The Aristocrats

Also: Four Brothers, The Great Raid, Junebug, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, Sequins, and Writer of O.

The Aristocrats

Opens Fri., Aug. 12, at Neptune and Meridian

Stop me if you've heard this one! A guy walks into an agent's office, a Broadway Danny Rose–type place, and says, "I've got a family act to end all family acts!" The agent is dubious. The guy calls in his clan, and they perform their act—or rather, acts, as in acts of bestiality, incest, violence, and eccentric usages of every single bodily fluid. The agent, aghast, splutters, "What—what do you call that act?" Proudly, the family man replies, "The Aristocrats!"

Of course, it's not funny. That's the point. The joke is a secret routine legendary among comedians because it's a subversion of their own acts, the ultimate rebellion—insult, really—against the audience, which comics spend their lives trying to please. It's a blank slate that the comic projects his own personality upon. Each comic's elaborations add up to a self-portrait; the template is so accommodating of egomania that Chevy Chase is said to have stretched its telling out to several hours.

Directors (and comics) Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette filmed over 100 of their favorite colleagues telling versions of "The Aristocrats" and riffing on its significance in cultural history. Not everybody is quite up to it. Eric Idle and Eddie Izzard flop, and Chris Rock, Paul Reiser, and Jon Stewart scarcely rise to the bait. Phyllis Diller claims she fainted when she first heard it. The staff of The Onion is only so-so funny, Robin Williams not much better.

But for the most part, these comics kill. Steven Wright takes the gag into his deadpan parallel dimension of invention. Kevin Pollak tells it in Christopher Walken's voice, then gets beaten by Mario Cantone, who tells it in diverse voices, including Liza Minnelli's. The Simpsons writer Dana Gould makes it an Amish saga. Richard Lewis turns it into a vehicle for his signature self-loathing, Carrie Fisher for her endless family chronicle. I could go on, but I don't want to spoil the impressions made by the Smothers Brothers, Andy Dick, Whoopi Goldberg, Drew Carey, George Carlin, Jason Alexander, Tim Conway, and, startlingly, Bob Saget of Full House.

But the champion of all has got to be Gilbert Gottfried, who spontaneously told "The Aristocrats" at the famous September 2001 Friar's Club Roast of Hugh Hefner. First we see him fail with a 9/11 gag—he tried to get away with saying his plane to L.A. got rerouted through the Empire State Building, mere days after the World Trade Center's fall. ("Too soon!" somebody shouts.) So Gottfried segues into his own sandpaper-throated rendition of the dirtiest joke of all time. Rob Schneider falls out of his chair laughing, and Provenza and Jillette were inspired to make a movie.

Even at 86 minutes, The Aristocrats could have used a few nips and tucks. But I'll be watching all the DVD outtakes Provenza promised while visiting here for SIFF; they'll include Cantone's various other celebrity impressions. The film adds up to an important meditation on the art of comedy. Why is the South Park cartoon version of the joke, competent as it is, less satisfying than, say, Saget's gleeful destruction of his squeaky-clean image? As distinguished professor Carlin observes, "Shock is just another word for surprise, and a joke is about surprising someone." When that someone is another comic, cover your virgin ears. (NR) TIM APPELO

Four Brothers

Opens Fri., Aug. 12, at Meridian and others

Few movies set in Detroit are actually filmed there, and the latest crime melodrama from John Singleton (Shaft) joins an undistinguished club of faux-Motown flicks that includes Narc and Detroit Rock City. What Brothers adds to the genre is a sense of justice that's strongly informed by Leviticus. It's the murder of sweet old Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan) that compels her now-grown adoptive sons—Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), Angel (R&B star Tyrese Gibson), Jeremiah (OutKast's André Benjamin), and Jack (Garrett Hedlund)—to seek an eye for an eye, first from the hired thugs who gunned her down in a convenience store, then from the bigwigs who did the hiring.

In a perfect world, Singleton would have made the most of the talent at his disposal. Four Brothers: A Hip-Hop Musical could have been a cult hit; instead, we're stuck with a "character-driven" yawner in which several slam-bang shoot-outs are rudely interrupted by mawkish moping. (The print screened for critics two weeks ago lacked a finished soundtrack but was otherwise complete, and I'm not reviewing the audio quality.) Wahlberg has a decent series of sullen and vicious moments as the family hothead, but none of his on-screen siblings makes much of an impression. The only one bringing fire to the film is Chiwetel Ejiofor. Unkindly cast as a eunuchlike man of refinement in Melinda and Melinda, the British actor has balls to spare as Victor Sweet, a grinning gangster with a fondness for humiliating people by any means necessary. And while Singleton masterfully uses pristine Toronto to suggest the isolation of Detroit in winter, and the snappy gunplay in the second hour almost redeems the talky first, Brothers is still a long way from 8 Mile. (R) NEAL SCHINDLER

The Great Raid

Opens Fri., Aug. 12, at Meridian and others

I'm usually a sucker for your old-fashioned World War II flicks, but I'm not sure any more of them need to be made today. Sixty years after V-J Day, we've got Saving Private Ryan, a host of Greatest Generation–type books, and endless programming on the History Channel. Everyone's favorite war movies are already on DVD. That's the challenge facing The Great Raid: It's so square, respectful, and conventional in its treatment of WWII that you feel like it's an old title you found under the couch—shoved way, way behind The Bridge on the River Kwai, Das Boot, and The Dirty Dozen. Director John Dahl (Red Rock West) has essentially cast contemporary actors in roles that might just as well have been filled by stars of the '40s. You've got your gruff, overbearing Col. Mucci (Benjamin Bratt); your young and eager, college-educated Capt. Prince (James Franco); your courageous but malaria- ridden POW, Maj. Gibson (Joseph Fiennes); and your brave nurse, Margaret (Connie Nielsen), a member of the Underground in the Japanese-occupied Philippines. If the exact same film were made 60 years ago (and it could've been), it would've starred, in the exact same order, John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Leslie Howard, and Ingrid Bergman.

But that's a different movie—no better, no worse, but at least right for its times. Here, Gibson and his men are scheduled to be executed by the retreating Japanese. Mucci and Prince prepare a dangerous foray behind enemy lines to free them, while Margaret helps smuggle food and drugs to the prisoners who, apart from the gaunt Gibson (her not-so-secret love), appear more to be healthy male models than a bunch of skeletons who survived the Bataan Death March. The action takes place over five days in January of 1945, and it mainly consists of sneaking through the jungle for over two hours and keeping very quiet until the big finale. Dahl also intercuts scenes of Margaret being menaced by Japanese agents in Manila and of Gibson stoically enduring on his prison cot, but this basically feels like slogging through the pages of both the books on which Raid is based—and the footnotes, too. Nostalgia has its value (the moral clarity of WWII, the era when Mae West and Rita Hayworth were sex symbols), but today it needs some pacing and plotting to keep up with the impatient heirs to The Greatest Generation.

Still, if you have the valor to sit through it, your patience will be rewarded with something genuinely great: Dahl runs all the credits at the end over actual newsreel footage of the raid's leaders and the 511 men they rescued. They look dazed and famished in the Philippines; then, happier and healthier, are met by cheering crowds when they disembark in San Francisco. One only hopes that, 60 years from today, people will look back and say that our current men and women in arms were received so well at home—no matter if they were returning from a less just and less popular war. (R) BRIAN MILLER

Junebug

Opens Fri., Aug. 12, at Seven Gables

If the academy has any brains, heart, and balls, at least one Oscar will go to the quietly brilliant debut of writer Angus MacLachlan and director Phil Morrison. Their Junebug draws us deep into a family's bosom with sly, skillful cinematic restraint. The story sounds like a high-concept family clash: Gorgeous, successful George (Alessandro Nivola), along with his stunning high-IQ wife of six months, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), makes his first trip in three years from Chicago to his down-home hometown, Pfafftown, N.C.

Madeleine is there for the coup of her ambitious career, to sign for her tony gallery a hot new outsider artist (Frank Hoyt Taylor), who's like a Henry Darger obsessed with the Civil War instead of little girls. But the main event is her collision with George's aggressively nonurbane clan. They are neither cutesy-indie caricatures nor dumb studio Fockers, but authentic Southern archetypes. George's mother, Peg (Celia Weston), would be passive-aggressive, if she had a passive bone in her city-slicker-hating body. Father Eugene (Scott Wilson) has a kind heart, but also the emotional muteness to which the family's men are inclined. George takes after his sweet dad, but his surly kid brother, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), has his mom's mean streak in spades. Forced to drop out of high school by the pregnancy of his girlfriend, Ashley (Amy Adams), Johnny retreats far inside his own dark, fist-hard heart.

Ashley is the biggest revelation in a film full of revelations, bubbly and babbling and utterly adorable. While Johnny and Peg fix a cold eye on Madeleine, Ashley, who loves the universe, instantly loves Madeleine best of all. It's a risky performance, but somehow Adams keeps Ashley rooted in reality during her flights of fancy and Scarlett O'Hara–soaked free-association monologues. This girl arrives on the film scene like Cinderella on a rocket sled. Oscar, are you listening?

Small-town émigrés like me are used to seeing our kind depicted crudely and insultingly by outsiders. Junebug outdoes every film since Nobody's Fool in capturing the real feel of rural society. When George's high-school classmate, now the town's minister, cajoles him into singing the unbelievably wonderful hymn "Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling" in three-part harmony, Madeleine sits thunderstruck by the sheer sweetness. At last, she knows where he's coming from, and what the lyric "Ye who are weary, come home" can really mean. It's a prime candidate for one of Film Comment's "Moments Out of Time," the list of movie scenes worthy of eternity.

Everybody in the film is crazy as a junebug in one way or another, but each has his or her reasons, explicated with unintrusive clarity. The script's construction tightly rhymes the various characters' embraces and rejections, and makes a character of each of the town's scenes: church basement, baby shower, front lawns patrolled by bees and still busier gossips. Yo La Tengo's score is superb, jaunty, and touching by turns—you'll walk out crooning the theme song about love. I can't think of a better reason than Junebug to blow off a precious Seattle summer day and seek a warmer world in the dark. (R) TIM APPELO

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus

Runs Fri., Aug. 12–Thurs., Aug. 25, at Northwest Film Forum

You could learn more about the South from the Dukes of Hazzard remake than from this banal, cliché-infested BBC documentary, which follows amiable alt-country musician Jim White through several unidentified states apparently untouched by cell phones, running water, or electricity. Those things exist, of course, along with cities, blacks, and Newt Gingrich, but you'd never know it from British director Andrew Douglas' reductive framing. For this wide-eyed tourist, and his writer, a fellow Limey, the Southland remains locked in a white Pentecostal past where everyone's either a sinner or a churchgoer, a jailbird or a musician, and the cars are all held together with Bondo and duct tape. It goes without saying that all the food is fried. We even learn how to bury a possum properly. The locals dance ecstatically in the church and the roadhouse, and Douglas moves his leering camera in tight as if to say, "Look! It's all the same!"

Though it draws its title from one of his albums, you can't blame Searching's offensive essentialism on White (who'll appear at the first night's screenings on Friday, Aug. 12). We get short musical interludes from him and other musicians including Johnny Dowd, 16 Horsepower, and the Handsome Family, which Douglas (an advertising and music-video pro) rather charmingly renders in a barbershop, at a gas station, and on the porch of a house seemingly floating in the middle of a lake. The movie would be tolerable for the music alone, if sentiments like "The devil's alive in the South" had all been edited out. Searching isn't exactly a Southern Gothic freak show, but its misplaced reverence for "the beauty of the people who have no wealth" (as White puts it) is no better than condescension. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

Sequins

Runs Fri., Aug. 12–Thurs., Aug. 18, at Varsity

A teen-pregnancy drama that features sewing as its central healing activity, Sequins isn't as cloying as it initially promises to be. Sullen 17-year-old cashier Claire (Lola Naymark) is already two months gone when the film opens. Searching for a way to conceal her changing body, she offers her embroidery services to the mysterious Madame Mélikian (Ariane Ascaride), a reclusive seamstress whose son recently died in an auto accident. The two loners don't exactly hit it off at first, but they manage to form a tentative partnership based on professional respect and a kindred anti-sociability. Director Eléonore Faucher smartly downplays the bonding clichés by deploying a series of distancing effects. Claire's crinkly red hair is a perpetual distraction in the way it's variously combed, concealed, and in one scene, violently yanked. Michael Galasso's undulating string score constantly beseeches our attention, if only through its blatant resemblance to Philip Glass. Sequins hinges on its performances, and newcomer Naymark is a marvel of quiet intelligence, endowing Claire with a complex mix of virginal purity and hormonal rage. Her final scene with Madame Mélikian is taut and succinct, nicely cutting off the story just before the rising emotions thicken into treacle. (NR) DAVID NG

The Talent Given Us

Opens Fri., Aug. 12, at Varsity

The big problem with The Talent Given Us, Andrew Wagner's cinema verité film about his family on a road trip from Manhattan's Upper West Side to visit him in Los Angeles, is that nothing in it is verified. Verily, a lot of it is just bullshit. For instance, he's not in Los Angeles. He's behind the video camera that chronicles his actual family (mom Judith, dad Allen, and sisters Maggie and Emily) as they spill alleged beans about the entertaining skeletons in their closets. When Judith turns to Allen in bed and says, "I want you to fuck me," her son hovers oedipally a few inches over her head. We have no idea whether they're just making all this shit up or elaborating on real-life conversations, but the entire clan obviously has a compulsion to hog the lens.

Some have described this no-budget home movie with delusions of grandeur as this year's Tarnation, and it's true that we have no way of checking the veracity of that horrifying account of family trauma. Tarnation was terminally vague about the central drama, the mama's schizophrenia, and its claim that she got it from shock therapy seems dubious. But emotionally, Tarnation rings true. Talent rings false. It's incredibly chipper about the family's woes. Dad has had a stroke that make him shamble like a wounded bear and grumble raspily in a half-intelligible fashion; he always keeps a straw in his mouth because he can't close it all the way. Nobody seems sad about his illness and impotence—even Judith seems upbeat when berating him for not fucking her and for committing adultery back when he could.

Emily, an actress in L.A., berates her mom for being a lousy mother. "Do you know that I was a compulsive masturbator because you never picked me up? It's true! I was self-medicating!" She's having the time of her life riffing on her mom's malevolent incompetence, and Judith's self-defense against these charges doesn't sound wounded at all. Emily's shtick about how she's going to spend $7,000 on liposuction, and that's cheap, cheap compared to what she'd have to spend to shed the weight by conventional means, sounds like what a beginning acting student would write for her first improv skit at some cheesy comedy club.

When Allen tries to persuade a former colleague to give him back his old stockbroker job 20 years after he retired from it and the guy tells him the business has changed, it's evidently supposed to have a Death of a Salesman poignance. It doesn't, because it's clearly a contrived scene. When Maggie's pal Bumby (Judy Dixon), equipped with big boobs inclined to fall in the noonday soup plate, joins the car trip and Allen smooches her with his semifunctional lips, it's not possible to believe that they're on the level (especially with Andrew filming the scene, which he probably wrote). Will Judith divorce Allen, like she matter- of-factly keeps saying she will? Who gives a shit? They certainly don't. Their fond kiss-and-make-up scene at the end is unconvincing, not because they don't seem fond, but because the whole divorce thing comes off as a shtick.

That's the bad news. The good news is, the family is a smooth performing ensemble. They interrupt and talk over one another more eloquently than anybody ever did in an Altman film. This is what Altman was after and seldom achieved: people talking as if they were all one logorrhea-propelled organism. Allen's slow, low growl sonically counterpoints the higher-pitched farcical ululations of his wife and daughters. The film's reviews have been startlingly positive, and what lots of critics are responding to is the Wagner clan's infectious sense of mischievous fun. I can see that, and many scenes are delightful. But I can't get past the dishonesty. (NR) TIM APPELO

Writer of O

Runs Fri., Aug. 12–Thurs., Aug. 18, at Grand Illusion

Prosecuted, banned, burned (by prudes and feminists alike), and never out of print since its scandalous appearance in 1954, the French novel Story of O can be read as secular transfiguration of religious devotion, deadpan parody of S&M erotica, or—as the author's amour, Parisian literary giant Jean Paulhan, concluded—"the most fiercely intense love letter a man could ever receive." He received it from Dominique Aury, his mistress and publishing-house colleague. She was 47 and afraid of losing Paulhan; he was a quarter-century her senior, married, and a big fan of the Marquis de Sade. He liked the result, and it only helped matters that local authorities proclaimed the work "violently and constantly immoral."

Pola Rapaport's slender documentary-cum-reconstruction disappoints in its workmanlike approach to such fragrant material. Catherine Mouchet's scowling, sour- bluestocking performance as Aury—mouth twisted in resentment, tremulous voice on the verge of a sob—does a disservice to the expansive, articulate woman we see in the film's engrossing interview clips, while the re-enactments of scenes from the book are tame even by cable-TV standards. Rapaport is also prone to unfortunate expressionist illustration, as when she drops in some stock footage of, um, a train entering a tunnel. (NR) JESSICA WINTER

 
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