Category: Spoofs and Satires


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

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

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

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

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TheCandidate1

Man, talk about a movie that seems like it was made just for me that I wound up not liking at all. I’m a political science major (for those who aren’t familiar with my personal life) who suffers from what we’ll call… disillusionment with the modern political process. I still follow it fairly religiously, but every time a politician I admire lets me down, part of me dies, and it’s not a stretch of the imagination to say that my complete and total lack of faith in American politics is why I still haven’t graduated from college. It’s kind of ridiculous at this point considering my general stellar academic record when I actually participate in the process. So, a 1970s satire starring Robert Redford (The Way We Were) that chronicles an idealistic politician’s path to corruption and selling out seems like a perfect fit for my bleak worldview. Sadly, 1972’s The Candidate is a shallow and superficial affair that is also undeniably dull.

Anyone who’s seen the Chris Rock film Head of State should be familiar with the basic plot of the film; Head of State is mostly just a more upbeat and directly comedic version of this film starring an African-American (and it deals with a presidential election instead of a Senatorial one). Bill McKay (Robert Redford) is the overwhelmingly handsome and liberal son of a famous former governor of California. The Democratic party needs to field a candidate in the Senate election against the seemingly unbeatable incumbent Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter), and a sleazy party operative, Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), picks Bill McKay as the sacrificial lamb because this untested and inexperienced pretty boy should have no chance of winning. But, Bill begins to resonate with the voters, and he slowly starts to relinquish the control he was promised over his campaign to party hacks in the hopes that he can win, and Bill begins to be just another political sell-out.

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The premise of that film sounds spectacular. I was incredibly excited when I put this movie in my DVD player, and I thought my streak of watching excellent films in this blog was going to continue. It didn’t. The Candidate isn’t an inherently bad film. At times, its portrayal of the realistic tedium and day-to-day activities of a political campaign can be interesting. In fact, I’m not sure if many other films capture it as well, but that portraiture is rarely used for the sake of propelling a compelling plot forward. And, Bill is about as uninteresting a protagonist as you can imagine. Though the film’s intention was to have a weak, passive protagonist, that doesn’t make said weak, passive protagonist a strong anchor for an entire film. The Peter Boyle character was far more compelling, and just, in general, the things The Candidate has to say about political corruption seem stale and sadly dated.

Though Bill was a terribly boring character, Robert Redford did as much he possibly could with the bland “hero” he had to work with. Part of the film’s ability to work is that you have to believe Redford is charming and handsome enough to sway the state of California despite the fact he clearly doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about on the issues. And, since Robert Redford was one of the biggest sex symbols of the 1970s, he’s got the handsome part down. And with his boyish good looks and natural charm, he oozes the natural appeal that any politician would need. Although the best performances of the film were Peter Boyle as Marcus as well as Melvyn Douglas as Bill McKay’s father who smirks and laughs as he is fully aware of the path of self-corruption that his son is about to set himself on.

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I’ll keep this review short because A) I watched this movie several days ago and B ) I just didn’t care that much for it. Even if like me, you consider yourself a political junkie, there are other movies that handle similar ground better. Hell, I’m sure that if I were to re-watch Head of State, I would find it to be a more enjoyable experience than sitting through The Candidate again. I respect what the movie was trying to say, and, perhaps, in 1972, its message might have resonated more, but the passage of time has robbed The Candidate of whatever power it may have had. If you are going to watch this film, come for Robert Redford and stay for Peter Boyle. Otherwise, find a different way to pass your time.

Final Score: B-

AmericanPsycho1

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+

 

TheMouseOnTheMoon1

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+

 

Catch-22-1

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

(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+

Love and Death

(Quick aside before my actual review. I told you all that I was on a hot streak. This movie was simply amazing and I’ve basically been bouncing around between “A”s and “B+”s for two or three weeks now. The selection of films that I currently have at home say this trend could possibly continue. Got to love it.)

Like many great artists, Woody Allen’s film career can be divided not-so-neatly into periods. His career started out with his screwball, slapstick comedies such as Take the Money and Run or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. Then, there was the transitional period between his more comedic films and his later, more serious work such as his magnum opus Annie Hall and Manhattan. Of course, there’s the serious period of Interiors, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Hannah and Her Sisters. And finally, you have Woody’s wonderful current renaissance where he’s back to bridging the gap between the comedic and the serious (i.e. Vicki Cristina Barcelona, Match Point, or Midnight in Paris). 1975’s Love and Death is often considered the last of Woody’s slapstick films, but it seems instead to be a great merger of his raunchy sensibilities of his early days with the more philosophical bent of his later films.

This is the Woody Allen film for the person in your life who knows his way around the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky better than the average American knows reality TV. With allusions abound to War and Peace, Crime and Punishment (whose title would later be the source of the pun of the title of Crimes and Misdemeanors) and The Brothers Karamazov (as well as weirdly enough, the films of Ingmar Bergman, particularly Persona ), Love and Death is simultaneously a spoof of classic Russian literature (and silly philosophical/ethical debates) while celebrating some of the elements that make those particular novels so beloved in the first place. That Woody Allen manages to tell an epic tale of love, war, silliness, and morality in only an hour and a half is astounding.

At the onset of the Napoleonic wars between Russia and France, Woody Allen plays Boris, a nebbish Woody Allen stand-in living as a peasant in rural Russia. He yearns for the heart of his cousin Sonia (Diane Keaton), but she is in love with Boris’ brother, Ivan. Boris is a lover and an intellectual (or at least he thinks so), and when war breaks out between Russia and France, he wants no part of the battle. Yet, he’s branded a coward by his family and sent off to fight anyways. I don’t want to ruin much more of the plot because in typical early Allen fashion, it snowballs in brilliant slapstick fashion but let’s just say there are plots against Napoleon, classic pistol duels, and bawdy sexual hijinks.

This is one of those classic comedies that is operating on just a million different levels and modes of humor. You have direct spoofs of classic Russian works such as a dialogue that name drops most of the major characters of Russian fiction (especially the works of Dostoyevsky). You have some sight gags, whether they’re direct film shout-outs such as the famous perpendicular faces from Persona or Cries and Whisper. You’ve got endless classic Woody monologues and dialogues having characters butcher formal logic (intentionally) or Woody just riffing on the ostentatious verbiage of classic Russian literature. There’s great awkward situational humor such as Boris’ attempts to seduce a beautiful (and busty) Countess. And then of course, there’s absolutely silly (but rhythmically perfect) slapstick abound. The jokes never stop in Love and Death.

Woody is never going to be the world’s greatest actor (although he does have some great performances, Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors spring immediately to mind), and he’s essentially playing himself in this film. Except instead of a nebbish, Jewish Manhattanite, he’s a nebbish, Russian orthodox Moscovian (is that the proper term). As great of a writer and director Woody is, it’s easy to forget how great he was at physical humor in these early films. He would have made Chaplin and Keaton proud. Diane Keaton was the real scene-stealer (as she was in Annie Hall). She is simply one of the most talented comedic actresses of all time. She manages to be a deliciously sexual concoction as Sonia as well as (at specific points in the film) a great doppleganger for Bergman regulars like Liv Ullmann.

The film may not carry the emotional weight of Annie Hall or Manhattan, but it’s certainly more laugh-out-loud funny than the latter (not so much the former which is why Annie Hall is so perfect). That doesn’t necessarily make it any less consistently thought-provoking as you can see in this film all of the bits and pieces that would ultimately go into making Annie Hall. Everyone loves to call Annie Hall Woody’s ultimate transition film, but Love and Death is just as deserving of that title. It’s a gut-busting triumph of smart and witty humor, and if you can handle your Woody Allen in almost total comedy mode, this film’s a home-run.

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+