Friday, December 31, 2021

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year

Merry Christmas for another year! With any luck you all had a great time too. Mine was good, with a few nice presents, from a book, to a rice cooker, to a $3 dollar bag of lollies, and one particular gift that will finally drag me into the 21st century-A mobile phone!

The day was as warm as can be expected from an Australian Christmas, but the air conditioner and a steady supply of soft drink kept me alive. I watched a few Christmassy things, ate lots of snacks, and eventually hung out with family members (the ones I actually like, anyway).

Time sure seems to be moving quickly! And I have some good plans for the new year. I'll be keen to see how those go, and will still be writing plenty here. Happy new year, everyone!...

Top Gear: Middle East Christmas Special (2010)

The boys of Top Gear have had many adventures over the course of their show, from routine car shenanigans, to international trips for special episodes. What's always been a personal favourite of mine, and perfectly fitting for the Christmas season, is their journey to Bethlehem, as three not so wise men...

Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May are going on a journey to the Holy Lands, to present gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to a newborn child. Across the way they deal with seemingly hostile environments, irate border crossings, witness some unexpected beauty, suffer a few scrapes and bruises as they try and race through the desert in their beat-up old sports cars...

I've always been a bit of a casual Top Gear fan. It was already several seasons in when I got into it, and I never got around to religiously watching, but I'd check it out whenever it was on TV, and certainly enjoyed it. In the case of the Middle Eastern special, I saw it in school, during one of the last days when there are no real classes, and you're just doing fun activities, or being shown movies on a big class projector. I still regard it highly, for showing me that the Middle East wasn't all warfare and horror, but had its good sides, and was on the road to recovery.

The adventure begins in Iraq, much to the alarm of the leads, who feel they need to exit the country asap. They intend on going through the nearest border into Iran, then up into Turkey, and left towards the Levant. A shut border for the BBC ends up making Iran a no-go, meaning they have to backtrack, then go another route up into Turkey.

Due to all this kerfuffle, their trip ends up taking them away from the Holy Lands for the first several hundred miles. But this is for the best, really, as it allows for more of a journey, and more vistas that would've gone unseen if they'd had a more direct route.

It's here where the special takes a great turn. The hosts wake up the next morning, and after a bit of goofing around at their impromptu 'hotel', they come to the realisation that Iraq really isn't as bad anymore as the news makes it out to be. Of course there are still dangerous areas, and problems here and there, but by and large it's a country like anywhere else, the situation is improving, and it's home to some spectacular sights! The trio do the same trip back again, but this time enjoying themselves, and really taking the beauty in.

...And then promptly end up in one of the more dangerous parts of Turkey, leading to a hilarious telegram from their producers. This is a shorter and somewhat uncomfortable leg of the journey, before they enter Syria, where a large portion of the special takes place.

There are many more engaging moments, with mechanical failures, impromptu fixes, and amusing cosmetic changes, such as a Bedouin tent on Richard Hammond's car. They all share great interactions and funny lines, as well as devilish pranks. This all leads to a very satisfying conclusion when they meet the baby in question.

As Top Gear got on in years, the question of how real it is does crop up. I'm a little confused on it myself, but from what I can gather, the general outline of some segments are scripted (moreso in later years), with the dialogue itself being mostly ad-libbed. In the case of this special some moments might be done intentionally for a laugh, but most of it feels real enough, and organic. Some parts are certainly real, from some of the illnesses faced along the trip, as well as one of the more dangerous moments in the show's history, when James May receives a severe concussion. It's tough to watch, and shocking in how quick and simple it all is. Not a big showy pratfall, but just a slight tumble, yet if there's a rock in the way you can see how nasty it could be. The whole camera crew can be seen helping, and thankfully he recovered, spending a few days out of the race.

The visuals in this special are something to behold. We get to see the everyday streets of Iraq, the stunningly beautiful natural landscapes, the sun-soaked deserts of Syria, and glittery nights of Damascus. There are also grand ancient sites, Palmyra and Jerash. No two areas look the same, and there's plenty of variety. Even the desert, which does all tend to look like a desert, still has some cool natural formations.

The direction in the special is exquisite, capturing the beauty of the landscape extremely well, and also the everyday citizens. It's nice seeing lots of little things, such as the reactions of the onlookers and bystanders, or elements such foreign street signs.

Something I'm very curious about is how a lot of it was even done! The making of shows like this can sometimes be just as interesting as the programs themselves. When you see these sweeping shots from up in the air in somewhere like Iraq, you imagine "How? I suppose a helicopter or something? But this is Iraq! It'd be a huge target, and they'd need a ton of fuel to hang behind with the cars. And besides, you'd hear a constant humming.". A mystery for the ages...

The Top Gear Middle East special is not only a popular episode among fans, but also considered one of the favourites by the presenters. Clarkson has expressed interest in doing a follow-up, though the current Middle Eastern situation the last few years has made that difficult. It's a shame seeing the state of these countries undergo more hardships, but hopefully they'll be ok again soon, and at least this special does still provide hope, showing that anything can improve, even after war. If it happened once it can do so again. This not only acts as a great guide, and a funny watch, but something great to watch during the Christmas season...

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Pottersville (2017)

Maynard Greiger is a mild-mannered general store owner in the small town of Pottersville. One day after returning home early from work, he discovers a shocking discovery-His wife is having a furry affair, and promptly dumps him. Despondent, Maynard gets hammered, and runs around town wearing a gorilla costume he found. Upon waking the next morning, he finds Pottersville to be a national sensation due to stunning Bigfoot sightings. Now he must keep up the act if he wants to save his town from obscurity and oblivion...

Pottersville is a fairly recent Christmas movie, and despite having flown completely under the radar, it's one that manages to be unique! The story beats are what we've come to expect from movies like this, with a predictable romance and moral, but it's the content that's what makes this film stand out. Where else can you find a wholesome Christmas movie about bigfoot, and furries?

The plot moves along well, and while it's never really a surprise seeing where things go, it gets to its destination in an entertaining way, and culminates in a good climax, and a nice wrap-up. There's some good dialogue here about hope that I think comes off really well! This isn't an overly sentimental movie, but nor is it cynical.

Maynard is a good lead character. A nice guy, perhaps too nice for his own good, he tries his best to help out his fledgeling community. He makes for a good Bigfoot, and it's funny seeing how he researches all the little touches for how a monster no-one's ever seen should act. His coworker Parker is obviously gonna be a love interest from the first moment we see her, and she gets an opening after his marriage collapses. She's super sweet, like living honey, and you really root for them as a couple.

Monster hunter Brock is an amusingly cringey addition to the film. He's your typical reality TV host. A full of himself hipster who acts like an expert. He also has one of the worst Australian accents I've heard in a while. He makes all the same mistakes Americans usually do when trying to sound like us, mispronounces our cities/states, and even mentions drinking Fosters! I was a mix of annoyed and amused at such a ridiculous portrayal, until a twist halfway through that puts things in a different light!

Local 'mountain man' Bart is your 'Quint from Jaws' archetype. An expert in all things hunting, and living off the land. He's a friend to Maynard's, and is up for hunting the Bigfoot, since he can tell Brock is full of shit. It's fun seeing how in his element he is, and on the same note it's great seeing the opposite, when he's genuinely shocked by the weird 'furries love Bigfoot' rally, having no idea what the hell is going on.

Maynard's ex is a real piece of work, making for an amusing and unexpected first scene. Maynard considers trying to win her back at first with his Bigfoot antics, but things soon spiral out of control before he can get around to it, lucky him. The local sheriff is a mix of an asshole yet friendly, useless and well-meaning, and avoids being one-dimensional. Maynard totally shoulda smacked him though!

The townsfolk are a diverse and decently amusing bunch. We don't get to know them super well, but they do enough, and ranging from little old ladies, to dopey potheads, a gay business couple, etc, they never fade into the background unnoticed.

Pottersville isn't a super festive holiday film, simply being set around Christmas and that's it, but I think that's ok. As long as there's snow, quaint setting, a Christmassy soundtrack, and a message about hope for mankind, that's good enough. And besides, you have people dressing up as all kinds of animals for the Nativity!

There are lots of movies that try way too hard to be quirky. Pottersville succeeds (for me at least) because of how sincere it is. It has quirky elements, but it never rubs them in your face, and is pretty laidback most of the time. This makes the out-there moments stand out better, and feel more earned.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Pottersville is its name-Why Pottersville? I'm not sure what anything here has to do with It's a Wonderful Life, or the dark alternate reality of its climax. The marketing team clearly knew what they were doing too, since the film's tagline is 'It's a magical life'. The movie itself has nothing to do with that film, which you probably figured out after you read Bigfoot, and even before you read Furries. But the end is reminiscent of the story, in a nice way, and not too ostentatious or saccharine like other imitators. I'm impressed by how subdued it was.

For such an overlooked movie, Pottersville has got quite the cast! Michael Shannon stars (doing well in a role I'm not used to seeing him play!), with Judy Greer as a cute love interest and Christina Hendricks as his bitchy ex. Ian McShane is a neat presence. Thomas Lennon is over the top, with a stunningly awful accent, until the reveal which changes everything, and makes me view his performance more favourably. Ron Perlman has an amusing supporting role, along with his daughter Blake (who I swear I keep thinking is named Rhea!)

The score is made up mostly of some neat 1940s versions of Christmas songs, which are always nice to listen to. A couple of the more modern tunes sound a bit weird, but are over quickly enough.

And lastly, the setting is neat! It captures the cosy small town in winter feel, with a Christmas-sy charm in each snowed up street lane.

Pottersville is a great example of how to use time-worn ideas in a fresh way, and should serve as an inspiration to all those endless Lifetime movies on how they should stand out. It's worth checking out for any holiday season...

Friday, December 24, 2021

The 12 Days of Iris Adrian: Lady Luck (1936)

Mamie Murphy is a young woman who dreams of quitting her day to day job as a manicurist, and becoming rich and famous. Plucky reporter Dave Haines is sweet on her, but she can't stand him, and rebuffs all his advances in favour of a debonaire playboy. One day her dreams seem to come true when she wins the sweepstakes, but will she reject love in favour of money?...

Lady Luck starts out a little suddenly, but gets us up to speed on who all the characters are, and their goals. As the story progresses, we get the reveal that our heroine hasn't actually won a dime, but is the victim of a great mix-up. Since the real winner is such a grand dame, she and her younger counterpart concoct a scheme to help each-other. It's here when the film settles into a more comfortable position, and things are easier to understand.

The most surprising thing is how the movie switches gears and becomes a murder mystery in the last 15 minutes. This doesn't come completely out of nowhere, since this conflict was set up all throughout the film, but it did feel a little distracting from the rest of the story. It also was strange for someone to die, when this is an otherwise lighthearted tale.

The climax is almost satisfying. It all makes sense, but is explained very quickly. At least it tries, and we get a nice little coda to wrap the movie up.

The characters in Lady Luck are at the forefront. Mamie is a nice girl overall, but has very poor judgement, and rom-com blinkers for much of the runtime. Aunt Mamie meanwhile is older and wiser, and knows best for everyone she meets. She subtly helps, without being overbearing. Dave is a nice love interest. A bit of a pushy guy at times, but is a good journo, and has the patience of a saint!

Other characters include a Latino crime boss and his girl, who have a funny idea of domestic life. And then there's one lady, who gets furious at her husband's infidelity...despite carrying on a long affair with another man. There's also a pair of creepy servants, .

Lady Luck has its share of funny dialogue, and from various characters too. The main couple have some amusing sparring, Iris Adrian gets some good moments, and even Auntie Mamie gets in a few zingers.

The acting here is all nice. Patricia Farr is a good lead, and always nice to see. William Bakewell is a good partner, while Lulu McConnell does well as the wise Auntie. The remainder of the cast are fine, from the scheming Duncan Renaldo, to the spiffingly British Claud Allister.

Lady Luck simultaneously does Iris Adrian a disservice, while also highlighting what a great actress she is. She has very few scenes in the movie, yet when she is onscreen, boy does she make it count. She pops out of the screen and makes a great impression!

Lady Luck is a pretty disposable 30s comedy, but it's decent enough, and a nice way to spend an hour, as well as a nice snapshot into 1930s life...

The 12 Days of Iris Adrian Shake Hands with Murder (1944)

Patsy Brent is a quicktalking bounty hunter, content with going after small fish, until her dope of a partner takes a $100,000 bond from headline-making embezzler Steve Morgan. Knowing full well he's going to skip his bond and leave their business bankrupt, Patsy is determined to find the criminal. But in the process she discovers a conspiracy of murder and corruption...

Shake Hands with Murder is a real treat-A starring vehicle for Iris Adrian! Not only that, but it's a fun bail bondsman story, which I can't imagine were super common back then (correct me if I'm wrong), and starring a female bounty hunter! It reminded me a bit of Stephanie Plum, but beating Janet Evanovich to the punch by 50 years.

As expected for a 1940s picture, there's some snappy dialogue here, with one highlight being "We're sitting' on top of the world!" "Yeah, well go on before we fall off.". People back then sure knew how to have more fun with the way they spoke.

The biggest problem with Shake Hands with Murder is that there are too many characters and not enough time. With only 4 suspects that's not a lot, but there's also Patsy and her crew, Steve, his murdered boss, and the whole setup in general. For an hour long movie it's a lot to get rolling before you can start exploring the mystery.

This is most evident in the climax, which has no actual deduction from the heroes, but instead has them literally invite the suspects one by one into their trap to see if it works! I might complain if it wasn't so amusing and against type. Normally you'd never see this, since it's not a very 'filmic' way of doing things.

The acting here is fun. Iris Adrian makes for a natural lead. She's pretty, spunky, and loud in all the right ways. Her co-stars are all decent enough, from Douglas Fowley as the potential villain and definite love interest, Frank Jenks as her savvy partner, Jack Raymond as a dim but loyal thief, and a stable of reliable old character actors for the suspects.

Shake Hands with Murder isn't anything special for the most part, but it's not trying to be. It's just a fun caper, and in terms of its main character, it is pretty ahead of its time!...

The 12 Days of Iris Adrian: Vacation in Reno (1946)

Jack Carroll is a happily married man full of harebrained ideas. After he and his wife pretend to fight, to smooth over their constantly arguing friends, they end up sparring for real and Eleanor leaves. Jack decides to go to Reno to hunt for some buried treasure, getting embroiled with a bank robbery along the way...

Vacation in Reno is a good example of 1940s comedy. Low budget, brief at only 59 minutes, and thoroughly entertaining. It's funny, but sometimes in an awkward way, so it can be hard to watch in places. You'll cringe just as much as you might laugh. Luckily the movie doesn't dwell on this, and the majority of the action is just plain fun.

It does get a bit confusing as it goes, what with bank robbers, buried treasure, marital confusion, and another lady. But to the movie's credit it doesn't force all this down our throats all at once, but builds to it gradually. Also nice is how expedient it is. Jack finds the buried treasure quickly, the crooks get the dope on him quickly, the married friends reconcile quickly, etc. Nothing is ever drawn out, which does lessen confusion for the most part.

Since the plot is all set into place by the halfway mark, the movie from then on is really just a set of comic incidents one after another. Amusing for sure, although story does kinda take a back seat.

Jack is a likeable, if hapless, protagonist. He's never too stupid, and always proactive. When he and Eleanour fight for real, it's over an insult he levies at her mother. I found it amusing how Jack never actually retracts that statement. He'll ring up and after she opens with "It's your big fat porpoise of a mother-in-law!", he just continues with "Is Eleanor there?".

Eleanour is a nice girl. Always reasonable, she is occasionally fiery, but never enough to not listen to reason. She's also pretty badass in the climax! One last thing to note about the pair is their separate beds! Typical 1940s censors. We wouldn't want to see a married couple 'living in sin' after all.

Their friends, a married couple, are very funny, with their comic spats and histrionics providing much amusement. Fortunately they don't fight too much, and never become unpleasant. Unfortunately they also disappear entirely from the action. I get why, and at least it makes room for the rest of the cast, but it's still a bummer.

The criminals are decent antagonists. Out of the three, Iris Adrian's Bunny gets the most screentime. They're rough, conniving, and a good mix of clever and dumb.

Other hotel guest Mrs. Dumont is a total pushover. While she's a rich society dame and her husband's a rough sailor, all it takes is for him to raise his voice and she cowers between her legs with repeated Yes dear's. At first I was annoyed by her character for this reason, but as the movie progresses she's forced into events that really test her resolve, and encourage her to stand up to her brutish partner. She probably had the most engaging arc out of any character in the film! It does kinda go unresolved, but it's ok for the most part.

The comedy in Vacation in Reno is very good. There's snappy dialogue, sight gags, and plenty of slapstick and misunderstandings to go round. My favourite joke involved a sneeze, and where you think one thing is gonna happen (knowing it'll be hilarious), but then the movie throws a curveball and does something else, equally funny.

The direction is fairly standard, in a good way. Nothing bad, all reliable, and there are a few neat shots here and there! The dude ranch provides a good setting, and a nice minor-western feel. The film also has some amusing touches with sound, from chipmunk voices in one scene, to a very animated phone call.

The music is suitably jaunty. It's old stock music I think, but it's good stock music, and fits the movie perfectly. It also gets a few rescorings throughout, depending on the vibe or location.

The actors all do well. Jack Haley is a fun lead, as is Anne Jeffreys. Wally Brown and Claire Carleton are amusing as the acid-spitting couple. Her voice is so distinctive I actually thought she was Iris at first. On that note, Iris Adrian shines in her role, providing a fun antagonist, along with the guys playing the other two mugs. The remainder of the cast is good, from Myrna Dell as the socialite, to Jason Robards (Sr.) as the Sheriff.

Overall this is a good movie to check out. It's a nice way to kill an hour, and highlights the talents of all involved...