Tag Archive: Satire


Whiplash1

I started dating my first real girlfriend in the final weeks of my senior year of high school. Before that, I’d “dated” girls that I called “girlfriend” and they called me “boyfriend,” but that was middle school and considering the fact that we never kissed or went on dates or called each other on the phone or really did much of anything besides hold hands as we walked around the school, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t really count. I digress. This girl and I dated for a couple months. To this day, I’m not sure I ever had a more natural romantic relationship with somebody. We were both too young for the guarded cynicism of adult relationships. We were simply ourselves, and we were happy. Emphasis on “were.”

It was all well and good until this girl came back from a Christian bible summer camp. I’m a “teapot agnostic” now, but I was a devout Christian at the time. I read the Bible. I went to a weekly Bible study. My faith was integral to who I was. But this girl made me look like a militant atheist. She was a hardcore Southern Baptist. She exclusively wore ankle-length denim skirts to school. Her parents wouldn’t let her listen to the Beatles. My spirituality at the time was imbued with a degree of (and I hate to use this word now cause it’s so condescending but that’s how I was at the time) tolerance. I didn’t think gay people were sinners. I respected the rights of other folks to have different religious beliefs than me. This girl did not.

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Nightcrawler1

(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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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+

 

(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’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+

When Watchmen came out, it marked my formal introduction into films that people either loved or hated. There was little in the way of indifferent responses to the movie. Essentially, you either loved the movie and thought it was one of (if not the greatest) superhero films of all time or you thought it was boring and pointless and as my sister referred to it “a three hour segment of my youth I’ll never get back.” Generally, these kinds of films elicit either a “got it” or “didn’t get it” reaction from audiences (though some of Watchmen‘s haters tended to hate seeing their beloved graphic novel poorly displayed on the big screen though I essentially thought it was a frame for frame recreation). Last night, I watched 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer which seemed to feature almost every single B-List comedy actor who would eventually feature in some small or large role in a Judd Apatow film, and it appears to be nearly as divisive as Watchmen. While I would certainly never call this one of the greatest comedies ever (or even a great comedy), it was still a raucous and absurdist parody of the camp genre of the 1980’s and I laughed my ass off the entire film. At the same time, my dad just thought it was stupid, and that seems to be the generally divided reactions to the film. Well, if you appreciate truly surreal and off-kilter comedy, this hidden cult classic might be for you.

In 1981, summer is coming to an end at Camp Firewood, a Jewish summer camp in Maine. It’s the last day of camp, and everyone is itching to find that special someone to share the night with. Told almost exclusively through the eyes of the camp’s counselors, Wet Hot American Summer is over-the-top and outrageous satire of films like Meatballs and Heavyweights. Camp Director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) has the hots for dorky astrophysicist Henry (Frasier‘s David Hyde Pierce). Coop (Michael Showalter) hasn’t found a girl all summer, and while trying to receive relationship advice from gorgeous Katie, they form a romantic bond even though she’s dating bad boy Andy (Role Model‘s Paul Rudd). You’ve got the potentially psychotic Vietnam War veteran Gene (Oz‘s Christopher Meloni in the role that steals the whole film) as well as Ben (The Hangover‘s Bradley Cooper) and Susie (Parks and Recreation‘s Amy Poehler) who are organizing the talent show and think they’re directing Broadway. Over the course of this last day, counselor’s make out, campers go generally unsupervised, and everyone tries to get laid.

One of the real selling points of this film is that it is a who’s who of under-appreciated comedy character actors. In addition to the littany of names I mentioned below, you have A.D. Miles who played the enthusiastic Big Brother in Role Models. There’s Ken Marino who you may recognize from Reno 911 as well as Role Models. Joe La Truglio who was the squeaky gym trainer in I Love You, Man as well as the creepy party guy in Superbad plays a counselor who gets involved in a hilariously epic motorcycle chase. Elizabeth Banks has a small role in this film before she ever got famous, and one can’t help but wonder if the use of KISS’s “Beth” during a moment in this film had anything to do with its inclusion in the other Paul Rudd/Elizabeth Banks feature, Role Models.  Fans of I Love The (Insert Decade Here) programs on VH1 will enjoy seeing Michael Ian Black as Bradley Cooper’s homosexual lover. Sam Levine (Bill on Freaks and Geeks) even voices the host of the camp’s radio show, and no one will be able to forget Molly Shannon as the recently divorced arts teacher of the camp who finds redemption through her campers.

What really sells the movie for me though is simply how absurd and surreal it can be. When it first begins, you don’t really know exactly what kind of movie this is going to be, and you would be forgiven for thinking during it’s first 20 minutes or so that you were watching a conventional summer camp film. However, some of the camper’s leave to go to town for a bit, and from that point forward, it becomes the movie’s goal to see just how far they can push things and just how outrageous the next joke can be. Whether it’s driving campers off away from the camp and throwing them out of moving vehicles so they don’t know one of the kids died or going into town and becoming heroin junkies or stopping a comet from hitting the camp with a Dungeons and Dragons D20 or a Kenyan marathon runner showing up during the capture the flag segment, this movie firmly cements itself as crazy satire. The silly tone almost never lets up and while certain jokes fall flat, this movie is still consistently hilarious once you actually figure out what kind of movie you’re watching, and any moment that Christopher Meloni was on screen was pure comedy gold.

If you need conventional jokes and punchlines or a story that needs to make any semblance of a sense and a setting that is rooted in anything resembling real life situations, this isn’t for you. But if you’re a fan of intentionally outlandish and surreal comedy (Monty Python for example), then you should eat this movie up. It was lambasted by critics when it came out (Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Glieberman almost the sole exception), but it’s developed a loyal cult following over the years, and now I’m a convert. Few movies are willing to take themselves so lightly and in such a deliberately silly manner that it’s great to know there are still comedies out there that aren’t afraid to be truly unique and out there. It wasn’t a perfect film as I’ve said, and when the jokes didn’t work, they failed hard, but for the most part, few films have been able to make me laugh so hard with such bizarre material and I can’t think of many better compliments.

Final Score: B+