Category: Political Comedy


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Political satire/topical humor is tricky to pull off. It’s a topic I’ve discussed on this blog in the past (my review of The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is what springs to mind), but it bears repeating again here. Thankfully, 1963’s The Mouse on the Moon is a fairly intentionally light-hearted affair although that doesn’t make it especially funny. The Mouse on the Moon deals with the insanity surrounding the space race in the 1960s (and to a lesser extent, the nuclear arms race), and while it managed to make me chuckle on several occasions, mostly the film left me bored and perusing Twitter and Facebook.

Perhaps, my inability to connect with the film is related to the fact that it’s a sequel to Peter Seller’s The Mouse That Roared which I’ve never seen, and since that film isn’t on my list on this blog, I didn’t really feel the urge to put the effort into watching it since, as I understood it, the film’s were mostly separate (which was thankfully true). I don’t think it impacted my review but my integrity as a critic means I should probably make that point clear. This film could have definitely used the talents of Peter Sellers because if any man is a one-person comic powerhouse, it’s him.

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The Mouse on the Moon centers around the tiny, fictional European nation of Grand Fenwick. They are, to quote the film, Europe’s smallest and least progressive nation, and though the film takes place in the present, Grand Fenwick does not even have indoor plumbing (though it has beatniks…). Prime Minister Rupert Mountjoy (Ron Moody) comes up with a brilliant scheme to bring money to Fenwick’s coffers. He will ask the U.S. for funds to put a man on the moon but instead use it for Fenwick’s own needs. What Mountjoy doesn’t expect is when Fenwick finds itself at the very center of the space race as both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. hope to use Fenwick to outmaneuver the other.

Conceptually, it’s actually kind of a funny idea. The idea that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were both so sure of Fenwick’s incompetency (and yeah, the nation was not actually capable of making a rocket [though the film comes up with a funny deus ex machina there]) that they gave the nation money just to increase their standing in the international community actually seems kind of possible back in Cold War hysteria. And when the British too try to uncover what’s happening and send the bumbling Maurice Spender (How to Murder Your Wife‘s Terry-Thomas) to investigate, the international incident that begins to spiral out of control had potential.

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Sadly, the film doesn’t live up to its potential and mostly the film is yawn-inducing. Terry-Thomas’s presence in the film was far too brief because he was clearly the best comic actor in the film. Bernard Cribbins got some laughs as the Prime Minister’s son who dreams of actually being an astronaut, but he has to make do with material that’s sadly hit or miss. It wasn’t that the film is bad (and you may get that impression from the score I’ll be giving it); it was just entirely forgettable. I watched the film yesterday and though the plot and stray observations have stuck, nothing substantive from the film remains.

Final Score: C+

 

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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-

 

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As a political science major, movies, books and TV shows that are about politics tend to hold a special place in my heart. Whether it’s The American President (which romanticizes the White House and idealistic government) or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or The West Wing, I have a fondness for fiction that does politics right. And the early days of cinema were rife with great political satire from the aforementioned Mr. Smith all the way up to the 1960s and DrStrangelove (which is coming up soon on my list to review for this blog). When the 1940s Preston Sturges Oscar-winner The Great McGinty wound up near the top of my Netflix queue, I had never heard of the film before. And that’s a shame because The Great McGinty was an uproarious satire of the graft and corruption at the heart of American party politics in the 1930s and 40s that I enjoyed almost every minute of.

Daniel McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is an American expatriate living in an unnamed Banana Republic when the film begins. After another cast-off from the states attempts to kill himself in McGinty’s bar, Daniel takes the time out to explain his life story and how he wound up on the run. A couple years earlier, McGinty was just another bum on the breadline. But when a local hand in the party machine pays McGinty to vote under an assumed name, McGinty shows such a knack for voter fraud and has enough guts that the Boss (Akim Tamiroff) decides to hire Daniel as an enforcer in his racketeering schemes. And it isn’t long before they decide to have Daniel run for mayor and have him win. But when Daniel’s arranged marriage to his former secretary (Muriel Angelus) turns into a real romance, her morality and his own essential decency prove to be his down fall.

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Unlike other Preston Sturges screwball comedies, The Great McGinty isn’t quite a straight comedy, and although I referred to the film as uproarious earlier, that’s more of an indication of the wit and energy of the film rather than how much time I actually spent laughing. Although perhaps it is more like the screwball comedies than I give it credit before, because like those films, The Great McGinty proves to be a series of snowballing incidents that avalanche one after another until the film’s final moments. For the most part, The Great McGinty is a non-stop reminder of how flavorful and smart the classic comedies used to be while operating under the strictest morality codes thanks to being part of the Hays Code era. Although the film doesn’t prove to be quite as insightful as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it’s still a wonderful, character-driven comedy.

This may be the only role that I’ve ever seen Brian Donlevy in and I can’t for the life of me figure out why he wasn’t a bigger star in his day. He brings such life, intelligence, and sensitivity to the role of Daniel McGinty. Whether he’s fighting in the back seat of a town car with the corpulent Boss or reading a bed time story to the children of his newly wed wife (which she had from a first marriage), Donlevy taps into the basic humanity of McGinty while still reminding you of his toughness in the scenes where he coerces and intimidates others to suit his political needs. I’m not saying Donlevy was on par with the Bogies or Grants of the day, but I’m legitimately shocked that this actor had totally escaped my attention until just now. Throw in his wonderful romantic chemistry with Muriel Angelus, and it was a film with delightful lead performances.

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I love raunchy modern comedies (Horrible Bosses, Harold & Kumar, etc) but there’s just something so appealing about the wit and innocence of the classics like this. Even when they make dirty jokes (at least for the time) or allusions to sex, it is handled with such an agile subtlety and grace that it reminds you how heavy-handed even the best modern raunchy films can be. There was a scene where McGinty’s wife is helping him undress after he’s had too much to drink, and he grabs her hand as she’s taking his money-roll out of his coat. He then more or less implies that he’s had a prostitute try the same trick on him. And The Great McGintis simply bursting with that kind of understated humor and sly references. It may not be an all-time classic, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t soak up as much fun as possible in this screwball of a ride.

Final Score: B+

 

(Quick aside before review and I promise it’s not talking about me being on a hot streak. Though I still am. I think this might be the first Robert De Niro movie I’ve reviewed. We’re nearing the 300 movie mark here and I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure he hasn’t been in a single film so far. That seems crazy to me. Glad to finally bring him around)

Usually the role of accidentally forecasting the future is in the hands of science fiction. Go back and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey where people are teleconferencing with video. Boom, you have a 1960s idea of what would ultimately become Skype. In 1902’s A Trip to the Moon by legendary French innovator George Melies, he predicted space flight and a lunar landing 60 years before it would happen. I could go on all day. Generally, you don’t see that happen in satire. Well, we can thank David Mamet and Barry Levinson for breaking that rule with their ground-breaking 1997 political satire, Wag the Dog, which is now an eerie presage to the many events to come after the film was made. Christine O’Donnel might not be a witch (sorry that meme never got old to me), but someone needs to see if screenwriter David Mamet has an honest-to-god magic crystal ball lying around.

When the unseen President of the United States is caught in a sex scandal involving an underage Firefly Girl (read: Girl Scout), professional spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is brought in to contain the situation. With the help of White House Liaison Ames (Cedar Rapids‘ Anne Heche) and Hollywood producer Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman), they construct a fake war with Albania to keep the media from paying attention the President’s real sexual misconduct. Gathering some of the best (and ultimately slimiest) minds that Hollywood has to offer, the spin team comes up with reasons why we would go to war with Albania (a suitcase nuke at the Canadian border), haunting and fake images of the civilians punished by Albanian terrorism, and even phony stories of a war hero trapped behind enemy lines hoping to last the two weeks til election day without anyone discovering their fraud.

I really can’t imagine any scenario where Bill Clinton finds this film even slightly amusing. Although I don’t think we went into the military situation in Kosovo to distract from the Monica Lewinski sex scandal and impeachment hearings, a lot of Republicans thought that was the case. How many times did liberals like myself think that President Bush was faking imagined terrorist threats to distract from other, more important issues? The answer is all of the damn time especially when he would raise the terrorist threat levels for seemingly arbitrary reasons. I’m not sure if it’s as easy to trick the media as this film makes it out to be, but it’s a point of fact that people in power will exploit the ignorance and fear of the masses to keep themselves in office and distract from bigger issues. Also, the film managed to completely define what war has looked like in the 21st century with a terrifying foresight.

When a film has Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman as its leads, you have to know that magic is gonna happen. It won’t rank as one of the great roles of either actor’s career, but they were superb as always. De Niro turns Conrad Brean into a menacing creature that can smile as he cooks up the tiny (but most important) details of a fake war with Albania while flashing a colder smile as he threatens to kill a teenage girl if she ever tells anyone about the fake video she just shot. Dustin Hoffman is better as the smooth and fast-talking Stanley Motts. I don’t want to belittle the performance by saying this (even though it’s true), but it’s the sort of Hoffman role you expect where he bursts with nervous energy and his method skittishness. Yet, his gung-ho belief in selling America this fake war is the tie that holds the film together as is his ultimate disappointment when he realizes no one can ever know he made this all happen.

I’m not sure how much credit to give to Barry Levinson here and how much to give to screenwriter David Mamet. The film flows with the rhythm of a great Aaron Sorkin script or a Robert Altman film thanks to a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue so my money’s on Mamet. Although where Sorkin liked to show politics at its most idealistic and hopeful (I contend that he is Hollywood’s last great Romantic), this film certainly falls on the bitter and cynical end of the spectrum and leaves you wondering if anything you hear about from our nation’s leaders is true? I’m not quite as skeptical as Mamet apparently is, but the film’s ability to make you think and laugh at the same time is certainly commendable.

I’ve got a headache and an exam tomorrow (my second of three exams this week. Welcome back to college Don) so I’ll keep this short. If you like satire and politics, this film is as biting as they come and scarily predicted where the world would be heading over the next 15 years. Anne Heche is reminding me of why I’ve grown to love her body of work so much these last couple of years, and Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro are simply two of the greatest actors of all time. With a spot on and quotable script, Wag the Dog is the full package although those without a stomach for the seedier side of American politics may not be able to handle the film. This joins The American President and Primary Colors as one of the great political films of the 90s.

Final Score: B+

I’ve got a page on this blog dedicated just to requests that people can make for movies/TV shows they want me to review. It doesn’t get used very often, and half of the requests have actually been made via my Facebook page instead of my actual blog. But because it happens so rarely, I do always make the effort to review the movies that have been requested (Cinema Paradiso, Moon, The Court Jester, Road to Rio, and The Place Promised In Our Early Days). For the last two months, one of the requested movies has been sitting in my living room in its Netflix envelope as I went an extended period without reviewing a single film from Netflix. Generally speaking, the quality of the films I’ve reviewed that others have told me to watch has been good (except for Road to Rio). However, the 1972 musical 1776 recounting the battle over America declaring its independence from Great Britain jumped back and forth over the line of being an unmitigated disaster or being simply unremarkable. It may have had its moments (that almost all seemed to involve Howard de Silva’s Ben Franklin), but I can’t recommend this film to even the most ardent history buffs.

In May of 1776, John Adams (William Daniels akaBoy Meets World’s Mr. Feeney aka the man whose voice will make me listen to everything he says like it’s the most important lesson in the world) is mourning the fact that no one in the Continental Congress will listen to his pleas to officially declare Independence from England. As Ben Franklin is fond of reminding him, he’s obnoxious and unliked, and generally no one gives a shit as to what he says. Honestly, any description of the plot of this film is going to devolve into me giving a history lesson that everybody else knows (f you paid any attention in school whatsoever). The entire Southern delegation is loyal to the crown because it’s more economically advantageous for them to remain friendly with England, and most of the middle states (especially Pennsylvania) don’t wish to rock the boat and commit treason (thereby opening themselves up to the very real risk of execution by the British if their revolution fails). When Franklin convinces Adams to let another delegate introduce the measure, the Continental Congress finally agrees to debate the measure and the film follows the blow-by-blow of 18th century legislative hearings with a never-ending stream of musical numbers.

Since the movie is a musical and it can’t go more than 15 minutes without a massive Stephen Sondheim-esque number (though without any of Sondheim’s inspiration), it’s only fair to judge the film heavily on the quality of its musical performances. Unfortunately, in that regard, it’s a total dud. Imagine all of the worst excess of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta without any of their wit, and you’ve got the never-ending songs from this film. I can’t remember a single melody from the songs nor the words to any song. They were all completely forgettable and outright boring. I don’t blame the performers. The movie’s cast was culled almost entirely from the original Broadway production and all of the tenors, baritones, and altos all sound great in that classical musical style, but the music and lyrics they’ve been given are terribly mediocre at best and simply terrible at worst. However, there was one moment during one of the film’s musical numbers where I began to laugh uncontrollably so there was one bright spot. John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), and others are singing about who should write the Declaration of Independence and at one point there’s a chorus of Ben Franklin (and two other historical figures) singing the phrase “sexual combustibility” referring to how Jefferson hadn’t been intimate with his wife in six months. That was pretty great.

Not only were the musical numbers almost all unbearable, they would kill the momentum of the historical and political drama on display. I’m a history buff, and while I’ve seen plenty of the scenes in this film played out in documentaries or in text books, there were honestly moments when I found myself engrossed in the intellectual and philosophical debates that our heroes were engaged in. The film captured just how tedious and absurd the ratification process for the Declaration was (which ultimately hurt the film’s pacing on occasion), and for people who enjoy history, those moments were intriguing. But, when people are having an honest ethical debate about whether we as a nation could afford to compromise on the issue of slavery in order to pass the Declaration of Independence only to burst out into a song, it ruins the whole moment. The film runs for nearly three hours, and there was honestly at least 45 minutes of material that could have been cut out of the film that would have resulted in it being a much more enjoyable experience. Rather it became a test of wills to see how many dull songs you could sit through and how many filler scenes of flat comedy you could endure before you got a intriguing moment about the birth of our nation.

The film’s redeeming qualities (its ability to poke fun at the fallibility of our founders even when they’re presented in a heroic light [i.e. Franklin’s womanizing], its display of the philosophical debates that framed our founding, great performances from William Daniels, Howard de Silva, and Ken Howard) could not even come close to redeeming its mountain of problems. I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to do a lavish Broadway revue of the Founding (and maybe in better hands, it could have been done well), but under Peter Stone’s source material (which somehow managed to win a Pulitzer Prize as a play), 1776 can only be recommended to the most die-hard musical fans simply because of its status as a classic of the American canon. Everyone else should stick to their text books.

Final Score: C

There’s a website that I like to visit called TVTropes.org that is sort of the wikipedia of popular culture and the conventions used for creating fiction in all of its mediums. One of the tropes they discuss is a phenomenon known as “Poe’s Law” which states that “a parody of something extreme can be mistaken for the real thing, and if a real thing sounds extreme enough, it can be mistaken for a parody.” Try to say something so extreme on any internet forum where you can only possibly be joking but say it completely straight and see just how many people think you’re being serious. I’m bringing this up because the film I just watched, Chris Morris’ brilliant political satire Four Lions is a scathing indictment of fanaticism as well as the way that western conservatives see all Muslims. If you don’t come into this film as a liberal or someone who at least knows a little bit about Muslim culture (which this film intentionally doesn’t portray accurately at all), this film could end up negatively reinforcing some false and awful stereotypes you have about Muslims and the Islamic faith. For every one else in the audience who will get that this is a comedy and satire, this is one of the best political satires I’ve seen since In the Loop, another hilarious British satire I watched in this blog’s original format.

Four Lions is a brilliant send-up of the notion of “home-grown” terrorists and chronicles the incompetent exploits of five British Muslims who believe that they are al-Qaeda jihadists ready to martyr themselves for their beliefs. Omar (The Road to Guantanamo‘s Riz Ahmed) is the group’s ring-leader and is joined by his dim-witted friend Waj (Kayvan Novak), the boisterous Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the paranoid Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), and the newest recruit Hassan (Arsher Ali). Over the course of the film, these “Lions” bungle their way through one failed mission after another, whether this is going to Afghanistan and accidentally killing Osama bin Laden, having one of their members blow up on accident while running through a sheep field strapped with explosives, and generally making complete fools of themselves. They only want to be martyrs and go to paradise but when they can’t even think to buy the materials for their homemade explosives from more than one store, their heavenly reward of virgins is going to be much harder to come by than they had planned on.

This film is legitimately laugh-out-loud hilarious. I haven’t heard this much cursing in a British film since the last time I watched In the Loop‘s profanity laden monologues from Malcolm Tucker (seriously watch that clip. it might not make any sense out of context if you haven’t seen the film, but if you have, you’ll laugh your ass off again). These men were just so unbelievably bad at being terrorists. Omar is supposed to be the most level-headed and intelligent person in the group, but he was the one who fired the bazooka the wrong way and killed Osama bin Laden (this film came out before his actual death). It viciously mocks the way that people use ideology to manipulate and corrupt harmless religions and harmless people. Waj isn’t a bad guy; he’s simply being dragged along by Barry and Omar because he’s too dumb to make any decisions for himself. No one comes out unscathed from this film’s unflinching eye for humor and biting social commentary. This film shouldn’t offend any Muslims or any intelligent people. The only people that may take it the wrong way would be those that aren’t smart enough to figure out what it was about in the first place.

As long as you can hear the phrase “comedy about terrorists” and not cringe or immediately begin making moral approbations, then I’d recommend taking this film for a drive. It’s smart, hilarious, and it even makes you think. There are certainly people out there that it may offend, but if you’ve got a sense of humor about yourself, this movie should be easy enough to handle. This is dark comedy, not at it’s darkest (that award certainly goes to Happiness) but perhaps at its most outrageous. With a great cast, great gags, and some gutbusting set pieces, Four Lions was a remarkable debut from a British talent who is sure to make a name for himself in British comedy.

Final Score: A-

Well, after one month and one day of no movie reviews, I am happy to say that movies have returned to a blog where movies were originally the only thing I even reviewed. After reviewing Lawrence of Arabia on August 17th, a combination of school and my new job have conspired to keep me from reaching the same levels of blogging productivity that I was reaching during the  summer (for obvious reasons). I actually watched a movie in my Film Studies class about a week ago but for stupid reasons, I chose not to review it (but I’m going to write that review as soon as I finish this one). Anyways, I’m tired of having paid for an entire month’s worth of Netflix without actually using the things they sent me so I’m back to watching movies. Last night, I was home in Philippi for the evening with my family and I watched a film considered to be a classic of 1960’s comedy, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming which I found to be a rather trite and forced political satire that only elicited the slightest of chuckles throughout the entire production.

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is a political comedy from Norman Jewison, the same creative mind behind the far superior In the Heat of the Night. In the film, a Russian submarine led by a captain (whose name I never caught) played by an extremely young Alan Arkin (Oscar winner for Little Miss Sunshine) is grounded off the coast of a small New England island. The Russians are very concerned about getting back in the ocean undetected because they know that their presence on American soil could potentially spark World War III. They attempt to contact in cognito (although their disguise is paper thin) a household in a remote part of the island led by patriach Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) in order to procure a boat to pull the submarine off the sandbar. Before long, their plans to disguise themselves fall completely apart and one blunder after another has the entire island believing that there is a full-fledged Russian invasion of the island far removed from the reality of a couple stranded sailors.

The film is basically the anti-Dr. Strangelove. Where Dr. Strangelove was Stanley Kubrick’s darkly comic and satirical look at the Red Scare and mutually assured destruction where neither side came out looking good, The Russians Are Coming is what happens when you try to make a feel-good, everybody gets a happy ending satire out of material that begs for darker interpretation. While I’m sure the overall message of the film which is that Russians are just as much human and fallible as us Americans was radical and revolutionary when the film was first released during the height of the Cold War, it just falls completely flat today. This just goes to prove my opinion that films with political messages often age incredibly poorly for future audiences. That’s the inherent danger of making a “topical” film. Your outlook might end up seemingly naively antiquated in 50 years. Also, the film just wasn’t very funny. Certain moments had me chuckling (especially when Alan Arkin tried to pretend to be American) but mostly the laughs were few and far between.

I wish I had chosen a better film to restart the movie review process for this blog, but unfortunately, I got The Russians Are Coming. The film isn’t totally without value, but it’s so far removed from the age and era of its creation that it has aged beyond repair to the world of campy cheesiness. If you liked Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine, it would be worth checking him out in this role in which he was nominated for an Oscar, but don’t expect it be nearly as funny as that all-time classic. I watched this with my father and neither of us enjoyed it very much so I’m not sure that I can honestly recommend it to anyone. Here’s a Best Picture nominee that I can easily tell you to steer clear from.

Final Score: C

 I’m a political science major in school. For a long time (til the realities of politics jaded me beyond repair), it was a dream of mine to pursue a career in politics and run for public office. A poster of President Obama has hung in every one of my dorm/apartment bedrooms since he started to run for president. When I was in high school, I attended a program called American Legion Boys Nation (President Clinton was part of it when he was younger as well) where our group of boys got to meet with President Bush and ask him questions. So, I obviously have a soft spot in my heart for political cinema, especially political cinema like Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington that shows idealistic Americans standing up against the party machines for what’s right. I just finished re-watching Rob Reiner’s The American President for the first time since high school, and while it obviously is nowhere near the cinematic masterpiece of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it’s still a great and romantic look at the White House with a fantastic cast and a sharply written script.

The American President is the story of a fictional U.S. President, the liberal, idealistic widower Andrew Shephard (Michael Douglas). He’s nearing his re-election bid, but since his approval rating is in the 60% range, he knows he has plenty of political capital to get his legislation passed, namely an important crime bill and an important environmental bill. President Shephard’s administration is knocked for a loop though when President Shephard begins to date Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), a lobbyist for a powerful environmental PAC. The Republican running against President Shephard uses this as a way to attack the President’s character, and when Sydney’s past ties to radical leftist organizations arise, the relationship becomes even more of a problem.

Aaron Sorkin wrote the script for the movie (The Social Network, The West Wing, Studio 60) and the script really nails the nuances of Whitehouse back room deals and legislative leg pulling better than anything since Mr. Smith. I know a lot about politics, and it was nice to see a movie that shows just how little power the President can really have some time. Also, it was nice to see such a positive portrayal of a liberal, intellectual holding the White House. This film might be pure left-wing propaganda, but since I’m a left-wing socialist, that’s perfectly fine by me. There was also just something endearingly sincere about Shephard and Sydney’s relationship. I like a good romance, and this did the job well.

Annette Bening is one of the most talented actresses working in Hollywood. She has been for the last 20 years now. I am not attracted to her in the slightest bit physically, but there is just something so subtle and nuanced about every single one of her performances that always blows my mind. Sydney is a fairly powerful and successful woman on her own, and you never once get the feeling from Bening’s performance or Sorkin’s script that she is attracted to the President for his power. Michael Douglas was a Hollywood sex symbol for 20 years and this film is another exhibit why. He can play smart and charming men whose wits and brains are as important as their looks. When he gives the final speech of the film, it made me wish that this movie’s scriptwriters would write something like that for President Obama to knock out of the ballpark.

If you like politics and aren’t a member of the tea party or think that Sarah Palin is an inspiration to us all, you should pop this one into your DVD player. It’s a sweet and romantic comedy that stimulates your brain as well as your emotions. The final act of the film can be seen as a liberal call-to-arms, and since us liberals are often far too passive for our own goods, we all need to be a little inspired every now and then. Sure, the film is a little too idealistic for its own good and the politics are a little romanticized, but if we ever want to keep faith in our political system, maybe our politics need a little romance.

 Final Score: A-