Tag: satire

The Stuff


The Stuff (1985)
★★ / ★★★★

Blind consumerism is the subject of satirization in “The Stuff,” written and directed by Larry Cohen, a comedy with splashes of wild inspiration and patches of going for the lowest hanging fruit. All of us can relate to its premise: chugging down an extra glass of soda when we know it is related to certain types of cancer or eating an extra burger while being fully aware of its connection to heart disease. They just taste so good. “Just one more,” we tell ourselves. “What harm could it do?” This film pushes these ideas to extreme levels. But I say, on some occasion, not extreme enough. It loses its satirical edge from time to time.

The Stuff that has captured the American public imagination is a dessert. It looks like melted marshmallows and it is described as sweet. It is so addictive that it is considered to be a threat to ice cream—which ice cream companies are not happy about. So ice cream executives hire industrial saboteur David Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) whose nickname is “Mo.” He is called that, he explains, because whenever he gets something, like money, he always asks for “Mo.” His goal is to find out how The Stuff is made. Mo is clever, resourceful, good at his job, and has a good sense of huMOr. This nickname is even tethered to the thesis of the film. Careful thought is put into the screenplay.

Special and visual effects are hit-or-miss. The Stuff being a sentient entity that seeps out of the ground, it looks terrific when simply shown bubbling about in its natural habitat. However, when it expels itself out of animals and humans in order to attack its prey, it is neither scary nor amusing because it is painfully obvious that a mannequin is employed or the CGI sticks out too much from its environment. Couple these shortcomings with substandard editing (the sequence involving a dog attacking its owner quickly comes to mind), there is a disconnect between how the images come across and how we are supposed to feel. The better choice might have been to remove the more ostentatious effects and simply trusted our imaginations to do the work.

The most effective sequences involve people realizing that their loved ones have become addicted to and are taken over by The Stuff. Jason (Scott Bloom) wakes up hungry one night and notices that the dessert is moving on its own inside the refrigerator. He refuses to eat it and warns his family what he had seen. Naturally, they do not believe him. Those who have seen at least one “Body Snatchers” picture will likely know what might happen next, but there remains a creepiness, an intrigue, to the work. I think it may have something to do with the anticipation that something big (Mo’s storyline which involves corporations and detective work) will collide with the more humble aspects of the plot (Jason, a helpless pre-teen, living in suburbia).

The military angle is a complete misfire. This is the point in which the story devolves into a wan action picture. There are far too many characters on screen for anything to come across as genuinely suspenseful, thrilling, or horrifying. It does not help that more than half do not have anything of value to do or say. It simply becomes an exercise of effects—like shooting at people taken over by The Stuff then showing the corpses—rather than a rumination of what it is about our own needs and desires that are already so self-destructive and self-consuming which are then amplified exponentially by politics and marketing. When the picture is about ideas, it excels. When forced to become standard entertainment, it withers away.

Evil Dead II


Evil Dead II (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” begins like any other cabin-in-the-woods horror picture: an unsuspecting couple goes on their romantic weekend getaway and suddenly their plans are completely derailed. Something unusual, shocking, almost off-putting: not eight minutes into the picture, the woman is dead—beheaded!—and buried in the ground. The man named Ash (brilliantly played by Bruce Campbell) is left to fend for himself against the demonic forces residing in the woods. Terror and… hilarity ensues. The work, written by Sam Raimi (who directs) and Scott Spiegel, is a satire of horror movies.

It is not so much a love letter to horror films—the first “Evil Dead,” a straight-faced scary movie involving a group of friends who meet in their doom in the very same cabin of this sequel—is closer to that. This is a love letter to horror images, from the undead rising from the grave, malicious-looking trees capable of uprooting themselves, a severed hand moving on its own, to buckets of blood being sprayed from the walls. It is so over-the-top that one cannot help but smile at its earnestness, its willing to entertain no matter the cost. And it does not run out of energy.

There are numerous crafty sequences powerful enough to embed themselves in our memories. I will give two examples. The first involves Ash finding himself surrounded by laughter… not of other people but of inanimate objects (deer mounted on the wall, bookcases, lamp) that shouldn’t be capable of moving let alone laugh. The demons are mocking him for being alone, for being weak, for being terrified. The evil knows it is going to win and so it plays with Ash for as long as possible. Ash can’t find himself to do anything at that point but laugh along. That is, until his laughter turns into sobs of desperation. He is the target and the evil force aims to drive him mad; he is entertainment to them—and he, along with his tormentors, in turn is entertainment to us. Clearly, the satire has bite.

Another example: the unbroken shot involving a chase between Ash and the unknown force that follows him from the woods to the cabin. We take the point of view of villain. But notice the content of the chase: it is a slapstick comedy. Ash wriggles about, stumbles, inserts himself in various cracks and corners like a little mouse. He opens and breaks down doors… and the evil is capable of doing the same. Things go wrong for our protagonist and yet somehow the force never gets to him, perhaps on purpose. It is loyal to the theme of Ash being its plaything. The evil is not evil because the ominous Book of the Dead says so. It is evil because of its actions: It enjoys tormenting its victim for the sake of entertainment. Raimi is in complete control of not only the images but the messages he wishes for us to consider. It is clever nearly every step of the way. (“Nearly” because I am not a fan of the final scene that sets up the next movie.)

“Evil Dead II” is not just any other remake or sequel or reimagining. I think this terrific follow-up can be considered as the “alternate spirit” of the original. Both share the same setting, but emphasis is on completely different ideas. Similar special and visual effects are employed, but they must be utilized in different ways in order to accomplish a specific goal. Together, these two make an excellent double feature for those who wish to analyze and understand specific types of storytelling told through similar vein. There is plenty to appreciate here.

Bodied


Bodied (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

The subversive satirical comedy “Bodied” tells the story of a white and privileged UC Berkeley graduate student whose thesis involves the usage of the word “nigga” within the context of battle rap. It is energetic, propulsive, clever, and takes no prisoners. Screenwriter Alex Larsen and director Joseph Kahn are teeming with ideas—about race, gender and sexual identity, trigger warnings, fame, campus politics, political correctness—they pack them all in here—at times at the expense of creating major imbalance in storytelling. But this is the kind of risk daring filmmakers are willing to take when they are so confident that the material works. And it does. Here is a movie that hooks you all the way to the finish line.

The earnest graduate student and eventual battle rapper is named Adam. He is our protagonist but he is far from the hero of this story. Adam is smart, articulate, and adaptable—not dissimilar to a mad scientist but whose expertise is history, literature, and poetry (“humanities”—there is irony here) as opposed to science and mathematics. The character is played with terrific and alarming intensity by Calum Worthy, capable of exuding a mix of goodness and wildfire obsession to hide the fact that his character, deep down, is a scumbag. Worse, he thinks he’s a good person. There is no redemption arc to be had here—appropriate because the film’s approach to the subjects it touches upon is unapologetic. Like standout satires, this one holds a mirror on our society, points at what’s wrong, and demands that we take responsibility.

Yet the picture offers no solutions—the correct decision since it is not enjoyable to sit through a lecture in a comedy. Instead, the majority of the movie is composed of highly amusing—often laugh out loud—battle raps among personalities so colorful (Jackie Long, Jonathan Park, Shoniqua Shandai, Walter Perez), we get to know them not just in how they relate outside of the match but also how they are like when within the headspace of competition, when faced with an opponent whose goal is to humiliate and break them down. And in the age of insta-share culture, everyone not only learns of your humiliation within seconds, you get to live it over and over outside of the match. So there is plenty at stake.

At its best, the picture reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” in terms of how the camera is utilized to get in someone’s face and capture minute moments of, for example, a competitor’s defenses being broken down. Blink and you’ll miss specific jabs that really hurt even the most seemingly insurmountable Goliath. Although produced by Eminem (along with Paul Rosenberg, Adi Shankar, Jil Hardin), this is no “8 Mile.” It is another level because nothing is off the table. Insults range from physical and mental disability; homophobia; transphobia; being white, black, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, Jewish; even vegans are not safe. Every rap battle is exciting because the attitude is risk-taking—risking of offending a certain group even though there are truths—a lot of truths—in what is being communicated and lampooned.

There are moments in “Bodied” when I caught myself thinking, “They did not just cross that line,” “Did they really go there?,” “…How far will they take this?” Clearly, the work is meant to induce shock, horror, and aggressive laughter that hurts. It possesses an understanding that a satire is rendered ineffective when it takes the middle of the road. And so perceptive filmmakers play upon the extremes. Do not miss this gem; it deserves a cult following.

Jojo Rabbit


Jojo Rabbit (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Leave it to writer-director Taika Waititi to helm a daring comedy surrounding a ten-year-old boy who wishes so badly to become one of Adolf Hitler’s soldiers, he is beyond excited that the day has finally come for him to join the German Youngsters of the Hitler Youth. Jojo has got blind Nazism on the brain, his imaginary friend is Hitler himself (Waititi). The satire is sharp, biting, and extremely funny (some might claim insensitive or offensive). And yet—the picture is not simply a parade of amusing gags, which range from recurring visual cues to anachronistic songs or phrases. When it really counts, it takes a serious look at having to wrestle against one’s racism, prejudice, and brainwashing. Its satirical jabs command power, but it is also surprisingly emotionally intelligent.

Roman Griffin Davis plays the memorable titular character in a wonderful debut. He exudes charisma and heart; he commits in every dramatic and comic scene as if he’d appeared in an array of projects before. That confidence translates well when he is required to hold a scene against great performers like Scarlett Johansson, who portrays Jojo’s mother, and Sam Rockwell, as a Nazi captain in charge of the Hitler Youth Camp. This is not a role in which a young actor can rely on looking cute because the subject matter proves to grow more complex as the story moves forward. I hope that Davis would choose to play equally colorful personalities with substance in future roles.

Perhaps on purpose, the first third of the film does not prepare the viewers for what’s about to come. Waititi makes the Hitler Youth camp feel, look, and sound like summer camp—only the children are made to go through militaristic obstacle courses, are given pocket knives and handed hand grenades. These segments are filled to the brim with vivid and warm colors, particularly yellow and green, and there is an exciting, anything-can-happen attitude in the air. In every scene and in just about every other line of dialogue, there is either a sight gag or a joke thrown on our laps. A few people might consider the gags or jokes to be offensive—and that is what makes the work a good satire. It’s not safe.

Fast-paced with seemingly a plethora of ideas to spare, the work confidently moves toward a more solemn tone just about halfway through. Its point is to show that Jojo’s desire to belong in a white nationalist hate group and kill Jewish people has dire consequences. When they finally come around, it is a like a punch in the face and a kick in the stomach. I admired that even though the work is a satire and its main character is a child, it remains willing to show the evils of the Nazis. The easier choice would have been to show the mother telling his son that being a Nazi is wrong. The writer-director is correct to choose the more cinematic choice: to show how and why fervent antisemitism is a moral corruption, a cancer.

Another strong aspect of “Jojo Rabbit” is the relationship between the boy and the Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) who is hiding in the attic. Their connection is handled with subtlety and insight with an occasional dose of cuteness—never hammy or syrupy. Their friendship is never about romance but reaching a common understanding. In lesser hands, the two young characters would kiss and everything would have turned out all right. But in this film, war has costs. And some costs you can never take back.

Assassination Nation


Assassination Nation (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Sam Levinson’s well-intentioned but consistently firing on blanks “Assassination Nation” is the kind of satire that grabs you by the hair, slams your head against the wall multiple times until you see stars, and then rubs your face across the concrete floor. It is intentionally hyperbolic in order deliver its points regarding the dangers of technology, particularly social media, and the deep shallowness that many of us, consciously or subconsciously, define our lives by: selfies, #blessed, the illusion of perfection with every Instagram post, Tweet, and Facebook status update. Although masked by exaggeration, none of its points are particularly new, shocking, or surprising. It is merely drenched in empty shock value.

I was entertained by its brazenness—at least for about twenty minutes. Although clearly inspired by pictures like Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty,” Mark Waters’ “Mean Girls,” and Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers,” not once does it evince the high quality and class of its influences. The aforementioned works do not always function at an eleven and yet they are sharp, biting, even fiercely intelligent at times. We care about the characters—even the ones being skewered. We laugh at ironic turn of events. And by the end, we are inspired to look inwards: Why is it that although, some may argue, despicable figures are on screen, we relate to them anyway? But not here. During the end credits, I realized I could only name two of the four protagonists.

The two I remember are Lily (Odessa Young) and Bex (Hari Nef)—for completely different reasons. The former stands out because she is given one scene, the one where the high school principal (Colman Domingo) takes her into his office to confront her about her nude drawings, in which she is shown to have substance, a brain underneath the sex kitten facade. The latter is noticeable because of the performer’s physicality; she is not classically beautiful but she photographs like a movie star yet to snag a role so specific, one that is so made for her, doing so would elevate her to superstardom. Nef is green but I think there is potential there. Risk-taking filmmakers would be wise to take her on. Although Bex, the character, is not anything special, the actor is moldable.

The other half of the quartet—Em (Abra) and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse)—are mere decorations: to look beautiful and emote just enough for the film editors to be able to work around them. Nearly every time they are on screen, together or apart, there is a big question mark on my face, wondering, wracking my brain why is it they are necessary to the story. I am unable to remember their respective subplots at the moment. Did they even have any?

Moments of violence and gore are consistently gratuitous. While there is rising action that leads up to the hacking of 17,000 suburbanites’ accounts followed by a massive dump of information via texts and e-mails, a strong connective tissue is absent between cause of violence and effect of violence. Notice the “One Week Later” title card that appears in the middle of the film. Had this portion been elaborated instead of being treated as a footnote, the incomprehensible and highly repetitive mess surrounding the town’s extreme anger toward the four high school girls might have made more sense. Instead, during its climax, we are forced to watch sexualized teens sporting pink leather jackets either shooting guns or holding samurai swords. (These weapons, by the way, look cheap and fake… Is that the point?) It is supposed to be a critique of the male gaze, I guess.

Just because a piece of work’s aim is to hold up a mirror to our modern society’s hypocrisy does not make it immune to criticism, especially from a the perspective of storytelling. We get it: the town’s name is Salem and the project is supposed to be a spin on the Salem Witch Trials. But what else is there to it? While the film barrages the senses with split screens, electronic music, and blindingly bright colors, where are the characters worth putting under the magnifying glass? Effective satires command a strong center. Here, it is hollow.

Ingrid Goes West


Ingrid Goes West (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is a challenge to pull off dark comedy with people’s unhealthy obsession with social media being the subject to be prodded, but “Ingrid Goes West” manages to excel at it because it knows what it does not want to become. Credit goes to writers David Branson Smith and Matt Spicer for being aware that in order for black comedy to work, the story must have a dramatic core, not just parading a series of vignettes in which viewers must simply recognize the joke on the surface without looking within and asking what it is telling us or, even better, how it is criticizing us and how effectively. After all, movies function as a mirror of our society. Had the film been written less sharply, the ultimate joke could have been itself—being just another part of the idea or concept it wishes to skewer.

It is obvious that the screenwriters wish to communicate that there is a sickness in our modern society that cannot be solved by prayer or medicine. Ingrid is a representation of this ailment and the character is played with wonderful electric energy by Aubrey Plaza. Those saucer eyes command the screen with manic intensity. She dares you to watch her to the point where you feel uncomfortable. We stare at the screen as Ingrid prostitutes her worth.

As a comic who is aware of the importance of subtlety, even in a comedy, Plaza is in full control of every little emotion obsessive Ingrid must convey, whether she is looking at her phone for the latest evanescent trend or looking through a person because her mind is somewhere out there in the dreamscape of cyberspace. The titular character is fascinating because although she has convinced herself that she wants interesting experiences, it is ironic that she is rarely in the present moment. What is an interesting experience but a person being fully present with the very activity or person with which she is involved?

The most accessible level of comedy in the film involves Ingrid stalking an Instagram “star” named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). While the situation likens that of a sitcom, Plaza and Olsen elevate the material when their characters interact. Plaza and Olsen trust that the viewers will be entertained by the situation and so they choose not to always exaggerate a line or how it is delivered. The quieter moments between them are surprisingly alluring… and yet somewhere in the back of our minds we know or suspect that their connection isn’t real since time and again both characters show, by action, that they are false. How do we connect completely with characters who appear unable to be honest with themselves?

But I admired the more dramatic moments even when these verge on silliness. Director Matt Spicer ensures that, without them, Ingrid would have been a one-note joke, artificial, robotic, detestable. I found it a strange feeling that even though Ingrid needs serious help, I still cared about her. I wished her happiness, to find a way to not get involved in one-sided friendships. In order words, the material has touched upon something real. That is, we all know how it feels like to be lonely sometimes. It’s just that some of us are lucky enough to recognize, or learn, that maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be lonely sometimes because it gives us the opportunity to focus our energy, to weigh what’s important, and to plan our next action. Ordinary comedies do not bother with the more difficult emotions or states of mind.

Wag the Dog


Wag the Dog (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Wag the Dog,” based loosely on the novel “American Hero” by Larry Beinhart, is supposed to be a satire but it works as a realistic unveiling of the circus that is politics nowadays. It is savagely funny in parts, very curious in others, and, in a few instances, it makes one think deeply about the layers of truth, if any, shown in the media.

Mere eleven days before the election, the president is accused of having sexual relations in the Oval Office with a local Firefly Girl (equivalent to a Girl Scout). Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), a master spin-doctor, is hired to perform damage control. “Change the story, change the lead,” he claims, and so he decides that in order to distract people from the president’s misconduct, the United States will be involved in a fictitious war with Albania. In order to accomplish such a feat, he requires the help of a Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), to produce highly manipulative clips that are meant to be leaked to various news sources.

The picture moves at a fast pace with rapid-fire dialogue that is both intelligent and entertaining. More impressive is the fact that Hilary Henkin and David Mamet’s screenplay maintains a level of silliness and elegance throughout—a challenging balancing act—in addition to the requirement that just about everything we are seeing and hearing must remain realistic so that the subject being satirized delivers a powerful punch on a consistent basis.

De Niro and Hoffman take the script and sell the tricky lines convincingly. In a way, their two characters must be larger-than-life—because comedies usually require extreme personalities—but at the same time they tend to ground their characters just enough so that we believe it is possible to meet a version of themselves in an airport or in a line at a coffee shop.

Their numerous verbal sparring, even when they are not on the same page one hundred percent, is highly amusing. They have a good sense of timing as well as the instinct to break from the expected beats, especially when delivering long lines of dialogue, to jolt us into paying attention. Not once do we forget that these are seasoned performers, ones who are not afraid to take risks, to do something wrong, or sound wrong. Part of the fun is their willingness to just go for it.

The film, directed by Barry Levinson, offers numerous memorable secondary and tertiary characters, from William H. Macy’s CIA agent who knows the truth about the so-called war, or lack thereof, to Kirsten Dunst as a young actress hired to play an Albanian orphan trying to escape from her war-stricken village… shot in a Hollywood studio. These supporting characters, all funny in their own way, elevate an already high-level, smart, black comedy.

The Cabin in the Woods


The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Five friends decided to drive to an isolated cabin in the middle of a forest for a needed weekend getaway. While playing a round of Truth or Dare, the cellar popped open. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the athlete, said the wind must’ve done it. Marty (Fran Kranz), the fool, scoffed at the improbability of such a statement. Jules (Anna Hutchison), the whore, was just dared to make out with a wolf hung on the wall, tongue and all, so strange and comedic that it was almost erotic. As a dare, Jules chose Dana (Kristen Connolly), the virgin, to go down the cellar and investigate. Her eyes scanned over trinkets behind a shroud of black. She screamed. Holden (Jesse Williams), the scholar, came rushing to her assistance. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was drenched in irony and satire but it also worked as an astute criticism of the stagnancy of the kinds of horror movies released since the slasher-fest eighties. In this instance, the five friends were appropriately not given background information because we’ve familiarized ourselves, to the point of being inured, to their respective archetypes. Instead, much of the screenplay was dedicated to challenging our expectations of them as well as their rather unique circumstance. For example, with Curt’s impressive physique and propensity for holding onto a football like it was a requisite organ, we didn’t expect him to know much about books let alone cite a respectable author. There was a very funny joke about his and others’ stereotype, so we were constantly aware that the material was one step ahead of us. I watched the movie with a smile on my face because I found it so refreshing. Instead of me sitting there trying to psychically push the material to reach its potential, it was ambitious enough to set the bar for itself. It challenged its audience by thinking outside the box in terms of the inherent limitations of the genre. We’ve all wondered why characters in scary movies, after escaping an assault mere ten seconds prior, tend to drop their knife, gun, or whatever weapon that just saved their lives. The film acknowledged this phenomenon without flogging a dead horse. The first half took inspiration from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II,” although more tame with regards to the comedy and horror. The second half, on the other hand, was a surprisingly electric conflation of twisted originality that seemed to stem from a series finale of a television show, cartoonish gory violence, and exorcism of authority. What connected the two disparate halves was our curiosity about what was really going on. Notice the characters did not explain anything to us in detail. The filmmakers were smart enough to assume that we were capable of observing, thinking on our own, and putting everything together like a puzzle. By simply showing us what was happening without having to explain each step and why certain events had to transpire a certain way, as a dry lab report would, it was already one step ahead of its peers. I wish, however, that the last few scenes didn’t feel so rushed. So much tension was built up until the final confrontation but instead of milking our nerves, I felt like it was in a hurry to let go of the weight it collected over the course of its short running time. Directed by Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was a fun frolic in the dark forest of clichés because a handful of them were subverted with fresh ideas. I wouldn’t want to come across that towering zombie that used a bear trap as a weapon, though. He could give Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers a run for their money.

Battle Royale


Battle Royale (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

Japan’s economy had collapsed which thrusted everyone’s lives into uncertainty. Since unemployment rate was at its worst, no one was happy. Some adults even killed themselves and left their children to fend for themselves. Students ceased to attend school which contributed to more violence in the streets. As a solution, the government introduced the Millennium Education Reform Act, also known as Battle Royale (BR) Act, where a high school class was to be randomly selected, kidnapped, and taken to a remote island. Their assignment was kill each other with various weapons. As a reward, the last person standing would be allowed to go home. The high concept of “Batoru rowaiaru,” based on a novel by Koushun Takami, worked best when its biting satire was front and center. The strongest scenes were found in the beginning as the students were forced by their former seventh grade teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), to watch an instructional video on how to survive in the island. The enthusiasm of the girl on the screen was similar to those late-night infomercials aimed to brainwash that what was being advertised had to be bought. But instead of an object being seen as a valuable commodity that had to be owned, the video convinced the students that the lives around them were commodities that just had to be taken. I wished that the screenplay by Kenta Fukasaku maintained that darkness instead of focusing on the romantic feelings between Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda). While their superficial interactions provided some heart to the story, they weren’t interesting enough compared to Mitsuko (Kô Shibasaki), a surprisingly ruthless girl who actually thrived on hunting for blood, Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama), the long-distance runner who stuck to her rituals despite the unfolding chaos, and Sugimura (Sôsuke Takaoka), desperate to find a specific girl to confess to her his true feelings before it was too late. As Shuya and Noriko unnecessarily promised each other multiple times that they were going to protect each other and find a way out, I found myself hoping that someone would sneak up behind them and put them out of their–and our–misery. Over time, though still watchable because the violence remained shocking and amusing, the film became more predictable. Since most of the scenes were tilted toward one or two groups of survivors, allowing us to warm up to them if they were “good” or getting us riled up if they were “bad,” we knew that they eventually had to face one another. The material failed to offer something special, perhaps a deep exploration of the hungry and vigilant animal in all of us when our lives were at a precipice, in order to overcome the plot’s necessary contrivances. “Battle Royale,” directed by Kinji Fukasaku, was at its best when it forced our eyes not to blink as the teens sliced, shot at, and pounded each other’s flesh like cavemen attempting to put down a lesser animal. At its worst, however, deep insight was set aside for lines like, “I’ve been in love with you for so long.” I sensed William Golding rolling in his grave.

Brazil


Brazil (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

When an innocent man was taken by the police and tortured to death, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who worked for a passively tyrannical (and ultimately incompetent) government, was assigned to take a closer look at the computer error. Despite being aware that the many confusing bureaucracies that often led to dead-ends didn’t always serve the citizens’ best interests, Sam chose to retreat to his fantasy world when he felt overwhelmed. In his daydream, he was a powerful winged warrior who dueled a Samurai in order to rescue a beautiful woman. Reality and fantasy collided when Sam ran into Jill (Kim Greist), sharing great resemblance to the girl of his dreams, a woman suspected of terrorist activities like bombing public places. Directed by Terry Gilliam, “Brazil” was an adventurous satire that is worth viewing multiple times. There were heavy symbolisms, like a man being eaten by paperwork, and scenes that didn’t always fit into the big picture. For instance, the two electricians who seemed to gain some sick pleasure torturing Sam as they slowly took over his home. Granted, the scenes were very funny especially when Robert De Niro’s mysterious character appeared to lend Sam a helping hand. However, the picture was most fascinating when it tackled the absurd. Sam’s mother (Katherine Helmond) and her friends were obsessed with plastic surgery. Despite the many “complications,” they were willing to go back and endure the pain of having their skin cut up and stretched up to their scalp. It was almost like watching an addiction. It was hilarious but it held some semblance of truth in today’s obsession with youth and its relationship with the magic of science. What I found strange was how romantic the movie was at times. The film referenced Michael Curtiz’ “Casablanca” and its influence showed. The courtship scenes between Sam and Jill were silly and tender, yet it had darkness looming over the edge as something bigger than both of them threatened their budding relationship. It was interesting that Jill had the more masculine qualities, like driving a big truck that she called her cab, while Sam was the hopeless romantic who was hesitant to take action. Lastly, I found the final twenty minutes to be very hypnotic. While it didn’t make much sense as a whole, like in our dreams, sometimes the parts were more meaningful. What Sam went through personified the nightmare of the dystopian world that he and his loved ones happened to inhabit. “Brazil” was an ambitious and imaginative film which was not unlike watching someone’s dreams. It requires a bit of thinking from us and, more importantly, recognition that our government and society may be heading in a similar direction.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale


Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Pietari (Onni Tommila) and Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) snuck onto a restricted mountain where so-called seismic researchers, some Americans, were assigned to excavate something mysterious deep within the ice. The two boys overheard that what was embedded inside was going to redefine the world’s notion of Santa Claus and Christmas. When Pietari got home, he began to research about Old St. Nick and his origins. It turned out that the legendary figure was far from nice and jolly. According to the books, every Christmas, he kidnapped naughty kids, put them in a cauldron, and ate them. Pietari was determined not to get taken. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, “Rare Exports” brimmed with scintillating originality, enough to inject kids with increasing unease and force the adults to watch with fascination. It was fun to watch Pietari run around and put pieces together because there was something innocent and bold about him. Since he wasn’t taken seriously by adults and fellow children, he felt he had something to prove. His determination and thirst for adventure was similar to the beloved kids from Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” Richard Donner’s “The Goonies,” and J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” But like the aforementioned flicks, the film worked as a family drama. Pietari and his dad (Jorma Tommila) lived by themselves where interaction with others required a vehicle due to distance and safety issues. There was a moving scene during Christmas Eve when the two sat on the table and ate gingerbread cookies. Nothing else was prepared. The absence of the key woman in their lives was palpable. Even though it wasn’t fully discussed, we were able to infer that Pietari and his dad were still mourning from the death of his mother and wife, respectively. The son asked his dad whether it would make a difference to him whether he, too, would “disappear” and if he had been good this year. The father deflected the questions with a loud command of sending his son to bed. Sometimes it’s easier to circumvent the truth. On Christmas day, Pietari found that the bait for the wolf trap his father had set the day before was gone. Instead of finding a wolf in the pit, there was a skinny man with a beard. The film played with our expectations some more and threw around very strange red herrings like a kid opening presents with delirium. Our lack of knowledge involving the origins of Santa Claus in their part of the world served as a wonderful, magical, creepy source of tension. The man that the father and son found was critically injured and seemingly unable to understand language. He only responded, with extreme alarm, when Pietari was around. Pietari thought it was Santa Claus and he just had to tell his friends given what he knew. But none of them were to be found. Toward the end of the film, CGI was used profusely, but it was utilized to enhance the experience. “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” was unafraid to tackle darker material yet it was quite satirical. Its brazenness and creativity in putting our little protagonist in the face of danger without coming off as exploitative was admirable.

The Other Guys


The Other Guys (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Detectives Danson (Dwayne Johnson) and Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) were the kinds of cops we often see in action movies. They were tough, hard-bodied, and unaffected by explosions and flying bullets around them. Not necessarily likable, they were considered as heroes. But when they jumped to their death, Detective Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), dragging reluctant Detective Gamble (Will Ferrell) along, aimed to take the celebrated detectives’ place. Much of the humor of “The Other Guys” stemmed from exaggerations. Whether it be a character quirk, a stylized action sequence, or just an embarrassingly awkward situation, the picture milked a scene for all its worth. It worked in some ways, but it didn’t work in others. I laughed at the scenes when Hoitz would always yell at his partner, but Gamble was like a wall of sound. Great partnerships often have opposite temperaments; the latter was happy with his safe desk job but the former craved more excitement and danger. One particularly hilarious scene was the lion versus tuna tidbit. It was creative, strange, and had a sense of manic energy which gave Ferrell a chance to show how funny he could be given the right material. A few scenes that aimed to satirize C-level action movies fell completely flat. When our protagonists were about to enter an accounting office only to have seen it blow up in front of them, the scene felt forced because the one of the characters kept going on about how–in the movies–characters don’t flinch when something explodes behind them, how he needed to go to the hospital, that perhaps he had gone deaf, and so on. It wasn’t any better than the projects they wished to tease. There was a case in which Hoitz and Gamble aimed to stop a multibillion fraud involving a capitalist named David Ershon (Steve Coogan). Other than the scene in which the criminals used a giant wrecking ball to break into a jewelry store, possibly a spoof of hyperbolic superhero villains’ plans, it failed to keep me interested. Instead, I wished there were more scenes with the underappreciated Michael Keaton as the captain of the police force with a penchant for quoting TLC, referencing to his bisexual son, and holding a second job at Bed Bath & Beyond. Out of all the actors, I thought he was the only one who was funny every time he was on screen. Directed by Adam McKay, “The Other Guys” had a good sense of humor but it felt too bloated. It needed to know when to pull back and let the audiences decide which scenes were worthy of laugh-out-loud funny instead of always throwing the jokes in our faces. It trusted us to spot its allusions, but it didn’t treat us like we were smart.

Shrek Forever After


Shrek Forever After (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Lovable ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) was going through a midlife crisis. He missed his old life in the swamp when he was able to do whatever he wanted whenever he pleased. Gone were the times when people would see him and scatter about in fear. After storming out of a party and having an argument with his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz), Shrek ran across the devious Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) who was too conveniently trapped under a carriage. Supposedly grateful for being rescued, Rumpelstiltskin, experienced in dark magic, offered Shrek a proposition: Shrek could spend 24 hours in the past if the magician could take any day from Shrek’s life. Before he knew it, the green ogre’s new world was entirely different. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) was no longer his best friend and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) was now a fat cat who could not even lick himself. While I do think that the fourth installment was the best since the first in the series, I failed to see anything special about it. I could feel the voice actors being enthusiastic in playing their roles, which was great, but I didn’t think the jokes were fresh enough to keep me constantly entertained. The familiar characters being completely different in the alternate universe became a running gag that grew tired quickly. I wanted the script to poke fun of Shrek’s so-called midlife crisis more consistently. I almost missed the random pop culture references because even though they came out of the blue, they managed to surprised me. Everything in here felt like a rehash of the first three “Shrek” pictures driven by the concept of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It didn’t take enough risks so the experience was far from rewarding. The subject of alternate universe had been explored so many times that we’ve grown tired of the formula. The “Shrek” franchise, being a satirical jab at fairy tales and pop culture, could have challenged that familiar formula and invigorated the story. Sadly, despite the swashbuckling adventures on screen, the storytelling was too safe, even predictable. Half-way through the picture, I thought it needed an inspiration to keep going. Even the big lesson that Shrek learned in end could be seen from very far, far away. Directed by Mike Mitchell, “Shrek Forever After” was completely breathless as it reached the finish line. The actors and the filmmakers assured that this was the last picture of the series. Unless the writers have truly creative ideas for a fifth movie, I suggest it remains in a deep slumber.

Celebrity


Celebrity (1998)
★★ / ★★★★

A journalist (Kenneth Branagh) divorced his wife (Judy Davis) because he wanted to be with other women–women who were some type of a celebrity, like a supermodel (Charlize Theron), an actress (Melanie Griffith), or a very successful book editor (Famke Janssen). One of his main reasons for divorcing his wife was, as he claimed, he was unhappy with the way she was in bed. The insecure wife, on the other hand, met a seemingly perfect television producer (Joe Mantegna). She could not believe the fact that she had met someone who was willing to devote everything to her. She suspected there must be something wrong with him and so she waited for the relationship to go haywire. Throughout the film, the journalist became unhappier while the ex-wife’s luck turned for the better. Directed by Woody Allen, “Celebrity” was ultimately a disappointment despite its interesting subject matter. I think it is more relevant than it was more than ten years ago because of the recent surge in technology that allows us to get “closer” to our celebrities. Unfortunately, I thought the humor was too broad. Did it soley want to be a showbiz satire, a marriage drama, or a character study? It attempted to be all of the above but it didn’t work because the protagonists lacked an ounce of likability. The journalist was desperate in getting into women’s pants while the ex-wife pitied herself so much that it was impossible to root for her. Their evolution and the lessons they learned (or failed to learn) were superficial at best. Instead, I found myself focusing on the many interesting and vibrant side characters. For instance, I loved Theron’s obsession with her health as well as her outer appearance. It was interesting to see her and the journalist interact because I constantly wondered what she saw in him. As the night when on, layers were revealed as to why while some details were best remain as implications. Leonardo DiCaprio as the very spoiled young actor was great to watch as well. His arrival on screen was perfect because it was at the point where the script was starting to feel lazy. The characters had no idea what they wanted or what they wanted to say. DiCaprio’s character was invigorating to have on screen because he wanted everything but at the same time his wants lacked some sort of meaning. Even though the spoiled actor and the journalist did not get along well, they were more similar than they would like to believe. While cameos were abound such as the surprising appearance of Donald Trump, I wish the filmmakers trimmed the extra fat in order to make a leaner film with astringent wit. It had some great moments but they were followed by mindless sophomoric jabber (uncharacteristically not charming considering it’s a Woody Allen film) that quickly wore out their welcome.