TBT – Best in Show (2000)

TBT – Best in Show (2000)

Today was the opening day of the Crufts dog show. I work with more than a few dog obsessives who will get quite into the show. So it’s probably going to be something I hear about a lot for the next few days. As much as I love dogs, Crufts always brings to mind the Christopher Guest mockumentary Best in Show. So, being a Thursday, I decided to rewatch the film about a fake dog show instead of watching the real thing. After all, watching dogs actually compete for the title of Best in Show would only have me wishing that I was still a dog owner. At least this way I have the comedy to distract myself. After all, sitting down to watch a Christopher Guest film is like sitting down with an old friend. Back in November, I watched his Netflix original Mascots and, despite feeling it could have been better, I bloody enjoyed it. It’s been 17 years since Best in Show was first released so would it still feel as fresh and funny?

I’m one of those people who prefers dogs to people. I’m getting to an age where people seem to be absolutely obsessed with babies. As a woman in her (now very) late 20s it’s sort of expected that I’m getting broody and am desperately waiting to have a tiny human being of my own to clean up after. I still have no real idea on the kid front and, as of right now, would much prefer a dog instead. For one thing they’re much cuter and are a lot less hassle to obtain. Babies are great, yes, and if anyone shows me pictures of their child doing something “adorable” I will nod and smile as much as they want me to. But I’ll secretly be wishing I was looking at a picture of a dog dressed as a Star Wars character. So I kind of understand the crazy relationships people have with their dogs. It’s also something Christopher Guest found fascinating enough to make a film about.

Although, it almost didn’t happen. When Guest pitched the idea to co-writer Eugene Levy, Levy was convinced the idea wouldn’t work. He didn’t think their was enough room for comedy in a dog show setting. Thankfully the pair came together to create a concept, gathered a talented cast of comic actors, and brought together a bunch of ex-competition winning dogs. And thank fuck they did. Now, as with any Christopher Guest film. the story itself isn’t really important: this is a film about the characters. During the film’s first act we are introduced to five dog owners and their prized pets. Each owner is making their way to the Mayflower Dog Show in Philadelphia and is hoping to win the illusive title of Best in Show.

There is the troubled married couple Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) who are desperately trying to keep their Weimaraner happy but failing miserably. The couple from Florida (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) who’s money troubles are forcing them to sleep in the hotel’s storage room but who adore their Norwich Terrier. A keen Fisherman and wannabe ventriloquist (Christopher Guest) and his Bloodhound. The trophy wife and her trainer/secret girlfriend (Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Lynch) who are returning to the show as two-time champions. A camp gay couple (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean) and their kind of ridiculous Shih Tzu. The films first half lets us see the each competitor in their homes before they make their way to the dog show and compete with the other dogs.

As you’d expect, a lot of the film is improvised and the cast are able to run wild with their characters. This is a talented bunch of people and the film is littered with Guest’s regular co-stars. Each of the competitors is an absurd creation but never at the expense of anyone. The film highlights the inherent weirdness in the world of showing dogs professionally but it is constantly tinged with a love and understanding that stops it from moving into meanness. In the middle of the showboating and pomp there is plenty of love between the owners and their dogs. It is a crazy and hyperbolic representation of dog owners but it is strangely sweet at the same time.

This film really helped cement Guest as the king of the improvised mockumentary style that has become his staple. The film is full of funny moments but, if you ask me, it doesn’t really pick up until the action moves into the arena. The opening act is great as we hear the backstories of each contenstant but it is Fred Willard’s role as an inept commentator that will stick with you. Seated alongside an industry professional (Jim Piddock), Willard’s Buck Laughlin speculates that a Sherlock Holmes costume would help the Bloodhound’s chances of winning the prize. Let loose in this manner, Willard is unstoppable. He is constantly funny and surprising and, despite Eugene Levy’s doubts, it is the dog show itself that lifts this film.

Best in Show may feel a bit old school now thanks to Christopher Guest’s increasing filmography. However, when it came out 17 years ago it was still a fresh and different approach to film making. It is still an incredibly funny film and a must-see for anyone who missed it/wasn’t born when it was made. It has everything: laughs, love, suspense, and a heartwarming ending. If anything deserved the winner’s rosette then it’s this.

Tuesday’s Reviews – Mascots (2016)

Tuesday’s Reviews – Mascots (2016)

I’ve had another pretty relaxed day off today. I’ve done a lot of sorting and tidying, which I of course have been putting off for a few days now. So now that my surroundings are clear my mind must also be feeling refreshed, right? Well, I can’t promise that. I’ve been working my way up to writing this review for a while and have been unable to find the best way to start it. I think I sometimes find it difficult to collect my thoughts quickly after I finally watch a film that I’ve wanted to see for a while. I should really work my schedule better so I have the time but then I wouldn’t be the same old unorganised mess that you’ve all come to know and love. So whilst I doubt this will ever be mistaken for the greatest thing I’ve ever written, I can at least take comfort in the fact that I’m finally getting around to taking something of my Netflix ‘to watch’ list. This is one of those films that I regularly scroll past during those moments when I’m desperately looking for something to watch. For the past few weeks I’ve guiltily ignored it in favour of rewatching everything I’ve ever seen. Not today though. Today I conquer something even greater than my ever expanding wardrobe. And it feels fucking great.

Mascots is the latest ensemble mockumentary from director Christopher Guest. Guest has developed a talent for exploring the world surrounding certain niche hobbies. Previous films have explored dog shows (Best in Show, 2000), second rate folk singers (A Mighty Wind, 2003), and Hollywood’s awards seasons (For Your Consideration, 2006). Teaming up Netflix, Guest’s latest film takes us behind the scenes of a competition for sport’s mascots. Mascots reunites the director with many of his previous collaborators to create a similar sort of improvised scenario in which various oddballs compete for the top prize in their field. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the films that preceded this one will almost certainly find it all incredibly familiar but, probably, won’t find that to be much of a problem.

After all, by this point he really knows what he’s doing and his cast are all let loose to create as much hilarity and chaos as possible. Obviously a great deal of the fun comes from the introduction of the mascots themselves and there is a veritable feast of wacky costumes to indulge in. There’s the husband and wife team (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker) who spend their spare time dressed as a turtle and an octopus trying to encourage baseball fans. Then the lovable loser (Christopher Moynihan) who has found a purpose as Jack the Plumber, the mascot to a Highschool football team. The third generation mascot for a low league British football team who wants to prove himself without hurting his father’s feelings (Tom Bennett). Finally, there are the more eccentric entries like the interpretative dancer who dresses as an armadillo (Paker Posey) and the Irish sleaze who skates around a hockey dressed as a fist and is constantly reprimanded for his lewd and violent behaviour (Chris O’Dowd).

As the film progresses audience will no doubt delight in watching the routines of these colourful characters as they show off their passion and skills in front of the gathered crowd and a couple of small time TV execs hoping to pick up the competition for future broadcasts. There is a lot of fun to be had within the competition and, clearly, each member of the cast truly enjoyed their time on screen. Jane Lynch in particular shines through as a judge and ex-Mascot who delights in putting down her fellow judge (Ed Begley Jr.) for his lack of post-mascotting fame. Christopher Guest stalwart, Fred Willard gets equal chance to do what he does best as a very un-PC mascot coach and the scene in which he attempts to understand dwarfism is incredibly memorable.

There is plenty on display here that made Guest’s previous films so successful because it barely breaks from tradition. Each character is absurd but there is always a real glimpse of the humanity that lies beneath it all. His films aren’t solely based on ridiculing it’s participants but there is always a heavy dose of pathos to keep everything grounded. Within all the insanity you find yourself really caring about the people inside the costumes and the lengths they will go to prove themselves. To see people so passionate about something that is so overlooked is always going to be emotive and is provides the necessary hit of human spirit that Guest needs to stay grounded in reality.

 However, I can’t get away from the idea that Mascots works as well as it does simply because it is all so familiar. If the inescapable sense of nostalgia were taken away would it have the same impact? Certainly there are things that it could do better. There are supporting characters that could be used to greater effect (the aforementioned Fred Willard for example) and I at least found it odd that the film so easily slips in and out of the fake documentary style. I guess, on the whole, it could be tighter and more polished. There are also plenty of moments where the darker humour falls flat within the atmosphere of carefree fun. The battling of Woods and Baker’s married couple, for example, often falls into the realms of genuine aggression rather. It certainly adds a much needed element to proceedings but there are times when the whole shtick just goes a bit too far.

Still, Mascots will still be as enjoyable to any fan of Christopher Guest’s film as any of his previous films. The cast are all reliable in their own way and the sheer weirdness of this created world leaves a lot of room to play with. Considering my previous disappointments with Netflix’s original comedy films, Mascots has at least restored my faith in the website and showed that, with the right people at the healm, not everything will end up being Special Correspondents.

Tuesday’s Reviews – Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

Tuesday’s Reviews – Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

I don’t quite trust people who don’t like The Lonely Island, the comedy music trio formed by Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg, and Jorma Taccone. Yes, it’s completely childish and base humour but that doesn’t stop it being funny. I’ve come up against a few people over the years who dismiss the trio as unfunny but I know at least one of those people voted to leave the EU this week so, clearly, their opinions aren’t worth listening to. I’ve permanently got their music on my everyday Spotify playlist and at 630 am there is nothing quite like listening to ‘I’m on a Boat’ to get you ready for a shift. So, suffice it to say, when I heard the trio were starring in a new music mockumentary then I was excited. Particularly in this new and awful world where the likes of Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and One Direction were all getting their time on the big screen. It’s about time someone came along and showed us all how absurd this all is. It’s probably also the first time I’ve ever been this keen to see a film produced by Judd Apatow.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is essentially a copy of Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never but with actual jokes. The film, written by the Lonely Island trio, sees Andy Samberg play the Bieber-esque figure Connor4Real who, after a runaway success of a first album, is awaiting the release of his follow-up. Connor is trying to make a name for himself as a solo act following his departure from boyband The Style Boyz. The other Style Boyz have faired less well than Connor, of course. The guy who wrote the musis, Owen (played by fellow Lonely Island Member Jorma Taccone) is using his talents as Connor’s DJ, which mainly consists of pressing play on a iPod. The band’s lyricist, Lawrence (played by last Lonely Islander Akiva Schaffer) is living a lonely existence as a farmer after falling out with Connor over the rights to an award-winning verse. Although, it soon becomes clear that life after The Style Boyz is going to be more difficult than Connor though as his second album fails to live up to its predecessor.

Connor’s path is laid out pretty obviously in front of the audience and the final act won’t cause any real surprises. Although, the lack of originality doesn’t make it any less entertaining and the final act will give the emotional pay-off that the film needs. Popstar isn’t a film that wanted to break any boundaries and it never claimed to be the next This Is Spinal Tap. It’s unfortunate that the film will constantly be compared to this pinnacle of the genre because Popstar is actually a pretty good mockumentary. It doesn’t just try exaggerate the modern day obsession with pop stars but parodies this world really well. Connor’s songs are as outlandish as any Lonely Island song but with the added benefit of sound like the kind of music youths are blasting out of their phones these days.

The best, and possibly worst, thing about the film is that Connor4Real is exactly the kind of personality that could make it big in today’s world. He has the massive ego and lack of self-awareness that the likes of Justin Bieber have made such a common feature of the pop scene. This film is about more than just taking cheap shots at celebrities but has some entertaining satire about the entertainment industry. It’s very easy to mock the vapid stars of today but, thankfully, The Lonely Island find a more intelligent way to go about things. It takes on the topics of branding modern pop stars and the importance of social media in ensuring a musicians value. There is more to this film than just “isn’t Bieber a fucking idiot”.

Although, is it impossible to ignore the sense that The Lonely Island aren’t comfortable with the elongated format. Their short music videos are filled with great writing, music and visual gags but this film often revisits jokes to stretch the narrative out a bit. You often get the feeling that this film is nothing more than a few of their new songs stuck together using a flimsy but inconsequential plot. A plot that is nothing more than a few episodic situations that get characters to where they need to be in the strangest or funniest way possible. It’s basically a few funny sketches with a few funny songs and some extra words in between. This doesn’t mean it’s not funny but it also means it’s nothing to write home about.

What saves the film from total failure is the cast and the sheer number of celeb cameos that litter the run time. Now, obviously the three main stars have a tried and tested chemistry but they probably would have benefited from better written characters. As it is, they often get overlooked by the secondary figures, most obviously Conner’s rival rapper Hunter (Chris Redd) and his manager (Tim Meadows) and publicist (Sarah Silverman). Then we have the obligatory appearances from Samberg’s fellow SNL-alumni, inlcuding Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and Will Forte. In order to keep up the appearance of a documentary there are the occasional breakaways for talking heads from a host of famous faces, like Simon Cowell, Maria Carey and DJ Khaled. Whilst there are some funny moments from these many cameos, it was clearly a quantity over quality kind of deal.

Still, there is something about Popstar that just works. It’s not the greatest nor is it the funniest example of this kind of film but it is harmlessly silly. It has the same feel that The Lonely Island back catalogue has. It’ll make you laugh even if you think you’re better than that kind of humour. It is a pretty shrewd parody of modern pop stars and, you can’t deny, it could easily have been a much more tragic affair had The Lonely Island not been in charge. Yes, Popstar can’t quite elevate itself to the heights of Spinal Tap but it will give enough laughs to keep anyone with even a vague knowledge of current music entertained enough. And sometimes that should be enough.