Archive for the ‘comedy’ category

Jackass Forever

April 24, 2022

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The “yarbles,” as Anthony Burgess termed them in A Clockwork Orange, take quite a bit of punishment in Jackass Forever. It’s as though this franchise, which is now over two decades old, were refuting possible charges of toxic masculinity by batting those balls right out of the park. It may take massive ones for Johnny Knoxville and his coterie of giggling loons to do these painful stunts, but that doesn’t guarantee those organs any kind of asylum. Their neighbor to the north is also involved, being punched, hockey-pucked, flattened, slathered in bees, and, in the movie’s terrific opening number, dressed up like a kaiju laying waste to a whole city. The last thing I would call the Jackass movies is masculinist, since the family jewels are shown to be fragile, goofy, in constant danger of injury or insult.

Knoxville, who recently turned 51, has said that Jackass Forever will be his final dance with this series. We’ll see. For one thing, the previous entry, Jackass 3D, which dropped twelve years ago, had the tone of a good-bye to all that, and I responded to it as such. The new movie feels like a bit of an addendum, proving whatever the Jackass crew feels necessary to prove — that they can still do it, mostly. Though maybe not for too much longer: the movie is also something of a passing of the torch, welcoming, for the first time, a few newcomers, including Rachel Wolfson, the first female Jackass. New blood was needed, since one member, the late Ryan Dunn, wrapped his Porsche around a tree in 2011 and another, Bam Margera, fell off the wagon and was fired. That and, well, how many more times can Knoxville get in the bull ring and come away breathing?

The thing about the Jackass stunts, especially in the movies where there’s a budget for them, is that this lowbrow, roughhouse stuff that takes two minutes to watch and guffaw at required God knows how much prep, planning out, and paperwork (the insurance policies alone must make for dense bedtime reading) to pull off without killing someone. As it is, an inch here or there may have made the difference between a Jackass walking off the pain and being carried off in a bag. Pain and peril aren’t the only gremlins the Jackasses must face; bodily fluids of all kinds burst forth, arcing in the outdoor sun. I’m sure someone has already written at scholarly length about the various violations to the (mostly male) body in the Jackass series and the wastes constantly pouring out of it. The body is squeamish, revolting, unreliable, and, we see here, aging. The gray-maned Knoxville can no longer bounce back as fast as he once could.

Will the franchise continue? I can see why Rachel Wolfson and the other newbies (including comedian Eric André, pumped to hang with these guys he grew up watching on TV) wanted to be a part of the dumbass festivities. The attitude among Knoxville, Steve-O, Wee Man, and the other OG Jackasses is camaraderie born of shared agony. Someone like Danger Ehren (who takes by far the most shots to the yarbles in Jackass Forever) may rage against his cackling brothers (and sister) in stupidity, but nobody gets away unscathed; everyone gets a turn inside the cannon or the poop-filled porta-potty or the dark room that may contain a deadly snake. 

The frequent laughter on the set as one or another Jackass gets pig semen dumped on him or gets his meats beaten with tiny boxing gloves isn’t mean-spirited. To endure one of the aggressively gross or dangerous set pieces and survive, walk it off (or get hosed off), and come back for more is to be embraced into a small subculture of masochists and ninnies. But maybe the real secret to enjoying what Knoxville and his team have wrought is that they don’t seem to be doing all this to entertain us; they do it, as they always have, to entertain themselves. I couldn’t do it. Respect. 

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

February 6, 2022

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SPOILER ALERT:

It’s useless to deny it: near the end of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, when the spectre of Harold Ramis stepped in to help save the day, it got a little dusty in the room. Soft and warm where the original 1984 Ghostbusters was sharp and cool, this legacy sequel is all about continuing the work of our elders and honoring their memory — doubly so, since it’s directed by Jason Reitman, son of the original’s director Ivan. So it’s made with palpable love and nostalgia. I fell for it while not being all that interested in the story: it’s Gozer again, setting ghosts on the loose, this time in a rusty town in Oklahoma. 

Taking the Ghostbusters franchise out of an urban environment (even the unpopular 2016 Ghostbusters, which I liked, unfolded in New York City) isn’t as jarring as I would have thought. The new setting of Summerville gives us nifty places for ghosts to hang out: a spooky mine (whence came the metal that built the haunted building in the ’84 film), a dilapidated farmhouse once owned by the recently departed Egon Spengler. Egon’s ignored daughter Callie (MVP Carrie Coon) heads to the house with her two kids Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), who takes after her grandfather in her fixation on science. Throw in Paul Rudd as a geologist/summer-school teacher, who develops a snarky but genuine interest in Callie, and you have a recipe for a gentle, good-hearted comedy with more emphasis on family ties than on loud laughs.

As everyone knows by now, the surviving three original busters — Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson — turn up at the climax to finish their business with Gozer. Aykroyd’s Ray Stanton appears before then, fielding a late-night call from Phoebe. At first, Ray is hostile about Egon, but when he learns Egon has passed, he softens and saddens. I’m probably the only one who remembers the moment in Blues Brothers 2000 when Elwood Blues gets out of jail after 18 years and finds out, at a respectful distance from the camera, that Jake has died and nobody told him. I reflected on that here, when Aykroyd yet again must convey mourning for a fallen comrade. He doesn’t owe us this kind of thing, but it gives Afterlife some texture and emotional shading.

Unlike 1989’s Ghostbusters II, which re-introduced our heroes struggling to entertain at kiddie parties, this sequel puts the old-timers pretty much where we want them to be after all these years. (Oddly, Murray’s iconic character Peter Venkman has not only left ghostbusting but science itself, though Venkman always seemed like the type who shrugged and nodded at a quasi-scientific career because the work seemed easy.) Meanwhile, the young new cast, including a motormouth self-named Podcast, sometimes edges the movie closer to another ‘80s movie that followed Ghostbusters a summer later, The Goonies (though, thankfully, it’s not nearly as loud and obnoxious). Whenever possible, Reitman apes the slick aesthetic of his father’s film — Rob Simonsen’s music bites big chunks from  Elmer Bernstein’s original score (with the help of Bernstein’s son Peter: more family ties!); Eric Steelberg’s cinematography tries for László Kovács’ dynamic lighting, big on horizontal lens flares bisecting the frame.

Carrie Coon is wonderful throughout as a frazzled but sarcastic mother on her uppers, and when Zuul takes over her body she seems ready to take off into orbit as the possessed Sigourney Weaver did in the first film. But Reitman, perhaps trying to bring the movie in at not too much longer than two hours, turns her into a terror dog too soon. I’d like her to return for more Ghostbusters, if there is any (if there should be any). Ditto Mckenna Grace, who carries on the recent tradition of female ghostbusters. (Finn Wolfhard doesn’t register much except as the driver of the old Ectomobile.) But this film puts an effective period on the saga, for me at least. Unless the writers can come up with something other than riffs on the original, I’m afraid the bittersweet nostalgia of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the sort of thing that can only work once.

The French Dispatch

January 16, 2022

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Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is that rarity, a disappointment that I feel I need to see again. By now, we all know how polarizing Anderson’s dollhouse movies tend to be. They’re immaculately designed, obsessively symmetrical; they’re boxes within boxes, each packed in a ruthlessly tidy fashion. But generally the stories have a strong throughline, a sturdy narrative arrow with some emotional resonance. The French Dispatch feels like it came out of the bottom drawer of Anderson’s desk. It’s a trio of tales, bracketed by front and end matter; it’s about journalists writing about artists, or at least about people who express themselves in some way — through painting, manifesto, food.

One of the segments, the one about the manifesto, I couldn’t tell you much about. You see what I mean when I want to watch it again. The French Dispatch is about a titular newspaper — the film’s full title is The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun — that reports on happenings in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé for the enjoyment, I guess, of the millions of Francophiles in Kansas. The newspaper is inspired by The New Yorker, particularly the magazine’s self-regard as The Magazine. All the best writers write for the French Dispatch, and the paper’s editor (Bill Murray) keeps trying to whittle their pieces into shape. The writers all love and tolerate him. He dies early on — like so much else here, we’re not asked to feel one way or the other about it — and what we see is the contents of the final issue of the paper.

But none of it really took hold and commanded my attention. The first story involves an artist (Benicio del Toro) who is also serving a life sentence for murder. The second follows Dispatch reporter Frances McDormand as she gets caught up in a student protest and its players. The last has to do with the kidnapping of a little boy and a police officer who’s also a chef — most of the characters have different facets to them. Technically, the filmmaking is gorgeous, with alternating black-and-white or color photography by Robert Yeoman in two different aspect ratios. It’s all very cleverly worked out. The problem is a pit that Anderson has been edging towards for a few movies now, and in The French Dispatch he sinks right into it — there are just too damn many characters.

At this point, being in a Wes Anderson movie must be a terrific feather in an actor’s cap, and a lot of them come work with him over and over. But nothing in this movie will show you why. The teeming mass of actors here rarely get a moment to give us a reason to care about them; people like Edward Norton and Elisabeth Moss and Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe pass through, hardly even getting any lines. (The bulk of the movie is narrated by the stories’ writers anyway, further limiting the characters’ opportunity to speak for themselves.) Anderson veteran Saoirse Ronan turns up as a character credited only as “Junkie/Showgirl #1.” The impression you get is that Wes Anderson has joined the elite cadre of directors who can compel a four-time Oscar nominee to play Junkie/Showgirl #1. Well, good for him. Not so good for us, or for Saoirse Ronan.

And yet … I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Anderson’s prior films, so I’m willing to give The French Dispatch the benefit of the doubt; a second viewing, knowing what it is going into it, may not be amiss. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the movie doesn’t drill down and tell one particular person’s story. Maybe the movie is about storytelling itself, about who tells stories and who hears or reads them. The main character is the Dispatch. The style of the film is the style of the writers. The writers are self-centered to a degree that they make the stories about them — they think they have to make the stories worthy of being told by them. Running through the film is a sneaky little critique of the whole New Yorker magazine-of-record aesthetic and ethos. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s both nostalgic and timeless. It didn’t stick to me — this time — but I wouldn’t dream of discouraging anyone, especially Anderson followers, from seeing it. Just know what you’re in for.

@Zola

September 19, 2021

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Not everything needs to be a movie. That’s not to say that the legendary 2015 Twitter thread by A’Ziah “Zola” King doesn’t seem like — and play in our minds like, when we’re reading it — a movie-god-given piece of natural cinema material. It has everything: sex, violence, and, as Zola says in the first tweet, a story “full of suspense.” Zola’s common-sensical voice is loud and clear; it carries us through, and we can hear it in our heads, with its heartbeat-monitor spikes of disbelief and outrage. What I’m getting at is that Zola’s thread is almost a perfect little movie in itself. Imagining the story’s excesses, we collaborate, make it funnier to ourselves.

It gives me no pleasure to opine that @Zola, the movie director Janicza Bravo and her cowriter Jeremy O. Harris have made from Zola’s story, feels somewhat redundant. The actual film before us can’t compete with the mind-movie we made when reading the thread. (Maybe a viewer is better off going into the film cold.) I really didn’t want it to be this way. I was rooting for @Zola to be a disreputable but electrifying bonbon of sin and hyperbole, something along the lines of Spring Breakers or The Rules of Attraction in its mash-up of art and exploitation. And Bravo, who has a strong eye for trance-out color and movement, at first seems the ideal filmmaker for this tale. 

Part of the thread’s appeal, I think, is that its narrator (Taylour Paige) is Black and her companion, a sex worker here named Stefani (Riley Keough), is white. Stefani is also a hot mess who drags Zola into a hard-bass netherworld of guns and lust. Zola is essentially an observer on the side as Stefani, her pimp X (Colman Domingo), and her hapless boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) make everything ridiculously worse. We hear some of Zola’s tweets as narration, though they may lack the tartness and surreal listen-to-this-shit humor they had in our heads. Taylour Paige is fine as Zola but somewhat inexpressive, ceding the movie to Riley Keough’s dumpster-fire Stefani, who talks like a dumb white chick’s idea of how Black women talk, gleaned from tabloid talk shows.

Neither woman seems to learn much from their experiences, though, and the movie arrives at a stop without having really arrived at an end — or a point. @Zola appears to advise viewers not to trust crazy white women, who are too padded by privilege to feel the sharp edges of the danger they get themselves in. (It’s the whiny, insecure Derrek, also white, who makes the worst mistake and almost gets everyone killed.) The film doesn’t put much stock in Black men, either. We’re aware we’re getting a subjective account (and Bravo puts the movie on pause to let Stefani control the narrative briefly), the purpose of which is to show the wisdom and resilience of a Black woman. No problem there, except that it tends to keep Zola at a remove. In this chaotic, candy-colored universe of sin and stupidity, Zola is the one keeping her head while all around her lose theirs. She’s watching and relaying the story; she’s seldom truly in it. 

Everyone else on screen is flawed, hilariously (Nicholas Braun kept getting unanticipated laughs out of me) or frighteningly (Colman Domingo’s stealth-African X loses his fake American accent when he’s angry). Zola isn’t. She has no quirks, no likes or dislikes, and when you get right down to it she exists in her own plot to save the infantile white people from the savage, street-smart Black men, who will get money out of your carcass any way they can, whether pimping it or murdering it. Can a movie written and directed by Black people be prejudiced against Black people? Not consciously, maybe. And I don’t doubt that Bravo and Harris must have responded to the wild tall-tale aspect of @Zola; I don’t presume classist bad faith on their parts — again, not conscious. Bravo is eminently worth watching as a director; the movie at its pure-cinema finest is like a neon mandala. But, man, does this film give off some discordant vibes. 

Werewolves Within

July 11, 2021

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Something about Werewolves Within doesn’t sit right with me. It’s a horror-comedy, which often means that people and even dogs die and you’re not asked to care much, but even so, this is a glib and breezy affair. We may find ourselves asking why we care if the characters live, either. The script, by memoirist Mishna Wolff, based on a video game, hands the actors lumpy mouthfuls of dialogue that they mostly turn into sentences that sound like real people might say them.

The cast is likable and game; the lead, Sam Richardson, is a large and huggable bundle of neuroses and kindnesses. But most of the rest of the characters are annoying, stereotypes, or both. Wolff and director Josh Ruben betray a snide contempt for flyover country, although a well-to-do gay couple also take some abuse (more for being rich than for being gay; I suppose we must be thankful for small favors). After a longer-than-necessary set-up, Werewolves Within settles into a one-location whodunit, in which evidence mounts that a large animal is savaging men, dogs, and generators in the tiny mountain town of Beaverfield.

There’s already drama in the town over a guy who wants to run a pipeline through the area, waving big paychecks. Some refuse the money; some can’t afford to. The script largely separates anti-pipeliners and pro-pipeliners into elites and Trumpsters. Werewolves Within keeps flirting with the notion of a divided-America metaphor in the whodunit mode; Knives Out did it a lot better, or at least was more enjoyable. Rian Johnson believed in his characters more purely than I believe Ruben and Wolff do, and Johnson’s cast was having a ball with the things they got to say and do. This cast seems to be working against the script. Not to mention that big, gaping traumas both emotional and physical seem far too easily gotten over (lose a husband, lose a hand, keep on truckin’). And if I never again see the gag where someone talks in the middle of the road, oblivious to the large vehicle that’s about to flatten them, I’ll feel no pain.

The plot runs over with red herrings; we figure pretty much anybody could be the culprit. When one of the more annoying and inconsistent characters comes forward and seems to admit to everything, and another character snarks that it would be a disappointment if this person turned out to be the werewolf — well, that also applies to the actual culprit. About halfway through I felt the familiar chill in my belly telling me that I didn’t honestly care who the werewolf was and that I was wasting my time. The tone is just too offensively light; it plays like the pilot of a CW show that only lasts one season. Towards the finish, people keep lurching forward and seeming to reveal themselves. It’s all amiably meaningless.

There are any number of ways Werewolves Within could’ve been about something, could’ve worked its paranoia into a statement on mistrustful America. But it’s too hip for that, too ready to score points off of ignorant small-towners who just want to open a craft shop (okay) but are willing to murder for it (wait, what?). Maybe it shouldn’t have bothered with its shallow stabs at relevance — the little attempts at commentary (rural types love their guns and beer) make it always seem on the verge of satire.

Character work at the script level might’ve helped. Michaela Watkins is a force of nature, and it’s sad to watch her playing yet another braying yahoo. Milana Vayntrub might emerge with some new fans, even though the movie betrays her. Sam Richardson comes off best — unsurprising, as he’s one of the producers — but he deserves better, too. One minute his character is bleeding badly from a gut wound; not much later, he’s flinging heavy axes at a nemesis. It’d be cool if even horror-comedies about werewolves could at least acknowledge reality, how things like bodies and blood and grief work.

Coming 2 America

March 5, 2021

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Coming 2 America may as well be titled Coming 2 Zamunda, since the movie spends most of its time in that fictional African country. Zamunda, of course, is home to Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), the hero of the hit comedy Coming to America. Rewatching that John Landis film for the first time since 1988, I was struck by how logy and static it was, even for an ‘80s comedy. It’s hard to argue that Coming 2 America is a “better” movie, but I liked it more; it’s warmer, its direction (by Craig Brewer, who made Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name) more dynamic, its aesthetic much more fluid and colorful (costume designer Ruth E. Carter can take a bow for that). And it’s actually about something: choosing between the elders we love and the future where the elders may no longer have a place.

Akeem soon becomes king, and is preoccupied with his throne and who will fill it when he’s gone. There’s some truth, of course, in Eddie Murphy playing a prince turned king — it mirrors his real-life arc. Coming to America gave Murphy his first taste of doing accents and multiple characters in the same film, and he reprises them all here, as does Arsenio Hall, playing Akeem’s right-hand man Semmi as well as several other roles. But now that Murphy is a king, to whom does he pass his crown? The amiably antic Jermaine Fowler as Akeem’s illegitimate American son Lavelle. The story is structured so that Lavelle can take over, but Murphy is too powerful a presence for that to happen, and Fowler just isn’t up to it.

Instead, Murphy lets apparent new BFF Wesley Snipes steal a few scenes as General Izzi, who wants Lavelle to marry his meek, boring daughter. Izzi insinuates himself into scenes with a low stroll, echoed by his gun-toting minions behind him; the effect is funky and weird, and Snipes, in these Murphy films, is having more fun than I’ve seen from him in years. In general, Coming 2 America just seems gladder to see all its stars of color than the original film did. Leslie Jones grabs as much of the frame as she can as Lavelle’s THOT mama, accompanied by Tracy Morgan as her brother, grumbling his usual huffy nonsense. Craig Brewer is a white director who clearly feels comfortable in the Black milieu (his other films include Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan). He approaches the sequel as a loving fan of the original; John Landis did little to show any warmth towards his original at all. Landis needed a hit, and Murphy threw it to him like a life preserver. If people think fondly of the 1988 film, it’s due to Murphy and Hall and John Amos and James Earl Jones and all those other wonderful performers filling out a nearly all-Black cast in a major-studio summer comedy. It’s not because Coming to America was particularly good.

Coming 2 America has some of the same problems, plus some new ones. As I said, most of it unfolds not in Queens (though we do check in back there and hang out at the barbershop again) but in Zamunda. If the first film was about questioning authority, the second is about being authority. Age has agreed with Murphy, who has filled out a bit and added some stillness and gravitas to his portfolio (he turns 60 next month, if you’re ready for that). He carries himself like a king, and he gives Akeem a kind of newfound rigidity born of realizing the world isn’t as simple as we’d like it to be. Certain traditions are there because they work; others must change with the times or be discarded. Lavelle in Zamunda is a callback in reverse to the fish-out-of-water comedy of Akeem in Queens, but the rhyming storyline never takes hold, and Akeem himself is largely passive, always trying to convince others to do things or not.

There’s really only so much a get-the-band-back-together nostalgia piece like Coming 2 America can do. Like Bill & Ted Face the Music, it works by being comfort food, and the original Coming to America wasn’t very edgy to begin with, so Coming 2 America isn’t a betrayal of anything other than those who’ll miss the nudity in the R-rated first film. (It was really pretty gratuitous, and as unfeeling a use of women’s bodies as anything in Hustler.) I don’t anticipate ever watching either film again, but Coming 2 America passed the time pleasantly. I don’t understand its disappointed reception, as though Landis’ inert film were an inviolable masterpiece marred by a mere sequel. Coming 2 America shows what this material can be in the hands of a director who’s not just taking it as a gig, who believes in it and loves the cast.

The Stand In

November 22, 2020

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For about an hour, I was mystified by my response to The Stand In. Was this not supposed to be a wacky identity-swap comedy? Instead I could feel my stress level rising, and the movie certainly doesn’t look like a comedy — as lighted by cinematographer Eric Moynier, it has the burgundy tone of a somber legal drama. But then the movie’s scheme clicked into place. Please don’t go by the trailer or the poster: Despite some funny bits, The Stand In is more of a drama about those who make comedies, somewhat like Judd Apatow’s Funny People. If you go into it knowing this, it’ll take you far less time to plug into it. And it boasts two terrific performances by Drew Barrymore, as shambolic low-comedy movie star Candy Black and as Candy’s stand-in Paula.

Candy is a dumpster fire of a person who screams at everyone, and Paula is a sweet wallflower who loves being close to the star’s light and heat. So for a long time, our identification shifts to poor Paula, and when she switches places with Candy we expect her to blossom under the new attention. But that would be the typical Drew Barrymore rom-com, and that’s not what we have here. (To give you an idea, the script is by Sam Bain, who co-wrote Four Lions.) Five years after an on-set meltdown that cost a co-star (Ellie Kemper) her eye, Candy is being forced to go into rehab. Her plan is to get Paula to take her place in rehab so she can stay home, drink herself to sleep, and maybe pursue her true passion of woodworking. So Paula takes over, and ends up being a better Candy than Candy herself — Candy without the drugs, attitude and decibel level.

Candy is awful and Paula is one of us, so it’s jarring at first when we sense that their trading places goes deeper and somewhat darker. Paula, an aspiring actress, doesn’t just want Candy’s fame — she wants her life, and that extends to Steve (Michael Zegen), who’s into making Shaker furniture and who has struck up an online relationship with Candy. When we realize that Paula is about to help herself to Steve, she starts heading into areas where we really can’t follow her any more; once she drugs Candy’s smoothie so she can invite Steve over to Candy’s (now Paula’s) mansion, our allegiance, too, has changed places. This all is a good deal more interesting than the taffy-flavored comedy I was expecting, where gauche Paula has the storybook ending, while rotten Candy gets her comeuppance.

As Candy, who hasn’t bothered to get her hair done in a while, Barrymore has her own features and a sloppy red mane that recalls Susan Sarandon. As Paula, Barrymore sports a fake nose and blonde bangs that make her look more like Wendi McLendon-Covey’s stand-in. Candy’s puffier, vulnerable face draws us closer, while Paula’s sharper profile, done up with Hollywood makeup, comes to seem a bit hawk-like. Candy, with Barrymore’s considerable help, becomes a real and complex woman who goes by her given name Cathy Tyler; she seems visibly relieved not to have to deal with publicity any more (these days, camera phones make everyone paparazzi), and she throws herself gratefully into building bureaus from scratch. Paula, who has only ever wanted what Candy/Cathy has rejected, grows dislikable in a different style from Candy. Paula has false values, which Barrymore highlights by establishing that Paula gets less compassionate the farther along “Candy’s” apology tour she goes.

So the Barrymore we don’t expect to get the patented Barrymore rom-com happy ending gets it. That’s fair, and it gives us more to chew on. Barrymore, whose shingle Flower Films produced the movie — Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader) directed — seems to be telling us that we wouldn’t want to be the media’s idea of Drew Barrymore. (Although I doubt she’s also telling us her true love is building ladderback chairs.) Candy is presented to us as almost a female Adam Sandler in Funny People, headlining terrible stoner comedies (Pippi Bongstocking) in which she falls face-first into cow flop and delivers her catch-phrase into the camera: “Hit me where it hurts!” Talk about self-hatred. That’s the life Paula wants until she gets it. If you can ignore the brief irritation of T.J. Miller as Candy’s agent and Lena Dunham as more or less herself (though her character’s name is Lisa, ha-ha), The Stand In is more biting about what Hollywood and its consumers want from women than it’ll probably get credit for. 

Chick Fight

November 8, 2020

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A movie about a secret fight club for women to work out their rage probably shouldn’t be as bland as Chick Fight. The scenes in which the women punch, kick, head-butt and choke out their fellow women express a kind of ironic liberation that the by-the-numbers script (by Joseph Downey) doesn’t really explore. Chick Fight has a raft of female producers or executive producers (including two of its stars, Malin Akerman and Bella Thorne), but is written and directed by men. Some would see no problem with this, as telling stories requires some degree of imagination and trying to see through the eyes of those unlike you. But we also miss what female creatives might have brought to this story. (Look, for example, at Karyn Kusama’s indie drama Girlfight from twenty years ago.)

Here, the trappings of a female fight club only set up a cute arc of triumph for the movie’s cutely downtrodden protagonist Anna (Akerman). Owner of a sinking coffee shop, Anna has more than enough anger and sorrow on her plate. Her car gets repossessed, the coffee shop goes up in flames, and her macho dad turns out to be bisexual. (Why? I dunno, except to give us a few scenes of Anna reacting to her dad’s sexuality with baffled acceptance.) Her cop friend Charleen (Dulcé Sloan) brings her to the underground fight club, where she runs afoul of the place’s resident heat-seeking missile Olivia (Thorne). We know the plot leads up to a climactic showdown between Anna and Olivia, just as we know Anna will spend many allegedly funny scenes training with drunken Jack (Alec Baldwin).

The cast, including Fortune Feimster and Alec Mapa, is diverse and funny and up for anything, but the script keeps letting them down. Various character revelations, like Olivia’s daytime identity and Anna’s connection to the club, just sort of lie there forgotten. After a while I began to wish Akerman and Thorne could have switched roles, since Thorne gets some slightly more interesting things to play and shows some outlaw charisma. But then Thorne would have been stuck with the uninspiring Anna, to whom Akerman brings little but a mild woe-is-me Cathy Guisewite vibe. Like Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin and countless others, Anna must grow up; she must become True Woman, spitting blood and taking punches. Akerman has an amiable but generally null presence; our only clue that she’s the star is that the movie focuses on her from frame one, but Thorne’s eccentric energy marks her as the film’s real star.

Too bad she’s thrown away as the Bad Girl who must be defeated by the Good Girl. Having women write and direct Chick Fight (lame title, guys) might have gone some way towards eliminating female clichés imagined from the outside. As it is, there’s a scene in which Anna takes a heavy ball to the crotch so she can go to the doctor (with what money?) and find out he’s the doctor from the fight club, so she can start a romance with him. There are so many more promising directions the movie could have gone other than providing Anna with a professional white boyfriend. (She’s surrounded by gayness, but is resolutely hetero.) Another revelation involving the club means that Anna’s money problems get handwaved away. The coincidences stack up, until we feel the narrative pushing us around.

There isn’t even a decent winding-down scene between Anna and Olivia; the latter is brushed aside, as if Bella Thorne had grown tired of the story and gone home early. Given what we discover about Anna and the legacy she’s a part of, a more intriguing comedy would have pitted our dark heroine Olivia against Anna the blonde brat born into the world that Olivia had to scratch and kick to be included in. Chick Fight may lead to more than a few discussions more thoughtful than the movie itself. Of course, it’s only conceived as a dumbass comedy with a light glaze of you-go-grrl empowerment. But it’s hard to believe that so many talented folks bought into something so vanilla, so incurious, so dedicated to banality. And it needn’t have gone in a serious direction; women as much as men deserve wild and twisted comedies in which they behave abominably. But that’s exactly what Chick Fight isn’t. It might as well be about a book club.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

October 23, 2020

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“I was tucking in my shirt” might just be the movie critique of the year. Then again, look at the year. In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Sacha Baron Cohen brings his big-hit satirical character Borat Sagdiyev out of retirement, and the result is sporadically explosive, with more obviously staged sequences than I remember the original 2006 Borat having. Here, Borat is apparently too recognizable to Americans from his previous film, so he puts on a fake fat suit, a beard, and a wig that all make him look like an Amish elder who’s gotten into too much butter. There are some scenes where Baron Cohen, in one disguise or another, interacts with people who don’t seem in on the prank, and many others where Borat hangs out with characters clearly played by actors — a couple of QAnon hicks, a black woman Borat hires to look after his 15-year-old daughter.

The daughter, Tutar, is very much the movie’s saving throw, and the 24-year-old Bulgarian actress who plays her, Maria Bakalova, swipes the movie right out from under Baron Cohen’s thick mustache. He lets her run with it, knowing what she brings to the party. Tutar is intended as a gift to Mike Pence on behalf of Borat’s mother country Kazakhstan, but her babysitter points her towards feminist awakening and rejection of the fearful sexism Borat teaches her. Loudly and crassly, at fancy events for shocked rich white people, Tutar embraces the feminine. Some of the movie’s more screamingly funny moments (it’s too bad we can’t see this in a packed and roaring theater as it deserves) don’t involve Borat at all; it’s all Tutar, and Bakalova jumps into each fresh outrage with both feet, hungry for life and pleasure. 

The shirt-tucking moment has gotten all the press, but really it doesn’t tell us much we don’t already know, which is to say — to quote All the President’s Men — “these aren’t very bright guys, and things got out of hand.” So to speak. It’s a good gotcha moment, but in truth, the subject’s predatory leers beforehand tell a more disturbing story. Maria Bakalova deserves hazard pay, not only for the “sex attack” she may have narrowly sidestepped but for sitting within feet of America’s mayor as he coughs and hacks into his hands. Much of the movie was shot as the COVID crisis unfolded, and I’m sure the production observed strict protocols, but it’s still a chilling moment. This is a man so monstrously privileged and delusional he just figures your space is his space. He moves in a world where he gets to accompany a very young-looking girl to a bedroom, lie down, and stick his hand down his pants. Or he gets to cough at her.

This Borat sequel has nine writing credits (the original had five), and there are stretches where you can feel the chaos being wrested into a narrative, an arc wherein Borat learns to love and respect his daughter. It’s a far different movie than the first Borat was; it feels like a transitional film from Borat’s punk-brat origins to something with more heart, albeit Hollywood heart. Baron Cohen, himself Jewish, apparently continues to think anti-semitism is smashingly funny, or at least allows for dark satirical doodling. Some will no doubt chafe at the scene in which Baron Cohen brings out Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans to inform Borat that, yes, the Holocaust did happen. I think, for Baron Cohen, anti-semitism represents all other forms of idiotic hate, and as always, the sharpest scenes come when Baron Cohen can get random folks on camera heartily agreeing with Borat’s blinkered, almost childlike racism. Stick around for the end credits — no mid-credits scene, but an absolute stomper of a cover of “Everybody Dance Now” by the Russian punk band Little Big.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

August 30, 2020

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Before watching Bill & Ted Face the Music, I was assured I didn’t have to rewatch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) — it’s true, you don’t — which was good, because I didn’t especially feel like rewatching them. (I last saw them both in ’91.) Having now seen the third installment, I do feel like going back and revisiting the younger Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves). B&TFTM has the effect of making us look fondly anew on these two doofus besties, who grew up to be pretty decent men — not perfect, not successful, but decent. The new movie is as good-natured as the prior two — maybe even moreso, because Bill and Ted no longer do that “we’re alive, let’s hug” bit and then back off each other saying “Fag.” They’ve grown into men who just hug.

In the intervening 25 years since Bogus Journey (which unfolded in 1995, so we’re told), the titular duo’s band Wyld Stallyns has plummeted off the charts and into wedding-party oblivion. They still dig making music, though, and they’re alive to the spirit of experimentation — at that wedding party, Ted breaks out a theremin and Bill commences Tuvan throat singing. The wonder of this is that Bill and Ted never come across as pathetic, not even in other timelines when they’re pretending to be rich, famous musicians or when they’re muscleheaded convicts. The pair’s happy acceptance of life remains a pure constant across the decades. But the movie, it turns out, isn’t really even about them.

Bill and Ted have married the medieval princesses they met in Excellent Adventure, and each union has produced a daughter named after each father’s BFF. So Ted’s daughter (Brigette Lundy-Paine, who precisely nails the ol’ Ted vibe) is named Billie; Bill’s blonde, easily amazed daughter (Samara Weaving) goes by Thea. Bill and Ted are tasked to save reality, which has become temporally shambolic, by writing a song that will unite the world. As Bill and Ted bounce back and forth in time, trying to steal the song from various future Bills and Teds, Billie and Thea go off on their own trying to piece together an epic band to deliver the song — Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, Mozart, Ling Lun, and a percussionist cavewoman named Grom (played by Patty Anne Miller, who has drummed for Beyoncé). Ultimately, the music that must be faced here is that Bill and Ted have to complete the process of being good husbands, fathers, and stewards of music that rocks. They have to step aside. They’re not the band, they play back-up now. This is a bittersweet message for Generation X, who now pass the baton (did we ever really have it?) to millennials and zoomers. The young and hungry and energetic can take over.

Not that Keanu and Alex lack energy here. Keanu can still activate that carefree beam, but as Owen Gleiberman noted, he has a more somber resting face now — he actually always had it, going back to River’s Edge and Permanent Record. But the face he wears now is hard-earned; it has the dents and scrapes of experience and loss. He seems to be having fun here, and believe me, I’m the last person to begrudge Keanu a fun time. Neither he nor Alex Winter seem to be doing this for any reason other than hanging out, goofing around, rocking some tunes. (In that respect, Jay and Silent Bob filled the void Bill and Ted left.) Bill & Ted Face the Music is sweetly nostalgic, yet never looks back on its own past. Growth and progression seem to be the goals, which partly means raising daughters to be weird and quirky, and to be excellent to each other. There’s a blessed sanity to the warmth and kindness of Bill and Ted and pretty much everyone else in the film — even Death (William Sadler again), who just wants to lay down sick bass lines. I wouldn’t say, as some have, that Bill & Ted Face the Music is “the movie we need right now.” But I sympathize with those who do. There isn’t a whisper of meanness anywhere in it. Its soul is safe and soft.