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Comedy

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Imagine HBO’s Veep, but instead of the made-up travails of a narcissistic, ambitious politician in the form of Julia Louis Dreyfus, you have Khrushchev, Beria, Molotov, Zhukov and Malenkov, all jockeying for power and survival after Stalin has passed.  Like Veep, writer-director Armando Iannucci’s movie is undeniably hilarious, providing the entire swath of the comedic, from slapstick (the scene where each central committee member arrives at Stalin’s unconscious body on the floor, only to engage poorly with his urine, is gut-busting) to sharp wit delivered so fast, you catch it 30 seconds later.  Steve Buscemi’s scheming Khrushchev is inspired, as is Jeffrey Tambor’s vain toady Malenkov (good to see him again since his banishment for his own crimes against the state).

The only aspect that drops this a half point is the milieu.  It is undeniably funny, but we are dealing not with the trials and tribulations of Vice President Selena Meyer, which are ultimately trivial, but the terror and horror of the Soviet state, which sometimes tempers the laughs.

But only a little (at least, for me).  It is, after all, a very black comedy.  The film is currently on the Showtime schedule and was also one of The New York Times top 10 for 2018.  It’s also one of mine, thus far.

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This rom-com starts off balky, rights itself into a traditional flow, gets deliciously weird (catty women do some frightful things to rivals in Singapore) and then, eventually, wins you over.  Not in a “what a splendid and unexpected surprise!” way, but rather, in a “I am no worse off than I was 2 hours ago and I’ve certainly spent my time in less valuable pursuits” way.  The film’s additional bonus is as a travelogue.  I would now like to visit Singapore and if I were crazy rich, I’d really like to make the trek.

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This is a competent, amusing, even mildly affecting film, but ultimately, it is no great shakes.  It presents the story of Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a mysterious no-talent who bankrolled, directed, wrote and starred in his own film, The Room, which was so terrible it became a cult classic.  Wiseau is indeed awful in all respects, so there is a lot of cringe-worthy viewing.  His idiosyncrasy and idiocy, however, travel only so far, and when there is nothing more to plumb from this weirdo wannabe, the mind wanders.  There’s nothing to root for (Wiseau is a bit of a cretin to his cast, collaborators and friends) and the film doesn’t compensate with enough humor.  So, it’s fine, but forgettable.

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One reviewer remarks, “It’s a provocative, serious, ridiculous, screwy concoction about whiteface, cultural code-switching, African-American identities and twisted new forms of wage slavery, beyond previously known ethical limits.”  Another:  “An absurdist, startlingly original Molotov cocktail through the pane glass window of Hollywood, ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is a riot, the year’s craziest comedy and the most demented call to arms in memory.”  A third, perhaps inevitably:  “An impassioned, chaotically accurate response to dark and troubling times.”

Thankfully, Boots Riley’s debut film bears little resemblance to these painfully misguided and rote intonations, beyond being original and absurdist.  Rather, the story of an upwardly mobile telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield of Atlanta, who is just the right amount of bewildered and decent yet persuadable) who loses his way and uncovers the most insane corporate skullduggery since “Soylent Green is people!” is playful, trippy, inventive, and surreal with a few brutally caustic comic bits thrown in for good measure.  It’s decidedly less political than advertised by the critics, and when it is political, the message is so broad and zany, you could affix it to just about any ideology you wanted.

It was mind-blowing to learn that it is the first movie for writer-director Riley, who crams so much visual creativity into the flick it eventually ends in an exhausted mess.  The picture is original in most parts, but it owes a great deal to Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.  It’s also a tad reminiscent of wacky Coen Brothers, Spike Jonze, and Scorsese’s After Hours.  Not for everyone, certainly not required to be seen in a theater, but an absolute treat when the price gets right.

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Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) has had three flops and his “A Christmas Carol” is a must-win.  We spend the film watching Dickens cobble his daily observances into the book, and soon, he is followed by all of its characters, who inspire him to write more, or mock his writer’s block (most of the mocking is by way of Scrooge, played with a sly bite by Christopher Plummer).  The end of the book tortures Dickens, but much like Scrooge himself, addressing his personal demons brings the author to resolution and redemption.  This is great fun, very well-done and will take a post on my ten “must see” list of Christmas films next December.  Here are the other nine:

A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott version)

About a Boy

Die Hard

It’s a Wonderful Life

Arthur Christmas

A Christmas Story

Elf

Bad Santa

The Nightmare Before Christmas

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This is what a superhero movie is supposed to be. Consistently clever, mainly for young people but with crossover to adults, and devoid of all the dreary seriousness of Gotham city and world politics and ethical dilemmas for people dressed up for Mardis Gras. Add the fact that the characters are almost impossible not to enjoy, the CGI is nifty rather than a blaring assault, and there are some really funny bits. And the finale is a blast (rather than a dark, dull, crashing snorefest ala’ Wonder Woman). The film also has a proper villain, the sleek, sultry, campy goddess of death Cate Blanchett.

Quintessential popcorn flick.