Saturday, June 11, 2011

In Theaters: "Just Like Us"

Reviewed at Tribeca 2010: One of the most interesting new forms of nonfiction film is the "comic-doc exploration," in which a stand-up comic and social commentator uses the tools of the documentary film and his own sense of humor to cook up a dish more funny and conventionally entertaining than your average essay film. Bill Maher took on organized religion in Religulous, Chris Rock investigated black hair issues in Good Hair, and now Egyptian stand-up comedian and actor Ahmed Ahmed (one of the stars of Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show and The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour) explores American and Middle Eastern relations (and the place of comedy within those relationships) in Just Like Us, a slender but enlightening travelogue of his trip through the Middle East with an international group of comedians.

Friday, June 10, 2011

In Theaters: "The Trip"

Director Michael Winterbottom and actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have met before; they collaborated on the baffling yet enchanting Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, with the two actors playing both themselves and characters in the film-within-the-film. In The Trip, an improvised mockumentary/travelogue, they're only playing themselves--or, at least, an extension of the (presumably) comedically exaggerated personas that they played in the earlier film. The result is a giggly, entertaining treat, albeit one that overstays its welcome a touch.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

On DVD: "Rifftrax Live: House on Haunted Hill"

All right guys, enough is enough. Rifftrax Live: House on Haunted Hill is the latest release from Rifftrax, the trio of former Mystery Science Theater 3000 performers who found success after the show creating downloadable mp3 MST3K-style commentary tracks for popular movies. But over the last couple of years, they have expanded their mini-empire to include standard DVDs of the crew “riffing” on public domain titles and doing live shows—both lucrative revenue streams for the other group of MST3K alums, “Cinematic Titanic,” though the CT crew takes their show on tour, while the Rifftrax guys have partnered with Fathom to do live performances that are beamed into movie theaters across the country as one-time events.

So far, so good; I’m a fan of MST in all of its iterations, and the Rifftrax films—both the downloads and the DVDs—have provided me hours of entertainment. But the trouble is, us hardcore MST3K fans will buy just about anything, and it seems that the Rifftrax guys are succumbing to the temptation to sell us just about anything.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

On DVD: "American: The Bill Hicks Story"

For comedy fans, the untimely death of Bill Hicks was tragic on a human level, yes, but also on a selfish one: How many hours of brilliant material were we robbed of? Here is a comic who seemed to be just getting going, having honed his uniquely bristling satiric voice over years of nightclub work (and hard living), and then he was gone, dead of pancreatic cancer at a mere 32 years old. In the years since, Hicks has become one of the most vaunted and idolized figures in the world of stand-up comedy. And now there is a new documentary, American: The Bill Hicks Story, which looks at his brief life and legacy with skill and insight.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On DVD: "Breaking Bad: The Complete Third Season"

By my count, there were three episodes in the third season of Breaking Bad ("One Minute," "Half Measures," and "Full Measure") in which the closing scene is literally gasp-inducing. It is neither new nor noteworthy that the series is tense--from its opening scene of its first episode, Vince Gilligan's drug drama has frequently been tautly suspenseful, almost unbearably so. But it's not just empty tension. There is an inevitability to the events as they unfold; terrible things happen, but seldom out of nowhere. One thing leads to the next that leads to the next, and so on. Late in the season, Walt chastises Jesse thus: "Jesse, your actions... they affect other people." That could very well be the show's credo.

On DVD: "True Grit (2010)"

So it turned out that the notion of the Coen Brothers remaking True Grit wasn’t such a stretch after all. Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn may be one of John Wayne’s most recognizable characters, but as imagined in their 2010 adaptation (and played, expertly, by Jeff Bridges), he’s the latest in a long line of the Coens’ wonderfully loquacious heroes. Their films have always revealed a love of language, of its poetic possibilities and expositional powers; they are partial to men, from H.I. McDonnough to Charlie Meadows to Everett McGill to Professor G.H. Dorr, who take pleasure in the mere act of conversation—who talk, as it were, to hear themselves talk. The Coens enjoy the mere sound of dialogue, as evidenced by a wonderful moment early in True Grit that finds young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) coming up the steps to the courtroom where Cogburn is testifying. She’s not close enough to hear the words, leaving us to make out only the gut-barrel grunt of his throaty tones echoing through the stairwell.

Monday, June 6, 2011

On DVD: "The Company Men"

There’s a wonderful movie happening in Tommy Lee Jones’s eyes, a tale of man worn down by the world, who has seen it all twice and doesn’t care to see it again, who has heard all your stories and pierces through all your bravado. It is the story of a man who has been doing what he does for so long that he’s not even sure why he’s still doing it, who can barely be bothered to raise his voice anymore, since downing a big glass of scotch will get him about the same results.

Unfortunately, that wonderful movie is not The Company Men, although those are qualities that his character in it possesses. But, as has happened so very many times in this fascinating actor’s career, he’s tossing away a complicated, finely-tuned piece of work in an underdeveloped and underwhelming vehicle. Written and directed by veteran TV writer/producer John Wells, it is an insubstantial and, frankly, insincere recession-era drama that doesn’t do right by either Jones or the rest of the talented ensemble.