Sunday, December 18, 2011

If Orion Studios Greenlighted This, They Deserved to Fail: "Clifford" (1994)

Martin Short and Charles Grodin star in this mess of a comedy that unsettled me more often than it made me want to hurl.

Martin Short plays ten year old Clifford, a little tyke who makes Dennis the Menace look like a choirboy. Therein lies the first massive mistake in the film- Short pulls everything he can out of his magic fun comedy bag, but does not elicit one chuckle playing a child. Anyway, Clifford's parents cannot stand to be around him, and on their way to Honolulu, they drop the little darling off with Clifford's Uncle Martin (Charles Grodin) in Los Angeles. Martin is having his own problems with fiancee Sarah (what is Mary Steenburgen doing in this?), who wants kids. Martin decides to prove to Sarah that he loves kids, and takes in Clifford, whose only wish is to go to local theme park Dinosaur World. What follows is an hour and a half of Clifford ruining Martin's life, Martin shrieking at Clifford, and Sarah not believing the worst about the child. The story is framed by an older Clifford, a priest in 2050, telling the story to a young runaway played by Ben Savage.

Words cannot describe how stupid this comedy is, but if that were true, this review would end right now...this is woefully unfunny. I was too busy being weirded out by Short's casting to realize right away that he was the film's only gimmick. The story is so weak and padded, the only reason you do not turn it off after the first ten minutes is because the sadist in you wants to see how much more creepy Short gets playing a kid; and it does get really creepy. Grodin, who has become the grumpiest television personality in America after Bryant Gumbel and Don Imus, grates and grates on the viewer's nerves until you wish Clifford would take up a firearm. Steenburgen looks completely trapped in this film, and Dabney Coleman plays another variation of his "9 to 5" jerk boss routine.

Flaherty's direction is terribly flat, and the cinematography is amateur looking- casting so many shadows I thought I was watching a Thai finger puppet show. The finale at the theme park, involving a ride gone wrong is weak. For one thing, this is supposed to be a major theme park, yet the ride can take only one person at a time? Imagine that line during tourist season! The script is boring since it sets up the premise, then beats it to death. Oh, no, Clifford forced the plane down on an emergency landing! Oh, no, Clifford gets a crush on Sarah! Oh, no, Clifford makes fun of Martin's boss' toupee! This all got real old real quick.

"Clifford" sat on a shelf for quite a while before being dismissed en masse by the movie going public. I welcome the opportunity to dismiss it as well. Today, the name "Clifford" refers to a giant red cartoon dog in children's books and on PBS. This film is the equivalent of what comes out of the back end of that canine. (*) out of five stars.

Sex, Lies, and a Snuff Videotape: "The Cliffhanger" (2003)

Eleven Chicago area film makers, about eighteen actors, and one storyline converge to make a singular mess.

Using the "Exquisite Corpse" idea, the basic plot involves a group of lowlifes trying to get their hands on harsh snuff videos, and killing off their enemies. I would provide more information, but I gave up trying to discern a linear plot fifteen minutes into the film.

The idea plays better than the execution. One film maker would have one week to shoot a chapter, then another film maker would have one week and the same actors to shoot the next installment, and so on through almost a dozen film making teams. The differing artistic visions are supposed to provide the audience with a visual thrill, as the all-too-complicated plot unfolds. I believe the improvisational aspect and the number of film makers involved should have been more closely supervised. Apart from "Chapter VII," none of the eleven segments looked much different from the each other. Some of the characters would pull complete one eighties in their behavior, and the number of coincidences and convenient plot twists is mind numbing.

The film degenerates into a bunch of actors smoking cigarettes and speaking tersely into cell phones, while the viewer goes into the kitchen to get another beer and count the minutes until the next "chapter." The first couple of segments never hooked me, so the rest of the film did not get a chance to reel me in. I didn't know who was who, why anyone was acting the way they were, and I did not feel like constructing flow charts in order to keep all the character connections straight (Dad slept with daughter on tape, daughter kills Dad on tape, but really another man killed him but daughter is taking revenge anyway and so on and so on...???).

"The Cliffhanger" has a great idea going for it. The double disc DVD package (from www.splitpillow.com) is impressive, containing a trailer, two documentaries, a music video, and commentary by all the film makers involved. Unfortunately, I am reviewing just the film, and that does not work. For the record, the eleven teams involved are: Kilts Afire, Third Eye Films, Purgatory, Inc., Two Necks Productions, PaddyMeAss, Billy Goats Gruff, Shame About the Couch, the Mystery Men, Focal Point Productions, Panther City Films, and Shack Productions.

Hopefully the next improv film project will have more structure and less chefs spoiling the pot. It may not be a "new and revolutionary" way to make a film, but it might be more entertaining to watch. (* *) out of five stars.