‘Seriously…I’m Kidding’ by Ellen DeGeneres

August 22, 2015 in Book Reviews, Reviews


I like Ellen, I really do, and I know she hates people who are judgmental. But I’m going to be judgmental here: her new book, Seriously…I’m Kidding, is not very good. Seriously, and I’m not kidding.

The reason I chose this book is because I haven’t read anything for about four months and wanted to get back into it with something light and easy. And this book is very light and very easy. I finished it while riding on various forms of public transport during a single day.

First, I want to talk about the positives. Ellen definitely wrote this book — as opposed to some ghost writer — because her voice permeates every chapter, every page and every sentence. She’s sharp, charming and kind. She’s personable, affable and funny. It’s watching her on her popular TV show.

And if you like her brand of witty, irreverent, self-aggrandisingly self-deprecating style of sarcastic humour, you’ll find plenty of it in this book. Some of it is almost like a written version of a standup routine.

Being the wonderful human being that she is, Ellen also infuses the book with a few pearls of wisdom about life and how to be a better person. Stuff like not not throwing trash out the window, the courtesy of being punctual and being honest, and enjoying life to the fullest. She doesn’t do it in a preachy way either — most of her messages have a jokey tone will give you a couple of chuckles.

Having said that, this is not the book you would read if you actually want to find out anything new or insightful about Ellen. And really, isn’t that why people would want to read her books in the first place?

In line with the book’s theme, just about everything is a joke. You think she’s telling a story or some vignette that will lead somewhere and reveal something about her, her relationships or experiences, but soon you realise she just made the whole thing up for a laugh. It happens over and over, and before long it becomes clear that you can’t take anything she says in the book seriously.

That’s not a deal breaker, but it can get frustrating. What is even more frustrating is the feeling that Ellen’s just phoning it in with this book. I haven’t read her two previous books so I can’t compare, but I would be shocked if her first two books are of the same quality.

There are some shockingly lazy chapters where she rambles on without making a real point. There are way too many incoherent short stories (some just a paragraph), a bunch of short lists about what to do and what not to do, etc, and even pages of random drawings for children to colour in.

There’s a chapter called ‘The Longest Chapter’, the majority of which just discusses why it’s the longest chapter. There’s a chapter of ‘Additional Thank-Yous’ to people she didn’t thank in the acknowledgments at the start of the book. There’s a chapter comprising just a 140-character tweet called ‘Tweet Chapter’. There’s an aptly titled chapter called ‘Boredom’. By the time you get to the last chapter entitled ‘Last Chapter’, you start to get the feeling that maybe Ellen was just finding ways to pad the page count.

It’s wrong to say this because I’m sure she put a lot of thought and effort into the writing. But if I’m being honest, there were times I suspected that the entire book may have been an extremely elaborate prank on her readers– in which case, bravo — and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I just wasted a whole lot of time. In a book of more than 60 chapters, each with a different topic, I would be able to count the number of genuinely good chapters on one hand. And that just doesn’t cut it.

There are indeed moments of enjoyment the book has to offer, though these all come in bits and pieces as opposed to part of a well-structured narrative. And to me, Ellen has always been this kind of a comedian, great at eliciting a lot of chuckles through her quick wit but never a master at generating the big belly laughs. That is magnified even more in the context of a written book, which is much more difficult to make people laugh than standup.

As such, Seriously…I’m Kidding comes across as a much less funny version of the brilliantly irreverent The Timewaster Letters by Robin Cooper. In the case of that book, however, it’s at least obvious what the aim was.

If you just want to kill some time and read a bunch of random, silly, mildly amusing jokes from Ellen, then by all means give Seriously…I’m Kidding a try. But if you’re looking for genuine insights about Ellen and her life and experiences or jokes that will make you laugh out loud, regrettably, you’re probably not going to find them here.


Movie Review: Trainwreck (2015)

August 17, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


Trainwreck is a dangerous title for a movie because there’s always the risk that it’ll turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fortunately for Judd Apatow and star comedian Amy Schumer, the film has turned out to be the opposite of its name, cruising past expectations for an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

And I can definitely understand the appeal. The film is a star vehicle for Schumer, who is following in the footsteps of comedianness like Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in getting an opportunity to break into the mainstream. Schumer is self-deprecating, edgy, raunchy, overtly sexual and an expert at making people uncomfortable, and if you like her style of humour you’ll likely enjoy this film.

The other section of the market the film targets is Judd Apatow fans. He’s been associated with just about every “dramedy” over the last decade, but he’s only really directed a handful of movies — The 40-year-old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, This is 40 and now Trainwreck. A lot of people love how he blends edgy comedy with serious dramatic themes, and now looking through this list I have to admit I am a bigger fan than I thought I was (it’s all those other crap movies which he produced that dragged him down in my mind).

For me, Trainwreck lies somewhere in the middle of Apatow’s movies, which is a little strange considering there are a lot of things I like about it. I like that Amy Schumer makes for a very unconventional protagonist — she’s crass, she’s promiscuous, she likes to drink, and she’s not as skinny or attractive as typical Hollywood female leads (even among the comedians) — which makes for a experience not a lot of us are used to. I’m a big fan of Bill Hader (especially after seeing him in The Skeleton Twins just a couple of months ago) and it’s also interesting to see him — also atypical in many ways — play the romantic lead in a film. On top of that, LeBron James makes his film debut as himself, and shocks because he has a sizable supporting role as opposed to just a cameo — and he’s actually a pretty good actor and quite funny.

The plot is as follows. Amy (Amy Schumer), works at a men’s magazine and gets forced to do a profile on sports doctor Aaron Conners (Bill Hader) by her boss (Tilda Swinton). Having been raised by a father (Colin Quinn) who doesn’t believe in monogamy, she finds it difficult to have a relationship with a man that’s not purely sexual. Though she had just been dating a beefcake who is obviously homosexual (wrestler John Cena), she soon finds herself falling for Conners and becoming just like her more stable sister (Brie Larson), a cliche she has always avoided. But is she willing to change her ways and take a risk to find happiness?

The premise is nothing groundbreaking and feels quite familiar, though usually it’s from the male perspective. Still, I’m surprised by how many people there are calling Trainwreck an “anti-romcom”. Yes, the jokes are sharper, smarter and often very funny, but at the end of the day the film uncontrollably steers toward romcom tropes and typical Apatow character development arcs — you know, the break-up lull just before the grand realisation spurring the character growth needed for the lovers to live happily ever after.

In this sense, Trainwreck is somewhat overrated. It’s not the revolutionary romcom or Apatow dramedy some have made it out to be. And if you know Schumer’s comedy you’ll know she can come across as a little racist (I don’t think she crosses the line though), which can be fine in a standup routine but offend people in a movie scenario. Having said that, I easily cracked the six-laugh quota for a good comedy while watching the film and there were even a couple of times when I laughed as hard as I have for any Apatow movie, no mean feat considering the majority of laughs came from improvised lines and off-the-cuff remarks as opposed to elaborately planned jokes.

Then there’s the LeBron factor. He definitely didn’t choke this time and held his own against some of the most popular comedians in the world. I don’t want to raise expectations too high because it’s still an athlete playing a caricature of himself, though it’s safe to say he blows Shaq’s Kazaam out of the water. Clutch performance. He might not be “da real MVP”, but LeBron certainly deserves to be on the All-Rookie Team.

It was also good to see Amare Stoudemire play himself as one of Dr Conner’s parents, especially considering that he was willing to be in a storyline in which he needs, um, career-saving knee surgery (again). There are plenty of other eye-catching cameos, from Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei to Marv Albert, Chris Evert, Tony Romo and Matthew Broderick. The good thing is that none of these felt like they were forced into the film for the sake of there being a lot of celebrity cameos.

As with all Apatow movies, Trainwreck is about 15-20 minutes too long, and there are dramatic scenes that drag on. While it may not be the most well-rounded of films, when it comes to delivering laughs and comedy from a woman’s perspective, Trainwreck is anything but. It may not have been as good as it could have been, but it’s still better than the majority of comedies and romcoms that get released these days.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

August 15, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


I was somewhat ambivalent about seeing The Man From UNCLE, the new Guy Ritchie spy flick based on the 1960s TV series of the same name.

Sure, there were exciting names attached — Henry Cavill (Superman), Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger/Winklevii), Hugh Grant and Alicia Vikander (no doubt the “it” girl in Hollywood right now) — but it just felt like this would be one of those films that would slip under the summer blockbuster radar. Promotional efforts haven’t felt particularly aggressive, hype has been virtually non-existent, and reviews have been generally positive albeit unspectacular.

But I did what I do, and that’s to watch as many movies as I can. With neutral expectations going in, I can report that The Man from UNCLE is a nice change of pace from the typical excesses of big action films in recent times. It’s more style than substance, but there sure is a lot of style, and it’s laid back attitude renders it a relatively relaxing popcorn experience. If you feel the need to unwind, this is the film for you.

The story is quite straightforward: Cavill plays an American superspy and Hammer plays the ace of the KGB. At the height of the Cold War, the two are forced to team up to bring down international terrorists led by Australia’s own Elizabeth Debicki, who may be building a nuclear bomb. The key to their mission is a young wan who must be the most beautiful, glamorous East German mechanic in history (Vikander), whose father is believed to be working on the bomb.

And so begins a fun-filled ride with three attractive people who are thrown together against their wills but have to find a way to make it work and complete their mission. From a big picture perspective it’s not hard to see where it is heading. The two spies start off as despised rivals programmed who want each other dead (it is the Cold War, after all) and there is plenty of mistrust threatening to tear the mission apart, but eventually they put differences aside and combine their impressive talents, Avengers-style, to kick some terrorist ass.

However, it feels like Ritchie is well aware that you already know about this cliche, so instead of trying to deviate from this path, he embraces it by making the journey as good-looking, stylish and fun as possible, and importantly, not taking things too seriously.

Consequently, the film gives off a very relaxed, cheeky sort of vibe, not dissimilar to the Oceans Eleven franchise, where it feels like the characters are always in perfect control of the situation and rarely get their feathers ruffled no matter how tense things are supposed to be. There’s pros and cons to this type of experience. On the one hand it’s fun and you are repeatedly impressed by how cool and suave the heroes are, but on the other there is rarely any genuine tension because there’s never a sense of mortal danger.

I’d just had a long week at work and recently watched the terrifyingly tense Austrian horror flick Goodnight Mommy, so I didn’t really mind just sitting back and enjoying the show as a relaxing popcorn adventure that won’t raise the pulse too much.

In line with laid-back tone, the film makes good use of light humour and sharp dialogue, most of which is witty banter between Cavill and Hammer (they even sound like a comedy duo) as they try to one-up each other in abilities as well as gadgets to prove the superiority of their country. Some of it is inherently hilarious because technology considered cutting edge in those days is of course unfathomably archaic now. At the same time, it’s refreshing to see an era not dominated by technology, such as the opening scene where Cavill had to navigate the streets of Berlin with an old-fashioned map (!).

I get the feeling that the film is targeted more towards older audiences. For starters, young people are likely to never heard of the TV show on which the film is based and most of them won’t even understand just how tense the Cold War era was. There’s plenty of vintage fashion and vintage cars, and a throwback sensibility I suspect people used to modernized non-stop action can fully appreciate.

Speaking of the action, it’s decent even by modern standards. It is again more style than substance and obviously nowhere near as relentless as say Mission: Impossible 5 or Fast & Furious 7, though it was never meant to compete with those films. As with everything about it, this film that takes things at its own leisurely pace, and proudly so. Tonally, there are uneven moments that struggle to keep away from the farcical, though for the most part the film stays true to Ritchie’s vision.

In any case, The Man from UNCLE can always lay claim to having the best-dressed cast of the year. The performances of the star trio are also fantastic — Vikander in particular is smooooooooking — and they genuinely appear to be enjoying themselves, resulting in great chemistry that fuels the movie with a jovial atmosphere. I find it amusing that they got a Brit to play an American, an American to play a Russian, and a Swede to play a German. Only Hugh Grant gets to play his true nationality.

I think, or at least I hope, there is a place for films like The Man from UNCLE in today’s cinematic landscape. While it won’t blow anyone away, there is an elegance and sophistication I find charming about it. Considering how badly it could have gone, I feel the adaptation ended up about as well as it could have gone. I’m excited to see how they will take it to the next level in the sequel.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Paddington (2014)

July 11, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


If you had asked me to jot down the 10 major releases of 2014 that I had no interest in seeing, I’m fairly certain that Paddington would have been on that list, and near the top too.

Paddington bear is beloved in children’s literature, which usually means disaster when it comes to big screen adaptations. Besides, I don’t know much about the character myself, don’t care much for it, and I don’t particularly like family or children’s films. Throw in the typically overrated Nicole Kidman in the cast, and it’s no surprise Paddington barely registered a peep on my movie radar.

And yet, the 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating enticed me to give it a try when I had nothing else better to do. I still didn’t expect it to be good because I figured the positive reviews were judging it from the standpoint of a family/children’s film.

I was of course wrong. Even taking into account my low expectations, Paddington turned out to be one of my surprise hits of 2014. It’s not a groundbreaking family film by any means, but the humour and tone are so well-crafted that adults might end up enjoying it more than the kids.

The plot is formulaic: an English-speaking Peruvian bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) somehow ends up in London and is adopted by a typical family who name him after the station where they found him. The mother (Sally Hawkins) and her two kids welcome Paddington with open arms, but the dad (Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey), a risk analyst, can’t wait to get rid of the troublesome bear.

As you would expect, there are fish-out-of-the-water experiences for Paddington as he tries to acclimatise himself to human life, baddies (led by Nicole Kidman) who want to stuff him, and opportunities for the dad to accept Paddington into his family and his heart.

None of this is mildly surprising. What is surprising is that Paddington is genuinely funny and filled with feel-good fun. Much of the brilliance stems from the decision to have everyone in the movie accept the existence of a talking bear with a non-chalant, “so what?” attitude. No one he comes in contact with is shocked, and the reaction is typically more one of disdain for his scruffy appearance. This durable gag is backed up by a plenty of deadpan humour, especially from Bonneville, who strangely reminded me of a likable version of Piers Morgan. He is absolutely fantastic.

It’s a shame the lovely Sally Hawkins doesn’t get to do much here, though other characters, such as Nicole Kidman’s villain and Peter Capaldi’s grumpy neighbour, manage to pick up the slack. Most of the laughs in this film are light, but they are mostly witty and come regularly. I never expected to laugh this much in a family film with a CGI bear.

At the end of the day, Paddington is still a formulaic family film with a bear whose cuteness has no influence on me. But despite not being my cup of tea on paper, I ended up having a blast because comedy does not discriminate. Funny is funny no matter what genre. I’m glad I gave Paddington a chance and I hope everyone will too.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Spy (2015)

July 10, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


I won’t lie. I initially had zero interest in Spy, the new comedy directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and starring his favourite collaborator Melissa McCarthy. The poster just made it look generic and lame, and I always thought Feig’s earlier films were overrated.

Just shows we shouldn’t judge a movie by its poster or preconceived notions based on the past. Because Spy is really funny. Hilarious stuff. Laugh-out-loud gags with a progressive slant. In my opinion it’s easily the best film either Feig or McCarthy have been involved in.

It doesn’t have a mindblowing plot — McCarthy plays a former teacher-turned-CIA-agent who acts as the eyes and ears of the agency’s top spy, played by Jude Law. She’s meek and awkward and disappointed with how her career change has turned out.

Naturally, an opportunity arises in which she is thrust into dangerous undercover field work, and this brings out the hidden beast in her as she tries to track down a lethal nuclear weapon.

All the kudos in the world for having McCarthy as the undisputed female lead and a kickass spy, an absolute rarity in sexist, beauty- and weight-obsessed Hollywood, but none of that would have mattered if Spy turned out to be a stinker.

Fortunately, Spy smashes the six-laugh quota for a decent comedy with ease thanks to a variety of factors. First and foremost, McCarthy, who gets the opportunity to show her range by playing essentially two personalities — the meek, and the snarky one we’re used to seeing from Bridesmaids and The Heat. 

In the former, she’s funny in the hesitant, awkward manner she’s very capable of pulling off. However, she’s at her ripping best in the latter, firing off quick-witted, sharp, acidic one-liners and well-placed profanity to elicit the chuckles. I always found this crude version of McCarthy funny, but too much of it felt grating and exhausting. Feig’s decision to give us half a film of it ended up being perfect; just the right amount of familiar McCarthy.

Rose Byrne, who seems to be in absolutely everything these days, once again displays her  ample comedic chops as the stuck-up villain with the posh accent. She’s not afraid to make fun of herself and go head-to-head wih McCarthy in the profanity stakes; I believe this could be as funny as she has ever been.

Jude Law, who has been out of the limelight in recent years, returns as a James Bond spoof of sorts, probably a nod to the fact that he was almost picked to be the iconic spy years ago. He’s clearly aged and appears to have gotten some plugs, though the charisma is still there. He gets to joke around the least as the tongue-in-cheek straight-man of the comedy but takes the role in stride.

Up to this point, Spy is already a fairly decent comedy. What takes it to the next level, however, is the presence of Jason Statham. As the most bankable martial arts action star of today, Statham has only been on the fringes of comedy, and by that I mean wisecracks and one-liners in between beating people up on screen. He finally gets to show off his incredible self-awareness and untapped comedic timing in Spy as a disgruntled rogue agent who steals just about every scene he’s in.

Statham’s character is British, but he’s also crass, profane, arrogant, mysognistic and hyperbolic. He reminds of a hardened version of Kurt Russell from Big Trouble in Little China. His hilarity is undeniable, and it adds an edge to the film I doubt anyone else could have offered.

I thought after Kingsman: The Secret Service the year’s best action-comedy had been set in stone, but now I’m not so sure. Spy isn’t nearly as stylish or visually impressive, but it’s much more of a pure comedy in that it generates bigger and more frequent belly laughs. I had an unexpectedly good time.

4.25 stars out of 5