Category: comedy

Thank You For Smoking – A great comedy movie on Big Tobacco and Washington, D.C. lobbyists

Go oooooon - have another one. It's good for you!

This is a thoroughly entertaining, fast-paced, well-drawn satire of the power of American lobbyists.  The script is sharp, snappy and fun, while raising important questions about the nefarious influence of lobbyists in Washington, D.C. In this case, the satire focuses primarily on Big Tobacco, through the spokesman Nick Naylor, played wonderfully by Aaron Eckhart, and complemented by the two other “MOD” squad members (Merchants of Death, as they happily refer to themselves; the two others being Maria Bello‘s character, a hardcore drinker representing the alcohol lobby, and David Koechner, playing the guns fanatic for the firearms industry. Both of them are entertaining and funny in their performances — especially because they play them so seriously).  So clearly it’s a great cast, which also includes fab performances by William H. Macy, yet again playing another loser role; this time as the senator for Vermont going after Big Tobacco (in an embarrassingly incompetent way), J. K. Simmons once again playing a hard ass so well (as Naylor’s militaristic boss), and Robert Duvall (utterly charming, ruthless, and a Southern Gentleman, who plays ‘the Captain’, the last almighty oligarch of Big Tobacco).

Jason Reitman’s film, for which he wrote the screenplay as well as directed is thankfully nothing like Juno the dull, pretentious movie with the enormously irritating and snotty female lead role, or Up in the Air, the half-baked, completely compromised satire on the insipid life of business. Perhaps because it is based on something substantial, namely the successful satirical novel Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley (ironic, given that he’s the son of the now-deceased American political neo-conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr., founder of The National Review and who helped Reagan come to power).

The film’s satiric quality and sheer value for entertainment has also made me relish the prospect of reading Buckley’s other satirical fiction. (Interestingly, like his father, Christopher also had a privileged education and began as a conservative (even being a speechwriter for George W. Bush in 1981), but over time his talents and politics turned to a criticism of the neo-conservatives, and he became known as an author of satires such as this, as well as God is My Broker: A Monk-tycoon Reveals the 7 1/2 Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth (note: God is My Broker is out of print as if 2011), Little Green Men, The White House Mess, and No Way to Treat a First Lady.)  And, the movie has given me hope once again in Jason Reitman: that he may come up with the goods and deliver another wonderful movie, rather than the fecal matter of Juno (real name it merits: Juno it’s Sh*it? Answer: Yes, I do, thanks) and Up in the Air (as in, Up its Ars*e).

Sideways – drink! arse! women! feck! And yes, it’s a great movie, too

Paul Giamatti - happy as a lamb (to the slaughter). Photo © Matt Baron/BEImages

As any fan/previous viewer of Paul Giamatti’s acting will know, no one does miserable/depressed/self-loathing/angst-ridden/complicated/face-like-a-slapped-bottom better than him. In fact, when you reflect on some of his notable roles, such as Lady In The Water (2006), where he plays Cleveland Heep, a miserable, depressed caretaker/superintendent; American Splendor (2003) — in which he plays Harvey Pekar, the depressed, famous underground comic book novelist — and his vastly underrated film, Cold Souls (2009), in which his role is a version of his ‘real’ actor’s self, I mean Paul Giamatti’s own, angst-ridden to the maximum degree from losing his actor’s soul, and neatly echoing Malkovich’s angst at the integrity of his own being compromised by others entering his own head, in the marvellous Being John Malkovich (1999) — well, he has clearly been chosen precisely for his ability to convey such negative and complex emotions; his face is a portrait worthy of a hybrid Hieronymus Bosch/van Gogh/Edvard Munch painting).

In other words, he is a master of complex, confused misery; there is no other actor I can think of who does what Giamatti does better than him.

Sideways - click here for's region 2 DVD offer
Sideways - click here for's region 1 DVD offer

Sideways (2006) is a lovely, touching movie, that uses as its springboard a venture into Californian wine country, as a holiday between two male friends, one of whom, a surface-only, self-centred and good-humoured guy who is about to get married and wants to have some last flings before doing so (Thomas Haden Church plays the role very well; he’s probably most well-known for playing the Sandman in Spiderman 3 (2007)), and the other, of course, is Giamatti’s character, an unpublished novelist, depressed and self-loathing, obsessive wine connoisseur, who still suffers from the divorce from his wife two years earlier.

The two female leads are

Virgina Madsen

Virginia Madsen, who plays the love interest to Giamatti’s character, and Sandra Oh,

Sandra Oh
Real men, real wine! (aka: just drink the stuff, mofos!)

who plays the sex/passion interest of Thomas Haden Church’s character. Both of them perform their roles with charm, a sense of humour and a touching, gentle and real grace, for characters that are lively, bright, fun and independently minded – my idea of a real feminist woman; this is refreshing, especially considering they could

have been treated in the traditional Hollywood manner of simply having to act as two-dimensional foils for and second-rate characters to Church and Giamatti; kudos to the male director/co-writer and co-writer/novelist of this film (see two paragraphs below for their names).

While some critics and bloggers have described this as a slow/or slow start movie, I would argue differently and say it’s a drama that builds gradually on a simple premise and, as it does so, it unravels/reveals a mesh of complex themes around love, desire, denial, depression, hypocrisy, friendship, self-respect, integrity and passion. It is a great complement to the road movie and the buddies genres.

I’ve now watched it a good few times, and enjoy it all the more each time. The dialogue is crisp and sharp, the acting from the entire ensemble is top-notch and it’s a joy, joy, joy to imbibe (never mind the wonderful education you get about some terrific Californian wines along the way). The director, Alexander Payne, and screenwriters Rex Pickett (from his original novel), along with Alexander Payne, and the cast, all deserve their accolades and are to be congratulated for such an utterly charming film. Highly recommended to all lost souls, lovers of the pressed grape, romantics at heart and/or under the table (after some great vino, of course). As some say in England when about to celebrate each other’s company and when drinking something fancy: bottoms up!

Sandra Bullock’s drug addiction movie 28 Days – a confessional review

I'm cute, have a wickle button nose, wear snuggly-wuggly baggy cardigans in lots of my movies. But don't let that fool you, cos I eat children innit.

I confess that the first pleasure I gained from watching this movie was enjoying Bullock suffer so much (but since it was due to drug addiction, I admit that sounds rather twisted/nasty). I also confess that Bullock is one of my least – no – the least – favourite actresses. Why? Because she’s so incredibly limited, including in her comedy, which mostly comprises her falling over herself and being silly/talking silly, clutzy, and acting through her cute button nose and obsession with baggy cardigans (the latter only when her character is in either a sorrowful or ‘look I’m cute and innocent’ frame of mind, that is. So most of the time, yeh).

However, this movie about Bullock’s character’s forced stay in a drug rehab centre in the US, while curiously unclear about being a satire/straightforward comedy on such a centre, and otherwise a celebration of the quirky (read: drug-addicted) characters, resolves into a film that addresses some interesting issues about different kinds of drug addiction. Having said that, I still couldn’t figure out by the end of the film if the ridiculous American-style chanting among groups in the movie, was sincere (i.e., worthwhile, meaningful) or the opposite. Having been a counsellor in a former life, all I can say is I hope that the chanting was a satiric take on such activity, as I’ve never known it to be effective (besides which, there are no studies, as far as I know, that confirm otherwise).

Still, it is genuinely charming to see Bullock’s druggie-character transition over time to an individual who not only is struggling, but confronts and deals with the trauma in her life (especially in regard to her helping others). On top of which, and this is the best part of the movie, you have the wonderful

I love people you know, but it's like sometimes I think a lot of them are turkeys. Why? Because a lot of them come up to me and are always saying "gobble, gobble". Go gobble someone else.

Viggo Mortensen, playing an alcoholic, yet also endearing, and – surprise, surprise (no! — ahem), Bullock and Mortensen fall in love with each other but – wisely – this is a matter of deep appreciation of each other, not fulfilment for each other’s sake.

Besides the love interest, all the “quirky” characters are well-drawn and amusing and involve strong actors in their own right. While I think it is, ultimately, an entertaining engagement about drug problems, as opposed to a warning or serious movie about the issue – in contrast, one thinks of Hubert Selby Jr’s and Darron Aronovsky’s film Requiem For A Dream (to buy, click here for the UK/Europe version, and here for the US edition). None the less, it still does take time to address seriously some of the issues involved. Especially, given the actors’ efforts to impress their characters as bonding with/as well as challenging each other. Also, especially, Steve Buscemi, impresses as the lead-drug-addicted counsellor. And Viggo is, frankly — as always — thoroughly convincing and gorgeous in his role. No matter whom he plays as a character (in Lord of the Rings, Eastern Promises, A History of Violence), he comes across, just as he does here, as beautifully genuine.

So: my last confession: yes, Bullock can act, but for me this movie is the only proof. And what a charming, thoughtful and even occasionally amusing movie it is. And, yes, it is consistently, intelligently entertaining. Recommended.

The Breast by Philip Roth – his most outrageous, fun work, besides Portnoy’s Complaint

The Breast (UK edition / US edition) is one of my favourite Roth fictions and has the sort of funny, mad, energetic exuberance of Portnoy’s Complaint, while being much more absurd and surreal in its premise. There is nothing else quite like it in Roth’s oeuvre. From the opening line ‘It began oddly.’, you it draws you in into a first-person story told by David Kepesh, a literary professor (and the principal character of two later and better known fictions by Roth, Professor of Desire (UK edition / US edition) and The Dying Animal (UK edition / US edition). It is wonderfully comic, yet addresses both serious and fantastical issues, and all the while is utterly intriguing and intelligently done.

David Kepesh, as the title of the novella makes clear, finds himself turning into a human breast, ‘[…] an organism with the general shape of a football, or a dirigible; […] weighing one hundred and fifty-five pounds […] and measuring, still, six feet in length.’ The story deliberately and knowingly plays on two classic stories of the absurd: Kafka’s most famous and brilliant, The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa struggles, denies, and agonises over coming to terms with his turning into a beetle, and Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose, an equally absurd tale, where the character, Major Kovalyov, finds his nose abandons his face one day, and begins to assume a life of its own, much to the owner’s chagrin.

While Roth could have made this story simply absurd and comical (and it succeeds on those levels alone, especially the relentless, obsessive sexual fantasies and agonies Kepesh experiences, wanting to have intercourse and oral sex using his nipple), what is impressive is the serious, angst-ridden, matter-of-fact way in which Kepesh for most of the time tries without success, and painfully so, to rationalise his situation, believing at one point that he is simply dreaming, another that he is suffering some terrible mental breakdown, and even that, because he believes he taught Gogol and Kafka’s work with such conviction, it resulted in him becoming a breast (a lovely satiric dig at Kepesh’s/certain academics’ belief in their own brilliance and their ability to make an impact on their world through teaching).

Highly recommended for fans of the absurd, fantastical, and joyfully original fiction. The only caveat – frankly, a gripe – is the cost of this novella (as well as other paperback editions); after all – 96 pages for £7.99 RRP, admittedly generously discounted by 30% by Amazon to £5.59. Ok, perhaps it’s not the ‘quantity’, but the ‘quality’ that counts, but I would normally hope that, for this sort price and paltry number of pages, you’d expect a beautiful physically object/high-quality edition, such as those by, for example, Hesperus Press (note: that is a link to their catalogue, as their website is being revamped at the moment) and Europa Editions, with their French wrapper jackets and quality paper. But then those two publishers are indies, so no surprise there as to their quality … please don’t take this moan as a justification not to buy the title – it really is such an original, terrific read, it’s still worth the price.