The Aristocrats
dirs. Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette

Paul Provenza takes strong exception to the idea that standup comics are a hostile breed.

"People think comedians are always on, always trying to top each other and all that," Provenza says. "But it's more like a game of tennis. When you hit the ball hard and someone can hit it back over the net just as hard, it's a different thing. If I can give you a bunch of shit, and you give me a bunch of shit back, we're at a different level. It's actually professional and affectionate. It's not hostile at all. Quite the opposite."

I only advanced this little theory—that people who make people laugh for a living share a collective mean streak—by way of appreciating the glory of The Aristocrats, a film co-directed by Provenza and Penn Jillette, in which dozens of legendary (and sub-legendary) comedians tell variations on the dirtiest joke in the world. At least, that's what the movie pretends to be. In the end, the joke is just a vehicle for allowing these humormongers the opportunity to flex muscles their entertainment careers seldom allow them to ex. To play tennis, as it were, with the art of comedy.

"It grew out of a very simple desire," Provenza explains, "to examine the idea that it's the singer, not the song."

According to the movie, the song in question is an ancient joke that begins, "A guy walks into a talent agent's office..." and ends with "...the Aristocrats!" In between setup and punch line runs a torrent of excretion, incest, bestiality, coprophilia, and every other imaginable strain of obscenity. At its root, the joke is a bit of Jewish mischief, a tool for mocking goy culture and shocking indifferent audiences. But in more practical terms, it's comedic antimatter. Without a great teller, it's not even remotely amusing. But give it to Gilbert Gottfried (whose performance here proves his towering genius for good and all), Dana Gould, even Drew Carey, and it's the funniest thing you've ever heard.

"In a way, it's just a terrible old dirty joke," Provenza admits. "But it also comes from the great tradition of American storytelling. The choice of this joke isn't because it's the filthiest joke in the world. We chose it because of its structure. Not many jokes have a wide-open improvisational field in the middle. It's like telling a jazz musician to play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' you know you're getting so much more than the basic melody."

He's exactly right. The film's brilliance has less to do with the joke itself, which is basically just a MacGuffin, than the unbridled zeal for performance that comedians share, and the ironic way that success, either in standup or film and TV, tends to diminish their ability to revel in it. Robin Williams hasn't been funny on screen in years, but he's unstoppably hilarious here. Likewise with Shelley Berman, Larry Storch, Rip Taylor, Phyllis Diller, and countless other comics from all strata of the business, who wring laughs from the sketchiest of premises. It's been at least two decades since Martin Mull has had a vehicle capable of expressing his brilliance, and he all but steals The Aristocrats. That honor belongs to Gottfried, whose performance of the joke at a Friars Club roast forms the soul of the film.

"To me," Provenza explains, "what resonates about that moment is that there he is, in a room full of comedians, being told that he's gone too far, and his response is, 'Excuse me, what do you mean I've gone too far? We're comedians. We're supposed to go too far.'" SEAN NELSON

Four Brothers
dir. John Singleton

In the decade and change since his debut with Boys N the Hood, director John Singleton has garnered a rep as a filmmaker whose ambition has often frustratingly overstepped his gifts. 2003's shamelessly dopey 2 Fast 2 Furious, however, suggested that Singleton may have finally found his calling as a maker of self-aware action pictures. Four Brothers, the director's vigilante-minded, ridiculously nasty follow-up lays on the thug-life testosterone with a trowel; misogynistic, homophobic, and brutal as all get out, it suggests a marathon Grand Theft Auto session, without the redeeming hand-eye coordination development. Pleasures don't come much more guilty.

Loosely retrofitting the old John Wayne oater The Sons of Katie Elder to modern day Detroit, the plot follows a quartet of ne'er-do-wells, led by the pumped, inked, and pomaded within an inch of his life Mark Wahlberg, who stomp back to their old neighborhood after their adoptive mother meets an untimely end. Unable to find satisfaction from the local cops (including Hustle & Flow's Terrence Howard), they proceed to dish out a mighty helping of frontier justice.

Whatever his faults, Singleton has always had a touch with actors, and here he draws relaxed performances from André 3000, Tyrese Gibson, and especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a cartoonishly evil mastermind who occasionally forces his henchmen to eat off of the floor. On the tech side, David Arnold's score lays gloriously heavy on the wa-wa pedal, and the photography and production design favorably recall the glory days of the '70s exploitation film, when folks like Roy Scheider and Jim Brown busted up Caddys and Dusters by the score. If, as the occasional brief moment suggests, this is all a straight-faced parody of such trash classics as Slaughter's Big Rip-Off and Truck Turner, Singleton may have bigger talents than anyone has ever suspected. If serious, however, lord help us. ANDREW WRIGHT

Junebug
dir. Phil Morrison

A Sundance hit by director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan (both from North Carolina), Junebug pretends to be about the South. It's really about the shame of being Southern. And because it's hard to hate oneself for an hour and a half straight, it's also about what self-absorbed assholes Yankees are.

Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago-based dealer in outsider art, travels to North Carolina to recruit a promising painter. Her new husband, who's from the area, tags along to introduce her to his family. His cranky mother (the excellent Celia Weston) hates the intruder; his compulsively extroverted sister-in-law, Ashley (Amy Adams, equally great), becomes immediately infatuated with Madeleine's air of cosmopolitan glamour. There's also a brother, who simmers with jealousy—and loves meerkats—and a father, who's a blank with a picturesque hobby.

The Northerner and her assimilated husband can't keep their hands off each other; Ashley doesn't seem to comprehend sex, but she's about to have a baby (in a stunning demonstration of the lengths to which the script goes to prove Southern ignorance, she's also cheerfully trying to lose weight). Ashley has a childlike trust in God; Madeleine approaches religion as though she's handling a slimy toad. A subplot involving the autistic artist (whose art owes an obvious debt to Henry Darger) makes the staggering point that talent and bigotry can go hand in hand. The movie is packed with these sorts of bitter "insights," and they poison the entire experience. ANNIE WAGNER

The Great Raid
dir. John Dahl

Escaping from the shelves after a two-year delay, The Great Raid commendably sheds light on one of the lesser-known conicts of the war, a behind-the-lines, off-the-books siege of a Japanese-held POW camp in the Philippines, which culminated in the largest rescue mission in American history. Bookended with a copious amount of striking newsreel footage and staged with an impressive degree of historical accuracy, the results are heartfelt, reverent, honorable, and, ultimately, more than a little dull. As much as this tale deserves to be told, it's difficult at times not to quibble with the execution.

Beginning the week before the military action, the narrative generously splits the focus between the slowly approaching U.S. dogfaces, the increasingly shaky residents of the camp, and a few harried members of the dwindling black-market resistance. While such attention to planning is initially a welcome change from the usual Sgt. Rock shenanigans, it eventually serves to downgrade the urgency of the mission. Matters are not helped by a general lack of character development. Sadly, despite the game efforts of folks such as James Franco, Connie Nielsen, and an alarmingly skeletal Joseph Fiennes, most of the players remain squarely in Star Trek red-shirt territory. The exception comes from New Zealand actor Marton Csokas, who sports an infectiously haywire edge as the camp's resident escape artist.

Once the raid actually begins, however, things finally begin to pick up. Director John Dahl, whose experience to date has mainly been with small, clever two-handers such as The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, displays a genuine aptitude for large-scale carnage, staging the final engagement with a spatial coherence especially impressive in these days of Bruckheimer. Even the most ardent pacifist might find it hard to suppress a hoo-hah or two. ANDREW WRIGHT

The Talent Given Us
dir. Andrew Wagner

One of the darndest things to come down the pike in recent memory, writer/director/photographer Andrew Wagner's warts-and-all docudrama of his family starts out intriguingly intimate, with some winning performances by its mostly untrained cast, yet soon becomes genuinely excruciating to viewers not directly related by blood. Anybody who has ever suffered through someone else's slide reel should consider this fair warning.

The thinly fictionalized plot follows Allen Wagner, a speech-impaired former New York stockbroker, and his long-suffering, quick-tempered wife Judy. After picking up their New Agey actress daughter at the airport, the perpetually bickering couple decide at the spur of the moment to drive cross-country in order to pay a surprise visit to their struggling screenwriter son Andrew in LA. Along the way, past infidelities and current rifts are unearthed to a kvetching, scab-picking degree that recalls a feature-length version of The Lockhorns.

To Wagner's credit, he absolutely nails the antsy, paint-drying feel of a long car trip with the folks. This questionably entertaining achievement aside, his debut quickly sinks into a morass of glib one-liners and touchy-feely New Age affirmations, which coexist uneasily with the occasional moment of honest-to-goodness reality. (To see an elderly couple talking dirty and preparing to go downtown on each other is one thing; the realization that they're following a script, with their son in the room filming them, takes things to a realm that may give even die-hard voyeurs the heebie-jeebies.) At its worst, it summons the uneasy feeling of a huckster opportunistically hijacking his family's considerable skeletons in order to justify his own quirks. In the 8mm baseball footage that accompanies the end credits, the director shows himself as a young boy hitting one out of the park. Whatever his various neuroses, his self-regard certainly seems to have survived the trip. ANDREW WRIGHT

Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo
dir. Mike Bigelow (no, really)

Quite possibly the worst and most unfunny movie ever made, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo (sequel to Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo) begins by reintroducing Deuce in his current state of mourning. While on their honeymoon, you see, a shark ate Mrs. Bigalow. All that remains is her artificial leg that Deuce carries around, sleeps with, and relies on for incredibly obvious and lame punch lines.

Anyways, Deuce is quickly swept off the beach in America, where he is retired from whoring and currently studying fish, and brought to Amsterdam, where he accidentally gets really high, falls in love with some hot chick that has to slap herself whenever someone sneezes, and solves a murder mystery that's been plaguing the man-whore population for weeks. Or months. They never really say.

You see, someone's going around killing all the male prostitutes and Deuce's pimp friend T. J. is getting blamed for it since he suspiciously appears at every murder scene. But really it's just zany antics that bring him to the crime scene, not cold acts of killing, and Deuce, in order to solve the case, has to start turning tricks yet again—even though he "retired" after getting hitched. But what the hell, wifey's dead, and lonely ladies need to get laid, right?

So just like in the last movie, Deuce gets stuck with all these huge, smelly, and has-a-dick-for-a-nose women, and it's all supposedly terribly hilarious. Also supposedly hilarious are the many obvious spins they put on words like prostitute, penis, and vagina throughout the movie. Really, though, it is absolutely not smart, absolutely not funny, absolutely not entertaining. In fact, this movie is so terrible, I saw something that I've never seen happen at a screening before: People walked out. Of a free movie. And now you wonder if you should pay to see it? No. No, you absolutely should not. MEGAN SELING

Grizzly Man
dir. Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog has always had a thing for the abyss, of both the inner and outer kind. The much-Googled true story of Timothy Treadwell, a self-fashioned nature expert who spent 13 seasons in close contact with wild bears in Alaska before he and his girlfriend were devoured in 2003 by a rogue Grizzly, seems so far up the director's alley as to be a little daunting—the kind of career-defining summation that can easily tar-baby a filmmaker into submission. He nails it.

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Greatly complicating Herzog's job is the fact that, at least initially, the oppy-haired, high-pitched subject makes for a hugely unsympathetic presence. Constantly proclaiming his love for his furry, oblivious friends while poking them in the nose with his finger, he seems guilty of thinking, as one interviewee suggests, that his companions are merely people in bear suits. Acting as narrator, Herzog weaves numerous tapes of Treadwell mugging in the wilderness, tearful reminisces from friends, and autopsy reports into a shockingly complete image of a civilization-phobic Lost Boy, idiotic and heroic in close-to-equal measures.

For all of the film's considerable ingenuity and power throughout, the sink-or-swim moment for audiences ultimately may hinge on the late unveiling of an audiotape documenting the couple's death. Those familiar with Herzog's past tendencies toward boundary-busting may be forgiven for feeling queasy over the prospect of such a revelation entering the realm of the snuff film (this is the same director, after all, who, in his earlier When the Green Ants Dream, puckishly came this close to filming a totem reputed to cause the end of the world if ever photographed). The way he handles the evidence, however, proves to be one of the eeriest, oddly beautiful things I've ever seen on a screen. Was Treadwell's journey into the wild a holy quest, or a tragic confirmation of the cruelty of nature? Both, maybe. ANDREW WRIGHT