96 posts categorized "Comedy"

March 10, 2016


Whiskey-tango-foxtrot“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” (a.k.a. WTF) is such a bizarre title for a movie that it seems unlikely audiences will flock to see Hollywood’s first good film of 2016. I’ve seen it twice for good reason. Tina Fey blows the doors off this baby. So does the ensemble. Martin Freeman (as war photographer Iain MacKelpie), Christopher Abbott (as Afghan fixer Fahim), and Billy Bob Thornton (as a Marine General) contribute mightily to the film’s artistic success. Sure it's American white lady propaganda. You know that going in.

It’s a telling coincidence that the real Kim Barker, upon whose book “The Taliban Shuffle” this film is based, once described herself as “a Tina-Fey type. The heavens were listening. Fey got wind of it and optioned the book before teaming up with co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa to take a running start at Robert Carlock’s seamless adaptation of Barker’s book.

If anything, the movie is paced too evenly. It's missing a dramatic centerpiece, but pushes through on the inertia if its wealth of well observed details. 

The movie squanders a potential key sequence that would show how Kim Barker handles herself alone. As fits the Hollywood formula a man, who represents her knight in shining armor, saves a drunken Kim from an unknown alley in the darkness of night. Can’t win ‘em all. This is a sign of how far Hollywood is willing to go in promoting an unapologetically feminist character; she needs a man to save her even if she manages to return the favor.

Episodic in form, and contained in mainly medium and close-up shots, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” blends America’s pointless Afghan war, comedy, intersecting political and cultural mores, with a thematically meaningful romantic thread. The nuanced tone of the movie is reflected in a military rescue mission that occurs at Dutch angles of blue and green lighting to the strains of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You.” The action is stylized to fit the genre, and the moment.


One of the film’s clearest themes states that gender doesn’t matter much; we all become products of our environment. In Kabul, “sex with strangers in restaurant bathrooms” comes with the territory for foreign journalists, and their bodyguards, regardless of whether they are men or women, much less pretty or average looking.

Once leaving her relatively sheltered life in the States, Kim Barker embraces her wartime environment in the “Ka-bubble” of Afghanistan. A watershed event occurs during her first embed outing. Her Humvee’s bulletproof windshield absorbs the first bullet fired by a group of angry Afghan warriors. Without missing a beat Kim jumps outside to videotape the action as she shadows an American marine like a monkey on his back. Her bravery (or professional rashness) earns her an “Oo Ra” from Billy Bob’s General Hollanek. Later, when Kim explains the reason that Marine-built wells keep being destroyed in a tiny village, we see a woman speaking truth to power in a way that has never before been shown in cinema. 

The disorienting storyline spans more than three years, during which time the fearless Baker becomes a battle-tested war journo looking for her next adrenaline fix. So much so that her Afghan fixer Fahim is compelled to read her the riot act over her irrational actions of late. Kim Barker hasn’t had much cultural sensitivity training.


Kim gets a brief, and comical, introduction to Afghanistan from the first Western woman she meets, television reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (played by the impossibly lovely Australian Margot Robbie). Tanya hates to be “rude,” but just has to ask Kim for permission to have sex with Kim’s supposedly New Zealand-born bodyguard Nic. Kim gives her consent. She’s only thinking of her boyfriend back in New York. Still, Tanya encourages Kim to share in the practice of shagging your peers. When Kim demurs, Tanya blurts out the unthinkable, “Talk to me in two months when you pussy’s eating your leg.”

Normally I wouldn’t spoil a joke, but trust me; you’ll still laugh when you hear it. The irreverent zinger reflects the film’s precise use of coded ways that journalists, military officers, security forces, and afghan civilians and military communicate. When Alfred Molina's Afghan bureaucrat Ali Massoud Sadiq says he wants Kim to be his "special friend," we know what he means. 


The movie explicitly addresses American media’s nonexistent coverage of the war in Afghanistan during a meeting between Kim and Geri Taub (Cherry Jones), the head of the network that funds her reporting. Geri blames it on the public’s lack of interest in the war rather than even pretend to have an editorial mind of her own. The economic signal is clear. War is money, but the media can’t sit at the big table to profit from it anymore.

“The Navy says Who Ya, the Marines say Oo Ra; don’t mix them up.”

Rated R. 112 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

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March 31, 2015


While We're YoungOvernight, Noah Baumbach has digressed from making sophisticated [uncharacteristic of the genre] mumblecore movies (see “Greenberg” and “Frances Ha”) to creating a gimmicky mid-life crisis comedy that pits Gen Xers against cunning mid-20s hipsters. Baumbach’s slippery slide toward entropy coincides with an up-tic in the annoyingness factor of Ben Stiller, an actor better suited to quirky supporting parts than leading-man roles. His principal performance in “Greenberg” was an exception because Stiller’s emotionally stunted character there was nothing if not eccentric. After watching “While We’re Young” you may never want to see another Ben Stiller movie again. I certainly don’t.

“While We’re Young” gets off to a bad start in its pairing of Stiller playing opposite the always-on-point Naomi Watts as a late-40s husband-and-wife duo with marital troubles. Talk about an utter lack of screen-chemistry, oil and water would go together better.

Naturally, the couple lives in Brooklyn, the belly of the beast for irritating hipster culture in America. Josh Srebnick (Stiller) is a frustrated filmmaker who busies himself teaching film studies at a university to stay properly distracted from completing a documentary he’s been working on for over a decade. His marriage is in a rut because Josh never gets around to taking a (much discussed but never acted-upon) vacation with his wife Cornelia (Watts). The couple’s best friends (played by Maria Dizzia and Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) have recently had a baby, an event that has turned them into predictably insufferable bores obsessed with getting everyone they know to breed. If you sense that you’re in a pale Woody Allen-knock-off; you are.

Enter upstart hipster “documentarian” Jamie (Adam Driver) into Josh’s filmmaking class. Jamie ingratiates himself into Josh’s good graces with compliments regarding a little-seen short film (“Power Elite”) that Josh made during his youth. Josh’s rudderless girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried) prides herself on attending hip-hop dance classes and making ice cream. Hipsters for sure.

While-were-youngBoth couples have things the other wants. Jamie wants to steal Josh’s professional identity, and jump in the sack with Cornelia whose father (Charles Grodin) happens to be a celebrated documentarian able to give him a hand up in the biz. Josh fancies playing big shot around his new apprentice, and stealing some of Jamie’s youthful energy to finally complete his film project. Cornelia gets in on the act, hanging out with Darby as her new best friend. Swinging might be in the offing.

It’s obvious that Noah Baumbach is attempting to pattern his New York-centric career on that of Woody Allen. Examples of stunt casting, similar to Allen’s modus operandi, run through this movie to less than stellar effect. If pairing Watts with Stiller weren’t clunky enough, Baumbach’s doubling down of a Jewish guy with a blonde partner (Jaime and Darby) reflects the director’s private relationship with Greta Gerwig.

Everything about the movie feels stunted. The jokes are half-hearted and the plot never arrives. “While We’re Young” is a movie that recedes while you’re watching it. The most satisfying thing about the picture is Adam Driver’s smarmy portrayal of a remorseless opportunist out to take every shortcut available to put himself on top in a society made up of other, less ambitious, phonies.


Rated R. 97 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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March 20, 2015


Growing-Up-and-Other LiesA current New York City zeitgeist, revealed in the recent indie effort “Loitering with Intent,” and now in “Growing Up and Other Lies,” proposes that New Yorkers (and ostensibly the rest of America) are suffering from mid-life crisis at an earlier age. What was once the province of the forty-something crowd has moved up by a decade or more.

This freshly blunted generation is an extension of the finally deceased Mumblecore cinematic movement (2002-2014) that wallowed in indolence and confusion for its nutrition. Mumblecore maintained willful ignorance as a way of escaping from commitment to anything not related to apathy, absurd behavior, or leaching off others.

Now, a new generation of (better educated but equally rudderless) hipsters define themselves by dressing poorly (in camouflage knee shorts and athletic socks) and by prattling on about what they should, could, or would do with their lives if they weren’t so busy being snotty to one another. With friends like these, you don’t need any enemies. Note to hipsters, camouflage is shitty enough when soldiers wear it outside of war zones, when you wear it; it makes people want to barf.

Meet artist-boy Jake (Josh Lawson), a New York City dweller with a broken heart and an urge to move back to Ohio to live with his dad. Jake’s three guy pals, who he’s barely seen in the past year, insist on taking Jake on a 260 block walking tour for “one last great adventure.” You know the scene, four youngish guys taking swigs from a bottle of booze and taking pee breaks like a pack of unleashed dogs.

The idea is that this mission of physically induced camaraderie will inspire Jake to stick around New York rather than retreat into America’s soul-dulling suburbs. Wyatt Cenac (“The Daily Show”), Adam Brody, and Danny Jacobs do honors as Jake’s almost multi-culti bros. Starting in Inwood, and inexplicably ending in Queens, the filmmakers keep the audience up-to-date on the journey with hand-drawn maps of Manhattan outfitted with block numbers to be scratched off. Everything about the movie has a sloppy, throwaway feel to it.

The film’s central philosophical quandary is summed up in a hypothetical situation about a robber who bursts into your house, puts a gun to your head, and posits a “Sophie’s Choice” question that you must answer in order to avoid being “shot in the face.” The implied male “You” can either choose to go on a two-week vacation to a remote country house with your “perfect” girlfriend of six months, and her parents. You must poop in the bathtub of the home’s only bathroom for the duration of your stay, and deny the disgusting deed. Or, you can choose to take two cars everywhere that you go, no trailers or assistance allowed.

AmberIf this little game sounds the least bit funny, entertaining, or significant in any way, then this movie is for you. If on-the-other-hand you find this diversion to be as dull and pointless as I did, then you have the option of choosing not to squander 90 minutes of you life on this disappointing movie whose only bright spot comes from Amber Tamblyn's performance in an under-used supporting role.

Not Rated. 90 mins. (D+) ( Stars - out of five/no halves)

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January 19, 2015


Pacino’s Birdman
Forget About Iñárritu‬’s Movie — “The Humbling” is Better

HumblingAt nearly 75, Al Pacino’s face seeps with hints of the multitude of iconic characters he’s played over the course of his rich career as an actor of stage and film. The "Humbling's" opening sequence is a pure tour de force. Pacino’s Simon Axler character sits in his backstage dressing room of a Broadway theater warming up while putting on stage make-up for his role of Jacques in a production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” As he stares into the mirror reciting Jacques's “all the world’s a stage” monologue, Simon questions his delivery. Can he convey the lines believably to himself? Call it a late-life personality crisis. When he does finally make it onto the stage, Simon barely gets out a few lines before taking a swan dive into the orchestra pit below. Finally, Simon can feel the literal rock bottom of truth he’s been seeking that can remove him from the burden of having to inhabit roles that blur together in his mind’s troubled state of what could be Alzheimer’s disease.

A 30-day stint in a glorified psyche ward, that’s more of a luxury rehab lodge than a hospital, puts Simon in the company of Sybil (Nina Arianda). Sybil is the shell-shocked wife of a pedophile she caught molesting her young daughter. Because of Simon’s past film roles in which he played an assassin, Sybil wants to hire him to knock off her husband. Simon’s utter rejection of her proposal only leads Sybil to stalk him after he returns to his upstate New York mansion estate.

Similarities to “Birdman” run through Barry Levinson’s thoughtful adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2009 novel of the same title. There are strong corollaries between Al Pacino’s aging actor Simon and the Riggan character played by Michael Keaton in Alejandro González Iñárritu‬’s “Birdman.” Both are older actors grappling with a lifelong quest for truth that they find easier to attain on stage than in their day-to-day lives. They each seek a divine obliteration of self before a mesmerized theater audience expected to parse out the factual from fictional substance of their adopted souls. Sticky stuff.


In both films, our thespian leads find themselves locked out of their Broadway theaters just as they are about to walk on stage. The classic actor’s nightmare scenario sums up a mutually queasy psychological state that can only be assuaged by a cataclysmic shift in attitude as prodded by the people closest to them. But where “Birdman” unreliably dips its narrative toe into the waters of magic realism to realize its core truth, “The Humbling” connects the subconscious mind of its doddering protagonist to the desert of the real, which in this case arrives in the form of Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), a thirtysomething lesbian whose actress mother (Diane Wiest) did more than just play opposite Simon on stage more than thirty years ago. They shared a fling for which Wiest’s character still remembers the exact number of assignations.

The-HumblingPegeen harbors a crush on friend-of-the-family Simon for the imagined import of a prop ring he gave her as a gift when she was eight. Pegeen took it to mean they would someday be married. Romance and trouble lurk when Pegeen shows up at Simon’s door after breaking up with her lesbian lover with the intent of taking her long awaited place in his heart. The winter/summer relationship that develops between Pegeen and Simon has both good and bad effects on Simon’s life.

Greta Gerwig’s portrayal of Pegeen resonates with the complex layers of ambiguity that Philip Roth put into the character. Sensual and transformative, Pegeen is an irresistible creature whose past pattern of ruined romantic unions must eventually rear its thorny aspect.

Now that “Birdman” has collected awards and Oscar nominations, it’s sour grapes to suggest that an injustice has been done to “The Humbling.” Nonetheless, it ["The Humbling"] is a better movie.

Al pacinio

Rated R. 112 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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January 05, 2015


Burning Down the House
Don’t Blame “The Interview” for Starting World War III

Interview“The Interview” is a mediocre comedy that will go down in history for a plethora of reasons that have little to do with the film itself. It could mark the first time in history that a movie was used as an excuse to provoke a war.

None of “The Interview’s” supposedly outrageous satire, centered around a CIA-imposed assassination mission against North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un by a couple of bumbling American talk show hosts, comes close to the U.S. government’s attempts to leverage a Sony Pictures email hacking incident into an excuse to impose more sanctions against North Korea.

In November 2014 Sony Pictures’ (the “Interview’s” production company) internal email system was hacked into. No one knows who did it, but current evidence points to a disgruntled ex-employee of Sony. Despite clues pointing elsewhere, including to Russia, the FBI immediately cast blame upon North Korea for the intrusion for reasons about as tenuous as the ones used in the movie to support killing the country’s leader. North Korea angrily denied any participation in the hack.

President Obama made an unprecedented speech chastising Sony executives for succumbing to the hacker’s demands that they not release “The Interview” for fear of terrorist retribution against cinemas and audiences. Following on the heels of Obama’s questionably “comic” performances on such programs as “Between Two Ferns” and “The Colbert Report,” the President’s indecorous remarks seemed more like a cartoonish publicity stunt designed to increase profits for a movie that Sony then went on to release across theatrical and on-demand outlets anyway. The stir caused some American art-house cinemas to replace their scheduled programming of classic, independent, documentary, and foreign films with “The Interview.” Hmm.

The Obama administration has used the situation to name ten North Korea-related individuals implicated in illicit activities (including weapons sales) that it plans to sanction (presumably with actions such as seizing their bank accounts). It has also launched an all-out cyber war with North Korea by temporarily shutting down the country’s Internet, twice.

EminemWhatever the government’s profiteering motivations for overreaching in such a grotesque manner, some ironic if sad identifiers come though during the “Interview’s” payoff discussion sequence inside Kim Jong-Un’s palace. James Franco’s smarmy celebrity host character Dave Skylark has a list of burning questions with which he intends to publically humiliate Kim Jong-Un (Randall Park). Skylark rings a blaring bell of hypocrisy that cuts close to the bone of America’s own well-documented issues with hunger when he asks the North Korean leader why he allows 32 million of his citizens to go hungry. Many millions of Americans suffer malnutrition every day (check out the absurdly bland term “food insecurity”), but you don’t see anyone asking Obama why he allows “his” people to go hungry.

One thing that anyone with a halfway decent BS detector intuitively knows is that the corporate-controlled US Government is using a Hollywood movie as an excuse to overreach and double down on an all-too-obvious political attack against a country with which America shares perhaps a few too many similarities.

As with every other massive political scandal (see the NSA) in the U.S., nothing will happen when the cyber criminal(s) responsible for the Sony hack are identified as being unrelated to North Korea. It is already too late. The Obama Administration used a dumb movie as an excuse to execute plans it had laid out far in advance. Why they sank so low as to use a satirical movie as the excuse is the big question, and I believe I have the answer: they want to be caught so that they can prove once again that the US Government can do whatever the hell it wants without having to be accountable. If you think North Korea is contemptible, the Obama Administration has handily proven that Kim Jong-Un and his crew have nothing on the good ole US of A.


Rated R. 93 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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August 11, 2014


Straight Man — Funny Man — Both
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon Take Another Bath Together

TriptoItalyYou couldn’t pick two more entertaining companions for a cinematic road trip in Italy than Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Following on the success of “The Trip” (2010), in which the duo went on a comic car tour of Northern England to sample its gastronomical delights, “The Trip to Italy” improves however slightly on the first film’s casual design.  A key difference rests with Steve Coogan's shift away from treating Brydon with any condescension, rather he seems to genuinely appreciate Brydon's gifts as a comic, and as a man.

Writer/director Michael Winterbottom (“24 Hour Party People”) returns to manage the shenanigans that Coogan and Brydon get up to while purportedly writing culinary articles for The Observer. Having rented a Mini Cooper — a reference to Peter Collinson’s original film version of “The Italian Job” (which featured Michael Caine in its leading role) — our free-associating duo sets out on a scenic tour of Italy, mapped by locations where the poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron left their marks. Poetry of language is always on Coogan’s and Brydon’s minds, although more so on Brydon’s agenda. The duo’s itinerary takes them from northern Piemonte down to the Amalfi Coast with plenty of stops at distinguished restaurants along the way. However, Brydon's hopes of visiting Sicily — for obvious mafia related movie references — comes under attack from outside forces. 

A stream of devilish details haunts the film’s waggish tone. Coogan has taken the liberty of disconnecting the car’s iPod jack to avoid listening to Brydon’s objectionable taste in music. Still, Brydon has a trick up his sleeve; he has with him one CD: Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” album from 1995. Two skilled British actors singing along in a Mini Cooper to Alanis Morissette is as funny as it sounds, which is to say pretty damned amusing.

Trip to ItalyWatching Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon doing dueling impersonations of Michael Caine is a pure, simple pleasure that must be experienced. Where the first film was content to pepper lightly with just a few impersonation duels, this movie lets Coogan and Brydon go at it full-tilt in fancy restaurants where neither fellow patrons nor staff seem to mind the outbursts. Naturally, the actors’ contest turns to Caine’s performances as Batman’s butler. When the pair slip into an improv sketch involving an assistant director charged with telling Christian Bale and Tom Hardy not to mumble, the humor meter goes into the red. Brydon’s kneejerk habit of slipping into frequent spasms of Al Pacino impressions also never gets old.

For what is clearly a carefully thought-out script, “The Trip to Italy” has a remarkable naturalness to it. Lush Italian locations celebrated in films such as Ingrid Bergman’s “Voyage to Italy,” Humphrey Bogart’s “Beat the Devil,” and Jean Luc Goddard’s “Contempt,” come into play with a sense of appreciation for cinema history. Still, nothing is above making a joke about. Rob Brydon’s hysterical conversation with a lava-covered victim of the Pompeii volcano (kept in a glass coffin) dances on comic principals celebrated by the likes of Monty Python. Everywhere you look, history keeps rearing its inevitable head for Coogan or Brydon to tickle when they aren’t feasting on Italian food and wine. This is a vacation you’ll want to go on more than once.  

Not Rated. 98 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)


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June 16, 2014


Kinky Boots
Roman Polanski Gives Takes Venus All The Way

Venus-in-FurRoman Polanski’s 20th film is an exquisite deconstructionist articulation of a quicksilver sadomasochistic tug-of-war between a middle-aged theater director and an enigmatic actress auditioning for a role in his upcoming play “Venus in Furs.” She just might be Venus incarnate.

As he did with his last film, “God of Carnage” (2011), and his 1994 film “Death and the Maiden,” Roman Polanski returns to the theatre for inspiration. David Ives’s theatrical adaptation of Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella “Venus in Furs” already contained subtle thematic threads common to Polanski’s oeuvre — think “Bitter Moon,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “The Tenant.” Obsession with sexual domination, confined spaces, and an unreliable protagonist are all on display. Here is an energizing spoonful of soup-to-nuts fetishism, with teasing desert courses strewn throughout.

From a gloriously long tracking shot down a rainy Parisian boulevard, we are inexorably lured into a private theatrical vortex by a sudden crack of lightening. A playful musical score (by Alexandre Desplat) sets a mood of percolating voodoo. The disused set for an ostensibly failed production of an adaptation of John Ford’s “Stagecoach” sits on the stage of the rundown theater where director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) wraps up his day of auditions for the character of Wanda von Dunayev. An unusually tall prop cactus provides a strangely appropriate phallic symbol for the action that follows.

Thomas complains on his cellphone in misogynistic terms about the actresses he has seen. A lack of “sexy-slash-articulate young women with some classical training and a particle of brain in their skulls” has left Thomas feeling dejected.
Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives like a bolt of feminist Goddess lightening when she bursts through the theater door. Cursing like a sailor in a low class French accent, Seigner’s Vanda insists her agent sent her, although her name is nowhere to be found on the call sheet. Dressed in a leather corset and sporting a dog collar, Vanda has come prepared — very prepared — she has memorized every line of the play. Still, Thomas remains skeptical. Only when Vanda convinces him to read opposite her as the character of Severin von Kusiemski does her resolute skill as an actress convincingly transform her into the archetypal 19th century dominatrix for his play.

The story-within-a-story-within-a-movie teeters on the ambiguous tight wire dance that Thomas and Vanda perform. Emmanuelle Seigner’s performance is cleverly delicious. Her effortless transition between the four nesting-doll types that she plays (gypsy, consummate actress, feminist sophist, and Venus) creates a hallucinatory effect that pushes the drama in multiple directions at once. The dialogue is as intellectually sharp as it is sensually perceptive.

Vanda and Thomas mime their characters’ actions on stage in the same way that student actors are want to do when working without props. With five weeks of rehearsal under their belts, Polanski’s actors connect with such precise execution that the constant shifts between their self-reflexive characters are seamlessly exact.

Constant kicks of irony exhort audience laughs as the dueling pair keeps up the charade of an audition process where Thomas is the patriarchal judge to Vanda’s hopeful ingénue. Along the way the polarity of power switches back and forth between them. When Vanda commands Thomas to dress her in a pair of dominatrix knee-high boots, his quest for “annihilation” in her service takes shape.

With a Tony Award nomination under its belt, and the dubious honor of being America’s most produced play in the 2013-14 season, “Venus in Fur” represents another S&M signpost of our ongoing global societal clampdown. There is a reason that “50 Shades of Grey” hit a popular nerve. Willing humiliation under the lash of omnipresent corporate-political-totalitarianism could be construed a logical path for some. Audiences have every reason for their curiosities to be piqued over what Roman Polanski can do with such ingeniously loaded material.

Not Rated. 96 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)


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