Archive for the ‘comedy’ category

Quick Change

November 21, 2015

Quick Change finds Bill Murray paddling into the uncharted waters of sincerity. To be fair, Murray had dipped his toe in earlier, at the end of Scrooged and in some parts of Ghostbusters II, and of course in his early dramatic attempt that was greeted with bafflement, The Razor’s Edge. But in Quick Change Murray gives a fresh performance, one that dials down the jaded snark while still cashing laughs. He plays Grimm, a New York city planner turned bank robber. Grimm is sick of the city and wants to get out, taking as much of its money with him as possible. Here, Murray doesn’t seem as though he’s critiquing the movie from its margins. Grimm cares about his goals, cares about getting the hell out of Dodge.

The movie, adapted by Howard Franklin from a Jay Conley novel, and co-directed by Franklin and Murray, begins as a farcical take on Dog Day Afternoon and eventually rolls into a variation on After Hours or The Warriors. After the bank robbery — which attracts the expected volume of police and media buzz — Grimm and his accomplices Phyllis (Geena Davis) and Loomis (Randy Quaid) fumble around the city, trying to get to JFK Airport. But New York throws all its snarls and roadblocks and crazies in their path; Grimm wants to escape the city, but it doesn’t seem to want to let him go. New York becomes a major character the way it did in the aforementioned three films.

Grimm and Phyllis aren’t just partners in crime; they’re lovers, and Phyllis spends much of the movie figuring out how to tell Grimm she’s going to have his baby. The sadness in Geena Davis’ eyes when Grimm says he feels “complete” — and presumably not welcoming a child — is one of her great moments as an actress, and it colors everything else she does in the role. Likewise, the eager, somewhat doltish Loomis has been friends with Grimm since grade school, but somehow fears his anger, specifically being hit by him. These two have a strange, complex emotional bond to Grimm that might have been unthinkable in an earlier Bill Murray comedy.

Quick Change is smarter, even more literate, than it needs to be — I remember back in 1990 being surprised that the movie’s commercials included a joke about Thor Heyerdahl (maybe part of the reason it wasn’t a big hit). It’s full of great New York faces and personalities: Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci, Victor Argo, Kurtwood Smith, Philip Bosco, as well as comedians old (Bob Elliott) and then-young (Phil Hartman). There isn’t much filmmaking excitement in it; the two rookie directors (Murray has never directed again) essentially just point a camera at funny people, which turns out to be just enough. There’s enough breathing room in its anecdotal structure for absurdist throwaways like the jousters on bicycles, whom our protagonists — and seemingly the movie itself — pause to watch in wonderment. About the only true aesthetic bummer is Randy Edelman’s cheesy score, interchangeable with that of a dozen generic ’80s comedies.

At the movie’s genially chaotic center is a funnyman (he literally starts off as a clown) who seems to yearn for something different. Groundhog Day was only three years away, and that mystical repetition trip sealed the deal: Bill Murray still wanted to make people laugh, but no longer at the expense of squares, of people who dared to care. In an interview with Roger Ebert promoting the film, Murray said that people were calling the movie “gentle,” which didn’t sit well with him because he considered it “weird and funny,” which it is, but it is also gentle. It’s gentle not only because it has no violence but because almost nobody in it is held up for ridicule; even the chief of police (Jason Robards, and I can’t get over how he went from running around looking robust in this film to being a wheezing husk in Magnolia in just nine years) is allowed to be smart and funny. The two exceptions are a mobster who goes out of his way to be mean to an airport clerk, and a yuppie who insists on being the first hostage to be let free. Grimm uses each man’s aggression against him; it’s comedy aikido.

Twice Upon a Time

November 8, 2015

Something was in the air in the late ’70s — a small, weird, but welcome animation renaissance that popped up in the void left by Disney in their dreary pre-Mermaid days. Ralph Bakshi hadn’t yet packed it in, Don Bluth was getting started, and not-for-kids toons like Heavy Metal and Rock and Rule were actually financed and put in theaters. Of course, given the lead time of cel animation back then, most of these didn’t hit theaters until the early ’80s, coinciding with a rise in sci-fi/fantasy films. Many of these experiments found little box-office traction but gathered cults that persist even now.

The cultiest of them all might well be 1983’s Twice Upon a Time, bankrolled by none other than Lucasfilm. It was released in a grand total of one theater, then banished to HBO for a handful of showings, which is how most of its fans caught it. Due to a foofarah over which version was being shown — there were two, one seasoned with lots of PG profanity, one largely clean — the film has been unavailable for decades. The cleaner version was the preferred version of its co-director, John Korty, but viewers erroneously considered the more profane version the “uncut, uncensored” one and thus the more attractive one. Now, finally, Warner Archives has made available a burn-on-demand DVD containing both versions.

What the new viewer (as well as the longtime fan who has never seen it in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio) will get here is a visually sumptuous experience tied to a fairly simple story given convolutions by Korty, his co-director Charles Swenson, and cowriters Suella Kennedy and Bill Couterie. In the black-and-white land of Din (Earth) live the Rushers (us), who receive sweet dreams from Greensleeves and the Figmen of Imagination. Not-so-sweet dreams arrive courtesy of the nefarious Synonamess Botch, who kidnaps Greensleeves and seeks to entrap us Rushers in waking nightmares forever. Our heroes are Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and Mumford the mime, who must keep Botch from procuring the main spring from the Cosmic Clock, which … well, you see what I mean about convolutions.

You could very well just let Twice Upon a Time babble and rave in front of you (most of the dialogue was improvised) and care nothing about its plot, because every frame looks as though it were engineered by the Figmen of Imagination. The animation style, which for all I know was limited to this one film, was called “Lumage,” in which plastic cut-out figures were filmed atop a light table, resulting in a lively and unique world of subtle hues. It reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s madcap creations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as well as the trippy, quippy wooziness of Yellow Submarine; but its sarcastic, visually fecund spirit is all its own. Animation fans, and admirers of pure cinema in general, owe it to themselves to see this at least once.

I watched Korty’s preferred version, which still packs a couple of PG-rated swears (so neither version is altogether school-viewing-safe). The movie is essentially a comedy, satirizing such tropes as the Fairy Godmother (who here wants to be called FGM) and the superhero (goofed on via a Viking-helmeted idiot called Rod Rescueman) and paying homage to its executive patron when a television-headed creature named Ibor plays footage of Darth Vader and Indiana Jones on its face. The biggest name in the voice cast is the late Lorenzo Music, who voiced Garfield for years and does Ralph’s voice in the same jaded deadpan. But as I say, you could almost turn the sound off (a good way to avoid the lame, much-derided songs on the soundtrack) and still groove on the colors and the weirdness and the dreams and nightmares and the killer Scotch tape dispensers and so on.

Repo Man

September 20, 2015

detail.23448415Repo Man, the feature debut of writer-director Alex Cox, is a great punk-rock song wearing a movie suit. It’s harsh, abrupt, funny, political, and fiercely unsentimental. Its milieu is post-punk Los Angeles, where punk bands like the Circle Jerks are reduced to playing hilariously affectless dirge-tunes in shabby clubs — “Can’t believe I used to like these guys,” says Otto (Emilio Estevez), our hero, or what we get resembling a hero. Repo Man isn’t really about punk; like much of Jaime Hernandez’ Love & Rockets stories of the ’80s, it’s about what people from the punk scene do after punk dies. It doesn’t take on punk as a subject the way Cox’s follow-up film, Sid & Nancy, did. It settles for giving the audience what we usually want from punk music; it absolutely nails the tone, the arrogance, the hostility. Repo Man is one of my favorite movies, in case that wasn’t clear.

Otto (a homonym for “auto”) flips off his boss at the grocery store and hits the bricks; at least he tried a job, unlike his ex-girlfriend and former buddies, who skulk around L.A. “doing crimes.” This is part of what happens to punks after punk — crap jobs or theft. Otto stumbles into the business of repossessing cars: repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) randomly scouts him for the gig, and if Harry Dean Stanton, born in 1926 and pushing sixty at the time Repo Man was made, isn’t a bona fide punk icon regardless of his generation, I don’t know punk. The perpetually angry, foul-mouthed Bud is the perfect mentor for a baby nihilist like Otto, and Otto starts getting good at the job. Alex Cox doesn’t get pious about the realities of car repossession and how it targets the poor and nonwhite: he trusts us to pick up on that ourselves (and some of the repo men, like the legendary Rodriguez Brothers, are also nonwhite).

Anyway, Repo Man isn’t about the job. There is a subplot dealing with a lobotomized nuclear scientist (sweaty Fox Harris) driving a ’64 Chevy Malibu around, with something mysterious glowing in the trunk. As with the similar briefcases in Kiss Me Deadly and Pulp Fiction, we never find out what’s in the trunk and how it vaporizes people. We figure it involves aliens, though, because some agents are looking for the Malibu. The repo men are, too, once a $20,000 bounty is put on the car’s head. Or hood. Repo Man is full of wry, side-of-the-mouth commentary on codes of belief: Bud’s repo-man code, or the book Dioretix (a slap at Scientology years before most people knew about it), which people keep passing around, or the cosmic phenomenology outlined by Miller (Tracey Walter). I don’t think Cox means us to take the quietly daffy Miller any more seriously than anyone else in the film, but he sure is fun to listen to.

This is a low-budget movie, so although there’s some action — shoot-outs, car chases (including one in L.A.’s drainage canal where the cars racing through puddles in the sunshine create rainbows) — the bulk of it is two guys talking, usually in cars. Repo Man can thus be added to the multitude of films that informed Quentin Tarantino’s work, though it has its own derivative moments. The score by Tito Larriva and Steven Hufsteter, for instance, veers between Chicano surf music and ominous John Carpenter chords. Robby Müller’s cinematography, too, echoes early Carpenter films, although instead of the blue-on-black scheme favored by Carpenter’s DP Dean Cundey, we get green-on-black.

Miller thinks that alien spaceships are time machines, and so is Repo Man, in a way; it takes us right back to the Reagan years, when we were afraid (or were made afraid) of the Russians nuking us. So we get a bit of rhetoric that fits the times (“I don’t want no commies in my car,” growls Bud, “and no Christians either”) and a good deal of paranoia about glowing stuff. Most of the people in the movie, though, live at an angle to the mainstream. Bud again: “Ordinary fuckin people. I hate ‘em.” Every store in the movie stocks its shelves with generic food products, creating a backdrop for a world without real choice. Yet Repo Man’s scuzzy-nihilistic style is played for deadpan laughs. (My favorite non-Harry Dean Stanton moment has always been the “Society made me what I am” bit.) I get the sense that Alex Cox made it for guys like Otto, and didn’t care if anyone else dug it.

What We Do in the Shadows

July 19, 2015

The secret of the great mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, which comes to DVD this week, is that it would almost be as funny if it weren’t about vampires. But the vampires here, along with various werewolves, zombies, and the occasional human, are written so sharply and with such pungent idiosyncrasy that the comedy goes far beyond what you’d expect from a supernatural farce at this late date. The movie was written and directed by New Zealand comedians Jemaine Clement (of the musical-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi, who also play two of the vamps, and their approach is generous, even affectionate. Everyone in the movie is allowed to be interesting, to seem as though they have inner lives and experiences outside the film.

Clement’s Vladislav is your typical lordly, disdainful goth vampire, but with odd insecurities and frailties that take him down a peg — since going up against a nemesis he calls The Beast, Vlad has never been the same. Waititi plays what could be considered Vlad’s opposite, Viago, an affable and conciliatory vampire — Michael Palin forty years ago would’ve played Viago to the hilt, and Waititi has some of Palin’s bluff friendliness, which in the context of vampirism is hilarious. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the youngest of these vamps, who all live together in a grungy flat; Deacon used to be “a Nazi vampire” and is now stringing along a human familiar (Jackie Van Beek) who yearns for eternal life. Finally, there’s the hissing, Nosferatu-like Petyr (Ben Fransham), who’s eight thousand years old and exists in the flat’s basement.

The movie’s joke — that these vampires are essentially just idiot flatmates like the blokes on The Young Ones — deepens when regular guy Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) is turned into a vamp by Petyr. Nick can get the other vamps into nightclubs they previously couldn’t get invited into (a great detail), but they prefer the company of Nick’s human buddy Stu (Stu Rutherford), who works in IT. For some reason, the entirely boring Stu charms practically every supernatural being he comes across, and one can’t tell when he’s been hypnotized into being oblivious to unearthly events and when he’s just too dull to respond to them. The more often we see him, bland and potato-like, in the background of shots featuring bloodsuckers and zombies, the funnier Stu gets.

Yet this isn’t a hip, cold comedy: Because our vampires care about Stu’s safety, we do too. What We Do in the Shadows pokes gently relentless fun at the mope-rock self-seriousness of vamps, goths, self-styled outsiders, without really attacking what they are. The sensibility is Christopher Guest’s democratic mockumentary vibe by way of the self-parodic pomp of Morrissey. The unsmiling Vladislav actually has reasons to be gloomy, but that doesn’t seriously affect the fun. The budget was obviously low, but the few visual effects always pack a witty punch, particularly when two of the vamps get into a “bat fight.” If you thought it was no longer possible to mine the vampire film for fresh laughs, and even for unexpected pathos, you have a treat in store.

Eat with Me

May 25, 2015

Eat with Me began life as a short film (2003’s Fresh Like Strawberries), and maybe it should’ve stayed one. The story really doesn’t gain from being expanded to feature length. Emma (Sharon Omi), on the outs with her husband, moves in with her gay son Elliot (Teddy Chen Culver), who owns a failing Chinese restaurant. Mother and son have never properly talked about his sexuality. A lot of stuff happens that feels like padding. Elliot gets a Brit boyfriend, Ian (Aidan Bristow), who’s in a band. Emma hangs out with Elliot’s extroverted neighbor Maureen (Nicole Sullivan) and gets high on ecstasy by mistake.

This is a personal, somewhat autobiographical film for its writer-director David Au, who doesn’t run a restaurant but whose parents did have some of the same troubles Elliot’s parents do. It’s a shame that Au doesn’t pull anything especially compelling out of his experiences. Like many other indie filmmakers, Au makes his living by editing, and some of Eat with Me feels a bit over-edited — not in terms of speed but cross-cutting. An early sequence goes back and forth between Elliot’s tryst with a friend-with-benefits and Emma in Elliot’s apartment finding his beefcake magazines. All this accomplishes is derailing any erotic rhythm (this is a fairly chaste movie, fading to tasteful black when things start heating up).

Sharon Omi and Teddy Chen Culver also starred in the earlier short film, and they acquit themselves calmly and well (except when Emma freaks out on ecstasy). The expanded cast, including a pregnant server whose condition affects the plot not at all, tends to distract from what should be the central conflict — the confused Emma dealing with Elliot’s sexuality, and Elliot dealing with his parents’ estrangement. Maureen, the next-door neighbor, is too baldly conceived as The Wacky, Life-Affirming Neighbor, and comedic actress Nicole Sullivan often goes too big in close-ups or makes weird noises. The effect is that Maureen seems to be trying to monopolize everyone’s attention, including ours.

Eat with Me was shot, unaccountably, in a very wide format, which seems too overbearing for such a tiny movie. Au doesn’t use the wide frame terribly artfully, and the color scheme is drab more often than not. Towards the finish, for no apparent reason other than that the filmmakers could get him, George Takei shows up as himself, counseling Emma on gay matters, because presumably he’s the expert on being gay and Asian-American. Takei brings some theatrical brio to his few minutes, but the marketing is pimping the poor man as though he were a supporting player throughout. For full metal Takei, I refer you to the mild but affable documentary To Be Takei. For a great Asian foodie movie that deals with identity and family, I recommend Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, which David Au cites as his favorite film. At least he has good taste in movies.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared

May 11, 2015

film-6319“It is what it is,” says the dying woman to her young son, “and it will be what it will be.” That’s as apt a mission statement as any for the Swedish comedy The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, in which the young orphan grows up to be Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson), the titular centenarian. Allan drifts through the decades in a narrative that flips between past and present, bringing him into contact with Franco, Stalin, Oppenheimer, Truman, Reagan, and Einstein’s less intellectually gifted brother Herbert.

About all that links the historical anecdotes is Allan and his fixation on blowing things up, which endears him to warmakers the world over. Allan has no politics, though. He just likes to make things go boom. He’s a bit of a moral imbecile, which in this darkly shaded epic satire qualifies him to last out the 20th century. In the present-day sections, Allan has been cooling his heels in a retirement home after blowing up a fox that killed his cat. He can’t bear to face his 100th birthday in this place, so he just leaves, picking up a mob-owned suitcase full of cash along the way.

It doesn’t occur to Allan to turn the money in to the authorities; he and his new friend Julius (Iwar Wiklander) just decide to keep it, and the low-level gangsters who come after it tend to die in comical ways (accidentally frozen, sat on by an elephant) that Allan can’t be held responsible for. Allan just continues to drift, untroubled, through his newly eventful life. The stakes don’t seem very high, but I guess that’s what makes this a comedy. We never worry about Allan or his acquaintances. Director Felix Herngren keeps the tone deadpan and absurdist, which I suppose is more palatable than heartwarming and sentimental. Allan is never softened for our consumption, and Robert Gustafsson, a massively popular comedian in Sweden, gives Allan a lackadaisical, shrugging vibe throughout his often violent encounters.

I laughed a few times, but the movie didn’t leave me with much, possibly because it sets itself up as satire but then has nothing much to say. It’s not enough to goof on historical events and their famous players; then you just have farce. Again, a man with little regard for human life — he looks at the atomic bomb as just another thing that goes boom — is being positioned as the great winner of the 20th century, but that seems to be all that’s going on under the hood. We’re supposed to chuckle at Truman’s naïvete when he says that the bomb will end all war, or at Reagan’s buffoonishness when his rant about a garden wall is mistaken for a hardline position on the Berlin Wall (it’s the worst Reagan imitation I’ve ever seen, by the way), but this is schoolboy stuff. The 100-Year-Old Man is currently the number-three biggest hit in Sweden of all time, which doesn’t speak well of a country that once produced Ingmar Bergman. It’s comforting, I guess, that America isn’t the only nation with falling cultural standards.

The Film Critic

May 3, 2015

The only thing more boring than a movie about movies is a movie about a movie critic. I mean, come on: we are not, as a group, enchanting. We do a lot of sitting: we sit and watch movies, we sit and write about them. We are as dull as any other kind of writer, and with the exception of Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael (subjects of past and future documentaries) or, in the realm of music criticism, Lester Bangs, critics are not movie material. There was that ridiculously pandering bit in High Fidelity when John Cusack referred to an ex-girlfriend’s gig as a film critic as “unassailably cool,” but no. It’s not. Maybe it used to be, back in the glory days of the ’70s, but not now.

The Argentinian comedy-drama The Film Critic seems to take place in some alternate universe where people still care what critics think and a harsh review can end a filmmaker’s career. (I’d say the movie is set in the past, but modern tech is used throughout.) The eponymous critic, Victor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd), mopes from screening to screening, complaining about the overused clichés in most movies, particularly romantic comedies. He sits with his androgynous niece Agatha (Telma Crisanti) and roasts the usual Hollywood endings featuring slow-motion running, kissing in the rain, and so forth.

Then Victor meets a woman, Sofia (Dolores Fonzi), who wants the same apartment he wants. At this point, the movie could go one of two ways. It could follow the lead of the film’s American tagline: “What if your life became a movie … that you hate?” Or it could blandly nod to the clichés but put nothing interesting in their place. The Film Critic goes the second and less engaging way. After all, we know quite well that life isn’t a movie. A movie telling us over and over how non-movie-ish its events are seems a bit like special pleading. That Sofia is more or less a non-entity doesn’t help; we don’t know what they see in each other or why they keep each other company for a while other than that they’re in a movie.

Writer/director Hernán Guerschuny apparently thinks the answer to boringly conventionally-structured narrative is boringly anti-climactic narrative. Whatever is introduced in the script, nothing seems to come of it. A moneybags of Victor’s acquaintance offers him money to write a script for him to turn into a movie; nothing comes of it. A filmmaker whose career Victor ruined becomes an eleventh-hour mustache-twirler who breaks Agatha’s heart; nothing comes of it. The city is presumably littered with the corpses of cinematic careers Victor’s withering prose has butchered in their cribs. I don’t know if that’s what it’s like in Argentina, but in the larger world, nobody kills movies except the merciless and largely tasteless whims of the market. Critics can assume neither credit nor blame for the failure of terrible movies, the success of great movies, or, more frequently, vice versa.

The Film Critic could have been a meta-fantasy in which a cynical critic does find himself inside a clichéd Hollywood story that he either loathes or grows fond of. But it isn’t; Victor neither loves nor hates his own story, he just shlumps around inside it. He’s never especially witty or appealing; I don’t think he ever even smiles. He’s a dull protagonist, film critic or not. We don’t care whether he ends up with the equally dull Sofia; the only character of more than passing interest is the niece Agatha, and she gets the short end of the narrative stick. If a movie called The Film Critic is not to be a red cape waved in front of film critics, it should probably be unassailably cool.


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