Archive for the ‘comedy’ category

Strapped for Danger

October 21, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-10-21 at 2.29.56 PMLeave it to Richard Griffin, the bad-boy independent Rhode Island director, to put a large, engorged, heavily veined exclamation point on the filmmaking portion of his career. His latest and last film, Strapped for Danger, is not a bid for awards or respectability; it’s a party without a drop of seriousness in it. (Griffin’s previous film, the surreal and wistful Long Night in a Dead City, probably offers his heartfelt and genuine goodbye to the medium for those looking for that.) It also, quite accidentally and coincidentally, conveys more of the heat and wit of Tom of Finland’s artwork than last week’s Tom of Finland biography managed. Old Touko Laaksonen himself might have studied some of the scenes and risen to the occasion.

Gay male strippers Joey (Anthony Gaudette) and Matt (Diego Guevara), along with their hetero colleague Chuck (Dan Mauro), halt the festivities at their strip club and rob the clientele, taking a cop (C. Gerald Murdy) hostage. This arouses the ire of the cop’s partner (Anna Rizzo), who hates gays but swings into action accompanied by the club’s drag-queen hostess Piñata Debris (the fabulous Johnny Sederquist) to track down her partner (and tentative boyfriend). The strippers bring the cop to a frat house to hide out and locate a stash of diamonds. The script, by playwright Duncan Pflaster, gets to the satirical point quickly: frats are little but hothouses of crypto-gay rough-trade behavior, and sexy queer criminals fit right in.

Strapped for Danger has been billed as “very naughty,” and so it is; it has more penises than you can shake a dick at, as well as copious nipples, male and female, offered for pinching and caressing. It’s probably not an accident that Griffin has picked now to unleash the gayest movie of his career, a time when our only president thinks nothing of giving a speech at the virulently homophobic Values Voter Summit. Our vice president wouldn’t make it through the opening credits, either (the kidnapped cop, Rod Pence, might be named after him). Then again, the movie’s relevance could just be happenstance — certainly it has no overt politics weighing it down, just subtext for those who enjoy it.

Gayosity aside, the movie looks to be Griffin’s tip of the hat to cheeseball ‘80s action, of the sort produced by Cannon. Strapped for Danger looks slicker than most of those sleaze epics ever did, though; cinematographer John Mosetich dabs on the lurid reds of the strip club, the more naturalistic hues of the frat house or the police station. The actors cheerfully camp it up, which is the only thing you can do with material like this: if you’re at a party, you party. The stand-outs are the formidable Sarah Reed as Chuck’s snorting squeeze Beverley, Matthew Menendez and Brandon Grimes as hot-to-trot pledges, and of course the wicked wit(ch) Sederquist, who in another corner of his life performs as Ninny Nothin.

The occasion of this review is bittersweet for me, because I was there in August 2000 when Richard Griffin’s feature debut Titus Andronicus opened, I just barely thirty, he not yet thirty. The better part of two decades later here I am, a grayer ink-stained wretch, and there he is, a grayer director retiring from film but returning to theater. This means we can still enjoy his work, though not on a screen. To my dismay, and possibly to Griffin’s relief, this will be the last time I review a film of his (unless I go back and cover his earlier stuff … or write a book about his filmography, heh-heh). It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to do so. Strapped for Danger, with all its sex-positive weenie-flapping, turns out to be the perfect capper to a career that has delighted in tweaking squares and turning sacred cows into brisket.

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Inhumanwich!

October 1, 2017

inhumanwich“In Soviet Russia, sandwich eats you!” is not a joke featured in the retro sci-fi/horror tribute Inhumanwich! (pronounced IN-hyoo-MAN-wich), but there are plenty of other jokes. The movie, shot in golden-oldie black and white, concerns an astronaut whose sloppy joe sandwich combines with radiation to turn him into a rapidly growing monster made of meat. This is the kind of knowingly daffy premise that can go south — and sour — but writer/director David Cornelius strikes a light tone early on and delivers, as I said, a tribute to schlock of the ‘50s, not a callow put-down. If you’re too hip for ridiculous big-monster movies, why put in the years of work to make one? To show the world you’re better than the movie you just made? Cornelius, in contrast, is not too hip for those movies or for his own movie. He loves them as I do, and his affection is infectious.

I don’t know for sure (but he’ll probably tell me) exactly which creature-double-features Cornelius is referencing, but I’ll take a stab and say Inhumanwich! is The Blob by way of The Incredible Melting Man (or, if you want to be fancy, First Man into Space), with elements and tropes from however many hours of snowy TV young Cornelius sat in front of. (There also seem to be fun nudges in the ribs of John Carpenter’s The Thing and the infamous Arch Oboler radio play “Chicken Heart.”) Astronaut Joe Neumann (amiably played by Jacque “Jake” Ransom before he turns into a blob of beef) terrorizes the Cincinnati countryside after his rocket crash-lands, and it’s up to the usual team of soldiers and scientists to stop it before it engulfs the planet.

Cornelius and editor Matt Gray keep Inhumanwich! sprinting (and short — the film crosses the finish line at an hour thirteen, including credits). As the old-timers who made stuff like Them! and Tarantula knew, you don’t want to give the audience a lot of time to think during your movie about killer turnips or whatever, and Cornelius also knows what the soul of wit is. (Look for his uncredited cameo as a Jordy Verrill-type gentleman who encounters the monster in the woods.) The scenes are clipped to punch up the punchlines; this good-hearted comedy boasts a good deal of technical savvy, of the sort that’s invisible when it’s working. There’s a bit about a character who repeats everything she hears during a phone chat, which would make a goofy sort of sense if we were just hearing her side of the conversation and we were getting exposition from it; but we also see the other side of the talk via split screen, so the redundancy becomes a surreal joke. It’s one of several gags in Inhumanwich! that you just know started with Cornelius watching some forlorn excuse for a movie with buddies and saying “Wouldn’t it be funny if…”

The performers are mostly encouraged to mimic the unhip flatness of ‘50s sci-fi actors. The movie doesn’t confine itself to any one era, though; some of the signifiers announce themselves as from the ‘50s, some from modern times. To that end, Jake Robinson’s stogie-chewing, growling General Graham seems to channel John Belushi’s Wild Bill Kelso and the uncouth soldiers of Day of the Dead, moreso than the rigid military men you’d find in antique schlock. He seems to be of the ‘70s and ‘80s, whereas a later character (Brad Nicholas), whose competitive abilities might be of some use against the monster, seems of more recent vintage. Cornelius mashes up the decades as if to say that some things in the universe remain constant, such as humanity’s response to a killer pile of ground beef. Inhumanwich! is just the brand of inspired nonsense we need at the moment.

Wilson

June 25, 2017

wilsonTwenty-five minutes into Wilson, the movie gets real. That’s when Laura Dern shows up, as the ex-wife of the titular character (Woody Harrelson). As David Lynch has known for the past thirty years, having Laura Dern in a film is one hell of a feather in its cap. Here, what threatens to become a merdiste tragicomedy with an irredeemably obnoxious protagonist turns on a dime into something worthwhile. Dern’s character Pippi once got pregnant by Wilson, but gave the baby up for adoption after she left Wilson. Seventeen years later, Pippi and Wilson are sitting across a table from their daughter Claire (Isabella Amara), a bullied and sardonic teen whose contempt for her vacuous rich adoptive parents is barely concealed.

While Harrelson gives his all to Wilson’s rocky emotional journey, it’s Dern whose stare of ineffable anguish makes us feel what it might be like to meet one’s almost-adult child. A simpler actress might play the joy or the heartbreak, but Dern gives us the whole cornucopia of confusing, conflicting feelings mostly without dialogue. Wilson was directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins), but it’s primarily a Daniel Clowes film; as with the earlier Ghost World and Art School Confidential, Clowes wrote the script based on his episodic graphic novel. In the novel, Pippi mainly has the same deadpan-antagonistic personality everyone else in the narrative does. To appreciate how a great actress can elevate a character, I can only recommend reading Wilson and then seeing the movie.

I don’t want to kick Wilson too hard, as it’s the sort of small human-scaled drama (with comedic or absurdist elements) we never see in theaters anymore; it cost $5 million and grossed $653,951 in 311 theaters, which does not bode well for the future of films like Wilson. Still, the central narrative conceit of Wilson the graphic novel, which Clowes carries over into the film, was easier to swallow on the page. Clowes structured the novel as a series of bleak blackout skits, one per page; sometimes years passed between anecdotes, so that at the end of one page Wilson is looking out the window at the lights of a police car, and at the beginning of the next page he’s doing time for the kidnapping of his daughter. A movie structured like this could work, has worked, but Wilson doesn’t. For instance, when Wilson returns to his dead father’s storage unit after three years in prison, and finds all the stuff still there, we’re wondering who was paying the unit’s rent all that time, and if nobody was, isn’t there a whole show about people who bid on the mostly unseen contents of abandoned storage units? In California, where Wilson is set, this happens by law after only three months of nonpayment.

But then we wouldn’t be musing about such things at a more involving movie. Wilson is well-acted from top to bottom; aside from Dern and Harrelson, Judy Greer is typically fine as Wilson’s dog-sitter who becomes something more, Margo Martindale has a sourly funny date with Wilson, and Mary Lynn Rajskub has a scene of startling anger at Wilson that’s like a thunderstorm clearing out a foggy, humid night. Generally, Wilson belongs to the women, even though we can’t quite work out why women who look like Judy Greer and Laura Dern would sleep with a balding, scruffy misanthrope like Wilson. (Again, in the novel these women aren’t drawn flatteringly at all. Neither is Wilson, and Harrelson is an almost exact match for some of Clowes’ renderings of Wilson.)

Why does Wilson catch a beating from a couple of fellow inmates for being his usual cluelessly opining self, and then a couple of scenes later, people from various different prison cliques (blacks, neo-Nazis) all seem to like him? Why does the movie seem to take place in a weird universe that jumbles together technology from past and present, so that people pull up Yelp and Google on their phones but a private investigator uses a computer with a floppy drive, and Wilson takes a picture with an Instamatic with a flash cube? These things stick out but seem to call attention to themselves gratuitously, much like Wilson’s haphazardly stacked paperbacks; he fancies himself an intellectual but we glimpse potboilers by Leon Uris and Janet Dailey. Is Clowes even condescending to Wilson’s reading habits? Who knows? But again, I do endorse Wilson for Laura Dern and the other women thrusting their fists against the posts of Wilson’s — and Clowes’ — cynicism.

Louis C.K. 2017

April 9, 2017

20170114_LCK _MG_2722.CR2In his new, simply titled concert film Louis C.K. 2017, the eponymous comedian doesn’t waste any time with pre-concert sketches. He just gets right into it: “So I think abortion is, um, here’s what I think,” Louis begins, and the audience guffaws knowingly. A lot of what Louis C.K. says is in quotes — “Here’s what a clueless white guy sounds like” is the unspoken preface, followed by an observation along the lines of  “I’m not condoning rape, obviously — you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.” The point, to an intelligent audience, is that there isn’t a reason; Louis also lays down a level of satire of self-justifying rhetoric. So when Louis steers his abortion bit into a statement that “women should have the right to kill babies,” the bit becomes more about the irreconcilable, eternally warring language used in the abortion debate than about abortion itself.

Louis C.K. 2017 finds Louis in his usual amiably schlubby but seriously askew conflict with life — a concept that gets no respect from him: the abortion material more or less ends with Louis saying that life is overrated anyway. (Another bit has him musing about suicide in a way that falls on neither side of that topic.) He wears a suit this time out, as he also did in his opening monologue on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live. Has he grown up, or sold out? Louis has shed his typical working uniform — a black t-shirt and jeans — in favor of an outfit that more effectively points up his opinions as those of a goofy white dude.

Louis treats his insights as throwaways; an unimpressed Generation X elder (born in 1967), he doesn’t buy into anything as the one way to look at the world, much less his own view. His bit about how Christianity “won” — pointing to the very fact of the numerical year we all agree on whether or not we’re believers (hence the title of the special, I guess) — is less confrontational than just bewildered. The broader his reach, the more timeless his comments, the closer he gets to being his generation’s George Carlin. But then he’ll take it back down to muddy earth, to the grimy and personal, linking him to Richard Pryor. Yet he comes off as an original; he doesn’t ape Carlin or Pryor so much as earn the right to be included with them in conversations about American comedy.

A good chunk of Louis’ material can be taken as depressing. Love, he says, is nice but doesn’t last; he even leaves out the usual bromide about how the finest things don’t last, which is why they’re the finest things. I suppose we can infer that, but that would violate Louis’ particular defeated weltschmerz. Carlin was angry; Pryor was afraid; Louis is just, like, whatever, this all sucks (another generational thing). There’s a cap, though, on how cynical a creative person can get — especially one operating at the level of Louis C.K., who in recent years has evolved from a comedian’s comedian to someone who can sell out Madison Square Garden. He has achieved, in this degraded pop culture, the rare distinction of being both artistically respected and wildly popular.

So how does someone whose shtick rests on himself being a skeevy bum (but hilariously honest about his bummy skeeviness) respond to being loved by his peers and by the masses? (Well, maybe not all his peers — there are still various allegations of gross behavior in front of female comedians he has to contend with.) On the evidence of Louis C.K. 2017, he just continues doing what he’s been doing. He can do five minutes on the most piddly-ass thing, and then tie it into a coherent (though frumpy) filter on the world. The subtext of his more outrageous bits is “Yeah, listen while this scuzzy idiot presumes to tell you what he thinks about [fill in the blank],” which is why his opening sentence about abortion gets a big laugh even though it doesn’t read funny on paper. A consummate actor, as proven on his dazzling and much-lamented FX show Louie, he can give the impression that his act isn’t honed and perfected over the course of dozens of gigs but just a guy riffing off the top of his head. As mopey as his material can get, the fact that Louis C.K. can work at his level and be successful is one reason to stay optimistic.

Wishful Drinking

January 2, 2017

wishfulOne of the better jokes in Wishful Drinking, HBO’s filmed version of Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show, will inspire sad cringing more than laughter these days. I won’t give it away. But if anyone existed in the zone between laughter and sad cringing, it was Carrie Fisher, who at one point during the show touted herself as “runner-up for bipolar woman of the year.” Fisher, of course, will forever be known for the piece of real estate she held down in the vast suburb that is Star Wars. But her true sardonic self came out in her writing and then in her performance of her writing. Wishful Drinking, which HBO re-ran on January 1 in the wake of Fisher’s death, offers probably the purest essence of Fisher in the visual medium (you can look to her novels and memoirs for more).

Fisher’s subject is how bizarrely magical and magically bizarre it is to be “celebrity royalty” — the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, both of whose later married lives were so thick and confusing a large family-tree diagram is necessary to keep it all straight. The format is mainly anecdotal; wandering around a stage set that resembles a retiree’s cluttered but homey living room, Fisher keeps the show on the level of decent stand-up. She doesn’t go for any pathos — she’s too acerbic for that, and whenever she approaches a cliché, she backs away from it quickly with a jet-blast of snark. She doesn’t want to make the material more meaningful, or enlarge it to fit a theme; she just presents her life as comedy. I imagine the movie gives us what it might have been like to sit in Fisher’s parlor listening to her hold forth.

Fisher visits the old suburb briefly, counting the ways Star Wars has immortalized her (as a Pez dispenser, as a shampoo bottle, as a photo in a book ironically titled — no kidding — New Hope for People with Bipolar Disorder). “George Lucas ruined my life,” she says, adding “and I mean that in the nicest possible way.” I’ve seen Fisher’s Princess Leia described as the most famous female character in history; I balked at that until considering that Star Wars is quite likely the most famous film in history and that there are very few other women in Star Wars. That donut-headed hairstyle is iconic, immediately recognizable, and mortifying to a 19-year-old.        

So what happens to the human woman who played the icon and is forever linked to it? Especially a woman whose sanity had already been imperiled by being the daughter of stars? It’s a wonder Fisher never climbed a tower with a rifle, but women of Fisher’s generation didn’t do that; they self-medicated, self-deprecated, self-destructed. Somewhere in the show, Fisher proselytizes for electroshock therapy, which she later expanded on in her second memoir, Shockaholic. Fisher felt it helped with her depression, but there’s a chance it might have done some damage to her heart — along with the other punishment she dealt it over the years.

There’s a certain degree of heartlessness — not soullessness, but an ability to distance oneself — required to make witty one-liners out of the chaos of one’s life. (Fisher was a modern master of the epigram, the baby-boomer Dorothy Parker.) Some detachment is needed in order to shape the material so that it can reach others, rather than being incoherent diary entries. (Sadly, Fisher’s last book, The Princess Diarist, was sometimes that.) What brought Fisher’s later fans closer to her, though, was her vulnerability. What you hear in the audience in Wishful Thinking is laughter given gratefully and also generously. Fisher wasn’t angling for pity. She wanted to hear laughs. So much of her writing earns laughs, but they sound hollow now that she’s not here to hear them.

Ghostbusters (2016)

November 13, 2016

kateThe key to the Ghostbusters reboot is that it works not so much as a comedy (it’s fitfully amusing) or as a big-budget adventure but as an unforced celebration of feminism. The four heroic women suffer some sexism, but not enough to get in their way significantly (they mostly power through and do what they want anyway). If they’re not taken seriously, it’s not because they’re female but because they insist in a secular age that ghosts exist. At heart it’s a story about two friends since childhood, who grew up to be scientists Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), and who have grown apart since co-writing a book on the paranormal, which Erin has disavowed. The whole creaky, noisy spectacle leads to the moment when one of these women literally jumps into the abyss to save the other.

That’s what it’s all about, in the end; saving the world is okay, but sisterhood matters more. Ghostbusters has a sketchy script (by director Paul Feig and Katie Dippold), which functions largely as a clothesline for supernatural gags, but then so did the script for the sacrosanct 1984 original. (Aside from Peter McNicol’s performance, I’d just as soon forget about the wanting 1989 sequel.) I think Feig and Dippold, probably with the encouragement of the actresses, really just wanted to tell a small-scale story about the bond between smart women, and in Ghostbusters they seized the chance to do it on a massive scale, on a $145 million budget. God knows most of the legitimately funny bits could have been filmed in a one-bedroom flat for five dollars. But movies like that don’t get greenlit any more. Movies that cost $145 million and have a connection to a beloved franchise do.

Feig enjoys stories about friendships between women, and he has told them again and again in the last few years, in Bridesmaids and The Heat and Spy. Two minority women, the African-American subway worker and armchair city historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) and the crypto-gay nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), round out the quartet of ghostbusters, and they all go to the limits of existence for each other. They’re afraid but forge ahead anyway, the true definition of bravery. Ghostbusters was not as big a hit as it should have been, or else McKinnon would have handily stolen the summer and perhaps the year. She gives us a scientist highly entertained by the buzz of her own brain; weird noises and asides keep leaking out of her — she’s placidly unstable and very much giddily alive. Jones’ Patty largely recalls Richard Pryor’s routine about black people’s comically pragmatic response to the supernatural (get the hell out) while managing to feel much less like a token afterthought than Ernie Hudson’s black ghostbuster in the original.

This Ghostbusters doesn’t feel like its predecessors, or look like them; it lacks the original’s cool, slick ‘80s lamination — the director of photography is Robert Yeoman, who provides the warm, bright hues of every Wes Anderson film (and all the aforementioned Paul Feig movies). The phantasms glow sickly green, and spew green slime; the improved technology gives us more visually elaborate ghosts but can’t give us a reason for their ghosting around. There’s a plot thread about some nerdy mad scientist trying to start the apocalypse (ah, that old thing), and the movie itself seems fatally uninterested in everything to do with it. This nerd gets killed about an hour in and spends the rest of our time hopping from body to body, eventually settling inside the ghostbusters’ hunky but dim secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth, enjoying being stupid). I don’t imagine Paul Feig cared about the whys and wherefores of the ghosts; I know I didn’t.

Yet Ghostbusters is commendable for its respect for intelligence, its regard for friendship; its Stronger Together emphasis feels like a balm in the cold days post-Hillary. (It may be best apprehended as an artifact of the era when a female president seemed tantalizingly imminent.) Unlike the original, it doesn’t proceed from a writer’s genuine hungry obsession with all things inexplicable. The ghosts symbolize loud, chaotic elements seeking to split up our heroes, so they have more going on under the hood than they did in the original, where the ghosts didn’t mean much of anything except gag fodder. Here, the ghosts have a certain beauty and pathos, and are sometimes scarier than their ancestors (though Slimer makes an appearance, as do many other fan-service ghoulies and actors). The movie is more readily comparable to Feig’s other work than to its forefather. It’s a comfortable night out (or in), pleasing and unchallenging.

Dr. Strangelove

September 11, 2016

screenshot-med-01What does Dr. Strangelove say to us today? We’re more worried about terrorism than about the bomb — that is, about stateless radicals wanting to kill us, instead of an entire country ranged against us. Has the film kept its power to shock? I suppose its cool, detached amusement in the face of armageddon remains shocking in the sense of a revivifying splash of cold water. Fifty-two years on, the movie is still more hip than most of what American filmmakers — Hollywood or indie — can muster. Like Tom Lehrer, Stanley Kubrick chortled darkly at the idea of us killing ourselves off en masse. Mankind’s developing the brains to devise a weapon that could render ourselves extinct is perhaps the great cosmic irony, and Dr. Strangelove dances gaily (yet coolly) inside that irony.

The world dies screaming because of one sexually hung-up man — General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who sends word to a B-52 to commence Wing Attack Plan R, essentially a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union. Why? The commies, of course, have released fluoride into the water to corrupt our precious bodily fluids. As Ripper explains to his captive, Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), he will have sex with women, but he denies them his “essence.” This from a movie that kicks off with a pornographic sequence of a bomber refueling in flight (images that may have haunted J.G. Ballard). Sexuality is a joke, swiftly diverted into military violence by way of repression. Bombers and bombs are the only things that really get off in this brave new future.

Kubrick’s attack isn’t on anything as simple as the military but on masculinity (only one woman is seen onscreen) and, incidentally, on the hubris of humanity itself, its evolved but still bestial brain. Man’s inability to deal with its own existential terror, which clouds its judgment and prevents its further evolution, was Kubrick’s main theme. Every idiot man in Dr. Strangelove exists to illustrate it — the ineffectual American president Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), the rip-roaring General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the hee-hawing bomber commander Major Kong (Slim Pickens), the leering Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again). Women don’t figure into the movie’s vision except as thwarted sexual opportunities; they’re almost invisible but at least, in 1964 anyway, they don’t send people to war.

Dr. Strangelove himself (né Merkwürdigliebe) is perhaps the crowning creation of both Sellers and Kubrick, a toxic-hipster ex-Nazi patterned partly on Wernher von Braun (“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” as Lehrer characterized von Braun’s stance) and partly on Rotwang from Metropolis. Strangelove’s accent navigates dangerously through bared teeth, wafting out in a strangled hum of platitudes about the survivability and even preferability of a nuclear war. Putting all his creative, chameleonic eggs in this basket, Sellers is riveting, and Kubrick lets him run with his instincts. (Some Kubrick detractors have suggested that once he lost Sellers he lost Sellers’ questing, improvisational quality of play.)

At a sleek, quicksilver ninety minutes, Dr. Strangelove proceeds in snappy, surgical edits; the only dissolve I can recall accompanies the movie’s most slapstick moment, involving a Coke-bottle machine. (Kubrick was right to axe the legendary pie-fight scene; it would’ve been just too vaudeville for the eventual cool tone of the film.) Slight dutch angles abound, jazzing up a movie that is roughly 85% dialogue, but also giving us the simultaneously hilarious and intimidating image of General Ripper, phallic cigar jutting out, seemingly photographed from the general region of … his crotch. The audience is thus put in a submissive, fellatial position before the man who essentially makes himself God, who waves his hand (or a code) and kills us all off to the musical stylings of Vera Lynn. Kubrick knew what he was doing.