Tuesday, January 27, 2009

All the President's Sophomores

Just the idea of two giggly teenage girls bringing down the Nixon administration is enough to make you smile. That they also stumbled across the Watergate break-in, ended the war in Vietnam, and negotiated peace accords between the US and the Soviet Union will really make you laugh. But you have to watch the movie Dick with All the President's Men in mind. If you haven't seen the President's Men, the jokes won't be nearly as funny.

All the President's Men tells the story of the two reporters who discovered the conspiracy behind the Watergate break-in. Don't be fooled - it's actually not the story of Richard Nixon and his minions. It's not about the conspiracy and you don't learn the details of the Watergate break-in. It's an homage to those leftist idols, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose fame (as they say) "launched a 1000 journalism majors."

With Dick, I don't know what was more fun: seeing boomer icons Woodward and Bernstein lampooned or seeing Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams play 15 year old girls with such silly accuracy. The bright and witty screenplay, the amazing recreation of circa 1972 Washington, D.C., and a loveable Nixon just add to the loony fun. C'mon, when have you ever seen Richard M. Nixon, disgrace of the Republican party (still!), portrayed with sympathy? Make no mistake, Nixon is presented here with all of his paranoia, evil machinations in play, and foul temper, but he's still likeable enough that cute little Arlene (Michelle Williams) develops a mega-crush for him. There's nothing as attractive as power, even when you're Dick Nixon.

One of sweetest aspects of this film is the innocence of these two girls. Even though they're in high school, they are quite wholesome. As the crass title informs, there are several adults-only jokes here. But the goofy portrayals of Woodward (Will Farrell), Bernstein, Nixon, and even Kissinger will make up for it.

This revisionist look at the political climate of the 1970's, the decade that created so many cynics, makes you wish it was all true. You wish Betsy and Arlene really had destroyed the Nixon administration with their Hello Dolly snack bars.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ghost Town

Ricky Gervais is famous for his comedic innovation. After creating the British television show The Office with Stephen Merchant, he brought his seemingly real, slightly uncomfortable sense of humor to American viewers with the same show, starring Steve Carrell. In Ghost Town, Gervais brings his uneasy wit to the movie screen.

Ghost Town is a romantic comedy of a sort. Gervais plays a dentist, Bertram Pincus, who is a classic misanthrope. He spends his time avoiding human interaction and prefers his own company. After a routine hospital procedure, he dies briefly. He goes about his normal life, abrasive and unfriendly, but he is inundated with visitors, visitors from the other side of life. That is, visitors from death, or ghosts.

You wonder, after seeing Gervais in The Office, how much of his work is acting. He's probably really that big of a jerk. His character from television, officer manager David Brent, is unlikeably real and creates such awkwardness the show can be as off-putting as his character. It's a mishmash of reality television and situation comedy, with it's jostling single camera and hard to discern plot. But in Ghost Town, Gervais exudes that same off-putting attitude, although with much more confidence. And at the same time, you are charmed by his unhappiness, his loneliness. That's what you never saw with his David Brent character. Brent is self-centered and self-serving out of sheer neediness, but you never sympathize with him. You can't stand him. The vulnerability and subtlety in Ghost Town is the real surprise and gift of the film.

And Ricky Gervais isn't the only actor bringing you that gift. Tea Leoni, as his neighbor, and Greg Kinnear, as the ghost of her dead husband, also work so well in this film. Tea Leoni, I think, is vastly underrated. I can only think of a few movies she's been in, like Spanglish and, way back there, Family Man. I can't even think of another one. Why? She's so talented at presenting the funny side of her character, and then revealing with sensitivity, the unhappiness that lies beneath. I think you'll wonder why she doesn't get more work in Hollywood.

One last aspect of this little film is its soundtrack. So rarely does the soundtrack seem to complement a movie well. And this film, funny and bittersweet, would be challenging to score. Thankfully, the music here has a quiet, charming tone just like its film.

Ghost Town offers so much more than the usual romantic comedy. If you want a silly, over-the-top, mainstream romantic comedy, this isn't it. But if want a funny, insightful comedy for adults, you may like this one.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sister Bunny

The House Bunny seems like a simple, funny, sexy movie. The idea was that a Playboy Bunny meets a group of nerdy college girls and they improve each other. The Bunny develops her mind and the college girls develop their femininity. Laughs, a little sap, and some sexy Playboy Bunnies should make for a light-hearted film. But it all goes deeper than that.

My heart was broken during the opening titles. Turns out the Bunny, played by Anna Farris, was abandoned at birth and grew up in an orphanage. She longs for a home and family. And when she becomes a beauty contestant at 17 and catches the attention of the Playboy corporation, she thinks she's found the family she always wanted. And the bunnies do seem like friends or sisters, shopping together, getting manicures, and dancing at parties. Right away, the filmmakers want to show how shallow and empty the Bunny's ambitions are. All she wants is to be Miss November. So far all she's done are pictorials, like Girls with GEDs. The filmmakers want you to get the message that beauty and a socially acceptable appearance are rather empty, and what matters is the content of your soul. But when you make a movie in concert with Hugh Hefner and his corporation, that message doesn't really stand a chance.

Of course the pretty Bunny is not only beautiful and sexy, but she's kind, open-minded, and innocent in a way. Which is quite a feat for a girl who showers with the photographer before her photo shoot. When she's kicked out of the Playboy Mansion for being too old, she lands near a sorority house full of misfit girls who are very smart but very dumb when it comes to social skills and push-up bras. So she gives them lessons in party-planning, cosmetics application, and how to wear revealing clothing. And they teach her how to read. The most important lesson she teaches them, of course, is about friendship, acceptance, and sisterly support. What matters most to Bunny, after all, is finding a home with a loving family. And she insists that that's what she had at Hefner's mansion.

It struck me was that, yes, those girls living at the Playboy Mansion probably do support each other. But not while picking out halter tops at the mall. Centerfolds already know how to look pretty sexy. And that can do wonders for your career, but what about your life? Seems to me that those Playboy Mansion shenanigans could wreck havoc with that. After spending time in the orgy room or hottubbin' in the grotto, what might happen? And this is where friends come in. You need your sister bunny's support when she has to take you to the clinic for another pregnancy scare or to pick up a prescription for another infection.

When you follow this train of thought, you begin to hope The House Bunny was right. You hope life for the Playboy Bunnies is full of real love, love that lasts, the love of good friends. I suspect they need it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Find the Entertainment

In the recent past, if I missed a show, I had to wait until the summer re-runs. Or if there was some old black and white movie from the 1940's that I wanted to see, I was out of luck. Recently, I could just go to my library. Luckily, the local library makes all the hot dvds available for free. Or lots of shows, like The Office or Lost, issue dvd sets with each new season. Right now, we don't even have to wait that long. We can catch whatever we missed streaming over the internet, via the network website, hulu, or other sites.

I've even watched some shows on youtube. They'll be broken into 10 or 15 minute chunks, but they still work fine. Usually, I only resort to this with something that is really hard to obtain, like BBC sit-coms (Murder Most Horrid) or PBS shorts (Posh Nosh).

Some shows I just love to re-visit, like Arrested Development or The Tick. I can watch those instantly on hulu.com or Netflix. By the way, I don't understand how The Office can be such a big hit, when Arrested Development barely made it. Arrested Development is almost a hybrid, between the typical family-centered sit-com and the fake documentary-style TV show, like what we see in The Office. And even The Office wasn't the first to do this. Before The Office(British or American), there was People Like Us, also from England. It was part of the late-night British sit-com lineup for PBS here.

If you want, you can even buy lots of these shows. Absolutely Fabulous or Black Adder are both hard to find, unless you purchase the dvd sets.

There you are: lots of suggestions for entertaining time-wasters. Here, I'll get you started. This link takes you to a bit of People Like Us on youtube.