“Jeff Dunham: Achmed Saves America” Review

Jeff Dunham’s one-note ventriloquism puppet Achmed takes a leap into the world of animation. The result of a failed suicide bomber mission, Achmed is plucked from his Middle Eastern home and transported to America. Choosing to accept his now skeletal appearance, a family takes him as they mistake Achmed for a French exchange student. Though the tiny terrorist is still hellbent on destroying the Western world, he soon comes to adore the country via friendly people and all-you-can-eat buffets. Before you know it, he’s on a mission to save his new family.

I’ll preference this review by stating that I am not a fan of Jeff Dunham’s brand of comedy. All of his puppet characters spout mostly simplistic politically incorrect statements with a subtle tone of racism. That can be funny for a few bits, but this style seems to comprise the majority of his puppets. Achmed’s angle is that he keeps shouting “Silence! I kill you!” while making stereotypical observations of Western and Middle Eastern culture. Sure enough, this animated feature does just that by featuring all aforementioned exaggerations. Some of the characters Achmed meets includes the sexually confused teenage girl, the anal-retentive liberal, the gun-toting redneck and the angry terrorist leader who rolls over easily for something as simple as frozen yogurt.

Oddly enough, this seems a little toned down for Jeff Dunham. There is nothing that risque in any of the humor. In fact, most of it feels like watered down ‘Family Guy’ jokes with the constant pop culture references and questionable observations. There are a few jabs made at both east and west, but nothing all that biting. It’s almost as if Dunham is trying to steer his act in a new direction as he paints Achmed as a more sympathetic character who learns to love. It’s a logical progression for the story, but it kind of ruins the whole point of the character.

Speaking of ‘Family Guy’, the animation designs feel very uninspired with simplistic round faces and eyes. Thankfully, the actual animation itself is impressive for the sheer timing and detail in movement. If anybody deserves praise for this special, it’s the technical team that make most of the visual gags work and take full advantage of Achmed’s skeletal form. Achmed’s jaw literally drops in shock to which he replaces as if they were his contacts. He shatters when hit by a car and struggles to put himself back together. These are all solid gags that are handled rather well by the visual team.

But, wow, the majority of the written jokes are flat. Jeff even resorts to old-as-dirt bits such as the rabbi and the priest who walk into a bar. If you’re going to dig up those corpses, you better have an original idea to dress them up in. Sadly, Jeff mostly just goes for the easy laughs. He never really shocks and he never really surprises with originality. There are some amusing bits here and there (thanks mostly to the quality animation direction), but they hardly warrant an hour-long fish-out-of-water movie. This may have worked better as a TV pilot, but it sure wears thin for its movie-style length.

“Gravity” Review

Science fiction has the power to make outer space seems like wondrous frontiers of adventure and battles. In the case of ‘Gravity’, however, we’re taken on a terror ride in Earth’s orbit that seems a little too real. It’s movies like this that make me a little less disappointed my childhood dreams of being an astronaut didn’t pan out.

The film centers on two astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Their shuttle is obliterated by an orbiting debris storm that shreds anything in its path. With limited oxygen and jetpack fuel, the two must travel from space station to space station in search of a landing craft before the debris storm catches up with them. There are no extra characters or subplots as the movie is laser focused on the stunning journey back to Earth.

On one level, ‘Gravity’ sounds like a Roland Emmerich film with Murphy’s Law in full effect. Shuttles are smacked around by debris and interiors of space stations catch on fire. Surprisingly, though, there is a tremendous amount of heart in Sandra Bullock’s character as she strategically makes her journey home. She doesn’t have much to come back to which forces her to find a reason to live when the odds of survival reach critical lows.

Props needs to be given to director Alfonso Cuaron and his top-notch visual effects team that sell outer space better than any other film out there. Everything from the camera swinging around a zero-g environment to the little details of how the actors move in such a space is a real visual treat.  You never once feel like you’re just watching two actors bounce around a sound stage. The icing on the cake is the less-is-more sound editing in how all of the explosions and destruction in space is kept silent. The quiet nature of these scenes really enhances the chilling scares of the black void.

‘Gravity’ is destined to be a sci-fi classic not for its story or even characters, but the emotion and brutal atmosphere of how ruthless outer space is portrayed. Yes, it’s essentially a technological thrill ride, but it happens to be the best of its kind on all fronts. It does away with the fat that usually accompanies disaster/survival films and delivers on every nail-biter moment with genuine thrills. You don’t see too many technological marvels of cinema with such an emotional and focused core which is what makes ‘Gravity’ such an epic in my book.

“Big Bad Wolf” Review

How much more grim do these fairy tales have to get before they’re pure trash? Yeah, I understand the fun to be had with pumping classics such as Hansel & Gretel and Snow White with lots of action and violence. Heck, I’m all for it if it can be done with a certain level of creativity. But ‘Big Bad Wolf’ (also known as ‘Huff’) is ground-zero for these types of adaptations with uninspired ideas and a disgustingly hateful script based on ‘The Three Little Pigs’.

The stepfather known as Huff (get it?) has three stepdaughters that he preaches the dark word of the Bible to on a daily basis. The stepdaughters are named Brixi, Styx and Shay (GET IT!?). When Huff isn’t screaming at his family, beating his family or deciding who to rape in his family, he likes to dabble in selling drugs. But when the wife swipes the drug money and forces her daughters out the door for a better life, Huff gets steamed and goes hunting with Bible and knife in hand.

So why is Huff such a hypocritical zealot who is abusive to every human on Earth? At one point it seems like it may have something to do with his inhaler, but that trait (as with the mafia subplot) just doesn’t go anywhere. We never once get a chance to see his backstory or his inner demons as the film seems far more preoccupied with the hunt. And that’s all the film really is: a brutal hunt. Huff tracks down a stepdaughter, demands his money, rips her clothes off, stabs her and moves on. Why does he need to murder them? It may be the Jesus in his head telling him to smite the wicked, but, again, this is never focused on for very long. We don’t need to develop any of these characters because the director thinks that a stepfather viciously raping and killing his daughters is entertainment enough.

There’s just nothing to like about this movie. The acting is phoned in by all involved, the violence towards family members is unwatchable and the grand finale where Huff finally gets a taste of his own medicine is very underwhelming. In an interview with director Paul Morrell, he states that his reasoning for making this film was because he’s never seen a horror feature based on ‘The Three Little Pigs’ motif. Well, congratulations, Paul, you’re the first to make such a movie. It’s a terrible movie, but at least you get to have that claim to fame if nothing else.

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“Bad Grandpa” Review

Since the release of the first Jackass movie in 2002, the stunt and shock of these good old boys have slowly been replaced by many amateur imitators on both television and YouTube. Thankfully, the elaborate team behind the Jackass trilogy has taken a slight step up by following the formula of Sacha Baron Cohen’s shock comedy. And while Bad Grandpa may not be on the same laugh level of Borat, it’s at least refreshing to see that they’re trying something more innovative than just Jackass 4. And as long as this means no Jackass 4, I’m all for it.

This time around there is actually a story and characters to go along with all the public pranks. Through an elaborate makeup process, Johnny Knoxville inhabits the role of Irving, a horny old man who is overjoyed at the recent death of his wife. He even confesses his glee to a woman sitting next to him in the waiting room. His newfound freedom is soon put on hold, however, as his witty 8-year-old grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) needs to be driven to his dad while his mom is in prison. The dad happens to be a deadbeat drug dealer who only accepts the child for the government paycheck, but it’s of little concern to Irving who is more interested in getting rid of Billy and chasing tail. However, after spending some time on the road having fun with Billy…well, you can see where this is going to end up. But, let’s be honest, the story isn’t what is important here. It’s just a thin narrative used as an excuse for some skits ranging from vulgar wordplay to slapstick to the gross-out.

While I didn’t exactly get a hard laugh, there were a few moments that caught me off guard. Just about every segment here is very well thought out and funny for the sheer length these two characters are willing to go. I got to give credit to both Johnny Knoxville and Jackson Nicoll for maintaining face and always delivering a great line for whoever they run into. I also think it’s worth noting how Johnny Knoxville does a great acting job with Irving not just for the crass remarks but the genuine emotion. When he confesses to a bar patron about how he feels bad about leaving Billy with his father, you really believe the sincerity in his voice. It’s not exactly a grand performance, but the believability he displays in certain scenes is impressive. Even Jackson Nicoll does a fantastic job as a slick speaking youngster that comes off more innocent than condescending.

It feels a bit odd to write this about a movie with defecation and punches to the groin, but the antics of Johnny Knoxville and company seem a little soft in comparison to their competition. The movie is still quite funny, but it never really hit that heavy laugh point I had with Borat or even the Jackass trilogy. To be honest, though, that may be a good thing. I’ve seen plenty of public prank movies/TV series and some of them end up going way too far for a joke. Maybe I’m still just fuming over how awful The Amazing Racist bits were in InAPPropriate Comedy, but Johnny Knoxville impersonating an old man with a smart-mouthed kid just came off as charming. Again, it feels a bit odd writing that about a film where the kid drinks beer and chucks his grandma’s corpse off a bridge.

The movie ends with footage of the people in public finally being informed of the joke after each segment. Everybody seemed cool with the prank and nobody was irate at being lied to from those clips. It’s a perfect cap to a film that comes off a little more good-natured than you may be expecting from Jackass. Bad Grandpa certainly has brilliant moments of the shocking and the grotesque, but it never really crossed that line of being too offensive or trying too hard for a joke. It just has that certain level of crude that never boils over into complete disgust.

I probably won’t be quoting this duo anytime in the future, but I was sufficiently entertained by their road trip excuse for some fun skits. As far as pranks go, the Jackass team prove once again that they’re still the best both for the laughs and the technique. And if they’re willing to try new ideas like wrap more narratives and characters around their comedy, the future looks bright for these old geezers. My only hope is that they retire to something less draining before Johnny Knoxville really doesn’t need makeup for this role anymore.

“About Time” Review

Time travel isn’t a science fiction element exclusive to the genre that birthed it. If I’ve learned anything from the Back to the Future trilogy, it’s that the ability to manipulate the past and future can spawn many different stories. About Time does just that: it takes a character with the ability to change the past and has him use his powers to find the perfect woman romantic comedy style.

Right off the bat, I had serious doubts about this story. I’ve been burned before with this concept as with the incredibly boring The Time Traveler’s Wife and the predictably routine Click. Luckily, this was a movie in the hands of Richard Curtis (Love Actually). And while Curtis doesn’t really think through the whole time travel angle, he does know how to craft an enjoyable rom-com.

When Nick has finally come of age to move out of his parents lush home, his dad reveals that the men of the family have the amazing ability to turn back time by simply thinking about a point in time. He tests this out by going into the closet, thinking about the New Years party he was at last night and ends up back at that very point in time. Every element recurs unless of course Nick desires to change it. This allows him to craft the perfect life where just about every mistake he makes with the girl he desires most can be averted. Every line can be a gem, every kiss can be the best and every move will be perfect. But there’s always a catch when it comes to messing with time and Nick soon learns the consequences and how he can’t exactly save everyone.

Though the film’s main goal is to present a charming romantic comedy involving time travel, it also has a lot to do with the relationship between Nick and his father. The two of them, sharing the same ability, chat a lot about what good can come of this power and how best to use it. You really get a sense of more or less the reality of these powers as Nick’s father covers what he’s spent most of his life achieving and regretting with changing time. You can use this power to read every book in the world twice or become a famous actor several times over, but none of it beats a date with your favorite girl or a game of ping pong with your dad.

As a warning, don’t go in expecting a satisfying portrayal of time travel. The whole concept of time travel itself doesn’t make much sense in cinema to begin with, but the inconsistencies are a little more visible here. The rules of Nick and has dad’s abilities are played very loose as you can apparently take others with you as you travel to the past. The implied paradoxes of adding another character for the journey not to mention that Nick at one point uses his power to travel back to his childhood would make one’s head explode. Take a cue from the Austin Powers films and don’t overanalyze it too much.

If you’re willing to go along with suspension of disbelief, About Time is a very pleasing romance romp with a unique concept. There are plenty of likable characters, genuine comedy and real emotion to fuel the entire redoing a timeline concept. As someone who wasn’t fond of the concept or romantic comedies in general, I was very surprised at how entertained I was by the whole scenario. For being Richard Curtis’ final film, he certainly turns in an astonishingly heartwarming story that touches so many bases about life, love and family. It’s not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, but the movie is irresistible enough to bring a smile to even the most jaded audience.

“Doctor Who: Day of the Doctor” Review

While I have really dug the 50 years of Doctor Who for all its incredible stories and cheap effects, I’ve never really dug the reunion-style anniversary specials. Sure, it’s kind of cool to see multiple iterations of the iconic space-travelling Doctor in the same episode, but the stories were hardly the highlights of the series. The Three Doctors pretty much had William Hartnell wheeled out for a few lines and The Five Doctors edited in footage of Tom Baker from an unfinished episode. The plots were essentially written around the possibility of rounding up as many Doctor actors as possible. So I was a little hesitant about this 50th anniversary which brought together Matt Smith and David Tennant. However, a strong script and a great guest spot by John Hurt as the “secret doctor” manage to make this a superb special that rises above the others.

Similar to the other anniversary specials, three generations of the time-traveling Doctor are thrown together by a key event. The center of the story is a forgotten version of the Doctor (John Hurt) during the cataclysmic event known as the Time War. The war in which the Daleks and the Time Lords battle for the fate of time and space was brought to a close when the Doctor activates the Time Lock, trapping the Daleks and Time Lords forever. However, before he pushes the button, the entity of Bad Wolf (Billie Piper) opens a portal in time to witness his future incarnations if he goes through with his plan.

The old and worn Doctor happens upon both the 10th (David Tennant) and 11th (Matt Smith) versions of himself in different time periods. The 11th Doctor is trying to solve the mystery of the missing subjects of paintings in modern London while the 10th Doctor is in the 1500’s dealing with a Zygon threat. The two incidents are actually connected which brings together both of them as well as the forgotten Time War Doctor. But the solution to this Zygon threat may also hold the key for rewriting the history of the Time War.

This special manages to succeed as both a solid story and a reunion of sorts. The characters are not just trotted out for the sake of seeing them again as there is plenty going on for every character to shine. Guest star John Hurt really brings his A-game here completely inhabiting the role of grumpy, weary Doctor tired and worn from the Time War. His chemistry with the goofy David Tennant and the exuberant Matt Smith was priceless. And, thankfully, the majority of the film has them all working together to not only solve a common problem, but discover more about themselves.

There’s a brilliant moment when John Hurt asks the two Doctors if they remember how many children there were on Gallifrey before he activated the Time Lock. David Tennant remembers the exact number while Matt Smith has forgotten it over time. You really get a sense of how the characters have changed and what they think of themselves for the choices they’ve made in the past (even though we’re really only meeting one of them for the first time). It’s a solid build-up for the grand climax that not only reshapes the lore of Doctor Who, but also gives a chance for the grandest reunion of them all with all incarnations of the Doctor involved. There is even a brief glimpse of the next Doctor and a surprising cameo role by one of the notable actors of the series.

Special effects wise, this is the biggest production I’ve seen out of the series to date. Just the brief battle scenes of the Time War on Gallifrey are unbelievably epic in scale and detail. Large fleets of starships bombard the planet, troops defend the planet with laser rifles and the Daleks go down in glorious explosions.

The main villains of this special, the Zygons, were a bold choice given their strange designs. Thankfully, they come off fearsome thanks to some top-notch practical and CGI effects. All the sets from the art gallery to the historic countryside look fantastic. There are too many memorable shots to pick just one as a favorite. The opening scene where the TARDIS is airlifted to the scene, the moment when all three Doctors meet, the stand-off in an underground bunker and even the expected shot of all 12 doctors together look spectacular.

Showrunner Steven Moffat has managed to achieved what I never thought I’d see: a Doctor Who anniversary special that may be the best of the entire franchise. It continues the story of the character, rewrites the timeline, takes notable risks and is just a solidly written piece. Usually with Doctor Who, I try to look past much of its shortcomings or ironically go along with them to be entertained. Day of the Doctor is genuinely enjoyable all the way through. As a fan of the show, this is the best one could hope for from a 50th anniversary special.

“Man of Steel” Review

It’s been a long time since there has been a decent Superman movie. Superman 3 and Superman 4: The Quest for Peace were lackluster to the say least and Superman Returns was more of a love-letter than an actual remake or sequel. In the crafty hands of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan, Man of Steel manages to be the Superman I’ve been waiting for. He doesn’t explode on to the screen with the same resonance as Batman’s reimagining, but it does lay a solid foundation for the primary-colored cape.

Told in a slightly non-linear fashion, we get to see the last son of Krypton rise to the title of Superman. The film explores how Clark Kent learns to find his place in the world and cope with his powers that become painfully overwhelming at times. In his early adult years, Clark Kent wanders the globe just trying to blend in, but always seems to end up using his powers. Eventually, he discovers the secret of his alien race via an alien vessel buried in the ice. At which point, we finally get to see the iconic suit. It took an hour, but it was well worth the build-up.

Our antagonist for the movie is Zod; not an original villain, but a strong choice that fits with the story. Having escaped the Phantom Zone for his crimes against Krypton’s council, Zod wants to turn Earth into a new Krypton with a giant gravity-smashing device. In addition, he also wants to retrieve the vital codex of his people who were actually stored within Superman’s DNA. Realizing he doesn’t need Superman alive to retrieve this information, it isn’t long before the two duke it out in a city-smashing brawl that makes Superman 2’s fight look like a minor scuffle.

This is a much different Superman than the usual movie affair. Unlike like previous incarnations which dive straight into the heroism theatrics, fun though they may be, this is man struggling to both function with and properly use his superpowers. It gives a reason for why Clark dons the cape and why he decides to lead the life we know he’ll pursue. The scene where he first learns to fly by taking massive leaps and bounds is the best moment of the film as we actually get to see Superman take shape before our eyes.

This is not a perfect movie. It has some pacing problems and the third act fight scene goes on a little too long. And the biggest concern seems to be the violence in how Superman seems to decimate Metropolis and ultimately murder his enemies. But this is actually the most unique aspect of Superman as a character. When he reaches the climax which results in him murdering his foes, he’s frustrated and angry. He realizes he has to be smart about how he uses his powers and foils the bad guys. This is a man still struggling to find his place in the world and how to be a hero. I enjoyed the development in how he still has a ways to go instead of just quickly jumping into the suit and knowing exactly what to do.

For all its questionable flaws, Man of Steel is on the same level as Batman Begins. And that movie had a few problems as well, but the sequel more than learned from those mistakes. That’s why I was so excited after seeing Man of Steel for how much potential a sequel can hold for being the best Superman movie since the original. At any rate, Superman is back and I couldn’t be happier.