Category: Comedy


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One of the great myths of life is that love is something magical, that it exists beyond our electrochemical human functions, that it is pre-ordained and written in the stars. It isn’t. We love because of chemical reactions in our body, socialization, and the pool of people we have the geographic (or, in our modern time, digital) capability to love. But, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and just because you can love others doesn’t mean that your love for a specific individual is lesser. Love would be less messy and less painful if we could recognize that we will never truly be one with another human being and simply celebrated the moments we can share with others who value our presence and affection. Perhaps more efficiently than any film since Manhattan, Spike Jonze‘s Her cuts straight to the core of romantic love, wrapping it all in a sci-fi world that seems all too real now.

It’s easy to talk about love in a logical way. It’s easy to recognize the evolutionary functions it no longer needs to serve. But living life in a way that maximizes your romantic pleasure and minimizes yours and (just as importantly) others romantic pain isn’t as easy as philosophical discussions. To err is human and we want to possess our partners. We want to be the missing piece of our partner’s existence and for them to be the same for us, but no one can meet those expectations and fantasies. And romance wanes and dissolves when the person we love isn’t the person we fell in love with and the cycle of loneliness and misery begins anew. So, it’s no wonder it takes a machine to solve this most human of dilemmas.

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Among artists of a certain stripe, there’s an uncontrollable urge to make art of meaning, and if they can’t make art that contextualizes some aspect of the human experience, it can drive these artists to mania and depression. And while art that forces us to examine our place in the universe is often the most rewarding, we can’t discount the power of entertainment and escape. Situated at the tail end of Woody Allen’s transitional period from his early comedies to his later “serious” films, 1980’s Stardust Memories is a pitch-perfect encapsulation of one artist’s struggle against his own commercial talents as he desperately craves the ability to craft work of genuine import. And, in the process, he discovers maybe you can do both.

By 1980, Woody Allen had won a Best Director and Best Picture Oscar for Annie Hall, and Manhattan was a turning point for him as a dramatic storyteller, but the mixed critical reaction to Interiors and the even more mixed audience reaction to the increasingly dark and realistic nature of his films was taking its toll on Allen. He felt pigeonholed as a director of silly farces, but Allen cut his teeth on foreign art house cinema, and he wanted to make works more inspired by Bergman and Fellini than the Marx brothers. And Stardust Memories is a stunning work of art as self-therapy as Allen reconciles these warring impulses in a feat of pure cinematic magic truly worthy of its clear cinematic peer, 8 1/2.

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(A quick aside before I begin my review. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. My Funny Games review from August to be exact. It’s been a busy Fall for me. I finally have a final draft version of my long gestating film noir screenplay that’s consumed me for much of this semester. I also got hired to be the interim managing editor for a month for the music journalism site that I write for on occasion, and I also more recently got hired to do freelance reviews by GameSpot, one of the internet’s biggest video game journalism websites. That said, it’s my goal to do these reviews for my “A” and “A+” films with more consistency cause I like to keep this particular writing muscle fresh.)

Civil libertarians (that are not the same thing as the Rand-ian variety) will tell you that if there’s a societal demand and there isn’t a net negative utility to the supply of this demand, then there should be no governmental impediment to its delivery. Generally, I’m inclined to agree with that world view. But, as with all axiomatic principles, that involves accepting some rather ugly consequences of that philosophy. We want to get high, but addiction flourishes. We want freedom of artistic expression, but crude and vapid reality television rules the airways. We want unfiltered access to “news” and the stunning Nightcrawler examines how low we’ll sink to get it.

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It takes an almost sociopathic disregard for good taste to begin a “prestige” film with a dwarf being thrown at a dartboard as hedonistic stock brokers gamble on the results. But coming from the man who had the deranged Travis Bickle take his classy love interest (Cybil Shephard) to a porno movie on their first date, it makes a certain deranged sense coming from the iconic Martin Scorsese who has built an entire career on crafting morality plays that may not seem as such on the surface. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the most controversial films of the last two years, but anyone watching it with a clear eye for the director’s intention recognize it as perhaps the most scathing indictment of greed and excess since Glengarry Glen Ross.

We live in a world where reckless Wall Street gambling and a total disregard for the idea of risk vs. collateral wrecked not only the United States’ economy but the economy of the entire world. And a film where a self-described crook and liar gets a slap on the wrist for his crimes against the public does not, on the surface, seem like the right path to take when dissecting the mindset of the men who nearly dragged the U.S. into another Great Depression. But by turning Wall Street excess into a raucous satire, Scorsese is able to make points with more laser precision and immediate impact than a straight-faced serious drama could have hoped.

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Based on the autobiography of the titular Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s film is the true story of Wall Street wunderkind Jordan Belfort (The Departed‘s Leonardo DiCaprio). After watching the devastation of the stock market during 1987’s Black Monday and losing his job as a broker for a prestigious Wall Street brokerage, Jordan starts his own brokerage, Stratton Oakmont, making money off of pink-sheet stocks: cheap penny stocks that give brokers a 50% commission on sales as opposed to the 1% commission on high-end blue chip stocks. The catch with the pink-sheet stocks is that they’re penny stocks for a reason and only fools would invest in them.

And it’s not long before Jordan and his friends, a hodgepodge of drug dealers and scam artists, turn Stratton Oakmont into a business where Jordan is bringing home $49 million a year. And while selling people stocks that aren’t actually worth a damn isn’t a crime, stock price manipulation is and alongside his founding partner Donny (Moneyball‘s Jonah Hill), Jordan gets involved in every illegal Wall Street crime imaginable, from insider trading to embezzlement to price fixing. And not even the relentless investigation of FBI Agent Denham (Zero Dark Thirty‘s Kyle Chandler) is enough to make Jordan stop his ways.

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It doesn’t hurt that Jordan, Donny, and company are hedonists that would put the most depraved nobles of the Roman empire to shame. Over the course of The Wolf of Wall Street‘s three hour running time, Jordan and his men consume enough drugs to fund a small South American government, and they sleep with enough hookers to solve the debt crisis (if said hookers were taxable). Jordan has more money than any person could possibly spend in one lifetime, and The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t afraid to explore the completely outrageous waste of wealth that happens when it becomes increasingly concentrated in just a few individuals (and particularly when those individuals are too coked out to spend it with any responsibility).

And what makes The Wolf of Wall Street so controversial and so repugnant to the traditional vanguards of the moral police (both on the left and the right) is that it is an undeniably fun film and that The Wolf of Wall Street crosses the line so many times in this film that it’s easy to lose track, including a particularly memorable moment where Jordan and the founding partners of Stratton Oakmont discuss the proper protocol for hiring dwarves to be thrown at dartboards. But, there would be no other way to tell this story. The film has fun with the drug scenes because, guess what, drugs are fun. That’s why people do them. There’s a certain comedic allure of sociopathic behavior and The Wolf of Wall Street knows it: like Jonah Hill pulling his dick out at a party and masturbating cause he took too many Quaaludes.

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And while the consequences for Jordan’s actions in the court of law amass to a 3 year stint at a Club Fed prison, The Wolf of Wall Street shows the consequences of the out of control lives these men live. Jordan loses his family. Donny nearly chokes to death while eating a sandwich after a particularly traumatic Quaalude experience. The Walking Dead‘s Jon Bernthal’s Brad dies of a heart attack in his 30s cause that what happens when you abuse cocaine like Tony Montana. Jordan is reduced to betraying all of his friends in order to serve less jail time. The Wolf of Wall Street may not drape its ethical message in ham-fisted preaching, but it’s there if you take half a second to look for it.

And, like all of Scorsese’s films, The Wolf of Wall Street is a technical marvel. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography captures the opulent depravity that fills virtually every second of the film but is able to capture more intimate and darker moments in the starker images necessary to convey the emotions. Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker edits one of the most raucous moments of Scorsese’s entire career for the film’s famous Quaalude crawl which is conveyed in fragmented, delirious terms. When either Scorsese or Schoonmaker passes away, it will be a tragic moment in film.

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In no uncertain terms, Jordan Belfort is the finest performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career and the apex of DiCaprio’s decade long collaboration with Martin Scorsese. For anyone who’s ever doubted DiCaprio’s place as the heir to Robert De Niro as Scorsese’s muse, The Wolf of Wall Street will change your mind or nothing will. It’s a fearless, balls-to-the-wall performance and DiCaprio leaves it all out there. I have not seen Dallas Buyers Club, but I can not begin to imagine how McConaughey is better in it than DiCaprio was in this. DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort has already become one of the defining performances of the aughts for me.

Had you told me back in 2005 that the kid trying to buy fish boots would have two Oscar nominations, I’d have laughed in your face, but somewhere along the line, Jonah Hill transformed himself into a respectable performer even if I’m not sure what was particularly Oscar worthy about his performances in this or Moneyball. He’s great. Don’t get me wrong. Donny is part of the long line of psychopathic supporting men in Scorsese films begun by Joe Pesci, but his performance pales so completely in comparison to the masterclass of frenetic and crazy performing that DiCaprio puts on.

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My only complaint about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is long. I didn’t particularly feel the length when I watched the film for the first time in theatres because the film is so vibrant and alive (a quality lacking from some of Scorsese’s latest works), but upon a second viewing at home when I rented the film from Netflix, I felt those three hours. But, if you can make it through the film’s considerable length and you can handle with the film’s over-the-top content in the way that it’s meant to be handled, then you’re in for what is Scorsese’s best film since Gangs of New York and possibly even Goodfellas. It’s destined to be a modern classic.

Final Score: A

 

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(A quick note before I write this review. I think [emphasis on think] that I watched this movie on Monday evening. I was going to review it when I came to work on Tuesday but I forgot to bring my laptop that day and I’ve been on the road since then because of an Arcade Fire concert in Pittsburgh Wednesday and then a Paul Simon/Sting concert in DC on Wednesday. So I ap0logize in advance for the possible weakened state of this review)

Towards the beginning of Heathers, Winona Ryder’s somewhat morally centered Veronica voices her hesitancy to one of the cruel pranks of the powerful Heather clique, and Queen Bee Heather Chandler drops one of the film’s many great throwaway lines, “Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” While I’m glad such absurd aphorisms would no longer sound natural in today’s world, language in the 1980s had character. That character was often garish and patently over-the-top, but it rarely felt dispensable or throw-away. 1984’s Sixteen Candles has not aged particularly well and it plays hop-scotch with being downright offensive at times, but it has more character and memorable style than any modern teen film that isn’t The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

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This viewing of Sixteen Candles was my first since high school (when I was a vocal member of the church of John Hughes. For what it’s worth, I still think that Pretty in Pink is his best film), and after years of catching glimpses of the watered-down broadcast for TV version, I had forgotten how dark and raunchy elements of Sixteen Candles actually are. The film predates the PG-13 rating system, so this is likely one of the few PG films you’ll ever see with bare breasts, the word “fuck,” and more cursing and casual date rape jokes than you can throw a stick at.

The actual plot of Sixteen Candles is about as simple (and well-trod these days) as it gets. Wallflower high schooler Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) is turning sixteen the day before her beautiful (and brainless) sister’s wedding, and in the chaos surrounding her sister’s wedding, including visiting grandparents and their insane Chinese exchange student, Sammie’s family forgets her birthday. To make matters worse for Sammie, she’s in love with gorgeous senior Jake Ryan (MermaidsMichael Schoeffling), but she doesn’t think he knows that she exists, and all the while, a far too horny and overbearing nerd (Anthony Michael Hall) keeps trying to win Sammie’s heart for himself.

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As I said, the plot of Sixteen Candles is simple to a fault, and it’s been done a million times since, and time hasn’t been kind to one of the original high school romantic comedies. Everything involving Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) is so racist and insensitive that it’s a wonder this movie was made by a major studio. He’s such a collection of awful Asian stereotypes (can’t drive, can’t speak English, yells “Bonsai” when dropping out of a tree despite being Chinese not Japanese) that I spent whole portions of the film cringing. Although to Gedde Watanabe’s credit, he rolls with the part and sells it for as many low-brow laughs as he can get.

Jake Ryan is arguably the Ur-“Dreamy High School Crush” archetype, but I never realized prior to this viewing how much of a sociopath he actually is. Let’s put this into perspective: Jake Ryan’s fragile ego is stroked by a shy girl who constantly looks at him but he knows nothing about her. He only barely knows her name. So, he decides to go on an epic quest to meet this girl despite the fact that he has a gorgeous girlfriend. He abandons said girlfriend who is completely shitfaced, black-out drunk to try and call Sammie and meet her. And then, he abandons his girlfriend to the clutches of the horny nerd and tells her that the nerd is him, and then Jake makes a joke about how the girlfriend is so drunk he could “violate her ten different ways.” He’s a terrible person.

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Despite those huge complaints, there’s a sincerity in Sixteen Candles lacking in the majority of modern teen comedies. When Sammie stares at herself in the mirror when she wakes up on her birthday and bemoans the size of her bust, that’s something many high school girls have had to deal with. When Sammie wallows in her seemingly unrequited crush on Jake Ryan (despite the fact that the two barely know each other), it feels real because everyone who was ever in high school has been there. And when she talks to her father, we recognize the real awkwardness of parents and children talking about romance.

And, most importantly of all, Sixteen Candles is legitimately funny. Anthony Michael Hall’s Farmer Ted/The Geek is the film’s unsung comic hero, and he and his friends (including a young and already charming enough to be a star John Cusack) provide many of the film’s best moments. Farmer Ted and his crew crash a senior party and not long after arriving, Ted leans against a beer can sculpture and knocks it over earning the ire of the jocks. And the payoff comes later as Farmer Ted’s friends are being driven home in the trunk of the jocks’ car, and they’re both convinced that they’ve made new friends. And the film has plenty of great little bits like that.

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Sixteen Candles is an 80s classic, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great film. And there are times where it’s outright bad (Jake Ryan is legitimately one of the most loathsome romantic leads in any rom-com ever), but with a subversive streak a mile wide and an honest ear for certain elements of teenage life, Sixteen Candles‘ shelf life is sure to last for years and years to come. One can only hope that future generations who discover this film move on to Hughes better features, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink as well.

Final Score: B

 

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Since American Pie took over the box office in 1999, mainstream American teen comedies run on sex and raunch and little else. I’m not arguing that’s a huge problem. Raunchy teen sex comedies like Sex Drive are something of a guilty pleasure of mine, but I miss the day when teen comedies dared to be darker and more subversive (the closest we’ve come of late is the far more dramatic Perks of Being a Wallflower). And in today’s age of market-tested audiences and butter knife sharp satire, I can’t imagine a scenario where a teen comedy as pitch-black and razor sharp as Heathers could ever be made.

Cause let’s face it; if a studio head heard a pitch today about a comedy where a girl starts dating a psychopath and stages the murder of all of the popular kids at her high school, he would laugh the writer out of the conference room.But, somehow writer Daniel Waters and director Michael Lehman make all that and more work in their scathing satire of teen status, bullying, and the hell of growing up in the modern world (even if this movie’s complete 80s-ness dates the hell out of it).

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The obvious spiritual predecessor to the modern (and less edgy) Mean Girls, Heathers charts the trials of Veronica Sawyer (Reality Bites‘s Winona Ryder), a bright and halfway decent girl that’s been sucked into the orbit of the popular “Heathers” clique at her school, where three beautiful and incredibly bitchy girls named Heather rule the school with Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) currently running the roost. They get their kicks from brutalizing the rest of the school and employ Veronica’s masterful handwriting mimicry skills to trick overweight losers into thinking jocks have written them sexually graphic love letters.

And Veronica’s life is upended with the arrival at Westerberg High of J.D. (Christian Slater), a mysterious loner who pulls a gun filled with blanks on two of the high school’s jock bullies on his first day of school. The roguish and mercurial J.D. is a breath of sincere, genuine air in Victoria’s artificial, plasticine existence. And though the pair get off on an immediate wave of young love, Veronica’s plans to prank the evil Heather Chandler spins out of control into murder when J.D. puts liquid drainer in her morning drink. And when Victoria agrees to write Heather’s suicide note, it sparks a string of murder-suicides that are beyond Veronica’s ability to control.

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No one is spared from the barbed tongue that is Heathers‘ delicious wit. Although the film is clearly a condemnation of the clique-ish bully culture that has dominated American high schools for so long (I was fortunate to grow up in one of the few high schools in the country to legitimately not have a clique problem), it also spares no sympathy for those that think J.D.’s solution to the problem is the right one and paints them as the psychopaths they clearly are (even if their psychopathy is more sincere than the bullies’ sociopathy). But the movie’s harshest criticism are at the adult world’s attempts to commercialize and aestheticize the suffering and suicide of the young.

Like it’s bomb-throwing anti-hero, Heathers takes no prisoners and doesn’t know when to stop. When it’s on point, exploring the seemingly bottomless depths of cruelty that high schoolers commit on one another or the way that hippie-dippie adults exploit youth culture to its own means, Heathers is one of the most insightful and piercing films of the 80s. But, when it comes to the actions of J.D. and Veronica, Heathers isn’t quite as apt at handling the balancing act of showing us why Veronica would fall under J.D.’s homicidal spell but also why the film thinks he’s stark raving mad (and that Veronica has her guilt for the role she played in all of these proceedings).

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I’ve often wondered why Winona Ryder never had a bigger career. In countless films in the 80s and early 90s, she was the perfect incarnation of rebellious teenage/young adult angst, and she had a presence and “I don’t give a fuck” attitude that is sorely missing in today’s many homogenous and easily replaceable starlets. It could be her kleptomania but I suspect there’s more there. Regardless, Heathers is one of her most iconic roles, and when Veronica says she wants her friends dead (but doesn’t really), Winona captures all of the complexity of teenage rage.

Christian Slater’s performance is just one cocaine-tinged Jack Nicholson impersonation, but it’s one hell of a Jack Nicholson impersonation. There is no other character in the American cinematic canon quite like Slater’s homicidal and increasingly deranged J.D. To this day, my sister is creeped out by any (even later) Slater roles because he so thoroughly embodies the nihilistic rage and desperation of J.D. J.D. might not be the most fully realized comedy in a satire chock full of caricature (excepting perhaps Veronica), but Slater’s psychotic turn can’t be missed.

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The film is overflowing with memorable throwaway dialogue and to this day, I’ll yell out “I love my dead gay son!” for seemingly no reason other than the fact that I laugh my ass off every time it’s uttered in this film. Without question, elements of the film’s quintessentially 80s dialogue and fashion have dated it to its severe detriment. The film’s consistent usage of the word “very” as some synonym for “excellent” or “good” began to grate. But, they don’t make comedies like Heathers anymore, and for fans of satire that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty, it’s still worth a watch 25 years later (sweet Jesus, I was born in 1989. Christ, I’m getting old).

Final Score: B+

 

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One evening in New York City, after a wonderful romantic evening with a girl I was seeing, I walked her to the subway, and on my walk back to my apartment in the primarily Caribbean Crown Heights, I softly sang and subtly danced to “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. As one of the few Caucasians in the mostly Caribbean neighborhood, I didn’t have to do much to stand out, and singing a show-tune as I walked down the street didn’t help matters. But, I was so happy and so content that I didn’t care who saw or who laughed. When people in old musicals are so overcome with happiness or sorrow that they simply burst into song, I get it. It happens to me in real life. I just don’t have an array of back-up singers (or actual musical talent) and lavish dance routines.

I’ve discussed at length on this blog the special place that musicals hold in my heart and the complicated feelings I’ve developed for them as I’ve gotten older and my tastes have gotten more sophisticated (and my critical skills grew sharper). Grease was one of the first non-children’s movies that I can remember watching, and there’s always been something about theatrical song and dance numbers that have appealed to me on a deep and personal level ever since. Unfortunately, I also recognize that a lot of these “classic” musicals are also sort of hilariously bad in the actual storytelling department. 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business is no exception to that rule. It’s gorgeous production and sublime Irving Berlin score make it worth every musical lover’s time, but it’s story borders on non-existent.

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The Donahue clan, led by matriarch Molly (Ethel Merman) and Terry (Dan Dailey), are a struggling vaudeville family act. Though the group finds great success when the parents are joined by their children, Tim (Singing in the Rain‘s Donald O’Connor), Katie (Mitzi Gaynor), and Steve (Johnnie Ray), it isn’t long before the family act starts to fall apart. Steve wants to become a priest, and Tim falls head over heels in love with coat-check girl (and aspiring singer), Vicky Parker (How to Marry a Millionaire‘s Marilyn Monroe). And when Vicky’s career begins to take off, and she brings Tim and Katie along to be part of her new Broadway revue, it spells the beginning of the end of the Five Donahues as a performing act. Throw in Tim’s suspicion that Vicky is having an affair with her manager, and the family is set on a path towards disaster.

I love Donald O’Connor. I doubt that’s a controversial statement. He’s clearly the best part of Singing in the Rain. The title track of that film is great, but “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the best number of that whole film. And he does not disappoint in There’s No Business Like Show Business. The man can dance and he can sing, and he delivers a snappy one-liner with the best of them, and it’s always puzzled me that he wasn’t a bigger star (though I get it. He didn’t have leading man looks). Although I suspect the film would have been enjoyable without him, I also know for a fact that I wouldn’t have liked There’s No Business Like Show Business nearly as much without O’Connor’s presence. There’s a number after Tim kisses Vicky for the first time that has quickly become one of my favorite set pieces from a classic musical.

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Marilyn Monroe on the other hand… she really isn’t a great actress, but unlike How to Marry a Millionaire, this film shows off an area where Monroe is actually startlingly talented: burlesque-adjacent numbers. Whenever Monroe has to deliver actual dialogue, she’s more stiff and unnatural on screen than even the non-professional cast of Steven Soderbergh’s disastrous Bubble. But, when she’s performing her musical numbers in the film, which give her a chance to show off her sultry and simmering sexuality, it’s like watching an entirely different performer. The only other actresses from that era who seem to be as aware and in control of their sexuality were Liz Taylor and Lauren Bacall. And, Monroe’s confidence and presence sell every second of her musical numbers. For an actress that we’ve come to know (from historical records) as suffering from crippling self-esteem issues, it is surprising how well she carries herself in the film’s sizzling musical numbers from Miss Monroe.

And the rest of the cast is full of established musical talent. Ethel Merman is a Broadway legend, and although her performance is about as campy as they get, it fits the silly and fun mood of this film far better than a more serious take would have. Dan Dailey was appropriately lecherous but loveable as the beleaguered family patriarch although it was probably in the film’s best interest that he was involved in as few of the musical numbers as he was. Johnnie Ray shone during what little screen time he had, at least from a singing perspective (his acting wasn’t phenomenal), and I more or less immediately fell in love with the beautiful Mitzi Gaynor who played the sister. Looking at her IMDB page, she appears to have mostly done musicals and never had much of a career which is a shame because she was both gorgeous and talented.

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The costume work and set design and general composition of this film is a glorious exercise in excess. Early in the film, the Donahue’s perform a deliciously over-the-top take on the old Irving Berlin standard “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” that is far more complex and expensive than they should be able to afford, but I loved every second of its multi-national ridiculousness. And, as mentioned earlier, there’s a glorious performance of “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him)” performed with fountains and back-up dancers disguised as statues from Donald O’Connor. That was the moment when I surrendered myself to the silly fun of There’s No Business Like Show Business. As someone who’s danced down the streets of Brooklyn after a wonderful evening with a girl, it spoke to me.

There’s No Business Like Show Business isn’t ever going to stand in the pantheon of great movie musicals, and the performance of “Heat Wave,” which featured what I’ll refer to as blackface-adjacent backup dancers, was a little offensive, but like Babes in Arms before it, there’s something just undeniably fun about this film despite (actually probably because of) its ridiculous nature. The songs are great, and not even the sight of Ethel Merman with absurd mutton-chop sideburns during “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor (Until a Sailor’s Been Tattooed” should deter you from watching this film if you have a soft spot in your heart for old musicals. If you aren’t a fan of musicals, I can’t imagine that There’s No Business Like Show Business will convert you, but for those in the fold, it’s worth the two hours of your time.

Final Score: B

 

Duck Soup

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I’ve had many discussions in this blog about the thin line between great absurdist humor and absurdist humor that falls flat. The Big Lebowski (my practically ur-example of absurdist humor) hits the right notes from beginning to end. Martin & Orloff flails most of its running time without any real direction. And, despite the seeming contradiction there, great absurdist comedies drop jokes with laser-point precision. 1933’s Duck Soup challenges my general premise. It challenges my premise because Duck Soup is an undeniably brilliant and gut-busting comedy, but it takes a shotgun to the idea of “direction” or “meaning” or “themes.” It simply is, and somehow, it makes that work.

If Duck Soup has a raison d’etre, it is an excuse to lay down as many jokes, gags, and slapstick at a machine gun-fire rate that it can. Actually a machine-gun is the wrong metaphor here; Duck Soup fires off jokes like a gatling gun on steroids. Though the film has an expository opening at the beginning (before the Marx brothers show up), once Groucho makes his grand entrance, the film just doesn’t stop. It actually becomes sort of exhausting. If the film were any longer (an hour and eight minutes is the absolutely perfect running time), it would have been too much to handle. But, as the act of comedy distilled to its pure essence, the Marx brothers knew what they were doing.

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What plot that exists in Duck Soup is always in support of the film’s jokes and almost never the other way around, and, against all rules of comedic writing, that works. When the struggling nation of Freedonia needs a loan to stay afloat, the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) agrees on the condition that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) be appointed as the new prime minister. Of course, Rufus being Groucho, he’s no more fit for the job than the last officeholder, and his zany ideas for proper political behavior get the film’s conflicts rolling.

The scheming ambassador of Sylvania, Trentino (Louis Calhern), wishes to marry the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, who only has eyes for Rufus. And so he hires two spies, the mute Pinky (Harpo Marx) and Chicolini (Chico Marx), to dig up dirt on Rufus T. Firefly. Of course Pinky being Harpo and Chicolini being Chico, they’re no more competent as spies than Rufus is as a government minister. And when Freedonian Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx) discovers Trentino’s schemes, Rufus’s confrontations with the Sylvanian ambassador lead to all-out war between Freedonia and Sylvania.

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Let there be no doubts. Duck Soup is funny. I was belly-laughing from beginning to end. There are bits in the film where it doesn’t work as well. Some of the musical numbers are more ridiculous than funny though that may have been the point. And any second (literally any single frame of the film) where at least one of the Marx brothers isn’t on screen robs it of its power. But, if any single one of them is there, it’s magic. And if they’re all three on screen… it’s divine (Zeppo is also in the film but plays the straight man). Whether it’s Groucho and Chico’s endless non-sequiturs or Harpo’s silent slapstick, Duck Soup fires on all cylinders from beginning to end.

Like Bringing Up Baby or Modern Times, Duck Soup makes the convincing case that cinematic comedy peaked in the 1930s and it didn’t really find itself again until Woody Allen’s dramedies burst on the scene. And it’s easy to pinpoint why. Early comedies just didn’t stop. Most modern comedies are lucky to have a handfull of big, belly laugh moments even though they throw tons of weak material at the screen hoping something sticks. The classic comedies are endlessly inventive from beginning to end. It’s a marvel, and more comedy writers need to study the crisp rapid-fire dialogue of the Preston Sturges screwballs and the brilliant physical timing of Harpo Marx/Charlie Chaplin to get how real comedy works.

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I want to work on my screenplay so I’ll draw this review to a close (I haven’t worked on the screenplay in a significant manner in two days now). Let me leave you with this. I will always remember the avalanche of “bits” in this film. Chico, Harpo, and a lemonade salesman switching hats in a zany bit of misdirection; Chico and Harpo pretending to be Groucho and then Groucho arriving; Groucho’s ever-evolving suite of outfits when war finally breaks out until he ultimately looks like Daniel Boone. The jokes never end. And that should be all the invitation one needs to watch this classic comedy masterpiece.

Final score: A

 

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This is going to be possibly the most contradictory and conflicting review I’ve ever written. On every intellectual level that I can muster, I know that the 2006 Happy Madison production Grandma’s Boy is exquisitely awful. It’s low-brow to the extreme and a consistent affront to good taste and smart comedy at every turn. But, and it’s difficult to express how much it pains me to admit this, I love this movie. Part of a cadre of films that I used to watch religiously whenever they were on HBO when I was younger (others include Beerfest and Anchorman), Grandma’s Boy makes me laugh louder and harder than it has any right to, and there are days when I think there’s something wrong with me for how much I love this film.

Grandma’s Boy is steeped firmly in the stoner/slacker tradition of the Cheech & Chong films but with a decidedly modern bent and a fixation with video games (which explains in part my love of the film as something of an avid gamer). And it isn’t afraid to scrape the bottom of the barrel for jokes, but for God knows what reason, those “bottom of the barrel” gags work here when they never work for me in any of the other modern Happy Madison films (like That’s My Boy). Because let’s face it. Any film that has Shirley “Mrs. Partridge” Jones talking about giving a hand job to Charlie Chaplin speaks to me on some odd, inexplicable level.

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Alex (Allen Covert) is a stoner wasting his life away as a video game tester for a game design studio when he really wants to make his own games and not mindlessly test the games of his obnoxious, robot-obsessed boss J.P. (Avatar‘s Joel David Moore). But, when the company brings in the beautiful and charming Samantha (Brokeback Mountain‘s Linda Cardellini) to ensure that their current game gets finished on time, she may be the motivation Alex needs to finally try and do something with his life. However, Alex has just been thrown out of his apartment (because his roommate spent their rent money on hookers) and he has to move in with his grandmother (Doris Roberts) and her two friends which Alex is too ashamed to explain to Samantha and his best friend Jeff (Nick Swardson).

Alexander Payne this is not. In fact, it’s not even Judd Apatow. The jokes in Grandma’s Boy are as crass and disgusting as you can possibly imagine. At one point, before he lives with his grandmother, Alex stays at Jeff’s for the evening. Alex can’t sleep so he attempts to masturbate to one of Jeff’s female action figures (which he pretends is Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft) and winds up ejaculating on Jeff’s mom when she walks in on him. At one point, Jonah Hill (Academy Award nominee for Moneyball) sucks on a breast (he literally appears to be suckling on a nipple at one point) for hours on end. And fart jokes abound.

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But, and there’s no logical explanation for this, there are moments in Grandma’s Boy that carry some type of moronic genius where the film becomes so stupid, it’s brilliant. Alex’s burnt out pot dealer Dante (Patrick Dante) drags Alex into situations so surreal that they capture some of the absurdist magic of the old Happy Madison films like Billy Madison. And Shirley Jones steals virtually ever scene she’s in as the grandmother’s trampy roommate Grace. And, maybe it’s because I was born and bred on Freaks and Geeks, but watching a drunken Linda Cardellini make a fool of herself to “Push It” is hilarious. Although, Linda Cardellini is way too good of an actress for the material she’s given in this film.

Grandma’s Boy is a bad film. Although, it’s a bad film that I wholeheartedly enjoy (and though it was a disastrous critical flop when it was released, it has become something of a cult classic in intervening years). The movie doesn’t have a sophisticated bone in its body, and when I’m not trying to think about the film critically (as I was forced to during this viewing), that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. If you require your comedy to have brains, avoid Grandma’s Boy like the plague because it smoked all of its brain cells away. But if you can enjoy a stupid but occasionally brilliant stoner comedy, Grandma’s Boy can be a great trip.

Final Score: C+

 

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An avalanche of rapid-fire dialogue, slapstick humor, and gags from start to finish barely scratches the surface of the madcap genius that is 1938’s Bringing Up Baby. The screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s are the golden era of pre-Woody Allen and post-Chaplin comedy, and Bringing Up Baby is surely one of the definitive films of that form. With stars Cary Grant (My Favorite Wife) and Katharine Hepburn (Woman of the Year) at the height of their comedic abilities, it is a non-stop laugh riot. And shy of Modern Times, I’d be hard-pressed to name a comedy from before the 1960s that’s as consistently hilarious as this Howard Hawks classic.

Humor in the purest sense of the word is derived from the unexpected and, like poetry, well-timed repetition. You expect one thing to happen to your heroes but, with expert timing, something else occurs. Say what you will about the non-intellectual nature of slapstick, but setting up the right series of physical gags and pratfalls takes perfect coordination of writer, director, and actor for it not seem contrived or silly. And what makes the screwball classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age so memorable is the ease with which its films transition in and out of hilariously painful physical humor, verbal ping-pong, and constantly escalating situational humor. And, from start to finish, Bringing Up Baby succeeds on every perceivable comedic front without ever having to resort to gross-out gags, foul language, or raunchy sex.

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Clumsy paleontologist David Huxley (Carey Grant) is a brilliant figure in his field but something of a nervous, put-upon mess. His fiancee, Alice (Virginia Walker), insists that they not have a honeymoon for their wedding which is only a day away and that David return immediately to his work, which involves putting the final bone in piece to a massive Brontosaurus skeleton, after their wedding. The pressure on David is compounded by a golf session with the lawyer of a rich woman who wants to give $1 million to David’s museum. And on that fateful golfing trip, after David hooks his starting drive, his life is changed when he meets Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).

Susan is a desperately ditzy and oblivious heiress. And, in her first meeting with David, she steals his golf ball (because it was on her fairway) and then, leaving the golf course, she drives David’s car without his permission so that it would be easier for her to get out of her parking spot later. And though David positively loathes Susan from first sight, she is struck head over heels for him and concocts increasingly zany schemes so that he will not make it to his wedding. From saddling David with her pet leopard Baby to dragging him to Connecticut on the promise to make amends on costing him his golf meeting with the lawyer, the adventures and laughs never stop once the pair are together.

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Ignoring the complete lack of sexual chemistry that Cary Grant ever seemed to have with any of his female co-stars (his rumored homosexuality not withstanding, he should be able to at least pretend it), Cary Grant is a deliciously funny comic performer. Yes, his dramatic turns in films like Penny Serenade are brilliant, but his sardonic and deadpan comic delivery are a wonderful delight. David is very much a reactive role as he has to respond to the various misadventures Susan (the meatier part) drags him into and with every sigh, roll of his eyes, and exasperated shrug, Cary Grant had me in stitches. Not to mention the verbal rhythm he established with Hepburn’s motor-mouth Susan.

But, let there be no question, this was Katharine Hepburn’s show, and she commands the attention of every scene. The performance is astounding, not just in a comedic sense (though she gets many of the film’s biggest laughs) but in the whole range that Hepburn draws from. Cary Grant is a handsome, charming man, but there’s nothing sexual about him. He never seemed attracted to Susan. And so while Katharine turns Susan into a tough, air-headed, scheming, scatter-brained brilliant mess, she also played Susan in the thrall of a gradual swoon towards David, and the romantic aspect of the film would have fallen apart were it not for her natural magnetism and vulnerability. With the exception of Diane Keaton and Irene Dunne, few female stars have been able to dominate a film as thoroughly as Katharine Hepburn.

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I harped on this during my introduction but Bringing Up Baby was an astoundingly flexible and multi-faceted comedy. It’s one of the talkiest screwballs this side of My Man Godfrey (the similarities between Katharine Hepburn’s character in this and Carole Lombard’s in that are eerie). But, the physical humor is just as expertly pitched and Buster Keaton would have been proud. Few films have ever made the consistent toppling of shelves, tables, and human beings so refreshing. Bringing Up Baby‘s instincts for when to have David or Susan take a spill are perfect. And, then of course, the gags are endless such as a moment at a fancy restaurant where Susan accidentally tears David’s coat and then David accidentally tears Susan’s dress and they have to waddle their way out of the restaurant to spare her dignity.

When Bringing Up Baby was first released, it was something of a critical and commercial flop but it has been vindicated by the annals of history as the classic it truly is. Some old films age poorly, but the best seem as fresh today as the did 75 years ago. Bringing Up Baby has lost none of its pleasures. Proving my long-held belief that real comedy is timeless, I can’t imagine anyone stepping into this world and not finding themselves rolling in the aisles when all is said and done.

Final Score: A