Saturday, August 17

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Review

By Emery Snyder @leeroy711
Director: Benjamin Berman
Starring: The Amazing Johnathan, Benjamin Berman, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic & Eric Andre
Hulu Original – June 16, 2019

Veteran of comedy television, Ben Berman (Lady Dynamite, Tim & Eric) documents the swan song tour of beloved comedian/magician, The Amazing Johnathan (Johnathan Szeles) … At least that seems to have been the original intent of this film. Very quickly however, we find that all is not as it seems. Szeles, who has been given a terminal heart diagnosis has apparently invited more than just Berman along to document his final days. Competition, skepticism and the ominous presence of the subject’s penchant for ‘slight-of-hand’ all play a part of this story’s (mis)direction.

Around fifteen minutes into the movie, we find that Johnathan has, unbeknownst to Berman, invited a second documentary team to make a film about him. Both camera crews are present, filming his tour, his health issues, his drug use and each other. The second crew is associated with Oscar Award winner, Simon Chinn (MAN ON WIRE, SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN). This immediately puts an entirely different twist on the film, pitting two storytellers against each other, in a marketplace that is already over-saturated with documentaries. As access to the subject is played out in this tug-of-war, even more filmmakers emerge, all working on the same subject matter. 

Is Johnathan simply trying to get the most out of his legacy? Or is this all part of some elaborate and boorish prank he’s playing? And if it is a prank, who is it even directed at? The filmmakers? The audience? And most importantly, how much of what is seen here can even be taken as factual? Is Johnathan even really dying? At one point, Berman’s friend even metaphorically speculates, “Put this in real life terms…” as if magic, comedy and/or filmmaking are not real jobs and terminal illness is not real life.

This metatextuality of the film, for better or worse, couldn’t help but immediately change what the story was about. And in that, I was a bit disappointed. I’ve been a fan of The Amazing Johnathan since I caught one of his acts on a late-night stand-up show in the nineties. He’s always been a fascinating character with a wholly original act and I would love to see a ‘bio-doc’ of sorts about his life. But the moment that the second crew shows up, the subject of this doc changes to include Berman as well as the film itself. Throughout the runtime, we see more and more of Berman questioning and pontificating what story he’s actually trying to tell, and less of Johnathan. I’m quite sure that Berman’s friends and family end up with more screen time Johnathan’s. All of this coupled with the additional metatextuality of the streaming wars and I was quickly reminded of the dueling Fyre Festival docs released within a week of each other by Hulu and Netflix earlier this year. This still makes for a very interesting doc, but I constantly felt that I was missing out on what is likely a great story about a fascinating performer.

At the end of the day, if you take this film at face value, I think it served as a learning experience and an exploration for the filmmaker that likely began this process with an entirely different idea about what kind of story he was telling. It actually reminds me of early Herzog in that respect. I think most of the best documentaries ever made went wildly off the rails at some point of their production. This one is especially unique because it essentially serves as its own ‘making of’ special feature.

But on the other hand, I’m still not entirely sure how candid or authentic any of this is. Johnathan is a self-described prankster. And the competition in the genre today almost requires filmmakers to have a hook that can shine though to the audience. The only question left is “to what end?” This film has no interest in answering it.

Emery’s Rating
3.5 out of 5 Stars
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Friday, August 16

Good Boys Review

Good Boys

Dir: Gene Stupnitsky

Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, and Will Forte

While sitting around the dinner table chatting with my parents, I accidentally dropped the “F-word” in casual conversation. With a noticeable physical flinch my mother stopped the conversation, looked me dead in the eyes, and told me “watch your mouth”. This happened a month ago and I am in my late 30’s. 

I can only imagine how my mother would react and what she would say to the young tween boys in the completely raunchy, surprisingly heartfelt coming-of-age comedy “Good Boys”. Within the first 15 minutes numerous, unrestrained, and awkward discussions pertaining to kissing, masturbation, and numerous other topics of a sexual nature are had with a combination, one might call it flair, of explicit language as connective tissue for the themes. “Good Boys” has shock factor but it’s also completely hilarious and unexpectedly sweet. 

The “Bean Bag Boys”, Max (Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams), are sixth graders trying to traverse the changing landscape of their school, their own growing maturity, and also their friendship. Max has a crush on a girl named Brixlee (Millie Davis) and he is invited by the popular kids to a kissing party. Max is able to get Thor and Lucas invited, who aren’t initially requested to go, but before they can make the party they need to learn how to kiss a girl. In the process they lose an expensive drone and come into possession with a purse with drugs. 

Almost every film handling the coming-of-age theme deals with the reality of adulthood crashing down on the innocence of young people. In the process the young people are forced to mature, sometimes faster than expected, in order to survive in the changing world. “Good Boys” incorporates much of this same narrative structure, though without some of the deeper insights found in films dealing with older kids like in “Stand by Me” or even “Sixteen Candles”. 

These are also sixth graders; their innocence is still very much intact even though they are faced with a wealth of grown up situations which are happening around them. This is where “Good Boys” finds its most humorous quality. The strongest comedic element of this film happens because of the kid’s genuine innocence and naivety to adult situations. When they come into possession of a purse with drugs, their first instinct is to make a citizen’s arrest while using imaginary finger guns to assist. It’s played to the height of innocence for the young characters.

Even though the plot is somewhat paper thin in structure, the themes manipulated throughout the film help in establishing the heart that makes the humor so much more authentic. The friends are being pushed into a world that wants them to mature so quickly, where a simple search on the computer can expose them to a world of adult circumstances. The friends are all trying to find their place in the world, which brings about the natural pulling apart of their friendship as one is trying to be cool, one is trying to find a girlfriend, and one is just content with doing things that he thinks are simply fun. These aspects of character building and the exploration of different themes in different perspectives is what moves the narrative forward.

“Good Boys” is raunchy humor and hard language coming from the mouths of 12-year-olds. However, beyond this form of harsh comedy, which can be very funny, is some genuine heart and a complete sweetness that comes through with the relationship between these young friends. And in the end, it’s not the shocking moments that will keep the laughs going, it’s the innocence found within each of these young kids who are just trying to make sense of the world they are encountering that will sustain humor beyond the credits.

Monte’s Rating

3.75 out of 5.00


The Angry Birds Movie 2 Review

The Angry Birds Movie 2

Dir: Thurop Van Orman

Starring: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Bill Hader, Rachel Bloom, Danny McBride, Leslie Jones, Awkwafina, Sterling K. Brown, Tiffany Haddish, and Peter Dinklage

“This summer, winter is coming.”

Not sure how many young ones are going to correspond this tagline for “The Angry Birds Movie 2” to the adult television show “Game of Thrones”. However, it’s fitting for an animated movie based on one of the biggest mobile games of all time, which was probably played by adults on their cell phones before the little kids discovered it, to aim for some crossover appeal to encourage a weekend family trip to the movies. 

“The Angry Birds Movie” found success upon its release in 2016 with a mix of slapstick antics, bathroom humor, and an occasional winking joke tailored for mom and dad. The film had just enough fuel to maintain the enjoyment factor for 97 minutes while only slightly over-staying its welcome. 

“The Angry Birds Movie 2” does just about the same, sticking to a similar story formula from the first film while surprisingly applying some much-needed work to the characters leading the charge. The film is working with themes surrounding some typical subjects like friendship, romance, and self-confidence but it also handles topics surrounding masculinity, arrogance, and the fear of failure throughout. 

Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) is beloved, a hero to the extent of being a folktale in the eyes of the flightless birds who were saved from destruction on Bird Island. Red is tasked as security for the island, protecting the inhabitants from the airborne threats from the king of Piggy Island, Harold (voiced by Bill Hader). Unbeknownst to the two foes is another threat, a group of birds lead by an intelligent yet resentful eagle named Zeta (voiced by Leslie Jones) from the frozen Eagle Island who are looking for new property to inhabit. 

Most animated sequels take the route of rehashing a similar, sometimes the same, plot from the original film. “The Angry Birds Movie 2” does exactly this, however it also doubles down on all the qualities that made the original film so much fun; with bathroom humor that will have the kids giggling and music cues with lively songs that will have parents remembering the old school jams, the film is trying to meet as many demographics as it can with its blend of comedy.

The narrative moves surprisingly fast, quickly establishing the primary characters and introducing new ones in effort to make things feel different. It helps in a few places, especially when the whip-smart Silver (Rachel Bloom) is on screen to put Red in his place, but the overall structure of the story doesn’t deviate enough to make it very memorable in the end. Still, the quick pace and emphasis on random humor moments makes the running time fly, which is a pleasant surprise.

“The Angry Birds Movie 2” doesn’t reinvent its story or try for much new direction for its second outing, however its focus seems positioned for simple laughs and entertainment both for parents and kids. In this regard it succeeds in being a fun sequel for a lazy Saturday matinee. 

Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00