Category Archives: Comedy

Funny how: Can We Take a Joke? *** & Eat That Question ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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“I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” – George Carlin

In my recent review of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, I noted an observation by actress Joann Lumley (one of the film’s co-stars), excerpted from a Stylist interview:

[… ] And now the world is much more sensitive. People take offence at the smallest things, which in [the 1990s] were just funny. In the future, it’s going to be harder to write anything.

To which I added my 2 cents worth:

I’m going to risk crucifixion here (won’t be the first time) and heartily concur with [Joann Lumley’s] point regarding the intersection of P.C. and Funny these days. Now, I’m a card-carryin’, tree-huggin’, NPR-listenin’ pinko lib’rul, and I fully understand the subjective nature of humor. But speaking as a lifelong comedy fan (and ex-standup performer myself), I remain a firm believer in the credo that in comedy, nothing is sacred. I don’t always agree with Bill Maher, but I’m with him 100% on his crusade to counter a new Bizarro World Hays Code from segments of the Left that has even forced mainstream fixtures like Jerry Seinfeld to swear off playing college gigs.

Life is hard out on the streets for professional funny people. But don’t feel singled out, fellow liberals…for The Uptight Brigade is a non-partisan club, with members hailing from Left, Right, and Center. All you need to join is a sense of moral superiority and an active Twitter account. Consider the hot water that self-deprecating comic Jim Gaffigan got into in 2013 with a fairly benign “men are from Mars/women are from Venus” tweet:

(from Gawker)

So yesterday, stand-up-comedian-slash-fat dad Jim Gaffigan decided to make what he thought was a mostly harmless joke about women and their nails.

“Ladies I hope getting your nails done feels good because not a single man notices you got them done,” Gaffigan tweeted to his 1.6 million followers.

Ha! Women be getting their nails done, am I right fellas?

Anyway, commence TOTAL MELTDOWN:

“If you think I make my nails pretty for anyone other than myself, you are a fool,” replied @gesa “or maybe some women do things not to impress other people,” offered @oceana roll. “you’re such an asshole,” @phaserstostun. And the tweets kept coming. Dozens every minute.

“If you think people are overreacting to my edgy ‘nails done’ post here,” Gaffigan followed up a short while ago, “you have to see the anger on my Tumblr.”

And sure enough, since the joke was posted there yesterday, it has racked up over 100,000 notes, most of them far less subtle than those being made on Twitter. […]

For his part, Gaffigan did issue a worrying apology, telling those who were offended by his “edgy ‘nails done’ joke’ that he’s sorry and he’ll “attempt to be more sensitive in the future.”

Do people get irony anymore? Obviously (well, to me) he was making a point about how self-centered and clueless men are. Gaffigan got the last laugh, using the incident as fuel for one of this current season of The Jim Gaffigan Show’s best episodes. In “The Trial”, Gaffigan (who plays ‘himself’, a la Seinfeld, Louis, and Maron) is in a Kafkaesque alternate reality where he gets tossed into Social Outrage Jail (his cellmate Carrot Top has been doing time “since the mid-90s”) and tried in The Court of Public Opinion (presiding judge: comic Judy Gold) as a result of his offensive nail tweet. Jim is saved by the bell when shocking news arrives that Ricky Gervais just tweeted ‘Miley Cyrus has a dad bod’. Pitchforks are issued immediately, a mob forms and the courtroom empties out.

(*sigh*)

August 3rd marked the 50th anniversary of Lenny Bruce’s death; in my tribute, I wrote:

For years following his passing, he was arguably more famous for the suffering he endured for his art, rather than the visionary nature of it.

In fact, it wasn’t until 2003, after years of lobbying by members of the entertainment industry and free speech advocates, that New York governor George Pataki issued Bruce an official posthumous pardon for his 1964 obscenity conviction. It is worth noting that no comedians have been jailed in America for telling jokes to roomfuls of drunks since Bruce died. […]

Of course by now everybody has jumped on the bandwagon and acknowledges the man’s genius and the groundbreaking nature of his material. But I can’t help but wonder how Lenny would have fared in the age of social media, or in front of a modern college audience (oy).

I’m not alone in that speculation, as evidenced by a new documentary called Can We Take a Joke? (available on VOD), throughout which Lenny Bruce frequently serves as a touchstone. Writer-director Ted Balaker’s film examines the impact of “outrage culture” on modern comedy. Balaker assembles a sizable coterie of comics who thrive on pushing the envelope, like Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton, Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried, and Penn Jillette. He also invites opinions from social observers and free speech advocates.

The film’s underlying thesis (in so many words) boils down to that good old school yard chestnut: “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.” As one interviewee puts it, “Along with the right to speak freely, comes a responsibility to have a thick skin. Words can be hurtful, but they are not the same as violence; and they can be countered with other words. And that’s our responsibility…the responsibility to put up with being offended.”

Balaker offers anecdotal evidence that seems to indicate not only that America’s skin is stretching ever thinner, but suggests something more threatening is occurring as a result. One of the interviewees offers this tidbit: “There was this huge study that’s done every year; and they ask citizens whether or not they think the First Amendment went too far. 47% of people between the ages of 18 and 30 said that the First Amendment goes too far. This is terrifying to those of us who care about free speech and the future of free speech.”

Is he just concern trolling? Consider this further observation: “One of the first things you know when a society is turning authoritarian is the comedians start to worry. When they start going for the comedians, everyone else needs to sweat.”

One of the more notable examples cited regarding this creeping trend of “chilling speech” occurred at the WSU campus in Pullman, Washington (where, oddly enough, I once did a comedy gig). African-American student Chris Lee created a satirical play (“Passion of the Musical”), which he admitted was designed “to offend everybody.” It caused such a ruckus that he earned the nickname “Black Hitler”. But that’s not the disturbing part, which is that WSU administrators comped students who wanted to attend for the sole purpose to disrupt it.

Again, is this a tempest in a teapot? How bad can it get? Two words: Charlie Hebdo. The Hebdo massacre is mentioned in the film, but only in passing; this is one avenue that the film glosses over. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity, especially in light of what’s happening in our current political climate, which begs some glaring questions. Namely, is there in fact, despite what the great George Carlin said, a “line” no one should dare cross?

Amy Goodman featured a rare interview with political satirist Garry Trudeau just this week on her Democracy Now radio program. She brought up a controversial piece he wrote for The Atlantic in 2015, called “The Abuse of Satire”. It’s a great read, and presents a flipside view to the thrust of Can We Take a Joke? Here’s a pertinent excerpt:

I, and most of my colleagues, have spent a lot of time discussing red lines since [the Charlie Hebdo massacre]. As you know, the Muhammad cartoon controversy began eight years ago in Denmark, as a protest against “self-censorship,” one editor’s call to arms against what she felt was a suffocating political correctness. […]

And now we are adrift in an even wider sea of pain. Ironically, Charlie Hebdo, which always maintained it was attacking Islamic fanatics, not the general population, has succeeded in provoking many Muslims throughout France to make common cause with its most violent outliers. This is a bitter harvest. […]

By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. […]

What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.

I’m aware that I make these observations from a special position, one of safety. In America, no one goes into cartooning for the adrenaline. As Jon Stewart said in the aftermath of the killings, comedy in a free society shouldn’t take courage.

There’s another twisty corollary that the film misses, concerning certain political candidates who cynically conflate themselves as if they were colleagues of professional humorists (as opposed to possible future leaders of the Free World, who should be choosing their words much more carefully). How many times now has Donald Trump gotten away with tweeting something incredibly offensive by backpedaling afterwards that “it was meant as a joke, folks”… thereby (disingenuously) positioning himself as a  ‘victim’ of the P.C. police?

Clearly, there are equally viable arguments for both camps of First Amendment interpretation (i.e., the constitutional “right” for offenders to offend and for the offended to condemn). But as Garry Trudeau cautioned in his piece in The Atlantic , “Freedom should always be discussed in the context of responsibility.” Can We Take a Joke?won’t break the impasse,  but it does succeed in prompting a dialog.

As Jim Norton notes in the film: “Everyone says ‘I love free speech, I love free thought, I love free expression’…but deep down they’re going: ‘Except for when, except for when.’ There’s always that little asterisk: ‘But that doesn’t apply here.’” So you see? Cracking wise is more complex than it is, erm, cracked up to be…especially in this current  political climate. As Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean (allegedly) said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

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“There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.”      –Frank Zappa

If there’s a missing link between today’s creative types who risk persecution in the (virtual) court of public opinion for the sake of their art, and Lenny Bruce’s battles in the actual courts for the right to even continue practicing his art as a free citizen, I would nominate composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa, who is profiled in Thorsten Schutte’s new documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (in limited release).

Despite his massive catalog (62 albums released in his lifetime, 43 posthumously), Zappa, like Bruce, is probably remembered more for his fights against censorship, rather than for the actual material in question (which includes some pretty hummable stuff, I must say). Most famously, he took on Tipper Gore and the Parents Resource Music Center in 1985, joining fellow musicians Dee Snider (from Twisted Sister) and John Denver (!) to testify at a Senate hearing over the “Parental Advisory” sticker controversy.

One of the highlights of the film is a clip from a 1986 appearance Zappa made on CNN’s Crossfire. In an observation that now seems quite prescient, Zappa opines, “The biggest threat to America today is not Communism, its moving America toward a fascist theocracy, and everything that’s happened under the Reagan administration is steering us down that pipe.” Of course now, I almost long for those “good old days”, when the Republican Party was but a tool for the Religious Right-in lieu of, uh, whatever it is now.

That said, I should point out that Zappa was not an artist who went out of his way seeking dragons to slay; it’s just that somehow, the dragons had a tendency to seek him out. While he definitely leaned Libertarian when it came to freedom of expression, he was otherwise politically…fluid. Through the course of the film (culled from archival interview/performance footage and contextualized via Schutte’s editing choices), Zappa dumps on the Left, the Right, Hippies, politicians, religion, pop music, record companies, consumer culture (his pet rant), corporate America, and even on his own most rabid fans.

As far as those rabid fans were concerned, the more curmudgeonly and autocratic Zappa’s stance became (regardless of whether or not it was just  show biz shtick), the more they loved him (in that narrow context, there’s a weird parallel with Donald Trump…the obvious difference being that Trump has never really created anything that is of  value to anyone but himself). Zappa was kind of an asshole, but in that Mozart kind of way, as he was an extremely gifted and prolific asshole (was Tipper his secret Salieri? Discuss). Like Picasso, he kept experimenting and creating until he expired (after a long battle, Zappa succumbed to cancer at 52 in 1993).

Let me be up front…this documentary will play best for members of the choir (guilty!). If you’ve never been much of a Zappa fan, the largely non-contextualized pastiche of vintage clips will likely do little to win you over. This impressionistic approach can still paint a compelling portrait; if you’re patient enough to observe, and absorb (consider 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, which remains my favorite biopic, despite the fact that I had never even heard of him when I first saw it, and I still don’t own any of his albums).

There is genuine poignancy as well. In a Today Show interview, an obviously gravely ill Zappa is asked how he wants to be remembered. “It’s not important to even be remembered.” After an awkward silence that implies his interviewer did not see that one coming, he continues, “The people who worry about being remembered are guys like Reagan, Bush…these people want to be remembered, and they’ll spend a lot of money and do a lot of work to make sure that remembrance is just terrific.” “And for Frank Zappa?” she presses. Without missing a beat, he replies “Don’t care.” Back to you, Katie.

I suspect you really did care, Frank. But I know if I ask, I’ll end up eating that question.

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In case you’ve forgotten what a lyrical player he was (when he chose to be)

Setting a bad example – Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 23, 2016)

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“The world has changed and strangely enough caught up with the Ab Fab women because in those days, it was shocking – women drinking too much, staying out, not caring, doing stuff like that. Social media didn’t exist. [ ] And now the world is much more sensitive. People take offence at the smallest things, which in those days were just funny. In the future, it’s going to be harder to write anything. “

– Joanna Lumley (from a Stylist interview)

While you may assume Ms. Lumley (above right), one of the stars of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is referring to the 1950s when she says “those days”, she is actually referring to the 1990s…which is when she originally assumed the character of “Patsy Stone” in the popular Britcom Absolutely Fabulous (1992-1996, later revived 2001-2004). The BBC series was the brainchild of brilliantly funny writer/actress Jennifer Saunders, casting herself as the other half of this fabulous duo, Edina Monsoon.

Edina is a PR agent, whose biggest client is Lulu (yes, that Lulu, who played herself to amusing effect in the TV series and reappears in the new film). Patsy is a magazine editor, and Edina’s BFF. While they both have “jobs” (in a manner of speaking), we rarely see them “working”, in the traditional sense. They expend most of their time cringingly attempting to ingratiate themselves with London’s hippest taste-makers, fashionistas, pop stars, and hottest actors/actresses du jour. For the most part, they’re snubbed (or ignored altogether). Yet they persevere, when not otherwise busy imbibing champagne and/or any drug they are within snorting distance of. Patsy, in particular, is always on the pull; usually for younger men (there’s a switch). Bad behavior all around.

Back to Lumley’s observations for a moment. I’m going to risk crucifixion here (won’t be the first time) and heartily concur with her point regarding the intersection of P.C. and Funny these days. Now, I’m a card-carryin’, tree-huggin’, NPR-listenin’ pinko lib’rul, and I fully understand the subjective nature of humor. But speaking as a lifelong comedy fan (and ex-standup performer myself), I remain a firm believer in the credo that in comedy, nothing is sacred. I don’t always agree with Bill Maher, but I’m with him 100% on his crusade to call out a new Bizarro World Hays Code from a portion of the Left that has even forced mainstream fixtures like Jerry Seinfeld to swear off playing college gigs.

In light of today’s techy climate for comedy, another principal character in Absolutely Fabulous, Edina’s daughter Saffron (played by Julia Sawalha, also reprising her original role in the film) almost seems a prescient creation on Saunders’ part. Saffron, who progressed from secondary school to university through the course of the original series, was really the only “adult” character in the household. Dour, disapproving, and very P.C. (long before the term became so de rigueur) she did her best to keep her mother in line (rarely succeeding, to her chagrin). So here you have the child lecturing the parent to get home at a decent hour, lay off the drugs, be more financially responsible, etc. Patsy, as Edina’s longtime chief enabler, views Saffron as a party-pooper (ergo her mortal enemy).

The show was not for all tastes; personally, I loved it. “Bad taste”, in the right hands, can make for some grand entertainment (John Waters’ oeuvre comes to mind). It was pretty outrageous, and very British; which is probably why we never saw an American remake (would never work anyway). In a roundabout way, it was also feminist-positive; in this respect the world has in fact “caught up with the Ab Fab women”, as evidenced by the success of HBO’s Girls, plus a recent slew of Comedy Central originals like Inside Amy Schumer, Another Period, and Broad City (the latter program comes closest to Ab Fab in attitude).

And so it is that the big screen adaptation (written by Saunders and directed by Mandie Fletcher), despite being at least 20 years tardy to cash in on its TV legs, surprisingly manages to retain its original ethos without really seeming that anachronistic. That is not to say that you should expect it to be much deeper than a sitcom episode. Which it isn’t.

The plot, of course, is completely ridiculous; Edina and Patsy get a hot tip that supermodel Kate Moss has dumped her PR person, so they weasel their way into a chic soiree (which they naturally would never be invited to attend), and somehow the overly-enthusiastic Edina knocks Kate over a railing into the murky depths of the Thames. Assuming (along with fellow attendees) that she has just sent one of the world’s most famous models to a watery grave, Edina and Patsy panic and flee to the South of France.

Does hilarity ensue? I wouldn’t rank it with Some Like it Hot (which is cleverly referenced in the final scene), but it is colorful, campy, over-the-top, and yes, politically incorrect…and quite amusing. Perhaps it does have something to say about social media feeding frenzies and mob mentality. You may forget what you watched by the time you get back to your car, but it sure is fun while it lasts. Sometimes, that’s all you need.

Plus ca change: Criterion reissues Dr. Strangelove ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 16, 2016)

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Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb…The *Bomb*, Dmitri… The *hydrogen* bomb!…Well now, what happened is… ahm…one of our base commanders, he had a sort of…well, he went a little funny in the head… you know…just a little…funny. And, ah…he went and did a silly thing…Well, I’ll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes…to attack your country…

 –from Dr. Strangelove (1964)

That’s POTUS Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), making “the call” to the Russian premier from the War Room, regarding an unfortunate chain of events that may very well signal the end of civilization as we know it. It’s a nightmare scenario, precipitated by a perfect storm of political paranoia, bureaucratic bungling and ideological demagoguery that enables the actions of a lone nutcase to trigger global thermonuclear war. Sound familiar?

Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic 1964 masterpiece about the tendency for people in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why Kubrick and company bothered to make it all up. In case you skipped the quote at the top of this piece, it’s the movie about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity (and oblivion) ensues.

You rarely see a cast like this: Peter Sellers (playing three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull (who can be seen breaking character as the Russian ambassador and cracking up as Strangelove’s prosthetic arm seems to take on a mind of its own). There are so many great lines, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Vodka. That’s what they drink, isn’t it? Never water? On no account will a Commie ever drink water, and not without good reason. Water is the source of all life. Seven-tenths of this earth’s surface is water. Why, do you realize that 70 percent of you is water? And as human beings, you need fresh, pure water to replenish our precious bodily fluids. Are you beginning to understand? –Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), from Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (its full title) did not necessarily spring from a, you know, “funny” place. Indeed, Red Alert, ex-RAF officer Peter George’s 1958 source novel, was anything but; and did not even include the character of Dr. Strangelove, the ex-Nazi scientist who emerges from the shadows of the war room just in time to contextualize all that inspired madness of the film’s third act. “He” was the invention of Kubrick and screenwriter Terry Southern. In a 1994 Grand Street article called “Notes from the War Room”, Southern recounts Kubrick’s epiphany:

[Kubrick] told me he was going to make a film about “our failure to understand the dangers on nuclear war.” He said that he had thought of the story as a “straightforward melodrama” until this morning when he “woke up and realized that nuclear war was too outrageous, too fantastic to be treated in any conventional manner.” He said he could only see it now as “some kind of hideous joke.”

Kubrick had approached Southern as a collaborator on the basis of having read his social satire The Magic Christian (which was itself adapted for the screen in 1969). You have to keep in mind that while Kubrick’s film was in production, the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the minds of a nervous public. This was the height of the Cold War; few people found nuclear annihilation to be, you, know, “funny”…least of all studio suits. When Sellers backed out of the role of Major Kong (to Kubrick’s chagrin), it was first offered to Bonanza star Dan Blocker. Southern recalls (from the same article):

[Kubrick] made arrangements for a script to be delivered to Blocker that afternoon, but a cabled response from Blocker’s agent arrived in quick order: “Thanks a lot, but the material is too pinko for Dan. Or anyone else we know, for that matter. Regards, Leibman, CMA.”

 As I recall, this was the first hint that this sort of political interpretation of our work in progress might exist. Stanley seemed genuinely surprised and disappointed.

But it worked out in the end. Could you imagine anyone but Slim Pickens as Maj. Kong?

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Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff. –Major Kong prepping his B-52 crew

It was in the interest of possible “political interpretation” that a critical revision had to be made to that memorable monolog in post-production. In an eerie bit of kismet, Kubrick had scheduled the first test screening of Dr. Strangelove for November 22, 1963…the day of JFK’s assassination; in view of that zeitgeist-shattering event, the film’s originally slated December premiere was postponed until late January of 1964. But that wasn’t the spookiest part. Originally, the last line of the bit was: “Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff.” Pickens had to be recruited to re-loop the line as we now know it. If you listen carefully during the scene, you can pick up on the edit.

However it did manage to fall together is really moot; the final product stands the test of time as a satire that will never lose relevancy (one could say that about any Kubrick film, as each ultimately points to the absurdity of all these self-important hominids, scurrying about blissfully oblivious to their insignificance within a vast, randomly cruel cosmos).

Hell, Mr. President…I could do a 2,000 word dissertation on the Freudian subtext alone; from the opening montage of aircraft engaging in (decidedly coital) airborne re-fueling maneuvers, to General Ripper firing the .50 caliber machine gun from his crotch, not to mention his cigar and his monolog about why he denies women his “essence”, to the character’s names (Dr. Strangelove, President Muffley, Buck Turgidson, Mr. Staines), and of course all of that phallic weaponry, and montage of nuclear explosions at the end.

But I won’t.

https://cynicritics.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/strangelovebuck3.jpg?resize=474%2C322Oh…and uh, shug? Don’t forget to say your prayers!

Fans of the film will be glad to hear that Dr. Strangelove has been given the Criterion treatment, with the release of their Blu-ray edition. The restored 4k transfer is gorgeous; the best print I’ve seen of the film on home video (this is the third digital version I’ve owned…it’s a sickness, I know). They’ve really piled on the extras; there’s a plethora of archival interviews, as well as featurettes produced exclusively for this edition, like audio essays by film scholars and interviews with Kubrick collaborators and archivists. So fans can immerse themselves in the Strangelovian universe…if that doesn’t seem redundant.

Oh, when November rolls around…don’t forget to say your prayers.

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Previous posts with related themes:

Criterion peddles Kubrick’s noir cycle

Synchronicity: Criterion reissues The Manchurian Candidate

There’s a Red’s house over yonder: Hail, Caesar! ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  February 6, 2016)

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Not that Hollywood ever tires of making movies about Hollywood…but “they” really seem to be on a roll lately. Arriving on the heels of Jay Roach’s Trumbo (my review), which depicted the Red Scare-induced fear and paranoia that permeated the film industry in the 1950s through the eyes of a slightly fictionalized real-life participant, we now have the latest effort from co-writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen…which depicts the Red Scare-induced fear and paranoia that permeated the industry in the 1950s through the eyes of a slightly fictionalized real-life participant (although in this case, its funnier side).

In fact, the Coens have gone into full “screwball” mode for Hail, Caesar! – leaving no gag unturned (think The Hudsucker Proxy or O Brother, Where Art Thou?). That said, it wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers film without its Conflicted Everyman Protagonist; for this outing it’s Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix, (the ubiquitous Josh Brolin). Not unlike his (wholly fictional) contemporary counterpart “Ray Donovan” (who I wrote about recently) he’s a responsible family man on the one hand, yet earns his living in a twilight world where he is required to bend whatever rules he needs to (moral and/or legal) in order to clean up after his clients. Also like Donovan, Mannix is racked by Catholic guilt.

When Mannix isn’t in the confession box (which provides some of the film’s more drolly amusing scenes) he’s busy putting out fires; like the one that involves the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), one of Capitol Studio’s biggest stars. Whitlock has been snatched off the set of his latest picture (a sword-and-sandal epic bearing a striking resemblance to Spartacus) by an enigmatic organization called The Future…whose true identity I’m sworn to protect, in the interest of remaining spoiler-free.

In the meantime, Mannix has to stave off a pair of persistent gossip columnists (twin sisters played by Tilda Swinton, who through no fault of her own has to follow Helen Mirren’s recent bigger-than-life, Golden Globes and SAG-nominated turn as Hedda Hopper in Trumbo).

Truth be told, the narrative is actually a bit thin in this fluffier-than-usual Coen outing; it’s primarily a skeleton around which the brothers can construct a portmanteau of 50s movie parodies. 1950s musicals provide fodder for several set pieces; including an Esther Williams send up (with Scarlett Johanssen poured into a mermaid suit), and a takeoff of On the Town, featuring a nimble-footed Channing Tatum firing up a barroom full of hunky sailors and leading them in a winking, cheerfully homoerotic song and dance.

Singing westerns are parodied via Alden Ehrenreich’s character, a hick who hit the big time based not so much on his nominal acting abilities, but due to his looks and rodeo skills. The main plot cleverly mirrors 1950s Red Scare films like Big Jim McLain and I Was a Communist for the FBI (I also found the kidnappers’ hideaway suspiciously reminiscent of the antagonists’ digs in North by Northwest).

Brolin plays it straight, Clooney plays it broad, Ehrenreich is endearing, Johanssen is, uh, gorgeous, and Tatum proves quite adept at comedy (who knew?). Ralph Fiennes hams it up as a finicky “prestige” director, and you can have fun playing “spot the cameo” with the likes of Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Clancy Brown, Christopher Lambert, and Dolph Lundgren.

This is far from the Coen’s best work, but the film has just enough of their patented “little touches” (like a Communist who has named his dog “Engels”) that make it unmistakably Coen. Oh-and a character is repeatedly told to shut up; undoubtedly this is a callback to the catchphrase “Shut the fuck up, Donnie!” from The Big Lebowski.

Which is what I will do now.

A peek at Oscar’s shorts

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  January 30, 2016)

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At the risk of having my critic’s license revoked, I will freely admit this, right here in front of God and all six of my readers: I’ve only managed to catch 3 of the 8 films nominated for Best Picture of 2015. Then again, you can feel free to ask me if I care (the Academy and I rarely see eye-to-eye). Funny thing, though…I have managed to catch all of the (traditionally more elusive) Oscar nominees for Best Short Film-Animation and Best Short Film-Live Action. And the good news is you can, too. The five nominees in each sub-category are making the rounds as limited-engagement curated presentations; each collection runs approximately the length of a feature film, with separate admissions.

(Reads woodenly off teleprompter) And the nominees for Best Short Film-Animation are:

Bear Story (Chile) – A 3-D animation piece about a bear living a life of quiet desperation (no, seriously). Lonely and life-tired, he goes through his morning ablutions on auto-pilot, then world-wearily shuffles off to work. His job? Standing on a street corner with his custom-built mechanical diorama, offering a peek to passers-by for a nickel a pop. What his customers see is less than heartwarming. Sort of like Ingmar Bergman for kids.

Rating: ***

Prologue (UK) – Billed as “an incident in the Spartan-Athenian wars of 2,400 years ago”, this 6-minute vignette is handsomely executed, but a head-scratcher. A little girl watches in horror as four warriors engage in a gruesome death match. That’s it. I suppose it delivers on the title; it’s a prologue…but to what? More of an exercise than a narrative. Not suitable for kids; it’s last on the reel and a parental warning will be flashed on screen.

Rating: **

Sanjay’s Super Team (USA) – The inevitable (unavoidable?) Pixar nominee. I promise to be good here and put aside my general aversion to Pixar “product” (longtime readers understand…it’s probably just a chemical thing, can’t be helped). A first-generation Indian-American boy plants himself in front of the TV, whilst his dad quietly begins his Hindu prayers. Dad subtly steers his son away from the idiot box and into his devotionals. At first, the boy balks, but becomes entranced by the icon figures in his dad’s shrine, sparking a Sorcerer’s Apprentice-style fantasia. The usual Pixar overkill ensues. Still, the piece has its heart in the right place, and it delivers a positive message.

Rating: **½

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos (Russia) – Two lifelong pals realize their boyhood dreams to become cosmonauts. It’s a lovely homage to the spirit and sacrifice of space explorers past and present, and to mankind’s quest for knowledge about what’s out there.

Rating: ***

World of Tomorrow (USA) – Don’t let the simple stick figures fool you…there’s a lot going on in this heady mixture of sci-fi whimsy and existential angst. A little girl is taken on a tour of her future, which is not the brightest (for Earth in general). Still, there are technical wonders to behold. But there is a catch; and unfortunately she’s not old enough to process her time-travelling guide’s buried lede (probably for the best that she stays happy for now). A clever mashup of Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen and Douglas Adams.

Rating: ****

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And the nominees for Best Short Film-Live Action are:

Ave Maria (Palestine/France/Germany) – Five nuns walk into a bar mitzvah. Actually, it’s the other way around…three Israeli settlers (an elderly woman, her son and his wife) walk into an isolated West Bank convent after accidently knocking over their Virgin Mary statue (oops). Their car has stalled out on them and they need to use a phone. The nuns have taken a vow of silence, and the Jewish gentleman can’t touch the phone because it’s Friday after sunset. Yes, it’s a fabulous setup for some wacky interfaith hijinks, which do ensue. It’s a clever comedy of mores that gives you hope for humanity.

Rating: ***½

Day One (USA) – A neo-realistic, one-act microcosm of our country’s Middle Eastern quagmire, parsed through a day in the life of a newly-deployed Afghan-American military interpreter. On her first mission, she accompanies a squad closing in on a bomb-maker. As the soldiers secure their prisoner, his pregnant wife is discovered in a back room, where she begins to go into labor. Very similar in theme to Ave Maria, but more somber in tone. Even in the midst of conflict, there’s always room for a little compassion.

Rating: ***

Everything Will Be OK (Germany/Austria) – A divorced father picks up his 8 year-old daughter for their weekend visitation. Everything appears normal…initially (any further synopsis constitutes a spoiler). A well-acted character study, with a suspenseful build-up.

Rating: ***

Shok (Kosovo) – War is hell for anybody involved, but it’s particularly distressing and heartbreaking when filtered through the eyes of innocents who are caught in the crossfire. Such is this short, sharp, shock to the system (based on true events) about two Albanian boys who are best friends in Kosovo during the Yugoslav wars. It’s intense and affecting.

Rating: ****

Stutterer (UK/Ireland) – A character study of a young man whose complex over his speech impediment keeps him socially isolated. His sole ray of light is an online texting relationship that he has developed with a young woman. When she proposes to take it to the next level and arrange a face-to-face visit, he short-circuits over the dilemma. Borderline precious (with a predictable “twist”) but it only takes 12 minutes of your time!

Rating: **½

Frightfully amusing: 10 horror comedies for Halloween

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 31, 2015)

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The nightly news is horrifying enough…so here’s ten funny ones. Alphabetically:

Bubba Ho-Tep – This 2002 tongue-in-cheek shocker from director Don “Phantasm” Coscarelli could have been “ripped from the headlines”…that is, if those headlines were from The Weekly World News. In order to properly enjoy this romp, you must first unlearn what you have learned. For example, JFK (Ossie Davis) is still alive (long story)…and he’s now an elderly African-American gentleman (even longer story). He currently resides at a decrepit nursing home in Texas, along with our hero, Elvis Presley (midnight movie icon Bruce Campbell). The King and the President join wheelchairs to rid the facility of its rather formidable pest…a reanimated Egyptian mummy (with a ten-gallon hat) who’s been lurking about waiting for residents to pass on so he can suck out their souls. Lots of laughs, yet despite the over-the-top premise, Campbell’s portrayal of “Elvis” remains respectful; even poignant. Davis also nails that sweet spot; he embraces the inherent campiness of his “JFK”, yet he somehow retains the dignity of its namesake.

Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter – “What he doesn’t know about vampires wouldn’t even fill a flea’s codpiece!” This unusually droll Hammer entry from 1974 benefits from assured direction and a clever script by Brian Clemens, one of the creators behind The Avengers TV show. Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) and his stalwart consultant, Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater) are called upon by a physician to investigate a mysterious malady befalling residents of a sleepy hamlet…rapidly accelerating aging. The professor suspects a youth-sucking vampire may be involved…and the game is afoot. Along the way, the Captain finds romance with the village babe, played by lovely Caroline Munro (*sigh*). The film was released toward the tail end of Hammer’s classic period; possibly explaining why at times, Clemens appears like he is doing a parody of “a Hammer film”.

Delicatessen– Love is in the air…along with the butcher’s cleaver in this seriocomic vision of a food-scarce, dystopian “near-future” along the lines of Soylent Green, directed with trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs. The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with a “professional” eye. In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarre universe, it’s all par for the course (and just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live under the city). One particularly memorable and hilarious sequence, an imaginatively choreographed lovemaking scene, stands as a mini-masterpiece of film and sound editing.

Eating Raoul– The late great Paul Bartel directed and co-wrote this twisted and hilarious social satire. Bartel and his frequent screen partner Mary Waronov play Paul and Mary Bland, a prudish, buttoned-down couple who are horrified to discover that their apartment complex is home to an enclave of “swingers”. Paul is even more shocked when he comes home from his wine store job one day and discovers Mary struggling to escape the clutches of a swinger’s party guest who has mistakenly strayed into the Bland’s apartment. Paul beans him with a frying pan, inadvertently killing Mary’s overeager groper. When the couple discovers a sizable wad of money on the body, a light bulb goes off-and the Blands come up with a unique plan for financing the restaurant that they have always dreamed of opening (and helping rid the world of those icky swingers!). Things get complicated, however when a burglar (Robert Beltran) ingratiates himself into their scheme. Yes, it’s sick…but in a good way. Just wait until you meet Doris the Dominatrix.

Ed Wood– Director Tim Burton and his favorite leading man Johnny Depp have worked together on so many films over the last 20-odd years that they must be joined at the hip. For my money, this affectionate 1994 biopic about the man who directed “the worst film of all time” remains their best collaboration. It’s also unique in Burton’s canon in that it is somewhat grounded in reality. Depp gives a brilliant performance as Edward D. Wood, Jr., who unleashed the infamously inept yet 100% certified camp classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space on an unsuspecting movie-going public back in the late 1950s. While there are lots of belly laughs, none of them are at the expense of the off-beat characters. There’s no mean-spirited agenda here; that’s what makes the film so endearing. Martin Landau nearly steals the film with his droll Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi. Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette and Jeffrey Jones also shine in their roles.

I Married a Witch– Clocking in at 77 minutes, Rene Clair’s breezy 1942 romantic fantasy packs in more wit, sophistication and fun than any ten modern “comedies” you’d care to name put together. I’ll tell you what else holds up pretty well after 70 years…Veronica Lake’s allure and pixie charm. Lake is a riot as a witch who re-materializes 300 years after putting a curse on all male descendants of a Puritan who sent her to the stake. She and her equally mischievous father (Cecil Kellaway) wreak havoc on the most recent descendant (Fredric March), a politician considering a run for governor. Lake decides to muck up his relationship with his fiancé (Susan Hayward) by making him fall in love with his tormentor. All she needs to do is slip him a little love potion, but her plan fizzes after she accidentally ingests it herself. And yes, hilarity ensues.

J-Men Forever!– Woody Allen may have done it first (What’s Up, Tiger Lily?) and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 troupe has since run the concept into the ground, but Firesign Theater veterans Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman did it best with J-Men Forever. I am referring to the concept of re-appropriating footage from corny, no-budget B-films and re-dubbing the soundtrack with comic dialogue. I’ve been a devotee of this film since it aired on the USA Network’s after hours cult show Night Flight back in the 80s (alright, raise your bong if you remember that one). The creators had a sizable archive from the old Republic serials to cull from, so they were not restricted by the narrative structure of one specific film. As a result, Proctor and Bergman’s wonderfully silly concoction about saving Earth from a nefarious alien mastermind called “The Lightning Bug” benefits from quick-cut editing, perfectly synced with their trademark barrage of one-liners, puns and double-entendres, all set to a rock‘n’roll soundtrack. “Schtay high!”

No Such Thing– Director Hal Hartley’s arch, deadpan observations on the human condition either grab you or leave you cold, and this modern Beauty and the Beast tale is no exception. TV news intern Beatrice (Sarah Polley) is sent to Iceland to get an exclusive on a real-life “monster” (Robert Burke), an immortal nihilist who kills boredom by drinking heavily and terrorizing whomsoever is handy. After her plane goes down en route, her cynical boss (Helen Mirren) smells an even bigger story when Beatrice becomes the “miracle survivor” of the crash. The Monster agrees to come back to N.Y.C. if Beatrice helps him track down the one scientist in the world who can put him out of his misery. The pacing in the first half is leisurely; dominated by the Monster’s morose, raving monologues, set against the stark, moody Icelandic backdrop (I was reminded of David Thewlis’ raging, darkly funny harangues in Naked). Once the story heads for New York, however, the movie turns into a satire of the art world (a la Pecker), as the couple quickly become celebrities du jour with the trendy Downtown crowd. Obscure, but worth a look.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show– 40 years have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s original stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who have the misfortune of stumbling into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff. Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but the knockout musical numbers in the first hour or so makes it worth repeated viewings. And at the risk of losing my “street cred”, I admit that I have never attended one of the “audience participation” midnight showings. I now fully anticipate being zapped with squirt guns and pelted with handfuls of uncooked rice (ow!).

Young Frankenstein– Writer-director Mel Brooks’ 1974 film transgresses the limitations of the “spoof” genre to create something wholly original. Brooks kills two birds with one parody, goofing on James Whale’s original 1931 version of Frankenstein, as well as his 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Gene Wilder heads a marvelous cast as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced, “Franken-schteen”) the grandson of the “infamous” mad scientist who liked to play around with dead things. Despite his propensity for distancing himself from that legacy, a notice of inheritance precipitates a visit to the family estate in Transylvania, where the discovery of his grandfather’s “secret” laboratory awakens his dark side. Wilder is quite funny (as always), but he plays it relatively straight, making a perfect foil for the comedic juggernaut of Madeline Khan, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman (“Blucher!”), Terri Garr and Kenneth Mars, who are all at the top of their game. The scene featuring an unbilled cameo by Gene Hackman is a classic. This is also Brooks’ most technically accomplished film; the meticulous replication of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory (utilizing props from the 1931 original), Gerald Hirschfeld’s gorgeous B & W photography and Dale Hennesy’s production design all combine to create an effective (and affectionate) homage to the heyday of Universal monster movies.

Aiming low: Kill Me Three Times *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 11, 2015)

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This is a public service announcement, brought to you by Saturday Night at the Movies. Are you an aspiring film maker? Do you have Tarantino-Coen Syndrome? Know the 5 major warning signs:

  • Do you have excessive blood in your spool? Surf music?
  • Does your screenplay suffer from shortness of breadth?
  • Do the twists and turns in your narrative cause viewer dizziness?
  • Do you have difficulty keeping your timelines linear?
  • Do your influences go as far back as Blood Simple or Pulp Fiction?

If you answered “yes” to 3 or more of these questions, don’t feel alone. You’ve got company. Take Messrs. Kriv Stendors (director) and James McFarland (screenwriter). Clearly, these gentlemen are among the afflicted, as evidenced from their strictly by-the-numbers “hit man comedy”, Kill Me Three Times. Despite the presence of seasoned comic actor Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), the film is a curiously dull and not-so-funny affair about a smarmy hit man (Pegg) who ties together a triumvirate of nefarious schemes involving (wait for it) revenge, blackmail and murder in the Australian outback. Not that I am imperiously declaring that there should be a moratorium on employing those reliable noir staples in a genre pic, but if you want to stand out from the pack, at least pretend you’re making an effort come up with an original angle. Otherwise, take 2 aspirin and see a script doctor first thing in the morning.

Circle Q raunch: A Million Ways to Die in the West **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June  7, 2014)

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Wild and woolly:  Seth MacFarlane in A Million Ways to Die in the West

In his new comedy, director-writer-producer-star Seth MacFarlane seems bound and determined to prove that not only are there (as its title suggests), A Million Ways to Die in the West, but that there are also at least a million ways to tell a dick joke. Not that there isn’t an appropriate time and a place to tell dick jokes; speaking as someone who used to get paid to tell dick jokes to hostile drunks, I won’t cast the first stone. And as a believer in the credo that “nothing is sacred” in comedy, I’d be the first to defend MacFarlane’s right to sacrifice good taste for the sake of a quick yuk. That being said, you should be forewarned: This is a film with something to offend everybody.

Setting his story in 1882 Arizona, MacFarlane casts himself as a neurotic sheep farmer named Albert, who is having relationship problems. After suffering the public humiliation of watching her man worm his way out of a gunfight with a rival rancher, Albert’s beloved Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has no choice but to break up with him (after all, “this is the American West in 1882”, as Albert reminds the audience throughout the film). So while Louise sets off to “work on herself”, Albert shares his romantic woes with his sympathetic friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), a dim-witted cobbler, and his fiancée Ruth (Sarah Silverman), a hooker who is “saving herself” for marriage (“After all, we’re devout Christians,” Ruth tells her frustrated beau).

It wouldn’t be a self-respecting Western parody if a Bad Guy Wearing Black didn’t show up right about now. Enter evil sidewinder Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) and his gang. We know he’s a bad hombre, because he shoots a doddering prospector on “2”, after announcing that the draw will be on the count of “3” for dibs on the poor old feller’s gold (which he was going to steal anyway). Leatherwood’s beautiful wife Anna (Charlize Theron), while also a member of the gang, hints to be of a more compassionate nature, first showing obvious disgust at what has just happened and then rescuing the prospector’s dog before her trigger-happy husband plugs it too. Yes, Theron is an Outlaw with a Heart of Gold, expressly cast to become Albert’s new love interest (MacFarlane may stoop to any level of adolescent silliness to get laughs…but he’s not stupid).

While the film is far from a genre classic (especially when compared to its obvious touchstone, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles) MacFarlane’s strategy of “let’s keep throwing gags against the wall and see how many  stick” hits the mark just enough times to keep it entertaining  (you’ll laugh, but you’ll hate yourself in the morning). Like the aforementioned Brooks film, MacFarlane assigns his characters anachronistic dialog and attitudes to imbibe it with detached irony.

This is how he “gets away” with some of the more P.C.-challenged gags, like a shooting gallery game called “Runaway Slave” (“Oh, that doesn’t seem right,” Albert says with a grimace…before taking aim). Or Anna’s tale of being forced into marriage with her husband at age 9 (“It’s OK. I didn’t want to be one of those 15 year-old spinsters.”). MacFarlane isn’t below pilfering from Harold and Kumar’s playbook, with a hilarious peyote trip sequence. He even borrows that franchise’s secret weapon, Neil Patrick Harris (stealing every scene as Albert’s romantic rival). As far as Western parodies go? I’ve seen worse. And there’s something inherently funny about sheep. Baa.

Blu-ray reissue: That Sinking Feeling ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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That SInking Feeling – BFI Blu-ray (Region “B”)

This relatively obscure, low-budget 1979 wonder marked the debut for quirky Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). Sort of a Glaswegian version of Big Deal on Madonna Street, it’s the story of an impoverished teenager, tired of eating cornflakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, who comes up with a scheme to make him and his underemployed pals rich beyond their wildest dreams-knocking over a plumbing supply warehouse full of stainless steel sinks. Funny as hell, imbued with the director’s unique brand of low-key anarchy and a poignant undercurrent of working class Weltschmerz. BFI’s region “B” Blu-ray* is packed with extras, and sports the cleanest transfer I’ve seen of this previously hard-to-find gem (*please note that this region “B”-encoded disc requires a region-free Blu-ray player for playback).

Wasted wonderland: A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas 3-D ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 12, 2011)

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I’ve decided not to bury the lead in my review of A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas 3-D. So let’s get all of this out of the way first, shall we? Stereotypes about Asians, Ukrainians, Latinos, African-Americans, Jews and the GLBT community abound. Santa Claus gets shot in the face. A baby ingests pot, coke and Ecstasy. Marijuana is celebrated for its recreational attributes. In a twisted homage to A Christmas Story, someone’s penis is stuck to frozen tree bark. And yet, there’s something so…good-natured about it all. And, I enjoyed the most belly laughs that I have had at a film so far this year. Sue me.

Back in 2004, a modestly budgeted stoner comedy, sporting a sophomoric title and starring two young unknowns, became an unexpected cult hit. Perhaps arguably, the most surprising thing about Harold and Kumar go to White Castle was that, sandwiched somewhere between the bong hits and assorted scatological references was an undercurrent of sharp socio-political commentary about racial stereotyping in America (for the uninitiated, Harold and Kumar are played by a Korean-American and Indian-American actor, respectively).

The film’s co-creators, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, officially turned their baked heroes into a sort of Cheech and Chong franchise for Gen Y with the 2008 sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (my review).  Like its predecessor, it was crass and vulgar, yet still riotously funny (and oddly endearing, in a South Park kind of way). So, has the magic been recaptured in this latest installment?

I suppose that would depend on a little game of word association. If I say “Magic!”, and your immediate rejoinder is “Mushrooms!”, then I’d say you’ll probably enjoy the ride. The rest of you are strongly cautioned. For those in the latter group, I probably at least owe you a brief synopsis; the former already know that it’s not so much about the plot, as it is about the pot.

In the six years since their last misadventure, Harold (John Cho) has not only stepped away from the bong, but veered in the direction of responsible adulthood. He’s happily married, with a house in the ‘burbs and a Wall Street gig. In the meantime, Kumar (Kal Penn, who resigned from his White House position as Associate Director of Public Engagement to work on this film) has been on an opposite trajectory. He’s dropped out of med school, his girlfriend has left him, and he’s self-medicating with ganja (it gets funnier…seriously).

Kumar shows up on Harold’s doorstep Christmas week, and to make a short story even shorter, comic mayhem ensues. The duo (who have drifted apart) are reunited by necessity, scrambling to find a replacement before Harold’s father-in-law (a funny-scary Danny Trejo) discovers that his prized, personally-cultivated Christmas tree has gone up in flames (don’t ask). And yes, Neil Patrick Harris is back again for his third, erm, outing.

Hurwitz and Schlossberg co-wrote, but this time they’ve turned the helming chores over to Todd Strauss Schulson. This is the feature film debut for Schulson, who previously directed music videos and a handful of TV movies. I hope I’m not damning him with faint praise by saying that he has rendered the most visually creative Harold and Kumar entry yet, particularly with the clever use of 3-D. In fact, I think he has used it much more effectively here than Cameron did in Avatar. Go ahead…ask (“Are you high?!”). Maybe.