Category: Dark Humor & Black Comedies


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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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(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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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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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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Although horror generally doesn’t fall under the purview of films that I attempt to review for this blog (which is a thousands films long list of award-nominated movies), I make a special attempt to sneak them in here when I get the chance. Ever since I was a child, horror has been a guilty pleasure of mine, and the nights I wasn’t able to sleep in elementary school after my parents mistakenly let me watch A Nightmare on Elm Street still stick with me nearly 20 years later. And, over this blog’s two and a half year lifetime, I’ve often mused about what was the greatest horror film ever made. I’ve reviewed classics like The Shining, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist, as well as modern greats like Let the Right One In and Paranormal Activity. But after much thought and debate, I think my heart belongs to 2000’s American Psycho.

Perhaps it’s unfair to even discuss American Psycho in rankings of the great horror films because under any real inspection, American Psycho is a horror movie in only the most superficial and surface ways. Because despite the buckets of blood, slasher film tropes, and skin-crawlingly creepy performance from Christian Bale, American Psycho is as much a pitch-black comedy and satire of the greed, narcissism, and general misogyny of the 1980s as it is a retread of the familiar serial killer tale. In fact, were the film meant as a straight horror, it would be mediocre at best because it’s not scary in the slightest, but as a brutal evisceration of the dark underbelly of the Reagan years and Wall Street avarice, American Psycho turns itself into a horrific, dark mirror of the worst sides of American life.

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Patrick Bateman (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Christian Bale) is the embodiment of the 1980s American dream. He’s a young successful Wall Street executive on the rise. He has a perfect body, perfect skin, and the perfect NYC high rise apartment. He has a gorgeous girlfriend, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), a willing mistress (Samantha Mathis), and absurdly rich friends whose biggest problems in life seem to be whether or not they can get a reservation at the swankiest New York City restaurants and passive aggressively loathing one another over who has the best business card.

But, beneath his perfect exterior, Patrick hides a dark, dark secret. He is a serial killer and an absolutely unhinged one at that. Taking great pride in beating and mutilating prostitutes and the homeless, Patrick unleashes his misogynistic, anti-woman hatred out whenever he can. And when professional jealousy towards one of his colleagues (Jared Leto) ends in a Huey Lewis & the News preceded murder, Patrick finds himself tailed by detective Donald Kimball (Faraway, So Close!‘s Willem Dafoe) who is investigating the man’s disappearance. Will Patrick be able to keep his dark nature in check or will he explode in an orgiastic bloodlust of violence and mayhem?

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Christian Bale has become one of the most consistently intriguing and promising stars of his generation, and alongside the much earlier Empire of the Sun, this was one of the films that put Bale on the map. Alongside his role in The Fighter, I still believe that American Psycho is the premier performance of Bale’s career. Some might be put of by just how bizarre his characterization of Patrick Bateman becomes. This odd combination of yuppie misogyny, misanthropy, and vanity alongside a terrifying milieu of true psychotic behavior seems outrageous at first, but it’s this same horrific otherworld-ness that comes to define how fantastic Bale is at playing men on the fringe of sanity.

Mary Harron’s direction places American Psycho right alongside Wall Street and Bonfire of the Vanities (the book, not the god-awful film) as one of the most accurate satirical looks at the Reagan years. With long, lingering shots of suits, business cards, lavish parties, fancy restaurants, and even fancier apartments, American Psycho has the attention to detail of a Merchant/Ivory film or Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, but within that framework, the film never fails to remind you of the hollowness of these characters’ existence.

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Because American Psycho is a pitch-black comedy/satire, you would be forgiven for thinking that its humor wouldn’t be of the “laugh-out-loud” variety. But it most certainly is. There’s a moment late in the film where Patrick discusses eating the brains of some his victims; I’m not sure if it’s meant to be as funny as I found it, but at that moment, I found myself laughing absolutely hysterically. I was on the verge of tears. And the film is full of little moments of subtle humor that are played just right to elicit big laughs. An ATM machine tells Patrick to feed it stray cats, the insanely narcissistic poses he makes having sex to Phil Collins’ “Sussudio.” The list goes on.

I watched this several nights ago and have been writing the review off and on for a couple days now. Work has kept me from finding the time to actually finish it so I’ll draw this review to a close. I haven’t given this score out in a while. In fact, it’s been three months since I reviewed my last “A+” film, The Master. But American Psycho totally deserves this honor. I am unable to come up with a single flaw to this film, and having watched it dozens of times at this point in my life, it keeps getting better and better. If you want to watch what I believe is the greatest horror film of all time and arguably one of the best satires of the last twenty years, American Psycho is it.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review begins. After I put up this review, I will have now seen and reviewed all of this year’s Best Picture nominees except for Amour which still doesn’t even have a release date on Netflix yet. The Michael Haneke directed foreign film may take a while to make it to our shores in DVD/Blu-Ray form. Anyways, that’s exciting so I can finally move back to my core list of films which I’m still in the process of remaking.)

Perhaps because it is the most easily commercialized and most consistently mass-produced genre of film this side of low-budget horror movies, it’s real easy to cast aside most romantic comedies out of hand. With cookie-cutter plots, emotionally vapid stars, and diabetes-inducing sweetness, rom-coms are an easy contender for one of the worst film genres. Which is sort of funny when I consider that two of my top three films of all time are romantic comedies (Annie Hall and Chasing Amy). So, leave it to David O. Russell (whose The Fighter I found almost uniformly over-rated barring the performances) to provide one of the best romantic comedies in years with the darkly comic and subversive Silver Linings Playbook.

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Part of me is suspicious of how much I enjoy Silver Linings Playbook. Because despite the pitch black comedy trimmings, the film is still structured very much like a conventional romantic comedy. It’s only in the details where David O. Russell (and the author of the book the film is based on) finds ways to distinguish his tale. But, the details are so intimate and impressive that you almost forget the familiar story structure. And in a film where the lead performances are as electric as this one, it’s easy to forgive yourself for just wanting to bask in the glow of what will certainly be remembered as career-defining roles (not simply because Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for this film).

After spending eight months in a mental hospital for nearly beating a man to death who was sleeping with his wife, Pat Solitano (Wet Hot American Summer‘s Bradley Cooper) returns home to live with his parents in Philadelphia. Determined to win back his wife’s love (despite a restraining order), Pat tries to get in shape and turn his life around with the help of his dad (The Godfather: Part II‘s Robert De Niro) and mom. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, life itself is a struggle for Pat and his anger, and all it takes to set him off in to a rage some nights is disappointment in the ending of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

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One night, at a friend’s dinner, Pat meets Tiffany Maxwell (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence), a widow whose sister is close friends with Pat’s ex-wife. Tiffany has her own mental problems and after suffering from severe depression after the death of her husband, Tiffany began sleeping with nearly any person she could just to feel something. Tiffany promises to give Pat’s wife a letter if he’ll help her enter a dancing competition. And so, as these two become closer and learn to deal with their anger and depression and mood swings together, the question becomes whether Pat will get back with his ex-wife or if he’ll find love in the arms of the wounded Tiffany.

Jennifer Lawrence is 22 years old. She is a full year younger than I am. Yet, she has now been nominated for two Oscars and won one for this film (making her the second youngest Best Actress winner behind Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God). She’s starred in two of the biggest summer blockbusters of this decade (The Hunger Games and X-Men: First Class). Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t simply set herself up to be one of the greatest actors of her generation. She is easily the best actress of her peer group. If I thought she was great in Winter’s Bone, I was not prepared for the tour-de-force performance she brought to bear in this movie.

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Her performance as Tiffany in this film is the kind of role most actresses spend their entire career trying to land. The fact that she’s playing a character with such depth and emotional complexity at the age of 22 is just astounding beyond words. Jennifer Lawrence should only get more talented as she ages, and I expect her to rack up a Meryl Streep-esque career before it’s all said and done. Tiffany is a contradictory, explosive, deeply hurt woman who is barely hanging on by a thread, and with every second she spends on screen, Jennifer Lawrence makes you feel her pain, joy, and love. Congratulations Oscars. You actually got this one right.

And Bradley Cooper… I was almost at a loss for words when the film ended. I did not think Bradley Cooper was a good actor (except for his awesome work on Alias), let alone a great one before watching this movie. I literally could not have been more wrong. This may sound crazy, but Bradley Cooper was so much more interesting in this role than Daniel Day-Lewis was in Lincoln (though I still think Joaquin Phoenix should have won for The Master). Bradley Cooper committed so much to the craziness of Pat that it became frightening in some of the more intense scenes. Maybe this performance was a flash in the pan and a fluke, but I pray that it’s a sign of great things to come from Mr. Cooper.

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It also doesn’t hurt that Robert De Niro gives what is arguably his finest performance since Goodfellas as Pat’s obsessive compulsive father. It becomes clear rather quickly that Pat Sr. has just as many anger problems as his son (with a serious OCD problem thrown in for good measure and a gambling addiction), and Silver Linings Playbook gives De Niro a chance to flex his acting muscles that he hasn’t been using after a decade of stale comedies. Chris Tucker is also surprisingly excellent as a fellow patient from Pat’s mental institution who is always escaping early with hare-brained excuses and plots.

Silver Linings Playbook‘s willingness to deal so frankly with mental illness and depression and anger is beyond refreshing. Though the film is a comedy (and my sister and I found ourselves laughing hysterically during the movie), the movie doesn’t make light of Pat’s bipolar disorder or Tiffany’s acting out. When it occurs, it is tragic and scary and real. And through this lens of actual human frailty, Silver Linings Playbook succeeds where most other rom-coms fail by presenting two realistic, flawed heroes to guide us through a tale of growth and redemption. That the film still manages to be hilarious is a testament to just how strong the writing is.

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If you pushed me to try and find flaws in the movie (and the reason I’m giving it an “A” instead of an “A+.” trust me it was close), I would have to say that perhaps the ending feels a tad bit rushed and that the visual direction of the film is a little stale. Otherwise, Silver Linings Playbook has even eclipsed the wonderful Life of Pi as my favorite of the Best Picture nominees of 2012. For fans of great acting, great storytelling, and great romance, Silver Linings Playbook has it all. And, I imagine it will be a couple years before another romantic comedy this great rolls around.

Final Score: A

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Over this blog’s nearly two year history (our official two-year anniversary arrives this Thursday which really wigs me out), I’ve reviewed a lot of movies based off of books that I’ve never read. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Choke (although I wound up reading Chuck Palahniuk’s superior book later), The Help, About Schmidt. I could go on for a while. But there are few novels as essential to the American canon of literature that I haven’t actually read as Joseph Heller’s classic anti-war novel Catch-22. Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) had the unenviable task of adapting one of the most celebrated novels of the 1960s. And while it was easy to spot without having read the book that screenwriter Buck Henry had to condense many larger, more complicated storylines in ways that didn’t work so well on the big screen, Catch-22 finally found its footing by film’s end and became an anti-war farce to rival the film version of M*A*S*H.

Captain Yossarian (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming‘s Alan Arkin) is a U.S. Air Force bombardier on the Italian front during World War II. Having watched a comrade die in his arms as Yossarian survived a crash landing, Yossarian wants to be grounded and to not have to fly any more combat missions. And to do that, he has to convince his superior officers that he’s crazy. But there’s a catch. Catch-22 (and the origin of that ubiquitous phrase into the American lexicon). In order to want to fly those suicidal missions into enemy territory, you’d have to be crazy. But, if you ask to be grounded on the basis on insanity, you’re sane for not wanting to fly those dangerous missions. So, you either fly the missions cause you’re crazy or you ask to not fly them but have to fly them because you’re sane.

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Catch-22 becomes a consistently non-linear look at the events leading up to and following the stabbing of Captain Yossarian by an unknown assailant that opens the film. The movie is as much a snapshot of the lives of the large crew of pilots and officers that make up Yossarian’s division as it is a scathing satire of the senselessness and futility of war. We see the enterprising and ambitious Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voigt) as he trades away half of the base’s goods to make everyone rich (although he gets many killed in the process). You meet Capt. Nately (Art Garfunkel) who’s in love with an Italian prostitute. There’s the seemingly stable Capt. Aarfy Aardvark (Charles Grodin) who reveals a darker side. And a multitude of other big, or soon to be big name actors, including Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles (Othello), Martin Sheen, and a super young Bob Balaban (Gosford Park).

My feelings toward the acting in the film are a little complicated, particularly in regards to the lead performance from Alan Arkin. He’s a little over-the-top and not always in that good Jack Nicholson way. There are plenty of moments where Yossarian is confronted with the insanity of his condition that Alan Arkin channels the sense of hopelessness and futile indignation that any man would have in that situation. But, there are also plenty of times (especially early in the film) where he just seems to be hamming it up. There’s a moment where Orson Welles’ General Dreedle brings his wife to a meeting where all of the men collectively lose their shit over how attractive she is, and Arkin’s moaning and panting is just cartoonish. But, for the most part, he sticks to a believable mode of acting and one can only wish that he had stayed there the whole film.

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And if you couldn’t tell from that list of supporting actors earlier, the film has some seriously heavy hitters in its ranks. Sadly, the Orson Welles in this film is late-career balloon Orson Welles so he was certainly past his prime as a performer (or artist period). Thankfully, though, the rest of the cast was eager and in peak condition. One of the real, pleasant surprises was the performance from the baby-faced and naturally talented Art Garfunkel. He should have done more acting. This is also easily the earliest roles that I can remember seeing either Bob Balaban or Martin Sheen and they both brought something energetic and truthful to the table. But, of course, the real scene-stealers from the supporting cast was the greedy but not malicious Jon Voigt as Milo and the sensitive and conflicted Anthony Perkins as the camp chaplain.

Catch-22 is without question one of the darkest comedies that you’ll ever watch. The humor here is even more pitch-black than Fight Club (though Fight Club is a better movie). Here is a film that makes a mockery of the military bureaucracy, the competency of high-ranking officers, and the need for war in the first place. In one scene, Yossarian’s squadron is about to bomb a town devoid of any actual strategic value to the U.S. and he decides at the last minute to drop their bombs over the ocean rather than kill civilians for no reason. And for his insubordination, he gets a medal so that the military doesn’t have to look bad. And even though he accepts it bare-ass naked, the high officers don’t punish him because they honestly don’t know what to do in the face of a man who is truly beginning to lose his mind.

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Catch-22 has its share of flaws, most notably an opening 20 minutes that confused the hell out of me (although perhaps it will all make more sense during a later viewing now that I know what was really happening), but when the film really begins to assert itself as a darkly comic satire of the horrors and stupidity of war, it shines like few other films. And the extended sequence that serves as the film’s turning point where Yossarian confronts the culmination of all of the greed and incompetence that has occurred thus far is one of the most brilliant bits of political satire I’ve ever seen. And while the film can’t maintain that high a level of insight for its entire duration, it is a fantastic reminder of all of the great counter-culture literature and cinema that were coming out of the 1960s and early 1970s. War is hell but Catch-22 reminds you that it can be both horrific and hilarious.

Final Score: A-

 

As a life-long native of West Virginia (not counting the summer I lived in Italy and the four months at the beginning of this year that I lived in New York City), I am always wary of fictional portrayal of my home state. We’re either portrayed as the dirt-poor bumpkins we used to be (Matewan and October Sky) or we’re made out to be psychopathic in-bred killers (Wrong Turn et al). The only film I can name where taking place in West Virginia was just a random, not important part of the setting was the under-rated Win a Date with Tad Hamilton. The low-budget indie horror comedy Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, with it’s West Virginia setting and hillbilly protagonists, had the potential to be another West Virginia set film to offend all of us mountain children, but with its consistently hilarious tongue-in-cheek sensibilities and inversion of the college kids vs. evil redneck stereotypes, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil was instead a B-Movie blast.

Simple but lovable rednecks Dale (Invasion‘s Scott Labine) and Tucker (Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk) head up to their isolated vacation home in the heart of the Appalachian mountains. Camping not far from their site is a group of obnoxious college kids, including the sweet and innocent Alison (30 Rock‘s Katrina Bowden). The big-boned and big-hearted Dale takes a fancy to Alison but his backwards demeanor and country look scare the college kids. When Alison falls and hits her head on a rock while swimming, she’s rescued by Tucker and Dale, but the college kids think they’re in a horror movie and that Tucker and Dale are going to kidnap and murder their friend. As the college kids try to “rescue” their friend, Tucker and Dale’s lives take a turn for the complicated as the kids rescue attempts end with death and destruction and every one becomes certain that Tucker and Dale are psychopathic killers.

Fans of Firefly and Serenity (or even his scene-stealing bit as “Pirate Steve” in Dodgeball) don’t need anyone else to tell them that Alan Tudyk is a terribly under-appreciated comic actor. He plays the redneck Tucker perfectly straight, but he still manages to get most of the biggest laughs in the film. Combine his deadpan and dead serious delivery with the gut-bustingly funny things he has to say, and you have the recipe for a great performance, and Alan Tudyk delivers. Tyler Labine was consistently the second best part of Invasion (behind the commanding William Fichtner) and he turns a stock horror stereotype like Dale into a loveable and very endearing lead. Katrina Bowden is one of the most gorgeous women working in television today, but I’m not sure if her comedic chops are up to keeping up with Labine and Tudyk, and the other college kids were either forgettable or outright bad actors.

The humor in the film comes from constantly flipping traditional horror storytelling devices on their head and playing with perspective in a way similar to Atonement (although obviously not as well done or artistic as that film). While the college kids are your stereotypical horror protagonists, Tucker and Dale break the mold in almost every way imaginable. Their just real, actual rednecks that I would know and go to high school with. They drink too much beer. They go fishing. They wear really unfortunate clothes, and they’d give the shirt off their back to strangers in need. And as they try to help Alison throughout the film, it is their appearance and a lack of complete information that drives the crazy college kids to think Tucker and Dale are killers. Which leads to hilarious moments like Tucker trying to explain to a cop why a college kid would just jump into a wood chipper.

The film succeeds when it goes for a winning brand of stupid but still funny sophomoric humor and genre satire. But when, by the end of the film, it tries to play the horror even just a little bit straight, it begins to feel like the terrible B-movies that it’s making fun of. The twist at the end seems especially unnecessary but the film is a loving homage to terrible B-films so perhaps it felt the need to throw in those types of ridiculous plot twists. But when the film is running all cylinders, it can be an almost endless set up of visual gags and gross-out humor. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil does not shy away from the gore that is part and parcel of the horror series, and few films have made carnage so hilarious.

It’s not a perfect movie, and if you’re one of those types that can’t enjoy films that are so dumb they’re brilliant (i.e. Idiocracy, early Adam Sandler, the first Dumb & Dumber), you probably won’t understand why I thought this movie was so hilarious. Still, tonight’s Halloween (although I watched the movie at like 1 AM this morning), and is there a better way to celebrate the holiday than a good horror film? Plus, I’m going to be watching Rocky Horror Picture Show as well before I go to bed. So, there will be a review for what I still think is one of the best B-movies ever made. My last work on Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is that for fans of horror and for fans of witty satires, this film will provide a lot of laughs.

Final Score: B