Todd Solondz is, without a doubt, one of the best living American directors. His two works from the '90s, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, served as groundbreaking material in terms of dark comedy and a ruthless exploitation of sorts. Some regard them as his best work with the knowledge that the films that follow only get harder to swallow. But it isn't just the steadfast exposure to topics such as backyard abortion and pedophilia that unsettles his audiences, but rather his approach. Through bright colors and jovial songs, Solondz mocks suburbia and the tortured souls of those suffering with mediocrity and mental illness to the point that it is hilarious. And while you feel bad, or perhaps uncomfortable with the development of each film, there is something about them that keeps you focused and satisfied. Storytelling is wedged in between Solondz's nastiest and most complex work, Palindromes, and those aforementioned ones that made him big. Being in the middle means that it is not as easy-going and lighthearted as the first two (if you could even call them that), nor is it as nuanced and off-the-walls as Palindromes. However, this is the movie in which no one is spared as he attacks the hidden comedy within racial taboos, servants, rich Jewish families, and our education system. To add to this lineup of targets was a fresh approach; the movie is split into two unrelated character developments, one called Fiction, and the other Non-fiction. The separation of these two storytelling methods was not only interesting in a way that pars with anthology Horror films, but gave meaning to such methods for anyone who fancies themselves a storyteller.
FICTION: In this segment we find Vi (Selma Blair), a pink-haired college student looking for substance in all the wrong places. She and her handicapped boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) have a writing course with a professor of great prestige. Vi is just short of obsessed with him, though not because he's won the Pulitzer Prize for his literature, nor because he's a brutally honest teacher. Now's the time to mention that her professor is black. Solondz exposes her loyalty as a sort of Mandingo fetish, which causes an outrage in Marcus when he discovers that she and other white girls on campus seem to be under the same spell. Meanwhile, we see their classroom atmosphere develop as Professor Scott ruins his classroom's general hope of becoming writers. From there, we follow Vi as she pursues her professor and receives the lesson of a lifetime that is nothing short of brutal.Continue Reading
The Brady Bunch Movie
When I lived in Chicago there was this Johnny Rockets in the city’s “Gold Coast” area that had a painted mural near the entrance depicting an assortment of yuppie types seated at the diner’s counter enjoying milkshakes and hamburgers. I always thought it was kind of fascinating because the mural had clearly been painted sometime in the 1980s. One of the women depicted in the mural had kind of a big perm hairdo and her young son had on a sweater with an Esprit logo on it. I assume the mural was painted to showcase how a cross-section of then-modern society would have tons of fun hanging out in a fake '50s diner. Once the cultural attributes endemic to the 1980s started to look dated it gave that Johnny Rockets a doubly anachronistic atmosphere.
The Brady Bunch Movie has a similarly surreal kind of effect because the whole conceit behind the film is that standard comedy trope of the fish-out-of-water scenario wherein the Bradys and their perversely naive and dorky ways are transplanted from the 1970s sitcom world – where they belong – to the cynical world of mid-1990s Southern California. The film manages to serve as both a time capsule of '70s cheese and '90s-ness. In an ironic twist, the way the film depicts the “gritty” '90s as chock full of grungy attitude actually seems almost as quaint as the Bradys.Continue Reading
On paper Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan could be considered nothing more than a bold stunt, but in actuality it’s one of the more subversive and gutsy “mainstream” films of recent years and one of the funniest. Borat was one of the three alter egos that actor Sacha Baron Cohen played on his television program, Da Ali G Show (first in England and then for HBO). Cohen would slip into these extremely absurd characters and interact with real people, unaware that they were being put on. Like the old show Candid Camera, half the comedy comes from people’s reactions to the often crude character's comments, but the best laughs come from the intense commitment that Baron Cohen gives these characters. Borat may say inane things, but the intelligence creating what he says is at the highest level.
Like the show, the movie Borat uses a lot of real people and improvised situations. But to fill it out, some actors and a cast have been added, and it works. Part of the fun is trying to figure out what’s real and what was staged. Borat is a clueless, almost sweetly innocent yet completely misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic Kazakhstan reporter. The film begins as a mockumentary as he leaves his third-world village for some reporting in New York with his rotund producer Azamat (American actor, Ken Davitian). In New York he interviews some saps on American customs, and engages in some classic “fish outta water” comedy (he thinks the hotel’s elevator is his actual room). Eventually, after seeing an episode of Baywatch, he becomes obsessed with Pamela Anderson and the two set out for California so Borat can bag her as his new wife.Continue Reading
This is the perfect example of a movie that was made, almost exclusively, for a teenage male audience in the '80s. So as a woman there was really very little to help me empathize with the characters, even during the forced moments that are supposed to be either romantic or tender. However, something about its shameless voyeurism and the sensational amounts of uncalled for nudity make this movie special when compared to other '80s comedies like Animal House and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which are more popular and deserve to be. Two Fast Times stars are in the film, including the ever-radiant Phoebe Cates and Ray Walston, who played Mr. Hand and stars, for too brief of time, as a limo driver in this movie. It is also Kathleen Wilhoite's film debut, and a favorite of mine in terms of the characters she's played thus far. The point I'm trying to make is that this movie's success as a comedy is not in delivery, or being able to laugh at something that has happened to you. On the contrary, the funniest part about the movie is its raunchy depiction of private school girls, teenage boys, and all the supposedly sex-deprived adults who surround them. Point being, you shouldn’t watch this movie to have some '80s flashback or be able to say, "…Yeah, something like that happened to me in high school." You should watch it because of its unrealistic chain of events and lack of substance.
It's senior year for all the girls at Cherryvale Academy, a posh all-girls boarding school in some forgettable city. Chris (Phoebe Cates) and her best friend Betsy (Kathleen Wilhoite) are both trying to lose their virginity to their boyfriends, who are also pals and attend the neighboring all-boys academy. Chris's boyfriend, Jim (Matthew Modine), is extremely handsome and sweet, while Betsy's boyfriend, Bubba (Michael Zorek), fits his name perfectly as the profusely sweaty fat kid who's the biggest pervert in his class. A reccurring source of comedy has to do with Bubba trying to avoid the deed and convincing Betsy that they've already done it, she just doesn’t remember on account of being drunk. Meanwhile, Chris and Jim have made plans to book a hotel for a weekend in order to show some class and spark romance for their first time. The only problem is that Chris's rival, Jordan (Betsy Russell), also has the hots for Jim and will do anything to get his attention. As the openly catty Jordan starts to pursue Jim, Chris and Betsy retaliate by trying to be one step ahead of her. The boys from the other school try desperately to infiltrate the girls' academy in order to either get a peak at all the naked chicks walking around the dormitory or see their girlfriends. This includes dressing in drag and scaling the wall on each other's shoulders, with Bubba on the top of their pathetic pyramid. Their trespassing complicates matters for Chris and Jim because it brings Jim one step closer to the devious Jordan.Continue Reading
The Ruling Class
Lady Claire Gurney: "How do you know you're God? Jack: "Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself." -- The Ruling Class It's hard to imagine Peter O'Toole still acting in today's cinema, mainly because he seems too great to be cast as an extra or even take up a voice role, as he did in the Disney/Pixar movie, Ratatouille. It would have been nice to see him still receiving leading rolls like his '60/'70s acting peers, such as Michael Caine, but the truth is, his essence is perhaps a bit grandiose. It worked wonders in movies like Becket, Laurence of Arabia, and Lord Jim, and it was given the most space and nourishment in The Ruling Class. In fact, I will firmly state that there could have been no one else, in the history of acting, who could pull off a role of such hysterics, and yet keep it level with the audiences' many emotions. Who else could pull off a character who is convinced they are Christ and Jack the Ripper, spew off-beat stutters in random order, and chirp like a bird in a single scene? This review might be giving away too much of the plot, but nothing could possibly prepare or give anyone a picture of how awesome this movie is. The movie takes place at the Gurney Estate in England, with the 13th Earl, Ralph, leading the action. He appears to be a leader of some importance in his society, but after a mass banquet you learn that he's not so right in the head. While dressed in a ballerina tutu and a colonial uniform, we see his nighttime ritual unfold. The trusted family butler (Arthur Lowe) enters his posh bedroom and displays a series of nooses, one of which he chooses every night to partake in a very bizarre game of mock suicide, done for the benefit of erotic asphyxiation. While attempting to hang himself for fun and safely return to a ladder, he accidentally knocks it down...Continue Reading
After his ultra low-budget, indie caper comedy Bottle Rocket, director Wes Anderson (along with co-writer Owen Wilson) peaked with Rushmore, developing a formula and a brand that he has continued to hammer into the ground, with less and less success. But with Rushmore, the story of an eccentric high school underachiever and his relationship to the people around him, Anderson found the right level of quirk without going over the annoyance line and in the process made one of the best comedies of the '90s, a truly unique and special film.
In the teenage mind of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), he’s a scholastic genius, admired by his classmates at his beloved upscale private school, The Rushmore Academy. But in truth he’s a below average student and not very liked by his peers. Max is a different kind of outcast than we usually find in teenage nerds. Instead of rebelling against the school, his goal is to fit in, but his grandiose ideas and belief in himself makes him stand out. His lower income also keeps him at a distance from his peers. Max’s gentle father (Seymour Cassel) is a low-key barber, but Max claims his old man is a brain surgeon. Also at odds with Max is the school’s headmaster (Brian Cox). Max’s enthusiasm seems to be a constant source of stress for him, including Max’s effort to keep Latin in the school’s curriculum, his ambitious school theater production of Serpico, and his efforts to build an on-campus aquarium in a bid to impress a lovely widowed teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams).Continue Reading
Though it appears to be the love child of Ronald McDonald and William Shakespeare, Scotland, PA is only the most innovative adaptation of Macbeth, which was forgotten about after it went to Sundance. Its satire, while crude and greasy, just like the worst fast food server, is so un-artsy and plain that it can honestly be called upon frequently when you have a craving for some simple, yet refreshing comedy. To add to its charm is an already off-beat cast that gives, perhaps, their funniest and most quirky performances. I must commend Maura Tierney for her role as the modern Lady Macbeth, which she played with excellent style, and her co-star, James LeGros, for his depiction of Macbeth. For the sake of being interesting, their last name is McBeth, and everyone calls her Pat and him Mac. Instead of being regal characters during the Renaissance, they are two ordinary folks in the '70s who work at Duncan's, a former donut shop owned by Norm Duncan. Notice the catchy play on an actual food chain. Duncan is trying to branch out and get new ideas for fast food, and under his employ are a ton of outrageous characters, including his sons, and many whom you'll recognize. Like most people in food service, the McBeths are extremely restless, causing the dynamic of their marriage to be bittersweet. Their sex life is at its peak (the two go at it like rabbits), but the romance turns sour when Pat constantly nags Mac about his inability to break away from Duncan, or at the very least, stop blurting out good ideas and letting him take the credit for them. While Mac is wandering around an empty carnival site, he is approached by two intoxicated hippies (the Greek chorus), who lead him to a fortune teller (the prophet, played by Amy Smart). She shakes her toy 8-ball and mentions a concept that has never been invented: drive-tru. Dismissing the entire ordeal, Mac returns to work the next day and hears of an employee being fired, which could mean a promotion for...Continue Reading
National Lampoon’s Animal House
The impact that National Lampoon Magazine had on American comedy during the 1970s was enormous, eventually spawning the massively ripped-off comedy movie National Lampoon's Animal House (as well as the Vacation series and some crappy forgettable flicks). You could say that the long running sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live symbolically evolved from National Lampoon (as well as from the Second City comedy clubs in Chicago and Toronto). Following the success of SNL's first breakout star, Chevy Chase, John Belushi would earn a cult following from his performance in Animal House that would last past his untimely death four years later from a drug overdose, leading the way for SNL alumni to dominate comedy for decades.Animal House follows two freshmen, Pinto (Tom Hulce) and Kent (Stephen Furst), "a wimp and a blimp," at Faber College in 1962. After being turned away from the elite fraternities they end up joining "the worst house on campus," Delta House. These campus outlaws are in constant trouble with Dean Wormer (brilliantly played by the snaky John Vernon of Point Blank), as they are placed on “double secret probation.” Eschewing academics or athletics, Delta members are either out to get wasted or laid, lead by would-be playboy, Otter (Tim Matheson), and super slob, Bluto (Belushi). There are a number of memorable scenes including Pinto and fellow Delta, Boon (Peter Riegert), along with his girlfriend, Katy (Karen Allen), being introduced to pot by a professor (Donald Sutherland); Belushi's stroll through the cafeteria line hoarding food and then his zit imitation; the guys' trip to a Rhythm N Blues club where Otis Day and the Knights perform (a scene ripped off in Weird Science). After the fraternity is expelled their revenge on the sc...Continue Reading
With Modern Romance, writer/director/star Albert Brooks was dubbed a West Coast Woody Allen and, like Allen, Brooks has one of those personalities that can alienate an audience. People usually love him or find him way too annoying to watch. In Modern Romance Brooks takes his neurotic persona to new daring heights of annoyance playing Robert Cole, a Hollywood film editor. When the film opens he's breaking up with his girlfriend, Mary (Kathryn Harrold), again, which seems to be a hobby for him. But like an addict for relationships it sends him into a torturous obsession over her, again. He tries to concentrate on his work and even tries dating others, but he can't, his obsession and jealousy get worse and worse. And with it Brooks turns the romantic comedy on its head, making one of the funniest films of the '80s.
Before moving into feature films Brooks was a cutting edge stand-up comedian. His style was almost a spoof of stand-up comedy and he was one of Johnny Carson's favorites, cutting his teeth on The Tonight Show. He made some brilliant short films the first season of Saturday Night Live (very unheralded in the show's history, they seem to never be acknowledged in the show's many retrospectives). Brooks has directed seven features since, the first four of which are gems. Real Life back in '79 foresaw the coming of reality TV early. It brilliantly teamed him with another underrated, acquired taste, Charles Grodin. Then Modern Romance, which could be considered his Annie Hall, took him in a new more sorta-mature direction. His next film, Lost In America, was an angst-epic and then Defending Your Life found Brooks romancing Meryl Streep in the afterlife. His next two films, The Muse and Mother, were forgettable at best and his last go as a director, Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World, was abysmal. As an actor outside his own films he's had an interesting career, with roles ranging from Taxi Driver to Out Of Sight, he was the voice of Nemo in Finding Nemo, and got an Oscar nomination for his hilarious turn in Broadcast News.Continue Reading
Fast Times At Ridgemont High
Fast Times At Ridgemont High is The Godfather or the Gone With The Wind of '80s teenage sex comedies. It's bigger and better than its lesser peers including My Tutor, The Last American Virgin, Porky's, Losing It, and a list that goes on and on. Inspired by the success of the wonderful National Lampoon's Animal House as well as the ensemble attitude of American Graffiti, based on a book by Cameron Crowe, with an exceptional cast of then unknowns (including two of their generation's best, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Penn), Fast Times At Ridgemont High is an epic study of Southern California teen suburban culture of the early 1980s.
The film really is more than just a teen sex comedy (which doesn't usually mean that sex is actually happening - it is generally more just being wished for - as well as preening and peeking for potential nudity). Besides being very funny there is some dramatic weight to the film and to many of the characters, mostly concerning an abortion. Other than a few teachers at Ridgemont High not many adults (parents) factor into the story (not including the 26-year old stereo salesman who seduces a teenager). This is a teen fantasy of laughs and sex all in a sunny, year-round location. It's the lighter side of the "burning the school down" fantasy of Over The Edge.Continue Reading