Category: Cult Comedy


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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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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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Absurdist humor is not easy to pull off. For every Wet Hot American Summer or The Big Lebowski that birth surrealist brilliance, you have a million half-baked comedies that think they can replace jokes with randomness and still derive real humor. What makes those two classic films (well Lebowski is a classic, WHAS is just a really funny cult film) work despite their seeming utter absurdity is that every absurd or “random” moment is actually a brilliantly executed gag. And less absurdist comedies lose sight of the power of gags. They don’t understand that everything in a film has to have some purpose (even if that purpose is to draw attention to its own meaninglessness, read: the entire plot of The Big Lebowski). And, sadly, for its first half, Martin & Orloff doesn’t understand the power of gags and actual humor which is ultimately a disappointment because it climaxes in a manic, nearly brilliant final act.

Although, similarly to Wet Hot American Summer, 2002’s Martin & Orloff features some hilarious minor turns from comedic actors before they became stars in their own right. And, much like Wet Hot American Summer (which was a project of sketch comedy group, The State), Martin & Orloff is the product of another prestigious comedy group, the Upright Citizens’ Brigade which was home at one or time or another to many of today’s most promising comedic writers/performers. But while Wet Hot American Summer suffered from its share of hit-or-miss jokes, it seems like an astonishingly even film in comparison to the much, much, much spottier Martin & Orloff. A lot of comedy is predicated on throwing out as many jokes as possible and hoping that enough stick to score ample laughs, but for nearly the first hour of this indie comedy, the laughs simply never arrive.

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After a failed suicide attempt, Martin Flam (Ian Roberts) seeks solace and advice from his new psychotherapist, Dr. Eric Orloff (Old School‘s Matt Walsh). Martin Flam designs mascot costumes for a marketing company and after a vague incident involving an evil Chinese food company, Martin is struggling both at work and in his personal life and he hopes Dr. Orloff will help him sort things out. Unfortunately for Martin, Dr. Orloff is even crazier than he is, and all of Orloff’s friends and patients are an order of magnitude higher on the crazy train. During Martin’s first session alone, Orloff ends it minutes into the meeting to play in a softball game that he forgot about, and he drags Martin with him where Martin proceeds to get his ass kicked when he’s forced to play umpire. And over the next day or two, Martin’s life spirals even further out of control as Orloff’s unconventional therapy methods seem to cause more harm than good.

I get what they were attempting in this film. Upright Citizens’ Brigade and the State and all of these other sketch comedy groups are born-and-bred on improv theater. And, Martin & Orloff is no exception to this. The whole film feels as if it was the product of improvisation. Even if there actually was a real script (I don’t know for sure), there were many moments where it seemed like Ian Roberts was trying to figure out what his line should be (that may be because he’s not a very good actor of either the dramatic or comedic variety). And that sense of improvisation explains why so much of the film feels tacked-on and without meaning or context. Most of the first half feels like little thought was put into what should happen and the jokes fail on that score. It isn’t until the final 30-40 minutes or so where any of the jokes finally begin to have any bite or actual humor, and some of the bits by the end become almost brilliant.

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When Martin & Orloff works, it nearly reaches a sense of madcap genius. A (astonishingly early) sequence has a strip club where some of the dancers themes are Goya or the Chuck Yeager biopic The Right Stuff. A recurring gag about a minor character’s comically large penis returns as a near deus ex machina in the film’s climax. The evil leader of the Chinese food conglomerate momentarily becomes a villain straight out of a John Woo film at the end. When the jokes are focused and aimed squarely at something, they work. And sadly that isn’t always the case. I can’t heartily recommend Martin & Orloff because the film is a chore and tedious for so long. But, if you’re patient and a fan of Wet Hot American Summer, the end doesn’t necessarily make things worthwhile but it becomes a laugh riot in its own right.

Final Score: C

 

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Barring It’s a Wonderful Life and, oddly enough, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas, most supposed Christmas films don’t seem to understand the holiday they’re meant to be portraying. They’re commercial and trite, and if they do touch on themes of family and love, it’s in a bland, generic manner that’s been done to death a thousand times over. I’m an agnostic and fairly set in my lack of religious beliefs, but if you remove the religious aspect from the equation, I can appreciate the themes of love and unity that represent the modern meaning of Christmas. And, perhaps, that’s why it’s so odd that the best Christmas film, and the one most truest to the themes of the holiday, since It’s a Wonderful Life is the raunchy modern cult classic, Bad Santa.

What makes Bad Santa such a genuine and sincere tale of Christmas when, on the surface, it seems like the height of the anti-Christmas film? With a deeply unsympathetic lead (at first) and a story about a modern-day Grinch (a parallel that only struck me for the first time as I wrote that sentence), Bad Santa seems as if it should be intent on skewering Christmas with all its might. Yet, though the film is cynical, it’s never mean-tempered, and with a tale of redemption, friendship, and (in its own way) family, Bad Santa has more to say about what Christmas means in the 2000s than any other film of the last decade, and it also serves as an indictment of the crass commercialism that has come to pollute the holiday.

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Willie (The Man Who Wasn’t There‘s Billy Bob Thornton) is a sad-sack loser with no morals, no friends, and practically no reason to live other than the next fuck or his next drink. Willie makes a living, if you can call it that, posing as a mall Santa at Christmas time and robbing the department store safes with the help of his dwarf friend Marcus (Tony Cox), who poses as one of his elves. Willie’s an alcoholic and a jackass, and he gets less reliable at the job every year, and even though he swears to Marcus at the film’s beginning that that score was his last, come next Christmas Willie is broke and ready to head on down to Phoenix, Arizona to get to work again.

But, Phoenix proves to be the beginning of the end of Willie’s career as a safe cracker and department store Santa. As his self-loathing and alcoholism reach new lows, Willie stumbles into his only chance for redemption when he hooks up with a lonely barmaid (Lauren Graham) with a strange Santa fetish and move in with an odd but sweet kid (Brett Kelly) whose the object of bullying by other children and Willie himself, though Willie begins to grow fond of the possibly mentally challenged child. Willie’s life is complicated even further when his drunken antics gain the ire of the department store manager (John Ritter) who sets the mall detective (Bernie Mac) to try and figure out what Willie and Marcus are up to.

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First and foremost, I haven’t seen Sling Blade so I can’t say for certain if this is the best performance of Billy Bob Thornton’s career, but it’s certainly the best out of all of his films that I’ve seen. Thornton’s Willie is an especially loathsome creature. He drinks; he curses; he steals; he uses; he abuses; he fornicates. Yet, underneath it all, there’s a heart for the audience to latch on to. You begin, despite his almost endless list of character flaws, to grow quite fond of Willie. You want to see him improve himself. And, even at the depths of his despair and misanthtropy, Billy Bob Thornton reminds us that there’s something human still left in Willie’s core, and it’s a tricky tightrope act to conquer that Billy Bob Thornton does just fine. It was one of the finest comedy performances of the ’00’s.

And, besides Thornton’s brilliant comic turn, Bad Santa is unabashedly hilarious from start to finish. Yes, there are moments where the humor misses. Bits about a repressed homosexual Arab trying to rape Willie or Willie asking the kid if he’s a faggot are unnecessarily homophobic and not funny, but mostly, the movie hits all of the right notes. By stripping away the varnish of the “noble criminal,” Bad Santa is free to make Willie as miserable and pathetic a piece of shit as they can (as, a real life criminal could very well be), and through his complete lack of social graces and meanness, Bad Santa scores endless laughs.

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Yet, despite the gross-out humor and the general rough edges of the film, Bad Santa impresses most of all because of how genuinely touching it can be. Because of the film’s devotion to character, Willie’s arc and growth throughout the film are rewarding. In realistic fashion, Willie doesn’t find total redemption Ebenezer Scrooge style. He’s still a crude, foul-mouthed asshole by film’s end, but he reconnects with his inner humanity just enough for the film to chart a winning emotional path. His relationship with the Kid (whose name of Therman isn’t revealed until the film’s climax) is rewarding even after multiple viewings.

Bad Santa is one of the only modern Christmas films that I consider part of the required Christmas cinematic canon. It’s dark and gritty enough for those who don’t generally enjoy Christmas films (such as myself) to find plenty of laughs, but it has enough heart to know more about Christmas than most of its peers. The occasionally homophobic humor is quite dated and sad, but if you can get past those moments in the film, you will find not just the best Christmas film of the last several decades, but also simply one of the best mainstream comedies of the last ten years.

Final Score: A-

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I might be wrong, but I think, at this point, the only directors that I have reviewed for this blog as often as the Coen Brothers are Woody Allen and David Lean. It’s not an intentional decision by any means; these directors have just made an exceptionally large number of films and they were almost all critically acclaimed. I’ve reviewed so many Coen films at this point that I would have to open up my list of every movie I’ve reviewed (all 360 or so) just to pick them all out. I bring this up because, despite their occasional flaws and pretenses as filmmakers, the Coens are arguably the most versatile and multifaceted writer/directors of the modern era, and their early screwball classic, Raising Arizona, is ample proof of why.

Raising Arizona is arguably the closest the Coens have ever come to doing a straight comedy. Although I think that The Big Lebowski is the second greatest American comedy ever made (behind Annie Hall), it twists and turns in its post-modernist nihilism and genre-bending so much that no one could ever call it a straight comedy. But Raising Arizona is classic screwball and slapstick in the vein of My Man Godfrey or The Philadelphia Story. Relying on the insanity of its characters and a constantly escalating series of mishaps that snowball towards the film’s climax, Raising Arizona is a loving (if subversive) throwback to the classic comedies of yore, and honestly, nobody has made them like this since.

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H.I. McDunnough (Adaptation.‘s Nic Cage) is an unrepentant bandit. Robbing gas stations (with an unloaded gun to avoid armed robbery charges), H.I. is in and out of prison with an astonishing regularity. However, when he catches the eye of ex-cop Ed (Jesus’ Sons Holly Hunter), he vows to get his life back on the straight and narrow. The two two marry and move into a trailer in the middle of the Arizona desert. H.I. gets a job at a sheet metal factory, and everything seems to be back on the up and up, until H.I. and Edwina decide to have a baby. But, when Ed discovers that she’s incapable of getting pregnant, their lives begin to fall back apart.

Potential salvation comes in the form of news that a local furniture salesman, the titular Arizona, has had quintuplets with his wife. Getting it into their head that the Arizona family now has more children than they can manage, Ed and H.I. believe that they’ll be doing the Arizonas a favor if they take one of the babies off their hands. And, so, H.I. kidnaps little Nathan Jr. and he and Ed hope to raise the baby as their own. But when two of H.I.’s old cell mates break out of prison (including an excellent John Goodman) and show up on his doorstep, their plans immediately spin out off control and the arrival of a psychotic bounty hunter only make things worse.

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Although part of me suspects that Raising Arizona has some very minor pacing problems (during its 90 minute running time, there were little moments here and there where my mind began to wander), the movie is still, then, thankfully full of classic comedy bits. Whether it’s early in the film when H.I.  is trying to decide which of the Arizona quints to steal as they start scattering all over their house, or a gas station robbery gone horribly, horribly south, or any other of a number of gag-fueled scenes, Raising Arizona earns its reputation as one of the true cult comedy classics of the 1980s by keeping the laughs coming consistently from beginning to end.

I’ve brought this up so many times now for this blog that it almost seems dumb to say it again, but here goes. Nic Cage has completely destroyed any credibility he had as an actor this last decade or so, but Raising Arizona reminds me of why he should have been one of the biggest stars of his time. He has a natural comic timing, and he has inhabited so many zany and eccentric characters over the year that it’s a shame he decided to play an endless series of the same type of character in mainstream action duds. Holly Hunter was also hysterical as the appropriately emotionally hysterical Ed, and I’ll actually be watching another Holly Hunter classic later this week, The Incredibles. So, I’m excited for that.

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I could go on at length about how this film is also a perfect snapshot of 1980s Americana and a commentary on the economic angst of Reagan’s America, but I’m hungry so I’m going to draw this review to a close. If you’re looking for a witty and endlessly clever comedy to whittle away the hours today, I’m not sure if you could do much worse than Raising Arizona. It was one of the films that shot the Coen brothers onto the map, and while it may not be one of my favorite films of theirs (it’s impressive that a film as great as this doesn’t crack the top 5 for a director), it’s still one of the best comedies of the 1980s.

Final Score: A-

 

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(A quick aside before my review. I watched this movie Thursday before I went to bed. and then I went to a Fleetwood Mac concert on Friday and I worked open to close shifts Saturday and Sunday. I’ve only just now had a chance to sit down and write this review. I also have to review Django Unchained which I watched at my dad’s when I got home from work Saturday (and then immediately went to bed after it ended. So, if this particular review seems short, it’s only because I want to save my energy for the more complex Django.)

Despite his often sophomoric sense of humor, Kevin Smith is one of my favorite writer/directors of all time. Obviously, I don’t actually think he’s one of the best, but his particular brand of pop-culture humor and existential crises speaks to me on a fairly intense level. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Chasing Amy is my third favorite film of all time (behind Annie Hall and Pulp Fiction). Beneath the dick jokes and the literal shit humor (I’m looking at you, “chocolate pretzel” scene from Mallrats), Kevin Smith usually has something insightful to say about the rat race, love, and coming to terms with our own possibilities. 12 years is a really long time to wait for a sequel, but Kevin Smith’s long-anticipated follow-up to Clerks may not have the freshness and sense of wonder it had a decade ago, but Clerks II makes up for it with a surprisingly touching tale of male friendship that had me in tears after my first viewing.

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Taking place over a decade after the original film, Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall’s (Jeff Anderson) lives are different but, at the same time, not much has changed at all. The Quick Stop has burned down and the duo have moved on to the only thing lower on the service industry totem pole than retail. They now work in fast food at a Mooby’s Burger (a chain Dogma fans should recognize). The movie begins on Dante’s last day before he moves to Florida with his fiancee to start a new life and leave Randall behind. Dante doesn’t really love his girlfriend though; in fact, his true feelings lie with his boss, Becky (Rosario Dawson), who he once had a one night stand with. As the clock ticks down to Dante’s last day in Jersey, Randall begins to truly feel the loss of his best friend, and Dante must choose if he should do what society wants or live his life the way that will that make him happiest.

Clearly, Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson aren’t great actors. It’s why we haven’t seen them in many films outside of the View Askewniverse (the interconnected world where all of Kevin Smith’s Jersey films take place), but I could never imagine another pair playing Randall and Dante. Perhaps, they simply aren’t playing characters too far removed from themselves prior to the success of Clerks, but Brian O’Halloran in particular captures the weariness that comes with working in the service fields (I’ve only been doing it for three years in two different jobs and it already makes me hate people). If he seemed beat down and cynical in Clerks, by Clerks II, he’s turned into almost a shell of his former shelf. And, props must be giving to Jeff Anderson for his willingness to really sell the filth and vulgarity that is Randall, but when he’s required to have his big emotional climax, Anderson nails the basic humanity of the character.

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The film’s best performance though was arguably Rosario Dawson whose smart and put-together Becky is a side of low-wage life you rarely see, the person who gets trapped and never allowed to escape despite their talents. She too has her own weariness and concerns (as you find out throughout the film), and Rosario’s natural charm made it easy to see why Dante might be willing to give up his whole life for a girl like her. And the film, in true Kevin Smith fashion, had a bevy of wonderful supporting performances. Jason Lee, Ethan Suplee, Ben Affleck, and others all make appearances, and even Jason Mewes seems like he has more to do than usual as the always obnoxious (but weirdly funny) Jay.

Like I said, I also want to review Django Unchained tonight (and I see that review eclipsing 1500 words or so) so let me end this review on a couple of notes. Clerks II is hilarious. I’ve seen this film at least a dozen times, and I still laughed my ass of the entire run time of the film. But, in addition to its deliciously low-brow sensibilities (all of the scenes where Randall tortures his Christian, nerdy coworker Elias spring to mind), Clerks II has the most heart of any Kevin Smith film whose name isn’t Chasing Amy. It’s the rare film where you may literally laugh and cry. Apparently, Kevin Smith is at work on a Clerks 3, and if it ever sees the light of day, I can only hope it’s half as good as this now classic 2000s comedy.

Final Score: A-

 

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A lot of really talented directors/writers have a hard time finding a balance between endearingly quirky and artificially eccentric. As much as I love Wes Anderson films, it often feels like Anderson is trying too hard to make his characters seem original by making them insufferably and unrealistically off-beat. Sometimes it works, Rushmore; sometimes it doesn’t, Moonrise Kingdom (though that film has its brilliant moments as well). Juno suffered from the same problem because as realistic as Juno’s problems are, there are no actual teenage girls that talked like her. At least, there weren’t until that film came out and inspired girls to speak like Ellen Page. Jared Hess’s breakout directorial debut, Napoleon Dynamite, has become a bit of a modern cult classic, but I have always found it to be so bad that it’s nearly unwatchable and that Hess’s characters are almost all artificially eccentric and not in the slightest endearingly quirky.

Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a mouth-breathing, chronic-lying nerd with a penchant for drawing pencil doodles of fictional creatures. He lives at home with his grandmother and his 32-year old, effeminate brother Kip (Aaron Ruell). Kip spends his day chatting on line with his internet girlfriend Lafanda, whose reality is a legitimate question for most of the film. Napoleon gets bullied at school and his only two friends are transfer student Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and shy Deb (Big Love‘s Tina Majorino). When Napoleon’s grandmother is in a dune buggy accident, his creepy uncle Rico (Jon Gries) is sent to look after him and Kip. Rico longs for his glory days on the football field in high school (although the film implies that he was only a backup quarterback), and his endless schemes to make money and glory only serve to nearly ruin Napoleon’s life at every turn.

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Jon Heder gives arguably one of the worst lead performances thus far for this blog. I could go back and look at every single movie I’ve reviewed (I probably won’t), but I imagine I would be hard-pressed to find a more unbelievable and grating performance than his. Anyone who’s seen Gentleman Broncos knows that subtlety isn’t the strong suit of any part of any Jared Hess film, and he was unable to coax a life-like performance from the wooden and slack-jawed Jon Heder. No one on this actual planet talks like Napoleon. You consistently feel like you’re watching a performance in a student film where they’re trying to give an example of how to be as awful as humanly possible in a performance. And the actors playing Kip and Pedro are not remotely any better.

The only two performances in the film that make the acting in the movie bearable are Tina Majorino as Deb and Jon Gries as Uncle Rico. I remember when I first watched this film that I thought Tina Majorino gave the worst performance of the whole movie. Now, I can easily say it was the best. Whereas Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, and Aaron Ruell turn awkwardness into camp and stiff artificiality, Tina Majorino makes Deb seem like the shy but sensitive girl we all knew in high school. She just dives right into the part and doesn’t hold back. In fact, had the film been about Deb, it might have actually been a decent film. And Jon Gries becomes one of the only consistent sources of humor in the film as Uncle Rico. He’s the only actor with a real sense of comic timing, and he finds the creepiness and despair that both lie at the heart of Rico.

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I’ll keep this review short because I simply don’t like this movie, and nothing I can say about it will persuade its legions of fans that it’s unwatchable drivel. Let me then close with this. Some films are so bad that they’re brilliant. Rocky Horror Picture Show is objectively an awful movie, but the fun and camp at it’s heart makes it a bizarre classic. Jared Hess tries to make a film that is so bad it’s great with Napoleon Dynamite, but instead, the movie remains almost entirely so bad that it’s a trainwreck. The film has its moments that made me laugh but I could count them on one hand, and the one truly great sequence (Napoleon’s final dance number) isn’t enough to make up for an hour and a half of a film that is too painfully awkward to watch and not in that good Freaks and Geeks type of way.

Final Score: C-

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(A quick prelude before the actual review begins. I’M BACK! So, I’ve been on a hiatus since early November. Long time readers/friends in real life know that I’ve been working on a screenplay. I’ve written five, count ’em, five drafts of my original screenplay Aftertaste. I’ve plotted out scene-by-scene the direction of two other screenplays and written about 30 pages of the actual script of another. I’ve read Syd Field’s book on screenwriting and just generally, I’ve been in the midst of a creative renaissance. It’s been really fantastic. So take into account all of the writing I’ve been doing, the fact that I had finals at the beginning of December and I’ve spent the last month and a half as the assistant manager at my local FYE working 30-40 hours a week, it’s easy to see why I’ve been too busy to update this blog. But, I have THREE consecutive days off in a row from work for the first time in what feels like an eternity, so I thought I’d return to the hobby that got me my internship in NYC last spring as well as the hobby that inspired me to write my screenplay in the first place. I’m back everybody!)

Barry Levinson’s Diner is one of the great under-appreciated coming of age films of all time. It didn’t gloss over the awkward pains and embarrassments of growing up or try to tidy up the ambiguities we face as we enter the real world. With subtlety and a terrific cast, it succeeded in delivering a realism that almost no other coming-of-age tale could hope to equal. 1994’s Reality Bites, directed by Ben Stiller, has a reputation as being the ultimate Gen-X coming of age film and while it has moments of almost heart-breaking veracity and is supported by a stellar cast at the top of their game, the film at times comes off like a blatant hodge-podge of 90s hot-button issues.

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The mid-90s was the end of an era. Grunge was beginning its slow descent into being corporate sell-outs and only a few years removed from post-grunge atrocities like Nickelback and Creed. Generations of teenagers who had rejected the “Generation Me” mindset of their Reaganite parents were about to learn the cold hard truth that their own counterculture would eventually have to grow up. You can fight the power as long as you want but eventually, someday, somebody’s going to have to pay the bills. In the angst-fueled Reality Bites, a small group of friends face the post-college world and come to terms with becoming an adult in their own painful ways.

College valedictorian Leilana Pierce (The Age of Innocence‘s Winona Ryder) thinks she’s on the right track. An aspiring documentary film-maker, she’s a production assistant on a popular television talk show. She’s beginning a healthy relationship with TV producer Michael (Ben Stiller), and her parents just gave her a BMW. But when her slacker best friend Troy (Ethan Hawke), who may also be in love with her, moves in with Leilana and her friend Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), Troy and Leilana’s complicated history and Leilana’s unexpected unemployment force everyone in their circle of friends to grow up more quickly than they expected.

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Similar to Diner, much of the film’s appeal can be attributed to the movie’s strong cast. As terrible as this may be to say, Ben Stiller’s acting career likely peaked with this performance as the sensitive and mature but still screwed up Michael. Winona Ryder’s career performances fluctuate from brilliant (Heathers) to awful (The Age of Innocence) but she was at her best here as the ambitious, bitchy, vulnerable, and lovelorn Leilana. It was a demanding role which required her to vascillate between sympathetic audience surrogate and angsty, whiny brat at the drop of the hat and she pulled it off.

The real star of the film though was the intense and naturalistic performance of Ethan Hawke. Although the writing of the Troy character occasionally bordered on ridiculous and some of his actual dialogue was absurd, Hawke’s mesmerizing performance made you forget any flaws with the writing. With his piercing stare and James Dean wounded vulnerability, Hawke turned this performance into the stepping stone for the rest of his star career although said star has been on the wane lately. It’s a shame Hawke never become a true top-tier talent.

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The film’s writing doesn’t always due justice to the film’s wonderful cast. Although the angsty, self-centered narcissism of the film’s cast may have seemed authentic and gripping in the mid-90s, it makes the cast seem remarkably unlikeable for most of the film and not necessarily in interesting ways. And while Leilana’s characterization seems sufficiently 3-dimensional, the supporting players often act in ways that are utterly unbelievable and the film can never seem to get a tag on what role they want Troy to inhabit. That may have been the intention but at times, it just makes the film seem muddled.

And on that same note, the film’s use of “facing the camera” vignettes (which are part of Leilana’s in-universe documentary) tell parts of the story to directly when a more subtle approach would have been affective. The film isn’t afraid to “tell” the audience the story it wants to portray rather than showing it. When the film tackles themes like sexuality and finding a meaningful job or alienation, it does them well but Reality Bites is just as likely to have a character make some type of bland platitude directly into the camera and insult the audience’s intelligence in the process.

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Minor complaints aside, Reality Bites is still a wonderfully charming indie romance and it’s easy to see why so many people that were teenagers in the 1990s find it so meaningful. My screenplay Aftertaste actually shares many thematic similarities to Reality Bites and could almost have the exact same logline. So, this film gave me some ideas about some pitfalls that I need to avoid in my own film as I continue to write more drafts of Aftertaste in the hope of selling it. If you’re a fan of indie coming of age films, Reality Bites might not be perfect, but it’s a genuine and deeply enjoyable gem from the indie film’s heyday.

Final Score: B+

 

What do Pretty Woman, Working Girl, and Ever After have in common? They’re all remakes of the Cinderella story. In fact, the tale of a young woman going from rags to riches (and snaring a wealthy man in the process) is one of the oldest and most popular stories of all time. There are, without fail, at least one or two loose or direct adaptations of Cinderella released as a movie every year. Although there may be modern spins on the story (Working Girl sees her as a secretary under the spiteful hand of her evil boss), the tale is so ingrained in our conscious that if a female character is down on her luck when a film begins, we expect her to work her way out of said hole. Pygmalion has created the same expectations for women who are unattractive and uncouth in a film’s beginning (though was Audrey Hepburn ever unattractive in My Fair Lady?). Muriel’s Wedding wants you to believe it’s a surrealist, Australian take on Cinderella, but by the time the credits roll, it’s left an entire genre battered in its wake.

America (except for perhaps in recent years) has never really adapted surrealism as a mainstream form of comedy. Broad sophomoric antics and a standard joke-pun-reaction structure rule the day. Even among (American) independent film makers, there’s more of a reliance on socially awkward tension and dark malaise than excursions into whimsy. The two most successful American comedies that embrace surrealism were flops when they came out and only garnered critical and commercial love later, The Big Lebowski and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. P.J. Hogan’s brutal and darkly comic Muriel’s Wedding slides back and forth between nearly grating levels of quirkiness and surrealism on to gut-wrenching moments of drama and real life. While the emotional rollercoaster the film presents may be too much for some, it’s whole-hearted deconstruction of the Cinderella fantasy and its visceral capture of the total emotional spectrum makes it one of the most compelling (if flawed) comedies I’ve seen in years.

Muriel (Little Miss Sunshine‘s Toni Collette) is a shy, homely chronic liar who is nearly sent to prison at the beginning of the film by wearing a stolen wedding dress to her best friend’s wedding. Except, she (and the other women that Toni finds to be her friends) isn’t really Muriel’s friend, and her whole female peer group unceremoniously dumps her at a bar as they plan a group getaway, leaving Muriel a hysterically weeping mess. In truth, the closest thing that Muriel has to a real friend is her ABBA records which she’ll listen to for days at a time without leaving her house. With no looks, no personality, and no career prospects (she’s a high school drop out that also failed out of secretarial school), Muriel’s life has gone nowhere and will go nowhere. But, one day, her father cuts her a blank check for a possible beauty salesman job that Muriel instead uses to go on a lavish vacation that changes her life forever.

I was actually left somewhat cold by the beginning of the film (though it all makes sense later) because it wasn’t especially funny. Muriel’s life is almost satirically pathetic. Her father (Bill Hunter) is an obviously crooked businessman. She and the rest of her siblings are layabouts who milk their parents for whatever meager benefits they can while contributing nothing in return. Her mother (Jeanie Drynan) loves her children but is passive and submissive to the point of oblivious, and her most beloved daughter, Muriel, cares nothing for her. Muriel isn’t your average “quirky” film heroine. She’s awkward to the point of causing the audience physical pain to watch her stumble her way through life. It makes her dramatic change after meeting Rachel Griffith’s Rhoda all the more surprising, but by not knowing where the film’s final two acts were heading, the beginning of Muriel‘s Wedding sends the false impression that the film’s comedy will be flat.

However, the film picks up, when Muriel takes her vacation to the same resort get away that her friends had no intention of taking her. She is rejected by them almost immediately and her public degradation continues. Muriel’s life is forever altered when she meets the wild and rebellious Rhoda (Six Feet Under‘s Rachel Griffiths) at the resort bar. While Rhoda went to the same high school as Muriel, Muriel never spoke to anyone and Rhoda left town. She doesn’t know how pathetic Muriel’s life is and Muriel is able to convince her she has a fiancee and that she’s a successful saleswoman (the latter being the same lie she’s fed her family about her trip). Rhoda inspires Muriel to actually live her life (even if the details of said life are a lie), stand up to the girls who looked down on her, and after a brief return to her parents’ house, move to Sydney to finally start a life of her own. As Muriel (who changes her name to Mariel) and Rhoda live the fast life in Sydney, tragedy, hypocrisy, and lies wait around the corner to devastate their new friendship.

From the moment that Rhoda and Muriel do a side-splitting rendition of ABBA’s “Waterloo” at the resort talent show (interspersed with Muriel’s faux-friends getting into a massive cat-fight), Muriel’s Wedding springs to life. Muriel begins the film a frumpy, poorly-kept mess, and while Toni Collette is never going to be pretty by any standard (I know. I know. It’s a terrible thing to say.), she gets a nice make-over that makes her look like an actually presentable person (instead of some bad caricature of everything wrong with 1980s fashion as how she starts the film). That’s the Pygmalion side of the film. There’s a riotous scene where Muriel is attempting to have sex (presumably for the first time) with a new boyfriend (as Rhoda has an orgy with two American sailors in her bedroom) that is perhaps one of the most hysterical, awkward, and painful love scenes ever. It also marks the drastic tonal shift that comes out of left field (which I will not explain for fear of spoiling the film).

However, when the film changes moods, just let me say that Muriel’s Wedding goes for the knockout punch. After spending the first half of the film setting up how low Muriel had become and then helping her rise, we quickly discover that Muriel doesn’t just want to be happy or better. She wants fantasy at the expense of an already pleasant reality. She keeps lying to her only real friend about her non-existent fiancee and everything else about her life. Muriel’s creates such a complicated web of fantasy that it’s inevitable that it will all come crashing down on her. The genius part of the film is that it allows Muriel’s lies to give her all the things a girl in a Cinderella fantasy could want: wealth, a husband, the adoration and jealousy of her peers. But, you also see the spiritual toll that her deceit and betrayal takes on her and Rhoda, especially in Rhoda’s ultimate moment of need.

Every time you think that the film can’t go to a darker place, it does. The film regularly interplays pitch-black, About Schmidt style comedy with outrageous humor. You may find yourself laughing til your sides hurt one second only to be on the verge of tears (the non-laughter variety) the very next. That’s what life is like though (although hopefully yours is full of less sad sacks than Muriel’s) and P.J.’s Hogan captures love, death, friendship, betrayal, depression, isolation, hope, and renewal. I’ve seen Muriel’s Wedding referred to as a feel-good comedy, but this was the most emotionally draining film I’d watched since Synecdoche, New York. It ultimately has a hopeful and positive message about life which is that Muriel can change her position, she can escape the dour fatalism of her early film life, but she has to embrace her roots and learn to be herself, not the idealized version she thinks she should be. Yet, you wander through a parade of misery and tragedy to get there. Once again, that’s life.

The performances from the two female leads are flawless. Along with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Sally Hawkins Happy-Go-Lucky, Toni Collette has delivered what should be one of the definitive female comedic performances of all time. Muriel becomes nearly so deluded with the fantasies that she’s created for her life that she starts to buy into them herself. Her idea of drastically changing her identity is to change one syllable in her name (Muriel to Mariel) and create wild lies. She convinces bridal shop owners that her mother is dying so she can try on a million wedding dresses and have her picture taken. She’s willing to marry a man just for money and still manages to convince herself that it’s a fairy tale blessing. When her illusions are shattered (and those close to her call her on her bullshit), she withdraws into the hysterical, broken girl she really is. Toni Collette bravely consumes herself in this complex and demanding role.

Fans of Six Feet Under know Rachel Griffith’s ability to take on volatile roles. Brenda was easily the most dynamic character on SFU. Rhoda manages to nearly steal the show from Muriel. When Rhoda first appears, Muriel is still queen of Pathetic-ville, and her joie de vivre and “take no bullshit” attitude imbues the film with the charm and wit it needed to not be too depressing. And as the film progresses, she continues to up the ante to still seem wild in comparison to the newly free Muriel, until the film violently shoves the audience back to Earth with a side of Rhoda that starkly changes her character. Just like Toni Collette (and the emotional range of the film itself), Rachel Griffiths takes Rhoda through an emotional maelstrom, and you’re never once left doubting the veracity of her performance.

If you find yourself tired of the same, conventional staid Hollywood romances, Muriel’s Wedding is as drastic a departure from the norm as possible. It may drag slightly at the beginning, and some moments ring as artificial (and even worse, kitsch), but for a brutally honest story of growing up and self-realization, Muriel’s Wedding is another classic cult comedy from Australia. Toni Collette was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. If you can make it through its rough introduction, you are rewarded with a film that gets to the truth that so many of us can’t face. We are ourselves, and while we can always improve ourself, we will never be something that we aren’t. If we try, we’re just destroying ourselves and hurting those that love us.

Final Score: A-

I’m not a big Will Ferrell fan. His time on SNL is probably the textbook definition of how to do sketch comedy well, but his movies are hit or miss at best. Stranger than Fiction is the only really good film Will Ferrell has made in about a decade. I enjoy some of his sophomoric Adam McKay-directed, Jud Apatow produced comedies (Semi-Pro, Blades of Glory), but mostly even with the ones I enjoy, I know that they are broadly written collections of cheap laughs. The worst of the films (Talledega Nights, Step Brothers) are borderline unwatchable except for having a rare funny or quotable moment here or there. He basically took his Frank the Tank character from Old School and found minor permutations and ways to change it to essentially play the same character for a decade strong now. It’s time to vary up your career with more challenging roles Mr. Ferrell. Still, even the cynical, angry curmudgeon in me must admit that the leading man role that got Will Ferrell his big break in Hollywood is the definition of a modern cult classic. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy remains eight years later one of the most quotable films of the aughts (along with The Hangover although not quite as consistently funny asThe Hangover). It’s not the most intellectual comedy ever written but it’s complete embrace of the absurd and surrealism means its still able to make me laugh my ass off all of these years later.

Set in the 1970s, Anchorman is the story of a fictional TV news program in San Diego just when feminism in the workplace was on the rise. Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is the chauvinistic, womanizing, moron that is lead anchor for the Channel 4 news program which is the number one show in the San Diego area. Along with his co-reporters including the mentally disabled weatherman Brick (Steve Carrell), the possibly homosexual sports broadcaster Champ (David Koechner), and the rakish field reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Ron is the cock of the walk in San Diego, worshiped by his legion of viewers and the women he parties with. But when ambitious and sexy hard-nosed reporter Veronica (Christina Applegate) shows up in the news room, things get shaken up very quickly. Despite Veronica’s better judgement, a romantic relationship blooms between Veronica and Ron but his sexism and her quick rise in the offices threatens to destroy their relationship as well as Ron’s entire career.

This is easily Will Ferrel’s most iconic role. It was the part that shot him to stardom and made everyone realize he could be a leading man rather than just a supporting sidekick or foil (though honestly, on film, I think that’s where he should go back to being because his solo work is less than impressive). If you were to ask the average Joe to name a Will Ferrell role off the top of their head, you have to think that Ron Burgundy or Frank the Tank would be the first answer given. And honestly, while there are definitely traces in this role of virtually every other Will Ferrell part from the last 8 years, he still manages to be very funny in this film. While his hyperactive, full-blown crazy side manages to elicit more laughs than it has in the intervening years, its his ability to dial the intensity down in this film and deliver the occasional deadpan joke that makes Ron Burgundy his most memorable celluloid creation. It doesn’t hurt that nearly everything that Ron Burgundy says is completely quotable but this is one of the rare Will Ferrell roles where he finds a balance between the two extreme sides of his acting persona. Christina Applegate isn’t especially funny in her role but as the “straight man” of the cast, she wasn’t meant to be. This film also turned out to be a break-out role (or one of several break out roles) for both Paul Rudd and Steve Carrell. Steve Carrell brings nearly as many classic Anchorman moments to the table as Will Ferrell does.

Trying to put my finger on the pulse of why this film is so endlessly quotable and enjoyable but Ferrell’s other films (which are structurally and stylistically similar) aren’t is difficult. Obviously, the film’s quotability plays a heavy part. The only reason I wound up watching this movie was because my sister hadn’t seen it, and throughout the entire film I was supplying the end to every punchline or non-sequitur (of which there are a lot). Anchorman is without question one of those films that grows on you with every viewing. I probably enjoyed it the first time I saw it but didn’t love it. Now, watching Anchorman is an exercise in getting to all of the great gags and set pieces. Speaking of set pieces, more than any of the other Adam McKay films, Anchorman has a serious bent to the surreal and absurd. Whether it’s the anchorman gang fight (where Brick stabs a man in the heart with a trident and Luke Wilson loses an arm), the jazz flute scene, or the part where Ron ends up in a zoo pit with bears, Anchorman tries to be as intentionally outrageous as possible. That’s part of the film’s charm. It crosses the line so many times (punting a dog off of a bridge for example) that you know not to try and take the movie seriously whatsoever. But it earns this comedic goodwill unlike the rest of Adam McKay’s ouevre (if you use the word ouevre in reference to Adam McKay, you probably aren’t his target audience).

The obvious payoff here is that in the face of all of the film’s truly hilarious moments, the moments where the jokes fall flat seem even more trite, boring, and lazy particularly in the face of the collected output of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay for the last ten years. Simply because this film laid the blocks in place for the rest of his movies, it robs the film of some of the freshness it had when first released. Still, even with those reservations, I haven’t stopped enjoying Anchorman after all of this time (it’s been several years since I’ve actually sat down and watched it), and it’s one of those films with lines that have entered my working, every day vocabulary. It’s not a perfect film, and it’s not Will Ferrell’s best movie. That’s certainly Stranger than Fiction. But as far as comedies that you can enjoy without having to put your thinking cap on, Anchorman might be the cat’s pajamas.

Final Score: B+