La Chinoise

(France 1967)

“Okay, it’s fiction. But it brings me closer to reality.”

— Véronique

Set in the context of the New Left movement in late 1960s France, Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise is not really about the political ideas it raises — many of which seem relevant today. No, at its core is Godard satirizing the idealism of youth.

Structured as a mockumentary in what undoubtedly is an intentionally scrappy art school style, La Chinoise is a series of “interviews” of five middle class college students about their Maoist terrorist organization. Headquartered in a loft apartment in a suburb of Paris, they named their organization “Aden Arabie” after a novel by French communist Paul Nizan.

The apartment, all done up in primary colors like a Piet Mondrian painting, is owned by one of the members’ parents.

Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky, who sadly died exactly a week before the screening I attended) (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/obituaries/anne-wiazemsky-french-film-star-and-novelist-dies-at-70.html) is the bossy leader, a philosophy student from a family of bankers. She’s involved with Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a “theatrical actor.” Yvonne (Juliet Berto) grew up on a farm and works as a housekeeper and occasional hooker. She’s involved with Henri (Michel Semeniako), a writer who protests and publishes essays. Serge Kirilov (Lex de Bruijin) is a Russian nihilist who is single and suicidal.

La Chinoise is dense with ramblings about social and economic philosophy, politics, and literature. However, Godard uses all of it to make his point: these are kids who are still naïve and don’t fully grasp what they say they stand for. He shows them running around with toy weapons, playing school, and acting out scenes from books in the apartment, often cutting to pictures of comic book and cartoon characters. The joke is pretty funny when you consider the bourgeois backgrounds of the kids.

A conversation between Véronique and French philosopher Francis Jeanson on a train best illustrates Godard’s point: he asks a series of questions challenging her proposal to blow up the university in an effort to expose the flaws in her plan — and maybe get her to question her motives and the depth of her conviction. It goes over her head. So much for carrying pictures of Chairman Mao.

Side note: Claude Channes’s song “Mao-Mao” features prominently here. It’s a nifty little earworm.

With Omar Blondin Diop

Production: Anouchka Films, Les Productions de la Guéville, Athos Films, Parc Film, Simar Films

Distribution: Athos Films (France), Pennebaker Films (United States), Kino Lorber

96 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C+

https://www.kinolorber.com/film/view/id/1111

Best in Show

(USA 2000)

“We met at Starbucks. Not at the same Starbucks, but we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street from each other.”

— Meg Swan

I’m an enthusiastic fan of sharp, quirky humor; the more biting, the better. I love stuff like Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, Strangers with Candy, The Office, Little Britain, and of course Christopher Guest’s This is Spinal Tap, one of my favorite not to mention most quoted films.

Best in Show, another “mockumentary” like the ones Guest has become known for, is right up my alley. It pokes fun at a culture many no doubt find strange: dog shows. Woof!

Best in Show follows five canines and their owners as they prepare for and travel to a dog competition, the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show — that title is perfect! — in Philadelphia. The characters are awesome and the situations they get into are fun. The cast, which includes then-minor stars like Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge who would go on to bigger things, is stellar. Guest and Eugene Levy’s screenplay is deliciously mean. This is all good.

Unfortunately, I didn’t love it. I saw Best in Show a long while back, but this time it just didn’t strike me as funny as I remember it. I don’t know what it was — I had a long week and I had to travel the next morning, so maybe that explains why I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe it was the martinis. One of these days, I’ll give Best in Show another chance to redeem itself.

With Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Jay Brazeau, John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean, Michael Hitchcock, Christopher Guest, Ed Begley Jr., Beatrice the Weimaraner, Winky the Norwich Terrier, Hubert the Bloodhound, Miss Agnes the Shih Tzu, Tyrone the Shih Tzu, Rhapsody in White the Standard Poodle

Production: Castle Rock Entertainment

Distribution: Warner Brothers

90 minutes
Rated PG-13

(iTunes rental) C-

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

(USA 2016)

One of the best things to come from Saturday Night Live has to be its Digital Shorts segment. With titles like “Laser Cats!,” “Please Don’t Cut My Testicles,” “Jizz in My Pants,” and of course “Dick in a Box” and its follow up, “Motherlover,” the angle was decidedly crass and juvenile—high school boy stuff loaded with potty, sex, and to a lesser degree drug humor with the occasional reference to geek fodder, usually some work of the science fiction or fantasy genre. Written and produced by The Lonely Island—comedy trio Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, and Andy Samberg—the genius lied in the creators’ astute balance of pop cultural literacy, musical aptitude, and complete absurdism. Generally performed as music videos for rap and pop songs so spot on they sounded real, Digital Shorts attracted the likes of Steve Martin, Natalie Portman, Lady Gaga, Betty White, and of course Justin Timberlake.

In Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Lonely Island expands its formula into a feature length film, playing former members of Style Boyz, a boy band whose biggest hit was “The Donkey Roll” (https://youtu.be/-mRVK8-XfEU). After a rift over credit, the Boyz break up and go their separate ways. Lawrence (Schaffer) and Owen (Taccone) fail to duplicate their success, but narcissistic and dubiously talented frontman Conner Friel (Samberg) has a huge blockbuster with his solo album Thriller, Also. The film, done as a mockumentary very much in the style of This Is Spinal Tap!, picks up just as Conner’s followup, Connquest, is about to “drop” (i.e, be released). A huge media blitz including a tour is in the works. When Connquest fails to live up to its predecessor, all signs point to a Style Boyz reunion—but can that happen?

Popstar makes it abundantly clear why The Lonely Island’s brand of humor works as shorts: it simply can’t sustain a movie. With Popstar, they nail the excess, the ego, and the emptiness of the entertainment biz. Tim Meadows as Conner’s manager and Sarah Silverman as his publicist are awesome, simultaneously informing, persuading, and babysitting Conner while constantly stroking his ego. The songs sound real. Conner’s show, complete with backup dancers and a deejay, looks authentic. Some of the scenes are pretty damned funny, including one where Conner is forced to autograph a fan’s, um, junk (props for getting it through the window of the limo). It’s amusing to see real popstars like Questlove, Usher, 50 Cent, and Ringo Starr (not to mention bitch on wheels Simon Cowell) gush in fake interviews over something so obviously lame as Style Boyz and Conner. It’s fun to see P!nk, Adam Levine, and Michael Bolton perform with Conner—and “Equal Rights” (with P!nk) is a hilarious, cheerful spoof of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love.” Seal and Mariah Carey make gracious cameos that show they can take a joke. This is all good. The problem is, Popstar is essentially a string of dumb gags. Unlike This Is Spinal Tap!, it gets tiresome, fast. I lost interest after a little while; the characters and the jokes are too thin to carry Popstar all the way. Even Timberlake, whose appearances with The Lonely Island have always been funny, is an uncharacteristic yawn as Conner’s chef. Meh.

Curiously, the best song for this film was deleted: https://youtu.be/t3jKtjgRZQY. Seeing it as a short probably is best, anyway.

Also starring Maya Rudolph, Joan Cusack, Imogen Poots, Chris Redd, Edgar Blackmon, James Buckley, Ashley Moore, Bill Hader, Will Forte, Will Arnett, Carrie Underwood, Nas, Akon, Big Boy, D.J. Khaled, Danger Mouse, Pharrell Williams, Jimmy Fallon, Martin Sheen, Snoop Dog, Weird Al Yankovic

Produced by Perfect World Pictures, Apatow Company, and The Lonely Island

Distributed by Universal Pictures

87 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) D+

https://www.uphe.com/movies/popstar-never-stop-never-stopping

Medusa: Dare to Be Truthful

(USA 1991)

“Brooke Shields. Dawber, Pam. Personality of Spam. Christie Brinkley. Brosnan, Pierce. Bland and boring, something fierce. Wilson Philips love to sing and wreck the cover of a magazine. Daniel Quayle’s brain is gone. Debbie Gibson gives good yawn.”

—Medusa, “Vague”

 

“You don’t understand. If I use a smaller penis it would be compromising my artistic integrity.”

“Come on, suck my toes in my documentary. Nobody’s done that yet!”

—Medusa

Made for Showtime, Medusa: Dare to Be Truthful is comedian-turned-MTV “personality” (not the late ’80s hipster V.J. with the identical name) Julie Brown’s scathing spoof of Madonna’s Truth or Dare (https://moviebloke.com/2016/08/26/truth-or-dare-in-bed-with-madonna/)—not to mention the icon herself. The whole thing is juvenile, mean, and absolutely hilarious. At just under an hour, it’s over right before the joke is.

Brown is Medusa, a bratty, self-obsessed, controversial, overhyped, oversexed, and very much untalented pop star. She’s making an explosive “no holds barred” documentary of her Blonde Leading the Blonde World Tour, a sordid affair that relies on sleaze and controversy to hide the fact that her work is so…well, vapid. Did I mention the tour takes place over five days?

Lifting sets, costumes—including conebras, that fluffy pink negligee, and the I Dream of Jeannie clipon ponytail—and dance routines right out of Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour, Brown doesn’t miss a beat; she nails the overdone hamminess Madonna exhibits throughout Truth or Dare. Masturbating on a red velvet bed? Check. Visiting a deceased family member at the cemetery? Check—although here, it’s a pet cemetery where a dog whose name she can’t remember is laid to rest. Totally ragging on a celebrity who compliments her performance after a show? Check—here, it’s Bobcat Goldthwait. Giving head to an inanimate object? Check—here, it’s a watermelon, not a bottle of Evian.

Gay dancers (Sergio Carbajal, Thomas Halstead, Stanley DeSantis) fawn all over her, she screams at her manager (Chris Elliott) and her crew, and ex-husband Shane Pencil (Donal Logue) can’t deal with her antics. Kathy Griffin plays a backup singer. Plus, Brown gives us dead-on song ripoffs like “Expose Yourself,” “Like a Video,” and “Vague.” Fucking brilliant!

According to Wikipedia, Madonna sent Brown a gift after she saw this—a half-finished bottle of warm champagne (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medusa:_Dare_to_Be_Truthful).

51 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) B+

Director’s Cut

(USA 2016)

Yeah…this. Hmmm. Herbert Blount (Penn Jillette) is a weird crowdfunding stalker obsessed with actress Missi Pyle, playing herself, who costars in a low budget crime-gore “movie” with Harry Hamlin and a guy named Reed (Hayes MacArthur). Blount, who is given behind-the-scenes access because he used his PayPal account to donate a large sum of money to the project, is seduced by the artistic process and secretly hijacks the film to make his own version: he wants Pyle front and center. He undermines the director (Adam Rifken), steals footage, and kidnaps Pyle to shoot new scenes with her in his basement.

A movie within a fake movie (Knocked Off), Director’s Cut is a satire of the film industry, celebrity, and the changing role of the audience. Directed for real by Rifken, it exhibits some competent technical handiwork: Knocked Off, little more than a CSI episode, looks professional right down to its angles, cuts, and color grade. A slew of cameos—some, like Jillette, former contestants of Celebrity Apprentice (Gilbert Godfrey, Lisa Rinna)—adds a smart lighthearted touch. Jillette’s longtime partner in magic, Raymond Joseph Teller, makes a fun though not exactly unexpected appearance. Pyle’s diva tantrums “off screen” are amusing. The film makes interesting and timely points about the dangers of giving artistic input and access to the general public and obsessed fans: even in an era where the tools of the trade are readily available to virtually anyone, not everyone can (or should attempt to) make a movie.

Director’s Cut just doesn’t cut it. Sadly, Jillette himself is the most disappointing thing about it. He doesn’t pull off creepy; his gentle, dulcet voice bantering lame “commentary”—like in a bonus feature of a DVD (get it?)—undermines that. Worse, his terrible “acting,” the oddly tame scenes he stages with Pyle, and his crude homemade edits of his version of the film paint him as a harmless grandfatherly dolt more than anything. The gimmick here wears out before the movie is even half over. Director’s Cut has good ideas, but it’s just not funny.

83 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) D-

https://makepennbad.com

What We Do in the Shadows

(USA/New Zealand 2014)

Ever wonder what This Is Spinal Tap might look like mixed with Big Brother and, oh, say True Blood? Me, either, but the result, evidenced by this little gem, is pretty damned funny.

A group of vampires of varying ages– Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), and Peytr (Ben Fransham)– share a house in a New Zealand city. They have the typical housemate drama: one mate fails to clean up the blood from victims and another gets his roomies into tiffs with rival werewolves. The usual stuff. The storyline here involves the cute but annoying Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a newbie in need of adapting to the ropes of vampire life, and his best bud, Stu (Stuart Rutherford), on whom the housemates develop a little man crush. Wicked fun!

(Music Box) B

http://whatwedointheshadows.com