Review: Clerks II (2006)

The Thinker by Rodin

In 1994, then (nearly) brand new director Kevin Smith gave us the world behind the cash register with his arguably brilliant albeit ultra low budget movie Clerks. Filmed at night in the very convenience store where he spent years engaged in retail drudgery, Smith gave us a bawdy and far more entertaining version of retail life than exists out there, although web sites like Not Always Right do liven up the retail world for those who inhabit or have inhabited it.

With the surprise success of Clerks, Smith cemented mainstream movie success with movies like Chasing Amy and Dogma. It was no surprise then that Smith eventually decided to make a sequel to the popular Clerks. Of course, to succeed it required most of the characters from the original movie. However, most sequels are shadows of the original movie, and thus should be avoided. I could not resist the lure of Clerks II, given how much I enjoyed the first movie. I was prepared to be disappointed.

Not so. Clerks II is not quite as good as the first movie, but nearly as good. Thus, it inhabits the narrow realm of sequels that are nearly as good as the original movie. The venue this time is not a QuikStop convenience store but a Mooby’s fast food restaurant. Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) would probably have stayed at the QuikStop indefinitely had it not inconveniently burned down a year earlier. The venue may have changed but the customers and faces have not. Instead of juggling coffee pots and sorting magazine racks, Dante now scrambles behind the counter at Mooby’s where you can enjoy drinks like a Bovine Size It. Unlike QuikStop, which is a real franchise, the cow-oriented Mooby’s chain is fictional, reflecting Smith’s deeper pockets since his impoverished 1994 directorial debut. It might as well be a QuikStop, because the coffee pot is still there and steam is always rising behind the counter somewhere.

Twelve years may have elapsed but the characters seem stuck in time and are now inconveniently in their thirties. Instead of peddling videos next door to the QuikStop, Randal (Jeff Anderson) is now haphazardly grilling burgers and working the French fry vat at Mooby’s next to Dante. Like Carmen and Winslow in the comic strip Prickly City, Dante and Randal seem doomed to inhabit their adult years together in a generally unhealthy and crass relationship. Perhaps Randal’s unhealthy presence is why Dante’s girlfriends from his convenience store days are no longer items. However, now that Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (played by director Kevin Smith) are out of prison, they have of course chosen to hang out in front of Dante’s Mooby’s as a choice place to sell drugs.

Dante cannot be without love interests, of course, or there would be no movie. In Clerks II, Dante is oddly engaged to the skinny, attractive, blond, leggy and controlling Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith). She plans to move him to Florida where her wealthy family is preparing to give the new couple a house. In fact, it’s Dante’s last day at the Mooby’s, which is unearthing a lot of subterranean feelings from the whole cast of characters. Dante is about to become respectable and move out of detested New Jersey to Florida, and through Emma’s conniving, far, far away from his loser friend Randal. Yet he does not seem terribly happy at the prospect of his new and richer life, even when Emma shows up at his workplace to slide her tongue down his throat.

And what about Becky (Rosario Dawson), the acerbic manager of the Mooby’s? She is supposed to be Dante’s boss but it is clear both have the hots for each other, to the extent that one of Dante’s unofficial jobs is to paint her toenails in the privacy of her office when the morning traffic lightens. Somehow, in the course of the day, you know all these tensions will somehow resolve themselves. Since it’s a Kevin Smith movie, you know it will all happen in weird, quirky and generally obscene ways. So expect the usual variety of very odd scenes that include a donkey sex exhibition that Randal puts together as a sort of bachelor party. Also, expect strange dialogs with customers, including a Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings discussion in front of the cash register.

As long as you can appreciate Smith’s crass humor and the endless four letter words coming out of all the characters mouths, the movie manages to hit pretty much all the right notes. We get a lot more of Jay and Silent Bob, which is good, and some terrifically funny and weird scenes, including a dance scene between Becky and Dante on the roof of the Mooby’s. So now, I need to add Clerks and Clerks II to my DVD collection. Both movies are good enough to share, at least with my select group of friends and families who can also appreciate this level of irreverence and trash humor.

It seems unlikely that there will be a Clerks III, or if such a movie were made that it can be as funny as Clerks II, but I am hoping once a decade or so Smith takes us back into the bizarrely funny world of Dante, Randal, Jay and Silent Bob.

3.2 on my four point scale. If I were to measure it on my funny bone meter, it would be even higher.

Review: Clerks (1994)

The Thinker by Rodin

Most of us have had the experience of working retail. And most of us have had similar impressions of the experience: yech! Most of us disliked retail so much that one retail job during a lifetime was plenty. Working in the land of cubicles like Dilbert is a real step up from ringing up retail merchandise all day or stocking shelves all night. When you work retail, your work is typically grinding, boring and endlessly repetitious. The customers are vacillating and annoying idiots that like to vent their frustrations on grossly underpaid retail workers. After work, you’d celebrate Miller Time except you are paid so little you probably cannot even afford to. When you work retail, you are probably still living at home or are sharing a room in a group home somewhere. Basically, you are living in poverty, just not drawing from the welfare state.

Kevin Smith’s 1994 movie Clerks though manages to make the ubiquitous retail job seem if not quite fun then at least bearable, given it’s weird cast of characters. Clerks was Kevin Smith’s first real film of note. It was scorned by many “serious” movie reviewers but apparently is something of a cult classic for those lucky enough to have seen it. Like all of Smith’s movies, it is crass, and chalk full of expletives and sexually explicit innuendos. Yet, to those of us who did retail and spent time rubbing shoulders with the bottom twenty percent of humanity it feels authentic. I know I sure related to Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), one of the ubiquitous retail droids behind the counters of the 7 Elevens of the world, although in his case it is a Quick Stop in Leonardo, New Jersey. His job is shitty but surprisingly he cares a bit about it, even when he is unexpectedly working sixteen-hour days because his boss goes on an impromptu vacation. He feels some responsibility even when being treated so shabbily.

Dante is basically a nice early twenties something white guy who earns a very modest wage as the assistant manager of the Quick Stop. Next door is a video rental store with a spaced out dude named Randall behind its counter. Randall must not have much to do because he spends most of his time hanging out with Dante over at his store while various customers, most of the eccentric and loser variety, cycle in and out. Sometimes the place bustles but it is often empty. That’s when a young man’s fancy turns toward his girlfriend Veronica who seems suitably devoted to him but, we quickly learn, has had three dozen lovers. Most of these she says don’t count because (sort of like Bill Clinton) fellatio is not real sex. Veronica puts out for Dante. Meanwhile, Dante learns that his ex girlfriend Caitlin is engaged. This bums Dante out, who had real feelings for Caitlin and sees Veronica as something like a second-class girlfriend. Yet, surprise! Caitlin comes by to tell him that she is not as engaged as the story makes out, and she still loves him. They arrange to go on a date later to see if sparks still fly while Dante cannot summon the nerve to tell Veronica.

All sorts of strange things happen in this store. When business gets slow, Dante and Randall go to a funeral home to pay respects to the family of a girl they knew in high school. The trip ends disastrously and hysterically. Back at the store, Dante and Randall get very creative with finding ways to have fun on the job, particularly since no one is looking. They and some friends manage to have a soccer game on the roof of their building. And what happened to that guy who needed to use the bathroom and asks for a skin magazine and fresh rolls of toilet paper? Stay tuned.

Clerks was clearly made on a shoestring by (then) no name actors. Smith was also getting his directorial moorings with this film, because it suffers from a number of minor problems, including dialog that is often spoken so quickly that it is hard to process. Smith’s handprints are all over this movie that he wrote, produced, directed and even acts in (in the role of Silent Bob, a low level doper). Surprisingly, his approach works really well. You will remember Clerks because once you see it, it is absolutely unforgettable. Much like the movie Airplane!, you may find yourself quoting dialog from it weeks later. If you are like me, you will be laughing hysterically through much of the movie. In fact, it inhabits a spot among the top dozen funniest movies I have ever seen.

Smith has done a number of other movies that are similar in style, two of which are notable and I have seen. These include Dogma and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Having seen Clerks, I must now rent Clerks II made ten years later and hope it is as good. I may need to get my own DVD of the movie for my collection as well as see everything Kevin Smith wrote or directed, because his sense of humor is scarily similar to mine.

Clerks is as good as a low budget cheap humor movie can get. Rent it. 3.4 on my four-point scale.

Review: Young Frankenstein at the Kennedy Center

The Thinker by Rodin

If Mel Brooks can make a hit Broadway musical from his 1968 movie The Producers, then he should be able to do the same with his much more popular 1974 movie Young Frankenstein, right? Just in case the idea was not a good one, to even the odds why not add your wife and the famous choreographer Susan Stroman to direct and choreograph the show as she did in The Producers?

As they say, lightning never strikes the same place twice, so the odds were always long that Young Frankenstein would do as well as the phenomenally successful musical version of The Producers. That is the case with Young Frankenstein, at least the touring version now in the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. There are times when you wonder if it was directed by Max Bialystock, the infamous bad musical producer immortalized in The Producers rather than Susan Stroman. Okay, it’s not that bad and the truth is the musical gets better as it goes along, and it ends pretty well. Young Frankenstein though is certainly not great, and I have a hard time even giving it a passing grade. It bears the mark of a musical that was made simply because it could be made and not because there was any compelling reason to stage it.

In a way, seeing such a crass musical in the ornate setting of the Kennedy Center’s Opera House lowered my opinion of the Kennedy Center. After all, I have seen many a lavish staging of a musical or opera on this stage, perhaps most memorably a staging of Tosca by the Met back in the mid 1980s. In an exhibit as you enter the Opera House, you can see one of the exquisite gowns from that staging. However, you take your seats to watch a musical with no pretense at being high art but that is high on the things that Mel Brooks thinks is funny but which are really incredibly sophomoric. These include cute women in dresses with low bodices and high libidos and allusions to the monster’s massive sexual organs.

None of this is a surprise to those who have seen the movie. In fact, the musical really adds nothing new to the movie at all and is rife with the same gags that were in the movie. What you don’t get of course is Gene Wilder as Young Frankenstein, Madeleine Kahn as his puritanical fiancé Elizabeth, Marty Feldman as Igor, Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher or Teri Garr as the bosomy lab assistant Inga.

Instead, you get a generally good cast working with substandard material. For example, you will find Brad Oscar (who was a regular in The Producers on Broadway) in the rather minor role of Inspector Kemp. Roger Bart plays the young Doctor Frankenstein, and comes across as more of a wisecracker than Gene Wilder’s portrayal. Most of the rest of the cast seems to be working hard to imitate the characters in the filmed version, and this includes Beth Curry as Elizabeth and Joanna Glushak as Frau Blücher. We do get some variations. Cory English as Igor does not even attempt to emulate Marty Feldman. Peter Boyle played the original monster in 1974. In this version, we get Shuler Hensley who, film critics may note, has played Frankenstein before in the 2004 film Van Helsing.

As you might expect there are strobe lights aplenty, a mad scientist’s workshop decently rendered and theatrical fog in some of the sequences. As for the music, sadly, there is really nothing memorable. Since we go to musicals mostly to hear music, the musical cannot help but disappoint.

The musical only has a few things going for it. First, Roger Bart is rather fun in the pivotal role of Young Frankenstein. Second, if you can make it to the second act you will find it is much better than the first act, but not enough to redeem it altogether. The most surprising actor in this musical is none other than Shuler Hensley. Unfortunately, the monster does not really have a chance to graduate beyond one-dimensional acting until late in the show when he becomes half civilized. Hensley does a great job, when he is finally allowed, of blending the dichotomy of the bestial monster with the emerging civilized monster. At times, he is quite a stitch. It’s just a shame that he does not get a chance to really act until near the end.

So this musical is not The Producers. Do not go to see it on the expectation that it will be anywhere near as much fun as that musical. Its story is much more pedestrian and far less interesting. In The Producers, we got some really weird and compelling characters. There is no equivalent to Leo Bloom or Max Bialystock in this musical. These characters are stereotypes. The Producers is a comedy of bad intentions gone awry. Young Frankenstein as a musical adds nothing to the material and leaves you with nothing memorable to hum on your way home. It feels tawdry in a way The Producers did not. If it had to be staged somewhere, it is better staged in a burlesque house than in a place as ornate as the Opera House at the Kennedy Center.

If you are a huge Mel Brooks fan, you may want to see the show just to say you saw it, but you will invariably be disappointed. The Producers reached very lofty heights indeed. Young Frankenstein tries to make you think that you are getting a lot more value from your two plus hours in the theater than you are actually getting.

My advice: just stay away. There has to be much better theater in the region than Young Frankenstein, and it is likely to be both better and cost less.

Two flicks and a show

The Thinker by Rodin

For your amusement, here are a few mini-reviews of movies and shows I have seen recently.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

If you put George Clooney, Ewan McGreggor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey in the same movie will it necessarily be funny? To me this was the existential question of The Men Who Stare at Goats. Funny is as funny does, and this movie does have its funny moments. However, this is no Borat or Brüno. Its humor is far subtler. Whether you will find it humorous or not depends in large part on whether you think its premise is humorous.

Its premise is that during the 1970s the U.S. military, afraid that the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War in the new psychic operations battlefield, decided to invest some time and money of its own to create a set of New Age psychic warriors. The movie does have some loose basis in fact. Jim Channon, a Lieutenant Colonel who served in Vietnam proposed a First Earth Battalion to the Pentagon. This new force would win the hearts and minds of the enemy by using tactics like positive vibrations and sparkly eyes. In real life, this did not get much beyond a Pentagon sponsored mailing list. In the movie, George Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, the most gifted of this allegedly defunct Special Forces unit. Among his talents is that he can stare at a goat with such intensity that it will keel over dead.

Ann Arbor Daily Telegram reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGreggor) runs into Cassady in the country of Jordon, who he soon associates with a crazy man he interviewed back in Michigan who told him about this Special Force. Before you know it, both he and Cassady are venturing into Iraq. Cassady apparently is on special assignment. Cassady uses his dubious psychological skills to outwit a few kidnappers, but they end up lost in the desert eventually, only to discover that a psychic corps is already out there. However, this group was contracted out, like much of our War in Iraq. The movie comes complete with lots of flashbacks where we meet the corps legendary founder Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who is clearly playing Jim Channon.

The movie is strange but just plausible enough to suspend disbelief. It’s not a bad way to spend 94 minutes in a theater. It will keep your attention as well as keep you mildly amused. Ultimately, it tries too hard to make a movie out of a premise that has little humor in it. The main reason to see the movie is to see Clooney, McGreggor, Bridges and Spacey interact on screen and do their best with this thin material. I found myself chuckling at times but this is not one of those movies where you are on the floor laughing. It is probably worth renting but is nothing overly special. It is clearly aimed at the Catch-22 crowd. I give it a modest 2.8 points on my 4-point scale.

Paper Clips (2004)

I did not know what to expect of this documentary, but since it was on my sister’s Netflix list and she liked it, I added it to mine. Whitwell, Tennessee is the unlikely location for a story about understanding the Holocaust. Two teachers were looking for a project for students at the Whitwell middle school that would help them understand the magnitude of the Holocaust. Whitwell is one of these mostly lily white towns in the middle of Appalachia, and seemingly not fertile territory for empathizing with the plight of the Jews or learning about discrimination in general.

To help the students understand the magnitude of the Holocaust, the teachers start the students on a project to collect six million paperclips, one for every Jew killed in the Holocaust. The students start writing various people and organizations looking for donations of paperclips. At first, the paperclips trickle in, and then become a torrent. Each contribution is counted and meticulously cataloged. Soon, rooms are bulging with paperclips and the press is starting to pay attention.

The students make friends with actual Holocaust victims, who come to share their story. Over several years, succeeding classes of middle schoolers continue the project. Eventually the school receives an authentic boxcar that was used to transport Jews to concentration camps. It is turned into a memorial and filled, of course, with paperclips. You can visit the mini memorial today if life takes you through Whitwell, Tennessee.

The documentary succeeds in helping students insulated from the ugliness of much of the world understand the prejudice and discrimination inflicted on different people far removed from them. They open bridges into a wider world that they would otherwise not come in contact with. If the documentary has a flaw, it is that despite its premise it is not particularly engaging. It could have done with a lot less saccharine music. Still, it is an unusual story and worthy of capturing. If I were teaching in middle school it would be required viewing by my students

I’ll leave it unrated. If you feel you need a lesson in empathy, it is worth seeing.

The Music Man at The Kennedy Center

When you go to hear a musical in concert, particularly with a pops orchestra, you should not set your expectations too high. Last Friday, we took my father (age 83) to The Kennedy Center to hear the music from the musical The Music Man performed live by the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marvin Hamlisch. The Music Man is his favorite musical. Growing up we often heard the sound track to The Music Man during our languid Sunday mornings.

What we got was a greatly abbreviated version of The Music Man, partially staged in front of the orchestra. Shirley Jones, who played Marian the Librarian in the 1962 movie, was part of the cast. At 75, Ms. Jones is way too old to play Marian, and arguably way too old to play Mrs. Paroo, Marian’s mother. Actually, Rebecca Luker who sang and performed Marian’s part is also too old to play Marian, who is supposed to be 26. (Ms. Luker is 48.) It didn’t really matter though. Luker was terrific in the part, and made me wish I had seen her perform the full musical on Broadway back in 2000. Patrick Cassidy, the son of Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, played Professor Harold Hill. He also directed the performance. Cassidy’s performance was not particularly noteworthy, but nothing for which he should feel ashamed.

The Washington Post found little to like about the concert except for Ms. Luker. The Post misses the point. The point of the concert was for us to hear Ms. Luker, enjoy an afternoon with the NSO Pops, check out Shirley Jones (who is aging very gracefully) and have a good time during a busy holiday weekend. I certainly had no expectations that I would be seeing anything of Broadway quality, which is why it was so nice to have Ms. Luker doing such an excellent job both singing and acting in the part. It was also nice to be four rows from both performers on a blustery November afternoon. After the performance, both Shirley Jones and Patrick Cassidy shared a few intimacies with the audience. Ms. Jones was pregnant with Patrick when The Music Man was being filmed. During the final intimate scene at the footbridge, Robert Preston felt Patrick kick and exclaimed, “What was that!” Twenty years later, Patrick related that he finally got a chance to meet Robert Preston. “Without missing a beat,” he said, “Mr. Preston said, ‘We already met.’”

The real treat for me was simply to see my father dabbing his eyes during the performance. It is hard to touch someone’s heart but on this one rare occasion, I fully succeeded. I am glad I was there to enjoy these moments with the best father a son could ever want.

Review: Brüno

The Thinker by Rodin

In January 2008, I reviewed Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat and labeled it the funniest movie I had ever seen. So obviously, I would be a candidate for Baron Cohen’s latest movie Brüno, right? My wife was not interested in going, but fortunately my daughter’s taste in humor mirrors my own, so we spent $10 a ticket to see it during prime time last night.

The peculiar thing about viewing Brüno is that while it was very funny and offensive, it felt like I had seen it before. In fact, if you have seen Borat, it will seem very familiar. Borat is a flaming heterosexual deeply concerned about the importance of large penis sizes, Jews and Gypsies. Brüno is a flaming homosexual from Austria concerned about neck scarves. Borat comes to America to report on American life for Kazakhstan. Brüno comes to America when his career goes bust. Borat has an emotionally dependent sidekick named Azamat. Brüno has an emotionally dependent assistant to his assistant named Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten). Borat chases the celebrity Pamela Anderson. Brüno chases a number of Hollywood celebrities in an attempt to restart his career. Azamat leaves Borat all alone after a stormy scene. Brüno jilts Lutz, leading to a stormy separation. Borat visits a California church in order to find Jesus. Brüno talks to some Christians who try to turn him away from homosexuality.

In short, the character may be different but the formula Baron Cohen rode to success with in Borat has largely been replicated in Brüno. That is not to say that Brüno is not a damned funny movie, it just not quite as funny because you have sort of seen this movie from him before. It suggests that while Baron Cohen is milking this moviemaking style for all its worth, that it is heading toward a brick wall and when it hits it will no longer be funny. What will he do for an encore when this stuff is no longer funny but just formulaic?

The movie is high on anyone’s outrage meter. One can laugh at this movie and still feel intensely uncomfortable watching it. Many of the scenes try too hard to reach beyond outrageous. I would think even flaming homosexuals would be offended by some of these scenes because they reduce homosexuality to a crude and outrageous stereotype which I suspect is indicative of only a tiny percent of homosexual relationships. Anyhow, if you think watching Brüno get an anal bleaching if funny, this movie is for you.

Congressman Ron Paul is one of many celebrities (including Paula Abdul) who become unknowing members of Baron Cohen’s cast. It is hard to draw the line sometimes on which scenes are real and which are faked. A black baby that Brüno supposedly imports from Africa in a cargo crate (in exchange for an iPod) is obviously faked. A scene in a Dallas talk show is probably real but is the social worker at the end of the scene real or fake? What about those scenes where mothers of baby actors agree their baby would have no trouble being filmed on a crucifix or covered in bees? What about his scene with the dominatrix, since the window conveniently gives out and the cameraman is adept enough to follow?

Regardless, there is plenty to laugh at and much of it is beyond outrageous. Yet, after seeing Borat, Brüno still feels anticlimactic. If Baron Cohen follows this format in his next movie, I am probably going to give it a miss. It will feel overplayed.

Like with Borat, I find it hard to rate this movie, but if you liked Borat you will probably also like Brüno, but probably not as much because the novelty has worn off a bit. Let’s hope Sacha Baron Cohen can find new and inventive ways to entertain us in the future. I think he has traveled down this road about as far as he can. I am not sure how this movie got an R rating. It deserved an NC-17.

Review: Zack and Miri Make a Porno

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Are you easily offended? If so skip Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which is now playing at your local theater. There is so much over the top swearing in this movie that even sailors might legitimately take offense. Practically every other word is an expletive. And it’s not just the S word and the F words that are repeatedly uttered, but very clinical but crude sexual terms and phrases that populate sex magazines like Penthouse Forum Variations.

Then there is the subject of the movie itself, which is ostensibly about the filming of a really bad XXX pornographic movie. The nudity in this movie is not nearly as offensive as its language, although you do get some brief shots of full frontal male and female nudity, as well as a fair amount of screen time of buxom women with fake boobs going braless. Yeah, sensitive people like devout Mormons and Roman Catholics will definitely want to skip this flick.

Nor are any of the characters in this movie particularly likeable. However, almost all of the characters are memorable. The movie centers on two longtime platonic friends Zack Brown (Seth Rogan) and his fellow cohabiter Miriam Linky (Elizabeth Banks). Zack and Miri are pals whose relationship stretches back to childhood. They have spent so much of their lives being pals that the notion of them as lovers is inconceivable, even though both have oversized sex drives. Zack in particular obviously never came within a hundred miles of a charm school. He treats Miri like a frat brother even though she just happens to be blonde and drop dead gorgeous.

Neither is great with remembering to do financially responsible things like pay the rent on time. Yet somehow, they seem to struggle through mediocre lives at their near nadir. Zack makes his living as a cappuccino guy at a local strip mall in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. Starbucks it ain’t, because everyone in the shop including the owner spend most of their time cursing each other, even in front of their customers who seem bizarrely inured to their swearing. Zack and Miri share a wreck of a car and inhabit an unattractive brownstone apartment in an ugly part of Monroeville. Thanksgiving is approaching. For some reason Thanksgiving is also the date of their tenth anniversary high school reunion. Despite having had their water and electricity abruptly cut off, they both rush off to the reunion. Zack arrives and gets busy crudely propositioning former female classmates while Miri makes a beeline for her high school crush (played by Brandon Routh), who she shamelessly propositions before she discovers he happens to be a very successful gay porn star.

Doubtless, their encounter with Bobby inspired Zack’s idea to make a porno movie as a way to escape their financial condition. With little money, they are getting desperate and are reduced to making bonfires in their living room in an old trash bin to keep warm. Both agree that when they make the movie they will do a sex scene together, which is their contribution to the seamier aspect of this endeavor. They quickly put together a cast of dubious, troubled but generally hot looking people from the Pittsburgh area that have experience showing their privates on camera or in public. One of their cohorts is the real life ex porno actress Traci Lords (appearing here as “Bubbles”).

If you have an appreciation for crude humor like the kind you find in classic bawdy movies like Animal House or more recently, Borat, this patently offensive movie will be right up your alley. That is because this movie (aside from rising offense meters right through the roof) is also frequently hilarious. This movie is definitely not art, but it is damned funny. It is also unexpectedly touching at odd moments.

If there were annual Academy Awards for best performance of a crude, rude and socially unacceptable character, there would be plenty to choose from in this movie, with Seth Rogen’s portrayal of Zack being the likeliest pick. This is the sort of movie that you expect John Waters to have directed. Instead, it was written and directed by Kevin Smith, a mostly unknown artist who has done a variety of work acting, writing and directing movies and television over the years.

It is also, surprisingly enough, a romantic comedy. That’s right, it’s hard to discern at first among all the expletives but at its core this movie is really a quirky comedic romance. In reality both Zack and Miri do love each other, they just don’t know it and haven’t a clue how to move forward in their enduring but loveless relationship. Making a bad pornographic movie turns out to be an unlikely catalyst where they discover not kinky sex but something far more surprising: real love. Few couples deserve each other more than Zack and Miri.

In short, if you have the stomach for this kind of movie, you will not be disappointed. This is impossible to rate, but it is a fun though cheaply made movie with many hilarious and memorable characters. Certain scenes will have you laughing uproariously days later.

By the way, make sure you stick around until the credits end.

Thoroughly Eddie

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Have you seen Eddie Izzard yet? Izzard is an eccentric 46-year-old British comedian who comes to the states occasionally and gives sold out performances to fans of his very skewed British humor. He has quite a following among a certain class of people like, say, my wife and daughter. No one would mistake his popularity for that of more mainstream comedians like Jerry Seinfeld. He could not fill the Verizon Center. Nevertheless, he can draw a big crowd even if his latest show could not merit a Washington Post review. We found him at DAR Constitution Hall last night. The show started fifteen minutes late to accommodate the many late arriving patrons. However, by the time all were seated, at least 95% of the hall’s 3,702 seats were filled with very enthusiastic Eddie Izzard fans. The raucous welcome he received when he came on stage would make any politician drool.

Based on the demographics of the audience, Izzard draws a nearly exclusively white, generally young and certainly liberal audience. He is not afraid to swear or to poke fun at sacrosanct topics that would make most Americans squirm, such as religion and The Bible. His current tour “Stripped” attempts to condense the four and a half billion years of the Earth’s history into a two-hour gig, with overflowing amounts of skewed and erudite humor. For a change, Eddie does not appear in drag. Izzard is quite open about his transvestitism. Like most transvestites, he is heterosexual.

As a fan of Monty Python and other forms of British humor, I would be a natural candidate for Eddie Izzard’s humor. Our family has a collection of his videos that I have sampled. For some reason I rarely found myself laughing along. Since Eddie Izzard looms large in the life of my family, I figured it would be sporting of me to attend with my wife and daughter. Perhaps a two-hour show would make me appreciate Eddie more.

And I might have appreciated him more if we had closer seats. DAR Constitution Hall is huge, as concert halls go, and our seats were in the right balcony near the back, which meant we had to twist our necks and spines to watch him perform. Despite the brilliant stage lights, he was hard to see any detail, but he was easy enough to see prancing all around the stage. Izzard is a one-person show. His only prop is a microphone.

Unquestionably, Izzard is very well educated, which is the source of both his humor and his relatively understated popularity. He appeals to rebellious bookworms and geeks, the sort of people who know far too much obscure knowledge that has little practical applications, such as Liberal Arts majors. Thus, you are probably not going to find too many NASCAR fans at Eddie Izzard shows.

Izzard’s gentle antipathy toward organized religion was on fine display last night. He sliced and diced through conventional notions of God and many of the great Bible stories. He is quite irreverent and delighted poking fun at many of the stories in the Bible. He humorously retold the story of Moses’ flight from Egypt and Noah’s Ark and pointed out the many logical fallacies of both these legends and many others. Of course, the theme of “Stripped” constantly meandered off subject, resulting in a show that felt like potpourri. This is no matter of concern for Izzard fans, of course, and part of his charm. He can take any topic and turn it inside out, making it a topic of both laughter and derision.

Izzard is one of these comedians who have no problem prancing around the entire stage. Only a small part of his humor is verbal. Much of it is intonation, much of it is body language and a significant part of it comes from his ability to make the microphone behave in unusual ways.

For a non-fan like myself, I felt much like a Non-Jew at a Jewish wedding. In truth, I did find myself laughing on occasion. I think part of the reason I cannot appreciate Izzard more is that his comedic style is to go at the speed of light. I could hardly get in one humorous idea and decide whether it was something worth laughing over before he was on to the next humorous snippet. I felt like a 300-baud modem trying to translate a signal at 9600 baud. Clearly, the brains of most of the audience are much more agile than mine, which must plod along at a serene clip.

Therefore, it is unlikely that I will be an Eddie Izzard groupie, although our daughter was one of the stage door Johnnies who waited for him after the show. Nonetheless, I am glad I went. I have not ruled out attending other Eddie Izzard events in the future. If you enjoy British humor and particularly if you find yourself thinking unconventional thoughts then you should check out his shows if they come to your city, or try renting some of his DVDs and see if his brand of humor appeals to you.

In Step with The Capitol Steps

The Thinker by Rodin

There are a whole list of things that I as a Washingtonian should have done over the nearly thirty years I have lived here but have not done. Tourists often imagine Washingtonians as constantly down on the Mall or attending concerts at the Kennedy Center. The truth is few of us have that kind of money. In addition, most of us live far enough away from the center of the city where it is rarely worth either the cost or hassle to beat the traffic into the city, unless it is on the weekend. Moreover, since many of us work in the city during the week, the last thing we want to do on the weekend is drive back into it.

Therefore, I miss lots of fabulous Smithsonian exhibitions and concerts. By this time, I should have taken a White House tour. It remains on my list of nebulous things to do. I have been to the top of the Washington Monument twice, but only once as a Washingtonian. (The first visit was in 1967, when I visited as a boy scout.) Shear Madness has been playing forever in the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab. I could never could be bothered. Mark Russell plays regularly at the Omni Shoreham on Calvert Street N.W. I have only seen him on Public TV during membership weeks. Ah, but The Capitol Steps; I can finally cross them off my list.

The Capitol Steps are loosely to Washington D.C. what The Rockettes are to New York City. In 1981, for Senator Charles Percy’s Christmas party three staffers decided to create parody songs and skits based on the topical political headlines of the day. They must have been good because they kept being asked to do other gigs. At some point, they gave up their day jobs and became part of the Washington kudzu. Now, twenty-seven years later it is hard to imagine a time when they were not around. Whereas there used to be just three founding members, now there are thirty of them. Whereas they used to do one gig at a time, now they travel in groups of five or six and do multiple gigs at the same time. They even travel the country trying to meet demand. Political singing and skits now provide them with a steady income. I bet they have 401-Ks and health insurance like the rest of us. Moreover, I would not be surprised if they belonged to a local actor’s union.

I am not sure how the performers who came out to Reston on Sunday night compared with the rest of the troupe. (If they are not being hosted locally, you can find them Friday and Saturday nights at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. That’s at the Federal Triangle metro station.) However, they come out to Reston, Virginia once a year for an annual benefit for Reston Interfaith. Since I give money to the charity, live three miles away and the Unitarian Universalist Church I attend has a member who makes getting tickets easy, I felt I had no more reason to procrastinate.

I probably would have enjoyed the show more if we had not been at a table in a far corner of the Hyatt Regency’s ballroom. Our tickets, $75 each, did not get us stellar seating. The premier tables, sponsored by local IT companies, got a much better view. Nevertheless, I did not feel too put out. My view was reasonably clear and the acoustics in the ballroom were okay. A fancy dessert and all the wine we could guzzle came with admission. Also present were a host of Fairfax County luminaries who hitherto I had rarely seen outside of newspaper photos, including two supervisors, our state senator and the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Gerry Connolly.

Even though attending a regular show of The Capitol Steps costs $35, I felt like we definitely got our money’s worth. The Capitol Steps of course exist to skewer politicians. Politicians were not only skewered, but also roasted over a rotisserie for long periods. The predictable results are many hilarious sketches and song parodies like this one, which skewers poor Senator Larry Craig and who by this time must be riddled with political buckshot.

Our particular show was fast paced. I do not know how long our show was compared to most of their shows. We got about ninety minutes of material, which was padded out to a bit more than two hours with an intermission and a benefit raffle. Virtually every presidential candidate was lampooned, often multiple times. A number of sketches would not work well outside the Beltway simply because the political figures (like Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert) are not names that trip off the tongue of most Americans. Yet he was one of many foreign politicians also stepped on by The Capitol Steps.

The humor of course must be topical and lowbrow. Sometimes the tunes they choose to parody are a little obscure. (I doubt that many Americans are that familiar with Springtime for Hitler.) The Steps assume though that if you are going to fork over $35 to see them, you must be politically savvy. Consequently, while the Steps will probably never appear on Broadway, they earn their money. Their songs and skits must constantly be created and reworked to keep up with current events. One of their signatures is their “Lirty Dies” segment where they do a backwards talk. This gives them a convenient way to say things you generally cannot say in polite company. You may find as I did that sometimes you cannot translate their backwards talk fast enough to laugh along.

The Capitol Steps were good enough for me to want to see them again some year. Perhaps someday I can drag a politically savvy sibling or friend into D.C. to see one of their regular shows. While I have yet to see Shear Pleasure, our perennial local lowbrow comedy, I strongly suspect The Capitol Steps are equally as lowbrow, but funnier.

Review: Borat

The Thinker by Rodin

Am I the last person on the planet to have seen Borat? If so, this review will not garner many hits.

It is rare for me at my advanced age (I am 50) to see any movie and truthfully say, “I’ve never seen anything like that before!” The last time I said this about a movie was back in 2004 when I saw What the Bleep Do We Know? What the heck was it? As a movie, it truly sucked, but as a film that explains string theory from a metaphysical perspective it was unique and quite fascinating.

Borat can at least be categorized. It is a comedy. This movie is so funny that unless you are humor impaired you should find yourself laughing hysterically. Do not be surprised if you are so busy laughing that you find snot is running out of your nose. Wow! How funny is Borat? It is funnier than my previously all time favorite funny movie, the classic 1980 comedy Airplane!

Okay, the real name of the movie is not Borat but Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. That is too long for billboards so the rest of us call it Borat. As you probably know, it stars the hitherto largely unknown comic Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev. Borat is ostensibly a reporter for the Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. For the first ten minutes or so, we get an introduction to Borat’s wonderful life and family in Kazakhstan, which is a former republic of the Soviet Union. Borat’s family comes complete with a forty something mother who looks seventy something, an ugly and controlling wife and an annoying next-door neighbor. Amusements in Borat’s town include the annual Running of the Jews. At least in Kazakhstan, the “Jews” are in costume and are not literally paraded down the city streets and pierced with spears, as was true of Rome in Michelangelo’s time. Suffice to say that Jews, as well as Gypsies are viewed with great suspicion in Borat’s Kazakhstan.

Soon we learn that Borat along with his extremely obese partner from the media ministry Azamat (Ken Davitian) are selected by the Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan to visit the United States. Borat and Azamat are to create a documentary of their experiences in America. The humor of the movie comes from the unusual way it was done. Both Baron Cohen and Davitian are in character yet interact with real Americans who for the most part have no idea that they are in character.

Life in Borat’s Kazakhstan is much, much different from life in the United States. This of course is principally its source of humor. Values too are often greatly different. Consequently, virtually any interaction with ordinary Americans is full of humorous possibilities. Baron Cohen though makes the most of each encounter. Yet somehow, he comes across as plausible. For example, he seeks advice from a coach on American etiquette and manages to say the strangest extemporaneous things to her yet he never loses character. Nor do the people he encounters have any idea that he is putting on an act. From trying to kiss men in the New York City subway (apparently a routine event in Borat’s Kazakhstan) to carrying a chicken around in your suitcase (how else would you get fresh eggs?) it is impossible not to laugh.

If, like my wife, you are the sort who could not watch old I Love Lucy shows because it made you feel terribly embarrassed, Borat is not for you. You will have to watch it through cracks between your fingers. Let’s be clear: Borat‘s source of humor is quite pedestrian. It is Animal House kind of humor. It is crude. It is often vile. It is not afraid to offend. It is over the top shocking. Frankly, it reaches some level beyond mere hilarity.

Perhaps the subtitle to the movie should have been “Borat’s search for Pamela Anderson.” It does not take him very long after settling in to his New York City hotel room before he discovers Baywatch on television. This transformational event, along with a timely telegram that informs him that his reviled wife has met an untimely demise, provides his motivation to persuade Azamat they should go to Los Angeles. There he plans to find Pamela Anderson and ask her to marry him. In Borat’s Kazakhstan, this apparently involves putting a specially embroidered bag over the woman’s head and dragging her away.

Obviously, I do not want to reveal too much of this convoluted plot. Suffice to say you will laugh until you cry. You will be awed at the overwhelming audacity of Baron Cohen. Watching this movie must be something like lighting a dozen firecrackers inside a tin shed. You probably have an idea of what the experience would be like, but unless you actually do it, you would not really know. That is Borat‘s appeal. It is a singular experience and it is unlike anything you have seen on film before. Maybe you have seen what you thought were weird films like John Water’s Pink Flamingos. Step aside, John Waters. You have been outdone.

If you hated I Love Lucy, you will hate this movie. In fact, you will probably walk out after the first few minutes. Otherwise, be prepared to laugh until your lungs are about to collapse. Aside from saying that Borat is the funniest movie I have ever seen, I will not rate it. If this kind of funny movie appeals to you, you simply dare not pass it up.

Review: The Simpsons Movie

The Thinker by Rodin

It is hard to believe, but The Simpsons are twenty years old! Equally odd is that this longest continuously syndicated animated cartoon in American history went twenty years without hitting the big screen. If Simpsons fans were anxious, then their long nightmarish wait is thankfully over. Moreover, I can report that I literally cannot recall ever laughing harder at a full-length animated movie than I did at The Simpsons Movie.

It helps of course to have such an established cast of characters that we all know and love. Yes, we know and love them all, from Sideshow Bob to Crusty the Clown to Moe the Bartender. This 87-minute movie works pretty much all of them in, although some characters like Mr. Burns shows up only tangentially. The writers wisely chose to go for lots and lots of gags rather than worry about whether all their characters get sufficient screen time. From the 20th Century Fox credits at the beginning where Martin Prince shows up singing along with the tune (from the middle of the zero) to the closing credits (stick around until the end) the laughs rarely stop. The Simpsons are on steroids in this movie, if that is possible.

I confess that I am a very sporadic viewer of The Simpsons television show. I lost my interest in watching episodic TV years ago. Like any animated cartoon, The Simpsons had its good episodes and weak episodes. In any event, it was not a compelling enough cartoon for me to watch religiously, particularly once the Internet age began. Besides, it was on Fox. Nuff said.

The producers could have taken the easy route making this movie. Thankfully, they decided to use the opportunity to its fullest. What you get is not just what make the Simpsons brilliant, but much, much more of what made them brilliant. Admittedly, when blown up on the big screen the things you tend not to notice when on TV, like the yellow skin of all the Simpson characters, can be distracting. Most likely, you will be too busy laughing to care.

The plot does not matter, but just in case you are curious, it goes something like this: Despite Lisa Simpson’s earnest efforts as Springfield’s top environmentalist, the residents are environmentally hostile. They turn Springfield into the most polluted city in America. After a decision by President Schwarzenegger, the EPA covers Springfield in an unbreakable plastic cone, dooming the trapped residents of Springfield. Maggie discovers a sinkhole in their backyard, which lets the Simpsons escape. This is good because after Homer disposes of his pet pig’s toxic waste in Lake Springfield (the final straw that brings down the EPA’s wrath) the town is out to lynch them. They move to the promised “country” of Alaska. Marital disharmony ensues. Eventually Homer figures the only way to redeem himself is to return and save Springfield. It is the usual nonsensical plot but of course serves an effective frame for the hilarity this movie is rife with.

If you are American, you have to love The Simpsons. At this point, the Simpsons are more American than apple pie. Almost every character is a gloriously memorable stereotype. The TV show is offensive and crass but the movie is much more offensive and crass. This is of course one of the keys to its success. Ironically, The Simpsons Movie, rather than being mediocre, is probably one of the best examples of an animated comedy in the last couple of decades. I cannot imagine being a devoted Simpsons fan and not owning a DVD of the movie. Even as a casual fan I am tempted to own the movie. Like most Simpsons TV shows, it is full of allusions to other movies and shows. I feel like I need repeated viewings to catalog all of them. Given a little time and distance, perhaps The Simpsons Movie will achieve something like cult status.

I was offended but loved every minute of it. The Simpsons and the crazy cast of characters populating the city of Springfield are all national treasures. They deserve immortalization in the Smithsonian right next to Archie Bunker’s chair.

It feels odd to rate a movie like this. As a comedy, it is in the top ten percent of those I have seen. Of course, if you are not a Simpson fan you probably will not like the movie as much. I give it 3.3 on my 4.0 scale.