Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square – review (Netflix)

Brief synopsis: A woman returns to her home town in the run-up to Christmas and causes uproar when she tells all the proprietors of the shops in the town square, that they must all leave by Christmas Eve, as she has sold the land to a developer. A couple of angels, one that is still in training, hope to help her see the error of her ways. 

Is it any good?: How much you enjoy this film will depend a lot on whether you like musicals or not. The story is a mix of inspirations from two other classic stories – A Christmas Carol mostly, with a pinch of It’s A Wonderful Life. That being said, Christmas On The Square is a nice festive film that tugs on the heartstrings a little and is just a pleasant film to watch over the festive period. 

Spoiler territory: in the town square, all of the town’s people are looking forward to Christmas and various activities are going on. A choir is preparing to carol sing, shoppers are looking for gifts and families enjoy the festive decorations. A woman appears in the square. She holds a cardboard box, begging for change. 

Driven by her assistant, Felicity (Jeanine Mason), Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski) arrives in the square. She has business to attend to and does not want to be in town for long. She is bringing eviction notices for the many proprietors in the square. She goes and sees the town’s pastor, Christian Hathaway (Josh Segarra), first. 

Christian greets her, remarking how he has not seen her since her father’s funeral six months earlier. Christian’s wife, Jenna (Mary Lane Haskell), notes how everybody misses her father.

Regina gets down to business. She is there to inform them that the town, her land, is being sold to the Cheetah Mall conglomerate. It is to become the biggest mall in America. 

The pastor cannot believe that she is giving out the eviction notices less than a week before Christmas. Regina goes to see her oldest friend in town next, hairdresser Margeline (Jenifer Lewis). She gives her an eviction notice. 

Margeline asks her what is going on. Regina tells her, that as she inherited the land that the town stands on, Fullerville, the town, has to go because she has sold the land. 

Christian calls a town meeting. He plans to fight Regina’s eviction notices. Regina gets a call from her doctor but ignores it. Margeline comes to her house to do her hair. 

Regina mentions that she has one more eviction notice to deliver and then she will leave town. It is for Carl (Treat Williams), her childhood sweetheart, whose heart she broke. 

Margeline tries to talk to her friend about the eviction notices but Regina refuses to be moved by sentiment. A frustrated Margeline leaves Regina. 

She sees another message on her phone from doctor Marshall (Donald Corren). Call him. Regina goes into town, she is confronted by pastor Christian. He tells her the whole town is going to stand against her. 

Regina remains unmoved. She goes and sees Carl. She tells him to sign the eviction papers. He asks her why did she did not return his calls or any of his letters. He is still hurt even after all these years.

Regina tells him that people change. She notices a street lamp. She asks if it was a father’s, Carl tells it was. He picked up all lot of his old stuff after his death. 

He tells her it gave him an excuse to visit her old home and hear how she was doing. She was doing very well, a big deal in business. Regina brings the conversation back to the eviction notice. He tells her he is not going to sign. Regina leaves the store. 

She returns to her car and the beggar from the square appears. Regina gives her short shrift and drives off. A pamphlet flies into her face and she brakes as she is about to hit doctor Marshall. He tells her they need to talk, he found a shadow on her brain scan. 

Regina returns home and Felicity tells her the contract from Cheetah has arrived. After dismissing Felicity, Regina takes the contract to her bedroom. She goes to switch a lamp on and it does not work. 

None of the lights work. She calls Felicity. The beggar from the square appears and tells her that Felicity has left for the night. 

The beggar tells her she is an angel and her name is Angel (Dolly Parton). Angel reminds Regina of how her father used to look out of the window and watch lamps light up the square. She also tells her that he had hoped that she would find happiness. Angel disappears. 

In the church, the town is meeting and venting about Regina. They are trying to come up with ideas to stop her plan. No one has anything sensible or useful to contribute. 

Regina turns up at the meeting. She tells the assembled that she has been supporting the town ever since her father fell ill some years before. 

She says that she sold businesses and unused spaces. The townspeople point out that the spaces she speaks of were parks. She reiterates that she will be selling the land. 

She tells them that the new deadline for them to vacate is Christmas Eve. An incredulous Christian notes that that is the next day. Regina leaves the meeting. 

She goes into a bar across the road. She meets Violet (Selah Kimbro Jones), a young girl who is running the establishment whilst her father is at the meeting. Violet tells Regina that her mother died when she was younger. Regina’s mother also died when she was young.

Not knowing that she is talking about her, Violet tells Regina that her father hates the ‘wicked witch of the middle’ because he holds her responsible for her mother’s death.

She tells Regina that when she was very small, she got a fever and her mother had to drive twenty miles to get medicine. She died in a storm on the return drive. 

Violet does not blame the wicked witch of the middle. She thinks it is her own fault for getting sick. Regina tells her that is wrong. Before she can say anything else, Violet’s father, Mack (Matthew Johnson), returns.

A shaken Regina leaves the bar. Back at home, Regina remembers her father, Jack (Douglas Sills), polishing the lamp and telling her as a young girl, that she will be the one looking after the town one day. 

The next morning, Felicity is surprised by Angel. She wants to know why she has not woken Regina up for her doctor’s appointment. Angel-in-training Felicity is reluctant to engage with Regina. 

Angel tells Felicity to go and wake her. Felicity wakes Regina up and receives sarcasm and obtuseness for her troubles. 

Sent to get coffee, Felicity tells Angel she wants to quit. Regina is too mean and rude. Angel will not let her, insisting that she finds the good qualities in Regina. Regina shouts for her coffee. 

Felicity meets her with a cup of coffee and Regina gives her a grudging apology for being so brusque. On the drive to the doctor’s, Felicity remarks that being back brought must bring back memories.

Regina remembers going to her (teenage Regina – Hailey Rose Walsh) first and only high school dance, eager to meet up with Carl (teenage Carl – Andrew Brodeur). She saw him giving a ring to another girl and was so hurt she went off with another boy (Aidan Dacy Carberry). She went home with him and he got her pregnant. 

When her father found out, he sent her away and took the baby away, giving it up for adoption. Angel shows her that he only took the baby to save her from the judgement of the townspeople and that Carl had meant to give the ring to her. 

As Regina is leaving the hospital, an ambulance is coming and she sees a fraught Mack. Violet has been a car accident. Regina tells Felicity to find the top paediatric doctor in the country and get them to that hospital. 

Regina prays to god to save Violet. In the hospital with his daughter, Mack is also praying. A paediatric doctor, Martinez (Yvonne Valadez) comes into the room. She has flown from one hundred miles away to help his daughter. 

Regina tells Felicity to drop her at Carl’s store. Angel tells Felicity that it is not a good idea and that Regina is not ready. Felicity disagrees and takes her to the store. 

Regina goes into the store and tries to talk with Carl but he is not very receptive, stopping her before she can finish speaking. She asks him how much he wants for the lantern. He gives it to her as a gift. 

Regina returns home. An excited Felicity asks how it went with Carl. Regina expression and demeanour tell her it did not go well. Around the square, the store owners are packing up, preparing to vacate their premises. A little magic from Angel wakes Violet from unconsciousness. 

Whilst fiddling with the lamp, Regina finds an old bible hidden in the base of the lamp. She reads a note her father had written in the book that tells what happened to her son.

Christian tells his wife that Mack called to tell him that Violet has woken up. Regina runs into doctor Marshall again. He tells her that her test results are fine and the first test was an aberration. 

Regina goes to see Christian. She shows him the lamp and tells him that it contains the family bible; their family bible. She shows him the note her father, his grandfather, wrote. 

Christian goes to the church to deliver the Christmas sermon. He tells the town that Violet woke up. He tells them that he always felt as if Jack Fuller was watching over him. 

He tells Regina story of having to leave the town and give up her baby for adoption. He was that baby and Regina is his mother. Regina comes to the front of the church and tells them that she is not selling the town. 

The town throws a Christmas party. Carl comes and dances with Regina. The angels, Angel and Felicity, tell everyone to light their light. The end. 

Final thoughts: Dolly Parton’s Christmas On The Square is a nice festive film. The songs are good without being particularly memorable and the dance sequences are energetic and joyful.

From a stage play by Dolly Parton and Maria S Schlatter and directed by Debbie Allen, the production shows its stage roots mostly in the songs.

Allen’s direction shows all of her experience, with her having almost as many credits for directing as she does for acting, with fluid camerawork and direction helping to make the dance sequences look a little less stagey. 

Christmas On The Square is not a festive classic but it does manage to tick many of the Christmas story boxes, imparting the message of goodwill to all and happiness through love and selfless deeds.

Baranski is perfectly cast as the cold and aloof Regina and works well as the central focus, pulling the film along. 

As I alluded to at the beginning, there is a nod to the classic It’s A Wonderful Life, with the effervescent Mason taking up the Clarence role, something that is cleverly referenced in the script. 

Christmas On The Square is a simple story and throws up no surprises. Parton’s homely approach is evident throughout and it is just a fun ninety-eight-minute watch.

Dave Chappelle: Sticks and Stones – review (Netflix)

Being funny is a particular skill. There are different types of funny, and different people find different things amusing, but to pursue the profession of making people laugh takes a certain amount of bravery, especially in this day and age.

If you are older, over forty, forty-five years old, you know that comedy has changed a lot. The double entendre comedy of the seventies and into the eighties, with homosexual references, blonde jokes, racial stereotypes, and other utterances that would be considered inappropriate in this modern world of social media outrage and offended-ness, is difficult even to view on YouTube.

Being a stand-up comedian, or even a comedy writer, is fraught with career-ending danger. An offhand tweet can end a career, no matter how old it might be. The vociferous appetite for scandal across media has anyone in the public eye, checking themselves before making any sort of comment.

The subject of fame and how seemingly inappropriate words can bring the great and famous to heel is central to Dave Chappelle’s comedy special Sticks and Stones, that is currently streaming on Netflix. Filmed in front of an appreciative crowd in Atlanta, Chappelle runs through a gamut of uncomfortable subjects.

I did not watch the show as a fan of Chappelle. Truth be told, I have always found Chapelle’s humour a little hit and miss. most notable for his show back in the early noughties, The Dave Chappelle Show, Chappelle’s star was in the ascendency and then he stopped. Walking away from a very lucrative contract, he stepped away from comedy completely.

Though some of his sketches were funny, back then, I found some of them too juvenile to enjoy. Sticks and Stones is not juvenile. It is focused and wonderfully observed. Like the best comedians who take their material from observations of the world around them, Chappelle’s musings are based around empathy.

All the best comedians are empathetic, able to know what buttons to push to amuse the masses and to make it relatable. The real talent, especially these days, is to broach taboo subjects and speak about them without offending the audience.

A less skilled comedian would struggle, but Chappelle, a veteran of nearly thirty years, is a master of delivery, covering subjects such as race, sexuality, fame, and morality. He is not a comedian who tells jokes. He tends to relate stories or observational monologues.

He talks about Kevin Hart’s tribulations around the Oscars and old tweets, Jussie Smollett’s somewhat dubious race attack incident, school shootings, the LGBT’s appropriation of the alphabet, and growing up poor, and other musings.

Chappelle has a wonderful way of delivering his stories and monologues, speaking as though he is amongst close friends, inviting the audience to be complicit in his, occasionally close to the mark, jokes. His way of telling jokes, told confidently and unapologetically, is hard to be offended by.

That is not to say he does not say anything offensive. With the exception of body image, age-related observations, politics, and religion, Chappelle covers every subject that it is possible to offend a person with.

Having said that, one would have to be looking to be offended to find Chappelle’s Netflix show offensive. There is nothing in his delivery that is deliberately malicious or barbed, never trying to persuade the audience that a particular view is the correct one or something that should be adopted, he is just relating his stories in an amusing fashion.

At an hour-long, Sticks and Stones zips along, Chappelle expertly entertaining the audience and viewer over the runtime. The beauty with Chappelle is he owns his comedy, finding his own observations as amusing as we do, occasionally laughing at the absurdity of his jokes.

Unlike the seventies and eighties, as I mentioned before, today’s comedians have to be more aware of the words they speak in jest, whether in public or in a private conversation overheard, lest they are misconstrued and thought to have an opinion that some might find distasteful.

Chappelle’s show walks the line between inappropriate and funny, making a commentary on modern mores whilst giving a nod, with his laconic style and delivery, to older black comedic icons who came before him such as Red Fox, Richard Pryor, and Eddie MurphySticks and Stones is a sharply observed, laugh-out-loud, hour of comedy. Definitely worth a look.

Shaft [2019] – review (Netflix)

     Back in 1971, a seminal blaxploitation film was released. Gordon Parks’ Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree in the lead role as John Shaft, was a landmark film in cinema. Shaft was a character that was unashamedly black, embracing black culture and attitudes of the times against the backdrop of an America trying to find an identity after the upheaval of the sixties, a decade that saw the civil rights movement, the assassination of John F Kennedy and the last years of the Vietnam war. 

      The 1971 version was a gritty story, where Shaft is employed by a drugs kingpin, Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) to find his kidnapped daughter. More famous for its legendary score, by Issac Hayes, than for its story, Shaft, nonetheless has found itself to be a landmark in black cinema. 

    As with many a beloved film, Shaft has been given the remake treatment. In 2000 Samuel L Jackson, the go-to for being a cool black man and, more pertinently, bankable, appeared in a remake of the film, with Roundtree playing his uncle. Directed by the late John Singleton, the film stayed pretty much true to the spirit of the original, with Shaft looking to take down a tycoon after a racially motivated murder. 

   Nearly two decades later, Jackson reprises the role in 2019’s comedic take on Shaft. Directed by Tim Story, from a script by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow, this modern version of Shaft is a very different beast from the two previous versions. 

     When Shaft and his girlfriend, Maya (Regina Hall) are caught up in a shootout in Harlem in 1989, Maya takes their young son, JJ, and moves out of Harlem and New York. Fast forward twenty-eight years and JJ (Jessie T Usher) is all grown up and working for the FBI as a data analyst back in New York.

    Childhood friends, Karim (Avan Jogia) and Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) come to visit him in New York. Karim is a military veteran and recovering drug addict. Sasha is a doctor. Whilst out to dinner, Karim gets a message and says he has to leave,

   The next morning Maya calls JJ to tell him that Karim is dead. Apparently, he died of a drug overdose. JJ is not sure, he believes Karim was clean. He decides to go and investigate himself. He goes looking for ‘Manny’ Manuel Orozco (Ian Casselberry), the local drug dealer of the area where Karim’s body was found. 

   JJ gets a beatdown for his troubles and realises he is a bit out of his comfort zone. He gets patched up by Sasha and shows her the toxicology report on Karim’s body. She tells him that the drug amounts are too high to have been self-inflicted. He goes looking for his estranged father for help get Manny to talk. 

   John’s approach to getting information is a little more effective and they get pointed in the direction of a group Karim was part of, Brothers watching Brothers, a support group for veterans. They go to see Karim’s friends; Major Gary Cutworth (Matt Lauria), sergeant Keith Williams (Robbie Jones) and staff sergeant Eddie Dominguez (Aaron Dominguez). They tell the Shafts about Karim’s affiliation to a mosque and how he had a new girlfriend, Anam (Almeera Jira).

    John takes JJ to a club. JJ gets drunk and gets in a fight. It turns out he is an amazing fighter when drunk. John is getting some information from Freddy P (Cliff ‘Method Man’ Smith). He sees a chance to take down Gordito (Issach De Bankolé) a man he has been after for over thirty years. 

    JJ meets up with Sasha. He introduces her to John, she is not impressed, seeing him as the absent father. They all go down to the mosque to find Anam. As they talk to her, her father, who is also the Iman, kicks them out. 

   JJ finds another lead which takes them to Bennie Rodriguez (Luna Lauren Velez). She does not tell them anything but John recognises her. He find an old photo with her and Gordito in. JJ goes to dinner with Sasha. John interrupts Maya’s date with Ron. At the restaurant Maya is having her date, men come and try to kill John. He kills them all and then takes Ron’s car to go and find JJ. 

    JJ, who does not like guns, is also attacked whilst out with Sasha. He uses her gun to kill all of the assailants. JJ thinks he has evidence connecting the mosque to the drug activity going on in Harlem. He takes the information to his superiors and the FBI arrest the Iman. Unfortunately, there is no concrete evidence and the bureau is made to look bad. JJ is suspended. 

    John finds out that it was Bennie who put the hit on them and that Eddie is her cousin. The Brothers watching Brothers a front for drug running. JJ finds out that John was using him to get to Gordito. He decides he will get the evidence to bring down the drug gang on his own. He takes Sasha along to watch out for him. JJ sees Gary kill Eddie and films it. He drops his phone alerting Gary and Keith to his presence. John turns up to help JJ escape, but Gary grabs Sasha. He and Keith escape. 

        JJ tracks Sasha’s phone to find out where they have taken her. John says they need more firepower. They go and see his father, John Sr. (Richard Roundtree). John Sr has a lot of guns. They go and rescue Sasha and John kills Gordito. JJ leaves the FBI. The end. 

       Shaft, the 2019 Netflix comedy version, is not very good. The story is weak and predictable, the characters are paper-thin and the plot convoluted and confusing. The only reason Shaft is not a complete car-wreck of a film is Samuel L Jackson. With Jessie T Usher a good foil, Jackson goes full-on Jules in this film. Cussing is turned up to eleven and the chauvinism is at full throttle. 

    At one hour and fifty-four minutes long, it is a little long for a comedy. Once Jackson enters the fray however, the pace of the film picks up. The story is secondary to Jackson’s performance, with the film more a collection of ideas for scenes than a coherent film, it is hard to care about the story or its resolution. 

   The main villain, Gordito, does not talk until ten minutes before the end of the film and the Brothers watching Brothers ruse was just plain rubbish. The decision to make Shaft a comedy follows the likes of Starsky and Hutch and more recently, Thor Ragnarok, in taking a property that was always viewed as serious and reworking it for laughs. 

   Because of the nature of the original Shaft, its machoism, violence and sexual references, it was perhaps easier to fashion it as a comedy, rather than neutering Shaft for a modern, easily offended audience. Shaft is worth watching if you are a fan of Jackson and want to watch him phone in a performance. If you are hoping for a good film, you will probably be disappointed.  

My Top Ten Comedies

     Everybody likes to laugh. Whether it is with friends or alone, at something you have seen on social media, television or read, laughing is something that is enjoyed universally. There are few things in life that bring more unfettered joy, a total disconnect from any worries or stress, than a good hearty, unrestrained laugh. 

    With this in mind, I thought I would list my favourite comedies. In an effort to keep the list somewhat organised, I will only be listing ten, because ‘my ten favourite comedies’ is a clickable title. I will be sticking to true comedies, so there will be no rom-coms, as much as I enjoy them, action-comedies or any other genre-slash-comedy. 

   And, crucially, they all have to have contained a scene that made me laugh uncontrollably. I’m talking tears streaming down my face, was unable to hear the next scene funny. With these criteria in mind, here is my list of the funniest films, in no particular order, I have enjoyed over the years. 

   The first film I’m going to list is Eddie Murphy’s funniest and most quotable classic, 1988’s Coming to America. Murphy was already a big star by the time Coming to America came out, having made his name in the buddy classic alongside Nick Nolte in 1982’s 48 hours and starred in another comedy classic opposite Dan Akroyd in1983’s Trading Places. 

   But it was in Coming to America that Murphy really showed his comedy chops. Not only did he play the central character of Prince Akeem, he also took on other smaller roles in the film, as a barber, a Jewish man and soul singer. Along with Arsenio Hall, who also played multiple characters, Murphy is hilarious as the crown prince of a fictional African country who goes to America to find a bride. 

    Not only does the film contain multiple laugh-out-loud scenes, it also features a, at that time, unknown Samuel L Jackson in a small, expletive-filled scene. A classic comedy that even after many viewings is still funny. 

   My next film is a film that spawned many a copycat but was never bettered. Starring Leslie Neilsen, who would go on to make such films his stock-in-trade, Airplane (1980) is a brilliant spoof on the popular disaster movies of the seventies. Containing brilliant visual gags and a script full of comedy gems, the film works mostly because the entire cast plays it absolutely straight. 

    From the memorable ‘assume crash positions’ which sees the passengers strewn about the plane, to the slowly going maniacally crazy air traffic controller, played by Lloyd Bridges, who through the whole ordeal list the various vices he picked the wrong week to give up. Airplane is a classic of its type that has never been surpassed or equalled. 

    Next, on my list, I’m going back to the thirties, 1933 to be exact. That is when my favourite film of the comedy quartet that were known as the Marx Brothers came out. Duck Soup finds the four brothers in the fictional country of Freedonia. 

   Rufus T Firefly (Groucho) is the ruler and the country is in dire straits. He plans to marry a wealthy widow, MrsTeasdale (Margaret Dumont). But when he finds he has a rival in Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) from the neighbouring country, Sylvania, he decides to declare war. 

    Not only is Duck Soup a brilliant farce, it is also the source of the often copied mirror scene. When Firefly hears a noise in the night he goes around his home checking. He comes across a door-sized reflection of himself, Harpo as Pinky, dressed exactly the same. Suspicious, he tries to outwit the doppelgänger. If you have never seen Duck Soup, it is worth seeing for that scene alone. 

    Staying in the thirties, next on my list is Bringing Up Baby(1938). Cary Grant plays David Huxley, a palaeontologist who is trying to secure a million-dollar donation for his museum. He meets the flighty and quirky Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn) and chaos ensues. 

     Susan takes a fancy to David and, as a way to keep him around, tricks him into helping her out with a gift bestowed on her aunt Elizabeth (May Robson), by Major Applegate (Charles Ruggles), a tamed tiger named Baby. Aunt Elizabeth is also the benefactor whom David is hoping to get the donation from. 

     Grant’s and Hepburn’s comedy timing is something to admire, considering both also did many dramatic roles. Directed by the legendary Howard Hawks, Bringing Up Baby is a film that is timeless in its ability to amuse. 

    A more recent film for my next pick is a film starring Melissa McCarthy. I have been a fan of hers since her turn as the happy chef Sookie in the brilliant dramedy series, Gilmore Girls. McCarthy has been in many, mostly good, comedies; Bridesmaids, The Heat, Identity Thief, Ghostbusters, Tammy, to name a few. 

   It is in 2015’s Spy that McCarthy excels as the CIA office drone, Susan Cooper, who is forced to work in the field when the identities of all the field operatives are compromised. Playing opposite a surprisingly funny Jason Statham as the macho Rick Ford, McCarthy shows her full comedic repertoire here, from goofy and clumsy to potty-mouthed and caustic. Spy is a laugh fest. 

    Now to a comedy that should not work. A comedy that is a guilty pleasure even though it is not a secret. A comedy whose premise is so stupid it could only have soared or crashed and burned. I am talking about the gender/race swap craziness that is White Chicks. 

    White Chicks, starring two of the brothers, Marlon and Shawn, from the comic dynasty that is the Wayans’, sees the two black FBI agents go undercover as two white, blonde sorority girls to foil a kidnap plot. Told you it was ridiculous. As well as some brilliant gender gags and race-baiting humour, there is a standout performance from Terry Crews as Latrell Spencer, a big black man who embraces everything white. White Chicks is really a bad film that is somehow a good comedy. If watched with low expectations, it is an enjoyable romp. 

    From a bad gender swap comedy to a classic. Going back to 1959, I am picking the Billy Wilder film, Some Like It Hot. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play Joe and Jerry, a couple of musicians who find themselves on the run from the mob after witnessing a hit. 

    They dress as women, adopting the names Josephine and Daphne, and join an all-female band on a train to Florida. Joe/Josephine is attracted to Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) and so adopts another identity – Shell Oil jr – to try and woo her. Jerry/Daphne is trying to repel the attentions of a true millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). 

    The two men also have to avoid Spats Colombo (George Raft) who wants them dead. A sparkling comedic property that, even after all these years, still works on multiple levels.

     The youth of today do not know what they are missing when it comes to this next comedy gem. With an Oscar-winning turn by a then-unknown Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito, the long-suffering girlfriend of Vinny Gambini, a fantastically streetwise Joe Pesci, the film, My Cousin Vinny, is comedy gold. 

    When a road trip across America finds New Yorkers, Bill (Ralph Macchio) and Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) arrested for murder in rural Alabama, the only lawyer they can afford, because he’s free, is Bill’s cousin, Vinny. 

    My Cousin Vinny has so many great scenes, it is difficult to pick a favourite one. With the acting good across the board and the late Fred Gwynne, as Judge Chamberlain Haller, excelling. My Cousin Vinny is a must-watch film for any fan of comedy.

    Before he went a little existential, Jim Carrey was a comedy superstar. In 1994 he had a particularly good year, releasing three great comedies. First came Ace Venture: Pet Detective, Carrey’s manic energy perfect for the animal obsessed private investigator. That was followed by The Mask, which saw another high octane performance from Carrey. Finally, that year, came my penultimate pick for a place in my top ten, Dumb And Dumber. 

    Playing opposite an equally funny Jeff Daniels, who plays Harry, Carrey is Lloyd. Together the pair play best friends whose matching levels of stupidity see them get into situations and crises they are too inept to get out of. 

     The buffoonery of the two is something to behold, their lack of intelligence making an amoeba look like a genius. Written by the Farrelly brothers, Peter and Bobby, Dumb and Dumber is one of their standout works along with Shallow Hal and Something About Mary. Dumb And Dumber is idiotic humour at its best. 

   My final pick is from the mind of B movie action star Michael Jai White. White, a highly accomplished martial artist and passable actor, who has graced screens both large and small for the past couple of decades. 

   Appearing in frankly too many forgettable roles to mention, as well as some respectable fare such as a recurring role in the television series Arrow and Nolan’s The Dark Knight, White created a cult film in 2009 with a pastiche of seventies blaxploitation films. 

    Black Dynamite was clever and funny, nostalgic and knowing, an unexpected gem of a comedy, relishing in the many quirks and novelties of the blaxploitation era. With White playing the lead role of Black Dynamite, a mixture of Shaft (1971) and Jim Kelly’s Black Belt Jones (!974), he looks the part and is perfect for the all-action role he created for himself. 

    There are a few more films that could have made it to the list – The Odd Couple, Uptown Saturday Night, Blazing Saddles, The Lego Movie, The Hangover, to name a tiny few, that is without even delving into the silent era classics. 

   Comedy is such a personal thing that to proclaim my choices, which in truth are changeable, definitive would be foolhardy. For me, the ten films I have listed are all films that have given great joy on multiple viewings and even to think about scenes in many of the above would bring a smile to my face. Everybody loves to laugh. 


The Princess Bride – review

     I watch a lot of films. A lot. I have always loved film and television and, though it is impossible to see everything  – I have to work after all – I have seen a fair few films. Having said that, there are still a lot of films that I have not seen, films that a person who considers himself a bit of a film buff, should have seen. This is a little embarrassing. 

    Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti, The Green Mile, Super 8, Saving Private Ryan, Oldboy, A Beautiful Mind, Three Colours: Red, are a few of the classic films I have missed or never bothered to watch over the years. 

    A film that is considered a classic, often quoted in film blogs, podcast and videos, is the 1987 comedy/fantasy, The Princess Bride. Made over three decades ago, the film is about a grandfather coming to read a story to his sick grandson. Now showing on Netflix, the premise of an old relative connecting with a younger one, separated by two generations, is a pertinent one, especially in this age of distraction. 

   A mom (Betsy Brantley) comes into her young son’s (Fred Savage) bedroom to see how he is feeling after a bout of sickness. The boy, who is playing a video game, tells her he is feeling a bit better. She tells him that he has a visitor, his grandfather (Peter Falk). The boy is not overly excited. His grandfather always pinches his cheek, which he does not like. 

   The grandfather comes into the bedroom and pinches his cheek. Mom leaves them alone. The grandfather gives his grandson a present, the boy opens it eagerly but is disappointed when he sees it is a book. The grandfather tells him that the book has been read to sick boys through several generations of their family. 

   He begins to read the story. Buttercup (Robyn Wright) is a beautiful young woman who enjoys nothing more than horse riding and bothering local farmhand, Westerly (Cary Elwes). No matter what task Buttercup asked of him, Westerly would carry it out without complaint, only ever replying ‘as you wish.’

   After a little time, Buttercup fell in love with him and he with her, but as Westerly was only a poor farmhand, he felt that he would have to leave the farm and go and seek his fortune. He promised that he would come back for her. Shortly after he had left, Buttercup heard that he had been killed and fell into a depression. 

   Five years passed and she had become a princess, chosen by Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) to be his bride. She did not love him. Whilst out riding in the forest, the princess comes across three men; Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), Fezzik (André the Giant) and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin). The men kidnap her. 

   Vizzini is confident that no-one knows that they have got the princess, but Montoya points out that a ship is following them. They try to escape over a mountainous pass, but their pursuer continues to come after them. Vizzini tells Montoya, who is an expert swordsman, to kill their pursuer. 

   The pursuer is masked, so they do not see his face. When he gets to the top of the mountain, he and Montoya duel, but not before Montoya tells him the story of the six-fingered man, a person he has been seeking his whole adult life because he killed his father. The two duel and Montoya loses. The masked man does not kill him, instead knocking him unconscious and carrying on his pursuit of the princess. 

   Vizzini, seeing the masked man is still coming, tells Fezzik to kill him. The masked man bests the giant Fezzik and catches up with Vizzini. Meanwhile, Humperdinck, an expert tracker, is also following after the princess and has an entourage with him. Back with Vizzini, the masked man outwits him, getting him to drink poison.

   He takes the princess, goading her about her past love. She angrily pushes him down a hill. As he falls he shouts, ‘as you wish.’ And she realises that it is Westerly. They get back together and try to get away from the Prince and his entourage. The Prince catches up with them. Buttercup promises to go with the Prince if he will let Westerly go free. The Prince agrees.

    Humperdinck tells his right-hand man, Count Rugen (Christopher Guest) to hide him until after the wedding and then kill him. Rugen has him held in a secret dungeon where he is tended to by the Albino (Mel Smith). He is told by the Albino, that Rugen likes his torture victims to be in a fit state before torture. 

    Humperdinck is told by Buttercup that she would rather die than not be with her beloved. He tells her that if he comes back, she can marry him. He then tells Rugen that he had paid Vizzini to kill her at the wedding banquet, but he will now kill her himself on their wedding night. 

    Buttercup confronts Humperdinck again. She does not believe he is looking for Westerly. Angered by her words, he goes to the dungeon and kills Westerly. Montoya and Fezzik are looking for Westerly having heard his cries when he was being tortured by Rugen.

They come across the Albino and find the dungeon. They find Westerly dead. Montoya takes him to Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) to try and revive him. Miracle Max says he is not quite dead and, with the help of his partner, Valerie (Carol Kane) they concoct a potion to revive him.

    The three, Montoya, Fezzik and a still incapacitated Westerly, go after Humperdinck. Montoya finds out that Rugen is the six-fingered man. When they get into the castle, he goes after him. Westerly looks for Buttercup. Montoya fights and kills Rugen. Humperdinck finds Buttercup with Westerly and threatens to kill him.

     Westerly convinces Humperdinck that he will leave him crippled and embarrassed. Humperdinck believes him and is tied up. Westerly admits he was too weak to fight and the four leave Humperdinck to his misery. The grandson finds that he loved listening to his grandfather read the story more than playing video games. The end. 

    The Princess Bride is a film beloved by millions. Written by the legendary screenwriter William Goldman, who has written more than a few classic films – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, A Bridge Too Far – to name a few. 

    From his own book, Goldman fashions a delightful tale that is expertly directed by another Hollywood legend, Rob Reiner, a man behind the camera of such classics as, When Harry Met Sally, Misery (script by Goldman), Stand By Me and A Few Good Men. 

    At around one hundred minutes long, The Princess Bride, with its unusual storytelling style, hurtles along nicely. With the sporadic interruptions from a soon to be Wonder Years famous Fred Savage as the grandson and an already famous Peter Falk, his crumpled detective Columbo a mainstay on television throughout the seventies and eighties. 

    A simple story, well told, The Princess Bride has all the elements of a good story; humour, suspense, drama and relatable characters. It is a film that makes filmmaking seem easy, but, as a person who watches a lot of films and has even made a few shorts, I can tell you it is not. 

   The Princess Bride is a film that, even after all these years, is an enjoyable watch for a Sunday afternoon.   

Name That Theme Tune

With the explosion of streaming services, media, and bingeable or downloadable content shows that are watched by the masses are rare. The like of Games of Thrones or Walking Dead—both which I do not watch—are not as common as they were in the seventies, eighties and into the nineties.

When Larry Hagman’s JR Ewing got shot in the show Dallas in 1980, the show was so widely watched that it made the newspapers. Shows used to be a commonality across all people, all ages. A big show like Dallas was in the eighties, or a soap opera such as, here in the UK at least, Coronation Street or the now-defunct Crossroads, connected everyone.

The square box in the living room does not connect people as it used to anymore. The sheer volume of available content has made it so that the cliques are more refined now. It used to be mostly music preferences that would separate people. Now, with creators and content catering to every taste, every specific group, people have become more viewer niche.

What still connects most people, beyond cliques, types, age or upbringing, is music. Or more specifically, theme tunes. The theme tune to Hawaii Five-O is known across generations. The tune by Morton Stevens, the funky drums and horns created one of the best-known theme tunes in the world, even for those who never saw Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett says “Book ‘em Dano. Murder one!”

In both film and television, music has always created a strong connection to its audience. The Friends theme tune probably elicits a smile, whereas the theme tune to the highly popular Game of Thrones would create a sense of anticipation.

In this article, I want to pick out a top ten of—plus a few honourable mentions—of the best theme tunes on television, mostly past, and the odd present. I am looking at theme tunes alone and not necessarily the quality of the programmes they were part of.

I will, for the most part, avoid comedy shows, only because their jovial nature tends to make them memorable. The themes are in no particular order as I could not decide which theme, if any, was better than any other. So, let’s go.

One of the most enduring theme tunes of our age is the 1967 Spiderman theme tune by Paul Webster Francis and Robert ‘Bob’ Harris. A tune composed over fifty years ago has proved so popular that it was used for the MCU’s first Spider-man film in 2017, knowing it would instantly connect to its target audience. That is a powerful theme tune.

Starsky and Hutch’s second season theme tune by Tom Scott is the most recognised of the theme tunes used through the shows five-season run. Changing from Lalo Schifrin’s season one gritty, streetwise tune to Scott’s horns dominant, funky groove in its second season, it was dropped for the third season, returning for the final seasons.

My fourth pick—first was Hawaii Five-Ois probably my favourite. It is for a show that I cannot ever remember watching. It is Patrick Williams’ Streets of San Francisco. Another horn-heavy, funk-filled theme tune, Williams’ theme almost allows you to see the musicians playing. It is fantastic.

A little show back in the sixties, that brought a certain Clint Eastwood to global attention, features a theme by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, sung by Frankie Laine. It was the theme tune to Rawhide, a western show that ran for eight seasons between 1959 and 1965, for two-hundred and seventeen episodes. A great western track, Frankie Lane’s distinctive vocals take the theme tune to another level.

Up sixth is the theme tune to the original ensemble television show, Steven Bochco’s groundbreaking Hill Street Blues. Written by Mike Post and Larry Carlton, the theme was the opening for one of the best ensemble cop shows ever to grace the screen. Running from 1981 to 1987, it ran for seven seasons airing one hundred and forty-six episodes. Televisual brilliance.

Number seven is from the show that gave us Hannibal, Faceman, B. A. Baracus and Murdock, the show where the team would routinely construct a battle mobile out of a few tin panels and a blowtorch, and the show that had explosion galore, with bodies flying through the air but never any blood. Of course, I’m referring to the A-Team.

This theme, also a Mike Post composition, sets the perfect tone for a fun show that ran over five seasons from 1983 to 1987 and ninety-eight episodes.

Another sixties show that not only has a classic theme tune, but also a fanatical following is number eight on my list. Star Trek. As there have been many incarnations of the show, it only makes sense to clarify which Star Trek I mean. I am referring to the original, William Shatner starring run, that ran from 1966 to 1970 for three seasons and seventy-nine episodes.

The ninth theme is a modern one. A personal favourite of mine is a theme by Ramin Djawadi, who incidentally also did the theme for Game of Thrones. Not only do I love the theme for this show, but I also love the entire title sequence. It is Westworld and it is amazing. Haunting piano and strings make for one of the best modern themes on television.

The tenth theme is one of my youth. It had many a young boy running in slow motion, and it aired for five seasons between 1973 and 1978, for ninety-nine episodes. Lee Majors’ was Steve Austin The Six Million Dollar Man and he was awesome. The show was brilliant and fantastical and it had a great theme and opening sequence. Terrific television.

There are so many more I could mention—ER, Dallas, Wonder Woman(the Lynda Carter version), Miami Vice, Thunderbirds, Buffy—and that does not even cover the many comedies that have memorable themes—Golden Girls!

For now, I will leave it at these ten classic themes that are all so memorable and intrinsically linked to their shows.

Wherefore Art Thou Whedon

   There are a few writers, both in film and television, that can get me to watch a film or a show. Such is my faith in Christopher Nolan’s ability to create a compelling story, I fought my dislike of war films to see the quite brilliant Dunkirk. 

   Aaron Sorkin’s best-known works, The West Wing for television and A Few Good Men for stage and film, though brilliant and great examples of his talent are not what makes me want to watch his work. It is his astounding work – which it is rumoured he wrote every episode – on Newsroom, that makes me want to see anything he writes.

     Though other works of hers have been somewhat disappointing, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s sparkling seven seasons of Gilmore Girls, the closest thing to the machine-gun, quick wit of comedies of the forties and fifties, with the cracking dialogue and exchanges, is enough reason for me to check out anything her name is attached to. 

    Widows is on my list of films to watch because it was written by Gillian Flynn. Her script for Gone Girl, from her own book, was phenomenal. There are a few other writers who pique my interest when connected to works. Ricky Gervais is a brilliant writer, as is his sometimes writing partner, Stephen Merchant. 

   The writer who, above all others, will always get me to watch a film or television show is Joss Whedon. The writer/creator of the best single-season television show ever, Firefly – yes it is, fight me! – Whedon also created my favourite show – and one of the best – once again I am prepared to back my statement with fisticuffs! – of all time, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. 

    Like Nolan, attaching Whedon’s name to a project pretty is much a guarantee of parting me from my money. I have to admit, I am a bit of a fanboy when it comes to his works. I am no fan of horror films, but when I heard he wrote The Cabin In The Woods, I watched it. 

    That is not to say that his work is above criticism. I have yet to get through the five seasons of Angel. There was just something about the show that did not gel with me. Having said that, it is still on my ’to watch’ list. Dollhouse was necessarily rushed – the second season was in the balance even before the first had ended. There was never going to be a third. 

   Age Of Ultron, whilst enjoyable was not as good as Avengers Assemble, suffering from creative conflicts behind the scenes. The first six episodes of Agents Of Shield are so bad, they are almost unwatchable. After that, however, the show flies. 

    His take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing shows a talent for making even the work one of history’s most famous playwrights even more accessible. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog showed how the internet was meant to be used for showing content, long before everyone with a laptop became a creator. 

    Firefly, to repeat myself, the best single-season series ever written, almost had me in tears when it ended and I knew it was going to end! I saw it years after it was made, so I was completely aware that there was no second season. I was still crushed when it ended. That he had to make Serenity so as to placate the many fans and finish the story was scant consolation. 

    Had the show been created now, with the likes of Netflix and the upcoming Apple tv, it would have, no doubt, been a massive hit. Whedon’s true legacy though will always be Buffy. When he wrote the 1992 film, starring Kristy Swanson and the late Luke Perry, no one could have anticipated the 1997 television series. 

    Though the film undoubtedly had Whedon’s voice, it was not until the television series that his full array of creative skills was really put on show. With the series, Whedon was able to create an ever-evolving story arc, following the tribulations of, not only the fictitious vampire slayer but also the growing pains of teenagers, amplified by their extraordinary circumstances. 

    His work, ably assisted by a cabal of excellent writers, was so influential that it continues to be seen in shows today. The quick-witted wordplay of any teenage serial drama, the high-pressure situations, the emotional discourses, these were all things that were par-for-the-course in Buffy. 

    Whedon’s foray into film, with the MCU projects, and his subsequent break from the studio after Ultron, has seen him go somewhat quiet. One can only hope that Whedon’s personal sabbatical comes to an end soon and we see some work from the great man again soon. 

Bringing Up Baby – a review

With the societies perennial rush to embrace the new and most update of everything in life, the golden age of Hollywood, the classic films of yesteryear, anything pre-digital, is almost being regarded as to old to appreciate or give any attention.

As a youngster, films of the twenties, thirties, forties and beyond, were shown on a regular basis. Not so much the silent stuff – though Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin were exceptions – but classic films that featured stars of the past – James Cagney, Greta Garbo, Edward G. Robinson, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, James Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas – names that were known even to your casual film fan.

With this in mind, I have decided to start reviewing and rewatching classic films of years gone by. You are welcome. The first film I am going to begin with is a film from 1938, directed by the great and prolific Howard Hawks, the comedy-romance, Bringing Up Baby.

Professor David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a palaeontologist who is engaged to be married to the very proper and prudish Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), his assistant the very next day. He is nearing completion on their long cherished project, a skeleton of a brontosaurus.

He receives word, by telegram, that the bone he has been waiting for – the intercostal clavicle – has been found and will be sent to him. Alice, who is pleased to hear the news, reminds him that he must meet with Mr. Alexander Peabody for golf and try to persuade him to grant them a million dollar donation.

David enquires about their honeymoon, post nuptials, but Alice is only interested in returning to work and continuing with the project. David goes to meet Alexander Peabody (George Irving) and finds out that Peabody is not the actual benefactor of the grant. He is the lawyer of the benefactor, Elizabeth Random (May Robson).

It turns out, David is not a very good golfer and whilst going to retrieve his ball encounters Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn) a kooky and irreverent presence, soon to latch on to him and make his life interesting. After Susan disrupts his game, by playing his ball even as he is trying to tell her she is, she, mistakenly, steals his car, refusing to believe she has taken the wrong vehicle.

Later, still trying to convince Peabody of his institutions worth, David intends to meet him for dinner. Once again he is distracted by Susan. After this latest encounter, Susan is determined to meet David again. She calls him and tells him that she has a tiger. He does not believe her, but rushes over to her aid when she fakes being in danger.

Susan does in fact have a tiger in her care – the Baby of the title -, but it is a tame cat. She asks David to accompany her to her aunt’s house, as that is where she is taking the tiger. He initially refuses but is coerced by Susan getting the tiger to follow him down the street.

Having, once again, suffered a few mishaps whilst with Susan, David, somewhat naively, takes a shower to clean up before planning to get back to his fiancé. Whilst in the shower, Susan steals his clothes. Unable to find his clothes, David is forced to wear a woman’s bathrobe. He answers a knock at the door and is confronted by Susan’s formidable aunt, who he finds out, to his horror, is the benefactor.

The film lurches from one farce to another, with Baby, the tiger, Asta, aunt Elizabeth’s dog, Major Applegate (Charles Ruggles) plus a whole catalogue of other characters and elements getting involved.

At just over one hundred minutes, Bringing Up Baby is the kind of screwball comedy that used to be common in the thirties and forties. With the both Grant’s and Hepburn’s brilliant comedy timing and chemistry, plus Hepburn’s talent for irritating and attractive at the same time, this is a film, that in terms of comedic quality, has not dated.

The fact that Hawks’ could direct a comedy such as this so brilliantly and also direct much more serious fare such as Scarface and To Have And Have Not, shows what a talented director he was. He really allowed the actors to display their comic talents and not just Grant and Hepburn.

Ruggles as the Major is a joy, as is Robson as aunt Elizabeth. Both try to maintain a vestige of decorum as all around them depends into chaos. Fritz Feld’s Dr. Lehman is particularly good, spouting psychoanalytical hokum to always make whatever situation he finds, fit his narrative.

Walter Catlett as the bumbling chief of police, Slocum, as to general farce and exaggerated nature of the film, Slocum desperately trying to make sense of a crazy night, with only the seeming brilliance, but entirely misguided, of Lenham.

Bringing Up Baby is a classic comedy the likes of which is rarely made or seen anymore. Along with the death of the studio system and the rise of independent cinema, it is unlikely that we will every see its like in anything like the numbers of years gone by ever again. Mores the pity.

The New Legends of Monkey – review

Monkey was a late seventies Japanese television series that aired in the early eighties here in the UK. Quickly gaining popularity, it became a cult hit, with every teenage schoolboy – as that is what I was when it aired – rushing home to see it. Less violent than another martial arts series of the time, The Water Margin, Monkey told the story of three gods – Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy – and a monk – Tripitaka – who journey across China in search of ancient scrolls in order to save the world from demons. 

    As is the modern way and – some would say – the laziness of present-day production companies, remakes are a popular and – as long as they remain lucrative – will always be used as a proven route to a successful show. 

   The Legends of Monkey is the modern remake of Monkey. Though not a beat for beat remake, The Legends of Monkey is inspired by the cult classic and takes not only the premise but also retains the same characters, with even the boy monk, Tripitaka, being played by a woman. Originally played by the late Japanese actor, Masako Natsume, the modern incarnation of Tripitaka is played by Luciane Buchanan, a New Zealander of Tongan descent. 

   The production is a joint venture between the Australian Broadcasting Company, Television New Zealand and Netflix, reflecting the affection and popularity of the original show in that part of the world. 

   Chai Hansen takes the title role of the mischievous and egocentric Monkey, with Josh Thomson being Pigsy and Emilie Cocquerel, the only notable departure from the original series, with her taking the role of Sandy originally played by the male actor Shiro Kishibe. 

   This Antipodean interpretation of the show retains other elements of the original that made it so beloved around the globe, namely the fighting and the humour. Having made the decision to keep the central story premise and setting, there was the very modern and not at all unexpected furore over the casting of the actors. Wherein the original show had an entirely Japanese cast portraying a Chinese story – it was, after all, a Japanese production – the show was made in a very different time. It was pre the internet age, before social media, it even predates Netflix by almost twenty years. 

    That being said, the production boldly decided against casting any Chinese actors, casting predominantly from New Zealand and Australia. Not being Chinese myself and having little knowledge of how even how the original series was received in China – if it was even aired in China – this is not really an issue I feel I can confidently comment on. From my point of view, however, maybe it is the heightened sense of race-erasing that is in the media or my love of the original series, but when the show was initially announced and the cast was made known, this was the first thing that I noticed. 

   Still, I wanted to watch the show and give it a chance. I am glad that I did. The series is, as is the Netflix model, a ten-episode binge-able watch. Like the original show, they keep it short with each episode less than half an hour in length, comfortably sitting in sitcom territory. As it is a martial arts comedy, the drama is kept to a minimum, being just enough to carry the story but not so much as to be heavy or overwhelming. Truth be told, none of the elements that make up the show are dominant. The comedic moments are chucklesome as opposed to laugh-out-loud, the martial arts is competent without ever becoming truly dynamic. 

   The sets and costumes are good and show good production values, whilst the effects, though not of a Hollywood standard, are credible enough so as not to pull you out of the story. The strongest thing in Monkey is the aforementioned cast. They all inhabit the roles in a way that pays homage to the original show without parodying it. The supporting cast is also very good, with Rachel House as Monica, the gruff cyclopic innkeeper, a standout.

   Though not an unmissable show, I do feel that The New Legends Of Monkey is good enough to deserve a second season. I for one would be happy to see the further adventures of Monkey, Tripitaka, Pigsy and Sandy. Here’s hoping.