and into pure satire. I’d argue that’s exactly where Bobcat Goldthwait went with this movie. The results aren’t perfect, mainly due to some telegraphed moments that are predictable, but it’s all quite funny to watch.

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WORLD’S GREATEST DAD isn’t Bobcat Goldthwait’s best film (that would be GOD BLESS AMERICA), but it’s an interesting and unusual dark comedy. This may follow a familiar formula, but it tells it in a mostly different way. Some people may hate this movie over the content, but I thought it was a solid comedy with a big point to make in its conclusion. It’s rare these days that you see a dark satire starring big actors and directed by talented filmmakers. I recommend checking out WORLD’S GREATEST DAD if you have the stomach for very dark comedy. Also if you like this film, absolutely see GOD BLESS AMERICA (which is a comedic masterpiece).

Grade: B

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