At 44, I sometimes feel like I’ve been growing up for decades while popular culture has been standing still. Radio stations I hear in grocery stores and coffee shops play the same songs that were popular when I was in high school. The comic books and fantasy novels that I read in the 1970s and 1980s (or their derivatives) have become the blockbuster TV and film franchises of the 2010s.Saturday Night Live has been on the air, in sickness and in health, since I was 5. And Hollywood studios are still making sequels to the movie that was my favorite at the age of 7.
But one thing has changed — we no longer get raunchy R-rated comedies targeted at teenagers. Back in their heyday, movies likePorky’s and Zapped and Screwballs were all about high school and high-schoolers, and they were obviously designed to appeal to viewers of the same age. Hell, the good ones — I think immediately of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but I know there are others — had three-dimensional female characters and could even teach a kid something useful about human relations. But over the years, culture has changed. Now we get raunchy R-rated comedies about and for adults. We get 40-Year Old Virgins andThis Is 40s and, Neighbors. in which the buff, sexy frat kids are actually the bad guys and the square 30-something couple next door are the righteous heroes, able to smoke up and party down to spec but still coming out righteously on top of the extended kerfuffle.
I approve of the loose, matter-of-fact approach to adult sex, with Seth Rogen’s soft hips making another appearance on the big screen, as well as the irreverent treatment of parenthood. But I wonder at the way this film turns suburban schlubs like me into wise-cracking, big-screen heroes with enough of the right moves to completely shut down the cool kids. It makes me laugh, and that’s the main thing. But is it wrong to be a little annoyed by the flattery?
In the late 1930s, as a little man named Adolf Hitler prepared the fearsome German army to run roughshod over the country’s European neighbours, Charles Chaplin, one of the greatest of all film artists, responded to the threat of war in the only way that made sense: He prepared a new comedy, The Great Dictator, that mocked Hitler directly. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine Chaplin could have done anything else. Ignoring Hitler was already out of the question. The similarities between Chaplin and the Nazi leader were often remarked upon, including by Chaplin himself. For one thing, they obviously shared the same moustache. (More than coincidence?) They were born within the same four-day period in April 1889. They both grew up in poverty, and there were superficial similarities in their sensibility–Hitler was a frustrated artist and, like Chaplin, a fan of Wagner. Chaplin’s son famously remembered his father saying, “Just think, he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.”
This merry band of clowns, physical comedians each and every one, may have peaked with the outrageous, hilarious Jackass Number Two, the first installment in the popular TV/DVD/theatrical franchise to reckon with Father Time. The boys are even older here, of course, but Jackass 3D doesn’t feel quite as candid or revealing as the previous installment. Instead, it goes straight for the gross-out — I don’t recall Jackass ever being so fixated on bodily secretions and excretions as it is here. (They shit! They sweat! They piss! On each other!)
Easy A is a pleasant enough high-school movie, and it’s certainly a sign of bigger things to come for the terrific Emma Stone, who tucks the whole film under her arm and runs with it. Stone plays the kind of teenaged girl who’s as bright and hot as the noonday sun but is still a wallflower at her high school. In other words, she’s a work of fiction – and one who starts getting noticed by her classmates only when she gains a reputation as a loose woman, displaying a red letter A on her chest.
The 70s exploitation-film spoof Black Dynamite sounds like a fun idea on paper, and it starts to look like a can’t-miss proposition when you see the theatrical trailer, which showcases the technical qualities of this loving pastiche. Director Scott Sanders certainly gets the look right, thanks partly to no-frills era-aware photography by DP Shawn Maurer and partly to some digital tweaking that brings the colors in line with that ruddy aesthetic specific to some film prints of the period, and that’s crucial to the joke. As the titular bad-ass, a former CIA agent with a reinstated license to kill out to avenge the death of his brother, Michael Jai White combines a deadpan-comic screen presence with enough martial artistry to make a fight scenes work on a more visceral level than pure parody. But something about the execution is flat.
I’m a little late to the Play Time party, having sampled and abandoned Jacques Tati on Criterion laserdisc way back when, finding his work to require, I guess, more patience than I had back in my college years. But Play Time is new on Blu-ray, transferred from a recent HD remaster of Tati’s 70mm comedy of modern manners that has it looking better than it ever will outside of a movie theater, and it’s clearly a singular achievement. In an essay accompanying the disc, Jonathan Rosenbaum outright disses the whole idea of watching Play Time on TV, arguing that because public space is the film’s very subject, it’s also the most appropriate setting for its exhibition. (The film was probably never going to be a tremendous popular success, but Tati limited its commercial prospects by insisting that its initial engagements in France take place only in 70mm.) I missed that boat — there was a restored 70mm print playing in New York a few years back — but this Blu-ray Disc and a decent screen will at least allow a viewer to imagine what it must look like on a proper screen, and in that it’s highly recommended.
I can’t really think of any way to approach In the Loop except by way of the obvious comparison, so here it is: it’s The Office meets Dr. Strangelove. This film, a political farce filled with smart performances and rich profanity in service of both hilarity and despair, borrows its fly-on-the-wall schtick from The Office (either version, take your pick), but elevates the phony vérité strategy by transposing the action from the television show’s cubicles of inconsequence to the very halls of power. Taking place among mostly unsung functionaries in the governments of Great Britain and the United States in the lead-up to the invasion of an unnamed Middle Eastern country, it never attempts to scale the boldly satirical heights of Dr. Strangelove, or to emulate that film’s depictions of megalomania and insanity as catalysts for war. But it is unfailingly witty in its speculation that international aggression isn’t driven by mania as much as facilitated by banality — the case for war as the unwitting spawn of so much interpersonal dick-waving.
New York Times critic Bosley Crowther once complained of Stanley Kubrick’s harrowing and hilarious Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, “Virtually everybody turns up stupid or insane — or, what is worse, psychopathic.” Crowther’s concern was not just that Kubrick was making a sick joke out of the idea of nuclear war, but that he seemed (to Crowther) to be out to undermine, discredit and mock the entire American military and executive establishment, depicting the U.S.A. itself as a dangerously deranged member of the global community. Dr. Strangelove is, of course, essential satire and a stone classic. Observe and Report is more derivative and less urgent. Still, it’s quite something. Watching it made me feel a little bit like Bosley Crowther fussing over the Kubrick. “Somehow, to me, it isn’t funny,” Crowther wrote. “It is malefic and sick.”