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Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and his best pal Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) must venture out of their arcade home once Vanellope’s game gets broken. She’s in danger of having her racing game shelved for good unless they can find a new steering wheel controller. Thanks to the installation of wi-fi, Ralph and Vanellope hop along the information super highway and visit an online metropolis bursting with life and possibility. It’s a world of advanced games, races, and interactivity and Vanellope might not want to go back to her old world, much to the chagrin of Ralph.

Fear not, this is not Disney’s rehash of The Emoji Movie, a slapdash gallivant through Internet culture, apps, and the most famous online brands. The first forty minutes or so of Ralph Breaks the Internet are silly and visually appealing as our familiar characters expand their horizons to the world of online gaming. Much like the first film, there are a lot of rules and mechanics to establish as a foundation before things can get too complicated. The first Wreck-It Ralph was a bit more structured and clean in this aspect whereas the sequel gets to feel a tad episodic. The Grand Theft Auto/Twisted Metal world of street racing provides a splendid contrast and plenty of satirical touches. It’s still amusing as Ralph and Vanellope discover the new worlds and we see how the filmmakers choose to depict their inner workings, like a concierge working a search bar or spammers as pushy street promoters. Although it also leads to some questions, like this world has Google but no YouTube, instead combining YouTube and Buzzfeed into one entity where hearts count as upvotes/likes. Is there a reason Disney might not want to have steered children to YouTube? Or is there something more corporate about promoting a rival media company when Disney is planning their own online streaming magical kingdom? It’s an entertaining beginning but I started to get worried about whether or not this was the extent of what we were going to get with a Ralph sequel. Is this really all going to be about raising money to buy an arcade controller wheel?

It’s about the forty-five minute mark where the film takes a welcomed turn, where it focuses far more on the character relationships between Ralph and Vanellope, and that’s when the film deepens into something much more special. The antics beforehand were colorful and amusing but too episodic, but once Ralph and Vanellope are split apart, now those same imaginative antics are used in the service of developing characters and exploring their inner conflicts. It’s like the movie went next level with its potential. Vannelope’s excursion into the Disney Corporate Realm leads to fun cameos (Groot), and newly sad cameos (Stan Lee, R.I.P.), but the meta interaction with the Disney princesses is a hoot. The film cleverly ribs the Disney traditions of old but, and this is the key part, finds ways to relate it back to character conflicts and assumptions. The Disney princesses lead Vanellope into a new soul-searching direction, which leads to an inspired musical number that’s filled with silly, ironic non-sequitors and a declaration of purpose, a wonderful melding of the Disney storytelling of old and new. From here, the movie gets better and better as Ralph goes to greater lengths to sabotage Vanellope’s plans to leave him for a new game. The final act grows from this misguided attempt to hold onto selfish needs and rebuke change, and it culminates in a climax that is built around the characters and what they’re willing to give up for one another. For a movie that starts with silly gags about eBay and Twitter, it grows into something that genuinely could bring some tears.

The overall message, that growing apart is okay and can be healthy, that friendships will inevitably change over time and to not stand in the way of change, is a lesson I was not anticipating from a “family film.” I was expecting Ralph Breaks the Internet to mostly cover the dark side of the Internet, in an albeit family-friendly manner, about the casual cruelty and lack of empathy that is magnified from the perceived anonymity. The movie does cover some of this material briefly when Ralph stumbles into a hall of mean-spirited comments (“First rule of the Internet: never read the comments”). I was expecting a more simplified and pat lesson about the evils of the Internet, but instead the filmmakers deliver something far more applicable and important for young people. They could have gone for easy life lessons about online behavior, and instead Ralph Breaks the Internet goes above and beyond to make its message more personal and sympathetic.

Reilly (Kong: Skull Island) provides a lot of heart to his doofus; enough to keep him grounded even when his character starts making bad decisions to keep the status quo. Silverman (Battle of the Sexes) has a harder time just because she’s asked to keep her voice at a childlike level, which can be grating at certain points. She is still able to convey an array of emotions. The relationship between Ralph and Vanellope is key to the series being more than the sum of its parts, and both actors help this through their sometimes warm, sometimes bickering interactions. The biggest new addition is Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) as Shank, the leader of a gang of car thieves. She’s a tough lady that takes an immediate shine to the attitude and gusto of Vanellope. The character and her world are more welcomed than Gadot as a vocal actor. She’s fairly limited in range. I did enjoy that they specifically animated Jason Mantzoukas (Netflix’s Big Mouth) as a nerdy question-asker and Oscar-nominee June Squibb (Nebraska) for five seconds each.

The Wreck-It Ralph franchise is another stellar plank in a growing armada of Disney animated franchises that could challenge Pixar for supremacy. Walking away from Ralph Breaks the Internet, I had to think it over but I concluded that I was more emotionally fulfilled and pleased than with Pixar’s Incredibles 2. I’m not going to argue that Ralph is the better of the two movies when it comes to storytelling, visual inventiveness, or action, but I was happier and more satisfied leaving Ralph. This is an imaginative, colorful, cheerful, and heartfelt movie with a valuable message and the understanding of narrative structure to see it through. I’m now thinking about a potential third Ralph movie (the director says there won’t be another, but let’s see what Disney says after those box-office grosses come in). We’ve gone to the realm of online gaming, so what’s next? Maybe Ralph’s game gets transferred to a collector’s home out of the country, like in Japan, and then it’s about Japanese gaming culture. Or my pal Ben Bailey suggested Ralph’s game gets relocated into a movie theater, one of the few places arcade machines are still present, and it’s Ralph in the world of the movies. The fact that I’m pitching sequels says something about the franchise’s potential and its accomplishment. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a worthy sequel with of equal parts compassion and wit.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

In 1973, tennis player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was the number one player in the world, but to many she was still only just a woman playing a man’s game. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was a retired tennis player trying his hand at being a family man. He’s restless and eager to prove something. He’s a natural hustler and so he sees female tennis players fighting for equal pay as his opportunity at a comeback. Riggs wants to prove a point about the inferiority of female athletes. He will play and beat any female tennis pro. He embraces the term of being a male chauvinist and becomes a lightning rod. Men around the world cluck about their biological superiority in athleticism. Billie Jean King feel the full pressure to prove him wrong and make a stand for the women’s movement.

I was pleasantly surprised at the degree of depth given to the characters in Battle of the Sexes, turning what could have been a light-hearted and sprightly throwback to a sports novelty into something a bit deeper and more meaningful, a thoughtful character piece on this climactic conversion of sports, celebrity, and feminism that still resonates.

Billie Jean King is the number one women’s tennis player in the world at age 29. She’s also deeply in the closet and Battle of the Sexes gives considerable attention to this internal conflict of self. The film successfully makes you feel her yearning and unrestrained attraction to hair stylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). The directors film their first interaction in extreme close-up, which forces them together tighter and allows us to see every little tremor of nerves play across Stone’s face. Her affair with Marilyn coasts on that combination of guilt and compulsion, the push and pull of what she desires and what she can have. Sponsors would not take kindly to an openly gay tennis star. Billie Jean King is struggling with her concept of who she is versus the expectations of others and society. By stepping up to Riggs’ challenge, she is fighting for her own sense of agency. She feels the intense pressure to perform with the credibility of women’s sports placed upon her shoulders. She’s fighting for equal pay and fair treatment, but what happens to that mission if she fails against a 55-year-old oaf? Billie Jean King comes across as a compelling specimen, feisty and independent but also hampered by what those around her would think over her feelings for another woman.

Stone delivers a far more layered and emotionally engaging performance here than in her Oscar-winning turn in La La Land. Hers is a character trying to become comfortable in her own skin. Riggs is the showboat while Billie Jean King is not comfortable in the spotlight. Stone displays the grit and tenacity as well as the vulnerability and complexity of her character’s self doubts and internal struggles. Her scenes with Marilyn have a vitality to them that is absent throughout the rest of the movie, allowing the audience to understand how that burgeoning romance unlocks something within her, something that she might not even fully comprehend. When she does win the big match, Stone seeks solitude and just cries her eyes out, finally able to let her guard down, acknowledge the toll of the moment, the relief of not letting down the women’s movement, and the sheer elation of rising to the occasion. It’s a moment where Billie Jean King feels her most free, where she’s sobbing by herself. Once that’s done she has to collect herself and get back in front of the cameras, adopting her shield once again to face the outside world.

And then there was Bobby Riggs, 55 years old at the time and languishing on the seniors’ tennis circuit and desperately missing the spotlight. The movie finds notes to make him more of a character rather than simply a misogynistic antagonist, and whether that shaded portrayal is deserved is another question. Riggs is fully convinced of his physical capabilities and that he can beat the stars of the women’s tour. These are women fighting for equality and equal pay but Bobby, and he’s certainly not alone, believe that the sexes are inherently unequal when it comes to physical competition. For him, it’s a way to prove his skills and send a message as well, but more so, as presented in the film, it seems like it’s the spotlight that he misses most. He’s enviously licking his lips at the tournament prize purses on the tennis circuit now, even the women’s prizes. He can make more money than he’s ever earned in his pro career. He can still contend, he can still prove something, and the money and stage has never been bigger. He’s getting far more attention at 55 than he ever received during his pro tennis career where he won four Grand Slam titles (he was the number one player for three years). Carell (The Big Short) is well suited to play broad characters that get even bigger with attention. He’s soaking up every moment as if he’s finally getting what he feels is long overdue, and every hammy PR stunt only magnifies the intensity of that attention. He’s a huckster who gleefully adopts the moniker of a misogynist. At 55, Bobby Riggs has found himself in the biggest spotlight with waves of adoring fans and he doesn’t want to give it up.

You know who else comes across really well in this movie is Billie Jean’s husband, Larry King (not to be confused with the TV host of the same name). It’s not a film that props up the husband as the focal point of someone else’s story; there are more important aspects than how Billie Jean’s lesbianism affects him. However, he is still an important person in Billie Jean’s life and he is processing a form of loss. His relationship with her cannot stay the same, but Larry recognizes what she needs and chooses to be supportive rather than vindictive. He cares enough to put her needs ahead of his own, and that only increased my empathy for him. A marriage pulled in multiple directions is ripe for examination, and it’s rare to maintain sympathy for all of the participants and this movie does.

By the time that seismic tennis battle comes about, the directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) smartly refrain from lots of edits and angles, instead preferring a standard TV shot to better immerse the audience. The camera angle allows for the entire tennis court to be displayed, and we’ll watch sets play out in long takes with the two athletes running up and down the court. This allows us better understand and appreciate the strategy of both players, and it also probably makes the special effects budget happy as they don’t have to do much to cover the presence of the stand-ins playing the game instead of our movie stars. Even though I knew how the match would end, I was glued to the screen because of everything the match represented. By forgoing the quick cuts and multiple angles that can jazz up the excitement of a tennis presentation, the film is able to carefully illustrate Billie Jean King’s strategy and skill. She intended to run Bobby Riggs up and down the court and exhaust him. Letting the tennis game play out in a wider presentation also better serves the sense of payoff. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for, as were the 50 million Americans that tuned in. When she does win, I couldn’t get enough of the montage of chagrined male faces twisting in pained grimaces as this lady proved to be the superior player. You could give me a whole movie of pained reaction shots from misogynists and I would be ecstatic.

It’s also hard to ignore the parallels Battle of the Sexes makes with our current climate. 44 years later, women are still fighting tooth and nail for equality and credibility without qualifiers. Serena Williams is not just the greatest female tennis player of all time; she’s also the greatest tennis player, period. Women’s sports are often seen as lesser in comparison to the men, and abhorrent pay discrepancies are still a reality. Look at the U.S. women’s soccer team, which won the World Cup in 2015, only earning a small fraction of the U.S. men’s team, who finished fifteenth out of a group of sixteen. The casual sexism and lowered expectations extend beyond the realm of sports, as the 2016 presidential election serves as a powerful reminder of the obstacles professional women face in modern society. It’s easy to view Battle of the Sexes through the lens of the 2016 election: a very capable woman who just wanted to do her job is lambasted by an inferior opponent coasting on puffed-up bravado, masculinity, sensationalism, and the sense that the established order of white males is losing something divinely theirs. I’ll admit that channeling this analogue does provide the ending with even more uplift.

Battle of the Sexes is an engrossing story with big personalities, big conflicts, and big stakes, and it feels just as socially resonant forty years later. The messaging can be a bit heavy-handed at time, as Bill Pullman’s character seems to be a composite of all male chauvinism personified, but it’s still easy to get swept along with its sunny cinematography, 1970s period soundtrack, and feel-good story that remembers to always be entertaining. The characters have more depth than I was expecting, and the actors bring extra layers and shades to their roles, making Bobby Riggs a better rounded character than he might have been in real life. Battle of the Sexes is a timely crowd pleaser that doesn’t lose sight of its characters in the guise of its message. By the end of the film, I was cheering, moved, and nicely satisfied, and what more could you ask for?

Nate’s Grade: B+

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

MV5BMTQ0NDcyNjg0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzk4NTA4MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_I was no fan of Seth MacFarlane’s first big-screen effort Ted, but I had my hopes up for his Western comedy after some genuinely funny trailers and the reported promise of a lack of anachronistic jokes. A Million Ways to Die in the West lands about half of its jokes, which is a definite improvement though still has enough dead spots that left me shifting around in my seat. The main conceit, a self-aware individual explaining all the myriad ways the Wild West is horrible and will kill you, is a fun operating principal that is also weirdly educational. And MacFarlane actually makes a pretty good comedic leading man, enough so that he could get gigs in other people’s movies. He plays a coward roped into fighting an outlaw (Liam Neeson) after unknowingly falling for the outlaw’s wife (Charlize Theron). The meta jokes critiquing the romanticized living conditions of the West have the highest percentage of laughs, and there are some great sequences like a trip at the local fair which turns deadly so easily. Theron and MacFaralane make a good pair and the supporting cast, with Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman, are funny and don’t overstay their welcome. Neil Patrick Harris is also amusing as ever and even gets a song-and-dance number about the virtues of mustaches that, honestly, should have been better. But every so often MacFarlane can’t help himself. There are some gross-out jokes that go a little too far. Then there’s the fact that the movie forgets to be a comedy for long stretches, morphing into an action thriller or budding romance. The scenery is nice but I would have liked more jokes. The movie is also far longer than it needs to be, dragging out the climax. I’m also somewhat disappointed that MacFaralne and his writers missed out on an obvious payoff, namely the myriad ways the West can kill you. It only seems natural for Neeson and his gang to be foiled by the West itself, which would present a fun guessing game for the audience to anticipate what deadly condition would strike next. Alas, a missed opportunity. A Million Ways to Die in the West is a hit-or-miss affair with just enough hits to warrant a casual viewing.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Disney has taken plenty of drubbings with its non-Pixar animation output. They’ve all but abandoned traditional 2D animation, and the failure of The Princess and the Frog is unlikely to alter that decision-making. The Disney stand-alones have gotten better in quality; last year’s Tangled was well received and banked some nice dough. I expect Wreck-It Ralph to do even better. A film about the lives of video game characters seems ripe for a merchandizing bonanza, plus all the parents will need something to shut up their sweet little bundles of joy for two hours of relief.

Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the villain of a classic arcade game. He climbs a condo building, Donkey Kong-style, and smashes windows. Felix (Jack McBrayer) is the handyman the player controls, hopping from ledge to ledge fixing what is broken with his magic hammer. But Ralph is tired of always being the bad guy, getting hurled off the roof at the end of every game by the residents. He’s labeled as a “bad guy” but he doesn’t believe he’s so bad. To convince the townspeople of his game of his worth, Ralph abandons his game to seek a medal like what Felix earns at the end of every game. He trounces around an assortment of games, including a space Marine shoot-em-up led by the no-nonsense Calhoun (Jane Lynch), before landing in Sugar Rush, a girlie version of Mario Kart. Here he meets the rascally girl Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). She agrees to help Ralph get his medal if he’ll help her build a racing car and get her in the game. Vanellope lives on the run as a glitch in programming. The other game characters tell her she’s a mistake, but she knows she’s a racer at heart. Except without Ralph, Felix and the other game characters seem like they’re glitching. If they can’t get him back, they may lose their game and their home.

It’s essentially a Toy Story for gamers, discovering the hidden world of video games when nobody’s looking. There’s a great sense of fun and discovery learning about these characters and their worlds as well as what they do off the clock. I love the idea of a support group for video game villains coping with their lot in life. I feel like this could have been a movie unto itself and I would have been pleased. There are plenty of references to games from the 80s and 90s, before everything became an endless variation on first-person shoot and kill games of sport. Really the references are only going to work for former or current gamers in their 20s or 30s, maybe even 40s. Are teenagers even going to understand the famous Konami code or get the subway scrawl, “All your base are belong to us”? Heck, are teenagers even going to know what arcades are at this point? The cameos are kept to a minimum as we switch over to our main characters. Wreck-It Ralph isn’t as clever or groundbreaking as the Toy Story films, but it gets points for trying something different than most family films, which are content with the somehow irresistible combination of fart jokes and inappropriate pop-culture references. Even non-gamers will likely find something to enjoy with the movie. I’ve gone on record saying that there will likely never be a good video game movie. Allow me to amend that statement: there will never be a good movie BASED upon a video game.

Set in the world of video games is another matter. The animation style is very colorful and impressive, with some fun quirks to give the movie an extra dash of personality. I really enjoyed how the Weeble-like people in Ralph’s game move in staccato 8-bit style; a herky-jerky movement that left me smiling every time. The running jokes helped to turn a half-hearted gag into a thing of beauty, like Calhoun’s tragic bridal backstory. The antagonist of King Candy (voiced by an unrecognizable Alan Tudyk) proves to be more interesting than at first glance. The different game settings all have very different tones, allowing the movie to present a nice variety of visual imagery. Some of the more frenzied action of the “Hero’s Duty” game might scare young children. The animation looks wonderful and even the recreation of the graphically limited games is cause for some amusement. That’s probably the best word for Wreck-It Ralph; it’s routinely amusing and provides enough chuckles for me to mildly recommend to others. I would not, however, recommend seeing this movie in 3D. You would think a world of video games would be quite a boon in the extra dimension, but the 3D is hardly noticeable at all. This may be the worst 3D rendering of a major movie I’ve ever seen, and usually animated films are the best ones to see with 3D. Regardless, the substandard 3D won’t detract from what is an enjoyable theatrical experience.

What helps smooth over the film’s flaws is the presence of heart. Yes it too can get saccharine at turns, and that’s not a joke about Sugar Rush, but you’ll be surprised that by the end of the movie, you may actually be feeling things in your heart-space for these characters and their plights. Again, here is another 2012 movie that rips off the ending to the brilliant 1999 animated classic, The Iron Giant. Perhaps some of my emotional engagement is residual association from that masterpiece. If this is true, and Hollywood filmmakers have found the secret formula to make audiences feel emotions, then I await the onslaught of movies copying the ending to The Iron Giant (I won’t spoil it but for God’s sake, go out and see that movie). After about 30 minutes, the film really becomes a buddy picture between Ralph and Vanellope, outcasts from their games. Neither character is that deep, though perhaps that goes with the programming. They both are denied better lives because of others prejudices against them. When they join forces as a team to buck the establishment is when the movie finds a wealth of sweetness. While their character arcs will be completely predictable, from the misunderstanding and reconciliation, but that doesn’t mean it misses the mark. Their relationship, and the film’s simple goals, can get bogged down in the messy plot mechanics of the movie (there are a lot of rules to digest). The climax, though, is filled with all number of payoffs, some big some small, some you’d forgotten about; I’m genuinely impressed how smoothly the movie ties together storylines, finding a perfect return of the bad guy support group pledge to form an emotional peak.

There is a fun to be had and Wreck-It Ralph has enough colorful imagery to make your eyes glaze over. However, the story is a blend of familiar “be yourself” aphorisms given a retro polish. The motivation for Ralph, and Vanellope as well, is very flimsy, and the more time they repeat these miniscule goals (get a medal/compete in a race) the flimsier they become. Ralph is risking it all to get a medal because a shiny award is all it takes to convince the people in his game that he deserves better. The dubious logic seems pulled right out of a video game. There’s also a fair amount of messages about not being trapped by labels, breaking from the herd, believing in yourself, all those sorts of Disney beatitudes they’ve been dishing since the 90s. The plot also seems to fly well below its potential. We’re talking about a world of video games, and there’s a definite interest in seeing these realms mix and match. Unfortunately, the movie spends 2/3 of its running time in the candy-coated land of Sugar Rush. It’s here where Vanellope takes over the movie. Her relationship with Ralph works in fits and starts, and her annoyance level will vary sharply depending upon your tolerance index for Silverman’s baby-doll voice. Aside from a few retro cameos and puns, the humor is assuredly juvenile and filled with endless slapstick. Hope you like three minutes of “duty/doodie” jokes. You’re better than this, Wreck-It Ralph.

There’s one glaring plot hole that I feel deserves some deliberation. Throughout the film we glimpse Felix’s hammer magically fixing things that are broken. Just one whap and good as new. A late conflict arrives with the danger of the Sugar Rush game getting its plug pulled. The residents of the game could flee, but Vanellope would be stuck because she is a glitch, she cannot escape the game if it goes dead. Well couldn’t Felix use his hammer, tap Vanellope, and then “fix” her? To that end, what happens if the whole arcade goes out of business? We see the displaced game characters hang out at the surge protector, modeled like a train station. But what if that gets unhooked as well? How far can these guys run away to? They all seem inevitably doomed due to the dwindling business of arcades. Maybe somebody should start up a non-profit charity. Cue the Sarah McLachlan song (for just quarters a day, you can help a video game character in need…).

Colorful, vibrant, and occasionally witty, Wreck-It Ralph is Disney’s latest animated film to succeed with a solid formula of heart, attitude, and with an extra dash of nostalgia. I did enjoy the film but I always kept thinking there were so many better movies ready to be made given this setup. It does seem a little confused about who its audience is. It’s a bit too childish for grown-ups and a bit too plot-heavy and full of nostalgia for little kids. It packs a lot of jokes and plot into 108 minutes, which feels draggy at turns but flies by with enough spirit and energy that it’s hard to complain. Wreck-It Ralph is a perfectly entertaining movie that fits the definition of cute. It manages to make you care about the characters, which is a small miracle when you’re dealing with characters named Vanellope. Now that they’ve established this universe, hopefully Disney and the writers can expand their storytelling and really have fun with the possibilities at play.

Oh, and the short before the movie about a couple looking to find one another in the big city is rather cute though I liked it better before it went overboard with the supernatural.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Aristocrats (2005)

A man walks into a talent agency. He tells the agent he’s got a family act the likes of which no one has ever seen before. The agent tells the man to continue. The man’s wife, children, and pet come into the room and proceed to do the most vile, puerile, horrendously vulgar acts to themselves and each other. The agent is shocked. After a long moment of silence, the agent says, “What do you call this act?” The man replies, “The Aristocrats!” Ba-dum-dum.

It’s really not a good joke, but what makes it special is that the middle is entirely open for the comic to say whatever they want. Comedians will build and build in their obscenity so that the weak punchline is practically an afterthought. It’s a joke that goes all the way back to the days of vaudeville. Comics tell it to each other after shows like a secret handshake. The Aristocrats, an unrated documentary, gathers 100 comedians and lets them put their own crass spin on a classic dirty joke.

The movie boasts plenty of well-known names getting down and dirty, like Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg, George Carlin, the South Park creators, Jason Alexander, Eric Idle, Richard Lewis, Andy Dick, Fred Willard, Howie Mandel, Eddie Izzard, and Drew Carey (he insists the punchline should be accompanied by finger-snaps). Few comedians give a full rendition of the joke but the clips are just as potent. Judy Gold involves her unborn baby in the act and Carrie Fisher says her mother likes to sing in a very different kind of shower, but the filthiest mind of all belongs to Bob Saget, who can’t make it through without breaking up and saying, “What am I doing?” The Aristocrats also includes comics from different eras, including Larry Storch, the Smothers Brothers (one of which has never heard the joke before), and even Phyllis Diller, who pretty much just cackles at others. Dana Gould manages to pull together a very funny clean rendition involving the Amish version of the joke. The film opens on Carlin, closes on Gilbert Gottfried, and oh what a journey the film takes.

The Aristocrats is very very funny but also a rather incisive look at the nature of comedy. In between dishing the dirt, various comedians rhapsodize about the mechanics of comedy, the freedom in conquering taboos, and the intricacies of delivery (Paul Reiser stresses that any poo-related parts should be saved for the big finish). Penn Jilette says, “It’s the singer, not the song.” The Aristocrats displays comedy like it was jazz, each individual playing the same note a different way.

Things get a tad repetitious after awhile and the vulgarity starts to lose its impact once you’ve listened to countless unspeakable acts, mostly involving family members, the animal kingdom, and the loosening of bowels. As an example, my friend from college, Jason Davis, attended Mardi Gras in New Orleans one year, and as any viewer of late night TV will attest, the girls have gone wild. The ladies, it seems, will freely show you their bosoms in exchange for cheap plastic beads, and some don’t even want anything in return. Jason said the experience was amazing, at first, but after hours of non-stop frontal nudity, it all got a little tiring after awhile. The rampant nudity lost its effect and Jason started paying more attention to the women who actually kept their clothes on. So too is it with The Aristocrats, in a manner of speaking.

The film’s unabashed vulgarity will spur guffaws and titters, especially in an “Oh-my-God-did-he/she-just-say-that?” way. But after so many tellings, things that were funny because they were taboo don’t seem as funny in repetition. It’s at this point that an audience can really appreciate comics that take unconventional routes toward telling the joke. Eric Meade does a card trick, Kevin Pollack does the joke as Christopher Walken, Mario Cantone performs the joke as Liza Minnelli, Sarah Silverman actually puts herself in the joke’s family (for my money, she gives the best performance), Penn and Teller do a magic trick with a soda bottle, there are jugglers, a ventriloquist, and even a mime. The Aristocrats still has its straightforward dirty pleasures, but it’s much more satisfying when certain comics work outside the box.

It should be obvious at this point but The Aristocrats is not going to be a movie for most people. The incredibly course language and graphic accounts of lewd acts will not sit well with most of the American public. This is a movie strictly for people that have a strong stomach and like hearing a dirty joke. For that group, The Aristocrats will knock you silly with laughter. My three friends whom I saw the film with said they were in pain from laughing so hard. Perhaps that speaks volumes about the company I keep.

The Aristocrats is a bawdy, filthy, hilarious documentary that becomes more than a bunch of funnymen retelling a dirty joke. This is a film for a very select audience, to say the least, and it does lag at parts when the continual vulgarity loses its impact. The Aristocrats also seems to be erratically edited; scenes will rapidly jump from different angles for little reason. Every comedian has their own style and every audience member will find something different to strike their funny bone. At the very end, The Aristocrats invites viewers to submit their own form of the joke for the eventual DVD. I don’t know about you but I’ve already got a goldmine of ideas.

Nate’s Grade: B

School of Rock (2003)

School is now in session. Jack Black has long been a Hollywood oddity. He’’s a whirlwind of manic energy but it can be accurately placed (his breakthrough in High Fidelity), or misused on hollow roles (Saving Silverman). Black is also a credited musician with his band, Tenacious D. Writer and sometime actor Mike White is a friend of Black’’s and said he wrote the lead in School of Rock specifically for him. Will Black measure up with his first lead role, or will he be held back?

Jack Black plays Dewey Finn, a thirty-something lead guitarist who takes rambling guitar solos and crowd surfs even when there’s no one to catch him. His band mates fire Dewey from the group for his outlandish behavior. Dewey’’s roommate (Mike White), and especially his harpy girlfriend (Sarah Silverman, generally wasted here) urge him to find a job and start pulling his weight. A call comes in for Dewey’’s roommate to substitute teach at a prep school. Dewey poses as his pal and enters the ranks of academia. When he finds out that his class plays instruments he organizes them into a band as a class project. When someone questions what they’’re learning, Dewey shouts that they’’re learning rock ‘n’ roll, which he says, “”Will test your head, and your mind, and your brain too.””

Black has showed scene-stealing ability in other films, but School of Rock gives Black the role he was born to play. His character isn’’t some high-minded jerk that learns the errors of his ways by having his rough exterior melted by the compassion of children. Heck no. Black’’s character remains rock’s willing soldier from beginning to end, but School of Rock gives him the chance to share his passion and instill it in the youth. Black’’s circus of eye bulging, energetic gyrations, and infectious excitement make a vibrant lead that can make us laugh at a moment’’s notice. It’’s a marvelous performance full of rock bliss.

Non-professional actors play the prep school kids that populate School of Rock. They smartly decided to have the kids played by real musical prodigies, so when they get jamming that’s real ten-year-olds and eleven-year-olds putting people to shame with their musical ability.

The film isn’t anything new exactly. Its story is somewhat familiar, but it’s got an attitude all its own. School of Rock uses familiar elements and comforts the viewer, but its madcap energy, touching moments of heart, and ambitious belief that music can change lives will leave the viewer smiling from beginning to end. There wasn’t a second I wasn’t smiling or laughing while watching School of Rock.

School of Rock is a joyous movie that excels with sweetness. Let’s just get down to it and say the flick is monstrously funny, heartwarming, inspired, charming, entertaining and certifiably rockin’’ enough to blow you and your neighbor’s socks off. Don’t be fooled by the PG-13 label (which I’’m still scratching my head over), because School of Rock is the perfect film for families of all ages. It’s got a genuine tenderness most comedies lack, and it also has a consistently cheery sense of humor that never resorts to inane gross-out gags like so many current comedies. This is one to take the kids and grandma too.

In lesser hands this film could have been a disaster. The kids would come off as cloying, Black’s character would come off as a crude loaf, Joan Cusack’’s (a wonderful performance, by the way) principal character would just be an uptight bitch, and the familiar story would seem syrupy, like a Dead Poets Society with guitars instead of suicide. Under the smooth direction of Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life), one of the stalwarts of the 90s independent film renaissance, School of Rock strikes the right balance between warmth and Black’s uncaged craziness. Linklater has taken his indie sensibilities and assuredly given the film a heart that beats to the rhythm of rock n’ roll, that also never falters into sticky sentimentality.

School of Rock is an exuberant comedy, sharply written, with confident direction, cute kids, and the dynamic performance of Black. The movie will appeal to families, fans of Black, and people tired of feel-good formula films or those looking for a feel-good film. School of Rock will lift up your spirits and make you want to dance in your seat. I raise my goblet of rock and salute you, makers of School of Rock, for the greatest 108 minutes of fun I’’ve had this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

Way of the Gun (2000)

Way of the Gun is screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie’s follow-up to the twisty smash who-dunnit The Usual Suspects. This time he takes the reigns of directing himself and establishes that he is a born man behind the camera and in the chair.

Gun unfolds its tale through the center of two antisocial hoodlums “Parker” (Ryan Phillippe) and “Longbaugh” (Benicio Del Toro), two men brought to the point of selling plasma and sperm to pay the bills. One afternoon they overhear a conversation in the doctor’s office about a wealthy couple paying a woman (Juliet Lewis) to act as the surrogate mother for their child. It seems the real mother just doesn’t want to be burdened with a child hanging on her for nine months. The two men use this information to plot what should be their big break and their big score. After a scheduled doctor’s visit they get into a heated shoot out with the bodyguards (Nicky Katt and Taye Diggs) protecting her for their wealthy employer. Parker and Longbaugh kidnap their impregnated prize and hold her to squeeze a fat ransom.

The story-telling Way of the Gun plays is a mix of older mature films where they would have room to breathe as well as Quentin Tarantino flicks. This is a story of characters and their devious multiple back stabbings, crosses, secret affiliations, and ultimate intentions. ‘Gun’ moves methodically with an armada of gaunt twists and turns keeping the audience alive and awake.

James Caan comes in mid-way to play a conniving intermediary in the exchange. His character is the wisest of the bunch and knows more then he’s always telling. It’s also quite a perplexing site to see Caan’s nipples through his shirt in an interrogation scene. Up to this point I never thought about James Caan having nipples.

The action in the flick is pulse-pounding. The shootouts are probably the best on film in a long while. You see and hear every effect a bullet has. The final climax which involves a drawn out gun battle in an empty Mexican brothel is a scene of sheer excitement and relentless entertainment that it may well be my favorite 10-15 minutes of film all year.

There can be a word to describe Way of the Gun and that word could be “ugly.” This is not a film for everyone. The violence and its after-effects can be gruesome at times, as I heard just as much groans and shrieks in my theater than anything else. There’s scenes of picking shards of glass from one’s own arm, performing stitches on one’s eyebrow, and even an impromptu hand done C-section. This will not be something to take grandma to.

Way of the Gun pacing is also a problem. There are moments of drag as we wait and wait. The languid pacing works for the story and the characters but the double-edge sword creates dry spells of interest. The score uses tympani to full extent, sometimes beyond that which it reasonably should.

McQuarrie has sold me with his re-spinning of tired cliches and familiar elements into gold. Way of the Gun is a flick I’ll see with my friends time and again.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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