Thanksgiving in August. The titular quartet of Four Brothers, all adopted, all acknowledged "fuck-ups," are of two races, evenly divided, black and white, and reunited for the Turkey Day funeral of their sainted mother, murdered in the course of a liquor-store holdup. "I didn't come back here for the funeral," explains the Mark Wahlberg one, making clear right off the bat that this is to be a tale of revenge, a pursuit undertaken with a singular lack of strategy and diplomacy. (Key investigative tools: a gallon of gasoline and a cigarette lighter.) The Detroit setting opens the skies to a storm of Motown -- Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Four Tops -- and the time of year opens them additionally to as much snow as in the relocated remake of Assault on Precinct 13, even to the point of engulfing the white-crowned Paramount mountain in the opening logo. Only the number of these brothers, along with their reverence for their departed mother, would give grounds for calling this (as some people are) a remake of The Sons of Katie Elder, a John Wayne shoot-'em-up from the Paramount vault. Insufficient grounds, in my judgment, though to brand it an urban Western is fair enough. Major assets, let's count them, are multiple: unselfconscious and unselfcongratulatory racial togetherness (to get the redeeming social merit out of the way first); a hurtling pace, albeit a bit lurching, leaping, and bumping; crisp photography; tangy dialogue ("You don't pay a whore to fuck you. You pay her to leave"); hellacious action, slickly staged by director John Singleton, most particularly the siege of the family home by ski-masked machine gunners, a sort of pocket edition of the aforementioned Assault on Precinct 13; and a vigorous villain, played against type by Chiwetel Ejiofor (the sweetly sympathetic figure of Dirty Pretty Things and Melinda Melinda, every bit as sharp a turnaround as Jeffrey Wright's villain in Singleton's Shaft), who acquits himself well in the climactic mano-a-mano on the ice, bouncing on his toes in the float-like-a-butterfly style of Muhammad Ali. Bully he may be; chicken he isn't. On the other side of the scales, causing momentary teeters here and there, would be the air of utter unreality, such that the cops will be content to cart away the bodies in the street without even checking to see the survivors' gun permits. "Self-defense" is the on-the-spot assessment, a ruling in compliance with the hurtling pace.
The Aristocrats, a talking-heads film directed by Paul Provenza, rounds up a herd of well-known and less-known comedians to tell and to analyze an old gray blue joke, the punch line of which is the film's title. (Alternate and not-as-good punch lines: the Sophisticates, the Debonairs.) The joke, which I'm sure I'd never heard before, seems to be something of a private joke among comedians, seldom told in public out of common decency. It has an unassailable structure, a solid beginning and end, and a lot of room in the middle for extended jazzlike improvisation, often on motifs of incest, bestiality, bodily waste. The set form allows the audience reasonably to gauge who goes "too far," which turns out to be less a question of taste than a question of comprehension, a question of intelligence. Howie Mandel and Bob Saget step up as the top competitors for the worst -- most uncomprehending, least intelligent -- rendition, with Saget getting the edge by laughing repeatedly at his own idiocy. George Carlin makes the most sensible contributions as an analyst. And Kevin Pollak earns perhaps the biggest laughs, or anyway the most guiltless laughs, with a totally irrelevant impression of Christopher Walken. Other jokes, not all of them blue, some of them variations on or inversions of the central joke, get told as well. The central one, as much as it's a dirty joke, is also a dated joke, a quaint joke, smelling of the musty trunk of vaudeville, dulled a bit by the liberated heirs of Lenny Bruce. Taboos today are in short supply. Yet -- in what appears to have been the inspiration for the film -- the joke got revived and revitalized in the post-9/11 gloom, when a defiant Gilbert Gottfried chose to tell it for a televised Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner, finding a new or a forgotten meaning in it. "Inspiration," in that context, is not too lofty a word. Gottfried's rendition, plucked from the archives, emerges as hands-down the best and bravest. Overlong for the task at hand, stretched out at a few ticks under ninety minutes, ghastly to look at, the film nonetheless meets the mandate of a documentary in the most fundamental sense. It documents.
King of the Corner, a low-key, life-sized little indie adapted from Gerald Shapiro's Bad Jews and Other Stories, marks the feature directing debut of Peter Riegert, the likable leading man (if more often a supporting man) of such cherishables as Local Hero and Crossing Delancey. He is the leading man here as well, and still likable, as a too-nice travelling pitchman ("Why do I have to be the prick? I don't want to be the prick"), showing the ropes to a young corporate backstabber while test-marketing a telephone voice-transformer for making timorous old ladies sound like Gregory Peck. In his home life, he has to contend with a prodding Italian wife (well, Isabella Rossellini, anyway), a typical handful of a teenage daughter (Ashley Johnson), and a shrinking father in a wheelchair out in Arizona (Eli Wallach: "Another six months, I'll be the size of a peanut"). The protagonist goes a bit off the rails after running into the object of his old high-school crush (Beverly D'Angelo), and takes the film with him. An off-the-cuff funeral oration gets him, and it, back on track.
Last Days details Gus Van Sant's imagining of the demise of a pseudonymous Seattle grunge rocker much like Kurt Cobain (a barely-there impersonation by Michael Pitt), already far advanced into madness at the start of the film, mumbling incoherently, dressing up in a slip, dragging a shotgun around with him, leaving the milk on the counter while putting the Cocoa Rice Krispies in the fridge. Not a lot happens. A Yellow Pages salesman comes calling; later a couple of evangelists from the Latter-Day Saints; later a private eye. Unidentified housemates come and go. He sings a song to himself. He expires off screen. His double-exposure ghost, naked as the day he was born, gets up and leaves his body. The moments linger, drag on, go nowhere. As in Elephant, the filmmaker's imagining of Columbine, moments also recur, from other angles, although here with less visual elegance and intricacy. As there, too, any sense of suspense or foreboding in the fictional vacuum must seep in from external fact. And again as there, little light is shed. Perhaps Van Sant wanted to help us understand the option of suicide by boring us into contemplating it for ourselves.