Endless Bummer: Party Camp (1987)

There’s a Hall of Fame of 1980s teen movies – John Hughes is obviously member no. 1, then there’s directors like Savage Steve Holland and actors like John Cusack and C Thomas Howell. There’s not a lot of new stuff to write about any of the classics, but what we do have is an almost endless treasure trove of garbage. When someone like me – who once built a full-sized armchair entirely out of 80s teen movie VHS tapes, my collection was so large – still manages to discover unheard-of movies from the era, then I feel I have a responsibility to you, dear reader, to help you navigate these treacherous waters. Welcome to our new regular feature “Endless Bummer”, and hopefully we’ll rediscover a few classics and re-bury a few pieces of crap.

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That caption doesn’t scan right

Days after watching it, I’m still not sure which of those categories “Party Camp” falls into. It feels a bit like a movie made by someone whose only frame of reference for American teen culture was other movies like this – things happen just because they’re supposed to happen, and their escalation without understanding leads to some inadvertently bizarre scenes. Anyway.

Jerry Riviera is a cool teen outsider type who has one thing on his mind – ladies, and specifically the beautiful Heather, who works as a lifeguard at Camp Chipmunk. He sees her photo in…a magazine article about summer camps?…and immediately decides to get a job there. Taking a quick break to feel another camp counsellor’s boobs on the bus on the way, he pursues his goal and is ultimately successful, thanks to his team’s victory in a hastily thrown-together tournament. Hurrah!

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He’s the counsellor in charge of the Squirrels, the loser’s cabin…because that’s how you get repeat business at a place like this. As it’s the natural order of things, there’s a jock cabin (whose stupid code name I’ve forgotten, and I’m certainly not watching it again to check), and the jocks must make the nerds’ lives miserable. Although mostly it’s the hacker nerd setting up a system which allows them to spy on such activities as women getting changed and the manager of the camp indulging in bizarre bee-themed S&M with her assistant.

The jokes are unbearably lame and the setups are obvious from a mile away, but it’s all good fun. These movies had their standard formulations and this one sampled them – put a Ferris Bueller type in the middle of “Meatballs”, add a completely standard love plot, and bob’s your uncle. There’s also a narrator guy who only we see…until the end, when he introduces the contestants for the final race. It’s a bit odd, but it’s pleasant enough.

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I mentioned inadvertently odd moments, and this movie has em. As well as having a fun, consensual S&M relationship front and centre, there’s the nerd camper who’s also a gun nut. He brings a sack of automatic weapons with him, which is frightening enough; but later, when the jocks take the nerds’ spying equipment, they hold the manager at gunpoint until he gives it back to them (they’ve also kidnapped the jock counsellor and his slutty girlfriend). Next scene, everything is fine. What?

So, for a film which appears to have little relation to reality or common sense, it’s plenty of fun. Watch with a stiff drink and a forgiving mind, and you’ll have a good time. Andrew Ross as Jerry had a very short career – this was his first role, then he had a tiny part in another movie, a single episode on some TV show and he was done. Did no-one need a third rate Matthew Broderick in the 1980s?

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Critters 4 (1992)

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I’m not sure when something passes from being homage to outright theft, but “Critters 4” skirts very close to the line. This movie, set entirely in space, has two sections lifted straight from “Star Wars” – one where the characters fall into a giant waste disposal area; and a group of soldiers later in the movie who are all dressed almost identically to Darth Vader. I wonder what they were hoping to achieve with this? Perhaps they wanted to get sued to generate some publicity. Perhaps it was all a huge coincidence and they’d never even seen Star Wars!

 

After the “to be continued” of part 3, Charlie gets trapped on the rescue pod sent down to save the last two critter eggs in the Universe. Off into space he goes, and we then cut to 2045. We get quite a lot of information, and I’d like to discuss it with you, dear reader, to show…actually, I’ve got no idea, but it doesn’t reflect well on this movie. So, we have the “Intergalactic Council”, who want those eggs. We have Ug and Charlie, who work for them as bounty hunters. All this happens in 1992-time.

 

In 2045 time, quite a few things have changed. At some point (presumably very quickly after the pod set off from Earth) the Intergalactic Council dissolved. Humanity, via the all-encompassing Terracorp, has figured out faster-than-light travel, and now not only completely dominates the galaxy but has had time to both build and abandon multiple gigantic space stations. None of this makes a lick of sense.

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A salvage ship picks up the pod, and rather than just sell it as scrap they’re contacted by Terracorp, who asks them to take it to one of their stations. The rep from Terracorp is Ug, our friend from the first two movies, only he’s got a different name and…

 

Sorry for breaking off that sentence. But I wanted welcome “Critters 4” to the Dropped Plot Thread Hall of Fame! “Critters 4” must have had a very odd genesis, as they introduce an absolute ton of things that are then completely ignored or glossed over. To whit:

  • The teenager on the ship and his Dad
  • Heck, any reason for that ship’s existence (salvage is just my best guess)
  • Why the space station was abandoned (they hint it might be another different evil alien species)
  • Why Ug went from space bounty hunter to Earth corporate guy
  • Why the captain was so desperate to get into the pod

The rest of it is just a catalogue of baffling decisions and stuff that just doesn’t make any sense, as the critters get out, multiply pretty quickly and go a’killin. Thrill to the creatures which are, at best, hours old knowing how to use a computer on an alien (to them) base, programming a route to get back to Earth (which they’d last seen as eggs)! Wow as no-one says “hey, should we get off this base maybe?” Be amazed as Charlie, who was once a space bounty hunter himself, proves himself too stupid to live on multiple occasions! Exclaim in delight as one critter gets frozen to death and his killer says “chill out”! Cheer at re-use of footage of Ug’s ship from part 2! Get wild at perhaps the worst soliloquy in movie history!

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This is by far the worst of the four, and it’s sad they left it on such a sour note, as the first two films were fine silly, sub-Gremlins fun. It’s got a decent cast – joining Terrence Mann and Don Opper (Charlie) are Angela Bassett, Brad Dourif and Eric DaRe – and sets re-used from 1982’s “Android” (as well as the Terracorp concept), which Opper also co-starred in, but it just feels like they were half-way through making a movie then had to change everything, for reasons unknown. If they’d gone camp with the stupid choices made by every character, then it might have been fun, but Charlie remains the sole comic relief and by comic relief I mean “appears dangerously stupid at all times”.

 

Perhaps the worst thing about all this is how irrelevant the critters are. The real ending is Charlie vs. Ug (spoiler alert, I guess?) and the critters themselves are ignored almost completely for the last twenty minutes or so of the movie. If anyone knows quite why this movie was so appallingly bad, please tell me because I’m annoyed by it all. Screw you and your stupid Aliens-meets-Star-Wars-meets-head-injury garbage…actually, the space station computer I liked, but two good jokes in this morass of crap is not good enough.

 

Rating: thumbs down

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Critters 3 (1991)

THIS COVER LIES

THIS COVER LIES

When a movie franchise switches from cinema release to straight-to-video, sometimes you can’t tell the difference. Okay, that’s usually because they sucked before and sucked afterwards equally, but a smart franchise will use previously existing sets and a bit of chutzpah to cover up the drop in budget. Sadly, “Critters” appears to not be a smart franchise, and they’ve relocated from the small Kansas town that homed the first two, and had all sorts of interesting visuals,  to a single apartment building in an unnamed city, which, er, doesn’t.  It would seem that Ug, aka Terrence Mann, got a slightly better paying offer in the meantime, as he only appears as 10 seconds of hologram at the end; and even odder, Don Opper, as drunk-turned-interstellar-bounty-hunter-turned-Sheriff-turned-weirdo-who-lives-in-a-hole Charlie, misses the entire first hour of the movie. He can’t have been too busy, surely?

 

But none of you care about that! The one and only reason anyone in 2015 would give a hoot about “Critters 3” is a very early appearance from future superstar Leonardo DiCaprio, as the barely post-pubescent stepson of the evil landlord of the apartment building. He gives zero indication of being about to move into superstardom, but he’s fine I suppose.

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Let’s discuss coincidences. Our heroic family (widowed father, spunky teenage girl, goofy younger boy) are on a camping trip in an RV. While suffering a blown tire, they pull up at a car park in the vicinity of Grover’s Bend, and not only meet Charlie…we’re not even going to get into the zero explanation given for him being the Sheriff at the end of part 2, but by the beginning of part 3 is back to being a goofy-dressed oddball who hides in a hole in the ground looking for critters…but also meet the guy who turns out to be the evil landlord of their building. In a city which is nowhere near where they are right at that moment. It could have been handled in a million more sensible ways – for example, why not have the kids meet at a park or shop near their house? Why not have them not meet at all? It’s not like they’re old enough to be the romantic leads.

 

Anyway, the landlord is trying to force them out so he can use the land to build a mall. He’s already been told by a court he needs to pay relocation fees, which he’s trying to get out of doing; the problem is, none of these people are destitute slum-dwelling types. They’re in full time work, and one of them could presumably take a few photos of the appalling things they’re doing to force them out, even take a recording (at one point, he walks the corridors of the building shouting “I’ve come to evict you!”) and sue the crap out of him. It’s a really dumb story for a movie.

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The critters hitch a ride on the underside of the RV, sneak into the building and we’re on for another film of them not quite behaving enough like Gremlins to trigger a legal battle – although they skate close with this one. Some bits are funny, some bits are quite tense, but ultimately it’s a movie where you end up asking way too many questions about the dumb choices everyone makes.

 

  • Why don’t they just leave as soon as the attacks start happening? The front door works, and the critters aren’t blocking the entrance.
  • One of the survivors ends up hanging off the side of the building with her foot through a loop of rope. Even though it would be the easiest thing imaginable to just bend her foot and slip out of the loop, dropping the last three feet in relative safety, she chooses not to.
  • Why do the critters (who were just eggs at the beginning of the movie) know who Charlie is?
  • There’s a fire in the building towards the end, and with them being in the middle of a large city you’d think someone would notice it. Nope.
  • How the hell do the critters lay eggs so quickly?

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It just feels like no-one gave a damn about the story, which is a shame. The critters look fine, the effects are okay, none of the acting is all that terrible…it’s just lazy and slapped together. Terrence Mann’s name appearing in the end credits before he makes his tiny cameo is a good example of this. Director Kristine Peterson was assistant director on “Tremors” (which she sadly learned nothing from) and then would go on to make “Kickboxer 5”, which she did pretty well with. Which makes the suckiness of this one even sadder.

 

Rating: thumbs down

Critters 2: The Main Course (1988)

Yep, same picture from part 1

Yep, same picture from part 1

The people who made “Critters” evidently decided they’d had so much fun with part 1 that part 2 was just going to be exactly the same, only with more Critters; we get the same sort of jokes, the same sort of characters (with a large number of returning cast members) and the same sort of locations.

 

Charlie, the town drunk from part 1, has joined the interstellar bounty hunter team, despite them being shapeshifters while he’s a goofy looking redneck; although Ug has kept his Johnny Steele face, I guess because he liked it although it’s never really that clear. They’re called back to Earth because they missed two eggs the last time they were there, although the two eggs have now multiplied to be several boxes of eggs. Perhaps the eggs had eggs? Some of them are sold to a little old lady organising an Easter Egg hunt, and some of them are left near a nice incubating heater in the back of an “antique” store. Add in the return to town of Brad from part 1, visiting his grandmother, and you’ve got yourself a movie!

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It’s a movie packed with “That Guy” and “That Gal” actors – Barry Corbin as the disgraced former sheriff (his delivery of “this town can kiss my ass!” is a classic), Eddie Deezen, Lin Shaye and Sam Anderson, among others. In one amazing bit, the bounty hunter who can’t choose a good face transforms into a Playboy centrefold, played by 80s scream queen Roxanne Kernohan…complete with the staple from the magazine in the middle of her chest. She was surprisingly funny, which means extra sadness when doing research for this review, as I found out she died at age 32 in a car accident. Of course, we got a few seconds of nudity before female-cut bounty hunter clothes just appear on her between scenes.

 

With about a minute of cuts for blood, this could easily be a PG family friendly monster movie. There’s a scene in a diner which is even more “Gremlins” than any scene from the first Critters movie, we see lots of amusing deaths (full of green goo rather than blood) and the comedy is nice and gentle, with the bounty hunter transforming jokes being particularly funny.

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I don’t know if it’s worth going down this road, but it is kind-of lazy at times. In part 1, they were tracking down a bunch of Krites who were escaped criminals, smart enough to steal and fly a spaceship; but in part 2, it seems that all Krites are psychopathic eating machines with little intellect. Brad looks at a photo, but it’s just a still from the first movie, when he was hiding from his family no less. There’s way more critters than eggs, too, although it does give us the amazing visual of a huge ball of them moving down the hill into town, rolling over a guy and stripping the flesh from his bones instantly.

 

It’s not as bad as I’ve made out – it’s funny, with lots of good effects and while it’s not got the same love and attention spent on it as the first one did, it’s definitely worth spending time with. Perhaps don’t watch parts 1 and 2 so close together, though. For future Vin Diesel fans, this is an early scriptwriting effort for David Twohy, who’d go on to write and direct all the “Pitch Black” movies. Talking of which, I hope they do more of them.

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Rating: thumbs up

Youtube Film Club: China O’Brien (1990)

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We love Cynthia Rothrock here at the ISCFC. From managing to maintain some dignity in the truly rotten “Tiger Claws” series, to a fun turn in “The Magic Crystal” to the genuinely great “No Retreat, No Surrender 2”, she’s managed to not exactly elevate her material; but to sort-of act at the same time as being one of the most talented screen martial artists ever.

“China O’Brien” would probably be no.1 if you did a “Family Fortunes” round on naming a Rothrock movie. I’ve never seen it before, but (aside from the 80s high school movie love) I was a bit of a snob in my youth, watching indie, arthouse and “serious” foreign movies; my friends, sensibly, enjoyed stuff like this. If you like, you can see ISCFC as me catching up on my teens, and hopefully recommending some fun stuff to you, but you don’t come here to read my dull life story!

China O’Brien is a cop as well as a martial arts teacher, and one day one of her students, a young angry black man, decides he’s had enough and tells her she wouldn’t last two minutes in a real fight on the street. She’s all “you know how I feel about violence” and then agrees to meet him in a back alley at 10pm? It turns out she thinks this is a demonstration, something the movie struggles to tell us, or perhaps they wanted to put us on the back foot from the beginning? Anyway, after realising she’s in a real fight she then, completely out of character, shoots someone emerging from the shadows. This is…a kid, maybe? (again, the movie isn’t interested in telling us)…and she’s forced to hand in her badge and gun. After very minimal soul searching, she’s off to Beaver Creek, Utah, the small town she grew up in to visit her Dad, the Sheriff.

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So the movie is that classic “hero rides into town” story. But the villain in this, Sommers, manages to differentiate himself from other movie villains not by chewing scenery, but by having zero respect for the law from the very beginning. On a routine call to a lumber yard, Sommers’ people decide to ignore the Sheriff, then when he tries to arrest them go full-on to murder him and China, using chainsaws, guns and all sorts. Then, the Judge (who’s in Sommers’ pocket too) threatens to have the Sheriff charged with wrongful arrest! It’s hammered home that this is a very bad man, but when the Sheriff and his Deputy are blown up, that’s when I’d be calling in the FBI. They sort of mention they’re thinking of doing it, but that never happens.

China decides to stay in town and stand for election for her Dad’s old job, and luckily she’s got some help, in the form of her old high school boyfriend turned special forces soldier turned teacher Matt – the great Richard Norton, who co-starred with Rothrock in “The Magic Crystal”. Now, Norton is Australian and makes no attempt to hide his accent; it’s a toss-up which is odder between that and the final member of their little gang, “Dakota”, a Native American who’s played by Keith Cooke (who does not appear to be Native American at all), whose mother was forced into prostitution. So, it’s the three of them against Sommers and his goons – the townspeople, apart from the people who Sommers has in his pocket, are all firmly on China’s side.

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It’s a riot of odd haircuts and magnificent clothing choices, as China rocks the Hammer pants regularly, and numerous townsfolk sport weird and wonderful variations on the mullet. It’s also a riot of acting styles, with Rothrock and Norton almost convincing you they’re human beings. No, I’m sorry, I was being mean – there’s one scene where Norton gives Rothrock a little peck and she performs “girlish glee” as well as I’ve ever seen it done. The rest of the cast are convincingly sleazy-looking local hoodlum types.

But you don’t see a Cynthia Rothrock movie for the acting. She’s an amazing martial artist, as is Norton, and they work at the absolute top of their abilities here. The camera is sped up a few times but they’re still incredibly precise, well-choreographed, demanding and real-looking stunts. I will also never get tired of seeing sexist rednecks looking surprised after “little girl” O’Brien absolutely whups their ass. The fight round the bonfire is a little masterpiece, and it’s almost worth the cost of admission on its own.

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It’s a great movie. You know what you’re getting and the film does not disappoint. Okay, the lawlessness doesn’t ramp up throughout, starting at a “we are prepared to murder someone in a bar for no reason” level and staying there, but the extreme black and white allows you to sit back and enjoy, with no fear of double-crosses or twists or any of that. Just pure fun and ass-kicking excitement. It’s also a movie with two rather unusual bits of trivia attached to it, first of which is the director Robert Clouse, who’s best known to us as the director of “Enter The Dragon”. While this isn’t quite as good as that, it’s still got the pedigree of a director who knows how to film martial arts.

Second is a rather nondescript song which plays as China drives to her home town, performed by a band called “Tess Makes Good”. This is none other than Tori Amos, after her brief attempt at pop stardom with Y Kant Tori Read but before “Little Earthquakes” would make her an international superstar. This movie is the only way to hear this song, should you be an Amos completist, as the soundtrack was never released and she never put the song out herself. Anyway, here it is:

Rating: thumbs up

Critters (1986)

 

critters-movie-poster-1985-1020205513People in the 80s seemed to understand that if you made B-movies, you might as well make them fun. It’s not like anyone’s going to take “shapechanging bounty hunters track an escaped group of criminals, who are all small mutant-hedgehog-looking aliens, across the galaxy to a small town in Kansas” and treat it like a great work of art. A “Critters” remake in 2015 would have tons of backstory at the beginning and be half an hour longer; but luckily we don’t have to worry about that!

 

Thank you for not messing about, movie! In a lightning fast opening, we see a prison asteroid with a ship full of prisoners heading towards it. After touching down, the ship is taken over by the Krites and escapes – the authorities (aka a voiceover) charge a couple of bounty hunters with killing them, and off we go. Total elapsed time, about three minutes.

 

But it can’t all be fun in space, so then we get some fun on Earth. Because everyone mentions it, I suppose I ought to as well – although the director loudly denies “Critters” was produced in response to the success of “Gremlins”, it very obviously was, and there are a ton of similarities. Small town which appeared out of time even then; father who tinkers; scene where the critters run wild (one of them tries to talk to a stuffed ET doll before biting its head off); blowing up a building near the end. I mean, it’s not close enough to warrant being sued for plagiarism or anything like that, but it’s unlikely to have been an accident.

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The bounty hunters are shapeshifters, so while one picks a guy from a music video pretty much at random (the awesomely coiffed “Johnny Steele”) to blend in, the other can’t decide – changing from the corpse of the Deputy who’s the Krites’ first victim, to the local Pastor, eventually to the town drunk. It’s a fun moment in a movie that really seems like it’s paying attention and getting those little things right. The buildup to the “carnage” is well-handled, if a trifle slow in comparison to the opening scenes, and the scene transitions are clever. Or maybe I’m just too impressed by that sort of thing. Who knows?

 

The cast is really strong too – from theatre star Terrence Mann as stoic bounty hunter Ug, to Dee Wallace Stone as the harried mother (a role she seemingly played in every movie from the mid 80s to the mid 90s), to M Emmet Walsh as the Sheriff, to Billy Zane in a very early role, as the surprisingly non-douchebag boyfriend – despite his number plate, which had the custom frame “I don’t give a shit”. It’s a cast every bit as strong as “Gremlins”, despite being a little smaller and a little more cartoony – Don Keith Opper as Charlie the town drunk is the chief culprit.

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So, we’ve got critters which are surprisingly easy to kill, a family fighting off the Krite invasion of their house, and a couple of aliens with super-cannons trying to find out where they are (although if they’d left the main family for another ten minutes, they’d have probably had their job done for them – the humans definitely have the bounty hunters beat in the Krite headcount stakes).

 

There’s one bit where you go “oh, the 80s” with a sad look on your face, and that’s when the parents need to pick one of their kids to go on a mission to get help. Rather than the 18 year old daughter, who can drive, they pick the 12 year old son, who just has a bike, and it’s not even a point of contention, as everyone just understands the boy is better for the job. But that’s one small moment in a film which is funny, full of action, and quite charming in its own way; I’m definitely looking forward to parts 2, 3 and 4 now, which means they’ll probably be terrible and you can laugh at my optimism in this review.

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Rating: thumbs up

Youtube Film Club: Ski Patrol (1990)

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As long-term ISCFC readers may be aware, a while ago we did a small series on skiing-based comedies. I thought we’d got them all, but thanks to the wonders of Youtube I found another one, and (aside from films which transcend the ski-comedy genre, like “Better Off Dead” or “Hot Tub Time Machine”) while this won’t be knocking “Out Cold” off its perch as the best of the lot, it’s not bad.

As the opening credits rolled, I fairly accurately predicted the characters, their relationships, and the main bits of the plot. But I’m not very clever, and I’m pretty sure you could have done the same thing. It’s the stereotypical ski movie – there’s a group of wacky skiers (in this case, the “ski patrol” of the title); a group of snooty assholes (the ski instructors, with one hot female to fall in love with our star); a crusty but loveable old resort owner; the evil developer who wants to demolish the place and turn it into a soulless corporate resort; a stupid reason why the owner can’t keep running the place; and an implausible ending where everything’s okay due to the heroes being good at skiing.

 

Told you it wasn’t that difficult. What “Ski Patrol” has is a strong comic cast, though, so even though they’re used sorta poorly in this movie, you can always remember the good stuff they’ve been in. We’ve got Martin Mull as the evil developer, Paul Feig (now much better known as a director) as the comic relief of the ski patrol, a whole ton of comedy “That Guy” actors, and (by a number of years, his first role) US standup / chat show host George Lopez.

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I think this movie ran a bit short on script, or money, or something, and had to use all the footage they had, because there are certain scenes which just never seem to end. TK Carter as Iceman has a few songs to showcase his sub-Jay Pharaoh impression skills, and they show every damn second of those songs. There’s also a ski bum who’s possibly supposed to come off as wacky or a bit rebellious, but just seems to be fairly severely mentally ill (and who causes a lot of the problems the resort has, but isn’t arrested or thrown out or anything like that. Paul Feig’s dancing is showcased at excruciating length. The ski patrol organises a “free for all”, which is just an entirely pointless way to waste three minutes. And so on.

 

“Ski Patrol” is, though, the answer to two of the most obscure movie trivia questions of all time. They are:

  1. Which movie has the most pratfalls per minute of any movie ever?
  2. Which movie has two different non-white guys doing Rodney Dangerfield impressions, at different times?

 

I like dogs, so I was pleased to see the main guy (who was so bland I don’t remember his name) has an English bulldog, who farts and belches and saves the day at the end, but also looks distinctly unimpressed when getting dragged through snow as his short legs can’t get over the ruts in the road. Poor fella!

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At one point, our dangerously psychotic friend gets hold of what looks like windsurfing kit, with skis attached; and without knowing any of the science, I can tell you why you don’t see people “wind-skiing”, because the speed you’re going downhill at will just act as a force the other way on the sail and slow you down. The whole scene (presumably put in there as product placement for a windsurfing company) is the perfect encapsulation of this movie – desperately trying to be funny, occasionally succeeding but not holding up to a moment’s scrutiny.

 

While you will definitely be bored (and slightly dismayed by the repeated anti-Chinese racism) there’s plenty of okay stuff in this, and provided you’re with a good group of people, you’ll have a laugh or two. It’s a family movie which the advertising will have you suspecting is a T&A movie – no nudity, no swearing, no excessive drinking or drug use – which is unexpected but okay (if only the bits where these movies would have those interludes were a bit better).

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Rating: thumbs in the middle

Just Before I Go (2014)

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Talking of movies that are outside the ISCFC’s wheelhouse, this is the sophomore directorial effort of Courteney Cox, ex of “Friends” and “Cougar Town”, one of the great sitcom actresses of recent decades. She’s previously directed 2012’s TV movie “Tallhotblond” and a ton of episodes of “Cougar Town”; for a script, she picked David Flebotte, a TV writer/producer on shows like “Desperate Housewives” and “Masters of Sex”.

 

It’s a curious film, for sure, and if you were being dismissive you could handwave it away as a sort of sitcom version of “American Beauty” crossed with 90s indie favourite “Beautiful Girls”, but I think it’s worth discussing in a little more detail. Seann William Scott is Ted, the saddest of all the sad sacks – in the “here I am at the bottom of the lake, now here’s the stuff that got me to this spot” opening, his father dies, he’s bullied at school by a teacher and an actual bully, he lives an utterly average life until his girlfriend leaves him (Elisha Cuthbert, so he must have been doing something right) and then, finally, comes to a decision. He’s going to kill himself, but first he’s going to go back to his home town, thank the one girl who was kind to him at school, and confront the bullies.

From the off, and I hate being this dismissive towards it, we get characters straight out of the book “Wacky Small-Town Folk…For Dummies!” His brother is the Sheriff, and is oblivious to how much his wife hates him; his wife walks in on houseguests in her “sleep” and masturbates, craps on her husband’s pillow and so on; their son is a closeted gay jock; his mother came out late in life and is now married to a female Elvis impersonator; the movie is dotted with them.

 

There are lots of more real-feeling people, though. The former bully is now kind family man Rob Riggle, who instantly apologises and becomes a good friend. He meets Greta, the evil teacher’s granddaughter, spills his entire plan to her, and she decides to film his last days so he doesn’t have to leave a suicide note and because that’s the sort of thing characters in movies like this do. She’s Olivia Thirlby, who we last saw as Judge Anderson in the amazing “Judge Dredd” movie, and she is a chameleonic actress because I didn’t even spot it was her til the end credits rolled. I honestly thought she was a high school student until she talked about her job, which made the giant neon “LOVE INTEREST” sign above her head a little weird; I just found out that she’s 29 to Scott’s 39, which I suppose is perfectly reasonable for the movies.

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Everyone appears to have been waiting for Ted to arrive in order to either deliver a monologue about their own failed lives, or to make some enormous change. Will the kid come out? Will Rob Riggle kill his abusive father? Will the unhappy couple realise they’ve got problems and break out of their rut? Will Greta tell her dark secret? Will his old friend from school leave her husband? Will Ted realise his problems aren’t actually all that bad?

 

The answer to all these questions, after the requisite amount of quiet conversations and shocking reveals, is “whatever the nicest possible option is”. It’s a well-made film – Cox films everything unobtrusively but it looks great, and there’s not a single weak performance among the bunch – but it’s so earnest, and so absolutely obvious, that I’m wondering if Cox, Flebotte and their producers had ever watched any movies before. Rather than allowing us to figure out what characters are going through, the movie just tells us straight out, and there’s no subtext to any of it – it feels like a million other “man goes back to home town to confront demons” movies, although with an extra-happy ending. Don’t think too hard about the movie’s treatment of suicide, either.

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But after all that…indie romantic comedy-dramas are only formulaic if you’ve seen a lot of them, and I guess Cox will bring a new group of fans who won’t have seen all the tropes beaten into the ground before. It’s a lot of fun, with the sitcom bona fides of its creators ensuring there’s a nice mix of the low-key and the broad, and although Thirlby is a little too good to be true, I buy the warm heart of the movie completely. I’m a sucker that way. Aside from one bit – if the cop dad has a gay mother who he apparently loves, why is he so worried about the prospect of his own son’s homosexuality? – it’s pleasingly free of plot holes too, so if you’re in the mood for being absolutely positive everything will turn out okay, and it does, then this is worth a watch I reckon.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle