Western movie reviews

A Very Murray Christmas (2015)

Most Christmas movies aim to show you what Christmas should be; A Very Murray Christmas presents Christmas as it is – boozy, off-key, and slightly disappointing. This hour-long Netflix special is not the kind of light entertainment meant to rally the family around the TV, but it’s a fresh alternative to the cheery, maudlin fare that’s usually on offer this time of year. Bill Murray, playing himself, gathers an assortment of his famous friends and they proceed to sing and sigh the night away. As you wonder what you’re watching, you may also find yourself unexpectedly warmed by this off-beat production.

The story, insomuch as there is one, takes the form of a live Christmas special shot from the Carlyle Hotel in New York. Unfortunately, a massive snow storm has paralyzed the city and threatens the entire eastern seaboard leaving Murray without his superstar guest friends. He refuses to proceed as a solo act, but with minutes until air, his shouty producers (Amy Poehler and Julie White) tell him that he’ll be on the hook financially if he doesn’t go on with the show, and so he does. Chris Rock just happens to be out and about this night, and strolling right past the Carlyle the very moment Murray is thinking of bailing. Murray all but kidnaps the unsuspecting comic, holding him hostage with a camera, a mike, and a matching Christmas sweater. In a sign of what is to come, the two perform a warbly, screechy rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

To say that not much happens thereafter would be accurate but also underselling the affair. A power outage soon forces the production to shut down, putting everyone in a much merrier mood. Murray makes his way to the lounge with his pianist, Paul Shaffer (Paul Shaffer), and they pass the time singing and drinking with the other trapped guests. One is a melancholy bride (Rashida Jones) and her fiancé (Jason Schwartzman), who see not only their wedding ruined but possibly their entire relationship. Then there’s a lounge singer played by Maya Rudolph, supplementing her musical talent with throaty gusto. Murray also takes to a nameless waitress (Jenny Lewis) who liquors him up and agrees to duet, placating him even further. Meanwhile, the kitchen staff (Phoenix) are roiled by the mountains of food going to waste. But then they ferry it into the lounge, serenade the crowd, and all is well again because there’s nothing food, music, and the company of strangers can’t fix.

That is not the message, but for an hour, it might as well be. The unexpected randomness of it all, including a drunken dream sequence featuring George Clooney and Miley Cyrus, is somehow very fitting for the season. I suspect lonely souls adrift in an urban winter (okay, myself) will find calm in this quiet chaos. The odd assortment actors and singers, the eccentric music program, the muted lighting, all are kindred spirits for someone who doesn’t want to drown in a plume of Christmas feels. Instead, an improvised sing-a-long to the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” and the Beach Boys’ “Alone on Christmas Day”, performed here by the French band Phoenix, perfectly capture a different kind of holiday mood.

Despite the strong undercurrent of loneliness and disappointment, there is a lot of joy that breaks through. Murray punctuates his show with some signature quips and classic tunes set the mood, but it’s things like Jenny Lewis’s clear, sweet voice corralling the discordant ones that bring comfort. Or the tenderness of Jones and Schwartzman dueting “I Saw the Light” like they’ve been tricked by friends into making up over a session of karaoke. There’s a lot of low-key happiness that ripples through this special, made better by how unexpected those moments are.

“Do You Hear What I Hear” by Bill Murray and Chris Rock:

“Alone on Christmas Day” by Phoenix:

“I Saw the Light” by Jason Schwartzman and Rashida Jones with cast:

“Fairytale of New York” by cast:

“Sleigh Ride” by Bill Murray and Miley Cyrus:

“Santa Wants Some Lovin'” by Bill Murray and George Clooney:

Released: 2015
Prod: Lilly Burns, John Skidmore
Dir: Sofia Coppola
Writer: Sofia Coppola, Mitch Glazer, Bill Murray
Cast: Bill Murray, Michael Cera, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Dimitri Dimitrov, David Johansen, Jenny Lewis, Rashida Jones, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Schaffer, Julie White, Phoenix
Time: 56 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017


Joseph: King of Dreams (2000)

This small film will never be as popular as its cousins, Prince of Egypt and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which share the same animation studio and source material, respectively. But if we’re ranking Biblical entertainment, or things I can show my Catholic school students to kill time, then this would be one of my favorites. Short and sweet and with some great music to boot, even sans Whitney and Mariah, Joseph: King of Dreams does exactly what you want it to do.

It recounts the story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis, favored son of Jacob and his wife Rachel and, of course, king of dreams. His parents lavish attention and resources on him, much to the envy of Joseph’s many brothers. Instead of working in the fields or herding sheep all day as they do, he gets to laze about, and that’s when he’s not also getting the benefit of an education. In addition, Mom sews him a fab coat, which is just too much for his brothers. They chuck him into a well and then sell him off to slavery.

In Egypt, Joseph’s intelligence earns him a place in a captain’s household. While Potiphar admires his industrious servant, his wife has other designs on the young, mostly barechested lad, and her advances land him in prison. Word of Joseph’s gift for interpreting dreams reaches Pharaoh though, which is great because he’s been having some wild nightmares about crushed cows and zombie corn. Joseph prophesizes that famine is on its way, and he is elevated to one of the most powerful positions in the land in order to manage the coming crisis. When his long lost brothers come to Egypt looking for food, he has some revenge in mind.

It’s a lot of story to tell, but there’s a lot of momentum and power in this compact plot. It packs a great emotional punch, much more so than Prince of Egypt or Technicolor Dreamcoat. I credit the music and its St. Louis Jesuits vibe. I doubt that’s what writer John Bucchino had in mind, but it will appeal to those who like 1970s-90s Catholic mass songs – and yes, I appreciate that is not everyone.

The movie opens with an exuberant number, “Miracle Child.” Joseph and his parents bang on about how he’s the best thing ever, making it easy to see why his brothers kind of hate him. But blame doesn’t settle easily on any one person. There is a lot of tenderness, mercy, and wonder too, and the song “Better Than I” demonstrates this beautifully. Joseph’s at his lowest point, figuratively and literally, and can do nothing but will his life to God. It’s a moving contrast from what he sings when he first arrives in Egypt. In “Whatever Road’s at Your Feet,” he also tries to make the best out of a bad situation, which – let’s be honest here – is slavery. The buoyant lyrics and melody speak to his self-reliance though and much less to a higher power.

There are only a few things that diminish this production. One is the unfortunate casting of Ben Affleck as Joseph. I can’t tell if the he’s congested or bored or if mopey is just an acting choice. I also didn’t care for the cheap and hasty hit job on Pharaoh’s dream sequence. There was an earlier Van Gogh-inspired one that pointed to the potential of the animation, which is still strong overall. These are minor grumbles though in a movie I’ve rewatched many times, and not even as a time filler for religion class. It’s moving, rewarding storytelling and one rich in love and forgiveness.

“Miracle Child”:



“Whatever Road’s at Your Feet”:

“You Know Better Than I”:

“More Than You Take”:

Released: 2000
Prod: Ken Tsumura, Jeffrey Katzenberg
Dir: Rob LaDuca, Robert C. Ramirez
Writer: Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer, Joe Stillman, Marshall Goldberg
Cast: Ben Affleck, David Campbell, Mark Hamill, Richard Herd, Maureen McGovern, Jodi Benson, Judith Light, James Eckhouse, Richard McGonagle
Time: 75 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

A Christmas Prince (2017)

Let me first get it out there and say that I predict star Ben Lamb, the Christmas prince, will go the way of Sam Heughan and net a career changing role, or at least I hope he does. Heughan, the faux prince in another vaunted television production, A Princess for Christmas, went on to become Jamie Fraser, prince of men, in the cult series Outlander. So let’s make this a productive pastime wherein I get to watch handsome white British dudes slumming it in bad American television before hitting it big.

I guess we will have to wait on the young Lamb though. In the meantime, how about this movie, right?! Thus kicks off my annual holiday brain-melt-a-thon in which I try to down as many soppy TV movies as my little head will allow. And I couldn’t have picked a better one to start the season. Actually I’m sure I could have, but this is what popped up on Netflix, and I didn’t feel like Mindhunter right before going to bed.

A Christmas Prince proves that a movie with a generic title and a predictable plot can still come out on top if you have the right actors and shooting location, and if your audience is within arms reach of a large bottle of vodka. Besides Lamb, who doesn’t exactly get to show off his acting skills but does get to show off his good looking skills, veteran Alice Krige tops the bill as mother to the prince. There is a royal predicament paralyzing the kingdom of Aldovia, which is apparently somewhere close to Romania. Nearly a year after the king’s death, the throne remains empty because the playboy prince, Richard (Lamb), refuses to assume his hereditary duty. The stern, grieving queen wishes her son would just get on with it, and not just for the family’s sake but to stunt the advance of her greedy nephew, who is also in the line of succession.

Yes, every family has a rat. Smarmy Simon, the Lord Duxbury (Theo Devaney), is truly a piece of work. Devaney handles it like a pro, giving his character a fantastic Roger Rees vibe (RIP, Sheriff of Rottingham/Lord John Marbury). He can’t see that everyone hates him. Or maybe he can and just doesn’t give AF because he’s determined to snatch that crown one way or another. There’s not much he can do though. He could scheme with Lady Sophia (Emma Louise Saunders), an equally insufferable aristocrat and former lover to the prince. Or he could exploit the new peasant in the palace.

Amber (Rose McIver, Keri Russell’s little sister in another life) is just your average New York girl caught up in something too big for her to handle. A reporter at some glossy rag that doesn’t respect her writing ability, she is sent off to Aldovia to cover the succession crisis. Don’t ask why a minor, parochial American magazine would invest that kind of money; we just need this plot to work. She’s not happy about leaving her widowed father alone on Christmas, but eh, he’s a jolly owner of a popular diner and she needs to chase her dreams.

When she arrives, however, there’s nothing to report because homeboy ain’t home. The reporters scatter – except for Amber, who’s not going back without some dirt, dammit. She sneaks into the palace and is mistaken for the new royal tutor, and because there’s no such thing as security in Aldovia, she assumes the role of Martha, math genius from Minnesota, and no one is the wiser. Her charge is Princess Emily (Honor Kneafsey), a sheltered girl with spina bifida who easily overcomes her dislike for the interloper when she sees that Amber treats her just like any other kid.

That is the overriding lesson in these prince/princess Christmas movies. Royals are just like us! We’re all plebs. Because as Amber finds out, Prince Richard Bevan Charlton isn’t a globetrotting playboy but just another guy who likes to chill in his dad’s hunting cabin and sunbathe on the beach. He especially dislikes public intrusion into his private life, and that’s what is holding him back from the throne. To which I say, wait ‘til he finds out who the nice tutor chick really is.

Obviously, the romance takes a turn for the worse before it ends up with a handsome prince proposing in the snow. (That is not a spoiler. If you didn’t see that coming, you are not allowed to watch these movies.) It’s sweet. McIver is cute; her character has a habit of destroying valuable works of art and she wears Converse to the first Christmas party of the season. She does, perhaps, need a refresher on journalism ethics, pronto. Lamb is also gentle and princely. The two have good chemistry. There’s horse riding and a wolf. Really, what more do you want? Go get your holidays started.

Released: 2017
Dir: Alex Zamm
Writer: Karen Schaler
Cast: Rose McIver, Ben Lamb, Alice Krige, Honor Kneafsey, Theo Devaney, Emma Louise Saunders, Tom Knight
Time: 82 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999)

When I was a kid, if your Catholic school music teacher wanted to show a Biblical themed musical, chances are you were watching Jesus Christ, Superstar. As a result, kids like me – or maybe just me – spent their childhood confused as hell about hippie Judas. There’s a wider selection these days, but Andrew Lloyd Webber is still a mainstay, and you can now opt for a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat instead.

The musical, about Joseph of the Book of Genesis, his jealous brothers, and path to forgiveness, was always family friendly. Filled with songs that borrow from an array of musical styles from country hoedown to calypso, the numbers are jaunty and even a little silly. This direct-to-video film from 1999 makes the most of that and turns Weber’s hit into a wacky aural and visual feast.

The movie is framed around a primary school production of the musical. Students are shepherded into the auditorium by their dour teachers, including Alex Jennings and Ian McNeice, who soon spring into action as the singing, dancing characters in the story. They play the major roles while the kids occasionally run amok and snake their way into the scenes.

Maria Friedman stars as the Narrator, a spunky guide who invites us into the story of Joseph and ushers us through his journey from favored son of Jacob (Richard Attenborough) with a gift for interpreting dreams to Egyptian slave cum savior. Taking on the title character is Donny Osmond, revisiting the role he brought to life in earlier stage versions. Osmond, the syrupy voiced teen pop idol turned syrupy voiced fantasy for middle aged mothers, is a fitting choice that bridges all demographics. He retains his puppy dog’s earnestness, which proves useful when you want to gain sympathy because your brothers have sold you into slavery. His show-stopping ballad, “Close Every Door,” which Joseph sings after he is wrongly accused and imprisoned for seducing his master’s wife (Joan Collins), washes down like a dream.

It’s probably the most conventional Broadway number, highly singable and earwormy. The others are not as catchy, but they each have a unique flare and accompanying set piece. If you don’t like the pastiche of musical and visual style, then the experiment can be distracting. I think the artistic shifts tend toward the schizophrenic and make it harder to remain focused on Joseph. The religion teacher in me was agog at the bedazzled nipples in the Art Deco-inspired Potiphar number, the one in which Joan Collins undresses and seduces dear Donny. Just a couple scenes later, we have Bye, Bye, Birdie Pharaoh (Robert Torti), a hip-swiveling rock n’ roll king who summons Joseph to help him untangle some disturbing dreams. I’m guessing kids won’t care too much about these clashing styles, and the constant changeover may even keep their attention. They’ll work out the themes to this story, ones that include trusting in God and not coveting your brother’s awesome multicolored parachute cloak.

Selected songs below. You can find all clips and songs here.

“Any Dream Will Do”:

“Jacob and Sons”:

“Joseph’s Coat”:

“One More Angel in Heaven”:


“Close Every Door”:

“Go, Go, Go Joseph”:

“Song of the King”:

“Those Canaan Days”:

“Benjamin Calypso”:

“Any Dream Will Do (Reprise)”:

Released: 1999
Prod: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Andy Picheta, Nigel Wright, Austin Shaw
Dir: David Mallet
Writer: Tim Rice, Michael Walsh,
Cast: Donny Osmond, Maria Friedman, Richard Attenborough, Robert Torti, Ian McNeice, Joan Collins, Christopher Biggins, Alex Jennings
Time: 76 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2017

Fun Size (2012)

What a holy mess of a Halloween movie. I’m not sure who the filmmakers were targeting here. A little too risqué for the kids and entirely too stupid for older teens, its most natural audience would probably be single women on a Netflix binge hoping for something easy to review. Actually, scratch that. This movie is horrible and should be condemned to the bottom of the K-Mart bargain bin for all eternity. Here I am though, using precious brain cells to share my thoughts.

Fun Size is a Nickelodeon production that takes the general premise of a Disney television movie and dips it in a light batter of raging hormones. Things start off sweet and benign. Wren (Victoria Justice) is the average movie teenager – a plain Jane brainiac who hopes to attend NYU in the fall but who must sort out a few personal issues before she gets there. Her dad’s recent death has left the family adrift, and she must play second mom to her now mute little brother, Albert (Jackson Nicoll), since her mom (Chelsea Handler) has shirked her duties to cozy up with sexy coed Keevin (Josh Pence). Still, Wren hopes to have some fun with her friends and perhaps catch the eye of hot dude Aaron (Thomas McDonell) at a Halloween party.

I’m not sure at what point this movie starts to go off the rails. You’re not going to convince me that someone who looks like Victoria Justice is anything but the popular girl, even if she does want to dress up like Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Halloween. Maybe the movie begins to lose its way when Handler’s character dons her “Hit Me, Baby, One More Time” era Britney Spears costume to party with Keevin, leaving Albert in Wren’s care for the night. Her decision results in Albert getting lost and spending the evening with a convenience store clerk named Fuzzy (Thomas Middleditch) and a sexy Galaxy Scout, which I take to be like a Girl Scout but, you know, sexy and out of this world. For good measure, a giant metal pirate chicken ends up humping an old station wagon, and Wren’s mom chats to strangers about her mammogram. This is that kind of movie.

If I’m generous, I would say that there are the makings of a better film here. Had the writers had stuck to a more consistent tone, either kid-friendly or not, there would at least have been a sense of cohesion. But the movie really ping pongs between a wacky Disney movie of the week and a slightly raunchy teen flick. In addition, the three storylines – Wren finding her place in the world, Albert overcoming his muteness, and their mom grieving her husband’s death – are quite removed from each other.

A tilt towards quirky coming-of-age, cliché as that may be, would have been the best choice. Justice isn’t a strong actress but she’s earnest enough and still has me feeling for Wren, who in addition to the challenges in her home life also comes into conflict with her social climbing best friend (Jane Levy) and sweet but not hunky friend (Thomas Mann). Handler has about a minute of good work as a truly bereaved woman, and Nicoll and Middleditch are a surprisingly affectionate odd couple. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t capitalize on any of these and instead chooses to judge people for listening to Josh Groban on blast. I’ll give them points for having the foresight to let Osric Chau rock an Aaron Burr costume pre-Hamilton though.

Released: 2012
Prod: Stephanie Savage, Josh Schwartz
Dir: Josh Schwartz
Writer: Max Werner
Cast: Victoria Justice, Jane Levy, Thomas Mann, Thomas McDonell, Jackson Nicoll, Chelsea Handler, Osric Chau, Josh Pence, Johnny Knoxville, Thomas Middleditch
Time: 86 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017