Category Archives: Parody

Nasty habits: The Little Hours **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 8, 2017)

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So when was the last time you saw a “ribald romp” at the multiplex? For that matter, when’s the last time you can even remember reading a film review that used descriptive phrases like “ribald romp”? How about “bawdy period piece”? Or “saucy yarn” (my favorite). I’m sure that readers of a certain age remember the cheekiest bodice-ripper of them all, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) which ignited a slew of imitators like The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders. Lock Up Your Daughters, Joseph Andrews, et.al.

A close cousin is the costume spoof; beginning with The Court Jester (1955), which was the antecedent to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Princess Bride, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. While all four films are genre parodies, the latter three are products of a more modern post-ironic sensibility (in contrast to The Court Jester, which is simply goofy fun). Which brings us to the age of the meta-ironic costume spoof, perhaps best represened by the wonderfully demented Comedy Central series Another Period (a clever mashup of Keeping Up With The Kardashians with Downton Abbey).

Fans of Another Period will likely be the most receptive audience for Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours, an irreverent, somewhat uneven, and occasionally hilarious reworking of The Decameron. For those unfamiliar, The Decameron (as I just learned on Wiki, for I am a Philistine), is a collection of novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, structured as a frame story containing 100 tales. Obviously, all 100 tales are not contained within the film’s 90-minute frame (it would pose an interesting challenge).

So for out of what one assumes to be sheer practicality, Baena narrows it down to the one about the horny young nuns (those easily offended should probably leave the room now). Anyway, this bawdy period piece is a saucy yarn concerning three young nuns (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate Micucci) who deal with their raging hormones and the crushing boredom of covenant life by taking out their frustrations on the hapless groundskeeper. “Why are you looking at us, you fucking pervert?” they scream at him (as medieval nuns do). One day, they gang up and poke him with sticks, sending him fleeing.

The resident Father (John C. Reilly) hires a hunky replacement (Dave Franco), a servant seeking asylum after getting caught in flagrante delicto with his lord’s lady. The Father advises the servant that it would be best if he posed as a deaf-mute (so as not to tempt the nuns into breaking their vows of chastity). You know where this story is heading, right?

What ensues is a cross between The Trouble With Angels with, erm, Ken Russell’s The Devils. The film is far from a classic, but the cast (also including Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Nick Offerman and Paul Reiser) is fun, and Quyen Tran’s cinematography is lush. So if you seek asylum from the summer movie onslaught of pirates, comic book characters and aliens, the solution is obvious: get thee to a nunnery!

# # #

Alas, they don’t make perfect period romps like this one anymore:

SIFF 2017: Revolting Rhymes ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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Based on Roald Dahl’s imaginatively reinvented mashups of classic fairy tales, this film combines two 35-minute BBC 1 shorts into a feature-length. German co-directors Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer obviously had a good time making this animated network narrative that cleverly cross-pollinates Little Red Riding Hood with Snow White and Cinderella with Jack and the Beanstalk. None other than the Big Bad Wolf is on hand to play the Cryptkeeper who ties the threads together. Great voice work by Dominic West, Rob Brydon, Gemma Chan, and others. BTW, it is not for young kids!

SIFF 2017: Rocketmen **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Well, if you (like me) have completely missed out on the web series concerning “…the deranged comedic adventures of Seattle’s little-known protectors, The Department of Municipal Rocketry”, have I got news for you. It’s now been distilled into a handy feature film. The result? A feature film that looks like a web series. On film. As someone who loves cheesy 50s sci-fi and the old Republic serials, I “get” what writer-director-animator Webster Crowell was going for here; his cast is obviously having fun, and his self-animated special effects are cleverly interwoven, but-it never quite takes off.

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.

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.

SIFF 2009: OSS 117: Lost in Rio ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2009)

SIFF’s Closing Night Gala selection this year is OSS 117: Lost in Rio, which is the sequel to OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which was a huge hit at the festival back in 2006. Who is this “OSS 117” of which I speak, you may ask? He is the cheerfully sexist, jingoistic, folkway-challenged, and generally clueless French secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, who is played once again to comic perfection by Jean Dujardin. In my review of the first film, I described why I thought Dujardin was a real discovery:

He has a marvelous way of underplaying his comedic chops that borders on genius. He portrays his well-tailored agent with the same blend of arrogance and elegance that defined Sean Connery’s 007, but tempers it with an undercurrent of obliviously graceless social bumbling that matches Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

After viewing the second entry in this series, I have to stand by my assertion that Dujardin is a bloody genius. In this outing (which moves the time line ahead about 10 years or so to the Summer of Love) Hubert is assigned to assist a trio of Israeli Mossad agents as they hunt down the son of a Nazi war criminal in South America. As in the first film, the plot is really moot here; it’s all about the killer combo of Dujardin’s riotous characterization and director Michel Hazanavicius’ knack for distilling the very quintessence of those classic 60s spy capers. As I noted in my review of the first film:

Unlike the Austin Powers films, which utilizes the spy spoof motif primarily as an excuse for Mike Meyers to string together an assortment of glorified SNL sketches and (over) indulge in certain scatological obsessions, this film remains  true and even respectful to the genre and era that it aspires to parody. The acting tics, production design, costuming, music, use of rear-screen projection, even the choreography of the action scenes are so pitch-perfect that if you were to screen the film side by side with one of the early Bond entries…you would swear the films were produced the very same year.

I will say that some of the novelty of the character has worn off (that’s the sophomore curse that any sequel has to weather) but this is still a thoroughly entertaining film, and I hope that Hazanavicius and Dujardin have some more projects on the horizon. I’m there.

Men with puns: Military Intelligence and You! ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 22, 2008)

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As both Groucho Marx and George Carlin have famously (and astutely) observed, the phrase “military intelligence” may very well be the ultimate oxymoron. Writer/director Dale Kutzera takes that concept one step further in a unique film that has been simmering on the festival circuit since 2006, but is currently making a round of limited runs around the country. Military Intelligence and You! cleverly mixes the political satire of Dr. Strangelove and the skewering lunacy of Catch-22 with the film parodist sensibilities of Mel Brooks and the Zucker brothers to deliver a volley of not-so-subtle allusions to the current administration’s all-to-real comedy of errors at home and abroad since 9/11.

Seamlessly incorporating film clips from vintage B&W movies and historical archive footage with newly shot narrative (a la Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and Zelig), Kutzera  creates a faux-WW2 military training film, circa 1944. The “film” is replete with the stilted dialogue, over-the-top melodrama, uber-patriotism and jingoist stance that one expects in a government-sanctioned wartime propaganda production. It is lorded over by a ubiquitous Narrator (Clive van Owen) whose delivery falls somewhere between a vintage Ed Herlihy newsreel and the droll voice-over in Dr. Strangelove.

The story is divided between the intrigue taking place at an army intelligence HQ and the ordeals of a downed and captured bomber crew in a Nazi POW camp. Back at HQ, intelligence officer Major Nick Reed (Patrick Muldoon) is convinced of the existence of a Super Secret German Fighter Base that has been launching damaging sneak attacks on Allied bomb squadrons headed for Germany. Reconnaissance missions have failed to produce evidence of these weapons of mass destruction, and Reed is having a tough time convincing his colleague, Major Mitch Dunning (Mackenzie Astin) and their superior, General Jake Tasker (John Rixley Moore) that this Nazi “ghost squadron” airfield even exists. The only one who has faith in him is his trusty aide/ex-squeeze Lieutenant Monica Tasty (Elizabeth Ann Bennett, spoofing Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake).

Meanwhile, back at the POW camp, our intrepid fly-boys are teaching us the “Dos and Don’ts” of dealing with Gestapo interrogators, whilst the narrator duly notes whose example we should be following and whose we shouldn’t (like the guy who spills the beans after letting the commandant liquor him up in front of a cozy fire…that’s a definite no-no!).

Most of the real WW2 era training film footage (taken from a War Department film called “Resisting Enemy Interrogation”) is folded into the POW camp narrative. The rest of the film is seasoned with well-selected scenes from vintage Hollywood WW2 action movies, which infuses Kutzera’s modestly-budgeted production with an impressive roster of “supporting” stars like William Holden, Alan Ladd, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Van Heflin. There is also a notable appearance by a young and particularly gung-ho fighter pilot by the name of Ronald Reagan, who really gives it to those evil empire builders-with a purposeful squint and a pair of hot blazing barrels.

Although it is a one-joke premise, I found it a very amusing one. Kutzera’s script will  likely not age as well as Terry Southern’s  has for  Dr. Strangelove…but for now, it’s on target. For instance, the narrator refers to Pearl Harbor several times, but never mentions it by name. It is referred to as “the events of 12/7” or simply “12/7”. At one point, General Tasker lowers the threat level from “orange…to tangerine.” Major Reed gives Lieutenant Tasty a pep talk, urging her to go shopping; otherwise “the evil doers win” . Not all of the laughs rely on the nudge-nudge wink-wink ; every time the fictional German city of “Riboflavin” was mentioned, I fell out of my chair. Then again, I still find the running “blucher!” gag in Young Frankenstein hysterical. What the hell-I’m easy.

Some viewers might find all the anachronistic references to our current political situation a little too smug and overly obvious, but you know what? I think people need to be hit over the head with these kinds of allusions right now, even if it comes in the guise of a goofy little 78 minute film that will lose its topical relevance a year or two down the road. And for all of our sakes, let’s pray that it does, starting next Inauguration Day.

Chicken chucker, arms dealer, Brit killer: OSS 117:Cairo, Nest of Spies ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 17, 2008)

“I was woken by a guy screaming on a tower. I couldn’t sleep. I had to shut him up.”

 (Shocked tone) “A muezzin? You ‘shut up’ a muezzin?! He was calling for prayer!!”

 (Bemusedly) “Yours is a strange religion. You’ll grow tired of it…it won’t last long.”

 No, that transcript is not excerpted from secret Oval Office tapes; it’s an exchange between the cheerfully sexist, jingoistic, folkway-challenged and generally clueless French secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (alias OSS 117) and his Egyptian liaison, the lovely Larmina El Akmar Betouche. The scene is from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, a gallingly amusing Gallic spy romp from director Michel Hazanavicius.

The director and his screenwriter Jean-Francois Halin adapted the script based on characters from the original “OSS 117” novels by Jean Bruce, which concerned the misadventures of an Ian Fleming-esque French government agent. The books inspired a series of films, produced in France between 1956 and 1970. This latest installment played the festival circuit two years ago (I wasn’t able to get into the sold-out screening at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival, much to my chagrin) but is only just now receiving American distribution in May of 2008 via limited engagements in select cities.

After a brief b&w prologue depicting agent OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin) handily dispatching a Nazi adversary from a plane (sans parachute) in a wartime escapade, the film flash-forwards to the year 1955. Hubert (as we will refer to him going forward) is sent to Cairo to investigate the mysterious death of a fellow agent. He is assisted by the aforementioned Larmina (Bernice Bejo) and just like an undercover 007, he is given a business front. In this case, our intrepid agent poses as a chicken exporter; and yes, all of the inherent comic possibilities involving this most ubiquitous species of barnyard fowl are gleefully explored (and the credits assure us that none were harmed during filming).

As the intrigue thickens, Hubert encounters some sexy royalty in the person of La princesse Al Taouk (Aure Atika) as well as the usual Whitman’s assortment of shady informers, sneaky assassins and dirty double dealers that populate exotic spy capers. In the interim, thanks to his deGaullist stance and blissful cultural ignorance of the Muslim world, Hubert manages to deeply offend nearly every local he comes in contact with. As one Egyptian associate muses to himself: “He is very stupid…or very smart.”

Hazanavicius has concocted a tremendously well-crafted and entertaining spy spoof here that actually gets funnier upon repeat viewings. Unlike the Austin Powers films, which utilizes the spy spoof motif primarily as an excuse for Mike Meyers to string together an assortment of glorified SNL sketches and (over) indulge in certain scatological obsessions, this film remains true and even respectful to the genre and era that it aspires to parody.

The acting tics, production design, costuming, music, use of rear-screen projection, even the choreography of the action scenes are so pitch-perfect that if you were to screen the film side by side with one of the early Bond entries (e.g. From Russia With Love) you would swear the films were produced the very same year.

I also have to credit the director’s secret weapon, which is leading man DuJardin. He has a marvelous way of underplaying his comedic chops that borders on genius. He portrays his well-tailored agent with the same blend of arrogance and elegance that defined Sean Connery’s 007, but tempers it with an undercurrent of obliviously graceless social bumbling (recalling Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

One of the running gags has Hubert uttering “deep thought” epiphanies that belabor the obvious. While getting a massage, he announces: “I love being rubbed with oil.” At breakfast, he realizes: “I love buttering my toast.” Stopping to gaze at a public fountain, he wistfully offers: “I love the white noise water makes.” DuJardin delivers these lines with the knowing wisdom of a high lama, imparting a Zen proverb. I tell you, the man is a bloody genius.