National Lampoon’s Animal House

Dir: John Landis, 1978. Tom Hulce, Stephen Furst, John Belushi, Karen Allen, Tim Matheson, Peter Riegert. Comedy.

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...

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jan 19, 2011 11:47am

Modern Romance

Dir: Albert Brooks, 1981. Starring: Albert Brooks, Kathryn Harrold, Bruno Kirby, James L. Brooks. Comedy.

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.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 24, 2010 12:44pm

Fast Times At Ridgemont High

Dir: Amy Heckerling, 1982. Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Sean Penn, Phoebe Cates, Ray Walston. Comedy.

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.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 15, 2010 4:16pm

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, But Were Afraid To Ask

Dir: Woody Allen, 1972. Starring: Woody Allen, Gene Wilder, Lou Jacobi, Louise Lasser, John Carradine. Comedy.

Like most of Woody Allen's early comedies Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, But Were Afraid To Ask is the definition of "hit or miss." This is a joke a minute film. Some are wonderfully funny but, like Airplane some years later, when you throw a ton of jokes at the wall not all of them are going to stick. Enough do to make this well worth the experience and make it an above average comedy. Released during the sexual liberation and adult sexual reeducation of the early '70s, this is kinda/sorta based on David Reuben's hugely popular manual about human sexuality of the same name. Allen uses the chapter heads to basically create seven short films, spoofing the pseudo seriousness of the subject matter. Some work better than others, but oh boy, the ones that do work are home runs. Here's the rundown starting with the least successful of the seven and moving to the better ones.

Why Do Some Women Have Problems Reaching Orgasms?

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 29, 2010 2:52pm

Love And Death

Dir: Woody Allen, 1975. Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, James Tolkan, Harold Gould. Comedy.

I’m not enough of an expert in Russian literature to give Woody Allen’s Love And Death it’s full due, intellectually. I do know there's some Crime And Punishment, some Brothers Karamazov, some War And Peace, and some Chekhov being spoofed. Visually there are references to Allen’s Swedish idol, Ingmar Bergman, with The Seventh Seal and Persona, and as well as some Charlie Chaplin. Allen also borrows healthily from his wisecracking forbearers, The Marx Brothers and Bob Hope.

If Woody Allen’s directing career can be broken into three sections - his early slapstick comedies, his middle important films, and his later mostly forgettable busts that he’s been marred in for almost the last 20 years - then Love And Death marks the end of that first period. It would be his final "straight comedy" before making his evolutionary leap with his next film, the masterpiece Annie Hall. Love And Death ended his six-year period of comic experimentation following the hit and miss joke epics Take The Money And Run, Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, and Sleeper. Hard to believe at one time a film critic argued who was the more important comic filmmaker: Allen or Mel Brooks (after making the classics Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein)? Allen went on to do Annie Hall and Manhattan and about a ten more relevant films while Brooks did Dracula: Dead And Loving It. Woody was always growing, while Brooks peaked early. That is not to say Love And Death is only important as a growth record. It’s also a great comedy on its own merits. It’s beautifully shot in Hungary by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (Au hasard Balthazar, Tess, etc.). Also it’s been cleverly scored with the music of 20th century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (later The Ren & Stimpy Show would use his music as well).

Like Allen’s Latin American revolution comedy, Bananas, a lot of the fun is putting Woody in an absurd situation and letting him be Bob Hope. During the Napoleonic era, Allen, sporting his trademark horn rimmed black glasses, plays Boris Grushenko, a Russian coward ("Yes, but I'm a militant coward"). As his two virile brothers enlist in the military, Boris is too busy fretting about life and trying to get laid. The object of Boris's lust is his independent cousin, Sonja (Diane Keaton), however she is engaged to the herring merchant. Eventually Boris enlists in the army, becomes a hero, and then he and Sonja set out to assassinate Napoleon (played wonderfully by James Tolkan).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 10, 2010 5:14pm

Go

Dir: Doug Limon, 1999. Starring: Katie Holmes, Sarah Polley, Jay Mohr, Scott Wolf. Comedy.

A lot of films about drugs and drug users take an exploitive yet ultimately moralistic tone about their contentious subject matter. Actors are given scenery to chew as either addicts or dealers. Junkies waste away tragically, but elegantly, and the dealers are suave thugs making the most of their Faustian bargain of a career. So often we are meant to envy the way the characters give a middle finger to societal rules and yet, when they ultimately reach their downfall, we are encouraged to feel morally superior. Call it a cultural byproduct of our country's draconian drug laws where all drugs are equally bad. (Except for alcohol which never causes any problems whatsoever.)

The thing I love about Go is the refreshing lack of judgment on the characters. It’s a movie about a random assortment of relatively amoral young people in L.A. in one insane 24-hour period. They work dead end jobs, they go to raves, and they take ecstasy. They’re basically good kids, just young and broke and out for a good time. They get into trouble, but not the kind of finger-wagging clichéd trouble that a bad screenwriter would normally concoct for these characters. It's more of the absurdist kind of trouble that Quentin Tarantino used in various plotlines of Pulp Fiction.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 10, 2010 2:47pm

Radio Days

Dir: Woody Allen, 1987. Starring: Mia Farrow, Mike Starr, Don Pardo, Julie Kavner, Wallace Shawn. Comedy.

I’ve been on a Woody Allen kick of late and I’m not sure what prompted it. In the twilight of his career he remains a polarizing figure mostly reviled for personal indiscretions or ignored for his supposed cultural irrelevancy. He doesn’t always make it easy to defend his work. The things people used to find amusing about his movies now just elicit a kind of widespread yawning contempt—the gross age difference between him and his latest ingénue, the aloof quality of the writing, and the way his characters don’t seem to bear even the slightest relation to actual people in New York City or anywhere else. His last few international productions have been, by all accounts, hit-or-miss and the early fans who adopted Annie Hall and Manhattan as the films of their generation have deserted him. I don’t necessarily disagree that his films aren’t what they used to be, but I think his good films are still some of the best American films ever made. The period of his work I generally romanticize is the mid-1980s period and the film of his that I like best is, in some ways, the least representative of his work, Radio Days. It’s light, unabashedly sentimental, and probably the least cynical movie he ever made.

Radio Days is more-or-less a series of vignettes related to Allen’s childhood that revolve around the radio and the central role it played in everyone’s life. The scenes are breezy and comical with a wry knowing melancholy hovering over them because this is, after all, a lost world that Allen is eulogizing. The film shows Allen’s childhood in a nostalgic light. He lives in Brooklyn in a cramped house where various assorted aunts, uncles, and grandparents lived too. Their banter is typically neurotic for an Allen film but there’s a familial ease and a gentleness to it. It’s very funny but it’s not abrasive. Seth Green plays Allen as a kid who is obsessed with the Masked Avenger, a radio show about a super hero of sorts whom Green’s character imagines as a dashing crime fighter but in actuality is played by Wallace Shawn, the impish character actor. A lot of the fun to be had from the stories Allen tells about the golden age of radio is how the actuality of who the performers are bears little resemblance to the identities they assume on the radio for a rapt audience living vicariously through their glamorous exploits. None is funnier than Mia Farrow, a painfully ditzy supper club cigarette girl who is perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time but who eventually gets (mostly) rid of her Brooklyn squawk and becomes the host of a sophisticated Hollywood gossip radio program.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Oct 5, 2010 4:11pm

Saved!

Dir: Brian Dannelly, 2004. Starring: Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Eva Amurri. Comedy.

You can’t find someone who is more against the glorification of teenage pregnancy than yours truly. Let’s just downplay that aspect of the movie and focus on all its other awesome parts, and for a brief moment I’ll praise the director and writer for their interesting approach on the matter. If you’re wondering why I steer clear of films like this, let’s just say it's because of those sappy dramas and comedies that show some spoiled middle-class teen who gets knocked up, has a family behind her, and finishes school without a hitch. Movies like Precious are slowly putting a smudge on that crystalline looking-glass we’ve become used to.

In this perfect comedy, we meet a group of teenagers who are coming up on their senior year at a Christian high school. We are following Mary (Jena Malone) in particular. She has it all - a charming and talented boyfriend, a cool mom, and the name of a religious icon. In the summer before senior year, her boyfriend confesses to her that he is gay. Following his confession, she bumps her head and, while in a daze, she sees the image of Jesus who tells her that her boyfriend needs her help. So, like any religious person, she interprets the message of God the best way she can: cure him of his homosexuality.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Aug 27, 2010 5:00pm

Mischief

Dir: Mel Damski, 1985. Starring: Doug McKeon, Chris Nash, Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelly Preston, D.W. Brown. Comedy.

There is a middle-ground in comedy that transcends generations and surprises us all with its wit and components. Screwball comedies are on one side of this spectrum, and while they hold up great and are considered classics, the heavy traditional overtones and lack of modern humor make them harder to relate to. Not that they aren't enjoyable for the seasoned film fanatic, but with younger and more industrialized audiences, I think they serve a more historical purpose. And then there is current comedy, consisting of mainly crude and sexy plots or dark comedies, both with the possibility of going overboard and disappointing. So it seems that '80s cinema is this middle-ground. I can't think of a movie in the '80s, including dramas, that is not half comic relief. Perhaps the sappy plots only come off as funny now, but I still think a lot of it was intended.

Mischief walks the tightrope between these two worlds and replenishes what is missing or poorly done in either one. Set in Ohio, 1956, it already stands apart from others by being a period piece in a way. Gene (Chris Nash) has just moved into a small suburb with his widower father from Chicago. Here they hope to find peace from city life and to enroll Gene in a new school, on account of him being expelled from his previous one. From the start you can tell that he won't last long in the new town as he takes a break from moving in to ride his motorcycle across all of his neighbors' lawns. The only person who seems more than eager to make his acquaintance is his next-door neighbor Jonathan (Doug McKeon). The two couldn't be more unlike each other; Jonathan in his pastel sweaters and Studebaker, and Gene in his leather jacket and motorcycle. But behind their differences, the two reach out and bond simply on the basis of being outcasts.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Aug 17, 2010 2:15pm

Cashback

Dir: Sean Ellis, 2006. Starring: Sean Biggerstaff, Emilia Fox, Michael Dixon, Michael Lambourne. Comedy.

This is not a movie about love. This is a movie about eros and the comedy of the daily grind. The difference between love and eros seems to be in the history of the words and the reactions from them. Love is fresh, tender, and pleasant—it changes you and, for many, it is a lifelong quest. You can fall into it and be unfolded by it and, for some, it is something that can fade. Eros is inescapable and erotic. It is the poison at the end of cupid's arrow and reminds me of hot phrases like "engulfed in fire." That's not what the word literally means, but more of my metaphorical picture of it. Once known in Greek mythology as the God of Love, eros is now a universal word describing a deep and sickening sense of affection toward beauty (however you define it), and it is exactly this force that has captured and unhinged this movie's lead character.

Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) has just suffered a grueling breakup, equipped with a ceramic mug and IKEA lamp being thrown at his head and the loneliness that soon followed. But the objects that became tools for abuse are not the last of his worries. Shortly after splitting with his first girlfriend Suzy, he becomes a full-fledged insomniac and is in awe at the fact that he now has eight extra hours in each day to do whatever comes to mind. At first the insomnia is simply frustrating, though it allows him to read and re-read everything he has ever wanted to finish and work hard in his first year of art school. After shopping for snacks in aisle 8 of the Sainsbury supermarket, he notices a "now hiring" sign and decides to "waste" his extra eight hours of nighttime working.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Aug 10, 2010 5:56pm
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