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!...

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

The Muppets enjoyed a healthy life on TV before Jim Henson ended the series, not wishing it to overstay its welcome. Thankfully the beloved characters have never faded from view, getting a solid run of feature films throughout the years. Many are classics in their own right, and considered one of the best is The Muppet Christmas Carol...

Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly old man-Bitterly resentful towards Christmas and all his fellow man, and interested only in his money. One Christmas Eve however will be very different, as he is met with a strange apparition. The ghosts of his old business partners warn Scrooge he will be visited by three spirits

The Muppet Christmas Carol has well and truly earned its status as a classic, in more ways than one. It's a great film in its own right, it's a fantastic Muppet adventure, and is also considered one of the best adaptions of the Charles Dickens classic!

The story is a fairly straightforward adaption, going across all the familiar story beats. While A Christmas Carol wasn't a comedy, this version does well transplanting funny moments without getting in the way or spoiling the plot.

Where it excels, most surprisingly of all, is the drama! This manages to be one of the more hard-hitting Christmas Carol's, and there's one spot in particular that gets quite heavy! The presence of Muppets in these scenes doesn't sap any of the drama away. Just the opposite, it might be even more dramatic, seeing these moments play out with these familiar characters,

The Muppet Christmas Carol perfectly embodies the holiday season, and its themes are timeless and heartfelt. Bound to bring a smile to the faces of anyone but the most heartless.

Ebenezer Scrooge succeeds in being an unlikaeble humbug, but in a way that's fun to watch. Moments of humanity help endear him, especially as the film reaches its conclusion, and we really believe he's a changed man by the end.

The Muppets are all well chosen, with Kermit the Frog making for a good Bob Cratchit, Doctors Bunsen and Beaker as the two charity collectors, Statler and Waldorff as the twin Marleys, and most genius of all is the serendipitous pun of Fozziwig. Gonzo and Rizzo are fun narrators, and know just when to speak, and when to stay quiet.

The effects in any Muppet movie is the most important, and Christmas Carol knocks it out of the park! All the familiar Muppets are looking as great as ever, and they have such life to them. All of the original designs are fun too, with some of the cutest mice you'll ever see! The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are each unique and distinctive, and have a nice mix of wonder and foreboding

The set design is breathtaking too. 19th century London is recreated perfectly, and manages to accommodate both humans and Muppets, without ever looking unconvincing, due to some clever design and direction. The wintery feel is perfectly maintained, and there's never a moment where Christmas doesn't pour from the screen.

The cast here is a great one. The voice actors all do fantastic jobs as their various characters, bringing the Muppets to life. Michael Caine is predominately the only human on display, and does splendidly, with a bitter coldness, gripping emotion, and a lovely warmth by the end. His philosophy on playing the part is as fantastic as it is funny to hear. In his own words, "I'm going to play this movie like I'm working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role and there are no puppets around me.

And lastly, the music. There are several songs throughout, by Paul Williams, and all are fun, sweet, and balanced at a good rate throughout. Highlights are One More Sleep Till Christmas, and the rousing ending number of Thankful Heart.

One point of interest is a musical sequence that got removed for many years, When Love is Gone. Some fans have long lamented its excision, as have the cast and crew, and one one hand I agree, although I also think it is a bit of a long distraction from the Muppets and the story. It's still a great song and moment though, so as long as it's always available in some form to watch, I am glad.

The Muppet Christmas Carol comes heartily recommended from me, for any time of the year, but especially during the holiday season. I can't think of a more perfect way to spend your Christmas morning than by popping this on...

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

The 12 Days of Iris Adrian: Conclusion

Iris Adrian was one of classic Hollywood's most distinctive supporting ladies. While she never made it to a lead, perhaps due to a voice that people say could strip paint, she always did a perfect job with what she was given, and I think it's a shame she couldn't get more high profile work more often. Though she was never short of work, which is true of many actors of the period.

It was these smaller roles that many know her from, and the same is true for me. She underwent the process of "Hmm, this actress is pretty good" to "Hey, it's that lady again", before it happens again and you finally google her name, and begin to actively search her out, and relish seeing her inevitably pop up again as they watch more Golden Age cinema.

After film roles began drying up, in a gradually changing industry, Adrian's career took a downturn. While never retired from the big screen, the bulk of her late filmography was made up of television appearances, before a brief renaissance in Disney pictures, such as That Darn Cat, and The Love Bug. As good a coda as any supporting actor could ask for, really.

With the combination of gorgeous looks, and an uncompromisingly sassy voice, Iris Adrian made for a pretty unique screen presence, and is always a hoot, regardless of the size of her roles...

Rex: Dinosaur Story (1993)

Chie is a lonely young girl, never really fitting in at school after her mother's abandonment. Her archaeologist father decides a good way of cheering the girl up and getting her back in spirits is to take her on a new expedition, following a clue that may lead to living dinosaurs. The trip is a success, and the team find an egg, which Chie is able to hatch. Out from the egg comes Rex, a cute dinosaur that immediately bonds with the girl. They become quick friends, but a criminal group are determined to steal this unique 'prize', and Chie must protect Rex, and stop their plans...

Rex: Dinosaur Story is an underappreciated gem here in the west! I have a fairly decent knowledge of Japanese kaiju cinema, but this went totally under my radar, and I am disappointed in myself for not having seen it sooner! It is many things-Cute, emotional, engaging, and more. The film is a little long, and some might get a little impatient with its 106 minute runtime, but it never dragged too much for me. I was surprised by how quickly it moved!

The first act has a great adventure vibe, reminiscent of Godzilla vs. Mothra. It was a similar modern day meets the ancient world of magic and monsters. I was a little sad to see it end, but the movie never stays stuck on one thing for too long. From here on, the movie takes a more down-to-eath vibe, when the egg hatches thanks to Chie's help, and she is chosen to raise young Rex herself.

Chie is a great protagonist. She is sweet, clever, and responsible. She's a great carer for dinosaur babies! I also liked how realistically she is written. She finds Rex cute, but what does she do when she steps in a pile of dino crap? She screams! Any child would! I would!

Rex is a great little dino. He is a perfect pet, and shows why dinosaurs are a girl's best friend! He's believably animalistic, while also being friendly and cute enough to make for a great companion. It's interesting seeing his development, which is done in a way you don't often see. How often do you see a dinosaur toilet trained!

The core of the film is Chie's relationship with her absent mother, and boy is she a piece of work! She had no desire to raise or even have anything to do with a child, so she just fobbed her baby off onto her husband, dumped him, and buggered off to New York. When she returns, she ignores Chie, and makes it clear she's not here to visit her family, only to work.

Her ex quite rightfully puts her in her place, and sees right through all the bullshit, and tells her she chose to abandon your child. Then she responds with the jawdropping "Don't judge me based on the idea that mothers put their kids first". Jesus, lady! That'd be a psychotic thing for anyone to say, but even moreso when your daughter is the cutest girl in all Japan!

She continues along this line for much of the movie, and the judgmental bitch tries throwing Chie's words in her face. Luckily her daughter proves to be the better person by far.

Naturally you just know she'll learn her lesson and suddenly change her ways and start being a mother again. Thankfully the way it happens all makes sense, and it doesn't feel forced or unearned either. I still didn't like her, but I didn't feel she was being rewarded for bad behaviour either.

The villains are an amusing bunch, although I was a little confused when the short-statured gang leader didn't turn out to be the main villain, but just another henchman. The real villain's identity wasn't a bad choice, and made sense, even if it was a bit of a bummer.

The last act to Dinosaur Story is very engaging. There's a nice Christmas setting, some good gags, and a chase sequence, leading to the effective climax. It's a happy but emotional conclusion, which may leave some audience members with less than dry eyes.

The ending is a little confusing, since it's divided in two halves, separated by some end credits. If you're not careful you might switch the movie off early and not catch the real conclusion!

Dinosaur Story is a fantastic looking film, on all counts. The effects themselves are great. Rex sometimes looks a little plasticky, but is otherwise convincing, and adorable! The sets are wonderful, often with plenty of detail, despite only being onscreen for short periods. Then here are all the natural locations, which are breathtaking! Part of this is down to the superb direction, but these places just look so magical.

The music is lovely, with some very sweet scoring throughout. Tomoyuki Asakawa does a great job in setting the scene, and the emotions, without being cloying at all.

The cast here is a good one. Yumi Adachi does a good job, and is so adorable! She alone helps the movie excel so much. Someone and Shinobu Otake are good as the parents, each with their radically different personalities. The remainder of the cast are fine (just a shame the credits don't say who's playing who!). A little goofy in places, but never bad. The animal cast members are worthy of praise too, especially with their interactions with the Rex model!

Rex: Dinosaur Story is a perfect movie to put on during the Christmas season, as well as a great movie period, for any occasion.

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...